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how do you make it for real

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Jack Zimmermann's life is built from routines. People think that he's boring, but he likes it, the way that each block of his day slots neatly into the next. He appreciates predictability, he hates to be left at loose ends, and even though he hasn't played a game of hockey in years, he'll probably live by the locker-room code of habit and superstition for the rest of his life.

Samwell University seems nice. Professor Atley, the newly-appointed head of the History Department, is brisk but genuinely welcoming in what's now their second time meeting. As an adjunct at Samwell, she tells him, he'll be teaching three lower-level classes. She hopes that he'll also find some time to get started on his first book, the time that he couldn't (he'd confessed to the committee) seem to find or make last year in Virginia, which he knows for both threat and encouragement. He's grateful, always, for the welcome, and still worried that he'll come up short.

The grounds are pleasant, relaxing, all red brick and green lawns and wide paths. They look like nothing more than a brochure come to life, and Jack would move into the center of a glossy paper tri-fold if only he could work towards a tenure-track position there.

His schedule, gridded out, shows a clear block between 3:00 and 4:30. If he can find somewhere to sit and work and maybe eat, he should be able to use that block of time to make progress on writing a book a little bit every day. Crossing the street that separates campus from a straggling gap-toothed line of restaurants and stores, he fetches up in front of a cozy coffee shop. The sign in the window says it's called Annie's, and the door promises that it's open till 8 p.m. every night.

_X_ 

Within the first few weeks of the semester, Annie's has definitively become Jack's favorite place to work, ever. His office is amazing because it's all his, the best place to squirrel away books and papers, but there's always a danger of distraction when he tries to get work done there. Camilla, the smartest adjunct in the department, stops by several times a day for quick breaks to chat about nothing. Chris Chow appears at at all times of day and night just in case, he says, Jack's there, and Jack's never learned how to turn away a student who actually wants to learn. But he has other work he needs to get done. And Annie's has decent coffee, and a daily rotating selection of the best pies he's ever tasted, anywhere, in his life, and, most importantly, no one who ever wants to talk to him. He buries himself there in the writings of the war in peace.

Or, when he's stuck, he can look around. Just every once in a while, he'll catalog the pairs of girls in glossy high ponytails talking to each another, the gray-haired men and women who've claimed the few armchairs in the shop with their paperbacks, the laptop users, the phone-players-with, the interview that's always in progress. The population, though its characteristics remain stable, changes in individual composition from day to day. Only two people (besides himself) are consistently present: a petite Asian girl with an awesome sidecut, who's always either drawing or painting, and Cute Blond Boy.

He'd worried at first that the girl was drawing the coffee shop's patrons. It seems like the obvious reason to draw there, to take advantage of all the subjects to sketch, so Jack couldn't have blamed her in fairness. But he skulks around behind the back of her table enough times, anyway, to see that her artwork is abstract. So then he's relieved, and just a bit guilty at feeling that now he's the one who's overstepped.

Cute Blond Boy is more of a problem. He could almost just be another of the phone-players-with, except that more often than not he's sitting at the coffee shop's long wooden bar, and chatting in between customers with whoever's working behind the counter that day. Jack couldn't figure out what he talks about over the general level of ambient noise, even if he were eavesdropping, which he'd never do. Sometimes Cute Blond Boy even sits at same table as the girl who does the paintings, and Jack doesn't know if they know each other from anywhere besides this coffee shop. Which is to say: Jack doesn't know whether to hope or to fear that any day now Cute Blond Boy will sit his cute ass down next to him, and just start talking as if they're friends.

_X_ 

It's in the middle of October when the trees are putting on Samwell red and the first round of midterms is busy kicking just about everyone's ass that Jack arrives at Annie's and orders his customary large light roast coffee 'and a slice of today's special pie' before he notices that Cute Blond Boy is manning the register.

"That'll be $8.31," Eric says. His name is Eric, his nametag says.

"So you work here now?" Jack says, brilliantly. Eric keeps holding out his hand, which - right. Credit card. Jack can't believe he forgot something so basic.

Eric takes it with a lift of his perfectly groomed eyebrows. "I've been working here for years," he says. "Usually I'm in the back. I'm just filling in for my friend Dex today, 'cause he says that his project won't compile - don't even ask me what that means, I don't know - but he's usually here on Wednesdays. And, hold on a sec, can you sign this."

Jack does so without comment.

"So, you like pie?" Eric maneuvers a slice out of the pan and slides onto a clean white plate, all the while keeping the layers of apple stacked neatly on top of each other.

"Yes," Jack says. "Well, not always. But the pie here, it's just, so good. Like." He leans over the counter in his enthusiasm, its edge biting into the pudge of his stomach. "If you could propose to a baked good, I'd be getting down on one knee right now."

"Oh, my goodness," Eric says, fanning his face with his hand theatrically. Jack's made him blush. "Wow. Really?"

"Not literally," Jack says. He shrugs, awkwardly. Eric can't see it, anyway, his back is turned now as he's getting Jack's coffee. "But, yeah, they really are that good."

"I don't even know what to say to that." Eric puts Jack's plate and his mug down together on the counter; his hands are steady, not affected at all. But the smile on his face looks… shy? It's not a look Jack's seen on him before - not that he's been secretly watching Eric eat lunch for the last few weeks or anything. "But thanks."

"Er, yeah," Jack says. "I mean. It's just a job anyway, right?"

"Just a job!?" Eric glares. "No more pie for you, mister. My pies are my flesh and blood, my beloved children, the lights of my life - "

"Your pies?" Jack interrupts the tumbling avalanche of words. "I thought… they were, um, 'Annie's' pies."

"Yes, my pies," Eric says. He puffs himself up with indignation like a peacock. "I told you, I work in the back. I make 'em. I make all the pastries, actually, but the pies are my own recipes."

"Oh," Jack says. "That's cool." He blinks. Cute Blond Boy is also an amazing pie-baker. "Um. That's really cool. Could you tell me about it?"

"Of course," Eric says, and now he's leaning over the counter. "Just try and get me to stop once I've started. Gosh. But, wait, a customer," he continues, stepping back from the counter and straightening up. Jack's pleased that he's not a customer, apparently. "Just a minute," Eric says, as Jack takes his food and shifts it over to the side of the counter to make space for the girl who steps up in front of the register.

"Yeah. I should get some work done, too," Jack says, to Eric, who's not listening any more. Now, where did the sugar go? He should know, since he's been coming here for weeks now. And he shouldn't have introduced himself by saying he loves pie, either. Now Eric probably thinks he's fat because he likes eating too much; he was hockey's new hope as a kid, just as fat, there's no way Eric knows that.

Not that he should care what Eric thinks, anyway.

"Ask me anytime, okay?" Eric says. "Another day, when I'm not on shift."

"Sure," Jack says. He's fumbling with the milk thermos: it doesn't want to open today, either.

To his right, he hears Eric say, "Sorry about that, honey. Now. How can I help you?" Of course Eric would be that guy who calls everyone honey; it doesn't mean anything, one way or the other.

And Jack won't get to talk to him again. He wants to, of course he does. But he knows himself, and he knows that it's just not going to happen.

_X_ 

What happens instead is that when he walks into Annie's the next day, planning to sit by himself, like usual, Eric waves at him with a smile. Jack can take that much of a hint. He returns the greeting, and after he's bought his coffee and a splice of today's special pie - it's apple nut brittle, which sounds promising, from the guy behind the counter with the intriguing cloud and small puff-cloud of hair, name of Derek, he goes to sit down at the table that Eric's already sitting at.

"Hi, Eric," he says. He occupies himself in settling his food on the table, and the bag with his papers in it under his feet, which is all he can think of to do.

"Hi," Eric says, with a smile. "Call me Bitty. All my friends do. And you're - ?"

"Oh," Jack says. He'd felt like they knew each other, after yesterday; he'd forgotten that he hadn't even told Eric - Bitty - his name. "I'm Jack." His instinct is to follow every introduction with a handshake, but Bitty's hands stay comfortably wrapped around his coffee cup, and so Jack shoves his back into his pockets instead.

"Jack," Bitty nods. "Hi, again."

"So…" Jack casts around, tries to remember why he'd thought that he could do this, yesterday. "You make pies?"

"Pies, pastries, sometimes bread. Or quick breads - it all depends. But the pies are my recipes, not Annies', so that's why they're my favorites."

Jack digs into his pie then, the shiny nut-studded surface crackling under the pressure of the fork's tines. He gets some of it onto the fork along with apples and a layer of crust. "By the way, this is delicious," he says, a bit of intensely appreciative chewing later. It's crunchy and chewy and sweet and even a little bit savory, too. "This is - " a pause to chew some more. "So much better than delicious. But I don't know what word means that."

"Flattery gets you nowhere," Bitty says, but he's blushing.

It makes Jack desperate, and dumb. "So, how did you start doing this?"

"Well, what happened is this. I started working here my sophomore year of college. I had a scholarship, freshman year, but I lost it, and so I needed to make money for books and stuff somehow. And at holiday time I brought in cookies to share with my co-workers, because that's just something I, alright? But Annie, she was so impressed with these simple little sugar cookies that she insisted that I switch to working in the back, making the baked goods. Well! You should know that it doesn't take insisting to get me to bake things! I love baking, and I was so excited to have a job doing it... but I still had to finish school, which was more of a struggle. And by the time I figured out that I wanted to do this, but in my own way, well, it turns out that having a degree in American Studies, even one with a concentration in Food Culture, doesn't help for having a bakery."

Jack scrapes the tines of his fork through the syrup that's slowly spreading across his plate. "I know what you mean," he says.

"You do?" Bitty puts down his sandwich, and pushes the plate far enough away that he can rest his hands flat on the table. "People always tell me that having a degree is better than having none, but sometimes I wonder if culinary school would've been a better choice."

"Ha, yeah. Maybe." Jack chews on his inner lip. "I teach history, and I enjoy it," the stresses of how and whether he can find a way to advance in the field aside, "but I spent, uh… many years. Training to be something completely different, and it is frustrating, to feel like all those years of work and getting better weren't good for anything in the end."

Bitty nods. "I wouldn't say not good for anything, because my friends from college are still with me, but… I get what you're saying, too. Definitely."

Jack eats a couple more bites of his pie before he continues, "It's challenging to switch tracks, I'm not saying it's not. But it's doable, and - " he gestures at what's left of his pie with his fork, though honestly he'd believe in Bitty even without its evidence " - I'm sure you can do it."

Bitty eats a little bit more of his sandwich, too, looking thoughtful. "I hope so," he says. "I think it just feels so difficult, because… I don't even know what I don't know. My normal M.O. is to bake people pie, but - how do you get your own bakery? And do I even want to start my own as an owner, like Annie did with this place, or is there, like, a job I can get? Because I don't think I need all that financial stress, if I could run the bakery of a place that someone else owned, but the way I bake is too Southern and nowhere near French enough to be a proper pastry chef, so..." Bitty trails off, and shoves the last remaining bit of his sandwich into his mouth with both hands.

Jack clamps down, hard, on this unhelpful and probably unwanted urge to volunteer - my parents are rich. I bet I could find enough money for whatever you need. Instead he says, "I don't know about any of this. But I wish I could help."

Bitty wipes the crumbs from his face. "You are helping. It's so nice just to talk about this. And to someone who understands how I feel! Saying don't get discouraged is all well and good, but sometimes I do get discouraged, you know?"

Jack leans forward. "I do know." And he manages, barely, to keep the coffee cup his arm had knocked into from falling over. "I feel like nothing I do is ever good enough."

"Exactly! I try and try - "

"And apply to every open position I find, but what do I do when they tell me, sorry, you're a very strong candidate, but you're just not a good fit for us."

"Ugh," Bitty says, "that's the worst. And I could say, well, at least you have positions to apply to, but, I don't know. Is that really better? I feel like I'd find it equally frustrating, just differently."

"It's hard to compare," Jack agrees. "And the thing is that I've always tried to be better, at everything I do. So there's nothing more frustrating than when I can't, and - " Jack suddenly remembers something. "What time is it, again?"

Bitty's phone responds before Jack's even succeeded in finding his own. "Five to four."

Jack swears in his head, uncreatively. "How did that happen." He's packing the papers that he hasn't looked at even once this afternoon, back into his bag quickly as he says, "I need to go now, the staff meeting's at four, but we'll talk later, right," and he's gone before Bitty has a chance to answer.

_X_ 

Jack's barely found himself a table at Annie's the next day when Bitty bounces over from the direction of the bar and plops down in the seat opposite.

"Jack! What are you doing here?" His coffee sloshes dangerously, cup too full to withstand the force of his enthusiasm.

"Work," Jack says. "Obviously."

"So? What kind of work do you do?"

Jack sighs. "You don't want to know. It's not interesting to people outside the field." Which he's reminded of every time he does answer such a question, and is rewarded for his efforts with glazed-over eyes or people hastily backing away.

"I wouldn't ask if I didn't want to know," Bitty says. "And, besides, now you've got me curious."

"Uh," Jack says. He's had years of practice giving elevator pitches in conference halls; this shouldn't be too hard. "I'm studying the process of negotiation and reconciliation of contradictory identities among American and Canadian soldiers in World War II, specifically in the context of the intensely homosocial environment of a military unit within the ever-present homophobia of midcentury North American culture, how these contexts work together to construct a unique set of expectations for masculinity, and exploring the ways in which homosexual desires and behaviors were understood and expressed by men in these conditions."

Bitty's nodding like a bobblehead. It's too much nodding, probably.

"Is that good?"

"Hm," Bitty says. "Something about World War II and - homosexuality?"

"Basically, yeah." Jack wipes his palms surreptitiously on his knees.

"Interesting," Bitty says. The i's of the word stretch out like taffy. "Do you mind if I ask you why?"

"Well," Jack says, "I've been fascinated by World War II since I was a kid. When I was little I wanted to go and fight in it - ha. I didn't have a real clear idea of how history worked, back then. And then, later, the more I learned about it, the more I learned about why that might not have been the best idea." Jack shrugs. "But I found all the things I was learning so interesting that I kept wanting to find out more and more, so here I am." Jack pauses for breath, and also to eat a bite of the pie that he'd been neglecting shamefully. The meringue on the top of it is pillowy, a shocking contrast to the firmness of the lightly-cooked apple chunks right underneath; and underlying it all, the rich crumbly shortbread crust completes a wide-ranging palette of textures. "And," Jack says, swallowing and taking another bite and doing it all over again, "I'm bi."

"I did wonder, when you said 'homosexual.'" Bitty doesn't have food today, but he sips his coffee slowly, brow furrowed in thought. "It's not that I think there's anything wrong with straight people studying our history, but I'm still not sure how I feel about it."

"Our," Jack says. He thinks that he was supposed to catch that. "Are you bi too, or…?"

Bitty laughs. "I think you're literally the first person who's ever asked me that. No, I'm gay. But I'm sure you're not surprised."

"Not exactly surprised." Jack eats a bit more of his pie. It's so good, he's in a constant state of surprise at just how good it can be. "But I didn't want to assume, either."

"I appreciate the sentiment! I used to wish that people wouldn't… but I don't mind, now. It can be useful, and besides, it's not like I don't want people to know."

Jack nods. "That makes sense, I guess. I've just always hated it when people assume they know things about me, whether they're true or not."

"Speaking of which," Bitty says. "You said that you teach history... is it here? I mean, at Samwell? Are you a professor, or what?"

Jack drinks his coffee, this time. It's lukewarm already: unpleasant, but he swallows it anyway. "Only an adjunct." Then he cuts his remaining pie precisely. "But, technically, yeah."

"That's cool, though," Bitty says. "And what are you working on right now? Specifically?"

"Do you mean, what am I supposed to be working on right now?" Jack asks.

He means it to be teasing, but Bitty seems to take the riposte seriously. "No, that wasn't what I meant," he says. "But if you really should be, then sorry for distracting you. I'll stop now."

"I really should," Jack agrees. There's regret there, but - he'll never make progress if he spend all his dedicated research hours chatting instead, no matter how tempting it is.

"We'll talk more tomorrow?" Bitty asks.

"We will," Jack says, and already, he believes it when he says it. That they will. That it's likely, and not impossible. It's a nice feeling to have.

_X_ 

A few days later, when Jack's relaxing into the rhythm of his and Bitty's conversations - which is irregular, and mostly consists of him listening to Bitty go on and on, which, as he says when Bitty asks him, he does like, very much - Bitty says, "Oh, and you have to meet Lardo."

"Who's Lardo?"

"See the girl painting in the corner behind you?"

Jack twists around in his chair, and he sees - oh. It's the Coffee Shop Artist Girl. He turns back towards Bitty, and nods. It's so strange, though, to think that just over a week ago, she and Bitty were equally strangers to him.

"I've barely talked to her all week," Bitty continues, "Because I've been so busy talking to you. So, come on over, I'll introduce you."

"Now?" Jack asks, but Bitty's already getting up, picking up his coffee and his sandwich, too, which preemptively puts to rest any questions as to whether he might be coming back. Jack frowns, but there's nothing for him to do but follow Bitty to Lardo's table.

"Mind if we sit here?" Bitty asks.

Lardo looks up from the canvas she's painting with an expression of concentration that dissolves instantly into a smile when she registers who's asking. "Bits! Of course. But who's this guy?"

Bitty steps to the side, which isn't necessary. Jack's too tall to be able to hide effectively behind him, anyway. "This is Jack. He teaches history here at Samwell."

"Nice to meet you," Jack says, though he's not sure if it's technically a lie or not. He puts out his hand to shake, anyway.

Lardo's answering grip is firm, but fleeting. As she takes her hand back she looks Jack over quickly, appraisingly, and he wishes he could guess at what she sees. "Cool," she says. "Name's Lardo. Artist."

The table's scattered all over with papers, brushes, tubes of paint, so on, and so forth, but Lardo quickly moves them into piles so that Jack and Bitty can set their food down.

"Are you a professional artist?" Jack asks, sliding into the seat just vacated by a bulky bag of mysterious contents that's been relocated to the floor. "Or is it just a hobby?"

"I sell paintings," Lardo says. She's staring, currently, at the swoops and intersecting triangles of red and purple and black on the canvas in front of her, as if they hold the answers to the mysteries of the universe. "Not enough to live on."

"What Lardo means," Bitty says, "is that she is an artist. A real artist. Because art's about whether you love what you do, not about how much money you're paid."

"Thanks, Bits." Lardo's stirring her brush in the water, washing off the purple. The curlicues it makes as it finishes the process of disappearing fascinate Jack.

"And Lardo loves art," Bitty continues, passionately, seeming oblivious to the fact that Jack's making no move to disagree with him.

"The way you love baking pies," Lardo murmurs. The flawless back-and-forth catch of conversational passes makes Jack wonder if this is a defense they've run together before.

"Yeah," Bitty says.

"Are you sure, though?" Jack asks. Lardo lifts her head, and they both stare daggers at him.

"We could still ask you to leave this table." Bitty, apparently, has a way of making the nicest-seeming sentence threatening.

"I mean," Jack stumbles, hastening to clarify. "Not about being a real artist. But about loving it. How do you know? How are you sure?" The daggers disappear - thank goodness - only to be replaced by matching looks of disbelief.

"You just do," Lardo says. And that argument done, she selects a hair-thin brush and loads it up with blue paint, ready to illustrate her words with action. Or pictures, for all Jack knows.

"I don't think either of us could stop if we tried to," Bitty says. He looks significantly at the piece of pie that, come to think of it, Jack can't believe he's left untouched for so long in front of him. He takes a bite. It's pecan today, with a hint of some spice that makes the flavor of the nuts pop like Jack's never tasted. It's so good he actually has to bite back on a moan.

When it comes to what Bitty said, though. "Huh." Jack's not sure what to make of it. "What would you do, though, if you didn't have anything like that?"

Lardo and Bitty look at each other. "Something easier," they answer in unison.

"Or at least something that pays better," Bitty continues as Lardo carries on with her work. "You teach at a university. I bet you get a salary, and benefits."

"Ha. You'd think," Jack says. "My parents still have to help me out. And... I try? But they gave me three intro courses this year, and ninety percent of my lectures are composed of freshmen who don't seem to want to learn anything. It's a good feeling, though, when I do get someone interested in the material."

"I tutor for so many things," Lardo says. Her paintbrush continues on its movements, not missing a beat. My parents keep offering to support me so I can make art full time. But - I don't wanna."

When Bitty speaks up, his voice is bitter in exactly the way his pie isn't, and Jack realizes that he hasn't said anything for more than a minute. "My parents say they don't understand why I'm still working the same job I had while they were paying for my college degree. As if I didn't want something better!"

"That's rough," Jack says. "I feel incredibly lucky that my parents have been so supportive. Even when I realized midway through one career path that I wanted to change course, they never pressured me one way or the other."

"That's nice," Bitty says, though his smile seems brittle around the edges, like the pie's dark chocolate-drizzled crust. "But - excuse me. What exactly do you mean by 'change course'?"

"I'd rather not talk about it." If that's possible.

"Oh," Bitty says. "Of course. Sorry." He darts a look sideways to Lardo, as if for help, but she's studying her canvas, tongue sticking out the side of her mouth. As Jack watches Bitty watch her, she narrows her eyes at it suspiciously and tries another swipe of color. "So…" Bitty says. "Did you catch the Pats game the other night?"

Jack makes a face. "I don't follow football."

"And Bitty doesn't root for the Patriots." Lardo's eyes don't leave the blue and purple paint that she's now mixing with a small, blunt knife.

"Well," Bitty says. "I'm not gonna try to start a conversation about the Falcons in Boston."

"It'd be like asking about the Habs down here," Jack agrees. Bitty looks at him curiously, then, but thankfully doesn't follow up the look with any questions.

_X_ 

At the end of October, Jack walks into Annie's and headfirst into a swag of brilliant green tinsel. He looks around and sees more tinsel swinging in uneven loops from one side of the ceiling to the other and back, giant fuzzy glittering purple spiders climbing up the wall and over the bakery case, and behind him, in the window, a pair of clockwork man-like contraptions with pumpkins for heads.

"Wow," he says, sinking down automatically into his now-usual seat next to Bitty and Lardo.

"I know, right?" Bitty says. "'swawesome decorations."

"I'm so impressed," Jack agrees. He steals a bite of pie from the plate that's sitting unguarded in front of Bitty.

"I think they're okay," Lardo puts in, and Jack almost chokes on his pie. It would be a real pity if he had, a desecration of the pumpkin pie that has an almost cream-like texture and a more mellow flavor than he's used to.

"You don't like them?" he asks, when he recovers.

"She made them for us," Bitty explains. "Annie wanted a change of scenery. And I, for one, am very thankful, no matter how creepy they are," and now Jack can make sense of the smirk that's been lurking at the edge of Lardo's expression. She gives up on suppressing it, then, and she and Bitty bump fists.

"Ah. Okay."

"So," Bitty says. "Do either of you two have plans for Halloween?"

"As if," Lardo says. "My costume is 'swawesome, but I don't know any place worthy of it."

"I was thinking of staying home to give out candy," Jack says. "But my apartment building's mostly grad students. I don't think there'll be many kids."

"What are you, ninety?" Lardo asks. "Give up on the kids, anyway."

But - "That's perfect," Bitty says, leaning forward with the telltale gleam of enthusiasm bright in his eye. "Not your lack of plans, no offense, guys. But because y'all are definitely both coming to my friend Adam's Halloween party."

"I'm in," Lardo says.

"And especially you, Jack. I know you'd probably be working like always, but that's exactly why I think you need to try just loosening up for once. A party would do you good."

"Okay," Jack says. He can't think of a reason, at that moment, to refuse.

_X_ 

Only later do several problems with this plan occur to him:

First, he doesn't have an appropriate costume. Last time he dressed as Leo Major, no one even recognized the name after he told them who he was supposed to be. He needs something better, but he doesn't know what.

Second… it's a college party. There will be drinks. He's been avoiding parties for the last decade or so of his life, and he's not sure what temporary loss of grip on reality made him think he should go to this one.

(Oh, yes, he is.)

Which brings him to the third and last problem. Which isn't one, actually. Since Bitty didn't intend this to be a date, which he didn't, that's obvious from the way that he invited Jack and Lardo together and equally. It's not a date, it's nothing like one, so that's a problem avoided, there, because Jack's even worse at dating than he is at parties. And he wouldn't want to be on a date with Bitty even if he could.

Chapter Text

Jack rings the doorbell to Bitty's friend's apartment, feeling foolish. He's wearing jeans and a t-shirt with matching cat ears. The tail the costume came with is hanging off-center from a belt loop on his back; the paint that marks nose and whiskers on his face still feels greasy, but if he scrubbed it off, Jack suspects, he'd look even more ridiculous, half in costume and half out of it.

He wipes his palms on his jeans. He thinks that maybe he should've worn a different costume. But he couldn't imagine himself, when he was standing in the Halloween aisle of the drugstore, as a storybook hero, whether prince or pirate - never mind the questionable nature of the notions of heroism involved in either of those narratives. And he didn't want to imagine himself, though he could, as one of the undead Halloween horde, ghost or zombie or vampire. A cat might be a boring choice but it's still an acceptable Halloween costume.

A girl finally opens the door. He doesn't have to or can't run away. Her dress is both shinier and more revealing than anything Jack could imagine wearing, but he follows her in without a word, and then she's gone. He never even gathered the wits to say "Hello."

This party looks just like every other party he's ever been to, back in the Q. More people are in costumes: big cardboard boxes, onesies with animal heads, more than a few guys in ill-fitting girls' clothes that they clearly didn't even try to make look good. Even tonight, though, most people are dressed more or less like normal, tight jeans and shirts and short dresses, just decorated for the occasion with little horns or a halo or bunny ears.

It's a crowd of people, that's the thing that overwhelms him. He doesn't mind the stained green couch that he sees from the corner of his eye that looks like it was rescued from one of the more permissive sets of billet parents' basements. It's just that it's impossible to see who's present, or who's talking to whom, and more impossible yet to hear from any distance what anyone might be saying. And there's a beer can or two or a red plastic cup full of alcohol, Jack sees, in just about everyone's hand. That's the worst thing.

It's not true - not, technically, strictly, true - that he doesn't know what to do at a party. He did know, once upon a time. He'd thought, he'd believed that he'd figured it out, that pills and alcohol were tools he could use to craft a solution…

Jack feels as if from a great distance his breath speeding up. Like he's running from something, like he's racing to escape the situation, though he's standing still, barely shaking, and also, he can't run. There's nowhere to run to, nowhere to get away…

That's the panic talking, he tells himself. Stop.

Think. That's what his therapist told him. You can leave if you want. When you feel like you can't leave a situation, that's your brain lying to you. It's your life, you're in control of it.

And you don't have to leave right then. You can stop and think. What, exactly, are you afraid of?

What is he afraid of? Not rejection, not ridicule. He doesn't care that much about those things, even if they were likely to happen here, which they're not. It's mostly not knowing what to do.

Okay, so he'll make a plan.

First, he'll find Lardo or Bitty. He can talk to them: he knows that he can, and he knows that they're here, because Bitty invited both him and Lardo. So. That's a battle plan. Great. Time to put it into action.

 

"Jack!" Bitty crashes into him with no warning in something in between a hug and a full body slam. He's flushed, and probably more than a little drunk. Jack's reluctant to let go of him again.

"Knew you'd make it, bro," Lardo says. She appears out of the crowd, right behind Bitty. "This guy kept saying you'd punk out on us, but I had faith."

"Thanks," Jack says. "Bitty! What are you wearing?" He can see, of course, that Bitty's wearing a black leotard. It's glittery, with one long sleeve, and Bitty's taller than usual because he's in feels, but since what Jack really wants to ask him is 'why' and even more importantly 'how did you get the nerve,' it takes him a second to realize that he should've asked 'who are you' instead.

"You don't recognize this outfit?" Bitty says. "I'm offended on behalf of all of America and Canada for your cultural ignorance."

"It's the Single Ladies video," Lardo explains, sotto voce.

"And you single-handedly put back the relationship between our countries by, like, twenty years."

"To… nineteen ninety-eight?" Jack asks. "What happened then?"

"He's Beyonce, and you'd better know who that is."

"No, I'm not Bey." Bitty turns to Lardo, apparently having given up on Jack for the time being. "I wouldn't do that. And, besides," he flashes his hand in front of his face, turning it quickly from palm to back to palm. "See? No glove? I'm just one of her backup dancers. And, hey, Jack, how about Lardo's costume?"

"I did work all night on it."

Jack looks. She's a steampunk robo-cat: metal crankshafts appear to articulate her feline limbs, and gears fill out the interstices. It's amazing, objectively, even if he's more interested in the velvet arches that frame the tops of Bitty's thighs.

"It's amazing," he says. "Kinda makes me wish I hadn't been a black cat, though."

He'd been shooting for a joking tone, but evidently he doesn't quite make it, because Lardo says, sympathetically, "Nah, you're cool, bro. We're costume twins."

"Triplets!" Bitty says. "Cause, I'm wearing a black cat… suit, right?"

"Ha," Jack says.

Lardo holds up a fist for Bitty to bump, approvingly, and then, before they can drop them, Jack holds up his fist and bumps both of theirs too.

"Anyways, good to see you guys, but I've gotta bounce. Later, Jack-o-Lantern, Bitsyonce," Lardo says, and she disappears with a nod.

"You can have some mercy this time," Bitty calls after her.

"What?" Jack asks.

Bitty shrugs. "Lardo is unbelievably, out of this world good at party games. Beer pong, pool, cornhole, you name it. It's like alcohol makes her coordination better instead of worse. So," Bitty's attention snaps back to Jack, back from where it'd been wandering out into the center of the room. "Where are you going?"

"Well," Jack hedges. "I had been hoping that I could stay right here."

Bitty laughs. "Nice. Charming." Jack doesn't laugh in the pause Bitty leaves. "But, seriously. Isn't talking to people the whole point of a party? I know it can be scary, none of us start out confident, but you just have to fake it until you make it."

Bitty doesn't seem to be faking anything, Jack thinks. But maybe he's just better at it.

"I'm not afraid," Jack syas, regardless of the fact that he might sound like he protests too much. "I just don't know how to fake it. What do I say? Who do I talk to?"

"Well, you talk to me all the time."

"… Well," Jack says. "Mostly, you talk to me."

Bitty scrunches up his forehead, confused, considering. "Was that a joke?"

"Maybe," Jack says.

"Then you, my friend, are golden." Bitty puts his hand on Jack's shoulder, which is a shot of not-caring that's better than any drink. "As for who to talk to," Bitty continues, "Do you see that tall guy in glasses over there?" Jack follows Bitty's pointing finger. The indicated guy in the plastic laurel-leaf crown is about the only face that he can see, over the sea of bobbing heads that fills the room. "That's my friend Holster. He's one of the hosts, he and Ransom - I'm not sure where he is. And he's super easy to talk to, I promise." Jack's doubt must be showing, because Bitty presses on," C'mon, I introduced you to Lardo. Have I steered you wrong yet?"

"No," Jack agrees, still doubtfully. Bitty's hand is back on his shoulder again, and this time it's pushing him to go away, so - Jack squares both of his shoulders. He knows he does have a choice about this, but he doesn't want to disappoint Bitty. "I'm going in." Which doesn't make sense, probably, which must be why he hears Bitty laugh behind him. Except for how it totally does. Jack weaves and genty pushes his way through the room like it's a minefield, like his fellow partygoers are the mines and it's his job to establish a beachhead. He doesn't think about where he's going because he doesn't know what he's going to do when he gets there.

 

Only this is a shitty college party in a shitty just-off-campus apartment, which means that far too quickly Jack's crossed the room, and has reached what's supposed to be his destination. Bitty's friend Holster leans casually against the wall, red solo cup in hand, dressed in - apparently, only - a sheet draped in a highly inaccurate and suggestive attempt at imitating a toga.

Next to him is a Leafs poster, for which Jack is briefly wildly and inappropriately grateful. Hockey is still one of the two or three things that he does know how to talk about.

"Are you a Leafs fan?" Jack asks.

"Nope," Holster says, coming alive with a start. "This is my best friend's poster. The Sabres one down there - " he indicates it with a nod - "is mine."

"Oh. Okay. I was going to say, sorry about your team."

"Ransom!" Holster yells. "Get over here! Someone's shit talking your team!"

A tall dark-skinned guy appears from down the hallway that Jack and Holster had been talking near. "Great," he says, "I love shit talking my team."

"I didn't mean it like that," Jack protests. "They're not that bad right now. They've been doing better. They got into playoffs the last what, two, three years in a row?"

"Three," Ransom says. "Yeah, okay. But their defense still sucks."

"Seriously," Holster says. "So much."

"They've got a few good goal-scorers," Jack argues.

"Sure," Ransom agrees. "But when the puck's on their ice, they're like a sieve."

"Fucking useless," Holster agrees, and the two of them share a low high-five.

"Well," Jack says. "I don't see either of you out there. It's easy to criticize when you know you won't have to try to do any better."

"And that's why I didn't try to endter the Draft after Juniors," Holster says, meeting Jack stare for stare.

"My family never would've let me skip college," Ransom says. He slings an arm around Holster's shoulders, and pulls him closer. "But the two of us were the top D-pairing at our college for three years running."

"And we're still not NHL caliber," Holster continues. "And we know that. So, yeah, I do think it's fair for us to criticize the people who are up there. That's part of what they signed up for."

Jack takes several deep breaths in succession. This conversation isn't about him, his therapist would say. And when he doesn't want to say any of the things that come to his mind, remember that saying nothing is, in fact, a legitimate option. It's not necessarily a failure. And he doesn't have to stick around if he really doesn't want.

Ransom and Holster both drink from their cups. Jack wishes his hands weren't empty.

"So," Holster says. "How did you hear about this fine party?"

"Bitty." Who's right now, Jack sees, staring intently up and laughing at some random dude, the long lines of his legs and neck all leaning in like a plant to sunshine. The other guy looks like Jack used to look. More muscle, less obvious fat.

"You having a good time?" Ransom laughs, maybe at Jack's staring, and Jack makes himself stop.

"You, definitely," Jack says, though he'd bet it's obvious that he's not. "It's a nice party."

"Bud," Holster says. "You are holding neither a drink or a girl on your arm."

"Now a guy," Ransom says. "Bitty always reminds us about that, remember."

"Nor anyone of any gender," Holster continues. "So I would say that means you're clearly not having enough fun."

"So, bro," Ransom says. "Lay it on us. What do you like?"

"Cuz between the two of us, we know something about everyone here tonight. Help us out with this, and we'll help you."

"I…" Jack says, and there he gets stuck, brain stalling out, wheels spinning in place. A foot to his left there's a picture of a dog drinking coffee taped up on the wall. It's surrounded by flames, but the thought bubble says "this is fine." Jack feels sympathy with that dog.

"C'mon," Holster says, "don't be shy," like he's doing it on purpose.

"If you want something else," Ransom says, though his sky-high eyebrows show he clearly can't imagine why that would be the case, people are doing something creative with all the liquor in the kitchen, and some tiny Asian chick's dominating the beer pong championship down the hall." Ransom hooks a thumb over his shoulder in the direction from which he'd come, and Jack, much to his surprise, considers it. Beer pong does involve beer, but… he wouldn't be drinking it to get drunk. And he'd be limited by the game. And it's not like he's never had a beer or two in the decade or so since he used to go to parties like this all the time.

"Thanks," he says, plotting out his escape route, when he's arrested by a hand on his arm.

 

"Jack!" Bitty says. Jack just about faints from relief at seeing him there. "How are ya doing?"

"Good," Jack says. He can't help making the face that means 'two huge D-men are bearing down on me and I can keep going for a few more seconds but get open for me please by then.'

"But can I steal you?" Bitty asks.

"Yes," Jack says, emphatically. He looks to Holster and Ransom to check with them - it's good manners, or something - but they shrug and nod like they couldn't care less.

"So, come on," Bitty says. He grabs Jack by the hand, which surely can't be the first time? But Jack thinks that it is. He wishes his palms weren't sweaty right now. Meanwhile, Bitty's saying, "This idiot, I forget his name, Chad something-or-other, was insulting my pies, and I need you to back me up. It's ridiculous, really, because he says he doesn't even bake, but he also said that anyone could bake if they wanted to, and so he's qualified to judge me without even a taste? I don't think so. So then of course I said I had a huge fan of the pies here with me tonight, and if he'd just wait for me to get back…." Bitty stops so abruptly that Jack bumps into him.

"Sorry," Jack mumbles, reflexively.

"I guess he didn't wait," Bitty says, looking around the room. "No, I'm sorry. It looks like I interrupted you for nothing, after all."

"It's alright," Jack says. "I bet this guy left just now so he wouldn't have to admit he was wrong."

"Or he didn't wanna go two-on-one," Bitty says. "Which means, I gotta say, if you're not gonna back it up, don't start shit. So! How'd you like Ransom and Holster?"

"Fine?"

"So does that mean you're ready for more introductions?" Bitty's not looking at Jack anymore; he's already scanning the room.

"Please, don't," Jack says. "Make me go back out there."

"Make you?" Bitty looks startled. "I'd never - I wasn't trying! To?"

"Sure," Jack says. He's shifting from one foot to the other and he wonders if his cat tail fell off. He's all too aware of the ears sitting askew in his hair, and he can't even talk to Bitty, not in a foolproof way, cause he is such a fool, not without messing up. Maybe he really shouldn't have come.

"So," Bitty says. He shuffles closer, so Jack will be able to hear him over the noise. "Did I ever tell you about my first college party?"

"No," Jack says. It'd be the only answer even if Bitty had told him a million times.

"Well," Bitty says. "I was a freshman. Of course, since it was the first one." He takes a drink from the plastic cup Jack hadn't noticed he'd been holding all this time. "Ransom and Holster were there, too, okay. And we were all on the hockey team at the time." Bitty waves a hand up and down his body, illustratively, and Jack, who hadn't been thinking about his costume for quite some time, watches it maybe a little too closely. "Surprising, right? But I was a good player. Well - anyway - the point is, yeah. I got the first point in the first game of the season, so my teammates said I had to do a kegstand. Now, at the time, I was inexperienced in the ways of alcohol." Whereas currently Bitty's getting ever drunker, and leaning ever closer to Jack, like a geological time-lapse film of the Tower of Pisa. "And I was literally shaking in my shorts. They were little cute red ones, and I didn't fill 'em out too well, yet, then, so I put my hands under my knees, while I was wainting, and I could feel it in my legs. I was literally shaking."

"What happened then?" Jack asks. He's into the image Bitty's painting, honestly.

"Well, the kegstand was fine. Or did you mean the party? Cause - whoa. That was the first time I ever hooked up with a guy, that night, and let me tell you - "

"Yes?" Jack says.

"Athletic boys - " Bitty says -

 

And then there's a loud crashing sound from somewhere outside the apartment. Suddenly they're blanketed in darkness. Jack can't see anything - not his own hands, not the walls, not Bitty's face. He wonders if he'll panic, again. But he doesn't seem to be.

"What the fuck," Bitty says. Jack's pretty sure that hadn't been what he'd been going to say next.

"I think the power just went out."

"Yes, thank you. I noticed. Captain Obvious."

Jack winces, but it's true. "So… should we evacuate, do you think?"

"Why?" Bitty asks.

"Well - if there's no power. There's no light, there's not going to be heat…"

"My phone still works," Bitty says. A second later Jack sees again a heavily shadowed image of Bitty's face, lit by the glow of the phone he's holding in his hands. He notices, then, the various fuzzy patches of light scattered around the room, a couple more of which appear and one of which disappears while he watches. Other people are doing the same thing, of course.

Jack spends a few seconds creepily staring at Bitty's face before eventually saying, "Well. That's good, then." The light from Bitty's phone goes back out. And the amorphous roar of discussion that Jack had been hearing in the background of his brain the whole time was, he also noticed, giving way to an escalating sound of yelling from the direction of the kitchen. "Do you think maybe we should go and see what's going on? With all the noise?"

"That sounds like a good idea," Bitty says. "Probably."

When they make their way into the kitchen, which is surprisingly easy given the lack of light and the aimless milling of the people in the room even when the light was on, Jack sees, by the lights of many phones, a whole bunch of liquor bottles set out on the table. The sound that he'd heard from the other room resolves itself into comprehensible words - or, comprehensible, at least, for a relative sense of the word.

"Alcohol burns great," they hear Ransom saying. "Do you know what's the most important part of every kids' chemistry kit? It's an alcohol lamp."

"So should we pour a little bit of vodka into each of these empty beer bottles?" Holster's already lining them up on the edge of the table.

"I'll look for something to make wicks with," volunteers a gangly ginger boy with ears that stick out to the sides.

"This sounds like such a bad idea," Jack murmurs to Bitty.

"Or you could not," says another guy - who Jack thinks might be Derek from Annie's - facing off from a distance of two inches or so against the previous guy who'd spoken. "Hey, C, other C. Back me up here."

"Says you," Bitty replies to Jack. "I think it's exciting."

"I don't know what to say," a new voice says, and - Jack's pretty sure, this time, that he recognizes Chris Chow. Is everyone Jack's met at Samwell here tonight? "I think you both make good points."

"He literally didn't make a point," the ginger guy grouses.

A tall girl with stringy brown hair who's holding Chris's hand speaks over him. "I think it's just a waste of good booze," she says, and that seems to be the signal for the rest of the people in the room to chime in on one side or the other, or both or none, until the air's full of noise and disagreement and Jack can't make out what any individual person is saying again. He can't stand it, or any chance of the crazily dangerous scheme proposed winning, either, and he shoulders his way past a couple people to make it to where the original speakers were.

"CAN WE NOT START A FIRE," he says, in the most loudly projecting of the voices he'd once developed for talking over people during a hockey game, and everyone in the room shushes, and as far as he can see, turns to look at him. "Sorry for yelling. But, guys, a blackout is an emergency. And the number one thing that makes them more dangerous is the fires that start when things fall, and short out, and so on. We don't need to add to that." The confidence in Jack's voice recedes as he talks, and the general murmur starts back up again.

Then there's a brief commotion at the entrance to the room, and Lardo appears, at the head of a small group of girls, all carrying glow sticks. "Is someone talking about setting a fire in here?" she says.

"We weren't gonna set the room on fire," Holster objects.

"Yeah. Of course not. Just some bottles," Ransom agrees, and they high-five, again. A beer bottle that had been sitting on the very corner of the table between them is knocked to the ground, and shatters.

A girl in a fox onesie who'd been holding onto Lardo's arm lets go of it and steps up, waving a bunch of glowsticks energetically over her head, semaphore fashion. She proclaims, loudly, "LISTEN. NO ONE SET ANY FIRES. DID YOU SEE THE BEER BOTTLE THAT YOU JUST KNOCKED OVER? WHAT DO YOU THINK WOULD HAVE HAPPENED IF IT WERE BURNING?"

"Who is that girl?" Ransom whispers to Holster. "i'm sure I'd remember if I'd met her before."

"I don't know either," Holster says. "But I've gotta admit that she's right. And she has an impressively carrying voice, too. I bet you she'd make an amazing Elphaba."

"So, my bro, best friend of mine," Ransom says to Holster. "What shall we do? How can we rescue the free-falling reputation of our latest party from fizzling back to epic?"

"That is the question," Holster muses, stroking his chin in a display of thought. "This is almost a unique opportunity. There's got to be some way to take advantage of it."

"Maybe," Jack says, talking over them, "we should go outside and see if anyone else has started a fire." Because this apartment probably doesn't contain all the idiots in the building, he thinks but doesn't say.

"Should we all go?" someone asks from the crowd. Chris. He's raising his hand, even.

"There's no need to," Bitty says. He steps out from the crowd to stand at Jack's elbow, once again. He's lit by the light of several other phones, and he doesn't even seem to have his out. "We all have phones. I'll just call Ransom or Holster if we see anything out there that you guys should know about."

"You're coming with me?" Jack says. He's surprised but pleased.

"Well, of course. I don't want you to get lost without me." Jack could protest, but the Bitty's smile takes the incipient sting out of his words - and it makes him feel warm, too. So he just smiles back.

"So," Ransom's saying behind them. "If we'd known we were throwing a party in the dark, we would've got glow paint, of course."

"Can we play it like Seven Minutes of Heaven?" Holster wonders aloud. "Like, we're all locked somewhere in the dark, it's like a huge closet. Except we don't want to lock people in, of course."

 

As Jack and Bitty go down the stairs together sounds drift out to them from the building's other apartments. Indistinct loud voices, and music that someone must be running off batteries. There's nothing out of place, nothing alarming. And no one else on the stairs, either. Jack keeps looking back over his shoulder to make sure that Bitty is still following, which he is every time.

And when they've reached the bottom, and crossed the small lobby, past the tile walls and the mailboxes, and opened the door to the outside, Bitty pressing so close behind Jack that Jack could swear that he feels his breath, his warmth, his aura, or something - they're both viciously attacked by the rain. It lashes freezing down out of the sky, as Jack and Bitty let the door swing shut behind them and try in vain to huddle into the shelter of what would be the building's shadow. There's no overhang to protect them: it's a solid block of brick. The rain stings Jack's face and his hands sharply as it's driven against him - against both of them - and he would have tried to plan something to combat it if he hadn't forgotten about it. Forgotten why they had to come out here in the first place.

"My car's not far," Bitty yells, almost in Jack's ear, over the sound of the wind beating the rain against the trees. "Is yours closer?"

Jack shakes his head. Water splatters unpleasantly into his ears, and probably onto Bitty. "I just jogged over."

"Okay, then. Let's run for it," Bitty says, and they do.

 

Even when they're both safely ensconced in the front two seats of Bitty's nondescript and mildly beat-up looking silver sedan, Jack can't seem to stop shivering. He can hear Bitty's teeth chattering, too, from a good three or four feet away. The rain that his clothes had kept at bay at first is soaking through them bit by bit, now, penetrating to and further chilling his skin.

"It's so cold," Bitty says, curled up into a kind of ridiculously appealing egg-looking shape. "So cold, brrr, freezing, so cold."

"I wish I had a cloak," Jack says. "So I could put it around you."

"Or, if I had a jacket, I could give it to you," Bitty says. Even in its absence Jack flushes warm simply from imagining it. "But I don't wanna turn on the heat and fog up the windows when we're supposed to be looking through them. Maybe just for a little bit, though, it wouldn't hurt? What do you think?"

"Sure," Jack says. The engine purrs, the air dries out between them, and they both begin to shiver slightly less.

"So," Jack says, when he's finally closer to 'damp' than 'wet,' and Bitty's just humming tunelessly under his breath. "Can you believe what those guys almost did?" He can't get over it himself. Sure, groups of boys make dumb collective decisions, they're the opposite of risk-avoidant, but - to be that dumb? Maybe, he's forced to admit, if he thinks about it. It's really not a surprise.

"I know," Bitty says. His knees are still drawn up almost to his chin, and his arms are wrapped around his doubled-up bare legs. "It's a good thing you were there to stop them." Bitty's looking up, now, at Jack, the same way he was looking up earlier at the other guy at the party.

Jack couldn't have remembered right then that he didn't stop anybody from anything if you'd paid him a million dollars. Not that he needs a million dollars. "What do you think they're doing in there right now?" he asks. Bitty unfolds in his direction just a little bit more. He puts his legs down from the seat sideways, so that they're right by the gearshift, and leans his chin on the palm of his open hand.

"I have no idea. But I guess we'll see it if there's anything too exciting?"

"And from a safe distance," Jack adds. Bitty makes a horrified squeaking sound. "What? You're the one who said, too exciting!"

"Oh my gosh," Bitty says, but he sounds delighted. "How could you say that."

Jack preens under the words that feel like praise. And then, because he's been starting to suspect it, in the last few minutes, and he'd like to know, he asks, "Are you flirting with me?"

"Why, Mr. Zimmermann!" Bitty says. He leans back in his seat, hand to his heart, while Jack notices absently that he feels almost entirely dry by now, and so Bitty must too. Bitty's making a theatrically shocked expression. Which isn't an answer, either. "How could you say such a thing!" Which, Jack guesses, is probably a 'no.' He thinks.

"Now," Bitty says, "it looks like my friends and their friends haven't managed to blow themselves up yet. Or burn anything down. I'd say we're probably safe, so, how much longer do you think we need to stay out here for?"

"Are you getting bored?" Jack asks. "Because you can go, if you want."

"I'm nowhere near bored," Bitty says. His eyes are as wide and dark as the night sky stretching out around them. Still. Jack's horrible at reading at people. "I was just saying. Don't you want to go back in?"

"Not really," Jack says. His clothes are getting clammy, and his tail's wedged uncomfortably under his ass, and he's wearing cat ears in his hair for no reason at all anymore, but, all in all, he'd rather be here in Bitty's car with Bitty even than back home alone by himself, much less than a loud and unpredictable party full of strangers and drink. "You can tell me more stories right here."

"Are you gonna tell me stories, too?"

"If you want to," Jack promises. He doesn't know what stories to tell, but maybe Bitty will help him with that, too.

"I do," Bitty confirms. His smile is as sweet as his pie. "So, where was I? Let me see," and then Jack misses the start of the story he'd asked for, because a sudden change in the picture out of corner of his eye catches his attention. They'd forgotten to watch the building in all their watching each other, and now a flame has appeared, flickering orange against the dark black night, in one of the upper floor windows.

"Bitty," Jack says, urgently. "Look. There's a fire." He fumbles for his phone in the uncooperative wet denim of his pocket while Bitty wakes up the phone that's already in his hand.

"I'm calling Ransom," Bitty says, scrolling frantically through and stabbing at the screen, "You call 911, okay" - and Bitty holds his phone up to his ear, while Jack dials with fingers that don't feel like his own.

"There's a fire," he says, voice sounding distant and echoey, "at - fuck. Bitty. What's the address?" Bitty gives it to him, quickly, and Jack repeats it just as quickly as he can into the phone, as he sees the doors to the building open up through the rain-spattered windows of Bitty's car and people come spilling out of it. Bitty's saying something into his phone, now, as the operator tells Jack, voice discordantly even and pleasant and mild, that the trucks have already been dispatched to their location. He's not the first person to have reported it, but thank you for calling, and Jack hits the call end button in the middle of a sentence and sinks back, shaking, into his seat in relief.

"Ransom and Holster are staying at my place tonight," Bitty says, and in a little more than a minute they're all packed into Bitty's car, and Bitty's asking Jack for his address to drop him off at. He stares at the rain through the windows, but in the end it's only the fact that Bitty needs to bring Ransom and Holster home with him that stops Jack from inviting Bitty to come up to his place instead. Not for any particular reason, but just because the night doesn't feel like it's quite completely over.

It is, though. Jack opens the door to his apartment alone in another minute, accompanied only by the rain on his clothes and the smell of smoke that he has the feeling will never come off.

Chapter Text

As the calendar marches into November, Jack finishes the first paper he's written at Samwell, and submits it hopefully. The leaves turn from bright red to dull brown, and finish dropping from the trees. And, in mid-November, the pond ices over for the first time.

"I've got to go skating soon," Bitty says. Jack makes an encouraging noise as he shovels another bite of Bitty's latest pumpkin spice pecan pie in his mouth. "There's just something about winter coming that makes me feel like I to. I don't know why - I grew up in Georgia, for goodness' sake!"

"It makes sense to me," Jack says.

Bitty quirks an eyebrow at him. "You know what? You should go skating with me. I'm sorry about the party - "

"It was fine."

"That's nice of you to say, but it was a trainwreck. But, okay. Skating. Do you know how?"

"Yeah," Jack says, "I do." His coffee shakes in his hands, and his saucer wobbles when he puts it down.

"Is something wrong?" Bitty asks.

"Nevermind." Jack's breathing fine, and the graham cracker style crust of the pie is a great thing to focus on.

"You don't have to tell me," Bitty says, "If it's a sore spot, or whatever."

Jack relaxes, one vertebrae at a time. "I know I don't," he says, "But I want to," and he's surprised to find that it's true. "I used to play hockey. I was in the Q - in Major Juniors. If you know what that is."

"Yeah." Bitty nods. "And now you don't play anymore, is that it?" Jack nods. That's not the whole story, of course… but maybe it is the most important part. He's not sure what is important, after all. "I used to figure skate," Bitty continues. "I won a regional championship, twice, back in high school. And then in college I played hockey for a little bit, and that didn't work out quite as well." Bitty laughs, self-deprecating. Jack wishes with all his heart that he could see him play for even a shift. "But sometimes I miss figure skating. You know? It's not what I wanted to do with my life, but there's still nothing else that's quite the same."

"I know," Jack says. "I know exactly what you mean."

"So," Bitty says. "We're going skating this weekend?"

Jack could say no. Maybe he should say no. But unlike that party - which didn't turn out too badly, after all - he really wants to skate with Bitty. Anxiety be damned. "Yes."

 

They meet at the rink, at ten a.m. on Saturday. Jack's not nervous: he's excited, just like he imagines he might've been as a kid if he'd ever been away from the rink for long enough to start missing it. And that's even before he sees Bitty , a bobbing red pompom bright over his blond hair. Afterwards, it's more like the anticipation he thinks he might have felt for a birthday party, if he'd ever liked parties.

Jack rents his skates. He hadn't brought any to Samwell. They lace up efficiently, and push out onto the ice, like gulls launching into flight. It's strange: it's been so long since he's skated, and it's strange that it's been so long.

But he feels weightless, now that he's here. Like the ice is a friend that's welcoming him home.

Bitty speeds by him, intent on the rink's traffic - did Bitty lap him? Jack thinks that he did. He digs his blades in, slow flying, to catch up.

"Having fun?" Bitty asks, when he does.

"You have no idea." But with the way Bitty's grinning back at him, Jack wonders if he might, a little bit, after all.

"I always forget how much I love this," Bitty says. They're looping around the rink lazily. "Every time I come back to it, it's a surprise. I feel like, why did I ever stop?"

"Why did you?"

"It's a long story."

"We have time," Jack says. There's nothing stretching out in front of him this afternoon except the ice and Bitty.

"And it's not that interesting," Bitty continues. "Terror, mostly." He puts on a burst of speed, then, to pull away from Jack, but Jack waits it out and catches up with him, in steady long strides.

"If you ever want to talk about it," he says. "I know about terror."

Bitty hums, noncommittally. "Do you think there's enough space here to make a jump?" Jack has no idea how he's supposed to know, but Bitty doesn't wait for an answer, regardless. He puts on another brused of speed - starts to turn - and then - he's up in the air, spinning, like a music-box ballerina, suspended for a handful of perfect moments, and then he's landing, gracefully skating away again, out of it and Jack's catching up to him.

"That was beautiful." Jack's breath is still caught somewhere up in midair.

"Shucks, that was nothing. If we had more space, and if I were in practice, then I could really show you some moves."

"You did," Jack insists. "I wish I could do something like that."

Bitty bites his lip. "There's nowhere near enough space here for me to teach you jumps or spins. But - would you like to try pair skating?"

"Sure." Jack lets Bitty take his hands, one after the other, and pull him around into a slow circle.

They circle around the ice like a gyroscope, circles within circles. Bitty shows Jack how to open up the circle into a V-shape and close it up again. His teaching style is all praise, no criticism, which may not be warranted by Jack's performance. But even if it's not, Jack doesn't care. The afternoon and the lesson feel like watching skin knit together over a scar he'd long forgotten was even there.

Eventually, it's time for a break. They get hot chocolates and drink as families, couples, and groups of friends mill all about them in the crowded space between the rink and the refreshements stand. And Jack wonders which of those three things they're supposed to be. His friend Shitty always says that romantic trappings don't have to go with romance - or vice versa - but, Jack wonders, what does Bitty think.

The answer is that Bitty's buzzing with excitement about just how great today has been. He's all tuckered out right now, aren't you? - Jack is - but they should definitely do this again. Maybe they have find a bigger or empty rink to skate on, so Bitty can show him jumps another time? If he wants - he very much does - and they should keep doing it even when the weather gets warmer, cause there's no reason to stop doing something that you loves as much as this. You know? - Jack knows.

And Bitty keeps on touching his arm, too, as he talks, so there's that. Maybe Jack doesn't know much at all.

 

The next Monday, at Annie's, Lardo has the worst news. "The gallery's closing," she says. "The rent's going up, and there's not enough business to stay in business. They say we should take back our work before New Year's if we want it." She looks defeated, and blank as an empty canvas.

"That's terrible," Jack says.

"I'm so sorry," Bitty says, laying his hand on her arm. "Promise you'll let me know if there's anything I can do to help."

"Yeah. But - okay. Should I give up on it? Art. I'm barely making any money. And, I know, keep trying, but I've been trying for three years now. It's not getting any better." Jack realizes, now, what's different. It's the first time he's seen Lardo without a canvas of some sort.

"I'm sure we can find a job for you at Annie's if you need one."

"Thanks, Bits, but I'm sure I can find some sort of job. I just don't know. What do I do? Who am I, even, if I'm not an artist?"

"One of the most 'swawesome people I know?"

"Well, what else do you want to be?" Jack asks.

"You're still an artist, though," Bitty says. "Even if you're not a professional anymore."

"I don't think there is anything else I want to do."

"Well then, of course you can't quit," Bitty says.

"But, Bits, I can't stay in this limbo post-grad state forever. I can keep bashing my head against this wall, but that doesn't mean it's gonna give."

"Haven't you ever left anything you loved?" Jack asks Bitty.

"That's playing dirty." Bitty spares a second from comforting Lardo to glare at Jack. "You know very well - but it's not the same. I'd never give up on baking. Would you? Give up the thing you loved most?"

Jack opens his mouth, closes it, and opens it back up again. "I don't know. I thought at the time that I was choosing what I really wanted over what I only thought I had to want, but - now, I don't know, anymore."

"How can you not know?" Lardo asks, but Jack just shakes his head.

"So Jack's answer is he has no idea. And my answer is that I will personally stop you from giving up in any way that I can, but I will still support you if you decide that that's what you want to do."

"Good to know," Lardo says.

On Tuesday she has a fresh board to paint again. She's putting off making any decisions for a little while.

 

On the way to the airport to visit his parents over the long weekend of American Thanksgiving, Jack takes advantage of being in the city of Boston to meet up with his best friend. They'd met when Jack was in grad school and Shitty was in law school, at a conference at Harvard on historical jurisprudence. Now Shitty's working for the ACLU, and Jack still kind of can't believe that he knows someone who's both willing to put up with his shit, and to call him on it when necessary.

They rendezvous at a Starbucks. "It's still a shitty part of global capitalism," Shitty says over the phone, "but at least their coffee's fair trade," and also, they're conveniently everywhere. And they reliably have food that Jack will eat.

"Save me from Thanksgiving," Shitty says. He stretches out across the table dramatically, head lying on his arms which are outstretched in a pleading gesture, as well as carefully placed so as to avoid both of their coffee cups.

Jack laughs. "You know you love your parents, even if they are rich."

"No, that's you," Shitty says, and sits up. "Okay, fine. I don't dislike them that much. But you don't know the rest of my relatives! Jackaroo, please, will you be my boyfriend this year and help me scare off the homophobes?"

Shitty blinks his eyelashes prettily, but Jack still shakes his head. "No. I want to see my own family. And also, I know you're straight."

Shitty tosses his head. The affect would be better, probably, if he still had long hair. "Straightness is a tool of the patriarchy."

Jack presses on. "But you're exclusively into women. And, I just don't wanna pretend to date you."

Shitty tries to grab Jack's hand, but Jack, practiced, dodges it. Shitty pouts. "When will you stop denying our love? Oh! Speaking of which, that reminds me. What's the deal with this Bitty guy that you keep talking about?"

"He's my friend," Jack says. "I'm allowed to have other friends."

"Allowed?" Shitty bellows. He throws his arms out, knocking into the bag of a girl standing behind them, waiting to order. "No, you're invited! And encouraged! To have other friends. But, tell me. Is he really tiny? Or is it like how you call the skinny guy Fats?"

Jack winces. "He's short… ish? 5'6", 5'7", maybe. Not that tiny, but he used to play hockey so - "

"Is his dick tiny?"

Shitty has, like, negative volume control, so Jack puts a hand to his mouth to shush him, even though it's too late. He looks around: none of the crowd seems to have heard, or have cared. Still. "Be quiet, jeez. We're in Starbucks. And, no. I mean, I don't know. Why would I know that?"

Shitty shrugs. "Just asking. Don't get your panties in a bunch. But, seriously, bro," Shitty takes a break to down half of his coffee in one gulp, "You talk about this dude every time we talk. So. Spill." He points the stirring straw he's discarded at Jack, which, gross.

Jack shrugs, this time. "I don't know? I like him a lot. I think that he's fascinating no matter what he talks about, and being near him just makes me happy."

"Sounds like love to me, bro."

Jack blinks. "Love?"

"Or at least the early stages of it. You know, infatuation, new relationship energy, limerence, etcetera, etcetera."

Jack zones out, confused, looking at Shitty's waving hands and not quite managing, somehow, to take in the words. "But… shouldn't I know? If I'm in love?"

"You don't have to know," Shitty says. "Look at it this way. There's no hurry. Just do what you wanna do…" Shitty sneaks a glance at his watch. "But, speaking of hurry, I gotta go now, or I'll miss my train."

Jack gets up for a farewell hug. Somehow, it feels like the more hugs he gets, the more he needs. "I'll see ya," he mumbles into Shitty's hair.

"Love ya, bro," Shitty says.

 

When Thanksgiving Break is over and the last days of November give way to the first days of December, the pace of life at Samwell becomes frantic. It's the same for every university that Jack's ever worked or studied at. Fall semester feels like an endless stretch of time, until exam prep deadlines are upon you. Even with the slow and methodical way he works, he still gets caught up in it. Extra review sessions for any students who want to go, on the one hand, and on the other hand, a temporary shelving of his next phase of research in favor of writing exam questions and grading rubrics.

Annie's is getting into the holiday spirit, too, Lardo's Halloween decorations replaced with more conventional-looking winter themed ones. The green tinsel remains, but occupying pride of place in the window are now several dancing polar bears with Santa Claus hats. Elves chase each other in reindeer sleighs around the tables and counters of the shop.

Bitty throws himself into a chair and says, "You never heard me say this, but if one more person asks me to cover their shift so they can study for finals, I won't do it. I'm going to say no."

"That bad?" Jack asks.

"Worse. And I'm not going to make any more mint chocolate desserts, either. There are only so many things you can do with mint, and most of them don't belong in a pie." Bitty throws up his hands, while Jack eats another bite of the grasshopper pie that Bitty'd made today.

"This is good, though."

"Thanks," Bitty says, "And, sorry for dumping all that on you. You must be busy, too, with finals."

Jack shrugs. "It's not that bad."

Bitty nods. "What are your plans for Christmas?" He's perched on the edge of his chair, and despite the cold outside, his pants are thin as ever, making a possibly-fashionable contrast with the bulky red-and-white sweater he wears.

"Uh," Jack says. "No plans for Christmas. I'm Jewish. But I'm going to see my family in Montreal for the couple weeks we have off. It'll be nice to spend some time with my parents, I don't get to see them enough." He keeps eating the pie, taking small bites. It's so good, he wants to savor the creaminess and faint bitterness of the dark chocolate rather than risk eating it without noticing. "How about you?"

Bitty makes a face. "Ugh. Don't remind me."

"You brought it up!" Jack says. "Come on. Is it really that bad?"

Bitty fidgets with his coffe, which is something he doesn't normally do. "I'm going to Georgia, to see my parents, too. And, Lord knows I love them, but they're always asking me why I haven't found a girlfriend yet."

"You're not out to them?" Jack asks, leaning forward sympathetically. He gets it. He's not sure when he ever would've come out to his parents if his mom hadn't walked in on him and his first boyfriend with their hands down each others' pants when he was eighteen.

"That's the most frustrating part," Bitty groans. "I am! I told them I was gay almost two years ago, now. And it's like that conversation just never happened. They keep acting like they didn't hear me, or I never said it, like if they don't acknowledge who I am for long enough, maybe it'll go away."

"I'm sorry," Jack says, "that sounds awful. You can come and visit my parents with me, if you want to."

"Thanks for the offer," Bitty says, "but I think I'll pass. I do want to see my family, you know. I just wish - like, I wish I had a guy I could bring home and say, hey, this is my boyfriend. So maybe then they'd finally have to acknowledge that the way I feel about guys is real."

"Well, I would do that for you, too, if you wanted."

"Wait, hold up a second," Bitty says. Then he has to take a few seconds himself to recover from swallowing his coffee all wrong in his surprise. Then he says, "You'd do what?"

"Well, we're not dating. But I'd pretend to be your boyfriend, if you wanna bring one home to show your parents."

Bitty's face does complicated things. "Don't you already have plans to visit your parents in Montreal? Like, didn't you literally just tell me that?"

"Eh, yeah," Jack says, "But I can still change the tickets. What if I go to Georgia for a few days first, and then fly back up to Montreal for the rest of the vacation? It's not a big deal, and I wouldn't mind."

"Okay," Bitty says. His voice is softer than down, feathers, snowflakes. "Let's do that, then. Thank you for doing this for me."

"It's no problem," Jack says.

Chapter Text

Jack meets Bitty at the airport the morning after the semester's over. He's not feeling awake, for once, though it's already later than his usual morning run's over. Worry over how the visit will go had kept him up all night long, but seeing Bitty, who's looking around, and waiting for him, a huge paper cup of coffee in his hand, is like a shot of calming medication and caffeine all at once.

"How are you doing?" Jack asks.

Bitty rubs his eyes with the hand that isn't holding his coffee, and yawns hugely. "Sleepy, mostly."

Jack nods, and shifts the weight of his carry on bag on his back. "Ready to get this show on the road?" He just hopes that Bitty's parents don't end up disliking him. He's starting one down, already, if they don't want Bitty to have a boyfriend at all - but, that's why he's coming, right? To help Bitty. Or, support him. Something. Like that.

"As long as no one's asking me to pull any more double shifts, I'm ready for anything. Bitty chugs his coffee for a solid few seconds, throat working, while flight announcements echo from nearby gates in the well-controlled chaos of the airport. "How about you, though? Cause if you're having second thoughts, there's still time to back out if you want. I'll figure out something tell my parents, and I guess if you didn't mind changing flights at the last minute already, then you could change them back again…"

"Thanks," Jack says, "but if you're in, I'm in."

 

Bitty's parents pick them up from the airport in Georgia in the sort of oversized SUV that editorials are written about. Jack knows he's being a hypocrite here; his own SUV is modest-sized, and environmentally friendly to boot, but it's still an SUV when all's said and done. He just can't quite like these people who make Bitty feel like he's not good enough.

"This is my boyfriend, Jack," Bitty says, in the arrivals area.

They're not standing about six inches apart, carefully not touching. Jack had offered his hand when they disembarked, but Bitty had hissed, "What part of small town Georgia do you not get?"

Now Bitty says, "Jack, this is my father, Coach Bittle, and my best friend, Mama Bittle." Jack shakes hands with both of them. Coach's handshake is hard, testing, and Jack meets it force for force until Coach lets go with a reserved but approving nod. Bitty's mother's handshake is loose, and her smile is warm.

"Call me Suzanne."

Coach takes the lead in asking Jack about himself in the car. What does he do, what's his workload like, what are his plans. He must've listed his whole curriculum vitae within the first five minutes or so of the drive, air conditioning humming under his voice, even in December. It's not long, when all's said and done. At least it seems that his answers are going to be accepted, not treated as provocation for the sort of attacks and subsequent defense that he'd feared they might've caused.

The grilling's so modest, in fact, that Jack's been lulled into a false sense of security by the time Suzanne says, "Enough of that, now, Richard. I have a question for our son." She turns to look backwards between the seats and deliver it directly. "What I want to know, Dicky, is why your father and I had never heard that you had a boyfriend before last week."

Bitty's hand has been lying in the cramped space between them in the back seat all this time, where they're pressed shoulder to shoulder by their respective carry-on bags. Jack feels Bitty flinch all along his side, and squeezes his hand to try to convey some comfort.

"Well," Bitty says, and then it all spills out of him in one burst. "ididntknowifyouandcoachwouldapprove."

"Could you repeat that?" Bitty's mother says.

"He said he didn't know if we'd approve," says Bitty's father, and Jack feels a wave of protectiveness come over him. Bitty's parents aren't saying anything bad, per se, not yet, but the fact that they're not responding to his fear by immediately trying to comfort and reassure him makes Jack want to - well. It makes him want to drop his gloves, which hasn't been an appropriate response for years. It makes him want to keep hold of Bitty's hand and take him right back to the cafe, where he's never second-guessed himself like this. But in fact all that Jack can do is look sideways at Bitty's face, and try to radiate love and support at him.

"Well, I don't know why not," Bitty's mother says. Bitty's fingers are trembling, under his. Jack can't stand not being able to help. "You're our son, Dicky. Of course we'll love you, whatever you want to do."

"I know, Mama," Bitty says. His voice is strangled, but no one says anything. It's some minutes, in fact, before anyone dares to say anything else at all, and Jack wonders how long the unspoken ceasefire of silence is going to last. For the rest of the car ride? All evening? Then out of nowhere, Suzanne starts to talk about a new recipe for fruitcake that she found on the internet. Bitty chimes in with his own opinion when she asks for it, looking and sounding for all the wrold as if the exchange of only a few minutes ago hadn't just happened.

And Jack thinks: this is what this family's like. Just as if the reevaluation my family did when I was nineteen never occured.

 

The Bittles' house, when they get to it, is festooned inside and out with strings of Christmas lights. There's an inflatable Santa on the lawn, and a perfectly conical fir tree aggressively bristling with ornaments in the living room: yet all the Bittles are unanimous that the decoration isn't done.

"We're still waiting for you, son," Bitty's father says. Bitty glows a bit like the lustrous gold star that he digs out of a stack of packaging that looks simply like a mess to Jack.

"You oughtn't to have."

Suzanne claps her hands, quick and light, close together. "Well, go on."

"Are you tall enough yet?" Bitty's father makes as if to grab him around the waist, and pick him up, but Bitty darts away. He stops, though, at the open-plan entrance to the kitchen, and pivots, hand still on the back of one of the wooden ladderback chairs there. He's eyeing Jack speculatively.

"Actually, I think Jack should lift me up this time."

Jack's too frozen to even shake his head 'no' - and besides. This is what he's here for, right. Bitty comes up to him and then brushes right past, so that he's - oh. So that he's standing right by the tree, and Jack follows behind him, helpless.

Bitty's waist is warm, a lovely solidity to it, even through his shirt. He's not that light - though it feels crazy powerful, to pick him up - and it requires enough concentration that Jack's not able to, say, whisper in his ear while he does it and ask 'what exactly are we doing here?' Bitty sets the star on the top of the tree, and Jack sets Bitty, flushed and beaming, on his feet and takes a couple steps back.

 

Bitty's extended family descends on the house in waves throughout the next morning. The whole Bittle-Phelps clan, and more Bitty explains, though Jack forgets every single name as soon as he says it. Bitty just explodes in a flurry of so much to say to his Aunt Judy, when she arrives, and Jack, seeing with relief that his services aren't needed anymore, retires to lurk in a corner.

Even the corner's occupied, it turns, by the most entertaining and relaxing group of people to hang out with at any party. There's a boy and two girls, named Taylor, Tyler, and Alex, wheeling around large plastic trucks perched on by Barbie dolls. Jack kneels down to get on their level. "Hi," he says. "You guys want another person?"

They don't have any extra trucks, Alex haughtily informs him, stubby pigtails bobbing, but they could use a crossing guard.

Turns out that crossing guards have to adjudicate doll murder, who knew.

Bitty reappears eventually, an impossibly fond smile on his face. The kids scatter when he says "Food's ready," but Jack's waiting for something else.

"Is that a personal invitation?"

Bitty holds his gaze. "I didn't know you needed one."

"Well." Jack brushes his knees off and gets to his feet. "I guess it's time to eat. Is there pie?"

"Is there ever," Bitty says, darkly. "But, hey. You looked like you were doing a really good job with my little cousins there."

"I was having fun," Jack says, honestly. "They're great kids."

"Yeah. Yeah, they are."

 

There's several more rounds of food throughout the day, as groups of people show up and leave, which is only one of the reasons Jack can't believe that he and Bitty have ended up at the end of the evening - Christmas Eve evening - cutting slice-and-bake cookies from a tube and slipping them onto a cookie sheet.

Suzanne had started the first batch with them, and then left with a significant look, with a wink, for God's sake. "Have a good night, Dicky."

Bitty's humming while he's slicing, and Jack can't take it anymore.

"I can't believe this," he says. "Eric Bittle, baking cookie dough from a tube. Is everything I know a lie?"

Bitty laughs. "I contain multitudes."

"I'm sure," Jack says. "Though you're kind of small for that - no, stop!" Bitty's brandishing an open bag of flour that he wasn't even using for the cookies, since flour's apparently never far in a Bittle kitchen. "Why, though?" he asks, as they return to the slice-and-place rhythm. The pan in front of him is filling up fast. "It's not as if you don't have more than enough cookies in the house." People'd been bringing different kinds all day, and tins now line the counter.

"I know, but this is a tradition." Bitty slices the last two cookie-widths apart, and turns to wash his knife in the sink. "D'you know, these were the first type of cookies I ever made. My mom always made a plate of cookies for Santa, and I wanted to help her, so - when I was three or four she got these, and let me put them on the pan after she cut them. I don't know if she didn't want to risk ruining good cookie dough, or what, but - yeah. Now you know my secret."

"Who would I tell?" Jack asks. Bitty shrugs, shoulders looking somehow smaller than usual, hunched under his blue button-down, back to Jack. So Jack steals a bit of dough from one of the cookies on the pan, and eats it noisily. "Mm, it's good."

"It is not," Bitty says. But his eyes are dancing, so Jack counts that as a win.

"Is so. Here, try it - " Jack tries to put a bit of dough in his fingers into Bitty's mouth, and Bitty doesn't dodge it the way that Jack must've been at least half expecting.

Bitty opens his mouth and takes the dough gently off Jack's fingers. He doesn't suck on them, or anything, which means there's still a little residue of sticky cookie dough left, which means Jack's first instinct is to suck it off, which -

Wow. Bitty doesn't seem particularly struck by anything that's just happened. At least, not judging from his face. He opens the oven smoothly, slides the two pans of cookies in, while Jack's insides whirl aroundin a torrent of questions. Is he leading Bitty on, or is Bitty leading him on, or are they both, or - what?

 

The house gets up ridiculously early on Christmas morning. It's not early for Jack, compared to his usual five-o-clock wake-up-and-face-the-day run, but he'd thought for some reason that at the Bittles' he'd be able to sleep later. Instead the basement that he'd shared with several kids, all in sleeping bags, is filled with excited and incompletely shushed chatter long before it's filled with daylight.

Jack would be angry about the basement-and-sleeping-bag setup on Bitty's behalf if he thought Bitty wanted to share a bed with him. As things stand, he's not sure whether to be more righteously indignant or more shamefully relieved that he doesn't have to carry the fake boyfriend act that far.

Eventually, the clock on the wall ticks to seven. The children thunder upstairs, yelling as they go.

First breakfast - Bitty and Suzanne share duties herding everyone, first breakfast, piles and piles of bacon and sausage and pancakes and biscuits and grits, and then presents.

Jack's glad that his presence here as Bitty's supposed boyfriend and not a guest in his own right means that he's been able to simply sign his name to Bitty's cards. He wouldn't know what to get anyone, though he did get Bitty's parents, collectively, as a combined Christmas and host gift, a painting that he'd commissioned from Lardo about Bitty. It's all gold and electricity, and it's called *Hot Stove*.

Bitty got his father a gift card to Dick's Sporting Goods, and received one himself from Crate & Barrel. They're each a round fifty dollars. "It's the thought that counts," Bitty says, into Jack's ear. Bitty and Suzanne exchange cookware the purpose of which Jack doesn't even pretend to understand, but they're both exclaiming over their presents. It's nice to watch.

Bitty got Jack a couple books. *Master & Commander*, the first of a series Jack's been meaning to get around to for a long time, but never has yet, and an autobiography of Saint-Exupery called *Wind, Sand, and Stars.* "I didn't nkow what to get you," Bitty says. "But these made me think of you."

"They're perfect," Jack says, in wonder. "Thank you. So much." He keeps stealing glances at Bitty, after that, as they go around the circle again and again. He does love these things, Bitty knows him, knows his research - but still, they make Bitty think of him?

Bitty opens Jack's present for him in the very last round. It's a huge box, and Jack knows it's not creative, but he hopes that Bitty doesn't care too much about that.

When Bitty lifts out the KitchenAid mixer, he looks like he's just an inch away from tears. "How did you know I wanted this?" he says.

"Well, you mention it at least once a week." Jack shrugs.

Bitty launches himself at him, arms coming around behind Jack's neck, kneeling unsteadily on his lap. "I can't believe this," he says. "Three hundred and fifty dollars! And shipping! Jack, you shouldn't have."

"But aren't you glad I did?" Jack simply has to put his hands on Bitty's waist, to hold them both steady. He doesn't have to rub his fingers over the firm flesh there, but he's only so strong.

"Of course I am," Bitty says, into the region somewhere between Jack's ear and his shoulder and his neck. "Who knows when I could've afforded it, much less when I could've justified the expense. But it's much too much!"

"I just wanted to see you happy," Jack says. It's too honest, maybe. But he's not kissing Bitty, just talking close, face-to-face, nose-to-nose. If he's going to kiss Bitty, which is seeming more and more likely by the hour, lately, he's not going to do it for the first time here, with all his family watching.

 

Later in the afternoon, all the adults assemble to go to church. They're letting some of the younger kids stay at home to keep playing with their new toys - "they won't be able to think about anything else, anyway." Bitty explains - so Jack's offered the option of staying home to babysit. "Someone has to."

"I'm going wherever you're going," Jack says, pitching his voice low so that only Bitty can hear.

The church is decorated more simply but just as thoroughly as the Bittles' house. It's a small brick building, covered with strings of plain white lights and evergreen boughs, footprint more than matched by a parking lot full of cars and exclaiming families. Jack feels awkward; on more than axis, he's conscious that he really doesn't belong.

"What should I do?" he whispers to Bitty.

"Bless your heart, you don't have to do anything," Bitty says. "Just stand up when everyone stands up, and sit down when everyone sits down, and you can sing along if you know the carols. It's pretty simple."

Jack nods. And Bitty seems, to all appearances, to be fine, and his parents are still right next to them, but - "Are you sure you want to be here?" he whispers again. Because this place is probably ground zero for the sort of prejudice that Bitty has to put up with at home, and Jack can't shield him from it, but - "Cause I could be an excuse to leave, if you want."

Bitty looks at him like he's crazy. "Do I want to be here? It's Christmas. Where else would I want to be? Now, hush."

Everyone's finished filing in; the sermon's about to start.

It's not half as political, or even as theological, as Jack had unconsciously feared it might be. Sure, he doesn't believe in Jesus (he probably doesn't even belive in God), but the pastor's talking about the importance of hospitality. Make more room at the inn, he says, invite God into your life. And invite people into your life, because God came along us… Jack doesn't follow all the arguments, but the Bittles seem moved. Make room for strangers, the pastor says, and make room for the people you love who are stranger to you than you know.

Bitty squeezes Jack's hand, where it's placed between them on the bench, and whispers in his ear. "D'you think they're hearing this?"

His parents. "Maybe. We can hope so, right?"

There are some prayers, after the sermon, and then come the hymns. Jack doesn't know any of them, but the harmonies swelling all around him are still nice. Bitty's voice must blend into the rest of the congregation's from any distance whatsoever, but from right next to him, where Jack's sitting, it sounds pure and clear as a bell.

 

The day's already turning towards evening by the time they come back home. Bitty's various aunts and uncles gather up their children one by one. Jack watches Bitty bid them farewell, standing in the chilly air, so bright against the fading into purple sky.

When the leavetaking's finished, they go inside, just Coach and Suzanne and Jack and Bitty. Almost like a little family.

"Anyone wanna watch a game?" Coach asks. "I've got a couple on the DVR."

"I'm gonna make a pie with Mama," Bitty says, aiming it more at Jack than at Coach.

"I can't believe it," Suzanne says. "How've you been home for several days already, and we haven't made a pie yet?" Bitty's mom is just as excitable as he is, it seems; no wonder he says they're best friends.

"Cause we've been making cake, and biscuits, and cookies?" Bitty says. "But - go on, Jack. I wanna cook with my favorite sous chef."

"Oh, I'm the sous chef now!" Suzanne says. "Who's getting too big for his britches!" but she shares a side-hug with Bitty.

"Sure, I'll watch the game," Jack says. Coach Bittle gives him a clap on the shoulder, like he's done something right.

 

Jack hasn't spent years in the States without managing to learn the basics of how football's played. Coach doesn't say much of anything for a while, and though Jack doesn't have anything to say either, it's a bit odd not having commentary on plays and calls. Jack's beginning to wonder why he was invited to watch the game at all, when, sometime in the middle of the second quarter, Coach leans forward, putting his hands on his knees, and lets out a deep sigh.

"I don't know how to do this when you're also a boy."

"Wait," Jack says, "What?" He can't figure out where this conversation is going, but it's pretty clear that it's nowhere good. At least, maybe, Bitty's not here to have whatever this is aimed at his face, for once.

"If Dicky brought home a girl," Coach says, "Then you know that I'd have to ask him how he felt about her."

I do? Jack thinks, but that probably wouldn't help Bitty's case here. He doesn't want to start a fight with Bitty's father, if it can be avoided. "You could… still ask him?" he tries. Because Bitty's not bringing home any girls, but he still wants to go back to his parents, apparently.

"Maybe I could do that," his father muses. "I think I'll think about it. That's an idea." Jack realizes, belatedly, that he's just suggested that Bitty's dad ask Bitty about his feelings for him, and, furthermore, that their supposed relationship is a fake relationship on which Bitty most likely doesn't have any real opinions, and, furthermore, that he's nevertheless quite curious as to what Bitty's opinions might be.

But at least if Bitty's dad has been nudged towards treating him in one way the same way that he'd treat him if he were straight, that's some sort of win.

"But," Bitty's dad continues, "I still need to ask you how you feel about him."

"Um," Jack says. His mind goes blank. "I think he's… amazing?" He's usually full of thoughts about Bitty, if he thinks about anything, but now the inside of his head's all stirred up, like a river with the mud stirred off of the bottom. "I just really like him a lot," he says. "I don't know how to describe it." Those statements might not be the most persuasive, or the most eloquent, but at least they're all true.

"You like him," Coach repeats with a frown, and a heavy emphasis. "Is that it?"

Jack doesn't know how he would've answered. What does he feel about Bitty? Too many things, he doesn't know what they are, himself, and even if he did he can't imagine how it'd be a good idea to tell Bitty's dad before he'd told Bitty.

Bitty comes into the room, then, color high, unannounced, all in a rush. "There you are, honey," he says. It takes Jack a second to realize that Bitty must mean him. "We're going for a walk now. Okay?"

Coach grunts his assent, and Jack's put on his coat and out of the door after Bitty before he asks "Are you okay?"

 

The purple sky's almost faded to black velvet around them. The chill, even with the wind that's picked up, isn't quite severe enough for Jack to have needed his coat. Bitty scuffs the ground, and looks at his feet, and says "I'll be fine." His voice is strained, like a string about to break.

"What's wrong?" Jack asks. "What happened?"

"It's my mom," Bitty says. He starts walking - there's no sidewalk. But there's no traffic, either, right now, so Bitty walks down the road and Jack follows, just a step or two behind. "She wanted to know why I didn't tell her that I had a boyfriend," and Jack's stomach drops to about his knees. It's his fault, this whole dumb idea, that he'd thought would help Bitty, somehow, but it's only making his vacation worse.

"So what did you tell her?" Jack asks. His heart is pounding, but - he's here for Bitty. "Since you couldn't tell her that's because it was fake."

Bitty throws an odd, unreadable glance back at Jack. His face is lit with - the whole street's lit with, really - fuzzy halos of rainbow colors, the reflections of the neighborhood's Christmas lights on every surface. "It's not even about that," he says. Jack's mental world tilts, or maybe rights itself again.

"What?"

"Well, who says that I would've told her anyway?" Bitty's pace has been increasing furiously, and despite the differences in their strides, Jack now finds himself working to catch up.

"You… wouldn't?" Though it makes sense, Jack supposes. He's just so used to seeing Bitty as open, because he sees him where he is.

"Sure, eventually," Bitty says. "I'd kind of have to. But right away…? Anyway, she was acting all injured about it. As if I'd somehow insulted her, personally, by not giving her up-to-the-minute updates on a part of my personal life that, sorry! Not sorry! I couldn't actually be sure she'd respond to in a non-awful way!" Bitty huffs out a breath, and suddenly stops. He's standing in a pool of pure white light, spilling off someone's Christmas tree.

"I'm sorry," Jack says. He is. "I know it doesn't do much good, and I don't know what else to say, but. I'm sorry that your parents aren't supporting you the way you deserve." Jack's palm itches. He wants to take Bitty's hand, but, why…?

 

"It's not that big a deal," Bitty says. He starts walking down the street again, kicking the deposits of dry leaves that are left by the curb as he goes. The crunching noises are calming, somehow. "I think that they're getting better. And, hey, who knows? Maybe by the time I finally have a boyfriend I want to take home for real, they'll be ready to be decent about the whole thing."

"So you're not planning on having a boyfriend for a while, then?" Jack asks.

Bitty walks onward, out of the light. There's a stretch of empty space, maybe a field, between his family's clump of houses and the next. "You never know," Bitty says. "I don't know what's going to happen, but - yeah. I don't want just anyone, you know. I'm holding out for Mr. Right."

Jack's breath catches in his lungs. Because caught and held on his tongue, are the words "I want to be Mr. Right," but - really?

But of course that's what he feels too. And that's what he always seems to feel, with Bitty. Bitty says the things that he doesn't know how to say, or even know how to think, until he's heard Bitty say them. Bitty makes him feel like he's where he's supposed to be, wherever they are. And he only wishes that he could make Bitty feel even a little bit of the same way, about him.

He doesn't realize that he's stopped walking, this time, until he hears Bitty says, "Jack? What's up?"

"Me too," he says, stupidly.

"What?" Bitty asks. Cause, of course. "You mean you're also waiting for Mister Right?"

"No," Jack says, "I mean, yes, I mean, I am, but - "

"You'd better start making sense," Bitty says. His voice is hard, like it almost never is, and Jack is trying.

"I mean," he says again, "that yes, I'm waiting for Mr. Right, but also, I think that you're it. I mean, him. I mean - " Bitty's hand is on Jack's upper arm, and whatever else that means, it probably means Jack should stop babbling. "Bitty? What do you think?"

"I think - you sure that you're not jerking me around?" Bitty's eyes are dark, and they're not even looking at Jack now. They're swallowed up by the darkness of the ground. "Because that's happened to me before."

"I wouldn't," Jack says. Also, who dare - ! But he'll never know; he's pretty certain of that.

"You couldn't," Bitty says, breath puffing out into the cold night air in what's probably the ghost of a laugh.

Then Bitty's up on his toes, and his lips are warm, so warm, against Jack's, and Jack barely gets to feel them, barely gets to appreciate the miracle of their firmness and give attached to Bitty, before Bitty's standing back on his feet again.

"Is that?" Jack asks. He doesn't know what to ask. Everything.

"Yes," Bitty says. "Yes, that's yes, I'll be your boyfriend - if you'll be mine," he adds, suddenly shy again.

"Of course," Jack says, though just two minutes ago it hadn't been at all. He thinks it has been an of course for some time, though, and he just hadn't known it till now.