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trying to get to heaven (but not today)

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Bitty overbeats his meringue.

Which is not, privately, a thing he thinks he should be capable of doing at four in the morning when there are already four pies cooling on the counter, two batches of brownies on the table, and three cabinets filled with jam, because really he should have worn himself out enough to get to sleep by now instead of whisking egg whites into the kind of dry and grainy mess a child should be capable of avoiding, but apparently there’s something to be said for the energizing powers of existential dread about one’s future.

So Bitty sighs, prodding the fallen meringue with a glum finger like he might be able to spring it (and his GPA) back to life, and dumps it all in the trash to start a new batch. It’s not, apparently, like he’s got anything better to do with his time, and he’ll be careful to keep his whipping in check this time instead of destroying the peaks like some kind of monster, except now his computer is chiming with a Twitter notification so he sets the bowl down for a second to check it and—

@kvpurrson90 (4:03 am): I don’t actually like being a bad person, you know

Bitty underbeats his meringue.

The peaks fall and turn weepy in the bowl before he even finishes with them, because that is Kent fucking Parson’s official Twitter handle sitting in Bitty’s DMs at—what, one or two in the morning, Vegas time?—and what even

Bitty hasn’t really thought about Kent Parson in literal years, hasn’t done anything to prompt this—he doesn’t even say petty things on Twitter anymore, not really, because it feels a little ridiculous to carry a defensive grudge when the person you’re defending doesn’t even show up to Thanksgiving anymore, and really it just hurts to think about words like I miss you and whether or not they’d be cast aside coming from Bitty, too. (He thinks they might. He’s not the kind of person other people miss much.)

He still sulks a little bit whenever the Aces win a game, but it’s not like Kent Parson knows that.

So, there’s actually less than zero reasons Kent Parson should be messaging Bitty right now or ever. Kent Parson should be leaving Bitty the fuck alone and letting him move on with his normal little life and his subpar, watery meringue and his tired, shaking hands. Kent Parson should definitely not be sending him a second message when the first one goes unanswered.

@kvpurrson90 (4:19 am): Sorry. I just wanted, like…I don’t know. I thought maybe it mattered.

Bitty should not be pausing his baking playlist and squinting at the Twitter handle to make sure it’s not some sort of fake and then, after determining it’s not one, typing out a response. But it’s already been established Bitty’s sort of lost control of (definitely) his evening and (maybe) his entire life, so, really the standards are not that high.

@omgcheckplease (4:21 am): Do you even remember who I am?

@kvpurrson90 (4:21 am): Wow no offense but why the fuck are you awake

@kvpurrson90 (4:21 am): Also, like…sorta?

Bitty runs a hand across his face. Why did Parse message him if he didn’t expect Bitty to answer?

@omgcheckplease (4:22 am): I’m a senior in college. I could be writing my thesis or something

@omgcheckplease (4:22 am): Why are YOU awake? Don’t you have a game tomorrow?

@omgcheckplease (4:22 am): And what does “sorta” mean?

@kvpurrson90 (4:23 am): ARE you writing your thesis?

Bitty glares at the computer screen and waits, but Parse never says anything else. He sighs, gets up to shove the egg carton back in the fridge and dump his second failed batch of meringue in the trash, and then carries his laptop into the living room where he plops down in an armchair.

@omgcheckplease (4:26 am): No, I was baking. What does sorta mean?

It takes long enough for Parse to answer that Bitty is starting to think he went to bed or something, but eventually his laptop pings again.

@kvpurrson90 (4:31 am): It means I’ve had that message in my drafts a long time and I thought maybe I should send it

@kvpurrson90 (4:31 am): Whatre you baking?

And the thing is, Bitty knows what it looks like when someone is deflecting. He’s sort of perfected the technique after twenty-some years of being gay in Georgia. But he’s not sure why Parse would message him at all if he’s not looking for Bitty to—what? Forgive him for something that happened years ago? Tell him he’s not a bad person? So he doesn’t know what he should be pushing for, even if he wanted to.

@omgcheckplease (4:33 am): I was making a meringue, but someone distracted me and made me ruin it

@kvpurrson90 (4:33 am): Uh sorry lol

@kvpurrson90 (4:33 am): How do u ruin a meringue

Bitty curls his legs underneath him and takes a breath. Apparently this is happening.

@omgcheckplease (4:44 am): Um lots of ways actually? If you whip the egg whites too much they get like, dry and crumbly? And if you let it sit too long it can get all weird and watery

@kvpurrson90 (4:44 am): That sounds really complicated haha. What did you do?

@omgcheckplease (4:44 am): I let them sit too long

@kvpurrson90 (4:45 am): Because you were deciding if you were gonna answer me?

Bitty chews on his bottom lip and thinks about lying, but he’s not sure there would be a point to it. It’s not like he’s got anything to lose.

@omgcheckplease (4:46 am): Yeah

Parse’s been answering pretty quickly, for the most part, so Bitty is caught off guard a little when he waits a few minutes before he responds.

@kvpurrson90 (4:49 am): Why did you?

Bitty digs his teeth harder into his lip, frowning at the message. He’s not sure if he even has an answer, so he might as well be honest about that too.

@omgcheckplease (4:50 am): I don’t know, why did you message me?

@kvpurrson90 (4:51 am): I…dunno either

@kvpurrson90 (4:51 am): I guess it feels weird leaving that stuff unsaid

And that—sits a little weird with Bitty, even if he can’t put a finger on why. He furrows his eyebrows and opens up Parse’s Twitter, scrolling through the recent Tweets, but there’s not really anything there that explains why this is happening tonight of all nights.

@omgcheckplease (4:53 am): It’s been unsaid for two years?

@kvpurrson90 (4:53 am): Yeah

Which is honestly just a frustrating response, and Bitty doesn’t know how to respond to that. He thinks about just leaving it alone and giving the meringue one more shot before he tries to go back to sleep, but before he can decide, another message comes in.

@kvpurrson90 (4:54 am): Do you think he hates me?

Bitty’s stomach twists. He puts his face in his hands and presses against his eyelids until he sees spots, because of course that’s what this is really about, and he shouldn’t even answer. He should close the laptop and press his face into his pillow and pretend like he can’t remember the way that blue silk tie felt when he ran it through his fingers and said goodbye.

@omgcheckplease (4:57 am): I haven’t talked to him since last August

@kvpurrson90 (4:57 am): I know

@kvpurrson90 (4:57 am): Or, I mean, I guessed

@kvpurrson90 (4:57 am): I stalked your Twitter a little, sorry

@kvpurrson90 (4:58 am): I just thought maybe you’d know

@omgcheckplease (4:59 am): I don’t

@omgcheckplease (4:59 am): I don’t know anything about him anymore

@kvpurrson90 (5:00 am): Would you tell me if you did?

Bitty laughs a little despite himself, a huffing noise under his breath.

@omgcheckplease (5:01 am): I don’t know tbh

@omgcheckplease (5:01 am): Probably not

@kvpurrson90 (5:01 am): Fair

There’s another pause. Bitty thinks about saying he’s going to bed.

@kvpurrson90 (5:03 am): Do you hate me

Bitty makes a soft, almost-gasping noise out loud involuntarily, the kind of sound that chips his teeth on the way out and startles him as soon as he makes it. He stares at the message and ignores the way he can feel the blood flowing through the soft curves of his fingers as they hover over the keys, shaking a little with a sadness he’s not sure he could put words to even if he wanted to try.

@omgcheckplease (5:05 am): I don’t know

@omgcheckplease (5:05 am): I think I used to

@omgcheckplease (5:05 am): Why does it matter what I think about you?

He swallows thickly, presses his fingers as hard against the keyboard as he can without actually triggering them to type. It puts a strange ache in his knuckles.

@kvpurrson90 (5:06 am): Maybe it doesn’t

Somehow, Bitty doesn’t think that’s true. As much as it should be, probably.

@omgcheckplease (5:06 am): Okay

@kvpurrson90 (5:06 am): Idk what I’m supposed to do with that question

Well, Bitty doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do with literally this entire fucking conversation, so.

@kvpurrson90 (5:07 am): Are you still baking

Bitty laughs again. He’s pretty sure this is an out if he wants to take it. He can say that no, he’s going to bed actually, thanks for the most bizarre hour of his life in recent memory, and probably never talk to Kent Parson again. He types half a message saying as much and then deletes it. Wonders why there’s a churning in his stomach he can’t explain. Might chalk it up to the fact that he hasn’t eaten since well before midnight, except.

@omgcheckplease (5:09 am): I was thinking about it

Except Bitty’s thinking about how nights where he couldn’t sleep used to mean crawling onto the roof where Shitty was smoking and plucking the joint from between his fingers or waiting for Jack to wake up for his morning run or tracking Lardo down in her studio and inhaling the smell of acrylic paint, and how now they just mean being alone.

@omgcheckplease (5:10 am): I think I might have to ditch the meringue idea and pick something else though

@omgcheckplease (5:10 am): Any suggestions?

He doesn’t realize there’s a knot between his shoulders until Parse answers and the tension loosens.

@kvpurrson90 (5:11 am): You should teach me how to make something

And, Bitty can’t help but smile at that. He wonders if Parse knows about the vlog or not, since he said he’s stalked Bitty’s Twitter.

@omgcheckplease (5:11 am): Umm okay

@omgcheckplease (5:11 am): Should we do something for beginners then?

@kvpurrson90 (5:12 am): Haha uhhhhh what’s like a step below being a beginner

@kvpurrson90 (5:12 am): Like if I normally burn anything not in a microwave

Bitty’s smile stretches a little wider.

@omgcheckplease (5:12 am): Believe it or not, I’ve actually got a recipe you can use a microwave for!

@kvpurrson90 (5:13 am): Haha seriously? Challenge accepted

@kvpurrson90 (5:13 am): Let’s see if I fuck it up

Bitty drags his teeth across his bottom lip, a little surprised at how enthusiastic he’s feeling.

@omgcheckplease (5:13 am): You’re on, Parson

So Bitty pulls up his recipe folder and then digs through the cake-in-a-mug series he did back in his freshman year, before he adopted the Haus kitchen and Betsy (may she rest in scrap metal).

@omgcheckplease (5:17 am): [cakeinamug_firstbatch_2013.docx attached]

@omgcheckplease (5:17 am): Chocolate chip, double fudge, or peanut butter?

@kvpurrson90 (5:19 am): Uh I don’t have eggs

Bitty actually recoils slightly, blinking at the screen in baffled outrage.

@omgcheckplease (5:19 am): What NHL player doesn’t have eggs??

The pause is awkward, suspiciously long. Bitty wonders if he’s missed a joke.

@kvpurrson90 (5:21 am): I haven’t been shopping

Right. Bitty frowns and double-checks his recipes.

@omgcheckplease (5:22 am): …Okay. Well the peanut butter one doesn’t really need the egg so I guess we’ll go with that :)  

He hesitates for a second before adding the smiley face to the end, but Parse sends one back so he figures it didn’t come off as too weird or anything. Then, he carries his laptop back into the kitchen and props it up on the counter as he rummages through the pantry for his ingredients. It’s starting to edge towards the early time of the morning where he might wake up some of the lighter sleepers upstairs, so he tries not to make too much noise.

@kvpurrson90 (5:24 am): So do I just mix all the shit together or

Bitty laughs as he cracks his egg over the mug, then quickly washes his hands before he types out a response.

@omgcheckplease (5:25 am): Yep! Do all the dry stuff first and then pour in the milk

@omgcheckplease (5:25 am): You have milk, right?

@kvpurrson90 (5:25 am): I cant tell if ur chirping me

@kvpurrson90 (5:26 am): Yeah I have milk

@omgcheckplease (5:26 am): Apparently I can assume nothing

Bitty beats in the egg quickly, scrunching his mouth up while he thinks.

@omgcheckplease (5:27 am): Wait did you do veg oil yet

@kvpurrson90 (5:27 am): No why

@omgcheckplease (5:28 am): Umm leave it out?

@omgcheckplease (5:28 am): I think it’ll be better if there’s no egg either

@kvpurrson90 (5:28 am): You think? Lol

Bitty rolls his eyes and slides his mug into the microwave.

@omgcheckplease (5:29 am): We wouldn’t have this problem if someone had eggs like a normal professional athlete :P

He taps his fingers waiting for a reply, then gets distracted when the microwave goes off and he tests the cake. It seems a little underdone, probably because this microwave is a million years old, so he sticks it back in for an extra fifteen seconds before he pulls it out for good. By the time the mug is cooling, Parse has finally answered.

@kvpurrson90 (5:31 am): Right

@kvpurrson90 (5:31 am): Sorry

Bitty pulls a spoon out from the silverware drawer and taps it thoughtfully on his palm, tilting his head at the laptop. Did he say something wrong? He’d thought their conversation was turning a little friendlier. Or, less awkward, at least, but maybe he’s being overfamiliar. Which, really just makes him feel annoyed again. He’s not the one mucking up pretty much all social conventions by messaging a veritable stranger past midnight.

@kvpurrson90 (5:32 am): Uh, do I microwave it the same amount?

Bitty stabs into his cake with a little more force than strictly necessary.

@omgcheckplease (5:32 am): Take off like 30s

@kvpurrson90 (5:32 am): Kk

@kvpurrson90 (5:33 am): Did u finish making urs already?

Bitty smiles lopsidedly at his half-eaten cake.

@omgcheckplease (5:33 am): Umm yes haha

When Parse messages him next, it’s with an image attached.

@kvpurrson90 (5:34 am): [a slightly out-of-focus picture of a cake in a mug, sloppy in appearance but properly cooked]

@kvpurrson90 (5:34 am): I didn’t fuck it up

Considering Shitty can usually pull off making cake-in-a-mug while high and naked, Bitty shouldn’t feel the unsettling almost-pride that he does. But, well—it’s late at night (early in the morning) and he’s talking to a very off-kilter eggless NHL star, and maybe Parse’s weird sense of accomplishment is a bit contagious.

@omgcheckplease (5:35 am): Looks like it! How’s it taste?

Parse sends him a series of emoji that are either deeply sarcastic or very enthusiastic. Bitty finishes off his cake and sticks the mug to deal with in the—well, later in the morning, after he’s had some sort of nap.

Speaking of which, it’s already five-thirty and Bitty has a nine AM class he’s not entirely sure he’s capable of dragging himself to at this point. If he went to bed right now, he’d get maybe two or three hours of actual sleep, and—that should feel worth it. He should definitely try to get some rest, and so should Parse for that matter.

@kvpurrson90 (5:37 am): Do I get to graduate to the oven

Well. Bitty scrubs a hand over his face. He bites his lip, drags his teeth across it slowly, and then breathes out in a not-quite sigh.

Yeah, Bitty’s definitely lost control of his life.

@omgcheckplease (5:38 am): How much peanut butter do you have left?

It turns out that Parse has enough peanut butter for a batch of the cookies Bitty did for “vegan week” last fall (there may or may not have been a crush on a boy involved), so Bitty sends him the recipe and starts getting out the ingredients he doesn’t already have on the counter from his earlier escapades.

@kvpurrson90 (5:49 am): Uh this looks complicated

@omgcheckplease (5:50 am): Don’t worry, I’ll talk you through it :)

@kvpurrson90 (5:50 am): Like, on the phone?

Bitty raises his eyebrows so quickly he briefly considers the possibility he’s pulled a muscle. Is…Parse serious? He waits for some kind of clarification, kind of hoping that maybe if he waits Parse out he’ll take it back or admit he was just kidding, but nothing ever comes.

@omgcheckplease (5:52 am): Oh! Um…if you wanted?

@kvpurrson90 (5:52 am): Sorry that’s probably weird

@kvpurrson90 (5:52 am): Oh

@kvpurrson90 (5:52 am): I mean uh yeah but it’s cool if you don’t want

Bitty eyes his phone from where it’s been sitting on the kitchen table, forgotten behind the second batch of brownies (the ones with cream cheese swirls), and curls his fingers reflexively against his empty palm. He rubs at his eyelids, dragging against the deepening bags under his eyes, and tilts his face up to the ceiling.

There’s a crack and a growing water stain that he would be more concerned about than he is, if he weren’t graduating next semester—if this place weren’t about to become a weird sort of former-checkpoint on a more important journey, like everyone else seems to make it—if it weren’t already feeling liminal, hazy in the corners of his vision.

Which might have something to do with the way Bitty tears his eyes away from the ceiling, thinks, Why the fuck not? and sends Parse his phone number.

Less than a minute later, his phone is ringing with a call from an unknown number. He runs his thumb over the side of his phone case with hesitation, feeling the vibrations in his palm—closes his eyes when he answers and brings the phone up to his ear.

“Um,” Bitty says, trying to keep the nervousness out of his voice. “Hello?”

“Uh, hi,” says the voice on the other line. It’s vaguely familiar, even if Parse sounds different on TV or when he’s shouting over the cacophony of a party, or—

Bitty doesn’t want to think about how Parse’s voice sounded then. He focuses on the softness he hears in it now, the uncertainty and the slight lilt of a Yankee accent that seems more pronounced now than it did before—Parse is from New York, Bitty thinks he remembers reading. Brooklyn, maybe.

“Is this, uh—” Parse laughs a little, awkward and maybe self-deprecating. “Is this Eric?”

Bitty wrinkles his nose at his first name, but he’s not sure he wants to correct him, either. “Um, yeah. I—guess you’re, um. Parse?”

“Last time I checked.” Parse pauses, like he doesn’t know what words come next. It should be comforting, probably, that he’s awkward and weird about this just like Bitty is, that even Kent Parson, the NHL’s golden boy, doesn’t always know what to say. Instead it’s just unsettling, leaves Bitty with the same twisting sensation in his belly he’s been feeling all evening. Like someone’s moved all the furniture two inches to the left. “Um, hey.”

Bitty runs a hand through his hair, pressing his fingers down into his scalp a little. He lightly chirps, “You said that already.”

Parse doesn’t laugh. He says, “Uh, right, sorry. I, uh—I dunno. I guess we should—I thought this would—help.”

Bitty squeezes his eyes shut for a long moment. “Oh, um. Yeah. Well, I guess we better get started soon, right? You, um—I’m sure you wanna get some sleep before your game tomorrow!”

Another awkward pause. Parse says, “Yeah.”

“Um.” Bitty switches the phone to speaker and sets it on the counter, then presses his fingers into his eyelids. What the hell is he doing? “So, anyway, the first thing you should do is preheat your oven to 350 so it’ll be ready by the time we get the dough done.”

There’s a click and some shuffling, and Bitty realizes he’s been put on speakerphone too, based on the change in how Parse’s voice sounds. “Uh, okay. Got it.”

Bitty switches Betsy 2.0 on too, then grabs at his baking sheet and a roll of aluminum foil. “So, um—you probably wanna grease your baking sheet or put tin foil on it or something, so the cookies won’t stick?”

“Shit,” Kent mutters, and Bitty hears some clanking around—the opening of a drawer, maybe. “Okay, uh, I’ve got, like, a nonstick pan? Does that—should I still grease it?”

Bitty quirks his lips. “Um, I think you’ll be okay. I’m guessing the pan’s pretty new?”

Kent huffs out a laugh. “Uh, yeah. So, uh—that’s good then?”

“Yeah,” Bitty agrees. “Let’s get started with the dough, then.”

He talks Parse through the recipe in stilted bursts—which ingredients get mixed in what order and why, how to tell when the dough is the right consistency—rambling awkwardly to fill the silence that resumes whenever he takes a breath. It’s the stifling kind of uneasy silence, the type that makes Bitty’s throat itch like it’s constricting shut, like the only way to keep from choking is to shove all the air out of his lungs.

Parse is an attentive but quiet listener, all soft yeahs and okays, and for all his talk of being a disaster in the kitchen, he rarely asks for clarification. If this were any other combination of person and place, Bitty would worry that Parse was annoyed with him for blabbering on the way he is. But there’s something in the way Parse’s gentle, “Sweet, thanks,” carries over the speaker when he’s slid the cookie tray into the oven that lets Bitty know the sentiment is sincere.

“Um, no problem,” Bitty says. He clears his throat just to have something to do with it. “So, these can burn pretty quick so I’d check ‘em after eight minutes just to be sure.”

Parse says, “Okay,” and then there’s nothing to fill the silence with while the cookies bake. They sit there without speaking for maybe three minutes, Bitty thrumming his fingers on the counter anxiously, until Parse startles him by asking, “Do you, uh—do you actually have a thesis?”

Bitty’s laugh is strained. “Um, I’m supposed to. I haven’t really started on it?”

“Why not?” Parse’s tone is absent of the judgement and incredulity that usually crops up whenever Bitty talks about this. The bland curiosity is refreshing, even though his hands still shake a little.

“I…don’t know?” He laughs again, with no more humor than before. “I think—”

Bitty pauses abruptly, stares at the phone and then closes his eyes and breathes and still doesn’t speak again. It’s past six in the morning and he hasn’t slept and when he was seven years old he ran out of his own birthday party and tripped and fell on the old, beat-up deck and his mama spent hours pulling the wood out of his palms. It feels like there are splinters in his lungs.

Parse doesn’t say anything.

Bitty says, voice shaking and lungs pierced clean through, “You know? That’s a lie. I think—I think I’m scared.”

Parse’s oven timer goes off in the background. He asks, “Of what?”

Betsy goes off too. Bitty presses his fingers harder into the kitchen table and says, “People always say college is the best four years of your life?”

“And…you don’t think it was?” Parse guesses. His oven timer is still beeping.

Bitty shakes his head, and it doesn’t even occur to him that Parse can’t see. “I think they’re right. I don’t think I’ll ever get this back again.”

Parse doesn’t answer.

Bitty rubs at his face and tells him, “Your cookies’ll burn,” and gets up to turn off Betsy.

“Shit,” Parse curses, and Bitty hears some clattering through the speakerphone as he pulls out his own tray. “Shit, yeah, they’re, uh—they look too dark.”

Bitty’s are a little on the crispy side themselves, but they’ll do. He slips his oven mitt off and slides down to the floor, leaning his head back against the cabinet next to Betsy. He can feel the heat radiating from her as she cools. “S’okay. The recipe is kinda shit, anyway. I hate baking vegan.”

Parse laughs. His voice sounds closer, like he’s got the phone in his hand again, but the speakerphone is still on. “Then why’d you make it?”

Bitty flutters his eyes shut. If Parse read his tweets, then—he probably knows. “I, um—there may’ve been a boy involved.”

Parse’s laugh this time is more rueful, like he’s in on some sort of joke. “Nice. Hope it got you somewhere, man.”

Where it got Bitty was two dates and a hand three inches too high on his thigh before he bolted, door to his room locked and mouth clamped down on a pillow to hide the ashamed, confused sob that came out. He says, “I guess.”

Parse goes quiet again. There’s a quivering tightness to the air, like when a bird lands on a telephone wire and the whole thing shakes but doesn’t bend. Bitty swears he can hear him breathing.

Eventually Parse says, “People move on without you. You can’t—you’ll try and stop it and you’ll blink and they’ll be twice as gone.”

“I know,” Bitty answers. He does. It doesn’t make it hurt less.

There’s another silence. There’s nothing keeping Bitty on the phone. Parse asks, “Do you ever wonder how people’ll remember you?”

Bitty’s shoulders shake with an emotion he can’t place. The words are careful as they crawl out of his mouth. “I don’t think it’s worth finding out.”

“…Yeah.” Bitty hears the scrape of metal against metal and the unmistakable distortion of someone talking with their mouth full. “Ugh, wow. You’re single, right?”

Bitty furrows his eyebrows. “Um, yeah?”

“So we don’t care about Vegan Guy anymore?”

We. Bitty scrubs a hand over his face, equal parts exasperated and confused. “Um, I guess not?”

“So I’m allowed to say I get why you hate vegan shit?” Parse’s voice has a lightness to it now; Bitty doesn’t know him well enough to tell if it’s fake. “Like, is it supposed to be this crumbly? What the fuck?”

Bitty laughs and teases, “That might be partly user error. Although, I think if—”

He’s interrupted by Parse cursing and a loud banging sound that’s accompanied by—Bitty isn’t sure. The sound of someone’s voice, maybe?

“Um,” Bitty asks, “is everything okay?”

“Fuck,” Parse mutters. “Yeah, it’s just Jeff.”

Bitty frowns and pushes up onto his feet, reaching for his laptop. “Jeff…Troy?”

“Yeah.”

“Shouldn’t, um—are you gonna let him in?” Bitty asks, the furrow in his eyebrows deepening at the results of his Google search: Jeff Troy is married with two children. Why is he awake and at Parse’s door right now?

“He’s got a key,” Parse says dismissively, like it’s obvious. Like someone barging into his apartment at past three in the morning isn’t unusual. “Look, I gotta—I’m in here, Jeff!—I gotta go, okay? I’m, uh—sorry.”

Bitty feels a lump forming in his throat he can barely swallow around. The smell of his baking all around him suddenly feels suffocating. Like it could choke him. “Wait—Parse?”

There’s a click that makes Bitty worry he’s been hung up on, but then Parse asks, “Yeah?” and Bitty realizes he’s just been taken off speakerphone.

Bitty stares numbly at the blinding fluorescence of his computer screen. He tells himself that his eyes are watering from the harshness of the glare. “I don’t hate you anymore.”

Parse takes too long to answer. Bitty closes his eyes.

“Thanks, Eric.”

The line goes dead.

Bitty puts his face in his hands and breathes until it’s easy again. Isn’t sure why it was hard. He checks the clock: 6:43 AM. Closes his laptop and puts on a pot of coffee.

The coffee maker whirls to life with a series of sputters and clanks and the sharp scent of cinnamon and coffee beans fills the kitchen, overpowering everything else. Bitty watches the pot fill impassively, fingers twitching until he finally forces himself to pick up his phone and type.

Bitty (6:47 am): You can call me Bitty if you want

He cuts himself a slice of cherry pie, sits himself down at the kitchen table, and waits.

 

~*~

 

Bitty is two bites into the pie and halfway caught up on his Twitter feed by the time he hears the first footsteps thudding down the stairs. It’s Chowder and Nursey, which means Dex will probably be down soon too—especially since Bitty can hear the shower running upstairs—and Bitty checks the clock on his phone.

It’s seven AM. Parse hasn’t answered.

The frogs’ chattering gets progressively louder and then cuts off abruptly. Bitty looks up from his phone and finds them both staring at him from the doorway, looking like they’ve caught their father wrapping Christmas presents from Santa. Or something.

Bitty stretches a smile onto his face. “Mornin’, boys! There’s fresh coffee if y’all want some, and pie or brownies for breakfast, or jam to go on toast. Or, actually, I think Ollie took the last coupla pieces of bread last night, but we’ve got bagels left!”

“Y-yeah, thanks, Bitty,” Chowder says carefully. His face is suspiciously pleasant. Bitty can practically see his eyebrows twitching. “Wow! You definitely did a lot of baking this—last night. Were you working on your thesis? I bet it’s going great! Did you, uh—did you just wake up?”

Nursey breezes past Chowder to pull open the refrigerator door, where he digs around for a carton of orange juice. He chugs half of it straight from the container, swipes a hand over his mouth, and then pours himself a glass. “Chill, C. We all know you know the face of a man who’s pulled an all-nighter when you see one. Bits, you look wrecked, bro.”

“Nursey!” Chowder hisses, but Bitty forces himself to laugh and gets up from the table to get himself some coffee.

He snags the largest clean mug he can find and fills it nearly to the brim, then takes the creamer Nursey hands him and pours it right to the top. “Oh, well, you know how it is. I got workin’ and time just ran away from me!”

Chowder agrees, “Um, yeah! I’ve definitely ended up staying up really late on Wikipedia or whatever,” but his tone is still a little forced.

Bitty is too tired to bristle at being patronized. He grabs the spoon he’d used to eat his cake-in-a-mug and uses it to stir his coffee, takes a long drink, and then pours more creamer into the remaining brew.

They’re both watching him warily, even though Nursey’s professed to be chill. He doesn’t know what to say, how to make those goddamn expressions go away, but relying on old habits has gotten him pretty far in life, so—he settles for a cheerful, “Well, y’all, all this baking won’t eat itself, will it? Let me feed you while I still can.”

“What’re you feeding us?” Dex asks through a yawn, then almost crashes into Chowder when he walks into the room. “Woah, uh—holy shit.”

“Bitty had a long night!” Chowder supplies helpfully, which should probably not feel like an understatement.

Bitty checks his phone. He tries not to be disappointed that there aren’t any messages.

“Uh, cool,” Dex says slowly. He looks around the kitchen with no small amount of trepidation. “Is there, like—anything not-sweet for breakfast?”

Chowder tells him, “There’s jam! And bagels!”

Dex shakes his head. “No, like—”

“Hey Poindexter,” Nursey says. “Have some jam.”

Dex looks between Nursey and Bitty with a raised eyebrow, like he’s calculating something. Eventually, he relents, “Yeah, sure. Jam sounds great,” and grabs himself a jar of cherry from the open cabinet. Nursey tosses him the bag of bagels they keep on top of the fridge with a nod.

It’s possible that staying in this kitchen one minute longer will literally suffocate Bitty. He grabs his laptop off the counter in his free hand and makes a break for the door, briskly saying, “Well, you boys have a nice breakfast! I’m just gonna hop in the shower before lecture, I think. Help me wake up while the coffee kicks in and all that.”

The frogs all say goodbye to him as he hurries up the stairs to retreat into his room. Showering probably is a decent idea, although he’s reluctant to be left without his phone for reasons he refuses to examine, and he’s trying to remember if he needs to bring in a new bar of soap with him when he passes Wicks in the upstairs hallway.

“Hey, Bitty!” Wicks greets over his shoulder, already on his way downstairs. “You’re up early.”

Bitty presses his forehead to the wall and sighs.

 

~*~

 

Bitty does end up dragging himself to class, if only because he thinks it might actually take his mind off things somehow. And there might be the nagging thought that he does need to pass this class if he wants to graduate on time, which—well, he’s at least trying to convince himself that’s a genuine motivator. It’s routine from there: lecture, early lunch, a second lecture, back to the Haus to burrow under 2.5 blankets and pretend that pretty much the entire world doesn’t exist.

He kind of wishes the word “routine” was being used more loosely than it is.

It’s not a restful nap at first, for all that he’s practically dead on his feet, but eventually he slips into the kind of deep sleep he wakes up from in a rested but muddled state, the kind where he squeezes his eyes back shut and curls up tighter in his nest of blankets to chase that fleeting feeling of contentment—like if he could just wake up at the right moment he’d drag the easy blankness of sleep with him back into the world. Like it wouldn’t hurt quite as much, prying his head from the pillow and forcing his feet to collide with the floor.

He wakes up once at six-thirty and again at a little past eight, to the sound of a hockey game starting up on the TV downstairs. It’ll be the Aces game, if Dex has anything to say about it.

Bitty could call it idle curiosity, if he felt like lying to himself. He stretches and finally rolls out of bed, checks his phone—still no messages, barring the usual group chat—and tucks Bun back under the covers before he heads down the staircase to voluntarily watch Kent Parson play hockey for the first time in two years.

It’ll be good, Bitty argues, to see Parse’s face. Like maybe it’s the only way to convince himself this morning wasn’t some sleep-deprived, hysteria-fueled hallucination. To make it feel real.

 

~*~

 

It does not feel real.

Because Bitty is staring at the television blankly, somehow paradoxically hyperaware of how much he can’t feel his fingers, and asking Dex, “What did you say?”

Dex drains his beer can, crushes it before tossing it to the side, and repeats, “Kent Parson isn’t playing tonight? Neither is Jeff Troy. The Blues are gonna fuck us, man.”

It takes a weird amount of time for Bitty to make his mouth move, maybe. “Did—did they say why?”

Nursey gives Bitty a weird look from his spot on the couch, but Dex is the one who answers, “Parse’s got some sorta injury? They won’t say what, but he’s scratched from the whole roadie—”

“What?” Bitty squeaks, immediately pulling out his phone to—to what? It isn’t like there are a lot of options, but he feels marginally better to hold it in his hands, anyway. A slight push-back on the growing sense of dread bubbling in his stomach, threatening to work its way out of his throat.

“—and Troy’s a healthy scratch?” Dex continues slowly, apparently caught off-guard by Bitty’s reaction. “Family emergency or something. He’ll be back on Thursday, thank God. We’d be super fucked against the Habs without—”

“That’s nice,” Bitty says absently, already settling for finding Jeff Troy on Twitter and getting the fuck out of this room. Not necessarily in that order. “Well, I’ll be upstairs studyin’ if y’all need me! Big test tomorrow and all.”

He turns tail and flees, barely registering Tango’s confused, “Wait, didn’t he say he was watching with us?” and Nursey’s mumbled answer.

Back in his room, Bitty shuts the door and locks it before sinking down onto the bed and curling on his side. He closes his eyes and presses his face into a pillow for two shaking breaths. Opens his eyes, unlocks his phone.

Jeff Troy hasn’t tweeted in thirty-two hours.

Parse’s Twitter is silent, too.

Bitty is not, contrary to popular belief, falling apart. Hockey players get injured—he knows that as well as anyone—and families have emergencies, and these events are not necessarily related.

Kent Parson is not an emergency.

He’s not Bitty’s emergency.

The last time Kent Parson missed a game, ESPN says, was three years ago when an errant stick cracked his left hand into the boards at the exact wrong angle and broke two of his fingers. He was back on the ice three days later, against medical advice. He scored the game-winning goal.

Bitty presses his fingers into the knot of throbbing muscle above his right eyebrow and spends twenty minutes composing and deleting and re-writing a text.

Bitty (8:34 pm): Um, hi. I don’t really know if you wanted to hear from me again when you gave me your number so…sorry if this is weird? But I just saw that you’re out with an injury and I know how hard that is, and…scary? And no one is saying what’s wrong, but you sounded upset last night so I just wanted to say I’m sorry, and if you did want to talk I’m here? So…yeah. I hope you heal up soon!

It takes another three minutes to hit send.

Bitty isn’t sure what he expects to happen—what he even wants to happen. All things considered, it’s relatively anti-climactic. He’s left with a vague uneasiness under his skin and the urge to climb back under the covers and fall asleep again, even though he knows he’ll be too wired to get any real rest. But it still takes him what feels like too long to get back up and reach for his laptop, to make a cursory effort at getting some work done.

His university email is overflowing with messages, most of them irrelevant, but there’s an email from Alice reminding him that they should meet before he leaves for winter break next month and go over his progress on his thesis. Which honestly just puts the kind of tightness into Bitty’s chest that he can never quite manage to shake, the kind that makes him forget to breathe and his eyes fall shut and his hands shake as they lift up to just close the computer and then it will go away if he doesn’t have to look at it, and—

People move on without you.

Bitty laughs quietly, barely a sound, the smallest puff of air tickling against his lips. He pulls his hands away from the screen and presses them against his face instead, and swallows down a gasp of air.

 

Hi Alice,

 

I’m actually still having a lot of trouble getting started on my thesis, unfortunately. Could we meet tomorrow to go over some strategies?

 

Thank you in advance,

Eric

 

~*~

 

On Thursday evening, three things happen at approximately the same time: Jeff Troy steps onto the ice at Bell Centre, Bitty adds the tenth source to his annotated bibliography, and Kent Parson follows him on Twitter.

Bitty stares down at the notification like it’s some kind of cosmic joke, which it very well may be. It seems about on par with the rest of his life at this point. There’s no explanation or context, no response to Bitty’s two texts that have been sitting unanswered for days. Just a message that says: @kvpurrson90 is now following you on Twitter.

Because fuck actually communicating like an adult, apparently.

Bitty sighs, glares at the notification one last time, and tabs back over to Google Scholar.

 

~*~

 

Bitty doesn’t actually hear from Parse until late that night, after he’s brushed his teeth and left a tray of muffins to cool on the kitchen table and turned all the lights off in his room in an effort to pretend to sleep. His phone buzzes several times in quick succession and lights up, the glare harsh enough on his eyes that he has to burrow his face into a pillow to get away from it for a second before he can unlock his phone and answer.

Parse (1:27 am): Hey

Parse (1:27 am): Hey Bitty

Parse (1:27 am): Which one of these says ‘my cat is a motherfucking princess?’

Parse (1:28 am): [a screenshot of an online store, ostensibly selling tiaras and matching collars for cats]

Bitty pinches the bridge of his nose.

Bitty (1:29 am): Hello, Kent Parson

Bitty (1:29 am): Um, all of them?

Bitty (1:29 am): Why does your cat need a tiara

Parse (1:29 am): Don’t chirp me this is srs business

Parse (1:29 am): Because shes a motherfucking princess

Bitty pauses for a moment to appreciate the fact that Parse is apparently in better spirits, and then sighs, deeply and long-suffering.

Bitty (1:30 am): I like the one with the hot pink collar

Bitty (1:30 am): Is it rude to say I’m surprised you don’t ALREADY have a tiara for your cat

Parse (1:30 am): Yes and also for your information she broke her old one

Bitty (1:31 am): You know, it should be sad that that makes more sense to me

Parse (1:31 am): Haters gonna hate :-*

Bitty mutters, “Oh my God,” and locks his phone. It really is about time to get some sleep.

 

~*~

 

Two days later, Parse texts Bitty a picture of Kit Purrson wearing her new tiara and pink collar. There’s no caption.

Bitty rolls his eyes and replies with a string of emojis to communicate that, yes, Kit does indeed look like a motherfucking princess.

 

~*~

 

Bitty (8:31 am): Is it weird to ask a hockey question?

Parse (11:22 am): Nah what’s up

Bitty (11:24 am): I’m trying to develop my backhand but I’m having trouble getting the positioning for it down? It doesn’t feel as effective as it should be

Parse (11:27 am): Hard to tell without seeing you play. Got a vid you can send me?

Bitty (11:28 am): Oh, um, sure! Thanks so much!! [blushing emoji]

Parse (11:28 am): [thumbs up, winking emoji]

 

~*~

 

Parse (3:04 am): R u still awake?

Bitty squints at his phone, pulls Señor Bun closer to his chest, and sighs.

Bitty (3:07 am): Technically

Parse (3:07 am): Blueberry cobbler

Bitty rubs at his eyes with his free hand. Mondays are usually a wash anyway.

Bitty (3:07 am): Do you have blueberries

Parse (3:08 am): Wow let me rest

Bitty (3:08 am): Do you understand how ironic that is

Bitty (3:08 am): Serious question

Parse (3:09 am): Serious question: blueberry cobbler?

Bitty (3:09 am): …I’ll call you in five

Yeah, Kent Parson is going to be a problem.

 

~*~

 

@kvpurrson90 (11/27/16 9:22 am): [An image of a blueberry cobbler in a Pyrex serving dish, sitting on a granite countertop] Armed 4 first day back at practice w blueberry cobbler courtesy of @omgcheckplease check out his YT channel to ruin ur diet and ur life

@troyj14 (11/27/16 12:03 pm): @omgcheckplease @kvpurrson90 Quick question why are you corrupting my captain

@omgcheckplease (11/27/16 12:47 pm): @troyj14 @kvpurrson90 I take absolutely no responsibility for Kent Parson’s actions

@kvpurrson90 (11/27/16 12:53 pm): @omgcheckplease @troyj14 If UR not responsible 4 my actions & IM not responsible 4 my actions, whats stopping me from baking & eating 7 of these

@omgcheckplease (11/27/16 12:54 pm): @kvpurrson90 @troyj14 Hubris

 

~*~

 

Bitty gets over three thousand new followers on Twitter. One of them is Jeff Troy.

 

~*~

 

Bitty (11:32 pm): That goal in the second was beautiful!!

Parse (1:37 am): Thanks which one :-*

 

~*~

 

Bitty runs a hand through his hair, feels the mousse and sweat slick against his palm. He’s been dancing for hours, days, forever, he’s not sure anymore, but there’s a body warm against his back and hands on his hips, and those things feel good. And his dance partner tips his chin up and kisses him softly, little tugs of teeth and flicks of tongue, and those things feel good too—those things feel—

So different than clammy lips moving down to mouth at his neck, a wet tongue licking up a bead of sweat that leaves the spot feeling cold and wrong and wriggly, and hands that drift down from his hips towards his thighs—and none of that feels the way it should, and he thought he could ease into this and be okay and it felt so nice before and now—

Bitty squirms away between one beat of bass and the next, panting hard and staring up with wide eyes at his partner’s confusion.

“S-sorry!” Bitty blurts. His voice feels hoarse and strange. “I just—um—I’ll be right back?”

He slips into the crowd before the other man can follow, quickly averting his eyes when he catches a concerned gaze from Nursey and Dex, and darts up the stairs. It’s relatively quiet up in his room, despite the music shooting up through his feet as vibrations, and it leaves space in his brain to think—room to breathe—but his heart is still beating like he’s running and his chest hurts from it, and his fingers are numb when he reaches for his phone.

Parse answers on the second ring. “Uh, hey? Bitty?”

“Um, hi,” Bitty says. He stares down at his feet blankly—what the hell is he doing? “Sorry, I, um—you’re prob’ly busy and—”

“Nah,” Parse cuts in easily. “Just thought you had that party tonight.”

Bitty closes his eyes and takes a steadying breath. “It’s, um—it’s kinda boring.”

Parse chuckles. “Yeah?”

Bitty shrugs, even though he knows Parse can’t see, and walks over to sit down on his bed. “What’re you up to?”

“Mm, the usual,” Parse answers. “Online shopping, being ignored by my cat.”

Bitty laughs and flops onto his back. He switches Parse to speakerphone so he can pull Bun to his chest and press his face into the pillow. “D’you wanna learn how to make that pie?”

“You sure you’re not too trashed to teach me right now?” Parse chirps, voice light and warm.

A smile tugs onto Bitty’s lips. “Oh, hun—I could bake this in my sleep.”

“Yeah,” Parse jokes, “that doesn’t actually make me feel better about my chances.”

“I have—hm…” Bitty hums in a sing-song tone, pretending to calculate in his head. “Thirty percent faith in you.”

“You wound me, Bits.”

Bitty rolls his eyes, tries not to think too hard about the way his heart rate has slowed. “Preheat the oven to 425. Did you think about the crust thing?”

“Uh, yeah,” Parse says, and Bitty can hear him switch to speakerphone and bustle around the kitchen. He sounds a little nervous, like he’s expecting Bitty to be judgmental. “I’m gonna start with pre-made. One thing at a time, right?”

“No shame in that,” Bitty reassures him. He lets his eyes drift shut and nestles more soundly into the pillows while they talk, finally relaxing, and murmurs, “Unroll the crust first, then, and get it laid out in the tin.”

Bitty doesn’t know Parse all that well (“ yet,” says a traitorous voice in his head that he refuses to label as hopeful), but he’s fairly certain he can hear a smirk in his voice. “You were serious about the ‘in your sleep’ part, huh?”

“Hush, ‘m not sleeping,” Bitty scolds. “Just drunk.”

“Whatever you say, fearless leader,” Parse sasses, and Bitty would roll his eyes again if they were open. “Okay, I’ve got—”

Whatever Parse was about to say is cut off by a loud knock on the door that’s immediately followed by someone yanking it open, and Bitty yelps in surprise—almost guiltily, even as he tries to remind himself he wasn’t doing anything—and scrambles into a sitting position, lobbing Señor Bun to the far side of the bed, hopefully out of sight.

Parse asks, “Uh, Bits—are you—?”

“Bitty,” Nursey slurs, drawing out the ‘Y’ in an agonizing fashion. He’s braced against the doorframe and very, very drunk. Dex, apparently having been on Nursey Patrol, is standing behind him looking much less apologetic than he should be. “Bitty, where’d you go, bro?”

“Here, clearly,” Bitty tells him hotly, debating whether or not he should hang up the phone, but then—well, he doesn’t want to scare Parse by disappearing. Not that he wouldn’t deserve it.

“Bro,” Nursey repeats, “you gotta come back downstairs. That dude you were dancing with? Total puck bunny. He’s, like—he’s like looking for you bro. Guaranteed dick-sucking.”

Bitty balls his comforter up in his hands to keep his knuckles from aching. “Oh, that’s—I’m a little busy, um—maybe later?”

He locks eyes with Dex to plead for support, desperately wishing Chowder weren’t probably off somewhere with Farmer. Chowder would read the expression on Bitty’s face correctly. Probably. As it is, Dex shrugs unhelpfully and says, “The guy’s pretty hot, Bits. I’d tap that.”

Bitty sort of rues the day he helped talk Dex through his Gay Crisis last year, and then immediately feels awful about regretting that because Dex is so happy now, and then before he works all the way feeling jealous of how easily William “I thought there’d be less baking” Poindexter can admit he’d have casual sex with some stranger with a slimy tongue, he realizes that he should probably use his mouth to make words.

“Yeah, no, he’s—wow, yeah, he was super hot, you’re right, I mean—why else would I dance with him?” Bitty says, high-pitched and awkward and this is definitely too many words. “I’ll, you know— freshen up —and come find him in a sec, okay?”

That seems to satisfy the pair of them, because they vanish back down the stairs with the door re-shut behind them.

Bitty sighs, pressing his face into his hands.

Parse clears his throat and suggests, “I’ll, uh—I can stick this back in the fridge for later,” but the offer sounds hesitant.

“Oh, um—no, I don’t mind staying on with you,” Bitty answers quickly. “I don’t actually, um—well, you already went and got everything out and I know you’ve got the family skate tomorrow, and—”

“Hey, Bitty,” Parse cuts in gently. “Question.”

Bitty sucks in a breath through his nose. “Um, yeah?”

“Why’re you hiding from the best four years of your life in your room?”

Something hot and offended flares up through Bitty’s spine. “I’m—I’m not hiding!” he snaps defensively. “You—I’m doing you a favor, you know.”

“You called me,” Parse snaps back, bristling to match Bitty’s tone, “when apparently you could be getting your brain sucked out through you dick downstairs.”

Bitty’s lip curls and he hisses, “Maybe I don’t want that!”

Which is a mistake, because the other end of the line goes dead silent for a long, agonizing moment before Parse asks, slow and careful, “Like—with that dude specifically or—?”

Bitty hesitates too long to make protesting convincing. “I don’t know.”

“Okay,” Parse says. Like it isn’t weird and stupid and ridiculous. “Is it like, a casual sex thing or an all-sex thing?”

“I don’t know, okay?” Bitty insists, and he hates the way his voice is turning wet. “I don’t—do we have to talk about this?”

“No. Do you wanna?”

Bitty curls his knees up to his chest. “I don’t know.”

Parse’s soft laugh is swallowed up by the sound of the fridge door opening and shutting again. When he speaks next, Bitty isn’t on speakerphone anymore. “You’re—are you—wow, there’s like, zero non-douchey ways of asking this—you are gay though, right?”

Bitty laughs too, relatively humorless though it may be. “I—guess.”

“Explain,” Parse prompts, his tone encouraging without falling into actual pushiness.

“I, um—I guess, like, I know that with guys, it’s like—” Bitty breaks off hesitantly. “Um, are you…sure you wanna hear about this?”

“I’m not a homophobe,” Parse retorts, annoyance and—something like hurt, maybe—creeping into his voice.

Bitty ignores the urge to apologize. “Okay, fine. Well, I—it’s that, I’ve had crushes before, you know? Like, there are guys that I—I see them, and I think about holding hands or, um, cuddling. And…kissing sometimes. And I don’t think those things about girls, so, there’s that.”

“Yeah, I gotcha,” Parse says.

“But I don’t usually, um, look at someone and wanna fuck them, you know?” Bitty ventures. He pauses to rescue Bun from the far side of the bed and hold him in his hands. “And I blamed it on a lotta stuff, you know, but I’m starting to think—I’m worried, I—maybe it’s just me. And I’ve—I try, I really do, but I can’t make—it always feels—that guy my friends mentioned, he—he touched my neck and it felt wrong and the thought of going back there makes me want to—want to—”

“Woah, hey, Bits—it’s okay, okay?” Parse desperately tries to soothe, his voice gentle and hurried all at once. Bitty is glad Parse can’t see his face. “I’m sorry—Christ, I’m so sorry I tried to make you go down there, okay? You don’t have to do anything you don’t want, you know that, right?”

Bitty swipes a hand across his face and then dries the tears off on the bedspread. “But I should want to…shouldn’t I?”

Parse is quiet for a moment. “I don’t think so.”

Bitty squeezes his eyes shut, feels fresh tears roll down his cheeks. Admits in a whisper, “I feel broken.”

“You’re not broken,” Parse insists. His voice cracks over the word.

Bitty laughs dismissively. “Then what am I?”

“I don’t know,” Parse says slowly, like the words hurt to say. “But I know you’re—people don’t get to fucking tell you who you are, okay? You don’t gotta want what your teammates think you should.”

Bitty’s lungs hurt. Softly, because the air refuses to leave his chest any other way, he asks, “No, just what you think—right?”

The silence is long enough to prove the words are deliberate. Parse says, “Fuck you,” and hangs up the phone.

Bitty stares at the call ended message until the screen goes dark. He kicks his shoes off, curls up under the covers, and falls asleep with the fairy lights on.

 

~*~

 

Bitty wakes up with a tongue that tastes like a cottonball, a pounding combination stress-and-hangover headache, and seven unread texts on his phone.

Parse (2:57 am): I’m sorry for hanging up

Parse (2:59 am): Call me back?

Parse (3:06 am): Please?

[You missed a call from: Parse at 3:29 am]

Parse (3:32 am): I guess maybe you fell asleep

Parse (3:33 am): Or you just don’t wanna talk to me

Parse (3:39 am): I’m sorry

Parse (6:07 am): Check your Twitter

Bitty puts his phone face-down on the nightstand and goes back to sleep.

 

~*~

 

The second time Bitty wakes up, it’s nearly one in the afternoon. He’s surprised no one’s come banging on his door demanding breakfast, but then again the party seemed like it got a little crazy for everyone last night. He might even be the first person conscious.

His hangover hasn’t gotten any better by trying to sleep it off, which is predictable and disappointing, and the thought of rolling out of bed to get a glass of water or even the bottle of Advil sitting on his desk makes his stomach churn in protest. So he lays in bed, one arm dangling over the edge as he scrolls through Twitter and stubbornly ignores the handful of DMs from Parse that are glaring at him from his inbox, until there’s a respectful knock on the door that can really only come from one person around here.

“What is it, Chowder?” Bitty asks, trying to keep the annoyance out of his voice.

Chowder opens the door cautiously, like Bitty might be waiting to bite his head off as soon as he pokes it inside. “Morning, Bitty! Or, afternoon, I guess! Anyway, um—Cait and I made pancakes if you want some! I could bring them upstairs if you want. Dex and Nursey are gone, though.”

Which unsubtly tells Bitty that some sort of word got around about last night. Great. He sighs, though, and manages to roll out of bed while only wanting to vomit a little. “Thanks, hun. I’ll come eat with y’all.”

Chowder smiles at that (his braces-less teeth still catching Bitty off-guard, after all this time) and brandishes a water bottle in the hand that he doesn’t have braced against the door. Bitty takes it with a small, grateful smile, and shoves his phone in his pocket while he twists the cap open.

They head down the stairs in companionable silence and join Farmer, Ollie, and Wicks at the kitchen table, tearing into a giant communal stack of pancakes, all with equal fervor. It does wonders for Bitty’s dehydrated little heart, even if there’s an unwilling twist of envy when Chowder leans in and gives Farmer a deep, passionate kiss.

“Aww, y’all are so fucking cute,” Bitty teases warmly, and stabs as many pancakes as his fork will fit onto his plate.

“Damn,” Ollie observes, talking with his mouth full, “you’re supes hungover if you’re cursing at the brunch table, bruh.”

Bitty sniffs inelegantly. “It’s not the brunch table if you’re in two day-old boxers and nothing else, Oliver.”

Ollie shrugs as if to concede the point, and shoves an entire pancake into his mouth.

“Also,” Bitty says, “my head may or may not feel like a rhinoceros trampled over it. What the hell did y’all put in that tub juice?”

Wicks grins, also with his mouth full. Boys. “We, uh—may’ve made some adjustments to Shitty’s old recipe.”

“Shoulda drank more water, dude,” Farmer tells him. “I feel great.”

Bitty glares at her and maintains eye contact the entire time he chugs his water bottle.

So not-brunch actually goes surprisingly well, despite Bitty’s complicated mental cocktail of emotions and hangover. Until his phone starts buzzing again.

Parse (1:30 pm): Look, I see you all over Twitter

Parse (1:31 pm): I get I pissed you off or whatever which like fine I get it

Parse (1:31 pm): Ghost the fuck out of me if you want. It’s not like youre the first

Parse (1:32 pm):  But I wasn’t trying to tell you how to feel

Parse (1:33 pm): I just wanted you to feel less shitty about it

Parse (1:37 pm): Just check Twitter, okay? I’m sorry

Bitty stares at the screen for long enough that Chowder waves a hand in front of his face and asks if he’s okay.

“Oh, um—” Bitty sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose. “I think—I was kinda shitty to a friend last night, actually. I need to—I should go, um—fix it. Thanks for the food, guys.”

He pats Chowder on the shoulder, kisses Farmer’s cheek, and grabs a Gatorade bottle from the fridge on his way out of the kitchen. As much as he hates to admit it, it’s probably time he stopped hiding the flinty taste in his mouth behind the hangover.

Bitty locks the door to his room and finally opens Parse’s DMs on Twitter, frowning when he sees a bunch of links instead of any actual messages—which, to be fair, explains the use of Twitter, and Bitty pulls out his laptop to figure out what all this could possibly be about.

What it’s about, apparently, is a thoughtfully curated guide to queerness, of all things, as if Bitty hasn’t spent the majority of his life experiencing queerness, and—

Well.

He sort of hasn’t, actually, he realizes as he presses his fingers against his eyelids and forces his lungs to stop shaking so fucking hard that he can’t even breathe. Bitty’s spent eighteen years shoving down the word gay, and four years after that repeating it like a mantra to convince himself he’s fine he’s normal and this was how everyone who grew up gay in the South felt and there were no other ways to feel, no other things to be. Just gay. He should be able to do that much right, shouldn’t he?

And this—these websites are throwing around words like ace and demisexual and grey-A, things Bitty associated with Shitty’s rants about queer studies that never felt wrong or stupid, obviously, but like too much and like they couldn’t possibly apply to Bitty. Like none of these things were allowed to belong to him until someone asked. Like maybe they still don’t, even if they’re being held up on a carefully pruned offering plate (as if he might gorge himself otherwise, clog up his throat with names and possibilities and affirmations), even if he could pluck them out with his fingers.

There’s Wikipedia pages and think pieces on the differences between sexual and romantic attraction and Tumblr positivity blogs, and a single message from Parse at the end of it all.

@kvpurrson90 (5:43 am): Call yourself whatever you want, just not broken

Bitty puts his head between his knees and lets the welled-up tears fall.

 

~*~

 

It takes Bitty a good twenty minutes to pull himself together before he can look at his phone again. There aren’t any new messages from Parse, which is far from unexpected—he’s probably in the middle of family skate right now, and even if he weren’t, well—Bitty doesn’t blame him for giving up. He considers calling outright, but it feels…too sudden, maybe. Pushy.

Bitty (2:10 pm): Can you call me when you’re free?

Bitty (2:10 pm): I’m the one who should be sorry

After hitting send, he pushes off the bed with the intention of taking a shower while he waits, hoping the steam will loosen the gunk forming in his lungs and let him breathe easier, but he gets caught off-guard with his shirt pulled halfway off his head when the phone starts ringing.

“Shit,” Bitty mutters, heart suddenly picking up speed, and he gets his shirt tangled up in his elbows as he panics and fumbles between trying to pull it off or shrug it back onto his body—the call nearly goes to voicemail by the time he settles for taking it off, but he catches it on the last ring.

“Hello?” he asks, embarrassingly breathless, sinking back down onto the bed and kicking at his shirt with his feet.

Parse’s end of the call is noisy, cluttered with laughter and the squeals of children in the background; he’s clearly still at the rink. But he doesn’t sound put-out when he answers, “Hey, Bitty?”

Bitty closes his eyes in relief. “You coulda waited, you know.”

“I, uh—I didn’t—” Parse cuts off with a grunt and a distant thump, a grainy voice chirping ‘Parser, pay attention to us!’ and a second voice asking, ‘Is that the guy—’ before Parse cuts back in, hissing, “Yes! Fuck off, Jeff!”

Bitty giggles despite himself, his free hand coming up to his mouth to stifle the sound.

The line is quiet for a second, persistent background noise notwithstanding. Eventually, Parse clears his throat and says, “I didn’t wanna. Wait, I mean.”

“Oh, um. Thanks.” Bitty wipes at an errant tear as it wells in his eye. “I, um—I wanted to say—well, I mean—” He laughs self-deprecatingly. “Sorry, I’m so awkward with apologies. Real ones, anyway.”

Parse laughs too. “’S’okay. I know the feeling.”

Bitty smiles down at his knees, takes a few moments. “I, um—you don’t have to apologize, for last night. I’m the one who—I was really mean to you. It wasn’t fair.”

“I’m kinda a career asshole,” Parse plaintively counters. “I usually deserve it.”

“Probably,” Bitty allows wryly, “but not this time. I’m sorry, Parse.”

Parse’s silence is poignant. He says, “I forgive you. Thanks, for, you know—thanks.”

Bitty draws little circles across his kneecap. “I looked at some of the stuff you sent me. Did you—um, how did you know all that?”

This time, Parse’s laugh is sheepish. “I, uh—I didn’t? I sorta, uh—fell down the rabbit hole googling it all, last night. I just knew—there had to be something, right? I couldn’t leave it the fuck alone. Sorry if like, that was weird.”

Bitty shakes his head vehemently, teeth dug into his bottom lip. “No! No, it was—um. Lord, this is gonna sound, like, so pathetic.”

“Bet I’ve had you beat at least twice in my life,” Parse teases softly. The lilt of his voice is so out of place for his surroundings, all the yelling and joy around him.

Bitty, strangely, clings to it. He whispers, “It’s maybe the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for me.”

Parse’s breathing is heavy through the line, like he doesn’t know what to say. There’s the sound of a woman’s voice in the background, though Bitty doesn’t catch what she says, and his laughter in response. She says something else and then ostensibly leaves, because Parse is quiet again until he asks Bitty, “I’m, uh—so it—it helped?”

Bitty chews on his lip some more. “Mostly just gives me more questions, honestly. But, um—ones I feel better asking?”

“Guess that’s progress,” Parse answers tentatively, almost a question.

Bitty agrees, “Feels like it,” and then takes a nervous breath. “It’s, um, a lot to wade through. I—I don’t think I could’ve—thank you, for, um. For helping me…do some of that.”

Parse’s voice is so, so warm. “Yeah, Bits. Anything.”

Bitty doesn’t quite believe that. Anything. It’s a nice sentiment. He’s watched better men break narrower promises. But he clears his throat and says, “I still gotta teach you that pie.”

Parse tells him, “I’ll call you tonight.”

It’s a better place to start.

 

~*~

 

Parse does call that night. And the night after.

He starts calling most nights, actually, which Bitty is only a little baffled by. Most of the time they just bake, Parse slowly working through Bitty’s repertoire with a surprising amount of success that inflates his already sizeable ego.

(“I could fistfight a fucking hippo right now,” Parse declares the first night he makes a lattice crust that doesn’t fall apart in the oven.

“That has nothing to do with baking!” Bitty exclaims, mid-laugh. “What the hell is wrong with you?”

“So much shit, Bits,” Parse answers, with less warmth in every word. “So much shit.”)

Sometimes Parse sends Bitty selfies with his triumphs—or particularly spectacular failures. Bitty learns that Parse’s nose wrinkles up when he smiles—really smiles, not the kind he holds his lips apart for when he’s staring down a room full of reporters that smell his blood in the water, not the kind he wears to a frat party he’s paraded around at, fawned over by everyone except—

Sometimes Bitty sits on the kitchen floor and stares at the pictures a little too long, his thumbs pressed into the sides of his phone to keep his hands from tracing over Parse’s features on the screen. And the thing is—Parse is so pretty. In the objective, aesthetically pleasing way. Not in the getting hot and bothered, popping a boner to the ESPN body issue kinda way. The body issue was…fine.

(Parse is hilariously indignant when Bitty tells him this. Which is good; the man needs his ego knocked down a peg or two. But.

“It is better than Tyler Seguin’s,” Bitty allows, face pressed between his knees as he wheezes, getting his laughter under control.

Parse whoops triumphantly, and Bitty winces, sending a silent apology to Parse’s neighbors. “Can I tell him that? Please let me tell him that.”

“Fine.” Bitty sighs, long-suffering, then grins. “Tell him your tattoos are better. At least you don’t have a Stanley Cup on your ass.”

Parse cackles. “Mine’s a tramp stamp.”

Bitty’s head shoots back up. “It is not. That wasn’t in the pictures!”

“Yeah, ‘cause I know how to cover my marks up,” Parse explains, sounding smug. Like he wears the statement like a badge of honor. Bitty doesn’t have the courage to unpin it.)

So—the point is—Parse is pretty. And Bitty maybe wouldn’t be opposed to seeing his smile a little more often. Like, over Skype, maybe. While Bitty demonstrated some advanced techniques— and, no, that’s not a sex joke Kent Parson, honestly, don’t be a child—which is really just a natural progression of their baking friendship. Really. Parse would be experiencing the same thing if he just watched Bitty’s vlog, which he refuses to do.

(“I like it when you teach me,” Parse insists. His voice is close and warm, which means he’s not on speakerphone.

Bitty wrinkles his eyebrows together. “I technically would be teaching you. It’s me on all the videos.”

Parse is quiet for a moment. He doesn’t quite manage the chirping tone he’s going for. “You trying to get rid of me, Bits?”

Bitty squeezes his eyes shut as tight as they’ll go, and then tighter than that. “No, never.”)

So Parse happily Skypes in for the first time the Wednesday before winter break starts, and his first words are, “Seggy says your opinion doesn’t count.”

Bitty raises his eyebrows in a very specific combination of surprise and indignation. “He—excuse me?”

Parse pops a grape into his mouth. He’s wearing Aces sweatpants and an Islanders t-shirt that stretches too tight across his shoulders, because he’s a filthy jock and a traitor, apparently. “Since you’re, you know—” He gestures at the camera vaguely. “Not into fucking.”

“Usually,” Bitty corrects automatically, sort of off-handed, and Parse raises an eyebrow but apparently files that away for later. Great. Bitty turns away from the camera, stretching to grab his springform pan from the top cabinet and hide the embarrassed flush on his face. “Anyway, that is so not a valid criticism.”

Parse hums in the back of his throat, his non-verbal signal for ‘Go ahead.’

“I know what I like when I see it,” Bitty says with a shrug. “I just don’t wanna fuck it.”

Parse snorts and adds, “Usually,” in a dry voice, clearly chirping him.

Bitty rolls his eyes. “Okay, so get the springform pan and—” He cuts off when he turns around to look back at the camera. “Um, what’re you looking at me like that for?”

Parse blinks rapidly and runs a hand through his hair, chuckling self-deprecatingly. “Sorry, I was just—you didn’t used to like, joke around about this. It’s—it’s nice, you know?”

“Oh, um—I guess,” Bitty says, suddenly embarrassed again and averting his gaze. “I—well, you’re still the only person who, um. Knows. Well, you and Tyler Seguin, apparently.”

He looks up in time to catch the edges of a grimace on Parse’s face. “Uh, sorry if that was—I didn’t, like, tell him your name or anything, if it matters.”

Bitty worries at his bottom lip. “No, it’s fine. I mean, I told you it was okay to chirp him about it. Just weird to think about, you know? It feels…more real.”

“Yeah,” Parse agrees, and falls silent. He grabs his pan from somewhere off-camera, rotating it in his hands thoughtfully. “So, like, real talk—what the fuck is a springform pan?”

Bitty laughs, startled and honest. “Oh my God, bless your heart.”

Parse narrows his eyes, but there’s a smile wrinkling up his nose. “I know that’s an insult, asshole.”

Bitty laughs again, teeth dragging across his lip as he smiles back. “At least you’ve retained somethin’.”

Parse cuts out his video for a full five minutes in petty revenge, spluttering about his impeccable baking skills all the while.

Chowder comes downstairs into the kitchen and asks Bitty if he’s okay, because apparently when Bitty laughs this hard, it sounds a little like the raccoon infestation has come back and gotten into breakfast cereal again.

He’d forgotten it could be like that.

 

~*~

 

Parse (5:27 pm): Segs wants to know if he can start a feud with you on Twitter

Bitty blinks down at his phone in confusion, rubs at his eyes, and blinks again. The message doesn’t change.

Bitty (6:10 pm): What?

His plane’s just touched down in Atlanta and he’s dawdling in the back, waiting for his turn to disembark. This is really not the best time to be dealing with Parse’s antics.

Bitty (6:11 pm): How can we have a feud if he asks me ahead of time

Bitty (6:11 pm): That doesn’t make any sense

Parse (6:13 pm): Its like

Parse (6:13 pm): What’s that thing

Parse (6:13 pm): Do you bite ur thumb at me sir

Bitty presses a hand to his face.

Bitty (6:14 pm): I don’t think that’s how that reference works

Parse (6:14 pm): Do u bite ur thumb or not, Bits

All the people in front of Bitty’s row have cleared out, now. He helps the woman sitting next to him get her suitcase down and then waits for the other people around him to pass by first.

Bitty (6:16 pm): omg fine I guess

Bitty (6:17 pm): [thumb emoji, fencing man emoji, skull]

Parse (6:17 pm): Unnecessarily violent but ok

Bitty rolls his eyes and lugs his duffel bag down the aisle, texting one-handed as he goes.

Bitty (6:18 pm): Hi, Parse. I made it safely to Atlanta [side-eye emoji]

Parse (6:18 pm): Hi Bitty glad ur not dead :-*

Parse (6:19 pm): [airplane emoji, fire emoji]

Bitty’s parents are waiting for him at baggage claim, so he pockets his phone for the time being to gather his mother in a hug and offer Coach a firm handshake and a tentative smile. Coach’s mustache twitches and his eyes crinkle up just a little.

Mama fusses with the curl of Bitty’s bangs, fluffing at them with nervous fingers, and tuts with obvious disappointment, “Oh, Dicky, I was hoping you’d grow your hair back out before graduation.”

Bitty grips his freshly-retrieved suitcase until his knuckles turn white.

 

~*~

 

Bitty (11:31 pm): Serious question and you literally cant make fun of me

Parse (11:38 pm): When have I ever made fun of you

Bitty (11:38 pm): An hour ago

Parse (11:39 pm): I was a different person then. I’ve grown so much

Bitty (11:39 pm): Parse…

Parse (11:40 pm): Dude, I promise not to be a dick. What’s up?

Parse (11:47 pm): Bitty?

Bitty (11:48 pm): …does my undercut make me look too…twinky?

Parse (11:49 pm): Twinkhood is a social construct

Bitty (11:49 pm): I said don’t make fun of me >:(

Bitty (11:49 pm): Like just tell me if my hair looks bad

Parse (11:50 pm): You asked if it was twinky not if it looked bad

Bitty (11:52 pm): Look idk if this is like a no homo thing or whatever but it won’t turn you gay to tell me what you think of my fucking hair

 

~*~

 

Parse (12:33 am): I don’t like who you are in Georgia

Bitty (12:35 am): Me neither

 

~*~

 

Parse (1:22 am): I think your hair is great

Parse (1:22 am): Fwiw

Bitty (1:27 am): My mom thinks I should grow it out

Parse (1:27 am): Are we at the stage of our friendship where I can say fuck your mom

Bitty (1:29 am): Apparently

Bitty (1:30 am): …thank you

 

~*~

 

@tseguinofficial (12/16/16 11:03 am): @omgcheckplease says @kvpurrson90 ‘s body issue was better than mine because he has no taste

Bitty scrubs at his face, blinking the sleep out of his eyes, and then sighs. The tweet has a startling amount of traffic on it, including plenty of bickering fans taking sides. There’s even a page-by-page comparison set up, but Bitty ignores all that in favor of just replying to Seguins’ tweet directly.

@omgcheckplease (12/16/16 11:07 am): @tseguinofficial @kvpurrson90 You know that literally no one else gets this joke, right?

@tseguinofficial (12/16/16 11:23 am): @omgcheckplease @kvpurrson90 What joke

@kvpurrson90 (12/16/16 11:25 am): @tseguinofficial @omgcheckplease I can’t tell if this is offensive or not

Bitty laughs and takes a second to shoot Parse a text saying that, no, he’s not offended, before switching back to Twitter

@omgcheckplease (12/16/16 11:28 am): @kvpurrson90 @tseguinofficial What’s offensive was the size of that rubber duck. Honestly. [teacup emoji, chirping bird emoji]

@tseguinofficial (12/16/16 11:29 am): @omgcheckplease @kvpurrson90 Parse covered his with an ENTIRE HAT

@kvpurrson90 (12/16/16 11:32 am): @tseguinofficial @omgcheckplease [an entire row of winking-kiss emoji]

@troyj14 (12/16/16 11:35 am): @kvpurrson90 @tseguinofficial @omgcheckplease It’s almost Christmas please do your PR teams a favor and cease & desist

@omgcheckplease (12/16/16 11:38 am): @troyj14 @kvpurrson90 @tseguinofficial Speak for yourselves, I’m a one man show over here

@tseguinofficial (12/16/16 11:45 am): @omgcheckplease @troyj14 @kvpurrson90 Oh wait I get the joke now haha nice

A knock on the door catches Bitty mid-eye roll, and his mother asks, “Dicky, are you still coming to the farmer’s market?”

Shit. Bitty scrambles out of bed and digs around in his suitcase for a pair of jeans. “Just a sec, Mom, sorry!”

 

~*~

 

@tseguinofficial (12/22/16 3:35 pm): [a picture of Tyler Seguin glaring tiredly at the camera, holding an Aces snapback that looks eerily similar to the one from Kent Parson’s ESPN body issue three years prior. Parse has signed it in gold Sharpie] @kvpurrson90 thinks he’s funny

Bitty favorites the tweet. Seguin follows him on Twitter.

 

~*~

 

Parse (10:42 pm): Wanna Skype tonight?

Bitty chews on his bottom lip and takes a look around the room. It’s Christmas Eve and the entirety of the Bittle and Phelps combined-clan is squeezed into his parents’ living room, chairs dragged in from the kitchen and dining room with cousins sharing seats to make space for everyone.

He’s curled up on an armchair alone.

Bitty (10:42 pm): Gimme an hour or so?

Parse (10:43 pm): :)

So Bitty waits for the extended family to clear out and his parents to settle in by the television, then grabs his laptop from his room and makes his way back to the kitchen. He’s doing a mental count of how many eggs they have left, wondering if he could show Parse how to make a custard, when the Skype call goes through.

“Oh! Um, you—” Bitty splutters, abruptly at a loss for words because—well, Parse doesn’t exactly look prepared to bake a custard. He’s reclined on his bed, shirtless, Kit nestled under one tattooed arm.

“Uh, sorry,” Parse says, eyes going a little wide at Bitty’s confusion. “I’ll, uh—I can go put on a shirt if it’s weird—”

“What? No, I just, um—” Bitty laughs awkwardly. “I thought we were baking?”

Parse visibly relaxes against the pillows, his hand going back to petting Kit with gentle strokes. Which, well—maybe it’s a little weird, but not in the sense that Bitty cares if Parse is shirtless. It’s just that—Parse looks so soft and comfortable, and he called just to talk, which is—well, it’s not like they don’t talk on the phone just for the sake of it. But they only ever Skype when Parse needs to see Bitty.

There’s a wriggling feeling in Bitty’s stomach he doesn’t know what to do with. He snaps his head up when Parse asks, “Uh, Bits?”

“Sorry—what?”

Parse laughs. “Uh, I said I’m kinda too wiped to bake tonight, sorry. The kids wore me out.”

Bitty smiles; Parse’s yearly tradition of spending Christmas Eve with Jeff’s family was well documented on Twitter. “Oh, that’s okay. I just didn’t—you surprised me. We can just, um, talk?”

“Cool,” Parse says. He scratches behind Kit’s ears and sinks down lower under his comforter.

Bitty scoops his laptop up and starts to head towards his room. “Just lemme—”

“Oh, Dicky, are you heading to bed already?”

Bitty purses his lips and looks guiltily at his mother, who stands in the kitchen doorway with the wrinkles on her face folding into a frown. He fights the urge to stare at his feet when he says, “Oh, um—I was gonna Skype a friend, actually.”

He decides not to brandish the fact that his friend is a half-naked Kent Parson, surreptitiously minimizing Skype on the screen. Not that she shouldn’t be used to it, from his days of Skyping with Shitty.

Mama’s frown deepens with disappointment. “Oh. I was hopin’ you’d spend some time with us. You don’t see enough of them up at school? You’re only with your family a week, you know.”

Bitty’s knees hurt from being bent up in that chair for so long. He can feel his ribs creaking. “I’m not goin’ anywhere tomorrow. You’ll have me all day.”

“Whenever you’re not payin’ more attention to that phone of yours.” She reaches out and touches his bicep. “Don’t you miss us at all?”

It’s funny, Bitty thinks, how his mother can look so small and so impossibly insurmountable all at once. He could lift her with one arm and her hand could dig clean through into his chest. He says, “I can miss my friends too, you know. I Skype you while I’m at school.”

His mother drops her hand and steps away, just enough, and tells him, “Well, goodnight, I guess.”

He clears his throat and tells her goodnight too and brushes past her with his laptop carefully cradled away from her face.

“Dicky?” she asks, when he’s two steps up the stairs with his shoulders hunched and quivering. Her voice is quiet, like she’s afraid. “Are you gonna job hunt in Georgia?”

Bitty’s heart crawls up his throat. He can’t remember how to look at her at all. He whispers, “Merry Christmas, Mama,” and leaves her standing in the hallway.

 

~*~

 

Bitty finds Parse sitting exactly how he left him when he pulls Skype back up and shoves his head between his knees. They both wait quietly, Bitty shaking and Parse staring, while they figure out if Bitty is going to cry.

He doesn’t cry. He looks up while the tears are still welling and scrubs them away and asks, “You’re close to your mom, right?”

Parse swallows and purses his lips together, and his voice sounds scratchy and far away when he answers, “Uh, yeah, I—I guess.”

“Was it ever—” Bitty’s voice cracks and he starts over. “Was it ever like this?”

“Like how?” Parse prompts gently, so gently, and Bitty wants to claw at his own skin.

“Like everything’s two inches to the left and she—like she’ll never—” Bitty shoves his hands in his hair and tugs at it to keep his head lifted, to keep from falling apart. “Like she’ll never understand me again. I can’t remember the last time I felt like she knew me.” His voice drops to a whisper, so quiet he’s not sure Parse can even hear. “Maybe she never did.”

Parse is quiet, waiting, like there’s more to say.

Bitty takes a hand out of his hair and presses his fingernails into his kneecap. “I feel like I used to be the son she wanted. Or—or she used to be a better mother.”

“You’re a good son,” Parse says.

Bitty looks up at him, tilts his head. “You said people move on without each other, right? I’m—I can feel myself doing it, and it hurts so much, Parse—it hurts. How do people just do this all the time? How did he—?”

Bitty cuts off as soon as he says it, smarting and confused and afraid and not wanting to talk about it at all, but Parse is a fucking bloodhound. He straightens a little and his voice is soft, and he asks, “He?”

“It’s stupid,” Bitty mumbles.

“Bet it’s not,” Parse tells him. “But you don’t gotta talk about it.”

Bitty leans over to tug Bun out of his suitcase and then rights himself on the bed, slipping under the covers and tugging his computer onto his lap. He’s never told anyone about Jack. He doesn’t know what it is about Parse that makes him want to pick at scabs and cover his hands in old blood. “I don’t, um—I don’t know where to start.”

It’s a lie. He knows how the story goes, where to grasp at each thread and follow it along until the end; he’s been telling it to himself for a year and a half, trying to pull it apart. But it buys him time, and an understanding hum from Parse, and the swell of his lungs when he remembers to breathe.

“He was, um—he was my teammate,” Bitty starts eventually. He doesn’t know what keeps him from saying Jack’s name, but he leaves it pressed to the backs of his teeth like graffiti waiting to be scrubbed clean. “And it started, um, like it always does, I guess—or, well. I didn’t even like him at first. But then I did, and then he—we were friends. And I had this stupid crush, like I always get.”

“I hate it when you say that,” Parse cuts in softly. “That you’re stupid. Why d’you always do that?”

Bitty blinks up at him numbly. “I dunno. I just—I dunno. We’d go for coffee or froyo and he always paid and we hugged when we cellyed, and sometimes we’d sit really close on the couch, and it was—it was really all I’d wanted anyway, right? I thought maybe—it’d just be like that, you know? He was my best friend, and it didn’t really matter that he was straight, because I’d never, you know—and then we were baking one day and I— Lord, I finally got it. How other people felt.”

“How they felt?” Parse asks.

Bitty closes his eyes and ducks his head down. His smile is sad, brittle. “Like, in those movies? Where people grab each other by the shirt collars and kiss so hard it looks like it hurts? And the guy shoves the girl up against the wall and you’re supposed to want him to fuck you like that?”

“Bitty—”

“I’ve never wanted anyone like that.” Bitty whispers it, earnest and terrified like the secret it is. Like Parse will have to take it to his grave. “I’ve never looked at anyone else and wondered what his dick would feel like in my mouth. I’d—I’d have let him do anything to me. And he was straight and he graduated and he left and it didn’t matter to him at all. Why should it? He didn’t—he couldn’t know. I’m just some messed up gay kid who fucking imprinted on him or whatever, and I’ll never—”

“You’re not —”

“—I’ll never feel like that again, maybe,” Bitty finishes quietly. He picks at a stray fuzz on one of Bun’s ears and then looks up at Parse again, pleading, stubbornly ignoring the fresh tears welling in his eyes. “Do you think I’ll ever feel that again?”

Parse scrubs at his face, drags his fingers roughly through his hair. “I—I don’t know. Fuck, I’m sorry, I don’t know.”

Bitty laughs, humorless.

Kit wakes up and jumps off Parse’s bed. He watches her go and says, “My ex, you know, uh—my ex fucked me up pretty good. Not, uh—I mean, Christ knows sex was never the problem. But I’ve never, you know—that feeling of like, you’re so fucking scared that that was it for you and you’ll never get that back? I get that.”

There’s a numbness in Bitty’s spine, like it’s rusted shut. He bites at his bottom lip. “Do you still think that?”

“Maybe.” Parse looks back over at the screen. “I—maybe it’s better that way, for me. What we had—it wasn’t good, you know? It was—we were fucked up teenagers and we just kept fucking each other up more. But it was—I’ve never fucking loved someone so much, ever—sometimes it was like I could do anything, as long as—if we were together. I don’t know how to, like, get one without the other.”

Bitty pulls his teeth away and tastes blood under his tongue. “I hope you do, one day.”

Parse is quiet for a long time, his eyes turned downwards and hands fidgeting in his lap. The tattoos on his arms flash strangely in the light, the way Bitty’s mother used to make shadow puppets move across the wall. “Was it Zimmermann?”

“Yes,” Bitty answers. What’s one more confession? “I thought, you know—maybe it’d be weird to tell you that. Since, um, he was your best friend, wasn’t he?”

Parse isn’t looking at the screen. Not at the camera, not at Bitty’s face. It’s like he’s not looking anywhere at all, the way everything falls off his face at once and his eyes turn shiny and dark.

“Wasn’t he?” Parse asks softly, a beat too late. Bitty’s not sure that it’s rhetorical, even a little.

 

~*~

 

Parse (3:17 pm): When do you go back to school

Bitty (3:18 pm): Um, the 30th, why?

Instead of answering over text, Parse calls him, and Bitty scrambles to answer. “Um, hello?”

“We play Providence on the first.”

Bitty laughs reflexively, an awkward sound. “Oh, um—I guess I should’ve realized. I haven’t been keeping up with the schedules.”

Parse laughs too. He sounds nervous. “I, uh—I’m flying in the afternoon before, though, and I thought, uh—I mean, I could get you tickets, and…maybe we could hangout?”

“Oh, um—”

“Maybe that’s weird, fuck—it’s okay if you don’t, uh—” Parse hesitates and his voice goes quiet. “I really wanna see you.”

Bitty’s stomach twists a little, sending a nervous energy up his spine. He suddenly feels shy in a way he hasn’t around Parse in months. Two nights ago he was whispering secrets he’d never told anyone, like he planned to wring himself dry. Now he feels swollen with unsaid things, like they might still be strangers.

“I wanna see you too,” he admits, the words wavering a little over his tongue. He laughs again, like there’s nothing else to fill the silence with. “Sorry, I don’t, um—I don’t know why I’m bein’ so weird about this.”

“No, it’s—it’s okay,” Parse assures him. “It’s weird. I feel really fucking weird.”

Bitty smiles fondly and draws his knees up to his chest, wrapping an arm around his legs. “I’d love to come to the game. Um, are you sure it’s not too much trouble to get tickets?”

“’Course not,” Parse says easily, like he’s a little relieved. “I’ve, uh—we’ve got practice in the morning, but then I’m free for a while before the game and, uh, after of course. So, uh—I mean, I know you’ve got your own stuff, probably—”

“Morning practice like you,” Bitty interrupts gently. “Nothin’ I can’t work around.”

“Oh, uh, cool. I can like, send you my schedule, then?” Parse offers.

Bitty bites his lip. “Sure. And, um—there’s—we’re throwing a party for New Year’s Eve, so—I’m not sure how busy you are the night before? But, um—you could come…if you wanted.”

There’s a silence for so long that Bitty almost takes the offer back, but eventually Parse says, “I, uh—shit doesn’t go well for me when I show up at Jack’s school.”

Bitty sucks his lip into his mouth, runs his tongue over the sore spots left by his teeth. “It’s not Jack’s school anymore. It’s mine.”

Parse is quiet again. He asks, “Do you want me there?”

“Yeah,” Bitty promises softly, his chest aching. “I really do.”

Parse lets out a breath that Bitty hears crackle through the phone. “Okay.”

 

~*~

 

Bitty spends his last few days in Georgia in an easy limbo. He bakes with Mama and talks football with Coach and goes to church one last Sunday.

And then he gets on a plane back home.

 

~*~

 

Parse (8:17 pm): I’m outside

Bitty drops his phone onto the table and takes off for the door at embarrassing speed, shouting, “Dex, watch the cookies!” over his shoulder without waiting for an answer. He skids to a halt when he yanks the door open and stumbles onto the porch, suddenly self-conscious about seeming too eager, and catches a breath halfway up his throat when his eyes land on Parse.

It’s twilight, the dim streetlamps muddling with leftover sunlight, and Parse is leaning up against a gunmetal gray Honda Civic with his face turned downward, kicking at a loose chunk of asphalt. He looks like a knockoff frat boy, backwards snapback and cuffed jeans and all. His watch is still too expensive for the rest of his clothes and his posture is too casual, all bent-up angles and slouched shoulders, like he’s tired of making himself look bigger.

Bitty lets the screen door swing shut and Parse looks up eagerly at the sound, straightening when he catches sight of Bitty. He locks the car and strides across the street and Bitty bounds down the porch to meet him on the lawn, and the hug loosens something in Bitty’s chest he hadn’t known was festering.

“Um, hi,” Bitty says, breathless and laughing softly. His fingers curl into the back of Parse’s flannel as he leans in closer, feeling the way Parse shifts to move with him. It’s a long hug, probably awkwardly so, but Parse doesn’t seem to care.

He murmurs, “Hey, Bits,” and tightens his arms. Bitty’s cheek presses against his neck and he presses back, his face brushing into Bitty’s hair, and it feels raw, strange, that he can do that. That he’s here, that he’s real, that the past month and half happened.

Kent Parson is maybe, definitely Bitty’s best friend. He’s held secrets and fears and revelations, and he’s standing on Bitty’s frat house lawn, three feet from a discarded Solo cup with a condom wrapper stuffed inside. They’re still hugging.

They hug until Tango says, “Woah! Is that Kent Parson?” and Dex shouts, “Don’t be dumb, why would—holy shit, that’s Kent Parson!”

Bitty rolls his eyes and pulls away reluctantly, shivering when Parse’s hands tickle against his sides as they part.

“You didn’t warn them?” Parse asks with quiet amusement, shooting Bitty an eyebrow raise as the team crowds onto the porch.

“Believe it or not, that’d just make them worse,” Bitty tells him.

Parse hums and pats Bitty on the shoulder, and suddenly it’s like he’s been strung up by his skin, a living marionette. His grin disappears, lips sealing shut into a smirk, and there’s something different about his eyes—a new shade of blue, icier, maybe, without the earnestness of before. He squares his shoulders like he’s bracing for an impact. Bitty takes a half-step to the side, like he might get caught by the blast.

Parse says, “Sup, Samwell? Long time no see,” and heads up the steps.

 

~*~

 

Dex (8:55 pm): I literally cannot believe you guys are STILL BAILING on us

Chowder (8:56 pm): Guys!! Kent Parson is literally at the Haus you gotta come!!!

Chowder (8:56 pm): And we miss you! :(

Dex (8:57 pm): Like if Shitty is dragging his ass down from Harvard…

Holster (8:59 pm): Bros IM SORRY okay

Holster (9:00 pm): We’ve got JOBS

Holster (9:00 pm): I can’t get wasted on a Sunday night and drag my ass to work in the morning anymore

Ransom (9:03 pm): We’ll come to a game next weekend or something promise

Bitty (9:04 pm): I’ll make your favorite pies :(((((

Ransom (9:07 pm): Its gotta be a raincheck bud

Lardo (9:18 pm): I gotta bail too

Lardo (9:18 pm): Someone beat Parson at flip cup for me tho

Bitty stares down at his phone and inhales through his nose, tries to flush out the disappointment he feels. There’s a tightness in his jaw he can’t shake and suddenly the noise from the growing crowd in the keg room is jarring under his skin.

“Hey, sorry that took so—are you okay?” Parse thunks down into the kitchen chair next to Bitty, a hand braced near Bitty’s shoulder. He’s been swept up by autographs and fawning fans for the past hour, and it’s not that Bitty blames him, but—it stills stings.

Bitty hands Parse his phone wordlessly instead of answering him, eyes fixed on his lap while Parse reads through the conversation. When he’s done, Parse sets the phone facedown on the table and slides his arm across the back of Bitty’s chair.

Bitty slumps backwards, feels Parse’s flannel tickle his neck.

Parse drops his hand onto Bitty’s shoulder.

The front door opens and closes with a surge of voices. The party won’t really and truly be in swing for at least another hour—Shitty hasn’t even made it over yet—but the crowd is certainly growing. Ollie and Wicks will probably bring down the first round of tub juice soon. Bitty should probably warn Parse not to drink that.

“Hey,” Parse asks, “what’s, like, the hardest thing you’ve ever baked?”

Bitty’s grin spreads as slow as molasses.

 

~*~

 

@doctornurse (12/31/16 9:37 pm): [A slightly blurry cellphone photo of Kent Parson crouched down and glaring into an oven. He is covered in flour.] When an NHL star shows up at your party…and loses a fight with a soufflé? [blushing emoji] @kvpurrson90 @omgcheckplease

@kvpurrson90 (12/31/16 9:39 pm): @doctornurse This is slander the soufflé is delicious @omgcheckplease back me up

@omgcheckplease (12/31/16 9:40 pm): @kvpurrson90 @doctornurse It ain’t pretty but it gets the job done [angel emoji, smirking emoji]

@troyj14 (12/31/16 9:45 pm): @omgcheckplease @kvpurrson90 @doctornurse Parser why did you set my microwave on fire making easy mac last week if you can bake a soufflé

@doctornurse (12/31/16 9:47 pm): @troyj14 @omgcheckplease @kvpurrson90 Lololol call [clapping emoji] him [clapping emoji] out [clapping emoji]

@kvpurrson90 (12/31/16 9:47 pm): @doctornurse @troyj14 @omgcheckplease Bitty hasn’t taught me easy mac yet

 

~*~

 

“I still think you should lemme try again,” Parse insists, gesturing with the hand holding a Solo cup filled with cheap beer. Some of it sloshes over the rim and onto the tile. He’s significantly tipsier than he was before the baking process started. “If I don’t have the pie to worry about, it totally won’t fall this time.”

Bitty rolls his eyes, plucks the cup from Parse’s hand and chugs half of it, then sets it down on the counter as he wipes a hand over his mouth. He may or may not also be significantly tipsier. “Look, hun, I think you gotta—ugh, I hate Natty Light—you gotta accept defeat on this one.”

“I’m insulted you’d even suggest that,” Parse tells him, his now cup-less hand pressed to his chest. “It’s like you don’t even know me.”

Bitty gestures at the small crowd of people that’s started to gather in the kitchen. “This is officially a disaster zone, I can’t—”

“Holy motherfucking shit, Eric Bittle, you glorious motherfucker!”

The sound of Shitty’s voice is unmistakable, and Bitty quickly shoves the pie tin and several Solo cups away from the edge of the counter—he narrowly avoids disaster as, predictably, Shitty tackles him backwards and tries to give him a noogie. They stumble into Parse, who catches their combined weight easily despite all the cheap beer he’s been downing since Nursey found them in the kitchen, and Bitty laughs elatedly, feeling warm and surrounded by trusted touch and the exact right side of nostalgic.

“You beautiful little shit, I can’t believe you remembered strawberry cream for me!” Shitty tells him as he pulls away, eyeing the pie on the counter hungrily. Almost as an afterthought, he catches Parse’s eye and holds out a hand—Bitty ducks out of the way of their impending bro hug just in time. “Kent motherfucking Parson, bro! What brings you to our humble neck of the woods? Wait, is Jack here? That fucker—”

“Uh, I’m here for Bitty, actually,” Parse cuts in, flicking his eyes over to Bitty and smiling sheepishly. “I baked the shit outta that pie, so if it sucks—”

Shitty shoves out of their hug, with such force that Parse actually takes an alarmed step backwards, then looks between Parse and Bitty with a terrifyingly intense expression, his moustache twitching. “Wait, are you fuckers telling me that Kent fucking Parson baked me a fucking pie?”

Parse raises an eyebrow, looking half-amused and half-deeply concerned. “Uh, I sure fucking did?”

Shitty’s façade breaks; he bursts into a grin and tackles Parse into another hug, trying to lift him and failing miserably, though Parse humors him and sort of spins in place anyway. “I dunno what fucking parallel universe I’ve stumbled into, my dudes, but I love it. I’m not even high yet, man!”

“He’s not?” Parse asks Bitty over Shitty’s shoulder, his lips quirking into a chirpy smirk.

Bitty laughs and tugs on Shitty’s arm to rescue Parse from his vice grip. “Sadly, he’s pretty much always like this.” Shitty lets go of Parse and immediately hugs Bitty again instead, albeit gentler this time. “It’s good to see you, Shitty. We missed you.”

Shitty presses a sloppy, bristly kiss to Bitty’s cheek as he pulls away. His eyes are shining and a little wet, which Bitty politely ignores as he swallows down the lump in his own throat. “I missed you too, Bits. Now, let’s get me cross-faded and stuffed with pie.”

It sounds pretty solid, as far as Shitty’s plans go.

 

~*~

 

“I’m telling you, bro, we’re getting the gang back together this summer!” Shitty insists. He’s entirely shitfaced, pupils blown wide from weed and alcohol, gesturing wildly with a Solo cup filled with tub juice. Parse deftly snags the cup out of his hand before he smacks someone—namely Bitty—in the face with it; Bitty’s pretty sure Parse stopped drinking over an hour ago.

“I mean, that sounds chill, Shits,” Nursey says carefully. “But, like, Rans and Holster have been AWOL, like, all year.”

Bitty hums in agreement but doesn’t say anything, and Shitty seems undeterred. “Yeah, but even soul-sucking consulting firms gotta let you take a vacation, right? I’m telling you, we’re gonna wait out Jack’s playoff run and fuck off to Cancun or some shit for like two weeks. It’s gonna be sw’awesome.”

Chowder gets pulled into the conversation from the other side of the couch, where Farmer is perched on his lap. “Ooh! Jack’s coming?”

“Don’t hold your breath,” Bitty mutters, but Shitty declares, “Yeah, dudes, of course! We’re dragging that fucker kicking and screaming if we gotta.”

Parse laughs darkly, quietly enough that Bitty’s pretty sure he hadn’t wanted to be heard. But Shitty and Nursey pivot towards him and Dex leans further over the back of the couch to hear him. There’s a tense moment of silence. Parse swings his legs awkwardly from his perch on the armrest until he finally gives in and says, “Just, you know—good luck making Zimms do anything he doesn’t wanna.”

Shitty’s eyes turn a little sharp. “Who says he doesn’t wanna?”

“Uh.” Parse turns helplessly to Bitty for support.

“Shits,” Nursey intervenes first, “chill. He didn’t mean—”

“Jack’s just so busy, Shitty,” Bitty cuts in. “He, um, hasn’t been around much, so—”

“That doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to be!” Shitty insists, wheeling on Bitty now. “Look, he’s a busy fucking guy, okay? I get it! But he doesn’t just ditch the people he cares about!”

Parse’s feet hit the floor with a violent thump. He shoves Shitty’s stolen tub juice into Bitty’s hands and vanishes into the crowd.

Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve blares in the background, vibrant and trashy and cheerful.

“What the fuck did I say?” Shitty asks, genuinely perplexed. He rises half out of his seat to peer over the back of the couch, trying to spot Parse through the mass of people drinking and watching the TV.

Bitty doesn’t take the time to answer him.

 

~*~

 

Bitty combs through the crowd searching for Parse, lifting up onto his toes to try and see over all the athletes, circling through every room twice like Parse might suddenly reappear. He tries the upstairs next, but all the bedrooms are locked and the attic is empty. There’s a growing sense of apprehension in Bitty’s stomach that he can’t manage rationalize away—Parse’s rental car is still outside, so he has to be somewhere around here—which means everything is fine, right? But Bitty still pulls his phone out to send Parse a text.

Bitty (11:37 pm): Where are you??

There’s no answer. Bitty’s about to give up and head back downstairs, maybe resort to asking around to see if anyone’s seen him, when a breeze tickles against his wrist. The hallway window is slightly ajar, like someone didn’t know the trick for getting it to shut all the way after it’s been opened. The roof.

Bitty yanks the window open and scrambles out onto the reading room, not bothering to latch it behind him, and sighs with relief.

Parse is sitting off to the side, legs dangling over the edge. He doesn’t look up.

“Um, hey,” Bitty says softly, but Parse doesn’t answer. He bites his lip and hovers awkwardly behind him, the uncomfortable silence broken only by the muffled sounds of the party continuing downstairs. Eventually, Bitty gives in and sits down next to Parse on the roof, staring out over frat row and up at the mostly starless sky. If there were fireworks here like there always were in Madison, they’d stand out in stark relief against the night.

The breeze picks up and dies again.

Bitty glances at Parse, traces over the lines of his face—the brooding tremble of his lips, the far-away look in his eyes. They’re colorless in the dark, indefinable. If he feels Bitty watching him he doesn’t show it.

Time is a slow drag, immeasurable except for the knowledge that it must not be midnight yet because they’d hear the cheers from downstairs. It reminds Bitty of those graphs they used to look at in calculus, the ones where the curve would flatten and flatten and still never reach where it was trying to go. He can’t remember the name of it.

“Hey, Bitty?” Parse asks, after maybe forever. His voice is raw and wet, like his throat is held together by fresh stitching that hasn’t stopped up all the blood. “You know how you fell in love with Jack Zimmermann and he broke your fucking heart and it feels like it’ll hurt for the rest of your miserable fucking life?”

Bitty swallows thickly. “More or less.”

Parse stares down at the ground, unmoving, and takes a long, shuddering breath. “Same.”

In the spring and early fall out here, crickets come out at night and sing up at the moon. Bitty can almost hear them if he closes his eyes. It’s the wrong season and there’s no words, no songs for the moon and nothing to say to the way Parse slices his guts open on the old rotting-shingled roof.

Bitty reaches over slowly, so slowly, with his breath held, and brushes his fingertips over Parse’s knuckles.

Parse turns his palm up and holds on.

There are more stars than there were five, ten minutes ago. The roof quivers when the countdown starts.

Five!

“He was your ex,” Bitty says.

Four!

Parse clears his throat. “Yeah.”

Three!

Bitty looks over at Parse again. “He’s not straight.”

Two!

Parse stares at the trees. “No.”

One!

Bitty whispers, “He could’ve wanted me back.”

Happy New Year!

The trees rustle in the breeze. Someone down on the lawn lights up a joint, a thin trail of smoke drifting up towards the sky.

Bitty leans over and rests his cheek on Parse’s shoulder, and pretends there are fireworks.

 

~*~

 

Parse leaves to drive back to his hotel maybe half an hour later, hugging Bitty goodbye tightly in front of his rental car.

“I’m sorry,” Bitty whispers. “I’m sorry, I still don’t—I don’t know what to say. I’m doing this all wrong.”

“How’s it supposed to go?” Parse asks softly, rhetorically, but he still manages a smile when he pulls away and rests his hands on Bitty’s biceps. “We’re okay, Bits. I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?”

Bitty smiles back, lips chapping in the cold winter air. “Yeah, I’ll text you when I’m on my way.”

Parse nods and unlocks the car, climbing in slowly and staring at the keys dangling from his index finger, like he’s willing himself to put them in the ignition. He does eventually, and the radio blares to life way too loud, blasting some top 40 hit that Bitty doesn’t quite process before Parse jumps and turns the dial all the way down, laughing nervously.

Bitty laughs too, a thin giggle, and bites his lip when Parse reaches for the door handle. “Parse?”

“Yeah?” Parse’s hand falls away as he looks up at Bitty expectantly, eyes just the slightest bit widened, and Bitty hugs him again, arms wrapped awkwardly around Parse’s neck as he leans down into the car.

“You deserve better,” he says. He’s not sure if he means Jack or himself.

Parse brushes his fingers through Bitty’s hair as they untangle. He smirks, humorless, and says, “Nah, I don’t.”

The car door swings shut. Bitty steps back and watches Parse drive away.

 

~*~

 

Practice the next morning is, predictably, a wash. Half of the team is hungover, and the other half is still maybe a little drunk. Not to mention Shitty tags along and skates with everyone, which is a delight but also a terrible distraction, and the whole thing ends up more like a shinny than a serious endeavor.

Bitty is moody the whole time, dwelling on last night. He can’t stop picturing Parse on that roof, shivering and distant and the closest he’s ever been to Bitty, bruised up and beaten into honesty. He tries not to blame Shitty for it and mostly fails. Can’t help the protective heat curling in his gut, like he needs to spit and slash at anyone who could do that to Parse. Laughs, because that’s how he used to feel about Jack.

Skates himself into the boards and stays there with his shaking hands braced against the Plexiglas, because that’s how he used to feel about Jack.

“You okay, Cap?” Nursey asks, skating by backwards. Bitty is deeply suspicious of the fact that he’s sober enough to do that.

“Oh, yeah,” Bitty answers, forcing himself to laugh. “Just got a little queasy for a sec. I keep telling Ollie and Wicks they need to scale back that tub juice.”

“Wow, I didn’t even see you drink that much!” Chowder shouts from his crease, entirely unhelpfully. “Do you want some water? We can end practice early if you’re sick!”

Bitty rolls his eyes. Chowder’s concern is probably at least partially genuine, but he also watched that lightweight do two very impressive kegstands last night, so giving up on practice isn’t exactly the most self-sacrificing of suggestions.

That being said, the whole team is looking at him eagerly, and Bitty’s pretty sure they won’t actually learn anything in the next half hour that would help them against Yale. He glances over at Coach Murray, who shrugs nonjudgmentally.

“Fine,” Bitty sighs. “Everyone shower up and go home. Eat pancakes, drink some water, et cetera.”

The cheers he gets in response are sort of lackluster, all things considered, but it’s likely all they can muster. He waits until almost everyone’s cleared out for the locker room before pushing away from the boards, but Shitty is waiting for him near the gate.

“Hey, Bits,” he says, following Bitty off the ice. “You still good to go to the game? We can skip if you wanna.”

Bitty sort of regrets inviting Shitty at all, if he’s being honest. But he closes his eyes and breathes, and tries to remember how much he misses him, how close they used to be. “No, I’ll be fine. I’m gonna meet you down there, though.”

“Yeah, I get it,” Shitty complains dramatically, ruffling Bitty’s hair. “Go ahead and fuckin’ ditch me for your new best friend. See if I care!”

Bitty sighs and elbows Shitty good-naturedly. “C’mon, Shitty, you know we’re still best friends. I just—Parse lives across the country, you know? I see him way less than you.”

He doesn’t mention that he’s been seeing Parse’s face over Skype twice a week for the past month, so that it can’t be compared to the fact that other than planning this trip, the last time he talked to Shitty was Thanksgiving. But he doesn’t know how else to say this, to talk about it. It’s too many words to explain that Parse is different, he’s not a replacement—or maybe it’s just too hard because maybe (just maybe) Bitty is scared that it will really come out like this: that Parse is things that Shitty never was.

It shouldn’t feel wrong. Shitty has other friends— better friends—like Lardo and Jack still, apparently, and Bitty can have other friends too. Bitty can fill his backpack with snacks and his laptop and catch a train to Providence without feeling guilty about the people he’s leaving behind on the couch.

He really, definitely can.

 

~*~

 

Bitty catches an Uber to the hotel from the train station and Parse meets him in the lobby, because this hotel is one of those fancy ones that doesn’t let you upstairs without a keycard even during the day. They don’t hug until they’re in the elevator, which Bitty is a little worried about—is Parse upset with him?—but then he’s pulled into the bone-crushing kind of embrace that presses his face into Parse’s neck and has him rocking onto the balls of his feet, and, yeah, he wouldn’t want to be in the lobby for that either.

It hurts his lungs. He blames it on how tightly wrapped Parse’s arms are.

The hotel room is nice, with a little sitting area with a TV and a kitchenette, and surprisingly messy for someone who’s been there less than 24 hours. Bitty tells Parse as much, which startles a laugh out of him.

“I didn’t come here to be attacked like this,” Parse says, his nose wrinkling up with a smile. “How many pizza rolls do you want?”

Bitty wants a lot of pizza rolls. They end up cooking most of the bag and sprawling on the couch together to watch TV, mindless shows that are really just more white noise than anything.

They don’t talk about last night.

Bitty doesn’t know what to say. He doesn’t know if Parse wants him to ask.

Their knees are touching on the couch.

Sometimes Parse looks over at him with a nervous expression, his eyebrows knit together just a little and his mouth quirked strangely, and Bitty holds his breath and looks at all the colors in Parse’s eyes, like they might change. And then Parse looks away, and Bitty shoves a pizza roll into his mouth to keep from speaking.

A little before 3:30, Parse’s phone chimes with an alarm and he jumps up, nearly dumping his plate on the ground as he curses and tries to grab at his phone to silence it. Bitty stares at him patiently, hovering somewhere between concerned and amused.

“I, uh—” Parse runs a hand through his hair. “I gotta go Skype someone.”

Bitty tilts his head, teeth reflexively worrying at his bottom lip. “Oh, um—okay?”

Parse spins his phone in his hands, watching the methodical rhythm of the motion. His silence is heavy, awkward, before he finally says, “She’s my therapist. I see her every week right now.”

Bitty hates himself for how his eyes widen, for how his stomach twists. “Oh, that’s—”

“I used to not,” Parse continues, still staring at his hands, like he’s on a script. “But, uh, shit’s been hard again and I—and it’s good for me. It helps.”

Bitty wills himself to move. He reaches out and touches Parse’s hand with his own, stilling the anxious tic. “That’s good,” he assures him softly. “Or, I mean—not that it’s been hard, but that you’re getting help? That’s—I’m glad.”

Parse finally looks up at him. He’s got three days of stubble on his jaw but he looks young, so young and scared. “I don’t tell people,” he says. “I never tell people. Jeff knows ‘cause he made me go but—I don’t know why I’m telling you, fuck.”

Bitty’s heart feels sick. He wants—he doesn’t know what he wants. Anything to keep Parse from feeling like this. He puts his plate down on the couch and stands up and pulls Parse into a hug, arms wrapped around his neck. “I’m glad you told me,” he murmurs. “Thank you for trusting me, oh my God.”

There’s a thud that must be Parse dropping his phone somewhere, because his hands tighten in the back of Bitty’s shirt. His breaths are shaky and his voice is low and bitter when he mutters, “Now you know what you’re dealing with.”

“I’m not dealing with you,” Bitty whispers fiercely. “I’m—you’re my—I think—you’re my best friend, okay? I’m not just, like, putting up with you or something. This doesn’t—it doesn’t matter the way you’re scared it does.”

“Okay,” Parse says. “I’m sorry.”

“No, don’t—it’s okay.” Bitty sighs and forces himself to pull away. “I just…wanted to make sure you knew.”

Parse smiles shakily and runs a hand through his hair. “Okay. Uh, I should, uh—you know. Are you—I’ll be gone for like an hour? But then I should probably nap, too.”

Bitty smiles back, hopes he looks encouraging. “I’ve got my laptop, and headphones. So, um, you can—don’t worry about me or anything.”

“Okay, uh, great. I’ll just—” Parse jerks a thumb behind him towards the bedroom awkwardly. He hesitates, fiddling with his hair again, then says, “Thanks, Bitty.”

“Yeah, of course,” Bitty tells him. He watches Parse retreat into the bedroom, the door closing with a soft click, and then pulls out his computer. If he’s lucky, he’ll be able to get some actual work done on his thesis.

 

~*~

 

Bitty ends up working on his thesis for maybe an hour before he takes a nap of his own, curled up on the couch with the TV murmuring in the background. He wakes up from it when Parse’s hand ruffles through his hair, and blinks blearily up at him while he gets his bearings and stretches up into the touch subconsciously.

Parse looks soft and sleep-rumpled, his hair sticking up every which way and his eyes still half-lidded, peaceful. He’s shirtless with a pair of baggy sweatpants that ride low on his hips and brush over his bare ankles, and Bitty suddenly feels warm all over. He wonders if the AC just cut out.

“Want a sandwich?” Parse offers with a smirk, and wanders over to the kitchenette.

Bitty’s eyes catch on the tattoo on Parse’s lower back (“tramp stamp,” his mind supplies unhelpfully). It really is of the Stanley Cup, with writing on either side. Las Vegas Aces on the left, 2010 and 2012 on the right. Classy. Bitty’s smile may or may not go a little fond.

Parse twists, looking over his shoulder and brandishing a sandwich in his hand. “Yo, Bits? You want?”

Bitty pushes up onto his feet quickly—too quickly, and he has to brace a hand on the armrest for a second while the dizziness passes. “Oh, um—yeah, sorry.” He wanders over to stand next to Parse near the counter, where there are already two sandwiches made. “You didn’t have to worry about me, though.”

“I always make two,” Parse answers offhandedly, talking around a mouthful.

“Oh.” Bitty frowns down at the sandwich in his hands—peanut butter and jelly. He absolutely does not think about Jack Zimmermann. When he finally takes a bite, his eyes widen with surprise and he wheels on Parse accusingly. “Is this my almond butter recipe?”

Parse ducks his head and runs a hand through his hair, which probably drops crumbs all into it. “Uh, yeah? And your jelly?”

There’s a surrealness to the moment that Bitty can’t explain. Like he should’ve expected it and didn’t at all. “I didn’t realize you kept those. Like, that you’d. Um. Make it again?”

Parse’s posture is relaxed—a hip cocked against the counter, his forearm casually braced—but there’s a caution in his face, an uneasiness. “Uh, yeah. Is that—is it weird?”

Bitty presses his fingers into the bread a little, picks at flecks of loose crust. “It’s really nice,” he admits, voice thick, feeling Parse’s eyes on him but refusing to look up. “Um, that you—thank you. It’s nice.”

The tension bleeds out of Parse’s face and he sighs quietly, a soft puff of air that Bitty barely hears. “Yeah, I—I mean, I like doing it. It’s like, you know—maybe it’s good luck or something, I can’t tell.”

Bitty laughs. “Hockey players and superstitions. What’re you gonna do if you win tonight, mail me a sandwich before every game?”

There’s a lightness in Parse’s eyes, something sparkling in them that makes Bitty feel warm again, sharp along his edges.

Parse warns, “Don’t tempt me, Bits,” and waggles his eyebrows as he takes another bite.

 

~*~

 

The game is ruthless and gritty, like it always is. Shitty is decked out in Falconer’s gear and jeering every time the Aces dodge a penalty or score. Bitty glares at him fiercely and tugs self-consciously at the Parson shirsey that mysteriously appeared on his doorstep a few days ago. (It’s signed, in cheeky gold Sharpie, over the hem in the back. Because Parse is an asshole.)

At least Parse doesn’t dive the net like he did that game Jack’s rookie year. Bitty’s not proud of the things he tweeted back then. He looks down at his phone during the second intermission, biting at his lip as he checks his Twitter now. Before the game, he posted a selfie of himself in the shirsey with the caption “Go Aces!!” and the results have been…interesting.

A lot of his new fans found him because of Parse, so the response is mostly uncomplicated, but his older followers started cheering for the Falcs if they follow hockey, because of Jack. No one is mean, for the most part, but there is—well, Bitty could call it confused chirping about his change of heart.

@buttermypuck (1/1/17 7:34 pm): @omgcheckplease whatever happened to the Aces play dirty hockey?? #turncoat #goFalcs #myboysplayclean

Bitty grimaces and looks back over the ice as the players start filing back out. It’s not an unfair question, but—he doesn’t know how to answer. He’s not sure how to explain that he doesn’t see dirty anymore when he watches the Aces play.

How now he sees Parse weaving between defensemen like they don’t exist, catching brutal checks from men twice his size and skating them off. How he watches Parse flick a wrister in glove-side like it’s the easiest thing in the world, like he’s made of air, and remembers the way his roughed-up callouses felt against Bitty’s hand on the shaking roof.

The Aces win by two. Bitty doesn’t think he should be as emotional as he is.

Bitty (9:33 pm): !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! [heart-eyes emoji, party hat emoji, confetti emoji]

Parse (9:49 pm): :-*

Parse (9:51 pm): 30 min, meet outside locker room?

Bitty and Shitty take their time making their way down the stands, weaving through the disgruntled crowd, and still end up at the doors a little early. Despite his trash talking during the game, Shitty doesn’t seem to actually have any hard feelings, though he is texting furiously.

A few minutes later, the locker room doors swing open and the Aces start filtering out, big smiles on their faces as they chatter about their win. Bitty perks up immediately and starts peering over their heads to look for Parse, who’s predictably bringing up the rear.

He’s in a suit from his media interviews, looking fresh and happy with shower-damp hair and the sleek gray outfit, and grinning from ear to ear. Jeff Troy is with him, bumping shoulders as they walk.

“Parse!” Bitty shouts, eagerly waving to get his attention, and Parse pivots towards them immediately.

“Hey, Bits,” Parse says, pulling Bitty into a short hug. He’s grinning playfully when he pulls away. “So, about those sandwiches—”

Bitty snorts, smiling back. “No way. Logistically, how would that even work?”

Parse laughs. “Hockey finds a way, Bits. Hockey finds—oh, hey, have you met Jeff?”

“When would I have met Jeff?” Bitty chirps, but he smiles up (significantly up) at Troy anyway and shakes his hand when it’s offered. “Um, hi, I’m Bitty.”

Troy tilts his head as he lets go of Bitty’s hand. “So you’re the guy responsible for the gingerbread cookies my kids will literally not shut the fuck up about, eh? Because I hate you.”

Bitty laughs nervously. “Um, am I allowed to blame Parse?”

“Don’t worry,” Troy tells him, “I only hate you a little bit.”

Parse reaches an arm up and slings it over Troy’s shoulders. “The rest of him loves you,” he says, drawing the phrase out like a Kindergartener. “I feed him pie, like, all the time now.”

“Yeah, well, it’s about time you started pulling your weight,” Troy shoots back, and turns on Parse to apparently start some sort of wrestling match, because he tries to lift Parse off the ground and Parse has to jump backwards out of his grip before retaliating. “Not that there’s much of it.”

“Dude, fuck off!” Parse yelps, but he’s laughing as he jams a shoulder into Troy’s chest and tries to shove him away.

Bitty takes a step back to avoid the fray, glancing over at Shitty who’s been suspiciously silent.

“You okay, Shitty?” he asks quietly.

Shitty looks up abruptly. “Huh? Oh, yeah. But, uh—you know how we said dinner?”

Bitty furrows his eyebrows. “Um, yeah? Do you not wanna—?”

“Hey, Shits. Uh, hey, Bittle.”

Bitty spins around at the sound of Jack’s voice, but he doesn’t have much time to react before Shitty is launching past him and tackling Jack at full speed, shouting, “You beautiful fucking Canadian Adonis!”

At the same time, there’s a frantic commotion as Troy and Parse suddenly change in momentum and crash into the wall, both of them cursing violently. Bitty’s attention is pulled to them again and he locks eyes with Parse, who’s looking—stricken, maybe, as he glances over at Jack and back at Bitty. Like he’s scared, maybe, and betrayed. Bitty shrugs at him helplessly. He didn’t do this.

It hadn’t even occurred to him to try.

Troy crosses his arms and leans against the wall, body angled towards Jack and Shitty.

Jack finally shoves Shitty off of him, but he looks in surprisingly good spirits, considering the loss he just took. He’s in dark navy with a red tie and his hair is slicked back from the shower, and he’s every bit as dashing as he’s always been. “Uh, hi,” he says again, every bit as awkward as he always is.

“Um, hi,” Bitty answers faintly. It’s been over a year. He can’t remember how this is supposed to go.

“I finally got a hold of this fucker after the game,” Shitty explains excitedly, reaching up to mess with Jack’s hair. “We’re gonna go drown our sorrows and reminisce about the fucking glory days, dude.”

“Oh,” Bitty says.

Jack swats away Shitty’s hand and looks over at Bitty earnestly. His eyes are so soft and so blue and there’s this little smile on his face that’s always the tiniest bit crooked. “You should come, Bittle.”

He has to have seen Parse and Troy standing near the wall, has to have noticed that Bitty’s wearing the wrong color. For all that Jack is terrible with other people’s subtlety, he still knows how to make his own hurt.

“Oh,” Bitty says again. He feels lightheaded and helpless, caught in a warped sense of déjà vu, like this is a daydream he used to have.

Jack is still beautiful. Bitty still wants to slip a hand under his shirt and touch him. There’s this faint burning under his skin that tells him maybe he could, if he tried—he can see it in his mind, this vision of what it would be like. A whisper telling him that maybe he could do it this time, that he could make Jack want him, that he’d never have to wonder if he could feel like this again.

Parse is slouched against the wall, hands shoved in his pockets, gray eyes wide and resigned when he looks up at Bitty like he knows what Bitty will choose. He’s smiling encouragingly.

Why’re you hiding from the best four years of your life?

Bitty thinks about laughing so hard he cried and eating fallen soufflé right out of the ramekin, and driving out to Atlanta to get the sides of his hair re-shaved. Thinks about sitting in the car and crying afterwards and sobbing harder and harder when Parse said, it looks fucking amazing.

And Bitty thinks, as he smiles back at Parse like they share a secret, that maybe the answer is this: his glory days just aren’t behind him.

“Sorry,” Bitty tells Jack. He doesn’t take his eyes off Parse. “I’ve, um—I’ve already got plans.”

It’s kind of funny, how things can feel so monumental and almost nothing at all at the same time. Shitty chirps Bitty good-naturedly for being a traitor and drags Jack, who looks disappointed but not crushed, away, and suddenly Bitty is alone with Parse and Troy.

Parse’s eyes are lit up and bright, and his smile wrinkles his nose now. He pushes off the wall and slings an arm around Bitty’s shoulders, tugging him close against his side, and says, “C’mon, Bits, let’s eat.”

Something about it feels exactly like where Bitty’s supposed to be.

 

~*~

 

“Eating” apparently means showing up at the bar most of the other Aces are at too, which—well, the place does serve food, and Bitty is happily inhaling a plate of cheese fries, so he supposes that it counts. He’s also pleasantly tipsy and being treated like a minor celebrity, which is pretty hilarious, all things considered.

“You’ve literally changed my life!” Elliott Angulo, the third-line center, slurs, leaning across the booth with his palms planted firmly on the table. “I’m ruined for all other pie. I’m gonna hafta marry you.”

Bitty laughs self-consciously, scooting a little farther down the booth surreptitiously. “Oh, well—”

“Dude,” Parse says as he squeezes past Angulo and the goalie, who insists on being called Fish, to plop back down next to Bitty. “Stop trying to poach Bitty. Also, I made your fuckin’ pie, so you should be marrying me, you fucker.”

Angulo squints at the pair of them, apparently considering, before declaring, “Bitty’s prettier, though.”

The whole table howls with laughter, and Bitty’s sure his face goes bright red, but Parse just smirks and drapes an arm across the back of the booth, brushing it against Bitty’s neck.

“True facts,” he tells Angulo, and winks at Bitty as he pops a cheese fry into his mouth.

The server stops by with their new round of drinks, and Bitty has to lean across the table to reach his beer. When he sits back down, if his thigh ends up pressed against Parse’s, it’s definitely (maybe) an accident.

 

~*~

 

After dinner at the bar, Bitty heads back to the hotel with Parse and Troy to hang out and watch TV. They’ve got Real Housewives on and there’s some sort of drama happening, as always, that Bitty can mostly tune out. He’s too busy melting into the sofa with his eyes closed, thinking about how right it feels to be here. How it feels like he could stay here forever, listening to Parse and Troy bicker about how much butter to put on the popcorn.

“Falling asleep on us, Bits?” Parse teases, sinking back down into his seat between Bitty and the armrest.

Bitty hums noncommittally as he feels Troy sit back down on his other side.

“How’s he more tired than us?” Troy grumbles good-naturedly, and tosses a handful of popcorn at Bitty’s head. “Wake up, kid.”

Bitty cracks his eyes open to glare at him. “Y’all have, like, reverse-jet lag or whatever goin’ for you. And this couch is nicer than my bed.”

Parse snorts and grabs a piece of popcorn off Bitty’s shoulder, popping it into his mouth. “Ugh, speaking of tired—the new skates are still killing my fuckin’ feet.”

Troy immediately sighs dramatically and holds out grabby hands, which makes Parse grin and flop sideways. Suddenly his legs are draped across Bitty’s lap with his feet propped up against Troy’s thigh, and Troy is digging his fingers into Parse’s arch with apparent expertise, because Parse groans gratefully and drops his head back against the armrest.

“Oh!” Bitty squeaks, but no one seems to notice his mild crisis.

“Fuck yeah,” Parse says. “God, I fucking love you, man. I don’t say that enough.”

Troy laughs quietly and glances over at Parse with a soft expression, teasing, “No, you really don’t.”

Bitty bites his lip as he studies Troy’s face, shifting to tentatively rest his arms on top of Parse’s legs. It’s…funny, sort of, or at least that’s the closest word. Because he remembers Parse joking about how straight Jeff is, but, well—the way Troy is looking at Parse is—

The way Bitty’s always wished someone would look at him.

It’s not lustful or possessive or crass, it’s just—too fond. It’s soft, and loving, and—and something that “happy” doesn’t quite cover. More like contentment, like things more solid and less fleeting.

It’s so intimate that Bitty feels compelled to look away.

Jeff is married. It doesn’t matter how he looks at Parse.

“Oh my God, Bits,” Parse says, snapping Bitty out of his brooding, and sits back up on the couch. “You gotta experience this.”

Jeff raises an incredulous eyebrow. “Did you just volunteer me to massage someone else’s feet?”

Bitty laughs awkwardly. “Um, I—”

“Yeah, dude, share the fuckin’ love.”

Jeff squints at Parse for a second before relenting, “Ugh, fine. C’mere, Bitty.”

“Oh, um, okay?” Bitty looks over at Parse. “Should we, um—switch spots, or?”

Parse shrugs and drapes his arm across the back of the couch invitingly. “You can just lean on me. Or, uh—if you don’t—”

“Um, no!” Bitty blurts. “That’s, um—that’s fine, I’ll—yeah.”

Jeff rolls his eyes and mutters something under his breath, but Bitty ignores him in favor of shifting so he’s leaning up against Parse, his back pressed against Parse’s side and his head propped up on his shoulder.

Parse drops his arm down so it’s draped across Bitty’s chest and murmurs, “This okay?”

Bitty swallows thickly and closes his eyes. Parse is solid and warm and there’s a surprising stillness in Bitty’s heart, a peacefulness. He’d thought it’d be racing. “Um, yeah.”

There’s a brief pause and then Jeff takes Bitty’s foot in his hands, massaging gentler than it looked like he did to Parse, which Bitty is grateful for. It feels heavenly as it is, the kind of deep pressure against the tense muscle that feels too good to really hurt.

Bitty’s significantly beyond feeling self-conscious about the sound he makes when his back arches and he wriggles against the touch, sinking more soundly against Parse’s side.

Parse chuckles. His voice sounds warm and sort of far away, like it does on the phone late at night. “Life-changing, huh?”

“Yeah,” Bitty mumbles. He tilts his head back and peers up at Parse’s face, the heavy-liddedness of his eyes and the affectionate curve of his smile. “Life-changing.”

 

~*~

 

Jeff begs off back to his own hotel room shortly after finishing Bitty’s massage, claiming a need for beauty sleep, and leaves Bitty in the awkward position of very much not wanting to move and having no good reason to stay. He’s half asleep, pressed up against Parse, and hurting somewhere deep in his chest with how much he wants to be here.

To his credit, Parse doesn’t exactly seem inclined to move either. His cheek is smushed against the top of Bitty’s head and his fingers are lightly brushing against Bitty’s shirt, near his ribs, and aside from the gentle huff of his lulled breathing he doesn’t make a sound, just exists here with Bitty like this. Like he wants this moment too.

Eventually Bitty has to break the spell. He stretches reluctantly and says, “Um, I guess I should probably head out?”

“Oh, uh—yeah,” Parse answers, and it takes him a full five seconds to pull his arm away. “Is the train still running, or—?”

“Um, probably not.” Bitty bites his lip and sits up, scrolling through the schedule on his phone. “Yeah, I’ll just grab an Uber.”

“Alright.” Parse hesitates, mouth open a little like he has something to add, but falls silent. He pushes up off the couch and walks with Bitty to the door, bare feet shuffling over the carpet.

Bitty grabs his backpack from near the coffee table and slings it over one shoulder, then looks back up at Parse and holds his arms open for a hug.

Parse hugs him back tightly, practically hauling Bitty off his feet, face pressing into Bitty’s hair. It feels like too much, everything.

Bitty thinks, More.

He pulls away slowly, his fingers trailing across Parse’s neck, shoulders, down the front of his shirt with his palms flat on his chest. Bitty’s eyes feel wide, awestruck, like they’re watching five frames ahead. He asks, “Parse?”

Parse licks his lips, swallows.

Bitty tightens his hands around Parse’s shirt and tugs. Parse stumbles forward one step, awkward and ungainly, and stops a breath away from Bitty’s space. He doesn’t crowd, doesn’t press in closer. His face is tilted downward to keep his eyes locked on Bitty’s.

“I don’t know what I’m doing,” Bitty whispers, and backs himself into the wall.

Parse follows this time, pulled along by Bitty’s grip, and braces his hands near either side of Bitty’s head when they kiss. It’s soft and eager, a kind of dazed hunger to it, like the unearthing of a craving that threatens to consume but hasn’t yet, is patient in its destruction.

Bitty’s never kissed like this. He doesn’t know what to call it, this thing that’s been missing: lust, the deep-seeded coil of want in the dark places of his belly, desire.

Parse.

They kiss unhurried. Barely open mouths, a single subconscious flick of tongue. Parse brings a hand down to cup Bitty’s jaw. Bitty nips at Parse’s bottom lip with nervous teeth and drops his bag to the ground.

Bitty’s lips turn wet and tender and bruised, hurt to the touch. He dives in harder, hungrier, more teeth and tongue and his hands coming up to tighten in Parse’s hair and pull him in, beg him to fall apart with him. His lungs are heaving in his chest. He wants Parse to feel that, to own it.

Parse whines high in his throat and collapses onto Bitty, presses him roughly into the wall and slots their bodies together. He’s hard against Bitty’s thigh and it’s good, it feels right, like—like it’s something Bitty wants, and he’s never wanted that when he kissed someone before but he’s hard now too, dizzy with it, and he ruts his hips up to chase friction on his dick.

“Fuck,” Parse chokes out, and pulls away. “Fuck, we should stop.” His pupils are blown so wide that his eyes are swallowed up with the black and his hair is ruined, sticking up every which way from how Bitty put his hands all over it, and his mouth is practically pornographic, shiny with spit and bitten red.

He looks like he wants to swallow Bitty whole.

Bitty wants to let him.

Bitty needs to leave.

“Yeah,” Bitty croaks, voice hoarse like it hasn’t been used in years. He runs a hand through his hair and closes his eyes, forces his breathing to slow. “Um, yeah, I’m—God, I’m so sorry—”

“No,” Parse cuts in desperately. “No, just—” He takes Bitty’s face in his hands so, so gently, and brushes his lips against his forehead. Every inch of him is shaking.

Bitty ducks to the side and presses his face into Parse’s neck. There are tears springing into his eyes he can’t explain, hopes will pass as sweat against Parse’s already damp skin. Neither of them say anything else for a long time.

Parse clears his throat once Bitty’s breathing has slowed. “Let me get your Uber?”

Bitty squeezes his eyes shut tightly before he opens them again and pulls away. “Um, okay.”

“Okay,” Parse says. He pulls his phone out of his pocket and sets up the ride for Bitty, then pulls him back into another wordless hug. They don’t let go until the car is outside the hotel.

Bitty shoulders his bag again and bites gently at his lip, hand hovering over the doorknob.

Parse stares down at his feet and says, “Uh, we’re leaving for Philly tomorrow.”

“I know,” Bitty points out softly.

“I, uh. I guess I won’t see you for a while.”

“Yeah.”

Parse looks up earnestly, eyes wide and gray again. “I’ll Skype you though.”

Bitty smiles to hide the tremble in his mouth. “I know.”

Parse shifts forward, hesitates, then brushes his fingers across Bitty’s temple, through the shaved side of his hair. “Text me when you’re home safe?”

“I will,” Bitty promises, and turns the doorknob before he can change his mind.

 

~*~

 

Bitty (1:13 am): Home :)

Parse (1:13 am): :)

 

~*~

 

Bitty flops down onto his back on his bed, presses a pillow over his face, and screams.

It’s a quiet scream, because he knows that even with the pillow the walls are pretty thin and he could wake the boys up, and he’s not entirely an inconsiderate monster. Even if he’s recently made some questionably selfish life choices.

Like kissing Kent Parson.

God, he kissed Parse. And Parse kissed him back, and told him to stop.

And it was the right thing to do, to stop, because Bitty has no idea what he’s fucking doing, and that’s not fair. It’s not fair to the man who held his hand on the roof, mourning a ten-year broken heart and still scrabbling to sew up all the pieces even as he thrust them pleadingly at Bitty for him to hold.

Bitty knows all this, he does, can think about all the ways what he can give is so little—so paltry —compared to what Parse needs, to what he deserves. But it doesn’t change the itch under his skin. The way every part of him wants to be back in that hotel room, kissing him again, feeling alive and hungry and boiled over with a million things he can’t name. It’s dizzying, consuming him, demanding sacrifice.

Bitty slips a hand into his boxers and tugs at his half-hard dick, whimpers as the pleasure shoots up and curls in his belly. His eyes slide shut and he rolls onto his side, curling his other arm around the pillow and crushing it against his chest, and he thinks about Parse.

Kissing Parse, touching Parse, hands on his body and in his hair and teeth in his lip bleeding him dry. He’s never gotten off like this before—thinking of nothing but someone else, someone he knew. It’s never—it never mattered. Parse feels like all that matters.

Bitty comes with a little choked out sob, wild and thrashing in his twisted-up sheets and alone—so, so alone—and pictures Kent kissing at the tears in the corners of his eyes.

Fuck, Bitty thinks. I’m probably in love with him.

He wipes his hand off on the comforter and falls asleep.

 

~*~

 

By the time Bitty wakes up, Parse is already in Philly. He bites his lip awkwardly as he stares at his phone, trying to figure out what to say.

Parse (8:37 am): Morning :)

Parse (9:43 am): [three airplane emojis]

Parse (11:47 am): Just landed :)

Bitty (11:49 am): Glad you’re there safe!!

Bitty (11:49 am): [airplane emoji, fire emoji]

Parse (12:04 pm): Hahahaha

Parse (12:08 pm): Good luck tonight :-*

Bitty groans and flops back over onto his stomach, smashing his face into a pillow. Right, there’s sort of a hockey game in six hours. If there’s one thing he’s grateful for about Parse (and there are so, so many), it’s that he understands Bitty’s life as an athlete. He’s not going to make things uncomfortable when there’s hockey to play.

And really, Bitty’s not sure there will be anything to be uncomfortable about, anyway. Parse is his best friend, the person he’s more comfortable sharing secrets with than anyone else. They can definitely, absolutely talk about this, and it’ll be okay.

The sour feeling in Bitty’s stomach just needs to get with the picture.

 

~*~

 

Parse (7:38 pm): THAT GOAL WAS SICK HOLY SHIT!!

Parse (8:23 pm): WHAT THE FUCK!!!!!!

Parse (8:23 pm): DID YOU JUST

Parse (8:23 pm): TWO POINTS BABY LETS GO

Parse (8:32 pm): That was a fucking dirty check I’m gonna fight this guy

Parse (8:32 pm): I mean not actually I’m pretty sure he’s oirgoerigwafksdlc,z

Parse (8:33 pm): BITTY

Parse (8:33 pm): HAT TRICK

Parse (8:34 pm): I LITERALLY

Parse (8:34 pm): BITTY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Parse (8:35 pm): eoirugrpowfekc

Parse (8:35 pm): oaiutptufjdnvfmpqotporejfkvdsc

Parse (8:37 pm): IM SO PROUD OF YOU HOLY FUCKING SHIT HOLY SHIT

 

~*~

 

Bitty is dripping with sweat and the tub of Gatorade Nursey and Dex poured over his head, which is not, actually, a pleasurable sensation. He doesn’t care. The locker room is chaos all around him, the boys cheering and celebrating the big win—the playoffs are officially clinched now—and he’s fumbling in his bag with shaking fingers for his phone.

Parse answers on the second ring. “I think I came in my fucking pants when you shot that backhander in.”

Bitty laughs and ducks out of the way of Dex and Chowder, who are wrestling as Dex tries to lift Chowder into the air. “Why’re you streamin’ my game? Shouldn’t you be watching tape for that fancy NHL game of yours tomorrow?”

“Fuck the Flyers,” Parse shoots back easily. “I’m scared of you. Where’d you learn that fuckin’ stickwork, anyway?”

Bitty grins so wide he’s sure the smile will spill right off his face. He leans against his stall and stares out over the rest of the locker room, his teammates’ joy seemingly endless. “That was your backhand and you already know it. Don’t get all coy with me, Parson.”

Parse laughs softly, so quietly Bitty can barely hear it over the shouting all around him, and his voice turns more serious. “I’m really fucking proud of you.”

There’s a lump in Bitty’s throat he can’t explain. “Um, thanks. I—”

“Oh Captain, my Captain!” Nursey shouts, lunging for Bitty and attempting to hoist him up into the air. “We’re throwing a rager and getting your dick mad sucked tonight, bro!”

Bitty squeals and attempts to wriggle away from Nursey, holding his phone out away from the fray. “Derek—Malik— Nurse! Put me down!”

Nursey ignores Bitty’s protests and Dex comes over to help, and soon Bitty is lofted over both their heads as they parade him around, shouting about the impending party.

Bitty resigns himself to his fate and puts his phone back up to his ear, even as the D-men try to hand him off to Ollie and Wicks—because apparently he’s crowd surfing now. “Um, sorry,” he tells Parse with a laugh. “I guess I better go.”

“Yeah, go enjoy your party,” Parse answers, sounding warm and amused. He hesitates for a second, then jokes, “Uh, maybe except for that dick-sucking part.”

Bitty laughs again, feeling just as awkward as Parse sounds. “I think I’ll make do.”

Parse hangs up with a fond goodbye, and Bitty manages to convince Tango to help him down so he can go shower, pulling off his sticky UnderArmor in relief. The water sluices down his back, relaxing his aching muscles, and he presses absently at a bruise blooming on his ribs.

The conversation they just had was really, entirely normal. Bitty pushes harder against his bruise, hard enough to wince, like he can bully himself into believing.

 

~*~

 

The party is a great time. It’s probably the most fun Bitty’s had at one in a while, if he’s being honest. He’s pleasantly drunk and dancing freely, floating between partners before things get too heated with anyone, running hands through his sweaty hair and laughing brightly all night.

Eventually the party hits a lull, though, and he decides to turn in for the night. They’ll probably catch a second wind downstairs, but he’s content to miss out on that and let the murmur of the crowd below help him drift off to sleep. Up in his room, he strips down to his boxer-briefs and cocoons in his blankets before he checks his phone.

Parse (11:47 pm): How’s the party? :)

Bitty stretches luxuriously, savoring the pull in his worn-out muscles.

Bitty (12:13 pm): Really fun! Probably gonna crash now though :)

Parse (12:14 pm): Haha awesome

Parse (12:14 pm): Do you wanna talk for a bit first?

Parse (12:14 pm): Lol that sounds serious and it’s not promise

Bitty smiles to himself, biting his bottom lip with a fuzzy giddiness; he’s still a little drunk and everything feels warm and good, and he calls Parse right away.

“Hey, Bits.”

“Mm, hey,” Bitty hums, burrowing a little further under the covers. “What’s up?”

“Uh, not much,” Parse admits, laughing. “Just, uh, wanted to talk to you.”

Bitty’s face scrunches up into a shy smile and he curls onto his side, pressing into the pillow like there’s something to hide his blush from. “Oh, um—gosh, okay.”

Parse laughs again, maybe slightly more awkwardly this time. “Uh, yeah. So…the party was fun?”

“Mm, yeah, really fun,” Bitty says. “I danced a lot, which’s always the best.”

“Yeah?” Parse asks. He sounds relaxed again, his voice going a little rough and slow like it does this time of night, like he might be falling asleep on the phone. “Are you a good dancer?”

Bitty grins and rolls onto his back, trailing a hand absently up his thigh. The touch tickles, makes him feel warm. “Oh, sweetheart, my depths are hidden and marvelous.”

Parse keeps laughing, like Bitty makes him feel good and bright and he can’t help himself. “I’m sure, babe. You gotta take me somewhere next time we hang out, then.”

A thrill runs up Bitty’s spine at the pet name, the easy promise of next time, no pressure to decide exactly what that will mean except being together. His eyes slip shut as he hums in agreement, arching his back a little against the buzzing in his sternum. Talking to Parse like this—it’s like they always talk, really, except it isn’t. Because Bitty is thinking about what it’d be like to dance with Parse, to feel his hands on his hips and the lines of his chest against Bitty’s shoulder blades. He’s thinking about kissing him again.

The arousal is viscous, unobtrusive in a way that’s disarming, has Bitty tracing a hand over his dick without even really thinking about it except that it feels good like talking to Parse feels good, like it’s the exact right place he should be.

“Mm, that sounds nice,” he murmurs, probably somewhat belatedly, but he hopes Parse won’t notice. His fingers are playing absently with the elastic of his boxer-briefs, almost of their own accord. “I know a lotta places in Boston. Nothin’ fancy—I used to go with Rans and Holster, but…”

He trails off with a shrug, biting into his lip a little like he can deter himself that way, and presses the heel of his hand against his erection. He’s not going to jerk off while Parse is on the phone. That would be weird, and inappropriate, and he’s not going to do it.

“That sounds great, Bits,” Parse tells him. His voice is all sleep-warm and husky and goddamn perfect, and Bitty can picture it breathed into his ear with startling clarity. “I’m looking forward to it.”

Fuck. Bitty shoves a hand into his briefs and swallows back a moan, because apparently this is the kind of person he is now. He just won’t come. It’s not that bad if he doesn’t come, right?

“Yeah, me too,” he says, taking in a shaky breath. He needs to get off the phone and he wants to hear Parse’s voice again more than anything, maybe, and he asks, “How’re you feelin’ ‘bout the game tomorrow?”

“Eh, they’re having a good season,” Parse muses noncommittally. “Jeff wants to fight someone though.”

Bitty laughs, and hitches his hips up into his fist. “Yeah?”

“He was pissed no one gave him an excuse yesterday.”

Bitty would roll his eyes if they were open. “He’s such a brute.”

“Yeah,” Parse agrees, sounding especially fond about it. “But he’s our brute.”

“Mhm.” Bitty eases his pace a little, making sure he doesn’t get too riled up. Everything is slow and warm and he should feel bad about it and he can’t. “I should let you get to bed.”

“Probably,” Parse admits reluctantly, then chirps, “You sound like half-asleep too.”

Bitty’s laugh is only a little strained. “Do I? Guess it snuck up on me.”

“Yeah.” Parse’s voice turns soft; Bitty can picture the sleepy smile on his face, and his stomach swoops. “Goodnight, Bits.”

“Night, hun,” Bitty murmurs, curling onto his side with his phone pressed close to his cheek. “’M gonna try and catch the game tomorrow. I’ll text you.”

“’Kay,” Parse mumbles happily. “Night.”

Bitty hangs up the phone and tosses it across his bed, letting out a whimper as he starts stroking himself harder again, face tilted down into the pillow. He scrambles to grab a handful of tissues and comes into them desperately, panting to the thought of Parse’s lips brushing against his ear, his scratchy tenor rumbling through his body while hands come up to his hips to press against him.

He feels shaky and strange afterwards, like his hands don’t belong to him anymore. It feels like there should be guilt—more than the abstract obligation of it—like there should be some actual sense that he’s done something wrong.

He falls asleep before it hits.

 

~*~

 

It’s almost a week before Bitty can actually Skype Parse; that’s not an unusual amount of time, really, because the Aces’ roadie has been brutal and Parse is always extra tired on the road, and besides, Bitty’s been trying to finish a draft of his thesis to bring to Alice. So they text every day and have a phone call or two, and it’s normal.

Except Bitty is maybe, definitely losing his mind over it. Because Parse had told Bitty he’d Skype, after they kissed, and it felt like maybe he meant it in a “we’ll talk about this” way.

Bitty doesn’t wanna talk about it.

And maybe Parse doesn’t either, anymore, since he’s not Skyping. And Bitty doesn’t know if he wants Parse to want to talk about it, which is unfair, but he doesn’t—he just wants things to be okay. Good. Like they have been.

They don’t really have anything to talk about. They kissed, and it was nice (it was great, fucking fantastic, Bitty can’t stop thinking about it, why can’t he stop—?), and now they’re…them. They’re this nebulous good thing, and it’s great, and they absolutely (definitely) don’t need to ruin it by scribbling all these words over top of it.

Bitty’s the happiest he’s been in a long time. That’s enough (it has to be—what would more even feel like?).

Parse Skypes him the day after he gets back from the road. He’s in the kitchen with his laptop propped up on the counter and he asks, “Uh, I wanna practice that braided crust again—is that cool?”

Bitty thinks, Oh, thank God, and throws an apron on over his pajamas.

They chat idly while they work, Parse practicing his fancy lattice crusts and Bitty experimenting with a new muffin recipe he wants to bring to his meeting with Alice next week. It’s easy, comfortable. Bitty enjoys the excuse to stare at Parse’s hands.

“Okay,” Parse says as he slides his second pie into the oven, “let’s see how—”

“Oh, hey, Bitty, you’re up?” Dex asks. He’s leaning against the doorway with his shoulders slumped, staring somewhere around Bitty’s kneecap.

Bitty jumps away from the computer a little. If Dex is downstairs right now, he’s probably foraging for a midnight snack. “Oh, yeah! I was baking, but I’m almost done if you need—”

“Uh. Actually,” Dex interrupts, “I was—do you have a second to talk?”

“Oh, um, sure!” Bitty glances apologetically at Parse, but he’s sure he’ll understand if they hang up a little early tonight. “Let me just—”

“I think I’m in love with Nursey!” Dex blurts, three times louder than he’d been speaking before, and Bitty nearly concusses himself on an open cabinet.

“Oh,” Bitty says eloquently. “Well then.”

This is a pie conversation. Bitty didn’t make any pie. He pulls two muffins out of the baking tray and hands one to Dex, then sits himself down on the floor.

This is definitely a floor conversation.

Dex seems to understand this, because he sinks down next to Bitty, picking at his muffin wrapper with glum fingers. He doesn’t say anything else.

After a minute, Bitty asks, “Um, is this, like—are you asking me as captain, or—?”

“No? Maybe?” Dex sighs and thunks his head against the cabinets. “I don’t know.”

Bitty tears a chunk out of his muffin and pops it in his mouth. It needs more orange.

Dex mumbles, “I don’t deserve him.”

“Eat your muffin,” Bitty says absently, frowning down at his knees. He waits until Dex complies before he asks, “Why do you think that, hun?”

“Because,” Dex answers sullenly. “Because, I—he’s always—I was such a dick when I came here. And I’m still—I’m trying? But he spends so much time, you know, helping me unlearn my backwards shit. And that’s not—I can’t make him, uh, put all this energy into that. He’s—he deserves better.”

If Bitty adds more orange juice, it’ll make the batter too liquidy. Maybe he can cut down something else instead. He takes another bite, rolls a cranberry around under his tongue. “You’re both adults, you know.”

Dex snorts. “Uh, yeah, I know.”

Bitty pries another cranberry free from the muffin and flicks it at Dex’s face. “So do you think maybe Nursey can make his own decision about what he deserves—instead of you havin’ to make that for him?”

Dex narrows his eyes and bites a huge chunk out of his muffin, which means, “Yes, Bitty, you’re right and we both know it.”

Bitty’s lips twitch smugly.

“I, uh.” Dex sighs and scrubs a hand over his face. “The, uh—the Captain Bitty part?”

“You’re worried about the team chemistry?” Bitty guesses, looking over at him curiously.

Dex nods. “Uh, yeah.”

Bitty bites his lip awkwardly. He thinks about how it felt when Jack touched him. “I, um—I don’t know, to be honest.”

“I’ve got opinions,” Parse chimes in brightly, and Dex curses and scrambles away from the sound of the noise across the kitchen floor.

Bitty mutters, “Of course you do,” but Parse probably doesn’t hear over Dex asking, “Uh, what the fuck?”

“Hey, Poindexter, right?” Parse says. “I’ve been here the whole time, dude. Sorry.”

Dex shoots Bitty an indiscernible look and gets up off the floor to peer at the laptop screen, where Parse is still hanging out on Skype. “Uh, hey?”

It’s not like the team doesn’t know Bitty’s close with Parse—between Twitter and New Year’s, that’s plenty apparent—but Bitty doesn’t exactly parade around that close involves midnight Skype sessions, or even dating advice for that matter. The cat’s at least a little out of the bag now, though.

“He’s cool, Dex,” Bitty promises. He reaches up and grabs his laptop, pulling it down onto the floor so Parse is at eye level with him.

“Aww, baby, you think I’m cool?” Parse teases with a shit-eating grin and a hand to his chest. Bitty sticks his tongue out at him.

Dex slumps back onto the floor on Bitty’s other side, just barely in view of the camera. “Uh, okay.”

“Wow, this floor is really dirty,” Parse comments.

Bitty glares good-naturedly. “Shut up and tell Dex your sagely opinions, Kent.”

“Wow, cool it with the first names, Eric,” Parse chirps, but he clears his throat and looks marginally more serious. “So, like, you know what fucks with the team dynamic the most? Not talking to your d-partner about how you feel and being fucking miserable about it.”

Dex frowns, apparently unconvinced. “That’s, like—rom-com people advice. That’s, you know, uh—you’d seriously—if two of your guys, like, were dating each other, you’d really be okay with that?”

Parse shrugs. “I’d rather play with two people who were emotionally mature enough to like, use their fucking words and shit, yeah.”

The bluntness is like a kick to the ribs. Bitty draws his knees up to his chest.

Dex seems reassured though. “I—okay. Uh, thanks.”

“Anytime, man.”

Dex picks at a thread of elastic that’s unraveling from his sock. “There, uh, another thing.”

“Oh, Lord,” Bitty complains teasingly. “It’s like the seven trials of Hercules.”

Dex huffs out a laugh. “Uh. This is like, the opposite of Captain Bitty. This is like, you never heard this. And I shouldn’t be telling you, but like—” he makes a vague, frustrated gesture with one hand. “I dunno who else to tell.”

Bitty draws the motions over his chest. “Cross my heart.”

“Yeah, same,” Parse agrees.

Dex takes a deep breath and goes back to picking at his sock. “Nursey’s dating Chowder and Farmer.”

Bitty can actually feel parts of his brain skidding to a startled halt. If he were a cartoon character, there’d be a record scratch. “Oh, um—you mean, like, they’re all—?”

“Yeah,” Dex confirms. “Which, I mean, that fucked me up for a while, not gonna lie. But it’s not, uh, like a problem. It works for them, you know?”

“Sure,” Bitty agrees faintly. “Oh my God, I had no idea this was happening. Am I the worst captain ever?”

“No,” Parse says automatically.

“Thanks,” Bitty mumbles. He glances over at the laptop screen, where Parse looks entirely unfazed. Sort of thoughtful.

Dex clears his throat. “So I, uh. Yeah.”

“Wait,” Parse asks, “if Nursey and Chowder are dating, why’re you worried about—?”

“C’s the goalie,” Dex cuts in dismissively. “That’s, like, way different than dating your d-partner.”

“Uh, sure, fair enough.” Parse shifts in his seat, leaning closer to the camera. “So, like, are you not sure if you’re good with non-monogamy, or?”

“Uh, no, I think—sort of?” Dex furrows his eyebrows. “I love Nursey, and Chowder’s great. I could see us together. But I, uh—I’m not—I think I’m gay? So Farmer—I love her, but not, uh, the same way. And that’s—I dunno if that’s…okay?”

“Oh,” Bitty says. He looks over at Parse again, who shrugs. “Well, um—I don’t know a lot about…”

“Polyamory,” Dex supplies.

“Polyamory.” Bitty’s seen the term talked about a little in ace-positive stuff he’s read, but he never dug too far into it. He wishes he had, now, for Dex’s sake. “Um, but—it seems like it shouldn’t have to all be the same for everyone, right? You don’t have to have sex with Farmer to care about her. Um, obviously. So as long as you respect that Nursey and Chowder do?”

Dex shifts to sitting cross-legged. “Uh, yeah. Yeah, I would, so I guess I could talk to them.”

“I think you should,” Bitty tells him softly. “I, um—seeing you two together, I think you’d be happy together.”

Dex sighs loudly, relieved and determined, and pushes up off the floor again. “Yeah, uh, okay. I’m—I’ll do that. Soon. I’ll, uh, let you get back to—” he glances between Bitty and the laptop pointedly, an eyebrow raised. “Whatever.”

“Baking,” Parse supplies cheerfully, and his over timer goes off as if on cue. He turns away from the camera to check on his pie.

“Right,” Dex says dryly. “Well, night. Thanks, Bitty.”

“You’re welcome,” Bitty says, waiting until he hears his footsteps back up the stairs, and then, “Oh my God.”

Parse laughs as he sets the pie on a cooling rack. “You good?”

“Oh my God,” Bitty repeats. He picks up his laptop and wanders into the living room restlessly. “I need to lie down. I’m just gonna—I need to lie down.”

He puts himself on the floor and sprawls across the ratty carpet, laptop resting near the crook of his arm.

“Are you having a stroke?”

“I haven’t decided,” Bitty tells the ceiling.

“Nurse is so gone on that kid,” Parse comments. “It’s gonna work out.”

“I know.” Bitty drapes an arm across his face. “It’s so obvious. Oh my God, my frogs are fucking each other. Chowder is having so much sex.”

“Duh.” Parse stretches lazily, the movement catching in the edge of Bitty’s obscured vision. “He’s kinda a stud.”

Bitty turns his head to the side and glares into the camera. “Why’re you doing this to me? I’m in the middle of a very important crisis.”

Parse smirks, resting his cheek in his hand. “You’re adorable when you’re in crisis.”

“I hate you,” Bitty mutters half-heartedly.

“No you don’t.”

“No,” Bitty sighs, like it’s a particular trial. “I don’t.”

Parse is quiet for a moment, before asking, “What d’you think of that? Polyamory?”

Bitty looks back up at the ceiling, eyebrows furrowed. “Um, I dunno? Like, in general? Sure, it’s whatever makes people happy and stuff.”

Parse hums encouragingly.

“But, um.” Bitty worries at his bottom lip, focusing on the drag on his teeth. “I can barely wrap my head around dating one person, you know? It’s…too overwhelming still. It, um—it scares me.”

“Yeah,” Parse says. Bitty can’t bring himself to look at his face. “No, yeah, I—makes sense.”

Bitty closes his eyes and breathes in slowly. “What—um, what about you?”

“Uh, I dunno,” Parse answers, but then corrects himself. “Uh, no, actually, I—I think it—it makes sense.”

Bitty curls his fingers so the blunt part of his nails scrape into the carpet a little. “Yeah?”

“I dunno.” Bitty peeks at Parse’s face and finds him frowning in thought, an arm reached out of frame where he’s probably scratching at Kit’s ears. “It’s like—I dunno, I’ve spent so long being fucked up by the idea that you get your ‘one person,’ you know? Like it’s—like you can’t love anyone else or it ruins everything. And it fucking sucks. And maybe it’s like, so not like that at all, right? Maybe you can just love people. Like, maybe you can love a lot of people.”

I love you, Bitty thinks. Oh my God, I’m so fucking scared of loving you.

“That makes it sound so simple,” he says.

Parse laughs. “I’m sure it’s not. I mean, it’s—you gotta put a lot into it, right? Like, relationships are complicated anyway.”

Bitty hums, and forces himself to look at the camera again. “I get why you like it, though. You—you make it sound really beautiful.” His smile is watery, but it’s there.

“Yeah.” Parse smiles too, soft and warm and everything that puts Bitty’s stomach in knots. “Yeah, maybe.”

Bitty takes another breath, feeling his chest swell to fit all the things scrambling to nest inside it. He says, “Let me see your pie,” and Parse grins, and his ribs creak open to stretch a little wider.

 

~*~

 

January settles them back into a routine eventually. Bitty pulls all-nighters writing his thesis and prepares the hockey team for a playoff run; Parse bakes his way through a recipe book and sleeps far less than a professional athlete probably should.

They don’t talk about New Year’s. They talk about everything else.

 

~*~

 

@omgcheckplease (1/19/17 3:53 pm): I should probably start job hunting at some point [tired sigh emoji] Any suggestions?

@kvpurrson90 (1/19/17 4:22 pm): You could come work in Vegas [winking kiss emoji]

@omgcheckplease (1/19/17 4:24 pm): Serious suggestions only please [side-eye emoji]

 

~*~

 

“Night, Bits,” Parse mumbles.

“Night, hun,” Bitty says, and comes into his fist as soon as the line goes dead.

 

~*~

 

Bitty comes home from class and finds the frogs sprawled out on the couch. Dex’s head in is Nursey’s lap while Nursey scratches at his hair, and Farmer is on his other side with Chowder on the floor between her feet, massaging one of her calves and kissing at her kneecap.

Bitty smiles at Dex knowingly. Dex winks at him and brushes his lips across Nursey’s wrist.

 

~*~

 

“I meant it the other day,” Parse says. He’s frowning at his crème brulee, tapping unhappily at the caramelized layer with a spoon.

Bitty’s already eating his. He crunches down on a chunk of caramel with his teeth. “Hm?”

“About Vegas,” Parse clarifies, finally committing to cracking through his crust and taking a bite. “You’re good with social media and you know hockey. I could, like, probably put a word in for you at the organization. Like, support staff or something.”

Bitty furrows his eyebrows at Parse’s video. “Seriously?”

Parse shrugs, overly-casual. “Yeah. Also, my custard turned kinda runny.”

“You left it under the broiler too long,” Bitty tells him absently. “Are you actually trying to recruit me?”

Parse looks up into the camera with a sudden earnestness, eyes wide and voice soft. “Only if you want me to be,” he says quietly.

Bitty bites his lip. “I, um—I don’t know?” He looks down nervously, pries at the top of his crème brulee with his spoon and watches as the crust lifts and buckles. “I’m—not sure I wanna live in Vegas? It’s such a big move, and I don’t think I’d like the city, so, um.”

“No, yeah, I get it,” Parse says, grimacing at his keyboard. “Forget it, I’m sorry—”

“No, I—it’s okay.” Bitty massages at the tension over his eyebrows. “I—it’s not that I don’t appreciate it, hun, really. I’m not—I’m not upset you offered. Thank you, for—believing in me, I guess.”

“I do,” Parse insists, leaning forwards towards the camera a little. “You could work for a team over there. You don’t need me to get you a job.”

Bitty laughs. “Um, thanks. I’ll—I’ll think about it, I guess. I’m not sure I’m still not set on the bakery thing.”

Parse hums. “Also a solid option.” He gets up to slide his half-eaten dessert back into the fridge. “Are you, uh, definitely staying near Samwell then?”

Bitty worries at his lip some more, drawing his knees up to his chest on the chair. “Mama still wants me to come back to Georgia.”

“Is that what you want?” Parse asks. He walks with his laptop back into his bedroom, stripping out of his shirt before he flops onto the bed.

Bitty swallows around the sudden dryness in his mouth. “Um. I—” he takes a breath and closes his eyes. “No. No, it’s not. I don’t—I don’t wanna suffocate there.”

“Atlanta’s pretty gay,” Parse points out neutrally. He’s on his stomach, resting his cheek on his arm and watching Bitty’s face on the screen.

“It’ll never feel that way to me,” Bitty says softly. He traces his finger across the faux-wood grain on the veneered kitchen table, steadying his breathing to the pace of the motion. “Georgia—it’ll always be the place that locked me in that supply closet. It’ll always be Coach telling me to man up and hit back.”

“Don’t let her drag you back,” Parse tells him. “If she doesn’t fucking understand that—”

“I know,” Bitty cuts in tiredly. He puts his face in his hands and sighs heavily. “I know, I can’t—but—what if I can’t find a job?”

Parse is quiet for a moment. “Then I’ve got a couch and an opening for a private chef. Don’t fucking go back there. I—I won’t let you.”

Bitty shoves the sob back down his throat with the palms of his hands. It ends up sounding almost like a laugh. “Please. We both know you’ve got at least two guest bedrooms, sweetheart.”

He peeks through his fingers to find Parse smiling fondly. “The bedroom comes after the second raise. Can’t hand you everything on a silver platter, Bits.”

“You’re the worst.”

“So I’ve been told.” Parse rolls onto his back, farther away from the laptop, arching up and stretching sleepily. “You’re gonna find something, though, for real. You’ve got a shit ton of options.”

Bitty smiles faintly. “I hope so. Thanks, hun.”

“Yeah, Bits. Of course.”

 

~*~

 

@omgcheckplease (1/29/17 10:43 pm): Anyone want to hire me? My skills include: talking to professional hockey players on Twitter, bringing baked goods to the office

@tseguinofficial (1/29/17 11:32 pm): @omgcheckplease how do you feel about Texas

@omgcheckplease (1/29/17 11:37 pm): @tseguinofficial I feel like this is a loaded question

 

~*~

 

@omgcheckplease (2/14/17 5:37 pm): VDay protip: when you’re alone for the holiday (again) make my personal-sized double choco cake recipe & eat your feelings! [YouTube link]

@kvpurrson90 (2/14/17 6:52 pm): [an image of a granite countertop where two mini chocolate cakes are cooling. Kit Purrson is perched nearby, wearing a pink bowtie.] @omgcheckplease Am I doing it right?

@omgcheckplease (2/14/17 7:01 pm): @kvpurrson90 Why are there two of them?

@kvpurrson90 (2/14/17 7:03 pm): @omgcheckplease I have a lot of feelings

 

~*~

 

@omgcheckplease (3/2/17 10:13 pm): Guess who just finished his undergraduate thesis, y’all!! Apparently this means the boys are throwing me an epikegster [blushing emoji] Pray for me

@kvpurrson90 (3/2/17 10:15 pm): @omgcheckplease Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do

@omgcheckplease (3/2/17 10:16 pm): @kvpurrson90 I feel like that leaves me with more options than I had before [chirping bird emoji]

@troyj14 (3/2/17 10:17 pm): @omgcheckplease @kvpurrson90 Parser is a professional athlete, he doesn’t drink

@tseguinofficial (3/2/17 10:20 pm): @troyj14 @omgcheckplease @kvpurrson90 what a coincidence neither do I

 

~*~

 

“I’m so fucking proud of you,” Parse says warmly. It’s hard to hear him over the phone; the party is still raging downstairs.

Bitty wipes at a rogue tear under his eye. “I—don’t know if I could’ve done it without you.”

“Sure you could’ve.” Parse sounds far away. Miles and miles padded between them and Bitty can tug at the distance like cotton, feel it ripping between his fingers. “You don’t need me for anything.”

“Don’t talk like that,” Bitty begs. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Parse says. “Shit day. Go have fun at your party.”

“I miss you,” Bitty whispers.

Parse doesn’t speak for a long time. “Yeah, me too,” he says. “Me too.”

 

~*~

 

Bitty thinks about kissing Parse.

He thinks about it in class, tapping his pen on his notebook and staring somewhere above his professor’s head.

He thinks about it on the ice, because the boy who just checked him had gray eyes that were too sharp, and maybe Parse would push him into the boards and keep him there with a warm tongue blooming in his mouth.

He thinks about it in his room, the kitchen, on the bus when he’s curled up with his temple pressed to the window all alone and some city is blurring past, and Parse is on a plane watching states do the same thing.

Parse, Parse— Kent, late at night, face pressed into the pillow, because Kent is different and good between his teeth and he feels like less of a fraud when he does it, like he can pierce the skin of the secret and bleed it dry.

 

~*~

 

“I hate Vegas,” Parse says. “I hate this fucking city. I never see you. You should just forget—”

“I think about you all the time,” Bitty blurts, before he can stop himself. “I think about kissing you again. I—I feel so dirty. I get off thinking about you, all the time. I can’t—I don’t wanna stop.”

Parse doesn’t say anything.

“Oh my God,” Bitty says. “Oh my God, I’m so sorry, I can’t believe—please forget I said—”

“How?” Parse asks. His voice is rough, huskier than before. Darker. Bitty shivers. “How do you get off? You can tell me.”

Bitty sucks in a sharp breath. He’s sure Parse can hear it over the phone. “I—um, I touch myself. I—on my side, usually, and sometimes—sometimes I hold a pillow, and I pretend you’re there.”

“Is this okay?” Parse murmurs quietly, his voice strained.

Bitty closes his eyes and shudders. “Kent,” he whispers. “Please.”

“Okay,” Kent says. He sounds like he’s shaking. “Okay, I—do you finger yourself?”

Bitty shakes his head and leaves his cheek pressed against the pillow. “Um, no. I—I’ve never done that.”

“I do,” Kent admits breathlessly. “I finger myself and I think about you fucking me.”

“Fuck,” Bitty exhales. He’s so hard it’s starting to hurt. He shoves a hand down into his boxer-briefs and hisses at how good it feels, at the ache bubbling out of his chest. “Fuck, Kent.”

“Are you touching yourself right now?”

Bitty laughs, runs his free hand through his hair and tugs at it a little. “Yeah.”

“Me too,” Kent grits out, like he’s falling apart.

Bitty feels unhinged, reckless. “I wanna fuck you. I’ve—God, I w-wanna fuck you, Kent. I’ve never—never wanted it like this.”

There’s a silence, the faint sound of panting through the phone.

“Not even with him?” Kent asks.

“No,” Bitty chokes out. “Not like this. Just you.”

Kent sobs. “Gonna come. Bitty, Bitty, I—fuck, I’m—”

Bitty flips over and shoves his face down into the pillow and sobs too, writhing against his hand and the crash of emotion threatening to submerge him. “Me—me too—I’m— Kent, God.”

“Fuck,” Kent breathes. “Fuck, Bitty. Christ.”

Bitty rolls onto his back again and pulls his hand free of his briefs, smearing come across them and his stomach as he does so. He’s a little beyond being grossed out by that right now. “Oh my God.”

“Uh,” Kent says eloquently. “Yeah.”

Bitty stares up at the ceiling and counts his breaths as his lungs settle. “I’m sorry you hate Vegas.”

“I don’t,” Kent admits. “I don’t know why I said that. I just miss you.”

“I miss you too,” Bitty says. He closes his eyes and swallows thickly. “Shitty still wants to go to Cancun.”

Kent is quiet. “That’s gonna be awesome.”

“Yeah,” Bitty agrees. His come is turning tacky against his skin. “Probably.”

 

~*~

 

@kvpurrson90 (3/25/17 2:45 pm): If ur not watching @omgcheckplease captain the Samwell Men’s Hockey team through a beaut playoff run what are u even doing with ur life [stream link]

@omgcheckplease (3/25/17 2:47 pm): @kvpurrson90 UM can you not say that until after we play, please?? [blushing emoji, panicking emoji]

@troyj14 (3/25/17 2:50 pm): @omgcheckplease @kvpurrson90 Then how would we watch you win?

@omgcheckplease (3/25/17 2:50 pm): @troyj14 @kvpurrson90 I’m gonna go throw up now

 

~*~

 

Parse (10:37 pm): Am I allowed to steal Chowder or

Bitty (10:41 pm): Haha! Um, for real??

Parse (10:42 pm): He’s good enough

Parse (10:42 pm): My GM liked his game tape

Bitty (10:45 pm): You’re serious

Bitty (10:45 pm): If you say “when am I ever not serious?” I swear to god I’m never speaking to you again

Parse (10:47 pm): It’s almost worth it ngl :-*

Parse (10:47 pm): I am serious tho. Give him my number

 

~*~

 

“Fuck, fuck, I’m coming,” Kent whines, voice crackling through the phone speaker, but Bitty can barely hear him over the sound of his heartbeat in his throat.

“Fuck,” he echoes breathlessly, staring up at the ceiling. And then he wipes the come off of his stomach, says, “Goodnight,” and hangs up the phone.

They don’t talk about this either.

 

~*~

 

@omgcheckplease (4/8/17 6:53 pm): I’ve never been so nervous in my life

@kvpurrson90 (4/8/17 6:55 pm): @omgcheckplease Watch my best friend be nervous on national television [stream link]

@omgcheckplease (4/8/17 6:57 pm): @kvpurrson90 You’re the worst

 

~*~

 

Jack (11:31 pm): You guys had a really great run, Bittle. You should be proud.

Bitty (11:39 pm): Um, thanks, Jack. I didn’t know you were watching?

Jack (11:40 pm): Of course I was.

 

~*~

 

“’You should be proud, Bittle,’” Bitty mimics, taking care to make his French Canadian accent sound particularly ridiculous. “What the fuck?”

“You should be proud,” Kent says. He’s watching Bitty carefully, sitting up cross-legged in bed.

Bitty rolls his eyes. “That’s so not the point.”

Kent sighs. “I know. But, you know, it’s true.”

“Thank you,” Bitty tells him automatically, a brief detour on his building rant. “But—seriously? We haven’t talked in months —years, really—and he texts me to—to pity me? Give me a fucking pep talk?”

Kent sinks down under his comforter and slowly points out, “I mean, you know he means well.”

“Why’re you defending him?” Bitty snaps.

Kent’s eyes flash sullenly as his face shifts out of the light. “At least you fucking hear me when I do.”

Bitty’s stomach twists hotly. “I can’t handle your moods right now, Kent. I’m—I’m so fucking tired.”

“Yeah, well, so am I, Bitty.” Kent drags a hand over his face, shoulders hunched in the dark room. “In case you forgot, I’m playing some fucking hockey too.”

“Well I’m not anymore!” Bitty shouts, and his voice cracks over the words, ugly and wet, and the tears blur his vision too much to see Kent’s reaction. “This—this was it for me, forever. I don’t get to lick my fucking wounds like Jack and make a couple million bucks to fuck off to the NHL. This was my shot, and I—I failed, and you can tell me that he means well, and that you’re proud of me, and it doesn’t fucking matter, okay? That’s it.”

Bitty’s breathing is ragged. He scrubs at his eyes but more tears fall to take the old ones’ place and he still can’t manage to look at Kent’s face.

There’s a knock at the door.

“Bitty?” Chowder asks tentatively. “Are you okay?”

Bitty presses the heels of his hands into his eyes and laughs. “I’ll be alright, Chowder. I’m just takin’ it hard, is all. Sorry if I woke you.”

“Um! That’s okay.” There’s a hesitation. “Can I come in?”

“I’m with Kent,” Bitty says, voice watery, and Chowder tells him goodnight. Bitty scrubs at his face again and finally looks back at the camera.

Call ended, duration 32:49 (12:13 am)

Bitty hovers his cursor over the video call button for a long, suspended moment. He can feel the air vibrating in his lungs, like it’s alive and drowning in his chest.

His phone rings.

“Kent?” he asks. “Honey, I’m so sorry—”

“I’m sorry I hung up,” Kent says. There’s water running in the background and his voice is far away, on speakerphone. “I can’t—I couldn’t—”

“No, hun, it’s—it’s my fault.” Bitty closes his eyes and presses his face between his knees. “It was so unfair of me to yell at you like that. You’ve—you’re so supportive, of everything.”

The water sounds like a shower. Rain pounding on porcelain. Kent says, “I won’t be someone’s punching bag again.”

“I won’t make you one,” Bitty swears, squeezing his eyelids tighter around the tears rolling down his cheeks and smearing across his knees. “I’m so, so sorry I did that. I—I never want to be that person.”

“I know.” Kent hesitates, but he doesn’t sound done talking. “I don’t, uh—I don’t even know what you said. I just—like, freaked out and I wanted to yell back so—I hung up and—yeah.”

Bitty traces a finger through a tear track on his leg. “I’m just sad,” he admits wetly. “I’m just—really sad, and I’m not ready to feel better, and it upset me to hear you saying all these good things like—like I couldn’t just be sad.”

“You’re allowed to be sad,” Kent tells him. “I’m sorry I didn’t, like, give you room to do that.”

Bitty sniffs and uncurls his legs, then crawls under the covers and unplugs his fairy lights. “Thank you. I forgive you. I—are you okay?”

“Yeah,” Kent says. “Tired.”

“Me too,” Bitty agrees, pulling Señor Bun against his chest. “Maybe, um—we should both just go to bed?”

There’s still water running in the background. Kent says, “Yeah,” again. “Goodnight, Bits.”

Bitty burrows his face into the pillow. “Goodnight, hun.”

Kent hangs up. Bitty pulls up rain sounds on YouTube and falls asleep to the soft pattering, like it could wash him clean and away.

 

~*~

 

“Am I allowed to cheer you up now?” Kent asks the next day. He’s watching Bitty build a growing stack of pancakes, soaking up Skype time before the rest of the Haus wakes up.

Bitty laughs softly, guilt creeping in around the edges. “If you wanna.”

“You were an incredible captain,” Kent tells him. “Anyone could see that. And you made it to the fucking championship, just like Jack did—and he’s in the fucking NHL now, so like, what’s that tell you?”

Bitty stares resolutely at his pancakes. He pokes at a rogue blueberry with the edge of his spatula.

“You’re not a failure ‘cause you didn’t win one game. Not as a player and especially not as fucking captain,” Kent continues, and Bitty bites his lip against the tears threatening to fall. “You’re a good captain when you make the people around you better, and you did that. You always do that, Bits. You’re leaving this place better than you found it, and that’s what you should be proud of.”

Bitty slides the frying pan off the heat and puts a hand up to his mouth to catch a sob. His shoulders shake with it and the tears roll steadily, fat and cathartic down scrubbed-raw cheeks.

“How long did that speech take you?” he chirps, smiling faintly at the camera. A tear slips down into the seam of his lips; he purses them absently, wipes at his eyes.

“Ehh,” Kent answers flippantly, hiding his expression behind a coffee mug. “Did it work?”

Bitty smiles ruefully and slides the frying pan back onto the burner, then flips the pancake with a deft flick of his wrist. “Maybe. Yes. Thank you, hun.”

Kent says, “Yeah, Bits, ‘course. I’m glad I can help.”

They settle into silence for a few minutes, Bitty finishing up his current pancake and pouring batter for the next one, content to breathe around the ache in his chest and know Kent is there. Eventually, he asks, “How’re you doing, hun? Gonna sweep the Aeros next week?”

Kent laughs self-deprecatingly. “Ugh, I dunno. I’m still like, high-key in anxiety mode about it. Can I just, like, word vomit at you for a while?”

“Mhm,” Bitty hums, flipping another pancake. “Hit me, baby.”

Kent launches into his rant about the Houston defense while Bitty completes his pancake mountain, the soft backdrop of awakening hockey bros (plus Farmer, probably) slowly growing in volume as the Haus stirs to full life.

I’ll never get this again, Bitty thinks. He grabs the fancy maple syrup from its hiding place behind the flour, sets the frying pan in the sink to soak, and leans his hip against the counter to watch Kent’s face while he talks.

 

~*~

 

“See, the thing I always forget is—” Bitty is cut off by the sound of a very suspicious crash somewhere downstairs “—how quickly the off-season descends into chaos.”

Kent laughs brightly, grinning at Bitty sleepily as he slides back into a pair of boxers. Bitty just had a very nice orgasm, but the sight still makes his dick twitch a little. Skype sex has been treating him very well, despite his initial nerves.

“I literally can’t imagine shoving half my teammates in a house together right after a playoff run,” Kent says, flopping dramatically onto his bed. “I’m scared for you.”

Bitty laughs and runs a hand through his sweaty hair. “It’s kinda nice. They’ve only partied three nights in a row, which is honestly better than—”

There’s a loud knock on the door, accompanied by Chowder’s voice. “Bitty!! Do you wanna come mattress surfing with us?”

Bitty quickly wriggles into a pair of sleep shorts as he shouts, “Sorry, what? You can come in!”

Chowder pulls the door open excitedly. “Mattress surfing! You put the mattress on the stairs and—” there’s another emphasizing crash here, along with the muffled sound of Nursey’s voice “—ride it down!”

Bitty bites his lip around the mischievous smile blooming across his face and glances over at Kent, who rolls his eyes and tells him, “Go have fun, babe. I’ll catch you later.”

“Um, thanks! Bye!” Bitty hangs up and shoots Kent a kiss emoji, then pulls a random shirt on over his head as he scrambles out of bed and follows Chowder into the hallway.

“Um! Did Kent Parson just call you babe?” Chowder asks, eyebrows furrowing innocently.

“Don’t worry about it,” Bitty answers breezily, internally wincing. Then shouts, “I call next!” which sets the whole Haus off cheering as Ollie and Wicks haul the mattress back up the staircase.

The end of hockey season might not actually be so bad.

 

~*~

 

Parse (2:17 pm): What r u wearing

Bitty forces back a startled laugh and looks surreptitiously around his classroom, but neither of the people on either side of his are paying any attention to him.

Bitty (2:18 pm): Seriously?

Parse (2:18 pm): Do u not like my sexting Bits

Bitty rolls his eyes and shifts a little lower in his seat.

Bitty (2:18 pm): I’m in class

Parse (2:19 pm): Cool

Parse (2:19 pm): What r u wearing in class

Bitty (2:20 pm): A tank top and shorts

Parse (2:20 pm): You look so fucking good in tank tops

Parse (2:20 pm): Your arms r so sexy like. Fuck

Parse (2:21 pm): Also ur collarbones which is like really specific but

Bitty bites his lip, conscious of the blush rising to his face, and looks around the room again. He switches over to Snapchat and sneaks a picture of himself: the angle is a little weird, but his lip looks good where it’s trapped between his teeth and his scoop-necked tank is falling low, revealing skin all the way down to his pecs.

Caption: Collarbones, huh?

Kent replays the snap immediately after opening it, then sends one of his own back. Bitty nearly drops his phone. Kent is shirtless and still wet from a shower, his hair barely re-curling around his ears, beads of water catching on his growing playoff beard. Bitty’s thought a lot about how that beard would feel scratching between his thighs.

Caption: Fuck.

Yeah, same. Bitty switches back over to text with a shaky exhale.

Bitty (2:24 pm): Guess I don’t gotta ask what you’re wearing

Parse (2:24 pm): I mean I’ve got a towel on

Bitty (2:25 pm): Take it off

Parse (2:25 pm): Fuck fuck okay

Parse (2:25 pm): Christ please tell me class ends at 230

Bitty swallows thickly, adjusting himself in his shorts with one hand.

Bitty (2:26 pm): Don’t you have a meeting in an hour?

Parse (2:26 pm): Not gonna need that long babe

Bitty (2:27 pm): I’ll be home in 10

 

~*~

 

“Fuck,” Kent wheezes. His hair is still wet, maybe partly due to sweat now. He switches off his vibrator and tosses it to the foot of the bed to apparently be dealt with later.

Bitty wipes his fingers off on his comforter, wrinkling his nose while he mentally calculates the odds the lube will stain them. Whatever, he’s moving painfully soon anyway. “Lord, that never gets old.”

Kent laughs weakly, still sounding entirely fucked-out and pleased about it. The resulting silence is peaceful, easy.

Bitty’s about to let Kent go get ready for his meeting when the silence shatters.

Kent sighs, tips his head back against the pillows, and asks, “What’re we doing, Bits?”

When Bitty was ten years old on the fourth of July, he hadn’t wanted to go swimming at the barbeque; it’d been a cold summer and the water was frigid and the sun was barely peeking out between the clouds, and his older cousin shoved him into the pool anyway.

He feels the chill like a phantom. Thinks maybe if he touched his lips they’d be blue.

“I don’t know,” he says.

Kent asks, “What do you wanna be doing?”

Bitty is suddenly very aware of how naked he is. There’s lube between his thighs and a dribble of come congealing on his softened cock. He looks down at his lap and repeats, “I—I don’t know.”

“I just can’t—” Kent cuts off, shoulders hunched up, embarrassed and frustrated. He grabs at a pillow and hugs it lengthwise to his chest. “I can’t keep, like, not knowing. Isn’t it—aren’t you going fucking insane, dancing around this shit?”

“No,” Bitty insists stubbornly. He shoves his laptop away from his face, realizes suddenly how much Kent can see of him, yanks it back up onto his thighs. “No, I—it’s been fi—it’s been really good, hasn’t it? This is—don’t you like what we have?”

Kent runs a hand through his hair. “I love it, Bits. I just—I don’t know what it is. Are we dating? Am I just, like—your sex experiment or whatever? We can’t, like, magically be on the same fucking page about everything.”

Sex experiment. Bitty would almost laugh, if things could be funny. His foot is falling asleep and he still feels cold, but that might just be the AC kicking in. “I think I’m demisexual,” he says, glancing up at the screen nervously. “Maybe. I don’t—I know that I’m—I’m doing this because I care about you, and I like it. I don’t know what else to say to you.”

“Demi,” Kent mutters. Then, louder, “That doesn’t mean you wanna be with me.”

“I’m scared,” Bitty admits, voice cracking. “I’m—I don’t—I don’t know.”

“Whatever you want, it’s—it’s okay, I’m okay with it. I don’t care what your answer is,” Kent tells him, eyes wide and downturned. He traces a thumb across the pillowcase. “I just need one.”

Bitty closes his eyes and breathes. Opens them again and says, “I thought you just wanted to love people.”

Kent’s eyes go even wider, hurt. Bitty put that there. “Not like this,” he says. “Not—not without talking about it. If you think that’s fair then you can go—”

“Give me some time,” Bitty begs. “Please. Let me—I just don’t know. I just—need some time, okay? It’s not fair, I won’t make you—I just don’t know.”

Kent pushes his face down into the pillow he’s holding and shudders with a deep breath. He looks up again and tells him, “Yeah—yeah, okay. That’s—it’s a lot, I get it, I just—don’t leave me hanging like this, okay? Please?”

“I won’t,” Bitty promises. “I’ll—I need to, um, think for a while. But I’m gonna—I’ll figure myself out. You’re so important to me, hun.”

“You’re important to me too.” Kent smiles—or maybe it’s supposed to be a grimace. “Really fucking important, Bits.”

Bitty’s stomach twists. “We’ll still talk, right? While I’m—while we figure this out?”

“Yeah, ‘course,” Kent answers softly. “Maybe, uh—maybe put a pause on the fucking, though.”

Bitty laughs. “Yeah, probably a good plan.”

Kent smirks and shifts, tossing his pillow aside and leaning over the bed to grab a pair of underwear. “I have those sometimes.”

Bitty pulls his legs up to his chest and smiles into his kneecap. “We’re, um—we’re okay, right?”

Kent pulls a shirt over his head before he answers, running a hand through his hair like he can make some semblance of order out of the mess. “We’re gonna be,” he reassures him.

There’s an ache in Bitty’s chest that wasn’t there before. “Have a good meeting, sweetheart. I’m watching the game tonight.”

“Thanks,” Kent tells him. “I’ll make you a sandwich.”

Bitty laughs quietly as the call goes dead, and lets his eyes fall shut.

 

~*~

 

Bitty (1:37 pm): Wicks is considering becoming a stripper

Parse (1:42 pm): Job market that bad, huh?

Bitty (1:55 pm): If he moves to Vegas maybe you can hire him for your rookie welcome party

Parse (1:57 pm): Is he any good

Bitty (1:57 pm): I changed my mind I don’t want to be having this conversation anymore

Parse (1:58 pm): :-*

 

~*~

 

Bitty (11:51 am): What if I became a stripper

Parse (11:57 am): Jeff says he’d hire you

Bitty (11:57 am): You wouldn’t?

Bitty (11:57 am): Nevermind that’s weird

Bitty (12:03 pm): What should my stage name be

Parse (12:04 pm): Serious suggestions only or

Bitty (12:04 pm): I’m blocking your number

 

~*~

 

Bitty (2:39 pm): Wait would Jeff actually hire me

Bitty (2:47 pm): Kenneth

Bitty (2:53 pm): Kent why does Jeff want a male stripper

Parse (3:16 pm): What if you did that thing where you came out of the giant cake

Parse (3:18 pm): But you also baked the cake and it was 300% more delicious than a normal stripper cake

Bitty (3:23 pm): There are so many levels on which I don’t know how to feel about this

 

~*~

 

Bitty pounds up the staircase and into his room, fumbling to dial as he throws himself onto the bed and screams into the pillow.

Kent takes an agonizingly long time to answer, probably because it’s less than two hours before he plays game six against the Aeros and he’s actually busy for once. He picks up the phone, though, asking, “Bits? Is everything—?”

“I got the job!” Bitty shouts. “Kent, oh my God, I got—the one in Boston—with the—the outreach thing—with the Pride?”

“Babe, holy shit!”

“I’ve got a job,” Bitty repeats ecstatically, wishing desperately they could be on Facetime so he could see Kent’s reaction. “It’s sorta a hybrid thing—”

“I remember, that’s such a good fit for you—”

“Social media and community outreach, Kent—”

“—you’re gonna kill it, Bits.” They both fall silent for a second, catching their breath. Kent’s voice is achingly warm. “I knew you could do it.”

Bitty closes his eyes, heart still pounding against his chest. “Thank you,” he tells him.

He wants to say: I couldn’t have made it through this year without you.

He wants to say: I should be kissing you right now.

Half-true things on his lips and his heart cracking his ribs and all it ever sounds like is thank you.

Kent says, “They’re lucky to have you.”

Bitty says, “I’m not going to Cancun.”

There’s a hesitation. Kent asks, “Because of the job?”

“Yeah,” Bitty lies. He opens his eyes and stares up at the ceiling. “But I thought, um—well, I don’t want to jinx anything—but if you’re free…you could come visit? Um, see my new place and everything.”

Kent is quiet again. “As what?”

Bitty drags his fingers across his comforter, the loose threads and scratchy old fabric. “As—as you.”

“Maybe,” Kent allows. He sighs into the phone, crackling air. “Maybe. I’ve gotta—uh, hockey. But I’m—I’m really happy for you, Bits. This is good. Really fucking good.”

Bitty presses his lips into a smile. “Go play hockey. I’ll be watching.”

“’Kay.” There’s a long drag, the warping of time. “Talk to you soon.”

“Bye, hun,” Bitty whispers. He closes his eyes and breathes, and rolls back off the bed. Walks down the stairs into the crowded living room and shouts, “Guess who has a job!” and lets the cheering carry him away.

 

~*~

 

Bitty is awake at four AM. He is baking a cake. Neither of things strictly need to be happening, but they are, and it’s fine. He’s pouring the batter into the cake pan when his laptop chimes with a Twitter notification, but he’s pretty sure Kent went to sleep hours ago so it’s probably no one important, so he finishes pouring and gets the pan in the oven before he goes over to his computer to check his messages.

@troyj14 (4:08 am): Do you even understand how much you’re fucking him up

Bitty squints at the fluorescent light, blinking rapidly like the message might change. He has a strange sense of almost déjà vu under his skin, and the flicker of indignation rippling in behind.

@omgcheckplease (4:13 am): Excuse me?

@troyj14 (4:13 am): He deserves better than being jerked around like this

@troyj14 (4:13 am): It’s not good for him

Bitty sets a timer on the oven belatedly, shaving a few minutes off of it, and carries his laptop into the living room.

@omgcheckplease (4:15 am): I’m not “jerking him around”

@troyj14 (4:15 am): Yeah. I’m sure that’s what Zimmermann said too.

It’s probably fitting that this is what sets Bitty’s nostrils flaring.

@omgcheckplease (4:16 am): You know, I’m not sure that this has anything to do with you.

@troyj14 (4:17 am): Fuck you

@troyj14 (4:18 am): You weren’t the one who had to watch him try to drink himself to death his rookie year

@troyj14 (4:19 am): You sure as FUCK weren’t the one who took care of him after whatever Zimmermann did to him at that party

@troyj14 (4:19 am): You know, the one you’ve got that cute selfie with him at

@troy14 (4:21 am): He shows up at my house with my kids and my wife whenever you’ve fucked him up so much he can’t sleep alone

@troyj14 (4:22 am): But yeah, it’s got nothing to do with me.

Bitty can feel his heart change size. The twist and the squeeze and the way it pops out again when it’s about to burst with blood.

Twist, squeeze, pop.

@troyj14 (4:45 am): If you break his heart he might not survive it.

Twist, squeeze, pop.

Bitty swallows down the bile in his throat and forces himself to type.

@omgcheckplease (4:47 am): That’s a terrible thing to tell someone. You can’t make me responsible for that.

@troyj14 (4:50 am): Yeah, well, that doesn’t make it any less true.

Bitty can feel the roots of his teeth, up up up until they meet his jaw.

@omgcheckplease (4:52 am): If you care so much about all this maybe you should date him yourself.

Twist, squeeze, pop.

Troy never answers. Bitty gets up calmly, turns his computer off, and pulls the cake out of the oven.

 

~*~

 

Bitty (11:41 pm): [an entire row of confetti emoji]

Bitty (11:41 pm): ROUND THREE!!!

Parse (12:12 pm): [two rows of confetti emoji, followed by a single exhausted emoji]

Bitty (12:15 pm): Guess that means no graduation, huh? :(

Parse (12:15 pm): Sorry Bits :(((((

Bitty (12:17 pm): Just get a hat trick for me instead [angel emoji]

Parse (12:18 pm): Haha, we’ll see

 

~*~

 

Bitty finds Chowder on the roof, sitting in one of the old lawn chairs and staring at the dying sunset. He takes the other chair and scoots it a little closer, then sits down too.

Chowder looks over and smiles at him, but doesn’t say anything.

“If it were up to me,” Bitty says eventually, slowly, “it would’ve been you. I think everyone would’ve wanted it to be you.”

Chowder looks over again, surprised this time. “Oh! Um, thanks, Bitty! But Whiskey’s gonna be a great captain, I know it.”

Bitty smiles wryly, his eyes still fixed over the trees at the horizon. He taps his tongue against the back of his teeth. “Someone important told me that a good captain makes the people around him better. I think about it a lot.”

Chowder is quiet again, thoughtful. He asks, “Someone important means Parse, right?”

The air is dry tonight, chilly now that the sun’s gone away. It’ll probably be a mild summer in Boston. Bitty watches some birds startle out of a tree as a group of rowdy lacrosse bros walks past and asks, “Did you know that I’m demi?”

“Oh! I didn’t, but that’s cool!” Chowder says, with the exact enthusiasm and unwavering support that would’ve made him a goddamn good captain. “You, um, don’t really talk about that stuff much.”

Bitty laughs. “Guess not.” The birds have resettled on a telephone wire nearby. He thinks maybe they’re sparrows, or finches. “I guess it should be easier to figure out what I want. Or—to do something about it once I find it.”

“I want a shutout every game,” Chowder says, shrugging. “And you can tell me, ‘Well, just stop all the pucks, then!’ And it’s that easy, but it’s also not. Sometimes you can’t stop all the pucks.”

Bitty shakes his head fondly. His words are careful, deliberate. “What if—what if someone told you that you could stop every puck, all the time. And it was exactly how you wanted it—but, um—you’re scared. That maybe one day it won’t…that one day it’ll be gone. Would you trust it?”

“I’m pretty sure he really, really loves you,” Chowder says, all the pretense dropped so suddenly that it startles a laugh out of Bitty. “Derek says the way he looked at you was, like—you know, the way I look at him.”

The sparrows fly back down into the tree, singing jauntily in the fading light. Bitty teases, “You guys gossip about me behind my back, don’t you?”

“Maybe!” Chowder answers cheerfully.

Bitty laughs again, softly this time. “I’m so happy for y’all, by the way,” he tells him. “It felt weird to say before, but—guess I’m not your captain anymore.”

“Just my friend,” Chowder agrees, and Bitty’s heart aches a little. There’s a comfortable pause, like they’re building up to something. “I’ve been with Cait a long time now, and it’s—it’s not the exact same as it was when we got together—I mean, even without Derek and Will. But that doesn’t make it worse, you know? I still love her so much, Bitty! All the other stuff? You can figure that out as you go.”

Bitty watches the leaves rustle down below them. The birds have stopped singing, but they’re still there. “Thanks, Chowder.”

Chowder smiles encouragingly and then follows Bitty’s line of sight, eyes tracking onto the birds flitting between branches. “You were a good captain,” he says. “You’ll always kind of be.”

Bitty leans his head to the side and rests it on Chowder’s shoulder.

 

~*~

 

Parse (5:38 pm): What the fuck did you say to Jeff

Bitty cringes. It’s been two days since he’s heard from Troy at all; he’d sort of hoped he was…in the clear, maybe? Certainly not in a position for Kent to be confronting him about it.

Bitty (5:42 pm): Um, why?

Kent calls him.

Bitty nearly drops his phone in his rush to leave the kitchen, where Ollie and Wicks are hanging out eating pizza rolls. He winds up on the back porch, answering on the last ring, “Look, he’s the one who—”

“He kissed me after practice today,” Kent says. “Like, on the fucking mouth, Bitty.”

Bitty sits down on the nearest Adirondack chair. “Oh.”

“Yeah, ‘oh.’”

There’s nowhere to even begin. Bitty settles for, “Um, are you okay?”

“It’s Jeff!” Kent emphasizes, as if that’s any help at all.

Bitty draws his knees up to his chest. “Gotta give me more than that, honey.”

Kent’s sigh crackles through the speaker. “I wanna be with him.” Like ripping off a Band-Aid. “He’s—I guess he talked to Shani and she’s like—they’re, you know, open to it. Polyamory. And I—it’s Jeff.”

“You’ve mentioned,” Bitty chirps dryly, and shoves his head between his knees.

“I thought he was straight. Eight fucking years on this team and that fucker—” Kent cuts off abruptly. His laugh borders on hysterical. “What the fuck did you say to him?”

Bitty closes his eyes. He hears the words in some bastardization of Jeff Troy’s voice, zombified and resurrected because he can’t really remember what it sounds like. He might not survive it.

“Tell me about the night we met,” he says, and digs his nails into his shin.

“The—the party?”

Bitty laughs bitterly. “The real time.”

Kent’s silence is deeply uncomfortable. Bitty wonders if he’ll hang up.

Kent says, “I was fucked up. I was really fucked up.”

“Why’d you message me?” Bitty asks softly.

“Why the fuck does it matter?” Kent spits, a spray of venom. “Why the fuck are we fucking talking about this?”

Bitty presses his nails in harder. “Kent.”

“I thought maybe I’d kill myself, Eric. That’s what you wanna hear, right?” Kent hisses. “I was gonna swallow a bottle of pills like Jack did but I was gonna do it right, and you’d feel real fucking sorry for me when I died. Well, joke’s on fucking you, ‘cause now you get to pity me while I’m alive.”

Bitty shrinks his shaking shoulders and curls against his knees. He has to speak, has to find something to say. He thinks he’d vomit blood if he opened his mouth.

Kent says, “I’m sorry—”

“When—when they locked me in that closet,” Bitty tells him, “I sat next to a bottle of bleach all night. I don’t—I didn’t have a cellphone—I don’t know how long it took. But I—I looked at it, and I thought, ‘I could drink it. I could drink it and that’ll show them.’ Like—like they deserved it. Or—I did.”

Kent’s voice is broken. “Bitty—”

Bitty smiles faintly, like they’re in on a bad joke. “Know what really showed ‘em? I got the fuck out of Georgia, and I’m happy, and they’re stuck in their miserable fucking little lives. I win.”

Kent is crying; Bitty can hear it through the phone. He whispers, “My Georgia isn’t a place.”

“I know,” Bitty says, and the dampness on his cheeks tells him he’s crying too. “I’m so sorry about that. I’m so sorry I can’t just drag you away. But—you can win too, Kent. And I don’t pity you. That’s not what this is.”

“I didn’t want—you’re not responsible for me.” Kent takes a shaky breath that comes out more like a sob. “I thought—I thought if I told you—how much you helped me—what it meant—”

“I know,” Bitty repeats, quiet because his throat will split if he isn’t. “I know, and I don’t—I’m here because I want to be. Because I—because I want you.”

“Fuck,” Kent sobs. “Fuck.”

Bitty laughs wetly, between gasps of breath. “That about—sums it up.” He breathes deeper, opening his eyes and staring down at the chair beneath him. The paint is peeling off the splintering wood. “You, um—you need to talk to Jeff. About this.”

“Fuck,” Kent mutters. “Yeah, yeah—I—I’ll do that. Is that what—is that what you talked to him about?”

Bitty chuckles nervously, his voice going progressively more high-pitched. “Um, sort of? I may’ve—um, very maturely…told him…to go fuck himself? And then fuck you?”

Kent laughs too, loud and startled. “You—okay, I’m just gonna—you know what? Sure. This is my life.” He’s quiet for a moment, and Bitty doesn’t try to fill the silence. “I, uh—with Jeff, I—the last time we—you and me—talked about polyamory?”

Bitty picks a chip of paint free from the wood and flicks it onto the grass. “I’m…not saying no. But I’m not sure? And I feel awful saying that, but—”

“It’s okay,” Kent gently assures him. “It’s—I’m not, like, asking for an answer yet. I’m just—putting it out there, I guess. That I—that wanting him doesn’t, uh, mean that I don’t…want you, you know?”

Bitty closes his eyes. “Yeah.”

Kent is quiet. “I really, really want you.”

“Me too,” Bitty admits. He fights the urge to laugh; doesn’t know what part was supposed to be funny. “I—me too—I just don’t know—I need to think about how to, um, be a part of this.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I—I get it, I promise.” Kent sighs. “Or, I’m trying to. I’m not gonna, like, freak out on you.”

“I, um, didn’t think you would,” Bitty tells him. “I—um, I trust you to tell me without it—I trust you.”

Kent whispers, “Thanks, Bits.”

Bitty nods even though Kent can’t see and says, “Um, I should let you—get back to Jeff, or, um—”

“Yeah, yeah I—I should go.” Kent hesitates just long enough to know it isn’t an accident. “I love you.”

He hangs up before Bitty can answer.

Bitty stares downwards as his phone, dangling from limp fingers, slides down and clatters against the chair. The rubber case bounces on the wood and tumbles the phone into the grass, face down and probably a little damp from an earlier rain now, and the sob bursts out of his chest with a ferocity that seizes up his lungs.

It’s an ugly, loud cry, the kind that pours out and stains concrete down to the foundation. No one comes to find him.

 

~*~

 

Bitty (7:41 pm): I love you too

 

~*~

 

[unknown number] (7:57 am): Hi, my name is Jeff. I’m a huge dick.

Bitty huffs out a laugh despite himself.

Bitty (10:13 am): I can’t tell if someone is pranking me or if this is you trying to apologize

Jeff Troy (10:14 am): Haha. The second one. And, look, I wanted to make sure you knew that this isn’t me trying to keep you from him

Jeff Troy (10:15 am): I mean I’m sure as hell not leaving my wife or anything, and like

Jeff Troy (10:15 am): Me being with Kent is about me figuring out what I want. It’s not about you.

Jeff Troy (10:18 am): … I don’t think anything I said the other day was about you. I’m sorry.

Bitty bites his lip and digs his fingers into the sides of his phone. He wants to be snarky, say something passive-aggressive that stings a little more than it needs to. It’d feel good. But Jeff Troy is important to Kent—startlingly important—more than Bitty’d fully realized he might be.

And Bitty doesn’t start fights he can’t win.

Bitty (10:21 am): I forgive you

Bitty (10:21 am): I hope you know that you can’t be responsible for him either

Bitty (10:22 am): No one can carry all of that for someone else, it’s not healthy

It takes a while for Troy to answer. In the meantime, Bitty texts Kent good morning and forces himself out of bed to get ready for class. If he breathes in enough steam in the shower, it sort of clears out the pettiness and lets extending the olive branch feel almost good.

By the time he’s dressed with his hair blow-dried and styled, he’s convinced Kent to add an extra egg to his omelet and finally gotten a text back from Troy.

Jeff Troy (11:12 am): I wanted to say that I don’t do that

Jeff Troy (11:12 am): But I guess I kinda have been. For like a long time

No kidding. Bitty massages a tense spot above his eyebrow and sighs.

Bitty (11:14 am): Um, maybe you should consider talking to someone about it?

Bitty (11:15 am): I’m not trying to tell you how to live your life, but it might help with learning to have some boundaries

Class starts at eleven-thirty. Bitty grabs a muffin off the counter and shoulders his backpack, texting one handed as he makes his way out the door.

Jeff Troy (11:17 am): Ha, like couples counseling?

Jeff Troy (11:17 am): Maybe we should all go

Jeff Troy (11:17 am): What’s that even called

Bitty laughs quietly and takes a bite of his muffin while he types.

Bitty (11:18 am): Polycule counseling?

Bitty (11:18 am): I can’t even imagine the poor therapist’s face if you suggested that

Jeff Troy (11:19 am): Look at you, using all the fancy terms

Jeff Troy (11:20 am): I just told my wife I might wanna bone a dude

Bitty snorts.

Bitty (11:20 am): Whatever gets the point across I guess

Jeff Troy (11:22 am): I’m not ignoring your suggestion by the way. I’m probably gonna do it

Jeff Troy (11:23 am): So, uh, thanks I guess

Bitty gets to his classroom building with time to spare. He leans against the wall, next to the door, and rolls his eyes.

Bitty (11:25 am): You’re welcome, I guess

The Aces have practice this morning, so he expects that will be the end of things. But halfway through class, his phone buzzes again with another text.

Jeff Troy (11:53 am): I hope we can all make this work. You make him really happy

Bitty closes his eyes and slides his phone back into his pocket.

 

~*~

 

@doctornurse (5/5/17 10:13 am): [a framed jersey hangs near a kitchen doorway. It’s number 15, the name ‘Bittle’ proudly emblazoned on the back] Happy birthday, Cap @omgcheckplease

@omgcheckplease (5/5/17 10:42 am): @doctornurse Y’all hold a contest to see who can make me cry the hardest every year, I swear

@kvpurrson90 (5/5/17 10:45 am): @omgcheckplease @doctornurse Happy birthday to my fave NCAA captain ever! [confetti emoji, party hat emoji]

 

~*~

 

Bitty (11:02 am): I see you throwing shade on Twitter, Parson

Parse (11:04 am): :-*

Parse (11:04 am): Also your present might be kinda late :(((( Sorry Bits

Bitty (11:07 am): Oh! That’s totally fine. I mean, you’re in the middle of a playoff run, I wasn’t really expecting anything anyway

Parse (11:07 am): Like I’d forget your birthday

Parse (11:07 am): You wound me, Bits

Parse (11:08 am): Just keep an eye out next week, kay?

Bitty (11:13 am): Um okay

Bitty (11:13 am): Ridiculous man

Parse (11:14 am): <3

 

~*~

 

@omgcheckplease (5/9/17 3:43 pm): [A selfie taken outside a brick building in downtown Boston] Graduation haircut!

@kvpurrson90 (5/9/17 3:56 pm): @omgcheckplease Looking sharp, man! [flame emoji]

@troyj14 (5/9/17 4:10 pm): @kvpurrson90 @omgcheckplease Is there gonna be a stream? Send us a link!

@omgcheckplease (5/9/17 4:17 pm): @troyj14 @kvpurrson90 [blushing emoji]

 

~*~

 

Bitty frowns when his phone buzzes, a hand hovering over the pocket uncertainly. He’s just left his parents and Aunt Judy in the audience and scurried off to join the procession about to make its way to the graduating students’ section, and he really shouldn’t be checking his phone, but he really can’t imagine who would try to text him ten minutes before graduation, so maybe it’s an emergency, or—

Parse (9:19 am): Third row on the left

Bitty’s head snaps up immediately. Kent can’t mean—

His vantage point isn’t that great from where he is, hanging back a little ways away from the stage, and the whole audience is packed with people squeezed into plastic folding chairs, and Bitty has to fight the urge to do something ridiculous like climb the tree behind him to get a better view. He thinks about the way the bark would feel under his palms.

Kent makes it easy for him. He stands up (fourth from the aisle on the left, sitting between clans of strangers), pushes his sunglasses up his face as he looks directly at Bitty, and smirks.

Bitty clamps a hand over the undignified sound that pushes out of his mouth. He’s going to have tear tracks down his face when he walks across the stage.

“Are you okay?” the girl standing behind him asks.

Bitty clears his throat. “Peachy,” he says, voice cracking, and closes his eyes around the fresh wave of tears. “You’re sweet for asking.”

Kent sits back down. His sunglasses drop back onto the bridge of his nose.

Bitty still feels his eyes on him.

Pomp and Circumstance blares from the fancy sound system framing the stage as he and the rest of the graduating class take their seats and wait for the ceremony to begin.

He graduates. He walks across the stage when they call his name, shakes all the right hands, stands in the right spots for the pictures. He’s not valedictorian or class president and he doesn’t get to make a speech, but it feels like one to look right at Kent while he smiles for the camera, tear-salt sticking to his teeth.

After the ceremony, the first thing Bitty does is get himself lost in the crowd so Mama and Coach can’t find him. The second thing he does is call Kent.

They meet behind a tree a little ways off from the stage, far from invisible but at least out of the way, Kent leaning almost carelessly against the trunk in a Versace suit like he sprung up from the ground just like that. His sunglasses are pushed up his face and his cowlick is springing free from whatever hair product he attempted to tame it with. He looks perfect.

Bitty scratches his face against Kent’s playoff beard when he tackles into him, the scrape sharp and real against his own cheek. He leans into the sting, hard.

“You fool!” Bitty chokes out, eyes squeezed shut and not giving up an inch of space between them. “You r-ridiculous man! What in heaven are you doing here?”

“Flight back to Nashville’s in like an hour,” Kent murmurs. His arms tighten around Bitty’s back. “I can’t stay. I wasn’t here.”

Bitty whispers, “I know. I won’t—you didn’t have to do this.”

“I wanted to.” Kent turns his head so his lips are brushing the words into Bitty’s hair. “Happy birthday, Bits. I’m so fucking proud of you.”

There’s still music playing by the pond, something classical and serious and grand. The sort of thing you play when important things have happened. It feels far away, another lifetime.

Bitty’s important thing is happening right now, wearing a tie that matches his eyes.

“Kent?” he asks, pulling away just a little to see his face.

Kent’s tongue flicks out to wet his lips. “Yeah?”

Bitty trails his fingers across the back of Kent’s neck, tickling at his hairline. He strokes his thumb across his shirt collar, just brushing the knotted tie. “Will you be my boyfriend?”

Kent’s breath hitches and his beautiful, heavy-lidded eyes go sweet and wide. He shifts further away, like the question needs its own space between them. “I—Bitty, I didn’t come here to—this wasn’t to try and make you give me an answer. I just—”

“I know it wasn’t,” Bitty assures him softly. He can feel tears pricking at his eyes again, little gentle ones. “I know, and I—honestly, I still don’t feel like I have an answer? I don’t know how I feel about, um, dating other people. If I’ll ever want to do that, or…how to stop being scared of—of how I feel. But I—I want this, and I love you, and—I don’t wanna do anything that feels like giving this up.”

Kent closes his eyes while he breathes, like it takes all his concentration. He looks at Bitty like he’s the only person who’s ever touched him. “Okay, yeah, please. Let’s—I’ll be your boyfriend. Of course, Bits. Fuck.”

Bitty laughs giddily and brushes his fingers fondly through Kent’s scruff. “I wish I could kiss you,” he says, dropping his hand self-consciously. “I’m sorry I can’t.”

“Soon,” Kent promises. He shifts away too, squeezing Bitty’s elbow as he does. “Whenever playoffs are over, I’m back here.”

Bitty smiles, biting at his lip. “Um, speaking of those—”

“Yeah.” Kent grimaces. “Plane, I know. I’ve got—shit, like forty minutes to get to the airport.”

“And I’ve got a horde of Bittles and Phelps lookin’ for me, probably,” Bitty gripes, pressing his forehead against Kent’s shoulder with a reluctant sigh. “We better go.”

“Skype tonight?” Kent asks. He straightens up his suit as they separate fully, twisting absently at a cufflink.

Bitty smiles again, fiddling with his robes and adjusting his cap. “’Course, hun. I’ll text you.”

“’Kay,” Kent agrees, his own smile stretching wider. “Love you, Bits.”

It’s a soft ache every time, the kind of good that almost hurts. Bitty says, “I love you too, sweetheart,” and watches as he slips away.

Bitty closes his eyes, pulls out his phone, and calls his mother. “Mama? Where in the world are you? I’ve been lookin’ all over creation!”

 

~*~

 

@omgcheckplease (5/17/17 1:34 pm): Decorating an actual apartment is a really weird experience because traditionally my standards have been very low.

@omgcheckplease (5/17/17 1:35 pm): @omgcheckplease 1) Curtains that exist in the physical realm 2) A couch that doesn’t have rabies

@omgcheckplease (5/17/17 1:35 pm): @omgcheckplease My possibilities are now bafflingly endless

@troyj14 (5/17/17 1:43 pm): @omgcheckplease What’s your favorite color?

@kvpurrson90 (5/17/17 1:44 pm): @troyj14 @omgcheckplease Blue

@omgcheckplease (5/17/17 1:53 pm): @kvpurrson90 @troyj14 Showoff [smug emoji]

 

~*~

 

Bitty (2:02 pm): Why did Jeff ask my favorite color

Bitty (2:18 pm): Kenneth

Bitty (2:23 pm): Kenjamin

Bitty (2:25 pm): Kenberly

Parse (2:27 pm): That last one was a stretch

Bitty (2:28 pm): >:(

 

~*~

 

Bitty (11:37 am): Why is there a large package at my door that Kent knows nothing about

Jeff Troy (11:43 am): ;) ;) ;)

Bitty (11:47 am): Oh my God

Bitty (11:48 am): Is this how all hockey players demonstrate affection

Jeff Troy (11:51 am): Maybe

Bitty (11:54 am): Well it’s LOVELY

Bitty (11:57 am): [an image of a large abstract painting, primarily navy blue in color] <3

Jeff Troy (12:03 pm): So you like it?

Bitty (12:06 pm): YES, Jefferson, thank you :)

Jeff Troy (12:08 pm): My name’s not Jefferson haha

Bitty (12:09 pm): ¯\_()_/¯

 

~*~

 

“And this is the kitchen,” Bitty says, walking through the doorway and angling the phone camera to show off the modest but renovated countertops. “It’s got a little less counter space than I was hoping, but I think I’ll make do.”

Kent hums encouragingly, and Bitty smiles at his picture on the screen.

Bitty wanders into the living room next, making sure to get a panning shot of the sleeper sofa and Jeff’s painting hanging above it on the wall, front and center. “And here’s the living room. I have throw pillows, Kent. Like a real adult.”

Kent laughs, his eyes going particularly fond. “That’s how you know you’ve made it. Throw pillows.”

“I know, right?” Bitty flops onto his sofa with a flourish and grins broadly as he switches back to his front-facing camera. “So, whatcha think?”

There’s a dragging silence, almost touching on brooding. Kent quietly answers, “I think it looks like exactly where I wanna be.”

Bitty’s heart twinges with longing. He presses his lips together to steady himself. “Soon,” he reminds Kent. “One way or another, I guess.”

Kent laughs. “Yeah. Yeah, I know. I just—I can’t wait.”

“Well, I’ll be here,” Bitty promises, smiling warmly.

Kent hums and asks, “Still no Cancun?”

Bitty slides further down against the cushions, tugging at his bottom lip with his teeth. “Not without you.”

Kent’s eyes slip shut. Bitty can’t hear his breathing through the phone but he can imagine it somewhere in his chest. “Bitty, I don’t—”

“I know.” Bitty fights the urge to reach out and touch his fingers to the screen, like back when all he had were blurry selfies of Kent posing with charred pies and one notable cheesecake-based disaster. The way he did before he knew what any of it meant. “This is what I want. Please let me want it.”

Kent laughs again, almost disbelieving. He opens his eyes and runs a hand through his hair. “Okay, okay.” His smile is soft, warm. “I’m…glad it’s—I’m—thank you.”

Bitty gives in, brushes his fingers across the touchscreen. Imagines Kent’s cheek against his fingertips, Kent’s lips. “Don’t make it too soon, baby. Go kick ass tonight.”

Kent is still laughing softly as he hangs up the phone.

 

~*~

 

@omgcheckplease (5/22/17 9:02 pm): Shoving popcorn in my face to combat a stress ulcer as four frogs sit on my couch and yell at game 6 of #acesvspreds

@omgcheckplease (5/22/17 9:03 pm): @omgcheckplease Is this what adulthood feels like all the time? I’d like a refund

 

@doctornurse (5/22/17 9:57 pm): @omgcheckplease Just threw a handful of popcorn @ the screen and called @kvpurrson90 a “beautiful motherfucker” and I need that on record

 

@omgcheckplease (5/22/17 10:21 pm): @troyj14 You know you’re in fact allowed to go several games without punching anyone, right? RIGHT?

@doctornurse (5/22/17 10:25 pm): @omgcheckplease @troyj14 Don’t listen to him. He got, like, mad into it when he saw the blood. (This is 100% a callout post)

@omgcheckplease (5/22/17 10:25 pm): @doctornurse I’m never inviting you over again

 

~*~

 

Jeff Troy (1:03 am): If I get you a Gordie Howe next game will you like me more

Bitty (1:12 am): Oh my God

Bitty (1:12 am): Go to sleep!!

 

~*~

 

Parse (1:13 am): For the record I would totally punch a guy for you

Parse (1:13 am): If that was a thing you were into

Bitty (1:13 am): >:(((((((((((

Parse (1:14 am): It’s okay to have kinks babe

Parse (1:14 am): Explore urself

Bitty (1:15 am): I am never having sex with you again

Parse (1:15 am): :-*

 

~*~

 

@omgcheckplease (5/24/17 7:36 pm): Game seven is tonight!! Good luck, @LVAces!!!!!!

 

~*~

 

Bitty scrubs at the puffiness under his eyes, takes a shaky breath, and contorts a soft smile onto his face before he presses ‘call.’

Kent has visible tear tracks down his cheeks. Jeff’s eyes are red and shiny, and his body is curled down towards Kent’s like a wilted sunflower, stem cracking under shriveled weight. They’re pressed up against each other in Jeff’s guest bedroom, and Bitty isn’t jealous. He feels the empty air around him throb like a phantom limb.

“Hey, y’all,” he says weakly, mouth twisting uselessly into a grimace. “I’m so sorry.”

Kent sighs, long and heavy, and wriggles his face firmer into the soft gray of Jeff’s Led Zepplin t-shirt. “It’s…okay,” he mutters, barely audible. “’S how it goes, most years.”

“Still hurts,” Bitty gently comments, but doesn’t push further.

“Yeah,” Jeff agrees, and shoves a hand into his hair. “Fuck, if I’d killed that last penalty—”

“Sweetheart, you played amazingly—you both did,” Bitty insists, pressing his lips together. “It’s okay to be torn up about it, but, um—I hope you don’t blame yourselves.”

Jeff huffs out a laugh, tugging at the roots of his hair. “We’ll be okay, right Parser?” He drops his hand and messes with Kent’s hair too.

Kent pushes up into Jeff’s hand and then tilts his face towards the camera. “Yeah,” he says, offering Bitty a knowing, crooked smile. “Just gotta be sad for a while.”

Bitty’s not sure if it’s supposed to sting, but it does. He bites into his bottom lip and looks out the window of his ground floor apartment, catalogs the cars parallel parked outside on his street. The lamppost across the road is burned out.

“Hey,” Kent says softly. “I’m booking my flight for next week.”

Bitty closes his eyes and smiles. He looks back towards the screen and feels his heart flutter with warmth. “I can’t wait, honey.”

 

~*~

 

Parse (10:21 am): [three airplane emoji]

Bitty (10:21 am): [a row of hearts]

Bitty (10:21 am): Should I pick you up at the airport?

Parse (10:22 am): I wanna kiss you as soon as I see you

Bitty (10:22 am): Umm that does mean no, right?

Parse (10:24 am): This time

 

~*~

 

The knock on the door sends Bitty flying off the couch in a rush, and he’s pulling Kent inside before either of them can even speak.

Kent takes Bitty’s face in his hands and kisses him fiercely, all lips and quick darts of tongue, and Bitty melts against him before the door finishes swinging shut. He slips his hands into Kent’s hair, tugging lightly, and kisses around the giddiness sparking through his veins, clinging desperately to it like it could all vanish in the next moment.

Kent is steady, unmoving, like he’d bolt himself to the floor if it meant having Bitty here forever. Bitty thinks he feels a tear drip down onto his cheek.

They work their way back to the couch eventually, and Bitty knows he must have taken part in that process but it feels far away, immaterial. He’s caught up in the way Kent’s skin feels, the curve of biceps under his hands, the taste of stale gum on the underside of his tongue. Nothing could be as momentous as the drag of a thumb across his collarbone, the press of his teeth into someone else’s lip—not even the way the world moves around them so he’s sprawled out on his couch with Kent crawling over him, panting and hungry.

“Bitty,” Kent breathes, like he’s praying.

Bitty licks his lips. Pushes the pad of his thumb into Kent’s mouth, like he can get them both to heaven.

There are so many ways to be on his knees.

 

~*~

 

“Honey, can you get me more butter from the fridge, please?” Bitty asks, sliding another blueberry pancake onto the serving plate and smiling at the sound of Kent’s feet against the tile.

Instead of butter to re-grease the pan with, he gets arms wrapped around his middle and the prickle of stubble against his cheek. It’s a decent trade, he supposes, and leans back to press a kiss to the corner of Kent’s mouth.

“G’morning, babe,” Kent murmurs, and leaves a hand on Bitty’s waist as he reaches into the fridge and grabs a new stick of butter. The benefits of a small kitchen, apparently. “I’ve, uh, got a surprise for you today.”

Bitty hums and wiggles his hips a little as he adds butter to the pan and pours pancake batter over top. “Mm, yeah?”

“If you wanna.” Kent plucks a blueberry from the container on the counter and slips it into Bitty’s mouth, fingers dragging against his lips. The juice is tart. Bitty shivers around it.

“You’re a menace,” Bitty says, and presses his ass back into Kent’s crotch as if it proves the point. “We haven’t even had breakfast.”

Kent laughs. “I can be patient,” he concedes, very magnanimously, and then sucks Bitty’s earlobe into his mouth.

Bitty considers whacking him away with the spatula, but he’s not actually sure that would be a deterrent.

They eat pancakes off the serving plate on the couch, snuggled up under a blanket and sparring with their forks over the bites with the most blueberry in them. Bitty laughs so hard his stomach hurts. Kent’s hand slides up his thigh, and he wants it to slip higher.

“What’s my surprise?” Bitty murmurs, sucking the syrup from Kent’s bottom lip.

“Making out on the couch,” Kent says, and sets the plate aside on the coffee table as he presses Bitty into the cushions. His fingers are a little sticky when they brush against Bitty’s jaw.

Bitty snorts. “That’s not exactly— oh —a surprise.”

Kent chuckles around the pink mark he’s sucking into Bitty’s neck. “I’m, uh, a little worried it’s stupid.”

“Promise I won’t laugh,” Bitty tells him, running a hand through his messy hair. He scratches at the scalp fondly and Kent hides his face in the crook of his neck.

Bitty is sort of dying with curiosity (and anticipation, if he’s being honest), but he doesn’t want to push too hard and make Kent uncomfortable. He keeps petting at Kent’s hair in a steady rhythm, his other hand tracing up Kent’s bare spine listlessly.

After a few minutes, Kent sighs and pushes up off the couch, tattoos flexing around his muscles, and tilts his head towards the bedroom questioningly. Bitty rolls onto his feet to follow, eyes immediately drawn to the small of Kent’s back.

“I hate how into this I am,” he says, tracing his fingers absently across the Cup tattoo. “Like, seriously, you’re the worst.”

Kent laughs, shoulders shaking, and Bitty smiles with triumph.

In the bedroom, Kent pulls a plain black bag out of his larger duffel and tosses it onto the unmade bed, then immediately shoves his hands into the pockets of his sweatpants. “Uh,” he says, and gestures with a hunched shoulder.

Bitty raises an eyebrow, but dutifully unzips the bag and peeks inside. “Oh my God.”

Bitty dumps the bag out onto the comforter and watches as an honestly impressive collection of sex toys scatters everywhere—there are dildos and plugs and vibrators, and unusual looking things Bitty isn’t quite sure what to do with but suspects Kent would have plenty to say about.

The arousal is almost paralyzing. Bitty is aware that he needs to reassure Kent, make sure he knows that he isn’t judging him, or—or turned off or anything of the sort, but his brain is stuttering and overheated and the first thing he manages to blurt is, “It’s like a sex picnic!”

Which isn’t the most eloquent Bitty’s even been, but it startles a relieved laugh out of Kent and that’s really all he wanted, anyway.

“Fuck, oh my God,” Kent wheezes, holding an arm open, and Bitty laughs too as he hugs himself to Kent’s chest. “Christ, it is. This is so weird. Jesus.”

“No, no!” Bitty insists. He presses a kiss to Kent’s cheek and then a longer one to his mouth. “No, baby, I love it. I’m—fuck, it’s really hot?”

Kent’s cheeks are mottled pink, his eyes gray and bright. He licks his lips and asks, “Really?”

Bitty presses his semi against Kent’s thigh. He raises an eyebrow pointedly.

“Fuck.” Kent exhales shakily and traces his fingers across Bitty’s temple. “I—I want you to use ‘em on me. Just, however you want.”

“Kent,” Bitty says. “Fuck.”

“I thought, uh—since you haven’t—since I’m you’re first.” Kent licks his lips again, a nervous habit. “Maybe you could—you’d wanna see how it felt. To have someone—uh, to have me—under you. Just, like, experimenting.”

Bitty tugs away from Kent just a little, enough to face the bed again. He picks up a plug and twirls it between his fingers. The flared base has rhinestones on it, because of course it does. “However I want?” he repeats faintly, his breath coming shallow.

“I’ll tell you if I don’t like something,” Kent amends. He slots himself behind Bitty and kisses at his neck, light and hopeful.

“I love you,” Bitty reminds him, heart warm and full and pounding out of his chest. The kisses turn wet and sharp against his skin, eager teeth and an insistent tongue, and he palms himself through his shorts with a moan. “Take off your clothes, baby.”

“Love it when you call me baby,” Kent murmurs. He shoves his sweatpants down one-handed, the other still splayed across Bitty’s hip. “Love you.”

Bitty turns to kiss him again, hand threading through the soft hair brushing against his neck. His toes curl against the hardwood. He wants this in the pit of his stomach, in his knuckles, his teeth. He bites down on Kent’s bottom lip and delights in the whimper it earns him.

They move to the bed, where Bitty urges Kent to spread out underneath him, hands tugging Kent’s arms above his head.

“No touching, okay?” Bitty asks, trailing his fingers across the veins in Kent’s wrists. “I watch you touch yourself all the time. I wanna do that now.”

“Christ, I’m gonna die,” Kent says. He looks unreasonably happy about it. “You’re gonna kill me.”

Bitty’s teeth feel sharp against his tongue. He grins.

“Fuck, you have no idea how fucking amazing you look.” Kent’s voice is husky, almost reverent. His wrists are clasped in his own hands. “I wish you could see yourself.”

Bitty laughs disbelievingly and snaps open a bottle of lube. “I’m just sittin’ here.”

“The way you’re looking at me,” Kent explains. He looks drunk, ruddy-cheeked and eyes blown wide, like Bitty intoxicates him. “It’s—there’s something—”

Bitty slips a finger inside Kent slowly, wriggling a little experimentally, and laughs when Kent cuts off mid-thought with a moan. “It’s ‘cause I love you,” he says, and adds another finger with more lube.

“Not that,” Kent manages, already going a little breathless. “It’s—you look—like you want me. Like you wanna eat me or something.”

There’s something in his tone that sends a thrill shooting up Bitty’s spine. He rests his cheek against Kent’s knee and mouths at the bone, fighting the urge to sink his teeth in. Like he wants to prove Kent right. His fingers curl up, searching for Kent’s prostate, and he presses the flat of his enamel into Kent’s leg when he finds it, smiling.

“Think those’re the same thing,” Bitty admits, twisting his fingers slightly as he pulls them out. “If I make you come now, can I still fuck you?”

Kent’s next breath comes out in a hiss. “Fuck, please.”

Bitty bites his bottom lip and smiles. The dildo he chooses isn’t much wider than his fingers, and it’s easy enough to work it inside Kent with gentle thrusts, reveling in the sounds it draws from him, the flush it spreads down his chest.

Kent is hard and leaking against his stomach. Bitty watches, fascinated, as his dick twitches when the toy hits his prostate. There’s something raw about it, beautiful and obscene, the way it feels to shove a hand into a pie filling and come away covered in bleeding juices.

“I used to think dicks looked really weird,” Bitty comments absently. He reaches out and takes Kent in hand, giving him a few experimental strokes in time with his other hand pumping the dildo. “I mean, they still do. But yours is—really sexy, too?”

Kent laughs as his back arches off the bed. “I’m, uh—fuck, oh my God—flattered, I think?”

Bitty crawls forward and catches Kent’s mouth against his, cups his jaw and pulls him deep into it. There’s no coordination to it, no finesse. He feels sloppy and disheveled and perfect. “I want—” he tries, can’t make the words form the way he wants. Kisses a stripe up Kent’s jaw, ends up nipping at the soft underside and panting. “I want you. So much, all the time. Baby, please.”

“Bits,” Kent whispers, strained. “Can I—fuck, can I touch you?”

It’s the easiest concession in the world. Bitty nearly sobs when Kent’s hands find his hair, thread lightly through the top and scratch across the shaved sides, and he slips the sounds into Kent’s mouth while he pulls the dildo out, catches a whimper in return.

“Condom?” Bitty asks as he pulls away to tug his shirt over his head.

“In the bag,” Kent says, dropping his head back against the pillows. “Fuck, you’re so sexy.”

A pleased heat rises to Bitty’s face and he ducks his head, only feeling a little shy about it this time. He wriggles out of his shorts and underwear too, then fishes out a condom from a pocket in the front of the bag and tears the packet open, concentrating on rolling it on properly. The condom came with lube on it and his fingers keep slipping against the latex. It takes him a second to realize his hands are shaking.

“Babe?” Kent asks quietly. He pushes up onto his forearms and watches Bitty with a furrow between his eyebrows.

Bitty swallows thickly. “I just, um, put a condom on for the first time.”

Kent carefully agrees, “Uh, yeah. Are you—is that okay?”

“I wanna fuck you,” Bitty says, slowly and awestruck, like the realization’s finally settled into his bones. “I—I never thought it’d be easy like this. Like it…feels like the right thing? And it’s—it’s you, Kenny. I have you and you want me and I—I love you.”

“Fuck, Bits—” Kent laughs wetly and scrubs at his eyes. “You’re gonna make me cry.”

Bitty laughs too and quips, “If I do a good job.”

Kent’s smirk should look cocky, but it doesn’t; it’s just fond, swelling with love. “Bring it, babe.”

Bitty pours lube over his fingers and slips three back inside Kent first, making sure he’s stretched enough, and Kent makes a needy whine in the back of his throat that makes Bitty roll his eyes. “Patience is a virtue, honey.”

“Not interested in those,” Kent pants, and fucks his hips down onto Bitty’s hand insistently. “Babe, come on.”

“Hmm,” Bitty hums, intentionally slowing the pace of his fingers and looking over at the pile of toys still on the bed. “Can I still use these however I want?”

Kent’s eyes, heavy-lidded with arousal, go a little wider. “Bitty…” he says slowly, but it doesn’t sound like a warning.

Bitty bites his lip around a smirk. He trails his free hand over the pile, purposefully lingering over a rubber cockring, delighting in how Kent squirms when he tracks the movement. Instead, he hooks his finger through a silver chain that connects a pair of clamps, holding it up for Kent to see.

“These’re for your nipples, right?” he asks, flicking at one with his thumb. “Can I put ‘em on you?”

The noise Kent makes is somewhere between a groan and a sob. “Not gonna—fuck, babe—last if you do.”

“Oh, honey,” Bitty drawls, laughing self-deprecatingly. “I’m not either.”

“Great, let’s get on with the embarrassingly fast sex, please.” Kent wiggles his hips against Bitty’s fingers, which have stilled inside him. “Bitty, I’m so fucking hard. Please.”

Bitty slips his fingers out and wipes them off on the bedspread before he crawls forward to attach the nipple clamps. He fiddles with the mechanism on the clamp for a second, then latches it on decisively, teeth dug into his bottom lip with anticipation.

Kent cracks his head back against the pillows with a hiss, torso twisting around with it, and oh— oh, his face looks so pretty all twisted up like this and—they’ll need to have a longer conversation about that, probably. Later. Bitty kind of feels like his two options are come or die at this point and, well, one of those is much more preferable.

“Gorgeous,” Bitty murmurs, brushing the knuckles of his clean hand across Kent’s jaw. Kent catches two fingers in his mouth, suckling gently, eyes so wide and beautiful, and Bitty snaps the other clamp into place to watch them squeeze shut.

It’s hard to breathe. Kent’s jaw is slack, his mouth shiny with spit and tongue flicking out to wet it more.

“Gonna fuck you,” Bitty says, and Kent doesn’t answer except for spreading his legs a little wider, thighs trembling. It’s—a little unnerving, how quiet he’s gone, actually, and Bitty hesitates after spreading lube over the condom. “Um, baby? Are you okay?”

Kent’s throat bobs invitingly; Bitty presses his teeth into his tongue. “Yeah,” he rasps, glassy-eyed and tracking the movement of Bitty’s mouth. “I—fuck. Promise.”

Bitty drags his teeth over his lip. It feels puffy and delightfully sore. “Okay, I’m—Lord, you look so good, baby.”

He kneels between Kent’s legs and lines himself up, gripping the base of his dick as he pushes in, and oh, God , it’s easier than he imagined, sliding inside Kent with these delicate little thrusts, and it’s like being welcomed home and it’s like he belongs here, face falling forward to press into Kent’s chest hair and pant against a nipple, hips jerking of their own accord.

“Kent,” Bitty whispers, the name dripping with awe. He shifts and flicks his tongue against the nipple clamp in reach, and Kent arches up with a whine, his dick pulsing where it’s trapped between their stomachs. “Fuck, baby—Kenny, oh my God. Are you—can I—?”

Kent begs, “Bitty, please,” and Bitty pushes up onto his hands so he can thrust, careful not to go too deep, and it doesn’t matter because he’s already unravelling. Kent’s abs are shiny with come and his own are sticky with it and he barely needs to move before the orgasm rips through him.

“Fuck, I’m—I’m—” Bitty gives up on words and presses his face back down into the crook of Kent’s neck, shuddering through it, fighting to stay upright and avoid putting weight on Kent’s oversensitive nipples. He ends up pulling out as he rolls to the side and fumbles for Kent’s hand, gripping it tightly as he stares up at the ceiling. “Oh my God.”

“Bits,” Kent grits out. “Clamps.”

“Right!” Bitty scrambles up into a sitting position and leans over Kent, a hand braced on his sternum. “Um, do you want them off slowly, or—?”

“Nah, like—like a Band-Aid,” Kent says. He laughs, breathlessly and sluggish. “’S gonna hurt.”

Bitty nods and removes the clamps carefully but quickly, tossing them to the side to be dealt with later. The way Kent hisses in pain is a little less arousing now that Bitty’s already come, but Kent laughs again and shoves his face into the crease of Bitty’s thigh, so it’s at least not upsetting. Bitty pets at Kent’s hair soothingly, still a little come-drunk and dazed himself.

“Ugh, honey, we should get cleaned up,” Bitty says, sniffing at the sweat under his armpit.

Kent whines and practically tackles Bitty down to the bed, wrapping around him resolutely with his face pressed against Bitty’s chest.

Bitty sighs fondly. “Okay, shower later.” He tugs the crumpled bedspread up over their waists and snuggles Kent closer to him, peppering little kisses in his hair and across his temple. “I love you so much, baby.”

Kent’s answer is slurred against Bitty’s collarbone, but he’s pretty sure he understands.

 

~*~

 

@kvpurrson90 (5/29/17 10:11 am): @omgcheckplease puts ketchup on his eggs and I’m 100% calling him out for it

@omgcheckplease (5/29/17 10:14 am): @troyj14 @kvpurrson90 When are you taking him back to Vegas again?

@troyj14 (5/29/17 10:43 am): @omgcheckplease @kvpurrson90 I once watched Parse dip a pancake in his protein shake. You can keep him.

 

~*~

 

Bitty (2:37 pm): My job starts in two days and Kent is sitting on my couch eating cheerios in his underwear because “they taste better that way”

Jeff Troy (2:39 pm): Are you complaining or bragging

Bitty (2:40 pm): Little of both

Bitty (2:40 pm): I love him so much

Jeff Troy (2:42 pm): I feel that buddy

Bitty (2:49 pm): Do you wanna Skype us tonight?

 

~*~

 

Bitty tucks himself under Kent’s arm as they dial Jeff on Skype, brushing his fingers across the hem of Kent’s shirt as he settles in. It’s pretty late, because Jeff waited until his kids were in bed to call, and Kent muffles a yawn in Bitty’s hair.

“Hey guys,” Jeff says when the call goes through. He’s sprawled on his couch, looking half-asleep but comfortable. His hair is a mop of rumpled shadow in the low light, backlit by a nearby lamp.

“Hey, babe,” Kent mumbles, giving a little wave to the camera. Bitty smiles at the fondness of his expression.

Jeff yawns and stretches languidly. “Man, sorry I took so long. Josey wanted, like, fifty bedtime stories.”

“That’s so sweet, though,” Bitty tells him. Jeff seems like a great dad, and it’s adorable. And probably a little too telling that it’s the thing Bitty is most jealous of.

“Heh, thanks.” Jeff runs a hand through his hair and then flops sideways, his soft belly peeking out from under his shirt. He looks so cuddleable it’s kind of ridiculous, and maybe Kent is thinking the same thing, because he pulls Bitty a little closer on the couch. “What’re you guys up to?”

“Not much,” Kent answers. He hesitates for a second and then admits, “Missing you.”

Bitty presses a quick kiss to the underside of Kent’s jaw.

“I miss you too, bud.” Jeff scratches at his stomach and quirks his lips at the camera. “It’s weird not having you around all summer, eh?”

“You should come visit!” Bitty blurts, and immediately has to fight the urge to clamp a hand over his own mouth. He doesn’t take it back, though. He’s surprised to find he doesn’t really want to.

Jeff stares at the screen blankly, blinking slowly. “Uh…are you sure? I mean, I know you guys don’t get a lot of time together and I’m not trying to be a dick about that.”

“No, I mean—” Bitty looks up at Kent to confirm, and finds his face open, thoughtful. He repeats more firmly, “No, it’d be great to have you! I’m starting work soon, anyway, so Kent’s gonna be doing his own thing a lot, and, well, I don’t have a guest room but the couch is pretty comfy, I think, or we could get—oh, but if you wanted—”

“Bitty,” Jeff interrupts, laughter coloring his voice. “We’ll figure it out. I’d love to visit, thanks.”

Bitty’s face feels overheated with nervous energy. He kicks the blanket off his legs. “Oh! Um, great!”

Kent chuckles and presses a kiss to Bitty’s hair. “Awesome, man. When are you coming?”

Jeff grabs his phone and thumbs through it for a second. “Uh, Shani’s going to like, a spa resort with her girlfriend in two weeks? I could come then. Oh, I wanna bring the kids though. That’s cool, right? I hate losing time with them.”

“Of course!” Bitty grins. “No, seriously, I love kids. Ooh, do they like the beach? We could go over the weekend. I’ve got some summer recipes I wanna try—is Josey old enough to use the oven? I mean, I’ll watch her—wait, send me an allergy list—are you laughing at me?”

Bitty crosses his arms and pouts fiercely, but he can tell Kent and Jeff’s chirping is affectionate.

“Is he always like this?” Jeff asks Kent, warm eyes twinkling in the light of the lamp.

“Pretty much.” Kent ruffles Bitty’s hair and kisses him soundly, lips lingering against his cheek. “Don’t you love it?”

“I changed my mind,” Bitty says, his lips twitching. “Jeff gets the floor.”

 

~*~

 

Bitty’s job is a whirlwind of activity, and it’s still the off-season. The Boston Pride is a great team that deserves far more attention than it gets from the media and fans, and Bitty is very determined to make that happen. (He’s not above calling in a few favors from certain NHL players once the season starts, either, which certainly won’t hurt.)

Between his social media crusade and his plans to expand outreach efforts in the area, he comes home happy but worn-out most days, and he’s so, so grateful to have Kent there waiting for him. It’s made the transition far easier than it could have been.

It only hurts a little to think about it ending.

“What am I gonna do when you leave?” Bitty mumbles, eyes squeezed shut and face pressed against Kent’s chest on the couch.

“Kick ass without me,” Kent answers easily. “Not miss me at all.”

“I’ll miss you all the time.” Bitty lifts his head and brushes his thumb across Kent’s bottom lip. “Baby, I will. You matter so much.”

Kent tips his head back and fixes his eyes upwards. They track onto the ceiling fan as it whirls around. “I wish I could live here for real.”

“One day,” Bitty tells him. Then hedges, “Maybe.”

“Not maybe,” Kent says. “I’m gonna marry you.”

Bitty’s breath shudders out of him. He nudges a glass away from the edge of the coffee table. “Lookin’ forward to it, baby.”

 

~*~

 

@omgcheckplease (6/14/17 2:04 pm): [A picture of Jeff Troy and his two children standing in the Boston airport. A young girl smiles broadly for the camera, while a toddler stares down at his feet, a stuffed bear dangling from one hand] Look who decided to join #teamBoston! @troyj14

 

~*~

 

“It’s like a slumber party!” Josey yells. She thwacks Kent on the leg with her pillow. “Uncle Kenny, slumber party means pillow fight!”

“Hey, kiddo,” Jeff warns, looking over from where he’s helping Shawn into a pair of Wonder Woman pajamas. “We don’t hit people without asking, right? You need to see if Uncle Kenny wants to play first.”

Josey nods vigorously, her curls springing and bouncing with the movement. “Sorry, Uncle Kenny. Do you wanna play?”

Kent laughs, glancing over at Bitty with a grin. “Yeah, I’ll play. Where’s my pillow?”

Josey hands him a pillow and then turns to Bitty, looking up at him with earnest eyes. “Uncle Bitty, do you wanna play too?”

“Uncle Bitty’s got work in the morning, Josey-posey,” Jeff tells her. “He might be too tired.”

“Hmm, I sure do,” Bitty says. He crouches down and wiggles a finger at Josey, asking her to come closer. She does, shuffling her feet against the hardwood, and he whispers to her very seriously, “But do you wanna know something? Bein’ a grownup means you get to make your own bedtime.”

Josey laughs delightedly and claps her hands. “Does that mean you’ll play?”

“I sure will,” Bitty agrees. His eyes flick over to Kent, who’s watching them with the kind of soft expression that makes Bitty’s heart flutter. “I’m gonna be on your team, okay? Are you ready?”

Josey nods again, and Bitty launches himself at Kent without warning, wrapping around his arms and knocking him off-balance so he stumbles into the couch.

“Hey, no fair!” Kent shouts, laughing and wriggling half-heartedly against Bitty’s grip as Josey squeals a war cry, whacking at his knees mercilessly. “No one said teams!”

“There’s always teams, honey,” Bitty says, batting his eyelashes at Kent sweetly.

Kent begs, “Jeff, man, help me out here!”

“You’re up against overwhelming forces here, man,” Jeff informs him solemnly. “There’s nothing I can do.”

Bitty needs an extra cup of coffee the next morning. It’s every bit worth it.

 

~*~

 

“Okay, did everyone remember sunscreen?” Bitty asks, brandishing the can at the group pointedly. He raises an eyebrow at Jeff, whose neck is still bright red from yesterday at the park.

“I’m good this time, I swear,” Jeff answers, holding his hands up in defeat. Bitty’s pretty sure he saw Jeff apply some in the car, but he still glares at him menacingly for good measure.

Josey thrusts a boogie board into the air excitedly, narrowly avoiding slamming it into her father’s shin on the way up. “Can we go in the water? Please, please?”

Jeff squints out at the ocean, which is relatively calm today. “Yeah, but put your water wings on, please.”

“I’ll help ya,” Kent offers, pushing his sunglasses up onto his forehead. “C’mere, kiddo.”

Bitty smiles fondly at them, and crouches down to help Shawn separate out his impressive collection of sandcastle buckets, stacking them in a neat row that he’s sure will be destroyed soon.

“You coming in the water, Bits?” Kent asks, tugging at Josey’s water wings to make sure they’re extra secure.

Bitty rolls his eyes good-naturedly. “Please. You will not catch this Southern boy in that freezing ocean. I’ll be right here with my good buddy Shawn, thank you.”

“Sandcastles with me?” Shawn asks hopefully, holding out a plastic shovel.

Bitty takes the proffered shovel with his lips pressed together around a burst of emotion. “I’d be honored. Thank you, Shawn.”

“I’ll go with you guys, then,” Jeff decides, smiling at Bitty gratefully.

These are apparently the magic words, because Josey takes off like a shot, boogie board held over her head in a way that Bitty is relatively sure will not, in fact, help her catch any waves. Kent and Jeff dash after her, shoving at each other and laughing as they race and leap over the surf.

Bitty watches them for a moment, shaking his head affectionately, before he turns back to Shawn and brightly asks, “Well then! What kinda castle are we makin’, sir?”

Shawn looks up at him with owlish eyes, dark and innocent. “Sand,” he says decisively, and shoves a handful at Bitty as if to demonstrate.

“Right,” Bitty answers, biting back a laugh. “Silly me.”

 

~*~

 

What feels like hours later, Jeff comes bounding out of the water, dripping wet and shaking his head like a dog, and plops himself down in the sand next to Bitty even though there’s a towel a few feet away.

“Hey,” he says simply, arms resting on his knees as the water rolls off his muscles. He nods towards Shawn, who is currently making repairs on a crumbling section of castle infrastructure. “Want me to watch him for a while? You really don’t have to sit with him all day.”

“I don’t mind,” Bitty tells him honestly. “I really meant it when I said I liked kids.”

Jeff looks over at Bitty with a complicated expression on his face. His eyes are rich and brown. Bitty wonders what his nose looked like before it was broken (twice, only once from hockey). He decides he doesn’t care.

“You’re really good with him. I mean, with both of them,” Jeff says, eyes flicking over to Josey as well, who’s still playing in the ocean with Kent. “It’s kinda crazy how much they love you.”

A seagull squawks overhead. Bitty looks up at it and smiles, squinting against the sun. “I always wanted to be a dad,” he says. He isn’t sure why. “Then I realized I was gay, and I thought—maybe I wouldn’t get to be. Maybe I wouldn’t get a family.”

Jeff is quiet, thoughtful. He drags a finger through the wet sand, tracing aimless shapes into the ground. “I wanted to ask you something,” he says eventually. All his shapes are sharp edges and corners. He drags his palm across, erasing them, and starts over. Bitty doesn’t know how to read the lines of his face, so he waits. “Uh, I’m kinda into you. Er, I mean, I don’t wanna have sex, but—”

“Oh, thank God.” Bitty laughs nervously, trying to cut the tension. “Me neither.”

“But I thought, maybe—we wouldn’t have to, to date.” Jeff runs a hand through his hair, slicking it away from his face. “We could just, like, cuddle and hold hands and stuff?”

Bitty’s face is overheated from the sun. He can feel new freckles forming on his cheeks, ghosts of Georgian summers and bare feet on wilting grass. “I’d like that,” he says. He draws a little circle in the sand, smiles when Jeff hooks a triangle through it too.

“Daddy!” Josey shrieks, using both hands to splash Kent with an impressive amount of water. “Daddy, come play with us!”

Jeff laughs and waves at her indulgently.  He stands up and brushes the sand off of his swim trunks, then ruffles a hand through Bitty’s hair as he picks up a jog back to the ocean. “See you around, Bitty.”

Bitty snorts fondly. Yeah, he thinks, and watches as Jeff tackles Kent into an oncoming wave, their laughter echoing down the coast and mixing with the cries of seagulls under the drifting clouds. See you around.