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Hold It All At Bay

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*

It's music at first, junior year, and it never occurs to Jack he's not hearing it with his ears. Little random muffled snatches and bursts that could be somebody's ringtone or trickling from somebody's headphones or coming from behind a closed door as he walks down the hall to class.

It was never like that before, so he doesn't think anything of it.

It's just fun, once in a while, to cross paths with that little bit of someone else's day in such a tiny fashion, a little reminder that he might be wrapped up in his own head but all around him everyone's doing their own thing. He feels alive in the world in general, tuned-in, noticing the smell of the ice and the sweet and fruity smells of girls' perfumes. It's probably because he's playing so well, and enjoying it - what was it his grandmother used to say when he was small. "In high spirits today, Jacky?"

If the world seems quieter after they get knocked out of the playoffs, if nothing tastes as sweet... that's only natural, isn't it? That's what losing is like.

Summer is... summer. Weight room, box jumps, dinner parties. He checks in with his Montreal therapist and does a phone appointment with Dr. Diya back in Boston. He goes to prospect camps and tries to work hard and appear non-troublesome.

Even before their first game, even before their first practice, being back at Samwell for his senior year is great. Just walking down Elm Street in the sunshine, the breeze bringing him a little scrap of someone else's back-to-school soundtrack - it just feels right.

*

"Still taking your chill pills?" Shitty asks. He's sitting on Jack's bed, naked, inspecting his Zadetol bottle.

Jack comes the rest of the way into his room, snatches it out of his hands, and sets it down back on his desk where it belongs.

"Did you know there's a protest movement about giving that stuff to kids? And, like, institutionalized adults," Shitty says, "Although it's more like two different movements, I guess. But they agree that blocking ESMN 'denies the person taking it a facet of the human experience'. I think that's the phrase."

"So you believe in ESMN now?" Jack asks, raising his eyebrows.

"Fuck no," Shitty says, "I just think it's interesting your little mood stabilizer is so controversial."

"There's a movement against vaccinating babies, too," Jack says, because he reads the news. "People will protest anything."

"True that," Shitty says. "But for serious, no regrets about being 'alienated from the full breadth of your spirit'?"

The only thing Jack regrets about Zadetol is that he hadn't found out about it earlier. "Where do you read this bullshit," Jack asks rhetorically. "Welcome back, I hope you've been training."

*

"Imzadipine," Barnabas-not-Barney said, picking up the prescription bottle. "Huh, I don't know that one."

"That's personal," Jack had said.

"Relax, Jay-Z, no shame for your brain meds or dick meds or whatever."

"They're not dick meds," Jack said automatically - he was 21 and his dick worked fine, thank you - and then realized what he'd implied.

"Brain pills, cool," Barnabas said. "Any good?"

"... I have no idea how to answer that," Jack said, off-kilter the way this kid kept making him. "Is insulin good?"

"If you got the beetis," no-seriously-not-Barney said. "But, no, I used to deal nootropics at Andover - modafinil and racetams mostly, I wasn't getting mixed up in Adderall even if I would have been charged as a minor - so it's just, like, lingering professional curiosity. You might as well tell me, I'm just gonna look it up anyways."

"It's a mood stabilizer," Jack answered grudgingly, because that's what Barney (ha) would see first if he looked it up. He hoped he wouldn't poke into it further; Jack hadn't figured out yet if he was going to tell anybody at college any of the stuff that hadn't been in the papers.

*

Jack has always liked the Haus - the privacy compared to the dorms, the idea that everyone who'd slept there cared about hockey - but Bittle's influence makes it even better. Jack knows that Shitty is annoyed that the beer has moved to the basement, and Rans and Holster keep rolling their eyes about weekly chores, but as far as Jack is concerned, other than the morning singing there's no downside to coming home to someplace clean and bakery-scented. Even the singing isn't so bad when he's not trying to sleep; he can tell the music Bittle likes must be popular, because it's the same stuff he keeps hearing around campus.

*

"Oh, no, Chowder... you can't expect Dex and Nursey to be like Ransom and Holster! Did you not know about them?"

Jack's coming over with his tray, but he slows for a minute; he's curious how Bittle is going to put this.

"No?" Chowder squeaks.

"They're bondmates," Bittle says, and, wow, even people into ESMN stuff at Samwell usually just say "mutual lock". Maybe it's a Southern thing, using old-fashioned words for stuff.

"Wow," Chowder says, "That explains so much," and then Jack is sitting down with his tray and Chowder is stunned into his sadly typical hero-worshipping babble.

Jack had been on the ice, when Birkholtz had looked into Oluransi's eyes and become Ransom-and-Holster the inseparable pair. They'd both said they'd never felt even a touch of synch before; it was like a fucking fairy tale, and Jack had had to paste on his best media smile to congratulate them and watch them show off trick passes like they'd been practicing for years.

*

Chowder might be painfully young as a person, but he's clutch in the net. Jack thinks they might be looking at a pretty good year. Bittle keeps fainting, though, and it's messing with him. It's like Jack's out of practice at dealing with distraction on the ice, he's had it so relatively easy since he started playing again.

It occurs to him to wonder whether some of his old techniques would help Bittle, and he brings some of them up, carefully, during their one-on-one coaching sessions. Focus on your stick, where it is in relation to the ice. Breathe out a short, hard breath and hear the sound. Bittle can't be unaware of the stuff they say about his dad, but Jack doesn't mention ESMN and Bittle never says anything about echoes or swamp or the other shit Jack taught himself to play through.

Jack still tries to keep on an even keel around him, just in case; it only seems polite.

*

"I enjoy oranges," Dr. Subramanyam told him. His dad had made some sort of deal to get her here, leaving him feeling resigned about something on top of the fear-guilt-disappointment. The orderly escorting them pitied Jack and resented him. Probably for getting special treatment.

"Can I talk to you alone for a minute?" she asked, watching his face, and Jack fumbled for words.

"Please," he got out. His dad spiked with hurt and Jack wanted to take it back, but she was shooing them from the room and then Jack could maybe breathe a little easier; the feelings were still there but at least he didn't have to see his dad's face.

"Focus on me," Dr. Subramanyam said when she sat down again. "I really like mandarin oranges. I have one here." She pulled a small oblate orange out of one of the pockets of her white coat. "I could eat an orange every day," she said, starting to peel it with her fingernails. "I never feel guilty about them. I like seeing the peel come off and I find it very satisfying the way they come apart into neat little segments." It was true: she did, or she felt that way about something.

"I'm going to eat an orange whenever we talk," she said matter-of-factly. "Is this okay with you?" It was more than okay, it was amazing; she was genuinely looking forward to biting into that orange. No one had felt anything like that around him in days.

"Yeah," Jack said hoarsely, and she brought a segment up to her mouth and bit into it. He tasted the acid sweetness.

"You can call me Dr. Diya," she had said. "I think we'll be able to do some good work together."

*

Someone in Jack's Age of Revolution class likes scented hand lotion. Or maybe it's body wash or something, or, like, shampoo? Jack doesn't know. But not perfume, he thinks, perfume has that itchy edge when it's strong, and the hand lotion (or whatever it is) never does. It's not the same smell every week, and so maybe it's not even the same person, but Jack sort of thinks it is; someone who likes vanilla and apple and berries. Sometimes he looks around and tries to guess who - the girl with the glasses who's obsessed with Lefebvre, the trilingual girl who brought in her great-great-great-grandfather's Order of Bolivar medal she's on a quest to find out about. He can never pinpoint it and after a few weeks he gives up and just enjoys it, that never-sure-when-it's-coming point during class where he inhales and it's there.

The only problem is, it makes his mouth water, and he's always hungry by the time he gets back to the Haus and has to ignore the temptation of fresh pie when he gets out his carrot sticks and almond butter from the fridge. Boy does Bittle bake a lot.

*

"We think our archives here in the coaching office give us a unique appreciation of what you could offer us on the ice," the Habs' assistant coach is saying. "Potentially." He draws it out. "I'm not saying your play at Samwell hasn't been impressive, but we're more interested in what you were doing in the Q."

Jack breathes in, one-two, holds it, one-two, lets it go, one-two, fast enough that it's hopefully not obvious. "I don't understand," he says, all too afraid that he does. "Archives?"

"Your dad was pretty candid with Bowman back in the day," the coach says. "We've watched your tape and we think we see the indications of a real Zimmermann legacy there. Potentially."

Jack is holding a pen. It's silver, or maybe chrome or nickel or something; it's cold and smooth and heavy. Satin finish. He rubs his thumb against it.

"I appreciate your interest," he says carefully.

*

" - I want it to stop," Jack finished, feeling his lip wobble.

"No, no, Jacky," his papa said, and Jack could feel how he was filling up to the brim with complicated grownup emotions, like a - a bowl of soup or something: surprise and anticipation and planning. "What you can do, what we can do, it's a gift. It's an opportunity. I can already see the difference in your play, why do you think I asked?"

"But I don't like it," Jack said. "Some of the parents are just bored, but some of them are scary." He pouted; he wasn't explaining well and he knew he sounded like a baby, like he was still back in Mites and not moved up to Squirts with the year-older kids. And now his papa was upset with him, like that had been an even worse thing to say than he knew.

"It's... just for the ice, Jacky, okay?" his papa said. "Try to just pay attention to the guys on the ice with you, it should get easier as you practice it. And when the other part comes in, the push, that's just for the ice too, eh?"

Jack had nodded. Practice was okay, he knew all about that. It would get better if he practiced.

*

Jack and Ransom and Holster are having an upper body day. Well, it's more like upper body afternoon, because Jack ran this morning and he'll do his normal squats and lunges tonight, but this is nice, hanging out doing hammer curls while Holster spots Ransom's bench press. It feels comfortable, like he could even...

"Hey, can I ask you guys something? It's, uh, personal."

"Ha!" Ransom says, lowering and racking the barbell. "Everyone does eventually, that was one hell of a holdout, bro."

Holster steps back from where he's basically straddling Ransom's face. "Please tell me this is a sex question and not, like, bodily functions though," he says. Ransom sits up and makes a pleading face.

"Eugh," Jack says. "No, I want to know if Hall and Murray ever talk to you about how you work together on the ice. Using your - " he motions back and forth between them - "For plays." Ugh, obviously they talk about how they work on the ice, they're a D pair, he deserves a chirp for that.

Holster lets it go though. "Not really? We're pretty sporadic. Obviously it's great when it's there, but I don't think anybody can really do it on purpose, except maybe your - "

"Bro," Ransom coughs. Jack almost wants to smile it's so unsubtle. "I fucking wish we could trigger it," Ransom goes on. "There's nothing like setting up a feedback foursome and then, pfft, no feedback."

Holster hangs his head. "A tragic day," he intones, and then he smiles. "Still pretty fucking hot though."

"Bro," Ransom says, and fistbumps him.

"Right," Jack says, "I'm going to - shoulder press," and he flees to the embrace of the machine. He's not sure why he'd asked - he had already known the NHL was going to be different than college hockey in a lot of ways.

*

Jack's crocodile starts showing up more or less on schedule as their first game approaches. Jack is hoping to go to his grave without ever telling anyone else how much he likes the crocodile metaphor, other than his therapist and Dr. Diya who already know about it, but he uses it a lot in his head. It's from an animated short he'd heard about his sophomore year, about a woman whose anxiety is a large blue crocodile, and he'd watched it three times in a row the first time he followed the link. The cartoon crocodile was a lot cuter than Jack's, but it really got at something about anxiety - the way it felt like it could crush his ribs, bite off his face, or drag him down to the bottom of the river to drown in the murk, but was still something he could wrestle down. Occasionally he'll even try to talk to it about how there are no lions after him, like, thanks, but, no, he would not be safer if he would just stop trying to do anything and lie still in the mud with the crocodile on top of him to make sure. (It's trying to kill him and also protect him. Sometimes he thinks it would be easier if it was purely one or the other.)

Handling the crocodile is always exhausting and feels dangerous every time, but as pre-game rituals go, it's at least flexible in terms of timing and location. And it's so much easier than dealing with the crocodile and also everybody else's sharks, bees, bears, and spiders used to be. But that's not a problem these days.

He fights off the crocodile and makes it through the game. They win 2-1. Bittle doesn't faint. It's all looking good.

*

Suddenly everyone at Samwell is drinking pumpkin coffee. Something about fall, maybe. Jack smells it everywhere - hot and steaming in wisps, cold and congealed like someone's forgotten a cup somewhere. It shows up in some weird places - he's not sure who could have left their coffee in the gov docs stacks in Founder's basement, when the motion-sensitive lights have been shutting off on him every five minutes because he's the only person in the room and he doesn't move a lot while he's reading, and he can't actually find the damn cup when he gives in and looks for it, but, ugh, he probably just needs a break. Founder's is a weird building, maybe it's wafting down the antiquated and long-mothballed pneumatic tube system somehow.

Bittle cheerfully invites him on a coffee-trying expedition, when Jack admits to being curious about the stuff, and it's not bad; he can kind of see why so many people must like it.

"Pumpkin spice latte," Bittle repeats earnestly, like he's teaching Jack a vocabulary word. "Pee Ess Ell." Jack nods, like he isn't going to call it pumpkin coffee again the next chance he gets.

He's ending up spending a lot of time with Bittle this semester, what with them taking the food history class together. Bittle is easy to tease and easy to study with, when Jack can get him to put down his phone; he knows far less about historiography than he should, for someone taking a senior history seminar, but he comes up with some neat ideas about things like what the ingredients list in an old recipe might imply about food security for the person who wrote it.

Jack knows he's kind of a different person away from the team - the crocodile is less likely to show up, so he doesn't have to stay as focused. Bittle on the other hand turns out to be just the same as he is with the team, smiling and chattering at Jack as they walk to class. He never seems to be having a bad day - he stays cheerful when he admits to Jack he hasn't done the reading - even when he starts complaining about the cold (the mildest nip in the air) he does it with a smile. Jack finds himself making excuses to spend even more time with him, tagging along to the grocery store, agreeing to go to Annie's, continuing their checking practices even though Bittle hasn't fainted in weeks.

*

"Sure, I've seen lots of your old tape," George says, waving her hand. "But I'm interested in who you are as a player right now, not that guy in Juniors."

Jack knows he's months away from making an official decision - he hasn't even agreed to meet her team yet - but if he's really honest with himself, Georgia Martin's dismissive little hand-flip about his life before Samwell recruits him for the Providence Falconers before he's ever reasoned through the pros and cons.

*

Then they drop three in a row and every single one is Jack's fault. He's too slow, he's not tracking for shit, he's useless at the dot and he can't find the fucking back of the net to save his life. He has a voicemail from George he won't listen to because he's not ready to hear "never mind, don't bother coming down".

Bittle puts his hand on his arm and tells him he shouldn't blame himself for everything, offers him maple-walnut pie. Jack's been smelling maple all morning, some kind of nostalgia-for-childhood-breakfast-in-a-time-of-despair thing maybe, so it's exactly what he's craving.

Bittle's cheeks turn pink when Jack thanks him and it's - a good look for him, Jack would like to make him look like that more often, he thinks. Maybe find out how far down the blush can go.

Which. Huh. Isn't entirely a new thought - Jack does notice when his teammates and Hausmates are particularly attractive, thank you, and Bittle's not even the first - he's known Justin Oluransi for the past two-plus years - but it's new for it to feel like a genuine question. To look at Bittle and think... maybe??

He listens to the voicemail when he's done with his pie. George does still want him to come down to Providence to meet the team. Jack figures he probably will.

*

Maybe it's not entirely Bittle, the way Jack feels alive that fall. The way he dresses up for Halloween, even if it's a kind of dumb costume, the way he agrees to get hazed along with the frogs, which the crocodile had absolutely forbidden his own first year. But Bittle's all over it, woven through it, leaning in for a selfie on Halloween and cheering when Jack remembers how to get a puck past a goalie. He's kind of like the music that still follows Jack around campus, persistent and present but somehow never too much. When Jack puts together a Bittle-approved outfit for Hausgiving, he has no illusions he's hoping Bittle likes what he sees.

*

"What is that song," Jack asks Ransom and Holster, genuinely hoping they'll know. It must be something new because he keeps hearing it everywhere; Bittle keeps playing it in the Haus and the rest of campus seems just as taken with it. Jack knows he could just ask Bittle but it would be even more fun to impress him by already knowing, for once. Also it's bugging him a little that he can't tell where it's coming from in the gym.

"What song," Holster says, a little out of breath from power lunges. Ransom, paralleling him, shakes his head too. "I don't hear anything."

"That song," Jack says, a little annoyed. "Dah, dah dum. How can you not hear that."

Ransom and Holster both straighten up and exchange a look, and then Ransom's eyes widen.

"Dude," he says, turning on Jack with a big grin, "Bro, you're synching!"

"What," Jack says automatically, because. That can't be it.

"ESMN," Ransom says, apparently taking Jack's "what" as a question. "You know, extrapolative synchronization of - "

"I know what it is," Jack says. "But - that can't..."

"Is it your first time?" Holster asks. "Bro, that's 'swawesome! And, like, audio, that's neat, Rans and I mostly get touch and motor planning."

"And somatosensory stuff, proprioception," Rans says offhandedly and a little pedantically. "Jack doesn't care about our synch, he's got his own! Bro, you gotta put it up on Samwell synch-connections and see if anyone thinks they match."

"No way," Jack says, because he loathes the whole idea of synch matchmaking sites, like it's something to pursue, and also he can't breathe, he's under eight feet of muddy water and the surface is just a glimmer at the edge of his darkening vision. He staggers to his feet. He needs to run, to freeze, what -

and then he smells vanilla and nutmeg, and he fucking knows.

"I have to go," he chokes out, turning away from Ransom and Holster so they can't see the tears that have sprung into his eyes. He's so, so relieved, and, objectively, that makes no sense, this is still a crisis he has to look into right away before it can get any worse. But if it's Bitty - if it's Bitty - maybe he isn't drowning after all.

*

"I would not have cofounded Limeron if I did not believe in pharmaceutical solutions to the problem of intrusive ESMN," Dr. Diya had said. She had held up a vial of pills; she liked props. "We're calling it a mood stabilizer because we had a good clinical trial with defensive rapid cyclers," she said, "But we think the applications are much broader. Hyperreactive mirror neurons may contribute to sensory processing disorders, to agoraphobia - maybe even schizophrenia."

Jack liked Dr. Subramanyam in lecture mode; he had even very tentatively started thinking about college, tiny, unfocused little imaginings where smart people stood up in front of classrooms and talked about interesting things and all he had to do was sit at a desk and pay attention.

"You think it would work better than the Xanax did," he had said.

"Xanax does nothing to block ESMN," Dr. Diya answered, giving the vial a little shake. "It was never an appropriate long-term prescription for you. Like aloe for a sunburn. You need to get in the shade." Dr. Diya had come up with the sunburn metaphor earlier, when Jack was trying to explain how even synch that wasn't intrinsically bad left him feeling raw and over-sensitized.

"Everyone always said I just needed to get used to it," Jack mumbled.

"Mm, like a torn ligament, you just play through?" She raised her eyebrows at him.

"... well," Jack said finally, reluctantly, looking at the floor, "I guess I could try it." It wasn't like he had anything to lose.

*

Jack throws his jacket on over his exercise clothes and staggers out of the gym. He wants to be outside in the wind and cold-sharp air. He can still smell vanilla, sweet and intoxicating; he hasn't practiced throwing off other people's sense-echoes in years and he's not even sure he wants to. The more sensible part of him is saying that if his Zadetol has suddenly stopped working, his whole recovery is at risk, but the same instinct that said 'George is safe' is saying that Bitty couldn't ever be a threat.

That it's been going on for months, and it's been fine, Jack is fine. It's a crazy thing to think - jumping from one instance to a sort of sweeping reinterpretation of the past year - but hockey is like that too, Jack has always had to grasp the situation faster than his conscious mind can do methodically. And there's no possible test, or proof, but he's sure that he's been synching to Bitty for ages without seeing it for what it was. He remembers Bitty's concussion, the way the world had turned stale and quiet - he could have put it together then if he hadn't been so wrapped up in the playoffs.

He realizes his feet are taking him across a bridge, that he's walking towards the Haus without deciding to do so. He makes himself stop and puts his hands on the railing to anchor himself. It's tempting to go to Bitty right now, right away. He could breathe in all that vanilla and nutmeg in person and tell him and see if he would turn pink - if he would -

But Jack has to think. There are reasons he doesn't get to be drunk any more, not even on the secondhand smell of vanilla. He's thinking Bitty, Bitty, Bitty, but he needs to be asking himself if this is a relapse, he needs to figure out if his meds are losing effectiveness.

It's like trying to imagine razor blades in one of Bitty's pies, when that's never been the way they're dangerous.

He wants to be in the Haus, not standing on this stupid bridge. He's probably not going to go from light sensory stuff to full-on swamp tonight. He can't even smell vanilla any more. He gives up, lets go of the bridge, lets himself autopilot home.

Bitty's in the kitchen, watching dishes to the tune of something upbeat. There's a pie cooling on the counter. Obviously Jack has to go sniff it. There it is, vanilla and nutmeg. Jack inhales again and sighs.

"Oh!" Bitty says, turning from the sink, pressing one wet hand to the front of his shirt. "Goodness, you startled me."

"Sorry," Jack says automatically, rather than hurling himself at Bitty's feet.

"There's custard pie if you're hungry," Bitty says, tipping his head towards it. "It's eggy, that's protein."

"I - " Jack starts, and stops. "Thank you," he says, and doesn't say anything about having smelled it baking from inside the stinky weight room, in the gym, across the river.

It's a good pie.

*

The thing is, Jack really likes Bitty. Nothing overt has happened, nothing that Jack or anyone else could point a finger to and make an airtight case, but Jack has been thinking for a little while that there's a chance it's not just him, that maybe they might be exploring the idea of being not just friends, but friends who are attracted to each other. Or, well, Jack was definitely charting that area and is still keen to add more details to his map. It's hard to say about Bitty, who seems to practice universal, equal-opportunity warmth. Jack's stupid ESMN, even in this milder and gentler form, is a pretty major bump in whatever road they were possibly meandering their way down.

None of Jack's worst-case scenarios seem very likely - he can't really picture Bitty recoiling in disgust, or his eyes going hard and calculating, or his face turning away in pity while he tells Jack that he's hallucinating. But there's the whole second tier of outcomes he doesn't like either. Bitty feeling obligated. Bitty being excited and turning out to be the kind of guy who reads Samwell synch-connections and thinks Jack's hyperreactive mirror neurons are the most interesting thing about him.

Jack is obviously going to tell him eventually. But maybe he doesn't have to tell him right away.

*

He does call Dr. Diya, because he's less than a year away from the NHL and he's not letting his damn ESMN ruin that a second time. If he thinks of it like a chronic injury, it's stupid to ignore that shit. After he explains what's up, she wants him to start keeping an incident log - which was a pain in the ass when they were titrating his Zadetol dose in the first place, and he didn't have classes or practices or anything then - and asks in a couple of different ways whether it's distressing to be experiencing synch again.

"No," Jack has to say, "I... uh... so far... I like it." That's embarrassing to admit, but then, she's literally seen the inside of his head, if you count the fMRI scans they compared to his dad's, and she knows all about Parse, so. He's pretty much given up any sense of privacy there. She doesn't seem particularly concerned about the whole resurgence thing, although she does say they have room to revisit his dose if it starts bothering him.

It's not, it's like he said: so far he likes it. Jack sets up a little incident log in a pocket notebook and promptly hears fragments of Bitty's pre-game playlist on the bus on the way to a roadie, even though Bitty is several rows back and Shitty and Dex and Nursey are shouting very loudly between them about American politics. Jack logs it dutifully and adds a little star when they win the game.

*

Alcohol had always had unpredictable effects on Jack's ESMN - on the best nights, it had left him flipping between synchs too quickly to really feel any of them. On the worst nights it had catapulted him straight into swamp, into feeling everybody's everything all at once. The night of Winter Screw, Jack isn't drinking, but Bitty is, and Jack starts tasting his drinks before they've even left the Haus, summery, fruity rum concoctions because Shitty doesn't believe in seasons. By the time they're all out on the dance floor, the music is very slightly doubled in Jack's ears, and he's picking up body echoes of Bitty's dancing, little felt motions in his wrists and hips that he's not actually making.

It's the easiest thing to dance along, easy and fun; it's been a long time since Jack did anything like this but he hasn't forgotten what it's like to find his way into Bitty's rhythm, to feel the resonance in his own wrists and shoulders when he happens to move similarly. Jack might be smiling at Camilla, but he is 100% dancing with oblivious, not-even-looking-his-way Eric Bittle, whose attention seems to be on his own date where it belongs.

Jack is okay with that; it's where they are. He knows they're not Ransom and Holster or something, who, whether they're dancing together or separately, are never not mirroring each other if you know enough to look for it.

*

Jack is a little freaked out the next morning, when he has to wake up and face the possibility that his recurrence is intensifying. Kinesthesia is still not the scary stuff, not what put him on Zadetol in the first place. But it's different enough to make him stop and wonder. Jack logs it for Dr. Diya in his little notebook and then decides to make use of some of his other resources.

It's true that Jack doesn't know much about Twitter or YouTube or any of that, but he has his own favorite corner of the internet. GeneralZad is a members-only message board for Zadetol users and the best place to see whether anyone else has had their meds randomly stop working. Jack logs in, clicks to agree to kneel before Zad and abide by the rules of courtesy yadda yadda, and starts searching.

The first six results for "breakthrough ESMN on imzadipine" are all people still adjusting their dosage. "Oh god, not this again" looks like a promising thread at first - motor ghosts after a couple of years symptom-free - but when Jack reads further down it turns out to come down to a bad interaction with a new seizure med.

He could post himself, to ask, but he's not sure how much of this whole thing with Bitty he wants to try to put down into words. Not that he's worried how people might respond: one of the great things about GeneralZad is that nobody ever calls him a robot, or makes fun of him for not knowing things or making too big a deal about things. (Jack knows he shouldn't stereotype, but it probably helps that so many of the members are auties and anxieteers and chirping seems to be more of an NT thing.) It's just that it's hard to find words, when it's personal and not an essay assignment.

And then he has to slam his laptop closed, because Shitty's barging in apparently under the impression that Jack had done something significant at the dance that Shitty hadn't seen, and the last thing he needs is Shitty's take-no-prisoners commentary aimed at Jack's choice of internet hangouts.

When he finally shakes off Shitty and braves the kitchen, Bitty is awake and making eggs and a banana-coconut pie, which Jack is amused to recognize as one of his go-to hangover baking choices. Jack doesn't feel any of Bitty's hangover symptoms and he still gets to eat some of the pie, so clearly, he is winning at ESMN this weekend. He kind of wishes he had someone to tell.

Ransom and Holster know about the time at the gym, of course. But they've let it drop, and Jack can't imagine selling them on his "not telling Bitty yet" plan. "It's not really much different than reading his Twitter" sounds pretty dumb when he imagines saying it out loud.

*

Jack is looking forward to the EpiKegster being a repeat of Winter Screw: Bitty will drink, he'll dance, Jack will ghost along, and he'll go to bed buzzed and content with the world.

Instead he gets Parse. Kenny. Too many memories.

*

"Whatcha' doin' hiding back here?" Parse had asked. "You okay, Zimms?"

Jack, hands clenched on his elbows, had been determined to breathe normally and keep a steady face. He'd failed in one desperate gasp. Parse's eyes had widened.

"Someone's getting head in the bathroom," Jack had said, or maybe someone's giving head in the bathroom; he was synching both sides, couldn't shake it, and they were both really into it. He'd felt adults doing that before but these were guys their age, he thought at least one of them might be his own teammate. He was going to come with whoever came first, he could feel it about to happen, couldn't help it, and then he was coming, eyes squeezing shut and mouth opening while Parse was still standing there watching.

"Wow," Parse said, when Jack got his eyes open again. Parse's eyes had lit up like Jack thought they only did for hockey. "That's a hell of a party trick, Zimms."

*

"What else," Kenny had demanded, voice low. Jack tried to sort through it all, so many people in the hotel, people stressed and worrying, people sleeping, a woman pumping breast milk, which was weird enough he knew Kenny would make him try to describe it if he mentioned it.

"Uh... missionary," he had said, finding another hot spot of sex. Somewhere on the upper floors, he thought, a feeling of exposure that might be a view out a window. "A man and a woman. She's, um, tight, she hasn't done it much, she's not sure about it. He's - he's sort of bored, but he likes the little sound she's making."

"What kind of sound is that," Kenny said. "You know I can't hear it, you gonna make a little sound for me so I can hear it too?"

Jack had shaken his head, a tiny motion, and Kenny had taken his hand off his dick.

"Tapping out on me, Zimms? That's okay," Kenny had said, "As always, I appreciate the peek into the Zimmermann - "

Jack had bit his lip and whimpered. "Like that," he said, humiliated and turned on, and Kenny had smiled his wicked smile and put his hands back on Jack.

"Tell me about our masturbator," he had said. "Still going?"

"No," Jack said, "He finished, but, uh... oh... there's another one. He's. Uh. Slicking up his fingers."

"Let's go with that, I can work with that," Kenny had said, reaching for the lube, and, oh, he could.

*

"Why don't you tell me how I really feel then," Parse had spat, "Since you obviously know, and it's not like you're going to tell me how you really feel."

"It's not on fucking purpose," Jack said, "Either of it, you don't think I wouldn't just - give this to you? If I could?"

"Bullshit you'd hand me the Zimmermann legacy," Parse had said, "I have had to work - "

"I've fucking had to work," Jack had said, right then working to hang on to the edge of overwhelmed, still feeling the bitterness of the opposing team, the up and down of the crowd, the jealousy of some of their own teammates. A few Xanax his only bulwark from being completely skinless, from just falling apart under the flaying force of it all.

Parse was furious, and hurt, and not satisfied, he never was, always having to see how far he could push, on the ice and off, and god, Jack had just wanted an hour of quiet. He'd had a sudden mental image of curling up to sleep in his mother's chest freezer, all still and cold and muffled, and a hockey season had never seemed like a longer march.

*

Parse had never understood why he'd taken the Zadetol. But then Parse had never really understood why he'd taken the Xanax either. "I can't just grow a thicker skin," Jack had told him once, "It's under my skin," and Parse still is too, Jack guesses. Parse leaves and the crocodile has a grand old time seeing if it can actually suffocate Jack on dry land or maybe crawl down his throat and choke him.

He's not sure how many hours later he crawls into his bed, getting his aching limbs off the floor, but he wakes up to the smell of something sweet, and he's alive, he's survived, he heard and saw all of Parse's feelings but he didn't have to feel them. Whatever is going on with his meds, they're still doing that much.

*

Bitty thinks he's so sneaky with the cookies, but Jack synch-smelled them baking, and he can synch-hear Bitty humming the Mission Impossible theme song under his breath.

They're his favorite thing he gets for Christmas.

*

Jack is expecting his synch with Bitty to fade out while they're so far apart, but it doesn't. In theory, ESMN is totally distance-independent, it's just that starting physical proximity makes it much more likely to encounter the same conditions that make extrapolated prediction of experiences when non-proximate possible. Or something like that; Jack has read a few of the big general-audience science articles that had popularized the idea back in the 80s and 90s, but he's not a science guy and he's always suspected he's not quite getting it.

(Ransom took neurobio as one of his biology electives, and sometimes Jack has thought about asking him for a little crash course in synch science. It's strange for Jack that something that dominated his life from the age of eight is officially debunked, that to the FDA and Health Canada he can't be taking a drug to block ESMN because there's no such phenomenon. He doesn't really get how they can say that - he knows nobody has ever been able to get ESMN to work in a lab, in a repeatable, measurable way (Dr. Diya had had high hopes for his dad, as a test subject, but even Bad Bob didn't have that much control) - but over half of people polled back in the 90s had said they'd experienced at least one instance of synch. Why is that not some kind of evidence?)

In any case, it's not constant, but he wakes up one morning to Christmas songs on Radio Bitty, and there's practically a bakery-full of good smells the day before Christmas.

"What are you smiling about," his mother asks at one point, and, oof, is Jack ready for this conversation? Not the ESMN part - that's just going to freak her out - but the Bitty part?

"My teammate," he says, "My... friend."

"...friend," she says, with an exaggerated press of her lips at the start, and, god, she's doing that eyebrows thing that means she's about to launch an interrogation - but she doesn't. "It's good to see you smile," she says, and kisses his forehead, and, yeah, that's enough personal revelation for one day. Jack skedaddles outside to practice his shot at their backyard net.

*

Jack's last semester at Samwell kicks off with Bitty doing squats and talking to Ransom about his butt, which seems auspicious, honestly. He would like his year to feature Bitty's butt. Although Jack thinks Bitty's butt is already pretty much perfect and the only real improvement it needs is for Jack to have permission to touch it.

He could just ask ("duh", he can picture everyone else in the Haus saying) but it feels wrong to hit on him without coming clean about the ESMN and he still wants to let things develop between them without that complication. Maybe the second semester of his senior year is the wrong time to let things unfold at their own slow pace, but Jack is 99% sure he's going to be in Providence next year, and that's pretty close by.

He's determined to be a little bolder, though, to test the waters a little bit more than he's dared to do, so he tries to make a point of telling Bitty how much he enjoyed their class together and how interested he is in spending time with him. Bitty doesn't discourage him. But Bitty is pretty generous with his time.

*

Jack wakes up one night to a hand on his dick.

It's about two in the morning, he sees on his clock, and it's someone else's hand on someone else's dick. Bitty's hand, on Bitty's dick, jerking himself briskly, and Jack's ghosting it hard. He mindlessly joins in with his own hand and his own dick, gets a few perfect seconds of resonance, and then he's spilling over his hand before he's fully acknowledged to himself what he's doing.

Facing Bitty at breakfast the next morning is awkward. Everything else he's felt from Bitty so far has been pretty public, things he doesn't think Bitty would mind sharing - after all, Bitty lets him hang out in the kitchen and smell his baking all the time, Bitty plays him pop songs on purpose. Bitty does not invite him into his bedroom to watch him jerk off, although holy shit would Jack be up for that if he did and he really needs to stop thinking along these lines at breakfast while Bitty is innocently plating out scrambled eggs.

On the other hand, if Jack had overheard Bitty with his ears instead of his stupid mirror neurons, he's pretty sure the right thing to do would be to just pretend it never happened and never bring it up. The social fiction of the closed door and all that.

*

It's maybe a weird segue from his room's proximity to Bitty's to dibs, but some non-Jack person is going to be in there next year and maybe he cares who that is, and then he starts thinking about it with the captain part of his brain and the whole thing is a mess, enough so that later that day Jack tells Shitty they need to talk about dibs.

"Nursey," Shitty says immediately.

Jack frowns. "I was thinking Chowder," he says, "But then we're leaving Dex out, and he's worked so hard doing chores and stuff."

Shitty shrugs. "So give yours to Dex."

"I'm not going to do wrong by our goalie," Jack says, "No way."

"So give yours to Chowder," Shitty says. "I don't get what you're getting at here, are you trying to get me to give mine to one of them?"

"I'm trying to find a solution," Jack says.

"Well, sorry," Shitty says, "Andover solidarity, you know how it is. Besides, what, would it be better to leave Nursey out? One of them has always been going to lose out and they're just going to have to suck it up."

Jack has bad associations with "you just have to deal with it", so he ends the conversation there, unsatisfied. Bitty is closer to the three frogs and he would probably know better than Jack which of them would take it the best, but he doesn't want to put this on Bitty, he's so soft-hearted.

He asks Ransom and Holster that night, instead.

"Uggh," they both say in unison, which is simultaneously cute and a little creepy.

"Nursey absolutely would have dealt with it best," Holster says, "Even if he had to say he was 'chill' a few dozen times. Maybe Chowder will want to room near his volleyball chick?"

Chowder will run across campus when Bitty's cooking dinner and voluntarily sleeps on the green couch. Jack sort of hates the existence of the frogs.

"While we're on dilemmas," he hears himself saying, since apparently he's on some kind of roll with fraught topics, "Have you talked about which one of you is going for captain next year?"

They exchange a nervous glance.

"I just think it would be better for you guys to decide between yourselves than to split the vote," Jack says. "And not ask the team to take sides, eh?"

"Holster," Ransom says after a moment. "I've got Macromolecules and probably that crystallography seminar next year, maybe the coordination-chem lab if the scheduling works. I'm not going to have time to take on the C."

"Okay, bro," Holster says, "I mean, senior thesis, but, yeah. No real contest."

They grin and hug and that was about twenty times easier than Jack had thought it would be. He wonders on the way down the stairs from the attic if their fairy-tale synch makes a difference, if knowing they can count on that connection makes it easier to not get twisted around by every little conflict. Jack has never thought of mutual lock as a desirable thing - it was like a guarantee that you would keep on having ESMN, which was the opposite of his personal life hopes - but he can maybe see how it might feel... comforting, rather than oppressive. Maybe.

(He's braced for his crocodile to take both situations and crush him with what a better job he could have done, but maybe it's hibernating, or something; he barely feels anxious before their next game and then he gets a hat trick, Bitty up on his line in the third after Wagner wrenches his knee. Everyone keeps throwing hats at him, and Bitty hugs him once on the ice and once in the locker room afterwards; they're out of their pads and it's pretty great.)

*

Jack wakes up twice more to Bitty getting himself off before he really starts to think about how... regular Bitty is. Two Wednesdays and a Sunday, always around 2 am, always getting right to it with an almost impersonal efficiency. Of course Bitty could be doing it differently at times Jack doesn't synch to it - he knows he doesn't pick up more than a thousandth part of Bitty's life - but somehow he doesn't think so.

Jack is not the world's most creative masturbator, and he's all too familiar with the orgasm you just need to fit into your schedule. But when he has the opportunity he likes to take his time with it a little. He likes the feeling of his own fingertips on his neck, on his stomach, or trailing his nails over his abs or down the cuts of his obliques. He likes to tug on his own nipples and cradle his own balls and switch up his grip on his dick from tight to thumb-and-forefinger loose. Bitty definitely deserves all of that and more, to take time with himself, really get himself feeling good before getting down to business. If Jack had Bitty in bed, he wouldn't put a hand on Bitty's dick until he had explored the whole rest of his body looking for sensitive spots. He wonders if Bitty's ever fingered himself. He might not even know whether or not he likes it. He might not know about anything.

In one sense, the number sense, Jack knows he isn't very experienced. But he's synched to just about every kind of sex that people have, or at least every kind of sex they have in hotels. (And the neighborhoods of his billet families.) He thinks he would bring good game to the project of Bitty figuring out what he liked in bed, if that was something Bitty wanted to do.

Jack maybe gets a little carried away thinking about this - so much so that he actually says something to Bitty about hearing him late at night - but Bitty thinks Jack is trying to tell him he needs to get more sleep before games, and Jack just goes along with it because, whoa, what was he thinking there. He remembers puberty, when he'd suddenly started picking up sex feelings, how it had been shocking like plunging into a boiling lake. This thing with Bitty feels a little bit like that, startling and revolutionary, not because a hand on a dick is anything special but in how comfortable it is, how automatically Jack wants to fall into it.

*

They put Bitty back on his line permanently.

Bitty's back on his line, and they're lighting it up, and now he wants to give Bitty "thanks for the assist" blowjobs in addition to everything else they're not doing. Bitty lets him take him out for coffee, though; little steps, but it still feels like they're going somewhere.

*

Jack is definitely never thinking again about the tenth of a second in which he'd spotted Bitty holding a "marry me Jack Zimmermann" sign and his brain had jumped immediately to "yes".

*

For all that they're spending a lot of time together in person, Jack is still really fond of the little sensory postcards he gets from Bitty. It's still happening, at a pretty consistent rate. There are certain baking routines he almost always picks up, and Jack is alarmed and confused the first time he smells something burning instead of the pie smells he's expecting.

It turns out the Haus oven is having trouble, and it turns out the oven having trouble makes Bitty twitchy and anxious. Jack is - charmed? intrigued? - by a problem that looks like it could actually be solved, like, he'll be fighting his crocodile for the rest of his life, but they sell ovens.

*

Bitty is easier for Jack to synch to when Bitty is tired, sometimes, not just when he's been drinking. There are times when their games are close, when they have to fight desperately to give Chowder a break, that they're both exhausted afterwards, and Jack is a little afraid of how soothing he finds it to feel the echoes of Bitty stripping out of his gear and getting himself sorted out post-game. Bitty takes really good care of himself, he puts moleskin on his smallest blisters and ice on his smallest bruises and hydrolatum all over his fingers so they don't crack in the cold.

Jack has always just brushed off minor stuff like that and maybe he should want to chirp Bitty for not being tougher, but he likes it; he likes that Bitty feels he deserves that kind of care. He finds himself wishing he could help. And he wonders, guiltily, whether Bitty could ever want to take care of Jack like that, if he would treat his battered skin like something precious. Sometimes after the hardest games he feels like Bitty is a castle and Jack just wants to crawl inside and pull up the drawbridge after him. Maybe that's not a good way to feel about another person but Bitty is pretty much the sweetest human Jack has ever met; maybe he'd be okay with that even if he isn't falling for Jack the way Jack just keeps falling harder for him.

*

There's a day during the playoffs when everyone is sick to death of nuts, nut butters, nut bars, and nut mixes, and Bitty volunteers to make a vat of egg salad to stick in the fridge so they'll have something else good to snack on. He boils eggs on three different burners - with some difficulty (Jack is very pleased they're making good headway on Project Oven) - and then settles in to the business of shell removal.

Jack offers to help - he's in fine shape with his thesis, unlike some people - but Bitty waves him off, says he can sit there and keep him company if he insists on doing something. So Jack does, chatting a little, NHL news, nothing in particular, while Bitty peels eggs into the sink. As Bitty frowns at a particularly stubborn egg, it hits Jack that he's the happiest he's ever been; he's been higher before, on playing and winning, but he's never been so quietly content like this in a way that feels like it could last. The eggshell fragments make a steady plink-plink-plink as they drop, and when Jack concentrates, he can feel their sharp fragility against his own fingertips. It's got to be written all over Jack's face, how he's feeling. Bitty must be able to see it, but he doesn't tell Jack to stop.

(And then there are the times that he takes Bitty out for froyo and Bitty doesn't want to let him pay, or they walk along the river and Bitty moves away when Jack tries to take his hand, and Jack wonders if Bitty has any interest in dating him at all. Jack hasn't even kissed him yet, although he's jerking off along with him twice a week and also buying him 85% of a rather nice oven. Sometimes it feels like their relationship is happening on multiple separate timelines which are all out of step with each other; Jack is eager for the day when it all comes together, the synch, his seriousness about Bitty, their bodies, the time they spend together. It feels like it has to; it feels like it has to soon.)

*

Bitty gets thoroughly drunk the day of Spring C, and Jack gets drunk secondhand, the perfect kind of drunk: not actually real so he's not actually overwhelmed, but close enough that he's loose and feeling no worries. No crocodiles at Spring C today. The music is so loud he can feel it in his throat and the soles of his feet, or maybe that's Bitty's feet, Bitty has lost a shoe, which is adorable. Jack wants to kiss the perfect arch of his bare foot, or maybe take off his own shoe to match. He can taste the burn of alcohol down Bitty's throat and feel the pounding in his eardrums and the way his hands, his hips, everything wants to move. His senses are so full of him it's almost unbearable; Jack wants to be inside of him, or get Bitty inside of himself, it would be the same thing. For Jack, at least.

He carries Bitty back to the Haus and tucks him into bed and manages not to dive onto him by sheer force of will; Bitty keeps looking at him, something between lust and awe, and Jack has to remind himself repeatedly that neither of them are in shape for the conversation Jack thinks needs to happen somewhere before they end up in bed.

*

The next day Bitty won't look at him at all. It's always two steps forward, one step back with him though, and Jack does still think they've gone that one more step forward. And Bitty's back to normal by dinnertime.

*

There's a day when Jack holds a tiny, fuzzy baby chick in his hands, and he has no idea he's about to ruin something even more fragile.

*

It's three days before Bitty's birthday, and he's given up on the old oven. He's been making icebox cakes and trifles; that morning during Jack's workout he had been doing something absolutely amazing-smelling with lemon and what Jack eventually figured out was lavender.

"I am making this mousse, since I can't bake," he tells Jack on their way to Norris, "I've got it chilling right now, but I just don't know if the proportions are right, it seems like the lemon is going to drown everything else right out."

Jack is concentrating on not telling Bitty his baking problems will be over in a couple of days. "I don't think so," he says without thinking, "I could really smell the lavender, I think it'll..." he realizes Bitty has stopped walking and is staring at him. "... balance," he finishes weakly.

"You haven't been back to the Haus," Bitty says. He's gone pale and is staring at Jack with a look Jack hasn't seen since Bitty was still fainting on the ice. "Jack, tell me when you went back to the Haus and smelled that mousse."

Jack could lie; Bitty might be asking him to lie.

"I haven't been back to the Haus," he says. "I smelled it by extrapolation."

"No," Bitty whispers.

"By synch," Jack says, and Bitty sways and reaches out to clutch the railing. Jack realizes they're standing on the same bridge that Jack had crossed on the way home that first day he knew.

"You didn't think to mention this," Bitty says, eyes closed, and Jack knows how this goes, the onslaught of undeniable conclusions. "It wasn't the first time. This is old news for you - how long - no, don't answer that." He opens his eyes and looks at Jack, stricken. "Why didn't you say something," he says in a small, helpless voice.

"I didn't want to derail this," Jack says. He's never pictured it going like this, he'd never thought he was choosing a path that would make Bitty look so scared.

"This... what did you think was happening here," Bitty says, and Jack is realizing like rising cold water that this isn't just a bump in the road, this is some other map entirely.

"I thought we were falling in love," Jack says, because he did, and he wants to get to say that, even though his tongue feels alien in his mouth and everything is coming out wrong. "I - I hoped it was mutual."

Bitty makes a sharp, hurt noise, and Jack tastes bile. Bitty looks at him, and then past him - Jack looks around and sees someone leaning over the railing, retching, and someone else on the ground, looking dazed, the dog they were walking nosing at their ear.

"I can't do this," Bitty says, sounding panicked, "I can't be here, I have to get out of here," and he looks wildly from side to side, looking for an escape.

Just before he takes off running, he looks back at Jack one more time, and feeling hits Jack in the chest like a thousand-pound steel ball: guilt and rage and devastation. It's gone as fast as it hit him, but Jack is sinking down to the sidewalk anyways, watching Bitty vanish over the bridge.

"Hey, are you okay?" someone is asking. Some inbound pedestrian, looking at him and the dog-walker down on the side of the bridge. "What was that?"

It takes Jack a moment to remember he's supposed to answer. "I don't know," he says. "I have no idea."

**

Chapter Text

**

Eric is running. The slap-slap-slap of his loafers on the sidewalk is the only important thing.

Eric is running and counting his strides, one-two-three-four one-two-three-four. It doesn't matter where he's going or what he's running from. Just the running.

Eric is running until he can't any more, until his lungs are going to catch on fire if he doesn't break stride. He slows down and fumbles with his earbuds and phone. Music is good, lyrics are good. He finds something he can run to and picks it up again, grimly this time, jogging until all his adrenaline is washed away in sweat.

He's calm enough now to stay in one place, he thinks. He looks around. He's a couple of miles from campus; he thinks he knows where there's a strip mall from here with a Bertucci's or an Applebee's or something.

He walks, still singing along in his head to the music in his earbuds, and gets a table and orders himself a chocolate brownie thing. He's going to need it.

*

Dicky didn't like the big strange woman.

"We got to sugar this boy up," she said, bending down over him. He tried to squirm away but his mother had a grip on his shoulder. "You got a big, loud spirit," the woman said, "Trying to touch everybody all the time. Gotta learn to keep busy and keep sweet."

Dicky hid his face in his mother's thigh. It was his earliest memory.

*

If you're Eric Bittle, here's how you think about your most closely-held daydream turning into your worst nightmare: first, you don't. First, you take the back of a paper menu and you ask your server for a pencil and you make two columns. And in that first column, you start thinking about something that's genuinely interesting to you. Dessert-herb flavor pairings. Lemon and lavender, because this is the right context to think about lemon and lavender. Peach pie with basil. You made butter cookies with rosemary once. You've heard you can put thyme in creme brûlée, although you've never made creme brûlée because you don't have a culinary blowtorch, although you would like one. Dill with - what could you do with dill? Good, now you have a question.

In the other column: J thought falling in love. J not bulwarked. Didn't know - but your heart is squeezing too tight to go on, so you go back to the other column. Maybe dill in an apple pie, that would be interesting. You try to taste it in your mind, whether the dill flavor would just bake away into the apple. You try to picture how it would look, because you can't let yourself think about his face.

*

"They sent me to the nurse again," Dicky whined. "Testing is stupid, I don't see why I can't just do it with everyone else."

"Biscuits or cookies," his mother said, rubbing her forehead, "You know what Miz Ruby says about an idle mind."

"Scones," Dicky said, but made himself put a smile on his face and in his heart like he was practicing with Miz Ruby.

"Thank you baby," his mother said, "Scones sounds wonderful," and she helped him reach down the dried cherries from the high cupboard.

"When you get nervous, it distracts everybody," his mother had said gently, once he was measuring and mixing. "Your teacher deserves a good score for her class so she can show how hard she works, just like you deserve a good score to show how hard you work."

Dicky patted the dough into a big round circle. "And when I smile it helps everyone smile?"

His mother gave him a hug that almost lifted him off the stool. "That's right," she said. "That's my good boy."

*

They bring Eric his chocolate brownie. It's harder for the body to despair with a mouth full of fat and carbs - not impossible, but every bit of reassurance helps. Time to put some more notes in the second column. Sometimes it's easier to stay calm once something is spelled out. Eric writes down: J didn't know about me. Misled. He eats another bite of the brownie. Ugh, it's sweet.

Depending on how constantly he's been brushing his spirit up against Jack's, Jack could be tasting it right now. (Any number of people around Samwell could be.) Eric thinks about making himself shove another bite in his mouth, but it doesn't work if he's not enjoying it. Maybe something with salt? But he doesn't want salt either. Apple and dill, maybe. Lemon and lavender, which he both still wants to try and isn't sure he'll ever be able to look at again. Which, ouch, that is way too apt a metaphor.

Here's the thing. If Jack got swept away by their synch connection - Eric lets his inner voice infuse that with all the bitterness he feels - then either Jack fell for sugar and pop music, the most candy-coated, primary-colored version of the person Eric could be, or else Eric was working on him, letting his own infatuation bleed down through his spirit-touch and influence Jack.

If it's the former, he mostly just feels so tired he wants to put his head down on the table and never pick it up again. If it's the latter, he's also hurt someone he would give his left arm to protect. Eric catches himself clenching his eyes shut and biting his lip against the awfulness of that. He makes himself unscrew his face and take a deep breath. Nobody else in the restaurant seems to be obviously smashing things or crying into their plates, at least, so he's gotten away with his moment of agitation.

His phone doinks.

It's a text, from Jack.

Are you okay And then, right away again, I can have someone come get you if you want

Eric tries to think about what he wants. Can he even go back to the Haus? It's not about how close you stand, it's about how close you feel, Miz Ruby had told him once. Staying away and thinking constantly about Jack might actually be worse than going back and keeping busy. And it's just two weeks to graduation. A big, natural separation. Maybe he doesn't have to try to force it earlier.

As recently as this morning graduation was too tragically soon, and now Eric wishes it could be tomorrow, so he can be done with this, so he can get on with packing all this away. He's known for months he was going to have to do that with his feelings. His heart might be broken in a new and terrible way now but it's not like it didn't already hurt. Not like he hasn't already made a dozen pies, twice that, trying not to feel sorry for himself for wanting someone completely unattainable.

I hoped it was mutual, Jack says in his memory, and no. Absolutely not, Eric is not thinking about that.

I'm fine, he texts back to Jack. Back soon. He pays for his mostly-uneaten brownie and starts the walk back to the Haus. Eric makes himself listen to "Best Thing I Never Had" on repeat the whole way back; it's the farthest thing from what he wants, but it's where he needs to get his head, really genuinely over it. By the second time through he wants to throw his phone and earbuds into the river - it's so backwards, so wrong, he wants to take all the pain into himself so Jack doesn't have to feel any. But that's not what he is.

Jack is in the living room when Eric gets back to the Haus, and he stands up when he sees him. Eric can see the very beginning of some word starting to form on his lips, and he jerks his eyes away. He shouldn't even be looking. He keeps his eyes on the wall and goes up the stairs, remembering the taste of chocolate and nothing else.

*

"I don't want to read it because Brody says the dogs die, and if I read it I'll cry, and then everyone will cry," Eric explained to the counselor. "I think it would be better if I read a happy book."

"Is it bad to cry?" the school counselor asked. "Why do you think everyone would cry?"

Eric wasn't sure which of those he was supposed to answer. "Sinkinization," he said, the grown-up word he had just learned from eavesdropping on his parents and wasn't entirely sure he had right. "Strapolative sinkinization."

"Oh, honey," the counselor said. "Have you been reading your momma's magazines?" Eric nodded, because he read his mother's magazines all the time, looking for interesting new recipes they should try.

"ESMN is a grownup idea and sometimes grownups make it sound like magic," the counselor said. "But all it really is is when you know someone really well, sometimes you can guess what they're going to do, or sometimes you suddenly remember something you forgot they told you and you think you just found it out right then. Even if you have big feelings, you can't make other people feel things."

Eric frowned. "But if Brody was sad I would be sad," he started, not because of spirit-touching at all, but just because Brody was his friend.

"It's a sad book," the counselor said, which Eric thought was missing the point. "But it's okay to be sad, and it's been part of our fourth grade reading curriculum for a long time." There wasn't really anything he could do but nod and let her send him back to class.

"So what did you do?" Miz Ruby asked later.

"I had to read the book," Eric told her. "But I knew it was going to be sad so I peeked ahead so I'd know about the chapters and then when we got to that chapter I looked around the room a lot and sang a camp song in my head." She nods encouragingly. "Also I cried a little and a bunch of other kids cried but maybe they would have cried anyways? It was really sad, 'specially Little Ann."

"Mm," Miz Ruby said, "Sounds like you tried to give everyone a chance without you working on them anyway."

"Miz Ruby," Eric had said tentatively, then, "Why did she say you can't make other people feel things? Hasn't she ever been spirit-touched?"

"Well, I can't rightly say," she had said. "Some people sure enough can't be touched, because they're bonded, or because some folks is just slippery. Someone real strong in the spirit, they can have a sort of bulwark."

"Does that mean I don't have to be careful? With those people?"

She had given him a long look. "What do you think 'bout that," she finally said, and Eric had hung his head.

"I'm sorry, ma'am," he had said. "I know better."

*

Eric tries to study. Makes himself get up for dance breaks, he gets cranky if he sits still for too long and that's the last thing the world needs from him at this point. The day after the bridge, he texts the group text to say they can help themselves to the lemon mousse. It's all gone the next time he looks in the fridge.

That night is a Sunday, which usually means "deal with his dick" night. For the first time in a long time, he doesn't feel like it. Usually he's dying for it by Sunday, only holding himself back from giving in on Friday or Saturday by reminding himself that background arousal is a lot less disturbing to get touched with than an orgasm, and that if there are Wellies unfortunate enough to be picking up his dick feelings, the least he can do is keep to the damn schedule and not surprise them with them at other times.

He tries his go-to fantasies, being with someone in a tiny boat on the ocean out of sight of land, naked in the sunshine, able to do anything. Magneto in his magical helmet, going down on him in perfect mentally-isolated autonomy. But his head is too stuck where he is, alone in his empty bed, and Michael Fassbender is just a really hot actor.

He wants Jack. It's a horrible thing to think, knowing he might have worked Jack into thinking he had feelings for him, but, god, it would feel real to Jack. Eric's real desire could spirit-touch him right into being into it. Eric could tell Jack that Eric owed it to him for doing that, that he wanted to make it up to him - physically - repeatedly, athletically, ambitiously - not sweet at all, Eric wants to bite, Eric wants Jack to leave fingerprints... he has the most self-loathing orgasm of his life thinking about Jack fucking him into the mattress, and curls up with Señor Bunny afterwards to go to sleep, trying to convince himself that fantasies can't hurt anyone. When you're Eric, the lines are blurry.

*

"I don't understand why you let them do it," Coach said. Eric was so tired and he smelled like bleach and floor wax and he just wanted a shower, but that, that stung.

"Let them," he said. "It was the football team. Against me."

"Son," Coach said. "Remember when I got your finger in the car door?"

"Not really," Eric said; he had been, like, five or six, he thought.

"You floored me," Coach said. "Dropped me like a ton of bricks. Someone in the parking lot called 911 because they thought I was having a heart attack."

"Sorry?" Eric said. Coach rolled his eyes.

"My point," he said, "Is that... I get that you're not the biggest guy in your grade, but don't you have some options other than, uh, mano-a-mano?"

Eric hunched and wrapped his arms around himself a little tighter. "I was trying to stay calm," he said. "I didn't even - anyways, it's not like that. The kind of guys who think that's funny, if they feel me get upset, and it spreads to other people, it just makes it better. I'm like... kicking over an anthill."

Coach sighed and shook his head. "I don't know if I did right by you," he said, low, almost to himself, like Eric wasn't still standing right there. "Leaving you to all these women - Ruby and Katya and your mother - and now you can't take a tackle or hardly stand up for yourself and - "

Eric could feel himself starting to cry again, so he thought about pie, the same pies he'd been thinking about for hours in the dark in the utility closet. Key lime pie with a blueberry glaze, so pretty, and whipped raspberry cheesecake.

Coach's hand came down heavy on his shoulder.

"You scared us," he said. "Until your mother got that whiff of floor polish and had the school check the closets, we thought you'd been kidnapped or something. Grabbed for your, uh, nature. Had the cops looking and everything. We're just glad you're okay."

"Okay," Eric repeated. "Can I go shower now, sir?"

Coach nodded, and Eric thought that was it, that he had been forgiven. But later that week his mother told him he wasn't going to see Miz Ruby any more, and he didn't even get to bake her one last batch of her favorite zucchini bread to say goodbye.

*

The morning of his birthday Eric gets stolen by Lardo - after a nice call from his mother, mostly birthday wishes and hardly any nagging about finals or being good at all - and then passed from hand to hand through the hockey team like a class pet everyone wants a turn to hold. It's very obvious that something is going on and the glaring absence of Jack from the proceedings makes it pretty clear he's mixed up in it somehow. Eric concentrates on feeling the anticipation he's supposed to feel and not a sense of creeping dread, wondering what kind of move Jack might be making here.

He really doesn't want to let Nursey live-tweet about it - Twitter and vlogging have always been a safe, happy space for him, people he can talk to who his spirit can't possibly touch, and if he's about to have to reject some public gesture in mutually humiliating fashion he'd rather not have his online friends watching - but he also can't possibly explain all that to Nursey and Chowder, so in the end, he has to go along with it, naming pies by the alphabet to try to stay calm as they walk to the Haus.

Apple. Banana cream. Coconut cream. Derby. Empanadas might be cheating, but he's stuck on F and G, too, until he thinks of green grape pie. Key lime. Lemon meringue. There must be some kind of H or I or J pie. Huckleberry?

They get to the Haus. It's an oven.

It's an oven, a beautiful, perfect oven, and Dex and Shitty are beaming and it's the most amazing, thoughtful, generous thing anyone has ever done for him and Jack is mercifully somewhere in the back out of the way so Eric can hug and cry on everyone in reach. An oven. He can bake again, he needs to bake right now, except then Ransom and Holster are shoving Jack forward, saying, "this guy, this guy was the mastermind", and, there they are.

There Jack is; Eric has managed to avoid him since the bridge but now he's right there with Eric in a little bubble of space in the kitchen, everyone turned towards them and watching.

Eric can't look him in the eye. Eye contact activates mirror neurons, he remembers reading somewhere, and so he scrubs at his eyes with the back of his hand. He could throw himself into Jack's arms and Jack would maybe catch him; Eric wants that desperately, wants to sob into Jack's stupid well-worn SMH shirt like it's the safest place in the world and not the most dangerous.

"Happy birthday," Jack says softly.

"Thanks," Eric says, crying again, "Thank you," turning his head to the side and tucking his chin so he's crying into his own left shoulder. He sticks his right hand out, blindly, and after a moment Jack shakes it. Almost less personal than a fist bump, somehow, for all that Eric can feel the strength of Jack's fingers and the warmth of his hand. He wants to stand there holding it forever. He makes himself let go.

"I need to bake something right this second!" he announces, and they let him, let him lose himself in the soft stretch of dough and the blend of a quick custard, and Jack is somewhere else, gone, overwhelmed, maybe, Eric tipping over again into too much feeling every time he turns and the oven is still there.

*

Eric bakes for as much of the rest of the time until graduation as he can, pumping out pies and good productive feelings for everyone still finishing up their finals. He really does love it, it wouldn't work if he didn't. Blueberry. Shoo fly. Apple dill, which comes out a little weird, but it might be worth another try. Anticipation, satisfaction. Sugar and vanilla and fruit. If this is what Jack likes he's getting his fill before it's over, Eric guesses.

There's an awkward night at the Haus when Shitty officially gives his dibs to Nursey and Jack has Dex and Chowder draw straws. Technically, if Jack isn't picking one of them, his room should go to a lottery for the whole team, but a quick committee of current-and-continuing Haus residents decides that there's nothing in the bylaws to stop Jack from holding a sub-lottery to dispose of his dibs, and, anyways, it sucks that Shitty put Jack in that position and nobody wants to shoot down his solution.

Chowder wins and is very excited; Eric promises Dex he'll still get all the pie he can eat, and Nursey says about eight times it's not his fault and everyone should just "chill" until Chowder and Dex figure out he feels guilty and bury him in a tickle attack. Eric watches them thrash around on the living room floor and feels vaguely jealous; he's always been wary of roughhousing, but, well. They're laughing a lot. Whatever. It's not for him even if it looks sort of fun. Jack tries to catch his eye over the mess of frogs, and that's not for him either. Eric goes and bakes celebratory/consolatory pie where he belongs.

He wonders if he should talk to Nursey and Dex later, separately, just to make sure there's no hard feelings that might crop up on the ice. But maybe that's Holster's job and Eric shouldn't overstep? He never got as far as saying anything, but he had thought about putting himself forward as a potential captain, until Jack and Ransom and Holster had made it clear that the mantle was being passed to Holster. Then he had felt dumb about thinking he could have done it, like he was back in Madison on his little club team and not at Samwell, where he's too sugar-sweet to be a leader. So, pie. At least he's good for pie.

Jack's parents come into town for graduation weekend, bringing friends, Eric hears from Ransom. Eric is hoping to stay out of their way as much as possible but has an unavoidable and very flustered path-crossing with Mario Lemieux on the Haus front steps. Jack and his parents are in the kitchen and Eric flees upstairs with his bags of groceries rather than encounter them.

Eric would probably be nervous around Bob Zimmermann if he was just Jack's dad, or just an ice hockey legend. But he's also - look, when Eric went Googling frog year, he hadn't stopped with a couple of photos of Bad Bob with the Stanley Cup. On the second page of results, there had been an old interview with a rival of Bad Bob's, a Flyer, after he and Bad Bob had both retired. It had been the mid-90s, when a professional athlete could talk about ESMN without getting laughed out of the interview, and the guy had said how the Flyers used to call Bad Bob the "Four-Way Forward", how a bunch of them had believed that Bad Bob had been able to synch with them, on purpose, both to read what they were going to do and to mess with their concentration. There had been a sidebar to the article about who else in the league might be using ESMN on the ice, although nobody else was suspected of using it both offensively and defensively.

In retrospect Eric wishes he had never read that article; it was why he had jumped to the clearly faulty conclusion that Jack might take after his father enough to be bulwarked, to be untouchable. Maybe if he hadn't thought Jack was safe... if he had kept his distance more... well.

Now, though, now there is the question of whether Bad Bob can take one look at him and tell that he's been smudging up his beautiful son with spirit-y fingerprints. Tricking him with his promiscuous synch. Eric really doesn't want to find out how he would react to that; people make jokes about shotguns and shovels but in all seriousness, Eric is pretty sure a word from Bob Zimmermann in the right ear could lose him his scholarship. Maybe he should try to ingratiate himself with pie but instead he goes for a long walk so he can't be dragged into whatever might be happening at the Haus.

There's no getting out of class day or graduation themselves. Eric briefly considers faking illness, but Lardo would probably see through it, and he doesn't have the heart to, anyways. This is Shitty and Jack, leaving. There's no avoiding hugging Jack, not when Eric has just been half-strangled by Shitty and Jack is standing there in his robes looking all expectant. Jack nearly picks him up off his feet.

"Bitty," Jack whispers in his ear. Eric has never been allowed to complain about fair, but it's not fair, it's not fair. There's nothing to say but he takes a long breath, just breathing Jack in; he smells mildly spicy, like aftershave, maybe. Allspice and sage, Eric thinks giddily. Like he could ever write a recipe for this. Jack steadies him as he lets him go, fleetingly turning his face into Eric's hair as they disentangle. Eric catches Bad Bob giving him a long look as Jack turns away.

*

They were back-to-back in the kitchen, working on crusts and fillings respectively, when Eric's mother said "By the way you made your daddy very uncomfortable last night," in one rushed monotone.

"What?" Eric said, turning away from the butter and pastry cutter. His mother kept her eyes resolutely on the cutting board in front of her.

"We know a young man is going to have certain urges," she said, sounding as if she would rather be anywhere but having this conversation, "But you need to be considerate, and maybe... refrain from certain - "

"Oh my GOD," Eric squeaked, and spun and slammed the pastry cutter into the butter, cheeks burning. Why the hell couldn't his stupid parents be bonded to each other and locked out to other spirits, like their idiot son's spirit when he let his soapy fingers get a little exploratory in the shower while his father was home? But they couldn't tell what he'd been thinking about, he told himself, even if they knew what he'd been doing. "I am so sorry," he said in a mortified whisper.

"Your daddy and I both sleep pretty soundly," his mother offered, which, well, Eric was fourteen and self-honest, he didn't think he'd be able to quit entirely. But... the normal way, the way all guys knew all guys did, not anything deviant or gross. Even if it had felt kind of interesting.

*

Madison is Madison. Eric settles in for a summer of baking, training, texting his teammates, and getting over Jack Zimmermann. His mother has bought a new ice cream maker and they go on a sorbet binge, strawberry, lime basil, watermelon cucumber. Eric stays up too late, watching YouTube and refreshing Twitter, and it's good, it is, to be able to do that without worrying that wide-awake spirit touch might leave Jack tossing and turning.

He still has too much time to think, to feel, and so he doubles down on some of his workouts, runs a little longer, does a few more reps. He needs a better goal than just "more", and so he finds some guidelines on the internet for teaching yourself to do one-armed pushups, which he's always found... compelling. As a goal it's the perfect sort of impossible, exciting to dream about but no actual consequences when he falls short.

On the worst nights, when he's too jittery for the kitchen and too exhausted for any more exercise, he borrows a car and goes to church. Not the family one his parents have been going to since they moved, but big ones, where he can be anonymous. There are several within driving distance, evening services most days of the week between them. Eric tunes out the actual preaching - he doesn't need to be waiting to be called a depraved sinner for his orientation - but as long as he sits still and keeps his head down, he can rage and grieve on the inside, and if the people around him feel sudden pangs of random strong emotion, they might blame God, or they might blame Satan, but they aren't going to turn and point the finger at Eric R. Bittle, sitting there next to them in slacks and a decent shirt. Sports, of course, are the other place where it's okay to be loud; Coach doesn't care much for baseball, but they watch NASCAR sometimes, and Eric lets himself think about Jack while the cars zoom around, whether he'll ever see him again, how soon would be too soon.

"Dicky, honey," his mother says once, while they're whipping up meringue. "Are you doin' alright? You seem... subdued."

"Isn't that good?" he says tiredly, and she doesn't push.

*

Eric looked back and forth between his parents nervously. His mother had requested mini-pies and they had waited until he was rolling out dough to come in. He wasn't going to like this.

"Dicky, sweetheart, a man came up to us after your program," his mother started. "He told us he wanted to hire you, said if you were sitting in his store being happy he bet his customers would be happy too."

"Oh," Eric said. "Huh." It had never occurred to him he could do something like that. "Do you think that's - could I do that?"

"What?" his mother shrieked, and "No," boomed Coach. "You can do a lot more with your life than sit around on your ass," he said in a more normal voice.

"No, Dicky," his mother said, "Nobody thinks - no. What we're saying is, well, we don't think you should compete any more."

"Or the other ones," Coach said. "Showcases."

"What?," Eric said, aghast. "That's not fair. That doesn't make any sense! Lots of people have come up to me before and - "

"Dicky, pie," his mother said, clutching her temples. Coach was wincing too. "Please."

He picked up the rolling pin and made himself take a deep breath.

"Dicky, if people have been approaching you, you need to tell us about that," his mother said. "Especially if they say anything that makes you uncomfortable. Some people aren't... nice."

"You're too exposed out there," Coach said gruffly. "If you're happy, you're nervous - everybody can tell it's you."

"I know it's terrible to think about," his mother said. "But there are predators. I've read about them. ESMN predators."

"But I love skating," Eric said. "And you've always said it's good for me to be doing things I love. And... I always carry my cellphone now, I - "

"I'm sorry," his mother said gently. "Good thing nobody at the county fair can tell who - "

"Hockey," Eric blurted out. It was still on the ice, he'd had fun goofing around at Get Hooked On Hockey day at the rink. "Team sport, lots of people on the ice, no one can tell for sure if something is me." He'd be able to keep his skating up, maybe even get back to figure skating in a few years when his parents stopped being so overprotective.

"Huh," Coach said, starting to smile a little. "Hockey, that's a real sport."

And there, Eric was doing it. Like falling on a jump and getting up with a smile. Like having someone tell him baking was for sissies and smiling back at them. No point in getting angry about it, just keep going, faster, better, sweeter.

"I'll finish these pies," he said.

*

Eric thinks he can be excused for thinking everything is going pretty well. He's been literally trained to be a cheerful and optimistic person, and it took, okay? He can do a set of pushups now with his off arm out to the side on a couple of old encyclopedia volumes, and he made an amazing pear-honey-ricotta-tarragon galette the other day, and if Jack never texts him personally, that's probably a good sign, that Jack is getting over him? Jack is still on the group text, replies to Rans or Holster sometimes, once volunteers that he just got a new personal best time on a 5K run. Eric doesn't congratulate him.

Then Eric goes off to be Mr. Bittle at camp for two weeks and has to leave his phone silent in his pocket for hours at a time, it's painful, and it means he almost falls off of his chair at lunch when he manages to sneak a peek at his texts and there's one from Jack.

you forgot your sunscreen, it says. 7:53 am.

What on God's green Earth.

what, he writes back without thinking, because holy rusted metal, Batman, what.

sorry, he gets from Jack almost immediately, and then an ominous pause. sunburn sucks. sorry though, Jack finally adds.

And Eric is just - it's just too much, except he did forget his sunscreen, and they'll be outside all afternoon, so he fishes it out of his bag and starts doing his nose. He wonders if Jack can tell. If for weeks - he looks around at the kids. He can't freak out here. He rubs sunscreen in careful circles into his cheeks and temples, the back of his neck and his arms. Coconut and chemicals.

Jack had noticed when he didn't apply his sunscreen; he must have - felt? smelled? - him applying it daily before then. Apparently Madison to Montreal was not that big a separation after all? Eric very vaguely recalls something about time zones from one of those clickbait articles, something like "Eight Tips to Supercharge Synch - You Won't Believe Number Seven". "Synchronize watches to synchronize hearts." He knows he shouldn't read that garbage but it's not like there are serious articles about ESMN any more, and sometimes he just wants this thing in his life to be something more than a footnote in his lit class reading, "here the poet is using metaphors of alchemy, the four humors, and spirit bonding". It's all useless and probably made up and he can't really imagine texting Jack to tell him he needs to go on an overseas vacation, take up smoking, or try chewing gum, to get Eric out of his head. ("Watch your mouth! Synch thrives on three shared meals and no bad habits.") Since obviously one of them needs to do something different, and Eric can't think of what else he could do.

He really is going to freak out if he keeps thinking about it. Eric makes himself jump into the kids' conversation, and they keep him busy for the rest of the day. It hits him again once he gets the kids settled for the night though, as he's forcing himself through his squats and lunges and close-grip pushups even though the kids have tuckered him out.

Can Jack feel this, know he's working out, tell how his arms are shaking on the last couple reps? Eric's spirit-touching has always been more about his emotions and sometimes senses than the "fall back to the left, I'm going to pass" kind of thing Ransom and Holster can share through their bond. It's weird to brush his teeth and wonder if Jack is tasting mint. It shouldn't feel so new - Eric's mother used to complain if he brushed his teeth in the morning while she was trying to drink her orange juice - but it feels different, thinking of it being Jack. If Jack's mouth gets the echoes of Eric's it's sort of like an inside-out, indirect kiss.

In the dark, in his bunk, Eric brings his thumb up to the corner of his mouth, feather-light. Brushes across his lips, mouth open, the base of his thumb against his bottom lip, upper lip just barely grazed by the pad of his thumb, across and then back to the center, where he can feel the moist warmth of his breath.

Then he snatches his hand away from his mouth like he touched the stove; sure, maybe Jack felt that. Or maybe the eight 12-year-olds on the other side of the wall did. Neither would be a good thing. Neither! he tells himself sternly, imagining Jack, head on a pillow, feeling his lips tingle. Whatever bizarre thing is going on with Jack, Eric playing around with it, like he's ten and trying to see how much of the crowd at a football game he could get to yawn when he yawned - that's not a nice thing to do.

If you believe the articles that Eric used to read in his mother's Redbook magazines ( the last time he came across anything that took ESMN seriously enough to consider the downsides), the best way to shake unwanted synch has always been to get the mirror neurons busy following somebody else. Find yourself a situation where the adrenaline is flowing, get your eye on someone with a reason to care what they're up to, and boom, the brain's got a new extrapolation priority. Eric's not sure he does believe those articles - he wonders, sometimes, whether ESMN really is a bad theory, like the sun going around the earth, and there's some other explanation entirely for how spirit touching works.

Still, it might mean that once Jack starts practicing with the Falconers, the problem will solve itself. Especially if Eric had started spirit-touching him on the ice in the first place, when he got put on Jack's line - it's just a theory Eric's come up with but it's a theory in which he didn't work Jack because of lust or whatever, it was all the fault of hockey, which Jack and maybe even Bad Bob might be more willing to forgive? But even if not, the intensity of NHL hockey should wash the whole thing clean, and Eric shouldn't feel any wistfulness about that.

He keeps his hands resolutely at his sides, but he thinks one more time about kissing Jack. He wishes a little bit he had done it, back when he thought Jack was bulwarked, planted one on him in the kitchen or something, or at Spring C, when it was all he could think about, claimed drunkenness later, just so he could know. Just so he could remember, now, when he knows better, how it went.

For the rest of camp, Eric remembers his sunscreen, and when camp is over he goes home and makes orange-glazed chicken and a pecan pie, and he does his squats and his asymmetric pushups and he doesn't text Jack and Jack doesn't text again.

What did you mean,, Eric starts a text once, two days after getting home, did you really think, on the basis of ESMN, you were - but he deletes it. He's a little scared of his own ability to adapt. Sometimes he thinks about Jack on the bridge and he doesn't panic at all. Not that he wants to panic, but if it was unthinkable two months ago, it should still be unthinkable. And instead he wants to think about it, not the very end, but before; the way Jack had looked determined, when he refused to lie.

Eric has to be that brave, he tells himself, he has to be strong enough to resist just because he knows it's right, even when he can't feel the necessity. He owes Jack nothing less.

*

The most magical moment of Eric's young life happened at group B lunch, which he had that year, where he sat with a random group of people from hockey and debate and yearbook. He had just taken a bite of his lunch and thought it tasted a little weird, maybe from smelling the cafeteria sloppy joes, and then Adam from math and Spanish had said "does anyone else taste ham sandwiches?" with a weird look on his face and Eric had a ham sandwich. And Adam had a sloppy joe.

"Whoa," someone said, "Maybe it's synch, any of you ladies have a ham sandwich?" and then everyone was giggling and the girls were defending their lunches from inspection.

Of course it wasn't the first time someone had gotten touched with what Eric was eating or drinking, but it was the first time Eric had gotten anything secondhand like that. And happening simultaneously like that, it was obviously a sign they were going to spirit bond and be able to share each other's joys and sorrows forever.

He had thought Adam was cute for awhile - maybe not as cute as... well, that was irrelevant anyways, because now that Eric thought about it there really was not anything better than curls and cheekbones. And those arms. God, he was going to be in those arms at some point. The only problem was, he wasn't really sure what to do next. Magazines were full of articles like "Find Your Lock By Mirroring Him" - okay, Eric would admit to reading some pretty corny stuff while recipe-hunting - but he wasn't sure whether his particular situation made a difference. Did he still have to keep himself cheerful and busy, or could he relax and let their bond just happen?

He worried about that for a few days, starting pies and then stopping and daydreaming about Adam instead, hoping they would brush spirits again, but they didn't, that Eric could tell, and he started to wonder if he had already messed it up somehow.

When he realized his agitation was affecting not only his parents, but also the hockey team, he had decided he had to do something. One afternoon while his parents were busy, he got into his mother's address book and found the entry for Miz Ruby. Bless his mother for never erasing anybody.

He called with shaking hands. Would she even remember him? She did, of course, and was pleased as punch to hear how he was doing, until he started to explain why he had called.

"If you spirit touch both ways with someone at the same time, that means you could bond, right?" he started, and Miz Ruby said yes, yes it could, although not always, and Eric said "But it feels right to me," and Miz Ruby said hesitantly that that was a good sign, yes, and Eric said "But I don't know if he - ", forgetting his pronouns, and Miz Ruby said "He?"

"Maybe?" Eric said, gripping the edge of the desk with his free hand. "I mean, yes ma'am? He's, um. Adam. In my class. Ma'am."

Miz Ruby sighed a long, gusty sigh. "Oh, child," she said. "Dicky, you listen to me. When you got a big spirit, you can't just let that go working any which way. How long you been thinking this way?"

"Maybe a week," he had said, looking down at his white knuckles.

"That's probably okay then," she said. "But don't you go on. You stay away, keep yourself making your sweets, he should be okay."

"But," Eric said. "Some people think you only get one match, what if - "

"Adam and Eve," Miz Ruby said gently. "And I never held with that one match business, my grandmother was bonded three times and outlived 'em all."

Eric didn't remember, later, how he'd gotten off the phone. He'd found himself making a pie, purely on autopilot, until the crust tore when he tried to transfer it to the pie pan and he balled it up and threw it at the wall.

It wasn't even Adam - it was partially Adam, but mostly it was the way Miz Ruby's voice had gone sharp and suspicious when she said "he?" Eric was never going to bond with a woman, he thought, it wasn't just hard to imagine like going off to college and getting a job, it was some extra layer of unimaginable. He had Google, he knew some people who believed in ESMN thought there could be same-sex synch, but that seemed impossible in the other direction, nothing in him to prevent it, but how likely was it there was some one out there - some guy out there - he wouldn't be twisting up if his spirit worked him? No straight boys, Eric promised himself. No straight boys, even for the clearest spirit touch in the world.

*

The Falconers announce that they've signed Jack Zimmermann on July 1st, as the hockey world resounds with free-agent news. Eric knows it's been a done deal for months and it's not like Jack signing is going to slip under the radar. Maybe they just wanted to make sure the hockey pundits would have plenty else to talk about. Eric almost doesn't go read the article, when he sees it in his Twitter feed (he obviously follows the Falconers' official account and several of the players), but he wants to see if they have a good picture of Jack, or - who is he kidding, of course he taps on it the second he sees it.

On a scale of, like, draft-day Crosby to draft-day Connor McDavid, Jack looks quiet but reasonably happy to be posed in a Falconers jersey with the General Manager. Eric actually drops his phone, though, when he notices Jack's jersey number, fumbles his phone right out of his hands. It falls to the floor with a clatter and Eric eyes it nervously, reluctant to even pick it up and make sure it will turn on again.

He had known Jack wasn't likely to keep his number 1 in the NHL, with 1 being a goalie number, but he had thought he might take 11, not currently in use by the Falcs, or - well, Eric didn't know. Jack hadn't ever talked about it.

"It might not even be about me," Eric mumbles out loud, quick under his breath like he's warding off bad luck, but it doesn't sound remotely convincing. Jack with a 15 on his sleeve, with a giant number 15 on his back? It feels personal.

His phone buzzes against the floor. Eric picks it up gingerly.

did you see this Bits, Shitty has texted, and then to the group text, just a link, with JACK!.

After that the messages come in just fast enough that every time Eric thinks he's for sure going to put his phone back in his pocket and do something other than sit there, he gets another one. WHOA from Holster, and Did you know about this?!?!! from Chowder, and something you want to tell us Bits? from Shitty. I think Jack likes white gold from Lardo, which takes Eric a moment and then he has to briefly cover his face with his hands; he's sure he's crimson.

He does go off to bake a pie then, but there's another burst of messages while he's rolling crust, and he ends up washing his floury hands and abandoning it.

this is not the time for radio silence Bitty from Shitty again, and I had no idea! Congratulations! from Dex, and chill u r trying too hard, no one cares if u disapprove from Nursey right after that, and can't believe this happens when I have transfections all day from Ransom, followed by you r sneaky as hell bro, way to tap that under our noses :3.

I don't disapprove, Dex says, and then Maybe I should have guessed? With the oven and all?. you could have trusted us, Shitty says. Wait wait have you KISSED Jack Zimmermann!?!! from Chowder, and think they've done more than kiss little bro ;) from Nursey, and Eric isn't sure if he wants to laugh or cry. Is maybe doing both, a little.

it's not like that, he finally writes. maybe he thought it was lucky or something for the assists.

he wants to GET lucky, Holster replies.

Eric is starting to wonder how he's ever going to show his face in the Haus again, whether the whole team is going to nudge and wink next time he dresses in his own 15, which he had first, he would like to note. Dozens and dozens of possible numbers and Jack has to pick his. This boy.

i'm still on the text you guys, Jack says.

sorry!!!, Chowder writes. sorry sorry that was uncool sorry.

CONSIDER YOURSELF IN A HEADLOCK UNTIL YOU EXPLAIN YOURSELF YOUNG MAN, Shitty writes, then not you Chowder. Jack.

Hey, Lardo says to Eric privately, It'll be old news by fall.

It's the kindness that breaks him and sends him curling up under his old desk, clutching Señor Bunny in one hand and his phone in the other. He can honestly say he never once imagined this situation, but if he had, it would have been chirping about the idea that Jack's number could possibly have anything do to with him, not - he scrolls back through the conversation. Their mutual friends all really do seem to think it's plausible that he could be involved with Jack. They seem to be happy for them.

Eric imagines, just for a minute, how it might feel it it was real, if he had been secretly dating Jack or something and now he was going to get to watch him skate out wearing his number, and everyone in the Haus had known and been okay with it. How thrilled he would have been, how warm he would have felt, watching in the Haus with Ransom and Holster packed in on one side and the frogs squished in on the other.

Really, he'll be in the kitchen, Eric figures. He'll watch Jack's games in little fragments, going back and forth, keeping busy, making sure he doesn't feel too much at once.

He crawls out from under his desk and goes to clean up the mess of his abandoned pie. Jack doesn't text him and he doesn't text Jack. That weekend there's a profile of Jack in the Providence Journal in which Jack claims that he chose the number 15 for his graduating class year because he's proud of his time at Samwell. Eric texts the group text with the link.

smells like BULLSHIT, Shitty writes back, but Eric doesn't think so; it makes a lot more sense than it being some kind of romantic gesture. He's embarrassed he had let himself think otherwise.

*

A week before he's flying back to Samwell, Eric pulls off three perfect reps of the one-armed pushup with his right arm. He goes down for a fourth but ends up flopping and rolling over to his back, laughing up at the ceiling. It's the most useless skill in the world, it's probably not even good training for hockey, but it's like the first time he landed a double jump or something, satisfying just for the pure beauty of being able to do it.

That's what he's going to remember from the summer, he decides. It was the summer he learned one-armed pushups. Not anything else.

*

Sometimes Eric feels like he's betraying Shitty and Jack, a little bit, with how easily he falls back into Samwell life without them being there. Holster is a fine captain at practices; he doesn't approach it the way Jack did, but then, Eric wouldn't have either, in his half-baked fantasy where it was him. Dex and Nursey are fighting a lot again but it keeps the Haus from feeling quiet without Shitty. Eric has his new shiny oven to keep him busy, when he even has time to use it - he's taking a class on the Harlem Renaissance that has a ton of reading, and an Econ class that turns out to involve actual math. He can do six one-armed pushups on the right and three on the left.

Shitty comes down one Saturday in mid-September, wearing dockers and a button-down because apparently he'd had a study group that morning. Eric is ridiculously eager to see him right up until his first words to Eric are "we need to talk about Jack" - seriously, no "hello" or "I miss you" or anything - and then Eric is mysteriously very busy making chocolate-drizzled pecan tarts in the kitchen with at least one frog present at all times. (He keeps slipping them spoons to lick.) Shitty gives him the stink-eye and the worried eye and the "what the fuck" disappointed eyebrows of doom, but it's not like Eric hasn't ignored six or eight text messages, a voice message, and an actual email on this theme, Shitty should be getting the message by now that Eric isn't talking about this. (With anyone, but particularly not with Shitty, who once told Ransom and Holster to their faces that he respected what they did on the ice but he still thought the whole concept of ESMN was bullshit.)

The thing is, Eric has settled into a sort of equilibrium about the whole Jack thing; the last thing he wants is to go stirring it up by talking about it. He thinks about him when he wakes up in the morning and before he goes to sleep; he thinks about him on the ice and at Annie's and when he uses the oven and when he crosses that bridge. He wonders where he is, what he's doing, what his apartment looks like, whether he's making friends on the team now that the Falconers' training camp has started.

There was a time when Eric had assumed he would text Jack every day and Skype him every week and send him driving back down 95 with pies when he visited. He could have done it, if they had never spirit-touched, he could have been bubbly and supportive. It's his role in life, he could have played it for Jack, if he could have just been sure that anything else inside of him would stay inside where it belonged. He tries so hard to be pleasant all the way down, but he's not, he knows that, no matter how much some serpent part of him wants to lie that he could have done it for Jack, been good for him even with the synch.

The Falconers travel to play their first pre-season game against the Sabres. Dex finds a stream and sets it up on the Haus tv, only grumbling a little about doing all the work and not even living there. As Lardo predicted, nobody bothers to chirp Eric about Jack's number, everyone is too caught up just in seeing him on the ice, even in an exhibition game. They win, and win again in their home opener against the Panthers. This time it's just Dex and Nursey and Ollie and Wicks in the Haus with Eric, Shitty having picked up Ransom and Holster and Lardo to drive them down to Providence to see the game in person, Chowder getting stuffed into the middle of the back seat at the last minute when Shitty got loud about there being a fifth ticket.

"Maybe when it's a real game," Eric had said stupidly, hating Shitty's frustration and Lardo's pity and Ransom and Holster's utter confusion. But what if Jack looked up into the stands and saw him, the way he's looking up into the stands and not seeing him tonight. There are no good options.

Eric feels sick through the whole game, mouth sour, beer too bitter, stomach flipping queasily when he cracks eggs between periods. He hopes like hell the spirit-touching has stopped and he's not distracting Jack on the ice. Jack gets an assist, so he's not completely off his game. Eric makes sure he's in bed by the time everyone gets back from Providence.

Samwell loses their first game, none of the lines clicking. Their next two games are a long-haul roadie up to Clarkson and St. Lawrence. Eric packs as much of his Harlem reading as he can carry, but he ends up mostly dozing with his headphones in, drifting in and out of real sleep. When they play, he feels hopelessly out of step with his new center, dropping passes, never in the right place. It's not that playing on Jack's line had been easy - it had been the hardest Eric had ever worked, in a lot of ways, even more than preparing for Southern Junior Regionals - but it had been good work, like he had known that if he just pushed hard enough they could do it, they could do anything. His new line can't do anything right, they don't put up points at all, and the team loses to Clarkson and only hold out against St. Lawrence because Ransom and Holster have one of their magic nights.

When Ransom and Holster corner him in the kitchen, two days after they get back, Eric thinks he's either about to get a captain pep talk or a captain ass-kicking, and can't deny he deserves either.

Instead, they sit down very seriously at the kitchen table, exchange a glance, and then Holster says, "Do you know you talk in your sleep in French?"

"What," Eric says, because that seems unlikely, he doesn't know any French. "Was it Spanish?" Not that he knows much of that either, as his high school grades would show.

"No, I recognize French," Ransom says. "Lavoie said it was mostly hockey stuff, like you were arguing about the importance of the power play."

"So the whole team listens to me talk in my sleep on the bus now?" Eric asks, crossing his arms defensively. He's getting that scrabbling-for-a-foothold feeling again, another cliff he didn't even know he was on crumbling away under him.

"You were mumbly, neither of us are that good," Holster says. "Look, we have a theory, hear us out."

"A theory," Eric says. Maybe he's moving closer to the edge instead of away, sick fascination overcoming the likelihood of regret.

"So this would be sketchy, if it had happened in a different order? But it didn't, and I'm going to tell you in the order it did happen," Ransom starts.

"But if you know now that it's sketchy..." Eric says. He can't object too strongly, he's still thinking about how he's been talking in his sleep about hockey in French.

"No," Ransom says, "Look. So, my research advisor here collaborates with one of Nicholas and Jean-Claude's old post-docs." He looks expectantly at Eric.

"Uh..." His stomach still feels like he's in free fall, what is Ransom even talking about?

"G.A. Nicholas and Jean-Claude Roy?" Ransom tries. "Had their fingers in about as much science as Linus Pauling?"

Eric shakes his head. Ransom shakes his too, sadly.

"Wished they were Watson and Crick, secretly more like Bill and Ted. I have heard stories," Ransom says. "That's how I got interested in this. So. Back in the 90s there was actual funding for ESMN research, NIH money, private money, and they're studying lock, and they talk some old bonded couples into brain donation, and they find this novel GPCR expressed in their mirror neurons, like, eightfold over the controls. And they're, like, doing this shit without microarrays, real wild west stuff, the papers are crazy."

"I got 'brains' and 'mirror neurons'," Eric says cautiously, shoving everything else away because apparently he's getting a science lecture now, when all he wants to do is go back to the talking in his sleep thing.

Holster pats him on the hand. "Sometimes I just fill in 'science' for all the words I don't know," he suggests, "So, they scienced some science, okay?" He turns to Ransom. "Maybe skip ahead a little, bro?"

Ransom frowns at both of them. "They came up with this," he says, opening up his laptop to show Eric a powerpoint slide. He knows enough to know it's some kind of chemical structure.

"DNA," he guesses, trying to play along.

"What," Ransom says. "Not even - what?"

"That's what it would turn out to be on TV," Eric says, embarrassed. "LSD? Caffeine?"

Ransom facepalms. "American science education," he sighs. "No, it's - "

Holster puts a finger over his mouth. "What my partner is trying to say is that he reads a lot and became an expert on this random drug," he says, "I told you you should let me do the science bits."

"You don't put in any science," Ransom says grumpily, but gives Holster's finger an absent kiss before he pulls it away.

"So," Holster goes on, "Entirely separately, and after all this, I want to emphasize, Shitty comes to us and asks about imzadipine. Well, to Ransom. Obviously."

"I figure he wants to snort it or something," Ransom says, "And I'm just all, bro, Erowid, but no, he genuinely wants to know what's up with it, so I look it up, and, bam." He goes to the next slide on the powerpoint.

Eric looks at it. "It's... the same?"

"There's some minor functional group differences - " Ransom starts, until Holster interrupts with "Yes, basically."

"The idea is, everybody who synchs has some LMNP2," Ransom says, "So here's this agonist - "

"Babe, I would literally listen to this talk twice in a row with extra science on the side," Holster says, "But."

"Okay, look," Ransom says. "What this Zadetol stuff does, it's a lock mimic. It suppresses synch the way lock suppresses other synch."

"Oh," Eric says; it feels insufficient, free fall spinning off into a whole new direction. There are drugs for stopping synch? Why didn't -

"The sketchy part is that Shitty told us Jack's been on it for years," Holster says, and, what? What?

"But!" Ransom says quickly. "With this information, we have come up with a theory, which is that you and Jack are mutually locked, but Jack has no idea because his meds are blocking his end."

Eric sucks in air at that; it's like they've circled around, gone the complete wrong direction, veered randomly close to the truth and then landed somewhere mind-bogglingly wrong. He kind of wants to throw something. "How on earth did y'all come up with that," he says instead, "I don't at all see why Jack taking something that stops synch means he's synching with me. And didn't there turn out to be huge problems in all the synch research?"

"Well," Ransom starts, and Holster says "You're obviously synching with someone, and - "

"And Jack is the only person who talks about hockey in French? Just on our team there's Lavoie, it could be anyone at Samwell - anyone we've played - " It could be anyone, he tells himself.

Ransom is giving him puppy-dog eyes and Holster is actively pouting. "Synch is way more likely to be with someone you know than not," Holster says, "And we know Jack heard someone's music once, and - "

"And lock is a whole pattern of activity," Ransom says, "Think of it, like, all the lights on in New England, imzadipine is turning them off in Vermont, but the rest is still there. If you believe unreplicable fMRI studies."

"And he was so sad when you weren't there at his game," Holster blurts out, and Ransom scoots closer, so they're shoulder-to-shoulder. "He kept looking around at first, and then when Shitty said you didn't come, man I do not want to see that face again."

Eric doesn't even want to hear about it. "He was sad?" he can't help saying.

"I know it's none of our business why you guys broke up," Ransom says, "But - "

"We didn't break up," Eric says, "We were never - " He has to cover his face for a moment. "Is this still the number thing? Because I sent y'all that interview - "

"If everything was fine you would have come with us to Providence," Holster says, and Eric can't really deny that, so he gets up from the table and starts getting out ingredients, just to have something to do with his hands, banging down the sugar and baking powder and flour.

In the corner of his eye, he sees Ransom and Holster exchanging a long glance, and then Ransom comes over to the counter.

"Bro," Ransom says, "I know this ESMN stuff can be weird. I didn't even believe in it until I locked with my boy there - I mean, I never would have said that, my family believes in spirit stuff, especially my family back in Nigeria, and we've all heard plenty of assholes going 'let's save the natives from their primitive superstitions' at us. Colonialist bullshit, you know? But even though I was brought up with it, I believed the science news that said they'd disproved it, and I just sort of figured when my auntie said she was bonded it was just a fancy way of saying she was really in love and committed."

"Sorry," Holster calls. Almond-poppyseed, Eric thinks. None of this applies to him.

Ransom snorts. "You are zero sorry," he says, grinning. "So, yeah, wham," he tells Eric. "I had to rethink a lot of stuff. So if you wanted to talk - even if it's not Jack, maybe we did get a little carried away with the logic there - "

"I liked that theory," Holster pouts. Eric levels off flour with a vicious sweep of a knife.

"Yeah, well," Ransom says. "Ignoring our little venture into detective work, we've got your back, if you want to know what it's like to be locked, or you just want to put your sleep-talking up on Samwell synch-connections or whatever, we can help with that."

"Oh," Eric says, looking down at his bowl of muffin batter. "No. I - no, I don't - " His hand seems to be white-knuckled on the spoon, when did that happen.

"Hey," Holster says carefully, "Does ESMN freak you out?"

And Eric - breathes. He takes those feelings he keeps punched down and lets them swell up inside him like sourdough, all the way for once. This is the moment when Eric could say something, how scared he's been, how hard it is, how every day he wishes his spirit-touch connection with Jack went the other way and he could eavesdrop on Jack just to know how he was doing. How hearing Ransom suggest they could be locked felt like getting slammed into the boards, the shock of hearing someone else say out loud what he couldn't even admit to himself he thought about; how part of him wants it so enormously that when he lets it expand it presses against his heart and lungs until he thinks his heart is going to stop beating under the force of it, right here in the kitchen. Eric could admit it.

But bonding is a life sentence, and when Eric gets past the rush of Jack, his, forever, he feels like he's suffocating. He had grown up with vague, abstract ideas about finding a bond someday, but the possible reality - that the spirit-touching with Jack was never going to fade, that Jack might be stuck with him, that for the whole rest of his life he'd be inflicting all the worst things he feels on the person he loved most - it's more weight than he can possibly be strong enough to carry and it's more doors closing than he's ready to see closed. Part of him has always had a secret hope that if he could just go fast enough, he could somehow outrun the pie boy and do - what, he doesn't even know, he's never had a vision of his future. His vision is the pie boy dancing around a kitchen, because he has no imagination or because that's the only thing he's ever been told he's good for. The idea of Jack in the kitchen with him is seductive and compelling and utterly incompatible with ever getting out.

And maybe Ransom and Holster would get that, a couple of bros who weren't looking for a life partner when they showed up to hockey practice, now facing down the vanishingly small odds of finding a grad school and a hockey team in the same city. Maybe Eric could say "I think I made him gay" and ask them whether they ever would have thought about each other that way before their spirits touched. He could come out about that whole part of his life, that his troublesome spirit is the reason he's ended up on their hockey team at all instead of still being working on his jumps and spins.

But he can't; the spongy dough feeling inside of him is pressing out all of his air, and there's no space in him to knead it into some kind of speakable words.

"No," he says, finally, still mindlessly stirring his muffins, unsure how long he's been standing there. "No, I don't have a problem with ESMN." It's the biggest lie he's ever told.

**

Chapter Text

*

How Shitty heard

Your Samwell News @ghostinthewell
Frat burning down. One engine on-site. Will update.

mariper @mariwell17
@ghostinthewell omg!! nfw!

die problem sets @joshulacious
@ghostinthewell is it π ρ

aristotley awesome @elizalizaloza
Let it burn?

Your Samwell News @ghostinthewell
The Samwell Men's Hockey Haus is on fire. Lots of smoke. Flames on front of house. Additional trucks responding from Canton and Westwood.

Your Samwell News @ghostinthewell
Firefighters on the roof cutting into the roof with chainsaws. One ambulance has left the scene.

Your Samwell News @ghostinthewell
The real reporters have finally shown up. Whoops, nope, it's the Swallow and the Daily. #YouHeardItHereFirst

*

Some statements made by Laura Lambrose, Samwell Dean of Students, at a Q-and-A to address student concerns regarding the November 14th fire incident

First and foremost, the administration wants to reassure everyone that we understand the upsetting nature of this event for the Samwell community, and it is our priority to open and maintain dialogue as the situation evolves.

Samwell has always been committed to the portion of our student population enjoying Greek residential life. The Samwell Men's Hockey residence, like the majority of the Jason Street residences on "Frat Row", was not a University building and was not maintained or operated by the University Department of Facilities. However, our Public Safety Greek Liaison Officer does conduct an annual inspection of smoke detectors and egresses at all buildings registered as campus-affiliated residences for student meal plan participation.

We're still waiting on the final report from the Fire Marshal but I would like to stress that there is no reason to believe the cause of the fire was suspicious. I've heard that rumors may be flying on the Twitter and elsewhere so let me repeat that to the best of my knowledge, this is an investigation into accidental causes and not a criminal investigation into possible arson. We'd like to encourage all students to cooperate with the Samwell Fire Department, particularly anyone who attended the Friday the 13th party at the Hockey Haus.

We don't know yet whether the house will be rebuilt or whether the scope of the damage will allow for repair. Because of the somewhat complex situation of the Samwell Men's Hockey Association lease, the university is working with their representatives and with Bristol Property Management to untangle the insurance implications and chart a course forward.

The displaced students have been offered temporary housing by the university and we are working with the students and their instructors to help each student make an appropriate plan for course extensions where relevant. I'm sorry, but it's not true that anyone who smelled smoke gets an automatic A.

One student was treated for smoke inhalation at Norwood Hospital but has been released in good condition.

*

What happened, as told by Chris Chow to Caitlin Farmer

I'm fine, everyone's fine, but the Haus kind of burned down a little? No, I'm fine! Yeah, if you wanted to - I'm at, um, Hanahan House, on Whitney, it's like a guest house for visiting lecturers and stuff, but there were a couple of rooms so they put us here for now? Yeah, okay, I'll... be here. Love you too.

Okay, okay. See, I'm fine! I'm really glad you left though because it was actually kind of scary and, like, I like you being okay. So I guess it wasn't that long after you left? Dex and I put Bitty to bed because, well, you saw, and people mostly cleared out after the keg ran out, so I guess it was, like, two in the morning or so? Maybe a little later? And I put on sweats that didn't have beer on them and went to bed but I wasn't really quite asleep yet, just, mostly. And then, I never smell in dreams, so I woke up when I smelled the smoke, but the first thing I thought was it was the old oven acting up? But then I remembered about Tacy, so I thought maybe someone was smoking on the porch or Reading Room or something, but then I looked up and saw the smoke, like, even in the dark, it was all white and wrong? And the light in my room was wrong, like there was one of those orange street lights right outside my window, leaking in around the curtains. So, that was like, boom, sudden death overtime, I was awake, and I almost just ran out like that but I guess all those earthquake drills when I was a kid were good for something? So I found my slip-ons and grabbed my jacket and laptop and then I remembered you're supposed to crawl and test the door so I did that, the door seemed okay and I got out in the hall and that's when the smoke alarm finally went off. The one up in the attic, I don't know why the one in our hall never went off. But mostly I was looking out the front window, and - I don't know if this makes sense, I never saw flames, not until we were already outside, but it was just this color, not quite like a sodium lamp after all, just this really wrong light in the wrong place.

Ransom and Holster came down from the attic then, naked except for their jackets and shoes, but it wasn't even funny, just, I don' t know, extra serious, it was that serious. Holster had this whole stack of laptops and paper notebooks and followed me - I was already going down the stairs, crouching, and more smoke was coming up the stairs along the ceiling - and Ransom stopped and knocked on Nursey's door, I guess. When I got downstairs the front door was - that bad harsh yellow-orange again - so I went out the back and tripped on a lawn chair and got, like, away from the house, some, and then Holster and Ransom and Nursey and some girl came out. I never got her name, I think she went back to her dorm before the third firetruck showed up? I remember she didn't have shoes - neither of them were wearing much, she had his jacket, I think. I was glad you weren't there because it was nice to be wearing pants, my house was burning down but at least I was wearing - oh! Sorry I shouldn't assume we wouldn't have been wearing pants, just, I mean, - oh, okay. Oh. Okay. Yeah.

I know this sounds really stupid and you're already like - but what about - but the whole thing was so surreal, it was like it was happening to someone else almost. So I started asking, where's Dex, was Dex staying over, because sometimes he sleeps on the couch or my floor or something, and I didn't think he could have been on my floor and I didn't notice but the whole thing was so crazy that it almost seemed like he could have been, and that's when Ransom said "wait, where's Bitty?"

Holster didn't even say anything, he just shoved the laptops into Ransom's hands and went back into the house. I know, I know, you never go back in, but we had no idea if anyone had even called 911 yet, and I was maybe freaking out a little but Ransom came and stood right next to me and said "he's fine", and, well, he would know, right? But it was really scary, and so he kept telling me, "he's fine", and "it's smoky upstairs, he's crawling" - oh, I, oh, yeah, that he was telling himself? That makes sense. And then it was "they're fine, they're fine", until they came out the back door - Holster had his arm around Bitty, and Bitty was coughing, but he gave me a big hug, so I knew he was fine, and Holster and Ransom were kissing with the stack of notebooks stuck between them, so they were fine, and Nursey said he didn't think there was anybody else there, that Dex had gone home. So we all went around to the front and Holster called 911 but it turned out the lax guys across the street had already called, and they came out with blankets and sweatpants and chairs and stuff. It was really nice because once we realized we were okay and out and stuff, it was a cold night, and, like, I felt kind of bad for having pants? I guess Bitty had pants because we hadn't wanted to take them off him but he was still coughing too so nobody was going to be jealous of Bitty's pants. The lacrosse guys got him some water and the first firetruck showed up and we couldn't absolutely swear there couldn't have been anyone else in the house so I guess some guys had to go in but I kind of stopped paying attention because. I don't know. The whole front of the Haus was on fire by then and it hurt to see it and Bitty was completely crying - I guess he was still drunk, it wasn't much later on the clock, it just seemed like it had to be, like it was a whole different day or something, but really it hadn't been that long at all. Then the EMTs wanted to listen to us breathe and they said we were all okay except Bitty, they put this mask on him with a bag, oxygen, I guess? and took him to the hospital once another ambulance showed up.

I guess that's about when the dean said she could put us here for the night - Nursey said he wanted to stay until it was out, he was hoping he could go back in and get some stuff, but one of the firefighters said it would be hours and it was a serious fire, that everyone should focus on having gotten out safely, so I told him he had to come with me and help me call Dex. Neither of us had a phone but - oh, I guess you know that, right, yeah, that number was the landline here - Ransom had his number, and we called even though it was like 3:30 am by then, because - I just wanted to be sure he hadn't been there somehow, and he was actually still awake. I was - I pretty much collapsed, at that point? Like, Chow needs sleeeeep, but I could hear Nursey in the hall a little, for awhile, sounding angry, which was so dumb, because, like, you're supposed to, I don't know, appreciate things more? After something like that? Then he was gone this morning, and I called you, and, uh, I appreciate you. A lot. I - yeah.

*

From the private notepad of Ronald Greeley, assistant fire marshal, regarding the Jason St. investigation

smoking habits
bongs
hazing
fraternity rivalries
sports rivalries
accelerant on porch?
new oven - in use? - wiring?
conflict over rooms - D suggests W "not chill" about it
interview E
missing SA batteries - on purpose?

*

What happened, as told by Peter "Dubs" Aagard, Falconers #8 to Daniel "Sars" Saroyan, Falconers #12

Maybe 2:30 in the morning, I get woken up by a door slamming. Bang. Wrong direction for the door to the hall, so it's gotta be the connecting door, and I'm like, oh god, Zimbo's got - I don't even know what. Drunk puck bunny except I've never seen him look at a girl in a bar, you know? So I open my half of the door and his is closed, so I knock, because, fuck if I'm going back to sleep and getting woken up again.

He opens up and just blinks at me, and he's - he looks like he just took a bad hit, and he's wearing sweats and his suit jacket and sort of looking around the room in twitches, like he's not quite sure what he's looking for.

"Zimbo," I say. "What the fuck."

"Dubs," he says, like maybe he's just now seeing me. Dude seems out of it.

"It's the middle of the night," I say, trying to be nice about it, I knew a guy back in the O had big old nightmares sometimes.

"I have to go," he says. "Sorry, I - I have to get to the airport."

"Nooo," I say, "How about you drink some water and sit down and tell me about it." And I'm thinking they do not pay me enough for this, but what am I going to do, go wake up the Cap at ass A.M.?

He just looks at me. "It's my bondmate," he says. "Something bad happened."

I know, what the fuck, Zimbo has a bondmate, he barely has a personality. But I hand him a water bottle from the dresser next to me and his hands are shaking so much he can hardly open it, so, obviously something's not okay there.

"Look," I say, "We're in fucking Ottawa, you're not getting a flight out until the morning, and you may recall we have an appointment with the Sens in ten hours. So sit down already," and I shove him back towards his bed, and he sits, and I drag over a chair.

"Maybe I could drive," he says. Mumbling to himself. "Just a couple hours to Montreal, then..."

For some reason I look down and he's wearing one shoe. And, never mind about the game, I can't let him behind a wheel like that, you know? I know he's technically older than us but sometimes he's such a rookie and it was one of those moments.

"Hey," I say. "Let's think here. Your girl, she's got a phone?"

"He," he says. "He always does." Which, okay, that's a surprise, maybe that's why he never brought this guy around, but whatever, least of my problems just then.

"So call him," I say, and Zimbo sort of blinks and eventually finds his phone plugged in on the desk and calls. I'm thinking maybe I should not be there but I also don't trust him not to wander out into the night so I sit there, and then the call rings and goes to voicemail, so, just as well I stayed. He tries again, no dice.

"Is there someone else you can call?" I ask. "Got a neighbor who could check on him?"

"He doesn't live with me," he says, kind of absently, but he calls someone else and they don't pick up either. His hands are shaking like crazy again, he goes for a third number but he can't even dial, and he's breathing all wrong.

"Zimbo," I say. "Walk me through the situation here."

"He was drinking a lot," he says. "I was trying to sleep but he was, uh, he was falling-down drunk, it was distracting. I think some friends helped him into bed. Then I guess we did get to sleep, but he woke up coughing and couldn't stop, and then, uh, he was cold. His feet were cold."

"Okay," I say, "So your boy woke up with a cough and he got up and got some water, like a cold tile floor or something. Sounds fine to me."

"I could smell the smoke," he says, kind of thousand-yard stare about it, "There was smoke, and now I can't feel him at all any more."

That sent a chill down my spine, like something right out of a movie. The girl says that and cut to her bondmate's buddy bent over him in the trench, you know? I try to be smart, though. (Shut up, Sars.) "Is your synch, uh, constant or intermittent?" I ask, which is like 90% of what I remember about bonds. He says intermittent. "So it must drop out all the time," I say, but he doesn't look convinced.

"These friends, you said, that's who you called?" His eyebrows go up. "Probably not," he says, "I could try them," which, okay, Zimbo, which one of us went to college again? He gets two more voicemails and then jackpot, someone picks up.

"Uhhh," I hear someone say. "H'lo?"

"What's going on down there," Zimbo says all desperate, "Is Bitty okay?" And I can't stand it, I take the phone out of his hand.

"Hi, this is Jack Zimmermann's teammate Peter Aagard speaking," I say, shut up, Sars, yes like it was someone's mom, or, you know, Mario Lemieux, who the fuck even knows with Zimmermann. "Jack is having some scary synch with his bondmate, Bitty I guess? We're sorry to call so late but he's pretty upset and disoriented here and Bitty isn't answering his phone."

"Bitty's blacked out," the guy says flatly. "Um, did you say bondmate?"

"Dex," Zimbo says, leaning into the phone and putting his whole stupid face in my face. "Dex, the Haus is on fire or something, did Bitty get out."

"What?" the guy says, and I hear rustles and thumps, then keyboard sounds. "Holy shit," he says. "Fuck - fucking hell, the Haus is on fire." Zimbo makes this horrible noise, like a dying gasp noise.

"Jack," the guy says, "Oh, fuck, breathe." He sounds pretty panicked himself. "Okay," he says, "Listen, Jack, I'm going to hang up the phone and call Lardo. I'm going to call Lardo, okay? And then she's going to call you. Can you sit tight? Um, Aagard, can you stay with him?"

"Obviously," I say, and the guy hangs up. I put my hand on Zimbo's back and breathe real slow and loud myself, and he joins in after a couple.

The phone rings. "Peter Aagard answering Jack Zimmermann's phone," I say, and a girl says "Is Jack there?"

"He's right here," I say.

"Jack," she says, "I'm putting on my boots now, I'm going to tell you everything we know. There are firefighters on the scene. I'm walking over now and so is Dex. Okay? I'm out the door." He's pressing his fists to his mouth, I'm not sure he can talk, so I say "okay" for him.

"Dex says he can't get anybody on their phone," she says after a bit. "Okay, I'm crossing the river now. Almost there." She's breathing hard, out of condition. "Okay, they've got Jason Street cordoned off at Elm. There's a bunch of people here. Dex says it's the same up at Bristol." Crowd noise behind her, people muttering, someone yelling something.

"Just a sec," she says, and then the sound goes all muffled. "Excuse me, sir," we can hear, "I'm the manager for the hockey team, whose house it is? I'd like to get past the tape and make sure my guys are okay."

"You're with the university?" some guy says. She's all, that's right, but even through the phone it sounds like a lie, and the guy - the cop, probably - tells her she has to stay back with everyone else.

This goes on for awhile - yeah, okay, I've already gone on for awhile, but I'm telling you, it was like a soap opera or something. I'm trying to summarize. The whole time on the phone she's telling Zimmermann to breathe and getting him to talk a little, gets the story out of him. Apparently - get this, apparently Zimbo's not even sure the guy would think to call him because he doesn't know if the guy knows they're bonded. It's some fucked-up shit there, no mistake, but the girl just rolls with it. She has to get off the phone to go work her contacts and I'm thinking maybe I should go get the Cap because what if the guy is dead or something, but he's also gonna kill me if he has to skate against the Sens on no sleep, so I figure my night is already fucked, I'll see it through.

We sit there for awhile and then Zimbo jumps a little and gasps. "I think he's in a hospital," he says, "I can hear - I don't think he's in any pain," and he puts his face in his hands and folds over on himself, mumbling something in French, and I realize I've kind of been holding my breath too. Phone rings not long after that and it's the girl again, she says yeah, Bitty got taken to some hospital, he's not hurt or anything but they just want to be sure, he'll probably be out tomorrow (today, whatever you want to call it). Zimbo's all "okay" and clearly about to start making plans when the girl says "but Jack, I don't think you should rush down here".

"But - " he starts.

"No, listen to me," she says. "You definitely can't come to the hospital, I know you want to see him but it's not fair to do it when he's cornered, okay? I am, honestly, on your side, it fucking sucks he won't even speak to you, but you can't be a dick just because he is."

"What am I supposed to do," he says, "Just sit here?"

"I've heard there's some kind of diversion where you strap knives to your feet and chase a rubber disk around," the girl says, "You could try that?" In that moment, Sars, she is my hero.

"You think I should play?" Zimbo says.

"You need the two points, you need the Sens not to have them," she says, "Go score some goals in his honor, fly home with your team, I promise I'll keep you in the loop."

"I should have done something months ago," he mutters, "I should have flown to Georgia, fuck."

"He was mean to Chowder when he asked why you guys aren't friends any more," she says, "I don't think this is a boom box situation, Jack."

"I don't know what that means," he says, all grumpy, which, come on, really?

"Hey, Aagard," the girl says. "You still there?" I say I am. "Think you can make him get some sleep?"

"I think I can steal his shoes, his phone, and his wallet," I say.

"Okay," she says. "Try to sleep, okay, Jack? I love you and it's going to be okay." We hang up and I get him out of the suit jacket and I do take his stuff but also leave the connecting door open in case he decides to make a break for it anyways. I guess I shouldn't say whether I heard him crying or anything but that is why we both look like shit this morning, Sars, so you can shut up already, okay? And help me keep an eye on Zimbo.

*

Some questions asked by Ronald Greeley, assistant fire marshal, to Eric Bittle, Samwell undergraduate, regarding the Jason Street investigation

Are you going to be able to talk comfortably? I understand you just got out of Norwood.

Can you describe to me where you were the night of November 13th, through the time of the fire on the 14th, starting from the time of the party?

When you say you can't really remember, you're referring to your intoxication?

I've heard you like to bake, were you using the oven that night?

Regarding the oven, do you know whether it was installed by a qualified electrician?

Were you aware that the smoke alarm batteries for both the first and second floor halls had been removed?

So when you removed the battery near the kitchen, it was intended as a temporary measure until the previous oven was repaired, but you never followed up?

One of your housemates has suggested that your mutual teammate, William Poindexter, may have harbored some ill-will over being denied housing in the building, did he ever say anything to you suggesting that? What can you tell me about his whereabouts the night of the fire?

*

Jack

He never remembers the game, after. Dubs tells him it was a beautiful goal, but he'd just been eager to get off the ice and take a moment on the bench to try to synch to Bitty, who had stopped coughing during the night but had a sore nose from what Jack thought was probably a nasal cannula. He doesn't remember the post-game, where Sars hustled him away from the press, or the plane flight, where Dubs and Sars took turns making him sip Gatorade, or, well, actually, he does remember, all heightened and distant at the same time

He remembers being at the airport, thinking about going straight to Samwell, getting a call from Lardo saying that Bitty was out of the hospital but was going shopping with Holster and Ransom and expecting it to take awhile. Shopping, Jack had thought, picturing eggs and butter, why was Bitty shopping at a time like this, until Lardo had said that Dex had loaned him some clothes for leaving the hospital but Bitty had been pretty eager to get his hands on a toothbrush and some shoes that weren't four sizes too big.

"And, you know, everything," Lardo had said. "They took Chowder this morning but Rans said it was impossible to think of everything at once, so they have stuff to get too. I guess Lambrose told the Red Cross guy the university was taking care of everyone, meaning housing, but they need more than beds, you know? Not sure I like how the administration's playing this."

"I could take people shopping," Jack had said, probably sounding pathetically eager to do something, and Lardo had been like, oh, honey, at Walmart? and admittedly Jack wasn't personally familiar with the infamous Walpole Walmart, but of course he would go to Walmart, if that was where Bitty wanted to get a toothbrush. And everything.

But Lardo had told Jack to go home, and he had gone home and boiled spaghetti and pre-cooked turkey meatballs, while Bitty didn't listen to music or bake or dance or exercise or do any reassuring Bitty things.

Jack brushes his teeth, thinking about Bitty not even having a toothbrush. He's weirdly aware of every single thing in his bathroom, the hassle of replacing all that. He taps out his evening Zadetol pill into his hand and stops before he pops it in his mouth - he hadn't even thought about it in the morning, but he's suddenly tempted not to take it and see what happens to his synch with Bitty. He's so desperate for any little scrap of information, anything he could feel from him.

He also wants to be ready for anything, though; if there's any chance at all that he can see Bitty, just for a minute, just to see with his own eyes that he's okay, he'd better be as stable as possible. So he probably shouldn't fuck with his meds.

If he had still been living in the Haus, he wouldn't have the choice, until he got a refill. But that's no excuse. He takes the pill and washes it down before he can talk himself into anything else.

Maybe they'll need more shopping tomorrow, Jack thinks, trying to fall asleep. Maybe the Apple store? Shitty had texted that Chowder and Ransom and Holster had saved their laptops but all five of them had left behind their phones, and there was no word yet on when they might be allowed back into the building to see what they could recover. It's weird to think of Bitty without a phone in his hand. Shitty has explained to him more than once that it's not okay to try to bribe Bitty into speaking to him again, but realistically, Jack knows the only thing holding him back is that he doesn't think it would work. He would overnight Bitty a new laptop without any hope of Bitty speaking to him if he thought he could guess what Bitty would want. Unfortunately Bitty's wants in the matter of laptops are as opaque to him as they are in everything else.

He wakes up a couple of times during the night, feeling Bitty pacing, or, once, doing sit-ups. It's worrying - why is Bitty doing sit-ups at 3 am? - but Jack's own exhaustion drags him back under. Playing a matinee game has him all confused about time, he keeps looking at the clock and expecting it to be later, and in some middle-of-the-night half-asleep way it makes sense that Bitty is also off-kilter.

In the morning it makes much less sense, and he texts Lardo and Dex, is Bitty okay?.

there's a lot going on, Lardo writes back. his mom found out about the fire. Jack winces, all too familiar with how it goes when your parents find out about things you should have told them. should I come up? he asks.

go to practice, Lardo says. Jack goes to practice and gets through it on the basis of years of experience blocking out emotional turmoil. Dubs comes over at one point and asks if his boy is okay. Jack says he is, because he doesn't think he can stand trying to explain that he hasn't even seen him yet. Dubs looks at him suspiciously but leaves it there.

Jack gets a couple micro-flashes of Bitty while he's changing out of his gear - walking, his new shoes rubbing. A flinch from something. And then nothing, until his phone chimes while he's shoveling down lunch.

have you heard from Bitty, an unfamiliar number asks. Which is backwards and terrifying.

who is this, Jack sends immediately.

His phone rings.

"We can't find him," Holster says, "They gave him an emergency single in Meese but the RA said she saw the light on all night, and he was going to meet Chowder for breakfast but he didn't, and his mom has called Lardo four times, and you - "

"Holster," Jack says. "He was walking somewhere, earlier. I think I can - I'll let you know, okay?" And then he hangs up, because he's going to be distracted enough while he drives, he doesn't need to be on the phone, too.

Driving had always been a relatively high-ESMN circumstance for Jack; he remembers back when he was trying to learn, feeling everyone's impatience. Highway driving in particular, when his mind shuts off and he's just driving on autopilot. He knows he can't force it but he can still feel himself jumping at every little what-was-that noise or feeling as he drives north - was that Bitty? Was that? And then he does feel him, like he's come around a corner and he's there - balled fists, a headache, a tight knot in his stomach.

Jack tries to resonate into it, as much as he can while he's driving, tightening his hands on the steering wheel, clenching his jaw and his abs. He can feel the gritty soreness of Bitty's eyes, and shaky, jittery exhaustion - it's entirely possible he hasn't eaten or slept since the fire. Jack's guilt snaps at his throat, god, he should have been there for him.

He shoves that aside. What matters right now is Bitty. He tries to listen, for clues to where Bitty might be - he's never overheard conversations around him, before, just music, but it would sure be helpful. Nothing, though.

They'll look for Bitty in all the obvious places. Although - Jack's not even sure what the obvious places would be, other than the Haus kitchen. Other kitchens? He doesn't smell baking.

He's exiting the highway when he smells something, something familiar that hits him with sense memory. It's not a baking smell at all, it's garbage-sour and metallic, but Jack wants to cry in relief; he knows where Bitty is, and it's not a bad place, all things considered. It's not a bad place to go when you want to be alone.

He drives straight to Faber; it doesn't occur to him until he's crossing the river that he could have turned to drive past the Haus and see the damage for himself. Maybe later, although it's hard, somehow, not to think of this as a one-way trip, "later" beyond some horizon of unimaginibility. He doesn't park in the front lot, at Faber, but turns down the service alley, driving around to the far side, and there, standing in front of the loading dock, is Bitty.

He's pacing, when Jack sees him; he lifts his head at the sound of the truck, and his eyes go huge when he recognizes who it is.

Jack thinks for a minute that Bitty's going to run, like he had that day on the bridge, and he stops the truck right there in the middle of the alley, thinking that if Bitty bolts, this time, he's going to chase after him. But Bitty doesn't run, just stands there, frozen, while Jack's hand shakes as he tries to get the key out of the ignition, until he gives up and jumps out, leaving the door open.

He's scared to speak, but he holds his hands up, the universal symbol for "I don't mean any harm", and takes cautious steps forward, staring at Bitty like he can hold him there just with his eyes.

Bitty jerks his head away and turns around to face the wall.

"You shouldn't be here," Bitty says, high-pitched, "I'm - I really can't right now, no." He sounds just shy of hysterical, so tightly-wound he could snap, so brittle he could shatter.

"Bitty," Jack says. He keeps walking towards him. He can feel Bitty's stomach churning, and the fatigue tremors in his hands.

"You are the last person who should be around me," Bitty says, "How are you not running as fast as you can right now."

"That's you," Jack says meanly, and immediately feels terrible. "Fuck, sorry, it's okay, I don't - I don't care, Bitty. If you still don't want to see me, okay, but I'm never going to run away from you."

He keeps walking forward, fifteen feet away, ten, seven. He stops. "Look," he says, "Will you just - talk to me?"

"No," Bitty says. It's practically a moan. "I can't do this - I can't even - there's nothing - "

Jack steps towards him again. "At least let me get you something to eat," he says. He thinks frantically about his crocodile, what it most hates to let him do. "If you can't be around people, we can drive through somewhere, or I can go get you something, you can stay in the truck." He reaches a careful hand out to Bitty's shoulder and Bitty flinches and drops into a huddled ball at the base of the wall.

"No," he says, face against his knees, and Jack - Jack should know better, Jack is trying to do this right, but he can't stand to see Bitty like that, on the fucking ground. He scoops him up and sets him down on the loading dock before Bitty can even flail. Jack can feel how he's petrified, how he's tense all over trying to not let himself move, and Jack drags his feet over the edge of the dock so that he has to uncurl a little.

Bitty covers his face with his hands.

"How can you even stand how I feel," Bitty says. "I can't stand it. I can't - "

"I can't feel how you feel," Jack says. "I mean - body echoes, yeah, but not the emotion part. Fuck, would you talk to me then? If I already knew how you felt?" He'd taken his pill this morning, again, not even thinking about it, fuck.

"No," Bitty says, the only word he sounds sure about. "You wouldn't be here, you wouldn't - "

"I would," Jack says, aware of how he's looming over him, hands planted to either side of him, trapping him like he shouldn't do to someone panicking, but he's incapable of moving back. "Bitty, I lived with uncontrolled synch for ten years, you think you're going to shock me?"

"I don't want you to see me like this," Bitty says, starting to cry behind his hands.

"I do though!" Jack yells. "You think I don't know all about fucking up?" He's so angry, suddenly, he's furious, six months of longing and rejection and Bitty won't even fucking look at him. "I fucking want it, whatever ugly, petty, hateful thing you've got in there, whatever you did, or wish you did, I want all of it, I wish I could feel it. You're there, I'm there, how hard is that?!"

As fast as it hit him, his anger has drained away, and he realizes he's shouting at the backs of Bitty's hands and Bitty is cringing back away from him.

"Please," Jack says, much more softly. He sinks down to his knees in front of the loading dock. It puts him at just the right height to put his head in Bitty's lap, which is the most tempting idea in the world, but he makes himself keep looking at where Bitty's face is hidden by his hands. "Bitty, please," he says, putting his own hands on Bitty's knees in front of him.

Bitty looks at him through his fingers. Jack sees the glitter of an opening eye, and then it starts hitting him, panic and loss and guilt and shame. It's like a fight that's just a beating, like punch after punch to the gut, and Jack can feel Bitty's feeling that he can't survive this.

Jack takes a breath and blows it out, and then another one, deeper, filling up his lungs, because that's what you do when something's trying to drown you, and he feels Bitty inhale with him.

"It was my fault," Bitty says, shaky, still crying, "I think I was drunk baking," and he drops his hands down on top of Jack's and squeezes tightly and stares right into his eyes.

"It was my fault," Bitty says, tight and awful, "And if it wasn't then it was Dex's fault, with the oven, or maybe he did it on purpose, Nursey thinks so, and I want it to be his fault so it wasn't me and the whole fucking Haus is gone and my parents are going to make me come home and, fuck, Jack. Jack."

Jack breathes, because that's what you do, and he feels Bitty breathe with him. Bitty's eyes are so wide they're the entire world, and it's like - sledding, Jack thinks crazily, everything rushing by on either side of him, cold exhilaration under and on top of all the nausea and shame, and for a moment, he's left it all behind, and there's just Bitty.

"Bitty," he says, and reaches up to Bitty's face. "I told you, it's all okay," and Bitty looks at him for a moment and then slides forward off the loading dock and falls down into Jack's arms. Jack wraps his arms around him and lets him cry into his jacket for awhile and breathes for both of them, letting the steady, practiced rhythm of it settle Bitty a little when his sobbing gets too wild.

Jack can't feel Bitty's emotions any more, he got out past them, or they receded, but he can feel body feedback zinging back and forth between them, the way Bitty shifts, automatically, when Jack's knees start to hurt, and Jack moves with him. Jack has synched to maybe a hundred thousand different people, guessing about crowds in arenas, and he's never felt anything like this, Bitty reacting directly to him. Maybe sex with Kenny, a few times, when it was good, but it wasn't like this, like sharing the same lungs. Bitty gives a sort of shuddering sigh and then they're breathing in unison. Maybe even their heartbeats are keeping time. Jack likes that idea; it's stupidly romantic, but here he is with a lapful of Eric Bittle, finally getting to pet the line of his back and nuzzle into his hair, he probably gets to be a little romantic.

"Hey," Jack says, when some extra, minute relaxation somewhere in Bitty's body tells him he can talk again. "I'm still here."

Jack can feel the way Bitty becomes aware of Jack under him, around him. "You are," Bitty says, the start of being embarrassed, of pulling away. Jack's hands tighten automatically on his back.

"If I kiss you right now I'm never going to stop," Jack says quickly, and, wow, he can feel how that thrills through Bitty. There's an English expression for nerves, butterflies in the stomach, that Jack has never understood - his anxiety has teeth - but that's exactly how Bitty feels, like a burst of butterflies just took off in his middle, all fluttery and delicate. Jack taps his thumb against his lips. "I want to," he says, "And there's so much - just, the Haus, we could talk for an hour about that. But can I please get you some food? And some sleep? You feel like double overtime." And like he's got ground glass in his eye sockets, but the last thing he wants is for Bitty to think he's complaining about what's coming through their synch.

"Gee," Bitty drawls shakily, "You sure know how to flatter a boy," but he levers himself slowly to his feet and reaches down a hand for Jack. Just as Jack reaches up to take it, he gets a flash of Bitty's emotions again: exhaustion and guilt, still, but also a sort of slowly-dawning wonder.

"I felt that," Bitty says, eyes wide, "I felt you feeling that," and when Jack lets Bitty pull him to his feet, he doesn't let go of his hand.

Jack had always thought he would kiss him in the Haus, in a kitchen that now doesn't exist any more, or in one of their rooms, or in the truck, or alone on the ice before dawn, somewhere that was theirs. He's never pictured the Faber loading dock, ten feet from a smelly garbage dumpster, a place where Jack used to go to be alone before games, to wrestle the crocodile and maybe cry or puke or whatever else he needed to do. But Bitty had found him here once, had bumped his fist and talked his ear off, before Jack had even understood how precious that was. (Six months of hearing Bitty's music but not his voice; Jack has wished more than once he could go back to any point when Bitty babbled at him, just to get to listen.) And so he crowds Bitty back against the striped edge of the loading dock, feeling the catch of his breath and the heat in his face, and grabs hold of his shoulders and kisses him.

It's like a short circuit, both sides of the slickness of lips and tongues at once, and he feels Bitty gasp into his mouth and pull away. Jack follows, chasing it, and Bitty leans back in again, opening up hot and wet for him, and Jack feels him shaking and shaking -

"Fuck," he says. "You've still been awake for 36 hours, haven't you."

"Holster made me eat some dinner," Bitty says grumpily, like that should obviously be enough to recover from a traumatic experience, a hospitalization, and too many missed meals. It's such a far cry from his usually meticulous self-care that Jack has to kiss the tip of his nose.

"Come on," he says, "Food, sleep, then everything else. I don't have to be back in Providence until tomorrow morning."

Bitty starts to say something but yawns hugely, making Jack yawn too. He lets Jack lead him back to the truck, although he draws the line at Jack trying to help him with his seatbelt. Jack turns around carefully and heads back around Faber and out, away from campus out to where there are gas stations and strip malls and drive-thrus. He gets Bitty a burger and fries and a milkshake and watches Bitty devour it all while Jack texts Lardo and Holster and Dex to say that Bitty is safe and with Jack but they need some space right now and Jack will talk to him later about things like calling his mother. Holster texts back to say "fucking finally" and Lardo says okay you were right to come up. Jack doesn't care about right, he cares about the fact that Bitty's stomach finally feels like it isn't digesting itself and the throbbing in his head is easing up a little.

By the time he gets Bitty back to Meese, Bitty is basically sleepwalking, and Jack only finds the door to his single by feeling Bitty's feet expect to stop when they go past it. It's a tiny, bleak little room, windowless and deskless, just a bed jammed in against a wardrobe, but that's all they need right now. Bitty flops onto the bed and Jack eases his shoes and jacket off. He lines up his own shoes next to Bitty's and hangs his jacket over Bitty's at the end of the bed and curls up around him. The bed is narrow and the pillow is plasticky and the sheets smell like bleach, and the circumstances are terrible, but Jack can't help but be selfishly happy to be here, finally where he's meant to be.

*

Eric

He wakes up with Jack warm at his back, and no idea how long he's been asleep. Without a window there's no cue of the light to tell him, and he doesn't own a clock or a phone or anything to check if he rolls over. That seems like reason enough to stay put, to feel Jack's arm heavy over his ribs and realize he's holding his hand, his thumb nestled into the notch between Jack's index and middle fingers. It reminds Eric of how he used to hold Señor Bunny, his thumb between his ears, and then the tears start to flow again. Of everything that had been in his room, if he could have taken one thing...

He feels Jack stir behind him, his head lifting from the pillow. "Talk to me?" Jack asks quietly, kissing him on the temple, by the corner of his eye.

There are still tears trickling down Eric's face; he pulls his hand loose from Jack's and rubs them away. He gets as far as "I had a stuffed rabbit" before he's crying freely again. Jack, bless him, doesn't ask any questions, just sits all the way up and puts his hand on Eric's side, between his ribs and his hip, not even moving, just... there.

In this little closet of a room, it feels okay to just cry, to roll over, even, and scoot to where he can throw his arm over Jack's lap and burrow his face into Jack's hip, clinging and still crying. In theory, Eric knows walls don't mean much to a loud spirit, but it still feels like they could be in some shielded box somewhere, completely cut off from the rest of the world. Jack's hands settle into his hair and on his shoulder, like he's answering the question Eric was asking with his clinging: he's not going anywhere, he's here with him, for this.

"I'm not saying this because it makes a difference to me," Jack says quietly, still petting Eric's hair. "But I'm sure you weren't drunk baking. I, uh, I was feeling you quite a bit, that night, and I almost always smell it when you bake."

Eric sort of spasms, hearing that, clutching tighter onto Jack. "Really?" It's such a relief, what he wants to hear, but that means Dex -

"And Dex didn't do it either, I woke him up when I was calling people to try to find out what was happening. And... look, I've synched a lot, I know sometimes people... aren't what you would think... but there's no way that kid is an arsonist. Nursey was probably just freaking out."

"It still might have been the oven," Eric says in a small voice, muffled between Jack's hip and the bed. "And I forgot about the smoke alarm batteries, that was definitely me, and - "

"There's no way Tacy was a worse fire hazard than Betsy was," Jack says reasonably, and, hey, wait a minute. Eric sits up.

"You know what I named the new oven?"

Jack takes his hands, and Eric feels it, again, the impossible new thing he had felt at the loading dock. He's read a lot of descriptions of synch, trying to imagine what it's like, what his spirit-touch feels like from the other side: like watching a movie, or having a headache? Like colors, or double vision, or déjà vu? It isn't like any of that. The closest he can come is that it's like hearing music without quite being able to make out the words, or remember the tune a second later, but keeping the feeling of it. Right now Jack is terrified, and very, very resolute, and Eric squeezes his hands reflexively.

"There's a lot we should talk about," Jack starts. "Maybe this is completely the wrong order for this, I don't know. Um." He closes his eyes and swallows, grip tightening on Eric's hands. "I'm in love with you," Jack says, "And I'm, um, I'm locked to you, my ESMN is. And I know everything about you that anyone will tell me."

Eric can't speak. There's a pounding in his ears, maybe, his heart might have exploded into his whole body or something. Jack's eyes are open again, intent on Eric's face.

"I know that's, like, stalking, and I'm sorry. I know synch doesn't obligate you, and I will give up, if you've been waiting for me to give up. I have, um, deadlines for myself. And conditions. This is the second one, I guess, where I get to ask. But I didn't mean to ask now - I'm not asking - maybe I shouldn't have said anything at all now, with everything else, but, uh, that didn't work so well before - "

He can feel Jack feeling like he's sinking, like everything he says just takes him further away from the air, and it's intolerable. Eric isn't sure, now, whether he's been trying to do the right thing or he's just been scared. Maybe it doesn't matter, now that his whole life has burned down. Now it's just him and Jack, alone in an almost-empty box, and the only choice that matters is this one right now.

Eric closes his eyes.

"Don't give up," he says. It's less than a whisper, hardly audible at all. It probably looks to Jack like he's just mouthing words, but Jack's hands tighten on his again anyways, to the point where it actually hurts, and then loosen as fast as the pain registers. "Don't give up," Eric says again, actually voicing it this time, and he opens his eyes and looks right into Jack's. He's not sure, any more, about the difference between what he wants and what's already true whether he wants it or not. All he knows is that he can't run any more and he can't put a smile on it and he can't bury it in sugar.

"I think it's mutual," Eric says. "I think we, um. Might be. Um. Bonded?"

Jack's drowning feeling lightens up a little, now less a plunge than a sort of swirling uncertainty which way is up. Jack is still staring at him searchingly. Eric is usually full of words, like a bottomless bag of flour, but for once in his life his scoop is coming up empty.

Eric kneels up and kisses him.

It's not like the first time, when he could hardly tell which mouth was whose; the half-heard sense of Jack's emotions fades out entirely when their lips connect. This time, Eric gets to be sure that the lower lip caught between his is Jack's, and that it's Jack's mouth he's exploring carefully into with his own tongue. It's strange, the alien fleshiness of someone else's mouth without synch, but good, and he thinks it must be for Jack too, the way Jack's hands on his waist are pulling him closer.

They're finding a rhythm together, deeper then softer; it's like a steady, looping beat, drawing them in. It isn't like Eric had fantasized about, it's not frantic or violent at all. Just for a second, he catches a tiny thread of surprise that makes him think it's not quite what Jack had pictured either. It makes him smile into the kiss, the idea that this isn't straight out of either of their heads, that the way it is between them can be something they're arriving at together. He's been so sure he could never do this but now that he is it doesn't feel like any of the horrible things he had thought it would be.

His hands are on Jack's shoulders; he moves them tentatively into Jack's hair. Jack's mouth slides away from Eric's to his jaw, his neck, and he's taking hold of the hem of Eric's shirt in a way that promises imminent removal, and - Eric's stomach makes an audible noise.

"I thought you woke up because you were hungry," Jack says, detaching from Eric's neck. "Can I take you to dinner?"

Eric blinks; he had sort of thought it was the middle of the night, and he doesn't want dinner, he wants to keep going. He wants to find out how it feels to let this happen. Unfortunately now that he thinks about it he's absolutely starving.

"Will you come back with me afterwards?" he asks.

"Of course," Jack says, and then his face falls. "Wait, no," he says, making a too-familiar face of self-frustration, "I'm an idiot, I didn't bring my meds."

"Okay," Eric says. "I mean, you're not, I don't - " His hands have fallen back to Jack's shoulders, and he leans in for a quick kiss to the corner of Jack's mouth before he moves away. He's not sure whether he thinks it's an excuse or not.

"I feel like we're gonna open that door and all the ills of the world are going to come rushin' into our little box here," Eric says while he finds his shoes. He's not sure what he's trying to say exactly. Something nice, to tell Jack it's okay; something real, because he has to be in this for the long haul, now. "But that's okay?" He sighs. "I guess I'm done not dealing with any of this," he says. "So that leaves... dealing."

Jack's hands settle onto his hips from behind; Jack's lips press against the side of his neck, down where it meets his shoulder.

"Am I an ill then?" Jack asks in a low voice.

Eric puts his hands over Jack's and leans back, just a moment of blatant snuggling.

Of course not, sweetheart is the sugar answer. Jack is the most complicated thing that's ever happened to him, and Eric's handled it so badly so far, thinking it was something to get through and not the rest of his life on the line.

"It's just a lot," he says. "Being bonded. And I'm wrung out six ways to Sunday, and I don't feel like I understand anything - have you been secretly gay this whole time?"

"Pan," Jack says. "And it wasn't supposed to be a secret, not to you - did you not know that?" He sounds kind of strangled.

Eric squirms around to where he can look at him. There's a line between Jack's eyebrows and Eric just wants to kiss him all over his beautiful sad worried face. Eric is still so scared, and he thinks Jack might be too; he wishes he could know when they would get to the Ransom-and-Holster part, where everything was safe and easy and happy. Maybe Eric's already ruined that.

"I'm done not knowing," he says. "Take me to dinner and we'll... start there, I guess?"

Jack nods and gives him a little smile. Eric hopes he's just imagining that it's not quite reaching his eyes.

**

Chapter Text

*
Jack

The crocodile gets Jack before they've even made it down the stairs.

One minute he's watching Bitty's butt as he leads the way down, thinking about all the things he had said and hadn't said - the way he had agreed about bonded, but not about in love, the way he had kissed Jack but told him he was something he had to deal with. He wants to ask Bitty if he would come back with him to Providence that night and whether he should have tried harder over the summer, all those never-sent texts and emails asking if he could ever have a chance, and then the next minute the crocodile is snapping its jaws in his face and Jack stumbles and has to sit down, right there on the stairs, half a flight from the fucking door.

Bitty trots down a few more steps before he realizes that Jack isn't behind him any more, and that's one tiny mercy, maybe, that Bitty isn't synching this, that Jack's crocodile isn't hurting him too. But what if it does, what if it can, Jack's been so selfish and stupid, letting himself think it might still work out.

Bitty turns around. "Jack?"

Jack can't answer, he has to fight the crocodile before it swims out of his head and over to Bitty's, so he's starting his fucking breathing and toe-wiggling and the rest of the routine. He can't come up with anything coherent to say.

Bitty looks really freaked for a minute, like maybe he is starting to feel it, and, god, Jack has read about anxiety feedback loops on GeneralZad, this could be really bad. Bitty takes a deep breath of his own, though, and sits down next to Jack, tight against his side, and leans his head on his shoulder.

"I have no idea if this is going to work," he says quietly, "But, listen. Here's how you make an apple pie. You start by picking out six or seven apples, I like to use three different kinds, if I can, a couple of Pink Ladies, some Granny Smiths, maybe Gravensteins if I can get them, or a Cortland. I like to line them up so they can watch me make the crust, I know that sounds silly, but when I was first learning - "

It's sweet, it's so sweet, Jack can tell what he's trying to do, but it isn't helping. Right now Bitty's voice in his ear is one more thing he has to worry about.

"Don't," he finally manages to say. "Just - some space - " He feels Bitty's flinch of hurt, but he stops talking about cold butter and pats Jack on the knee and stands up.

"I'll, uh, be outside then," he says. It's a little easier once he's gone - lonelier, but familiar. It's an illusion that Bitty's actually any safer from the crocodile, given synch, but at least if this is the time it actually kills him, Bitty won't have to watch.

Jack breathes, and wiggles his toes, and silently describes his location in terms of each of his five senses. It only takes six or seven minutes to get through the "I am seriously going to die" stage and into the "oh look, I lived, let's play a hockey game" stage. This time minus the hockey game, but plus dinner with his reluctant bondmate. Both easier and harder, both less and more critical to get right.

Bitty, when he finds him, is sitting on a low wall just outside the dorm, looking at his hands like he's wondering where his phone has gone.

"Hey," he says, a little tremulously, jumping up, and Jack goes to him. He's not sure whether he can hold him like he wants to, and settles for a hand on his shoulder.

"I can work on that," he says, meaning "sorry".

Bitty slips his own arms around Jack's waist - Jack gets to have that, apparently. "You don't have to," Bitty says. "Maybe you can, um. Tell me what not to do?"

Jack sighs. There are all kinds of possible answers to what Bitty should do about Jack's anxiety, starting with "not be involved with him", which Jack hates, and "nothing, it's my own problem", which he doubts is going to work for Bitty. In his many hours of thinking about a relationship he wasn't sure he was ever going to get to have, Jack has read up on things like anxiety disorders in mutually locked ESMN. He might not be able to take as-needed anxiety meds, but Bitty can, if it comes to that.

"I should tell you lots of stuff," Jack says. "I don't know where to start."

"I knooow," Bitty groans, rolling his forehead against Jack's chest. "Did you know it's only 'bout 8 o'clock? I thought it was going to be, like, midnight, but it looked earlier when I got out here, and I asked somebody and she said 8."

"You were hungry," Jack says, "Remember? Couldn't sleep that long."

"Right," Bitty says, like he had actually forgotten. Jack reluctantly lets go of him and gets him walking in the direction of where they had parked the truck. Jack is hungry too, he had forgotten to eat himself when he was focused on feeding Bitty, and he hadn't wanted to wake Bitty, when he had woken up at his own regular dinner time. He hadn't wanted to move a muscle, not when he had Bitty sleeping curled softly in his arms.

There's a casual Italian place nearby, popular for off-campus dates. Bitty blinks at his menu for a minute and then hands it to Jack with a yawn and tells him to order for him. Jack thinks it might be a test, like, a bonded-ness test - Parse used to play games like that all time with Jack's synch - but maybe Bitty genuinely doesn't have the oomph right now to pick something off a menu. Jack gets him shrimp with pumpkin ravioli, because they're like little teeny pies or something. Bitty nods when Jack orders it, so he apparently hasn't failed yet, but he's still quiet.

Jack remembers he never turned his phone back on after their nap and gets it out. Huh, that's... a lot of text messages. He starts reading through.

"Shit," he says, involuntarily.

"What," Bitty asks.

"Dex punched Nursey," Jack says. "Holster tried to force them into a room together to talk it out, and I guess it didn't go so well."

"A room? What room?"

"Uh... at Hanahan House, I guess? Chowder's very sorry about getting Dex there under false pretenses."

"Good lord," Bitty says. "Holster forced a surprise confrontation between Dex and Nursey on Nursey's territory? Of course it didn't go well." Jack isn't used to seeing him look so exasperated. "Dex needs something to be doing," Bitty mutters, almost to himself, "And Nursey's more likely to open up if he's outside, why didn't Holster take them for a walk by the Pond or something? Ugh, is Nursey okay?"

"Black eye," Jack reports. Bitty shakes his head.

"Ugh," he says again, "I hope he can see for the game... on..." He trails off.

"What?" Jack asks. "Brown here on Tuesday, right?"

Bitty opens and closes his mouth without saying anything.

"Bitty?" Jack asks, starting to get a little alarmed.

"My bag was in my room," Bitty says, "Jack, I don't have skates."

Jack reaches out for his hand, but Bitty pulls it away.

"We all had gear there," Bitty says, "And Lardo says they don't know when we might be able to get back in to see what - "

"Back in," Jack says, "I thought it burned down."

Bitty makes another face Jack has never quite seen before, sort of impatient confusion. "Haven't you been by to see it? The front's pretty burnt up but the back is okay, you can't really tell from the outside how bad it is inside, but I guess people have been in and out so - "

"So there was never any danger they would think it was you," Jack says, thinking about it, "If you had been drunk baking there'd be evidence. There'd be a burnt pie pan still in the oven or something."

Bitty's jaw drops. "Are you saying I was overreacting - "

"No!" Jack says. "No. I'm just relieved. We knew you didn't do it, but ESMN can't be evidence. It's good if they can tell what really happened."

"I guess," Bitty says. "But... argh, Jack. Every pot I get off a burner, there's another one boiling over."

"Come back with me to Providence," Jack says, not sure whether he's being helpful or greedy. "We can get you new gear, and - "

Bitty frowns, nose wrinkling a little. Jack almost flinches; it's not just the rejection, it's the way he just for a second looks like someone Jack doesn't know. He's made a lot of funny faces at Jack, wide-eyed and flustered and shy and earnest; he's never looked dismissive, before.

"We all had gear in there," Bitty says. "Except maybe Chowder, I know he leaves some of his at Faber, but we're all going to have to figure this out. Lardo's probably on it, but the boys'll like it if I'm cheerful about it. And somebody obviously needs to sort out Dex and Nursey, sensibly, probably each of them one-on-one and then both together and then each of them one-on-one again, the sooner the better before they can make it any worse. I'm not running off at a time like this."

"Not from them," Jack mutters.

Bitty winces. "It ain't that I wouldn't want to go with you tonight," he says, sounding particularly Southern. "I mean, thank you for the invitation. It's just - everything's so crazy? But we've got time, right?"

Jack feels more like a pot boiling over than one that can be safely back-burnered, but he can't really fault Bitty for wanting to put his team first, and there's something very Bitty about him having a whole plan.

"Bitty," Jack says, thinking about that, "Why didn't we ever think of you for captain?"

Bitty looks down, then back at him. "I don't know," he says. "I thought of me, until y'all announced it was Holster."

He says it calmly, but it feels like a slam - maybe his harshest condemnation of Jack yet. God, no wonder Bitty wasn't sure about accepting their lock. Jack knows he should say something, but their food shows up, and he gets distracted by tasting shrimp and pumpkin in Bitty's mouth. It's really good.

"Do you want a bite?" Bitty asks, catching him looking, and Jack ducks his head.

"I, um," he says, and Bitty turns a little pink.

"It's, um, touching you? Me tasting it?"

It's a funny way to put it, but Jack nods.

"You should tell me if there's anything you couldn't stand second hand," Bitty says. "Licorice or okra or whatever."

"You should get a phone so I can make sure you're okay if I feel you get hurt," Jack blurts out.

Bitty sucks in a breath, but nods. "It's hard to get used to the range," he says. "I was mostly loud to people nearby, but..." He trails off, and Jack wants to ask him to continue, because what does he mean, loud? But his phone buzzes.

"Oh god," Jack says, skimming the new text, while Bitty makes impatient faces. "Apparently Chowder thought you all were going to be able to get back into the Haus before the game, and he just found out they're saying end of the week at the earliest, and he's having some kind of goalie meltdown under a table."

Bitty sighs, looks down at his plate, back at Jack, and finally closes his eyes. "Doggy bag?"

*
Eric

Eric kisses Jack one more time when Jack drops him off. He has to; he can't open the door of the truck and turn his back on him without turning all the way towards him, first, without letting himself trace Jack's cheekbones with his thumbs and press kisses to the corner of his mouth. It's so strange to have finally given in and not be able to give in all the way; Eric feels like in a perfect world, they would just spend the next week in Jack's apartment, talking and touching and experimenting with their synch. Instead he has to go extract a goalie out from under a table, and Jack, apparently, needs to go home and be worried and sad, judging from his face. He doesn't say anything, though, just strokes his fingers behind Eric's ear, just once, and wishes him luck, and gives him a little shoulder-push away.

When Eric goes in to Hanahan House, Holster and Ransom are too busy fretting over Chowder to mention Eric's own breakdown and disappearance. Chowder gets lured out with music and intentionally "impromptu" dancing. ("Dance," Eric has to hiss at Holster; it would have been easier with baked goods, but Hanahan's "kitchen" is a sink and a fridge.)

Nursey shows up partway through and Eric snags him for step one of that process. His eye is swollen but he claims it's not impeding his vision; Eric freezes a washcloth and makes him lie down with it anyways, and then is politely reasonable at him until Nursey sighs and grudgingly admits he doesn't really think Dex would burn down the Haus, he's hardly known what he's been saying recently. Eric refrains from saying out loud any of the less-charitable things he's thinking, and tries to sound soothing without being patronizing.

Lardo arrives just as Eric's putting the frogs to bed; she gives Eric a quick, hard hug, but when they sit down with Holster and Ransom at the table Chowder had recently been under, the topic is not Eric but equipment shopping.

"Here's what the women's team can loan us for Tuesday, here's some old stuff I found in Faber, but this is what you're all going to have to buy right away, what do you think?" She shows them the lists.

Ransom reads down them and grimaces. "Bro, I don't know how to tell you this, but I kind of just maxxed my credit card replacing my textbooks."

Holster nods apologetically. "I also maxxed my card replacing Ransom's textbooks," he says, reaching over and squeezing Ransom's shoulder. "I just had to go and lock a science major." He shakes his head in mock sadness, but he keeps his hand possessively on Ransom's shoulder.

"The fire was big enough news we can probably get some donations," Eric says, "Or at least a line of credit at Pure Hockey. Or..."

"Or?" Ransom and Holster say together, while Lardo raises her eyebrows.

"Jack obviously would," Eric mutters.

Ransom and Holster high-five. Eric looks back and forth nervously between them.

"Soooo," Ransom says. "You guys are back together?"

"Were we right, are you locked?" Holster asks.

Eric puts his face in his hands. "Yes," he says, not up to arguing about back together. "We think so, we both - uh - " He makes a sort of vague gesture out from his forehead and back with one hand, to indicate ESMN.

"'Swawesome!" Ransom says. "His synch with you is unreal, the way he knew about the fire all the way in Ottawa? We're like, line-of-sight in the last 30 seconds." Holster nods.

"I don't care if Jack can find you, though," Lardo says. "We were scared. Please don't run off like that."

"I won't," Eric says, "I'm sorry, y'all, I - " He stops. It's another great opening to talk, being handed to him on a plate with whipped cream and a cherry, and it feels like he could, like it would be easy, even, but... not without talking to Jack, first. So much of what's been going on with Eric is now what's been going on with them, with his bondmate; he wants that week of conversation before he goes telling other people about it, even their closest friends. "I definitely won't make him do that again," he finishes weakly.

"Um, he would happily go find you in Antarctica," Ransom says, but he's looking soppily at Holster when he says it so Eric is pretty sure he's not really talking about Jack.

"So do you want to ask him for a gear bailout?" Lardo asks.

Eric thinks about it.

"No," he decides. "Let's set up a GoFundMe and see what we can do that way, and we can ask on the group text who has available credit for right now. It's not that much money, really."

Ransom and Holster nod, and Lardo opens a new file to start working out what they're going to say.

When Eric finally gets back to Meese, long after midnight, he's exhausted, but his mind is still racing from one problem to another. He isn't sure he'll be able to sleep. He would if he had Jack, he thinks, remembering Jack holding him, all warm and sleepy; that helps, imagining that. Maybe Jack really is sleeping, back down in Providence, or trying to sleep, and Eric is spirit-touching the edge of it. He feels a little silly, but he drags his lips across his own palm, just on the off-chance Jack will feel it.

*

"... and my" sniff "Econ professor implied that the party" sniff "got out of control. He didn't come right out and say we did it ourselves, but - "

"That is so not chill," Nursey says.

"That's even worse than pity," Dex says.

Eric doesn't smile. He's not faking it exactly - the tears are real, still coming whenever he thinks about the Haus too long whether he wants them or not - but he's definitely using it.

They walk along the Pond in silence for a moment while Eric sniffles and considers his next line.

"If I had just put the batteries back in - "

"Bro," Nursey says, "You can't blame yourself for making a mistake. Who the fuck knows what happened, the important thing is, nobody got hurt - "

Dex opens his mouth.

" - much," Eric says, ruthlessly coughing. Nursey and Dex both look contrite. Eric is pretty sure he can have them hugging before the path turns off to the student center.

*

Sitting in Harlem Renaissance with an empty spiral-bound notebook and a Bic pen, discussing readings that were in his (irretrievable) course packets and failing to hand in the response writing that was on his (probably destroyed) laptop, is almost a complete waste of time. Eric can hardly focus, can't remember what was in the readings at all, and can't tell whether the prof is being malicious or sincerely trying to engage him when she asks him for his thoughts on the Fire!! magazine headquarters burning down.

"That's... ironic," he manages to say without sounding too upset, and someone else goes off on a long tangent speculating about arson and race violence. They probably have a really good point but Eric ends up doodling hockey plays to stay calm; it's just too close.

He goes to the library after class to use a computer and discovers that their GoFundMe has funded overnight. There are a few names he recognizes from Twitter, or from comments on his vlogs, and a whole bunch who seem to be Samwell students talking about how much they love watching the hockey team.

"I went to every home game last year, it was like I could feel myself out there, so scary about the fire!!" one reads.

Eric covers his mouth and looks around a little guiltily, like someone in the library is going to denounce him for synching hockey at people and suckering them out of their cash. There are more messages like that, talking about how they "feel like part of the team", or had never liked sports until they got "caught up in the hockey action". He's never really thought about his loud spirit as being something that people might enjoy, just something that could bother them less or more - it's a little funny to only be seeing this side of it now that he's probably not loud any more, now that he's mutually locked. It's kind of fitting, somehow, though, like a memorial, like a eulogy focusing on the good side.

He has email from his mother that he doesn't read, running out of time before he has to go meet Lardo and the boys. The urgency makes shopping straightforward, at least, there's no time to dither or debate, just find something that works and keep going. It still takes so long that they don't have time for a Walmart stop afterwards like he'd been hoping. Eric has started an actual list of all the things he keeps discovering he doesn't own any more: winter gloves, mouthwash, tissues, it just goes on and on. No time to whine about it, though, Chowder is for some reason getting weepy over their new hockey bags, and Holster's looking pleadingly at Eric to fix him.

It turns out Chowder is sad that Eric hasn't been in any of the new bags, so once they're back at Hanahan House, he climbs in and out dutifully until their goalie is satisfied. He's just about to flee back to Meese when Holster announces that they're ordering pizzas and watching Jack's game, and Eric can't exactly bail on that. He still doesn't feel like he knows exactly what Jack wants from their bond, from their relationship, but watching his games is probably baseline supportiveness?

Jack plays terribly, though, turning over the puck like he can barely keep track of it and taking several hard checks into the boards. Everyone looks at Eric each time it happens, like he might crumple himself. He doesn't. Apparently their spirits aren't touching that evening, because he doesn't feel anything from Jack at all. (Or they're not touching in that direction - maybe Jack is playing the whole game tasting pizza with his mouthguard. Who knows.)

It hits Eric when the game is over that he still doesn't have a phone. Not only can he not text Jack to ask if he's okay, it's the one thing his bondmate has asked him to do, and he hasn't done it. It makes him feel jittery, unstable, like a cake about to collapse. Maybe Jack had played badly because of the bond, and right this minute he could be angry about being trapped in it... Eric almost breaks into a run on the way back to Meese, almost veers off to do a couple of laps of campus. But maybe the last thing Jack needs after a hard game is secondhand running.

He makes himself walk calmly, instead, and changes for bed. He thinks about the GoFundMe, and vicarious hockey, and audiences. There's so much he's going to need to relearn, trading indefinite crowds for Jack - he probably doesn't even need to be so scared that people are going to feel him get checked! Jack can obviously take it.

In bed, he runs his fingers over the spots where Jack might hurt: hips, ribs, shoulders. He runs his fingers through his own hair, although Jack hadn't taken any obvious knocks to the head, it just seems like something he might like. If he had a kitchen, maybe he would bake a pie, but he doesn't; he strokes the bone behind his ear, like Jack had done when they'd kissed goodbye, and tries to sleep.

*

5-0 to Brown. It doesn't bear thinking about. He keeps coughing during his shifts. He has blisters from his new skates and no moleskin, chapped hands and no hydrolatum, a head full of bad feelings and no kitchen.

*

On Wednesday they all get called in to the Dean's office for another round of questions from Greeley, one at a time, going over everything again. Ransom makes an emergency call to Shitty - "should we, like, have lawyers?". But it feels too late for that - Holster's already in there - and one of the admin-assistant types overhears them and points out that the sooner they close the investigation, the sooner they might be able to get back into the building, so nobody wants to delay that.

Dex goes and sits on the lacrosse porch for awhile afterwards and reports that there are people with cameras and clipboards and tools going in and out. "I think at least three different groups?" he says. "A couple of guys showed up in a truck with a door sticker for a contracting company, and I saw Greeley with some of the others."

It's frustrating being out of the loop. Holster's been calling Bristol every day for updates and they just keep saying they're waiting on the city.

Eric has a new copy of the Econ syllabus, but no textbook. His class notes from the morning make no sense. He needs a Harlem Renaissance coursepack, too. And, god, his Friday seminar, he hasn't even talked to that professor yet since the fire.

*

On Thursday Eric checks his mailbox and has a package slip. Something from his mother, he thinks. There have been more emails. He hasn't been reading them. He had called briefly, on Dex's phone on Monday, just to say he was alive and well; she had cried, fretted at him, and asked about six ways if he was really okay. The emails are probably more of that. He's guessing the package is cookies, and hopefully also a debit card; it would be nice to be able to do his own shopping.

It's not; it's a padded envelope from an address in Providence he doesn't recognize, overnight mail. Inside is a pair of winter gloves and a phone and charger.

"Oh," Eric says out loud, still standing there by the package window. He pulls the gloves all the way out of the envelope and a scrap of paper falls to the floor.

Sorry, it says, - Jack, and then under that I put this on my plan.

He steps mindlessly into a corner of the mailroom. The gloves are black leather on the backs, some kind of stretchy stuff on the palms. The tag says the entire surface is touchscreen sensitive. He slides one on, and they fit just right. Apparently Jack knows how big Eric's hands are.

The phone... he's turned on the phone and is texting before he even realizes he's going to do it. (Jack has added himself to the address book, or, more precisely, is the entire contents of the address book.)

thank you Jack but you don't have to do this sort of thing

"Thank you, but" is terrible manners, but "is there a number of times you'll come to my rescue before you curse the fates for getting bonded to me and if so how close are we to that number" would probably be even worse, Eric thinks?

Jack doesn't reply right away. Eric migrates to a bench outside the mailroom, logs himself into the Samwell wireless, and downloads the Twitter app. He feels guilty, but also like he should feel guiltier; he's still a little warm inside from the idea that Jack knows his hands well enough to buy him gloves.

And, to be honest, pretty excited to get back to Twitter, it's been almost a week. Maybe he'll tweet a little "good to be back" thing before he even starts going through his notifications...

... or maybe @ghostinthewell just happened to tweet 48 seconds ago that they've seen the official investigation report, and the Haus fire has been determined to be an accidental electrical fire.

Shit, Eric thinks, heart starting to pound. Does that mean it was the oven? He starts thinks about pie, by rote, but - no, if it was the oven, then baking is exactly what -

His phone chimes with a text.

your neck is so tense you're going to strain something, Jack writes. are you ok.

Eric takes a deep breath and makes himself relax his neck and shoulders. His whole life is telling him he needs to run, count, turn on some music, bake something before anyone else has to feel him being upset, but somehow, balancing all of that, there's Jack's voice in his head from checking practice, telling him to keep his head up and keep skating.

fine, he writes back. Haus stuff, call you later?

*

Holster says nobody has said anything to him about the report, but he has class in five minutes, so Eric is welcome to lead the rush, so to speak. Greeley doesn't answer his phone - he'd given Eric a card - and the fire marshal's office tells Eric that the incident report will have gone to the property owner but he can request a copy of the report in ten days by downloading a form and faxing it. The Dean's office seems to have closed early this afternoon; Eric can only guess that that's where @ghostinthewell saw a copy, but there isn't even anybody there for him to try to charm.

Bristol's office is only a mile from campus, though. That's fine. He can use the walk to think through how this might go. His name was never on the lease; they might not want to show him the report, they could claim some kind of confidentiality thing. He's really not sure if property management companies have that or not. If the person he's talking to has read it, he might be talking to someone who thinks it was their fault, or who doesn't... they might be sympathetic, or very very not. It would be so much easier with a pie in his hands... he could play it any way it bounced with a pie in his hands... but then, if his spirit is all tied up with Jack's now, maybe he doesn't need a pie to focus on? Maybe he can just... be himself.

It turns out to be easy; the woman behind the desk looks like someone's grandmother, grandmothers always like Eric, and she's quite willing to make him a copy of the fire report when he tells her he's been sent by the hockey team to get one.

"Oh, sure," she says, tsking. "Such a shame, you boys had a pretty good track record on rent, for our Jason Street properties." She rummages through a stack of papers, finds a set, and starts picking at the staple, presumably as a step towards photocopying it.

"And we'll be able to get back in soon?" Eric asks.

She's raising the lid of the photocopier, but lets it drop.

"Oh, no," she says. "You can't go back in. Didn't you know? The building's been condemned. We have demolition coming tomorrow, got to get it taken care of before some of your friends decide to have a party in there. Not you, dear," she says, photocopying, "But, you know. Wild kids."

Eric nods earnestly, like he's never attended an epikegster. He automatically starts thinking about what he needs to do before he can tell anybody, to make sure he stays calm, but then he remembers, mutual lock, he doesn't have to make himself fit for company. He folds up the report and shoves it into his pocket without even reading it. It'll be there tomorrow; the Haus, apparently, won't.

*

"Fuck them," Nursey says.

"I'm not saying it's not bullshit," Shitty says on speakerphone, "I'm just saying it would, technically, be trespassing. Once they did the casualty termination and declared the building unsafe to enter, your stuff became unrecoverable, which would have given us a claim if we had had renters insurance, but in fact just means you're fucked."

"But all sorts of people went in," Chowder says, still sounding completely baffled. "I just don't understand why not us."

Eric pats his hand.

"I'm going to say 'liability' one more time and then stop answering that question," Shitty says. "Look, guys, I'm sorry, but all that threatening to sue them would get you is Bristol and the university being less willing to work with us in the future. If there's ever going to be any kind of Haus again somewhere, I think you have to let this one officially go."

"But - " Chowder starts.

"Oh, for the love of little green apples," Eric finally says. "Shitty, thanks, go not hear this." He hangs up the call. "Chowder, he's saying if we want to see if we can get any of our stuff back, we're going to have to do it by breaking-and-entering and hope we don't get caught."

Chowder's eyes go wide.

"It's worth it to me," Nursey says quickly. "I don't know about your rooms, but I don't think the fire got anywhere near mine."

"I want my lucky shark mug," Chowder says. "Even if it's too yucky to use, I want it for pencils or something."

Eric just wants to see, he thinks. He can hardly remember anything from that night. Stumbling out in the smoke with Holster half-holding him up, and then the front of the Haus in flames. The street feeling sharp and cold, under his bare feet, like he was walking over cracked ice.

"So," Holster says, "I guess we're planning a heist."

*

It's not much of a heist. They're going before it gets dark, because lights might attract more attention, and they're going in the back door, because Rans and Holster and Chowder all still have their keys. It's all pretty short on synchronized watches and explosives. The closest they come to packing special tools is when Chowder says "wait, what will we put things in" just as they're about to leave. Pretty much everybody's boxes were in the basement, and it seems extra spooky to think about going down there, so they steal a box of trash bags from the Hanahan custodial closet. And then they're off.

Holster isn't going in - he'd muttered something about having "already used his trip back in to get stuff". Eric, as the stuff in question, feels a little weird about that, but also reassured to know that Holster will be walking up and down the street as a lookout, hopefully able to alert Ransom by synch if any more cops or contractors are approaching. Dex is with him, to try to stall the cops if it comes to that.

The front of the Haus is solidly black, but still mostly intact, except for the porch roof, which is gone, and some holes down where it met the wall. There are plywood boards over the windows and the front door; as they go around to the back, there are plywood boards over most of the other windows as well. The border between black and undamaged siding is weirdly sharp. There's trash and debris in the bushes - window frames, broken boards, disintegrating paper, a comforter that Eric is pretty sure was Nursey's.

There's a lockbox hanging from the back doorknob, but Ransom's key still works. The first thing that Eric notices as he steps inside is the smell. Like smoke, obviously, overwhelmingly so, harsher and stranger than the familiar smells of campfires or cigarettes. Something else almost as strong that Eric can't place for a moment - basements? he thinks - and then he takes another breath and realizes it's mold.

"Eeuw," Nursey says, crowding into the back hall.

In the light coming through the open door, Eric can see layers upon layers of dirty footprints on the floor of the hall, grey and black and white. The Haus is dark, ahead of them - he reaches for the light switch and flicks it, but the lights don't go on.

"They must have shut off the power," Nursey says. Eric gets out his new phone and fiddles until he gets the camera LED turned on to use as a flashlight.

As they move further into the Haus, it becomes apparent that it's completely trashed. There's white dust everywhere, and rubble that Eric realizes is bits of the walls when he sees the holes chopped into the walls. In other places there's mold climbing the walls in black and red splotches. Rings of dried-up puddles in corners and in dips in the uneven floors. Broken glass all over the green couch and crunching under his shoes. The living room TV face down on the floor.

"I don't like this," Chowder says in a small voice.

It's surreal; it's like walking into a war zone, or something. Maybe a horror movie, like something is going to jump out from one of the dark corners. This is where they used to live and now it's rank and choking and rotten. The mold and smoke are itching his nose; Eric remembers them telling him at the hospital to avoid further pulmonary irritation. He can't help it; he coughs

"Do you need to get out of here?" Ransom asks.

"Not yet," Eric says, trying to suppress further coughing.

Nursey starts up the stairs, but Eric has to look into the kitchen. It's the first part of the Haus he's seen that's burnt, where the dust is black cinders instead of white plaster. The walls are more hole than wall, showing charred framing.

Tacy is black with smoke. Eric has to turn away, for a minute, sing some Beyonce very loudly in his head, he can't lose it right now, but it looks like someone took an axe to the cabinet doors and the door of the refrigerator is hanging off and it's still full of rotting food and there's a heap in the corner that's half pans and broken dishes and half splintered, blackened laths, and he can't - it's a desecration, he can't -

Ransom's hand lands heavily on his shoulder. "Bro, there's nothing salvageable," he says, like Eric was about to go in there and start digging through the trash heap for his soufflé pans.

"I know," Eric whispers. It's not that he wants to bake with filthy, dented pans - even if he washed them, they would still feel contaminated - it's just that he wants them to not have been in a fire in the first place.

"Go ahead, I just need a minute," he tells Ransom. Ransom gives him a friendly shake by the shoulder and lets go. Eric feels like he should be taking off his hat, or saying a prayer or something. Here lies Tacy, a good oven. Finally he just sweeps the light around one more time, and turns away.

The stairs creak in different spots than they did before, but they don't feel shakier, unless they do. Eric isn't sure. Nursey is in his room, throwing clothes into a garbage bag.

"My fucking textbooks are moldy," he hisses at Eric, "What the fuck did they do, soak the entire place with water?"

Eric's mental image of fire fighting is pretty much exactly that, so he lets that pass. "Do you think it'll still work?" he says instead, nodding at Nursey's laptop on his bed.

"Gonna send it to one of those recovery places," Nursey says, "I had... writing stuff on here."

"Oof," Eric says sympathetically. He's mostly managed not to freak out about his own laptop - his good pictures are all on Instagram, his completed videos are on YouTube, his mother has all his recipe adaptations. People in his classes are being really nice about sharing notes. Still, there were a few things...

"Bitty," Chowder calls from the hall. "I don't know about this."

Eric goes and looks, shining his flashlight-phone in the same direction as Chowder's.

There's plywood on the floor, between their two doorways.

"Is there a hole there?" Chowder says. "Because I really don't want to fall through a hole. Like the board could break and - "

"Look," Eric says, angling his phone, "There are footprints on it. Here, I'll go first, I'm smaller."

He steps, carefully, across the board and into Chowder's doorway. "See?"

"Okay," Chowder says, placing his feet carefully, like he's on ice in sneakers. Compared with the relative order of Nursey's room (just the window broken and boarded, and a mess of trampled clothes on the floor), Chowder's room is a disaster, bookshelf knocked down, mattress dragged off the bed frame, ash everywhere, front wall down to blackened studs in spots.

"My mug!" Chowder says, somehow overlooking all of this to zero in on the one thing he cares about. Some goalie ability to spot small objects in chaos. The mug is on the floor with what looks like other stuff from Chowder's desk - papers, a stapler, a shattered and shriveled plant that Eric is pretty sure was dead already. Chowder takes a couple of steps towards it and the floor shakes. He freezes.

"That did not feel good," he says. "This isn't right, I - " He practically jumps back to Eric near the door. The floor shakes some more and makes an ominous creaking noise. "Fuck!"

Eric takes a deep breath, and regrets it when it sets him off coughing.

"Oh my god!" Chowder squeaks, fluttering his hands. "Bitty, are you okay?"

"Yeah," Eric says, "Let me just - I am smaller - "

He steps carefully across the floor, thinking of Katya telling him to float. He bends down and grabs the mug.

"Anything else?" he asks Chowder.

Chowder still looks alarmed. "My, uh, my Thornton jersey was in the closet?"

Chowder's desk is backwards in front of the closet door, blocking it. Eric steps over a trampled pillow and gives it an exploratory shove, setting himself off coughing again. The desk doesn't want to budge. It shifts a little and there's a crunching, grinding noise that might be rubble jammed underneath.

"You know what, I want a Jones jersey anyways," Chowder says quickly. "Really. I don't have anything else sentimental, I mean, I'm sure Caitlin will - "

"I can look for something," Eric says, between coughs. Trying to think of what kind of memento Chowder might have kept. A birthday card? A ticket stub? Campus movies don't have tickets. (Eric had a shoe, the lost mate of which he had never been able to find. He had an oven.)

"No," Chowder says, "I'm going back to help Nursey so we can get out of here, I keep thinking I see things moving in the corner when your flashlight moves."

It's a good idea, but Eric isn't leaving without at least looking in his own room.

The walls of his room are even more skeletal, the contents even more uniformly smoke-black. Half of his floor isn't there any more, and at least a third of his ceiling. Something is definitely moving around up there, there are footsteps and shifting shadows.

"Ransom?" Eric calls.

"Yeah," Ransom calls down through the hole. "Wild, huh? Do you think I should bother taking Holster's suit jacket if it's dry clean only? Will dry cleaning get the smoke out?"

"You're the scientist," Eric answers.

"I never studied dry cleaning," Ransom says. "Ugh, this is creepy, do you think the ghosts got out okay?"

There is really no good answer to that - Eric is pretty sure there's no such thing as ghosts, but then, Shitty is pretty sure there's no such thing as ESMN, so who knows - so Eric goes back to surveying his former room.

His furniture is all shoved together and piled up on the side of the room that still has a floor - his bookshelf is sideways on top of his desk, and his dresser drawers are on top of that. His bed is... he's not actually sure where his bed is, it's possibly just missing, although, on a second pass of the flashlight, there's a sort of charred tangle shoved under the desk that might have blackened springs in it. Yikes.

He can't imagine that Señor Bunny has survived somewhere in this mess, if that's what's left of his entire bed. His closet is gone, his books are destroyed, his laptop maybe got crushed by the bookshelf. He sees the lucite plaque of his Carlisle Award, though, down on the floor at the far wall, and suddenly that's like Chowder's mug. He wants that.

He takes a step and feels the floor react.

Okay, maybe if he crawls? Like spreading his weight out on thin ice? Not that he's ever done that, but Ransom and Holster had said to do that if he heard a crack, the first time they took him out on the frozen Pond. He drops to his hands and knees; it kicks up dust, and he has to cough for awhile.

"You okay down there?" Ransom asks. Eric manages to say he's fine between coughs.

It's awkward to crawl while holding his phone - he could try to prop it up somewhere, but then he'd be in the way of the light. The floor creaks and sways a little but the Haus was always a little rickety.

And then there's a loud crack, and the floor is falling away under his right hand.

It's the one-armed pushups that save him, of all things. He'd had his weight on the right but his left arm knows how to press and catch him, and instead of toppling down into the hole, he hovers there, on one arm and two knees, frozen.

"Bitty?" Ransom calls.

"I'm fine," Eric says, and, bidding a mental farewell to his Carlisle plaque, starts to inch backwards. Another spasm of coughing hits and he has to pause, but he keeps going until he's all the way back to the hall. His heart is pounding like crazy, he realizes. He'd almost fallen.

He's not sure how long he just sits there in the hall, coughing occasionally, and then Ransom is coming down the stairs with a couple of big trash bags of stuff.

"Bitty," he says, "We need to go. I don't think it's the cops, but, I don't know, Holster's... holding on to someone."

*
Jack

Bitty comes out of the Haus, and Jack almost falls down. Holster, who's been holding on to his arm, keeping him from running in there and just yanking Bitty out, is suddenly the only thing holding him up. Bitty's okay. His hands and knees are filthy, and he's coughing, but he's walking.

"See?" Holster says. "See, Jack, they're fine."

There's a smear on Bitty's forehead and temple, like he'd touched his face without thinking about it. He takes a breath in when he sees Jack, a big gulp of air, and then crumples into coughing. Jack is there immediately, holding him up with an arm around him.

Jack means to start with 'are you okay' or 'do you need to go back to the hospital, but what comes out is "What the fuck were you thinking?"

Bitty pulls away from him, indignant. "Excuse me?"

"Holster said you needed closure, but you can't just - " and Bitty makes an awful face.

"I know it smelled gross, but you don't own my nose - "

"No!" Jack says reflexively. He has no idea how to explain what it had been like - smelling that smoke smell again, feeling Bitty cough. He had been immediately, fundamentally convinced that it was all happening again, that Bitty was somehow in another fire. Arson, maybe, someone targeting the team - and Jack had to get to him -

He'd been getting into the truck before he even thought to try to call, and then when he did, Bitty hadn't picked up, had just kept coughing in their synch. It had gone on and on and on while he drove and drove, inexplicable and terrifying. He had almost crashed the truck when he felt Bitty falling, when he felt him catch himself.

And now he's standing there, glaring at Jack, hair unusually gold in the fading November sun. Jack is suddenly frantic to touch him, to reassure himself that he's intact and unharmed, so he does, cupping his face in his hands, smoothing down over his neck and shoulders, all the way down the length of his arms to his blackened hands.

"Oh," Bitty says in a different voice, "Oh, I see - no, I'm fine," and brings Jack's hands up against his body, just under his ribs, where he can feel Bitty alive and vital under his jacket. He's not coughing now, but his muscles all feel engaged somehow. It echoes in Jack's own body, abs and obliques trembling, and he can practically hear Bitty thinking, I'll show you just how alive I am.

"Okay," Holster says, behind Jack, "I know that look. May I strongly suggest you go back to Bitty's room before your feedback loop gets any tighter."

Jack vaguely thinks that should be embarrassing, or that he needs to do something about that, but he's getting pretty lost in the way he can feel Bitty's breathing speeding up under his hands.

Something smacks him in the back of the head.

"Hall box before clothes off," Ransom says, grinning, "I say this as the Whorton 3rd Floor Naked Hall Running champion of '0-12, and..."

Jack isn't even listening, because they're absolutely right. He needs to get Bitty back to his room and his clothes off right now.

"You know, my legs are not as long as yours," Bitty says, somewhere around the river. Jack has a good grip on his wrist and he's vaguely aware that Bitty is trotting to keep up, but he is keeping up and he's not coughing, so what else matters?

Jack has to stop and kiss him at one point - they're on a path cutting across the big residential quad of north campus, and he can actually see Meese, now, but it's not close enough, Bitty needs to be kissed now. He gasps and squeaks into Jack's mouth but Jack can feel the way he's up on his tiptoes, trying to get closer.

"Meese," Jack says, like he wasn't the one who had stopped them, "Bed," and the synch lets him feel how Bitty's whole body reacts.

They have to go past the hall's first aid cabinet on the way to Bitty's room. Jack's not sure he would have been able to make himself detour, but he sees it and remembers what Ransom had said.

When he stops to open it, Bitty crowds up against his back. There's a big box of condoms and a big box of packets of lube, and Jack can feel something hot in Bitty's face, that might be embarrassment or might be anticipation, when he reaches for them.

"Oh, god," Bitty says quietly, into Jack's shoulder.

Jack turns and they stagger the rest of the way to Bitty's door in a half-embrace, tumbling through as soon as Bitty gets it unlocked.

"Your goddamn one-armed pushup," Jack says, before Bitty even gets the door shut. "You drove me crazy, all summer, I can't believe that's what, in the Haus - "

"You could feel that?" Bitty asks, unzipping Jack's jacket.

"Constantly," Jack says. "Wanted to see you do it, wanted to feel you do it... get right on top of you, right underneath..."

He gets Bitty's jacket off and strips off his shirt, throwing it all at the floor. Jack needs to be touching him everywhere. He sucks a kiss into the side of Bitty's neck and drops to his knees so he can nose at Bitty's stomach. He can feel, through synch, the way his hair tickles Bitty when it grazes him, and he licks experimentally while he's undoing Bitty's pants, feeling Bitty twitch from both sides at once. He yanks Bitty's pants down, following blindly with his mouth.

"Oh my god," Bitty says, and grabs a fistful of Jack's hair. Jack can feel the strands between his fingers. He's getting lost in the synch now, feeling two bodies, only one of which he can control. He throws Bitty onto the bed when he can't make his feet move him there himself. Gets confused when his pants get stuck on his shoes; didn't he take those off? Those were Bitty's, his poor bare feet that walked naked out of a fire, that had been so cold on the cold ground. Bitty's hands are still dirty, leaving dark smudges on Jack's shirt when he pulls it off. His hair smells like smoke.

Jack needs to be closer, needs Bitty pressed against him head to toe, every inch of him safe and here and Jack's. The long hot pressure of the conjunction of their bodies is crushing one of them into the mattress. Their erections, between their bellies, are sandwiched too tightly to properly grind; Bitty's pinned too heavily to arch and rock like he wants to.

"Fuck," Bitty says, tripping up Jack's mouth where he's latched onto Bitty's neck. Jack kisses him, tongues indiscriminately inside each others mouths - the feedback loop has pulled tight like a snare now, Bitty feeling Jack feeling Bitty feeling Jack. Bitty's hands are frustrated on Jack's back, trying to reach lower. Jack's feet are hanging off the end of the bed somewhere. And Jack still wants more, wants to get right inside Bitty's body, or maybe Bitty inside him, it hardly makes a difference. Bitty's hands are dirty, Jack's hands are clean, and so he's kneeling up then, Bitty raw like new skin all over where Jack suddenly isn't.

The packet of lube gives up suddenly, but mess is sort of the point here; Bitty is tight, impossibly tight, someone almost comes from that first touch of finger to secret flesh. Someone is breathing very loudly. Someone is so turned on and afraid they're almost queasy with it. Someone's free hand is digging into Bitty's soft inner thigh, kneading hard enough to bruise. A third finger in Bitty; it hurts in a way he's always wanted. They have a mouth that can reach the dick right there; Jack isn't sure whose idea it is, but it's maddening, the ghost of wet suction and Bitty thick and bitter on his tongue.

Jack has the dick that needs a place to be. Bitty makes a high-pitched mewling noise when he gets there, and it's over almost before Jack knows it, everything slippery and feverish, condom forgotten in the exigent rush.

Bitty's breathing is ragged, erratic; Jack can feel his own lungs failing to keep rhythm. He, reluctantly, tries to pull away. Bitty clings and follows, rolling over with Jack like the mess between their bellies is actual glue.

The smell of sex is stronger than the smell of smoke, now, at least.

"Jack," Bitty says, and Jack can feel how the sweat is cooling on his skin but he can't feel whether he's hesitating from nervousness or lassitude or just momentousness. Some important word is on his lips.

A phone buzzes, some generic alert noise Jack can't immediately place to either of their phones.

"Don't get that," Jack says.

"I don't think it's mine," Bitty says.

It stops, and starts again, and Bitty makes a face. "You're sure that's not your coach or something?"

The moment has obviously been lost; they pull apart, an unpleasant, oozy business, and fumble for their respective clothes. Jack gets Bitty's pants, by mistake, and the rectangle in the first pocket he tries proves to be not a phone but a folded-up set of papers.

"Oh my god," Bitty says, seeing them, "I almost forgot - " but the buzzing starts again.

Bitty fishes into the pocket of Jack's jacket and produces Jack's buzzing phone.

"Trade you," he says, and so they do. Jack has a voice message from Lardo.

He listens, and - "Shit," he says, and almost at the same time Bitty says "oh fuck" in a strange voice.

"What?" Jack asks, and Bitty shakes his head, you first, but Bitty looks all big-eyed and trembling, and Jack wants to stall, anyways.

"The official fire report," Bitty says, when Jack obviously isn't leaping in. "It was the fucking porch light, that must be why the porch roof was gone. It wasn't the oven at all, it was a whole different circuit and everything."

He looks overwhelmed; Jack's never been good at this, but he puts his hands on Bitty's shoulders and leans their foreheads together and lets Bitty sigh against his face.

"What was yours?" Bitty asks, after a minute of this.

"Oh," Jack says, hating to let loose more trouble now when one thing at least has been resolved. "Uh. Lardo heard from your mom, I guess she'll be here from the airport in about an hour?"

*
Eric

Explaining to his competent adult bondmate that he's been ignoring email from his mother all week is not one of the prouder moments of Eric's life. Nor is getting down the hall to the showers covered in soot and come and lacking ownership of anything even close to a bathrobe. Eric finally wraps himself up in the (filthy) sheet and prepares to move fast.

Jack raises his eyebrows at him but starts taking the bottom sheet off the bed to do likewise.

"We can't go together," Eric says, "I don't think we can pass as a toga party," and Jack frowns.

"Do you... not want anyone to know?"

"Do I," Eric says dumbly, and Jack makes one of those "wait I think I get this" faces like he had at their dinner.

"I told PR months ago," he says. "If you had agreed to meet me somewhere, if you had let me kiss you, I wasn't going to not do it. There's a plan for photos."

"Even these photos?" Eric asks weakly, motioning between them. There are obvious fingernail marks on Jack's bare shoulder. They move when he shrugs.

"Media's always waiting for me to fail," he says, looking a little shy. "This - isn't?"

Eric has to squeeze his eyes shut for a second, and when he opens them, Jack is already heading down the hall.

Jack is in the farthest-down shower stall. Eric takes the nearest, leaving one between them. It's not like they didn't shower in proximity many times, on the team together, but it feels different, when Jack's come is still leaking down his leg. When Jack's synch might be picking up the echo of how sore he feels, not just the obvious, but the joints of his hips. His knees, from crawling around in the Haus.

He could use some space to process, in other words, or the illusion of space, at least, what his loud spirit will let him have. He can't believe he's going to have to face his mother an hour after losing his virginity.

Once he's clean, and into a passable set of clothes (he needs to do laundry, or own more changes), there's a brief awkward negotiation with Jack that Jack wins by not even seeming to get that it's a negotiation.

"I can stay until pretty late," Jack keeps saying, and Eric supposes he's going to have to introduce him as his bondmate to his mother eventually and this is going to be ugly enough anyways, might as well pile it on. He suspects he knows why she's here, even without reading all that unread email. He texts her directions to Meese, because he's done hiding, and then thinks better of it and tells her that he'll meet her at Faber, where there's parking and less reek of sex.

And then there they are outside of Faber, waiting under the streetlights while the last tenacious bugs of November fly occasionally by.

The confessional urge is back, but where does he even start? "I always thought you were bulwarked," Eric says, and Jack makes the blank face he always does when he's never heard of something.

"I wasn't careful," Eric tries to explain. "Maybe, if, before we got locked in - "

Headlights then, of course. Maybe someday it will be a running joke, the week they couldn't finish a conversation, the six months that Eric had fought the reality of their bond. The year the Haus burned down and it wasn't the most irrevocable event of their year.

Eric's mother gets out of the nondescript rental car.

He remembers Jack's back, walking away after the game against Yale; his mother running towards him feels something like that, dismaying and final.

"Dicky," she says, squeezing him and then taking him by the arms. "You seem... all right."

She sounds puzzled. "Is that really that odd, mother?"

"You haven't been answering," she says. "We thought you were having some kind of breakdown, probably shouting up the whole campus. I'm here to take you home, Dicky. But I don't... I don't feel you at all."

In one of those weird flashes of spirit-echoes, he can feel Jack deliberately relax the muscles of his hands.

"Right," Eric says. "We should... talk? I'm bonded."

"Bonded," his mother says. She's all circles, suddenly, round eyes and round open mouth. "Oh my Lord, Dicky, you - " her eyes go back and forth between Eric and Jack. "To him?" she stage-whispers.

Eric nods, and Jack, Lord bless 'im, puts out his hand. "I know we've already met," he says earnestly, and it's just too much for Eric, a Meet The Parents scene now.

"Let's go somewhere and talk," he says.

They end up on a random couch in a hall in Commons; it's awfully public, but his room is probably still parent-uninhabitable.

"I'm just at a loss," his mother flutters, once they settle into an awkward line on the couch, Eric turned and tucked as much back towards Jack as he can without actually touching him, so that he faces his mother. "We've been so worried but I guess we been worrying about all the wrong things."

Eric winces. "I'm sorry I let my email slide. But - did you really mean for me to just go home? When - the team? And we're past the withdrawal period for classes?"

"You've always taken things so hard, we just thought you might be better off at home. You know, with your kitchen gone, we just weren't sure how you'd be coping, or if you, well, might be making it harder for your friends," his mother says, and, wow, that cuts pretty deep. Jack puts a hand on his shoulder.

"It seems to me like Bitty's been holding everyone else together," Jack says. It's the last thing Eric would have expected. He wants to lean back into Jack, but settles for a quick squeeze of the hand on his shoulder.

"Dicky's never been willin' to tell us whether his friends up here even knew about his special challenges," his mother says to Jack.

Eric cringes. He doesn't know - has very carefully avoided knowing, for over two years now, whether anyone on the team has been feeling his moods. It had helped so much that Ransom and Holster were bonded, Shitty didn't believe in ESMN, and Jack never talked about it.

"I don't know anything about that," Jack says. "I take an ESMN blocker for hyperreactivity, so all my synch with Bitty has been bond synch." It's his press voice, even and measured.

"Oh, goodness," Eric's mother says inanely. "That sounds fancy." She frowns. "A blocker, what an idea."

"Isn't it," Eric says.

His mother looks back and forth between them. "But... Jack, honey, excuse me, but if you're saying you have a sensitive spirit, and Dicky here is loud, then... how did y'all know you were bonded, and not just overlappin' in your situations?" She puts her hand on Eric's knee. "Couldn't there be a chance it's just a coincidence kind of thing?"

Jack's hand is still on his shoulder; it tightens. His mother's hand is loose but between the two of them Eric feels like they're trying to tear him in half.

"Just seems like an awful big thing for you boys to be trying right now," his mother goes on. "With Dicky here still in school, and Jack finally in the big leagues - Dicky, what if you came home, and y'all got a little space, and - "

"I was home all summer and it didn't help," Eric interrupts. Jack takes his hand off his shoulder. "I know this might not be what you wanted for me, mother, but here we are..."

There's a churning starting in his stomach and a pressure in his chest that he isn't sure are his.

"Oh, I know," his mother says. She pats him on the knee and puts her hand over her mouth for a moment. "If you're bonded you're bonded and that's all, I guess, nothing to be said about it. I guess I just thought I had a few more years before you got to the long-as-you-both-shall-lives." She swipes at her eyes. "Are you going to have some kind of ceremony? I guess it's a bit redundant, but you know I always thought about seein' you - oh - " She puts her hands back over her face again.

"Bitty," Jack says behind him, voice tight, "Can I talk to you for a second?"

"Oh, yes," Eric's mother says, sniffling, "You boys just give me a moment here, thank you darlin'."

Jack grabs Eric's wrist, an echo from earlier, when he was towing him across campus, and drags him down the hall and around a corner, to a short side hall with a closed door and an open janitorial closet.

"Tell me you know bonds aren't permanent," Jack says, letting go of Eric.

Eric looks up at him, confused. "What?"

"Tell me you know bonds aren't permanent," Jack repeats, eyes boring into him, and Eric is starting to feel sick.

"Bonds are permanent," he says, "That's why they're - that's what lock is, I don't understand - "

"Maybe twenty years ago," Jack says. "But - Bitty. Bittle. They can do it with TMS, or ECT. Did you not know that?"

"I don't know what those are," Eric says.

Standing by a utility closet is the worst possible place to be having this conversation. The smell of bleach and floor wax always makes Eric feel a little panicky and trapped, and Jack looks terrible. Eric takes a step towards him and he steps back.

"I was waiting until the off-season," Jack says, "If you hadn't - if you never came around, I would've had it done next summer."

"You could have broken it?" Eric almost doesn't recognize his own voice.

Jack spins and slaps the wall, palm open so he doesn't damage his hand.

"Fuck," he says, "Oh, fuck!" He looks at Eric with horror. "You let me fuck you," he says. "Right from the beginning, last year, you said no, but I didn't want to hear it, so, what, did you give in to the inevitable?"

"It wasn't like that," Eric tries to say, but he's getting swamped with everything coming off of Jack, fury and nausea and betrayal.

"I'm so sorry," Jack says, backing away, "I'm so fucking sorry, Bittle." And then he's gone.

Eric staggers and sits down in the open doorway of the closet, breathing bleach and defeat.

"I heard voices," his mother says, coming around the corner. "Are you okay, Dicky? What happened to Jack?" She kneels down next to him, all maternal concern, and Eric feels about eight years younger, getting pulled out of a closet a lot like this one.

"Did you know you can break a spirit bond?" he asks. He's not crying. He's not sure why not.

His mother shakes her head. "I did not," she says. "Miz Ruby never said anything about anything like that."

"I guess there's a lot Miz Ruby never said," Eric says. "Imagine if I could have taken a pill instead of quitting figure skating. Or maybe I didn't have to learn to bake when I was three years old, what about that!"

"Oh, Dicky," his mother says, eyes welling up. "Did you hate it so much?"

"I don't even know," Eric says, shaking his head. "I don't understand why he didn't break it months ago. As soon as he figured it out."

"Dicky," his mother says. "I may not get everything goin' on here, but if you had seen that young man's face just now..." she clucks. "Trying so hard to be polite, but he about looked like I was tellin' him we were gonna have to amputate when I talked about taking you home."

"It would be like that," Eric says, rubbing his wrist. He can't imagine how it would feel, if Jack went and... unlocked them. Would he feel it happening? He picks up so little from Jack, compared with what Jack seems to get from him, but it feels like planning to go deaf, to lose a limb.

"I can't do this," he says out loud. "I need to call Jack."

He calls, and it rings until it goes to voicemail. He isn't sure what to say with his mother still sitting right there. He hangs up.

"New plan," he says, "Can you drive me to Providence?"

*
Jack

He doesn't even know where he's going, at first. There is no Haus. The loading dock at Faber is out - the whole damn campus has been indelibly overwritten with Bittle, and there's nowhere to escape.

He remembers he's parked back on Jason, in front of the Haus, and crosses campus fast, keeping his head down and putting on extra speed through the pools of light around light poles.

It's all so fucking obvious, that Bittle had only accepted their synch once he thought it was locked. The very first thing he had said had been no, and it always would have been no, until the damn Haus burned down, and even then he'd said no, but Jack couldn't just take that for an answer, could he, until Bittle, at the very end of his rope, had admitted their synch went both ways.

And Jack had... what. Held up gloves to his own hands, trying to guess at a perfect fit. Thrown Bittle down and taken what he wanted. He had never asked do you think we should break it even though Bittle had as much as said it wasn't love, on his side.

For the first time in his life, he wishes the crocodile would show up and suffocate him. It's close, but it's not attacking. Sitting back and laughing, maybe. The burnt-out shell of the Haus is laughing at him too, when he gets back to his truck; Jack wishes he could take a sledgehammer to it, be the guy driving the demolition truck tomorrow, the bulldozer, whatever it is they use.

Now he's thinking of Bittle singing "Wrecking Ball". God, he can't possibly try TMS until the off-season, given what Dr. Diya had said about it; he's still going to hear Bittle's music and smell his baking and feel his workouts and spontaneous dancing and his fucking jerk-off sessions.

He remembers how it used to make him so happy, smelling Bittle's coffee; the thrilling phantom touch on his lips the day he'd reminded Bittle about his sunscreen, that he'd wanted to believe was for him.

He had always thought the overdose was the worst thing his ESMN could ever do to him, but he wonders if this might take longer to get over.

*
Eric

Jack must have torn up 95 like a bat out of hell, to get there while they were still in the Haus. It seems to be taking twice as long the other way. Every few minutes Eric looks up from his phone - there's so much he doesn't know, that he needs to understand - and the rental car is still plodding its way south. He loves his mother, he does, but does she have to drive five miles an hour below the speed limit on the highway at night?

"Are you going to call your friend soon?" she asks. "I want to be sure we have an address before we get down there."

"Yes, mother," Eric says. "Did you know that ECT is shock therapy? I guess it's really safe and effective but it causes memory loss for, like, months."

"Well," his mother says, "I hope nobody ends up doing that then."

Eric hopes so too.

He switches apps and texts Shitty.

I need jacks address in providence

It rings almost immediately. Eric steels himself and answers.

"Oho," Shitty says, "Finally coming around, 15?"

"He thinks I only gave in because I thought I was stuck with him," Eric says, "So I'm fixing it."

"Jesus fuck," Shitty says, "You guys fuck yourselves up so much dragging all that woo-woo bullshit into your relationship, I swear you could have been boning for like a year now if you got over that crap."

"Noted," Eric says impatiently.

"No, but," Shitty says. "You have to admit you can't, like, find him by smell, don't you? Or however it is Jack claims he found you. He knew campus, he used logic, but you don't know Providence, so... what a coincidence... your synch suddenly doesn't work."

"You got me," Eric says. If Shitty wants to relish having him over a barrel, Eric's pretty much earned it, from not getting his act together months ago.

"Ugh," Shitty says, "And you're not even going to try to argue. You're too squishy, Bits. He's pretty near the Dunk," and reads off the number and street.

"Thank you," Eric says earnestly.

"Hey," Shitty says, suddenly softer, "Go get him and happy him up, okay Bitty? It's been a hard six months for him."

"Yes," Eric agrees, to both, and hangs up.

"Well," his mother says, once she's put the address into the GPS, "I didn't mean to listen in but I don't see how that young man was on a team with you for two years and never got smacked with your feelings loud enough that he had to believe in spirit touching."

"I always figured he was slippery," Eric says, shrugging.

"I wonder when this bond of yours happened, though," his mother goes on. "I've been thinking about it, and I had the oddest thought - did you say that Jack said he could feel people for ten years before he got sick?"

"You can say 'overdose'," Eric said, although he wasn't actually sure he could say it to Jack. "And yes, maybe?" His mother had asked him questions while they pulled through a drive-thru for dinner for Eric - she had insisted once she had realized he hadn't eaten - and he thought Jack had said something about that, although he couldn't now remember when.

"Well?" his mother said expectantly. "Don't you think that's interesting?"

"I think it was awful," Eric says bluntly. "I mean, that's how it sounded?"

"But just think about it," his mother says, "If he was eight when it started, that was when you were three, that was when your spirit got so loud."

"Oh god," Eric says involuntarily, "Ransom and Holster would love this."

"I'm serious, honey," his mother says, "What if all this time you were shouting and Jack was listening because you were trying to find each other."

"Mother," Eric says. "My life is not a Gothic novel."

"Okay, Dicky" his mother says. "If you say so."

But he can't help thinking about it, of course. If it was always fated, or something, then it was never his fault at all. He's decided that it doesn't matter if it was, that he can live with that, but it's still like finding out the fire started in the porch light, getting absolved of it.

It's strange, he should be nervous, this is the whole rest of his life on the line, but he feels more centered than he has since that day on the bridge.

They're off the highway, and turning down streets with progressively fewer streetlights and more trees. And then they're pulling up in front of the house. Jack's apartment is upstairs in a two-family, and there's a light on.

"Oh, this looks nice," Eric's mother says. "You're sure you don't want me to stay?"

"I promise I'll call if I need to," Eric says, "But, no, mother. You've gone above and beyond, driving me down here after your long flight. You're sure you can find a hotel all right?"

"There's no above and beyond," she says, "I am your mother, Dicky. I came up here to take care of you and that's that."

Eric hugs her, then, feeling weirdly like he's graduating, or moving out. Turning some kind of major corner. He gets out of the car, shuts the door, and goes up to the porch and figures out which door and bell belong to Jack. He rings.

Jack doesn't answer.

Eric looks over his shoulder - his mother is still there, waiting until he gets in like she always has when dropping him off somewhere.

He rings again.

Come on, Jack, he tries to think at him, up the stairs. Come on, and then, meanly, he takes a deep breath and makes himself cough. Jack seems to have ended up with his trauma from the fire, somehow, some weird synch thing; it's pretty coldly exploitative to try to scare him with it on purpose, but, whatever. Synch got them this far, it can get Jack to let him in. He coughs, deliberately, until he sees Jack's feet, coming down.

Jack opens the door and scans him, narrowing his eyes. "You're fine," he says. "What are you doing here?" He sounds tired.

"I need to tell you three things," Eric says. "Can I come in?"

Jack takes a breath, holds it, lets it go. "Will you go away if I say no?"

"No," Eric says honestly.

"Fine," Jack says curtly, and turns and heads back up the stairs.

Eric waves to his mother and pulls the door closed behind him.

Jack's living room, past the landing at the top of the stairs, is nearly empty. He has an angular grey couch, a TV on a stand, and a few framed photos on the walls that Eric suspects Jack had taken himself and had printed.

He sits all the way at one end of the couch and motions Eric to the other end. The way he's glaring takes Eric all the way back to being a frog, before their first game, even, when Jack had looked at him like he didn't understand how he had wandered onto their ice or why he hadn't been removed yet.

"Okay," Eric says, because the only way he ever found to get through to Jack was just to prove he had something to offer. "So, first, if you decide you want to break the bond it should be me who actually has it done. Especially if it's the electroshock way, you can lose memories from months beforehand, this is your rookie year, you shouldn't lose that. So. Me."

Jack's looking at him differently now, like he had at checking practice, maybe, trying to figure him out. "You don't have to do that, Bittle."

Oh. He's not Bitty any more. Well. Ignore it, keep going. "I do, though," Eric says. "I couldn't stand it if you lost something I could have prevented. Besides, I've been baking since I was three, I could lose the last ten years and I'd be happy in a kitchen while I got back up to speed."

"My psychopharm person said it's usually just memories after the lock, in these cases," Jack says. "Is that what you want to do?"

"No," Eric says. "Because the second thing is that I love you, and I have for a long time, and I'm sorry I've been too scared to say it."

He says it so matter-of-factly he's not sure at first that Jack even realizes what he said. He's hoping he'll feel him react, some flare of synch to let him know what he's feeling, but he doesn't. Then he realizes Jack is so still that he's not even blinking.

"I know you... said," Eric goes on, tremble in his voice now. "I didn't think you could, and then I didn't think you should. But - "

Jack, slowly, starts shaking his head. "Bittle, you don't," he says. "You're just flailing, because of the Haus."

"Excuuse me," Eric says, "I think I would know. I can't say the fire didn't make a difference, but not that difference, it's like... all my life I had to keep sweet and keep busy, but losing the kitchen was like a reset button. All week instead of baking I've just been dealing with what matters most: the team, and my friends, and you."

Jack scowls and looks away. "You don't have to take care of me," he says. He's looking down at his toes, and Eric wonders if he's trying to block him out, whatever he's feeling from him.

Well, tough. Eric takes a deep breath and tries to push.

He's never, ever done something like this. There are no Cosmo tips or weird tricks - the stories about Bad Bob said he could target his synch on the ice, send feelings or muscle impulses to trip up his opponents, but nobody had ever said how. Once a long time ago, locked in a supply closet, Eric had tried to be loud to whoever might be able to hear him and come let him out. This is nothing like that. This is trying to touch his bondmate - his beautiful, unbelievable, very own bondmate - with everything he's always been supposed to keep to himself, the rawest, most overwhelming feelings: fear. lust. desperation for this to work. The enormous deep love that's too much, that needs to be leavened and lightened and wrapped up in bite-sized portions, unless there's a chance that Jack could see that, all that devotion and ravening need, and say okay, sure, Bittle, I've got you.

He has no idea what he's doing - it's like trying to silently think of the tunes to half-a-dozen different songs at once, maybe all he's doing is making a weird face - but it's all he can do. He doesn't think he could ever put it into words, and words have never been where they really connect, anyways.

Please, he thinks, remembering Jack saying please to him, at the loading dock.

Jack lifts his head and stares at Eric.

Everything in Eric tells him to look away and think about pie. But Jack had taught him, once, how to take a check without curling up. Eric exhales and hears the sound of it. He tries to picture everything he feels blowing on his breath across the gap between them.

He can feel it hit Jack, the way Jack goes all lit up, all at once, the way he takes a breath like it's the first full breath he's ever taken.

"Bitty," Jack says, "Bitty, you - "

"Completely," Eric says, and Jack makes a sound somewhere between a gasp and a sob, and pulls Eric into his arms.

"You... I... you..." Jack says incoherently, into Eric's hair, and Eric holds on like he had at the loading dock, curling into him, finally in the safest place.

Jack is very manfully Not Crying but Eric can taste the echo of tears in the back of his throat.

Or maybe that's Eric crying, himself.

"I'm really glad that worked," Eric says, burrowing a little closer. "I have no idea what I was going to do next."

"Given up?" Jack asks, tightening his hold.

"Not for at least six months," Eric says. "I mean, I owe you, right? Ugh, not that I owe you anything - stop grinding your teeth at me like that, I can feel that - but you have to admit one of us has been slow at the dot here."

"It's a lot to take on," Jack murmurs.

"I still think you could have saved us some time by coming out to me at any point," Eric says. It's like they're having one conversation with words and another with their bodies, shifting in little ways to get closer and more comfortable. He really likes the way his head is tucked under Jack's chin.

"I think I forgot you didn't know," Jack says, rubbing his cheek against Eric's hair. "Gender doesn't - people didn't sort neatly, in my head, back when I was unmedicated, and you were so much in my head - I didn't think enough about what you actually knew, or whether the synch was going both ways."

"I have years of practice at not saying things, too," Eric says.

"Maybe we can retrain ourselves," Jack says. "Practice together." Eric can hear the smile in his voice, or maybe feel it ghosting his own face.

"You better not wake me up at 4 am for relationship chats," Eric says, starting to leave little kisses on Jack's neck. "I mean, I love you, but."

Jack squeezes him almost too tightly, so that he has to slap at Jack's ribs a little with his one mobile hand.

"Sorry," Jack says, not sounding remotely sorry. "I don't know how much you're picking up from me right now, but I'm, um. Really happy."

"I'm gooey in the middle like a brownie pie," Eric says, "I could just melt all over you," and he doesn't mean it quite like it sounds but Jack twitches, a little, and, oh, then Eric does. His hand on Jack's ribs starts to wander down towards the bottom of his shirt.

"Kiss me," Jack says. Eric reaches up and brushes his mouth over Jack's, feather-soft.

"Like that?" he asks.

"More," Jack says, so Eric kisses him more, gliding and sweet, sneaking his hands up under Jack's shirt so he can spread his fingers out on his skin.

Jack leans back and takes Eric with him, until he's lying back on the arm of the couch and Eric is mostly on top of him. They keep kissing. It's not exactly dreamlike, it's too real for that, but it's not urgent, either, although Jack's hands on Eric's butt might be moving things in that direction.

"Wait," Jack suddenly says, breaking away from the kiss.

"You okay?" Eric asks.

"Yes," Jack says, "Except... didn't you say you had three things?"

"Oh," Eric says, "Right. Well."

Jack pokes him.

"I think we should have sex again but I should take one of your pills," Eric says, embarrassed now that he has to say it out loud. Jack tenses underneath him. "I just think, um, feedback sex might be something we should work up to. It was amazing, but it felt more like me than you, and - "

"Maybe," Jack interrupts. "For now, will you just stay tonight?"

Eric blatantly snuggles down into Jack. "Couldn't move me," he says, and so of course Jack has to scoop him up and carry him to his bedroom, just like Eric hoped.

It's more cluttered than the living room, a bookshelf and a dresser and a big metal-cornered trunk jostling for space. Jack has a different duvet than he had at Samwell, dark red with a starburst of orange, bright and warm.

"I wanted you here so much," Jack whispers, stripping out of his jeans. "I know it's going to be hard, with our schedules, but I need to feel you sometimes for real, not just in my head."

"I talk in my sleep in French on the bus," Eric says, shyer about wiggling out of his pants.

"I know," Jack says, "Ransom told me."

Eric texts his mother, to say that everything is good and he's staying the night, and it turns out that Jack has a spare toothbrush, still in the package ("I was really hoping," he says, handing it to Eric), and then there they are in bed. Eric lies down a polite distance from Jack and Jack immediately manhandles him into being the little spoon, tucked snugly into the curve of Jack's body.

The sheets smell like Jack's laundry detergent, and Jack. Eric is asleep before he knows it.

*

The third thing, the sex thing, turns out to be more complicated than Jack letting Eric have a pill. First Jack has morning practice, and so Eric goes on a breakfast-and-shopping expedition with his mother, who says that if she's not taking him home, she's at least seeing him completely re-outfitted and supplied. She drops him back at Jack's when Jack gets back from practice, saying that there's a park near her hotel where she absolutely has to take a long walk, but she'll be back to pick him up before Jack's game, unless he's going to the game? He isn't. He will, sometime soon, but he wants to talk to Jack, first, hear from him how it's been, let him tell him about the guys on the team. The conversations they would have had if Eric hadn't been freaking out for months. Jack mutters something about some of them wanting to meet Eric, when he's ready.

That's a little scary, but not as scary as Jack mentioning, over lunch, that he'd like to let his parents know that things with Eric are looking up.

"Oh god," Eric says. "Are they very angry? Should I bake them something?"

Jack tears his eyes away from his sandwich to look at him. There were hard-boiled eggs in the fridge, so Eric made them egg-salad sandwiches for lunch; Jack seems weirdly emotional about his. He keeps staring at it and smiling.

"They're not angry and you don't need to bake them anything," Jack says. "They've been hoping it would work out for us, that's all."

"I was honestly afraid of your father when I thought this was my fault," Eric says in a rush.

Jack makes a face. "He would have been weird about it back in the Q," he says. "He told me once that he loved my mom very much but he had made sure not to get involved with someone he could extrapolate, to make sure he wouldn't lock and lose his synch on the ice. It was advice, you know? But then he, ah, got me this ESMN expert, and she was able to get him to see that it doesn't work the same way for me as it did for him."

"Wow," Eric says. "This is - maybe this is too weird to even tell you this, but my mother has this theory that our spirits were trying to reach each other before we even met. Can you imagine, if we'd connected earlier, somehow? Maybe I wouldn't have had to quit figure skating, maybe you... uh..."

"That sounds terrible," Jack says.

"Really?"

"It would not have been okay for me to feel this way about you when you were thirteen," Jack says, looking appalled.

"Oh," Eric says; his thoughts are immediately not PG-13 either. Maybe if they went really slowly, the synch echoes wouldn't -

"I have to nap after lunch," Jack says. "Sorry, I can, uh... feel you..." He shifts very slightly in his seat.

"Oh!" Eric says, probably blushing. "Should I, um, think about pie or something?"

"Is that what you used to do?" Jack asks. "I mean... not to presume..."

Eric puts down what's left of his sandwich and reaches across the table, feeling bold. "I thought about pie all the time," he says, "Are you kidding me here, Jack?" He picks up Jack's hand that isn't holding a sandwich, and traces down his fingers one by one. "Apple... cherry... German chocolate..."

"I was going to ask you to stay and nap with me, but I do actually have to sleep," Jack tells him.

Eric is really good at focusing on relaxing, sleep-inducing visualizations, when he's not being a tease - when they lie down after lunch, he tucks himself in behind Jack, starts thinking about pitting cherries, and Jack is asleep even before Eric is.

Jack's alarm wakes them up and then they wordlessly agree that there should be kisses before Eric's mother gets there; Eric feels a maybe-ghost in his fingers, but deliberately stays away from Jack's hands. They manage to kiss without falling into an arousal death-spiral, sitting next to each other on Jack's couch, hands staying on shoulders and elbows and other safe territory. It's warm and nice and feels like the kind of thing Eric might have done in high school, maybe, if there had been anyone safe for him to kiss.

"I love you," Eric says again before he leaves. "And I really, honestly don't care what shocking thing we're going to figure out next, we will deal with it, okay?"

*

They do pizza and the game in Hanahan House again, this time with Eric's mother. It's kind of hilarious to watch Ransom and Holster clap their hands over their mouths when they swear. It's close through the first two periods, but in the end the Falconers beat the Devils 3-1, and Eric texts Jack afterwards, great game! liked the 3rd. It's kind of bland, but safe, easy.

Jack doesn't text back until Eric is back in Meese, getting into bed with freshly-laundered sheets, room now over-full with winter boots and sweaters and various toiletries and other things Eric is pleased to own again. (He's going with his mother to get a new laptop Saturday morning, before the team heads up to Dartmouth - Jack has his own road trip Sunday through Tuesday, a Florida back-to-back that Shitty keeps texting everyone excited predictions about.)

thx Bitty, Jack answers. need to sleep right away?

It's a sort of odd thing to say, unless... can you tell I'm in bed, Eric writes, a bit self-consciously.

you feel horizontal, Jack texts back right away. and comfortable. can you tell about me at all?

So far, it's seemed like it takes pretty strong emotions to get their spirits to touch both ways, but trust Jack to want to see if they can practice. Eric tries to pay attention to any sensations that seem out of place.

guess, Jack texts. you might know and not have any idea how you know.

Eric is half-tempted to make up something very silly, half-tempted to try taking it in a sext direction.

you're naked and purple he writes.

yes and not since I brushed my teeth Jack answers. blueberry pie :)

wait really?

been buying pies from this bakery but theyre not as good as yours, Jack says.

did I seriously get you addicted to pie, Eric writes, then immediately wishes he could take it back. wait not addicted sorry.

it was something I could have Jack writes back.

but you have me now, Eric says, hoping he doesn't sound too full of himself.

slices left in the freezer

omg you what?? that poor pie of course its not as good. He's in love with a barbarian. Eric shakes his head.

so about the other thing Jack texts after a minute. i know its not weds or sun but

OH MY GOD, Eric writes back.

sorry Jack says immediately, and it's so easy to picture him, looking away from his phone, maybe reaching for a shirt -

hey no Eric says. I'm sorry I'm just - and then he stops there, message unsent, for a moment, until he sends it so that Jack has some idea what he's thinking. He finally just adds synch?

yes Jack answers.

EVERY time??

i don't know? most suns and weds

oh

i know it wasn't meant for me

Eric thinks about that for a minute, tries to imagine Jack again, his weird mix of daring and sad.

it could be, he texts, and sticks his hand clumsily into his briefs. He's embarrassed, but also half-hard just from the idea of Jack feeling him. It only takes a couple of pulls to get all the way hard. He thinks maybe that's it for the phone, but then Jack texts again.

goodnight Bitty, go slow for me? :)

He doesn't have much practice with slow, but he tries to draw it out a little, until habit takes over. That's easier, in some ways, than thinking too much about Jack naked in bed and thinking of him.

*

"Guys!" Dex says, bursting into the locker room with Nursey on Monday.

"You're late to practice!" Chowder says helpfully.

"One of my math profs is going on sabbatical," Dex says, "And she might be willing to rent us her house!"

"Four bedrooms plus we could maybe put a bed in the office," Nursey says. "They're leaving most of their furniture, taking their dishes and stuff."

"We thought, if you guys were willing to share the queen in the master bedroom," indicating Ransom and Holster, "It would get you out of Hanahan, and I could move in in the fall?" Dex looks hopeful.

"We do need to be out of Hanahan before Christmas," Holster says slowly. "Doesn't sound like we could have kegsters though."

"But we could have team dinners," Ransom says, looking at Eric. "What do you think? Should we do it?"

"Windowless box in Meese vs having a kitchen again," Eric says, making a weighing motion with his hands. "Gosh, guys, I don't know, maybe we should - "

He doesn't even finish the sentence before he's tackled and buried in hockey players.

*

"...so we'll sort of have a Haus again," he tells Jack over the phone.

"That's great!" Jack says. "I wanted to ask you, have you figured out a plan for American Thanksgiving yet?"

Eric sighs. "Hotel restaurant buffet," he says. "I got Dex to invite Nursey and Chowder home with him, so it's just going to be Rans and Holster and me and one of the new frogs."

"Why not come down here?" Jack says. "I have Thursday completely off. We could cook. You could stay."

"Oh," Eric says, surprised. "I keep not assuming. I mean - yes! If you want."

"Why I said it," Jack says.

"Okay," Eric says. "Is it okay if I tell Gords to find a friend to bring, though? One frog and two bonded couples sounds... awkward."

"Sure," Jack says, and Eric is pretty sure he feels something, a little shimmer of anticipation.

*
Jack

Bitty bops around his kitchen, asking him to find him this and that, and Jack can't help the cheesy thought that he understands Thanksgiving in a whole new way. Bitty makes apple pie, with cinnamon and vanilla; he roasts a turkey; he makes rolls and mashed potatoes and green beans. He makes a spinach salad with mandarin orange segments because, he says, he keeps thinking of Jack when he sees them in the store.

Jack's going to explain that some time when they're less busy. He had thought he was giving them plenty of time, picking Bitty up at 7 with the others coming at 3, but Bitty's hardly sat down, except to fiddle with his phone when he decides he needs to change playlists.

Sometimes it seems impossible to Jack that there was a time when Bitty was just overheard lines of songs and a player Jack didn't trust on the ice, that he hadn't taken one look at him and bonded right there like Ransom and Holster. It's an argument against Bitty's destiny theory, at least, that they hadn't, and the romantic part of him likes the idea that they had attraction before synch and love before lock.

Ransom and Holster arrive with wine and two frogs, the second of whom seems to be the subject of a recruitment effort by the first one to understudy Lardo as manager in the spring. There may be a romantic pursuit mixed in as well; Jack can't tell and he might just be seeing everything through heart-shaped glasses lately.

"'M not gonna make y'all say what you're thankful for," Bitty says, waving at the frogs, who look suitably grateful, "But I have a lot. Starting with my hero here who rescued me from the fire - " he lifts his glass to Holster - "and. Well." He smiles at Jack. "I'm very lucky this year."

"To luck," Ransom says, and everyone clinks glasses.

After dinner Bitty carves up the rest of the turkey and starts the bones boiling in Jack's largest pot, muttering something about "liquid gold". Then there's pie, and then Ransom and Holster exchange a glance and announce that they want to drive back to Samwell "before traffic gets worse", which is complete nonsense, and then when they're gone, Jack is handing Bitty half a pill.

"Zadetol," he says, to Bitty's raised eyebrows. "If you still want to. Completely up to you."

He had looked it up on GeneralZad, and on Erowid, and when he was still freaked out about it, he had asked Dr. Diya, who had said she couldn't answer questions about illegal sharing of prescription medication until Jack had meanly and unethically pointed out that if she helped him save his relationship, she'd still have a shot at getting him and Bitty in side-by-side fMRI, and she certainly wouldn't if they couldn't work it out. Jack is pretty sure that the blocker-sex idea was just an idea and Bitty isn't actually going to leave him over it, and Dr. Diya probably even knows that, but she tells him that the hypothetical dose he's calculated sounds safe for someone of that hypothetical body mass and that he's right about how quickly it would hypothetically take effect and how long it would hypothetically last.

"Hypothetically thank you," Jack had said, deadpan, and Dr. Diya had laughed.

"It's a very safe drug," she had said. "No drug is completely safe, but we give this one to a lot of kids and people with limited communication, and you know what side effects to watch out for."

"Are you laughing at me for being too careful about my illegal drug-sharing," Jack had asked.

"I am sure you would never do any such thing," Dr. Diya had said, "I'm only happy that after all this time, you are comfortable enough to consider this sort of thought experiment."

Bitty, now, listens patiently while Jack tells him how many milligrams he's giving him and when he should expect it to wear off. Jack is pleased he doesn't just pop it, that he seems to get intuitively how there are weird echoes here for Jack and his past Xanax misuse. It feels completely different to Jack - calm, considered, deliberate instead of furtive and desperate, but at some level it's all meds outside proper channels. (Shitty would probably be proud, if Jack were ever, ever going to mention this to him.)

"Okay," Bitty says, when Jack winds down, "I'm good, let's try this?" Jack gets him a glass of water, and then they keep busy for awhile washing pots and pans and knives and miscellany until the kitchen is clean and Bitty is backing him against the counter, saying he can't wait another minute to kiss him.

"Don't wait," Jack says, and leans down into Bitty's eager mouth.

*
Eric

Jack had said it wasn't like alcohol, or painkillers, that there probably wouldn't be anything in particular for Eric to feel when it took effect. Eric thinks that's not quite right; it's another one of these things he can't put into words, but there's something there to notice, some note dropping out of his awareness of Jack. Leaving out the nutmeg in something that's mostly cinnamon and cloves.

Jack puts his hands on Eric's hips and lets Eric control the kiss; Eric starts deep and then backs off to where he's just nose-to-nose with Jack, thumbing his cheekbones.

He doesn't think he feels anything but himself, so far, but that's plenty, his whole body wanting to be closer.

"I don't feel it," Eric says, "But this can't be great for your neck. Um. Couch?"

Or bed, he thinks, but if they're trying to not get quite so carried away, maybe the couch is a safer bet. Jack takes his hand to walk to the living room, like he can't stand to stop touching him for that long, and pulls him into his lap when Eric tries to sit down next to him.

"It's better for my neck if you're right here," he says. Eric can feel the heat of being so close pooling in his lower belly, but he doesn't feel it double. He's suddenly not sure Jack is aroused at all - maybe he's not into this like Eric is? - and looks down between them.

Jack takes his hand and puts it on his dick, which is - oh - definitely hard in his pants. "You just have to trust it, when you can't feel it," he says. "Or ask. You can always ask."

"I shouldn't be used to it after just once though," Eric says, rocking his hand against Jack a little, meaning synch.

"You're not used to anything else," Jack says reasonably. There's a little catch in his breath partway through. "I didn't actually - " he says next, and moves Eric's hand to his hip. "Way too fast for me if you keep doing that."

"I didn't mean we had to go slow," Eric protests, only he sort of had meant that. The last time was almost a blur. He can't remember deciding to do anything, only being frantically doing it, almost no space at all between wanting something and getting it. It had been amazing but he wants to try it this way too, looking at Jack and getting to choose what he tries. "Can I take off your shirt?"

Jack nods, and they manage not to elbow each other in the face too much, getting it off. Jack shirtless is an even broader array of options. Eric starts tracing muscles: deltoids, triceps, biceps; deltoids, pecs, abs. Fingertip touches, and then following again with sweeps of his palms.

"Can I lick your arm?" Eric asks. "Or is that weird?"

"I don't know," Jack says, "Try it."

He's still not sure he can just randomly lick him, so Eric mouths carefully at the outside of Jack's upper arm, up to the cap of his shoulder.

"Mm," Jack says, and so Eric kisses along his collarbone, all the way to his throat where he does lick him a little, and then stops, just enjoying the rise and fall of Jack's breathing under his hands.

"Was it weird?" Jack asks, kind of teasingly.

"I meant for you," Eric says, and Jack picks up one of his hands and licks across the inside of his wrist.

Eric shivers. "Oh," he says, and Jack licks his wrist again, down his arm this time to where Eric's sleeve is still rolled up from washing dishes. He's never been so aware of the inside of his arm, or how it seems to be connected to his whole body.

"Lemme take this off of you," Jack murmurs, fingers on the top button of Eric's shirt, and Eric nods. Jack works his way down steadily, only pausing slightly at the bottom, before moving on to the button of Eric's pants. "Yes?"

"Yes," Eric says, and climbs off of Jack's lap to get his arms out of his shirt and take his pants off. He turns, wondering where he should leave his clothes, and Jack catches him by the waist and pulls him back into his lap the other way, leaning back against his chest.

He's very warm.

"Can't kiss you like this," Eric grumbles. Jack runs his big hands up and down Eric's arms, wrists to shoulders, and presses his lips into the back of Eric's neck.

"I can kiss you," Jack says. His hands on Eric's shoulders lean him forward, just a little, as Jack starts working his way down the back of Eric's neck, kisses that roll right down his spine. At the top of his back, Jack starts working his way back up, an inch to the left, back up to the hairline, and then another inch over, back down. It's like he's running a search grid, looking for spots that make Eric arch back into him, make Jack's hands tighten on his arms to hold him steady.

Jack sucks under Eric's ear and makes him gasp. He needs something to hold onto, Jack's still-clothed thighs underneath him; Jack moves his hands to Eric's stomach, rubbing in little circles. Jack's head is bent all the way over his shoulder now, working his way forward on his neck; Eric has to tip his head back to give him room. It makes him feel a little dizzy, and somehow extra-aware of how he's sitting right up against Jack's dick.

"Hm," Jack says, and moves to the other side of Eric's neck. Apparently he was paying attention; he dives right for the places Eric liked best, down by his shoulder, up under his jaw, back by his ear. His hands are on Eric's inner thighs, where Eric had had purplish marks for days after they fucked; Eric might be shaking, a little. Jack's fingers go right up to the edge of his briefs, at his groin, and stop.

"Hey," Eric groans. "C'mon."

"Are you getting any feedback?" Jack asks in his ear. Eric shakes his head.

"It's muted," Jack says, "But I'm still - a bit. You feel so good."

He dips a fingertip into Eric's navel, which tickles and makes him squirm, and then pinches gently at a nipple, which makes him squirm in a different way.

"Do you know what you want?" Jack asks, voice gravelly.

He doesn't ever want to move away from Jack's arms around him, or the slight itch of his chest hair on his shoulder blades, but he also does.

"Let me - " he says, dropping off of Jack's lap, between his knees, turning around so he's looking up at him. "Can I?" He feels huge, under his zipper; it kind of amazes Eric that that was in his body.

Jack obligingly lifts his hips so they can work his pants and boxers down, and Eric can't help but laugh at how difficult it is. "How do you even get dressed," he chirps; he's not so much assisting as copping a feel. He thinks he remembers trying to grope him before and failing; it's kind of mind-boggling that this is the first time he's really gotten his hands on the famous Zimmermann ass.

He squeezes right as Jack gets the waistband of his boxers down; his dick bobs and hits Eric in the face.

"Hi," he says stupidly, rubbing his cheek against it. Jack says "fuck!", low and involuntary.

Without the meds he would probably already be mindlessly sucking; this way he has to move in on purpose. The touch of his tongue to the shaft, of his lips to the head, it all has to be deliberate. It's delicate and scary and crazily intimate, being here without that blind fusion driving him. Jack is breathing hard above him, almost grunting. Eric opens wider and tries to see how deep he can take him. He wonders if synch would push him further. He sucks, swallows, hums. Jack's hips twitch under his hands; Eric can feel how tightly he's holding himself, not to buck up.

"I changed my mind," he says, pulling off, "Can you fuck me again?"

Jack's pupils are blown huge and he's redder than Eric has ever seen him from skating.

"Anything," he says, and stands up, a little unsteadily, balancing himself with a hand on Eric's head. "Stuff... in the bedroom," he says, sounding dazed. "One sec."

He doesn't seem to know whether to pull his pants back up or take them off; Eric helps. (Off, obviously.) Eric has to grab his own dick watching Jack walk away, then figures, what the heck, and is naked when Jack comes back. Jack stops and stares very gratifyingly.

"Sit," Eric says, and Jack sits back down on the couch, and Eric climbs back onto his lap where they'd started, facing him. "Like this?" Jack kisses him.

The fingering business is a lot more embarrassing when he's not out of his mind with synch. Eric hides his burning face in Jack's neck and tries to focus on his own hand spreading lube on Jack's dick. It's not that it feels bad, the opposite, maybe, something too much when he's alone in it.

"You're not," Jack says uncannily - Eric doesn't care how sensitive his mirror neurons are, they shouldn't extrapolate thoughts - and then "Wait, fuck, condom."

"Bondmate," Eric says, which isn't entirely reasonable - there's some vague memory of an "ESMN does not protect you" pamphlet dancing behind his eyes somewhere - but Jack says "Yeah - I barely - "

"I never," Eric says, "Made for you," and then he's kissing Jack while he works himself down onto his dick. It's intense, more intense than the first time, without synch overlaying everything. There's nothing to distract him from the stretch, he can't even keep kissing Jack, is just panting into his mouth.

"Oh, fuck", Jack says, and then finally there's something like the urgency of the first time, as Eric's tentative movements become more definite, and Jack bites into his shoulder.

"I'm going to - " Jack says, "When you do - "

Eric's eyes are shut, everything boiled down to the thrust of Jack inside of him, but he opens them and looks down between their bodies, puts his own hand on his dick and comes.

Jack makes a guttural noise and follows him over, crushing Eric down into his lap with his grip on his hips.

"Oh my god," Eric says, slumping forward into Jack's chest (and the mess of come on his belly). "Oh my god." He's completely floppy and useless while Jack grabs for tissues and makes an effort at basic cleanup - he ends up just giggling after Jack lays him down on the couch.

"Good?" Jack asks, and Eric looks up at him.

"Can't you tell?"

"Wanted to ask," Jack says, and Eric hauls him down.

"Good," he says, throwing his arm over Jack and worming in close, and then they doze for a little while, or Eric does, he's not sure about Jack.

Jack is watching him when he opens his eyes again.

"I want to blow you without the meds next time," Eric says, "I want to try everything both ways, is that okay?"

"It's not a recreational drug," Jack says, but he's smiling.

"And?" Eric asks.

"You might get better at tuning it out, when you want to, or tuning into it," Jack says.

"And?" Eric says again, poking Jack in the ribs. Jack convulses and almost falls off the couch, and Eric has to grab him around the middle and sort of fling himself backwards into the cushions to stop him.

"I think we should go sleep in my actual bed," Jack says. Eric sighs. Jack rubs his nose against Eric's nose.

"And I think we should try everything both ways twice," Jack says. "At a minimum."

"Thank you, sweetheart," Eric says, "I knew you're just as greedy as I am."

Jack goes serious and heavy-lidded at that.

"More," he says, "Bitty, you don't know how much more."

"I guess we'll see," Eric says, too sleepy to be anything but light. Jack frowns though.

"No, I mean it," he says. "I keep thinking about the other other way. Trying a drug holiday next summer, if you agree."

"Sure," Eric says, "If you want, I mean, it don't seem up to me?"

"It might be a lot," Jack says, "Or you might feel cheated - I don't think I would want to, all the time - "

Eric moves his hand in soothing circles on Jack's back. "If you do, I guess you'll be able to tell I don' t care," he says. "And if you don't you'll just have to believe me. I just want to see you smile, I guess, and get to be somewhere nearby when you aren't."

"I want to see what it's like, feeling everything with the bond," Jack says very quietly, into the secret space of their huddle on the couch. "With you. That's what I mean about greedy, I already get so much of you - "

"Hey," Eric says. "You know how your pills don't seem to block strong feelings, when we're face-to-face?"

"Something like that," Jack says cautiously.

Eric puts his nose right against Jack's nose, stares into his eyes, and pushes a little.

"Team Bittle-Zimmermann is spirit-touch neutral," he says. "As much, or as little, as we want to try. Whatever works for us. We get to decide."

"That's a manifesto, not an emotion," Jack says, and Eric loves him so, so, so much.

"Emotion this," he says, trying to push all that fondness, and he feels it connect: strong feelings, close range.

"Team Bittle-Zimmermann, huh?" Jack says, and Eric can feel the giant blooming firework in Jack's chest.

"Yes," Eric says, and he can feel Jack answer, yes, yes, yes.

***