Actions

Work Header

with grace in your heart

Chapter Text

A handwritten note reading: Dear Jack, missed you on Sunday. Hope the library was soothing. If you want to talk, I’ve got your back. —ERB <3

[12:19 PM]
Today 12:19 PM

picture of a bag of cookies and Bitty’s note

I'm surprised your cookies
got through customs Bittle

[iMessage]

Bitty is in the car just beyond the reach of the Atlanta airport early Tuesday afternoon when he gets Jack’s text. Something unclenches in his heart, like he let out a breath he didn’t realize he was holding for the last sixteen hours. It’s not like he and Jack parted on bad terms, per se, as much as they hadn’t parted on any terms at all, and there was only so much uncertain stress baking a boy could do on his way out of town.

Or stress cleaning. Everyone had worked their fabulous hockey butts off to get the Haus clean after the party, and when he left it still looked better than it had since September, but there was still only so far Bitty could go to distract himself that way. (The number of socks that were uncovered and returned to their rightful owners probably ought to have stunned him, but honestly he’s a little surprised there weren’t more, even including the pile in the living room for non-resident teammates and friends to pick up after break.)

But at any rate, he’s relieved Jack is talking to him. Up to this point, the sum total of their communication since the party had been comprised of the words “good,” “morning,” “night,” and “sorry.”

His mother glances over from the driver’s seat as he checks his phone, interrupting herself mid-sentence to ask who the message is from and what the cookies are about.

Bitty swipes his phone open and starts to respond to the text before he realizes he doesn’t know what to say. He answers his mother instead. “Jack. And I sent some cookies home with him, so he was proving they survived the trip okay.”

His mother coos a little and Bitty braces himself. “How’s he doing? How’s his folks?”

“Good,” he says, after a split-second hesitation. “Good.” He doesn’t know how true those answers are, but he doesn’t want to investigate them right now, either.

“Good,” she replies. He doesn’t look up from his phone, where those horrendous dots are floating on Jack’s side of the screen, telling him that Jack is typing again, but from the tone of her voice he’s sure she knows he’s lying and isn’t going to call him on it. “Tell him hi from me, okay?”

“Sure,” Bitty agrees, more grateful to have a lead than he’s willing to admit. His phone buzzes slightly in his hand as the dots are replaced with a second message: And… thanks. For the note.

Bitty relaxes even further, glad that he hadn’t accidentally overstepped with that. Any time, he sends back. And my mother says hi.


[9:49 PM]
Today 12:19 PM

I'm surprised your cookies
got through customs Bittle

And… thanks. For the note.

Any time.
And my mother says hi.

Today 8:33 PM

Happy Hanukkah, Jack!
Read 9:47 PM

Today 9:48 PM

Thanks Bittle

[iMessage]


Once Bitty’s back in Madison, there’s a couple whirlwind days of unpacking and last-minute gift-shopping (and wrapping), a mad dash to bake all the cookies his mother always makes for the church cookie swap, and then… nothing. No morning skates, no early morning checking practice, no Shitty walking around in boxers—no teammates at all, in fact—and no… friends.

He’s sitting in his bedroom on Thursday telling the internet all about pink lemonade cupcakes (Lord, how has he gone nineteen years without tasting one before?), and he pauses the camera to double check the recipe. He glances up from his computer screen and is struck by the strange sensation of being on vacation. Well, of course he’s on vacation. He’s relaxing, there’s no homework. (There’s no hockey.) But he doesn’t feel at home, really.

This is still his bedroom, of course, but it’s not his bedroom. Wait, no. That distinction doesn’t make sense even in his mind. But he misses the sound of Ransom pacing in the attic, and when he was making the cupcakes, he realized his mother had rearranged the pantry and he didn’t know where the spices were.

He shakes his head and goes back to the recipe, then turns the camera on again to finish his vlog. At least YouTube is still the same.

While his video is uploading, he flips through some other social media sites, too. Facebook keeps telling him about his high school classmates getting back from school. Just like last year, he thinks about getting together with some of them. Just like last year, he doesn’t. Maybe at New Years.

He does laugh at his teammates’ antics in the SMH group text. He also helps Chowder pick out a Black Widow jacket for his sister and a fancy geometric coloring book for “a friend who is a girl” via text, and it’s just as well Chowder can’t see his face because Bitty can’t stop laughing. Sweet baby Chowder, who do you think you’re kidding?

It’s nice, having a group chat going with the guys. It’s like after-practice dressing-room chatter made of little white and green bubbles, now with the added ability to screenshot particularly chirp-worthy comments so that they’re never forgotten. Strangely, it helps make the “vacation” feeling fade.

But every time he backs out to switch between the group and his private conversation with Chowder, his thumb hovers over Jack’s name. “Tuesday” it says next to it. Thanks Bittle.

He wants to say something again, but the words stick in his throat, his fingers, his brain, even. What do you say after you’ve heard all that?


Bitty tries not to think about what he heard.

About how Jack stopped talking in the middle of a word, and—and what it sounded like was happening before he spoke again.

Before he said “I can’t do this,” and didn’t say what “this” was, before he started calling him “Kenny.”

(Kenny and Zimms, he doesn’t think.)


[11:24 PM]
Tuesday 8:33 PM

Happy Hanukkah, Jack!

Tuesday 9:48 PM

Thanks Bittle

Today 10:30 PM

It almost got to 60F here
today. Have you frozen
yet?
Read 10:52 PM

[iMessage]


Friday morning is slow. His parents are out at work or something, so Bitty makes breakfast and eats it as he catches up on some vlogs he likes to watch. He cleans up the kitchen. He scrolls through far too many BuzzFeed articles. He loses an hour to Pinterest, alone on the couch, before his mother gets home.

“Dicky? Help me bring in the groceries?”

He sighs and shuts his computer, not sure why he’s so frustrated. It’s not like she interrupted him doing anything worthwhile.

“Yes, ma’am,” he says, and gets up from the couch.

“So what have you been up to all morning?” she asks as they each bring in an armful of bags. He sets his on the counter and heads back to the car.

“Oh, nothing much,” he calls over his shoulder. “You got any exciting gossip for me?” They each grab another load of bags and he slams the door of the trunk.

“No, not really. Just been running errands by myself. What about you? You been talking to your boys? How’s vacation treating everyone?” They get back in the house and Bitty kicks the door shut behind him with a little more force than strictly necessary.

“Fine. Haven’t heard from anyone today, but yesterday I helped Chowder decide on gifts for his sister and probable future girlfriend.” He puts on a quiet, overexcited voice and recounts the conversation. “‘I need to get something for my friend, too! She (she’s a girl) she likes books and soccer??’ Lord, that child.”

His mother laughs, and Bitty feels a little better as he’s stacking things in the cupboard. It lasts for several whole seconds until she asks about the rest of his friends.

“How’s Mr. Crappy? and Jack?” she adds far too casually.

Bitty sighs as he closes the cupboard. She knows something’s up and there’s no getting around it now.

“Shitty’s fine,” he answers truthfully and leans up against the counter. He pulls his phone from his pocket and starts flipping it in his hands for something to do. “Freaking out about graduating and law school and all that, but fine. And of course going home for break to deal with his family. Wonder how much time he’ll spend at Lardo’s place…”

“Oh, yeah,” she agrees conversationally, pulling things out of the fridge. “You want some lunch, darlin’? I’m gonna make myself a sandwich.”

“Sure.”

“And Jack?” She prompts as she gets out the bread.

“He’s fine.” Bitty shoves off the counter, slips his phone back in his pocket, and joins her at the table to make his own sandwich. He can feel her watching him silently and sighs again.

“I don’t know, Mother. He…” Bitty opens the jar of mayonnaise and slams the lid down on the table in frustration. “I think he’s okay? But… I don’t know. There was this party right before we left, and this guy showed up. And I guess, I mean, I knew Jack and him had some history, but I didn’t think it was bad, but…” He grabs a knife swipes some mayo over a piece of bread.

“I didn’t mean to overhear them talking, but I was in the hallway and I did and… I don’t know. It sounded bad. At first Jack just sounded annoyed that he’d shown up, but then Jack was so angry and this guy just wouldn’t listen to a word Jack was saying, and then he finally left and said… well, he just said some awful things, and Jack was shaking…” His sandwich is ready now, but Bitty just pushes it roughly onto his plate and shoves the heels of his hands into his eyes, his throat tight. He takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly.

“Jack was shaking, and he went back into his room and locked the door, and I—” Bitty’s voice gives out for a moment and he’s grateful to feel his mother’s hand on his shoulder. “—I was so scared for him?”

He’s not sure why he phrases it like a question. He was scared. But he doesn’t know what to do with that information. His mother squeezes his shoulder. Bitty takes one damp hand from his face and reaches up to squeeze over her hand in thanks. He swallows and continues, quietly.

“I was scared for him, and then he spent, like, all of Sunday in the library and wouldn’t meet my eyes at all when he was in the Haus, and then packed up and left on Monday, and we’ve barely talked since then? Like, I made some cookies while he was at the library and stuck them in his bag on Monday as a—a—a peace offering, I guess? Mama, I didn’t want to eavesdrop but they were loud and I was worried, and he wouldn’t talk to me, so I couldn’t even apologize after he went back into his room…”

He trails off, but his mother doesn’t say anything, just squeezes his shoulder some more. Bitty can’t stand the silence, filled only with a sniffle or two of his own.

“He said thanks for the cookies and the note I wrote with them, so I guess he’s not too mad at me for overhearing. But he didn’t answer my text last night, and I’m sure he’s busy and maybe just forgot but I—” He stops himself there. This is already way more than he’d meant to tell.

He coughs a little, pulls away from his mother, and walks over to the sink to wash his face. “I—yeah, I don’t really know how he is, and I’m kind of worried.”

His mother still hasn’t said anything, and when he turns around and looks at her, she looks as worried as he feels. He lets out a shaky breath.

She walks over and kisses his forehead and pulls him into a hug. “You’re a good friend, Dicky,” she murmurs, and Bitty hopes she’s right.


After lunch, Bitty puts Beyoncé on blast and does squats until he can’t keep his balance anymore. It’s exercise, and it’s good for him. It’s not a distraction technique. Well, not solely.

He’s about to go collapse on the couch, watch the Food Network, and maybe take a nap when his phone rings. He picks it up and stares at the name on the caller ID for a moment before swiping to accept the call.

“Hello?”

“Hey,” says Jack’s voice from the other end. Bitty swallows. Guess it’s time to find out where they stand.

“Hi Jack!!” God, how forcefully cheerful does he sound? Is this weird? Why is Jack even calling?

“What’s that song?” Jack asks, no preamble. But he doesn’t sound curt, just frustrated that he doesn’t know. Bitty huffs out a breath, half a relieved laugh. They must be on okay terms, anyway, if that’s how the conversation is going to go.

“That’s like… halo halo or something,” Jack clarifies. Bitty giggles outright at this one.

“…‘Halo’?” he answers, unable to keep the amusement from his voice.

“Thanks,” says Jack, and hangs up.

What.

It’s not uncharacteristic for Jack to have short conversations like that out of the blue, but why call instead of text? And no explanation?

[12:36 PM]
Yesterday 10:30 PM

It almost got to 60F here
today. Have you frozen
yet?

Today 12:32 PM

Happy to help! What was that for?
Read 12:35 PM


One sec

[iMessage]

Two minutes later, the phone rings again.

“Yes?” Bitty asks.

“Hey,” says Jack.

“Why hello again, Mr. Zimmermann.” Bitty hopes the teasing in his voice is appreciated.

“Hey. Shitty wants to Skype,” Jack says. Was that supposed to answer the “Halo” question?

“…okay?” It doesn’t clarify anything, but maybe Jack will elaborate. He does that sometimes if nobody presses him.

Jack doesn’t elaborate.

He waits a beat, but then adds “So sorry I hung up.” He waits a few beats more, then says “Okay, bye” and hangs up again.

Bitty is more confused than ever, but also more confident that Jack hasn’t gone back to hating him, so at least there’s that?


[2:14 PM]
Today 12:32 PM

Happy to help! What was that for?

One sec


Today 2:08 PM

Oh! Were you talking to Shitty
because it's his birthday?

I still don't understand the
Halo thing though

Yeah. He was making fun
of me though

Because that song was
playing and I didn't know
what it was called

But he wouldn't tell me and
I didn't know enough words
to google it

So I hung up on him and
called you

He says to tell you I cheated

^_^ ok. Happy to help!
Read 2:13 PM

[iMessage]

Bitty smiles. It seems where they stand is just where they were.


That night, Bitty’s dreams are as disjointed and yet somehow comprehensible as Lardo’s “suspended animation” sculpture. The first one starts with him and Shitty quizzing Jack on pop music and ends with his mother trying to Skype Jack to make sure he’s okay, but he doesn’t pick up the call.

Then suddenly Bitty is on Jack’s bed at the Haus, watching silently, frozen in place, as Parson yells at Jack and pushes him against the door to kiss him. Bitty tries to get up and stop him, but he can’t move or speak. He just has to keep watching.

He wakes up on Friday way too early, angry and confused, and punches his pillow. He tries, but he doesn’t go back to sleep.

For the rest of the day, Bitty tries not to think about what he heard.

Chapter Text

Jack tries not to wonder what Bitty heard.

To wonder whether he was there long enough to hear Kent kiss him to try to make him stop talking and worrying, like they were in juniors together again, with the whole world just watching to see how much better they would get before the draft.

Long enough to hear Kent kiss him to help him remember what it was like, what they were like; to remind Jack about the good times, because sometimes it was good.

And maybe for a second, Jack—Jack almost, Jack wanted, Jack thought—but he pulled away and said “no,” and he meant “I can’t do this, we can’t be that again, I can’t—”

Did Bitty—Bittle, Jack reminds himself—hear Kent try to fix things? Telling Jack to stop thinking for once, like he used to say with a laugh and a kiss when Jack admitted his worries about the future, about the draft, about them…

And then he framed it like a favor, like he’d be the one responsible for getting Jack on the team, like they both knew Jack wouldn’t be able to do it on his own if he tried, and for a minute Jack did know it. Kenny was right, he always was, and had Bittle heard?

No, he wasn’t, Jack reminds himself. He was wrong, he didn’t know everything, he never had.

It’s easier to remember when he’s not feeling alone in a crowd of people, some part of him afraid Kent might show up again, and some tiny part he doesn’t want to admit hoping, just a little, that he will.

He wishes Shitty were here. Or Bittle. Or even someone else from the team, just… someone to be there for Jack as a friend, not as a contact, or a friend of his father’s, or both.

Because they are his friends, all of them, even if he’s not good at saying it.

That was how Kent had slipped up, how he went too far and too fast—he insulted the team, and no matter how easy it was for Jack to hear Kenny echoing his fears and slip back into those thought patterns, the Samwell team is good, and he knows it.

And Jack… Jack shook it off, and he finds himself smiling at the thought of making that reference in front of Bittle just to see his face—he shook off the feel, the pull, the remnants of the magic they’d had, because whatever it was, it wasn’t real, not enough of it. It was never worth it, not really.

And he’d said to get out, and Kent ignored it, like he always did, and for once Jack stood up to him and called him on it.

On ignoring Jack’s boundaries, deliberately pushing until he knew Jack was uncomfortable, cornering him in his room. Called Kent on trying to control him, like he always had, because that had never been okay even when Jack just let him do it instead of fighting, and was Bitty there? Did he know?

Had he heard when Kent tried one more time to pull him back in?

“What do you want me to say? That I miss you? I miss you, okay? …I miss you.”

Was he there when Jack saw through him, recognized their old patterns?

“…you always say that.”

And he had, every time Jack said he was done, that Kent couldn’t control him, that it wasn’t okay, he’d told Jack how much he cared.

Told Jack how much he missed him.

Told Jack how much he—

And it wasn’t enough, it never was. Even if he meant it as sincerely as he ever meant anything, it never lasted, he always did it again sooner or later. Usually sooner.

And Jack was done, he wasn’t going to fall for that again. Wasn’t going to fall for Kent again.

And Kent knew it, he could tell he’d lost.

He’d gotten vicious, barely even bothered to pretend he wasn’t saying what he knew would hurt most. To pretend he wasn’t saying Jack is too fucked up to care about, isn’t good enough, and everyone knows it, and saying it like he was just agreeing with Jack’s own opinions of himself.

Jack reminds himself again Kent isn’t always right, he never was. He tries to imagine Shitty standing next to him, making fun of the other party guests, and it works for a while, and then someone says “—but I still—” and Jack hears it in Kent’s voice again.

“—but I still care.” He hadn’t used quite those words, not this time, but close enough.

Come back, he hadn’t said. Come with me. You know you want to, I’m the only one who really cares about you, everyone knows you’re a fuck-up and that you won’t ever be good enough, but I don’t care, and are you going to push me away too?

He hadn’t said it, but he hadn’t needed to. Jack heard it anyway, and told him again to get out.

And Kent tried to turn it around, to make it somehow Jack’s fault—“Fine, shut me out again,”—but Jack didn’t let himself give in.

Had Bitty heard him warning Kent to stay away from his team, Jack wonders? He must have been standing there by then, at least, even if he’d only just come upstairs before they left his room.

“My team,” he’d called them.

Jack hadn’t said Kent wasn’t—isn’t—on his team, and he hadn’t said he didn’t want that to change, and some small part of him does, but most of him knows Kent was never really on his side even when they were on the same team, even when…

And Kent hadn’t spelled out what he might tell, but he didn’t need to.

They’d both known the unspoken words at the end of that sentence. So does Bitty now, surely, even if he hadn’t heard anything before those last few seconds. Calisse.


“Why? Afraid I’ll tell them something about us?”


Jack notices almost distantly he’s started to feel tense again, stressed almost to the point of panic. He takes a deep breath, then another, and squeezes his hands together to keep them still, counting mentally to keep his breathing steady.

When his hands have stopped shaking and he’s breathing evenly again, he feels less like he’s watching himself from a distance, so he stops counting. He looks around the party instead, trying to distract himself again, but for all the people there, he still finds himself feeling lonely. It’s not a new feeling, but no more pleasant for that. It’s strange, really—it’s only Saturday, he’s been home less than a week, and already he’s half-wishing he were at school again.

He knows plenty of their guests, and is sure many of them would be glad to talk to him, but everyone here is a friend of his parents, or a professional contact, or both, and he’s glad to be home, but if he’s being honest with himself, all he really wants right now is one of his friends. Shitty or Bittle would be his first choices, as usual, and Lardo is always nice to spend time with, but even Ransom and/or Holster, or one of the frogs… anyone, really, as long as they were there as Jack’s friend more than anything else.

He pulls out his phone, acting as if someone’s just texted him in case anyone is looking, and texts Shitty.

[19:15]
aujourd’hui 19:13

Hey
Are you there

[Message]

He waits a couple minutes, but Shitty doesn’t reply, so he tries Bittle instead, and almost laughs at how swiftly he gets a response.

[19:16]
aujourd’hui 19:15

Hey Bittle
Lu à 19:15

Hey, Jack! What's up?

[iMessage]

Jack doesn’t actually have an answer beyond the truth, which he doesn’t quite want to admit, so instead he chirps Bittle about apparently being as glued to his phone while on vacation as at school.

They’re in familiar territory now, and Jack feels more comfortable already. The group text is good at that, too, but the team can get nearly as overwhelming through texts as in person, and right now that’s just not what Jack needs.

Jack asks what Bittle is doing, still half-surprised he actually was paying attention to his phone rather than his family and friends, and suddenly hopes he isn’t dragging him away from anything more important. Or enjoyable.

[19:21]
aujourd’hui 19:15

Hey Bittle

Hey, Jack! what's up?

Do you ever put your
phone down

Hey, you're the one who
texted me, remember?

You're on vacation Bittle

So are you! What are you
up to?

At a party

Anyway are you planning
to do anything that isn't
with your family or baking

…well, I'm texting you,
aren't I?

And I'll have you know I
was cleaning the kitchen,
by myself

So *there*

Why were you cleaning it

…we may currently be
using every cookie tray
we own

Possibly including the
cooling racks

I admit nothing

How many batches of
cookies have you made
so far
Lu à 19:21

[iMessage]

Jack finds himself smiling at his phone. Bittle takes a moment to respond this time, but then sends a photo of a table covered in what must be at least a dozen different kinds of cookies. Jack immediately chirps him about it.

[19:28]

Possibly including the
cooling racks

I admit nothing

How many batches of
cookies have you made
so far

picture of a kitchen with something like a dozen batches of cookies visible, on every available surface

Bittle why

Oh, sorry if my cookies
baked from scratch with
love aren't as good as your
fancy catered things :P

No yours are better

That's just a ridiculous
number of them

I'm with like 75 people and
you have more cookies
there than there are here

Have you done anything
except bake yet since
you got back

I've done squats!

…and I'll have you know I've
gone shopping, too

For more baking supplies?

…maybe…

That doesn't count as
not baking
Lu à 19:28

Well if you want to be like
*that* about it

[iMessage]

Bitty sends another photo of himself, this time laughing, followed a minute later by a shot of yet more cookies, these apparently fresh out of the oven, with the caption “don’t tell me these don’t look fantastic”.

They’re interrupted by a new message in the Haus-and-frogs group text—Chowder being excited about his holiday plans—and so the conversation turns first to their teammates, then to other things from there.

Eventually Jack can’t really justify standing at the side of the room, lost in thought or texting, at his parents’ party any longer, and Bittle has a family commitment of his own, so the conversation ends. He goes back to socializing with their guests, but Jack finds it a lot easier, somehow. He feels better, for all he and Bittle still haven’t talked about… that, and he thinks maybe they don’t need to and it’ll still be okay.

He hopes so. He likes talking to him.


When Jack wakes up Sunday morning, he checks his phone for the time and finds a message from Bitty from long after Jack was asleep. What was he doing up so late? Jack can’t help teasing him a little, though.

[08:17]
aujourd’hui 00:52

Hope your party ended well!
I'm hitting the hay.

aujourd’hui 08:17

Are you an actual farmer?

But yeah it did, thanks.
Distribué

[iMessage]

Then he gets up, stretches a little, and lowers himself to the floor to do a morning workout. Dozens of push-ups, crunches, lunges, and squats later, he heads for the shower. After he gets back and gets dressed, he sees Bitty has already texted back. The kid probably sleeps with his phone in-hand, honestly.

[09:40]
aujourd’hui 08:48

Yeah, December is prime
harvest month. At one in
the morning. Get with the
program, Mr. Zimmermann.

aujourd’hui 09:31

Look at you up at a
reasonable hour. Not
taking advantage of the
lack of morning practice?

I *am* indeed. No practice
but yes breakfast. Gonna make
my folks omelets before church.

Which requires you to be
awake at 8:45?

Never thought I'd see you
knock early rising, Mr.
Zimmermann.

Is there a way to draw me
rolling my eyes out of
letters like you do

◔_◔

How do I find those on
my phone
Lu à 9:38

◕‿◕

I'll show you after break (◡‿◡)

[iMessage]

Jack smiles.

[09:44]

Anyway you texted me
at a quarter of one last
night. Were you midnight
baking?

Aren't you tired of
cookies at this point

NEVER.

…but in fact there were
no cookies. It was all
your fault.

Why was it my fault? I was
asleep by 11:30
Lu à 9:42

You gave me that book!

I only started it because
you recommended it in
the first place

And then I stayed up
late reading it last night,
which makes it your fault.

[iMessage]

Jack smiles to himself, reading that. He’s glad Bittle’s enjoying Shooting the War—he read it last semester for class, and after all the music and pop culture Bittle’s exposed him to it was nice being on the other side of that.

They discuss it for a while, and somehow Jack finds himself inviting Bittle to watch Ken Burns’ The War after break. He pauses for a minute, but… but this is Bitty, and it won’t be like that, watching it this time. Even when they chirp each other about their interests, it’s nice, without that biting edge of genuine mockery. It’s not like it was with Kent. It’s not fire with Bitty, all alluring and hot and intense, but painful when it’s—when he’s—too close; it’s sunlight in the kitchen on a peaceful afternoon, warm and relaxing and comfortable.

[10:13]

We could watch it together after break

If you wanted to
Lu à 10:12

I'd love to!

It sounds really interesting

[iMessage]

Jack’s mother asks why he’s smiling at his phone.

He doesn’t even try to take the smile off his face. “Making plans.”

Chapter Text

Although it’s vacation and a weekend, Bitty is still up bright and early on Sunday morning nevertheless. At home or at school, he likes his Sunday mornings. His phone informs him of ten texts he missed while he was sleeping. Eight of them are in the Haus&co. group:

[8:46 AM]
Today 1:04 AM

B. “Shitty” Knight
Putting lit candles on dead
pine trees is a fuckin weird
tradition when you think about it

Larissa “Lardo” Duan
Shut up shits you’re stoned. Go
to sleep.

B. “Shitty” Knight
To be fair you are also stoned.
With me. In the same room. You
go to sleep

Chris “Chowder” Chow
Shitty has a point though

That's hella weird

William “Dex” Poindexter
My phone woke me up for this?

Derek “Nursey” Nurse
You need to fix your volume settings bro

William “Dex” Poindexer
picture of Dex in the dark flipping off the camera
Good night!!

[Text Message]

Bitty rolls his eyes. The other two are from Jack.

[8:48 AM]
Yesterday 12:52 PM

Hope your party ended well!
I'm hitting the hay.
Read 8:17 AM

Today 8:17 AM

Are you an actual farmer?

But yeah it did, thanks.

[iMessage]

Bitty smiles and shakes his head. Yeah, December is prime harvest month. At one in the morning. Get with the program, Mr. Zimmermann. he taps out in reply.

He rolls out of bed, brushes his teeth, lays out his clothes, and quietly heads downstairs to get breakfast started in privacy. All last night’s cookies have been packed away, ready to take to his grandparents’, and the counters are bare.

By now he has figured out the new spice cabinet, but he’s feeling omelets today, so he forgoes the pantry and instead hits the fridge, earbuds in and Christmas music popping. He chops peppers and mushrooms and deli ham, beats up half a dozen eggs, adds eggs to the shopping list for at least the fourth time this break, and goes back to the fridge for a bag of shredded cheese.

He’ll wait to start cooking until his folks are up (which should be soon, as they need to leave for church in an hour), but he gets out the bread for toast and dances to his music while he waits.

His phone buzzes.

[9:31 AM]
Today 8:48 AM

Yeah, December is prime
harvest month. At one in
the morning. Get with the
program, Mr. Zimmermann.
Read 9:31 AM

Today 9:31 AM

Look at you up at a
reasonable hour. Not
taking advantage of the
lack of morning practice?

[iMessage]

Bitty is in too good a mood even to mind the slight to his sleeping habits.

[9:33 AM]

I *am* indeed. No practice
but yes breakfast. Gonna make
my folks omelets before church.

Which requires you to be
awake at 8:45?

Never thought I'd see you
knock early rising, Mr.
Zimmermann
Sent

[iMessage]

Jack doesn’t respond right away, so Bitty puts the toast in and starts the veggies browning while he waits. That way he can put them in the eggs as soon as he hears his parents start moving. (From years of staying up past his “bedtime”, informal as it was, he is attuned to the sound of creaking floorboards, and can hear it even over his music.)

[9:35 AM]

Never thought I'd see you
knock early rising, Mr.
Zimmermann
Read 9:34 AM

Is there a way to draw me
rolling my eyes out of
letters like you do?

[iMessage]

Bitty doesn’t roll his own eyes, but it’s a close thing. He also has to stifle a giggle at the phrasing “out of letters.” He types in “eyeroll” and lets it autocorrect to the appropriate emoji as his phone is set to do, then promises to show Jack how to find them after break. Although trying to explain the Japanese keyboard and the the bookmarked web pages he uses to Jack over the phone would be amusing, it will be more productive and less frustrating in person.

Bitty resumes working on breakfast and replies to Jack’s texts between steps of cooking. He cuts up some fruit and blames Jack’s book recommendation for his late night. He pours the first round of eggs into the pan and tells Jack his favorite parts.

He pulls his headphones out and props his phone up beside the stove. While he fills and closes the omelet and makes a second one, he watches new gray bubbles pop up, filled with Jack’s comments and extra details he had learned from class. Bitty doesn’t have to try hard to imagine the tiny curve that is probably at the edge of Jack’s mouth as he shares what he knows.

Jack really is a natural teacher, and Bitty has imagined more than once how much fun his peewee teams probably had. Eleven- and twelve-year-olds probably didn’t let him pull the hockeybot face so much. And damn, now Bitty is thinking about Jack with kids, and he is so screwed.

Bitty groans and plates the second omelet, then asks for clarification on a couple things so he can redirect his thoughts. A few more gray bubbles pop up as Jack answers Bitty’s questions, and by the time the third omelet is done, Bitty is a little overwhelmed with all the new information.

He sticks the bread in the toaster, and as his parents finally make their way downstairs, Bitty finds himself agreeing to watch a documentary with Jack when they get back to school. He sighs inwardly because there’s no preventing his imagination from going places with the idea of one-on-one movie night with Jack. Maybe he can just limit it…

He tells Jack he has to go join his folks for breakfast, then slips his phone into his pocket and brings the omelets to the table. He goes back for the fruit and toast, but is waylaid by his mother as she steps through the door and grabs him for a hug.

“Mornin’, Dicky,” she says, with a kiss to his hair.

“Mornin’, Mother,” he replies, twisting to kiss her cheek. “Will you pour drinks?”

She lets him go to get the food. “Sure. You want coffee?”

“No ma’am, just juice, please.” Bitty sets the food down and waves to his father as he comes into the kitchen as well. “Mornin’, Coach.”

“Mornin’,” says Coach. “Thanks for breakfast.”

Bitty smiles and takes a seat across from his father. “What do y’all eat for breakfast when I’m at school?”

“We fed ourselves just fine for years before you came along, son,” Coach says, his face halfway between a scowl and a smile. Bitty laughs a little and starts eating, since he still needs to get back upstairs and change before they leave.

“He means ‘cereal, unless your mother gets up in time for biscuits’,” his mother says, setting a cup of orange juice in front of Bitty and a mug of coffee in front of his father. She goes back to get her coffee, then joins them at the table.

Coach swallows his bite of omelet (which Bitty is inordinately pleased to see is half gone already) and grumbles, “Hey, I make pancakes sometimes.”

Bitty’s mother rolls her eyes. “Dear, I’m fairly certain that the last time you made pancakes, Dicky was still in high school.”

Bitty smiles around his glass of juice. This isn’t entirely “home” anymore, but it’s nice. He hurries to finish his food so he can get dressed before they need to leave. Church isn’t entirely “home” anymore, either, but it’s good to see people and catch up, anyway. Plus, there’s the cookie swap.


“Enjoy the cookies, Mrs. Lansing!” Bitty calls over his shoulder as he navigates to his mother’s car, tupperwares full of cookies towering in his own hands.

“Will I see you around Bible study at your house today?” She replies as Bitty is setting his stack of boxes on the trunk of the car. He freezes, then turns around to answer.

“Nnnno,” he says, with as little hesitation as he can manage. “I’ve got some errands to run.” He had forgotten about his mother’s Bible study group, and as much as he loves his mother’s friends, that’s just not what he’s in the mood for right now.

“Alrighty, then,” says Mrs. Lansing. “You take care, now. See you on Christmas Eve?”

“Yes, ma’am! Have a good week!” He waves and starts stacking the boxes in the back seat, then goes to sit shotgun beside his mother. Coach had gotten a ride with Mr. Jefferson to some… Christmas… beer… thing? Whatever. Grown Men Only doing their Grown Men Stuff. Beer is never as appealing without Shitty around making a fool of himself, anyway.

They spend the ride home discussing the pretzel cookies they’d picked up from the swap and how they might modify them for Aunt Jo, who is obsessed with pretzels and ducks. Bitty is fairly sure that he would win Christmas one year if he could make mallard duck pretzel cookies.

He helps his mother carry the cookies inside, then heads up to his room to change for a run. It’s chilly and damp, but Lord above, it beats running in Massachusetts in December, and he’s bizarrely full of energy. Best take advantage of it while it lasts.

He throws his church clothes into the hamper and pulls on a teeshirt and shorts. He’ll warm up after not too long, no need to bother with pants or a jacket. Earbuds in, he starts up his running playlist then slides his phone into his pocket. By the time he’s at the edge of the drive, Florence + the Machine are telling him to run fast, so he does.

He heads away from town, toward the middle school, then comes back across the tracks and makes for Heritage Park, feet pounding the ground in time to the music. He works through the whole duck variation on the pretzel cookies in his head, and by the time he passes the high school, he’s also given far too much thought to how to make them into maple-flavored hockey sticks. He wants to scold himself for even trying, but his heart’s not in it. He’s going to have to wait this dumb crush out.

From the high school to the park he does his best to think of nothing but the pavement beneath his feet, and largely he succeeds. Mostly when he does think, he thinks about those “barefoot running” people whose shoes have toes and way-too-thin soles. What if they step on a piece of glass or something? Eugh, no thank you.

Despite the weather, when he reaches the park he sees a group of kids tossing a football around on the football field, and when he starts to round the bend and make his loop back toward home, he sees someone up ahead of him on the grass jogging with a dog. The dog—a big yellow one, probably a golden retriever—pulls up short to sniff something, and its owner backtracks to meet it.

As Bitty approaches them, the owner turns around and Bitty nearly misses a step. The guy smiles in recognition and waves to him, and Bitty hesitantly waves back, slowing down and with his other hand pulling his phone out to pause his music.

“Bittle!” Stephen calls, still smiling. “Hey, how’s it going, man? I ain’t seen you in forever!” Bitty wipes his hand across his forehead and then runs it through his hair and swallows.

“Hey, Stephen,” he says, smiling back. He can’t not. He could never not smile back at Stephen, and damn, this was not really how he’d planned for this day to go.

He’s granted a temporary mercy when Stephen’s dog jumps up at him as he gets close to them. He holds his hands out to be smelled, and Stephen tugs on the leash, scolding, “Down, Abigail! No! Down, girl! Shame on you!”

Bitty smiles even more as she backs down and starts chasing her tail, then looks back up to Stephen and tries not to look too pained as he feels a pang in his heart. Stephen looks very much like he did in high school, but somehow even more beautiful. He’s tall and muscular, his skin a clear medium brown and his face one giant smile. He’s shaved his head closer than he ever used to, and it looks good, as does the thin chinstrap beard he’s rocking.

It was never going to happen, but old flames die hard.

“So how are you?” Stephen asks again. “What are you out running for in this weather without a dog for an excuse?”

Bitty runs his hand through his hair again, then smooths it back down. On one hand he’s sure he looks a mess, but on the other, he looks athletic, so that’s something.

“Oh,” he says. “I’m training for hockey. Which I play. At college—er, on varsity. Um.” He pauses for a moment, silently cursing his fluently babbling tongue for letting him down now, then remembers the other question. “Oh, I’m good! How are you? Are you still… at… Georgia Tech?” He can feel himself pulling a face, hoping that he remembered right.

Stephen’s face breaks into another smile, and he nods. “Ah, cool. Yeah, senior year. Messed my knee up in August, though, so I ain’t playing football this year, unfortunately.” He pats his leg. “Just getting back into jogging; hope I can at least play some sports for fun in the future, you know? And you’re… up north somewhere, right?” He looks so genuinely apologetic for not knowing, and Bitty feels himself smile and nod in encouragement. It’s sweet how he’s trying, and there’s no reason he would know, having graduated years before Bitty.

Bitty’s hand hovers on the back of his neck. “Uh, yeah. Samwell. It’s in Massachusetts.”

Stephen smiles and nods in recognition. “Right, right. You surviving the cold? I mean you must, if you play hockey. You said hockey right?”

It’s not fair, because Stephen is so nice and has always been so nice, and ninth grade comes flooding back to Bitty like a river of teenage angst. He tries to divert the river, though, and be nice to Stephen in return.

“Yep! Ice hockey. But it ain’t—you don’t get too cold because of all the padding you have to wear. And ’cause basically all you do is sprint.” Abigail starts tugging at the leash, and Stephen reaches down to rub her head.

“You mind walking and talking?” Stephen asks, and Bitty reminds himself that his heart rate is up from running, nothing else. He has waited this crush out, and it’s over, and he’s not gonna be one of those silly people who can never move on.

“Sure,” he says, and they let Abigail take the lead down the side of the road.

“So all the padding,” Stephen starts again, because God bless him, he actually cares. “It’s for tackling, ain’t it? Are you even big enough to tackle a hockey player?”

Is he even big enough? That’s always been the question, hasn’t it. He wants to be angry with Stephen for asking that, for doubting him, for making him feel embarrassed. He wants to, but he can’t. It’s too hard to be mad at the only football player who ever gave him the time of day, especially when he knows, with the rational part of his brain, that Stephen is genuinely curious and doesn’t know that much about hockey, and is just being nice again. Ugh.

“It’s called ‘checking’ or ‘body-checking’, but yeah. And the pads are also ’cause the puck flies real fast, and it hurts to get hit even if you are wearing pads, let alone if you ain’t.” Smurf, the other winger on his line, caught him hard in the shoulder at practice last week, and he rubs his arm just thinking about it.

“And, no, I don’t really initiate checks. Mostly I just move fast and get out of the way. And my—my teammates got my back, they block for me when they can.” Bitty decides bringing up the concussion from last year would not be flattering to him or to his teammates, so he neglects to mention it.

“So, you the quarterback, then?” Stephen teases just a little, and Bitty is not going to flirt back. He’s not. Because this is not flirting, and he doesn’t even like Stephen like that anymore. Why do his emotions do this?

Bitty rolls his eyes but does consider it for a moment. “Yeah, sort of. I mean, the roles ain’t that clear-cut like in football, but I guess you could say so. Sometimes that, sometimes the receiver.”

“Cool,” Stephen says, like he really means it. Abigail stops to sniff a tree, and Bitty and Stephen wait for her, silently. They start walking again.

Finally Stephen asks good-naturedly, “So what are they teaching you up there at that Yankee school? What are you studying?”

Bitty debates internally for a second, trying to decide how much detail is appropriate here. “I ain’t really decided,” he hedges. There’s no reason he shouldn’t explain American Studies, but it sounds silly in his head, and he can’t shake the old habit of trying not to talk about himself.

“You gotta decide soon, though, don’tcha?” Stephen presses. “You a sophomore, ain’tcha?”

“Yeah,” says Bitty. “I—probably I’ll do some sort of history. What about you? Surely by your senior year, you’ve decided.”

“Mechanical engineering. It’s been pretty go-go-go, and much as I miss playing football, the extra time this semester ain’t been a problem. Got an internship all lined up for next semester, and my last few classes…” He trails off and they walk in silence a little more.

Bitty’s about to make up a reason he has to get home when Stephen breaks the silence once more. “So how’s Coach? I ain’t seen him in ages.”

And there’s that again, like when was Bitty ever his own person, not just Coach’s kid? (Spoiler alert, as Holster would say: when people wanted to beat him up.)

But Stephen is just being nice and bless it all if Bitty doesn’t appreciate him trying so hard with the weird smalltalk. Bitty feels appreciated, and all weird crush feelings aside, appreciated is a good thing to be. So he keeps his frustration to himself.

“Coach is fine!” he says. “Same old same old. How’s your family? How’s Anna?”

“They’re fine!” Stephen answers. “Anna’s good. She’s in the middle of college apps and all that, but she’s good.”

Bitty can feel the awkward silence coming back when Stephen’s phone makes a doorbell sound. Stephen fishes it out of his pocket, reads the notification, and groans.

“Ugh, sorry, look, I gotta go, but uh. Jeff’s having a New Year’s Eve party and you should come. We need to catch up right, and I want to know more about hockey and stuff.”

Jeff is having a party and Bitty should come? Should Bitty also dress up in a costume so Jeff won’t recognize him, or bring his own suit of armor to hide in, or…?

“Does Jeff—” Bitty starts. “I mean, do you think he’ll be ok if you invite me?” Dammit, why did he let his voice go quiet with that question? So much for sounding like an adult.

Stephen reaches over and squeezes Bitty’s shoulder, and the little ninth-grade Eric in Bitty’s head swoons.

“Yeah,” Stephen promises. “It’s fine. He’s—he ain’t who he used to be.”

So he’ll only call me ‘pussy’ once instead of four times? Bitty wonders. But to Stephen he says, “I—yeah, thank you. I’ll try to make it.” He rubs the back of his neck again.

“Well, see ya!” Stephen says, and he takes off with Abigail, jogging away across the empty baseball diamond as a shortcut.

“Bye!” Bitty calls after them, then starts his own trek home, sticking to the road. He sinks back into his music, earbuds returned to his ears, and concentrates on his footfalls all the way home.

When he arrives, he quickly bypasses the Bible study in the living room, which seems to have moved on to the gossip portion of the meeting, and makes a beeline for the shower. His frustration, which he had kept at bay and channeled into his feet on the way home, comes back to the surface.

When you’re back in your hometown and you run into past crushes X_X he tweets as he walks into the bathroom. He fills his cup at the sink and gulps down some water.

Then he follows up: Mind you, a crush that never amounted to anything. Never would, anyway… (Trust me.)

What, Bitty process his feelings through passive-aggressive tweets? Never.

…At least the people who respond to him on twitter are sympathetic. He turns the water on and starts to strip off his sweaty clothes, but is interrupted by his phone vibrating a text alert against the counter. He drops his shirt to the ground and switches from twitter to his texts, where he finds one message from Jack, with another book recommendation.

The world just needs to stop with nice boys right now. Single life would be so much easier if attractive boys would stop being nice to him. (On second thought, it really is better than when they are mean to him, so. Ugh, boys.)

Bitty sighs and sends two more quick tweets:

Why do I always fall for people that I *know* I’ll never be with?

Right. I hate being mopey. Need to make a pie. Maybe I’ll call one of the frogs…

It helps to say things like that “out loud” sometimes. Even though no one on twitter would actually hold him accountable, Bitty is better at following through on things when he has announced them to other people.

So. Shower. Chocolate pumpkin pie with spiced cream. A nice chat with Nursey or Chowder, maybe. Dex is already visiting his grandparents, so Bitty won’t bother him.

It’ll be fine.

Chapter Text

It is, generally, fine.

The pie comes out well. His mother doesn’t comment, though they already had more to take to Moo Maw’s than is even close to rational. She does squeeze his shoulder as he is washing up, and Bitty is glad she doesn’t stick around.

He does call Chowder, who is doing well. Now that the gifts he had ordered have arrived, he wanted Bitty’s opinion on wrapping paper. Some day, Bitty thinks, the boy will learn to make his own decisions, but until then, Bitty is happy to provide friendly affirmation.

That night sees Bitty awake well into the wee hours of the morning, eating his pie early and joking with Coach. He goes to bed in a considerably better mood than he’d come home in.

They pack up and head to Moo Maw’s the next day, and Bitty is too busy chasing down small cousins and answering questions about college and hockey to think about boys, cute and nice or otherwise. He only contemplates writing “American Studies major” on his forehead twice.

The Christmas Eve service is beautiful, as always, and no one has to know if his eyes well up when everyone raises their candles at the end of the vigil. Moo Maw’s church isn’t home, either, but Bitty has a weakness for traditions.

Christmas morning, Bitty, asleep on the living room couch, wakes at seven AM to the sound of five-year-old Jesse shrieking that Santa had come overnight. He comforts himself briefly with the fact that at least it’s not five AM, and at least he’s not going to get run into the boards this morning. He ignores any part of himself that regrets this fact. Not that any of him does. Definitely not.

He helps Moo Maw and Aunt Judy make a breakfast feast, feeding Jesse chocolate chips from the pancake reserve as a bribe, since the rule is no presents before breakfast.

After breakfast, the kids open gifts, then the adults. Bitty’s older cousin Carrie and her fiancé, Scott, get nice dishes and soft sheets, and from Moo Maw they get a homemade quilt, and for the rest of the day, it seems that their wedding has finally replaced Bitty’s college career as the conversation topic of choice.

Bitty enjoys the conversation. He does. Weddings are happy traditions, and the food alone at any wedding is fascinating. And he likes Scott, and he wants Carrie to be happy. He tamps down any tendrils of bitterness and distracts himself with his teammates when necessary.


[5:52 PM]
Today 5:33 PM

Justin “Ransom” Oluransi
Okay but then the redesign
makes no sense

Sean “Smurf” Murphy
Who even knows, man. Can
they make money off an old
game with a new theme song?
Doesn't have to make sense

B. “Shitty” Knight
Making sense is overrated.

Adam “Holster” Birkholtz
Says the future lawyer

B. “Shitty” Knight
*bows*

We are spending an awful
lot of time texting each other
on what is a family holiday

Sean “Smurf” Murphy
True. Speaking of which,
dinner

Adam “Holster” Birkholtz
Same

But shut up, Bits. That's *why*
we are texting so much

Merry Christmas again,
y'all :P

Merry Christmas! :D

Today 5:51 PM

Jack Zimmermann
Merry Christmas

We have a game next week

[Text Message]


That night, his aunts and uncles want to clean out Moo Maw’s attic, and Jesse and his sister, Sarah, want to have a Just Dance tournament. It’s not a hard choice for Bitty. He organizes the game for the little ones and even plays a couple rounds with them, trying not to beat them too badly. He’s going to have “We No Speak Americano” stuck in his head til 2015, probably, but it’s fun, so he doesn’t mind.

He’s been ignoring the SMH group text most of the evening because he’s hanging around with his elementary-school cousins, and his teammates are currently just quoting their favorite Cards Against Humanity combos at each other. He does listen patiently and sympathize privately with Shitty, though, as he lets off steam about his family and their “unnecessary, unwelcome, and unintelligent obsession” with his future.

Mikey gets bored with dancing and asks Bitty to make popcorn for a movie, which is how Bitty finds himself with Jesse on his lap, livetexting The Lego Movie to Shitty. Once Bitty figures out where the plot is going (which, admittedly, takes quite some time—the moral of the story is well-concealed til the end), he distracts Shitty from his family by asking him to do critical analysis of the movie by text message. That’s also fun, but now “We No Speak Americano” is competing with “Everything Is Awesome” for ultimate earworm status, and Bitty doesn’t actually know the lyrics to either one, which is going to get on his nerves.

At the end of the day, though, Bitty is very happy. After the movie, he’d helped drag Jesse, Sarah, Mikey, and Marie up to their sleeping bags, kissed them good night, and now he’s in the kitchen, eating pie and arguing about the Bruins with Scott, who grew up in Worcester before moving to Virginia where he met Carrie. Moo Maw is getting ready to go to bed, so Bitty gets up, kisses her cheek, and goes to follow suit.

As he settles onto the couch and plugs in his phone, he backs out of the text with Shitty, ready to catch up on the apparent two hundred and eighty-seven missed texts from his teammates. Lord. It’s only two hundred and eighty-six, though. Just below the group text and Shitty’s name is an unread message from Jack. Bitty taps it.

[11:31 PM]
Sunday 2:58 PM

Another book: An Army at
Dawn by Rick Atkinson

It's part of a series

Sunday 4:04 PM

Thanks!
Read 4:04 PM

Today 8:33 PM

Merry Christmas, Bittle.

[iMessage]

Thanks, Jack, he replies. Then, Do Not Disturb still turned on, he clicks off his phone and puts it under his pillow. Everyone else can wait til morning.


[10:54 AM]
Today 1:33 AM

Adam “Holster” Birkholtz
We haven't had Haus CAH
night in way too long.

Larissa “Lardo” Duan
We'll set it up when we get
back. Or we can play online
at some point.

But right now bed. Cap's
already asleep, I have to
scold you boys.

Justin “Ransom” Oluransi
Yessir, good night :)

Today 10:50 AM

Jack Zimmermann
happy boxing day

Larissa “Lardo” Duan
huh

B. “Shitty” Knight
What ru talking about

Adam “Holster” Birkholtz
Clearly, he's speaking French.

Justin “Ransom” Oluransi
Shut up, amuricans. Happy
Boxing Day, Jack.

[Text Message]


[1:56 PM]
Yesterday 8:33 PM

Merry Christmas, Bittle.

Yesterday 11:32 PM

Thanks, Jack
Read 11:34 PM

Today 1:55 PM

Do they call it Boxing Day
because you have to sit in
the backseat on the way
home with giant boxes?
Sent

[iMessage]


[2:48 PM]
Today 1:55 PM

Do they call it Boxing Day
because you have to sit in
the backseat on the way
home with giant boxes?

No it's because everyone in
Canada wears boxing
gloves all day

Thank god for Siri. How else
could I convey the good
tidings?

You are so full of it. You are
supposed to be pitying my
plight
Read 2:48 PM

Oh. Sorry.

[iMessage]


Once Bitty and his folks get back to their house, Bitty unpacks and decides he needs a squats date with Beyoncé. Afterward, he showers and watches YouTube videos until he passes out.

In the morning he sees that he’s been tagged in a set of get-to-know-you questions on YouTube, so after breakfast, he turns on his camera and gets to work.

When he finally reaches the end of the questions (including at least four takes for the one about calling up his crush), he makes his way back downstairs for lunch. Moo Maw had sent them home with plenty of leftover ham, soup, and casseroles, so he picks through the fridge for a little bit of everything. He eats alone, standing near the sink. He’s pretty sure his mother went to see Mrs. Drake’s garden, and Coach was gone before Bitty even got out of bed, with three or four days’ worth of work to catch up on after the holidays.

Bitty sets his empty plate in the sink and refills his water glass, sucking it down almost without breathing. After all the talking and then the salty food, he’s a little thirsty. As he’s got his glass under the faucet for the third time since he left his bedroom, his mother’s car pulls up in the driveway.

“Dicky?” she calls through the open window. “Help me carry these in?”

“Yes, ma’am!” he calls back, already halfway out the door. They each have only two small bags of groceries to bring in, and she probably could have managed it herself, but Bitty enjoys this routine. It’s familiar. No one almost ever helps him carry in his groceries at school, though not through any rudeness of his teammates. Rather, Bitty usually goes shopping by himself and walks home with the food alone. Boy, did he not realize how helpful cars were for transporting food.

“What are you up to this afternoon?” she asks as they unload the bags.

“I think I’m going for a little run in just a minute,” he answers. “What time should I be back? Coach said something about a cook-out?”

“Tomorrow, I think,” she says. “He might be getting home late tonight. We can pick at the leftovers some more or I got some salad fixin’s. Let’s see what we feel like. Maybe eat around five thirty?”

Bitty nods and looks at the clock. He’s not going for a four-hour run. “Five thirty,” he agrees. He returns to his room to put on running clothes, then hits the sidewalk, music pounding in his ears as his feet pound the pavement.

He makes the same loop as last Sunday, and he tries not to feel disappointed when Stephen and Abigail aren’t there when he enters Heritage Park. If you’re that desperate, just go to the damn party, Bittle, he thinks to himself, groaning. But then, as he’s rounding the curve to head out of the park, he sees them.

Not Stephen and Abigail—well, not Abigail anyway—but a bunch of guys, maybe six, it looks like, with Stephen among them. Bitty is saved from deciding what to do when Stephen sees him about a hundred yards off and waves him over. Bitty slows down gradually and tries to catch his breath before he approaches the group. He recognizes Stephen and Jeff, as well as Casey Davidson (who was in Bitty’s English class four years in a row), Mike Wallis (who was probably in the same freshman English class four years in a row, or should have been), and Joe Becket (whose locker was next to Bitty’s four years in a row, and therefore why Bitty avoided his locker whenever possible).

They all give him a nod and the new guy (who looks big enough he probably plays football, too—maybe nose tackle) offers a weak salute-wave thing as Stephen says, “Pete, this is Eric Bittle. He our coach’s kid and a good dude. Eric, this is Peter Freeman. He a friend of Casey’s.”

Bitty waves back to Peter. “Nice to meet you,” he says politely.

“Likewise,” says Peter.

The silence that follows is one of the loudest Bitty’s heard in quite some time. He’s used to quiet, almost warm silences from Jack and Lardo, or the true silence of being alone in a room. The tension here is thick enough to cut with a butcher knife.

“So.” Poor Peter is the one to break it up. “We were just speculating on the Rose Bowl. What do you think of this whole college playoffs thing, Eric?”

“Mm,” Bitty says, trying to give himself time to think of an intelligent-sounding answer. “Well, football at my school’s D-II, so I ain’t been following it too closely. I would surely love to see Ohio State have their ass handed to them in the Sugar Bowl, but I ain’t holding my breath for that, of course.”

“Oh! I—sorry,” says Peter. “Thought you were in high school yet. My bad.”

“Nah, Bittle’s just little,” Jeff answers, and Bitty is on edge. There’s no obvious malice in Jeff’s voice, though. It is by no stretch kind or affectionate, the way it would be from Jack or Ransom, but… maybe he has changed, like Stephen had said. Bitty tries to let his metaphorical hackles down.

“Where d’you go to school, then?” Peter asks. “And whatchu got against Ohio State?”

“Samwell,” says Bitty. “Little place up in Massachusetts. And I just think Ohio State’s overrated. I like to see them beat sometimes.”

Joe looks vaguely offended by this statement, and Bitty’s instincts are clamoring for him to backpedal, to say they really are good, though, but Casey kicks Joe none-too-subtly in the shin, and Joe settles back. Bitty lets out a carefully measured breath of relief, then reaches over his head and grabs one elbow with his other hand to stretch his arms out. Mostly it gives him something to do in the silence, and it does make him look athletic, if not impressively so.

“Y’all got D-I hockey, though, ain’tcha?” Stephen asks after Mike has bent to tie not one but both of his shoes. He’s got this ridiculously hopeful-slash-encouraging grin on his face as he asks, “That’s why you out running now?”

Bitty swallows and smiles. “Yup. We, uh, we’re D-I and we’re planning to go deep this year. But our regular season doesn’t end for a while yet. Gotta keep up my speed and conditioning.” He ducks his head a little, out of habit.

“You a—” Stephen starts, then stops. “I don’t even know what they called, but you play offense, right?”

Bitty looks up at him and over at Jeff for a split second. “Yeah. On the outside so I’m called a ‘wing’ or a ‘winger’.” He wants to say more, wants to brag about their team and his line and how he’s learning to take checks, but. He doesn’t. It still feels like it would be giving them ammunition.

They all nod and mumble things like “cool” and “good for you”, but after the silence returns, Bitty finds he has used up his football-team-socializing energy for the day. With a long, deliberate stretch of each of his quads, Bitty sighs.

“Nice to see y’all.” He’s not quite lying, which surprises him. “But I best be getting home.”

He moves to start running again, but Jeff steps forward, hand outstretched. Bitty freezes, hoping he doesn’t look actively terrified. Jeff looks uncertain for just a moment before he drops his hand.

“Bittle, uh. See you on Wednesday?” Jeff seems to be addressing the space just above and outside Bitty’s ear, but Bitty still has to remind himself to take a breath. Then he has to remember what’s on Wednesday.

“Party?” Stephen prompts after a beat.

“Oh!” Bitty scrambles mentally. “Ah, I’m’a try. Gotta check we don’t have a family thing.” Not that they would, probably, but he really hasn’t decided about this. No reason to be rude about it, at least not to Stephen.

“Well, I really do gotta go. Y’all take care.” And he takes off before any of them can stop him again.


He does check with his mother while they clean up from dinner, anyway.

“No, nothing going on you need to be a part of,” she says, handing him a plate to put in the dishwasher. “Why?”

“Uh.” Bitty sets the plate down and takes the next one she hands him, not quite sure how (or if) he wants to explain this. But he did bring it up, so it’s not like she wasn’t going to wonder.

“Oh. I ran into a couple guys while I was out… running… earlier.” He pauses for a moment to wish that sentence had come out less awkwardly. “They, um, invited me to a party? and I didn’t know if I’d even be free, so…”

He trails off, hoping she won’t ask more. She does.

“Jeff’s hosting it,” he clarifies. “Jeff Lewis. And, uh, Stephen Ramsey was the one who invited me.”

“They were your daddy’s boys, right? They still in high school?”

“No, mother, they graduated with me or sooner. But yeah, they’re football guys.”

“Alrighty. Well, you are free that night. Your father and I might go over to Sara Jacobs’, I don’t actually know yet.” She shuts off the sink and dries her hands on a towel. Well. She looks both concerned and hopeful, but also the kitchen is clean—there wasn’t much to do—so Bitty makes his escape.

He pokes around online for a while, doing nothing in particular, until his phone buzzes.

[6:32 PM]
Today 6:32 PM

Adam “Holster” Birkholtz
So what's everyone planning
for NYE?

[Text Message]

Bitty isn’t sure what to say. He still hasn’t decided himself. He reads the first few replies without answering.

[6:39 PM]

B. “Shitty” Knight
No idea but can u take me
with u

Adam “Holster” Birkholtz
Nah bro you're too far away.

Lardo? Icer? Someone in
the vague vicinity of New
England?

Sean “Smurf” Murphy
I'm introducing my cousins
to beer pong.

Derek “Nursey” Nurse
If you can teleport you can
have my spot in Times
Square

Neil “Icer” Eisen
I'm going to hang out with
some friends from high
school if you want to
join you're welcome.
I can pick you up from
Alewife?

William “Dex” Poindexter
Still at my grandparents'
and this year the cousins
are allowed to join the
drinking games while we
watch the ball drop so…

B. “Shitty” Knight
Sure or I could drive. Lemme
check something, I'll text
you

Larissa “Lardo” Duan
@smurf they're gonna beat
you as soon as they learn

@icer can I come too?

Chris “Chowder” Chow
I don't have plans yet
and you all will be drunk
and having fun three hours
before me :(

Justin “Ransom” Oluransi
Except Jack

Because he will probably
be at home alone.

Neil “Icer” Eisen
@lardo sure!

Jack Zimmermann
How do I flip you off in a
text message

Also I will not be at home
or alone but I also won't
be drunk or having fun
probably

Chris “Chowder” Chow
Oh no Jack why? :( :( :(

B. “Shitty” Knight
Are you making a concerted
effort not to have fun bro?

Jack Zimmermann
No alone at home is fun.
Or you guys. 4 parties with
my parents is not fun.

Chris “Chowder” Chow
But your parents know
so many cool people!

Derek “Nursey” Nurse
If *I* could teleport I would
take your place for you,
bro. Take one for the team

Adam “Holster” Birkholtz
I don't actually believe that
you go to these parties.

Jack Zimmermann
No really I do. Ask Bittle.
He had the misfortune of
texting me during my last
enforced bout of fun

He did actually go to a
party! But yeah it didn't
actually sound like much
fun.

Chris “Chowder” Chow
Aww I'm sorry Jack :( :(

Wait Bitty what are you
doing? Ransom? Holster?

Adam “Holster” Birkholtz
We're tag-teaming to
take Ransy's cousins
down in an epic game of
CAH.

I… am not sure. Might go
to a party some of the old
football team is having?

My parents are going out
and it's been a long time
since I really saw anyone
from high school

But idrk

I don't know a lot of
people who would be
there so

It sounded like it would
mostly be guys from the
football team

Justin “Ransom” Oluransi
??????? the super
asshat ones?

Um. Sort of? I mean, not
all of them

And they invited me
specifically

[Text Message]

He doesn’t want to mention it was Stephen who invited him—not that they’d know who Stephen was, but—

Bitty’s distracted from that train of thought by another text. His friends aren’t letting it go that easily, because of course they aren’t.

[6:40 PM]

Um. Sort of? I mean, not
all of them

And they invited me
specifically

Adam “Holster” Birkholtz
So they could embarrass
you? Or something?

No way, bro, let us check
them out.

Names.

[Text Message]

Bitty debates for a moment, but then types Jeff Lewis and Joe Becket, and after another moment of hesitation, Stephen Ramsey.

He does a little facebook stalking of his own while he waits on his friends’ verdicts. Jeff has lots of party pictures with an evident lack of solo cups and beer cans. Bitty has to give him credit for that. Joe’s pictures are mostly him (wearing too few clothes) with his arms around girls from his college (wearing even fewer clothes). Bitty does not have to give him credit for that. No matter how much Joe’s appeared to grow up, Bitty’s not surprised that this is his public image.

[6:43 PM]

Justin “Ransom” Oluransi
Is Casey Davidson part of
this crowd too?

Yeah

Adam “Holster” Birkholtz
What about Adam White?

Maybe

[Text Message]

Wow, talk about people Bitty hasn’t thought about in ages. He searches for Adam on facebook as well, but he can’t see much because they’re not friends, and Bitty’s not about to change that right now. Who knows what Ransom and Holster can see, but Bitty’s not going to ask. After a few more minutes of poking around, apparently Rans and Holster have come to a conclusion. Bitty can only imagine what they’ve been texting each other privately in the meantime.

[6:51 PM]

Justin “Ransom” Oluransi
Looks like a bunch of
wrenches, bro.

Like, a full toolkit.

Adam “Holster” Birkholtz
They're running a Home
Depot over there.

“Ransom” Oluransi
Not to hammer the point
too hard but they seem
kind of douchey.

Adam “Holster” Birkholtz
Nailed it

…so y'all don't think I
should go, then?

Justin “Ransom” Oluransi
Meh. Might still be fun?

Like, they might be nuts
(and bolts) but none of them
actively suck on facebook
that we're seeing

Adam “Holster” Birkholtz
You know the drill though.
Do you know anyone
else going who would
have your back if stuff
gets nasty?

[Text Message]

Bitty considers. He can’t be the only loser they invited to this, plus… there’s Stephen.

[6:52 PM]

Yeah, I think so

Adam “Holster” Birkholtz
Go for it, man. Show 'em
how a real party's done

I can't play beer pong like
you though :P

B. “Shitty” Knight
Text me if you need
something. I can call and
pretend to be your mom
or something.

Awww thanks Shitty <3

I'll let y'all know.

Sean “Smurf” Murphy
Good luck, bro

[Text Message]

The guys keep talking but Bitty sets his phone aside and puts on the most recent episode of My Drunk Kitchen. That’s much more important than deciding about this party right now. He’ll figure out later.


He doesn’t figure it out the next morning. He deflects his mother’s intrusive questions and goes to church.

He doesn’t figure it out that afternoon, either.


[1:29 PM]
Today 1:27 PM

My mother keeps asking
about you

I don't understand

I keep saying you are
doing fine? I don't know
what else she wants
Sent

[iMessage]

Well. More details about how Jack’s been doing since since EpiKegster. And for him to visit. Not that Bitty’s mentioning the first part to Jack, but… he just wishes she would stop? Jack hasn’t given him a clear answer, and he doesn’t know if he ever will. It’s none of their business anyway, no matter how worried they both are.

[2:51 PM]

I keep saying you are
doing fine? I don't know
what else she wants

…except for you to visit

tbh I'm surprised she
hasn't been on me about
your whole family

Maybe her obsession
with your dad has died
down?

Oh no now it just
sounds like that's moved
on to you

>.<

Today 2:43 PM

ok

…sorry

why are you sorry

She just… won't let go of
this. Tell me you are busy
on the Fourth of July and
I can get her to stop

I can be busy if you
don't want me to come

No! I just… don't want to
inflict them on you
Read 2:46 PM

Oh

[iMessage]

That night, Bitty still hasn’t decided about the party. Instead, he’s watching the latest episode of his vlog one more time before posting it; he has his earbuds in, so he’s startled when his mother knocks gently on his bedroom door and pushes it farther open.

“Good night, kiddo. You got plans for tomorrow?”

Bitty pauses his video and pulls out his earbuds.“Not really.”

“Did you ever invite Jack to visit? What did he say?”

Bitty checks his phone, eyes skipping past the group chats and the exclamation point-filled message from Chowder about his girlfriend!!! before he taps on his conversation with Jack.

[10:21 PM]

Oh

Today 3:38 PM

I wouldn't mind.

if you want to, you
can tell her I'm busy.

Your call

[iMessage]

“He hasn’t answered.”

“Well, I guess not everyone can be as quick as you are to respond to things. Let me know when he does.” She blows him a kiss. “Good night, Dicky.”

Bitty gives a half-smile and blows one back. “Night.”

Bitty doesn’t even have to ask her to pull the door shut on her way out.

When he glances back at his computer, the video is still paused with the last question filling the screen: What’s stopping you from calling up the person you like and telling the truth? He sighs and takes to Twitter for support.

Very thankful my mother doesn’t watch my vlog… she’d learn things about me that she need not know. (…right now)

Then, suddenly defeated, he closes his laptop, plugs in his phone, and heads to the shower. Maybe he’ll feel less… empty after that.

…He doesn’t. But he does feel less sweaty and gross, so. Small victories.

He opens his laptop back up and posts his video without finishing watching it. He can’t have missed anything too serious in the first couple go-throughs. He leaves it to buffer and checks his phone one last time, answering a tweet but ignoring the seventy-four texts in the SMH chat. Then he puts his phone on Do Not Disturb, and leaves it charging on his desk.

It takes him a while to fall asleep.

Chapter Text

Bitty does not decide about the party on Monday. He does not decide on Tuesday, either. He feels rather ridiculous that it takes him until just hours before the party to make up his mind, but, well, so it goes. Wednesday afternoon, Bitty has looked back on 2014 with his teammates, and he decides he’s ready to take 2015 by the horns. Or whatever it was Shitty had said. A cute boy asked him to a popular kid’s party, and hell if Bitty’s gonna turn that down.

So now it’s a quarter of eight on New Year’s Eve, and Bitty is staring at himself in the mirror. His hair is lying how he wants it on top (for now), but he’s probably going to mess it up when he changes his shirt. He’s wearing his best jeans—nicer pants just don’t cut it for a party ’round here—and, at the moment, a black V-neck teeshirt and the same blue jacket he wore at EpiKegster.

It’s not a bad look.

But it is still a pretty gay look, and… well.

Plus… yeah, it might be nice to wear a different jacket, anyway.

He peels the jacket off, puts it back in the closet, and pulls the shirt off over his head, before rummaging around in his suitcase for a generic SMH teeshirt to replace it with. Surely he brought one of those home.

He did, and he figures he can get by with just his windbreaker from downstairs, so he pulls the shirt on and fixes his hair just once more, then leaves his room. His phone is in his pocket, his house keys are downstairs, aaaaand that should be all he needs, other than the car key his mother left him. Where did she leave it, again?

He finds it front and center on the kitchen table, on top of a note from his mother.

picture of a note from Bitty’s mom on pink heart-shaped paper that says ‘Have fun at the party, Dicky! Happy New Year! xoxo’

He pulls out his phone and texts her, Thanks for letting me nap. Have fun with the Jacobses! I should be home by 12:30 probably. Then he picks up the key to his mother’s car and goes to get his house keys from the hook by the door and his windbreaker from the closet.

He feels a little bad that he’s not bringing anything to this party, but oh well. No matter how Jeff Lewis may have changed, he still probably doesn’t deserve any baked goods from Bitty.


Even as he’s driving over, Bitty is definitely glad that he’s going to Jeff’s. Partly it’s because he can Be The (figuratively) Bigger Man and, like, be polite and stuff. But also it’s because as much as he loves his parents and his cousins and his mother’s friends from church… it’ll be a welcome change of pace to be around other people his age. Hopefully he won’t regret this.

Bitty turns onto Jeff’s block and can tell immediately which house is his. There are a bunch of cars parked up and down the street and in the driveway of this big stone house, which has lights shining around curtains in almost every window. With the car windows down, Bitty can hear faint music coming from that direction, too.

He parks down the street a bit and walks up to the house. The knocker on the front door has a sign saying to go in through the back, so he goes back down the steps, across the garden path, and up the driveway. The music is louder in back, coming through the partially open door—can’t judge Nicki, that’s encouraging.

Bitty doesn’t get three steps into the dining room before he very literally runs into Jeff, who is taking an exaggerated step backwards, laughing at something. Bitty throws his hands up to stop Jeff from backing any further into him, and Jeff steps forward again and turns around.

“Oh, hey, Bittle,” he says, laughter dying. “Uh, glad you made it! Drinks are—” and he gestures off to the right in the kitchen. “And you can put your jacket wherever.”

Bitty nods. “Thanks, Jeff. Thanks for having me!” This is still oddly civil, but his mama raised him right, and he’s Being The Bigger Man and all that, so.

“Sure thing, man,” Jeff replies, before another face pops out from behind him, presumably belonging to the person who had made Jeff laugh as Bitty was coming in.

Eric! Hi, how are you?? What have you been up to?” The high-pitched words tumble out of the mouth of—Leigh. Well, he wasn’t the only loser invited to this party.

Jeff says something, which Bitty assumes later was about going to get a drink or welcome another guest or something, but the exact words are lost on him because Jeff reaches out and—Bitty tenses up, takes half a step back, and has to concentrate really carefully on keeping his breathing quiet. But Jeff just claps him on the shoulder in a perfunctory bro move and takes off.

He refocuses, then realizes that Leigh is looking at him. He clears his throat. “Ah. Sorry, I missed that.”

She rubs at her own shoulder a little. “I hate when people squeeze my shoulder. Meh, anyway. How are you? How you been? I ain’t seen you in ages!”

Bitty feels caught. He can’t follow Jeff’s lead here without being incredibly rude, but he’s just not in the mood to deal with Leigh, which immediately makes him feel guilty. She had been such a good friend to him in high school, and the term they were lab partners together in chemistry had actually been fun.

But—oh God, he can hear Holster’s joke now—there hadn’t been any chemistry, even though he’s sure she’d wished there could be. She was sweet and funny and kind to him all the time, and guys used to rib him not-so-fondly about his girlfriend. But he’d never asked her out, of course, and they’d never talked about it, but… well. She had never asked him out, but they both knew it wasn’t for lack of interest on her side.

And he’d been such a jerk about it… What good was a beard, he’d thought, if everyone hated her anyway? But it had gotten him nowhere with the guys and instead an increasingly cold shoulder from Leigh herself. So he got his head out of his ass and apologized to her, and life went on.

These days he sees her pictures on Facebook occasionally, but he doesn’t really have a clue what she’s been doing, either, so he lets her lead him to a cooler full of beer and listens to her questions as he pops the tab on a Bud Light. He’s still in college, right? (Yes, Massachusetts.) Does winter up there suck terribly? (Yes. Well, sort of. Yes.) What’s he studying? (History, kind of. Undecided.)

There’s a silence in which Bitty tries to decide whether to volunteer info of his own or start returning the questions. He sips his beer to try to cover it.

“I—” he starts, but he breaks off because he really doesn’t have an end to that sentence. He clears his throat and tries again, making sure to catch her eye. “How are you, Leigh? How have you been?” A small apologetic smile hovers on his lips as he waits for her answer.

Her eyes seem to search his face for a moment before she finds a small smile of her own. “I been good, Eric,” she says. “I’m doing okay.”

“Sorry I haven’t…” Bitty starts again, but trails off.

Leigh takes in a short little breath and lets it out, saying, “No, it’s—fine. Life’s busy. You’re… busy.”

Bitty swallows. They had parted as friends at the end of high school, but Bitty had made no effort to stay in touch and responded very shortly to any such advances from her. It was just—hard, to sustain a friendship with her, especially at a distance, when there were no longer homework problems to connect them and Bitty could never be what she wanted him to be.

There’s another silence, even longer and more awkward. She breaks it, this time, asking “So… you been seeing anyone up there? Or are you too busy for that, too?”

Bitty winces. She was casual, and they’re still talking, so she can’t be too mad, but this is really uncomfortable.

“I—” He stops and laughs humorlessly. “No. I ain’t seeing nobody.”

She regards him curiously for a moment before he ducks to hide his blush and avoid further scrutiny. He takes a sip of his beer, and tries to get the conversation back to a safer topic.

“So, remind me where you’re at, again?”

She rolls her eyes, somewhere between exasperated and fond, just like she used to when he took too much time washing dishes after labs. “I’m at UNC—majoring in bio. I been considering a minor in Japanese, but I ain’t really decided yet.”

Bitty nods. “Oh, neat—y’know, my friend is a bio major too? He is so busy all the time, I can imagine that finding time for a minor would be tough. I hope it’s not too stressful for you?”

Leigh laughs. “Seven AM labs suck, but I manage.”

Bitty groans in genial sympathy. “I know what you mean—ain’t had any labs that early, but early morning practices ain’t any better.”

“You still playing hockey, huh? That a bigger deal up north?”

“Sure is!” Bitty replies.

“Tell me about your team,” she says, so he does.

He tells her about bio-major Ransom, and Holster, the Patrick to Ransom’s Spongebob. He tells her about the frogs and how they fight, about Ollie and Wicks and the incessant fistbumps, about his awesome linemates, Jack and Smurf.

And—it’s a great conversation, is the thing. She laughs in the right spots and asks really intelligent questions about gameplay and strategy, and they even end up trading some workout tips.

But as he swallows the last of his beer, he sees a hesitant little smile on her face, and he knows what’s coming.

She takes a deep breath and spills her words out all at once, as if she might lose her nerve. “If you’re not seeing anyone—I know it’s probably no, but—do you have time to get coffee before you go back, or—sorry, I just…”

Bitty takes a deep breath of his own and runs his empty hand through his hair.

“Leigh, I’m so sorry, I can’t—I can’t,” he finishes, kind of emptily.

He owes her enough to look her in the face and hope to God that she understands, so he doesn’t duck his head this time. She bites her lip, eyes dry, smile faded into a flat line.

Bitty watches her, at a loss, wishing he had anything to do to break the tension.

She sighs, finally, and lets a wry smile find its way back to her lips. “No, I… knew that, I think. Can’t blame a girl for trying, though, right?”

Bitty runs his hand through his hair again, his usual chatter mysteriously vanished, leaving him speechless.

“You do what y’gotta do, Eric,” she says a moment later. “I’ll try not to pine too much.”

Then she clinks her empty can against his. “Let’s find the recycle bin and restock, huh? Then maybe we can inflict ourselves on some dudebros instead.”

Bitty laughs at that, and follows her to the kitchen to get another drink. He opts this time for a Coke rather than another beer, and when he turns around from the cooler, he sees her drawn into conversation with another girl he vaguely recognizes and decides to leave them to it. He wanders around the first floor of Jeff’s (frankly massive) house trying to decide what to do.

He can’t get his mind off Leigh. He’s barely seen or spoken to her in over a year, but there she was, just the same, all… into him. And it’s uncomfortable in a way he can’t quite put his finger on. Like, it’s not like she openly hits on him or does anything… untoward… but he just… feels uneasy. He knows what she wants, and he can never be that for her, and even just being friends makes him feel awkward because at least she’s more or less honest about her feelings.

He doesn’t owe her an explanation, but he’d like to give it, but he can’t, and honestly it would be nice if she could just tone down the adoration…

Bitty sees Stephen across the room and decides that right now maybe there would be some perks to being a wallflower. He needs to take a breather before he can handle more kind-of-ex-high-school-crush conversation, so instead he manages to duck out of the way and stand quietly out of sight with his drink. He bops his head along to “Shake it Off” and wonders who talked Jeff into playing that, before his mind wanders slightly to how much more fun parties seem at the Haus… well. Usually.

But then again, even that had started off fun? Standing by a wall watching the crowd like this with Jack had been nice, and listening to Jack tell that story—

Oh. Bitty stiffens up. That—Jack hadn’t—he couldn’t tell, surely? And it hits him now like a check from behind. Did he have that same look on his face that night, the one he’d seen on Leigh’s face all night tonight? It… Bitty would never want to… Jack would have gone upstairs if he hadn’t spotted Bitty, he’d said he was planning to spend the night in his room, but… He’d wanted to stay downstairs and hang out, Bitty thought? They’d been joking around, having fun, chirping each other—it had been nice, not awful and awkward, so Jack couldn’t have known. Right?

Ugh. Ugh. Bitty knocks his head back against the wall (gently, gently, ain’t tryna get a concussion, Jack, promise) and groans. He’ll just have to try harder, be less… Well, he won’t let Jack feel guilty like Bitty feels tonight. He’ll be better.

He takes a deep breath and buzzes his lips as he lets it out, then finishes his soda. He’ll think about that later. It’s New Year’s Eve, and Jack’s not here, and Bitty’s gotta deal with all these people or make up an excuse to leave, and it ain’t like home is more appealing right now.

He goes back to the kitchen for some water, then begins another circuit of the house. He sings along to the music under his breath and dances alone, half-heartedly, but mostly he just tries to enjoy feeling a little looser and not think about Jack. Or Leigh or Stephen. Or anything.

Both (both!! what a house) of the first floor bathrooms are taken, so he wanders upstairs in search of another. The hall bathroom up there is busy too, but ain’t no way he’s going in Jeff’s parents’ bedroom to see if there’s a master bath, so he waits his turn.

He splashes his face with some water as he washes up, then picks his water up off the cute little table opposite the sink and leaves the bathroom, intending to go back downstairs.

“Eric!”

He turns back from the stairs and sees Stephen waving at him, with a big, charming smile all over his face. Bitty takes a breath and smiles back. He can do this. It’s fine. He’s over him, and besides, Stephen’s the one who invited him, it would be rude not to talk with him tonight.

“Hey, Stephen. How’s it goin’?” He makes his way back up the hallway to where Stephen has stopped and is leaning against some closed door, beer in hand.

“It’s good, man, it’s real good,” Stephen says as Bitty pulls up in front of him and leans up against the table along the opposite wall. “How was your Christmas?”

“It was great! Went to my grandparents’, down in Fitzgerald? Mosta the family came too. Got to see some of the cousins and all, was nice.”

“Yeah, sounds like it! We had family over at our place ’stead a goin’ outta town. Grandparents flew in from Texas, so they came early and stayed a couple extra days, but they left Monday.”

They chat for a few minutes, comparing their Christmases further. Stephen tells a story involving his sister and exploding coke cans, and actually laughs at Bitty’s description of his cousin Jesse’s reaction to getting The Lego Movie on DVD.

“Wound up watching it with him and some other cousins that night. You seen it? Was better than I expected, actually. A friend—well, friend-slash-teammate—started texting me towards the end, complainin’ about his family, and I got him to analyze the movie at me instead, that was fun.” Bitty smiles, rolling his eyes slightly. “Lord, though, the whole team was just chatting away all day. My phone would not stop buzzing for two seconds, I swear.”

Stephen nods, and one side of his mouth quirks up in a small smile. “That’s nice, that you can be so tight with them. I mean, my football guys are great, but it’s hard to legit keep up with the number of guys on a football team.”

“Yeah, it is. It’s… they’re cool.” He laughs and shrugs self-deprecatingly, but the accompanying smile is still genuine. “They keep me around for my baking mostly, I think. Gotta feed them energetic growing boys, y’know?”

“Sure, sure. They gotta keep you around for some kinda hockey things too, though, right?” Stephen’s smile is unfairly, genuinely kind, and ninth-grade Eric would probably be a speechless puddle right now.

As it is, Bitty almost blushes. Which is silly and definitely an overreaction. “I mean…”

Stephen leans forward slightly, face not serious exactly, but sincere and earnest. “No, really! Tell me about what you do. The goal is to get the puck in the net, right? How many guys you get on the… field?—what’s that called?—at once?”

“Five guys ‘on the ice’, we say,” Bitty replies. “And a goalie.” Stephen nods along and flashes another grin, so Bitty takes a breath and launches into an explanation of lines and shifts and power plays.

He laughs at the incredulous look on Stephen’s face when he hears that they switch players without waiting for a stoppage in play, and Bitty wonders if he should feel frustrated explaining all of hockey for the second time in as many hours, but he doesn’t. He’s… enjoying this, honestly.

“Okay, so wait. If there is a stoppage, how do you know where to restart at? How does that work?” Stephen asks.

“There’s a bunch of designated spots around the ice, called face-off dots.” Bitty says. “It depends on why play stopped—if there was a penalty, whose fault it was, and that sort of thing. But you go to the dot and everybody lines up, kind of like on a line of scrimmage, but only one guy from each team actually gets to the dot.” Bitty grins a little at that comparison. “And then an official drops the puck and it’s a race to see who can get control of it first and play goes from there.”

He takes a sip of water and Stephen nods some more, eyebrows rising. That is a chirp face. Oh no.

“Do you do a lot of face-offs?” he asks. “Do you distract the other guys by smiling at them like that?”

And—what?

Bitty does not really choke on his water, but it’s a near thing. He feels his face heat up, and he’s so glad it’s dark. Did Stephen seriously just—?

“Uh,” he says after a beat. “No, I don’t take a lot of face-offs.” He takes another careful sip of water for something to do, and Stephen does likewise.

“So explain that checking thing,” Stephen demands after he swallows. “You said you avoid it mostly?”

“Yes,” Bitty says, back on slightly more solid conversational footing. “Well—sorta. ‘Checking’ means a lot of things, but body-checking, the tackling thing. I avoid that. I move pretty fast, and we got bigger guys around to get in the way most of the time, leave me free to either run with the puck or get open for a pass.”

Stephen nods. “Like a receiver wouldn’t usually make a tackle.”

“Exactly,” Bitty says. “You got different players to do different jobs. Remember what I said about the fourth line being aggressive? Checking’s their job. You don’t keep me on a team for that.”

Stephen eyes him thoughtfully then sticks out his tongue. “So other than your food, what do they keep you around for?”

“Speed,” Bitty says honestly. “Ability to move and get the puck places. I have soft hands.”

Stephen was going to take another drink, but he stops with the mouth of his beer can on his lower lip and raises his eyebrows again, waiting.

Bitty, also about to take another sip, stops and replays his last few words in his head. I have soft hands. Frick. He walked into that one, didn’t he, forgetting how that sounds outside hockey. He’s never been the best at giving or taking chirps, but he’s bound and determined to show that college has at least made him improve, so he squares his shoulders and rolls his eyes.

“It means I’m good at moving the puck around on my own and faking out other players.”

Stephen doesn’t give up the chirpy expression, and Bitty is feeling more comfortable, honestly, than he has all night, so he doesn’t think twice about stepping forward and punching Stephen lightly in the chest, for lack of a better comeback. But Stephen catches his wrist as he pulls his hand back, and now—shit. Bitty might have soft hands, but Stephen has big hands, strong hands, and he’s using one of them to press Bitty’s fist open with his thumb, and—

Bitty tries to step back, looking up at Stephen’s face to figure out what’s going on, but Stephen tightens his grip on Bitty’s hand and steps forward to follow him, leaning down. Stephen’s eyes are wide and Bitty’s heart is doing triple time.

“Eric, I—” Stephen breaks off, his eyes moving back and forth, before he licks his lips and closes the gap.

And Bitty is—terrified—amazed—enthralled—confused—excited—unprepared. Someone is—Stephen is—kissing him, and it smells like Bud Light, and he’s not on his tiptoes because Stephen is bending over to him, and—

He hears a clink on the table behind him, and then Stephen gently pries Bitty’s water bottle out of his hands and sets it on the table, too. Stephen’s now-free hand pulls Bitty in closer to him even as he straightens up and breaks their mouths apart.

“Okay?” Stephen asks, low and quiet. Bitty looks up at him, forces his eyes to focus on Stephen’s (gorgeous) face, and is relieved to see the same exhilaration-or-possibly-terror there that is flooding his own veins. Bitty swallows, mouth dry, and brings his own empty hand to rest safely on Stephen’s hip, Stephen still clutching the other.

“Yeah,” he says, and surges forward onto his tiptoes to start all over now because it’s New Year’s Eve, and he’s not drunk but he’s feeling brave, and a beautiful boy just kissed him and looks like he wants to do it again. And because he wants to.

Stephen leans down to meet him and pulls their bodies together as they kiss again. Bitty can feel Stephen’s heartbeat against his shoulder, and Stephen’s tongue teasing his lips, and Stephen’s hand letting go of his wrist to come rest on the nape of his neck, and—sweet baby apple pie, surely Bitty has passed out drunk for all he only had one beer and is dreaming or something. How is this real?

But it is real! Real enough that they have to stop and breathe from time to time, real enough that Stephen keeps biting his lip shyly until they start in again, and real enough that Bitty knows to stifle any noises he wants to make because there’s people around and he might be brave but he ain’t stupid.

Some minutes later, they finally pull apart and Bitty forces himself to take a step back.

“Wow,” he breathes, searching for more meaningful words.

“Wow,” Stephen agrees, eyes and smile wide.

Bitty pulls his thumbs out of the waistband of Stephen’s pants where they’ve somehow ended up and raises his hands to his face. He rubs his eyes and drags his fingers down his cheeks and over his lips, and can still only manage to say, “Wow.”

“Sorry,” Stephen offers after a moment of collectively stunned silence. “I—I mean, not sorry, because I think you enjoyed that, but I just. Been wanting to do that. Um. For a long time.”

Wait, what.

“You—really? I mean, me too? But I never—really?”

Stephen scratches the back of his head and bites his lip again. “Yeah?”

Bitty breathes out somewhere between a whistle and a sigh, and runs his hand through his hair, staring at Stephen’s shoulder now instead of his face. “Wow. Lord. I had—” He takes a deep breath, because even after all that, saying these words is something else. “I had… the most enormous crush on you in high school.”

Wow, so. That just happened. He sure did just say those words to Stephen’s face. Er, shoulder. Good work, Bittle.

Stephen reaches over and squeezes Bitty’s shoulder, briefly. For an instant, Bitty thinks about Leigh complaining earlier about people squeezing her shoulder, but doesn’t know what to make of it. Instead, he listens to Stephen say, “I thought so.”

And where ninth-grade Eric would have felt dread at those words, college-sophomore Bitty feels… something. A thrill? Disappointment?

How? he wants to ask. What did I do to give myself away? But most importantly…

“Why didn’t you say anything?”

And it’s not fair, not really, to demand that of him. But if he’d known, and he’d wanted it too, why hadn’t he—

“Dude, Stephen, why you hidin’ away in the dark up here? I been looking for you!” Someone calls from the top of the stairs, and it takes every last ounce of composure Bitty’s ever had not to jump through the ceiling.

Well. Luckily not every last one, because he ends up needing a couple to force him to keep his mouth shut when the someone in question turns out to be Mary Freeman, Stephen’s high school girlfriend. Which just brings up another thing Bitty hadn’t considered until this very moment which is what if they never broke up or what if Stephen has a new girlfriend (or a new boyfriend?) and now he’s just kissing Bitty in Jeff’s parents’ dark hallway??

Chill, Bits, he tells himself, thinking of Nursey. That’s on Stephen, not on you.

Stephen doesn’t miss a beat, though. “We just getting some quiet so Bittle could tell me about all the fancy hockey he playin’ now,” he says as Mary comes over to hug him.

Mary lets go of him and turns to address Bitty. “Eric Bittle, look at you!” She grabs him by the shoulders and looks him up and down. “You done cut your hair, boy, look at that.”

Bitty manages a smile before she pulls him in for a hug, too. “So did you!” he exclaims as she lets him go. She used to wear her hair in long, long braids, but now it’s in—well, he’s not quite sure if it counts as an Afro if it’s only an inch high, but she looks great.

She looks between the two of them, then announces that she’s hungry. Bitty realizes that he is, too.

“I must have missed the food if there was any,” he admits.

“Y’all been drinking and not eating?” she admonishes. “Come on, Jeff got fancy-ass sandwiches and some pizza in the kitchen.”

She turns and heads downstairs, no doubt expecting them to follow. Stephen shrugs, so Bitty shrugs, grabbing his water bottle off the table, and they do. It is louder downstairs, but not too much. They all three end up staying in the kitchen, eating pizza and swapping “remember when…?” questions about all the people around them.

It’s… nice. But his head is kind of spinning, replaying the whole conversation (and… not-conversation) with Stephen in the background, even as he’s giggling at Mary’s impression of their high school principal. Just as he’s considering a bathroom break for the sake of getting away for a few minutes, he feels his phone buzzing insistently in his pocket.

He’s been polite all night and not taken it out when he was talking with other people, but he remembers Shitty’s offer and thinks that even if this isn’t Shitty texting him, he may pretend it’s his mother anyway.

“What is happening here?” he asks, half to himself, half as an excuse for pulling out his phone.

Oh. Jack is happening.

[9:48 PM]
Today 9:47 PM

At least at Haus parties
now there's your food.

I'm all for eating right
obviously but I was
promised food tonight and
5cm each side sandwiches
do not count :/

Also I'm pretty sure I’m
the only person here over
8 who is not himself in the
NHL or married to
someone who is.

Which is fine bit

*but Haus parties are more
fun

[iMessage]

Jack is happening very quickly. That boy never sends so many texts in a minute.

You ok? Bitty texts back. The gray bubble of dots pops up on Jack’s side immediately, so Bitty waits for an answer.

Yeah. Fine. Just bored :/

He’s made that face twice now, and Bitty’s hit with a pang of… loneliness? homesickness? Can you be homesick for a person? Shit, that’s a dangerous road to go down.

Still, he’s a little worried about Jack. One min, Bitty says, then clicks his screen off and looks back up at Stephen and Mary.

“Hey y’all, I gotta head home,” he says apologetically.

“Eric, it ain’t even ten o’clock yet,” Mary objects. “It’s New Year’s Eve.”

“I knowwww. I promise I’ll stay up. But I gotta get home and take care of something.” He hopes it doesn’t sound too cagey or weird, but he also wants the out where he can get it. He needs some time away from all these high school people.

Mary hugs him good-bye, and Stephen offers to walk him out after he finds Jeff and says good night. Jeff slaps him on the back again and thanks him for coming, and it’s so surreal, but Bitty manages a smile and a “thanks for having me” before he grabs his jacket and lets Stephen guide him to the door with a gentle hand on his shoulder.

“Um,” Bitty says as they step outside, awkwardness finally settling around them like snow would be at Samwell.

“You good to drive?” Stephen asks.

“Yes,” says Bitty, firmly. Then, before he can stop himself, he blurts out, “Are you and Mary still…?”

Stephen laughs, apparently startled. “No. God, no. Not since right after graduation.”

Thank the Lord.

“Shit, I do owe you an apology, though.” Stephen continues. “I can’t… I ain’t got someone, you know, but there is someone, and I don’t want to actually start something here. And… I’m sorry I never said anything. Before. I just—”

But Bitty doesn’t want to hear this now. There’s no reason. He just steels himself, rises onto his tiptoes, and pulls Stephen down to meet him. One last kiss, short and sweet.

“You ain’t gotta be sorry ’bout that,” he says as he lets go and settles back on his heels. “You don’t owe me nothin’. And besides, I… there’s someone for me, too.”

Stephen raises his brows teasingly again. Bitty punches him in the chest again.

“Shut up, no,” he groans, half smiling. “I ain’t got someone either, there just is someone, just like you said.”

Stephen sighs and nods, smile now sympathetic. “Well, good luck with that, bro.”

Bitty smiles more genuinely and offers a fist bump. “You too, man. Good luck with graduating and all that. And sorry about your knee.”

Stephen bumps his fist. “You just gotta win for me instead, huh? Now go on, get outta here. Ain’t’chu say your mama was waitin’ on you or something?”

Bitty scoffs because that is hardly the case, but “…Yeah. Happy New Year, Stephen.” He waves a little, stepping off the porch and heading down the driveway.

Stephen waves back. “Happy New Year, Eric.”

At the end of the driveway, Bitty turns to walk toward his car and pulls his phone back out of his pocket.

[10:02 PM]

You ok?

Yeah. Fine. Just bored :/

One min
Read 9:49 PM

[iMessage]

Ugh, it took him longer to get out of there than he hoped. Still, despite what he told Stephen, he wants to wait a little longer before driving, just to be safe. He gets in the car, but only turns it on enough for a little heat.

[10:08 PM]

You ok?

Yeah. Fine. Just bored :/

One min

Today 10:04 PM

Sorry that took too long

Oh. Sorry. Didn't mean
to interrupt.

No you’re fine! You're
great. Was looking for
someone to talk to
actually

Oh. Are you ok?

Yeah yeah, also bored. At
that party I mentioned

/awkward and ready to
leave

Oh. You could have
texted Shitty. Or me.

Yeah I was considering it

Perfect timing me.
Zimmermann

(Mr

*Mr.

Ugh

I'm in the car now—
probably shouldn't drive
just yet (•へ•)

So what's up? your party
not any more fun than the
last one?

The last four, and no.
And we've got another
after this one.

Did you drink water

Yes
Read 10:08 PM

[iMessage]

Well, look at this. Jack is sitting here looking after Bitty instead of doing his important people thing. Either he’s really desperate or Bitty has not actually reached Leigh levels of clingy annoying-ness. Hopefully the latter. But Jack did start this, so. Probably.

[10:12 PM]

Did you drink water

Yes

I didn’t even drink that
much

I'm just a little
overwhelmed, you
know?

Uh yeah. I know.

You sure you’re ok?

You keep asking that and
you're making me doubt
myself :P

Bittle…

No seriously Jack, I'm
fine. Nobody beat me
up.

They were all… *nice*

Would you have gone if
you thought they
wouldn't be?

No but

It was still weird. Good
weird.
Read 10:11

Ok

[iMessage]

Bitty sighs and sets his phone on the passenger seat. It would be nice to talk out all the emotions that Leigh and Stephen inspire in him, but he’s not sure he’s ready to dump that on Jack. He is feeling ready to drive, though, which is a good way not to say anything he might regret. He picks his phone back up.

[10:13 PM]

It was still weird. Good
weird.

Ok

Ok I think I'm good to
drive. I'll text you when I
get home
Read 10:13

Drive safe Bittle

[iMessage]

He does.

Chapter Text

Jack is bored. It is 9:30pm on New Year’s Eve, and Jack is very bored.

He’s talked about Samwell for what feels like—and might very well have been—hours, he has talked about the Habs, he has talked about the Pens, he has talked about his future in hockey, he has done his best to avoid talking about what teams he is most seriously considering signing with, he has played several rounds of I Spy with Mattias Plekanec, and he has lost count of all the piggyback rides he’s given.

But now he is bored and hungry, and like. He doesn’t want to just eat Bittle’s pie all night—obviously that’s not healthy—but he really would prefer something a little more substantial than miniature sandwiches.

Seriously, this is a hockey party, people want to eat, come on.

Also, Bittle’s pie is delicious. Which is not the point, but is still true.

So now he’s bored. He debates for a few minutes while he listens vaguely to some people discussing the Winter Classic the next day, but finally he excuses himself to the bathroom.

Where he texts Bitty, conveniently out of sight of anyone, so he can say Bittle texted him first, and maybe pretend there is a crisis he needs Jack for, just in case anyone asks.

[21:49]
aujourd’hui 21:47

At least at Haus parties
now there's your food.

I'm all for eating right
obviously but I was
promised food tonight and
5cm each side sandwiches
do not count :/

Also I'm pretty sure I'm
the only person here over
8 who is not himself in the
NHL or married to
someone who is.

Which is fine bit

*but Haus parties are more
fun

You ok?

Yeah. Fine. Just bored :/
Lu à 21:49

One min

[iMessage]

Bittle says he’ll be a minute, which will of course actually be more than one minute, so Jack has to leave the bathroom, and wonders if it would be rude to wander away from the party and find somewhere quiet to sit until it’s time to go.

Part of his brain is nagging at him to go network, but as Shitty once joked, most of his brain is currently having network connectivity issues.

He is bored and mentally spent and would just really like to not be here anymore. So as he leaves the bathroom, he wonders how surreptitiously he could locate his mother and find out what time they are leaving to go to the party at Guy’s house, which will be smaller and more relaxed.

She’s really caught up in a conversation with a couple of the younger guys’ girlfriends, though, and on second thought, Jack can wait. He has some pride. Besides, it’s like five of ten. He is pretty sure his mother said they were leaving around ten. Even if it takes a little while for her to wrap up, this should be manageable.

He sucks it up and goes for one more… well. Someone said they were turkey sandwiches. A turkey may have sneezed near them once, but they’re mostly just squares of dry bread. At least it seems to be whole wheat. How are sandwiches this difficult?

His phone buzzes, but it’s not Bittle. It’s… Icer? Or at least, it’s Icer’s phone, in the group text, but it appears to be Shitty actually talking.

Shitty appears to be well on his way to wasted. Jack would tell Icer to take pics, but a) Shitty has Icer’s phone for some reason and b) captain and role model and things of that nature.

On his way to find more water, his phone buzzes again, and this time it is Bitty.

[22:04]
aujourd’hui 22:02

Sorry that took too long

Oh. Sorry. Didn't mean
to interrupt.

No you're fine! You're
great. Was looking for
someone to talk to
actually

Oh. Are you ok?
Lu à 22:04

Yeah yeah, also bored. At
that party I mentioned

/awkward and ready to
leave

[iMessage]

Jack pauses. If Bittle hadn’t wanted to be there… he’d said he might text Shitty to have an excuse to go home early, but apparently he hadn’t done that. Maybe he didn’t want to bother him since Shitty and Icer seemed to be having a good time? Should Jack have offered to help too in case Bittle needed it?

[22:05]

Oh. You could have
texted Shitty. Or me.

Yeah, I was considering it

Perfect timing me.
Zimmermann

(Mr

*Mr.

Ugh

[iMessage]

Jack smiles a little, partially from amusement and partially from relief. The party couldn’t have been too bad, then. He sees his mother waving him over, so he’s going that way when his phone buzzes again.

[22:06]

I'm in the car now—
probably shouldn't drive
just yet (•へ•)

[iMessage]

Jack frowns slightly at that. Had Bittle been drinking without anyone to keep an eye out for him? Not that he wouldn’t be sensible about it, obviously, but at the Haus there’d be a half-dozen hockey players watching out for him, ready to have his back if he needed it. And he’d usually be the one checking that everyone else had had some water and something to drink, anyway.

[22:08]

So what's up? your party
not any more fun than the
last one?

The last four, and no.
And we've got another
after this one.

Did you drink water
Lu à 22:08

Yes

I didn't even drink that
much

[iMessage]

Good. That’s good. He reaches his mother.

“Hey, sorry that took so long,” she says. “You know how these things are. You ready to go?”

Her question is rhetorical, but Jack shrugs and nods anyway. “Yeah.”

She smiles. They head towards the exit, collecting his dad on the way.

[22:09]

I'm just a little
overwhelmed you know?

[iMessage]

That is. Less good. Jack is very familiar with that feeling, but Bittle is usually more comfortable in social settings, so if he is feeling overwhelmed…

[22:10]

Uh yeah. I know.

You sure you're ok?

You keep asking that and
you're making me doubt
myself :P

Bittle…
Lu à 22:09

No seriously Jack, I'm fine.
Nobody beat me up.

They were all…*nice*

[iMessage]

Jack freezes. Was—had that been an actual possibility? Had Bitty legitimately thought—and—and he still went? Crisse, that—Jack doesn’t know how to begin to respond to that. But he has to say something.

[22:11]

Would you have gone if
you thought they wouldn't
be?

No but

It was still weird. Good
weird.

Ok
Lu à 22:11

[iMessage]

Jack takes a deep breath as he and his parents reach their own car. Bitty is fine. He is fine and he already left the party and he is going to go home soon and he is fond of hyperbole and maybe he was exaggerating or joking and Jack just. Missed that. It would hardly be the first time. For all Jack chirps Bitty about his love of emoticons, they do make understanding the intended tone much easier. He hasn’t actually used any in the last few minutes, though. Is that in and of itself a sign of his mood that Jack just doesn’t know how to read?

But Rans and Holster had facebook-stalked most of those guys and given their approval so… Bitty’s fine.

[22:13]

Ok I think I'm good to
drive. I'll text you when I
get home

Drive safe Bittle
Lu à 22:13

[iMessage]

Jack takes another deep breath, holding this one for a moment before slowly letting it out. Everything is fine. Bittle is fine and is on his way home now and promised to text Jack when he gets there without Jack even having to ask. Which… is Bittle being thoughtful, as usual, and is probably not a sign that Jack’s concern for his teammates is annoying enough Bittle didn’t bother waiting for the inevitable question.

Jack ignores the part of his brain asking how many of his other teammates he would actually have requested text him once safely home.

Though… the Carbonneaus are nice, but Jack would really rather just go home.

As the three of them get in the car, Jack looks at his phone and considers for a moment. Then he decides.

“Actually,” he says, once his dad is out of the parking space, “would you mind dropping me at home? I’m getting tired and I still need to pack.” He sees his dad’s eyes flick up to the rearview mirror and then over to his mom.

Ouais,” his dad agrees. That was easy.

“Packing, huh?” His mom turns around to look at him behind the driver’s seat, eyebrows raised.

“Uh, yeah,” he deadpans.

She rolls her eyes and faces forward again. “D’accord, mon cher. I’m sure it has absolutely nothing to do with you being glued to your phone like I’ve never seen you for the last half-hour.”

Oh. So he’s been found out.

“My flight leaves early.” Not at all an explanation, only a justification.

He can hear his dad chuckling quietly and see his mom biting her lip to hide a smile.

“That’s not an answer,” she taunts him.

“You didn’t actually ask a question.” As Ransom would say, chirp game weak, Maman.

She snickers. “Touché.” Then she mimes zipping her lip, and it’s Jack’s turn to roll his eyes.

He pulls out his phone to let Bittle know he’s on his way home, and she must have seen him, because as he’s typing, he gets an incoming text notification from Maman. He hits send, then backs out and reads it.

[22:17]
aujourd’hui 22:17

I'm glad you have
someone more important
to be talking to tonight :)

[iMessage]

Jack refrains from sighing because she’d hear it, but calisse, her chirp game can be as weak as she wants if she’s just going to call his bluff and not even play along. He has to respond to that at some point, but for now he just goes back to his conversation with Bittle.

[22:18]

My parents are heading
to another party now.

I'm going to go home
though, I think

-_- my mother is
embarrassing

Did I do that face right?
Distribué

[iMessage]


[22:20]

Did I do that face right?

home!

Oh, you planning to
watch something about
NYE celebrations during
WWII or… ?

:P

Also yes you did and why
is your mom
embarrassing?

Um. I hadn't really
thought about it. I might
just go to bed

Actually no Shitty and
R&H would find out and
never let me forget that.
I don't know.

What about you?
Lu à 22:19

I don't know either
actually

Probably just poke
around online or read
until midnight, then go to
sleep?

[iMessage]

Jack might be overreacting or reading too much into things here, but Bittle still sounds off. It’s just—it’s so hard to tell like this? He’s usually so expressive… it’s not like Jack is good at reading people in general, but some people are easier to understand than others, and Bittle is usually one of them. Hmmm…

[22:22]

Oh, yeah. Same probably.
Lu à 22:20

If you want to keep talking
we could Skype or
something? Easier than
texting
Distribué

[iMessage]

It’s kind of impulsive, but Jack wants to talk to Bitty, wants to see him. He’s skyped Shitty a few times and been in and out of the group texts, and of course he’s been texting Bittle, but it’s not the same at all, and he misses his friends. And because he is honest with himself—he misses Bitty. And tonight he’s worried about him.

[22:34]

Oh! Yeah that would be
nice!

What time will you be
home?

Well we left 15 minutes
late but I think we're
about 10 minutes away

I would do that eyeroll face
you do but i still don't know
how

◔_◔

Yeah that

Cool :)

aujourd’hui 22:33

I'm home. What is your
Skype name anyway?

Oh! Wow, we really
haven't Skyped before,
weird.

ERBittle15

You?

j.zimms
Lu à 22:34

[iMessage]

He should maybe get around to changing that. Or not. The 15 in Bittle’s name is cute, though. Whatever. Jack heads up to his room and opens his computer to start up skype. He would use the thing more often if it didn’t take forever to log him in. It just doesn’t usually seem worth it.

Tonight it’s worth it.


“Jack?”

Bitty waits, but nothing changes. Jack’s icon is still the only thing visible, and sound does not seem to be happening either.

“Can you hear me? I can’t—I don’t think you have your microphone or camera turned on, maybe?”

A message pops up in the chat box. What?

“Oh, good, you can hear me, though? Can you see me?”

Yes, Jack types. Oh, wait.

After a moment, he hears Jack saying “—fixed it last time, I think. Did that do it?” and the icon gives way to Jack sitting in what must be his bedroom.

Bitty maximizes the video feed and takes a good look at Jack, who is wearing a very nice suit. Bitty blinks.

“Oh! Yeah, hi! I can see and hear you now.” He smiles. Jack smiles back, and some part of Bitty’s brain argues that this is entirely unfair and he should really have had some warning or some way to prepare for this. Another part of his brain points out he has seen Jack wearing a suit before, and knew perfectly well Jack was at a fancy party and so probably dressed up for that, but the logic of that argument does little to help.

Jack loosens his tie, visibly relaxing as he does. Lord have mercy, that boy and his stupidly beautiful face. Bitty impulsively takes a screenshot before immediately realizing that that is kind of weird and definitely not something he should actually have done.

skype screenshot of Jack. He’s in a dark suit jacket and white shirt, loosening his red tie with his left hand. He’s smiling although his eyelids are drooping a bit as if tired. Behind him are fairly plain walls except for a ‘Be Better’ poster. In the bottom right of the screen, Bitty’s face is visible on camera preview. He is smiling in a red shirt, nothing visible behind him except the top of his chair.

He tries to look like he’s listening as he opens his screenshots folder to delete the picture. And really, could anyone blame him for taking a moment to admire it before he actually presses the button?

He does, though, and then he actually focuses on what Jack is starting to say, quietly wondering what he did to deserve another cute boy chirping him tonight, because that is definitely Jack’s chirp face. Was Stephen chirping-slash-flirting-with him really not enough for the universe?

“—your party had a way better dress code.”

Bitty laughs, because that is not actually what he expected Jack to say. And then regrets it, because Jack seems to have taken that as encouragement, which means more chirping. Help.

“They don’t even make you comb your hair for Georgia parties?”

…Oh. Bitty had… not really thought about that. He rolls his eyes as he looks into the camera and smooths down his hair, hoping the many things he is now thinking about are not obvious on his face.

“Your eyes are going to get stuck like that,” Jack says faux-seriously. Bitty only leans closer to the camera and rolls them harder.

“Okay, actually, on that subject—you said you would teach me how to make that face on my phone. And on the computer for that matter.”

“Right! Yes.” Bitty grabs hold of the subject change like a lifeline. Emojis are safe territory. Emojis have nothing to do with thinking about cute boys, much less about kissing said cute boys. Or said cute boys running their hands through his hair and this is exactly what he is not thinking about right now.

Anyway.

“Okay. So, Jack, first of all, they’re called ‘emoji’, not ‘drawing pictures out of letters’.”

“Right. I knew that. My way is better though.”

Bitty rolls his eyes again, this time just trying (and failing) to hide a smile.

“There’s a couple different ways you can type them. There’s a way you can get alternate keyboards—actually wait, I guess you might already know this part? Don’t you have a French keyboard installed?”

Jack is nodding, so Bitty keeps going. “If you turn on one of the Japanese ones—try the one that says ‘Romaji’, maybe?—there are a bunch of preformed options. Tap the button for numbers and punctuation, and select the button with the smile on it.”

He pauses. Jack pokes at his phone for a minute, then looks back up with a nod and a noise of understanding.

“Then there should be a little bar that pops up just above the keyboard? with an arrow all the way on the right? If you tap on that, now, it should slide up and show you lots of options.”

Bitty watches in amused silence as Jack spends several minutes scrolling slowly through the list, frowning and making occasional sounds of confusion at particularly ambiguous expressions.

After a minute or so, Bitty adds, “If you want, you can try experimenting with the characters? But the pre-set ones are probably enough.”

“Oh.” Jack frowns. “Some of the ones you use aren’t here, though. You said you would show me the one rolling its eyes, remember?”

Bitty laughs. “All right, all right, you got a point. The other ones you can just find online, actually. Just google whatever emotion or expression you want and ‘emoji’ or ‘kaomoji’ and there’ll be lots of pages to look through for one you like to copy and paste.”

“Why are they called cow-moji?” Jack asks. “They show emotions, not cows.”

Bitty snorts and types kaomoji into the chat box so Jack can see how it’s spelled. “It’s Japanese, you fool. It’s just another name, more specific to the faces that are right-side-up instead of sideways.”

“Oh.” Jack looks like he might be trying to keep a straight face. As if he’d actually known. Which there was no way he had. And yet he was still being chirpy. What did Bitty do to deserve this? “Anyway, how do you type them so fast, then?”

Oh. Huh. Bitty had not really expected Jack to be this interested in it. Well.

“I set shortcuts for ones I use a lot with autocorrect.” Jack stares at him blankly.

Bitty sighs, amused. “…Do you know how to add shortcuts?”

Jack shakes his head, so Bitty directs him to the shortcuts section of the phone settings.

“So now you paste the one you want to use in where it says ‘phrase’, and type what you want into ‘shortcut’. So, like, I have that one you were talking about—”

Bitty pauses, grabbing his phone and quickly typing eyeroll in. Before he lets it autocorrect, he takes a screenshot, then sends both the face and the screenshot to Jack.

“—set so that if I type ‘eyeroll’, it changes to that. See?”

[10:58 PM]

Oh! Wow, we really
haven't Skyped before,
weird.

ERBittle15

You?

j.zimms

Today 10:58 PM

◔_◔

screenshot of Bitty’s texts to Jack
Read 10:58 PM

[iMessage]

“So now you can copy it from my text and paste it into the shortcut thing. And do the same thing with any others you like from google.”

“Hold up a sec,” Bitty says, pulling his earbuds out. He rubs at his ears, which have gotten a little itchy. “Actually—” He unplugs them from his laptop “—why do I have these?”

“Are your parents not home either?” Jack asks.

“Nah, my folks are out. They went over to a friend’s house, but frankly I think she’s annoying and she ain’t got kids, so it would have been her and my folks and maybe some of their other friends and just me, and they would all want to know everything I do at school, even though I’m sure I’ve told them already.”

He sighs. “Y’know, honestly I’ve stopped explaining American Studies? They always think I mean American history, so I’ve just given up and started saying ‘history’ because it’s less frustrating.”

“Wait,” Jack says, frowning a little. “Do they not ask you questions if you say history? They always ask me for details.”

“I make up some garbage about nineteenth-century culture and food if they do. And hope they don’t ask much more.”

“Oh.” Jack shrugs slightly. “People sometimes think I picked World War II because it’s ‘easy’”—he makes scare quotes with his fingers—“unless I explain the focus on collegiate sports.”

“Ugh, yeah, if I do get into the food and culture thing, then they do that too! Like, it ain’t ‘real’ history if it ain’t about politics, even though it’s all related, really?” He pulls a mock-serious face on ‘real’, dragging the word out a little and barely managing not to roll his eyes yet again. Really, he’s about done with other human beings tonight. “Anyway, no wonder you wanted to skip the last party tonight, then. That don’t sound like much fun.”

“It would probably have been better than the last few—we were going to some friends’, it would have just been a couple other families, but. still. Socializing gets tiring after a while.”

Bitty mostly manages to keep a straight face while he asks, “What, I don’t count?”

“No, you don’t.”

…Oh. Jack actually looks and sounds like he means it seriously. Bitty doesn’t really know what to make of that. It’s not as if he hadn’t known Jack considers him a friend, but it still surprises him sometimes. How did he ever get this lucky, really? He runs one hand through his hair absent-mindedly.

“Uh,” Jack says. “Um, but so anyway. Yeah. My parents mostly let me stay home when they can, but I can’t always. So.”

“Yeah, I feel you. I only really went to that party tonight—everything else’s been with family or church stuff, y’know? And tonight was… awkward.” He scrunches up his mouth to one side, unsatisfied with the description.

“Right,” Jack says. “Was it… mostly okay, though? You sounded like you weren’t really enjoying being there.”

“No, it was fine, just… I forgot just how long it’s been since I seen high school folks?” Literally everyone he had a conversation with tonight had awkward history with him.

“Literally everyone?” Jack asks, teasing, like it wasn’t possible. Crap. He hadn’t meant to say that out loud. Well…

Bitty takes a breath. “Well I mean… I only talked to, like, four people but like, Jeff? Awkward. Leigh? So awkward, ugh. Stephen…” He winces. “And Mary, who was probably only awkward in my head, I don’t think she noticed, but still.”

“I… don’t know who any of those people are,” Jack says. “Or what made things awkward. But if you wanted to talk about it…”

Bitty desperately wants to talk about Stephen and get that out of his head, make it real, but at the same time, he’s really not ready to talk about Stephen. So he backs up a bit and decides to start with Jeff.

“Jeff… Jeff is—well, used to be—a real jerk, but he was the one hosting the party. This other guy, Stephen, invited me, and he swore up and down Jeff ain’t like that anymore, but I was having trouble believing him. But like… he ain’t? He was perfectly friendly, and it was just so weird. Neither of us really knew what to say or do, though…” He trails off.

Jack nods. “Hooray for maturity?” he offers.

“Yeah, or something,” Bitty agrees. “But then, luckily”—he infuses that word with as much sarcasm as he can—“Leigh showed up!”

He pauses. Based on this conversation with Jack tonight, Bitty is… 88% sure that he ain’t as annoying as Leigh. But he still has to be careful about this because maybe his explanation would make Jack think about it, and Jack would realize, and then where would they be.

Jack waits. Because off the ice he has the patience of a saint. Lord.

“Leigh was a friend of mine in high school.” Bitty gets out of fullscreen, because suddenly he doesn’t want to stare Jack right in the face while he says this. “Obviously. Well, I mean, obviously in high school. Not necessarily that she was my friend. Anyway. People thought we were dating a lot. Which we weren’t, because, well, me. And I was kind of nasty about it (not so much on purpose, but it don’t matter how on purpose), but also she…”

He takes another breath and forces himself to look at Jack’s face in the corner of the screen. “…had a real big crush on me. Still does, I’m pretty sure.” Jack’s expression doesn’t change. He’s just listening politely because Jack is the best at that, and life just ain’t fair.

“So that was awkward because she was still kinda flirting with me but mostly just being nice, y’know, but I can never be what she wants and I ain’t even got the guts to tell her why.” He sees some dirt in his keyboard and tries to scrape it out, get his eyes away from the camera.

It’s quiet for a moment before Jack clears his throat. “Bittle—” His voice cracks a little, like he forgot to talk loud enough. He speaks up. “Bittle, look at me.”

Bitty looks at the camera and moves Jack’s face up there so he can approximate eye contact.

“You don’t have to. You don’t have to tell her anything, you don’t owe her anything. All you have to say is ‘no’, and you did that. You are full of guts.” It’s Jack’s captain voice, his I-know-what-I’m-talking-about voice, and Bitty really wants to believe him. He doesn’t, but he really wants to.

He swallows, and his voice is level when he says, “Thanks.”

It’s quiet again. Bitty can’t figure out what to say, and Jack seems content to wait. Bitty scrolls up his twitter feed out of habit. Nothing interesting.

“Um,” says Bitty when he can’t take the silence any more.

“Do you want to keep talking about your party?” Jack asks. “Or I can tell you about all the little kids I gave piggy-back rides to.”

Yeah, because Jack Zimmermann with small children is exactly what Bitty needs to get his emotions in check. Totally. Not that talking about Stephen will help with that either, but.

Bitty rubs the heels of his palms into his eyes. “Um,” he says again. “Actually, yeah, I’ll keep talking.” Because he does want to get this out, and he’s never—he’s never had a chance before? He’s never had a love life to speak of, let alone gossip with friends about, but also he’s never had a friend that he wanted to tell about it?

And yeah, telling your (theoretically?) straight college crush all about your straight high school crush who turned out not to be straight and (surprise!) also to like you is—not ideal. Bordering on humiliating. Except that it’s Jack. And beyond all else, Jack is proving over and over that he is Bitty’s friend, and Bitty considers Jack his friend, and bless it if he doesn’t want to just have a friend right now.

Plus the more he thinks about it, the more he hopes that maybe—well, if Jack ever wants to talk about EpiKegster, maybe he’ll know Bitty’ll listen.

“So Stephen’s a football player. One of my dad’s best players, or used to be. He’s in college now, though he’s injured and he ain’t playing no more. Anyway he’s the one who invited me to this party, and he’s—one of the only guys from the team who wasn’t awful to me in high school? And the only one I can remember easy who was actually nice to me ever.”

Jack is watching the camera, hands under his chin. It doesn’t look like a cutesy story-time move, though, but like an I-want-you-to-know-I’m-listening one. Bless him.

“So at first he was just this attractive, talented guy who was way out of my league and also straight, but then he was so nice and it turned into this ridiculous, neverending crush.” Bitty takes another breath and barrels forward.

“But then he graduated and went to school and I almost never saw him, and then I graduated and went to school, and then I ran into him while I was, well, on a run last week, and he was so nice and he wanted to know about hockey, so we talked. And then he invited me to Jeff’s and we talked there, and he flirted with me—Jack, I said something about ‘soft hands’ without even realizing it and he chirped me about it nicely, and then we kissed????”

Bitty’s heart is pounding. His voice goes way up on the last word and he wonders if all the question marks that are in his head are audible. This is the most he’s ever said about such a thing, ever, and it’s… well, it’s a rush.


Jack waits. Surely “we kissed” is not the horrible awkward ending to the story about Bittle and his longtime crush, right? Sure enough, Bittle starts talking again, but it still doesn’t add up.

“So, yeah. We kissed. A lot? And it was… reallygood.”

Jack almost doesn’t know how to react at first; whatever he was expecting, it wasn’t all that. After a second, the disappointment hits him, but—well. He’s Bittle’s friend, whatever else he’d dared to imagine they might be, and that’s what Bittle needs right now. He sits up straight, hands falling into his lap.

“So it was terrible and awkward because…?”

Bittle opens his mouth, then closes it again, apparently reconsidering.

After a moment, he answers, speaking slowly at first but gaining speed as he goes on. “I… was going to say it was terrible and awkward because we ain’t never gonna see each other again, and I don’t really have a thing for him anymore anyway? It really is old news, and neither of us was interested in starting anything. But I just…”

Bittle sighs, frustrated, and runs a hand through his hair. “…Darnit, why couldn’t he’ve said something back in high school? He thought—I didn’t know, I thought I’d hidden it well enough, but he figured out I liked him, and I wish he’d told me?”

Bitty bites his lip. Jack tries to look appropriately sympathetic without letting… well. Without letting everything else show.

“We coulda had something and it’s—I didn’t know, I never woulda thought he’d like me back, but he knew, or guessed, and I kinda feel like it’s his fault we never did, except that’s not fair to him? It ain’t that simple and it ain’t like it woulda been easy—maybe wouldn’t even’ve been good for us, I dunno—I tried to hide it for a reason, y’know? I just… maybe it wouldna worked out, but I can’t really help wishing we coulda tried, at least.”

Jack’s hands are clenched into fists. He isn’t sure when that happened, but he needs to calm down. This isn’t fair to Bitty. He needs a friend right now, that is the whole point of this, he was going to be what Bitty needed, except—except isn’t he doing the exact same thing to him that Stephen did? Maybe he doesn’t owe Bitty anything, but he wants to, he wants a chance to do this right, but he can’t—he doesn’t trust himself not to screw this up. Whatever ‘this’ even means. Bitty. Their friendship. Hockey. All of the above.

“I don’t know. It doesn’t even make sense to keep thinking about it—we’ve both moved on, really. I can still barely believe it’s real, y’know? It just… we bumped into each other in the hallway, it was dark, we were alone… we chatted for a little while, and then it just sort of… happened?” Bitty shrugs helplessly, half-smiling, the disbelief he mentioned clear on his face.

Jack tenses up slightly. That—Bitty hadn’t mentioned before what happened. It—obviously the scenarios were completely different, Bitty wanted the kiss, or… or kisses, he’d said they kissed ‘a lot’ and it was good, but somehow there’s still a sense of… dread, almost, or worry, in the pit of his stomach.

Except then he realizes he doesn’t know the house in question and instead he’s picturing it happening there in the upstairs hallway of the Haus, Bitty and this faceless Stephen standing in front of Bitty’s bedroom door, and why there? Why is he thinking about this? Why does he have to picture Bitty kissing someone else? Why is part of his brain imagining himself standing there kissing Bitty instead?

The image of Bitty’s messy hair from when they started skyping leaps to mind unbidden, tufts poking every which way, even though Bittle usually combs his hair before parties and formal events. Jack wrenches his brain away from that train of thought, because right now few things are going to be less helpful than thinking about all the times he’s wanted to run his own hands through Bitty’s hair.

“Um. So. What happened afterwards? You… when I texted, you weren’t still…”

Bitty laughs in surprise. “No! No, that—someone else came ’round looking for Stephen. Surprised us both, actually. Only just heard her coming in time. And he and Mary dated for a couple of years, so that made things awkward there, too.”

Bitty wrinkles his nose. “Not that she noticed, I don’t think. We all went back downstairs and got a bite to eat and talked for a while. She was nice and all, but she and I ain’t got much in common either, so if you hadn’t texted when you did I’d’ve had to come up with some other excuse to go pretty soon.”

Bitty smiles at the mention of Jack’s texts, but all Jack can see is Bitty kneeling in the hallway of the Haus, looking up at him. Them.

Still, he manages to smile back, somehow. “Good. Uh. Hold that thought? I need to run to the bathroom.”

Bitty nods. “‘Course!”

Jack doesn’t run. He walks slowly down to the kitchen, running one hand lightly along the walls as he goes, grounding himself.

He gets himself a glass of water, and slowly sits down on the floor with it, quite the picture in his jacket still with his tie half un-done. He isn’t full-on panicking, but he’s not exactly far from it, either. His parents are still out, and he doesn’t really want them involved anyway. Shitty is drunk. Bittle is… well. Not an option.

He texts Lardo. I’m not an asshole, right?

She doesn’t respond immediately. He stays there, seated on the floor, counting to keep his breathing even (in for eight, hold for four, out for six, in for eight, hold for four, out for six, in for eight, hold for four, out for six), waiting, but after a minute his phone buzzes.

not without good reason, she says. what happened?

He doesn’t want to explain all this, not right now, not when she’s probably drunk, too, not by text. Random anxiety, he says instead, because she’ll understand and respect that.

She replies almost instantly, you’re not an asshole cap.

Okay. Okay.

He does go to the bathroom then, still breathing carefully, giving himself one last chance to get his act together. When he goes back upstairs, he finds Bittle watching Beyoncé.

“Hey, Bittle, sorry. I, uh. I don’t know. Wasn’t feeling great.” It’s not a lie, though it implies something other than the truth.

“Better now?” Bitty asks, pausing the video and moving his eyes to the camera.

“I think so,” Jack says. “So okay, sorry, you were talking… um. Did you want to talk more about this Stephen? Why you liked him and… stuff?”

Bittle bites his lip again. “You sure you don’t mind? I—it’s surreal to be having this conversation, actually, but yeah? I think I’d like that.”

Jack is being a good friend. Bitty has made it clear enough he’s never really gotten to talk about things like this much, and he deserves a chance to get some of it off his chest. If Jack is also personally curious what Bitty’s (old) dream guy was like… well. Jack can’t help a little bit of selfish masochism.

“So he’s a good kisser?” …or a lot of selfish masochism. Whatever.

“I. Um.” Bitty blushes. “Yeah, it—he was. It was good.” He glances off to his left, biting his lip and smiling a little. It is unfairly cute.

Jack swallows and presses his fingers into his thigh. “Uh. So. Why did you like him in high school?”

Bitty looks thoughtful. “I mean, he was really good at football and whatever, and obviously I ain’t ever been that into football, but I could still appreciate the skill and dedication, y’know? Plus Coach liked him, which ain’t nothing.”

He pauses for a moment, then makes a face. “Also, like, Jeff and this other kid Joe used to get on my case a lot. And it wasn’t like I deliberately spent time with the football team, but it happened enough. Joe made a point of locking my locker while I was trying to get stuff out of it, and Jeff musta had a dictionary devoted to stupid names to call me.” Bitty rolls his eyes.

“They’d deliberately bump into me in hallways, shoving the corners of their books into my shoulders, stuff like that.”

He shrugs. “Couldn’t be too ridiculous, though. I was their coach’s kid, and even a “pussy like me”—’specially a pussy like me, probably—would go running to daddy.”

Jack stares at him, expressionless, trying to believe what he’s hearing. How are those words coming of of Bitty’s mouth? How is he saying all that so casually, keeping a straight face like it wasn’t a big deal?

Then Bittle breaks into an actual smile and Jack doesn’t understand. “But Stephen had this habit of turning up outta the blue and just giving Jeff and Joe and the others these, like, laser eyes, and sometimes shoving them away himself, or grabbing them by the back of their shirts and telling them to lay off.”

Jack is seething internally. This is Bitty’s dream guy? This… this run-of-the-mill human being who had the common decency not to call him names? He leans back in his chair for a moment and corrals the words he wants.

“I don’t—how was that not just. being a decent person? I’m not seeing the appeal.”

“What? No, no,” Bitty objects. “He really was good, not just better than awful or whatever, I swear. He’d walk with me to class and actually ask how I was, and he always said hi in the halls, even though he was a junior and I was just a freshman.”

Jack’s not convinced, but Bitty would know better than he does. Still. “I mean—okay, I’ll take your word for it, but. I really—” He takes a breath. “Bittle, you deserve better.”

Bittle’s expression is odd, and Jack isn’t sure he gets what Jack means, so he tries again.

“Just… I believe you, he was great, and I’m sorry that it didn’t work out for you two—” and he’s only lying a little there, because he wants Bitty to be happy, even if that’s not with him, “—but not shoving you into lockers isn’t—”

And he’s going to say it again, that that’s not enough, that that shouldn’t be Bitty’s standard for great, that he deserves so much better in his friends and classmates and teammates and the people around him and especially in the guy he likes, but Bittle cuts him off.

“What? Oh, no, that was mostly seventh grade. By high school even I didn’t really fit. It’s not—high school wasn’t even that bad, honestly; once we moved to Madison things were so much better. It was fine, really.” Bitty looks almost puzzled at first, and then his face clears and he shrugs, like he’s not talking about having been literally shoved inside lockers.

And—Jack vaguely remembers Shitty ranting about that, early on, but it is just a vague memory. It wasn’t—Bittle didn’t matter back then, not to Jack; he was just one of the frogs, only standing out at all because of his issue with checking, and somehow that makes it even worse.

“You didn’t what?” Jack’s voice is low and fierce; he realizes he knew about that, how did he forget that, and he wonders how Bitty doesn’t seem to realize how horrific what he’s describing was.

“…I… finally was big enough I didn’t… fit in the lockers?” Bitty sounds confused, like he thinks he’s missing something, and Jack doesn’t even know where to start. This is—inside lockers, Jack had meant against them and was already—calisse, this is normal to him? How does he not see how obscenely fucked up that is?

Jack can’t find the words he needs, so he sits there, staring at Bitty blankly, until finally Bitty sighs.

“It… look, yeah, okay, I know it’s bad or whatever, but it’s just… what it was. So I moved on.”

And Jack knows that’s not true. Or—maybe it is, partially, but even aside from Bitty’s confusion at how Jack reacted, that he still literally passes out when people hit him would clearly indicate otherwise.

Still, Jack doesn’t try to fight it.

They sit in relative silence for a minute or so, Bittle’s eyes not meeting the camera, and Jack hears the clock ticking behind him. Only seven minutes til 2015. He doesn’t want to start the year on this note. He wants Bitty to smile again.

He has an idea. The page Bittle had sent him earlier was only open on his phone, and there hadn’t been any there that quite fit anyway, so instead he types “hug emoticon” into his search bar, clicks through several pages until he finds one he likes, and proceeds to paste (/-_-(~-~)/ into the chat box.

Bitty’s eyes move from whatever he’d been looking at (probably twitter) over to the other side of the screen, and he huffs out a small laugh, then settles on a smile, slight but genuine. “Thank you.”

Jack smiles too. It doesn’t make everything better, doesn’t change that Bitty went through all that, but right now, Bitty is smiling again, and that’s the important part.

So the tension is broken, but Jack doesn’t want to let it rise again. “I thought about this one,” he says, and pastes in (>^_^)> , “but the arms are the same shape as the eyes, and that’s weird. And it kind of just looks like a happy zombie. Or like it’s trying to hug you with its elbows.”

Bittle buzzes his lips in laughter, so Jack keeps going. “And I guess you could change them to this,” and by copying bits from two different ones he cobbles together (~^_^)~, “but then it’s a happy zombie with jellyfish arms?”

Bittle laughs outright this time, and Jack is still pissed about his past and somewhat jealous of this Stephen guy, but life would really probably be alright if Jack could make Bitty laugh like this all the time.

Jack reinterprets a couple more emoticon faces, trying to prolong this giddy feeling as the year slips away. At midnight they wish each other happy new year.

“Y’know, it’s funny,” Bittle says wryly, “I don’t know if it really counts—it wasn’t exactly textbook—but that was actually my first New Year’s Eve party kiss.”

He sighs and his expression grows more thoughtful. “…I’d love to kiss someone right, one year,” he adds quietly.

Jack blushes just slightly, trying very hard to not think about kissing Bitty. He fails again. Bittle is turning kind of pink himself, and there’s a few seconds of silence before several texts in all-caps come from their friends, wishing everyone a happy new year. They laugh, and after the sudden tension is broken, Jack starts talking about dumb and silly kisses his parents have had on New Year’s Eves past.

They discuss their plans for getting back to the Haus after that, and Jack isn’t entirely sure how that turns into talking about Beyoncé, though at this point he’s never really surprised if a conversation with Bittle winds up there.

“I was just rewatching some of the 2013 Super Bowl show while you were in the bathroom, actually.”

“Oh,” says Jack. That’s probably supposed to mean something.

“Jack, honey, do you have a clue what I’m talking about?” Bittle looks halfway between exasperated and entertained, and Jack isn’t really sure what to do other than be honest. He grins sheepishly and shakes his head.

“Mr. Zimmermann, you’re telling me you have never seen Beyoncé’s 2013 Super Bowl performance?”

“Uh… yes?”

“That is unacceptable. Hang on.”

A link pops up in the chat box.

“Yeah, here,” Bitty says, “I didn’t get to the end, we can start over. Click.” Jack gives in to Bittle’s firm command; both of them put earbuds in to prevent feedback and they each watch the video. When it’s over, Bittle demands Jack say it was fantastic; Jack responds with nonchalance at first, just to see Bitty’s reaction, but then does indeed admit it was good.

Bittle then decides to watch it again. And then again. And again. And again. Jack watches Bittle’s face. Again, and again, and again.

It’s probably the seventh or eighth time Bitty’s replayed the video—Jack lost count around the fourth or fifth—when there’s a knock on his door. It’s not actually closed, and Jack’s mother pokes her head around the frame and peeks in. He turns and sees her looking at his computer.

“Oh, so you were tired and had to pack, huh?” she asks, mock-glaring.

“Uh… yeah?” he offers, biting his lip and trying not to look caught out. Her “glare” softens.

“Well, Papa and I are going to bed now. Make sure you are actually packed, but don’t stay up too much longer. We have to get you to the airport tomorrow.” She looks over at his desk and waves. “Hi, Eric!” She calls.

“Maman, he can’t see you.” Jack says, just as Bittle’s voice comes out of the speakers, saying, “Hello, Mrs. Zimmermann! Happy New Year!”

Jack glances at the clock on his screen and says to Bitty, “Ah, yeah, shit, it’s later than I thought—it’s almost two am. She’s right, I should sleep.”

“It’s what time?” Bitty asks, and Jack laughs at his shock, though he’s surprised too.

“I keep staying up so much later than planned, and it is all your fault,” Bitty continues, pretending to be annoyed. “You and your books I can’t put down, and now this? What happened to telling me to get more rest?”

Jack starts to reply, but his mother adds one last comment. “And Jacqui? T’as ben choisi ton copain.”

Maman, non,” Jack objects, because she can figure what she likes about Jack, but they aren’t actually dating. “C’t’un ami.

His mother’s smile is gentle but amused. “Uh-huh. Go to sleep, kiddo.”

Jack turns back to his laptop as she leaves. “What was that about?” Bitty asks.

“Oh, she—uh. I don’t… have a lot of my own friends around here, you know?” He rubs the back of his neck with one hand awkwardly. “She’s just… glad I’ve finally got a social life, even if it’s ducking out of parties to sit in my bedroom.” Bitty seems to believe him, to Jack’s relief.

They say goodnight; Jack finishes packing quickly, though he does get a final goodnight text from Bittle before he’s done.

[02:15]
aujourd’hui 02:13

Night, Jack!

Hope you sleep well :)

[iMessage]

He does.

Chapter Text

Shitty picks Jack up from the airport, and they are the first ones back to the Haus after the holidays. Shitty talks Jack into ordering some Chinese since there’s not much else to eat in the place, and it’s not great, but Jack can’t be bothered to make a fuss. There’s not much to complain about when he spends the afternoon on the couch watching the Winter Classic, with Shitty sprawled across him, stealing each other’s food.

(This time they make it an entire hour before Shitty comments on how much they are dating without actually dating.

“Shits,” Jack says as usual, “it’s the moustache. Talk to me again when you get rid of it.”

“Like I actually want your sorry ass, Zimmermann.”

“I’ve been informed that my ass is a treasure, but to each his own. Give me a dumpling.”

It’s an old routine, and a comforting one.)

The game ends, but they stay on the couch for a while, picking the plays apart and talking about their own upcoming games. Eventually, Jack insists on going out to buy groceries—enough to get them through til the dining halls open again. It’s barely freezing, and Jack wants to move around, so they both bundle up and walk to murder Stop & Shop.

When they get back, Jack makes sandwiches and they retire to Jack’s room, where they argue over netflix, shoulder-to-shoulder against the wall beside his bed. Eventually Jack gives in and lets Shitty drag him through the first few episodes of some show about women in prison, before kicking him out so they can sleep.

Ransom and Holster show up overnight, so the next day Jack proceeds to have his treasure of an ass handed to him in MarioKart before he insists he needs to get some work done on plays for the weekend.

So, the afternoon passes in a companionable blur of hockey strategy (Jack), “thesis work” (Shitty), and making fun of people on the internet (Ransom and Holster). Jack loves his parents and it was nice to be home for a while, but it’s even nicer to be among his friends again.

They all troop to the dining hall when it opens, and Jack has just joined the others at their table when everyone’s phones buzz.

[19:45]
aujourd’hui 19:45

Bittle 15
On the shuttle!! I'll be at
the Haus in ~45 min

Btw did any of y'all pick
up any eggs?

Also does anyone have
cookie requests? I'm
feeling indecisive.

[Message]

“We didn’t get eggs, did we?” Shitty asks.

“No,” Jack says. He’s suddenly antsy about seeing Bittle in person, being in the Haus with him for the first time since… well, since the start of break, instead of just talking to him through texts and Skype. He’s about to offer to go pick them up, but Shitty beats him to it.

[19:46]

Also does anyone have
cookie requests? I'm
feeling indecisive.

Knight 42
We forgot but we'll grab
some.

Oluransi 11
Snickerdoodles.
Snickerdoodles, please

[Message]

“Damn, Rans, you desperate there?” Holster chirps.

“Shut up, snickerdoodles are important, and my grandmother didn’t make any this year.”

Jack ignores them and kicks Shitty gently under the table. “I’ll get the eggs. I want to go for a walk, anyway.”

“You don’t want company, brah?”

Jack shrugs. He doesn’t know what he wants.

“I’ll come with,” Shitty decides. “I need a little more of a break from working anyway.”

“Did you actually get anything done?” Holster asks.

Shitty makes a big show of darting his eyes. “I mean…”

“Whatever, dude,” says Ransom. “It’s still vacation.”

So after dinner, Ransom and Holster head back to the Haus, and Jack and Shitty head to racist Stop & Shop, since it’s closer to the dining hall. Halfway there, Holster texts to ask for Gatorade, so they get that and the eggs and return to the Haus. Jack is not much calmer, but he’s not ready to explain to Shitty why he can’t go home, so he’ll just have to suck it up and deal.

They come in the back door to put the groceries in the kitchen, and Bittle is… not there. Which, in retrospect, makes sense since they were bringing the eggs, but it still feels empty. Jack puts the eggs and Gatorade in the fridge and realizes that it’s oddly quiet. Is Bittle not here yet?

He trails after Shitty into the living room, where they find Bittle and Ransom doing squats very studiously. Can squats be done studiously? Well, they are. It’s basically silent except for huffs of breath and the creak of knees. Jack catches Ransom’s eye and nods, but his attention immediately shifts to Bittle, whose back is to him. His form is a little off—looks like his feet are slightly off balance—and Jack should correct him, but he can’t find words.

“Bits!” Shitty yells, breaking the moment. Bittle straightens up in a flash and whirls around.

“Shitty!” he exclaims, as he launches himself forward. Shitty wraps him up in a bear hug, then pulls away and slaps him on the ass.

“Welcome back, brah. How was the—” Shitty doesn’t get to finish his question, which Jack assumes was going to be about the flight.

Instead— “Jack!” Jack is unprepared for Bitty to fly at him, too. Bitty’s arms slide around his waist, easy as anything, and he squeezes Jack tight. Jack’s arms find themselves places to rest across Bittle’s back, and he has to step down hard on the urge to bring one up and ruffle Bittle’s hair.

Bittle doesn’t let go, and Jack’s not sure what to do. He hasn’t said anything yet, either.

“Hey, Bittle.” That seems like a safe thing to say. Jack gives him an extra squeeze, and Bitty finally steps back.

Jack looks down. Bittle looks up. Jack searches Bittle’s face for a cue. Bittle might be doing the same, but Jack can’t tell. Neither of them finds it.

But Jack can feel Ransom and Shitty’s eyes, and the silence isn’t getting any less awkward.

“Uh. Squats,” Jack says intelligently. “Good.” Bitty laughs, and that’s all that matters.

It’s still weird for a moment, but Shitty breaks the tension. “No music, Bits? You feeling okay?”

“Finally get tired of Beyoncé the other night?” Jack asks, trying to save some face.

Bittle clutches a hand to his chest and fakes a gasp. “Never! No, but actually, Holster’s doing a thing upstairs and asked us to keep it down. And headphones weren’t worth it.”

Jack smiles slightly to himself, probably one of those ones that don’t quite make it to his face and frustrate other people. That’s exactly how Bittle’s voice sounded in Jack’s head when Jack had asked if he’d ever get tired of cookies. The familiarity is soothing. But also a little frightening that Jack can recall that specific moment from a text message twelve days ago. Why do emotions have to work like this?

“Care to join us, Cap?” Ransom asks, sitting down fully on the floor to stretch out.

Jack’s heart picks up, and there is literally no reason to be worked up right now, but there’s also no talking his brain out of that, at least not in front of people. He runs a hand through his hair, stopping to pull on it at the back, snap himself back into focus.

Bittle is still standing in front of him, and Shitty is waiting, one hand on the railing like he’d been about to go upstairs the whole time but stayed to watch Jack flounder. (At some point he’s going to have to talk to Shitty about this. Today, as Holster says, is not that day.) He has to say something.

“Ah, thanks but no.” He jerks his head toward Shitty. “I owe him another hour of prison drama.”

“…what.” Ransom purses his lips and tilts his head, confused.

“Sorry,” mumbles Jack. “That joke didn’t fall so flat in my head.”

“Orange.” Shitty to the rescue! Again. “I’m making him watch Orange with me.”

Bittle smiles broadly. “Oh good!” he says. “How far have you gotten? Do you like it? Who is your favorite?”

And Jack is just. Not in the mood for this right now. Bitty is happy and Jack is an unnamed tangle of… things. And stuff. Crisse, he can’t even string together a mental sentence in one go. He doesn’t want to share this mood with Bitty on the first night back.

He plasters on half a smile and tries to look put-upon. “It’s okay.”

Shitty punches his shoulder. “Oh, shut the hell up, you love it. Piper’s his favorite,” he adds to Bitty, voice full of false earnesty.

No,” Jack retorts, with feeling. “No, she is the opposite of that. But we’re only a few episodes in, I don’t know. Shut up and don’t ruin it.”

“Oh right!” Shitty pointedly smacks himself in the forehead before reaching over to drag Jack up the stairs behind him. “It’s Pornstache. That’s his favorite.”

Jack takes the opportunity to poke Shitty hard in the ass as they climb the steps. He knows Shitty’s just messing with him, but his patience is actually running out here. “I’ll give you a pornstache.”

“Zimmermann, please. My pornstache is already a thing of beauty. Sorry you have no taste.”

“Good night!” Bittle calls up the stairs.

“’Night!” Jack and Shitty both call back.

Jack’s heart is still fast (not racing, but fast) by the time they’re settled on his bed. His stomach feels tight, but the pressure of the wall behind him and Shitty leaning on his shoulder does steady him.

“Bro, I knew you would like this show,” Shitty says, taking Jack’s laptop from him and cueing up the next episode, “but you did not owe me anything. What’s going on?”

Jack squeezes one hand inside the other. “What’s going on is that I want to watch Piper make bad life choices and yell at her about them.”

Shitty gives him a Look but says nothing. He just leans into Jack with a little extra force. “That, my man, is a good life choice.”


The next morning, the five of them walk to the gym together to meet up with the rest of the team for conditioning. Some of the guys start to talk about how their breaks went, despite most of them having texted constantly about exactly that for the last three weeks, but Jack tells them to save it for later.

Conditioning goes well, and shortly before one they all hit the showers and head to get lunch. As Jack walks out of the gym, he sees Chowder standing out front ahead of him, looking towards Faber.

“It’s like I never left! I mean, I totally did, though, and I really missed you guys.”

Bitty laughs, pulling out his phone, and Jack smiles. Speaking of things being like they’d never left…

“Hey, you can fawn over the rink later, but I’m hungry.” Jack glances over towards where all three of the frogs are now standing, but Dex is smiling as he says it, and Chowder grins.

Nursey pokes Dex in the side. “Hey, you miss me, Poindexter?”

Dex frowns at him. “No.”

Jack wonders if he should step in and say something, but Nursey looks amused. “You’re always free to skype me, you know.”

Dex rolls his eyes. Jack starts to move towards them, unsure what he is planning to say or do, but Dex notices and nods at him, so Jack stays where he is.

“Whatever,” Dex says, turning back to Nursey and Chowder. “Let’s get lunch, come on.”

The three of them turn and start walking together. Jack follows, and Bitty catches up with him. They walk just behind the frogs, listening quietly to Chowder chatting away all the way to the dining hall.


[13:47]
aujourd’hui 13:44

Everyone meet at Faber at
2:45.

Oluransi 11
what why

we don't have practice
today

You'll like it. Be there.

Duan ∞
Do what he says

Birkholtz 4
Is this like a real thing or
a fun thing?

Both?

Knight 42
Shut up and be there

Wagner 3
Ok for how long? I'm
supposed to skype my
sister so when should I
tell her?

5:30.

[Message]


By 3:30 the team has trooped from Faber over to the lake, and everyone is lacing up and taping sticks for a game of shinny. Everyone in the dressing room had cheered at Jack’s suggestion, and O’Meara and Wicks had offered him a double fist-bump.

At some point some Swallow people show up, and a bunch of the guys talk Bitty into doing some extra tricks. Jack watches Bitty do a jump and allows himself a few moments of admiration (that coordination is just amazing) before turning back to get the tape out of his bag.

He’s a little surprised when Bitty approaches him hesitantly just a minute later, looking uncomfortable, but can guess why. Of course he wouldn’t say anything with the others all around, listening, but Bitty wouldn’t just let it go completely without ever asking if he was all right. Jack should have known.

“I just wanted to… not check in—I’m sorry if I’m overstepping!—but I felt like the end of the semester might not have been, well… very. Epic. for you.”

Well. He’s not wrong.

“Thanks, Bittle, but it’s fine.” The media training pays off; Jack’s voice sounds even, calm, normal.

“…Okay.” It’s not enough, though. Jack sighs. He wants to reassure Bitty, but doesn’t know how. He doesn’t want to talk about it, any of it, and wouldn’t know where to start if he did; for lack of anything else to say, he uses a practiced response and hopes it isn’t obvious.

“Bittle. Kent and I both owe each other a lot of apologies. I’m not proud of—” He pauses, taping his stick. Is it really fair to Bitty? Answering like that? He’s genuinely concerned, not just prying out of curiosity—he deserves better than that, but Jack still doesn’t know what to say. Still does not want to talk about this.

He tries anyway. And immediately stumbles over his words. “He and I… we’ve had our differences.” He tries to say something else, but everything he can think of to say sounds too clearly practiced, too impersonal, not quite right. He focuses again on the tape in his hands. Neither of them speaks for a moment, but finally Bitty breaks the silence, and Jack hopes the relief he feels doesn’t show.

“Okay… okay. And I didn’t mean to pry.” Jack almost smiles at that. Had Bitty really thought Jack might actually think he was? In all the time they’ve been friends, and even before, he’s never deliberately tried to make Jack say anything he doesn’t want to.

“You just seemed a little tense—”

Jack… really does not want to admit he’d been tense mostly because he’d been concerned they’d have the conversation they just did. A chirp from earlier springs to mind, and he cuts off the end of Bitty’s sentence.

“…Oh? Shitty didn’t tell you? Apparently I have ‘modes’ or something. …Like a robot.”

Bitty looks amused at that, but Jack continues, more seriously. “I get worked up, I guess. Spring semester goes by fast.” He turns his head partway, glancing at their teammates already fooling around while the last few finish getting ready, thinking about what he’s trying to say.

“This ice will melt before we know it. Last semester, you know?” Looking back at Bitty for a moment, he’s struck by the image of Bitty standing with the bare tree branches visible behind him against the sky. He looks away quickly and finishes taping his stick, but keeps thinking about it.

“Huh… you know, I should really take that photography class.”


Practice goes well, and around 5:15 they drop their things back off at Faber. Jack passes Bittle and Holster on his way out the door, standing less than a meter apart. The height difference is less pronounced that way, but still.

“Get Icer in there, you could be the blond Cingular bars!” he chirps, impulsively messing with both of their hair. His fingers snag in Bittle’s, and it’s everything he didn’t allow himself when Bittle hugged him at the Haus. It’s also nothing.

They both push his hands away. “Jack, that joke is so old,” Holster complains.

“Was Cingular even a thing in Canada?” Bittle wants to know.

“How long did it take you to come up with that, anyway?”

Jack just rolls his eyes and lingers beside them as they walk back to the Haus. He listens silently to the conversation about songs he doesn’t know by artists he only recognizes as names from similar discussions.

Around the time the Haus comes into view, the topic changes from talking about music to chirping him for not knowing any of what they’re talking about, and Jack focuses mostly on keeping a straight face.

Everything feels normal again, as if the last days before break and all the time since had never happened. It’s nice.

Ransom and Holster put on a movie first thing once the five of them are all back at the Haus; Jack agrees to watch with them for once, though he’d thought Iron Man was an animated robot, not Robert Downey Jr. Bitty promises he’ll be in once he starts Ransom’s requested snickerdoodles.

He joins them in the living room around fifteen minutes in, announcing the dough is chilling and the cookies should be ready in time for the end of the movie, which does indeed come to pass. They also end up being delicious. Not that either of those is remotely surprising.

The movie ends around eight, and they all head down to the dining hall together for dinner, where Bitty sits down between Jack and Chowder, plate piled high with pasta and the dregs of the salad bar. At least there’s some nuts and beans in there.

“I have no idea what I’m taking this semester,” Bitty says around his noodles.

Jack has nothing to contribute beyond a warning about choking. He holds his tongue.

Bittle seems to be waiting for a response, though, so Jack tries. “That food seminar was something, eh?”

He can’t well explain what he means by that, not without admitting out loud that what he actually liked about it was how much time they wound up spending studying together, especially working on their final projects. So he settles on “fun” and is glad Bitty doesn’t press him. He privately wonders if they can keep baking together even without the class as an excuse.

Meanwhile, Bitty, as attached to his phone as ever, tweets Jack’s comment. Or so Jack assumes, glancing over and seeing a now-familiar shade of blue on the screen.

“Still tweeting, eh?”

Bitty freezes, looking sideways at Jack warily. Jack is both amused and pleased, and proceeds to chirp Bitty about his tweeting for the rest of dinner; Bitty’s reactions just get better the longer Jack goes on.


It’s the first intermission of their first game after New Year’s, on Sunday afternoon. Jack is looking around the dressing room, standing just beside Coach Hall as the man finishes up his speech. Everyone is focused. They’re tied 1-1 right now, and if they give an inch, Princeton will take a mile.

“Same lines to start,” Coach Hall says. “Chow’s in the net. We’re getting there, gentlemen, but don’t let up.” He slaps Jack on the shoulder and goes out to find Murray.

Jack moves a step sideways to take Coach’s spot. He squirts some water into his mouth while he collects his words. He casts his eyes around the room, pausing briefly on Bittle, who’s gotten a little roughed up, and Chow, whose mask is up and isn’t really smiling. He swallows and starts talking.

“We’re good. We are playing like it. But they’re playing better, especially in our zone.” He nods at Chowder. “Chow’s been playing like a beast, but he can’t stop every shot. The rest of us can stop more of them from getting to him. D’s been on it, but the forwards have to get back there, too. Talk to each other, listen to your teammates.”

Everyone is nodding silently, and Jack’s not quite sure if it’s determination or frustration. “We are playing well,” he insists.

Surveying the room again, his eyes stop on Bittle. He’s rubbing at his side where one of Princeton’s guys speared him. Jack hasn’t been able to get the images out of his head from his New Year’s Eve conversation, high school classmates shoving him in the hallways, middle schoolers shutting him inside lockers. No wonder he’s scared of checks.

Jack had seen the Princeton guy and tried to get there, but he wasn’t fast enough. Bittle had shaken it right off, though, and Jack’s proud of him. He’s good, and Jack is glad that as much as he wants to protect Bitty, Bitty doesn’t always need it. He’s doing better. The coaches had left their line out there for the power play, and Bittle turned around and fed Murphy a beauty of a pass for a top-shelf goal the goalie never saw.

“But Princeton’s playing rough,” Jack continues, “much more physically than us. We might need to start going for them instead of just rolling with their punches. Or just outskate them and score a lot. That would work, too.”

Jack steps forward and makes his way around the stalls, fistbumping as he goes. “Gear up, it’s time to go, boys!”

Jack pats Chowder’s helmet when he gets there. “You’re solid, Chow. Knock ’em dead,” he murmurs.

He leans in between Dex and Nursey. “You two are killing it. Keep it up.”

He gives Murphy a double fistbump and another congratulations for the goal.

He reaches Bittle and all he can say is, “Let’s do this,” because Bittle is smiling at him wide and already on his feet, ready to go. Jack smiles back helplessly, unable not to think how absolutely sunk he is. Surprisingly, he’s not even mad.


Jack is mad. They beat Princeton 3-1 at home, and he had a gorgeous goal of his own. This is not why he is mad. He is mad because Princeton slashed at Bittle in the second period, and he swore he was fine at the second intermission but then took a bad spill over what seemed to be his own two feet in the third, trying to evade the guy who slashed at him.

Bittle is a good hockey player, and he is getting better, Jack thinks as he flops onto his bed after dinner. And obviously today it was fine, they won, Bittle played well. And rationally he knows that it’s on Bittle if he can’t handle contact and he chooses to play hockey anyway. But also… Jack knows what the ice means. Maybe Bittle hasn’t had all of Canada and the world watching him on the ice, hasn’t been chasing pucks since before he could walk, but he’s been there all his life the way Jack has, loves the rink the way Jack does.

Jack knows the ice is worth it, worth facing down the things that terrify you most. And he hates that Bitty has these things in his past to terrify him, but Jack has never been as glad in his life as he is now that he can help Bitty face those things down in a way no one ever really did with him.


Monday afternoon finds Jack in the Haus kitchen. Who is surprised? Not Jack, at this point. He likes working at a table instead of at his desk, and the energy in the kitchen is encouraging rather than distracting. Honestly, what’s distracting at this point is trying to sit in the library and wondering what’s happening at the Haus. Jack knows when he’s beat.

Bittle is sitting beside him, scouring the internet for a new chicken recipe. Desserts are clearly Bittle’s first love in the kitchen, but Jack can’t say he’s minded having someone cook relatively healthy and definitely edible dining hall alternatives a few nights a week. At some point he’s got to get the rest of the team to lean on Bitty about taking some money from them to cover all the food he cooks.

Bittle keeps getting distracted from his computer, though, just sitting back and gushing about the new food class he shopped today. It sounds like he’s definitely going to take it, and Jack should probably be embarrassed how quickly he decides to shop that class with him. At least this time he won’t need to talk to the coaches about moving morning practice…

Shitty is probably going to take that class, too, since he needs one last science credit, which it apparently counts for. Jack does not. Jack got his required courses out of the way early, like a reasonable human being. Nevertheless, Jack, too, is probably going to take that class. For personal happiness credits.

But for now he can only look up from his thesis and smile at Bitty. It’s impossible to be studious or unhappy when Bitty is fairly radiating excitement. When Bittle’s recounting of the class finally simmers down to “I just. Yeah. It was so great,” Jack points at Bitty’s neglected computer screen.

“So did you learn anything today to help make dinner, or…?” He chirps fondly.

Bittle rolls his eyes. “No, to tell you the truth. But I’m thinking this honey garlic chicken thing.”

“Mmmm, sounds good,” Jack says. It does. He takes a quiet breath. “Do you need any help?”


Tuesday and Wednesday pass in a blur of practice and studying ahead for the classes Jack is already sure he plans to take (like that food class, which has turned out to be pretty stellar even apart from any particular classmate), but Wednesday evening Jack stays up later than usual. Bittle is not only making blueberry peach pie, but also quiches for breakfast tomorrow, and Jack can’t convince himself that bed is more important than being here, with him and Shitty.

“It seemed like a—” Shitty is saying.

“No.” Jack cuts him off. “No, you are not about to say that it ‘seemed like a good idea at the time’. Shits, you were up a tree. Without clothes. Crisse, I still wonder you didn’t get written up.”

Bittle laughs as he moves over to the spice cupboard. (The Haus has a spice cupboard now. Who’d’ve guessed?) “Shitty, what I would pay for a—well—a censored look inside your drunk mind…”

He selects his desired spices and sets them on the counter. With Bittle’s back to Jack and Shitty, Jack allows himself a moment to watch as Bittle twists the pepper mill over the bowl of eggs. Fingers have no right to be that fascinating. Only a moment, though. He forces his eyes back to where he’s “working” on his “thesis.”

“Nah, man,” Shitty says. “You know whose mind I want a look in? Johnson’s. That is a weird motherfucker.”

“Hey, I liked Johnson!” Bittle says, picking up what Jack is pretty sure is nutmeg. Should he be proud that he knows what the nutmeg jar looks like or…? He looks back to his computer again.

“Yeah, brah, I like him too!” says Shitty. “He’s in my facebook feed occasionally. Apparently he’s interning for some publishing company? But whatever, you can’t deny he was weird.”

“Fair ’nough, fair ’nough.” Jack can hear the whisk in the bowl and the smile in Bitty’s voice. Jack keeps his head down and catches his bottom lip between his teeth.

“Actually,” Shitty adds, “if we’re really gonna talk about bad frog year decisions—” Jack looks up now and raises his eyebrows at Shitty. Shitty raises his own, defiant. “—Bits, did you know that it’s Johnson’s fault Jack likes country music?”

Oh. Well of all the embarrassing frog year decisions out there, falling into Johnson’s dumb country music doesn’t even rank. Jack keeps his mouth shut and refreshes his email for something to do.

“Really?” Bitty asks, curious, not chirpy.

“Really,” Shitty confirms. “It was like, every time we were over here for something he’d have it on blast, unless Cricket got to the speakers first. And he kept telling Jack—you know how Johnson would get—he kept telling Jack that this stuff was important and that Jack would thank him later.”

Jack did, in fact, thank Johnson later, but that’s between him and Johnson.

“It was kind of adorable, tee bee aitch,” Shitty continues. “Big ol’ teddy bear Johnson lecturing baby Jack, but you know if Jack hadn’t listened, Johnson would have busted out the goalie terror.”

“Okay, Shitty, you are making this way more dramatic than it ever was. The actual weirdest thing about Johnson was how he hated people being in his room. He kept going on and on about how he’d have to decorate and get a backstory if people went in there, which—what the hell does that even mean? Who cares if he decorates?”

“Jack,” Bittle says, and Jack looks over to see him putting two pie pans into the oven, “this place is a frat boy hell hole most days, but even frat boy hell holes have posters on the walls. I’m no better at deciphering that boy than you, though.”

Jack shrugs and concedes. Then Shitty gasps delightedly, and Jack is mildly terrified when he turns and sees the look on Shitty’s face.

Shitty starts to wiggle his shoulders. Then he starts to sing. “Friday, Friday, gotta get down on Frida-ay…” Jack sets his elbows on the table and drops his face forcefully into his hands before sliding them around to cover his ears.

“Shits, I’m going to disown you.”

The singing stops but only because Shitty is shaking so hard with laughter that he’s not making any sound at all. Whatever, a win is a win.

Bitty shuts off the water from where he’d started the washing up. “Mr. Zimmermann!” he declares, all chirp. “Is that a song from this decade with which you are demonstrating familiarity?”

“Uhh,” says Jack. It’s not worth it to try to figure out what to say. Playing up his ignorance to tease smiles and disbelief out of Bitty is… way more enticing.

“No, you don’t understand,” Shitty manages between bouts of giggles. “Cricket—” Laughter. “—and that song!” More laughter.

Jack is chuckling quietly to himself now, too, mostly because watching Shitty struggle to breathe at the moment is pretty hilarious. (Okay, that sounds terrible. He’s not actually going to choke or Jack would do something, obviously.) At any rate, he doesn’t help Shitty tell the story. He just waits it out and even gets up to help Bittle dry the dishes while Shitty collects himself.

Finally Shitty explains. “Cricket used to play that fucking song every. goddamn. day. Like, we didn’t even live here, and it’s not like anyone was hosting team dinners the way you do, Bits. But somehow at every practice, and on every bus ride, and at every fucking team event, that song came on at least once.”

“It wasn’t even usually Friday,” Jack interrupts.

Shitty points at Jack, bouncing his hand slightly to show Jack has a point. “I don’t know if our illustrious captain then had, like, selective hearing loss or was just sacrificing his own mental stability for the sake of fucking with the rest of us, I really don’t. But it didn’t get to anyone the way it got to Jack, and wow it’s been a while since I thought of that. Oh my god.”

Jack rolls his eyes and takes a mixing bowl from Bitty to dry. Yeah, this was definitely worth sacrificing sleep for. Can’t do it every night, but. Well. It’s his last semester. Personal happiness credits don’t just come from the classroom.


The next night they are not in the kitchen. Evidently the oven had quit working a bit, and while Dex got it fixed, Bittle doesn’t want to press his luck tonight. Instead, he’s come up to join the snuggle-fest on Jack’s bed while Shitty prevents Jack from studying and/or sleeping by giving pornographic commentary on the NHL highlights.

Jack should be upset with Shitty for keeping him up late two nights in a row. (Shut it, Shitty, some of us leave ourselves more than ten minutes to get out the door before practice and like to sleep.) He should be, but he’s busy trying to mentally separate “Bittle” from “snuggle-fest on Jack’s bed” because he doesn’t actually hate himself and he has his limits.

Tabarnak, where does his brain find this shit?

Anyway.

“Look at those hands!” Shitty makes a wordless sound of distress. “So freaking filthy.”

Jack extricates himself from under Shitty’s legs and tries not to let his gaze linger on the arm Shitty has casually thrown around Bitty’s shoulder. He just. He can want things but not. When they’re so close, right now.

“You know exactly how you sound,” Jack says to Shitty. On his way into the bathroom he grabs some sleep clothes, then closes the door, uses the toilet, washes up, and puts them on. He opens the door again just in time to hear Shitty groaning. Jack rolls his eyes in fond exasperation.

“Just drive it in there—HOW WAS THAT A PENALTY?”

“Jesus, Shitty,” Jack says, poking his head out, energy draining faster the longer he stands. He ducks back in to run his toothbrush under the water, then steps into the doorway again.

“What’d I miss?” Jack squeezes the toothpaste onto his brush.

“Aces wiped the floor with the Panthers,” Shitty says. “And—oh, yeah! Parson had the—”

“—hatty,” Jack finishes. “Second one this season.” But who’s counting. He sticks his toothbrush in his mouth so he doesn’t try to talk anymore. He’s suddenly weary to the bone, but he stays in the bathroom brushing til the video is done.

He spits and rinses his mouth. There’s the sound of Shitty’s laptop closing. By the time Jack gets back into his room, it’s empty. He crawls into bed and does his best not to think about his back pressed up against his bedroom door, Kent’s hand on his waist.


It doesn’t work. The moment replays itself over and over, and Jack tries to focus on tensing and relaxing each muscle group, one at a time. He thinks about Kent’s mouth on his jaw, but instead of rubbing at the spot, Jack digs his fingers into his thighs. His muscles tense beneath his fingers, then relax.

He reaches down further to massage behind his knees and focuses on the sound of his breathing. His brain seems to have finally gotten the message, letting him replay instead the food seminar and Bittle leaning over to whisper to him. But then as he drifts off, it’s all whisked together like the eggs in Bittle’s bowl earlier. And there’s Bittle’s hand on his waist instead, Bittle on his toes to kiss Jack’s ear, and Jack’s fingers tangled in Bitty’s hair.

Fuck.

He jerks awake. This is going to be a long night.


A to-do list in Jack’s handwriting on a white ruled index card: 9 Jan to-do: -food, (scribbled out) -coffee, -gym, (with an arrow up from below) -pick up library books, -shower, -class

9 Jan to-do: (struck through) -food, (scribbled out) -coffee, (struck through) -gym, (struck through) (with an arrow up from below) -pick up library books, (struck through) -shower (arrow) (+stretch + breathing exercises), (struck through) -class, -don’t go back to sleep, -learn to focus, -2 chapters notes from library books, -eat, (capslock and underlined) -STOP THINKING, -pack (remember pillow for bus)

[10:37]
hier 11:20

Hey, guess what
tomorrow is??

Shitty I know where you
sleep.

If I hear that song I will
end you.

}:)

aujourd’hui 10:36

Why aren't there things
for me to drink to stay
awake that wouldn't
spike my heart rate

[Message]

9 Jan to-do: (struck through) -food, (scribbled out) -coffee, (struck through) -gym, (struck through) (with an arrow up from below) -pick up library books, (struck through) -shower (arrow) (+stretch + breathing exercises), (struck through) -class, -don’t go back to sleep, -learn to focus, -1 chapter notes from library books, -eat (and (capslock) NO caffeine!!), (capslock and underlined) -STOP THINKING, -pack (remember pillow for bus), -think about (underlined) hockey, -bus @ 15:45

9 Jan to-do: (struck through) -food, (scribbled out) -coffee, (struck through) -gym, (struck through) (with an arrow up from below) -pick up library books, (struck through) -shower (arrow) (+stretch + breathing exercises), (struck through) -class, -don’t go back to sleep, -learn to focus, (struck through) -1 chapter notes from library books, (struck through) -eat (and (capslock) NO caffeine!!), (capslock and underlined) -STOP THINKING, (struck through) -pack (remember pillow for bus), -think about (underlined) hockey, -bus @ 15:45

9 Jan to-do: (struck through) -food, (scribbled out) -coffee, (struck through) -gym, (struck through) (with an arrow up from below) -pick up library books, (struck through) -shower (arrow) (+stretch + breathing exercises), (struck through) -class, -don’t go back to sleep, -learn to focus, (struck through) -1 chapter notes from library books, (struck through) -eat (and (capslock) NO caffeine!!), (capslock and underlined) -STOP THINKING, (struck through) -pack (remember pillow for bus), -think about (underlined) hockey, (struck through)-bus @ 15:45. The whole list has UGH scribbled over it in large angry letters.


Jack wakes up from his nap over-warm but thankfully not groggy. Last night when they got to the hotel, he’d woken up on the bus with a start, disoriented and his heart racing for no discernible reason. He’d leaned his head against the seat in front of him and breathed slowly while everyone else got off the bus. Then he managed to get all his stuff up to his and Shitty’s room, and miraculously, also, get into sleep clothes before he crashed again.

Between the nap on the bus and an actual night’s sleep, Jack had felt better this morning than he had since Thursday, and now, after a good morning practice, another nap, and with Shitty draped over him comfortably, he’s actually feeling good.

Rooming with Shitty is nice. It’s a toss-up any given day whether Shitty will sleep in his own bed or clobber Jack like an octopus, but truthfully… Jack likes it. It would be weird with other friends or other teammates, but everyone gives Shitty a pass for octopus-like behavior, and honestly (since Jack is big on self-honesty these days)… well, it’s nice that he doesn’t have to talk about it. He can just. Absorb.

Shitty is good that way. He has been, for years.

So Jack swipes off his alarm and maneuvers his hand to poke Shitty in the stomach.

“Christophe, Shitty, espèce de con, get off me.”

Shitty nuzzles his pillow and squeezes an arm around Jack. “’m not… whatever you just said.”

Jack rolls over to poke him with his other hand so as not to strain his wrist. “Shits, we gotta get up. Also you’re an extremely warm blanket, damn.”

Shitty sighs and raises himself to a sitting position, blinking slowly. “Right. Gonna brush my teeth and then go see if Lardo needs anything, and you can have the bathroom.”

Jack smiles behind Shitty’s back. Mostly what Lardo would need would be all her players on the bus on time, but he’s not inclined to give Shitty a hard time at the moment. About that, anyway.

“That means you have to actually get out of bed, man.”

Shitty flops back onto Jack emphatically, just to be a pain, then does actually get up.

“Fuck you, Zimmermann,” he says on his way to the bathroom.

Jack smile widens. “Love you, too, Knight.”


He still feels good when they walk into the rink. This is going to be a good game.


“Don’t get cocky, boys,” Coach Hall says, wrapping up his second-intermission speech. “But you got this. Let’s go.”

Jack clears his throat and steps up to say his piece. Around the room, all eyes are on him, and shining. Jack can’t help but smile. At first intermission, neither team had scored, and the dressing room was serious; now, Samwell has a 3-0 lead, two of the goals by Jack himself, and the room is buzzing.

“Keep it up,” he says. “Keep up the communication and the speed. We got this. Let’s do this!”

A whoop goes up around the room.

“They’re gonna come tough this period, you know that. Don’t give up. Help Chow out. He’s…” Jack pauses for effect, not about to actually mention that Chowder has stopped every shot so far, and grins. “…kicking ass.”

He steps forward to make his rounds for fistbumps and get his teammates out the door. Eisen narrows his eyes and nods determinedly as Jack approaches, but before he can do anything, Ransom interrupts.

“Let’s help Jack out, too, you fuckers! Get this man the puck and get him another goal.”

Another whoop goes up, and Eisen’s face breaks into a grin before he meets Jack’s outstretched fist and slaps him on the shoulder.

“Let’s do this, Cap.”


The restaurant isn’t crowded, but it’s not empty. The quiet guitar music in the background is mostly drowned out by the hum of the other diners, and Jack is happy to let all the sound wash over him. In their giant booth, Shitty is pressed up against him on one side, and Chowder is leaning on Dex, pushing him into Jack’s other side.

Nurse is on the outside, next to Chowder, and beyond Shitty are Ransom, Holster, O’Meara, Wicks, and the rest of the team on down the long bench, wrapping around a second table. Bitty, Lardo, and Eisen have pulled up chairs between the two tables, and Jack is just unspeakably happy right now, surrounded by so many good people. Fortunately, speaking is not required at the moment. Instead, he can concentrate on eating his food and drinking in the smiles of everyone around him.

Chowder didn’t get his shutout; Colgate snuck one by him in on their power play right at the start of the third period. Dex had taken a stupid hooking penalty, sat in the box for less than a minute, then come back to the bench to have Nursey give him an earful.

Jack, returning to the bench at the same time, fresh off a clusterfuck of a penalty kill, stayed beside them looking as best he could like he wasn’t listening or about to step in. He didn’t have to, though. Dex was furious with himself, sure, but Jack noticed him take an extra breath before he replied to Nurse, willing himself not to make anything worse.

The more Jack thought about it, too, the more he realized Nurse was deliberately pitching his voice not to rile Dex up but to snap him out of his fury.

Jack smiled to himself. Everyone who had been on the ice in the past two minutes owed Chowder an apology, but maybe Jack could deliver his with good news about the emotional maturation of the frog defense. That would be more meaningful than any apologies for that penalty kill. But in the meantime, Jack had set aside his frog-related pride and focused on how they were going to make up for their errors.

The answer turned out to be simple: the next time he, Murphy, and Bittle climbed over the boards, Holster flung the puck straight to Bittle, and Bittle sent it straight to Jack’s tape in front of the net, where the goalie lost it because Murphy was in the way. The siren went off, and they couldn’t have planned that play any better.

Then Bittle’s arms were around Jack’s waist, and Murphy and Ransom and Holster were slamming into them, too, and yelling. Jack had stood as still as possible and held on as tight as he could. This was it. This was why everything else was worth it, and this was how Jack could overcome his bad days. The rest of the game was hard fought but uneventful, and when the horn sounded for the end of the third period, Chowder had come barreling over to hug Jack and congratulate him.

Now, everyone is fed and cozy and drunk on victory. They’ll have to get up early for the bus tomorrow, but Jack’s not worried. This has been a good day. He’s polishing off the last of his lemonade when beside him, Dex knocks him with an elbow. “Hey, Jack, how often do you do that?”

“Do what? Oh, you mean get hat tri—”

Jack realizes just too late he’s been set up. The hats come flying from every direction; Chowder and Bucket’s caps, Shitty’s bomber hat, and everyone else’s toques. As Jack starts to laugh, Shitty pulls Jack’s own hat off his head and tosses it right in his face, though it immediately slips and falls onto his chest.

Bittle manages to take a picture through giggles. Later, back in the hotel, when Jack finally checks his phone and sees the message in the group text, he’s surprised only to see that it wasn’t blurry. How it came out so well with Bitty laughing like that, Jack doesn’t understand, but he doesn’t care, either.


[22:39]
aujourd’hui 20:31

Bittle 15
Jack Zimmermann, covered in hats and laughing. His eyes and mouth are open, looking just to the side of the camera. His right hand is outstretched near the camera to fend off the hats.

[Message]


[22:40]
hier 11:15

Checking practice
Monday, right?

Right
Lu hier

aujourd’hui 20:31

The hats are a good look
on you (◠‿◠✿)

[iMessage]


Bittle laughs. Jack glances left across the aisle of their bus home to see him looking at his phone.

“What’s so funny?”

Bittle starts to hold out his phone for Jack to look at before apparently thinking better of it. “Check your phone, see for yourself!”

Jack’s phone, it turns out, is dead. Whoops.

“Uh.” Is there a way he can just see Bittle’s phone without admitting he forgot to charge his again? He tries to think of an excuse Bittle won’t see through immediately.

When Jack fails to react to whatever he’s supposed to be looking at, Bittle gets one eyebrow up higher than the other, and Jack forgets for a second that he’s being mocked. It’s as chirpy-looking as Bittle ever really gets. Which isn’t very, but Jack is still impressed with that face. It’s gotten much better recently. He could never have managed it last year.

“…Your phone is dead, isn’t it.”

Jack remains expressionless and silent, still not coming up with an answer that won’t get him chirped by at least Bitty and probably also half the rest of the team.

“Fine, then, here,” Bitty says, clearly amused. Jack takes the phone.

[10:30 AM]
Today 10:29 AM

Adam “Holster” Birkholtz
Okay but why hasn't
Tony just made pepper a
suit yet though

Like if he's so worried
about keeping her safe
he could just make a suit
for her

Justin “Ransom” Oluransi
Bro we're literally all right
here on the bus

Why would you bother
texting that you could
have just said it out loud

Adam “Holster” Birkholtz
I think a better question
is why you didn't just say
THAT out loud

like look who's talking
bro we're sitting right
next to each other

[Text Message]

“…Wow.” Jack is hard-pressed not to laugh himself, but succeeds both in that and in keeping a straight face. Shitty leans over, resting his chin on Jack’s shoulder to see, and promptly snorts with laughter.

“I fucking know, right?” he agrees, turning backwards to face Ransom and Holster. Jack hands Bitty’s phone back. “Like, he’s got time to make forty-two fuckin’ suits, and he never once thinks to make one for her?”

“Forty-two? There were only three.” Jack wonders momentarily if he’s going to regret saying that.

Ransom looks up. “You only saw the first movie. He’s had two more of his own, plus Avengers—”

“—and a cameo in one of the credits scenes and in one of the oneshots,” Holster says, as if finishing Ransom’s thought. Shitty’s case for them being secretly telepathic continues to be difficult to dispute.

Ransom looks at Holster. Holster looks back. “Bro. You thinking what I’m thinking?”

Holster grins. “You thinking marathon? because I’m thinking marathon.”

“Gonna take some major planning, though—we’re talking, what, ten movies? Plus the one-shots. That’s, like, three-day-weekend level.”

Holster shrugs. “I mean, yeah, if we don’t skip any, but like. Does Hulk even count? Iron Man 2 we can summarize for Jack and anyone else who hasn’t seen it, assuming anyone else hasn’t, though realistically…”

He grins at Jack, who rolls his eyes and turns to face forward again.

“Anyway, we probably don’t need to watch Guardians, either, right?” Holster continues. The conversation goes on, and Jack is quickly lost.

…He doesn’t really regret it.


They make it home by four that afternoon. Jack plugs his phone into the charger still by his desk—where he’d apparently left it on Friday and just. Never noticed it was missing. Whoops—and unpacks his suitcase before heading to the gym.

He showers there, then heads back to the Haus, toque pulled down to cover his wet hair, and spends some time on his thesis. He shifts around at his desk, trying to get comfortable and focus, but eventually he decides to go downstairs and stretch his legs, and he lets himself get roped into playing MarioKart.

He is, as usual, terrible.

On the bright side, so is Bittle.

Chirping him about consistently being in eleventh is no less amusing when Jack himself is consistently in twelfth. His incredulity and failed attempts at chirping back just make it better.

By the time they all go get dinner, Jack is in a fantastic mood.

When he finally gets back to his room afterward, happy but tired, he notices his phone still charging on his desk. He grabs it and checks the time—almost nine—and is about to quickly catch up on his texts and get ready for bed when he notices a missed call from his agent. He should probably listen to that first.

“Hey, Jack! Call me when you can? The Aces are interested.”

There’s a little more, but it’s nothing important. Jack lowers his phone slowly when the message ends and stares at the screen for a minute.

It’s too late to call back tonight. He’ll do it after his first class tomorrow morning. So there is no reason to think about it any further right now. Besides, he already knows his answer. Thanks, but he’s not interested. He doesn’t want to…

Well. He doesn’t want to be out that far west. It’s not a lie. It’s just not the reason he’s saying no.

Did Kent put them up to this? Had he gone back and talked to the GMs anyway?

What if he didn’t? What if they just… wanted Jack?

…That doesn’t matter. The Aces are a good team, for all they’re still new. He didn’t watch the finals in 2010, but he knows well enough how spectacularly they played, and. well. They won, so. Another team with their stats and history, he might consider, even that far away from his parents and his friends, but… The city alone counts as a reason not to play for them, and setting everything else aside, he’s not—he doesn’t want to play with Parse again. That’s just—that’s not happening. Ever, if he can help it.

He hears a quiet knock from the hall. Someone looking for Bitty, probably, though who’d actually knock unless the door was locked, Jack doesn’t know.

So. He knows what he’ll tell his agent to tell the Aces. He won’t even have to personally talk to them. He’ll call in the morning. It’ll be fine. It’ll be fi

“Jack?”

Jack jerks up, startled, to see Bitty standing in his doorway, the hallway dark behind him, and it’s exactly what he didn’t need right now. He was dealing with it, it was fine, and suddenly Bittle is there, in his doorway, and it’s almost the party all over again and he didn’t need to think about this right now

Zimms, just fucking stop thinking for once and listen to me. I’ll tell the GMs you’re on board and they can free up cap space. Then you can be done with this shitty team. You and me

He’d never said he wouldn’t, just finally left—what if—what if he did? What if he went back and told the GMs anyway, said he’d talked to Jack and that they should reach out to him? What if he tells them to keep trying to talk to Jack even if Jack tells his agent to say no? What if they do, what if word gets out and other people, other teams, start hearing about it? What if he has to start dealing with questions—more questions—about why he’s not signing to the Aces, what if someone finds out Kent talked the GMs into it, what if—


Bitty’s not sure if Jack is still awake (team dinner was awesome after their win last night, but it was way past Jack’s usual bedtime by the time they got back to the hotel), so he knocks quietly and calls his name. The door swings the rest of the way open, and Jack is, in fact, awake.

“Oh, good, you’re still up! I was thinking of baking someth—” Bitty pauses, noticing the look on Jack’s face, and—he thinks for a moment he’s imagining it, but Jack is starting to shake, what—

“I—Jack? Are you oka—no, sorry, I guess you’re not, but do—do you need anything? Is there anything I can do?”

What’s going on?

Jack slowly looks away, staring at the floor intently. Well. Maybe the floor. Or maybe his knees? Or his hands? It’s hard to tell from where Bitty’s standing.

Bitty waits silently in the doorway, unsure what if anything else he should say. Some part of his brain tells him to just close the door and go hide in his room and never look Jack in the eye again because twice now he’s gone and accidentally seen Jack when he clearly didn’t want anyone to see him, but he can’t just leave without offering to help if there is anything he can do.

After a minute that feels like forever, Jack finally speaks. “I just need some time. I’ll be fine. You can go. Thanks.” It sounds practiced, scripted, as if he’s said it—had to say it—over and over again.

Bitty bites his lip. “Well. Um. If you’re sure…”

He steps back slowly, closing the door all the way, before turning around and entering his own room.

Maybe he’ll bake something tomorrow.


Eric Bittle @omgcheckplease · Jan 11
Remember, everyone. If you TALK to people about things, they can HELP you with them.

Eric Bittle @omgcheckplease · Jan 11
@omgcheckplease Whatever. It was a month ago.

Eric Bittle @omgcheckplease · Jan 11
You know, it’s probably none of my business anyway.


Bitty isn’t at all sure they’ll even have practice this morning, but he set his alarm and he’s up now nonetheless. He’s pulling on a sweatshirt, about to go grab a bite to eat, when there’s a quiet knock on his door. He opens it, and Jack is standing there, ready to go, like it’s any normal morning.

Well. If that’s what Jack needs this to be, Bitty can do that. He kind of regrets last night’s passive-aggressive tweets now. A lot. It was better than bringing it up with anyone who had actually been at the party, but even so vaguely, it was a pretty personal thing to put online. And who is he to insist that Jack talk about things, anyway?

They head downstairs silently. Bitty almost forgets his hat and has to run halfway back up to grab it, but soon enough they’re on their way out the door, bananas and protein bars in hand. As they go down the front steps, Jack hands Bitty one of the two thermoses he’s carrying.

Bitty takes a cautious sip of what turns out to be hot cocoa. With—is that—

“…Did you put peppermint in this?” Bitty asks, before he can stop himself.

“Um. Maybe.” Jack keeps looking straight ahead as he answers, but Bitty swears Jack’s cheeks look slightly pink. Which could just be the cold, but… He didn’t notice it before he asked.

And regardless, the point remains. Jack put peppermint in the hot cocoa he’d made them both.

Bitty smiles. The silence returns for the rest of the walk to the rink.


They start talking again during practice. About hockey, nothing else, but they’re still talking is the point. No one is hiding in the library.

“So Providence kicked the crap out of the Bruins,” Bitty says during a five-minute break, unwrapping one of the protein bars. Jack straight-up smiles as he peels a banana, revelling in the struggle that is Boston’s current season. Success. Habs for life with this boy. (Unless he would sign with the Bs. But that’s—not now.)

At their next water break, Jack muses aloud about ways to improve their two-way game.

“Our D does so well, you know, but Dex and Nurse and even Ransom and Holster have been ending up out-manned in front of the net more than usual, lately.”

“Mhmm,” Bitty says around his water bottle. “Speaking of Dex and Nursey, though—They sure been getting along better lately, have you noticed?”

Jack smiles again, which pleases Bitty, though it’s not what he necessarily expected. But in place of the glee and amusement he’d expressed at the Bruins’… well… existence, at this point, Jack’s face now displays fondness, and maybe some pride.

“Yeah,” Jack says. He looks like he’s going to continue, but then just stops to shake his head and stow his smile away. “Yeah,” he repeats, setting down his own water. “Let’s get back.”

They don’t stay out there too much longer, though. Bitty’s doing so much better, they could really shorten their checking practices, but for all he complains about how early they are, Bitty privately kind of likes getting the one-on-one time with Jack. It’s not fun, still, and… and it still hurts, in a way unrelated to smacking the boards, but that’s not exactly restricted to these, and it’s… nice, somehow. Special.

“…So what did you wind up baking?” Jack asks, as they grab their things and start walking towards the locker room to get changed. It takes Bitty a second to realize what he means.

“Oh. Um, nothing. Didn’t really feel like it.” Bitty bites his lip for a second, then blurts out “I’m sorry!” before he’s sure he really wants to say anything. “I knocked and didn’t hear anything, but your door wasn’t all the way closed so I figured you were just focused on something and might like to eat and also wanted to check you hadn’t fallen asleep in your clothes?”

Jack huffs out a humorless laugh. “Unfortunately not. But thanks.”

There’s a pause. It’s… less awkward than it could be, Bitty thinks?

“…We have a while before that food science class. You could make pancakes.” Jack speaks as though it makes no difference to him, but Bitty speaks Jack, and Bitty recognizes a request when he hears one.

“Indeed I could.” Bitty smiles. “Sounds nice. Want to help?”

Jack cracks one more smile himself, and nods once. Without a word, they pick up their things and head for the door, falling into a practiced step together.

Their walk back is mostly silent as well, save the lonely winter birds and a few cars. Jack looks around at campus as if he’s never seen it before, and once he points out a truthfully beautiful tree.

Maybe photography will be good for him.

When they reach the steps of the Haus, Jack reaches over and ruffles Bitty’s hair quickly. It’s barely two seconds’ worth of motion, but—

Bitty knows. He knows Jack is saying that everything’s okay, that he’s not mad and this won’t get weird again, that he’s sorry for making Bitty worry (something Bitty wishes he wouldn’t be). He knows Jack is saying thank you, and a sense of contentment washes over him. The summer is coming, faster than they may be ready for, but for now, they’re facing it together.

And with pancakes.

Chapter Text

[12:07]
hier 21:32

still wanna talk photos on sunday?

That would be great, thanks.

At the Haus around 3?

thumbs-up emoji

aujourd’hui 12:04

How does Chow contain
this much energy?

I mean, obviously he
doesn't actually contain it.

He overflows with it. But
where does it all come
from?

should I get shits to take
him for a walk? lol

Maybe later. Has he
stopped to breathe at all?

I mean, I think he breathes
while bits talks?

they're taking turns
breathing I think

Didn't realise that's how
breathing worked.

why are they talking about
coloring books?

I think Bittle said Chow got
her one for Christmas.

ok fuck this noise I need
more coffee

I was up way too late last
night

[Message]

Across the kitchen, Lardo shoves herself between a vibrating Chowder and a wildly gesticulating Bittle. Jack watches from the far end of the table as she upends the coffee pot into her travel mug, but apparently there wasn’t much left. She grumbles and heads to the freezer for more coffee grounds.

“We should have lunch together!” Bitty is saying. “I need to meet this fine lady of yours, make sure she’s got your back alright.” Of course he would put it that way. And the thing is, Chowder might be Bitty’s pet frog, but Jack is pretty sure that he would do that for anyone on the team who would let him. Jack’s not sure about a C, but with him and Eisen both graduating this year, there’s a case to be made for Bittle getting an A.

That’s a problem for a little later, though. Right now Jack is busy enjoying the moment as Chowder honest-to-god brings his hands up to his bright red face and nods forcefully.

“When would be a good day for you, Bitty? I mean, I’ll have to check with Farmer. Usually she’s free on Thursdays for lunch but not today and she said something about a volleyball fundraiser and I don’t remember when it was so I’ll find out but when is good for you so I can let her know?”

Lardo punches Chowder in the shoulder on her way back to the coffee machine. “Breathe, kid,” she says.

Bitty reaches around her to squeeze Chowder’s arm, smiling. “Next Thursday would be fine. Just let me know if that doesn’t work.”

Chowder agrees, and Jack finds his eyes stuck on Bittle’s hand, where it rests on Chowder’s arm. It’s so—casual. Friendly. And Jack—sighs, quietly, and tries to refocus on his book. He’s supposed to be reading about 1940s football, not… this.

“Oh!” says Chowder. “I have to go grab something for Dex before class. I should get going.” Jack hears a cheerful hum, and it strikes him that he knows what sound Bitty—Bittle—makes when he’s hugging his friends. Well then.

“Bye, Lardo! Bye, Jack!” Chowder calls.

“Bye!” They both echo. Jack looks up to wave, and after Chowder’s gone, his gaze lands on Bittle again, who could not look happier as he finally gets back to making himself a sandwich for lunch.

Then Lardo catches his eye and tilts her head indulgently. After a moment she raises her eyebrows, and her smile shifts from affectionate to judgmental. Jack flushes a little. This is part of what makes Lardo so intimidating. Not only can she scare a crowd of hockey players into getting their shit together with just a look, but she can also silently chirp, pity, comfort, and kick your ass into gear in a matter of moments.

Jack’s shoulders fall, and he shakes his head just enough for her to see it, but hopefully Bittle won’t. Her face does something. Jack’s not entirely sure what she’s trying to convey this time, but he’s pretty sure he’s going to have to Have A Conversation with her sooner or later. She won’t even ask, either. She’ll just sit with him until he gives up and starts talking. And she’ll make it make more sense, so Jack can’t even be mad.

The coffee maker hisses as it finishes brewing. Lardo clears her throat. “You want any coffee, Jack? Bits?”

“No, thanks,” Jack says. He thinks he sounds fine. It’s hard to tell.

Bittle declines as well, but comes to join Jack at the table. Lardo takes her mug and heads upstairs, but not before she stops beside Jack’s chair. She squeezes his shoulder—just like Bittle had done to Chowder—and says, “Don’t worry, Cap. It’ll be fine.”

So naturally Bittle wants to know. “Why are you worried, Jack? Is it about Farmer? I’m sure she’s fine! I just like to tease Chowder a bit, you know?” Thanks, Lardo.

He’s not worried, though, is the thing, which would be funny if it weren’t so inconvenient. For so long he did worry about interacting with Bittle, but then they became friends, and now… now he worries about Bitty. Especially lately. Is Bitty okay? Was the thing with Stephen really okay? How much did those assholes from high school and middle school hurt him? How much has Jack hurt him without realizing? Is Jack hurting him now?

So okay. Maybe he’s a little worried, if not quite in the way he thinks Lardo probably means. But he can’t—there’s no way to not—whatever. It’ll suck for a while, for both of them, whether he worries or not, but these emotions will also go away eventually whether he worries or not.

Or you could be honest and say something, whispers a traitorous part of his brain. It sounds suspiciously like Lardo. Lardo doesn’t know anything and can stop right there, okay. He came close, once. Last month. He’d almost said—would have said, if things had gone differently (if things had gone right, he finds himself thinking)—but it ended up being not a good idea. He’d remembered that. Been reminded. Not A Good Idea incarnate had barged into his room, and Jack had remembered how to step on his poor impulses.

So. Jack is being honest. With himself. He is not trying to stop feeling how he does—not that it wasn’t too late for that long ago—and he is not trying to pretend to himself that how he feels is not important. He does feel it, and it is important. But that’s as far as it’s going to go. Feeling it doesn’t mean doing or saying anything about it is a good idea. He’s just going to have to wait it out.

“I really need to finish reading this chapter,” he says. And that’s honest, too. It’s just. Not actually an answer to Bittle’s question. But he smiles, hoping not to cause Bittle any worry, either. “You got enough protein in that sandwich?”

Bittle rolls his eyes but accepts the weak chirp as an end to that discussion. “I’ll let you get back to work, then.” They sit in companionable silence while Bittle is eating. Jack tries to be focused during that time. He succeeds… enough. It helps that Bittle is fully absorbed in his phone. Jack doesn’t even let himself raise an eyebrow. He just—

What is he even reading about at this point?

Eventually, as Bittle is washing his dishes, Holster, Nurse, and Eisen bang open the front door of the Haus and make a beeline for the fridge, arguing about—well, Jack can’t fault them. Their power play does need some work.

Holster breaks off and says, “Bits, is there any of that casserole left from last night?”

Bittle clears his throat. Jack keeps his eyes on his book, despite having read the same paragraph four times and still not being sure what it means.

“Oh, no, sorry, y’all. I think Shitty and Lardo finished it for breakfast?”

“Why does no one respect breakfast food?” Jack hears Eisen grumble. Jack smiles into his book. Eisen is very vocal at team meals about what does and doesn’t constitute appropriate breakfast food (something Jack can appreciate, though he doesn’t get worked up over it nearly as much as Eisen does).

“Ugh,” says Nurse. “I really don’t wanna trek back to the dining hall.”

“You, frog, are spoiled.” Shitty’s voice drifts in from the hallway. “But then again, so are the rest of us. What will we do when we no longer live or skate with Bits?”

Jack has to look up at Shitty, and finds him giving Bitty a gentle but affectionate noogie. Shitty doesn’t look at him, but Jack has a swell of affection for him anyway. “When we no longer live or skate with Bits” is a terrible time to contemplate, but. Shitty knows how to tell people they are appreciated. And that’s important. “Ah—well, I can—” Bitty starts, but Jack gives up and cuts him off.

“No, Bittle, they are grown men. They can make themselves lunch. We have some meatballs in the freezer, right? They can make some pasta if they’re that desperate to avoid the dining hall.”

“They gotta learn to fend for themselves eventually.” Lardo, in front of the coffeemaker again, must have come back in with Shitty. She always backs his play. Jack—really is going to have to talk to her at some point. Otherwise he doesn’t deserve her.

“Holtzy, feed me,” she says.

“Ugh, fine,” Holster agrees. “Lemme just dump my backpack in the living room.” Jack watches him head that direction and then looks around at the others.

“So!” Shitty says, as soon Holster has started to move. “On the subject of food… your shopping list is mighty long, there, Bitty, my man! What exactly are you planning and can I have some later?”

“What did we just say about feeding yourselves?” Lardo grumbles.

“Okay, okay, I can feed myself, bro, but I can’t make… whatever he’s planning, so.”

“What Shitty said,” Holster agrees, coming back from the living room and pushing his sleeves up. Bittle rolls his eyes good-naturedly.

“Eclairs,” he replies, tauntingly. There’s a low thump, and Jack turns toward the pantry.

Nursey’s head jerks up, fallen bag of rice ignored on the floor. With all that rummaging, Jack wonders if Bitty will be able later to find the ingredients he already has.

“Hold up, you’re making eclairs??”

Jack also wonders if Nursey genuinely thinks he has fooled anyone into believing that he is remotely chill.

Jack catches himself glancing at Bittle for a reaction, and smiling at his little smirk. Jack looks away just in time to meet Lardo’s eyes for a second, then forces his attention back to his book and tries not to dwell on what her expression meant that time.

This time, though, she takes mercy on him, and says nothing. Or—nothing about Jack, anyway. “None for you unless you help with lunch, Nurse.”

“What if I help with the eclairs?” Eisen offers.

Jack doesn’t have to look to know Bitty’s eyes are widening, and that his hands are probably outstretched, warding Eisen off, never mind how his voice is getting increasingly high-pitched with concern.

“No, no, Icer, you can do the dishes after if you insist, but ain’t no way you’re getting near my eclairs before they’re done. They’d never take shape.”

“Shit, bro, that was cold,” says Nursey.

Bittle starts to protest and apologize. Jack turns the page, still no closer to actually knowing what this chapter is about, before he looks up to see Eisen with his hands held up placatingly.

“Probably not wrong, though. I can do dishes. Anyway, what say you, Birkholtz, are we eating or what?”


That night Jack is trying to consolidate the notes he finally took that morning into something that resembles coherent paragraphs. Beside him at the kitchen table, Shitty is grumbling (read: swearing a blue streak) about paywalls and file formats, and Bittle is across the table, staring at a physics problem set that Jack knows for a fact he should have started on Tuesday at the latest.

As Jack starts on the second page of his notes, Shitty stands up, pushing his chair back so quickly it makes an unpleasant scraping noise on the floor and almost falls over.

“That’s it. I need more caffeine.” He stalks across the kitchen to the coffeemaker. “I know we have a game tomorrow, Zimmermann, don’t even start. I’m gonna sleep eventually, it’ll be fine.”

Jack does not start.

Bitty, on the other hand, sits up straight, glancing over at Shitty.

“Oh, are you making coffee?”

“It’s either coffee or smoking up and quitting my thesis entirely, which would suck, so. Yes. I’m making coffee.”

Jack speaks without thinking, for once. “Kind of late to be having coffee, Bittle.”

He doesn’t ask if Bitty is taking care of himself, if he’s sure he’s getting enough sleep, but Bitty seems to guess anyway that there was more to that thought. He makes a questioning noise, raising his eyebrows, and waits for Jack to continue.

Jack tries to shrug casually. Behind them, Shitty digs through a cupboard, and by the sounds of it, pulls out a mug.

“Uh. Just. I—sometimes I wake up and hear music coming from your room.” That sounded normal. Probably. “Or, um. One time you were editing a video, I guess.”

Jack is the captain, it is entirely reasonable for him to be concerned about his teammates getting enough sleep. Shitty just effectively pointed that out himself. Completely normal.

If Bitty isn’t getting enough sleep, it could affect the team. He knows that. There is no reason for his face to look… not confused, maybe, but confusing, for a second, before he replies, but. He does. It does? Jack isn’t sure where that sentence went.

Bitty raises one eyebrow at Jack. “Oh, well, look who’s talking like he didn’t keep me up until two in the morning twice over break!”

Jack almost smiles at that. Though actually—Bitty said he went to bed before one when he was reading the book, so it would have been more accurate if he’d said Jack had kept him up until one in the morning twice over break. Wouldn’t have sounded as dramatic, though, and Bitty probably doesn’t even remember the exact times anyway.

But then he realizes that Bitty’s face doesn’t look amused or chirpy anymore, and he’s not sure what went wrong.

Across the room, Shitty snorts, and finally, Bitty’s wording sinks in for Jack, too. Oh no. Slowly, he and Bitty both look over, bracing themselves, to see Shitty wiggling his eyebrows at them and grinning.

“Kept you up til two am, huh?”

Shitty is leaning back against the counter, mug in hand. He raises the mug and pretends to take a sip of coffee, even though the coffeemaker is still clearly going right behind him and that mug is presumably the one he got out a minute ago, so there can’t actually be anything in it.

He lowers the mug, but not his eyebrows. Jack thinks he preferred the fake sip.

Skyping!!” Bitty’s voice is slightly shrill. Jack understands the feeling. “We were—we were talking. Over skype. Over break. About how our breaks had been.”

Shitty nods, not-really-trying to look like he isn’t still laughing at them in his head. Jack doesn’t even try to say anything, because there is nothing anyone can say that will make this better. He instead opts for flipping Shitty off and turning back to his notes.

…and accidentally catches sight of Bitty apparently doing the same thing, except also blushing. That is… almost worse than trying to say something probably would have been. Jack clears his throat.

“Um. Anyway. Get more sleep, Bittle. Every game this season is important.”

Jack doesn’t let himself look at Bitty’s face.

Bittle’s face.

He’ll be better about that in the future, he resolves, and goes back to his notes.


Well. Shitty and Bittle are both awake enough for the game, but it doesn’t matter.

They lose.

The backcheck is horrible, across the team.

The tiny spot of sunshine is that Bittle almost got run over on a 5-on-4, but he shook it off, and they did kill that penalty.

Jack spends most of the evening in his room, then goes to bed early.


The next day is better.

Or—they play better, at least. Not that they had actually played terribly; their backcheck still wasn’t great, and they could still be better, but today they were at least good enough.

Most of the attention went to Nursey after the game, for scoring his first goal, and to Dex to a lesser extent, for getting the assist.

Jack is fine with that. He played well, he knows, but sometimes that doesn’t really help. He tells all of his teammates how well they did, of course, congratulating Nursey and Dex particularly, but a few hours after getting back to the Haus, he heads out to the “reading room”. He brushes most of the snow off Shitty’s chair, then drapes a blanket over it and takes a seat. Aside from the not-quite-faint-enough sounds of Ransom, Holster, and Nursey… singing? probably? Or trying to, at least—it’s quiet.

It’s nice. Jack’s writing teachers have told him to use better words than nice, but really, that’s just what it is. A picture is worth a thousand words, no matter how evocative the words are. And sometimes the right words are hard to find, anyway.

Jack stays out there for a while, watching the stars. He tries not to think about graduation or the NHL or the future, and mostly, he succeeds.

At one point, Bittle pokes his head out to see who’s on the roof so late.

“Just… thinking,” Jack says, slowly, trying to pull his brain back to a place where he can actually form sentences. He isn’t sure what else he plans to say, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Bitty looks slightly concerned, and… apologetic, maybe? Jack can’t quite tell before Bitty is leaving him alone on the roof again.

Jack sits silently outside another half-hour, maybe, before finally shaking the blanket off and going inside to sleep.


Jack texts Lardo on the way back from the library on Sunday.

[15:04]
aujourd’hui 15:04

I'm almost back to the Haus.

Cool. I'm here already

[Message]

When he arrives, she’s sitting on the front step, waiting for him, wearing only jeans, sneakers, and a SMH hoodie for warmth.

“You know, if you freeze to death, Hall is gonna have a fit,” Jack says by way of greeting.

She shrugs. “Been helping Bits in the kitchen. This is refreshing out here. I promise not to die,” she adds with false sincerity. Well—Jack is sure she’s sincere, but she’s mocking him just the same.

“So show me your stuff!” she demands, scooting over and patting the space beside her. So he takes off his backpack and sets it on the ground before the stoop, then sets himself down in the indicated spot.

He pulls the hood of her sweatshirt up onto her head. “You don’t have much hair up there anymore, man,” he says with a grin. “Gotta keep warm.”

“Jesus, between you and Bitty it really is like having parents here,” she grouses, but it’s halfhearted, and Jack isn’t really sure how to respond. It must show on his face, because she immediately corrects herself.

“I mean—never mind. Just, earlier he was scolding Chowder about not dressing warmly enough, and then you. Never mind.” She pushes her hood back but takes the toque off his head and pulls it down over her own ears. “Better?”

“Yes.”

She rolls her eyes. “Photos,” she says, tapping his camera for emphasis.

“Photos,” he agrees.

“Mm,” she says as he scrolls through the ones he’d just taken on the way from the library. “Yeah, I like that one. Oh, nice.”

Jack knows they aren’t great, but he also knows Lardo doesn’t say things she doesn’t mean. “Thanks,” he says.

“May I?” She gestures to take the camera, and Jack is—it’s important that she asked.

“Sure.”

He hands it over and listens intently as she comments on his use of focus and his tendency to center things exactly. “It’s like… a little too perfect?” she suggests, as if she’s not completely sure of her wording. “Try allowing yourself to offset the subject a little. People tend to find pictures more appealing if the subject is about a third from the edge of the frame, instead of halfway.”

He takes a few new pictures—of the tree in the front yard, mostly because it’s there—and walks back over to show Lardo.

They discuss composition more for a minute or two, when Shitty suddenly starts yelling from Bitty’s window at him.

“Hey! Jack! Jackie-boy! Get a picture of us!”

Jack looks up, slightly amused to see Shitty leaning farther out the window than looks to probably be safe, with Bitty standing next to and slightly behind him, holding onto Shitty’s bare shoulder to keep him from falling.

He thinks about the photos he got of the tree just now, how he could balance Shitty and Bitty in the frame—there, that’s not really centered. That might work. He takes a couple pictures of them.

He looks at the pictures later, and they’re not the best he’s ever taken, but… it’s Shitty and Bitty.

He keeps the photos.

Shirtless Shitty leaning out the upstairs Haus window into the left third of the frame, with Bitty holding onto his shoulder toward the center. The right third of the picture is tree branches and the bottom is the balcony/roof outside the window.


The next evening Jack is sitting next to Lardo on the loveseat in the living room, flipping through his photos to the sound of Smash Bros in the background, quietly content. It’s not really evening anymore, actually. He should be heading to bed sooner or later. But—friends. And the pleasant camaraderie in the Haus living room. And Bitty just brought in a second plate of mini pies before perching on the arm of the loveseat beside Lardo. So, later.

When he reaches the pictures he took earlier that afternoon, while Bitty was baking the mini pies, he smiles to himself. Bitty’s fluster—frustration—is “flustration” a word? (Bitty would probably use it)—at being photographed while baking was amusing, and hours later remains so. Not that Bitty had really minded—if he had, Jack would’ve deleted the photos—but he’d been flustered, and it was funny. And cute, Jack admits to himself.

He pauses, looking at a shot that had turned out better than he’d expected—Bitty had turned at just the right moment, and the hair he’d said was “a mess” a moment later had looked… “artfully tousled,” as Shitty had described Jack’s own hair once when he’d overslept and left without brushing it.

…Jack thinks it suits Bitty much better.

He also thinks it is probably for the best Bitty’s hair does not always look that way, because it is now and was earlier more than a little distracting. He allows himself a moment to imagine running his fingers through Bitty’s hair, and why is his brain fixated on the memory of Bitty over skype on New Year’s Eve?

Ugh. Anyway.

The next photo is of Bitty’s pies, which were honestly beautiful. (Bittle said he’d won awards for these things, right? Understandably.) These don’t fit into the natural lighting assignment he has to turn in tomorrow, but—he’s been wanting to practice some of the things Lardo said yesterday.

If anyone is asking for a reason.

Which they aren’t.

He blows a breath out and scrolls back to double check the ones he is going to turn in tomorrow, not that, at this hour, he can take anything new anyway.

He isn’t really paying attention to the conversation around him until Chowder, still sprawled on a beanbag on the floor, reaches over and taps Jack on the knee.

“Hey, Jack! Would you ever think about playing for the Aces?” Chowder asks, and Jack—

Jack can’t answer. He doesn’t even hum a non-answer because he’s not—has someone said something? If someone found out Parse convinced—about the Aces reaching out to Jack (there was no reason to believe he’d talked them into it)—His agent had told the Aces he said no, but—

He takes a breath and Chow is still looking at him and—right. This is Chowder. If he’d read something online the whole campus would know it by now.

“Looking like they’ll make the playoffs again this year,” Holster says from the green couch, interrupting Jack’s thoughts, because of course everyone is listening. Jack hadn’t thought about it, but he would have expected that if he had.

Jack lets his breath out slowly and composes a response. “They’re a good team,” he says noncommittally. “Not wild about that far west, though.” He smiles a little at his own pun, inviting the others to join in the joke and drop the subject.

They don’t.

“Yeah,” Nursey chimes in, “but seriously, like, how cool would that be?”

“Yeah!” Chowder agrees. “You would be up on their first line in no time! But—well, Parson would move back to wing if you were there, right? That would be hella cool.”

“Wouldn’t be ‘chill’ at all, though.” Dex rolls his eyes and makes air quotes with his fingers.

“No need to be,” Nursey says. “The point streaks would be red hot.”

Jack gently bites his tongue, centering his thoughts, and hums vaguely. “He’s a good player. And his skills have developed a lot since—uh, since the last time we played together.”

The others don’t seem to notice Jack tripping over his words a little, which is good. As Lardo demands a turn being Kirby in Smash Bros, Bittle stands up, eyes on his ever-present phone, and slips into the kitchen. He hadn’t said anything.

“Well, you’re a really good player, too!” Jack appreciates Chowder’s positivity. He does. He just—can’t with that right now, as Ransom would say. So he flings a smile Chowder’s way and hopes that his eyes don’t betray him too much.

“Well, when I know what I’m doing, you’ll know. After my agent and my parents and all that. But—yeah, I don’t know.” He shrugs and starts to gather up his things. “Good night, you guys.”

Upstairs, he puts his camera away, hands gentle and sure in their routine while his mind is racing. He puts his books into his bag, lays out some clothes for the next day, and goes to brush his teeth. When he gets back into his room he pulls on some sleep clothes, sleeves long over his hands and pants thinning but soft.

His computer is whirring quietly, so he jostles the mouse, saves his thesis one last time, and closes it down for the night, leaving himself alone in the silence. His mind is still racing, but Jack doesn’t even know where it’s going anymore. He can’t pin down any of the thoughts, he can’t identify what emotions he’s feeling—there are just a lot of both of them, and it’s clear he won’t be able to sleep any time soon.

He stands in his room for a minute, absently tapping his leg as he debates whether to try to get some more work done or to just find something to read for a while, and whether either of those will actually help.

…They probably won’t.

He gives up and heads back downstairs, walking wordlessly past the cheerful chaos of the living room and aiming for the kitchen. Bittle is at the sink, and the water is running, audible beneath… well, it’s not Beyoncé and it’s not Taylor Swift. But she’s advising him to “love me like you do” and—

Jack stops in the doorway and swallows, trying to get words in order. Can you… “…help?” he manages, too quietly.

Bittle turns around, sponge in hand. “Oh, Jack. I thought you were in bed. What did you say?”

Jack clears his throat and tries again. “Can I help?”

Bitty pauses, mouth open, but then closes it and gestures pointedly to the towel hanging on the oven door. Jack takes his cue and starts to wipe down the pile of clean plates and pans already accumulated to one side of the sink.

It’s not like the dishes couldn’t air-dry overnight, but. Well. It’s something to do. And it’s… familiar. They did this a lot working on their final projects last semester. And Bitty is quiet, not adding to the rush in Jack’s head but not leaving him alone with it, either.

A few minutes later Bitty lets the water out of the sink and grabs a towel to start drying dishes himself, shaking his hips and bobbing his head as someone else Jack doesn’t know is shouting about “bang, bang, there goes your heart” or something. And Jack—his heart is okay, actually. And his brain feels less like a set of earbuds dug from the bottom of a backpack.

He should say thank you, but he doesn’t know exactly what for, and the words aren’t coming. Instead he says, “On a T-Swift kick tonight, eh Bittle?” because it’s funny, and because he hopes Bitty will understand what he means.

Bitty puts the plate he’s drying into the cupboard, then turns to face Jack, hands on hips, towel hanging at his side. “Mr. Zimmermann, I know you didn’t just suggest that ‘Bang, Bang’ was by Taylor Swift.”

Jack shrugs a little and doesn’t answer that.

“I—um. thank you. I—” needed this. He slides a cookie sheet into the oven drawer and picks up a cup. “It’s getting late. We should—” He pauses for a moment, trying to get the inside of the cup completely dry. “—when we’re done. Get some sleep.”

When he looks up from the cup, Bitty is watching him seriously. Jack quickly looks away and makes a beeline for the cupboard.

“Yeah,” Bitty agrees, his voice soft, and then he comes up behind Jack and squeezes his arm, just like he’d done to Chowder last week. Jack stills, and Bitty lets go.

Jack reaches for the last cup, and Bitty says, “Well…” like he wants Jack’s attention, so Jack dries it by touch and looks at Bitty instead. And Bitty is still watching him, and his voice is still soft when he speaks, but he’s smiling. “The rest of these can air-dry. I can probably manage some sleep tonight, if you don’t spring any book recs on me.”

Jack smiles, too. “Deal.”


At team breakfast on Tuesday morning, Jack almost walks straight into Ransom when Ransom stops to wave at the volleyball team with Chowder. But Jack does manage to sidestep him and reach the table without wearing any of his cereal. As he takes his seat, Wicks points at Ransom.

“Rans realizes that Chowder already has the girl, right? Like, he doesn’t need to do the wingman thing?”

Holster looks up, following Wicks’ finger with his eyes. “Oh, nah. He’s doing that all for himself. He’s had his eye on that girl March—see the tall blonde one? Yeah, pretty sure they’ve been hooking up on and off since EpiKegster and he’s been trying to convince her to give him a more official shot.”

Wicks snorts. “Good luck to him, bro.”

At that moment, Chowder flops into the seat across from Jack, nearly spills his orange juice, and then frantically apologizes and tries to make sure Jack is okay.

“She got you that scrambled, C?” Nursey chirps from the other end of the table.

“Please,” Dex replies in kind. “You should see him when we walk past her in the library. More scrambled than his eggs. But he’s got nothing on you, butterfingers.”

Jack assures Chowder that he’s fine and tunes out the rest of their… interaction. (He’s not sure if it counts as a scuffle if it’s all verbal, but they sound more self-satisfied and amused than angry.) Instead, his thoughts drift to the food class that now some large fraction of the team has decided to take.

It’s—well, it’s actually kind of funny how worked up Bittle gets about it. Jack kind of enjoys having more of the guys there.

(Not least because there are more people to distract Shitty. And also to distract Jack himself. Which makes it less likely Shitty will notice Jack trying not to be distracted by Bitty’s… being. Which will make it easier to continue putting off That Conversation with Shitty, at least, even if Lardo is still going to come after him anyway.)

…He should probably stop sitting next to Bitty in lecture, just to be on the safe side, though. Jack takes another bite of cereal and listens to Bitty and Chowder planning lunch, letting their excitement wash over him.

By the time they make it to the food seminar later that day, Wicks is still going on about Ransom, and Jack has decided he needs to witness this lunch.


Thursday rolls around, and Jack is late to lunch. He could say it’s because he wasn’t actually invited and so no one told him when it was, but mostly it’s because he got caught up talking to his professor after class and lost track of the time.

When he finally steps into the Haus, he is just in time to see Bittle laying a quiche in the middle of the kitchen table. Bittle, Chowder, and Farmer all look over at him as he comes in the back door.

Bittle’s really gone all out, Jack can tell: there are napkins folded at each place, silverware laid out, and a carafe of coffee actually on the table, steaming. (Bittle and Farmer also seem to have dressed up, but Bittle does that frequently enough for no reason, and maybe Farmer does, too. Chowder is in his Sharks sweater. The universe is still aligned.)

“Oh,” he says, stomping the snow off his boots. “Am I interrupting something?” He’s aiming for tongue-in-cheek, kind of sarcastic, but Bittle seems to take him more seriously.

“Actually, yes. But could you at least have kicked that snow off outsi—?” This is a long-fought point of contention between Bittle and the world. In the winter there is forever too much snow tracked into the Haus, and no one else cares as much.

But Chowder interrupts before Bittle can finish his question. “Jack’s eating with us?? ’Swawesome!”

“Sorry,” Jack mouths as he sweeps the clumps of snow back toward the door and takes off his boots. He sees Bittle roll his eyes, but smiling, so Jack knows he’s forgiven. He sets down his bag and shuffles over to the table.

“Is that quiche?” he asks, taking a seat. He’s quite certain it is, but he doesn’t know how else to comment on the fact that it’s gorgeous. Like, food should taste good. And it should be healthy (which this isn’t necessarily, but at least there’s protein). But there is really something to be said for food that looks so damn perfect. Unfortunately at the moment, that something is a rather ignorant question.

“Yes, Mr. Zimmermann, that is quiche.” Bitty’s voice is put-upon, but Jack sees he’s still smiling, and smiles back. Bitty dishes it out, but pauses to take a picture of his own plate with his phone. Jack and the others wait while he taps out some message, and when Bitty realizes they’ve been waiting, he blushes.

“Oh. Sorry, y’all,” he says, hastily tapping out one last thing before pocketing his phone.

Now it’s Jack’s turn to roll his eyes. Chowder is too full of sunshine, and Farmer is too polite, it seems, but someone has to give Bitty some grief.

“You texting that, Bittle?”

Tweeting,” Bittle corrects impatiently. (Has he figured out that Jack does this on purpose?) “And, no, actually. Instagram.” (Insta-what now? Jack’s going to let that one go, actually.)

But from there, lunch does go well. It’s “cozy”, as Farmer puts it, and Jack can practically feel the (more than usual) giddiness radiating off of Chowder. So. Mission accomplished. The kid has found himself an excellent girl—Farmer is sharp as a whip and funny as hell.

Jack even gives Bitty a pass when he starts tweeting (or instamming? Jack is still not sure what that is) about how adorably awkward Chowder is, because that honestly deserves to be documented for posterity.

And it’s… nice, the whole thing. Chowder and Farmer are cute together, make no mistake, but it’s practically more fun to watch Bitty watch them. Bitty is so charmed by everything they do—he laughs when they laugh (at themselves and each other); he smiles when they encourage each other; he covers his mouth when Chow leans over to kiss her on the cheek just for fun, and his hand drops to his heart.

As they all finish up (and the quiche was delicious, who is surprised?), Chowder and Farmer start talking about some project she needs help with, the details of which escape Jack, and apparently Bitty. Jack catches Bitty looking their way, but his eyes aren’t really focused on them.

They turn around and get ready to get up and leave, and Bitty is still staring. Jack wonders what he’s thinking.

“Oh!” Farmer says as they’re standing up. “Bitty, do you want any help with the—”

Chowder puts his hand on her shoulder, shaking his head. “He’s gonna say no, trust me.”

Bitty bites his lip and shakes his own head, quickly, bringing his attention back to the room. “I sure am. Go on, get out of here, both of you.” He stands up and steps toward Farmer, arms open. “You a huggin’ kinda girl?”

She sweeps him up. “Thank you so much, Bitty. This was really nice.” She moves aside to let Chowder wrap an arm around Bitty as well, approaching Jack instead.

“I’m really glad you were here, Jack,” she says. “Chris can’t speak highly enough of you or Bitty, and it’s nice to spend some time with you.” And—wow.

“Thanks,” Jack replies, smiling easily. “It was—yeah. Good to spend time with you, too. You’re good for him.”

“I’m right here!” Chowder waves his hands around and points at his (blushing) face. “But awwww, you guys! You are all the ’swawesomest! Thanks for doing this!”

“Aaaaaand that’s our cue,” Farmer says, grabbing Chowder by the arm. “Before he starts leaking sap. See you guys later!”

“Byyye!!” Chowder calls as he follows her out the door.

Jack waves, then says, “Let me help with the clean-up, eh?” as he starts stacking dishes.

“Hm?” says Bitty, sliding his phone back out of his pocket again.

“Bittle, let me help.”

Bitty bites his lip again, an inscrutable expression on his face, then nods. “Thanks, Jack,” he says quietly. He starts tapping on his phone, no doubt tweeting or whatever.

Jack tries to lighten the mood, still not sure what’s on Bitty’s mind. “She was nice, eh? Cute.” Bittle doesn’t respond.

“I bet you’re texting about our lunch now.” This at least gets a huff from Bittle. Jack can’t tell if it’s laughter or why-do-I-even-bother. He doesn’t even bother to correct Jack, though.

“Please keep clearing off the table, Mr. Zimmermann.” Well, Jack tried. He sticks to clearing off the table.

A minute later, though, as Bittle is running water into the sink, he finally speaks up. “Yeah. She’s fantastic. Chowder is really lucky.” He runs the sponge over a plate and passes it up to Jack without even looking.

Jack takes the plate and wipes it dry, considering. Bitty sounds. Sad? Not sad. But not happy. And Jack is out of his depth here. He stays quiet. Bitty will talk if he wants to talk.

Bitty doesn’t want to talk.

As he puts the last plate away, Jack has one thing he hasn’t said.

“I, uh, could have taken a picture of that quiche, you know.”

Bitty laughs. Happy, not derisive, Jack is pretty sure.

“What?”

“You are full of surprises, Jack. I did not realize you liked that camera of yours so much you’d take a picture of a little ol’ quiche.”

Little ol’—??

“Bittle, you took a picture of that ‘little ol’ quiche’ while the rest of us were waiting to eat!”

“Yeah, for instagram!” Bittle retorts. “My own instagram!”

“Your what.”

“It’s like twitter but for pictures. Nothin’ so fancy as yours, though—phone pictures mostly. Show people what you’re doing.”

“I thought that was what facebook was for?”

“Lord forgive him, for he knows not what he says,” Bitty intones. He is smiling, though, so that’s what counts.

Daringly, Jack knocks his elbow gently into Bitty’s shoulder.

“Why, what would you have taken a photo for?” Bittle doesn’t sound defensive; though, just curious. “Don’t tell me for your class?”

For you, Jack thinks. For a cookbook. For a magazine. To remember today.

“Because it was pretty,” he says.

Chapter Text

“Hey Bitty!” Chowder’s face pops up above the seat in front of him, and Bitty pulls an earbud out so he can better hear the chatter that’s just about to ensue. (Really, Bitty has no room to talk about chatter, but this child is a whole nother thing.) The bus starts to slow rather abruptly (maybe they are finally getting off the highway?), and Chowder falls back against the next seat up.

“You okay, buddy?” Icer asks from beside Chowder. “Here—” And he must offer an arm or something for Chowder to hoist himself up with, once the bus comes out of its curve. Bitty is busy trying not to smush Lardo into the window.

The bus gets onto a straightaway again and picks up speed, so apparently they’re not off the highway after all, just moving onto a new one. Chowder reappears.

“You ever gonna learn not to do that, sweetheart?” Bitty means to chirp but it comes out pretty sincere. “It’d be a shame to lose you in tonight’s game.”

“Also,” says Lardo, still leaning sleepily against the window, eyes closed, “it would be really fucking embarrassing when we have to explain that Bucket’s starting instead of you due to an injury sustained while sitting backwards on a bus.”

“What she said,” Icer agrees.

Chowder carries on as if none of them had spoken. “Bitty, do you have a recipe for that quiche? Farmer just texted me because her roommate Ashley is going to a potluck thing for the anthro department and she didn’t know what to take, but Farmer thought the quiche was hella good and probably easy enough that Ashley could do it—I mean, Ashley’s okay but she’s not as good as you, obviously—so anyway she suggested it, but then Ashley wanted the recipe, so Farmer said she’d ask me to ask you, so—do you have a recipe for it?”

Bitty smiles fondly. “Certainly do. Can you text me Farmer’s number and I’ll send it to her?”

“Yeah!” Chowder says, more enthusiastically than Bitty would expect from anyone else. His phone buzzes, and he swipes across Chowder’s name to get Farmer’s contact info. He opens a new message and starts tapping out a greeting and a list of ingredients and instructions.

In the background he can hear Nursey asking first how and when Farmer had a chance to try Bitty’s quiche, and then, when Chowder finally pauses for breath, asking with a complete lack of chill why he wasn’t invited.

Bitty smiles as he finishes texting Farmer, and opens Twitter. He livetweets his friends’… existence for a couple of minutes, but pretty soon Bitty finds his mind wandering back to the lunch again. It really had been lovely—the quiche turned out perfectly, and he’d had everything ready right on time, and Jack had actually been all sociable and everything, for all he’d accidentally interrupted and then just stayed and eaten lunch with them. (And thank goodness there’d been enough, too!)

And Chowder and Farmer had been so happy and so adorable together…

…ugh. Not that Bitty wasn’t happy for them and all, but… seeing them being so cute and obviously sweet on each other…

Bitty’s phone lights up with a notification of something or other, but he slips it back in his pocket without checking. He stares at the back of the seat in front of him, fiddling with the sleeve of his jacket, for a few minutes, wishing he could… could move on already and find someone he could actually have that with, until Jack’s voice catches his attention.

He sits up straight, looking to his right, and tries not to dwell on how quickly he responds to Jack’s voice. Jack is the captain. Everyone on the team reacts like that, not just Bitty. It’s fine.

He closes his eyes for a moment and sighs, then opens them again and swings his legs into the aisle to face Jack completely, making himself focus on what Jack is saying about their backcheck—it is finally getting better, but they have to keep working on it.


It pays off. They sweep the trip, but Bitty still finds himself getting nervous about playoffs. Stress seems to be in the air, which is probably most of the reason why; between Shitty’s usual frustration with his theses, Lardo’s upcoming show, and Jack brooding over playoffs and… everything, Bitty finds himself doing a lot of sympathetic-stress baking on Sunday.

He carries on through Monday, justified by the announcement that practice and classes on Tuesday are canceled because of the incoming blizzard, so homework can wait.

By the time Bitty’s mother calls for the ninth (!!!) time, there is an entire counter covered mostly in various breads, and Bitty is feeling very glad he forced himself to make a grocery run the day before—the idea of being potentially snowed in without enough supplies to continue baking is just… ugh. Why does snow even have to be a thing?

Bitty spends a while, after the governor announces that all roads will be closed for 24 hours, in his room looking up things about how bad blizzards can get, particularly around Samwell. Eventually he hears what sounds like the front door opening, which… can’t be right. Can it?

He goes downstairs (and when did it get to be after midnight?) and finds Jack shedding his coat and boots, hat already off.

“…were you outside in that??”

“Uh. Yes?” Jack answers like he thinks he might be missing something. Bitty is at a loss for words.

“But—it’s—isn’t—that’s a blizzard!

(Mostly at a loss.)

“…Yes.”

Bitty has a feeling Jack is mentally laughing at him, which—he’s not sure where the feeling came from, but in all fairness, he probably deserves it. That was not the most insightful thing Bitty’s ever said.

On the other hand… Jack was out in a blizzard.

Jack hangs his coat on the coat rack by the door and lines his boots up neatly under it.

“…what were you doing?” Bitty finally manages to ask.

“Oh. Walked around campus to make sure the rest of the team was stocked up. Figured not everyone would want to walk to the dining hall in the morning, even if they do keep them open tomorrow. It’s supposed to get a lot worse before it gets better. It’s not a big deal.”

Half of Bitty is touched by how thoughtful Jack is—and how is that always so surprising?—and half of Bitty is trying not to laugh, when a flaw in that plan occurs to him.

“Wait, what were you going to do if some of them didn’t have enough for breakfast? Or what are you going to do, I guess?”

Both Stop & Shops closed hours ago, so he can’t have stopped there first… and nothing will be open in the morning, with the travel ban in effect. Man, Massachusetts sure don’t screw around with snow.

“Oh. You said earlier you didn’t know what you were actually going to do with everything you were baking. Since it was too much for the five of us.”

Bitty thought he’d said that while Jack was working on his thesis, not paying attention, but that’s not important. What is important is that was a great idea, which he says.

Jack smiles a little. Bitty bites his lip and makes himself look away towards the kitchen. Help.

“—Actually, that gives me an idea.”

Usually Bitty sends group emails to the entire team informing them of food, but…

“If I sent out an email asking everyone for requests, I could bake some things for you to take round to everyone tomorrow?”

Jack nods. “Sounds like a plan.”


From: erbittle@samwell.edu
To: students-samwellmenshockey@samwell.panlist.edu
Subject: Blizzard food?

Hey y’all,

There’s a bunch of banana bread and zucchini bread at the Haus, plus a couple loaves of sandwich bread, some blueberry muffins, a couple pies, part of a quiche, and an awful lot of cookies (chocolate chip and snickerdoodle). Jack has offered to bring stuff around to y’all tomorrow (Wednesday) if you don’t feel like braving the dining hall, so if you want any of this, lay your claim soon.

I’ll also take requests, provided I have the ingredients on hand because ain’t no way I can buy anything more at this point.

Deadline is… noon, but asap, please :)

-ERB

From: wpoindex@samwell.edu
To: erbittle@samwell.edu
Subject: Re: Blizzard food?

bitty, you are a god among men, etc, etc. can i have a blueberry muffin, like two inches of banana bread, a slice of quiche, and a slice of pie if it’s not cherry? thanks! -dex

From: buckleyj@samwell.edu
To: erbittle@samwell.edu
Cc: jackzimm@samwell.edu
Subject: Re: Blizzard food?

Are there mushrooms in the quiche? Or, could I request one with no mushrooms? A quarter of one is fine. And a couple snickerdoodles.

Thanks so much for doing this, you guys!

From: smurfy@samwell.edu
To: erbittle@samwell.edu
Subject: Re: Blizzard food?

BEST LINEMATES EVER seriously, this is awesome. Can I request pot pie? Like a mini pie but with food food? I have enough junk in my room. Idk if you have the stuff for that, but that would be swawesome. (And ok, ok I wouldn’t say no to some banana bread)

Sent from my iPhone

From: larissad@samwell.edu
To: erbittle@samwell.edu
Subject: Re: Blizzard food?

Eric Bittle, you are going to let us pay you for all those ingredients and stuff, right? but also, can i have half a loaf of banana bread if it hasn’t all been claimed, and ⅓ - ½ a loaf of wheat or sourdough if you’ve got it?

(seriously bro, you’re gonna go broke like this. we owe you a lot. we don’t deserve you :) )

[See more replies]


Bitty lets himself sleep in just a little the next morning, but by 8:30 he’s downstairs with all the requests received written down and taped to the fridge.

It’s a long list.

Jack walks into the kitchen as Bitty takes the eggs out of the fridge, and gets himself a glass of water.

“Morning, Bittle.” He glances at the fridge. “That’s quite a list.”

“And yet it’s shorter than the pile of snow that fell overnight. This is absurd.” Bitty pulls out a mixing bowl. “The only ones who didn’t ask for anything were Wagner and you.”

Jack blinks.

“I told Ransom and Holster and Shitty I wasn’t making them anything special, but that still leaves everyone else, so.” Bitty rolls his eyes, smiling slightly, as he opens the flour. “I’m just glad I went shopping on Sunday or I’d never have enough to make all this. I’ll have to go again as soon as I can as it is.”

He pauses for a minute, full cup of flour held over the mixing bowl, as a thought occurs to him. “It’s going to be a while before I get everything done…”

“Mm.” Jack drains his glass and sets it down. “Would it go faster with help?”


It does.

Jack ropes him into coming along to distribute the baked goods, but Bitty maybe doesn’t mind as much as he says. (It’s kind of fun to see the snow-silent world.)

He’s pretty sure Jack can tell, too.


Murphy offers Jack and Bitty fist-bumps on their way out of his room, with heartfelt thanks for the banana bread and the pot pie. “You guys rock. See you… whenever campus comes back to life, I guess?”

Jack meets his fist. “Don’t eat it all at once,” he chirps weakly, stepping into the hall.

“Text if you need something!” Bitty follows him out.

“What, you gonna come riding through the snow to save me, Georgia boy?”

Bittle ducks his head, muttering something about sending Shitty to deal with snow-related emergencies. He runs his hand over the back of his neck, and—Jack wonders if he’ll want a haircut once the roads open up again.

“Alright, get the fuck out out of here before you get snowed in here, or something.” Murphy closes the door with a smile on his face, and Jack leads the way outside.

They’re not actually in danger of being snowed in anywhere, at the moment. The sky is heavy grey, but quiet right now, nothing new in the air. It’s bright from the fallen snow, and Jack throws an arm up over his eyes to let them adjust to the outdoor light. Jack must have stopped too short, because Bitty walks straight into him.

“Oh! Sorry, Jack.”

“My fault, sorry.” Honestly, the whole “polite Canadian” thing has nothing on “polite Georgian” or maybe just “Eric Bittle”.

Jack takes another step and hears the door fall shut behind Bitty. They stand together in the crisp air, waiting for—

“What are we waiting for?” Bittle asks.

“Right,” Jack says. “Back to the Haus?”

Bittle steps out ahead of Jack and starts walking, but then he stops short, and Jack doesn’t catch himself before they collide again.

“Sorry,” says Jack.

Bitty unfreezes and huffs a laugh. “That was my fault, I’m pretty sure. Sorry, I just realized I’m desperately craving a peppermint latte. And no way any place gonna be open today.”

Jack pokes him in the back. “Sorry, if they had been open, were you just volunteering to go—what did you say I was doing?—‘traipsing through iced-over hell’ to get a coffee? Bittle, the first step is admitting you have a problem.”

Bitty pauses for just a moment before responding loftily. “Well, I wouldn’t expect you to understand. Maybe if you’d ever tried a latte in your life, but I know better than to expect that at this point either.” He deliberately checks Jack in the side, gentle and smiling, and starts walking again.

Jack files that away somewhere in his brain as he catches up the couple steps to walk beside Bitty the rest of the way back to the Haus.


Despite Bitty’s incredulity and the chirping from Holster as he leaves, Jack goes out after lunch the next day to take some photos for class.

“It’s not that weird. He’s just Canadian, I get it,” Ransom says, and as Jack closes the door he hears Shitty and Holster shouting Ransom down. The whole exchange actually leaves Jack in an even better mood than before.

He wanders towards East Quad, no particular location in mind, and winds up getting a few good shots of a chickadee and some photos of the frozen river without encountering anyone else, before heading more towards Gregory.

He pauses between Kennedy and the commons to take some photos of the street—none of the snow’s been disturbed, and it looks like something out of a book or a movie—when he hears a couple of kids yelling. He stands still, glancing up the street, as four or five kids come down the hill on skis.

They’re gone as quickly as they came, only their tracks in the snow and the echoes of their laughter and shouts proving they were there at all. Jack takes a couple more photos of the street before heading downhill himself, making his way back towards the Haus.

Jack’s been back for a little over an hour when Bitty decides he needs to make a grocery run, and asks for someone to come along to help him carry everything. Jack volunteers. Holster and Shitty chirp him about not being able to get enough of the snow—“You know, you don’t need to prove you’re Canadian, we already know”—but neither of them offers to go instead. Ransom again tries to defend Jack and is again promptly shouted down, but he doesn’t offer either.

Before they took that class together last semester and Jack actually saw Bitty baking, he never understood how Bitty went through ingredients so quickly. Now he’s not only seen Bitty baking but helped repeatedly, and it’s still baffling.

Not that he minds.

The snow is pleasant, for all Bitty pretends that it bothers him having to go out in it. Or pretends that it bothers him more than it really does, at least? Jack isn’t sure exactly how much is exaggerated, but he is fairly certain some of it is.


As a loaf of whole wheat goes in the oven and a chocolate pecan pie comes out, Jack points out Bitty has done next to no homework and they do have class tomorrow. Bitty takes his time getting another batch of sugar cookie dough ready “just for that,” he says, but once the dough is chilling and his point is apparently made, he does actually do the reading for their food seminar.

He gets a phone call from his mother while those are in the oven, and goes to his room to talk to her. The timer goes off before Bitty comes back downstairs, and the cookies look ready as far as Jack can tell, so he turns the oven off and takes them out to cool, just as Bitty enters the kitchen.

“I love you too, mother. Yes. Bye.” He hangs up, but almost in the same breath says “Oh! You got them out already? They didn’t burn, did they?”

They didn’t. Not that that would have stopped the others from eating them anyway, probably, but the cookies are perfect. While everyone else is distracted by Shitty and Holster arm-wrestling for possession of the whole plate of them, Jack quietly takes three for himself.


Jack stays up late yet again that night, though he knows he shouldn’t; classes are back on the next day, and the coaches sent out an email about Thursday afternoon practice. But all the usual suspects are gathered in the living room having a good time, so Jack allows himself another night to just enjoy being around his friends.

He seats himself in his favored armchair and tries to limit the amount that he kicks Shitty, who is sitting in a beanbag on the floor. It’s affectionate, but even Shitty has limits. Holster is parked in the other armchair, glaring at his computer, and Ransom has taken over the green couch as the “defense couch”, squashing Nursey between himself and Dex. Jack smiles to himself, seeing the two frogs sit like that.

Lardo is sitting on the loveseat with her feet in Bitty’s lap, and Bitty himself is still trying to convince Chowder that “the arm of that couch is no place to sit, that’s why we bought those beanbags!!” (It’s not going well. You would think Bitty would have given up by January, but. He hasn’t. It takes a lot to make Eric Bittle give up, Jack has learned.)

The conversation covers a range of topics Jack couldn’t begin to keep track of, even if he weren’t theoretically trying to do the reading for their food seminar. Favorite murder mysteries lead to people with weird names they’ve met, and somehow they wind up at Taylor Swift’s new album. (Which is actually a few months old now, but still apparently counts as new?) When the storm finally comes up, at least, it makes sense.

“…And for all I called yesterday morning right as soon as I got up to tell her we were fine, she still asked if everything was alright when she called this afternoon!”

Shitty and Holster laugh at Bitty’s outburst, and the rest of them look amused, too. Jack understand Bitty’s frustration, but he also understands Mama Bittle’s concern. Jack would worry about Bitty in a storm like this, too, if he were so far away.

“I mean, my parents called on Monday too? And again yesterday,” Chowder says, shrugging. “It makes sense that she’d be worried. Storms like that are kinda scary, and snow especially is weird.”

“C, you play ice hockey. You are not allowed to call snow ‘weird’,” says Nursey.

“Welcome to the real world where we have weather, Cali boy,” Dex adds.

Chowder plops into the empty beanbag on the floor next to Shitty, seemingly too offended to stay with them on the couch. Jack knows he’s not, though, because Chowder can’t keep from giggling. “Ice rink snow is not like this snow. And shut up, we do so have real weather. In the good part of Cali, anyway.”

“But your folks didn’t call nine times!” Bitty interrupts, derailing whatever the frogs were about to get into.

“Well, no, just once,” Chowder admits. “Was that really the only thing she talked about? That does seem like an awful lot of time to spend talking about a storm, even one this big…”

“Just about, actually. ’least on Monday, anyway—told her about what I was baking, too, but not like any of that wasn’t anything I could’ve done in my sleep, so there wasn’t too much to say, and today she just wanted to make sure we really were okay and all. And then she—never mind.”

Lardo, beside him in the loveseat, raises one eyebrow and turns to prop her legs up on his lap. “And then she…?”

Bitty bites his lip, but everyone is staring at him with varying levels of concern and amusement, side conversations suddenly silenced. After a minute he visibly gives up. He briefly makes eye contact with Jack, then turns away a little and looks at the floor.

“She just… won’t quit nagging about the Fourth of July andifJackcanvisit.” He trails off in a rush.

Nursey snorts. “She knows you’re in college, right? Like, she doesn’t need to arrange playdates for you anymore?”

Bitty looks up at Nursey. “Thank you!” he says with relief. “Yes—no, I’ve done my best to make that clear to her, but—well, no. Apparently she doesn’t.”

And Jack—wants to answer that. Just because Bitty’s mom suggested it doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be fun.

“…I really wouldn’t mind,” he says slowly. “If you didn’t, I mean.”

Bitty glances at Jack again, looking… doubtful, Jack thinks?

Jack isn’t sure how to explain he’s serious, if Bitty still doesn’t believe him, but he doesn’t want Bitty to think he’s just being polite or teasing him, and that has to be what Bitty must think. “It sounds nice.”

Bitty keeps looking at Jack, and Jack still can’t tell what he’s thinking, but after a moment he rolls his eyes and smiles.

“You say that now, but anyone who can go out in that,” Bitty says, nodding his head sideways towards the window, “and be comfortable wouldn’t survive five minutes in a Georgia summer.”

That’s an impressive non-answer from Bitty, but Jack shrugs and smiles back all the same while the others laugh, tension evaporated, just like that. He’ll deal with it later.

“Bits, d’you think Chowder over here would survive a Georgia summer?” Nursey asks.

“I don’t know,” Dex responds before Bitty has a chance. “Not sure hoodies are very good for you in that heat.”

“‘Sorry, Mrs. Bittle,’” Nursey mocks. “‘Chris can’t come over for his playdate today—he’s busy being a melted puddle on the floor.’”

Jack huffs a little laugh at the image, especially given how Chowder is sprawled out at the moment.

“Aww, you guys,” Chowder complains. “I do just fine in the heat, thank you very much. Besides, hoodies are important in over-airconditioned buildings, AKA all buildings in the summer.”

“Not my house,” Bitty says, looking up from his phone where he’s been tapping away for the last minute or two. He frowns and taps out a few more things.

“Oh, whoops,” he says, now tapping Lardo’s legs instead, silently asking her to move, and standing up as Lardo does an impressive V-seat to get out of his way. “I gotta go plug this in, it’s getting low.”

He slips out of the room, and Lardo immediately slides down in the loveseat, taking over both cushions and dangling her legs over the arm beside where he’d been sitting.

“Chowwwwder?” Lardo asks all-too-sweetly. “You are quite right about hoodies being important. Would you pleeeease go grab mine off of Shitty’s bed? I think I left it up there earlier.”

Chowder can’t seem to get out of his beanbag fast enough. “Sure, Lardo!”

Jack smiles to himself as Chowder bounds up the stairs. She’s got that kid (and all of them, really) wrapped tight around her finger.

Dex and Nursey start to make fun in Chowder’s absence, but Lardo holds up one finger (nothing wrapped around it, though) to silence them, then another, and another, and another as she says “D-I-B-S” and stares at them, daring them to comment.

“You don’t even live here,” Dex grumbles.

“But I know people who do…” she taunts. “Eh, Jack?”

Jack holds up his hands in surrender and declines to reply, in favor of going back to his reading for a while. The conversation turns into a blur of cheerful banter and passionate debate around him, over an hour gone by before he knows it.

“Ah, shit, it’s way later than I realized,” Lardo says suddenly, interrupting Shitty’s rant about Fifty Shades of whatever that creepy movie is. Thank goodness. Jack looks over to see her eyeing her phone.

“I gotta go, I have class at nine.”

“What time’s it?” Shitty asks.

“It’s like midnight already and I gotta walk halfway across campus,” Lardo says, putting her coat on over her long-since-retrieved hoodie and looking around presumably for her boots.

“Wait, really?” Chowder asks, sitting up from where he’d draped himself over the beanbag. “Darnit, we should probably go too… Hang on a second, we’ll go with you!! C’mon, it’ll be nicer if we can all walk at least part of the way together.”

He jumps up, grabbing his own boots and gesturing to Dex and Nursey when—“Tell me you at least wore an actual coat, bro,” Nursey says, before Jack can ask the same thing, as Chowder pulls the hood of his ever-present Sharks sweatshirt up over his Sharks cap.

He did, to everyone’s relief.

“You really should have a hat, though,” Dex chimes in. “Like, one that covers your ears. That thing you’re doing does not count.”

“You two taking Bitty’s job, scolding Chowder about taking better care of himself?” Ransom asks, leaning forward so he can see Lardo and the frogs better from his spot on the couch.

“Can’t be too careful with this one,” Holster says, bumping Ransom with one elbow. “But yeah, where’d he go, anyway? I don’t remember him saying goodnight or anything.”

Jack surprises himself a little by answering. “He said he was going to plug in his phone. Never came back downstairs.”

“Oh, huh. Think he just fell asleep?” Shitty asks.

Jack shrugs. He’d noticed Lardo kept the whole loveseat to herself, but it hadn’t really registered until just now that that was because Bitty had disappeared entirely.

Dex and Nursey finally get up and start looking for their own things; a moment later, Jack follows suit.

“Uh, Jack? What’re you doing?” Chowder asks, now waiting by the door.

“Walking you to your dorms.” Jack puts on his coat.

Chowder looks like he’s about to ask why, but is distracted by Lardo punching his arm gently. “Got everything? Don’t want to leave your phone here or whatever.”

“Oh! Right, yeah! Um… yeah, here it is!” Chowder pulls his phone out of his pocket, holding it up to show that he does indeed have it.

“Cool. You two good?” Lardo asks, glancing at the other frogs, as Nursey puts on his hat and Dex zips up his coat. Nursey flashes a thumbs-up, and with everyone bundled up, Jack grabs his hat and follows them out the door.

It’s almost one in the morning by the time Jack finally gets back to the Haus, frogs and Lardo all seen safely inside their dorms. Shitty and Holster are still in the living room, and Jack gives them an unimpressed look.

“We do have practice tomorrow.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Shitty says, mirroring Jack’s expression.

Holster stands up and stretches. Shitty stretches without getting up.

“He’s right, though, brah. I meant to head up like half an hour ago—told Rans we were almost done.”

Jack lines up his shoes under the coat rack as Shitty finally deigns to get up, and the three of them head to their rooms.

Once upstairs, Jack tidies up his desk, debating whether or not he should check on Bitty before he goes to bed. It’s probably nothing to worry about, but hadn’t he implied he’d be coming back downstairs after plugging in his phone? He could easily have gotten distracted by the internet and just lost track of time, or fallen asleep in his clothes. Or both.

And maybe Jack was imagining it, but he’d seemed kind of… off, before he left. So. Better safe than sorry.

Jack grabs his camera—he’d thought about showing Bitty some of the photos he’d taken anyway, so it’s a perfect excuse to talk to him if he’s still awake—and knocks gently on Bitty’s door.

“Hey, Bittle. You still awake? We’ve got practice tomorrow afternoon.”

Bitty opens the door as Jack finishes speaking. He’s not even in his pajamas yet, Jack notices, and his bed is still made.

“Oh. Um. Yeah. I remember.” He sounds quiet and tired, but not like he’s fallen asleep.

Jack holds up his camera. “…But, uh. If you’re up anyway. I took some cool pictures today. Thought you might like to see.”

Bitty’s face shifts, and Jack isn’t sure what he’s thinking. And then he smiles, and Jack is sure it’s at least mostly real.

“Sure. I’d love to. C’mon in, sit down.” He opens the door wider and steps to the side, nodding towards his bed.

Jack sits down. Bitty shuts the door again and hops onto the bed next to Jack, while he scrolls back through his photos to the start of the ones from that afternoon.

He finds the first one and starts to tilt the camera so Bitty can see the screen better, but then stops and moves a couple inches closer to Bitty to make it easier for both of them.

“Here.” Jack tries again, angling the camera differently. “Is that okay?”

“Sure. Or—here, if you don’t mind? we can—” Bitty reaches out cautiously with his right hand. Jack nods, understanding, and shifts so his own right arm is behind them, supporting his weight on the bed a little, to make it easier for them to hold the camera together.

They don’t spend too long on most of the pictures—Jack’s own eyes are drooping, and he is very conscious of how late it is, and how much his sleep schedule has already been thrown off—but it’s a good ten or fifteen minutes before they get to the end.

Bitty has yawned for the third time in as many minutes by the time Jack stands up, privately satisfied that whatever was bothering Bitty before is at least better for the moment, and fairly confident that he’ll actually go to sleep now.

Bitty stands up too, ducking around Jack to get the door.

“…Thanks, Bittle.” Jack considers squeezing Bitty’s shoulder for just a moment, but decides if Bitty really is feeling better, that might be too much, so Jack opts instead to ruffle his hair just for a second. “Sleep well.”

Bitty rolls his eyes, smiling. “You too, Jack. G’night.”


Sunday afternoon, Jack and Shitty are kicking snow at each other on their way back from the library when Shitty’s phone starts playing that “shut up and dance with me” song. He hands Jack the books he’d been carrying, before he takes his glove off and wrestles the phone out of his pocket to silence the alarm.

“I need to call my mom when we get home, oh joy.”

Then he unlocks it and starts scrolling through something and laughs, holding out his phone for Jack to see and saving him the trouble of digging his own out.

[3:09 PM]
Sunday, February 1, 2015

chowder
Hey!! Do you want to do something next Saturday?
Multimedia message 3:07 PM

chowder
I mean like not *this* Saturday but *next* Saturday
Multimedia message 3:07 PM

chowder
like the 14th not the 7th
Multimedia message 3:07 PM

chowder
bc it's Valentine's Day!!
Multimedia message 3:08 PM

bucket
…we have a game?
Multimedia message 3:08 PM

chowder
oh! Oh sorry wrong text!!
Multimedia message 3:08 PM

nursey
chow
Multimedia message 3:09 PM

nursey
did you just text us instead of your girlfriend
Multimedia message 3:09 PM

chowder
yeah ^^;;
Multimedia message 3:09 PM

[Enter message]

Jack buzzes his lips. “You can’t say the kid lacks enthusiasm.”

“Uh, no,” Shitty agrees. “No, you really can’t.”

“They’re… cute, though,” Jack offers. He’s not totally sure that’s the word he means. They are cute, but they’re also… happy? sweet? ridiculous?

It makes Jack—it’s good to see people in that kind of relationship.

“Yeah, they really fuckin’ are,” Shitty agrees again. He shoves his phone back into his pocket and pulls his glove back on. “Race you back!” And he takes off.

“No fair, you asshole!” Jack shouts at Shitty’s back. “I still have your books!” And my camera, he doesn’t bother adding.

Indeed, Jack still has Shitty’s books when he finally catches up to Shitty, who is lying on the front lawn of the Haus making an indistinguishable snow angel.

“That’s a nice circle you’re making there, Picasso.”

“Shut up, grandpa, I was waiting for your slow ass.” Shitty does get up, through; and when he reaches the door, he holds it open and gestures for Jack. “I could have gone in and taken all the leftovers from dinner last night, but I waited for you, because I’m generous like that.”

Shitty is generous, but it doesn’t stop Jack from shoving the books into Shitty’s chest and then, more gently, tugging on Shitty’s hair on his way past into the Haus.

“Hurry up, speedy,” he calls over his shoulder. “I might not be so generous!”

They enter the kitchen together, but Shitty beats him to the fridge, and Jack never does manage to make a claim on the leftovers.

“What are you guys doing?” Shitty asks cheerfully, stacking containers on the table.

“Finding Bitty a date!” says Ransom, all too excited.

Jack’s stomach drops. He’d thought—but why would Bitty need a date? Why would he want one? They have a game that day, Bucket was right. If they… if it doesn’t go well, he surely wouldn’t feel like going out, and if it does, there’s going to be a party at the Haus afterwards.

And Jack can’t imagine Bitty skipping a Haus party to go on some blind date, but he can’t really see him bringing one here, either. It’s hard to be team mother hen when you’re with a date, and Jack is sure that is what Bitty would do.

And besides, Jack thought—well. Whatever. He’s been wrong about things before. People. Lots of times.

Jack looks around for the recipient of Ransom’s good will, and at first doesn’t see him. Then—a sliver of hope returns. Catching sight of Bitty, Jack wonders if “victim” is closer than “recipient”…

“…Why is Bittle under the table?” he asks, looking at the man in question curled up with his hoodie pulled over his head like he thinks he’s a turtle. Jack walks over towards the table, and Bitty’s eyes and nose join his mouth in visibility, staring up at him.

It looks hilarious. And kind of adorable, if Jack is being honest. He turns his camera on and removes the lens cap.

“What? No, don’t take a picture of me down here!” Bitty sounds surprised, more than anything, and maybe mildly annoyed, though considering why he’s under the table that seems as likely to be annoyance at Ransom as at Jack.

The camera is already in focus as he asks, but Jack starts to turn it away to point elsewhere—just as the shutter clicks.

“Uh. Sorry. I’ll delete that, hang on.” Jack quickly switches to viewing the pictures he’s taken and gets rid of it with only a little reluctance. It’s not like it’s a good picture; the lighting would have been strange already and the photo came out blurry from Jack moving the camera at the last second… but it’s exactly the sort of silly moment that’s so his friends and the Haus that Jack wants to capture and remember.

a slightly blurry photo of Bitty under the table hiding in his Samwell hoodie, face fully visible

Still. Jack had told all his friends they could tell him not to take photos, or to delete ones he’d already taken, if they really minded that much, and he meant it. So.

After a moment, he squats down and crawls under the table, too. “There. Sorry. But uh, while you’re down here, do you want to see more photos?”

It seemed to cheer Bitty up the other night, so. Why not? He pulls Bitty’s hood back slowly, and when he meets no resistance he arranges himself so they can both see the screen.

“Um. Okay?” Bitty sounds doubtful, or distracted, but he sits up a little straighter and looks towards the screen.

“Look, here,” Jack says, and Bitty reaches forward to hold one side of the camera, just like last time.

They sit down there for a while, looking at photos together, until Ransom gives up and gets back to his homework. Shitty sits on top of the table at some point, eating leftover pasta salad and making occasional comments out loud about whatever he’s reading on his phone. It’s oddly pleasant, and Jack finds himself feeling reluctant to actually go do the reading for postcolonial studies.

When they do finally crawl out from under the table and Jack heads upstairs, he doesn’t even try to pretend he isn’t just going to get the book and come right back to the kitchen. (He’ll go for a chair this time. Probably.)

Chapter Text

In retrospect, Jack should have seen this coming.

He’d stayed in the kitchen, reading and working on the outline for his next paper, until Bitty insisted on food. They ate quietly together, with the others having long since disappeared to study groups and the like. Clean-up was minimal—all they’d done was microwave leftover stir-fry—but it was a soothing routine. Then Jack realized that he really did need to shower and put some laundry in before it got much later (maybe laundry first, come to think of it), so he gathered his things and headed upstairs.

Now he’s standing in the doorway of his own bedroom, staring at Shitty, who is lounging on his stomach in Jack’s own bed, book propped open the pillow and ankles crossed in air above his ass. At least he is wearing boxers.

“You’re not even under the blankets, man.” Jack steps into the room and Shitty closes his book, rolling over to listen. “How are you not freezing?”

“It’s all the love and goodness in my heart that keeps me warm,” Shitty says beatifically.

“Or a steaming pile of BS,” Jack suggests.

Shitty rolls his eyes and sits up, patting the bed beside him. “Well, while we’re on the subject…”

Jack narrows his eyes as he sets his books on his desk. “The subject of love and goodness or the subject of steaming shit?”

“Yes.” Shitty points to the spot on the bed and won’t keep talking until Jack is there, as Jack knows from experience. So Jack goes there.

(Shitty really is cold, though, and Jack is not in the mood to be a personal space heater, so when Shitty tries to tangle his feet with Jack’s, Jack throws him off and refuses to cuddle.)

“What are your intentions toward Mr. Eric Bittle?”

Yeah, Jack really should have seen this coming.

“I intend to play hockey with him.”

“Mmmmmmmmmmm-hm.” Shitty says with a deliberate nod. “And…?”

Jack keeps his expression neutral and his eyes on the opposite wall. “And… to win playoffs with him?” He reaches up to knock on Shitty’s head, instead of the wooden bed frame.

“Yeah, see? Steaming pile of shit.”

“Hey, no!” Jack objects, turning to look at Shitty now. “I do! And we will!” He knocks on Shitty’s head again, before Shitty stares him dead in the eye and Jack has to look away.

“Dude. You almost crawled under a table to take pictures of him, and then, when he said not to, you proceeded instead to sit down there showing him photos you’d taken before. Is he officially your valentine or are you just courting him unsuccessfully?”

“Shitty, no one uses the word ‘courting’.”

“Jack, you are avoiding the question. Badly, I might add.”

Jack sighs and looks down at his hands for a minute, before saying quietly, “…No.” He pauses, taking a breath, and asks even more quietly, “Have the others guessed? Or. Does anyone know?

Shitty leans his head sideways onto Jack’s shoulder, and Jack can’t help laying his own head on top. It does ground him.

“Honestly, I doubt it,” Shitty says. “I mean, I don’t gossip about you, bro, but most of our friends are as observant as sleeping cave salamanders, so, like, probably not.”

“Where do you find these comparisons?” Jack asks, buying some time.

“I dunno, man, I’m just blessed, or something. And—what is there to know, anyway? Is this, like, a thing?”

Jack rolls his eyes. “No. It’s. not a thing. It’s just. me.”

“Cool,” says Shitty. A moment later, he adds, “Also, like, pretty sure Lardo has also guessed? But otherwise you’re probably fine, and you know neither of us will say anything.”

Jack is silent.

Shitty elbows him gently. “You do know that, right? We won’t.”

Jack swallows. “Yeah. I—yeah. Thanks.” He presses his head down on Shitty’s to underscore his gratitude. Because he is grateful.

They have been sitting like that for who knows how long (not too long, Jack thinks, but he kind of spaced out, so) when Shitty breaks the silence.

“So, you wanna talk about the ‘love and goodness in your heart’ part of this, or…?”

And Jack does, is the thing. He nods gently, careful not to jostle Shitty’s own head too much, and manages an “mhmm,” but he doesn’t get any further.

After a couple beats Shitty asks, “You want questions?”

Thank goodness for Shitty.

“Please,” Jack answers. They have a system. Jack… has trouble talking, sometimes, but he can usually answer questions, which Shitty figured out a long time ago and is always willing to work with. He’s so patient, and Jack—Jack is really lucky.

“Ummm,” Shitty says, trying to decide where to start. “How… long? I guess? Like, when did you… realize you liked him?”

“Really?” Jack mumbles. No softball questions here.

“I mean—” Shitty starts to backpedal.

“October,” Jack says, saving him.

“Shit. Well, yeah, if it took me this long to pin it down, I definitely don’t think any of the guys know.”

Jack nods again, but doesn’t know what else to say to that. A moment later, Shitty tries again.

“Are you… okay? I mean, this is actually a good thing, right? Fuck, I probably should have asked that sooner.”

“I…” Jack tries to figure out what to say. “Yeah. I think so. Maybe?” Because Bitty makes Jack happy, which is a good thing, even if it complicates a lot of other things, too. It has taken Jack some time to come to grips with this particular cognitive dissonance, but he is trying.

“Okay. Good,” says Shitty. “I mean, yeah, I’m not saying it’s that simple, but…”

“Yeah.” Jack sits up and shrugs, nodding. He reminds himself that complex relationships are not inherently bad.

Shitty pulls his knees up to his chest and wraps his arms around them. After a few moments of silence, he asks, “Are you… worried about anything in particular?”

“I. don’t think so.” In general, yes. Obviously. But in particular…

He’s not really afraid of Bitty reacting badly—he could say no, if Jack ever decides to say anything, but Jack isn’t afraid of that, even if it would hurt. Their friends finding out… well. Jack wouldn’t look forward to the chirping, but in a way that could kind of be nice. And it’s a little late to worry about his parents, whose chirping isn’t exactly pleasant but it’s not unpleasant either. So.

Jack shrugs, summing it all up to himself and trying to decide what else he needs to say. It’s just. Everything else—everyone else—is out of his control, so it’s nothing in particular. He doesn’t say anything more.

Shitty nods, still facing forward to keep some pressure off Jack. “Okay. You’ll let me know if you need something?” It’s phrased as a question, but it’s intoned as a statement. Sometimes that sort of thing is condescending, but right now it’s a comfort, knowing Shitty wants Jack to take his help for granted.

Jack reaches over to squeeze Shitty’s knee. “Yeah.” Seriously, Jack is so lucky.

When Shitty realizes that Jack isn’t going to say anything more, he elbows Jack in the arm so that Jack will look at him. “Time for the sleepover questions?” he asks, grinning and raising his eyebrows.

Jack presses his lips together and sighs, long-suffering.

Shitty’s eyebrows fall. “Stop me if you want, man, you know that.”

“…Yeah. I know,” Jack promises.

Shitty takes that as the permission it is. “But like. Did you have a Moment Of Clarity? Or did you not put it together until I sat you down here? What’s the deal?”

Jack can hear the capital letters in Shitty’s voice, and feels like he ought to be offended at the notion that it was only Shitty’s presence that allowed Jack to understand his own life. However, Jack has also been living his own life for the past twenty-four years and, yeah, sometimes he needs someone to do that for him.

Also, in fairness, it did take someone else asking about his feelings for Jack to start putting it together, though that was his parents, not Shitty (who is, to be honest, usually very good at it).

But the point is. “…Um. Neither?”

Like, yeah, his parents said something when they visited, but it still took Jack several hours to realize that they were right. It wasn’t really a Moment Of Clarity (to use Shitty’s line) like he’d had when Bitty went down during the playoffs. Which… was just as well. The sudden knowledge that Eric Bittle, exuberant winger, had somehow become Bitty, important friend, was… overwhelming. To say the least.

“Mmhm,” Shitty says, probably trying to plan his next question. “Wait, so duh, you said October. What happened in October? And have you known since then or what?”

“…Um.” Yeah, Jack really couldn’t expect that Shitty would let it go at that point. How is Jack going to play this now…

“Yes.” He has known since October, when his parents visited. Is Jack being intentionally difficult right now? Yes. But as nice as it is to have someone else to talk to about all this, Jack can already hear the chirps about hockeybot running “emotions dot whatever-you-call-a-program”, so. Shitty will have to work for all this information.

Shitty rolls his eyes but plays along. “Okay but why ‘yes’? You had a slow realization that… started or culminated in October?” he asks, as if it were one or the other.

“Neither?” Jack says. “Or both, I guess.” It took place entirely in, like, a day, so.

“So it started and ended in October. Because… he… did something? said something? wore something? …didn’t wear something?” Shitty waggles his eyebrows.

Jack rolls his eyes and hopes he’s not blushing, because please. It wouldn’t have been that.

“Well he’s not you,” Jack says, trying to regain some dignity. “And none of the above.”

Shitty tries again. “Because… a little sign popped up above his head and gradually filled itself in? I dunno, man. Is it bigger than a breadbox?”

Jack sighs. Shitty first used that line years ago, trying to ease the tension when Jack wasn’t able to make himself clear enough to allow Shitty to ask the right follow-up questions. It’s been a convenient code ever since, and a nice… reminder… that tough situations don’t have to be without humor.

But right now, Shitty doesn’t sound helpful or like he’s trying to make Jack’s life easier. He sounds more like he’s suggesting Jack either put up or shut up—if Jack really does want to keep this conversation going, he has to contribute, since Shitty knows he’s being a pain in the ass on purpose.

And, well. That’s fair. “…Fine. um. I… it was family weekend.” Jack closes his eyes, bracing for potential chirping.

“I, um. Once they brought it up I still had to think about it for a while, but. Um. So.”

Shitty knocks into Jack’s shoulder, and Jack opens his eyes to see Shitty grinning at him.

“Your parents are pretty great.”

Jack lets out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. “Yeah. They are.”

They sit in silence again for a couple of seconds, Shitty looking at something on Jack’s bookshelf and Jack looking at nothing in particular as he wonders what he did to deserve a friend like Shitty, before Shitty says slowly, “So… back to the original question, actually.” He turns back to Jack. “Are you doing anything about this? Are you going to?”

There’s a long pause while Jack tries to find both the answer and the words to explain it.

“…I… don’t know.” He pauses again, taking a breath. “Not… not yet. I don’t know.”

It’s not a very good answer, Jack doesn’t think, but it’s the best he can do.

Shitty elbows him gently, and Jack looks back at Shitty to realize he’s offering a fist bump, apparently satisfied. “Cool, bro.”

Jack manages to smile, just a little, and returns the fist bump.

“…Thanks.”

“Hey, you got it. Question is, you got time for some Orange or do you still need to do stuff?”

Well. Laundry isn’t going to happen at this point anyway, so.

“I have time.”


Jack should have seen this coming, too. He did, he supposes, but it didn’t help him any, and Shitty’s performance yesterday didn’t make him think of this, either. Oh well.

Lardo is standing in Jack’s doorway, and Jack figures he might as well get this over with. He gestures to his bed, and Lardo makes herself comfortable.

For lack of any better ideas, he says “…Hey, Lardo.”

“Yo.”

Lardo does not seem inclined to start the conversation she clearly means for them to have. Jack knows he is not going to win this, but he refuses to give up without a fight.

Lardo raises an eyebrow. Jack raises one back. It’s silent. Lardo raises her other one and tilts her head. Jack tries to look confused, and it probably works, even if she won’t believe him. They both keep quiet, and Lardo works her way through a series of increasingly complex facial expressions. Jack is not even sure that most of them mean anything, actually (beyond give it up, Zimmermann, which is clearly the underlying message of the whole production).

Jack merely stares at her, eyes occasionally drifting to track the clock as it crawls toward noon, no longer trying to show any emotion at all.

Which does absolutely no good. Despite the hockeybot face, Lardo is unmoved and unimpressed. Eventually, she wins. As always.

Jack sighs. “…Is this about Bittle?”

It comes out more as a statement than a question, but Lardo answers by making an A-OK symbol with her hand. Bingo, says her face.

Jack tries one last time to escape this clearly inevitable conversation. “Is this really necessary?”

Lardo shrugs with one shoulder, closing her eyes calmly. “Whatever you want it to be, bud. But also like, Bitty doesn’t have anyone else to give the shovel talk on his behalf, so…” She opens her eyes again, looking at him expectantly.

“…Fine.” Jack moves to sit next to Lardo on his bed. “Um. I don’t know what you want me to say.”

Lardo waits for a minute, presumably to see if he’ll continue, before she gives in. “Okay. I mean, first of all, are you okay? You look… happy, with him, but sometimes also worried. Which is fine, but let’s start there.”

Jack takes a deep breath and holds it for a second before letting it out slowly.

“I… yeah.” She’s right, he does. But it’s not that simple, and she knows that as well as Shitty. “I mean.” Jack looks at Lardo. “You know.”

He looks away again. “It’s… things are complicated.” To say the least. “But. being around him. um. It’s… it’s nice.”

Jack wishes he were as good at coming up with words to express himself as Shitty, or… most people, really. Nice is a good descriptor of plenty of things, but doesn’t begin to sum this up.

Lardo waits again, but Jack just… can’t find better words.

“Okay, good. So, Cap, you know I got your back no matter what, but…” Lardo sits up, still looking at Jack. “How serious are you?”

And… well. That’s… a good question. And not one Jack exactly has an answer for. Because it’s not—how Jack feels isn’t—Jack doesn’t know if his feelings are even what matters.

“…I mean. I don’t know if… if I can…” He doesn’t know how to finish that sentence, so he tries again. “I’m serious, but. I don’t know.” It still doesn’t explain things properly, but Lardo nods, apparently understanding what he can’t find the words to say, at least in part.

It’s not just about Jack himself, is the thing—there would already be more than enough to worry about if that were all, but he’s not the only one whose feelings need to be considered here. If nothing ever happens—if nothing can happen—it will hurt Jack, but… if Jack makes a decision and then goes back on it… he can’t only consider his own feelings here, because if he screws this up he’s not the only one who’ll be hurt. He’s not sure how to say that part either.

“And that’s—it’s for him as much as—he deserves better than…” He trails off, unsatisfied, and shrugs stiffly. It’s close, but that’s not quite what he means, and he doesn’t know how to say what he does.

Lardo shifts around on the bed a little. “Good. I mean, don’t get me wrong, he would be lucky to have you—”

Jack makes a quiet noise of disbelief before he can stop himself.

“—but I’m glad you’re thinking that carefully,” Lardo finishes.

“Yeah. No. I know,” Jack says. “It’s—I’ve been thinking about it a lot.”

Lardo punches his arm gently, rolling her eyes. “Oh, get that look off your face, we both know you’re sweet as pie to people you respect.” Softening her expression, she looks straight at Jack. “And you do, so clearly, respect him. But just…”

Lardo trails off for a little and looks away. Jack gives her the time she needs to get her thoughts together.

When she finally speaks, it’s more slowly than before, like she’s still debating what she wants to say as she says it. “Respect him enough—do him the courtesy of letting him make his own choices.” Her voice sounds a little different, even aside from the speed of her speech.

Staring across the room, Lardo keeps talking. “Like—I don’t know if he likes you like that. I don’t know if you could woo him and win him over. I don’t know if you want to. But… whatever you decide to do, do it because you want to, okay? Don’t try to predict what will make him happy or decide what is or isn’t worth it for him. Relationships—friendships included—take two people, yeah?”

Lardo slumps down as she finishes speaking, still not making eye contact. Jack is pretty sure that was not just about him and Bitty, but everything she said is still true and still important.

Jack takes a deep breath. “I… yeah. No. I know. That’s not—I’m not trying to. I’m just… trying to figure out what I can… if I can even offer that choice to him. I guess.” That still isn’t perfect, but it’s a lot better than what he’d managed to say before, he thinks.

He coughs. “And… um. If you ever need to talk…”

Lardo smiles thinly but genuinely. “I know you got my back, Cap.” She finally looks up at him again. “And yeah, good. You do good. Just. Making sure.”

Jack squeezes her shoulder gently. “Yeah. I know you are. Thank you. for. keeping on me.”

Lardo squeezes his forearm in thanks, then takes a deep breath of her own and taps her legs with her palms, ba-dum-dum, to wrap things up.

“So. Anyway. You fuck things up, I’ll be on you faster than a slapshot. But you won’t.”

Jack wishes he were as confident of that as she seems to be, and he’s grateful both for the apparent confidence and the promise. “Well. I’ll try, but. Good.”

Lardo elbows him and gives him a Look clearly meant to indicate that he should stop being so hard on himself. Which… well. Easier said than done, but.

Lardo’s voice cuts through his thoughts. “You want a hug?”

Jack thinks about suggesting they get lunch, but… that can wait a little longer.

“Yes.” He really does.


Samwell Sports @SamwellSports · Feb 2
Men’s Hockey captain Jack Zimmermann nominated for prestigious Hobey Baker Award http://samwell.edu/news/athletics/…


Bitty sets his bag on the kitchen table and stops scrolling through his twitter feed. He stares for a moment, then clicks the link and pulls out a chair. Lunch can wait a few minutes.

Samwell men’s ice hockey captain Jack Zimmermann joins the growing list of nominees for the NCAA Hobey Baker Memorial Award, the most prestigious collegiate ice hockey award.

Per hobeybaker.com,“[w]inners are chosen not for raw skill or stats or character alone, though those are important. They are selected for everything they do.”

“Everything” includes strength and character (qualities like courage, honor, and humility), contributions to their team, skills in all aspects of the sport of hockey, and outstanding academic work and sportsmanship.

Student-athletes are nominated by head coaches throughout the NCAA. Zimmermann was “obviously” among Samwell coach Barry Hall’s three nominations this year.

“Jack’s a good guy,” said Hall. “He’s a hard worker, a great leader, and he’s been nothing but a blessing to our program in his years here.” Zimmermann will graduate this spring with a B.A. in American History.

The lengthy list of nominees will be reduced to the top ten on March 19 based on voting by fans, then further narrowed through voting by fans and a selection committee.

Show your support and vote for Zimmermann here.

Bitty swipes his thumb across the screen to reach the top of the page again. “Bless his heart, humility is right…” he grouses under his breath.

He double-clicks and switches to twitter.

I guess Jack meets the humility criteria for the Hobey Baker Award since he forgot to mention to anyone he was nominated for it.

Like, surely Jack knew about this? Hall would have told him, Bitty is sure. This boy, honestly.

The tweet is too long to link to the article, but rewording or cutting it down will take forever, so he doesn’t even try. People can google. He hits tweet.

Bitty’s stomach grumbles, and right, yes, he came here to get lunch. But—he should see if Jack is home. Maybe he can congratulate him properly with some good food.

He pockets his phone and makes his way upstairs, heading first to his own room to drop off his backpack and plug his phone in to charge. Jack’s door is closed, so Bitty knocks.

“It’s open!” Jack calls. Bitty turns the handle and pushes open the door.

“Jack Laurent Zimmermann!” Bitty starts loudly, intending to give him an earful about the appropriate methods of sharing good news with one’s friends, but he takes in the scene in front of him and stops.

Lardo and Jack are curled together on Jack’s bed, and there is no computer or book or phone screen in sight to suggest that they were watching something or reading together. Are they okay? They—weird silent bro time is, like, super normal for them, but usually it’s the background to some other activity, and it rarely involves cuddling unless they’re trying to look at the same thing.

“…That’s my name,” Jack says, expectantly.

“Sorry,” Bitty mumbles, habitually, then raises his voice again. “Mr. Zimmermann, how is it that I just found out you were nominated for the Hobey Baker from twitter??

“It’s on twitter?” Jack asks, as if that is the surprising part of this situation.

“‘It’s on twitter’—yes, it’s on twitter!” Bitty rolls his eyes. “Guess that answers whether you knew about it. They wrote up a thing on the Samwell website! Weren’t you gonna say something? Bless your heart.”

“Oh.”

“‘Oh’?” Bitty asks.

Jack shrugs. “I just. It’s not going to be me, you know? It’s probably going to be that kid from BU or that goalie from UND… Didn’t seem worth mentioning.”

Bitty buzzes his lips impatiently. “It’s an honor just to be nominated, anyway, and you totally deserve it. We are too gonna mention it, Lord.”

Jack tilts his head in surrender. Lardo, who is just watching this whole exchange speculatively in a way Bitty doesn’t much want to examine just now, smirks so slightly Bitty almost thinks he’s imagining it.

Bitty clears his throat when it becomes clear no one else is going to say anything. “So, ah, have y’all had lunch yet?”

They both shake their heads, and Lardo says, “No, but we should.”

“Well, let’s go, then. Jack, what should I make? We’re celebratin’ you, likely winner or not!”

Bitty crosses his arms, leans against the doorframe, and waits for the other two to get off the bed, making a note in the back of his mind to bake them both something nice tomorrow.

“Bittle, you really don’t have to—” Jack insists as he pushes Lardo up and off the bed.

Bitty uncrosses his arms and pokes a finger in Jack’s direction. “No, you don’t have to act like things ain’t worth celebratin’. You can be proud of this! Now pick something before I give your choice to Lardo.”

Lardo snorts as she brushes past Bitty and leads the way downstairs. Jack rolls his eyes and scoots off the bed, shooing Bitty into the hall and following him out.

“Yes, O royal kitchen chief,” Jack deadpans as he closes his door, but he still doesn’t answer the question.

Ahead of Jack on the stairs, Bitty smiles. “You gonna answer sometime today or what?”

Entering the kitchen and waiting for a reply, Bitty walks over to the pantry and begins looking for pretzels and mentally running through the ingredients for Lardo’s favorite mini pies, too, to make sure he has them all. He can’t remember if he used up his Karo last time or not.

“Uhhhh…” Jack finally says, following, “that peanut stir-fry thing you make sometimes?”

Pretzels—check. Karo—check. Peanuts for stir-fry—check. “You got it, Jack.”


The next day is Tuesday again, and honestly, Bitty thinks, he liked last Tuesday better. Yesterday, the groundhog saw his shadow, and while Bitty is so not in the mood for six more weeks of blizzards, the two days without class last week were quite welcome.

Today, Bitty has been to class, has been working on his homework, and has been making good on his promise to himself to stress-bake for Jack and Lardo, since they don’t do it for themselves.

The current question under discussion, as he chops up pecans for Lardo’s pies, is “why do people have to graduate?”, and the question in Bitty’s mind is “how would bleeding cow hearts express that?”, but he knows better than to ask Lardo for explanations he doesn’t want.

Instead, he comments on her texture choices and they argue about the latest episode of Once Upon A Time. While the pie crust is chilling, Bitty starts pulling the next set of ingredients out of the pantry, only to discover that the mostly-full bag of pretzels he’d seen yesterday has been more or less reduced to salt and dust.

“Greaaaat. I thought I might not have to go to the store for these…”

Lardo looks over and catches sight of the bag in his hand. “Oops. That… might have been me and Shitty,” she says. “The munchies were strong last night.”

Bitty rolls his eyes. “Y’all could at least not put away the empty bag!”

“I’ll swing by Stop & Shop on my way to the studio later,” she promises, looking suitably chastised. “Is there anything else I can grab for you while I’m there? And is tomorrow morning soon enough to bring it back here?”

“Mmhm. Thanks, Lardo,” Bitty says. “Maybe just grab a few bags so they can’t all disappear too fast.” He raises his eyebrows and purses his lips, and she laughs. Good.

Graduation is… a ways away. Laughing is now.

“And yeah,” he adds, “tomorrow is good. You could just bring them to practice unless you’re coming over here in particular.”

She waves him off. “When am I not coming over here, dude?”

Which—fair. Bitty shrugs. “Thanks.”

She waves him off again, and fixes him with a look he can only figure means “what have I told you about paying for all the food you cook?” He doesn’t argue.

Instead, he pulls out a mixing bowl and sweeps all the chopped pecans into it, then starts measuring out the Karo and the spices.

“So how many cow hearts do you think will fit in your painting?”


Bitty is in bed that night, scrolling through twitter on his phone when he sneezes, rather violently. He’s reaching for a tissue when Jack calls from across the hall to him. “Bless you.”

Bitty lies back down as Jack continues. “You should go to sleep, Bittle. We have practice in the morning.”

Bitty raises his head from his pillow and lowers his phone.

You should go to sleep for practice in the morning,” he calls back petulantly, without really thinking. He’s just about to apologize when he hears Jack laugh. Which… wasn’t what Bitty intended, but… it’s good. Jack laughing. It’s good.

Bitty stays quiet.

He glances at the time, and it’s past one in the morning—and his phone battery is way lower than he realized, whoops. Why is Jack even awake, though? He’s almost never up this late, especially if he’s not hanging out with their friends.

Bitty smiles to himself and tweets the exchange, more out of habit than anything else, and then sees his previous tweets about Coach and Valentine’s Day, and… kind of regrets it.

Not that what Jack said didn’t deserve to be shared, but now he’s thinking about that conversation with Coach again, which he really didn’t need right now.

He’d told the truth when he said he didn’t have any plans for Valentine’s Day aside from the game that afternoon (and maybe keeping an eye on his teammates at the party that night, if there is one, though he he hadn’t bothered mentioning that). It’s not that he doesn’t want to have plans for the day that don’t involve hockey, though, even if… well. Even if he probably still wouldn’t tell Coach that he did.

Or—well. Maybe saying he doesn’t want to have plans that don’t involve hockey isn’t completely true.

After all, his dream plans right now would still kind of involve hockey, because they’d involve Jack, and separating Jack from hockey entirely is impossible, not that Bitty would actually want to, anyway.

And—ugh, why is he even thinking about this?? This is exactly what he didn’t want to be thinking about right now, any more than he wanted to be thinking about it during the conversation with Coach earlier.

Bitty turns onto his back, then sits up an inch or two, just so he can flop back onto the pillow heavily and let out a deep sigh. He shoves his phone under his pillow without looking, the screen already gone dark, and closes his eyes. He’ll charge it again after practice.

Whatever. He’s going to go to sleep now—just like Jack said, his stupid brain sees fit to point out—and in the morning he’ll go to practice, and he will not be thinking about this, and everything will be fine.

He sighs again and rolls over, but despite everything, in the end it’s not actually long before Bitty falls asleep.


Jack messes with the guys, but he really does know who Taylor Swift is, and he can identify more of her songs by their first few bars than anyone would believe. (Getting the title right is another matter, but he could start singing and get there eventually.) The one that’s playing in the kitchen on Wednesday afternoon is called “Innocent”, Jack is pretty sure. He’s liked it ever since Shitty put it on a playlist he made for Jack as a Hanukkah present their frog year, and it… has spoken to him. So thanks, Shitty.

Jack is standing in the doorway between the hall and the kitchen, flipping through the pictures on his camera and snickering quietly as Shitty comes up with increasingly creative ways to tell his computer to go fuck itself.

Bitty’s phone, sitting in a bowl in the old sriracha cupboard, has now shifted to “22”, and Bitty tries to dance and sing along as he makes some new kind of cookie. (Jack can tell it’s new because today’s episode of the Tswift Shuffle Singalong is interrupted by a lot more muttering and jabbing at his phone than usual.)

Jack raises the camera and gets something resembling a still life shot of the flour, sugar, and… is that maple syrup, laid out on the counter? It’s not the stuff Jack got him, though. Huh.

He likes how the light from the window bounces off the glass of the containers, but he should try again, tighter.

He steps closer to Bitty and takes the shot again. Just then, Bitty turns around and yelps, not having heard Jack approach.

“Oh! Sorry,” says Jack.

“Lord almighty, you know how to scare a body,” is Bitty’s response, and it’s all Jack can do not to laugh outright. It’s just—so Bitty. And not at him but just. because of him, because he just. makes Jack happy.

Instead, Jack takes a step back and manages another “sorry.” Then he clears his throat and asks, “What are you making, anyway? I’ve never seen you with real maple syrup for anything but apple pies.”

“You’ll see…” Bitty teases, his voice a delightful sing-song, turning back around. And Jack is sure he will, and sure that the result will be delicious, but he can’t stop himself. He’s not sure if it’s chirping or whining, or maybe just trying to see what happens, but…

“Where did you get that syrup, anyway?” The first time Jack had caught Bitty baking with maple syrup, it wasn’t Aunt Jemima’s, but it wasn’t far from it. Some of the lightest stuff Jack had seen designated “amber” in ages—Jack might have called it golden, honestly. And Jack has standards, okay? Friends don’t let friends use crappy syrup, especially in New England or Canada.

So.

So Jack had said as much, and then made a point of getting some good dark syrup for him. Bitty had been glad to know, and had even promised to get some good Georgia pecans for Jack in return. (And they had been good pecans.)

But now Bitty’s got some bottle with a label Jack doesn’t recognize, and he could be wrong but it looks like the label reads amber again.

Bitty turns around, biting his lip and looking regretful. “I ran out of the stuff you got for me, and I know you said dark was better than amber, but this was all I could find on short notice.”

Jack nods and makes a mental note to borrow Shitty’s car for a run to Whole Foods in the near future.

Speaking of whom—“Oh, c’mon, Captain Canada.” Shitty looks up from his thesis. “You know perfectly well that anything Bits makes will taste like manna from heaven.”

Jack narrows his eyes. “But better if he uses the darker syrup, so it actually tastes like maple and not just a cavity-forming amount of sugar.”

“…That is the only amount of sugar worth having,” Shitty argues.

Jack stares up at the sky. Or ceiling, actually, but it’s less dramatic when you put it that way. “I’m surrounded by heathens.”

Shitty makes a “pffft” sound that means he’s pretending not to laugh. Bitty snorts. Mission accomplished.

“So, do you have strong feelings about brands of pretzels, too?” Bitty asks, very sarcastic. Jack glances over, surprised to hear such an intentional chirp. Bitty is looking at him, trying to keep a straight face and not completely succeeding.

“…You heard that explanation. Twice, now. And you agreed the pie was better with the darker syrup.” Jack pauses, still not showing his own amusement. “…But yes, since you ask. Snyder’s all the way.” He gestures approvingly at the bag on the counter. Truthfully, Jack couldn’t name another brand of pretzels right now if you offered him a one-way rookie contract to… almost any team at all, but no one needs to know that.

Bitty laughs, scrunching up his nose. Jack looks away a second too late, but smiles slightly.

Shitty catches Jack’s attention while Bitty gets back to adding the pretzels to whatever he’s making. As soon as they make eye contact, Shitty points two fingers at his own eyes and then points them at Jack, as if to say I see what you’re doing. Jack glances at Bitty quickly to make sure he’s not looking, then flips Shitty off with probably less harsh a scowl than he actually intended and goes back to his camera.

He wants to take some more still life kind of shots, just things in the kitchen, slice-of-life kind of things, but the zoom is weird. He fiddles with the lens and the digital settings, turns it off and on again, but still isn’t satisfied. He stops before he starts hitting buttons like Chowder playing Smash Bros.

“Ugh.”

Bitty turns away from the cookie dough he’s rolling out. “What’s wrong, Jack?” he asks, sounding legitimately concerned.

“Huh? Oh—no, I’m fine.” Jack hastens to reassure him. “I just. The camera.”

“Lemme see?” Shitty offers. “What’s wrong with it?”

“It’s the zoom. But no, I think I’ve got it.” Jack has not, in fact, got it, but he doesn’t trust Shitty near his camera as far as he can throw him. He won’t fix the settings, probably, and he will snoop through the pictures. So.

Jack fiddles a little more and is eventually satisfied for the time being. It still doesn’t look quite right, but at this point maybe he’s imagining it. He’ll ask his professor tomorrow.

“Hey, Bittle, can I get a picture of your cookie dough?”

“Uh, yeah, sure, Jack!” Bitty says, a little surprised. He steps back, and Jack moves in to take a picture of—

“Bittle. Are you serious.”

Jack turns around and sees Bitty, who—should not look embarrassed? (He does look embarrassed, right? That’s why he won’t look at Jack?) Shit. Jack replays his words, and they sound pretty judgmental instead of impressed.

“Ah, no, sorry. Those are incredible, Bittle! I’ve never seen hockey stick cookies before.” Jack tries to sound as genuinely awed as possible.

Now Bitty looks up, though he’s still fussing with the hair at the back of his neck.

“Really?”

It takes Jack a moment to remember that he is supposed to respond. He coughs. “Yeah. Really. I’ll, um.” He turns to actually take the picture and feels Shitty’s eyes on him. Great.

The pictures are okay, though, and Jack is happy. He steps back and lets Bitty return to work. The dancing is on hold because this song just doesn’t have a beat for it. It’s the one about break-ups and tetanus—“Bad Blood”, that’s the title. Jack has always been impressed with the word play, and the musical style is different from her norm. It’s good.

Jack and Bitty are both humming along with the final chorus when Shitty emits a wordless shriek-gurgle of frustration.

“What’s your problem?” Bitty asks, now lifting the cookies onto a baking sheet.

Shitty rocks his chair back onto two legs and knots his hands in his hair. “The stupid fucking footnotes and the stupid fucking graphs and the way I have to move them every time I edit a paragraph. Microsoft Word can go take a hike through Mordor like the useless fucking piece of malware that it is!!”

“Oh,” Jack says mildly. “Are the graphs moving with the text or did you fix their position on the page?”

Shitty stares at him like he just said he was planning to quit hockey and become a used car salesman. “They’re… not moving…?”

Jack lets his camera hang down and leans over Shitty’s shoulder to reach the trackpad. “Yeah, if you click on the picture you can—yeah, you started right, with the text wrapping, that’s good. But look down at the bottom of that menu, you can tell it to move with the text, so that it anchors itself to the paragraph you want it to, rather than a position on specific page.”

Shitty turns and raises one eyebrow dramatically. “Well, would you look at that? Zimmermann with the twenty-first century skills.”

“Hey!” Jack punches Shitty in the shoulder, a little harder than could be strictly termed affectionately. “I’m about to graduate too, Shitty. I can use Microsoft Word.”

“Well, so can I!” says Shitty. “Or so I thought. Thanks, bro.”

Bitty laughs again as he opens the oven and slides his tray of cookies in, and he sounds delighted. Jack makes a questioning noise (curious rather than displeased), but Bitty doesn’t say anything until the oven door is closed.

“Well, if you’re so good at computers now,” Bitty says, reaching over the stove to the timer, “you should help me figure out why youtube keeps offsetting my audio tracks. Half the time it seems like the words I say are near three seconds ahead of my mouth moving, but in the storyboard the audio and the thumbnails all have the same timestamps, and it’s driving me up a creek!”

Jack blinks at Bitty, who is now trying his very hardest to look earnest as he starts to roll out the next batch of dough.

“…I think those were all words I know, but what does that mean?” Jack asks, straight-faced. “Also, don’t you need a boat for a creek?”

Bitty snorts, reaching for the rolling pin.

“And the universe returns to normal,” Shitty says, grinning at Jack.

Jack is pretty sure Shitty hasn’t written one more word since the conversation about syrup quality started, if not before that. Shitty has a deadline soon. Jack is nothing if not a helpful friend. He starts taking pictures of Shitty while Bitty continues to roll out the dough.

“Ey, Zimmermann, cut it out!” Shitty demands. “I’m working here!”

“Yeah, and I’m Bobby Orr. I don’t think you’ve added a single footnote or fixed a single graph, even though I generously gifted you with my wisdom.” Jack holds up a finger and makes a tsk sound. “Don’t you have a meeting about with your advisor in, like, an hour and a half?”

Shitty turns around in his chair, both middle fingers raised. “Well, it’s awful hard to operate a computer when you cause me to keep my hands like this, fucker.”

Click. That picture belongs on someone’s computer desktop. Maybe not Jack’s (call him paranoid). Maybe Shitty’s own, or maybe Lardo’s. A problem for later. His point seems to have been made, as Shitty is actually returning to work.

Behind Jack, the sound of the rolling pin has been replaced by ill-hidden giggles. Jack looks over at Bitty, camera and eyebrows both raised as if to remind him you’re next.

Click. He gets one of Bitty reaching for the cookie cutter. Where did Bitty even find a hockey-stick-shaped cookie cutter?

photo of Bitty leaning over the kitchen table, cutting out hockey stick-shaped cookies

Click. Another picture; this one of Bitty turning around to cut out the next batch of cookies. (Jack kind of maybe a little bit wants to taste one of the dough scraps, but he shouldn’t, and he wants to taste the cookies when they’re done, how they’re meant to be, first. He zooms in and captures Bitty’s fingers gathering the scraps up, instead.)

“Oh, Jack, I’m a mess!” Bitty complains, half-heartedly throwing his other hand up in front of his face.

You’re just fine, Jack thinks, but the words don’t quite make it past his lips. Still, if he thought Bitty were serious, Jack would quit. But Bitty probably couldn’t keep his face straight right now for all the butter in a Stop & Shop (and he’s not even trying) and Jack—wants this. This moment. He just shakes his head at Bitty.

Bitty waves him off a little more insistently, and Jack retreats back to the doorway so that Bitty will feel less weird. Jack takes a couple more pictures when Bitty goes back to cutting out his cookies.

It’s not silent—or even that quiet, really, but it is calm for a few minutes. Shitty’s typing isn’t particularly aggressive, and Bitty is humming softly as he cuts out the cookies, rather than singing along. Jack holds his camera like he’s looking at the pictures he’s already taken, but instead just… listens to the song playing now. “Long Live”, he’s pretty sure it’s called?

Around the line about “fighting dragons”, he starts wondering. He couldn’t make a playlist the way Shitty had for him, or the way Bitty or… probably any of their friends could, but he could probably make a photo montage set to this song for Shitty for graduation.

He files that away to think about (and to probably work on) later and goes back to enjoying the song.

The music shifts again as Bitty starts to run dishwater into the mixing bowl and collect everything into the sink. DUM sssit DUM ssidditt da DUM sssit DUM ssidditt. Jack knows this cymbal crash pattern best of any Tswift song out there, at this point.

I stay out too late, she sings.

“Got nothin’ in my braaaaiiin,” Bitty joins in, not as in tune but twice as enthusiastic.

At least, that’s what people saaaay, mm-mm. Jack sings along in his head, smiling openly and bopping around ever so slightly to the beat of the song.

Bitty sings and dances through the first two verses, wiping down the table and gathering up what Jack now recognizes as the ingredients for cookie icing. (Not frosting, mind you. He’d heard that lecture, and there wasn’t a speck of shortening to be found in this topping, so not frosting.)

Jack watches through his camera lens as Bitty stands at the counter and whisks the milk and sugar together. He takes half a dozen pictures of Bitty watching the icing drip into the bowl, testing the consistency. He turns and catches a shot of Shitty in profile, smiling slightly and tapping his trackpad in time to the music.

At the second chorus, Bitty puts the second tray of cookies into the oven, resetting the timer, and takes the finished batch out to cool, singing over the recording that “the bakers gonna bake, bake, bake, bake, bake.”

Jack can’t help but call back, aloud, that “the skaters gonna skate, skate, skate, skate, skate,” and then, as Bitty sets the tray of cookies down on the stove, they both agree that they’re “just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake,” and—

Whatever referent Jack had ever had for the word shimmy goes out of his head right then and there, because Bitty—Bitty has his hands and forearms casually outstretched, wiggling his shoulders and rocking forward and back on his feet, and this—this is the kind of dancing Jack has never seen at Winter Screw or any homecoming or club. There is no intent but… joy? maybe? is the emotion Jack is seeing? And it’s—Jack appreciates it.

Then the instrumentals drop and the clapping starts, and Bitty speaks right along as Taylor warns them about liars and dirty dirty cheats. (Those two lines are some of why this is one of Jack’s favorite of her songs. Really, the whole song is why it’s one of his favorite songs, but. He tries to remember not to get down and out too much.)

Jack tracks Bitty moving from the stove to Shitty’s chair, twisting on the balls and heels of his feet. Bitty leans over Shitty’s shoulder and presses something on his keyboard (save, presumably) just as he says even louder than before, “And to the fella over there with the hella good hair, won’t you come on over, baby? We can shake, shake, shake…”

Bitty pulls Shitty up out of his seat, and they start to dance together as the chorus blasts in again. It’s some kind of hand-holding, up-over-each-other’s-head, swing-and-dip fiasco, and it looks fun. Jack will have to get one of them to teach him that sometime. Right now he’s too busy with the camera in front of his face, trying to put some of this fun onto, well, not paper yet, but. a computer disk.

Before the song winds all the way down, Shitty leans in Bitty up and spins him around, off the ground (only a little; the kitchen’s crowded), and when he sets him down, Jack can see them both grinning wildly. Then, as the chorus kicks in for what Jack is pretty sure is the final time, Shitty saunters over to Jack, takes the camera from him and leaves it to hang from Jack’s neck, seizing Jack’s hands in his own and pulling him into a simplified version of the dance he had been doing with Bitty. Jack finds a grin of his own, dancing along, and he even joins the other two in singing the last few lines.

The song ends, and they all stop moving, keep laughing, start catching their breath.

Jack is happy. This is normal. (Which still sometimes feels strange.) This is such a (bizarrely) everyday moment in his life these days, and such moments are numbered now, but this is normal, and Jack is happy, and Jack looks at the low-dipping sun coming in the window and glancing off Bitty’s fair hair, and—for the first time, Jack lets himself think, maybe.

A quieter song comes on in the background, and Bitty sways his head in time to the intro as he moves the finished cookies from the stove off the baking sheet onto the cooling racks he’s set up on the table. The volume and the intensity of the beat pick up, and this isn’t one of the ones Jack knows very well, so he leans back on the wall to watch as Bitty resumes dancing, not as all-out this time. Shitty sits down, still smiling, and starts working again.

Jack tries to follow the lyrics, but they’re kind of hard to understand, and Bitty doesn’t sing the first few, so Jack is lost until he hears something about mascara in a bathroom. He’s still lost, but Bitty comes in strong just then, as he’s shaking his hips and scrubbing cookie dough out of a mixing bowl, “Honey, life is just a classroom…”

Which—is a sentiment Jack needs to file away for later consideration. But it’s the first part of this Bitty has seen important enough to say himself, so that’s probably something.

One breath later, Bitty is singing loudly, but he’s not shouting. He sounds sincere, and Jack tries his best to listen to the words as he hears them.

“’Cause, baby, I could build a castle out of all the bricks they threw at meeee…” Bitty sings, and Jack is struck by how hopeful that sounds, despite the implications.

“Every day is” something Jack can’t make out “but every night” something “is like a dreeeeam.” This sounds like the chorus, so hopefully it’ll be back soon. Or maybe he’ll ask Bitty when the song is over.

“Baby, we’re the” something, something. Something else Jack doesn’t quite get. “Heartbreak is the national anthem—We sing it proudly!”

And that’s the thing—Bitty does everything proudly. Well, maybe not every single thing, but…

He bakes pie after pie after cake after cookies after pie, because he loves to, because he’s proud of what he creates.

He grumbles and lashes out in frustration when he’s having trouble taking checks, but he gets up early to do extra practice because he wants to be better and he wants to be proud of his game.

He jumps and spins in hockey skates because he can, because it’s fun, because that was his first love on the ice and he doesn’t let himself or anyone else forget how proud he is of his skill.

He chases after all his friends like a mother hen, taking care of them however possible, because he’s proud of their accomplishments and proud to be their friend.

He came, hopeful, to this school where he could put himself in a position to build his castle and be proud of his own existence and make friends who can be proud of him, too.

And… he sings heartbreak proudly.

Jack thinks back to New Year’s Eve for a minute and—well. That’s the most heartbreak Jack has ever seen from Bitty. He usually keeps it under wraps, or jokes about it, or… pretty much anything but talk honestly about it.

And it’s not like Jack is unfamiliar. He keeps his own issues so far under wraps they probably look like mummies. At least, he used to. He’s getting better about that, in his own mind, anyway. It’s still not usually anyone else’s business.

But his heartbreak is different from Bitty’s. Kent—Kent broke his heart, no doubt about it. It wasn’t good, at the end. Or in much of the middle. But it wasn’t all bad all the time, and that’s—something Bitty has never experienced?

Bitty’s heartbreak comes from not knowing, from being denied opportunities that Jack took far too much advantage of. (That he let take advantage of him.)

And now… It’s not simple. There’s still graduation, still contracts and talks and his thesis to finish and decisions to make, and Jack might not know how to say anything to Bitty, and they’ll need to talk about Kent sooner or later, if he does say something, but things are so good right now, in this moment, and…

Jack wants.

The chorus has come around again, and Jack listens again as Bitty sings, hoping to fill in the parts he missed. He gets that “every day is like a battle, but every night” still something “is like a dream”, and that’s all he manages.

Bitty takes the last tray of cookies out of the oven and sets them to cool. He’ll save the icing for when the cookies won’t make it melt. Then he rinses out the last dish from the sink, sets it in the drainer, and gives himself over entirely to dancing, and—

Jack wants.

Every day will be its own kind of battle, and every night its own kind of dream (and Jack knows those can sometimes be nightmares), but it seems like it would be so much more enjoyable to share all those experiences with Bitty. And Jack wants to.

He wants to do it for himself, because Bitty makes him happy and Bitty makes him better. He wants to do it for Bitty, because Bitty asked him to, sort of, that night on skype, and he likes to think he makes Bitty happy, too.

He wants to give himself a better experience than he had with Kent, because Jack is better now and he can help himself. He wants to give Bitty a better experience than Jack had with Kent, because Jack has always been better and can help others.

As the song winds down, Jack catches one last phrase: We’re too busy dancin’, to get knocked off our feet. And that—Jack has always been too busy to stay on his own feet, it seems like.

But the last few years, that’s shifted a little, and he thinks, maybe, that dancing with a partner might help keep him up on his feet, too. It has to be worth a shot, anyway.

Jack looks around again. The sun hasn’t set yet, but it’s fallen behind the trees, casting weird shadows over the yard and the kitchen counter. Shitty is typing away at a reasonable pace, making headway on his thesis. Bitty is wearing an apron covered alternately in flour and dishwater, eyes closed and a smile on his face as he dances through the fade-out of the song.

Jack puts his eye to the viewfinder, and finds himself happy.

Click.

Chapter Text

Betsy beeps. Bitty opens her up and takes out his second batch of maple-pretzel hockey-stick cookies, setting it on the stove burners while he slides the third in to bake and sets the timer. Then he carries the freshly baked tray over to the cooling racks at the opposite end of the table from Shitty and sets it there to cool.

He picks up the first batch, now certainly cool enough to pull off the tray, and gently twists each cookie free before setting them all on the racks directly and taking the baking sheet back to the counter to load up with the last of the dough. There’s not really enough left to cut out a whole nother batch, but Bitty manages a couple, then shoves the remnants into a round-ish shape to make a scrap cookie.

He takes what’s left of the pretzel bits and tries to make a (◡‿◡✿) kind of face by pressing them into the top of the round cookie, but he’s not totally sure it will be recognizable after it bakes. Oh well. In the background Tswift welcomes him to New York, and Bitty is happy.

But. Now all the cookies are cut and ready to go in, the dishes are done but for the cookie sheets, and Bitty really can’t justify avoiding his physics problem set any longer.

He takes his apron off and catches Jack’s eye as he goes to hang it up. “I gotta go grab my computer and stuff,” Bitty says. “I should be back, but will you take those out and put the last tray in when the timer goes off if I’m not? Six minutes.”

Jack nods, smiling in that small way Bitty has taken a year to recognize. Sometimes Bitty thinks about how angry-slash-grumpy Jack always seemed when they first met, and he wonders how much was real and how much was just Bitty not knowing how to read him. But either way, they’re past that, now, so. It’s all good.

“Thanks, Jack,” says Bitty, then takes off upstairs. He needs to use the bathroom, and then he needs to take his computer and his physics book downstairs, make some coffee, and git ’er done.

Bitty is under his bed pulling his textbook out from the corner when he hears Jack’s voice come up the stairs.

“Bittle, you’re slow. You don’t even have your phone up there to get sucked into!”

Bitty is in a good enough mood that he merely rolls his eyes and doesn’t snipe back.

“Also could you grab the book off my desk for me when you come down?”

“Yep, no problem!” Bitty calls, wiggling out from under the bed and unplugging his computer. He drapes his charging cable around his neck, then takes his things with him as he goes in search of Jack’s book.

Jack’s door is open, but when Bitty reaches in to flip on the lights, nothing happens. He pushes the switch up and down a few times uselessly, then starts making his way carefully over to Jack’s desk, path lit only by Jack’s computer, the curtains pulled shut. It’s glowing brightly in the center of his desk, illuminating the surface well enough for Bitty to see a couple books.

But the screen catches Bitty’s attention—he didn’t think Jack did a lot of shopping, online or otherwise, but it’s displaying a… Star Trek book… on Amazon? It looks more academic than like a novel, but it’s still not something Bitty would have expected. Maybe it’s a gift for Shitty. Cultural influence of popular media sounds like a Shitty kind of book.

screenshot

Shit. Bitty shouldn’t be looking at this, anyway. He would hate if someone snooped through his computer like this. (He should probably remind Jack at some point to lock his screen when he’s not using the computer, but like. Later. So it won’t be clear that he was looking at—)

Hold up. Why is Jack’s “recently viewed” category full of… toaster ovens? This boy gets stranger by the second. But! Not snooping.

Bitty leans down closer to look at the books between the computer and the bed. He picks up Orr: My Story, and smiles; Jack was reading this on the bus the other day. Bitty had wondered if Jack ever read about anything besides hockey, history, or the history of hockey for pleasure. Apparently the answer is yes, because beneath it is… a comic book?

Y’know, it’s strange, because Jack is Bitty’s friend now. Best friend, arguably. (“Ridiculous crush”, too, but that can be dealt with at a later date. Like never.) But they’re friends.

And Bitty knows they haven’t been friends all that long in the grand scheme of things, and he knows there’s loads of stuff from Jack’s life before Samwell that he doesn’t know. But it’s still… jarring, maybe, to realize that there are things about Jack’s life now that Bitty doesn’t know, either.

Like, that there is a well-loved comic book. It’s called Astérix chez… something he can’t mentally pronounce, and the edges have torn a little, a whole chunk missing from the bottom right corner. And there’s a magic carpet on the cover! Who knew Jack read French magic carpet comics for fun?

Bitty chides himself. Surely there’s things his own friends don’t know about him, either. Lord knows enough weird thoughts float through his head in a day, and he doesn’t voice them. Plus—don’t s’pose anyone around here would guess the number of Boxcar Children books Bitty has in Madison, so.

Jack presumably meant for him to bring the Bobby Orr memoir, so Bitty scoops it up and adds it to his stack, heading back downstairs with his arms full. He has to tell Jack about the burnt out bulb.

He deposits his burdens on the table, then hands Jack’s book to him. “Your overhead light is out,” he says before turning back to the stove and picking up one of the first batch of cookies.

“Oh,” says Jack. “Yeah. Sorry. I should go get a new bulb. Thanks.” He hefts the book in his hand to indicate what he means.

“No problem!” says Bitty, turning the cookie over in his hand. It’s cool enough to ice now, and… Bitty still hasn’t even tried any of these to see if they turned out right. It can’t hurt to put his homework off a few more minutes.

“Oh. Are they ready?” Jack’s voice comes from just behind him, and Bitty starts slightly.

He turns around to find Jack looking over his shoulder at the cookies. “Oh! Yup! Well, they’re cool enough to ice, anyway, or the first batch is. The second batch is gonna need a while longer, I think.”

Jack is looking down at Bitty now, and still standing very close. It’s a little distracting. “Do you need help with that?”

“Uh… sure? Thank you,” Bitty says, turning back around to look for the icing. Where did he leave that?

Jack points wordlessly to the other counter. Bitty flushes a little, feeling silly, and ducks under his arm to get it, then brings the tray of cookies over to the table.

Bitty picks up the first cookie and looks at it for a minute.

“…Y’know, I haven’t actually tried these yet,” he points out, biting his lip. “I don’t know if they turned out well or…”

“I’m sure they’re fine, Bittle,” Jack says, and it is unfairly reassuring. He hasn’t tried them yet either, and he knows the maple flavor won’t be as strong as it should be, but Bitty smiles anyway.

“Well. Thank you, but… maybe we could split one, see how it is?” Bitty breaks the cookie in half, carefully—the texture seems okay, at least—and hands half to Jack, who takes it and immediately takes a bite.

His eyes go wide. “This is fantastic, Bittle. Did you come up with the recipe yourself?”

Bitty blinks. “Sort of. I mean, I got the idea from these cookies someone else made, but they didn’t have the maple flavor, and I didn’t have their recipe anyway, so I just… found the closest thing to what I thought those were, added the syrup, aaaand hoped it would work?”

He pauses and almost asks if Jack really thinks it’s okay, but decides just to find out himself. He takes a bite, and—yeah, they turned out really good. The maple isn’t as strong as it could be, but it’s there, and the pretzels go surprisingly well. The cookies are sweet, too, though not too much so, which is good—the icing won’t make the sweetness overpowering, but also the parts that won’t be iced will be just fine.

Jack has already finished his, but Bitty takes a minute longer, analyzing the taste and texture to see if there’s anything else he wants to try changing next time he makes these. Which will be happening, as soon as he can find better syrup. He can’t find any other flaws, though, so he pops the rest in his mouth, turns back to the table, and picks up the butter knives Jack had set there.

Then Bitty catches himself and puts the knife down again.

“Hang on,” he says, turning to Jack and putting a hand on his arm to get his attention.

Jack looks back, eyebrows raised questioningly, as Bitty gets a couple of baggies and a pair of scissors.

“Here,” Bitty says, cutting the ziplock sides off both baggies. “Decorating them’ll be easier this way.” He fills one with icing and snips a corner off the bottom before handing it to Jack carefully, then does the same with his own, and picks up a cookie.

He squeezes out a few thin lines onto the blade of the hockey stick, while Jack watches, then shifts how he’s holding it so Jack can see better. “See? tape!” Then he does the same to the top of the handle.

“It looks very nice,” Jack says. “You’re good at that.”

Bitty says nothing, but when he turns to smile his thanks, Jack meets his eye, his own lips turned softly upward.

There is largely a companionable silence. They chat a little about their food class, their teammates, their teammates taking the food class, and the classes they don’t share, but most of the time it’s quiet.

Bitty is content.

Both of them finish with a cookie at the same time and reach for more, but Bitty starts icing his immediately, and Jack… doesn’t. He stands still for a minute, before resuming more slowly.

“…We were talking about watching that documentary over break,” he says slowly, drawing careful diagonals across the blade of his cookie. “And I brought it with me, so we could—I mean, if, uh. If you still wanted. We don’t have to, obviously.” Jack finishes the handle and sets his cookie aside, then switches the icing bag to his other hand so that he can squeeze and flex the one that had been holding it.

“But I, uh, wasn’t thinking? It’s a seven-part series, so we wouldn’t—I mean, if you wanted to we could, but. If you wanted to just watch the first part, maybe?” He takes the icing back into his right hand and starts on the next cookie with his usual deliberate precision.

It’s Bitty’s turn to pause for a moment. Having a movie night with Jack, probably just the two of them, doesn’t sound like any better an idea than it did over break—if anything, it sounds like a worse idea, now that they’re standing about two inches apart, and a seven-part movie night…

—Actually… no. It sounds like a fine idea. Jack loves history, and Bitty did say he’d watch it, and if Jack is bringing it up now it probably means he really wants to, and it’ll be fine. They’ll just watch the first part, like Jack said. It’ll be fine. It’ll be great.

“That sounds nice. When were you thinking?”

Jack keeps icing the cookie. “…I could go get my laptop. Unless you have plans this afternoon?”

Only if by ‘plans’ you mean ‘sit in my room and waste my time watching youtube’… “No, I’m done with class for today. You?”

“Yeah. I have homework, but it’s still early.” Jack shrugs, trying to look casual, and Bitty spares half a thought to wonder why Jack would be uncomfortable, but then Jack is smiling, maybe even excited, and Bitty is smiling back.

Jack finishes the cookie he’s working on and sets it down carefully. “I’ll be right back.”


So.

Jack pulls the camera down from his face and adjusts the shutter speed, then peers through the viewfinder again, looking for a better angle of this tree on River Quad.

Yesterday Jack and Bitty watched the first episode of The War.

(The lighting here is all wrong, but whatever, it’s good practice, right? He presses the shutter.)

And. it was. good.

Well, the documentary was good, of course, but. The whole… thing, the whole experience was… good.

Jack sighs. Words are just… not.

(Okay, that one was a little better. Maybe… He could try some shots of the dorm there. Architecture is weird.)

But it’s fine, because it was good, and Jack is satisfied with that.

It was a little disappointing that Bitty had wanted to stay in the kitchen even after they were done with the cookies, but Jack couldn’t very well have pressed the idea of moving to one of their rooms without… showing too much.

(Ironically, he can’t show enough in this damn photo, nothing is coming out the way he sees it. Calisse.)

Jack is trying this. He wants this to work, and he is generally pretty confident that it will, but he needs to get his own feet under him before he can push Bitty. He is trying this.

(This being… a demonstration of his feelings. Which. is another thing. Having feelings.)


Jack knows he isn’t the most emotionally demonstrative guy out there, but he’s not—he does have emotions. And he has spent so much of his life alternately fighting the “hockeybot” joke and learning to laugh at it—preempt it, even. (It doesn’t hurt as much if he says it first.)

(And people have said said worse things, too.)

But sometimes. Jack believes them.

Well, Jack believed them. He… doesn’t, as much, now. He tries.

He didn’t use to like to think about it. Something wasn’t right. It was like he was living up to their perception of him, and he hated that. But he’d never really—he didn’t get crushes on people, not like his classmates and teammates did. Not as far as he could tell.

(There was a girl, once, when he was twelve. Elle had been his partner in his science class for two consecutive terms, and towards the end of the year, sometimes he thought he understood what other boys meant when they talked about girls.

((“Truth or dare?” Greg would suggest, and Jack would do his best to shrink and listen and choose dare if he had to. The dares were always, like, ‘go get a glass of water and hop on one foot while you bring it back’, or ‘squeeze some ketchup and mustard into a glass of water and drink it’. Not fun, but. Doable. And sometimes guys thought he was brave, doing that dumb shit.

Jack wasn’t brave.

Eddy always asked, every time they played, “Who do you like?” And never mind the first time when Jack didn’t know the implications of that verb in this context, but Eddy always phrased it that way, presupposing that you ‘liked’ anyone at all.

Answering those questions was brave.

But—now sometimes when Max talked about how pretty Emelie’s eyes were, Jack would think about Elle and wonder if that was the feeling everyone had been making so much of. Or when Greg (acting all surprised and like this opportunity wasn’t the whole reason he suggested the game) started gushing about Liz and her… her… about Liz.

Well. Jack still wasn’t too sure about that. Best to keep quiet.))

But then the year was over, and those feelings—fleeting—never came back.)

So he stayed quiet, rather than admitting he just… didn’t get it. Because he really didn’t. He thought about making things up, sometimes, but. He probably wouldn’t react to their chirps the right way, and then they’d know.

(Would they know that he didn’t know why? Or maybe they’d just think he saw himself as—as too good for any of the girls he knew now, or they knew, or something. Better not to say anything.)

And then they legalized same-sex marriage, and suddenly Jack couldn’t stop thinking about it. What if—what if maybe he liked guys, instead? Elle was so long ago; he could have just imagined those feelings. Maybe that was the only time he had been successful in making it up?

Liking guys wouldn’t be great, but it would be something.

The thought lingered in his mind the whole summer, and when school started up again, the question was still there. He kept his thoughts away from his teammates (he wasn’t stupid; that would never end well), but he knew a bunch of the girls at school liked the redhead in his English class, Kevin, so Jack tried to see where they were coming from.

(Spoiler: he couldn’t. Kevin was nice looking, Jack supposed, and he was a nice enough guy, but Jack didn’t want to do anything about it.

((His truth or dare strategy had morphed by this point as well. ‘Go steal some of my sister‘s nail polish while she isn’t looking’ and ‘okay, fine, now you use it to make your nails bright orange’ had now become ‘pretend Walls over there is a girl you want to go out with and flirt with him for ten minutes’ and—well, Jack would rather not remember most of them. No one thinks you’re brave for doing these things. Mostly they think you’re a pushover. Which is stupid and weird, since you’re not supposed to back down from a dare.

And now nobody asked who you ‘liked’. Most of the guys didn’t have the time to pine after or pursue any girls, anyway, so it was all about who you’d gotten around the bases with, so to speak, or who you wanted to. But Jack had gotten better at saying no one and making it final, not letting guys try to wheedle information out of him that he didn’t have, so they eventually gave up asking him those things.

(Though there was that time—well. Jack has since gotten better, too, at avoiding verbal traps.

As-tu couché récemment avec quelqu’un, Jack?” Mathieu had asked, which—seriously, why. The answer hadn’t changed. Let it go.

Je me couche tout seul, Mathieu,” Jack snapped. “Va te faire foutre.” He didn’t mean to be quite so sharp, but he was tired of it.

Oho! Tout seul, eh? Alors, tu couches avec le main droite?” Mathieu laughed, correctly reading Jack’s mood but missing its origin by 180º.

Crisse. Who knew people even said stuff like that. Why would Jack have meant—whatever.

They did eventually give up, though.)

Instead, Jack answered truth questions about growing up with Bad Bob. It wasn’t like Jack was the only guy around whose dad or uncle or brother had come up the ranks. Plenty of guys had stories about the time they met Uncle Mario or Patrick Roy or whoever, but Jack has always had more of them than he knows what to do with, and they are usually more casual and funny. That’s what people tell him, anyway.

(Jack is always careful to keep things anonymous if anything is at all embarrassing. It’s one thing to say you saw someone show up to a team event wearing the wrong jersey, but it’s another to name names.)

Obviously it was not the soundest strategy for—for fitting in, for not seeming weird, for not making people jealous or think he’s stuck up. Not a great strategy for much, honestly. But.

It was less painful by a mile than giving any of his teammates a lap dance or kissing three of them and ranking their skill. Less painful, also, than the time he had to ask what a lap dance was. Did people actually go looking for this stuff, or…?))

So yeah. Jack didn’t really want to do anything. Or anyone. Or talk about it. He just… didn’t like people, not like that.)

Except.

Until he did.

When it was over, Jack didn’t like to think about that, either. About—him. That—Jack didn’t know what that was, at first, but it was different. It—they hadn’t started out—they’d been friends first. Best friends, for a while.

And then one day they’d had a good game, and they were celebrating afterwards, and he looked over, laughing, and realized things were—were different now, and at the time it seemed like it was good.

(It was stupid; that didn’t end well.)

When it was over, Jack tried not to remember those parts. It had never lasted.

Kent didn’t make it easy to forget, though. He called a couple times in September, Jack’s freshman year, wanting to know how he was. The first time, Jack answered, and he hated the whole conversation—every word was a struggle to find and to say. The second time, he didn’t.

But he felt guilty for days as he waited for the phone to ring again and Kent to tell him off for not returning the call, which happened too soon and not soon enough all at once. He’d felt constantly tense, waiting for the call, but when it finally came, it was somehow still worse than he’d expected it would be.

It wasn’t his fault, the way things had gone down with Kent. Jack knew that—his parents and the therapists had told him enough times since the draft he couldn’t not know it by now—but sometimes it was still hard to remember.

But it—it helped, going to Samwell, being friends with Shitty… Jack still never said anything to anyone—he couldn’t—but it did help. Shitty was so casually accepting and simultaneously aggressive about the “need for equality, both, like, politically and socially, y’know?” that it was hard not to feel better listening to him, some days.

And then Shitty took a class—Jack doesn’t even remember the name, now—and hadn’t been able to shut up about it, and everything changed.

They’d spent a fair amount of time together their first semester; Shitty latched onto Jack quickly (sometimes literally), and Jack welcomed him with only occasional comments about the hairy but benign growth Jack seemed to have acquired. It was relieving to have a friend who wouldn’t mind him being quiet but would let him talk when he wanted, and who could take the lead in their conversations—in their friendship—without the little edge that every interaction with Kent always seemed to have.

And then spring semester came, and Shitty took the gender and sexuality class, whatever it was called, and came to their usual study spot bursting with new information.

He’d been himself, couldn’t stop talking, and for maybe the first time, it took a few minutes for Shitty to notice that Jack had stopped reacting and was just… sitting there, frozen, silent.

“Like, so some people are gray-a? Like, maybe they’re attracted to people but not like a lot, y’know, just lowkey. Or they are attracted to people, but only really occasionally, or something like that.”

Oh.

“But like there’s all kinds of ways people are ace, like, some people are demi—means you only feel attraction after a significant emotional bond is formed and shit—so like when you’re really good friends with someone you might start being like ‘oh hey they’re hot’, but until then you’re just not into them, basically.”

Oh.

“And some people are totally ace, just never feel sexual attraction ever, and some are sex repulsed and sometimes it overlaps and…”

Shitty went on talking, but Jack was already tuned out.

Because that—that was him. He hadn’t understood, even with—with Kent, until they were friends, and then gradually there’d been something more there that he hadn’t—he hadn’t understood, hadn’t recognized (not until it was too late).

But—but if that was what it would take to get it to happen, to be attracted to someone, maybe… he didn’t want that after all (maybe he could be a hockeybot), because when it had happened it… hadn’t gone so well.

Shitty finally noticed that Jack had gone pale and quiet even for him, and stopped talking. After a minute Jack managed to whisper “…that… that’s a thing? I’m not—”

He stopped there, already afraid he’d said too much, but Shitty just smiled gently and squeezed his shoulder a little, reassuringly.

“Yeah, bro. Those are all things. Is that you? ’s cool, man. You’re fine.”

It’s cool, man. You’re fine.

Jack was not fine. Jack almost started to panic, because if Shitty asked more—Kent—he couldn’t explain that, not to anyone, not again. But he was fine, because Shitty had just rolled with it. He thought, or talked like he assumed, that Jack’s reaction was just about “the paradigm shift that comes with discovering a new label,” and not for the first or last time, Jack was so grateful to have him as a friend.

By that point in his career at Samwell, Jack already had a bit of a reputation for being “picky” about girls (and in his own mind, guys, but he still—no one else knew that). Jack had let the guys find him a date for Winter Screw, and it was. fine. Pleasant, maybe, even, because Jess was quiet but sarcastic and quick, and Jack found himself gratefully laughing at the questionable clothing choices of their classmates that Jess pointed out. But Jack never saw her again, and had no good way to explain it to the guys who set him up, so.

So after that conversation with Shitty, Jack stayed away from possible friends deliberately, trying to keep himself out of new potentially risky situations. If he avoided people he found aesthetically attractive—another useful term from Shitty—or whose personalities he liked too much… if he didn’t let them get too close, they couldn’t hurt him.

In high school, he’d stayed quiet and hoped he didn’t come off arrogant and aloof, but in college he’d rather seem to be the “pickiest man alive” than explain the truth.

So they found him dates to dances when he had to go, and they made their jokes, mostly when he wasn’t around, but they knew. If he was avoiding a party, he was doing so alone.

And then there was Bittle.

It—the thing was that Jack hadn’t realized he had to be wary of him, at first, though avoiding people he thought he could like—avoiding people he found himself wanting to be friends with—was almost second nature by that point. He hadn’t let himself get really close to anyone after… after Kent, not until Shitty and then Lardo. Certainly he never made an effort.

(Shitty was different. Shitty latched onto people like a barnacle and never let go. And while some people were stressful to be around, Shitty was never one of those people, and never latched on to them. Shitty understood space. Shitty never let Jack get too far into his own head, either, though. That was important.

Lardo was different, too, but… differently. (Wow, that’s informative.) Lardo wove herself quietly into the lives around her, unnoticed until shit starting hitting the fan, and you looked around, and there she was. Where Shitty clung and pushed, Lardo waited and offered. And in time, Jack found himself taking her up on most offers.)

(She came to them Jack’s first year as captain with so little hockey knowledge that Jack struggled at first to believe she was from Boston, but more people knowledge than Jack will ever have in his life. She was good at her job, and he was good at his, but little by little they made each other even better.)

(It didn’t hurt, either, that by the end of that first semester, Jack was more than accustomed to hearing stoned Shitty expound upon her various virtues and minimal vices, and then watching sober Shitty feign ignorance. Who knew if Shitty and Lardo would end up anywhere, really, but it was enough to keep Jack safely unattached.)

But then beyond those two, and especially after that talk with Shitty… not making an effort was no longer good enough. The only safe option was to make an effort not to get close to anyone. He couldn’t do that to himself. Not again.

Bittle was different, though. (Why isn’t there a different word from different to describe this? Why don’t—ugh.) Bittle was… well. He was annoying, was what he was. He was a good player—or he could be—but he couldn’t take a check, and it threw everything off. Even when Jack started working with him alone and Bittle started improving, it was more frustrating than anything else.

And Bittle would be good if he could get past his issue with checking, and Jack did try to be a good captain, so he started the checking clinics. He kept his guard up, watched himself, was harsher on Bittle than Bittle deserved, just to keep that little bit of distance between them, just to be safe. But he kept on with the checking clinics, for the sake of the team, even when Bittle complained.

Which—complain he did, and sometimes he passed out, and still somehow Jack found himself smiling at him before they played Yale. And they played, and Bittle got a goal by pure luck, and everyone still praised him for it, and—

…well. Everyone except Jack.

(Which—he hadn’t deserved that. Jack shouldn’t have—well. Too late now.)

And then they were linemates and that was just what Jack hadn’t needed—except somehow, it turned out, he had. He didn’t like having the coaches spell it out, but he needed to face it: he didn’t—he didn’t need Bittle, but Jack was a better player when they were on the same line.

And then suddenly it was playoffs, and Bitty got checked and went down, hard, and it was Jack’s fault.

And then Jack realized he’d let himself get attached to Bittle.

Attached, beyond just teammates. Bittle was. his friend. And Jack—hadn’t been prepared for that. Whatever walls he might have tried to build, Bittle had crashed on through, and—

He tried to shove the realization away, pretend the feelings didn’t exist, but Bittle had gotten hurt and it was Jack’s fault. Jack was the one who’d told Bittle to try to get past that d-man.

He’d said he would have Bitty’s back, and he hadn’t.

(If having someone’s back is protection, then what do you call getting revenge? At least Jack had been able to do that.)

So the summer saw text messages and the occasional email. Jack could never quite tell what Bittle was thinking or how he was feeling. Bittle’s emojis helped, of course, but Jack still wondered what was being left unsaid. Emojis can lie, too.

It was a start, though. Concussions were serious, and Jack worried, but. Bittle would be okay. He would.

And he was.

But he was back at square one, so they kept working on the checking and Jack worked on appreciating their friendship for what it was, instead of being afraid of it. Friendship was a good thing—Jack’s life was so much better for having Shitty and Lardo in it, and the two of them were proof enough that Jack wouldn’t always… develop feelings, even for his closest friends. And Bitty’s friendship in particular was something Jack found himself very glad to have.

He tried to get the hang of all Bittle’s music and social media stuff, at least a little—he bought an album of Beyoncé songs that he only sometimes listened to and rarely could follow, and he made a secret (and seldom used) twitter account to try to discern what that was all about. After everything he’d said and done already to hurt him, Jack owed him that much and more.

(After their whole families got together in October, Jack tried to joke that Bittle owed him, for patiently smiling in all the photos Mrs. Bittle requested—which was a not insignificant number—but Bittle just stuck one hip out, propped a hand up on it, and let his eyebrows float up to his hairline.

“And what about your mama?” he drawled, tapping his foot as Jack tied his shoes after their next early morning checking practice. And—well, point. Especially once she’d made her… observation… about Jack’s feelings, she found plenty of opportunities to hold her phone up and scoot them together into the frame. Crisse.)

But yeah, so. Jack owed him. So they were friends, and it was good.

After Jack realized his mother was right—he still—he couldn’t—never anything too big, but.

But it was Halloween, his last at Samwell, and Bittle clearly wanted to get a picture with him, so Jack suggested it first.

And Bittle had called it his kitchen, and they were baking together, and Jack was comfortable—happy—so he teased Bitty about that and Bitty threw flour at him and they laughed.

And it was Bitty’s first big kegster, and it was nice realizing he’d forgotten his ever-present phone because he was talking to Jack, but he might regret not having photos of it later, so since they were already hanging out together, if he wanted a… a “selfie” with both of them in it, Jack might as well say yes… or even suggest it, maybe, like at Halloween again, and—

—and then Kent was there, and Jack remembered why he wasn’t supposed to let himself get close to anyone again.

And he’d followed Jack upstairs, trapped him in his own room and in some ways that was worse than being downstairs with Kent just around, and it was juniors all over again, Kenny pushing to get his own way, being generous and caring or cruel and tearing Jack down if that was what would get him to agree.

And Jack stood up for himself and it hurt, even knowing what Kent was saying was wrong, but he did, and he held firm. And finally Kent was leaving and then Bitty was there, and he’d heard some of it at least, and if anything could make it worse it was that because now it was all… all twisted up together again, his feelings for Bitty, everything with Kent…

But Kent had left and Bitty had stayed. And then there was the note and the cookies, and the texts, and a welcome-back hug.

And there was checking practice, and lunch with Chowder, and dancing in the kitchen.

And it wasn’t easy, but. It was good. And slowly, day by day, Jack started to let himself wonder again if maybe things could be—he hoped they would be alright.


So. Yeah. Things are alright. And the “movie night” that was more of a “documentary afternoon” had been good.

(And thirty-six minutes later, Jack finally has a shot of a building that he doesn’t completely hate, so. Yeah. Progress.)

Jack lets his camera hang from his neck, and he stretches out his arms and arches his back, letting go some of the tension that was building up there as he worked and thought. Above him, the sky is a pretty solid grey, but it’s not as dark as it has been lately, and it’s a sort of… calm grey, not threatening.

When he straightens up, a figure is coming off the bridge over the river on the other side of the quad. He’s been mostly alone out here today—with all the benches snowed over, it’s not a great place to just hang out—but the figure approaches, stopping just short of the footpath that leads across the quad, and starts to wave.

Jack looks more carefully, then waves back at Bitty and smiles.

He puts the lens cap back on his camera and slips his hands into his pockets as he walks down the footpath toward River Street, where Bitty is waiting.

As he nears the end of the path, he can see Bitty’s face, and he looks… really happy. And certainly, Bitty is often inexplicably cheerful, but it just—Bitty is looking happy, looking at Jack, and Jack doesn’t bother walking the extra distance down the plowed-off footpath and around the piles of snow.

He climbs straight over the drift that’s between him and Bitty, and gives a small smile as Bitty starts making baffled noises and gesturing at the clear walkway that Jack has abandoned.

“Do you want to get coffee?”

Chapter Text

People talk about Jack like he’s some emotionless hockey robot, but Bitty knows better. When Bitty gets home from class Friday morning and starts getting ready for their game that night, Jack is the only one there, and the tension in the Haus is palpable.

Jack is sitting at the kitchen table, glaring at his computer and scrolling through something with his lips pressed together and his shoulders set. Bitty takes one look and heads straight upstairs to put his things away, not eager to interrupt whatever grumpy ritual Jack is engaging in now.

…okay, that’s not fair. Bitty is eager to cheer Jack up—or he would be—but he knows it would be a fruitless effort right now. Sometimes the boy just needs to stew.

Instead, Bitty unpacks his bag, washes his face, and changes his clothes. He’s got a little time before he needs to make lunch, so he sits down, earbuds in, and starts to stretch out.

By the time “Cassiopeia” ends and “1000 Times” starts, his stomach is rumbling. Whatever, he’s waited long enough for more than half of The Blessed Unrest to play, and now he’s a little melancholy and a lot hungry. Time to suck it up and go find lunch. Where are Rans and Holster, anyway? Someone else in this Haus needs to be here and be talking and stuff.

He trots down the stairs, intent on squashing last night’s black beans into some kind of burger patty, maybe putting it together with that fancy peanut butter Jack buys. He always says Bitty can use it, and it could be good—then just coat the whole thing with a little brown flour, and pan fry it in a tiny amount of olive oil? That’s defensibly healthy, and he can even have one of those regrettable protein shakes, since there’s a game tonight.

But when he reaches the kitchen, his plan rapidly devolves. Jack is standing at the counter, fancy peanut butter at hand, hunched over and swiping much more viciously than necessary to make a blessed sandwich.

That’s… fine. Bitty doesn’t need to make his burger thing today, and he doesn’t need to interrupt here. He’ll just grab the bowl of beans out of the fridge and some plain Greek yogurt and tortillas and barbeque sauce and go back upstairs. It’ll be cold but it’ll be okay. He doesn’t want to be in the way right now. Sometimes people just need space.

Jack doesn’t even acknowledge Bitty as he gets out a plate and the food in question before heading back upstairs and taking a seat at his desk. Aiming to improve his mood, he starts his official Pregame Playlist, nodding steadily in time to “Chandelier” as he creates something that might be the pale imitation of a burrito.

He takes a bite and shrugs to himself. Not the best, not the worst. The fact that it’s food will suffice for now. He’ll probably still track down one of those mediocre protein shakes later. And a banana.

Bitty sighs and shakes his head, then pulls out his phone and opens twitter.

My pregame ritual involves getting pumped with my favorite playlist! Others like to get broody / eat pb&j sandwiches instead w/e.

It doesn’t all fit in 140 characters, so he follow up with a second tweet.

Dear Lord. I’ve never seen someone look so joyless while preparing and consuming a popular children’s snack.

Then he groans and jams his finger down on the power button, turning his screen off and throwing his phone back onto his bed. Why is he even so worked up about this, anyway? So Jack’s in a mood. He’ll get over it.

…But yesterday he’d been in such a good mood, and Bitty wants to know what’s changed. Yesterday—

Well, Bitty can’t think of the last time he saw Jack jump over anything, besides that snowbank. Jack can skate like the wind when he wants to, but he’s usually much more… stately… in his motion.

But he just leaped toward Bitty, asking about coffee, and, like—if he weren’t Jack Zimmermann and incapable of making demands, it wouldn’t have been surprising if Jack had seized his hand and just taken him to the coffee shop.

But he is Jack Zimmermann, and way too sincere sometimes, so he’d genuinely asked if Bitty wanted any coffee, and how could he have expected Bitty to say no? (First of all, coffee. 1a, sleep deprivation is a real thing. Secondly, how could Bitty deny Jack this? 2.5, it totally was not a date, his emotions are under control, it’s fine. Last (because this counting is for shit, and what was the point here anyway?), coffee. Plus it’s not like Bitty had a burning desire to get home and get back to work on his physics, anyway. Whatever.)

So they walked to Annie’s, and Jack chirped about Bitty’s latte, and Bitty rolled his eyes and made a face at Jack’s green tea, and Jack was smiling the whole time.

(Seriously, Bitty almost never thinks about it outright, but like, did Jack really start smiling more this year? Or is Bitty just more aware of it because of the stupid-ass stomach-flipping that inevitably comes with?)

But Annie’s was crowded, and Bitty really did have to finish his physics sooner or later, so they walked back to the Haus, chatting and laughing and just being really happy? There really wasn’t even a reason, and that almost made it better. Just—being happy.

It was tarnished only by Jack “Grace On Skates But Apparently Doesn’t Walk Much” Zimmermann bumping into him and making him spill his latte all over his sweatshirt, and that was probably a bigger problem for Jack than Bitty.

Bitty didn’t even bother to count the number of ‘sorry’s he heard, but just waved them off and fixed Jack with the best glare he could to shut him up. It didn’t come close to burning him, or anything, and he would just put it in the laundry as soon as they got back. It’s not like the sweatshirt was white, either.

And by the time they were back at the Haus, Jack had gotten over it enough to point out that this wouldn’t have been an issue if Bitty had zipped up his coat like a normal person. (“Seriously, you complain about the cold so much, how are you not even using the zipper? Weak, Bittle.” “Not weak! I’m learning to bear the cold!” “…Foolish, then.”)

So Jack watched as Bitty stuck his sweatshirt in to soak, and Bitty asked about the photos he assumed Jack had been taking on the quad, and then Jack was smiling again, and the photos were good, and it was a nice way to gear up for his stupid physics homework.

So really, it doesn’t seem like anything that happened yesterday could be what’s bothering Jack now, and he’s not usually one to be upset about classes, not like this. He’ll complain about them or ask for help with something, but not brood like this.

Bitty sighs. Jack was scrolling through something on his computer when Bitty walked in. Maybe—Jack knows better than to read his own press, but maybe he saw something anyway. Ugh. Nothing anyone can do about that.

He finishes up his second “burrito” and licks his fingers, then packs up all the leftovers and prepares to brave the kitchen to put them away. Hopefully they’ll kick ass tonight and Jack will cheer up and everything will be fine.


They play.

They win.

Jack is still grumpy.


Well, he is now, back at the Haus. He’d been fine during the game, and so Bitty had thought (or hoped) that it was gone, but apparently it was something bigger than that.

He’d been quiet on the walk back from Faber, but that wasn’t weird, and he hadn’t seemed angry, so Bitty had walked along with him in companionable silence and listened as Ransom and Holster debated whether they should all play MarioKart or Smash Bros later.

They all went straight to their rooms when they got home, eager to dump their stuff and change into comfier clothes. Before Bitty had done more than put his shoes in the closet and plug in his phone, Ransom and Holster were already thundering back down the stairs from the attic, now arguing about who would get to drive as Yoshi. Lord, were they pretending to be Dex and Nursey?

Bitty was just pulling on his pajama pants (a little short, since he’d gotten them at an eighth-grade figure skating competition and he has grown since then, but comfortable even beyond how soft they are) when he heard Shitty’s voice rise across the hall.

“Jackie boyyyyy!! You gonna come whip my ass in Tick-Tock Clock?”

If Jack answered, Bitty didn’t hear it. He tugged a Samwell hoodie over his head and went to stand in Jack’s doorway and wait for them.

“Come on, man,“ Shitty was saying, ruffling Jack’s hair and headbutting Jack’s shoulder. “Or we can team up on Rans and Holtzy? After all, it’s Friday, Friday, gotta get down on Friiidaaa-ay!!”

Shitty had stepped back from Jack then, and started wriggling and rolling his shoulders as he continued to sing, looking for all the world like a Suburban White Dad trying to dance.

Bitty rolled his eyes fondly and tried to think of some clever chirp. Jack tilted his head and didn’t look actively murderous, so. Bitty supposed that meant he would join them.

“I hear you, Shits,” Jack said after a beat, raising a hand, “but just—stop, please.”

Shitty stopped and tilted his head in return, then spun around and silently shimmied his way past Bitty, leading them all downstairs. Jack gestured to Bitty as if to say “after you,” so Bitty turned and followed Shitty. He would never quite understand how people had silent conversations like that, but it seemed to have gotten the message across, as he could hear Jack on the steps behind him.

Ransom and Holster had MarioKart all set up by the time the rest of them made it downstairs, so it was only a matter of sitting down and having controllers thrust into their hands before the game could begin. Bitty had hesitated, though, wanting some snacks.

He allowed Jack to move past him and as he entered the kitchen called back over his shoulder, “What do y’all want to eat?”

“Bitty, no,” Holster had protested. “Come play, you don’t need to make anything!”

“No, I know,” Bitty assured him. “Carrots with hummus or peanut butter? I’ll play the second game.”

“You and your peanut butter,” Ransom groused. “Hummus, and bring crackers too?”

“Bring them both, Bittle,” Jack said, somewhat quietly even for him, so Bitty brought both, and the crackers.

He set all the food down on the table in front of the couch, where Ransom and Holster were leaning up against opposite arms of the couch with their feet tucked under each other, playing rock-paper-scissors. Jack watched them from the far armchair, expressionless, while Shitty climbed out of the beanbag at Jack’s feet and made a beeline for the food. Bitty sat down down in the empty chair, angling it toward the TV a little more, and popped some carrots into his mouth as he waited for everyone else to resettle.

Ultimately, Ransom lost rock-paper-scissors for rights to Yoshi, and then he lost the first race after a couple untimely shells, and Bitty wasn’t laughing, honest, because Ransom cares a lot about MarioKart and it’s not nice to laugh about things people care about, but also the noises he was making were really funny, so Bitty was just… eating his carrots very methodically.

He won the other three races, though, full of chirp and vigor and causing Holster to start “accidentally” jostling him with his legs. (Not that Holster actually gave a shit about winning—only Ransom himself actually cared much at all—but Holster routinely gives many shits about trolling his other half, so.)

Meanwhile, Jack had come in dead last in three of the four races, and while the awards animation played, he wasted no time tossing his controller over to Bitty with the ghost of a smile.

“Knock ’em dead, eh?”

Bitty scoffed. “Unlikely, but I’ll see what I can do.”

What he could do was an eleventh place finish in the first game, which was pretty par for the course. He needed to plan another Just Dance night when they wouldn’t’ve had a hockey game. That’s more Bitty’s jam.

Jack had politely declined to chirp Bitty too hard (or really, at all), even though Bitty is at least better than Jack, usually. (Or—it had seemed polite, but in retrospect it was probably a sign that Jack still wasn’t all there.)

At the end of the first race, Holster asked for a bathroom break, and then disentangled himself from Ransom and disappeared before anyone could object. Shitty snagged the abandoned controller and held it up to Jack.

“You want in, say screw him?”

Jack shook his head. “Nah, I’m okay.”

For a moment, the only sound had been the race selection screen music from the TV, until Shitty started talking again. Unsurprising, really. The boy is very rarely satisfied with silence, or even just a lack of conversation. He had trash-talked through the whole first five races he played, and then when they paused, he started up on something new. Coach would have told him at some point to stop using up all the sound waves.

The issue currently at hand was the Fifty Shades of Grey movie, because that’s been Shitty’s pet cause on and off for months—mostly ‘on’ since the trailers started airing—and so Bitty only sort of listened, since he’d heard it all a time or six before.

He’ll grant Shitty one thing—he’s expanded Bitty’s vocabulary.

Bitty felt (and continues to feel) a little weird, given that by now he could probably explain almost as clearly as Shitty why exactly the relationship in that story was abusive but real BDSM is not, even though Bitty had not known a lick about the book before Shitty started this all up and has never given BDSM a second thought.

(He doesn’t pretend to get it. To be entirely truthful, he thinks it’s darn weird. But then—there are plenty of people who think him liking guys is weird, so. He’s going with “be as weird as you like but try to be safe”, which means he’s internalized a lot of things about safewords and consent and aftercare, and really… it’s just a lot. Which is fine. But it’s also a lot for him to think about when he’s barely had an opportunity to do—well, anything less weird.)

So Shitty ranted, and Ransom chimed in from time to time, and Bitty guiltily wished Ransom would stop prolonging this thread of discussion. Bitty focused on cleaning dirt out of the cracks in the game controller with his fingernails and glanced over at Jack once or twice, only to find him doing the same thing.

When Holster returned—finally—he leaned over to punch Shitty in the shoulder before he dropped back onto the couch, saying, “Less lecture, more racing.” Obligingly, Shitty shut up. Thank God.

“Okay, time for the Electrodrome?” Ransom prompted as soon as Holster had his controller back.

Holster punched the start button. “Yup!”

Bitty wasn’t halfway through his first lap when Jack stood up, careful not to get in front of the TV at all, and headed for the bathroom. Well, that was where Bitty assumed he had gone, but he hadn’t said anything when he got up, and then he didn’t come back.

He didn’t come back for the whole of the Electrodrome, and he didn’t come back for Bowser’s Castle, and now Bitty kind of wants to go see where he is and if he’s okay, but there’s still one more race in this set, and he doesn’t want to call unnecessary attention to it, either.

Besides, Bitty’s not—Jack doesn’t owe—

It’s not Bitty’s place to know where Jack is all the time, even though Bitty knows he’s not worried in a creepy-Christian-Grey way, just a please-don’t-run-away-and-hide-because-you’re-sad way. But it’s still not his place. Plus…

Well, Bitty knows the feeling, just gotta get away from people sometimes. He just wishes Jack wasn’t having that feeling. And maybe he isn’t, but all other options seem worse, so hopefully that’s all it is, Jack still worked up from whatever happened earlier. And if it’s not, well—Bitty really doesn’t want to make a habit of interrupting Jack when Jack doesn’t want to be seen, so.

If Jack is still grumpy in the morning, Bitty will push a little then.


Eric Bittle @omgcheckplease · Feb 6
You’re supposed to be happy when you win… :/


It’s a Saturday. They won an exhausting game last night, they have all of today off, and it’s a Saturday. Why are all the frogs and all their things distributed across the entire Haus living room? Bittle’s not even here to make them food, because he’s off at Stop and Shop buying food. Without Jack. Because he’d asked if Jack wanted to come, and Jack said no, because Jack was going to finish this section of his thesis today if it was the only thing he did all day.

Jack regrets this, now.

He’d been content to stay in the living room, working, with Shitty mumbling at his own thesis and a soccer game on in the background (which Jack is pretty sure Nurse had turned on with the express purpose of riling Dex up a bit, since Chow always gets too excited about it and Dex thinks the sport is overrated anyway, but—well, by the time Bitty left, Dex had given up on his earbuds and seemed to be quietly rooting for Aston Villa to upset Chelsea, so…).

Where was—right, so that had been fine, up until that stupid commercial, and then Chow had to say something, and of course Shitty had to say something, and now they’re all everywhere in the living room saying things, and Jack doesn’t know how to leave without calling attention to himself, so he’s just. Not going to leave.

He breathes slowly but quietly and squeezes his fist a little behind his computer screen and tries to focus.


There are people who know already, they’ve—Jack knows, the… the whole thing with Kent came out eventually, the therapist told him it hadn’t been a healthy relationship. That it wasn’t his fault, and that not everything Kent had said was true.

He does know that, though it is hard to remember sometimes. Especially when Kent was there, at the party, or standing just inches away in Jack’s room.

But they were right—they are right—he knows that now, and when Kent went from caring and helpful to cold and cruel in a matter of seconds, he tried to tune it out, tried not to let his words sink in, and mostly it worked.

He’s slipped a couple times since that night, let himself dwell on it, but those were one-off things, and even when the others—mostly the frogs—mentioned him it was okay. Jack was used to that, he’s gotten enough questions from the media putting on an interview face and seeming calm was second nature even when the comments were from his friends.

So he could’ve gone on, could’ve been fine—would have been fine.

But then there was this stupid movie, and just—

He’d had a vague awareness the book existed, heard people mention it, but nothing more than that, and he didn’t care. Whatever. It—the movie itself isn’t the problem, really—he would probably have never noticed it any more than he had the book.

The problem is that Shitty won’t stop talking about it.


“—so then he’s, like, tearing her down, right? Messing with her self-esteem, not that she had much anyway, so she’ll do what he wants and shit. Plus the creepy standing too close and touching her without her permission and stuff, it’s fuckin’ textbook sexual harassment except he’s the fuckin’ love interest.”

Jack squeezes his fist even more tightly. It’s—he can deal with this, it’s not—he’s fine. He can tune Shitty out like it’s any other rant and focus on his homework. He’s almost finished with this section of his thesis now anyway. As soon as he’s done, he can leave without anyone paying attention.

“They’re selling this shitty abusive relationship as romance—hell, ’s coming out the day before Valentine’s Day, like that wasn’t already bad enough. Fuckin’ heteronormative amatonormative allonormative celebration of capitalism, and we gotta add this shit to it?”

It’s not—he wouldn’t mind if Shitty knew. He’s thought about telling him more than once, especially after Kent came the first time, and again the last two months, but he can’t, he can’t bring it up, he’s never been the one to before. At first they’d told him, and the therapist had guided the whole discussion with his parents, he—even if he wanted to have that conversation he doesn’t think he knows how.

What would he even say? “Hey, Shitty, you remember when Kent Parson was here, and he seemed cool, and everyone liked him? And he cornered me in my room and k—and when I told him to leave he threw everything he knows I—”

Crisse. Even in his head Jack can’t spell out everything he would have to say if he tried to talk to Shitty about it.

He realizes vaguely he’s started squeezing his left fist with his right hand and is breathing rapidly enough someone is going to notice if he doesn’t get this under control. It’s been days, Shitty’s said most of this already anyway, he’ll move on to something new soon, Jack just needs to breathe. He unclenches both hands and moves them back to the keyboard, though he’s still staring blankly at the screen as he counts to keep his breathing steady.

“—hell, even the way they try to get people to go see it is creepy, that whole ad is, like, guilting people into seeing it so they don’t miss out. Like, yeah, that’s kind of a marketing thing in general? But when it’s to sell shit already this fucked up… Christ, it’s fucking disgusting.”

Jack’s breathing is evening back out, and he glances at the time. He still hasn’t finished this section of his thesis, and Shitty’s already wrapping up. He must have been lost in thought longer than he’d realized, for a rant like that to have ended that—well, not that quickly.

Still, though. Even if Shitty is wrapping up, Jack just—wants to get out of the Haus for a bit.

Jack pulls out his phone and tries to keep it out of sight behind his computer screen—not that anyone here really cares, probably, but it’s the principle of the thing—as he finds his text conversation with Lardo.

Library in 20 min? he types. That should give him enough time to make an exit from here, go grab his camera, and get over there. Hopefully she will agree. He hits send.

Then he hits save on his thesis a few times while he waits for her to reply. Or for his phone to buzz for any reason at all. She does not disappoint.

Have you had lunch?

That’s enough for Jack to start putting his things away. “Hey, I have to go,” he says, not knowing what he interrupted Shitty saying, and not caring for the moment that he did.

Shitty cuts himself off, merci à Dieu, and twists around on the floor to ask if everything is okay. Jack forces himself to take a small breath, and he assures Shitty that he has pictures he wants to show Lardo, and he’d been waiting on a response. It’s not—it’s not the truth, really, but it’s not a lie.


When Jack gets to the library, Lardo is sitting in an armchair in the lobby, heels pressed against the edge of her seat and knees pulled up to her chest. Her phone is in her hands, but she slips it into her peacoat the moment she spots Jack, and she waves him over.

“So are we actually doing something here, or was it just a convenient spot to meet?” she asks, standing up and grabbing her bag. “Also you didn’t say whether you’ve had lunch. Do you want to get food?”

“Um,” says Jack, pulling his gloves off and stuffing them in his own pockets, “Not right now. I have—will you look at some pictures? We can get food when we’re done, if you want? But it’s. quiet and not greasy here.”

She nods, and they go in past security and find their usual secluded stairwell. (Lardo had giggled the first time Jack suggested that that would be a nice, private, neutrally lit location for photo critique. “You realize that’s not what most people would use a secluded stairwell for, right, Cap?” Jack had rolled his eyes, and now he just runs with the joke, thankful that it was her who pointed it out.)

They sit down out of the way of traffic, and Jack gets his camera out. He thumbs back a couple dozen shots, then hands it over. She says some things, and later, maybe, he’ll remember them and find them helpful, but right now he’s not even totally sure that he remembers which ones she’s talking about when he can’t see the screen. He’s just—her voice is really soothing, and this critique might not help his art but it sure is helping him, so.

“Jack?”

Oh. Yeah, she has stopped talking, hasn’t she. Jack doesn’t shake his head to clear it, only because that would be sort of obvious and rude.

“Yeah, sorry. Uh, thank you. And—sorry,” he adds again, just because. He shouldn’t have spaced out on her quite so bad, even if that was really the point of this.

He doesn’t find her eyes, and she doesn’t look for his. Instead she slides her left hand into his right and squeezes. “No problem, Cap. Let’s do this again when you’re a little more focused, eh?”

Jack swallows and nods, squeezing her hand back and not trusting himself to speak. This is—not even unusual or anything for them, really? But there’s just too much going on in his head, more than he can even wrangle into anything coherent to worry about, and it’s frustrating and embarrassing, even if it’s Lardo.

She squeezes back once more, firmly, then pulls her hand away and stands up. “Either take your camera or give me your bag, but we are going to lunch now. I’m hungry, and you’re a hockey player, so. Food.”

Jack looks up enough to take his camera, and he still doesn’t really look her in the face, but it’s still kind of… fun? to be so much shorter than her. A single huff of laughter makes its way out his nose, and she smiles.

He takes a deep breath. It’s going to be okay. It might be even better than okay if the Saturday pancake bar hasn’t closed. It’s—he’ll be careful with his sugar the next few days, and he’ll make sure to have an extra protein shake later, but… that sounds really good about now.


The pancakes were good. Bed is also good. Jack flops down on top of his covers once he gets back to his room, having ignored the boisterous sounds of Bitty-and-frogs in the kitchen when he got home. He’s not tired, he’s not going to fall asleep, but the cool fabric of the pillows is soothing against his cheek, and it’s just. nice. He gives himself ten minutes to pretend that his class notes from yesterday don’t need to be annotated.

He’s just about to convince himself to get off the bed and stop being a—well, he’s not being a baby, but—stop drifting uselessly, when he hears knocking. He pushes himself up and sees Shitty standing in the bathroom doorway, wearing boxers and even an Obama ’08 shirt, though that appears to be as far as he got in redressing after a shower.

“Hey, Jack, you got a minute?”

Jack shrugs and nods, standing up and waving Shitty into the room. His notes aren’t going anywhere—if Shitty’s actually checking to see if he’s got time to talk this is probably something serious.

Shitty comes in, closing the door behind him, and tilts his head at Jack’s bed questioningly. Jack gestures “after you”, but between the asking permission and the solemn look on Shitty’s face, Jack’s starting to get a little tense now. What—

“…Jack, are you okay?” Shitty asks carefully as he settles onto Jack’s bed.

Still standing, Jack takes a moment to repeat the words to himself, decide what they mean. He clears his throat.

“Did Lardo text you?” he asks Shitty’s knee on the edge of the bed.

“Uh,” says Shitty. “She just asked if I knew what was wrong, she didn’t say anything about… whatever you talked about with her? I’ll take that as a yes, though.”

Which—obviously. Because even at lunch they had not really talked. Still, Jack appreciates Shitty’s honesty.

“But, I mean, I was going to ask anyway, ’cause you’ve seemed extra anxious lately, and, like, I might be jumping to conclusions here, but I wondered…”

Shitty trails off, and Jack wants to tell him to keep going, just spit it out, but Jack can’t make words come out his own mouth.

Shitty takes a breath. “Have I been bothering you with the Fifty Shades stuff? I thought about it and it hadn’t occurred to me that it might make you uncomfortable, so I just wanted to say sorry if I was and also ask, if I can, what bothers you in particular, so that I can make sure to lay off?”

Jack clears his throat again and scratches the back of his neck, shifting his weight on his feet. He looks around for a moment and then drops firmly into his desk chair. The rest of this conversation does not need to be had standing up.

Shitty waits, because Shitty is wonderful and patient.

“Um,” he starts. “I mean. Yes? Yes. It makes me—but it’s not—”

He stops. Shitty waits again.

On the one hand, Jack would really like to not be having this conversation. At all. Full stop. Which could be happening, if Shitty would just shut up. So this is all Shitty’s fault.

(But also, Shitty would just shut up if that is what Jack said he wanted. Like, ‘the whole movie makes me uncomfortable, just drop it.’

But also, that is not what Shitty is asking, and that won’t protect Jack from other bothersome topics in the future, which a) would be ideal, and b) is what Shitty is asking, so…)

On the other hand… If this conversation has to happen, no one better to have it with than Shitty. And it’s probably time, if not past.

He starts over, staring near Shitty’s feet on the bed and pressing the flats of his thumbnails hard into the underside of his index fingers.

“Yes, Fifty Shades makes me uncomfortable, but it’s not the sex part. That’s—I don’t care.”

He only means to pause for breath, but the words catch in his throat (or maybe as far back as the edge of his brain, honestly), and he can’t continue.

Shitty still waits.

Jack doesn’t know how long Shitty still waits. He himself is still too caught up in making his mouth follow through on the decision his brain made. It is not going well.

“Jack…” Shitty ventures finally. “You don’t have to explain if you don’t want to, y’know? I’ll stop. And just—you know in the future you can tell me to shut up, right?”

Jack nods, still looking toward Shitty’s feet instead of his face. “Yeah, I know. But I—should. Talk about this.” He takes a measured breath and tries to swallow past his heart in his throat.

Shitty shifts on the bed, sitting up straighter. “Whoa, whoa, hey, no, there is no ‘should’ here. I am not pushing you to talk about any of this.”

“I know,” Jack says, and he does. Shitty is very understanding like that. But—“But—but for me. I should. It—I should.”

Shitty relaxes a little back against the wall. “Okay, bro. If you’re sure. You say the word, we’re done, ’kay?”

“’Kay,” Jack echoes. Because it is that attitude that makes him able to do this at all. It’s so different from—other things. people. He clears his throat one more time, squeezing one hand inside the other.

“Does, uh. Does anyone else know, do you think?” He throws the quickest of glances up and sees Shitty shaking his head, then redirects his gaze to his fingers pressing into the back of his other hand.

“Nah, I don’t think so,” says Shitty. “I mean, Bits and Lardo have been worried about you the past few days, but I don’t think anyone else has given Fifty Shades a second thought.”

“Mm,” Jack says in acknowledgment. Good. He is going to have to have this conversation with Bitty at some point, but today is not that day. “Okay. Good. I—yeah, just you is enough.” His heart is still going at a nice clip, but he doesn’t feel like he’s going to vibrate out of his skin just now.

Shitty kicks his feet on the bed out of the corner of Jack’s eye to get his attention. “Hey.”

Jack can’t make his eyes find Shitty’s, but he manages to look up at the wall beside his head so that Shitty will know he is listening. It’s a good trick Jack has picked up in life.

“You are sure you want to do this right now?”

“Yes.” Jack doesn’t hesitate. “But could we—could you—?” Tabarnak, why are words so hard?

“Do you want questions?” Shitty to the rescue.

Jack nods immediately.

“Yes-or-no?” Shitty checks.

“Mmhm,” Jack confirms. Those words he can handle.

“Stop me if it gets to be too much, okay?”

Again, Jack nods immediately. He’s—words are hard right now, but if he needs the conversation to end, he can do that. He’s good at ending conversations. Usually.

“Okay, so, not the sex. Is it the kink?”

“Nnnnno,” Jack says slowly. Because it’s not, exactly.

“Okay… Is it—it’s probably about the guy, right?”

Jack nods.

“Is it… I don’t know, can you tell me a little about why he bothers you?”

“Nnn,” says Jack. It’s too hard to pin down, and he just—can’t. He rubs his right hand across the back of his left, then squeezes his left wrist as if to pop it, but nothing gives. The pressure feels nice, anyway.

“Okay, okay,” Shitty soothes. “Is it the… contract thing?”

Jack shakes his head.

“The… stalk…ing?” Shitty guesses, sounding worried.

Jack hesitates, now pressing and failing to pop his other wrist. He hadn’t considered—but yeah, that word—well, it is not the best word for it, but.

“Sure,” he says at last.

“Mmm.” Shitty is trying to figure out what that means, probably, and Jack wishes he could be more helpful, here.

“Are you… concerned someone will do that to you?” Shitty asks, sounding doubtful.

Which—no, not exactly. Because “will do” and “will start again” are not quite the same.

“Nnnh?” Jack is not sure what to say.

“Oh, Jesus, Jack,” Shitty says, like something horrible has just dawned on him. “Has someone already done this to you?”

And that—well. Jack steels himself a little, monitoring his breath.

“I don’t know if—That word is—Yeahmaybe.” He finishes in a rush.

“Shit. I didn’t know that. I mean, I’m sure that was intentional, but shit, man.”

Jack is not sure how to respond to that, so he doesn’t.

“Was there anything else about the movie that bothered you?” Shitty asks after a minute.

Jack sighs. “Yeah. I—it… The whole thing.”

“The whole… thing…” Shitty murmurs to himself. “Jesus fuc—” he says more loudly, but cuts himself off.

“Does the abusiveness bother you? Like, me ranting about that?” Shitty’s voice is much calmer now, like he’s trying to behave himself, and Jack knows all the pieces are about to click.

“Did you… Has that happened to you?”

Jack is looking at all the wrinkles from Shitty sitting on the bed and imagining his hand running over them to smooth them out. He nods quickly and unclenches his fists (when did he make those?) to rub his fingers together.

There is another silence, and Jack assumes Shitty is mentally swearing a blue streak, trying not to get worked up when he means to be helping Jack. Which is kind of him.

“So… was it a past relationship? Like, someone our age, not someone older?”

“Yes,” Jack whispers, and Shitty continues quickly.

“Was it at Samwell? I don’t remember anyone, but…”

Shitty trails off, and Jack shakes his head. It’s Jack’s turn to wait again, breathing carefully; it’s quiet for a good ten seconds or more before Shitty says anything more.

“You don’t have to answer any of this, or you can stop me if I’m wrong, but… the obvious one is Parse, and I’m pretty sure you two don’t talk anymore. Mostly.”

Jack stares at the floor, motionless. He’s not wrong.

“So maybe you didn’t part on good terms? And… you spent the day after Epikegster in the library, and there was the other time he visited… fuck. Jack. Parson?”

Jack nods, picking at his nails again. This hangnail on his thumb is going to get infected probably. Dammit.

Shitty lets out a slow breath.

“Shit, man, I’m sorry. Did he do something at the party?”

“…Yes,” Jack says, without looking up.

“Are you sure you’re okay?”

Jack swallows, because—well. If he was completely all right, they wouldn’t be having this conversation because Shitty would never have noticed or guessed anything, but that’s… that’s different, and not the point.

“I’m fine.”

“Actually fine, or gonna-skate-on-it-anyway-cuz-you-can’t-prove-it fine?”

Jack can’t stop himself from scoffing a little at the phrasing, but he appreciates Shitty’s concern. It’s—both, sort of, but.

“Actually. Thanks.”

“Shit, man, I’m so sorry. I was… unaware, obviously, but I—never mind. Just, sorry, man.”

Jack chews his lip and nods, not sure if “thanks” is appropriate again, or even what he means.

Shitty pauses, apparently himself looking for words for once in his life, and then sighs and repositions himself on the bed again, sitting back against the wall. Jack leans back over his chair and stretches silently.

“…oh.”

Jack wonders what Shitty has finally put together.

“Jack… Was it, like, a relationship? Like, romantic?”

Jack blows out a long slow breath. “…yeah.”

To his shining credit, Shitty doesn’t seem to react at all. Jack had… well, Shitty knew Jack wasn’t necessarily straight, but interest in guys had never really come up. Not that he expected Shitty to be weird about it, but still.

“Did he—has he been bothering you besides at the party? Like, I dunno, calling or bothering you online?”

“Not—no. Not in a while.” The last several years—most of college, actually, aside from the party and that one other visit—have been damn near silent.

“…which means that he did used to do that. What a piece of slime.”

Jack doesn’t—can’t—respond to that. He doesn’t like Kent anymore, but he also can’t bring himself to think quite like that.

It’s another minute before Shitty speaks again.

“Look, honestly? I’m not actually sure how to ask what happened, not in yes-or-no questions, but… like, okay, so you went up to your room after he showed up at the party?” Jack is already nodding before Shitty’s finished the question.

“So he went up after you?”

“Mhmm.”

There’s a longer pause this time, and slowly Shitty asks, in a carefully even tone of voice, “Did he… touch you?”

Jack doesn’t know how to answer that. It—he had, technically, but—not like that, not in a bad way, except he hadn’t—Jack hadn’t wanted to be kissed, and… still, that isn’t what Shitty meant. He shakes his head.

“…No. Not like that.”

Shitty must see his hesitation, because he asks, “You sure?”

Jack shrugs. “Yeah.”

“Okay, so… is that a thing he used to do when you were together?”

Jack still—Shitty’s missing the point, it wasn’t about—Kent never—the problem was that they didn’t talk, not about things that mattered, or when they did it made things worse instead of helping. Jack’s… Jack isn’t good at communication, he knows that, but even when he tried Kent never seemed to want to.

Jack shakes his head again, wishing he could find the words he wanted.

“It’s—that’s not it. No.”

“Hm.” Shitty seems confused, but he moves on. “So did he used to be more stalker-ish? But you said that’s not really it now.”

“No…” Jack says, irritated because that definitely is not it now, and wasn’t really then, and he just doesn’t know. He pinches hard on the swelling hangnail. It’s a vain hope that he can get the gunk out before it gets worse, but the pain focuses him a little. Shitty must pick up on his frustration.

“Okay, let’s back way up—physical or emotional?”

“Um. Emotional.”

“Okay. So, did he try to talk you into something you didn’t want at the party?”

Jack nods, picking at some dried skin on his lip, glad they’re finally getting somewhere and trying to ignore the empty feeling in the pit of his stomach growing again as they confront the real problem.

Shitty takes a breath. “…Sorry, gotta ask: was it to have sex with him?”

Jack shakes his head. He—there would have been that, eventually, he knows, if he’d said yes to Vegas. That night, or when the Aces contacted him later… eventually. But he didn’t. So no, that’s not directly what Kent tried to talk him into. It’s going to take too long for Shitty to guess randomly, so he gets it out there himself to keep them on track.

“…No. Aces.”

“Fuck, of course it was. God, what an asshole. So what happened, then? What’d you say? Did you tell him to fuck off, or…?”

Jack shrugs. “‘Leave.’” And pushed him away again, shoved harder even than when I broke off the kiss, but he doesn’t say that part out loud. And technically it was “Get out,” the first time, but that’s not the point.

Shitty makes a noise of approval, and Jack glances up briefly and to see him grinning, fierce and cold and proud. “And did he?”

Jack’s eyes slide down to Shitty’s knees, pulled up to his chest, and he nods, slowly, because Kent did leave, but. Well.

“But.”

“…But he didn’t like it?” Shitty’s voice is steady, and his hands are clasped around his shins. Jack is grateful for his relative calm.

Jack nods again. Kent had definitely not liked that. “And.”

“…And he got mad?”

Jack doesn’t actually nod, this time, just takes a deep breath, heart starting to hammer again.

“Yeah. And. Bitty.”

“What? Bitty?” Shitty just sounds confused, now. “Wait, did Parse, like, threaten him or something?”

“No.” Jack nods sideways at his door. It’s closed now, and he shoves away the mental images of Kent standing there. He doesn’t need to dwell, that’s not going to help anything.

“…He was there,” is all he says.

“Aha.” Shitty’s voice dips down on the second syllable, disappointed even as he seems to understand. “And he saw or overheard something?”

“Yeah.” You could put it that way.

“Was he there the whole time?” Shitty asks.

Jack shrugs, trying not to let his frustration show.

“I don’t know.”

Because he doesn’t know, that’s part of the problem, but it’s not Shitty’s fault he doesn’t understand yet. And—it doesn’t really matter, in some ways. Bitty was there at the end. Even if he was only there for a few seconds, that would’ve been enough.

“Okay, so you don’t know how long he was there. Which makes sense, since your door was probably closed, right? So you didn’t see when he got there.”

It’s not a question, really, but Jack mumbles an “mhmm” anyway.

“And… it’s part of the problem? or it’s bothering you?” Shitty’s still feeling around for where to take this conversation. Jack is going to owe him something big.

“Yeah.”

“So it bothers you that he overheard you talking, and you don’t know how much. Is that all that bothers you about it, or is there more to it?”

“I—more? I—I don’t know.”

It’s all tangled up together again and he doesn’t—

He takes a deep breath, counts up to seven and back. Shitty is great, has been trying so hard to figure it out, but Jack needs to do this himself.

“It’s—more. I—I don’t know how much he heard, but. I think he—at the end. Kent said something, and. I think he knows. Not—not everything, maybe, but. That we—that we were. together. Fuck.”

“Bitty knows,” Shitty clarifies. He stretches his legs out and exhales long and slow, understanding. “Well. That’s unfortunate.”

Jack snorts. An understatement if he’s ever heard one. But some of the tension he had been feeling has evaporated, which is why Shitty is such a good friend.

“So obviously you were trying to—you didn’t want anyone to know, but now Bitty does, and that sucks. He hasn’t let anything on, though. At least he knows how to be subtle?”

Jack breathes out heavily, frustrated still. “It’s—that’s not it. It’s not about—it’s not about him saying anything. It’s… it’s that he knows, and I—”

He stops, hoping Shitty will somehow just… read his mind or something.

Shitty scoots toward the edge of the bed, closer to Jack. “Hey,” he says, in that way Jack knows means Shitty wants him to look at him. “You don’t think he thinks any less of you, do you?”

Shitty looks so serious and maybe a little sad, and distantly Jack is touched, but—no, of course not, that hadn’t crossed his mind. He claps his hands to his face a little harder than he should have. Ow.

“No, I—ugh.” Ah, fuck it. He takes a deep breath, looks straight above Shitty’s head, and makes himself say the words slowly and clearly. Or he tries.

“I don’t mind—I was going to tell him—but Shitty, I was going to tell him. And Kent—” he clenches his fists and blows out a harsh breath.

“…didn’t let you,” Shitty finishes. “So you’re pissed that he took that away from you.”

Jack runs one hand through his hair, pausing at the back to tighten his hand in it. “Yes! But I—fuck, why Bitty?

Shitty sounds thoughtful. “So, it’s specifically Bitty having heard that bothers you?”

“Yes. No. I—I didn’t want anyone to hear. I don’t want the others to know, but. I did want to tell him, just.” Jack’s shoulders slump, and his hand slides down the back of his neck. “I wanted to be the one who did.”

He manages a glance toward Shitty’s face, then, just to see what he’s making of all this. Shitty’s eyes are sympathetic, but thankfully his words are not pitying.

“Would it help if I orchestrate a painful death for Parson? I promise not to get arrested. I wonder if there are any volcanoes near Las Vegas…” He strokes his ’stache thoughtfully, and Jack rolls his eyes as the tension he feels lessens again. He can’t keep the half-smile off his face in spite of himself. As Bitty would say, Shitty is good people.

Shitty keeps a straight face and voice as he shrugs. “Hey, I’m just saying. I’m down if you’re cool with it.”

“Thanks, Shitty.” Jack can hear the warmth in his own voice. Crisse, Shitty is actually the best. Jack coughs a little. “But, uh. Seriously. Thanks. You were—I needed—calm. I—yeah.”

“You got it, bro.” Shitty sounds fond as he rises from the bed.

“Is this an appropriate time for a hug?” he asks, extending his arms. Jack stays in his chair but looks up to meet Shitty’s eyes.

“Not until you put on some pants.”

For once, Shitty actually concedes, and it only takes him a moment to duck back into his room and pull on a pair of basketball shorts. Close enough.

He steps out of the bathroom, arms open again, and Jack is out of his chair and wrapped around his friend in a single motion. He couldn’t have had that conversation cuddling with Shitty, but boy, does he need this now.

Jack doesn’t know how long they stand there, but every second of it is time well spent.

Chapter Text

Eventually Jack and Shitty let go of each other. Shitty disappeared into his room again and reappeared with a book, and they settled in together on Jack’s bed. Jack has only gone through the first page of yesterday’s notes when he remembers about Bitty.

Well. He never really forgot, but.

Bitty presses to the the forefront of his mind again. Bitty, who has seen Jack in more (both in number and extent) vulnerable positions this year than anyone has in ages, and has not done a damn thing about it but make him cookies and pancakes. Bitty, who genuinely admires Jack’s photos, crap as they are, and who, for some reason, Jack wants to show them to. Bitty, who sings and dances without a hint of shame, happy just to be happy with his friends.

Jack thinks about last Wednesday for a moment and smiles.

But—Bitty. Who did not sign up to get sucked into Jack’s ridiculous life, and yet here they are.

At another time in his life—or in another life altogether—Jack might have apologized. But now… Well, maybe he’s selfish, but having Bitty in his life is so much better than not having him there, and since Bitty hasn’t started complaining, Jack won’t either.

He sighs and presses his head down against Shitty’s, which is resting on his shoulder as Shitty reads.

“Hm?” Shitty asks, not moving.

“Nnh-nhh,” Jack answers. There’s nothing to talk about just yet. He’s just. trying to talk himself into doing what he knows he needs to do. He does want Bitty to know, not to have to wonder. Not for either of them to have to wonder, really; he still doesn’t know how long Bitty was there, how much he heard.

Had he only just walked upstairs at the end, in time to catch the last few words? Was he there outside listening to… for the last couple minutes? Was he there long enough to—did he hear when Kent—

Jack swallows, willing his heart rate to go back down. He notices his finger tapping incessantly on his notebook and takes a breath.

“…um,” he manages, sitting up a little and looking at Shitty’s… forehead, more than face, but. Close enough.

“Hm?” Shitty asks again, also sitting up and looking at Jack. He marks his place and closes his book.

“Um. I—I know I said I wanted to tell him myself—Bitty, I mean—but.”

Shitty raises his eyebrows like he’s saying I’m listening without interrupting. Jack doesn’t respond directly, but he keeps going, or tries to.

“But he, um. He knows some of it now, and I… I don’t want to talk about it. Again. So.” Jack pauses, squeezing his pencil tightly. “Can—can you tell him? About… me and Kent? That it’s… we…” His voice falters for a moment, but Jack keeps going. “That it’s over now. And. That it was… bad, I guess, if he isn’t sure. He should know.”

“Sure, Jack.” Shitty’s voice is calm, sympathetic, and non-judgemental, and Jack is so glad to have Shitty as a friend. “Anything specific you want me to say, or to leave out…?”

“I… no. I don’t know.” Jack looks down, staring at his notebook without actually seeing anything in it, and shrugs one shoulder stiffly, then pauses. There’s—he doesn’t know if Bitty was there that long, or he might not have been able to tell, but—still. If Jack is going to ask Shitty to do this at all, he might as well ask about that. And—and besides. Shitty listened to the rest of it enough, he… might as well know.

Jack keeps looking at his notebook. “Wait. No—yes. um. He—I don’t know how long he was there, but. If it was long enough, he might have—”

He closes his eyes briefly. He can do this, it’s—it’s just Shitty, and he can get the words out. Jack takes a deep breath.

“—Kent kissed me. I didn’t want him to, I—I pushed him away, but. He might have heard, so. Just—I don’t want him to think it was me.”

He keeps his eyes closed for a minute, but feels Shitty lean back a little. “Whoa, whoa, whoa.”

Jack’s eyes are still closed, but there is a stark contrast between Shitty’s actual words and tone of voice, and the gentle hand he rests on Jack’s arm. “One, seriously, are you sure I can’t go punch Parson for you? Two,” and Shitty pauses for a moment, “no. If Bitty asks, I’ll tell him, but I’m not gonna bring it up. If he already knows, fine, but I’m not telling him if he didn’t.”

Shitty pauses again; when he keeps going, his tone of voice sounds more than a little chirpy, though still mostly serious. “If nothing else, I am not fielding the questions about why you thought that was especially important for him to know.” Shitty manages to elbow Jack gently in the side even with one hand still on his arm, and how did he even do that? “You’re a grown-up, flirt with him yourself.”

Jack opens his eyes and half-smiles at that, if only to acknowledge Shitty’s attempt to help cheer him up. “…Fine. Um.”

He looks at the wall behind Shitty’s head and sighs. Shitty already knows enough of what happened, he doesn’t need to hear more, but… if he at least knows the order, has a better idea of when and why, he can—he’ll be able to put the pieces together about what happened exactly and what Bitty knows. “Just… So you know and everything. Kent was talking about the Aces and then—that. Kissed me to make me change my mind about joining them.”

Jack swallows. Shitty already knows, or could guess, this isn’t—it’s fine.“Pretended he—he still cared, but. It wasn’t—he didn’t mean it.” He closes his eyes again, wishing the tightness in his chest would just stop. “Just wanted to get his way. But I didn’t—I wouldn’t say yes, told him to leave, so. He got pissed and lashed out.”

Jack takes a deep breath, then another, holding each one and counting seconds. In for eight, hold for four, out for six. It’s over now, he doesn’t need to say anything else about it. It’s done.

Shitty waits for Jack to go on, and after a minute Jack manages to open his eyes, look at Shitty, and shrug slightly. “Uh. So. That’s all.”

“Asshat,” Shitty says with feeling as he levers himself up off the bed. “Volcano offer’s still open.” Shitty tilts his head slightly and scrunches his mouth up to one side of his face, spreading his arms out, palms up. “Just sayin’.” Jack finds a small smile for Shitty’s joke, and after another moment Shitty drops the pose.

“Anyway, got it. I’ll talk to Bitty right now, if you’re okay with that—pretty sure he said he was gonna study after he got back from the store, so realistically he’s probably baking right now. And you want me to tell you what he heard or figured out already or whatever? And whatever I end up explaining?”

“Uh. Yes. Please. Thank you.”


Bitty has always been partial to oatmeal in his cookies—even chocolate chip. His mama always makes them that way, and the first time itty-bitty Eric Bittle had a chocolate chip cookie made by someone else, the flatness of it had left him a very confused child.

However.

Jack has long and loudly (for Jack, anyway) professed that oatmeal belongs on a breakfast table and nowhere near his cookies. So naturally, the cookies currently in progress have not a speck of oatmeal in them.

Since Jack’s sneaky escape from MarioKart last night, Bitty has been worried about him, but this morning Jack seemed okay, so Bitty didn’t mention anything. They moved around each other in the kitchen as they got their respective breakfasts, silent beyond subdued “g’morning”s. But then, ’s not like Jack usually talks much in the morning anyway… So—so yeah, not good, but okay.

When Bitty came down from his after-breakfast shower, Jack was settled comfortably in the living room with his computer, apparently working on his thesis. Bitty wasn’t sure he wanted to interrupt whatever calm Jack had found, but he did want to… make an offer. He didn’t think it was necessary to push Jack to talk about what had been bothering him, but maybe Jack would come with him to the store, and they could talk about other things? Or just spend some time together without being angry.

Jack declined, and Bitty would be lying if he said he wasn’t disappointed, but Jack flashed him half a smile and gestured at his computer.

“I’ve been fighting against this section for a while, but I am finally getting somewhere. Don’t want to… take any dumb penalties. Gotta stay in the offensive zone, raise the pressure and compete level, play smarter, eh?” Jack finished in his most deliberate monotone.

Bitty snorted. If he were a different sort of person, he would have rolled his eyes and chalked up the metaphors to the hockeybot thing. Instead, he grinned and stuck his tongue out, silently cheering that Jack was in a joking mood.

“Well, good luck in the third, then, Jack. Thanks,” Bitty replied, imitating an ice-level reporter. Then he did roll his eyes, because those reporters and their questions are always so useless (and in the case of NBC’s Pierre McGuire, so uncomfortable), and continued in a normal voice.

“’Kay, well, I’ll be back in a bit, then. Text me if you think of something I should get, and if you want to celebrate your win over that section later, I’ll be around and crying about physics, so you know where to find me.”

Jack gave him a thumbs up, and Bitty made like anyone who had to talk to Pierre and got the heck out of there. Best to go before he said anything to dislodge the calm. And then the sooner he would get back, too.

He slid his earbuds in under his hat, hit shuffle on his phone, and let Nicki, Taylor, Pharrell, and company carry him to the store and back. (He’d left the store and was just out of the parking lot when the cookie idea struck him, so he turned around and went back for a package or two of chocolate chips, not sure if they had any left at the Haus. Good call, because it turns out they didn’t.)

When he returned, the living room was filled with frogs arguing about soccer, and Jack was nowhere to be seen. Shitty’s things were all over the table and couch, but he wasn’t there, either.

“Bitty!” Chowder shouted as Bitty pushed the door shut behind himself to keep out the winter air. “Shitty said you were going to make lunch?” He said, hopeful, but also helpful, reaching out and taking the bags from Bitty’s hands, careful of the coffee cup Bitty was also holding. (He was cold, and the door was open when Bitty walked past Annie’s, and Bitty is a weak man, okay?)

Bitty followed him into the kitchen. “Did he? Were you planning on chocolate chip cookies for lunch?” That’s all Bitty had been planning to make, save maybe a sandwich for himself. Now that Chowder mentioned it, it was getting to be lunch time.

“I mean, I won’t say no to your cookies, Bitty…” Chowder started.

“But you want real food, too,” Bitty finished. “Yeah, I’ll make something. Didn’t know y’all were going to be here. Dex! Sous-chef required!” From the living came a rustle of moving papers and the slam of a laptop lid, then Dex himself, sleeves rolled up.

Between the two of them (with a little help from Chowder, mostly of the stay-out-of-the-way variety), four of yesterday’s peanut-butter-black-bean-burgers materialized in fairly short order, and vanished into four waiting bellies in even shorter order. Next time will need some tweaks, sure, but the concept was solid.

Nursey waved Dex and Bitty off when they were done, saying he would get the dishes, and Chowder volunteered to help, too, after one meaningful glare from Nursey. Dex disappeared into the living room immediately, grumbling indistinctly about some unfinished assignment, but Bitty stayed in the kitchen.

He really appreciated Nursey and Chowder’s help, and he was feeling really good about how smoothly lunch had gone with the three of them—Dex and Nursey really were becoming friends, not just friendly, and it was so pleasant to be around them when they weren’t in the mood to be at each other’s throats. (Which still happens, plenty often, but it didn’t happen today, so that was nice.)

But Bitty was not quite ready to face his physics book, and since he just doesn’t have it in him to push Jack to talk about… whatever’s been bothering him, the best thing Bitty could think to do is to make weird, oatmeal-less chocolate chip cookies and hope that they convey some of the words he doesn’t think Jack is ready to hear out loud.

So the frogs are washing up the lunch dishes, and Bitty has now set up cookie-shop on the table. Betsy is preheating, and Bitty is almost ready to start dropping dough onto baking sheets. Where are the—chocolate chips are in the shopping bag, which Bitty still hasn’t unpacked.

…but Chowder has. Bless that boy.

Bitty retrieves the chocolate chips from where Chowder had put them up in the cupboard and pours them into the batter. He has to bat one of Nursey’s hands out of the bowl, trying to sneak a couple chips on his way out.

“Hey, my hands are clean!” Nursey protests, gesturing at the sink. Chowder is still standing over there, wiping down pans with a towel.

“Don’t care!” Bitty sing-songs. “Keep your fingers out of my cookie dough!”

Nursey leaves, sans chocolate chips or cookie dough, and Chowder follows not long after.

By the time Betsy beeps that she’s heated up, Bitty has two sheets of cookies ready to go in. He rinses his hands off, slides the first one in, and sets the timer. He could wait for those to come out, take them off the sheet, and then refill it with new cookie dough, or he could deal with the extra washing up and just get all the dough out onto a couple more sheets right now.

…the latter option is probably the better plan. Less up-and-down and hand-washing. He really does have to start his homework at some point.

Shitty wanders into the kitchen as Bitty is finishing up the fourth tray of cookies, just about to scrape the bowl and offer the frogs the dregs of the dough that didn’t fit on those trays. Bitty wonders for a moment when he came back downstairs, but then he has to swat one of Shitty’s hands away, too.

“Leave those alone! Lord. Here, take this dish in and share with Nursey.” He scrapes the rest of the dough off the spatula into a small ceramic bowl and hands it to Shitty, who swipes one finger through it, sticks it in his mouth, and leaves before Bitty can hand him a spoon.

Bitty rolls his eyes and goes to wash his hands. If the rest of them want spoons, they know where they are. He starts to run some water for the mixing bowl, and almost collides with Shitty when he turns around to grab it off the table.

“Whoa! You’re quiet today, I didn’t hear you!”

Shitty steps back quickly. “Sorry! Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you or be in the way. But hey, can you come up and help me with something?” He looks quite serious, so Bitty nods.

“Sure thing. Let me stick these in the sink.”

Bitty steps around Shitty and grabs the bowl off the table. He puts all the measuring cups and spoons into it, squirts some soap in, and sets it all under the tap for a few seconds. They can soak and then he’ll wash it all for real later, after the baking sheets are done, too. He rinses his fingers one more time and turns off the water with a quick look at the timer on the oven.

“Dex!” Bitty calls again, walking out of the kitchen. Dex looks up from the far armchair in the living room, where he’s sitting with his knees pulled up to his chin, reaching around them to type on his laptop on the coffee table. (How is that comfortable at all? Silly long-limbed tall people…)

“Hey, I gotta go help Shitty with something, can you make sure the cookies get in and out until I get back? They’re all on trays—don’t mess with them, Nursey. I will know—just put them in for nine minutes and set the trays on the cooling racks when you pull them out, ’kay? I’ll take care of the rest of it.”

Dex shoots him two thumbs up, and Bitty follows Shitty upstairs.


Shitty’s room looks like a tornado hit it. (Or a winter storm? Apparently those are being named now? “Marcus” is supposed to be starting today, or something, after “Juno” ran through last month. Lord.) Shitty has always referred to his desk as his “piling cabinet”, and the precarious stacks of papers and books are maybe a personal best, as far as Bitty can remember.

More to the point, his laundry hamper seems to have been inverted like a popcorn kernel, with clothes completely obscuring the bookcase, bed, and office chair. Shitty had stopped short when he led Bitty into the room, as though he’d forgotten there was no place to sit. Bitty caught himself from a more serious collision, pressing a hand into Shitty’s shoulder blade.

“Oh,” Shitty says, looking around. “Right. Let me just shove everything…” He looks around for the hamper, but as Bitty starts to help gather up the clothes, he notices something.

“Hey, are these clean?”

Shitty pauses with an armful of shirts he’s collected off the bookcase. “Uh, yeah, why?”

“No point shoving them back in there to be forgotten about and wrinkled.” Bitty rolls his eyes. “What’d you need help with? Can I help while I fold?”

“No, Bits—” Shitty protests. “You don’t need to fold my clothes. I just—need to talk to you and didn’t want the frogs involved.”

Bitty waves him off. “I really don’t mind it. You gonna sit in the chair? I can use the bed as a table.” Plus, Bitty is feeling more and more by the second that this is going to be an Important Talk, especially given Shitty’s lack of… bounce. A task in the meantime would be quite welcome.

“Uh, sure, have at it, man,” Shitty concedes, and shifts around on the balls of his feet for a few moments before dropping into his chair and sprawling out.

“Do you fold your shirts in halves or thirds?” Bitty asks, sorting out the socks and underwear from the rest of it. “And do you fold or ball your socks?”

“Uhhh, half and then half again, and ball, but whatever, man. I’m not going to be picky if I don’t have to be doing it.” Fair enough, Bitty thinks, though he certainly knows people who would dictate such things.

It’s quiet for a minute, and Bitty is a little uncomfortable, but he doesn’t know what Shitty actually wants, so he can’t prompt. He focuses on folding the shirts, lining up the sleeves and getting nice, square corners. Shitty scratches his legs and when he finally speaks, Bitty looks over to see him pulling tangles out of his drying hair with his fingers.

“So.” Shitty’s voice is quieter than usual, serious as Bitty predicted. “Jack asked me to talk to you about what you overheard during Epikegster.”

“What?” Bitty stares blankly for a second. He can’t have heard that right, can he? Not that he hasn’t wanted to be there for Jack if he needed to talk, but… that wasn’t supposed to be this way around. And for Shitty to be here instead of Jack—actually makes sense, kind of, but that isn’t at all what Bitty expected either.

Shitty looks back at him, face as serious as his tone. “He said you heard him and Parson talking, but that he didn’t know how much you’d been there for. Doesn’t really want to have the whole conversation himself, though, so. Here we are.”

Apparently Bitty did hear right the first time.

“I—it was just—I was checking to make sure I’d locked my door and all, you remember? Couldn’t find the key at first, and then they started yelling and—” Bitty swallows. “I didn’t mean to listen really, I know I shoulda just left then, but I got distracted and went and dropped the key and then they opened the door and I—”

Bitty cuts himself off and refocuses on the shirts he’s folding, unable to look Shitty in the eye. He can’t completely regret having heard, if only because it meant he knew to bake Jack those cookies before break, and he thinks—even after what he saw and heard, and Jack knowing—that they’re actually closer friends than they were already, but he still can’t quite believe he just stood there. What kind of a friend deliberately eavesdrops like that?

Shitty’s voice distracts Bitty before his thoughts start going in circles too much or he starts babbling again. “Hey, no, this isn’t—he’s not mad at you or anything, okay? That’s not what this is about. You don’t need to explain or beat yourself up about it or whatever, it’s fine. Or…” Shitty trails off, and Bitty glances back at his face to see him biting his lip for a second, looking conflicted.

“…Okay, so I guess it’s not fine-fine, but that’s not the point. He just wants to know what you heard, is all? And just make sure you didn’t have any… misconceptions?”

Bitty coughs. That does make sense, more or less, and Shitty sounds mostly pretty sure of what he’s saying, but… “Um. I mean. I… coulda been mistaken about… what it looked like had happened, and I don’t… don’t wanna speculate or gossip.”

Shitty runs a hand through his hair and sighs, stretching out a little more himself. “Bits, the whole fuckin’ point of this conversation is to tell you the truth and end the speculation. But you know more about this than I do, actually, since you were there, so you will you please just be straight with me?”

Bitty can’t keep one part of his brain from observing that absolutely no part of this conversation involves being straight, but he just groans inwardly and shoves it aside.

He takes a deep breath and holds it for a second, then sighs heavily, stacking the folded shirts rather than looking at Shitty’s face. “I—It—their hair and clothes were—were allmessedup.” Bitty knows what happened but he still can’t believe he witnessed that. Shady circumstances or no, some things are meant to be private.

Shitty hums in acknowledgement. “…So in other words, you could see they’d been kissing.” Bitty can hear the raised eyebrow.

Bitty feels his face heat up, and starts matching socks in favor of making eye contact with Shitty.

“…Well. It… looked like it, yes…” He trails off, but then grumbles “…must’ve been quite some kissing,” and then claps a hand over his mouth, horrified at himself. He did not just say that.

“Okay, for the record, that was all Parse; Jack wanted no part of it. Also, now we’re getting somewhere.”

Bitty shoves the pile of balled-up socks to one corner of the bed and sets the shirts in the other, and starts folding up boxers, silent.

Shitty sighs and repositions himself in his chair. “Look, Bits—no, seriously, look at me.” Bitty does, boxers in hand. “I get you don’t wanna speculate or gossip or whatever, but you’re friends, we’re friends—” He gestures to himself and Bitty and adds “—we’re friends. We’re all friends. It’s okay, okay?”

Bitty takes several seconds to think about what he’s going to say before he finally speaks.

“…I mean, I don’t know the context or what they’d said before I got there or in the past or whatever, and he seemed so nice before and all, too, but…”

He puts the boxers down unfolded and runs his hand through his hair.

“…but what he said, it was just… he was so mean.” Bitty falters, but makes himself keep going. “I don’t understand why he would say things like—like that to Jack? or to anyone, really—but I thought they were… friends, at least, and I know they weren’t on good terms anymore, but he sounded sort of like he still cared about him? But it was just so awful, he was—it was all about how—he—Jack—I dunno if he coulda said worse stuff if he tried, it…”

Bitty’s shoulders slump. He looks down at the bed, but doesn’t go back to folding the laundry yet. “…kinda sounded like he was trying.” Looking back at Shitty, he shrugs a little, spreading his hands out to show how helpless and uncertain he feels. “I don’t know what to think, I guess.”

Shitty sighs and stretches out a little, rubbing his face with both hands. “Yyyyeah, okay. So for starters, ‘mean’ isn’t a bad way to describe him but also kinda doesn’t even fucking begin to cover it. and… fuck, okay, look, you know they were together, right? You got that much.”

It’s not really a question, but he pauses like he’s expecting a response anyway. Bitty—well, he didn’t know, but—he thought. Hard not to. He nods.

Shitty nods a little too—mostly to himself, Bitty thinks. “And like I said, you actually know more about what he said than I do—Jack didn’t really give details, just said he got mad—but whatever it was, it was more than just ‘mean’ or ‘not okay.’ It sounds like he was deliberately messing with Jack’s emotions, right? Being all ‘oh I still care about you’—” Shitty’s voice is poisonously sweet—“and turning around and, I don’t know, probably calling him, like, worthless and shit?”

Shitty breaks off and takes a deep breath, one hand clenching into a fist. Bitty doesn’t say anything, but he reaches out for the boxers again without looking away, and wishes briefly that they could have had this conversation in the kitchen, where everything is just a bit more second-nature. Shitty continues in a carefully calm and measured tone of voice.

“So, that was nothing new for him, or for them or whatever. He wasn’t just saying shit he didn’t mean because he was all hurt, or whatever nice explanations you’ve probably tried to make, right? I get it, he seemed cool—fuck, I liked him too, we all did—but what he said to Jack was deliberate emotional manipulation.”

Bitty reaches to the side for another pair of boxers and keeps folding mechanically, grateful in the back of his mind to Shitty for putting off doing laundry for so long. It’s always better, having something to do with his hands, even if it’s not baking.

Shitty squeezes his lips together and sits up straight, pressing his still-clenched fist to his mouth for a second, clearly trying to keep himself from exploding. “He was lashing out—I dunno why exactly. Trying to make Jack feel bad about himself and his choices so he’d do what Parse wanted instead? Trying to hurt him for not giving in? Both? I dunno. Jack wasn’t super clear, but—that’s not the point. Point is, if I haven’t mentioned recently? That’s all emotional abuse.”

Shitty pauses again, and Bitty’s hands still. He’s—he’s upset, but not really surprised.

“…yeah,” he says slowly. “I… I don’t think I wanted to—to believe it, or to admit it to myself, but… yeah. I think I’d kinda figured it out and was still just trying to pretend I hadn’t?”

Shitty starts nodding before Bitty’s even finished speaking. “Yeah, Jack thought you’d probably put it together already, but he wanted to be sure. Oh, hey, and I don’t think you would, but just checking—obviously don’t mention it to anyone else, don’t make a big deal about not liking Parson anymore or whatever, and don’t start treating Jack any differently.”

Bitty’s eyes go wide. “Oh, no, of course not! I wouldn’t—”

Shitty rocks his chair back and waves his hand as if to push such a possibility away. “Yeah, I know, I get it, you’re fine, you did fine before I said anything, just being safe, y’know? And I mean like, I didn’t notice anything was up with you two and Jack’s my best bro. So I gotta mention it, but you’re fine. Should thank you, probably—he didn’t spell it out but it sounds like you’ve been a pretty fuckin’ great friend to him, ’specially over break, so thanks for that. You’re just… you’re good to him. For him. Whatever. Thanks for having his back.” Shitty briefly squeezes his shoulder a little tighter, then lets go.

Bitty feels himself starting to blush again, and he starts folding the last couple pairs of boxers again to distract himself. That… he knows it’s not how Shitty meant it, and he’s probably mentally exaggerating how much it sounded like that anyway because wishful thinking, but… ugh, he really wishes Shitty had phrased the last bit in a way that sounded less like it was about him and Jack dating. Shitty’s had some unfortunate word choices today…

He stammers out a reply, fairly certain he’s already taken a few seconds too long to respond. “Oh—um, good, thank you, I mean—I’m glad to! He’s—he’s my friend, obviously, of course I want to do anything I can to help or… or be there for him… I mean…”

Shitty gives him an odd look as he trails off, simultaneously kicking himself and desperately hoping Shitty won’t ask. He coulda only been more obvious, probably, if he’d been actively trying somehow.

“…Bits? Everything okay?”

Crap.

Heavy, emotional conversation about Jack and slightly unfortunate phrasing or no, Bitty can’t believe he messed up like that. He’s been so careful…

“—What? No, yeah, everything’s fine! Sorry.” He smiles, but mentally winces. That sounded way too cheerful for right after a conversation like they just had, what is wrong with him today?

“Dude.” Shitty just raises his eyebrows and nails Bitty with a stare. Bitty wilts slightly. “Do you need to talk about it, or should I pretend you’re a convincing liar?”

“No!” Bitty tries to lower the pitch and volume of his voice. “No, no, nothing’s wrong, I swear, it’s totally fine! And there’s nothing anyone can do anyway, don’t worry about it. Me. I’m fine.”

Shitty uncrosses his legs and crosses them the other way around. “…Okay, see, ‘it’s totally fine’ and ‘there’s nothing anyone can do,’ like, those aren’t really the same thing. So which is it and are you sure, because we’re already here, so if you wanna tell someone about it, I’ll listen.” Shitty shrugs. “If you want.”

Bitty considers it for a moment, then throws in the towel and puts the last pair of boxers on the stack of finished clothes. “…um. Do… you promise you won’t tell Jack?”

Shitty raises an eyebrow at him. Or—well, lowers one and raises the other more. Bitty hurries to elaborate, realizing how bad that sounded.

“I mean, I know you’re his best friend and all, but—and it’s nothing bad exactly, just… you can’t tell him.”

“Ohhhh-kay, Bits,” Shitty says, doubtfully. He still looks concerned, but differently, somehow—more genuinely worried, less snarky. “I’m gonna trust your judgement here, but like. If it’s something involving Jack, you’d damn well better be right about him not needing to know.”

Bitty can see Shitty getting ready to go into Jack Zimmermann Protection Mode if necessary, which is something Bitty’d really rather never have directed at him. Ever. About anything, especially this.

“He really doesn’t! I swear, it is absolutely nothing he needs to know, ever, and…” Bitty’s shoulders slump. “And… he’ll… probably be happier not knowing, honestly.” If Jack knew how much Bitty wished all the time they’d spent hanging out the past few weeks—baking, studying, watching the movie, getting coffee together—had been dates? Lord.

Shitty looks even more doubtful at this, and Bitty can practically hear him asking what the hell is Bitty even gonna say, but instead, when he opens his mouth, it’s not with an incredulous question.

“Alright, bro, if you’re sure.”

Bitty half-wishes Shitty hadn’t responded so well, so he’d have an excuse to get out of this. It sounded appealing for a minute, having someone know instead of keeping it bottled up—as nice as his viewers are, saying things on his vlog just isn’t the same—but now he actually has to admit it, and more explicitly than he ever has before. All he told Stephen was that there was “someone”, and even to the internet he only said “a straight boy”. He’s never used Jack’s name.

Bitty takes a deep breath, and for lack of a better idea, blurts it out before he can stop himself.

“…I… I might kindalikehim. Jack. Like, a lot.”

Shitty facepalms.

“…Right. Okay. Not really what I expected, but… okay. That does explain things.”

“That ‘explains things’?” Bitty says, suddenly panicked. He thought he was doing so well, but if Shitty noticed what if some of the others have? What if they all have, and they were all just too nice to say anything, and Shitty means he forgot or didn’t realize it was supposed to be a secret?

That can’t be right, surely, but… but what if it is? And oh no—oh no, does Jack know? He can’t, please say he doesn’t know, please don’t say he knows

Bitty only realizes he’s starting to hyperventilate when Shitty leans forward, startled, and reaches one hand out towards him.

“Whoa, hey, calm down. That was a not-great way to put it, maybe—I just mean, like, it makes sense in retrospect. Don’t worry, I’m not gonna tell anybody. I didn’t know until you said it, so what do you think the chances are that Mr. Canadian Hockeybot figured it out, y’know? So you don’t need to panic or whatever.”

Bitty breathes in and out, and rolls his eyes at the nickname, smiling just a little. “Point taken.”

Shitty squeezes his shoulder. “Anyway, hey, feel better now? Always good to get something like that off your chest.”

“Yeah, and… thanks, Shitty.”

Shitty grins and rubs his hand across the back of Bitty’s shoulders as they stand up. “Any time, bro.”

Shitty unlocks his door, and they leave—Shitty heading for Jack’s room, and Bitty for the kitchen. He has a lot of things to think about for a while, now, and few things can’t be mulled over better in the process of making pie. Or wait, no, he still needed to put those cookies away and do the dishes, didn’t he? That first, then. Maybe he’ll make pie later—after dinner, or tomorrow, since they did just make all those cookies, but maple sugar apple seems called for.


Jack wakes up to two phones buzzing under his ribs, disoriented and very warm. He blinks a couple times and tries to lift his head up but doesn’t quite succeed. What time is it? What—?

Shitty’s arm draped over him comes into focus, and he realizes that both his and Shitty’s legs are trapped under his blankets. How did that…? Huh, he must have conked out and then Shitty maneuvered them both under the covers. How long did they sleep?

The phones buzz again, and Jack wiggles around until he can slide one of them out from under them. 17:48, huh? Lock screen notifications suggest that it was the Haus-and-frogs group text that woke him up. He shoves Shitty’s arm off him so that he can unlock his phone and read them easier, but Shitty stays out like a light.

[17:48]
aujourd’hui 17:44

Oluransi 11
Hey do you guys have
dinner plans?

Oluransi 11
Me and H are at the library,
probably headed for the
dhall soon unless bits is
cooling?

Oluransi 11
*cooking

Bittle 15
Dining hall sounds good.
The frogs are with me and
also on board

Oluransi 11
What about Jack shirty
and Lards?

Oluransi 11
*Shitty

Bittle 15
They're not here rn, but
they can join us if/when
they see this

Bittle 15
Y'all should go grab a
table and we'll be there
soon

Duan ∞
Yo I'm coming from the
studio and bringing some
friends.

Oluransi 11
Holster is a thirstbucket
and wants to know if Keiko
is among them

Birkholtz 4
stfu that is not how i meant
that

Oluransi 11
So then ask your own
questions bro

Birkholtz 4
Lardo please don't let
Keiko see this

[Message]

Jack nudges Shitty a little harder. “Shits, wake up.” His voice is groggy, so he clears his throat and tries to push himself to sitting. The phones buzz again.

[17:49]

Birkholtz 4
Lardo please don't let
Keiko see this

Duan ∞
:X please

Duan ∞
I am not getting mixed up
in this. I just want food.

[Message]

Jack throws the covers off both of them and pokes Shitty hard in the side, careful to keep an arm around him lest he startle and fall off the bed. “Shitty, wake up. How long were we asleep?”

Shitty groans and slaps Jack’s hand. “Quit itttt. ’m awaaaake.”

“How long were we asleep?” Jack asks again. “I really hadn’t planned on a nap.”

“No, but you probably needed it,” Shitty replies, rubbing his eyes. “You’ve… had a day. Anyway, uh, 3:30 maybe? When you fell asleep, I mean. And then I got tired, too, so. What time is it now?”

“Ten of six, about.” Jack feels around in the bed for Shitty’s phone, then hands it to him. “Here. You wanna go meet them for dinner?”

Shitty unlocks his phone and scrolls through the chat. Both the phones buzz again.

[17:50]

Duan ∞
I am not getting mixed up
in this. I just want food.

Oluransi 11
Okay we will try to get a
table to the left of the
swipe-in, like kind of near
the salad bar. If we end up
somewhere else, we'll let
you know.

Oluransi 11
Also Icer is with us now

#partytime

[Message]

“Mmm, yeah, food sounds good,” says Shitty. “You gonna come?”

Jack considers for a moment, but shakes his head. “Sounds like a lot of people. You should go, though. I’m good.”

“’kay.” Shity stands up and stretches, his shirt riding up above his shorts a little.

“Might wanna put on some pants,” Jack suggests drily. “Lardo will not actually be impressed by you freezing your shins off on the way to the dining hall, and that storm is coming in.”

Shitty rolls his eyes and flips Jack off as he heads toward his room.

“’Course she’s also seen you in way less on a pretty regular basis and you haven’t won her over yet, so.” Jack raises his eyebrows in a friendly taunt.

Shitty whips his head back around. “Jesus, Jack, lay off, okay?”

Well shit. That is not the reaction Jack was going for.

“Hey, no, wait. Shitty—” Shitty stays where he is, hand on the bathroom door, looking at Jack expectantly. Jack swallows. “I just—like, thank you, again, for everything you did today, but…” He takes a breath. “Are you okay? With her, I mean?”

Shitty doesn’t say anything.

“I know it’s not—I’ll fuck off if you want, but I just. She said something to me a few days ago about making sure that I let Bitty make his own choices with regard to our relationship, and now I just wondered—was that because of you?”

Shitty’s face drops instantly from anger to… sadness? Double shit. “Just… leave it, Jack. But thanks for mentioning that, I guess.” He waves his hand in Jack’s direction before disappearing into his room, and Jack lets out a breath. Noted.

He pulls out his phone and opens his text conversation with Bitty, trying to figure out what to say to get his point across. How do you say “thanks for being the best human being I’ve ever met” + “I hope I don’t make you uncomfortable” + “sorry I couldn’t talk to you myself” without… actually saying any of those words?

Jack is saved momentarily by Shitty’s reappearance, now with sweatpants and a coat. Jack offers him a tentative smile.

“I—” Shitty starts, staring at Jack’s feet on the bed. “Sorry. For snapping at you. I… probably needed to hear that. So, like, lay off, still? But thanks.” He clears his throat. “Anyway, uh, I’m gonna head to dinner before they’re all done. Let me know if you want me to bring you anything back.”

Jack smiles a little more firmly and nods his agreement. “Get out of here, Shits.” He swallows, heart beating quickly all of a sudden, and speaks before he can rethink his decision. “Love you.”

He knows Shitty knows, but he doesn’t usually say it in words, not with this level of sincerity. But today it’s important.

Shitty smiles back at him, fond. “Love you, too, bro. See ya!” And Shitty’s gone.

Jack unlocks his phone again and stares at his conversation with Bitty for one more long moment, then starts typing.

[17:55]
aujourd’hui 17:54

Not feeling up to the dining
hall right now =/ are there
any leftovers from
whatever you and the frogs
made for lunch?

Mmmm I don't think so but
I did get some more
chicken meatballs at the
store this morning, so you
could make them and
pasta?

I think there's a jar of
sauce in the fridge, too.
And lmk if there's anything
you want from the dhall or
anything okay?

Thanks :)
Lu à 17:55

[iMessage]

Jack’s heart has slowed to a reasonably normal pace, and he bites his bottom lip as warmth blooms in his chest. He can’t totally tell, of course, but Bitty seems to have understood what he meant to say just fine.

He stands up and stretches. Falling asleep in these jeans was a terrible non-choice. Six PM isn’t too early to move to pajamas, eh? Whatever, nobody cares.

When he steps into the kitchen, flannel pants swishing around his ankles and hands tucked into the pocket of his favorite Habs hoodie, he goes immediately not to the cupboard for pasta nor to the freezer for meatballs, but to the counter where a plastic Chinese takeout container is sitting with his name on it. Literally.

front of note reading simply “Jack”

He picks up the folded over piece of paper and opens it.

inside of note, reading “made these for you this morning—don’t worry, no oatmeal! :) —ERB”

Suddenly, Jack is standing in the Montréal airport, staring at a plastic bag of cookies and wondering what exactly he’d done to deserve a friend like Eric Bittle.

He blinks, and swallows, and feels that warmth in his chest blossom again, even as his heart picks up speed again. Crisse, this has Been A Day, Shitty was right. He’ll have one of the cookies in the container—after he makes dinner. He really was going to watch his sweets this weekend, but… well. Bitty went to the trouble of making them, and Jack couldn’t turn that down. Plus—honestly—they’re just really good.

But. Dinner first.


Bitty comes down from Shitty’s room ready to process stuff while he washes the dishes and then finally get to work on that fricking physics problem set and maybe let everything else simmer on this back burner for a while, but the kitchen is pretty well spotless when he gets in there. The cookies are all packed into storage containers, and the dishes are overturned on the stove, washed and now drying.

Bitty backtracks into the living room, where the three frogs are all crowded around Nursey’s laptop.

“Oh my god,” Dex is saying. “He is judging you so hard. So hard.”

“Right?” Nursey asks, delighted. “The sassiest pickle.”

Aaaaand Bitty’s just gonna not comment on that. He’s not sure he can handle whatever nonsense they are talking about just now. “Who cleaned the kitchen?” he asks instead.

All three of them look up, startled. They must not have heard him come in.

“Oh!” says Chowder. “We did! We needed a break, and you’ve done so much today already!”

Bitty smiles. These three are too good to him. He catches Dex and Nursey’s eyes and smiles even more broadly. He’s so glad to see them laughing together like this.

“So how many cookies did I pay for this service?”

Nursey has the grace to look away, slightly embarrassed. Dex just grins back at Bitty. “We only took one apiece,” he says.

“Thank you,” says Bitty, sincere. “I’m going to go work in the kitchen so that I can spread out a bit. Come find me if you need anything.”

“Yes, mom,” says Dex, and sticks his tongue out. Bitty just rolls his eyes. Thank God for frogs, honestly.

The next several hours pass in a haze of arithmetic, free body diagrams, and lost Candy Crush lives. There may be some My Drunk Kitchen in there, too. Whatever. The problems get done with a minimum of thunking his head into his textbook, so. Victory?

Bitty is just starting to think about food when his phone buzzes with a message from Ransom, suggesting that they all go to the dining hall for dinner. Sounds like a plan. Neither Shitty nor Jack responds to the message, so Bitty doesn’t press them and heads the frogs off before they can go looking. The other two will show up if they want to.

He waits for the frogs to get their shoes and coats on, and pack up their things, after Dex decides he wants to go straight back to his dorm after dinner and the other two agree. Then, once he’s shepherded them out the door, Bitty “remembers” something he needs to bring to Lardo and ducks back inside, promising that he’ll catch up.

He tears a sheet out of his notebook on the table and folds it in half, scrawling Jack’s name across one side of it, then pauses as he decides what to put on the inside. He wants to say… Well, he doesn’t know what he wants to say, but nothing that he would mind anyone else reading if they get to this first, so… Short and sweet, he decides, and dashes off the note, sets it on top of one box of cookies, and hurries to join everyone else for dinner.

As promised, Bitty and the frogs find Ransom and Holster’s stuff strewn over a group of tables in front of the salad bar. They dump their own things and go to get plates. Sunday evening is always a bit of a crapshoot in terms of interesting options, but deli sandwiches and yogurt with granola are reliable, if somewhat boring.

Soon enough they are all crowded around a long line of tables pulled together, eating and chattering away. (Holster, Bitty is amused to see, managed to snag a seat next to Keiko.) Lardo is sitting just next to Bitty and neither of them say very much, content just to listen and nod as appropriate while Shitty and Chowder argue about the relative merit (or lack thereof) of resizing hockey goals. (Chowder is adamantly against it. Shitty probably is, as well? But it’s hard to tell how much he believes and how much he’s just saying to play devil’s advocate.)

One by one they all go for seconds, because they are hockey players and it’s an all-you-can-eat dining hall, and this is just how life works. Just after Bitty returns with his peanut butter and carrots, Shitty sits back down across from him with a pile of tater tots from the grill, and Lardo immediately starts to reach across the table and eat them off his plate.

“Hey!” Shitty yelps, pushing her hands away. “Quit eating all my tater tots!”

“You should’ve brought me some tater tots, then,” Lardo counters, licking her fingers as though this is the only logical conclusion.

You’re a tater tot,” Shitty grumbles as he turns sideways to protect his plate.

Lardo raises her eyebrows and gestures around the table with her hand. “Do I look like I’m made of potatoes to you?”

Shitty sticks his tongue out in response, but Chowder pipes up, “No, but you’re the small one who hangs out with all of us, so you’re the tater to—” He claps a hand over his mouth, eyes wide as he realizes what he just said. “Wait, no, I mean—I didn’t mean that, I’m sorry!!”

Bitty smiles, because Chowder genuinely didn’t mean it as a chirp, and he’s so earnestly apologetic. It’s nice, he thinks, to know that those jokes sometimes come from a place of affection rather than mockery.

Lardo seems to be of a similar opinion, because she laughs and says, “Well, I mean, I guess you have a point.” Chowder’s face has gone a deep red, but he’s not covering it with his hands anymore.

Shitty kicks Lardo under the table, bumping her leg into Bitty’s. “Oh my god,” he says, snickering, “but you know that one picture of Jack, with the—?”

“Yes!!” she exclaims. They both dissolve into a fit of giggles, and Bitty is completely lost. He shakes his head and scoops up some more peanut butter on a carrot and pops it into his mouth.

Dex leans in from a few seats away, turning away from the conversation he’d been having with Ransom and Icer. “What is happening over here?” Shitty and Lardo only laugh harder.

“No,” Shitty manages between giggles, “it’s—never mind. Long story.” He waves his hand as if to say, carry on, ignore us.

At the same time, Lardo gasps, “Oh my god, what if instead of ‘frogs’—?” and they’re off again. Dex rolls his eyes and turns back to Ransom and Icer. Bitty still has no idea where exactly this train of thought got derailed, but he’s happy. Man, does he love his friends.

Eventually they all break up and head their separate ways. Shitty, Bitty, Ransom, and Holster end up being the only ones headed back to the Haus, but they don’t waste any time getting there, because it’s cold outside, and the snow sure is coming.

Bitty heads straight for the kitchen, because it’s past seven already and that pie’s not going to get itself in the oven. Holster and Shitty settle in to watch something in the living room, it seems, and Ransom probably had his nose in his books before Bitty was able to get his coat off.

If Jack made dinner while they were out, there’s no sign of it but the cookies on the counter are gone, and when Bitty gets closer he sees a note left in their place.

Note reading “thanks”, and slightly smaller “for the cookies”. The space between the first two words is slightly larger than the other spaces, and overall the note gives the impression everything after the first word was added almost as an afterthought.

Well then. Sounds like Jack understood what Bitty meant, then. Good.

The pie’s in the oven by 7:45, which is late enough Bitty’s not even going to pretend he’ll get any more homework done tonight, so he parks himself at the table, opens Pinterest up, and starts How To Get Away With Murder in another tab.

Partway through the episode, Bitty opens Betsy up to check on the pie; it’s looking good, so he adds the rest of the maple sugar and clicks on his twitter notifications.

pizza ghost hella_marcella · Feb 7
.@omgcheckplease when Jack is having a hard day, how does he make it better? Or how does someone try to help make him a little better?

Well. Isn’t that a question and a half. Bitty rereads the tweet a few times, biting his lip as he tries to figure out how to respond.

I think he

Usually he

He

Well, Shitty usually hugs him a lot and either yells nice things about how great he is or is really quiet

Shitty hugs him a lot and Lardo just kind of sits quietly near him and the rest of us just kind of give him space. Unless he seems like

Well, Shitty mostly hugs him and I usually give him space or let him help in the kitchen or ask him to talk about the pictures he’s taken

Eric Bittle @omgcheckplease · Feb 7
@hella_marcella …that’s a really good question. :/

Bitty finishes the episode and considers starting another, but decides instead to switch his earbuds from his laptop to his phone, hits shuffle, and spends another twenty minutes or so scrolling through Pinterest. He’s startled by Betsy’s timer finally going off, but checks to see if the pie is actually ready.

It needs another couple minutes, so Bitty puts away everything still in the dishrack and washes the cups left out on the counter, singing along quietly to his music; it’s on the late side to actually be singing, but it’s not like anyone is going to hear him from the living room, much less all the way upstairs.

So it’s not until Bitty turns around, pie in hands, that he notices he has an audience.

Well. That he has a photographer might be a better description, considering the camera in Jack’s hands and the small grin on his face. Bitty breaks off singing halfway through a line to laugh.

Chapter Text

Jack takes a few more photos while Bitty finishes up the dishes, then sits down to have a very small slice of pie. Unsurprisingly, the pie is delicious. Maple apple is always a winner in Jack’s book, but this is…

He smiles as he pulls the fork out of his mouth and hums quietly while he chews. “You know you’re single-handedly destroying my nutrition plan this weekend.” He looks down to his plate to cut another bite with his fork, then looks up as he puts it in his mouth, catching Bitty’s eye for only a second before Bitty looks down, blushing and licking his lips.

Jack is licking the filling off his fork and he realizes suddenly exactly how this looks, and he sure as hell didn’t mean to do this right now, but… He can’t help the swoop of pleasure that fills him momentarily, knowing that Bitty looks like that because of him. Jack lets his own eyes drop back to the table, and he chews and swallows as nondescriptly as he can, hoping that he’s not blushing as well.

It stays quiet and a little awkward for a minute, but then Bitty clears his throat and says, “Ah, well, I’ll let the boys finish this off tomorrow, then. But I’m making you another at some point, and don’t you dare think you’re getting out of that.”

Jack doesn’t risk a look up, but he smiles inwardly. “Noted.”

He puts the last bite of pie into his mouth, then stands and takes the plates and forks to the sink, ready to head upstairs. He’s overdue for a shower, and over-done with his people-time. When he turns around, Bitty is right there, and Jack’s breath catches for an instant in surprise.

“What was that you said about ‘scaring a body’?” he tries to chirp, but Bitty has already reached up and laid a tentative hand on Jack’s upper arm, and—

Fuck it.

He takes a step forward and wraps his free arm around Bitty, and Bitty tightens his own grip, and they just. hug. They don’t say anything, and they don’t need to. Jack can feel Bitty relaxing even as Bitty slides his other arm around Jack’s back and squeezes. Jack leans in just a little and crisse does Bitty’s hair smell good.

Jack swallows and steps back. He lets Bitty go with one last press on his shoulder, and Bitty returns it, looking up with a small smile.

“’Night, Jack,” he says, his voice a little rough.

“’Night, Bittle.” Jack returns the smile as best he can. It’s been A Day for both of them, and Bitty’s done nothing but be his delightful, caring self. Jack hopes he’s been clear enough with his gratitude.

Bitty turns toward the stairs, and Jack follows him. He can’t get into the shower and then bed fast enough. When they reach their doors, Jack says “’Night, Bittle” again, by rote, and they both let out a few chuckles.

“’Night, Jack,” Bitty echoes. “Get some sleep.”

Jack nods slightly and gives a halfhearted salute before he closes his door. There are worse ways today could have gone.


By noon the next day people are predicting another day off due to snow, and within a few hours the state of emergency has been called for their county. Jack is a little worried about Monday classes being cancelled again, and how much work they’ll have to do to make up for the missed lecture time, but there’s nothing he can do about it. Besides, it won’t be the worst thing ever to have a little more time to get his head on straight before the week starts.

He spent most of the morning doing what he needed to—at the gym, with his thesis, all that jazz—so now it’s coming up on dinner time, and he’s more or less got the evening open.

Bitty, of course, has been in the kitchen most of the day. He sent out another food request email this morning, but since he got it together soon enough, most people have been dropping in and out all day, picking up their food, saving him and Jack a delivery run tomorrow morning.

Which—is fine. Contrary to popular opinion, Jack doesn’t actually thrive on freezing his ass off. But last time they did that, it was… nice. to be with Bitty that morning. Jack contemplates this as he sits at the table, working his way through a bowl of pasta Bitty hadn’t let him make himself. (“Yes, I know you’re capable, Mr. Zimmermann, but I’m already balancing all this stuff. You just sit tight and stay out of the way.”)

It takes another hour or so, but at last it seems that the entire team has cycled through Bitty’s—the Haus—kitchen, and after shooing Chowder out the door and back to Farmer’s dorm, Bitty finally relents and lets Jack help him with the clean-up.

Most of a Beyoncé album later, as they are hanging up their dishtowels, Jack clears his throat and asks, “Hey, uh. You want to watch the next part of The War?”

“Oh!” Bitty seems to think about it for a second, but then agrees readily enough. “Sure.”

“Cool,” Jack says. “It’s, uh—it’s upstairs. So. If you want to…” come up? wait here? What is the appropriate end to that thought?

Bitty gestures around the empty kitchen. “Sure,” he says again, quickly, and makes for the stairs. That answers that question, apparently. Jack follows him up, and Bitty stops short in Jack’s doorway, flipping the light switch uselessly.

“Oh,” Jack says. Right. “Pardon, je m’excuse.” What the hell, Jack, English. Bitty seems to get it, though, when Jack gently pulls his shoulder back toward the hall. Bitty steps back and lets Jack into the dark room.

He walks confidently to his desk and turns on the lamp there, illuminating both the desk and his bed, and casting enough light across the room that it really hasn’t been worth his time to replace the overhead bulb, since he can always find his desk lamp in the dark. Finding this DVD on the other hand…

He turns and finds Bitty still standing in the doorway. “Uh, sorry,” he repeats—in English this time. “Do you—is this enough light? I don’t think there are any lightbulbs in the Haus, and I haven’t been to the store.”

Bitty shakes his head as if returning from being lost somewhere in thought. He looks around the room, then swallows and steps in. “No, no, this is fine. I mean, just gonna—turn them out anyway, right?”

Jack pauses. He usually likes to leave a little light on while he’s watching TV, but if Bitty would prefer it to be darker… “Uh, yeah, I guess.” He turns back to the desk and lifts up a few notebooks before he finds the DVD case. Grabbing that and his computer, Jack climbs onto his bed and starts arranging pillows against the wall, near the head of it so that he can leave his computer plugged into the power strip on his desk.

“Are you planning to watch from the back of the screen?” Bitty is just—standing there, in the middle of the room, and Jack can’t help chirping. Bitty shakes his head again, blinks a couple times, and climbs up onto the bed as well, sitting ten or fifteen centimeters away from Jack toward the foot of the bed and making a production of fluffing up his own pillows. Jack wonders what’s bothering him, but doesn’t press it.

“Lights out?” Jack checks, once the title menu is looping on the computer in his lap.

“Yeah.”

Jack hesitates for a few seconds, but then leans forward and turns out the desk lamp. It’s not so difficult to see right now, and even though the dark makes this feel more like a date than ever, it also means he doesn’t have to actually make eye contact with Bitty much, which… is just as well.

He presses play.


Bitty isn’t sure when it happened, but at some point in the past forty minutes the inches he had carefully left between himself and Jack disappeared, and now the computer is balanced on one of each of their legs, and this is—

—amazing. This is phenomenal, and wonderful, and such a fucking tease, good Lord. Bitty is definitely not taking in as much as he should be about wartime manufacturing right now, because he’s too busy simultaneously cataloguing every bit of this experience and doing his very best to Just Relax so Jack won’t notice how fast Bitty’s heart is going.

Still, Bitty can’t help shifting his position on the bed slightly. His ass is starting to fall asleep, and come to think of it, this is probably how they wound up sitting flush against each other from hip to shoulder. Bitty wonders if it’s a small concession granted to him by the universe that Jack has been sitting with both legs stretched way out in front of him until they hang off the edge of the bed, in contrast to the way Bitty has had his left foot tucked under his right thigh, keeping it away from Jack but tilting his left knee toward him. If Jack had crossed his legs at all, too, their knees would have been jostling each other all night, and Bitty might have actually lost it.

As he untucks his foot and tries to decide what a better but still safe position would be, he accidentally leans into Jack harder than he meant to. “Sorry!” he whispers, trying to refocus on the documentary.

“You’re fine,” Jack assures him. But Jack is extracting his arm from where Bitty pressed on it, and Bitty has to look over and make sure he’s okay. Before he can form words to ask, though, Jack is just bringing his right arm up and over Bitty’s shoulders and letting his hand rest on Bitty’s right shoulder, casual as anything, and Bitty is done.

The next few minutes after that could be an explanation of how the raw materials for manufacturing were transported through teleportation tunnels managed by cats, but Bitty wouldn’t know. He’s too busy trying to process that Jack Zimmermann is voluntarily cuddling with him and also not leap out of his skin.

He does calm down eventually, though, focusing on breathing slowly and quietly, and on what’s actually happening in the movie. There don’t seem to be many cats or any teleportation devices, but that’s about all he can say for certain.

Jack keeps his arm there, on Bitty’s shoulder, leaning over to murmur additional commentary into Bitty’s ear from time to time, and Bitty just—this all can’t actually be happening, right? But it is, so Bitty keeps working on being relaxed.

It works.


Jack cheers inwardly when Bitty shifts around, giving him the perfect opportunity to get his arm around Bitty’s shoulders. It’s cheesy and ridiculous, Jack is well aware, but it’s not like he’s got a lot of options for this shit, so. If Bitty didn’t like it, he would shrug it off—Jack knows this, because Bitty has never had any trouble pushing Shitty away when he is being too clingy, or Holster when the tub juice gets to him.

And sitting here in the dark…

It’s intimidating as far as it Makes This A Date, but it’s also emboldening, since it makes this a date.

So Jack holds Bitty close and revels in the press of his cheek against Jack’s shoulder when his head drops down. Jack will probably have to rewatch this episode another time in order to fully appreciate it, but it isn’t like that will be a hardship.

Just over halfway through the episode (which is almost an hour and fifty-five minutes long—calisse, Jack can’t blame him), Bitty lets out a soft snore, and Jack smiles softly to no one at all. He allows himself one more moment of cliché celebration—isn’t falling asleep watching a movie together some kind of milestone? Jack wouldn’t know from past experience—but then he hovers his free hand over the pause button and tries to decide what to do.

This would be a good chance to rewind and pay better attention to the parts he was not all there for the first time, but then, clearly Bitty has missed some of this, too, and he might want to go back as well. Jack is not sure how invested Bitty has actually been—maybe he has just been humoring Jack, who knows?—but even so, this has been their thing, together, and Jack should probably wait for Bitty.

Although, again, it’s not like a second time around with Bitty later would be a hardship.

He could let it keep playing and pretend he didn’t notice Bitty fall asleep. Then, when they rewatch it later, Jack won’t have to worry about paying attention. But Bitty might feel bad if he realizes that Jack is watching it a second time because of him.

Or Jack could rewind it and… and then when he gets back to this point, have the same decision left to make.

Or he could just pause it and watch something else until Bitty wakes up, although Bitty might still feel bad. But Jack will reassure him that it’s fine. He’ll say (truthfully) that he zoned out, too, and then decided to save it all for when they were both actually awake. Bitty still might feel bad.

Or… Jack could (pretend to) fall asleep, too… That seems dangerous, though. This is so nice, and he probably would fall asleep, and then they would wake up in the middle of the night, and that might be weird.

Jack lets out a long, quiet breath, careful not to disturb Bitty on his shoulder. He slides the progress bar back ten minutes at a time until he finally recognizes where he had last been paying full attention. Seventeen out of, so far, sixty-four minutes.

The little voice in his head that sounds remarkably like his mother says, “Cher, you are gone on that boy,” and he just rolls his eyes and agrees with her. There is a part of him that is impressed he made it that far, honestly.

Jack is less distracted this time through, but not entirely. It’s… comfortable like this, in a way it usually only is with Shitty, and Jack finds himself gradually sliding down the wall so that Bitty’s head is resting more on the top of his chest than his shoulder. It seems like Bitty will strain his neck less that way.

More than once Jack has to stop himself from leaning forward and kissing the back of Bitty’s head. It’s so close, and so tempting, but… well, it’s already sort of weird that he’s just. half-watching Bitty sleep as he half-watches their movie, and he doesn’t want to do that without Bitty knowing, but he also does not know what he would do if Bitty woke up and noticed, so. He keeps his lips to himself.

When he finally gets back to the point where he left off, he hits pause again and gently sets the computer on his pillow, facing away so that there is only just enough light to see by, but it won’t be in their eyes. He gives in, just for a moment, and lays his head down on top of Bitty’s. It’s not great for his own neck, really, but this feeling of ease is something he can’t let go just yet. He lets his breathing sync up with Bitty’s slow, quiet breaths (he doesn’t actually snore much), but when he feels himself starting to drift, he forces his head up, blinking.

“Bits,” he murmurs, squeezing Bitty’s shoulder where his hand has been resting this whole time. Bitty does not respond, so Jack starts to straighten up, slowly taking away Bitty’s support. As his head drops into empty air, Bitty wakes with a start, and Jack keeps his amusement to a small smile. It’s not actually nice that he woke Bitty up that way, but it was effective…

“Wha—??” Bitty asks, sitting up in an instant, blinking and rubbing his eyes. Jack allows himself one more shoulder-squeeze, then takes his hand back.

“Sorry,” Jack says, barely above a whisper. He doesn’t want to be loud as Bitty is waking up, but he also feels like speaking normally will break whatever is happening right now.

“Sorry,” he repeats. “I didn’t—I think we were too tired.” And okay, so Jack did not actually fall asleep, but he can let Bitty think that, because—

“Oh, oh no, I’m sorry, Jack. I fell asleep on you—like on you, I’m so sorry, I hope I didn’t drool—”

That’s why. “Bittle, it’s fine. I didn’t make it all the way through the movie, either.” It’s—people tell white lies all the time, to make other people feel better, but Jack just—can’t. Not if he can avoid it. It’s stupid, that lying by omission is so much more palatable, but it is, and he doesn’t want Bitty to feel guilty.

Bitty makes a dissatisfied grumbling noise, and Jack reaches out to his near shoulder this time to give him one more squeeze. “It’s fine, Bits. But how about bed for real, eh?”

Bitty nods, still groggy. “Yeah, sorry, let me get out of your way.” He doesn’t look at Jack as he starts to push himself off the bed.

Jack’s heart sinks just a little, and he keeps his hand on Bitty’s shoulder, leaning forward so Bitty can’t get away. Jack shakes him lightly, and Bitty turns back hesitantly to face him.

There are a million things Jack wants to say, chief among which is you’re never in the way, or maybe it would be better if you stayed, but they’re not there yet. Jack is not there yet.

“Thanks for doing this,” he says instead, still quiet. “We can give it another go when we’re more awake?” He means to make it a promise, but his voice turns up at the end, and he hopes Bitty understands.

Bitty says nothing for a long moment, but then in the dim light, Jack makes out a nod and a small smile. “Of course, Jack,” he says, also soft. “Good night.”

Jack watches him turn and pull his phone out of his pocket to light the way to the door.

“Good night,” he echoes.


“Hey, Bits.” Ransom waves tiredly as he shuffles into the kitchen, where Bitty is… still not doing his physics homework. Dammit. Bitty waves back even more halfheartedly.

Ransom sticks his head into the fridge. “There any food left after all the stuff you made and gave out yesterday?” He doesn’t wait for an answer before piling containers on the counter to start looking through.

Bitty sighs. “I dunno. Probably?” He’s sure he sounds impatient, and he is, just not with Ransom.

Right on cue, Ransom asks, “You okay, bro?”

Bitty sighs again. It’s possible he’s being a touch over-dramatic right now. It’s possible he doesn’t care. “Yeah, whatever, I’m fine. Just—physics. And me. And how nothing is happening.”

He slams his computer lid and winces. An expensive thing he actually needs to have work for the next few years is really not the right target for this frustration. Stress-baking is his usual go-to, but occasionally he gets why people bang up laundry machines with hockey pucks, too. But he doesn’t own any laundry machines, and it’s too nasty out to go to Faber or whatever, so.

“Whatever,” he says again, and opens his computer back up to stare uselessly at the problem set.

Ransom closes the fridge and starts to go through the various bowls he’s pulled out of it. Bitty can hear him sniffing each one, though he can’t see it since Ransom is facing away from him.

“If it doesn’t smell good, please pitch it and run some water into the bowl,” Bitty says, and even to his own ears he sounds a little nagging. “Sorry.”

Ransom assures him that it’s fine and that none of the food has gone bad, then gets busy microwaving. Two minutes later a bowl of noodles with meatballs and gravy appears to the left of Bitty’s computer, and Ransom is pointing at him with a fork.

“Eat.”

Bitty takes a breath to—tell Ransom he doesn’t need to do this for Bitty? thank him for doing it anyway? tell him to eat the meatballs himself?

“You better only be opening that mouth to put food in it, Bits,” Ransom says, saving Bitty from deciding what to say. “You won’t be more productive without eating.”

He turns back to the microwave and starts it up again, presumably for himself now. “What’s biting you, anyway? Just the physics?”

“Just the physics,” Bitty confirms. “Well, as much as physics are ‘just’ anything…”

“Show me,” Ransom says, so Bitty does. It’s not like he needs the help, because he probably would have figured it out himself eventually, but even just having someone to talk through the problems with is helpful, never mind that with Ransom there, Bitty doesn’t flip over to pinterest the way he’d been doing all freaking day, ugh, what a waste.

(Everyone’s posting dorky valentines, and they’re pretty funny: the cat saying “take meowt on a date”, Marius Pontmercy not knowing anyone’s name, Internet Explorer suggesting you “take things slow”…

Bitty laughed at most of them, able to appreciate the puns, until his rabbit hole led him to hockey land, and Sidney Crosby was suggesting that, if not his valentine, Bitty could at least be his right wing, and that—that hit too close to home. That was about when he slammed his computer shut.)

This is how Jack finds them, half an hour later, when he comes looking for dinner himself. He smiles tiredly at them and only offers a short “’kay” when Ransom tells him the meatballs and gravy are gone, but once he’s nuked a quarter of a quiche and peeled himself an orange, he joins them at the table to eat.

“So physics, eh?” Jack says as he takes his seat. Bitty doesn’t even say anything, just looks over silently and raises his eyebrows. “Ah, and going swimmingly, I see.”

Bitty keeps staring, almost dead-eyed, while he searches for some kind of clever retort, but gives up. You’re going swimmingly is not actually a good comeback at all. Jack tilts his head, unsure how to proceed, and Bitty realizes he’s being a brat.

Whatever, it’s just that Jack has probably been productive all day. His hair’s wet like he just showered, which in and of itself is more than Bitty had gotten done before Ransom sat down and made him do stuff. But still, it’s only been half an hour, and—yep, that’s Ransom asking how Jack’s doing, and Jack bragging about finishing a draft of the next chapter of his thesis, and it’s just not freaking fair that he can just do stuff like that and be so good at it and also be so good at literally everything else and just—God. And he’s not even actually bragging because the boy doesn’t have a proud bone in his body, but it’s just too—

A hand moves in front of Bitty’s face. “Earth to Bittle,” Ransom says. “Come in, Bittle, what’s your trajectory?” Bitty blinks and turns to look at Ransom, tapping on the slingshot diagram for the problem Bitty left off on. He looks way too pleased with that barely-on-topic not-quite-pun.

“Out of here, I wish,” Bitty grumbles. Ransom holds his hands up in surrender, then picks up his phone from where it’s buzzing on the table.

“Ah, look, I gotta get out of here, actually,” he says. “My baby sister is having some sort of crisis and it’s my turn to mollify her. Good luck with the physics, Bits. You know where to find me.” He taps Bitty’s book and then claps Jack on the shoulder. “And good on you, Cap. Do something fun tonight, eh?” Jack nods and wordlessly holds a hand up in good-bye as Ransom makes for the staircase.

Bitty sighs heavily and looks up at the ceiling. He’s being irrational, and he’s not actually mad at Jack, and he should probably back up and say hello or something, and probably congratulate him on his thesis and pretend like the thought of Jack finishing it and graduating isn’t the Worst Thought Ever, and where the hell is this train of thought even going? He snorts quietly to himself. What’s its trajectory? Oh god, that’s terrible.

He sits forward again and looks over at Jack, intending to apologize, but Jack beats him to it.

“Seriously, Bittle,” he says, quiet. “You okay?”

Bitty almost sighs again, but catches himself. Instead he breathes out as gently as he can and closes his book, leaving his pencil there to mark his place.

“Yeah, Jack. Well, no, I don’t know.” He shrugs. “Just gotten jack squat done today, and feeling mighty frustrated with myself. Didn’t mean to take it out on you and Ransom, especially when he was just helpin’ me.”

Jack says nothing, just gets up out of his chair and crouches down on the floor. Now it’s Bitty’s turn to turn his head in confusion. Jack’s mouth twitches up, as do his eyebrows. For him, it’s positively gleeful.

“Jack squat!” he explains proudly, pointing at himself.

Bitty looks off to the side. Where’s Shitty-as-the-camera-guy-from-The-Office when you need him? He only maintains his composure for a few seconds, though, before he’s covering his eyes with the heels of his hands and shaking with laughter.

“Lord have mercy, Jack,” he says after he gets himself under control again. “That was terrible.”

“Not as terrible as physics,” says Jack, sliding back into his chair and picking up his glass of water.

“Point,” Bitty concedes. Then, seriously, “Thanks. And sorry again.”

“Apology accepted. And my pleasure.” He smiles—definitely for real a smile, even one that would be considered a smile on someone else’s face—and Bitty is struck with regret that this is not a Special Thing, this is just Jack hanging out with a friend who was being an asshole to him. Only a split second later, though, follows the realization that that in itself is pretty Special in the grand scheme of things. Friends are important, and realistically, neither of them has so many (nevermind how long it took Jack to even call Bitty his friend) that Bitty can reasonably regret this being just friendship.

Well, as much as friendship is ‘just’ anything, either…

Another silly internet valentine reappears in his mind, reading itself in a slightly haughty but deeply affectionate voice: ‘Friend’ is a high and honourable estate. May I bestow it upon you, Valentine?

So it is. Bitty needs to get over himself. It’s not—so what if—it’s nobody’s fault he’s single, and it’s not really anybody’s fault that the rest of the world seems determined to rub that in his face.

Bitty shakes himself and smiles back at Jack, deliberately pushing everything else out of his mind. “I think I can handle getting back to work. Thanks,” he says again. “I’m gonna be here staring cross-eyed at this for a while, but—” he swallows awkwardly “—you’re welcome to join me.”


Tuesday is… no better. Arguably worse. Someone (or possibly several someones) seem to have spent their day off on Monday wallpapering the entire campus with pink and red decorations, and Bitty could swear there’s a half-dozen classmates smiling at their phones or talking about their plans for Saturday everywhere he goes, including during class.

Not that he’s one to talk about texting during class necessarily, but this is just. Ugh.

He powers through the day, and by the time he gets to bed, Bitty is not sure why he’s stayed up this late, anyway. The frogs are still in the kitchen, and when Bitty finally ducked out and headed upstairs, Ransom was imparting his “infinite wisdom” regarding Valentine’s dates to Chowder and Farmer. Ransom needs to get his nose out of other people’s dating lives, is the thing.

Bitty sighs as he pulls on his pajamas, then climbs into bed, barely bothering to lob his clothes in the direction of the hamper. He turns the light out, grabs Señor Bun, and curls up under his blankets. He scrolls through twitter one last time, hoping that something new and cheerful will have shown up in the past six minutes, but comes up empty.

He tells himself (and twitter) to look on the bright side, and is asleep between one calming breath and the next.


Eric Bittle @omgcheckplease · Feb 10
Sometimes you just have to keep on smiling

Eric Bittle @omgcheckplease · Feb 10
thank god we have a game on saturday


The problem with the game coming up on Saturday is that it’s against Dartmouth, and the problem with Dartmouth is that they’re very good. And like, Samwell’s very good, too, if Bitty does say so himself, but… Dartmouth. And they have to get through RPI first, though that's less of an issue.

“I know, right?” says Nursey, as they all traipse away from lunch the next day. “We’ve got our work cut out for us. ‘How am I gonna be an octopus about this’…” He starts to sing. Bitty rolls his eyes fondly, but Nursey really does have a decent voice.

“‘Well, if you close your eyes’…” Chowder chimes in when Nursey elbows him, though slightly off-key. Then Ransom and Holster are harmonizing ‘ey-oh’s in the background, and Dex is looking back and forth among all of them with a puzzled expression.

Jack knocks into Bitty as they walk behind the impromptu a capella act, and he points to Shitty climbing on Dex’s back, shouting something about them having eight limbs and being an octopus if Holster won’t let him sing.

“He’s come a long way, don’t you think?” Jack says quietly.

Bitty turns and looks up at Jack. “Who, Shitty?”

“No, Dex.” Jack smiles the tiny smile that you only notice if you know it’s there. “Can you imagine him putting up with these shenanigans four or five months ago?”

“So he has,” Bitty agrees.

They could join in, but they don’t. They just follow along in comfortable silence, and for the half hour it takes the whole group to get to the Haus, get in and out with the correct bags and also their keys (lookin’ at you, Holtzy), and get to Faber, the notion of Valentine’s Day doesn’t enter Bitty’s mind once.

Coffee, however, is a different matter. It seems like every single person they pass on North Quad has a travel mug or paper to-go cup in their hands, and Bitty does not. This ought to be rectified.

“Mmm, I could go for some coffee,” he says, mostly to himself.

“Breaking news,” Jack says, dry. “And at eleven we’ll discuss how ice is cold.”

“Shut up,” says Bitty, not even attempting to chirp back. “I’m cold.”

“You’ll be warmer at the rink!” Shitty calls back toward Bitty. The boy has unnatural hearing sometimes, and it’s worrisome.

“I know, I know,” Bitty says, pulling his phone out and glancing at the email notification from his advisor that just buzzed there. Despite how backwards it is to think of a rink as warm, a) it is warmer than the outdoors and b)—Cripes, is that the time?—“Especially if we don’t pick it up, y’all, ’cause we’re gonna be skating suicides if we’re late!”

He starts to walk more quickly, grabbing Dex (now sans-Shitty) and Chowder by the hands and towing them along behind him.

“We’re not late if Captain Droopy Eyes is with us!” Shitty objects, now shouting at Bitty’s back.

“Patently false, Mr. Knight!” Bitty retorts. “You were both late last week and stepped in it, so I’ll just be on my way!”

Everyone else picks up the pace, too, and they all arrive at Faber with a slightly elevated heart rate and a couple minutes to spare. Bitty’s lungs are burning, but only a little.

He puts his hands up over his head and strips off his coat and hoodie as they make their way to the dressing room. He is definitely warmer now. Jack catches up to him just before they enter the room and elbows him gently in the shoulder.

“Should we stop for coffee after practice?”

“Mr. Zimmermann, now is not the time for chirping,” Bitty scolds, though it lacks its usual punch as he’s still regaining his breath.

“It is always time for chirping,” says Ransom as he passes them. Bitty huffs out a breath, but he did sort of set himself up for that one. He goes to follow Ransom in, but Jack stops him with a hand on his shoulder.

“No, I mean—” says Jack to the space behind Bitty, “do you want to stop for coffee? After practice?”

This still sounds like a set-up—Bitty says “yes” and Jack says “of course you do, you always want coffee”. But it also sounds nice.

(It also sounds like a date, but Bitty gives that idea precisely one second of consideration before reminding himself about realistic expectations.)

Jack is still looking at him, or, at the space behind him, waiting.

“Sure!” Bitty says. “Most goals in the shoot-out is paying.” If it’s a set-up, the least Jack can do is pay for the coffee. Even if—even though it’s not a date. If they even go.

“Deal,” says Jack, and uses the hand on Bitty’s shoulder to shove him through the door and to his locker.


Jack steps out of the shower after practice, towel wrapped around himself, and shoots a quick glance over to Bitty’s locker to make sure he hasn’t left yet (he hasn’t). Satisfied, Jack turns to his own locker and gets dressed.

Shirt and pants back on, Jack gives his hair one more rub-down with a towel then tosses the towel at the laundry bin. Hole in one. He picks up his boots and socks and shuffles in his sandals over to the bench near Bitty’s locker, where he sits down and starts to put them on.

“So, still on for coffee?” he asks, not in a whisper, but not in a shout, pulling tightly on his laces.

Bitty looks over at him, grinning. Something unclenches in Jack’s chest. “Oh, so I am capable of not wanting coffee sometimes? It’s not a given?”

Jack laughs, but it comes out as only a tiny puff of air out his nose. Smile? good. Clarity of answer? minimal. He holds his his hands up as if to say touché, meanwhile trying to decide how to ask no, really, are we doing this.

“I do, though,” says Bitty, lacing up his own boots. “Want coffee, I mean. Let me get my things.”

Oh good. “Okay.”

Jack goes back to his own locker to grab his coat and phone and wallet, then waits patiently as Bitty pats himself down for the same, tugs a toque on, and picks up his bag.

“So, uh,” Jack starts. Now they have to decide where they’re going. Starbucks is closer and—not actually but arguably—on the way back to the Haus. Annie’s is well past the Haus, and if they go there then it’s like. A Date. Like, they’ll be making an effort, not just stopping out of convenience. Which is the idea, after all, but Jack is unsure how to communicate that gracefully. He’s still not ready to say it straight up. (Ha.) But it seems like waiting for Bitty to put it together is something of a lost cause, too, so.

Jack sighs quietly, just barely an exhale, and promises himself he’ll do better next time. “Uh,” he starts again, “Annie’s? I heard they have a new special latte…” There. Chirping Bitty makes everything normal.

But Bitty doesn’t take the bait. “Oh really? Sure. Might head over to Stop & Shop afterward anyway. We’ll see.”

“What are you out of now?” Jack asks, waving to their teammates still changing as he and Bitty head out.

“Bye, y’all!” Bitty calls before explaining that it’s not so much that he’s out of anything, as he’s got a new recipe he wants to try that requires star anise, and it’s really quite impressive that he doesn’t have any around, honestly he can’t believe he’s never had cause to buy any since he came to Samwell, but apparently he hasn’t so he’ll have to go back out.

He carries on about this recipe and the blog where he found it all the way to Annie’s. (And the blogger who posted it. And the blogger’s dog, who apparently ate half a batch of chocolate chip cookies and had to go to the animal hospital. And this other blogger whose cat won’t eat meat but loves soy sauce. And, and, and…) It’s a good thing Jack likes not talking, Jack thinks, letting Bitty’s chatter flow around him and warm him up in a way that has nothing to do with winter coats or coffee. The two of them make quite the pair.

Annie’s, when they do get there, is completely decked out for Valentine’s Day. Pink and red streamers everywhere, lacy white hearts drawn in window paint on every glassy surface. Maybe Bitty will get a clue after all. There’s music on in the background, too, that Jack can’t quite hear because it’s packed. The line is kind of long. Jack worries that they won’t find anywhere to sit, but as he looks around, it seems like there are tables available. Most people seem to be waiting for drinks to-go.

“So what I’m getting is that you would want pets who live in cages or tanks, eh?” Jack asks as Bitty is winding up yet another story about a food blogger and their pet escapades. Pet-scapades?

“No!” Bitty says. “I mean, I guess that would be easier, but, I don’t want to worry about keeping a cage clean and locked and whatever like that. Plus, dogs.” He says dogs like that’s an explanation in and of itself. Jack files this away for future reference.

“Does your family have a dog?” Jack asks, curious. Bitty never talks about any pets, which makes Jack think the answer is no, because at this point, how could Bitty have not talked about pets he actually has?

Bitty shakes his head. “No. Coach is allergic. I used to cat-sit for my neighbors sometimes, but we never had animals.”

“Mmm.” Jack nods in understanding. “Us neither. But enough of my cousins—our family friends, I guess—had various creatures running around. I never felt like I was missing out.” He laughs to himself, thinking of Sid’s nickname ‘Creature’.

“Mhmm,” Bitty agrees, staring at the chalk menu behind the bar. Jack realizes they are finally getting close to ordering, so he had better make up his mind, too. He doesn’t want to blow his sugar intake on a fancy espresso drink, really, and they are not so much to his taste, anyway. Another advantage of Annie’s over Starbucks, though, is that their brewed coffee is not nearly as caffeinated as Starbucks’, and it doesn’t usually leave him vibrating or excessively anxious. It’s a good day. He can have a nice warm drink.

Although—Annie’s also has a really good tea selection. That would be a good low-caf idea. That blackberry Earl Grey… Hmm. Bitty is quiet still, no doubt having a similar conversation with himself, though more along the lines of “caramel latte or peppermint mocha”.

They reach the counter just as Jack has settled on the Earl Grey. He fishes his wallet out of his pocket and steps in front of Bitty. “I’ll have a medium Earl Black tea. And he’s with me,” he says to the cashier, tilting his head back toward Bitty. It’s always nice when cashiers focus on their register and don’t try to make eye contact, but now the cashier looks up to see who Jack is referring to.

“Oh, Jack—” Bitty starts to protest, but Jack waves him off.

“I hear lattes increase shot quality,” he says solemnly. “The least I can do after kicking your ass is buy you one. So what will it be, Bittle?”

“Oh, um. Fine. Can I have a small peppermint mocha, please? And a chocolate croissant,” Bitty says to the cashier. Score one for predicting Bitty’s coffee. (It’s kind of a gimme, though. Oh well.) And it’s just as well Jack went for the tea, because realistically he’s going to steal a few bites of Bitty’s croissant. To save Bitty from himself, obviously.

“Sure thing,” the cashier replies. “For here or to go?”

“Here,” says Jack.

“Names? Jack for the tea, and… Bittle? You got a first name?” Jack is watching Bitty as the cashier speaks and is momentarily confused to see him blush.

“Uh, Eric, thanks,” he says, glancing toward and then away from then—oh. Very Attractive Boy who is ringing them up, now that Jack is bothering to look. He looks sort of like if Chow had Nurse’s facial structure, and his eyebrows are raised over a teasing grin, and Jack is—uncomfortable. He bristles and forces himself to relax. He doesn’t—Bitty’s here with him, and that guy’s working, anyway, and it’s—it’s fine.

“Eric,” says the boy with that same grin and a nod to Bitty. Jack holds his credit card out, taking the boy’s attention away from Bitty.

“Thanks,” Jack says. The boy reins in his smile just a little.

“You’re welcome, Jack,” he says, swiping the card and handing it back. “Drinks’ll come up at the other end, and here’s the croissant.”

“Thanks,” Jack says again, taking the pastry on the plate the boy holds out. Jack doesn’t think he sounds angry. He doesn’t mean to, but it’s hard to tell, sometimes, how his words will come across.

They wait for their drinks quietly, though Bitty does dance along to the Taylor Swift song that comes on over the speakers. They’re standing right under one, so now it isn’t hard for Jack to make out which one it is, now.

“…been here all along, so why can’t you see you belong with me?” Taylor sings, and Jack takes a deep quiet breath. He’s got to figure out how to make Bitty see…?

Use your words, Jackie boy, says a voice in his mind that sounds an awful lot like Shitty. But dammit, he’s trying. Well.

“Eric?” calls a barista, not looking up as she sets the red mug down. “Peppermint mocha?” Bitty steps forward to take his coffee, and a moment later another barista sets down a blue mug with a teabag and calls Jack’s name. Thank goodness. Maybe he can stop fixating on chance happenings of music algorithms now.

They find a small table near the windows and squeeze in between all the other people and bags from the tables nearby. It’s chilly, but they don’t need a bigger table or access to the outlets, so Jack can’t justify going elsewhere. Plus it—well, Jack hopes that it feels intimate.

Bitty’s phone is already out the moment they sit down, and Jack wonders for a second if it would get his point across to reach out and take it from Bitty’s hands. Like, would it be clear that Jack asked Bitty here if he took the phone?

But then he notices that Bitty is arranging the mugs just so, as if to take a picture, and sure enough before Jack can say anything, Bitty is leaning back and Jack hears that fake shutter click.

“So do people on twitter actually care about your coffee?” he asks, grateful for a neutral topic of conversation to start in on again. Hopefully Bitty will pick back up with his weird internet stories, and they can just enjoy their time together.

“Instagram,” Bitty corrects, swiping back and forth on his screen. “I mean, I could cross-post it, but I don’t usually bother.”

Obviously.

“That’s what you did for the quiche, right?” says Jack, remembering.

“Mhmm,” Bitty says, holding out his phone. “Which filter?” He scrolls across the bottom of the screen a bit, showing different… color settings? A lot of color settings. “I’m thinking either Perpetua or—” he turns his phone back towards himself for a moment, swiping and tapping something, then turns it back. “—Inkwell.”

“Um,” says Jack. “The… first one?” He leans slightly closer to read the names. “Perpetua?”

Bitty nods. “Cool.” He takes his phone back and taps it, then holds it out again so Jack can see.

an instagram filter selection screen for a picture of a latte in a red mug and a blue mug full of tea. the instagram filter 'perpetua' is currently selected.

Jack nods—it does look good—so Bitty hits a few more things, and then actually puts it away. Cool, Jack echoes to himself.

“Is it just for pictures of food?” he asks aloud.

“Mm-mm,” says Bitty as he picks up his mug, smelling it and taking a careful sip. “Well, I mean, mine is? Mostly, anyway.”

Jack bounces his teabag up and down, watching the color dissipate through the water. “What do other people do with it?”

Bitty sets his mug down and shrugs. “Post pictures of whatever they like. Stuff that looks cool, stuff they’re doing, selfies, food, whatever. It’s a lot like twitter, except without news and you have to have photos.”

That… does very little to clear things up for Jack, but he nods along just the same. Sounds like something he could get more into than twitter, anyway.

The cafe gets oddly quiet as that “shut up and dance with me” song Shitty has as his ringtone comes to an end, and Jack casts about for something to say. He isn’t sure what is making it so hard to carry on a conversation since they ordered their drinks, but. It is.

The quasi-silence ends when a quieter guitar comes in, and Jack tries again to get the conversation going. “So… dogs?” It’s pathetic, but it’s something.

Bitty is pulling his croissant (which, for the record, is rectangular and therefore poorly named) (but it’s the consistency of the pastry, Jack knows, it’s just—still silly) apart with his fingers, and picking the pieces up one at a time and slipping them into his mouth. Jack reaches across the small table and takes one for himself, not-so-accidentally knocking his knee into Bitty’s as he does so.

Bitty looks up, blushing a little again, and—crisse, that’s really cute and Jack is the one who made him do that, apparently, and Jack could get used to that.

“Dogs?” Bitty asks back, taking another sip of his coffee.

“If you could get one, what would you want? Big or small?”

Bitty seems to ponder that for a minute, then glances up at the ceiling and sighs, mug cradled in his hands. He puts it back to his lips and takes a long sip.

“Big, I guess?”

“Yeah?” Jack asks. This does not seem to be cheering Bitty up quite like he hoped it would.

“Yeah,” Bitty agrees, distracted. He doesn’t offer anything more. Jack finally takes a sip of his own drink. He didn’t put any milk in it, which he does sometimes like, but it’s not worth the effort now. Still tasty.

“Wouldn’t a big dog weigh as much as you?” Jack asks, aiming for lighthearted. Bitty rolls his eyes and sticks out his tongue in response, but he doesn’t say anything.

“My uncle used to have big dogs,” Jack continues, thinking of Mario. “I mean, he probably still does? I don’t know. I haven’t been to see him in a while. They’re nice, though.”

“Mhmm,” says Bitty, now shredding his croissant again, without eating it. So. That line of conversation isn’t going anywhere.

“You tweeted the picture?” Jack prompts, hoping that deliberately using the wrong verb will make Bitty laugh, or at least make him look up and glare or something.

“Huh?” Bitty says to the table. “Oh, yeah.” He starts to eat the bits of croissant again. Jack sighs quietly and takes another piece for himself, as much to catch Bitty’s attention as anything else.

“Bittle…” Jack trails off, looking for the right words. Bitty looks up finally, smile on his face, though smaller than usual.

“Sorry!” he says. “I was distracted. Um—dogs. Yes. Oh, that reminds me—you’ve gotta read some of this blog when you get home, I think you’ll really like the writer, but she has two dogs, and one of them is so stupid and she just gets into the weirdest trouble…”

Just like that, Bitty is off again, chattering away as though his voice alone could fend off sadness. Jack is pretty sure they both know it’s an act, but he lets it go as long as he can, trying to just enjoy their time together. Maybe Bitty will feel better at the end. Fake it til you make it, and all that.

Between the two of them the croissant disappears over the next fifteen minutes or so, and their mugs become empty. Bitty sets his on the table when there is no longer a single drop to be sucked down. He takes and releases a deep breath, not quite a sigh, but clearly full of weighty thoughts.

“We should probably head out,” Bitty says, getting to his feet. Jack follows him to the dish return, and they put their mugs and plate in the bin. Neither of them says anything as they leave the store.

“You still need to go to Stop & Shop?” Jack asks once they step outside.

Bitty shrugs. “Nah, I’ll go tomorrow.”

Jack goes back and forth in his head for a few minutes while they walk back to the Haus, but at last he has to press just a little. “What’s wrong?”

“Huh?” says Bitty again. “Oh—no, I’m fine. I’m tired, it’s been a long week—yes, I know it’s only Wednesday. I’m fine.”

Jack plays Bitty’s answer over again in his head, trying to decide if he is supposed to read anything into it or take it at face value. Bitty doesn’t sound angry, so that’s good. The Wednesday comment was just preempting a chirp.

There’s nothing more Jack can say to that right now, so he raises his hand as if to clap Bitty on the shoulder. The phrase “good talk” is on the tip of his tongue. But—this is not Shitty.

Jack lowers his hand more slowly, cupping it around Bitty’s shoulder gently and giving it a soft squeeze. He leaves it there until Bitty looks up at him, and Jack forces himself to look back, eye contact and all.

“Yeah,” he says. “You’re fine.”

Chapter Text

The siren sounds for the end of the Friday night game, and the roar of the Samwell crowd is thunderous. Someone in the student section starts a chant of Chow, Chow, Chow, Chow and Jack joins in as he leaps over the boards to join his teammates on the ice. Chowder himself can be heard over the crowd, shrieking and waving his stick in the air before he crashes into the mob of skaters near center ice.

“FUCK YEAH!” Chowder yells, wrapping his arms around whoever is within reach.

“FUCK YEAH!” Ransom echoes from beside Jack. Jack reflexively ducks to the side, away from the sound, though it doesn’t actually matter, given the shouting all around.

“SHUT-OUT BURRITOS!” Shitty bellows from the middle of the clump.

“HANDSHAKES FIRST!” Icer reminds them, breaking free of the pack and skating toward the rather more despondent RPI team.

Jack laughs, patting a few of his guys on the back before he follows Icer and takes his place at the front of the handshake line.

Back in the dressing room, as guys are heading in and out of the showers and getting dressed, Shitty announces, “No, but seriously. Shut-out burritos at Jerry’s. No getting wasted because we have a game and a kegster tomorrow, but Chowder deserves some motherfucking burritos. Also the first kegstand tomorrow, and no, I don’t care if it’s your birthday or whatever.”

Jack rolls his eyes. There are people in the world who enjoy doing kegstands. His best friend is one of them. How has this happened?

“Hold up,” Ransom says, “I’ll text Blake and tell them to save us a table.”

Jack has stopped being surprised when Ransom or Holster turns out to have some random person’s number, including at least one member of the waitstaff at any given restaurant near campus. They are literally friends with everyone.

As they all finish getting ready to go, Jack dances along quietly to that horrible hamster car commercial song that’s obnoxiously catchy and everyone but him loves. Or, well, the song isn’t as horrible as the commercial, but still. It does make for good dancing, though, and Jack is in the mood for that sort of thing.

They walk en masse over to the burrito place, save a few guys who beg off for sleep or to go last-minute Valentine’s shopping. (Jack does not exactly know where they are going to do such shopping, but that’s not really his problem.) (Seriously, even murder Stop & Shop is closed by ten, Jack is pretty sure.) Jack sticks to the back of the group, and Bitty appears naturally beside him. Neither of them says much, but Bitty seems to be in a much better mood since when they hung out on Wednesday, so that’s good.

Not even halfway there, Ransom crows and says, “Per Blake, and I quote: ‘Cool, we have tables and also at yer goalie, congrats’!!”

“Good work, Chowsie!” shouts Holster. “Getting attention from across campus before you even arrive!”

“And I also quote:” Ransom interrupts loudly. “‘Thank you for giving us watchable hockey. Can you teach the Bruins how to do that?’”

Chowder cheers, and Nursey says, “Oh shit, dude, shots fired.” Shitty, who has fallen back between Jack and Bitty and slipped an arm around Jack’s waist, merely thunks his head into Jack’s shoulder and says, “Yeah, center mass shots. Too fucking accurate.”

Jack laughs. The Habs and the Stars have already kicked Boston’s ass this week, and from the sounds of it, tonight Vancouver just did too.

“Life’s rough as a Bruins fan, huh?” Bitty asks, gently brushing Jack while slipping his own arm around Shitty’s waist. “The higher they rise, the harder they fall.” He sighs mockingly, and Jack grins.

“Well, we can’t all be the fucking Blackhawks,” Shitty retorts darkly.

Bitty holds his free hand up in defense. “Hey, man, they’re gonna have to pay for their magic someday. I’m tellin’ you: the harder they fall.”

Shitty begins to describe in detail just where exactly he’d like them to fall, and conversation devolves from there. It’s a nice walk, though, having Shitty’s arm around him and Bitty in close, too. Nothing is bringing down their mood.

When they arrive at the restaurant and crowd in through the door, the person behind the pick-up counter whoops and calls, “That’s right, Christopher!” Some of the other staff join in clapping, and Chowder buries his face in his hands momentarily, then rakes his fingers back through his hair and rolls his shoulders back, taking in the attention and preening just a little.

The boys hoot and holler along, and they take their seats at nearly the only empty tables in the place. Jerry’s is not huge, but it’s not always this packed, either. Perks of the team being somewhat regulars here include glasses of water arriving in front of them almost instantaneously. As per tradition, there is a race to see who can snag their straw from their glass the fastest and blow the half-wrapper off of it into a nearby teammate’s face. As per tradition, Lardo wins, this time hitting Chowder square on the nose. (Jack doesn’t actually know at this point if she truly wins, or if the guys let it happen out of respect. Or fear.)

“Midnight,” Jack orders them all, sliding into a booth next to Bitty. “And no alcohol or caffeine.”

“Yes, Cap,” a handful of guys chorus in that patiently tolerant way, rolling their eyes but smiling. Across the table from Jack, Lardo pulls the straw out of his drink and blows the wrapper at Shitty’s face before returning it and pulling out her phone to set an alarm. She catches Jack’s eye and nods once. He nods back.

“Okay, but so actually,” their server says coming into the area between their four tables, “can any of you teach the Bruins how to play hockey?” This, Jack assumes, is Ransom’s friend Blake. Blake is tall and thin, with a freckled dark complexion for a white… guy? Blake’s bleach-blond hair is shaved on one side and chin-length on the other, and Jack is impressed that eye makeup applied in that quantity can also look so good.

“I wouldn’t count on it,” Dex grumbles. “And the way they’ve been going, they’re going to run Rask into the ground and pulverize him. Poor guy needs a trustworthy backup. And a defense corps.”

“Mr. Shutout here could back him up,” Blake suggests with a smile, uncapping a pen to take their orders. “What say you, Chow?”

“Fuck yeah, I could!” Chowder agrees enthusiastically. Everyone laughs. Then his face falls a little. “I mean, I wouldn’t, because I’d get kicked out of the NCAA and I would only quit this team for the Sharks, but I totally could.” Everyone laughs again.

“Atta boy,” Blake agrees. “So what can I get for you guys?”

With their orders in, different conversations start up at each of the tables, though they all tend to keep an ear on each other, in case anyone starts anything interesting or chirp-worthy.

Across from Jack, Shitty and Lardo—with input from Dex who is just across the aisle, also discussing the last period of their own game with Chowder, Nursey, and Bucket— are discussing the Bruins’ goaltending. Apparently younger-but-not-youngest Subban might get called up soon. Good for him. Jack hasn’t spent loads of time with their family, but he likes them all a lot, and he can’t imagine it’s easy to live in PK’s shadow and be part of the Habs’ biggest rival organization.

Nachos arrive, and Jack feels like poking the bear (ha, Bruins) a little bit, so he kicks Shitty lightly under the table.

“When did the Bruins last win, anyway? Right before we watched the Habs stomp all over them on Monday, or even before that?”

Shitty rolls his eyes. “They beat the Islanders last Saturday.”

Dex leans back in his chair and asks, “Is that the one where Torey Krug got in a fight like two minutes in?”

“Yep,” says Shitty, popping the P. “Weird, too. I mean, the guy he fought wasn’t that much bigger than him, but still weird, and like. Nothing had even happened.” He shrugs. “Bad blood, maybe. Who knows. He did decent for himself, though.”

“Huh,” says Bitty, almost thoughtful, speaking up for the first time since they sat down.

“Hm?” Jack asks.

“Oh, just.” Bitty shrugs too. “Fighting’s not really my thing, and I ain’t neither here nor there on the Bruins, but it’s fun to watch a little guy like that go at it sometimes. Good for him.”

Jack nods. None of that is surprising.

Bucket leans around Dex and asks, “Bitty, do you have a single team you are here or there on? Seems like you’re cheering for a new team every week!”

Bitty leans in front of Jack and grins at Bucket. “I get less disappointed if I only cheer for the winners.”

“…But how do you know that they’re going to win? Also that’s dumb.”

“Kidding. Actually it’s just that I’ve never really had a team? The Thrashers left Atlanta right as I was getting into hockey, and no one else really grabbed my attention.”

“So do you just flip a coin for any given game?” Dex cuts in. Jack is curious, too, actually. Somehow they haven’t discussed this very much.

“Nah,” Bitty says. “I have players I like, and tend to root for their teams, or against their rivals or whatever.’

“So if I made you pick a team,” says Dex.

“Uhhhh… Hurricanes.”

“Who the hell is worth watching on the Hurricanes?” Dex asks.

“Jeff ‘I do figure skating jumps to avoid hits’ Skinner,” Shitty answers, comprehension dawning in his voice. “See, Rans and Holtzy weren’t totally nuts when they said we could incorporate Bits’ slick moves.”

“Wrong,” says Bitty. “Well, not about Jeff Skinner, but we are not planning hockey plays around toe loops, thank you very much.”

Laughter and good conversation continue to flow as the burritos are brought and quickly consumed. It’s a good night, sitting at a table with three of his favorite people, arguing about whether the Falconers have a chance at redeeming New England’s pride in major league hockey, and swapping bites of chicken molé burritos for spicy carnitas ones.

At points, Jack remembers that his Friday nights like this are numbered, and he revels in the camaraderie all the more. He’s especially glad to see Bitty actually smiling, not pretending that he’s a better actor than he is and faking it. Jack suspects that what’s been bothering him the past few days has to do with Valentine’s Day, but Bitty won’t acknowledge that anything is wrong, and Jack still has not figured out a viable way to communicate the message please stop moping, clueless, I’m trying to date you. So. Here they still are.

It’s not much longer at all before Lardo’s phone starts playing goal horn sounds, causing Jack to jump slightly. He jostles Bitty, who has somehow ended up pressed against his side, just enough to be there but not at all like last weekend when they were watching The War.

“OKAY, LOSERS,” Lardo starts, not bellowing but, like, shouting in an indoor voice. If that’s possible. Hell, anything is possible with Lardo.

“WINNERS!” Shitty corrects, actually bellowing.

“ALRIGHT, WINNERS,” she concedes. “We’re done here. Partying is tomorrow night, sleeping is now! Everybody pay up!”

Almost as one, seventeen hockey players and their team manager shift in their seats to pull their wallets out of their pockets.

Shitty leans over to the other table and grabs Chowder’s check before the other boy can lay his card down. “This one’s coming out of the fine jug, eh Icer? Good game, brah.”

Another table over, Icer, who oversees the fine jug, to which players contribute when they are late or lose a bet or any number of things, flashes a thumbs-up and says, “Good call, Shits.”

Jack sees Chowder flush with pride as he throws Shitty a grin. “’Swawesome! Not gonna say no to free burritos, dude! Thanks, you guys!”

They get out of the restaurant remarkably quickly after that, everyone realizing all of a sudden just how tired they are, splitting up and setting out for their various dorms and houses. Shitty and Lardo lead the pack heading in the general direction of the Haus, talking quietly about… well, Jack is not quite sure, as he is at the back of the group. Probably the party tomorrow.

Bitty walks beside him the whole way home, listening to Goose and Bucket ahead of them talk about their upcoming Spanish exam and softly snickering as they flip back and forth between English and Spanish in what seems to Jack to be a very clumsy manner.

In ones and twos, guys break off from the group, until only Lardo and Murphy are continuing beyond the Haus. They all say good night, then Ransom and Holster and Shitty and Bitty and Jack let their tired legs carry them up the stairs to their beds.

In the second floor hallway, Shitty wraps Bitty in a hug. “Good night, broskies. And hey, good game, both of you. That was a gorgeous assist, Bits,” he says, before letting go. Hugging Jack even tighter, he adds, “And that goal was a beaut, man.”

“Thanks,” Jack says, thumping Shitty on the back. “’Night, bro.”

Shitty goes into his room, and Jack looks at Bitty. Before they part, Jack smiles and offers a fist bump. “’Night, Bittle. Good game.”

Bitty meets Jack’s fist with his own, a tired but genuine smile on his face. “Good night, Mr. Zimmermann. Good game.”


Their match the next day against Dartmouth is as challenging as expected, but the Samwell guys have their head in the game, as they say, and pull out a marvelous win. Everyone is laughing and slapping each other’s backs as they head off the ice into the dressing room.

“Not bad, Jay-Z!” Holster shouts. “Two points, two marriage proposals; hell of a night, huh?”

Two marriage proposals?” Jack asks, smiling. “I only saw the one.” There was a girl standing behind Chowder’s net during warm-ups with a sign that said Yo marry me Jack Zimmermann. He heard Kent’s voice in his mind telling him to live a little and wave to the lovely lady, but ignored it and her both. Not really his thing.

“Oh, yeah,” Nursey picks up. “While you were in the box for that bullshit hooking call, there was a guy behind you with a sign that said ‘Zimmermann #1’, drawn like your jersey, with a heart around the number, and ‘Marry me, Valentine?’ at the bottom.”

Jack snorts. “Not very effective if I don’t see it, eh?” It’s—fuck. Jack wants to look around and see how Bitty is reacting, but he can’t draw any attention. He—it’s one thing, to do this thing with Bitty, to work out this thing between them, but something public like that, even just a sign in the bleachers at Samwell “One in Four” University—

He takes a few breaths—in for eight, hold for four, out for six—and keeps his eyes ahead of him as he clatters back to his locker. He played it off, everyone knows he’s not a homophobic asshole, but he doesn’t engage with it. Nobody will think about it unless he lets it be a thing. It’s fine.

As he showers and changes, Jack more or less tunes out the conversations around him, focusing still on his breathing, and replaying the game in his head. He did have a two-point game, and they weren’t cheapies either. He had a beautiful assist in the first period, right to Murphy in front of the net for blocker-side tip-in to tie the game, and then Dex fed him a pass toward the end of the second that turned into a breakaway, and he scored top-shelf, barely slipping in under the crossbar, putting them up 3–2. Technically that was the game-winning goal, though Shitty did give them a nice empty-netter for insurance in the last minute of the game.

As a whole, their defense and the backchecking by the forwards are improving, and though that hooking call Nursey mentioned was, in fact, bullshit, their PK needs to tighten up some, too. Chowder stopped every shot he faced those two minutes, and not many of them were good shots—the penalty killers had been good about getting in the shooting lanes—but still. Too many chances given up. They have got to spend at least thirty seconds in the offensive end over the course of those two minutes.

Shitty’s wolf whistle cuts into Jack’s thoughts as he’s tugging on his team hoodie and reaching for his boots.

“I better see every one of you fuckers at the Haus by eleven! Back-to-back wins, Chow’s first shut-out, and wiping the board with Dartmouth… we got plenty to celebrate. Bring your friends, bring your valentines if you want, do not bring any lax bros…” There’s a handful of chuckles before Shitty continues, “Oh, hell, they’ll show up anyway. But I trust you have better taste than to count them in under valentines.” Some more chuckles.

“Will there be pie?” someone interrupts.

“‘Will there be pie?’” Bitty repeats, affronted. “Whose Haus do y’all think you’re coming to? There will be no celebratin’ on empty stomachs, y’hear?”

A round of cheers goes up, and Jack laughs to himself. Bitty’s reply is somewhere between avuncular admonishment and a pinky promise, and it’s just—very Bitty. Jack knows if Bitty had anything to say about it, there will be pie, and also three containers of hummus, a big jar of peanut butter, and enough deli meat and sandwich bread to feed an army. Or, you know, a hockey team. And a bunch of guests.

Are we charging cover on this party? he wonders suddenly. It’s never occurred to him before, since he doesn’t usually go, not to mention he’s part of the team. They must be, though. He makes a note to ask Shitty later, and to make sure Bitty’s getting some of the money back to cover the food and effort. The dressing room fine jug only goes so far, and Bitty refuses to consider his time and energy in preparing all the food worth any money. Selfless dope.


A few of the guys duck out and return to their own dorms first, but most of the team heads straight to the Haus. A small crowd of other students waits for them on the porch, most appearing to have come straight from the rink while the team was changing, though Jack is sure some of them just heard there was a party happening and showed up without a care for who’s throwing it.

Chowder’s girlfriend is sitting on the steps, and she leaps up and jogs over to meet them on the sidewalk, swooping in hug him and kiss his cheek ostentatiously. Chowder ducks his head, laughing, but quietly returns a kiss to her cheek as well. Something warm settles in Jack’s chest watching them. A part of him could be bitter that he doesn’t have that, and for now can’t have that, publically. But such bitterness is nowhere to be found. Instead, he is glad that someone as cheerful and lighthearted as Chowder has someone like Farmer in his life.

Plus, if he can get his act together, he will learn soon enough how to make Bittle squirm like that. Jack likes having goals.

Eventually they all get inside, amidst much shouting and shoving, and Jack goes straight up to his room to put his coat away and get his bearings a little bit. When he joins the chaos downstairs, after checking that everyone’s bedrooms are locked, he finds Bitty, Chowder, and Farmer sitting in the kitchen, eating pie and talking about that show Shitty likes with the clones. Chowder is grinning widely, flushed even under the fluorescent kitchen lights, and Jack realizes Shitty must have gotten the kegstands going already.

Jack tries to pay attention to the conversation while he makes himself a turkey sandwich, but it’s loud in the Haus, and he had trouble following the show the few times he’d sat with Shitty while Shitty was watching it. It’s hard enough to recognize the faces of people he doesn’t know, and when sometimes the same face is a different person, and sometimes it’s not, and sometimes it’s one person pretending to be one of the others…

Eventually, though, he gives up on the plot and focuses instead on watching them and just… being happy. With his friends. Chowder is sitting at the table, fiddling with the drawstrings on the hood of his Sharks sweatshirt, with his feet propped up on the chair opposite him on the other side of the table. Farmer is beside him in a Samwell hockey sweater, with her chair turned ninety degrees and her silver-sharpied purple high-tops in his lap. She kicks one of her feet up and down onto Chowder’s thigh when he says he doesn’t like one of the characters from the show.

Across the table from her, Bitty laughs as Chowder rubs at his leg, but also interrupts himself mid-sentence to ask if Chowder is okay. Chowder waves him off, so Bitty picks up steam again, at various points slapping the back of his right hand against the palm and fingers of his left for emphasis.

Jack leans back against the counter next to the sink and eats his sandwich. Bitty pauses for breath and takes a sip from a can of beer that has been sitting neglected on the table since Jack walked in. Judging from how Bitty holds it, it’s mostly empty.

Bitty is wearing a sweater—like a nice, knit thing with a v-neck and ribbed edges, not a hoodie—in a deep, dark pink, over a white collared shirt. He looks… good. Not effortlessly so, because it’s clear that he puts thought into his clothes, but like… naturally so. Like of course he would look good, because it’s Bitty, and he always does. Crisse, he thinks, Jack, do you hear yourself?

Jack wonders if the color is on purpose for Valentine’s Day, but he can’t bring himself to ask. He swallows the last of his sandwich. Bitty runs his hands through his hair as he tries to explain why one clone is better than another clone. Jack wants.

Just then, Ransom and Holster come in from the living room, interrupting the discussion at the table and breaking Jack out of his… contemplation, or whatever.

“Seems like you got some quality scoring chances tonight, man, if you know what I mean,” Holster is saying, innuendo positively dripping from his voice as he elbows Ransom. “March is here, right?”

Jack snorts quietly, debating whether chirping about legitimate hockey scoring would be Too Jack right now. Probably it would.

“You know it,” Ransom says, grinning. “I think she’s—” He breaks off.

“EYYYYY my man CHOWDAH!” he shouts. “CHOWDAH like CLAM CHOWDAH!”

Farmer looks down to hide a laugh. Ransom doesn’t seem to notice.

“Shut ouuuuut!” Holster howls, temporarily distracted from scoring chances of any quality.

Jack considers chirping Ransom about the time he and Shitty drunkenly got in a fight about Bostonians dropping R’s and Canadians fucking up vowels, but decides it’s not worth the effort. Instead he goes to the cupboard and gets two cups to fill with water. By the time he turns around, though, they’re gone. Whatever. Their hangovers are their problem.

Meanwhile Bitty is up from the table and pulling something out of the fridge. He turns around and sets a sheet cake on the table that reads Happy Birthday, Nursey! with a stylized Samwell #28 jersey beneath it.

“Holy shit, Bitty!” Chowder exclaims. “That’s hella impressive! When on earth did you make it??”

Bitty smiles and waves him off. “Aww, shucks, Chowder, I’m flattered, but no. Poor Betsy couldn’t handle a cake this big and all them pies. (Plus, to be entirely honest, I don’t think I could have done the decoratin’ half so well, and I know my limits.) This was ordered from the store. I’ll make him a decent cake next week to apologize.”

Jack snorts. Bitty would feel the need, after buying an enormous cake instead of making one himself, to apologize. …with more cake.

He rounds on Jack. “Excuse me, Mr. Zimmermann. I know you’re not laughing at my inability to decorate a cake. Would you know how to pipe rosettes if I put the bag in your hands for you?”

Jack only laughs some more, holding his hands up in surrender. “No, no, Bittle, I wouldn’t. I think you made the right choice.”

“Yes, sir, I did.” Bitty nods solemnly and disappears into the next room.

“So…” Chowder says. “Can we… eat it?”

Jack shakes his head. “Knowing Bittle, there’s a plan.”

He’s right. Less than a minute later, the music is paused and another one of Shitty’s ear-splitting whistles pierces through the noise of the party.

“ATTENTION!” Shitty calls in the living room. “In addition to Christopher mothafuckin’ Chow’s mothafuckin’ shut out—” He pauses as a cheer goes up. “—it is also the birthday of one Derek Nurse, and although nothing particularly exciting happens when you turn nineteen—”

“You can drink in Canada!” Ransom shouts.

“Shut up!” someone else yells.

“—aside from being able to drink in Canada,” Shitty continues, as if he had meant to say that all along, “it would be extremely poor form not to recognize a birthday when we’re throwing a goddamn party ANYWAY.”

Jack shakes his head, smiling to himself. Never change, Shitty.

“So Nursey!” Shitty bellows. “Get your nineteen-year-old-frog ass over here, do me a kegster, and when he’s done, Bits here, who is the tits—ha, that rhymes—Bits here has a fuck ton of cake in the kitchen for everyone to eat, provided you throw your fuckin’ plates away so I don’t have to pick them all up in the morning, got it? Good.”

The music starts again, something loud and wordy with a heavy bass, and Bitty reappears in the kitchen. He whips one of those long, dull, cake cutting knives out of a drawer, and honestly, Jack is not even surprised anymore when he finds out they have some sort of heretofore unknown kitchen appliance or utensil in the Haus. (Unknown, in this case, that they had one, though there have also been instances of not knowing such things existed.)

In short order, small paper plates are lined up on every flat surface available, and after Nursey comes in and grins at the writing on the cake, Bitty cuts it up and dishes it out before Jack can even offer to help. Jack does manage to nab a small piece for himself, silently apologizing to Bitty that he is taking the store-bought cake over any homemade pie, but there will be more pie later. There will always be more pie later.

Nursey took two pieces of cake, claiming birthday privileges, and he and Dex wandered off, arguing again about something. Jack should check in with Dex tomorrow. He’s been so focused on himself and this thing with Bitty, but he’s not the only one who—

Jack stops himself. It’s not his place, and he honestly does not have the energy to devote to that right now, anyway, so. He sticks his slice of cake up on top of the fridge, where (hopefully) no one will take it, and he starts clearing all the extra stuff off the table and counters so that there is space for them to sit and chat some more.

When he retrieves his cake and actually takes a seat at the table, Chowder and Farmer have gotten up and gone, leaving him and Bitty alone at the table. Bitty is a little flushed—with excitement, alcohol, movement, all of the above?—and he lets out a slow breath as he sinks down in his chair. Jack watches him pick up his beer, tip the seemingly empty can back into his mouth one last time, then turn around to throw it at the bin of bottles and cans to take back to the liquor store for their recycling deposit.

Jack gets back out of his seat, grabs the two cups of water he never managed to give to Ransom and Holster, and comes back to the table, holding one cup out to Bitty.

“Drink,” he says, a little more sternly than he meant to.

“Aye aye, Cap,” Bitty says, sticking out his tongue. He does drink it, though, and pretty quickly.

“Go fill it up and drink some more.”

“Aye aye, Cap,” Bitty repeats. But he does. Jack drinks his own water, eats his cake, and smiles.


The good mood doesn’t last.

Not ten minutes later, after Bitty has trailed off from his story about ordering the birthday cake and the woman at Stop & Shop who thought that Nursey was a nurse and that there should be first aid symbols all over the cake, while he and Jack are just sitting at the table in comfortable silence (well, relative silence, as it is a Haus party), Shitty makes his way into the kitchen and starts in about how Jack isn’t celebrating enough.

“Brah,” he says, gesturing at Jack with a sloshy solo cup. Jack is going to make sure Shitty personally cleans all the spilled beer off the kitchen floor in the morning. “It’s Valentine’s. You had a two-point game. The fuck are you doin’ tonight?”

And that right there, Jack knows, is a suggestion to go get laid like Ransom and Holster are planning. Which is something Shitty knows isn’t going to happen.

“…going to sleep?” Jack deadpans, willing Shitty to realize he’s out of line and shut himself up. Jack is not sure he can deal with being mad at Shitty right now. He was having such a good night.

Shitty glares at him, and Jack—is done. He is just going to go up to bed, and Shitty can make all the fun he wants, but Jack will be in bed, and not here, and tabarnak how had Jack not realized how tired he is? He was having fun, he supposes, and didn’t want to miss this time with Bitty and Chowder, and then there was the cake and all. But his phone says 23:05, and it’s been a long day, and he is starting to hit his limits.

“Don’t,” Jack warns. Shitty keeps glaring at him. “We played a lot of hockey tonight. I’m going to bed.” These are both true, if only tangentially related statements.

“Oh,” says Bitty, looking between them. “Well, good night, Jack!” He looks unsure quite what to do, so Jack decides for him, stepping back and offering a small wave.

“Good night, Bittle,” he replies before he turns toward the stairs. “Thanks again for the sandwiches and the cake.” He does not wait for another word from Shitty.

Upstairs, Jack unlocks the door to his room, locks it again behind himself, and lights his way to his bed with his phone. He really does need to replace that damn bulb. He sinks into the mattress, feeling depleted. Tomorrow, he thinks, breathing out slowly, he’s going to have to fix things with Shitty. Or maybe Shitty will have to fix things with him. It probably goes both ways. But for the moment, he needs some time to himself to recharge.

Speaking of which, he should probably plug his phone in. He leans over to his desk and feels around for the switch on his lamp with one hand. When the lamp clicks on, it floods the room with a soft, yellow light and Jack scans the top of his desk for his phone charger, the end of which turns out to be under a box from Amazon that he had not had a chance to open earlier. He pulls the cord free, sticks it into the port on his phone, and sets the phone down in favor of the box.

The box has a pull-tab for easy opening, and in a matter of seconds, Jack is holding The Influence of Star Trek on Television, Film and Culture and smiling. This looks like a nice way to wind down for a bit. He owes his Trek appreciation to his mother, so he will pass this along to her if it is any good.

Jack is halfway through an essay about the movie with the whales and American environmentalism when his phone buzzes and his head snaps up. The clock on the wall beside the bathroom door shows that midnight has come and gone. Jack had not really meant be up this late, but he was enjoying his book, and he is in a much better mood now, so it’s not so bad. Tomorrow—well, today, technically—is Sunday.

His phone buzzes again, reminding him of the text.

[00:44]
hier 16:40

I threw a package of yours
on your desk btw

Also do u have anything
floating around the first
floor of the Haus? ppl
might get there early
tonight u should make
sure it’s all in your room

Thanks

aujourd’hui 00:42

You awake bri

*brp

BRO

[Message]

Jack pauses, his thumbs hovering over the keyboard. It does not appear that Shitty has gotten any more sober, but Jack hopes he might have gotten a little more sense.

For a little longer, he replies, then clicks his phone off and gets up to find something more comfortable to sleep in.

From the bathroom, as he is washing his face, Jack hears two sets of feet pounding up the stairs and a key in Shitty’s lock.

“Thanks, Bits,” he hears Shitty say. Then the sound of his toothbrush in his mouth drowns out anything else either of them might say. Shitty’s bathroom door opens, and Shitty leans in, hair falling in his face, solo cup in hand.

“Yo, Zimmermann, you okay?”

Jack eyes him wordlessly, toothbrush still in his mouth. He shrugs. Shitty doesn’t press, because something catches his attention in his bedroom behind him, and he turns around. Jack follows.

Jack wishes he hadn’t followed.

Shitty has practically disappeared, between the bathroom door and the wall, Jack thinks, leaving Bitty in the center of the room, looking expectantly at Shitty as if waiting for instructions, and holding that damn sign from warm-ups, lovely pink sweater and white collar peeking over the top.

Yo marry me Jack Zimmermann?

Jack frowns. This is someone’s idea of a joke. Shitty’s idea of a shitty joke, crisse. He forces his mouth to relax out of the frown. It isn’t Bitty’s fault, and Bitty now looks crestfallen. Jack pushes the toothbrush in and out of his mouth a few times for something to do while he processes the situation.

He should… not be here, anymore. Shitty is definitely going to have to fix things with Jack in the morning, but right now, Jack needs to go back to his room, be by himself, and keep his mouth shut before he does anything he might regret. Well—he won’t zip it just yet.

“Good night, Bittle,” he says, as evenly as he can.


The first thought in Jack’s mind when his alarm goes off at 8:00 the next morning—the same morning, good God—is crisse, ferme la! and the second doesn’t arrive for two more snooze cycles after that. When it does, it takes the form of Shitty better have a wicked hangover, followed shortly by calisse, how drunk was he? and then staying in bed for the rest of the day would be very irresponsible and I can’t do it.

He kicks the covers off and rubs his arms in the chill of a February morning in an old house in New England. He is going to go outside in this? And go running?

…yes. Because it will be good for him, and he will warm up once he gets moving, and best of all, he will not be sitting here uselessly revving up while he waits for Shitty to regain consciousness.

He sticks to the main roads where the snow and ice are most manageable, circling up past Faber and going as far as Stop & Shop before his need for food trumps his desire to live alone as a hermit in the snow. If he had brought his wallet, he could just go into the store (which has inexplicably early Sunday hours) and buy some, but. He didn’t.

So, he completes his circuit back to the Haus and winces as he closes the front door, kicks off his shoes, and hears movement in the kitchen. Only one person would be up this early and making noise in there.

Before he faces Bitty, Jack does a quick sweep of the ground floor of the Haus, now that it’s a little lighter out and he can see. Chowder is sacked out on the nasty green couch. Farmer is curled up in the space beside his feet, her hair covering her face and her shoes lying on the floor next to them. Cups and cans are strewn about the whole place, but there does not appear to be much spilled booze or food, so that is definitely a step in the right direction. He tilts his head speculatively. Shitty’s warning about the cake plates seems to have taken hold, anyway.

Now he hears crackling in the kitchen and smells bacon. Does this boy ever quit? Luckily, unless there are extra people in other people’s bedrooms upstairs (which is always a possibility), Chowder and Farmer are the only extra mouths to feed here at breakfast. Jack considers waiting for them to notice the bacon and wake up, but then his stomach growls. Also he might not be brave, but he’s not that much of a coward, either. And Bitty heard the door. He’ll come looking if he doesn’t hear Jack go upstairs or see him in the kitchen.

The sight that greets him when he finally sucks it up and gets to the kitchen is just not fucking fair. Bitty, hair mussed and wearing a well-loved figure-skating hoodie and cozy flannel Sharks pants Chowder gave him for Christmas, has his hands wrapped around a mug of coffee, seated at the table across from a second plate of eggs and toast and bacon. There is sriracha drizzled over the eggs and a jar of strawberry jam beside a mug of what proves, upon closer inspection, to be earl grey tea with milk.

For an instant, that stupid goddamn fucking sign pops back into Jack’s head, and he considers—

He shakes his head and sits.

“Morning.” Bitty does not look up as he speaks, and his voice is as soft as the butter he’s now dragging back and forth over his toast. The knife scrapes on the crispy bread, grating on Jack’s ears in the same way this silence is grating on his heart.

Jack swallows, without a speck of food in his mouth. “Morning.”

As politely as he can manage, Jack shovels several forkfuls of eggs into his mouth. He had that sandwich and cake last night, but then he was up two hours past when he meant to be, and he just went for a run. Satisfied that his stomach is not going to dissolve itself in a quest for calories, Jack unscrews the jam jar, picks up the knife sitting beside his plate like the fork had been, and starts to doctor his own toast. He folds the slice of toast around one slice of bacon, then, like a small sandwich and takes a bite. The other piece of bacon disappears with the rest of the eggs, one bite at a time. The tea is cool enough to drink, but still warm. Bitty must have started it steeping as soon as he heard the front door open.

Jack drains the mug around the last few bites of his jam-and-bacon sandwich and clears his throat. “Um. That was, uh—that was delicious, Bittle. Thank you.”

He stands up and carries his dishes to the sink. Bitty already has a tub of hot soapy water there, so it isn’t any trouble for Jack to pick up a sponge and—

“Jack, you don’t have to do that.” Jack turns mid-scrub to see Bittle standing, watching him from the table, but not coming any closer. “I’ll take care of it,” Bittle promises.

Jack doesn’t know how to respond to that. But it sounds—it sounds like maybe Bittle doesn’t want him here anymore. Which is weird, considering he just made Jack breakfast and served it up just right for him, but then, sitting there was pretty awkward, and despite the fact that Jack does not exactly know why Bittle should be so embarrassed about this whole thing, he clearly is, and—

Jack is going to have Words with Shitty right now. He is going to have So Many Words.


The first words are “Shitty, enfant de chienne, réveille-toi!”, growled as Jack climbs up and flops onto Shitty’s bed, heedless of limb placement under the covers. Shitty stirs, tries to roll over, finds Jack sitting on his legs, and waves his arm haphazardly in Jack’s direction, sleepily hoping it will make Jack move.

The second set of words, then, accompanied by a less-than-gentle shove to the shoulder, is “ta gueule, espèce de fucking asshole, wake up.”

Shitty’s eyes flutter open, and he opens and closes his mouth a few times, searching for moisture where there isn’t any. Jack wonders if he should have paved the way for this conversation with a glass of water and an Advil. Oh well, too late now.

Jack waits. After a few moments, licking dry lips, Shitty finds his voice. “Hey, bro,” he says, still groggy. “What’s up?”

Jack scoffs. “Don’t you ‘what’s up’ me, you asshole.”

“How long have you been sitting there, Edward Cullen? Sleeping’s not assholeish.”

“You’re an asshole, not a moron, Shitty. Don’t play dumb.”

Shitty blinks. He sits up and reaches past Jack to rustle around in the blankets at the end of his bed, producing a crumpled Poland Springs bottle from God knows when that he empties into his mouth. He swishes the water around, then spits it back into the bottle, grimacing. He doesn’t say anything.

“Jesus, Shitty.” Jack scrubs a hand over his face and runs it through his hair and down his neck. “How wasted were you?” He can’t quite decide which would be worse—Shitty fucking with him drunk or sober.

Shitty sighs, eyes down. “Not… very,” he amends. “I… wasn’t trying to be an asshole.”

That is not an apology, and that is not nearly enough to fix things. Jack waits.

“Fuck,” Shitty says, flopping back onto his pillows. “Can you… Can you tell me where I fucked up so I’ll know what I’m apologizing for? Because I am sorry that I was an asshole, but it doesn’t seem like that counts when I don’t know what I did. …sorry,” he repeats.

Jack rubs the heels of his palms into his eyes and leaves them there, enjoying the darkness. “I didn’t ask you to get involved with me and Bittle.” He waits to see what Shitty will say.

“You didn’t ask me not to get involved,” Shitty points out. Jack’s elbows drop to his knees, eyes still covered.

“I thought you knew better,” says Jack. I trusted you, he leaves out.

Shitty blows out a long breath. “I… probably should have,” he admits. “I thought the poster was funny, and then having Bitty put it up just seemed like too fantastic an opportunity to pass up. I just wanted to, y’know, give you a nudge. Didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable,” he finishes, uncharacteristically quiet.

Jack waits again, weighing his options for response. He could leave it there; Shitty obviously knows the poster prank was in poor taste. They could be past this by this time tomorrow.

But there is more to this than the poster, and Jack is getting better at this whole honesty thing (barring that trivial little piece of not telling Bitty what he wants, but. still). Especially within himself, he has… come to rely on it, actually. And so he owes himself this.

“Well, consider me nudged.” His voice comes out somewhere between flat and acerbic, at least to his own ears, and Jack is not entirely sure which one of those he was really going for, if either. He was doing fine, before. He did not need a nudge.

(But then he thinks about the way his stomach had flopped in the kitchen, like Nazem Kadri trying to get a cross-check called. It isn’t like the nudge had done nothing.)

“But Shitty, it was not just the poster.” Jack breathes out, too, and uncovers his eyes, sliding his fingers back through his hair and tugging on it a little, to focus himself.

“Oh,” says Shitty, sounding worried.

“In the kitchen. Before I went to bed.” Jack swallows. “Do you remember what you said?”

“…no.” Shitty says, after a few beats, voice rough. “No, Jack, I’m trying to remember, and I honestly don’t.”

“‘It’s Valentine’s. You had a two-point game. The fuck are you doin’ tonight?’” Jack recites, intentionally flat now, unwilling to bring any of Shitty’s cheerfulness into it.

Shitty says nothing.

Once more Jack waits.

Shitty still says nothing.

“…do you not get why that bothered me?” Jack asks, resigned. Maybe he was wrong. Maybe this isn’t something reasonable to be upset about. He should have just sucked it up.

“No, I don’t,” says Shitty hesitantly. “Tell me.”

In for eight, hold for four, out for six.

“Have you ever known me to—you were suggesting—” He swallows again. “It sounded like you were telling me to go get laid. Which you know I don’t do casually.” Jack keeps his eyes on his knees, smoothing out the folds in his running pants and rubbing the fabric between his thumb and forefinger.

“Also,” he continues, “you said it when the only other person in the entire room was Bittle.” Shitty breathes in sharply, and, well. Jack knows something has sunk in, anyway.

“Fuck,” says Shitty, with such feeling that Jack doesn’t mind cracking a joke to cut through the tension.

“No,” he says, with half a smile at his knees. “No, like, the opposite of that, is the point.”

Shitty groans. Score one.

“But, like.” Jack is hesitant, now, too. “Is that—” reasonable? No, it is. Jack doesn’t need approval for his emotions. He tries again. “Do you understand?”

“Yeah, I—shit, Jack, fuck. I did not realize at all—I just meant—I was proud of you and wanted you to have a good time. I didn’t even mean get laid specifically, just that like. You could do anything. But you’re—yeah. Fuck. Sorry.”

It’s okay is on the tip of Jack’s tongue, but. Honesty.

“Thanks,” he says instead. “And Shits—leave Bitty alone, please. I know you’re not going to say anything to him but. He isn’t dumb; he’ll figure it out. Plus—”

Jack stops, because he doesn't know quite how to say this next part. He doesn't know—Bitty hasn't said, but.

“—it isn’t fair to him, either. I don’t know exactly what he made of that situation last night, but breakfast with him was. uncomfortable. this morning. I, uh. I doubt many people have made benevolent jokes to him about marrying guys, you know?”

“Damn,” Shitty breathes. “Yeah. No, I will. Thanks for straightening me out. And—sorry. Again. For being an insensitive ass.”

Jack forgoes the obvious “straight” joke. It’s too raw, just now. Instead, before he pats Shitty’s leg through the blankets and climbs off the bed, he says, “You’re still allowed to talk to him about food, though. And you should. He made bacon this morning.”

With one last wave as he crosses the room, Jack adds, “So go feed yourself! I’m going to make myself smell human again. You should do that when you’re done, too, slimeball.”

He bats away the sock that comes flying at his head without even looking.


The door slams while Bitty is spooning scrambled eggs onto a plate. He turns the back burner under the kettle from low to off, then tears open an Earl Grey packet, drops the tea bag into a mug waiting on the counter, and pours the water over it. With an eye on Betsy’s clock to keep the tea from getting too bitter, he pulls out the tray of bacon from where it was keeping warm inside the oven and adds a couple slices to the eggs. He puts a few strips onto a second plate, slides the baking sheet back into Betsy’s care, and dishes up some eggs for himself, too.

By the time Jack gets into the kitchen, the tea bag has been replaced with a splash of milk, the eggs on the first plate have been drizzled with sriracha, and it’s all waiting on the table with toast and jam. And Bitty.

“Morning,” Bitty says to his own mug of coffee. (If he added some of a Swiss Miss packet for comfort, no one else was around to see it, but he needs to do something right now besides stare into it.)

“Morning,” Jack replies.

Bitty takes a sip, eyes down, as Jack digs into his eggs, and Bitty butters his toast, and neither of them says another word. This sucks.

Jack looked furious last night when Bitty turned around with that sign. And that was bad enough on its own. Bitty could go the rest of his life never seeing that expression turned his way and it would be too soon. But Shitty. Lord only knows what Shitty was trying to do with Jack, though he’d clearly been getting under Jack’s skin earlier, but Shitty knows about Bitty’s—feelings. It’d been all Bitty could do to keep his eyes dry as he rolled them and dropped the sign on Shitty’s bed before retreating to his room as gracefully as he could.

Someday, Bitty thinks, he’ll learn to take a chirp. Maybe around the time he learns to take a check, too.

“Um,” Jack says, breaking into Bitty’s thoughts. “That was, uh—that was delicious, Bittle. Thank you.”

Bitty looks up, trying to figure out how to respond, but Jack is already out of his seat, bussing his dishes, because the boy has only two defense mechanisms: cruelty and unfailing politeness. Bitty supposes there’s some cold comfort to be found in the knowledge that he hasn’t re-earned cruelty.

Bitty gets to his feet, too, and turns to face the sink, still trying to decide if he should apologize somehow beyond the food, or—“Jack, you don’t have to do that.”

Clearing your own spot is plain good manners, but he’s got to have better ways to waste his Sunday than washing dishes. And he doesn’t seem to want to be here, so if he’s just doing that for Bitty to try to… who even knows what, then, no.

“I’ll take care of it.”

Jack nods once, tacitly agreeing, and leaves. Bitty breathes in and out slowly. It’s closer to a reminder to stay calm than a sigh, really, but at this point what’s the difference?

He sits down again and pushes the eggs around his plate, no longer hungry. Maybe he should get Chowder and Farmer up. He still can’t believe they went for that despicable couch over Ransom and Holster’s unused beds in the attic, but hey. Bitty’s glad they stayed the night. (Not that he doesn’t believe they could have gotten home alright, but. It’s just nice to have them around.)

Then again, they probably need the sleep, and Bitty's not sure he can handle other people just now, so maybe not. He rises again, leaving his plate on the table to come back to later, then puts the pan of eggs into the oven to keep warm, too, and starts washing up what few dishes are yet in the sink. It’s something to do, something Bitty knows he can do right.

With that done, he’s left with his own thoughts once more, which—nope, not in the mood for them. He plops down into his chair at the table, stuffs his earbuds into his ears, and cues up the first Whose Line youtube playlist he can find. Detective stories at the circus are always a good diversion, right?

Several videos later, feet come down the stairs and the floor creaks behind Bitty. He pulls one earbud out and turns around. Shitty is standing just inside the doorway, wearing ramen noodle boxer shorts and an unreadable expression. Bitty takes another quiet, deep breath.

“Eggs and bacon are in the oven keeping warm,” he says. “Bread’s there for toast, if you want. And there’s coffee left.”

“Thanks,” Shitty says, and that’s how Bitty knows that Shitty knows that something is wrong. Most mornings-after breakfasts from Haus parties elicit more swearing and face-kissing on Shitty’s part. Bitty turns back to the weird party guest skit he was watching, but leaves the one earbud out.

A minute or two later, Shitty slides into the same chair Jack was using earlier, and Bitty gives in, clicking the power button on his phone and laying it and his earbuds back on the table. His eggs have gone cold, but he pokes them with his fork anyway, for something to do.

Shitty sighs. “I owe you an apology,” he says, stabbing a bite of egg and holding it in front of his mouth. Bitty almost points out that saying that is not the same thing as actually making an apology, but he gives Shitty the benefit of the doubt.

When Shitty doesn’t continue, Bitty sets his fork down hard on his plate and says, “You promised you weren’t gonna tell!”

Shitty swallows his eggs and looks up, serious. “I didn’t.”

Bitty feels his eyebrows rise almost of their own accord. “Well, you certainly made an impression. He could barely string two words together when he was down here an hour ago, and then he fled straight upstairs.” At least Shitty was with it enough to know what Bitty meant by ‘tell’.

“I told you what I told you in confidence, Shitty, not so you could go play some elaborate joke at my expense.”

Shitty says nothing, but stands up to go fill a mug with coffee. Bitty follows him with his eyes.

“Shitty… why?” Bitty’s voice doesn’t crack, but he feels his throat closing up a little bit, and bless it all, he is not going to cry right now. He takes a bite of cold, gelatinous eggs in hopes of distracting his body from betraying him just now.

But he has to ask, he has to know. They’ve all been so good to him—Shitty, especially, has been so good to him. Sometime in the past 12–15 months, Bitty had allowed himself to trust that these boys would know the difference between chirping and mockery. Not that Bitty does so great with good-natured chirping, anyway, but still. This came at him like a check to the numbers, and he has to know why.

“Why what?” Shitty asks, returning to his seat, voice soft but steady.

“That stunt with the sign.” Bitty gets up to refill his own coffee. He thinks about the half packet of Swiss Miss up in the cupboard, but he probably shouldn’t have that much more sugar at this point, and he’s not sure what Shitty would say.

Shitty sighs again. “I know. I’m sorry.”

Bitty spoons a little bit of plain sugar into his coffee and goes for the milk. “Sorry’s not why.”

“It—” Shitty starts. “I didn’t think it was gonna go down like that.”

“How did you think it was gonna go down?” Bitty hisses, mindful of the frogs sleeping in the living room. “Was he going to just sweep me off my feet and we’d be married today?” Some of the chill from the fridge has seeped into Bitty’s voice, and he’s got no mind to reign it in now.

The silence that meets Bitty’s iciness is telling.

“Shitty, I ain’t the greatest chirper out there, I know that. I can’t always take ’em and I definitely can’t dish ’em like y’all do. But Shitty, that wasn’t no chirpin’. That was just uncalled for.”

Shitty nods, and Bitty gives him a moment to respond, but he doesn’t.

“Now to be sure,” Bitty continues, “I do see the humor in keeping that sign and hanging it in your room, but I’d’a thought you’d’a known better than to make me the butt of that joke. It’s one thing—whether I can take it or not—to give me grief when no one’s around, but that was different.” His voice doesn’t quaver at all, and Bitty can be proud of that, he thinks.

Shitty sighs a third time, and lays his head in his hands, briefly. “You’re right,” he says, looking up. “I should have known better. I didn’t think about—I didn’t think about how it would go down. I thought—I thought Jack would think it was funny, which he obviously didn’t, but I didn’t think about how you would feel, and I definitely didn’t realize it would… set you two at odds, I guess. I fucked up, Bits, real bad. I’m sorry.”

Sorry don’t feed the bull dog, Bitty thinks, but what else is he gonna do at this point. He doesn’t have the energy to drag this out any more.

“Apology accepted. Have you made up with Jack, then?”

“Yeah,” says Shitty, tipping his mug back for the last drops of his coffee. “Yeah, we talked before I came down. He… mentioned that you made breakfast.”

“Good,” Bitty says, and he means it. Shitty can be a dick, and Jack can be a dick, too, but they belong to each other in a way Bitty would hate to come between, even indirectly.

He prods his eggs a few more times, then takes his plate to the microwave in a sad effort to make them palatable again. He’s starting to feel hungry again, because he really didn’t eat enough the first time around.

“You know,” he says conversationally, because he’s told Shitty what’s what, and Shitty apologized, and Bitty’s feeling brave today, “I’ve never actually had anyone tease me about a crush before.” He keeps his voice down, still, because Chowder and Farmer are still only one room away.

“Hm?” Shitty asks.

“Well, I mean. It ain’t like I talked about boys with anyone I went to high school with. And ’round here, well. I spend all my time with y’all, right? So even before—even last year, sure, maybe there were some cute guys in class with me, or whatever, but I wasn’t—I wasn’t ready to say anything, to try anything. I didn’t know them, and I didn’t know how to get to know them, let alone when I’d have time for that, Lord. And no offense to Ransom, but none of the boys he tried to set me up with really worked out. And anyone else… even if I did get to know someone, none of the rest of my friends woulda known, so how would they have teased me, y’know?”

“Oh, fuck, Bits,” says Shitty.

“What?” Bitty replies, somewhat alarmed at the weight in Shitty’s voice. “Are you okay?”

“Fuck, man, I’m sorry that I— No wonder that thing last night felt so terrible, if you’ve never even been able to— And of course you wouldn’t have, I didn’t even think. Fuck.”

Part of Bitty wants to reassure Shitty that it’s fine, that he had no way of knowing. But then again, it’s good for Shitty to think about things he had no way of knowing.

“Thanks,” he says instead.

“Shit, tell me if I’m out of bounds, but like. I can fill that hole in your life, if you want. Y’know, when no one else is around.”

Bitty considers this. It’s nice just to have someone else who knows, and who might be lighthearted about it. He didn’t say to Shitty, because it’s not his place to tell, but a few times when Nursey’s been so chill he’s just seemed dead inside, he’s sat at this very table eating misery pie with Bitty and said, “fuck straight boys,” and Bitty’s said, “that doesn’t usually work out too well,” and they’ve both laughed humorlessly and left it at that.

They have an understanding, but it’s not the same as naming those straight boys. Or, as it turns out, not-so-straight boys. Lord.

“Yeah,” Bitty says at last, taking his eggs out of the microwave. “I think that would be okay.”

(He doesn’t know yet that this means Shitty will blow up his phone with links to gifsets of Jack’s butt on tumblr. Once he realizes that, he may reconsider.)

“Do you…” Shitty starts. “Do you want to tell me about any of those guys from… before?” He grins, a little dangerously. “Do you have a type?”

Bitty rolls his eyes. He doesn’t, really. Not that he can tell, anyway. “Yeah—taller than me,” he jokes, sitting down and beginning to eat again.

“Well, shit, dude,” says Shitty. “That could be anyone!”

Bitty, mouth full of breakfast but still feeling brave, raises his eyebrows. Shitty raises his own, as if to say ‘me? Really?’ Bitty shakes his head, because no, definitely not, really.

Shitty sticks his tongue out. “There’s no accounting for taste,” he moans dramatically.

“Yeah, well, Lord only knows what Lardo sees in you.”

Shitty bites his lip. “Hey, I know I don’t have a lot of room to talk, but. Since we’re having this heart-to-heart. Can you—not?”

Bitty narrows his eyebrows slightly, concerned, but he hears what Shitty’s asking for, and how could he say anything but, “Of course. Sorry.”

He takes his last few bites of eggs, and Shitty reaches across the table to take his dishes along with his own.

“Seriously,” Shitty says. “Let’s get dressed and go for a run, and you can tell me all about your boys. It’ll be useful if I ever have to set you up, later.”

Running sounds miserable at the moment, but it’s probably a good idea. And—Bitty wouldn’t mind telling Shitty about Steven, he thinks. The whole New Year’s Eve story is probably worth retelling, and Shitty could appreciate the ridiculousness of his conversation with Jack afterward.

Bitty takes one more deep breath, taking in confidence and breathing out worry. He’s gonna get through this. “Sure.”

Chapter Text

Bitty is no chattier Monday morning than he had been on Sunday, but the silence filling the kitchen as he and Jack gather protein bars and fruit and gatorade to take to checking practice is much more comfortable. They have a routine. There’s no need to talk. (Which is fine, because Jack is not usually up for much verbal communication during the first forty-five minutes of any given day. Voicebox.exe runs on a time-delay, he jokes to himself sometimes.)

They don’t really talk much on the way to Faber, either, but Bitty plays some music over the speakers of his phone (quietly, just for them, holding the phone up between their ears so as not to bother anyone they walk past), and they both shuffle-dance a little to a heartbeat song that somebody’s gonna play all night long. Slushy sidewalks aren’t the greatest surface for these kind of things, but they make do.

They change into their gear to the sounds of Sara Bareilles, and Jack stops just at the door to the ice, offering Bitty a fistbump. You gotta work for them, he told Bittle so long ago. Bitty really has.

He’s gotten so much better at dealing with checks—any sort of unexpected physical contact, really, but especially on the ice. Jack—Jack is still really angry when he thinks about how Bitty was a year ago. A year and a few months ago. Not at Bitty, but at every bullying asshole who made him that way. No, Bitty he’s proud of. It’s hard to overcome shit that scary. Jack would know.

Bitty knocks his glove into Jack’s, and they hit the ice. They warm up for a few minutes, racing each other around the boards. Bitty is fast. Then Jack says, “Ready?” and Bitty says, “As I’ll ever be,” and Jack comes at him quick.

They do drills where Jack comes from the left, from the right, from the front, with their sticks, without their sticks, with the puck, without the puck. Jack watches Bitty for signs that he needs a break, but when they finally take one, it’s only to get water and bananas. Bitty is handling it all so well.

Jack has Bitty try to lay some hits, next. The first time he’d proposed this, more than a year ago, now, Bitty had laughed a horrible, intimidated laugh and sat down on the bench until Jack agreed to do something else. Now Bitty heaves a dramatic sigh, but does as he’s told, approaching Jack from every angle, throwing his (meager) weight around, and—Jack hopes—getting a better sense for where to be looking for a potential hit based on how he makes them himself. He actually does knock Jack off the puck one time, and there isn’t anything artificial at all about the celly that comes after.

Yeah, Bitty Jack is proud of.

The next time they break, Jack is contemplating starting practices with checks from behind. They’re not legal, but as it turns out, legality does not always dictate reality on the ice. With playoffs coming up, Jack doesn’t think they can be too prepared. He chews his protein bar. Next time, maybe. Even suggesting a drill like that requires a lot of trust from Bitty, and—it’s not that Jack thinks he’s lost Bitty’s trust, per se, but after whatever went down with that damn sign this weekend…

They’re doing good right now. Bitty’s doing good right now. Jack will let this one go for today.

When they’re finished, they haul their tired, exerted bodies out of the rink in the sort of high spirits that come from a good workout and time well-spent. As the door to Faber closes behind them, it is Bitty who suggests, “Pancakes?”

It occurs to Jack later, as they are sitting in the kitchen eating those pancakes, that Bitty might still be trying to apologize via food for whatever it is he thinks he did wrong with that sign of Shitty’s. He is glad he decided to forgo the new checking drill. Tomorrow, maybe, he needs to buy Bitty another coffee and try to be a little clearer with this dating business.

For now, all he does is smile and accept. (And promise to do the washing up.)


“I saw you,” Annalise Keating says that evening on Bitty’s laptop screen to the boy sitting across her desk. “Someone like me. Someone so scared that the only way you know how to handle things is by worrying your way through them. That’s what you and I are: worriers. It makes us very successful, but also very tired, too.”

In the prolonged silence that follows her observation, all Bitty can see is Jack, standing alone in his bedroom upstairs, shaking with worry. He thinks about Jack ducking out of social events early, and the hollow slump of his shoulders after bad games. Damn.

Annalise starts speaking again, but the front door starts to open, so Bitty pauses last week’s episode of How To Get Away With Murder and looks up from the pile of beanbags that he’s ensconced himself in to see Nursey shuffling in and stomping the snow off his boots.

Bitty sets his computer aside and pushes himself more upright. “Hey, Nursey,” he says, waving. Nursey looks over as he’s untying his boots and waves back, then shoves his headphones down around his neck.

“Hey, Bits,” he says, sounding tired himself. Bitty—Bitty forgets, sometimes, that other people don’t shove problems aside and forge ahead in their “absence”, as if they can outrun them, the way he does. Jack is not the only worrier on this team.

“What are you doing here?” Bitty asks, glancing at the clock on his computer. It’s nearly midnight.

Nursey shrugs, coming in to take a seat on the edge of the green biohazard. “I was at the library, and then on my way back I saw a text from my roommate that he needed some time with his girlfriend, so.”

Gosh, Nursey walked all that way at 11:30 at night in the cold? Bitty frowns. “Well, that’s kind of a jerk move. And Chowder wouldn’t save you the walk over here? Or Dex?” he adds, since Nursey and Dex really have been getting along better lately. It’s not a completely ludicrous suggestion.

The couch scrapes against the floor as Nursey flops into it and thunks his head against the headrest. “Chow’s with Farmer, and Dex has a project due tomorrow or something. Anyway, I didn’t mean to interrupt you, or whatever. Just looking for somewhere to hang out.” He leans forward again and opens the backpack at his feet, pulling out a notebook and pen.

Bitty chews at his bottom lip. “Do you want me to get some blankets for these beanbags? Or that nasty contraption you’re sitting on, if you insist, but you should at least put a blanket down over it before you sleep…” He shudders mentally at the thought of laying his face anywhere near those cushions, but it really is late, and they have practice in the morning, so Nursey shouldn’t stay up too much later.

“Oh. Sure, yeah, that would be great, if it’s not too much trouble.”

It’s a struggle to get vertical from the beanbag, but Bitty perseveres.

“I didn’t mean you had to go this minute! I do still have a little more to do,” Nursey says. He shakes his notebook. “Unless you’re headed to bed, I mean.”

Bitty, now upright, shakes his head. “No, not just yet. I was going to—oh, shoot! I was going to start your birthday pie earlier, and then I started editing a vlog post instead, and then Ransom asked if I was caught up on How To Get Away With Murder yet, and I totally lost track of things. You said cherry, right?” It’s embarrassing that Nursey caught him unprepared, but it’s convenient that he’s there. (Bitty had promised him a homemade cake, but Nursey doesn’t actually like cake all that much, it seems, given his druthers, so.)

Nursey cracks a small smile for the first time since he arrived. “Aww, Bits, I’m not gonna turn down your pie, but you really don’t have to do that at this hour.”

“You’re quite welcome,” says Bitty, waving Nursey off and starting toward the kitchen, laptop in tow. “It will give me something to do while I finish this episode. You coming?”

“I’ll be in in a few,” Nursey promises. “I do want to finish this thing first. You watch your show.”

“Sure thing,” Bitty agrees. “And you did say cherry, right?” He turns back to confirm, and Nursey throws him a thumbs-up.

“Good choice, Mr. Nurse. It’s a classic for a reason.” Nursey smiles again, so Bitty knows this is a good idea, even if he might regret it in an hour when he’s waiting for it to come out of the oven.

In the kitchen, he sets his laptop on the counter and quickly assembles the ingredients he needs for the crust. He bought cherries this morning, but he’ll make the filling while the crust chills. Sifting the dry ingredients together is as mindless a task as breathing, and he doesn’t mind cutting the butter and shortening in with a pastry knife. A food processor would be easier, but college-student finances and frat-house kitchen space. Besides, it’s an upper-arm work out. Or something.

He sprinkles in the ice water and vodka a few tablespoons at a time and continues his “work out” blending the dough with a spatula, then kneading it with his hands. He’s not that invested in Annalise’s case of the week, but the episode wraps up well enough, and darn it, Bitty’s just always going to have a soft spot the size of an Olympic rink for found families, so. (Plus there’s Wes’s face, which isn’t a problem, either.) He extracts half of the sticky dough and puts it in a second bowl, covering both the bowls with plastic wrap and setting them in the fridge.

He’s halfway through opening and emptying the cans of cherries into a saucepan on the stove when Nursey walks in and takes a seat at the spot at the table Bitty’d left for him. He seems to have left his bag and notebook in the other room. Bitty wonders if he’s ready for bed. As soon as the gel starts simmering Bitty could go grab blankets without too much trouble.

“Hey,” Bitty greets him, pouring the excess cherry water down the sink. “You gettin’ ready for bed? Want me to go grab blankets?”

“Nah, not yet,” Nursey replies. “Hey, what’s that for?”

Bitty looks down at the can of cherries in his hand. “You only need about half the water that is in the cans, so I hold the lid closed after I open it so that they can drain.” He shakes the last few drops out of that can and then pries the lid back open so he can dump the actual cherries into the saucepan.

“No,” says Nursey, as Bitty measures and adds the sugar. “What’s the vodka for?” Whoops, Bitty hasn’t put that away yet. “It’s the secret to flaky crust.” Drat, he hasn’t gotten the cornstarch out yet, either. He goes to the pantry to find it.

“Can I have some?” Nursey asks hesitantly.

“Flaky crust?” Bitty asks, confused. “Not until the pie is done!” Ah, there’s the cornstarch.

Nursey scoffs. “Obviously. I meant can I have some vodka.”

Bitty whips around, cornstarch in hand, and narrows his eyes. “Uh-oh, what is going on, Mr. Nurse? You’ve seemed down since you got here, and I am not helping you drown your sorrows if I don’t know what they are. No vodka unless you talk.” Bitty doesn’t usually like to press for information, but he’s also not in favor of sad, solo drinking, and Nursey’s still a frog, whether he likes it or not.

Nursey sighs. “Yeah, fine.”

“Okay, just a sec, then.” Bitty steps over to the stove, measures out the cornstarch, adds it with the salt, and gives the whole thing on the stove a good stir before he adjusts the burner and sets a ten-minute timer. Then he pulls a shot glass out of a cupboard, one of the numerous shot glasses that seem to belong to the Haus rather than any particular resident or teammate, as no one can remember a time they weren’t there, even during Jack and Shitty’s frog year.

He pours Nursey a shot, and then, because he’s not in favor of sad, solo drinking, pulls another glass down and pours himself half of one. He doesn’t need it, or even really like straight vodka, but it’s the principle of the thing. He puts the bottle back in the freezer, then takes the glasses over to the table and sits down, handing Nursey his.

“Cheers?” Bitty asks, rather than says, uncertain if the word is really appropriate.

“Cheers,” agrees Nursey, halfheartedly. They clink their glasses and knock them back. Bitty tries not to wince too visibly, and looks at Nursey expectantly.

“Just…” Nursey starts. “Why are straight boys?”

Bitty’s heart sinks. He was afraid it might be this again. “Oh, honey,” he says, a frown pulling his lips down. “What did he do this time?”

Nursey snorts. “Well, got a girlfriend, for starters.” Bitty sags down onto his elbows on the table.

“But I mean,” Nursey continues, “that was a while ago. I’m basically over it now. Over him, I mean.”

He tips back in his chair, balancing on the back two legs in that way that always scares Bitty half to death, but Bitty has broken himself of the habit of scolding anyone for that. It only ever pisses people off, and at this point, he’s decided, it’s their own damn fault if they crack their heads open. It’s not like they’re his summer campers, for whom he actually holds any shred of responsibility.

“That’s… good?” Bitty offers.

Nursey shrugs one shoulder. “Sure. But now there’s, uh, someone else. So.”

Bitty crosses his arms on the table, flat, and lays his head sideways on them. “Another one?” he asks, pouting a little. “Boo.”

Nursey lets his chair fall forward and then mirror’s Bitty’s position. “Yeah, so. Why are straight boys and why is my brain fixated on them?”

Bitty blows out a slow stream of air. “I hear you, darlin’. I’m sorry.”

“I mean, like, it’s fine,” Nursey says, aiming for “chill” and landing somewhere closer to “resigned”. “Just. sucks. Y’know,” he finishes, with another little shrug.

I don’t think it’s me you’re tryin’a convince, Mr. Nurse, Bitty thinks.

Nursey turns his head over on his arms so that he’s looking away from Bitty before he adds, “and I’ve, uh, kinda been been flirting with him for a while? But I didn’t realize it. Only then I did realize it, so now I probs ought to stop, because I think it might make him uncomfortable. But suddenly changing how I act might make things weird, which I don’t want to do either, so…”

“Ah,” says Bitty, for lack of a better way to show that he’s listening. He gets up and goes to stir the pie filling. It’s bubbling and smells wonderful.

Bitty breaks the silence that has fallen by asking if Nursey likes almond extract. Bitty thinks it goes perfectly with cherry anything, but he knows some people who can’t abide the stuff, and he’s not sure where Nursey stands on the matter.

“Uh, I don’t know,” says Nursey. Bitty uncaps the bottle and lets Nursey sniff it. “Oh! Yeah, that stuff is great.” Bitty gets another little half-smile for his troubles, and measures out a “scant quarter teaspoon”, as the recipe called for, back before Bitty had it memorized.

“So.” Bitty picks their original conversation back up as he stirs the extract in. “You don’t wanna seem closed off, in case he hasn’t figured out what’s going on yet, but you don’t wanna keep flirting with a lost cause, in case he does figure it out.”

“Yeah, basically.”

Bitty starts laying out some sheets of waxed paper for rolling the pie crust. He’s not sure he can provide Nursey any useful advice here. He spent all of high school trying not to flirt with anyone, and—well, Stephen said he’d wondered sometimes, but it wasn’t like whatever Bitty had been doing was drastically affecting their friendship or anything. (There would have had to be an actual friendship to affect.) And later there just hadn’t been any guys he talked to enough for it to matter.

Since then, since coming to Samwell, he was over-the-top friendly again with lots of people, only these boys up here never decided that the appropriate response was solitary confinement in Faber’s storage closets, so. So Bitty kept at it. And he still isn’t trying to flirt with Jack, but as long as he doesn’t read too much into Jack’s behavior, it’s fine. Everyone expects him to be doting, and if he gives in and dotes on Jack a little extra sometimes… well, it’s only his own heart that thinks anything of it.

“Does he… know? About you? Like, in general, I mean,” Bitty asks Nursey, as he takes one of the bowls of pie dough out of the fridge. He doesn’t know what label Nursey would use for himself, and this isn’t about that, really. All Nursey’s ever said is how awful straight boys are, so all Bitty knows is not that.

“I dunno, man.” Nursey leans back in his chair again. “I mean, I doubt it. I don’t think I’ve really talked about it around him. And you know how straight boys’ gaydar is.”

Bitty dumps the dough out onto a sheet of waxed paper and snorts quietly. Gay boys’ gaydar ain’t foolproof either. Exhibit A: Eric Bittle on Jack Zimmermann. Plus, “mmm, not all of us fly under so easy, man,” he adds to Nursey, “but I take your point.”

“Heh,” says Nursey. “I take your point. Sorry.”

And it’s funny, Bitty thinks as he lays another sheet of waxed paper on top of the dough and rolls it flat, because Bitty’s not sad about not flying under like that. He’s wished his share of times that the way he is wouldn’t make him such a target for football-playing asshats (and other asshats), but he’s never wanted to stop being himself. Who would Eric Bittle be if he didn’t love figure skating and glittery outfits and small-town gossip and baking and belting Beyoncé at the top of his lungs?

The timer on the stove goes off.

“Nah, ain’t nothin’ to be sorry for,” Bitty replies, setting down his rolling pin and turning the burner off. He gives the mixture one last stir, and blows on the spoon before he swipes a little bit off with his finger and sticks it in his mouth. Mmmmm. He sets the spoon back in the mix and washes his hands before he finishes rolling out the dough.

“I don’t know either, man,” he says. “But if you need more after this birthday pie is gone, you just holler, y’hear?”

Nursey grins. “No problem at all.”

Bitty peels back the top piece of waxed paper and carefully lifts the bottom one up so that he can turn the crust over into the pie plate.

Nursey clears his throat. “So anyway,” he says. Bitty pushes the crust into the edges of the dish and waits. “It’s been a while, man—how’s your straight boy doing?”

Bitty, having just picked up the pan of filling to bring it over to the pie plate, sets it back down on the stove with a showy crash, then flinches from the sound as he remembers that certain people, (not-so-)straight boy included, are probably sleeping upstairs. He picks the pan up and starts calmly spooning the cherries into the pie plate.

“Oh, he’s great! He’s wonderful! Everything seems to be going just right for him. Still beautiful,” he says, matter-of-fact. “Still sweeter’n pie. Still way out of my league. You know.”

Bitty does his best not to think about how painfully accurate the phrase “out of my league” is, in a very literal way. Instead, he sets the saucepan down and grabs the shot glasses off the table, scooping up some of the remnants of the cherry sauce and half-filling the each of them.

“I wish I could tell you,” he says, retrieving the bottle of vodka from the freezer and topping the shots off, “that ignoring them or pretending they don’t exist makes crushes go away, but…” He puts the bottle back in the freezer again. “…whatever. If not with me, then at least he’s still happy, right?” He hands Nursey one of the pathetic pie shots.

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” Nursey says, taking the glass. “It is what it is, I guess.”

Bitty nods. “Fuck straight boys,” he says, lifting his glass to toast. Just as he hoped, Nursey grins and clinks his glass against Bitty’s.

“Or, y’know. Don’t.”

Bitty grins back, and vodka plus warm-to-room-temp pie filling isn’t the best thing Bitty’s ever consumed, but it’s better than shitty vodka by itself. He sticks his hand out for Nursey’s glass when they’re finished.

“Now, that’s all.” He puts the glasses in the sink. God, it’s late, and he hasn’t even rolled out the dough for the top crust.

“Hey, I can get my own blankets if you tell me where they are,” Nursey says. And Bitty is loathe to make the boy do that, but—yeah, he really needs to get this pie in the oven.

“Sure. Sorry ’bout the mess in my room, but in the blue plastic tub under my bed you should find some stuff. Take what you like—but do take something to put down on top of that couch, mister. Don’t be lazy and gross.”

Nursey chuckles and makes for the stairs. Bitty starts crimping the edges of the crust in the pie plate. It’s going to be ages until he can go to sleep, but maybe he’ll finish some more physics while the pie is in the oven. (And by “physics” he almost certainly means “Parks and Rec” but you know. Details.)


Practice the next morning is a pain in the ass. Bitty has really got to find a job when he graduates that accommodates a night-owl sleeping schedule better than NCAA athletics does. He can do mornings, but he’d rather not be compelled to. Who knows. Maybe part of adulthood involves having a reliable routine every day instead of sporadically marathoning sitcoms until God knows when. Bitty will have to find out later.

On the plus side, he gets one in on Chowder on his second try during the final shootout drill, and when Bucket takes the net, Bitty scores on his first. It’s a fantastic way to wrap up practice.

The whole team troops over to the dining hall for breakfast after they shower. Nursey managed to cobble together some clean borrowed clothes from Shitty and Ransom, and no one had seemed too concerned to see him on their couch that morning. (It really was not among the weirder things to find on their couch on a given morning. Bitty would really like to burn that thing.)

Jack and Icer lead the group, talking about the new penalty killing system Coach Hall had them try today. Nursey and Chowder are just behind them, offering their own opinions. Bitty was trying to participate as well, but he’s just not awake enough yet, and he’s lucky Hall didn’t have him do extra laps at some point for all he was able to focus on the new play.

Gradually he drifts backward through his pack of teammates, chatting with those who aren’t otherwise engaged in conversation.

“Hey, Dex,” he says, when he reaches him. “How’d your project end up?”

“My what?” Dex asks. “Which project?”

“Nursey said you were working on a project last night.”

Dex’s eyebrows come together. “If by ‘project’ he meant my latest Legend of Zelda quest… If he’s got some prank planned…” Bitty rolls his eyes; that seemed like the last thing on Nursey’s mind last night. Maybe he was just confused about Dex’s assignments or something.

“Come on, man,” he says to Dex. “What kind of prank involves telling other people that you were doing your homework?”

Dex deflates. “Yeah, okay.”

“Hey, which Zelda game are you playing?” Wicks pipes up behind them. The ensuing conversation about gaming platforms versus storylines and which is more important to the quality of a game goes right over Bitty’s head—literally, as Wicks comes up on his other side, and they’re both so darn tall.

The dining hall, when they get there, isn’t a wasteland like it would be at 7:30, but it’s still easy enough to find a long empty table to claim for themselves. Most students are either too lazy or too asleep to bother with dining hall breakfast.

Bitty follows Dex and Wicks to one end to dump their stuff, but manages not to sit between them, hoping to be able to talk about anything but video-game sword-fighting techniques. Ozzie and Ollie have already left their things across the table, and Smurfy is pulling a chair up to the very end.

Bitty’s first stop is the coffee dispenser, followed quickly by the chocolate milk dispenser, because what use is coming to the dining hall if you’re not gonna put chocolate milk in your coffee? He clutches the mug carefully and sips from it as quickly as he can without burning his tongue while he waits in line at the breakfast sandwich station, as usual.

Today they’re making breakfast burritos, God bless. (Bitty himself only comes to the dining hall for breakfast if it’s after practice, but he’s yet to find a breakfast sandwich variation they do poorly, and, like. Eggs. Sausage. Protein. Not as much sugar as waffles. But the burritos are the best.)

Then, armed with his coffee and his burrito, Bitty grabs some fruit off the salad bar and returns to the table. Well, armed with an empty coffee mug, at this point. He refills it and gets some apple juice, too, before he sits down. Dex and Wicks are still on about something, but Smurf is excited to hear Bitty’s thoughts since he started marathoning Parks and Rec, so Bitty starts to tell him.

Not much later, Shitty rises from his seat at the opposite end of the table with a cry of “Honeynut Cheeriooooooooooos!” and makes his way around the table toward the cereal containers, one arm (holding his bowl) outstretched like Superman, the other trailing his teammates’ heads and ruffling their hair.

Bitty laughs as Ozzie tries to duck out of the way, only to faceplant into his oatmeal, but pulls a napkin for him out of the dispenser in the middle of the table all the same. Ozzie laughs back when Shitty hits up the other side of the table on his way back to his seat (slower this time so as not to spill the cereal), and Bitty, not expecting a hand on his head, yelps and splashes juice on his face.

“Drinking problem?” Ozzie chirps.

Bitty gets himself a napkin and sticks his tongue out. “Reflex problem, mostly.” Shitty startled him, that’s all. A couple seats down, Bitty can see the man in question leaning over, whispering something in Jack’s ear while doing his one-handed best to give Jack a gel-less mohawk.

When Shitty stands up, Jack reaches out and squeezes his arm before he can move on to the rest of that side of the table. Shitty looks back and smiles. Good. Bitty is glad to see they’re okay again.


Annie’s that afternoon is—thankfully—not pink anymore. Gone are the lace hearts and rosy streamers and menu items written in pepto-bismol-colored chalk. Still, Bitty finds himself wondering exactly how he wound up in this position again, after the awkward… Not Date… with Jack last week.

(This is a lie. Bitty knows exactly how he wound up here: Jack leaned down outside their food politics lecture hall while they waited for their professor and mumbled, “Hey, Bittle, Annie’s after class?” in his ear, and Bitty shivered and said yes before he remembered what a bad idea that was.)

(It’s still a bad idea, probably. But he’s here now, and he’s not gonna waste the time with Jack this semester, so.)

(Plus, even if he’d stopped to think about why this is a bad idea, what was he going to say? No? That’s just what Nursey was saying the other day about not making it weird, and not going for coffee would definitely be weird, even though this time, with Jack’s lips so close to Bitty’s ear, it was impossible to feel like this isn’t… something, which is only a recipe for heartbreak.)

“What can I get for you?”

The cashier—a small, dark Indian girl that Bitty recognizes from… his freshman seminar, maybe?—interrupts his internal reprimanding, and Bitty realizes he doesn’t have a clue what he wants, even though that was going to be his excuse for staring vacantly at the menu these past few minutes.

“Oh,” he says stupidly, “uh, I’d like a small peppermint mocha, please?” He hands her his card quickly, before Jack can swoop in and pay again. The mocha was good last time. He’ll forgo the chocolate croissant, though. Sharing a pastry with Jack Zimmermann is just not something his heart can handle today.

Speak of—well, think of—the devil and he shall… chirp? That is not at all how that saying goes. All the same, Jack is stepping up into Bitty’s sightline and elbowing him softly, saying, “Getting old and boring like me, eh, Bittle? I thought you were supposed to be more adventurous.”

Bitty, reaching out to take back his card from the cashier, braves a look at Jack’s face, which was a mistake, because that teasing little smile is pulling at the corner of his mouth, and this is too much, nice boys are too much, Jack is too much, Bitty is way too gay for this. He rolls his eyes, exasperation as much as a way to make himself look away. He can feel his face heating up.

“Tragedies happen, Mr. Zimmermann,” he says, voice steadily cheerful. The cashier has a smirk playing across her face, but Bitty sees her eyes flick to the long line behind them, and he elbows Jack right back. “Order!” he hisses.

“Sorry,” Jack says to the girl. “I’ll have a gunpowder tea and a chocolate croissant, please. Thank you.”

“Now who are you and what have you done with Jack Zimmermann?” Bitty demands, because what did he just say about not getting a blessed pastry. Also, before checking practice yesterday morning, when Jack randomly asked Bitty what his favorite tea was, Jack had never heard of gunpowder tea. So what is he doing?

At first, Jack merely smiles his little smile, tilts his head, and accepts the croissant from the cashier in exchange for his card. She swipes it and hands it back to him.

“Thanks,” he says to her. Then to Bitty he echoes, “‘Tragedies happen’,” and raises his eyebrows, daring Bitty to chirp back. Bitty doesn’t, mostly because he’s too stunned to say anything.

They find seats at a little table near where they sat last week, though farther from the door, which is nice. Who needs that chilly draft on their back all the time?

While they wait for their drinks to be called, Jack asks what Bitty thought of today’s lecture on food deserts, and the topic carries the conversation for a good while, before it occurs to Bitty that Jack has stopped contributing at all. Bitty has somehow moved from inaccessible produce to frozen food to storage space and on down the line such that he’s now explaining why Aunt Jo always has a side-by-side fridge, and dear Lord, this is not what Jack asked about at all, and it’s weirdly embarrassing.

But Jack doesn’t appear to be bored. He’s just leaning back in his chair, hands behind his head, nodding along with his mouth turned up just so, and Bitty knows Jack’s okay in front of a camera, knows he can bullshit with the best of them about playing a sixty-minute game and giving 100%, but Jack doesn’t smile like that when he’s pretending. Bitty feels some of his discomfort slip away.

Bitty is rescued by a barista calling out their names, and Jack waves Bitty back into his seat before he can even stand all the way up.

“I got ’em, Bittle,” he says, and returns a moment later with two steaming mugs. He sets the mocha in front of Bitty and the tea at his own seat, then sits back down. He pushes the plate with the previously neglected croissant on it into the middle of the table.

“You gonna shred this one before we eat it, too, or should I just get a knife?” Jack asks, chirping but genuine. Because it’s funny, and deserving of lighthearted mockery, that Bitty tore that whole croissant up last week in his weird mood about the doggone music (like, it was Valentine’s coming up and all, but “Can’t Help Falling In Love”? Really?), but Bitty also knows that if he said, “Yes, I like them better torn into pieces,” Jack would probably reach over help take it apart.

Bitty shakes his head, though. “No shredding, but you don’t need a knife, either.” He reaches out and tears the croissant into just two pieces, more or less even-sized, and leaves them on the plate for Jack to pick one as he licks the chocolate off his fingers. Jack raises his eyebrows again at the finger-licking, and without a second thought Bitty reaches across the table and whacks Jack gently with the back of his fingers.

“Ain’t no point in wastin’ chocolate,” he scolds. “It’s probably a sin.”

Jack laughs and concedes the point.

Jack laughs, and Bitty wants so badly for this to be real that he aches with it. He takes a sip of his coffee. Warmth is good for aches, right? It slides down the back of his throat, warm with a chill of peppermint, and that’s… fitting.

Something buzzes in Bitty’s back pocket, and he sets his mug down to dig his phone out. He has a new email as well as a text from his mother.

[12:27 PM]

https://
www.pinterest.com/pin/
126804545732499823/

Dicky, have you ever
played this? Will you
teach my card club?

…no?

I'll ask Jack about it. But
I'll play it with y'all
anyway if you want

Today 12:26 PM

I just forwarded you a
new spinach cheddar
tart recipe I found in Bon
Appetit! Let me know
what you think. Should I
make some for the Bible
study luncheon, you
think?

[Text Message]

Bitty laughs to himself, then looks up. Jack’s eyebrows are knit in confusion, and it occurs to Bitty that even if this isn’t a date, checking his phone like that was probably rude. He shoves it back into his pocket and smiles apologetically at Jack.

“Sorry. My mama was worried I wouldn’t read her email, so she texted me simultaneously to inform me that she emailed me. Honestly!” He rolls his eyes, and Jack’s expression softens slightly, but his forehead does not smooth out all the way.

“It was about a spinach-cheddar tart,” Bitty explains further, looking for a way to bring this back to a safe, friendly-but-not-romantic topic of discussion. “Oh—have I ever told you about the time she tried to teach our church youth group how to make peach tarts? It would have been fine, except for Helen mixed up the salt and the sugar…”

When he’s finished with the Helen episode, Jack replies in kind with a story about the time his cousins tried to make his aunt Nathalie an apple cake for her birthday. (Someday Bitty will stop being gobsmacked every time he remembers that Jack calls Nathalie Lemieux his aunt. Forecast says, not all that soon.)

“But it turns out,” Jack finishes, in a faux-enlightened voice, “that allspice and Chinese five-spice are not actually the same thing.”

Bitty regrets having taken the last sip of his mocha at that moment, because even lukewarm, he really does not want that coming out his nose. Oh no.

“‘Ohhh. Hmm.’” Jack imitates her taking a bite, then another. “‘This is… very well baked. Nice and spongy!’—It didn’t take long for them to realize she never said it tasted good, so they showed her the recipe and the ingredients they used… Personally, I’m still waiting for her to make it for them and see how long it takes them to figure it out from a bite.”

Bitty did manage to swallow his coffee, and now he laughs happily, poking the remnant crumbs from his half (okay, both halves) of the chocolate croissant so that they stick to his fingertips and he can eat them.

Jack grins back at him, raising his tea to his lips and taking a sip. “By the way, Bittle, good call on the gunpowder tea. I always wanted to like green tea because of the lower caffeine, but it never quite worked for me. This is delicious, though.”

Bitty blushes, but holds his own. “Well, I’m very proud of you for trying something new,” he chirps.

“‘Do one thing every day that scares you,’” Jack quotes. “Eleanor Roosevelt.”

Bitty raises his eyebrows. “Gunpowder tea scares you?”

“Not… per se,” Jack says slowly, as if he can’t (or won’t) put words to what does scare him about it. “It’s the principle of the thing, though.”

Hmm. Bitty shrugs and nods. That kind of philosophy has probably brought Jack a long way. He raises his empty mug with a wry smile.

“To scary things, then.”

Jack smiles back, looking a little surprised. “To scary things.” He clinks his mug against Bitty’s, and drinks again.

Speaking of scary things—“Shoot, I still need to do laundry today,” Bitty says, mostly to himself. Jack makes a questioning noise.

“Well, you said ‘scary things’—well, I said ‘scary things’—and it made me think about the couch, and I remembered I was gonna throw the blankets Nursey used in with my towels when I did the wash today, which I’d temporarily forgotten I was gonna do. Never mind.”

Jack makes a noise of…understanding? Then he sets his mug down, swallows a mouthful of tea, and asks, “Why was Nursey there, anyway? I mean, is he okay?”

Bitty flaps a hand. “He’s fine, it’s just his roommate’s girlfriend was over, and Chowder and Dex were busy so when he was done at the library he came to the Haus to kill some time, and I told him just to stay over. But I made him put blankets on that godawful dump, obviously.”

“Ah,” says Jack.

“It was nice, we—” Bitty stops short, checking his tongue, for once, before it got him into trouble. He hurries on before his heart can sink again, for himself or for Nursey. “We hung out for a while, I made his birthday pie. He’s—”

Bitty stops again, wanting Jack to know that Nursey’s maybe not actually fine, come to think of it, but not wanting to break confidence.

“I think he was just feeling lonely, last night,” Bitty settles on. “Wasn’t no problem for us to keep each other company while we worked.”

Jack smiles again, another one of those genuine, not-pretending smiles. “Good,” he says simply. “You take good care of them, Bits.”

It’s hard to know whether that was an observation of fact or an order for the future, but either way, Bitty agrees.

“I sure try.”

Jack’s mug is empty, now, and he’s twisting it on the table, rolling it around on its bottom edge. He’s silent for a minute, and Bitty can tell Jack is thinking, so he lets himself get a little lost in the rhythm of the ceramic-on-wood instead of interrupting.

“You didn’t want to put this coffee on instagram?”

Bitty looks up from the revolving mug. Was that what Jack was thinking about? He shrugs.

“If I instagrammed every coffee I drank no one would ever see my pies.”

“Fair enough,” Jack concedes. Then he’s quiet again. Pensive. After a few minutes, he breaks the relative silence again.

“When I was playing in the Q—” He clears his throat. “My friend Jean-Marc was roommates at one point with this guy from P.E.I.—Prince Edward Island, way out east—and we had a roadie out there, and his roommate’s girlfriend snuck into our hotel, and they kicked Jean-Marc out of his room.”

Jack’s voice had started off quiet, kind of shaky, and Bitty’s heart had stood still, wondering if he was going to hear something (else) indelibly horrid. But now there’s a trace of a smile on Jack’s lips, and Bitty finds himself remembering how to breathe.

“But poor Jean-Marc, he was so eager to get out of that room, he left without anything, even his phone or room key or a sweater. So at shit o’clock at night (because yes, as Shitty says, I was an old man even then) he comes knocking on our door, which was right next to his…” Jack pauses, licks his lips, sets down his mug.

“So, I’m half-asleep and burying my head under a pillow, but my roommate is the one who actually gets up and answers the door to make the noise stop, and he brings Jean-Marc in, and Jean-Marc explains the situation, and I’m still barely awake, so it took me way too long to understand why he couldn’t stay in his room.”

Jack puts his head in his hands dramatically, and looks up smiling when Bitty laughs.

“They chirped me about that one for ages—which, I know where you sleep, Bittle,” he adds, teasing. “More importantly, I know where your butter sleeps.” He leaves the threat there, but Bitty just laughs. They both know that Bitty doesn’t chirp like that and that Jack doesn’t have the heart to mess with the team’s pie supplies.

“Anyway, I told them both to fuck off and just be quiet if they’re going to watch TV together or whatever, and I eventually fell asleep. Next day, Jean-Marc sneaks back to his room, finds his roommate still dead to the world, no girlfriend in sight. He pulls his phone out of his bag and finds a text from, like, an hour before he came to our room telling him he could come back from Joner’s room where he had been hanging out, but obviously he didn’t get it, and then when he finally braved their room again, Wylie, his roommate, was asleep, so he couldn’t get in, so he panicked and knocked on our door.”

Bitty is staring at Jack through his fingers, his face in his hands out of sympathetic embarrassment for this poor blessed child. “Oh my God,” he groans. Jack is smiling visibly.

“At the time, I was livid because I woke up to hear them talking later a couple times, and when they finally went to sleep, one of them ended up in the same bed as me and kicked me, and—anyway. It was nothing compared to Jean-Marc’s mortification, though. Wylie would not shut up about it for a week.”

Jack’s story ends sort of abruptly, but a small smile lingers on his face. Bitty can see his now-empty hands squeezed into fists, and he’s not sure… But Jack is okay. And that’s the most Bitty’s heard from him in a long time. Quantity, sure, but also… Well. Jack doesn’t usually talk about the Q in the Samwell locker room, anyway.

Suddenly, Jack shakes his head quickly, as if coming back to himself. He picks up his empty mug again, tilts it back into his mouth to catch a non-existent last drop of tea, and sets it down.

“Well,” Bitty offers, “I really probably should get going on that laundry.” He picks up the plate and his mug, and snatches Jack’s as well, just because he can. When he gets back from carrying them to the dish return, Jack is on his feet, too. He gestures toward the door and holds it open as Bitty walks through.

The cold air hits him in the face as he steps out of the heated building. He fumbles in his pocket for his hat, which he’d forgotten to put on indoors. Jack moves right in front of him, though, and takes the hat from his hands. Then, slowly, as if to give Bitty time to move away or take the hat back, Jack reaches over to pull it down over Bitty’s ears himself.

Jack drops one hand to his side and his other to Bitty’s shoulder. He squeezes.

“We should do this again soon, eh?”

He turns and starts toward the Haus before Bitty can respond, before Bitty can breathe. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, Bitty has half a mind to melt straight through this sidewalk, only he can’t, obviously, because it’s February in freaking Massachusetts and the temperature hasn’t topped freezing in weeks.

He reaches up to touch his hat, adjust it a little bit and remind himself it’s really there, then shoves his hands into his pockets and jogs a few paces to catch up with Jack.

Jack looks down as Bitty approaches, and says nothing. Bitty looks up as he approaches, and takes a breath.

(A quiet one, because he’s trying, no pun intended, to keep his chill, to not make things weird, like Nursey said.)

“Yeah,” he agrees, though. “This was a lot of fun.” And it was. But Bitty might need another week off if his heart is supposed to handle this.

“Tomorrow?” Jack asks.

…So much for a week.

“Maybe,” Bitty hedges. “I mean, I have class, but yeah, maybe.” Help.

“Sure,” says Jack. “Now put your gloves on, dumbass. Can’t make soft passes with frostbite.”

Chapter Text

It is a good thing Jack has been making such consistent progress on his thesis, because all the time he has put in since dinner tonight has added up to a single paragraph of mediocre analysis and no small amount of simmering frustration. This section is so close to being done, but the words are not coming, and instead of piecing them together, he finds his mind repeatedly returning to Bitty.

(Which is… well, not fine, because he is supposed to be working right now, but on the list of things he could be thinking about, Bitty is one of the nicer ideas. Except…)

Bitty has been acting weird lately, alternating unexpectedly between withdrawn and over-enthusiastic, even for him. The last few times Jack took him to Annie’s or sat with him in the kitchen, he has seemed to be somewhere between distracted and confused, and Jack was sad for him in a way he could not quite identify. Or—he thinks it has something to do with loneliness, but maybe not. And either way, he is not sure what to do about it.

That sadness, come to think of it, might be what is preoccupying Jack right now, hiding all his words somewhere hazy and inaccessible. He sighs and saves his document. (Again. Needlessly. Because nothing has changed.) The lid on his computer makes a satisfying though frustrating click as he closes it. Jack made a note to himself a few days ago to ask Shitty about this feeling, and now is as good a time as any.

Jack finds his would-be advisor, wearing Batman boxers and a tank top that says ‘Gender is a social construct’, his head hanging over the ladder down from his bed, his feet climbing the wall toward the ceiling. Unsurprising, in the grand scheme of things. Jack raps on Shitty’s bathroom doorframe, drawing his attention.

“Jackie boy!” Shitty says in greeting. “What’s up? Besides you, being upside down.”

Jack raises one eyebrow and takes a deep, quiet breath in through his nose. Doesn’t smell like Shitty’s high right now…

“Your brain lacking bloodflow, or…?”

Shitty hauls himself upright. “Nah, just stretching my back out. What’s up, man?”

“Um.” Starting these conversations is always hard, even though Shitty is always happy to help Jack figure out his emotions. “You have a minute?”

With an upward jerk of his head, Shitty says, “For you I’ve got two, bud,” and pats the spot on the bed beside him.

By the time Jack has crossed the room and climbed the ladder, Shitty has shoved all his pillows and blankets up against the wall behind them so that they can lean against it comfortably. He pulls Jack to his side immediately, arm around Jack’s waist, head on Jack’s shoulder.

“Animal, vegetable, or mineral?” Shitty asks, gentle.

Jack lays his head down against Shitty’s. “Mm… Bitty.”

“…Everything okay?” Shitty sounds genuinely worried.

“No,” Jack says honestly. “I mean. He isn’t—we aren’t—we’re okay, but.” He swallows. “He isn’t? I don’t think?”

Shitty waits.

“We’ve… gotten coffee together a couple times this past week. Which was nice.” Right? “But then last week he—I mean, I thought it was nice. but. He got kind of upset after a while and didn’t want to say why. Or—actually.” Jack pauses, looking for the words he wants.

“He tried to—he said nothing was wrong, but something was. And then today we—we went again, and he was fine, right up until the end. I said we should do that more, and he… did not seem to agree.”

Shitty’s arm tightens around Jack’s waist, and Jack takes another breath. “I mean. He said it was fun? But then he said, ‘Maybe. I mean, I have class,’ and I thought maybe he was just humoring me. And—and I don’t want to—to make him uncomfortable. or to make him talk if he really doesn’t want to, but… I liked it, getting coffee together. And now he isn’t having fun, and… I don’t know what to do.”

Jack breathes some more.

“Also,” he adds, slow and deliberate, “I’m sad.”

He pauses. More quietly, he asks, “…Shitty? Why am I sad?”

A low sigh escapes Shitty’s mouth, and Jack’s heart rate picks up. Shitty squeezes him tight again, reassuring, and says, “Why do you think you’re sad?”

And that—that’s the question, isn’t it? It doesn’t make sense, but.

“I think… I think it’s lonely?”

“What’s lonely?”

“I don’t—I don’t know. Me?” Jack squeezes his fists. “Bitty?” It doesn’t make sense. They are spending time together, so why would they feel lonely?

“Being lonely is different from being alone,” Shitty reminds him, when Jack expresses that confusion.

Jack chews on his lip and considers that. “I don’t think I was lonely,” he decides after a minute. “But… Bitty might be? He said—he said the other night, when Nurse was here—he thought maybe Nurse was lonely, and he said they ‘kept each other company’, so maybe. Yeah.”

Fuck. Jack swallows again, feeling his jaw tense against the top of Shitty’s head.

“Shits… Is—is it my fault?”

Shitty’s voice is unusually stiff. “…I don’t know what you want me to tell you, bro. You gotta talk to him.”

Jack groans, low and creaky in the back of his throat, because Shitty doesn’t seem to get it. “I tried that, he doesn’t want to. I think. That’s why I’m asking you.”

“No, like, talk to him.” Shitty punctuates his point by jabbing Jack in the ribs. “Like, talk to him, talk to him.”

“What will that—oh. Oh. You mean. tell him. How I—um.”

Shitty pokes him again. “Yes, that. ‘How you—um.’ That is exactly what I mean.”

Despite his best efforts, Jack feels himself blushing. He runs one hand through his hair without thinking, and frowns slightly. He’s—he was working his way up to that, but—this isn’t how or why he wanted to, he didn’t want Bitty to be sad about their… dates when he finally…

“Shits, I… I don’t want him to be sad, but… I don’t want to freak him out. And—what if—” What if it’s unrelated, what if he knows and he doesn’t like the dates, what if he doesn’t like me, what if I read this wrong, what if—

Shitty pulls Jack closer still, and reaches out with his other hand to interlace his fingers with Jack’s. “Look, bro. It’s Bitty, okay? That’s not going to freak him out. Seriously, just think about it—worst-case scenario, he says he doesn’t feel the same way and—”

Jack squeezes Shitty’s hand tight. “—and doesn’t want to—” be friends anymore—

“—No.” Shitty bounces their joined hands emphatically on the mattress. “He is not going to ‘not want to’ anything. You are friends. First of all, Bitty is smart, and he cares about you, and he is going to be your friend no matter what. Secondly, if he can deal with you not liking him for, like, months, and still end up being your friend, finding out you like him more than he knew is not going to change that either.”

The rush of guilt that comes over him when Shitty reminds him how he used to treat Bitty is unavoidable. Crisse, how can Jack possibly think, after all that, that Bitty would give him the time of day, forget want to—

Shitty bounces their hands again, trying to get Jack’s attention. “Hey,” he says. “Hey, shh, did you miss the end up being your friend part of that? Jack, at most he’s going to feel bad if he doesn’t return your feelings, but he’s not going to be upset with you, or whatever your brain would have you believe. And hey, remember why you were doing all this in the first place? You think it’s mutual, right? You’ve thought that for a while?”

Jack manages a nod and a squeeze of Shitty’s hand in agreement. What if he’s been wrong all along, though? He’s been so worried about getting hurt getting into a relationship, Jack sort of forgot to worry about getting hurt not getting into one, and now he’s remembering to do that and it’s—fuck, fuck, fuck.

Shitty smooths a thumb over Jack’s wrist and squeezes his hip with his other hand.

“Okay, this is not me meddling or speculating or anything, because we saw how that turned out, but like. Trust your own judgment, okay? You’ve thought for a while that he liked you back, and it’s been going well, so don’t let your brain run away with you now on the off chance he doesn’t.”

So Shitty has a point, but it’s still hard to shake off the fear that he might ruin everything. He’s tried so hard to—whatever this is, what they’ve got—what if telling Bitty now is what breaks it? He fists his free hand and bounces it on the bed briefly, then runs it through his hair again, squeezing and tugging in an effort to rein himself in.

“Just talk to him,” Shitty says, when Jack says nothing. “Go find out.”

Finally, “…promise?” Jack asks softly, breathing carefully, trying to slow his heart.

Shitty sighs. “I mean, look,” he says at last. “I can’t speak for other people, bro, but put it this way: You think something is weighing on his mind and he’s not sure he can talk about it; maybe hearing something that’s weighing on your mind will help break the ice. He’s not. going. to hate you. And if you pave the way for a serious conversation, you might actually be able to help him, but you gotta be the one to start.”

Jack still feels unsure, but nods against Shitty’s head and thanks him. Shitty presses his face firmly into Jack’s shoulder and slides the hand that was around his waist up to squeeze his other shoulder.

“But like, not this instant,” Shitty clarifies. “You can think this over for a while, as long as you don’t talk yourself out of it.” He says it lightly, but Jack knows he means it. Still, one quiet laugh escapes Jack’s nose, and he nods again.

Shitty claps him on the shoulder and starts to disentangle himself from Jack. “It’s late enough. Go get ready for bed, Grandpa. I need to go find some water…”

Once Jack is back on the floor, he starts to go back to his room, maybe finish that book of Star Trek essays before bed, take his mind off things. Before he takes a second step, he turns to thank Shitty, since he realized he never did do that. Shitty is right there behind him, arms open in invitation.

“Thank you,” Jack says, hugging him tight.

Shitty holds him even tighter. “Got your back.”


[9:23 PM]
Today 12:26 PM

I just forwarded you a
new spinach cheddar
tart recipe I found in Bon
Appetit! Let me know
what you think. Should I
make some for the Bible
study luncheon, you
think?

Today 9:21 PM

Dicky!! You didn't
respond to my email! I
think I'm going to try
these tonight, what do
you think I should do
about the garlic in the mini
tarts?

Oh sorry! Let me look at it.

Why are you doing this at
9:30?

I didn't get started til
late, and Moomaw called
while the dough was
chilling so I didn't get the
filling made

Halves or whole?

Actually are you free to
call? Either way I have a
lot of garlic to peel

Sure! Phone or Skype?

Also are you doing that
microwave thing?

Oooh right!

Let me see your face
(◠‿◠✿)

[Text Message]

Does anyone actually use skype the way Microsoft thinks they do? Bitty wonders. He minimizes the recipe email from his mother, then double clicks the blue icon on his desktop. They advertise their convenient calling services and things, but Bitty has never seen anyone use it without deciding ahead of time (often on another platform!) that they are going to do so.

A vwooOOOP, ching!, and boop beep boop later, his mother’s face fills his screen, leaning over her computer, presumably on an out-of-the-way corner of the counter. She smiles broadly when she sees him and pushes her bangs up out of her eyes, standing back to reveal she’s wearing the “home is where the pie is” apron he gave her for Christmas. He grins back and waves.

“Hey, Mama!”

“Heya, Dicky!” she says, waving back and stepping out of the frame. “Can you hear me alright if I stand over here?”

“Loud and clear.” Bitty makes a thumbs-up at the camera, not knowing if she’s looking at the screen, but it doesn’t really matter.

“So,” he says, pulling her email full of questions back up. “You’re concerned the whole cloves of garlic will be too big in the mini tarts, but releasing more flavor by cutting them might make it too strong? Hmmm.”

“Yeah, and also,” she continues, “I was wonderin’ about adding some meat? But you know there’s always people like Roseanne Banks complainin’ about how vegetarian food ain’t real food, never mind if she’s had nothin’ but bacon for the last five out of four meals. D’you think bacon in this, or maybe ham?”

Bitty reads through the ingredients again and taps his chin, considering. “Well first off, given how long you cook the garlic, I truly doubt cutting the cloves would be a problem. As far as the meat goes, will you have space in the mini ones? If you do, I think I’d go with ham, although did I tell you about the fantastic blueberry chicken sausage I found up here? It’s called… Hang on.”

He goes to the fridge and digs through the meat and cheese drawer until he comes up with the package. He calls over his shoulder.

“Al Fresco is the company that sells it. We have ’em in the regular shop here, not like Whole Foods or anything special. I bet those’d go spectacular in with the maple and spinach.”

“Oooh, that does sound nice,” his mother agrees. “So halves on the garlic. Okay.”

Bitty nods, then remembers he’s out of sight of his camera. “When is this luncheon, anyway?” he asks instead. “Why so urgent?”

“Not til Thursday,” she tells him, in that sing-song voice that means she knows it’s probably overkill but is doing it anyway. The familiar sound of a knife blade hitting a cutting board comes over the speakers. “But there’s all these ladies from another church coming, and I wanted to get a head start in case they came out poorly… I’ll do most of them, and all the meat ones, tomorrow since I didn’t buy the meat yet, but you know how Miz Q gets…”

And Bitty does know how Miz Q, the loudest and pickiest eater at any church function, gets. “Bless her heart,” he agrees, and returns to his computer with the sausage put away.

Bitty is about to ask what exactly his mother predicts Miz Q will take issue with this week, when she says, “Oh, one sec, honey,” and then shouts to someone in Madison, “IN THE KITCHEN… THE TARTS FOR MY LUNCHEON ON THURSDAY… DICKY’S ON SKYPE, YOU WANNA COME DOWN?”

The tap comes on on her end, then shuts off. Her face reappears. “Your daddy’s coming down to say hi. I’m’a run to the bathroom while the water starts to boil.”

“Don’t fall in,” Bitty advises, dry. She rolls her eyes good-naturedly.

“You mind your mouth, young man,” she scolds, voice fading as she leaves the room.

Moments later, the image on the screen moves and Bitty’s father is sitting at his own kitchen table, adjusting the tilt of the camera. He looks good. Tired, maybe. It’s hard to tell with him.

“Hey, Coach,” Bitty says, tilting his head up just enough to acknowledge that his father can see him.

“Hey, Junior,” Coach replies. “How’s it going?”

“Not so bad,” Bitty says, trying to sound nonchalant. “We won both our games this weekend, including a shutout!”

Coach smiles and nods approvingly. “Good. You on the board at all?”

“An assist Friday night, on the shutout! It was a fantastic night!” Bitty doesn’t try at all to hide his own smile. It was a great night, and it’s nice to have some good news to share with his father.

“The game on Saturday was good, too, although our PK always needs work.” The rest of Saturday didn’t go quite how one might like to imagine a Valentine’s Day would go, but that’s not up for discussion at the moment.

“What do you think is your PK problem?” Coach asks, and that’s the next several minutes of conversation topic right there. Coach ain’t a hockey coach, but he’s got some good thoughts about teamwork and general defensive strategy and things.

They move on from ideas about penalty killing to offseason team-building activities for the Madison High football team, then the Atlanta Hawks’ narrow defeat last week at the hands of the not-actually-all-that-good Celtics. This brings up the NBA All-Star Game this past weekend, featuring the Hawks’ coach, and then they turn back to the football team and the rec letters Coach is writing for his seniors.

It’s easy, Bitty thinks, to talk about these things once a week or so. The conversation don’t drag, because they’ve got days’ and days’ worth of things to say in twenty-minute windows. It’s a darn shame he and Coach don’t share more easy conversations, but then, it ain’t so bad that they don’t sit in angry, awkward, or sullen silences anymore, either.

It seems to Bitty that this is part of growing up, learning how to be really be friends with your family, not just housemates with shared responsibilities. It came real easy with his mama, even before he left for college. It ain’t been so easy with Coach, but they’re getting there. Sometimes relationships are better when y’all ain’t all under the same roof all the time.

At last, Coach clears his throat and says, “Well, it’s gettin’ on ten o’clock. Seems like you and your mother will be up awhile yet, but make sure you’re gettin’ enough sleep, son.”

Bitty rolls his eyes. It’s barely ten-of. “Yes, Coach. You goin’ to bed?”

“Yep,” Coach says, stifling a yawn. Bitty inclines his head fondly.

“’Night, Coach. Sleep tight.”

“Don’t let the bedbugs bite,” Coach answers automatically. One side of Bitty’s mouth turns up in a small smile.

“If they do, bite ’em back,” he finishes.

Coach stands up from the computer, and Bitty hears him say, “All yours, dear. Do I get one of those lil’ pies for breakfast tomorrow?”

“We’ll see how they come out,” his mother replies, making no promises. “Good night, dear.” They kiss, briefly, and his father’s steps quickly disappear, but all the same Bitty feels homesickness hit him like the butt-end of a hockey stick.

He doesn’t want—he likes where he is, being nineteen, living at school with his friends, pursuing his goals. It’s just been a while since he’s done the bedbugs thing with Coach and heard Good night, dear, especially all at once. His parents’ house doesn’t always feel like home anymore, not the way it did, and he’s not sure he really wants it to feel like that now, anyway. He knows if he were in Georgia right now, he’d be missing this Haus and this kitchen and everything else.

There’s just… This Haus will be here for him for the next two years (maybe longer, if he lives around here and stays in touch with the younger guys for a year or two after graduation), but the family that’s in it… won’t. Not exactly as it is today.

Family don’t end with blood, and home don’t end with a building or even a town, and—and Bitty really needs to stop getting so ahead of himself. It’s still February. Don’t forget that things change, but don’t borrow trouble, neither.

Bitty’s mother’s face drops into the frame. She’s got a whisk in one hand and a bowl in the other, tucked up against her chest as she stirs. Bitty sits up and tries to refocus.

“I’m just about to put these eggs into the pie shells,” she says, gesturing to her bowl. “Then I’ll add the garlic, stick ’em all in the oven, and we can have a nice chat while we wait.”

Once the tarts are in the oven, they do. She tells Bitty about her book club, how they just read a book of essays and stories by someone just older than him, how terrifying it was to consider that she had died just after her college graduation. Bitty is terrified to think about that, too, and tries not to.

She tells him about Mrs. Lucy Jane, who just joined their book club, and her family. Mrs. Lucy Jane has a daughter, you know, who is just about to start college, too. She asks if Bitty has any advice he could tell her to pass along.

“Stock up on quarters,” he says without missing a beat. “Buy one of those portable chargers for your phone.” Don’t fall in love with unattainable upperclassmen.

Hopefully he can steer his mother clear of that particular topic tonight. He does usually update her on Jack’s life and accomplishments, but today he’d just rather… not.

Then his mother gets into the nitty-gritty of the Bible study luncheon, and Bitty laughs to himself as he listens and pulls up twitter. Mission (so far) accomplished.

Eric Bittle @omgcheckplease • Feb 17
Things I talk to #MamaBittle about: baking, her book club, small town gossip

Eric Bittle @omgcheckplease • Feb 17
Things I talk to Coach about: sports, football, & athletics

As she starts in on how Joanna Dee needs to mind her business if she’s not going to put her money where her mouth is when it comes to organizing these things, Shitty waltzes into the kitchen, grabs a cup out of the cupboard, and shuts the door with his head for no apparent reason (it’s not as if his other hand was full).

She leaves off complaining about Joanna Dee to ask, “Oh, who’s that, honey?”

“Just Shitty,” answers Bitty.

“Tell him to come over here,” she instructs, just Shitty shouts, “Hello, Mrs. Bittle!”

Shitty drapes himself over Bitty’s shoulders and shoves a hand in front of the camera to wave.

“How’re you doin’, Mr. Crappy?” she asks fondly, winking at her nickname for him. God, winking? Really?

“I’m great, Mrs. Bittle. How are you?”

Bitty scoots his chair back to get out of the way while they talk. It’s easiest just to let his mother interrogate whoever it is and then pick back up with her when they leave. It’s nice that she likes to talk to them, actually. Bitty’s mother is his best friend, and it would be unfortunate if she didn’t really know or like his other friends.

Shitty says something about his law school applications. Bitty stands up partway to reach around Shitty and grab his phone off the table, and catches a glimpse of his mother nodding solemnly. He pulls up twitter.

If you walk in the kitchen while I’m skyping my mother she WILL want to talk to you, he types.

Then Shitty says, “One sec, Mrs. Bittle, I need to grab some water,” and steps back from the table.

“Now, is that any kind of outfit to wear when you’re talking to someone’s mother, Mr. Crappy?”

Shitty and Bitty both stop and look at Shitty’s outfit. Honestly, a tank top and boxers is more than Bitty usually counts on with Shitty, but that argument will not work with his mother.

“I want to hear more about those applications of yours, young man, but not until you go put some pants on,” she continues.

From the sink where he’s getting his water, Shitty calls over his shoulder, “Mrs. Bittle, as soon as I sit down again, you won’t even know the difference.”

Bitty snickers. Arguments like that don’t usually fly in these parts.

“I will absolutely know the difference, young man, and you just need to think about your habits, that’s all. Now set that water down and get. Sooner you go, sooner you can be back here talking.”

Bitty adds a couple more lines to his tweet before he sends it: She’s telling Mr. Crappy to put on pants. No excuses.

“Well, if I’m going back upstairs, I should get my snacks together first to take up with me, so that I don’t forget. Bits, do you know if we’re out of protein bars?”

Good question. There were definitely a bunch left yesterday morning when Jack and Bitty left for checking practice…

“Uh, shouldn’t be,” Bitty says, “unless Ransom refused meals while he was studying today and Holster tried to trick him into eating those instead. But I don’t think we’re close enough to exams for that?”

“Oh no,” his mother cuts in. “That’s horrible! How can he study without eating?”

“Your guess is as good as mine, Mother, but that’s how he works. We make sure he doesn’t skip too many meals, but elsewise he’s got to make his own choices, y’know?”

“Oh!” says Shitty, pulling back from a cupboard. “Here they are! Cool, and I’ll refill my water…”

“And go put on pants!” Bitty’s mother reiterates, laughing but insistent.

“Mrs. Bittle, with all due respect,” Shitty says gravely, “boxers are practically pants.”

She buzzes her lips impatiently. “And I’m the Queen of England. Go on, now. Get!”

Shitty grins wide at the webcam, bows dramatically, and disappears upstairs.

“That boy…” she says to Bitty, shaking her head. Bitty laughs.

“Does Justin really not eat while he’s studying?” She asks, brow furrowed. “I thought you were exaggerating.”

Bitty slides his chair back up to the table. “Not… He usually eats something, but he gets so focused that he forgets to or so anxious that he can’t stomach much… It’s not great, but Holster takes care of him, and the rest of us when he’ll let us.”

“Well, that’s good, I guess,” his mother concedes. “And how is Adam doing, then?”

It really is nice, Bitty thinks again, that his mother cares so much about his friends. He tells her about Holster’s latest attempt to get someone into his favorite tv shows (Nursey and 30 Rock, at the moment), and the way Ransom created a spreadsheet to try and figure out what Chowder should major in. He gushes about Chowder’s shutout, and recounts their trip out afterward for tacos. (He’s kind of relieved they all have so much going on—there’s enough to say he can talk at length without it being obvious he’s talking around Jack.) His mother smiles and coos and claps in all the right places, and Bitty discovers that that feeling of homesickness is almost faded completely.

“And Dex and Nursey have been getting along better than ever, lately,” he says with pride. Not, like, pride because of anything he himself has done, but pride for his friends and their growing up. Then he hears footfalls on the steps.

“They really have, haven’t they?” Shitty agrees, sauntering back into the kitchen, wearing track pants. Well, what do you know?

There you are!” Bitty’s mother exclaims as Bitty turns the computer so she can see the fruits of her nagging. “Now, that’s not so bad, is it? So tell me again what you’re stuck on right now?”

Bitty yields his chair to Shitty to let them talk a few more minutes. It’s not likely his mother is totally following Shitty’s discussion of law school applications, but she does genuinely want to know and want him to talk about it, and that knowledge alone warms Bitty’s heart. Come to think of it, maybe he should get a snack…

First, with a grin, he unlocks his phone and sends one more tweet.

Eric Bittle @omgcheckplease • Feb 17
B. Knight is wearing pants. #MamaBittle #Amazing


The trek over to Norris after class is cold—not news—but it is pleasant, Jack thinks, just walking side by side with two of his favorite people. Shitty has his arm linked through Jack’s. Bitty, hood up and head down, is so concentrated on not having bits of snow blown into his face that he drifts sideways into Jack’s other arm every five or six meters.

It’s a comfortable and companionable silence they have.

Inside, they peel off their layers (and layers and layers, in Bitty’s case) of outerwear as they trudge up the stairs to their preferred study corner, back in the music history stacks, where there is a nice view of the river. They spread out over a table far enough away from other people not to be too bothersome, but it’s still pretty quiet up here. The legit group study spaces are always so crowded, though, and outlets are hard to find.

Bitty opens his computer immediately, and Jack can already see twitter running there. Not a great study strategy. Next to him, Jack gets out his own computer and pulls up his thesis draft, nearly finished now. He can probably knock out a few hundred words before they leave. Maybe some edits.

Across all the remaining space on the table, Shitty upends his backpack. Four notebooks, two book-books, a dozen or so pens and pencils, and his tablet all fall out onto his laptop, in addition to a couple protein bars, some tissues, and not one, not two, but three pairs of tangled earbuds.

“God fucking dammit, I know I threw that flash drive in here,” he grumbles, pushing things in all directions to see if it slipped underneath anything. Jack decides it is in his best interest to keep his mouth shut. Instead he taps the table by the edge of Bitty’s computer.

“So, what are you working on here?” Jack asks. “Physics?” The question is as much a gentle reminder to Bitty that he does actually have work to do as it is a request for specific information. The anguished moan he gets in return for his efforts confirm his suspicion.

He presses on. “How far are you aiming to get before we leave? I’m aiming for another 400 words of my thesis. I’m close to done, but I don’t think I can make it today, at least not before dinner.”

Bitty sighs dramatically. “At least the first problem; two if I’m very g—”

“HOW?” Shitty interrupts, looking up from his search for the flash drive. “HOW can you be ‘CLOSE TO DONE’???”

“Did you look in your small pencil pocket for the flash drive?” Jack asks, in lieu of an answer to the question.

Rather than answer Jack’s question, Shitty merely opens said pocket, reaches in, and produces… the flash drive. Jack tries to keep his smirk contained to a raised eyebrow.

“BRAH,” Shitty implores, in a voice entirely unsuited to the fact that they are in a library. “Where do you find TIME?”

Jack tilts his head in confusion. “…I do a little every night?” That seems obvious. He either works on it in the living room with the rest of them or says “good night, I’m going upstairs to work on my thesis” almost every night.

Eyebrows narrowed, Shitty points at him. “That’s… not… real???” he asks, slowly. “What kind of dark magic are you using, man? Is it too late to get you out of it? You should know hockey curses are real; don’t go making deals with any demons.”

Jack snorts, but Bitty is in absolute hysterics, silent giggles giving way quickly to much louder ones. It’s—good.

To Shitty, in an excessively patient voice, Jack says, “Of course I would not make a deal with a demon. Everyone knows hockey curses are blood rituals.”

Jack keeps his face impassive. Shitty cracks up. And people say hockeybots have no sense of humor…

“Also,” he continues, “the best way to thwart a blood ritual—besides one of your own—is persistence and routines. Duh. Obviously this is the strategy I choose to employ, because blood rituals are messy. And to be honest, they take too much time.”

Shitty shakes his head in wonder. “You are unbelievable, you know that?”

“Aww, thanks,” Jack says, still hyper-patient, like he is talking to a toddler. Then he flattens his voice out. “No, but seriously. No magic involved here. Just consistent effort.”

“No, but seriously,” Shitty repeats. “You are unbelievable. By which I mean, I don't believe you. That's not a thing.”

Jack rolls his eyes. Bitty continues guffawing.

“Hey, back me up here, Bits,” Shitty demands. He and Jack both turn to see Bitty’s reaction, but Bitty hasn’t gotten himself under control yet. Instead, he holds a hand up as if to say I’m staying out of this one and ducks behind it, still giggling.

“No, no, no,” Jack says. “Bittle knows all about consistent effort. After all, it’s not your sorry ass getting up Monday mornings to work on checking. And look how much he’s improved!”

Abruptly, Bitty’s giggles fade. When Jack looks over, Bitty is pink all over his face. Jack has a feeling that it’s not just from laughing.

“Don’t be embarrassed, Bittle,” he chides, tiptoeing down the line between captain and friend and guy who is probablymaybesoon going to tell you he likes you. “You’ve made amazing progress! See, Shitty, it’s not that complicated: a little bit at a time, regular intervals… voila!”

Bitty doesn’t say anything, but he does look up, a small, pleased smile in the middle of his pink cheeks. Point for Jack.

Shitty, meanwhile, is narrowing his eyes. “Okay, but—no offense, Bits, because Jack is right: you’re doing great—but like. Bitty’s not doing that on his own. Someone around here cruelly deprives him of sleep and drags him to the rink at the ass crack of dawn. If he didn’t keep up with checking practice, he’d have Disappointed Jack Zimmermann to deal with, and nobody likes doing that.”

That catches Jack by surprise. Is that really what they all think? Has he been putting too much pressure on Bitty? He meant to do it for—well, yeah, for the sake of the team, and therefore a little bit for himself, but—for Bitty, because it isn’t safe for him to be that vulnerable.

Oblivious to Jack’s sudden dilemma, Shitty rushes smoothly into a chirp. “Maybe if there were homework captains, Bits would have his academics together just as well.”

—And I always assumed if Bitty really did not want to do it, he would just… not do it.

“Oh, shut your pie hole!” Bitty retorts. “Look, I’ve drawn all the diagrams for this problem already, and you don’t even have your file open.”

—But you know how to spell ‘assume’, says Maman’s voice in Jack’s head. You’re a dynamic and charming leader, cher, she had said to him once, too. Sometimes you don’t realize what people will do for your approval.

“I had to find my flash drive, brah,” Shitty justifies. “Chillax.” Bitty snorts and buzzes his lips derisively. If Jack were actually listening, he would be impressed with how Bitty is holding up to the chirps but—

—Jack knows what he himself has done for the approval of someone dynamic and charming, too. Marde. He’s got to watch himself.

“Oh,” he says. He’s looking at the table in front of him, but he from the corners of his eyes can see Bitty and Shitty both turn toward him.

“Bittle, I didn’t realize—I hope you didn’t think—I would not be—” Well, he would be disappointed if they stopped checking practices, but that doesn’t make it right

“What?” asks Bitty, confused.

Jack swallows. “We can stop checking practices whenever you want. I—you’re not unsafe—I mean, I don’t think you’re going to get hurt anymore. I mean—” Shit, these are all coming out wrong. “I don’t mean to pressure you into doing them, I mean.”

“What?” Bitty says again. “Oh! No, it’s fine. They’re good, I needed the wake-up call, and you’re right: consistent effort has great payoff.” He waves his hand as if pushing the whole conversation aside, unimportant as he sets his pencil down and starts typing something. This is a relief, but it still nags at Jack a little. Maybe they can talk about it more later.

A great dramatic sigh from Shitty breaks the small amount of tension that was building up at the table. Or maybe it was only building up in Jack. Regardless—

“But with great payoff comes great responsibility,” Shitty says, dejectedly. “That’s the unbelievable part about you, Zimmermann. Personal responsibility.”

Grateful for a return to the original topic, Jack rolls his eyes. “It’s not that hard. It takes, like, sixty-six days more or less to form a habit, and I’ve been working at the thesis habit on and off since last spring when I got my topic approved, so…” He shrugs.

Shitty and Bitty stare at him silently, then glance at each other and lose it the moment they make eye contact. Jack… understands that the notion of not procrastinating is totally foreign to his friends, but he isn’t entirely certain he understands why it is funny to the point of falling out of their chairs. He deflects, as usual, by playing it straight.

“I hope you’re taking notes on this, Bittle,” he says sternly. “I know you can. I saw your notebook from the food and culture class when we were working on our projects last semester.” Bitty only laughs harder for a moment, then pulls himself together.

“Oh,” he says. “Amazing to earn your approval, Mr. Surreptitiously Copies Notes From Classmates Because He Was Too Busy Drawing Hockey Plays During Class!”

Touché. Inside, Jack grins broadly. He has never heard Bitty turn chirps around this quickly. Outside, all he shows are raised eyebrows.

“And yet,” he counters, “taking your own notes the first time somehow didn’t lead to you finishing your final paper more than 24 hours before it was due.”

“That is not the point.”

“Who even does that?” Shitty jumps in. “Please.”

…Shitty is being facetious now, right?

“Uh, me?” Jack says, uncertainly. “Which is exactly what I was just saying? Also probably most of the other people in this library. Who probably hate us, by the way, because this is a library, which is for studying and research.” He finishes in a whisper, though in fairness, they did try to sit far away from other people.

Bitty has the grace to look slightly ashamed. Shitty, of course, does not.

Jack shrugs again, nonchalant, and sums up. “I mean, I don’t really procrastinate, I guess.”

“Amazing,” Bitty murmurs, backspacing and typing some more. He cannot possibly be doing physics right now.

“Hmmmm,” says Shitty, eyes narrowed. “Still don’t think that’s real, but okay…”

“Shitty, most people don’t wait until the last minute to do literally everything,” says Jack.

“False,” Shitty replies. “Most people don’t have a page of a notebook dedicated to keeping track of the nineteen non-mini, non-savory pies and whatever else their housemate baked in a month.”

“Seventeen,” Jack corrects without thinking.

“Wow,” says Shitty.

“Wait, wait, wait—what?” Bitty says, breaking in. “Why? How and why do y’all know this?”

Shitty answers first. “Jack was keeping track—”

More impatient hand-waving from Bitty. “Yes, yes, I remember. He kept track and chirped me about it during finals, but you,” he says, pointing at Shitty, “weren’t even there. I know you weren’t keeping track, so how do you know?”

He rounds on Jack. “And how do you still remember that?”

Shitty answers again, because Jack can’t find the words fast enough.

“The records were hidden among the hockey plays,” he explains, sage yet gleeful. “I mean, I guess there were some class notes in there, too, or something. But he was keeping track in October, too. Did he inform you of those totals?”

No, Jack thinks. No, he didn’t, because after—well, he decided it was weird, so he stopped, so then he had incomplete data, so he didn’t say anything. But Shitty doesn’t know that.

“What,” says Bitty in flat disbelief.

“No, really!” Shitty protests. “I saw it myself!”

“Because you took my notebook—which I was using—out from under my nose without asking—”

Shitty cuts Jack off. “I… borrowed it. And you didn’t actually care.” Which is true, and Jack would have said something at the time if he had cared, but…

“Not the point, Shits.”

Shitty holds his hands up placatingly. “Fair enough, fair enough. I think the point here is that you don’t reliably take notes in class and yet you still manage to a) have your thesis almost done in the middle of February, and b) think that that’s reasonable.”

“But it is, though.” Since Jack was not actually mad at Shitty, it’s easy to drop the complaints and move straight back to smug. “In fact, I got to this point entirely by reasoning. Completely reasonable.” He allows himself a smirk.

“It’s really not, though,” says Bitty. “People like you are…” Aaaaaand there’s the Bitty they all know and love, falling through on the punchline of the chirp. Jack raises his eyebrows, waiting for the end of the sentence.

“Exactly, Bitty, thank you!” Shitty exclaims, saving him. “See, Jackie boy? He is on my side!”

Jack lets his eyebrows and smirk fall halfway and just shakes his head slowly. “Mmmmhm,” he says, without an ounce of faith. “And how are those physics problems coming, Bittle? You got your document open yet, Shits?”

The silence is telling.

“FINE, Dad, whatever!” Shitty blusters in his best impression of someone in grade seven.

Jack rolls his eyes. “Why…” he starts.

“No, we’ve been over this,” Shitty interrupts. “You are absolutely the team dad.”

“And you are absolutely the team tween,” Jack responds. “I was going to ask why the kids I used to coach were less whiny than you, but you had to interrupt…” he finishes airily, schooling his face into his best approximation of Maman’s put-upon look.

Shitty bunches his lips up off to one side, making his moustache look ridiculous, and throws up a sideways peace sign. The artificial snap of a camera catches both of their attention. Shitty starts to throw himself across the table to get Bitty’s phone before seeming to think better of it at exactly the same moment Jack leans over to try to intercept him. Jack will blame the head-to-head collision entirely on Shitty.

After the startled look fades from his face, Bitty just laughs. Jack’s head isn’t wounded so much as his pride, but both that and Shitty’s griping are a price Jack will pay over and over for that laughter.


Once they finally settle down and get to work, it’s fairly productive. Jack writes and rewrites two paragraphs before hitting his stride, and he eventually ends up with a satisfactory word count of 378 for the day. His final chapter, therefore, is done for this draft, and his conclusion is well-outlined but in need of completion.

Shitty has to be across campus for a meeting by half past two, so Jack prods him at five of, knowing it will take him way longer than reasonable to get packed up.

“So how did you do, Shits?” Jack asks. As they worked, Shitty had periodically asked for advice on phrasing and read them selections from the scanned sources on his flash drive, but it was unclear how much progress he had actually made.

Shitty punches his enter button with a sense of finality to save his work. “Almost two pages,” he says, sounding neither excited nor displeased. He pulls his flash drive out of the laptop and closes the lid firmly.

Well then. If Shitty can write… yeah, approximately 500 words in something like an hour and a half, let alone the time for dramatic readings of primary sources… That explains how he can afford to procrastinate so much. Jack still thinks he would be better off not doing that, but hey.

“Wow,” Jack replies. Then, “Imagine if you were cranking out sessions like that every few days. You would be in amazing shape.”

“Thanks, Dad,” Shitty says again. Jack shakes his head.

“What about you, Bittle?” Bitty has not started packing up, and technically neither he nor Jack really has to leave yet.

(Bitty managed to stay away from his phone more or less the whole time after they started working, and he seemed to be using his computer for, like, submitting physics problems as opposed to twitter. Hard to tell from the back side of the screen, but Jack is still slightly impressed.)

Bitty rubs out some calculations and sweeps the erasures off his notebook, holding up a finger to say wait a minute. Jack waits.

“I thiiiink,” Bitty says, drawing the words out as he pecks out a few things on his computer, “I’m about to finish this second problem. Well, ‘second’,” he amends, with air quotes. “Not sure it really counts as two problems when you have 1a through 1f and 2a through 2h, but…”

Jack nods. “Cool. Well.” He takes a deep breath. “When you’re done, Starbucks has a mocha with your name on it.” Annie’s is lovely, but he thinks today needs a change of scenery.

Bitty looks up from his work. “Oh! Um, okay?” He sounds… not upset. Maybe confused. Damn. Jack wonders what Shitty’s read is on this. When Bitty’s attention is returned to his papers, Jack manages to catch Shitty’s eye.

As far as Jack can tell, Shitty thinks this all bodes well. He has his bottom lip caught in his teeth, eyebrows raised in a delighted question as he zips up his bag. Jack glances quickly back at Bitty to make sure he is still absorbed in his work, then nods slightly at Shitty and lets a small smile push at his lips in answer.

It was not previously evident that Shitty was capable of so silent and contained a celly, but Jack is grateful for Shitty’s discretion. He finishes with a wide grin and two thumbs up for Jack, then shoulders his backpack.

Worried that Bitty will have noticed Shitty’s (admittedly small) antics, Jack’s eyes dart across the table once more. When he looks back to Shitty, Shitty merely presses his thumbs-up signs further forward in a slow bounce to emphasize his point.

Jack is saved (for a certain value of that word) from having to respond by Bitty decisively closing his laptop lid and announcing, “Done!”

Shitty instantly drops his hands to his backpack straps and says, “Good work, Bits. I gotta jet.” He claps Jack on the shoulder and holds a fist out for Bitty to bump. “Enjoy your coffee,” he says neutrally, and leaves.


The walk over to the Commons is quiet; all the cheer from their time with Shitty in the library has dissipated, and once again Bitty is unusually subdued. Jack isn’t second-guessing himself, exactly, but he did not think ahead to how he was actually going to start the conversation. Does he jump right in? Start with one of those you may be wondering why I called you here type things?

His phone, which he had ignored in the library, buzzes in his pocket. He checks it out of nerves as much as anything.

Belated NHL.com notifications, a new email from his agent, and three unread texts are waiting on his lock screen. The one that just came in, causing him to look, is from Shitty:

u got this, bro

No context, but Jack knows what he means. He pulls one glove off with his teeth to swipe across on it.

Thanks, he writes back.

Then he backs out to read the other texts, from Bitty to him and Shitty, one of which turns out to actually be the photo Bitty took in the library.

Below the picture of Jack looking put-upon and Shitty looking ridiculous, it says Is he Team Dad or did he just promote himself to Homework Captain?

It’s—a really nice picture, honestly. Jack is so, so fond of both of them, and—well, even if the rest of the day goes to hell, he will have this to mark the day with instead. He locks his phone and puts it away, determined to deal with his agent later that night and not get preoccupied now.

Jack glances down at Bitty out of the corner of his eye, trying to decide what to do without looking like he’s looking. He sort of wants to say thank you, or say something funny to make Bitty smile before he lays out the heavy stuff. Tension still feels thick between them, and Jack doesn’t like it.

Bitty’s head is down, staring at the snow on the edge of the sidewalk, oblivious to Jack’s gaze. Jack takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly, meaning only to steady himself, but it catches Bitty’s attention. (Shitty always asks him what’s wrong when he breathes like that, even though Jack does not usually mean for it to sound upset. Maybe eventually Jack will grasp some understanding of emotional communication…)

“Oh, gosh!” Bitty looks up, wide-eyed and shaking himself a little. “Sorry, I got mighty carried away by my thoughts there. Didn’t mean to ignore you!”

Jack opens his mouth to assure him that it isn’t a problem, but the words don’t make it out of his brain. If Bitty notices, he makes no sign of it, carrying on himself:

“So you’re really not sick of enabling my sugary coffee habit yet?” Bitty smiles, and Jack shakes his head. No matter how much time they spend together, he doesn’t know if he will ever stop being amazed at the way Bitty always seems to know just how and when to break the tension.

He is almost too busy parsing the words and marveling at Bitty’s timing to catch how Bitty’s cheerful expression looks a little too practiced, not entirely real. Almost.

“What you need to do is start carrying protein powder around and put a spoonful in each of your machi-lattes, or whatever.”

(Huh. Despite the deadpan delivery, Jack meant that to be a joke, but come to think of it…)

Bitty scoffs and rolls his eyes, a tolerant but genuine smile tugging at his lips nevertheless. Mission accomplished.

But.

Jack is still not sure how to… words… about this.

“Actually, um,” he begins, as they near the building. “Had some stuff on my mind. Wanted to talk to someone.” Wanted to talk to you.

“Oh.” Bitty’s smile fades into a more serious ready-to-listen expression as he holds the door open for Jack to enter the food court part of the student union. “Sure, of course!”

“Thanks,” Jack says automatically. “Um.” He tries a smile of his own, hoping to reassure Bitty and underline his gratitude, not only for the open door but for Bitty’s… everything. Bitty blinks and tilts his head a little. Welp, as Holster would say, score another for Zimmermann’s inability to translate emotions to actions.

Bitty follows Jack in and waits patiently for him to find the words he is looking for, but those words still aren’t coming. Starbucks is in sight now, and Jack mentally balks at the idea of trying to have this conversation where other people might overhear.

Jack is still a step ahead of Bitty, so he needs no excuse not to meet Bitty’s eyes when he says, “Uh, can—can we get coffee and maybe take a walk?”

“Oh,” says Bitty. Again. (Jack has got to stop making him sound so… small. For lack of a better term. Foutoues emotions…)

He takes several quick steps to pull up even with Jack and says, “Sure, of course!” Again. (Maybe the term Jack wants is worried. Understandable, given how long it’s been since Jack has struggled this much to talk to him about anything, but. Well. Guess all Jack can do is follow through, now, and hope for the best.)

Bitty walks into him with just enough force to be deliberate. “Can’t believe you want to go for a stroll in that mess out there, but for you, Jack, I will brave the snow.”

Jack jostles him back gently with his elbow, already slightly more at ease. “Please. The sidewalks have been clear for a week. You just like to complain about the cold.”

“They have not!” Bitty objects with a stomp of his foot, though he makes no effort to refute the comment about complaining. Jack rolls his eyes. Bitty pretends to ignore him as he unwinds his scarf and takes his toque off, lest he overheat and combust in the line for Starbucks. So temperature-sensitive…

The line ahead of them is shorter than Jack realized (or else the baristas are more efficient), and although Bitty doesn’t chatter much while they wait, Jack is still unprepared to order when he reaches the counter.

“What can I get for you?” asks the cashier.

“Are you sad because of me?” Jack has been thinking but does not actually say out loud, though it’s a near thing. He catches himself in time, but finds himself echoing the person in front of him and saying, “Tall hot, with room.”

“Name, please? Will that be all?”

Well, shit. He does not want coffee, really, nor does he need the room for cream, but he really does not want to change his order, either, now that the cashier has already written it on a cup for him.

“Jack,” he says, then clears his throat and gestures to Bitty. “And he’s with me.”

“Oh, Jack, you really don’t have to…” Bitty says, but Jack just levels his best captain’s glare, and Bitty relents. Maybe it’s a misuse of his position, but it’s to give Bitty coffee, not early-morning checking practice, so.

“Mmm, tall white chocolate mocha, please, for Eric. Thank you!”

“Thank you,” Jack repeats, handing his card over.

They wait for their drinks at the end of the counter, and Jack takes a breath, making the executive decision that this is going to be as normal as possible. Therefore:

“Is there any actual coffee in there or is it just white chocolate and real chocolate?” he chirps.

True to form, Bitty responds with a lecture. “First of all, you were the one who said there was a mocha with my name on it. Far be it from me to ignore such an invitation. Secondly, I like to enjoy how my drink tastes, unlike some boring, uncultured barbarians who just get plain black coffee and don’t know a good thing when they see it.”

Oh, but I do, though, Jack finds himself thinking. I see you, don’t I?

“I’ll put a little bit of milk in it,” he defends instead. “Besides, if you don’t like coffee, why are you drinking coffee?” He’s asked that question so many times by now it hardly even counts as a chirp, but. Normal.

Bitty just rolls his eyes in response and accepts his cup when the barista calls his name, taking a contented sip.

Even if Jack hadn’t requested a walk, they would have had to anyway. The handful of tables at the tiny Starbucks are filled, and Bitty always says the booths in the food court are nearly as nasty as the green couch at the Haus. So, Jack leads them back out of the building, down the beach, no particular destination in mind.

They walk quietly for a while, sipping their drinks; Jack knows he should not drink much of this coffee, but it’s there, and it’s something to do that doesn’t require talking. When he does talk, he describes some of the photos he has taken but hasn’t shown Bitty yet, and when that topic runs out, he is pretty sure Bitty knows that he’s stalling. But he still is not quite ready, so he takes a deep breath and asks a different question.

“I—so earlier Shitty said that you… would have to ‘deal with’ ‘Disappointed Jack Zimmermann’ if you didn’t do checking practice. And I just—” He swallows. “I didn’t know anyone felt that way, especially you, and I don’t—” He squeezes the hand not holding his coffee into a fist.

“Oh, no, Jack—” Bitty says, apologetic, like he’s trying to explain something away. Jack is afraid he hasn’t been clear.

“No, I know you said it’s good for you, and I know you said you needed some external motivation. I just—Is ‘Disappointed Jack Zimmermann’ really a thing? that everyone has to ‘deal with’?”

He can’t look toward Bitty as he waits for a response. He bounces his fist against his hip.

“Of course it’s a thing!” Bitty says, and Jack could swear he can hear a smile, but he still can’t look. He takes another sip of his coffee instead.

“But I don’t know about ‘deal with’. I mean, you’re the captain, and you make all of us better, but not just from being on the ice with you and getting your passes. You hold us all to high expectations and encourage us to meet them, and you’re proud of us, individually and as a team, in a way that makes us want to deserve that pride.”

Bitty stops to sip his mocha, then continues. “Of course we don’t want to let you down, and of course doing anything to disappoint you, even by accident, is no fun. But it ain’t like you punish us, or—well, sometimes you yell when you’re frustrated, but if we banned frustrated yelling, Coach Hall would be out of a job. Like, on his own, but also because there would be no one left to coach.”

Despite his concern, a snort escapes Jack. Bitty has a point.

“You just—you do right by us, Cap, so we want to do right by you, too,” Bitty finishes.

Oh.

“And I mean,” Bitty picks up again, after another mouthful of coffee, “I do need to learn to deal with checking one way or another, or I will be out of a scholarship and all my best friends. And you’re a good teacher, and especially since we’re friends now, it’s a good time.”

He snickers, almost to himself. “I nearly said I enjoy it, but that might be stretching it. Let’s say, as much as it’s possible to enjoy being smashed into walls by a bruiser like you, I enjoy it.”

So—wow. That’s—

Wow.

Here Jack was, about to ‘pave the way’ to a serious conversation about whatever has been bothering Bitty, and Bitty goes and drops that bombshell. How can Jack not return that honesty?

“Wow,” he repeats, out loud this time.

Bitty reaches out and rests a gloved hand on Jack’s jacket sleeve. “We got your back, Jack. Same as you got ours.” He taps his hand once then pulls it away. “Is that what you wanted to talk about? I really didn’t realize it was nagging you so much.”

That’s it—Jack’s last chance to back out of this. He could say, “Yeah, thanks,” and shoot Bitty another awkward smile, and they could go back to normal.

But lately ‘normal’ has meant Bitty being inexplicably sad when he forgets Jack is looking. Jack might be some sort of coward, but not the kind that would let Bitty down when he trusts that Jack’s got his back.

He takes a couple deep breaths, awkwardly tugging his toque down more firmly on his head with one hand, and thinks having this much caffeine right before this conversation was a terrible idea.

“No, there’s—” a lot of things, that are very nerve-wracking, and I don’t know how

His hat is still not right, but it’s hard to fix with one hand holding the stupid source of all that caffeine.

“Sorry. I’m just… anxious right now, eh?” He braves a glance at Bitty, then gives up on the hat and settles for squeezing his hand into a fist and rubbing it against his thigh.

Bitty nods. “Take your time. Do you want me to hold your coffee?”

Jack is a little surprised, and then realizes in almost the same moment that of course Bitty would notice he wanted his hands free. He probably has little mental notes about what all his friends do when they’re stressed (in addition to what stuff he should bake each of them).

“I—uh—yes. Thanks.” He hands his coffee over gratefully, and immediately starts squeezing his hands together. It does help, even with gloves on, though the caffeine was still definitely a bad idea. “Yeah, uh. Starbucks drip was… maybe not the best choice.”

Bitty smiles teasingly. “Told you the mocha is better.”

Jack smiles back, in spite of himself and his nervousness, because there Bitty goes again, somehow knowing just what to say, and he doesn’t even seem to realize just how unusual that is. How important it is. God, Jack hopes Shitty is right. If Jack fucks this up… He doesn’t know what he’ll do if—

Nope, not going any further down that road, because it is not helping with the anxiety. He squeezes his hands together a little more tightly.

“Ummm… You. I—” Jack stops and starts over. “Shitty said you and he talked about… me and—Kent. And—and you’d heard us—what he—”

He stops again. Third time’s a charm?

“It was a really shitty situation, and it’s over now, or—well, I’m—I’ve moved on. I don’t—I’ve only seen him twice. Tune out TV announcers, mostly. And I’m… proud of that. Wish I had some better things to be proud of, but.” He laughs just enough for a tiny puff of air to come out his nose. “This season isn’t over, yet, I guess.”

Bitty’s voice when he responds is gentle but not pitying or condescending. Jack has no idea how he manages to sound so careful and kind without it being annoying, but he does.

“I’m proud of you too, Jack. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being proud of it. I think you’re really strong for being able to go through everything you have and still be so amazing and such a good friend and stuff.”

Jack hangs his hands on the back of his neck, pulling a little. The pressure feels nice, but his gloves are scratchy on the outside, so he lets go. Bitty keeps talking.

“And thank you for trusting me with all of that—You didn’t need to bring it up again, or even let Shitty tell me as much as he did. I wouldna ever said anything, and I’m sorry I heard so much—but if having someone else who knows and doesn’t care, or— Sorry, that doesn’t sound right, I do care, just only because I wish it hadn’t happened to you—But if that helps, I’m glad I can do that, or… be that? for you.”

Bitty sounds slightly puzzled by the end of his sentence, like he lost track of where it was going, and normally Jack would chirp him about it, but right now he needs to keep going while he still can.

“Thank you. That—that does help, a lot, but that… wasn’t really the point, actually. Uh. The—the point is—I—” he pauses, squeezing his hands together tightly “—you…?”

His voice trails off at the end. Bitty makes a confused noise, and Jack spares one thought to how cute that sound was before focusing on finding the words he’s having to search for again.

“Me? what about me?”

Jack takes a deep breath and lets the words tumble out because if he allows himself to stop and think about what he’s saying, the way he usually overthinks everything he says, he might never be able to say any of it.

“I, uh—reallylike you, and I keep thinking—what if—if we weredating—and I just—I’m sorry because. Fuck. I—You—you’ve seemed really distant, or, or… sad, the last few times we’ve hung out and I—”

He pauses, taking another deep breath, twisting his hands together and glancing up from the sidewalk, trying to see Bitty’s expression out of the corner of his eye, but looking back down before he can.

“—So if—if there’s anything I can do to—to help or fix things or—I don’t know. I just. I want to. if I can. I just. really hope I haven’t fuckedupbeingfriends.” He finishes in a rush.

Please don’t hate me, he keeps behind his lips. He remembers what Shitty said, he understands Shitty is (probably) right and Bitty (probably) won’t hate him, but it still isn’t helping and what if he just ruined everything

Jack swallows. “…Bitty?”

He looks up slowly, actually turning his head to look at Bitty this time, and tries to keep the terror he feels off his face because Shitty’s right, he has to be, this is Bitty, his friend, who cares about him and puts up with 5am checking clinics and even enjoys them no matter what he usually says, and who Jack was an asshole to for so long and so many times, and who’s forgiven him for all of that, and they’re friends and he won’t hate Jack for this. He can’t. He wouldn’t. It’s Bitty. Jack isn’t sure there’s anyone he hates and please don’t let him be

Bitty has stopped walking and put both cups of coffee down on the sidewalk, and Jack’s train of thought is completely lost, his heart thudding in his chest as he watches Bitty take his own toque off and run his hands through his hair. It stands up on end, clinging to the static charge of his gloves.

He laughs almost nervously as he tries to flatten it out. “Wow. Okay. Just—give me a sec, Jack?—It’s okay!” Bitty rushes to reassure him, so Jack realizes he must look upset. “It’s really okay, you’re okay, you’re—you’re great, actually, just—hang on.”

He keeps patting his hair down, and it keeps sticking to his gloves, and part of Jack is distracted by the treacherous idea of being able to play with Bitty’s hair and not having to keep it brief. Not having to keep it casual. (It might be—okay, it is definitely most of Jack, in that instant, if he’s being honest. It’s… not the first time he’s thought about it.)

But the moment passes and now he is absolutely paying attention to how Bitty is taking deep breaths himself (slow and calm, though; not panicky. which is good.) and replacing his hat on his head with great precision. Jack’s terror has more or less given way to confusion, though there is still some of both. He is trying to match his breathing to Bitty’s when Bitty finally speaks again.

“…Okay. So, first, you did not fuck up being friends. You are a great friend, Jack. Second—” and something Jack can’t identify enters his voice, “—have we been going on coffee dates and I didn’t know?”

“—I. Um. Not… exactly.”

Bitty raises his eyebrows a little and has a tiny smile now and Jack’s heart is doing triple time. He blames the coffee.

“I mean—sort of? I was hoping you would figure it out, but. I wished we were. Shit. I’m sorry, that’s weird. I didn’t mean to make it weird.”

Bitty is apparently trying not to laugh now, and Jack is utterly lost.

“It’s not weird, Jack, it’s not, it’s okay.” He starts giggling, and Jack is still confused and his heart is still pounding. “—and I’m not laughing at you, I promise! I just—you know why I was upset at Annie’s last week?”

Jack produces his hockeybot façade and chirps Bitty in an attempt to regain some semblance of normality.

“Well, no. That’s why I was asking.”

Bitty laughs harder. His laughter sounds slightly less hysterical than it did just at first, which Jack thinks is probably a good thing. He hopes.

“That was completely rhetorical, and you know it. The answer is because this one song came on while we were sitting here—it’s old enough even you should recognize it,” he says, grinning bright-eyed up at Jack, and softly sings a line that does sound familiar.

“So ‘I can’t help falling in love with you…’ and I just… I was sitting there, in a blessed coffee shop,” and his voice gets quieter, “with this beautiful guy who I’ve kindareallyliked for a kindalongtime—” He rushes some of his words together at the end and smiles up at Jack as a subtle, mocking chirp, and Jack blushes. “—thinking there was no way in all creation he would ever give me a first thought like that, let alone a second.”

Bitty’s voice sounds thick, and Jack doubts he could speak right now, either, if he tried.

“…And then yesterday felt even more like a date, but still wasn’t… well, far as I knew, anyway. And the whole thing on Saturday, too…”

Jack chuckles, though there’s no real humor in it—just understanding and sympathy. And slight disbelief that all this is happening; this has to be too good to be true—

“…Um. So, in answer to all of this…” Bitty turns and lifts his chin up, looking Jack straight in the eye. Both of them are blushing. “…can I… can I kiss you?”

Before Bitty has even finished his question, Jack rests his hands on Bitty’s shoulders and leans down, and Bitty goes up on his toes just slightly, and they do just that.

It only lasts a second, because they’re both still kind of shaky, and although there’s no one around—most people subscribe to Bitty’s views about being outside in this weather—they’re both in the habit of being wary in public. After Jack straightens up, Bitty leans in for a quick, tight hug, and when they pull apart again and look at each other, they start laughing as they realize it’s real and neither of them is dreaming.

Bitty crouches down to get their coffees before they end up kicking them over, and holds Jack’s out to him.

“Did you still want this?”

“Sure,” he says. What the hell, there’s only a little left. The caffeine is moot now. “Cheers.” They tap their cups together and smile. It’s a good sign, Jack thinks, how much they ended up smiling and laughing for a conversation he was so terrified of having.

They take the scenic route (such as there is) back to the Haus, not daring to hold hands or anything, but walking close together and speaking—when they even do—in low tones.

“I couldn’t believe you put my hat on me yesterday,” Bitty groans at one point. “I basically died.”

Jack laughs and snatches said hat right off Bitty’s head and hands his empty coffee cup over in return. “Here, hold this.”

Then he yanks one glove off with his teeth and—with a quick glance around—smooths Bitty’s hair out before pulling the hat down firmly onto Bitty’s head. The red that rises in Bitty’s cheeks is a good look.

Bitty bats Jack’s hands away with Jack’s empty cup. “Here. Lord have mercy, if you half-kill me twice, does that make me all the way dead?”

Jack grins wordlessly and Bitty walks into him deliberately again, though not quite hard enough to successfully land Jack in the snowbank.

“Your checking needs some work, Bittle.”

A meter or two later, Jack realizes Bitty isn’t with him anymore, so he turns around as he pulls his glove back on. Bitty is standing in the middle of the sidewalk, staring at him.

“…Bitty,” says Bitty, stepping forward again.

“What,” says Jack.

Bitty approaches him, a small smirk on his face. “You just kissed me,” he explains as he walks straight past. “I think you can be done with the last name thing.”

Jack’s stomach flips when he hears Bitty say kissed like that, and he takes two long strides to catch up.

“I think I probably can, Eric,” he says. Then, before Bitty can protest, he adds, “Crisse, last week when the cashier at Annie’s asked if you had a first name. You turned bright red, and he was just—just smiling at you like you were the cutest thing. Which—you are, actually, but. I was literally paying for your coffee, and you were all… flustered by this other person. Guhghhh.”

He finishes with one of Shitty’s usual frustrated Wookie noises, pleased when it gets a blushing giggle out of Bitty.

“Really?” Bitty asks, incredulous.

“Really,” Jack confirms. It doesn’t even matter which part Bitty was asking about. All of it was ‘really’. Bitty smiles happily, blushing again. (Again? Still? Either is good, really.)

Jack shifts his empty cup to his other hand, and uses his now-empty one to reach around Bitty and gently squeeze his shoulder, tugging him into Jack’s side for a quick hug. They don’t keep walking that way, but the companionable silence that follows is nearly as comfortable.

When the Haus is finally in sight, Bitty reaches out, catching Jack’s arm, and they both stop walking.

“Hey, all joking aside… Thank you for being brave enough to say all that stuff. It means a lot to me, and not just because we’re… I mean, I guess—are we dating now?”

Jack bounces loosely curled fists against his hips. “If you want to.” He swallows. “I mean, that was the goal.”

Bitty looks up at him, biting his bottom lip, almost shy. “…I do want to.”

If they were anywhere more private, Jack would lean in and take over the lip-biting task himself, but he can wait until they get inside, upstairs. Instead, his own lips stretch into the softest smile he knows how to make.

“Good.”


They emerge from Bitty’s room for dinner, lest anyone come looking for them and find them crammed onto his bed, messy-haired from making up for lost time on the kissing front. After dinner, Jack goes to take a shower, and Bitty corners Ransom in the kitchen and makes him help Bitty with the last of his physics problems.

When Bitty finally gives up and goes up to bed, there’s a note waiting for him on his pillow.

A note in Jack's handwriting, reading ‘I'm not the brave one. Or—if I am, it's because of your example.’

Chapter Text

“Bits,” Jack whispers. Bitty lifts his head from where it’s heavily resting on the left side of Jack’s chest. There is space enough for their legs not to tangle up, but even extra-long twin beds are just not made for the torsos of two hockey players without some creative maneuvering.

“Don’t fall asleep.”

Bitty blinks slowly. “I’m not.”

Fondly, Jack tousles Bitty’s hair and says, “Of course you’re not. Now come here.” Jack moves his arm so that Bitty can wiggle up the bed a little bit and bring their faces closer together. With a disbelieving grin, Jack again threads his fingers through the hair at the back of Bitty’s head and pulls him in for a kiss.

It’s—

Jack has not done this in a long time, not since—

Outside, when Jack leaned down and Bitty leaned up, it was fast and dry and (even Jack will admit) cold. Now, inside, they take their time, and Bitty is so warm, pressed tight against him, and Jack is happily surprised by the pleased sound that escapes Bitty’s throat when Jack gets carried away with his tongue.

(Bitty had seemed a little reluctant to kiss again when they got upstairs, but when Jack asked if they should slow down, Bitty shook his head, and now—)

Jack is just—exhilarated—amazed—enthralled—overwhelmed—excited—underprepared. Bitty is not only kissing him, repeatedly, but enthusiastically and kindly, interspersed with giggles and cuddles and murmured comments about how lucky he feels to be able to kiss Jack, and—

Jack has not done this in a long time. Maybe ever.


After they finally agree to go have dinner, before the sound of their rumbling stomachs brings someone in to see them like that, Jack leaves his boyfriend (his boyfriend) in the kitchen working on physics with Ransom and goes back upstairs. Maybe he’ll take a shower. Not that there’s much reason to do so before morning skate tomorrow, but as good as this day has been (and that is very), Jack needs some time by himself to process it all and decompress.

In the end, he gets about ten minutes of gathering his sleep clothes, undressing, and starting to wash his hair before his solitude is disrupted by a dramatic, rhythmic knock on the bathroom door. Shitty, of course, does not wait for a response before entering and initiating conversation. The knocking was more of an announcement rather than request for permission.

“Sooooo?” he asks, voice swinging up half an octave in excitement. “How’d it gooooo?” Jack does not roll his eyes, but only because they are closed to keep the shampoo out of them. Well, and Shitty would not be able to see it, anyway, but that is beside the point.

“Sounds like you already know,” Jack observes. “Crisse, I didn’t know I could hear your eyebrows!”

Shitty makes a victorious-sounding grunt. “Fuck yeah!!” he exclaims, though remarkably quietly. Jack does roll his eyes this time, visible or not. It isn’t like Shitty’s the one who started dating someone today.

“Fuck yeah!” Shitty repeats, when Jack points this out. “So, like. How did it go, what happened, tell me everything. Er, if you want to,” he amends.

This is not the processing-and-decompressing time Jack had been seeking. But also… Hmm. He and Bitty are going to need to decide together what they want to tell people, but Shitty really does know all this already, so. It might be nice to talk about… stuff… like other people do all the time. (And, like. How will Shitty help Jack’s emotions make sense if he doesn’t know about them?)

With an ostentatious, beleaguered sigh, Jack says, “At least let me finish my shower in peace.” Shitty leaves without another word.

Jack takes his time washing, mostly just allowing the pressure of the water to insulate him from the rest of the Haus (and the world) and using the sound of it to muffle his runaway thoughts.

His towel is soft and comforting on his face when he finally shoves the curtain aside and gets out of the shower. He drags it up through his hair a few times, then across his shoulders before tucking it around his waist. It is possible he could use a shave, but—nah. His cheek doesn’t feel that rough, and he would rather get this conversation with Shitty started sooner than later.

Jack walks into his room to the sight of Shitty sprawled comfortably on Jack’s bed. “So, uh.”

“‘Uh’… cuddles? Or ‘uh’… no cuddles?”

Jack eyes Shitty’s widespread arms, then glances down at his own towel. “‘Uh’… I need to get dressed.” Not everyone is satisfied to wear boxers or less at every possible opportunity.

“So that would be no on cuddles,” Shitty interprets. “Suit yourself!” Then he snorts. “See what I did there?”

Jack rolls his eyes pointedly, then turns to his dresser where Shitty can’t see him smile while he does, indeed, suit himself. (In a tee-shirt and sweats, but. The point stands.)

The moment he turns around, Shitty is staring at him, rapt. It’s hard to tell how much of this is genuine and how much of this is Shitty hamming it up to make Jack laugh. Surprisingly, Jack finds he doesn’t care. Either way, it’s… pleasant.

“Okay, but so like what happened?? Did you woo him?” Shitty demands.

Jack shrugs. “I mean. I just… told him I, uh, liked him? And then we kissed, so.”

Shitty launches himself from the bed, making the rising-pitch squeak that Jack associates with typed strings of question marks.

“Jackie, my man!! That’s so exciting!!” He throws his arms around Jack, then leans back to make sure the hug is okay. Jack nods, and Shitty squeezes him again. “I assume there was an ‘I like you too’ in there somewhere, then?”

“Something like that,” Jack agrees, noncommittally. Bitty never actually did say that, but he described Jack as someone he’d “kindareallyliked” and then asked if they could kiss, so Jack feels pretty safe in his understanding of the situation. Still, he’s enjoying messing with Shitty, and if he’d said any of that right now, he definitely could not have kept the smile off his face.

Shitty lets go of him with a huff. “Fine, be cagey if you want. I’ll hear about it eventually.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, man,” says Jack, losing the battle to keep his face straight. He makes for his bed, and Shitty follows. When he sees Jack’s little grin, Shitty’s eyes light up and he flops down on top of Jack and give him a noogie.

“DEETS MOTHafucka!”

Jack stifles his laughter, more than half of which is due to Shitty realizing two syllables too late that he shouldn’t be shouting and reverting to a stage whisper in an awkward rush.

“…I don’t know what more you’re looking for,” he says when he’s got himself (mostly) back under control. “I already told you what happened.”

Shitty lifts himself up on his hands like a push-up and glares down at Jack, eyes narrowed.

“Okay, okay,” he says loftily. “So does being Bitty’s… boy…friend?—Is that it?” Jack nods, still smiling. “—earn you a new level of pet name from him, or…?”

Jack snorts. “Are there really any left he doesn’t already use for everyone?”

“Oh, I’m sure he’ll think of something,” Shitty says, eyebrows raised. Jack rolls his eyes again.

“…Probably so, yes. But he hasn’t yet.”

Shitty lets himself drop down beside Jack and pillows his head on Jack’s chest. He always was going to get the cuddles eventually. “Did he go up on tippy-toes to kiss you, or did you have to, like, shrink yourself?”

“Uh…” Jack stops to think for a second. “Both? I mean, not—I leaned down, but he did go up on his toes.”

“Hnnnn,” Shitty says, the sound of a face-splitting grin. He squeezes Jack harder again. “I’m so, so happy for you, bud.”

Jack squeezes him back and presses his face to the top of Shitty’s head.

“…yeah,” he says, grinning himself. “Yeah. Me too.”


“Okay,” says Professor Atley, shuffling up the papers that she and Bitty have spread across her desk. They make a satisfying tap-tap-tap as she straightens them against the desk into one pile. “That’s your paperwork done. Congratulations on not being the latest major declaration I’ve ever advised—someone really did hold out until junior spring a few years ago, and I still don’t know how she managed it.”

“Oh, wow,” Bitty says, suitably impressed. How would that even work? Well, not his problem, so.

He shifts a little in his chair to get the light of the sun, already sinking low in the winter sky, out of his eyes. Professor Atley leans back in her desk chair and folds her hands behind her head.

“So how you been, Eric? Other than all this. How was your winter break? How has spring semester been going for you?”

“Oh, it’s been alright!” Bitty says, sort of automatically. He does always try to be genuine with people, but he knows they don’t want or need to know the details of his life when they’re just trying to be polite.

“Winter break was—” But there he stops short. She’s interested in more than just being polite, but now Bitty’s not quite sure how much he wants to say. He looks around at her bookshelves and knick knacks for a moment before settling on, “—good.”

She tilts her head, looking a little concerned.

“It was good,” Bitty repeats more confidently, sitting up, then wincing as the sun flashes into his eyes again. “I caught up with some folks at home I wasn’t expecting to, and it was nice to see my family and stuff, but I just… missed it here more than I expected to?”

“Mhmmm.” Professor Atley nods and turns around to adjust the blinds. “You don’t expect the place you only live for four months at a time to start feeling so much like home, too, do you?”

“No,” Bitty agrees. Or the people.

“So what about since then? How’s your semester going? You said physics is a slog?”

Bitty slumps down in his chair again and buzzes his lips. “Ugh, yeah. A couple of my teammates have been helpful, and I’m keeping my head above water, like, I’m not gonna fail it or anything, but it’s really not my cup of tea, that’s for sure.”

“How are your teammates? Winning doesn’t seem to be too much of a struggle for you all lately.”

It’s impossible for Bitty not to match the grin Professor Atley throws him as she speaks. She’s not a huge hockey fan herself, but news of their team is kind of inescapable on campus, and he appreciates that she keeps tabs enough to mention it.

“Good! Everybody’s doing good. It’s funny, actually—well, ‘funny’. I was worried about it, but it’s worked out okay—a whole bunch of them found out that that food class was cross-listed for bio (and somehow in their junior years had not finished their distribution requirements??), and since it fit into our practice schedule, they all decided to take it with me, which, like, on the one hand is nice because I have friends and it’s easy to work together on stuff, but at the same time, I live with most of them, and we are already together a billion hours a week doing hockey stuff, so I wasn’t necessarily looking forward to having them all in one of my classes, but. Yeah, it’s working out. And obviously the hockey is going okay.”

Bitty rakes his fingers through his hair as he realizes he sort of went on a ramble there, then smooths it out again with a self-deprecating laugh.

Professor Atley laughs along. “How many is ‘a whole bunch’?”

Bitty ticks them off on his fingers. Jack, Shitty, Lardo, Nursey, Holster, Ollie, Wicks… “Seven,” he says. “Eight, including me. Well, and one of them is our team manager. Do you know Lardo? Larissa Duan? Well, you probably wouldn’t,” he adds when she shakes her head. “She’s fantastic. You would love her. We all love her.”

The desk chair creaks as Professor Atley sits forward, folding her hands beneath her chin and resting her elbows on the desk. Bitty tucks one foot up under himself and pops his wrist.

“Is Jack one of the bunch?”

“Mhmm. A bunch of seniors are auditing it, I think, but Jack and one of our other teammates are taking it pass-fail just to have a full course load.”

A knowing smile breaks over Professor Atley’s face. “Senioritis hitting them hard?”

“Oh, no, I don’t think so. Jack doesn’t know what relaxing is, sometimes, and the other one is applying to law school for next year. But I think they want some pressure off while they’re writing their thesises and stuff. Theses. Whatever.”

“But Jack’s doing alright? He seemed relaxed enough last semester.” Professor Atley frowns slightly, as if worried. God bless, Bitty did think she favored Jack during their seminar, but it was hard to tell. Really, though, how could he blame her?

“Oh, you know,” he says wryly. “Hockey.”

Professor Atley rolls her eyes.

“No, but really. He’s doing fine. He said the other day he was—and I quote—‘almost done’ with his thesis. In February! Our friends were appalled, and I can’t tell how much was, like, don’t you ever not work and how much was insane envy because they’re not done yet.”

It’s getting a little awkward talking around Shitty, but Bitty has no idea how Shitty introduces himself to professors (strike that: probably loudly and with the phrase please call me Shitty, yes I realize that’s a swear word, or something similar), and certainly Bitty isn’t sure he can make that explanation himself… It’s easier to just. not, for now.

“That’s wonderful to hear!” says Professor Atley. “I hope I get a chance to read it. And I know he’s trying to get settled for life after graduation—still playing hockey, right?”

Bitty nods, and they discuss hockey life (in and out of school) and Samwell’s playoff chances and all the latest team drama (not that there’s that much, but Dex and Nursey were snapping at each other this morning, and Bucket and Icer have some bet going on that no one else knows the details of, etc, etc, and so forth…).

It’s—not hard to focus on the conversation, because it’s interesting and Professor Atley is so much fun to talk with, but every time she says Jack’s name, Bitty’s mind can’t decide between Jack shouting instructions during their passing drill that morning and Jack pulling Bitty against his chest while they cuddled in Bitty’s bed that afternoon.

And this is only a problem because he’s afraid he’s smiling uncontrollably and he doesn’t want her to ask about it, except maybe he does, because he’s so happy that Jack? actually? likes him? Like, a lot likes him? And they’ve kissed? Which still barely seems real, sort of, but—he can’t. Talk about it, that is. So.

“Aaaaanyway,” he says at last, trying to wind things up for his own sanity (but also because Lordy, it’s been at least forty minutes since he got to her office, now that he looks at the clock, and he really doesn’t need to take up any more of her time), “I should probably head out. I might try to make some cookies tonight and bribe the freshman I’ve sort of adopted—well, I mean, I’ve adopted all of them if we’re being honest, but the bickering defenseman who’s slightly more mine than the other defenseman—into telling me what the devil happened this morning, after they’d been getting along so well…”

He laughs. “One definite perk of being on this team is that their appetites are a good reason for baking things. Well, perk-slash-danger, since I don’t really need a reason for baking. Maybe it’s more of an excuse. Lord knows physics might be easier if I spent as much time on it as I do on baking. I mean, not that I don’t spend time on physics, but I definitely spend more time baking… But at least the food gets eaten! And it’s good stress management,” he adds, mock defensively. (Somewhat mockingly, anyway.)

Good grief, he sure does know how to chatter. Luckily, Professor Atley knows him. She merely smiles, shaking her head slowly in amusement.

“It is good stress management,” she assures him. “Did you ever study economics, Eric?”

He shakes his head.

“Well, you should, at some point. There’s this idea of diminishing returns, like, one hour of studying physics is worth X amount of knowledge or grade points or whatever. The second hour might also be worth X. The third hour, especially the third hour in a row? Probably less than X. The fourth hour, even less.”

Bitty narrows his eyebrows in thought and nods slowly. He can attest to this.

“But if you take that fourth hour and let it be your first hour of working out, or baking, or doing chores, or whatever else, it’s probably more valuable to you, hmm? You shouldn’t feel bad about distributing your time and energy as efficiently as possible across all of your life.”

Huh. That deserves more consideration than Bitty has the energy for at the moment. He slides his phone out of his back pocket as he stands up and opens his “thoughts for later” note to write himself a reminder. Maybe he’ll talk to Jack about it, honestly. The way Jack manages his time and workload, he seems to have a pretty good handle on it all.

Bitty looks up from his phone, and Professor Atley is smiling at him. “Maybe I’ll use that next time someone chirps me about not studying,” he says, smiling back ruefully. “And here’s a last question for you—you ever seen the show How to Get Away With Murder?

“…No, but color me intrigued.” Professor Atley steeples her fingers under her chin.

Bitty pockets his phone and gives her a casual shrug and raises his eyebrows, amused with his own realization. “Give it a look. I think you’ll appreciate the professor.”

She nods. “Will do. Now go on and get out of here, Eric. I hear you have cookies to bake, and to be entirely honest, now that you’ve put that idea in my head, so do I.”

“Have a good night, Professor,” Bitty says, gathering up his bag and coat. “And—thanks, for all this. You’re the best.”


On his way back to the Haus, Bitty keeps his head ducked against the wind as much as possible, though he has to look up from time to time to make sure he doesn’t bump into anyone. As he’s crossing the River, his eye catches on a figure down on the shore, frighteningly close to a goose. A goose! Those things are the devil incarnate! Whoever it is goes down on one knee, lifting a camera to their face, and as Bitty watches, he realizes who it must be.

Trust Jack to be out here photographing geese of all things, he thinks. Even in his own head it comes out more fond than exasperated. God, he is so gone on that boy. Bitty chuckles to himself and puts his head back down. Best leave that silly goose with—well—that silly goose. Bitty’s got cookies to bake.

Once he gets back inside and regains sensation in his face, it’s not long before he fires up ole’ Betsy and starts in on some thumbprint cookies for Nursey—maraschino cherries in the center instead of jam, and a dash of almond extract in the dough. Betsy is struggling in her old age, but she and Bitty make do. Still, it’s something of a production.

He does at least attempt a little physics while the trays of individual cookies go in and out of the oven, but he doesn’t get very far. Alas. Maybe dinner will help, he thinks as the last tray of cookies goes into the oven. But as much as he loves making food, he’s not really feeling it at the moment. Plus, he probably shouldn’t tax Betsy’s stovetop too hard, either.

With a sigh, Bitty gathers his cutting board and mixing bowls and various knives and spoons, dumping them unceremoniously into a sink full of dishwater and reaching for his rubber gloves. This is so much nicer when Jack helps, he catches himself thinking as he scrubs bits of cookie dough off one of the beaters.

Which—of course it’s nice to have a second set of hands, but this is barely any dishes at all. It’s just that Jack always offers to help if he’s around, and this time he’s not, and Bitty’s not sure when it became the norm for Jack to be around for this. It’s so… domestic.

Bitty shrugs. Best to take advantage of their time together when he can.

When the last tray of cookies comes out of the oven, Bitty lets it cool while he packs up the rest of the cookies to hide from hungry teammates until he can make sure Nursey gets his share. Then he packs up his school things to take with him to dinner, because he doesn’t want to drag himself back to the Haus if he runs into someone who wants to study together. Maybe he’ll go over to the library anyway, study buddy or no.

He decides to leave the last tray of cookies out for whoever finds them, more out of a desire to get dinner already than out of good will. A hat, scarf, coat, and a couple gloves later, Bitty is out the door.

The sun has set since Bitty got home, and it’s colder than ever outside. You’d think that someone who’s spent as much of his life in an ice rink as Bitty has would be over it by now, but… No, he’s not. Shut up. It’s cold. He hitches his scarf up over his face and walks as quickly as he can over to the dining hall.

When he gets inside, it’s blissfully warm, but there’s a line of students at the checkstand waiting to swipe in, so Bitty takes his place and shucks off his outerwear while he waits. His phone buzzes. He opens Jack’s text.

[6:15 PM]

:)

Today 6:15 PM

Did you go out for dinner?

Dhall I mean? Care for
some company?

[iMessage]

This is nothing they haven’t done dozens of times before, but it still feels different. Bitty’s not brave enough to play footsie in the dining hall, even if they find a table way back in the corner, so he’s sure it won’t actually be different. Still, like every other time, it will be good.

Please :) he replies. Then, I'll let you know if I get a table. I'm about to swipe in.


A Friday afternoon win is just about the best way to start a weekend, but even better is Bitty curled up on Jack’s chest afterward, when the team dinner and celebrations are over. Jack is flat on his back, feet tucked under the blankets of his hotel bed, and they’re both worn out; it wouldn’t be the end of the world if they fell asleep—Shitty would be sure to wake them before Bitty is missed—but then… Jack’s not ready to waste their time together being asleep just yet, really. (Not even in a hotel bed that’s actually meant for two people, unlike their beds at the Haus.)

Bitty’s hand is wrapped around Jack’s shoulder, rubbing gentle, mindless circles there through the sleeve of his shirt, and Jack’s is doing likewise just above the hem of Bitty’s shirt. It’s—calm. It’s—heavy. (Bitty is small, certainly, but his weight here is—a lot. Good.) Jack nuzzles Bitty’s slightly shower-damp hair and breathes in, slow and steady.

“God, Bits,” he murmurs. “Has anyone ever told you your skating is really pretty?” Jack’s mind keeps replaying the dodge-deke-dangle not-quite-goal that Bitty managed while Jack was sitting in the box in the third for a regrettable-but-forgivable holding penalty. It was really pretty.

“God, Jack,” Bitty mumbles into Jack’s shirt, squeezing his shoulder briefly. “Has anyone ever told you you’re a complete and total dork?”

Jack grins. “Nope, never,” he lies, then closes his lips and presses them to the top of Bitty’s head.

Bitty squeezes him in one more quick hug, then draws away so that he can lean up enough to catch Jack’s lips with his own. Crisse, Jack is so easy for this. Jack has deliberately not been counting how many times they’ve kissed, because he’s pretty sure that’s even weirder than counting Bitty’s pies in a month, but he does know that he’s started it, most of the time. Bitty always responds positively, but Jack realizes that he has been a little worried. This one is all Bitty’s doing, though, and that’s—good. That’s really good.

“Mmph,” Bitty grunts, starting to shift his weight. It’s probably awkward to balance like this, on the side of his hip with nowhere to put his other leg. Before Jack realizes exactly what is happening, Bitty has swung a leg up over him, straddling his waist and still kissing him soundly. Then he isn’t.

“Ah—” says Bitty, rising up on his knees and leaning back from Jack. “Sorry, I—that wasn’t okay, right? We haven’t—sorry.” He rolls off to the side, still close enough that Jack can touch him, but they definitely aren’t cuddling now.

Jack swallows, slightly dazed but not upset. Except that Bitty seems upset. Marde. They definitely need to have a conversation soon about—things. Sex. But—

“It was okay,” he whispers, voice failing him a little. “You can—up, like you were. If you want. Just. like that, but. Yeah, that was. good.”

Truthfully, this is not an… unfamiliar position to Jack, but Bitty isn’t—Bitty is so mindful and considerate—

Jack trusts Bitty above him, is the thing. This is…“good” seems incomplete, but— He lifts his head to bring Bitty’s attention and lips back to his own, and he is happy.

Eventually Bitty’s arms get tired, and they go back to cuddling. Bitty’s story about Nursey and maraschino cherry juice is muffled by Jack’s shirt again, and that is sort of a problem because Jack can’t understand him, but also not a problem, because he does not seem to be looking for Jack’s input. Bitty is mostly talking just to talk, and Jack is content to let it wash over him and make him feel at home.

He must drift off, because the next thing he knows, there’s knocking on the door and Shitty calling, “Hey Jack, you in there? I forgot my key!”

Bitty’s head is deadweight on Jack’s chest—he apparently fell asleep, as well—and this, too, is oddly familiar, if reversed.

“Zip! Parse! You awake? Wylie kicked me out and it’s past curfew.”

—shoving at clinging arms, sleepy groans—

“You’re closer to the door, Ken, you get him.”

—nervous, bleary-eyed glances at a bed used only for luggage—

“Yeah, yeah, okay. Keep your shirt on, Jonny, I’m coming.”

—the pretense of slumber, casual lies in the background—

“Jack’s been asleep, I was just sitting over here watching Breaking Bad.”

—sleeping, in the end, alone despite someone beside him—

“No, you can have that bed, you look cozy. I’ll crash with Jack.”

But as Jack sits up, now, this time, in the present, so does Bitty, rubbing his eyes and stumbling toward the door before Jack even has his feet on the ground. Shitty follows him into the room, and Bitty climbs right back into bed, on top of Jack’s outstretched arm, but burrows down into the pillows toward the opposite edge of the bed. Jack frowns minutely and tries to tug Bitty in closer, feeling cold and… untethered… without the weight of his head on Jack’s chest. Bitty mumbles a sleepy protest against moving, but then gives in, apparently happy to roll over and nestle his head against Jack’s shoulder.

“I didn’t actually leave my key here,” Shitty says, before Jack can scold him. “Just needed a plausible reason to be knocking on my own door. Also,”—he gestures at them with a sweep of his hand—“you two are disgustingly cute.”

“Thanks, I think,” Jack replies. Bitty covers his ears and continues trying to be asleep. Shitty laughs, then lies down, stretching himself out precariously on the open bit of space between Jack and the edge of the bed, balancing mainly by wrapping an arm across Jack and over to Bitty’s shoulder.

“One minute of group snuggles and then you gotta get, Bits,” warns Shitty, pressing his face into Jack’s neck. “Room check’s soonish and Bucket will miss your smiling face, I’m sure.”

“What smiling face?” Jack chirps. “That face is going to be zombie-tastic until at least the second cup of coffee tomorrow.”

Bitty works his arm around in the pile of hockey-player limbs, and Jack feels a sharp jab to his ribs. Judging by the squawk in his ear, Shitty did, too.

“This zombie can still hear you and resents your judgment.”

Against his neck, Jack can feel Shitty stifling a laugh. Jack himself merely rolls his eyes fondly where no one can see them.

“Screw you both, I’m tired, and you woke me up. I’m leaving,” the zombie complains. He does not move.

“Good hustle, Bittle,” says Jack, after a beat.

Bitty extricates himself and pokes Jack in the stomach, yet more forcefully. “In the nicest way possible, go to hell, Cap.”

Jack lets the teasing smile on his face drop into something softer. “Good night, Bits.”

Bitty relents. “G’night, Jack.” He bites his lip for a moment, then drops a kiss on Jack’s forehead. Shitty pushes over, balancing most of his weight on Jack’s shoulder, dammit Shitty.

“None for me?” He pouts, falsely forlorn.

Bitty rolls his eyes, but settles for a shoulder-squeeze rather than a kiss. “Thanks, Shitty. This was… really nice.”

Settling his weight back down on the bed, Shitty offers a fist for Bitty to bump. “You got it, man. Now it’s time for us all to get to bed.”

“What are you talking about?” Jack asks, because he is that happy and he can’t leave well enough alone. “I am in bed.”

“Works for me,” Shitty says. “Scoot over, though, or I’m’a fall and die. Pull up the blankets.”

“In the nicest way possible,” Bitty repeats, “I hate you. Good niiiight!” he sing-songs as he drags himself to the door.

“Good night!” Jack calls after him. Love you.


“Good morning!” Jack says brightly as Bitty shuffles into the kitchen early Monday so that they can walk to Faber together.

Bitty makes a show of rubbing his eyes while he finds his boots. “What’s so good about it?” he grumbles. And why is Jack so talkative? He’s usually much more… not… at this hour.

Jack hums and shrugs and bends over to kiss the top of Bitty’s head. “You.”

It’s dark, and Bitty can’t see his own face, obviously, but he knows he blushes anyway. He ties his boots, mumbles “no, you,” and leads the way to the rink.

The walk over is quiet after that. Jack really doesn’t like to talk in the mornings, and Bitty doesn’t like to be awake. But with basically no one else out and about in the cold and dark, Bitty pretty much keeps himself from flinching when Jack snakes a hand into Bitty’s pocket and laces their fingers together. Words are overrated, sometimes.

Practice is quiet, too, but not uncomfortable. Bitty even forgoes music while they dress and warm up, satisfied with just the sounds of him and Jack moving around in a well-rehearsed ballet. When they start in on the real work, conversation is still sparse, restricted to “ouch” and “oof” and “good work, Bittle”.

Just before they take their break, Jack comes at him head-on, though slowly, and they thunk together into the boards behind the crease, Jack’s arms on either side of Bitty’s body. Jack leans down and presses their foreheads together like they do with Chowder after a game.

“This is nicer than what they usually mean by ‘hug check’, eh, Bittle?”

Bitty laughs, somewhat breathless, and agrees. Breathing doesn’t get much easier when Jack maneuvers their helmets off and leans down for a kiss. In fact, Bitty’s brain pretty much shorts out. This is literal, actual dreams come to life—like sleeping dreams, not just hopes—and he doesn’t know what to do with it.

With a nip to Bitty’s lower lip, Jack pulls back and skates toward the bench, saying, “Come on, Bittle. Water.”

“Bitty,” Bitty corrects, following after in something of a daze, heart racing.

Jack hands him a water bottle when he reaches the bench.

“So,” he says to Bitty, voice low and conspiratorial.

Bitty breathes, squirts water into his mouth, and swallows.

“So?”

“So,” Jack says again, eyes dancing, unobstructed by the shield of his helmet, “if kissing you means I should call you Bitty, would it have worked the other way around?”

Bitty narrows his eyes, confused, and takes another sip of water.

“Like,” Jack clarifies, “if I had started calling you that outside my head months ago, would we have started kissing months ago, too?”

And the fact that Jack is now covered in the water Bitty spewed out in shock is comPLETELy Jack’s fault. He brought that on himself.

Jack’s just laughing, though, like he’s delighted by the whole thing. Bitty takes the water bottle and squirts some more into his mouth and then some more directly onto Jack, for good measure.

“…Hold up,” Bitty says, once he’s sure he’s not about to accidentally inhale any water. “If you’d—‘outside your head’? Did you want to start kissing months ago?”

Jack clears his throat into his jersey, the bottom hem of which is yanked up over his face to dry off. “I mean. You already knew about January. And December. But it might have been… October. Maybe.”

As if Jack doesn’t probably know the exact date and time of day.

“Well, not sure about kissing that early on,” Jack says, revising his answer. “Definitely, uh. Feelings. Maybe.” He pulls his jersey back down, smiling sheepishly.

Bitty is torn between grinning like a buffoon and complaining that they hadn’t started this several months sooner.

“‘Maybe’,” he parrots. His fingers itch to tug Jack’s jersey back into place over his hockey pants, since Jack didn’t quite succeed in doing that himself. But if Jack is his—Lord—boyfriend, is it weird, now? fixing his clothes? People might think—well, there are no people here, but it’s the principle of the thing. It doesn’t really matter, anyway, though. Bitty buckles and unbuckles his helmet instead. “And how long have you been calling me Bitty in your head, Mr. Zimmermann?”

“…Longer than that.” Jack clears his throat again. “But not, like. not consistently. I mean. I didn’t always—I still don’t—old habits die hard, especially when you don’t—totally want them to. At first.” He blushes, and busies himself putting his helmet back on.

“Well,” Bitty says, unbuckling his own helmet again and putting it back on, too, “as long as we’re both down to start new habits now…” He holds out a fist, and Jack bumps it immediately.

“Let’s do it,” Jack says.


Back at the Haus, after more checking—Bitty laying more hits himself, and Jack laying a couple from behind, which he was informed Bitty really did not like, thank you—the process of making bacon and eggs is a no-less-practiced ballet than the one the two of them had put on at the rink, earlier. Bitty still feels a bolt of delight (or maybe anxiety?) every time Jack kisses his cheek or touches his hip as they move throughout the kitchen, and he feels two when he convinces himself that it’s okay to return the gestures, but beneath all that, it feels no more out of place in their routine than washing and drying the dishes.

Jack pulls the toast out of the toaster as Bitty plates the eggs, and the scrape of his butter knife over the bread sounds warm and comfortable like the crackling of a bonfire.

“The jam is still in the fridge, if you want to waste your bacon on one of those sandwich things,” Bitty says, laying a plate of bacon and sriracha-drizzled eggs at Jack’s seat at the table. “And here’s your tea.”

Bitty hands over the mug of Earl Grey in exchange for the toast Jack has finished buttering, and Jack doesn’t even bite on the chirp about his delicious jam-and-bacon sandwiches. He does decide to skip the jam, though, since he had an extra bit of pie last night, and he doesn’t need the sugar.

“Thanks, Bits,” Jack says, ducking in for a quick peck on the lips.

“Eat,” Bitty answers with an almost shy smile.

So they eat, and it’s so nice, and Jack can hardly fathom how something so small as this breakfast can feel so big.

He gives up trying, though, when Ransom and Holster come clattering down the steps, arguing about something or other and running late for class. Domesticity averted, Jack thinks wryly. And besides, he’s got to get going soon, too.


The Very Attractive Cashier is working at Annie’s again when Jack and Bitty show up Monday afternoon, and Jack has to bite his tongue lest he say something unfairly unkind to the kid. Like, could Jack really blame him for flirting with Bitty last week?

They make it through ordering without incident, though, and soon enough Jack and Bitty are seated by the window, yet again, sipping their drinks and shredding a chocolate croissant. Jack congratulates himself on skipping the jam that morning.

Which—that morning had been really nice. It was a shame when Ransom and Holster showed up and they had to stop the flirting. And kissing. That was especially disappointing.

When Bitty wraps up his story about Mama Bittle and some kind of necklace, Jack clears his throat.

“So, uh.” Jack sips his gunpowder tea. “Obviously we don’t want to tell a lot of people about this? Us?”

“Right,” Bitty agrees, popping a piece of croissant into his mouth, but looking serious.

“So Shitty knows, of course. And, um. I think… Lardo should, too?” It’s strangely uncomfortable to talk about this—strange to have anything in his life anymore that is not already so out in the open—but. It’s important, so.

Bitty nods. “Yes, Lardo should definitely know. She takes way too good care of us not to know.”

“Yeah.”

Neither of them says anything more for almost a minute. Jack sips his tea and eyes the bits of croissant. He finally snags one and slips it into his mouth when Bitty speaks up again.

“I think… I don’t know about this, ’cause it would be an awful lot to deal with, I think, but…” He trails off, and Jack is selfishly glad that this is not easy for Bitty to talk about, either.

Bitty lifts his coffee to his lips, sets it down, and says, “Ransom and Holster, maybe? I dunno, Jack, it just… it would be awful nice not to have to sneak around our own Haus, I guess, while we have it. But they’ll just get so loud and they are friends with everybody and it’s not that I don’t trust them, but I’m not sure I want to rely on them for something this sensitive…?”

Jack sighs. It sounds sort of rude, saying it like that, and he understands why Bitty looks uneasy. But Bitty isn’t wrong, is the thing. And this is all… a big step, anyway. No need to take it all at once.

Bitty seems to sag with relief when Jack suggests that they hold off on telling Ransom and Holster just yet. Good. Jack feels a lot less bad about that himself, then. He reaches for Bitty’s hand and gives it one very quick squeeze, and Bitty smiles at him gratefully before hooking one foot around Jack’s ankle, just for a moment.

By unspoken agreement they return their limbs to themselves and pick up a conversation about the upcoming Habs-Falcs game that lasts them the rest of their snack, and when they leave the cafe, Jack feels much lighter. He smiles as he slides Bitty’s toque down over his ears again, and—feeling brave—he boops Bitty on the nose just in front of the door before they set off for the Haus.

Bitty smiles.


It’s getting dark outside. Pasta sauce is simmering on top of Betsy. The pasta itself needs to get going, too, probably, but Bitty has entangled himself in an explanation of his computer woes while he tries to convince himself to tell Lardo about him and Jack. He needs to say get to the point soon, though, or Ransom and Holster and God-knows-how-many of their other teammates will be crowding in looking for supper.

“…so then I had to restart my computer again, because the Office updater was convinced I hadn’t installed some security thing from, like, 2013 or whatever, and by the time that was done…”

Bitty trails off as Lardo sets her drawing pencil down and stares him dead in the face.

“Bits,” she says, not unkindly, one eyebrow up. “Spill.” Her pencil stays on the table. Her eyes stay on him. The dancing cows on her paper will not become any clearer until he answers. Lordy, she’s intimidating.

“Oh,” he says, intelligently. He looks away and gets up to set water to boil. “Well, so, Jack and I were talking, and we thought you should know, probably, and so since you’re here and everyone else is not, I was going to tell you—”

Me and Jack are dating. It’s there, not quite on the tip of his tongue, but maybe back near where they used to say you taste bitter things. This doesn’t taste bitter, though. Just like he might have bitten off more than he can chew.

Jack likes boys. Also, Jack likes me. That is no easier to get to his lips, but it’s equally, overwhelmingly sweet.

“Mmm?” Lardo prompts. Bitty turns the burner on underneath the saucepan and looks back at her. She raises her other eyebrow, pointedly.

Bitty takes a deep breath. “So, um. Me and Jack—er, Jack and I, well—we’re… datingnow?” His eyes slide off her face, searching for a box of farfalle and a button to skip to the end of this conversation.

Lardo’s pencil taps decisively on the table. “Nice,” she says, warm and approving. Bitty’s stomach flips over, not because he really thought she’d say anything else, but. It’s just relieving to know.

“So he finally said something,” Lardo says, almost more like she’s musing to herself than asking Bitty to confirm. Her pencil starts scratching out more lines on the cow drawing. He should ask what that’s even for, but first:

“Wait, you knew he was going to?” Jack had suggested they tell her, but he hadn’t mentioned talking to her about it before this. She erases something and blows the little rubber pieces off her paper.

“Yeah, he was pining so hard I wanted to hang Christmas ornaments off of him, so I told him to get his head out of his ass, and also that if he broke your heart I’d break his face.”

She says it all so matter-of-fact, almost fondly exasperated by his supposed pining (how had Bitty missed that, then?), almost nonchalant about taking Bitty’s side before Bitty even knew there were sides to be taken. Maybe once the pasta is on, Bitty will see if they have enough pecans for a pie.

“Wait, you what?” he asks then, when he’s fully processed what she’d said.

Lardo shrugs. “Well, not in so many words.” She catches Bitty’s eye and flicks her eyebrows up and down, once. “But I could, you know. Not that I’ll have to. Anyway, I’m happy for you guys.”

Bitty blushes and inclines his head. “Thanks, Lardo.”

“You know I got your back, Bits. You are happy, right?” she asks.

He can’t stop the smile that blooms over his face, even as he’s staring vaguely at the floor. “Yeah. Yeah, I am.”


[2:02 PM]
Today 2:00 PM

Hey y’all—found a new
recipe I want to try out,
dinner at the Haus
tonight for anyone who
wants it

William “Dex” Poindexter
Will there be vegetables

Derek “Nursey” Nurse
R there gonna be cookies

B. “Shitty” Knight
Did u send those
simultaneously or

William “Dex” Poindexter
Shut up

…yes, carrots, and no,
cupcakes

[Text Message]


“The frogs are in the living room.”

Jack’s voice is soft, halfway between casual observation and excited reconnaissance. When Bitty turns around from the last few dinner dishes in the sink to see why Jack is bringing this up, Jack is Right There, not three inches behind him. Bitty instinctively jumps, surprised, but Jack doesn’t seem to notice. His eyes are droopy as ever (even Bitty can admit), but they’re trained on Bitty’s face—on his lips, even. Jack swallows, and Bitty watches his Adam’s apple move up and down.

Water falls from Bitty’s dishwashing gloves onto his socked feet, just as Jack whispers, “Can I kiss you here?”

“Gloves!” Bitty whispers back, trying to take them off quietly.

“Don’t mind them,” Jack says, and swoops down. His hands, unencumbered by anything, are in an instant pulling Bitty up to meet him, one tangled in his hair, the other wrapped soft but firm around his neck. With nowhere convenient to put his own dripping hands, Bitty lets them dangle by his side and melts against Jack.

When they pull apart at last, Bitty’s lips are tingling, and Jack’s eyes are dark. I love you, Bitty thinks, but this doesn’t seem quite like the right time to open that can of worms.

“The frogs are in the living room,” Jack says again, this time his voice a full whisper, like he can’t even get his voice to cooperate, “but if we don’t go join them all soon, someone will come looking for us. Shitty and Lardo can only buy us so much time.”

Bitty blinks. “Right. Yeah. Lemme just finish the silverware and I’ll be done. You go on in.”

Jack leans in for one more peck on Bitty’s forehead, and then he’s gone.

Bitty sighs, the question of how many nights like this remain rising in his mind unbidden. Best enjoy this while he can.


The beanbags in the living room were originally acquired because certain frogs named Chowder don’t seem to care very much about their own comfort or hygiene, and think nothing of rolling around on hazardous couches and hard floors that last saw a mop sometime before Gretzky’s retirement, probably. Bitty has not been terribly successful at convincing said frogs to actually make use of them, but at least they seem to be useful to everyone else.

Well, maybe it counts as half a win if Dex is sitting cross-legged in one of them and Chowder is sprawled on the floor with his head propped on Dex’s leg.

Nursey is in the armchair next to them, knitting something olive green, and when Bitty enters the living room, Nursey is leaning over to scrutinize his work under the nearby lamp.

“You definitely are,” Holster is insisting from the couch, where he is also shoving his feet as far under Ransom’s ass as possible, since he can’t be bothered to wear socks, but his feet are always cold.

“If you say so,” Dex grumbles. He might be blushing as he meticulously folds over pages in his agenda book, but it’s hard for Bitty to tell in the overall dim light of the Haus.

Bitty tucks himself into the loveseat with Lardo, as usual. “Dex is definitely what?”

“Drift-compatible with Nursey.” Lardo, drawing some intricate pattern of spirals on her arm in three colors of ballpoint pen, couldn’t sound more bored with the argument if she tried.

“Oh.” Bitty nods, not having any other contribution.

“Fine,” says Shitty. “Who do we think Bits would drift with?” He’s somehow convinced Jack to let him sit on Jack’s lap in the other armchair, and Bitty can’t decide if he’s more entertained or envious.

Holster snorts. “Jack, obviously.”

“Yeah, possibly even the three of you like those Chinese triplets,” Ransom agrees.

Now Bitty is blushing, he’s pretty sure, with how easy they’re all treating this, like there’s no possibility he wouldn’t drift with Jack. Shitty seems less likely, in Bitty’s opinion, but it could happen.

“What do you think, Jackie?” Shitty asks. Bitty looks over at them, also curious.

Jack shrugs. “I mean, I haven’t seen the movie, so I guess so? Based on what you guys have said, I mean. But I don’t really know enough.”

Shitty twists himself around so that he can take Jack by the shoulders. “Wait, seriously?!” Then, before Jack can even respond, Shitty barrels on. “I really haven’t made you watch this yet? Bad form, past Shitty! What the fuck?”

The dramatics make Jack laugh, that single, slightly-more-forceful-than-usual breath through his nose, and Bitty figures that was half the point. He smiles, too, and lets himself relax into the comforting warmth of all his closest friends together in one place. Shitty and Ransom start planning a Pacific Rim watching party for Sunday (after the regular season ends on Saturday—gulp), but Bitty doesn’t listen too closely—he’ll just show up when and where he’s told. Instead, he slides his phone out and sends a text.

Love you Mother, he taps out. She doesn’t respond right away, so Bitty goes to put his phone away, but has one more thought. He scrolls down and down his list of texts until he finds the conversation with Coach.

Thanks for teaching me how important teams are, he sends. Thanks for being on my team.

It’s just—sometimes Bitty feels very alone. Sometimes he thinks about how Georgia doesn’t feel like where he belongs anymore. But right now he is so overflowing with affection and contentment and confidence that the people in this room will be where he belongs, for a long time… Bitty owes his folks a lot, and he can’t say it to them with pies just now, so he hopes his texts get his point across.

Frankly, he can’t really say it to his friends with pies just now, either, or the cupcakes he promised, because Betsy isn’t working right, but he can say it with no-bake cookies, which are probably finished setting in the fridge.

“You wanna help me get the cookies?” Bitty asks Lardo, quietly enough not to interrupt Ransom and Nursey, who have apparently revived the argument about the relative importance of Iron Man 2 or something.

Lardo raises her eyebrows, clicks her pen to retract the tip, and says, “Sure, if you’ll let me stand up.”

Bitty rolls his eyes and swings his legs off of her lap. As he leads her back to the kitchen, Jack reaches out and catches Bitty’s wrist for the briefest of seconds, then asks where they are going.

“Cookies,” Bitty says, yanking his wrist back before anyone can notice, and hoping with all his heart that Jack didn’t notice or wasn’t offended. They’ll have to talk about that, later.

All Jack does is give him a thumbs-up, so Bitty hustles to the fridge, pulls out the sheets of chocolatey oatmeal goodness, and instructs Lardo to grab him a plate to put them on. When they get back to their friends, the cookies seem to evaporate off the plate.

“Thanks, Bitty!” Chowder says, stuffing the last one in his mouth and hauling himself up to go refill the plate.

“Yeah, thanks, Bits!” Nursey agrees. “Did you switch to cookies just for me?” Bitty smiles fondly as he lets himself drop into the empty beanbag.

“You’re quite welcome,” he says. “No, but as Betsy’s been on the fritz, I didn’t want to risk cupcakes tonight. Glad you like these.”

Dex kicks him gently to get his attention. “Seriously? a) Do you want me to take a look at her tomorrow? b) How did you make cookies without her?”

Bless William Poindexter’s heart. What a good frog.

“a) Yes, please. b) You never heard of no-bake cookies?”

Dex shakes his head, so Bitty starts to explain how they’re made. Jack comes over and interrupts—well, he doesn’t say anything, but he ruffles Bitty’s hair and waits for him to stop talking, which happens sooner than Bitty meant it to because Jack is very… distracting.

He looks up at Jack and says, “You going to bed or something?”

“Yeah,” Jack says, giving one last swipe through Bitty’s hair and the slightest of tugs. “Told my mom I would call her, and I’m getting tired. Thanks for the cookies, Bittle.”

Bitty swallows and forces his brain to reconnect to his vocal cords. “You’re welcome, Jack. Good night!”

When Bitty turns back to Dex to finish explaining the importance of boiling times in no-bake cookies, he loses his train of thought again, because Dex is looking at him quizzically, and Bitty is suddenly self-conscious.

“Your hair is messed up,” Dex says flatly.

“You don’t say,” Bitty replies, smoothing his fingers through it, mostly in vain. Dex just rolls his eyes and prompts Bitty to finish explaining the cookies.


[10:32 PM]
Today 10:27 PM

Jack Laurent you have got
to stop with the hair

Why are you texting
me? Just come into my
room

I don't want anyone to
hear me

Also I'm comfy

I think you mean lazy

ANYWAY I was THIS
CLOSE to just kissing
that smirk off your face,
you have to stop

…well that's one way to
come out, eh? :P

Y…es…?

We should plan that
better, though

Of course

Go to sleep, Bits

Good night <3
Read 10:32 PM

<3

[iMessage]


[09:09]
aujourd’hui 09:02

Be very careful that you don't
mix this up with our other
group text

You'll notice Bittle isn't in this
one

You'll also notice Bittle needs
a new oven

Chow 55
!!!!!!!
thumbs-up emojithumbs-up emojithumbs-up emojithumbs-up emoji

Nurse 28
Oh right yeah he mentioned
that again last night didn't
he

Nurse 28
Good idea

Duan ∞
this is gonna take some
planning, bro

Poindexter 24
Also some money. I really
can't chip in much on that,
but I can save us the
installation fee?

Oh

No

I have the money covered

But Lardo is right, it needs
planning

Does anyone know how to
buy an oven?

Poindexter 24
Why don't you just get one
from Sears or whatever? I
can poke around, see what
Betsy's specs are and try to
find something similar?

[Message]


[12:15]
lundi 14:30

Chow left his sweater at
the Haus. Can you or
Nurse pick it up on your
way back toward the
dorms?

Sure, I’ll be there in 20

aujourd’hui 11:08

http://www.sears.com/
Kenmore-30inch-
Freestanding-gas-range-w-
convection-oven/p-
02274333000P?sellerId=
SEARS&prdNo=6&
blockNo=6&blockType=G6

go big or go home y/n?

[Message]

When Jack sees Dex’s message after class, his first thought, inexplicably, is that the universe is trying to tell him something with “go big or go home”. His second, much more rational thought, is that that is super weird and sounds like something Johnson would say, and that’s bizarre.

He clicks through and nods approvingly. Dex has a good eye for this stuff, and the price is… high, but not unreasonable. Bitty deserves nice things. The Haus, frankly, deserves at least one nice thing. And Jack wants to pay back (pay forward?) some of the love and good things that Samwell has given him that have gotten him to where he is in life. So.

Heart thumping in his chest, Jack texts back Y. He wants to say more—Thank you, perhaps, or Sometimes it does work out, or in some alternate universe where it’s okay to say these things, I’m rooting for you, too.

Instead, Jack takes a deep breath and resolves to ask Bitty if they can tell Dex about them. Dex—deserves to know. For several reasons.


[12:05 PM]
Today 11:11 AM

Bits why are straight boys

Why are cute puppies

Why are straight boys and
cute puppies

Today 11:32 AM

I'm a good person I don't
deserve this

Today 12:02 PM

Awww ΤΔΤ I know

Did I tell you I ran into my
high school crush and his
dog over Christmas?

If you were anyone else you
would have told me that I'm
not a good person and this
is my punishment for
skipping class yesterday

[Text Message]

Bitty has no idea how to respond to that. Chirping someone about—well, anything, but especially something like an unrequited crush isn’t exactly his style.

[12:07 PM]

…do you want some pie?
I've got a couple cans of
cherries with your name
on me

*em (ノ_<)

Ugh Bits you're too much

You go from silly pity party
all the way out to sad pie
immediately

Thanks man, but don’t strain
Betsy. I'll manage. Save
the cherries for next time
we want to do shots, eh?

Anyway, has your college
crush shown up anywhere
with a dog, or are you not
being punished that way?

[Text Message]

Bitty is… not lying when he responds No, he hasn’t.

I might die from the cute if he ever did, he adds, still omitting a fairly significant detail.

Well.

Crap. He should probably talk to Jack again.


The thing about blogging is you have to write things.

The thing about writing is Bitty isn’t doing it.

He sighs and picks his phone up off his desk. The blank page is mocking me, he texts his mother. She doesn’t respond, because it’s 8:00 on a Thursday night, and she’s at choir rehearsal, but it makes Bitty feel marginally better anyway.

The thing about blogging is it’s just like journaling, but you get to interact with other people, and offer them advice, and take their advice, and inspire and entertain them. This is all well and good, but Bitty is struggling to complete (read: start) this week’s second blog post for his writing class, because the thing about blogging is it’s just like journaling, but other people can read it.

And all Bitty wants to talk about is Jack, and the ridiculous path they took to get where they are, and he…can’t. Not in a blog post, not even for class. (Maybe especially not for class, given how their whole team are kind of campus celebrities. But Bitty should probably be getting used to that idea, considering where Jack is headed next year.)

“Oh, what the hell,” he mumbles to himself. He clicks back into the text-editor box and plunks his hands down onto the keyboard.

The thing about blogging is it’s just like journaling, but other people can read it.

Well. The page isn’t blank anymore, so that’s something.

A soft knock sounds behind him, and Bitty twists in his chair to see Jack leaning around the door, as if Bitty wouldn’t want him to come in, for some reason.

“Oh, thank heavens,” Bitty says, before Jack can say something foolish like should I come back later. “What’s up, Jack?”

Jack steps fully into the room and pushes the door shut quietly behind him. He looks tired, and maybe a little worried about something, but as Bitty stands up and opens his arms for a hug, some of the tension seems to bleed out of Jack’s body.

“Hey, Bits,” he says, with a small smile, more in his eyes than his mouth. He comes in for the hug and squeezes Bitty tight around the shoulders. Bitty squeezes back around Jack’s waist and takes a deep breath.

“You smell good,” he says, muffled by how he’s pressing his cheek against Jack’s chest.

Jack nuzzles Bitty’s hair, then kisses the top of his head. “You too.”

Bitty leans back and looks into Jack’s face, rising up on his toes a bit until Jack gets with the program and bends down to kiss him for real, too. When they pull apart, Jack gives Bitty’s hair a final tousle and then bites his own lip, slightly sheepish.

“I didn’t actually come in here to do that.”

Bitty laughs. “Well, I’d apologize for derailing your plans, but you don’t seem upset.”

“No, I suppose not,” Jack agrees. “Do you have a minute to talk, though? Are you okay? Why did you say, ‘Oh, thank heavens’ when I got here?”

Bitty groans. “Ugh, I’m just trying to write this blog post for my writing class, and I’m getting nowhere fast, so I was glad for a distraction.” Especially when that distraction is you, he doesn’t say, because that’s a lot, right now.

“I’m sorry,” Jack says, the way he does, Bitty thinks, when he doesn’t know what else to say.

“Don’t fuss,” Bitty says, leading Jack over so they can both sit on the bed. “I’m all yours. What’s going on?”

The mattress sinks beneath them as they sit down. Bitty leans into Jack’s side, part of his brain still marveling that he can. He waits while Jack gathers his thoughts, attempting to corral his own thoughts and put words to them, especially words he could potentially publish at some point tonight.

“Do you…” Jack starts. “I know we aren’t really telling people about…us. We haven’t even told Ransom and Holster, and they live with us. But I—would you mind if I talked to Dex about it?”

Oh, Bitty thinks. Good. He’s noticed Jack looking after Dex and Nursey, but he hadn’t realized there was anything more to Jack’s relationship with either of them than that. It’s good to know that he has someone besides Shitty and Lardo that he’s… if not close with then at least open with. (It’s weird, that those words are so similar, sometimes.)

“It’s just, he’s my frog.” Jack rushes ahead, justifying his request before Bitty can even answer. “I mean, as much as I have a specific frog. But the point is, we were talking the other day, and I think he knows something is going on with me, which I would prefer to be honest with him about—”

He breaks off talking when he feels Bitty press more heavily against him.

“Of course, Jack. I trust Dex, and I’m glad you two have each other.”

Jack sags against him, all the remaining tension gone now. “Oh. Okay, good. Thanks,” he says, and Bitty can hear him swallow.

“Speaking of frogs we want to be honest with: If you don’t mind, I’d like to tell Nursey, too. He, uh—” Bitty stumbles for a moment, trying to figure out how to explain this without accidentally outing Nursey or embarrassing either of them. He gives it up as a lost cause, and just tries not to embarrass himself speaking, at least, not that it matters. It’s just Jack. They’re equally embarrassingly into each other. “He’s known for a while that I had a thing for someone, and he’s been really supportive and helpful to me in general, and he keeps asking me how things are going with my mystery man, so…”

Bitty shrugs, or as much as he can with Jack’s arm across his shoulders. They can discuss at some other point how many times Nursey has unknowingly called Jack a clueless straight boy and wished curses upon people who are too attractive for their own good.

Jack tightens said arm around Bitty’s shoulders. “Yes, of course. I’m glad you have him, too. And that he has you,” Jack adds after a moment, “though realistically, all of the frogs have you wrapped around their fingers, so that’s less noteworthy.”

Rolling his eyes is a pretty ineffective response, given Jack can’t see them through the top of his skull, but Bitty does so anyway, laughing in spite of himself. “I like to take care of them!” he says, mock defensive.

“I know, I know,” says Jack, patient and laughing himself. “And you do a very good job. Now, you should get back to your writing, and I should go take a shower. Does it work for you if I grab them both for breakfast tomorrow? We should split up and talk to them individually, I think, but then we can tell them each that the other one knows, too?”

The prospect of getting up off the bed and letting Jack leave so that Bitty can return to writing about Not Writing About him is none too attractive, but Jack is right, about tonight and tomorrow.

“Works for me!” Bitty says, then sighs. “Okay. We have to stand up now.”

“We do,” Jack agrees. “I’ll stop back in to say good night before I go to bed. I hope you’re done writing by then.”

Bitty snorts. “You have way more faith in me than I do. But thanks, I’ll try.” He stretches up to give Jack one more kiss, a tiny whine escaping him when Jack nips at his lower lip. Jack threads his fingers through Bitty’s hair and hums in satisfaction. All Bitty can do is squeeze Jack’s hips and try to bite back, but Jack is already drawing away.

“Mr. Zimmermann,” Bitty scolds, not at all as stern as he was aiming for, “it’s not very nice to start that when you’re on your way out the door.”

Jack smirks. “I promised I would be back later, didn’t I? There’s more where that came from, for people whose homework is done…” He trails off and disappears out the door before Bitty can recover. Curse that boy! Bitty laughs to himself and shakes his head. He should have predicted this, honestly.

Now… Where on earth is he taking this blog post…


Friday morning practices are fun. Coach doesn’t run them too hard, since they have games coming up over the weekend, and Jack always comes off the ice feeling pleasantly warm, just tired enough to know he did his job. It leaves him feeling relaxed but alert for the rest of the day, which is nice.

As usual, he is one of the last ones off the ice and one of the first ones out of the showers. Locker room showers are just… gross. Jack is used to them and can deal with them, but he does not understand how his teammates can linger in there the way they do.

(Even less does he understand how people—Kent—could suggest doing anything… beyond showering. Eugh.)

Jack dresses methodically, not rushing but not dawdling. Nursey is always slow as hell, and Dex (eyes carefully, familiarly averted) always waits for him, so Jack does not need to hurry. He listens with half an ear to the conversation Bitty is having with Chowder about YouTube, but mostly focuses on continuing to stretch out while he waits for the frogs.

When they (when Nursey) finally looks about ready, Jack slings his bag over his shoulder and steps over to them. “Dex, Nurse,” he says, as unobtrusively as he can. “Can I borrow you for a moment? You’re not in trouble,” he adds, when he sees Nursey’s eyebrows float halfway up his forehead. They nod and follow him to the door.

“Good practice,” Jack says as they make their way out of Faber. He holds the door open and ushers them out ahead of him into the cloudy daylight and icy air. The scarf over Nursey’s face muffles his “Thanks,” but Jack understands him anyway.

Dex pulls his hood up against the wind. “What’s up, Cap?”

“Breakfast. I have some stuff for you, and Bitty wants to talk to Nurse, so I told him I would bring you both to the dining hall without any hangers-on.”

The frogs trade looks, but Nursey just says, “I assume it’s not worth asking what all the secrecy is for?”

“Breakfast,” Jack reiterates. Nursey laughs.

“Breakfast, then,” Dex agrees, and they hustle toward warmth and food.

Bitty catches up with them standing in line at the omelette station, and they all chat amiably about Lardo’s art show that night while they wait for their eggs. Jack refuses to weigh in on the bow-tie debate.

When the food is ready, the frogs stare at Jack and Bitty, waiting for their cue, and Bitty turns to Jack, and Jack smiles a tiny bit, because even though he is feeling sort of nervous, it is the easiest thing in the world to give his three younger teammates a nudge in the right direction. Directions, plural.

“Dex, this way.” Jack nods his head sideways toward the salad bar, and a beat later he sees Bitty lead Nursey off toward the dish return. Luckily, it is never hard to find empty tables at this hour. Luckily, also, Jack has a feeling that, nervous or not, this is going to go better than the conversation he had with Dex in the fall. For starters, they’re actually friends now.


“Well I think practice went well, don’t you, Nursey?” Bitty starts as he scoots his chair up to the table. “That drop pass thing you and Dex were practicing looked really good! You look tired, though—no offense. Y’all didn’t leave the Haus that late, but did you actually go to bed at a reasonable…”

----

“Right,” Jack says, dropping into his chair. “So. You haven’t done anything wrong, and you’re not in trouble.”

“That’s comforting,” says Dex.

----

“…just practice, or did you not have coffee before practice this morning, or have you not been sleeping okay? And if it’s the last thing, are you having trouble falling asleep, or staying asleep, or just…”

----

Cutting his omelette into tiny pieces is not actually necessary, but it keeps Jack from picking at his hangnails when he says, “Bitty and I were talking, and this thing came up that I wanted to tell you about, and Bitty wanted to tell Nursey about it, too, so that’s why I grabbed you guys. But, like. Privately.”

----

“…because Lord knows I understand being up all hours of the night…”

----

“Cool. Hit me.”

Jack takes a deep breath.

----

“…asleep, have you tried chamomile tea before bed? I don’t often bother, but my mother swears by it…”

----

“So. Um. Bitty and I are… together now.”

Dex says nothing for an excruciating moment, but then smiles. “Wow, uh, congrats? I mean, thanks for telling me?”

Jack breathes out. “Thanks. Or, you’re welcome. Uh—anyway. Shitty and Lardo are the only other ones who know. Well, and Nursey, if Bitty’s gotten to the point yet.”

----

“Chill, Bits,” says Nursey, when Bitty trails off, unable to stall any longer. “I’m sleeping fine, I promise.”

“Oh, good,” says Bitty.

Nursey smirks, but softly. “So Jack kidnapped me so you could talk to me about my sleeping habits, or…?”

----

“…which he almost certainly hasn’t, because it’s Bitty, let’s be real.”

Jack snickers, even as he wills his heart rate to come down. “True.”

----

“…Right,” Bitty says. It’s just Nursey. “Yes. I mean, no, it’s—there’s—” He clears his throat. “You, um, asked recently how I was doing with that straight boy of mine…”

“Uh-huh?” Nursey prompts.

“And, well, um, I may have actually found out a while ago that he is… not as straight as I’d thought. I mean, I still figured he was miles out of my league, so it didn’t really matter…”

----

“Oh, uh, also, I haven’t broken your confidence or said anything to Bitty, but I just. said that I wanted you to know.”

----

“But so the point is, we were talking, and we agreed that you should—I mean, I didn’t mention your straight boy, of course, but I told him that you’d listened to me compl—you’d listened to me talking about, y’know, liking someone, and I said I wanted to tell you, and Jack said that was a good idea…”

----

“…since we were telling our friends. So… yeah.”

----

“Wait, tell me what, exactly?”

“Oh! That we’re maybe kind of dating now?”

“‘We’ being you and Jack?”

“Oh! Yes, duh.” Bitty can tell that he’s blushing, a little flummoxed by this whole process. He doesn’t have notecards this time.

Nursey nods upward, processing that. “Congrats, man,” he says with a broad grin. “Good for you guys.”

Bitty bumps the offered fist. “Thanks!”

----

“Shit, thank you, Jack. That means… a lot.”

Jack nods once, then scoops up several tiny bites of omelette and starts chewing in favor of having to come up with something to actually say in response.

A long minute later, Dex breaks the silence. “Just us who know, then?”

----

“—just me, and Dex?”

“Oh, yeah, um. Shitty and Lardo sort of kicked our butts into gear. Separately. Kind of. Anyway, so—they know, too.”

----

“Cool. Wow. Hey, Jack, maybe you were already going to, but I think you should—”

----

“—tell Chowder.”

Bitty is slightly taken aback at Nursey’s insistence. “Oh?”

----

Dex studiously tries (and fails) to spear a grape on his fork. “I… accidentally told him months ago about my… feelings, y’know. And I might have panicked.”

----

Nursey sighs and stares off over Bitty’s head. “He… was my first straight boy this year. But he was—”

----

“—super supportive and hasn’t said a thing to me—”

----

“—or anyone else since then, after I told him I didn’t want to—”

----

“—talk about it ever again. And he cares about you guys—”

----

“—so much, and just—”

----

“—he deserves to know.”

Jack takes a slow breath. “We… had not talked about telling him, but—”

----

“—I honestly had no idea he could keep a secret that well. He’s certainly never breathed a word to me, though—”

----

“—so yeah, I’ll talk to Bitty about that later—”

----

“—and I’m sure he’ll agree.”


Friday is a bit of a blur, though, with everyone getting ready to go to Lardo’s show. (Bitty is still a little confused about the…installation? piece? thing? with the TV (what do you even call interactive art, an exhibit?), but really, it was a wonderful evening.) And then there’s Shitty getting into Harvard law (which Bitty is carefully Not Thinking About beyond the requisite Legally Blonde jokes and definitely also Not Discussing With Lardo), and staying out too late.

And Saturday is the last game of the regular season, and one thing (winning) leads to another (Haus partying), and it’s lunch time on Sunday before Bitty can so much as breathe, let alone get Chowder’s attention for a serious conversation.

They’re sitting in the dining hall, because once they cleaned up from the party, not even Bitty could stand the thought of getting the kitchen messy again to make food. Also, he didn’t trust that any of the food remaining in the Haus was safe to eat, truth be told.

So Bitty peeled Chowder off the living room biohazard and smiled warmly at Jack when he said he would join them, and the three of them made their way toward… well, it’s noon, but it’s also the first real meal of the day, so maybe “brunch” is the best word for it, Bitty decides. Part of him feels bad for not inviting any other teammates, but after what Dex and Nursey said on Friday, Bitty wants to have this conversation with Chowder as soon as possible. Besides, the rest of them have feet and know where the dhall is. They’ll live.

The three of them sit in relative silence for the first few minutes, save the sounds of food being cut into pieces and chewed. Tired, hungry, and mildly hungover, even Chowder has not started up the babbling yet.

Bitty smiles to himself as he mops up the dregs of his strawberry syrup with his last piece of pancake. He usually likes to make breakfast on Sunday mornings, but there’s definitely something to be said for an endless supply of pancakes (with strawberries, whipped cream, and chocolate) that you don’t have to make yourself. God bless all-day Sunday pancakes, honestly.

Under the table, Jack knocks his knee rather deliberately into Bitty’s, and Bitty smiles again, pressing back. It’s not footsie, but.

“What are you smiling about?” Chowder asks, then. From anyone else, that question would sound like an old crank yelling at kids to get off his lawn, but Chowder sounds genuinely curious, if not yet awake enough to understand the reason.

Jack knocks his knee into Bitty’s again, and they trade glances, Bitty’s curious and Jack’s supportive.

“I’m happy,” Bitty says, and Chowder nods like that’s explanation enough. Jack presses his leg harder against Bitty’s, as if to say, keep going, you can do it, so Bitty takes a breath and double checks that no one is around (which, no one is, because they’re in the farthest corner of the the dining hall, and there hasn’t been anyone here in twenty minutes).

“I—we’re—you can’t say anything, Chowder, but, uh. MeandJackaredating.” Bitty bites his lip, trying to keep the grin from taking over his entire face, then realizes there’s no reason to do that, and stops.

A matching grin spreads over Chowder’s face, and his eyes are comically wide. He sets his silverware down and starts to clap his hands together so softly they barely make any noise, fingers and palms completely vertical. Bitty could just see the !!!!!!!!! popping up over his head if this were a comic book.

“Well,” Jack says, a small smile on his own face, “he isn’t saying anything!”

Bitty groans and drops his head onto Jack’s shoulder, just for a split second, at which point Chowder’s vocal cords kick in, and Bitty looks up to see him still clapping, but now making a quiet, steady eeeeeeeeeeeee sound, his eyes practically sparkling.

“You and Jack??” he asks, pointing at each of them respectively, then mouths “are dating???”

Bitty is not sure how his grins gets wider, but he feels it happening as he nods in confirmation. He’s also fairly certain that, were there no table between them, Chowder might already have launched a tackle-hug at one or both of them. The boy is still vibrating with glee.

“You guys!!” Chowder continues, in a soft but audible voice. “That’s swawesome, I’m so happy for you, oh my God!!

When Bitty glances over at Jack, the smile in his eyes is even creeping onto his lips. “Thanks, Chow,” he says, and offers a fist to bump. Chowder’s eyes fly open so wide Bitty thinks his eyebrows might float right up and off his face, but he bumps Jack back.

“Thank you guys for telling me! I’m honored! When did you—I mean, unless it’s private, but—you guys!!

Just for fun, Bitty also offers Chowder a fistbump. “Uhhhh… bout a week and a half ago,” he offers, eyes on the table, suddenly shy. He looks up when Chowder’s hand knocks into his, and Chowder’s expression has sobered somewhat.

“That’s really, really awesome, Bits,” he says, still smiling, but quiet and steady like he’s ready for puck-drop. Someday Bitty’s got to learn to turn the vibrations on and off the way Chowder does. He nods his thanks.

“And don’t worry,” Chowder continues, fork in hand as he returns to his food. “I won’t tell a soul unless you tell me to. Really, thank you guys for trusting me.”

It’s not that frequent that Bitty finds himself at a loss for words, but he honestly can’t find anything adequate just then. Luckily, Jack steps in before Bitty can even start to stammer something out.

“Of course we trust you, Chowder. Thank you for being so dependable.”

Chowder flushes again, always pleased to be praised, and now it’s just—Bitty’s heart is too full, and it’s overflowing out his eyes. He ducks his head and tries to hide his sniffling, but it’s not terribly successful. Blurrily he sees Jack shift out of the corner of his eye, then feels Jack’s hand rubbing gently and briefly over his back.

“What Jack said,” Bitty says with a watery laugh. “Sorry, I’m just—very happy.”

“Don’t be sorry for being happy,” Chowder scolds, uncharacteristically serious again. “Be happy for being happy.”