Disclaimer: The characters are Ngozi's.
A/N: This fic kind of jumps into a scene without any setup, so here's what you need to know about the ways it diverges from canon: this is set during Bitty's senior year. The graduation kiss never happened. Bitty and Jack are both single, but Bitty's been out publicly for a while, and Jack came out after winning the cup at the end of his first season with the Falconers. Many thanks to birlcholtz for helping me get unstuck in the writing process. Also, the way Jack and Bitty handle crises is very much inspired by "Overwhelm Them with Honesty" by PorcupineGirl on AO3. Oh, and the title is a Bastille lyric.
"Lord, I swear, I was only in Georgia for ten days and I already forgot how cold it is up here," says Bittle, shivering despite his puffy coat as he and Jack make their way to Jack's car.
"We're not even really outside yet, Bittle," Jack replies, chuckling a bit and elbowing him gently. "This is just the parking garage."
Bittle holds his head high, which doesn't do much for him considering the height difference between him and Jack, and says, "Just because your big Canadian ass doesn't think it's cold doesn't mean anything, you moose."
Jack outright laughs at that, and then he hits the unlock button on his key fob and his car's brake lights flash at him. He pops the trunk and lets Bittle hoist his suitcase inside—experience tells him not to offer to help because I have in fact been eating my protein, Mister Zimmermann.
Jack doesn't have the heat on in his car, a fact that Bittle immediately points out. "Did you invite me up here just to freeze me to death, Mister Zimmermann?"
"Sorry," says Jack, setting the heat to full blast. "I'm not trying to freeze you to death, I promise. I invited you up here so I could spend a few days with my best friend while neither of us is busy."
"Where does Shitty fit into this?" Bittle asks.
"You said you wanted to spend a few days with your best friend."
Jack takes his eyes off the road for a second to glance at Bittle. "You do know you're my best friend, right?"
"Bits. Shitty has been eyeball-deep in law school for the past year and a half. I still love him, of course, but best friend? Hell no. That's you, all the way."
"Oh," says Bittle quietly. "You're my best friend, too."
"Yeah?" Jack asks. "Not Lardo? You two have been close for a while."
Bittle laughs. "Oh, she's definitely up there. But I think you get me, even better than she does."
Jack feels warm in a way that has nothing to do with the heat coming through the vents in the dashboard. "I'm glad."
Light, chirpy banter carries them from the airport to Jack's building, but Jack nearly crashes his car into the wall when they reach his parking space. His condo's parking ramp is covered, but it doesn't take a key card to enter, which Jack hadn't expected to be a problem, but it clearly is—unless one of his neighbors did this, which would be a whole other level of awful.
Written in pink spray paint across his entire parking space are three capital letters: FAG.
Jack hits the brakes just before the car slams into the wall, and he and Bittle jolt forward into their seatbelts. With unsteady hands, Jack puts the car in park and removes his key from the ignition. That's the last deliberate movement he manages; after that, he just sits in the driver's seat and shakes, his breathing becoming shallow and erratic.
It's a while before he registers Bittle's hand on his arm and Bittle's voice counting breaths, but eventually he realizes what Bittle's doing and tries to sync his breathing with the numbers that Bittle's saying. It takes longer than he'd like for him to come back to himself enough to say, "We should get inside," and open his car door. Bittle meets him at the back of the car and puts a hand at the small of his back, steadying and more intimate than makes sense to Jack's shaken-up mind, and the two of them walk quickly into the building.
When they get inside Jack's condo, Jack beelines for the living room and collapses onto the sofa. Bittle joins him and wraps him up in a hug that lasts minutes, until Jack finally stops shaking.
"I'm sorry, Bits," he says when at last he feels like himself again. "I don't know why—guys on other teams have been throwing that word at me all season; I don't know why this made me fall apart."
"You don't have a thing to apologize for, sugar," says Bittle firmly. "You go into games expecting a certain level of nastiness that you don't expect in your own space. The person who did this knows where you live. That's awful. Of course it scares you."
"Fuck," says Jack. "I hate this."
"I hate it too," says Bittle, putting a hand on his knee and squeezing. "Now who do you want to call first?"
"Well, you probably need to move, if someone knows where you live and is defacing your space with slurs," says Bittle. How is he so calm? "So that might mean talking to your realtor. Although it's New Year's Eve, so she might not be taking work calls. You're also probably going to want to talk to your parents about this at some point, so you could call them. And if you think you need security in the next few days, that might mean talking to Falcs management."
"Fuck," says Jack. "How did you do that?"
"What?" Bittle looks confused.
"Exactly none of that occurred to me, Bittle. My brain is so full of panic that I barely even know why I'm panicking, let alone what I need to do in terms of next steps. And here you are with a whole list of things to take care of."
Bittle shrugs. "I don't have anxiety, sugar. Don't beat yourself up over not figuring this out on your own. I'm happy to help."
"But that word—it applies to you, too, and—how are you okay right now?"
"We've got different triggers," says Bittle plainly. "You've always been able to take checks, and I can deal with slurs. Besides, it's not my space that anyone invaded; it's yours. Now are you able to make a phone call? I think you should let the Falcs know what happened, if nothing else, and I think asking for security would make sense as well."
"Yeah," says Jack, pulling his phone out of his pocket. Bittle takes the opportunity to take off his puffy coat—he's been wearing it this whole time—which makes Jack realize that he is also still in his coat, so he unzips and removes it. Then he calls George's cell phone number.
"Jack!" says George. "It's New Year's Eve! Is everything all right?"
"Um," says Jack. "Not really, no. I just picked one of my college teammates up from the airport, and when we got back to my building there was a—a slur spray-painted on my parking space."
"Oh my God," says George. "That's—it would be one thing if it were at the arena—and don't get me wrong, that would still be awful—but the fact that they also know where you live? That's—Jack, I'm so sorry."
"Thanks," says Jack. "I think I should move, like soon, but until then it might be a good idea for me to have security. I'm sorry; I know it's a hassle, but—"
"This is not your fault," George interrupts. "You are not causing any problems here. We live in a homophobic society that's denying you safety and dignity, and that's the problem, not anything you've done. I agree that you should probably move, but until then I'd feel better knowing you weren't in your condo. I can arrange security, but it'll take at least a day, maybe more, especially given the holiday. Until then, I think you'd be safer staying at someone else's house, or going to a hotel. Do you have a preference?"
"Uh," says Jack, mentally running through his options. Haus 2.0 is having a rager that he and Bittle were invited to, but they'd agreed they'd rather take advantage of their time together without so many people around, especially given Jack's feelings about parties, and Jack definitely doesn't feel up to partying now, what with everything that's just happened. Marty or Thirdy would probably let him stay with them, but they don't know Bittle, and Jack's pretty sure they each only have one guest room anyway. Which—Jack wouldn't mind sharing a bed with Bittle (in fact, he kind of loves the idea), but that's probably a sign that he shouldn't. Besides, Jack doesn't want to crash anyone's New Year's Eve and ruin their plans. That seems like a mean thing to do, even to the older guys with families. "A hotel?" says Jack.
"Got it," says George. "I can drive you; I don't think you should go back to your parking ramp tonight. I know I've got your address on file somewhere, but would you mind texting it to me? That'll be faster. I'll let you know when I'm at your building. Is there a back entrance?"
"Yeah," says Jack.
"Great," says George. "I'll use that. Make a hotel reservation in the meantime."
"Take care, Jack. I'm so sorry this is happening." George hangs up.
Jack texts George his address and receives an On my way in response.
"I just realized," says Bittle. "My suitcase is still in your trunk."
"I don't think we should go get it," replies Jack. "At least not today."
"Oh, I definitely agree," says Bittle. "Just, if we're going to a hotel, we should probably figure out what we're going to sleep in, since I don't think either of us wants to pull a Shitty and sleep in the nude. Which means I might need to borrow something from you. I mean, if that's okay? I know it'll look ridiculous, but—"
"Bits," says Jack. "Yes, you can borrow some sweatpants and a T-shirt to sleep in."
"Great," says Bittle. "Do you think we could stop somewhere on the way to the hotel so I could buy some underwear and a toothbrush?"
Bittle's organization continues to astound Jack—especially considering Bittle is the one who could never force himself to study—but all Jack says is, "Yeah. George is driving us."
"I know, sugar," says Bittle. "I could hear the whole phone conversation."
"Oh," says Jack.
"Go pack something, all right?" Bittle says. "Sleep clothes for both of us, toiletries, whatever you feel like wearing tomorrow—"
"Bits, I pack for roadies all the time," Jack interrupts. "I do actually know how to do this."
"All right," says Bittle. "I just wasn't sure if you were firing on all cylinders right now."
"Fair," says Jack, standing. He heads to his bedroom, grabs his duffel bag, and shoves in two pairs of sweatpants, three T-shirts, jeans, a sweatshirt, underwear, and socks, before heading to the bathroom and adding his toothbrush, toothpaste, a comb, shaving cream, his razor, and deodorant.
When Jack comes back to the living room, he finds Bittle looking at his phone. Bittle looks up and says, "I found a hotel with vacancies. Can you make the reservation? Otherwise I can call."
"I can call," says Jack. "What's the phone number?"
Bittle reads it to him and Jack dials. The hotel clerk has evidently heard of him, because he doesn't believe he's speaking to the real Jack Zimmermann at first and almost hangs up on Jack, but Jack is able to make the reservation after a couple of minutes. He's about to sag back onto the sofa next to Bittle when a text comes from George: I'm at the back entrance.
Fear grips Jack as he exits his condo, walks down the hall, and peers out the door to the alley, but he tries to keep from letting on how afraid he is, because he doesn't want Bittle to see that. (Bittle already saw him have a panic attack, but still.) After scanning the alley as thoroughly as he can without opening the door—all that's out there is George's tan sedan—Jack takes a deep breath, squares his shoulders, and heads outside, Bittle at his heels. The two of them half-run down the steps to George's car. Without discussing it, Jack takes the passenger seat and Bittle takes the back, and Jack passes Bittle the duffel bag as both of them get in the car. Scared as he's just been, Jack nevertheless smiles—he and Bittle are such a good team.
"Hey Jack," says George. "Hey, kid." She meets Bittle's eyes in the rearview mirror for a second and then puts the car in drive and navigates through the alleyway.
Jack tells George which hotel they're going to, and then Bittle pipes up, "My suitcase is still in Jack's car, so can we stop somewhere so I can buy underwear and a toothbrush?"
"Sure," says George. Jack wonders if he should offer to navigate, but George is driving with an assurance Jack has rarely seen from anyone, so he figures George probably knows what she's doing.
It's only a few minutes before George is parallel parking in front of a 24-hour pharmacy. Bittle and Jack both open their car doors, and then Bittle says, "Jack, no. You're the target here. You shouldn't come with me."
"You're out too!" Jack replies. "Either of us could be targets. I'm not letting you go alone."
"I can be alone in a store for five minutes and buy my own damn underwear," Bittle grumbles.
"Let's all go," says George.
"But—" Bittle starts to say, but George is already out of the car, so he closes his mouth.
A few minutes later, the three of them get back in the car, Bittle blushing hard and carrying a plastic bag with a toothbrush, some toothpaste, and some underwear. In different circumstances, Jack might chirp Bittle for how red his face is, but he knows better than to point out Bittle's discomfort in front of George, since Bittle doesn't know her well.
No one speaks much on the ten-minute drive from the pharmacy to the hotel, a stark contrast to the drive from the airport to Jack's condo. When they arrive at the hotel, Jack says, "Thanks for the ride, George. Sorry for getting in the way of your New Year's Eve plans."
George shakes her head. "Like I said on the phone, you have nothing to apologize for. Besides, it's still only six. Miriam and I will be up most of the night. I'll get to work on the issue of security tomorrow, though. I promise."
"Thanks," says Jack, and then he shuts the car door.
Bittle's standing on the curb, shivering a little and carrying Jack's duffel bag, and Jack has a sudden mental image of them taking road trips together, sharing luggage and hotel rooms and all the rest of it. But no. Bittle doesn't feel that way about Jack, and even if he did, he'd still deserve a degree of safety that he can't have with Jack, given that Jack's both out and famous.
Bittle and Jack walk into the hotel lobby. Jack checks them in—the clerk is the one he spoke with on the phone, and he's entirely too excited about meeting a celebrity, and Jack is really, really done with this day. But at last (after just a minute or two, actually, but it feels like "at last"), Jack has room keys, and he and Bittle take the elevator up to their room.
In the room, Jack starts to shake again. Bittle notices and guides him to one of the beds and sits him down. Jack's breathing is still okay; he's just trembling somewhat. Bittle sits with him quietly for a minute and then says, "How does room service sound?"
"Amazing," says Jack, voice shaking only slightly. He hadn't realized how hungry he was, but now that Bittle mentions it, he could definitely eat.
Bittle gets up, finds the room service menu, and comes back to sit with Jack and browse the food options. The choices are a bit sparse and hugely overpriced, but that's not a surprise. They make their choices and Jack calls in the order because he wants to pay but isn't keen on having the "here, use my credit card" conversation with Bittle.
It'll take the room service at least half an hour to arrive. In the meantime, Jack collapses back on his bed and Bittle moves to sit on the other bed instead. Jack wishes he wouldn't, but Bittle demonstrates consistent awareness of the way he occupies others' space, which Jack guesses is a result of growing up gay in Georgia. Certainly Bittle has a far different approach to personal space than Shitty does. Jack would be glad for some cuddling right now, with or without clothes, but he doesn't know how to ask for it in a way that doesn't make it sound like the come-on it absolutely is. (Not that he's ever good at asking for physical affection—or much else, really.) So Jack sprawls on his bed alone while Bittle turns on the TV.
ESPN is exactly what Jack needs to simultaneously focus and relax, and he's so grateful that Bittle could anticipate that. (Or maybe Bittle just wanted to watch ESPN, but Jack is pretty sure he was part of the calculation.) They don't talk until room service comes, by which point Jack's hockey brain is partially activated and his anxiety brain is mostly quiet. (He's not sure when those two things disentangled themselves. They've always been separate, but for a long time they were intertwined, like two balls of yarn that had gotten hopelessly mixed. And now they're each in their own places. They can both be activated at the same time, sure, but it's become easy to distinguish which thoughts come from which one.)
There's only one desk in the room, and neither Jack nor Bittle feels like eating at it, so they each sit on their own bed—Bittle cross-legged in the middle of his; Jack perched on the edge of his—and eat. "How are you feeling, sugar?" Bittle asks after a minute or two of just chewing.
"I'm okay," says Jack, and he thinks it's true. "Thanks to you."
Bittle waves his fork. "What are friends for?"
Jack shakes his head. "This is definitely above and beyond. Admit it, Bits: you saved the day."
"I did not," Bittle mumbles. His face is red, and now that they're alone Jack can chirp him for it.
"You did," says Jack. "You're a hero. Is Captain Tomato-Face a good superhero name?"
"Oh my goodness, do I have—?" Bittle starts swiping at his face with a paper napkin, which sort of makes sense considering there's tomato sauce on the lasagna he's eating.
Jack laughs. "No. You were just blushing."
Bittle balls up the napkin and throws it at Jack. It's not terribly aerodynamic and winds up fluttering to the floor between the two beds.
"I'll have you know, Mister Zimmermann," says Bittle in the haughty voice he gets when he's trying to be faux-serious (a voice Jack privately hates because it makes Bittle sound like a Southern senator in the worst way), "when a gay boy like me gets a compliment from an attractive male athlete such as yourself—"
"You think I'm attractive?" Jack interrupts, and then he barely keeps himself from facepalming. He sounds far too eager.
Bittle goggles at him. "Um, yes? What part of 'Samwell's 50 Most Beautiful' do you not understand?"
"Just because some random people at the Swallow think I'm attractive doesn't mean you agree."
Bittle isn't staring quite so intensely, but he still looks surprised. "Oh. Well, I do. Always have."
"Okay, so I know this is the literal worst time to do this," says Jack before he can stop himself, before he can really think it through, "because we're stuck in a hotel room together and I had a panic attack earlier and everything, and I don't want you to feel like you have to give me a certain answer or anything, but, um, do you like me?"
Bittle rolls his eyes. "We've established that you're my best friend."
Jack shakes his head. "No, do you like me?"
Bittle puts his face in his hands. "You were right," he says quietly. "This is the literal worst time to do this."
"Oh," says Jack, matching Bittle's volume. He feels something crumbling inside him. "Sorry, I thought . . . It's my fault, Bits. I'm sorry."
"No, don't apologize," says Bittle, looking up from his hands. Are those tears in his eyes? "I shouldn't have flirted with you so much."
"What?" Jack is louder now, a little louder even than he meant to be. "You were flirting with me? Leading people on isn't nice, Bittle."
"What?" Bittle's even louder than Jack. Then, more quietly, he says, "Hold on, back up. I was absolutely not leading anyone on."
"How were you not leading me on?" Jack demands. "You just admitted you were flirting with me!"
"Because I like you!" Bittle half-yells, throwing his arms wide. He's still holding his fork, and his lasagna, sitting next to him on the bed, nearly overbalances.
"Wait, what?" says Jack. "Then why did you react like that when I asked?"
"Because I didn't want to make you uncomfortable!" Bittle replies. "And I know you're bi, so I'm not worried about it from that angle, but like, it's always awkward to be around someone who likes you when you don't like them back."
"Who ever said I don't like you back?" asks Jack, suddenly quiet.
Bittle absolutely gapes. "But you—Jack, you're—you're famous, and you—"
Jack makes sure his food is stable on his bed as he stands and moves to Bittle's bed instead. He perches on the side, careful not to invade Bittle's space too thoroughly, and says, "Bits. I'm just a person, same as you. I'm not worth more because of my salary or my fame or any of that. I'm just a person, and I'm in love with you, okay?"
Bittle drops his fork on the white bedspread. "You're what?"
"Sorry, too soon?" Jack stands to give Bittle some space, but Bittle catches his sleeve.
"Jack, I have been in love with you for two years now. No, it is not too soon."
"Two years?" says Jack, sitting back down.
Bittle smiles wryly. "Yeah. I thought you were straight back then."
Jack chuckles. "Glad we cleared that one up."
"So am I," says Bittle, "though for a while I wasn't. I mean, obviously I was glad to know you really got it, what it's like to be queer, but at the same time—it's harder thinking you don't have a chance because you're not good enough than it is to think you don't have a chance because of your gender."
"Bits," says Jack, taking Bittle's hand. "You've always been good enough."
Bittle ducks his head. "You ridiculous boy."
Jack puts a finger under Bittle's chin and lifts gently, coaxing Bittle to look up at him. "Hey. You need to learn to take a compliment, you know that?"
Bittle squirms. "Jack."
"I'm serious," says Jack. "It doesn't have to be tonight, and it's not something that can happen overnight anyway. But I want you to get comfortable receiving compliments, because you do, in fact, deserve them."
Bittle scrunches up his face for a few seconds and then says, "Fine."
"Good," says Jack. And then, because it's getting harder and harder to resist, he asks, "Can I kiss you?"
Bittle nods enthusiastically and leans forward. Jack meets him halfway, leaning sort of backward from his spot on the edge of the bed but turning his torso to face Bittle. Bittle's lips are soft, and then they open and Jack's tongue slides forward into Bittle's mouth, which tastes like lasagna, and there's nothing particularly sexy about the kiss, but it's sweet and tender and Jack is so in love.
Eventually, Jack's core gets a little tired from the odd position, despite his status as a professional athlete, and he pulls away from the kiss and sits up straight. Bittle's panting, and Jack isn't much better himself. Jack stands, returns to his bed—although they'll pick just one to sleep in tonight, won't they?—and picks up his food, which is significantly colder than it was when he abandoned it.
Bittle glances sheepishly from his lasagna to Jack. "Yeah, we should maybe finish our food, shouldn't we?"
"Pretty sure that would be my nutritionist's preference," Jack replies.
"So," says Bittle after a minute of eating quietly, "what does this mean for us?"
"Well," says Jack, "I want a relationship. We're both out, and we're pretty sure about one another, so I don't think we have much to worry about in terms of the press finding out. I'm not going to go running to the media tomorrow or anything, but I'm not afraid of people knowing the way I would be if I were still in the closet or if I'd just met you or something. I'd say we tell our friends and family soon, and we decide when to be public when it feels right?"
Bittle looks at Jack, his eyes shining. "That sounds perfect. Can I kiss you at midnight?"
Jack had completely forgotten it was New Year's Eve. "Absolutely," he says.
By the time the clock hits midnight, Jack and Bittle have gone significantly beyond kissing and are curled up together, sated, but they're still awake, so they do kiss then, too.
"Happy New Year," Bittle whispers when the kiss finally ends.
"Happy New Year, Bits," Jack replies.