Bitty spends the entire morning of July 3 changing his clothes and combing his hair in different ways. He’s not really sure why he’s bothering with his hair; the heat and humidity will ruin it in five minutes flat once he steps outside, anyway, but the butterflies in his stomach won’t let him stop.
“Dicky!” His mama calls up the stairs, and his stomach drops. “A car just pulled up!”
Bitty takes a deep breath. He can’t tell if he’s going to throw up from nerves or fly down the stairs in excitement. He might throw up while he flies down the stairs. There’s a way to impress your crush.
He squares his shoulders and channels his inner Sasha Fierce before heading downstairs. And then, of course, the knock on the door makes excitement win over nerves and he almost falls down the stairs in his haste to beat his mama to open the door.
“Jack,” he breathes once he’s gotten the door open. He’s there, standing on Bitty’s doorstep, tall and broad as Bitty remembers, in jeans and a red button-up shirt, a smile blooming on his face. They stare at each other for a minute, and then Bitty finds his voice and says, “Come on in.”
“Hi, Bittle,” Jack murmurs quietly as he passes Bitty, and Bitty feels like he might faint. He can smell Jack’s deodorant and feel his body heat and his head spins with it all. Jack’s cheeks are flushed a little and Bitty wonders if he wasn’t ready for the syrupy July heat.
“Come on back and say hello to mama,” Bitty says, trying to tamp down the smile that’s making his cheeks hurt. He tugs at the strap of Jack’s bag. “Let me get that for you.”
“No,” Jack protests.
“Jack,” Bitty says, exasperated. They’re still making their way down the hall, basically playing tug-of-war with Jack’s duffel, and they get to the kitchen when Jack reveals,
“I brought something for you.”
“You did?” Bitty asks, voice coming out breathy enough to be embarrassing. Jack ducks his head a little, unzipping the bag enough to tug out…a ball cap. Bitty tries to keep his disappointment off his face. As far as presents go, it's not exactly romantic. Not that he's expecting anything romantic.
“Hello, hello!” Suzanne says, excited both about Jack himself and her opportunity to play hostess. “Dicky, you make sure you document the occasion!”
“Yes ma’am,” Bitty says automatically. He unlocks his phone and as he’s taking the picture he notices the Falconers logo on the hat Jack’s holding.
“Surprised you had to be told to do that,” Jack chirps, and Bitty’s heart immediately does a weird little dance in his chest.
“Starting already?” Bitty tries to sound irritated, but he knows he’ll never manage it. He opens his Twitter immediately. “So, you brought me a Falconers hat?”
“Oh.” Jack looks down at it. “Uh, no. Actually, this is…” He offers the hat to Suzanne, whose mouth drops open in delight. She immediately pops it onto her head and grins and Bitty can’t not snap a picture of that, too.
“Oh, alright,” Bitty says, a little confused and trying not to show it. Jack looks uncomfortable.
“I brought you something else,” he assures Bitty. “I don’t know if—you don’t have to keep it if you don’t want. Maybe you won’t like it.”
“You know, I need to run to the store to get some more brown sugar,” Suzanne suddenly cuts in. “We are plumb out and Dicky’s going to need some for his pie. So Dicky, you get Jack settled in and I’ll be back.”
Bitty gives her a warning look. Two weeks ago, when they were finalizing Jack’s trip, Bitty had confided his feelings to her. She’d already known anyway, but she hadn’t known about their charged moment at graduation where Bitty had thought Jack was going to kiss him and then Jack…didn’t.
“Let’s head on upstairs,” Bitty suggests. “You can put your bag down.”
“It’s not too heavy,” Jack says, always determined not to be difficult. Bitty gives him a look.
“You bring your skates?” He asks.
“Yeah,” Jack says like it’s obvious. Bitty wonders how long it’s been since Jack traveled anywhere without skates, if he ever did.
“So it’s not really all that light, either.”
Jack huffs and shrugs. “Well, I guess.”
“It’s just nothing to you, big strong NHL man, huh?” Bitty teases, and that gets a bigger laugh out of Jack.
“Well, I eat enough protein,” he shoots back, and Bitty can’t help the delighted peal of laughter that escapes him. He feels drunk on Jack’s presence. It’s been two months of texting every day and phone calls, a few Skype calls here and there, and it’s not enough. It’s good, but Bitty doesn’t think he’ll ever get enough of Jack standing right beside him, elbowing him gently, that teasing smile tugging at his lips.
“Here’s the guest room.” Bitty gestures as he opens the door.
“It’s nice. Your house is nice. I like it,” Jack says sincerely, and Bitty can feel a blush heating up his face.
“Thanks,” he murmurs. Jack sets his bag on the bed and reaches into it again.
“Um.” He fidgets with the strap nervously. “This seemed like a good idea when I was packing,” he admits awkwardly, and for one heart-stopping moment Bitty thinks he’s just going to pick up his bag and leave right now, but then he goes on, “But this present might be kinda—stupid? A little arrogant, maybe. You don’t have to keep it.”
“Jack,” Bitty soothes. “I’m sure it’s great.” He has no idea what Jack could have gotten him that would be arrogant. There’s nothing arrogant about Jack.
“Okay, well.” Jack shrugs and pulls a folded bundle out of his bag. He thrusts it at Bitty and then stuffs his hands in his pockets while Bitty unfolds it.
It’s a Falconers jersey, the official NHL merchandise kind, the ones that go for upwards of a hundred dollars for the popular players. And it’s number 15, but the name on the back is…Zimmermann.
“You’re number 15?” Bitty squeaks out. He’s number 15. Jack’s whole face is beet red.
“Well, I couldn’t be number 1,” he points out. The Falconers’ main goalie is number 1. “They, uh, gave me a few options. And I just thought…” He gulps. “You know, it might be good luck, eh? ‘Cause when I play with you…” He shrugs, all awkward and fidgeting, and Bitty can’t do anything but rush forward and pull Jack into a hug.
“I love it,” Bitty promises, voice muffled against Jack’s chest, and Jack lets out a breath that Bitty can feel against his the top of his head.
“Good,” he says softly. “I hoped you would.” His arms are tight around Bitty and Bitty could honestly die on the spot and go happy. He tips his head back and looks up and Jack is looking down and they’re so close and Jack bites his lower lip and Bitty can’t look away—
The front door slams shut and Jack scrambles away from Bitty so fast he trips over the bed.
“Junior?” Coach calls out. “Your friend here yet?”
“Y—” Bitty has to clear his throat. “Yes, sir, up here.”
He takes a few steps back and Jack springs up, and by the time Coach appears in the doorway they’re standing a few feet apart and not meeting each other’s eyes.
“Hi, there,” Coach says, stretching out a hand. Jack shakes his hand and nods.
“You have a beautiful home,” he says, a little stiff like maybe he was taught that line, and Bitty thinks of Alicia Zimmermann and knows he was.
“Thank you, son,” Coach says. “Mostly Suzanne’s work.”
There’s a silence, because neither Jack nor Coach know anything about small talk and Bitty can’t seem to find his tongue just now.
“Well,” Coach breaks the silence. He nods and leaves. Jack sighs a little.
“Sorry,” he mumbles, rubbing a hand across the back of his neck.
“For what?” Bitty asks.
“I…don’t know,” Jack admits, and Bitty laughs a little.
“Canadians,” he teases. He suddenly thinks about how many hours Jack’s been traveling and gasps dramatically. “We need to find you something to eat.”
Jack grins. “I was wondering how long it’d take.”
“You think you know me so well,” Bitty says lightly as they head down the stairs. He glances over his shoulder in time to see Jack’s face go soft, his lips turning up in a little smile.
“Yeah, I think so,” he murmurs.
They pull up into the gravel lot where everyone in town parks for the Fourth of July parade. Coach is already here, helping the football players set up their float, so Jack, Bitty, and Suzanne all have to carry two pies each.
Jack shakes his head as they load themselves up. “This seems like a lot, even for you.”
Bitty sticks his tongue out at Jack and feels his stomach clench when Jack blushes a little. “It would be a crying shame to hide my talents under a bushel,” Bitty says.
“Suzanne!” Old Mrs. O’Grady calls from the pie table. “We can’t save this space much longer!”
“Oh, Lord,” Suzanne mutters. “I’ll go on ahead and block off our spot.” She half-walks, half-jogs over to the table and immediately sets down the pies in her hands so she can put her hands on her hips.
“Your mom is a lot like you,” Jack remarks as they’re walking over at a regular pace. Bitty raises an eyebrow.
“Mmhmm, Jack Zimmermann, you happen to make that observation when my mother is being particularly ridiculous in public?” He asks, glancing over at where Suzanne has pulled one hand off her hip to gesture wildly.
Jack just raises his eyebrows and smiles, and Bitty tuts at him. If they weren’t carrying pies, he’d knock his shoulder into Jack’s as revenge, but he’s not going to risk harm to the award winning desserts he's carrying. They head over to the pie table, where Bitty’s mother is arguing with Mrs. O’Grady about moving someone else’s peach pie to the back to make room for Bitty’s maple-crust apple.
“But y’all know people’ll be lining up for Dicky’s pie,” Mama is saying as they walk up. “Just makes sense to put it out front.”
“Mama, it’s alright,” Bitty says. “If people want my pies they’ll get ‘em, no matter where they are on the table.”
She scowls at him a little, but Mrs. O’Grady looks triumphant. Bitty hands over his pies and leads Jack away, letting Mrs. O’Grady and Mama continue their squabble. It happens every year. He takes Jack over to the clearing where they can watch the parade and they lay out the blanket they brought.
It’s barely 9 am and already blazing hot; Bitty can feel sweat down the small of his back and he doesn’t particularly want to lie back on the blanket. Mama goes and sits with some of her church group friends, so Jack and Bitty are alone, legs stretched out in front of them and leaning back on their elbows.
“Is it always this hot?” Jack asks. Bitty bumps his shoulder into Jack’s, pulling up a teasing smile for a chirp.
“We need to get you on the ice,” he says. “Your natural habitat.”
Jack smiles, one of those slow smiles that are small but beautiful. “I am Canadian,” he reminds Bitty, and Bitty laughs harder than he needs to. It’s not long before the parade starts, and Jack has his camera so he can take photos—not pictures, but photos—of his favorite floats.
The Andersons come by on their float, like every year, and like every year, Bitty feels a hollow little ache in his chest at the sight. The Andersons are in their nineties, and they’ve been married for seventy years. They ride a float every year, holding hands and looking adorable, and it always makes Bitty sigh.
It’s worse with Jack there, beside him but so unattainable, and Bitty starts to feel a little melancholy. He firmly tells himself to snap out of it. Jack is here for a visit, and that’s exciting and a reason to be happy. He’s not going to let his own loneliness put him in a mood.
Something hits him in the back of the head and then bounces onto his shoulder just as the Coalition for Traditional Marriage float comes by. He looks down and sees a piece of popcorn, and he can hear snickers behind him. He closes his eyes for just a second, then purses his lips determinedly. He can ignore them.
Another piece of popcorn sticks in his hair and he sighs a little as he brushes it away. He doesn’t have to turn around to know it’s Rodney Samuelson and his friends. Seems they haven’t grown up much since high school. Jack glances back over his shoulder, just once, and Bitty’s cheeks start to burn. It’s humiliating that Jack has to witness this.
Jack scoots over a little, closer to Bitty, and presses their legs together. He’s still looking straight ahead at the parade, but he’s there, and he sees the situation, and he’s not backing off. Bitty’s blush doesn’t go away, but it changes a little.
Another piece of popcorn hits Bitty’s ear before dropping to the ground, and Jack, casual as anything, picks it up and tosses it into his mouth. Bitty can’t help the little squawk of laughter that comes out of him.
“Don’t eat things off the ground, Jack!” He scolds teasingly.
Jack shrugs. “Before you moved into the Haus, Shitty tried to cook sometimes,” he reveals. “I’ve eaten worse.”
Bitty’s laugh hitches a little when another piece of popcorn hits him, and Jack’s eyes flash angrily. Bitty shakes his head, just a little.
Once upon a time, this kind of thing would have devastated him, would have meant he’d go home and curl onto his bed, press Señor Bunny to his chest and squeeze his eyes closed and hold his breath until he didn’t feel like he was falling apart. It’s different now, though.
He’s not Little Dicky anymore, the name they used to hiss at him in the halls; he’s Bitty, he’s Bittle, he’s Bits, and he’s stronger now. He’s skated through a hard check from the monster Yale defenseman, he’s come out to people (come out to himself), and he’s got Jack’s thigh pressed all along his despite the sticky summer air, can see Jack’s crooked little smile out of the corner of his eye.
Those assholes can throw whatever they want at him, but he’s not going to break down, because he’s tougher than that.
After the parade, there is, of course, a barbeque, and Jack turns to Bitty and says, so seriously, “Your dad makes really great burgers.” The gravity he gives to the statement makes Bitty crack up laughing so hard he chokes on his okra, and Jack has to pat him on the back. He does it so delicately it doesn’t actually help at all, and Bitty’s glad he’s not actually choking, but Jack’s hand on his back is a nice feeling nonetheless.
They make the trek out to the rink in the afternoon, because Jack needs to skate, and it isn’t the same as their early mornings at Faber, but it feels so good to be back on the ice with Jack—even if Jack does check him into the boards.
It’s when they’re watching the fireworks, lying on a blanket in Bitty’s backyard, Bitty’s seven-year-old cousin Sarah latched onto Jack’s right arm and chattering away, that Jack’s fingers brush against Bitty’s where their hands are lying close together.
The reaction it sends through Bitty is a little ridiculous, considering it’s most likely accidental, but his stomach clenches and butterflies erupt. He swallows hard but keeps his eyes trained on the sky, glad for the booms in the air to cover his pounding heart.
But then it happens again, and this time Jack’s pinky tangles around Bitty’s, and Bitty can’t breathe for a second. He turns his head, just a little, to glance at Jack. Jack is nodding seriously along with whatever Sarah is saying, but there are two high patches of red on his cheeks. He’s blushing, Bitty realizes, and he’s glad he’s lying down because his legs feel rubbery.
Jack’s pinky is entwined with Bitty’s and Jack is blushing and Bitty thinks his heart is going to beat out of his chest. He crooks his own pinky a little, tightening it around Jack’s, and watches as Jack’s lips twitch upward. Bitty’s breath hitches, because he feels like his whole body is stuttering—he can’t believe this is happening.
They lie like that, hands barely touching, not even actually looking at each other, for the rest of the firework show, and somehow it’s more romantic than any fantasy Bitty may or may not have had about kissing under fireworks.
After the show ends, and Jack carries a sleeping Sarah out to Bitty’s aunt’s car, Jack and Bitty are alone in the kitchen. Suzanne and Coach went to bed as soon as the fireworks ended, and most of the lights are already off in the house so they’re standing in the half-light cast by the bulb above the oven.
“Well, it’s no Canada Day, but I guess Fourth of July isn’t so bad, eh?” Jack chirps. Bitty throws him a look.
“I am not arguing geopolitics with you again,” he says, shaking his head. “Learned that lesson all too well.”
Jack laughs quietly and then bites his lip. “Um, Bittle?” He sounds nervous, and Bitty’s heart picks up a little automatically.
“Yeah?” He asks, trying not to sound breathless.
“Those guys at the parade…they give you a hard time a lot?”
Bitty’s stomach drops a bit. That’s not really what he wants to talk about. Not ever, really, but especially not when he thought they were…well.
He shrugs and keeps his voice light. “I don’t see ‘em much now that I’m off at school.”
Jack looks sad. “That’s not really an answer.”
Bitty shrugs again. “They haven’t changed much since high school. It don’t bother me the way it used to. Anyway, like I said, it don’t happen as much anymore.”
“It shouldn’t happen at all,” Jack insists, voice tight. Bitty forces a little smile. At least Jack cares at all, he tells himself. At least Jack is his friend, even if he can’t be anything else, even if increasingly it feels like he could be. Jack steps a little closer. “I mean it,” he says softly. “You shouldn’t ever feel bad.”
Bitty wants to cover his face with his hands. He’s cycled through so many emotions tonight he can’t even process any of them.
“Because you’re…” Jack clears his throat. “You’re special.”
Bitty looks up quickly, and Jack’s blushing again and running a hand across the back of his neck, and Bitty wants to kiss him so badly his chest hurts, and then Jack sucks in a breath and takes another step toward Bitty, reaches out his hands and puts one on Bitty’s shoulder and one on Bitty’s hip.
“Okay?” Jack asks, and Bitty doesn’t know if he’s asking if Bitty agrees with his assessment or if Bitty’s okay or if touching Bitty is okay. All Bitty knows is his heart is pounding against his rib cage and his mouth is dry and his palms are sweating.
“Uh-huh,” he manages to choke out, not really knowing what he’s saying, and then Jack’s hand on his shoulder moves up to his chin, and Bitty can feel that his eyes are practically falling out of his head with how wide they are. Jack quirks a little smile at him, and Bitty gulps.
Jack licks his lips and leans down, so slow it’s agonizing, and Bitty never pretended to be particularly patient, so he rises up on his tiptoes to press their lips together. It’s soft, not much to it, but Bitty’s breath catches and his eyes fall closed.
Jack sighs a little, and he’s smiling against Bitty’s lips, and Bitty feels like he’s in someone else’s life, like this is a dream, because this doesn’t happen to him—beautiful, smart, wonderful boys don’t kiss him in his parents' kitchen after softly holding his hand during fireworks.
But it is happening, and Jack is kissing him, and Bitty almost feels like he’s going to cry. Jack pulls back a little and strokes his thumb over Bitty’s chin.
“I meant to do that at graduation,” Jack whispers.
“I wanted you to,” Bitty responds, just as quiet.
“I know,” Jack admits. “But I was scared.”
“You’re not scared now?” Bitty asks. Jack exhales.
“I’m always scared,” he starts slowly. “Of everything. But you make me braver.”
Half of Bitty kind of wants to laugh at that, because it sounds a little silly, the idea that Bitty, all five-foot-four-and-a-half of him, could inspire bravery in anyone. But he can’t laugh at Jack, not when Jack’s not trying to be funny, and somehow the words fit here, in the dark, quiet kitchen, Jack’s arm around Bitty’s waist and Bitty’s hands on Jack’s strong chest.
Bitty doesn’t quite know how he can respond adequately to that, so instead he just nods. “Alright,” he murmurs, and then he reaches up to kiss Jack again.
Two weeks later, his mother asks, a tad exasperated, “Dicky, you ever gonna take that jersey off?”
And Bitty smiles, a little dreamily, and he rubs the hem of the sleeve between his fingers, and he shakes his head. “Not yet, Mama,” he says. “Not just yet.”