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It starts with a fist bump. Eric doesn’t even notice Jack actually smiling at him for once; he’s so focused on the gesture. The sound of it is oddly satisfying, and he’s starting to get why bros do this so often. He stares at their knuckles and thinks for the first time since he joined the Samwell Men’s Hockey team that maybe Jack doesn’t hate him after all. Maybe they could even be friends outside of practice and games.

It’s been interesting these past few months to see how his friendships have developed, from traveling everywhere in a pack, either with the other students in his dorm or the rest of the frogs on the team, to falling into patterns with just a few people. The most surprising thing is the way Shitty and some of the older guys have sort of adopted him. He’s just a freshman and it’s not like it’s his performance on the ice that is earning him their respect, though Jack’s checking clinics have been helping.  If Eric is honest with himself, they might only like him for his pies, but there are worse things to be known for.   

And maybe, it’s because of the way he hangs around the Haus all the time, turning up like a bad penny and baking during every minute of his free time, that Jack is starting to warm up to him more.  Proximity breeds familiarity and all that.

As he and Jack walk back inside the rink, Eric flexes his hand and smiles. Hopefully there will be additional friendly fist bumps in their future.

But then Eric scores the winning goal against Yale and Jack is so mad he won’t look at him, so maybe it was just wishful thinking after all.

****

It’s the fourth “checking clinic” that Jack has with Bittle, and the improvement has been both surprising and satisfying.

When he first suggests extra practices to Bittle – and yes, he realizes “suggests” implies that he had a choice in the matter – he isn’t sure if he means for the extra practices to be punishment or not. Jack won’t lie and say he isn’t slightly gratified by the look of irritated exhaustion on Bittle’s face as he opens the door of his freshman dorm at 4:30 a.m.

Making Bittle miserable is only fair for the way he is making Jack miserable. He can’t be worrying about taking care of some tiny frog on the ice when there will be eagle-eyed scouts at every single one of their games. It’s affecting Jack’s focus. In their first few scrimmages, he could barely keep track of the puck because in the corner of his eye, he kept seeing Bittle cringing – or worse, falling down – to avoid a defender.

If he’s honest with himself though, Jack doesn’t understand why he’s so bothered by Bittle and his fear of checking. He’s never had this problem with a teammate before. It’s not even like Bittle is the worst teammate he’s played with. It defies logic, but seeing him crumple into a ball after a hit infuriates Jack in a way he cannot explain. He’s not even sure if he’s angry at Bittle, angry at whichever guy is checking him, or angry at himself for not stepping in to stop it.

So Jack does something about it, which is how they end up here, slamming into the boards in the shimmery light of early morning.

Though it’s clear that Bittle has gotten braver since they started, even at their first extra practice, there was something sharp in the determined look he gets before taking a hit. His eyes darken, his shoulders stiffen, and for the first time, Jack had thought that maybe he could play with this kid. Maybe he really does have the drive – the hunger – it takes to win a championship. But then Jack had knocked into him and Bittle had fallen to the ice in tears, and it becomes clear that it will take more than one attempt at this to help him overcome his fear.

But now that they’ve been doing this for a couple weeks, Jack can admit that Bittle is improving. He didn’t expect it, but Jack is also improving from their practices together. As Bittle becomes more comfortable with the hits, Jack’s had to come up with a number of different drills to work on. They practice skating through checks, avoiding checks, and even a few where Bittle tries checking Jack himself. Jack in turn has been trying to think more like a defenseman as they simulate real plays and situations where a check might occur, and he notices the way it has enhanced his performance in games as well as Bittle’s.

It’s obvious that Bittle will never be the most physical player on the ice, but the angry, worried, anxious feeling Jack gets from watching their opponents hit him has mostly subsided. If he still can tell even without looking where on the ice Bittle is at any given moment, check hazard or not, well that’s a different story, and one that he is not going to worry about now.

They are about to call it a day, since they have to clear the ice soon for the youth league. Bittle skates along the wall, catching his breath and waiting for Jack to call him back into position. Jack doesn’t wait and rams him into the board without any warning. Bittle loses his balance, spins, and falls right on his ass. He lets out a huff as Jack skates around to face him.

“Well that wasn’t very nice,” he grumbles, pulling off his gloves.

“Sorry, Bittle. Are you alright?”

He rubs at his tailbone. “I think I’m fine. But I’ll probably be black and blue by tomorrow.”

“It wouldn’t be hockey without a few bruises, eh?” Jack reaches a hand down to help him up. “You did really well today.”

Bittle looks up at Jack, smiling. “Thank you.”

He grabs onto Jack’s hand and lets him pull him up gracefully. They skate back to the entrance slowly, chatting quietly about their upcoming game. Or at least, Bittle talks. For whatever reason, Jack is mostly caught up on the fact that it’s not just in the hockey sense that Bittle has really soft hands.

****

They make it to the playoffs, but then a concussion ends Eric’s season early, and even then they don't make it past the next round. Before Eric knows it, he’s moving into Johnson’s old room in the Haus, and it’s summertime.

Eric misses his friends, and for the first time in his life he wishes for summer vacation to be over so he can go back to school.

When he finally arrives back at the Haus in August, it’s wonderful. Somehow these boys still like him and want to be friends with him after months apart.

Even Jack gives him a (stiff, awkward) bro-hug when they finally see each other, like even he is happy to see him.

It’s really incredible the difference a year makes. A year ago, Eric was getting yelled at by Jack on the ice, and now he’s sitting in Shitty’s room laughing and drinking beer trying to get Jack to join them.

“Come join us, Zimmermann! We’re playing your favorite game!” Shitty yells toward the bathroom.

“Favorite game besides hockey you mean,” corrects Bitty, gesturing with a can of Coors Light that he can't decide if he hates or not.

“Nah, brah,” says Shitty seriously. “Hockey isn't a game to Jack. It's a lifestyle.”

Eric nods in faux seriousness and takes a sip. A moment later, Jack peeks around the bathroom door frame, still damp from his shower.

“What are you yelling about?”

Shitty gestures largely at the small, off kilter flatscreen on his dresser. “We’re playing Drunk History Channel, and Bitty’s great but he's better at the drunk than the history—”

“Hey!”

“—and we need you to correct my wildly inaccurate claims about who actually built the pyramids and how all of America’s founding fathers were gay for each other.”

Jack sighs, but then catches sight of the muted program on the TV. “Oh, is that Ancient Aliens?”

Shitty leans over and stage-whispers to Bitty, “I told you he wouldn't be able to resist Ancient Aliens.”

Bitty laughs, and begins composing a tweet, because he can just tell this is going to be good. Jack returns from his room a few minutes later in jeans and a red plaid flannel and sits on the other side of Shitty. As soon as he's settled, Shitty throws an arm around his shoulders.

“Come here fucker.”

Bitty smiles and stands as he pulls up Twitter.

“What are you doing Bittle?” Jack asks, brow furrowing. The contrast between his expression and Shitty’s grin just makes Eric laugh.

“I'm recording your friendship for all posterity. Smile!”

Before he can finish the tweet, let alone take the picture, Jack leaps up and grabs for the phone. Not even his best figure skater twirl is enough to keep his phone out of reach. Jack stretches over his head, reaching his long arms over Eric’s body.

Jack wrenches the iPhone out of his hands and stand up triumphantly.

“Mr. Zimmermann, you give me back my phone.” He tries to grab it back, but Jack only smirks and holds the phone over his head, extending his entire wingspan to keep it out of reach. Eric’s first instinct is to jump for it, but as he steps closer, into Jack’s space, he realizes that he will more than likely miss and end up all up in Jack’s business. It's not a great idea, and he's not sure if their fledgling friendship is ready for that kind of invasion of personal space. He's not Shitty, after all.

Instead he crosses his arms and gives him the patented Mama Bittle look, the one that says you may be bigger than me but you will not be getting away with this.

Shitty laughs and says, “Just live in the moment, Bits. You can have your phone back after we’ve determined that the Incas were aliens all along.”

“Fine,” Bitty says with a dramatic fake sigh. “I guess I can live without Twitter for a few minutes.”

The time flies though, and he doesn't even miss his phone. Shitty’s running commentary gets more outrageous by the minute, and even Jack’s deadpan corrections are on the silly, sarcastic side.  He and Shitty end up laughing so hard that Shitty argues it should count as a core workout, and Jack should be required to let them skip conditioning at practice tomorrow.

“Not a chance, boys. But if you think it helps, next time I can do stand-up during crunches.”

Bitty snorts and Shitty cackles, while Jack looks somewhere between sheepish and proud, like he’s not sure if he’s comfortable being the funny one.

They end up watching Pawn Stars until Jack declares he's going to bed. After he leaves, Shitty flips to Comedy Central and they watch South Park until the beer is gone. It's only the next morning that Bitty remembers his phone is still sitting in Jack’s jacket pocket.

****

Saturday nights are weird for Jack. During the season, he can usually use games or practices as an acceptable excuse to stay home, but it's still early in the year. He's proud of himself though for being more comfortable in social situations. Early on, especially during his freshman year, going out was just one more thing he should be doing, because he chose to go to college and the college experience was supposed to include binge drinking at awful parties, hooking up with girls whose names he can't remember the next day. The captain at the time, a kid named Brandon, made it his mission to get Jack wasted, in the attempt to get him to crack a smile and “thaw his icy robot soul.” He only succeeded on getting Jack drunk once, which hadn’t really ended well for either of them… So he basically quit drinking, and for the most part, stopped going out or going to Haus parties.

It's his senior year though, and he doesn't want to waste his last year living in the same mile radius – the same house – as his closest friends. It's just that the pressure to have anyone else's idea of fun has fallen away, so he can pick and choose what he wants to do.

The Haus is quiet, Holster, Ransom and the wilder guys having already left to pregame and watch the baseball playoffs, and he's just about to head down stairs and see if anyone is still around when Shitty arrives at his door.

“Hey Shitty,” Jack says, noticing his languid posture and the slight aroma of pot.

Shitty comes all the way in and wraps his arms around Jack’s shoulders as he sits at his desk.

“Come on Grandpa. We’re getting froyo and you're coming. Put on pants!”

Jack closes his laptop and attempts to stand up while Shitty hangs on. “It's funny when you're the one telling me to put on clothes.” He finds his jeans on the floor and zips up a hoodie while Shitty yells down to the front yard.

“Who's we?” Jack asks. “Is Bittle going? If he tweets about this I’m taking his phone.” For some reason, that makes Shitty laugh, and yeah, he's definitely baked.

They get downstairs and sure enough, there's Bitty, thumbs flying on the screen. “Can't you live a minute without the internet, Bittle?”

Bittle rolls his eyes and shoves the phone in his face. “I was looking up the flavors,” he retorts. “They have peanut butter and raspberry, so you can make a frozen pb & j and pretend it's a game!”

“What sort of chocolate options are there, Bits?” Lardo asks. “I insist on chocolate!”

Bittle reads off the flavors, but he still doesn't put his phone away. Jack waits a few minutes, until they're almost at Superberry to attack. He uses his quick reflexes and stick handling skills to grab Bittle's wrist and snatch the phone right out of his hands.

“Hey!” Bittle yells. “Give it back!”

Jack holds the phone over his head out of reach, laughing happily at the way Bittle has gotten a little bolder since the last time Jack stole his phone. This time, he tries to jump and take it back. His arms are simply too short though, and Jack grabs his wrist with his open hand and holds him at arm's distance.

He holds tightly, registering in the back of his mind the juxtaposition of Bittle’s strong forearms and delicate hands. He keeps holding on even as Shitty comes over to help him.

Looking down at the screen on the phone, Jack is a little confused by the stream of content on Bittle’s Twitter. He finds a search bar and looks up “how to use twitter,” but the results aren't helpful, so he pockets the device and gives up on embarrassing Bittle on social media. After all, it's almost too easy to chirp him in real life.

Bittle breaks free, pouting but secretly laughing, and walks faster to catch up with Lardo, who links her arm in his. She must have smoked too. Jack can tell from the easy way she leans into the contact, the two of them touching from shoulder to hip, stepping in sync. It looks nice, comfortable, and suddenly Jack feels something somewhat like jealousy, but softer. It's a longing, to feel that comfortable with someone else, to be linked and in sync.

But either way, Jack is happy. These are the kinds of nights that he loves. No pressure to be Jack Zimmermann the college jock, or Jack Zimmermann the hockey prodigy. He's just Jack the Grandpa, and for these three, that's enough.

****

Bitty should be doing homework. He has a math quiz in two days that he is completely unprepared for, as well as a presentation in his food class, but instead he's catching up on his pinning, reading over all of the new fall recipes his mom has put on their Pinterest board. One of them, an intriguing espresso chocolate chip cookie recipe claims to “taste like autumn in your mouth.”

He's getting to the last of the new recipes when he hears something. His door is open, but Jack’s is closed, and he can just make out a muffled voice coming from inside.

Curiosity piqued, he sets down his laptop and walks over to knock on the door. Certain people in the Haus-hold don't bother to knock, but Bitty’s polite, and Jack is intimidating, and he's not really sure what he's walking into.

At the knock, the speaking ceases and after a few seconds, Jack opens the door.

“Yes, Bittle?”

Bitty peeks into Jack’s room, but he doesn't see anyone, and Jack’s laptop is closed and phone is sitting quietly on his desk, so he wasn't Skyping anyone or talking on the phone. “I just was wondering who you were talking to,” Bitty admits.

Jack looks away, an embarrassed expression on his face. “Oh, um, I was practicing for our Women, Food, and American Culture presentation.”

“Oh,” is all Bitty can say, because of course he is. Jack looks so awkward though, so he eventually adds, “Do you want a few pointers?”

The look on Jack’s face is exactly how Bitty imagines he looks before he gets checked. If he had to guess, he'd say he looks torn between desperately wanting the help and not trusting that this won't lead to an enormous chirp session.

“I promise not to chirp,” Bitty assures, “I just already know the assignment and saw your last presentation, so I will probably be able to help. Besides, it's only fair that I get to coach you on this after all the coaching you've given me.”

Jack lets him in hesitantly, shutting the door behind him. “I could probably use the help. Even Professor Atley said that last time I was a bit stiff…”

Bitty sits down in an armchair Jack keeps in the corner. “I’m going to sit here as long as it takes, okay?” Jack nods, wearing his game face and standing in the center of the room. Bitty looks up at him expectantly.  “Well, let's see what you got!”

Jack inhales deeply and shuffles around a few index cards, then begins. “Turner and Ferguson’s article on gendered identity in food consumption explains many important facets of the role of—“

Bitty cuts him off almost immediately. “Okay, I'm going to stop you there. You sound like a GPS!”

“I’m trying, Bittle,” Jack mutters. “That's just what my voice sounds like.”

“Now I know that's not true, Mr. Zimmermann. You are capable of speaking naturally in front of a group. You do it for us before every single game.”

Jack sighs, “Even then I sound like a robot according to some people…” He looks at Bitty as if he's daring him to contradict him, but well, Bitty’s not going to lie to him.

“But even still, you sound more energized and inspiring than you do right now. You just need to relax! Take a deep breath!”

Bitty watches as he inhales, shoulders clenching up around his neck, then exhales, his shoulders comically remaining exactly as tight as they were before. “Goodness gracious,” Bitty admits, “What are we going to do with you?”

Jack looks at him helplessly, and then Bitty has an idea. He stands and walks over behind Jack, placing his hands carefully, but firmly onto Jack’s shoulders. He freezes, as Bitty’s thumbs sweep quickly up and down the line of his shoulder blade muscles. “Let’s try something. Just relax. Breathe in… and out.” As Jack exhales, Bitty presses firmly down on a knot just to the side of his shoulder.

It's like a switch has been flipped, and suddenly all of the tension in his shoulders falls away. Jack turns around, shocked. “How did you do that?” He turns his neck side to side and all but groans. Bitty can't help but flush a little.

He rambles, “It's a nerve thing I learned back when I was figure skating. It's super effective. Even Coach and his training staff use it. But I thought it might help you relax, so that you won't be so stiff during your presentation.”

“Thanks Bittle,” Jack smiles. “I definitely feel better, though I'm still not sure it's enough to save my speech.”

“Don't you worry!” says Bitty cheerfully. “Well go over it a few times and work from there.”

He sits back down, and Jack centers himself in the center of the room, starting again. “Turner and Ferguson’s article on gendered identity in food consumption explains…”

His delivery is slightly better this time, and Bitty watches on proudly, but if he's not paying total attention on the content of the presentation, it's only because he's still thinking about Jack’s solid muscles underneath his hands.

* * * *

Today’s practice was the best one of the season so far. The drills seemed effortless, the lines are all clicking, and there’s an energy – an electricity – between the guys on the ice. This is a team that can go far, maybe all the way, Jack thinks as they warm down. He’s skating back toward the locker room with Shitty, passing by Bittle, Dex, and Nursey discussing something in a small huddle at center ice.

“Nice job out there, Bits!” Shitty exclaims, smacking him hard on the ass.

Bitty yelps and he jumps so abruptly that his skates even leave the ice. “Gah! Shitty! Can you not?”

Dex and Nursey laugh. Shitty circles them. “It goes with the territory, Bitty. Nice job today too, boys,” Shitty says, slapping the frogs both gently on the butt as well.

“You should be thankful,” Holster chimes in, skating over and joining the small circle. He drapes his arms over Jack’s and Shitty’s shoulders. “My team in high school was all about turkey-tapping.”

“What’s turkey-tapping?” Bitty asks.

“It’s when you do this,” Holster replies as he quickly attempts to punch Shitty between his legs.  

“Whoa there! Let’s keep it civil!” Shitty shouts, recoiling quickly.

Everyone is laughing, including Jack. “You’re fine, Shitty,” Jack chirps, giving him a friendly pat on the ass.

As Jack turns to leave, he hears Bittle behind him.

“You did well today too, Captain! Can’t leave you out.”

Smack. Right on the glutes. Jack can hardly believe it. He stops in his tracks as Bittle races past him, laughing and chirping as he goes.

* * * *

“Come on Bittle, It’s time to go!”

“I’m coming, I’m coming! I just need to grab a few things!”

It only took he and Jack until Week 3 of the semester to establish a routine for their food class. Eric finally has Jack trained to wait for him, no matter how scattered he gets trying to make it out the door. By the time Eric is ready with his book bag, Jack is already waiting for him on the porch.

For the first few classes, Eric had to convince Jack that walking together was not only the nice, normal thing to do, but it made sense. What didn’t make sense was the time that Eric walked about 20 feet behind Jack for the entire way, just because Jack couldn’t wait thirty seconds for Bitty to tie his shoelaces. Oh, his awkward captain…

Now though, Jack waits for him diligently, and Bitty won’t admit it, but if it weren’t for Jack, he’d probably be late every day.

Bitty hands Jack one of two cupcake-sized breakfast quiches as they walk down the porch steps. “I thought you only baked desserts,” Jack remarks after eating his in three bites.

“As if,” Bitty scoffs. “Wait until I make my savory empanadas. Want the rest of mine?” Bitty holds out his hand with half of his mini-quiche on it as an offering, one that Jack accepts, lightly brushing his fingers along Bitty’s palm. “I already ate two,” he admits.

“Thanks Bittle,” says Jack happily, and Bitty makes a note to look up a few more quiche recipes for fall.

****

Something that Jack never expected this year was that he’d hang out so much with Bittle. And yet, here he is sitting at Annie’s, nursing a black coffee before class while Bitty sits across from him, chattering on about pies and music and the girl in their class who always asks the dumbest questions.

“I can’t take it anymore! How does she come up with these things?” he laments.

“You think it’s bad now…” Jack responds, “I’ve had her in at least one class every semester since I declared. She once tried to argue that Orville Redenbacher signed the Declaration of Independence.”

“The popcorn guy? Seriously?”

“Yes.”

Bitty groans, but then a new song starts playing in the café and he immediately brightens. “Oh! I love this song!”

“Is this Taylor Swift?” Jacks asks, remembering Holster mentioning something about her earlier in the week.

Bitty laughs at him, “No, it’s not. I think the song is by Alesso.”

Jack thinks it’s bizarre how excited Bittle gets about all of this stuff. It’s just a song, it’s not that important. Most of them sound exactly the same anyway.

Bittle continues, “I swear, you can name every single U.S. President and Canadian Prime Minister, but you might be the only person who doesn’t know what Taylor Swift sounds like. Even my Moo Maw knows her!”

Bittle takes a sip of his latte, checks his phone, then says, “We have about ten minutes before we need to leave for class. I bet you can’t name a single singer of the next three songs. Loser buys the winner coffee next time.”

He extends his hand. Jack takes it. “Deal,” he agrees. They shake, and Jack wonders not for the first time, what Bittle does to keep his hands so soft. Jack’s palms are calloused and dry, but Bitty’s are warm and smooth. He still has some callouses, most of the team does, but Bittle barely has any considering how good of a stick handler he is. Jack almost asks him, but he doesn’t.

Instead, he guesses the next three songs wrong and makes Bittle laugh so hard he snorts his latte, which is good too.

* * * *

The mini pies look flawless, thinks Bitty as he pulls them out of the oven, Shitty standing by eagerly to devour at least three of them as soon as they are cool enough to pick up comfortably.

“Eric Bittle, you’ve outdone yourself, you adorable motherfucker,” Shitty says approvingly. The pies do look pretty great, and they are too busy admiring Bitty’s handiwork to notice when Jack enters almost silently. It’s not until Bitty hears him clear his throat that he turns.

“What are you guys up to tonight?” Jack asks.

“No plans yet,” Bitty replies, popping the mini pies out of the cupcake tray. “Just finishing these up.”

“I’m just living in the moment, Jack-Attack,” adds Shitty.

“Oh. Well, we could all do something, maybe. If you want…”

It all devolves quickly after that. Shitty is suddenly yelling, and Ransom and Holster appear, seemingly out of thin air. Bitty had no idea they were even home, but now here they are, egging him on as he shotguns a beer, and goodness, what is his life these days? It’s not even fair, Jack’s the one who never wants to go out, and this was his idea, so why isn’t he the one his teammates have decided collectively should be shitfaced.

They all do a round of shots, and before Bitty has even finished his, Shitty is pulling out a six pack of cokes, pouring out half and filling the rest back up with whiskey.

He grabs Jack by the shoulders. “No arguing, brahs. Tonight we’re drinking Jack and Cokes exclusively in honor of this sonofabitch who rarely gives us the opportunity to get drunk with him.” Jack smiles back at Shitty, so Bitty doesn’t mention anything when he notices Jack quietly grab an unopened, plain soda instead of the mixed drink.

They leave the house with no particular goal in mind, marching along the road to River Quad amid boisterous laughing and rough-housing. Shitty steals his phone almost immediately and Bitty feels naked without it. Between that and the fact that the whiskey hits him all at once, he’s feeling a little out of out of touch with reality, and can't help but enjoy the moment.

At one point, Ransom pushes Holster into a bush and Bitty laughs so hard that he falls over. Jack is the one who lifts him up off the ground and gives him a reassuring pat on the back. “You’re going hard tonight, eh Bittle?” Bitty tries to glare at him, but it doesn’t work very well, which only seems to make Jack laugh at him more.

His teammates keep dragging him along, and they end up on the beach. He and Jack sit back-to-back with Holster and Ransom. “Hashtag Got Your Back,” Bitty shouts as they settle in down by the water. A few feet away, Shitty is sitting on a low branch nearby trying to compose a Samwell University drinking song.

“This college’s dedication to imbibing is literally right there in our motto. It is a fucking travesty that we have no official song to drink to.” The whole thing seems to be to the tune of “Don’t Stop Believing,” but the only line that Bitty can even make out is something about “Mother-chugging Wellies.” Needless to say, it’s hysterical.

Eventually, Holster and Ransom get up to skip rocks on the river, leaving Bitty and Jack on their own on the beach. Bitty takes a moment to pat Jack on the side of his leg. “I’m glad you came out with us tonight. This is fun.”

“Yeah,” Jack replies. “Me too.” Bitty’s feeling loose and a little drunk, and he wishes he could just let himself lean on Jack, but he’s pretty sure Jack wouldn’t like that. So he’s glad when Shitty leaps down from his tree and sits down on his other side. He rests his head on Shitty’s shoulder and basks in this feeling, a total conscious awareness that he is happy.

So this is what friendship is supposed to feel like.

Chapter Text

Jack likes roofs. He especially likes being on rooftops when he’s feeling anxious. It's something first discovered when he was in the hospital. On one of his first nights there, he overheard some of the nurses talking about using the south staircase to covertly smoke a cigarette on the roof on their break, so later, when he suddenly couldn’t breathe, felt his mind spiraling out of control, he snuck out of his room and climbed up to the roof.

His parents and doctor had been terrified at first when they finally found him up there. It had been hard to convince them that he really wasn’t a suicide risk, that he had no desire to jump. He didn’t know why he felt compelled to climb up, higher and higher, but something about the vantage point, being able to look out and see more, see the vastness of the sky and the tininess of the people, makes it easier to re-center himself. The anxiety doesn’t feel so overwhelming from up high.

So Jack has become an expert at sneaking onto roofs. He knows the two buildings on the main campus that don’t lock the roof access staircases, and once set an alarm trying to get on top of his freshman dorm. The Reading Room of the Haus does in a pinch though.

Their first game of the season is next week, and it finally hit Jack that this is it. This is his last season, his last chance for an NCAA championship, his last chance to impress scouts, his last chance to prove that he can play in the NHL. The weight of the future on his shoulders is overwhelming, and he knows he has been taking it out on his teammates.

He sits out on the porch roof and tries to clear his head. He grabs his knees and tries to slow down his thoughts, though it’s a struggle. That’s how Bittle finds him.

Jack hears the window open and turns to see Bittle’s head peeping out. “Oh Jack, I thought I heard someone out here. But I thought it was Shitty though.”

“Just me,” Jack replies.

Bittle climbs out the window in his pajamas and a Samwell hoody. He carefully maneuvers over to sit next to Jack. “Isn’t it past your bedtime, Captain?”

He probably means it as a chirp, but it’s true. Jack should be sleeping, but instead he’s out here future-tripping. “Couldn’t sleep,” is all he says in response.

“Me either,” says Bittle. The silence stretches and Bittle begins to fidget. Part of Jack wants to tell him to leave him alone, to go back inside and let him worry in peace, but the other part of him thinks that maybe it would help to have another person here. He doesn’t really know what to say though.

It’s Bittle who breaks the silence. “I talked to my mom today. She’s sending you a care package…”

That… isn’t what Jack was expecting. “What?”

Bittle sighs. He looks embarrassed. “I tried to talk her out of it. But I mentioned that you were… well, that you were in a bad mood because of preseason and all that, and she decided she’s going to send you cookies or something.” He trails off, and Jack can only gape.

“She doesn’t have to do that,” Jack insists. He really doesn’t know how to respond. His mother had always taught him to always accept a gift with gratitude, even those he didn’t want, or in this case, one he didn’t think he deserved.

“That’s what I said!” says Bittle. “I mean, you live with me, it’s not like there’s any lack of baked goods in this Haus.”

“Yeah.” Jack scratches at the back of his head. “Tell her thank you, I guess. I mean, if you don’t have a choice in the matter.”

“Oh no sir, there’s no arguing with Mama Bittle. If you think I’m bad, just know that I get all of my stubbornness from her, and she’s worse than I am.”

Jack suddenly feels guilty and self-conscious. Had he really been acting in such a way that not only Bittle was concerned, but that his mom was driven to send him something? All at once, his emotions are so conflicted that he feels the beginnings of a panic attack blooming.

Bittle must notice, because he places a hand on Jack’s knee. “If it really bothers you, I’ll tell her not to.”

Jack takes a deep breath and focuses on Bittle’s hand, on the wooden roof under his feet, on the breeze rustling the trees, all of those things outside himself. It helps, and he eventually answers, “It’s okay, Bittle. Honestly, I appreciate it.”

“Alright,” Bitty says, pulling his hand back and putting it in his sweatshirt pocket.

They fall into silence again for a few moments, breathing deeply in the night air.

It’s hardly more than a whisper when Bittle finally says, “If you ever want to talk about it...” Jack looks at him, and he continues, “About whatever you’re going through, I’m here for you. We’re all here for you.”

Jack sighs and brings his knees to his chin. “I hate waiting for the season to start.” One of the other guys might have chirped him then and said something like how Jack can only be happy when playing hockey, but Bittle doesn’t say anything, which is better. It’s more complicated than that. He tries to figure out the right words to explain it. It’s like there are all of these expectations and doubts, both from other people and from himself, but… “I can’t do anything about it until I’m out there on the ice.”

“I can only imagine what that must be like for you,” Bittle says. “But you have to know that you’re going to be great out there.”

Jack wants to say that it’s not that easy, that his mind just keeps replaying all of the worst case scenarios that he’s ever come up with, that there’s no way that Bittle can know for sure that Jack won’t blow chance all over again. He also wants to believe Bittle, who’s honest and earnest and for some reason still sitting out here even though it’s almost midnight and chilly (at least for a southerner).

“Win or lose next week,” Bittle continues, “I know that you are going to give it your all, and you work too damn hard for that to not to be great.”

“What if it’s still not good enough?” Jack admits in a whisper.

Bittle laughs, “Let me worry about not being good enough. Anyone with eyes can see that you’re the best player out there. All you need to worry about is continuing to do what you’re doing. Don’t let worrying mess up your preparation or game plan. And that includes sleep, Mr. Zimmermann.”

Before Jack can respond, he hears the attic window open and Ransom yelling down at them. A few moments later, Ransom and Holster are leaning out Bittle’s window, debating the weight threshold of the roof. It’s hilarious and a good distraction, and for a few minutes, he forgets how overwhelmed he is.

Ransom and Holster eventually give up on coming out on the roof and go to bed. Bittle isn’t far behind them. When he gets up to leave, he puts his hand back on Jack’s knee, squeezing gently, before using Jack’s legs for leverage as he stands.

“‘Night, Jack,” he says, walking back to his window.

“Goodnight, Bittle.” He smiles back at Jack once, the light from the streetlamp glowing on his face, then hops back in his window. Jack looks up one more time at the vastness of the sky, before slowly getting up himself and heading to bed. He falls asleep almost instantly.

****

When Jack tells him that this will be their last checking practice, Bitty is surprised that he feels a bit disappointed. He’s mostly relieved, thrilled about the few extra hours of sleep each week, and proud that he’s improved enough that Jack doesn’t think he needs them anymore. But in a way, he’s going to miss this, hanging out with Jack one on one in the one place Jack seems to relax and be himself: on the ice.

They go through their usual drills, and then some of the newer ones that Jack has come up with. But then it sort of devolves into something more informal. Jack discusses ideas for plays, and Bitty circles around him offering his thoughts.

Even just like this, casually sharing the ice, they manage to find a rhythm together, one that’s showing up in the way they are playing together.

When their time is finally up, Jack smiles, holding out his arm for a fist bump. “Nice job, Bittle. Those d-men won’t know what to do with you.”

They bump fists and Bitty grins. “Thanks for the lessons, Coach!”

Jack then claps him on the bicep, a “brothers in arms” sort of gesture. He looks down intently, “Seriously, Bittle, I’m glad you’re on my line.”

The moment feels intense, important. It’s just like Jack to make a big deal about checking practice, but Bitty knows that from Jack, there’s no bigger compliment than one about hockey. He hopes he can live up to it.

He returns Jack’s weird “Band of Brothers” arm clasp, and replies, “Got your back, Captain.”

Jack’s smile lights up his whole face.

****

They win their first game, which makes Jack feel 1000 times lighter. He’s so happy that he even enjoys the Haus Halloween party for once. His good mood lingers into Sunday morning, when he wakes up early out of habit. Sunday mornings were usually when he had checking practice with Bittle, and even though Bittle has improved and doesn’t really need the extra anymore, Jack is surprised to see him already up, downing a cup of coffee.

“Are you heading to Faber?” Bittle asks.

“Yep,” Jack replies. “You coming?”

Bittle just nods his head at his gear bag by the door, finishing off his coffee. “Let’s go, Captain.”

They skate more or less in silence. Jack has Bittle help him work out a couple maneuvers and plays. They even practice a no-look pass that Bittle insists on giving a code name for when they're in games. Jack agrees to it as long as Bittle can nail the move, which is how he ends up shouting “Yoncé, Yoncé,” as he skates down the ice. Bittle misses the pass, and when Jack looks back to see what went wrong, he sees Bittle curled in as ball, red with silent laughter.

“Bittle, you okay?”

He wheezes back, “You don't even get how funny that is!”

Jack frowns. “If the name is going to be a problem…”

“Oh no,” Bittle says standing, still laughing. “I promise it won't be like this every time. I knew it would be funny, but I didn't anticipate how funny it would be coming from you.

Jack skates away incredulously. “One more time, Bittle!”

They run through it a few more times before they need to wrap up. As they're heading off the ice, Jack realizes suddenly that Bittle’s chatter has stopped. He looks up just in time to see Bittle sprinting toward him for a check.

He crashes into Jack and bounces backwards, landing flat on his ass and careening away across the ice. Jack is worried for a millisecond, then realizes that Bitty is laughing and flailing. Jack can't help himself, he cracks up. He doubles over in laughter, and when he looks up, there's Bittle sitting at center ice, beaming at him.

“Nice check, Bittle.”

****

Samwell is always so pretty this time of year. The autumn colors are so vibrant, and just looking at the trees makes Bitty’s heart swell with love for the campus. It seems impossible that something he gets to see every day can be so beautiful.

He mentions as much to Jack as they walk out of the library.

“Let’s take the long way back,” Jack suggests in response. “We could go around Faber and then walk back on the north side of campus.”

“Sure! That sounds nice.”

They walk in comfortable silence, enjoying the brisk fall air and clear skies. At one point, Bitty gets caught up staring out over the river, thinking he’s never seen anywhere so gorgeous, that he accidentally bumps into Jack.

“Oops, sorry!”

Jack responds by bumping his shoulder into Bitty’s. “Trying to check me again, eh?” he asks affably.

Bitty laughs, and says, “Yep,” and knocks into him again, this time on purpose.  

Jack laughs and ruffles Bitty’s hair. “Gotta pay attention next time.”

Bitty blushes, but he’s sure that the color in his cheeks is only from the chilly air and the brisk pace of keeping up with Jack.

****

Cooking with Bittle has been surprisingly fun. Jack had been slightly apprehensive about this project, since he hasn't really ever baked anything before, at least successfully. He can grill a decent burger and make mac and cheese, but his one attempt at using the oven – for garlic bread his sophomore year – had been a disaster and he doesn't think the oven was used again until Shitty made pot brownies almost a year later.

But this time, he can rely on Bittle's expertise and allow himself to take a back seat. It’s nice, but the surprising thing is how it ends up causing an inversion of their usual dynamic. Jack is the one chattering on, about where he thinks he’ll play and conversations he’s had with his agent and his thoughts on joining an expansion team.

There’s one odd moment, when Bitty’s turned around washing dishes. Jack realizes that he doesn’t seem to be listening anymore, so he walks over and places a hand on his shoulder. “You alright, Bittle?”

Bitty startles and drops the glass bowl he’s washing with a loud clatter into the sink. He turns around to face Jack and mutters something about an overdue assignment online, and rushes upstairs.

Jack takes over the dishes, and finishes them up. When Bittle comes back ten minutes later, he seems fine, even though he must have dunked his head in the sink for some reason, because his hair is wet.

“You okay?” Jack asks again.

“Oh yes, fine. It’s almost time to take that pie out of the oven!” He busies himself with the oven mitts, and Jack stands by nervously as Bittle removes the pie. “It’s beautiful!” Eric cries.

“Yeah?”

“Absolutely perfect, Jack!” He beams at Jack, then looks away quickly. Jack is just so relieved that he helped bake a pie and the Haus is still in one piece at the end that he quickly forgets whatever weird thing was going on with Bittle.

****

Bitty is panicking. As if planning a Thanksgiving meal for 20 college athletes with black hole stomachs in less than 24 hours is not enough, now this asshole on Facebook has to post the most incredible looking Brussel sprout recipe he has ever seen. Well, there goes his perfectly balanced side dish menu.

“Hey Bittle?”

He looks up and there’s Jack standing by his door. “Hi Jack, what are your feelings about Brussel sprouts, because I may need to run out and get some this very second.”

“Uh…” Jack looks understandably confused by Bitty’s tirade.  “I don’t really like them, but if they’re that important, we can go to the Stop N Shop before it closes.”

Bitty’s relieved. “Oh no, that won’t be necessary!” If Jack doesn’t like them, then there are probably a lot of guys on the team who also don’t. He pins the recipe anyway for the Bittle family Christmas dinner.  “What’s up?”

“Should I wear a suit tomorrow? You said wear a tie in your email, but you didn’t say how formal you wanted us to be.” Jack looks earnest, which is just too precious.

Bitty laughs. “No suit necessary. Just wear what you would wear to your family Thanksgiving dinner.” Then he reconsiders, “Or I’m not really sure what Canadian Thanksgiving is like.”

“It’s pretty much the same as American Thanksgiving, except a month earlier,” Jack chirps. “And you still haven’t really answered my question.”

“Alright Mr. Zimmermann, I think it’s time for a fashion show. Go put on whatever you were thinking of wearing and I’ll tell you if it’s okay.”

He looks relieved. “Okay, be right back.”

Bitty closes his laptop and settles cross-legged on the edge of his bed. A few minutes later, Jack comes back into his room.

“Is this okay?” he asks, shuffling around.

He’s wearing a light blue V-neck sweater over a white Oxford shirt and a red and blue striped tie. The color of the sweater matches his eyes, making them pop. Bitty feels a little lost – a little too warm – just looking at them, and focuses on the rest of the outfit. Jack has on khakis and socks without shoes, an endearing combo.  

“It’s perfect, Jack!” he enthuses. “You certainly do clean up well!”

Bitty is typing a tweet, because how adorable is it that Jack Zimmermann came to him for fashion advice, when Jack begins to mock him.

“All the time with the tweeting, Bittle.” Bitty looks up and sees him smirking, and braces himself for some chirping.

“You should be thankful,” Eric replies. “I’m offering proof to the world that you are capable of dressing nicely.”

“Does Twitter pay you or something? I have a fourteen-year-old cousin and even she doesn’t tweet as much as you do,” Jack quips.

“You know, I don’t need to take this in my own room,” Bitty scoffs.

Jack throws up his hands and makes to leave. When Bitty sees him turn, he starts typing out another tweet about how rude Jack is. What he doesn’t see is Jack turn around and catch him at it again. “I think it’s time for a Twitter break,” he says, marching back over like he’s going to try to steal Bitty’s phone – again – and hasn’t this game gotten old yet? Bitty twists around, trying to shield his phone with his body, but it doesn’t seem to deter Jack at all. He climbs halfway onto the bed and instead of going for the phone, goes for Bitty himself. Jack has him in a headlock and is doing more damage to Bitty’s hair than a leaf blower.

“Jack!” Bitty shrieks, “What are you doing? Let me go!” He squirms and tries to get out of the hold.

Jack is laughing, but he loosens his grip slightly as Bitty wiggles. Eric takes advantage of his hesitation and twists around to grab around the waist for a tackle. The move backfires though, and somehow Jack is able to reach around and lift Eric over his shoulders in a fireman’s lift.

He spins around a few times and Bitty is too shocked to do anything than laugh.

“I swear, Jack Laurent Zimmermann, if you don’t put me down this instant…!”

“Okay,” Jack says evenly, and suddenly Bitty is being flopped back onto his bed.

He lands sprawled on his back, breathing heavily, while Jack stands over him at the edge of the bed, smiling triumphantly. His hair is falling in his eyes, and there’s just a hint of a smirk on his face. The effect is… slightly overwhelming.

“I always thought I got to be exempt from the rough-housing,” Bitty finally manages to say, shaking a few unnecessary, unwanted thoughts out of his mind.

“Rough Haus-ing, Bitty. And no one’s exempt.”

He looks down at Bitty, and Bitty can’t breathe. Jack considers him for a moment, then says, “Thanks for your help,” before leaving like nothing happened. Bitty can’t do anything but watch him go, trying to catch his breath and piece his brain back together at the same time.

****

The Haus Thanksgiving is a successful, wild affair, and Jack can’t get over how impressed he is with Bittle’s ability to feed a small army of hockey players.

He tells him as much after dinner. Bittle calls him into the kitchen to put a couple platters back on the top shelves, and Jack makes a point to say, “Great dinner, Bittle. I don’t know how you do it.”

Bittle deflects and can’t just take a compliment, but he seems pleased. Jack helps him with some of the dishes, toweling them dry as Bitty washes, chatting away while Jack nods, hums in agreement, and notes silently how sleepy turkey makes him.

After a while, Bittle pats his arms and says, “That’s it for now. We’ll deal with the rest later. Let’s go join the others.” The last football game of the night is on and everyone’s watching and shouting. Apparently, they’ve saved the last spot on the couch for Bittle – “Best seat in the Haus for the chef!” yells Shitty – so Jack sits on the floor.

He leans up against the arm, fully content. It’s not until everyone is screaming about a wild touchdown that Jack realizes he has drifted off, resting his head on Bittle’s knee. He looks up at Bittle apologetically, but he just looks back down at him fondly. Jack returns the smile, then quietly excuses himself upstairs, blaming the tryptophan for the warm, fuzzy, sleepy feeling in his stomach.

****

The campus is abuzz with the impending holidays (and finals). Bitty bakes his favorite Christmas cookies in mass quantities and tries not to stress about his date for Winter Screw.

When the night of the dance finally arrives and Bitty is introduced to Geoff, he’s pleasantly surprised. He’s not quite as blond as Eric, and he has great eyes and nice, broad shoulders. His smile is the endearing kind of crooked that goes well with his British sense of humor. They spend a full ten minutes delighting over each other’s accent, and best of all, he likes to dance.

When Ransom comes by with a flask, Bitty takes a hefty swig and tells him, “Nicely done this year. Not a dud.”

“Excellent!” he replies, taking the flask and helping himself to a drink as well. “I knew we’d get it right sooner or later,” Ransom says with a wink.

After that, Bitty pulls Geoff onto the dance floor. The music pulses and Bitty gives into the rhythms. He’s had just enough rum and coke to make him feel loose and sexy.

A while later, the music shifts to something with a deep, filthy bass. Geoff maneuvers around behind him, holding Bitty by his hips. It takes a few moments for Bitty to adjust, to get used to following the movements of someone else’s body. Eventually though, they figure it out and move together.

Bitty looks up across the packed dance floor and sees Jack and his date a few yards ahead of them. He’s surprised to see that Jack isn’t just doing the awkward dad shuffle. He’s moving in time with the beat, holding Camilla hips in almost the exact same way Geoff is holding Bitty’s.

He doesn’t even realize that he’s staring until Jack looks over and their eyes lock. They’re too far away to talk, but they’re moving together.

Right at that moment, Geoff’s arm snakes around Bitty’s side, hand splayed on Bitty’s stomach, and oh, that’s new. But then, Jack mirrors the motion, pulling his date toward him just as Bitty’s date does the same, closing the gap between their bodies.

It’s surreal, and Bitty might be too drunk to be processing this properly, but it seems like he and Jack are in sync. He watches as Camilla lifts an arm up behind her, groping for Jack’s neck, and is shocked to feel himself doing the same motion. His palm lands somewhere around Geoff’s ear, but then he lowers his head and Bitty feels hot breath on his neck. He meets Jack’s eye once more across the space, and then Jack is leaning over Camilla’s shoulder. She and Bitty both extend their neck at the exact same moment, and suddenly it’s too much for Bitty.

He quickly, gracelessly, excuses himself for the restroom. He tries to wrap his head around what he just experienced – what he think he just experienced. It’s easier to see how drunk he is in the harsh florescent lights of the student center bathroom.

He takes a breath and heads back out. Geoff is standing over by some of the other rugby guys. Jack is nowhere to be seen. Bitty heads over and stands next to the rugby crew, and Geoff smiles back at him, but it’s different now. Bitty can’t help but feel like he did something wrong.

The rest of the dance goes well though, and Geoff eventually walks him home. They don’t kiss or anything, but Bitty hugs him and they make plans for coffee.

It’s nice, normal, but when Bitty’s falling asleep, feeling the ghost of a touch on his stomach, on his neck, it’s not Geoff’s hands that he’s thinking of.

****

Most people are already partying when Jack leaves to take his last final of the semester. He has been lucky in past years, but this had been the semester it finally caught up with him and he gets stuck with the last possible time slot for his 20th century American history final.

He walks back from his Friday afternoon test in the fading light of evening, feeling good. When he gets back to the Haus, it’s quiet, most of the guys having left to enjoy the post-finals parties.

Jack walks upstairs to drop off his backpack, resigned to the fact that he’s finally going to have to start packing. Packing has always been one of Jack’s least favorite things, which is why he’s left it to the last minute anyway.

He’s staring at his hamper, wondering whether it’s better to do his laundry before he leaves or save it for when he gets home, when he hears someone talking and realizes he’s not home alone after all.  

He decides to put off the laundry decision for a while longer and follows the sound of humming over to Bittle’s room. He knocks twice on the cracked open door before pushing it open and peering inside

“Hi Bittle,” he says, stepping into the room.

Bittle spins around in his desk chair and says, “Jack! You’re done! How was your final?”

“It was good,” he responds, looking around at the equipment on Bittle’s desk and the mess of papers on his bed. “Is this all for homework?”

Bittle picks up one of the messy packets from the bed. “No, I’m all done for the semester! I finally finished my final paper for our food seminar. Now I’m just catching up on my vlogging. Can’t leave the followers hanging...”

He turns and starts messing with the settings on his camera, like he’s expecting Jack to leave. He knows that Bittle doesn’t want them watching his blog, and Jack more than anyone understands a desire for privacy, but that doesn’t mean that Jack’s not curious. He promised not to watch, but he’s technically not watching the blog, just the process. And he really doesn’t want to start packing yet. Jack sits on the edge of Bittle’s bed and starts asking questions. Even though Bittle sounds exasperated, he still answers every one of them.

At one point, Bittle is at his desk, laptop open, messing around with his editing program, and Jack is legitimately curious about how this whole thing works, so he stands up to get a better look. Bittle is still sitting in his desk chair, so Jack leans over and rests his hands on his shoulders, trying to make sense of all of the different windows he has open. “What’s all this do?”

At first, Bittle tenses, and Jack wonders if maybe he’s overstepped his boundaries and Bittle doesn’t actually want him looking at his screen. Jack’s about to leave when he feels the muscles relax beneath his hands, just a little bit. “It’s for editing. I’m trying to match the V.O.’s with the pie shots that I want.” He points, “This little bar is video, this one is audio…”

It’s surprising how much goes into it. Jack enjoys learning about it, and it reminds him a little bit of photography when Bitty goes into composition and color correction.

Eventually though they get off topic, and Jack sits on Bitty’s bed, listening to him talk for hours about YouTube celebrities and Twitter jokes, things Jack usually wouldn’t care about, but is actually pretty interesting for some reason.

Needless to say, he puts off his packing until tomorrow.

****

Winter break in Madison has been nice, but boring compared to life at the Haus. Bitty throws himself into all things Christmas – homemade decorations, menu prep, gift wrapping – and tries not to miss his friends too badly. Luckily they've been talking and texting more often than not.

The most awkward conversation by far has been with Jack. He calls Bitty three days after Christmas, because apparently he's a Grandpa who's forgotten how to text.

“What's up, Jack? Did you have a nice Christmas?” he says over the phone.

“Uh, it was good,” Jack replies. “How was yours?”

“It was crazy! We had 23 people over for Christmas dinner! It always gets wild when there are that many Bittles in one room.”

Jack chuckles softly. “That sounds intense. We just had my grandparents over.” Bitty waits for Jack to elaborate, but he doesn't seem to have anything more to add.

After a short pause, Bitty chimes in, “So… are you just checking up on me?”

“No,” Jack replies. “Do you use any particular kind of hand cream or lotion?”

It's a total non-sequitur. “What?”

“Lotion. For your hands,” Jack continues awkwardly. Bitty’s mind has an unbidden flash to the lotion bottle next to his bed and is all of a sudden very happy that Jack can't see his face, because he’s sure it is bright red.

Jack's still talking though. “I've been scrimmaging with my dad on our outdoor rink and my hands are getting all dry and cracked. And you always have nice hands, so...yeah.”

“Oh,” Bitty says. “Uh, thank you?” And then he remembers the hand cream he keeps in the kitchen by the sink. It's a habit his mother got him into for after he washes his hands.

“Oh, I do have something that might help. It's a Shea Butter cream my mom gave me. I'll look up the name and send it to you.”

“Thanks Bittle. Um, bye,” and he hangs up. Bitty just shakes his head. Oh Zimmermann…

“Who was that?” his mother asks him when he walks back into the kitchen.

“It was Jack,” Bitty says. “He just wanted to say hello.”

“What a nice boy. You should invite him to come visit this summer.”

“I doubt he’ll have the time, Mama,” Bitty replies, but in his head, he's already planning the trip.

Chapter Text

It’s their first team dinner of the New Year, and Jack thinks that it’s nice to be back with his teammates.

Bitty sits down in the empty chair on his right, setting down a tray with a totally ridiculous carb-to-nutrient ratio.

“Did you save any mashed potatoes for the rest of us, Bittle?”

Eric rolls his eyes and takes a bite. “You’re just jealous of my metabolism.”

The group is boisterous tonight. It’s the first time that many of them have seen each other since break. At one point, Nurse knocks over a glass of milk and the whole table erupts in chirps.

“Not chill, Nursey.”

“Who drinks milk?”

“It’s soy milk, bro.”

“That’s not better, bro.”

While they’re eating, Bitty says. “You know what one of my favorite things about coming back from Winter Break?”

“The excellent dining hall cuisine?” Shitty answers from across the table. “I don’t know about you, but I sure missed this dry-ass chicken and unknown vegetable mush.”

Bitty chuckles, “No, my favorite part is how everyone is wearing their new clothes, and at least for three beautiful days, this hockey team does not look like a high school gym lost and found.”

“Harsh, Bits!” shouts Ransom. “I always look good.”

Bitty nods appreciatively at Ransom. “True Rans, but some people here—” and he nudges Jack with his shoulder, “—really benefit from going home and letting their mom dress them for Christmas.”

“Really, Bittle?” Jack rolls his eyes this time, looking down at his outfit – which okay, was new and was picked out by his mother. “I look fine.”

“Talk to me in four days, Mr. Zimmermann.”

It’s weird, but Jack is honestly happy to be back here being chirped by his friends again. So many people wear kid gloves around him at home. His parents have gotten better, but spending time with them can sometimes feel like they’re all sitting around waiting for a volcano to erupt, only he’s the volcano. His mother never nags him anymore and his father is more careful with his words. Before, his dad would just say whatever thought came to mind, on the ice or not. He pushed Jack to his limits in more ways than one. Now, his dad chooses his words carefully, but it’s almost worse that way. Now it’s all left up to Jack’s imagination…

Some of his old teammates were even like that. They wouldn’t chirp him, either because they were intimidated or they were afraid he’ll snap at any second. He can’t necessarily blame them.

This team though isn’t like that though. The most surprising though is Bittle. Somehow he refused to back down after last season when Jack was doing his best to scare him off. If anyone should be intimidated by Jack, it should be Bittle. Instead, he can chirp with the best of them and gives as good as he gets, at least when it comes to Jack (no one can keep up with Shitty).

As dinner continues, Jack chirps Bitty about his phone obsession. Bitty chirps him for asking if Justin Timberlake was the lake where he went on vacation. After going back and forth for a while, Jack ruffles Bitty’s hair. “You know I’m messing with you Bittle. Are we good?”

“Of course, we’re good,” he replies.

“Awww, I missed hair ruffling Bitty too!” Ransom yells, reaching over from two seats away to further muss up his hair.

“That reminds me of something I read over break,” Shitty mentions. “It was a study done in the NBA that found that teams who had more physical contact performed better on the court. It was pretty interesting.”

“Are you sure you didn’t just make that up so Jack would let you hug him more?” Bitty chirps.

“No, bros, I’m saying that because Jack lets me hug him more, he is a better player and we are a better team. You’re welcome!” Shitty announces proudly.

“I don’t know, bro,” Ransom chimes in. “How rigorous was this study? Are we talking causation or correlation?”

“Yeah dude,” Holster shouts, “Ransom needs more science.”

“It’s gotta be correlation,” Ransom insists. “I can’t imagine for read that anyone would fund a study to see if they can get a touchy-feely basketball team to win the championship.”

“And isn’t it kind of backwards anyway,” Holster continues. “I think it’s because a team does well that they’re more physical. Score a goal, have a celly, you know?”

“I don’t know, bro,” says Shitty. “All I’m saying is that my love for you fucking idiots is good for team chemistry and that certain hockey robots should take it to heart.”

“Who says I don’t?” Jack replies, ruffling Bittle’s hair again.

“Jack!” exclaims Bitty. “I’m going to look like a fluffy mushroom if you don’t quit it.”

“It’s for the good of the team, Bittle. Don’t you want to make the playoffs?”

“Fine, you’re right,” and Bitty reaches over and musses up Jack’s hair. “For the playoffs!”

After that, Shitty stands up and runs around the whole table shouting “For the playoffs!” and ruffling the hair of each guy as he goes past. He ends on Lardo, who pokes him in the side, and definitely does not let him mess up her hair.

Jack reminds himself to look up the study. It sounds interesting, and it makes sense, given the team chemistry he’s seen and observed first hand. So when Bitty’s foot accidentally knocks his, Jack doesn’t move it like he might have before. For the playoffs, he thinks.

****

Bitty loves road trips almost as much as he loves coming home from road trips. They’re a lot of fun, especially when they win spectacularly thanks to an incredible hat trick by one Jack Laurent Zimmermann, but Bitty simply does better with a kitchen.

It’s almost 11:00 p.m. on a Sunday night, so obviously, Bitty is making banana bread rather than finish his homework due tomorrow. Jack on the other hand is finishing up an essay at the kitchen table, and Bitty would call him responsible if he didn’t know for a fact that Jack had meant to finish it last night, but the team post-game shenanigans kept him from writing.

When Bitty hears a buzz on the table, he assumes he has a text message. His hands are a bit sticky though, so he looks over at Jack and asks, “Can you grab me that dishtowel?”

It’s not Bitty’s phone though, it’s Jack’s, and what he sees across the kitchen stops him in his tracks. Jack is glaring at his phone, a stony mask in place – so different than the easy smile he was wearing just a moment ago – as he reads whatever just came in. “Jack, what is it?”

He walks around behind Jack, wiping his hands off before reaching out to put a hand on his shoulder. Jack flinches like he's been burned, twisting out of Bitty’s reach. “It’s nothing, Bittle. Leave it.”

His eyes are angry and Bitty hasn't heard that tone directed at him in almost a year. He had forgotten how scary Jack can get. It must show on his face, because Jack catches himself. He hisses through his teeth and lowers his head in his hand. “Don’t worry about it. It's just Kent trying to rile me up again.”

Bitty doesn’t know what to do. On one hand, it's really none of his business. On the other, he was sort of there when the last edition of the Parson/Zimmermann debate occurred, and maybe he can help. Jack keeps clenching his fists, one of them wrapped around his phone.

“Want to talk through it?” Bitty asks. He’s not really sure what to do with his hands, so he tries again to reassure Jack, slowly reaching out and putting his hand on his shoulder. Once again, Jack wrenches his shoulder out of the way. He doesn’t say anything, just stands and stomps up to his room without looking back. Bitty jumps at the door slam.

It feels like they are back at square one.

****

Jack feels bad about snapping at Bitty, so he spends the next week trying to make it up to him. He's not really sure Bittle notices though…  He makes a point to complement Bittle's cookies and eats twice as many as he usually would. He buys him coffee from Annie’s and even decides to audit the food lecture he's in, not because he needs the credits, but just because Bittle seemed to like it when they had a class together.

Jack should probably just say sorry, but he thinks he's put it off too long and it doesn't seem like Bittle is still upset anyway, even though thinking about it still makes Jack cringe.

It's not until Jack is almost positive that Bittle's forgiven him and there are no hard feelings that he tries anything else that might annoy him, like taking candid pictures of him in the Haus. His mom had sent him a package of all of his photography equipment as soon as he had decided to take the photography class. So far, he's just been practicing and re-familiarizing himself with the equipment, but now he really wants to start working on portraits and composition.

He tries to be stealthy and take some photos of Ransom and Holster playing Mario Kart, and a few of Shitty laughing with the frogs. They notice and chirp him, obviously, but they don't stop him, so Jack continues to snap pictures, viewing the world he's been living in through a lens.

Jack goes into the kitchen and there's Bittle, baking of course. The curtains are open and the light of sunset streaming in is too good to ignore. Jack frames a shot of Bitty rolling out dough, capturing the long shadows, the way the light catches his blond hair just so. The shutter clicks and Bittle turns around, surprised.

“Jack! You aren't taking pictures of me, are you?”

Jack shrugs and gestures towards the window. “The lighting was good in here.”

Bittle tries to push down his hair with his wrist and forearm, his hands still covered in dough. “Maybe warn me first next time! I'm a mess.”

“You look fine, Bittle.” He steps over to him. “See, I'll show you.”

He holds up the digital display on the back of the camera so Bittle can see. He steps in close so the entire length of their arms are touching.

“Oh, that does look nice,” Bittle admits. “You were right about the lighting.”

Jack smiles, then steps away. “I only have a few minutes before the sun goes down. Mind if I take a few more?” Bittle looks flustered, but he agrees. He goes back to kneading and rolling, deliberate in every motion and purposefully not looking at Jack. Jack moved around him, trying every angle.

By the time it gets too dark, Bittle is putting the pie into the oven. Jack flips on the light and sits at the table.

“I should have you take pictures of the pie once it's done. It'll be a million times more photogenic than I'll ever be,” Bittle says, sitting next to him.

“I can if you want,” responds Jack, but as he looks through the photos later on his laptop, he thinks that Bitty needn't worry about that. He's plenty photogenic as it is.

****

For someone who had never seen snow until he was 15, it had been easy for Bitty to romanticize winter. However, his dreams of snowmen, cocoa, and babies all dressed up in hats and mittens were currently being crushed by four feet of snow and “blizzard conditions.”

Classes have been cancelled and Bitty has no intention of leaving the Haus for any reason, which is why it is such a surprise when he hears the door open past midnight and sees Jack walk in wearing his coat and boots.

“What on Earth were you doing outside?” Bitty exclaims, sitting up from his cozy blanket cocoon on the couch.

Jack brushes a few stray snowflakes out of his hair, and Bitty’s heart does not feel anything about that, nope. “I was just checking up on the team. I wanted to make sure they were all stocked up for the storm.”

“Jack Zimmermann, that's the sweetest thing I've ever heard. You really are the best captain.” Jack’s cheeks look red, but it’s most likely just from the freezing temperatures outside.

“Oh, and I brought them the rest of those cookies you made… I hope you don't mind.”

“I'm glad you did!” says Bitty. “It just gives me an excuse to make more.” Jack gives him a look from where he's hanging up his coat, but doesn't chirp him. “But I'll bake them tomorrow.” He's watching the On the Run tour on HBO for the hundredth time because it's cold and he needs some fire in his life.

To his surprise, Jack heads over to join him on the couch. He sits on the opposite end from where Bitty is sprawled. “Do you want a blanket?” Bitty asks. “I have four.”

“It's okay. I'll just use the bottom of this one,” he says, pulling on the blanket over Bitty’s feet and draping it over his lap as well.

“Your leg is cold,” Bitty remarks, his bare toes just grazing the side of Jack’s thigh.

“My hands are colder,” he responds, wrapping his hand around Bitty's ankle. Bitty shrieks, just a little, and curls his feet beneath himself. Jack chuckles and turns his attention back to the TV. Eventually Bitty feels brave enough to extend his legs out again, so later, when Jack rests his now warm hand on his ankle, he doesn't need to pull away.

****

Jack walks out of his photography class, yawning and wondering if Bittle will want to get coffee with him when he gets back to the Haus. Right when the thought crosses his mind, Bittle himself crosses his vision from across the Quad. Bittle waves, and Jack waves back before heading over to see if he wants to go to Annie’s.

When he gets over there, Bittle is laughing.

“What?” Jack asks.

Bittle gapes at him. “You just leapt over a snowbank like it was nothing!”

“Oh, is that funny?” Jack says, which makes Bittle laugh even harder.

“I already have coffee,” Bittle finally says, holding up a paper cup, “but I'll walk with you. I have an hour before my next class.”

As they walk, Jack remembers why he was thinking about Bittle to begin with. He pulls out his camera and says, “Oh yeah Bittle, I wanted to show––”

He lifts up his camera right when Bittle is bringing his cup up for a drink and Jack ends up knocking the entire contents down the front of Bittle's sweatshirt.

“Oh shit, I'm sorry!” Jack says as he scrambles to find something to help clean him off. He finds the cloth he uses to wipe down his lenses and starts trying to dry off Bittle's shirt. He's scrubbing at the biggest coffee stain when he realizes that Bittle has frozen. His arms hang awkwardly by his sides, muscles tense as Jack rubs at his stomach. Jack can feel his ab muscles clenching and unclenching, and thinks that maybe he should have just offered the cloth to Bittle instead of invading his personal bubble. Maybe he’s ticklish...

“Sorry Bittle,” he mumbles, handing him the cloth.  

“It's okay, Jack. Not a big deal. But I guess I will take you up on that coffee after all.”

****

Bitty has never had as much fun playing hockey as he has this season, and the playoffs have been taking it to a whole new level. They are clicking on and off the ice. Jack especially has been interesting to watch. He gets so nervous, takes on so much pressure, that it breaks Bitty’s heart. He knows he’s not the only one on the team who wants to help him shoulder some of the intensity and burden, but at the same time, there’s no one else they would want to lead them into battle.

Bitty’s actually had a handful of conversations with Shitty about it, how Jack puts so much pressure on himself, yet he’s so good at leading them through the high-pressure situations. On the ice, Jack is unbelievable. He’s everywhere all at once, and Bitty even overhears the coaches whispering that this is the best they’ve seen him play.

The playoffs are always intense, but it’s become an even bigger deal because they no longer have any more guaranteed games. Each game from here on out could be the last chance Bitty will have to play with Jack and Shitty and the other graduating seniors, the last games of their college hockey career. The stakes have never been higher, and Bitty had thought he would be sad or overwhelmed by it all. Instead, the team is laughing and goofing off more than they ever have. It’s a weird paradox that he’s not going to question but will thoroughly enjoy.

They won yesterday for Ransom’s birthday, but they still have one more game to win this weekend. Bitty’s nerves are like bees in his stomach. He unwinds his headphones in the locker room, about to start listening to his pregame playlist when Jack comes over and sits by him.

“Hey Bittle, has anyone put you in a hockey bag yet?” he asks.

“Excuse me?” Bitty responds. “You’re kidding, right?”

“We’ve won every game you’ve gotten in a hockey bag so far,” Jack insists. “Don’t you want to win tonight?”

“Yeah Bits, it’s time to get in the bag,” declares Shitty, sitting down on his other side.

Bitty laughs, “Y’all are too funny, but I don’t think my getting in the bag had anything to do with the wins. It was just a joke.”

Shitty and Jack look at each other wordlessly for a moment, speaking only in eyebrow gestures, before they both turn and grab onto Bitty, one on each arm.

“Ransom! Empty out your bag! We have a pregame tradition to uphold,” Shitty shouts across the locker room, as he and Jack pull him along. Bitty tries his best to wriggle free, but between the two of them, he can’t really go anywhere, so he gives it up and lets them carry him across the room.

“This is ridiculous! Y’all are crazy people,” Bitty cries over the noise. Most of the team has gathered over by the empty bag on the floor. Shitty and Jack dump him on top of it while Ransom and Holster hold it open.

“Captain, will you do the honors?” Shitty proclaims.

Jack kneels down next to Bitty with a small, apologetic smile on his face. “Are you sure you’re okay with this, Bittle?”

Bitty sighs an over-the-top, melodramatic sigh, “If you must. After all, it’s only crazy if it doesn’t work.” The guys all cheer at that.

“That’s the spirit!”

“Atta babe, Bits!”

“Are you really gonna zip it all the way up?”

Bitty lies down and lets Jack zip him all the way inside. He leaves a small crack though, which Bitty appreciates. After a few minutes of muffled noise and laughter, Jack unzips the bag and pulls Bitty out by his armpits. It sort of tickles, and so Bitty is still giggling when he hears Lardo say, “Jack, I’m taking a picture with your camera. I hope that’s cool.”

“Sure. Thanks Lardo,” says Jack. “Smile, Bittle.” Bitty is pretty sure his eyes are closed and not even looking at the camera when he hears the shutter, but he doesn’t even care.

After that, Jack helps lift him up and out of the bag. Shitty is high-fiving everyone, shouting loudly, “We’re gonna motherfucking destroy these guys tonight! Get ready to win, Wellies!” Holster is shaking Chowder by the shoulders, giving him some sort of pep talk. Ransom has taken off his shirt and is now waving it wildly over his head. But none of it is really processing for Bitty, because Jack still has his hands on his shoulders. He leans over and says right in his ear, “We’re going to kick some ass together tonight, Bitty. Let’s do this thing.”

Bitty looks up beaming. “Got your back, Captain. Let’s knock ‘em dead.”

****

They keep winning, and it’s great. It’s better than losing, obviously. It’s just that with every win there’s more pressure, higher stakes, less time to ignore the fact that Jack’s Samwell hockey career is almost over. It’s hard to fully process, which is why Jack sits up in the Reading Room, staring into space and biting his nails even though he wasn’t going to do that anymore.

He wants to win so badly. It’s his last chance. All the GMs he’s talked to have said that winning the NCAA championship won’t affect their offers to him, and he wants to believe them. He wants to believe them when they say they aren’t going to send him an offer until after the playoffs “so it doesn’t distract him while he’s competing,” like it’s a thoughtful gesture. But even his dad thinks that they want to see him in a high-stakes game first. Only Georgia and the Falconers have sent him anything yet…

It annoys him to no end that he’s even thinking about it. He needs to be in the present, in the moment, and just worry about the next game. That’s how they made it to the Frozen Four, that’s how they need to continue.

“Here you are!” he hears over his shoulder, turning to see Bitty climbing out his window. “I brought popcorn.”

Bittle sits down next to him and holds out the bag of popcorn, still hot from the microwave. Jack takes a handful, thankful for something to do with his hands. They sit in comfortable silence for a while, until Bitty speaks. “You know, I’m really not ready for the hockey season to be over.”

“The season’s not over yet, Bittle. We still have at least one more game.”

Bittle sighs, “That could mean only more game of your college career… Are you gonna miss us when you’re in the NHL?”

Jack thinks he means it as a chirp, but it’s too real. “I’m not in the NHL yet.” He must give something away in his voice, because Bitty gives him a concerned look. Jack continues, “But don’t worry. I’ll miss you guys wherever I am. I don’t know if I’ll ever have teammates as good as you.”

He tries to be reassuring, but Bittle just looks at him dubiously. “Talk to me after you’ve played with a team of professionals.”

Jack takes a deep breath and tries to find the words to express what he’s feeling. “I mean it, I don’t know if I’ll ever get a chance to play with my best friends again,” Jack responds. “You guys reminded me why I love to play hockey. I’ve played on a lot of teams, including my first couple years at Samwell. These past few games with this team this year have been some of the best I’ve ever played, so I can’t think of any better way to end my university career.”

Bitty doesn’t respond to that immediately. After a second, he says, deliberately, “I think I speak for the whole team when I say that we were going to do whatever it took to play as many games with you as possible.” Then he adds quietly, “I can’t imagine Samwell hockey without you, Jack.”

Jack doesn’t know what to say. Every time he thinks that Bittle is a great teammate, that he couldn’t be any better, he says something like this and makes Jack sad that they only have one more guaranteed game together. “It’s hard to remember the team before you too, Bittle.” He puts his arm over Bittle’s shoulder and lets him lean in until his head is resting on his shoulder. It feels nice. Bitty’s body fits nicely on his side, fits better than Jack could have ever guessed. “Let’s win one more, eh?”

“We got your back, Captain. Let’s win one more.”

****

They don’t win the championship. The final buzzer feels like a stab wound, and Jack’s face afterwards is heartbreaking. They all leave the ice stony-faced watching the celebration that they don’t get to be a part of.

Bitty stops Jack in the hallway, before they get to the locker room, before they have to listen to a half-hearted pep talk from their coaches and before they have to face their parents.

“Jack,” Bitty calls out, grabbing him by the elbow. Jack stops, but he doesn’t look Bitty in the eye. Bitty ignores his reticence and goes in for a hug. Jack is still holding onto his helmet and stick, so he doesn’t really hug back, but he wilts into the embrace and sighs heavily.

“It’s gonna be okay,” Bitty says. “We lost, but we played our hearts out, and there’s still some good news.”

That makes Jack look at him, eyes serious and disbelieving and so damn bright. “The good news is that this isn’t the end for either of us. Both of us get to go on and play more hockey.” He emphasizes the words, trying to speak to Jack in the best language he can understand: hockey. Then he adds, “If you never lose, you can’t appreciate the wins.”

Bitty lets go of Jack and looks up at him. Jack looks a little lost, a little overwhelmed, and mostly sad, but there’s a hint of relief there too, for a brief second. Bitty takes him by the arm and leads him into the locker room.

The bus ride back to Samwell is quiet. Bitty doesn’t even bother to put his headphones in. He doesn’t know what he would listen to anyway. When he looks across the aisle, he sees Shitty resting his head on Jack’s shoulder, and Jack, for once, is leaning back. He has his camera bag on his lap, fiddling with the straps and buckles. Bitty slowly reaches over and slides it away from him. Jack looks at him questioningly, but doesn’t say anything. That’s as much approval as he needs.

He pulls out the camera and tries to figure out all of the buttons. Lardo, to his left, silently takes the camera and turns it on, messing around with the settings before handing it back. Bitty stands and steps forward a few feet, then turns around, aims the camera, and takes a picture of Jack and Shitty, sitting with their heads together. When they realize what’s happening, they both smile, just barely, in unison, so Bitty takes another one. He sits back down and hands the camera back to Jack, trying to ignore the small thrill he gets when their fingers brush together. Apparently, they were good photos, because Jack smiles and shows it to Shitty.

“We are adorable motherfuckers, Zimmermann.”

Jack turns back to Bitty and mouths “Thank you,” and even though they lost, Bitty wonders what he did to get so lucky.

****

Losing had been tough, but signing with the Falconers takes a lot of the sting out of it. There’s a lightness in knowing what the next couple years are going to look like, even if Jack knows it’s going to be the most challenging thing he’s ever done. He tries to explain the feeling to Shitty, who just says, “Bro, now you get how I felt when I got accepted to law school.”

Now that he’s figured out the future, Jack can focus a little bit more on enjoying the present. He goes out and takes pictures, even though he has more than enough for his final photo project. He plays Mario Kart with the frogs and goes to an art showcase with Lardo and tags along with Bittle to the grocery store. The weather is finally clearing up, and the last of the snow has melted just in time for Spring C.

His mother picks him up the day before to look at apartments in Providence. Jack has a short wishlist, but his mom has excellent taste and a gift for negotiating, neither quality she had managed to pass down to him. They visit five places on Friday with one of his mother’s friends who’s a realtor, stay the night in a cute hotel near Brown, then visit two more before she drops him back off at Samwell.

He doesn’t arrive early enough for breakfast or windowsill mimosas – Shitty’s annual Spring C tradition – but he does arrive in time for whatever blue concoction Ransom has in the blender. Jack can barely taste the alcohol, which is worrisome, so he grabs a beer instead. He figures that once he’s done, he can always refill it with water when Shitty isn’t looking.

Most of the team is drunk by the afternoon, but they look happy and carefree. Jack runs upstairs to grab his camera and get a few fun photos for reminiscing or blackmail, depending on how much clothing is involved. He gets chirped mercilessly, especially by Bittle, which is too funny, because Bittle is three sheets to the wind already and probably in need of some chirping himself.

When it’s finally time for the concert, they make their way over to Lake Quad. Jack’s had a couple more beers and is enjoying a nice buzz. He finds himself next to Bittle, which is not a surprise. Bittle’s always around, and more than that, Jack has started seeking him out when he’s not. They’ve gotten so close, and the one downside of having his post-graduation plans is that he won’t get to spend as much time with him. He’ll make a point to see him and all their friends as often as he can – one of many factors that made choosing Providence so easy is how close it is to Samwell – but he will miss having breakfast with Bitty most mornings and walking to class and chirping him endlessly. It will be hard, but he’s glad he still has a few weeks more of moments like these, walking alongside Bittle who couldn’t stop talking if he tried and being perfectly content just to listen.

The concert is good. It’s a lesser known band that Jack hasn’t heard of, but Shitty and Lardo really like. Bitty gets into it too, and Jack loses him briefly as he dances in the crowd. When Jack had asked a few days ago, Bittle had insisted that he was not going to sit on anyone’s shoulders, that he was tall enough to enjoy the concert anyway. Jack had laughed, but at the time, he had felt oddly disappointed that Bitty didn’t want to sit on his shoulders.

As it turns out, Jack ends up carrying Bittle anyway. Somehow, he finds his way back to them after weaving in and out of the crowd, but missing a shoe, and after looking around at all of the broken bottles littering the Quad, Jack offers to give him a piggyback ride home. Bitty almost cries in relief. “What if I had stepped in mud?” he asks, as Jack crouches down. Bitty grabs onto his shoulders and jumps up at the same time Jack hoists him up by his thighs.

It’s not that Bittle’s all that heavy, but he’s drunk enough by now to be a mostly dead weight. Still, that doesn’t stop him from chattering, his bare foot swinging by Jack’s side. “Jack, you should challenge Holster and Lardo to a race. I know we’d win.” Then he shouts, “Hey Holster! Bet you and lardy Lardo can’t beat Jack and me in a piggyback race!”

“Bittle!” Jack admonishes. “Don’t scream in my ear or I’ll make you walk.”

“Oh no,” Bitty whispers. “I’m sorry. I won’t yell again.”

He almost keeps their promise, but when Shitty starts singing the Samwell Fight Song at the top of his lungs, Bitty can’t help but join in. Even Jack sings along, to everyone’s surprise.

“I didn’t know you knew the words, brah!” Shitty tells him triumphantly, smacking Jack and Bitty both on the ass. Bitty yelps and grabs tighter around Jack’s neck. Jack doesn’t even mind though, for some reason. They’re almost back to the Haus when Jack has to shift and adjust his hands, because they’re slipping on Bitty’s bare legs. His hands end up right at the hem of Bitty’s shorts – which had been very short, but Jack is man enough to admit that they looked good on Bits. His fingers slide just barely underneath the fabric, and Jack feels Bitty’s whole body shudder.

“Um…tickles,” Is all Bittle says in response. Jack tells himself not to try it again, even though he sort of wants to, and moves his hands back down closer to Bittle’s knee.

They get back to the Haus, and as Jack carries him up the stairs, Bittle shouts down to the others, “There are still rice crispy treats y’all if you need a late night snack.” Jack smiles listening to the cheers and “hell yeahs,” of his drunk, high, and hungry teammates who had forgotten about the not-so-baked goods.

“I only wish I had been able to make them cookies,” Bitty says as Jack brings him into his room. “I miss my oven working.”

“I know, Bittle,” says Jack, as he carefully lowers him to the floor. He manages to not even hint that those troubles might be behind him.

“You didn’t have to carry me all the way up here you know,” is Bitty’s response.

Jack shrugs. “It’s not like you’re that heavy.”

“Ha ha, Mr. Zimmermann. But if you’re going to chirp me any more, it will hafta wait until tomorrow, because I am gonna pass out, ya hear?”

Bittle’s as good as his word. He kicks off his other shoe and climbs in bed.

“Goodnight, Bittle,” whispers Jack, closing the door behind him.

****

In Bitty’s mind, Reading Week is as much a curse as it is a blessing. There are obvious perks to not having class to interrupt baking – or baking attempts… Betsy has been particularly fragile these days – but a week without classes so they can “study” for finals is a recipe for disaster for the procrastination-inclined folks like himself. Sure there are review sessions and office hours, but again, it requires someone with more motivation than Bitty to drag himself to those. It’s better for people like Jack, who know exactly what and how much they need to study and have unwavering focus on the task at hand.

However, now that Jack has signed and has finally embraced being a second-semester senior, at least as much as his Zimmermann work ethic will allow, he’s eased up a bit and has ever agreed to study with Bitty in the Haus kitchen instead of heading to Founders with the other guys.

Bitty has his sociology book open at the table as he keeps a wary eye on a peach pie in the oven. Jack sits across from him, writing a final paper. Bitty manages to keep the pie from burning, and the timing is perfect, so he ends up taking it out of the oven right as Jack is finishing up his essay. By the time he’s written the conclusion, it’s cool enough to eat.

“It’s too bad there’s no pie at the library, eh Bittle. You might have a 4.0,” Jack chirps.

Bitty rolls his eyes, “Do even want a study snack? Because I don’t have to share. I can take this pie to office hours you know.”

Jack puts his laptop back in the case, then grabs himself a plate from the cupboard. He holds it out to Bittle smiling. “I was just kidding. I would love some study break pie.”

Bitty is appeased and hands Jack a slice before cutting one for himself. They eat in contented silence, while Bitty tries not to think about his impending finals. He should probably start focusing on studying, but when Jack asks him to help him select photos for his final project, he jumps at the opportunity to procrastinate. It’s easy to justify though, since he’s helping his teammate and it's technically school-related.

He helps clear off and clean the table of any food or stray baking ingredients while Jack goes upstairs to grab his photos. When he gets back, he lays them out carefully on the table, before sitting down next to Bitty.

“We had to come up with a theme, and then select 20 photos we’ve taken this semester that fit the theme,” Jack explains.

“What’s your theme?” Bitty asks.

“… Hockey,” admits Jack, which makes Bitty laugh. He takes a few minutes to look over each of the photos. There are easily 50 pictures on the table, most having to do something with hockey or their teammates. There’s one really cool one of Chowder in the goal with a bright light shining from behind him, and some close-ups of pucks, skates, and sticks. One thing stands out to Bitty almost immediately though.

“Jack… Why are there so many pictures of me?” He’s in easily half of the pictures. In some, he’s at the rink or on the ice, but in others, he’s simply in the kitchen baking or walking along the River. There are pictures of him that he doesn’t remember Jack even being there for.

“Oh,” is all Jack says. “I guess you’re just around a lot.” He doesn’t add anything else, offers no other explanation, but it seems… odd to Bitty. But the pictures are gorgeous. They’re easily the best photos anyone has ever taken of him, and part of him wants Jack to scan them all immediately to Facebook. Jack has captured him smiling, laughing, and even glaring in an impressive portrait that makes Bitty look almost scary. There’s an incredible close up one – and when on earth did Jack manage to take it – of him in profile during a game, wearing his helmet and looking intently out onto the ice. It’s so close you can see every drop of sweat dripping down his forehead. It’s intense, and even with Bitty’s limited photography knowledge, he can tell it’s a great photo.

After Bitty has examined the photos once more in silence, he turns to Jack and says, “Let’s see if we can’t narrow these down to the best 20 hockey photos.”

Jack looks appreciative, but also embarrassed now in a way that he wasn’t before. He explains some of the photos, describing and detailing their composition and negative space. All it does is make Bitty aware of the negative space between the two of them, the inches between their fingers as they point at the same photo, between their faces, their shoulders.

He’s so hyper-focused on where they aren’t touching that he practically jumps when they do touch. Jack shifts so that their legs are touching from knee to ankle, and Bitty keeps waiting for Jack to move, but he doesn’t.

They start working at sorting the pictures into Yes, No, and Maybe piles. Most of the photos of Bitty end up in the No pile—

“That’s literally just my hands holding a pie, Jack. What does that have to do with hockey?”

“It was a playoff pie…”

—but when they’ve finally selected the 20 photos, and Jack brings the piles back up to his room, Bitty can’t help but feel a phantom warmth on his knee. He can’t help but wonder what Jack sees when he looks at him through a lens.

Chapter Text

Jack doesn’t know how or when it happened, but somehow he’s developed a thing for Bitty. He’s not even sure this thing isn’t just friendship. All he knows is that they are hardly ever apart these days, and Jack keeps trying to come up with ways to enter Bitty’s personal space. He is willing to go above and beyond just to make Bitty smile, whether it’s something small, like bringing him coffee on the other side of campus, or something bigger…

The moment when Bitty sees the shiny new oven makes all of the planning and sneaking around worth it. He’s stuttering, shaking, and then finally smiling. Jack is so caught up in watching the moment that he almost forgets to take a picture, rushing to capture the look of surprise on Bitty’s face. The shutter sounds in the exact moment that Bitty looks over at Jack. His hands are covering his mouth, but his smile is so big that Jack can see it in his eyes.

“Did you do this?” Bitty asks, tears rolling freely down his face.

“It was all of us,” Jack insists at the same time Chowder shouts, “It was all Jack’s idea! We’ve been planning for weeks!”

Everyone crowds into the kitchen around Bitty, laughing and shouting “Happy Birthday!” Ransom and Shitty pass out beers to anyone they can reach, and Bitty is already next to Jack, reaching out to hug him.

Jack wraps his arms around him, and Bitty just drops his head onto his chest and settles in. It’s a little awkward with his camera between them, and he can’t tell if Bitty’s laughing or sobbing, but then he feels his t-shirt starting to get damp. Jack can’t help himself, he grins and lets Bitty lean into him.

Jack has one hand on Bitty’s shoulder blade, another wrapped possessively around his rib cage, and he is hyper-aware of Bitty’s soft hands on his chest and around his waist. He’s warm, solid, and Jack is not great with other people’s emotions, but he has never been so happy to be cried on.

It’s a few minutes before Bitty can compose himself. He looks up at Jack and lets out a small, embarrassed laugh, almost a sigh. He reaches up to wipe his eyes, and Jack is torn between wanting to do it for him and not wanting to let go. Luckily, the choice is taken out of his hands, somewhat literally, by Holster, who pulls Bitty away to “check out this bad boy,” handing him a red solo cup of sangria and leading him over to the brand new oven.

It’s not long before the party is in full effect. Bitty jumps around from person to person, making his way through each group of people trying to gather opinions on what the first thing he should bake in his brand new oven. Jack votes for pecan pie, and gets a friendly smack in the stomach. “It’s PEE-can!” Bitty chirps back.

The kitchen is still too crowded to really bake anything yet, but someone turns on some music – Jack would have guessed Beyoncé even if he couldn’t recognize her voice by now – and Holster’s sangria is apparently very strong and very popular, because it’s not long before everyone is dancing and singing, with Bitty at the center. Jack takes a few pictures and even has a beer before slowly retreating to the edge of the kitchen, then out and up the stairs. Bitty deserves a Haus party in his honor, but Jack thinks that for him, it’s time to call it a night.

It’s much later, after most of the guests have left and Jack is already in bed with the lights out, that he hears a knock on his door, then the squeak of the hinges as it opens.

“Jack?”

Jack sits up and rubs at the back of his neck. “Bitty? What is it?”

Bitty leans on the doorframe, silhouetted by light from the hallway, before taking a step inside and closing the door behind him. “'s not my birthday anymore,” he seems to pout.

As he walks towards Jack’s bed, stumbling and weaving, it becomes very obvious that Bitty is very drunk. He falls, more than sits, onto Jack’s bed, not really seeming to notice or care that he’s on top of Jack’s feet. Jack doesn’t mind though, and smiles fondly at Bitty in the dark. “Are you sad it’s over?”

“Oh no,” Bitty assures him, slurring each word. “It wazza great birthday!”

Bitty reaches out, and his hand falls somewhere in the vicinity of Jack’s knee. His fingers roam absent-mindedly, and Jack has to hold his breath as Bitty continues. “I just wanna… wanted to come up here… You went to bed already but I was looking… and you like, I couldn't find you. An’ I hadda talk to you.”

It's too dark to make any of it out clearly, so he feels more than sees the way Bitty pulls himself onto the bed. He scrambles and settles over Jack’s legs, half straddling half sitting on his shins. His hands brush the sides of Jack’s thighs, and it's both too close and too far.

“Tell me what?” Jack whispers.

“I hadda tell you thank you. You got me an oven. No one’s done that nice… No one’s done for me, that nice of thing. Before.”

“It was all of us,” Jack insists.

“Ransom told me. Everyone helped, but you…You did it. And I dunno why you’d do that for me. Something big, and special.”

“You deserve it Bitty. You're special.” Jack sits all the way up, so that he's looking down at Bitty. Bitty scooches forward and they're so close.

He lifts his arms, as if to hug Jack, but loses his balance and falls forward onto Jack’s chest. His voice is muffled, but he can just make the words, slurred and squished, hot breath somewhere near Jack’s collarbone. “You're my best… you're the best friend...and you got me an oven.”

Jack doesn't respond, but simply hugs back, wrapping his arms around Bitty for the second time that day. This time though, he holds him tighter, rubbing his hand slowly down Bitty’s back, reveling in the closeness he didn’t know he wanted and still isn't sure he deserves.  It's intoxicating.

“Bitty,” he whispers after a while. “Bitty, are you… is this okay?”

His mind is racing. He doesn’t want to ruin this.

The only response he gets though is a soft snore, and a warm, not-that-heavy weight on his chest.

****

It's still dark when Bitty wakes up, though the light is just beginning to change, and for a moment, he's disoriented. This isn't his room, it's not his bed. It's a few seconds before he puts it together, how he fell asleep in Jack’s room – on Jack’s bed – last night.

Now he's under the covers, still in his clothes, though Jack must have taken off his shoes. He's closest to the wall facing out, and there is Jack,  facing away from him, breathing slowly and obviously asleep in the bed with him. He can just make out Jack’s shoulders and back in front of him. The two of them are close enough to touch, but they're not touching. Bitty is suddenly too hot, sweaty, and holding his breath. He's in Jack’s bed.

Before he really knows what he’s doing, he reaches out slowly and places his palm tentatively on Jack’s back, right at the bottom of his shoulder blades. His muscles are firm, and his skin is warm with sleep. It sends Bitty’s heart racing, to be so close. He wants more, but he can’t bear risking the loss of this perfect moment.

“Bitty?” Jack stirs, his voice rough, but soft and it's suddenly too much for Bitty. He pushes gently.

“Let me up?”

Jack sits forward, and Bitty hops behind him and off the bed. He looks back briefly and can just make our Jack rubbing at his eyes adorably in the faint light from the window. He wants to climb back in bed. Instead he uses the bathroom.

When he comes back, Jack is still sitting forward.

“Are you coming back in?”

Bitty wishes with all his heart that he knew the right answer to that question. He knows what he wants, but this thing with Jack has been confusing at best, and what Jack wants is a mystery. If only he could see his face.

“No,” he finally answers. “I always wake up early after I'm drunk. I'll probably go look up some new pie recipes.”

“Okay.” For a long moment, neither of them moves. Finally Bitty turns to leave, but before he can get to the door, Jack stops him with a whisper.

“Bitty.”

“Yes Jack?”

“I plugged in your phone. It's over there.” He points over at his desk and sure enough, there's his iPhone, fully charged.

The gesture hits Bitty like a wrecking ball. He never remembers to charge his phone when he's drunk, and here’s Jack, who never has to worry about charging his phone because he doesn't ever use it enough in a day to kill the battery, who chirps Bitty at every opportunity about his phone use, who not only let him fall asleep on him last night, but who managed to find his phone, get his charger out of his room, and remember to plug it in so Bitty could use it in the morning.

It's all too much to process. When he saw the oven, he thought his heart was going to burst on the spot, because it was the biggest, nicest thing anyone had ever done for him. But this tiny gesture, this feels almost the same.

“Thank you, Jack.” The words are not enough, Bitty thinks, to convey what he is feeling. What he wants to say is I love you.

Instead, he quietly tiptoes back to his room. He sits on his bed, and he allows himself to smile. His brain is already leaping into his well-practiced rotation of doubts and what-ifs, explaining things away as platonic touches and things that any friend would do, but part of him is still smiling.

It's too early to go shopping for pie ingredients so Bitty flips through his favorite cookbooks, absent-mindedly picking out some recipes, his thoughts still wandering to the exhilarating feeling of waking up in Jack’s room.

It isn’t until mid-morning, after Bitty has already been to the Stop N Shop, finished a pie and started three more, that they come face to face again. Jack walks into the kitchen and the tension is thicker than the merengue Bitty is whipping.

“Oh. Hi.” Jack says at the same time Bitty shouts “Hey!” way too loudly, internally lamenting his total lack of chill. Jack goes about making a snack, circling around the space as Bitty works on his pies. The way they move around each other reminds Bitty of two oppositely polarized magnets, unable to get any closer no matter how hard you force it. However, Bitty remembers playing with magnets like that as a kid, and he knows that should one of them flip, the force pulling them together would be just as strong as the one currently pushing them apart.

The silence is too much, and Bitty can't help himself, so he starts babbling about merengue and baking times and how wonderfulit is to be making pies again. His nerves are showing, but then again, so are Jack’s. He's nodding like he's listening, eyes focused on Bitty himself, but his hands are shaking and he's already peeled four bananas, even though Bitty knows he only puts two in his smoothies. When Bitty mentions it, he mumbles something about potassium and turns on the blender.

He lets Jack retreat to another part of the Haus with his smoothie, which is good, in this case, because it gives him a chance to gather his thoughts.

The part of his brain that has been reminding him all year not to read too much into gestures, especially after falling for a straight boy, is making itself known. It doesn’t mean anything that Jack let him sleep in his bed. Jack lets Shitty on his bed all the time. Jack ruffles Chowder’s hair, and he hugs Holster and leans in close for selfies with Ransom. For someone as distant as Jack can be, he is more than capable of being affectionate with his friends.

But Jack didn’t buy any of his other friends an oven. He doesn’t go out of his way to bring Chowder coffee, and doesn’t let Ransom sit too close in the kitchen so their knees touch. He doesn’t look at Holster the way he looks at Bitty, and he definitely doesn’t tuck Shitty into his bed, when he could have easily carried him back to his own room.

Bitty has been burned before, and maybe he is seeing only what he wants to see, but he also trusts his instincts, and his instincts are telling him that maybe Jack feels something different for him than he feels for their friends. Maybe what Bitty wants to see and what is truly there are actually the same. But even if it’s true, Bitty realizes that he’s going to have to be the magnet that flips; the opposite that attracts. He’s going to have to be the one to make the first move, because Jack seems paralyzed by this thing that has developed between them. He’s passed him the puck, but it’s up to Bitty to shoot it.

The idea is a bit overwhelming, and Bitty is glad he has a half dozen pies to keep his mind occupied. He bakes continuously throughout the day, feeding an intermittent stream of hungry teammates. Jack comes into the kitchen only once more, late in the evening, and Bitty won’t let him leave until he tries at least one of the pies. He settles on the lemon rhubarb, with the most elegant lattice that Bitty has ever created, and eats it leaning against the counter. Bitty watches him, watches his mouth, but he has too look away when Jack licks the fork clean.

When he turns back, Jack isn’t meeting his eye either, but he says, “That was delicious, Bitty.”

“I’m glad you liked it,” Bitty replies.

Jack looks like he’s going to say something else. He steps forward toward Bitty, but doesn’t say anything except a quickly muttered, “Thanks,” and all but runs out of the kitchen.

Bitty wants to follow him, but the oven dings and he’s pulled away by pies again.

It’s much later – six pies, a cobbler, and four dozen cookies later – after the Haus has gone quiet, that Bitty finally makes his way upstairs. He doesn’t knock, just opens his door slowly, and for the second night in a row, he slips insides Jack’s room.

The lights are already out and once again, Jack is already in bed, but he’s not asleep, a fact that becomes obvious when he says, “Bitty?”

Bitty is feeling a little bold, and a little reckless, and if he doesn’t do this now, he might never have the courage to do so again. Luckily, it’s easier to do this in the dark.  

He doesn’t respond, but simply walks slowly over to the edge of the bed.  “Scoot over and let me in.”

There’s no light in the room, so he hears but doesn’t really see Jack move. He climbs under the covers and lies down on his side, facing Jack. Bitty continues, “I sort of botched my thank you last night,” he admits. “I wanted to do it properly this time. What you did for me yesterday…” He trails off.

After a moment, Jack murmurs, “It was nothing.”

There's a pregnant pause, then Bitty responds. “That’s the thing though.” He takes deep breath. “I want it to mean something, not nothing,”

He reaches out, slowly, and touches Jack’s bare chest, sliding his hand across until it’s resting in the area over his heart.

“Oh.”

Bitty holds his breath, unmoving for what feels like an eternity, just waiting for Jack to push him away, kick him out, and not speak to him ever again.

Instead, Jack whispers, “Maybe it did. Mean something, I mean.” He feels Jack fold his own hand around his and squeeze.

Bitty moves his hand up to Jack’s shoulder, to his neck, and Jack mirrors the gesture. He shudders at the sensation of warm fingers at his hairline, grounds himself with the feel of firm muscle under his hand. He curls his fingers gently and slowly pulls Jack’s head towards him.

They come together, navigating by touch, and it’s all too fitting, Bitty thinks, because they were so blind to this for so long.

Their foreheads knock together softly, and they chuckle under their breath, and then Jack nudges his nose along Bitty’s until their lips meet. It’s a tender, exploratory kiss, and Bitty feels like all of his insides have melted into a warm puddle in the pit of his stomach.

The feeling only gets stronger when Jack opens his mouth, and Bitty hasn’t really done this much before, but he just follows and mimics as Jack sucks and licks and kisses, and it seems to be working. Jack at least seems to be into it. His hands start to roam down Bitty’s back, up his shirt, touching every bit of skin he can reach. Bitty follows suit, basking in this incredible feeling that Jack is literally up for grabs. He smiles into Jack’s mouth as he slowly, deliberately, slides his hand down Jack’s shoulders, his spine, down to his ass and – just like he’s been fantasizing about for months – curls his fingers into the supple tissue. Jack immediately gasps and rolls them over so that Bitty is lying on the pillows with Jack above him. He kisses him again on the mouth – fiercely, briefly – then kisses his way down to Bitty’s collarbone.

“You have no idea how long I’ve wanted this,” Bitty gasps out.

“I had no idea I even wanted this,” responds Jack. “But now… It seems so obvious.” They kiss some more, and at one point, Bitty sits up so Jack can take off his shirt, and oh, isn’t that something. The skin-on-skin embrace has Bitty’s head reeling. It’s more intense than he had imagined, so much so that he has to pump the brakes.

“Jack, can we just… Is it okay if we… hold off? On some stuff?”

Jack just chuckles softly. He cups Bitty’s jaw in his hands and kisses him gently. “We don’t have to do anything you don’t want to. This is kind of new for me too. We can take it slow.”

Bitty runs his hands through Jack’s hair, and for the first time, he’s sorry that it’s too dark to see, because he would love to be able to see his face. He has no idea how long it’s been, whether they’ve been kissing for a minute, an hour, a lifetime, but eventually, they start to doze. Before they can fall asleep, Jack turns Bitty around and pulls his back flush against his chest. He wraps his arms around Bitty, one hand on his stomach, one hand on his chest, and Bitty completes the loop, folding his fingers around Jack’s.

He is almost asleep when he hears Jack whisper, “Soft hands.”

****

The last few days before graduation are kind of wonderful. It’s bittersweet for sure, and hectic, and the last thing Jack expected to be doing on top of it all was starting something with Bittle, but here he is, happier than he can ever remember being. They don’t tell anyone, yet, but they sneak so many kisses around the Haus that it’s only a matter of time before they get caught. Most nights they end up together in one of their beds. He’s true to his word to Bitty, and they take it slow, but not for very long.

When they finally have sex, it’s almost anticlimactic in its inevitability. Jack wakes up to Bitty’s feathery light kisses along his neck and collarbone. As soon as he realizes that Jack is awake, the kisses get a little bit more passionate. Bitty licks and sucks along Jack’s jaw until Jack can’t hold in a moan any longer.

When he hears the noise, Bitty gives him a naughty little smile and straddles Jack’s hips. He rolls against him once, twice, and Jack is undone. He thrusts up impulsively, then scrambles to remove the last remaining layers of clothing between them. The look Bitty gives him is the same determined expression he gets before a check, nervous but resolute, and it’s suddenly Jack’s top priority to make sure that this is good for him.  

They move together, in tune with each other’s bodies in the same way they are in tune on the ice. Bitty touches him everywhere, hands racing over Jack’s body like he wants to touch every square inch of skin at once. What started out slow, almost lazy in its easiness, turns frantic, and Bitty keeps making this soft mewling noise that goes straight to his dick. Bitty comes first, but not by much, and they come down together, breathing heavily as they cling to each other in the early morning light.

Jack dozes for about half an hour, and when he wakes up, he realizes that Bitty is no longer there and gets up to find him. He makes a pit stop in his own room to throw on his running clothes then heads downstairs. There he finds Bitty sitting with Shitty at the kitchen table. They both have coffee and Shitty is halfway through a bowl of cereal.

“So Bitty,” Shitty starts, talking to Bittle but looking at Jack. “Are you aware that our dear friend Jack Zimmermann did not sleep in his own bed last night?”

Bitty looks up at Jack wide-eyed, but Jack only shrugs. It was only a matter of time, and it’s just Shitty, after all. He tries to tell him with just his eyes that it’s okay if Shitty knows, and thankfully, Bitty seems to get it, because he responds, “I did know that, yes.”

“Are you saying that you were aware of where he did end up sleeping last night?” Shitty continues.

“Yes, I knew that too.”

“Anything else to add?”

“Not at this time, no,” concludes Bitty.

Shitty looks between the two of them knowingly, then says, “Bros, I was not expecting that one, but I would appreciate it if you didn’t fuck it up.”

Bitty laughs and Jack rolls his eyes and heads off for his run.

****

Bitty doesn’t know why he promised himself he wouldn’t cry at graduation. In the end, he’s just glad he’s not wearing mascara, because there was no controlling the waterworks once they started. He’s sad to see his favorite seniors graduate, and frustrated that this thing with Jack is still so new that they barely had time to figure it out before they will be separated, but he’s also so happy and so proud of them.

He goes to lunch with the Zimmermanns, and while Bitty’s not quite sure whether or not they know that he and Jack are together, they include him anyway like part of the family. After lunch, Jack offers some explanation to his parents and he and Bitty head off on their own for a little bit.

They walk toward Faber, and it’s such an empty part of campus that Bitty feels bold and grabs Jack’s hand and laces their fingers together. Jack squeezes their hands and they walk like that until they reach the rink. The front door is locked, so they try to get in around the back by the loading dock, but that is also locked, so they end up sitting together by the loading dock.

“I got you something,” Jack says finally, handing over a gift bag he had been holding to Bitty.

“Jack! You’re the one that’s graduating. I’m the one who’s supposed to give you a gift.”

“Well, it’s sort of a gift for me. I mean, I had one made for me too,” Jack says as Bitty opens the present. He pulls out a sleek black book. The cover says “Warmth” in bright gold letters, then below in smaller letters, “By Jack Zimmermann.”

“Jack, what is this?” Bitty asks.

“Open it up.” So Bitty does. It’s a photo book. Inside are dozens of pictures Jack has taken of Samwell, of the team, but mostly of him. Bitty recognizes some of them from Jack’s final project, but many of them are new. All of them are gorgeous.

“These are beautiful,” Bitty whispers, flipping through the pages.

“Like I said, I have one too. I wanted somewhere special to keep all of my favorite photos. I should have realized a lot sooner what it meant that most of them were of you.”

Bitty can’t help himself, he pulls Jack down into a kiss. “Thank you. This is perfect.” They sit for a moment longer, holding hands, before they get up to return to the group. As he and Jack walk back, Bitty squeezes his hand and smiles.

They’ve come so far, but it still feels like just the beginning of their journey. And Bitty can’t wait to see where they go.