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A Little Bit Closer

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Bitty likes working forty hours a week when he isn’t also in grad school. His MLIS degree is practically fresh off the printer, but he feels a huge weight off of his shoulders going into work the Monday after graduation. For the last three years he’s been a library tech at the Boston Public Library West End branch, and finally Bitty is able to apply for Fatima’s position as Children’s Librarian. She’d been grooming him the last year to take over for her upon retirement at the end of the year, and he’s eager to get started not only with her position, but something more in line with her salary, too.

 

His education at Simmons has been very thorough, and rewarding, but three years of hard work is finally over and now he can dedicate himself to A) paying back his student loans, and B) having a social life again.

 

If he ever really had one before. Bitty’s undergrad life had been so much fun at Georgia, but moving to Boston, finding an affordable apartment in Boston (affordable = with income from student loans plus his library job plus regular bribing with baked goods), and putting his nose to the grindstone for one of the first times in his life meant that he hadn’t really made too many friends here. Baking pies alone in a tiny studio apartment did not a social savant one make. But that could change. It would change. Because Bitty has his master’s degree now, and nothing but freedom ahead of him.

 

“Help me with this,” Fatima says, when she spots him coming in with his messenger bag slung over his shoulder. She plucks at his short-sleeve green tee. “You look great in that color. Wear it more often.”

 

He nods to her headscarf, which glitters like little stars in the new LED lights of the library. “And you look great in that purple. It brings out your gorgeous eyes.”

 

She hides her mouth and gives him a shake of her head. “Don’t you flirt with me, I could’ve birthed you and then some.”

 

Bitty looks at the flyers with interest. They’re advertising a new children’s book out from one of the Bruins’ hockey players. It looks cute as hell, and Bitty immediately likes the title—Jacky’s Bad Days. The art is adorable and features a chubby little blue-eyed boy in hockey gear alone on the ice, centered in a spotlight. He looks at the blurb.

 

Ages 5 to 9

 

What do you do when you’re too scared to do the things you love? Jacky knows what it’s like to be scared every day, because he has something called anxiety. It makes his tummy hurt, and sometimes it’s hard to breathe. But Jacky has a big hockey game coming up, and he doesn’t want to disappoint his family and friends. It’s time for Jacky to learn how to overcome his fear and play the best hockey that he can.

 

Based on the true story of Jack Zimmermann’s struggle with anxiety, depression, and being the best, Jacky’s Bad Days explores the #1 mental health issue facing today’s kids in a way that is both fun and honest, and discusses the topic of anxiety in an educational way. Zimmermann, five-time NHL All-Star and two-time Stanley Cup Winner, has funded the printing, sale, and marketing of his book and will donate all proceeds to his charity Make It Better.

 

Bitty knows of Jack Zimmermann, the writer of the book. Everyone in Boston knows who Jack Zimmermann is. But until he read this blurb, he had no idea that Zimmermann had such a background. Bitty only knows he’s tall and well-built, and every now and then he can be spotted running around Boston in very small shorts.

 

Not that Bitty keeps an eye out for him or anything (most every morning at 7:15 right in front of his apartment building, and if Bitty’s window happens to face the street, so be it).

 

“Cute, huh?” Fatima says, looking at the flyers. “He’ll be promoting at the libraries in the area. We get him next Thursday. He’ll be reading for the elementary afternoon hour.”

 

“I think it’s a great idea for a kid's book,” Bitty says, moving to hang the flyers around the library. “Want me to wander around the area and put these up wherever I can?”

 

“That’d be great! Thank you, Eric.”

 

He’s told her to call him Bitty and she won’t, so he simply smiles, finishes placing the flyers in the library itself, and heads out to put them up around the neighborhood too.

 

It’s a fantastic summer day, and it’s even more fantastic because Bitty doesn’t have to read textbooks or write papers once he’s done with work. Hell, he might go down to the pub near his apartment. Why not? It’s been so long since he had fun without worrying about school.

 

He places the flyers up within five or six blocks of the library, wherever he can, and talks to parents with children who look interested in what he’s doing. It’s when he’s coming out of a coffee shop, with only one flyer left in his hand, that he recognizes the tall, attractive fellow in the tiny shorts who happens to be jogging toward him.

 

So Bitty, in the name of promoting the library and for no nefarious purposes at all, stops Jack Zimmermann by blocking his path and giving him a thousand-watt, winning smile. Zimmermann pulls out his earbuds and gives an awkward but polite smile back.

 

“Hi!” Bitty says, and he points to the flyer. “You’re reading this at my library next week.”

 

Zimmermann visibly relaxes. “Yeah, I am. Are you—you’re West End, right?”

 

Bitty has never heard him talk before. Sweet French Canadian Jesus. “Oh, uh. Yeah. West End. Few blocks from here? My name is Eric Bittle, hi.” He extends his hand, and Zimmermann’s hand is huge around his own, his grip firm but gentle in a way that says he understands how strong he is. “I’m a library tech at West End, and I specifically help with children’s services and social media.”

 

“Jack,” he says, and his eyes are shockingly blue, ugh. “Nice to meet you. Um. Do I need to…do anything?”

 

“Actually, I was wondering if you could help me promote our location a little bit. I saw you running and figured I’d ask you for a quick favor.”

 

Jack gives him one of those brief once-overs that Bitty has had dozens of times over the years, but coming from Jack it doesn’t feel sexual—it’s like he’s testing the waters to see if he wants to acquiesce to a favor that Bitty might ask for. “What is it?”

 

“Would you mind taking a picture with the flyer so I can put it on our Twitter?”

 

It seems like he didn’t expect that. His smile eases a little more. Bitty wonders if he was expecting to be asked for an autograph. “Oh, yeah. That’d be fine. Do I look okay? I’m probably pretty gross.”

 

“Hon, you could be covered in snot and you’d still be very attractive. Stand over there, the light’s a bit better under the awning.”

 

Bitty takes a few pictures until he’s satisfied, moving under the awning to stand next to Jack, showing him what he took. Jack picks the second one as his favorite. “I don’t look like I’m about to throw up in that one,” he says, and Bitty has to laugh.

 

“I think you look great in all of them.”

 

“Oh. Thank you.”

 

Bitty looks up and up at him. Damn, but he’s handsome. “Thanks for indulging me, I really appreciate it.”

 

“I’ll—see you next week, right? At West End?”

 

Bitty nods, already tweeting the photo. “Yeah, absolutely! Fatima’s starting her vacation at the end of the week, so I’m pretty sure I’ll be the one handling the event. You get in touch with me if you need anything, okay?” He fishes out a business card from his wallet and hands it over. Jack puts it in the sweaty pocket of his tiny shorts. “Email or call, okay?”

 

Jack nods, fiddling with his earbuds. “Yeah, sounds good. See you.”

 

Bitty waves at him and watches as Jack jogs down the street. His thighs are huge, his calves perfectly cut from stone, and his ass is unbelievable.

 

Bitty snaps one more picture before hurrying back to the library.

 

+

 

Jack settles in at his desk on Wednesday before dinner, signing into his Skype and waiting for Blanca to sign on. He’s always a little earlier than she is.

 

When her video request comes through, he takes it; the sight of her face makes him feel calm. “Hi Jack,” she says, and she waves. “How are you doing today?”

 

“I’m good. How are you?”

 

“Really good! The garden is coming along nicely.”

 

Jack grins. “You’ve promised me zucchini.”

 

She laughs. “I know, I know. I’ll get you your zucchini, don’t worry. How was your week?”

 

Jack relays to her everything that he’d done in the last seven days, and Blanca, as always, listens carefully. He never sees her write anything down, but she remembers everything he says anyway. “So when you were approached by the librarian,” she says, “what was the first thing that went through your mind?”

 

“‘Not again,’” he admits. “I’m trying to get better, but sometimes I don’t want to deal with people. Especially on runs.”

 

“And yet this happens every time, doesn’t it?”

 

“It does.”

 

“So what did we talk about last time?”

 

Jack recites almost word for word what he took away from their last conversation—namely, that he is supposed to be trying to expect interruptions in his daily life so they don’t negatively affect him as much. “The guy was really nice,” Jack continues. “Really bright, you know? Talkative. I didn’t mind taking the picture for him.”

 

Blanca shifts and brings her teacup to her lips for a moment. “What did he look like?”

 

Jack frowns. “Is that important?”

 

“It could be. Can you describe him to me?”

 

He shrugs and thinks for a moment. “Shorter than me maybe by half a head. Blonde hair, kind of darker, almost like a honey blonde. Really dark brown eyes. Solid brown, you know? Some people have green in their eyes, but he didn’t. Really long lashes.” He flushes suddenly and looks down at his keyboard.

 

“Did you find him attractive?” Blanca’s voice is calm and matter-of-fact. There’s not much of an expression on her face other than pleasant attentiveness. He can’t stand that sometimes, because he uses people’s expressions to guess as what they could be thinking; with her, he never knows until she actually says it.

 

“I guess so,” Jack says, because the answer is an overwhelming yes but he doesn’t know how to vocalize it. He doesn’t typically find people attractive or unattractive. People simply are. “He had some freckles,” he adds, and looks up at her to see what her face does. It doesn’t change at all. He wonders how often she wins at poker.

 

“So you were close enough to him,” she says, “to notice the shade of his eyes and his freckles?”

 

“I guess,” he says, shrugging and rubbing at the back of his neck. “I mean, we were talking. And then he showed me the pictures he’d taken, so I was standing right next to him.”

 

“When you looked at him, what did you feel?”

 

“At first, annoyance.”

 

She laughs at that. “Cute, Jack. What else?”

 

He has to think over that for several long moments. It’s like unraveling tangled string inside of himself. He doesn’t typically feel much of anything for other people in the way that she’s clearly looking for. He has his friends, his teammates, his parents. Himself. Her. “I liked his smile,” he says at last. “It was…really welcoming.”

 

“That’s an interesting word choice,” she says. “Welcoming. Did you feel welcomed by him?”

 

“I think so. I mean, it was only like five minutes, but I stopped being annoyed pretty quick.”

 

“That’s new for you,” she says, and it makes him laugh. She winks. “What else did you feel?”

 

He’s a little embarrassed that he can’t seem to vocalize it. “I don’t know.”

 

“Was it different from usual?”

 

“Definitely.”

 

“Do you want to know what I think?”

 

He nods, leaning forward more and focusing on her kind dark eyes. “Yeah, always.”

 

“I think that it’s been a long time since you found someone physically attractive,” she says. “I also think that you were interested in him in a way you haven’t been since Kent.”

 

The name makes Jack’s stomach cramp. “I don’t know.”

 

“Neither do I. I’m only saying what I think. I can always be wrong. I want you to think about something for me right now.”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Imagine yourself asking him out on a date. How does that make you feel then?”

 

“I don’t know if he’s interested in men,” Jack says, and Blanca shakes her head.

 

“That’s not the point. Imagine yourself asking him out. How do you feel?”

 

Jack pictures Eric Bittle’s face, turned up to him and shining with eagerness. It looked like Bittle enjoyed being a librarian like Jack enjoys playing hockey. He was cute, no doubt about that, and when Jack thinks about saying those words—you want to go on a date? or some formation of them—his heart skitters. It’s strange. It’s so strange he shakes his head.

 

“Are you thinking about it?” Blanca says, and he nods. “So here’s what I think you should do. When you get a chance to talk to him on Thursday, imagine yourself asking him out. You’re good at reading people, Jack—I think you’ll be able to tell if he’s interested. If you think he’s interested in going on a date with you, and you would like to go on a date with him, I want you to seriously consider asking him.”

 

Jack starts to shake his head, but stops. Then, “I don’t even know what people do on a date.”

 

“Don’t worry about what other people do; they’re not you, and you’re not them. Would you like to go on a date with the librarian?”

 

Dates could include kissing. Jack remembers how plush and pink his mouth was. It was a nice mouth. The fact that he noticed it, and can recall it so vividly, makes him blush. “I think so.”

 

“Then consider it. That’s all I ask. And we’ll talk again after next Thursday, okay?”

 

He nods. “The thought makes my stomach hurt.”

 

“It’s because it’s new for you. Don’t be afraid to open up to new experiences. They could be good or bad but they’re still new, which is exciting. In a good way.”

 

Jack nods again and takes a deep breath. “Thank you.”

 

“You are very welcome. Another thing I want you to think about,” she says, “is the idea of trusting that people are honest. If he says he is interested, then he is. If he says he’s not, then he’s not. People don’t always lie, or feel they have to lie, and you can trust them to be truthful with you. I also want you to consider the word worthy. What are you worthy of, Jack? It’s not just your Cups, or the All-Star nominations. It’s goodness and kindness and companionship. You are worth those things, and you deserve them like anyone else.”

 

He nods, trying to wrap his head around the idea of being worthy of something that isn’t hockey. “I’ll try to…remember that.”

 

“Good.” She smiles. “And when I visit at the end of June, I’ll bring you some zucchini.”

+

On Sunday, Bitty just so happens to be on the front steps of his apartment building at about seven in the morning, eating a cinnamon roll and watching the neighborhood roll by. He loves living in this area and knows he lucked out hard with his apartment. Sure, it might be a studio, but the oven works, there’s lots of natural light, a gorgeous brick interior, wood floors, and the neighbor he shares his bathroom with is very hygienic. For someone who has such a small life, it’s enough.

 

He licks icing off his finger and waits for Jack to run by. He hopes he has a memorable enough face that they can have a conversation, because Bitty did some intense Googling after running into the hockey star the week before, and the fact that Jack Zimmermann is the first openly non-straight NHL player caught Bitty’s attention immediately. Even more than that is the fact that Jack has apparently never dated anyone, even after his admission of his sexuality.

 

That’s interesting, to Bitty. Jack is interesting, and after indulging himself in about six hours of documentaries and interviews and fan-made videos, he kind of wants to get to know Jack a little better, because Jack seems lonely. He has sad eyes. Bitty is lonely too, and his flirting skills are pretty rusty, but if Jack is even partway attracted to him, he’ll be able to tell. And if he’s not, well. He’s still an attractive guy, and Bitty hasn’t had any room in his life for attractive guys the entire time he’s been in Boston, and fuck it, he’s graduated with a 3.91 GPA and a master’s degree, he can fucking flirt with a hottie and not have a heart attack over it.

 

Jack shows up around the corner right at 7:15, which is the exact moment that Bitty absolutely regrets sitting on his steps in cut-off shorts and a tank top. What the fuck is wrong with him? Grad school was easy compared to this, he’s so stupid, he had a moment of unfortunate bravery and that moment is absolutely gone and now he’s goddamn embarrassed with himself. Trying to flirt with Jack Zimmermann, of all the ridiculous ideas in the world.

 

“Hey,” Jack says, and fuck, he’s spotted Bitty and now he’s smiling. “Bittle, right?”

 

“Hi,” Bitty says, not sure what to do with his still-sticky fingers. “Yeah, that’s me. Most people call me Bitty.”

 

“Do you let them?” Jack’s face is fairly devoid of emotion other than his raised eyebrows, but Bitty thinks he’s trying to be funny. It’s cute.

 

“Some of them,” he says, standing and trying to discreetly lick the icing off his finger without making it look deliberate. It’s not deliberate. He really does just have sticky fingers. From the icing. “I’d let you.”

 

Jack’s face is flushed from the heat and the run, but his eyes drop for a moment before he meets Bitty’s gaze again. He’s got a very intense look in his eyes that’s a little disconcerting, like he’s always extremely focused. “Bitty, then. Do you live here?”

 

“What, you think I’m waiting outside for you to run by?”

 

Now the smile is sheepish. Jack runs a hand through his sweaty hair. “You could be visiting a friend or something.”

 

“I live here,” he says. “It’s a nice morning.”

 

“It is.” Jack is hesitating. Bitty’s love life can be summed up in two words: Connor Blake. His undergrad ex-boyfriend. His undergrad ex-boyfriend who did all the flirting so Bitty didn’t really have to. Now, Bitty can’t quite interpret Jack, and he’s not sure if that’s because of his own woeful inexperience or because Jack is that strange. Probably a mix. “You, uh. I mean. You—” He looks clearly embarrassed. “Did you have any plans for today?”

 

Bitty shakes his head. “Not really, no. I graduated last weekend, so at least I don’t have any homework to do.”

 

“Graduated? From where?”

 

“Simmons. Library and Information Science.” He grins. “I can be an actual real librarian now.”

 

It’s a strange conversation, but Jack expresses interest in librarianship, and Bitty, who loves his work, is only too happy to oblige him with information. It’s only when he’s talked for almost ten minutes that he stops himself in the middle of a sentence. “Goodness, I’m rambling! You’re supposed to be exercising, and I’m talking your ear off.”

 

Jack shakes his head, and indeed his eyes are still intense and not bored at all. “No, I was enjoying hearing you talk. You—you have a nice accent.”

 

Bitty puts a hand to his face with a groan. “Lord Jesus, no. I sound like a redneck.”

 

“I—think it sounds cute.”

 

Bitty can’t tell if he’s flirting or being nice, so he says, “You’re wrong, but thank you anyway.” He pauses, finally standing from his spot on the steps. “Don’t you need to finish your run?”

 

Jack nods. “Yeah, I have a pretty strict schedule.” He does that thing again where he frowns at the ground. He’s done it three times now, and Bitty’s not sure what it means. “But I do need to, uh, eat, so. If you need to eat, and if you’re not doing anything today, did you—want to get dinner?”

 

Bitty’s heart races like a thoroughbred in his chest. Jack cannot mean what he thinks he means. “I would really like that, but my budget’s tight and I blew my out-to-eat funds on pizza last night.”

 

Jack looks at the ground, then right into Bitty’s eyes. He seems to falter and regain resolve again. Now that Bitty has talked to him for longer than a few minutes, he sees that Jack is actually quite expressive—but it’s contained to his eyes and his mouth in minute changes. “Would you, uh. Be interested in maybe making it a date?”

 

Bitty swallows hard and isn’t sure what to say to that. “What would that change?”

 

“I haven’t—I mean, when people go on dates, usually the asker is the payer. Am I wrong?”

 

He can’t help but to smile. “No, I don’t think you’re wrong. It’s been a while since I had a date, but that’s kind of what I remember it being.”

 

Jack’s smile quirks and he looks pleased—Bitty’s not sure if it’s with his own courage (that had to take a lot of courage, oh Lord) or Bitty’s response. “Is that a yes?”

 

Bitty chews at his lip, trying not to smile too big or look too excited, but holy shit, Jack Zimmermann, NHL god, has asked him out on a fucking date after talking to him for all of twenty minutes. That’s like a thing, right? “Yeah, that’s a yes. But nowhere fancy. Lord knows I’ll embarrass myself in a fancy restaurant.”

 

Jack laughs, and it’s a very nice, deep, chesty sort of laugh. “I don’t do fancy. Is six tonight okay?”

 

“Sounds good to me. Meet me here?”

 

Nodding, Jack looks at his watch. “Yeah, that would be good. I’ll—I’ll see you in a few hours, then?”

 

Bitty nods. He can’t stop smiling. “Yes, definitely. See you soon. Have a good run.”

 

“I’ve got your number,” Jack says, and his smile is lopsided now and holy fuck is he hot. “I’ll text you, okay?”

 

Nod, nod, nod. It’s about all he can do. “Yeah, definitely. Thanks. Have a good run.”

 

“You already said that.”

 

Bitty slaps a hand to his face. “Sorry, you made me nervous.”

 

Jack takes a deep breath. “Yeah, you make me nervous too. I’m looking forward to getting more nervous.”

 

Who says shit like that? Oh God. “Me too. Yeah. See you.”

 

He watches Jack run around the corner before he races upstairs to call his mother.

 

+

 

Jack refrains from texting Blanca until he’s back in his apartment and has already put a load of laundry washing.

 

Jack: I took your advice and asked him out on a date. (8:49AM)

Blanca Diaz: That’s good! How did it feel? (8:55AM)

Jack: Nerve-wracking. I kept doubting myself. (8:59AM)

Blanca Diaz: That’s what some people say is part of the thrill. Are you excited for this? (9:07AM)

Jack: Not yet. Mainly I’m just nervous. And thinking he’s not really interested. He’s very polite.

Blanca Diaz: What did he say when you asked him out? (9:11AM)

Jack: First he said his budget was tight so I clarified that it would be a date and that I would. Take him out. (9:15AM)

Blanca Diaz: What did we talk about last week? Do you remember? (9:18AM)

Jack: That I need to start trusting that people are honest. It’s hard. (9:20AM)

Blanca Diaz: What else? (9:20AM)

Jack: That I’m worth it. (9:22AM)

Blanca Diaz: You are worthy, not just of your Stanley Cups or the All-Star games, but you are worthy of finding companionship. You are worth extra effort. You are worth kindness. Is he worth your time? (9:31AM)

Jack: I think so. (9:32AM)

Blanca Diaz: A date is just a date. You are not committing to anything but a date. If it turns out you are not as interested as you thought you were, that’s okay. If you are more interested than you thought you were, that’s okay. Not everything has to be contracts :) (9:35AM)

Jack: I didn’t get the feeling that he knows much about hockey. (9:39AM)

Blanca Diaz: That might be the best thing for you, Jack. What do you have in your life that isn’t hockey? (9:41AM)

Jack: Nothing. (9:41AM)

Blanca Diaz: Realistically, you’re turning thirty this year. Within the next ten years, hockey won’t be there anymore in this capacity. What will you have after hockey? (9:44AM)

 

Jack stares at her text. What will you have after hockey? He doesn’t know. He does his few dishes in the sink and runs his fancy vacuum over his hardwood floors, mops, cleans the bathroom, and checks his phone when it buzzes in his pocket.

 

Blanca Diaz: I want you to start thinking of finding a hobby. Something that isn’t hockey. Something that you enjoy. Then we’ll talk about it next time, okay? You are worth so much more than a sport, Jack. (10:31AM)

 

His hobby is hockey. It’s always been hockey. Everything in his life has always been hockey, and if Jack thinks too hard  about not having hockey, his chest squeezes like a vice. He is hockey.

 

Blanca Diaz: You are not hockey; hockey is what you play and what you do, but not who you are. I know what you’re thinking ;) (10:34AM)

 

Jack smiles and finishes his chores.

 

 

His mantra for the rest of the day is that he is not hockey, hockey is not who he is. It’s a hard concept for him to come to terms with, but Blanca always tells him he doesn’t have to do things in one day. He can take time with things, and his feelings are always valid. So he says the words and only the words, and he doesn’t think too hard about them, but by the time he showers and calls a cab, he’s feeling more comfortable with them. Hockey is not who he is. It’s a revelation.

 

He texts Bitty at about half past five: Hi this is Jack. I wanted you to have my number.

 

He gets a response almost immediately: Hi! Thank you! :)

 

Texting is a thing Jack does almost exclusively with Blanca for therapy purposes, but he figures if he’s not just hockey, then he also doesn’t have to keep texting only for her.

 

Jack: Are you regretting saying yes? (5:31PM)

Bitty: Goodness, no! I already told my mother I’m going on a date, you can’t back out now. Otherwise I’d be LYING to her!! ;) (5:31PM)

 

Jack’s heart pounds like it does before games. Can Bitty be his hobby? No, that’s weird, and also sounds a little sexual. Which is…not what Jack has ever been about, really, but maybe he wouldn’t mind—no, that’s weird.

 

Jack: I’m sure there are plenty of young men who would take you out. (5:33PM)

Bitty: If I haven’t found any yet, I highly doubt that -_- (5:33PM)

Jack: I feel like it’s normal for me because I’m a robot, but you’re really outgoing. (5:34PM)

Bitty: I have you fooled. I’m actually an introvert. I fake it a lot haha. Not in a bad way!!! Like I am genuinely excited that you asked me out :) But I am kind of a homebody I guess (5:36PM)

Bitty: ALSO, you are definitely not a robot!! You just have a quiet face. (5:36PM)

 

Jack flushes at that and gets dressed in jeans and a blue button-down shirt, soft from overwashing.

 

Jack: That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said about a robot. (5:37PM)

 

Bitty sends back several laugh/crying emojis, then: Are we going like super casual here or should I dress up?

 

Jack: Super casual. I’m in jeans. (5:41PM)

Bitty: Good to know. I’ll be ready for you at 6 :) (5:41PM)

Jack: I’m on my way. (5:43PM)

 

Bitty’s sitting on his steps the same way he was when Jack jogged by earlier that same morning, which is sort of hard to believe because it feels like it’s been days since he’s seen him. Bitty stands when Jack gets out of the cab, and something in Jack’s throat seizes, because Bitty is in khaki shorts and sandals and a mint green button-down shirt, short sleeved to show off his toned, golden arms, and his blonde hair is sort of coiffed in a way that it hadn’t been that morning. If Jack ever doubted that he was genuinely interested in men, he has proof right here that he is genuinely interested in men.

 

“The place I picked is three blocks from here,” Jack says, and he’s sweating from sheer nerves. Thank God he put deodorant on twice. “Did you want to walk, or…?”

 

“Walking’s nice,” Bitty says, so Jack pays the cab driver and they watch him drive off. Jack has hands shoved in his pockets. He has no idea what to do now.

 

“I’ve never been on an actual date-date before,” he says suddenly, looking down at Bitty, who is looking up at him with very nice brown eyes. His lashes are impossibly long.

 

Bitty smiles at him. “Lucky for us, I have. So basically you flatter me a whole lot and we eat and we’ll talk, and I’ll tell you that you look unbelievably good in blue, and you’ll tell me I have beautiful eyes, and then you’ll walk me home, and if you’re good I’ll even let you have a good night kiss.”

 

Jack feels a little dizzy for a moment. “Oh, is that how dates go?”

 

“Good ones. I’m being optimistic.”

 

He has to laugh at that, leading Bitty across the street and down the block. “So I don’t know very much about you, but you could know a lot about me because of, you know, hockey and all, so why don’t you—can you tell me more about you?”

 

Bitty can, in fact, tell Jack a lot about him. He was born and raised in Georgia, and did undergrad for English at the University of Georgia. It was only in his senior year that he really started to focus on what he wanted in his future, and working at the campus library made him realize how much he wants to work with children and literacy programs. So he moved to Boston when he got accepted at Simmons, essentially bribed his way into his current apartment with baked goods, lives an openly gay life (which is so much easier in Boston than Georgia), and he knows virtually nothing about hockey.

 

“I figure skated for years,” Bitty says, as they wait at a crosswalk. “So I’m super familiar with the ice and the rink, but I don’t know a thing about hockey.”

 

“My therapist says that’s a good thing,” Jack says, without thinking, and blushes immediately. That’s not exactly the best thing to say on a first date.

 

“Oh yeah?” Bitty says, smiling up at him. He’s got a great smile—wide and bright.

 

“Yeah,” Jack says, and figures hell, if he ends up wanting Bitty to go on a second date with him, he might as well be honest so Bitty knows what he could be getting himself into. You are worthy. “Her name is Blanca. She thinks I need to start thinking about what happens after hockey.”

 

Bitty makes a noise. “Athletes retire a lot earlier than regular folk, huh?”

 

“Yeah. And I’m told I’m a little more intense than most athletes.”

 

Bitty bumps into him as they walk, and Jack isn’t sure if it’s on purpose or not, so he errs on the side of caution and keeps his hands in his pockets. “You know, I knew of you because I live in Boston and I’ve seen you running around everywhere, but I didn’t really know much about you until I harassed you with my flyer.”

 

Jack chuckles a little. “Did you Google me?”

 

“For like six hours,” Bitty says, and his cheeks are flushed deeply pink. It’s a wonderful look on him, and Jack finds that he likes simply looking on Bitty’s face. People have never interested him much, but something about Bitty’s vibrancy, the way he positively buzzes with life, is arresting. “You are a very interesting person, Mr. Zimmermann.”

 

“Literally nobody has ever said that to me,” he says, and Bitty laughs again.

 

“I just did,” he says, and he bumps into Jack, definitely deliberately now, so Jack bumps back.

 

“I heard it. What made me interesting?” They’re at another crosswalk, but the restaurant is across the street. It looks crowded, and Jack feels dread pooling in his stomach. Crowded means they won’t have a lot of time to talk privately, because he is usually interrupted frequently by autograph-seekers. He doesn’t mind obliging, but this is…it’s his very first date-date. And he wants to keep it special.

 

Bitty shrugs, looking thoughtful. “I’m not sure, exactly, but I couldn’t find…hardly anything about your personal life, other than, um, the overdose.”

 

“I don’t have a personal life, that’s why,” he says, and he smiles hoping that Bitty will smile, and Bitty does smile, and Jack is thrilled by it. This isn’t so bad. This is actually rather nice. He can do this. Date people. Date a person—Bitty. This is a nice date so far.

 

“That’s what had me interested,” Bitty says, and they walk across the street together, Jack naturally slowing his pace as he’s faced with something he does not want to do. “You are like this larger-than-life sports hero who does really great charity work, but what’s your favorite color? Favorite movie? How do you like your eggs? Those are the things that interested me, because so many other athletes have those kinds of things about them online, except for you.” He bites at his lip and Jack watches him flush harder. “You came out four years ago, but you don’t have any scandals. There aren’t any leaked photos or crazy club nights. I find you interesting, because you’re not at all what I expected from a professional athlete.”

 

At the door to the restaurant, the line is twenty people deep. Jack turns his head a little, trying to hide his face. Bitty notices. “You want to go somewhere else?” he says, and he reaches out to touch Jack’s arm, gently. He is a creature of touch, it seems, and Jack is a starving creature himself.

 

“Would you mind?”

 

“Honestly, if all we did was walk around West End and talk, I’d be fine with that. But I know you have a schedule to keep, so we should definitely get you fed.”

 

The second restaurant they try is much less busy. They get seated right away, the girl recognizing Jack and staring at him with wide eyes, and she seems reluctant to let another girl wait on them.

 

“Lord, she’s thirsty,” Bitty whispers at him, as soon as the girl slinks away in clear frustration. “Does that happen to you all the time? Women like wanting to throw themselves at you?”

 

Their table is small and private, and Jack is pleased with it. He likes being private. “Yeah, pretty much every day.”

 

“What about guys? You’re intimidating as hell, I don’t see a bunch of guys throwing themselves at you.”

 

“They don’t,” Jack agrees. “They sit on concrete steps licking their fingers at me.”

 

Bitty’s mouth falls open in shock and Jack grins at him. “You,” Bitty says, “are sassy.”

 

Jack is so proud of himself for that one he makes a note to remember it for later. “In all honesty, I have never been approached by a guy for…dating purposes.”

 

“Whoa, are you approached for, like—other stuff?” The way he says other stuff makes Jack flush.

 

“Sometimes. It’s kind of really weird.” He shrugs. “But that doesn’t really happen much. Mostly ladies.”

 

Bitty shakes his head, and at least he’s smiling, so Jack hasn’t embarrassed himself horribly yet. “All that attention must be pretty tiring.”

 

Someone gets it. Jack feels the nerves fluttering in his chest ease a little. “Yeah. So if I look like a creepy recluse, I kind of am.”

 

“Not creepy,” Bitty says, and he leans forward on the table a little. “Still interesting.”

 

“Green,” Jack says, “is my favorite color.”

 

Bitty’s smile gets a little bigger. “And your favorite movie?”

 

The Wizard of Oz.”

 

“Really? I thought you’d say, like. Miracle or Slap Shot.”

 

“Both good,” Jack says, “but not my favorite.”

 

Bitty rests his chin on his palm, looking at Jack in a way that makes Jack want to be looked at. “And how do you like your eggs?”

 

“Hard-boiled. Easy protein snack.”

 

Laughing, Bitty shakes his head. “You are something else, Mr. Zimmermann.”

 

“Is that a good thing?”

 

Oh, but that smile is sweet. “It’s a very good thing.”

 

 

Bitty’s hand is soft and warm. They’ve taken their time with their dinner and now they’re talking quietly as the sun sets, Jack’s hand palm up on the table and Bitty’s hand resting there gently. Their conversation hasn’t gotten awkward, or slowed, or ebbed; Bitty is a particularly attentive listener, and Jack, who doesn’t talk easily to people, talks easily to him.

 

“So what’s your first hobby gonna be?” Bitty asks. “You’ve already got author under your belt. Do you want to write more books, maybe?”

 

“I didn’t do too much with that,” Jack says, feeling strangely shy. “The real draw of the book is the great art. Larissa is a friend of my therapist and introduced us.”

 

Bitty shakes his head and squeezes Jack’s hand. “Don’t you start with that. You did something great, and you should be proud of it. Your words are in that book, and your story is in there too. It’s lovely.”

 

Jack wants to believe him, so he tries. It takes him a few more moments to speak. “Maybe I could write another book. One for older kids.”

 

“Or a memoir. You certainly have enough to say, and when you get going and stop being self-conscious, you’re fun to listen to.” He smiles. “I would definitely read something like that coming from you.”

 

“You’re getting biased,” he says, and Bitty squeezes his fingers again.

 

“Not biased. Interested.”

 

Interested. It’s a good word. It implies further discovery. And with the way Bitty’s looking at him, Jack is very much already thinking of what they could do on a second date.

 

“Excuse me,” a voice says, and it’s the girl from the hostess stand—her nametag says Paulina. “Mr. Zimmermann, would you, um. Can I maybe—”

 

“I can take a picture if you like,” Bitty says, pulling his hand away from Jack’s and flushing deeply. The girl doesn’t miss it. She looks like she is going to burst.

 

“That would be great,” she says, and Jack can see that she’s shaking a little. He doesn’t know why. If she knew how much of an idiot he really was, she wouldn’t be looking at him with those big doe eyes. “Can I—may I please put it on my Twitter? And Facebook?”

 

Jack nods. He doesn’t have a Twitter or Facebook, but he knows he’s all over both of them. “Yeah, sure.”

 

“Let’s go stand outside,” Bitty says. “The light’s better out there, don’t you think?”

 

When they’re outside, Jack puts his arm around Paulina and rolls his eyes as Bitty shuffles them around until he says he finds the perfect shot. She has her arm around his waist and is definitely shaking. When Bitty’s done, he shows Paulina the few photos he took.

 

“I think that one is best,” he says about the third one. “Your smile looks so genuine and nice.”

 

She’s bright red and she looks at him, then at Jack. He can see her making connections. “Thank you, thanks a lot. I really appreciate it.”

 

“He’s reading at the West End library,” Bitty says, and Jack rolls his eyes with a smile. Of course Bitty’s going to promote. “On Thursday, during after-school reading hour.”

 

Her eyebrows shoot up. “I take my son to the morning ones sometimes.” She looks up at Jack again. “What will you be reading?”

 

“He’s got a kid’s book coming out,” Bitty says, and he pulls out his own phone to show her the library’s Twitter. She puts a hand to her mouth. Jack thinks she’s going to cry.

 

“That is so sweet,” she says, and the hand to her mouth goes to her heart, and she’s looking up at Jack like she’s seeing a totally different person. “My son is three, is he too young?”

 

“Bring him along,” Bitty says. “I’m going to make Jack read in funny voices, so it should be enjoyable for the littler ones, at least.”

 

Jack balks at that. “Wait, nobody said I had to read in funny voices.”

 

“Jack, you’re reading to children, your monotone is not entertaining.” Bitty rolls his eyes and gives Paulina a very big smile. “We’d love to see you. He’s signing books after his reading hour and Q&A, and all the proceeds go to his charity, Make it Better.”

 

Bitty is really good at this. Jack wonders what would’ve happened if Bitty had been his media rep when he first got into the NHL. Probably would’ve gone more smoothly, for one.

 

They make a little more smalltalk after that until Paulina leaves, and Jack and Bitty go back in to finish up their drinks, Jack pays, and they walk slowly back to Bitty’s apartment, chatting now about books (Jack likes nonfiction history, Bitty will read anything by Stephen King). Jack wants to hold his hand, but that’s a little too public for him, considering that people are definitely recognizing them as they walk past, but at Bitty’s steps, he lets Jack walk him right up to the door, then turns to him and waits, his smile knowing.

 

Jack swallows. “Can I take you out again?”

 

“You can take me out whenever you want.”

 

His heart, dormant for so long, stirs awake. “Thursday, after the reading?”

 

“Why wait until Thursday?”

 

Jack sighs. “I have to do readings at a couple of elementary schools. I—don’t have it in my schedule, but I can make time for Thursday?”

 

Bitty nods. He’s leaning against the door, and it would be so easy for Jack to slide up against him and hold him there with his body. He doesn’t. Instead, he fiddles with his watch. “Um,” he says, and Bitty laughs.

 

“Oh, come here. Let me take pity on you.” He reaches out and snags Jack’s trembling hand and pulls him in. Bitty is small-built—he has fine little bones in his fingers and wrists, but the feel of his waist under Jack’s hands is surprisingly solid for how narrow he is. He tips his head back and Jack sees a flash of his eyes before bending down a little to press his mouth softly to Bitty’s, chaste, twice, before pulling back. His head is reeling a little.

 

It’s been nearly four years since he kissed anyone. “That was nice,” Jack says, and Bitty presses hands to Jack’s neck, the tips of his fingers a tease at Jack’s hairline.

 

“Yep. And that’s all you get for a first date.”

 

“I wasn’t asking for more.”

“I know you weren’t.” Bitty’s eyes search his face. “Okay, maybe one more for a first date.”

 

Jack smiles and smiles, and kisses him again.

 

+

 

@prettypaulie Oh my God, look who I met at work tonight!!!! #jackzimmermann ow.ly/4n98sl

@sinisterlies @prettypaulie oh my fucking god i am going to climb him like a fucking TREE #jackzimmermann #thatjawtho

@prettypaulie @sinisterlies he’s HUGE and super nice

@RaquelVox @prettypaulie @sinisterlies haha is he really??? he seems like kind of a jerk in his interviews

@prettypaulie @RaquelVox @sinisterlies I think that’s just nerves, he was very nice to me

@sinisterlies @prettypaulie @RaquelVox who took the pic? It’s a great shot of you girl make that ur profile pic

@prettypaulie @sinisterlies @RaquelVox The guy he was with. He took like 5 lol trying to find a good one for us, it was sweet

@RaquelVox @prettypaulie @sinisterlies wait HOLD UP he was with a guy????

@sinisterlies @prettypaulie @RaquelVox HOLY SHIT WAS HE ON A FUCKING DATE?????

@prettypaulie @RaquelVox @sinisterlies Yeah he was with this blonde guy

@prettypaulie @sinisterlies @RaquelVox I don’t know!! They were just having dinner and talking, people just have dinner sometimes Grace

@sinisterlies @prettypaulie @RaquelVox okay but was the guy cute??? do we even know what zimms type is???

@prettypaulie @sinisterlies @RaquelVox well i mean yeah he was cute. he’s a librarian at west end.

@swimmerfann @prettypaulie @sinisterlies @RaquelVox Was it this guy?? ow.ly/9899n2

@prettypaulie @swimmerfann @sinisterlies @RaquelVox haha yeah!! :)

@swimmerfann @prettypaulie @sinisterlies @RaquelVox I love him! His name’s Eric, he does a lot of stuff w/ kids over at @BPLWestEnd :)

@swimmerfann @prettypaulie @sinisterlies @RaquelVox One time I had to run to the bank b4 it closed & he watched Peyton for like 30 min!! so sweet <3

@RaquelVox @swimmerfann @prettypaulie @sinisterlies oh my god do u think they’re banging

@swimmerfann @RaquelVox Personally, I don’t think it’s any of our business?

@RaquelVox @swimmerfann Whatevs

 

Direct Messages

@swimmerfann Paulie, I saw them last night.

@prettypaulie Holy fuck, they were definitely on a date. Like. Oh my god I can’t breathe, they were DEFINITELY on a DATE they were HOLDING HANDS it was so cute I wanted to die. Like. Zimms looked hAPPY? How? How did this happen? Who is this blonde button of a child? TELL ME MORE ABOUT HIM just not like on Twitter directly, because oh my god Grace and Raquel have to calm the fuck down. They don’t deserve this knowledge. >.>

@swimmerfann They were definitely on a date, because there was goddamn goodnight kissing on the doorstep. I was grading at the Ollie’s across the street.

@swimmerfann I first met Eric because we just kind of noticed each other? He lives like a block up from me and he always comes into the coffee shop because he likes their pumpkin spice lattes LOL. So now I bring Peyton to see him sometimes, since he was just so GOOD with her.

@prettypaulie Maggie, he is SO CUTE!!!!!!! I can’t fucking breathe about it.

@swimmerfann Isn’t he though? He’s SUCH a nice guy too. I have to know how they met. I want to know everything. When are they getting married? Are they going to get a puppy together? I. Need. To. Know.

@prettypaulie It kinda felt like a first date. I was so fucking pissed that Tanya wouldn’t let me take their fucking table. That bitch. I covered for her twice last week >:|

@swimmerfann she’s such a cunt. Anyway, I’m taking Peyton to see him at the library on Thurs. She fucking loves him so much, it’s ridiculous. She’s been wearing his jersey every day to school. Like. Honey, we can WASH IT, at least. But she says it’ll ‘wash the luck out’ lord, he’s gonna love her.

@prettypaulie I was gonna bring Max. Want to go together? :)

@swimmerfann That would be great!! Let’s go ahead and meet there, yeah?

@prettypaulie Maggie, they were so cute ;________;

@swimmerfann I know, I know!!!! Deep breaths. This is it. Zimms came out forever ago and now he has a cute lil boyfriend, oh my lord what a time to be alive