Jack was a few minutes late meeting up with Shitty.
“Brah, I was sure you were leaving me hanging. You’re never late,” Shitty all but shouted into Jack’s ear as he pulled Jack into a hug.
“Sorry, man. I was just, you know…”
“Pining over our favourite Bitty Barista?”
“I wasn’t pining and don’t call him that.” Jack could tell the moment it registered to Shitty that Jack’s face was slowly turning pink.
“No shit, man. Did you finally do it? Did you ask that adorable fucker out?”
“I am definitely a person who has a date on Saturday,” Jack replied, sliding into the opposite seat at the booth with what he hoped passed for a sly smile.
“Dude. Awesome. How did you – wait a second. Ok. What happened? Cuz if I know my Zimmerman speak, and I do. I’ve studied it for a long time now. If I know my Zimmerman speak, that means that either he asked you out, which would be like fucking glorious, or something else happened and you did something without thinking it through at all.”
“Uh. Second one. I’m going to grab something from the bar.”
“You are not getting out of telling me this story, Zimmerman!” Shitty shouted after Jack.
An hour earlier…
Jack was going to do it. Ok, probably not today – Eric JUST got back from Georgia and he was busy telling Chris about … something to do with jam and the right way to do it and a feud about the recipe. Jack was subtly (at least, he hoped he was being subtle) listening to them because he’d missed listening to Eric talk to coworkers and customers while Jack sat at his favourite table, tucked into the corner of Annie’s. Jack was also trying to work. He’d been drafting an email to his advisor for a while now.
Anyway. Jack was going to do it. Jack was going to ask Eric out. He’d said something to Chris about how he’d talked to his parents about visiting Chris in San Fran over summer break and that he was sure he could time it to be there for Pride. So, Jack was doubly sure that Eric was at least bi now. He’d been pretty sure, before, because Eric would occasionally talk about an awful ex and how, “he just doesn’t like anything else to get attention and sometimes YES I DO NEED TO STAY IN THE KITCHEN TO WATCH THE BREAD RISE.”
So, yeah. Jack was going to do it. He’d let Eric get back into his routine for a week or so, then ask him out. It would be a little bit before Valentine’s Day still, so they could have a few dates and plan something for Valentine’s together.
‘Get ahold of yourself, Zimmerman,’ Jack thought to himself. ‘One step at a time.’
Eric was always so friendly when Jack came in, and he was nice to everyone but Jack wanted to believe Shitty when Shitty assured him that Eric was extra nice to Jack.
Jack looked down at his screen and realized that he had a page of d’s typed out and started to erase them. The door chimed and Jack glanced up to see a tall man with dark reddish-brown hair walk in. Jack went back to his screen, resaving the document and opening up a new screen. Maybe he’d send a quick email to his mother. That would be more productive than pretending to email his advisor.
He was just settling in to telling her about a new gallery that looked like it was going to be opening soon when the conversation at the counter filtered through his concentration.
“Oh, don’t be like that. You’ll be there anyway and it’s not like you have a date to it. My parents love you. You can sit with us and we just won’t mentioned that we agreed to split up.”
“I dumped you,” Eric said. He sounded unimpressed, but Jack knew enough about body language to tell that Eric was uncomfortable.
“So I’m not going to the dinner with you. We are not dating.”
“Again, so? It’s not like you’re seeing someone else.”
Jack was standing and sliding behind the counter before he processed the impulse at all. He slid an arm around Eric’s waist and pressed a kiss to his hair, then backed up and looked down. “Hey, I’ve got to run. I’m going to be late to meet up with Shits. We’re still on for Friday, right?”
Bitty looked up at Jack, clearly surprised, but nodding in agreement anyway.
Jack looked across the counter, “Oh, sorry, man. Didn’t see you. I’m Jack.”
“James,” he said, looking between Jack and Eric. “You could have just said you were seeing someone,” James said, addressing Eric.
“Honey, I would have told you no either way. Oh, look, Chris is back. Chowder, sugar, James would like to order something. I’m going to go say goodbye to Jack properly so he can be on his way.”
If Chris was surprised by any of what he was told as he came out from the back, he hid it well. Eric grabbed Jack’s hand and tugged him back toward what Jack knew was the stock room.
“Um. Hi,” Eric said when they were alone, looking up at Jack.
Jack smiled down at him, hoping it looked reassuring. “Hi. Uh, sorry about that, Eric. It just – you looked like you needed a quicker out.” When Eric didn’t reply, Jack began to doubt himself, “Um. Not that you couldn’t have handled it and I probably just made a mess out of …”
Eric laid his hand on Jack’s arm. “Oh, hon, it’s ok. I’ll just tell him something came up when you don’t show up with me on Saturday. I really appreciate it. He can be a pest. It’s just too bad it took me almost a year to figure out that it was him and not me.”
They were both quiet for a moment.
“I could,” Jack blurted out.
“Could?” Eric asked, tilting his head in a way that made Jack want to press a quick kiss to his lips.
“Could go. On Saturday. To…whatever. I don’t have plans. Do you … Would you like me to go with you?”
“Um. Are you sure?”
Jack nodded. “Yeah. Sure. I have to go, but um.” Jack scribbled out his number on the pad of paper on the table in the stock room. “Just text me the details. I’ll see you Saturday?” Jack nodded once, decisively, then turned and left before Eric could say anything. He didn’t even bother to put his laptop in his bag, just tucked slung the bag over his shoulder and tucked the laptop under his arm.
“Jack, you absolute ding-dong,” Shitty said, punching Jack’s shoulder then reaching up to ruffle his hair. “Only you, man. Only you. So, did you end up meeting with Chicago over break?”
“Yeah, but I think they’re a no for me. The program’s good, but not what I’m looking for. I’m kind of thinking about staying closer. I heard from the GM of Wilkes-Barre. Just a feeler sort of thing, but I think they’re interested in having me come out.”
“Back to hockey? Or are you thinking of coaching?”
“Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, I still want my PhD, but I love playing and the community league isn’t really doing it for me. If I get the chance, it feels like it would be dumb to not.”
“I feel you, man. What does Bad Bob say?”
“Just asked if I wanted him to make some calls to trainers. I’ve been trying to draft the letter to my advisor about changing my plans.”
“She’s going to kill you.”
Jack shrugged, “Nah. Nice thing about history… it’ll be there whenever I get back to it. How was your break? Mom doing ok?”
it took a moment, once Jack became aware of the voices in his apartment, to put together that there shouldn’t be voices in his apartment.
Very quickly he put together that it was his parents, who he was meant to be meeting for breakfast, and who were likely on their way back to his room, thinking he’d overslept.
And in that same moment, he remembered that he wasn’t alone.
Bitty, as Eric had insisted Jack call him, wrinkled his nose at the noise, still clearly asleep, and burrowed further into the pillow. Jack slid quickly from the bed, glad he’d thrown on his boxers before they passed out the night before.
He stepped out into his hallway and pulled the door mostly closed behind him.
“Bon matin, Papa, Maman.”
“Forget about our breakfast, sweetheart?” his mom asked, pressing a quick kiss to his cheek.
“Will your guest be joining us?” his dad asked with a pointed look at Jack’s no-longer-closed-at-all bedroom door.
His mom gave a quick chuckle, “We’ll go start the coffee. Take your time getting ready.”
Jack took the reprieve and turned to go back into his room.
“And invite your friend,” his dad called back faux-softly as they wandered down the hallway, away from Jack.
Bitty was sitting up in Jack’s bed, hair standing up in all directions, when Jack walked back in. Yawning, he offered Jack a quick, “Morning,” and scratched the back of his head. “So…Do I need to sneak out or should I just hide somewhere until y’all head out for breakfast?”
“Your parents? Breakfast? I can just hide. You can pretend I was never here. It’s … you know. It is what it is.”
“Why would you hide? I mean, you don’t have to come, but you can.”
Bitty tilted his head and, combined with the halo of hair, it reminded Jack of nothing so much as a small bird. “Do you usually introduce your parents to your one night stands?”
If pushed, Jack would blame what he said next on the unusual wake-up he’d had. “If we go to dinner this week, you won’t be a one night stand.”
Bitty snorted out a quick laugh. “Well, Jack. That’s mighty presumptuous. Maybe I don’t put out on every date.”
Jack spluttered. “That’s not what I…I wouldn’t.” He caught sight of the amusement in Bitty’s eyes and huffed. “Please come to breakfast. I promise my parents will just treat you like one of my other friends. Hell, I know they’ve seen one of my friends in my bed before, which means he was probably mostly if not completely naked because he has some sort of war against clothing."
“You’re sure?” Bitty asked, picking at the edge of the sheet.
“I need a shower and a toothbrush.”
“I should have extra toothbrushes under my sink. You can have first shower. Want me to bring you a cup of coffee?”
“Yes, please. With milk and sugar, please.”
Jack nodded. He padded into the bathroom, setting out a towel, washcloth, and toothbrush for Bitty, before heading out to the kitchen and his parents.
“Bitty – Eric – is just jumping in the shower. He’ll join us for breakfast.”
Jack was supremely grateful that whatever his parents thought of his announcement, they said nothing beyond, “Are we doing Amelia’s or Runaway Inn?”
“Amelia’s, I think. I could go for one of their omelets.”
Jack’s dad started to talk about the breakfast he had had in Vancouver the previous weekend which somehow evolved into passing along some contact information for a trainer and a skating coach for Jack to get ahold of in the next week or so.
“Jack, honey?” came Bitty’s voice from down the hall.
“Oops,” Jack said, grabbing a mug and filling it with coffee and a generous splash of the eggnog his mom had brought with her for her own coffee. He suspected Bitty would enjoy it.
He gave his parents an apologetic smile and made his way quickly down the hall to Bitty. He handed off the mug as he reentered his room. Bitty took a deep sniff and grinned up at Jack.
Bitty took a long drink then asked, “Do you happen to have a long-sleeved undershirt or something like that that I might borrow but not, you know, drown in?”
“Um. Actually, I might. Hold on.”
Jack went into his closet and came out with a light blue sweater that would clearly not fit him.
Bitty took it from him when Jack held it out and after a moment said, “Why on earth?”
“I won a bet. Tater is supposed to wear whatever I pick after our next game.”
“A friend on my rec league team. He’s… bigger than I am.”
Bitty gave a quick snort of a laugh, mirth shining bright in his eyes. “Well, alright then. This’ll be perfect. You should go get ready, Mister.”
Jack gave a quick salute and went into his own bathroom.
Breakfast with his parents went better than it had any right to, really, Jack reflected later. Bitty and his father had talked food for a bit. Then Jack and his father had talked hockey. Then they were parting ways with handshakes between Bitty and Jack's parents and hugs for Jack. Bitty stopped back at Jack’s apartment only briefly to return the sweater (after Jack assured him he didn’t mind washing it himself) and gather his own things, then left with an, “I’ll see the shop,” and cheery wave.
That had been nearly a month ago and Jack hadn’t actually seen Bitty since. He’d missed the next couple of his normal days to stop by because of meetings with his advisor and a few after that to meet with a couple different trainers at his father’s recommendation. As he tied his shoes to head out for a run – something he’d always done but had had to increase as his chances of actually playing again improved – he debated running past the shop. He knew Bitty generally worked afternoons, but maybe he’d be opening today. Even if all Jack had time for was a quick hello, it would be good to see him.
Plus, maybe then Shitty would get off his case about effectively ghosting on the guy he’d had a crush on for months.
It wasn’t like it was intentional.
Ultimately he decided that he’d better not. He wanted to see Bitty – really wanted to see him – but he didn’t want to be pushed for time and he had a meeting at 10 on campus.
On the other hand, showing up at Bitty’s place of work on Valentine’s Day, even with flowers, was maybe not his strongest move.
The look Bitty levelled at him when he approached the counter was unimpressed at best. “Black coffee, Mr. Zimmerman.”
Jack was so flustered by the cold reception that all he could do was nod and hand Bitty a $5 to pay for the coffee. He accepted his change and the cup and made his way a table. After a couple minutes of staring blankly at his coffee, he texted Shitty.
JLZ: I think I screwed up.
BSK: unlikely my bro. ‘sup?
JLZ: Bitty was … not happy to see me today.
BSK: Odd. He ok the last time?
BSK: when was that?
BSK: jesus. Ok. So. Dude probably thought you, like, used him and left him. Not that you’re an enormous dingdong with a nice butt.
BSK: never fear, my precious Canadian mooselet. I’ll be right there. We’ll fix this.
BSK: just go with it, man. See you soon.
Jack slowly sipped his coffee and watched Bitty interact with his other customers, studiously avoiding looking to where Jack was sitting. Soon enough, Shitty was there, sitting across from Jack and looking at him like he wasn’t sure if he should be encouraging or commiserating.
“So Lardo says that she’s sorry this is difficult, but you can’t spend V-day with us.”
Jack started. “Uh.”
Shitty reached over and patted his hand. “Be right back. I need a piece or three of that fucking pie.”
Once Shitty was back, they chatted a bit about everything as nothing and Jack slowly felt himself relax. It would be ok. He’d figure out how to say “hi” to Bitty and give him the flowers and if that’s all it ever was, it would be fine. It’s not like he should really be trying to get into a relationship right now anyway.
After his first two pieces of pie, Shitty abruptly announced his intention to, “take a leak,” and left the table.
Jack finally caught Bitty’s eye and wished he hadn’t. He looked away, fighting the urge to scream.
He could tell when Bitty approached and looked up as Bitty approached the table.
“You could have told me you had an actual boyfriend. Showing up here on Valentine’s Day with him wasn’t necessary,” Bitty was stiff and his voice was quiet and tightly controlled. "A text would have been sufficient."
“What? I don’t… what?”
“He seems nice. Certainly appreciates pie.”
“I beg your pardon.”
“No, I mean. Yes, Shitty appreciates pie, but we’re not… he’s not. He’s straight.”
“So you brought your crush here for Valentine’s Day?”
“No, I just. Needed moral support. To, you know, talk to my crush. On Valentine’s Day.”
“Jack, honey, that makes no damn sense.”
Shitty appeared at that moment. “Bitty, my bro. Your pie is awesome as always. Why don’t you sit down, eat this last piece with JZed, and let him give you the flowers he brought for you because he’s an enormous dork?” With that, Shitty was out the door and Bitty was sitting across from him looking vaguely stunned.
“He’s… um. Always like that,” Jack said waving in the general direction that Shitty had just disappeared.
“I see… Uh. I gotta,” he made a motion with his head toward the counter.
Jack nodded and watched him walk away thinking that, at the very least, Bitty didn’t seem quite as cold toward him as he had at the beginning. Maybe he could still redeem himself. Just as he was standing to go see if he could beg a to-go box – he didn’t quite feel like sitting at the table alone eating a piece of pie – Bitty came back out. His apron was gone and he had a messenger bag with him.
“I’m off now,” Bitty said, approaching. “Feel like sharing that piece of pie?”
“No,” Jack said, surprised. “Wait. I mean, yes. I want to share the pie, but I really just wanted to give you these flowers and ask you to go out with me. Like, on a date. It doesn’t have to be today. I mean, it probably can’t be today. It would be a nightmare to try to get a reservation. I’d try though, if you wanted to.”
“Jack, honey, all you had to do was ask. Let’s sit down and have this piece of pie, and talk about when and where for our first real date, huh?”