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“I don’t need a handler!” Kent seethes, wishing his nails weren’t clipped so short. If they were long, he could dig them into his palms and maybe that’d keep him from blowing up quite as fucking spectacularly.

Rami taps his fingers on the conference room desk, betraying the annoyance he’s doing a piss-poor job of masking in his voice, anyway. “We prefer ‘social media consultant.’”

Alice clears her throat and goes for a soothing tone, the same voice Kent reserves for coaxing Kit down from the curtain rod. She usually claws him for that. “It’s just provisional, Kent. For this season, and if your posting habits have, ah—improved—we’ll integrate him elsewhere in the organization.”

“This is part of the job, Kent,” Rami says, like they’re playing some shitty good cop/bad cop routine. “You’re an employee, however well paid you are. You’ll represent the organization and our brand accordingly.”

The Aces organization can shove their brand up their ass. Asses? Whatever. They can also suck Kent’s dick, just to really shove home the belligerent gay thing he’s apparently going for.

Not that anyone in this room knows about the gay thing.

But that’s not the point. Kent is twenty-fucking-seven years old. He doesn’t need some baby-faced college grad telling him how to use his own Twitter, or Jesus Christ forbid having access to his fucking phone which is an indescribably bullshit breach of privacy, and it’s not like the shit Kent posts is even that bad.

Kent spits, “I called out a fucking homophobe. What part of your shitty brand does that contradict, exactly?”

“It’s not—”

“Is it the part where no one’s a bigot if they’re paying you? ‘Cause—fuck—” Kent laughs snidely, “I’ll buy myself a fucking season ticket if that’s all it takes to get a fucking pass around here.”

Alice stands up, her chair screeching across the hardwood floors, and snaps, “Enough, Kent!” So much for good cop. “You didn’t ‘call out’ a homophobe, you attacked him on Twitter like a child. Do you honestly think that’s an appropriate way to further the cause?”

Actually, yeah—Kent thinks pretty much exactly that. But that’s not gonna get him out of this clusterfuck, apparently, so he grits his teeth and asks, “Fine, where’s the kid?”

“Eric,” Rami says, “the twenty-two year old man, is waiting in the player’s lounge.”

“Great. I’ll go—whatever, then,” Kent answers with a frustrated wave of his hand, and stalks towards the door.

Under her breath—to Rami, probably—Alice mutters, “I really hate him sometimes.”

Same, Kent thinks darkly, as the door swings shut behind him. The player’s lounge is down the hall and around a corner—before he turns there, he sucks in a shaky breath and presses his forehead up against the wall. The plaster scratches his skin and he scrapes against it harder and it helps, a little.

Kent fixes his snapback, tucking his cowlicks back underneath, and rounds the corner to the lounge, which is empty—pretty normal, for the pre-season—except for a short blond guy who’s facing away, rocking on his heels as he types away on his phone.

A breath in. Kent raps his knuckles on the doorframe. A breath out. “Hey, you must be—”

Fuck. The kid turns around and Kent, the pathetic bastard that he is, would recognize that face anywhere.

“—Eric.” As in Eric Bittle, Jack’s former Samwell teammate who he’s almost definitely fucking. As in Eric Bittle, the fucking doe-eyed kid all over Twitter with pictures of Jack and the rest of that shitty team, even though half of them graduated, not even being that subtle about the fact Jack is fucking him.

The look on Bittle’s face means he remembers that fucking clusterfuck of a party, too, back in 2014 or whatever—and who knows whatever else Jack has told him, fuck. It’s gonna be a really fucking long year.

“Well,” Kent says, making a point of shutting the door behind him. “At least we know God is real.”

“What?” Bittle asks flatly, zero percent impressed.

Kent deadpans, “He clearly hates both of us,” and hops up onto the table, swinging his feet.

“Guess Aunt Judy was right,” Bittle mutters, then drags a hand over his face. “Look Parson, I really can’t afford to quit this job so if you could just—”

“Wait, what—of course not?” Kent pinches the bridge of his nose. “I mean, it’s not like—I don’t wanna fucking be here either but I wouldn’t—why’d you even take this gig if you hate me that much?”

There’s a small part of him—the part that Kent should probably smother in its sleep—that for some reason hopes Bittle will deny it. He doesn’t, just tiredly explains, “They didn’t disclose your name. Just said I was managing a player’s social media and handed me an NDA.”

“Oh. Right.” Kent kind of wants to throw up. Bittle looks like he might throw Kent out the window. “So…how’s this gonna work, then?”

Bittle takes a second phone out of his pocket and holds it out for Kent to take, which he does with mild confusion. “You give me your Twitter and Instagram passwords. Anything you want to post, you save as a draft and if I approve it I’ll post it for you.”

Kent might jump out of the window, if Bittle doesn’t throw him. “Are you kidding me?”

“Look, I’m not gonna read your DMs or anything, if that’s what you’re worried about,” Bittle tells him, voice terse. “I have literally no interest in bein’ more involved in your life than I have to.”

Kent mutters, “That makes two of us,” and Bittle snorts. “Okay, fine, I guess. Apparently I can’t stop you, so.” Kent pauses to actually log Bittle into his accounts, brooding down at the keyboard like maybe he can put a curse on it or something. “So like, if you have a problem with something I post what’ll you do?”

“I’ll get in touch with you and tell you why you can’t post it, and we’ll fix the content if we can.” Bittle shrugs and grabs his phone back. “So if you don’t wanna talk to me, don’t be an asshole on Twitter.”

Kent groans, taking off his snapback and running his hand through his hair in agitation. “I can’t believe I have a fucking babysitter.”

Bittle’s lips twitch. “This isn’t exactly my dream job either.”

Which—okay, Kent gets that. He’s not sure how much Bittle is getting paid or anything, and it’s not technically a permanent job. If Kent doesn’t help him look good, he’s probably out on his ass in a year. So—“Why’d you even take this stupid job, then?”

Bittle raises an annoyed eyebrow. “Maybe you haven’t noticed, but the job market ain’t—isn’t that great. This was—my best offer.”

Kent would feel more like an asshole if Bittle wasn’t clearly being cagey about the whole thing, like there’s something he’s hoping Kent won’t ask about. And—it’s weird, that Bittle would ship himself off to Vegas for some job when Jack is rolling in his multi-million dollar contract and (Kent knows from experience) probably more than willing to share the wealth, if Bittle wanted it.

So naturally Kent needles a little, mostly out of morbid curiosity and Jesus, it’s not like this can get more fucked than it is so whatever. “I’m surprised Jack let his boy move across the country for it.” Which is true. Jack was always—not possessive, but—close.

Kent’s not sure what he expected—some spiel about wanting his own career or something, maybe—but it wasn’t this: Bittle goes rigid, jaw clenching and eyes steaming like hot stone as he curtly spits, “He didn’t,” turns on his heels, and storms out.

Kent watches the door slam shut, expressionless. It’s gonna be a really, really fucking long year.

 

~*~

 

The first thing Kent learns about Eric Bittle is that he bakes an orgasmic apple pie. The second thing he learns is that where Kent nursed his own broken heart—wrapped it in an electric blanket, fed it ice chips and cleaned and dressed the wounds with fresh bandages that trapped the leaking blood, where Kent coddled and ached and wept—Bittle snapped the neck and put it out of its misery.

The team is practically drooling over the kid the first time he shows up to an optional skate, looking a lot like lovesick puppies for a group of dudes who say ‘no homo’ so much. And Bittle fucking hams it up, comes sweeping into the locker room with pie and Southern charm, graciously deflects any and all questions that sound remotely like, ‘Hey, you played with Zimmermann, right?’

It’s going pretty great from Bittle’s perspective, probably, until Hatty groans around his mouthful and says, “Damn, Parser, you shoulda lost your shit on Twitter ‘long time ago. I coulda been eatin’ this pie ev’ry day?”

Kent glares down at the skate he’s unlacing and bites down on the inside of his cheek.

Jordy laughs and points out, “Yeah, but who knew we’d get Bitty, the fucking pie-baking god?” He yanks Bittle into a headlock and ruffles his hair. Bittle’s face flinches into a smile.

“They prob’ly hired a dude so Parser wouldn’t fuck ‘im, eh?”

Kent draws blood with his teeth. Bittle’s expression remains impressively pleasant.

“Wait,” Fish asks, “what has Parser done? I’m not having Twitter.”

Bittle finally wriggles out of Jordy’s headlock and takes a surreptitious step to the side. Jordy doesn’t seem to notice, too busy explaining, “’Fore that exhibition game? Some fan tweeted at Parser and told him to ‘fuck up those faggot Falcs’ and Parser went all social justice warrior, bro.”

Troy shuts his shower off and whips his head around the doorway with impressive ferocity. “Like he should’ve, Jordy, Jesus—what the fuck is your problem?”

“Look, all I’m saying is people take shit too sensitive these days,” Jordy answers nonchalantly, and bends back down to undo the rest of his pads like it’s obviously the end of the conversation. “When’d everyone turn into a buncha pussies, taking ‘faggot’ so personally?”

“I take it personally.”

It’s one of those moments that drips past in slow motion. Everyone turns to look at Bittle—who’s turned ghost-pale and looks a little green around the edges—and stares. His hand twitches like he might bring it up to his mouth and his eyes go wide and it’s very, very fucking painfully clear he didn’t mean to say what he’s just said.

Bittle clears his throat, belatedly, and croaks out, “I’m gay. And if—if anyone’s got a problem with that I guess I won’t be around. It ain’t part of my job to bring y’all pie.”

Ratchet stands up awkwardly and puts a hand on Bittle's shoulder—Bittle flinches, folds his arms up around himself—and flicks his eyes over to Kent like he’s expecting a speech. Which, yeah, Kent should probably say something and he just—

“Um, anyway—I gotta—bye,” Bittle stammers, and pulls another disappearing act like he’s quickly becoming famous for.

The team stares after him until Kent manages to unstick his tongue from the roof of his mouth and stop being so fucking useless, and says loudly, “I’m gonna make one thing real fucking clear—if anyone even thinks about giving Bittle shit, you’ll be benched so fast you’ll find splinters in your ass the rest of your fucking miserable life.” He rips his skate off and tosses it haphazardly into his stall, wincing at the brash clattering sound it makes. “None of you fuckers are irreplaceable.”

And then Kent pulls a Bittle and fucking bolts, taking off down the hallway in his Under Armor and socks, skidding along the polished wood floors until he finds a doorway far enough away and slams himself into it. He wheezes out a breath and sucks in another and wheezes again, lungs seizing up and shaking, arms trembling from the force of bracing against the doorframe.

Such a fucking idiot—no one knows—not yet, but now—no no nonono no one knows no one can know—fucking idiot—

“Lardo?” a voice squeaks from the corner, “I’ll call you back.”

Kent lifts his head wearily and turns to look. Of course— perfect —of course.

Bittle’s eyes are red and wet, with puffy lips like he’s been chewing at them, maybe, and he’s curled up against an arm of the couch with his knees to his chest. The lights are off and Kent doesn’t bother to turn them on when he walks over to the couch in a daze and sits down on the opposite end.

“I—” he starts, but the words dry up in his throat.

Bittle digs his teeth into his bottom lip and asks, “Is it—um, is it always that bad?”

Kent’s lips twitch despite himself. “Worse, sometimes. I’m—fuck, I’m sorry.”

“You’re—no, I—I should’ve known better. I’m not—” something catches on the edge of his tongue. “—at Samwell, anymore.”

“That doesn’t—look, if anyone gives you shit you tell me, okay?” Kent fists a hand in his hair, pulls hard at the roots. “Or Troy or Ratchet. They—they know, about—they’re good guys.”

Bittle gives a tiny nod, then hesitates before saying, “I didn’t mean to—start anything, like stir up trouble for you. I just—got so angry.”

There’s something rotting between Kent’s ribs, spreading mold with thick spores. His chest heaves around it when he tries to breathe. “You have no fucking clue how many times I’ve almost pulled that shit too.”

“Yeah, but you haven’t,” Bittle mutters, the brutality of his anger creeping inwards. Kent’s been there, too.

“I’m not as brave as you,” he says quietly. He keeps his eyes on the floor but he feels Bittle watching him.

There’s a weighted pause, thick in the dimly lit room. Bittle says, “No, I’m just dumber. But s’okay, I’ll be gone in a year, anyway.”

Kent does look up, then, squinting to figure out Bittle’s expression. “What?”

“When my contract’s up—not like I’m staying here, y’know?” Bittle shrugs. Easy as that.

And for some reason—that’s what sets Kent off, snaps the strings keeping his head up and his tongue neatly pressed in his mouth. Because Bittle fucking gets out and Kent—Kent will die in this shit-stain of a pin-up city, maybe, neatly wrapped in his Straight Boy box and buried out in the desert with the hawks and mice.

“What, running back to your sugar daddy?” he sneers, teeth bared like the scavenger he is, picking at sores and lapping the festered blood.

Bittle’s eyes go wide and wounded—big brown things that’re almost black in this light—like he might start crying again and Jesus Christ, Kent would feel bad, except—

Bittle’s got hackles too. He shakes his head and reaches out to touch Kent’s knee and says, so softly it makes Kent’s skin crawl, “Oh, no, hun. Beggin’ looks so much better on you.”

“Jesus,” Kent whispers. Bittle’s hand is still on his knee and neither of them can seem to move—frozen in some sick stare-down, tension shuddering and twisting between them in strings Kent can’t untangle.

Bittle licks his lips, a quick dart of his tongue that seems as involuntary as everything else—impulsive, pushy, needling at the constant itch in Kent’s blood that tells him to rip and tear, rage at the barricades he’s constructed to keep himself bruised on old hurts instead of new ones.

Faggot. Cocksucker. You better not stare—but, what’s wrong Parse? Afraid you’ll like what you see?

Kent stares at Bittle—the thick pout of his lips and the wide pools of his pupils and the deep hollow of his throat when he swallows. It’s not the kind he meant but God, Christ, Kent would beg for Bittle. They’d look so pretty together, Kent on his knees and Bitty’s hand fisted in his hair and Kent begging for Bittle’s dick.

“Please—” Kent rasps, voice brittle, dry. “Please, get out.”

Bittle nods mutely—his hand falling away—scrambles for his phone and practically tumbles off the couch in his rush to get to the door. He narrowly avoids a collision with Troy, who jumps to the side as Bittle darts past with a squeaked apology.

Christ. Troy watches Bittle leave for the second time in probably twenty minutes, then switches on the lights—which are bright as shit, fuck, and Kent flips him off with the hand that isn’t thrown over his eyes.

“Uh, you guys okay?”

Kent groans and flops across the couch dramatically, blinking away the spots in his vision. “How fucked am I?”

Troy smirks, because he’s an asshole. “Judging by that kid’s face? Not as fucked as you wanna be.”

“I hate you so much,” Kent grumbles, but—the fact that Troy is chirping him means it probably isn’t as bad as Kent was afraid of.

“Me’n Ratchet got everyone in line pretty quick. Honestly, I’m pretty sure most of the guys were fine anyway—just too freaked out to say anything.” Troy shrugs, and ambles over to the couch, pulling Kent to his feet. “You’d think Eric was some kinda unicorn, the way they talked about the gay thing.”

Kent scrubs a hand over his face. “Like, ‘wow, magic is real!’ unicorn, or ‘drink its blood to get eternal life’ kinda unicorn?”

“Wait, what?”

“Oh my God. Nevermind, just—we’re okay? They don’t think I—?” Kent closes his mouth around the end of that sentence, but Troy nods.

“Yeah, it’s cool, bro—promise.” Troy hesitates at the door, hand braced against the frame. “You know, if you wanted to tell—”

Kent cuts him off sharply. “No.” He pushes past him and heads back towards the locker room to grab his stuff. “Now let’s go home so I can drown myself in the bathtub.”

“Kent—” Troy warns, voice strained.

Kent closes his eyes, breathes in deep. “Sorry, I—I was just—I don’t mean it. I’m okay.”

“You sure?” Troy puts a hand on Kent’s shoulder and Kent—God fucking help him, he just wants to hit something—or someone, maybe. “I can come over tonight.”

If Kent breaks his hand on the wall, he might get a week or two off practice. He grabs his bag instead and says, “Bring pizza.”

Troy squeezes Kent’s shoulder. “Sure, but I’m putting anchovies on it.”

Kent laughs, startled and honest. “You’re such an asshole, man.”

“That’s why I’m your friend, eh?”

“Yeah, lucky me,” Kent snorts. They head out into the parking lot, but Kent stops before turning towards his car. “Hey, Jeff? Thanks—for having my back.”

Troy nods, leaning against his truck. “Always, bro.”

Kent’s getting a little better at believing that.

 

~*~

 

Despite all that, Bittle does come hang around the locker room once or twice a week, pie in hand, and the guys mostly don’t fuck with him, even if it’s painfully clear some of them are keeping their distance. And he goes to all the home games, up in a press box doing whatever the hell is the rest of his job description, besides “managing” Kent—which means Bittle comes to the after-parties at the club.

Kent has a love-hate relationship with clubs.

Love: Dancing.

Hate: Watching Bittle dance with that hot guy and being forced to wonder if the sickening pool of jealousy is for Bittle—the sweaty flop of his stupid fucking perfect golden hair, the gyration of his ass that would feel incredible on Kent’s dick—or of his open existence as like, a general concept.

Love: How everyone is too drunk to notice that Kent is watching Bittle-and-hot-guy almost exclusively, how no one realizes the wink Kent shoots the girl who just shoved her tits in his face will definitely not be followed up on after he goes to the bar and orders another rum and coke, hold the rum.

Hate: Alcohol.

The thing about alcohol is that it’s a really great way to die, like—

Throw back six shots and attempt to operate a motor vehicle.

Drink a little more every day until your liver kicks the bucket and your skin turns yellow and you forget half the things you’ve done—conveniently, including the bruises you leave on your step-son—and you’re dead years and years before they throw dirt over your coffin.

Use a fifth of vodka to wash down the bottle of pills.

And Kent has a love-hate relationship with dying too, at the end of the day. So, long and pathetic story short is—he doesn’t drink. He pretends to, sure, because stop being a pussy and drink with us, Parser gets old after a few months or years. It’s not something he talks about—even with Troy, really, because their friendship contains an overwhelming percentage of pitying looks anyway and it’s really just redundant.

So of course, by some spectacularly malicious act of fate, Bittle manages to fuck that right up.

Kent’s just sat back down at their booth and is spinning his glass in his hands when Bittle slides in next to him, flushed red from dancing or alcohol or both and panting, “Lord, I’m so thirsty.” And because Bittle is a little shit who seems to abandon his Polite Southerner manners around Kent, specifically, he grabs Kent’s glass right out of his hands and downs half of it.

Kent is kind of too tired at this point to register anything besides a really specific brand of resigned, blank horror. Bittle puts down the glass. His eyes flick over to Kent. He doesn’t say a thing.

“Well,” Kent says, as sardonically as he can manage, “guess I need a new drink now. Scoot.”

Bittle slides out of the booth. “Yeah, me too.”

The walk to the bar feels a lot longer than it did five minutes ago and Kent kind of wonders if he could pull some Grade B secret agent shit and lose Bittle in the crowd, but the fucker has eyes like a hawk and honestly like, whatever at this point. There’s worse shit to get blackmailed with than sobriety—like the shit Bittle already knows about, because apparently God wants Kent’s entire life to rest in the hands of a petty gay southerner.

Kent hops up on a stool and Bittle takes the seat next to him, not-so-casually scooting it a little closer as he does. No one says anything until the bartender comes over and Kent orders another Coke—closing out his tab—then snickers despite himself when Bittle orders a Buttery Nipple.

“Dude, seriously?”

Bittle snorts self-deprecatingly. “Back in college, me’n the boys used to go bars and order the funniest names off the menu. I got attached.”

Kent gives him an amused side-eye but doesn’t answer. He actually starts thinking maybe he’s gonna get away without an awkward conversation he has zero interest in, since Bittle still hasn’t said anything by the time the bartender hands over their drinks and Kent’s card.

Bittle throws back his shot and asks, when Kent is already half out of his seat and on his way to freedom, “When’d you stop?”

Sure, whatever. Kent sits back down and stalls with a drink—the carbonation stings against his nose and if he inhales deep enough it gets a little hard to breathe. “Uh, like. The month after the overdose.”

He doesn’t say: I drank so much that first month I still can’t smell whiskey without feeling sick. He doesn’t say: I keep a bottle in the cabinet above my fridge.

“Shit,” Bittle mutters—which, yeah—and laughs under his breath. “I’m startin’ to feel like a piggy bank.”

Kent blinks. “Uh, what?”

Bittle squeezes his eyes shut and massages at his temples. He flags down the bartender and orders another shot. “Sorry, I’m—pretty drunk. I just, uh—nevermind. I won’t tell, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“Uh, not really? But thanks,” Kent says. “Or, I mean—I don’t—want people to know. But I didn’t—if you were gonna be that big of an asshole you would’ve, already.”

“I guess.” Bittle’s lips twitch, caught between something wry and bitter. “Do you—”

The bartender comes back with his shot and Kent grips the table to keep from smacking it away. Jesus Christ. He looks behind him, back at their table where everyone is laughing—looking like they’re chirping Ratchet over something, maybe. No one looks like they’ve noticed Kent and Bittle are missing.

“D’you ever think about coming out?”

Kent nearly falls off his stool—which is an extra layer of embarrassing since he’s probably the soberest person in the club, including the bartender. He expects Bittle to laugh at him, but he doesn’t, just stares with those stupid fucking giant brown eyes and thrums his fingers on the bar nervously.

“Uh—like, for real?” Kent asks.

“Yeah.” Bittle grabs Kent’s soda and takes a drink, which—why the fuck does he keep doing that? Like, Kent clearly has bigger things to worry about but Jesus Christ is that really fucking annoying, and—fuck. Maybe it’s a little hot, Bittle just taking whatever he wants from Kent—especially since he’s normally so goddamn polite, and—

“Parson.”

Kent looks up at the ceiling like someone up there might help him out. Or a beam’ll fall and kill them both. Either way, at this point. He says, “Not really. Me and ‘firsts’ don’t really have a great track record.”

Bittle bites down on the rim of his glass so hard the roots of Kent’s teeth ache in sympathy. “Me neither.” He hesitates, eyes fixed on a row of bottles behind the bar, then admits. “We were gonna, me’n Jack. After I graduated, but—they had such a shitty season, and we thought—what’s one more year?”

The club is loud all around—people laughing, glasses clinking, techno music pumping from the speakers—and Kent still swears he’d hear a pin drop between them. He sucks in a breath and says, “I’m sorry,” and surprises himself by meaning it.

“S’okay. I mean—guess it was for the best anyway, huh?” Bittle’s voice is flat, detached. He’s normally a better actor. “Not like I’d want that hassle, now. ‘Jack Zimmermann’s twink ex shows up in Vegas.’”

“Would you’ve stayed?” Kent asks suddenly. “If—if you were out.”

Bittle finishes off Kent’s Coke and slides it back across the bar. “Fuck, I—hell if I know. Maybe.”

Kent hums, spins his glass in his hands. “Did, uh—did anyone know?”

“Oh, yeah. Um—a lot of our friends, on my team. A few Falconers and George.” Bittle swallows thickly. “His parents.”

The fact Bittle’s family doesn’t make the list doesn’t go unnoticed, but on the list of potential topic changes, the idea of getting into a shitty-parent pissing contest is probably the worst. So he just says, very eloquently, “Shit, man.”

Bittle hums. “I didn’t—I mean, at first I didn’t even—um!”

He cuts off when some guy—Hot Guy, from before?—slips between them, squeezing into the narrow space between their stools and leaning against the bar. He jostles Kent in the process, and Kent squawks, “Uh, rude?” with a little more petulance than necessary, probably, but whatever.

Hot Guy ignores him in favor of leaning in closer to Bittle and mumbling something into his ear. Bittle shifts a little in his stool and shoots Kent a look over Hot Guy’s shoulder that—is probably supposed to mean something specific, but fuck if Kent knows what.

“Uh, I’ll be—at the table?” he guesses, sliding off his stool and making a break for it. Bittle’s glance turns into a glare, which—okay, apparently Kent picked wrong, but seriously—he’s known Bittle for like a month and they’re barely friends, so like, excuse him for not being a pro at decoding Bittle’s drunken stares.

“Ayy,” Ratchet says when Kent slides back into the booth, “’s Bitty gettin’ laid?” His words are slurred together and he’s swaying in his seat a little. Troy and Hatty are bracketing him on either side and bumping him back and forth between them, because they’re assholes.

Kent says, “Uh.”

Hatty asks, with like a disturbing amount of seriousness, “If Bitty gets’a boyfriend d’you think he’ll still bake for us?”

“Oh my God.” Kent pinches the bridge of his nose. “Probably? But I don’t think—”

“Honestly,” Bittle says as he thumps down next to Kent, “are y’all all this rude in Vegas or is it this club?”

Ratchet puts a hand up to his chin, apparently to consider, while Hatty blurts, “Both!” and laughs.

Kent mutters, “Sorry,” under his breath. Bittle gives him a sharp look, but taps his foot against Kent’s calf in forgiveness.

It’s getting late—some of the team has started pouring themselves into cabs, even—which Troy points out by stretching and yawning exaggeratedly. “Ugh, when’s practice tomorrow, Cap?”

“Christ, ten,” Kent gripes. He’s pretty sure he’s too young to feel too old for this shit.

“I hate you. Let’s head out then, eh?” Troy shoves at Ratchet and Hatty, who grumble but climb out of the booth and stumble over to the bar to pay their tabs.

Kent pulls out his phone to set up rides home. “Bittle, you wanna share our Uber?”

Bittle snorts. “I live on the other side of town. We can’t all own penthouses, Parson.”

“Uh, rude. I don’t even live on the top floor.”

Troy pulls Kent into a headlock, snatching off his snapback so he can fuck up his hair. “Only ‘cause they don’t let pets up that high.”

“Fuck off, dude.” Kent laughs as he squirms out of Troy’s grip, then looks back at Bittle. “Uh, are you good getting home though?”

“Yeah.” Bittle chirps, “Funny enough, I know how to use Uber, too.” He wiggles his phone in Kent’s face pointedly.

Kent rolls his eyes. “Great. See you later, Bittle.”

Bittle smirks and waves over his shoulder as he heads out to meet his car, steadier on his feet than Kent would’ve guessed for this time of night.

“So…” Troy trails off, sing-song, as he rests an elbow on Kent’s head.

“I will literally kill you.”

Troy ignores him. “That’s a thing, right? You an’ Bitty?”

“Oh my—Jesus, Jeff.” Kent looks behind him furtively, but no one’s within earshot. “Just ‘cause we both like dicks doesn’t mean we’re gonna fuck.”

Troy has the decency to look affronted, at least. “Uh, duh. I was more going off the ‘fuck me’ eyes he gives you every five minutes.”

Kent presses a hand to his face. “Those are ‘fuck me’ eyes, not ‘fuck me’ eyes, trust me.”

“What’s the difference?” Troy asks with feigned innocence, because he’s a dick.

Kent elbows him in the ribs instead of answering.

 

~*~

 

The pre-season blurs by and all of a sudden the Aces are on a plane to Providence for the Falconer’s home opener, Bittle in tow—Kent’s not sure how he pulled that off and he probably doesn’t wanna know.

“Bitty,” Hatty whines halfway through their flight, “you’re gonna cheer for us though, right?”

Bittle laughs and teases, “Would y’all let me back on the plane if I didn’t?”

Ratchet narrows his eyes in fake consideration. “Maybe. But only if you wear my jersey in Boston.”

“Fat chance!” Fish shouts from three rows back. “Itty Bitty is wearing mine, already promised.”

Kent rolls his eyes and looks back down at his Kindle, where he definitely isn’t reading a trashy romance novel.

Hatty persists, “Okay but for real—is it Zimmermann’s jersey tonight?”

“I don’t even own one anymore.” Bittle is smirking. Kent’s probably imagining the bitter thing that flashes across his face. His eyes flick over to Kent when he says, “Fuck ‘em up, boys.”

Everyone within earshot cheers and Bittle’s ears go a little pink, his smile losing the cocky edge and turning soft, maybe a little surprised at the response.

Troy nudges Kent with an elbow, hard. Kent sighs dramatically and elbows him back harder, but looks over at him with a raised eyebrow. “Dude, what?”

“Bitty’s ex,” Troy asks quietly, “…it’s him, isn’t it?”

Kent thumps his head back against his seat and closes his eyes. Troy knows about Zimms—figured it out, technically, the only one who has—but it feels different, spilling Bittle’s secret. Not that it’s a good one. “…Yeah.”

“Shit,” Troy mutters.

“Yeah,” Kent says again, but his eyes are back on Bittle, laughing exaggeratedly at a chirp from Ratchet and swatting him on the arm. “Pretty much.”

 

~*~

 

They’re due on the ice for puck drop in twenty minutes. Kent is lacing up his skate when his phone starts buzzing and topples off the side of his stall from the vibrations.

Shit, who the fuck—

“Bittle?” Kent answers, eyebrows furrowed. “Look, that last Tweet is def—”

“Can you come outside?”

Bittle’s voice is wavering, thick with hurt. Kent’s stomach drops. “What—?”

“The loading dock. Can you just—”

Kent immediately pulls off his skate and starts slipping back into his Converse. “Yeah, yeah I’ll be—”

He locks eyes with Troy, who warily asks, “What’s up?”

Kent mouths, ‘I don’t know,’ helplessly and hurries towards the door. “I’ll be right there, okay?”

He hangs the phone up once the door swings shut and skids to a halt outside because Bittle isn’t there, so where—

There’s a sniffle from around the corner that Kent follows and there Bittle is, leaning back against the wall with his arms wrapped around himself, teeth dug into his bottom lip and eyes pooling with tears that haven’t started to fall yet. Christ, he looks so much younger like this—scared and vulnerable and hurting like you’re not supposed to be once you grow up and the world takes you—and fuck, Kent just wants to—

Bittle crashes into Kent’s arms with a gasping sob, like he’s been holding his breath so he wouldn’t cry, and buries his face into Kent’s neck.

“Jesus, Bitty—” Kent stumbles backwards as he catches him, arms going up around his back. “What’s—”

“M-Mashkov,” Bitty chokes out. His tears run in trails down Kent’s neck, soak into the collar of his jersey. “He’s f-fucking Mashkov, Parse, he just— said it—like it didn’t—like we didn’t—”

It’s warm for October, humid. Kent feels like he could drown in the air. “Christ. Do you think he—?”

“No, I don’t—not while—no.” Bitty sniffles, manages a full breath like he might be pulling himself back together, and crumbles back into sobs all over again. “I just—he—he was m-my—everything, my first everything and I was just—on the list —”

Kent squeezes his eyes shut and swallows down nine years of everything before they crawl back out his throat . “Bitty, I don’t think—”

“Bittle? Are—are you okay?”

Jack is standing halfway outside, an open door braced against one of his arms, wide-eyed. Because of course he is.

Kent’s arms tighten around Bitty instinctively, draw him closer against his chest like Kent can hide him there. There’s something hot and vicious in his blood and he snarls, “Jesus Christ, Zimmermann, seriously? Fuck off!”

Jack vanishes back behind the door with a stammered apology and Bitty whimpers when it slams shut, clings tighter to Kent’s neck. “I—I can’t do this,” he whispers. “I thought—”

He doesn’t finish the sentence, breaking off in a defeated sound. Kent breathes deep and tries to figure out what the fuck he can possibly say. It’s okay? Nope. It gets better? Like, marginally, after a decade.

“I’m here,” he murmurs, rubbing Bitty’s back, tucking close against his shaking body. “I’m here, I got you.”

They stay out there, quiet except for the sounds of Bitty’s sniffles and shaky breaths, until the Aces’ locker room door opens and Troy says, “Parser, we gotta—oh, shit.”

Kent turns to him, maybe to convince him to stall somehow or something because fuck, but Bitty pulls away and scrubs at his face.

“Go,” he says, offering up what’s honestly the most pathetic attempt at a smile Kent’s ever seen on someone else’s face. “I’m okay.” His face is blotched with red and his eyes are still wet, but he looks determined.

Kent hesitates, caught on the verge of pulling Bitty back in, but Troy calls his name and Bitty takes another step back, so he goes, leaves Bittle to find his way back to the stands or wherever he’s headed.

The team greets him with an assortment of questioning looks that he does his best to ignore while he laces up his skates and sits through Coach’s speech, fingers clenching reflexively with an agitated energy. Christ, he just needs to get on the ice—shove everything into the game—if he sits here one more second he’s gonna— fuck —what the fuck does it matter when—

“Parser,” Troy says quietly, squeezing at Kent’s wrist. “Let’s go.”

Kent looks up suddenly, sees that everyone’s standing, waiting for him to get off his fucking ass and lead them out onto the ice and no, maybe he shouldn’t go, maybe—

“Kent.”

“Yeah.” Kent puts a gloved hand up to his face, presses knuckles into his forehead. “Yeah,” he says again, louder. “Let’s go trash these fuckers.”

It’s a canned line but it’s not like most of them notice anyway and they all cheer and fistpump all the same, and Kent heads out into the tunnel and skates into the rink to the booing Providence crowd.

And it’s not like the jeering is anything new—not in Providence, not for Kent—but tonight—

Tonight it strikes like a match on the underside of his ribs, spits sparks in the dry heat of his bones and catches into a hungry thing with black smoke and no flame and Kent’s throat burns with it as his eyes dry and harden.

The puck drops and Hatty wins the faceoff, shoots it back to Troy who takes it down past center line and shouts to Kent before passing. Kent takes off with the puck, looking for an opening, but Jack checks him into the boards and it’s a clean hit but—

Kent’ll look back on this later and ask himself what the absolute fuck he was thinking.

But the thing—the problem—is—he’s not thinking about anything when he grabs Jack by the collar and swings.

He’s not thinking about being eighteen and begging a God he wasn’t sure he believed in to let him die instead—not even to be selfless or sacrificial, really, but because it felt like the easier thing to be the one who died and it’s still a thing he believes, sometimes, on the bad days.

He’s not thinking about the fucking empty pit of a heart in his chest that swallows up a little more of his marrow every year, so that one day if he’s lucky maybe he’ll fold in on himself and he’ll vanish like he should have at eighteen and no one’ll miss him.

Hell, he’s not even thinking about Bittle, the way his tears chilled Kent’s skin or the flutter of his lungs pressed against Kent’s chest—how Bittle is warm and funny and vicious and made of fucking honey and steel, and if Jack threw him away too then who could he ever want—

Those are things he’ll supply for himself later, when the blood is drying on his lip and he’s wondering how it got there—when he’s trying to talk himself out of liking the bruises.

But now—

It’s been two years since he’s touched Jack. Knuckles to jaw. Again. Again again hit me back you fucking bastard and Jack doesn’t hit back and it’s been eight years since Jack’s touched Kent.

Jack doesn’t hit back but Mashkov does. He rips Kent off of Jack, grabs him by the scruff and shakes him like a fucking chewtoy before he slams him back into the boards and the air rushes out of Kent’s lungs.

The third punch is the one that makes the cracking sound. Maybe. The fourth? Before the helmet goes—no, after—before the blood, definitely, before the blood and the whistle shrill in his ear and before Troy barrels into Mashov like a fucking torpedo. Definitely before that, because after is when Kent scrambles away from the fight and locks eyes with Jack—who’s massaging his jaw and watching in useless shock—and spits a tooth out onto the ice with an fucking theatrical spray of blood.

The refs pry Mashkov and Troy apart and start shouting penalties. Mashkov takes five for the fight and Jack walks away with nothing because he never hit back and, fuck—is that why he did it?—and they fucking eject Troy for joining and Kent for attempt to injure and fuck if this costs them the game—

“You will always be rat, Parson,” Mashkov sneers as he skates away.

Kent swipes a hand across his mouth and smears blood across it, wrist to knuckles. “Probably,” he says, even though he’s pretty sure Mashkov can’t hear.

Someone hauls Kent off the ice after that to send him to the team doctor. He trudges there dully, sullen and already fucking aching all over from Mashkov’s stupid fists because seriously who has hands that fucking big, Christ, and, well—there’s a reason Kent’s supposed to let Troy and Jordy throw the punches for him.

 

(“It’s a miracle he didn’t give you a concussion,” the doctor says.

Kent hisses at the pressure on his split lip. “Don’t believe in those.”

The doctor levels him with a sardonic look. “Then buy a lottery ticket.”)

 

And then he’s back in the locker room and Troy is thumping down heavily next to him. His eye is looking a little swollen, like it might bruise, and Kent’ll feel bad about that later.

“No offense, but you’re the stupidest motherfucker I’ve ever met,” Troy says, offensively.

Kent shrugs. “True.”

“What the fuck happened?”

Kent doesn’t take his eyes off the floor. His head aches and there’s a throbbing space between two teeth and it’s the first time he hasn’t wanted Jack in years and he doesn’t know what he should want instead. “I’m so fucking tired, Jeff.”

“Kent—”

“Parson! Troy!” Rami snaps, storming into the room. “What the fuck?”

Kent has a feeling he’ll be getting a lot of that for the next couple hours.

 

~*~

 

It does cost them the game. And it says a lot about Kent’s fucked up brain that he’s not even thinking about that, when he’s finished making his hollow apologies to the press and the team and management, and finally slinks back into the locker room to get his stuff.

His phone is loaded with messages—including distressed, curse filled texts from his sister—and he pulls up Bittle’s thread first. The whole thing is riddled with emojis which sort of lessens the impact of the scolding, if Kent is being honest.

Bittle (7:03 pm): Oh my god what the FUCK?!!!

Bittle (7:03 pm): You are literally a fucking DISASTER STOP

Bittle (7:04 pm): UNBELIEVABLE

Bittle (7:07 pm): Don’t even THINK about tweeting until you talk to me

Bittle (7:10 pm): Like just delete it off ur phone at this point

Bittle (7:23 pm): …Aces fans are really loyal

Bittle (7:23 pm): Unless you tell them not to say f**

Bittle (7:23 pm): [notably, an entire row of side-eye emoji]

Bittle (7:38 pm): FINE don’t delete twitter

Bittle (7:39 pm): I hate you.

Kent might actually be smiling, if every twitch of his lips didn’t threaten to split them open again. Ow.

Kent (10:42 pm): Where r u

Bittle (10:45 pm): Jerryyyyyyyssssss

Bittle (10:45 pm): W friedns im ok

Bittle (10:46 pm): **friends

Kent figures that’s probably the end of that, then. Bittle’s out with friends—at what Kent figures must be a bar, given the sloppy texts—he actually cares about and it’s not like he needs Kent anymore, anyway. Good for him.

Troy slaps him on the shoulder, which— ow, again—and says, “C’mon you ugly fucker, let’s go home.”

“I’m still prettier than you,” Kent mutters, but then again he hasn’t looked at his face, so.

A lot of the guys are still going out, but Kent might actually strangle someone if he sets foot in a club and he has a weird feeling no one really wants to talk to him right now, anyway, which honestly thank Christ.

So they catch a ride back to the hotel and in the car, Kent’s phone buzzes in his pocket.

Bittle (10:58 pm): Thank you for earlier

Which. Kent wants, a little bit, to ask which part Bittle means. Which is ridiculous, because Bittle doesn’t seem like the type of guy who’d be impressed by someone trying (and failing, by all accounts) to beat up his ex. But—what the fuck does Kent know.

Kent (10:59 pm): Uh, yeah. Anything you need

Bittle doesn’t answer that, which Kent kinda expected. They pull up to the hotel and trudge up to their rooms, Troy weirdly quiet until they get to Kent’s door at the end of the hall—and then he pulls Kent into a hug.

“Was it worth it?” he asks.

“Yeah,” Kent admits. He swallows thickly. “That’s—what scares the shit out of me.”

Troy squeezes him tightly, once, and then lets go. Quietly, he suggests, “Maybe you should call someone. Shani loves her guy.”

“I’ll think about it,” Kent lies, shifting awkwardly on his feet.

They say goodnight after that and Kent watches Troy vanish into his room before he retreats into his own. He peels off his clothes and takes a scalding shower, then crawls into bed with his Kindle. He should be exhausted but the thought of sleeping sends a prickle down his spine and there’s a restless itch under his skin, so he settles for reading to try and wind down.

Kent’s eyes are drooping when his door—shit, did he forget to lock that?—clicks open and Bittle slips inside. He’s dressed differently than before—trading his jersey and blue jeans for a tank top and a pair of shorts so short and tight they’re probably illegal where Bittle is from—and visibly tipsy.

“Uh,” Kent says, “This isn’t your room.”

Bittle rolls his eyes and locks the door. “I know.”

“Oh.” Kent closes the case on his Kindle and sets it on the nightstand and swallows thickly when Bittle comes over and straddles him, brings his hands up to Bittle’s hips. “Uh—”

Bittle kisses him—sweeps his tongue into his mouth and creeps fingers into his hair, tugging gently—and for some reason Kent’s last rational thought is ‘God dammit, Jeff was right,’ before he arches up into Bittle’s touch.

Bittle pulls away and wrinkles his nose. “You taste like blood.”

“Yeah, well you taste like ethanol,” Kent counters, tonguing at the gap in his teeth self-consciously. “How drunk are you?”

Bittle’s face does something complicated Kent doesn’t understand. “Not enough.”

“Bittle—”

“Get him out of me,” Bittle whispers—begs—and that’s what’s on his face: the haunted desperation and the soul-wrenching pain and everything else Kent bleeds when he takes a razor to his thigh. “I can’t—get him out.”

Kent brushes a hand against Bittle’s cheek and cups his jaw, watches the little shiver run down his body, feels his own lungs quiver with the same old ghosts. “Yeah, okay.”

Bittle licks his lips between two ragged breaths, chest swelling with air, and drags his fingers down Kent’s bare chest—thumbs against a nipple, tickles his side—and presses them into the bruise on Kent’s ribs.

It hurts to breathe and Kent gasps in twisted pleasure, hips hitching up under Bittle’s weight, and Bittle pushes his fingers in harder with a kind of wonder. His face and neck are flushed and his mouth is hanging open just a little and he murmurs, “You do like that.”

It’s been a long time since anyone’s done this for him. Kent still knows what he sees in Bittle’s eyes. “So do you.”

Bittle nods, hungry. “Can I mark you?”

Please, God. Kent tells him, “Yeah, just don’t, like, sign your name.”

“Don’t give me ideas,” Bittle threatens, something sharp and playful in his smile and Christ, he’s serious isn’t he, fuck. Kent could cry already and Bittle’s barely even touched him.

“Jesus.”

Bittle’s eyes glint and he dips down, kisses Kent again with purpose, like it’s his personal mission to shred Kent up into confetti. He runs his teeth against the split in Kent’s lip and hums when Kent squirms, whimpers. “You make such pretty noises, hun.”

Kent’ll make any noise Bitty wants, Christ. He arches his hips up, looking for friction, and Bittle palms his dick through the comforter, hard.

“I want you to fuck me,” Bittle whispers, like the gift it is. “Make me forget his name. Can you do that for me?”

Anything yes anything Christ, please. Kent tries and tries to speak and finally manages, “Yeah.”

“Good boy, Kent,” Bitty purrs, and fuck, Kent is pretty sure he could come just from the hand pressed against his dick and those words and Kent isn’t really good but he wants to be, he does, if Bitty will touch him like this again.

Bittle strips off his tank top and unbuttons his shorts with trembling fingers, pulls a condom and a tiny bottle of lube out of a pocket before he kicks them off onto the ground. He’s hard and leaking through his underwear and Kent wants to put his mouth on every inch, fuck, wants to taste the crease of his thigh and his dick and his balls and swallow down every drop of come he can coax out. Maybe—maybe if Bitty wants to do this again, he thinks, because right now—

Bitty rolls onto his back and pulls Kent on top of him as he wriggles out of his underwear. Kent grabs at the lube and coats his finger, presses it inside Bitty slowly, marveling at how incredible he feels, fuck.

“Shit,” Bitty moans, back arching. “I almost forgot how good that feels, God.”

Kent makes a noise in the back of his throat, the closest he can come to agreeing, and ducks down to press his face into the pillow as he stretches Bitty open.

Bitty takes the opportunity to sink his teeth into Kent’s neck and start on a hickey, sucking back so hard Kent sees spots behind his eyelids. “That’s it, sweetheart,” he pants, coming up for air. “C’mon, I can take more.”

And Kent gives—slips a second finger inside and whines when Bitty gasps, fists a hand in Kent’s hair and yanks his neck back against his mouth. And this is—Kent can barely think, barely move besides the stroke of his fingers inside Bittle, the occasional taut quiver in his throat when he manages a breath—this is so much and everything and not enough, not enough and he doesn’t know how to ask Bittle for more when he doesn’t deserve what he has and—

Soon he’s adding a third finger and Bitty is breathing out, “Okay,” and Kent is fumbling with the condom and—

“Will you hurt me more?” he asks quietly. “If—if I make it really good?”

There’s something soft in Bitty’s eyes and he doesn’t fucking deserve it and—“Yeah, sweetheart, of course. How do you want it?”

Anything anything anything. “Um. Just—your nails and—you can bite me harder?”

Bitty threads his fingers through Kent’s hair, gives a sharp tug. “Is that all?”

“Nothing—um, nothing else is—quiet,” Kent explains, and, fuck—Bittle’s eyes go wide and ravenous at that and Kent can tell he’s thinking—planning, maybe—about the shit Kent might let him do and fuck, he would, he’d let Bitty do—whatever he asked for.

“Fuck me,” Bitty breathes, and Kent isn’t sure if it’s a curse or a command or some combination but then Bitty’s legs wrap around his waist and urge him in.

Kent scrambles to add more lube over the condom and presses inside, pushes his face back against Bittle’s neck with a sob.

Bittle is so hot and tight and it’s been so long and Kent can barely move without shaking apart.

“Fuck, oh my God,” Bittle gasps, head thrown back, and digs his nails into Kent’s back like he could make the little crescent bruises into constellations, draw something tragic and immortal and already dying. “Oh my God.”

Kent brushes his lips against Bittle’s neck in a half-kiss, not much more than the hot pant of his breath and the dull throb of his bruised, cut-open skin. He starts thrusting harder and moans when Bitty writhes underneath him, drags nails down his back as he hitches his hips to meet him, deepen the angle.

“You feel— fuck, so—so good,” Kent sobs, muffling his voice into Bittle’s skin. “Can’t remember the—Christ, the last time I—fuck, Bitty please.”

Bitty rakes his nails across Kent’s ass again, rougher this time. “Sorry, I—” he breaks off in a moan. “I won’t—can’t last, Parse, I’m—”

He reaches between them and fists his dick in hand and latches onto Kent’s shoulder with his teeth, and it hurts so fucking perfectly Kent comes like he hasn’t in years—keens into the pillow with tears pricking at his eyes from the gratitude or the pain or both, maybe, and fucks into Bittle erratically, chasing the aftershock with a frantic plea.

Bitty clamps his mouth down harder and muffles a shout into Kent’s skin, shaking as he spurts streaks of come over his stomach, legs falling away from around Kent’s back. He looks—Christ, he looks beautiful like this, all fucked out and breathing heavy and nearly-laughing with that euphoria that comes from fucking incredible sex and—

And Kent did that. He fucked Bittle speechless and his body aches with bites and stings with scratches and maybe he was good enough, maybe he was—

“Amazing,” Bittle pants, bringing a shaking hand up to cup Kent’s cheek. “Lord, that was—fuck.” He laughs breathlessly and his hand falls away, flops useless back to the mattress.

“I—” Kent tries, but his voice goes raspy and fails. He lifts his head higher and pulls out carefully, rolling off of Bittle and onto his back, then shucks his condom into the trash. “I don’t—Christ, fuck.”

Bittle hums, like he magically understands whatever the fuck Kent is trying to say, and rolls off the bed in a semi-coordinated tumble to his feet. He steps into the bathroom and Kent lets his eyes flutter closed, listens to the sounds of running water and Bittle washing clean.

The water shuts off and there’s some shuffling before Bittle asks, “Do you need anything?”

Kent looks over blearily, feels a thick pang in his stomach when he realizes Bitty is half-dressed, with his tank top partway pulled over his head. “Um, I—”

Christ, Kent fucking hates this part, asking for—he’s so fucking pathetic, that he can’t just—

“Parse?”

Kent squeezes his eyes shut, breathes. “Could you—stay?”

“Oh! God, yeah, I—sorry,” Bitty stammers in a rush. Kent opens his eyes and Bitty looks—not annoyed or anything, thank fuck, just—surprised, maybe. “Um, I just—sorry, I didn’t—of course. Can I—I just need to, um, run back to my room real quick?”

Bitty’s staying. He’s not leaving. Well, he is, but—he’s coming back and that’s okay, Kent can deal with that much. He closes his eyes again and nods and listens to the door clicking shut and breathes.

A few minutes later, Bitty creeps back in with pajamas, a toothbrush, and a stuffed rabbit under his arm. Which—fuck, that’s so honestly so fucking adorable it’s unreal, like Kent isn’t even convinced Bitty is an actual person.

“If you chirp me for Bun I’ll sell your Twitter password to the highest bidder,” Bitty warns, cheeks pink.

Kent says, “Never,” and holds out a hand. “Can I hold him?”

Bitty hesitates, but hands the rabbit over in the end and shuffles into the bathroom to brush his teeth. It’s clearly an old toy—Kent wonders if Bitty’s had it since he was a kid—with mismatched eyes and a few patches sewn onto the well-worn fabric.

Kent’s starting to come back to himself and holding Bun helps, brushing his fingers across the fabric and feeling the soft texture. He smiles peacefully, looking up when Bitty comes back into the room, and gives it back to him a little reluctantly.

Bitty clutches Bun to his chest and crawls into bed, gives a contented little sigh when Kent shuts off the light and wraps around him. He smells like fancy hotel soap—lemongrass or some shit like that—and a little like sex, still, that underlying muskiness that’s hard to scrub away and his shirt is soft against Kent’s cheek.

Bitty presses his nose into Kent’s hair and kisses his temple lightly and Kent hums, nuzzles closer against him. The quiet is easy, soothing between them as Kent’s eyes drift shut, and—he’s not sure what the fuck this is or if it’ll be anything at all the next morning, but—it’s the easiest he’s fallen asleep in years.

 

~*~

 

Kent wakes up alone. There’s sunlight streaming through his window and the blaring alarm from his phone, and an empty space next to him that puts a dull ache behind his eyes he can’t shake. He rolls out of bed and trudges into the bathroom to get ready, splashing his face with water to get rid of the grogginess, and—

Jesus Christ, Bittle is a fucking vampire. On top of his bruises from the fight, Kent’s got two dark hickeys on his neck and a mottled bite mark on his shoulder and—yep—scratch marks down his back that’ll probably be the only part that fades by the game tomorrow. Which—it’s not like Kent cares, really, like—it’s actually really fucking sexy, getting marked up, but. He’s gonna get chirped to hell and back and it’s not like he can even actually dish about what happened. Which sucks, because—okay. That’s not a rabbit hole Kent’s gonna go down today. Bittle isn’t his to brag about, even if he could.

Kent brushes his teeth and throws on sweats and an old shirt, then heads downstairs for team breakfast at the hotel. Not that many people are there yet—he figures a lot of the younger guys are nursing hangovers after drowning their sorrows last night—but he finds Bittle sitting alone at a table, and joins him after he grabs a plate.

“Uh, hey,” he says, stabbing a forkful of watery eggs awkwardly.

Bittle looks up a beat late, like he’s still half-asleep. “Oh, um. Hi.” He’s quiet for second, then apologizes, “I, um—I’m sorry about—this morning. I just—didn’t want, um—someone to see me leave.”

It shouldn’t matter. It’s not like Bittle owed him anything to begin with, honestly, but—something lifts in Kent’s chest anyway, knowing—Bitty wanted to stay. Or, at least he’s pretending to, which is cool.

“Oh, that’s—no, I, uh—I get it.”

Bittle nods, and looks he’s on the verge of saying something else when an employee walks past them holding a carafe, and switches it with the one at the coffee station. “Oh, thank the Lord! They were out when I got here and I just about died. Do you want a cup?”

Kent blinks at the sudden change of tone. “Oh, uh, sure?”

“Great. Cream or anything?” Bittle asks, already standing and eyeing the coffee station longingly.

“Uh, two and a sugar but I can—”

Bittle zips off before Kent can explain that he does, actually, have working legs and can get his own coffee, and he rolls his eyes fondly.

“Holy shit, you look fucked.” Troy plops down next to Kent and jabs a finger into one of his hickeys, because he’s an asshole. “Literally what the fuck happened?”

“Mornin’, Jeff,” Bittle says, sliding Kent a coffee mug with a sleepy smile, and—wincing when he sits back down.

Troy is, unfortunately, not a stupid asshole. He stares at Bittle and whispers, “Holy shit, you look fucked too. What the fuck.”

Bittle flushes and looks down at his lap, embarrassed but not—he doesn’t look ashamed, like he regrets it or anything and—Christ, Kent didn’t realize how freaked out he was about that possibility until just now.

Kent says, “Uh.”

Bittle, unhelpfully, buries his face in his coffee.

“One of you stupid fuckers better spill some deets right now or I swear to—”

“Who is spilling deets?” Fish asks, taking a seat next to Bitty. “Bitty, is you? I thought you loved me best!”

Bittle laughs, only sounding a little tinny. “Well, um—”

“You’re not ‘is type, Fishy,” Hatty chirps, grinning as he takes the seat on Troy’s other side. Ratchet joins them too, at the far end of the table. “’M sure Bits doesn’t want nothin’ to do with us meatheads, eh?”

Kent watches Bittle carefully, the way his knuckles turn white from his grip on his coffee as he smiles tightly at Hatty and answers glibly, “Oh, Lord no. I’d never fuck a hockey player.”

Troy chokes on his drink. Kent jams an elbow into his ribs and pretends like he doesn’t want to reach across the table and grab Bitty’s hand more than anything, fuck, because—Jesus Christ, the way Hatty laughs is with such relief, like it’s the best fucking news he’s ever heard that Bittle is gay but not that kind of gay—you know, that breed of cocksucker you don’t want in your locker room ‘cause you just know he wants your dick and it’s just weird, and—

Kent wants to vomit. Maybe he could pretend he’s hungover.

The whole thing blows over though, and no one seems to remember to hound Bitty for deets after all—or notice the hickeys on Kent’s neck, probably because they kind of just blend in with the bruises on his face and honestly, Kent’ll take that because he’s not sure what the fuck he’d say if he had to come up with some shit about a puck bunny right now.

So they make it through breakfast and head back up to their rooms to pack and check out. Troy grabs Kent and Bitty, pulling them aside to apologize, “Uh, I’m—fuck, I’m sorry about—that. I didn’t mean for that to—shit.”

Bitty glances over at Kent—who nods—before telling Troy, “It’s okay. Um, that kind of thing—it happens, you know? If you’re not used to, um—watching where you are.”

“In other words,” Troy translates wryly, “I’m a privileged asshole.”

“Aww, hun, look—” Bitty pats Kent’s arm. “—he’s learning.”

Troy rolls his eyes but doesn’t comment, and heads off into his room. Kent shifts back and forth on his heels awkwardly and asks, “Uh, do you—have everything?” with a jerk of his head towards his room.

“Oh, um.” Bittle looks behind him quickly. “I think I lost a sock? But it’s fine, if you find it just—” A door opens and Jordy wheels his suitcase out. “—yeah.”

“Uh, sure.” Kent hesitates, purses his lips and winces at the twinge of pain. “Uh, are you—doing anything tonight?”

Bittle’s eyebrows go up a little in surprise. “Oh, um—I was—some of my friends live in Boston, so—um. Do you…wanna come?”

Hanging out with a bunch of Jack’s old teammates and friends actually sounds like living hell, actually. “Uh, no, that’s—you—I was just—wondering.”

“Alright,” Bitty says, lips twitching. “Um, I’m gonna go pack, but—see you on the bus?”

“Uh, yeah.” Kent waves awkwardly as Bitty turns back down the hall towards his room, and presses a hand to his face. His life is officially, like, seventy percent more of a shitshow than usual.

 

~*~

 

After everyone checks into the hotel in Boston, they spend the afternoon on the ice preparing for the game tomorrow and then resting up. Kent spends his evening being interrogated by Troy and providing exactly zero answers, because honestly fuck if Kent knows what the hell is going on in his life at any given moment anyway.

Kent finally escapes Troy’s battery of chirps and questions and retreats to his room to pass the night in a reality TV show-fueled haze, curled up in bed with a bag of popcorn he pilfered from the minibar. The television is old and kind of crackly and Kent’s phone keeps buzzing from the aftermath of yesterday’s fight and yeah, he really should stop being a “fucking asswipe of a brother” and call his sister but—

Every time he looks at his phone he catches himself hoping it’ll be Bitty and the Real Housewives are embroiled in some weird panty-feud Kent is pretty sure Bitty would find hilarious and fuck, it’s not like Bittle even wants to see him again probably because last night was just some drunken rebound for him—he said it himself, right away—and what the fuck was it supposed to be for Kent, anyway?

But Kent still leaves the door unlocked anyway, because he’s fucking pathetic and he might as well be honest with himself about that at this point.

He doesn’t wake up when the door opens, but he does when someone climbs into bed with him and brushes a cowlick away from his face.

“Ngh?” Kent mumbles, fighting to get his sleep-heavy eyes open and mostly failing.

“Sorry,” Bitty whispers, “did I wake you?”

Kent shrugs—mostly just a vague flail of his arms—and tries to find Bitty’s lips for a kiss. He gets the corner of his mouth and Bitty giggles, puts a hand to his chin to turn his face and kiss him properly, soft and slow. They make-out lazily for a while, hands brushing gentle through hair, against skin, and God—Kent could stay like this forever and not be missing a fucking thing.

Bitty pulls back, just a little. “I’m, um—not sure I’m up for another last night.”

Kent hums, snuggles closer and kisses Bitty’s jaw. “S’okay. We can just do this.”

“Alright,” Bitty says, but his hand trails downward, traces the line of Kent’s arm and toys with the waistband of his boxers, and—

This isn’t what Kent meant, actually, because—he really doesn’t care about coming right now, even if he is half-hard and fuck, the thought of Bitty touching him is getting him the rest of the way there pretty quickly. But it’s not like he’d turn it down, and if Bitty wants to come—

“Fuck, that’s so nice,” Bitty moans, lips to Kent’s ear. “Just—yeah, just like that, hun. A little—yeah, a little tighter. Fuck.”

Kent hitches his hips up into Bitty’s touch and whimpers, feels himself fraying at the edges, and—God, the way Bitty kisses him, it’s so—

“You kiss like Jack,” Kent realizes, hand stilling suddenly.

Bitty’s eyes are wet. He brushes a thumb across Kent’s bottom lip. “So do you.”

“I’m—” Kent’s voice cracks. “I’m sorry.”

Bitty dips back down and kisses him in what must be forgiveness—has to be, because what would Kent do without it? And he tastes like cranberry juice tonight, when Jack only ever tasted like beer, and his hands are smaller and smooth against Kent’s chest, on his dick, and he smells like bar smoke and Old Spice and this—this isn’t a haunting, and Bitty isn’t Jack’s ghost even if he carried it here.

Kent’s breathing goes shallow and he whispers, “I’m close.”

“Me—me too,” Bitty answers, stuttering his hips in time with Kent’s hand and coming with a whine.

Kent follows him, eyes squeezed shut and teeth threatening to re-split his barely healing lip, adding to the mess Bitty left on his stomach. “Fuck, Jesus.”

Bitty flops over onto his back with a grunt. “Lord.”

“Sure, him too,” Kent says, and Bitty huffs and smacks at him—which wasn’t really his brightest move, probably, because he plants his hand in the puddle of come that’s turning tacky on Kent’s stomach.

“Oh my God, ew,” Bitty whines, half-heartedly flailing his hand around to try and wipe it off on Kent’s chest while Kent cackles. “Shut up, you’re the worst.”

Kent winks at him and rolls out of bed to wash off in the bathroom, wincing when he switches the light on to find a washcloth. He uses it to clean up and then dampens a fresh one to bring out to Bitty, who’s sprawled on the bed with his eyes closed.

Kent drops the cloth onto his face and Bitty sputters, grabs at it and whips it at Kent with a groan. “Why?”

“Dunno,” Kent says. He takes the cloth and wipes off Bitty’s hand, his chest, trails down and gently cleans off the dribble of come drying on his dick.

Bitty hums appreciatively and rolls onto his stomach, burying his head in the crack between the two pillows. Kent lobs the washcloth onto the sink and switches off the lights, then crawls into bed next to Bitty, yanking the comforter free from underneath him to cover them both.

“You’re staying, right?” Kent mumbles into Bitty’s shoulder, draping halfway across him in what is definitely not an attempt to trap him there, or anything.

Bitty snorts and wiggles one of his legs into a better position. “Hun, if you try an’ make me move right now I’ll kill you.”

“Cool,” Kent says, already halfway asleep. “Good.”

 

~*~

 

So that—the fucking, not the death threats, although, like, that’s definitely not the last time Kent hears that one—becomes a thing. Kent spends the better part of the flight home wondering if the whole deal was some proximity-to-Jack-Zimmermann-fueled mutual mental breakdown and if now that they’re back on the west coast Bitty’ll come back to his senses and artfully pretend none of it ever happened.

And then Bitty texts him three days later, asking to come over, and Kent says yes because—duh.

It’s—like, kinda fucking weird, actually, because it’s not like they’re boyfriends or anything but calling Bitty his fuckbuddy is just—

Bitty, his fuckbuddy, who comes over at eight PM and helps cook dinner, and then falls asleep with him on the couch while they watch Chopped re-runs and they don’t even fuck that night, just wake up at three in the morning and stumble into the bedroom and drift back to sleep cuddling.

Bitty, his fuckbuddy, who Kent brings coffee every morning and fights the urge to kiss him on the cheek for it, who plasters a smile on his face when the team chirps Kent about how good the pussy he’s getting must be, because he shows up to afternoon practices looking fucked-out and the happiest he’s been in years.

Bitty, his fuckbuddy, who commandeers the kitchen for Thanksgiving and hip-checks Kent for being in the way in his own apartment.

“I can help, Bits, this is ridiculous!” Kent whines, inching back over to grab at the cutting board.

Bitty swats him away and menaces him with his knife. “Shoo, Parson. I’ve got it, really.”

Kent pouts and steals a carrot slice when Bitty’s back is turned, crunching into it sullenly. “Rude.”

“Go entertain the boys,” Bitty says, voice dropping low. “You know you shouldn’t—”

There’s a knock on the door that interrupts the thought and Bitty frowns and raises an accusatory eyebrow at Kent—because everyone was supposed to be here already and he was really paranoid about buying enough food—but it’s not like Kent knows who’s at the door either so he darts off to solve that mystery before Bitty kills him.

The boys are all on the couch watching football; half of them probably didn’t even hear the door. Kent rolls his eyes, peers through the peephole, and curses creatively under his breath.

“Mom!” he shouts—way louder than necessary, in the hopes that the handful of disgusting hockey players on his couch will stop scratching their balls or talking about pussies or whatever else non-mother-appropriate shit they were probably just pulling—and drags his mom into a hug immediately after opening the door.

Ma cheers, “Surprise!” and then shoulders her way past Kent into the apartment like the 5’2” would-be linebacker she is.

Izzy punches Kent on the shoulder, hard—on the exact spot he has a huge ass bruise from his last game, which has to be a coincidence but doesn’t feel like one—and follows their mom inside.

“I—uh, you said you couldn’t come this year?” Kent asks, fighting to keep the strangled edge out of his voice. It’s not like he’s not thrilled they’re here—he loves his family—it’s just that he definitely would’ve not hosted half a dozen hockey players and the guy he’s fucking on the side if he’d known they’d be here.

“Yeah, well—we figured we’d surprise you, seein’ as you never call your mother anymore,” Ma tuts, melodramatically.

Kent shoves down the urge to roll his eyes. “I called you like, two weeks ago, Ma.”

Izzy pitches her voice low in a terrible impression of Kent’s voice. “’I called you like two weeks ago, Ma.’ Like that’s an accomplishment, asswipe.”

“Isabel, watch the fucking language.”

“Sorry, Ma.”

Bittle appears from the kitchen, because he has superhuman hearing and wants Kent to die. “Well, I guess I know where Kent gets that from, then. Hi, I’m Eric, pleasure to meet y’all.”

Ma takes Bitty’s hand with obvious surprise at the gesture. “Oh, nice to meet ya too—Eric? I’m Kent’s mom, but you can call me Nicole.”

Bitty looks a little uncomfortable at the suggestion, and tactfully avoids it.

He turns to Izzy, who shakes his hand brusquely. “Hey, I’m Izzy, his sister. Who the fuck are you?”

Kent closes his eyes and breathes through his nose.

Bitty laughs. “I’ve got a friend who’d love you, gracious. I work for the PR department.” He looks over at Kent and smirks, chirping him subtly. “I guess we’re friends.”

“We were before you stole my kitchen,” Kent teases, and Bitty rolls his eyes before making his excuses to go back to whatever he was doing in there. Then, Kent turns to the living room and shouts, “Hey, idiots! Say hi to Ma!”

Which causes a mad scramble to get feet off the coffee table and look slightly less like gross assholes, and Kent’s family is suddenly swarmed with a bunch of adoring professional athletes.

Kent uses the distraction to escape into the kitchen, where Bittle is putting the finishing touches on what looks like a pan of sweet potatoes with marshmallows on top. He leans his head back against the wall and stares at the ceiling.

Bitty slides his casserole into the oven and comments wryly, “So, that’s a thing.”

“Uh, yeah. Sorry.” Kent’s hands feel twitchy. He grabs an egg and spins it between his fingers.

Bitty gently pries the egg away and trades Kent a bag of apples instead, nudging him towards the sink. He washes dutifully.

“It’s fine. I’d planned for leftovers, anyway.” Bitty cracks the egg into a mixing bowl. “They seem—” his lips twitch. “—like you.”

Kent laughs, and grabs a paper towel to set the first apple on. “Is that a good thing?”

“Maybe.” Bitty dumps some eggshells into the trash and washes his hands. “Uh—how long are they here?”

“Christ, who fucking knows.” Kent pats the second apple dry and starts on the third. “Ma’s got work so prob’ly just ‘til Sunday. Izzy’s on a gap year before grad school so—eh, but she’ll probably leave with Ma.”

Bitty pulls open a drawer and snags a whisk—which wasn’t a thing Kent owned three weeks ago—and gets to work mixing what Kent figures is a pie crust. “Alright. Just, uh—let me know, I guess?”

Which is a weird way to put it, but—oh. Kent finishes with the apples and grabs a paring knife that he flashes to Bitty. Bitty nods, and Kent starts carefully slicing. “Uh, they—they’re cool. You don’t have to, like—yeah.”

“Thinner slices,” Bitty instructs, and Kent sticks his tongue out in concentration while he tries to comply. “And, um. Okay, I guess.”

“I mean, you don’t gotta— shit.” Kent drops the knife and pulls his thumb away from the counter to keep from dripping blood onto the food.

Bitty rolls his eyes, entirely unsympathetic. “This is why I kicked you out,” he says, but he ducks under the sink and grabs a box of Band-Aids—also a thing Kent didn’t own three weeks ago—anyway. “C’mere.”

Kent holds his hand out, and definitely doesn’t shiver a little when Bitty grabs it to wrap a Band-Aid around his cut. Definitely not. “Uh, thanks.”

There’s a spark in Bitty’s eyes when he looks up, something flash-hot and quick. “Sure.” Someone cheers at the TV in the other room. Bitty drops Kent’s hand and clears his throat. “Think you can finish those without tearin’ yourself to pieces?”

“Maybe I like getting torn up,” Kent murmurs, pretty much without thinking about it and fuck, that’s a really fucking weird thing to say and—

Bitty’s cheeks are pink. His eyes are fixed resolutely on his mixing bowl. “Not here,” he warns, and fuck if that isn’t an equally weird thing to say and Christ, Kent loves him.

Wait.

No, he doesn’t—of course not, that’s not fucking—he’s not in love with Bittle. It’s just—it’s just because they’re fucking and Kent hasn’t had sex he’s wanted this badly in a really fucking long time and it’s—it’s easy to get that all fucked up in his head, like—he thought he was in love with Jeff, for a while, because Jeff was the only person he could be himself around and—Jeff is straight and married and Kent obviously wasn’t really in love with him and—

Kent’s not in love with Bittle, is the point. It’s just—like, his brain being fucked up like it always is. He’s not gonna think like that. He’ll just—he’ll ignore it. Easy.

“Parse?”

Kent looks up at finds Bitty watching him with an amused eyebrow raised. “Uh.”

“Oh, for—bless your heart, I’ll do it.” Bitty nudges Parse over, grabs the knife, and starts slicing at twice the speed Kent was going before he nicked his thumb. He looks endeared, though, not like he’s pissed off by Kent’s uselessness or anything. “Go on, stop hiding from your mother.”

Kent thinks about protesting, but—he probably should go talk to Ma and Izzy. They came all the way to see him and it’s not like they knew they’d be interrupting, and it’s definitely not their fault Kent is having an emotional crisis in his kitchen.

Speaking of crises, Kent should probably be somewhere he can’t stare at the way Bittle’s fingers work over the apples, nimble and merciless as he slices them into little piles, and Christ that’s so sexy and—

Fuck. Yeah, Kent needs to get out of here. He stammers something out to Bitty and flees back into the living room, where his mom is talking football with the guys and Izzy is scrolling through Tumblr on her phone, apparently bored.

“Hey, Squirt,” he says, taking a seat next to her on the ground. “What’s new?”

Izzy shrugs and tells him, “People are shipping you with Mashkov. It’s weird.”

If Kent had a drink, he’d choke on it. “Wait, seriously? That’s— why?”

“Fandom’s weird, bro.” She pauses and narrows her eyes suspiciously. “Wait, you’re not, right?”

“Oh my God, no.” Kent groans and thunks his head on the back of the couch. “Like, you have no fucking idea how much that’s not happening.”

Izzy hums thoughtfully. Too thoughtfully. That’s super not encouraging, actually. “Right. Well, if someone stopped being a total dick and called me once and a while—”

“Two weeks ago!” Kent insists, gesturing wildly. “I called two weeks ago like a completely normal—”

“Yeah, but you never tell me anything anymore, so what’s the fuckin’ point?” Izzy snaps, and Jesus Christ apparently this is a full-on thing now.

Kent pinches the bridge of his nose and tries to keep his voice down before someone overhears. “Maybe there’s nothing to tell.”

Izzy looks around the room pointedly and physically scrunches her face down around the words she’s about to spit. Instead, she says, “Sure. I hope ya like the new tooth, bro.”

She gets up and storms off, probably to hide with Kit somewhere and stew until the food’s ready, and Kent presses his face into his hands. Well, at least he knows what kind of weekend it’s gonna be.

 

~*~

 

Dinner is civil because there’s too many people there to be anything else, even if Kent desperately wishes Troy were there instead of at his house entertaining in-laws. But soon pretty much everyone filters home, half-asleep, and Kent’s left with nothing but bickering with Bittle over the dishes standing between him and his family.

“I really don’t mind!” Bittle protests, lunging for the sponge.

“Fuck off, you cooked like the whole entire dinner,” Kent says, reaching out to block Bittle’s hand. He gets him by the wrist and tugs, yanking him away from the sink. “Let me take care of this.”

Bitty huffs and shoves at Kent, tries to tug his hand away. “But I went and made— Kent!”

Kent hefts Bitty more solidly over his shoulder and carries him into the living room, where he deposits him gently on the couch. “Nope. Sit out here and watch TV if you’re staying.”

There’s a full second where Bitty fixes Kent with the full power of his glare, and then he cracks. “Do you want me to stay?” he asks quietly, eyes fixed pointedly on Ma and Izzy, who are not-so-subtly spying from the kitchen doorway.

“Um.” Kent leans away a little, sheepish. “Only if you wanna?”

Bitty’s eyes flick over to Kent’s face and then back to his family, maybe—calculating? He smiles, just barely a twitch of his lips. “Um, alright.”

“Uh, cool. Yeah—yeah, cool.” Kent does a great job of ignoring the fluttering in his stomach and backs away from the couch without doing anything embarrassing like kissing Bitty on the nose or squeezing his hand or anything. Like a pro. A professional feelings ignorer.

Kit weaves through Kent’s legs and then hops up onto the couch, butting her head against Bitty’s hand in a blatant demand for attention. Bitty turns to her immediately and coos, “Oh, hello, princess! Do you wanna snuggle with—ow!—we use our words, not our claws, Kit—well, I guess you don’t have words, but still. Let me just—ow—get a blanket to— ow, sweet mother Mary—”

Izzy ambles over from the kitchen and rests her elbow on Kent’s shoulder, even though she’s five inches shorter than him and it has to be uncomfortable. “I’m super glad you’re not fucking Mashkov,” she says pointedly.

Kent watches Bitty attempt to simultaneously encourage Kit’s snuggles and pull a blanket over himself before she turns his thigh into swiss cheese with her kneading, all the while fussing at her in that same adorable baby-talk voice Kent always uses and gets chirped for.

“Uh, yeah,” Kent agrees. “Me too.”

 

~*~

 

Late that night, after the dishes are done and they’ve marathoned the Great British Bake-off and Ma and Izzy have retired to their guest rooms, when Bitty is curled up in the V of Kent’s legs with his head cushioned on his chest while he scrolls through Twitter, with Kent’s fingers scratching through the shaved side of Bitty’s hair and Kit purring from her perch on the armrest—

Shit, Kent thinks, maybe I love you.

And it’s not any less ridiculous than it was five hours ago, not really, because—fuck, they’ve only been hooking up for like a month and they’ve only known each other for four and Christ, shit, Kent always gets crazy fucking attached like this and it never works and the last time he let himself get really attached—

Well, there’s not a hell of a lot of room for this to go worse than that.

Bitty says, “Hey, um—” and Kent jumps, startled out of his thoughts. “Sorry. Um, I was just—wondering something.”

“Uh, it’s—what’s up?” Kent shifts so he can see Bitty’s face better—he seems a little uncomfortable.

“Um, just—I was wondering if I could…tell some friends, about—you know?” Bitty worries at his bottom lip with his teeth. “Just, uh—a few people who knew about—about Jack? I just, um—I guess I got spoiled, kind of, by people knowin’ and it’s—not having anyone here is, um. Hard.”

Kent closes his eyes around the flare of anxiety in his stomach and takes a heavy breath. His chest presses up against Bitty’s back. “Yeah, of—definitely. I, uh. You’re not—spoiled—it’s…it’s a normal thing to want. It’s not—go for it.”

“Are you sure?” Bitty turns towards him, leaning against Kent’s thigh and looking up with worried eyes. “You sound—not—sure.”

Kent nods and tries to smirk encouragingly. “Yeah, no, I’m sure. It’s, uh—it’s always kinda scary, but—if Jack trusted them—and you do—then, I mean. I’m okay with it. And it’s—it’s really important to you, so.”

Bitty smiles brightly and turns back around, settling against Kent’s chest again. He pulls his phone back out and stares at something on it for a long time, fingers twitching like he’s trying to figure out what to say, eyebrows furrowed in pleasant concentration.

And Kent—he wants to ask what Bitty’s gonna tell them. Is he just excited to let everyone know he’s getting dick on the regular—that he’s not wasting away pining after Jack—that he shipped off to Vegas and got himself another pretty boy pro-athlete to wrap around his finger? Or is he—is he falling in love like Kent is? Does his chest go tight when Kent laughs—does he have to hold the words on the edge of his tongue so they don’t spill over when their eyes meet?

Bitty laughs quietly at his phone and adjusts so he’s snuggled more soundly in Kent’s arms and Kent’s heart nearly stops with the force of the ache under his ribs. Slowly, like the blood could burst from his vessels if he isn’t careful, he reaches his hand back up and replaces his fingers in Bitty’s hair, scratching it softly.

Bitty hums with contentment and Kent says, “I love this—playing with your hair,” a vague offering at an approximate altar, a bloodletting.

“It’s nice,” Bitty agrees, sounding drowsy and at peace and like he’s never known what it was to carve a thing up for slaughter.

Kent closes his eyes and breathes until his lungs shake.

 

~*~

 

Kent spends the rest of his Thanksgiving weekend without the benefit of Bitty or anyone else buffering his family, which means he undergoes a terrifying interrogation about his love life with a level of invasiveness that would make Troy proud. He also comes pretty damn close to crying when he hugs them goodbye at the airport—because they’re probably the only two people who’ll ever love him forever and fuck— fuck this town and this sport and this plane and everything else that’s ever tried to take them away.

But he holds it together until they get through security and he doesn’t wait to watch the plane take off like in the movies or anything, just goes home to his empty apartment and his cat and wonders what the odds are he’ll end up a gross blubbering mess if he calls Bitty to come over. He decides he doesn’t like his odds and takes the night to himself, soaking in the bath and then curling up with Kit on the couch until he’s tired enough to sleep.

November sputters out and fades into a December filled with roadies and holiday-limbo cheer, complete with listening to Bitty stream-of-consciousness about whether or not he should buy a Christmas tree when it’s just one more thing to ship back across the country next year and he’s not even in town for Christmas so, honestly, does it really make sense to buy one but—well, his apartment really does feel empty without one and he’s been pretty good about not spending too much and—

(Kent is torn between listening to Bitty talk forever because God, his voice is perfect, and offering to buy the damn tree himself because if he has to hear one more time about how Bitty’s going to leave, he might do something really fucking crazy like beg him to stay.)

Bitty does end up buying the Christmas tree, and gets on a plane to Georgia two days later.

It’s not a problem that Bitty isn’t around for Christmas. It’d be weird if it was. Because Kent is an adult who can be mature about something like that and also it’s not like they’d be spending it together even if Bitty was in town except—maybe they would? Maybe Bitty would come over and make that hot chocolate he does from scratch and they’d drink it curled up on the couch, and Bitty would pour some schnapps in his and he’d turn pink-cheeked and giggly in the way that always makes Kent wonder if he actually hates alcohol or just the people he’s known who drink it, and they’d—

“Uncle Kenny?”

Kent looks up at Josephine, who’s staring at him with her head tilted inquisitively. “Uh, yeah?”

“Why’re you looking at your phone so much? It’s rude.”

Troy snorts into his beer. Kent is over at his house for Christmas Eve, like he has been every year since Troy and Shanelle bought this place when Shawn was born.

“Uh. I’m talking to my friend.” Or, trying to, but Bitty must be busy because he isn’t really texting back.

“Why?” Shawn asks. He’s swinging his feet under the table and very subtly trying to avoid eating his peas by rolling them off his plate one by one.

Kent flicks a pea at Troy. “’Cause he’s not here and I miss him.”

Josey asks, “Why don’t you go see him?”

“’Cause he’s in Georgia and that’s far away, and if I was with him I couldn’t see you.” Also because Kent is pretty sure the Bittles wouldn’t appreciate Kent’s presence, like, at all, but that’s irrelevant.

Shanelle leans over and whispers something into Troy’s ear. He smirks and nods, which means they’re probably gossiping about him, great.

“Oh. Okay.” Seemingly satisfied, Josey turns back to her food. She spoons a pile of her peas onto Shawn’s plate. He frowns at them in confusion but keeps rolling them off anyway, steadfast.

Kent chuckles and looks back at his phone, just to make sure he hasn’t missed a text or anything. He hasn’t, and it—he’s just a little fidgety about it. Like, he knows it’s a holiday and Bitty said Christmas is a big deal in his family and everything, but he’s pretty much never seen Bitty without his phone so it’s like—does he not wanna talk to Kent, or something?

“Uh, I’ll—be right back?” Kent says, standing awkwardly, phone in hand.

“You gotta ask to be ‘scused,” Shawn reminds him idly, in the middle of a bite of mashed potatoes.

Kent laughs. “I’m a grown-up, I don’t have to—”

Shanelle levels him with a look, perfectly arched eyebrow and all. “Yes you do.”

“Uh.” Kent spins his phone in his hands. Shani is the sweetest woman ever and also intimidating as fuck. “Can I go make a phone call?”

“Sure, Kent. Have fun talking to your ‘friend.’” She makes the air quotes and everything, which is really just an unnecessary call-out and Kent’s reminded, like he is at all times, of why she and Troy are perfect for each other.

Kent scurries off and hides himself on the patio, inhaling the dry Vegas air as he dials Bitty’s number.

It rings so long he thinks it might go to voicemail, and then Bitty answers with a confused sounding, “Um, hello?”

“Oh, uh, hey.” Kent winces. He can hear lots of people in the background, like there’s a ton of family over or something. “I, uh—how’s it going?”

Bitty’s voice is pleasant, clean but detached. “I’m fine, thanks. How are you?”

“Uh. I’m—it’s good. Things are good, yeah. I just, uh—I had a work question?” Kent’s voice sounds terrible to his own ears, weirdly high pitched and stuttering. Christ.

“Uh, sure?”

Kent presses a hand to his face. “Um. Did, uh—was my last tweet okay?”

“Uh, yes? I already posted it.” There’s a smirk in Bitty’s voice now.

Which makes sense, because it was literally just a picture of Kent and Kit in matching reindeer antlers that said ‘Merry Christmas from the Purrsons.’ Kent wonders if there’s a lake nearby he could drown in. “Oh, uh. Good. Great. I just—I was wondering if I should’ve been like, non-denominational or something?”

“Oh. Well, I think that’s always nice but I wouldn’t nitpick you on something like that.” Bitty pauses, waiting to see if Kent will say anything else. “Is that all you needed?”

Kent stares at the sunset and purses his lips. “I, uh—I miss you.”

The silence is smothering. Bitty says, “Hold on,” and then Kent hears a faint ‘Dicky, where’re you—’ and Bitty explaining, voice strained and farther away, ‘It’s for work, Mama,’ before the background noise on the other end of the line cuts away almost completely.

“I miss you too,” Bitty whispers, and he sounds—kind of afraid, like someone might still hear or—or maybe just of what he’s saying.

Kent’s stomach flips. “Uh—”

“I just, um—I can’t really talk for long or they’ll—um.” Bitty sighs.

“Oh, uh—if you need to—”

“It’s so weird bein’ back here,” Bitty says quickly, like it was a fight to shove the words out. “I just, I love my parents and Georgia is—this place raised me? But I don’t…” he trails off. There’s a short pause, a click in the background like a door shutting, and then he finishes quietly, “Nowhere feels like home anymore, you know?”

If Kent closes his eyes and breathes deeply enough, he can remember what the real Christmas tree smelled like in their shitty apartment when he was fourteen and hockey was still kind of a pipe dream, and he didn’t believe in Santa but Izzy did so he got to stay up late and help his mom wrap all the presents and wash down mouthfuls of too-sweet sugar cookies with milk.

Jeff has one of those fake pre-lit trees and Kent doesn’t even put one up because Kit knocks it down every year.

“Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, I actually really do.”

“Sorry.” Bitty laughs hollowly. “I’m bein’—”

“No,” Kent interrupts, whatever it was. “No, that’s—I’m sorry you’re, uh, feeling like that.”

Bitty laughs again, a short but more honest sound. “Thanks, hun. I should—I better go. But, um. Merry Christmas.”

Kent smiles softly to himself. “You too, Bits.”

Bitty whispers, “Bye,” and then the line clicks dead.

The sun’s set all the way now and the sky is a heavy indigo, starless and defiant in its depth. Kent stares out into it, over the brush and past the road that passes near the house, until the wind picks up and cuts at his cheeks and chases him inside.

The kids are on the couch, watching that creepy claymation Rudolph movie that always makes Kent feel vaguely nostalgic and unsettled simultaneously, while Shani and Troy sit perched at the kitchen island sipping something warm and probably alcoholic. When she sees him, Shani hops off her stool and grabs him a mug that she fills with water and sticks in the microwave to heat up.

Kent kisses her on the cheek as he reaches for the tea she keeps in the cabinet. They don’t really talk about the alcohol thing, but she and Troy have also figured out Kent always says no when they offer him any.

The microwave beeps. Kent grabs his mug out, sets the teabag in to steep, and hops up on the stool between them.

He gets maybe fifteen seconds of peace, and then Shani asks, “So, when’s the wedding?”

“Oh my God.” Kent groans. “Um, never?”

“But Kent, I’ve haven’t been to a wedding in so long!” she whines. “What good is my husband’s money if it isn’t buying me designer dresses to wear to destination weddings.”

Bitty would get married in Georgia, Kent thinks, but doesn’t say because he doesn’t want to get chirped within an inch of his life. Instead, he argues, “I mean, we’re not even dating so—”

And then he cringes, because—

“Wait, what?” Troy asks, apparently personally offended.

“Uh.” Kent looks to Shani for help, which is a mistake because all she does is side-eye him over the rim of her mug. “Yeah?”

Troy finishes off his drink like it’s personally offended him, too. “Well why the fu—why not?”

“I—it’s not that serious, man, I dunno what to tell you.” Which is like, only sort of a lie because it’s not like Kent and Bitty have had anything resembling a Talk and that definitely cancels out the fact that Kent is sorta kinda pretty sure he’s in love with the guy, right? “Like we’re literally just fu—Jesus, having kids is exhausting—” Shani snorts. “—we’re literally just hooking up.”

Shani raises an eyebrow. “Do you call all your ‘not-that-serious’ hookups on Christmas Eve, then?”

“Uh, more importantly— do you hook up?” Troy asks, like an asshole. “I was literally not aware that was a thing you did.”

Kent presses his fingers into his temples. “I don’t know, okay? Maybe if it wasn’t fucking—shit, sorry—uh—maybe if it wasn’t, like, freaking terrifying to even think about going home with someone who could—yeah.”

Troy is quiet. “So you haven’t—?”

Yeah, Kent is not gonna go into his forays with escort services with his married best friends while their two children are sitting in the other room. “Not really.”

“But you are, with Bitty, right?”

“Yeah. Since Providence.”

Troy whistles dramatically. Shani puts a comforting hand on Kent’s back and asks, “Sweetie, is this really just casual for you?”

“I—” Kent’s voice cracks and, fuck, he’s not gonna be able to lie to them. “No. But—I think it’s—it is for him. He doesn’t—he seems happy like this and I—that’s fine. I’m like, actually pretty happy.”

“I mean, did you guys talk?” Troy asks, bracing a hand on Kent’s knee and squeezing. “’Cause, I mean—the way he looks at you, bud—I dunno, it seems more than that.”

Kent grabs his mug and presses against the ceramic, feels the heat seeping into his palms. “Uh, not—not really. I mean, it was like, definitely a rebound thing? But now I—dunno, I guess. Sometimes I—I think maybe he does. Want me, I mean. But then, like, sometimes I like—push a little, or whatever? And he just—like, when Ma and Izzy crashed Thanksgiving he met them and everything but—then he basically ghosted me the rest of the weekend? So I just. I can’t—I dunno.”

Shani and Troy share one of those married people looks over Kent’s back that culminates in Shani saying, “Well, maybe you should talk then. Isn’t it better to know where you stand?”

“Ugh, that’s so mature I wanna barf,” Kent complains, sticking his tongue out.

“I know you’re not calling me old,” Shani warns, but there’s a smile in her voice that lifts Kent’s spirits a little.

He leans back against the counter, lips curving upwards. “Never. And I’ll, uh—I’ll think about it, I guess.”

Troy reaches out and ruffles Kent’s hair, laughing when Kent almost topples off the stool. “Atta boy, Parser. Our baby’s growing up, eh Shani?”

Shani laughs and swipes her mug off the counter to keep it from being knocked to the ground in their tousle. “Maybe.”

“Close enough.” Troy squeezes Kent on the shoulder and then lets him go, turning to lean against the counter and watch his kids, who’re still staring at the TV, transfixed. He doesn’t look back away when he tells Kent, “You’re family, you know. Whatever this is with Bitty—we’ve got you.”

Kent swallows thickly and hides the tears pricking at his eyes behind a drink of now-lukewarm tea from his mug. “Uh, yeah. I know. Thanks.”

Shani hums, pleasant and warm, and leans over to rest her cheek against Kent’s shoulder. They sit there like that, watching creepy Rudolph save Christmas mostly without the benefit of the dialogue, until the kids start to crash and get ushered off to bed before their second wind hits.

They each grab one of the cookies the kids left out for Santa and eat on the couch, all curled up on one end with Kent’s legs draped in Troy’s lap. The television drones in the background and the house is so warm Kent starts to doze, until Shani stretches and asks, “Kent, help us wrap presents?”

Kent stretches too, stifling a yawn, and smiles around the melancholy ache in his teeth. “Yeah, sounds great.”

 

~*~

 

Bitty gets back from his vacation the same afternoon the Aces hit the road to California to play the Sharks and Kings, so it’s not until New Year’s Eve that Kent sees him again. They only got back into town that morning and Kent honestly wants to crawl into bed and sleep for a week, but Ratchet’s hosting a party at his place that Kent pretty much has to make an appearance at.

Bitty is there too, looking fucking hot as hell and Christ, his accent is thicker than Kent’s ever heard it and it’s so fucking sexy, even though Bitty is clearly kind of self-conscious about it—but, fuck, all Kent wants to do is get Bitty’s lips pressed against his jaw, whispering filthy shit with that voice of his until Kent shakes apart.

And there are girls everywhere—girlfriends and puck bunnies and wives—and the clock is winding down to midnight and God, Kent can see Bitty from across the room, chatting away with Fish and some girl, tipsy but not all the way to drunk, probably, from the way he still carries himself, and—

There’s an alternate universe, somewhere, where Kent isn’t chickenshit and maybe the world is less awful, where he kisses Bitty at midnight. Where Kent takes his champagne glass and sets it aside and Bitty’s hands come up around his neck and they kiss soft, slow, really make it a show for everyone.

Bitty looks over, just for a second, and flashes Kent a smile. Then he turns back to his conversation and says something that makes Fish and (his?) girl laugh, lean against each other and sway a little—because they’re both pretty wasted and there’s no game tomorrow, just optional skate in the afternoon so why wouldn’t they be?

Kent would keep watching, probably, except suddenly his lap is occupied by some girl he’s never seen before in his life, wearing his shirsey tied up in a crop top, because why not.

“Hi, I’m Hannah,” she says. Hannah is definitely pretty, and drunker than she is pretty, and Jesus Christ, Kent is gonna have to kiss her, isn’t he?

Bitty looks over again, and bites his lip like he can’t decide if he should feel bad or just fucking laugh at the whole thing.

Kent takes his snapback off and runs a hair through his hair. “Uh, hi Hannah. You’re really fucking drunk.”

“I know.” She giggles, then sways to the side like she might fucking flop off his lap onto the floor. Kent puts a hand on her waist to steady her, and when his hand brushes against her bare skin she bites her lip in a way that’s probably supposed to be sexy but just makes Kent wanna look over at Bitty again.

Hannah touches Kent’s face, runs her slender fingers down the side of his jaw, nearly pokes him in the eye. “They’re, like, gray,” she whispers.

“Uh, what?” Kent ducks his head to the side to get a look at the TV. It’s less than a minute until midnight.

“Your eyes. I always—there’s like a bet, ‘bout what color they are in real life.” Hannah leans in so close their noses bump together and stares at Kent with that weird hyperfocus drunk people get sometimes.

Jordy catches Kent’s eye from his spot in an armchair, two girls on either side of him. He winks at Kent and makes a lewd gesture that looks vaguely like fondling a pair of balls but is definitely not supposed to be that, considering the source, and—

Kent looks down at Hannah’s chest and, yep—that sure is a pair of tits he has zero desire to touch. He glances back at Jordy and winks—because what the fuck else is he supposed to do?—and then the ball is dropping and Hannah fucking divebombs his face like a pigeon fighting over McDonald’s scraps on the sidewalk.

Her tongue squirms into his mouth and Kent’s so used to it, he doesn’t even have to think about the act anymore, just puts a hand on her ass and tips his head back a little and sculpts his face into something resembling a totally straight dude sucking face with a hot girl he’s definitely about to disappear with into a spare bedroom and fuck.

The kissing is over sooner than Kent expected, which is considerate of her. Hannah puts her mouth up to Kent’s ear and swirls her tongue around it, scrapes her teeth along the cartilage at the top, which—huh. Maybe Kent’ll try that on Bitty later.

“I really wanna fuck you,” she slurs, then giggles like something’s funny.

“Uh, yeah. Super great plan,” Kent says. “Let’s get you some water first though, yeah?”

Hannah pouts a little, because apparently she doesn’t value hydration, but sort-of climbs/sort-of flops off Kent’s lap and lets him steer her into the kitchen, an arm around her shoulders. No less than three teammates whistle at him and jeer.

And this is what Kent loves about Ratchet’s place: the kitchen is walled off. Which means that if Kent hides out here for long enough, no one will realize he didn’t definitely have sub-par drunken sex with a puck bunny on New Year’s Eve.

Kent grabs a glass he fills with water from the Brita in the fridge and hands it to Hannah, who makes a face but takes a small sip dutifully. Then, he pinches his nose and braces himself for the hard part.

“Uh, so—here’s the thing, Hannah.” She looks up at him with wide, serious eyes. “You’re like, three hundred percent too drunk to fuck right now and that’s like, super not my speed, you know?”

“Oh.” Hannah scrunches up her face and stares off into space, considering. “’M pretty drunk, yeah,” she admits. “But I—‘m a really, really big fan like I love you so much and I, um—” she reaches out, thankfully with the hand not still holding her water, and grabs at Kent’s chest—scratches her nails down to his stomach and then traces her fingers along his side, brushes suggestively along his thigh. “I wanna show you.”

Christ. Kent pulls her hand away gently and says, “I totally feel that, yeah. But—counter offer: I give you this hat—” he plucks off his snapback, and, fuck, he actually really likes this one. Damn. “—and you give me your email or whatever and I get you like, VIP seats to our next game and we like, grab cheeseburgers afterwards.”

“I’m a vegan,” Hannah says, very seriously.

Shit. What the fuck do vegans eat? “We uh, grab…salads afterwards?”

Hannah tilts her head to the side and hums to herself. “Um. Okay.”

Kent closes his eyes and slumps against the counter with relief. “Great. Awesome. You’re the best, Hannah.”

He drops the snapback onto her head and fishes his phone out of his pocket, then hands it to her with Notepad open. She meticulously types in an email address and then gives the phone back, which Kent uses to check the time.

It’s been maybe fifteen minutes, so he asks, “Oh, uh—d’you wanna take a selfie or something? Like, for your Twitter or whatever?”

“Um, is Facebook okay?”

Kent laughs, and scrubs a hand across his face. “Yeah, yeah, Facebook’s fine.”

So they take a few selfies and by that point Kent figures he’s done his time, so helps Hannah call an Uber because seriously, she’s really fucking drunk and he wants to make sure she gets home okay, and then puts his hands in his hair to fuck it up to hell before he stumbles back out into the living room.

The crowd’s thinned a little bit because most of the old guys bail as soon as midnight hits to go home with their wives, so Kent’s re-entrance isn’t exactly subtle. He doesn’t really care at this point, though, just rolls his eyes and winks at the chirps and tries to be casual about the way he ends up standing next to Bitty.

“Wanna get out of here?” he mumbles, quietly and when Fish’s back is turned.

Bitty gives him a puzzled eyebrow raise, but says, “Sure. Are you good to drive?” loudly, because Fish turned back around when he realized Kent was there.

“Uh, yeah, I’m good.” Kent reaches out and gives Fish a bro-hug, then shoves his hands in his pockets while Bitty says his goodbyes and heads with him to the door.

The walk back to Kent’s car is nearly silent, punctuated by cheers from drunk hordes of partiers wandering the streets—probably looking for more clubs to hit up. Bitty climbs into the passenger seat and plays with his phone idly until Kent’s on the road, then asks, “Did you—um?”

“Uh, no,” Kent answers quickly. And he realizes—there’s no reason why Bitty would think he didn’t, because he’s never— “I’m, uh—I’m gay, I’m pretty sure? I don’t—I don’t really fuck chicks.”

Anymore, and definitely not sober. But Bitty doesn’t need or want Kent to get into that, probably.

“Oh, okay. Um, thanks for—telling me?” Bitty laughs and presses his forehead against the window. “I guess maybe that’s weird to say, since I already—knew, mostly? But, yeah.”

Kent laughs too. There’s a bubbling tension in the car, a jumpy energy in his blood coming from just being alone with Bitty, so close to touching him again and—the streets are crowded with people and someone could look into the car and see, maybe, but they hit a red light and Kent takes a hand off the wheel and puts it on Bitty’s thigh anyway.

Bitty shudders and shifts in his seat, sliding down it so Kent’s hand slips up closer to his crotch. Kent presses his thumb against the denim, rubs little circles along the crease of his hip, flicks his eyes over to Bitty’s face before the light turns. His eyes are closed and his teeth are dug into his lip, leaving it pink and wet when it pops free as he whispers, “Fuck.”

It takes them fifteen minutes to get back to Kent’s condo, and he has Bitty fully hard and whimpering by then, squirming against his palm, cursing and leveling empty threats and not doing a damn thing to stop him.

They crash into the condo and Kent gets Bitty up against the wall immediately, doesn’t even kick his shoes off, doesn’t switch on the lights. He sucks Bitty’s bitten-plump lip into his mouth and scrapes with his teeth, grinds with his hips, whispers, “Fuck, fuck, I missed this. Fuck, Bitty.”

“Yeah?” Bitty pants. His voice has that tone and— “I wanna hear you beg for it, then.”

Kent’s stomach thrills. “Jesus, shit.”

“Color?” Bitty’s eyes are wide and clear and hungry, that smoldering shade of brown that means Kent’s about to be devoured.

“Green, Christ, so fucking green,” Kent moans, presses his forehead to Bitty’s and bites back the whine rising in his throat.

Bitty says, “Knees,” and Kent drops.

“Please, God. Bitty, I—” Kent looks up through his lashes and licks his lips, puts his hands on Bitty’s thighs. “I want it so bad, please.”

“Oh, honey,” Bitty purrs. “You’re so greedy. You’re such a greedy slut for cock, aren’t you? It’s all you want, isn’t it?”

Kent nods, licks his lips again. He is. He is and God he just needs—it’s been so long, almost two weeks, and— “Please, Bitty, I want—wanna put my mouth on you, wanna taste you, wanna—”

“Don’t talk so much,” Bitty tells him sharply, and suddenly there’s a hand in his hair pulling his head back, baring his throat. “That’s not what your mouth is for.”

Kent swallows and nods. Satisfied, Bitty undoes his belt buckle and keeps talking while he works his belt off. “You know what it is for, don’t you, honey? Your mouth is so pretty—it’s perfect for cocksucking. And you love it, don’t you?” Bitty drapes his belt around Kent’s neck for safe-keeping, and Christ, maybe he’ll use it later, maybe he’ll—

“You’re such a slut for this. You’ll do anything to get your whore mouth around a dick, won’t you?” Bitty pulls his hand out of Kent’s hair to shove his pants down easier and his dick springs free of his underwear—thick and bobbing against his stomach and perfect, so fucking perfect, and Kent wants so badly he could fucking cry but Bitty hasn’t said he could touch, yet.

“Such a dirty fucking whore, Kent,” Bitty says softly, and his hand is back in Kent’s hair, gentle this time, stroking. “You’re so greedy for it all the time. I bet you want it from anyone who’ll give it to you. You’ll just take—”

“No—” Bitty said not to talk, but— “No, no I—I don’t—I just want you,” Kent rasps, and—

Fuck. What the fuck—

Bitty’s hand stills in Kent’s hair and Kent looks up at him fearfully because this isn’t—this isn’t part of how this goes and what the fuck is wrong with him and—

Bitty slips his hand down and cups Kent’s jaw, traces a thumb across his cheek. “You have me,” he says, voice wavering, like it does before he starts to cry.

There are tears pricking at the corners of Kent’s eyes and he doesn’t know why and he stares and stares at Bitty’s face and tries not to blink.

Bitty whispers, “Color?”

“Green,” Kent whispers back.

Bitty nods and draws his hand back into Kent’s hair, tightens just enough to bring the pain pricking back. “Will you be a good little slut for me, sweetheart? Will you—I know how much you want my dick. Will you suck it for me?”

Kent gulps and surges forward, dives back into the headspace he was slipping out of, gets his mouth around Bitty’s dick and chokes himself on it—and God, Christ, Bitty always tastes so incredible and he makes this soft little moan when Kent sucks his cheeks back and everything stops and starts with that sound.

“Good boy, Kent,” Bitty pants, thunking his head back against the wall. “Lord, God—you’re so greedy for it, honey. You’re such a slut for my cock—want it more than anything, don’t you, honey? You were— fuck —made for this, weren’t you, Kent? Your pretty mouth should—oh, God—should always have my dick in it, sh-shouldn’t it?”

Kent loves when Bitty’s voice goes breathy like this—means he’s being good, he’s doing it right and making Bitty feel good and that’s—that’s what Kent is made for—that’s what Kent wants all the time is to—

“W-wait, hun.”

Kent stills immediately and looks up, but he doesn’t pull off. It feels—he needs the weight of Bitty on his tongue, as long as he can keep it there.

“’M—I’m close and I wanna—” Bitty pauses, wipes at his forehead with his free hand. “Can I fuck you?”

Fuck, please, yes. Christ, Kent loves getting fucked and they don’t get to do it that often, not with his schedule and—but tonight, with the day almost free tomorrow and—

Kent nods around Bitty’s dick and blinks rapidly, sways on his knees in his eagerness.

“Words, please,” Bitty says, and tugs Kent off of him.

“Y-yeah,” Kent answers once he gets his throat working. “Yeah, please, I—yeah.”

Bitty smiles, a quick, eager thing while he steps out of his jeans, and reaches his hands out to help Kent stand. Kent stumbles, feels his knees creak a little, leans on Bitty for support until he gets his balance back. They shift into the bedroom and Bitty kisses him filthy and slow while they both undress.

Bitty plucks his belt off from around Kent’s shoulders and sets it on the nightstand, helps him out of his shirt, and then—

They’re both fully naked now, and Bitty traces his hands across Kent’s chest appreciatively. “Lord,” he breathes, and shoves Kent onto the bed.

Kent goes easily—easier than he could, maybe, but—he likes getting thrown around by Bitty. Bitty can take whatever he wants and Kent will let him and beg him to take more, probably—beg Bitty to drain him and leave him finally, finally empty of all the things he carries under his skin like rotted treasure, like old prized possessions left out in the rain.

Bitty straddles him and presses a short kiss to his lips before dipping down and latching onto his neck. Kent whines high in his throat and bucks his hips up, impatient and pushing his luck but Christ, God, he wants to feel Bitty inside him, claiming him.

“Shh,” Bitty soothes, and rakes his nails down Kent’s chest. He keeps them trimmed longer than he used to, because the scratch marks are Kent’s favorite. “Be a good boy and wait, honey.”

Kent digs his teeth into his lip, squeezes his eyes shut, and obeys. Bitty finishes his hickey and pulls off, patting Kent’s cheek affectionately before crawling over to the nightstand and grabbing lube and a condom from the drawer there.

When he comes back, he thumbs at Kent’s mouth and murmurs, “You’ve been so good, honey. You can choose how I take you, if you want.”

Kent doesn’t normally get to choose. He licks his lips while he decides and then asks, “On my stomach?”

Bitty smiles, like maybe Kent chose exactly right. “Turn over, then.”

Kent scrambles to comply, flips himself over and pillows his head on his arms as he spreads himself out, trembling with anticipation.

“Oh, honey,” Bitty breathes, running his hands down Kent’s back, squeezing his ass appreciatively. “I wish you could see yourself.”

Kent lets his eyes flutter shut as the lube cap snaps open and Bitty works two fingers inside, pumping them gently until Kent wiggles back against Bitty’s hand.

“Greedy,” Bitty tuts, and spanks Kent’s ass so hard he yelps. “Fucking slut. You take what I give you, baby.”

Kent presses his face down into the mattress with a nod. Bitty starts stroking again, even slower than before, and Kent bites into his own arm to keep from moving again. Finally—fucking finally —Bitty adds a third finger and picks up his pace and Kent loses himself in it until Bitty pulls his hand away and wipes it off on the comforter.

“I’m gonna fuck you now, Kenny,” Bitty murmurs, and Kent nearly sobs. “You can move during, if you want.”

Kent shifts onto his knees but keeps his shoulders dipped down, braced on his forearms with his cheek resting on the mattress, and he does sob when Bitty pushes inside him.

Bitty’s hands are squeezed on Kent’s hips—almost hard enough to bruise, but not quite because—and he doesn’t build up slow, this time. He slams in hard—hard enough that Kent buckles off his knees and drops against mattress—and curses languidly while he pulls back and fucks in again.

“Fuck, honey, oh God,” he moans. “You feel—so fucking good, Kent—you take it so well, honey.”

“Bitty,” Kent sighs, the only word he remembers. “Bitty.” He fists his hands in the sheets and squirms, the most movement he can manage, writhes against every place they’re touching to feel the slide of Bitty’s skin against his.

Bitty dips down and presses his chest against Kent’s back, brackets their bodies together while he thrusts with sharp snaps of his hips and grunts with the effort, and—

It’s so much—too fucking much and perfect and never enough because how could Kent ever get enough of this—being filled up and owned by Bitty—letting him take every inch and begging please, please don’t give it back, please

“So—close—honey, I—” Bitty breaks off in a gasp and bites down into Kent’s shoulder, rips a hand off of Kent’s hip to reach around and fist Kent’s dick in his hand, jerking him off erratically while he pulses inside him.

Kent muffles his face into the comforter as he spills over Bitty’s hand, feels the sticky heat seep against his stomach, tries to form words and finds none.

Bitty collapses against Kent’s back with a sated huff, cheek resting on the place his teeth were sunk in. They lay there gathering their breath until Bitty rolls off with a groan and heads away—probably into the bathroom to clean up, but Kent keeps his eyes closed.

He’s on the verge of falling asleep, disgusting wet spot underneath him and all, when Bitty taps him on the shoulder and shoves at him half-heartedly until he rolls over. A washcloth swipes over Kent’s stomach and then down between his thighs to clean the excess lube there, and Bitty asks softly, “What do you need, hun?”

“Um—” Kent’s debating a shower, but his head is still fuzzy and he’s not sure he wants to move that far. “Just—cuddle?”

Bitty hums and sits up against the headboard, tugging Kent to him until Kent pillows his head on Bitty’s thigh and nestles in. Bitty’s wearing boxer-briefs again and the fabric is well-worn, soft against Kent’s cheek. Fingers card through his hair, scratching gently at his scalp and toying with his cowlicks, and Kent drifts back to himself slowly to the sound of Bitty’s voice.

“You were so good tonight, Kent. So good for me. You were—amazing, honey—so good,” Bitty murmurs warmly, sounding sleepy and—and so fond and Kent feels like a timebomb, ticking down to zero waiting to blow his guts all over and he knows—he knows as soon as he says it but he can’t—

“Are we dating?” he asks, and the answer is in the still of Bitty’s fingers in his hair, even though Bitty says—

“What?”

—and Kent vomits up, “I just, uh—I’m not—I’m not fucking anyone else and I—I don’t think you are either? And this is so—so much, like, all the fucking time and you don’t treat me like just some guy you’re fucking and I don’t—I don’t treat you that way and don’t—don’t you feel it? Christ, Bits.”

Bitty is silent.

“If we’re not dating,” Kent says, in that desperate way people say useless things just to know they tried, “I wanna be. I—I really want to be.”

“No,” Bitty says, in that too-firm way people say things they wish they didn’t mean. “No, I—I don’t want that.”

Kent lives high enough up that a fall would probably kill him. He’s not sure he could get his fingers to stop shaking enough to open the latch on the window. He sits up and forces himself to watch Bitty’s face. “Why?”

Bitty’s eyes are dark, wet, brown like something lurking and desperate and forgotten in a rotting house. “Because—because I’m leaving, Kent! What—it’s so—fucking useless and I’m just gonna leave and how—we’ll just make it harder than it has to be when I have to go—how could you ask that from me?”

How could you leave when I love you? Kent thinks—doesn’t say because there’s something burning and sick clawing at his throat—

Bitty is still talking, voice sharp and panicked. “This was supposed to be—this wasn’t—this was supposed to be casual—not—not something I—”

—and Kent wants to shove it back down but he can’t he can’t it’s all he can think and maybe it’s better if—

“Oh, I get it,” he snarls, and it feels like spitting blood. “You wanted someone easy to walk away from? You know what? Fine. I’ll make it easy—you wanna leave me so bad then do it. Run away from me like you ran away from Jack and your fucking shitty family before him, ‘cause no one’s ever gonna love you right, are they?”

Bitty recoils, shrinks visibly against the pillows, looking terrified like he hasn’t been of Kent since—

And then his face hardens around his tears and he says, with an eerie calm and barely any tremble in his voice, “You’re right. Maybe I better go. ‘Cause I—I deserve better than this. And I don’t know what you deserve, but, honey—” he laughs softly, humorless, reaches out and touches Kent’s knee. “—it sure isn’t me.”

“Bitty?” Kent’s bones feel hollow, filled with ash. Bitty is scooping his clothes off the ground, jaw set, halfway to the door. “Bitty—wait, I—fuck, I didn’t—please, I didn’t mean it, I—”

“I know you didn’t,” Bitty says, still facing the door but not moving anymore. “But I don’t really care if you did.”

Kent digs his nails into his palms, wishes he could break the skin. “I’m—I’m so fucking sorry, please, I—I don’t know why I—I couldn’t think straight and I—please, when I’m feeling like this I can’t—stop.”

The line of Bitty’s shoulders softens, just barely. “What helps?”

“W-what?”

Bitty puts his hands up to his face and breathes so hard his whole body shakes. “I won’t talk to you like this—you have no right to talk to me like—like you did. What helps bring you down?”

Kent swallows, holds his breathe like the flutter of his lungs could blow Bitty away. “Um—I don’t—I don’t know. If I—maybe if I could—fuck. A shower or a bath or something, maybe—I don’t. I’m sorry.”

“Okay.” Bitty lets his clothes drop from his arms and their soft slithering thump to the ground is the best sound Kent’s ever heard. “Okay, I—do that—shower or something, just—I’ll be out on the couch. And if—when you feel—you can come find me when you feel calmer again.”

“Thank you,” Kent whispers.

Bitty doesn’t answer before the bedroom door closes behind him.

Kent sobs when he tries to breathe—chokes around the tears, fists his hands in his hair so tightly he worries he’ll start ripping it out but he can’t get the grip to loosen—and feels his throat tighten until there’s no air at all. He feels—there’s not even a word for it—like he’s a collection of loose parts someone threw together to try and make a person and they fucked up and now all the seams are buckling and warping around the hurt.

The breathing gets easier again, after a while, and Kent makes himself stand, walk into his en suite. He switches the shower on and can’t make his feet move him inside.

In the top drawer, there’s—it’d help probably, fucking—it’d rip him out of this fucked panic—bleed it right out of his skin. And it’s not like he doesn’t deserve it. Christ, he deserves worse—so much worse—he deserves—

The fall would kill him and maybe it wouldn’t hurt but—Bitty would blame himself and Shawn is starting kindergarten next year and Kent wants to watch him grow up and Kit would have to go live with Jeff and she hates their dog, and—

In the top drawer, there’s a razor blade and Kent could use it. Not to die—no, not—but he could cut lines into his thigh and bleed out all the sick ugly shit living in his veins and maybe then he—maybe he could get Bitty to stay. But if Bitty stays, he’ll see—he’ll see the scars before they heal over, probably, and he won’t want Kent if he sees.

Kent bites into his cheek until it bleeds and steps into the shower.

 

~*~

 

Kent isn’t sure how much time passes before he steps back out of the shower, shivering because he kept turning the water colder to chill the cruel heat in his blood, feeling—pretty much like absolute shit, but also like he probably won’t spew out the first, most disgusting thing that comes into his head anymore. He thinks about getting dressed or something but honestly, his stupid fluffy hot pink robe that Jeff bought for him ironically—and he wears all the time now, only a little bit to spite him—feels more soothing than anything else he could put on.

Out in the living room, Bitty has the TV on to Home and Garden. He’s got a blanket pulled up around him and Kit asleep on his chest, purring her adorable little heart out, and he looks up with a raised eyebrow when Kent clears his throat.

“Seriously?” he asks, amusement coloring his voice—probably in spite of himself, considering.

Kent laughs nervously. “Uh, yeah.” He pauses, but Bitty seems to be waiting for him to talk. “Um. Could we—touch? I usually—I’m not trying to be an asshole or anything, it usually just—helps, like, feeling grounded.”

Bitty nods. “I, um—I don’t wanna move her, but—” he lifts his legs carefully, arms going around Kit to keep from jostling her. Kent sits down in the space Bitty leaves and takes his legs into his lap, slipping his hands under the blanket and pressing his palms against the bare skin of Bitty’s calves.

“Thanks,” Kent mumbles. Bitty stares at him expectantly. “Um…I’m so fucking sorry, Bitty. I just—I don’t even really know, why I say shit like that. It’s like—I can’t think about anything else and it’s so—fucking awful but I can’t—fuck, I sat in there for so fucking long trying to figure out how to tell—”

“Breathe,” Bitty reminds him gently. More gently than he deserves. He doesn’t deserve—“Breathe, Kent.”

Kent presses his hands into his face and tries. He resettles his resting grip on Bitty’s legs before he starts up again, brushing his thumb through the wispy hair there. “Uh. It feels like—like I’ve got no other choice? Like—all I could think about was how if you were gonna leave me I better…give you a reason and get it over with. It’s fucked up and I’m sorry and it’s not—it’s never what I actually want?”

Bitty shifts slightly and Kent looks up at him for the first time. “I’d—um, I’d understand if you did want this to end. If what we were doing is—too hard.”

“No—no, I—” Kent bites into the sore on his cheek. “I’d rather—I really fucking—fuck. I’d rather get you in my life, like—however you wanna be in it. I just—the way I felt before—it felt like it had to be all or nothing and I couldn’t get the ‘all.’”

“…Okay. Um.” Bitty chews on his lip for a minute, then says, “I—don’t know if I forgive you. I’m not—that good at that. But I wanna try to, and I—I’m sorry too. I feel like, um—the way I reacted, earlier—I panicked on you and it probably…made you feel like you had to panic too?”

Kent purses his lips. “It wasn’t—”

“My fault? I know.” Bitty laughs, mostly to himself. “But that doesn’t mean I helped anything. I know I freaked you out. I didn’t help you—I was so wrapped up in my own shit I didn’t see how you were hurtin’, hun, and that’s not fair either. So I’m sorry.”

Kent feels his vision go blurry and fuck, he’s probably gonna start crying but he doesn’t—that’s fine, because Bitty is apologizing and no one ever—Kent doesn’t get to hear that, a lot, for the way he hurts. He breathes in through his nose and says, “I, uh—I forgive you. It’s not—of fucking course I do. I just, um—what—what happens now?”

“Um.” Bitty pets a hand through Kit’s fur, smiles a little to himself and presses a kiss to the top of her head. “I can’t—I can’t be your boyfriend, Kent. I can’t take another—it hurt so much, to leave like that, and I—I have to. I can’t stay here. This is place is—”

“Yeah, I know.”

“—but. Um. What we’ve been doing—the sex, and being friends? I know it sounds stupid. Maybe it doesn’t feel like a difference but it is to me and I—I need that.” Bitty brushes his bangs out of his face with a quiet sigh. “But, anyway. I can do that, what we’ve been doing. I’d—like to. Maybe…sometimes less? If I get—um, worked up again. But.”

Kent squeezes Bitty’s leg and wipes the tears off his face with the other hand, scrubbing a little at his cheeks. He feels—there’s a little core of something light in his stomach, hovering there around all the thick black and he tries to focus on that hope.

“Yeah, I—” he explains, hesitating a little, “I get that and I’m—I’m okay with that. Like, if you don’t wanna fuck anymore? Or…see each other less. I just—need to know what’s going on? The shit that freaks me out is like—that you could just leave without saying anything? Like, that maybe you just woke up and realized you don’t want me anymore and I’ll never know.”

Bitty reaches out and touches Kent’s elbow, squeezes gently. He asks, “How do I help you not feel like that?”

Kent feels flayed open, exposed. The way he does when he’s melting in Bitty’s hands when they fuck, when Bitty has nails dug into his chest and threatens to draw blood. Bitty always takes care of him, then. He gnaws on his lip and says, “Um, just—telling me, like, when you need space or something? Instead of just—not answering. Like, text me if you want a couple days alone or something so I know you’re—coming back.”

“I can do that,” Bitty promises. His fingers stroke little circles into Kent’s elbow.

“And when you—” Kent’s voice cracks and he pauses. “Uh. When you—move away. We’ll—we can still be friends? I just—thinking about not hearing from you again…reminds me of—what happened with Jack.”

Bitty nods, smiles softly. “I’d—like to stay friends, too.” He goes quiet for a minute. Kit yawns and stretches, hops off his chest, and he takes the opportunity to sit up and press against Kent on the couch. “Can I tell you what I need from you?”

Kent swallows thickly. “Uh. Yeah, of course.”

“I won’t—” Bitty pauses, shifts so that he’s facing Kent and takes his hand tentatively. “I won’t ask you to never do it again. I know that’s not—how it works. But I’m—I need to hear you’ll try harder than you did tonight. If it means walking out before you say something, or—hell, tellin’ me I need to shut up for a second so you can breathe.” He laughs a little, squeezes Kent’s hand, goes softer. “…Maybe it means finding a therapist.”

“I—yeah, no, I can—I’m gonna try so fucking hard, Bits, I—” Kent purses his lips, takes a deep breath while fresh tears drip down his cheeks. “I hate that I hurt people like this. I fucking hate—I hate it.”

“Hey,” Bitty soothes, “I know you do, okay? I know.” He reaches for Kent’s other hand and pries open the fist Kent has it balled in, coaxes his fingers to splay out and lace through his own. His cheek rests on Kent’s shoulder. “We’ll figure it out, though.”

Kent grabs at the ‘we’ like the lifeline it is, clutches it close to his chest and shudders against it. Bitty is leaving but he isn’t—not all the way, not right now. And it’ll hurt more again, he’s sure—but this—right now it’s just a dull ache behind his ribs against the promise Bitty makes with the quick press of his lips to Kent’s neck, the closest place he can reach, that blooms through his skin.

Kent tilts down to rest his cheek on the top of Bitty’s head, breathe in the musk of his sex-hair mixed with traces of the styling mousse he puts in it every morning. They don’t say anything else for a long time, until Kent feels the last of his keyed-up energy drain out of him and his eyes start to droop.

“Hey,” he murmurs, nuzzling against Bitty’s hair. “Bed?”

Bitty stretches languidly, huffs out a yawn. “Mhm.”

They stumble into the bedroom, Kent shedding his robe, and curl up under the covers with Bitty’s head resting on Kent’s chest. It’s quiet except for the delicate rhythm of Bitty’s breathing, the soft mrow Kit makes when she hops up onto the bed and curls up near Kent’s shoulder. He scratches her ears absent-mindedly, eyes fixed on the ceiling, his other hand cupped against Bitty’s hip.

“Thank you,” Kent whispers.

Bitty hums groggily, nestles more soundly against the curve of Kent’s body without speaking. It feels like an answer anyway.

 

~*~

 

Kent spends something like a week and a half hemming and hawing (which is a phrase he totally didn’t pick up from Bitty, like, at all) before he gets Troy alone and asks for the number of Shani’s therapist. He expects a barrage of ‘I told you so’s and all he gets is a too-long hug in the IHOP parking lot and a whispered ‘I’m so fuckin’ proud of you, man’ with so much emotion that Kent doesn’t even make it to the car before he starts sobbing.

Then he tumbles down the unexpected rabbit hole of actually finding a therapist—because Shani’s guy doesn’t have an opening that works with Kent’s shit schedule, and the second woman says Kent should see someone else because she doesn’t specialize in DBT (which feels a lot like a polite way of saying ‘you’re too fucking crazy for me, buddy’ but he doesn’t tell anyone that) and the third guy, just…the vibe is weird, and then—

He meets Aadila, and she sticks. He’s been seeing her for a couple weeks, mostly just talking about why the fuck he finally dragged his ass to therapy and what he wants to get out of it.

 

(“I’m—pretty much only here ‘cause my boy—the guy I’m seeing asked me to,” he tells her. “Is that—bad?”

Aadila shifts in her chair, adjusts her hijab. “I don’t think so. He got you in the door, but if you stay it will be for yourself, too. Why do you feel like this is what it took?”)

 

So Kent’s doing pretty okay, as far as a guy who’s simultaneously trying to wring a diagnosis out of his fucked up brain and spend as much time as he can with his not-boyfriend who he’s not-in-love with before he flees to the other side of the country, goes.

He tells Troy as much when he plops down next to him in the airport and asks, and Troy claps him on the back and then gives him a hug, for good measure.

“That’s great, man,” he says, pulling away with a grin. “I’m glad shit’s going better.”

Kent smiles. “Uh, yeah. Me too.”

Troy’s phone pings and he looks down at it, still grinning broadly. “Heh, Shani got her flowers. Check it out.” He shows Kent the picture, which is a selfie of Shani with a really fucking impressive bouquet of waterlilies for Valentine’s Day.

She looks so happy Kent feels a twinge of jealousy in his gut. “Uh, that’s awesome.”

“Yeah, I’m glad they came before she left for her shift. She’ll be working by the time we get outta this fucking terminal, eh?” Troy scrubs a hand over his face, clearly frustrated he’s missing the holiday. “You doing anything tonight?”

“Uh.” Kent looks around. They’re pretty surrounded by the team, most of whom are being loud assholes as always, and it’s hard to tell if anyone’s listening. “Nah. I thought it’d be—too much, maybe?”

Troy quirks his lips in sympathy. Before he can answer, Fish slings an arm around Kent’s shoulder which means—yeah, he was right to not say anything specific—and says, “Parser, you not have date tonight? You come clubbing with us, find someone pretty, get dick sucked maybe.”

“Wait, I thought ya hadda girl, bro?” Hatty asks around a mouthful of chips. “That fuckin’ vampire chick who’s always markin’ her territory.”

Ratchet looks up curiously but doesn’t say anything, and Jordy laughs brashly.

Kent shifts awkwardly, twirling his phone in his hands. “Uh, it’s not—serious?”

“Haven’t you been together, like, forever though?” Ratchet asks, probably trying to be helpful or whatever but like, really Kent just wants everyone to shut the fuck up.

“I mean—” Kent pinches the bridge of his nose and prays for their plane to magically be a half hour early. “We fuck when I’m in town? We’re not, like, dating.”

Jordy belches, like, way louder than necessary, and says, “That’s the way to do it, Parser. You gotta watch out, though—these bitches always try’n tie you down after a while. Gotta cut that shit loose before she’s picking out baby names’n shit.”

Kent’s hands ball into fists before he can stop himself. Troy elbows him gently. He ignores the warning. “You know,” Kent tells Jordy, voice taunt, “not everyone wants to play the fucking pussy lottery forever, man. Maybe you’d get that if you got your hand off your dick and stopped being a fucking disgusting sexist asshole for like, five minutes of your stupid fucking life.”

“Oh shit,” someone—maybe Hatty—says.

There’s maybe five seconds of quiet after that and then their corner of the terminal explodes into chirps and jeers, mostly directed at Jordy. Kent tilts his head back in his shitty airport chair and curses softly under his breath to Troy. “Fuck—what the fuck, man?”

Troy just shrugs, pats Kent’s knee in sympathy, and pulls his phone back out.

After that, the conversation mostly gets dominated by guys with actual wives and girlfriends, who complain about missing most of Valentine’s for their roadie and talk about all the sappy plans they’re being roped into over the weekend to make up for it, and Kent gets left in peace.

He feels—like, antsy, though, because he kind of definitely wants those sappy plans over the weekend, and to send flowers to Bitty’s apartment, and—that would definitely freak Bitty out. But—

Kent (5:42 pm): Hey, you wanna hang out after we get back tonight?

He hits send and then immediately panics, because that sounds, like, too serious maybe—like, it’s not like Bitty doesn’t know what day it is.

Kent (5:42 pm): Not, like, as a date or anything

Kent (5:42 pm): Since we’re not dating.

Kent (5:43 pm): Just like Netflix and chill or smthn

Kent (5:43 pm): I’m like literally starving so Netflix and food and chill

Kent (5:44 pm): In any order haha

Kent (5:46 pm): Anyway lmk if not its cool

Shit. Kent stares at his phone like it might grow an arm and slap him, and tugs on Troy’s sleeve in mute horror.

“Dude, what?” Troy complains, tugging an earbud out of his ear.

“Uh, just—” Kent hands his phone over and scrolls up to the start.

Troy whistles lowly and says, “Oh, buddy. What the fuck?” Then, “Oh, shit. It’s ringing?”

“What?” Kent snatches his phone back and starts at the screen where, yeah, he’s got an incoming call from Bitty. “What the fuck do I do, man?”

“Uh, answer and then pray. Or—pray and then answer?” Troy shrugs, and offers a chirpy smirk. “In any order.”

Kent hisses, “I hate you,” and then picks up the phone. “Uh, hey?”

“Shrimp or chicken lo mein?” Bitty asks without preamble.

“Uh, what?”

Bitty sighs good-naturedly. “I’m cravin’ that Chinese place but I figure they’ll be busy tonight so I’m gonna order ahead. Shrimp or chicken?”

Kent lifts his eyes up to the ceiling in vague appreciation. “Uh, shrimp?”

“Great!” Kent can hear the faint sound of clicking keys on a laptop. “What time?”

“Um—eight, your time?” Kent guesses. Troy looks over and nods to confirm, looking smug. Kent flips him off with his free hand.

“Okay, that works. I’ll see you in a few, then?” Bitty sounds cheerful—like, weirdly so, maybe, because Kent was pretty worried the barrage of texts would’ve freaked him out, but. Maybe he just really does wanna see Kent.

Kent pinches the bridge of his nose. “Yeah. Uh—is everything good?”

There’s a heavy pause on the other end of the line. Bitty rustles some papers or something—Kent remembers, shit, he’s probably at work still—before answering, “Mostly. I’ll see you tonight.”

“Uh—yeah, bye.” Kent hangs up and presses his hands to his face. Did he—Bitty didn’t sound upset at him, or anything, but—he also didn’t say things were okay and—

Bitty (5:51 pm): Shit, I just realized how that sounded

Bitty (5:51 pm): *you’re* fine, hun. Just a rough morning over here. Excited to see you :)

Okay, Kent can work with that. Bitty definitely did sound strained, like he was putting up a front or something, but—he’s not pissed at Kent. Which—it’s obviously not great, that Bitty’s upset, but at least Kent can try and make him feel better instead of being part of the problem.

Kent (5:52 pm): Thanks for telling me haha I was worried? But yeah see you tonight :)

 

~*~

 

Bitty stretches and shifts in Kent’s arms, readjusting his cheek against Kent’s chest while he scrolls through his phone. They’re reclined on the couch sort-of watching a Cake Wars special, mostly just dozing in a post-Chinese food haze and it’s—really fucking great.

Bitty hasn’t said what’s wrong, and Kent’s not sure if he’s supposed to ask or just let him decompress or whatever, so he figures he’ll give it a little longer and then bring it up, just to make sure.

“Are Jeff and Shani doing anything special tonight?” Bitty asks. He’s on Twitter, staring at the picture Shani tweeted of her flowers.

“Uh, she’s at the hospital all night, so nah. He’s got shit planned this weekend, though.” Kent traces a hand along Bitty’s back, feels the shifting muscles.

Bitty hums thoughtfully and scrolls farther down his feed. “Oh yeah?”

“Mhm. He actually goes pretty nuts with it,” Kent says, still drawing soft lines through Bitty’s cardigan. “Like, breakfast in bed, hiding jewelry under the pillow—all that shit. He’s like, the most extra dude I know when it comes to that.”

Bitty snorts, hesitates, then goes ahead and says, “Please. Our first year together, Jack got me fifteen dozen roses, ‘cause that was my jersey number. Jeff’s gotta step it up.”

“Seriously?” Kent laughs a little awkwardly. “That, uh—that sounds like Zimms.”

It’s still—it’s not great, hearing Bitty talk about Jack, but—Kent can’t figure out what he’s jealous of, when he’s not really too hung up on Jack anymore; he’s too busy pretending to not be in love with Bitty for that shit. Maybe it’s just that Bitty got so much more from Jack than Kent ever did, or—that Jack got it with Bitty.

“It was—I mean, at the time it was obviously, just—so romantic I could barely stand it. But looking back—it was so much, you know? Just, it was ridiculous. Too flashy.” Bitty’s voice is flat, the way it gets when he’s trying to sound flippant or whatever.

Kent’s not sure he wants to call him on it. “Uh, yeah. That’s, uh—not really my style either.”

Bitty rolls his eyes and flicks at one of Kent’s nipples through his shirt. “Yes it is.”

Kent laughs again, sheepish this time. “Okay, yeah it is. Like, I may or may not have one of those giant fifty-piece chocolate heart things stashed in my closet, but I mean—I could totally eat that whole thing myself tomorrow if you don’t want it, so it’s whatever.”

The laugh that startles out of Bitty sounds, like, suspiciously like a sob and before Kent can fully process that, Bitty is burrowing his face against Kent’s chest and tears are soaking into his undershirt.

“Whoa, shit, uh—” Kent wraps his arms around Bitty’s back and holds him close, brings a hand up into his hair and strokes gently, and guesses wildly at what the fuck is wrong. “It’s—it’s okay to miss him, Bits. I get it. It’s okay.”

“It’s not even—just that I miss him,” Bitty explains between hiccuped sobs. “It’s—that year, Ransom took a bouquet ‘cause h-he decided to impress March after all and—Chowder used some ‘cause they were so much nicer’n what he could afford for Farmer, and—Lardo cut up a bunch of the stems t-to make a sculpture we k-kept on the table for weeks until it rotted and—and now I’m so alone.”

Which, like, fucking ouch. But Kent also kinda gets it, because—even if he was enough for Bitty to begin with, it’s not like he can replace that whole team that for some reason everyone’s fucking obsessed with. He closes his eyes and murmurs, “I’m sorry, Bits. I’m sorry you’re missing them so much.”

Bitty whimpers and curls himself as close against Kent as he can manage. “I—two of my teammates came out together on Facebook today, and—and Chowder is proposing to Farmer r-right now, maybe, and everyone came back into town for it—even—even Jack, and I—I couldn’t ‘cause of work and—what the hell am I doin’ while they’re all together? Blubbering on Kent Parson’s couch.” He seems to run out of steam, and sniffles. “No offense.”

Kent rubs circles into Bitty’s back. “None taken. Full disclosure? Most days I don’t wanna be on this couch either.”

Bitty laughs weakly, his (honestly, weird) tearful outburst apparently mostly over. He’s still a little choked up, with wet eyes he’s got fixed on the coffee table, but—calmer. “I—I’m sorry. I know…this isn’t really fair to you.”

“I mean—no, it’s not,” Kent admits, because what’s the point in lying at this point? “But I mean—I don’t—I don’t mind, really. I meant it, when I said I just wanna be with you, Bits.”

“Still,” Bitty mumbles, “I’ll try not to make crying about our ex-boyfriend, like, a thing.”

Kent snorts, presses a kiss to the top of Bitty’s head. “Same.”

Bitty squirms a little, shifting his face out of the wet tear stain he left on Kent’s shirt, and resettles. He fiddles with the collar of Kent’s flannel, then looks up with exaggerated earnestness. “Is now a weird time to mention that I’m—unrelatedly, I swear—really horny and I really want you to fuck me tonight?”

Christ, Kent loves him so fucking much. He bites back a smile and says, “Like, so weird. Also—d’you wanna wait for the show to finish, or—?”

Bitty rolls his eyes and leans up to kiss the smirk off his face.

 

~*~

 

“Ugh, your jersey fits me too well,” Bitty grouses later that night, spinning around slowly to check himself out in the mirror. He’s got nothing else on, and Kent would take a billion pictures if he could. “The aesthetic is not as sexy with my balls hanging out.”

“Uh, speak for yourself,” Kent says, and holds out his arms to beckon Bitty between his legs, rests his hands on his waist. “I like your balls.”

Bitty gives him an amused side-eye. “Really? How much?”

Kent’s not sure how to handle the mischief written all over Bitty’s face—he’s got the feeling he’s about to get done in. “Uh. I mean—”

“You wanna suck ‘em?” Bitty asks, voice pretty husky for a guy who just came all over Kent’s face like, twenty minutes ago, tops. He urges Kent to lay back against the bed and straddles his chest, rubs a thumb across Kent’s bottom lip. “Wanna put your mouth all over them, work your way back up to my dick?”

“Oh my God, I literally went down on you for like thirty minutes tonight,” Kent complains, laughing. “I found new bones in my fucking jaw, babe.”

Bitty tilts his head to the side and lets his eyes go wide—the perfect picture of innocence, other than the fact that his dick is like five inches from Kent’s face. “What, you don’t wanna go for the full hour?”

“Christ, you’re such a little shit,” Kent chirps warmly, and Bitty gasps with fake-offense and smacks him playfully, so Kent swats him back which devolves into a wrestling match that ends when Kent flips them both and pins Bitty to the mattress and—

Bitty is flushed, happy and panting with the bright, impish glint still in his eyes and his hair is impossibly tousled, flopping down into his face, and his lips are still dark pink from kisses and—

“I—” I love you. I fucking love you so much. I wish you loved me. “—I really did buy chocolate. Want some?”

Bitty’s face screws up into something confused but fond, nose scrunching in amusement. “Um,” he says, catching his breath, “sure.”

Kent squeezes Bitty’s wrist and rolls off of him, then ambles into his walk-in closet and snags the box of chocolates he hid there last week. He braces a hand against the shelving and focuses on his breathing, stares down at his bare feet. He can’t say it—he fucking can’t. Because—he knows Bitty’ll freak, for sure, and it’s not like it makes a difference in any of this, anyway, because—Jack loved Bitty, clearly, and Bitty loved him back and it still wasn’t enough to keep it from falling apart so what fucking chance does Kent have? He should just—

“Hun? You find Narnia in here?” Bitty asks, poking his head around the corner. He looks like he’s working pretty hard at pretending to be less concerned than he actually is.

“Uh.” Kent laughs himself out of his thoughts. “Sorry, just—zoned out, I guess. Wanna grab some milk for these?”

Bitty smiles, apparently reassured. “Mm, sure. Meet me in the kitchen?”

Kent nods and raps his knuckles against the shelf on his way out.

 

~*~

 

February bleeds away. Sessions with Aadila get more intense as they shift into treatment and actually nailing down diagnoses—Bitty even comes in a few times to talk about things he’s noticed, patterns and shit Kent didn’t even realize he was doing.

 

(“Um, sometimes he’s just…really agitated?” Bitty shifts in his seat, turning to face Kent instead of Aadila. “Like, there’ll be weeks you don’t really sleep well? I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and you’re still reading or—not even in bed anymore. And it shows on the ice, too. You, um—pick more fights for Jeff? Get more penalties?”

Kent furrows his eyebrows. “Uh, I mean—yeah, sometimes. I didn’t, like, think about that as a thing?”

Aadila doesn’t comment yet, just asks Bitty, “Are there other things that happen around those times?”)

 

After his second session in March, Kent comes home and tosses himself onto the couch in a nervous huff, and googles Bipolar Disorder on his phone. That night, with Bitty curled in the vee of his legs, they read about BPD, too, and Kent gets an itch under his skin because it feels like being picked apart under a microscope, like trying to stick pins in himself to divide up symptoms and traumas and who Kent just is as a fucking person, and his chest goes tight from the dissection.

Bitty kisses his jaw and says, “Knowing helps you get better.”

Kent tries to believe him.

Aadila wants to refer Kent to a psychiatrist to find a mood stabilizer that works for him, but all he can think about is Jack and the bottle of pills that helped him die and—

 

(“Can I wait until my season’s over?” he asks, fidgeting with the hem of his shirt.

Aadila nods. “I think that could be reasonable, if you feel like it’d be easier to adjust to that change during your off-season.”

“Yeah,” Kent says. “Yeah, I do.”)

 

~*~

 

The Falconers travel to Vegas to play their second regular season game of the year on March 17th.

On March 16th, some time between ten PM and midnight, Bitty draws a lazy line down Kent’s chest with a finger and says, “A bunch of our friends are flying out for the game tomorrow. We’re—we’re all hanging out afterwards.”

“Oh, uh, cool.” Kent squeezes Bitty’s hip. “Uh—Jack, too?”

“Yeah,” Bitty says quietly. “Him too.”

Kent squeezes his eyes shut and tries to breathe through the anxiety-cocktail of emotions rushing through his chest. “Uh. Okay. Will I see you later, or—?”

Bitty’s fingers thrum nervously on Kent’s side. “Um, actually—Jack…said that you should come? Hang out with us, I mean.”

“Uh, what?” Kent sits up a little and Bitty follows, still tucked against his chest. “Does he—does he know about—us?”

Bitty’s lips quirk in thought. “Um. I didn’t tell him. We don’t…really talk. I guess—one of our friends might’ve let it slip? Or he guessed, after—last time.”

“Okay, uh—” Kent waits, reminds himself that either answer is okay. “Do you want me to come?”

Bitty is quiet for a second, then admits, “Um, yeah. Is that okay?”

Kent takes a second to appreciate the lightness in his chest. “Yeah, definitely.”

“Great, I’ll figure out where we’re going and text you?”

“Sure, thanks.” They fall silent, Kent slumping back down the pillows and pulling the covers back over them both. He draws little circles against Bitty’s hip and asks, “Can I be like, super fucking petty for a second?”

“Oh my God, always.” Bitty pushes up onto his forearms and looks down at Kent, eyes sparkling expectantly.

Kent smirks, reaches up and brushes a hand against the side of Bitty’s neck. “I wanna give you a hickey. I want him to stare at it tomorrow and wonder if it’s from me, if I fuck you better than he did.”

Bitty bites his lip and shivers, dips down to press their foreheads together, just barely nuzzles Kent’s nose with his own. He whispers, “Do it.”

 

~*~

 

The club they’re at is more lowkey than the places the Aces normally frequent, which is probably for Jack’s benefit, because from Bitty’s stories Kent is pretty sure the Samwell crew can throw the fuck down. Everyone is crammed into a booth that would probably fit this many people comfortably, normally, except for the fact that over two-thirds of these people are hockey players.

Kent is lightly squeezed against the wall with Bitty on his other side and then Ransom and Holster, two former d-men Bitty is still pretty close with. They’re facing Shitty, Lardo and her girlfriend Camilla, Jack, and Mashkovbecause apparently that’s still a thing.

Not that anyone is saying it’s a thing, in a really impressive game of sort-of closeted chicken that’s lasted two rounds of drinks.

The conversation is awkward and everyone’s pretending it’s not, and Bitty’s hand is resting lightly on Kent’s knee under the table—which is probably just as much for his own benefit as it is Kent’s, but he’s definitely not complaining—and Kent has an arm casually slung across the top of the booth that Bitty presses his neck against whenever he leans back.

It’s pretty shitty, as far as public displays of affection go, but it’s the most they’ve risked in a while and it takes the edge off the fact that Mashkov literally has his arm around Jack’s shoulders, which definitely passes as bro-y because of how Mashkov looks and like, generally acts as a person, but—yeah, it’s not.

It doesn’t actually go to shit until Jack spins the beer he’s been nursing all night in his hands and says, “Um, we’ve—got something important to say.”

The raucous chatter that everyone was using to mask how uncomfortable they were stops.

Jack clears his throat. “Ah. We’re—” his eyes flick down to Bitty’s hickey and back up again, not for the first time that night. “We’re going to come out after the playoffs, no matter how they go. Um, publicly, I mean.”

It’s like, kind of funny, almost, how easy it is to ping the emotional IQ of everyone in the room instantly. Lardo immediately pivots towards Bitty with concern and Camilla legitimately puts a hand up to her mouth in horror, while Ransom squeezes his shoulder to show support. Even Mashkov looks uncomfortable, guilty—because he’s kind of thuggish on the ice but he’s probably not, like, actually a terrible person or anything. Bitty says they used to be friends. Shitty is telling Jack how great the news is while Holster shouts that they should order shots, like it’s a celebration, and Jack just stares at everyone blankly like he had more to say.

Bitty’s hand is a vice grip on Kent’s knee. He enthuses, through the teeth of a too-wide grin, “Oh, that’s so nice! I’m happy for you.”

Jack, to his marginal credit, ignores them all and focuses on Bitty and Kent. “Um. I know this affects you both,” he says, to Bitty’s neck, “and—that’s why I wanted you to know. So you could decide—how to handle it.”

Bitty’s face is gonna split open if he keeps it pulled into that fucking smile any longer. Kent feels cold and covered in sweat all at once, like he’s magically caught the flu and is gonna hurl all over the table in a few minutes.

“Uh—” Kent starts.

“I, um—I know there will be rumors, but—I’ll deny everything, if you want me to,” Jack tells him. “I don’t want this to out you if you aren’t ready, but…we are. And we’re tired of hiding.”

A waitress sets down a tray of shots. Bitty downs his and grabs the one in front of Kent and downs that one too.

“I don’t know,” Kent says. His voice sounds far away from himself. “I don’t know what I want. Fuck.”

He wants Jack to stay in the fucking closet they were all supposed to die in and he wants Bitty to put down his fucking beer and he wants to stop feeling like his entire fucking world is ending in June.

“Is hard, we know. Is why we say now, and you can tell us what you need when you know,” Mashkov explains, because he apparently thinks his sympathy is helpful here.

There’s another round on the table. Bitty has two more empty shot glasses in front of him.

“Maybe you should stop,” Kent tells him quietly. Bitty shoots him a glare and laughs loudly at something Shitty says and drains his beer.

“Please stop,” Kent whispers, begging, grabs at Bitty’s wrist. “Please, it won’t help—”

“I’m fine, Kent!” Bitty snaps, too loudly and eyes flashing.

I’m fine, Kenny and Go without me I’ll see you soon and You should’ve let me die and—

I’m fine Kent I’m fine Kent I’m fine Kent he’s lying I’m fine I’m fine I’m fine I’m—

“I’ll be—” Kent starts, doesn’t finish, just climbs over everyone to scramble out of the booth and shoves his way through the crowd and stumbles out into the too-warm Vegas air that doesn’t shock his lungs the way he needs it to.

The street is busy but he turns the corner and there’s no one in the alley so he drops to the ground. He’s curled up in on himself and it’s hard to breathe and—

Bitty’s leaving and he’s drinking like people drink to die and Bitty’s leaving like Jack left like his dad left like everyone leaves and Bitty’s leaving and

“Kent?”

It sounds like Bitty but Bitty’s leaving and—

“Oh my God, sweetheart, are you okay?”

Kent wheezes.

“F-fuck, I—honey, can I touch you?”

Yes yes please don’t go please—

“Ow! Kent, that hurts my arm, can you—?”

Please please please

“Okay, ’s okay—you can—fuck. D’you wanna go home, honey?”

Kent nods, wheezes again.

“Okay, I need you to move s’we can—can you?”

No

“You gotta help me, Kent, I can’t—I can’t lift you.”

He can’t move it’s like—

“I’m gonna get someone to help, okay?”

No no no don’t leave please don’t go please no—

“Ow ow fuck! Okay, okay honey I won’t—shit, phone’s dead—‘m—‘m gonna take your phone, ‘kay?”

Bitty doesn’t leave.

“Bittle?”

That’s—

“I said get Ransom , not—”

“He’s dancing, what’s—oh, shit, is he—”

“’M gonna take care of it, jus’—jus’ help me get him walkin’.”

“You’re drunk, Bittle, how will you—”

Kent can’t lift his head but he sucks in a breath and rasps, “Don’t.”

“Honey? Honey can you talk now?”

Kent is shaking. “Don’t leave.”

There’s a hand in his hair, brushing his cowlicks away from his face. “I won’t, baby, ‘m gonna come with you. But you gotta—can you help me’n Jack get you to the car?”

If Bitty doesn’t leave—

“Y-yeah.”

Kent feels hands on either side of him helping him up and he’s walking, maybe, moving somehow and there’s a car, and Bitty and Jack stand outside the car arguing while Kent hunched up again in the seat and then—

Bitty climbs into the car too and holds his hand and breathing is easier but words are still hard so he just listens to Bitty whisper things to him the whole drive home, and—

Kent is reclined in bed, next, watching as Bitty dumps a squirming Kit onto the bed to try and get her to comfort him, probably. She sniffs Kent’s hand and curls into his side resolutely.

Then Bitty leaves and comes back again and hands Kent a mug before sitting down next to him. Kent takes a sip. It’s tea.

“Have you had a panic attack before?” Bitty asks quietly. He sounds less drunk now but his face is still flushed.

“Not—” Kent’s voice cracks. His throat is tight. He takes another drink and tries again. “Not for years.”

A sharp intake of breath, like Bitty might cry. “O-okay. How d’you feel after, normally? Should I tell Jeff to scratch you from practice tomorrow?”

Kent spins his teabag around by the string. “No, I’ll go.”

“Want me to call Aadila?”

Kent inhales deeply, smells the citrus-tinge of his tea. “I’ve got a session tomorrow, should be fine.”

“Alright, lemme know if you change your mind.” Bitty reaches out and squeezes Kent’s knee. “Honey, I’m so—”

Bitty’s face screws up and he looks a little green, maybe, but it’s hard to tell because he’s already darting into the bathroom and vomiting into the toilet. Kent closes his eyes and waits for him to get back.

“Shit,” Bitty mutters, over the sound of the faucet running. “Fucking perfect.”

After a while he comes back into the bedroom and climbs into bed with Kent, sarcastically saying, “So, it’s gonna be a fun night.”

Kent laughs weakly and puts his tea down so he can wrap both arms around Bitty. “You gonna be okay?”

“On my way to a helluva hangover, but serves me right,” Bitty mumbles into Kent’s shirt. “’M more worried about you, hun.”

Kent’s stomach twists. “You should get some water or something.”

“That inter—interferes with my plan of never movin’ ever again.”

“Fair.” Kent reaches for his mug and hooks his arm awkwardly around Bitty’s shoulders so he can drink from it. “So, uh—”

“I’m so sorry, honey. I feel—it feels like my fault?”

Kent presses his lips to his mug, hesitating. “Uh. I—dunno. I was—already fucking freaked out by Jack and Mashkov, but—watching you drink like that—just, fuck.”

Bitty pushes up off Kent’s chest to look him in the eye. “Do you wanna—tell me why?”

“Uh, I—I mean—” Kent’s throat tightens around the words and his heart is starting to race again, just thinking about it all, and he can’t, not tonight. “Not—not yet.”

Bitty’s eyes are wet. He worries at his lip with his teeth. “Um—okay.”

“I just—I haven’t even gotten into all of it with Aadila yet and I feel so shitty I—I don’t think I could—get through it.” Kent closes his eyes and tries to focus on his hand on Bitty, the weight of Bitty’s body against his. “Just—I’ve watched a lot of people hurt themselves with alcohol and I—when I watch you drink like that—”

“You…feel like I’m gonna do that too?” Bitty asks, voice small. He resettles against Kent’s chest and Kent opens his eyes again.

“Yeah,” Kent croaks, and Bitty sniffles and pulls himself closer to Kent, clings to him. They’re quiet, for a while. Bitty has all the lights off and Kit is purring softly, a gentle hum Kent tries to set his breathing to. “I fucked up your night with your friends.”

Bitty laughs wetly. “Oh, hun. I think everyone had a hand in that one. I’ll see them tomorrow before they leave.”

Kent bites into his lip. He wants to keep his eyes open, watch Bitty, be here with him while he has him, but—he feels so fucking groggy, still, like he’s been awake for fucking days, and—

“Bits, can we—”

“Shh.” Bitty smushes a hand against Kent’s face. “Sleep time.”

It’s easy, when Bitty asks.

 

~*~

 

Kent wakes up to light streaming through his curtains and Bitty throwing up again, hunched over the toilet with his forehead pressed against an arm.

“Babe?” Kent’s voice is scratchy and it hurts to talk, a little, but it’s better than last night. “You need anything?”

Bitty heaves again and answers, “Close the fucking blinds and also literally end my life.”

Kent might normally see the humor, but all he gets right now is a thick flash of anxiety in his chest and the urge to cry. He forces himself to roll out of bed and fumbles with the blinds until they shut, cutting the light in the room significantly, and then drops back down to the bed with his head in his hands.

The water runs for a while and then Bitty stumbles back into the bedroom and flops onto the bed next to Kent. “Fuck, I haven’t been this hungover in years. Are you okay?”

“Uh.” Kent mostly wants to crawl back in bed and stay there forever, but other than that. “Sure. Are you?”

“’M supposed to meet everyone for brunch in thirty and I’m considerin’ a new career as an earthworm,” Bitty mumbles, which only makes, like, marginal sense but Kent finds it kind of endearing anyway.

“That’s rough, babe,” Kent says, and he reaches out to squeezes Bitty’s arm in comfort, except—

Bitty flinches when Kent puts pressure on him and Kent looks over to see what’s wrong, and—

There are long purple bruises around Bitty’s arm like someone grabbed him and wouldn’t fucking let go.

“Did I—did I do that?” Kent rasps, tongue thick with dread.

Bitty sits up and wraps his arms around himself, hand splayed around the bruises like he can shelter Kent from them, like Kent deserves the protection. “Um. Yeah. It’s—okay, though, I know you weren’t tryin’ to hurt me, hun.”

“Jesus Christ, Bitty, I—fucking Christ, I’m—so sorry I—”

“Hun, it’s okay—”

Kent fists his hands in his hair and pulls. “No, it’s fucking not—how could you—I—”

“Kent, look at me!” Bitty grabs Kent’s hands and pulls them away from his face, forces Kent to turn towards him and meet his gaze. He looks like shit, to be honest, with big bags under his eyes and an ashen face, like he’s about to hurl again at any moment, but—he also looks really fucking determined. “You had a panic attack, Kent. During it, you got scared when I tried to leave and you grabbed my arm too hard. I do not blame you.”

You should you should I don’t deserve—

“Kent, do you understand me? It’s alright. We’re okay.”

“Yeah,” Kent lies. “Yeah, I—okay.”

Bitty narrows his eyes. “Are you sure you wanna go to practice? I’ll skip brunch, we can—”

Kent quickly says, “No. No, I—go, please go see everyone. I—I don’t wanna fucking—keep you from them.”

“Um.” Bitty purses his lips reluctantly. “If—if you’re sure? I’d—I need to leave soon.”

“Yeah, it’s fine. I’ve got practice and then Aadila to, uh—keep me busy.”

Kent tries to tear his eyes away from the marks on Bitty’s arm while he gets dressed, collects his phone where he left it charging on the nightstand, but—

It’s all he can fucking think about, when Bitty kisses his cheek goodbye, when the faint sound of the front door shutting echoes through the condo, when he pushes off the bed and stumbles into the bathroom.

He feels—like someone drained all the blood out of him and pumped in liquid mercury, thick and toxic and too heavy in all his limbs like he could crumple at any second from the weight—and there’s a fog behind his eyes whispering you deserve it you deserve it you deserve—

And if he shows up to practice like this they’ll eat him alive they’ll know he’s wrong he’s fucked up and if he skips practice he’s scratched from the game tomorrow and hockey’s the last thing he has because—

Bitty’s leaving no matter what. He stays through all this through Kent tearing him apart and bursting the blood vessels in his skin and still and still he’ll leave in the end. He says it all the time and Kent deserves to be left, he does, and—

They leave for a roadie tomorrow morning and Bitty won’t be there to see. And even if he does—Bitty won’t want him anymore but Bitty doesn’t want him that much anyway, if he’s leaving, and if Kent bleeds himself clean maybe he’ll lose the parts that want things he doesn’t deserve so badly.

Kent pulls out the razor blade and stares at it and—

Aadila will be disappointed if he tells her. Not disappointed. She doesn’t get disappointed but she’s taught him better and he’s letting her down and she doesn’t even know about the razor in the drawer. He should tell her. He should put it away and tell her.

He could bleed first and then tell her. He could carve the lines into his skin and get the fucking metal out of his blood, and go to practice and smile and laugh like he isn’t breaking, and go to his session and tell her and do better next time because—because what else does he have, this time, right now?

Kent spins the razor between his fingers, watching it glint in the fluorescent bathroom light. It’s getting dull along the blade, a little, like it’s tired of all this the same way he is.

He brings it down to his thigh.

 

(“I had a panic attack yesterday,” Kent tells Aadila that night, after he fights through practice and shrugs off Troy’s obvious concern, after he tells Bitty he doesn’t feel like hanging out today.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Aadila says. “Do you want to talk about what happened?”

Kent stares down at his laps and breathes and breathes. “Um. Kinda, but—that’s, uh—not really the important part. There’s something I should’ve told you.”)

 

~*~

 

They’re three days into the four day roadie when Kent finally breaks and drags his ass to Troy’s hotel room door.

Troy answers in nothing but his boxers, scrubbing at an eye and glaring at Kent with the other one, clearly sleep-rumpled. But he asks, “That kinda night, huh?” and steps back to let Kent inside.

“That kinda week,” Kent admits, more flippantly than he feels.

Troy flops back onto his bed and wriggles under the covers, holding back the other side for Kent to join him. Kent takes the invitation and lays on his back with his cheek pressed against Troy’s shoulder, breathing deeply.

“What took you so long?”

Kent shrugs. “I was fine. I had Bitty.”

“Try again.”

All the lights are off, but Kent can still feel Troy’s unimpressed stare. “Uh, what?”

“I know for a fact you haven’t talked to Bitty since we left town. He called me yesterday lowkey freaked the fuck out, trying to make sure you’re okay.” Kent cringes. He should’ve known they’d join forces like the world’s shittiest two person spy league. “So try the fuck again.”

Kent closes his eyes and holds his breath. It’s okay. This is why he’s here. “Jack and Mashkov are coming out. Publicly. After the Cup.”

“Fuck,” Troy mutters. “Fucking shit, man, seriously?”

“Uh, yeah.”

Troy whistles. “Okay, that’s fucking huge. But what—why’re you fucking icing out Bitty for that? Are you scared he’ll out you?”

“What? No, I—Bitty wouldn’t—he’s not the fucking problem. Like zero percent.” Kent swallows down the lump in his throat. “I’m the problem.”

“Kent—”

“I had a panic attack when—when Jack told us. And I—I hurt him. Uh, Bitty. I don’t—fuck, I don’t even remember, but—there’re bruises, Jeff.” Kent presses his hands into his face and bites back a sob. “Fucking bruises on his arm and I can’t—I’m a piece of fucking shit and I can’t even look at him. I can’t.”

Troy is tense next to Kent, and silent. Like he’s got no clue what to say or—like Kent doesn’t deserve an answer.

“He’s leaving at the end of the season anyway. So I’m just—it’s better if he just does it now,” Kent continues hoarsely. “He just—he’s gotta leave me. It’s better for him if I—and I don’t know why he just won’t.”

“Hey.” Jeff sits up a little in bed and grabs Kent’s shoulder, squeezing hard. “Hey, cut that shit out, okay? Bitty doesn’t wanna leave you because you don’t deserve to be left, asshole. He fucking hates Vegas but he doesn’t—he’s not even mad at you, man.”

Kent shakes his head. “I don’t…know.”

“Did you talk to your therapist about this?”

“Uh.” Kent hesitates. He really doesn’t wanna dump the other half of this onto Jeff, too. “We were focused on other shit.”

Troy doesn’t push him on it. “Maybe you should, next time.”

“Uh, yeah, I—I’ve got an extra session this week, after—I’ll bring it up. I just—I’m so freaked out, man.” Kent pushes air out through his nose. “This is—really fucked.”

“Dude, call Bitty. You’re gonna fucking hate yourself more if you lose him and you know it.”

Kent purses his lips and nods. “Uh. Yeah. You’re right, I just—uh. Can I stay in here?”

Troy squeezes Kent’s shoulder again and slides back down the pillows, then rolls over onto his side with his back facing Kent. “Yeah, ‘course. But if this turns into phone sex I’ll fuckin’ kill you, man.”

Kent’s laugh is strained. “Fair enough.”

He fishes his phone out of his pocket and stares at his conversation with Bitty. There’s a series of unanswered texts spanning the few days since they last talked that suddenly makes Kent feel sick.

Bitty answers on the fifth ring. His voice is sharp and thick, like he’s been rehearsing shoving his relief into the corner. “You’re a fucking hypocrite, you know that?”

The acid rots in Kent’s stomach. “Uh, yeah, I—”

“You make such a point of getting me to tell you how I feel, so you know when I want space, or—and I always, always do it. Even when it’s hard and I’m scared of what you’ll think. And you just—” Bitty laughs, humorless and angry. “You just fuck off for three days with nothing. How dare you, Kent. How fucking dare you?”

Kent waits, lungs shaking and chest aching, but the speech seems to be over. He whispers, “I know. I’m so fucking sorry. I thought—it doesn’t matter, I shouldn’t have—I never should’ve pulled that shit, I know.”

“What’d you think?” Bitty’s voice is softer now, but no less terrifying. “That’d I’d just up and quit on you? I promised I wouldn’t.”

Which is really fucking unfair, to be honest, because Bitty’s marking days off the calendar until he can flee this rotting corpse of a place and they both know it. There’s an expiration date carved on Kent’s thigh.

But Kent says, “No, I—I didn’t, but I—I thought you should wanna. After—I just didn’t want to hurt you, Bits.”

The silence is heavy. Bitty sniffles faintly. “Then maybe you should’ve called.”

Kent half-expects him to hang up, but he doesn’t, and Kent lays there staring up at the ceiling with nothing else to say but, “I’m sorry.”

“I know. I just—God, Kent.” Bitty sighs heavily and the speaker crackles. “And I know you’ve been trying so hard at—a lot of things, I just—this hurt me a lot. I—you understand that, right?”

“Yeah, I do. I, uh—I really am sorry, and I—I won’t do it again. I promise.” Kent closes his eyes around the words, holds them trapped under his eyelids.

“I forgive you,” Bitty says, the easiest Kent’s ever heard him say it. “But I will hold you to that, Kent. Please—don’t just cut me out, honey.”

Kent clutches the phone tighter in his hand and nods even though he knows Bitty can’t see it. “Yeah, o-okay. I’ll—um. I know you’ve got work in the morning so I’m gonna—let you get to sleep. But I’ll—I’ll text you when I wake up?”

Bitty’s voice is gentle, closer to healing. “Yeah, okay, hun. Talk to you soon. Goodnight.”

“Night, Bits,” Kent answers softly, and hangs up. He flails his hand to the side and drops his phone onto the nightstand with a groan.

“That was so touching I wanna barf,” Troy mutters. “I almost would’ve preferred listening to you bang.”

Kent snorts. “I could call him back, see if he’s up for it.”

Troy rolls onto his back. “Please, God no.” They’re quiet for a while, to the point Kent thinks Troy might just be falling asleep, until he grunts and asks, “What’re you gonna do about Zimmermann?”

“Fuck if I know,” Kent admits. “It’s—people are gonna talk. I don’t—there were always a shitton of rumors, and I’m not—I’m careful, but—”

He breaks off in frustration. Troy hesitantly suggests, “Maybe you should just—jump on the bandwagon, eh? If you come out too, there’s less pressure on all of you guys. Hiding all the time—I’ve been watching it fuck you up for years, Kent.”

Kent purses his lips and turns away, curling onto his side. “I don’t—I dunno, man. I’ve thought about it—saying fuck it, rip the Band-Aid off. But I just—Maskov and Jack, no one’s gonna fuck with them, you know? Not, like—not violently.”

“No one fucking touches you,” Troy spits fiercely, immediately. “You think I’d let them?”

Kent can’t bite back the bitter laugh that startles out of him. “You couldn’t even stop Maskov from knocking my teeth out, and he doesn’t even actually hate me.”

The point is sobering, like Kent meant it to be. Quietly, Troy says, “Kent—”

“It’s not even just that, man. I’m not—you know, Jack is out to his team? Only took him like eight months to start bringing Bitty around to shit.” Kent pinches the bridge of his nose. “There’s a reason I don’t even have that yet. You’ve heard how they fucking talk here. You’ve seen the way some of them look at Bitty, like he’s a fucking—I know you have.”

“It’d be different if you came out,” Troy insists, like he’s got a fucking crystal ball he’s never bothered to tell Kent about. So fucking sure. “They’d come around, and whoever didn’t—I’d end that shit, and I do mean that. You’re not alone. Think about how much it’d mean—”

“I know I’m not—” Kent cuts off, exasperated. And he actually wasn’t so sure about this until now, until he had to lay it all out. “Look, Jeff, I know you want me to be the mentally ill gay poster boy the world deserves or whatever, but I can’t. There’s only like, a thirty percent chance I have all my shit together at any given moment as it is, and you’re right, the closet fucking sucks but it’s safe.”

He pauses, sucks in a breath. “If I come out—the media’s in my fucking face all the time, I gotta deal with the team and ex-fans—I spend every game wondering if this is the dirty check that ends my career because some fag-hater thinks I must want it rough. I can’t do it. Not now.”

Troy breathes heavily, resigned. “Yeah, I—I get it. I’m sorry. I just—it’s fucking awful, man. I wish—I wish I could do more to help.”

“You do a shitton for me, all the time,” Kent tells him. “Like literally right now. But thanks.”

Troy ruffles the side of Kent’s hair. “So…what? You just tell Zimmermann to shut down anything they bring up about you?”

“Pretty much, I guess.”

“What’s Bitty think?”

“Uh.” Kent winces. “We haven’t…talked. And yeah, I know I’m an asshole, so save it. I’ll talk to him when we get home.”

“I wasn’t gonna say anything,” Troy lies.

Kent snorts. “Sure.”

“…wanna cuddle?”

“Ugh, I guess,” Kent says, but he’s smiling when Troy spoons him with an arm slung around his waist.

And this—Jeff doesn’t always get it, even if he tries, because at the end of the day he’s never had to live this way. But this, Kent is so fucking grateful for—the way Jeff plants himself in Kent’s life, a fucking slab of granite, all stubborn love and protection in the face of how Kent tries to chip and peel away at people.

“Hey, Jeff?” Kent whispers. Troy grunts sleepily. “I love you, man.”

“I love you too, bud.” Troy knocks his forehead against the back of Kent’s head and snuggles him closer. “Now go the fuck to sleep or I’ll smother you with a pillow.”

Kent smirks and asks, sing-song, “Promise?”

Troy knees him in the small of his back with a snicker.

 

~*~

 

Bitty comes over the night Kent gets back in town, sporting a pepperoni pizza from Kent’s least favorite Italian place in town, because he’s a petty little shit and Kent loves him.

They eat half the pizza, have make-up sex that kinda makes Kent feel like he should put a slipcover on his couch for the sake of any and all future guests, and then eat the other half of the pizza. Bitty mostly isn’t moody after that, but he is a little quiet in that hesitant way that usually means he’s got something he’s waiting to say.

They get through two episodes of Arrested Development on Netflix before Bitty finally asks, “What’re you gonna do about Jack and Tater?”

Kent pushes air out through his nose and pauses the TV. “Uh. I don’t—really wanna come out. At least…not until I see how it goes for them. I know that’s fucking selfish, I just—”

“No, I—I get it,” Bitty interrupts. “Don’t worry.”

Kent admits, “I just, uh. I feel like such a coward, you know?”

“Honey, I’m not even out to my parents.” Bitty reaches up and cups Kent’s jaw as he traces his thumb across his cheek. “You don’t gotta be ready for all that.”

Kent takes his eyes off the ceiling to look at Bitty, ground himself in the wide pools of brown staring back at him. “You were gonna do it, though, right? With Jack?”

Bitty’s lips quirk, melancholic. “Um, yeah. I didn’t, um—I didn’t really care about that, though. I mean, I wanna come out to my parents eventually, I do. But I don’t care about the whole world knowing who I’m fucking. I wanted—before my friends knew, that was really hard. It almost broke us. That’s what I wanted—my support system back. Coming out—not dancing around the media and all that—that was for Jack.”

And fuck, it feels so fucking good, knowing Bitty understands. The relief is a physical thing under Kent’s skin, like bubbles fizzing through his blood. He presses his forehead against Bitty’s and murmurs, “Thank you, Bits. And, uh—are you holding up okay?”

“Mostly?” Bitty bites his lip. “I’m—mad, I guess, or—just, jealous? I, um—it still hurts watching him moving on so easily, I guess. Not that I didn’t kind of do the same, but.”

“Hey, I mean, your new boyfriend isn’t coming out with you on national television, so—” Kent starts to argue lightly, and then freezes, because—shit. “Uh. I mean, not—not boyfriend. Fuck, I—”

“It’s okay,” Bitty says quickly, but his smile doesn’t reach his pained eyes. “I know what you meant.” He hesitates, brushing a cowlick away from Kent’s face. “Kent, I know this isn’t—this is gonna end when I move, and—um. But I don’t want you to think—um, I’m not—I don’t want to leave you, honey, I don’t. You’re—you’re not easy to walk away from.”

There’s a thing living under Kent’s ribs—a sick and lonely thing trying to crack its way out. He whispers, “Okay,” because all his other words sound like then don’t do it and you’re a fucking liar and please stay, please just fucking stay.

Bitty kisses the bridge of Kent’s nose and resettles in his arms and lays there until Kent unpauses the TV with the remote.

 

~*~

 

It takes six days for Kent and Jack to find a time to Skype that works for them both. Kent is on another roadie for it but Jack looks like he’s in his apartment, stretched out in a bed with a classy, vaguely nautical comforter that Kent realizes with a pang was definitely Bitty’s doing.

“Um. Hey,” Kent says, when the connection settles and Jack is slightly less pixelated.

Jack rubs the back of his neck with a hand, which rucks his t-shirt up a little over his stomach. “Ah. Hey, Kenny. It’s—good to see you.”

It’s not nothing, that Kent feels—but less. He presses two fingers into the bite mark Bitty left on his thigh. “Uh, yeah. I wanted to, uh—I guess I’ll just say it.” He pauses, just for a second. “I’m not coming out with you, Zimms. It’s not—uh, I’m working through a lot of shit right now and it’s not a good idea for me.”

“That’s alright,” Jack says. “You have to take care of yourself.”

When they were younger—too young for all the things they felt and the ways Kent cried when they touched—they had the kinds of dreams people wrote stories about. Kent remembers nights in the heat of Montreal summer, spread out shirtless on cool grass that made his back itch, talking about the way they’d take on the world.

Get drafted, get traded to the same team, kiss on center ice with the Cup held above their heads.

It was so impossible it was easy.

And now they’re both dragging around mangled pieces of the pipe bomb of a life they built up in their heads at seventeen, scraps that clung to their ankles when they drug themselves free from the fallout.

Kent says, “Yeah, I guess I do.”

They sit in silence for God knows how long. Kent wonders if it’s up to him to say goodbye, for once.

Jack clears his throat and asks, “How is he?”

Blowing up Kent’s phone with nude snapchats he’s gonna jerk off to after this hell of a Skype call ends, by the looks of it. That’s probably not what Jack means though.

“He’s good,” Kent answers, because what fucking right does Jack have to anything else?

Jack looks down at his lap. “That’s, uh. That’s good. I’m glad.” He looks back up and comments self-deprecatingly, “I kind of want to give you the shovel talk, but that would be a bit hypocritical of me, eh?”

Kent snorts, bewildered. “Yeah, just a bit, Jack.” And then he—he’s not sure why he says it. Maybe because he never has and it’s been trying to claw out of his throat for four months. Maybe because he hopes it’ll hurt, a little. “I’m—fuck, I’m so fucking in love with him, Zimms.”

Jack’s eyes go misty, but his tone is wry. “Yeah, he does that to you.”

The quiet resumes in full force, the only sounds Kent hears coming from the adjacent hotel rooms and his laptop’s fan, whirring gently. He waits a long time before he can bring himself to say, “I’m gonna go now, Zimms.”

Jack looks up and blinks. “Oh, um. Yeah. I’ll—goodbye, Kenny.”

“Bye, Jack.”

Kent closes out of Skype and shuts his computer with a hand he didn’t even realize was shaking. He stares at the lid until his phone buzzes lightly against his thigh again—another snapchat from Bitty.

Kent smiles through the ache in his chest and unlocks his phone.

 

~*~

 

Kent comes home straight from the airport after the brutal seventh game in their first playoff round—first of at least two, by the skin of their mostly-fake teeth—to find Bitty already in his apartment. Which.

Kent cycles through several thoughts in rapid-fire speed. First: holy shit this is the best day of my life because honestly, he just came home to Bitty standing in his kitchen and he literally has fucking dreams like this.

Then: oh my God I gave him a key for emergencies where’s the emergency is my cat dead? Which is intense but brief, because Bitty is smiling and also Kit is asleep on her cat tree by the door.

Followed by: fuck what the fuck I love him so much and his heart basically exploding in his chest and his brain frying in a self-protective effort to keep him from speaking.

There’s dinner on the table and something in the oven that smells like pie, probably, and Bitty is rocking back and forth on his heels nervously like this could possibly be anything but the greatest thing that’s ever happened to Kent in his miserable fucking life.

“Oh my God,” Kent says, which probably doesn’t do anything to make Bitty feel less nervous. “Bits, oh my God. What—?”

“Um. Surprise?” Bitty squeaks. “I just thought, um—maybe it would be nice to—it was a really rough series and you must be exhausted and—oh my God, this is weird, isn’t it? This is so weird I broke into your apartment and you probably just wanna sleep—”

Kent drops his duffel to the ground with a heavy thud and strides over to Bitty, takes his face in his hands and kisses the words out of his mouth. Bitty makes a muffled yelp of surprise and then melts against him in relief, brings his arms up around Kent’s neck to pull him closer, and doesn’t let go again until the timer goes off on the oven.

“Goodness, Kent, I just—” Bitty laughs and smacks Kent’s hand away when he tries to reel him back in. “Honey, I’m so glad you’re happy to see me but if you make me burn this pie I will never forgive you.”

Kent pouts a little, mostly for show, and retreats to the table while Bitty pulls the pie out and sets it to cool. He waits for Bitty to sit down before eating, and makes grabby hands when Bitty tries to take a seat across from him. Bitty rolls his eyes fondly and slides his plate over, coming around to sit next to Kent instead, scooting his chair closer as he does.

And Kent knows it’s a little ridiculous, this kind of needy little detail—asking for the press of Bitty’s knee against his while they eat, to be able to kiss his temple between bites—and he’d normally be too self-conscious to do it. But this—Bitty here, in his apartment, not because Kent asked but because Bitty just wanted it—it feels so fucking good, like—

It feels like the last period of a hockey game they’ve already run away with, where everyone is already half-celebrating, the thrill of something no one’s said yet but they all know and it’s the easiest and worst wait in the world, watching the clock run down—where it’s not really yours yet, but you know it will be—and it’s almost the same thing.

Kent wolfs down his entire plate and then snuggles himself up against Bitty while he waits for him to finish eating, resting his head on his shoulder and slipping an arm around his waist.

“Kent, this isn’t exactly convenient,” Bitty gripes with a laugh, making a show of shrugging his shoulder around while he tries to cut into his chicken.

Kent makes a vague whine of insistence and snuggles himself closer.

Bitty sighs, exasperated. “Oh, fine. But if you take an elbow to the face it’s your own fault.”

“Fair,” Kent mumbles. He just—really wants to be touching Bitty right now, to feel him against him and breathe in the way he smells like the food he just cooked and very faintly like his deodorant—to memorize it all and know that whatever happens in two months or next week or five minutes, nothing can take this away.

Bitty hums and they’re quiet for a minute, until Kent says, “Thank you, for this. Thank you so much, Bits.”

“Oh, you’re welcome, hun.” Bitty sounds a little flustered, like he’s embarrassed by the whole thing, but secretly preening too.

Kent closes his eyes and half-dozes until Bitty kisses his hair and murmurs, “I’ve got another surprise for you in the bedroom.”

“Mm?” Kent lifts his head, blinking rapidly to try and wake up a little. “Is it like, a sex thing? ‘Cause babe, I—” love you, but— “uh. I’m so tired I’d pretty much just have to lay there and take it right now.”

Bitty’s eyes flash, and Christ, Kent meant that in like a flippant sense of general exhaustion but now he’s wondering if Bitty is thinking about the line of rope they’ve got stashed in his closet and all the ways Bitty could tie him up and make him—

But the moment passes and Bitty tells him, “Not a sex thing—mostly,” with a pat on his shoulder as he stands, back arching, to dump the plates in the sink to be dealt with later.

He strolls out of the kitchen and Kent follows him into the bedroom with a prickling curiosity under his skin, stooping down to scratch behind Kit’s ears when he meows at him.

“You do gotta take your clothes off, though,” Bitty says breezily, and snags a bottle of something off the nightstand.

Kent complies without pressing for details, pulling his shirt over his head immediately. His first thought is fancy lube, but that’d definitely be more than mostly-not a sex thing, although now he kind of wants to trawl Amazon for something he could surprise Bitty with.

When he tugs free of his shirt and yanks down his sweatpants, Bitty holds out the bottle for him to read and Kent groans appreciatively. “Massage oil? Oh my God, you are literally the greatest.”

Bitty flushes and ducks his head, a soft smile playing across his lips. “I, um—thought it might be nice? They were real rough on you out there and, um. Yeah.”

Kent doesn’t literally throw himself onto the bed and start sobbing with gratitude, but it is, like, a thing he considers. His entire fucking body has been aching since game three and his shoulder is a little less fine he’s been telling the coaches it is, and the thought of Bitty’s hands all over him is literally his idea of dying happy.

As it is, he wraps a startled Bitty up in a hug, wordless, before he shucks out of his boxers and spreads himself out on the bed with trembling anticipation in his muscles. It takes a moment for Bitty to join him—because he’s stripping down to his underwear, Kent realizes when Bitty straddles him—and then there’s the slick spread of oil across his skin and Bitty’s confident fingers kneading into him.

Kent cringes when Bitty hits the knot in his shoulder and shoves his face down into the mattress with a hiss.

Bitty mutters, “Oh, sorry, hun,” and honestly, the idea of Bitty—his sharp-tongued sadist of a dominant, Bitty, whose pupils are never blown as wide as they are when he’s just drawn blood—apologizing for hurting him a little just makes Kent wanna laugh with how weird it is.

So he does, in that hysterical, wheezing a little bit and maybe crying with all the pent-up love and happiness he hasn’t really been able to express kind of way.

“Kent, are you—” Bitty sounds concerned for maybe half a second before he catches on, and then he gasps and scolds, “Oh my God, stop! Stop laughing at me you big jerk!” He reaches back and smacks Kent’s flank in a huff, which only makes Kent laugh harder because that’s definitely the least-sexy way Bitty’s ever spanked him, and that kind of just reinforces the point.

“S-sorry, sorry,” Kent wheezes, wiping mirthful tears from his eyes, still laughing so hard his abs ache. “Christ, I fucking love—” shit. Shit, shit, shit. Kent freezes up and he knows he has to say something to cover this up but all he can think is you, you, nothing but you and now he’s been quiet too long and—“Uh. This massage. Yeah. This is really nice. Thanks.”

Bitty is so fucking silent and Kent can’t bring himself to look at him and find the—panic, disgust, disappointment—whatever must be on Bitty’s face right now because it wasn’t even a good excuse and—

Bitty makes a noise that sounds suspiciously like a sniffle and whispers, “I, um. I—love—this massage…too.”

Wait, but—no, Bitty doesn’t mean—he can’t because he doesn’t—but Kent can’t push down the flare of hope in his gut that’s grappling with the fucking cocktail of despair and constant panic that lives there and Kent wants to vomit, so he shoves his face so far down into the mattress that the comforter clings around his face and makes it hard to breathe when he tries not to sob.

His body shakes with it and Bitty just sits there straddling his ass until he composes himself enough to push up off the bed a little and says, “Uh, cool. Yeah. Great, cool, awesome. Yeah.”

“Y-yep.” Bitty’s voice is strangled, but he reaches over and adds more oil to his hands and goes back to the massage with fingers that tremble more than they did before.

It’s awkward.

It doesn’t stop being awkward when Bitty caps the oil and heads into the bathroom to wash his hands, or when Kent climbs into bed claiming exhaustion and Bitty tentatively curls up with him even though there’s pie they haven’t eaten and dishes they haven’t washed, or when they wake up tangled together the next morning and Bitty jerks Kent off with his face buried in his neck, whimpering when Kent touches him like he could crumble.

It doesn’t stop when Kent comes home after therapy that night to an empty apartment and puts himself on the floor and cries there, or when Bitty comes over an hour later with take-out curry dangling in bags from his arms even though Kent was half-hoping he’d stay away.

It doesn’t stop when Kent gets on a plane to Edmonton three days later, the good luck kiss from Bitty still phantom-tingling on his cheek.

 

~*~

 

Kent gets back into town four days later after two losses they definitely shouldn’t have taken and he also can’t bring himself to care about at all.

Bitty isn’t in the apartment this time, but he does come over the next night with a pizza and curl up with Kent on the couch while they watch tape and Kent half-heartedly tries to figure out how to not lose to the fucking Oilers in the second round of the playoffs.

It’s better than before the roadie, even though Kent is still watching out of the corner of his eye for the moment Bitty snaps and realizes he needs to get the fuck out of this dumpster fire of a not-relationship while he has the chance. It still hasn’t come, yet.

And then Kent wakes up with the worst migraine he’s had in fucking years, because the entire universe wants him to die.

“Fuck, fucking hell,” he mutters, tries to push up out of bed so he can find his medication and fails. The blinds aren’t closed and even shoving his face back into the pillow isn’t enough to fight off the nausea the light causes.

“Hun? Wha’s—what’s wrong?” Bitty asks blearily, voice crackly with sleep, clearly barely awake.

Kent whimpers, which is honestly fucking pathetic but he doesn’t even care. “F-fucking migraine. I gotta—‘s fine, I’ve got pills—”

“Oh, honey,” Bitty whispers, fingers brushing through Kent’s hair. “I’ll get them. Where—?”

Bitty’s already out of bed and closing the blinds and curtains by the time Kent manages, “Bathroom cabinet.”

Kent keeps his head down even though the dimmer light helps, listening to the faint sounds of Bitty rustling around in the drawers as he hunts for the meds. There’s a long pause, which is weird, but Kent doesn’t really have the brainpower to think about it by the time Bitty comes back in the room with a glass of water and the pill bottle.

When Kent lifts his head to swallow down the pills Bitty hands him, he notices how red Bitty’s eyes are. “Babe, are—you okay?”

Bitty scrubs at his face and smiles. “Um, ‘course. Just go back to sleep, honey. Gotta kick this headache so you can kick McDavid’s ass tomorrow.”

Kent squeezes his eyes shut and massages at the pain epicenter above his eyebrow, even though that never helps. The way he wants to throw up is just from the migraine. “Yeah, okay.”

 

~*~

 

Kent drags his ass to practice even though the meds haven’t really killed his migraine completely—because what the fuck else is he supposed to do? He’s there for a few hours between ice time and watching tape with the team, but when he gets back Bitty is still in the apartment, sitting on the couch with the TV turned down low, wringing his hands anxiously.

Fuck. This is it, this is where Bitty comes to his senses and bails, when he says he knows Kent’s in love with him and it’s fucked up and too far and Bitty’s cutting it off before it gets worse for them both, and—

“Um. How’re you feeling?” Bitty asks. His voice is timid, shaking a little.

Kent grips his gear bag so tightly his knuckles turn white. “Uh. Better than this morning. Gonna dose myself up again soon.”

“Oh. Um. Good,” Bitty says faintly. “Um. Could you sit with me for a second?”

“Okay.” Kent drops his bag to the ground and walks over slowly, like the floor could crack apart beneath him if he isn’t careful. He sits down on the opposite end of the couch and tries to promise himself he won’t cry.

Bitty opens his mouth to try and speak but nothing really comes out. He clears his throat and tries again. “Um. I didn’t—say anything this morning ‘cause—I know you didn’t feel well. But. Um. I—I need to—please don’t be mad—”

“Bits—”

Bitty squeezes his eyes shut and thrusts out his hand towards Kent, palm open with—

It’s why he took so long to walk back in the room, why his eyes were red and why he’s on the verge of crying again now, and this is worse, so much fucking worse than what Kent thought because—

Bitty’s holding the razor blade. It’s still dull along the edge and Kent’s fucking blood is still on it, sickly crusted red-brown flaking off the metal in defiance, in denial of how it ended up there and what it means to have bled and Bitty’s holding the razor out like an accusation, like a crime to burn onto Kent’s hand with all the others.

Kent can taste the bile in his throat. He swallows it back down. There’s nowhere else for it to go.

“Honey, I just want—”

“Fuck you.”

Bitty is so pale Kent can see the veins in his cheeks. “What?”

“Fuck you,” Kent says again, louder this time, with acid behind it that peels layers off the back of his teeth. “You think you’re gonna sit here and just, what? Play house with me and patch me up half-ways so you can rip the fucking stitches out when you get the fuck out of Dodge?”

Bitty warns, desperate, “Kent—”

Kent stands, runs a hand through his hair that he fists there until the roots scream. “No. You’re fucking leaving me here all alone and you’ve got—what fucking right do you have to sit here like you give a shit about me, like you—”

“I love you, that’s what!” Bitty shouts, voice hysteric, nearly shrieking, and Kent doesn’t need a razor to bleed when Bitty is ripping chunks out with his teeth. “I love you, okay?”

Kent stares at him, chest heaving with the effort it takes not to sob.

You’re better than this you’re better than this you’re better than—

Bitty is crying, ugly tears and choking sounds in the pit of his throat and red puffy lips bruised by the gnaw of his teeth. He’s still got the razor in his hand, held between two fingers and Kent wants to take it and slash it across his own wrist.

“I can’t—I can’t—” Kent stammers, croaking, “I can’t, I have to—” and bolts through the bedroom into the bathroom and locks the door behind him on the way to his knees. The toilet lid is down and he barely gets it open in time before he retches into it and the vomit should burn his throat but it doesn’t feel any different than it did before.

Bitty’s voice is soft through the door. “Honey? Can I—can I come in?”

Kent takes a ragged breath. The putrid smell of stomach acid singes his nose. “I can’t talk to you right now.”

“I know, a-and that’s okay. I just don’t wanna leave you alone, baby,” Bitty says, sounding like he’s on his way to shaking apart. “We can just sit.”

Kent flushes the toilet and reaches feebly for the doorknob, twists the lock open, and hunches over the toilet again.

Bitty darts inside, like maybe Kent’ll change his mind and lock him out again, which—reasonable. He sets the razor down on the vanity and crouches down next to Kent, wraps his arms around him and buries his face into the side of Kent’s back. He’s still crying and the tears soak through Kent’s shirt and chafe his skin.

Kent blinks his own tears down his face and breathes and wonders what the fuck he ever did right enough in his life to deserve Bitty still here next to him—or maybe Bitty is paying for some sin to be trapped here on this floor with Kent. Maybe they both are.

It’s quiet a long time before Bitty suggests, “We could take a bath or something, if you want.” His hand is rubbing circles in Kent’s back and Kent wonders how long that’s been for.

Kent swallows thickly and says, “Bath sounds good.”

Bitty kisses Kent’s shoulder and gets up to start the water, then pulls open the drawer Kent stashes all his Lush products in. “Bubbles?”

“Sure,” Kent agrees numbly, watching with a detached disbelief as Bitty chooses a bubble bar and crumbles it into the water calmly, his face dry and lip barely quivering. He’s always steady when he’s taking care of Kent—aftercare for sex, or—or like now—and it’s—Kent’s in fucking awe of it, every time, wants to worship the way Bitty glues himself together for the sake of Kent’s cracked heart.

He doesn’t have words for it, though—not yet, when his nerves are still sparking at the edges and there are still whispers in the corners of his brain telling him to tear, cut, bruise—poison this gentle thing before it can turn on him like everything does.

Kent knows how it works now—better than before, at least. He knows instead to cradle the love Bitty is handing him, brush tender fingers over the mottled edges to smooth them and whisper, once he’s strong enough, warm things to help it grow. It doesn’t make it easy, but it does help him off his knees when Bitty shuts the water off and beckons for Kent to join him in the tub.

Kent shucks his clothes and goes willingly, lets Bitty pull him against his chest and rests his head on Bitty’s shoulder, closes his eyes and breathes in the smell of the bath, frothy purple water with bubbles that cling to his skin. The heat seeps through his muscles and urges them to loosen, and Bitty’s fingers comb through Kent’s hair with a soothing rhythm.

Eventually, Kent murmurs, “I love you too, you know.”

“I know,” Bitty whispers. “I know, honey.”

“I’m just so—” Kent’s voice cracks. “Fuck, I’m just so scared, Bits. I fucking love you, and you’re leaving, and I’m trying so hard and it feels like none of it matters if you’re just gonna go away anyway.”

“I can’t stay here,” Bitty pleads. “This place is killing me.”

“I know.” And you’re leaving me here to die. “I’m not asking you to, I just—it’s so fucking hard.”

Bitty presses his cheek to Kent’s temple. “I—I understand. I just—I don’t know how to help you be okay, honey. I’m—I’m really scared too.”

Kent closes his eyes and sinks farther down in the water. “I’m not—I don’t even really cut anymore. Not the way I used to, anyway. And I, uh—Aadila knows, and she’s helping me, and—and I’m trying, okay? I’m not—I’m not giving up.”

“Yeah, o-okay.” Bitty worries at his bottom lip, eyes swimming with something on the tip of his tongue. “Um. When we—when we have sex and I—and I hurt you…is that—?”

Kent sits up quickly, water sloshing around them and over the side of tub from the motion. “No! No, I—that’s not the same. I don’t—I mean, I guess it’s a little fucked up, maybe, but—it’s not, like, to hurt myself…the same way? I wouldn’t—I swear I wouldn’t use you for that.”

Bitty purses his lips and nods. His hands are still on Kent’s waist, pruning from the water. “Kent, I—I don’t know what I’d do if you—if you—” his voice breaks before he can get the words out and he gives up in a sob, collapsing against Kent’s chest with his face buried in Kent’s neck. “P-please promise me—promise me you won’t—if you—if you killed yourself, I’d—I’d—”

Kent is jammed up awkwardly in the bath, Bitty half in his lap with his feet pressed up against the far wall of the tub, angled with an elbow digging into the tiles so he can hold Bitty, and he doesn’t feel any of that pain because—

Because Bitty is begging him to live and all he can think about is how Bitty never should have come to Vegas, never should have met Kent—and his life would be so much better if he hadn’t—like Jeff’s life would be better, like Jack’s would. But Bitty is here and somehow he loves Kent and he needs him to stay here and hold him, breathe with him and love him back and—

There are a lot of things Kent taught himself to walk away from. Jack Zimmermann’s soft blue eyes and his mother’s shitty apartment in Brooklyn with a real Christmas tree and the bottle of whiskey above his fridge, and the sand cutting across the horizon on a windy day in Vegas and the harsh arena lights of his home rink and the empty food bowl in the kitchen being pawed at in the mornings.

But this—the trembling beat of Bitty’s heart and his hot breath on Kent’s neck and the way he whispers his name when it’s late at night and his hands are fisted in the sheets—Kent can hear the Kenny, Kenny if he closes his eyes and holds his breath—this, Kent can’t learn to leave.

“I promise,” Kent whispers. “I promise, whatever happens.”

 

~*~

 

The sheets are cool against Kent’s bath-heated skin when he slides down to rest his head on Bitty’s chest, watching the slow drag of his fingers catching on the jut of Bitty’s hip while he traces circles into the skin. Bitty’s hand is in his hair, scratching lightly against his scalp.

Kent still feels on edge, but a different kind than before. Like there’s something left undone—the moment before a shootout, the voice in his head telling him there’s a thing left to win, if he fights for it. He can feel Bitty’s heartbeat against his cheek and the loving tug of his fingers and the gentle puff of his breath, and this— this

“What if we just fucked off somewhere together,” Kent says suddenly. “Just like, find a beach house in Jamaica or some shit where no one cares who the fuck we are. Buy a hundred cats, learn to surf.”

Bitty chuckles. “Some of us have to work for a living, you know.”

“Some of us have enough money for their boyfriend to live off of too,” Kent ventures, mostly kidding but really, only because he knows Bitty won’t say yes.

“I don’t want your money, Kent,” Bitty reminds him softly, with a firm undercut.

Kent lifts his head to look up at him, raw and earnest. “But you want me, right?”

Bitty says, “Of course I do,” his voice thick and a little pained with wariness. His fingers have stilled in Kent's hair.

“So we fuck off somewhere with a hockey team and people who buy pies.” Kent traces his hand down the side of Bitty’s thigh, watches the way he shivers a little, involuntarily, then looks back up at his face with wide-eyed sincerity. “You get your bakery, I open an animal shelter when I retire. It’s good. We’re good. We’re—we’re happy.”

Bitty doesn’t answer, teeth dug into his bottom lip in hesitation.

Kent adds, “I don’t have a no-trade clause. I never wanted one.”

Bitty sits up a little against the pillows and says, only half a question, “You’re serious.”

Dead serious is probably a poor choice of words, considering, so Kent grabs Bitty’s hand instead and tells him, “Give me two weeks after playoffs and a list of cities.”

“Oh my God,” Bitty whispers, faint but eager. He brings his other hand to cup Kent’s cheek. “Oh my God, Kent, you’re—you’re serious? You’d—you’d leave Vegas?”

“Literally fuck Vegas and basically everyone in it.”

“But Jeff—”

“I’m not in love with Jeff,” Kent says, sitting up to press his forehead to Bitty’s, breathe the words against his lips. “I’m in love with you.”

Bitty kisses him, just once, soft and gentle. “Aadila? You’ve been doing so great with her.”

Kent lets go of Bitty’s hand to take his face in both hands instead, pull him into another kiss, deeper this time, with the slightest nudge of teeth. “Half our sessions are already on Skype anyway, and I can—she can find me a referral if that’s not working.”

Bitty’s eyes are wet when he opens them, shining with love and hope and a million other things Kent never thought he’d get to see reflected there, things that make the dry place in his chest swell and shimmer with fresh growth. Bitty brushes his thumb across Kent’s bottom lip and whispers, “Okay. Okay, let’s—let’s do it. Move back East with me, Kenny.”

Kent laughs giddily, nuzzles their noses together and kisses and kisses him, fierce and hungry and desperate in the best way—for the start of something, for the kind of endless thing he’ll never get his fill of, if he’s lucky—if Bitty wants it too.

And the fucking crazy thing is—it feels like Bitty does. He kisses back like he wants to rip Kent apart and fold the pieces up in his back pocket, like he’s going to knock down walls and pull up floorboards and fix up the old bones into a thing he’s claimed as his, and Kent’s never wanted so fucking badly to be the crumble of drywall and the creak of old wooden planks.

Bitty pulls away and mumbles, “Wanna touch you.”

“Please,” Kent rasps, the only word he has and it still catches in his throat.

Bitty takes his time, sucking a trail of vicious purple down Kent’s chest, sinking his teeth into the marks the way Kent fucking loves— leaves him writhing and begging for it by the time his mouth is on the crease of Kent’s hip. He pulls up when he reaches Kent’s thighs, just enough that Kent feels the way he’s looking, and—

Kent hasn’t felt so flayed open since the night Bob and Alicia Zimmermann found him in a hotel bathroom with their son’s death-heavy head in his lap, covered in vomit that wasn’t all his and crying like he was already at the funeral, and—

Bitty traces his fingers along the row of scars with a cold reverence—the way people feel compelled to pray at church, and—

Kent wonders what goes through Bitty’s head while he does it—is he agonizing over having never noticed—because he never let himself believe they were recent—because it just didn’t fucking matter to him at the time?

Bitty presses a kiss to the one farthest down—the newest, though it’s healed over by now—a quick brush of his lips that’s replaced by the wrap of his mouth around Kent’s dick before his thighs even stop trembling from the tenderness.

And, fuck—Kent loves blowjobs. The sloppy wet heat, the obscene dribble of spit across Bitty’s chin as he sucks Kent down and hollows his fucking perfectly ruddy cheeks, the flex of his wrists where he braces on Kent’s thighs. But they aren’t his favorite, because—

“Bits—Bitty, I wanna—can you talk to me?”

Bitty looks up with the full force of his widened eyes, sparkling and flecked with more shades of brown than Kent’d thought ever existed, and Kent swears no one’s ever looked more unabashedly loving with a dick in their mouth. They stare at each other long enough for Kent’s heart to flutter, and then Bitty pulls off with a soft pop and crawls back up Kent’s chest, nuzzles at his cheek and asks, “How should I talk to you?”

“Um.” Kent purses his lips, licks them in a nervous motion. Bitty’s hand is on Kent’s dick now, slicked with his own spit, working him over slowly in the way that always makes it hard to force out a coherent thought. “Not, like, dom stuff. Just—oh, Christ, just—”

It shouldn’t be harder. Kent’s looked Bitty dead in the eye and asked to be called a filthy slut and barely even blushed, so why is this—?

Bitty’s voice is soft, but—maybe a little smug, like he’s caught Kent out—when he murmurs, “I love you, Kenny. I love you so much. And I’m so—so sorry I didn’t tell you sooner, sweetheart. You deserved to hear it and I—I was so scared of gettin’ my heart broken, I couldn’t—you deserved better.”

“I wanted you,” Kent whispers hoarsely, hitching his hips into Bitty’s touch and scrambling to get a hand on him, suddenly, like it’s the last good thing he’ll ever do.

He fists Bitty’s dick and strokes, and Bitty isn’t crying when he chokes out, “You have me,” but it’s something close. “You have me, sweetheart, I promise.”

It’s not athletic sex or creative sex. It’s not even objectively the best handjob Kent’s ever had—it might break the top five from Bitty, specifically. But Christ, it’s sex where Kent’s in love and being loved back and he’s never had those things together before like this, where he can pant it into Bitty’s neck and hear the answer brushed against the shell of his ear and wonder if this is why people care so much about stopping death, because they’ve had this and they’d bleed the world dry to keep it for themselves a little longer.

Kent does cry when he comes—a bright sob and a handful of tears smeared against the crook of Bitty’s shoulder—and pulls Bitty close with the arm that isn’t busy jerking him off when he says, “I love you, Bits—fucking love you so much.”

Bitty’s face is buried in the pillow while his hips stutter and he spurts come across Kent’s chest, but Kent stills hears the whimpered, “Love you t-too, Kenny,” that muffles into the plush, and it’s enough to push the dopey, come-drunk grin on his face to the right side of euphoric.

They lay panting, Bitty draped on top of Kent with the come turning tacky between them, until eventually Kent mumbles, “Ugh, I need a shower.”

Bitty laughs with a breathless incredulity. “We were in that bath for like two hours.”

“C’mon,” Kent wheedles, shifting his weight to lift Bitty up with him. “I’ll wash you.”

“Kent Parson, I am a grown-ass man!” Bitty squeals, kicking his legs half-heartedly when Kent hefts him over his shoulder and heads towards the bathroom.

Kent offers hopefully, “A grown-ass man who’s gonna let his boyfriend spoil him?” a smirk playing across his lips when he sets Bitty down and reaches around him to switch on the shower.

Bitty hums thoughtfully, leaning forward to wrap his arms around Kent’s torso and nestle his head against his shoulder. “Hmm, maybe just this once.”

Chuckling, Kent tilts his head down to press a kiss to Bitty’s hair and then checks the water temperature before pulling them both into the shower. He guides Bitty under the spray and starts by washing the come off his chest, soapy hands brushing through the sparse hair there, stroking across a nipple absently. Bitty is quiet, eyes closed and head tilted back against Kent’s shoulder with his lips just barely parted.

He turns Bitty next, urges him to lean his head back to wet his hair while Kent pours shampoo into his hands, and Bitty practically purrs when Kent starts to massage the lather into his scalp, fingers carding lovingly through his hair, scratching at the shaved sides the way he knows Bitty loves.

“Okay,” Bitty admits, cheek smushed against Kent’s neck, going pliant and loose-limbed from the pampering. “Maybe this is a thing.”

Kent murmurs, “Whatever you want, Bits,” and means it. There’s a bubbling warmth pulsing through his heart he’s—maybe never felt before, at least not in years. And it’s—maybe there’s a part of him that’s scared of it, convinced it’s some cruel joke and it’s all gonna crash down around him. Like things always do.

But Bitty blinks his eyes open and they’re thick with the same hope Kent feels, and he asks, “We’re really doing this, aren’t we?”

The blood thrills in Kent’s veins. “Yeah, I guess we are.”

“Kent—”

“Bits—”

They both laugh, and Kent says, “You first.”

Bitty shifts out from under the water so Kent can work conditioner into his hair and leave it to set, and Kent takes his place under the spray, sighing quietly as the warm water sluices around his body. Worrying at his lip, Bitty says, “I don’t want you to think—um, moving with me—I mean, um, I’d love it if you did. But—you don’t—I don’t wanna make you? We—I know I’ve been…really cagey, I guess, about—about leavin’. But we can make it work if—if you don’t wanna follow me.”

Kent hesitates, grabbing the soap and taking it to Bitty’s skin, washing him with slow, gentle motions that make Bitty’s eyelids flutter. Carefully, he asks, “You mean, like, long-distance?”

“Um, yeah. I’d, um—after…how things ended with Jack, it makes me a little nervous, I guess? I didn’t really—um. But I’d—if it was better for you? I’d try.” Bitty seems a little keyed up again, less blissful.

“Uh, I mean—it’s not,” Kent admits. He stares at a cluster of bubbles rolling their way down Bitty’s hip. “I’d really—uh, I’d rather be near you. I mean, you’re talking to the guy who carried a torch for his ex like, six years after he stopped talking to me, so like—living off of Skype calls and a couple visits a year is so far from a deal breaker it’s not even fucking funny.” Bitty smiles here, rueful. “So I mean, if getting a trade doesn’t work out or whatever, yeah, I don’t wanna just fucking bail or whatever. But I—if it’s not like freaking you out or anything, I’d rather go with you.”

Bitty lifts his hand to Kent’s cheek and brushes a thumb across the shower-sprayed skin. “It’s not. I want you to come. I wanna—be near you, too. I just—it’s such a big change, and I wanna make sure you’re okay with that.”

Kent leans into Bitty’s touch, nuzzling against his palm, and reassures him, “I am. I actually, like—I probably should’ve gotten out of Vegas a long time ago. I felt, like, trapped, I guess. Like it didn’t matter where I was, it’d be the same, you know? And now it—it doesn’t. Feel like that, I mean.”

Bitty nods, his smile turning melancholic. “Yeah, I get that.” He pauses, sliding past Kent to slip under the shower and rinse the soap off of his skin. “Well, hun—let’s figure out how to get you out.”

 

~*~

 

The thing is: Kent had been pretty sure he and Bitty were already dating, like, in practice. They didn’t go out together in public or anything, but it’s not like that’s something they could’ve done anyway, for the most part, and like—there were a lot of blurred lines. So he wasn’t really expecting a lot to change, after their big talk.

Kent was not prepared for the full force of a relationship with Eric R. Bittle.

His freezer is overrun with pies and home cooked meals waiting to be re-heated and there’s a drawer in his nightstand filled with sticky notes he thumbs through on nights when Bitty isn’t there—which there aren’t that many of, and he moves the little pile to a pocket in his suitcase, instead, to trace his fingers over while they’re holed up in Edmonton and then San Jose, running the corners of the papers soft with attention.

They take the Sharks to game six but lose the series, and when he drags himself home—begging off sorrow-drowning at some club with the guys—it’s to find Bitty in his kitchen again, peppering kisses all over his face and murmuring, “You did such a great job, honey. You are the sweetest, hardest-working man and I know you wanted this, I do, but I’m so proud of you, darlin’, and now that I get my handsome man home for a few days I’m gonna show you just how much.”

And Jesus Christ, does he. Kent practically drowns in Bitty’s affection over the next three days—holed up in the apartment with kiss-bruised lips and trembling hands, streams of whispered confessions and praises, like the first floods in the desert—a gushed apology in deference to the drought, the muddying and warping of the places the sun has always set on the same.

So it’s with his head still spinning a little, from kisses against his front door and a warm string of encouragements, that Kent finds himself giving a self-pep talk outside the conference room. He takes a deep breath and mutters, “It’s gonna be fine. Just like you practiced.” He maybe only half-believes it, but it’s enough to get him to walk inside.

Rami looks up from an iPad when Kent raps his knuckles on the doorframe and asks, “Hey, Kent. Good to see you. Why’d you want to meet with us?”

“The Rangers, the Islanders, or the Bruins.”

Alice raises her eyebrows and Rami frowns in confusion. “Uh, what?”

Kent says, “You’re gonna arrange a trade with one of them and—”

“Kent, if you’re unhappy with a teammate’s performance—”

“It’s my trade. You’re trading me.” Kent balls his hands into fists to steady them, shoves them in his pockets when that doesn’t work. “I don’t care which of the three. You’ve got until July.”

Rami takes off his glasses and cleans them against his shirt, a nervous movement. His voice is strained. “What the hell are you talking about?”

Before Kent can answer, Alice adds, “Kent, I’m not sure—why are you asking for this? Maybe we can—”

“We can’t,” Kent cuts in, maybe a little harsher than necessary but fucking whatever, at this point. “I want out. And if you don’t let me out, I’ll make it pretty painfully fucking clear why I wanna go so badly. And trust me, it’s not a great list for you.”

“What’re we supposed to say, exactly?” Rami asks. He looks vaguely ashen. “There’s no logical reason to trade you, Kent.”

Kent laughs, a little shakier than he’d like but he doubts they notice. “You know? I really don’t care. Say I wanted to be closer to my family or I’m too expensive or whatever. Say I’ve been a pain in the ass literally my entire career and you’re sick of me. That one’s even true, yeah?”

Alice looks to Rami and tries to communicate something with her facial expression, eyebrows lifted and mouth in a hard line. He apparently fails her, because she turns back to Kent and asks tiredly, “What’s the real reason, Kent?”

Ironically, you hired him to muzzle my gay ass last fall. But Kent doesn’t say that, even if he kind of wants to—because he can’t get Bitty mixed up in this, not when he needs the professional reference from this shithole. So he bites down on the inside of his cheek and asks, “Does it matter?” in a tone that means it really isn’t a question at all.

“I suppose not.” Alice sighs, shoots Rami the side-eye, and then asks, “This is clearly geographic, right? Why not the Falconers?”

Kent snorts. “Trust me, that’s a bad idea for all of us. New York City or Boston, hard line.”

The room is quiet for an agonizing stretch. Kent pretends he doesn’t want to throw up. Rami sighs, long-suffering, like he’s being personally victimized by the whole thing, and says, “Okay, fine. We’ll make it happen.”

The heavy thing wrapped around Kent’s ribcage shatters and he takes in a strangled breath he hopes they don’t hear. He digs his fingers into his thighs through his pockets, says, “Good,” and walks out before the light-headedness sinks in and he fucking passes out or something, careening himself around the corner into the deserted players’ lounge.

Pretty soon it won’t be his, anymore. The place he used to sit with Jeff and whisper secrets or pretend everything was fine, because Hatty and Breaker—he got traded years ago and he’s somewhere in Canada, now—were in there playing ping pong, laughing and chirping about how terrible they were at it. The place he re-met Bitty, where they curled up on the couch and pretended that liking dick wasn’t something you still cried over, sometimes—where Bitty bared fangs with his hand caressing Kent’s knee.

Kent would still burn the place to the fucking ground, if it made the difference.

He pulls his phone out of his pocket and texts Bitty to let him know he’s coming home.

 

~*~

 

A week and a half later—after the trade’s gone through and they’re making plans, waiting to announce it—Kent comes back to the apartment after a morning run, trying to creep in quietly so he doesn’t fuck up Bitty’s sleep.

Bitty’s awake now though, reclined on the couch with his laptop. He looks up when Kent walks in and greets warmly, “Hey, Ranger.”

“Ugh, that’s so weird,” Kent complains, kicking out of his sneakers and using the hem of his shirt to wipe the sweat off his forehead. He plops down on the couch and slings an arm around Bitty’s shoulders.

Bitty’s eyes are soft, still a little murky with sleep. “Any second thoughts?”

“Nah,” Kent says, pressing a kiss to Bitty’s temple. Bitty grumbles something about Kent being gross and sweaty, but wriggles closer anyway, which Kent doesn’t feel super smug about or anything. “Feels great. Whatcha up to?”

Bitty angles his computer towards Kent and says, “Apartment hunting.”

Kent tries to ignore the nervous energy sparking through his nerves. “Uh. For just you, or—?”

“A little of both,” Bitty admits, worrying at his bottom lip. “Um. I thought about it, and—I’d like living with you, I think. I just, um—New York is expensive and I can’t really afford to split the rent on the kind of place you’d want?”

Kent would literally live in a shack if it meant waking up with Bitty every day. He’d also pay for an entire mansion by himself, if Bitty would let him. But neither of those are options—partly because it’d be kind of hard to sell the roommates thing, and that’s the story they’re depending on to make this work right now.

So Kent says, “I mean, I don’t really care besides making sure Kit’s allowed and has some space to play. I can take a train to the rink, if Manhattan’s the problem. Like, I’ve been texting some guys and some of them don’t even live in the city.”

Bitty’s still chewing on his lip. “Um, I think—wouldn’t that look…weird, though? Living in a suburb is kinda—domestic.”

Kent shrugs and nuzzles at Bitty’s temple. “I like domestic.”

Bitty laughs, but it’s partly a hurt sound, wet and from high in his throat. “So do I, hun, but—people are gonna be…curious, especially after Jack and Tater, and—I just—I don’t wanna make things harder for you. Be a—a burden, or something.”

“Hey, no—look at me, Bits.” Kent gently takes Bitty by the chin and tilts his face up, meets his reluctant gaze. “You’re not—you’re so fucking far from a burden, babe. You’re like, literally one of the best things that’s ever happened to me, okay? You could never—is that why you’re so set on the rent thing?”

Bitty looks back down and says to his hands, “Um, kind of? I also just—I hate feeling like I’m not—um, providing, I guess? It’s—Lord, my friend Shitty would have such a rant for me. But I just—I love cooking and, um, taking care of people but I don’t—sometimes I feel like a knockoff housewife and—oh, my God, that’s such an awful way to put it but I don’t know how to—”

“Breathe, babe, yeah? Take a sec with me.” Bitty clears his throat and nods, but he doesn’t seem like he has anything else to say, so after a moment Kent tells him, “I think I get what you mean? And I’m not trying to like, keep you from working and paying for shit or whatever. I’m not—you know I’m not, like, trying to buy you or anything right?”

“I know,” Bitty answers quietly, then laughs a little. “If you are you’re doing a terrible job. You haven’t even bribed me with cooking appliances yet.”

Kent laughs too, and teases, “D’you want some? ‘Cause I was totally unrelatedly looking at William and Sonoma the other day and there’s this standing mixer that—”

“Oh, hush!” Bitty scolds, swatting at Kent’s chest with a giggle. “You ridiculous man.”

Kent grins, self-satisfied and a little goofy, and rests his cheek on the top of Bitty’s head. He drinks in the easy quiet for a minute, focusing on the cool cling of his shirt to his sweaty skin, the crisp scent of fresh mousse that tells him Bitty showered while he was out on his run, and then suggests, “What if we did, like, a proportional thing? You pay whatever your budget would be if you got your own place and I’ll pay the rest? It’s my fault we need a cat-friendly condo in Manhattan, anyway.”

Bitty hums thoughtfully, thankfully calmer than he was before. “I think—I could be okay with that. Within reason, though. I’d, um—I’d probably still feel weird in some crazy penthouse, you know?”

“Yeah, no, I get it,” Kent agrees, smiling to himself as Bitty switches his laptop out of sleep mode and adjusts his search criteria on the real estate website. “So like, where’re we putting you? A third of the rent?”

Bitty clicks on one of the pricier listings, with a cover photo showing off a stainless steel double oven and shining granite countertops. Kent swears to God his pupils dilate a little. Absent-mindedly, clicking through pictures of dark wooden cabinets and a terrifyingly indulgent multi-headed shower in the master bathroom, he comments, “I could be talked down to a fourth.”

Kent bites back a laughs and slips his arm down so he can toy with the hem of Bitty’s shirt. “You drive a hard bargain, babe.”

“Mm, but you love me,” Bitty drawls, tilting his head back against Kent’s shoulder to look up at him.

“So fucking much,” Kent answers. He hopes he never gets tired of the way Bitty beams at him in response.

 

~*~

 

Kent shifts his weight anxiously, wishes he had something better to do with his hands than spin his phone between them. He’s trying to convince himself he doesn’t need to knock again when Troy finally pulls the door open, looking a little harried.

“Hey, man, sorry,” he says, running a hand through his hair. “Come in.”

“Cool,” Kent answers, not nervously at all. “Cool, great, yeah.” He follows Troy inside the house, waves to the kids who are too busy playing with a small mountain of what look like oversized Legos to pay attention to him, which is fine.

It’s nice outside today and Troy has all the windows open, the curtains fluttering faintly with whatever light breeze Vegas has managed for the afternoon. The fresh air kind of makes Kent’s throat go dry.

“So what’s up?” Jeff hops onto a stool in the kitchen, looking out into the living room to keep an eye on the kids. “Is everything okay?”

Kent sits down next to him. “Um. Uh, yeah, no, it’s—yeah, I’m great.”

Troy gives him an unimpressed side-eye. “Yeah?”

“Yeah, no, I just—uh. I don’t know how to—” Kent scrubs a hand over his face. “I’m—fuck, Jeff. I’m here to—I’m, uh, leaving.”

Some of the color drains from Jeff’s face as he turns to look at him. “Kent,” he says slowly, in his best Parse-is-on-the-balcony-ledge-again voice. “What do you mean?”

Kent holds up his hands quickly. “Oh, shit, no. Jesus, I swear that’s not what I meant.” He laughs nervously. “I’m moving to New York—the Rangers. With Bitty.”

“Wait, what?”

“He loves me back, Jeff,” Kent whispers, like saying it too loud might shatter it. “He—we’re gonna get an apartment near the river and he’s looking at job offers—I think he’s gonna take the Yankees’ but I’ll forgive him—and he—he fucking loves me, man, and we’re gonna be together.”

Jeff looks—bewildered, like he’s still stuck in crisis-mode and trying to tear himself out of it. “You’re—you got yourself traded?”

“Yeah, I—they agreed on all the terms last week—just putting some distance on the Cup, but I—” Kent looks down, pursing his lips. “I didn’t—know how to tell you.”

“You and Bitty—you guys talked, like adults and shit?” Jeff asks, sounding dazed and a little choked up, and Kent nods. “And you’re—fucking—you’re fucking off to New York and you’ve got an apartment and you’re gonna, like, adopt thirty cats one day?”

“One hundred,” Kent corrects, voice thick. He clears his throat and repeats, “One hundred cats,” and Jeff tackles him off the stool and catches him in a crushing hug before he can crash to the ground.

Kent laughs, startled, and Jeff mumbles, “You fucking asshole. What the fuck?”

Kent presses his face into Jeff’s chest, hides the tears springing into his eyes. “I’m—I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I didn’t know how—before Bitty, you and Shani—you were everything I had. I don’t know how I’ll ever—how I could—”

“Hey—you’re always family, okay? Doesn’t matter where you are.” Jeff brings a hand up to Kent’s hair, holds him there. “And I’m so proud of you—so happy for you, okay? You deserve this, Kent.”

Kent swallows hard, breathes around the ache in his lungs and whispers, “I would’ve killed myself without you. You—you saved my life. I don’t know—how I could—how to thank you.”

“This,” Jeff tells him, voice rough like he’s crying too, but Kent can’t lift his head to check. “This is how. Go to New York and fucking let him love you, okay? And—love yourself, too.”

“That one’s harder,” Kent says lightly, like he could be joking. They both know he isn’t.

“I know, man.” Jeff bows his head to press the side of his face to Kent’s, smears tears into his hairline. “I know.”

Kent squeezes his eyes shut, forces a fresh roll of tears down his cheeks. “I’ll miss you so fucking much.”

“I—” Jeff’s voice cracks and he pauses before he starts over. “I’ll miss you too, bud. But uh, look—this knee’s only got a year or two left in it anyway, eh? Probably gonna relocate when I retire.”

Kent opens his eyes, shifts to look at Jeff suspiciously. “Jeff—”

“Shani still talks about missing Long Island.” Jeff smiles, chirpy, and the corner of his mouth brushes against Kent’s temple. “Seems like a good place for a second career.”

“Oh my—what the fuck?” Kent hisses, trying to keep his voice down and mostly not succeeding. “You’re serious?”

Jeff finally lets Kent go, arms falling away with a shrug. “You’re not the only guy who hates this hellhole.”

Kent feels too swollen for his bones—like Jeff was holding all the slabs of his flesh together while they hugged. He scrubs at his face with a hand, his fingers dragging over his eyelids. “I—dude, if you mean that—I’d love that, you know?”

“I mean, I can’t just pack up the kids tomorrow and go. But I’m serious, about Shani missing the city.” Jeff reaches out and ruffles Kent’s hair, yanks him into another hug. “Don’t think she’ll be hard to convince, after my contract ends.”

Kent nods against Jeff’s collarbone. “Yeah, no, I get it.”

“You know, I’ve got a business degree. You wouldn’t, like, happen to know anyone who’d be the perfect business partner to open, say, a bakery with—would you?” Jeff asks with feigned innocence, a smug undertone.

Kent laughs, and slips out from their hug to lean against the counter next to Jeff instead. “Are you trying to seduce my boyfriend?”

“Not, like, sexually. Definitely platonically, though.”

Kent elbows him in the ribs and Jeff retaliates by trying to put him in a headlock, and—

Kent thinks—if this were how all goodbyes went, he probably wouldn’t hate them so much.

 

~*~

 

On July 5th, Alexei Mashkov and Jack Zimmermann become the first out players in the NHL.

Kent is on a plane when it happens, watching Vegas swallow up into the gray-beige dust of desert surrounding it. And this is how he’ll remember it, he thinks—the bone dry place that stung at his skin and threatened to fill up his lungs and bury his throat in the sand and didn’t—couldn’t, because he never quite let it.

Bitty sighs quietly next to him, shifts in his seat in a way that just so happens to nudge his cheek up against Kent’s shoulder while he tries to sleep. Kent smiles, something quiet and fond settling snugly in his spine, and presses a surreptitious kiss into Bitty’s hair.

When they land, there’ll be press to deal with—Twitter and magazines and reporters from tabloids looking for answers they think they deserve. There’ll be the stress of moving into the apartment, finding a psychiatrist and interfacing with Aadila, meeting a new team reeling from the way the entire sports world has just changed and wondering just where Kent Parson might fit into that.

But right now, there’s just this. And Kent has the feeling, somewhere thick in his soul, that if he holds onto it that will be enough.

 

~*~

 

“Are you sure I should come?” Bitty asks, worrying at his bottom lip with his teeth. It’s mid-September, cool for the time of year, and he’s got a plaid scarf wrapped around his neck that brings out the nervous blush on his cheeks.

Kent slips his hands into the pockets of Bitty’s peacoat and tugs him forward against his chest. “I want you to,” he murmurs, dipping down to steal a peck on the lips. “The guys have been great, I told you. The way they talk about Jack—it’s not perfect, but it’s good. We don’t have to like, shout anything from the rooftops. But I moved here to be with you—and this—we can have this, okay?”

Bitty smiles nervously, eyes soft around the edges. “Um. Okay. Let’s go.”

They take a car to the Garden, Bitty’s leg bouncing with anticipation the whole ride over, Kent murmuring reassurances in his ear, and suddenly they’re at the rink and heading inside to lace up their skates.

It’s the first family skate Kent’s been to since the trade, but he’s met a few wives and girlfriends over dinner and at a party for the rookies, back in August, so he’s expecting the loud, warm atmosphere that permeates the arena. Bitty, for all his nerves, makes a beeline for a group of toddlers shuffling around on the ice like little penguins, ditching Kent completely. Kent doesn’t think, like, at all about the fact that his heart nearly beats out of his chest when Bitty, beaming at Boomer’s wife, takes the hand of a little girl with pigtails and starts skating her around the ice. It’s not like Kent has dreams like this, or anything.

He spends a while skating the rink, enjoying the familiar calm that settles over him when he’s on the ice. It took a long time for this to be a happy place for him—for years, the ice was anger, grittiness, the place he split himself open and poured out all the things that lived boiling inside him.

But right now—now it’s the crisp cold on his cheeks, the smile stretched across his face as he orbits Bitty, stops by to join a conversation, drifts away again to give him his space and let him feel out his own place here. The anger isn’t gone—not all the way, not yet and maybe never—but it’s not the first thing he feels when his blades cut against the ice and spray snow all over Paulo’s twins, to their apparent delight.

Kent takes a break, eventually, leans up against the boards with his lips parted in an absent-minded smile. Vitzy skates up next to him after a minute, resting his elbow on Kent’s shoulder.

“Hey, Cap,” Kent greets, glancing over briefly before his gaze resettles on Bitty across the arena. “What’s up?”

Vitzy shrugs. “Eh, not much. Good turn out today, though. Glad you made it.”

Kent nods and says, “Oh, yeah. Me too.”

They’re quiet for a few minutes, content to watch their teammates and loved ones skate around, laughing with one another. Then, Vitzy asks, “Hey, man, just curious, but like—you never told us what happened in Vegas. How the hell’d you end up here?”

Kent looks over at him again, surprised. “Oh, uh. I moved to stay near Bitty, actually.”

“Dude,” Vitzy laughs, “No offense, but that sounds kinda gay.”

Kent could brush it off—make a joke or deny it like he’s supposed to, maybe change the subject, and he thinks about it, but—

Jack Zimmermann came out in the NHL and he didn’t do it kissing under the Cup but the world didn’t collapse around him, and Kent’s life won’t end in a box in the desert because he’s here—with a pill bottle in the medicine cabinet that might finally be the right one and a cat that sleeps on his pillow when he’s not in town, and loving arms that wrap around him whenever he is, and—

Bitty laughs, a bright warm sound that carries across the rink and pulls Kent’s attention easily, because Kent always wants to be looking at Bitty, and—the arena lights should wash him out the way they do to everything, turn him artificial looking and maybe larger than life, the way people look on the ice. But Bitty is just alive—pink-cheeked and wisps of honeyed hair falling in his face, lofting someone’s kid in the air and spinning around on the ice like he was made for this moment, for Kent to be standing there in love with him.

“It’s hella gay,” Kent agrees. “I’m gonna marry him one day, if he lets me.”

“Oh, shit, really? Sorry, man, I didn’t, uh—” Vitzy cuts off, rubs the back of his neck in embarrassment. “Is this, like…a secret?”

Bitty turns and catches Kent’s gaze, beams at him with raw affection. Kent smiles back, something private peeking out through the edges, a thing filled with the kind of quiet hope he’s gotten used to carrying in his bones. And all he has to say is, “For now.”