Jack sees the house and falls in love.
He's on a run, on a different route than usual because he hasn't taken his camera out in a while and it's the off season so he has the time to explore, and stops to frame a shot of someone's bird bath only to see the house next door, two roomy stories and a lopsided porch and a paint job chipping enough to show the last color and a for-sale sign in the front.
It reminds him of the Haus, in a quieter neighborhood. It reminds him of Bitty's house in Madison, only without anyone to take care of it. It reminds him of his favorite billet family's house, which he had to leave sooner than he wanted to. It reminds him that Bitty is graduating Samwell in less than a year and moving in with him, and that his roomy apartment seems smaller these days, with so many mingled belongings.
He lifts his camera and takes a picture, and then he lifts his phone to call the number on the sign.
“I told them I couldn't make an offer until I talked to my partner, but I don't think I'll have trouble even if someone else expresses interest. I ...” Jack takes a breath, reminds himself that Bitty is stressed because of preparing for his senior year and because of spending the summer in Madison because his parents asked for one more summer when they were hoping to start living together, not because of Jack. Not solely because of Jack. “I really like it, Bits.”
Bitty makes an unhappy noise into the phone. “It's a lot of work, though. You showed me the pictures. I know you can afford the contracting, but wouldn't it be easier to get something you wouldn't have to fix up?”
“The agent said it's all cosmetic,” Jack offers. “Except the porch. There's a full basement I could put weight machines in, and the wiring is good, I could replace the oven. And there's an apple tree in the backyard. You could make pie with our own apples. It's not too far from the rink, and there are coffee shops and bakeries around.”
“You really love it? I'm happy in the apartment as long as you want to be there. Don't do anything for me, Jack, I know you.”
And Jack knows Bitty, knows that this idea is making him upset, maybe because things are moving fast, maybe because he thinks Jack thinks he has to do this, maybe for a hundred other reasons. “And I know this is a lot. Maybe you're not ready for a house yet, or you just don't like this one. But I … it feels like the Haus.”
It won't be the Haus. Nothing ever will be again, and sometimes Jack regrets that and sometimes he knows that it had to change, that he couldn't live with four of his best friends and teammates in a mess of a house forever. But this will be a place people could visit, maybe. Jack will make sure it's fixed and Bitty will make it a home and they can live a life in Providence until Jack is traded or retires and they have to think it all through again.
“Okay,” says Bitty, and Jack almost doesn't know what he means at first.
When he does, he sits up straight, heart beating fast, looking at the picture of the view out the kitchen window he took when the real estate agent showed him inside. “Okay? You don't want to see it in person first or anything? It's not going to be just my house.”
“You love it?”
“Then you're going to make me love it too. Do you want me to call Dex and ask if he knows a good contractor?”
Jack laughs. “In Rhode Island? States away from home? If I need to, I can ask George or one of the guys, I think Thirdy was talking about a remodel earlier this year. But I'd like … if I can, I'd like to fix up as much of it as possible myself.”
“Oh, lord. I'm not going to try to talk you out of it, honey, but maybe remember that you need your hands and all your other vital body parts for hockey?”
“Just for hockey, eh, Bittle?” says Jack, because he can't resist the chirp, and Bitty takes the distraction with a laugh.
“If you want the house, if you love it that much, do what you need to do,” Bitty says when they're getting ready to hang up. “And I'll help you paint when I come home in August.”
Home, Jack thinks, and when they hang up he texts his parents.
“Brah!” says Shitty into the phone, somewhere between joyful and reproachful. “A house! That's some real adult shit, man, that's amazing. We are going to warm the fuck out of it when you're all moved in and ready.”
“It might take a while. I'm fixing it up.”
“Like the rugged specimen of manhood you are, damn straight. Does Bits know?”
Jack frowns. “Of course he knows. Do you think I would surprise him with a house?”
“Jack. Jacky-boy. Jack and the beanstalk. You definitely would if you thought it would help in your redundant quest to woo your boy.”
“I like doing nice things for him, but this has nothing to do with that. I just like the house. And I asked him about it.”
“How long did it take him to ask a question about the kitchen? Inquiring minds.”
“I told him about it when I told him about the house. It needs remodeling, I know that, but it's going to be the first thing I take care of.” He'll have to call in professionals for some of that work, but he's been watching tutorials on YouTube in between paperwork and offseason training. He thinks he can do it. He likes having something to do with his hands, and he likes the thought of his house having his labor put into it.
“Let me know if you're doing a work day, Lards and me can come down. She can paint you a bitchin' mural on your favorite wall or something.”
“I'll have to ask Bitty about that.”
“You two are gonna have a house,” Shitty says, marveling. “I don't even have my shit together enough to do anything but sublet, Lardo is pissed about the living conditions and says rebelling is only cool if the plumbing works all the time, which I guess is a fair line.”
“Tell her she can come stay with Bitty and me. I'll make sure the plumbing works.”
Shitty laughs. “Man, sometimes I forget you're older than me, but now you're buying a house to live in with your boyfriend and that doesn't seem weird at all. Congrats, brah. It's going to be great, and we'll only have a little kegster to break it in.”
“This is a nice neighborhood,” Jack protests, but Shitty just laughs at him some more and starts talking about contracts.
The porch will get sun in the winter, maybe enough to keep plants on it year-round, if they decide they want houseplants and if the contractors can salvage it. The basement is big enough to make into a home gym and still have room for his pool table, and the heat should make it down there enough that it won't be freezing to do it. He thinks he'll want the dining room to be the living room, since there's a window between it and the kitchen and he'll be able to talk to Bitty while he rolls out his pies. Besides, the kitchen is big enough for a table for two. They can put a big table in the living room, big enough to hold a hockey team or all of Bitty's cousins, and have people over sometimes.
He stands in the kitchen for a while, even though what Bitty likes in a kitchen is still mostly a mystery to him. The oven is small and old, and the other appliances could use updating too. The cabinets might be okay, but they're crowding the windows, and Jack likes the windows. They look out on the back yard and the apple tree, the same view they'll get from the master bedroom upstairs.
The whole house needs paint, inside and out, and Jack can already see a few other things he wants to change, but it's a good house. It feels like somewhere they could have holidays and quiet nights and dinners with friends.
Jack calls Bitty from the bedroom, his last stop on the tour. “It's ours.”
Bitty's been demurring that all through the paperwork, keeps saying it's Jack's house until Bitty can live there for real, but today, he says “I can't wait to see it,” and Jack smiles and tells him to get on Skype so he can show him around.
Dex calls him twenty minutes later. “I'm coming down there this weekend. Make a list of everything you want to do and have Bitty's oven delivered by then.”
Bitty complains on Skype that night that Dex is going to see the house before he is, but he lets Jack wheedle oven specifications and other information out of him and tells him to keep him updated, so Jack doesn't take the complaining too seriously.
Dex shows up with several toolboxes and a scowl on his face, but he gives the house an approving nod and says one of his uncles has a high school friend who's doing carpentry in the area when he sees the porch, so Jack might owe Bitty an apology for making fun of him for thinking Dex would know a contractor in Providence.
The first oven, back in the Haus, Jack bought but didn't help with much, other than lifting, and even that was mostly Holster and Ransom. This time, Dex walks him through the steps of hooking up the gas and says that the wiring doesn't look like it's a hundred years old so he's probably okay, and then starts on the next item on the list.
“You should get a porch swing when the porch is fixed up,” says Dex after an hour of comfortable silence while they try to deal with the kitchen cabinets. “Bitty likes them.”
Jack was never very close to Dex. They only overlapped a year at Samwell, and his senior year was full of Bitty and the NHL and worries for his future. The most they talked was when Jack was ordering the oven for Bitty's birthday and asking Dex about fixing it, and it feels like a strange kind of blessing on the relationship, getting Dex's gruff advice on how to make Bitty happy. “Thanks, Dex. I think I will.”
He doesn't do anything in any real order. He tears wallpaper off the walls in the upstairs bedrooms until the house's trash is so full that he has to wait for trash pick-up, and he watches endless tutorials on how to sand and patch walls and put in tile to make a backsplash for the new oven and a new floor in one of the bathrooms.
“You're not one of those people who can't use a hammer and just hits their thumbs a lot, right?” asks George when he stops by her office to say hello after conditioning. “We need your hands.”
Jack grins. “I don't know. I don't think so. I can hang pictures without hurting myself.”
“Great. That's comforting. I can see the press release now. 'Falconers Forward Killed When He Pulls Wall Down On Himself.' Don't give Buzzfeed that line.”
George is smiling wide enough to reassure him that she's not actually stressed about this. “I don't think I give Buzzfeed many lines.”
“Oh, Jack.” The tone is uncannily like Bitty's when Jack betrays that he doesn't know something about hashtags or apps or emojis. “I'm invited for dinner sometime when it's ready, right?”
“Of course.” He ducks his head. “Maybe there will be some pie.”
“I would be disappointed if there wasn't. But don't tell the nutritionists that.” She raises her eyebrows at him. “And maybe you could do a little video for Falconers TV about fixing up your house and really give Buzzfeed something to talk about.”
Jack may never understand the internet.
Or at least, Jack thinks that's probably why three different home improvement shows call Falconers PR asking him to be a regular guest.
“Just a few more weeks, right?” says Jack, as though he doesn't have Bitty's arrival in his phone calendar, where he checks it at least once a day to make sure the date hasn't moved.
“And then I'm there for a week. I can help you paint anything that isn't painted yet.”
Part of Jack wants to have the house finished and perfect when Bitty comes, ready for Bitty to live in and bake in and sleep in. But, if he's lucky (and he is, Jack knows how lucky he is), Bitty is going to live here with him for a long time, once he's done with school. It's their home, not Jack's that Bitty is just going to happen to move into. He deserves to share the work if he wants to. “I'll save a few walls. There are plenty of projects that can get done before the painting.”
“What do you think you're going to do next?”
Jack turns the camera on his phone around so he can look at Bitty again. “The trim on one of the bedroom windows needs replacing, it's got marks all over it from the last owners. And then I think there's mold in the coat closet, so I'm going to take care of it.”
“We should pick paint colors soon.” Bitty frowns. “Online, maybe?”
When Jack was ten, his parents decided to repaint the living room themselves instead of hiring someone, mostly to keep his father busy in his first summer after retirement, and they dragged Jack to the store to help them pick the color. He'd imagined standing with Bitty in a paint store, arguing about shades of blue for the kitchen and comparing paint chips for their bedroom, but that's not really practical. Even if Bitty were here, it would look suspiciously domestic, and they've both agreed that they're not going to be ready to come out until Bitty graduates and Jack is a little more established in the League. “I think Mama told me about a website where you can put up pictures of your rooms and see how the color will look.”
Bitty looks pleased. “Then we'll do that. Lardo texted me the other day and said something about a mural, but I wasn't sure if that was her or Shitty or you.”
“Shitty, but I wouldn't mind, I don't think.”
“It would be another piece of the Haus,” Bitty offers, and Jack knows that makes the decision for both of them.
“I liked NPR before I graduated from college,” Jack protests with a frown, and both of them give him a look like that just makes Holster's point. “Also, I'm fixing up a house, not doing anything with furniture.”
“Bro, you should,” says Ransom, clapping him on the shoulder. “YouTube channel. Upholstering with Jack Zimmermann.”
“Needs a way catchier title,” says Holster, and drags them both inside to get the tour. “Aw, Jack,” he says when he sees the kitchen, where Jack has been working the hardest. He hopes it shows. There are a few mistakes, but he hopes Bitty won't mind. “Bitty's gonna cry. It is your duty to film this for us so we can crash orientation and show the new frogs what a softie their captain is.”
Jack can't help smiling the way he does every time anyone mentions Bitty's new position with the team, and Ransom and Holster groan in tandem. “He's going to bring pies. I don't think you need to chirp him over anything else.” He looks through the window in the wall to the living room, where his current couch just won't look right, where he and Bitty are going to spend most of their time. “Maybe I will start restoring furniture.”
They exchange a look. “Bro,” says one of them, and “Antiquing,” says the other, and that evening he shows Bitty the old mess of a sideboard he wants to fix and refinish and Bitty laughs at him the whole time and then wipes away a tear or two.
“You're already coming up for my birthday,” Jack says when they show up at his apartment, where he's still sleeping because he wants his first night in his new house to be with Bitty. “You didn't have to come up now too.”
“We wanted to see the house, since it's all you talk about,” says Maman. “Come on, we're driving over and taking you out to breakfast and then we're shopping for everything you've forgotten about.”
“I can't buy too much furniture until the walls are painted, and I'm not doing that until Bitty comes,” Jack protests, but he lets himself be dragged out to the car they rented anyway. It's a truck. They've been planning, it seems. “Besides, there's plenty I can move over from the apartment.”
“We'll see,” says Papa, grinning at him in the rearview mirror.
They both like the house, Maman approving of the backyard and Papa approving of the garage and both of them smiling at him when they see the kitchen. “So what am I missing?” Jack asks when they finish the tour.
“We can't do curtains until you've finished the walls,” says Maman, “but you could probably use some better tools if you're going to keep fixing things up. Not to mention a lawn mower. Maybe some gardening tools, just in case.”
Jack isn't very good with plants, but he thinks sometimes that he'd like to be. That it might be nice to have a bed in his lawn for flowers or herbs or even vegetables, which will grow when it's off-season and he can actually be around to weed them. “That sounds nice.”
Papa claps him on the shoulder. “You can use the second bay in the garage as a shed until you can get one built. Bitty doesn't have a car yet, does he?”
Jack ducks his head. “Not yet.” It's one of the only real arguments they've been having lately. Jack wants him to have a car for his senior year so they don't have to worry about bus and train schedules to see each other, and Bitty doesn't want him to spend the money. Jack isn't sure how it's going to turn out yet, but he hopes he can convince Bitty before their seasons get out of control.
Maman laughs at him. “Then we'll fill up your garage and when you're done with the house you can build a little shed in your yard.”
The more he builds a life around this house, the more Jack likes the sound of it. “Okay. Okay, let's go buy some tools.”
“No. Shits is at his internship, I've got the day off. Bitty says you two have been picking paint colors, so I've got your palate, and I'm going to do a mural for you.”
“We'll see.” She punches him gently in the arm. “Come on. Show me around.”
Jack is getting used to giving tours. Half the Falconers have been to his house by now, and then his parents and friends and always Bitty over Skype have made it easy to say what's going to go in every room, what color he's going to paint all of them. He's nervous again doing it for Lardo, who just walks around with her bag on her shoulder and nods whenever they leave a room but doesn't say anything.
“There,” she says, pointing to the wall in the living room, the one with the cutout where Jack will be able to see Bitty in the kitchen, and where Bitty will be able to sit and keep an eye on his oven.
“Okay,” says Jack. “How can I help?”
Usually, Shitty is the one to be Lardo's assistant when she's working, but Jack knows enough to hand her the colors she asks for when she wants them, and Lardo keeps herself busy covering the wall with a base coat and then layering other colors on. It isn't really a painting of anything, that's not the way Lardo works, but it's sunset colors radiating out from the window, and it should go well with the green that's planned for the other living room walls.
Lardo finishes when it's starting to get dark and pulls a pair of sodas out of her bag. “I would have brought beer, but I have to drive back to Cambridge tonight,” she says, and clicks her bottle against his. “Housewarming party the weekend before classes. Hide your antiques.”
Jack laughs at the look she gives him at that, judging every piece of old furniture he's got in his house, put in the middle of rooms so there's plenty of space to paint. “You can make me some kind of modern art chair or something if it bothers you,” he offers.
“You're joking, but I'm going to take you up on that and you're going to pay me for it.”
“I'm not joking.”
To his surprise, Lardo puts her arm around his waist and leans against him, holding on tight for a few seconds before she lets go. “It's a good house, Jack. It's going to be good.”
Jack looks at the mural, at all the colors that are going to frame Bitty, that are going to surround him even when Bitty's gone at school or on roadies. “It is.”
Home could be the apartment, maybe, but Jack doesn't think it is. “If you've got the energy, I thought maybe we could paint a room today and order some pizza for dinner. It's a cheat day.”
Bitty's smile is always so warm. “Sounds perfect to me.”
“But first we should get your bag,” says Jack, because he can see it coming around on the carousel, the familiar SMH lanyard around the handle so they can identify it on roadies.
Bitty talks about his flight and his last few days in Madison all the way through the airport and through most of the drive to the house, but he quiets down when they get into the neighborhood in a way that makes Jack wonder if he went through it on the internet or something, looked at the neighbors' houses and all the restaurants and shops they'll be able to stop at.
Jack pulls into the garage and Bitty is still quiet, and he turns off the engine and waves around the empty bay of the garage, the sideboard he's still fixing up and the cans of paint waiting to be brought in. “This is it.”
“I know.” He's all fidgets all of a sudden, looking down at his phone. Jack thinks he catches sight of the SMH chat, Bitty typing that he's safe in Providence, building up a nice supply of chirps for them to check on later.
“Hey. What's wrong?”
“Just a little nervous. You love this house.”
“It's not like my parents, you don't have to impress it.” But it has to impress him. If Bitty wants to live somewhere else, Jack will sell this one, but he wants Bitty to love it. Skype is one thing, but a visit in person is another, and Jack is suddenly terrified that he's wasted his summer on somewhere he won't get to stay.
“It's not—you don't need to look at me like that, Jack Zimmermann, it just feels a lot more final than an apartment, that's all. But it's not going to get any less intimidating sitting out here. Show me around.”
Jack takes him at his word. Bitty won't tell him if it's more than just a little worry, but Jack is getting better at knowing what's serious and what might go away. He's hoping this goes away. He gets out of the car and leaves Bitty's bag on the seat, just grabs his keys out of his pocket and lets himself in through the garage door. “I had some keys cut for you too,” he calls over his shoulder. “Remind me to give them to you before we go anywhere.”
Bitty has apartment keys too. Hopefully that makes him less nervous, but Jack doesn't look back to check, just listens for the sound of the passenger door of his car shutting and then Bitty's footsteps behind him.
Jack figured the garage door would be the one they use most often, so he painted the hallway just inside it and hung coat hooks, put up a shoe rack with space on top for a bowl for their keys, and even hung one of his old pictures in the hall (at Tater's insistence, since Jack made a mistake of showing him one of the goose shots). Judging from the smile on Bitty's face when he looks around, it was the right choice. “Aren't you going to show me around?” he asks, and Jack relaxes.
Bitty makes approving noises over the dining room and the big table Holster and Ransom helped Jack find, only half populated with chairs because he found a few he wants to refinish and it hasn't been a priority yet. He likes the den, where Jack is going to set up the television he uses to watch tape and put in a desk so Bitty can work on his school work or his vlogs if he wants to. He likes Jack's tiling job in the downstairs bathroom. He declares that he'll take Jack's word that the basement is dry and warm and secure and a good space to work out and play pool.
“Oh, honey,” says Bitty when he sees the living room and the window and door that lead to the kitchen, and the mural highlighting the wall. “Lardo?”
“Yesterday.” Jack takes Bitty's hand. “Come on, go into the kitchen.”
It's taken Bitty this long to fall in love with the house, but Jack thinks he's watching it happen right now, the way Bitty looks when he sees the view out the windows, the easy access to the back door, the shelves for cookbooks Jack built in place of a cabinet that wasn't very accessible in the first place, the new tiled countertops and oven Jack hasn't done anything with besides heat leftovers yet.
Bitty throws his arms around Jack, and Jack holds on, because he'll always hold on when Bitty hugs him, and waits to hear what Bitty has to say. “I love you very much, you know.”
Jack props his chin on top of Bitty's head. “I know. I love you too. Do you want to see the upstairs?”
Bitty takes his hand and tows him away in answer, and Jack laughs and lets him go first up the stairs, points him at the guest bedrooms and the bathroom and finally the master bedroom, which he painted days ago so it wouldn't smell like paint fumes when they spend their first night in it. He moved the bed into it before he went to meet Bitty's plane, the new bed frame he found with Holster and Ransom (and got chirped for) and the same mattress and box spring they've been sleeping on for a year now. There isn't any other furniture yet, but at least there's that.
“I thought we could stay here tonight,” Jack says quietly. “It smells like paint and it's still pretty dusty, but if you don't mind—”
“Of course we're staying here tonight,” says Bitty, looking out the window at the apple tree. Jack thinks he might be blinking back tears, but he's sure they're good ones. “How long until you let the lease on the apartment lapse?”
“I'm probably giving my thirty days notice in September. I'm losing a little money on it, but I don't mind. I want to be in here before it starts getting cold.”
“It's a drafty house, we're going to freeze,” Bitty says, but he doesn't sound that upset about it, and he finally turns away from the window. “Anything else to show me?”
“We haven't seen the porch yet,” says Jack, and leads him back downstairs.
“I sure hope so. I didn't do a good job installing it otherwise.”
The porch is in the front of the house and a few of Jack's neighbors have recognized him, so they have to be a little careful how they sit on the porch swing, but they're just far enough away from the street that no one will be able to tell if Bitty puts his feet up on Jack's lap while they swing.
“You like it?” Jack asks after a few silent moments.
“Of course I do. You worked so hard to make it a home. How could I not love it?”
And Jack wants to say no, wants to say that's Bitty. Wants to say that he did it for the Haus, that he did it for Jack's apartment, that he does it for everywhere he goes, fills houses with pop music and clutter and the smell of baking until they're worth calling a home. That's what he's going to do to this house too. It's been waiting for Bitty to become a home and not just a project. But Jack thinks about the kitchen, and the porch swing, and Lardo's mural and the contributions from all their friends and the hours he's spent learning to make it all better.
“Good,” he says, because he doesn't know how to say any of that out loud.
Bitty smiles like maybe he gets some of it (and probably he does, he's so good at knowing what Jack means when Jack can't get the words out) and swings his legs back down. “Come on. We've got some rooms to paint and you promised me pizza. Let's get to work, okay?”
Bitty is next to him, sprawled facing away from Jack. There are dried handprints of paint on his shoulders and neck, since both of them were too tired to bother with a shower by the time they finished with painting for the night. Some of them are from the paint fight they got into (Bitty started it, Jack has a pair of workout shorts he can never wear in public again to prove it) and some of them are from what the paint fight devolved into.
Jack's loved this place since the first day he saw it, but it's ready, now. It feels like home, because he made it one for Bitty, not because Bitty made it one for him.
He'll never be done, either. There will always be something to find, to fix, to rebuild, to add on. He can keep on making Bitty at home here, year after year.
Jack reaches out, fits his hand to one of the marks on Bitty's shoulder, and lets himself fall back to sleep.