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A Life In Song

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The smell of coffee hit Eric long before he actually entered Annie’s. There was a crowd of students all standing around discussing the benefits of writing papers stoned, blocking his path as he tried to get through the door. He contemplated calling Shitty, who would probably have a thing or two to add to the subject, but then remembered that Shitty was passed out over his thesis at the kitchen table, which was what prompted this trip to acquire caffeine in the first place rather than risk waking Shitty by running the coffee maker.

Three polite attempts at “Excuse me” later and he finally gave up, pushing past a boy in a grey tee-shirt that had seen better days. He tried to not cringe when he touched it, but he did manage to get a hand on the door; only to be nearly knocked over by a couple so caught up in each other that they didn’t realize he was there. Sighing, he finally shoved his way through the door.

There was only a short line, and the wait was not long before he ordered a coconut almond latte. He considered just ordering plain coffee, but with no Jack in sight he ordered the overly sweet drink with a relish that only came from having something forbidden. It tasted twice as good as he remembered.

The little coffee shop was crowded with students trying to keep themselves awake through classes after staying up too late the night before, but Bitty managed to find an empty table in the back corner. He pulled out a chemistry textbook and tried to focus on memorizing organic compounds for his upcoming test, but he couldn't seem to concentrate. The din of chatting students was a low buzz in his ears mingled with the scrape of chairs and the hiss of the espresso machine to be just distracting enough to keep interrupting him.

Snippets of music kept drifting in and out of hearing, and Bitty pulled out his phone getting ready to Soundhound what seemed like an interesting song that he had never heard. Before he had the chance, however, a hand came down, covering his phone.

"Can't even pull your head out of your phone long enough to study, Bittle?"

Bitty let the chirp go to smile up at Jack. “I wasn’t really going to be on my phone long. I just wanted to know what this song is, and I can barely hear it, so I was going to Soundhound it but…” he trailed off when he noticed Jack’s patented technology-is-the-only-language-I-don’t-speak look. “It was going to magically tell me what this song is while I study,” he concluded, shaking his head fondly.

“Huh.” Jack looked at the phone a bit skeptically, but apparently trusted to Bitty’s knowledge of these things, because he didn’t say anything else. Instead, he picked up Bitty’s cup and took a mouthful before Bitty could stop him. He grimaced at the latte, handing it back reluctantly. “You really shouldn’t drink that. Do you have any idea how many calories are in one of these things? You’ll blow your entire daily intake this way.”

“Quite a few less than in one slice of my pecan pie, thank you very much. Which you seem to have no problems eating any time there’s one around. Or my apple, or peach, or—” Bitty grinned at him as Jack just sighed and got in line to order himself a plain old unflavored coffee.

Realizing that he had missed the song, and not wanting to encourage any more chirping, Bitty put his phone back in his pocket, but not until he had jotted the line or two he could recall of the lyrics in the notepad app with the intention of googling them later. Then he tried to focus on his textbook, but it just wasn’t happening. By the time Jack had made it through the line and back to the table he had given up for the day and put the heavy book back in his bag.

“What happened to studying?” Jack asked, sitting down with a large coffee, no sugar, minimal skim milk. Bitty twitched a little just looking at it.

“I have officially realized it’s useless. The only reason I took this class in the first place is because it filled a science requirement and I knew Ransom could help when I got completely lost, with Holster supervising, of course, in case Ransom forgets which one of us is studying and goes all catatonic on me. Besides, I thought all that mixing of things in labs would be a little like baking, so I’d have an edge over other science options. I was clearly very very wrong.”

“Maybe I should have Ransom rewrite all your recipes using the chemical compounds for each ingredient, eh? I bet you’d remember them that way,” Jack said with a small smile, ruffling Bitty’s hair across the table.

Heart stuttering, Bitty blinked a couple of times. He could feel his cheeks warming up, but decided to play it off. “Goodness, Jack, I know you meant that as a chirp, but that’s not a bad idea. Maybe I can find a way to work a pie recipe into my final project.”

Bitty could see the groan that Jack just barely stifled as he gave Bitty a look that very clearly said he was quite certain Bitty was insane, but that it was okay.

Settling down with his playbook, Jack started scribbling notes, barely noticing that he had a coffee, let alone that he had company. After a few minutes of watching him, (and definitely not noticing the way Jack’s frown made the little lines between his eyes deeper—nope, not noticing that) Bitty sighed and scooted around the table.

“If you’re going to ignore me in favor of hockey, Jack Laurent Zimmermann, the least you can do is explain those plays you’re drawin’ up. I’m much more likely to remember them if I learn them when the sun is out.”

Jack slid the notebook over so it sat between them, but stopped, looking at Bitty for a moment. Then he picked up the notebook, closed it and put it back in his bag.

“Good Lord, Jack Zimmermann chose to put away the hockey? The world must be ending. Let me find my headphones so I can die listening to better music than—” Bitty waved a hand in the air. “—whatever this is.”

Frowning, Jack muttered, “I don’t always do hockey.”

“No, sometimes you do World War II, or the Civil War, which, incidentally, is a really strange topic of interest for a Canadian, but I suppose—”

“Take a walk with me?” Jack interrupted.

“Of course!”

After grabbing his bag, and getting a refill on his latte despite the disapproving glare from Jack, they walked outside. Bitty shivered slightly in the crisp early spring air and he huddled farther into his hoodie. He had specially designed it from CafePress, with a little help from Lardo, just a few weeks prior for just these sorts of days. It had two hockey sticks crossed around a pie instead of a puck, and was two sizes too big so he could tuck his hands into the sleeves. Or rather, he could if he weren’t holding a latte. He was just thinking that maybe Jack was right about that refill when Jack stopped walking.

They were at the edge of the pond and it was surprisingly quiet. “See, it’s not just me. Everyone else thinks it’s too cold to be out here, too.” Bitty smiled, indicating the complete lack of people, and dropped his bag, but Jack just sighed and leaned up against a large oak tree. “Jack, you okay, honey?”

“I’m no good at this, Bittle,” Jack said quietly, then shook his head. “Eric.”

Bitty felt his stomach drop to his toes. Jack had never called him anything but Bittle. Walking slowly, Bitty went and leaned against the tree next to Jack, setting his latte down in the not quite green grass. “You’re doin’ just fine. Of course, I don’t know what ‘this’ is, but you’re doin’ fine anyway.”

Jack snorted. “That. That’s what this is.”

“What?”

“You, Eric. The way you look at me.”

The air all left Bitty’s lungs like he’d been punched. He was suddenly lightheaded in the way he only got when he was facing down a D-line with the prospect of hitting the boards. “Oh Jack, I’m so sor—”

“And the way I like it,” Jack continued, completely oblivious to Bitty’s distress.

His legs decided that that was more than they could handle and Bitty sank down to the ground against the tree, dropping his head into his hands.

Jack sat down next to him, a concerned look on his face. “Are you okay?”

“Dear Lord, Jack, you could give a boy a heart attack like that.”

“I did warn you I’m not good at this,” Jack mumbled, but his fingers brushed lightly over Bitty’s.

With a steadying breath, and shaking hands, Bitty twined their fingers together and squeezed lightly. Jack didn’t say anything, but he didn’t move away. They sat quietly like that for a few minutes, Jack’s thumb running lightly over the back of Bitty’s hand, making him shiver.

“Cold?” Jack asked, and Bitty got stuck in his eyes for a moment, but for the first time, it didn’t seem like he needed to look away.

He shook his head and smiled. “That’s just what you do to me,” he said quietly, trying not to let on to the way his heart was threatening to break through his ribcage.

Jack looked like he wanted to smile at that, but instead he looked away with a small grimace. “I like that I can do that to you. I’m so sorry, Bittle—Eric.”

“Ain’t nothin’ for you to apologize about, Jack, and especially not that.”

“In a few months,” Jack continued quietly, staring out across the pond, “I’ll be signing with the NHL. I may not know what team yet, but it will happen.”

Don’t remind me. You and Shitty are not allowed to leave. I mean, honestly, do you have any idea what it’s going to cost me to ship pies to y’all?” That earned him a small, brief smile, and Bitty silently cheered.

“I don’t think I can do this,” Jack whispered.

“Do what?”

“Play professionally and be out. I’m not even sure I’m ready to play professionally and be in the closet, but there’s not much I can do about that.” Jack tried to let go of Bitty’s hand, but Bitty just tightened his grip.

“You’re going to be just fine, Jack. You breathe hockey. And it’s not like they’re going to be askin’ you if you went and got yourself a boyfriend, now are they? That’s not something you ever have to talk about, and you’re going to play great, and they’re all going to love you, because how could they not, and—”

“And when the stress gets to be too much?” Jack cut in, bitterly. “They can’t give me pills for it like last time, because everyone is afraid that I’ll end up back in the hospital if I’m even in the same room as a bottle of pills.”

“Oh, Jack,” Bitty whispered, leaning so that their shoulders just brushed together. “You’re stronger than that.”

“Maybe,” Jack shrugged, disentangling their fingers. “And maybe not, but I don’t think pushing my stress levels are a good idea, either, not if I want to survive the media.” He was quite for a minute before letting out a choked laugh. “All I really want to do right now is kiss you, but you deserve more than being someone’s dirty little secret, Eric. I want this, but I can’t do this. It’s not fair to either of us.”

Bitty was sure his lungs had stopped working, and he couldn’t feel his fingers anymore. The loss of heat from where Jack had let go had left him numb. He tried to breathe, but found that he was shaking, instead. There was a prickling in his eyes that said he was trying not to cry, but he couldn’t quite feel that yet.

“That’s okay, Jack. It’s not like I ever thought this was something I could have. So I’m right where I always was, and we’re still friends. But you, you are going to be fine, Jack Zimmermann, and you’re going to go be the best damned hockey player there is, just to shut the media up, cause otherwise…” He trailed off. He couldn’t quite bring himself to say that otherwise Jack had broken his heart for nothing. He might be hurting, but that didn’t mean he had to spread it around.

“I know this is the right thing to do,” Jack muttered, “but I still just want to kiss you.”

He had even leaned in slightly, like he might do just that, but Bitty stood up abruptly. “I can’t let you do that, Jack. I can’t know what I don’t get to have. I’m sorry.”

Jack sighed. “You’re right.”

“Come on,” Bitty said, holding out a hand to help haul Jack to his feet, and determinedly not letting himself enjoy the scratch of calluses across his palm. “Let’s get back to the Haus. There are all kinds of pies that need baking right about now, and I’ve got to see if I need to pry Shitty’s keyboard out of his face again. I think his thesis might just be the end of him.” Bitty was fairly sure he kept chattering all the way back to the Haus, but he couldn’t hear his own words. Inside his head he just kept hearing, “I want this, but I can’t do this” over and over again, instead.

Shitty was, in fact, still passed out on his laptop at the kitchen table when they walked in. Bitty nearly went to wake him, but Jack veered off in that direction and Bitty decided to let them talk for a while. He walked on autopilot up to his room and closed the door with a small snick that sounded a lot more final than any door should. Dropping his bag he pulled his phone out of his pocket intent on drowning himself in music, but it was still open to the notepad function. All it said was:

You were lost, I was blind
And we swore it was time
When you were
When you were
When you were
My waste of time

*****

Bitty’s reflection was gleefully pointing out to him that he had, in fact, not succeeded in smoothing out his hair. Grumbling, he tugged a comb through it one last time before giving it up as a lost cause. He could tell the frogs were already downstairs because he could hear Nursey and Dex arguing, although he couldn’t make out over what.

Both Jack and Shitty had already packed up their rooms for when their families show up the next day for graduation. The team, however, had planned a huge dinner out to celebrate both Shitty going off to law school and Jack’s impending stardom. Bitty wasn’t sure he could go through with it. Over the last few months he had tried to keep a cheerful attitude, making sure his friendship with Jack didn’t suffer. They still got coffee together at least once a week, Jack still chirped him for his lattes and his phone use, they played hockey and suffered through the stress of finals. Bitty wasn’t sure he remembered how to breathe.

Ransom and Holster came tumbling down the stairs together jolting Bitty out of his thoughts, and he had to smile at his reflection, although it looked a little thin around the edges.

“Come on, you’re better at compartmentalizing than this. Rural Georgia! You can get through one team dinner and then get on with the rest of your life without Jack Zimmermann. It’ll be fine.” His reflection looked like it didn’t believe him, either.

Straightening out his jacket over a blue and yellow plaid shirt he took a deep breath and opened his door to go meet the rest of the team downstairs. Or rather, that was the plan until he nearly ran headfirst into Jack. Jack, whose perfectly tailored suit showed off the breadth of his shoulders, with a blue shirt that brought out his eyes. Bitty remembered telling him once, a long time ago, that he liked that shirt. He wondered if Jack remembered, too.

“Oh my goodness, I’m so sorry, Jack!” he exclaimed, backing up quickly till he felt the wall hit his shoulders.

“Payback for all that checking practice, eh?” Jack asked, smiling.

“You know,” Bitty said, quietly, ignoring the chirp and trying to keep his voice steady, “I’m going to miss that.”

“I will, too.”

“It’s not as if you won’t have enough practice to be getting on with, Mr. Zimmermann.”

“It won’t be quite the same, though,” Jack said, reaching out and smoothing down the curl of hair that Bitty had been fighting with.

Bitty leaned into the touch briefly before he remembered himself. “Jack,” he whispered.

Stepping closer, Jack trailed a finger down the back of Bitty’s neck before adjusting his collar for him. “You look good, Eric.”

It didn’t feel strange to hear his name on Jack’s lips anymore, but Bitty had to swallow twice before he could speak anyway. “I’d say you too, but I’m pretty sure there’s never been a time you didn’t look good.”

Jack smiled, and suddenly they were only inches apart, Bitty still pressed against the wall with Jack’s palms on either side of his head. He locked eyes with Jack’s blue ones and they stayed frozen like that for a moment before Bitty shook his head. “Jack, don’t,” he said quietly.

Jack blinked a couple of times, but stepped back slightly. “I’m sorry. I just…”

“I know. I’m going to miss you, too. But nothing’s changed. You’re not ready, Jack and if you’re not ready I can’t do this, no matter how I might feel about you. We both deserve better. I’m sorry.” Stepping out from under Jack’s arm he put on his best there-is-nothing-to-see-here face and marched down the stairs to join the rest of the team.

He hadn’t even made it all the way down the stairs when Chowder’s enthusiastic voice caught up with him. “Wow, Bits, you look good in a suit. I mean, I knew you did, cause you wore one to the hockey banquet. Don’t we all clean up really well? Even Shitty. And Lardo’s wearing a dress! I made Dex and Nursey promise me that they wouldn’t fight during dinner, but I don’t know if that’s actually going to work—”

Bitty smiled at the twin exclamations of “Hey!” over that last statement.

“Chowder, honey-child, breathe once in a while,” he cut in.

Shitty, who had been leaning against the wall by the door, leveraged himself up and called up the stairs, “If you don’t get your beautiful fucking ass down here in the next two minutes, Jack Zimmermann, we are leaving without you! Don’t make me take all the attention tonight.”

“Somehow, I don’t think you would mind that all that much,” Jack said, coming down the stairs.

“It would be a heavy task, having to carry your share of the adoration, but it’s a burden I would suffer for you,” Shitty answered, slinging an arm around Jack’s shoulders and steering him towards the door.

Chowder was still rambling off to Bitty’s left, but he couldn’t really hear him. He watched as Shitty and Jack walked through the front door of the Haus, and for a moment he saw them disappear. Blinking hard Bitty brought everyone back into focus, but he couldn’t shake the quiet misery at knowing that tomorrow they would be doing that for the last time.

“It’s hard, watching them leave like that, isn’t it?” Lardo asked quietly, slipping up beside Bitty.

He just nodded slightly, unable to look away from the slope of Jack’s shoulders beneath Shitty’s arm.

Lardo linked her arm through Bitty’s. “Be my date tonight, Bits.” She didn’t say it, but he heard the and we’ll make sure we both get through this together anyway.

“Wait, wait, wait! I haven’t finished kicking Holster’s ass yet!” Ransom shouted waving his game controller in the air.

Lardo grabbed the remote off the arm of the biohazard couch and cut the power to their game. “Dinner. Now.”

The entire group stood at attention at that command. Sometimes being team manager had its perks. Bitty smirked at Lardo, and arm in arm they followed after Jack and Shitty.

They all piled into Shitty's beat up and ancient Dodge Caravan. It was a tight fit since it was only meant to seat seven, not the nine they crammed into it, but no one seemed to mind. Even Dex and Nursey, who were squished together all the way in the back along with Ransom and Holster, didn't have anything to complain about.

Jack relinquished his right to the front seat with a small smile at Lardo, who took the seat gratefully. Instead, Jack slid into the middle seat with Bitty who was already sitting with Chowder. The warm weight of Jack pressed fully against his side was bittersweet, made even more so when Shitty started the car and Kelly Clarkson came out of the radio singing:

Remember all the things we wanted
Now all our memories, they're haunted
We were always meant to say goodbye

Lardo let out a groan and promptly switched the radio off. Bitty wasn’t sure whether it was a groan in complaint about Shitty’s choice in radio station, or if she was having as hard a time with this as he was, but he didn’t ask. It didn’t really matter.

A couple of shaky breaths later Bitty was at least sure he wasn't going to cry, so he turned his focus on Chowder.

“This is just so 'swawsome that we're all going out together like this! I can't believe you guys are graduating. It's almost like you're adults now. At least Shitty isn't going far. You'll still come watch games sometimes, right? I know Jack will be too busy, but—”

Jack's fingers found Bitty's and squeezed gently. Bitty couldn't bring himself to make Jack let go, even though he knew he should.

"—I'm just so excited for both of you. I wonder what the new frogs'll be like. Hey, does that mean you can't call us frogs anymore?"

"Chowder, at least save some talking for the restaurant." Dex gently reached up and patted Chowder on the shoulder.

"Yeah, chill," Nursey added. “You have all night, C.”

Bitty, who had been hanging on to Chowder's rambling as his only lifeline in the sea of unknown threatening to drown him, just smiled. "Don't listen to them, darlin’. You are just fine."

*****

It was with a sense of relief that Bitty walked back into the Haus after the summer. He loved his family, but time moved differently in the thick Georgia heat, and the two months of summer vacation always seemed to last interminably, marked only by the baking of copious amounts of pies.

Bitty wasn’t sure if he was grateful or disappointed that his mother had never asked him about his bouts of silence, or the times he would just disappear into his room and listen to every song he could find about distance and loss.

It wasn’t that he spent every day feeling sorry for himself, or even the majority of them, but there were days where he remembered that when he returned to the Haus it would be intrinsically different. He hadn’t quite been able to bring himself to face it.

Jack had left his dibs to Chowder, on the face of things claiming it was for Chowder’s shut out helping advance the team to their championship win, but Bitty suspected that the real reason was that Jack knew that Bitty needed the distraction. Shitty, in an unheard of move, left his dibs to Lardo, telling her on the sly that it was just so she could have more space to work on her art. No one complained.

The kitchen was his first stop after dumping off his bags and boxes in his room and saying goodbye to his mother, who had to start the return trip almost immediately. No one else was there yet and he was determined to give the place a thorough cleaning before he started dinner. Just a simple chili that could be kept warm in the crock pot, which he had bought over the summer, so people could grab some as they trickled in and unpacked throughout the day.

He scrubbed the table and the counters first, then the floor, filling the space with a medicinal lemon scent. Wrinkling his nose, Bitty decided to put off starting the chili. He wasn’t sure he could take the conflicting smells. Throwing open the front door to the Haus to air it out he was surprised to find Holster standing on the stoop trying to dig out his key without dropping the boxes he was holding.

“Thanks, Bits, you’re a lifesaver.”

“Anything for the new team captain,” Bitty laughed, going outside and grabbing another box out of the car.

“Half a captain,” Holster called from halfway up the stairs already.

“He wouldn’t be much of a captain without me,” Ransom added from the doorway, making Bitty jump.

“Did y’all plan this, or is it just that freaky you-only-have-one-brain-between-you thing?”

Ransom followed him up to the attic where Bitty passed the box he was carrying off to Holster. Both of them blinked at him for a minute before Ransom asked, slowly, “There’s a difference?”

The front door banged shut, and Bitty went to see who else had shown up, although there weren’t too many options left. He didn’t need to get downstairs, however, to figure out who it was.

“I can’t believe I get to live here, now! I mean, this is just 'swawesome! And I didn’t think Jack even liked me, but he gave me his dibs. And now I get to be here. Poor Dex and Nursey, though, still out in the dorms. I’ll have to make sure they spend a lot of time here.”

“Chowder,” Lardo’s voice was fighting for calm, but ended up closer to coiled spring. “They already spend most of their time here.”

“But—”

“Chowder!” Bitty exclaimed, hoping to distract him and flashing Lardo a small smile. He adored Chowder, his brother of babble, but that didn’t mean he didn’t understand. And Chowder would settle down soon enough. He was always more excitable when he first got back to Samwell after any time away.

“Bitty!” Chowder dropped his bags, beaming, his braces flashing. “I get to live across the hall from you!”

“Hey, Bits,” Lardo smiled. “What, no pie yet?”

“I just finished cleaning the kitchen. I was going to make dinner for all y’all first. Then pie.”

Lardo’s phone chimed, followed almost instantly by both Chowder’s and Bitty’s.

“Wow, someone on the team text already?” Lardo mused, pulling her phone out.

Bitty was faster, and he laughed. There was nothing but a giant “HELP!!!” from Shitty.

“I got this,” Lardo muttered, fingers flying over her screen. A few minutes later she groaned. “Did I see Holster’s car out front, Bits?”

“Yeah.”

“Holster!”

Ransom’s head poked over the top of the stairs. “Yes, our illustrious manager?”

“I didn’t… never mind, I’m not sure there’s a difference. Tell your taller half that I need his car. He can either come with me or give me the keys.”

“Is everything okay?” Bitty asked quietly.

“Oh man, is Shitty okay? He isn’t in trouble already is he? He just got to Harvard.”

“Chowder, darlin’, I’m sure Shitty’s fine,” Bitty said, glancing at Lardo for confirmation, but she wasn’t looking.

Ransom and Holster both came down the stairs, Holster with his keys in hand.

“We saw the text,” Ransom said at the same time that Holster asked, “What’s the mission?”

Lardo shook her head fondly. “First, we need to go to a Target, then to Shitty’s apartment. I’ve got the address here.”

Ransom and Holster grinned. “Road trip!” They shouted in unison.

“I’ll just help Bitty with dinner for whenever you all get back,” Chowder started slowly. “Or maybe go and see if Dex and Nursey are here yet. Or—”

Holster threw a light headlock on him. “Nah, bro. Whole Haus road trip. You too, Bitty. Bonding time. Come on! Let’s go invade Shitty’s new place.”

“Make him feel at home,” Ransom added.

It was a good thing that both Bitty and Lardo were so small, because the back seat of Holster’s Civic was really not designed to hold three hockey players, or even two hockey players and a team manager. It took a couple of minutes of adjusting before they were all settled in, but finally the engine roared to life and they were off, heading towards Harvard.

As the engine turned over Ransom flipped through the radio stations until he finally settled on the Beatles; something that no one in the car could complain about.

No I get by with a little help from my friends
Mm I get high with a little help from my friends
Mm going to try with a little help from my friends

Lardo started giggling. Holster nearly swerved off the road at the unfamiliar sound, but that only made her giggle harder.

“Is she okay?” Chowder asked Bitty, who was sitting in the middle. He eyed Lardo suspiciously.

“It’s just,” Lardo gasped, “we’re off to rescue Shitty, and this… is…” she trailed off in another fit of giggles that didn’t subside until they were pulling into the parking lot of Target.

Holster pulled up in front of the door and let Lardo run in. It was only a few minutes before she came back out clutching a bag and rattling off the address for Holster to put into his GPS before she even buckled herself back in.

Even Chowder was oddly quiet when they pulled up to the old rundown brownstone that held Shitty’s small apartment. Holster made a passable attempt at parallel parking, only leaving the rear of the car sticking out about a half a foot farther than the front.

“Parking needs work, bro,” Ransom chirped.

“The places in Buffalo that need parallel parking you don’t generally leave your car,” Holster shrugged. It was blatantly untrue, as Ransom knew from visiting frequently, but everyone let Holster get away with the excuse.

On the third floor, Lardo knocked on a nondescript white door which was promptly opened by a naked Shitty, who grinned when he saw them. When Lardo handed him the bag from Target he picked her up and swung her around.

“You beautiful fucking angel!”

“Shitty, why does it smell like ashes in here?” Bitty asked, frowning.

“Was there a fire or something?” Chowder asked, wide eyed, looking around from where he had stopped just feet past the doorway, glancing around curiously.

“Because he torched all his boxers,” Lardo snorted as Shitty set her back down.

“I thought it would be sort of like bra burning,” Shitty shrugged. “Freedom from the need to ever wear them, now that I live alone and shit.”

“Bro, you didn’t wear them when you lived with us, either,” Ransom laughed, lifting the lid on one of the boxes that Shitty had yet to unpack.

Shitty glanced in the box as if he was unsure what Ransom might find, but he continued walking by into the kitchen “But this was like, true freedom, you know? I could be pantsless all the time!” he explained, while carrying a stack of pizzas out from the kitchen and grinning at his friends.

“So you got stoned and decided to reenact a women’s rights movement?” Bitty raised an eyebrow and helped himself to a slice of pizza.

“I might possibly have been stoned before I thought of it,” Shitty said around a mouthful.

“And then he remembered that he didn’t have any food, and might, eventually, need to attend a class or two,” Lardo added, snickering.

“So we drove out here to bring Shitty boxers?” Chowder asked.

“And partake in the gloriousness that is this pizza, bro. Don’t forget the pizza,” Shitty nodded solemnly holding up his slice. “Now, who’s up for a match?” he added, gesturing towards the two game controllers that were already set up.

As Ransom and Holster threw themselves over the back of the couch to take the first round, and everyone else settled in with pizza and beer Bitty decided that Shitty may have graduated, but he could work with this.

*****

If you gave me a chance I would take it
It's a shot in the dark but I'll make it
Know with all of your heart, you can't shake me
When I am with you, th—

Bitty jumped as the headphones were pulled unceremoniously out of his ears, nearly slamming his knee into his open locker door. Whirling around he saw Einstein (so named by Ransom when he realized that the initials for Ethan Michael Cole-Crawford came out to be E MC2) and the other frogs laughing from behind him.

"Leave him alone," Holster called from across the locker room where he was taping his stick. "If dancing around before a game helps keep Bitty calm then that's what he gets to do."

"Don't even try to tell me that none of you have pregame rituals. We've all seen you with the chocolate Spitzy," Ransom added from the bench next to Holster. Josh Spitzer, or Spitzy, turned red and mumbled something about nerves that Bitty couldn't quite hear.

Bitty couldn't fault the frogs for being nervous. While this may not be the first game of the season, it was the first game of the season that the camera crews for ESPN had shown up to.

"Don't chirp the poor boys, Ransom. They aren't used to the camera crews. I was terrified the first time I realized they were there." Bitty smiled at the freshmen, pulling his headphones all the way off and putting his phone in his locker. "Y'all're going to be just fine. I mean, once you get on the ice you won't even remember they're there."

Chowder came skidding into the locker room, braces flashing as he smiled, or grimaced. Sometimes when he was going full speed it was hard to tell the difference. "One of the reporters just came to ask me about that overtime miss I had last Friday, and now it's all I can think about. I know I let you guys down, but you aren't, like, mad at me or anything, are you? I couldn't stand it if you were all mad at me."

"Chowder, chill, you’re fine dude," Nursey muttered from his locker where he was pulling on his padding, Dex just shaking his head next to him.

Bitty put a hand on Chowder's shoulder and helped propel him to one of the benches. "Breathe, darlin’, no one is mad at you."

"Are you sure?"

"Chowder, if someone were mad at you, you would have woken up to a puck on your pillow by now," Dex said, still shaking his head.

Chowder let out a small squeak and looked around the locker room panicked. "None of you would really do that to me, would you?"

Groaning, Bitty wrapped an arm around Chowder. It was times like this that he missed Jack the most. Ransom and Holster were doing a great job as captains, but they were just as likely to chirp before a game as anyone. They didn’t have the same ability to instill calm and focus, let alone do it with a single look. “You know I’m not about to let someone sneak a puck into your bed. Don’t you worry about it.”

“I know,” Chowder mumbled, and Bitty gave him a squeeze, silently cursing the reporter that got Chowder all worked up before a game, before standing up to get his skates from where they hung in his locker.

“All right,” he continued, lacing on his skates. “How about all y’all remember that Shitty said he’s coming to watch this one, and if we don’t do him proud Lardo will have our heads.”

“I think the threat of Lardo’s wrath might be worse than the threat of losing,” Holster mock whispered to Ransom who just nodded, wide-eyed.

Not a full minute later Abby came skidding into the locker room, looking frazzled, her bright red curls frizzed out around her round face. Abbigail Downing was the new assistant team manager as of a week prior. Lardo had recruited her from a freshmen figure study class that she was TAing when she realized that Abby was a dual major in art and business, and therefore might be somewhat organized and easily trainable. That and Abby had shown up to every hockey game since the year started.

“Lardo wants to know why there are five sticks left in the equipment room when there should only be four. Who doesn’t have all their equipment squared away yet? She said to tell you guys ‘if they make me come back there, they’ll regret it,’ and you know she means that. Who needs what?” Abby, although incredibly slender, was nearly four inches taller than Bitty. Despite being almost six foot tall, however, she was nowhere near as imposing as tiny Lardo. He just smiled and finished lacing on his skates.

“Abby, why don’t you—”

“If you tell me to chill, Derek Nurse, I’ll break that stick across your ass. This is not the time to chill.”

“Someone’s been taking lessons from Lardo,” Dex laughed, patting Nursey on the shoulder.

Holster frowned looking around the locker room. Finally he and Ransom shrugged at each other. “Everyone here has a stick, Abby. I don’t know what to tell you.”

Bitty sighed. “Cob has the flu, remember? We should have an extra stick.”

“Why are you the only one who remembers that, Bitty?” Abby asked with a groan.

“Because he brought him pie this morning for having to miss the game,” Nursey muttered at nearly the same time Dex said, “Because he’s our team mother.”

Chowder snickered. Dex and Nursey were starting to sound more and more like Ransom and Holster.

“All right, now that you can tell our overlord that we aren’t going to let Shitty down, out, Abby,” Ransom said, shaking his head. “Who thought it was a good idea to keep letting our female managers into the locker room, anyway?”

“Right, like you haven’t snuck girls back to the locker room post-game before,” Holster chirped as Abby slunk out of the room.

“Guys,” Bitty called, finally, watching where Einstein and Spitzy were sitting together in the corner, quiet and a little pale. “Game time in ten minutes. Do y’all think maybe it’s time to focus?”

The entire locker room turned to look at him and Bitty felt his face heat up.

“Channeling Jack, there, Bits?” Holster asked, but everyone settled down, formed up and headed out to the bench to face Colgate.

The game was a blur. Bitty got an assist in the second period, and Einstein managed to score the game winner in an overtime power play. Chowder nearly had a shutout, the final score two to one. If someone were to ask Bitty about it even as soon after as coming out of the locker room that’s all he would have remembered; and even that much melted away as he came out to the hall with the rest of the team, intent on making it back to the Haus for a celebratory party.

Waiting against the wall was Lardo, tucked neatly under Shitty’s arm as if he had never left. And standing with them, the lines between his blue eyes more pronounced than Bitty remembered them, was Jack.

“Look what the fucking cat dragged in!” Shitty exclaimed, elbowing Jack.

“Bro, you came to slum with us lowly mortals?” Holster grinned.

“Jack!” Chowder managed to keep his voice calm despite the return of Jack. Bitty would have been proud if he had been a little less distracted. “It’s totally 'swawesome that you found time to come watch us even though you’re all famous now! Are you coming to the party at the Haus?”

Dex and Nursey made eye contact over Chowder’s shoulder, and as one they moved in, each throwing an arm around him, and turning him towards the door. Einstein and Spitzy followed them looking a bit dazed. Spitzy turned around twice on the way out, and Bitty almost choked out a laugh at the stunned look on his face, as if he had to make sure he wasn’t imagining the NHL player leaning against the wall.

In the back of his brain Bitty was glad no one had known Jack was here before the game. If the frogs had been nervous about the camera crews, knowing that the Jack Zimmermann was in the stands would have done them in. In the front of his brain Bitty had forgotten how to breathe. His steady mantra of “I don’t miss Jack Zimmermann. I don’t need Jack Zimmermann” that he had kept up for the last few months dissolved under the first glance from those exhausted looking eyes.

“Hey, Jack.” Bitty meant it to sound cheerful and welcoming, but it came out a bit strangled.

Lardo gave him a sympathetic look before narrowing her eyes at Ransom and Holster. “Now that Shitty’s here we can finally kick your ass at beer pong again!”

“Never!” They declared in unison and the four of them turned in the direction of the Haus.

“You coming?” Bitty asked quietly, trying to keep his voice from shaking now that they were alone.

Jack shook his head. “I can’t stay. Curfew.”

“Oh. That’s all right. It’s incredible that you came at all. And it’s not like I—”

“Eric?”

Bitty stopped mid-ramble.

“Are you okay?”

“Of course, Jack. Why wouldn’t I be?”

Jack turned and stared out over the ice for a moment, then shrugged, still not turning back around. “Take a walk with me before I have to go back?”

It took a couple of tries for Bitty to speak around the pounding of his heart in his throat. “Should I be worried?”

That got Jack to turn back around and look at him, eyes wide. “About what?”

“The last time you asked me to take a walk with you it didn’t end so well for me,” Bitty muttered, trying not to sound bitter.

“I’m sorry about that, Eric, I really am. It didn’t exactly end much better for me, either, eh?”

The cold air was like a slap to the face for Bitty as they walked outside and started to take the path to the pond just like they had the last time. Bitty snorted. “I know, Jack. I didn’t mean it like that. What’s up?”

“I think I should be asking you that,” Jack said quietly. “It was a good game, Eric. You played well. But you aren’t playing like it matters to you anymore. I don’t know if anyone else noticed, but, well, I can see it.”

Fingers brushed lightly at the back of Bitty’s hand, and his breath hitched, startled. “It’s not the same,” he started, hesitantly. “Ransom and Holster are doing a great job as captain, but it doesn’t mean as much to them, so it doesn’t mean as much to the rest of us anymore, either.”

“You’re the only one playing that way, though.” Jack’s voice was soft, but Bitty heard the reproach anyway. He didn’t have an answer to that, so he just shrugged. “Maybe,” Jack continued, “you need to stop letting how much it matters to someone else matter to you. Maybe you need to remember why it mattered to you in the first place.”

A hand came up to rest gently against Bitty’s cheek, thumb brushing just under his left eye. Time seemed to freeze, and just when he was sure he was going to break every rule he had and let Jack kiss him finally, the hand pulled back.

“I’m not that far away if you want to talk sometime, Eric.” And with that Jack turned and headed for his car and from there, Providence.

*****

The sun filtered in through the window of Bitty’s bedroom and he groaned as he cracked his eyes open. It was the first Saturday back after Christmas break, and he had planned on sleeping till – well, later than 7:30AM anyway. His history textbook had slid to the floor in a heap when he had fallen asleep trying to make up for not having done any of the reading all week. He remembered seeing 3:07AM, and then nothing. There were notes scattered all over his bed, mostly crumpled from having been slept on, but he couldn’t make himself move to pick them up just yet. Instead, he pulled his comforter over his head and squeezed his eyes shut, hoping for at least another hour of sleep before he got up to make breakfast for the Haus.

There was a crash as the front door banged shut and Bitty heard Chowder call that there was a box with the mail. A small part of him wondered at how Chowder was so often the first one awake, even when freshly back from California where even the sun wasn’t awake yet. Of course, that probably explained why Chowder frequently fell asleep in the most unusual places.

Finally, the temptation that it might be the care package his mother had promised, which contained the vanilla sugar he had forgotten to pack, proved too great and he pried himself out of bed slowly. After stumbling into the bathroom to wash his face and brush his teeth in the hopes of feeling at least alert enough to put on a pot of coffee Bitty pulled on a pair of jeans and the thickest sweater he could find in his wardrobe.

He trudged into the kitchen only to stop in the doorway and blink a few times. “How late did I sleep?” he muttered, rubbing at his eyes. “Y’all’re never all up this early.”

Lardo got up from the table where everyone was gathered and hastily made a cup of coffee that she then pressed into his hands. He took a small sip only to find that she had gotten the cream and sugar perfectly. A much larger mouthful and a questioning noise later and he sank down in one of the kitchen chairs.

“You looked like you could do with a pick-me-up, Bits. Rough night?” she asked, grabbing up her own coffee and topping it off.

“Rough plague,” he muttered.

Chowder let out a muffled squeak, but Holster laughed. “Ah, the wonders of European History 216. I remember that class. In fact, I think I might have mentioned that you didn’t want to take it.”

“I distinctly remember you telling him not to take it,” Ransom added, grinning.

“Tell me you aren’t taking it with Crompton, at the very least,” Holster demanded.

Bitty just groaned. “I may have made a mistake.”

“You have very decidedly made a mistake, bro. There is no sympathy for those who don’t listen to the wisdom of my friend Holster here,” Ransom declared, clapping Holster on the shoulder.

Dropping his head onto his arms at the table Bitty sighed, resigned. Before he could say anything, though, the front door banged open.

"Honestly, Nursey, do you really think there's going to be food here this early? It's Saturday. No practice till two." Dex sounded like this might not be the first time he had pointed this out this morning.

"Bitty always has breakfast made by now," Nursey protested as the door slammed closed again.

"I don't smell anything," Einstein pointed out, his voice wavering a bit.

"Well, nothing but coffee, anyway," Spitzy added as they all piled into the kitchen.

Nursey frowned at the distinct lack of food, but one look from Lardo stalled any questions directed towards Bitty.

"I told you it was too early," Dex grumbled, but he did let Nursey throw an arm around his shoulder and steer him to the green couch.

Spitzy poured four cups of coffee and started fixing them to everyone's preferences. Bitty made a mental note to find out of Spitzy knew how to cook as well. Later. After a few more hours of sleep.

"You're not coming down with that flu that Cob had, are you?" Einstein asked, putting a hand to Bitty's forehead.

"That was before Christmas, Einstein," Spitzy muttered quietly, but he looked worried, too.

“Well, then why didn’t he join us for breakfast this morning?” Einstein puzzled.

“Because he’s too busy trying, once again, to get Abby to have breakfast with him,” Nursey called from the couch. Lardo raised an eyebrow at that, but said nothing as Chowder’s eyes got huge and he turned to Bitty.

"Oh no! Bitty can't get sick! That would be terrible. You aren't getting sick, are you, Bitty? Please tell me you aren't getting sick. Do you want me to go to Murder Stop and Shop for medicine or anything?"

"Chowder!" both Dex and Nursey called at the same time.

Bitty smiled and shook his head. "I'm not sick. Don't you worry your precious self about it."

"It’s just the plague!" Holster crowed. Everyone looked at him, but they all decided as one that it was just not worth asking.

"Maybe your care package will make you feel better," Ransom said, pushing a box towards Bitty.

The handwriting on the box wasn't his mother's, and Bitty frowned. He had no idea who else might send him a care package. Carefully he peeled off the tape and looked inside. Nestled in with a bunch of packing peanuts was a smaller box that had a piece of paper taped to the top. Bitty didn't need to open the box to recognize the Riedell logo and his pulse picked up. With shaking hands he carefully pulled the box out and lifted the lid to stare at a pair of skates. Figure skates.

"Wow, Bitty, did you get those for Christmas and forget to bring them with you or something?" Chowder asked, leaning over his shoulder.

Bitty didn't answer. Couldn't answer around the lump in his throat. He carefully opened the note, even though he knew.

Remember why you fell in love with the ice in the first place.
-J

"Do you want me to schedule you some ice time, Bits?" Lardo asked quietly. He just nodded, tracing a finger over the lacings; the tips of his fingers rasping over the serrated curl of the toe-pick. Swallowing, he blinked back the prickling in his eyes, folded the note so it fit in his pocket, picked up the box and turned back up to his bedroom without a word.

No one asked about breakfast.

He had barely made it to his room before he pulled his phone out. Staring at Jack's name under his contacts for a full minute he finally sent off a text.

You make it hard for a boy to remember he's supposed to be getting over you.

Just as he was hitting send there was a knock on his door. He cracked it open, still holding both his phone and the box with the skates, to see Lardo standing there, one hand lifted to knock again. She didn't wait till he got out of the way, just pushed into the room, closed the door and flung herself across Bitty's bed. She didn’t say anything, just watched him, but her face said All right, Bits, spill as clear as anything.

Setting the box carefully down on his desk, Bitty sank onto the bed next to Lardo and pulled his knees up, wrapping his arms around them. He opened his mouth to answer her twice, but closed it again, unsure of what he could say that wouldn’t give away someone else’s confidences.

“Did you and Jack secretly start dating behind all our backs?” she asked, finally.

“What? No!” The air left Bitty’s lungs with a silent whoosh, and he curled his fingers into the hem of his sweater.

Lardo shrugged, and flopped back onto her back, sideways across the bed, legs dangling off the edge. “That’s a shame. You’re good for him, and he was crazy about you, even if he wasn’t real good at showing it.” She sighed. “I sort of thought, maybe, with the way the two of you were looking at each other when he showed up to that game last semester, that he had decided to give you a shot.”

One long, shaky breath, then another and Bitty finally found his voice. “Goodness, what makes you think that he was crazy about me?”

“Oh, little things,” Lardo shrugged. “He smiled more around you. All the times he asked me to book ice time to help you out with your checking thing and to please not mention it to the coaches. The fact that half his photography projects had you in them. Coffee together with you at least once a week, just the two of you. The minor detail where he may have panicked one day and told Shitty that he was afraid he might want more than friendship from you… while I was in the room.”

Bitty groaned and slumped against his pillows, shoulders sagging. “He may have been interested, but not enough to risk being outed to the media.”

“Oh, Bits.”

“I didn’t mean that to sound as bitter as it did,” Bitty muttered. “We talked about it, but in the end we decided not to.”

“You both decided, or he decided and you didn’t have the heart to push him?” Lardo asked, shrewdly.

"Have you ever seen Jack have one of his panic attacks?" Bitty asked quietly, rather than answering that directly. He wasn’t really sure he had a solid answer himself.

Lardo frowned at the sudden change of topic, but nodded.

Dropping his head into his hands Bitty sighed. "I couldn't be the thing that caused his next one, so I didn't push, couldn't push."

Sitting up, Lardo hugged Bitty suddenly. “Come on, Bits. I’ll walk you to the rink, you can show off for me for a while.”

Lardo waited in the hallway while Bitty changed into something more appropriate for skating in and grabbed his new skates. They walked downstairs together to find the Haus nearly empty. The only person left was Chowder, who was curled up on the couch yawning.

“Everyone left for breakfast,” Chowder said, smiling and sitting up. “Ooh, are you going to try out your new skates? Can I come watch?”

Lardo glanced at him, but Bitty just smiled. “Of course, sweetheart.”

The smile that Chowder flashed him was worth it, and together they all made the trek through the cold to Faber, Lardo the only one not shivering.

Bitty let himself onto the ice while Chowder and Lardo took his phone to illegally hack into the PA system and give him some music. He had cued up a playlist of songs, the first couple designed to let him warm back up and ease back into it, and two at the end to really stretch himself, to see what he could still do. The burn of his muscles as he stretched, the soft whooshing noise of his blades on the ice, this was what he remembered. Before checking and puck handling; before having other people rely on him; before stupidly blue eyes that always let him know when he was doing something right, even when their owner didn’t say a word; this was ice the way he fell in love with it.

Two songs finished while he tested the limits of what he remembered, his brain on autopilot, and his mind blissfully blank for the first time in months, the only spinning coming from his feet. He couldn’t hear Lardo or Chowder, didn’t let himself look to see what they thought as he landed his first double lutz in years. This was time for just him.

Then the next song started, and he stumbled. This wasn’t what he had put on his playlist at all. In fact, he distinctly remembered deleting this song from his phone months ago, despite loving it, out of self-preservation.

As the opening piano line crackled through his ears he closed his eyes and tried to make his feet move. Nothing. Just an empty space in his heart and lungs that felt as though they were being squeezed from the outside. His legs gave out. And if he curled up in the middle of the ice, tears running down his face as Ella Henderson sang:

I know that I should not hold on
So why can’t I let go
’Cause every time I’m with you
Somehow I forget to breathe
You got me like a rag doll
Now I’m dancing on your string
And I keep trying to figure out who you are to me
But maybe all that we were meant to be
Is beautifully unfinished

Well, there was no one but Lardo and Chowder to see, and they would never say.

Lardo quickly unplugged his phone from the PA system and the music, thankfully, went away. Even Chowder was silent as they collected Bitty, tearstained and sniffling, from the edge of the ice. He felt his phone slide into his hands and Lardo pointedly wouldn’t meet his eyes.

There was a reply from Jack.

I know it’s selfish of me, but I’m glad. I don’t want you to get over me.

Bitty felt two pairs of arms wrap around him and he just cried harder.

*****

It wasn’t the voices coming from Chowder’s room that had Bitty puzzled. Dex and Nursey were frequently in there, separately or together, and Farmer even stopped by once in a while, although she didn’t seem comfortable in the Haus, so that was not a common occurrence. It was the fact that it was Lardo’s voice coming from Chowder’s room that confused him. Even more concerning was the fact that this was the third time this week he had heard her in there. It was almost enough to make him knock. Almost.

The only thing that stopped him was that it was already 7:45AM and he knew that if he didn’t start breakfast soon there would be a kitchen full of hungry hockey players all looking at him forlornly. After the one time he hadn’t cooked almost a month ago he had made certain that there was always food on the table on Saturday mornings. He didn’t want anyone asking questions he wasn’t prepared to answer.

He tied an apron over his polo and jeans and got to work.

First a pot of coffee was brewed, then promptly poured into a thermos so that a second pot could be started immediately. One pot simply wasn’t enough for everyone.

Ransom trudged into the kitchen still in his pajamas and fixed himself a cup of coffee, slumping at the table with a glazed look.

Bitty snorted. “Have you been to bed at all?”

“Of course he has,” Holster exclaimed from the doorway, looking only marginally more awake.

“He made me,” Ransom muttered, pointed at Holster and groaning, dropping his head onto the table with a thunk.

Grinning, Bitty pulled two cartons of eggs out of the fridge as well as a stack of bacon. The bacon went into a skillet and started popping almost immediately. The eggs all went into a bowl with salt and pepper and just a little cheddar cheese before being whisked and poured in small batches into a frying pan.

It wasn’t long before a large bowl was filled with scrambled eggs and a plate held a lot of bacon, split into two piles, one extra crispy, one just on the done side of browned. Ransom and Holster had both filled their plates and Holster had started a third pot of coffee after Ransom had finished off the first thermos.

“’Swawesome! Bacon!” Chowder flung himself into a seat and helped himself to some bacon, not bothering to grab a plate.

Before Bitty could comment, however, the front door opened and a whole herd of hockey players trooped into the kitchen.

“Never heard of a plate, C?” Nursey laughed, mussing up Chowder’s hair and grabbing an extra stack of plates out of the cabinet. He passed them out to the frogs as well as Dex and Chowder.

Soon everyone was sitting, standing or, in Einstein’s case, perched on the counter, with a plate of food and drink of choice, most noticeably coffee. Bitty was the only one who didn’t have a plate, rather eating in bits and pieces as he kept refilling the supply of food on the table. Lardo was just pressing a mug of coffee into his hands as the front door banged open again. He frowned. Everyone who usually came for Saturday breakfast was already there.

“Do I fucking smell a Bitty breakfast?”

“Hey, Shits, you’re early, bro,” Holster called, relinquishing his seat to Shitty, who helped himself to the rest of Holster’s eggs.

“Were y’all expecting him?” Bitty asked, little lines forming between his eyes.

Chowder squeaked, but didn’t say anything. Bitty turned to look at him, feeling betrayed. No one looked surprised to see Shitty except him. He could almost see the guilt just dripping off of Chowder, his shoulders slumped and his eyes huge as he looked at Lardo pleadingly.

Lardo shrugged, her hair sticking up from where Shitty had mussed it on his way in. “We needed reinforcements.”

“For what?” Bitty asked, his drawl just a little more pronounced. He winced inwardly, but didn’t try and fix it.

“Space,” Dex muttered around a mouthful of bacon.

Nursey punched him in the shoulder. “Honestly, dude, table manners?” Dex just shrugged at him and kept eating.

A part of Bitty was glad that incidents like that no longer started all out fights, but the much larger part of him was just staring down Lardo, one hand on his hip even while the other one kept flipping bacon. He knew she would be the one to tell him what was going on, if anyone would. Everyone else was too afraid of her to talk if she didn’t give the go ahead.

Apparently Ransom needed more coffee, because in direct defiance of the look Lardo was shooting all of them, he shrugged and said, “Team road trip, Bits,” or at least, that was what Bitty took from the garbled speech that came out mid-yawn.

Lardo kicked his shin.

“Wait, why are we keeping this secret from Bitty?” Cob asked, frowning, and trying to refill Abby’s plate. She glared at him, slapped his hand away and helped herself to more eggs.

“The reason for the necessity of secrecy is a secret, bro,” Shitty said, nodding owlishly and helping himself to a piece of Lardo’s bacon.

“I think that I’d like an answer to that,” Bitty said pointedly.

Lardo shook her head. “You’ll find out in a couple of hours, Bits. I promise it’s nothing bad.”

“Then why am I not allowed to know about it? I mean, I’m the only one who doesn’t know about it.”

“We wanted to surprise you,” Chowder said quietly, looking between himself and Lardo. “But now you’re all upset and maybe we shouldn’t have done it. Please don’t be mad at us?”

Bitty sighed and scooped the bacon onto the mostly empty plate on the table, dropping a few pieces directly onto Chowder’s plate in the process. “I’m not mad, darlin’,” he said, resigned.

“You look mad,” Chowder whispered dejectedly.

“We just all wanted to cheer you up, Bits. You haven’t been yourself lately. I mean, there were only two pies last week,” Holster added. “It was Lardo’s idea, but we all got behind it, bro, so just go with it, okay?”

“We need to restore the pies, dude,” Ransom finished, nodding.

“If y’all wanted more pies you could’ve just asked,” Bitty said, throwing the last of the bacon into the pan and stirring the last batch of eggs.

“But this is way more fun,” Shitty said, cheerfully helping himself to Ransom’s coffee, even while Ransom tried to wrestle it away from him.

“All right, y’all win. I’ll try and be patient. Should I wear anything special?”

“Of course you would ask that,” Spitzy muttered, but he was smiling, so Bitty let the chirp go.

“I’ve got it covered, Bits,” Lardo said, grinning. “Just be ready to be in the car by 11:30.”

By the time 11:30 rolled around Bitty was much more awake, and taking a much more practical outlook to things. If his friends cared enough to plan a surprise for him it didn’t really matter why. He was smiling as he walked outside to see everyone fighting over seating arrangements. Lardo was already sitting shotgun in Shitty’s van, and Chowder was maintaining that since he and Lardo had organized the whole thing he should get to ride with Bitty, too. Cob was demanding to get to ride with Abby, but that split the rest of the frogs up, since four of them wouldn’t all fit in the back of Holster’s car. Finally, while Bitty watched, trying to stifle an amused grin, Abby put her foot down.

“You three!” She pointed at the frogs. “In!” Indicating Holster’s car, she waited until Einstein and Spitzy had climbed in.

“But—” Cob started, but Abby cut him off with an imperious finger.

“Now!”

Cob hung his head, shaggy brown hair falling into his eyes, but he did as he was told.

Smiling to herself, Abby climbed into the middle seat of Shitty’s van and waited for everyone else to follow her in.

“She’s learning,” Dex laughed, as he, Nursey and Chowder all clambered into the far back, letting Bitty sit with Abby.

“Do you really mind Cob that much?” Chowder asked Abby as the van started up and they got on the road.

The radio was on quietly and Bitty found himself listening to the conversation around him, humming along as Maroon 5 sang:

But I wonder where were you?
When I was at my worst
Down on my knees
And you said you had my back
So I wonder where were you?
When all the roads you took came back to me
So I’m following the map that leads to you

“Nah,” she answered, laughing. “He’s actually kind of cute. He just seems to think that because I got wasted at Winter Screw and let him kiss me that we’re engaged now or something. I need to remind him every once in a while who’s in charge.”

“Poor boy,” Nursey chuckled.

“It’s probably good for him,” Dex added, grinning.

Bitty let the conversation flow around him as they drove, his smile only faltering when he spotted a road sign a half hour into their trip.

“Providence,” he whispered.

Not quietly enough, however, since Lardo turned around in her seat and met his eyes. She didn’t say anything, but she did smile at him sort of sadly. There were days he was glad that she knew what had happened, but right at that moment he wasn’t sure that this was one of them.

Things had been better since that day at the beginning of January. He had even managed a couple of hours of figure skating over the last month without tearing up. He was getting over it. Slowly, of course, because one didn’t quickly get over knowing that everything you wanted was just barely past your fingertips. But it was happening. Thinking about Jack didn’t make his chest constrict anymore. Watching the Falconers play on ESPN didn’t make it hard to breathe now, and he could listen to Jack give an interview without having to excuse himself. All of that didn’t mean he was ready to actually see Jack again, however.

The choice was taken away from him when both cars pulled into the parking lot at the Falconers’ stadium and everyone piled out, all in Samwell hoodies. Lardo tossed him a bag that contained his Samwell hoodie with a small smirk. He didn’t ask how she had gotten it from his room without his noticing. It was simply better not to ask Lardo these things when you probably didn’t want to know the answer.

“Isn’t this ’swawesome?” Chowder exclaimed, throwing an arm around Bitty. “Cob said he wanted to take Abby to a game, and then Lardo and I decided that we should all go, and maybe surprise you, because you had seemed to sad lately.”

“Are you sure it’s safe to wear this in there?” Einstein laughed, flicking the brim of Chowder’s Sharks hat, making Chowder flush slightly, but he didn’t take it off.

Bitty wormed out from under Chowder’s arm and pulled on his hoodie, tossing his jacket into the back of Shitty’s van, before they all filed into the building and found their seats. As they settled in Lardo pulled out a sign that she had clearly drawn with both the Samwell school emblem and the Falconers logo that said SAMWELL’S STILL GOT YOUR BACK over Jack’s number.

When she saw Bitty eyeing the sign she shrugged. “Gotta make sure he knows we’re here.”

The Falconers won 3-1 against the Sabres, much to no one’s surprise, and all the Samwell hockey players paraded out to the parking lot as a mass of excitement. Rather than all climb back into their cars, however, Shitty just leaned on the hood of his van, arms crossed.

“Shits?” Nursey asked. “Don’t we need to head back?”

“Not just yet,” was the only reply.

“Ooh, do you think Jack will come out and see us?” Chowder was nearly bouncing with left over adrenaline from the game.

“Calm down, darlin’,” Bitty laughed, but he couldn’t deny that his stomach was in knots over the thought of it.

“He’d better,” Lardo mumbled, “since I texted him ten minutes ago and told him that we’d be waiting for his sorry ass.”

“I do have curfew, eh?” Came the reply from over Bitty’s left shoulder.

“Are you shitting me? Fucking curfew? It’s not even fucking four o’clock yet, you can at least come out with your friends for a few drinks to celebrate your win,” Shitty declared.

A hand ruffled Bitty’s hair before he could turn around, and his pulse leapt into his throat. He swallowed thickly a couple of times, then relaxed back ever so slightly into the warmth behind him, not quite touching, but almost. Nothing that anyone would notice; nothing that he should allow himself to remember; nothing he could stop any more than gravity.

“Duuuude,” Cob muttered, while both Spitzy and Einstein just sort of blinked at Jack as if he might be a hallucination.

“Do your new frogs always look like fish out of water?”

“Don’t chirp the poor boys, Jack,” Bitty said, turning around, only to find himself staring at the expanse of Jack’s chest, a little too close. He blinked a couple of times and took a step back to look up into blue eyes that were warmer than he remembered, and also more tired. “It’s not every day they deal with celebrities.”

Jack smiled down at him and Bitty’s breathing stuttered for a moment, his cheeks warming slightly. The only thing that saved him from total embarrassment was the way Jack’s eyes glazed over slightly. Closing his eyes briefly, Jack turned around to face the frogs again. “Sorry, eh?”

Three heads bobbed rapidly in acceptance, still looking a little flustered.

“So where’s good around here to get a few beers?” Lardo asked, while shaking her head at the frogs. Abby, who was standing next to Lardo giggled a little, but smiled at Cob when he flashed her a hurt look. The resulting smile he returned was huge, and Bitty had to grin a little despite himself.

Jack shook his head. “I have no idea. I haven’t exactly had time to go out for beer.”

“That’s all right,” Holster grinned. “We passed a place on our way in that looked like it could handle a bunch of rowdy hockey players. It was only a couple of blocks back, I’m sure we could find it again.”

“All right, then, form up!” Abby called. No one moved, and Spitzy frowned at her, puzzled. She sighed. “In the cars, everyone.”

A hand fell on Bitty’s shoulder and squeezed gently. A silent request for him to stay. Lardo caught his eye and he nodded minutely. She smiled back and closed the door to Shitty’s van with a call of, “See you there, Bits.”

It was silent for a minute as they walked in the direction of Jack’s car, which was around the corner in player parking. Bitty, shivering without his jacket which he had forgotten to grab out of the back of Shitty’s van, tried his best not to look like the tourist he felt like. He kept his eyes on Jack’s back as Jack beeped open his Jeep Grand Cherokee and pulled the passenger side door open.

The first thing Bitty noticed as he slid into the leather seat was the state of the art, after market, Bose sound system. As Jack turned the engine over the radio clicked on to a Sirius XM station that Bitty didn’t recognize, and Jack turned the volume down far enough that it was barely background noise.

“Jack?” he asked, running a finger over the Bose logo.

Jack didn’t say anything for a minute as he pulled in line behind Holster to follow to the bar. Finally, he sighed softly. “I missed hearing your music in the kitchen while I was working, or listening to you chatter about whatever was playing on the radio anywhere we were. I even missed hearing you singing in the shower at far too early in the morning. I just, I missed you, Eric”

Squeezing his eyes closed, Bitty tried to stop his hands from shaking. “I miss you, too, Jack. All the time. I keep telling myself that I don’t, but,” he chuckled, humorlessly, “I’ve lost the knack for lying to myself.” Fingers closed around his and Bitty sucked in a shocked breath, his eyes flying open to see Jack studiously staring at the road. Bitty stared for a moment before lacing their fingers together, despite knowing it was a bad idea.

“It’s harder than I thought,” Jack hedged, looking for all the world like he had no idea the havoc his thumb running lightly over Bitty’s knuckles was causing to Bitty’s insides. “The guys, they’re good guys, but I just...” He stopped for a long moment before, “I feel like I need to analyze everything I do and say to not give myself away, you know?”

Bitty laughed at that, sharp and bitter. “I grew up in rural Georgia, Jack. Yeah, I do know.”

“Oh, Eric, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”

“It’s okay, Jack,” Bitty cut him off. “But if you ever need pointers on how to stay in the closet give me a call sometime.”

There was a long quiet moment before, “I think I’d rather give you a call when I’m tired of being in the closet, eh?”

The car angled into a parking space a block away from where Shitty had taken the last space in front of the bar. Bitty watched as all his friends piled into the place expecting that he and Jack would be right behind. Disentangling their fingers gently, Bitty reached up and brushed the hair out of Jack’s eyes, letting his fingers linger for only a second or two longer than he should. “You call me absolutely any time you want to, Mr. Zimmermann. There ain’t never going to be a time I don’t want to hear from you.” And with that he slid out of the car and marched into the bar looking for his friends, Jack trailing only a few steps behind.

*****

There was a rather loud thud from the ceiling of Bitty’s room in the Haus, but he barely glanced up. His eyes were focused on the editing of his latest vlog, his bare feet tucked under the edge of his blanket. Normally he would have been finished with it weeks ago, but summer had uncharacteristically lingered well into early October at Samwell, and he had taken to walking around the campus enjoying the sunshine. Between senior level classes (which he was not slacking on, thank you very much!), practice and games, and making sure the team was fed time just seemed to slip away from him this semester. And some things couldn’t be edited from his phone at Annie’s as he mainlined caffeine to stay awake through it all, so his vlog had fallen behind.

He had already procrastinated enough this morning by sending off an email to his mother thanking her for sending him the maple-bourbon peach cobbler recipe he had misplaced while he was home for the summer. She had added in another recipe for blueberry scones that she swore came out much less dry than the unfortunate batch they had made together at the end of August just before he came back.

That was followed by another to Lardo asking if Shitty had given her any good ideas for her latest cartoon. Her new job as a political cartoonist for the local paper, which conveniently was walking distance from the apartment she now shared with Shitty, had left her stumped the last time he had talked to her. She had sworn that if nothing came to her she was going to start raiding Shitty’s rants for ideas.

Then he sent one to Shitty asking what kind of pie he wanted to get him through midterms at Harvard. After the meltdown that had happened last semester he wanted to be prepared ahead of time.

Of course, then he had to send one to Ransom and Holster telling them that he was sorry, but no, he didn’t know how to make a caffeinated pie. They had moved to Boston together when Ransom got an internship at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and it seemed that Ransom never slept anymore, much to Holster’s concern. Holster was paying the brunt of the bills playing the stocks, which it turned out he was really good at, surprising everyone.

Two hours composing emails to people he had spoken to not a week earlier and he finally decided to buckle down and try and get some work done.

Now he was sprawled across his bed, Señor Bunny tipped on his side on the pillow, trying to make the audio layers line up. Either they were being particularly fussy this time, or he just wasn’t focused enough to be working on this right now. Fortunately, distraction came at just that moment in the form of a FaceTime request. From Jack.

Saving his progress quickly and sitting up, he accepted the request, smiling as Jack’s chin came into view.

“Hey Jack! Lardo swore she taught you FaceTime while you were visiting her and Shitty, but I didn’t believe her.”

Jack snorted. “I’m teachable.”

“About some things, yes, but I have my doubts about technology.”

“Well, now I can prove you wrong.”

Bitty laughed. “Jack, I can’t see you.”

There was an almost tangible sense of frustration in the slope of Jack’s shoulders and the way his chin jutted ever so slightly. “And I can’t even ask you to teach me how to fix it,” he grumbled, finally, sheepishly.

“Just tilt the camera, Jack. That, at least, is something you should understand.”

The image shook as Jack tipped the screen so the camera was trained on his face, bringing his scowl into clear focus. The laughter died in Bitty’s throat as he met Jack’s eyes, purpling around the edges from lack of sleep.

“Oh, honey,” Bitty whispered before he could catch himself.

Jack narrowed his eyes slightly, but didn’t reply, just sat there staring at Bitty almost desperately.

“What can I do?” Bitty asked softly. “I mean, I’d send more pies, but I’m not honestly sure if that’s possible, even for me. And once we’re out of pie territory I’m not sure how to help, but if I can do something—”

“Eric,” Jack said gently. Nothing else, just his name, but it was enough to get Bitty to stop babbling. “You do help.” Bitty could barely hear Jack as he looked away from the screen for a moment. “You and Shitty and Lardo. It’s nice to have people I’m not hiding anything from, you know?” He paused for a moment, then added, “Even if I do have to hear how foolish they think I’m being nearly every time I talk to them.”

Bitty sighed. The weariness in Jack’s face said clearly that they didn’t help enough, but he didn’t say that. Anything that made Jack think he was doing okay, Bitty was going to give him. Which was why, rather than press the issue, he changed the subject.

“So, Mr. Zimmermann, I never got to properly congratulate you on your Calder Trophy. How does it feel to finally be getting everything you ever dreamed of?”

“The maple sugar pie wasn’t congratulations enough, eh?” Jack gave a tight little smile, and Bitty saw the relief flitter through his eyes. This was safe territory, familiar.

“Bless your precious, trophy-winning heart, Jack, of course it wasn’t. Goodness, what kind of gentleman do you take me for?” That earned him a real smile and Bitty silently cheered.

Before Jack had a chance to reply, however, there was a huge crashing sound from overhead. Bitty glanced up, and when he looked back to his laptop it was to see Jack doing the same, as if he could see what had happened too.

“What was that? Is everyone okay?” he asked, brow furrowing and making Bitty want to reach right through the blasted computer and smooth it out for him.

“Oh, it just sounds like Nursey and Dex are wrestling for control of the stereo again. I’m still not sure why Ransom and Holster thought it would be a good idea to give them dibs. Together.” Bitty shook his head in fond exasperation, even while rolling his eyes heavenward, mostly to make sure his ceiling wasn’t going to come down on him.

“Who won?” Jack chuckled.

Straining his ears Bitty barely caught a small snipped of the song now playing from the floor above.

Tell me a piece of your history
that you've never said out loud
Pull the rug beneath my feet
and shake me to the ground
Wrap me around your fingers,
break the silence open wide
Before it seeps into my ears
and fills me up from the inside

“Well, it doesn’t sound like dubstep, or any sort of electronica, for that matter, so I’m going to say that Dex won this time.”

“Dubstep?” The scrunched up look of confusion on Jack’s face was so endearing that Bitty almost reached out to touch the screen, but he managed to refrain. Barely.

“Don’t worry, Jack,” he said, laughing. “Even I’m not sure that Flux Pavilion or Skrillex qualify as real music.”

“Why don’t they just have some sort of schedule for who gets to pick the music?”

Bitty flopped over onto his stomach, putting his chin in his hands, after he adjusted the screen so that Jack could still see him. “I think they have some sort of agreement on who gets to win their fights, although you’d never get them to admit it. I think they just enjoy roughhousing.” He paused, then added, “I wonder if all D-men end up like that eventually.”

“Probably. You should see the fights Mahklin and Coveny get into after practice,” Jack chuckled and shook his head, his hair falling into his eyes. Bitty itched to brush it back.

“Oh Lord,” Bitty laughed. “But it’s good that you’re making friends.”

“I don’t know if I’d go that far, eh?” Little lines formed at the corners of Jack’s eyes, and Bitty mentally kicked himself for putting them there.

“Darlin’,” Bitty whispered.

“I don’t trust myself, Eric. I don’t trust that I wouldn’t let something slip if I got too comfortable. So I’m just not letting myself get too comfortable.” Jack squeezed his eyes closed for a second and Bitty’s heart squeezed with them. He could practically hear Jack counting out his breathing in his head, so he waited until Jack settled himself and opened his eyes again.

“I’d point out that that’s not real healthy, but I think you already know that.”

“I’m not sure, but—” Jack paused and Bitty watched the muscles in his neck jump. It appeared that Jack had finally gotten around to the reason he had wanted to talk to him. The silence grew and Bitty was just about to prompt him when Jack spoke again, backpedaling a little. “I think that one of the team publicists is gay, and I’m terrified that he’s figured me out.”

“Jack, sweetheart, are you okay?” Bitty had never cursed his lack of transportation quite so vehemently. He wanted nothing more than to drive to Providence so Jack could do this in person. A sick feeling settled into the pit of his stomach. Jack could have come to him if he’d wanted to do this in person. Maybe he wanted the distance. Maybe he didn’t want to deal with an overly concerned Bitty fussing over him. Maybe—

“I don’t know,” Jack said quietly, interrupting Bitty’s internal panic. “He hasn’t said anything, but the way he looks at me sometimes, I just feel like he knows.”

“Maybe he just thinks your ass is spectacular, Mr. Zimmermann. Who could blame him?” Bitty chirped, even while trying to swallow around the bile he felt rising in his throat. A team publicist would know how to be discrete; would have an excuse to be around Jack without anyone thinking it strange; would be safe for Jack. Safe in all the ways Bitty wasn’t.

He couldn’t let himself continue with that train of thought right now or he couldn’t be the good friend he was trying to be and help Jack through this. Help now. Breakdown later.

“I can’t do this, Eric. I’m not ready. I—”

Bitty watched as Jack’s breathing got shallower, more rapid. The urge to be able to touch him, to sooth him, was overwhelming. He settled for touching his fingers to the screen, just where Jack’s cheek appeared. “Jack, honey, breathe for me, okay? Come on, deep breath, nice and slow.”

One slow breath in and out. Then another, Bitty breathing with him until Jack calmed.

“Thanks.”

“I said anything I could do to help, and I meant that. Now, how about you tell me what kind of pie you want next week so I don’t have to keep guessing.”

Jack rubbed at the back of his neck sheepishly, but there was a very faint smile about his lips and Bitty was more grateful for that tiny smile than he could ever put words to.

*****

This would be the first Winter Screw that Bitty hadn’t attended. Without Ransom and Holster around to fix him up, and guilt him into going, he just hadn’t had the motivation. He didn’t want to try and scrounge himself up a date that would rather be there with someone else, and pretend that he didn’t feel the same. He had gotten out of it last year by going with Lardo, who hadn’t really wanted to find a date, either.

This year he was content to spend the evening in the Haus baking an after-Screw apple pie for when everyone came back.

Dex and Nursey had taken over for Ransom and Holster in the date department, fixing up all the frogs, despite Darby’s insistence that he could find his own date. They had offered to help Bitty, as well, but they had seemed so at a loss as to how to find him a date that he had taken pity on them, explaining that he didn’t really feel like going this year. Their token protests were overshadowed by the relieved look that they both had at that.

Spitzy had helped make dinner for everyone before they left. In fact, his frequent ability to help Bitty make meals for the team without getting in the way, or making things worse, was a large part of why Lardo had left him her dibs. He couldn’t bake to save his life, much to Bitty’s constant dismay, but he made killer burgers and homemade potato salad. Bitty had even baked fresh rolls to put the burgers on.

Once the meal was finished everyone had scrambled to make themselves presentable as quickly as a bunch of hockey players could. The only one who hadn’t made it out the door, after a quick once over from Bitty, was Chowder. He was still holed up in his room, and Bitty was starting to worry. There might be two pies before this night was over.

Ingredients were just starting to line the counter in preparation for crust when the stairs creaked. Bitty turned around, ready to give Chowder his approval, or help as necessary, on his choice of wardrobe to meet Farmer for the dance, but Chowder was wearing the same low slung jeans and Sharks hoodie that he had been wearing at dinner. In fact, the only difference to his appearance at all were a set of bloodshot eyes.

The bag of flour Bitty had been holding hit the counter with a small white poof. “Sweetheart! What happened?”

Chowder sniffed and sank into a chair at the table. “She said…” He sniffed again and Bitty handed him a napkin in lieu of tissues. “She said that she was tired of fighting for time with the rest of the team and that she was going to screw with a math major she met during tutoring at the beginning of the semester. I don’t spend too much time with you guys, do I? Not any more than the rest of you do, anyway. Why would she say that, Bitty?”

Bitty didn’t have an answer to that, so he just held his arms open and let Chowder sort of crumple into him, soaking the collar of his shirt when the tears started up again. They stayed that way for a long time until Chowder pulled back and swiped the back of his hand across his face.

“I was looking forward to screw, too,” he mumbled, still sniffling a little.

“You don’t need to have a date to go to screw. You could go all by your wonderful self.”

“Then why aren’t you going?”

Once again, Bitty didn’t have an answer for that. Sometimes he forgot just how observant Chowder was, lost under his every present wonder at everything.

Chowder didn’t seem to notice his silence, his face lighting up with a beatific smile. “Why don’t we go together? We can keep each other from being lonely while everyone else is off with their dates.”

The pleading in Chowder’s eyes, hiding just behind the bright smile and messy hair, was too much for Bitty to deny. Packing away the baking supplies he plastered on a smile. “Well, then, you’d best go get changed.

Twenty minutes later Bitty came back downstairs in a pair of chinos and a blue shirt with faint pink pinstripes. Chowder was waiting for him, wearing a white button-down with blue and green checks and a nice tie. At least, until Bitty got a little closer and realized the tie had the Sharks logo on it. Bitty laughed and tugged on the end of the tie. “Works for me, darlin’. Let’s go see if we can’t salvage this night.”

The music was loud and sounded vaguely like something Nursey would have approved of, heavy on the beat, light on the lyrics. It was a good thing that Dex and Nursey, who had both seen Farmer there without Chowder, rushed over and scurried off with him nearly as soon as they made it through the door. Bitty wasn’t really sure what to do with him to cheer him up.

He sighed, knowing that he had just been dragged out and immediately abandoned, but he decided that Chowder’s need was more important than his just then.

As he was wandering in the direction of the alcohol the music changed and he could barely hear himself think over P!nk singing:

Where there is desire
There is gonna be a flame
Where there is a flame
Someone's bound to get burned
But just because it burns
Doesn't mean you're gonna die
You've gotta get up and try try try

Bitty almost laughed out loud over the irony. Here he was, at a dance he didn’t want to be at, having been abandoned by his friends, missing Jack so hard he could barely breathe and the music was telling him to try again. He snorted and helped himself to a beer, shaking his head at the nearby speakers.

That’s when he spotted John Johnson chatting with the guy behind the sound board. Frowning he went over.

“Hey, Johnson, what are you doing here?” he asked, not quite succeeding in keeping the confusion out of his voice.

“Just butting my nose in a little and making a request,” Johnson said with an enigmatic smile and a tip of his head in the direction of the speakers. “Gotta set the mood and keep the tension up and all that.”

“We were having a debate about British music versus American music,” a small dark skinned boy said, elbowing the taller guy behind the soundboard. “Jared here thinks British music is better, but I disagree. John was helping settle our dispute. Markus, buy the way,” he added, holding his hand out for Bitty to shake.

“Personally, I think Bitty here would be much more help in this discussion than I would,” Johnson said, patting Bitty on the shoulder. “I think I’ll just go disappear again for a while.” With that Johnson slipped into the crowd where Bitty quickly lost track of him.

“What a strange guy,” Markus said, looking puzzled.

Jared laughed. “John’s okay. Had a few philosophy classes with him a couple of years ago.”

“Jared graduated last year,” Markus said with a conspiratorial wink, “but he likes to slum with us children.”

“Either that, or now that I work for the radio station they like to pay me to work these events,” Jared deadpanned, making Bitty chuckle. “So, where do you stand on the British versus American music thing, anyway, Bitty is it?”

Bitty nodded. “Umm, I tend to like both, actually, although I will say that British music is slowly making its way back to the top lately.”

Markus looked completely offended as he huffed and put his hands on his hips. “I’ll give you One Direction and Ed Sheeran, but that’s about it. We’ve got Taylor Swift, Maroon 5, Beyonce, Justin Timberlake, Sia, Rhianna, just to name a few. You can’t really compare.”

“While I can’t argue against Queen Bey,” Bitty grinned, “Sia is actually Australian, so no one can claim her. But on the other side there’s Bastille, George Ezra, Sam Smith, Hozier, Ellie Goulding, Adele. Not to mention if you really want to talk, let’s go classics like the Beatles, Elton John, David Bowie, Queen; I think you have to give it to both sides.”

Jared was watching them both, with wide green eyes and a small smile that looked like he kept trying to swallow it, without much success.

“Uh oh,” Markus laughed, watching his friend. “I know that look.” Jared punched his arm, but Markus just kept grinning. “Jared thinks you’re adorable.”

Even in the dim light Bitty could see Jared turn a spectacular shade of bright red that matched how his own face felt. Amid much spluttering and hanging of his head, Jared finally choked out, “I always did like a boy who could talk music.”

Markus crowed and clapped him on the back.

Allowing himself to actually look, and trying very hard not to make comparisons to things he couldn’t have, Bitty had to acknowledge that Jared, with his large green eyes, reddish brown hair, and his smile that was just a shade too wide, was in fact very good looking. He tried to remember how this flirting thing worked, but all he was coming up with was a rather large urge to just repeat “gracious” over and over while his face got hotter and hotter until he melted through the floorboards. He opted for biting his lip and not saying anything, while Markus hissed, “Ask him out already,” rather loudly in Jared’s ear.

After taking a break to change over the music, and fiddle with a few dials, Jared squared his shoulders up and took a deep breath. “Right. I don’t suppose you’d let me buy you a drink some time when I’m not working?”

Clenching his fists into the hem of his shirt to keep his hands from shaking, and forcefully shutting out the image of tired blue eyes that flickered through the back of his mind, Bitty swallowed, hard, and smiled. “Yeah. I’d like that.”

*****

It wasn’t until after Christmas that Jared managed to corner Bitty for drinks. Between Jared’s work schedule and Bitty’s finals there just hadn’t been time. Bitty wasn’t sure if he was sad about that, or relieved. On some level he knew he was using this date as a stand-in, but at the same time, he was tired of waiting for something he couldn’t have. It was time to move on, whether he was ready to or not.

Just because Jack wasn’t ready to give him a chance didn’t mean he had to turn down perfectly good guys who were. And Jared, he had been finding out over the last few weeks, was a good guy.

He kept reminding himself of that as he texted back and forth with Jared, ineptly attempting to flirt, combined with getting to know Jared a little better. Turns out that Jared was a Sound Recording Tech major, who ended up interning at the local radio station in his final semester and never leaving. He sheepishly admitted to liking fantasy novels still, as well as bad action movies and anything with Vin Diesel. That last part had made Bitty laugh, despite disagreeing. He’s just too burly for my taste he had texted, which caused a very long pause in texting before Jared had adamantly started defending him, which Bitty found endearing, much to his own chagrin.

Now he was in a panic. Jared was supposed to pick him up in an hour, and he had no idea how this worked. The closest thing to a real date he had ever been on was getting coffee with Jack, which was something he was not thinking about right now.

Throwing open the door to his room he called, “Chowder!” The door across the hall flung open and Chowder poked his head out, looking disheveled.

The instinctual Chowder panic flashed across his face quickly, but as a testament to his growing maturity he swallowed it down just as quickly.

Bitty took a deep breath and held it for a moment, before letting it out slowly. Chowder, his eyes still wide, scurried across the hall to Bitty’s room and led Bitty to the bed, sitting with him. “What do you need, Bitty?”

“I’ve never gone on a real date,” Bitty mumbled, hiding his face in his hands.

The tension seemed to melt out of Chowder as he smiled. “You’re nervous? You? The guy who charms little old ladies into sharing secret family recipes for blueberry cobbler,” he chirped, tucking Bitty under his arm.

Bitty chuckled, but he didn’t pick his head up or move his hands when he spoke. “I’m not trying to charm little old ladies today, and I’m not sure how good I am at charming attractive guys with good senses of humor and amazing shoulders.”

“Bitty, I’m going to repeat back something you said to me a few years ago. If he doesn’t like you, charm and embarrassing mistakes, and everything else all put together, then he doesn’t deserve you.”

Finally picking his head up, Bitty hugged Chowder, hard. “Thank you, sweetheart.”

“Do you want me to help you pick out something to wear?”

A thorough once over of Chowder’s standard uniform of jeans and Sharks hoodie and Bitty shook his head. “I think I can manage, thank you.”

Chowder laughed and ruffled Bitty’s hair. “Just yell if you need anything else. And have fun tonight. You could use it.”

Forty-five minutes later saw Bitty pacing in front of the Haus, shivering in the January temperatures. He tried waiting inside, but eventually he couldn’t take the chirping from Spitzy and Einstein any more, and he escaped to the quiet but cold front lawn.

A beat up Ford Focus pulled up in front of the Haus and Jared slid out of the front seat. Bitty’s hands started to sweat despite not being able to feel his fingers anymore.

“Hey there, gorgeous,” Jared smiled a little nervously, looking for all the world like he was about to produce a bouquet of flowers. Bitty wasn’t sure if he wanted to laugh or thought it was sweet. He settled for climbing into the car and holding out a hand as they started moving. Jared’s face lit up as Bitty laced their fingers together and Bitty tried not to notice how smooth Jared’s hands were without hockey calluses.

Dulaney’s Pub, the bar Jared took them to, managed to be far enough away from campus to not be overrun with drunk college kids, and yet close enough that they didn’t look out of place. It was relatively quiet, and there were televisions tuned in to ESPN, much to Bitty’s amusement.

“You do realize that I’m not going to be able to completely ignore those all night, right?” Bitty asked, nodding towards one of the large screens that was showing clips from around the NHL. It was between periods and he wasn’t sure who was playing, but it didn’t really matter.

Jared, fortunately, just laughed. “Yeah, I may have gathered from picking you up at the hockey house that I may have to fight for your attention with the hockey game. It’s all right. I always did like the jocks, even when they didn’t like me.”

“Oh dear Lord, yes,” Bitty groaned. “Get back to me when they’ve locked you in a utility closet for the night.”

“Your teammates—”

“What?” Bitty exclaimed, cutting him off. “Oh, goodness, no. Not since high school, thankfully. My team is pretty amazing, actually.”

Steering them towards a two seat high table, Jared signaled to the bartender who gave Bitty a funny look and asked to see his I.D., much to Bitty’s mortification. Chuckling a little, Jared ordered himself a hard cider and looked at Bitty.

“Oh, beer is fine. Whatever’s on tap,” Bitty shrugged, pointedly ignoring Jared’s raised eyebrow. “What? Go through as many kegsters as I have and it’ll grow on you.” Jared laughed, his eyes crinkling a little at the edges.

Their drinks showed up quickly and Bitty took a long drink just for something to do. That was the moment two drunk girls decided that it was their turn at karaoke. They crowded the microphone, squinting at the small screen that was flashing them the words as they tearfully choked out:

If you ask me how I'm doing
I would say I'm doing just fine
I would lie and say that you're not on my mind
But I go out and I sit down at a table set for two
And finally I'm forced to face the truth,
No matter what I say I'm not over you, not over you

“Oh dear god, they’re terrible,” Jared muttered, trying not to laugh.

Bitty chuckled a little with him, until the television nearest to them cut to an after game interview and he recognized the blue eyes staring out from behind the microphone thrust in his face. There was no sound, but he didn’t need any to see the way the corners of Jack’s mouth pinched at whatever he was being asked, or the way his eyes seemed unfocussed. His suit, the one that had seemed so perfectly tailored a few years ago, now hung loose around his shoulders, and Bitty realized he couldn’t breathe.

He had his phone halfway out of his pocket to call Jack and see if he was okay when he remembered that Jack couldn’t answer his phone while doing an interview. Oh, and that he was currently on a date with a really nice guy who liked all the right music, and watched all the right things; who really seemed to like him. A really nice guy who deserved better than being second best.

“Hey, didn’t he used to play for Samwell?” Jared asked, pointing to Jack on the screen.

Bitty nodded, mutely, looking back and forth between Jared’s handsome, smiling face, and Jack’s tired eyes.

“Does that mean you’ve played with him? Or was he before your time?”

“He was my captain for two years,” Bitty managed to choke out, hoping he didn’t sound as strangled as he felt.

“That’s incredible,” Jared grinned, lacing their fingers together across the table and actually kissing Bitty’s hand. He flashed a quick look up at Bitty, as if making sure he hadn't gone too far, but Bitty barely noticed. Getting no complaint, Jared squeezed Bitty's fingers and continued to hold on, increasing the sour taste at the back of Bitty's throat. "My date has played with a pro. You're incredible, you know that, right?"

The barstool groaned as Bitty swiveled around so that he couldn't see the screen anymore. He wasn't sure that he could continue to sit here and smile at Jared if he kept looking at Jack's worn out face. He wasn't sure he could do it even if he didn’t.

Jared, who had been about to order them another round of drinks, must have seen something on Bitty's face anyway, though. He slowly let go and stood up, a sad little smile on his face. "Come on," he said quietly, nodding towards the door. Tossing some money on the table he headed outside, not waiting to see if Bitty was following.

Sliding into the car beside Jared, Bitty frowned at the way Jared had gotten very quiet. Jared gave him a sidelong glance and then sighed, starting the car up and driving the couple of miles back to the Haus.

“My date has a thing for said pro, doesn’t he?”

Bitty dropped his head into his hands, not saying anything. He didn’t have the words to explain the mess that was him and Jack.

He startled when he felt a gentle hand on his shoulder. “Hey, I get it. If I’d gotten to see that ass in the locker room I wouldn’t be over it, either.”

“I want to be over it,” Bitty said, not picking his head up. “It’s never going to happen, and I don’t want to spend the rest of my life waiting for the impossible. You’re so sweet, and I really do like you. It doesn’t hurt that you’re gorgeous. I really wanted this to work.”

Jared didn’t say anything and finally Bitty peeked up to see a small smile. “You don’t have to be ready until you’re ready. Someday you’ll meet someone who will make you forget all about that straight hockey player you used to know, but until then, don’t feel bad about taking the time you need. Maybe, when you’re ready, you’ll give me a call and we’ll try again.” He parked the car, but Bitty didn’t move, head spinning.

He wouldn’t have corrected Jared on thinking Jack was straight, even if he could. It might have explained a few things, but it didn’t really change the outcome, and Jared deserved better than being used as a sounding board for Bitty’s pent up emotional rollercoaster. He wanted to tell Jared that. He wanted to tell him that he’d find someone who loved his taste in movies, and liked the same music, and who wanted to spend every waking second with him, because he deserved it. He wanted to tell him that if he had never met Jack it might even be Bitty who wanted to do all of that. But Jared was right, he wasn’t ready. “I’m sorry,” was all he managed to get out.

In the long streak of surprising Bitty, Jared smiled and kissed his cheek, just at the corner of his mouth. “At least you gave me a shot. Better than I could have hoped for, considering. Now go on before your teammates think I’m doing something untoward. I don’t really like the idea of fending off a team of hockey players.”

A giggle escaped Bitty before he could reel it in. He couldn’t help himself. “Untoward,” he chirped.

“Glad I could make you smile. Friends?”

“Goodness, yes,” Bitty exclaimed, startled that Jared would even want to be after the disaster that was their first, and last, date.

“Good. Call me sometime.”

Bitty nodded and slid out of the car, watching Jared drive off and turn the corner.

He couldn’t bring himself to face the rest of the Haus and all the questions about how his date went, so he tucked himself further into his puffy coat and started walking. Once he was out of sight of the Haus, he pulled his phone out of his pocket and stared at Jack’s name in his contacts list. Calling was a risk, Jack might be out with the team, or still dealing with the media. Bitty really had no idea how long these things lasted. He and Jack never spoke after Jack dealt with the media.

Finally, he settled for sending Jack a text. Can you call me?

Shivering after waiting around for ten minutes and getting no reply he snuck back into the Haus, slipping past Chowder who was asleep on the couch, and Spitzy and Dex who were studying at the kitchen table. Finally, safely sequestered in his bedroom, he pulled off his jacket and hung it up before sinking onto his bed and curling up with Señor Bunny, pulling his red comforter up to his chin.

He was just dozing off when his laptop chimed with a FaceTime request. Blearily clicking it open he saw that it was from Jack. He hastily accepted, rubbing at his eyes.

Jack was still wearing his shirt and tie, but he had lost the jacket somewhere along the way. His hair was a mess from drying windblown after his post-game shower, and Bitty had the brief, irrational urge to run his fingers through it. Instead, he plastered on the biggest smile he could manage.

“Hey, Jack.”

Jack gave him a small, tired smile. "How are you, Eric?"

"I think I should be asking you that." Bitty ran his fingers through his hair, not sure how to start this conversation. He tried to block out the image of the team publicist brushing a hand past Jack's shoulder during the interview, a detail he hadn't even let himself acknowledge while he was still at Dulaney's Pub earlier with Jared. He wasn't calling to be jealous, he was calling to make sure Jack was okay. He just had to push himself past the thought that there might be someone else to do that now.

"I saw your interview," he pushed on, swallowing the bitter taste at the back of his throat.

That seemed to startle Jack. "I didn't think the Haus got ESPN2."

Oh, right. Bitty sighed, not wanting to have to explain, but realizing he'd backed himself into a corner. "I was at Dulaney's," he muttered.

Jack froze up. "Did the team go out?" he asked slowly.

Bitty just shook his head, his stomach twisting unpleasantly. This wasn’t how this was supposed to go at all.

"Then... you were," Jack took a shaky breath, running his hand through his hair. Bitty tried not to notice the way Jack's hand shook. “You had a date.” It wasn't a question.

There was a small part of Bitty that wanted to laugh at the absurdity of all of this. Jack turned him down two years ago, had someone nice and safe that probably took him out all the time, whether Jack understood what was going on or not, and here he was getting upset over the idea of Bitty possibly having a date. He wanted to shout that he got to have dates if Jack didn't want him. The problem was that he knew that Jack did want him, or at least had. And he couldn't anymore throw this in Jack's face than he could intentionally burn a pie.

He realized he had been quiet for far too long and Jack looked like he was bracing for the worst. Bitty could tell that Jack had clenched his fists by the way the muscles in his arms were bunched, and he hated himself a little bit for knowing Jack that well. He wondered if Jack hated him a little bit for it, too.

"I'm not sure that one drink with a nice guy, and then running out because I saw your stupid face on ESPN and I got so worried about you that I barely remembered I was there with someone else, rushing home and immediately texting you really counts as a date, Jack," he said finally. “At least, not a successful one.”

The way Jack's shoulders slumped in relief made a knot that Bitty hadn't been consciously aware of unclench in his stomach.

"I'm sorry your date didn't go well," Jack said, not looking like he meant it at all.

"No you're not, Mr. Zimmermann, but that's okay. I was much more upset about it before I got to hear your voice." Bitty felt his face heat up at that confession. He shouldn't still be feeling like this after all these years, but the smile Jack flashed him made it worth it. At least it seemed like he wasn't the only one.

"So, what did I do that warranted a panicked text? I wasn't that awkward, was I?" Jack asked, changing the subject.

"I, um, couldn't actually hear you," Bitty muttered. "They didn't have the sound on. But Jack, you're not okay. I don't know if anyone else can see it, but I can."

Jack's entire face dropped, his eyes closing briefly. "Trevor, he's the publicist who was with me at the interview—" Bitty clenched his jaw hard enough it made a small popping sound, which made Jack frown. "—He keeps asking if he can do anything, so I think he may have noticed, but... I don't know, Eric. I just don't know how you handled being in the closet for so long. It's exhausting pretending to be something you're not, someone you're not." He shrugged. "How could you tell from one silent interview, anyway? Not even Shitty has called me."

Bitty actually laughed, a sharp little noise that softened out as he met Jack's eyes, cheeks going even hotter than they had been. "Jack, darlin', I used to damn near swoon like a southern belle in the summer heat every time you wore that suit, and today it looked like you were playing pretend in someone else's poorly fitting clothes. I never thought I'd have to tell you you need to eat more protein, but there it is." Bitty tried to keep his admonishment light, chirping, and not sound like he was scolding Jack for losing so much weight when all he really wanted to do was hitch a ride out to Providence and force feed Jack until he looked healthy again.

It must have worked, because Jack ignored the comment about his weight in favor of chirping back. "Eric, you are a southern belle."

"Hush your mouth, Jack Laurent Zimmermann, it is not hot enough for anyone to be swooning right now, no matter how much of a southern belle they might be."

Jack laughed, and Bitty preened a little. "Eric, thank you. You always know how to make me feel better."

"Any time, Jack. Any time."

*****

Bitty's parents were waiting for him after the last name was called and the last diploma handed out. He hadn't been able to get enough tickets for all his teammates who had wanted to show up, so rather than play favorites none of them got to come. They did have dinner planned for later, though.

His parent’s flight had been moved up, so he wanted to find them quickly before they had to head back. In a fit of generosity that Bitty wasn't used to, Coach had offered to stay for a couple of extra days to help him move into his new apartment since only his mother had work what with the football season being over, but he had declined. He had an entire team of burly hockey players willing to help him carry anything he wanted so long as there was pie afterwards.

He spotted his mother first, despite how much taller Coach was. Her blond hair stood out like a beacon, and Bitty headed in their direction.

His mother pulled him into a tearful hug almost immediately. "My baby is all grown up!"

"Mother," he groaned, trying to worm out from under her arm. The only thing that saved him from total embarrassment was the fact that nearly every other graduate was going through the same thing.

Coach clapped him on the shoulder, not nearly as hard as he might have a couple of years ago, and actually smiled at him. "Congratulations, son."

"Just let me get a few pictures of you in your cap and gown before we leave. Then we have a surprise for you," his mother continued, smiling. "I nearly gave it away last week, too. I just barely remembered in time not to put pictures up on Pinterest, how embarrassing would that have been?"

Bitty stood as posed, not even grumbling at all the pictures his mother wanted, some of him, some with Coach, some with her. As soon as she was finished, however, he promptly stripped off his cap and gown and breathed a little easier in his grey dress pants and pale green button-down, his butter yellow bow-tie a little looser than it had been a few minutes prior.

They were slowly making their way through the crowd of families and out into the moderate May temperatures. Bitty expected to be led to his parents’ rental car and chauffeured off for a very quick lunch, however, much to his surprise when they reached the rented Nissan they didn't open the doors. Instead Coach handed him a small box.

"Happy graduation, Dicky," his mother said, sniffling and wiping her eyes on a balled up tissue that she pulled out of her purse.

He opened the box to find a small round fob. Frowning at it he looked to his parents to find that Coach was not leaning against the Nissan, but rather against the trunk of a robin’s egg blue Mini Cooper with a white roof and racing stripes. Bitty was pretty sure his mouth was hanging open, and he couldn't quite find his voice.

"We figured you'd need a way to get to that fancy new food critic job you took," Coach said gruffly.

“Wow!” Bitty whispered, running his fingers over the door. “This is too much.” He flung his arms around his mother, who sobbed into his collar for a moment before extricating herself and giving him a watery smile.

"Maybe you can drive me to the airport so I can check our bags while your mother returns the rental," Coach said by way of reply.

It took two tries before Bitty could get any sound out. "Yes, sir,"

His mother looked like she wanted to fling her arms around him again, but she managed to refrain herself. "I'm so proud of you, Dicky. And you'll still come home for Christmas, right?"

"Of course, Mother," he answered, smiling. Then his mother slid into the rental and started the engine.

Bitty beeped open the Mini and slid behind the wheel, admiring the Harman-Kardon speakers, and running his fingers over the dinner plate of a speedometer in the center of the dash, fighting to keep a foolish grin from forming on his face as Coach climbed in beside him, barely fitting in the tiny car.

"Your mother insisted on the winter package since you're staying in the north now, so it has heated seats and mirrors."

"Goodness, I'll have to make sure to thank her special for that," Bitty smiled.

"You do that, son."

They lapsed into a slightly tense silence as Bitty maneuvered the car onto the highway headed towards Logan airport. A silence that lasted for most of the drive, and for once even Bitty’s tendency to babble was stilled.

Finally, Coach spoke, his voice hesitant. "I know we haven't always been close, son. A lot of that is my fault. It took me a long time to come to terms with you being the way that you are."

"And how is that, sir?" Bitty asked tightly, his heart in his throat. Was this why Coach asked to ride with him? So his mother couldn't hear his dressing down?

"Liking boys," Coach finally said after a long pause. "And I just want you to be straight with me now, are you and that boy, the one you were always talking about, the famous one, are you...?"

Bitty nearly choked. His father was asking if he was dating Jack. Had he really been that obvious? No wonder Jack hadn't been willing to risk it. Did he have desperately in love with Jack Zimmermann stamped on his forehead somewhere?

"No, sir, we're not."

"Were you at one point?" Coach didn’t sound critical, simply curious.

The entire conversation was so surreal that Bitty was sure that he had fallen down the rabbit hole. He just shook his head, unable to put voice everything that was running through his mind.

"That's a shame, he’s the type of boy I wouldn’t have minded you bringing home," Coach said, shaking his head and chuckling at Bitty's squeak of surprise. "I said it took me a long time to come to terms with, son, not that I never had."

Bitty felt his smile threatening to split his face. "Now if only I could convince you to like Beyoncé," he laughed as he pulled into the airport.

"Don't push your luck." And with that Coach got out of the car, grabbed the bags and headed for the plane.

On the way back to the Haus Bitty spent some time playing with his new radio since he didn't have a cable to connect his phone yet. He settled on a top forty station and danced along.

I said remember this feeling
I pass the pictures around
Of all the years that we stood there
On the sidelines wishing for right now
We are the kings and the queens
You traded your baseball cap for a crown
When they gave us our trophies
And we held them up for our town
And the cynics were outraged
Screaming, "This is absurd!"
Cause for a moment a band of thieves
In ripped up jeans got to rule the world

Stopping by murder Stop and Shop for some extra groceries for the dinner he had planned, he still had a smile from the talk with Coach. That had been at least as good a graduation gift as the car.

He had managed to convince the team not to take him out for dinner, but that he'd rather get to cook for them all one last time.

Dex had pointed out that that was not a sound theory since he was only moving about twenty minutes away and he would probably be cooking for them all the time still, but since it was his graduation Bitty had won.

As he pulled up to the Haus, trunk loaded with food, he saw a cluster of familiar cars out front that he hadn't been expecting. Leaving the groceries in his trunk he ran into the Haus to find Shitty and Lardo in the kitchen rooting around for beer. When they saw him, they both came over and squished him in a group hug.

After a minute he pulled himself away and saw Ransom and Holster waving and shouting from where they were showing the new frogs how to properly kick ass at Mario kart.

He was just about to wander over and join them when Jack came into the room, leaning against the doorframe, just watching him with a small smile.

Not caring, for a moment, who could see them, Bitty changed direction and wrapped his arms around Jack, burying his face in his chest, allowing himself this for the first time ever. "My dad doesn't care,” he whispered. “In fact, he's disappointed that you're too straight to give me a chance."

Jack choked a little at that, but he hugged Bitty back, carding is fingers through the hair at the nape of Bitty’s neck, and Bitty was sure that graduating was the best thing to happen to him since being accepted to Samwell in the first place.

*****

Bitty groaned and blinked heavily, swiping at his heavy eyes. The coffee in his mug had gone cold, and he spat out the mouthful he had just gulped, frowning. A quick glance at the clock told him that he had been staring at a blank screen for hours.

Slowly, he pried himself out of the hard wooden chair that he had become one with over the course of the evening. He put on a fresh pot of coffee and pulled out a container of leftover beef stew that he had made two nights ago, all plans of fresh corn chowder for dinner going out the window when he realized that dinner had passed him by hours ago and he hadn't noticed.

The slow drip and warm smell of fresh coffee perked him up slightly, but it was only a temporary patch. Nothing would really fix the problem until he could get a real night’s sleep. Unfortunately, his latest review was simply not writing itself, or letting him write it, for that matter. He had been staring at the same seventy-three words of a thousand word minimum review for the last three days and his deadline was creeping up on him with all the subtlety of a late hit into the boards. He chuckled. This job would be much easier if he could write it all in hockey metaphors.

"Oh Lord, if Jack could hear me now. Wanting to talk about food in terms of hockey. He would be so proud of me," he muttered to himself, pouring himself a cup of fresh coffee.

The clock on the wall in his large kitchen, the entire reason he sprung for the slightly larger apartment even though it was a stretch on his budget, told him that he'd been sitting at the scarred wooden table for at least six hours, he didn’t really remember when he started anymore. It was 1:37 in the morning, and his review was due by 6:00PM the next day. Just a little over twelve hours to write something that he had been struggling with for four days. He snorted at himself, wondering if this was how Shitty had felt writing his thesis. In fact, if it hadn't been so late he would have considered calling Shitty, just for a few minutes of talking to someone who understood what he was currently going through, but he knew that Lardo would drive over and personally strangle him if he woke her up just to vent to Shitty for a little while. Besides, they were coming over for dinner in two days. He could wait to blow off a little steam until then.

The microwave beeped and he pulled out his bowl of stew, but he found that he didn't have much of an appetite. He forced a couple of bites down, then set it aside in favor of another cup of coffee. Light from the computer screen made the table glow slightly in the bad kitchen lighting.

Scrubbing his hand through his hair he sank back down into the uncomfortable chair and tried to type at least a few more words. Before he could get more than five words out, however, his phone chimed at him. Bitty startled, glancing at the clock. He hadn’t been wrong earlier, it still read well after 2:00. His heart rate doubled. Who could possibly need to get ahold of him this late?

Grabbing his phone from where he had left it on the counter he glanced at the I.D. before swiping open the text.

Jack. Please be awake!

Bitty immediately saved his meagre attempts at writing and clicked open his FaceTime, calling Jack as quickly as he could type in the contact.

Jack answered almost instantly, his face red, his eyes bloodshot.

"Jack! Honey! What's wrong?"

There was no answer, Jack just sat there staring, his breathing shallow and rapid.

"Sweetheart, you're scaring me. What happened?"

A laugh that was more of a choked off groan spilled out from Jack's mouth, his hands coming up to cover his face. "I… God, Eric. I can't keep doing this."

There was music playing in the background of wherever Jack was, which was not his apartment in Providence. Bitty didn't recognize anything behind Jack, and he would have recognized Jack's apartment. Then he vaguely remembered that the Falconer’s had just hosted Washington and the team was probably out celebrating. Bitty hadn’t gotten to watch the game, but the way Providence had been playing lately, and especially Jack, it was a fairly safe guess that they had won.

Be careful what you wish for
'Cause you just might get it all.
You just might get it all, yeah.
Oh, well I'm going home
Back to the place where I belong
And where your love has always been enough for me

"Darlin', can you breathe for me, please?"

Jack took a deep breath, then another, but it didn't seem to be helping. He kept running his hands through his hair, his fingers clenching and unclenching, his hands shaking.

"I thought about calling Shitty," Jack said slowly, "cause I knew you had a deadline coming up, but…"

"But Lardo doesn't like to have her sleep interrupted and Shitty never hears his cell when he’s sleeping. It's okay, Jack. You're more important than any deadline. What can I do?"

Jack shook his head. "I don't think you can do anything. I don't think anyone can do anything."

Bitty tried to keep his hands still, clinging to the edge of the table, out of site of the screen so Jack couldn't see how worried he was, his knuckles white.

"Eric. I just. God. One of the reporters today. They—" Jack stopped, closed his eyes. Bitty counted to ten in his head, waiting for Jack to find his voice. “It was just a passing question, whether or not there was someone special in my life.”

It was all Bitty could do to keep his breathing even, to not react at all. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know the answer to that question.

“I almost, reflexively, answered yes. I don’t know what I was thinking, Eric. How could I have nearly slipped up like that?”

“Because you’re tired of hiding,” Bitty said, quietly, his voice a little flatter than he liked. This wasn’t about him right now. This was about keeping Jack calm. He just hoped that didn’t involve hearing any details about who this someone special might be, although he had some guesses.

“But I can’t… I can’t…”

“Jack, honey, I know. It’s okay. No one is going to make you. Breathe, darlin’. Please. Please breathe.”

A long, deep breath, and Jack seemed to settle a little, even though he appeared to be rocking, minutely, forwards and backwards. It probably wouldn’t be visible from more than a couple of feet away, but his phone screen was so close to his face that Bitty couldn’t help but notice the slight sway. He wanted to wrap his arms around Jack and still him. Not for the first time he mentally cursed the distance between them.

“Is this how you felt going home?” Jack asked, suddenly.

Feeling a little like he had whiplash from the sudden change in direction, Bitty gave a humorless laugh. “A little bit, yeah. But I had a lot more practice at it.”

“How did you keep doing it, though?”

The desperation in Jack’s voice made Bitty wince. “I wish I had a magic cure for you, Jack. I really do. Anything that could make this easier on you, I would do it. But I don’t. I muddled through it by getting stuffed into utility closets, and bullied a whole lot in general. I kept going back because I love my family, and because I didn’t have to stay there anymore. It gets a whole lot easier to deal with when you get to leave again.”

“I don’t know how you managed for all those years,” Jack said softly. “All I could think about tonight was finding something, anything, to numb my brain. To just shut it all off for a while, even if that something was a bottle of pills.”

Bitty gasped, for once unsure of the words, any words, to use in this situation.

“I didn’t,” Jack added, quickly. “But I wanted to. As soon as I realized what I was thinking I texted you.” He took a shuddering breath and swiped a hand across his face. “I wish I were stronger. I wish I could be strong enough for you, Eric."

"You only need to be strong enough for yourself, Jack. Nothing else matters," Bitty said gently, and leaned his head onto one hand, the other one coming up to the screen.

“Yeah, well, I’m not that, either, eh?”

“Do you have someone to stay with you?” Bitty asked, not sure he really wanted the answer to that, but knowing that he couldn’t just leave Jack alone right now.

Jack just shook his head, the lines between his eyes getting just a little deeper.

"Do you want me to come out there?" Bitty pressed, holding his breath and hoping that Jack didn’t push him away right now. It had to mean something that he was the one Jack called, that Jack didn’t just try and stumble through this on his own.

"It's after two in the morning," Jack said quietly. "I couldn't ask you to do that."

"You're not asking, I'm offering. If you don't want to be alone just tell me and I'm in the car."

"You don't need to—"

"Jack Laurent Zimmermann!" Bitty cut him off. "Be selfish for once! Do you want me there or not? Not what you think you should want, what do you actually want?"

There was a long silence, and Bitty was afraid he had pushed too hard, but then Jack whispered, "Yes, Eric, I want you here. I always want you here."

"I'm on my way."

*****

Bitty is curled up in the corner of Shitty and Lardo’s beat up old couch. It’s a sight better than the green one from the Haus, but Bitty still had to talk himself into sitting on it the first time he had seen it.

They had all been on their feet, shouting a few minutes earlier, and now the rush was fading enough that they were all sitting back down, wide eyed and excited. The commentators were still shouting about the last-second goal that had kept the Stanley Cup game from going into overtime. Bitty wished he could have the video of Jack scoring with eight seconds left on the clock permanently residing in his phone. He would have to check around tomorrow and see if anyone had posted it.

He wanted to call Jack immediately to congratulate him, but he knew that there was no way Jack was answering his phone any time soon. Possibly not even at all tonight.

“That beautiful fucker!” Shitty shouted, still fist pumping the air.

A double exclamation of, “Dude!” came from the direction of the floor.

Lardo reached over and pulled the beer out of Shitty’s free hand so he wouldn’t pour it all over the floor, or her head.

Flopping back down between Lardo and Bitty, Shitty threw his arms around them both, kicking at where Ransom and Holster were cheering from a heap in the middle of the throw rug that was covering the cracked floor boards. “He did it! He really did it!”

Bitty laughed and drained the last of his beer, comfortable in a way he hadn’t been in a while. Graduating had left him feeling a little like his skin didn’t fit anymore, and being here watching Jack hoist the Stanley Cup, Shitty as drunk as he could be and still remember the game, Ransom and Holster still completing each other’s sentences, and Lardo taking care of them all despite being every bit as drunk as they were, left him feeling more at home than he had in a long time. He wanted to say something to that effect, about how much he appreciated that they had all managed to stay close, but all that came out when he opened his mouth was, “Wow!”

“Exactly, Bits.” Lardo grinned, reaching into the cooler and tossing him another beer.

Unable to tear his eyes away from the sight of Jack holding the Cup aloft, Bitty felt his chest tighten at the combination of radiant smile and fierce determination in blue eyes.

“He looks like he’s already planning how to recreate this moment next year,” Holster laughed.

“Of course he is,” Ransom added. “He wouldn’t be Jack if he weren’t.”

The last piece of pizza was eaten and everyone was yawning from staying late enough to sober up and piling out to their cars when Bitty’s phone rang. He paused in front of the apartment building to glance at the caller I.D.

“Hey, Chowder!”

“Oh my god, Bitty, did you see Jack score that game winner? Wasn’t that ’swawesome?! I wish we could throw him a party! He deserves a party!”

A party was probably the last thing Jack wanted, but Bitty didn’t have the heart to say that to Chowder, who always had the best intentions. As long as Chowder didn’t ask him to try and talk Jack into a party he could be as excited about the idea as he wanted, no harm to anyone.

“That’s not why I called, though,” Chowder continued, oblivious to the fact that Bitty hadn’t actually said anything yet. “I saw your tweet about watching with some of the other guys, so I was hoping you would pass the word around. Dex, Nursey and I want as many of you as we can get ahold of to crash the hockey banquet tomorrow. Coach Hall is leaving. He just told us that he took a job as an assistant coach for the Devils as we want as many of his old players to surprise him as we can find. I know it’s short notice, but please, Bitty?”

Bitty felt his eyes getting wide, and everyone else must have noticed, because Holster froze with his keys halfway to the door of his Civic. Ransom had his hand on the hood of the car, but he wasn’t moving either. Shitty and Lardo, who were standing on the stoop of the building, both came down to see what was going on.

“Bitty?” Chowder asked hesitantly.

“Yeah, I’m still here. I’ll tell Shitty, Lardo, Ransom and Holster. They’re still all here. We’ll be there if we at all possibly can.” Bitty took a deep breath, fighting to keep the smile off his face.

“Thank you so much! This is going to be so ’swawesome! I can’t wait to see everyone again. And the look on Coach Hall’s face. This is—” Chowder’s voice disappeared abruptly.

“Thanks for helping pass the word along, Bitty,” Dex’s voice came in. Bitty tried not to laugh as he pictured Dex removing Chowder’s phone from his hands and handing Chowder off to Nursey. It was such a typical Haus image that Bitty almost wished he could see it, just for the familiarity of it all. “We’ll take care of Chowder from here. Great game tonight, huh?”

“Yeah, yeah it was.”

“Well, we’ll see you tomorrow.” And with that Dex hung up, not even so much as a goodbye. Bitty snorted, and tucked his phone back into his pocket.

“Is everything okay, Bits?” Lardo asked, propelling Shitty barefoot and shirtless across the sidewalk.

“That was Chowder. Well, Chowder and Dex. Apparently Coach Hall took a job with the Devils.”

There was stunned silence around him, and then whooping from Holster as he and Ransom hi fived over the hood of the car.

“No fucking way!” Shitty shouted, picking Lardo up and spinning her around.

“They want us to crash the hockey banquet tomorrow night, throw him a real party,” Bitty continued once everyone had calmed down enough to hear him.

Shitty grinned. “We can all go in my fucking van,” he said. “It’ll be like a throwback Haus road trip.”

“Someone’s gotta call Jack,” Ransom added. “Although, I don’t know if he can get there by tomorrow after that sick win.”

“I’ll call him,” Lardo said, quietly. “No pressure from you boys, you hear?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Bitty replied, before he had actually thought about the words coming out of his mouth. He felt his face heating up, but he resolutely ignored it.

Shitty mussed up his hair. “Just remember those words and your life’ll work out just fine, Bits.”

“Somehow, I don’t think they apply nearly as much to Bitty as they do to you,” Lardo chirped, patting Shitty on the cheek before towing him inside with a tight grip on his wrist.

Holster and Ransom slid into the Civic and waved as the ignition turned over.

“See all y’all tomorrow!” Bitty called before angling into his Mini and heading home to spend the night forcefully not thinking about whether or not he would get to see Jack tomorrow.

When he got home he spent a couple of hours surfing the internet for a clip of Jack scoring the game winner, and editing it into a congratulatory video before emailing it to Jack to see whenever he was done celebrating. Then he curled up with Señor Bunny and dozed off.

Prying his eyes open in the morning was harder than he expected, the pounding in his head reminding him that while he may have been sober by the time he left Shitty’s he had by no means had enough water to compensate for all the beer he had had. He stumbled into the kitchen and did his best to drown himself in Gatorade until he felt human again. An omelet and bacon later and he felt like facing the day was no longer a daunting task.

The morning slipped by in a flurry of baking, dozens and dozens of mini pies to take with him to the banquet. Apple, peach, pecan, cherry and maple-sugar all lined his counters and there might possibly have been flour on the wall that he hadn’t cleaned up yet in his haste to make sure there were enough pies.

While the last batch was cooling he gave the kitchen a quick once over and then threw himself into the shower. He was just pulling out his old suit and debating over bowtie options when Lardo called.

“Hey Bits,” she jumped in as soon as he answered.

“Lardo!”

“You all set for tonight?”

“There may be a few pies to take along, will they fit in the trunk if I box them up all nicely, or should I bring my own car?”

She laughed, a low peel that made him smile. “There’s already space cleared for them, Bits. We all know you better than that.”

He was very glad no one could see the way his face was heating up. “Y’all should be nice to me, or you won’t get any.”

“Tell him I want blueberry!” Shitty’s voice came faintly through, as if he were shouting from another room.

“If Shitty doesn’t get at least some of your blueberry he may cry,” Lardo said, very seriously.

“Gracious, we can’t have that,” Bitty laughed, pulling out one small blueberry pie from the box and setting it aside.

“We have to drive by your place on the way anyway, so we’ll pick you up in an hour.”

“Tell Shitty that his blueberry is waiting right here for him.”

“Shits,” she called, “Bitty said that—” She was cut off by a scuffle and a loud thud as the phone hit the floor. Some scraping and Shitty’s voice came on the line.

“Blueberry, Bits. It’s been fucking forever since I’ve had your blueberry.”

“Oh Lord, you two, it’s just pie. When have I ever not had enough pie for y’all? It’s on the counter waiting for you.” Bitty shook his head, and then added a pecan and two apples to the stack on the counter.

“We’ll be there in half an hour,” Shitty declared.

“Wait, Lardo said an hour.”

“Half an hour for blueberry, Bits.” There was more scuffling and then Shitty shouting, “Everyone in the car, there’s fucking blueberry waiting!” Then the line went dead.

Bitty shook his head, and went back to picking out the perfect bowtie, finally settling on a deep midnight blue over a white and pale blue checked shirt.

It was only twenty minutes later when a horn beeped outside and he peered out the window to see Shitty’s van sitting at the curb. Grabbing up his boxes of mini pies, and carefully balancing the four he left out for his friends, he carefully made his way down the stairs to find Shitty standing by the open trunk where he had cleared space for the boxes.

“Bits, bro, just how many of those did you make?” he asked by way of greeting.

Bitty just arched an eyebrow at him and handed him a small blueberry pie. “As many as I needed,” he answered primly as Shitty made a happy little noise around a bite of pie.

Sliding into the middle seat, Bitty passed out the other pies and they got on the road.

It was a fairly quiet ride to Samwell, and it got even quieter as they pulled onto campus. They found parking, but all sat in the van until the current hockey team was all inside so as not to give away the surprise.

“Think it’s been long enough?” Ransom asked, watching the doors.

“They’ve been in there for a little while, so we could probably sneak in, yeah,” Lardo answered, slipping out of the van with a groan and a large stretch.

As quietly as they could they all crept through the door and found seats lining the wall, hoping that Coach Hall didn’t see them. Spitzy was just wrapping up his acceptance speech for being made next year’s captain and everyone was, fortunately, focused on him at the moment, so they made it in without notice. Well, except by Chowder, who started bouncing almost immediately. Dex glanced behind him to see what was going on, and put a forceful hand on Chowder’s shoulder, whispering something to him. Chowder stopped bouncing, but he couldn’t quite keep the huge grin from his face.

A quick glance around told Bitty that Jack hadn’t made it. He had been too afraid to ask Lardo how the conversation about it had gone, but he couldn’t help the sharp stab of disappointment that pooled in his stomach when he realized that he wouldn’t be there.

Coach Hall found his way to the podium after Spitzy finished up and smiled around the room, his eyes going wide when he spotted the crowd lining the wall. Bitty grinned and leaned into Lardo who was watching, bright eyed, with a suspiciously calculating glint that he didn’t get the chance to ask her about.

“As some of you may have heard,” Coach Hall started, smiling, “this is my last year here at Samwell. Apparently, word has spread beyond the team already,” he added, frowning in the direction of Chowder, who had the decency to look abashed, but still excited. “I have accepted the offer of an assistant coaching job with the Devils, and while I don’t want to make a fuss over it, I did want to introduce you to the person who will be taking my place.”

The room went extremely quiet as Coach Hall held a hand out and a figure stood up from where he had been skulking in the corner. Bitty couldn’t quite hold back the gasp as he recognized Jack.

“Any of you who don’t recognize him should probably be thinking really hard about your place on this team,” Coach Hall added, grinning as Jack came to stand by his side, looking tense and awkward, but as determined as Bitty could remember ever seeing him.

“This place was always the closest thing to home, to family, that I’ve had,” Jack said, quietly, looking around the room, his eyes only lingering on Bitty for a brief second. “And my goal is to find a way to make sure that it stays like that for each and every one of you, as well as making sure that we’re the best hockey team out there, of course.”

Applause sounded, thunderously, throughout the room. The entire team, those who hadn’t graduated, as well as those who had, surged to their feet.

Bitty turned an accusing glare on Lardo. “You knew, didn’t you?” he hissed.

She just smiled at him, shoving him in the direction of where Jack was being surrounded by players.

Heart beating in his throat, Bitty forced his feet to move. He only stopped briefly to congratulate Coach Hall personally, and then made himself move towards Jack, his stride heavy and stilted.

“Don’t worry,” Johnson said from somewhere off to his left, in another small crowd of alumni, “I’ll make sure you have the perfect soundtrack. Can’t let this last chapter go un-scored.”

Bitty shook his head, frowning at Johnson, but Johnson just smiled and sauntered off in search of the sound system.

Jack had managed to extricate himself from the crowd and was standing rigidly in the corner when Bitty finally made it to him just as the music Johnson had promised filled the room.

Hope that you fall in love, and it hurts so bad
The only way you can know is give it all you have
And I hope that you don't suffer but take the pain
Hope when the moment comes, you'll say...
I, I did it all
I, I did it all
I owned every second that this world could give
I saw so many places, the things that I did
With every broken bone, I swear I lived

“Coaching?” The question escaped him before he could stop himself.

“What, no hello?” Jack chirped, reaching out and ruffling Bitty’s hair, a small smile on his face.

Bitty felt his cheeks heat up, and he was about to apologize when he realized that Jack looked calm. Calmer than he had seen him in a long time.

“You look good,” Bitty said softly, startled. “No, you always look good,” he corrected. “You look content.”

The smile, if anything, got a little bigger. “I did it, Eric. Stanley Cup in three years. No one can ever say I was just getting by on my dad’s name again.”

His voice got a little more tired as he spoke, and Bitty wanted to reach up and smooth out the lines between his eyes, but as quiet as it was in their little corner, there were still a lot of people around, so he didn’t dare.

“But I’m tired,” Jack continued. “Tired of giving up one dream for another. I don’t want to have to keep choosing between the things I love, so I’m retiring. I did what I set out to do, now it’s time to change directions. I always enjoyed coaching the kids, so I thought I’d give it a try at a higher level, keep hockey in my life without having to give up everything else.” He paused, then reached out and settled his hand on Bitty’s shoulder, squeezing gently. Bitty felt his breathing hitch, and his pulse double. “You asked me once how it felt to finally get everything I ever dreamed of. I think it’s about time I actually found out.”

“You’re going to have it all?” Bitty asked, feeling like his throat was full of molasses.

“I guess it’s time I try.” Jack took a deep breath, and let his fingers trail gently down Bitty’s arm. “Are you seeing anyone?”

Swallowing thickly, it took Bitty two tries to find his voice. “Gracious, no. You would have known about it if I was seeing someone, Mr. Zimmermann.” He tried to smile, but he couldn’t seem to find the strength, his hands shaking as Jack slowly, very slowly, threaded their fingers together.

“Would you like to be?” The hope that flashed through Jack’s familiar blue eyes made Bitty’s stomach clench in a very pleasant way.

“Wait,” Bitty frowned, confused. “I thought, last month, you said you had—you almost outed yourself,” he said very softly, glancing around to make sure no one could hear him. “You had someone special.”

Lines appeared between Jack’s eyes and he stood speechless for a moment before laughing. Actually laughing. Bitty wanted to press his lips to the column of Jack's throat and taste that laugh. “Oh, Eric, you thought…” he stopped, still chuckling. “I’d say you’re pretty special,” he finished, smiling and carding his fingers through Bitty’s hair. “You keep my head on straight and don’t let me take myself too seriously. You’re good for me.”

“And you want to do this?” Bitty asked, squeezing Jack’s hand where he hadn’t let go yet.

Jack smiled, brighter and more confident than when he had won the Stanley Cup just the night before. Bitty stopped breathing altogether. “I’m ready, Eric” he answered, leaning down slowly. Bitty went up on his toes, wrapping his arms tightly around Jack’s neck as Jack, in front of everyone, finally, finally, kissed him.