In retrospect, Bitty should have been able to read the subtle signs.
Coach keeps his eyes trained on the TV even when the game cuts to commercial. One hand clutches the remote more firmly than usual, while the other does the same to his beer bottle. The wrinkles across his forehead become momentarily more pronounced.
But Bitty doesn’t notice he should be bracing himself until after it’s already happened.
“So. Your mama says you’ve got a sweetheart.”
Every major organ in Bitty’s body stops for a moment.
“She– What? I–”
“Well. She suspects. But you know how she is.”
Bitty swallows roughly against the desert wasteland his throat has suddenly become. It’s only the first week of his junior year’s summer break. He and Jack celebrated their one year anniversary a handful of days ago, making out like teenagers in the doorway to Jack’s old room for a few precious minutes before anyone could break away from the graduation festivities to come find them.
They’ve talked in loose terms about eventually coming out to people who aren’t a member of the Falcs or the SMH, but they don’t actually have anything resembling a plan.
Especially when it comes to Bitty’s parents.
“I don’t have a sweet–” Bitty starts, and stops at the single raised eyebrow his father shoots him.
“Mama’s wrong,” he insists anyway, breathing in deep and trying not to let his hands shake as he wrings them together.
His fingers itch to text Jack.
Coach tilts his head slightly to the side. “Could be,” he allows. “Thought you and I should have a talk either way.”
This is the longest commercial break in a football game that Bitty has ever sat through.
He purses his lips and furrows his brows. “Mama thought you should–”
“I thought,” Coach corrects easily, setting his beer down on the end table and then turning in his recliner to finally face where Bitty is curled up on the sofa. He frowns, lips thin and tight, eyes steady and assessing.
Then, after a lengthy silence: “Do you love him?”
The sharp breath Bitty sucks in nearly chokes him.
“What?” he whispers, voice ragged and harsh around what little air he can force from his frozen lungs.
The game starts up again. Coach’s hand squeezes the remote a little tighter, but he doesn’t press pause. And he doesn’t look away from Bitty. “It’s alright if you don’t. I won’t tell your mama either way if you don’t want me to.”
“You… But I thought she…” Bitty feels dazed, pulse pounding, and brain struggling to make sense of whatever alternate universe he’s somehow stumbled into.
“Junior, you know she loves you. No matter what, we both love you. And, again, she… suspects. But I wanted to talk to you first, before I go confirming or denying any of her late-night jam-making musings.” He sighs, and then lifts up the remote so that he can see the buttons well enough to hit Off on the first try.
“Do you love him?” he asks again, once the screen is dark.
Bitty swallows. Then nods.
One side of Coach’s mouth lifts into the beginnings of a rare, soft smile. “Good,” he says, as earnest as Bitty has ever heard him.
“Now. Enough of that.” Coach picks his beer back up and takes a swig as he turns back to the television set, hitting the power button once more so that the game comes back to life on the flat screen before them. “Just so you know, I’ve been keeping up with hockey as much as I can in the off hours, but it was a hell of a lot easier to do when an NHL prodigy was around to go through plays with me on the whiteboard in the den.”
Bitty bites his bottom lip against a smile.
“You still in touch with the Zimmermann kid?” his father asks. And Bitty’s smile collapses in on itself before it’s even begun. “Not that I’d expect you to be. But he’s the kind of athlete every coach dreams of, really. You’re lucky to have had him on your team.”
“…Yeah.” Bitty digs his nervous fingers into the meat of his own thighs, and resists texting Jack for just a few moments longer. Because when he does, he knows that their plans for the future will no longer be defined in loose terms. “I am.”