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Eric Bittle Got Married

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Bitty flips the sign on the bakery door to closed, then turns the lock. He leans back against it and breathes deeply for a count of ten before making himself walk back to the counter.

His earbud hasn’t so much as blipped since he sent that message an hour ago. He knows Jack is probably on the ice or in a meeting, and he’s bad about checking his messages anyway, but still. Fuck.

He sighs and reaches up to touch his ear. “Repeat the last message sent to Jack.”

There’s a pause, and then he hears his own voice in his ears, dripping with barely-suppressed anger: You’d better have a damn good explanation for this, because I am just about at the end of my rope here. I just… what the fuck, Jack? We talked about this, and I thought we’d agreed—

“Stop.” He presses a hand over his eyes. “Has Jack listened to this message yet?”

“No.” The AI voice is silky in his ears, almost comforting.

He should probably delete it before Jack has a chance to hear. He’s not as angry now as he was, just… tired. Really goddamn tired. He should send another one, something a little more reasonable.

He thinks then about the way he felt when he got the news, and another spike of anger rises in him. No, Jack needs to hear his first reaction. It’s better that way.

“Play music. Uh… playlist ‘Clean This Shit Up’.”

“Would you like me to shuffle the songs?”

“Yeah.”

The music starts, the beat washing over him, and he feels himself relax. Finally.

Half an hour later, the front of the shop is extremely clean. He’s just put his cleaning supplies away when he hears a tapping at the door. It’s Lardo, right on time, dwarfed by a huge framed painting wrapped in plastic. She waves her fingers at him through the window. The stripes of color in her hair glint in the sunlight.

He crosses to let her in, and she hugs him almost immediately.

“Jesus, Bits — are you okay?”

“I don’t know.” He pulls away from her and reaches for the painting. It’s almost as tall as she is. “Can I?”

“You commissioned it, bro. It’s all yours.”

He tears the plastic away, then turns it right-side up and smiles. It’s exactly what he’d hoped for, abstract, yet whimsical, a swirl of feeling and color. “I love it. Thank you.”

“If you were really grateful,” she says with a grin, “you’d make me one of those cappuccinos with cinnamon.”

“You get a lifetime supply for this.” He smiles at her and gestures toward the counter. “Come sit, then.”

She does, watching quietly as he fires up the espresso machine. He steams the milk to exactly the temperature he knows she likes, a little on the cool side, then reaches under the counter for the good quality cinnamon he saves for a select few. He glances up at her and smirks, then pours the milk carefully, creating a dick in the foam on top. He slides the finished product across the counter to her.

She laughs. “Never change, Bits.”

“I’ll try.” He sighs then, the weight of everything else crashing down again. He’s got to do something, keep himself busy, or else he’ll be a crying mess. The painting catches his eye again, propped against a table. “You enjoy that while I get this painting up on the wall.”

He goes to the storeroom to get the ladder and other supplies he’ll need, taking his time. Lardo sips her coffee and watches him. She hasn’t pushed, but he knows it’s coming. He’ll be ready in a minute, when his hands are too busy to twist at his sides. He glances over at her, catches the worry in her expression.

“So,” he says, and sets the ladder up.

“So.”

He moves the ladder a few feet to the left, shoving it against the wall hard enough to make a mark. He winces slightly, but he’ll take care of it later. “The thing that really pisses me off is that I had to find out about it on social media.” He pulls the tape measure out of his pocket and eyes the ceiling.

Lardo sets the cup into the saucer again with a soft clink. “Yeah, seriously.”

“I guess I assumed my husband would, I don’t know, consult me before making a decision like that.”

“Dick move not to, bro.”

“Or like, at least call me or message me before the news broke. He could have had his fucking agent do it, at least.”

“Aw, hell no. He owes you more than that, after what he’s put you through.”

“Yeah,” Bitty huffs. “But a year and a half later, we’re still living a thousand miles apart.” He hesitates, takes a deep breath. “Am I being unreasonable here? It’s not like I want him to give up hockey. I’d never ask him for that.”

“Course not, but—”

“Maybe I shouldn’t have stayed. I just wanted the bakery” —he gestures around the shop, his shop, that he’s poured so much of himself into these last few years, that’s given him so much joy in return— “to have a chance to get off the ground, you know? And we thought it would just be for one season, that maybe after that he could get traded to Boston, or someplace closer.”

“So what, you should’ve closed this place — your dream, by the way — and followed him to St. Louis like a good hockey wife?” Lardo snorts.

“He never even asked me to. I think he knew I’d go, if he did, and that it would’ve made me miserable.” He runs a hand through his hair. “That’s the part that sucks the most, you know? Neither of us wants the other to have to sacrifice. Neither of us wants to be the reason the other is unhappy, but we’re both fucking miserable anyway.”

“If he’s so miserable, why’d he just sign a two-year extension?”

“Because he’s 35 and doesn’t want to admit he’s getting too old for this. Either that or he’s happier there than…” Bitty feels a prickling behind his eyes, and he presses his lips together hard.

“Shit, I’m sorry,” Lardo says. “I didn’t mean to—”

“No, you’re right.” Bitty looks aways and wipes at his eyes. “I mean, I figured they’d offer him something, but…”

The last time they’d talked about it, Jack had expected the Blues to lowball him intentionally. He’s a big cap hit these days and, though he’s the biggest name on their roster, he’s also back in free agency this year. He’d take less to go to Boston or New York, or even back to Providence. This, though — this was a possibility they hadn’t talked about.

Bitty shakes his head. “He hasn’t even called me yet. I know he’s been in practice all afternoon, but like… what the fuck, you know? How does he just agree to two more years in St. Louis without even…” The tears really threaten to come then, and he presses his hands over his face. “Is this how it ends? He just… doesn’t come back to Providence and we drift apart and one of us gets so lonely we screw somebody else and we get a messy divorce and—”

“Bitty, stop.” Lardo is suddenly standing in front of him. She wraps her arms around him and he presses his forehead against her shoulder. “Just call him, okay? Tell him all of this. He probably doesn’t have a clue.”

“I wouldn’t go that far.” Bitty flinches at the bitterness in his own voice. And that’s part of the problem, isn’t it? He and Jack hardly talk these days, not about anything important. They check in with each other, keep in touch, but between Jack’s schedule and the demands of the bakery, they don’t have time for much more. He’d known it would be hard to do this long distance, but lord. It’s been awful.

Bitty inhales, exhales, and takes a step back. He’s thirty years old, for heaven’s sake. He’s supposed to have his life sorted out by now. It’s not like worrying about it is going to change anything, though. Jack will get the message, and he’ll call when he calls. Bitty has shit to do here, like hang Lardo’s incredible painting. He looks up at the ceiling again with determination.

“You said 72 inches, right?” He climbs back up the ladder and pulls the tape measure out to the correct length. “So if I want it to be centered on this wall, I should put the hangers here and here.” He fumbles in his pocket for a pencil, then marks a spot on the wall. The other spot is a little farther out, and he has to lean to reach.

“Bitty!” he hears Lardo shout, and then realizes the ladder is tipping over. Fear spikes up his spine and he reaches out for the wall, but there’s nothing to grab. All he can do is hang on as it falls over. He hits the ground hard and then… nothing.

*****

“Bittle? Come on, Bittle.”

Bitty’s head is swimming. He’s strangely cold, too. Lardo must have opened the door, or maybe the paramedics came and he’s being wheeled out of his own bakery, goddammit.

He opens his eyes. It’s a moment before he recognizes the face staring down at him with concern. It’s Coach Murray. From Samwell.

Bitty blinks and pushes himself to sitting. Which is when he realizes that he’s not in his bakery anymore. He’s on the ice. At Faber. In full gear.

Oh god, he’s hallucinating.

Will Poindexter is staring down at him, looking far younger than Bitty ever remembers him being. “Is he okay? I barely even grazed him.”

From somewhere to Bitty’s right, he hears Holster say, “I’m still thinking we could make a play out of this.”

Coach Murray says something else then, but Bitty misses it entirely. Standing over Murray’s shoulder, with a look of dark concern on his face, is Jack. He’s wearing Samwell red, and looks so young that it takes Bitty’s breath away. He’s gotten used to the lines around Jack’s eyes, the scar on his jaw, the way his nose is slightly off-center after having been broken three times. This Jack’s eyes are haunted for an entirely different reason, and Bitty can only stare helplessly at him.

“Bittle?” Murray says again. “You all right, son?”

“Yeah,” Bitty says, and shakes his head a little. He has to be dreaming this, but it feels so real. “I… I’m fine, actually.” He stands and looks down at himself, just to be sure. Nothing hurts, and he doesn’t feel dizzy.

“Why don’t you go over to the bench to get checked out?” Murray says.

“Uh, yeah. Okay.” Bitty skates over to the bench where one of the trainers is waiting.

“What the hell happened, Bittle?”

Bitty almost laughs. “Hell if I know. One minute I’m…” He pauses at the serious expression on the trainer’s face. Even though this is just a dream, maybe he should play along. “I, uh… I think I’m coming down with something.”

The trainer tilts his head and squints at him. “Sore throat?”

Bitty tries for a sniffle. “No, but I’m a little stuffy. I took some cold medicine this morning. Maybe that messed with my head?”

“You just fainted in the middle of a scrimmage. Cold medicine shouldn’t do that.”

“That’s not unusual for me,” Bitty replies, trying to look as innocent as possible. “Maybe I took too large a dose? I’m feeling better now, though, so maybe I can just skate a couple of laps and see how it goes?”

The trainer looks like he really wants to say no. “If you start to feel dizzy again, you get your ass back over here, got it?”

“I will.” Bitty takes off to skate a quick lap before the man can say another word. He stares around him as he does, at the scattering of fans in the stands watching practice, the guys standing at the center listening to Coach Murray, at the way the light streams in through the windows. If this is a dream, it’s pretty damn realistic.

It has to be a dream — if he remembers right, this is ten years ago, the beginning of his sophomore year at Samwell. How his brain decided this moment was a good one to plunk him into after…

He stops short, throwing snow in front of him. He fell off the ladder. Lardo had screamed, and then — he has no idea. What if he’s lying in a hospital bed in a coma, and this is how his brain has decided to cope? By sending him back in time, making him relive this moment, one of the worst in his college hockey career.

Oh, lord — what if he’s dying or dead? He’s heard people say you spend the eternity of your afterlife reliving one significant moment. He’s never really believed that, but what if—

There’s a whistle across the ice, and he looks over. The guys are skating into formation, getting ready to run a play. Holster and Ransom move into position, still grinning about something, while Dex and Nursey line up across from them in white jerseys. Chowder is in net, crouched and waiting.

“Bittle!” Murray shouts. “You joining us or what?”

“Uh, yeah.” Bitty skates over, ignoring the curious looks the guys are giving him. He can’t really blame them for wondering what the hell he’s still doing here, at this point.

But the thing is, he got over his fear of checking a long time ago. Hell, he gets knocked down once a week playing rec hockey, and he doesn’t even blink. If he’s going to have to relive this particular day, he’s fucking ready.

“You all right, Bits?”

He looks up to see Shitty staring back at him, that mustache of his in its full glory.

“Wow,” Bitty says.

Shitty frowns at him, but then Murray drops the puck, and Jack and Wicks battle for it. Wicks sends it back to where Dex and Nursey are waiting, and they all fall into position. Dex passes to Ollie, but Jack picks it off and skates for the line. Bitty chases without even thinking, catching up to him before any of the others. He tries to poke-check the puck away, but Jack swerves. Bitty follows as Jack gets closer to the boards, then puts on a carefully timed burst of speed. He hits Jack as hard as he can.

Jack makes a sound of surprise and turns to look at him. Bitty pushes him hard into the boards, then turns to chase after the puck. There’s a strange moment of quiet, and then the ice is full of whoops and shouts. Jack is right behind him again, trying to get the puck back, but Bitty spins out of his reach and passes it down to where Shitty is waiting.

“Fucking—” Jack mutters, then skates back into the neutral zone.

Shitty fires the puck at the goal, but Chowder deflects it. Dex is there with the rebound, and knocks it out to Bitty’s waiting stick. Before Bitty can get very far, Jack is on him again, with fire in his expression. He shoves Bitty with one shoulder, not hard enough to do anything but change his trajectory.

Bitty isn’t sure what makes him do it, but he laughs and says, “That all you’ve got, Zimmermann?”

Jack frowns, then slams into Bitty, hard enough to knock him off his feet. Bitty still manages to knock the puck away, and scrambles back to his feet to chase after it.

Everyone else has stopped, though, and stares at him.

“What the hell?” Ransom says, as Shitty says, “Bits, bro.”

Jack’s dumbfounded expression is priceless.

“I don’t know where that came from, son,” Coach Murray says, “but that’s exactly what I’d hoped to see from you this year. Good job, Bittle.”

Bitty flips the puck up into the air and catches it on the blade of his stick, then tosses it to Murray with a grin. Yeah, this is definitely how that day should’ve gone.

*****

The dream doesn’t stop there. It keeps going, through the rest of practice and getting showered and dressed again. He’d forgotten what it was like to be in a locker room with that many sweaty boys with absolutely juvenile senses of humor.

And one naked Jack Zimmermann. Lord.

Bitty’s seen him naked plenty, of course. He’s seen every inch of him, up close and personal. But (a) it’s been a while, and (b) he hasn’t actually been up close and personal with this particular Jack. Not in this dream or hallucination or… whatever.

It occurs to Bitty that if he can change his checking woes, he might be able to change that part too.

“Hey, Bittle.” Jack sits on the bench next to him, wearing nothing but shorts and still damp from the shower.

Bitty has to resist the urge to lick him. Oh god, he’s twenty again, isn’t he? He’d forgotten what that was like.

He forces himself to keep his eyes on Jack’s face. “Yeah?”

“Sorry about that hit. I don’t know why I did that.”

Bitty smiles. “Oh, honey, don’t worry about it. It was kinda nice to see you all riled up.”

Jack stares back at him for a full second, then blinks and looks away. “I mean, I know that’s been an issue for you, and I just… I guess I wasn’t thinking.”

“Sometimes it’s better if you don’t.”

“I’m trying to apologize, Bittle.”

“You are, aren’t you?” It’s pretty damn adorable. “All right, then. Apology accepted.”

“Okay.” Jack looks like he wants to say something else, but doesn’t. He stands, and Bitty gives in to the urge to look at his ass in all its college glory. Lord have mercy. What he’d like to do to that about now…

Jack turns around, and Bitty tears his eyes back up again, keeping his expression as innocent as possible. “So what happened, exactly? I mean, one minute you’re practically fainting, and the next you’re checking me into the boards.”

“Maybe all those checking clinics finally kicked in.” Bitty shrugs, then considers. He doesn’t know how long this dream will last, but he remembers lots of early mornings with Jack during his sophomore year. If his checking problem is cured, those won’t happen, and… shit. “Or maybe it’s just you,” he continues, frowning a little. “I mean, I trust you, right? I know you won’t hurt me. But I don’t know the other guys that well and…” He looks up at Jack.

Jack looks thoughtful. “Maybe. It’s progress, though. We should keep working on it, eh?”

“Yeah, we should.” Bitty smiles up at him, and can’t stop himself from leaning back a little, looking up at Jack through his eyelashes. Five years ago, that would’ve had Jack on his knees in two seconds flat.

Jack looks back at him with an expression of confusion.

Bitty sighs. This is going to be more of a challenge than he’d thought.

*****

He doesn’t have much time to worry about Jack, because he has something else to contend with in this damn dream: he is a sophomore at Samwell University, which means he has a full load of courses he’s long forgotten about. He apparently has a biology exam in two days, and he’s not even sure where his textbook is. It’s like that nightmare he keeps having that he’s suddenly got a final for a class he’d forgotten he was taking and never attended — but it’s real. Or at least, it feels completely real, and no amount of pinching himself or trying to convince his brain that this is just a dream makes a bit of difference.

He stumbles out of his last class of the day, still grateful for the schedule he’d found neatly written out in a planner tucked into his backpack. He walks back to the Haus slowly, taking it all in. Everything is exactly as he remembered, down to the hilarious 2010s fashions on the students around him. Even the campus looks as it did a decade ago, with a couple of the newer buildings missing. How odd that his brain has that level of detail stored away.

Something is making a buzzing sound in his backpack, and it’s a moment before he realizes it’s a phone. He stops and rifles through the pockets of the bag until he finds it. He spends a moment staring at it, trying to remember how to turn it on. Goodness, an actual phone you had to carry everywhere, instead of a virtual one that was keyed into your watch or your glasses, or connected to your earbuds. He’d loved his phone, hadn’t he? It had always been in his hand or his pocket, like an extension of him.

He manages to turn it on, but has no idea what his passcode might have been. Fortunately, his fingerprint hasn’t changed, so he gets in that way, and oh — the interface looks so old! It’s fascinating.

A notification pops up, and he taps it to go to the team’s group chat. The guys are talking about dinner plans and apparently also chirping a couple of the frogs about something that Bitty can’t quite make sense of. Someone wants to know if Bitty is cooking. He grins and taps out a reply of Any requests?

His phone buzzes almost continuously the rest of the way back.

Walking through the front door of the Haus is like going back in time. Literally back in time, maybe, because this is feeling less like a dream and more like reality with every passing minute. That god-awful green couch and the television with a rats’ nest of cables behind it, and the kitchen with the old, broken-down oven — all of it is so familiar, so real. Bitty puts his hands on the old oven and closes his eyes for a moment, overwhelmed.

So much happened in this room. He’s thought about it a lot, even though he’s cooked in vastly better kitchens since. This was the first one he’d ever really felt like was his, though, with the ancient oven he knew intimately, and the creaky old fridge he’d kept full of eggs and butter, and the sink that was never big enough to wash big baking pans in. He grew up in this kitchen, in more ways than one.

“Hey,” he hears, and turns to see Jack standing in the doorway. “You okay?”

He hadn’t realized he was crying. “Uh, yeah, sorry.” He wipes at his eyes, and laughs. “Just feeling a little sentimental, I guess.”

“Sentimental,” Jack repeats, like he’s not sure he heard correctly.

“Oh, you know. This old kitchen has a lot of memories.”

“Yeah, I… guess.”

Jack stares at him for several seconds, and Bitty remembers that at this point, he’s only lived here for a month. Oops.

“The guys are all wondering about dinner. I thought you might, uh… need some help?”

Bitty smiles at him. “Absolutely.”

He has to be creative with the ingredients in the fridge, but he comes up with a plan quickly: orange-sauced chicken and vegetables, with a side of pasta with a creamy sauce. He gets Jack started chopping vegetables while he does a quick brine with the chicken breasts.

Jack is quiet, so Bitty peppers him with questions about his classes and his thoughts on the preseason. Jack opens up when he talks about hockey, as always. It’s a safe topic, the only thing they’ve talked about for months.

He frowns at that: this isn’t real, and that’s not his Jack. He doesn’t want to think about it all anyway, so he nods along as Jack goes on about defensive prospects in the ECAC, and watches the movement of his hands and the way he fills out the sweats he’s wearing. There’s a little curl of hair over his forehead that he keeps brushing back out of his face.

Bitty’s mind is suddenly flooded with an image of Jack on his knees, his mouth full, and Bitty’s hands buried in that hair — and just like that he’s got half a chub in the middle of dinner prep. He turns away from Jack, shaking his head. That’s another thing he’d forgotten about being twenty: it doesn’t take much.

*****

An entire week passes in real time, and Bitty starts to wonder if this is a dream after all. Nothing freaky has happened. He can’t fly, and he hasn’t once found himself naked in public. It’s nothing like his dreams usually go. If this was all in his head, wouldn’t something strange have happened by now?

Well, he managed to squeak out a 60 on his biology exam. He’s not completely sure how that happened, but he did study a little.

As crazy as it seems, he starts to entertain the idea that maybe he really traveled back in time somehow, back to the semester when he fell in love with Jack and changed the whole course of his life. Maybe this happened for a reason. Maybe he should think of it as a chance to do things differently, make different choices.

He’d spent that whole damn year pining, convinced Jack was straight. But if he’s really from the future, why not use what he knows to his advantage?

He could try to seduce Jack outright. He could flirt endlessly, charm Jack in all the ways he knows Jack likes. He could slip into Jack’s bedroom one night and kiss all the places that make him weak in the knees, suck his dick with two fingers inside him, the way he loves it. He could blow Jack’s mind from day one, have him eating out of his hand. Or he could play a long game and wait Jack out, knowing how it’s going to end. Maybe he could speed things along a little, not be so afraid.

Or maybe… maybe he should let Jack get there in his own time, and take advantage of the fact that he’s a young, hot gay boy at a university with a lot of other young hot gay boys. He’s never even had sex with anyone other than Jack, after all. Maybe he should give it a try.

He pulls off his shirt and stares at himself in the full-length mirror in his room. He turns sideways and runs a palm over the flat plane of his belly. He can’t have more than about 8% body fat, and dear lord, look at the definition of his abs. It’s been years since he could eat whatever he wanted and still look like this. How the hell did he not appreciate it at the time?

Well, he’s definitely going to appreciate it now.

*****

The first time, he begs Lardo to go with him. They hit a gay club on the edge of campus on a Wednesday night, fake IDs in hand. Bitty sticks close to her at first, uncertain how comfortable she might be with the whole thing. Half an hour in, she’s making out in a dark corner with a girl with spiky red hair, so Bitty stops worrying.

He dances with half a dozen guys that night, each of whom makes it clear they’re down for whatever he might want to do. He’s never felt this kind of power before, like he could have anyone or anything he wanted. It’s heady, brilliant, and the nervousness he’s felt for the last few days melts away.

There’s a guy who’s been watching him all night, sitting with a group of friends. He’s not Bitty’s type at all — meaning he doesn’t look anything like Jack — but he’s cute and his smile is sort of blinding, and Bitty thinks, yeah, that one.

It’s ridiculously easy to get the guy to come over, to lean into Bitty’s space. He’s taller than Bitty, but not by much, and his light brown hair has enough product in it that Bitty is afraid to touch it. His body feels slight pressed against Bitty’s on the dance floor, not thick and athletic like — well, like Jack. It’s good, though, and the guy’s dick is hard against Bitty’s thigh, and yeah, if he’s going to do this, he should probably make the first move.

Bitty leans in enough to kiss him lightly, then whispers, “Wanna get out of here?”

The guy’s hands tighten on Bitty’s hips. “Fuck yeah.”

Bitty takes him by the table where Lardo and the redhead are deep in conversation. She raises her eyebrows at him, but nods and holds up her phone. They’d agreed to text each other if they split up tonight.

They go back to the guy’s dorm room. He puts a sock on the knob before locking it, which makes Bitty laugh, somehow. It’s just so college, which is the point, but still. The guy’s bed is lofted, so they climb the ladder and fall into the narrow bunk together. Bitty’s not sure how they’re going to do this without one of them falling off, but the guy doesn’t seem bothered. He presses Bitty down into the thin mattress and kisses him almost reverently. They make out for a while, gradually shedding clothing. The guy’s eyes go wide when Bitty’s shirt comes off, and he spends a good five minutes licking Bitty’s abs.

“You’re so fucking hot,” he says, sliding down the bed enough that Bitty’s genuinely afraid he’ll fall off the end. “You must work out like, all the time.”

“I play hockey,” Bitty replies, and the guy looks up, incredulous. “I really do. Come to a game sometime.”

“No, I believe you, I just… every hockey player I’ve ever met was a homophobic dudebro.”

“Well, not at Samwell, I guess.”

The guy grins at that. “So, uh… I’ve always wanted to blow a jock.”

Bitty shifts up on his elbows and grins back. “Yeah?”

It’s a sloppy blowjob, but the way the guy moans around Bitty’s dick the whole time is pretty damn hot. Bitty tells him so, says the kinds of dirty things he’s always been a little nervous about saying to Jack, and the guy sucks harder. Bitty warns him when he’s close, but the guy doesn’t stop, and Bitty comes in his mouth.

The guy climbs back over him, and Bitty reaches down, intending to jerk him off.

“Actually, can I rub off on your abs?” He bites his lip, looking a little embarrassed.

“Uh, sure.”

The guy pulls a tube of lube from under the mattress and slicks himself up, then ruts against Bitty’s stomach. He kisses him the whole time, wet, open-mouthed kisses with way too much tongue, but he’s so into it that Bitty finds it weirdly hot. He wraps his legs around the guy’s thighs and grabs his ass, urging him on. He feels wanton and a little wild, and it’s good. Better than he’d even expected.

The guy comes, shaking, and collapses on Bitty after. “God, that was… fuck.” He pushes off of Bitty and flops down beside him. The bed is so narrow that he has to hang one leg of the side of the loft. “I think you’ve made me into a hockey fan.”

Bitty laughs. “That’s the plan, one fan at a time.”

The guy snickers at that. There’s a banging on the door then — apparently the roommate has returned and isn’t happy about being sexiled.

“I have an early practice anyway,” Bitty tells him while getting dressed.

The guy watches him, leering openly, then pulls Bitty into one more kiss before steering him toward the door. “If I ask for your number, will you give it to me?”

Bitty looks back at him, considering. It was fun, but he’s not really interested in anything more. The idea was to experiment, live a little, enjoy being young and hot and so on. And this guy — lord, they never even exchanged names — is not really what Bitty wants.

Bitty opens the door, then turns and smiles at him. “It’s fifteen.” He winks at the guy’s roommate, who just frowns in response, and walks away.

That was the first night, but definitely not the last. He goes out more often than he probably should, considering he has early morning practices and games on the weekends, and also classes and homework and baking to do. He doesn’t get enough sleep and his grades slip a little too much, but it’s worth it to experience all the things he’s imagined but never done: grinding against someone on the dance floor until they both come in their pants, getting on his knees in a bathroom stall, bending over a sink while some guy eats him out, and one night even a threesome with a couple of guys who are years out of college and have a nice apartment together. Over the course of a few weeks, he does it all. It’s exciting in its illicitness, raw and dirty and erotic. He goes through condoms faster than Ransom and Holster combined, and spends a lot of time in the locker room hiding bruises that have nothing to do with hockey. It’s incredible, and he enjoys every minute of it.

He likes the chase, reeling someone in and turning them on, finding out what they like and giving it to them. He doesn’t fuck the same guy twice, despite the fact that a few clearly wanted to date him. Most of them are in it for the quick physical connection and are happy to move on, which is great, easy — but ultimately not what Bitty wants. The other guys on the team talk about hookups like they’re better than dating, but after about a month of fairly anonymous sex with so many guys he stops counting, the shine kind of wears off.

And every day, there is Jack, waking Bitty up for practice, sitting across from him at breakfast, and looking at him helplessly in class, lost because he’d spent the lecture designing hockey plays instead of taking notes. He looks back at Bitty with his big blue eyes, and Bitty melts.

Every moment Bitty spends with Jack makes him want Jack more. Apparently he can’t change his fate that much.

*****

They spend a Thursday afternoon in the Haus kitchen, working on their projects for Dr. Atley’s class. Jack prattles on about his future prospects while overworking dough, and Bitty just watches. He’s so relaxed like this, so at ease. Bitty’s stopped trying to remember if Jack was like this before — those old memories are fading as they’re being overwritten by new ones. Sometimes Bitty isn’t even sure if the memories he has of the future are real — maybe that was all an elaborate hallucination triggered by the concussion he’d had last spring, and this has been reality all along.

Sometimes he panics when he thinks about that. What if Jack really is straight after all, and Bitty imagined the whole thing?

He shakes off the thought and tunes in again. Jack has a tangle of strips of dough in his hands now, and he’s talking about the possibility of going to an expansion team.

“I like the Falconers,” Bitty says. “George seemed real nice.”

“Yeah, she is. And I guess I like the idea of starting with a team that’s still making a name for themselves, you know? It might be nice to be a part of that.”

“It will be,” Bitty says.

Jack looks up at him, eyes narrowed. “Huh?”

Oops. Bitty tries not to do that, but sometimes around Jack, he forgets. He looks pointedly at the mess of dough in Jack’s hands. “You need a little help there?”

Jack blinks at him, then looks down at his hands with an expression of surprise. “Shit. Sorry, Bits. I’m really not any good at this kind of thing.”

“You just need to practice,” Bitty replies. “It’s all in the wrists.”

“Wrists,” Jack repeats with a note of incredulity. He’s got a smear of flour on his cheek.

“You’ve got—” Bitty says, gesturing at Jack’s face. Jack blinks in confusion, so Bitty reaches up to wipe it away with his fingers. “There, that’s better.” He smiles softly.

Jack doesn’t reply; he just stares at Bitty like he can’t tear himself away. His eyes are so, so blue, and Bitty wants so badly to kiss him right now. He cups Jack’s cheek with his fingers, slides his thumb along the strong line of his jaw, then drops his hand to Jack’s chest.

“Bitty,” Jack says, then stops. He flushes and looks away.

“Hmmm?” Bitty watches him for a moment, but Jack doesn’t seem like he’s going to continue. “I hate to say it, sweetheart, but I think this lattice is a lost cause.”

“Oh.” Jack ducks his head and stares at the tangled ball of dough in his hands. “Sorry.”

“You already apologized, you know.” Bitty takes the dough from him, letting his fingers brush against Jack’s a little more than necessary.

Jack’s flush deepens, and oh. Bitty feels a flutter in his belly, like a dozen butterflies are taking off. He remembers this moment now, but in his memory, it was the other way around. This was the moment he’d realized he was falling for Jack, back in that other timeline. But this time around, it seems like Jack has just had a similar realization.

“I should wash my hands,” Jack says, not looking at him. “They’re all buttery.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing.” Bitty bumps him with one shoulder, still watching his face.

Jack’s smile turns sly. “Well, I guess there’s a time and place, but the kitchen is probably not it.”

There’s a full beat before Bitty can bring himself to speak. “Did you just… Jack Zimmermann, was that a dirty joke?”

Jack goes as red as Bitty has ever seen him, and of course, that’s the moment Shitty walks in.

“Whoa, am I interrupting something?”

Bitty gives Jack a fond look, then grins at Shitty. “Jack can’t bake for shit, but I love him anyway.”

Jack stares back at Bitty, startled.

“We all do,” Shitty says, slinging an arm around Jack’s shoulders. “Bruh, domestic is a weirdly good look on you.”

“Thanks,” Jack says, completely deadpan.

Bitty laughs, and tries not to think too much about the way Jack looks at him for the rest of the day.

*****

Something shifts between them after that. Jack sticks a little closer, watches Bitty more carefully than he did before. At team breakfast, he snags a seat next to Bitty, seems to time his locker room exits for when Bitty is done, and goes out of his way to walk with Bitty to class most mornings. He talks easily about everything and nothing, and it’s unexpectedly charming. It’s been so long since they had this much time together that Bitty had forgotten what it was like for Jack not to be constantly stressed out and fighting anxiety and injury in his last few years in the NHL. If that even happened at all.

On their next roadie, Jack surprises Bitty and most of the rest of the guys by sitting next to him on the bus. He always sits with Shitty, and Jack is nothing if not a creature of habit. Shitty slides in next to Lardo, though, in Bitty’s usual spot, and they exchange shy smiles. Lardo had briefly dated a girl she’d met in that month the two of them spent clubbing, but she’d broken it off after drunkenly confiding to Bitty that she was stupidly in love with Shitty and had been for ages. Bitty had told her he was pretty certain Shitty felt the same way.

He didn’t mention the marriage and two kids, one a fierce little copy of Lardo and the other confidently charming, even in preschool. He’d just smiled and said, “You should tell him.”

Jack settles next to Bitty with a small smile, then proceeds to mostly ignore him for the entire bus ride. Which is fine, honestly: being pressed up against Jack for a handful of hours is enough for the moment.

After that, it’s just a thing. Jack and Bitty are BFFs, as far as the rest of the team is concerned. If anyone has noticed all the unresolved sexual tension between them, they haven’t said a word. Bitty is tempted to do something about that, but he doesn’t. He wants Jack to make that move, wants to see how long he’ll pine before he gives in. Bitty is warm and open, flirts when they’re alone and acts like a bro when they’re not. Jack seeks out opportunities to touch him, to be close to him, but never pushes it any further.

And Bitty jerks off every night like it’s his fucking job, because goddamn, this is frustrating as hell.

*****

“So,” Holster says, throwing an arm around Bitty’s shoulders. “Winter Screw is coming up.”

“Right,” Bitty replies, glancing sideways at him. “Are you looking for ideas? Because if you are—”

“Nope, just letting you know I’m working on something for you.” Holster’s grin is almost a leer as he walks away.

Bitty sighs. So this is a thing he’s going to have to deal with.

He should just ask Jack to go with him. All he has to do is say the words — and yet. He’s sat down with Jack three separate times in the last week with that intention, and every time, he’s chickened out, has let the conversation get steered toward hockey or something else.

He’s running out of time, though, so when he and Jack walk back from class that afternoon, he decides to try again.

“So, Winter Screw.”

Jack smiles. “Holster trying to find you a date again?”

“Yeah. What about you?”

“I’m going with Camilla.”

“Oh.” Bitty has to look away for a moment to hide his disappointment. “Who set that up?”

“One of her friends. I guess she told them outright she wanted to go with me.”

“But, like… y’all broke up last spring, right?”

“We’re still friends.” Jack shrugs. “And it’s my last Winter Screw, eh? I liked the idea of going with a friend, someone’s who’s been a big part of my time here at Samwell.”

Bitty makes a sound of derision before he can stop himself. “And that means you have to go with your ex?”

Jack turns to look at him, surprised. “What?”

Bitty stops walking, readjusts the bag on his shoulder. He turns to look squarely at Jack. “Look, if she asked to be set up with you, I seriously doubt she’s thinking of you as just a friend.”

Jack frowns. “Well, who else could I have gone with?”

“You seriously can’t think of another friend you could have asked?”

Jack stares back at him, clearly perplexed. “I thought about it, but Lardo already had a date.”

“Oh my god.” Bitty walks away, desperately wishing he had another class to go to so he wouldn’t have to walk all the way back to the Haus with Jack.

“Bitty—”

Bitty stops again, and whirls to glare at him. “I’m talking about me. You could have asked me.”

Jack’s mouth falls open almost comically. “I… but…”

“It never even occurred to you, did it?” Bitty shakes his head. “Unbelievable.”

Jack’s expression is stricken, like he knows he should say something, but doesn’t know what. He sighs and looks away. “Bittle, look—”

“You know what? Never mind. Forget I said anything.” Bitty walks backward, a strange panic filling his chest. “I just remembered I’ve got a meeting with my TA for, uh… I gotta go.”

He turns and walks back the direction they came, and swallows down the feeling that he’s just fucked this up completely. He was so sure Jack had feelings for him, but maybe the timing was all wrong. Maybe Jack realized it too early and panicked, thinking about the contract negotiations coming up. Or maybe Jack really is straight after all, and all these memories in Bitty’s head are just some strange fantasies his brain has spun out of desperation.

*****

Holster: Bits have I got a guy for you [winky face] [flame emoji] [eggplant]

Me: Are you telling me I’m gonna get laid?

Holster: BROOOO
Holster: I got ur back

*****

The night of Winter Screw arrives, and just as Bitty expects, his date is a British rubgy player. It turns out they hooked up back during the month Bitty now thinks of as his slutty phase. They were both a little drunk at the time, but it’s definitely the same guy. They grin at each other when they come face to face.

“I’m really sorry, but I don’t remember your name,” Bitty says.

“Rupert,” he replies, grinning.

“Eric. Well, everyone calls me Bitty.”

“Maybe I’ll call you Eric, then, just to be unique.”

Winter Screw is fun, more fun than Bitty remembers these things being. He remembers feeling awkward and shy around his Winter Screw dates, and not ever really being relaxed enough to enjoy it. He’s a different person now, though, confident and experienced, and the juxtaposition makes his head spin a little.

His good mood is challenged, though, by the sight of Jack and Camilla Collins dancing together. She’s even more beautiful than Bitty’d remembered, and she looks great with Jack, too, like she’d make a good hockey wife. Bitty has a moment of abject terror at that thought: what if that’s how things turn out in this timeline? What if Jack and Camilla hit it off again, and this is how it starts?

Bitty had given Jack the cold shoulder for most of the week, only talking to him when he had to. Jack had stayed out of his way for the most part, shooting him hurt looks whenever he caught Bitty’s eye. Bitty had glared at him in response, which — okay, he can admit now that was probably an overreaction on his part. He’s just… he knows he’s confusing the Jack from the future with the Jack from the past, and it isn’t fair to punish this Jack for something he hasn’t even done yet, but he can’t help it.

They should have just talked about it, of course, but Bitty had desperately wanted to cling to whatever hope he could. If talking to Jack meant Jack telling Bitty he didn’t like him that way, that he’s straight and it was never going to happen between them…

Bitty isn’t ready to face that possibility.

Even now, there’s a pit in his stomach when he thinks about it. Shitty’s insistence on pre-gaming at the Haus definitely helps, though, as does a decent DJ and someone to dance with. Rupert is a good dancer, and he’s also clearly expecting to get some tonight. Bitty hasn’t decided either way — that depends on a few other factors.

In particular, it depends on Jack, who has so far spent this evening dancing pretty damn closely with Camilla. She wraps her arms around his neck and smiles up at him, and Bitty’s chest fills with a dark jealousy that surprises him. So he flirts with Rupert a little more than he might have done otherwise, and lets Rupert kiss him on the dance floor in full view of everyone. He can’t help looking over at Jack while his lips are locked with Rupert’s. Jack looks back, then leans in to kiss Camilla too. His eyes are wide open, and he doesn’t look away from Bitty. Rupert’s mouth moves to Bitty’s jaw and then down to his neck, sucking the skin lightly. Bitty tilts his head a little and keeps his gaze on Jack the entire time. Jack pulls Camilla even closer with a hand on her ass. He slides his other hand into her hair and kisses her with way more tongue than is appropriate in the middle of a school dance.

“Wanna get out of here?” Rupert whispers, then licks Bitty’s ear.

Bitty kind of wants to stay here and keep playing this weird game, but he’s not sure how much more of Jack and Camilla making out he can take. He glances back over his shoulder as Rupert leads him away. Camilla is practically wrapped around Jack now, but Jack is watching Bitty with a dark look on his face. Bitty raises his eyebrows in response. If Jack can’t take it, he should never have started dishing it out.

They end up making out in an alcove on the side of the building, pressed tightly together. Rupert kisses a little wildly for Bitty’s taste, but it’s been a while, so he’s not feeling picky. Rupert’s mouth is latched onto Bitty’s neck when they hear a small gasp, followed by a giggle.

“Sorry,” Camilla says, tugging Jack along the sidewalk. “Guess we’ll find another spot.”

“Cheers,” Rupert says, and goes back to sucking a bruise low on Bitty’s throat again.

Camilla turns away, but Jack seems frozen in place. Bitty’s had a few drinks by now and he’s horny as hell, and god, he just wants Jack so much. He stares back at Jack over Rupert’s shoulder, trying and probably failing to keep that raw need off of his face. Jack’s eyes narrow and he clenches his jaw, clearly frustrated.

“Oh my god, don’t stare!” Camilla says, and tugs his hand harder. They disappear into the darkness.

Bitty closes his eyes and gives Rupert a little push away. He’s not sure what he wants anymore, but he doesn’t want to face Jack with a massive hickey on his neck. After that display, Jack might end up fucking Camilla Collins tonight anyway.

Bitty might have just screwed this whole thing up.

He doesn’t want to date Rupert, but right now, he’d really like to feel like he’s somebody’s first choice. Even if they aren’t his.

“Everything okay?” Rupert asks.

“Yeah, just… can I blow you?”

“Oh, wow. Sure.” Rupert’s eyes are wide when Bitty looks at him.

“Not here, though. I don’t wanna get arrested.”

“My dorm room isn’t far. And my roommate is still on the dance floor.”

Bitty nods. “Then let’s go.”

Bitty blows him while he sits on his narrow twin bed, and it’s quick and easy. Rupert jerks hims off after, and Bitty is pretty sure this is exactly what happened between them before. They talk after, and Rupert seems cool with just being a hookup.

“No, I get it,” he says. “It’s mad during the season. But if you ever want a booty call, text me.”

Bitty laughs and kisses him for that.

Jack’s door is closed when he gets back to the Haus, and Bitty has no idea if he’s there or not. He pulls his covers up to his chin and tries really hard not to dwell on it.

*****

He overhears Shitty asking Jack for deets the next morning, and he ducks downstairs before he can hear something he doesn’t want to know. He makes coffee and pancakes, and guys start coming in the kitchen once the scent permeates the Haus.

“Biiiits,” Ransom says, holding up a fist.

Bitty bumps it back, and his confusion must be clear, because Rans looks pointedly at his neck.

“Oh,” Bitty says with a resigned sigh. He’s going to have to go up and change his shirt before Jack sees him.

He meets Jack on the stairs, because of course he does.

“Brooo,” Shitty says, leaning in to have a closer look. “Looks like Jacko’s not the only one who got some action last night.”

Bitty gives Jack a sharp look, and Jack looks slightly pained.

“Jesus, Shits, will you shut the fuck up?”

Shitty laughs, then ruffles Bitty’s hair before continuing down the stairs, leaving him alone with Jack.

They stare at each other for a long moment.

“This is awkward,” Bitty says, at the same time Jack says, “Sorry about that.”

They stare at each other again.

“Have fun last night?” Bitty asks. He can’t keep a small note of bitterness out of his voice.

Jack’s eyes narrow. “I could ask you the same thing.”

Bitty presses his lips together and shrugs. Fuck, this is not a conversation he wants to have this morning. “There’s pancakes if you want them.”

“Yeah, I… thanks.”

Jack hesitates, and Bitty desperately wants to take him by the hand and pull him upstairs, close a door behind them and kiss him until they can’t breathe. He wants that so badly, but he might have lost his chance, and it’s suddenly killing him. He feels like he might throw up.

Jack frowns at him. “Are you okay?”

No, Bitty thinks, so loudly he wouldn’t be surprised if Jack heard it. He’s so not okay. He’s been toying with this thing all along, like it was inevitable that he’d end up with Jack, but what if he’s changed the whole timeline and now it doesn’t happen? What if he’s scared Jack off somehow? What if—

“Bitty,” Jack says, and reaches for him, and Bitty knows without a doubt that if he lets Jack touch him, he’s going to turn into a crying, babbling mess. He’s going to yell at Jack for leaving him alone in Providence after five years of marriage because ultimately hockey was more important, and that Bitty isn’t going to do this again unless he knows it will turn out differently. Maybe this time he’ll give up the bakery, or maybe he’ll convince Jack that following George to St. Louis is a bad idea and that it won’t make him any happier. If he can’t be sure that this won’t all end with him wondering if Jack even loves him at all, then maybe he shouldn’t put his heart in Jack’s hands in the first place.

He flees past Jack, up the stairs and into his room. He shuts the door behind him and flings himself onto his bed, face pressed into the pillow. The tears come, hard and fast, and he sobs loudly. He’s fucked it all up. He had another chance, and here he is, crying into his pillow, and Jack still doesn’t love him and will probably end up dating Camilla Collins and moving her into his apartment in Providence. She’ll fit in well with the other WAGs, and there won’t be any awkward coming out scenes to deal with, and Bitty will watch him play on TV and wonder what the hell happened to the life he had with Jack, the one where they got married and he opened a bakery and they were thinking about adopting a dog and were planning to start a family once Jack retired from hockey and and and oh, god.

He cries until his stomach muscles ache, until he doesn’t have any more tears, until his nose is snotty and his head hurts.

He still fucking loves Jack Zimmermann, and there’s not a damn thing he can do about it.

*****

There aren’t any games during finals week, and practices are optional. Bitty goes to all of them anyway, because the alternative is studying and, frankly, he’s starting to question whether or not he should even bother to finish college in this timeline.

Okay, not really. But since the future is apparently wide open again, why not consider all the options?

Jack keeps his distance at practice and breakfast and while hanging around the Haus, which only makes it worse. Every time Bitty looks at him, Jack looks away again, so quickly that Bitty starts to wonder what the hell is going on. By Wednesday afternoon, it seems clear that waiting it out isn’t going to work. And honestly, Bitty should know this by now. Jack is bad at words at age 35, so why would he voluntarily seek out Bitty to talk about his feelings at 25?

Bitty considers texting him, but he’s pretty sure this will all go more smoothly if he can just catch Jack alone for a few minutes. Jack holes up in his room studying all evening, though, not even coming out for dinner. Around 9:00 pm, Bitty makes him a PBJ, grabs a Powerade, and heads upstairs. He knocks on Jack’s door, then knocks again, but there’s no response. Bitty frowns: has Jack been out all evening? He takes a step back from the door and frowns. If Jack has been out with Camilla this whole time, Bitty’s not going to keep his mouth shut. He’s going have something to say about it.

He retreats to his room and sets the plate on his desk, scowling. He sinks into the chair and picks up his phone, scrolls through the group text. He’s not sure what makes him look out the window, but when he does, he sees someone out on the roof: it’s Jack.

Something settles in Bitty’s stomach then, a mix of understanding and relief. He grabs a blanket off the foot of his bed, picks up the plate with the sandwich, and then has to set it all down again to wedge the window open.

Jack looks up when he steps over the sill. “Hey.”

“Peace offering?” Bitty hands him the plate with the sandwich, then settles next to him with the blanket wrapped around himself. “Thought you might be hungry.”

“Oh. Thanks.” Jack stares at the sandwich for a moment before picking it up and taking a bite.

Bitty watches him eat, pulling the blanket around himself more tightly. It’s pretty damn cold out, but Jack is just wearing a jacket. Bitty has no idea how he isn’t freezing.

“So… how are your finals going?”

Jack shrugs, then swallows before replying. “Fine, I guess. I’ve got one exam and one paper left, but the paper’s basically done. I just need to go through it one more time. You?”

Bitty chuckles. “You know me. I’ll be cramming until the last minute.”

Jack shakes his head. “I couldn’t handle that. It freaks me out just thinking about it.”

“I know, but it works for me. It’s like I can’t get myself to focus without the pressure of the exam being, like, tomorrow.”

Jack nods and takes another bite. Neither of them speak again until he sets the plate down beside him. “I guess I was hungrier than I realized.”

“You should’ve come down for dinner.”

“Wasn’t really up to it.”

Bitty watches him for a moment. “Hey… are you okay?”

“Yeah. Just… things have been a little… I don’t know.”

“Things?”

Jack looks away and shrugs.

Bitty sighs. “Okay, I’m just going to ask: what’s the deal with you and Camilla?”

Jack goes completely still next to him, and doesn’t reply.

“I know it’s none of my business if you hooked up with her or what, but…” Bitty pulls his knees to his chest. “I just want to know.”

Jack gives him a pointed look. “I’ll answer it if you will.”

“Yes, fine, I hooked up with him.” Bitty groans and presses his forehead into his knees. “And it wasn’t the first time; we hooked up about a month ago too. I wasn’t actually going to do it again, but I saw you with Camilla and I just… God, I don’t know. I wanted not to feel like that, so I made him take me back to his dorm and I blew him and he—”

“I don’t actually need the details,” Jack says, voice strained.

“Sorry.” Bitty takes a deep breath. “Your turn.”

Jack sighs. “I slept with her. I wasn’t going to, but then you and he were… well.”

“Okay.” Bitty pushes down the feeling of dread that’s quickly rising in his throat. “So are you two dating now, or?”

“No,” Jack replies, so quickly it almost sounds like a laugh. “It reminded me that I’m not really into her, I guess.” He hesitates, picking at a piece of loose tile between them. “What about you and… whats-his-name?”

Bitty looks up at the sky, cold and clear. “I already did the whole hooking-up-with-random-people thing. It’s not what I want.”

“And he’s not someone you’d want to date?”

“Definitely not.”

Jack nods, but doesn’t say anything else. Silence stretches between them again, but it feels different now, companionable instead of tense.

“God, it’s freezing out here,” Bitty says at last. “Aren’t you cold?”

“Yeah, actually.”

Bitty scoots a little closer and extends the blanket to wrap it around Jack’s shoulders. “Wanna share body heat?”

Jack smiles at that. “I don’t think your blanket is big enough for the two of us.”

“Well, how about this, then?” Bitty wraps the blanket around Jack’s shoulders.

“But you—”

“And then,” Bitty says, moving to sit in front of him, “we can both be warm. Open.” He pushes at Jack’s knees, and smirks a little when Jack’s thighs fall open. “Lord, you’re easy.” Jack snorts, and Bitty settles between his legs, back pressed against Jack’s front, then pulls Jack’s arms (and the blanket) around him. “There, isn’t that better?”

Jack sighs against Bitty’s hair, relaxing into it. “Yeah.”

“So what were you brooding about, sitting out here all by yourself?”

“I wasn’t brooding,” Jack replies, then tightens his arms around Bitty a little. “Nothing, really. Just the usual stuff.”

“Your future NHL career?”

“Something like that.”

Jack rambles for a while about teams and contracts, what his father and his agent think, and Bitty leans back into him, listening. It feels so familiar that he aches with it, longs for the fading memories of the future in which he had this and lost it again. He lets his head fall back against Jack’s shoulder and snuggles his face into Jack’s neck. Jack tenses for a moment, but before Bitty can pull away, he relaxes again.

“You falling asleep on me?”

“Literally.” Bitty yawns. “God, I’ve missed this.”

“Missed… what?”

Bitty replays the words in his head. Shit. “I should go to bed,” he says, and doesn’t add before I say something really stupid.

“Yeah, for sure.” Jack unwraps his arms, and the blast of cold air wakes Bitty up completely. “You going to practice in the morning?”

“Probably. I mean, it’s not like I’ll know calculus any better if I spend that hour studying.”

Jack shakes his head incredulously, and hands him the blanket. “Good night, Bittle.”

Bitty grins at him. “Good night, Jack.”

*****

“You and Jack made up, eh?”

Bitty looks up from the procrastination cookies he’s throwing together from stuff he scrounged up in the pantry. They’re not something he’d sell in his bakery, but this oven doesn’t heat evenly anyway, bless her little old heart. “Yeah, I guess.”

Ransom digs a container out of the fridge and squints at the label. “Good. We all hate it when mom and dad fight.”

Bitty snorts, but he can’t help grinning as he turns back to the dough. “We weren’t fighting. It was just… you know how he gets when there isn’t hockey to take the edge off.”

“For reals,” Ransom replies. “Oh, hey — has Holster run the plans by you yet? He wants to set up something here in the kitchen.”

“Plans for what?”

“The kegster, bro. It’s gonna be epic. Like, hashtag Epikegster.”

Bitty turns to stare at him. “Epikegster. Oh, wow.”

“I know, right?” Ransom grins. “He’s got some kind of liquor luge thing he wants to do, or some shit. He wants to do it in the kitchen.”

Bitty remembers that luge, and remembers that he spent a good part of the next morning scrubbing sticky residue off the kitchen floor. “Oh, no. Not this time.”

Rans gives him a funny look. “Hey, I’m just the messenger. I’ll tell him to ask you all nice and shit. Later, Bits.”

The door closes behind him, and Bitty leans back against the counter. Epikegster. That’s gonna be interesting.

*****

Jack is in a good mood at the last practice of the term, and Bitty is on the receiving end of it. He gets pushed into the boards three times before he starts retaliating by trying to trip Jack every chance he gets.

“Knock it off before one of you gets hurt!” Coach Murray calls from his vantage point at center ice.

Jack flushes and shoots Bitty an apologetic look. Bitty winks at him, and Jack flushes even more.

“All right, I see where this is going,” Coach Hall says with a touch of exasperation. “Three-on-three scrimmage, special rules. Zimmermann and Knight are captains. Go.”

Jack grabs Bitty by the arm and tugs him close. “Bittle.”

Shitty rolls his eyes. “Chill, bruh, I wasn’t gonna steal your favorite liney. I’ll take Holster.”

“Ransom,” Jack says.

Holster gasps dramatically. “The fuck, bro? How come you get to have your BFF and I can’t have mine?”

“Oh, for—” Jack shakes his head. “Fine, I’ll take Wicks instead.”

Bitty laughs, soaking it all up. Being the center of Jack’s attention is like having a spotlight in your eyes sometimes, but he loves it. He’d almost forgotten what it feels like.

“What’s the plan, Cap?” Dex asks when they’re all huddled up.

Jack elbows Bitty. “You up for being a distraction?”

Bitty grins. “Yeah, I think I can handle that.”

They have a brief, but hilarious scrimmage in which Bitty pulls out every figure skating move he can manage to do in hockey skates every time he gets near the puck. The guys spend half the time watching him to see what he’ll do next, so it works even better than anticipated.

And also? Holy shit, it’s fun to do this in a body that’s ten years younger. His knees aren’t going to start hurting for years yet.

“Dude,” Nursey says after Bitty surprises even himself by actually landing a double axel, “we could seriously make a play out of this.”

Holster fist-bumps him. “I’ve been sayin’ that for years, bro.”

A handful of the guys head off to study for their final exams right after practice, but the rest walk over to Founders for the last team breakfast of the semester.

“So why’d you stop figure skating?” Nursey asks when they’re all sitting down with plates in front of them.

The table grows quiet as everyone pauses their conversations.

Bitty looks around, surprised. He doesn’t remember this topic ever coming up in the past, at least not in a group setting. The guys hadn’t been all that interested.

He takes a swig of coffee. “Well, I kind of went as far as I could go by the time I was fifteen. I wasn’t going to be able to compete at a national level without my parents coming up with a hundred thousand a year for my training alone.” Most of the guys gape at that, but a few nod in understanding. “And even if we’d had the money, I don’t think I wanted to keep going. I loved it, but I wasn’t really dreaming of spending my twenties playing a Prince in Disney on Ice.” He shrugs. “And I’d been wanting to try hockey anyway, so it seemed like a good time to make a switch.”

“Wait, you started playing hockey when you were fifteen?” Dex asks.

“Sixteen, really. And it was just a local rec team, you know? Co-ed, no contact. This was a big adjustment.”

“Holy shit,” Wicks says.

Bitty glances around the table — everyone is staring at him now with hilariously open mouths. “What? Why are y’all looking at me like that?”

“They’re impressed,” Jack says quietly from beside him. “And they should be.”

Bitty turns to look at him, and Jack smiles in a way that is undeniably fond. Bitty’s face heats, and he scoops a forkful of eggs into his mouth to cover his blush. Lord, if anyone at this table isn’t aware of his feelings for Jack, they’ve got to be blind.

Jack isn’t self-conscious, though, even slinging an arm around the back of Bitty’s chair when he’s done eating. Bitty tentatively presses a knee against Jack’s under the table, and Jack presses back.

Bitty exhales, slowly. He still isn’t sure what he wants, but being on good terms with Jack again feels really good.

*****

As Saturday night grows closer, Bitty gets more and more anxious. He’s like, 70% sure Kent Parson is going to show up. He’s less certain about all of his memories of the future with every passing day, but if Parse actually comes to this kegster — as unlikely as that seems — it would prove that he’s not making all of this up, right?

His memory of this night is that Jack and Parse had some kind of argument behind closed doors, one that involved Parse making a pass at Jack and Jack saying no, and ending with Parse saying some mean shit and Jack having a panic attack. Obviously, Bitty would like to avoid a repeat of any of that, but what’s he supposed to say? “Hey, Jack, don’t ask me how I know this, but FYI: Kent Parson is going to show up on Saturday night and fuck everything up for you.”

Yeah, no.

Bitty sticks close to Jack as the party gets started. Jack doesn’t mind, even seems pleased about it, happy to ignore everyone around them to talk to Bitty and take slow sips from his red solo cup. Bitty keeps an eye on the door for most of the evening, checking so frequently that Jack finally asks, “Expecting someone?”

Bitty laughs at that, and looks away before Jack can catch the way he’s flushing. He can’t remember the details of that night from a decade ago, though. He’d had a lot to drink, and he has no idea what time it was when Parse showed up. If it even happened.

It’s around 9:00, it turns out. A ripple of excitement washes through the crowd, and when Bitty looks up, he sees a familiar blond head standing just inside the front door.

He leans in close to Jack. “Hey, Kent Parson just walked in.”

Jack laughs for a full two seconds before he seems to realize Bitty isn’t joking. He turns to look, then swivels right back to Bitty again, face considerably paler than it was a moment ago. “Shit. Shit.”

“Yeah,” Bitty says, because his head is spinning too. He was right about this, which means— no, he doesn’t have time to think about what it means right now. He tugs Jack in the direction of the kitchen. Jack frowns, but follows without an argument.

The kitchen is empty, thanks to the hand-lettered sign Bitty had taped to the door this afternoon: PRIVATE - HAUS RESIDENTS ONLY. It’s dark too, illuminated only by the light over the stove. Once the door closes behind them, Bitty slides his hand down Jack’s forearm and catches his fingers.

“You okay?”

“Yes. No.” Jack closes his eyes for a moment. “What the hell is he doing here?”

“Well, the Aces are playing the Bruins tomorrow night.”

“Yeah, but… Did you know he was coming?”

Bitty looks down at where his fingers are entwined with Jack’s. “I thought it was a possibility, you know, considering.”

“Considering,” Jack repeats. His eyes narrow. “Wait, what?”

“Everybody knows you’re talking to teams, Jack, and everyone wants to know where you’re going. He probably thinks you’ll talk to him about it. Hell, maybe he thinks he can convince you to go to Las Vegas.”

Jack snorts. “Well, that’s not happening.”

“Good,” Bitty says before he can stop himself. Jack looks at him with raised eyebrows, and Bitty smiles as innocently as he can. He leans back against the counter behind him and squeezes Jack’s fingers. “I mean, that’s awfully far away.”

“Seattle’s farther.”

“What’s your point?”

Before Jack can answer, the kitchen door opens, flooding them with light and sound. Jack drops Bitty’s hand like it’s hot and takes a careful step away. Kent Parson is standing in the doorway, staring at the two of them. He closes the door behind him and leans back against it.

“Am I interrupting?”

“What the hell are you doing here?” Jack shakes his head, though he doesn’t pull off anything like surprised. “Crashing a college party isn’t really your style.”

“I didn’t know there’d be a party. Bonus, though.” Parse looks at Bitty with narrowed eyes. “Gonna introduce me to your friend?”

Jack doesn’t say anything, so after a long moment, Bitty says, “Hi. I’m Eric.”

“Right.” Parse gives him a long, speculative look.

Bitty’s known Parse for a decade now — he feels more certain of that fact now than he would have an hour ago. He actually kind of likes the guy, though it took him a while to get there. Well, he mostly likes Parse’s husband; he’s fun to hang out with during the All-Star weekends. This younger, angrier Parse, though — Bitty doesn’t trust him any farther than he can spit. He leans back against the counter again, making no move to leave the two of them alone.

Parse turns to Jack. “So like, sorry I ruined your little romantic moment or whatever, but I was hoping to talk to you.”

“Really?” Jack asks, voice dripping with sarcasm. Bitty remembers now: Jack has only seen Parse a couple of times since the overdose, and the last time was right after Parse had won a Stanley Cup.

Parse sighs heavily, eyes turning skyward. “Will you just fucking… Christ, Jack. I don’t have that much time, and I just wanted to…” He folds his arms over his chest. He’s practically oozing jealousy. Bitty can’t help but feel a little smug about that. “Yes. I’d like to talk to you.” His gaze flicks to Bitty again. “Alone.”

“Fine,” Jack says with a sigh. “But not here. Upstairs.” He shoots Bitty an apologetic glance, then gestures at the door Parse is blocking.

Parse steps aside to let him pass, then turns to look at Bitty again. He gives Bitty an obvious once-over, bitchface firmly in place. “God, you’re just his type.”

“Am I?” Bitty returns a cool smile.

“But he’ll always love hockey more than you.”

It hits a little too close to home. “Is that a fact?”

“Yeah.” Parse takes off his snapback, smooths his hair down, then puts it back on again. He raises his eyebrows at Bitty and walks through the door.

Bitty leans against the counter and looks heavenward, pleading for patience.

He really wants to follow them upstairs and press his ear to the door, but he forces himself to stay downstairs instead. He watches some unsuspecting bros get destroyed by Lardo at beer pong, then listens to Shitty go on a drunken political rant.

“Bruh, there’s no fuckin’ way Trump will get the nomination,” Shitty says, finger poking the chest of a random dude in a snapback. Bitty has to close his eyes for a moment, then walk away before he says something about the future that he shouldn’t.

Everyone else is drunk and laughing, talking about things he doesn’t care about. And making messes he’s going to have to clean up in the morning. Lord.

He finally gives in and makes his way up the stairs. He’s too old for this shit. Or… well, he feels like he is, anyway. He ducks under the caution tape and creeps slowly toward Jack’s door. He can hear quiet conversation, but he can’t really make out what either of them are saying. They’ve been talking for about fifteen minutes, so he supposes it’s going… well? Better than last time, hopefully.

He unlocks his door and stares around his room. This isn’t what he wants either. What he wants is to curl up on the couch with Jack and watch a movie, have a glass of wine, and just be for a while. God, that’s what he’s wanted for two years, but he can’t fucking—

He drops his hands, turns to stare at the door. Is any of it real, these things he remembers? Every time he convinces himself none of it is real, something like this happens to throw him back in the deep end again. He can’t have gone back in time, but yet, he knows things, things he shouldn’t be able to know. And he can’t escape the feeling that he doesn’t belong here. He feels years older than nineteen, or twenty, or however the hell old he is now.

Well, one thing he does know is that standing here and waiting to find out what’s happening between Jack and Parse is going to make him crazy.

He opens the door a few inches, then hears their voices, raised now:

“I’m talking a PTO, the playoffs — you do well and you could write your own damn ticket. What the hell is wrong with you?”

“I’ve spent four years here. I’m gonna finish.”

“Seriously? What does a fucking degree matter, with everything you’ve got ahead of you?”

There’s a pause, and then, “You wouldn’t understand.”

“Understand what?”

“This place, this team, all of it — it means a lot to me. I’m not gonna pick up and leave a month early. I have the next decade to play hockey.”

“Oh, fuck — it’s that guy, isn’t it?”

“What?”

“You’ve got yourself a college boyfriend, and you think that means something. Listen to me, Jack — you can have anyone you want. You know that, right? Anyone. Even—”

It’s quiet for a moment, too quiet.

“Kenny… I can’t.”

“Oh, c’mon. He doesn’t have to know.”

“That’s not—”

“I know you, okay? I know what you’re like. Hockey always comes first with you. You’ll forget about him the minute somebody else sits on your dick.”

“Get out.”

“Jack—”

“Get the fuck out. And stay away from Bitty.”

“What, you think you can take him with you, throw him in with the other WAGs? Christ, how naive are you?”

“Get out.”

There is a long silence, then the sound of the door opening across the hall. Bitty ducks behind his door, heart in his throat.

“Fine, whatever,” Parse says, in the hallway now. “Finish your stupid degree and sign with the Falconers. That ought to make your dad proud.”

There are footsteps, then silence. Bitty takes a deep breath and peeks through the opening of the door. He catches a glimpse of Jack’s panicked expression before Jack slams his own door shut.

Okay then.

Bitty counts to ten before knocking on Jack’s door. There’s no response. He raises his hand to knock again, but drops it to his side instead. “Jack?”

More silence. Bitty sighs and presses his palms over his eyes for a moment. He’s pretty sure he knows what’s happening on the other side of that door; he’s just not sure if he should do anything to help.

“Hey,” he says, leaning his forehead against the door. “I’m gonna go make you a cup of tea, okay? I’ll be right back.”

He heads downstairs. The party is still raging, but the kitchen is fairly quiet. People seem to have respected his sign tonight. A few minutes later, he winds his way back through the drunken crowd, precariously holding a cup of hot tea in front of him and glaring at anyone who dares to stumble into his path.

He knocks again. “Jack?”

It’s quiet at first, then there’s the sound of movement on the other side of the door. Bitty waits, counting his breaths, and finally the door opens. Jack frowns, staring at the cup in Bitty’s hands.

“Here. Chamomile with a little honey.”

Jack looks surprised, but reaches out and takes it. He nods, still not meeting Bitty’s eyes.

“I can come in and chill with you, if you want. Or I can go.” Bitty shrugs as casually as he can manage.

Jack doesn’t respond for a moment. He frowns again. “I think I’m just gonna go to bed.”

“Yeah, gotcha.” Bitty nods. “Just… he doesn’t matter, okay? He doesn’t know you, not anymore.”

Jack closes his eyes and groans. “Shit. I should… I…”

Fuck — wrong move. Jack didn’t need to know Bitty had heard any of that. He backtracks. “I mean… look, you said it yourself, your dad supports the idea of going with an expansion team. He’s gonna be proud of you wherever you go, and Kent Parson doesn’t know shit about that.”

Jack gestures behind him. “I’m just gonna… thanks for the tea.” He doesn’t meet Bitty’s eyes before he closes the door.

Bitty stands in the hallway for a long time before he turns away. So that definitely could’ve gone better.

*****

They don’t have time to talk before Jack heads to the airport for winter break. Bitty manages to smuggle cookies into his suitcase, and gets a thank you text from Jack later that day. There’s a smiley at the end of it.

It’s something, at least.

*****

Being home with his parents for Christmas is… well. Surreal, for one thing. Mama looks so young, and Coach too. They pick him up from the airport in their old Volvo. It’s still relatively new, but they’ll eventually trade it in for a self-driving model, something Mama loves and Coach rolls his eyes at.

The town looks different too: that new shopping center with the natural grocery store he likes isn’t there yet, and the main road still only has two lanes. His parents’ house looks the same on the outside, but the kitchen is so dated he almost laughs. He carries his suitcase up to his room, and has to stand there and stare for a moment. It’s still his high school bedroom, with the poster of Beyoncé and the shelf of awards from his skating days — and a bed that Jack has never slept in.

He has to close his eyes at that. His whole future — or the next decade of it, at least — is mapped out in his head. He’s been regarding it as more or less inevitable, but… what if it isn’t? What if he chooses something else?

He could back off with Jack, keep the friendship between them, but not push for anything more. Jack would graduate and move on. They could stay in touch, and maybe a couple of years down the road…

Or maybe that would backfire and Jack would find someone else, some gorgeous blonde model who’d look good in his Instagram photos and who’d be happy to follow him when he got traded to St. Louis. He wouldn’t have to come out, wouldn’t have to be the poster boy for LGBT athletes or deal with the anxiety that spotlight brings. He could just play, and be judged solely on that.

Bitty sits on his bed and wraps his arms around himself. Would Jack be happier without him?

*****

“Pumpkin, apple, and pecan,” Mama says, “and maybe also that chocolate chess pie you made last year?”

“Sounds like a plan.” Bitty pours a little ice water into the well of flour in the bowl, then starts cutting the butter in. He’s going to have to look up a recipe for chocolate chess pie; he hasn’t made it in years.

Mama chatters a bit, relaying all the family gossip. Bitty laughs — he’s pretty sure his cousin Jess is not going to marry that tattoo artist everyone is so skeptical of, but he’s going to keep his mouth shut about it.

“Your MooMaw is going to be on that local cooking show again,” Mama continues.

Bitty smiles a little wistfully. In another ten years, MooMaw’s arthritis will be so bad she won’t be able to make pastry anymore. He should ask her to show him a few more tricks, now that he thinks about it.

He has a flash of future-memory then: Jack standing in her kitchen, flour up to his elbows, and looking over at Bitty helplessly while MooMaw thwacks him in the shin with her cane, saying, “Good lord, boy. On the tee-vee they keep sayin’ you got good hands.”

“What’re you smiling about there?” Mama asks.

Bitty looks up to see her watching him with raised eyebrows. He shrugs, then flours the counter in front of him. “Just… remembering something.”

Mama hums skeptically. Bitty presses the ball of pastry into a disk with his hands. He can feel her watching him, can almost hear the weight of the words she wants to say. When he was… well, younger isn’t the right word, but when he did this… before, he couldn’t see past the fog of his own fear. It’s startling how clear it is now that he can see it: she wanted to ask, so many times, and didn’t. He knows, now, that she was waiting for him to go first, that she didn’t want to push him into revealing anything he wasn’t ready to reveal. He also has the luxury of knowing how it will turn out.

He takes a breath, releases it slowly, then reaches for the rolling pin. “So, um… can I ask you a question?”

“Of course, Dicky.”

“Did you date anyone before you met Coach?”

She makes a small sound of surprise. “Well… yeah, ‘course I did. I had… let me think… two serious boyfriends in high school, and a couple that were… well, not so serious, I guess, in college. I met your daddy sophomore year, but we didn’t really start dating until a year or so later.” She smiles. “One of those not-so-serious boyfriends was a buddy of his, so we were just friends for a long time.”

“Ha, right.” Bitty sprinkles flour on the dough and rolls it into an oval with quick, efficient strokes of the rolling pin. “So you were about my age when you met him?”

“I guess I was.” Mama pauses again, and Bitty can practically hear the wheels turning in her head.

“So, like… do you regret not dating him earlier? I mean, considering how it all turned out?”

Mama looks thoughtful for a moment. “No, I don’t think so. It happened at exactly the right time in my life.”

Bitty nods and gives the pastry a quarter turn. “If you had dated him earlier, do you think it would’ve been different, somehow?”

“Lord, I don’t know. That was 25 years ago. At this point, I doubt it would’ve made much difference.” She goes quiet again, waiting.

Bitty presses his lips together, lets his hands work without thinking. “So,” he says at last, “there’s this boy I like? And I think he likes me too, but I can’t stop wondering if it would be better to say something to him now or wait until he seems ready. I mean, what if he’s not ready and I screw it up?”

Mama goes completely still for a few seconds, then starts slicing apples again. “Is it that you’re not sure he likes you, or you’re not sure he’s…” She drops off and he turns to look at her. Her expression is as forcibly neutral as she can possibly make it.

“No, I mean, I know he’s dated a boy before. He’s just kind of… not good at acting on his feelings, I guess? He’s so focused on… on his own stuff that he barely notices anything else.”

“But he notices you?”

“Yeah.” Bitty smiles at that. “And we’ve become pretty good friends. I think it could be more, but I don’t want to push him before he’s ready. I don’t want to distract him from… well, from the things he’s…” Bitty stops. He hadn’t realized it would be this hard to talk about Jack in generalities.

“Well, I’d say that if he thinks of you as a distraction, he doesn’t deserve you.” She raises her eyebrows.

He lifts the pastry into the waiting pan, pressing it gently into place. “But… what if we do end up together and it’s not… what if it doesn’t work out? How do I know this is the guy for me, that I’m not setting myself up to waste my time when he’s just gonna…” He frowns down at the pastry, which is suddenly not cooperating.

Mama sighs. “Dicky, honey… Lord, this is gonna sound like a cliche, but you can’t know until you try. And if it doesn’t work out, then… well. You remember the good times and learn from the bad ones, and move on.”

“Learn from the bad ones,” he repeats. “What does that even mean?”

“Every time you’re in a relationship, you learn things. You learn how to communicate. You figure out what you want in a partner and what you don’t. You make some mistakes, and so do they, and hopefully you both learn to be better people.” She pushes the bowl of apple slices toward him, then scrapes the peels into the compost bucket. “And if you’re lucky, you love each other enough to stick through the hard parts.”

Even when he wants to live in a different city than you do? Bitty pushes the thought away as soon as it rises. He doesn’t know what the future holds anymore. He doesn’t even know what he wants.

But wait — he’s actually glossing over a really important detail in this conversation, isn’t he?

“So you think I should go for it? Plant one on him and see what happens?”

Mama’s cheeks flush when she laughs. “Oh, goodness. I thought I was ready for this conversation, but I’m not sure I am.”

“The ‘I’m gay’ conversation, or the safe sex one?” He lowers his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “It’s a little late for the second one.”

She flinches, and he can’t help grinning. He would never have had the nerve to say that to her ten years ago. Or without these strange memories in his head, anyway.

“Lord have mercy.” She groans and drops her face into her hands. “I know you’re an adult now, but there are some things your mama doesn’t need to know.”

“But you already knew I’m gay?”

She drops her hands and looks up at him. “I’d be lyin’ if I said the thought hadn’t crossed my mind. But I guess I’d hoped… well. I never wanted things to be harder for you than they needed to be, and I know this can’t be easy. Or, can’t have been, all this time.” She hesitates, presses her lips together. “I guess I’ve had a lot of time to think about what to say to you, in case this happened, and it’s this: your daddy and I love you exactly the way God made you. And we’re gonna love whoever is lucky enough to be chosen by you. Okay?” Her voice wobbles on the last few words.

Bitty pulls her into his arms and hugs her as tightly as he can. She feels so small against him, smaller than he remembers, even. She’s always loomed so large in his head, somehow.

“Thank you, Mama.”

His phone chimes in his pocket, and she squeezes him one more time before letting go. “We need to get this pie in the oven if we’re gonna make it to your MooMaw’s on time.” She wipes her eyes and smiles. “Lord, it’s Christmas Eve! Why am I cryin’ like this?”

“Because you love me,” he says, and gets the pan out to cook the apples.

“Oh, honey,” she says, and reaches out to touch his cheek with her hand. “You have no idea.”

His phone dings a few more times, but he ignores it until the apples are simmering in their spices.

Jack: Hey
Jack: Thanks again for the cookies
Jack: My mom wants the recipe?

Bitty smirks at the screen.

Me: Your MOM. Sure, Jack.

Jack: They were really good. She wants to make them.

Me: I’ll email you the recipe.

Jack: Thanks
Jack: I gotta

Bitty waits, but the rest of the text doesn’t seem to be forthcoming.

“Texting your friends?” Mama asks.

“Jack, actually. I snuck some cookies into his luggage before he went home.”

Mama’s eyebrows disappear under her bangs, but before she can say a word, Bitty’s phone starts to ring. It’s Jack.

“Oh. I’m just gonna…” He points to the phone and backs toward the doorway.

She waves him away, smiling like she knows something. “Tell Jack I said hello.”

He waits until he gets around the corner to accept the call. “Hey.”

“Hi. Sorry, I think I hit the wrong button.”

“Seriously?” Bitty laughs. “And here I thought the cookies were so good they made you want to hear my voice.”

“Uh… I…” The awkwardness is nearly audible.

Bitty closes his bedroom door behind him and crosses to sit on the bed. “How are your parents?”

“Oh. Fine. They’re happy I’m here.” Jack seems relieved to have a prompt. “My dad took me to meet some friends of his for coffee this morning.”

“And by friends, you mean former NHL legends?”

Jack snorts. “Maybe. Some of them, anyway. Uh, what about you?”

“I’m not hanging out with any famous pro athletes this Christmas, no.” Bitty stretches out on his bed and smiles up at the ceiling. “Though I’ll definitely have to listen to some former high school football players reminisce about their glory days.”

“Ha, right.” Jack is quiet for a moment. “So, uh, I also wanted to say thank you for the tea the other night. It… helped?”

“Good.” Bitty hesitates, unsure how much to push this. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m… it’s fine.”

“If you feel like talking about it, or about the game next week, or whatever, just call me. Lord knows I’m gonna need a distraction from all my relatives’ prying questions about my non-existent love life.”

Jack chuckles. “Yeah, I’ll bet. Hang on.” There is some muffled talking in the background, and then Jack replies to it in French: “I’ll be down in a minute, just talking to a friend.”

Bitty bites his lip through a smile. It’s probably best not to let Jack know he understood that.

His eyes fly open: He can’t have dreamed that part, right? That has to be real. At this point in his life, he’s never taken so much as a semester of French, so there’s no way he’d understand it unless… unless that future he remembers really happened.

He presses one hand over his eyes. Fuck.

“I should go,” Jack says. “You have to get back to your baking, eh?”

“I do, actually.” Bitty smiles despite the way his stomach is twisting. “Merry Christmas, Jack.”

“Merry Christmas, Bittle.”

It’s another ten minutes before Bitty can force himself to get up and go back to the kitchen.

*****

“Eric, wassup?” The guy holds up a fist for Bitty to bump, like they’re old friends or something.

“Hey,” Bitty says, bumping his fist and trying desperately to remember this guy’s name. He’s got nothing, though, and he’s rapidly regretting his decision to come to this party tonight. “Ah, you know.”

“You’re somewhere up north now, right?”

“Yeah, Massachusetts. Samwell University.”

“I heard you like, play hockey there, or something?”

Bitty can’t keep the expression of surprise off his face. “Uh, yeah. I do.”

“Bro,” the guy says, shaking his head. “That shit looks rough.”

“It can be,” Bitty says, raising his drink to his lips. “I try to skate fast enough that they can’t hit me much, but, you know. It happens.”

“Hey, Connor,” someone says as they walk by, and the guy nods at them as they pass. Connor, then. Lord, Bitty has no memory of this guy, but he recognized Bitty right off. Bitty hadn’t thought he was all that memorable in high school. Of course, it’s been twelve years for Bitty, not two like for everyone else.

“Fuckin’ contact sports, bruh. Not for me.” Connor takes a sip of his drink. “So, do the girls up there like hockey?”

Bitty nods. “Yeah, sure. I mean, the girls’ hockey team at Samwell is just a club thing right now, but I think they’re hoping to make it official sometime in the next few years.”

Connor laughs, nearly spills his beer. “No, dude. I meant like, you know. Girls.”

Bitty stares at him for a moment before he realizes what Connor is actually asking. He laughs, then, because seriously, he didn’t think anyone he went to high school with was laboring under the impression he was straight. “Right, girls. Well. There’s always a lot of them around, I guess? Not really my thing, though.”

Connor’s expression goes from smirking to embarrassed within a single second. “Oh. So you, uh… you’re…”

“Yeah.” Bitty takes another sip of his drink and waits for Connor to make his excuses, to back away.

He doesn’t, though. He just nods, cheeks flushed, and stammers, “Yeah, I mean, like, that’s cool, bro. Whatever, I dunno, like, you do you. S’all good.”

Which is… okay, whatever. It’s not like there are a lot of people here tonight Bitty is dying to talk to. “So where are you, again?”

“Uh, UNG.”

That explains the haircut. “ROTC?”

“Yeah.”

“Right.” Bitty sighs and looks away.

“I know what you’re thinking, but I’m not an asshole, okay?”

Bitty turns back to see Connor watching him warily. He shrugs. “Okay.”

“I have gay friends.”

“Good for you.”

“Fuck. I mean—”

“It’s fine,” Bitty says, and smiles. “I’m just giving you shit.”

“Ha, okay.” They stand there for several seconds, long enough that it gets awkward. “Sweet party,” Connor says at last. “God, remember those crazy parties Chad Warrington had when his parents went out of town?”

Bitty does not remember those parties, because he didn’t go to them. He doesn’t even know anyone who did.

Connor’s smile fades; apparently he’s just remembered Bitty never went to those parties either. He frowns like he’s struggling to think of something else to say, then his face lights up. “Oh, do you remember Jake Walsh?”

No, Bitty does not remember Jake Walsh. Bitty barely remembers any of high school anymore, because it was more than a decade ago, Christ.

“I think he’s gay too. And so is Kelly Smith. Or like, I heard she was? Brandon said he heard from Tyler that—”

“Oh, good lord.” Bitty suppresses a groan. “Just because I’m gay doesn’t mean I’m gonna speculate about everyone else who might be.”

Connor’s cheeks flush red. “I didn’t mean it like that.”

“Okay, fine, but can we not? It’s just… I dunno.” He’s sure most of the people here have gossiped about him plenty over the years, maybe even pretending they’d been friends once Bitty got a little famous. The thought kind of makes his skin crawl.

“Sorry.”

Connor looks incredibly uncomfortable now, but Bitty has zero fucks left to give. Honestly, why did he even come here tonight?

Connor seems to take a steeling breath. “So… what’s your major?”

Bitty looks up at him in surprise: apparently Connor is determined to have a conversation with him. That or he doesn’t know anyone else here either and is just that desperate. “I’m still undecided, actually.”

“Yeah, me too. I mean, officially it’s engineering, but that’s just what my dad wanted me to do. I haven’t told him I flunked vector calc last semester.”

Bitty can identify with that feeling. “So what do you want to do?”

Connor’s lips twist into a smile. “Music, actually.”

“Really?” Bitty leans back against the wall behind him.

“Yeah. I’ve written a lot of songs and my YouTube channel has a decent following. I mean, I get that’s a total cliche and probably not a real career option, but I’d like to major in music education, maybe be a high school band director.”

“You were in band, right?” Bitty still doesn’t remember him, but it seems a reasonable guess.

“Yeah.” The expression on Connor’s face goes soft and fond, and for a moment, Bitty is wildly jealous. Connor probably enjoyed high school, maybe has great memories of those years, felt like he belonged.

Of course, Bitty gets that, now. He feels that way about his team, his friends at Samwell. He has no idea what it would have been like to have that in high school, but he knows what it’s like to miss it after it’s gone, which is… huh.

His head is a really weird place to be right now. Good thing there’s a fix for that.

“I need another drink,” he says.

“Bro, I got you,” Connor says. “There’s a cooler out back, c’mon.”

Half an hour later, Bitty’s feeling pretty good. Connor is leaning hard against him on the back porch, laughing at a story Bitty’s telling about one of Shitty’s recent escapades.

“And then he’s like, brah, this hegemonic heterosexisht fuckin’… oh, shit, I can’t even—” Bitty dissolves into laughter, suddenly tongue-tied. “Lord, I’m too drunk for this.”

Connor grins at him. “Your friends sound pretty cool, man.”

Bitty smiles, lets his head fall back against the post behind him. “Yeah, they are.” His head swims when he closes his eyes, so he opens them again. Connor is very close, staring at him in the dim light.

From inside the house, a cheer rises, along with the sounds of people counting down: “Ten! Nine! Eight!”

“S’almost midnight,” Bitty says.

“You’re so hot,” Connor says.

Bitty startles, looks up at him. He recognizes the look on his face, the flicker of interest in his eyes, and it catches him totally off-guard. He wasn’t expecting this tonight, especially not from someone like Connor. “Am I?”

“Yeah.” Connor’s gaze flicks down to Bitty’s mouth and back up again. “For a dude.”

“For a dude,” Bitty repeats, laughing. Connor is pretty good-looking himself, now that Bitty lets himself think about it.

“Three! Two! One! Happy New Year!” The cheering from inside the house becomes a roar of cheap party horns and shouts.

Bitty looks up at Connor with a sly smile. “Happy New Year.”

“Happy New Year,” Connor replies, and leans in. It’s a sloppy kiss, but it’s full of pent-up enthusiasm and heat and an almost-giddy sense of anticipation, and Bitty feels it all the way down to his toes. He hooks his fingers in the waist of Connor’s jeans and pulls him in closer. Connor’s got one hand in Bitty’s hair and the other around the back of his neck, pulling him in. It’s intense, almost overwhelming, and somehow not as much of a surprise as it should be.

It’s exactly what Bitty wants right now: it’s midnight on New Year’s Eve, and he just wants to kiss someone and not think about it.

They make out like that for a while, pressed against each other in the shadows on the porch. They’re not alone — there are other couples out here too, entwined in the darkness — but Connor either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care. He keeps his hands above Bitty’s waist, which is fine with Bitty. As fun as this is, he’s not really drunk enough to think it’s a good idea to hook up with a guy he doesn’t even remember from high school.

A peal of laughter from close to the back door washes over them, and Connor pulls back. He presses his forehead against Bitty’s, breathing hard. His fingers dig into Bitty’s sides. “Okay, wow.”

Bitty chuckles. “Yeah?”

“That was… I’ve never kissed a guy before.” Connor’s nose brushes against Bitty’s, and it’s unexpectedly sweet.

“Glad I could help out, then.” Bitty tilts his head and Connor’s lips nuzzle his jaw.

“I’ve never had a blowjob from a guy either.”

Annnnd there it is.

“Right.” Bitty sighs and pushes him a few inches back with a hand on his chest. “Look, this has been fun, but I’m not really up for being your gay experiment tonight.”

“Shit, I… I was joking.” Connor runs a hand over his very short hair, looking embarrassed. “I didn’t mean it like that.”

“No, you did,” Bitty says, raising his eyebrows.

“Not, not… well, I mean.” Connor winces. “This is probably a bad time to ask for your number, huh?”

“Chyeah.” God, he’s so done with this whole night.

“Shit.” Connor shoves his hands in his pockets and almost seems to collapse in on himself. “I’m sorry. I’m not even… fuck. I’m not sure what’s going on in my head right now.”

Lord have mercy, just what he needed tonight: a drunk straight boy having a gay panic. Bitty sighs. “Listen, you don’t have to figure it out right now. Go back to school, look around, open yourself up to new things. Have some fun with different people, and don’t worry about giving yourself a label if you don’t want to. It’s all a continuum anyway. Okay?”

“Okay.” Connor doesn’t look any less freaked out, but it’s not Bitty’s job to worry about that. Connor ducks his head and takes another step back. “Well, uh… thanks. It was nice to see you again.”

“Good night.” Bitty gives his arm a quick squeeze before heading toward the door.

The house is quiet when he gets back. He’s feeling pretty sober after the long, chilly walk, and more awake than he’d like to be. He brushes his teeth and changes into pajamas, then settles in bed with his phone. The SMH chat was pretty active tonight, and it takes him a while to read through all the messages. It’s mostly the guys chirping each other in various states of drunkenness.

Bitty types Happy New Year, y’all! into the chat, then stares up at the ceiling for a while. His phone buzzes in his hands, then buzzes again.

Holster: Biiiiittssss
Holster: Bro how was the party
Holster: Need us to kick any asses down there?
Me: It was fine. Y’all don’t need to worry about me!
Shitty: Bruh the real question here is did you kiss anybody at midnight?

Bitty blinks at the phone. There’s no way they could know about that, is there?

Holster: aw yeah that’s the question
Ransom: haha yeah

Bitty pinches the bridge of his nose. The easiest thing to do would be to say no. They’ll chirp him either way, of course.

Me: That’s none of your business.
Shitty: brooo
Holster: broooooooooo
Ransom: BROOOOOOOOO
Shitty: fuck me he did
Shitty: Rans you owe me 20
Ransom: fuck u man I owe you nothing til we get some deets
Holster: Bitty
Holster: BITS
Holster: DEETS
Me: GOOD NIGHT

Bitty switches his phone to do not disturb and plugs it in. It’s a while before he can manage to go to sleep.

When he wakes up in the morning, he has a ridiculous number of text notifications, most of them chirps and speculation about what he got up to last night. He rolls his eyes and scrolls past most of them. It’s not worth replying to, honestly.

He scrolls up and down again, re-reading everything. Jack hasn’t replied to any of the group texts. He usually pops in for a quick haha, at least; complete silence isn’t really his style. Bitty backs out of the group text, scrolls down the screen to see what other messages he has. There are a couple of New Year’s greetings from family members, one from a non-SMH classmate, and one from Jack.

Jack: Happy New Year, Bittle

Something about it makes Bitty’s insides twist. He sighs and taps out a reply: Happy New Year, Jack.

*****

When everyone comes back to campus, they have two-a-day practices heading into their next few games. They’re all busy and exhausted, and it isn’t until the start of the semester that Bitty feels like he can catch his breath.

Or talk to Jack for longer than a hot minute.

Classes start on a Tuesday, and so half the team gathers for shinny on The Pond on Monday afternoon. They don’t have a game until a roadie the next weekend, and Coach is giving them a few days off before the next practice. It’s not often they get to just play like this, with no real stakes other than bragging rights, and everyone enjoys it.

Bitty shooes the guys toward the hot chocolate and freshly baked scones he’d brought, then crosses to where Jack is kneeling next to his gear bag, taping his stick.

“Hot chocolate?” He holds out a cup with a cheeky smile, daring Jack to refuse him. It’s got a lot more sugar than Jack usually allows himself.

Jack gives him a long look, but takes it. “Thanks.”

Bitty sits next to him. “Everything okay?”

Jack nods and takes a sip of the hot chocolate. His expression changes to one of surprise, and he takes another sip before setting it down.

“Ready for the semester to start?” Bitty asks after a long, quiet moment.

“Yeah.” Jack inspects the tape on his stick carefully. “It’s kind of hitting me that this is it, you know? The last games I’ll play with this team, that kind of thing.”

He doesn’t have to say that it’s all going to change after this semester ends. Bitty knows how much it’s going to change, in ways that are good and bad. As much as Jack’s life is far from normal now, it’s about to get a lot crazier.

“Last chance for a lot of things, I guess.” Jack’s gaze is fixed on the guys circling on the ice. “I did a lot of thinking over the break, and… I don’t want to miss anything, you know? I want to hang out with the guys more and take a few classes I don’t need, and really focus on getting us through the playoffs.”

The playoffs — Bitty bites his lip, hard. They’d made it all the way to the final that year and lost. Jack still talks about it, how even after two Stanley Cups, the NCAA title was the one thing he wished he’d been able to do. Bitty’s not sure if he can change that, but hell, he can try.

“Okay.”

“Okay?” Jack turns to look at him.

“Playoffs, hanging out more, got it.”

“And extra classes.”

“You’re on your own there, sweetheart.”

Jack laughs. “Well, it’s not like I’m signing up for third year physics or anything. More like photography. Maybe another one of those history of food classes.”

“Now you’re talkin’.” Bitty bumps him with an elbow.

Jack takes another sip of his hot chocolate. “Definitely gonna have more of this.”

“I could add protein powder if you want.”

Jack’s smile is practically glowing. “Nah, it’s perfect. I wouldn’t change a thing.” He drains the cup and stands. “I have a good feeling about this semester.”

Bitty stands too, and looks out across the ice to where the guys seem to be dividing themselves up into teams. “Me too, Jack.”

*****

Bitty learned a long time ago what his strengths are, and he knows being a student isn’t one of them. Still, since he has another chance, why not take courses that he knows will be useful in the future? He enrolls in an intro to business course, and tries out a few lower level finance classes before he chooses one. He takes chemistry instead of more bio, another food-focused class taught by Dr. Atley, and first semester French because he knows he won’t actually have to study much to pass.

“Sixteen semester hours, seriously?” Holster gapes at him. “Who are you, and what have you done with Eric Bittle?”

Bitty grins and looks down at the pie pan he’s currently filing with apple slices. The comment is maybe a little too close to home, but hey — it’s his future now, right? “I mean, you know, with Jack and Shitty graduating, it’s got me thinking about what I want to do with my life. I’ve always wanted to open a bakery, so I thought maybe I should take some classes in that direction.”

“Bruh, you should totes open a bakery.” Holster shoves the rest of the scone in his mouth. “I’ll go, like, every day,” he adds through a mouthful of crumbs.

“That’d be great,” Bitty says, though he knows Holster is going to wind up living too far away for that. Still, Bitty sends him a box of his favorites every couple of months.

Bitty presses his lips together and forces himself to focus on the pie again. He can’t keep thinking like this, like he knows how everything will turn out. He’s changed so many little details already that he can’t rely on knowing what the future will hold.

“Hey, have you seen Jack?”

Holster shrugs. “Nah. Dude’s got some crazy course schedule going. Dunno why he’s doing it on top of his senior thesis, but, like, who even knows with Jack?”

“Yeah.” Bitty opens the fridge to pull out the second ball of dough.

“Like yesterday, I’m all, brah, what’s the deal with you and Camilla Collins? And he’s like, I don’t have time to date anybody right now. The last thing I need is that kind of distraction.” Holster shakes his head. “I mean, dude’s gonna have his pick next year, but like, he hasn’t wheeled any chicks in ages.”

Bitty nods, frowning down into the circle of dough he’s rolling out. Does Jack think he’s a distraction? Jack’s kept himself busy since they got back, but what if he’s actually trying to keep Bitty at arm’s length? They’ve all been so busy that Bitty hadn’t thought much of it. He’d expected it to settle out once the semester gets rolling, but what if it doesn’t?

After Holster wanders off, Bitty gets the pie in the oven, then lies face-down on his bed for half an hour and tries not to panic about the future he thinks he’s got all planned out.

*****

MooMaw always said If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. It’s good advice, probably, but Bitty still groans when his alarm goes off at 5:00. He makes himself get up anyway, gets dressed, and staggers down the hall to brush his teeth.

“Oh, hey,” Jack says when Bitty makes his way downstairs with gear bag in hand. “You heading to Faber?”

Jack is standing in the kitchen and downing a protein shake, looking way too enthusiastic about the prospect. Bitty needs coffee, or he might die.

“Yeah,” he says through a yawn, and eyes the single cup brewer in the corner.

Five minutes later, he and Jack head out. “So what are you working on?” Jack asks.

Bitty takes a large drink of coffee. “Shooting and passing drills, if you’re up for it.”

Jack grins. “Chyeah.”

It becomes a thing. It becomes their thing, more importantly, something they do together four days a week: up at 5:00, on the ice by 5:30, running skating and shooting drills until they’re such a seamless unit that everyone notices. The media notice, in particular, because Jack starts averaging two points a game. Bitty’s not far behind, with an apple on most of those goals, and it’s… it’s good. Exhilarating, even, to hear his own name mentioned in the same breath with Jack’s on ESPN.

“Bruh, it’s like you two are drift compatible,” Holster says in the locker room on a Saturday night in Boston, after Jack scored a hat trick in a 5-2 blowout of a game. “If you told me you were, like, connecting on some psychic level, I’d totes believe you.”

Bitty grins and shrugs it off. It comes down to a lot of hard work, mostly, but he knows it’s also that he and Jack are hyper-aware of each other, all the time. Who knew good hockey could be fueled by massive amounts of sexual tension?

And that’s — he’s pretty sure that’s what’s going on. They don’t talk about it, as if acknowledging it would jinx this whole thing, but he sees the way Jack looks at him, knows he can’t be the only one getting that shiver down his spine when they brush against each other. They sit together on the bus and on the bench, knees pressed together, always touching. Jack doesn’t hesitate to slide an arm behind Bitty’s chair or pull him in for a casual hug. Bitty’s pretty sure the entire team can see the hearts in his eyes when he looks at Jack, but no one says anything. They probably feel a little sorry for him, think that he’s the one with the hopeless crush while all Jack is thinking about is hockey.

It’s not like that, not completely. There are moments Bitty thinks something might be on the verge of changing between them. They end up alone on the back porch during a kegster in late January, the cold having driven everyone else inside. It would have driven Bitty in too, except that Jack has an arm around him, pulling him in close. Jack’s loose, has had a couple of drinks, not enough to slur his words, but enough to get him talking freely.

“That shot was a beaut, though,” he says, and squeezes Bitty a little closer. “Shoulda been your goal.” Jack had gotten the rebound and slid it in five-hole.

“Nah, s’fine.” Bitty’s had more like five drinks, so it seems like a good idea to rest his head on Jack’s shoulder. His nose is cold, and the skin on Jack’s neck is warm. Jack shivers a little, but leans into it. “They count the same no matter who puts ‘em in, right?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

Bitty nuzzles Jack’s neck without thinking about what he’s doing, just enjoying the feeling of being this close to him. He wants, god — it’s almost unbearable at times, and he jerks off so much these days it’s a little embarrassing.

Jack’s breath catches, and he turns his head, presses his cheek against Bitty’s forehead. It would be so easy to press a soft kiss to the sensitive skin on his neck, to trail his tongue up under Jack’s jaw, to nibble at that spot just behind his ear that Bitty knows makes him shiver. He doesn’t, though, because it seems like that’s a step too far.

Jack breathes evenly for a few more seconds, then pulls away. “I need some water.”

“Yeah, me too,” Bitty says, and follows him inside.

They keep playing seamlessly, only getting better as the season goes on. Opposing teams notice too, and they start gunning for Bitty, hard. He’s usually able to outskate the guys that want to knock him into the boards, but every now and then, one of them gets him. A defenseman from Quinnipiac gets an elbow on the back of Bitty’s neck after knocking him down, pushing his face into the ice.

“You suck his dick for every goal he gets?”

“Fuck off,” Bitty manages, struggling to twist out from under him.

“Bet you’re good at it, with that mouth.” The guy lets go and wheels it to the other end of the ice, where the action is heating up.

Bitty exchanges dark looks with Ransom and Holster when he passes them. The guy takes a lot of hits for the rest of the game.

Bitty knows Jack gets comments too. They haven’t talked about it, but Bitty knows he got shit about Parse all through college, cocaine jokes, anything and everything. It seems like it’s ramped up lately, worse than usual, but Jack ignores it all, lets it slide off like he doesn’t even hear it.

Or, he does until the first of a pair of back-to-backs in New Hampshire in early February. One of the opposing forwards jaws at Jack for most of the game, always out of earshot of everyone else. Jack ignores it until halfway through the third, when the guy says something that makes Jack’s entire expression go tight. They circle each other, looking like they’re on the verge of dropping gloves until the refs get there and pull them apart. Jack skates back to the bench, looking like murder, and everyone stares at him in awe.

Bitty doesn’t ask what the guy said, and Jack doesn’t offer. Bitty sees Jack having a quiet conversation with Ransom and Holster over breakfast the next morning, holed up in a corner with serious expressions. His words to the team before they go out on the ice that night are clipped and perfunctory, but by then, everyone knows something is up. Everyone knows Jack got chirps that crossed the line, and they’ve all got his back.

They win 5-0. Two of those goals are Jack’s. One is Bitty’s, off a pass from Jack. Half the crowd have left by the end of the third, and the UNH team looks stunned.

Everyone is in a great mood in the locker room after, and the first hour of the bus ride back is a party.

“You okay?” Bitty asks Jack quietly once the guys have settled down.

Jack looks thoughtful for a moment before he shrugs. “Yeah. Winning is the best revenge, eh?”

Revenge for what? Bitty doesn’t ask. He’s pretty sure he doesn’t want to know. Instead, he slides his arm under Jack’s on the seat rest, fingers tucked into the sleeve of the fleece Jack’s wearing. It’s not quite holding hands, but it’s as close as they get these days.

*****

“Bruh,” Shitty says, unrolling the banner and grinning down at it. “I’m keeping this forever. Gonna get him to sign it.”

Bitty laughs and shakes his head. He’d forgotten about this one until they’d skated out on the ice for warmups. The guys had chirped the hell out of Jack when they saw the girl holding the Marry Me sign, and he’d just smiled and rolled his eyes.

“It’s gonna look sweet right here on my wall,” Shitty says, looking up at the lone bare stretch left in his room. “Here, Bits, hold it for me.”

Bitty had also forgotten that Jack stuck his head through the door a minute later, saying, “Hey, Shits, you—” He takes one look at Bitty and the sign he’s holding, and blushes bright red.

“Hey, Jack,” Bitty says, grinning. “Shitty went to look for poster tape.”

“Yeah, uh.” Jack is looking everywhere but at Bitty’s face right now. “I’ll come back, I guess.”

“I’ll put it down if it’s bothering you.”

“No, it’s not — I’m not—” Jack winces and forces himself to look at Bitty. “It’s just kind of embarrassing? That someone did that. Like, what’s the point?”

“She probably wanted to get your attention.” Bitty sets the poster on top of the pile on Shitty’s desk and crosses to the doorway where Jack’s standing. He looks up at Jack with a sly smile. “Maybe she thought you’d be interested.”

Jack huffs a laugh. “Yeah, right.”

“Oh, come on. Half the girls on this campus would like to get in your pants,” Bitty says. “And a third of the guys.”

Jack’s lip twitches slightly, and he looks back at Bitty with an expression that’s achingly familiar from Bitty’s memories. It’s the one that so often preceded a witty chirp followed by a kiss to smooth it over. A spark shoots through Bitty’s chest and settles low in his belly. He takes a step closer, looks up at Jack through his eyelashes.

Jack opens his mouth, then closes it again. He shrugs. “Maybe, but casual sex isn’t really my thing.”

“Yeah, I know.” There’s an errant eyelash on Jack’s cheek, and Bitty reaches up to brush it away. Jack stares back at him, wide-eyed. “Sorry,” Bitty says, and drops his hand. “Habit.”

“No, it’s fine.” Jack’s cheeks look warm again, and something melts pleasantly in Bitty’s chest.

Bitty wants to kiss him, so, so badly. But he doesn’t want to screw any of this up, not now while they’re working so well together on the ice. He’s not sure when he decided he’d let Jack make the first move, but it feels like the right thing to do.

He swallows down the raw want in his chest and takes a step back. Jack hesitates, then takes a step forward.

“Jack, you gorgeous mother fucker,” Shitty says, reappearing with a roll of blue painters’ tape. “You need to sign this baby.” He plucks the poster off the desk and brandishes it, grinning.

“Jesus, Shits.” Jack shakes his head in mock disgust.

Bitty leans against the wall and laughs. Jack glances over at him while Shitty hangs the poster, and smiles.

It’s not enough, but it’s fine.

*****

They push hard, week after week, and they make the ECAC playoffs. Bitty skates hard and bakes often, and that’s about it. He’s barely keeping up in his classes, is probably in danger of failing a couple of them, but he can’t bring himself to care. He wants this championship more than almost anything, wants it for himself and for Jack and the team.

He tries to study while things are in the oven, sitting at the kitchen table. But there’s always someone around, someone who’s heading to the kitchen for a snack or a drink, and who provides enough of a distraction that he rarely gets much done. It’s easiest when Jack is there, though, because Jack studies with a single-minded focus Bitty can only dream about. He’s quiet and serious, and anyone who comes in takes one look at him instantly lowers their voice to a whisper. On those days, Bitty actually gets a little done — at least when he’s not fantasizing about dropping to his knees and blowing Jack under the table.

Jack looks up at him once while he’s thinking exactly that, and Bitty almost chokes on his coffee. Jack raises an eyebrow like he knows damn well what Bitty was thinking, which makes Bitty blush even harder.

The point is, Bitty doesn’t get much studying done.

By the weekend of the final, everyone is running on caffeine and adrenaline. They’re excited and exhausted, and as ready as they’ll ever be. Bitty and Jack are so good together that Coach Hall has started putting Bitty out on the power play. They score and score together, and it’s heady, incredible.

They win the first game and lose the second, and then it’s down to one, the last college hockey game Jack and Shitty will ever play. Jack is unsentimental, focused as always, and Shitty is a fucking mess. Bitty’s pretty sure Shitty is going to hole up somewhere and cry before the game tonight.

Everyone is a pile of nerves in the locker room. It’s huge, and they all know what’s on the line. An NCAA championship cements Jack’s legacy and puts Samwell on the map as a hockey school. They all know too that this is their best chance. When Jack’s gone, things will change. Jack is their best chance to win, so they have to give it everything they’ve got.

They do, but in the end, it’s not enough.

Bitty is on the ice for the last goal, the one that breaks the tie with a minute to go in the third. He sees Chowder’s face when it slides past his shoulder, watches him turn and look behind him in complete surprise. He sees everyone’s expressions crumble.

Jack’s face shutters completely.

It’s the longest minute of Bitty’s life, and they still can’t make anything happen. Time resumes normal speed again when the final buzzer sounds. The roar of the crowd is almost crushing, and watching the other team scream and pile on each other is awful. The Samwell team gathers loosely, watching, and waits for the handshake line to form.

Bitty barely hears all the “good game” comments along the way, doesn’t really remember how he gets back to the dressing room. Everyone is quiet, numb. Bitty strips off his jersey, takes off his pads, and sits still for a moment, closing his eyes.

He wanted it so badly, and he’d worked so damn hard — they all did, every one of them, and it still wasn’t good enough. Emotion rises in his throat, hot and raw, and he presses his hands over his face. There’s sniffling all around him, reality sinking in.

Bitty looks up then, and glances around. Jack is missing. Bitty stands, manages to slip out of the room without anyone stopping him or even looking too closely.

Jack is sitting in the loading dock just like before, head bent and shoulders shaking. The feeling of deja-vu is so strong it almost sets Bitty to crying all over again.

He’d wanted this for Jack, for himself, for all of them — but their best effort wasn’t enough.

He touches Jack’s shoulder, and Jack startles. He looks up, face taut and tear-stained. Bitty doesn’t ask, doesn’t even hesitate; he steps between Jack’s knees and wraps his arms around him, pulling Jack’s face into his shoulder. Jack’s arms go around him too and he hugs Bitty tightly, his breathing jagged and shallow.

There’s nothing to say, so neither of them speak; they just cling to each other and cry. The sounds of the arena grow quieter in the distance, then fade away completely as the crowds finally leave. Bitty sighs and pulls back, touches his forehead to Jack’s. He tries to inhale deeply enough to settle his breathing, and Jack mirrors him, taking a slow breath too. Jack tilts his head up, and their noses brush, and Bitty stops breathing altogether.

Jack moves, very slightly, and Bitty closes his eyes. Jack’s lips touch his once, twice. Jack hesitates a moment, then leans closer and presses his mouth to Bitty’s. Bitty makes a soft sound against Jack’s lips, almost a sigh. He’s not even sure this is real, and is a little afraid that Jack might freak out and run away at any moment. Jack doesn’t, though; he kisses Bitty again and again. By the time the tip of his tongue sweeps across Bitty’s lips, Bitty’s knees are ready to go out from under him.

They stay like that, sharing gentle, almost hesitant kisses. Jack’s hands clench Bitty’s hips, and Bitty’s arms are around Jack’s shoulders, and it’s so, so good.

Jack pulls back after several minutes and presses his forehead against Bitty’s.

“Wow,” Bitty says.

“Wow,” Jack repeats.

Bitty stares at him for a moment, then dives in and kisses him again. “God, you,” he says a minute later, cradling Jack’s face in his hands. “You have no idea how long I’ve wanted to do that.”

“Me too. Just wanted to wait until the season was over, you know?”

Bitty blinks at him, stunned. “You… all this time?” Jack nods, and Bitty groans. “Why didn’t you say something?”

“Well, I… I didn’t want to mess with the line chemistry.”

Bitty shakes his head, incredulous. “All this time I thought you weren’t interested.”

Jack stares back at him in confusion. “I thought I was being obvious. I flirted with you all the time.”

“That just made it worse!” Bitty’s sure his expression is stricken now. “God, you could have told me. I would have waited!”

“I’m sorry.” Jack looks a little sheepish, and Bitty kisses him again. “It doesn’t matter now, eh? I mean, it’s all over, so…” Jack frowns even as the words leave his mouth, and just like that, the loss crashes down on them again.

Bitty pulls him into a hug and closes his eyes. Jack feels so good against him, so right. Lord, they could at least have done this over the last couple of months. Of course, Bitty didn’t say anything either, and for kind of similar reasons, if he's being honest. They’re both idiots.

He buries his nose in Jack’s neck and inhales. Jack is still sweaty from the game, but Bitty not-so-secretly likes it. “We should get back. They’re all gonna wonder where we are.”

“Yeah.” Jack squeezes him tight, then lets go. He looks up at Bitty and sighs. His face is tear-streaked and his eyes are puffy, and he’s as beautiful as Bitty has ever seen him.

No one says anything when they get back, everyone dressed and talking in small groups. Jack strips and heads off to shower. Bitty hesitates a moment before following.

They’re in the shower room alone, and Bitty doesn’t feel a bit guilty about looking over at Jack, watching water stream over his naked body. He’s gorgeous, in incredible shape, but not yet as broad as Bitty knows he’ll be after a few years with NHL trainers. Jack catches him looking, and smiles before giving Bitty a onceover that makes him blush. Lord, he’s got to stop before he gets a chub in the shower.

Everyone is quiet and lost in thought during the short drive back to Samwell from TD Center. Bitty slips his arm under Jack’s and finally twines their fingers together. Jack’s eyes are closed, but he squeezes Bitty’s fingers and holds on the whole way home.

They huddle up for a few quick words of consolation from the coaches before they all go their separate ways. They’ll clean out their lockers the next week, and that will be it. Bitty’s not ready to think about that just yet, so he doesn’t.

No one speaks on the walk back to the Haus; they all trudge up the stairs and to their own rooms. Bitty goes through the motions of getting ready for bed, and tries not to think about the game. Jack’s door is closed, and though he considers knocking on the way back from the bathroom, he doesn’t. They’re all exhausted, and it can wait.

He’s awake at 10:00 the next morning, but everyone seems to be still asleep. He stares around the kitchen for a moment: this has been a place of comfort for him, and will continue to be for years to come. It’s the one place in the world where he feels in control of his own destiny, where he can create things and laugh with friends and commiserate over losses. This is a big one, but he knows what to do to help everyone start moving forward again.

He makes coffee and pulls out the ingredients for pancakes, and waits for the smells of breakfast to summon the guys downstairs. Shitty is first, followed by Ransom and then Holster, all yawning and looking like they’ve been rode hard and put away wet.

“Where’s Jack?” Bitty asks when everyone starts tucking in.

“Went for a run,” Shitty says through a mouthful of pancake.

Ransom snorts. “Dude doesn’t take a day off.”

“S’why he’s gonna be in the NHL,” Holster says.

Bitty is flooded with a memory of Jack getting up early and going to the gym the day after winning the Stanley Cup. “Can’t you take a damn day off?” Bitty’d asked, and Jack had smiled and said, “Gotta start working toward the next one.

“Morning,” Jack says then, suddenly appearing in the doorway. He’s red-faced and sweaty, his clothes sticking to him. “Oh, pancakes. Thanks, Bits.”

He grabs a plate and takes a few from the stack, and gives Bitty a small, private smile. Bitty’s stomach flips.

Someone must have texted that Bitty was making breakfast, because half the team trickles in over the next half-hour. Bitty has to make two more batches of batter to keep up, but Shitty takes over the actual work of flipping them and Ransom and Holster load the dishwasher, so it’s all good. Everyone is quieter than usual, the mood leaning toward somber, but there’s also a sense of accomplishment and camaraderie. They’re a team, and they’re in this together.

Bitty can’t help smiling at all of them. He’s thought so much about moments like this one over the years, and he feels blessed to be here now. He knows there will be many more, and the idea that he gets to do it again is almost exhilarating. He’s going to enjoy it, every minute of it, and not take it for granted.

After the kitchen is clean and everyone scatters to study or relax or fire up the Xbox, Bitty heads upstairs. He’s got some studying to do today, though he doesn’t really want to. He’d rather bake, but he’s out of flour after making so many pancakes, which means he’s going to have to go shopping. And frankly, he’s too tired to contemplate leaving the Haus right now. His hand is on his doorknob when he hears Jack’s door open behind him.

“Hey.”

Bitty turns to look at him: he’s freshly showered and dressed in a t-shirt and soft, worn sweats. He leans in the doorway, looking at Bitty like he’s nervous.

Interesting.

“Hey,” Bitty replies. “Whatcha doing?”

“Nothing much. You?”

“Nothing.”

Jack looks at Bitty and chews on his lower lip, and oh. Oh. Bitty smiles and walks forward. Jack steps back to let him pass, then closes the door behind him. Bitty crosses to the bed and sits on it, then smiles at Jack as sweetly as he can manage.

Jack rubs a hand on the back of his neck. “So, uh…”

“C’mere.” Bitty pats the bed next to him. Jack sits next to him, cheeks flushed, and lord, it’s adorable. Bitty grins at him. “You gonna kiss me again?”

“Do you want me to?”

“Oh, honey. There are a lot of things I want right now.”

Jack chuckles at that and leans in. This kiss is different from the ones they shared the night before. There’s no hesitation, no doubt where it’s headed. Jack pushes Bitty back onto the mattress, and god, he’s missed this so much. He’s always loved the feel of Jack’s weight over him, the way Jack holds him down and then kisses him and touches him almost reverently. He’s doing that now, and it’s so familiar that Bitty is overwhelmed.

He slides his hands inside Jack’s shirt, up across his back, then down over his ass. Jack groans and shifts, and Bitty presses his hips up against Jack’s thigh, lets Jack feel how hard he is already. Jack makes another sound into Bitty’s mouth and kisses him until he feels like he’s floating.

There is a loud knock on Jack’s door, followed by Shitty’s voice: “Jack-ooo, you still gonna go over that paper with me this morning?”

Jack pulls back and stares down at Bitty, wide-eyed. His cheeks are flushed and his lips are wet and red, and Bitty wants to devour him.

“Um,” he says, and looks up, toward the closed door. “Sorry, Shits, I totally forgot.”

“Yah, okay,” Shitty replies. “I mean, whatevs. I can ask Lardo, I guess. It’s due at 5:00, so…” The disappointment in his voice is clear.

Jack closes his eyes for a moment, wincing, then opens them again. “Yeah, no problem, just give me a couple of minutes.” Jack mouths sorry at Bitty. “I gotta get dressed.”

“Brah, not for me, you don’t.” Shitty laughs. “Just come on over when you’re ready. And thanks, man, I owe you one.”

Jack groans and touches his forehead to Bitty’s shoulder. Bitty threads his fingers into Jack’s hair.

“I should probably study anyway.”

Jack shifts against him, and Bitty has to bite his lip at the sensation of Jack’s erection pressing into his thigh. “For the record, I’d rather stay here.” He lifts his head and looks up at Bitty, pouting.

It’s such a familiar expression that Bitty can’t help grinning at him. “Come find me when you’re done?”

Jack leans down to kiss him, then pulls away with clear reluctance. “I will.”

Bitty actually gets some studying done in the next couple of hours, in between long moments of daydreaming about what he and Jack are going to do when they have a chance to be alone. It’s mid-afternoon when Jack pokes his head through Bitty’s open door.

“Hey.”

Bitty’s belly might actually be full of butterflies; it’s the only reasonable explanation for the sudden fluttering. “Hey.”

Jack steps inside and closes the door. “So is this a good time?”

Bitty takes four steps forward and pushes Jack back up against it. He has to go up on his toes to kiss him.

“So that’s a yes?” Jack says when they come up for air.

Bitty laughs and kisses him again. Jack’s hand slides across Bitty’s cheek, fingers curling around the back of his skull and thumb pressing lightly into the hinge of his jaw. Bitty whimpers into his mouth, then pulls away. He hooks his fingers in the waistband of Jack’s shorts and tugs him in the direction of the bed.

Jack sits when the backs of his thighs hit the mattress, and Bitty pushes between his knees. “There, that’s better.”

“Yeah?” Jack’s mouth is at precisely the right height to kiss Bitty’s neck, and he does, nibbling the sensitive skin before sucking lightly at the spot where neck meets shoulder.

Bitty groans and tilts his head to give him better access. Jack’s hands slide up inside Bitty’s shirt, warm against his lower back. Bitty thinks about all the places he wants Jack to touch him, and shivers. Jack looks up at him then, and Bitty has to stop and stare. He’s so beautiful, and god, so young. Bitty had forgotten how young he looked.

And how relatively inexperienced he was. They both were back then — now — but Bitty has an advantage here. He knows exactly how to rock Jack’s world, and he’s gonna do just that.

Jack stares back at him, looking slightly apprehensive. “So, uh, should we stop, or—”

“I wanna blow you,” Bitty says, sliding a hand down to cup the bulge at Jack’s groin.

Jack’s eyes flutter closed. “Calice, you… so we’re on the same page, eh?”

“If that page is having filthy sex right here and now, then yeah.” Bitty pushes at Jack’s shoulders until he leans back on his elbows, then reaches for the waistband of Jack’s shorts. There’s already a fairly impressive tent being pitched down there. Bitty raises his eyebrows.

“Jaaaack!” Holster calls from somewhere down the hall. “Dude, where are you?”

Jack and Bitty stare at each other.

“He’s not in his room,” Ransom says, sounding like he’s just outside the door. “Should we just tell them to go away?”

“I dunno, man. I mean, it’s just a local news crew? We can say Jack isn’t here.”

Jack shakes his head. “Sorry, Bits. I should probably see what that’s about.”

Bitty glances down at his obvious erection, then looks up questioningly.

Jack reaches down to adjust himself, then goes to open the door. He peeks through it and calls, “I’ll be right down, just going over some stuff with Bittle.”

Bitty sighs and crosses to stand in front of him. “Here, let me just—” He straightens Jack’s shirt, then reaches up to finger-comb Jack’s hair. “Now you don’t look like you were in the middle of making out with your boyfriend.” He freezes when he realizes what he just said. “Um, I mean… Oh, lord, can we forget I just said that?”

Jack’s face splits in a grin. “Nope.” He leans down and kisses Bitty lightly, then looks down at his groin again. “I need to go splash water on my face or something. This isn’t going away with you in the room.” He winks and heads out the door.

Bitty flops back on his bed and groans.

*****

Jack’s interview with the local news crew gets picked up by ESPN within a few hours. They gather around Holster’s laptop to watch it half a dozen times, finding new things to chirp Jack about with every viewing. Bitty perches on the arm of the disgusting green sofa next to Jack, laughing along with the rest of them.

“Could you be any more boring, bro?” Shitty asks, arm slung around Jack’s shoulders. “It’s like you were trying to be as unenthusiastic as possible.”

Jack rolls his eyes. “We just lost the national championship, Shits. How enthusiastic should I have been?”

“Nah, just, you know. Maybe act like you’re not a robot every now and then.”

“But I am a robot,” Jack deadpans.

Shitty gives him a facewash, which results in the two of them wrestling on the floor while everyone else cheers them on.

“Dude, you know what this calls for?” Holster says, turning to Ransom.

Ransom grins at him. “Bro.”

The next few hours are spent playing an elaborate video game tournament that requires consumption of large amounts of alcohol. Jack loses rather spectacularly in the first round, to everyone’s surprise. He endures the chirping all the guys throw his way, drinks the shot Holster hands him, and slips quietly away. Bitty doesn’t notice he’s gone for a good ten minutes.

Bitty heads upstairs with the excuse of going to the bathroom, and knocks quietly on Jack’s door.

Jack opens it, looks both ways to make sure the hallway is clear, then pulls Bitty inside. “What took you so long?”

Bitty grins. “You lost on purpose, didn’t you?”

“Of course.” Jack pulls him close and kisses him, then reaches behind him to turn the lock. “They’ll be busy for a while.”

Bitty pushes at Jack’s hips, walking him backwards toward the bed. “They’re gonna wonder where we went.”

Jack sits on the bed, and pulls Bitty down on top of him. “Right now, I really don’t care.”

They’ve been trying to get a moment alone together all day, and Bitty isn’t sure he can trust that they’ve really found it now. He’s going to enjoy it, though, no matter what happens. He straddles Jack’s hips and leans down to kiss him. Jack’s hands slide across his shoulders and down his back, then stop right before he reaches Bitty’s ass.

Bitty groans in frustration. “I’ve wanted to do this for a really long time, so you don’t have to go slow for me.”

“It’s not that,” Jack says, dropping his head back against the mattress. “I just… what are we doing here?”

Bitty settles against Jack’s chest. He has the advantage of knowing he and Jack are on the same page here, which maybe isn’t fair, but whatever. “We’re good friends already, right?” Jack nods, and Bitty smiles. “In some ways, we’re already dating. We just haven’t made it official.”

Jack reaches up, tucks a strand of hair behind Bitty’s ear. “Are we making it official now?”

Bitty bites his lip. “I’m in if you are.”

“Well, you already said you were my boyfriend, so.”

“Oh god,” Bitty says, pressing his forehead into Jack’s chest. “I’m sorry.”

“No, I liked it. Hey, come here.” Jack pulls Bitty up enough to kiss him again. “I was worried about it before, with us being teammates, but that’s not…” They both frown: he doesn’t have to finish that sentence. “Anyway, I do want that. To date you.”

“Yeah?”

Jack smiles up at him, warm and soft. “Yeah.”

Emotion washes over Bitty then, so strongly he has to bite down hard on his lip. It’s been a long time since Jack has looked at him like this, with such desire and fondness. It’s obvious now that Jack loves him so much already, has been in love with him for a while now. Bitty had spent an entire summer and much of the fall of that next year not sure where he fit into Jack’s new life, always afraid he was going to screw up Jack’s career. His perspective is so different now, and it’s a gift to be able to see Jack like this, to have this first time with him all over again.

“God, you,” he says, and ducks his head down to kiss Jack before he does something silly like cry. It’s a soft, sweet kiss at first, until Jack’s tongue sweeps across Bitty’s lower lip. Bitty shivers against him, and just like that, it turns frantic and dirty. Jack slides his hands down Bitty’s sides and over his ass, and arches up against him. His erection brushes against Bitty’s through several layers of fabric, dragging a groan out of both of them.

“Off,” Bitty says, tugging at the hem of Jack’s shirt. They separate long enough to pull their shirts over their heads and shuck their pants. There’s an awkward moment where they’re both suddenly naked, staring at each other, flushed and breathing a little harder then they were before.

It’s so different from the first time Bitty remembers, careful and quiet in his childhood bedroom, the first time they’d seen each other since Jack had kissed him after graduation. Bitty’d been about as virginal as one could get back then, and he’d been excited and nervous and shy. Jack wasn’t as shy, but it had been a while for him, and it was all so new.

He hesitates: this isn’t really new for him, but it’s absolutely new for Jack. Bitty’s thought so much about impressing Jack in bed that he forgot that it’s not just about that. Their first time was special because it was about the two of them finding their way, learning each other. Bitty knows Jack, but he he doesn’t know this Jack, does he?

“What?” Jack asks, looking up at him.

“I just.” Bitty stretches out beside him and slides a palm over Jack’s chest. “I’ve thought about this a lot, I guess? And I don’t know where to start. I want it to be…” He shrugs, feeling himself flush.

“Me too,” Jack whispers, and kisses his shoulder. “What do you want?”

Bitty buries his face in Jack’s neck. He wants to touch Jack, everywhere, to map out his body with his fingers and his mouth. He wants to make him feel good, wants to draw out those guttural sounds that Jack only really makes in bed, the ones that send sparks down Bitty’s spine. He wants… god, everything.

There’s going to be time enough to do it all, though. He takes a breath, releases it slowly. “I want to blow you. I want you in my mouth so bad, oh my god. I can’t even explain how much I want that, I—”

“You don’t have to convince me, you know.” Jack chuckles, runs a hand down Bitty’s back. “I want the same thing, if that’s okay?”

Bitty looks up and smirks. “You want me to blow you?”

Jack snorts, then clenches Bitty’s hips in his hands and tugs him up. Bitty laughs and falls forward, catching himself on the headboard, then feels Jack’s lips low on his belly. Oh. Oh. All his earlier thoughts promptly fly out the window.

“Oh, lord.” He shifts his hips forward. Jack scoots under him a little more, then kisses the jut of his hip bone. He makes his way slowly up to Bitty’s navel, dips his tongue in until Bitty squirms away. He works his way down again, ignoring Bitty’s erection until it’s bumping under his jaw. Bitty finally whines in frustration — he’s gonna start humping Jack’s shoulder in a minute if this doesn’t move along.

Jack chuckles, and licks experimentally at the head of Bitty’s dick. Bitty has to remind himself to breathe. Jack licks again, then lies back and says, “Come here.” Bitty moves forward and stares down as Jack opens up and lets Bitty press his dick between his lips. His mouth is loose and wet, a little sloppier than Bitty remembers, but he squeezes Bitty’s ass and encourages him to move. Bitty shifts his hips slowly, fucks Jack’s mouth with shallow strokes, and tries not to come in under a minute.

He makes it to two minutes before he pulls back, saying, “I’m close,” and Jack jerks him off the rest of the way. Bitty comes on Jack’s chest and neck, which is eight kinds of hot, lord have mercy. If this is really going be his life, he needs to be a better person just to feel like he deserves it.

“My turn,” he says, and shifts down Jack’s body before Jack can make a move to clean himself off. Bitty likes him messed up, wants to keep him that way as long as possible.

Jack’s cock is hard and flushed, leaking at the tip, and Bitty has missed it so much. He takes a moment to press his nose into the dark hair at the base of Jack’s dick, and just breathe. Jack tenses a little under him, so he turns his head and kisses the shaft before he has to explain. He works his way up slowly, watching Jack’s face as he does. Jack is up on his elbows, watching with dark eyes and parted lips. Bitty smiles up at him, then wraps his lips around the head without breaking eye contact.

Jack makes a broken sound and drops back onto the mattress again. “Christ, if I watch that, I’m gonna—”

Bitty slides his mouth down the shaft, and Jack doesn’t complete the thought. Bitty steadies the base with one hand and cups Jack’s balls with the other, and takes him in as deep as he can manage. He manages half a dozen strokes before Jack gasps out a warning. Bitty doesn’t pull off, swallows around him instead, and Jack comes hot and bitter on his tongue.

“God,” Jack says, pressing his hands over his face. “That was amazing.”

Bitty settles next to him, propped up on one elbow. “Anytime, sweetheart.”

Jack winds a hand behind his head and pulls him down for a kiss. “Give me half an hour and we can do it again.”

Bitty laughs and kisses him again, languid and warm. They stay like that for a long time, hands sliding over each other’s bodies. They alternate between talking and lazily making out, and it feels so familiar Bitty almost aches with nostalgia. Bitty gets hard again first, and Jack wraps a hand around him, teasing him with long, slow strokes. He digs some lube out of a drawer, and they end up grinding against each other, Jack between Bitty’s spread thighs. It’s so close to what Bitty wants, and it might be too soon, but… what the hell?

“You got a condom?” Bitty asks.

Jack freezes above him. “You want—”

“Yeah,” Bitty replies, and sucks lightly against the skin on Jack’s neck. “I want.”

Jack seems a little shaky while he opens Bitty up with his fingers, moving so, so slowly. Bitty pushes him over onto his back when he feels ready, and slowly settles himself on Jack’s cock. It takes a little longer than he expected — his body isn’t actually used to it at this point in his life. Jack stares up at him with something like reverence when he starts to move, shifting his hips up and relishing the stretch. He leans forward until he finds the right angle, and then — oh god, he’s missed this.

“I really want,” Jack says, tugging at Bitty’s hips, and Bitty nods, lets Jack move out from under him.

“Like this,” Bitty says, leaning forward onto his elbows. “And I’m not gonna break, so—”

“Okay,” Jack says, settling behind him.

It takes a couple of minutes to find the right angle, but when they do, Bitty has a hard time keeping quiet. He finally pushes his face into a pillow and clamps his mouth shut. He reaches back and Jack catches his hand, squeezes it. He gets the other hand around himself when he gets close, and comes harder than he has in a long time.

“Okay if I keep going?” Jack asks after.

“Yeah, but like this.” Bitty turns onto his back and wraps his thighs around Jack’s hips. Jack pushes in again, and though Bitty doesn’t usually like to be fucked after he comes, the angle isn’t bad. It’s another minute before Jack comes, face pressed into Bitty’s neck.

Bitty wraps his arms tightly around Jack and squeezes his eyes shut. He’s flooded with feeling: he’s missed this so much and he loves Jack more than anything, and god, how has he survived all this time without it? Without being able to touch or kiss Jack, without being able to sink into his embrace and press lips into Jack’s neck and just talk to him? He knows he’s lucky to get to do all of this again, but now that he’s here, he needs his husband back and his life back and his bakery back. He’s so fucking done with homework and not being able to buy a damn glass of wine when he wants one, and he really wants his townhouse in Providence and his nice oven and the Sub-Zero and the professional mixer and Jack there with him, oh god.

He’s crying now, and there’s no way Jack hasn’t noticed. Jack pulls out carefully and disposes of the condom before curling against Bitty’s side, his expression tight.

“Bits—”

“I’m fine.” Bitty wipes at his eyes and sighs. “Just… kinda overwhelmed?”

“I’m sorry if I—”

“No, no.” Bitty turns onto his side and kisses him. “It’s not you, nothing like that. I just…” He takes a deep breath, closes his eyes. “I wanted you, so much, and so getting to be here with you is kind of… you know?”

Jack blinks at him in response.

Bitty laughs. “I promise I won’t cry every time you fuck me.”

“Okay.” Jack smiles at him, and just like that, Bitty’s heart nearly bursts out of his chest. He loves Jack Zimmermann so much, and he can’t tell him yet. But sometime soon he will, and everything will be okay. It will, he’s sure of it now.

He kisses the tip of Jack’s nose. “I don’t want to get up, but I feel kinda gross, if you know what I mean. So I need to…” He nods toward the bathroom.

“Promise you’ll come back?” Jack asks, and Bitty’s chest flutters a little.

“Like I’m gonna do a walk of shame right now.” He grins and heads toward the bathroom. He knocks before he opens the door, but all is quiet on Shitty’s side.

“Can I stay here tonight?” Bitty asks when he comes back in.

“Of course you can.” Jack settles down into the pillow and tugs Bitty in close to his chest, and it’s so perfect.

Bitty closes his eyes and absorbs it all: the heat of Jack’s body behind him, the weight of his arm across Bitty’s chest, even the slight ache in his ass — which he’s definitely gonna feel tomorrow — and smiles.

*****

The first thing Bitty is aware of when he wakes is that he’s cold. He reaches out for Jack, but Jack isn’t there. The bed around him is cold, and… small.

Bitty opens his eyes. He’s in a hospital room, morning light streaming in through the window. He’s in a hospital bed and hooked up to an IV and—

He sits up, heart pounding, and then he sees Jack. He’s asleep, curled up on a small couch on the far side of the room. Bitty doesn’t remember coming here, doesn’t know what could have happened between the time they made love last night and waking up now. It doesn’t makes sense.

Across the room, Jack opens his eyes. The moment he sees Bitty, he leaps to his feet and crosses the room, takes Bitty’s hand in his, eyes wide.

“Bitty, you—” His eyes go watery and he pauses, but doesn’t look away. He looks so worried, like he hasn’t slept in weeks, or even years.

Bitty sucks in a breath: years.

This is his Jack, a decade older. Bitty fell off a ladder at the bakery and he had a dream, a crazy realistic one about being back at Samwell and falling in love with Jack all over again. He reaches out to touch Jack’s face, to trace over the scars he remembers, the uneven ridge of his nose. He threads his fingers into hair that’s not as thick as it was in the dream he just had, and shakes his head in wonder.

“God, I missed you.”

Jack stares back at him, gobsmacked. His eyes get wetter, and two tears spill over, streaking down his cheeks. His expression doesn’t change, and he doesn’t seem able to speak.

Bitty pulls him in, kisses him softly, breathes in the scent of him. “I’m so glad you’re here.”

“Where else would I be?” Jack asks, his voice barely more than a whisper.

“St. Louis?” Bitty raises his eyebrows. It’s been months, but he remembers that much.

Jack takes his hand and sits on the edge of the bed. “I didn’t sign, Bits, I swear. They made an offer, and it got reported as a rumor, and then picked up by social media. I was at practice when it happened, and right after that I got the call that you were in the hospital.” He pauses, eyes welling up again. “I got your messages too, and I thought—”

“Oh, honey,” Bitty pulls him in, kissing his hair.

Jack shakes against his shoulder. “I thought I wouldn’t get a chance to explain. I was so scared that the last thing you thought was that I’d do that to you.”

“I’m so sorry, baby,” Bitty says, his voice tight. His emotions are all over the place now. He knows he was angry at Jack when he heard, but so much has happened since.

Or has it? Was it all a dream? Was he just stuck inside his own head for months, while Jack sat here by his bedside and—

“How long was I out?”

“Two days,” Jack says, his voice breaking now. “The longest fucking days of my life. God, Bitty, I love you so much and I thought I wouldn’t get to tell you again, or that you’d be so mad at me when you woke up that you wouldn’t want to hear it.”

Bitty holds him tightly. “It’s okay, I’m here and I’m fine. I promise, I’m fine.” He waits until Jack calms enough to sit back before adding, “So you didn’t sign?”

“I was holding out for an offer from Boston,” Jack says, sitting back. “I got a call from them last night. One year for 2.1 million.”

It’s a lowball offer, but considering Jack’s at the end of his career and they know he wants to be in the northeast, it’s to be expected.

“You gonna take it?”

Jack wipes his eyes. “I’d hoped I’d get to talk to you about it first.” He looks wobbly again, so Bitty intertwines their fingers.

“I think you should. You could live at home and commute, yeah?”

“Yeah.” Jack exhales. “That’s… you have no idea how good it is to hear you say that.”

“Why?”

“I wasn’t sure you’d want me to come back.” His eyes are so blue, and he looks so sad.

Bitty puts his hands on Jack’s cheeks and smiles. “You listen to me, Jack Laurent Zimmermann. I fell in love with you when I was twenty years old, and I have loved you every day since. I knew what I was signing up for, and I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but it’s worth it. Okay?”

Jack closes his eyes, opens them again. “Okay.”

“We’re gonna get a dog, though, and I want to start the paperwork for adoption.”

Jack nods, and exhales shakily. He finally smiles. “We’re okay, then?”

Bitty leans forward and kisses him again. “We’re so much more than okay. When they let me out of here and I can get you alone, I’ll show you just how much.”

Jack laughs. “You have a concussion, so we should probably talk to the doctor about that, but.”

“Concussion, huh?” Bitty wiggles his fingers and toes, just to remind himself everything else is fine. “I guess I should count myself lucky, after that fall.”

Jack looks like he might cry again, so Bitty hugs him tight.

The nurse comes in then, and he smiles and checks Bitty’s vitals before calling for the doctor. She looks him over and says that they want to run a few more tests, but if all goes well he can go home in the afternoon.

Home, Bitty thinks, imagining his bakery and their townhouse, and everything else he’s missed while he was—

Where the hell was he? It felt too real to be a dream, so much that he thought he’d imagined this future, or that he could at least change it. It doesn’t even make sense that he actually went back in time, but yet… He can’t shake the feeling that it was real, that it actually happened. If it did happen, did it change anything?

He’s released mid-afternoon, and Jack drives him home. The car is the same and the townhouse is the same. Jack even drives him past the bakery on the way, so that Bitty can be reassured that everything is okay.

When they get home, he stands in the middle of his kitchen and looks around. It’s so familiar, and yet. He was just there, in Jack’s room — in Jack’s bed. He was twenty years old and still in school, and all of this was a decade away. His head is spinning.

“Hey,” Jack says, wrapping his arms around Bitty from behind. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” Bitty says, then turns to face him. He’s got to know; he’s going to go crazy if he doesn’t. “Can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

Bitty presses his lips together. “When was our first kiss?”

Jack stares back at him, worry lining his face. “You don’t remember?”

“No, it’s not that.” Bitty sighs and presses his forehead against Jack’s shoulder. “I do, I just… I had a really strange, intense dream while I was unconscious and… I think I need some reassurance?”

Jack looks skeptical. “Bits—”

“Please,” Bitty says. “I just want to hear you tell me, to remind me that you love me and you still want to be with me. Okay?”

Jack kisses him. “Of course I love you and want to be with you.” Their mouths are so close together that Bitty can feel the words.

He swipes his tongue across Jack’s lower lip, then pulls back when Jack tries to deepen the kiss. “So tell me the story. Tell me about the first time we kissed. “ He raises his eyebrows. “Humor me.”

Jack smiles and brushes their noses together. “All right, fine, I’ll tell you the story if you really want to hear it.” He leans back against the kitchen counter and takes Bitty’s hands in his.

Bitty takes a deep breath, and smiles up at him. “I do.”

*****

FIN