When Bitty had imagined college, he had imagined it slightly differently than how it had actually gone. In any of his imagined scenarios, when two hockey players twice his size had been screaming at him, he had pictured there being more tears involved, significantly less eye rolling, and definitely less middle school party games.
There had also never been a man named Shitty involved, but life took you strange places.
“Okay, everybody shut the fuck up I have a serious ass question.”
“I highly doubt that.”
“Rude as shit Lardo, let Holtzy speak.”
Bitty accepted the flask Lardo passed to him, and politely pretended he didn’t see the smile she was fighting down as she turned to look back out the window.
“What’s your fucking question brah?” Shitty asked from his other side, nearly shouting despite the fact that all five of them were crammed in Ransom’s SUV. Bitty considered the fact that they were all, most likely, about an hour away from getting thrown out of a professional hockey game for intoxication. He thought it was going to be rather embarrassing as he took another long drink from the flask.
“Okay,” Holster turned as far as his seatbelt would allow him, facing down the three in the backseat while keeping a hand on Ransom’s shoulder to include him. “Fuck, marry, kill; Mashkov, Snow, Zimmermann.”
Bitty rolled his eyes, taking another drink to steal himself against so ridiculous a conversation. Before he could get out a full sentence to challenge the game, he was being shouted over by everyone else in the vehicle.
“What a fucking stupid-”
“They could all get it-”
“ZIMM. ER. MANN.”
“ORDER, ORDER!” Holster knocked his fist against the ceiling, and then promptly apologized to the car for his rough handling at Ransom’s chastisement. “We are going to discuss the marriage, murder, and fucking of professional athletes like rational adults. Ransom, you first.”
“Oh shit, who’s Ransom gonna choose?” Shitty chirped as he took a drink from his own flask.
“I have no idea,” Bitty deadpanned.
“Mrs. Mashkov over here gonna blow all our minds.”
“Okay!” Ransom whipped around as soon as they were stopped a red light to glare at everyone in the car. “You can all make fun, but Mashkov has some of the best stats in the NHL, and he’s broken at least three league records for Russian players and-” Ransom paused in his tirade as someone behind them honked and he was forced to refocus on the road.
“And…” Holster prompted.
“And...Like I know I’m straight but he’s 6’4” and he’s got that accent and I’m only a human man, I can’t be expected to take that much.”
The entire car immediately erupted into shouts of equal parts encouragement and harassment and Bitty was thrown nearly on top of Lardo as Shitty tried to explode out of his seat in his unbridled jubilation. Bitty was still laughing even as Lardo slapped relentlessly at him to get off of her, and everyone in the car tried their best to calm down enough to make it past the parking attendant's questioning stare.
Bitty had been to multiple Thrasher’s games in his childhood, one solid thing that both he and Coach were able to bond over in their less than solid relationship. He always loved the scream of the crowd and all the pomp and circumstance that surrounded a professional team. It was only his third time watching the Providence Falconers play live, a tradition that had started his senior year when Johnson had dragged Shitty, Ransom, Holster and himself to a game and they had found themselves steadfastly loyal to the team ever since. The previous year Johnson had been somewhere in the Appalachians and Lardo had joined them instead.
There had been a huddled meeting to decide if they wanted to invite the new frogs along for their third annual outing. Unfortunately, then Chowder had gotten sick and Dex and Nursey had been left to run amok with no barrier between them and everyone present decided it was best to stick to the status quo.
“Okay, so we know you want to marry Mashkov and have his Russian children-”
“Our children would be BEAUTIFUL.”
“Fuck yeah man!”
“But who are you fucking, and who are you killing?”
Bitty saw Ransom narrow his eyes in the rearview mirror as he searched for a parking spot. “I think I’m gonna fuck Zimmermann, and kill Snow.”
“They’re both good looking dudes, but I think Snow seems more pretentious, and Zimmermann has a better ass so I’m going for it.”
“Alright, I’m right there with marrying Mashkov, dude’s a fucking legend, but I’m gonna have to flip it. I’m fucking Snow and killing Zimmermann,” Holster informed them all with the usual steadfast seriousness he applied to such conversations. “Have you ever seen Zimmermann in an interview? Dude is a hockey robot. I don’t even know if I believe he has genitals. It’s just like...a play diagram down there.”
“YOU SHUT YOUR DIRTY FUCKING MOUTH!” Shitty tried, again, to fight against his seatbelt. Bitty scowled as he leaned against Lardo to give Shitty more room to try to wiggle himself free.
“We’re fucking parked, just unclip it,” Lardo supplied, unfastening her own belt and trying to shove Bitty back into a still flailing Shitty.
“We’re parked, someone give me alcohol,” Ransom demanded the second the car was off, turning around in his seat. He stole Shitty’s flask right out of his hand as Shitty attempted to cross the center console to get closer to Holster’s face.
“Jack Zimmermann is a fucking beaut! He’s a fucking hockey legend! Son of Bad Bob Zimmermann and Alicia motherfucking Zimmermann! He was the weirdest goddamn baby you’ve ever seen! Survived drug addiction and a fucking overdose and worked his ass off until he was clean enough to get back into hockey and then rose to be a hockey God! His ass is gonna be talked about long after we’re all dead and he deserves your fucking respect!”
“He looks like a douche,” Holster spat back before turning abruptly in his seat and bolting out of the car to get away from Shitty’s wrath.
Ransom spilled a sip of whatever horrid liquid Shitty had been drinking in his haste to follow after. “No fighting in the parking lot!”
“Don’t get us kicked out until at least the second!” Lardo was following after, throwing open her door and nearly falling out of the car, leaving Bitty scrambling to catch up.
By the time the group reached the sidewalk, Shitty and Holster had calmed down enough for the game to, unfortunately, continue.
“Okay, Shitty you’re obviously marrying Zimmermann-”
“-So who are you fucking and who are you killing?”
“Are we sure it’s a great idea to be talking about killing players this close to security?”
“Fuck Mashkov and kill Snow.” Shitty shrugged, and threw a casual arm over Bitty’s shoulders. He turned to him, like Bitty was the one who had asked the question. Beside them a woman gasped and glared at the use of language but Bitty was the only one to wince. “Mashkov seems like he would be a cuddler, and Snow seems like he would be too into himself, ya know? Like I feel like he’s selfish in bed.”
“I guess.” Bitty had to disentangle himself as they made their way through security, handing over the tickets and subjecting themselves to the metal detectors.
“What about you, Bits?”
“What about me?”
“Fuck, marry, kill, man. Let’s go. You can pretend to think about it, but we all know everyone here already decided this months ago.”
Bitty laughed, tilting his head back as Holster knocked their shoulders together - or rather knocked his elbow against Bitty’s shoulder - and tried not to blush at the thought. “Uh, well, I think I would marry Mashkov. Because he seems nice.”
Ransom and Holster both offered him only mildly painful high fives in their exuberance, and Bitty double checked their tickets against the stadium numbers on the walls to buy himself a few seconds. “And I would, uh, be with Snow.” No matter how freely the other guys had thrown around the idea, he couldn’t stop the heat rising to his face at openly admitting he would have sex with a man. Let alone a man he had never met.
“Be with!” Ransom echoed in delight at the same time Lardo clutched a hand to her heart and said in a surprisingly not terrible Southern accent “My stars!”
“You’re such a goddamn gentleman Bitty,” Holster told him, undoing any decorum Bitty was going for inside the stadium. “And welcome to team fuck the goalie.”
“Or get fucked by the goalie, you don’t know what Snow’s into.”
“Fuck man, you’re right. Team fuck or get fucked by the goalie, depending on what he’s into.”
Lardo offered Holster a fist bump. “Nice.”
“Please don’t say it like that,” Bitty pleaded. “It makes me think of Chowder and thinking about the frogs in that capacity makes me very uncomfortable.”
“You would kill Zimmermann?!” Shitty demanded.
“Again, I feel like we shouldn’t be discussing killing players while in the stadium. I feel like we’re gonna get tackled.”
Bitty shrugged at the question. “I’m not a big Zimmermann fan,” he confessed, strategically putting Lardo between himself and Shitty as subtly as he could.
“Et tu, Bits?”
“I’m sorry.” Bitty threw up his hands, not completely sure why he was apologizing for not liking someone he’d never met. “But I think Holster’s right. He’s a fine looking young man-” he ignored the wolf whistle that Ransom gave “-but he just seems kind of...cold. Like anywhere he is he’s got this look on his face like he’s got better places to be. I feel like he’s probably really mean. Or maybe just rude.” Bitty shrugged again. “And he’s just not my type.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry, Bits. I had no idea you had such high standards.” Shitty raised his hands in mock horror, backing away from them as he raised his voice. “Jack motherfucking Zimmermann isn’t his type, I need another beer.”
“I’ll come with you, none of these fuckers appreciate Zimmermann,” Ransom agreed. “You’re all losers,” he hissed at them, giving a glare to the remaining three members before he turned his back to follow Shitty. He made it two steps before turning back around. “Also does anybody want anything from the concession stand?”
“Yeah, get me a beer.”
“Got you, Holtzy. I’ll get you guys ones too.” He shot finger guns at them all before he was swallowed up by a sea of blue and gold, the yellow pom on his hat bobbing just over the tops of the crowd as he followed after Shitty.
“Idiots.” Lardo took out her own ticket, narrowing her eyes at the numbers before looking back up at the blue painted on the walls. “I think we’re two up.”
“Our seats are fucking amazing this time, we’re right behind the bench.” Holster took the lead, and Bitty grabbed onto Lardo’s arm to keep from being lost in the crowd. It certainly didn’t hurt that their current leader was the taller than 90% of the population.
Bitty had never had a problem with crowds, had never understood people’s fear of it. He liked the sound of an excited crowd, the pulse of energy he could feel in everyone around him as they were all decorated in Falconer’s colors. His mother had gotten him his St. Martin jersey last year for Christmas after he had told her of the hockey team’s new tradition.
It had taken an unreasonable amount of time to convince her not to buy a Zimmermann one, no matter how big her teenage crush had been on his father.
Bitty’s one other piece of Falconer merchandise, the hat with the Falconer’s logo colored in as a rainbow, he had bought himself.
Their seats were, as Holster had promised, kind of incredible. They were eight rows back from the Falconers bench, right in the middle of the aisle. Bitty’s line of vision was perfectly over the glass, the ice barely obscured in either direction. The chill of the arena was offset by the hum of the crowd, still filling in across the 20,000 seats in all directions. Bitty tilted his head back, blinking up at the rafters to take in the club and press boxes and then further back still to banners hanging high above their heads.
Bitty had loved hockey since middle school, and while he had originally had his doubts about continuing to play in college, he knew it was the best decision he had ever made. For the first time in his life, Bitty felt he belonged somewhere. It wasn’t where he would have ever pictured himself, wedged between three jocks and one tiny art major, all jostling for which seats they wanted and trying to pass him a probably overpriced beer that was filled to the brim and sloshing all over his jersey. His friends may have been idiots, but he wouldn’t have traded them for the world.
Bitty knew he wasn’t going to the NHL. That wasn’t in his stars, and if he was being honest, he didn’t think he wanted it to be. Playing hockey professionally sounded glamorous but it wasn’t what he wanted out of life. What exactly he did want out of life he wasn’t really sure, but he figured he had a year and a half left to figure that out.
Still, sometimes it was fun to dream about a banner hanging above the stadium that said BITTLE in big white letters.
“Oh shit Lardo, you never answered.”
The group had finally settled in, and once more Bitty found himself sitting between Shitty and Lardo.
She didn’t pretend to not know what Ransom was asking. “Kill Mashkov, just because I want to see Ransom cry-” Ransom made a noise that sounded not unlike a dying cat “-fuck Zimmermann, because Shitty’s right, his ass is incredible. And marry Snow.”
Shitty wolf whistled, gaining the attention of at least five other fans seated in front of them. “I had no idea you had a thing for Snow, Lardo.”
“Yeah, Lardo, you should have let us know.”
Lardo rolled her eyes, crossing her arms and relaxing back into her seat in the picture of nonchalance. Bitty wasn’t sure, but he thought her cheeks looked a little more pink than they had a minute ago. “I do not have a thing for Snow.”
“Come on Lardo, you could be our in to like every game,” Ransom continued, flailing his arms enough that he almost caught someone in the row behind them with an errant palm.
“Nah, he’s seeing some model, sorry Lards.”
“They broke up like a month ago.” Lardo had said it so casually, eyes still on her phone from where she had slumped in her seat, but Bitty saw the twitch just under her eye that said she realized the mistake she’d made..
Bitty tried and failed to suppress the smile trying to take over his face. “Why did you know that so fast?”
Lardo didn’t move her head, but the look she gave Bitty out of the corner of her eye was deadly. He knew he probably should have been more scared, but it was hard to fight the fault in chirping your friends when surrounded on all sides by a crowd that was buzzing with excitement. “Shut up, Bits.”
“Oh shit, Lardo doesn’t just want to fuck the goalie, she full on wants to have little snow babies.”
“Little snow angels.”
Lardo leaned around Bitty to address Ransom and Holster directly, and Bitty bit his lip to hold down his laughter. “Shut the actual fuck up, I swear to God.”
Shitty laughed and spilled his beer on himself just enough to take the D-men’s attention away from Lardo and onto him. As Lardo relaxed back into her seat, Bitty wondered if Shitty hadn’t done it on purpose.
The lights were dimming before Holster and Ransom could really lay into Shitty, the roar of the crowd around drowning out their chirps and diverting their attention back to the ice.
It was so dramatic, the way the announcer rolled just about every letter he could manage as he welcomed everyone to the stadium, nearly shouting into a microphone already hooked up to the loudest sound system Bitty had ever heard. Some generic rock song -something about being legends- took over as soon as the voice over stopped, and a video of cut together highlights from past games was playing on the Jumbo-tron interspersed with shots of a raging fire.
“AND NOW, YOUR PROVIDENCE FALCONERS!” The voice continued in that same over dramatic tone, and to the sound of a falcon’s screech, the lineup of the Falconers finally skated onto the ice. The entire crowd was on their feet, screaming excitement, encouragement and in some cases absolute blasphemy at the players on the ice.
“LET’S FUCKING GO ZIMMERMANN YOU GODDAMN BEAUTY!”
“LOOKING GOOD NUMBER 7!”
“SNOW, MY FRIEND LARISSA WANTS TO MARRY YOU!”
Shitty dissolved into laughter, and became absolutely no help as Lardo attempted to use Bitty’s shoulders as leverage to make her way over to presumably kill Holster.
“You have to stop hurting me in your attempts to murder Holster,” Bitty told her as he tried at once to both cover his face and push her back at the same time. “You live in the same Haus, you’re gonna have so many opportunities when we’re not in public.”
She leaned as far over as she could and shouted over the screaming crowd. “I’m gonna poison your beer, and then I’m gonna tell everyone what happened with Esther.”
“You can thank me when you ask me to be the best man at your wedding!” Holster fired back, looking far too delighted for a man with The Esther Story and all of his remaining dignity on the line.
The argument tapered off again as the lights came back on and the announcer rattled off the list of scratches and changes, and announced the starting line. Snow in goal, St Martin, Robinson, Mashkov, Zimmermann, and Fitzgerald starting. Each name was accompanied by a dramatic shot on the Jumbo-tron and a stadium of cheers after each one.
Seattle’s starting lineup was met with boos.
“WHO CARES!” Shitty screamed, somehow managing to take a drink of his beer at the same time.
The five of them managed to calm themselves down enough to sit with the rest of the crowd as O Canada finished andthe ref and the linemen skated in. Shackelford and Zimmermann were called to center ice for the puck drop. Bitty wasn’t sure if he heard it when it hit the ice, or if he just imagined he did, but either way he was lost from his friends the moment Zimmermann’s stick made contact.
Hockey had been such a terrifying prospect when he was younger and Coach wanted him to join. All the bigger boys slamming into each other and trying to outdo one another through both sheer volume and aggression. When he’d joined the coed team after he’d decided figure skating had run its course, he had still held onto that fear.
He was seven years out from that day though, and now he couldn’t imagine a life without it. Watching sports had never been a hobby of his, but he and Coach had been able to bond over the occasional game on TV. Watching live, however, was a completely different story. This close he could hear the players calling to each other, see the strain each one took after a hit, and catalog how fast their line changes moved. The puck was easier to track live than it was on TV, and maybe it was the sound of skates on ice or the never ending hum of the crowd around him, but it made Bitty want to lace up right then and there. He didn’t think it would be too hard to convince his team captains to let them into Farber for a midnight skate after the game. Not with the way both of them were leaning forward in their seats, punching each other any time anything of any sort of note happened and screaming enough that Bitty was nervous again at the prospect of getting kicked out.
When the Falconers scored - Mashkov right under the goalie’s glove with an assist by Zimmermann - the stadium erupted. Lardo, all semblance of her cool and collected facade gone, clung onto Bitty’s arm as she shouted out something that was lost in the roar. Shitty spilled his beer on Ransom, who didn’t care, or possibly notice, for how hard he was waving his arms and screaming.
The loudspeaker announced the goal as Mashkov skated on one leg, punching the air with his stick free hand.
When the Schooners scored, very little happened in the stands.
“Lardo, I can’t believe your fiance let that shit in.”
Lardo threw her hands in the air, and Bitty bit the inside of his cheek again to keep from laughing. Both for incurring her wrath, and for disrupting the somber mood that had befallen the crowd around them.
“I’m getting another drink. I deserve it, dealing with you idiots.”
Everyone, as it turned out, ended up needing several more drinks to deal with the situation at hand, as Seattle scored twice more and the Falconers only once. Tensions were running high, with hard checks sending multiple players crashing into the boards, but the clock didn’t stop, no one wanting to call foul before they could get the puck.
Third period was on them before Bitty could quite realize it, and he couldn’t seem to sit back in his seat as the puck was launched from player to player. His two beers were long finished, and no amount of considering how many germy hands had come before him could convince him to release his death grip on his seat. The scoreboard was ticking down, only two minutes left in regulation and the Falconers were still down by one.
“TAKE A FUCKING SHOT!” Someone above them screamed.
Both teams were crowded by the Schooners goal, their goalie hunched over and swaying from side to side as he braced for the shot as Zimmermann took the puck.
He wasn’t quick enough.
The alarm sounded and Bitty was suffocating between Lardo and Shitty and couldn’t find it in himself to be upset as he screamed along with the rest of them.
At a minute 30 left in regulation, the game was tied.
Bitty managed to sit down, but only when Lardo pulled on his sleeve, and he still didn’t take his eyes off of the ice. Zimmermann was lining up with a Schooner, facing off again, and when the ref dropped the puck the battle for it was vicious. A Schooner landed a hit on Fitzgerald hard enough for the crowd to shout out, but Fitzgerald was up and moving in a second, chasing after the puck alongside Zimmermann as a Schooner forward carried it towards their goal. He took a shot that glanced off Snow’s stick, sending it off to where Mashkov could take it behind the goal. Mashkov made a break for center ice, but faked and passed it off to St Martin before a Schooner could block him.
St Martin spun, taking the puck and passed it to Zimmermann who took a hard shot to send it to Robinson nearly at the blue line-
Bitty tried to keep his eye on the puck, he really did. It was easier off the ice than it was on, and he had been playing NCAA hockey for almost three years. So in that moment of confusion where he lost the puck, he turned his head, expecting an icing called on the Falconers, when his head exploded in pain.
“SHIT!” He gasped, uncertain when the last time he had even sworn out loud was, but it felt appropriate as someone or something cold clocked him on the forehead. Bitty nearly collapsed out of his seat in his shock, grasping at his face in a desperate attempt to stop the pain. Around him was a flurry of activity. The whistle on ice blew and all of his friends were screaming at once.
“BITS ARE YOU FUCKING OKAY?”
“ZIMMERMANN HEARD YOU TALKING SHIT MAN, I TOLD YOU!”
“What in God’s name…” Bitty pulled his hand away, and though there were stars on the edge of his vision he could see well enough to take note of the blood on his palm from where it had been pressed to his forehead. He blinked, and quickly realized the wetness in his eye must have been blood too. He looked at Lardo, who was standing, facing away from the ice and motioning with her hands to get someone’s attention.
When he looked the other way, Shitty was fumbling with his napkins before stuffing them into Bitty’s hands. Bitty pressed them against his forehead, and before he could understand what Shitty was saying he realized both Ransom and Holster were also standing, their phones out and in selfie mode as they shouted incoherently at each other.
“BITTY TOOK A PUCK TO THE FACE IN AN NHL GAME. HE’S A FUCKING SUPER STAR!”
“What happened?” Bitty asked Shitty, realizing as soon as he did what a stupid question that was.
Shitty grinned at him, and held out his hand, pushing something cold and hard into Bitty’s hand. “Congratulations man. You earned it.”
Finally, finally, Bitty looked back to the ice. All play had stopped, and all 12 players were staring in Bitty’s direction. Including starting forward, alternate captain, local legend and the current reason Bitty’s head was bleeding and he might have a concussion - Jack Zimmermann. He was at least 50 feet away, and Bitty couldn’t see his eyes but he looked mad. Then again, Bitty thought Zimmermann always looked mad, so he wasn’t sure if that meant anything. Still, having almost 200 pounds of NHL player glaring at him while he was bleeding from the head didn’t bode well.
Lardo was stepping over him then, blocking his view of the ice as a man with an orange medical bag was taking up the space she was vacating.
He introduced himself and Bitty immediately forgot his name and then he was shining a bright light in Bitty’s eyes, and then helping him patch up the wound on his forehead.
“I think you should come with me, we should get some butterfly stitches on that,” the man told him as he tucked his light away back into his bag.
“Hell yeah Bits, getting stitches from an NHL game.”
“Just butterfly, and just a precaution,” the medic corrected with an amused smile.
“We will be happy to comp your tickets, and get you a new jersey,” said an official looking woman who had showed up behind him with a smile that was too big and too white to be any sort of reassuring.
“What’s wrong with my jersey?” Bitty asked before he thought to look down. Splattered across the front was a thin line of blood, staining across the A on his chest. “Ah.”
“Mr. Bittle?” The man was standing, his bag slung over his shoulder. “You don’t have to accept any help from us, but I would recommend it.”
“No, yes, I’ll come, thank you.”
“I’ll go with him,” Lardo offered before anyone else could. “You guys stay here and let us know how much the Falconers embarrass the Schooners.”
Ransom assured them they would as Shitty saluted.
Bitty held the wad of gauze the medic had given him against his head as he stood, and around them the crowd was cheering. He froze for a moment, uncertain as to what had happened on ice, only to see the players hadn’t moved, still standing still where he had last seen them. Except now they were tapping their sticks hard on the ice, and the players on both benches, still turned around in their seats to look up at him, were hitting theirs against the boards.
They were cheering for Bitty, walking off an injury.
“Oh Lord.” Bitty covered his face as much as he could with the gauze as embarrassment ran hot through his veins.
Behind him he heard Lardo cheering, clapping as loud as she could. Even through the crowd he could still hear Holster shouting.
The medic led them through a door marked employees only, and down a long hall to what Bitty assumed was a makeshift nurses station for anyone not a player who was unfortunate enough to get injured. It was a small room with no windows and shelves lined with medical supplies, but the TV in the corner was muted and showing the game, so Bitty didn’t feel the need to complain much. He sat on the edge of a low table as the medic worked, dabbing at the injury with something foul smelling that stung before he got to work on the bandages.
Bitty was in the process of signing something about not suing the Falconers on a clipboard handed to him by a woman with a tight bun and a fake smile when St. Martin scored again in OT.
“Hell yeah,” Lardo cheered quietly as she leaned back against the table.
The medic let him see a mirror, and the extent of the damage was less than it felt like, but still unsettling to see. His forehead was turning purple around the edges of a long but shallow cut. The blood stains around it and the beginnings of a purpling bruise made it look more frightening than Bitty thought it was. His head was still throbbing, but the pain was beginning to subside.
He wondered if it was going to scar. He wondered if he wanted it to.
“It’s really not that bad. But you should go to a doctor soon, make sure you don’t have a minor concussion.”
“Getting a concussion in an NHL game.” Lardo shook her head. “You’re really just trying to show us all up.”
“It’s what I do,” he told her with a sigh as the medic - he really felt bad about not remembering his name - pulled a business card out of his bag. He was in the process of looking it over and assuring the medic he would let them know about any medical expenses, when there was a knock at the door.
“Mac,” someone called through the door. “Can I come in?”
The medic -Mac, thank goodness he had a name to the face now- spent another few seconds looking over Bitty before he nodded and took a step back. “Do you mind some visitors?” Mac asked. He had bags under his eyes, but when he smiled he looked a few years younger.
“Um, yeah that’s fine.” He glanced at Lardo, who met his eyes with a blank expression he couldn’t read, but assumed meant she was also confused. “I suppose.”
“Yeah, come in.”
The door opened before Mac was finished speaking, and Lardo’s hand was tightening on Bitty’s arm in a vice grip. “Holy shit,” she breathed out, just loud enough for him to hear, and if Bitty had been able to find his breath, he would have agreed. The woman from PR grinned at him and may have said goodbye before she disappeared out the door, but he couldn’t be sure.
Because all 6’4” of professional hockey player was standing in the doorway, grinning at them both like they were old friends. “Hello! You one who Zimmermann hit with puck, da?”
“Da,” Bitty echoed back before he felt his face go bright red as Lardo shook his arm. He hadn’t meant to echo back in Russian, but his head was swimming at meeting a man who’s picture he’d had to look at every day for the past year and a half from where Ransom had printed it out and posted it on the Haus wall. “I mean yes,” Bitty corrected quickly. “Sorry, I didn’t mean, I mean I meant to, uhhh…”
Alexei Mashkov, starting defenseman for the Providence Falconers, grinned at Bitty’s stumbling. “Is okay,” he assured. He placed a hand over his heart dramatically. “Is very exciting meeting me, I’m very cool.”
“You’re not fucking cool,” said a voice from behind Mashkov. “You’re just loud and you’re freaking them out.”
The owner of the voice elbowed their way past Mashkov, and despite being nearly a head shorter did a fine job of shoving him out of the way. Mashkov delivered a smack to the back of the newcomers head and scolded him for swearing in front of fans, as Lardo’s grip on Bitty’s arm somehow got even tighter and she made a quiet noise that Bitty had never heard her make before.
“Oh my god,” Bitty breathed out, unsure which Falconer to focus on first.
“Sorry, sorry.” Dustin Snow had his hands up as he approached the table. “Didn’t mean to offend.”
“It’s fine,” Lardo breathed out, her voice strained and a little higher than usual as Snow held out his hand.
Bitty took his hand, and introduced himself as Bitty before he could realize how stupid that sounded. For his part, Snow didn’t flinch at the strange name, but he did turn back to Mashkov as he sputtered in indignation.
“You interrupt me Snowy. I’m introducing myself.”
“Well you’re doing a shitty job.”
“Stop swearing in front of fans,” Mac scolded again, but there was little heat in it, like this was an argument that had been had a million times and couldn’t be won. Bitty momentarily forgot about the pain in his head as he found himself starstruck. Mashkov was shaking his hand then, clasping his massive hand over top of their joined ones and Bitty had never felt smaller in his life. Even next to Holster, Mashkov -who asked him to call him Alexei- was massive, and there was nothing but kindness and joy radiating off him in waves. Bitty had watched him throw another player bodily across the rink not a half hour earlier, and now Bitty couldn’t imagine how he had a mean bone in his body.
Snow was apologizing again for swearing, and Bitty couldn’t help but think helplessly that he was impossibly even more handsome in person. He was also surprisingly smaller without all his pads and helmet. Bitty thought he couldn’t have been more than a few inches taller than himself. When Snow shook Lardo’s hand she had the wherewithal to introduce herself as Larissa. Bitty told Mashkov his name was Bitty, no sense in switching it up between them and causing even more confusion, and heard Snow tell Lardo with the utmost sincerity that Larissa was a pretty name.
The giggle she gave was going to fuel Bitty for years to come with chirping material, but he filed it away for later.
“We want to come see you,” Mashkov told them both, a hand over his heart again. “Jack very rude, try to kill you like that.”
“Absolute deliberate shot,” Snow supplied, his voice dry and the corner of his mouth turning up in a smirk. “Sometimes he just gets frustrated and tries to kill a fan. It happens.” He leaned his hip against the table on the other side of Lardo and Bitty thought she was going to cut off all circulation to his hand. They were both standing entirely too close for how recently Bitty had been involved in a lengthy discussion about which one of them would be better in bed.
“Please don’t tell people that,” Mac begged. Bitty had forgotten he was in the room.
“And he very rude, so we come say sorry for him.”
“Oh, it’s okay, really,” Bitty assured them. “I, uh, highly doubt he did it on purpose.”
“You not know him, he very mean.”
There was another knock at the door, but it was a courtesy sort of knock because before anyone could react the door was opening anyway.
It was Bitty’s punishment, he thought, for playing that stupid game with Holster. He should have shut it down and come up with something else. Maybe he could have tricked them into truth or dare, or a breath holding contest, anything at all. Because it was bad enough being stuck between a man he said he would marry and another he said he would sleep with, because the third answer to that horrible game was leaning his head around the door.
“Alright, Mr. Bittle.” Mac snapped his bag closed and shot him a grin around Mashkov. “It was a pleasure meeting you, I am sorry it had to be under such unfortunate circumstances. I have your contact information and you have ours. Please see a doctor and you can send us any medical bills you accumulate.” He leaned around to shake Bitty’s hand once more before he was departing, giving Zimmermann a parting pat on the shoulder before the door closed behind him.
“Zimmboni, look what you do to our friend B!”
Jack Zimmermann, the man Bitty had said he would kill less than three hours ago, was pushing open the door, looking for all the world like he would rather be anywhere else. Bitty had a feeling that women with the clipboard and the tight bun had been in charge of wrangling him down here to talk to Bitty for PR reasons, and he did not look like he was happy about the ordeal.
Zimmermann didn’t look at him as he closed the door behind him, making a show of it like he was concerned it might reopen again, before he finally turned back to them.
“Yeah, sorry about that...B?”
Bitty had seen pictures of him off the ice before, had heard all the jokes and seen the memes about how he always dressed like he was about to rob a Burger King. He didn’t look any different now, with his worn black hoodie and black basketball shorts. The bright yellow shoes were the only indication that he wasn’t actively trying to go incognito. Bitty had no idea what possessed a grown man with a 7 million dollar a year salary to purchase yellow sneakers, but that wasn’t the most pressing issue at hand.
“It’s Bitty, or uh, Bittle,” Bitty explained quickly. “My friends call me Bitty because my last name is Bittle. I play hockey.” He had no idea why he decided to tack that on at the end, but he could feel his face heating up in his own humiliation as all three professional hockey players starred at him.
Mashkov was cute, and Snow was prettier than some women Bitty knew, but Zimmermann was was so handsome he was difficult to look at directly. Bitty had been so horribly wrong when he had told Shitty that he wasn’t his type, and maybe that was the part he was being punished for. Because Jack Zimmermann was a gorgeous man, and all at once Bitty was thankful for his horrible fashion because he was fairly certain he would actually have died right then and there if Zimmermann knew how to dress.
“Oh,” was all Zimmermann said in response to Bitty’s rant. Mashkov and Snow swiveled their heads to face their teammate like it was a tennis match. There was a long moment of silence as no one said anything.
Bitty saw Mashkov roll his eyes, but he had the distinct feeling it wasn’t at him. “What a coincidence, so does Jack! Tell him about it, Jack.”
“Uh, yeah, I play center forward. What are you?”
Bitty nodded. He knew Zimmermann played forward, everyone knew he played forward. “I’m right wing,” he told him. “NCAA, Samwell University.”
“That’s a good team.” Zimmermann nodded. “My mom went there.”
“I didn’t know that.”
Jack seemed to startle at Lardo’s voice, noticing perhaps for the first time that she was there.
“Oh, sorry. I’m Jack.” He leaned over rather abruptly to shake a very bemused Lardo’s hand. She introduced herself back and he nodded in acknowledgment.
Zimmermann turned towards Bitty then, but instead of shaking his hand as well he all but pushed a folder into his hands. “This is for you,” he stated needlessly. “It’s paperwork the receipt for two season passes for the remainder of the season as well as a parking pass. There’s also a gift receipt for team merchandise. I would have brought you one of my jerseys but I didn’t know what size you were, but we can get you one.” He didn’t smile once during his incredibly rehearsed speech, his back straight and his arms at his sides. His Falconers baseball cap was pulled low on his forehead, but Bitty was almost glad it made it harder to look him in the eye.
He did see though, when Zimmermann looked down and noticed his jersey properly for the first time. “Or, uh, St. Martin’s jersey. His or mine. Or both. Whatever, uh, whatever you want.” His frown got deeper as he spoke, and when he crossed his arms it made his muscles bulge in a way that Bitty wasn’t prepared to handle. Especially coming from 200 pounds of attractive man who did not want to be speaking to him.
Another silence fell over the group, Snow and Mashkov not taking their eyes off Jack as the seconds ticked by and the lack of sound grew more and more awkward.
“Jesus Christ,” Snow finally whispered, obviously loud enough for everyone to hear as he shook his head. “This is amazing, Jack, honestly. You’re doing great.”
Zimmermann scowled, and even in the shadow of his cap, Bitty could see his face tint red in his annoyance. Before he could respond Mashkov was patting him hard enough on the arm to make him stumble.
“Larissa!” Mashkov turned, his voice booming in the small space as he threw his arms out wide. “Snowy and I want show you something, you come with us, yes?” He tilted his head as Snow straightened himself out and offered his arm to Lardo.
Lardo hopped down, one hand on his arm, but she turned to face Bitty.
“Jack, you say you’re sorry to Bitty and then you come catch up with us,” Snow said. His tone left no room for any arguments from anyone else, and suddenly Mashkov was standing between him and Lardo, and the three of them were headed out the door. Bitty could hear as Mashkov began telling her something, but the particulars were lost both through Bitty’s mounting confusion and the door closing behind them.
And then Bitty was alone with Jack Zimmermann, somewhere underneath the stands of the Falconer’s arena.
“I think two NHL players just kidnapped my friend.” He hadn’t necessarily meant to say it out loud, but the mounting silence was painful and Bitty’s head still hurt and he didn’t fully understand what was happening.
For the first time since he had walked in the room, the corners of Jack’s mouth turned up in the faintest hint of a smile. Bitty felt a pain in his chest with how quickly the expression softened his stoic expression. “Yeah, they, uh, they actually do that a lot. They’re good guys, they’ll take care of her.”
Bitty nodded. The silence stretched between them again as Zimmermann stared at him. It seemed like he was waiting for him to say something, and Bitty found he couldn’t keep his gaze and instead began to glance around the room.
“Well, maybe we should catch up-”
“Where are you from?”
Bitty blinked, thrown for a moment by the non sequitur question. “I’m sorry?”
Jack reached up to rub the back of his neck, his other hand on his hip as he glanced down at the ground. “Your accent?”
Bitty wasn’t sure how that was a question and he felt his face heating at the idea of a professional hockey player making fun of his accent. “Oh, well I’m from Georgia. I’ve been trying to get rid of the accent, but let me tell you it does not want to leave.”
“Oh no, I think it’s nice,” Zimmermann told him, his expression back to its regularly scheduled stoicism. His face was turning steadily more red, and Bitty could feel his own heating up as well. The conversation was awkward and forced and Bitty felt like he could see the strings PR was pulling, telling Zimmermann he had to play nice. “I’m from Quebec.”
“I know,” Bitty said before he realized how rude that sounded. “I mean, my friends are big fans of yours. Not that I’m not,” he added quickly. “I just, uh…” He tightened his grip on the edge of the table, and before he could stop himself he was laughing, bending over until he was staring at the floor. When he straightened back up, Zimmermann was staring at him in what may have been concern.
“I’m sorry,” Bitty breathed out. “I’m a mess right now. I got hit rather hard on the head, and I did not expect to meet any of you,” he told him honestly. “You’re all very nice, and I’m a mess, and I’m sorry I’ve completely forgotten all of my manners, I promise I’m not usually this big of a disaster.”
When Zimmermann smiled again, it wasn’t just a twitch of his lips. It was at least the start of something real, and when he turned towards Bitty he could see where he was missing a canine tooth. It shouldn’t have been endearing. “It’s okay. I’m, uh, actually this is about on par for me.” When he shrugged some of the tension high in his shoulders loosened, and Bitty felt his own anxiety beginning to wane. Jack Zimmermann was, at the end of the day, just a person. A famous person with famous parents and a multi million dollar salary, but he was a human being. “I’m not great with people, but I did want to apologize for getting you in the face. It was a shitty shot, and that looks really bad.”
Bitty reached up to cover the cut as self consciousness automatically took over. “Oh, I must look horrible .”
“Oh, no, I just meant it looks like it hurt-”
“No, it’s not that bad I just-”
“Let me buy you dinner.”
Bitty didn’t gasp, but he felt his breath catch in his throat. He couldn’t have heard correctly. “What?”
Zimmermann tilted his head back, and Bitty could see the full extent of the flush across his beautiful cheekbones. “Um. Well, I hit you in the head and I ruined your jersey so I thought the least I could do was buy you dinner to apologize.”
“You...want to take me out to dinner?” Nothing was adding up in Bitty’s head. Maybe the puck had hit him harder than he thought and this was all a very elaborate hallucination. “Why?”
Zimmermann stuffed his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels. “Well, uh, like I said, I feel bad about the hit, and you’re cute? I didn’t mean for that to be a question. And I don’t mean to assume, but I saw the hat and thought maybe, you know?”
Bitty stared at him, mouth open in shock before he could remember his manners and close it. His Falconer’s Pride hat was sitting next to him on the table, almost forgotten in all the excitement. Buying it had been such a turning point for him, such a huge deal to confirm the order in the privacy of his dorm room. It wasn’t very overt, just a small little symbol but it had felt like such a monumental decision. He wondered, briefly, if Zimmermann would have said anything if he hadn’t been wearing it.
He also wondered, as he looked back to Zimmermann’s scowl, if he had mistaken nerves for anger.
Going on a date with an NHL player was a ridiculous prospect that Bitty could barely conceive in his wildest dreams. It was also probably a terrible idea. Professional athletes were rarely known for either their fidelity or their abstinence, and Bitty could count on his hand the number of dates he had been on in his life. He wasn’t ready for a date with Jack Zimmermann, starting forward of an NHL team and hockey legend.
“I would love to.”
Zimmermann’s -or perhaps he should be Jack, if this was really happening and not an elaborate comatose dream- shoulders sloped as he sighed. Bitty really did think he was even better looking when he smiled. “Great. I don’t have a game tomorrow. I can give you my number and we can figure it out.”
“Okay.” Bitty handed over his phone feeling still like he was in a dream as Jack put his number in and returned it with a smile that could only be described as shy.
Bitty only just stopped himself from clutching at his heart as he realized this boy was going to kill him.
“We should, uh, see where the boys got to with your friend.”
“I’m sure she can handle herself, but it’s the rest of my group I’m worried about,” he told Jack as he hoped down off the table. Jack was closer than he had expected him to be, and if he exaggerated his landing just enough to get Jack to reach out a hand to steady him, he didn’t think anyone could blame him. Up close he found he barely came to Jack’s collarbone, and he had to tilt his head back to meet his eye.
“Yeah, I’d better get going too.” He held the door open for Bitty but hesitated in the doorway. “You’ll text me though, right?”
“Of course I will, Sweetheart.”
Even though Bitty was at least half a foot shorter, Jack ducked his head at the nickname and when he looked up again it was from under his lashes. “Good.”
What Mashkov and Snow had needed to show Lardo was apparently a framed jersey in the hallway only a few feet from the door. Lardo was talking, her usual nonchalance back in place and Mashkov and Snow listened to her with rapt attention that didn’t seem fake.
“Oh, hey Bits.”
Bitty waved at her before giving one final look at Jack. Jack who waved his hand in so silly and nervous a gesture that Bitty couldn’t help but giggle. “You’re gonna get me that Zimmermann jersey too right? I want it signed.”
When Jack laughed it was quiet, more of a quick breath than a chuckle, but Bitty thought it was such a pretty sound. “Anything you want.”
Bitty gave him what he hoped was a confident sort of smile and turned his back before his inexperienced bravado could dig him into a situation he wasn’t prepared for. Or worse, make Jack regret his decision.
Mashkov and Snow seemed far less intimidating after a minute alone with Jack and when Mashkov waved with half his body he found himself waving back. “What are you guys looking at.”
“Nothing.” Lardo had her hands in the pocket of her hoodie and the smirk on her face was deeply concerning. “What about you?”
Snow and Mashkov were looking over his shoulder at Jack, and the pieces of what was happening fell into place every quickly. Whatever the two of them saw in Jack made them both grin back in response.
“You should probably get back to your friends.” Snow pushed off from where he had been leaning against the wall. He seemed to do a lot of leaning. “But it was nice meeting you guys.” He rounded on Lardo rather suddenly, and even though only a few minutes had passed, her starstruck expression had faded significantly enough that she didn’t even flinch. “And you, text me and I’ll show you what I’m talking about with the mask.”
She shrugged, and even though she was no longer gaping, Bitty could see the excitement keeping her shoulders high. “Sounds cool.”
“No!” Mashkov shoved Snow roughly aside as they both began to back down the corridor. “Text me first. I send you pictures of my cat!”
“I’m trying to give her a job.”
“I’m trying to show her my cat.”
Mashkov and Jack’s voices joined together to echo off the walls. “STOP SWEARING!”
Lardo grabbed Bitty’s wrist and pulled him back the way they had come. “Bye guys!” She linked her arm through Bitty’s again as they began to walk. “They told me the way to go, it’s literally just back up this hall. I don’t have service but I’ll call the guys when we get up there.” She gave his arm a squeeze. “So, what happened with Zimmermann?” She tried to keep her voice level, but Bitty had no doubt that she already knew.
“So they told you he was gonna ask me out?”
“My man!” She whispered in an attempt to keep her voice low and reeled back to deliver a solid punch to his arm. “Getting an NHL players digits!”
“Didn’t you just get two?”
She shrugged again, as if this were a thing she did every day. As if he couldn’t feel her hands shaking where they were gripping him. “I think for very different reasons. I showed them some of my drawings and Dustin said he’s looking for a new artist for a helmet design, and Alexei said that if I texted Dusin then I had to text him because he was cooler, and then they kind of got in a slap fight.”
Bitty turned them sideways, refusing to let go of her arm to push open the doors. They found themselves back in the main hall of the stadium, with the crowd significantly thinned out. Lardo fished her phone out of her pocket as Bitty jostled their arms for no other reason than to bother her.
“Oh, so they’re Dustin and Alexei now?”
Lardo laughed as she typed in Shitty’s number. “Shut up. I do feel really bad I said I would kill Alexei though. Like he’s so nice, I don’t think there’s a person alive who could kill him. I also feel bad I said I would sleep with your man. I stand by Dustin though. Holster’s still not going to be the best man, I don’t care what he says.”
“He’s not my man,” Bitty protested, shaking her arm hard enough that she almost dropped her phone when she tried to put it to her ear. He found himself frozen as she smacked at him and resumed her call. “Oh my god I said I would kill Zimmermann.”
Lardo said nothing but snickered as he heard the phone ring.
“Oh my Lord I said he wasn’t my type.”
Through her tinny speakers he heard Shitty answer.
“Hey man,” Lardo greeted. She looked at Bitty out of the corner of her eye, her smirk was all teeth. “I think Bitty wants to change his answer.”