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Bitty plops a ball of dough on the floured countertop and frowns at it. The day will never come when he doesn't love to bake, but it's pretty much all he's done since he got back to Georgia for the summer. 

Camp only needs him for second session this year. Coach tried to get him a job at the high school to take up the slack, but the school board has a rule about summer employees needing to be there all summer. He's caught up on all his binge watching, he can only work out for so many hours a day, and he can't honestly say he wants to hang out with anyone he knew back in high school. So he is, heaven help him, seriously considering setting up a table at the farmers' market to try to sell his pies. He is a county fair prize winner, after all -- people will pay for that. And if he has to bake like a madman all week to make sure he's well-stocked for Saturday morning, well, that will keep him too busy to sit around thinking about a certain NHL rookie. 

Theoretically, anyway. The problem is, he can pretty much whip out a pie or ten on auto-pilot, so he doesn't believe anything can keep him from thinking about Jack Zimmermann.

Jack, who accepted Mama Bittle's invitation to come visit for the Fourth of July.

Jack, who sent the team chat a selfie of himself in a bland business hotel room the day after graduation.

Jack, whom Bitty hasn't heard from since. 

Meeting the rest of the Falconers, getting to know Providence, finding a place to live — these are things Jack has to do, and if that leaves him less time for his friends from Samwell, that's just how it is. Bitty gets that. He does, honest. It's just that Bitty misses Jack. A lot more than he probably ought to. And if he thinks he has it bad now, what's he going to do when Jack's stupid handsome face is looking back at him from the cover of Sports Illustrated or something? Hang it over his desk and moon over how Jack used to live across the hall? Ugh, no. Jack is his friend, and that has to be enough. 

So he's determined to get over this crush before the start of his junior year. Still, he can't help checking his phone yet again while he's setting it up to take video for his vlog. Three texts on the team chat about next year's jerseys, a direct message from Chowder just saying "HI BITTY!!1!," and a Snapchat story of Holster and Ransom at the Casino Niagara. Nothing from Jack. 

Bitty sighs and divides his blob of dough into two equal portions. He's rolling one of them out when his mother comes downstairs in her bathrobe. She gives him that happy-sad look she's been wearing a lot since he got home. He knows she loves having him there and can't help thinking how soon he's going to be moving on — and my goodness, does he ever understand these days exactly how she feels, not that he's prepared to tell her that.

He nods toward the coffee pot and says, "It's fresh." 

She pours herself a cup and stands there watching as he drapes the pie dough carefully into a pan. "Dicky, honey," she finally says, "have you ever heard that saying about too much of a good thing?"

He clutches at his chest, leaving a floury handprint on his shirt, and presses the back of his other hand to his forehead. "My own mama, chirping me. It breaks my heart."

"It wouldn't be so bad if I could still eat like I was 20, sweetheart," she says with a smile and a peck on the cheek. "What are you tempting us with today?"

"Found these at the market," he says, and slides the bowl of berries across the counter. As soon as she pops one into her mouth, her eyes go wide, and he can't help but smile. "I know, right? Worth getting up early for."

She's making oh-that's-delicious noises when she notices the phone on its miniature tripod. "Are you filming this? I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt."

"It's all right, mama, I'm gonna add a voiceover later anyway. I'm just doing a series of pie crusts to show people the whole process from start to finish and teach them how to fix their mistakes." As he talks, he pats the second ball of dough back and forth between his palms a few times until it's wider and flatter, then goes at it with the rolling pin. "You wouldn't believe how many comments I get from people who say they can't do pie crust! I mean, ain't nothin' wrong with using a frozen crust, but I feel like people won't be as scared of making one from scratch if, you know, I coach them through it like Jack..."

He trails off, thinking about how maybe he's never going to love being slammed into the boards, but at least now he knows he can handle it because Jack helped him by insisting on early morning checking practice for weeks and weeks, and — 

Meanwhile, his mother is moving around the kitchen, putting bread in the toaster, filling another mug of coffee for when Coach comes downstairs. "Speaking of Jack," she says over her shoulder, "are you fetching him from the airport, or is he renting a car?"

He makes a noncommittal sound and she goes on, "Well, ask him the next time you talk to him. Actually, why don't you text him right now? If he hasn't decided yet, it would be awful handy to have an extra car so you can show him around."

"I'm sure he's busy right now," Bitty says, shoving at his rolling pin. "I don't want to bother him."

"Baby, he's your friend!" His mother's eyes are affectionate over the rim of her mug. "Why would it be bothering him?"

The truth is, texting Jack is the one thing he most wants to do, but it's also the last thing in the world he wants to do. He's afraid it'll make him seem like Needy McClingerton. If Jack has decided not to come to Madison after all — if Jack is avoiding him now that he's graduated — Bitty would rather be able to tell himself that at least it wasn't because of something he did.But that isn't something he's going to say to his mother. Instead, he forces a smile and says, "You have no idea. When Jack Zimmermann is in hockey robot mode, everything bothers him."

Then he looks down and discovers he's overworked his crust from a tidy circle into a lopsided oval. "Huh." He wrinkles his nose at it. "I guess that's gonna have to be a galette."

His mother looks him over thoughtfully and says nothing, but she pulls another two sticks of butter from the fridge. 

 

***

 

Jack doesn't feel guilty about essentially dropping off the face of the earth since graduation, but that's because he's been too tired to feel much of anything. When he hasn't been on the ice or at the gym or in the Falconers' mandatory "adulting for rookies" classes, he's been trudging through an endless round of apartment viewings. In between, he's eaten without tasting anything and slept without remembering his dreams. He might still be asleep this morning if not for Shitty. No alarm clock in the world works as well as your best friend showing up at your hotel and telling you to get your glorious glutes out of bed so he can help find them a place to live. 

Shitty is leaning on the wall outside the bathroom, saying something about the importance of a reserved parking space. Jack can't hear it very well over the water running while he shaves, but he gets the gist of it. He nods in agreement as he wipes away the last stray whiskers and tugs on a t-shirt. 

"One of these places has a Dunkin' Donuts right downstairs," he tells Shitty as they leave the room.

"Bro! Put that one at the top of the list. A man has needs after spending an hour on I-95 on a Saturday morning."

"Oh, are you planning to drive down often?"

Shitty crooks an arm around Jack's neck and pulls him in to ruffle his hair. "Probably not as often as I'd like, but yeah," he says. He laughs at two executive types in the lobby of the Residence Inn who give them the side-eye. "Come on, you beautiful motherfucker, let's go find my Rhode Island pied-a-terre."

The realtor reminds Jack that he doesn't have to rent any of the apartments he's seen, that new vacancies open up all the time, that he could even take his time and find a place to buy, but Jack asks her to take them back to the three places he liked best. He wants to sign a lease by the end of the day. Even with Shitty standing right next to him, he feels like his life is on the other side of a pane of glass where he can't touch it. The sooner he has a place to start calling home, the sooner Providence itself will start feeling like home instead of a place where he's in exile, far from everything he cares about. Well, everything except hockey.

"I can see why you like the one with the Dunkie's downstairs," Shitty says when they retreat to a sports bar afterwards to confer. "It's a good size and you can't beat the location. But for that kind of rent, the bathroom was criminal."

"It's not like I'm going to spend that much time in the bathroom," Jack argues. Shitty's eyes go wide with horror.

"Jack Laurent Zimmermann, if you don't have a bathtub, where are you supposed to soak after a game? Or ice an injury? Besides, that walk-in shower looks like something from a slasher flick insane asylum. It screams serial killer. You will never get laid. Ever."

"Not exactly a high priority right now, Shits," Jack sighs. "What about the loft?"

"I've gotta say, I'd be scared to break a leg if I had to climb down a ladder in the middle of the night to pee, especially if I needed my legs to do my job. On the other hand, having a weight room in the basement and two of your teammates for neighbors definitely wouldn't suck."

"I could see myself living there, except I didn't like the kitchen." 

"Because you're going to do so much cooking in your copious spare time?"

Jack regrets ever having mentioned that he hopes Bittle comes to visit. "Va chier, man," he grumbles, to which Shitty replies, "I know what that one means, so no, you fuck off," which basically requires them to clink glasses and drink.

"I think I like the one with the wood floors best," Jack finally says. "Old building with character, lots of closets, lots of light —  

" — and a good kitchen?" 

"Maybe I want to do food photography." Jack is trying not to smile. "Hey, I have to prepare myself for life after hockey."

"This is the first I've heard of your plans for a second career. Tell me more, Chef Boy-ar-zee — are you going to take pictures of your PBJs, or are the Falconers teaching you how to make pasta that doesn't come with powdered cheese?"

Jack kicks his shin under the table.

"Ow! You fucker!" 

"'Chef Boy-ar-zee', really? I wonder about you sometimes."

"I wonder about you all the time."

When they walk out of the realtor's office later with a signed lease and a set of keys, Jack says something about learning to make pancakes on the gas stove with its own built-in griddle. It's embarrassing — he's nearly 25 and he has no idea how to cook pancakes, or much of anything else, for that matter. It seems like he ought to do something about that.

"Bitty could help." 

"That's not a bad idea. I'll ask him when I'm there in July."

Shitty winces and moans, "Dude." 

"What?"

"Let's Skype him when we get back to your hotel. No, wait, I know — let's go over to your new apartment and Skype him."

"I won't be able to take his advice," Jack points out, not unreasonably. "I don't really live there yet, remember? No food, and nothing to cook it with."

"Not the point. Look, has anyone but me heard from you since you got to Providence?" When Jack shakes his head, Shitty huffs. "And there's the point."

"What point?"

"Brah, it's been weeks. People are starting to worry. Bitty actually texted me a few days ago to ask if you were still alive."

"What? You could have told me — why didn't he just ask me?" 

"Jack, Jack, Jack," Shitty bumps their shoulders together as they walk. "Would you have answered?"

Jack wants to say yes, of course he would have, but he can't. Shitty didn't so much ask if he wanted help apartment-hunting as announce that he was showing up. It's not that he wouldn't have wanted to answer Bittle. It's just that he's been so exhausted, so overscheduled, so fucking overwhelmed from the minute he got to Providence that he probably wouldn't have, no matter how much he wanted to. 

Cibolette de marde. His old therapist would have been telling him by now, in gentle therapy-speak, to get his head out of his ass. That's basically what Shitty is saying, too — and now that Jack is letting himself think about it, he thinks standing in his new kitchen talking to Bittle is exactly what he ought to do. It'll be almost like being back at the Haus, even if his new apartment is neither Haus nor (yet) home. 

"Yeah, okay." The spinning, unmoored sensation in the pit of his stomach eases as he says it. "Shopping first, then we'll call him."

 

***

 

One berry galette, two peach pies, and a strawberry tart into the afternoon, Bitty is leaning on the kitchen counter and clutching a pint glass of iced tea like it's going to save his life. It just might. The air conditioning is no match for the one-two punch of a sticky summer day and a hot oven. His hair is flopping into his eyes, his tank top is sticking to his back, and the wet towel draped around his neck is sending trickles of water down his collarbones. He is the literal definition of a hot mess. Naturally, that's the moment Jack picks to Skype him.

"Hey, Bittle," Jack says, face filling the screen, and oh, he looks tired. Dazed, even. Bitty just wants to tell him to hang up and take a nap, but his eyes are wide and warm and so blue that Bitty wants to dive in and go for a swim. Then Jack holds his phone a bit farther away from his face and Shitty appears, chin hooked over Jack's shoulder, calling out an enthusiastic "Biiiiits!"

"Jack! Shitty! Oh my goodness, it's so good to see your faces." 

"Same, bro," Shitty says. "Damn, you look hot."

Bitty pretends to swoon. "Why, Mr. Knight! I didn't know you leaned that way."

"I can just about creep up to a two on the Kinsey scale for this Adonis here, but that doesn't mean I'm blind. But seriously, you look like you just did suicide sprints."

"I've been baking," Bitty says as he points his phone at what's cooling on the counter. Then he has to make a fast dash for his bedroom and shut the door, because seriously, if his mama hears the noises coming out of Shitty's mouth, she's going to think Bitty's watching porn in her kitchen. 

"Jesus H. motherfuckin' Gretzky, those look good," Shitty finally says. "If I get in my car and start driving right now, I could be there in — "

" — sixteen hours," Jack interrupts, then looks surprised at himself, as if the words fell out of his mouth without permission. "Just a guess."

It's a good guess. Bitty and his mother have made the drive between Samwell and Madison in less than 15 hours, and Providence is about 45 minutes closer, traffic permitting — but Bitty's not going to tell Jack he's memorized all the ways he could get from Samwell to Providence and back and how long each one might take. He just says, "Y'all come on down! These'll be gone by the time you get here, but you know I can make more." 

That leads to a short discussion about the pie crust tutorial Bitty's been filming before they tell him to hang up his phone and Skype Jack back from his laptop. "We have something to show you, and you're going to want a bigger screen," Jack says, which sounds like...a thought Bitty should not be having. He rushes to disconnect before they notice he's turning bright red.

When they resume the call, Jack is standing next to a bare mattress in an otherwise empty room, which does not help Bitty drag his mind out of the gutter. He holds his iced tea against one hot cheek and hopes he can pass it off as sunburn if he has to. 

"Ta-daa," says Shitty from offscreen, obviously playing cameraman with Jack's phone. "This is a very special moment we're sharing with you. I am pleased and proud to announce that our man Zimmermann here leveled up to adulthood in my presence this afternoon by signing the lease for his very first apartment. Which is where we are right now."

Jack twirls a set of keys around one finger. His smile is pleased and proud and awkward all at once. Bitty longs to climb through the screen and hug him, but since he can't, he takes a surreptitious screenshot. It's not creepy, he tells himself. It's just that he wants a memento of this important day in his friend's life, that's all. 

They walk him through the apartment, Shitty providing color commentary as Jack shows off each empty room. The mattress is the only furniture in the entire place. Shitty jokes that Jack plans to have whole rooms from IKEA delivered and set up exactly as they were in the store so he doesn't have to worry about whether it looks good. Jack tries to convince Bitty that he's going to steal the terrifying green couch from the Haus. "Look, it would fit perfectly right under this window," he says without cracking a smile.

"I swear, Mr. Zimmermann, if you aren't careful, I'll come decorate your place myself," Bitty laughs. "Beyoncé posters as far as the eye can see."

Shitty coughs off camera. Jack looks away from the phone and says, "What?" Then he looks back and adds, "Actually, I sort of need your help with the kitchen."

Before Bitty can quite digest that, Jack steps to one side and Shitty tracks him with the phone to show —

"Oh my goodness, that kitchen doesn't need any help at all," Bitty blurts. It's perfect. Glass-front cabinets, broad counters, light pouring in from a big window over the sink, and the most gorgeous four-burner with a built-in griddle. For one aching moment, he allows himself to imagine standing at that stove on a lazy Sunday morning, making pancakes for Jack.

And it's a little bit like one of those magic moments when they're on the ice and Bitty has just passed the puck to an empty space knowing Jack will be there by the time it arrives, because Jack says, "Maybe you can teach me how to make pancakes when I come down in July?"

"You're coming down in July?" Bitty asks before he can stop himself. 

The image on the screen wobbles and shifts as Jack takes the phone from Shitty's hand and flips the camera around so Bitty gets a close-up view of his confused expression. "Wait, I told your mom I would," he says. "Did I misunderstand? I won't if you don't want me to."

In the background, Shitty says, "Fuck's sake, Zimmermann." 

Bitty can't stand it when Jack frowns and his voice drops into that monotone. "No, no, I want you to," he says, practically stammering in his haste to get the words out. "In fact, my mother asked me to ask you when you're coming and whether you need a ride from the airport."

Jack's expression brightens instantly and Bitty can breathe again. "I'll book my flight tonight and text you the info, eh? And I'll rent a car."

"Great!" Bitty says, excitement and relief sparkling and fizzing in his chest like the Fourth has already arrived. He beams at Jack, and Jack — Jack beams right back. His full smile is as glorious as that four-burner. Maybe more. Definitely more. 

Shitty appears over Jack's shoulder again and announces, "Bits, I gotta drive back up to Cambridge soon, so we're gonna run and get him some more house crap before I leave."

Bitty jokes about sexting them with hot pie chat, which leaves them all chuckling as the ping-pop of the call ending sound cuts them off. As soon as the screen goes dark, he throws himself backwards onto his bed, pulls a pillow over his face, and screams into it. Jack is coming to visit in less than a month! Practically tomorrow! Which is a million years from now!

He's going to need more butter.

 

***

 

Jack is wandering through his new apartment as the sun sets and the street lights come on. It's strange to think of this space as his, and not just because it's been his for less than a day. He's never lived alone before. He went from his parents' house to various billet houses to a short stay in an expensive private psychiatric hospital. At Samwell, he spent his frog year in a dorm before getting dibs on his room in the Haus. Now here he is, at an age at which some people are already married and maybe even have a kid or two, about to sleep in a home of his own for the first time. It's exhilarating. It's a little intimidating. And after three years of sharing a house with his Samwell teammates, who were also his closest friends, it's also lonely.

He's filling the silence by streaming a history podcast off his phone to a sweet little Bluetooth speaker he and Shitty picked up on their quest for housewares. He still has a lot to do to make the place truly livable. He could use some furniture, for one thing. But at least now he has some kitchen basics, new towels, two pillows, and a "bed in a bag" set that he picked mostly because it was the fastest way to get out of the store. 

He finishes making the bed and sends a photo to the team chat with a note, First night in my new place. His phone immediately blows up with requests for his new address and demands for an apartment-warming party once everyone is back in New England come September. Lardo says she'll requisition the team bus for a group visit so no one has to be the designated driver. Miss you already, she says. He smiles down at his phone and takes a screenshot so he can look at it any time he needs to remind himself that even though he's graduated, he's still part of the team.

Bittle volunteers to show up for the party bearing apple pie with maple sugar crust. Jack sends a private message: Can I learn how to make that too?

Are you aspiring to inner piece (of pie)?, Bittle texts back, bracketed by a pair of chick emojis. 

Jack loves terrible puns. Oh yes, I'm extremely pie-ous, he volleys back.

His phone is silent for a good ten minutes. Jack's sense of triumph at stunning Bittle speechless with his wit inevitably fades into anxiety about having crossed a line he didn't know was there. Did he accidentally offend? But just as he's trying to come up with some combination of emojis to convey the message, "I am a big dork whose jokes are unforgivable," his phone lights up with a photo.

Bittle is standing in his parents' kitchen beneath a light that makes his hair look like it's glowing. One hand is holding an empty pie pan behind his head like a halo; the other is brandishing a rolling pin. He's covered his face with so much flour that he looks bloodless. And he's gazing up at the ceiling with an expression that's aiming for saintly serenity and missing it by a mile as he obviously tries not to giggle. Crust almighty, says the caption. 

Jack laughs so loud that it echoes off the bare walls. He shouldn't be surprised any more when Bittle manages to surprise him — Eric Bittle has been an unending source of astonishment — but this wholehearted playfulness is something he only saw hints of at the Haus, and he wants to join in. So he props up his phone on a windowsill and sets the timer. He has just enough time to drop to his knees, clasp his hands like he's praying, and cast his eyes toward the camera with the beseeching look he last used at age 8 to beg his parents to get him a puppy. It takes him another minute or two to come up with a caption, but when he does, he can't help chuckling at his own brilliance. He taps in Praise the lard! and fires the photo off without letting himself think too much about it. Then he drops the phone on his bed and heads to the bathroom, still smiling, to try out his new shower. 

When he comes back with one of his new towels slung around his hips, Bittle has replied to his terrible pun with a line of exclamation points. It's as satisfying as the first lap on freshly resurfaced ice. By way of a response, he pokes and thumbs his way through double-checking the Falconers' practice schedule for the first week of July, then books a flight to Atlanta and a rental car once he gets there. He texts the details, adds a happy emoji, and concludes with a comment about how he has to get up early for practice so he's going to sleep.

Except that he doesn't go to sleep, not right away. He climbs into his gratuitously huge new bed and scrolls back in his texts to the photo Bittle sent him. It gives him the same shiver of surprised delight that it did the first time he looked at it. He zooms in, pretending at first that he's assessing it with the photographer's eye he's been working to cultivate. He never let himself forget while he was at Samwell that he wasn't just Bittle's friend and housemate, but his team captain. Now that he's graduated, though, he's not abusing his authority if he lets his eyes catch on the curve of Bittle's bicep, the freckles blossoming across his shoulder, the way he's biting his lower lip to keep from grinning. 

He saves the photo to his photo library, then scrolls back to the previous shot in the album: a screenshot he took when Bittle — no, Bitty, he's going to allow himself to use the nickname now, at least in his head — first answered their earlier Skype call. He couldn't resist the temptation. Jack has seen Bitty soaked in sweat after games, peeling off his pads, limping bruised to the showers. This was different. This time, he gave himself permission to see, and, well. He'd been struck dumb by the droplet of water (or was it sweat?) trickling along Bitty's collarbone, overwhelmed by the urge to lick it away. It had taken him the first minute or two of the call just to focus enough to stop gawking. He's amazed he managed to talk at all, even though the first thing out of his mouth made it obvious he's been thinking about how long it would take to drive to Georgia. Shitty chirped him about it afterwards, but he's pretty sure Bitty didn't even notice.

Now, staring at the screenshot, he can't help imagining Bitty disheveled and sweaty for reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with baking. That's no one else's business. Jack is just going to keep it to himself, mostly by dropping his phone so he can clap his free hand over his mouth to muffle the sounds he makes as he chalks up another first in his new home.

He forgets, until he's cleaning himself up afterwards, that he doesn't have to worry about being quiet the way he did in the Haus. If he didn't need to get some sleep, the thought would be nearly enough to inspire him to a second round. 

 

***

 

Jack looks good on his knees.

Bitty shouldn't let himself think such things. He's not going to tell Jack that he's thinking such things. But he doesn't know how he's supposed to not think them when he has a picture on his phone of a beautiful man kneeling next to a bed, looking up at the camera with an expression that makes everything in him scream, yes, absolutely, anything you want. He wasn't sure how Jack would react to his ridiculous impulse picture, but he thought at most he'd get a chirp or two. He wasn't expecting this. Jack's face, dear lord, somewhere between pleading and demanding — Bitty may burst into flames if he looks at it again. 

He does look at it again. And again, and again. He zooms in on Jack's pout and imagines those lips on his throat. He examines the five o'clock shadow on Jack's jaw and upper lip and wonders how it would feel rasping against his inner thighs. He stares at Jack's biceps, his corded forearms, his big hands, and — "Shit," he gasps as he locks his bedroom door and hurls himself back on his bed, holding his phone in one hand and wrestling off his gym shorts with the other. 

He apologizes silently to Jack in his mind, but he doesn't stop. He couldn't if he wanted to, and he doesn't want to.

Afterwards, he texts Jack a row of exclamation points. Jack will think it's just a comment on what Bitty concedes is a spectacularly bad verbal and visual pun. Bitty isn't going to tell him he just got off, almost painfully fast, to a picture of Jack basically going to his knees for him. 

When he gets Jack's travel plans a little while later, it's enough to inspire him to a second round. 

 

***

 

Jack wakes up the next morning feeling better than he has since the Falconers signed him — like he's just burst into open air after a long time underwater. As soon as he leaves the locker room to grab lunch after morning skate, he pulls out his phone to text the Samwell team chat to apologize for going dark and making them worry about him.

It's the middle of the day in the middle of the summer, so he doesn't expect many responses, but his phone starts buzzing right away with a stream of no worries and how's it going-s. He spends the next half hour hoovering down a sandwich while asking about everyone's summer and describing a new offensive play he'd learned that morning. The exchange continues as he heads back to the rink, smiling down at his phone and trying not to walk into anyone. Just before he heads inside, he pauses to snap a shot of the main entrance and send it back to his Samwell squad. Wish you were all here, he tells them. 

From then on, Jack starts his days with a quick hello on the team chat before he leaves his apartment. Every afternoon, he checks it to see what everyone else is up to. And every evening, whether he goes out with his new teammates or runs errands or walks around trying to get to know his new hometown, texting with Bitty somehow ends up being the last thing he does before he falls asleep. Well, almost the last thing. 

Bitty starts it. Two nights after Jack's lard joke, he sends a photo of himself wearing enormous round glasses and a mortarboard cap, holding up what looks like an apple tart in a 9-by-9-inch pan. The text that follows reads, Pie are square. Jack is charmed. He thinks about possible responses for 15 minutes before sending a selfie in which he's wearing a colander on his head like a helmet and holding up a box of spaghetti, with a comment about using his noodle. It's lame, but that's the point. 

Over the next two weeks, it escalates into a nightly exchange of increasingly tortured puns. Finally, an evening comes when Bitty sends a shot of himself doing squats, a stick of butter held out in front of him in each hand with his fingers carefully arranged to cover the -ER on each wrapper. When Jack stops laughing, he sends back a photo he'd snapped earlier in the week knowing he would eventually need it: his hand waving a white napkin next to a yield sign.

Bitty, of course, sends a string of chick emojis and a bunch of punctuation that looks like a little person doing a dance. Jack resigns himself to the end of the conversation as well as the game, but an hour later, Bitty sends him a picture of half a dozen pies lined up on a table, so enticing they make Jack's mouth water. And how was YOUR day? Bitty asks. Jack sends back a picture of the bookshelf he's in the middle of putting together, half of it still in its component parts. They end up chatting for an hour about things you don't realize you need until you move into a place without them. Bitty sends him a link to a power strip that looks like an octopus, which is so genius that Jack orders one on the spot. 

The next night, Jack takes pictures of the finished bookshelf in two different spots in his family room and asks Bitty which looks best. After Bitty offers his opinion, he asks Jack if he prefers burgers or hot dogs for the Fourth of July. Whichever is more authentically American, Jack answers. He gets back half a dozen links about barbecue and some strongly worded opinions about regional variations on sauce.

That gets Jack thinking. A few days later, he asks his teammates if anyone knows where in Providence to get good ribs. He ends up having dinner with them at a place that smells like wood smoke and beer. He tells himself that being a little stiff and awkward off the ice isn't the worst thing in the world, takes a deep breath, and suggests they swap numbers so they can text each other photos of the dinner. As they tear through an embarrassing amount of food in a flurry of chirps and beeping phones, Jack starts feeling like maybe these guys could become not just teammates, but friends. It's a relief, he admits it. He's moving forward. 

Once he gets home, he asks Bitty, Did I do this right? and shares his favorite photo of the night: a candid shot by one of his fellow rookies who caught him in mid-bite, gnawing on a beef rib with gusto, sauce dripping down his fingers. He's stripped, Googled "how to remove barbecue sauce stain," and tossed in a load of laundry before Bitty responds with one punctuation-free word:

damn

Jack suspects he just got chirped for eating ribs like it's a contact sport. While he's trying to compose a comeback, his phone vibrates again. 

Looks like you really enjoyed it!

He switches off the light and gets into bed. I did, he thumbs. And thanks for the assist. I mentioned something about bbq and it turned into a team-building dinner. 

Oh wow. That's so nice of you to give me credit.

I try to give credit wherever it's due, he says. When Bitty sends back a blushing emoji, he feels himself blushing in the darkness in response. 

It's been a deeply satisfying day, one he wouldn't mind ending by spending some quality alone time with his screenshot of flushed, mussed Bitty, but there are still lines he won't let himself cross. He always waits until they've ended their conversation. As they continue texting, though, Jack feels himself drifting. He blinks, and the next thing he knows, he's waking up in the middle of the night with his phone on his chest. He'd dropped off mid-text, the three dots of a text in process still pulsing after who knows how long. Bitty had obviously waited until it became obvious that Jack wasn't actually typing anything, because there's one unread text waiting for him. All it says is Good night, Jack. 

A wave of warm contentment washes him back down into a dreamless sleep.

 

***

 

Bitty is having an excellent morning at the farmers' market. He arrived with six pies, three dozen mini-pies, and a basket of individually wrapped brownies, and he's going to sell out. If he didn't love his kids at summer camp so much, he'd bail on them and just spend the rest of the summer elbow-deep in sugar and butter.

He shifts his lawn chair farther under the awning of his booth and applies another layer of sunscreen, but he's afraid it's too late: he can feel the tightness across his nose and cheeks that says he's gotten more sun than he should. He pulls out his phone to snap a selfie just to check how bad it is, and once the phone is in his hand, well. He can't resist opening and scrolling through his texts with Jack. 

He reads backwards, feeling affection swell in his chest at Jack's insistence that he, Bitty, was somehow responsible for helping him connect with his new teammates. When he reaches the photo that started that particular conversation, though, he has to stop and breathe through the butterflies that hatch in his stomach. It's as devastating an image now as it was when he first got it. There's Jack, unaware of the camera, eyes half-shut in what was probably a blink but looks like pleasure, a blob of sauce dripping out from between his fingers and down the back of his hand like...like...

It had taken him almost half an hour before he could answer. Half an hour of thinking about Jack sucking the meat off the bone, licking sauce off his fingers, making that happy throaty sound he always makes when he's eating something he really enjoys. Bitty may have asked Jack to taste-test things at the Haus now and then just to see if he could get Jack to make that sound. 

He keeps wondering if Jack makes that sound when his mouth is otherwise occupied.

He closes his eyes and takes a few deep breaths. It's one thing to have these thoughts in the privacy of his own bed, the way he has, emphatically and enthusiastically, for days now. It's another thing entirely to have them on a Saturday morning in the middle of the farmers' market with his 11th grade science teacher buying green beans at the next booth. It's only been a few weeks, but he's already lost the hard-won self-control he earned through a year of living at the Haus with Jack around all the time, studying in the kitchen or sprawled long-legged on the disgusting couch or (gloriously, horribly) sauntering to and from the washer and dryer in the basement wearing nothing but boxer briefs and socks. 

He allows himself one more peek at the photo — did Jack not know how he looked? — before he scrolls to where Jack had abruptly stopped texting, not exactly in the middle of a thought but close enough. Bitty had waited ten minutes before realizing that Jack must have fallen asleep. He'd given himself another 15 before saying good night, and it only occurs to him now to wonder if the sound of that last message woke Jack up. He hadn't been thinking about that, just about how he'd rather be whispering it in Jack's ear than tapping it into a text box. 

He's so focused on his phone that he jumps in an undignified way when someone says, "Eric? Eric Bittle? Oh my goodness, it is you!" The vaguely familiar girl with long dark braids introduces herself as "Jenny Townsend, from high school, you know, Woody's girlfriend?" 

She points toward a beefy young man whose Georgia State Panthers t-shirt is straining to contain his biceps, and oh, that's someone Bitty definitely recognizes. Derek Woodall had been two years ahead of Bitty at school and had played on Coach's first team in Madison. He'd also been Bitty's first real crush, though Bitty plans to take that particular secret to the grave. Several years and one Jack Zimmermann later, he's not sure what he saw in Derek, although he suspects it had something to do with the way he looked in football pants. 

"Oh, right!" He thinks he remembers her now, something about drill team, but he grasps for something to pin down the memory. "Um, your hair was different then?"

"Yeah, you know how it is," she replies. He runs a hand across his own undercut and nods. It seems to flip a switch, because words pour out of her like she wants to get it out before she forgets how to talk. "So we both just graduated from State and we're getting married and my mama had the most amazing pie last weekend that she said she got from a cute blond boy at the market, so I came to see if I could get some for my shower, but you're just about out, so maybe I could pay you to make more?" 

Bitty is speechless, partly at how fast she just said all that, but mostly at the stunning realization that she wants to — hire him? Like an actual professional? While he's still blinking in astonishment, she revs up again: "We're only having two dozen people so that would be maybe four pies? If you could do two each of two different kinds? Maybe peach and blueberry? Or if you already have some pies made we could just do that, that would be fine, just please, please, your pie was so good." She looks at him expectantly, a little breathless. 

"Um." He waves a hand toward the one remaining full-sized pie. "This is all I have left today, but I can make some fresh. When's the party?"

"Tomorrow at 3. I know it's not a lot of notice, but I can pay you in advance. In cash." 

Five minutes later, they've agreed on a pick-up time — "I'll send Woody over, he remembers where Coach lives," she says — and Bitty is holding six limp twenties as the future Mrs. Woodall walks away with an extra bounce in her step. 

He pulls out his phone and texts, I just got hired to make pies for a party tomorrow!!!

 

***

 

Jack gets Bitty's text a full ten minutes before it shows up on the group chat, but he doesn't realize that until he's already sent a brief Good job, Bittle! to the group chat while he's at lunch. In fact, he doesn't even notice that Bitty texted him directly until he gets home. That bothers him as he makes and eats dinner. It bothers him as he washes his dishes and takes out the trash. It keeps bothering him as he does his upper body workout while half-watching a documentary about little kids who play golf. When his bedtime comes and goes and he can't sleep for worrying that Bitty will think he's being slighted, he tells himself that three years as a captain doesn't wear off overnight and grabs his phone to send a text.

Busy? 

Not really, why?

The answer comes so quickly he suspects Bitty was waiting to hear from him, which doesn't make him feel any better. He pops in his earbuds with shaky hands and dials. He doesn't know why he and Bitty don't usually talk on the phone. They just don't, but it seems like the right thing to do right now. 

"Jack! What's wrong?" 

Jack swallows hard before he speaks. "Nothing, Bittle, I just wanted to apologize for being rude. I was at the rink when you texted earlier."

"You didn't have to — I mean, you — " Bitty takes an audible breath and puffs it out again. "Okay, let me start over. It's not like I'm not happy to hear your voice, I just wasn't expecting it, and it made me worry. Hi!"

"Hi," Jack says back. It's awkward. "I should have called sooner. I know it's a big deal."

"You don't have to say you're sorry. I know you're busy."

Bitty sounds so surprised and pleased that he called at all that Jack can't help but relax into it. "Not too busy to say congratulations. I mean, it's your first professional baking job."

"Right? Finally I understand how you feel, getting paid to do something you'd do for free." 

"It's great, isn't it?"

"A hundred and twenty bucks! To bake!" Bitty makes a high-pitched sound that reminds Jack so much of a whistling tea kettle that he can't hold back a chuckle. "I know that's not a lot to you, mister megabucks NHL contract — " Bitty starts to chide him, but he interrupts.

"I'm not laughing at that. I'm laughing at how you squeak when you're happy." Bitty's responding snort makes Jack's stomach swoop with something more pleasant than nerves. "Squeak, squeak, squeak," he says at the highest pitch he can manage. Bitty snorts again, and that sets Jack off, and suddenly they're laughing and squeaking at each other whenever they stop to breathe. 

Jack is all set to keep chirping Bitty into next week to keep it going, but he's lying on his back in his enormous new bed in the dark, his earbuds piping Bitty's giggle straight into his ears, and it's abruptly like Bitty is next to him. No, it's like he's inside Jack's head and all around him at the same time. It's devastatingly intimate. 

"Bitty," he hears himself say, so low it's almost inaudible. 

"You never call me by my nickname," Bitty replies, warm and fond. 

"I just did."

"It's nice. You should do it more often."

Jack doesn't know how to reply to that. It doesn't seem like something that needs a reply anyway. "Bitty," he says again, because it feels right in his mouth. 

"Jack." Bitty drags out the vowel, thick as molasses. It makes Jack's breath catch. "Why don't you have a nickname?"

"They never stick."

"If you had a nickname, I'd use it."

"Maybe when I'm down there you can figure one out, eh?"

"Maybe I will." 

"You have six days to start coming up with ideas." He realizes as he says it that he's just made it obvious that he's literally counting the days until he's in Georgia. Bitty hums in agreement, though, which makes him think Bitty is counting, too. 

"It's gonna be so much fun to have you here," Bitty says, his smile audible. 

Jack is on the verge of agreeing when Bitty yelps "Oh shit, my pies!" followed by something incoherent about a timer. He hangs up mid-sentence, leaving Jack's ears ringing.

Jack smiles up at the ceiling. He's not sure what just happened, but he thinks it was good. He's pretty sure it was. Except for the part where he wants Bitty back inside his head again. That's exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure. Thinking about it makes him shiver even as heat coalesces in the pit of his stomach. 

His phone buzzes with an incoming text. I'm so sorry, Bitty tells him. A photo of an overdone pie follows, black at the edges where the filling bubbled out and the crust burned. I could have talked for another hour, easy, but I have to redo this before morning.

Don't worry about it, Jack replies. I understand. 

I'll make it up to you when you're here. We can sit up and talk all night if you want.

Jack is tempted to tell Bitty to call back when he's done baking, even if it's 2 in the morning. He has to get up for an early practice, though, so instead he taps out, Okay. He looks at the word for a long moment, then adds, Good night, Bitty

He doesn't need to look at his stolen screenshot of Bitty right now, not with the memory of that amused "Jaaaaack" to savor. He slides one hand down to where he's been half-hard since he heard it and gives himself permission to say "Bitty" out loud one more time before he falls asleep.

 

***

 

Five days. Four days. Three days. Bitty goes through butter at a pace that has Coach joking about needing to buy a cow. His mother keeps asking him why he's so nervous, but he isn't ready to admit he has a crush on any boy, never mind this one, not even to her. He's tempted to deflect by saying it's because he's embarrassed for Jack -- who is, after all, hockey royalty -- to see where he lives, but that's not true, and even if it were, he'd be doing a disservice to his hometown and to Jack. So he smiles and shakes his head and says he's just never had a friend from Samwell visit before and he wants to show off the best of Southern hospitality. 

One day to go. He's made a giant bowl of potato salad, a pan of cornbread, and a batch of salsa that he predicts Coach will say is too spicy and his mama will say isn't spicy enough. He's cleaned his bathroom, because that's what you do when guests are coming. He's done a load of laundry so he has clean sheets and towels to put out in the morning. 

He vacuums the entire house. Twice. 

It's nearly midnight when Jack texts him to ask what he should pack. Shorts. T-shirts. It's summer in Georgia, silly, Bitty replies. He follows up with a screenshot of the weekend forecast just to hammer the point home.

Do I need a suit?

Bitty rolls his eyes at his phone. A SWIMsuit, maybe.

I just want to be ready for anything. 

Bitty sends a picture of the apple pie he made earlier in the day. It may be his prettiest yet, if he does say so himself. Be ready for this, he says. With vanilla ice cream. 

Damn, I'll go running before I leave for the airport.

Something in his chest goes as sweet and sticky as the apple pie. Jack will be on his way in the morning, Jack with his dry chirps and his low chuckles and the way he dips his head a little when he feels awkward. Bitty can hardly breathe for happiness that they're going to be in the same place again for a few days. 

Oh goodness, he thinks, this is going to be a problem. 

 

***

 

An hour into Jack's flight, he's staring out the window, suspended between anxiety and anticipation as the ground rolls away beneath him. He doesn't understand the intensity of his eagerness to see Bitty. Is he looking back at his senior year at Samwell -- the happiest year he can remember having -- and replaying the good parts over and over like a highlight reel? Or is he watching game tape like he's preparing for a new season?

Part of him wants to turn around in midair and go back to Providence so he doesn't have to confront that question. 

"You don't have to figure everything out all at once," his old therapist once told him. "When you can't see what's five steps down the road, focus on the next step, and then the step after that, and so on, and you'll eventually end up where you intend to go." Jack doesn't know where he intends to go, so he tells himself that he's focusing on the next step and trusting that the one after that will reveal itself when he gets there. 

The air in Atlanta hits him like a slap in the face with a hot, sodden towel. His hairline goes damp with sweat right away. Within five minutes, he's trying not to gasp like a fish. As soon as he gets to his rental car — even before letting Bitty know he's on the way — he sets the climate control to arctic blast and points all the vents at his torso. All the same, he's glad Bitty told him the drive to Madison would only take an hour. Any longer and he'd be tempted to pull over and change shirts on the side of Interstate 20.

Almost exactly an hour later, his phone is telling him he's arrived at his destination. He knows he's in the right place, because there's Bitty sitting on the porch steps, tanned and lithe. He must be keeping up with his workouts; his shoulders look broader than they were when Jack last saw him at graduation, just six weeks ago. When Jack turns off the engine and opens the car door, Bitty looks up with a dazzling smile that -- Crisse

One of Jack's earliest memories is of being in a car with his parents during a thunderstorm. He has no idea why they were in a car or where they were going, just that he was whining and squirming in his kiddie seat when lightning streaked down to hit a tree just a few feet away. The crash and flash were so overwhelming, he went still and quiet for the rest of the drive. 

Bitty's smile is like that lightning strike. For a terrifying, weightless moment, Jack can't think, can't move, can only stare and stare while his pulse goes haywire. By the time he can breathe again, Bitty has darted down the steps and across the lawn. All he can manage is a hoarse "Hey!" and a fist bump. 

Bitty leads him into the house, chattering non-stop in what Jack recognizes from countless game days as a combination of nerves and excitement. Jack himself remains tongue-tied until Suzanne Bittle hugs him, insists on a photo, tells Bitty to give Jack a chance to freshen up. The way Bitty rolls his eyes and says, "Motherrrr!" like he's the most put-upon human on earth breaks the spell. 

Jack ruffles his hair as he passes and says innocently, "Dicky."

"I know, I know," Bitty says as he leads Jack down the hallway. "I'm named after Coach, so most everyone here calls me Junior. But my mama calls me Dicky so she doesn't have two men in the house with the same name." He throws a warning look over his shoulder. "Don't you dare tell the guys."

"I would never." Jack pauses for a beat, then stage-whispers, "Dicky."

"So help me, Jack, if you don't behave, there will be no pie for you all weekend."

That's not a threat to take lightly. Jack puts up his hands. "I'll be good, Bittle, I promise."

Bitty sets Jack's duffel down in front of an open doorway. "Here you go. Bathroom is there if you need it." He eyes Jack's button-down and jeans and adds, "You should change your clothes before you melt."

Somewhere down the hall, Suzanne calls out, "Dicky, did you use all the eggs?"

Jack smirks and mouths, "Dicky." 

Bitty makes an exasperated face, but then suddenly his arms are around Jack's waist and he's muttering, "It's so good to see you." Jack doesn't even manage to get his own arms up before Bitty steps away just as quickly, cheeks reddening. "I'll be in the kitchen," he says. Then he's gone. Jack stands there until he can no longer feel the sensory echo of Bitty's face pressed into his sternum. 

 

***

 

Bitty has to shut himself in the half-bathroom off the kitchen and splash cold water on his face until he stops quivering. As soon as he wrapped his arms around Jack, he'd realized the hug was a mistake. Jack had still been overheated and a little sweaty from his drive, and Bitty had never smelled anything so captivating in his entire life, not even his Moo Maw's famous peach bourbon tart. He'd needed to get away fast before he started rubbing his face all over Jack's chest like a cat marking its territory.

He is a gentleman and a good friend, and he is going to behave accordingly. He glares at himself in the mirror and tells himself sternly, "Do not hump the house guest." 

He has to remind himself of that again when Jack appears in the kitchen in loose shorts and a tight t-shirt and says, "Okay, how can I help?"

"Jack, honey, you don't have to help," Mama Bittle says. "You're a guest. All you have to do is keep us company while we cook."

Jack smiles at her — not the practiced smile he gives the media, but a real smile, the small, lopsided one — and says, "Your son promised me a cooking lesson."

The blood rushes to Bitty's face so fast he thinks his head is going to explode. He grabs a platter of burgers from the fridge and says, "Come on, we're putting you to work at the grill with Coach."

Coach shakes Jack's hand and asks about the Falconers. Jack accepts his offer of a beer and asks about the Morgan County Bulldogs. When they start comparing notes about training programs, Bitty decides the introduction has gone well and it's safe to zip back to the kitchen for the chicken thighs. He's gone for five minutes — ten at the most! — and when he gets back, Jack is telling Coach that Bitty needs to eat more protein. Worse yet, Coach is reassuring Jack that he sometimes catches Bitty eating peanut butter straight out of the jar. 

"Oh my god, you're male bonding," Bitty says, horrified, and flees.

When Jack finally follows him back to the kitchen, he's drooping from the heat. "You poor creature from the land of ice," Bitty says as he maneuvers Jack into the chair right under the ceiling fan and slides a glass of iced tea in front of him. "I'm nearly done. You just sit right there and cool off until people start to get here."

"People?" Jack's shoulders start climbing toward his ears, and Bitty remembers with a twinge of guilt that Jack isn't much for parties. "What people? How many people?"

"It's just a little family cookout. A couple of cousins, their kids, maybe a neighbor or two." 

Once the house has filled up with people bearing bowls and platters and covered casserole dishes, he's proud of Jack for not simply hiding under a bed. Jack has actually started to relax after eating something and discovering that Bitty's family and neighbors neither know nor care who he is. He's just a friend of Bitty's from school who's never been down South before. They keep asking him which football teams he follows and commenting on his accent, which seems to amuse him. 

Bitty sticks close to Jack's side — making introductions, refilling his iced tea, telling him who's who and how they're related to each other (or not). When he notices that Jack is starting to look twitchy, he pops into the kitchen to fill a plate, then drags Jack out on the porch for some air. "A little family cookout, eh?" Jack says, but he bumps his shoulder against Bitty's. 

They sit on the top stair and watch a gaggle of Bitty's young cousins chase each other around the front yard with sparklers. One of them, a girl with an especially awkward case of the preteens, sidles up and whispers, "Junior, is your friend a movie star?" Jack overhears and doesn't laugh at her. Instead, he solemnly introduces himself as "Jack from Québec," and tells her — exaggerating his accent in a way that makes Bitty's pulse kick up a notch — that she's the one who looks like a movie star, and he would know, because his maman used to be a model. Cousin Emmy wanders away all giggly and starry-eyed, and Bitty has to look away to hide the stars in his own eyes. Lord, this boy can be so unexpectedly sweet.

"What are those?" 

Jack is pointing at the plate Bitty forgot he was holding. "Oh! They're smoke bombs! One of our neighbors brings these every year." He holds one up. "You have to try them."

"Yeah, but what — "

"Do you trust me?" 

Without another word, Jack closes his eyes and opens his mouth. It makes Bitty's own mouth go dry. He pops the smoke bomb into Jack's mouth, letting himself "accidentally" brush Jack's lower lip with his fingers as he goes. When Jack bites down, his eyes fly open in surprise, and he makes that throaty sound Bitty can't stop imagining at night. 

"That's -- " Jack chews, swallows, and reaches for another. " -- amazing. What is it?"

"You stuff jalapeños with cream cheese and gorgonzola, wrap 'em in bacon, and put 'em in a smoker until the bacon is crispy." 

Jack devours a second smoke bomb, making that sound again, and then licks his fingers. Thoroughly. Forget looking away; Bitty barely blinks.

"The team's nutritionist would scream if she saw me right now," Jack says. Bitty nods. He sort of wants to scream, too, though probably (definitely) not for the same reason. Jack leans in close and tugs the entire plate out of his hands. When Bitty yelps in protest, he says, "Bittle, if you want any, you're gonna have to practice your checking."

Bitty throws his head back and laughs. When Jack laughs, too, shoulder pressed against his in the soft Georgia dusk, Bitty is the happiest he's been all summer. 

 

***

 

Jack is tired, full, and more relaxed than he's been in months. He's stretched out on the couch in the Bittles' family room, looking down at Bitty, who's lying on the floor with his feet up on the coffee table. He's been down there since before his parents headed off to bed, so Jack thinks it must be more comfortable than it looks. 

"That must be more comfortable than it looks," he says, just to be sure. 

"It really is. Stretches out your lower back."

"Won't make you any taller."

"Rude, Jack, so rude!" Bitty yawns so hard, Jack thinks it might dislocate his jaw. "I know I said we could sit up and talk all night, but — " he yawns again, " — seriously, I'm not even gonna make it to 11." 

When Jack makes a lazy sound of agreement, Bitty heaves himself off the floor. "Be right back," he says. Jack watches him leave the room, then closes his eyes and listens to the sounds of the summer night. The air conditioner is humming, a tv is playing faintly from what he assumes is Bitty's parents' room, a door opens and shuts. It's peaceful. He opens his eyes again to the sound of Bitty's bare feet on the hardwood floor. 

Bitty leans over the back of the couch with a pillow and a blanket in his arms and a toothbrush sticking out of his mouth. "The most comfortable couch in the world is mine, Mr. Zimmermann," he says around the toothbrush. It's inexplicably charming. "You are banished to my old room." He drops the bedding at Jack's feet and points toward the door. "Get up. Shoo. Go."

"I can sleep out here, I don't mind," Jack says, but he goes. 

He lies in Bitty's bedroom trying not to think about the fact that he's lying in Bitty's bedroom. Bitty has slept here, done Skype calls from here, watched videos on YouTube here. Jack can picture him doing all of those things. Jack can also picture him doing other things. He can't help imagining Bitty in this room, in this very bed, hard and aching and taking himself in hand. He wonders if Bitty prefers it just before he goes to sleep or first thing when he wakes up, if he's naturally quiet or bites the edge of his comforter to mute himself, what he does with his other hand, how he cleans up after. 

He rolls over and tells himself to think about something else. What floats into his mind is the memory of Bitty feeding him that cheesy bacony pepper thing, actually pressing it between his lips. Jack had wanted to flick his tongue against Bitty's fingertips to see what he would do. He wants to go out to the family room right now and ask if he'd imagined the way Bitty had looked at him when he'd licked his own fingers clean. Had his pupils been wide and dark with interest, or was it just because of the fading light?

And dammit, following that train of thought isn't helping. He forces himself to think about the least sexy thing he can bring to mind: he left his hockey bag in the back seat of his truck with his dirty practice clothes inside, and once they've festered in the heat of the airport parking structure for three days, he may have to burn them, bag and all. But that reminds him of how one of the team's pre-game rituals last year involved toting Bitty around in a hockey bag, and now he's back to thinking of Bitty again, and — he needs a glass of water.

He pads barefoot to the kitchen, grabs a glass, fills and drains it. He intends to go straight back to Bitty's bedroom, but instead, he detours to the family room.

Bitty is fast asleep, sprawled face-down with his arms under his pillow. His back is bare and sleek, a compact sweep of muscle from shoulders to waist. His face is barely visible in what little light is filtering in through the windows from outside; it's just lines and contours that make Jack's fingers itch for his camera. 

Everything settles into quiet around him: the room, his pulse, his skittering thoughts. All that's left is a longing to stand there looking at Bitty until the sun comes up. It's startling in its purity; he has to take a few long, shuddery breaths when he recognizes it for what it is. He slips back to his bed with an ache in his chest, lightning-struck. 

 

***

 

Bitty flings an arm out to grab his phone and groans at the time. His body seems to have decided that if Jack Zimmermann is nearby, an early workout is in the cards, and no amount of rolling over and pulling the pillow over his head is changing its mind. 

He doesn't hear any signs of life inside his bedroom, so he opens the door just wide enough to peer through. His stomach flips at what he sees. It's one thing to know, in theory, that this boy he's crazy about is sleeping in his bed. It's another thing to witness it, to see his pillow under Jack's head, his blanket tangled around Jack's calves, the space next to Jack just the right size for him to slip into. Bitty stares at that tempting space for a few heartbeats, memorizing it, before sighing and tapping on the door. If he has to be awake, he's going to make Jack get up, too. 

He says Jack's name as he pulls a change of clothes from his dresser. Jack whuffles into the pillow but doesn't budge. He says it again before kneeling down to pull his running shoes out from under the bed. When he raises his head, Jack is looking right at him, smiling in a soft, bleary way. "Hey, Bittle," he mumbles, a gravelly sound that hits Bitty right in the solar plexus. "What's up?"

"I am, and now you are, too." Bitty focuses on putting on his shoes so he doesn't give in to the urge to run a hand through Jack's sleep-rumpled hair. "This is my revenge for all those pre-dawn skates," he says. "Come on, get out of bed, we're going running."

Jack's smile widens, turns smug. "I'm so proud. Are we making pancakes after?"

"No, we aren't. You are." 

It's pleasantly cool by Bitty's standards, but the second they step outside, Jack comments that it's already getting hot, so they don't push. They make a slow loop through town, Bitty narrating as they go: the historic district, the really good coffee shop, the antiques mall, the park where the farmers' market is usually held on Saturday mornings. "'Course, there isn't one today because of the parade," he says.

"When's the parade?"

"Noon. You want to go?"

Jack somehow manages to shrug while he runs. "Hadn't really thought about it. Do you?" 

They match strides for a block while Bitty considers it: the high school marching band playing the Star-Spangled Banner, the members of the car club cruising by in their restored classics, local beauty queens waving flags on floats pulled by pickup trucks, sporadic outbursts of firecrackers. Maybe in twenty years he'll look back and get nostalgic about how perfectly small-town Southern it was, but...

"Not really," he finally says. "Not unless you do."

Jack immediately replies "Okay," and Bitty feels the warm satisfaction of having guessed right. Still, he needs to come up with something to do that won't make Jack collapse from heatstroke, bless his Canadian heart. "We could visit some of the houses in the historic district. You're interested in Civil War stuff, right? Or we could go see a movie. Or — " The idea pops into his head and it's perfect. "I'm an idiot! You have a car!"

"And?"

He refuses to tell Jack anything else. It's a place he loves, and he knows, he knows, that Jack will love it, too. He wants the memory of sharing it with Jack, of loving it through Jack's eyes as well as his own, and he wants to enjoy surprising Jack with it.

They round the corner and there's the Bittle house, halfway down the block. Bitty glances over at Jack, who's only just starting to breathe hard, a fine sheen of sweat on his face, hair going every which way. He has to look away again before he trips over his own feet. He covers it up by yelling, "Come on, Zimmermann, hustle!" and kicking it into overdrive, tearing up the street with Jack on his heels.

 

***

 

Making pancakes is both easier and harder than Jack expected. Following the recipe Bitty digs up online is simple. Bitty lines up the ingredients and utensils; Jack measures and pours and mixes. At the last minute, Bitty produces a bowl of blueberries and upends them into the batter. "Thanks," Jack murmurs. He loves blueberries. 

The actual cooking part is more complicated. Bitty shows him how to make sure the pan is at the right temperature by flicking a few drops of water onto it and seeing if they skitter around. Jack makes his first pancake at Bitty's direction, and it smells delicious, but it looks all splotchy and sort of diseased. When he says as much, Bitty pats him on the shoulder and tells him, "Don't worry, they start ugly but they get prettier. Like you." 

"What?"

Bitty snickers and says, "Your mama sent my mama one of your baby pictures, and my mama loves me enough to share. I'm just saying."

Jack thinks that's patently unfair -- he hasn't seen any of Bitty's baby pictures, after all -- so he folds his arms and pretends to sulk. He refuses to make any more pancakes until Bitty agrees to break out the family photos. Especially the awkward, embarrassing ones.

"Fine, fine, after we get back," Bitty says, but he won't say from where. He wrinkles his nose like the little stuffed bunny Jack pretends not to know about. It makes Jack want to press his own nose against Bitty's and count each of his freckles up close. He looks down and pours more pancakes instead. 

After breakfast, Bitty practically pickpockets Jack for his car keys and sends him off to change into "something you don't mind getting wet." Jack comes back in a t-shirt and swim shorts to find Bitty bouncing impatiently at the door, Samwell backpack over one shoulder and a smear of sunscreen beneath one eye. Jack can't help reaching out to thumb it away, watching Bitty's gaze slide away from his at the touch.

As soon as they get into Jack's rental car, Bitty pairs up his phone to the Bluetooth. "Shotgun gets to pick the music," he teases. Jack braces himself for the hip-shaking beats Bitty loves, but what comes pounding out of the speakers are the unmistakable drums that kick off Benny Goodman's "Sing Sing Sing." He glances over with a surprised smile — he got hooked on big band and swing while he was writing his senior thesis about college athletics during World War II, but he can't remember listening to it in the Haus without headphones, mostly because he figured it was prime chirp bait.

"Oh, hey, I didn't know you even knew this."

"What?" Bitty is looking out the window nonchalantly as his ears turn pink. "It's a classic. I always wanted to skate to it. Turn left up here."

Eventually, they pull into a small parking lot full of people carrying inflatable rafts and folding chairs. "Oh, it's a swimmin' hole, eh?" Jack tries to imitate Bitty's honeyed drawl, but he tortures it. Bitty rolls his eyes, which Jack likes more than he's willing to admit, and marches off a few steps ahead of him, all long legs in short shorts, which Jack also likes and has to remind himself not to stare at too obviously. 

The wide pebbled beach on the curve of a small lake is so crowded that Jack doesn't see how they can possibly sit down. "Maybe we should go somewhere else," he says, but Bitty's lips curve up like he's trying not to spill a secret. 

"Trust me," he says, and Jack does. They skirt the beach and head for a well-worn footpath that weaves in and out of the treeline along the edge of the lake. It reminds Jack of Walden Pond -- he and Shitty had driven there and walked all the way around it one spring day their sophomore year when they were reading Thoreau for a class. They had decided Thoreau was a pretentious asshole, but one with excellent taste in places to camp. This lake has the same little coves and crannies where the trees come almost all the way down to the shore, the same sense of seclusion and wildness even though they're less than an hour outside of town. 

As they walk, the sound of running water gradually gets louder. The hubbub of the beach is barely audible any more when Bitty turns and ducks into what looks like a dense tangle of branches. Jack follows him along what turns out to be a narrow path through the bushes. On the other side, Bitty opens his arms wide in a gesture somewhere between a welcome and an offering. "Well," he says, "what do you think?" 

Jack looks around. They're standing on a mostly flat patch of bare ground no bigger than a king-sized mattress. It slopes down to a pebbly spot where a creek eddies knee-deep around a concrete slab that might have been the foundation of a small building at some point. The light spills through leaves and flashes off the water. There's no one else in sight, no sounds but the current running over rocks, birds singing, the buzz of the occasional fly.

Bitty breaks the silence by saying something about how he's been coming here since he was a little kid. His voice is high and fast, the way it gets when he's nervous. It makes Jack want to tell him to calm down, but at the same time, he doesn't want to miss a word of Bitty's soft explanation that he had a feeling Jack might like this spot as much as he does. It strikes Jack that from the moment he arrived yesterday, Bitty has been quietly, unobtrusively trying to make Jack feel comfortable. Jack doesn't even think he's doing it on purpose. It's just the way he is. 

He looks at Bitty, standing there sun-gilded, summer personified, and feels something vast and warm expanding behind his ribs. 

"It's perfect," he says. 

The way Bitty positively glows with joy in response pulls at him like gravity. He walks forward slowly through air thick as syrup until he's standing right in front of Bitty. Bitty's eyes are wide and dark. 

He rests his hands on Bitty's shoulders and --

"Jack?" Bitty breathes, and --

Jack slides his trembling hands up into Bitty's hair, stoops, and presses their mouths together. 

 

***

 

When Jack first sees the creek, his face does something complicated that Bitty can't interpret. First he looks around, surprised and curious, as one side of his mouth quirks up in the beginning of a smile. Then he presses his lips together tightly and goes away in his own head, the way Bitty has seen him do during a close game when he's tuned out everything but the shot he's about to take. Bitty worries for a moment that at worst Jack hates the creek, and at best he's thinking about asking if they can go back to town and watch the parade after all. But in a minute Jack comes back from wherever he went, and when he does, he catches Bitty's gaze and says with heartstopping sincerity, "It's perfect."

Bitty smiles back helplessly, filling up and brimming over with Jack's contentment. It resonates down to his bones. He could live for the rest of his life in this moment where it's just the two of them enjoying the quiet together. 

And then Jack walks up and puts his hands on Bitty's shoulders. And then Jack bends his head down and — 

What?

Good god, Jack's hands. Jack's lips —

He gasps and pulls his head back in shock. Jack must interpret it as rejection, because he immediately drops his hands to his sides with a stricken expression and says he's sorry, Bitty, so sorry. And that is absolutely the last thing Bitty wants to hear.

"Don't you dare apologize," he says, and goes up on his toes to push back into the kiss. 

Jack makes a surprised noise and parts his lips against Bitty's as if he's going to say something, but Bitty clutches at Jack's biceps and opens his own mouth, and Jack pulls him closer and accepts the invitation. He makes that sound in the back of his throat when their tongues slide against each other, and Bitty is gone, gone, gone. 

It's not as though at 20 he's a novice at kissing. Even though he said the words "I'm gay" out loud for the first time less than two years ago, he started his teens as a competitive figure skater and ended them at a university with a student body that's at least a quarter queer. In other words, he hasn't lacked for opportunities. But he likes Jack more than anyone else he's ever liked. He wants Jack more than anyone else he's ever wanted. And he's never kissed anyone like this, lush and sweet and careful. 

When he has to rock back down off his toes to keep his balance, he trails the fingertips of one hand across Jack's collarbone as an apology for pulling away. "You're tall," he teases. 

Jack rubs at his neck and replies, "No, you're short." He's even more gorgeous than usual with his lips parted and the start of a flush coming up on his cheekbones. It's all Bitty can do to unclench his other hand from the sleeve of Jack's t-shirt, but he does it, because he still has a plan, thank you. Jack reaches after him like he doesn't want them to stop touching, and oh, how long has Bitty wanted this without realizing that Jack wanted it just as much?

They wade barefoot into the creek, fingers tangled together, and climb up on the concrete slab. When Bitty shrugs off his backpack, Jack tugs on his fingers and reels him in close. Bitty goes. He leans his forehead against Jack's collarbone. Jack smells amazing. 

"When did you — "

Jack doesn't even wait for him to finish before he says, "I don't know. A while. When — "

It's funny, how he knows what Jack is asking. "When I helped you bake that pie. Why didn't you — "

" — because I was your captain. Even hinting would have been an abuse of my authority." 

Jack's hands are sweeping over his shoulder blades, along his sides, down to his hips and back up again. Bitty gives a shivery sigh. He can't stop smiling. "And now?" 

"Now I'm hinting."

"What are you hinting at?"

"Are you going to make me say it?"

"I don't know that I'll believe it unless you do."

Jack ducks his head, awkward, and breathes into Bitty's ear, "I like this. I like you." His hands are shaking on Bitty's back. 

"I like you, too. I like you so much."

Bitty is shaking, too. He's getting everything he's ever wanted, served up on a silver platter, after years — literally years — of believing it was impossible, and it's like going over the first crest on a rollercoaster: thrilling, disorienting, overwhelming. He knows it's cliche for a Southerner to swoon, but he doesn't know what else to call the giddy feeling he gets when he lifts his face and Jack nips at his lower lip. He has to wrap his arms around Jack's neck and hold on tight.

It's too much, though. It's so warm that he's sweating, so warm that waves of heat are actually rolling up his legs from the concrete beneath their feet. He slides his hands around to Jack's chest and pushes a bit so he can step away.

"Hot," he complains. Jack clearly takes it as a compliment, which forces Bitty to say, "Not you — I mean, you are, but — oh, never mind. Come on."

He takes off his tank top and steps down into the water, holding Jack's gaze. He has to look away to find the spot he's looking for, a patch of particularly fast-moving water that's rolled most of the pebbles away from the bottom of the creek. When he finds it, he lowers himself to sit, the current rushing around him no higher than the center of his chest. He leans way back to wet his hair and rakes it off his face with his fingers before opening his eyes to see Jack staring down at him from the concrete slab, dazed and heated. 

"You look awful good up there," Bitty says. "But I'd rather you were down here."

Jack yanks his t-shirt over his head like it's on fire and steps into the creek. The sight — the sun on his shoulders, the droplets glinting on his forearms, the hair on his legs darkening in the water — makes Bitty forget how to breathe for a minute. Then Jack is folding himself down into the water next to him. "Oh," Jack says under his breath, like he's surprised at how good the water feels against his overheated skin. 

Bitty can't help himself: he splashes Jack's chest. He half expects Jack to grumble, to splash back, to try to dunk him in the current, but instead Jack wraps an arm around his shoulders and tugs. Bitty topples over sideways against his chest, and Jack simply scoops him up somehow and pulls him onto his lap.

 

***

 

Bitty is laughing and squirming and trying to regain his balance. Jack grins down at him and enjoys the feel of him under his hands, against his chest. Bitty wriggles out of his grasp, still laughing, and pushes up to his knees as the cool water fills the spaces where they were touching. "Wait, wait," he's saying, and Jack doesn't understand what he's supposed to be waiting for, but then Bitty straddles him, wraps those slender, solid arms around his shoulders. When he settles his weight firmly against him, it punches the breath right out of Jack's lungs. 

Sitting like this, Bitty is at precisely the right level for Jack to tip his head forward to plant an open-mouthed kiss to the curve where neck becomes shoulder. So he does, sucking gently on the tender skin, scraping his front teeth over the spot and thrilling as Bitty shivers in response. 

Bitty nips at his earlobe. "Is this okay?" 

Jack can feel against his abdomen that Bitty is already hard, and that's...more than okay. Shitty has ranted to him often enough about how romance and sex aren't necessarily the same and how important it is not to make assumptions about what another person wants, and that's sunk in. He would do nothing with Bitty but hold his hand, if that's what Bitty decided. But he's not going to lie: he wants more. A lot more. And if Bitty is willing to offer it, he'll grab it with both hands, which is what he does now. He slides his hands down to Bitty's ass to pull him closer so Bitty can feel just how okay it is. "Yeah," he rasps, "is this?"

Bitty slides his lips down Jack's cheekbone and makes a strangled noise that may be the best thing Jack's ever heard. "Again," Bitty mumbles before plunging into a kiss that leaves the line between sweet and frantic far behind. His hands are clutching at Jack's shoulders, his chest pressed tight enough to Jack's that Jack can feel his heart beating, and tabarnac, having a lapful of Eric Bittle is better than he could ever have imagined.

He can't help the way his hips keep hitching up as Bitty grinds down, the way he gasps when Bitty smears a damp palm across one nipple, the way he babbles about how incredibly good it all feels when Bitty drags his tongue up the side of his neck. He thinks distantly that the creek might boil away from the heat they're generating. Then Bitty lifts up on his knees to shove his shorts down a few inches and wraps one of Jack's hands around his cock, and Jack stops thinking entirely. Everything in the world spirals down to the feel of Bitty's skin under his fingers and the way he's panting sharply against Jack's cheek as they rock against each other. 

He tries to tell Bitty how indescribably good it is in a low fierce babble of broken syllables that Bitty doesn't seem to understand, or maybe he's beyond being able to hear it. Bitty arches his back and shakes and shakes, the disheveled mess of Jack's fondest fantasies. Then he chokes, "oh, fuck," and thrusts up hard into Jack's hand. A pulse of heat hits his fingers, once, twice, three times, and is just as quickly washed away by the current. That's all it takes. Jack drops his head to Bitty's shoulder and shudders as his own orgasm sizzles through him like a lightning strike.

They sit clutching each other silently, catching their breath. Jack runs the tip of his nose back and forth over Bitty's collarbone. Bitty traces a light circle between Jack's shoulder blades with his fingertips and kisses his ear. Everything they aren't saying should seem weighty, but Jack feels impossibly buoyant. He wants to sit like this, tangled up with Bitty, for the rest of the day. For the rest of the summer.

Eventually, though, the absurdity of the situation — the sheer recklessness, calisse, that was basically public sex! — filters through his lassitude. He just came in his pants sitting in the middle of a creek in rural Georgia, and it was amazing, but still. He shakes his head and starts to snicker. 

"What?" 

"I just — you know." He waves a hand in the general direction of his lap, where Bitty is still pressed against him. He feels Bitty quiver against him.

"Oh!" Bitty says in Jack's ear, voice filled with amusement. He pulls away enough to make room to stretch Jack's waistband away from his stomach. "Let me help you clean up!" He shoves his whole hand down the front of Jack's swim shorts and swirls his fingers around under the water, pausing to give Jack's softening cock what can only be called a tender pat. That's all it takes; they catch each other's eye and fall away from each other, laughing so hard Jack wonders if someone will hear them and come running. 

It's still perfect.

By the time they've returned to the concrete slab, drying off with the towels Bitty crammed into his backpack and sharing a bottle of water he'd tucked in with them, Jack is ready to start kissing him all over again, just because he can. They sit with their arms pressed together, Bitty playing with his phone, Jack just watching the creek flow past, quiet and contented. 

Eventually, Bitty leans his head on Jack's shoulder and says, "So I have a question. When you were...close, you started saying things. In French." 

Jack puts his hands over his face and peers out from between his fingers. It's so embarrassing when sex makes him lose his English. "Ugh," he groans. "Yeah, that happens sometimes." 

"I'm not chirping you! It was hot as hellfire!" Bitty blushes, but he continues. "It's just that, you know — " He rubs his cheek against Jack's bicep. " — I wanted to know what you were saying."

"Um..." He feels his own face getting hot. Some of the things that fell out of his mouth would be ridiculous to repeat now. You can really only tell someone you've dreamed about his beautiful cock when it's literally sliding against the palm of your hand.

But he said some other things, too. He thinks about how now he can spread out a blanket tonight and lie next to Bitty watching the fireworks, whispering to him while the explosions keep anyone else from overhearing, curling up afterwards in Bitty's old bedroom while his parents are asleep down the hall. He thinks about Bitty visiting his new apartment in Providence, Bitty in his kitchen, Bitty in the bed that he knew was too big for just one person when he bought it. He thinks he knows now why he came to Georgia. He knows damn well what else he said. Even in the heat of the moment, he meant every word.

And there's the next step, revealing itself to him. His old therapist would be proud. He takes a swig of water and a deep breath and says, "I said je t'aime."

Bitty is holding very still. "I think I know what that means, but I could be wrong. I don't speak French."

Jack smiles, presses his lips to the top of Bitty's head, listens for distant thunder. Lightning could strike again at any minute. "That's okay. I'll teach you."

 

 

 -end-