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Infinity, Plus One

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Freshman Year

Fall Semester

“So here’s the thing, y’all—,” Bitty fidgets in his rolling chair, glancing around his freshman dorm room nervously before looking back at the camera. “I don’t know what I expected my NCAA hockey team to be like, really—but it sure as hell wasn’t this.”

 

The first time Bitty tries to go to team breakfast, he briefly worries that he won’t be able to find anyone in the giant dining hall, but then he hears lots of shouting—and maybe some singing?—and he figures, oh, that’s them. Needless to say there’s been a period of adjustment.

As soon as he sits down, Shitty slaps him on the back and goes on some rant about how great it is Bitty isn’t a ‘bigoted dickface cockhole’ which feels like a pretty low-bar for favorable behavior, but at least he seems accepting, which is nice. Bitty can mostly just smile and nod while Shitty talks.

Ransom and Holster seem…fine? They’re currently talking about pussy, which is definitely not a conversation Bitty has any interest in at all, so—

“Bittle.” Bitty looks up from his sub-par biscuits and over-ripe strawberries to lock eyes with Jack, who’s just sat down across from him. Jack, the team captain, is unfairly handsome and also terrifying, in essentially equal parts. Gruffly, he advises, “You need to eat more protein.”

Bitty looks down at his plate and huffs. He’s about to mutter something about the aberration that is powdered eggs, when someone says, “Lay off the frog, Zimms,” and thumps down into the chair next to Jack. It’s Parse, the alternate captain—equally unfairly handsome but not nearly as intimidating as Jack. For one thing, he’s smaller by a good couple inches and slimmer in build, but it goes beyond that; Parse has a perpetual smirk (practically a grin compared to Jack’s apparently carved-from-marble frown) and he’s always chatting quietly with someone, the kind of talking that invites you into the conversation.

Parse fiddles with his snapback and ignores Jack’s scowl. “How’s your first week been, Bits?”

“Oh, um, fine, thanks? It’s been a little overwhelming, honestly. I know Samwell’s kind of a small school, but Madison—the town I’m from—is even smaller which, really, wasn’t all that great but it was familiar and this is all so new and—oh gosh, I’m so sorry, I’m rambling again ain’t—aren’t I?” Bitty takes in an extra-deep breath to make up for the lost air and glances down at his plate guiltily.

Except Parse just laughs, “No worries. Talk all you want, man. What’s it like back home?”

They locked me in a supply closet when I was twelve and I never want to go back. “Oh, well, you know. Everyone knows everybody so that can be a bit tirin’, but they’re like one big family.”

“Christ, I can’t imagine what it’d feel like to have everyone know your story. Must be fucking exhausting, eh, Zimms?” Parse smirks and tries to ruffle Jack’s hair, but Jack glares and elbows him away. Either Parse has really good timing or Jack is just being dramatic, because he mumbles something about seeing everyone at practice and stalks away towards the dish return with his mostly-empty plate.

Parse just shrugs and slides down into Jack’s now empty chair, shoving a piece of toast into his mouth as he does so. “Anyway, Bits, if you need help finding anything around campus feel free to hit me up. Plus I think Shitty’s gonna give a Haus tour like, next week, so.”

“Oh, um, thanks but…I don’t have your number?” Parse just makes a grabby motion with one hand—the other being occupied with more toast—and types his number into the proffered phone carefully. He slides it back with a wink. He’s saved the contact as ‘Parse :D’ which is a little weird, but Bitty shrugs and keeps it.

“Yo, Parse, come look at these texts, bro,” Ransom calls from two seats over, “and tell Holtzy they definitely mean mad pussy.”

Parse looks at Bitty and rolls his eyes, acting exaggeratedly put-upon with his smirk, but slides his seat down to get a better look at Holster’s phone. He takes the time to scroll through what seems to be a lengthy conversation and concludes, “Mad pussy. Angry, definitely. Maybe even furious.” His eyes flick back over to Bitty, who stifles a giggle with a mouthful of bacon.

 

~*~

 

Bitty wrings his hands together and grimaces. “So, my high school hockey team was co-ed—no checking allowed. But I’m in the NCAA now! I’m definitely ready to start taking hits on the ice. It’s fine. Really.”

 

Practice had been going fine. It really had been. Except now the first week is over and that means scrimmages which means being on the ice in full gear, skating around and trying out plays, and really all of that would be fine except—

“Bittle, heads up!”

What what what no no please don’t hurt me I’m so sorry no no no please please please ple—

“…or get into fetal position at center ice,” a voice that sounds a lot like Jack grumbles from somewhere up high and far away, “That’s also an option.”

“Bittle.” Coach Hall sounds closer, like maybe he’s bent over or something. Bitty tries to make a sound that isn’t a whimper; he probably doesn’t succeed but everything’s a little woozy still so who knows. Did he faint? “Hey, son? You okay?”

Holster’s booming voice washes over him while he tries to sputter out words. “You know? I’m thinking we can make a play out of this.”

“If you just…slide…me on down…to the bench, I’ll be just fine, Coach,” Bitty manages at last, but apparently they thought “slide” was just an expression and not his honest-to-God preferred method of transportation because they’re making him stand and skate even though Bitty’s not entirely convinced he’s capable of either of those things.

He makes it to the bench and is trying not to throw up when Parse skates over. Jack is talking to Coach Hall, his eyebrows drawn in a stormy line while Ransom, Holster, and Shitty discuss fainting goats, which means they’re probably making fun of him, which is just fucking perfect, honestly, and Parse is skating over to what? Laugh in his face? Tell him to quit the team and go home because he’s gonna let everyone down? He’s going to let everyone down and lose his scholarship and he can’t afford this school and—

“Hey. Wanna go get nachos later?”

Bitty looks up incredulously. “What?”

“The dining hall has fucking orgasmic nachos on Mondays. Wanna go?” Parse is staring at him with an open expression. He’s so nonchalant that Bitty wonders if he somehow missed the entire…incident. But his eyes are so warm, mostly green and a little gray, and on second thought maybe everything about this is deliberate.

Bitty nods and says, “Sure.”

Parse whoops and slings an arm around Bitty’s shoulders, pulling him into a companionable not-quite-hug. He cups his free hand over his mouth and shouts, “Nacho Mondays!”

The scattered conversations all halt as several people turn and cheer back at him. Shitty yells, “Fucking Nacho Mondays!” and body slams into Jack, who maybe even almost-smiles back.

 

~*~

 

The nachos are disgusting. Bitty picks at them listlessly, debating how he’s possibly going to eat this entire plate, when Parse plops down next to him and asks, “Whatcha think, Bits?”

Bitty bites back a smile and says, as seriously as he can manage, “I’m kinda worried about what you think an orgasm is.”

Parse stares at him in shock, mouth gaping, and Bitty worries that he’s made a mistake, overstepped, but Ransom bursts into laughter from across the table and declares, “Man, Bits is fucking savage, bro. We gotta keep him.”

Holster is laughing raucously and slapping Shitty on the back, and Bitty lets himself smile just a little. Parse puts a hand to his chest in mock horror and tells him, “These are the best fucking nachos I’ve ever had in my life, Bits.”

“Oh, honey,” Bitty answers, patting Parse’s bicep in pity before standing to get a new plate (the sole benefit of buffet-style college dining). When he sits back down, not a single ounce of nacho cheese on his plate, Parse is locked in a debate—argument, maybe—about 30 Rock versus the Office with Holster.

Ransom sighs dramatically and turns to Bitty. “Yo, Bits, by the way? Sick shirt. Where’d you get it?”

Bitty looks down at his navy blue button-up and smiles. Maybe the team likes him after all.

 

~*~

 

“Good news! I found a kitchen I can use whenever I want. Now, it may be in what’s essentially a goddamn frat house, but well, you know—,” Bitty grins, “count your blessings, and all that.”

 

Bitty’s still just as likely to drop to the ice during practice as he is to stay upright, and classes don’t seem all that great, but the week does have a bright spot: this afternoon, Bitty is heading to the ‘Haus’ to get the grand tour. From what everyone’s said, the Haus is the hub for all hockey team goings-on; it’s where the team spends their free time, a handful of them live and, most importantly, where the parties are. Bitty’s been at college for less than two weeks and he’s itching for the experience.

Bitty has a hand curled around his phone, head tilted down as he follows Google Maps down frat row; most of the houses look nice, unassuming even. There are big beautiful trees that must turn wonderful colors in the fall, overlooking old-fashioned porches. Even better, it looks like there are bars a stone’s throw away on the other side of the tree line; maybe Bitty should look into the fake ID Holster offered to get him, after all. His phone pings and says you have arrived at your destination. Bitty looks up excitedly and—

The Haus is a dump. Bitty stares up at it, looks down at the map, sort of praying he’s gotten himself turned around again, and then looks back up again with a grimace. Honestly, the building looks like it should be condemned, not housing half a dozen college athletes. There are lawn chairs on the roof, plastic cups stuck in the bushes like Christmas ornaments, and a pair of boxers hanging from a tree.

“Hey, Bitty,” Ollie greets; he and Wicks have just gotten there which means, yes, he really is in the right place, Lord help him.

“Hi, Ollie. Should we—,”

Shitty bursts through the front door and belts out a greeting, talking about alcohol and virginity loss and bad decisions, which sound like they’re all too related in Shitty’s mind for Bitty’s comfort. And really, he should probably be paying closer attention to the tour, but good Lord there’s a kitchen. So Bitty can’t really be blamed for veering off; kitchens are his siren song.

The thing is: sirens aren’t necessarily pretty. The kitchen is filthy as all get out and there’s an entire cabinet filled with nothing but Sriracha sauce for some God-forsaken reason. There’s a tub of protein powder on the counter, right next to an upended, empty keg. The fridge is 90% beer, 5% eggs, and, mercifully, 5% butter. Bitty finds some bowls that still look their original color and sets out to mix a pie crust.

He’s really starting to despair when it comes to a filling, but the front door swings open and some of the boys come in from outside. Johnson, the goalie, wanders into the kitchen with three grocery bags dangling from each arm.

“Oh, let me help you!” Bitty offers, quickly sliding a case of beer out of the fridge to make room for the pie crust.

“Thanks, Bitty.” Johnson smiles at him and drops the bags onto the kitchen table.

Bitty helps sort through the groceries and gasps when he finds fruit. “Um, would it be alright if I used a few of these apples? I can pay you for them, or—,”

“Chyeah, bro, go ahead. I bought them for you.”

“Um, what?”

“Yeah,” Johnson explains, “The author felt like having a plausible explanation for your pie-appearing gimmick was more appropriate for this rendition of the narrative.”

Bitty blinks. He briefly wonders if he’d hit his head harder than he thought the last time he fainted. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, Bittle. So Bitty gets to work on the filling, warmth spreading up from his toes up into his stomach as the scent of simmering apples and cinnamon fills the room.

He’s humming to himself, pouring the filling into the pie tin, when he turns around and realizes he has an audience. Ransom, Holster, and Shitty are staring with a herd of frogs crowded behind them. Bitty tugs at his bottom lip and apologizes, “Oh, sorry, I just—whenever I find a kitchen I just—pies appear!”

Shitty scratches his head. “We’ve been here like, five minutes.”

Bitty slides the pie into the oven and looks at his phone; it’s definitely been at least fifteen. He sits in the kitchen for a while, chatting with the team, until the sound of water running cuts off abruptly—had the shower been on this whole time?—and Parse shouts from somewhere, “Holy shit! Why doesn’t our house smell like ass anymore?”

Bitty pokes his head around the doorway just in time to watch Parse slide down the bannister, in nothing but a towel slung low on his hips. It’s a miracle the thing stays on at all, honestly, but Bitty is very thankful it does, because he’s having a hard enough time not staring as it is. Parse careens around the staircase and skids to a stop right in front of Bitty. Water droplets splatter from his already re-curling hair.

He’s trailed by Jack, fully dressed but also sporting wet hair, dark bangs hung low over his forehead. Which is weird, because Bitty definitely just heard the one shower, he thinks—but then again, maybe he was just distracted by his baking.

“Bits. Bitty. Is this your doing?” Parse gestures vaguely, which Bitty assumes is supposed to indicate the baked-goods smell that’s wafting through the Haus.

“Um, yes? I—,” Bitty tries to answer, but his words cut off in a squeak because Parse is hefting him into the air and shouting something about fucking favorite frog.

Parse drops Bitty back down to the ground and says, “Sorry, other frogs.” He tosses the words over his shoulder as he shoves past Holster to stare at the pie, partially lit inside the oven, like it’s the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen.

Bitty focuses on slowing his startled heartbeats and almost misses it when Jack nods at him and says, “Smells good, Bittle.” His heart flutters one last time and then quiets.

 

~*~

 

So maybe the Haus should have been condemned by now, but Bitty is pretty glad it hasn’t been. He finds himself gravitating there after his classes are finished for the day, and sure, Betsy the oven (as he has christened her) is a big part of that, but—

There’s also the way Holster sings Broadway tunes to himself while he studies, and the way Ransom adds cinnamon to the coffee grounds to make the brew taste better. There’s how Parse is a mathematics major, and tutors all the underclassmen every Wednesday afternoon, how he doesn’t get annoyed when Bitty needs something explained twice. And there’s the way Shitty can always tell when Bitty’s worn out from a long day, knowing just how to swoop in and cheer him up. There’s even Jack, who Bitty sits with in silent companionship when words are too much but solitude isn’t enough.

There’s the place he goes to bake, but there’s also the people he’s baking for.

 

~*~

 

Some Wednesday in September, Bitty and Parse are sitting across from each other on Parse’s bed, passing a pie tin back and forth and gabbing about a little of everything. Parse is taking a statistics class with a professor who has a wicked sense of humor. Bitty’s just finished catching up with his mother on the phone and goodness did she have some juicy gossip. It’s comfortable in a way Bitty hasn’t felt in a long time.

Parse’s phone buzzes; he pauses in his latest anecdote and smirks when he reads the text. “Sweet, Johnson’s staying with his girlfriend tonight.”

“Oh, that must be nice. My suitemates are always around. I swear, I’ve never felt so crowded in my life.” Bitty, feeling dramatic, flops sideways on the bed.

Parse joins Bitty in his horizontal theatrics. “That’s rough. Johnson’s a pretty chill roomie. Fuckin’ weird dude but like, crazy nice.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. He found out I was gonna have to get a part-time job to afford rent and just straight up offered to let me move in with him. Fucking gives up his single so I can survive off my summer job.” He smiles fondly. “Like what the fuck?”

Bitty reaches lazily for the pie tin and sighs when he finds it out of reach. Parse pushes it closer. “Wow, that is really nice.”

“Yeah. He’s like, the weird older brother I never had. Except I’m older, but, whatever.” Parse laughs. “I don’t feel old.”

“Are you an only child?”

Parse’s voice turns soft, maybe a little sad. “Nah. Got a little sister. It’s just me, her, and my mom. Or it—,” he stops, takes a steadying breath. “Sorry. It was, I guess. I don’t talk to my family much anymore.” Definitely sad.

“I—,” Bitty reaches out to touch, to comfort, but hesitates. Parse looks over at him expectantly, eyes more blue than green today. Bitty places a hand on his forearm and squeezes. “I’m sorry, Parse.”

“Thanks, Bits. It’s fine. I’ll be fine.”

 

~*~

 

“Y’all, I know I’ve been talkin’ about how great the team is but—well, I’ve been thinking of quitting.” Bitty shifts uncomfortably and runs a hand through his shaggy hair. “I just don’t—Jack chewed me out in front of everyone today. Again. And it caused this whole thing and I don’t—I don’t know.”

 

Bitty blinks his eyes open and moans. He’d almost made it through the whole scrimmage. The clock was going to run down and it was going to be over, all over, and he’d been doing so well except—

Except Holster is so big. No one should be allowed to be that big and Bitty is never strong enough, never man enough to fight back and if you can’t fight you run and if you can’t run, if you can’t run

So Bitty is curled into a ball on the ice, and Jack is standing above him. How nice, Bitty thinks, The captain is going to help me up. See if I’m okay.

But then Bitty’s eyes come into focus a little better and oh God, Jack looks so angry; Bitty’s never seen him this angry and he doesn’t know why he scrambles back to his skates because he should just stay on the ground where he belongs and now Jack is shouting.

“What the hell was that?” he spits.

Bitty sputters, “I’m—I’m so sorry. I’m trying really hard, and I—,”

Everyone is staring, Bitty knows it. Even the coaches, even the players on the benches. He can’t cry. He cannot cry. He can’t because they probably already hate him, think he’s useless and why is he on this team and he can’t be the boy who cries, too.

Jack looms closer and Bitty shrinks away, sliding backwards on his skates. “Are you—you call that trying? This isn’t a joke! Either get with the—,”

“Back the fuck off, Zimmermann!” There’s a blur of jersey and suddenly Parse is between Jack and Bitty, spraying shaved ice up into the air as his skates cut through it. “Jesus Christ, seriously, what the fuck—,”

“He’s a detriment to the team and you—,”

“That’s not true. Just because you can’t see—,”

“—can’t see it. He’s your—your little pet project or something and—,”

“—anything but yourself. Christ, fucking—,” Parse is seething, spitting words through clenched teeth slithering between the cadences of Jack’s shouts, “my fucking pet? Don’t make this about me, Jack. Fuck, it’s not even about Bitty, is it? It’s all you and your own fucked up head and if you don’t stop taking your shit out on this team, I swear to fucking God, Zimmermann, I’ll—,”

Jack shoves him. Parse flies backwards and Bitty practically dives to get out of the way. “You’ll what, Kent? You’ll leave? Fucking leave. Make my day.”

Parse does. He rips his helmet off and throws it to the ground so hard that it makes a cracking sound like the snap of a bone and then he’s gone faster than should be possible, flinging himself over the gate without opening it and vanishing into the locker room.

“Tabarnak,” Jack mutters, and without so much as a glance at anyone, even Bitty, he skates off after Parse the way he chases a pass that’s been shot wide.

 

~*~

 

They finish the scrimmage in unbearable almost-silence; nothing spoken but stilted instructions and clipped phrases of congratulations or criticism, all deserved and equally insincere.

In the locker room, Ransom is the one who finally breaks the silence. “Yo, Bits, Jack just gets real bitchy towards the end of pre-season, and Parse—gets tense.”

Holster nods. “After the first game, Jack’ll go back to regularly-scheduled levels of bitchy and Parse’ll stop throwing down his gloves every time Jack so much as fucking breathes wrong.”

“Hey,” Shitty argues, “when a bro’s dad is Bad Bob, a bro’s gonna turn into a fucking hockey Nazi every once and a while.”

Wicks snorts. “Then what’s Parse’s excuse?”

“A bro can only handle so many years of Zimmermann-shit,” Holster offers in explanation, voice dry.

Bitty raises his hand uncomfortably. “Wait, um—who’s Bad Bob and—haven’t you all known Jack for like two years?”

The stares he gets in response are not encouraging.

 

~*~

 

So Bitty goes home—after being reassured he’s not going to be shoved into any equipment lockers for his ignorance, ever, what the fuck Bits did someone do that to you?—and he ignores the essay he has due at eight AM tomorrow in favor of Googling who Bad Bob Zimmermann is.

And really, Bad Bob Zimmermann being a veritable NHL legend is apparently just the tip of the iceberg. Because from there, Bitty Googles Jack’s name, and well, people seem to have plenty to talk about when it comes to Jack Zimmermann, without saying much of anything at all.

Here’s what Bitty learns: Jack Zimmermann was supposed to be the star of the 2009 NHL Draft, with Kent Parson at his side. Jack was destined, it seemed, for the greatness of his father, for a long-burning fame, for the kind of brilliance lesser eyes can’t stare at directly.

Here’s what else Bitty learns: Sometimes stars are betrayed by their own fusion. And when stars implode, they rarely die alone.

Jack Zimmermann withdrew from the 2009 NHL Draft and checked into a rehab facility in Maine. The magazines never could quite decide what the rehab was for; plenty of people suspected cocaine, others were certain painkillers were the culprit. The tiniest whispers, as Bitty would learn, told a truth no one wanted: that anti-anxiety medications don’t mix well with alcohol, and Jack Zimmermann had convinced himself he needed both to make it through the day.

The more slippery thing is this: what exactly happened to Kent Parson? A month after Jack Zimmermann withdrew from the draft, Kent Parson rejected his multi-million contract offer from the Las Vegas Aces and vanished. He refused to make a single statement to the press, and the Aces were equally tight-lipped, simply saying that they were disappointed to see Parson go. ESPN thought Parson cracked under the pressure, too petrified by the prospect of skating against Zimmermann’s ghost. Some of the smaller magazines speculated that Kent spiraled, hooked on whatever Zimmermann was using and caught in the same coil of fate.

The brave, young parts of the Internet spun the tale like this: star-crossed lovers, not being forced away but slammed together, until the whole thing cracked apart in the kind of brilliant death usually reserved for viewing through telescopes. They were victims of a playwright; poison and a dagger.

 

~*~

 

“So, um, Hazeapalooza. Let’s just say,” Bitty looks away from the camera, blushing, “we do things a little differently here at Samwell.”

 

It’s the weekend before the first game of the season. Bitty is editing a vlog post in a pair of sleep shorts and an old t-shirt in his room, trying to tune out whatever his suitemate Chad is watching on the TV in the next room. There’s a knock on the door that makes Bitty jump; he can hear Chad sigh dramatically when he pauses the TV and gets up to answer.

Chad shouts, “What the fuck?” and then, “Eric, it’s for you!”

Bitty saves his video and walks out into the main room nervously. Parse is standing in the doorway holding a black bag, a blindfold, and a roll of hockey tape. He’s wearing both a bandana and a snapback, which is all kinds of ridiculous, and Bitty would probably laugh if he weren’t kind of creeped out.

“Um,” Bitty says.

Parse asks, “Can I come in?”

Bitty nods and walks backwards to sit on the arm of the threadbare couch that came with the suite. He tugs on his lip and watches Parse carefully close the door behind them. Chad flips the TV back on.

“So,” Parse starts awkwardly. He takes off his hat and runs fingers through his cowlick. “I’m, uh, supposed to kidnap you?” He gestures with his apparently-for-kidnapping supplies. “But I thought, um, considering—you know—maybe that would be kinda unchill? So.”

Right, Bitty thinks, Hazeapalooza. “Oh, um, thanks. Yeah, that would’ve—,” he looks down, embarrassed, “thanks.”

“So, we’re just going to Faber and then the Haus, if you wanna follow me?”

Hesitating, Bitty looks up. “Um, are you—are you gonna get in trouble?”

Parse raises his eyebrows. “What?”

“For not, um—for not doing it right?”

“Bitty. Bits,” Parse laughs, “I run this shit.”

Bitty laughs nervously. “Oh, right, silly me. Of course you would, since—anyway, um, I think—since, um, I know what’s happening? It’d probably be okay if, uh—.” He waves a hand at the supplies. Chad coughs loudly and retreats into his bedroom.

“You sure? It’s seriously not a big deal.” Parse looks genuinely concerned, like he’s worried Bitty’s suddenly going to freak out, which is a little insulting but—fair.

Bitty nods and, after taking a breath to steel himself, holds out his hands with wrists pressed together. He stares at the ground until he realizes nothing is happening, so he looks up anxiously and sees—Parse just kind of staring at him, actually, with a weird expression Bitty can’t place.

“Um.”

Parse blinks and sighs out a clipped laugh. “Sorry, um—sorry, nothing, I’ll—this part first, actually, yeah.” And then in a flurry of movement, Parse is behind him wrapping a blindfold around his eyes. Bitty tenses and Parse whispers, “This okay?”

“Y-yeah,” he whispers back and, surprisingly, it kind of is. Sure, he’s trembling slightly which is embarrassing and there’s the little frantic whisper in his brain saying, it’s dark run get out run, but there’s also Parse’s hand squeezing his shoulder and his own voice thinking, no, it’s okay. No one’s gonna hurt you. You’re safe here.

Parse slides the bag on next and everything turns a blacker-black which is almost better than before. “Okay, Bits?”

“You’re gonna make me late to my own hazing, Parson,” Bitty manages to chirp, and he smiles in triumph when Parse laughs.

“Bossy,” Parse teases, but he moves back around to Bitty’s front and cups his wrists. Bitty shivers. There’s the crinkling sound of fresh hockey tape being started and the strange sensation of something sticky wrapping around his wrists.

It’s…weird. It’s weird because, well—because it isn’t that weird and it should be, right? It should be a weird thing, maybe a scary thing, that he’s blindfolded and getting tied up by someone he barely knows, but—

But the tape is snug on his wrists and it’s like the moment when you’ve carried all the grocery bags in at once and you drop them all to the floor even though it bruises the fruit and the cans all roll away because you can’t carry anything anymore and now you don’t have to and—

Oh. The gentle, whispered thrum of arousal under his skin buzzes louder, like someone’s prodded at a hornet’s nest with a stick. Bitty bites down on his lip really, really hard.

“Bitty? Bitty, are you okay?” Parse’s hands are still gently gripped at Bitty’s wrists and he’s leaning forward, maybe; Bitty’s neck tingles with that strange little buzzing feeling that happens when someone’s shifting into his space.

“Oh,” Bitty squeaks, “Yeah, I—sorry, did you, um, ask me something?”

“Yeah, I just, uh—,” Parse sounds distinctly uncomfortable and Bitty blanches. Can Parse tell? Bitty’s not even that hard but maybe it’s noticeable through his shorts and why is Parse still touching him sweet Lord in Heaven. “I asked if it was too tight.”

“No!” Bitty says too quickly and winces. “No, um, it’s fine I just—I was distracted? Um, thinking about my blog. Yeah.” He really wishes he could see Parse’s face; he can’t tell if his bluff passes muster.

Parse finally pulls his hands away and Bitty shouldn’t be disappointed but he is. “Okay, uh, great. Should we, uh—can we go?” Bitty just nods so his mouth doesn’t run off without him and stands, a little wobbly without the use of his arms; Parse grabs him by the elbow and starts to lead him towards the door. “Oh, uh, did you want—it’s kinda cold out, do you want longer pants or anything?”

“You don’t have to baby me,” Bitty mutters, tugging his elbow free and promptly walking straight into the doorframe. Fuck.

Parse cackles and slings an arm around Bitty’s shoulders to lead him away. “Wouldn’t dream of it, Bits.”

 

~*~

 

So Bitty learns that Hazeapalooza starts with a kidnapping and ends (after a lot of weird howling and other bizarre but distinctly un-cruel things) with a party at the Haus that people sort of just wander into even though it’s technically supposed to be a team event. Shitty’s goal for the night is to get all the frogs “bitch-ass shitfaced,” which he’s certainly accomplished when it comes to Bitty.

In fact, Bitty is so bitch-ass shitfaced that when he stumbles into the kitchen to steal a cold beer from the fridge, and finds said-fridge obstructed by two people humping each other against it, he forgoes being appalled by how unsanitary it is and just says, “Excuse me.”

He can’t see either of their faces because the girl’s hair has fallen forward while they kiss. He does, however, get a really great view of half her ass from where her dress is hiked up, the man’s hands rumpling it as he supports her weight, her legs wrapped around his waist. Bitty spends an indulgent moment wondering what it would feel like to be where that girl is, strong hands on his ass, rutting against someone’s maybe-hard dick, and—

Either coincidentally or because he heard Bitty’s request, the man flips himself and the girl around so that she’s sitting on the counter with him between her thighs, path to the refrigerator now clear. Except, it’s also now obvious that ‘the man’ is Parse, snapback-less head tilted back as the girl kisses at his neck, his mouth parted in a stupidly sexy little sigh. Bitty’s brain scrambles to pick an emotion and settles on some awful combination of jealous, aroused, and awkwardly ashamed.

Because Bitty is clearly being punished for something he did in a past life, Parse’s eyes roll open and he notices him staring. “Bits! How’re ya, man?” He sounds as drunk as Bitty feels.

“Oh, um—,”

“Bits, this is—,” Parse turns back to the girl and squints, “Tasha?”

“Tara.”

“Bits, this is Tara. Tara, Bits—my fav’rite freshie.” Parse winks at him, for some reason. He’s also grinning broadly, which is weird. Maybe it’s some sort of subtle bro-bragging thing, a silent check out what I’m fucking later tonight.

Parse reaches out and ruffles Bitty’s hair, his other hand still under Tara’s dress. Which is also weird and suddenly Bitty wants to go home. “I uh,” Bitty sways and leans up against the refrigerator for support, “I’m gonna go—go back to—do y’still have my wallet?”

Tara is starting to look a little put-out; Bitty shrugs at her apologetically. Parse scrunches up his nose in concentration. “Uh, yeah, it’s—my room, c’mon.”

“Oh, um, I can just—,” Bitty starts, looking at the very pretty girl who’s currently glaring at him something fierce, but Parse is already telling her he’ll be back soon and pulling Bitty away.

They stumble up the stairs and duck underneath the caution tape blocking off the top. Parse’s room is right around the corner, across the hall from another bedroom that has the light on inside and a red snapback hanging from the doorknob. Parse grabs it and fits it snugly onto his head, muttering something about where this went.

Bitty furrows his eyebrows in confusion. “Um, should you—isn’t that—or is that just socks?”

Despite his string of words making no objective sense, Parse seems to understand him. “What, in Zimms’ room?” he laughs, “Nah.” He pushes his own door open and waves to Johnson, who’s stretched out shirtless in bed with his girlfriend, Ginger, watching something on a laptop.

“Oh, sorry,” Bitty squeaks, “are we interrupting?”

Johnson shrugs. “It’s cool. We knew about this plot-point.”

Goalies are hard enough to understand sober, so Bitty just nods and waits by the door for Parse to grab his wallet off the desk.

“C’mon, Bits, I’ll walk ya home,” he says, after he tosses the wallet across the room and Bitty tries to catch it after it’s already hit the floor.

“’m fine,” Bitty protests, even as Parse wraps an arm around his shoulders again and he automatically settles into the touch, “you should go back to, uh—.” Bitty remembered her name a minute ago, he really did.

Parse doesn’t say anything for a moment, focused on walking them both down the stairs, but when they reach the bottom he says, “Nah, bros before—chicks,” and laughs to himself even though Bitty has no idea what’s funny.

They stumble outside into the cooling September air; Bitty shivers despite himself which makes Parse laugh and chirp, “Told ya, shoulda worn the pants, Bits.” His eyes drop down low and back up again. “Shorts’re cute though.”

Bitty turns red and looks away. “Um, thanks?” Parse didn’t mean it the way he wishes he had; he knows that, but it’s still a good feeling.

They walk silently for a while, alongside the river, passing other collections of drunk friends ambling along. There’s a tense jumble of thoughts tumbling around in Bitty’s head, so when Parse asks what he’s thinking, what comes out is: “I Googled you the other day!”

To Parse’s credit, he kind of just laughs. “Look, Bits, I was young and camera phones were kinda new and everyone was taking nudes back then.” When Bitty stares up at him in blank horror, he laughs even harder. “I’m totally kidding. There’s no pictures of my dick on the Internet. I think. Let me know if you find any. I was a hot teenager.”

First, Bitty thinks, you’re a hot adult, and then, secondly but probably more importantly, you’re avoiding the conversation. He blessedly is able to refrain from speaking either thought out loud. “I’ll keep you posted,” he says instead, and Parse laughs again. It’s probably not a good thing, how intensely giddy Bitty feels whenever he can make Parse laugh, but if Parse is allowed to shirk his past then Bitty is certainly allowed to ignore his little (or not so little, but he’s not going to think about that either) crush.

So the chance to talk about anything of consequence slips away and in its place, an onslaught of playful chirping arises. Parse ruffles Bitty’s hair, so Bitty hip-checks him in a huff and he pretends to fly sideways from the force of it, stumbling off the sidewalk and tumbling to the ground. Bitty dissolves into a fit of giggles and tries to help him up, but gets pulled down into the grass instead, yelping.

“I like the grass,” Parse says, setting his hat to the side and putting his hands behind his head. He closes his eyes with a soft sigh.

“Me too. I—,” Bitty looks over and groans. “Parse, what’re you doing? We gotta go home.”

“Don’t wanna.”

Bitty puts a hand to his head in exasperation. He can see his dorm building, right on the other side of the bridge, and he has no idea where any of this is coming from. “I—we should go,” he insists, and he moves to stand up but Parse grabs with gentle, fumbling fingers at his wrist.

Parse’s eyes are pale gray under the streetlights by the water, the barely-opaque crumble of charcoal ash after a fire. “Stay with me, Bits.”

“Okay,” Bitty says, because he doesn’t know what other words there are. He stretches back out on the grass, and stares up at the clouded sky until he falls asleep.

 

~*~

 

Bitty finally makes it back to his dorm somewhere past four AM, after shooing a groggy and vaguely sober Kent Parson back towards the Haus.

He’s asleep as soon as his head hits the pillow and doesn’t wake up until eight hours later, to a dead phone and an empty bedroom. There’s the worst (and first) hangover of his life pounding between his eyes, so he fumbles through his drawers until he finds a bottle of Tylenol and swallows two, washed down with a day-old water bottle sitting on his desk. After plugging his phone in, he trudges off to the shower he shares with his suitemates.

The hot water seeps into his muscles, sore from sleeping on the ground and various Hazeapalooza antics. Memories from the night filter back in, mostly in reverse, the sputtering of an old VHS tape being rewound. There’s calloused fingers on his wrist, then in his hair, on his arms. Laughing in the cold, inside and outside, near the quiet of the river and in the chaotic chatter of the Haus. There’s the actual hazing, howling nearly-naked in Faber, throwing toilet paper over the trees of the lacrosse frat house across the road, wandering down the streets blindfolded.

And there’s so much Parse. He percolates up through all the alcohol-hazed memories, his smirk or his ridiculous, snorting laugh or his eyes. There’s Parse at the party, Parse on the walk home, Parse in his room before any of it happened. Bitty bites down on his lip when he gets to that last part. With his eyes squeezed shut, he can almost feel the ghosting sensations, wrists bound together, hands holding his own in place.

Bitty feels himself getting hard just thinking about it, letting his mind wander over the implications. He presses his forehead to the tiles and inhales a deep breath of steam. With one forearm braced against the wall, he brings his other hand down to his cock and strokes himself to hardness, thoughts swirling and taking shape in the heat.

The thing is: Bitty doesn’t really understand what he liked about it, at first. He knows that he wanted Parse’s hands on his body, that he wanted to slump forward against Parse’s chest and be pushed back, onto the couch, and climbed on top of, that he wanted to be kissed and covered and touched. He knows that he wanted to be taken care of.

It’s a strange realization, that final knowing, and it scares him even as it drives him to stroke himself faster, harder. Because being taken care of—it means needing something that maybe someone can’t give you. It means aching trust, dependency, a faith Bitty doesn’t even really put in God, a million things he’s decided he doesn’t deserve to ask for.

So Bitty, teeth sunk into his lip and cock throbbing in his hand, skips over the asking and ends up somewhere in the having.

He’s pressed into a bed with Parse bracketed above him, strong muscles he’s pretended not to notice sunk down on him. There’s the familiar stick of hockey tape and fingers with callouses against his wrists, and the perfect pressure of being bound in place. Parse whispers, “This okay?” and Bitty remembers perfectly how it sounds.

Parse—Bitty whimpers a little and slows his strokes, tries not to come yet. He feels a little twinge of guilt, wrongness at painting Parse into this fantasy of his when Parse isn’t even—but it isn’t like Bitty hasn’t thought about people he knows, his other teammates even, before. He’s wondered what it would be like to fuck Holster or blow Ransom, and, Lord, as prickly as he is, Bitty’s sure dreamed about getting Jack Zimmermann on his knees.

Except, the thing is, this feels different, more personal. Because it’s specific, no longer aimless mind-wandering or pragmatic masturbation so he won’t be as likely to pop a boner in the middle of the lecture hall. This is about what Bitty wants, probably more than anything he’s considered sexually before.

So Bitty tries to filter Parse away, files in other men: celebrities, different teammates, that hot guy in his English class. It sticks, for little faltering seconds, but Parse keeps glitching back in with his stupid gray eyes and his gentle hands and his whispered, “This okay?”

It’s not okay, and Bitty comes in thick spurts all over the bathroom tiles to Kent Parson’s phantom lips on his neck.

 

~*~

 

Bitty scrambles to turn on his camera and spins around in his rolling chair. He’s still clutching his hockey stick to his chest. “I got an assist! I got an assist in our very first game! And I’m gonna tell y’all all about it but we went out to dinner to celebrate and now there’s a party and I gotta get changed and—and I’m just so happy, y’all! I love hockey!”

 

Bitty carefully fluffs his hair and straightens out his collar. He’s starting to second-guess the boldness of his outfit choice (a bright green shirt and tangerine shorts) because maybe it’s a little too…much and he won’t fit in and maybe—but he doesn’t have time to change because everyone specifically told him to come kind of early so he could do the first kegstand and he’s probably already late, so that’s settled, and he rushes out the door, phone in hand.

There’s already music blasting from the Haus by the time Bitty gets there. He wonders if he should knock, but he kind of doubts anyone would hear him if he did, and honestly Holster told him to stop knocking and just come in whenever like, two weeks ago. So that probably counts for kegsters, too.

Inside, it’s chaotic already and only eleven PM. There are people everywhere, maybe three times the amount of people Bitty would have assumed could fit inside this disaster zone of a former frat house. He squeezes between the bodies, people dancing and talking and drinking, searching for a familiar face. After several uncomfortable minutes, he finds Holster and Ransom who are holding court in the most crowded room of the Haus. Bitty understands now why the place is so sparsely furnished; it’s apparently in order to cram as many people as possible into a single space, as close as possible to the keg.

Shitty seems to have a sixth sense for when it’s time to give a speech, because suddenly he’s appeared, shouting over the din of the crowd about traditions and kegstands and alcohol abuse. Bitty’s spotted most of the hockey team around the room, but—

“Um, where are Jack and Parse?” Bitty asks. He’s not sure why, but he’d kind of been hoping they’d be around for this.

“Eeeeeh,” Ransom answers uncomfortably, “Jack doesn’t really do Haus parties, since he doesn’t really do drinking…anymore. Parse should be around though.”

Holster rolls his eyes and sarcastically adds, “Poor guys. Bet you at least one of them is upstairs getting sucked off by a puck bunny.”

Ransom laughs. “Parse always—speak of the devil. Jesus, bro, bunny had teeth.”  Bitty turns around to follow his gaze and blushes; Parse has a handful of hickeys on his neck and an honest to God bite mark on his shoulder, peeking out from the strap of his tank top.

Winking, Parse casually rests an elbow on Bitty’s shoulder. “Deets later. Kegstand now.”

The whole kegstand experience is kind of exhilarating. Bitty swears it’s the alcohol that leaves him flustered afterwards, not how it felt to have Parse’s hands on his leg and hip or the way Parse laughs when Bitty lowers back to the ground and stumbles into him a little.

Parse and Shitty do kegstands next, Ransom and Holster holding their legs and Bitty operating the valve a little tentatively. After that, Shitty drags Bitty away to introduce him to the wonder that is tub juice. Tub juice tastes a little like candy and a lot like someone poured a bunch of cough syrup into some rubbing alcohol and called it a day. It’s an improvement over the beer.

The next time Bitty sees Parse, he’s gone through an entire cup of tub juice and things have turned pleasantly woozy. Parse leans against the wall right next to him, their shoulders nearly touching, and looks over with sly eyes. “Bitty. Bits. There’s something you gotta know about me.”

Parse’s face is so close Bitty can feel his breath against his ear. It takes him a long time to answer. “Oh? Um. What?”

Parse grins. “I’m the best goddamn wingman on the SMH and I will get you laid as fuck.”

“Oh.” And now Bitty’s just disappointed, because he’s not sure what he wanted to hear—what he thought it was possible he’d hear—but it sure as hell wasn’t another team member trying to set him up with a girl.

“See anyone you like? I’ll totally go talk to them for you.”

“Um.”

“Seriously. I’ll go talk to ‘em, see if they’re into it. And if they are—,”

And that’s when it hits Bitty: that Parse, unlike the rest of the guys, isn’t saying she or her. Maybe it’s not purposeful; maybe it’s just how he talks. Maybe it’s everything Bitty had hoped to find at Samwell. There are more words, Parse explaining his detailed wingman technique, but Bitty’s otherwise occupied.

He’s thinking about how it would feel to say, yeah, I like that boy in the blue shirt. There’s even a tiny part of brain that’s thinking about saying, yeah, I like you. His head is buzzing and Parse has so many freckles and he might be Bitty’s best friend and his mouth is right there.

And in the end, Bitty doesn’t have the courage to say any of it. “Um, not tonight. Thanks.”

Parse doesn’t miss a beat even though Bitty’s pretty sure he interrupted him in the middle of a sentence.  He asks, “Cool. Dancing then?” and then all of a sudden he’s grabbing Bitty’s hands in both of his own and pulling him into the middle of the room, deep into the hot press of bodies all writhing in various states of intimacy.

Seemingly at random, Parse picks a spot on the pseudo-dance floor and starts dancing, shimmying his shoulders and shaking his hips with the baseline. Their hands slowly slip apart and Bitty kind of just stares, dumbfounded. Parse dances like a total dork, his hands above his head or taking off his snapback to run fingers through sweaty hair. He also looks the happiest Bitty’s ever seen him and it kind of takes him by surprise because—isn’t Parse always happy? But no, not like this, not with his eyes lidded and a goofy, soft smile on his face, not with a looseness in his body—the sudden absence of the positioning, the crafted poise as if held up by marionette strings, that Bitty had never noticed him using.

It’s maybe the most beautiful thing Bitty’s ever seen and his brain just kind of short-circuits and tells him touch. So Bitty lets the crowd jostle him, dancing along until, of course, eventually he bumps up against Parse, their shoulders knocking together. Bitty smiles sheepishly up at him, and he grins back. Bitty shimmies a little, playfully, his arm brushing up against the warm, bare muscle of Parse’s bicep. Parse presses into the contact with a laugh and then they’re dancing, not really together but in each other’s space, connected from shoulder to elbow.

The heat in the room is a palpable thing, heavy with the humidity of sweat and wrapping around Bitty’s throat. His lips are parted a little to suck in air, his head thrown back with closed eyes, and he can feel Parse watching him, can feel the buzzing energy under his skin and the little prickle on his neck. Parse bumps his hip against Bitty’s, laughs when he stumbles a few steps in surprise, beckons him back in.

Bitty goes readily, melting into Parse’s easy exuberance, and now they’re pressed together by hip, thigh, shoulder, a thousand little points of contact adding to the drunken high in Bitty’s head. This could be the best day of my life, Bitty thinks. It’s the best one so far. He’s almost scared to see what better feels like. He wonders if it exists and if anyone deserves it.

Bitty used to think about alternate universes a lot. He’d think about other places he could be, other lives he could live. When he was locked in that utility closet, when he’d given up on anyone finding him, he’d shut his eyes and thought about better. In the morning, when the janitor had finally, finally opened the door, Bitty was far away, not in Georgia, maybe not anywhere, and he’d cried and cried at the coming back home.

Tonight, in another universe, Parse likes boys and Bitty tilts his head to the side and kisses Parse on the mouth and he finally, finally knows what lips feel like, what a tongue feels like against his own. In another universe, Bitty has his thighs gripped around Kent Parson’s waist and his arms around Kent Parson’s neck as they make their way up the stairs. They collapse onto a bed, maybe not even the right one, and fuck like they’d danced, laughing and easy and happy.

But tonight, in some other universe, Eric Bittle is still scared and small somewhere in Georgia, and it isn’t the worst thing to come back home anymore.

The dancing lasts a long time, probably longer than it should have given how tired Bitty is by the end of it, but he’s not exactly about to complain.

Afterwards, Parse heads off to find Ransom and Holster, presumably to talk deets, which is a conversation Bitty would distinctly prefer to avoid participating in for a variety of reasons, so he hangs out with Shitty at the tub juice station, sampling the wares.

He’d honestly been intimidated by Shitty at first because, well, Shitty is brash and loud, but it turns out he’s mostly loud about good things, like feminism and LGBTQ+ rights and alcohol. Bitty’s becoming a pretty fast fan of the alcohol. So he hangs out with Shitty and they talk about serious things, like their childhoods (Shitty’s: bad. Bitty’s: bad), and which flavor Kool-Aid they should use for the next batch of tub juice (Shitty has always wanted to try blue raspberry, but Bitty thinks that sounds awful and votes for orange).

Bitty helps Shitty bring in the tub juice around one in the morning, when things start to settle down. Most of the strangers have filed away, leaving just the hockey bros and their closer friends, most of them still drunk but a more relaxed kind, goofy-dancing or hooking up on the furniture, which—well, Bitty knew he couldn’t trust that couch to begin with.

In the kitchen, Bitty finds Parse sitting on the counter, talking to Jack, which makes Bitty raise his eyebrows in surprise. Jack is gripping a plastic water bottle so tightly Bitty’s kind of afraid it’s going to explode, dressed in basketball shorts and a Samwell t-shirt; he looks annoyed, but not in his usual way.

“—fucking fine, seriously,” Parse is saying, voice clipped.

“Hey, y’all!” Bitty greets cheerfully, hoping to break whatever weird tension seems to be stretching between them.

Jack’s voice is gruff. “Hey, Bittle.”

“Bits! Toss me a beer, will ya?” Parse grins at him.

Bitty nods and fumbles around in the back of the fridge for the nearly empty case of Natty Light. He chucks one clumsily to Parse, who catches it without much fumbling, and cracks one open for himself.

Jack scowls at Parse and snatches the can away, hissing, “Seriously?”

He drops the can in the trash and stalks away towards the stairwell. Parse rolls his eyes and makes a grabby motion towards the beer Bitty has pressed to his lips. Bitty hesitates for a moment, fingers thrumming against the metal, but hands it over in the end. He grabs a fresh can from the fridge and hops up on the counter next to Parse.

“Gonna fucking snap and just kill the guy, one of these days,” Parse says mildly.

“Okay,” Bitty answers, a little drunk and very bewildered.

Parse laughs and clinks his can against Bitty’s in a toast.

 

~*~

 

Bitty slumps into his desk chair and grumbles in the vague direction of the camera, “Reason number five to hate my hockey captains: they woke me up. At four AM. To skate at Faber. On a Sunday. Because apparently we work harder than God now.”

 

Bitty wakes up to shouting. Specifically, his suitemate Michael shouting, “What the fuck is wrong with you people? Do you know—Eric!” There’s a loud banging on his bedroom door, “Do you know what fucking time it is?”

Bitty rolls out of bed and stumbles into the living area; Michael stalks away as soon as he catches sight of him. Jack is standing in the doorway, looking as chipper as Bitty imagines he ever looks. Next to him, Parse is swaying on his feet, barely conscious.

Bitty peers at the clock near their TV. “It’s—it’s four in the morning,”

Parse slumps against Jack’s shoulder, and Jack only half-heartedly shrugs him away. “Are you hazing me?” he mutters. He leans over again and this time Jack lets him stay. “You can’t fucking haze me, Jack, we’re the same age.”

Jack just smiles—actually smiles, like he’s amused—and looks back at Bitty. “Bittle, get your things. We’re going to Faber.”

“Like hell we are,” Bitty mutters under his breath, but he trudges back into his room to get ready anyway.

 

The walk is weird, mostly because Jack and Parse are actually getting along, apparently. Parse keeps flopping in front of Jack’s path and Jack keeps laughing under his breath like maybe it’s a secret that he laughs, and shoving Parse back upright before he falls over completely. Bitty walks on Parse’s other side and tries to figure out what sorts of things Jack is whispering to make Parse laugh so hard, but he can never quite hear.

After he gets suited up in all his gear—despite the fact that Parse and Jack are apparently skating sans pads—they head out onto the ice.

“It’s so early I’m going to vomit,” he moans, skating lazy circles in the ice around his captains.

Jack smirks and chirps, “You’ve never seen the sunrise from a rink, eh? Thought you were a figure skating champion.”

Bitty rolls his eyes and, because he’s tired and petty, does a simple spin, spraying shaved ice over Jack’s track pants. “I am and I have, Captain, but—,”

Parse, laughing, tries to copy the move and falls spectacularly on his ass. While Bitty laughs so hard he nearly wheezes, bent over with his hands on his knees, Jack skates over with an honest-to-God grin on his face. “Let’s leave that to the professionals, eh Kenny?”

“Fuck you, Zimms,” Parse shoots back, but he lets Jack pull him to his feet and thumps his head against Jack’s shoulder before skating away.

“Alright, Bittle, let’s get going,” Jack says, his face falling neutral again. “Stand up against the boards and brace yourself.”

Bitty freezes up immediately. “Um.”

Jack is skating closer at a leisurely pace; Bitty watches him nervously. “Ready?”

“Hold up, Zimms. Why don’t we try with me first?” Parse zips in from the side and grabs at Jack’s arm to come to a stop. Jack opens his mouth to argue but Parse interrupts him. “You’re a big boy, Zimms,” he says, punctuating the statement with a smack on the ass, and Jack’s responding glare has surprisingly little heat behind it. “We gotta start the kid off easy his first time.” Then Parse winks at Bitty as he skates over.

There are lots of ways Bitty’d like to be touched by Parse; he’s experienced several of them, in fact. But being smashed up against the boards while Jack barks impossible commands like square up and push through is not one of them, even if Parse is trying to whisper encouragements under his breath. If anything, that makes it worse, because Bitty is supposed to like Parse’s voice and right now he’d agree to never hear it ever again if this can just—

“Stop stop stop!” Bitty wails, shaking out of his skin, watching everything turn dull around the edges, hearing himself hit the ground before he feels it in his bones.

Parse is crouched next to him, eyes blue and swimming with worry in the harsh rink lighting. He's reaching a hand out guiltily, hovering above Bitty’s shoulder, like he’s not sure he deserves to actually touch. His hair is curled messily and Bitty wants to reach out and smooth his fingers through it. He lifts shaking hands to pull his helmet off instead and refuses to look Parse in the eye.

“What in the deep-fried hell was that?” he manages, voice quivering.

Jack sighs and puts a hand to his face. “He came at you slow. And he’s not even wearing pads.”

Parse tries to help him up; Bitty shrugs him off and stands on his own, braced on the boards to steady himself. Jack is still talking, telling him he’s a good skater, that they’re going to make this work. “Trust us,” he says, like Bitty can snap his fingers and make it happen. How nice that would be.

Bitty is silent for a moment. Parse nudges his arm gently and he nudges back. Finally, he sighs and asks, “Then how long are we going to keep doing this?”

“However long it takes, Bits,” Parse tells him, smiling softly, and wraps his arm around Bitty’s shoulders.

Jack clears his throat. “But actually there’s a youth hockey tournament today, so we have to get out of here by seven.”

“Guess we better get back to it, then,” Parse says, but breaks into a laugh when Bitty whispers in mock horror, “He means seven AM, right?”

 

~*~

 

They stay on the ice until 6:58 when people start to file in to set up for the tournament. Bitty is exhausted, the kind of soul-tired that drags down the skin around his eyes and pulls a fog over his brain. He’d stopped counting the number of times he dropped to the ice when he hit double digits and it feels like there’s a bruise from each one. Parse and Jack are laughing, caught in some sort of wrestling match that Jack is clearly winning while Bitty strips out of his gear.

“Ow, don’t cheat, Kenny!”

“I’m giving you a handicap, Zimms, you have like thirty pounds on me. I mean, most of that is ass-weight, but—ow, rude.”

They seem so nonchalant, completely at home here and with each other. Bitty kind of wants to kill them. He finishes changing back into his clothes and gets up to leave, sulking away with his eyes trained on the floor. Except of course Parse notices, because he’s apparently got some sort of alarm that goes off in his head whenever Bitty wants to be alone that says, hey, go ruin that thing.

“Hey Bits, wait up! D’you guys wanna go get breakfast?” Parse asks, jogging up next to him.

Jack declines, “Think I’ll go for a run.”

Bitty glances up at Parse’s face and finds it suspiciously blank. “Honestly? I want to go back to my dorm and sleep for ten years.”

“Bitty. Bits.” Parse puts a hand on Bitty’s shoulder. “We can sleep when we’re dead.”

Bitty shoots back, “Which’ll be sooner for you than for me, Mr. Parson, if you don’t let me go home.” His tone comes out harsher than he intended, but he’s too goddamn drained to care. Jack snickers anyway.

Something flashes across Parse’s face that he can’t place. “Okay, okay. Uh, walk with me at least? Since you’re on the way.”

With a resigned shrug, Bitty agrees and heads outside, shoulders braced against the morning chill. Jack nudges Parse in farewell and peels away, back in the direction of the Haus. The resulting silence is uncharacteristically awkward, with Bitty’s eyes trained on the ground and Parse watching the autumn foliage rustle in the light breeze.

They’ve reached the Pond before Parse speaks. “Um, so—,” he looks over at Bitty and falters, then shoves his hands in his pockets and looks away again, staring off at the horizon. “I—fuck. Do you—what happens when you—,” he gestures vaguely with one hand, “Do you remember it?”

Sometimes there’s blood—his blood—everywhere and sometimes it’s just the sounds and sometimes he’s not hitting the boards he’s smashing into a row of lockers so hard he leaves a dent and sometimes it’s everything and nothing all at once.

Bitty curls farther into himself, becomes a small, hunched little creature in the face of the October wind and the world. “No.”

“It’s just—you, uh—you say things, you know? Sometimes.” Parse stares at Bitty’s shoes, like it’s the closest he can get to really looking at him.

“Oh.” Bitty stares at his shoes too; one degree of separation suspended between their gazes. “Like—like what?”

At some point they stopped walking. Bitty isn’t sure when or who did it first, just that he realizes suddenly they’re standing on the Beach, both unnaturally intent on the same pair of sneakers and taking turns grinding out little bunches of words. Parse shifts his weight and clears his throat before finally saying, voice hushed even though there’s no one else around, “’Please don’t hurt me again.’”

Bitty takes a long time just to say, “Oh.” He turns his head to the Pond, where the sky is still brooding, not yet tinged by the pink early morning light bleeding outwards from behind them. When his eyes flick over next, Parse has followed his gaze to stare at the horizon. He’s backlit by the sun, strange morning shadows dancing over his face and catching in his hair.

“I just—I’m not gonna, like, make you talk about it, but I just—you can, you know?” His voice is timid, but maybe not insincere like Bitty had feared it would be. “I’m—I’m here. For you. If you—if you want.”

They make eye contact for the first time in nearly ten minutes. Parse’s eyes are pale and strange in the half-sunlight, nearly unnerving. He smiles just a little. Bitty nods and manages, “Thanks, I’ll—I don’t know if—but, thank you.”

The world clicks back into motion and they walk again, slower than before, careful footsteps crunching down against the early crop of fallen leaves. “’Course, Bits,” Parse says, smile wider than before, and reaches out to ruffle Bitty’s hair. “Sure I can’t drag you to breakfast?”

Bitty, exhausted as he is, thinks about it before responding, “No, sorry, I just—I’m really tired.”

Parse shrugs. “No worries.” They reach the intersection where their paths diverge and linger for a moment, shifting awkwardly on the balls of their feet, reluctant to move away. Finally, Parse says, “Um, see ya soon, Bits.” He reaches out for what was probably meant to be just a pat on the shoulder, but Bitty thinks it's a hug, so he turns into it awkwardly and then freezes with his arms sort of hovering near Parse’s sides as he realizes the mistake.

“Um—,” Bitty starts, but Parse just laughs and pulls them together into a real embrace, arms snug around Bitty’s back and cheek warm against his temple. Bitty’s chin hooks perfectly on Parse’s shoulder and he can feel the shuddering of his chest when he breathes.

“Bye, Bits,” Parse murmurs, and then his arms slip away and he goes, a wave thrown over his shoulder as he walks.

Bitty waves back, and he stands for a long time in the growing light before he moves away.

 

~*~

 

“So,” Bitty says, swiveling in his rolling chair, “Shitty keeps goin’ on about how hockey culture is—let’s go with paradoxical. And I’m starting to see what he means.”

 

There’s a lot of things Bitty had known would be different between his small-time co-ed hockey team back home and the NCAA. For one thing, there’s the checking—but he tries to think about that as little as possible and it’s worked out decently so far. And, well, he expected there to be some differences in how the team acted, just—not like this.

The locker room is like a weird war zone with rules of engagement that are impossible to understand. Clearly there’s supposed to be an eyes-to-yourself policy, except Holster literally just felt up Ransom’s calf muscles in order to compliment them and Shitty keeps going on about how Jack’s ass is “sculpted from Canadian marble” and Ollie and Wicks are comparing their abs.

When Parse walks back in from the showers, using his only towel to dry off his hair, Jack chirps, “Put some clothes on, eh Parse? No one wants to see your dick,” even though Shitty has been standing around naked for a good ten minutes, but apparently it’s an old joke between them because Parse just rolls his eyes and laughs.

“Like no one wants to see your ass, right?” he answers, and of course he whips his towel at Jack to punctuate the statement, which makes Shitty start arguing in protest. Parse just smirks and hits Shitty’s ass next, and Shitty retaliates in kind, and pretty soon half the locker room has been recruited into some weird ass-slapping fight while Bitty slips into his clothes as quickly as possible, eyes fixed firmly on his gear bag, back guardedly against the wall to avoid being pulled into the mess.

So yeah, it’s been weird.

 

Their second home game, they’re up by two points halfway through second period, and the whole team is feeling pretty good. Bitty’s perched near the end of the bench, watching the first line skate off at the end of their shift. Jack gets back first and sits next to him, downing half a water bottle as he does so. “Hey, Bittle,” he greets, “playing well tonight.”

Bitty ducks his head to hide his blush. “Oh, um, thanks, Jack! You—you too.”

Jack looks like he might be about to answer, but Parse skates over and plops down right in his lap. It’s not that weird of a thing—Shitty routinely sits pretty much anywhere but on the actual bench, and Holster enjoys squashing people underneath him on a semi-regular basis—but Bitty’s never seen anyone try to do it to Jack.

Apparently for good reason, because Jack grunts and shoves Parse right off. “Ugh, Zimms, rude,” Parse complains, but then he looks over at Bitty with a glint in his eye that’s not at all comforting. “Fine, Bits’ll be my lap buddy.”

“What, no—,” but Parse is already sitting on Bitty’s thighs and leaning back into him. “Oh my God.”

“Dude,” Holster tells Parse in mock horror, “don’t squash Bitty. We like him.”

“’m fine,” Bitty protests through a mouthful of Parse’s jersey, “mostly.” And honestly, the mostly is because Parse’s very nice ass is very close to Bitty’s crotch, not because he’s too heavy or anything. So Bitty can definitely probably deal with that. Maybe.

Bitty’s not expecting it to actually become a thing, except it one hundred percent does. Whenever he gets back to the bench, if Parse is there he pulls Bitty down into his lap, hands resting comfortably on Bitty’s thighs. And pretty soon, Bitty’s used to watching a quarter of the game from behind Parse’s shoulder, head poked around the side while someone makes the inevitable chirp about crushing the frog that they both ignore.

It becomes a thing at the Haus, too, which should probably be weirder, but for some reason never quite feels that way. Bitty comes over one afternoon to hang out (instead of doing his biology homework) and finds everyone squished together on the couch—except Jack, who’s in the armchair—watching old episodes of 30 Rock.

“Oh, hey y’all,” Bitty says, and goes to drag in a chair from the kitchen like he always does when the room is full like this.

Except Parse just goes, “Hey Bits, you can sit with me,” and leans back farther into the couch.

“Um.” Bitty hesitates, biting his lip, but no one seems to even bat an eye. Jack kind of peers at him for a second, but honestly that’s Jack’s expression half the time so it’s sort of meaningless, as far as reading a room goes. “Okay.”

It’s a significantly more intimate experience without all the hockey pads between them. Bitty can feel the soft curve of Parse’s thighs, the jut of his collarbone when he leans forward into Bitty’s back to watch the TV more intently. Parse is warm, buzzing from the beer he’s holding in one hand, and whenever something particularly funny happens he smacks lightly at Bitty’s leg with his free hand, like he’s making sure Bitty heard, and buries his face in his shoulder while he cackles.

And Bitty can see why everyone likes this so much, why girls back in high school—even now, at Haus parties—were always so sly about sliding into boys’ laps, leaning back against their chests and getting arms wrapped around their waists. It’s not quite the same here, of course, no matter what Bitty wants it to be; this is just an extension of a hockey thing, part of the strange overfamiliarity this team seems to have developed. But Bitty thinks, one day. One day he’ll have this for real, and it’s a nice little start.

 

~*~

 

There’s a Haus party almost every weekend, Bitty learns, depending on how you define a party. Sometimes they’re little get-togethers, mostly just the twenty-some people on the hockey team and significant others. Other nights, like tonight, there’s anywhere upwards of fifty people crammed into the Haus from all over Samwell, all dancing and drinking like crazy.

Bitty’s trying to avoid giving this very nice girl the impression that he’d like to kiss her when Parse finds him. “Bitty. Bits. Come be my beer pong partner.”

“Oh, sure? I’ll prob’ly be awful at it; I’ve never played,” he admits, but Parse is already dragging him away towards the table.

“S’cool. Normally I play with Lardo and she fucking shames me, but she’s studying abroad, so—.” Parse shrugs.

Holster and Ransom are hanging out near the beer pong table, maybe waiting their turn to play, maybe just chatting up the two girls who are apparently the opponents. Bitty raises an eyebrow at Parse. “Wait, um, who’s Lardo?”

“Bro,” Parse laughs, “I forgot you haven’t met her! Lardo’s our team manager—,”

“And Shitty’s future wife,” Ransom cuts in.

Holster nods and adds, “She just, uh, doesn’t know that yet.”

Bitty giggles. “That she’s the manager or Shitty’s wife?”

Laughing, Parse hands Bitty a ping pong ball. “Second thing. Poor guy’s got it bad. But look, we gotta—we gotta focus, Bits, okay?” He waves jauntily at the girls across the table and winks at them for good measure.

Bitty does not focus. He plays half-hearted beer pong (which doesn’t seem to matter, because Parse is actually really good) and divides most of his attention between the listening to the ridiculous stories Rans and Holster tell about Lardo and watching Parse flirt with their opponents.

They get the girls down to the last cup when there’s still three on their own side of the table. Apparently the Haus rule is to do shots before trying to sink the last ball. Parse shotguns an entire beer instead because “fuck vodka it’s disgusting,” and Bitty chirps him to hell and back for it after downing his glass without batting an eye.

“Okay, okay Bits. Bitty,” Parse says very seriously, swaying on his feet a little while he talks, “I’m gonna make this shot okay? But you gotta—,” he bends down so they’re at perfect eye level and puts his free hand on Bitty’s shoulder, “you gotta blow on it for good luck.”

Bitty blinks slowly. Parse’s eyes are bright and close and flecked with green. He shakes his head and giggles. “I ain’t—I’m not doin’ that. It’s silly.”

“Bits, ‘s tradition.” Parse actually pouts a little bit, which is honestly ridiculous and Bitty cannot handle it right now.

“O-okay, fine,” he sighs, and Parse grins and holds the ball up right between their faces. Bitty puckers his lips and blows gently, blushing and looking away as soon as he’s done. Parse straightens and lines up for his shot, eyebrow quirked in concentration.

The ball clips the rim but splashes into the cup and by the time Bitty processes that they’ve won, Parse is already lifting him into air and cheering. When he puts him down, Parse slings an arm around his shoulders and walks them over to the girls to shake their hands.

“Good game, boys,” one of them, a tall blonde who’s got her hair tucked under a pink camo ballcap, says. She smiles knowingly at Bitty. “Y’all are cute together.”

Bitty’s sure he’s turning bright red. He stammers quickly, “Oh, um—we’re not—he’s just—,”

Parse just laughs and ruffles Bitty’s hair before dropping his hand back to his shoulder. “We’re teammates.”

The other girl, shorter and brunette, looks between them with a smirk before settling her gaze on Parse. “So does that mean you’re single?”

Bitty resists the urge to rolls his eyes and says, “He is,” nudging Parse in the side. He ducks out from under Parse’s arm and goes to stand with Ransom and Holster, who are resetting the beer pong table for the next round. Parse turns to wink at him and he gives a thumbs up in response.

 

~*~

 

It’s another early Sunday morning trek to Faber. Bitty’s gotten used to the four AM wake-up time pretty quickly, even if he still wishes he were curled up in bed; Parse, on the other hand, is basically asleep on his feet as always.

“Zimms. Jack. I’m too tired; carry me.” He paws at Jack’s arm like a cat.

Jack snorts and pushes him away. “No.”

“Bits. Bitty, my man. Carry me?”

“Kent Parson, you are a grown ass man. I ain’t—,” except Bitty apparently doesn’t have a say in the matter, because Parse ignores him and jumps up onto his back, wrapping his legs around his waist. “Good Lord, seriously?” Bitty stumbles but regains his balance, and grabs Parse’s legs with a resigned sigh. “I should drop you. I hope you know that.”

Parse just shrugs and props his chin up on Bitty’s shoulder. “Yo, Bits, your hair smells like really fucking good.”

Jack presses a hand to his face. Bitty glances sideways at Parse. “Um, thanks? It’s just—it’s just my shampoo.”

“Sexy shampoo,” Parse amends. He leans his head against Bitty’s cheek and closes his eyes. “Wake me up when we get there.”

“Oh my God, you’re the worst,” Bitty complains, though to be honest he’s a little less annoyed by the situation than he’s letting on.

Jack elbows him gently, his wry smile barely visible in the pre-dawn light. “Better you than me, Bittle.”

“Gee, thanks, Captain.”

 

~*~

 

“So, it’s family weekend at Samwell, and my mother made the seven hour trip from Madison to Atlanta to Boston to here.” Bitty sighs. “Things have already gotten—interesting.”

 

The Wednesday before family weekend, Bitty shoves a nearly empty pie tin back across the bed towards Parse and gripes, “It’s not like I’m not excited to see her, it’s just—when she gets excited about things, she can be a bit much, you know?”

Parse snorts affectionately. “Says the guy who jacked our oven five minutes after being invited inside.”

Bitty sticks his tongue out at him. “Yeah, but what would y’all do without my cooking?”

“Die from sriracha overdose, probably.” Parse flops down onto the bed with his feet dangling off the edge and stares up at him. Humming in solemn agreement, Bitty lays down too, so the tops of their heads bump together. They stare at the ceiling in silence until Parse says, so quietly Bitty almost misses it, “At least she’s coming.”

“Hm?” Bitty angles his head to try and get a better look at Parse’s face.

“At least she’s coming,” he repeats. “My mom, she—uh, I mean, she probably has work, but—.” He goes silent.

Bitty bites his lip. “Do you—would you wanna have dinner with us, then? I’m sure my mother would love to meet you.”

Parse laughs softly. “Thanks, Bits. I’ll uh—I might have plans, but I’ll try okay?”

 

~*~

 

“Oh, and did you see that cobbler recipe posted to our site?” His mother asks, looping her arm through his as they leave Faber, leaves crunching under their feet.

Bitty rolls his eyes affectionately. “Mother, please. You know I check our Pinterest like it’s the news.”

They chatter while they walk towards the Haus, which Bitty’s a little nervous about showing her, but she practically insisted, and he really shouldn’t have talked about it so much if he wasn’t prepared to introduce her, he figures. They pass Jack on the way there, who’s walking quickly in the opposite direction, back towards Faber.

“Oh, hey Jack!” Bitty stops to greet him, but Jack barely slows down until he’s already passed them and looking over his shoulder.

“Bittle, hi—oh, you must be Mrs. Bittle, hello, sorry, I—I’m late to meet my dad.” He gives a short wave and then gestures off into the distance.

Bitty waves back, but Jack’s back is already turned again. “Oh, uh—alright then.”

His mother is apparently unfazed. “Well, he was certainly in a hurry. And even more handsome in person, Dicky! I can only imagine what his father looks like.”

Bitty groans. “Mother, I’m begging you—please stop talking about Bob Zimmermann. If the boys hear you goin’ on about it I’ll never hear the end of it.”

She tuts, “Oh hush, Dicky, you’re not too proud to be seen with your mother now, are you?”

“No, ma’am,” he sighs, “I just—never mind. Just don’t say anything, okay?”

“I’m sure I can find some other way to embarrass you,” she teases, and Bitty sighs in resignation. They reach the Haus, and he can actually feel her forcing down the shock she’s experiencing. “Oh, Dicky, it’s—charming.”

Defensively, he starts, “I know it’s not much to look at but—,”

The front door swings open and Parse steps outside, frowning fiercely at his phone. He looks up and brightens slightly at the sight of them. “Hey, Bits! Have you—you haven’t seen Jack, have you?”

“Um yeah actually, he went—I think he was looking for his dad.” Bitty points in the direction Jack went. “Why?”

Parse’s face falls again, something like pain flashing across it as he shoves his phone into his pocket. He’s dressed nicer than normal, in khakis and a green button-down, a plain black snapback facing forward on his head. “Nothing. Never mind.”

“Okay, well—um, Kent, this is my mother. Mother, this is Kent, he’s—,” Bitty hesitates. His mother knows who Parse is; Bitty’s probably talked about him more than any of his other teammates, but that feels awkward to admit. “He’s a really good friend of mine on the team.”

Parse looks up at that and smiles, nodding at Bitty before turning to his mother and shaking her hand. “Nice to meet you, ma’am.”

“Good to meet you too, Kent. Dicky’s told me so much about you,” she gushes as they walk into the Haus together, and Bitty winces. “Don’t worry, all good things, of course.”

“Mother—,”

Parse smirks and quirks an eyebrow at Bitty, chirping him silently. “Well, Dicky’s been pretty great to have around.” Bitty buries his face in his hands.

Bitty and his mother start on a pie crust while Parse “supervises,” which amounts to being a nuisance. Ransom and Holster are already out with their families, but Shitty is around and stops by to say hello. Mercifully, he’s wearing boxers.

After Shitty heads off and the pie crust is almost done, Parse nudges Bitty and quietly asks, “Hey, uh—are you guys still going to dinner?”

Bitty looks up at his mother and they share a brief, silent communication. The thing is: dinner had been the plan a whole two days ago, and Bitty had kind of figured Parse wasn’t coming because he never brought it up again, and so in true Bittle fashion somewhere between the airport and Faber “going out to eat” had become “bake a pie in the frat house and maybe order a pizza.”

But his mother, God bless her, seems to understand something in the purse of Bitty’s lips, or maybe Parse’s sudden fascination with the linoleum flooring, because she says, “Of course! Dicky was just telling me about that great place—what was it—?”

“Annie’s—,” Bitty scrambles to supply.

“Annie’s—you’ll join us, won’t you dear?” She wipes the flour off her hands and pats Parse on the shoulder.

If Parse thinks Annie’s Café is a strange place to eat dinner (it is), he doesn’t say anything about it. He just looks up at them with a smile and says, “Yeah, sure. Thanks.”

 

~*~

 

Annie’s is a short walk from the Haus. Once they get there, they order sandwiches and coffees at the counter and find a booth in the corner, Parse and Bitty sliding into one side and his mother on the other. Parse swipes his finger across the whipped cream on top of Bitty’s latte and Bity swats his hand away.

“Shoo! Order your own next time,” he scolds.

Parse sighs dramatically. “But I don’t like it in the coffee, Bits. You know this.”

Rolling his eyes, Bitty thinks to himself, this boy, and looks up to see his mother smiling at them with a strange, soft expression.

“So, Kent,” she says, “Dicky says you’re majoring in mathematics.”

“Because he’s a crazy person,” Bitty mumbles.

Parse glares at him playfully. “Numbers are fun.”

“You will literally never make me believe that.”

Ignoring him, save for a brief smirk, Parse turns back to Bitty’s mother. “But yeah, I’m a math major. Took me a little while to figure out what I wanted to do. I mean, college wasn’t—I didn’t think I’d end up here.” He laughs, and Bitty’s not sure if he’s imagining the bitterness or not.

“Oh, well,” his mother says briskly, “the Lord has a path for each of us, sweetheart. I’m sure you’re right where you’re meant to be.”

Bitty knows she’s just trying to be kind, and that she even means it, but he’s also spent enough drunk Saturdays with Parse to be pretty damn sure it won’t help at all. He slides his foot against Parse’s under the table, a little in comfort but mostly in warning. Parse leans in with his knee, so that their calves are pressed together, and simply says, “Um, thank you.”

The woman working at the counter calls out their food order, which thankfully derails the conversation. When they sit back down, Parse knocks their knees together again, a simple sharing of space that Bitty honestly has no remaining context for but isn’t exactly going to complain about.

“So, Mrs. B,” Parse asks, “Dicky says you work at a doctor’s office?”

“Oh my God, stop,” Bitty mutters under his breath. Parse just winks and turns back to Mother, who’s waving her hands excitedly while she talks about her job.

 

~*~

 

“I think ‘Dicky’ suits you,” Parse argues with a cackle, after they leave Bitty’s mother in the safe-keeping of Ransom’s and Holster’s families.

“Ugh,” Bitty groans, “what do I gotta do to convince you to keep that between us?”

Parse rubs his chin thoughtfully. “Hm. One million dollars.”

Bitty snorts. “You’ll be makin’ twice that per year, pretty soon.”

“You don’t know that, Bits. I could end up an accountant in fuckin’ Queens.” His tone is light, maybe overly so.

Bitty hesitates before chirping, “Don’t sell yourself short. You could make it in Manhattan.” Parse laughs and knocks their shoulders together while they walk. They’re quiet for a long moment before Bitty softly asks, looking up at Parse, “You don’t really think that, do you?”

Parse doesn’t turn his head. “’Course not,” he says, and it’s not convincing at all.

 

~*~

 

There’s less than three minutes left in the game with still no points on the board, and for some reason Bitty’s out on the ice. He really feels like he shouldn’t be out here, that there must be someone better—even though Jack’s been skating off all night and nothing he tries to shoot to Parse is connecting (if he tries to pass at all)—someone who could make bigger plays or actually check the opposition or—

Shitty has the puck but a D-man slams him hard into the boards, sending the puck flying. Bitty’s brain shuts off except for the burn in his legs, the line the puck traces through the air, the smacking sound it makes when it catches against his stick. Nearly frantic, Bitty skates hard and fast towards the net, tries to filter out the shouts of the opposing team, looks for someone to pass to but Shitty is still behind him and Wicks is across the rink and—

“Bitty, shoot!” Ransom yells.

He does, instinctively, even though he’s already convinced it won’t go in except the next time he opens his eyes it’s to the blaring of the buzzer overhead and four teammates speeding towards him with grins on their faces.

Shitty gets to him first, crushing him into a hug amidst a stream of curse words. Bitty catches a glimpse of the bench over his shoulder, finds Parse—on his feet, cheering with a huge grin on his face—instantly, before Holster and Ransom envelope him and obscure the view.

He skates off in a state of relative shock, interrupted only by the strange urge to get back to the bench as quickly as possible. The whole team is congratulating him, slapping his back or ass and offering fistbumps. Bitty goes past them all in a daze, not even jumping at all the contact, until he’s standing in front of Parse.

“I scored,” he tells him, like it’s possible he didn’t see.

“Hell fucking yeah, you did, Bits!” Parse cheers, and before Bitty knows it he’s being pulled down into Parse’s lap, arms curled all the way around his waist and Parse’s face smashed into his neck. “I’m so fucking proud of you, Bitty.”

“I—,” Bitty stutters and has to start over with new words. “Thank you.”

Bitty stays wrapped up by Parse for most of the rest of the game, staring at the slow tick of the clock on the scoreboard instead of the ice, while the whole thing sinks in. Then Parse’s line gets pulled for the last shift of the game and Bitty sinks down to the bench in the space he leaves, leaning sideways until he thumps onto Ransom’s shoulder.

 

~*~

 

Bitty’s starting to feel giddy by the time he changes out of his gear and goes looking for his mother, Parse ambling along with him. They find her waiting in a hallway near the locker rooms, looking excited and a little lost, and she immediately starts taking pictures of Bitty on her phone, then handing the phone off to Parse so he can take some of the two of them. She chatters all the while, gushing about how proud she is of Bitty, how great Parse looked on the ice too, when finally Bitty manages to say, “Thanks. I’m just—I’m still in shock. But we should really shower up now.”

“Oh, before you two go, lemme take one more picture—,”

A voice Bitty doesn’t recognize, thick with a French accent and warm, offers, “Would you like one of all three of you?” Mother’s eyes go wide as Bitty and Parse turn around. Bad Bob Zimmermann is standing in front of them, eyes crinkled up in a smile, Jack tense at his side. “Though you might want Jack to take it—he’s always been a better shot than me.”

Jack, arms crossed and voice uncomfortably flat, starts, “Dad, this is—,”

But Bad Bob is too busy pulling a startled Parse into a hug while Bitty watches, wide-eyed. “Kenny, so good to see you, son! We missed you at dinner.”

Parse grunts into Bad Bob’s shoulder, arms going up somewhat belatedly to reciprocate the hug. “Hey, Dad. Sorry.” Bitty tilts his head and frowns a little in confusion. He knows—from his adventures with Google—that Parse has known the Zimmermanns for years, that Bad Bob apparently pulled strings to keep Parse billeted with them the entire time he was in the Q. But this—looks and sounds like a hell of a lot more than a reunion between mentor and student.

When they pull apart, Bitty catches Parse’s gaze shifting to Jack as he adds, “Missed you too.”

Jack coughs and tries again, “Dad, this is Eric Bittle and his mom. Bittle’s the one I told you about—the figure skater.”

“Oh, pardon my manners! Pleasure to meet you both.” Bad Bob shakes Mother’s hand first, then Bitty’s.

Bitty, a little star-struck and caught off-guard by Parse’s reception, flounders and stammers, “Nice to meet you Bad B—uh. Oh. Mister Bad B—ah. U-um. Mister Jack’s Dad!” Parse snorts and pats Bitty on the back with a smirk. As if Parse needed any more chirping material.

“Hah! Please, just call me Bob.” Bitty nods nervously, but before he has time to dwell, Bob is letting go of his hand to clasp him on the shoulder instead and continuing on, “I gotta say, I was a bit worried when I first saw you on the ice, but—well, I suppose I thought the same thing about Kenny back in the day, eh?” He winks at Parse and then turns back to Bitty. “That was a clutch shot, son.”

They chatter about hockey for a while, Jack stalking away halfway through with a glower leveled at Bitty as he brushes past. Bitty bites his lip, but turns back to the conversation in time to hand his phone over to Bob to get some photos.

When that mess is over with, Bob shakes the Bittles’ hands again and pulls Parse into another hug. It’s an unrushed affair, complete with a short, murmured conversation in what might very well be French instead of English. They switch back at the end though, when Parse chuckles and tries to pull away. “I gotta go, Dad. I’ll—I’ll see you, I guess.”

“Call any time, Kenny,” Bob says, voice warm and maybe nostalgic, “I mean it.”

“I know,” Parse tells him, his voice faltering over the words. Bitty looks away guiltily, suddenly feeling like he’s been peering into some private thing that doesn’t belong to him. Then, clearing his throat, Parse slings an arm around Bitty’s shoulders and says lightly, “C’mon, Bits. Let’s go shower up; you smell rank.”

“Excuse you, Parson,” Bitty snorts, “You smell worse.” He makes sure his mother knows how to get to her hotel and sets a time to meet her tomorrow morning, and then they’re off to the locker rooms in a flurry of chirps.

 

~*~

 

There’s no party after the game tonight, since some family members will be hanging around, so Bitty’s just looking forward to going back to his dorm, maybe getting some homework done (a very reluctant maybe) and recording a vlog post. But as he and Parse are heading out of the locker room, Bitty catches sight of Jack ahead of them and runs to catch up. Bitty’s proud of his goal and all, but he knows he couldn’t have done it without all the help Jack and Parse have been giving him and, well, that’s the sort of thing that needs to be said.

“Hey, Jack! Wait up! I’m so glad I caught you,” he pants. Jack doesn’t turn around, but he does stop walking, at least. “’Cause, um. I just wanted to say again, good game. And thank—,”

“Bittle,” Jack cuts in. His voice is dismissive, almost sneering. “It was a lucky shot.”

Bitty stands and stares as Jack walks away, feet thudding lightly against the concrete steps. He gnaws at his bottom lip and jumps when Parse puts a hand on his shoulder. “Fucking—,” Parse mutters, then turns to Bitty with more conviction, “Fuck him, Bits. You played great.”

Before Bitty can say anything back, though, Parse is jogging off to catch up to Jack. He rests a hand on his back when he does, and Jack turns to him, head hung low. Bitty can’t quite make out their words and he doesn’t particularly want to, but he can hear the gentle lilt of their voices as their silhouettes melt into the October night.

And here’s the thing: Jack is kind of an asshole. Bitty’s known that from basically day one; it’s a steady, reliable fact, part of the Samwell Men’s Hockey experience. So really, it’s not that big of a deal, what Jack just said. It stings like hell, and certainly takes the edge off Bitty’s pride, but that’s how things go.

The part that’s worse, the part that puts the sick little twisting ache in Bitty’s belly, is the way Parse goes so easily to him, like Jack’s the one who’s wounded from the encounter.

The part that’s the worst of all is this: the reminder that whatever Bitty is to Parse, Jack is clearly more.

 

~*~

 

Bitty gets home and finds Chad curled up on the couch, headphones in watching something on his laptop. He waves at him half-heartedly and gets no response, which really was to be expected. After recording a cathartic video he probably won’t end up posting and giving up on the pretense of working on homework, he changes into sleep shorts and his favorite old t-shirt and climbs into bed. With Señor Bun tucked secretively against his chest, he scrolls through all the pictures he took with his mother throughout the day, filtering the ones he’d like to post to Facebook.

Knowing full well he won’t be able to get to sleep before midnight, Bitty thumbs through his social media, adding a few things to the family Pinterest board, catching up on the Instagram feeds of his old hockey teammates. Not twenty minutes later, his phone pings with a notification from Facebook: Kent Parson made your photo his profile picture.

Bitty raises an eyebrow at his phone, like it’ll provide him some sort of answer, and clicks on the notification. It’s the very last photo Bad Bob had taken using Bitty’s phone, after his mother had bowed out and gone to stand with Bob, chatting him up like Sunday after church, bless her heart. Bitty hadn’t even realized Bob was still taking pictures.

It’s not really that great of a picture, objectively speaking; Bob was probably right about Jack being better with a camera. It’s just the tiniest bit blurry and off-center, but Bitty had posted it anyway, mostly as a self-indulgence. Parse has his arm around Bitty, but he’s reached up to ruffle his hair; he’s just said something chirpy, causing Bitty to roll his eyes fondly, and he’s laughing at his own joke with his freckled nose all crinkled up and eyes bright. It’s the most them thing Bitty has ever seen.

Parse’s caption just reads, “Besties :D”

Bitty scrubs a hand over his face and raises his eyes towards the ceiling. “Message received,” he says, and hits ‘like’ on the photo before shoving his phone under his pillow.

 

~*~

 

Bitty checks again to make sure none of his suitemates are home before he continues. “—so I thought I could be myself here, even if I was on the hockey team. The only thing is…I’ve kind of waited all of fall semester to actually come out to my teammates. Oops.” He reaches instinctively for the little stack of notecards in his bag, running his finger along the tops. “Well, wish me luck, y’all.”

 

Winter Screw—Bitty honestly can’t remember what the dance is actually called—is right around the corner, and it seems like no one will shut up about it. Which is sort of becoming a problem for Bitty.

Most of the gang is walking to breakfast at the dining hall when Ransom and Holster pounce on him like bro-jackals.

Holster brags, “We even found a date for Jack “The Pickiest Man Alive” Zimmerma—,”

“Hey!”

“—and we would’ve found one for Shitty if he wasn’t holding out for Lardo,” Ransom adds.

Shitty grumbles, “Fuck you guys.”

Ransom ignores him. “So come on, Bits—what’s your type?”

Men. Bitty, of course, doesn’t say it. He looks up and finds all four of them, even Jack, staring at him with interest. And, not surprising himself in the slightest, he bolts.

There’s not actually a pie in the library, obviously, but Bitty walks there anyway and sinks down to the steps out front, head in his hands. He’s not sure why he’s having such a hard time with this; it’s not that he doesn’t trust his teammates, logically, to support him. But there’s still the little trickling voice in the back of his mind, ticking steady like a metronome, lie—hide—lie—hide, that he can’t seem to push away.

“’Sup, Bits?” Bitty looks up to see Parse, who’s just walked out of Founder’s with a girl under his arm. She’s got sleek black glasses that take up half her face and pretty red hair in a braid.

“See you in class, Kent,” she says, and heads off, her boots clicking against the concrete.

Parse waves to her and plops down next to Bitty on the steps. “You okay?” He stares expectantly, waiting for his answer. Bitty tugs at his bottom lip and stares back. He can hear his opening line in his head. No, I like boys and I’ve never told anyone. The problem is, he can’t picture the part that comes next.

Because here’s the thing: Bitty knows Parse is a really good guy. He talks with Shitty all the time about the importance of neutral pronoun usage and affirming less common sexualities, and Bitty’s never seen him fail to walk the walk once. And outside of that, he’s just plain Bitty’s best friend. If it were any other secret, any other close-guarded revelation, Bitty would hand it to Parse first in an instant.

But here’s the other thing: it’s one thing to be accepting, in the abstract. It’s another thing to know that your teammate—the guy you change next to in the locker room, the guy who sits on your lap when the couch is full, the guy who introduced you to his mother—just might want to fuck you.

So, “Everything’s fine,” is what Bitty tells him, and he gets up hurriedly to leave. “I just forgot something, uh, in my dorm. See you at breakfast?”

“Um, sure,” Parse answers, and Bitty waves erratically over his shoulder while he flees.

 

~*~

 

So it’s Shitty, in the end, by the river bank on a bench, who listens when Bitty says, “I’m gay,” for the very first time. It’s Shitty who watches Bitty pace back and forth with his foot sliding against the same patch of ice over and over and listens to the speech carefully scribbled onto notecards until Bitty’s finally ready to let the words come out, who tells him it’s okay he waited so long, that it was his choice to do it at all.

He’s not quite weightless; he’s not sure he’ll ever get to feel that way. But there’s something different in the way he moves, a light dizziness in his steps like he’d been wading through water and now his limbs don’t drag and it’s too easy to get around.

Bitty looks at Shitty while they walk and smiles. “You know, Shitty, you’re good at this! You really just took this whole coming out thing in stride. You could be a peer counselor or something.”

Shitty shrugs. “Idk, bro, I’m kinda used to it. People just come out to me all the fucking time. Fuck you not—sophomore year? Six different people came out to me in a week.”

“No!” Bitty laughs, feeling a little giddy.

“Bits. I felt like I had a goddamn sign taped to my back that said ‘Will Affirm All Sexual Identities.’”

Giggling, Bitty suggests, “Maybe it’s, um—like pheromones or something.”

“I should donate my fucking body to science or something.” After a moment of quiet, Shitty asks, “Are you gonna tell anyone else?”

Bitty nods nervously, “Um, Ransom and Holster, for, uh—Screw, obviously.” He looks up nervously and then back down. “And I think—I don’t want it to be a big thing? So people can kind of just know if it comes up.” He waits for a long time, still convincing himself of the statement before he manages to admit, “I should probably tell Parse, though.”

“So I mean, you fucking never have to tell anyone, Bits. That’s always your goddamn choice,” Shitty reminds him, and he smiles faintly in response, “But why’re you making it sound like that’ll be harder?”

“Um, I just—,” Bitty struggles to find the right words, “He’s my—well, one of my—he’s my best friend and I—we’re—what if it makes him uncomfortable and things aren’t the same anymore or—,”

Shitty puts a steadying hand on Bitty’s shoulder. “Bits. First of all? You’re the same person you’ve been the whole fucking time okay? You’re just more open about you, and even if you’re into Parse—,”

“I’m not!” Bitty squeaks, too quickly, flapping his hands in protest, “I’m not—I don’t—I don’t think about my teammates that way.”

“Hey, you guys are super fucking close. It wouldn’t be that weird if you were—,”

“Shitty, no, okay?” Bitty cuts him off again, voice tinged with a little desperation. “It’s not—that’s not why.”

Shitty holds his hands up in defeat. “Okay, alright, sorry Bits. But just—uh, Parse is a really chill dude, alright? I promise you’re not gonna freak him out or anything.”

“You can’t—how can you know that?” Bitty asks, worrying at his bottom lip while they walk. “How can you just know?”

Shitty goes uncharacteristically quiet, face tilted up towards the snow-laden clouds, for a long moment. “I, uh—well, I mean, I guess you can’t fucking know anything for sure, technically, but—fucking, I dunno man, Parse obviously cares a lot about you and he’s—I’ll shave my fucking head if shit gets fucked because of this, alright?”

“That’s—a weirdly strong endorsement?”

Shitty smiles and nudges Bitty gently. “’Chyeah, bro.”

 

~*~

 

Bitty finds Ransom and Holster next, still riding the adrenaline high from making it through his conversation with Shitty, mostly because he’s pretty sure he’s running out of time before they show up on his doorstep with a very nice girl who’s going to be very disappointed at Screw.

He ends up with an Excel spreadsheet he’s instructed to fill out by the end of the day and email to Ransom, and a strange mix of hope and foreboding bubbling in his stomach.

 

~*~

 

He waits until Wednesday, armed with one third of a blueberry pie (Parse’s favorite; Bitty’s not above stacking the deck) and the liquid courage of exactly three quarters of a beer can, to talk to Parse. They’re both propped up against Parse's headboard, shoulders knocked together casually, relaxing to the soundtrack of Britney Spears leaking softly from Parse’s laptop speakers and the sharp staccato of forks scraping against a pie tin.

Bitty very well might shake clean out of his skin. He wonders how long that sort of thing normally takes and if he’ll turn into a ghost or just float on up to Heaven.

Parse sighs to himself and drops his fork; it clatters in the tin in weak protest before silencing. He reaches out and grips Bitty’s shoulder. “Bits, what’s wrong?”

“What? Nothing’s—,”

“Bitty, come on. You’ve been acting off all week and I’m starting to get fucking worried about it. What’s. Wrong?”

“I—I just—I have something to tell you, I guess?” Bitty stares at the pie tin. The filling is starting to leak out the sides of the remaining pie, syrupy little tendrils puddling in the ridges of the tin. “I—and it’s something I’ve wanted to—but I didn’t know how to—and I—God—,” Bitty laughs weakly and Parse squeezes his shoulder, “this was supposed to get easier.”

Bitty takes a moment to study Parse’s face—the long, pale lashes framing smoky gray eyes, the carefully groomed eyebrows, the dusting of freckles across his cheeks and nose—like maybe something’s about to change in it forever and he’ll need to remember the difference. He closes his eyes and whispers, so his voice won’t crack, “I’m gay.”

His eyes open and it’s still Parse looking back at him, with a subtly quirked smile and a hand so steady on his shoulder Bitty feels like he might be rooted to it forever. It doesn’t feel real. “And I just—I wanted to tell you sooner, I really did, but—but I didn’t wanna make you uncomfortable or something and—,”

“Bits—,”

“—and I understand if things are different now but I’m not gonna make anything weird I promise and—and if you—,”

“Bitty, Christ, listen to me,” Parse interrupts, his hand tightening on Bitty’s shoulder. Bitty clamps his mouth shut and nods. Voice thick with conviction, Parse leans in close so that their eyes lock. “Nothing’s weird. Nothing’s fucking uncomfortable. You were my best friend five minutes ago and you’re still that now.”

Bitty doesn’t move. He’s the inside of a snow-globe, all shaken up and drifting back to rest, just the tiniest bit changed. Parse’s eyes are right there but he stares through them, peers at some other scene entirely in his mind’s eye. When it all flashes past and Parse’s eyelashes flutter slowly, Bitty asks, “I—are you—it’s all okay?”

“Of course, Bits, of course it’s—there’s nothing that wouldn’t be, alright? I need you to fucking understand that—there’s nothing ‘not okay’ about you.” There’s something raw in Parse’s voice, urgent, maybe a little pained.

Bitty looks up with a tightness locked around his throat and nods. Parse has just the tiniest hint of a smile on his lips when he wraps his arm around Bitty’s shoulders and it’s too much, too much to carry that little flicker on top of it all and Bitty crashes forward into Parse’s chest with a helpless sob.

There’s arms wrapped around him pulling him so, so close and a hand stroking through his hair and the too-gentle rhythm of Parse’s heart in his chest. There’s the rub of tear-damp fabric against his cheek and the broken whisper of, “It’s okay—it’s gonna be okay—you’re okay—,” that can’t possibly be for Bitty, just can’t be.

“I-I’m s-sorry,” he chokes out, voice scratching ugly and pathetic over the words, “I p-promised myself I w-wouldn’t—I’m so s-sorry, I d-don’t know—,”

Parse just keeps right on talking, his words a soothing murmur above Bitty’s ear. “You can cry, Bits, it’s okay. I’m here. I’ve got you, okay? I’ve fucking got you.”

And maybe—just maybe, Bitty thinks—maybe it’s even true.

 

Bitty stays wrapped up in Parse’s arms until he’s wrung out of tears, until even the lingering shallow hiccups that always follow a hard cry are gone. He stays a little past that, too, because Parse is still pressing him close against his chest and stroking his hair and he’s singing along to the music now, in a hushed tenor that makes Circus sound more deserving of worship than any hymn on Sunday morning.

So Bitty lingers, and Parse lets him, until there’s a pounding down the attic stairs and a loud bang against the door that’s probably supposed to resemble knocking. Holster booms, “80’s rom-com night! Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink double-fucking-feature!” and then spins right around and repeats the knock-shout combination on Jack’s door, even though Bitty’s pretty sure the entire neighborhood hear him the first time.

Bitty looks up, attempting to rub the puffiness from his eyes, to find Parse smirking at him. He ruffles Bitty’s hair and says, “I’m in if you are.”

“Um—yeah, sure.” Bitty uncurls slowly, cracking the joints in his back as he stretches, and nearly sends the pie tin clattering to the ground as he climbs off the bed.

Parse laughs and catches it, setting it on his desk for safe-keeping. He slings an arm back around Bitty’s shoulders as they head downstairs. “I’m eating the rest of that pie myself,” he tells Bitty with exaggerated seriousness, “I hope you know that.”

Bitty smiles up at him. “All yours.”

 

~*~

 

Bitty frowns in concentration and adjusts his bowtie in the mirror before turning to his camera. “Tonight’s the Winter Screw dance. Ransom and Holster have found me a date, apparently, so y’all best pray for me. Now, I’m a Southern gentleman, so normally I’d pick up my date at his door, but apparently we’re all meeting at the Haus to pregame, so—y’all best pray for me twice.”

 

“Kent Parson, tell me you are not planning on wearing a snapback to this dance.”

Parse jumps back when Bitty tries to snatch the hat off his head and argues, “It’s my nice hat, Bits!”

“Your—oh my God—I honestly don’t know why I’m surprised.” Bitty sighs and resists the urge to run a hand through his carefully tousled hair. He takes a moment to take in Parse’s appearance: he’s in a dark navy suit, already slim-cut and snug around his shoulders and thighs, like he’s put on some muscle since he bought it. His shirt is cheekily unbuttoned, teasing a glimpse of collarbone, and tie-less. “Well, at least the rest of you is—,” Sexy. Absurdly attractive. Incredible. Bitty clamps his mouth shut in panic.

Parse quirks an eyebrow and smirks, moving into Bitty’s space playfully. “What’s the rest of me, exactly?” When Bitty doesn’t answer right away, Parse laughs and bats his eyelashes. “C’mon, Bits, lay it on me. I clean up nice, don’t I?”

Bitty rolls his eyes and chirps, “You’d look better without the hat.”

Immediately, Parse pulls his snapback off and tosses it on the couch without even looking back; his eyes are trained on Bitty. He’s still smirking but his voice doesn’t have quite the playful edge it did before. “Yeah? And now?”

He’s standing closer than he should be, closer than anyone else stands. It’s unsettling but not unwelcome and that only makes Bitty’s skin prickle more. There aren’t any words that feel right on Bitty’s lips and it’s just as well because there’s movement on the stairs and suddenly Jack is braced against the doorway, in a classic black suit and white dress shirt with a popped collar. Parse shifts away immediately; Bitty feels the extra inch of distance in his bones.

“Parse, have you seen my blue tie?”

“You have like three, bro.”

“The nice one,” Jack clarifies, and Bitty is struck, like he sometimes is with them, by the familiarity laden in that statement. He doesn’t know how many ties anyone owns or which is their nicest, not even about his father.

Parse shrugs. “Should be in your room. Check the—your desk.”

“Ah, okay.” Jack turns and heads back up the stairs. Both of them watch him go.

“Fucking Christ,” Parse mutters, nearly under his breath, “it should be illegal for an ass to look that good in slacks, yeah?”

Bitty laughs nervously, but in the end he decides to roll with it. “Amen.”

Whatever weird tension that was growing between them is dispelled, but Bitty preens a little internally when he realizes Parse isn’t going to put the hat back on. Jack returns shortly with his apparently-the-nicest blue tie firmly knotted under his collar, Shitty on his tail, and Ransom and Holster joining a few minutes later. Johnson appears from the kitchen, where apparently he’s been the whole time, a few minutes before everyone was told to be ready.

They break out a case of beer as their dates start to file in. Jack’s date, an athletic blonde girl named Camilla, is first, precisely on time. Next is Holster’s date, who’s walked in by a tall, dark-haired man who looks vaguely familiar. Ransom jumps up and greets them both, then walks the guy over to where Bitty is sitting with Parse, perched on the arm of the recliner.

“Bits, this is Henry. He—.” Whatever Ransom was about to say is cut off, because his date’s just arrived and he bustles off to meet her. Bitty looks up at Henry (who apparently looks familiar because Ransom showed him a picture a little over a week ago) and gives an awkward wave.

Henry waves back with an amused laugh. “Hi, uh—Henry, like Justin mentioned. And sorry, you’re—Eric, right?”

“Yes! Um, most people call me Bitty, but um—either is fine.” Bitty wipes his sweaty palms off on his slacks and offers a handshake.

“Oh yeah? It’s cool you have a nickname too.” When Parse and Bitty just stare at him in confusion, he clarifies, “You know, since you’re friends with the hockey team?”

Well, then. Bitty bites his lip and tries to shove down the queasiness he feels in his gut. Of course he doesn’t look—anything enough—to be on the team. He shouldn’t really blame Henry for assuming, should he? “Oh, um, actually, I—uh—,”

“Actually,” Parse cuts in, his voice uncharacteristically cool, “Bits is a kickass forward. He’s our best freshman player, easily.”

Henry looks startled as his eyes flick between the two of them. “Oh, um—sorry, I—who are you?” He holds his hand out and Parse shakes it roughly.

“Kent, his captain.”

Laughing nervously, Henry apologizes, “I’m sorry for assuming, I just—I’m not really that familiar with hockey and I thought—uh, never mind, just sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Bitty tells him quickly, “I’m on the small side, really, it’s fine.” The door opens again and Johnson’s girlfriend, Ginger, walks in, arm linked with another girl who Bitty realizes, with a strange tweak in his stomach, is the same girl Parse was with last week at the library.

Parse shoots Bitty a look he can’t read and stands. “Size isn’t everything anyway, right bud?” The way he clasps Henry on the shoulder as he walks away is decidedly too harsh to be friendly.

Bitty scrubs a hand over his face in frustrated embarrassment. “Sorry, he’s—I actually have no idea what that was.” Privately, Bitty thinks wryly how that statement is starting to apply to a startling percentage of their friendship.

“It’s, uh—don’t worry about it.” Henry takes Parse’s seat in the armchair and looks up at Bitty. “So, what’s hockey like?”

Bitty talks with Henry for a while, learns that he knows Ransom through some terrifying-sounding biology class they’re both taking, that he used to be a swimmer but doesn’t have time for a college team if he wants to keep his grades high enough to get into med school. Bitty politely doesn’t mention Ransom’s 4.0 GPA. He slips away when he notices Parse’s date sitting alone, talking to Ginger and Johnson.

Parse is in the kitchen ostensibly mixing a round of drinks, but he’s downing a shot of Malibu when Bitty approaches him and says, “Hey.”

“Hey.” Parse refills the shot glass and slides it over to Bitty and grabs a new one from the cabinet. “I don’t like your date.”

Bitty rolls his eyes and spins the shot glass between his fingers. “I noticed. Why?”

Parse carefully pours the rum right to the top of his glass. “Don’t like people who make my friends feel like shit.”

“He didn’t—,” Bitty hesitates and instead says, “He apologized. He’s actually pretty nice.”

“Sure, okay.”

“What’s—,” he pauses to reel in his exasperated tone and starts over, “why’s it bothering you so much?”

Instead of answering, Parse downs his shot and Bitty, resigned, does the same. Parse goes to fiddle with a snapback he doesn’t have and ends up with a hand awkwardly tangled in his gelled hair instead. “Fucking—,” he mutters, and glances up at Bitty, frustrated.

“Here, let me—,” Bitty reaches out awkwardly and Parse dips his head down to let Bitty help fix his hair.

“I don’t like it when people assume shit about other people, okay?” Bitty stares at him for a moment before nodding. Parse stashes the Malibu back in the ‘nice liquor’ cabinet and grabs the set of Solo cups he mixed, two to a hand, and starts back into the den. “Better not keep our dates waiting, Bits. They might think we’re leaving them for each other.”

Bitty snorts and grabs a beer from the fridge on the way out.

 

~*~

 

After everyone’s good and buzzed, they walk as a small horde to the dance, which is in the student center near the Pond. They stop on the Beach to take pictures with the sunset behind them, Jack frowning at Ransom’s iPhone while he takes most of the shots. Parse has his arm around his date’s shoulders and he keeps leaning in to talk quietly to her, making her smile genuine for the camera; they look easy together, comfortable and warm. Bitty shivers and Henry slips an arm around his waist.

Inside, everyone peels apart, off to spend time with dates’ friends or, in Parse’s case, immediately melt into crowd on the dance floor. Bitty suddenly longs for the strange anonymous intimacy of Haus parties, the hot mess of sweaty bodies pressing him into his friends, into Parse. Here he feels exposed, on display, weaving through the respectable gaps between groups of people with another man’s hand on his hip.

The haze from the alcohol is keeping him from bolting, but maybe it’s also putting the weird nausea in his stomach and in hindsight he could have done with one less shot of Malibu, maybe then he’d be enjoying this more instead of feeling like he’s going to throw up and he swears everyone is looking at him, looking at the obviously gay kid and how he—

“Hey, you okay?” Henry is watching him with concern furrowed in his brow.

Bitty takes a shaky breath. “Um, yeah, I—this is just—I never—,” he gestures at the room, the people who don’t seem to be staring anymore and maybe never were, “I just came out and I—I’ve never gotten to have this, before, and it’s—a lot.”

Henry nods sympathetically, runs his thumb along Bitty’s side in comfort. “Yeah, I—I wasn’t out before Samwell, either. It gets easier, okay?”

“O-okay.” Bitty nods, a little reassured. He tells himself he can do this, that this is who he came here to be. He gets to go on a date with a cute boy and be seen with him in public. It’s not a lot to ask of the world. He probably deserves even more. “I’m—let’s meet your friends.”

Henry’s friends are all pre-med students, seem to mostly be dating each other, and are apparently completely plastered. They’re hanging out near the buffet tables, downing little cups of water and mini-sandwiches. They make small talk for a few minutes, and then someone asks Bitty how he knows Ransom.

“Oh, we’re on the hockey team together, actually.”

A couple of the guys laugh, clearly assuming Bitty’s joking, and he bites his lip, but a girl who’s been looking at him funny the whole time claps her hands and asks, “Oh, you’re number fifteen, right?”

Bitty turns to her in surprise. “Um, yes?”

“My boyfriend plays for Yale. I was at your game!”

“Oh,” he laughs nervously, “You’re prob’ly not too happy with me, then.”

She shakes her head in protest and puts a hand on his shoulder. “No, no, you were so great! Your goal was—it was a great shot.”

Bitty blushes and looks down at his shoes. “Oh, um, it wasn’t—it’s nothin’ special.”

“I bet it was cool,” Henry offers helpfully, and Bitty is oddly grateful when everyone leaves it at that.

 

Eventually, they finally make it to the dance floor. Bitty nearly jumps out of his skin when Henry grabs his hips and pulls him in close, but he manages to pull himself together without it becoming a problem. Bitty’s never had this before: his ass pressed right against another boy’s crotch, fingers gripped at his hips, his shoulder blades nestled into the soft muscle of someone’s chest. It feels indecent and maybe even obscene and he loves it.

Bitty’s always known he was a good dancer, ever since hotel room parties with the middle school girls he figure skated with. The thing is, he’s starting to think he’s a great one. Henry is practically panting behind him, hands just this side of too tight on his hips, face buried in his hair, and when he shifts just right—well, Bitty knows what someone else’s erection feels like against his ass now, and he’s definitely a fan.

At some point they take a break to hydrate and Bitty checks his appearance in his phone. He’s completely disheveled, half of his hair sticking up in a mess where Henry’s face was pressed up against it, a flush high on his cheeks from the alcohol and the dancing, his lips plump from how he’s worried at them with his own teeth. Bitty’s not sure when the last time he felt attractive—honest-to-God desirable—was, but he feels it in a sudden rush now and it muddles with the buzzing in his head.

Jack and his date are leaned up against the wall near the punch, chatting idly. He nods at Bitty and asks, “Having fun, Bittle?”

“Oh, um, yeah! Jack, this is Henry. Henry, this is Jack, um—our captain.”

Henry shakes Jack’s hand with a raised eyebrow. “I thought uh—what’s his name?—the rude blond dude was the captain.”

Jack looks at something over Bitty’s shoulder and smirks. “I’ll have to have a talk with him; I’m supposed to be the rude captain.”

Bitty giggles and suddenly there’s a hand on his shoulder as Parse slides by to stand with them. “Damn fucking right you are. I’m a fucking treasure, right Bits?” He looks just as mussed as Bitty, with his hair completely ruined, jacket abandoned (hopefully) in coat check, and an extra button undone on his shirt.

“Whatever you say, hun,” Bitty tells him with a chirpy pat on the arm, and reaches around him to pour a glass of punch.

Parse chats with Camilla for a few minutes, ignoring Henry completely until his date comes back from the bathroom. He looks between Jack and Bitty and declares, “Time for more dancing!”

Jack is trying to bow out, apparently, but Camilla convinces him to come along. Parse winks and ruffles Bitty’s hair as he brushes past and Bitty takes a moment to shake his head clear. He grabs Henry’s hand and leads him back to the dance floor, the giddy laugh he gets in response feeling light and far away.

If Bitty had been asked about twenty minutes ago, he would’ve said he knew exactly how hot dancing (in a public place, anyway) could get. Twenty minutes ago, he hadn’t been able to watch Kent Parson from five feet away while he did it.

Parse has his head thrown back and lips parted. Every so often, he lifts a hand off of his date’s hip to run fingers through his curling hair, the gel that had tamed it long chased away by sweat. They’re grinding filthily and Bitty finds his hips instinctively trying to match the rhythm, create some kind of primal bond through the pounding of the bass. There’s maddeningly hot breath against his neck and when Parse’s head lolls forward again, he’s looking right at Bitty, eyes glinting with indecipherable hunger in the low light. He wets his lips with his tongue and Bitty tilts his head back against Henry’s chest to escape the sudden molten heat in his veins.

 

~*~

 

They’re still dancing, Bitty carefully avoiding looking at Parse for too long, instead focusing on the strangely adorable goofy dancing Jack has going on with Camilla, when one of Henry’s friends—the girl who recognized Bitty—finds them.

“Henry, we—uh, there’s a problem?”

Henry sighs, sounding put out but not surprised. “What’s wrong?”

“Greg is like, beyond wasted. We think he snuck a flask in or something and he just—we need help getting him home, I’m so sorry.” She bites at her bottom lip and looks at Bitty guiltily.

“Oh, I hope he’s doin’ alright. Maybe I can help?” he offers, looking up at Henry.

Henry grimaces. “You don’t mind?”

“No, of course not! We could always come back later, or—um.” Bitty pauses and laughs nervously.

“Yeah,” Henry laughs too, rocking his hips into Bitty’s ass suggestively before sliding away, “or.”

Bitty doesn’t really remember anyone’s names, but Greg is pretty easy to pick out based on his current state: slumped against the wall, held upright by two girls. Henry and Bitty take over for them and walk him outside. Henry leads them towards the river, and explains, “A few of us have an apartment at the edge of campus. We can take him there and then, um—stay, if you want.”

“Oh, I—,” Bitty’s heartbeat quickens and he feels the heat rising to his face. Snow is starting to fall, thick lazy flakes that catch in Henry’s hair. “I’d like that, I think. I just—um, this is awkward, but I—maybe you should know—,”

Greg promptly lurches to the side and vomits all over Bitty’s shoes. It’s like he aims for them, honestly, and in the weird kind of clarity people sometimes get in the middle of shocking events, Bitty thinks, how rude.

The second after thinking that, he jumps backwards with an appalled gasp and hand to his mouth. “Shit—shit, ew!”

Henry gags and backs away, clearly trying to avoid contributing to the percentage of Samwell sidewalks currently covered in throw-up. He manages to pull himself together and pats Greg on the back while he continues to retch. Bitty stares down at his shoes numbly.

“Fuck, I’m so sorry, Eric, oh God,” Henry says hurriedly, yanking Greg unceremoniously back to his feet.

“It’s fine,” Bitty lies.

“No, it’s—look, you should go back—uh, clean up, I guess—and go back to the dance. Have fun with your friends.” Greg scrubs a hand over his face.

Bitty frowns. “I—I can come with you still, it’s really okay.”

“No, look, I—look, I’m gonna have to watch him all night now,” he sighs, “Don’t spend your first Screw watching my dumbass friend throw up for three hours.”

Bitty fidgets. There’s vomit on his socks starting to soak through onto his skin. “I—okay. It—I’m sorry, but—it was nice meeting you?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’ll—I’ll get your number from Justin, okay? I had a good time.”

Bitty watches him leave and turns to head back over the bridge, towards the dance and his dorm room. He makes it half-way across and gives up, sinking to the ground and dangling his feet over the edge overlooking the water. It sparkles from the light of the streetlamps.

He stares at the river for a long time, at some point taking off his (probably ruined) shoes, curling and uncurling his socked feet in an absent-minded self-pity.

“Bitty?” The wood creaks and suddenly Parse is sitting next to him, looking the right kind of exhausted with his jacket draped over an arm. “You okay?”

“My date’s friend threw up on my shoes,” Bitty tells him, wiggling his toes pointedly.

Parse laughs. “That is fucking hilariously awful. I’m—,” he stuffs his knuckles in his mouth to keep from laughing harder, “sorry, I’m sorry. I actually am sorry. Are you okay?”

Bitty swings his legs and shrugs. “They’re my favorite shoes.”

“We’ll clean ‘em. Believe it or not, I have some experience in the technique.”

That draws a laugh from Bitty, short and clipped though it may be. “Your throw-up or someone else’s?”

“Yes.” Parse smirks when Bitty laughs again.

They sit in comfortable silence, until Bitty looks over and asks, “Where’s your date? Or is the ‘screw’ part of the name supposed to be ironic?”

Parse shrugs. “She just like, totally fucking ditched me. It was weird.”

“Oh, I’m sorry! That sounds really rough.”

“Thanks. I mean like, if someone’s not into me that’s obviously fine you know? But Johnson set us up and he said, uh—said she’d be ‘exactly what I needed’ and I guess—would’ve been nice, you know?”

Bitty nods and purses his lips at the sudden sadness rushing back into his brain. “Yeah, I—I really do.” He blinks rapidly to stave off the tears pricking at his eyes and purses his lips.

“Hey,” Parse says softly, “you sure you’re okay?”

“Yeah—I—I mean no, I’m—,” Bitty feels Parse’s eyes on him but stares stubbornly out at the water. “I, um, I’ll be fine. It’s just—it’s stupid.”

Parse shifts closer and the bridge creaks again. “Bet it’s not.”

Bitty sighs and scrubs at his face. “I—you can’t—please don’t chirp me okay? But I just—I came to Samwell to be myself and tonight was the first time I—,” he looks over nervously and finds Parse listening intently, a sympathetic frown tilting his lips, “I thought maybe—maybe—oh God.” There are tears now, ones of hot frustration that he barely notices. He whispers miserably, “I’ve never even kissed a boy. I just wanted—why can’t I have that?”

“Do you want to?” Bitty looks up in confusion; Parse’s eyes have that glint to them that means he’s gotten some idea in his head.

Bitty looks back down. “I—I mean yeah, that’s—,”

“No, I mean like—do you wanna wait for it to be special or some shit? Or—?”

“Lord, honestly?” Bitty grips the edge of the bridge tightly. “I’m tired of waiting.”

All Parse says back is, “Cool,” and then there’s a hand on Bitty’s chin tilting his head up and the little tingle on the back of his neck, and Parse is leaning forward to—

Bitty stops thinking. His brain stutters and reboots and leaves him with a vague little pocketful of sensations: Parse’s chapped lips, calloused fingers on his jaw, the sudden squeeze of a hand on his knee. Three little half-thoughts tumbling in his brain and it’s all there’s room for at the moment, a comfortable level of chaos. It occurs to Bitty to kiss back and so he does, presses back and moves his lips a little experimentally. Parse chuckles deep in his throat and sucks briefly on Bitty’s bottom lip before pulling away.

Something unsettling flashes in Parse’s eyes that Bitty can’t place before it flickers and disappears. His hand slips away from Bitty’s chin and clasps him on the shoulder. “There,” Parse says, his sudden cheerfulness thick in the fragile spaces between their bodies, “now you’ve kissed someone.”

He stands and Bitty stares up at him blankly. “I—yeah.”

“Are you—are you okay? You’re like, spacing out on me bro.” Parse leans down and waves a hand in Bitty’s face.

Okay is a relative term that describes a very, very small portion of Bitty’s current emotional hodgepodge. “Yeah, mostly. You keep askin’ me that.”

“Going for the hatty,” Parse chirps, and when he offers Bitty a hand up, he accepts. “C’mon, Bits. We’ve got shit to do.”

Bitty can’t help but lean in when Parse’s arm wraps around his shoulders; he blames it, privately, on the shock, and the faint alcohol haze pounding behind his brain. “We do?” He wrinkles his nose in disgust when he slips back into his shoes as Parse steers them towards the Haus.

“Winter Screw tradition. Everyone who doesn’t get laid goes back to the Haus, gets shitfaced and plays Mario Kart, and chirps the ever-loving fuck out of everyone who does the walk of shame.” Parse is gesturing excitedly with his free hand; Bitty stares at the arcs it cuts through the air like maybe it’s spelling out answers.

“Oh, I—okay.” It’s a little sad, Bitty thinks, that this revelation is the least surprising thing that’s happened to him in the past half-hour. “I—I need to change though.”

“Borrow my shit,” Parse offers, and Bitty agrees.

The snow is still falling, a little heavier now, and Bitty watches it with a passive fascination so that the thoughts filter in slower. He thinks about all the pieces of Kent Parson that take up warm little nooks of his brain: Parse, the hockey captain. Parse, the math tutor. His best friend, his first kiss.

And maybe he should be upset about that, a little indignant that his only kiss probably didn’t mean anything besides pity. But he can close his eyes and catch glimpses of the giddy heat in his gut and the way his whole body curled into the touch, and he can’t bring himself to resent it. Maybe that’s the problem, actually, because all Bitty can think about, as he watches the snowflakes catch on Parse’s eyelashes, is that maybe every other kiss should come from Parse too.

 

~*~

 

Shitty is already on the couch, playing the single-player mode and laughing every time his car falls off Rainbow Road. He reeks of weed, which is oddly comforting.

Parse greets, “Hey, Shits. We’ll join you in a sec.”

“My condolences,” Shitty answers solemnly, and then slams his car into one of the NPC’s so they both tumble off the track.

They both change into sweatpants and old t-shirts and shuffle back downstairs; Parse detours into the kitchen and comes back with a case of beer. He plops down right next to Bitty on the couch, their thighs nearly touching, even though Shitty is all the way at the other end and there’s plenty of space in the middle. Bitty trades him a controller for a beer wordlessly.

The door opens for the first time two-beers-a-piece later, and Jack trudges inside, tracking snow in with him. His hair is damp and ruffled, and his tie hangs undone around his neck. Parse looks over at him with a grin. “Hey, Zimms. Joining the Lonely Hearts Club?”

“Um,” Jack averts his eyes awkwardly, “goodnight.”

He moves to go upstairs, but Shitty throws down his controller and shrieks, “You beautiful motherfucking Canadian Adonis! Deets!” He catapults over the couch and leaps at Jack, who catches him with a startled laugh.

Shitty keeps pestering Jack, but Bitty can’t tell if he gets anywhere because he’s focused on Parse, who’s gone so tense Bitty can see the cords of muscle in his clenched jaw. Bitty hadn’t been aware you could play Mario Kart angrily, but apparently you can because Parse is, smashing the buttons and glaring at the screen.

So it’s Bitty’s turn to ask, quietly so no one else hears, “You okay?”

Parse shakes his head slowly and slumps down a little into the couch. Bitty bites his lip, uncertain, but finally leans sideways slowly, resting his head on Parse’s shoulder and letting their bodies nestle together in a gentle tactile comfort.

It’s like Parse unfolds. Some of the tension dissipates and his body spreads outwards, pressing up into the contact Bitty created, trembling gently at the sudden change. He whispers, “Thanks,” but his eyes never move off the screen.

And Bitty starts to wonder. He wonders about kisses, and arms around shoulders, and two boys who vanished together from the world.

 

Ransom comes in next, with his date, who—to her credit—doesn’t seem phased by the devastating barrage of chirps being slung around. Bitty is good and drunk by this point, Parse is almost a full extra beer ahead of him, and Shitty is worryingly cross-faded, so none of the chirps are particularly clever. Parse is mostly just wolf-whistling and falling all over Bitty in his efforts to climb over the couch to get a better look at Ransom, and Bitty has to grab him around the waist so he doesn’t topple right down onto the floor.

“Why’re you like this?” Bitty grouses after Ransom finally breaks free and leads his date upstairs. Parse is half-draped in Bitty’s lap and doesn’t seem to be budging, so Bitty plays Mario Kart with one arm partially hooked around him. He’s pretty sure he’s winning even though he can’t really see the screen anymore; Parse’s head is in the way.

“I ask—,” Parse laughs, “ask myself that ev’ry day, Bits.”

 

Holster is last—Johnson apparently isn’t coming home tonight—and mercifully for him, alone. He pretty clearly wasn’t alone until recently, though; there’s a sizeable hickey on his neck and he'd definitely left the Haus this evening with a tie that’s nowhere in sight. When he stumbles in, he looks at Bitty and groans, “Aw, Bits, I was really hoping you’d get your dick sucked tonight.”

Bitty snorts, “Me too,” and Parse huffs a laugh into the couch cushion.

After the chirping—which is a bit lazy, if Bitty’s being honest—Shitty taps out and stumbles off to bed, mumbling something about having fulfilled his solemn oath to the Haus. Parse yawns and thumps his head onto Bitty’s shoulder. He murmurs, “Looks like I low-balled you, Bits. ‘pparently I was s’pposed to blow you.”

“Um.” Parse slides down so that he’s stretched out on his stomach, his chin propped up on Bitty’s thigh. “What’re you—,”

Parse leans even farther in, until his face is so close his lips nearly brush against the fabric of Bitty’s sweatpants, and Bitty is suddenly desperately grateful he’s not in his thin dress pants anymore. He shifts uncomfortably, presses into the godawful couch because even that is better than Parse noticing that he’s getting hard just from—whatever this is.

Parse purses his lips and blows a warm, steady stream of air over Bitty’s crotch, right above where Bitty’s dick is starting to take an embarrassing amount of interest. He looks up at Bitty from under his eyelashes, expression intent. Bitty swallows thickly and tries not to stare at Parse’s mouth—the same mouth that was pressed against Bitty’s an hour ago, the mouth that he could be wrapping around Bitty’s cock. The whole thing is bizarre, charged with a strange crackle of want that Bitty fights desperately to tamp down with his teeth dug into his bottom lip.

Bitty nearly cries with relief when Parse flops onto his back and bats his eyes up at him. “Oh, baby,” he coos, voice pitched in a ridiculous falsetto, “was that as good for you as it was for me?”

“Oh my God—,” Bitty’s voice cracks and he giggles with a tinge of hysteria, “you’re the—the most ridiculous person I’ve ever met.”

“Yeah,” Parse agrees. He rolls onto his side and nuzzles against Bitty’s thigh, “but you love me.”

Softly, bewildered, Bitty whispers back, “Yeah.” He reaches out tentatively and cards his fingers through Parse’s hair. Parse makes a pleased sound in the back of his throat and slips an arm behind Bitty to snuggle in closer, his hand gripped gently at the hip.

Bitty leans back into the couch, eyes tilted up at the ceiling without knowing what he hopes to find, and wonders and wonders. 

 

Chapter Text

Freshman Year

Spring Semester

“I hope everyone had a good Christmas!” Bitty waves, beaming at the camera. “You may notice that I’m already back at Samwell. That’s because we have a game in four days, believe it or not. It’ll be our first game of the season with Lardo back from studying abroad! But between you and me, I’m also back ‘cause apparently the Samwell Men’s Hockey Team throws a damn good New Year’s Eve party.”

 

Parse :D (2:57 pm): All u motherfuckers better be back by new years

Holster (3:01 pm): HELL YEAH

Shitty (3:03 pm): [string of partying emoji]

Bitty (3:05 pm): I’ll be there! :)

Parse :D (3:05 pm): :D

Johnson (3:06 pm): I’ll still be absent from the narrative. Someone can crash in my bed

Holster (3:09 pm): Uh

Bitty (3:11 pm): Um, I will! Thanks, Johnson! :)

Parse (3:11 pm): roooommmiiiieeessss

Ransom (3:12 pm): [more partying emoji]

Jack (3:15 pm): We have a game on January 2nd.

Ransom (3:16 pm): ???

Holster (3:16 pm): ???

Parse :D (3:17 pm): bro

 

~*~

 

Bitty jiggles the doorknob and finds the Haus unlocked, so he lets himself in, grocery bags dangling from his arm. He’s not really expecting anyone to be home; he knows for a fact Ransom and Holster aren’t getting in until the day before New Year’s Eve. Except the TV is blaring from the den, so he calls out, “Um, hello?”

There’s no immediate response and he panics briefly that he’s stumbled upon some sort of squatter, but then there’s the familiar thundering of someone careening around a doorway and Parse is skidding to a stop in front of him. “Bits!”

“Parse! Hey, when—,” Bitty breaks off in a squeak and drops his bags when Parse crushes him into a hug, “when did you get in?”

Grabbing Bitty’s discarded bags, Parse says, “Never left. You here to bake me a pie?”

“Cobbler. Wait, you—you didn’t go home for Christmas?” Bitty stops following Parse into the kitchen, and Parse turns to look at him.

“Uh, nah. I—it’s not—you know how it is.” Parse shrugs and sets the bags on the table, pulling out baking ingredients.

Bitty does not, actually, know how it is. He can’t imagine spending Christmas like Parse must have, alone on a deserted campus, the empty Haus eerily quiet save for the creaking of the wind. As stressful as it can be back in Georgia, suffering through extended family dinners laden with a version of religion he’s at odds with and heaping with passive-aggression, he feels a dark pit in his stomach at the thought of alone.

“I—um, I’m sorry. I wish—I mean, you could’ve—,”

Parse slides out several sticks of butter. “How many eggs?”

“—could’ve visited us.” Parse tenses and Bitty worries at his lip. “Um, no eggs, actually.”

There’s an awkward almost-silence punctuated by the rustling of grocery bags and the opening and closing of the fridge.

Bitty breaks first. “Sorry, um—you don’t—I didn’t mean to—I just—I think it’s, um—I know I wouldn’t want to be alone and I just thought—,”

“It’s not that. I—,” Parse sighs and turns on the faucet. He stares intently at the peaches he’s got under the water, rinsing them carefully. Bitty reaches for a mixing bowl and his measuring cups. “I just, uh. The plane ticket’d be money I don’t have.”

“Oh, God, I’m sorry, I—,”

“It’s okay. I—I wish I could.” Parse finishes with the peaches and towels them off, then sets them in a pile on a cutting board. “Thank—should I peel these?—thanks, Bits.”

“If you—yeah, please—if you need anything, I—,”

Parse drops his paring knife and puts a hand on Bitty’s shoulder. “Bits—I’m fine, okay? I caught up on Game of Thrones. I’ve seen every episode of Real Housewives twice. It was good. I’m fine.”

Bitty tries to meet his gaze but he turns away, back to the cutting board and his little pile of peaches. “Okay, I—sorry.” He finishes measuring his dry ingredients and sets his sights on the butter.

“Hey,” Parse says after a moment, nudging Bitty with his elbow, “glad you’re back, though.”

Bitty returns the nudge with a smile.

 

~*~

 

The next day, Bitty is giving Betsy an exasperated pep talk when Parse comes back downstairs after his shower, hair dripping water onto his flannel.

“Now Betsy, I wasn’t myself yesterday when I called you a crusty old furnace. But you gotta understand—you—,”

“Do all ovens speak English?” Parse chirps, plopping down into a kitchen chair and stealing one of Bitty’s leftover apples. He sinks his teeth into the skin with a crisp crunch.

Bitty rolls his eyes and opens the oven door to slide in his pie. “’Course not. The fancy ones are French.”

Parse snorts. “Oh, fuckin’ duh. My mis—fuck!”

There’s a loud crash and Bitty nearly burns himself on Betsy when he spins around to see what’s happening. Parse is on the ground, his chair toppled over, with a small Asian woman sitting cross-legged on his back.

It’s not the weirdest thing Bitty’s seen in the Haus, but it’s close.

“Lards! I fuckin’ missed you, bro!” Parse laughs and rolls her off, then pulls her into a hug. He’s grinning broadly, face buried in her neck despite being easily twice her size.

“Hey, Parser. Is Shits—,”

The front door opens and slams shut to the sound of Shitty shouting, “Lardo!” He runs full speed into the kitchen and dogpiles onto the two of them while Bitty backs up against the counter to avoid the fray.

Jack follows Shitty in, smiling in his warm, quiet way. “Oh hey, Lardo, you’re back!” Lardo peels Parse and Shitty off of her and stands to give Jack a mild-mannered hug. “How was Kenya?”

“Zimmermann! Pretty kickass. You and Parser didn’t let the team fall apart without me, did you?”

Jack assures her, “Never,” in the middle of Parse chirping, “We’re a fucking disaster.”

Lardo laughs and Jack glares good-naturedly at Parse, who stands and swipes his apple off the ground. He tries to take another bite, but Bitty scolds, “Don’t you dare!” and snatches it from him.

“But Bits—,”

“When was the last time anyone cleaned this floor, Parse? Honestly, I don’t know how you’ve survived this long.” He drops the apple in the trash and tosses him a new one.

Smirking, Lardo holds out her hand to Bitty. “You gotta be Bittle. Looks like you’ve been mothering Parson in my absence. ‘ppreciate it, dude.”

“Someone had to.” Bitty leans in and stage whispers, “You’re gonna take him back, right?” Lardo and Jack both snicker.

Parse chomps into his apple and ruffles Bitty’s hair with his free hand.

 

~*~

 

Bitty hadn’t really been sure what to make of Lardo after all the stories the boys told about her; he certainly hadn’t expected them all to be true.

But since classes aren’t starting for weeks, they all get together and day-drink when Holster and Ransom get into town—Jack partakes in a soda instead of water, which is basically the same thing—and Lardo drinks everyone except Parse under the table. Bitty’s equal parts impressed and concerned.

 

Later, she plops down on the floor with sewing supplies, a large plastic box, and a plain black snapback. “Bits, what’s your favorite color?”

Bitty meanders over and sits by her side. “Um, depends. Why?”

“Ooh, give him teal,” Parse urges, flopping onto the couch behind them. He pokes at Bitty’s cheek with his foot and Bitty swats him away.

Lardo just says, “New Year’s Eve tradition,” which isn’t particularly helpful.

“I don’t understand?”

“Sequins,” Parse elaborates, nudging with his socked foot again.

“Y’all—,”

Jack sinks down into the armchair and switches on the TV. “She’s making you a hat, Bittle.”

Ransom and Holster come in from the kitchen with a tray of bagel bites. Parse lifts his legs so they can sit and then sprawls back out, legs in their laps.

“Oh—a sequined hat?” Bitty looks over at Jack gratefully. He nods back. “Yeah, teal would be—,”

“Lards! Lards, I want hot pink.” Shitty flops across Jack’s lap, which Jack—surprisingly—tolerates.

Lardo rolls her eyes. “I made you a green one last year. Wear that, bro.” She pulls out a container of teal sequins with a wink towards Bitty and starts sewing.

 

~*~

 

The New Year’s Eve party is caught somewhere between full-blown kegster and chill hangout session. Only athletes are already back at Samwell, so it’s a small, very-determined-to-get-shitfaced crowd. Ransom and Holster have dragged all the furniture into the den so that everyone can sit and watch the New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, but there’s some dancing in the other room and, naturally, a keg.

Lardo wasn’t exaggerating about the sequins; bling was apparently mandatory for attendance, because all the girls are wearing sparkly miniskirts and tops, and many of the guys are sporting novelty sunglasses or hats. The entire SMH is clad in matching snapbacks from Lardo—even Jack, who seems to be camped out in an armchair and policing alcohol consumption, is wearing a black snapback with subtle black sequins on the front.

Bitty is coming back from the keg with a Solo cup of beer when someone pulls the bill of his hat down over his eyes.

“Bits. Come do shots with me.” It’s Parse, with a gold-on-gold snapback and a black tank top that Lardo apparently bedazzled for him; it’s got his jersey number and Parser in gold script. He looks incredibly ridiculous and is somehow still unfairly hot. Bitty glares vaguely at the ceiling. Things have been completely un-weird between them despite what happened at Winter Screw; in fact, Parse is basically acting like nothing happened. Bitty, who hasn’t been able to shake his crush, isn’t sure if he’s relieved or disappointed.

“Um, I just got a beer.” He gestures with the cup pointedly.

“Bits,” Parse amends, putting his hand on Bitty’s shoulder, “chug your beer and then come do shots with me.”

Well, no argument there. Bitty finishes his drink and abandons the cup on the nearest flat surface on his way to the kitchen, where Parse is already waiting for him with shot glasses. And it says something about Bitty’s (somewhat misplaced) trust in Kent Parson that he downs the glass without even pausing to ask what’s in it.

He manages not to sputter at the end, but he kind of wants to. “What—,” Bitty pauses to wrinkle his nose, “what the hell is this?”

Parse laughs and rotates the bottle he’s pouring a second round from to show off a silver label that says Sauzo on it. “Tequila. ‘s my favorite.”

Bitty stares at his re-filled glass dubiously. “Really?”

“Hell yeah. It’s—,”

“Kent.” Jack is standing with his arms crossed, mouth practically carved into a frown. “I need to talk to you.”

He stalks off, clearly expecting Parse to follow. Bitty whispers, “You’re in tro-ouble,” drawing the word out like a taunting Kindergartener.

Parse snorts and downs his shot anyway before sauntering off after Jack. When he doesn’t come back in a few minutes, curiosity gets the best of Bitty and he goes looking.

He finds them in the backyard, Parse shivering in his tank top and Jack seemingly impervious with just his flannel. They’re arguing too intently to notice Bitty.

“—wouldn’t do this!” Jack snaps.

Parse fiddles with his snapback and runs a frustrated hand through his hair. “I’m not doing anything.”

“You’re drunk.”

“Christ, lay the fuck off! I can—,”

“You can’t, Kent.” Jack is suddenly deflated, a hand scrubbed across his face and shoulders hunched. “That’s why—.” Jack flicks his eyes away from Parse in frustration and—shit—notices Bitty. His expression turns—almost fearful, hunted. Parse follows Jack’s gaze and his face immediately contorts into a neutral veneer, his eyes wet but eerily cold and mouth set in a smooth pout.

It’s not actually silent; there’s Rihanna blasting from the Haus and what sounds like a veritable horde of people cheering. That kind of just makes the pair of clenched jaws and sealed lips staring back at Bitty more jarring.

“Oh, um—sorry, I was just—I didn’t—um, nevermind!” Bitty squeaks, voice high pitched with guilt. He slips back inside and flinches when the screen door creaks as it closes.

 

Lardo finds him in the kitchen, stashing Parse’s tequila in the back of the liquor cabinet. “’Sup, Bits. You seen Parser?”

“Um, he’s—talking to Jack, but I wouldn’t—,”

Lardo places the shot glasses in the sink. “Oh, trust me bruh, I know. Come play beer pong with me, then.”

Bitty wonders why everyone always drafts him for this ridiculous game. He thinks he’d probably be decent at it sober—he did inherit Coach’s arm, after all—but by the time anyone wants to play Bitty’s three or four drinks in and relatively useless.

They’re facing Ransom and Holster, who are the only team members not in snapbacks; they have matching top hats instead. It’s a close game, and Bitty’s pretty sure they’d be doing infinitely better if Lardo was just shooting twice, but he does manage to sink two shots so at least he’s contributed some.

Parse wanders in with his tequila bottle when they’re both down to one cup on each side but with no one clinching the win so far. He drapes an arm around both their shoulders and tells Lardo, “Can’t believe you replaced me, Lards,” planting a kiss on the top of her head. The glass bottle thumps uncomfortably against Bitty’s collarbone.

“Snooze you lose, Parson,” she quips, and shrugs him off to line up her shot. The ball sinks cleanly into the cup and she fist-pumps in triumph. “Alright, Bits, you’re up dude.” Bitty knows that if he makes this shot, the game ends without Ransom and Holster being able to retaliate.

“Oh, Lord,” Bitty gripes, “Y’all know I don’t do well under this kinda pressure.”

While Bitty prepares, Parse asks, “Yo, Lardo, you guys still lighting up tonight?”

“’Chyeah. You joining? I thought—,”

“Nah, I’m in. After this game?” Parse takes a swig directly from the tequila.

Lardo raises an eyebrow, but agrees, “Sure.”

Parse rests the bottle on the ground and puts both hands on Bitty’s shoulders, standing behind him like Coach talks to his football boys before a big play. “Bits. Bitty. You gotta make this shot, okay? I need to be much fucking higher than I am.”

“Um,” Bitty looks over his shoulder at Parse, who’s staring at him intently, “I’ll try?”

In the end, though, it takes two more rounds of back and forth before Ransom and Holster claim victory. Their celly is honestly ridiculous, but Bitty figures he probably shouldn’t judge, given his beer pong experiences with Parse.

Bitty gets invited to join Lardo, Shitty, and Parse on the roof for smoking but he declines, feeling a little too drunk to try weed for the first time. Instead, he wanders back into the den and joins some people on the couch to watch the performances before the ball drop. 

 

It’s close to midnight before the three of them wander back down. Bitty is having a serious discussion about New Year’s Eve fashion with Ransom when Parse climbs over the back of the couch and practically pours himself into Bitty’s lap.

“Oh, um—hi.” Parse wraps his arms around Bitty’s neck and leans up against him sideways, legs curled underneath himself.

His mouth is next to Bitty’s ear and Bitty can feel the tingle of hot breath when he settles in with a sleepy sigh.  “Hey Bits.”

Lardo snickers and perches on the back of the couch, feet dangling next to Bitty’s other shoulder. “Sorry, dude, shoulda warned ya—Parser gets mad cuddly when he’s high.”

Shitty flops down on Ransom’s other side and tugs at Lardo’s hand. She rolls her eyes and climbs down gingerly into his lap. “Usually he goes for Jack, brah.”

Bitty looks over at Jack, then, who’s reclaimed his armchair and is chatting quietly with Camilla Collins. He’s turned his head at the mention of his name and is pursing his lips, eyes intimidatingly stormy. Bitty shrinks away self-consciously and shrugs off their comments, joking nervously, “Oh, you know, I’m gettin’ kinda used to it.”

“You’re so warm,” Parse mutters, pressing his face into the side of Bitty’s neck.

Bitty flushes. He has no idea how to respond to that, so turns back to Ransom, who’s more than happy to resume their previous conversation.

 

People wander in and out, getting drinks and migrating based on conversations, but Bitty stays trapped under Parse, who’s in some sort of sleepy half-consciousness, laughing at chirps and humming along to the music coming through the TV, off-key and directly into Bitty’s ear. Lardo faithfully feeds Bitty a steady stream of beer cans; Bitty shoots her grateful, wry smiles, failing miserably at pretending he isn’t endeared by the whole thing.

Closer to midnight, everyone settles into the room and Bitty is starting to feel a little claustrophobic; he’s squished between some girls from the tennis team on the left and Holster on the right, who’s got his own lap occupied by the girl Bitty’s pretty sure was Ransom’s Winter Screw date, which is a little weird, but Bitty shouldn’t—

“Hey, Bits. Bitty.” Parse pats Bitty on the shoulder urgently to get his attention. “Who’re you kissing at midnight?”

“Um.” Bitty angles his head so he can sort-of look at Parse, searching his face for some sort of context clue. It feels like a trick question but he can’t put his finger on why—maybe not a trick, exactly, but it reminds him of middle school gossip mills and other unpleasant memories. “I—no one?”

Parse looks legitimately horrified. Sleepy, but horrified. “Bits. You gotta kiss someone or you’re lonely like for, a whole year.”

Bitty snorts. “That’s silly.”

“No, Bits, ‘s real!” Parse insists. He reaches an arm backwards, the most he’s moved in the past half-hour, and smacks Holster in the face.

“Ow, Parse, what the—,”

“Holtzy, tell Bits shit is real.”

“What—the kissing shit?” Holster fixes his glasses and winks at the girl in his lap. “Mad legit, bro. You can’t not kiss someone at midnight.”

Bitty fights back a grimace; he’s pretty damn sure Holster is just trying to wheel that girl, but he’s not petty enough to ruin that for him, so instead he just chirps playfully, “Y’all are so superstitious!”

“Bits,” Parse says, laughing softly as he winds his arm back around Bitty’s neck, “we’re hockey players.”

One of the girls next to Bitty—someone who looks familiar, like she’s been around the Haus before—leans her head on Bitty’s shoulder and looks up at both of them through her eyelashes. “So who are you boys gonna kiss?”

Bitty sputters, but Parse just winks at her and then thumps his head back against the couch, out of view. She smirks and leaves her head where it is; Bitty’s not sure how to ask her to move, so he worries at his lip and kind of just ignores her, fixing his eyes on the television instead.

 

Then the countdown starts. Everyone’s chanting excitedly, watching the numbers tick down on the screen.

Three. Holster is already making out with the girl on his lap, which—the early bird gets the worm, or something like that.

Two. The girl on Bitty’s other side is staring up at him and batting her eyelashes. He pointedly looks away.

One. Shitty is shaking a bottle of champagne which is not going to end well and—

Happy New Year! Bitty catches a glimpse of Jack leaning towards Camilla and then he turns because Parse’s hand is sliding up his neck into his hair and now they’re kissing, Bitty’s hand tightening on Parse’s hip with surprise.

It’s gentle in a way that makes Bitty’s head go fuzzy, a soft press of lips in the shape of a giddy smile, and he starts to get lost in it until Parse shoves his tongue into Bitty’s mouth sloppily, and while that isn’t entirely unpleasant it’s enough to startle Bitty into pulling away and asking, “What’re you doing?”

Parse presses his forehead to Bitty’s brow, tilting his whole body in with a shiver like it’s an effort to keep his lips away. “Kissing you.”

“I—why?” Parse’s eyes are a ring of muddied blue around his pupils, still thick from his high; Bitty can barely stand to look at them.

Blinking slowly, eyelids fluttering, Parse murmurs, “Don’t wanna be alone.”

There are a lot of ways to let people use you, Bitty thinks. He figures there are worse ones than this. “Okay.”

Parse leans back in or maybe Bitty does, but that’s hardly the part that matters. The part that matters is the faint taste of beer and something unfamiliar—weed, maybe—on the tip of Parse’s tongue and the curl of calloused fingers against his scalp and the way he—

“Kent. Kent.” Jack’s voice slices through the fumbled mess in Bitty’s brain and he pulls away, despite Parse’s apparent intention of ignoring Jack completely. He’s left with a strange empty feeling in the seam of his lips, like there’s a permanent little gap he can’t fill on his own anymore.

Jack is scowling, his hand gripped tightly on Parse’s shoulder. “You’re going to bed.” His tone makes it plenty clear that it’s not meant to be a suggestion.

Parse makes an uncoordinated effort to shrug free with little success. “Fuck off—,”

Leaning over, Jack hisses, “You can’t behave this way. We’re going.”

Bitty sinks down into the couch and mostly just prays that Jack doesn’t have anything to say to him. Apparently his prayers are answered, because Jack just shoots him a not-quite-glare and pries Parse away, practically dragging him past the people in the room and towards the stairs.

Self-conscious, Bitty glances around the room nervously but finds that almost everyone is still occupied with kissing or in the aftermath of it; he locks eyes with Camilla, who shrugs at him and wanders off. So, left to his own devices, Bitty stands shakily with the intention of locating more alcohol.

 

After an embarrassing amount of stumbling that prompts a shaky mental count of beer cans, he opts for a water bottle instead, which he drains quickly and refills in the sink. He’s drunk enough that everything around him has blurred edges, like those rickety amusement park rides where you’re strapped to the wall and the whole contraption starts to spin, and trying to process what just happened makes the buzzing behind his eyes turn angry.

So Bitty ambles off in search of company, and finds it in Lardo and Shitty who are making a token attempt at playing beer pong but really are just throwing the ping-pong ball back and forth and laughing when it misses the table and bounces around the room.

He goes through a second water bottle watching them, and by that point the stairs don’t seem impossible to manage anymore, so he heads up to turn in for the night. A tiny corner of his brain reminds him to thank Johnson for letting him crash in his bed; walking back to his dorm while this trashed would be a nightmare. He very nearly walks into the wrong bedroom, but it’s locked, so he spins around and manages to stumble through the right door after all.

Parse is curled up on his side in his bed, under the covers but fully clothed. Bitty stares at him for a good while, listening to his gentle snoring, taking in the way he’s got the comforter balled up in his arms like he’s trying to snuggle against it.

There’s a handful of seconds where Bitty imagines climbing into the bed next to him. He closes his eyes and pictures sliding the comforter out of the way, molding himself into the curves of Parse’s body, feeling arms tighten instinctively around his middle, warm and strong and safe. He’s lonely enough, in that collection of moments, that even the promise of snoring directly in his ear feels enticing. And the thing is, Bitty could probably even get away with doing it. Crawling into the wrong bed in the dark isn’t anything that can’t be blamed on drunken confusion; nearly all his teammates have admitted to worse.

Parse murmurs a little in his sleep and nuzzles his cheek against the pillow. Bitty’s breath hitches and his heart aches. He crawls into the empty bed across the room and falls asleep alone.

 

~*~

 

The morning brings sunlight directly into his eyes and a blessedly mild hangover. Bitty rolls over, away from the window, and presses his face into the pillow. After a few minutes spent dozing and stubbornly ignoring the queasy feeling in his stomach he’s not sure he can even blame on the alcohol, he tilts his face back up and looks across the room.

Parse is sprawled on his stomach, arms curled under his pillow with the comforter slipping off his body onto the floor. His eyelids flutter, lashes nearly translucent in the light from the window, casting little shadows on his cheeks. Bitty’s chest goes tight and he squeezes his eyes shut in the face of it, draws in a harsh breath and traps it in his lungs. His eyes reopen and the pain re-floods, a sharp, strange throbbing in the face of almost.

He doesn’t want to think about the almost, the blunted memories of Parse in his lap and being kissed for a good luck charm. It’s overwhelming, all the questions that seem to be living in a twisted mess in his stomach, the way he can remember exactly how desperately he wanted to run his hands all over Parse’s body, how he can still feel a tingle under his skin like the wanting has settled into his marrow and he’ll never be quite free of it. Parse is asleep across the room and Bitty hurts in his bones for him.

It’s like picking at a scab, the way he stares at Parse and wonders about everything. He tugs at a thought: Parse kissed me last night. Then there’s the ripping: It was midnight on New Year’s. He was fucked up on tequila and weed. He doesn’t want you the way you want him. And it bleeds like this: somehow, it still felt like more.

Bitty doesn’t know how to reconcile it all. He knows, especially after last night, that it’s possible that Parse isn’t straight—but hoping for that sort of thing is dangerous. Hoping is what makes supply closets dark and the sides of lockers sharp, what makes an empty bed cold and a friendship feel hollow. And he can’t do it—not this time.

Parse makes a guttural groaning noise that barely sounds human and lifts his head blearily. He tries to look over at Bitty but flinches visibly when the light hits his eyes directly, smashing his face back down into his pillow instead. He grumbles miserably, “Fuck. What the fuck did I do last night to deserve this motherfucking shit-fuck hangover?”

Bitty balks at him. “You—you don’t remember?”

“It gets blurry around—wait, shit—did I actually do something?” He doesn’t lift his head again so much as he tilts to stare at Bitty with one barely open eye. “I can’t—fuck my head hurts.”

“Um, I—you—,”

“You know what?” Parse holds up a hand weakly; it promptly drops back down off the edge of the bed. “Don’t tell me. ‘less it made the Swallow it doesn’t fuckin’ matter. Ignorance is fucking bliss and all that shit.”

Bitty’s gut feels like it might implode. “Yeah, okay.” He sits up cautiously and nothing goes woozy, which is a good sign. “Um, did you wanna get breakfast or anything?”

“I’m one hundred eighty percent sure that if I leave this bed within the next three years I’ll die.”

“So—no?” Bitty tries to giggle but it comes out closer to a nervous hiccup.

Parse’s hand curls into a thumbs-down before making a token attempt at grabbing for the laptop on his desk. “Netflix?”

“Um,” Bitty hesitates, eyes tilted to his socked feet. He wishes that he wanted to say no, that he could let himself put some distance on the whole thing. “Sure.”

Parse grunts happily and flops his arm in the direction of his computer. “You’re up, Bits.”

Bitty stands, stretching out his muscles and cracking his back, and brings the laptop with him over to the other bed. When he nudges Parse to move over, he just moans and swings his dangling arm in protest. “Oh, for the love of—honestly,” Bitty sighs, but resignedly climbs over him to settle cross-legged on the far side, against the wall, “you’re needy, you know that?”

“Mhm,” Parse hums, and nudges Bitty with a foot from under the covers.

“Your computer’s locked—needs a password.”

He expects Parse to finally get up at that, but instead he just grumbles something into the pillow that Bitty has to ask him to repeat. “Rimouski-oh-eight. Capital ‘r.’”

“Oh—alright.” Bitty pulls up Netflix, which is already logged into the Zimmermann family account; Bitty bites his tongue. They settle on watching Parks and Rec, which Parse admits he thinks is funnier than 30 Rock or The Office, under penalty of death if Bitty tells Holster.

Bitty sets the laptop up on a desk chair so that they can both sort of see the screen and figures it’s good enough; he’s not convinced Parse isn’t going to fall back asleep anyway.

 

Halfway through the second episode, the door creaks open. “Hey, figured you’d wanna—,” Jack catches sight of Bitty and freezes, clearly confused. He’s holding a large glass filled with a protein shake and a bendy straw. “Bittle? You’re—ah—?”

“Oh! I—Johnson let me stay here, remember? In—over there.” Bitty resists the urge to burrow himself under the comforter to escape Jack’s stare.

“Right.” Jack doesn’t move, just stands there in the doorway with his gaze shifting between Bitty and Parse. He seems—Bitty can’t place it. Maybe frustrated, or judgmental.

Whatever emotion is oozing out of Jack makes Bitty uncomfortable enough that he clambers over Parse and squeaks, “Um, I’m just gonna—I’ll be—I’ll be right back?” on his way out the door. He hides in the bathroom, taking the opportunity to brush his teeth with one of the disposable toothbrush packets the boys keep under the sink, until he hears Jack head back across the hall into his room.

When he comes back, Parse is sitting up in the bed, hunched over with a green complexion and his face pained, sucking glumly on the straw of his newly-acquired protein shake. Bitty hesitates in the doorway, but when Parse doesn’t move he goes back to the bed and sits across from him.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” The tone is approaching accusatory but falls short, like he can’t quite muster the energy to get there. Parse doesn’t look him in the eye either, just stares at the bedspread uncomfortably.

Bitty’s stomach drops all over again. “I—you said not to tell—,”

Parse balls the comforter in his hand, frustrated. “But Bits, this is—,”

“You literally said not to tell you what you did,” Bitty snaps, exasperated, wrung-out and suddenly wanting nothing more than to crawl back under the covers across the room and fall asleep again. Parse sounds so upset and he’s not supposed to be freaked out, he’s supposed to be okay with things like this and—

“Bitty—,”

“I get it doesn’t mean anything, okay?” Bitty scrambles, willing his voice not to crack, blinking rapidly to keep his eyes from watering, “You don’t have to—we were drunk—high—whatever, and it wasn’t—don’t worry about it, okay? I know you’re not—I know.”

Parse is staring at him, eyes somehow equal parts wide and tired, jaw a little clenched. “Fuck. Fine, okay.”

There’s a beat where the tension hangs suspended like that, terrible and trembling, and then everything deflates. Parse slides back down the pillows so he’s nestled under the covers again and pulls the laptop onto his lap. When Bitty shifts to lay propped up next to him, Parse leans to the side so he can nudge their shoulders together, and presses play.

 

~*~

 

“So, right near the Haus there’s this strip of bars that are apparently real popular—,” Bitty pauses to fiddle with the sleeves of his flannel, debating whether or not to roll them and settling on not, “and yours truly has finally been convinced to go.”

 

Bitty’s pulling a pie out of the oven when Holster bursts through the door, tracking an insulting amount of snow in with him. “Bits! Guess what finally came in the mail, bro!”

“Um.” Bitty sets the pie on the cooling rack and fumbles with the envelope Holster’s shoved into his hands. It’s heavier than expected and kind of sketchy, with no return address. “Is this—?” He slices open the envelope and slides out a set of fake IDs, bound together by a rubber band.

“Chyeah, bro! Time to take you out on the town.” Bitty runs his thumb over the top ID excitedly and pulls out his wallet to compare it to his real one. They look equally real to him, though he’s not exactly in the business of carding people; the thought of handing one over to a bouncer makes his stomach twist with a nervous thrill.

 

~*~

 

Which is how Bitty ends up at the Bottom of the Well, a college bar in the basement of a local restaurant, on a Thursday night. Ransom, Holster, and Lardo are squished up on one side of a booth, sharing a pint and watching some weird game show with subtitles on the TV. Bitty and Parse are sitting at the bar, taking a break from dancing to order another round.

Parse smirks at his phone. “Sweet, Johnson’s birthday present is finally coming in; it was backordered.”

“Oh yeah?” Bitty runs a hand through his hair, pushing his sweaty bangs away from his forehead. “What’d you get him?”

Parse flips his phone around to show off an Amazon order page. It’s a book, The Hidden Reality by Brian Greene. At Bitty’s judgmental eyebrow raise, he laughs and explains, “Yeah, Johnson’s always going on about how much he loves alternate universes, so—and the reviews said this book explained the string theory really well.”

“Right…string theory,” Bitty repeats dryly. As if he’s supposed to know what that means. Parse seems happy about it, though, so he kind of just lets it go and focuses on ordering his drink.

When the bartender moves away, Parse nudges him slyly. “Hey, see that dude over there? In the green?” Bitty follows his gaze and barely avoids making awkward eye contact with the guy, a muscular man with cropped light brown hair who’s leaning up against a booth talking to some friends. He looks away quickly and nods. “He’s been checking you out for like, twenty minutes.”

“Wh-what? No way,” Bitty sputters, “He’s probably looking at you.”

“Nah, he’s not.”

Bitty frowns skeptically. “How do you know?”

Parse smirks. “’Cause I just winked at him and he didn’t even notice.”

“Oh my God, you didn’t.” Bitty laughs nervously, fiddling with his sleeves.

“Bet you a beer if you wave at him, he comes over here.”

Bitty bites his lip and looks up at Parse, who’s still smirking, eyes glinting with amusement. Part of him wants to say no, that he’d rather stay with Parse, that he doesn’t want to go home with some handsome stranger. The only one he wants to go home with is—but that’s clearly not what Parse wants, not if he’s trying to hook Bitty up. So maybe there are worse things than getting hit on by someone new, someone whose intentions he can actually understand.

Bitty takes a deep breath and turns, smiles shyly at the other boy, and waves with a wiggle of his fingers. The man grins in response and downs the last of what’s in his glass before striding over.

“Good Lord, Parse—,”

Parse laughs. “Want me to bounce?”

“No!” Bitty whispers back, suddenly panicked, and when Parse raises an eyebrow questioningly adds, “Not—not yet.”

Parse nods and turns outwards, towards the stranger who’s just come up to them. “’Sup, man?” He holds out his hand and gets a casual handshake in response.

“Hey. Name’s Ian.” Ian’s eyes flick over to Parse and settle back on Bitty. “What’s yours?”

Bitty stares for a beat too long before Parse gently nudges him with a foot and he manages to answer, “Eric.”

Ian smiles and holds out his hand; Bitty shakes it and winces at his own sweaty palms. “Can I buy you a drink, Eric?”

Before Bitty can answer, the bartender returns with their drinks, setting them on the counter with a distinct clank. “Um—,”

Parse downs his shooter and grabs Bitty’s beer, sliding it in front of himself. He takes a swig and, smirking, tells Ian, “Yes.”

Ian laughs and flags down the bartender, ordering himself a cider and another beer for Bitty. He’s moved closer to talk to the bartender and doesn’t move back away, his arm braced on the counter behind Bitty, almost brushing against his back. “So, you guys are students, right? What’re you studying?”

“Mathematics,” Parse says, twirling the beer bottle in his hands.

“Oh, um—,” Bitty hesitates; admitting he’s undeclared gives away his age, but Parse nudges him again so he answers, “I haven’t decided yet. What about you?”

If the age thing bothers Ian, he doesn’t show it, and Bitty figures he probably doesn’t really look twenty-one anyway. “Uh, Econ. I’m basically just here to play football, though.”

Bitty fights down his gut panic and reminds himself he’s at Samwell, that things are better here. “Oh, goodness! I was raised on football, believe it or not. My dad’s a coach.”

Ian grins again, pausing to thank the bartender for the drinks he’s just delivered before asking, “Oh yeah? You ever play?”

“Not exactly,” Bitty laughs, “I—we’re—,” he nods at Parse, who smirks, “on the hockey team, actually.”

“That’s sweet, man. I heard you guys are really good.” Ian takes a long drink and leans in a little closer. He smells nice, like cheap cologne but the good kind, and Bitty can’t stop staring at his smile. “I’m curious, though. How’d a Southerner end up in hockey?”

Bitty giggles nervously into his beer and looks back up at Ian. “Oh, Lord, that’s a long story.”

“I’d like to hear it.”

Bitty looks over at Parse, who winks at him and slides off the bar stool. “I’ll be—not here,” he says, waggling his eyebrows suggestively, “See ya tomorrow, Bits.” Bitty watches him go with an uncomfortable sense of finality, like the whole night—maybe more—has just been decided for him. He can’t place why he’s suddenly nostalgic for shots of Malibu in the kitchen.

After Parse leaves, sliding into the booth where Holster, Ransom, and Lardo are still sitting (and now staring at Bitty and Ian with wolfish grins), Ian claims his stool and asks, amused, “Bits?”

“Oh, um—,” Bitty flushes and looks down at his beer, “hockey nickname. My last name’s Bittle.”

“Sweet. So what’s your story, Eric Bittle?” Ian is looking right at him, open and genuinely interested, like there’s nothing else he’d rather know.

And Bitty tells him. The watered down version, anyway, that skips over the extra unpleasant parts no one wants to hear from someone they’ve just met—or at all really. And Ian listens pretty well, prompts Bitty with some questions and tells his own stories when Bitty asks. They’re still talking when the rest of the gang leaves, wolf-whistling and cheering at Bitty on the way out, and linger almost until the bar itself closes down.

“So, uh—,” Ian says, a little hesitantly, shrugging on his coat, “can I walk you home, or—?”

Bitty bites his lip. Ian seems like a pretty decent guy; he’s friendly, and fun to talk to, and, well—not exactly bad to look at, either.

And if Bitty’s being honest, he’s been hungry for more intimacy than drunk kisses for a long time. If he’d wanted to go home alone every night, he could’ve stayed in Georgia. So he works up his courage and suggests, “I—or we could go back to your place?”

Ian grins, and loops his arm through Bitty’s as they head out the door. It turns out he lives in one of the frat houses on the same street as the Haus, though the football team’s is in significantly better shape. There’s snow falling and half a foot already on the ground, but Bitty is warm from his alcohol buzz and the giddiness in his stomach.

A few of Ian’s teammates are on the couch watching some sort of action movie when they walk in, and Bitty flinches away instinctively, but Ian just tugs him back closer reassuringly. “Hey, guys, this is Eric.”

The introductions are loud and full of chirping, not unlike the reception Ransom’s date got after Winter Screw—and Bitty immediately shuts down that train of thought because Lord, now he’s thinking about Parse and—well, the point is, meeting the football team could’ve gone worse.

“So do they all know?” Bitty asks, when they’re up in Ian’s room, reclined on the bed with Ian’s arm around Bitty’s shoulder.

“Uh, no—not the whole team. There’s some—not everyone is as cool as the guys I live with,” Ian admits, a hint of bitterness creeping into his voice, “but everyone here is chill. I can be myself around them.”

Bitty nods sympathetically and leans in, pressing his body up against Ian’s side and looking up at him with expectant eyes. Ian tilts his head down and then their lips are together in deep, purposeful kisses with the tentative slip of tongue, explorative and precise in a way that feels foreign but thrilling.

It’s different from kissing Parse in ways Bitty wouldn’t have had words to describe before. With Parse it was needy, sloppy, weird and consuming in ways that suggested this is more. It was the thick cloud in his head that settled in and weighed him down with touch, don’t let go, stay like this forever. He’s suddenly afraid of everything that was—and resentful, maybe, of what should have been a promise.

This is just kissing. Simple, goal-oriented, utterly un-terrifying in its utility.

They stay locked together, making out for so long Bitty’s lips are starting to tingle from a pleasant tenderness, until Ian grabs Bitty by the hips and tries to pull him on top of him.

Before Bitty knows it, he’s halfway across the bed with Ian staring at him in confusion. “Eric? What’s—did I do something wrong?”

“I—shit, no I’m sorry, I—I mean, yeah, I—,” Bitty sputters miserably, forcing deep gasps of air into his lungs that don’t seem to help at all.

“If we’re moving too fast—,”

“No, it’s not—not that, exactly. I just—,” Ian reaches out and takes Bitty’s hand, runs a thumb slowly over his knuckles. “It was just—sudden,” he finishes pathetically, staring at the plain red bedspread.

Experimentally, Ian shifts a little closer, and Bitty moves towards him in response, heartbeat slowing. Ian asks softly, “Oh, so like—just not so rough?” Bitty nods, and looks up nervously. Ian’s face is soft, kind with a little concern still lingering around his eyes. He grins at Bitty when they lock eyes. “I can do that.”

He opens his arms, then, and Bitty straddles him, sighing softly into his lips as they kiss again and Ian’s arms close around him. Ian’s hands stay gentle as they slip under his shirt, tracing over the knobs of his spine, sliding back down to cup his ass through his jeans. Bitty whines at the touch, presses himself closer so their bodies rub together and he can feel Ian’s erection pressed against his thigh.

“I—do you want to—?” Bitty asks, a little breathless. When he pulls away Ian’s mouth moves immediately to his neck and sucks gently, so good it’s hard to finish his sentence. “I could—oh Lord—take care of that.”

It’s less embarrassing than he imagined, offering to get someone off, especially because Ian shudders in response. “Shit, yeah I—,” he pauses to press another kiss to Bitty’s neck, “I’d like that. Have you—um, would you blow me?”

“Y-yeah,” Bitty stutters, flushing even harder than before, suddenly self-conscious with his hands at Ian’s zipper. He wills his fingers to stop trembling. "I've never, um, done—that, though."

“That’s fine,” Ian answers, grinning as he urges Bitty to roll onto his back, “I can demonstrate.”

 

Bitty’s not sure he actually learns much about the technique, seeing as everything whites out pretty much as soon as Ian gets his mouth around him, but he does learn what it feels like to come with another person, to have a pair of hazel eyes trained on him when his hips stutter and he muffles a moan with his face pressed into the pillow. And later, after some fumbling and enthusiasm replacing experience, he learns that sex can have laughter, when he screws up his face at the taste of Ian’s come and spits into the trashcan, when he looks up to see Ian cackling and dissolves into his own fit of giggles.

At Ian’s beckoning, Bitty wipes at his mouth with the back of his hand and climbs back onto the bed to curl up next to him. They lay quietly for a moment, still shaking with laughter, until Ian regains his composure and tells him, “You can stay here if you want, by the way.”

Bitty looks up with surprise. “Oh, you don’t have to—I could walk home, it’s not a problem.”

“I mean no pressure, but,” Ian shrugs against the pillows, “I like you. I’d, uh—it’d be cool if you stayed.”

“Oh, um—okay.” Bitty’s stomach flutters when he looks up into Ian’s smile.

 

The next morning, Ian kisses Bitty goodbye at the door. “Can I see you again?” he asks.

“Sure,” Bitty says. He’s tired of almost-promises being broken.

 

~*~

 

“Jack hates my guts. He just does.” Bitty groans dramatically and scrubs a hand through his hair. “And I shouldn’t even be thinking about him right now because—y’all, I have my first boyfriend! I can hardly believe it and I really am happy, I just—I can’t get Jack’s stupid face glaring at me out of my head.”

 

“I really gotta go, I—,” Bitty blinks up at Ian’s sly grin, “oh, alright, one more.” Ian chuckles triumphantly and leans in for another kiss, sucking gently on Bitty’s bottom lip before pulling away. “You’re gonna see me tonight, you know!”

“That’s an entire hockey game away, though,” Ian argues, still smiling, leaned just far enough back to not quite be in Bitty’s space anymore. Bitty rolls his eyes and goes to leave for the locker room; he’s already late to get start getting ready. “Wait, uh—one more thing?”

Bitty turns back and looks at him expectantly. “Um, yeah?”

“I—I was gonna ask you after the game but I thought maybe that would be weird?” Ian is anxiously fiddling with the hem of his undershirt. “But, anyway, I was wondering if—I mean, these last couple weeks have been really great? So I thought maybe you’d—will you be my boyfriend?”

Bitty’s pretty sure he’s gaping, which is pretty rude, but he doesn’t think he can manage any other expressions right now. “I—Lord, oh my God—,” he laughs nervously, “yes? Yeah, I’d—yeah.”

“Yeah?” Ian beams at Bitty and pulls him into a hug, his arms going tight around Bitty’s back, and Bitty muffles a reply into his shoulder. When Ian pulls away, he says, “Okay, I better go. Gotta get a good seat so I can cheer for my boyfriend.”

Heart fluttering at the word, Bitty waves at his—Lord, his boyfriend—as he walks away, back around front to Faber’s main entrance. He watches Ian go for a moment while the jumble of excited thoughts in his brain settles, and then promptly takes off in a sprint into the locker room when he realizes just how late he’s going to be.

Luckily, most of the guys are still getting into their gear when he zips around the corner and plops down into his stall. Jack, two stalls down, is intent on taping his stick and by the grace of God doesn’t look up to reprimand him. Bitty tries to tamp down his excitement and focus on getting ready; he’s not quite sure how he’d bring up what just happened, even if he wanted to. He doesn’t escape the chirping, though.

“Nice of ya to show, Bits,” Parse says, his tone light but with a question buried underneath. He nudges Bitty with his elbow.

“Sorry—sorry, I—,”

“Bits looks wrecked as fuck, bro,” Ransom comments loudly to Holster, “Bet he was with that dude, eh?”

Holster waggles his eyebrows in Bitty’s general direction. “Yeah, he’s too good for us bros now that he’s getting tail on the reg’.”

“Good Lord,” Bitty mutters, busying himself with changing into his gear as quickly as possible, praying no one actually—

“So Bitty, what’s the deal with this dude?” Ransom prods, and Bitty bites back a groan.

Shitty joins in the discussion too, asking, “When are you gonna bring the guy home to meet the motherfucking family?”

Parse rolls his eyes. “C’mon, guys—it’s not like it’s even that serious. Right, Bits?”

Bitty bites his lip and keeps his eyes trained on his skates. “Um, actually? We’re, um—,” he’s speaking quietly, sort of hoping no one else hears, “he asked me—we’re, um—we’re together now. Like, officially.”

Their corner of the locker room goes dead quiet for one terrifying moment and then erupts into cheers.

“Our baby’s growing up, Rans,” Holster sobs, wiping fake tears away from his eyes.

“Fucking get it, Bits!”

Shitty cups his hands around his mouth and shouts, “Bitty gets first kegstand tonight!”

Bitty looks over at Parse, who’s upsettingly silent, taping his stick with a little frown. “Um. Is—is something wrong?”

“What? Nah, I—,” Parse looks up and the furrow in his brow smooths out, “I just, uh—didn’t think you’d keep him around, I guess. I mean, it’s cool though.”

Bitty’s stomach turns. He ignores the cheers on his other side and whispers pleadingly, “I really like him.”

“I—yeah, I’m happy for you, Bits.” Parse clasps Bitty on the shoulder with a tight-lipped smile and turns back to his stick. Bitty stares at him, laces dangling limply from his fingers, for a good minute before he finishes tying his skate.

Shortly after, the staff comes out and Coach Hall gives his standard pep talk, then finishes by announcing the lines. “Right, we got Johnson starting in the net, Oluransi, Birkholtz, Parson, Zimmermann…and Bittle.”

Bitty’s head snaps up in shock, but the boys are already cheering all over again.

“Tonight is fucking Bitty’s night, bro!”

“Bitty gets two fucking kegstands tonight!”

“Fucking starting with the big boys, Bits!”

Bitty’s face flushes and he looks down with a giddy smile. His entire body is trembling with excitement; he’s starting in an NCAA hockey game, and on top of it Ian is here to watch and maybe this will make Coach proud and—

Bitty looks over to see Parse and Jack talking in hushed tones to the coaches, just in time to catch the glare Jack shoots him when they turn back around. The heat drains from Bitty’s face under the force of it, leaving him feeling shriveled and scared. Jack looks angry, like he doesn’t want anything from Bitty except for him to disappear, and Bitty’s more than half a mind to oblige him.

Parse thumps heavily back into his stall with his lips quirked thoughtfully, and Bitty asks nervously, “Um, was that—? Jack looks—really mad.”

There’s something Bitty can’t place in Parse’s eyes, something unfamiliar and a little dark. “He—Coach says you make him a better player.”

“I—but then—,” Bitty sputters, “isn’t that—why’s that a bad thing?”

Parse peers at Bitty for a long moment, like there’s something he’s trying to work out in his face. Then, he stands and stretches so he’s no longer meeting Bitty’s eye and says airily, “No idea.”

Bitty frowns at the floor and tries to quiet his newly resurfaced nerves.

 

~*~

 

Despite Bitty’s worries, the game actually goes pretty well; they win by two points, and he earns his keep with an assist on Holster’s goal. But Jack doesn’t seem too happy about the win, and refuses to even meet Bitty’s eye when he tries to talk to him afterwards, which dampens Bitty’s adrenaline rush considerably, and not even Ian’s enthusiasm when they meet up outside the locker room can really make up for it.

The kegster, though, ends up being great. It’s the first time Bitty’s brought Ian to the Haus to hang out because he’s been so nervous about how the boys would react—but they practically drag the two back to the Haus after the game, and Ian gets the honor of operating the keg’s nozzle for both of Bitty’s kegstands, which is really the highest level of acceptance Bitty could have hoped for. And it feels damn good to not be alone anymore, to be a part of one of those drunk couples making out on the furniture at the end of the night, part of the scenery that used to make Bitty feel cold and so lonely he could burst. It even feels good to get wolf-whistled at when they leave to crash at Ian’s place down the road, despite the red flush on Bitty’s cheeks.

 

After that first kegster, Ian starts coming over to spend time with Bitty and the boys (plus Lardo, of course) a few times a week, and he fits in surprisingly well with the gang. He and Holster bond over Econ major woes and their shared taste in TV shows.

It’s Downtown Abbey night when things first get uncomfortable. Nearly everyone is crowded in the living room passing around a giant bowl of popcorn; Ransom, Holster, Bitty, and Ian are squished on the couch and Shitty and Lardo are sharing the armchair. There’s some lighthearted commentary, but mostly everyone is peaceful, enjoying the show. Then the front door swings open harshly and both Jack and Parse stomp inside from their run.

Parse is snapping, clearly irritated, “All I was fucking saying was—,”

“Kent,” Jack warns quietly. He peels off his beanie and tosses it in the general direction of the coat rack, uncharacteristically careless.

Taking in the crowd in the den, Parse falls silent and runs his fingers through his sweaty hair, eyes lingering on Bitty before he turns and walks quickly towards the stairs. Jack follows wordlessly.

It seems like that’s going to be the end of it, especially since the water switches on and the faint sounds of someone showering become the new backdrop for the television’s dialogue. Ian gives Bitty a questioning look and he shrugs. Parse and Jack haven’t been bickering much lately, so it was honestly about time as far as he can tell.

The water shuts off and someone’s door slams audibly. Bitty jumps, but the others just roll their eyes. At first, all they can hear is the occasional vague, emphasized expletive, but whatever argument is taking place seems to be picking up steam because pretty soon they can pick up the whole cadence of words, overlapping shouted frustrations that are muffled just enough by the walls to stay meaningless.

Ian finally speaks up after there’s a dull thud that definitely sounds like someone’s thrown something. “Um,” he asks warily, “should someone like...check on them or something?”

Holster shakes his head. “Nah, I’m not getting in the middle of that shit.”

“But—,”

“Look, bro, what you gotta understand?” Ransom cuts in, “Parse and Jack have mad history, okay? We’ve dealt with it for two years now.”

Shitty pauses the TV and grabs another beer from the case they’ve got sitting on the floor. “Honestly? Shit’s way better than it used to be. You lucky fuckers weren’t here for our frog year.”

Ian seems to be a familiar combination of uncomfortable and curious that Bitty sympathizes with. “What do you mean, history?”

Ransom explains, “Like, demolishing-all-of-junior’s-hockey-stats kind of history. They were in the Q—that’s like our pro league for high schoolers—together, tearin’ shit up you know? They were like, famous together.”

“I remember hearing rumors about their rumors.”

“They were supposed to take the NHL by storm. And then they…didn’t.”

There’s a brief pause caused by the opening of a door upstairs. Jack’s voice rings out, “—never asked you to—,” before the door slams shut again and cuts off the rest of his sentence.

Ransom looks up at the ceiling for a moment and continues, “And then they ended up here, together, like two years later.”

“Yo, the best part though? During our freshman year, Rans and I unearthed a treasure trove of Zimmermann/Parson fanfiction.”

“’Chyeah. There’s a ton from back in the Q obviously, but shit kind of explodes after the Draft. It’s ridiculous.” Ransom snags his tablet and starts tapping away.

“We even found one about Parse and Jack at Samwell,” Holster says.

Ransom holds up the tablet for Ian to see. “It’s like 33k and counting.”

Holster laughs, “Can you believe people think they’re like, fucking or something?”

“People are nuts, man.”

Ian shifts awkwardly. “Uh, so—what did happen, then?”

Holster shrugs. “Who knows? We think—,” he’s interrupted by the sound of someone purposefully slamming a kitchen cabinet. “Shit.”

“Did you see who that was?”

“It’s Parse,” Shitty tells him, “Jack would’ve gone out the front.”

Bitty turns and looks at the closed door across the hall, biting his lip. After a moment’s hesitation, he stands and makes for the kitchen.

“Bits, seriously—don’t,” Holster warns, but Bitty ignores him.

Parse is slamming back down a shot glass when Bitty walks in, clicking the door shut quietly behind him. His hair flicks water droplets onto the counter when he turns to look at Bitty.

“Fuck,” Parse curses, shaking his head like it’ll dispel the taste, “I hate vodka.” He pours another shot anyway.

“Then why’re you drinking it?” Bitty asks, concerned and baffled.

“No Malibu left.”

“I meant—,”

Leveling him with a sardonic look, Parse asks, “Would you go out there sober?” When Bitty doesn’t answer, he slides the shot glass down to Bitty and pours himself a fresh one.

“Do you—do you wanna talk about it?” Bitty prods, nervously spinning the glass around between his fingers.

“’Course not.” Parse holds up his drink and they clink their glasses together. Bitty’s halfway through his shot when Parse comments casually, “People write some damn good porn about us, though.”

Bitty chokes on his drink and Parse cackles, slinging an arm around Bitty’s shoulders and leading him back towards the den. Everyone has the courtesy not to stare except Ian, whose eyebrows furrow up in a hard line.

After Bitty takes his seat back in the middle, Parse flops down across the whole couch, draping himself across Ransom and Holster and resting his feet in Bitty’s lap. “Catch me up,” he tells them, and Holster launches into a colorful explanation of the past thirty minutes of television without missing a beat.

When the show clicks back on, Parse wiggles his bare toes and pokes them into Bitty’s stomach, pouting at the eye roll he gets in response. Bitty hesitates, not sure if this—crosses some kind of boundary, or something. But when he flicks anxious eyes around the room, the boys don’t seem perturbed. Which—it’s not like they don’t do this kind of thing all the time.

Parse digs his toes in harder this time and goes all doe-eyed like Bitty can never manage to resist. Resigned, Bitty sighs, “You owe me again,” and takes Parse’s foot in his hands, massaging the arch gently. The noise Parse makes is honestly indecent. Bitty snorts fondly and digs his fingers deeper into the muscle, leaning back against the couch in contentment. He can’t place the expression he sees on Ian’s face before he looks away.

 

~*~

 

“Well,” Bitty starts, looking up into the camera with a pained expression, “you ever just talk to someone and it ruins your whole day?”

 

It takes a lot to not throw his phone across the room, to be honest. It’s got a good case on it; it probably wouldn’t even break. Bitty settles for smashing his face into his pillow instead, and crushing Señor Bun under his arm. He doesn’t understand how every conversation he has with Coach somehow manages to involve both hockey as some sort of second-rate replacement for football and why in the world Bitty doesn’t have a girlfriend yet, and doesn’t he have plans for Valentine’s Day?

Sorry I’ll never be a quarterback. But I did find one who sucks my dick pretty well, Bitty thinks darkly, Are you proud of me yet, Dad?

Speaking of which, Ian texted while Bitty was on the phone. He lifts his head slowly and pulls up the message.

Ian (6:32 pm): Hey, wanna come over tonight? :)

Bitty’s fingers are trembling just enough to feel the way his phone jitters in his hands. He can taste his own bitterness in his mouth, a tangible sick feeling he can’t seem to swallow back down his throat.

Bitty (6:47 pm): Can’t, sorry :(

He shoves his phone into his pocket, winds a scarf around his neck, and shoulders his backpack on his way out the door.

 

Shitty, Parse, Holster, and Ransom are all on the couch when Bitty gets to the Haus. Something’s blaring on the TV—Golden Girls, maybe? He doesn’t really care, just looks right at Parse and asks, “Wanna get drunk?”

“Always,” Parse says, but when he follows Bitty into the kitchen, his face is sporting that carefully neutral expression that always makes Bitty the tiniest bit suspicious. So he’s kind of already braced for it when Parse, as he’s handing over a rum-filled shot glass, prods, “You wanna talk about it?”

“No,” Bitty snorts, feeling the pads of his fingers slip slightly against the too-smooth surface as he grips the glass, “That’s why we’re drinking.”

Parse touches Bitty’s arm, fingers catching against his sweater. “Bits, you can’t—,”

Holster’s shout of, “Hey, bring the whole case out!” interrupts the train of thought. Bitty downs his shot. The rum sears down his throat. It helps.

Parse tries again. “You shouldn’t have to always—,”

“You know, Parse,” Bitty cuts in as he pulls the case of beer out of the fridge, “you’re real quick to talk about anyone’s problems but your own.”

There’s a beat of silence and then Parse laughs, a clipped, defeated sound. He slings an arm around Bitty’s shoulders and snags the bottle of rum with his free hand. “Guess that makes us the perfect pair, Bits.”

 

~*~

 

Bitty fiddles with the bouquet resting on his desk, trying to keep the flowers from crushing together, before he looks up into the camera and grins. “Happy Valentine’s Day, y’all! I’m about to go on a date with my first ever Valentine—but before I leave, I’ve got the perfect cupcake recipe to bake for that special someone.”

 

Bitty sits gingerly on the couch and slides a plate of cupcakes onto Parse’s lap. “Here, which one of these do you like better?”

“Bits,” Parse tells him, horrified, “that’s like asking me to choose between my children.”

“You don’t have any children—,”

Holster interjects, “That we know of,” flicking the snapback off Parse’s head as he passes,

“—so eat the damn cupcakes,” Bitty huffs.

Parse smirks and sinks his teeth into the first option, the batch Bitty added extra chocolate into. “Fuck, Bits,” he moans, thunking his head back against the couch, “if I marry you will you bake these forever?”

Holster makes a grab for the cupcake and Parse swats him away defensively. Bitty giggles and ignores the way he’s sure his cheeks are turning pink. “Thought you’d be marrying me for my pie,” he chirps, busying his hands with breaking off a bite of the second cupcake for Holster.

“That too,” Parse amends, mouth still full of cupcake, “And your cookies.”

Holster adds, “The holy trinity,” and gives Parse a fist-bump for good measure.

Parse drops the rest of his cupcake and goes for the other batch that has peanut butter mixed into the batter. “Speaking of—mfph, ‘s good but the firs’ one’s better—speaking of trinities.” He shoots finger guns at Bitty and Holster with his free hand. “Singles' Awareness Day: bros, booze, and Die Hard.”

Holster licks his fingers clean with a loud smacking sound. “Sorry, bro. Rans and me have a double date.” He wiggles his eyebrows suggestively.

“Ugh, fuck you, man,” Parse complains, “Zimms is bailing too.” He flops dramatically to the side, sprawling across Bitty’s lap and nearly toppling the cupcake plate to the ground. “Bits. Bitty. You’re in, right?”

Bitty bites at his lip. “Um, actually—I have plans with Ian? Sorry.”

Parse sighs and smashes his face into the couch cushion—which is probably the most disgusting thing Bitty’s ever seen him do, good Lord. “You guys suck.”

Bitty’s fingers itch, like they should be running through Parse’s hair or down his back. He shoves them under his own thighs instead. “I’m…sorry? It’s—I mean, it’s Valentine’s Day. I should probably—.” He stops abruptly, feeling silly justifying it, especially since he’s not sure who he’s trying to convince.

“Psh, I guess,” Parse mutters into the couch, his tone only half-sarcastic. Bitty shoots an exasperated look to Holster, who shrugs and walks away.

 

~*~

 

Ian picks Bitty up outside his dorm for Valentine’s Day dinner late in the evening. Bitty’s more nervous than he probably should be, and he’s not sure if it’s because of the little confused face Ian makes at being handed flowers or the fact that Parse keeps sending him Snapchats filled with thinly-veiled loneliness he doesn’t know how to respond to.

It’s literally one day, Bitty tells himself, Less than one day. You saw him this morning. You baked a pie, Bittle. You’re with your boyfriend, Bittle.

While he walks with Ian to the restaurant, another picture comes in. It’s of a mostly empty pie tin, with maybe two slices left—if he squints, and makes the slices small. It’s captioned, “Last piece :( Come feed me”

Bitty snorts and mutters, “This boy,” under his breath.

“What was that?” Ian asks, turning his head to quirk a smile at him.

“Oh, nothin’,” Bitty starts to wave him off, but thinks a little better of it, “Or, um—just Parse. Most of the boys are off on dates and he’s bored.”

He clicks on his phone camera and manages to capture a picture mid-eyeroll. “U r a grown man, Parson. Fend 4 yourself”

“I’m surprised he’s not out putting the moves on someone tonight.”

Bitty shrugs. “He’s—weird—about stuff like that.” It’s the censored way of saying that he’s never seen Parse kiss anyone when he wasn’t at least three drinks in, and the vague way of admitting he’s given up on trying to figure out why.

Ian doesn’t have an answer to that, so they walk in silence for about five minutes until another snapchat comes in. “Miss u,” is all it says, framing a pout that Bitty kind of wants to screenshot but also kind of wants to click away from and never see again, because what the hell?

Bitty (7:38 pm): Are you drunk *already?*

Parse :D (7:39 pm): ??No

And—okay, that’s not the answer Bitty was expecting at all. It was supposed to be a chirp, but—

Parse :D (7:39 pm): But now that u mention it… ;)

Well, that’s more predictable. Bitty fights the urge to roll his eyes again.

 

The restaurant they go to is cute, a little ways farther off campus than Bitty normally goes, and he’s flushed from the cold by the time they finally sit down. Ian sets the flowers down to the side and goes straight for the menu, ordering a beer and an appetizer for them both. Bitty sticks with water, a little worried about whether or not his ID would pass at a nicer place like this.

Bitty (8:00 pm): scale of 1 to 10, how badly would I ruin this date if I got caught w/ my fake id & went to jail

Parse :D (8:01 pm): -2/10 that sounds like a better time. I’d bail u out and we’d get burgers

Bitty snorts and pockets his phone.

 

“—and anyway, you can’t really quantify the effect of morale on a team, so if—,”

Bitty bites his lip and, fingers twitching, discreetly pulls his phone out under the table. He’s been trying to be attentive, he really has, but honestly this discussion stopped being interesting twenty minutes ago. No one’s opinions on Tim Tebow should be this strong, good Lord. There are two unread messages from Parse on his phone.

Parse :D (9:13 pm): im lost

Parse :D (9:17 pm): im currentl y lost in the forest

Bitty squints suspiciously at his phone.

Bitty (9:20 pm): ???

Bitty (9:20 pm): what forest?

Parse :D (9:23 pm): idk some trees

Ian says Bitty’s name and he looks up, trying to smooth the confused line out of his forehead. “Hm? Sorry?”

“I asked if you were ready to go.”

“Oh, um, yeah.”

Ian waves over the server and Bitty tilts his head back down while he pulls out his credit card.

Bitty (9:25 pm): ok but WHICH trees

Bitty (9:25 pm): are you north of campus??

He chews his lip nervously, fingers tapping on his thigh, and tries to busy himself in the predictable squabble over the check with Ian while he waits for a reply. By the time they’ve settled on splitting the bill, Parse has answered.

Parse :D (9:27 pm): idk I was at botwell and then it was just trees

Bitty (9:27 pm): that’s literally a 2 min walk how did u get lost

Bitty shivers when they leave the restaurant; it’s even colder outside than when they got there and the snow is falling in a lazy sheet. If he finds Parse wandering outside the Bottom of the Well, he’s going to kill him.

Bitty (9:30 pm): youre prob like right near the house

“Anyway, what do you think?” Ian asks, nudging Bitty gently.

Bitty’s said what he thought probably three times by now, but apparently he’s trapped in some Groundhog Day-esque hell where all anyone wants to do is argue about partially-retired NFL quarterbacks. “Um, I agree?”

Bitty (9:30 pm): do you see anything that isn’t tree

Parse :D (9:32 pm): im by some trees

“Bless your fucking heart,” Bitty mutters, and Ian gapes at him. “Oh, Lord, not you! Sorry. I just—actually, I kind of need to go back to the Haus? I think—Parse—I need to help with, uh, something.”

“I—okay?” Ian scrubs a hand over his face. “You—should I come with you?”

“Um—,”

Bitty (9:33 pm): I’ll come find you

Bitty (9:33 pm): just like try to find not trees

“No, I think—,” Bitty pauses; they’re almost at the Haus. He could see if someone else is home to handle this mess, see if he can just go back to Ian’s place like they’d planned and have a normal Valentine’s Day.

Parse :D (9:35 pm): no its chill

Parse :D (9:35 pm): im one w nature and have enough food to last me 3 days

Bitty turns his eyes skyward and glares. Yeah, there’s no way he’s going to ditch Parse in this state. “I think this is like, something we have to do as a team, you know? I’m—I’m really sorry, I know this is shitty, I just—,”

“No, I get it, I guess.” They’re standing outside the Haus now; Ian shifts uncomfortably and glances down the street to the football frat. “I’ll—you can come over later, if you want. Just text me or something, I guess.”

“Y-yeah.” Bitty gives him an awkward kiss goodbye and sends him on his way before shuffling into the Haus.

Bitty (9:37 am): parse im gonna come get you

Bitty doesn’t even leave the foyer, just shouts, “Anyone here?” and hopes someone answers.

Bitty (9:37 am): how far did you walk

Holster comes around the corner as Bitty’s switching into someone’s—Shitty’s, probably, considering the weed smell—thicker coat and borrowing a pair of gloves. He’s not going to freeze to death searching for Parse in the snow.  

Parse :D (9:38 pm): idk into some trees

Parse :D (9:38 pm): and then like some more trees but maybe the same trees twice

“Bitty? What’re you doing here? I thought—,”

“Parse is drunk and ‘lost in the woods—’ unless he’s just fucking with me. He’s not here is he?”

Holster pinches the bridge of his nose, shoving his glasses askew and up his face. “Fuck. No, he’s not. Let’s go.”

It’s a testament to the Buffalo climate he hails from that Holster doesn’t even put any extra layers on, just slips into his boots and hat and leads the way out back.

They make for the row of trees separating the Haus from the off-campus bars, which is where Holster figures Parse probably is. Bitty pulls his phone out and tries to shield it from the falling snow, mostly in vain. Parse picks up on the second ring.

“Bits. Bitty. ‘m lost.”

“Oh my—I know. We’re gonna come—can you tell me literally anything about where you are?” Bitty kicks at a tree out of spite. “And if you say ‘trees’ I swear I’ll—,”

Holster gripes, “The dude’s lived here three years. How do you get—wait, he’s not in the Forbidden Forest is he?”

“The—Parse, did you walk—,”

“Wait, are you with Holster?”

“I—yes? How—,”

“I can hear him.”

Of course he can. Of course Parse is literally sitting within hearing range of Holster’s stupid booming voice. “You—Parse, I’m gonna—Holster, yell out for him—I’m not gonna bake for you for a week, I swear to God.”

Parse, because he’s an asshole, just laughs.

 

So the dramatic search is pretty anticlimactic, given that Holster just has to shout kind of loudly and Parse stumbles over from like thirty feet to the left, shit-faced and shivering something fierce but not too worse for the wear, since he at least had the sense to leave the Haus with gloves and a beanie on.

He wraps a clumsy arm around Bitty’s shoulders and smashes his icicle of a nose into Bitty’s cheek. “You’re the best, Bits.”

“My beautiful voice is technically what saved you, bro,” Holster chirps, doing his best to sound especially put out over it.

Parse throws up his free arm to give Holster the middle finger, which somehow throws him off balance and sends him stumbling heavily into Bitty’s side.

Barely managing to keep them both upright, Bitty asks, “Lord, Parse, how much did you drink?”

They’re almost inside, thank the Lord. Parse mumbles, “Dunno. Lots. ‘m cold. Make me warm?”

“I—okay?”

Holster circles around to walk on Bitty’s other side. He whispers, voice pitched low so Parse won’t hear, “I texted the guys. They’re gonna try and come back.”

Bitty raises an eyebrow, but he’s not going to act like he isn’t kind of grateful. He’s just surprised Holster picked up on the same strange vibe he did. This is not normal, even for Parse.

Once they’re back inside, Holster ushers Parse upstairs to get into warm clothes and Bitty starts a batch of hot chocolate. Holster comes back down and sinks into the arm chair in the den, with Parse trailing him wrapped in a blanket, looking sullen and a little disoriented. Bitty hands them both mugs and goes back into the kitchen for his own.

When he gets back, Parse is curled up on the couch, taking careful sips of his drink and staring at his toes. Bitty settles in next to him, hands wrapped around the pleasantly warm mug.

“Bits. Bitty. You were kidding ‘bout the not-baking right?” Parse leans over and thunks his head onto Bitty’s shoulder, looking up at him with distressed eyes.

Bitty is shaken by how tired he looks, how—something—he looks, like his mind is mostly off somewhere else. Swallowing hard, Bitty manages, “Um—yeah, ‘course. I’ll still bake for you.”

Parse makes a soft, happy sound that isn’t quite a sigh and nestles closer before pressing his lips back to his mug and taking another sip.

They sit in silence for what feels like ages, until Parse mumbles something into Bitty’s shoulder so muffled that he asks him to repeat. Parse asks again, “How do people do it?”

“Do—,” Bitty shoots Holster a look and only gets a shrug in response, “Do what?”

“Like—today—any of it.”

Bitty gives up on trying to translate. “I don’t know,” he says, and Parse seems resigned.

Holster clicks on the TV and switches it to ESPN.

 

Jack is the first one back, lips pursed and beanie heavy with snow. He sheds his layers into a neat little pile and never takes his eyes off Parse, who looks up blearily at him and blinks slowly. Holster gets up to offer Jack the armchair, but he shakes his head and sits on Parse’s other side instead.

Clearing his throat, Jack asks, “Did I miss the movie?” His voice is careful. Bitty gets the impression he’s trying his best to sound casual; it’s just that he’s failing pretty miserably.

“Nah bro, hasn’t started yet. Think Rans is getting back soon, so I was gonna wait for him.”

Parse reaches a hand out and grabs at Jack’s arm blindly, his head still firmly planted on Bitty’s shoulder. “Zimms. Jack. I missed you.”

Jack chuckles and ruffles Parse’s hair, thoroughly mussing his damp half-curls. “You always say that.”

 

Shitty and Lardo beat Ransom home, it turns out, but not by much. He trails in as they’re settling into the couch, looking a little flustered. Parse climbs into Bitty’s lap to make room for Ransom, seemingly perked up a little now that everyone’s around. Jack slides over so he’s nudged up against Bitty and Ransom can squeeze in between him and Shitty, stuffing the couch to capacity.

Bitty’s phone buzzes in his pocket and he pulls it out, startled.

Ian (10:20 pm): Hey, think you’ll be able to come back over tonight?

Bitty worries at his bottom lip. It isn’t like he doesn’t want to go see Ian, to spend a night with his boyfriend having sex and watching bad television and falling asleep warm in someone’s arms. It’s just—when he looks around the room, Holster is setting up the movie on his laptop while he harasses Ransom for deets, and Jack is half-heartedly trying to fend off snuggles from Shitty, who’s being griped at by Lardo for dislodging her from his lap. And Parse is smiling again.

Bitty (10:22 pm): Sorry, but it looks like I can’t :( need to be with the team rn

Ian (10:29 pm): Yeah, okay. I’ll see you tomorrow?

Bitty (10:31 pm): yeah :)

 

~*~

 

“Hey y’all. I hope all my fellow Northerners are staying warm through the storm! Believe it or not, we got hit so hard classes are actually cancelled today!” Bitty slips his favorite hat snug over his ears, “And it really shows how much I love my team that I’m heading over there today.”

 

Holster (10:13 am): NO CLASSES

Ransom (10:13 am): ALL DAY HAUS PARTY

Holster (10:13 am): BITTY GET UR ASS OVER HERE

Parse :D (10:15 am): PARTYYYYYYYYYYYY

 

Bitty looks outside at the snow that’s still falling in sheets and briefly regrets every decision that has led to this moment in his life. “Sweet Lord,” he mutters to Señor Bun, who’s currently tucked snugly under a pile of blankets, “this weather should be illegal.”

He slogs through the storm anyway, though, because it’s not like he’s going to miss whatever the boys have planned at the Haus. When he gets there, there’s a haphazard blanket fort constructed around the couch and Broadway music blasting from someone’s speakers.

“Y’all are weird,” Bitty chirps, but he’s grinning when he crawls through the blankets to join everyone. Ransom is draped across the entire couch on his stomach with Lardo perched on his back, which can’t possibly be comfortable but it seems to be working for them, and everyone else is camped out on the floor, including Jack. There’s more blankets and pillows, too, and a mostly-empty bottle of peppermint Schnapps lidded and upended in the corner.

Shitty hands Bitty a mug of hot chocolate. “We’re a bunch of hockey bros—plus a kickass hockey lady—snuggling under a pile of blankets watching a musical to subvert the whack hyper-masculinity of our sport.”

“Right, like Bits said: weird.” Parse winks at Bitty and splays his legs open, which is apparently an invitation to sit with him, if the way he’s kind of just staring expectantly is anything to go by.

Bitty stalls by taking a sip of his hot chocolate, which tastes—oh, okay, that’s where all the Schnapps went. He feels a little weird about it, for some reason, even though it’s not like everyone else isn’t curled up together already. Ransom has an arm draped over the edge of the couch onto Holster’s chest and Shitty’s head is pillowed against Jack’s bicep with his legs propped up in Holster’s lap. So—Bitty shouldn’t really feel guilty about settling between Parse’s thighs and leaning lightly back against his chest, right?

Parse lets a hand casually fall onto Bitty’s knee and chuckles when Bitty jumps in surprise. His breath is warm on Bitty’s neck.

Bitty, in a valiant effort to act like he isn’t about to die, asks, “What’re we gonna watch?”

“Rent,” Holster warns, “Anyone who doesn’t cry is excommunicated from the family.”

 

Two cups of spiked hot chocolate and a lot of tears—mostly on Bitty’s part, to be honest, though no one’s eyes are exactly dry—later, the movie is over. Bitty’s a little emotionally exhausted from the whole affair, and he slumps back against Parse, rubbing at his face while Holster closes out of the movie.

“You good, Bits?” Parse murmurs.

Bitty nods and thumps his head against Parse’s collarbone. “That was—.” His voice cracks and he stops, laughs uncomfortably. Parse squeezes his knee in comfort.

“I’m kinda surprised you haven’t seen it before, Bi—uh, I mean, not cause—,” Holster catches himself and starts to scramble, “uh, I mean, kind of because—but not in a bad way—,”

“Bro,” Ransom laughs, “you want a shovel for the hole you’re digging?”

Before Holster can answer, the front door swings open and Ian’s voice overlays the thunking of boots being pulled off and tossed on the floor. “Hey, guys, Eric said it was cool to come over?” He pokes his head through the blanket fort a moment later. “What’s up with—uh.”

Bitty shifts uncomfortably, leaning forward. Ian isn’t even looking at him; he’s staring above his head, at Parse, with an expression Bitty doesn’t know well enough to read.

And here’s the thing: all his casual contact with Parse has never felt possessive before. But there’s something in the tightening of Parse’s hand on his knee, the smirk that looks a lot friendlier than it feels. Bitty thinks he should probably be indignant. He mostly just thinks he likes it.

Which—fuck, that’s not okay—he shouldn’t—and he’s probably just imagining it all anyway because he can’t get a grip on his silly crush—but what kind of person is he to—

“Eric? Did you hear me?”

No, Bitty was too busy having a small crisis, thank you very much. “Hm? Sorry.”

“I asked if you wanted to head back over to the frat. The guys are gonna build a huge ass snowman.” Ian is looking right at Bitty now, not quite sharply, but—something.

Well, getting far away from this situation sounds pretty good. So Bitty says, “Oh, yeah! That’d be great,” as cheerfully as he can manage. He swears he can feel Parse’s fingers catch on his hip as he goes to leave.

 

~*~

 

“So, I have a new roadie roommate now,” Bitty says with a grin, “I think it’s gonna work out.”

 

Bitty’s settling into his seat on the bus next to Parse when Johnson walks over to them. “Hey, Bitty. You’re rooming with Howzer right?”

“Um, yeah?” Bitty takes the earbud Parse offers him automatically and slips it into his ear; apparently it’s a Miley kind of afternoon.

“’Swawesome. Could you switch with me and room with Parse? Me and Howzer are in the same philosophy class and it’s kicking our asses, so we were gonna try and study at night.” Johnson winks at either him or Parse, Bitty can’t tell which. “Plus, I think it’ll be good for the plot.”

Bitty frowns in confusion, but starts to agree, “Sure, I—,”

“Fucking sweet!” Parse interrupts, slinging an arm around Bitty’s shoulders, “We’re gonna be the new party room, Bits.”

“Um, excuse you!” Holster turns around to boom, and Bitty thinks he might be legitimately offended, “Rans and I will always be the party room.”

Ransom fist-bumps him in agreement. “Hell yeah, bro.”

Jack tries to scold from across the aisle, “There shouldn’t be a party room, we—,”

“Par-ty room! Par-ty room!” Holster chants, practically shouting, and for some reason two-thirds of the bus joins in.

Bitty rolls his eyes affectionately and pulls his math textbook and notebook out of his bag; he’s not exactly thrilled at having to do his homework on the bus—or at all, really—but he’s hoping he can lure Parse into helping him if he frowns at the page for long enough.

“Want some help with that?” Parse leans over eagerly, his eyes lighting up like no one’s should ever do while staring at a textbook. Bitty grins triumphantly and nods. Leaning over farther to pluck the pencil out of Bitty’s hand, Parse starts sketching something in the notebook. His other arm is still around Bitty’s shoulders, draped casually in a way that shouldn’t really mean anything, but it combines with the press of his side and the lilt of his voice as he starts to chatter, “So, the cool thing about matrices is—,” and makes Bitty’s throat go dry.

Bitty wills himself to focus and fails spectacularly.

 

~*~

 

The room change goes incredibly well. Bitty had liked Howzer well enough, but—he wasn’t Parse. They’re practically living out of each other’s pockets within a few weekends, between the bus rides and the late nights camped out in Ransom and Holster’s hotel room, and the even later nights doing homework or splitting a bag of jelly beans while they chirp the needy homeowners on HGTV. Bitty likes the buttered popcorn kind and Parse eats all the gross fruit-flavored ones like a crazy person. It’s a good system.

 

And so a Saturday in early March, Bitty wakes up in Parse’s hotel bed with a handful of jelly beans still held in one palm. Parse is sitting up cross-legged next to him, his cellphone to his ear. He laughs when Bitty wrinkles his nose in disgust at the way the candy sticks to his hand as he cleans it off on a napkin.

Bitty’s working up the nerve to ask if it’s weird they’ve slept in the same bed now—he thinks it probably shouldn’t be, but he suddenly feels a little guiltier about not texting Ian goodnight—when Parse’s face changes to an expression Bitty’s never seem him wear before. He’s grinning but his eyes are a little heavy at the edges, a relieved euphoria.

“Hey, Squirt,” Parse greets into the phone, “how—how are you?” His voice is so soft that Bitty feels compelled to look away.

I can leave, Bitty mouths, beckoning with his thumb to the door that connects their room to Ransom’s and Holster’s, but Parse waves him off idly.

“That’s great, I—yeah…no, I’m really fucking proud of you, okay? Yeah, of course…” Parse looks younger, somehow, like something’s been shaved away and he’s fresh underneath—raw, but scraped healthy. Bitty plays with his phone and pretends not to stare.

He goes through his entire Pinterest and Instagram feeds and is debating pulling out his laptop when Parse starts to say goodbye. “No, it’s okay—don’t be late to class…I love you so much, okay? So fucking much, Squirt…yeah…will you—will you tell Mom I—,” he stops, like the person on the other end has cut in. Parse’s face crumples and his shoulders sag. “No, I—I understand. Don’t—don’t worry about it, okay? I—just call me whenever, okay? I miss you…Yeah. Bye, Squirt.”

Parse doesn’t even actually hang up the phone, just drops it onto the mattress and lets whoever was on the other line end the call. He stares at the empty space on the comforter between the bag of jelly beans and Bitty’s left foot.

“Parse—,”

“That was my baby sister,” Parse tells him, lips quivering like he’s either going to smile or cry, or maybe both. “Well, not—,” he laughs wetly, “she’s your age, but—anyway, she got a solo in her college’s dance troupe thing last week, I guess, and—I don’t know why but I guess that made her pick up the phone.”

Bitty doesn’t know what to say, so he picks through the bag of jelly beans until he has a handful of green apple and hands them over. Parse tilts them around in his palm before popping one into his mouth and chewing thoughtfully.

“She shouldn’t be at some shitty college with a club dance team. She should be at—at fucking Julliard or something.” He tosses the rest of the jelly beans into his mouth at once like he’s angry about getting to eat them. Bitty just stares, letting the silence hang heavy until Parse is ready to fill it. “I just—she quit ballet so we could afford to ship me off to fucking Canada for the Q, you know? My fucking kid sister volunteered to give up—and Mom was already working two jobs to let me—and look what the fuck I did with it, Bits. No wonder they—.”

He looks up, then, and Bitty thinks it’s some kind of twisted miracle Parse isn’t crying yet. His eyes are wet and so light they’re nearly translucent around his pupil and Bitty feels wrong, somehow, looking at whatever is swimming there, but the kind of wrong he has to be. He owes it to Parse to not look away.

There’s a split second where they both move in and Bitty isn’t sure what’s going to happen—but then his arms are wrapping tight around Parse’s back and there are tears dripping onto his neck and Parse’s hands are gripped weakly at his shirt and it feels a little like finally, and Bitty feels sick at the thought that maybe part of him has been waiting for this all along.

“I gave up everything for him, Bitty,” Parse whispers, his lips ghosting against the crook where Bitty’s neck meets his shoulder. “Why’d I do it? Why’d I do it?”

Bitty’s voice is hoarse; it’s the first time he’s spoken all morning. “I don’t know,” he says, “I’m so sorry. I don’t know.”

He brings a hand up to run his fingers through Parse’s hair, the closest thing he can do to any comfort at all, and whispers I’m sorry like it makes any difference.

 

They don’t talk about it when it’s over, when Parse is wrung out of tears and Bitty can feel the salt drying onto his skin. They don’t talk about it when Holster bangs on their door and shouts that they better get their asses to breakfast, or when Parse finally picks his phone back up off the bed like he’d been afraid it could burn him.

They don’t talk about it at all, but when Bitty bakes that evening it’s a blueberry pie and Parse hugs him in the quiet of the kitchen, a poorly-insulated wall removed from the chaos in the den, and Bitty thinks his chest might crack open from the weight of it.

“I’m gonna eat the whole thing,” Parse tells him, and when he pulls away he’s smirking. “I hope you know that.”

“Good,” Bitty says, “that’s why I made it.”

 

~*~

 

“Hey y’all! Today we’ll be doing some viewer-requested recipes,” Bitty greets the camera with a small wave. “Up first is a double-chocolate brownie recipe for Janice, who wanted a comfort food to get through her breakup.” There’s a small pause while Bitty hesitates; he looks down and then back up with a tight smile on his face. “Sorry to hear about that, hun. And then we’ll move on to my own version of cake-in-a-mug, guaranteed to be bake-able even with your hangover, Jake! Don’t tell my mama, but that last one’s sure been put to the test by yours truly.”

 

The first kegster of March is in full swing by the time Ian finds Bitty keeping Holster company near the keg; Ransom is apparently off wheeling some girl.

“Hey, hun,” Bitty greets, wrapping his arms around Ian’s neck in a quick hug, “glad you could make it.”

Ian kisses the top of Bitty’s head. “Hey, babe. Me too.”

“How was study group?”

“Oh, God,” Ian moans dramatically and thumps his head against the wall. “Don’t even get me started. So this one guy—,”

“Bits. Bitty.” Suddenly there’s an arm around Bitty’s shoulder and Parse is slurring into his ear. “Come play ‘pong with me.”

Ian is staring at Parse incredulously, but he doesn’t seem to notice. Bitty looks between them with a conflicted expression. “Um, why don’t you play with Lardo? She’s—,” Lord, Parse’s face is so close that Bitty can feel his breath. “She’s way better’n me.”

“Mm, but you’re good luck,” Parse reasons back, like that’s a completely normal thing to say. Bitty’s afraid to turn his head to look at him because that means meeting his eyes and, well—.

“I—,” Bitty says to the keg, “maybe in a round or two?”

The keg doesn’t answer and neither does Parse, really; he just ruffles Bitty’s hair and walks away.

“Uh, I—,” Ian starts uncertainly, his voice falling away for a beat before he finds it again. “Can I talk to you about something? Like, outside?”

Bitty balks at his tone but nods and leads him out to the back porch, the quietest place available during a big kegster like this one. “What’s—what’s up?”

“I—.” It’s dark, but Bitty can still see the worry on Ian’s face. “I don’t know how to say, um—so I’m just gonna—I’m really uncomfortable with, uh—with the way you and Kent—,” he waves a hand in the air in a vaguely descriptive gesture, “are.”

Bitty kind of wonders what it says about him that he knows exactly what Ian means. He mostly wonders, though, why it is that he says, “I don’t understand,” anyway.

Ian’s face scrunches up into something awkward and pained in the low light. “I—he—he’s always just—I know you guys are pretty close and I’m not saying that’s bad but—I feel like, I dunno, you spend all this time with him and you’re kind of…all over each other?”

“That’s—it’s just how the hockey team is,” Bitty sputters defensively.

“See, like—I thought so at first? I tried to—I don’t wanna be jealous, okay, but it’s—it’s not the whole team. Not the same way.” Ian shuffles his feet nervously against the splintering deck. “And he’s—Eric, how many times have I asked to hang out but you were busy with Kent? Shit, how many times have you cancelled on me to spend time with him?”

Bitty can count three, including Valentine’s Day. He cringes.

“And I—I know I sound really clingy okay and I’m sorry. But I hope you—can you understand how that makes me feel shitty?”

Reluctantly, Bitty nods. “I—I’m sorry. I don’t know—I don’t know what to say? I don’t—I really like you, and I don’t want to make you feel—like this—but he’s my best friend and it’s not like anything’s going on.”

“I—are you sure?”

Bitty blinks up at him. “Parse doesn’t even like boys. Nothing could—.”

Ian looks at him like he’s just said Tony Romo is the best quarterback in the NFL. Bitty clamps his mouth shut around the even happen he’s only mostly sure is true.

“Look, I just—I don’t know if I can do this if you aren’t—if you can’t set some boundaries or—something.”

And this is probably the part, Bitty thinks, where people think about the things they don’t want to lose. He should probably be thinking of a quiet Valentine’s Day dinner, building a snowman with an actual carrot for a nose, heat trapped under the covers and between his thighs. But he’s not, except in the empty, second-hand kind of way thoughts sometimes knock at the edge of his brain.

He’s thinking of bags of jelly beans with all the fruit flavors eaten out, the crackle of Britney Spears through tinny laptop speakers, the spray of champagne foam at midnight.

This is probably the part where people make a choice, he thinks, but it doesn’t feel like one to say, “He’s my best friend.”

“I—yeah, okay,” Ian sighs, his voice shaky and resigned. “Then I guess—maybe this is it.”

There’s an itch under Bitty’s skin, the little twist in his stomach like he’s failed at something, somehow. And Ian doesn’t look heartbroken—nothing about them was that close, but they were close enough for this to hurt, close enough for this to be giving something up. The pain in his eyes reverberates against Bitty’s own and that’s the worst of it, the resounding shudder that reminds Bitty it’s his fault; he’s done this to someone else and he can’t fix it with a pie or the awkward hug they share when Ian says goodbye.

“I hope—,” Ian hesitates, takes a breath as he tightens the hug, “I want you to be happy, Eric.”

“You too, hun,” Bitty whispers as they pull away, the wisps of his voice mingling with the dull bass from the speakers pounding inside. He smiles tightly, tears pricking at the corners of his eyes while he watches Ian leave.

Bitty sniffles once, wipes at his face resolutely, and heads back inside. It’s not even really a conscious thing, how he ends up at the beer pong table, and he kind of shrugs at himself in defeat when he realizes it.

“Bits, I knew ya—what’s wrong?” Parse’s eyebrows are furrowed in a little frown.

Wondering idly what he looks like, if everyone can tell something’s off or if it’s something in his face that only Parse can see, Bitty tells him, “We broke up.”

“You and Ian?” Parse asks, and Bitty nearly laughs—as if there’s someone else he could mean. “What happened?”

It take him a second too long to answer, “Just wasn’t working out.”

Parse doesn’t look that torn up about it and Bitty’s not sure if he’d hoped he would be. “That sucks, Bits. You okay?”

Bitty shrugs. “Mostly.”

The arm Parse wraps around his shoulders is predictable and comforting, pulling Bitty in closer for an almost-hug. “C’mon, let’s get some air.”

Bitty decides not to point out that he was literally just outside, actually, and it was kind of cold and damp like it might rain, because Parse steers them into the kitchen for a case of beer and bypasses the back door in favor of the stairs.

“Can the roof even hold us both?” Bitty chirps nervously as Parse works open the window.

Parse just laughs and tugs at Bitty’s hand, leading him out to the Reading Room. The view isn’t spectacular, just an angled look at all the people on the front lawn and the lacrosse frat across the street, but there’s something a little peaceful about settling into one of the old lawn chairs.

The air still teases rain, but it’s crisper here than out back and the wind has a bite that makes Bitty shiver, apparently to Parse’s amusement. He smirks and says, “Hang on,” before getting up to climb through his bedroom window; he comes back with the comforter off his bed.

Bitty rolls his eyes, but there’s something warm blooming under his skin even before Parse scoots his chair closer and drapes the comforter over the both of them. “Thanks.”

Parse shrugs and hands Bitty a beer.  They stare out over the lawn until Parse starts, “So, are we talking about this, or—?”

A window slides open before Bitty can answer. Shitty freezes a step onto the roof and Lardo nearly crashes into him. “Oh, sorry,” he asks, “are we interrupting a moment out here, bros?”

Looking over at Parse and deeming his expression unreadable, Bitty says, “Naw, ‘course not. Just promise me the roof won’t cave in.”

“Hasn’t yet,” Lardo answers more ominously than she probably intended, and finishes climbing through the window.

It’s honestly old habit by now; Bitty gets out of his chair and plops down into Parse’s lap instead to free up a seat. If he wiggles a little while he settles in, because he’s tipsy and Ian’s words have put a little buzzing in his brain and he wants to see what happens, well—it’s not like it couldn’t have been on accident.

He’s rewarded with Parse pulling the comforter up to his chin—after Shitty and Lardo have curled up underneath it too, sharing the other chair—and wrapping his arms snug around Bitty’s waist. The March air is still cold and the clouds overhead are starting to spit almost-rain droplets in a fine mist.

“How’re you always so warm?” Parse mumbles, his arms pressing a little tighter against Bitty’s sides. His voice is pitched low and quiet with something almost like wonder. Bitty shivers.

“So what’s the occasion?” Shitty asks, gesturing at the entire scene.

Parse cracks open a beer and hands it to Bitty before he opens one of his own. When his free arm resettles, his fingers nudge up Bitty’s shirt and graze bare skin.

“Um, I broke up with Ian. Or—he broke up with me?” Bitty shrugs and his shoulder bumps into Parse’s chin. “Oh, sorry—I just, um—,” he glances over and catches Lardo and Shitty in the middle of a Look. “It just kind of…ended?”

Calloused fingers brush along his hipbone. Bitty gulps down half his beer.

“Um,” Shitty prompts, when it becomes clear Bitty isn’t actually offering anything else up, “what do you mean, Bits?”

Meanwhile, Lardo’s produced a plastic baggie containing a lighter and what Bitty assumes is a joint. She shields the lighter from the breeze and mist while she strikes it and lights the joint.

“Um, I just guess we—,”

“Parser—sorry, Bits—Parser, you want a hit?”

Parse takes in a deep, lazy breath while he considers. “Mm, nah—not tonight. Thanks, bro.”

Lardo nods and passes the joint behind her instead; Shitty takes a long drag and hands it back to her. They’ve mostly stopped offering weed to Bitty, since he always says no, but she raises an eyebrow at him all the same, and he shakes his head.

“So, um—I guess—,” he fumbles with his words, tries to find an explanation that feels truthful without being—well, the truth. “It—he wanted—well, I guess I—we wanted some different things we couldn’t, um—reconcile.”

No one seems to know how to react to the vagueness, until Parse drops his crushed up beer can on the ground and reaches for another. “Well, fuck ‘im, Bits.”

Bitty snorts, “Not anymore—that’s kinda the point,” and Parse cackles, his arm tightening around Bitty’s waist instinctively while he shakes with laughter, like he needs to hold Bitty in place so he doesn’t tumble off. Shitty and Lardo are a beat behind, blinking at Bitty in surprise before they laugh too.

Then, Shitty asks, “But—I mean, are you okay, Bitty?”

“Hm?”

“I mean, aren’t you gonna miss him?”

“Oh.” Bitty looks down at his lap, spins his nearly-empty beer can around in his hands. He hasn’t really taken time to consider that, honestly; his brain’s been wrapped up in Parse, who suddenly feels stiff behind him, uneasy. “I—I guess I will, yeah. He’s—I mean, he was my first—um, everythin’, basically, and—.”

Suddenly there’s a lump in his throat he can’t work around and he goes quiet, eyes squeezing shut while he drains his beer. He places it neatly on the ground and slips his arms back under the comforter, guarding against the growing chill in the air. There’s a twinge of something gnawing at his stomach that he can’t explain.

“Hey, Bits,” Shitty says gently, “that’s a fucking normal way to feel, okay? You’re allowed to be sad something didn’t work out.”

Bitty bites down on his lip to keep it from trembling and nods, even though he’s not really sure how much he agrees. He chose this. Moments like tonight, on this roof with Parse and his two other closest friends, are supposed to be enough. He’s not supposed to feel lonely.

Shitty is still talking, apparently riled up to go on one of his rambles. “You can’t just expect feelings to fucking vanish overnight, you know? That shit’s not how everyone’s brain works, especially if you’re fucking the guy. Like, the shit-stain that is our sexist-ass society says dudes are supposed to just fuck whoever we want, whenever we want, with no consequences like we’re dick-robots, but that’s not—,”

“Hey, Shits?” Parse’s voice is scratchy, and the sound of it startles Bitty. “Think I’ll take that hit, now.”

Shitty, who’s been gesturing with the joint as he talks, hands it over absent-mindedly and keeps going. Bitty lets the noise wash over him in a comforting backdrop and focuses on Parse, tilting his head to the side to watch him smoke.

And it’s really unfair how attractive it is, Bitty grumbles internally. He shouldn’t be so fixated on the purse of Parse’s lips, the little O they form when he puffs smoke out into the misty night sky, coughing lightly in the back of his throat. Parse notices him staring and smirks. He leans forward a little, taking another drag as he does, and Bitty’s breath catches in his throat because Parse is moving so close and—blowing a cloud of smoke directly into Bitty’s face.

“Oh my God, you’re the worst,” Bitty gripes, but he’s laughing when he pushes his face away, the pads of his fingers catching against the invisible stubble on Parse’s jaw.

“Yeah, but you love me,” Parse answers mildly, and starts to hand the joint back to Shitty.

Bitty grabs it instead, partly because he’s been curious for so long, but mostly because honestly, fuck everything about tonight. “Sometimes.”

At some point Shitty’d stopped talking, because now he and Lardo are just staring at Bitty and Parse like they’re watching a nature documentary. Bitty twirls the joint in his hands self-consciously before bringing it to his mouth. He tries to mimic the way Parse and the others smoke, breathing in deeply, but the smoke feels like it’s searing his lungs and his throat seizes up so badly he turns into a hacking, sputtering mess.

They all laugh while Bitty coughs and Parse pats him on the back, supposedly in comfort, but it feels more like a chirp.

“Lord, how the hell d’y’all do that?”

Parse plucks the joint from Bitty’s hand and demonstrates, taking a much shorter drag than before and puffing out a little stream of smoke. “Don’t try to hold it so long,” he tells him, winking, “Gotta build your stamina. Here.”

Before Bitty can process it, Parse is curving around and holding the joint up to Bitty’s lips, eyes dark and pupils thick in the late evening light. Bitty stares at him in confusion, blinking slowly before he clues in and wraps his lips around the joint, mouth nearly grazing Parse’s fingers as he does. He’s inhaled for barely a second before Parse pulls away, and Bitty takes that as his cue to breathe back out, lungs shuddering in relief and the rest of his body trembling with something else entirely.

He still coughs after, but it’s much more manageable than before.

Smirking, Parse asks, “Better?”

You should show me again, just to be sure. Bitty startles himself with the thought; if he wasn’t painfully aware of the way Lardo and Shitty are still observing them—with a frankly disturbing intensity—he might even say it out loud. Instead, he just nods and takes the joint back.

“Hm, so Parser is a cuddler,” Lardo muses, and as if to prove her point, Parse snuggles Bitty in closer and hooks his chin over his shoulder, “Shits gets all extra about social justice, and I’m—me. What’re you gonna be like high, Bits?”

 

As it turns out: babbly and tired. They get driven in by the rain around half an hour later, retreating to Shitty’s room and piling onto the bed to continue their scattered conversations. Bitty keeps yawning into Parse’s comforter, which they’ve draped over all four of them instead of crawling under Shitty’s sheets, and incoherently trying to explain what he’s convinced is going to be the beginning of a jam feud in his family.

Everyone is smooshed together, with Parse curled up around Bitty, and Lardo curved against his other side while she braids Shitty’s hair messily. Bitty’s hair is damp from the rain but the rest of him is warm from shared body heat and the force of his high. When he tilts his head just right, he can hear the slow beat of Parse’s heart in his chest and he wonders how he could tell them all that they’re nearly everything he’s ever needed.

“’m makin’ pancakes tomorrow,” he murmurs instead.

Someone’s fingers brush the hair away from his face, linger for just a moment at his temple.

Parse whispers, “G’night, Bits,” and his voice is so tender that Bitty wonders if he’s dreamed it.

 

~*~

 

“So, y’all have probably already heard, but our season has been incredible—and it’s almost time for the playoffs.” Bitty fiddles with his flannel and grins at the camera. “But the real story is how well Jack and Parse have been playing. I mean—there’s hearing about their chemistry and then there’s being on the ice with it. It’s like—I never thought I’d be a part of something like this. It’s kind of incredible.”

 

Fresh off another game win at home, the team is crammed into a booth at Jerry’s, partly for the famous margaritas and partly to catch the hockey coverage on TV. There’s barely enough room for all of them; Bitty’s entire right side is pressed up against Parse, and he swears Holster must be kicking him under the table on purpose. Everyone’s in a good mood, even Jack, who’s grinning while he spins his glass of soda in his hands.  

They’re toasting to Jack’s hat trick when the television catches their attention.

“And for number one in our top ten plays in college sports, we turn to ECAC hockey and Samwell university—with Jack Zimmermann’s phenomenal hat trick in the third period. Ron, if I remember correctly, all three points were off of assists from Kent Parson.”

“That’s right, Jimmy.”

The team breaks out into cheers, some of them nudging Parse and Jack and clapping.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a headline like that from either Zimmermann or Parson. In fact, I don’t think we’ve seen them play at this caliber since they were competing for the number one draft position. Ron, with a possible trip to the Frozen Four, what do you see in the future for Parson and Zimmermann?”

Parse stiffens into a hard line of tight muscle against Bitty. His left hand crumbles a tortilla chip into the queso and the right drops under the table, out of sight.

“I’ve always been a big picture guy, Jimmy. For a small school, Samwell’s got a great program—but neither of them should have gone there in the first place. They should have gotten it together and played 82 games a year as professionals in the National Hockey League—not gone off to play house in the ECAC.”

Jack might be shaking. He’s tearing his napkin into tiny little pieces. They flutter to the table and melt into the condensation stains left by his glass.

“What do you think their NHL careers will look like?”

“Frankly, their careers are already derailed, and an NCAA championship isn’t a cure-all for that. Bad Bob had these kids groomed to be the top two draft picks—he put a lot on the line by taking Parson under his wing, after all—and what do they do? Zimmermann pulls a Lindsey Lohan and drops off the face of the Earth to go to rehab. Parson just disappears after him without any explanation—which is arguably worse, Jimmy—and when they reappear, it’s together at some tiny school in Massachusetts.”

Bitty isn’t a violent person. He thinks he might have it in him to hit this Ron person, if he ever meets him. Or poison a pie, at the very least.

“And I think that makes the message pretty clear: Zimmerman and Parson are a package deal. And if I’m a GM? I’m not willing to go double-or-nothing on the ex-Wunderkid and his sidekick. If—,”

It’s at that moment that Shitty snaps, shouting, “Somebody turn that shit off!” at the general direction of the employees behind the bar.

Parse is trembling against Bitty’s thigh. Jack is already half-way out the door, with nothing but a muttered excuse me and a twenty slapped on the table to pay his bill.

Bitty reaches out and touches Parse’s arm, starts, “Parse, that guy’s just some—,”

“Christ, just fucking stop!”

Bitty recoils, shrinking as far away as he can against the crowded booth. Parse doesn’t even look at him; he’s too busy clambering over the back of the booth to chase Jack.

The bell on the door jingles with offensive cheer when Parse slams it shut behind him. Their booth is adjacent to the exterior windows, giving everyone an uncomfortably excellent view of what happens next.

Parse catches up to Jack outside, a few feet down the street. He grabs him by the shoulder and spins him around, and his other hand is clenched in a fist but he’s not—he doesn’t look angry. He’s scared. Jack is the angry one, exasperated and tired and snarling when he barks at Parse, shoves him away. Parse stumbles, gestures wildly, probably yells something back but Bitty can’t see his face well anymore.

Jack stalks away. Parse stands there, watches him leave. Bitty imagines he must be shivering; he left his coat in the booth. It feels like forever before he turns and walks back to the restaurant, hands shoved into his pockets and face hidden under his snapback. They all sit in silence and pretend they hadn’t seen.

The bell jingles again. Parse slides into the booth, presses all the way against Bitty like before, like Jack might come back and there needs to be space for him if he does. He shrugs into his coat and takes a long drink of his margarita. No one seems to know what to say, even Holster, until finally Ransom clears his throat and starts off on a story about his awful, incompetent lab partner to break the tension.

Once the chattering has resumed, Parse nudges Bitty under the table with his knee. “Sorry,” he mutters, glancing over with a deflated expression. “I was—,”

“It’s fine,” Bitty assures him. He offers a weak smile.

“No, it’s not.” Parse grimaces. “You’re allowed to tell me I’m a dick, you know.”

Bitty looks down at his hands, lips twitching. “Fine. You’re a dick. Just sometimes, though.”

“Sorry about the sometimes.”

Bitty laughs quietly and flicks the hat off of Parse’s head. “I know you are.”

 

~*~

 

Despite the sportscaster drama, the team’s morale manages to bounce back, and they win their next game on the road the following week, too. They all crowd into Ransom and Holster’s hotel room that night. Parse even manages to drag Jack along too, even though he hardly ever stays up with everyone. There’s a smuggled bottle of vodka in the center of their little circle on the floor and an empty one in the corner that’s already been used to create “tub-less tub juice,” which is Shitty’s way of describing “pouring some alcohol and orange soda into everyone’s cups and calling it a day.”

They sit drinking for a while, Jack nursing a glass of water, until Holster insists, “Yo, let’s play Never Have I Ever!”

Ransom groans. “Bro, seriously?”

“I think it sounds like fun!”

Jack frowns in confusion. “Um, what is it?”

“Oh my God.”

“Zimms, bro.”

“Okay never mind that settles it. We’re playing.”

Bitty shifts nervously. This is one of those party games that used to get uncomfortable for him back in Georgia. But, well—it’s not like he has much to hide here anymore, right?

“Okay, Jack,” Holster explains, “Basically on your turn you gotta say something you haven’t done before, like, ‘never have I ever fallen off the roof,’ and—,”

“That’s a lie, bro. Last year you—,”

“Rans it was literally just an example, God. Anyway—if you’ve done the thing, you gotta—uh—you gotta drink. You can—just drink your water, man, it’s cool.”

Parse smirks. “But the rest of us are gonna get shit-faced.”

“’Chyeah.”

Jack tilts his head, eyebrows furrowed adorably. “Ah, couldn’t you just lie?”

Holster stares at him blankly. “I mean…don’t?”

“Right.”

There’s an awkward silence. Bitty fights the urge to giggle. Lardo clears her throat. “O-kay. I’ll start, bros.” She smirks, which is not at all encouraging. “Never have I ever gone streaking.”

Ransom, Holster, and Shitty drink. Parse raises his hand and asks, “When you say streaking—,”

“Just drink, Parser.”

Parse rolls his eyes and drinks. Jack, apparently following his lead, does the same.

Holster looks back and forth between them. “There’s a story there.”

Parse cackles. Jack shoots him a sharp glance and asks, “Who goes next?”

“We’ll go clockwise, so me.” Shitty strokes his mustache thoughtfully. “Never have I ever boned someone in public.”

“When you say in public—,”

“Drink, Parse.”

Bittle giggles, still not touching his cup. He watches Ransom and Parse—wait, and Jack?—drink from their cups. He’s not the only one who notices, either.

Shitty shrieks, “Zimmermann, you kinky Canadian Adonis! Spill the fucking story, bro!”

Wide-eyed, Jack turns to look at Parse. “That’s not part of the game, is it?”

“Nah, bro,” he answers evenly, and runs a hand through his hair.

Jack visibly relaxes and turns back to Shitty. Smirking, he mimics zipping his lips shut, and Shitty sighs dramatically. “One of these days, Zimmermann,” he threatens, shaking his fist, “I’ll pry deets out of you.”

“Um, it’s my turn, right?” Bitty speaks up, tapping his fingers against his Solo cup. He looks around, and laughs. “Never have I ever kissed a girl.”

The room erupts into chaos.

“Bro, radically uncool.”

“Bits just pulled some sort of gay trump card.”

“Fucking glorious.”

“Someone arrange some fucking payback.”

“I’m comin’ for you Bits. You won’t survive.”

Everyone, including Lardo, drinks. Parse cackles and leans against Bitty sideways after he sets his cup back down. He stretches a little, his spine flexing against Bitty’s arm, while he considers his turn. “Hm. Never have I ever…baked more than one pie in a day.”

“Oh my God,” Bitty gripes, but he takes a long drink anyway.

“You had to know this would happen.” Parse winks at him.

Bitty huffs, “Ugh, I guess,” but there’s no heat behind it. It isn’t like he hadn’t wanted to get drunk, anyway.

Aside from Jack, everyone else uses their next turn to target Bitty, who goes through most of his tub-less tub juice as a result. He’s pleasantly buzzed and pouring himself a new cup when it comes back around to his turn. “Um. Never have I ever—uh, hm—gotten black-out drunk?”

Shitty groans like he’s remembering something particularly regrettable, and takes a swig, as does Holster.

“Rude,” Parse mutters, but he’s still smirking while he drinks. Jack’s fingers crush loudly into his cup when he sets it back down on the ground.

Parse licks his lips and hums thoughtfully. “Never have I ever jerked off thinking about a professor.”

Bitty ducks his head and blushes before he drinks self-consciously, noting from over the rim of his cup that Ransom and Holster are both drinking, too.

Smirking, Parse leans in a little to murmur in Bitty’s ear and chirp, “So you like older men, huh?” There’s something husky in the tone of his voice that makes Bitty shiver.

“Um—,” he turns his head and finds Parse’s face startlingly close. His eyes are green and glinting and his breath smells like oranges and vodka and Bitty can’t breathe. He wants to lean in, to kiss, to—,

“Dude, stop fucking with Bitty and pay attention.” Holster’s voice snaps Bitty out of his trance. “I literally know for a fact you gotta drink to this question.”

Parse turns away with a jerk of his head. “What’s up?”

Jack clears his throat. “I said: never have I ever gotten lost on campus.”

Bitty snorts, Parse laughs, and they both drink.

 

The game goes on for a while longer in typical fashion. Most of the questions are sexual or ridiculous and weird, and nearly everyone is on their second cup. Parse is making a dent in his third.

Ransom is propped up against the wall now, and he takes a while to decide on his turn. “Hm…oh! Never have I ever been in love.”

Bitty’s fingers twitch. He watches how Shitty drinks instantly, how Holster hesitates, looks to his left curiously, before drinking too. He feels Parse shift against him and turns, watches him bring the cup to his lips with a strange deliberateness. He realizes Parse is staring at Jack, who’s got his eyes fixed stubbornly on the ground, not on Parse or anyone or anything. His fingers don’t twitch and he doesn’t drink.

No one else is drinking anymore but Parse still drains his cup before letting it drop to the ground and Bitty—Bitty just watches, looks at the dark thing that flashes in Parse’s eyes and the way his nose crinkles a little when the aftertaste hits, looks at the soft curve of Parse’s lips and the way he smiles at Bitty—just barely—when he catches him staring.

And Bitty, with a little ache in his chest that must have a name, drinks.

 

~*~

 

Parse and Bitty stumble back into their room somewhere around midnight, leaning up against each other for support, stubbornly refusing to switch on the main lights—they’re bright and fluorescent and it’s too late at night after too much alcohol—and settling for fumbling over to a nightstand and switching on a lamp.

Parse flops back onto his bed. “Mm, you tired yet?”

“Nah,” Bitty answers, though he’s actually relatively certain he could pass out in five minutes flat, and Parse switches on the TV. After digging the jelly bean bag out of his duffel, Bitty climbs up into the bed and plops the candy down in between them. They lay with shoulders touching companionably, hands brushing together while they sort through the jelly beans in the dim light.

Suppressing a yawn, Parse murmurs, “I think Property Brothers is on next.”

Bitty hums appreciatively. Muttering 'Jonathan is hot'—along with Parse’s resulting amused laugh—is the last thing he remembers before falling asleep.

 

When Bitty wakes up, his brain catalogues a few things: firstly, Parse is snoring—like always. Secondly, Parse is very warm. And thirdly, he knows that Parse is very warm because sweet Lord in Heaven, he’s somehow wound up curled on his side, snuggled up against Parse with his head on his chest. He squeezes his eyes shut, confirms this isn’t some sort of very realistic dream, and wills himself not to panic.

And then Bitty panics anyway, because he’s definitely crossed a line now and Parse is going to think he’s creepy because who does this, just falls asleep in their friend’s bed and starts cuddling them in the middle of the night while they’re sleeping, and—God, he needs to move before Parse wakes up but the bag of jelly beans is going to crinkle and there’s an arm draped around him and—

Parse yawns, stretching lazily with one arm and pulling Bitty snugger against his side as a result. Wincing, Bitty forces himself to look up and meet Parse’s eyes. He’s smirking, apparently completely unfazed. “You know,” he chirps, “if we win today this has gotta be a new pre-game tradition.”

“A—seriously?” Bitty might be dead. He fell out of bed and hit his head on the corner of the nightstand and died. That’s clearly what’s happening here.

“Mm, yeah.” Parse stretches again, this time sitting up all the way, and clasps Bitty on the shoulder when he gets out of bed and heads to the bathroom. Bitty hears the sound of running water as Parse starts to brush his teeth.

Dazed, Bitty wanders over and joins him, hopes Parse doesn’t notice the way his fingers are still shaking from the adrenaline. Their hips bump together at the sink. “You—you don’t think it’s…weird?”

Parse looks over at him with a raised eyebrow, lips quirked through a mouthful of foam. “Not really? D’you?”

Bitty busies himself with spitting into the sink. “Um. No? No.”

“’Swawesome. Guess we better win, then.” Parse spits out his toothpaste, rinses his mouth off, and nudges Bitty with his hip before he saunters back into the bedroom. Bitty stares down at his toothbrush for a long time.

 

~*~

 

They win the game 4-1. Parse gets a hatty. Bitty becomes more appreciative of superstition.

 

~*~

 

Bitty is tucked between two sets of shelves, out on Princeton’s loading dock. He’s in his UnderArmor and fidgeting nervously, looking around the unfamiliar space, as he addresses the camera. “I really shouldn’t be vlogging so close to the game, but y’all I’m just so damn nervous. If we win, Samwell goes to the Frozen Four. But if we don’t, it’s the seniors’ last game! Ugh. I mean, my mom’s watching online for goodness sake…and I know it’s a good thing? But the boys want this so bad and I’d hate to dis—,”

 

“There’s the little fucker!” Shitty shouts. Parse is with him, and they’re both looking a little worried. “Bitty, what the hell? You’re gonna be late to strategy. What’re you even doing?”

Bitty shuts off his camera and scrambles to his feet guiltily, trying to steal glances at their faces without actually making eye contact. “Oh—um. I—I was just—.”

Parse wraps an arm around Bitty’s shoulders and Bitty loses his words, winded by the sudden contact that’s as comforting as it is—well, not unexpected, but—different, somehow, than it used to be. Like he can’t predict it anymore because Parse is just doing it because—just because he wants to touch Bitty.

Bitty figures maybe it’s all in his head, that he’s letting the lines cross up in his brain from the cuddling—just in the hotel room, only before games, because it’s a hockey thing, right? It’s just another superstition, like Jack’s religious PB&J routine and seating arrangements on the bus. They aren’t the things you want; they’re the things you do to win. But Bitty’s gotten lazy with his feelings and he can’t shove them back where they’re supposed to be and he leans against Parse’s side while he walks because at least it quiets his anxieties about the game.

It’s how you win, Bitty tells himself, when Parse looks over at him and winks, ruffles his hair, grins. It’s how you win, when they’re gearing up and Bitty’s pretending he’s not shaking and Parse squeezes his knee reassuringly, fingers rough and warm even through the thick material of his uniform. It’s just how you win.

 

~*~

 

The game is closer than Bitty feels like anyone was expecting. Princeton is fighting fiercely and very nearly dirty—they’re hitting hard, whenever they can, and Bitty’s been shaking in his skates all game because of it.

They’re currently huddled in a time-out with the score tied at one apiece, most of the way through third period. Coach urges, “Boys! This is not the last play of the season—come on!” as they prepare to skate away, but Jack pulls Bitty and Parse aside.

“Bittle—if you get the puck, wheel around back door and send it to me between the dots. You can get past that D-man.”

Bitty steals a glance at the player in question, panic already rising in his chest. The man is huge, way bigger than anyone on their own roster. “But that’s the same guy who knocked the wind out of Holster second period. He’s—,”

“Bitty’s right, Zimms,” Parse cuts in, “Let me do it. Don’t—,”

Jack shakes his head. “They’ve been targeting you all game. They won’t expect it from Bittle.”

“Jack, I don’t think—,”

“Bittle.” Jack rests his hand on the back of Bitty’s neck and squeezes gently, a startlingly intimate gesture that manages to shock Bitty out of his nerves temporarily. “I’ve got your back.”

And that—Bitty wants to believe it. He lets the possibility settle over his skin, and it’s not all the way to believing but it’s close enough to make him stammer, “O-okay,” before he skates away. He doesn’t think about where the play puts him on the ice. He doesn’t think about how hard it is to have someone’s back when you aren’t actually there.

The puck drops. Jack wins the face-off. His pass connects and Bitty darts back with the puck, weaves between players, watches desperately for Jack to get an opening. The D-man he was worried about is speeding towards him, faster than anyone that size has a right to move but maybe everything’s just gone wonky in Bitty’s head because he’s not sure he’s moving at all anymore, like the ice has welled up around his skates to claim him. Like he’s going to be stuck here in this moment of dread forever because this is how he deserves to live.

Jack slams his stick on the ground and Parse shouts his name. Bitty dumps the puck in Jack’s general direction the same moment something smashes into him from the side. One of his blades catches feebly against the ice and then he’s off the ground completely, the kind of airborne that makes him feel like he’s going to fly up up up until he’s through the roof, up in the sky where he can’t breathe and he’ll crumble apart into dust. And it’s awful—or it’s supposed to be—but it sort of feels like there’d be no pain, and that promise cradles him for just long enough that when he gets to the second half of his arc through the air—the falling half—the new helplessness is even worse.

 

The doctor tells him that after a concussion, sometimes you don’t remember what happened right around it. Bitty finds himself wishing he’d hit his head a little harder, then.

 

The door to the trainer’s room nearly flies off its hinges when the boys shove in towards the end of Bitty’s exam. Doctor—Doctor Sanchez, maybe? Bitty is normally so good with names—Doctor Someone says something about how no one is allowed in here, and Bitty thinks, But we’re in here, and then he yelps and tries to scramble backwards and nearly double-concusses himself against the concrete wall in his effort to put space between him and the barreling mass of hockey players rushing towards him because they’ll hurt you run they’ll hurt you and it’s the truest thing he’s ever thought even though it isn’t.

His reaction stops them all in their tracks and they crash into each other awkwardly, Ransom and Holster in the back shoving into Jack and Shitty in the front. Jack’s arm flies over Shitty’s chest to catch him from stumbling forward. And Bitty’s head hurts more than it did a second ago and he keeps trying to count but he’s counting wrong because there’s only four of them and where’s five, where’s—

Parse is standing in the doorway, leaned up against it like it’s inconveniencing his quest to drop to the ground. His arms dangle uselessly at his sides and he’s staring at his fingertips or maybe the floor, and Bitty doesn’t want any of them here but he wants Parse to be not-here less.

Someone asks him a question. Bitty makes an abortive attempt at swallowing to clear his throat and says nothing. He stares at the spot he thinks Parse is staring at on the floor.

The doctor shoos everyone away after what feels like an eternity of staring and not-speaking and uncomfortable attempts at trying to fix the second thing. Bitty—he can tell how awful he’s making them feel, especially Jack, but he doesn’t know how to—he can’t find any words and he doesn’t feel like he’s even in the room, really, like he’s trying to talk to them from the other side of some wall and even if he could make words they wouldn’t hear.

So the team leaves and Bitty can’t put a finger on what he’s lost.

 

~*~

 

A few hours later, Bitty’s sitting on the hotel bed in the mostly-dark, swinging his feet idly and watching the way his socks flex around his toes. He doesn’t even jump when the door connecting his suite to Ransom and Holster’s swings open and it feels like a pathetic thing to feel proud of but he is.

Parse sits next to him on the bed, lowering himself down a careful distance away with his fingers splayed out, hands braced against the mattress.

“I told—,” Bitty’s voice cracks and Parse sits patiently while he finds it again, “I told everyone to celebrate without me.”

“They are,” Parse says simply, “Just thought I’d check on you.”

“I’m—,”

Parse turns and looks at him sharply and the lie withers in his throat. “Holster said he tried to hug you and you practically threw yourself on the floor to get away from him.”

Bitty stares at Parse shoes. “He surprised me.”

A sound bubbles from Parse that Bitty can’t even begin to classify. It sounds like a sob that died but somehow crawled its way out anyway. “Bits. Bits, I—fuck, I’m so—it should’ve been me.”

There’s a dull throb in Bitty’s skull that the painkillers haven’t snuffed out. It’s kind of the only thing he feels at all. “What?”

“The play—I should’ve—it’s my—,”

“No,” Bitty croaks, and it’s the loudest he’s managed to speak all night, “No, Parse, I don’t—please don’t—,”

Parse used to be better about shutting up. But lately it’s like he can’t keep his mouth from running, like he has all these words he needs Bitty to hold for him, about everything, about things Bitty doesn’t know how to talk about. “It’s my fault, Bits, I should be—I shouldn’t have let Jack—I feel fucking responsible for you and I let you down because I couldn’t—couldn’t get it together and run the play myself, couldn’t—we shouldn’t have needed a play like that and I—you got hurt instead of me.”

Bitty keeps his eyes fixed on Parse’s shoes, stubbornly avoiding the intensity of the stare aimed at him. He’s not sure what he’d find in it or what he’s hoping to see. He whispers, “I’m the one who deserves it.”

“What?” Parse’s voice is tight and his hands fist in the comforter. “Bitty, you can’t—please, please fucking tell me you don’t believe that.”

Bitty shrugs and smiles tightly. Or, he thinks he does. His own face feels distant. He thinks if he brought a hand to it, it’d melt away. “There has to be a reason, right? If I was—I’ve never been—maybe there’s a reason these things always happen to me.”

“A-always?” Parse parrots in a stammer. He makes an attempt at a question and fails and the silence hangs heavy over them. Bitty watches his own feet swing and wonders how they’re moving. His head hurts and at least the pain still belongs to him.

“Bitty,” Parse eventually manages, his voice gentle and a little afraid, “Why’re you afraid of checking?”

In front of Bitty’s eyes, there’s a sunrise dripping colors over the Pond and an October breeze and a nervously promised I’m here. It’s been a lot of sunrises since then, countless squarings of shoulders against the cold, and Parse is still here.

Bitty’s fingers tremble when he lifts them to his forehead, brushing his bangs up off his face so Parse can see. The scar, he knows, is a tiny thing; it traces from the edge of his temple up into his hairline for just three little inches. But it never healed quite right and he can feel the ridges under his fingertips.

There’s a sharp inhale of breath that’s Parse biting his tongue while he waits for Bitty to speak. And he does, eventually, even if it feels like someone else is making all the words and his voice is shaking so badly he doesn’t recognize it. He tells it all, for the first time, to someone who can answer.

“When I was, um—I guess it started in high school—no, that’s not—people always—but my high school was—was worse, and we thought moving would’ve—but it didn’t and they—.” He takes in a gulp of air and looks over at Parse, who’s face is all blurry for some reason that Bitty can’t place.

It’s a moment before he can bring words back, and in the silence Parse asks, “Bits, can I—can I touch you?”

Bitty doesn’t think Parse has ever asked him that question. It’s always been—Parse has always known how much to give, and Bitty’s always been grateful to not be faced with the asking. It’s been easy and understated, the kind of tranquil touch that doesn’t even need to be invited in.

Nothing about tonight feels easy. It feels like a battle they’re both losing, and maybe they’re on the same side but maybe they’re not, maybe there’s something that one of them needs to shatter in the other.

Bitty nods and there’s an arm around his shoulders instantly, not so much pulling him in as calling him back from adrift at sea. He begins the slow float home and there’s some courage in it, he finds, because he’s able to say, “They used to shove me into the lockers. It was like—like a game. Who could—‘who could make Eric hit the hardest.’”

He can hear the crunch of the metal in his ears, the dark, rattling groans as the entire row shuddered. He can hear the clanks of the locks smacking against the doors, the jeering laughter.

It drowns out his voice when he continues, “And one time—I guess—someone shoved me—um, s-sideways, I guess, and—and—I can’t—I’m sorry, I—,”

“Bits,” Parse begs, and Bitty hadn’t realized he’d fisted his hand in his hair so tightly until Parse is prying the fingers away, lacing them through his own instead and letting their hands rest, linked, on Bitty’s thigh. “Bits,” he repeats, like it’s the only real name Bitty’s ever had. Like he’s never been Eric, like he’s never been the pathetic little boy.

“I—they hit me into the side and I—the edge sliced my head open. I couldn’t—there was so much blood and I don’t remember—I don’t even know when they called the ambulance. Maybe someone else did. Maybe they—maybe it was what I—maybe it was what they wanted.”

There’s a loud sniffle that could have come from either of them, really, and no other sounds for a long time. Parse’s hand squeezes tighter around Bitty’s.

“Can you—,” Parse begins, and then starts over, “Do you wanna lay down with me?”

It’s not—Bitty doesn’t know what he was expecting, but it wasn’t this. All he can think to say is, “There’s no game tomorrow.”

Parse actually laughs. It’s a clipped, wet sound but it’s a laugh, and afterwards he murmurs, “I know, Bits. C’mere.”

So Bitty goes. He crawls under the covers when Parse holds them up and gently nudges Parse over onto his back when he tries to lay on his side. That’s their usual way of sleeping, with Parse curved perfectly behind Bitty and an arm slung over his waist, but right now—right now, he needs his head on Parse’s chest because he can feel his heartbeat against his cheek and it’s the only thing that feels real.

He listens to the rhythm—faster than normal, not racing but hurried—and wills it to ground him, to rescue him from wherever his mind is living. He knows, logically, that his heart must be beating too—that he has blood flowing through all his veins and air in his lungs and that he’s alive and tangible and all of the things other people are. But he feels like he’s floating, hovering just a few inches above his body, like he’s just barely clipped out of the proper universe.

“Do you—are you okay to sleep like normal?” Parse asks, “Or should I like, wake you up every couple hours?”

“Nah,” Bitty answers, and he imagines shaking his head but doesn’t quite pull it off, “Doctor said 's fine long as I—if my pupils look normal, and I can talk okay.”

That statement prompts a hand on his chin tilting his head up so Parse can look him in the eye. Parse searches carefully, gray eyes flickering in the low light, until he declares with a smirk masking his poorly hidden relief, “You pass.”

“Least I got something goin’ for me,” Bitty jokes, a little surprised at himself for being able to.

Parse doesn’t seem to take it that way. “Bits, you—you’ve got a lot going—you’re—,” he stumbles, and finishes quietly, somewhat nonsensically, “you deserve better.”

Bitty doesn’t know how to respond. He waits until Parse clicks off the bedside lamp and starts rubbing little circles into his back, and he whispers, “Sometimes when people check me, I—it’s like I’m back there again. I can hear—hear them laughing. When it gets real bad I—I can taste the blood.”

“Christ. Shit, Bitty, I—,”

Bitty whimpers a little, and he thinks he must have been crying this whole time, but he’s just now noticed and it’s unsettling. “Maybe there’s something wrong with me.”

“Sometimes,” Parse says evenly, a thumb coming up to wipe the tears off Bitty’s cheek, “when I look at Zimms, I still see him dying on that bathroom floor.”

There’s a beat of silence and then Bitty laughs darkly, startling himself with the bitter sound and shuddering in Parse arms. He amends, “Maybe there’s something wrong with both of us, then.”

Parse hums an agreement in the back of his throat before murmuring, “Probably. That’s why we’ve got each other.”

If there are ways to answer that, Bitty doesn’t know them. He nuzzles closer against Parse’s side, closes his eyes with a quiet sigh that very nearly belongs to him, and falls asleep counting heartbeats.

 

~*~

 

“Hi, everyone. I know some of ya’ll’ve been worried about me since you found that article in The Daily about my concussion, but—rest assured I’m doin’ fine. More than fine, actually,” Bitty grins, and very nearly winks at the camera. “Let’s just say our season ended with a bang.”

 

Bitty thumps his head back against the bus seat; Parse glares at him and he sticks his tongue out in response. “I’m not gonna re-concuss myself on the headrest so you can hush right up.”

“Concussions make you cranky,” Parse teases, but there’s still concern lingering in his eyes. It’s been nearly two weeks since Bitty’s concussion and it’s becoming clear he won’t be back on the ice before the school year ends. The team’s been fighting hard without him, though, crushing through the Frozen Four into the NCAA championship game.

“I think that’s just you, Kenny,” Jack chirps from across the aisle, and Parse throws a shoe at him. “Ugh. I’m not giving this back to you, man.”

“Zimms, dude.”

Bitty snorts. “Serves you right. Shoe privileges revoked.”

“Y’all are the wo—,” Parse freezes half-way through the word when he realizes what he’s just said, but it’s too late. Jack and Bitty are grinning and the D-men have spun around in their seats.

“Bittle’s rubbing off on you, eh?”

“Aw, hun, I’m flattered.”

“Bro, you’re from motherfucking New York. How could you betray our people like this?”

Parse smirks and leans back in his seat with his hands behind his head. In an earnest (but honestly pretty poor) Southern drawl, he says, “Fuck all y’all.”

Jack throws the shoe back.

 

~*~

 

Everyone—well, everyone besides Bitty—is about to file out of the locker room onto the ice for the start of the match. Bitty shifts nervously in his jersey, feeling worse-than-naked in nothing but it and his jeans. Sitting in the center box while the rest of the team—his line—battled out the semi-finals had been an awful feeling—being powerless during the championship will be even worse.

Parse pulls him into a hug before he leaves, a gentle, too-careful thing so unlike before. Bitty hates that it’s what he needs. He hates that he’s still so fucking jumpy, that his body doesn’t trust even Parse—let alone anyone else on the team—to crush him into an embrace.

“We’re gonna win it for you, Bits,” Parse murmurs.

Bitty, startled, takes a moment to figure out how to answer. “I—,” he starts, but Parse is already trailing away, smacking Jack’s ass on his way out the door.

 

~*~

 

The box is less isolating than it could be, given that Lardo gets permission to sit up there with him instead of near the bench like she normally does. But it’s still a surreal feeling, watching the whole team play without him, no warm bodies on either side or the occasional comforting press of Parse sinking down into his lap.

The team is playing incredibly, though, which certainly helps. It’s a hard fight, but they’re up 4-3 by halfway through the third period and Bitty’s made his voice hoarse and head hurt from cheering. Everyone is doing well, but—Jack and Parse blew past well some time ago. It’s like they’re playing a different game of hockey, cutting through the rink as if no one else is on it. Bitty feels exhilarated watching it, and—well, maybe a little jealous, but he thinks that’s just the concussion twisting up his head.

The opposing team pulls their goalie in a last effort to tie the score and send the match into overtime. Parse scores on the empty net and it’s over, they’ve won—they’ve won and Bitty races with Lardo to the locker room as the clock winds down, going carefully down the stairs because Lardo says she’ll kill him if he falls and he’s not an invalid, thank you, but he lets her fuss because it’s not like the team will be back right away, anyway.

 

The locker room doors burst open shortly after Bitty and Lardo get there and the team floods in, whooping and cheering like nobody’s business.

Parse makes a beeline for Bitty as soon as he sees him, grin stretching impossibly wider and eyes lighting up. He throws his arms open and Bitty goes, surprisingly them both with the way he practically flings himself towards him. Parse laughs and holds tight, swaying like he wants to spin Bitty around but thinks better of it. It’s—different than normal, and Bitty thinks it might be because Parse is still in his skates so he’s taller than he usually is—so of course he tilts down to bury his face in Bitty’s hair, lips accidentally grazing against Bitty’s temple when he mumbles, “We did it, Bits.”

Bitty leans in and presses his cheek to the side of Parse’s neck; his skin is warm and tacky from sweat and it feels—better than it should.   “You did. Parse, you—I—,”

“Bittle.” Jack is smiling broadly, maybe the happiest Bitty’s ever seen him.

“Jack!” Bitty pulls away from Parse—a little reluctantly—to hug Jack next, arms going tentatively around his neck. “Y’all did so well! It was amazing.”

Jack nods and the tip of his chin taps against Bitty’s head. He pulls away, looking down as he says, “Ah, yeah, we—you, uh—you should’ve been out there too. I’m sorry.”

“Oh,” Bitty deflects, blushing and turning his head, “y’all didn’t need me.”

“We wanted you,” Parse tells him, simply, like it’s obvious. Like Bitty deserves to be wanted. He slides his arm around Bitty’s shoulders and pulls him in for another hug and Jack—his smile doesn’t quite falter, not before Bitty turns away at least, but it dims around the edges in a way Bitty can’t explain. He’ll fret about it later, maybe, but for now, Parse is smiling into his hair and brushing his fingers along his side and—well, he’s got some other things on his mind.

 

~*~

 

The weekend after the championship is Spring C, which the boys have explained to Bitty is a giant outdoor concert where everyone gets shit-faced and tows the line on raving just well enough that the university doesn’t cancel the whole thing. Bitty can’t drink, thanks to his concussion, and he’s a little worried about the noise in general, but everyone—Parse especially—has been pretty insistent that he needs to come, at least for a little while.

So Bitty settles in for an evening of being the designated sober person, and wonders how badly he’ll get chirped if he brings earplugs to the concert—which honestly pisses him off even thinking about, but roar of the hockey games had not been kind to him. In the end, though, he decides to go without them; he can always head home early if the noise gets to be too much.

Most of the crew is already drunk on the walk over and in full form; Ransom and Holster are chanting some weird drinking song while Lardo sits on Holster’s shoulders, Shitty is wearing as little clothing as possible, and Parse is—of course—draped over Bitty while they walk, an arm around his shoulders, rambling about how lame it is that Jack decided to stay home to work on a term paper. Bitty rolls his eyes fondly and tugs him along.

 

Designated sober person starts out more enjoyable than Bitty was expecting; it’s kind of funny how different everyone seems when Bitty isn’t also wasted, but the humor wears off by the time the opening act clears off the stage. Bitty wanders away from the group to find the concession stand and buy a water bottle or two, since everyone really should stay hydrated and also he honestly kind of needs some breathing room for a few minutes, Lord. He’s got his nose buried in his phone while he walks.

Parse :D (10:53 pm): Where’d u go?? :((((((

Bitty (10:53 pm): hush, I’m

Bitty bumps into someone, fingers slipping across his phone as he stumbles backwards in surprise. “Lord, I’m so sorry! I was—Ian?”

Ian looks just as surprised as Bitty is, a hand hovering near Bitty’s arm like he was about to reach out and steady him but changed his mind. “Oh, Eric! Um, hi.”

“Yeah, um—hi,” Bitty greets back awkwardly, and hesitates for a moment before asking, “How—um, how are you?”

“Um, good, I—I’m good, thanks. You?”

Bitty shrugs and smiles. “Oh well, you know. We had a good season, so I’m happy about that.”

“That’s good. Hey, I heard you—,”

Ian cuts off suddenly, and Bitty realizes why when the next moment, there’s an arm wrapped around him and Parse is planting a sloppy kiss on his cheek, saying, “Bits! I found you.” He’s unsteady on his feet and leaning heavily into Bitty’s side, and Bitty winces. He asked Shitty to cut Parse off, but that clearly hasn’t happened.

Bitty flicks his eyes over to Ian apologetically. “I—yeah. Hey.”

“You should—,” Parse pauses when he looks up, like he’s just noticed Ian’s there. “You should come sit on my shoulders. Next act’s ‘boutta start.”

Which would be a tempting offer if Bitty had a little more faith Parse wouldn’t drop him in his current state, and if Ian wasn’t watching them so carefully. So he huffs, “You’re only three inches taller than me.”

“But Bits, ‘s—‘s like tradition.”

Someone calls to Ian from near the concession stand and he waves, smiling. He turns back to Bitty and says, “Hey, Eric, I’m gonna run but I—it was nice seeing you. And I, uh—I’m happy for you two. Really.”

“We’re not—,” Bitty tries, but Ian’s already turned away, heading to a man who’s holding two hot dogs and grinning at him like he hung the moon.

Shit. Bitty glances at Parse, who’s looking surprisingly thoughtful for someone with that much alcohol in his system but doesn’t say anything. So Bitty doesn’t comment either and steers Parse away, water bottles forgotten. “C’mon, let’s go find the boys.”

Parse hums and stumbles lightly into Bitty as they walk in a way that nearly feels purposeful. When they get back to the group, Bitty shoots Shitty a disapproving look that gets completely ignored; he’s not sure what he expected, given that Shitty, Lardo, and Ransom are all high on top of all the drinking they’ve done already. It’s about two clicks passed endearing at this point, and as much as Bitty loves them he’s had about enough.

Bitty plops to the ground in defeat, only a little worried he’ll get stepped on, and to his misplaced surprise Parse joins him. “We can’t see down here,” Parse observes sagely.

“I know,” Bitty mutters, and flicks him on the arm. Lord, his head is really starting to hurt. Fuck concussions, fuck how loud this damn place is, and fuck alcohol and the fact he can’t have any.

“Hey,” Parse whispers, leaning in conspiratorially, “wanna go home?”

Bitty stares at his fingers and picks at the grass, ripping off little shreds, and admits, “Yeah.”

“’kay.” Parse flops onto the grass suddenly and loudly complains, “Biiiiits. ‘m tired.”

Bitty stares at him, then looks up at the rest of the gang, who look puzzled. “I—uh, I can take you back to the Haus?”

“Mm, yeah.” Parse pushes up to a sitting position again and Bitty stands before helping him to his feet. “You’re th’ best, Bits.”

Making a point to look at Holster and roll his eyes, Bitty says his goodbyes and heads off with Parse, who’s making a big show of leaning up against Bitty for support.

They’re back to the Haus by the time Bitty mumbles, “Thank you.”

“Mhm,” Parse intones idly, and adds after a moment, “I am tired. Prob’ly gonna go to bed.”

“Oh, alright.” Bitty hesitates at the stairs, then, but Parse starts heading up without saying goodbye, so he follows. When they get up to the room, Parse flings himself onto the bed dramatically and burrows under the covers, only half his face visible in the cocoon.

“Bits, c’mere,” he murmurs, snaking an arm out to grab at Bitty’s wrist as he turns to go.

Bitty freezes. “Um, what?”

“Stay with me.” Parse peers up at him with earnestness in his eyes, swimming with gray and far less drunkenness than they seemed to hold a second ago. And Bitty has some fucking questions, honestly, like—is Johnson coming home, and why is this happening and what does it mean. But there’s a little tug on his wrist and he can feel the slip of callouses against his skin and he goes, curls up under the covers and sinks into the pillows while Parse rests his head on his chest.

They settle in, Parse sighs happily, and it’s quiet for a few moments of Bitty absent-mindedly stroking little shapes into Parse’s back, until Parse asks, voice muffled into Bitty’s shirt, “Why’d you really break up with Ian?”

Bitty’s hand stills, fingers resting lightly on the dip of Parse’s lower back. He stares up at the ceiling in a silent, resigned plea and wonders if Parse can feel the wildness of his heart in his chest, wonders if he knows what he’s doing.

Maybe Parse has always known what he was doing.

Quietly, to the cracking plaster above him, Bitty says, “He thinks you have feelings for me.”

Parse hums and nestles himself closer against Bitty’s side. “Smart guy.”

“What?” Bitty asks, looking down to see Parse’s face and finding him with his eyes closed and an innocent little smile on his lips. He looks peaceful—like he’s the eye of a storm, spilling casual chaos out from within. “Parse—what’re you—,”

“Shh,” Parse hushes, “’m sleepy. Talk tomorrow.”

“Parse—,” Bitty whispers, not too far from begging, half a mind to throw this boy out of the bed if it’ll earn him some answers.

But all he gets is a warm, “Bits,” ghosted against his collarbone and lips that don’t move away before Parse falls asleep. Bitty watches him, incredulous and earnest and aching, until the sky is ink outside the window and he can replace counting freckles with stars as he drifts to sleep.

 

~*~

 

The sun is beating down hard through the window when Bitty wakes up, and he stretches sluggishly in the warmth, careful not to jostle Parse, who’s still curled up behind him with an arm slung over his waist. Parse stirs anyway, though, and after a sleepy yawn he murmurs, “Hey,” into Bitty’s ear.

Bitty doesn’t know why he does it; maybe it’s something in Parse’s tone. He turns his head, body twisting slightly, to smile up at Parse’s drowsy face. “Hi,” he whispers back. He nudges forward, just enough that their noses touch, and closes his eyes. Then Parse is tilting his head to the side and dipping in and—

As far as kisses go, well—Bitty’s kind of glad it’s not actually their first, because there’s morning breath involved and his tongue feels sticky and Parse’s elbow is kind of digging into his side—but it’s their first real one, without pretense or plausible deniability. It’s slow and sweet and first-kiss perfect in all its awkward glory.

The one after is better; Bitty turns all the way around so that they’re pressed together front to front, shifting gently in their shared space, hands in hair or stroking gently against skin. They’re tangled up lazily, both hard but not rushing to do anything about it just yet, and Bitty wonders if this is how it should be; in all his fantasies, even the idle daydreams, the weird sexual tension had always snapped in a sudden frenzy of relief (like in the movies, if he’s being honest). But this—nothing has broken; there’s no dam that’s bursting or sudden explosion of fireworks. There’s just Parse, sleepy and steady and fluid, slipping along with him, a little farther down the river.

It’s terrifyingly comforting and Bitty needs a damn moment.

“Hey, I—,” Bitty pulls away to whisper, “sorry, it’s just—my breath smells really bad?”

Parse says, “Yeah, mine too,” and then he licks Bitty on the nose as if to prove it, which is disgusting but honestly he should’ve expected nothing less.

Bitty giggles and swats him away. “Stop it! You’re ridiculous.”

“Yeah, but you love me,” Parse tells him with a smirk, and before Bitty can even process how to answer that, he’s barreling on with more words, “So, timeout for teeth-brushing?”

Blinking slowly, Bitty agrees, “Timeout.”

 

It’s not really as dramatic as it could be, since they’re heading to the same bathroom and all. Some of the Haus is already awake, so it’s a causal trek down the hallway and then a few minutes of making out against the locked bathroom door.

“This is not a timeout,” Bitty grouses, pushing half-heartedly against Parse’s chest.

“I hate timeouts,” he argues, grabbing lightly at one of Bitty’s hands and pulling it away. Their fingers lace together against the door. “Ruins the vibe.”

Bitty rolls his eyes but leans back into another kiss. “You suggested it.”

“You implied it.”

“You’re impossible,” Bitty huffs.

Parse laughs breathily and nibbles at Bitty’s earlobe. “Promise I’m not.” His lips move down to suck on Bitty’s neck.

“Oh my God,” Bitty hisses, hand clenching tighter against Parse’s, “get goin’ so I can get you back in bed.”

“Bossy.” But Parse pulls away and actually goes for his toothbrush so Bitty does the same, grabbing a spare from under the sink. They stand in companionable silence, hips and thighs pressed together even though the closeness means Parse has to work to avoid elbowing Bitty in the jaw as he brushes. It’s like a hundred other mornings in the way that suggests there could be a thousand more. Bitty’s chest goes tight.

They slip back into the bedroom in a fit of giggles, swatting at each other playfully and poking their heads around corners like secret agents in a bad spy movie. As soon as the door locks behind them, though, Parse is all smoldering business, walking Bitty backwards towards the bed, pulling them both down onto it with his mouth at Bitty’s neck.

“Hey,” he asks, pulling away with a shallow breath, “how far do you want this to go?”

Bitty bites his lip and answers honestly, “I don’t know.” He reaches up and brushes his thumb across the freckles on Parse’s cheek, just to remind himself he can touch.

Fingers slip delicately under the waistband of Bitty’s shorts, playing with the elastic of his underwear. Parse laughs throatily and murmurs, “I’ve wanted to blow you since Winter Screw.”

Sighing, Bitty thumps his head back against the mattress. “That’s a long time to wait before offering to suck a boy’s dick.”

Parse pops open the button on Bitty’s shorts and fiddles coyly with the zipper. He smirks and kisses Bitty’s cheek. “Let me make it up to you?”

“Oh, I guess,” Bitty chirps, voice breathy as he watches Parse slip out of his shirt, then lean back down to help Bitty out of his. They get sidetracked in a bout of kisses before Parse finally pulls away, tracing a path with his lips down Bitty’s chest. He slides off Bitty’s shorts and boxer-briefs in one go, hands somehow trembling and confident all at once.

“Fuck,” he whispers, “fuck, Bits, you’re—,” he looks up and their eyes meet, his pupils blown wide with a stormy ring of gray brooding on the edges, “—beautiful.”

Bitty’s chest aches with some desperate need he could never hope to define. He says, dazed, like the words are being pulled out of him by the gentle trace of Parse’s fingers on his hip, “Hazeapalooza.”

“Hm?” Parse slips his hand down onto Bitty’s thigh and continues the absent-minded caress.

“That’s how long I—when I knew I—,” Parse nuzzles the soft pubic hair at Bitty’s crotch and presses an open-mouthed kiss to the side of his cock; Bitty cuts off in a whimper.

“Sorry I kept you waiting, Bits,” he says softly, breath hot against sensitive skin. There’s something nearly protective in the way he wraps his mouth around Bitty’s dick, the gentle little press of his lips and swirl of his tongue against the head. Bitty squirms, hands bunched up in the comforter, toes curled up and pressed down into the mattress in a desperate grasp for grounding.

“Lord, Parse—Kent—I—,”

Parse pulls off suddenly and stares intently up at him from under his eyelashes. “When—,” he chuckles at Bitty’s pout and wraps a hand around him, stroking slowly, reassuringly. “When, at Hazeapalooza? Like, walking home, or—?”

Bitty tenses and there’s immediately a hand at his waist, a coaxing thumb grazing along his hip. He looks at Parse, knelt between his thighs, gazing up at him with eyes equal parts hungry and fond, like he needs what he’s found here to live. “I—,” Bitty stammers. He breathes, steadies himself, and tries again. “No, before. In—in my room. When you—oh, God—,”

Bitty scrubs a hand over his face to hide his blush. Parse shifts and when Bitty opens his eyes their faces are inches apart. Parse urges gently, “When I tied you up?” Bitty doesn’t trust his voice, so he just nods. “Fuck, Bits, don’t be embarrassed. I—I liked that, too.”

“You—you did?”

Parse laughs softly, more to himself than anything. He nuzzles Bitty’s neck and sucks gently on his earlobe before answering, voice husky, amused. “Why d’you think I blindfolded you first?”

“Oh my God. Oh my—but you just said—.”

“That was—Screw was different, it was—I—fuck—,” Parse laughs again and buries his face into the mattress. When he works up the nerve, he turns his head to the side so his lips brush up against Bitty’s ear. “That was when I—you’re—special.”

Bitty kisses him. He tilts his head to the side and kisses hard, heart and lungs and lips aching with it, tongue darting between teeth and hand tangled in a mass of sloppy half-curls. Parse groans roughly and presses his weight down, an expanse of warm, slightly sweaty skin enveloping Bitty and pinning him perfectly, rutting them together slowly in a squirming mass of muscle.

There’s a gap in the kissing to take in air and Bitty uses it to ask, “Would you do it?”

“What, tie you up?” Parse asks back, a little breathless from the kissing or the shock, or maybe both. “I mean, fuck yeah.” He kisses Bitty again, once on the mouth and then a line down his chest.

“No, I mean—now.”

Parse’s head snaps up too quickly. “Maybe we should wait. I mean, we’ve never—,”

“Kent,” Bitty whispers, fighting to keep the thickness out of his voice and failing, “I’ve been waitin’ a long time.”

It feels like forever before Parse finally swallows hard and answers, “Yeah, okay, I—yeah.”

He leaves one more kiss on Bitty’s hip before sliding off the bed, going over to his dresser where he rummages around for a minute before coming back with a blue necktie, an old ratty thing that’s clearly seen better days. Bitty shivers with anticipation and stretches his arms above his head, pressing his wrists together and biting at his bottom lip.

“Fuck,” Parse moans, “you—you look so good like that, babe.” He crawls across the bed to reach Bitty’s hands, tracing his fingers along the sides of his palms. He’s breathing shallowly, lips parted with glimpses of teeth, tongue, glinting out, eyes intensely dark when they drop to Bitty’s face. “I’m gonna—I wanna take care of you, Bits.” Parse wraps the tie around Bitty’s wrists, tightening just enough for Bitty to feel the pressure snug against him, feel like he’s held in place and he doesn’t—he doesn’t have to worry anymore. Like there’s nothing that can hurt him.

And that’s when it hits Bitty—all at once, like the shattering he’d imagined—the enormity of what this is. It comes for him in a rush, crashing into his gut and then cradling around him, that this—that this isn’t sex he’d find with some stranger at a club, or even the fun but casual sex he had with Ian—this is more. This is Parse, who holds him and his secrets and laughs with him at bad reality TV, who eats the jelly bean flavors he doesn’t like and spins him around when they win at beer pong. This is more, and tears prick at Bitty’s eyes at the thought that he gets to have.

Parse leans in, his nose nudging up against Bitty’s cheek, and whispers, “This okay?” There’s a touch of worry in his voice and Bitty could listen to it forever.

“Yeah,” he whimpers, “more than.”

Parse smiles, soft and gentle, and tilts Bitty’s head to the side to lick into his mouth, tongue tracing along the seam of his lips and spreading warmth through his body with every place they touch. The kiss breaks and Parse slips down, head framed by Bitty’s thighs and hands stroking along his hips. “Let me know if it gets too much, okay?”

Bitty just nods, throat gone tight, and cracks his head back against the pillows when Parse gets his mouth around him again. He moves with perfect wet heat, cheeks sucked in and eyes half-lidded when he looks up at Bitty’s face, intense and adoring and a million other things Bitty’s seen there before but couldn’t recognize, couldn’t begin to think were meant for him until he had it like this. Something almost like pain—but better—something so perfect it hurts—curls up through Bitty’s spine and seeps into his heart and he writhes against it, hips hitching off the bed and feet stretching out to brace against Parse’s shoulders.

It’s already too much and Bitty wants to live in it. He wants to make his home here, in this feeling that possesses his bones and makes them ache with something like love or pleasure or hurting and sends little tears down the sides of his face when he moans Kent’s name.

“Kent—I—Lord, I’m gonna—Kent—,” he keens, turning his face to smash it into the pillow and muffle the sound.

Kent hums and sucks Bitty through his orgasm, gently, with little licks against his cock when he swallows down the come on his tongue. When it’s over, when Bitty is trembling and flexing his wrists against the tie holding them together, Kent crawls up and brushes a thumb across his cheek, down his lips. Bitty catches the pad of the digit in his mouth, sucks gently and lightly scrapes with his teeth, eyes wide and wet and—and loving. He knows that now, can say it to himself even if the words won’t leave his throat.

And maybe Kent knows it too, a little, when he murmurs, “Hey, look at you.” His tone is so fond it makes Bitty weak.

“Hey,” he answers, voice cracking in a way that makes them both laugh breathlessly, “can I—?” He gestures feebly with his hands and drops his gaze pointedly to Kent’s erection, heavy and leaking against his stomach.

Kent kisses his temple in response and unties him, rubbing with delicate fingers at his wrists as he does. Bitty works his joints first, then reaches out and touches, traces all the lines of Kent’s body like they form constellations—his cheekbones, his shoulderblades, the cut of his hips. And when his hand drops down, wraps around Kent’s cock and strokes, tugs, explores, he catalogues sounds—the little moans, grunts, and something between a whine and a sob that makes Kent drop his head down and bury his face in the curve of Bitty’s neck.

“Bits—Bitty—Christ, I—,” he cuts off in a whimper, “I’m not gonna last, I—,”

“Come for me, honey—,” Bitty coaxes, voice thick with post-orgasm haze, “come on.”

Kent drops his hips down, melts their bodies flush together and ruts against Bitty’s stomach and fucks into his hand, whines open-mouthed into Bitty’s skin when he comes. He spurts hot and thick between them and slowly stills, sinking his weight down like he’s Bitty’s anchor to the Earth.

“Fuck,” Bitty pants, when his mind drifts back in a little.

“Dude, same.” Kent laughs, and Bitty smacks him lightly on the shoulder with a good-natured huff.

They chuckle together for a few moments, giddy from everything, until Bitty forces most of the nervousness out of his voice and manages, “S-so, what now?”

Kent is quiet for a moment, and then declares, “Hm, nap.”

“What?” That wasn’t what Bitty meant at all, and he has a feeling Kent knows it. But he’s not sure how he’s supposed to push the issue, so he just checks his phone and points out, “It’s like 9 AM.”

“Perfect napping time.” Kent pushes up onto his forearms and reaches over to his nightstand, where he grabs a handful of tissues and tosses half to Bitty. After they clean up, Kent tugs Bitty into his arms and sighs, “Night, Bits.”

“It’s literally the morning.”

Kent amends, “Morning, Bits,” and nips at his shoulder before falling silent. Bitty can tell he isn’t sleeping—the breathing is all wrong—but he’s not about to call him out on it. So he closes his eyes and drifts off, telling himself that whatever comes next, he will let it be enough.

 

~*~

 

Bitty comes to a couple of hours later and finds Kent already awake; he wonders if he slept at all. But Kent is smiling, brushing the hair out of Bitty’s eyes and kissing him deep and slow—so Bitty doesn’t much care, he decides.

“Hey, sleepy-head,” Kent chirps, smirking.

Bitty yawns and stretches, definitely-not-purposefully smooshing his hand into Kent’s face as he does. “This was your idea.”

“I have great ideas,” Kent tells him, “You’re cute when you’re sleeping.”

Bitty blushes and looks away, fixing his eyes on the pile of clothes on the floor. “Oh, um—thanks.”

“Wanna head downstairs? Sounds like the guys are watching TV.”

Bitty looks up at him, startled. “Oh, um—are we—but—,”

Kent rolls his eyes. “You crashed in Johnson’s bed. No one’s gonna question it, Bits.”

“Oh…right.” And Bitty gets it; it’s not like Kent can go around telling people he isn’t straight willy-nilly, not when he’s working so hard to sign with the NHL. But it’s—not the best feeling to have to hide.

“Uh, hey—is—is that okay?” Kent must’ve seen something in Bitty’s expression, because his brow is furrowed and he reaches out to put a hand on Bitty’s shoulder. “I don’t wanna make you—,”

“No!” Bitty answers quickly, “No, of course it’s fine, I just—didn’t think about it. Sorry.”

“No worries. I uh—it kinda sucks.” Kent purses his lips, frustrated, and gets up to rummage in his dresser. “Want clothes? Or are you gonna wear your shit from yesterday?”

“Um, sure.” Honestly, Bitty thinks it’d probably be smarter to wear his own, but—Kent is offering, and it would feel—nice. A pair of sweatpants hits him in the face, then, and he sighs dramatically. Kent snickers.

 

Downstairs, Ransom and Holster are sprawled on the couch and Jack is stretched out in his armchair, watching some show on Animal Planet about baby animals.

“Yo, Bits, didn’t realize you crashed here,” Holster greets.

“Oh, yeah. Um, Johnson wasn’t around and I didn’t feel like walking, so—.” Bitty shrugs, trying to act casual.

Meanwhile, Kent is vaulting over the couch to plop down onto it, gesturing at the show and saying, “Good shit.” Ransom leans over and fist-bumps him.

Bitty walks around and sits between them. He’s tense until Parse stretches an arm out, settles it casually across the back of the sofa, and winks at him. Bitty takes the hint and leans back, his neck pressing against the hot skin of Parse’s bicep, and settles.

Sometime after the first commercial break, Kent lets his arm slip down, draping it around Bitty’s shoulders and tugging him imperceptibly closer. Bitty turns to him nervously, but his eyes are fixed on the TV, lips subtly quirked.

Bitty looks around as he leans in, pressing what he hopes seems casually against Kent’s side. Ransom and Holster aren’t paying any attention, too busy squabbling over which animal is the cutest and drinking. When he turns his head, he locks eyes with Jack, whose expression is—strained. He purses his lips and turns back to the show, eyebrows furrowed in a stormy line. Bitty frowns and shrinks away again, defensively breaking the contact between Kent and himself. Kent, arm dropping to his side, looks over at him with a raised eyebrow in concern, but Bitty shakes his head.

“I like that puppy,” Bitty comments, trying to dispel the weird tension in his muscles.

Kent gasps. “The kitten is clearly the best, Bits. I’m wounded.”

“But look at its cute wittle floppy ears!”

“I will literally fight you, Bittle,” Kent chirps, “Let’s fucking go.”

Bitty forces a smile and taunts, “Bring it.”

Kent lunges forward—slower than Bitty knows he can move—and Bitty lets him. Fingers dig into his sides to tickle him and he squeals, kicking out at Kent with his feet, “Oh my—ha—oh my God—Ke—Parse!”

Bitty twists away and they grapple, tickling and wrestling each other lightly, until Kent manages to get Bitty in a headlock, pulled halfway into his lap.

“Bro,” Holster asks in awe, watching as the two of them, panting, disentangle, “how the hell do you do that without like, triggering Bitty’s fucking Spidey senses or whatever?”

Bitty goes to move away, but Parse pulls him back in with the arm still across his chest. “You’re okay,” he murmurs, “promise.” Reluctantly, Bitty nods and leans against him sideways, head propped up near his bicep and feet tucking under Ransom’s thigh.

“Oh, you know,” Bitty answers Holster, laughing airily, “I guess I’m just used to him bein’ a brute.”

It’s so far from the truth it feels ridiculous, and Parse snorts quietly, but Bitty’s not quite sure how he’d explain it even if he could—that it’s trust and the way Kent’s hands feel on his skin and something cultivated, carefully watered between them until the roots reached out and grew cracks into the stone and let things Bitty didn’t knew he could have slip in. It’s all those things and more and less, because it’s too many words to be how Bitty feels and he surrenders, slumping low against Kent’s side and turning back to the television.

 

~*~

 

Bitty is blushing before he even starts addressing the camera, a shy smile on his lips. “Hey, y’all. I guess this is mostly a personal video, but I—I started seeing someone new, and it’s just—nice to be able to tell someone. I probably won’t vlog about him much, since it’s all still kind of new and, um, private. But he’s—I feel like he’s my best friend, y’all, and I know that sounds silly but I—,” Bitty pauses and puts a hand to his face in embarrassment, his grin peeking out between his fingers, “I think I’ve got it bad.”

 

Bitty looks up from his phone when Kent gets back to their table in the back of Jerry’s, a tiny little two-top with the perfect legroom deficiency for tangling their feet together underneath in a way that passes as accidental; it’s the closest they’ve gotten to date night, and Bitty kind of loves it.

“I’m kinda excited to be Internet famous,” Kent says, sliding Bitty over his beer.

Rolling his eyes, Bitty answers, “My vlog does not make you more Internet famous than you already are, good Lord. And it’s not like anyone knows it’s you.”

Kent takes a swig of his drink and shrugs. “I mean, for all I know you could be like, a Youtube superstar—since you won’t let me watch it.”

“I—,” Bitty stammers, fixing his eyes on the condensation forming on his beer bottle, “you know I said I don’t feel comfortable—,”

“Shit, Bits—I was just chirping you,” Kent cuts in, backing off immediately, “I wouldn’t make you—like, I get it.” Bitty nods, takes a sip of his drink, and purses his lips. “I mean, like—it’d be cool to be a part of that, you know? I think it’s fucking awesome and it’s—I dunno, it feels like a big part of you. But that’s—it’s whenever—if you’re ready.”

“Yeah, I—thanks.” Bitty worries at his bottom lip and tries to smile. “I just, um—if I was gonna show anyone it’d be you, I just—.” Kent looks like he feels awful, and that’s not what Bitty wanted at all. “Um, but if you wanted to see the—the one I made about you? Before I post it, to—make sure it’s okay?”

Kent shakes his head and assures Bitty, “Nah, Bits, that’s not what I—whatever you wanna say is fine. That’s not what I meant.” He makes an abortive movement, like he wants to take Bitty’s hand and remembers he can’t. “You should—,” he laughs, “is it egotistical as fuck to say you should get to talk about me?”

Bitty laughs too, and teases, “Maybe a little. But um—it is nice.” There’s a pause that Bitty fills with taking a long drink. “Do you—um, do you have—does anyone know about—you?”

Putting him out of his misery, Kent answers, “Shitty. Probably shouldn’t’ve told him; it’s not really fair to him. But uh, sophomore year was—I—there was a rough patch. But it’s just him and—uh, dudes I’ve fucked.” Kent pauses for a heavy moment and adds, quietly, “And you.” Which is a little redundant, considering, but it feels—distinctive. Like Bitty is supposed to be separate, that Kent doesn’t want to lump him in with the rest.

And that should probably feel better than it does, but Bitty isn’t lingering on it because he’s thinking, What about Jack? Because what does it say that Kent hasn’t brought him up at all—the boy who he’s known longer than anyone he’s still speaking to, who’s probably—well, Kent always says Bitty is his best friend but that’s always felt—it’s not like Bitty believes he’s actually more important than Jack.

So no, Bitty isn’t basking in not being considered some dude Kent has slept with, he’s turning over the mystery that is Jack Zimmermann in his frantic brain. If Jack doesn’t know—well, that would just be heartbreaking, that after all this time Kent never felt like he could trust him. And maybe—maybe he’s been giving Bitty looks because he’s not okay with it and he thinks—fuck, that makes Bitty’s skin crawl. But if Jack does know—then Kent not bringing it up is—weird. There has to be a reason Kent wouldn’t—and oh God, what if he and Jack were—what if they are—no, Kent wouldn’t—

“Bits? You okay?”

Bitty’s head snaps up and his thoughts scatter like wasps in a shaken hive, buzzing war songs while they disperse. “Sorry, I was thinking—I’m—I know how that feels and I—I’m really sorry.”

Kent gives him a smile that’s very nearly bright. “It’s cool. I’ve got you, now.”

“Yeah, you do, hun.” And through the forced warmth of his smile, Bitty can’t help but wonder, who did you have before? But it’s not—he can’t let this be about that, not when he’s finally gotten what he’s fantasized about for so long. Not when Kent wants him, even if it’s just for now, even if it’s not as much as he wants someone else. Bitty has no right to be greedy.

“So,” he starts cheerfully, punctuating the change of topic by reaching for a tortilla chip, “the banquet is tomorrow. I’m kind of excited for it? I still have to decide—oh, I mean, obviously I’m gonna vote for you as captain, but that other award—,”

“Don’t vote for me.”

Bitty freezes with a guacamole-laden chip halfway into his mouth. “What?”

Kent shrugs and repeats, just as plainly as the first time, “Don’t vote for me, as captain. I don’t want it.”

“But—why?”

“I—it’s not my thing. Too much shit to deal with, always watching everyone’s asses. You know how it is.”

It would almost be believable, but Kent’s face is doing that thing where it’s too blank and his voice is too airy, so Bitty levels him with a stare and says, “Bullshit.”

“What?”

“You heard me, honey.”

Kent gives a clipped laugh and scrubs a hand over in his face in defeat. “Fine, fuck. I—look, it’s—dammit, Bits, it’s Jack’s, okay? He’s a good captain and he—needs this. I fucking want it, sure; he needs it.”

Bitty’s stomach twists and he can’t even place which of the emotions he’s being hit with does it. “Kent—,”

“Don’t. Please just—can’t you just do this for me?”

Bitty’s heart aches. He smiles. “Okay.”

 

They stay at the bar for a while after that, and things get more light-hearted again. Bitty always marvels at how easily conversation comes with Kent, how they can ramble for a while, laughing and gossiping, and fall silent for a little bit, just relaxing, enjoying the quiet, before someone starts on something new. It feels—like Bitty’s where he’s supposed to be. Like maybe everything’s going to work out, even if later tonight he’s probably going to worry about everything that happened earlier.

A few more drinks and a couple hours later, they split the tab and stumble back towards the Haus. Kent’s got his arm around Bitty’s shoulders, anonymous as they weave between streetlights in the dark of the night. He checks his phone and grins.

“Johnson says he’s cool to crash at Ginger’s,” he says. “Wanna stay over?”

Bitty hums and leans closer to leech off of Kent’s body heat. “Mm, yeah, that’ll be nice. I’m s’possed to be studyin’ for my math final next week though.”

“Aw,” Kent pouts, “but I owe you a blowjob.”

Bitty groans dramatically. “I still can’t believe that girl gave me her number. I was just bein’ nice.”

“’Xactly.”

“But I’m—I’m so gay, Kenny,” Bitty insists, looking up at him with exaggeratedly wide eyes, still buzzed from the alcohol and feeling silly. “Can people not tell I’m gay?”

Kent chuckles and presses a quick kiss to Bitty’s temple. “People can’t resist ya, Bits. ‘M always gonna win that bet.” They’ve reached the treeline, and Bitty’s about to go off on a tangent about how really, the person who wins the bet should be receiving the blowjob, not the other way around, but Kent’s hands are slipping under his tank top, ghosting up his sides and giving him shivers and—oh, Lord, do Kent’s lips feel so good against his neck when he offers, “Let me pay it off?”

It takes a moment for Bitty to collect himself before he manages, lightly, “Oh, alright. But let’s go inside at least.”

“Mm, you don’t want me on my knees out here?” Kent murmurs, moving his lips to Bitty’s shoulder and scraping his teeth lightly along his exposed collarbone, “I’d do it. Drop to the ground, suck you where anyone could see—see how well I take your dick, baby.”

“Oh my—fuck, Kent—oh my God.”

Bitty can barely think, hardly form words in his head through the immediate, thick curl of arousal wrapping around him. He blinks and suddenly he’s up against a tree, head thunked back onto the rough back, staring down at Kent Parson on his fucking knees with his hands at Bitty’s zipper.

“We can’t—shouldn’t—someone could—,” he stammers, but his voice is far away, might as well belong to someone else. And slowly, something bubbles to the surface, a thought that sends a thrill through his entire body. “You—you get off on this, don’t you?” he asks, voice as filled with wonder as it is husky, “You wanna—wanna take me out here. Sweetheart, does it feel good knowin’ someone could catch us? That someone could find out just how much you like dick?”

Kent, remarkably, is speechless. He lets out something close to a whine and leans forward, grips at Bitty’s hips with both hands and presses his face to his crotch, mouths at Bitty’s now-throbbing hard cock through his shorts and—fuck, Bitty has no idea how or why this is happening and he—doesn’t think he’d stop it if he could.

“Go ahead, honey.” Bitty plucks the snapback off of Kent’s head so he can put his fingers in his hair, muss it up the way he knows Kent likes. “It’s okay.”

“Bits,” Kent breathes, pulling back long enough to work open the button on Bitty’s shorts and tug them and his briefs down his thighs, and wraps his mouth around Bitty’s cock so perfectly he nearly screams.

As it is, Bitty takes a hand out of Kent’s hair to clamp it over his mouth and whimper, heart pounding erratically in wild desynchronization with the waves of pleasure rushing through him—and it could burst right out of his chest and Bitty wouldn’t care. He’d live without it if it meant more of this, more of Kent. A breeze rustles the trees and Bitty doesn’t even turn. He watches Kent, the way his eyes—green, today, in the dying light—are fixed on Bitty’s face and so, so bright, like they’re lit up with something—something Bitty didn’t know lived in anyone else’s heart.

When Bitty comes, whispering, Kenny—Kenny, I’m—it’s to thoughts of bound wrists and things he taught himself to never want, and the prickling relief of feeling something, unbidden, reverberating back in another set of bones.

 

~*~

 

“Hey, y’all,” Bitty greets, looking sleep-rumpled in the morning light. “So, it’s been a busy week with the banquet—Jack’s gonna be our captain again; everyone’s real excited about it. And me—well, I think I—I think this team really is home, now.” He smiles, soft and warm, and there’s something secret in it that doesn’t quite get explained by the off-handed comment, “Oh, and I’m not failing math anymore.”

 

Bitty is sprawled on his stomach on Kent’s bed, still a little come-drunk and frowning at a stack of calculus notes he can’t quite seem to decipher, when the door clicks open and Kent slips back in from his shower. Locking the door behind him, he strips the towel off his waist to mop at his dripping hair, and smirks at Bitty’s pout.

“What unit?” he asks. The towel drops to the ground with a soft sound as he makes his way to the bed.

“Limits,” Bitty gripes, “And I just—I don’t remember what you do with these? What d’you get when it’s infinity plus something else?”

Kent climbs up and brackets himself over Bitty, shower-damp skin brushing cool against all the places their bodies touch. “Bigger infinity.” He punctuates the statement with a gentle kiss pressed against Bitty’s shoulderblade.

Bitty snorts. “That’s not a thing.”

Kent’s chuckle vibrates Bitty’s hair when he nuzzles against it. “I know, I’m just fucking with you. So the other number just simplifies down…becomes a part of the infinity. Isn’t that—,” his voice is lilted and excited, flowing easily, passionately through the words in a way that would almost frustrate Bitty if it wasn’t so captivating, “Isn’t that cool? You can’t change what’s already infinite but you can join it.”

Bitty isn’t thinking about math, not really. He’s thinking about the bright voice in his ear, the brush of lips in his sweat-salty hair, the curl of warmth in his belly even though the air conditioner’s just kicked on and there are goosebumps springing on his bare skin. He’s thinking about what it would mean to be something forever.

Realizing, belatedly, that Kent is waiting for some kind of answer, Bitty sighs, “Numbers are weird.”

Kent laughs and gives him a chaste kiss on the cheek. “Yeah, they are.”

Bitty turns and catches his mouth, tracing his tongue along the seam of Kent’s chapped lips and humming a little when the kiss deepens. He arches his body up so he’s melted into Kent’s space, rolling his muscles just enough to feel the press of Kent’s half-hard cock against his skin.

“You seriously trying to go again right now?” Kent chirps, but the incredulity falls a little flat considering he’s practically humping Bitty’s ass while he does it. “You gotta study.”

“Mm, but honey,” Bitty purrs, “’M still so loose from before. You could prob’ly just slide right in. Won’t take you that long.” His body is buzzing with energy, a deep thrum that’s calling out for something—someone—Kent. It feels—bigger than his skin, his bones. Bigger than the spaces between them and bigger than anything that could be filled.

Kent moans in something like defeat. “Christ, when’d you get so—fuck.”

Laughing, Bitty points out, “S’probably your fault. Now c’mon, are you gonna fuck me or what?”

“Fucking bossy,” Kent mutters, fondly and low like it’s something precious, theirs. He nuzzles gently against Bitty’s neck and then nips at his ear before pulling away.

He comes back a moment later with lube and a new condom, draping his body over Bitty’s again and rutting against him slowly. Bitty goes to flip over, wrap his legs around Kent’s waist, but Kent sinks his weight down gently and holds him in place. “Stay like this?” he asks, voice husky. Bitty turns his head to catch the glint in Kent’s eyes. He shivers, and nods.

There’s the snapping sound of the lube bottle popping open and then Bitty’s squirming into the mattress, rocking his hips up into the two finger’s Kent slips inside him. “Ooh, Kent—,”

“Fuck, babe,” Kent breathes, “you weren’t kidding—so loose for me.”

“I—please, ‘m ready—Kenny—,” Bitty whines, practically thrashing against the almost-enough pleasure, desperate for more. “Lord, please.”

“Bits—Bits, Christ,” Kent laughs, but he slides his fingers out and Bitty whimpers. He turns to watch Kent roll the condom on and squirt lube on top. Kent lines up and pushes inside easily, like he belongs.

He does, Bitty thinks, thoughts scattered, frazzled things through the haze of lust, the heady feeling overtaking him. He does and I love him. And Bitty—he doesn’t know if he has other words anymore and he feels raw and something other than himself because Kent is fucking him into the mattress and he’s pinned there, under every inch of Kent’s skin, and his nerves are singing in the countless places they touch. Kent is murmuring things into Bitty’s ear and his chest presses against the twist of Bitty’s back and Bitty thinks, I love you, I love you, the way people pray to God.

He doesn’t even realize he’s said it out loud until Kent is answering him.

“Me—me too, Bits, I—,” his voice hitches and he chokes on the words a little, sobs a curse out into the mattress before finishing, “I love you too.”

“Please,” Bitty whispers into the kiss Kent is placing to his lips, and it means a million things. It’s please stay and please mean it and please fuck me harder and none of those things or the answers are enough to describe the way Bitty comes, spurting against the sheets and smearing wet heat onto his stomach with a soft cry.

He nods when Kent asks, voice strained, “Can I keep going?” and presses his face down into the comforter, soft and damp against his cheeks—and it must be because he’s crying, but he doesn’t feel it. He feels the hot tendrils of pleasure still shooting through him, so intense they could almost be pain—almost hurt, but things from Kent don’t hurt and Bitty rocks his body back into Kent’s thrusts to capture them deeper in his bones. He feels the roar of his heart and the giddy smile spreading across his face and the shudder of Kent coming inside him.

He feels loving, and loved, and the kiss Kent presses to the bridge of his nose before pulling out.

Kent tosses the condom and flops back against the pillows with a worn-out grunt. Bitty sits up, arm muscles feeling wobbly and strange as he pushes off the bed, and wrinkles his nose at the damp stain on the comforter. Hopefully it’s laundry day.

When Bitty crawls over and curls up against Kent’s side, Kent half-heartedly mumbles, “C’mon, I’ll help you study.”

“Cuddle first,” Bitty mutters stubbornly, and smooshes his face into Kent’s chest.

“Your exam’s t’morrow,” Kent protests, even as he’s pulling Bitty snug against him, arm settling against his hip.

Bitty argues, “But my birthday’s today.”

“Fine,” Kent sighs, and presses a fond kiss into Bitty’s sweat-damp hair. “Mm, speaking of which—want your present now or at the party?”

“Hm,” Bitty considers, “now.”

Kent nods and leans over, fumbling through his nightstand for a bit before he pulls out something hidden in the bottom, a present hastily wrapped in a few layers of tissue paper. Bitty smiles into the crook of Kent’s shoulder.

“It’s, uh—it’s not like, a big thing,” Kent hedges, clearly trying to keep the nervousness out of his voice while Bitty sits up and carefully unwraps the tissue paper.

It’s a picture frame, a sleek, dark wooden one that will fit easily on Bitty’s desk at home or in his dorm room. The picture inside is the one from fall semester, that Kent made his profile picture—that’s still his profile picture—the candid shot Bad Bob took of them laughing. It’s a better photo than Bitty remembers, easy and affectionate. He thinks maybe they already look a little in love.

“You—I—.” Bitty’s throat goes suddenly tight, and he changes to chirping, “Lord, you’re such a sap.”

“So you like it?” Kent asks, smirking, and Bitty elbows him instead of answering.

He traces a disbelieving finger across the edge of the frame. “You were gonna give me this in front of everyone?”

“Uh, yeah? Is that weird?”

Bitty giggles. “It’s a little gay, honey.”

Kent laughs, sharp and surprised. “Well, I am a little gay, so. Maybe even like, seventy percent gay.”

Rolling his eyes, Bitty sets the picture aside and melts back into Kent’s arms. “I—,” he starts, but his tongue goes heavy against the words and he can’t make them come easily like they did before. It’s strange and uncomfortable, the sudden anxious knot in his chest twisting against the warmth he still feels. “I love it,” he says instead.

There are fingers carding through his hair and a pair of lips against his forehead. “Yeah—,” Kent murmurs, “yeah, me too.”

 

~*~

 

Bitty sighs and rests his cheek against his hand. “Well, there you have it. I guess this’ll be the last video I record in this room. After I’m done with these boxes, I’ll officially be a resident of the Samwell Hockey Haus—and, um—,” Bitty smiles to himself, “Parse’s roommate.”

 

“No, mother, I’m not moving in alone; Kent is comin’ to help me,” Bitty sighs into the phone and hefts a box onto his bed.

“Oh. He’s—the one you’re living with, right? In the same room?”

“Yeah! We’re gonna get on great, I think, and there’s plenty of furniture between him and what Johnson left, but—” He unfolds the cardboard flaps and starts pulling out the textbooks he’s going to store under his bed.

“Dicky?”

“Oh! Mama! You know what I want? New curtains for the kitchen! Oh, and—,”

“Dicky!”

Bitty pauses at the tone in his mother’s voice, exasperated and a little nervous. “Y-yes?”

“I, well—I just think—sweetheart, you know that I trust you but I hope you remember to be safe and responsible and—,”

Bitty rolls his eyes, but his voice is fond. “Mama, please! You know I can keep myself out of trouble.” He quirks his lips a little though, because he’s not sure where her concern is coming from specifically. Maybe she’s started to work herself up over Bitty staying in a frat house. But she likes Kent, or at least she always says she does, so—

“I—goodness, I know. Sometimes I just feel like—Dicky, you know you can tell me anything right? It’s so hard bein’ so far away and I hope—,”

There’s a knock on the door that steals Bitty’s attention. “Hang on, mama,” he says, and opens the door to find Jack on the other side. “Jack! Hi, I—mother, let me call you back?”

“Oh, sorry,” Jack apologizes and falls silent awkwardly, even though Bitty’s clearly hung up the phone and is waiting for him to speak.

Bitty worries at his lip and finally asks, “I thought you were leavin’ for that prospect camp in Chicago?”

“Ah, yeah, I’m—I’m about to head out. Sorry to interrupt, I just—,”

Bitty waves a hand nervously. “Oh, no worries! I was just talkin’ to my mom about movin’ in. She’s a little—,”

“Bittle,” Jack cuts in, and Bitty clamps his mouth shut. “Listen, before I left, I—just wanted to say I’m sorry, about—about that hit. And…I hope that me being captain again won’t—,”

“Jack, I—no, you’re a great captain and I’m excited to—,”

Jack scrubs at his face in exasperation. “I know you wanted it to be Kent, okay? You don’t have to—,”

“I-I’m not, I really—,”

A door shuts loudly downstairs and Kent’s voice echoes up the stairs. “Bits? You up here?” He reaches the top of the stairwell grinning, but the smile fades a little when he takes in their strained expressions. “Zimms! You shipping out, man?”

Jack turns to Kent and smiles faintly. “Yeah, in a minute. I’ve got to catch my flight.”

“Yeah, have a good one,” Kent tells him, and pulls him into a hug, “See you for the camp in Boston?”

A twinge of jealousy twists in Bitty’s stomach. Jack is juggling three prospect camps this summer, and even though he and Kent are just meeting for the one, it’s still more than Bitty will get to see him (which is not at all).

Jack nods and holds Kent in the hug an extra moment. “Yeah. I’ll try and get in early for it, spend a week or so at the Haus.”

Kent smirks and, finally, pulls away. “’Swawesome. You should stop by the summer camp. The kids love it when ‘Coach Z’ visits. Little fuckers always like you better than me.”

“Yeah, ah—I’ll do that,” Jack chuckles, and clasps Kent on the shoulder as he heads away. He turns when he reaches the stairway, an awkward but friendly smile on his lips. “And Bittle? See you in the fall.”

Bitty smiles back, leaning nervously against the doorframe. “Um, yeah. Have a good summer, Jack.”

Jack waves over his shoulder and vanishes around the corner, and Bitty turns back to Kent, who’s watching him with a raised eyebrow. “What was that?”

Shrugging, Bitty shifts back into the room and Kent follows, locking the door behind them. “I’m—not sure? Lords knows I’ll never understand that boy.”

Kent laughs and rests his hands on Bitty’s hips to tug him into a kiss. It’s tentative and sweet, with just enough heat behind it to encourage Bitty to lean in, press himself up into Kent’s space. It tastes too much like goodbye.

“How much time before your flight?” Kent asks.

“More’n enough; it’s not ‘til this evening,” Bitty answers against his lips. “Why?”

Fingers tug at Bitty’s tank top and he slips out of it readily, then starts on his shorts. Kent murmurs, “Want you to fuck me.”

Bitty hesitates. “Rans and Holster are up in the attic.”

“So?” Kent strips off his shirt and traces a hand across the plane of Bitty’s stomach, thumbs at his hipbone, teases at his cock. Bitty shivers.

“So,” Bitty chirps, swallowing hard through his breathlessness, “you’re a mouthy-ass bottom, honey.”

Kent smirks and his pupil-blown eyes glint in the afternoon light. “Maybe you should find a way to shut me up, then.”

Bitty shoves him onto the bed.

 

Afterwards, when they’re curled up together under the comforter and Bitty is carding his fingers through Kent’s hair, he very nearly whispers it. I love you. He’s—well, it’s not like he hasn’t said it since his birthday, just not—it’s so much easier while they’re fucking, when everything is hot breath and damp heat between thighs and forever feels around the corner, inevitable like it’s the only thing either one of them could want.

He’s said it to the ceiling, the mattress, the soft skin in the crook of Kent’s shoulder. I love you, I love you. It feels far away afterwards, like he’s dreamed it and the answer. Like he’s said it in some other life and the clipped memories are fazing in to taunt him.

So Bitty cards his fingers through Kent’s hair and whispers, “I’ll miss you.”

“I’ll—fuck,” Kent curses, and snuggles himself closer, “I’ll miss you too, Bits. I’ll—look, it’ll be okay, though.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. It’s just—,” Kent lifts his head and brings a hand up to cup Bitty’s chin. He traces his thumb across the seam of his lips. “Just like a timeout.”

Bitty’s trying to keep his voice from shaking and his eyes from watering and can’t manage either one. “You hate timeouts,” he says, going for a chirp, but his mouth trembles too much to smile.

“Yeah,” Kent agrees quietly, eyes fixed somewhere not on Bitty at all, “I do.”

Chapter Text

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.