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Infinity, Plus One

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Sophomore Year

Fall Semester

“H—um, hi, y’all.” Bitty’s got his head down, his newly cut bangs barely flopping down onto his face. He runs a shaking hand through a shaved side and lets it fall back into his lap. “I’m—s-sorry, but I don’t—I might not be vlogging for a while.”

 

Bitty tilts his face up into the sunshine and grins giddily. He catches sight of his reflection in a Haus window and tousles his hair, fidgeting with nervous excitement; he got it cut right before heading back up to school, and not even Kent has seen it. It was a little nerve-wracking, especially since his scar is exposed on the side now, but—well, that doesn’t feel quite as horrible as it used to. His mother calls to him and he darts over to get the front door unlocked.

It swings open before his key’s even all the way in the lock to reveal Kent standing on the other side. Bitty doesn’t take the time to look him over, to figure out his expression or consider how it looks to his mother to surge forward into his new roommate’s arms. He just goes, and Kent catches him with a startled sound that isn’t quite a laugh. His arms are thick, stronger than before around Bitty’s back. He smells like new cologne. He pulls away.

“Um, hey,” Bitty greets belatedly, breathless and a little disoriented by the sudden loss of contact.

Kent is smiling, though, and he nudges Bitty gently with his arm. “Hey, Bits. Hey, Mrs. Bittle. Did you have a good trip?” he asks as he ushers them inside.

“Oh, goodness, well—I can’t say I’m a fan of all those highways, but—,” his mother starts on a ramble, and the boys let her chatter while they unload boxes from the car.

“Nice haircut,” Kent mutters, and Bitty flushes.  He’s thrumming with anticipation, gears in his head turning over how soon he can get Kent upstairs and his mother occupied. It’s been a lonely summer, especially towards the end when Kent was busy at his prospect camp and coaching with Jack. And, well—it’s not like Bitty didn’t know Kent would have a lot going on, but—the last few weeks consisted of nothing but a handful of snapchats from Kent and Jack’s hotel room, the occasional traded text, and a single Skype call that got interrupted halfway through.

He’s not quite bitter about it, but he’s close, and now that Kent is here, in front of him, he’s aching with everything in him to kiss, touch, unravel the months rooted between them. It’s a physical thing, clawing out of his skin.

So when his mother announces she’s going to cook a lasagna for everyone who’ll be home tonight, Bitty doesn’t much care that he’s being rude when he doesn’t offer to help, instead saying, “Oh, alright! We’ll start unpacking upstairs.”

Her hands falter over the groceries for a moment, but she lets the moment pass and then Bitty is tugging Kent by the hand up the staircase, looking over his shoulder at him with a sly grin. Kent stumbles behind him and looks away.

The room is a little different than Bitty left it, with all his boxes stacked neatly near his window and Kent’s side clean; the bed is even made. The door clicks shut and Bitty closes his eyes and waits, for arms wrapped around him from behind, for lips at his neck or in his hair, for—

Kent brushes past Bitty and works open one of the boxes sitting on his mattress. “Um, where—do these go on the bookshelf?” He holds up Bitty’s new statistics textbook; they’re supposed to take the class together this fall.

Bitty stares at him. “Sure.”

And okay, maybe Bitty is overreacting. Maybe Kent just isn’t in the mood right now, or he’s had a rough day of wrapping up camp, or—or some other reason why Bitty doesn’t have to be feeling the sick twist of wrong in his gut.

“Is—um, is something—is everything okay?”

Kent turns to him and smiles. It doesn’t reach his eyes. “Uh, yeah. ‘Course. Just, uh—we should get you unpacked.”

“Kenny—?” Bitty steps forward, throat tight, not sure what he’s asking or what the answer could be. He reaches out, just far enough to barely graze his fingers across Kent’s bicep.

Kent breaks. He drops down onto the bed and sinks his head into his hands. “Fuck, Bits, I—I can’t—we shouldn’t do this.”

Bitty knows, somewhere in his chest, what Kent means. But it’s like his brain hasn’t caught up, hasn’t figured out how to believe. “I—Mama’s not gonna come up here; she won’t hear us.”

“Bitty,” Kent says, and his voice has no right to be that gentle. “I can’t—you know—I can’t do this. I—fuck, Christ, I’m so—.” He sounds angrier now. His hands go up to fist in his hair and knock his snapback to the ground. “I’m not—I can’t fucking—it’s not fucking right. I’m—I’m your captain, I—you're my sister's age and—,”

“That’s—that doesn’t matter to me,” Bitty insists, the words scrambling pathetically over his tongue in a desperate clutter, “I’m—Kenny, I spent all summer waitin’ for—for this, I—.” He loses his voice and falls forward instead, pressing his forehead to Kent’s and gripping his hands on his shoulders. He’s shaking and he knows Kent feels it. He whispers, “I just want you.”

For one awful moment, Kent’s arms lift like he’s going to pull Bitty in, pry them out of this nightmare—and that must be what this is, right? Some terrible dream that wormed its way into Bitty’s brain and he’s going to wake up, he’s going to—

Kent’s hands grab gently at Bitty’s wrists and lift them off his shoulders. Callouses drag against Bitty’s skin as Kent pulls away. He’s crying. They both are, wet-eyed creatures pushing and pulling each other in a fight only one of them wants to win. But Kent’s always been stronger. Bitty knows that.

Kent wipes at a tear on Bitty’s cheek and Bitty wants to hit him. He’s never had it in him to really hit someone before; he thinks it’d be easy now. All it would do is shatter him. 

“I can’t,” Kent chokes out, and Bitty wants to hold him. He wants to kiss at the tear stains on his freckles, slip under his arm, listen to his heartbeat. “I can’t. I’m—fucking—I’m so fucking sorry.”

“You—you n-never cared about—about any of this before,” Bitty accuses. His skin burns where Kent’s thumb swiped across it. His lungs char when he breathes.

Kent shakes his head and his shoulders quake. “I—I should’ve. I shouldn’t’ve ever done this to you.”

“Don’t do this.” Bitty tastes copper in his mouth; he wonders if he’s chewed through his lip. He swipes his tongue across it and cringes when he finds blood. “You said you loved me.”

Kent’s head snaps up and he looks at Bitty for the first time in maybe forever. His eyes are sharp blue, ice. “I do,” he says. Begs Bitty to believe.

“How—,” Bitty whimpers, or sobs, makes some noise he doesn’t understand but rattles out from his core, “How can you mean that when you’re leaving?”

“I don’t know,” Kent whispers. He presses his face back into his hands, shudders, stands. “I don’t know. I’m—Bits, I’m so sorry.”

You could say that forever, Bitty thinks, and it still wouldn’t be enough. He steps to the side and Kent slips past, hunched and cowering and ashamed. He pauses in the doorway, hand caught on the frame and knuckles turning white from the way he’s gripping it. Bitty almost says something. What, he’s not sure. I hate you or don’t leave or I still love you, God I still fucking love you.

He doesn’t say anything and Kent’s hand slips away.

Bitty stumbles backwards until the back of his legs hit the bed and he sinks down onto it and sobs, loud and ugly, not even sure where Kent went or if anyone else is home or if his mother can hear. He sobs from his core, the depths of his stomach, feels it rattle against his spine. He fumbles through the boxes around him until he finds Señor Bun and crushes him to his chest. It’s been a long time since Bun has been the thing soaking up his tears and he cries harder at the thought.

He’s not sure how long he’s been there before his mother finds him. Her devastated, “Oh, Dicky,” pulls him out of his head just enough for the pain to cut fresh.

“Mama,” he whimpers, and collapses into her touch when she sits down next to him and puts her arms around him.

“Sweetheart,” she whispers, her hands grazing strange and unfamiliar through his new hair, “my sweet boy. You know you can tell me anything.”

Bitty sobs harder and buries his face in her cardigan. The fabric scratches against his cheek. “Not today, mama. Not—I can’t.”

“I’ll always love you,” she tells him, “no matter what,” and he believes, for maybe the first time, that she means it. It’s funny, he thinks, that this is what it takes.

 

~*~

 

Parse doesn’t come back until later that night, when Bitty’s already forced a smile through saying hi to the rest of the boys and seeing his mother off—she’d offered to bring him back to the hotel with her so he didn't have to stay here alone, but he'd turned her down. He sort of wishes he hadn’t, when he looks up from his sulking little cocoon under the blankets to find Parse standing in the doorway.

“I, um—,” Parse starts, but he falls silent and has to clear his throat before he can continue, “I don’t have to—stay here. I can—I’ll crash somewhere else.”

Bitty’s almost petty enough to make him do it. He’s mostly just too tired to go through the effort. He shakes his head and turns around, facing the windowed wall. There’s no movement for a moment and he wonders if Parse is going to end up leaving anyway, but then the door clicks shut and there’s the familiar sounds of socked feet padding across the floor, clothes shedding to the ground before Parse climbs into his bed.

 

The week doesn’t get easier. Neither of them are sleeping. Bitty curls facing the wall even though he hates laying on that side until he thinks maybe Parse is asleep and he can turn over without finding him watching.

Parse is never asleep. Sometimes he’ll leave in the middle of the night, keeping the door cracked behind him like it makes any difference in keeping Bitty up. He’ll trudge back in hours later in nothing but his boxers, hair mussed up to hell and eyes fixed on the ground until he makes it back to his bed.

Sorry, he always whispers, when he catches Bitty awake.

For what part, Bitty always thinks, bitter and tired and every nerve under his skin burning alive in the early morning light. Where have you been, he wonders silently, like he still has a right to know. Down the stairs, onto the filthy couch to wallow in the harsh light of the TV, into the kitchen to throw back a shot or two? Or maybe just across the hall.

He tries not to care like he tries to sleep, and he’s never quite sure if he manages it.

 

~*~

 

The frogs get in and practice starts up. Bitty makes it a quarter of a scrimmage before fainting. He hears the crack of his helmet against the ice when he goes down but he doesn’t feel it. He’s not there.

When he comes to, it’s Coach Murray and Jack bent over him, and he flinches away instinctively before he realizes there’s no anger on Jack’s face—there’s just pity, and maybe something more personal than that tugging at the edges, but Bitty can’t begin to decipher that through the haze in his head.

 

Saturday night, Bitty talks to Parse directly for the first time in nearly a week. They’re both curled up in bed, Bitty facing the window and Parse watching him for God knows what. Maybe it hurts more to see him.

“Are you coming tomorrow?” he asks the windowsill.

“I…don’t think I should,” Parse tells the same windowsill, from across the room.

Bitty doesn’t answer. He presses his face against Señor Bun and squeezes his eyes shut.

 

At four AM, Bitty slips out of his room and meets Jack in the hall.

“Where’s—,” Jack starts, but he must see something on Bitty’s face that makes the question die in his throat. They creep down the stairs and walk silently down to Faber, for the most part. Jack makes a few attempts at conversation but it’s not like that was ever his strong suit, and Bitty knows he isn’t giving him much to work with. He’s just—he’s so tired all the fucking time and he misses Kent and people are starting to notice that something’s wrong between them and he’s worn out from them asking questions and, well—at least Jack isn’t doing that.

They practice for nearly three hours and by the end Bitty is so exhausted he can barely push back onto his feet. Back in the locker room, he sinks to the ground again and tears his gloves off so he can put his face in his hands. He’s shaking, whether from the toll of the morning or just from the whole damn week he can’t tell, but he doesn’t much care.

Jack sits down next to him, close enough for their shoulders to just barely brush together. “Bittle—,”

“I can’t—c-can’t lose this team,” Bitty whispers. It’s not even whole, not without Parse, and it’s still all he has.

“You won’t,” Jack promises, and slips a tentative arm around Bitty’s shoulders, lets him fall sideways and rest his head against his chest. They stay there until the sun’s risen and Bitty’s drifted in and out of sleep, somehow feeling more rested than he has all week on the stiff locker room floor.

They don’t say anything about it afterwards. Bitty doesn’t try to. He’s learned better than to ask what things mean.

 

~*~

 

Things around the Haus are—weird. Everyone’s trying to navigate the frogs, make a place for the three of them in their weird little family, and not-so-subtly harass Bitty and Parse to try and figure out what happened. The frogs have no idea why everyone goes quiet that first day Bitty comes in to a full couch—and loveseat, which they bought to accommodate the frogs—and drags a chair in from the kitchen. Their blanks stares of confusion are a special kind of hell that Bitty thinks might well be worse than the shocked, uncomfortable looks everyone else trades.

To Nursey, Chowder, and Dex, it’s like none of it ever happened. And while Bitty’s going to passive-aggressively bake the least favorite pie of the next person to ask, Bro, what’s up with you and Parse, well—there’s something even more terrifying than being hounded about a personal life that’d hurt too much to talk about even if he could, and it’s this: the dread that maybe, one day, it won’t mean anything at all. He spent a year of his life on someone who can’t fucking look him in the eye anymore, someone who can either make his chest ache or fade away until he doesn’t feel him at all.

It’ll get better, his mother had told him, when they embraced outside her car before she drove away. Well, Bitty knows what better is. It’s behind him, in the just-warm air of spring and lips against his collarbone. Better isn’t numb. Better isn’t this.

“Bitty?” Holster’s voice pulls him out of his head and he looks up.

“Sorry, what?”

“I, uh—,” Holster hesitates awkwardly, “I asked: you’re not sitting with us?”

Parse is staring at the TV. Bitty plasters a chirpy grin onto his face. “Why, you offerin’ up your lap?”

“Um. Sure?”

Bitty freezes; he hadn’t really expected Holster to go along with it. But, well—why the hell not. He abandons the kitchen chair and settles into Holster’s lap, kind of marveling at how big his is. It’d be intimidating if Holster wasn’t also a huge dork, and either straight or ridiculously in love with Ransom.

Parse stands, abruptly, at nearly the same moment Bitty sits. He vanishes into the kitchen and comes back later—too much later—with a beer in his hand and a manufactured easiness in his step. Bitty thinks maybe he should feel a little vindictive about it. All he manages is hurt, and an urge to crawl across the couch and pluck the can from Parse’s hands.

 

~*~

 

“Hey, y’all. I know it’s been a while, and I—I’m sorry about that,” Bitty apologizes, voice tentative, “I just—it’s been kind of a hard time, and I don’t really have anyone to talk about it with. And with classes starting, it’s just—well,” Bitty pauses and manages a bright smile, “y’all don’t come here to worry about me. I’ve got a few recipes to share today!”

 

Bitty stays in the statistics class he was supposed to take with Parse, mostly because by the time it occurs to him to switch out the drop/add has already closed for the semester. He leaves the Haus five minutes early so they don’t have to walk there together, and takes a ridiculous amount of time packing up afterwards even though it always makes him late for his next class. He’s not sure if Parse would wait for him anyway; he can’t handle the idea of finding out.

They’re barely speaking outside of practice and Bitty knows that’s mostly his fault. Parse tries, sometimes, especially if it’s a big kegster weekend or he’s been holed up in the kitchen drinking on his own. He ambles over and plops down next to Bitty on the couch or the foot of his bed late at night—never in his lap, never touching—and tries to make small talk like that’s something they get to have. It isn’t. Bitty’s chest aches and he turns away from the alcohol on Parse’s breath.

 

He goes to checking practices with Jack, which are awkward and awful and still somehow usually the highlight of his week—which probably says something about the state of his life, but Bitty’s gotten in the habit of not looking at that sort of thing too closely. And he doesn’t think too hard about how Jack is having the best preseason he’s apparently ever had, how the occasional bickering with Parse that upsets poor Chowder is nothing compared to the screaming fights of last year, the smashing of helmets against ice and slammed doors in the middle of the afternoon.

It’s another thing the frogs will never know, Bitty figures, and he forgets he’s not supposed to pity them for it. He wonders what it is about the fighting that he misses and is answered by a festering curl of jealousy in his blood. He adds it to the list of things he doesn’t touch, a little pile in his brain that’s threatening to topple.

 

~*~

 

In October, Bitty starts going to coffee with Ransom—well, to be more specific, Ransom starts dragging him to Annie’s after practices and he’s too lonely and tired to say no—and they bond over pumpkin spice lattes and the exasperating fashion sense of their teammates. It’s refreshing to spend time outside the Haus, and Ransom’s figured out not to bring up Parse, for the most part—a lesson Holster and Shitty have yet to learn—so he makes good company.

So maybe Bitty’s gotten a little complacent, when it comes to Ransom, and that’s what he blames what happens on.

“Hey, Bits, um—,” Ransom asks on a Friday morning, hiding behind his coffee cup a little, “how’re you holding up?”

Bitty frowns nervously. “I—I’m fine? What’re you—,”

“Bro, I follow you on Twitter.”

Right. His Twitter. Where he tweeted about breaking up with a boy. And missing a boy. And having to see that boy all the time. Which—has been kind of a downer for his followers but doesn’t say a word about Parse or anything like that. And while Bitty’s sure as hell not ready—or able—to talk about Kent Parson, his captain, his current roommate and former best friend, his ex-boyfriend—well, maybe talking about the anonymous boy who broke his heart is a little easier. He might even get through it without crying. Which would be nice, since they’re in public.

“I—,” Bitty starts, and Ransom looks up at him in surprise, like he hadn’t expected a real answer, which—fair. “I miss him. My boy—my ex. I…liked him a lot, I guess, and I didn’t—I thought we were fine, I d-didn’t think we would—.” Yeah, scratch the no-crying thing. Bitty wipes at his eyes and steadies himself with a drink from his coffee mug. “I didn’t think he’d dump me. I thought it was—it felt so serious and I can’t fucking look at him, Rans, and I see him all the time and—and—,”

Ransom reaches out tentatively and touches at Bitty’s elbow. It’s probably supposed to be comforting, and maybe it is, a little bit, but it also just makes Bitty sob harder in the middle of fucking Annie’s which is just perfect, honestly, par for the course at this point and he never should’ve—

“Bitty,” Ransom asks gently. “it’s Parse, isn’t it?”

The blubbering stops, at least. Everything in Bitty goes cold and he looks up at Ransom and God, he’s so fucking stupid and he has no right to do this to Kent, no matter what he did or how it ended. Fuck. “N-no. What makes you think that?”

“Bits, come on. You guys were closer than me and Holtzy and now you’re just…not.” Ransom pulls his hand away and shrugs. “And I’m pretty sure you didn’t steal his girlfriend, so—.” Bitty smiles for a second, despite himself. “A-and…I mean, real talk? A bro doesn’t ditch the N-H-fucking-L for a dude he likes as a friend, eh?”

No, Bitty thinks, he sure as hell doesn’t. And for the first time, Bitty manages to get angry about the whole thing. He’s been desperate and heartbroken and spiraling down towards numb, and now—well, now Bitty’s lips quiver for an entirely new reason. Still, though, he manages, “You—I—you know I couldn’t tell you, if it was him.”

Ransom nods, slowly. “So don’t tell me. Let me speculate. I won’t—no one else’s said anything, by the way. Holtzy is like, three thousand percent clueless and I’m not gonna change that.”

Bitty hesitates before saying, “Okay.” He sniffles and rubs at face; he’s stopped crying but his eyes feel gross and puffy. He presses his fingers against them in the silence until colors dance under his eyelids.

“So…what happened? With uh—with this guy.”

“I—don’t know? I mean, he—,” Bitty hesitates, takes the time to pick out his words, “he said some bullshit about like, he’s—um, in a position where it’s—he’s technically my superior?”

“Like a TA,” Ransom suggests wryly.

Bitty takes a steadying breath. “Yeah. That.”

“Right. So like—real talk? I kinda feel that,” Ransom admits, “Like, ‘hot for teacher’ is, well, hot, but it’s not, uh. I can see it being uncomfortable?”

Bitty’s nostrils flare in frustration, and he presses his fingers into his temples. “But it wasn’t—it was never a thing like that, it didn’t—,” Bitty pauses and looks up, blinking fresh, hot tears out of his eyes, “it didn’t matter when he was fucking me last semester.”

Ransom has the courtesy to not look scandalized, but he does seem concerned. He doesn’t even bother with pretense when he reasons, “But was it like, after the season ended? ‘Cause maybe it’s, like, different now that—,”

“He said he loved me.” Bitty’s probably going to regret admitting it, judging by the stricken and—indignant? Angry?—expression on Ransom’s face, but—but he wasn’t understanding and Bitty had to make him see, get him to realize how fucking bullshit it all is and that Bitty doesn’t believe Parse for one goddamn second because there’s something else going on, there has to be.

“Shit,” Ransom puts it eloquently, and that’s all there really is to be said. They try to talk a little more after that, but the conversation is stilted and it’s clear they both need to walk away.

Bitty feels—well, better is a strong word, but different, definitely. He thinks—maybe it was good, to get some of it off his chest, like a wound that bleeds instead of festers. Even if he’s still angry, and bitter, and more than a little guilty about what he couldn’t bring himself to deny.

But it’s a little easier to walk back into the Haus when he isn’t doing it alone, especially when Ransom plops down onto the couch and waves Bitty over without hesitation. And Bitty goes, settles sideways in Ransom’s lap and tucks his feet under Holster’s thigh, to the mild confusion of frogs and upperclassmen alike. It feels a little like razing over something sacred, especially when Parse won’t look him in the eye, but—he thinks maybe he deserves to let new things grow.

 

~*~

 

The next day at practice, Parse skates up to Bitty towards the end of the scrimmage. “So,” he says, “Ransom knows.”

“I—how do you know?”

Parse’s lips quirk into a wry smirk. “My own teammates don’t usually slam me into the boards that hard.”

Guilt churns in Bitty’s stomach and he stammers, “I—I didn’t—he guessed, I didn’t tell him—,”

“I’m not mad,” Parse cuts in, his face pinched in a strange expression under his helmet, “I, uh—you deserve to like, talk about—it wouldn’t be fair to ask you to not.” His voice is strained, infuriatingly soft, like he thinks he’s doing Bitty some kind of favor by letting him cry his eyes out over a pumpkin spice latte in Annie’s.

Whatever guilt Bitty felt evaporates in a flash of bitter anger. He flicks his eyes over in a glare and Parse leans away a little in shock. “Nothing you did to me is fair,” Bitty spits, and he skates away before he can watch the pain flash across Parse’s face.

 

~*~

 

Bitty gets home early one day, juggling a muffin and a banana from the dining hall, exhausted after morning practice and thanking the Lord his professor cancelled class last minute; he’s not convinced he wouldn’t kill someone for a nap right now. He trudges up the stairs and sighs with relief when his room is unlocked, since his key is in his pocket and he doesn’t really have hands to dig it out with.

The door swings open and Bitty spends exactly two and a half moments standing in the doorway taking in what he sees.

Moment one: Parse is sprawled on the bed with his head thrown back and a hand slung over his mouth like he’s trying to muffle whatever sounds he’s making. His other hand is fisted around his cock. He’s still tanned from the summer and his arm is freckled and golden against the pale, milky skin where it’s braced on his upper thigh. He hasn’t noticed Bitty yet and his face is so different than when he’s being watched.

Moment two: Parse notices. His eyes flicker open and lock onto Bitty’s face but his mind must be fogged, lagging behind because he hasn’t realized Bitty shouldn’t be here. His hand falls away from his face and his teeth tug at his bottom lip and he smirks a little, like Bitty standing here is the best fucking thing that could’ve happened to him. It hurts and Bitty wants and it hurts and—

Moment two and a half: Parse’s brain catches up and the pleasure shatters off his face. His eyes widen and his hips crash back down onto the bed and he sputters, “Don’t you have—,”

Bitty flees, slams the bedroom door closed and bolts into the bathroom down the hall and locks the door behind him. His backpack drops to the tile and, oh, that crunch might be his tablet cracking but he’s a little preoccupied with bracing his hands against the sink and trying not to shake apart.

And, God, he—he misses being in that room, and all things considered he’s been doing a pretty good job avoiding thinking about the sex and now it’s all slamming into him like some kind of fucked up sucker punch. And yeah, their relationship was a hell of a lot more than just sex—at least to Bitty; he figures he probably shouldn’t speak for Parse on that point anymore. But—sex was love, and trust, and all the other things that Parse took away and now he jacks off in their bedroom alone while Bitty’s in class and Bitty, well—

Fuming, aching, defeated, Bitty switches on the sink faucet and the shower and shoves his jeans down his thighs. He leans against the wall with one hand, stares at the rivulets running down the drain and blinks the spray out of his eyes and pretends that’s the only water staining his cheeks, pretends he can’t hear the little hiccupped sob he makes when he grips himself in his free hand and starts stroking roughly.

It hurts because he makes it. He hates that it hurts or that he wants it to or that it’s all he has, or maybe all three, and he can nearly feel Parse’s fucking hands on his skin and he’s so busy suffocating under the weight of wanting it that he almost doesn’t notice he’s come. He watches the mess vanish down the drain like it never was.

Bitty shuts off the shower with a trembling hand and tucks himself back into his pants in a fog. He looks in the mirror; the face staring back at him is disgusting, red and puffy and in pain. He splashes water on it and it seems to help a little.

Back in the room, Parse is fully clothed and sat up awkwardly in bed. He stares at Bitty’s shoes and says, “I—I’m sorry, I thought you were—,”

“It’s fine,” Bitty cuts in airily. He sits at his desk and pulls out his tablet, traces a gentle finger along the hairline crack near the edge. “Nothin’ I haven’t seen before.”

Parse answers with the slam of a door as he leaves.  

 

~*~

 

There’s a party that night, and Bitty’s feeling weird because—well, because he likes people. He needs people, can’t stand being alone for too long. Like he used to always be. But it never used to feel like this—like he was draining them of something, leeching an energy from the crowd because it’s how he survives even if he doesn’t understand it, isn’t sure what he gives to be here or how he gets to stay. A wilted sunflower turning feebly away from the shadows.

He can feel Parse smeared over everything he does. They used to dance here, drink here, apparently-flirt here, together. Because that’s who Bitty was. He was Parse’s freshman, Parse’s best friend, Parse’s lover. He’s marked up with it everywhere he looks, can see the stains in every corner and so he’s been drifting around, been here because he needs to be, like roots burrow in the earth and leaves flutter towards the sun.

But tonight, Bitty’s gonna bleach Parse out.

He’s a cup of tub juice worth of tipsy and dancing with Lardo when he notices the boy for the first time, leaned up against a wall and watching him with curiosity. Parse is flirting with a girl near the keg; she’s pretty. Bitty ignores the nausea in his stomach that has nothing to do with the alcohol and turns back to the stranger. He’s handsome enough, about Bitty’s height but broad, built like—a swimmer, maybe? He notices Bitty looking and smiles nervously. Bitty runs a hand through his hair and wets his lips.

It takes the man thirty seconds to cross the room and end up right in front of them. “Hey,” he asks, timid, “um, are you—?”

Lardo glances back at Bitty for confirmation and he nods. Pointedly, she says, “I’m gonna go find my boyfriend,” and slips away. Bitty watches her go, puzzled. He wonders if she just said that for this boy’s benefit or if he’s really let that kind of development slip by him, unnoticed. It terrifies him.

“Do you, um—do you wanna dance, maybe?”

Bitty smiles. Bless this sweet boy’s heart. “Sure, hun. What’s your name?”

“Leonard.”

Bitty slides up against Leonard’s body and guides his hands to his hips. “Hi, Leonard. I’m—Eric.”

Leonard is a decent dancer; he’s clearly anxious but follows the motions of Bitty’s body well enough, and he doesn’t tighten his grip on Bitty’s hips like he’s always afraid people will.

When Bitty looks over, Parse is gone but the girl he was talking to is still standing there, like she’s waiting. He cares a little less than he thought he would, that Parse isn’t there to watch the next part. He turns his head to the side and Leonard’s mouth is so close, the perfect height for Bitty to ghost their lips together and invite a kiss. Leonard responds eagerly, closes the distance in something relatively chaste, enthusiastic but uncertain.

Bitty kisses back for a few moments, playing with it, teasing more heat, before he pulls away and asks, “Have you done this before?”

“N-no,” Leonard admits. His breath feels nice against Bitty’s skin.

“With a boy or with anyone?”

“Anyone.”

Bitty feels a pang of something in his chest. “Welcome to Samwell, honey.”

Leonard laughs a little and whispers, “I’m nervous.”

“That’s alright,” Bitty assures him, “We don’t gotta do anything you don’t want.”

“Thanks.” Leonard kisses him again, and his hands get a little tighter on Bitty’s body but that’s okay, he’s eased into it and relaxing against Leonard’s chest, and it feels so good to be touched by someone, anyone, and he—

There’s some chanting going on in the room, and Bitty dimly thinks how someone must be doing a kegstand.

He can feel Leonard getting hard against him and he grinds back against him a little, feeling the shiver that runs through Leonard’s body. He turns, so they’re pressed front to front and Bitty can—

People aren’t chanting for a kegstand. They’re not so much chanting at all, actually—more so shouting over each other in a very discomforting way. Bitty opens his eyes to peer over Leonard’s shoulder to see why and—shit.

There’s a little crowd staring at Parse and Ransom and they both look angry. Ransom must have put himself bodily in front of the keg because Parse tries to shove past him and Ransom pushes back, clearly trying to be gentle, except Parse is apparently trashed because he barely stays on his feet. He stumbles backwards, far, catches himself on the wall. Something dark flashes across his face and he shoves at Ransom instead of through him, hard enough that Ransom actually takes a step back and bumps up against the keg.

“Fuck, that’s—I know them, I gotta—.” Bitty doesn’t even finish his explanation, just squeezes through the people around him to wind up next to both of them.

“—no fucking right—,” Parse is snarling, and Ransom actually laughs, clipped and sarcastic.

Bitty decides he doesn’t want to know. He grabs at Parse’s arm and says, “Hey, why don’t we go—,”

“Get off me, Bits, this isn’t—,”

“Kent,” Bitty hisses, “now.”

Parse whips his head to the side and stares Bitty down with a color in his eyes Bitty’s never seen. It’s dark and brooding and Bitty nearly withers under it, but it falters for a moment—Parse deflates, just a little, and Bitty wastes no time in hauling him away, an arm wrapped firmly around his waist. He glances up at Ransom and they share a strained look before Bitty turns towards the stairs.

“He started it,” Parse mutters, practically limp against Bitty’s side as they shuffle along.

Bitty barks out a laugh. “I’m sure.”

Parse goes tense and Bitty stumbles at the sudden change. “I’d say fuck you,” he purrs in a voice that makes Bitty’s skin crawl, hand slipping low on Bitty’s thigh, “but we both know you’d like that too much.”

Bitty drops him. He yanks his arm away and bitterly steps to the side and Parse crashes to the ground on his ass. Bitty hears the whack of his elbow against the floor even above the drone of the music.

Parse looks up at him blankly and Bitty stares back in equal disbelief. There’s bile burning at his throat and he knows how many freckles Parse has on the bridge of his nose.

“Let’s get you to bed,” Bitty says, and he helps Parse to his feet.

They make their way up the stairs and while Bitty’s busy fumbling for his key Parse lurches across the hall and through Jack’s unlocked door. Bitty darts after him, but Parse is already cheering, “Zimms!” and flopping with deceptive grace onto the bed where Jack is curled up with a book.

“Hey, bud, what’s—,” Jack starts, but then Parse nuzzles up against him and his head snaps over to Bitty. He accuses, “He smells like he bathed in tub juice. How could you let him drink this much?”

Anger flashes deep in Bitty’s gut. Indignant, he sets his jaw and juts his chin, snapping, “I ain’t his keeper.”

“Clearly.” Jack’s voice is cold, judgmental, dismissive.

Bitty holds his glare through a trembling lip. “C’mon, Parse, let’s go.”

“He can stay,” Jack corrects, and Parse wiggles a little like he’s settling in. “Go enjoy your party, Bittle.”

Bitty is above slamming the door on his way out, but just barely. He doesn’t go back downstairs. He unlocks his own bedroom and crawls into bed without even undressing, and broods at the ceiling until the effort tires him out enough for a fitful sleep.

 

~*~

 

Bitty’s sitting up in bed with his laptop when Parse creeps in the next morning, looking beaten down, like Ransom actually landed a couple of the punches he’d clearly wanted to throw. Bitty switches his gaze back to his laptop, uncomfortable with the haggard expression on Parse’s face and expecting to be ignored completely, anyway.

Parse doesn’t ignore him, because fucking of course. He creeps over, hesitant and somehow still determined, and sits down at the edge of Bitty’s bed near the pillows with his eyes fixed firmly on the ground. Bitty’s fingers freeze over his keyboard and Parse whispers, “I remember.”

There’s silence while Bitty takes a slow breath, pushes it out wearily through his nose. “Okay.”

“I’m sorry,” Parse says. Bitty’s lost count of how many times he’s heard the words. “How—how do I fix this?”

Bitty slept for ten hours but he’s tired in his bones. There’s a dull ache under his skin and it takes everything he has left in him to look Parse in the eye when he says, “Don’t do it again.”

“I—what?” Parse’s brow furrows like he’s genuinely confused by the request.

“If you’re such an asshole when you drink, maybe don’t drink so much.” Bitty clarifies, his voice taut and as even as he can manage. Quieter, he adds, “I’m—we’re—starting to worry about you.”

Parse’s eyes flash and he snorts. “You weren’t worrying about me when that guy was shoving his tongue down your throat.”

“Don’t you fucking dare,” Bitty snaps. “I left that boy to take care of you. Like I always do.”

Like I always will, he thinks, if he’s being honest with himself. Not that it’s a goal of his or anything, lately.

“Fuck, I—I know. I fucking know.” Parse buries his face in his hands and pulls at his hair in frustration. “I’m sorry.”

“Prove it.”

Parse peeks out through his fingers, eyes wide and earnest and scared. He looks exhausted; he and Bitty have always had the same bones. “Okay,” he says, “okay.”

There’s a beat of silence where they stare at each other and the air burns in Bitty’s lungs but he can’t let it out properly and something changes in Parse’s face.

He lurches forward and vomits into the trashcan Bitty keeps at the side of his bed, and Bitty has to grab at him to keep him from tumbling to the ground. Bitty wrinkles his nose at the smell, averting his eyes and holding Parse through it, rubbing little circles into his back.

“Don’t make me do this alone,” Parse begs, still heaving over the trashcan, shaking from more than the effort of retching. “Please, Bits.”

“I won’t,” Bitty swears, and he hates himself for meaning it.

 

~*~

 

“Hey, everyone,” Bitty greets, in better spirits than his last video but still looking weary around his eyes on screen, “The season’s about to start, and that means Hazeapalooza. It’s funny: so much’s happened since last year’s? But it’s like we’ve gone around in a circle and some things haven’t changed at all.”

 

Bitty is baking an apple pie in the kitchen, eyes occasionally flicking over to Parse, who’s reclined at the kitchen table like he’s in some sort of hotel, thumbing through a math textbook. There’s not much talking but the silence doesn’t carry quite the same weight that it used to.

A door swings open and Chowder peeks in. “Um, Bitty? Have you seen—oh! You’re both in the same room!”

Bitty turns from his pie and Parse looks up from his book with a raised eyebrow, asking, “Uh, yeah? That’s not, like, weird?”

Chowder’s eyebrows furrow adorably. “Um, it kind of is? Except for practices and if we’re all watching TV, but we never see you hanging out? Oh, and I guess at night, because you sleep together. Um! Not together! Unless you do. Which would be cool! But maybe weird because you’re not friends? Unless you are! But that’s not my business I guess and maybe I should leave? I’ll leave.”

He vanishes back through the door before Bitty can ask him what he’d wanted, and they both stare after him in bewilderment. Bitty feels uneasy in his gut, but Parse smiles ruefully and mutters, “That was the most adorable shit-show I’ve ever seen.”

“He’s my son,” Bitty manages mildly, “I’m adopting him.”

“Do I get joint custody?” Parse jokes, and immediately winces because yeah, too far. Bitty bites at his lip and turns back to the pie, which is waiting for a lattice crust so it can go in the oven. After a few moments, Parse breaks the silence again, chirping tentatively, “So, we can be seen in the same room together. Does that mean we’ve graduated to functional exes?”

Bitty’s not sure he’s even a functional person, some days. He lays down a careful strip of crust. Lightly, he teases, “Seeing as I can’t even get you to keep your damn feet off the table, I’d say no.”

Parse grins and cheekily crosses his ankles. Bitty goes to thwack him with a wooden spoon and it might even be devolving into a tousle except the kitchen must be a popular place today, because Shitty bursts through the door with Jack walking in behind him.

“Just the two beautiful motherfuckers I was hoping to see!” Shitty crows, slinging an arm around both their shoulders and planting a dramatic, bristly kiss on Bitty’s temple. Bitty squeaks and twists away, fleeing back to his pie. “We gotta talk fuckin’ Hazeapalooza, broskis.”

“Sure,” Parse agrees, “I was thinking—,”

“You and Bitty work together? Me too! Great, glad that’s settled.” Because apparently Shitty will never be done meddling.

Bitty and Parse lock eyes. Bitty shifts uncomfortably but Parse gives a noncommittal shrug, face carefully blank. Without turning away, Bitty says, “Give us Chowder.”

Parse smiles, lips twitching just a little at the edges, and damn if it doesn’t make Bitty’s stomach flutter just like it used to.

“Great, so Ransom and Holster can get—,”

“I’ll join,” Jack cuts in, clearing his throat quietly, “I’ll, um—with Bittle and Parse. I’ll help with Chowder.”

Shitty turns to him in surprise, a sentiment Bitty shares; Jack didn’t participate at all last year, leaving all the captain-y duties to Parse for the night. “You sure, bro? I know it’s like, not your thing.”

“It’ll, ah, be good for the team, I think,” Jack says, but his eyes are fixed firmly on Parse, “for me to be there.”

 

~*~

 

Bitty is sitting at his desk later that week, pretending to do homework, when the door swings open and Parse and Jack amble inside, laughing about something and sporting coffee from Annie’s. Jack’s got an extra cup that he sets at the corner of Bitty’s desk, and Bitty looks up at him in surprise. Ever since the last party, things have been kind of—weird—between them. Mostly because Bitty’s been refusing to talk to him, skipping checking practice and ghosting around the Haus whenever he’s around.

“Here, Bittle,” Jack says. It would feel a little like a peace offering, if it was someone besides Jack “What’s an Emotional IQ?” Zimmermann. But then again, Jack is watching him with this weird, expectant smile tugging at his lips, so who knows.

“Um, thanks,” Bitty says, and then he takes a sip and asks, “No whipped cream?” because yeah, he’s petty and holds a mean grudge and a single lukewarm latte doesn’t begin to cover the spectacular tangled ball of pain that has become his life.

Parse snorts and Bitty would kick him, if he weren’t halfway across the room on his bed. Jack frowns apologetically and goes to sit on the bed too, stretching along the short side with his back propped up against the wall and his legs hooked over Parse’s ankles. “Ah, sorry. I’ll remember that next time.”

Bitty raises an eyebrow. Silly him, it’s two lattes. Which obviously isn’t actually much better, but—well, it is kind of a nice gesture, if Bitty’s being honest, and the way Jack’s face has fallen sends a pang of guilt through Bitty’s stomach. And besides, he’s starting to get exhausted from all the semi-avoiding the people he lives with because really, the Haus is too small for it to work properly but big enough to feel lonely trying.

So, “Don’t worry about it,” Bitty tells him, and manages a small smile. “I—um, I was just chirpin’ you.” Jack nods, and his eyes brighten a little.

“Bits, wanna go over Hazeapolooza?” Parse is switching on his laptop, and pats the space next to him on the bed.

“Um, okay.” Bitty closes the textbook he was most definitely studying from before the boys came and crawls awkwardly over Parse to reach the free spot, since he knows better than to try and get him to move over. He slides all the way into the corner and sits cross-legged to avoid touching anyone else and tries to focus on Ransom’s Excel spreadsheet that Parse pulled up.

“Okay, so we get Chowder from his dorm at midnight, and everyone has to meet at Faber to...,” Parse starts explaining, and Bitty’s kind of listening, in the sense that he’s appreciating the familiar lilt of Parse’s voice while he stares at the disposable coffee cup in his hands and thinks about how this is the first time he’s been in this bed since he and Parse were both fucking in it.

He wonders if Jack knows that he’s sitting in the spot Bitty came all over the sheets that one time and Parse forgot to wash them for two days, wonders if he knows Bitty is hunched up in the corner so the memories can’t claw at his ankles. He wonders how Parse can sit right where he always does like nothing’s wrong, how he can sleep here every night without it killing him.

“Bits, dude,” Parse asks, nudging him with an elbow, “did you hear any of that?”

Bitty blinks rapidly and turns to him. “Oh, um—sorry. Can you tell me again?”

Parse raises an eyebrow, but Jack smirks and chirps, “Gotta drink your coffee, eh Bittle?”

Rolling his eyes, Bitty wiggles the cup in his hand. “Workin’ on it, Captain.”

 

~*~

 

Hazeapalooza itself goes pretty well, all things considered, even though no one will let Bitty bring pie and Chowder is the only one he manages to sneak a sweater. Jack is a surprisingly good sport about his last minute kidnapping, and Parse laughs his ass off about it, to Shitty’s dismay.

“I can’t believe you knew he hadn’t done it, you fucker!” Shitty complains to Parse when they’re back at the Haus.

Parse shrugs and fistbumps Jack, who’s leaned up against the counter next to him, re-dressed and smirking. “Got your back, bro.”

“A Haus divided,” Shitty intones solemnly, and then goes to dig in the fridge. “You want a beer?”

Bitty, perched on the counter, glances over. Parse twirls his can of soda in his hands and answers, “Nah, bro, I’m good.”

“Uh, okay. Bits?”

“Um. I’m good too,” Bitty says, smiling encouragingly up at Parse, who tilts his head in response.

Shitty wanders off to find Lardo and Jack takes the opportunity to retreat upstairs, knocking shoulders with Parse amicably before he goes. Parse watches him leave, and then turns to Bitty. “You don’t gotta do that, you know.”

Bitty shrugs. “I—don’t mind.  It’s, um—I—never mind, I guess it’s silly.”

Frowning, Parse hops up on the counter and slides a little closer. “It’s not—silly. It’s just—it’s just not on you, okay? It’s my fucking problem I gotta deal with.” His fingers press into the metal can resolutely.

“Since when’s that stopped me before?” Bitty teases.

Parse’s lips twitch. His phone buzzes and he pulls it out of his pocket, sending a quick text in response. “Uh, yeah. I—thanks, Bits.” He’s quiet for a moment, brooding in the sparsely populated kitchen that half-shelters its occupants from the ruckus in the rest of the Haus. Then, he smiles to himself and asks, “Did you hear all that shit Dex was saying to Zimms? Fuckin’ priceless.”

Bitty giggles. “Good Lord. Did he call his ass ‘scary?’ I don’t even know where to start with that.”

“How much you wanna bet the kid has a gay awakening within the year?” Parse asks, nudging Bitty conspiratorially.

“I’m not takin’ that bet,” Bitty snorts. “You always win.”

Parse smirks and chirps, “Statistically speaking that’s not true.”

Bitty rolls his eyes, but he smiles back. “Well, statistically speaking I don’t like my odds.”

They laugh, then, and it almost feels—easy. Like it used to. Parse must feel the same thing, the eerie familiarity they’ve somehow slipped back into, because his face goes earnest when he murmurs, “I’ve missed this.”

Bitty can’t quite look him in the eye. “What?”

“Making you smile,” he clarifies, quiet and maybe nervous. “Fuck, I—I miss seeing you happy.”

“I could use a little more of that, myself,” Bitty tries to joke, but it falls too heavy and Parse bites at his bottom lip in distress.

He reaches out, falls just short of actually touching Bitty’s arm before pulling away. “Maybe we—I—I know it’s fucked up, but—maybe we could be—Christ, you were my best friend, Bits. Am I fucking selfish for wanting that back?”

Bitty’ ribs are going to crack apart. There’s a physical ache inside him that’s going to pound away at them until his whole ribcage splits open and leaves him as gaping and bleeding as he feels. “Yeah,” he says, “but I'm selfish too.”

 

~*~

 

Holster barges into the kitchen a chilly November afternoon, apparently lured by the scent of baked goods, because he goes straight for the pie Bitty’s currently cutting into and cheers, “Sweet, blueberry! You haven’t made one of these like, all year!”

“Shoo,” Bitty scolds, swatting him away, “wait your turn.”

He sets a large slice onto a plate and brings it over to the kitchen table, where Parse is camped out doing homework. “One month,” he murmurs, nudging Parse with his arm as he sets the plate down, “I’m so proud of you.”

Parse looks up at him and smiles, a quiet, private thing. He presses into the contact like he never wants to move away. Bitty’s sewn-together heart strains at its stitches.

 

~*~

 

Bitty trudges home from class and shakes the snow from his scarf in disgust, hurrying up the stairs to get out of his damp clothes and into something comfortable and warm. He pauses at the top of the stairs with a groan; Jack and Parse are fighting—for one of the few times this semester—if the muffled shouting is any indication.

To make matters worse, it sounds like they’re in his room. Honestly, the lack of manners is astounding.

“You’re not even listening to me,” Parse snaps.

Jack barks back, “I don’t have the fucking time to play emotional whack-a-mole with you right now, Kent!” and Bitty bristles. He’s cold, and tired, and quite frankly doesn’t have the time to stand out here waiting for someone to crack and storm out.

He yanks the door open and watches from the doorway as the two of them whip apart, Parse taking a startled step backwards out of Jack’s space.

“Sorry,” Bitty lies. He crosses the room and starts pulling clothes from his dresser. “I need to change.”

“It’s fine, Bittle,” Jack says, voice taut. He brushes past without so much a look at Parse, who watches him leave with a torn expression. The door clicks shut behind him.

Bitty pulls off his sweater with relief but pauses with his undershirt halfway over his head, when he realizes Parse is still just kind of standing there in the middle of the room. “Um, are—are you okay?”

Parse turns slowly, like he isn’t actually sure Bitty is there. He stares, for a moment, and then walks out without a word.

Worrying at his lip, Bitty changes quickly and heads back outside. He listens at Jack’s door first, because it’s shut and the light is on, but he can’t hear anything from inside so he figures Parse isn’t there too. So he thumps down the stairs and bustles into the den.

Ransom, Shitty, and Lardo are camped out watching TV, and Bitty’s about to ask if Parse left when he hears his name called from the kitchen. It’s so soft, questioning, that he’d almost be convinced he didn’t really hear it except Ransom turns towards the noise and raises a judgmental eyebrow at Bitty.

Ignoring Ransom, Bitty pushes open the kitchen door and finds Parse at the counter. He’s got a filled shot glass in one hand and a bottle of something clear in the other. His palm is clenched tight over the label, but Bitty has a pretty good idea of what’s in it, anyway.

When Parse turns, this time, it’s with wide, shameful eyes and a quivering lip. He looks scared and so, so young and Bitty wants to cradle him and kiss at his temple and run a hand through his hair like it could fix the world. He doesn’t do any of those things. He steps forward, right up next to Parse so that they nearly touch, and waits.

Parse tips the shot glass over; it tumbles into the sink and clatters around against the silverware and lone plate someone left there after lunch. He watches it until it rolls to a stop against the side, and then his eyes flick back over to the bottle. It’s about a fifth full and it shakes a little, in time with Parse’s hand.

Tentatively, Bitty reaches out and touches to steady him, thumb overlapping thumb and palm pressed along the back of Parse’s trembling wrist. If he holds his breath, he can feel Parse’s erratic pulse-point under his fingers. He whispers, “You can do it.”

Quietly, Parse says, “This is good vodka.”

Bitty nearly laughs in disbelief. He keeps his voice steady, gentle. “I don’t care.”

“It’s not even my vodka.”

“I don’t care about that either.”

Parse nods, a little, in such a timid motion that Bitty nearly misses it. He lingers, suspended, for longer than Bitty can count with the bottle not quite lifted off the counter, breathes in, out, in and out again.

He pours the bottle down the drain.

 

 

~*~

 

“And, well, it is exciting to be around all this hockey talk,” Bitty concludes, “I just hope—um, I hope wherever Jack and Parse end up, they’re happy.”

 

Parse shuts his laptop loudly and thunks his head down onto the desk. “Fuck this,” he mutters, probably mostly to himself. Bitty looks up from his English essay and frowns. He gets up quietly and bustles downstairs, to return with half of a microwaved pie and two forks.

“What’s wrong?” he asks, sitting gingerly at the edge of Parse’s bed.

Parse looks up and smiles faintly at Bitty. Accepting the unspoken invitation, he leaves his desk to flop down against his pillows and grabs at the pie tin before he answers, “Just, like, fuck the NHL. Maybe I will become a fucking accountant.”

Bitty snorts and climbs the rest of the way onto the bed so he’s propped up next to Parse. He snags a forkful of pie and challenges, “No you won’t.”

“Ugh. No, I won’t,” Parse agrees with a groan. He pauses for a moment, chewing thoughtfully and staring up at the ceiling. Then, quieter, he adds, “Unless no one wants me.”

“Oh, hun—,” Bitty winces, but Parse doesn’t seem to notice, “that’s not gonna happen.” He thinks about the constant phone calls Jack gets from his agent and Bad Bob, and the contract offer Bitty noticed sitting on his desk the other day after checking practice.

“I mean—fuck, I dunno. Like, teams seem interested? But I don’t even have a preliminary fucking offer yet and it’s November, Bits, and—fuck, I—,” Parse turns his head to the side and Bitty bites at his bottom lip when he sees the worry in his eyes, “what if I fucked it up for real? I’m just—just some stupid fucking kid who blew his shot a long time ago.”

It’d be so easy, Bitty thinks, to reach out and touch him. Brush against his arm, his cheek, run fingers through his hair or even hold him. But that’s not what this is and that’s not who they are, anymore. Kent Parson didn’t leave the NHL for Eric Bittle.

“I don’t think you blew it,” he says instead, and Parse manages a watery smile, “I—I mean, Jack didn’t, right? I know you don’t think that. And, um—I mean, maybe—maybe a team would even…sign both of you?”

Parse brightens a little. “You really think someone would want both of us?”

Bitty looks down and busies himself with a bite of pie.

 

~*~

 

Bitty’s on his way home from class, shooting a text off to Dex asking him to take a look at Betsy, when suddenly his baseball cap is plucked off his head in a flurry of movement. He turns just as a man who looks and sounds an awful lot like Parse shouts, “Hey, Bits!” over his shoulder, zooming out of earshot in a run.

“Eyes up, Bittle!” Jack chirps, just barely out of breath and jogging by at a slightly slower pace.

There’s a woman keeping pace with Jack, who mutters, “I hate him,” under her breath to herself as they go past, apparently trying to catch up with Parse.

Bitty rolls his eyes fondly and continues on his walk.

 

Later that day, he’s pacing in the den worriedly—having been banned from his kitchen while Dex works—when Jack and Parse get back in from their run—or, meeting? Bitty shrugs to himself, and ignores the little flip his stomach does when he sees Parse is wearing his hat. Jack clasps Parse on the shoulder and heads into the kitchen, but Parse flops onto the couch with a pleased sigh.

“Um,” Bitty asks, “was that a GM?”

“Assistant,” he clarifies, “for the Falconers. Her name’s George, and she’s really fucking cool.”

Bitty smiles. “Oh, that’s great! So it, um—it went well?”

“Would’ve gone better if Kenny hadn’t made us race to Annie’s,” Jack chirps, tossing a water bottle across the room. Parse catches it deftly and twists it open.

“I said ‘last one there pays.’ Not technically a race.” Parse is grinning, though, so Bitty’s pretty sure the not-race paid off.

“Whatever, man.”

A little worried he’s prodding, but too curious to stop, Bitty asks, “And—um, do y’all—you’re thinkin’ about the team?”

Parse gives a thumbs up, rolls onto his stomach, and smooshes his face into a couch cushion. Jack chuckles, “Tired, Kenny?” Kent's thumb is replaced by a middle finger, and Bitty giggles. Turning back to Bitty, Jack explains, “Yeah, though. At least—ah, at least I am. It’s a younger team, good environment. And, uh, George is promising a lot of ice time. Together, if we wanted.”

Bitty raises a smug eyebrow, even though Parse can’t see it. “Oh, really now?” Parse kicks a foot up in the air and shoves it in the general direction of Bitty’s face, and Bitty swats him away with a squealed, “Ew, gross, you brute!”

 

And that night, after Parse has fallen asleep—as if he’d know, somehow—Bitty pulls out his phone and traces, with a longing finger, the forty minute drive to Providence.

 

~*~

 

“Hey y’all! Back at it again with a new vlog,” Bitty greets. There’s an intimidating pile of notes behind him, stacked on top of a partially obscured statistics textbook. “Now, for a while, some of you have been asking about my love life…and for advice. Why you would is beyond me, seeing how my last relationship ended.” Bitty’s smile falters and he looks away from the camera as he takes a deep breath. “But, well—I will say this, and it’s something I’m just now learning: the only thing worse than falling for someone you can’t have? Is someone you can’t have anymore.”

 

Bitty stares bleakly at his mostly-empty Word document and sighs so dramatically that Parse pulls an earbud out and asks, “What’s up?”

“This dang statistics project,” Bitty complains, gesturing at his laptop in frustration, “I just—don’t really know how to start.”

After pursing his lips in thought for a moment, Parse suggests, “Let me help you.”

“What?”

Parse scoots his rolling chair over so that he’s nudged up against Bitty at his desk. “She said ‘work alone or in pairs,’ right? Let’s team up. I haven’t submitted a proposal yet.”

Bitty looks down at his hands, which he’s wringing nervously. The thing is, he’s been avoiding working with Parse on purpose. Slogging through the course alone has been a special kind of hell, and he’s going to be lucky to scrape by with a C, but—he can’t handle the way Parse’s eyes light up whenever he talks about a project like this, or how he always leans in closer while he explains, body warm and practically vibrating against Bitty’s own at all the little incidental places they inevitably touch.

Except he can’t think of a good enough pretense to turn Parse down, and—well, maybe now that he has an excuse, he doesn’t really want to. Because if Bitty’s being honest, there’s a twisted little part of him that kind of likes being the moth drawn to flame.

“I—yeah, sure. That’d—thanks.”

Parse grins like it’s the best news he’s ever heard, and Bitty feels the first flickers of heat against his face.

 

~*~

 

It’s easier than Bitty imagined, going back to living in each other’s pockets—and maybe that’s the scariest part. There’s roadies, and data collection for the statistics project, and hockey practice and sharing a room and baking in the kitchen while Parse reads his textbooks—which Bitty half suspects he does for fun, which is honestly ridiculous—and all the other little things he’d nearly forgotten they used to do.

It’s almost the same as before, but there are little spaces that neither of them touch, tiny flaws in the reconstruction that threaten to crack the foundation. Bitty would almost find it funny—all the clues he took so long to piece together the first time around, but shriek at him in their absence—if he weren’t so busy feeling sick from the bitterness. He thinks: we could have had so much more time. He thinks: we should’ve had none at all if it always led to this.

Because now they go out to bars but Parse’s thigh isn’t pressed all the way up against Bitty’s body in the booth, and they go dancing but their hips and shoulders don’t touch, and they walk home—sober, that’s changed too—but Parse’s arm is never around Bitty’s shoulders. There are cellys on the ice that don’t make it to the bench and movie nights on the couch that don’t wind up with Bitty in Parse’s lap, and there’s Home and Garden in bed with no jelly beans and Bitty falls asleep alone.

So it’s easier, like dangerous things sometimes are before they ruin you.

 

Parse comes back from a food run one day, about a week before the project is due, wearing an uncomfortable expression that’d be a scowl if he’d tried harder at it. He drops the McDonald’s bag on Bitty’s desk and rolls his chair just a little bit farther away.

“Um—hey?” Bitty asks, furrowing his eyebrows nervously as he pulls the food.

Parse shoves a handful of fries into his mouth like they’ve offended him. “It’s nothing.”

“I still know what you look like when you lie.” Bitty says it quietly, but he knows Parse heard even though he takes a long time chewing instead of answering.

He’s about to prod again when Parse admits, “I, uh, ran into Ransom. And he—look, I don’t want to—,”

“Kent.”

Parse scrubs at his face. “He like, gave me some weird fucking warning speech about Screw. Like, made a point of telling me he and Holster are fucking finding you a date unless I ‘give him a good reason not to,’ like what kind of fucking shit—,”

“What did you tell him?”

Bitty regrets asking it immediately—hates himself for hoping—because Parse’s face just collapses completely and he gets that awful patronizing softness in his voice when he says, “Bits, I—,”

“Don’t,” Bitty cuts in, voice wavering, “Whatever it is, don’t.”

Parse swallows hard and grabs at another handful of fries. He stares at the desk and the raw data they’ve entered into Excel and anywhere but Bitty’s face, and clears his throat and says, “So I think we could analyze this in Minitab the easiest.”

Bitty nods curtly, signaling him to continue. Parse wipes the salt off his fingers before he grabs the laptop and goes on, explaining how he’s exporting the data and the way the analysis is going to work. His eyes don’t light up and at least it makes it easier to listen.

 

~*~

 

Bitty massages his temples and pulls out his phone to thumb through Twitter; their project is due tomorrow, so he should probably be focusing, but it’s not like he’s contributing much at this point anyway. Parse is typing away, though, trying to wrap up the discussion session of their final report.

Time passes in that awkward way that feels agonizing and rushed all at once, Bitty tapping at his phone and occasionally offering input when prompted, so that suddenly it’s nearly midnight and Parse is saying, “Okay, I think it’s finished,” and staring at the laptop like he can barely believe it.

Bitty looks up from his phone excitedly. “Are you serious? It’s—it’s done? We did it?”

Parse closes his laptop and sets it on the ground. When he looks up, he’s grinning. “We fucking did it, Bits!”

There’s a natural flurry of limbs, instinct from over a year of cellys on the ice, and before Bitty knows it they’re hugging. Bitty’s got his arms wrapped around Parse’s neck and Parse is crushing Bitty against him with arms that know exactly how to fit around his back and it’s a sudden, sloppy thing with knocked knees that quiets into something gentle and starving all at once.

Bitty doesn’t quite know how to pull away. He starts to but Parse’s hands slip down to grip at his hips and Bitty can’t seem to make his arms leave their resting place on Parse’s shoulders. He pulls his head back and presses their foreheads together, face tilted down so that his shallow breath falls inches from Parse’s lips.

Parse whispers, “I miss you.”

“You don’t have to miss me,” Bitty says, and he’s not sure if he’s giving permission or begging.

“Yeah, I do, Bits. I—I can’t—I don’t know how to—,”

Bitty brings a hand up to Kent’s cheek, strokes his thumb over the band of freckles he used to count at night before they fell asleep. “You don’t have to know. Just—please. Please, Kenny.”

Kent closes his eyes and takes a shuddering breath. When he opens them, they’re wet and pained, like he’s just watched something from behind his eyelids. All he manages is, “Bitty,” and then, “I can’t,” before he does.

His lips are still chapped, rough against Bitty’s own, and he still kisses with little flicks of tongue that make Bitty shiver. It’s slow, earnest, in denial of all their quick fucks between classes or before the Friday night kegster. It’s equal parts clinical and worship, the careful cataloging of sensations that God can be thanked for later, the devoted drawing of little whimpers to color the offering plate.

It’s the way people fuck when they realize stars combust and leave nothing but the most beautiful dust behind.

Bitty pulls Kent’s shirt over his head and plants searing kisses to his temple while he unbuttons his own. There are hands at his zipper fiddling, hesitating for just a second before undoing his jeans and tugging them down his thighs. He noses against Kent’s chest, finds a nipple with his teeth while the final layers shed away, whole body vibrating in synchronization to the moan he draws in response.

Kent is nearly painful to look at, chest flushed and cock leaking against his stomach; he’s beautiful, eyes clouded and flecked with green, an old memory flickering back in. His eyelashes flutter when he takes a hand to himself and strokes gently, watching Bitty. Softly, he asks, “How do you want me?”

“Inside me,” Bitty manages through the ache in his chest, “Please.”

Kent swallows thickly and guides Bitty down onto the bed, arranges him on his back, traces careful fingers over his wrists. They kiss slowly, twice, before Kent pulls away to find his lube and a condom. His fingers are nervous as they slip inside, one at a time, trembling like something could shatter if mishandled. Bitty squirms, watching him raptly, a hand at his mouth to keep his teeth from worrying his kiss-sore lips.

“You feel so good,” Kent murmurs, “Can’t believe I—.” His words stop abruptly and he presses an open-mouthed kiss to the side of Bitty’s knee instead.

“Me neither,” Bitty says, whatever it was, because there’s nothing much he believes anymore anyway so it’s probably true.

Kent’s fingers crook just right and Bitty’s hips hitch up into the pleasure, hunting it. He whimpers into his knuckles and then scrapes at them with his teeth while his other hand flies up and tightens in Kent’s hair.

Kent moans, “Fuck, fuck Bits—are you—are you ready?”

“Y-yeah, just—come on, yeah.”

“Bossy.” Kent laughs softly, but it doesn’t have the same humor that it used to. Bitty wonders how he can feel nostalgic for something he’s in the middle of.

Kent wipes his hand off on the bedspread and rolls the condom on, teeth sunk into his bottom lip, fumbling for more lube before lining back up. He folds Bitty in half as he pushes inside, hooks his legs over his shoulders and sinks in with a low whine. Bitty’s whole body shudders, almost in relief, like there’s an emptiness finally being filled. Parse is thick and hot inside him and it’s with something close to reverence that he moves, soft little rocking motions that barely shake Bitty’s body but shatter his lungs.

Soon they’re both panting, Kent’s thrusts longer and more insistent. Bitty brings his hands up to trace along the muscles in Kent’s arms, digs in with his fingernails a little to watch the way his mouth falls open in response. “Fuck—fucking Christ, babe, I—you’re so good, so good I—I don’t—don’t deserve—fuck—.”

Bitty can’t answer, doesn’t know what he’d say even if his throat wasn’t too seized up to form the words. He manages little whimpers, eyes wide and pleading in the face of it all, and tightens his grip on Kent’s arms. Everything’s starting to go hazy and far away. He’s floating, maybe, or sinking—it’s somewhere not here or anywhere and it’s the place he belongs.

“Are you close?” Kent murmurs, his voice shaking. Bitty whines and Kent brings a hand to his face, pulls so, so gently at Bitty’s bottom lip with his thumb. “Come on, baby, come for me. It’s okay, baby.”

It’s a soft, fragile thing when Bitty comes, shuddering and fighting to keep his eyes open, forcing himself to hold Parse’s gaze. Parse’s eyes are bright and hot and afraid. He marvels at whatever he finds in Bitty’s face, and he runs from what he’s created there like it can destroy him.

When Kent comes, he collapses in a heap, letting Bitty’s legs splay to the sides, and presses his face into the pillow. Bitty can’t bring himself to acknowledge the sobbing. He doesn’t understand why it sounds like, I’m sorry.

 

After a few moments, Kent pulls himself together and rolls off, staring up at the ceiling with glassy eyes while he shucks the condom off and tosses it away. Bitty grabs someone’s t-shirt off the ground and wipes off his stomach. Kent whispers, “This—this can’t happen again.” His voice is scratchy and foreign.

“I know,” Bitty lies. He doesn’t know. He’s not convinced that they’re not destined—doomed, maybe—to orbit each other in some terrible, infinite loop, fingers catching together briefly before they spin away again.

The right thing to add is not, “Can I stay, tonight?” but Bitty asks it anyway.

The right thing to answer is not, “Yeah, of—of course,” but Kent says it anyway.

So Bitty turns on his side and Parse clings to him, like he can possibly keep them from hurtling apart.

 

~*~

 

Bitty goes to Winter Screw with a nice boy from the rugby team. They dance and drink punch and Bitty doesn’t think about Kent Parson, he doesn’t. He thinks about Rugby Boy’s brown hair and dark eyes and all the ways a thing can fall apart, when Britney Spears comes on the speakers and he has to hide in the bathroom until it’s over—because there’s nothing put together about the quiver in his chin or the tremble in his hands.

And he doesn’t think anything at all while, afterwards, a boy with the wrong eyes blows him behind the Student Center in a grove of trees, not until it’s over and he’s tucking his spit-slick dick back into his slacks and offering to return the favor—because he might not be a lot of things anymore, but he’s still a goddamn gentleman.

Bitty thinks, then, with eyes turn upwards in bitter wonder at an always-silent sky, is this all I get?

The snowflakes fall in lazy spirals around him and sting at his cheeks.

 

~*~

 

Bitty treks to the Haus and brings the cold in with him through the door. Shitty and Lardo are in the armchair, stoned and chirping each other in earnest over their game of Mario Kart. Parse is tucked under Jack’s arm on the couch but he sits up, acts like he isn’t when he hears Bitty walk in.

He has the nerve to smile—or do his best impression of one, at the very least. “Hey, Bits. Join us?”

Bitty swallows down the lump in his throat and sheds his damp layers into a pile. He stares at the little pool of melted snow at his feet and says, “Goodnight.”

He doesn’t look back, not to see if Shitty has it in him to chirp him, not to see the way Parse deflates into Jack’s side like the body heat will swell him back to life. He doesn’t—can’t—not until he’s around the corner and back is an empty hallway, a set of stairs.

Bitty crawls into bed and stares up at the ceiling. He doesn’t sleep.

 

Parse comes in an indistinguishable amount of time later, door creaking shut behind him and socked feet padding against the floor. He curls up in his bed across the room and rolls onto his back; he glances over at Bitty once and then away, eyes fixed upwards again.

The silence is thick. Parse tries to claw at it once, manages, “I—,” before it rebounds, forcing the words back down his throat. Bitty says nothing.

Parse tries again, his voice soft, slipping through the gashes he made. “I don’t know what to do,” he whispers, and his head turns and there are eyes searing into Bitty’s heart. “I still love you.”

There’s nothing—Bitty tries, digs through everything in his fucking brain, pushes different words against his lips and pries them open to speak—but there’s nothing else to say. He answers, “Yeah, me too.”

There's a shuddering breath from the other bed, the creaking sounds of a man who almost stands but changes his mind and cowers instead. Parse’s voice is muffled by his pillow. “I’m sorry.”

Bitty turns onto his side to stare at the lines of Parse’s body, the glint of his teeth digging into his bottom lip and the shine of wet eyes caught in moonlight, tries to remember what sorry meant before he held it in the face of all the things they’ve done. And there’s still nothing else to say.

 

~*~

 

Bitty fiddles with the strings on his blue hoodie. “So, we’re apparently throwing some big party tonight that the boys are calling an ‘Epikegster.’ Ransom invited half of Boston, I swear, and I need y’all to pray for this Haus.” He smiles faintly. “Apparently the last one of these took up two issues of The Swallow.”

 

Bitty’s never seen this many people in the Haus at one time, and that’s really saying something. It’s so bad that he can barely move through the rooms without getting bounced between bodies like a human hockey puck and honestly, that’s a little much. At least it makes his double-downed efforts of avoiding Parse easier—and actually, he’s not sure Parse is even still down here at all, which would probably be the best for him anyway. So he sticks with Ransom and Holster for the first part of the evening, playing pickup beer pong and rolling his eyes at their terrible flirting—well, Holster’s is terrible, Ransom’s seems to work a little better.

Bitty’s gone through half a cup of tub juice by the time the frogs start getting trashed, which means he’s sober enough to effectively mother them and drunk enough to actually kind of enjoy it. Chowder seems to be pretty serious about the girl he went with to Winter Screw; Bitty’s going to have to invite her to brunch if things turn out the way they look like they will. He’s pretty proud of how almost not-jealous he is. Dex and Nursey seem to be getting along well—Bitty kind of remembers them fighting earlier in the semester, but he’s not sure what it was all about.

Speaking of Nursey, he’s crowd-surfing which is honestly just ridiculous and Bitty’s about to fuss at those football boys to put him down when Lardo taps him on the shoulder.

“’Sup, Bits. We’re gonna go smoke out back; wanna join?” she asks, waggling her eyebrows invitingly.

Bitty bites his lip and considers. He still doesn’t smoke much, but maybe it’d be a good way to de-stress. And he’s been neglecting Lardo and Shitty a little, even though none of this has been their fault, which he feels more than a little bad about. So, glancing back at Nursey, who’s still being lofted across the room but seems to be enjoying himself, Bitty accepts, “Sure. Lemme put my phone upstairs, though. Lord, the last time I tweeted high was a disaster.”

Lardo snickers. “Sweet. Meet you out there?”

Bitty nods and waves to her over his shoulder as he makes his way up the stairs. He thinks it’ll be good to spend some time with Lardo again; he misses her and Shitty and it’s time to just—

“Crisse, I fucking—hate you sometimes—Kenny.”

Great. Bitty really doesn’t want to deal with this right now. He just hopes they’re in Jack’s room so he doesn’t have to—

There’s a weird, loud thump and okay, that definitely came from Jack’s room. “Yeah, Zimms? Fucking prove it, m-make me feel it tomorrow, baby—wanna—aah, fuck—.”

Bitty knows that moan. He’s sucked hickeys into secret skin for it, tightened his fingers in hair and sunken his teeth into tender lips. He’s been on his knees for it, more than once. Bitty knows that moan and that means he fucking knows what’s happening on the other side of that door—literally, given the way its shaking—and fuck, God, he’s so fucking stupid and maybe he knew, a little, but he didn’t—

He didn’t know that Kent would make the same whimper, the one that always made Bitty’s toes curl, or that Jack would growl like that and he didn’t know quite how much it would hurt to hear Kent say I love you and mean it.

It takes longer than it should to find his key and flee into his bedroom. He swears he can still hear them through the walls.

 

~*~

 

Bitty’s face is red and puffy, like he’s already been cried out. His lip trembles, like he’s about to cry again. “H-have you ever overheard some—,”

 

The door swings open and Bitty spins away from the camera and Parse asks, “Bitty? Jesus, fuck—are you—what happened?”

You, Bitty thinks, always you. He scrubs at his face partly just to feel the rawness of his skin. He’s too tired to make it really cut when he says, “I—I guess you don’t have a problem fucking teammates. You just got tired of me.”

Parse’s face explodes into panic anyway. “Fuck, you—no, I—it wasn’t—it’s not what it—sounded like.” He steps forward and Bitty scrambles out of his chair to shrink away.

“G-get out,” Bitty pleads, “Please—please just leave.”

“No, Bitty, listen, I—listen to me, okay?” Parse begs, reaching out in an abortive movement, redirecting his hand up to yank at his already mussed up hair. Bitty could’ve guessed Jack liked to put his hands in it, too.

There’s nothing to listen to. And if Parse won’t get out and end this god-forsaken conversation then Bitty will. He storms past Parse and makes it most of the way to the door.

“Eric, please!”

Bitty flinches and steps back against the wall. The name feels foreign on Parse’s lips. He doesn’t reach for the doorknob.

Parse is quivering and there’s something about him that feels—desperate. Like maybe something about this matters. “I—I was breaking it off. With Jack.”

It’s funny how much Bitty used to like to laugh. He never meant to carve it into a weapon. “Yeah, that’s sure what that sounded like.”

“It didn’t—it didn’t go how I thought it would,” Parse tries to explain, his voice tinged with a hysteria that’s leaking into Bitty’s blood, “But I—I told him, Bits, that I can’t—I can’t do this without you. Any of this. I don’t want to.”

Bitty stares blankly. He’s reminded, a little bit, of how he felt right after his concussion—like his body doesn’t quite belong to him. “I don’t—Jack is—he’s—I don’t matter more than him.” Nothing does, to Parse. Bitty’s sure of that.

Parse sways, like he wants to move closer—they’re half a room apart—but he can’t manage it. His voice is weary but insistent and he stumbles over his words in a way Bitty’s not used to seeing from him. “Look, I—Zimms is it for me. I’ve—call me fucking stupid, I don’t care—I’ve know that since I was sixteen. But I didn’t—I didn’t know I’d find you, Bitty. I didn’t—think I could.”

“I don’t understand,” Bitty says; it’s maybe the last true thing he has.

Parse moves backwards and sinks down onto the bed. Bitty takes two steps forward, a feeble attempt at equilibrium. “I—fuck, I—when I came out to Shitty? It wasn’t as bi—well, it was, but that wasn’t the biggest—,” he pauses, scrubs a hand over his face, looks up with swimming eyes, “I thought I was broken. Shitty, he told me—I wasn’t, that he thought I was—demiromantic.”

“I’m—confused—I only remember hearing about—that—with sex,” Bitty admits, his eyes so dry they hurt and throat sobbed raw. He feels wrung out and shriveled and he doesn’t know how hold any of this like Kent needs him to.

Parse stands again and Bitty must have moved closer, maybe, or the room has shrunk because they’re close enough to touch and Kent does, reaches out and takes one of Bitty’s hands in his own. It feels strange and the most like his anything’s been all night. “It—it means I wanna hold your hand—,” he smiles, timidly, like he’s afraid it’s wrong to, “and I—fuck, I wanna come home and see you there, Bits, and get to hold you and buy you sappy fucking birthday presents and fall asleep next to you and I—it means I fell in love with you.”

It’s one of those moments, Bitty thinks, that takes forever. They hang there, swimming in words and the lack of them and the familiar pain of almost-understanding. Slowly, he asks, “And you don’t—feel that with other people?”

“Not since Zimms,” Parse whispers. He laughs so softly it almost isn’t a sound. “You fucking terrified me.”

Bitty knows that feeling. He—it’s still with him, maybe now more than ever because he—he doesn’t know how to be special. Jack Zimmermann is special; he’s the kind of man that people leave boys like Bitty for. He realizes he’s shaking when Kent slides his hand up his arm to steady him at the elbow.

“I’m sorry,” Bitty mumbles, “I’m—so sorry.” There are fresh tears welling in his eyes he didn’t think he’d be capable of making. He should be emptied out by now.

Kent’s face turns concerned, with wide worried eyes, and his hand cups Bitty’s cheek. “Bits, I—what could you possibly be fucking sorry for?”

“I—I love you so much,” Bitty chokes out softly, “I don’t—know how to s-stop. I need to—let you go—be with Jack like you’re s-supposed—,”

“No—no, Bits, that’s not what—,” Kent pauses, brings his other palm up and Bitty’s face is cradled gently in his hands now. Tears pool around the places they touch. “That’s not what I want. I want you.”

Bitty’s not sure he knows how to believe those words again. He doesn’t know how to feel things that don’t hurt. “You want Jack. You picked him, didn’t you? That’s why—why—.”

“I thought—I thought I had to. That it would—that maybe it’d hurt less.” Bitty wonders what could hurt more. He remembers that Parse watched Jack die, once. “But it didn’t and I can’t—it’s not fucking fair. Bitty, I—I can’t let you go, either.” Parse nearly laughs, but it’s a defeated sound. He whispers, “I can’t let anyone go.”

Parse is crying too, now, a gentle trickle of tears down his cheeks. Bitty reaches up and wipes them away, so delicately he barely brushes the skin and Parse shudders under the touch. Quietly, Bitty says, “I don’t know how to do any of this.”

Parse nods a little and softly clears his throat. “When I talked to Jack, he—he said—fuck.” Parse stops and pulls away, stumbling backwards and falling onto the bed in a crumpled heap. Bitty feels the ripping away like a physical thing against his skin. “No, fuck, I—I can’t ask either of you for this. I’m so—fucking—selfish—I fucking—both of you should just leave me. You don’t deserve this.”

Bitty wonders if anyone’s deserved much of anything that’s happened to them. And he doesn’t understand much—not really—but he understands the hollow pit in his stomach he’s felt since Parse has been gone, understands the way his lungs still go tight when Parse smiles and the way his bones ache when they touch.

He steps forward, legs brushed up against Parse’s knees, and says softly, “I think there’s been enough leaving.” Parse looks up with something nearly like hope. “What did Jack say?”

“He, um—he said that he wanted—to stay with me. Even if—,” Kent drops his gaze, face flushed and more bashful that he’s ever been, “even if I’m with you too.”

“You…want to date both of us?” Bitty clarifies, head tilted to the side and brain scurrying to catch up and heart pattering against his chest in a strange little excited murmur.

Kent looks up again, tries to meet Bitty’s eyes directly but doesn’t quite manage it. “Um. Yeah—yes. I—look, I know it’s like—it’s fucked, and if you don’t want—,”

“Okay.”

Words coming to a sputtering stop, Kent stares up at Bitty like he’s expecting him to take it back. Bitty doesn’t, just reaches out and traces his fingers down Kent’s arm, lingering along his wrist before taking his hand. With his voice shaking, Kent asks, “Okay?”

Bitty nods and smiles faintly. There’s a weird giddy fog in his brain and maybe—maybe there shouldn’t be. Part of him thinks he should be more concerned about all this—and maybe he will be, later, when everything settles under his skin. But for now—he’s tired of being angry, and of hurting and being hurt and feeling so alone he can barely move. He’s been tired for so long and this feels like rest.

“If you’re sure you want me again.”

Kent laughs wetly. “If I—Bits, I never stopped, okay? I always want you, and I—I hated myself for leaving you—I still do, and I’m so—,”

“Don’t,” Bitty murmurs, leaning forward and pressing his forehead to Kent’s temple, breathes the words against his skin, “not tonight. Please, just, not—yet.”

“Okay,” Kent says, bringing his hands up to hold at Bitty’s hips, “okay.”

Bitty winds his arms around Kent’s neck and dips down, and the kiss is soft and tastes a little like tears and it feels like the two hundredth and the first and every kiss but the last all at once. Nothing feels like the last—not the soft slip of Kent’s hair in Bitty’s hands or the tug of teeth against lips or the ghost of I love you against skin.

They break away, panting with wonder, and Bitty asks, “Do you need to go talk to Jack?”

Kent breathes in deeply and strokes a hand up and down Bitty’s back. “Nah, he’s asleep. I’ll talk to him tomorrow morning.”

“So—?” Bitty bites his lip.

“All yours,” Kent answers, voice brimming with a husky warmth.

Bitty laughs a little and points out, “Half, technically.”

Kent snorts out a laugh and flops backwards onto the bed, tugging Bitty down with him. Bitty curls up on his side with his head propped up on Kent’s shoulder. “Nah. I’ll just be ‘all yours’ to both of you.”

Smiling a little to himself, Bitty mumbles, “Bigger infinity,” into the collar of Kent’s rumpled flannel, and Kent chuckles.

“Yeah,” he says, tracing his thumb across Bitty’s bottom lip, “like that.”

 

~*~

 

“I miss you,” Kent whispers, breath ghosting warm over Bitty’s lips.

Bitty laughs wetly and points out, “I haven’t left yet.”

“Getting a head start.”

“You’re ridiculous.”

“Yeah, but you love me.” Kent grins into their next kiss.

Bitty hums as he pulls away. “Yeah, I do.” He’s smiling, but he knows it doesn’t quite reach his eyes and that Kent sees.

It’s the morning of Bitty’s flight back home for winter break and the anxiety is clawing at his chest because—it means nearly three weeks alone while Kent goes up to Montreal to spend Christmas with the Zimmermanns, and Bitty’s not jealous—he’s just terrified.

“Hey, babe, look at me,” Kent says, tilting Bitty’s face up by the chin. His eyes are bright and earnest and almost enough to make Bitty believe. “I’m not gonna leave you again, okay? I’m fucking—it’s not gonna happen.”

Blinking away pinprick tears, Bitty tells him, “I know. I just—don’t know how to make it feel that way.”

“I’ll remind you,” Kent promises, pressing little kisses to Bitty’s temple. His lips graze against the scar on Bitty’s hairline and it tingles warm and strange. “Every day.”

“You better,” Bitty half-chirps, proud of how little the words wobble, and Kent laughs.

The door creaks a little when Kent crowds Bitty back against it and presses into him. His voice rumbles pleasantly under Bitty’s skin. “Still bossy.”

“Mhm,” Bitty agrees, sliding his hands up Kent’s sides, “and speakin’ of which—let’s go. I’ve got some baking to do and you’re helpin’.”

 

~*~

 

Jack (2:31 pm): I’m surprised your cookies made it through customs, Bittle.

Bitty (2:34 pm): Have a good Christmas, Jack :)

Jack (2:35 pm): Thanks. Am I supposed to share these with Kent?

Bitty (2:36 pm): No he has his own don’t let that boy fool you

Jack (2:36 pm): :-)

 

Parse :D (2:41 pm): ET TU BITTE??

Bitty (2:41 pm): <333

 

 

  

Sophomore Year

Spring Semester 

“Hey, y’all!” Bitty beams at the camera and runs a hand through his hair. “Winter break has finished up and I’m all set for spring semester here at Samwell. And I think—it’s gonna be the best one yet.”

 

Bitty steps out of the Uber and shivers in the frigid January air; it’s snowing with what must be at least a foot already on the ground. Grimacing with nerves and a fundamental hatred for this damn weather that he’s convinced will never go away, he leans back into the car to tip his driver and then lugs his suitcase out onto the street, careful to avoid putting it anywhere particularly damp.

“Bits!” Parse calls, a voice Bitty'd know anywhere, and before he’s even turned all the way around he’s being lifted off the ground and his suitcase is dropping somewhere to his left, probably into that snowdrift. He doesn’t care.

Bitty squeaks and wraps his legs around Kent’s waist, pressing his face down into Kent’s neck, skin warm from the heated Haus. “Hi, honey,” he mumbles, “missed you.”

“Missed you too, babe.” Kent lets Bitty slide back to the ground and ruffles his hair, smirking affectionately. “C’mon, everyone’s heading over to the Pond for a shinny.”

Scooping his snow-covered suitcase off the ground, Bitty follows Kent inside and changes mostly quickly—with a very nice little detour for some kissing—so they can walk over and meet the rest of the team. Kent slips an arm around his shoulders and Bitty melts into his side.

 

Everyone is getting set up when they arrive, taping their sticks or doing warm up laps around the Pond. It still makes Bitty a little nervous to skate on a real lake, but last year nothing terrible happened, so he figures it’s probably fine.

“Yo, Bits!” Ransom greets, pulling Bitty into a hug. “Good to see you, bro.”

“You too, Rans,” Bitty grins, “I—,”

Holster skates over from on the ice and shouts, “Yo, Bitty, The Daily’s here! Do a jump for the front page!”

Bitty rolls his eyes fondly and chirps, “Y’all are never scramblin’ to get me doing jumps during practice. But fine—just one.”

He laces up his skates quickly and heads out onto the ice, skating lazy figure eights to loosen his muscles. Then, when the photographer nods to him, he does a simple jump—one he knows he can pull off in his more clunky hockey skates—and lands with a flourish.

Amidst the cheers, and a very insistent we can make a play outta that from Holster, Bitty skates back off the ice to where Kent stands watching on the edge, grinning.

“Bits, that was fucking swawesome,” he says, nudging Bitty excitedly.

Blushing, Bitty reminds him, “You’ve seen me do that before.”

Kent shrugs. “It’s cool every time.”

Bitty smiles, but falters when his gaze shifts over to the patch of trees where Jack is sitting, taping his stick. Nervously, he asks, “Should I do it now?”

“Here? I mean—sure?” Kent tilts his head a little.

“I just—don’t want it to be this weird thing,” Bitty frets, “and winter break was so long and now if I wait, I—and Kenny, what if he—,”

“Bits. You don’t gotta worry, okay? Just talk to him. It’s Zimms.” Kent smirks and leans in close, whispering deviously, “He doesn’t bite unless you ask nicely.”

Bitty laughs despite his nerves. “Okay—I’m gonna,” he says, and Kent gives his shoulder an encouraging squeeze.

Jack looks up from taping his stick when Bitty slogs over on his skates, and smirks. “Oh hey, Bittle. That Daily reporter didn’t rope you into an interview after that jump?”

“Oh, well—no,” Bitty answers, wincing at the weird pitch his voice is taking, “but I’m glad I caught you. I just, um—I w-wanted to talk to you about…what happened at Epikegster. And I, um—I really—um. I was wondering if—since we’re both—um—if you wanted to try and—g-get to know each other better and, um—if you—,”

“I don’t—ah,” Jack winces and frowns down at his stick, before glancing around at their teammates, “I don’t really want to talk about this here.”

Bitty’s shoulders sag and his stomach twists. God, he feels like such an idiot and he’s made everything worse. “Oh, um—I’m s-sorry. Just—nevermind, forget I—sorry.”

He spins and moves away, trying to avoid making a fool of himself as he blunders back through the snow, worrying at his lip and trying to remind himself it’ll be fine, this is okay, this is

“Bittle, wait!”

Bitty turns, his lips a little parted in surprise. “Um, yeah?”

Jack smiles up at him softly, blue eyes bright in the afternoon glow. “Want to get coffee later?”

The sky is clear except for a lone cloud that’s dropping tiny snowflakes, little twirling things that kiss against the grass and the trees. Bitty smiles.

 

 

 

Graduation

Bitty’s smile is bittersweet when he turns to the camera. “Well, graduation is tomorrow afternoon, which means tonight it’s time to take part in the seniors’ last night as Wellies. And—it’s kind of funny? It doesn’t feel as much like goodbye as I thought it would.”

 

Faber is that familiar combination of warm and chilly as Bitty stands at the boards and watches. Kent, Jack, and Shitty are all laughing at something, but he can’t make out the words from where he is. Ransom and Holster are boisterous, shouting chirps out onto the ice, and Lardo is subdued, melancholy.

Bitty is—something in between, looking on as the three seniors kneel down to kiss the ice. Jack is first, followed closely by Shitty who looks weepy eyed even from here. Kent lingers, brushing his fingers across the center line for a moment. Bitty can’t be sure, but he thinks Kent’s lips move in a whisper before he bends down and touches his lips to the rink.

Even Ransom and Holster are quiet, for a moment, as the three stand and make their way back over to the group. The chirping resumes when they catch sight of Shitty’s face though, and the gang heads up to the roof.

Bitty purposefully lingers, and earns himself Kent’s arms wrapped around him from behind for his trouble. “Hey, hun, you okay?”

“Mhm,” Kent mumbles, “Just—I’m gonna miss this shitty team.”

Jack laughs and encircles them both, strong arms tugging them stumbling backwards into his chest. He places a kiss to Bitty’s temple and Bitty turns towards him, nuzzles his cheek against his collarbone.

“We should head up there, eh?” Jack chirps, “People will wonder what we’re up to.”

“Let ‘em,” Kent grumbles, but he pulls away and heads for the stairs.

Up on the roof, Ransom and Holster are getting a little fire pit going and Lardo is setting up a bong. Shitty disappears around the side and comes back with a cooler, which is stuffed with drinks and the two pies Bitty stressed baked the night before: blueberry and maple apple sugar, because he may be an anxious mess but he’s a predictable one.

Kent plops down at one edge of the blanket they’ve spread out and pulls Bitty into his lap, arms wrapped snug around his waist. Ransom, Shitty, and Lardo are busy narrating last year’s graduation, reminiscing fondly about Johnson. Kent runs a thumb over Bitty’s hipbone and he’s so warm in all the places they touch, body melting back into him, but the ground is cold against Bitty’s legs and he shivers. “Brr. Didn’t know it’d be s-so—,”

Jack drapes his coat over Bitty’s shoulders, eyes soft and glowing in the firelight. Bitty beams up at him, watches with contentment as Jack settles close enough to touch and wraps an arm around Kent’s shoulders, encouraging them both into a little huddle.

“Parse, you want a beer?” Shitty offers, the can in his hand glinting.

“Nah, thanks,” Kent answers. His breath is a warm tickle against Bitty’s temple. “I’ll take a hit, though.” Lardo nods, smiling, and passes the bong across the circle for Kent to grab. He thanks her, and murmurs into Bitty’s ear, “You in, Bits?”

Bitty turns to look at him suspiciously. His freckles are dancing in and out of the shadows cast on his face and his eyes are gray, green, blue, endless and infinite. Bitty will always be in. “Yeah,” he whispers.

Kent smirks and takes a long hit. Bitty feels the swell of Kent’s chest against his shoulder blades. Calloused fingers stroke at his chin and tilt his face up and Kent is close, closer until there’s no distance between them at all. Someone wolf-whistles. Bitty opens his mouth and Kent follows, blows smoke in for Bitty to inhale and Bitty does. He breathes in every inch of Kent until he can feel him branded on his lungs.

They pull away and Bitty puffs a little cloud into Kent’s face cheekily. Kent laughs and ruffles Bitty’s hair while Lardo chirps, “Guess we know why you signed with the Falcs, huh Parser?”

Laughing breathlessly, Bitty leans his head back against Kent’s chest to glance up at Jack, whose gaze goes impossibly fond when they lock eyes. Bitty knows he isn’t the only reason Kent is staying—but here, on this roof with the fire flickering in a breeze that can’t make him cold anymore, it’s more than enough to be a part of it.