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better than I know myself

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Jack's not very good at noticing common threads. Picking out the patterns in the larger picture isn't his skill — unless it's on a hockey rink and then he can pick up patterns for days. Off the ice and he's lost, which isn't surprising because that's a good general summary of his life.

So it takes him the longest time, over a year, before he realizes what's been different in the Haus. It's not something that's present, so much as something that's missing. And it's this: that Bittle calls everyone pet names.

Everyone but Jack.

He doesn't realize it during a breakfast with the team, one of Bittle's rare team brunches where an early morning practice isn't immediately followed by an 8am lecture for everyone.

"Hols, darling, would you mind passing me the butter?" Bittle asks, his accent soft and lilting over the endearment.

"Aw, anything for you, bro," Holster says, passing the butter over and beaming at Bittle.

"Thanks, sweetheart."

He doesn't realize it later that same week, when Jack comes in from an hour in the weight room to find Bittle watching warily while Shitty works at the kitchen table. Jack slides in and grabs one of his pre-made protein shakes from the fridge, and Bittle sighs, loudly, before moving over to Shitty and tugging at the book.

Shitty makes an inhuman noise.

"You've been at it for seven hours, darling," Bittle says. "Don't you think it's time for a break?"

Jack startles, alarmed, because it's not good for Shitty to get like this. He's about to step forwards and help, bodily if he has to, but Bittle moves in closer, leaning in. "Shitty, love, c'mon, step away from the textbook."

Shitty squints, but slowly pushes the textbook away. "Yeah, okay," he says, his words soft and slurred. "Probably should at that."

The time he does notice: at a kegster.

It's more like the pre-kegster party, because full kegsters are still a territory Jack doesn't feel secure entering, and most of the team are hanging out in the kitchen bidding for the chance to lick the bowl after Bittle's finished with it, and some other students come early and basically it's crammed, but Jack stubbornly hogs the corner of the table that's most secure and ignores how much he kind of wants to lick the spoon if that becomes an option, because Bittle's maple apple creations are  kind of the best pie he's ever tasted. He's tried to tell Bittle that before, but it never comes out as strongly as Jack means it.

Bittle nods his head in Dex's direction. "Honey, would you mind passing me that bottle of syrup? The fresh one, near the three-deep line of sriracha bottles."

"Sure," Dex says, shuffling through the crowd to pass it to Bittle, getting rewarded with a chunk of peach from one of the batches of mini pies being prepared.

"Sweetheart, would you mind moving your book back?" Bittle asks Nursey a few minutes later, and Nursey obligingly shifts his well-thumbed Pablo Neruda anthology backwards enough so Bittle can slide a cooling tray onto the table.

Bittle moves around the crowd in his kitchen fluidly, and Jack's thinking about going upstairs before too many people come in, so he shuffles his chair back, a few moments before Bittle tries to move around him towards the far door. Bittle catches himself, shifting out of the way before Jack can move his chair into him, and dammit, Jack's normally more aware of his surroundings.

"Sorry, Jack," Bittle says, "won't happen again." And then he dashes off towards the stairs, calling back as he leaves. "I'm just gonna call my momma before it gets too loud in here. Don't touch the pies for ten minutes, boys. I'll know if you do."

"We promise," Ransom and Holster say in their usual creepy unison. Jack glances across at Lardo and they silently bet that the pies will be disturbed in under three minutes.

"Dude," a guy says, leaning into Jack's personal space, "what did you do to make that blond kid hate you so much?"

"Uh," Jack says, suddenly and very keenly aware that he has a lot of faces suddenly turned in his direction. He grips his knees under the table with his fingers because otherwise, he'll start flushing. He hates attention when he's off the ice. He doesn't notice it when he's on the ice. "Bittle's not a kid," he tries, because he's confused. Why would Bittle hate him? Sure, Bittle had a full-on dose of hockey cyborg fuck-up Jack Zimmermann last year, but they've been getting on since, haven't they? Bittle wouldn't have spent so much time with him recently if he hated him, right?

"What did you do, huh?" the guy asks.

"What?" Jack says, eloquently.

The guy sighs like Jack is stupid. "He calls everyone pet names but you."

Jack stares. "What."

The guy twitches and starts walking backwards. "Whatever, dude, I was just curious." Jack continues to stare until the guy ends up running out the Haus. Maybe it's Jack's on-ice glare.

"Dude," Ransom whispers, in a reverent tone. "You should glare like that at all the lax players."

Jack blinks. "That guy was on the lax team?"

"Yeah," Holster says. "And he was a jerk, obviously. Of course Bittle likes you."

Jack feels a little better already.

"Bittle likes everyone," Holster continues.

Jack feels less better. He hears Shitty coming in (and who doesn't, who let him have an air horn, seriously) and he hears Lardo furiously whispering to him and then he feels Shitty sitting down next to him because Shitty lands like a boulder splashing into water.

"Dude," Shitty says, throwing his arm around Jack's shoulders, "remember the by-laws. Fuck the lacrosse team, yeah?"

Jack edges him a glance. "Yeah, man. Fuck the lax bros."

"That's my bro," Shitty crows, and beams at him.

"Uh," Dex whispers to Nursey off to one side, "that bylaw— It's not literal is it?"

Chowder chimes in with a sad pitchy whisper. "Wait, I didn't think of that. Do we have to fuck the lacrosse team?"

"Oh, god," Nursey says, "I fear for both of your GPAs, I really do."

Jack twitches. He does too.

Jack manages to put it out of his mind for a while. Except, he doesn't, and the next time he finds himself in a social situation he feels like he's going to jump out of his skin. He buries his head in his laptop and tries not to listen too much to the chaos around. And he totally does not have a spreadsheet open ready to track any pet names that get used. Nope. (Okay, so it's Google Sheets, which absolutely doesn't count, right??) He's just there to get some pie because his carb and fat counts have been a little off. That's the only reason. If Jack squints over the top of his laptop occasionally to watch Bittle make pastry and prepare fillings, well, it's just to be sure the lax guy at the pre-kegster party was a dick, that's all. Bittle couldn't hate him, could he?

Chowder yawns loudly as he washes his pie plate and then he pulls a face at the nearest clock. He's supposed to be going out to see a movie or something, Jack's not entirely sure. There haven't been any pet names so far, so maybe the lax guy was as stupid as Shitty is always saying they are.

"When are Dex and Nursey supposed to be meeting you?" Bittle asks.

"10," Chowder says, his face falling. "I got here way too early. I don't know how I'm going to stay awake for a whole movie."

"May I suggest the time-honored student tradition of a mid-evening nap?" Shitty says, helping himself to another slice of pie and wiping his moustache with what looks like one of Jack's scrawled hockey plays. Jack sighs. The smear of berry juice across where he'd planned the D-men gives him a good idea for a 5-on-3 play, though. Shitty rolls his eyes when he sees Jack block out a new rink diagram on his history notes, but he doesn't chirp him out loud.

"I know it's not a game," Chowder sighs, "but can I sleep on the couch?"

"Oh honey, no," Bittle says, immediately shepherding the goalie away from the green couch that's honestly not as bad as Bittle makes it out to be (except, Jack is probably biased because he understands about pre-game rituals; if you do everything the same beforehand, any mistake on the ice is yours and yours alone, and that's the best way to play and improve. Aaaand he's only thinking about that because Bittle said honey and to Chowder, not Jack. Ugh.) "I'm meeting my group for my Civ Ed presentation and we're going to be out until 11, you can nap in my room until the frogs get back."

"Aw," Chowder beams, "you're the best."

"You're spoiling that son of yours," Shitty says, through his mouthful of pie.

Bittle gives him a wry look. "Yeah, I can't think of who else I spoil around here."

"I'm unspoilable," Shitty says.

"Sure you are, sugar," Bittle says. Jack tallies up the second pet name, frowning at his screen and switching windows when Shitty leans over to see what Jack is focusing on.

Bittle nudges a sleepy Chowder towards the stairs and moves back towards the sink, humming under his breath as he starts to wash his favorite pie dish. He pauses mid-wipe and looks over his shoulder. "Do we have practice at six tomorrow, Jack?"

"Uh," Jack says. That's definitely his name and not an endearment. "Yeah."

The fucking lax bro had a fucking point and Bittle obviously fucking hates Jack. Obviously.

Jack skates a little harder than usual, drills a little longer, and indulges Chowder in a hundred penalty shoot-outs after everyone else has left the rink for the weight room, because he feels like kicking some ass. Chowder's too good to allow him much of that, but Jack slides in a couple of pucks to the top shelf and he feels a little better. Hockey's always soothing.

The weight room is nearly full, none of the team shirking this close to maybe getting into the frozen four again. Jack nods stoically at the coaches, proud of his team, and he gets a nod from them in return. He tries not to look over to where Bittle and Shitty are running side by side on treadmills, Bittle running at the same speed despite his shorter legs. His speed is such an asset to the team, Jack thinks fondly.

Bittle runs his treadmill to a slow and jumps off it temporarily, stepping over to where Dex is reaching for some hand weights.

"Honey, no," Bittle says, reaching out and putting his hand on Dex's forearm for a brief moment. "More reps, less weight. Trust me."

"Sure," Dex says, and actually listens to the advice as Bittle smiles at him and heads back for the treadmill.

Jack's advice. It's Jack's advice. Advice that he gave to Bittle, and Bittle is passing on, and you don't pass on advice from someone you hate? Unless they're technically skilled in an area you're not, and passing it on is just good practice on a hockey team. Sigh.

"Aw, sweetheart," Bittle calls out to Chowder as their goalie finally slinks into the room and heads for the stationary bikes, "how did you do?"

"Pretty good!" Chowder beams. "Thanks!"

"He nearly managed a shut out," Jack offers, passing near Bittle to aim for the leg press.

Bittle nods at him, and in the process of reaching out for his water bottle fumbles and knocks it to the ground. Jack diverts to pick it up and he passes it back over to him.

"Thanks, Jack," Bittle says.

There's no pet name. None at all. Jack mumbles something which might be a no problem or might be nonsensical syllables. From the weird glance Bittle shoots him as Jack settles into the seat of his favorite machine, it's probably the latter.

Jack slopes into the Haus the next day after a three hour stats lecture (seriously, this is his fourth year, why does he need to take a statistics credit except for the fact the universe hates him, why) and he can hear Bittle's voice like he's speaking really loudly. It's not the case, Jack just feels sort of… tuned into Bittle FM at the moment. Like he's obsessively searching for the pet names and that's stupid. He's just curious.

"C'mon, darling, I don't sound like that," Bittle says, laughing even though he's trying to sound affronted.

"You totally do," Lardo says, and Jack absolutely doesn't feel annoyed that he doesn't know what joke that punchline belongs to, and the tight hot feeling in the pit of his stomach has absolutely nothing to do with any of this.

Jack swallows down that feeling and heads for the kitchen because he's not going to let something a Samwell lax trash can said ruin his day. He goes straight for the fridge and nods his hello at Lardo and Bittle.

"Hey, man," Lardo greets.

"Jack," Bittle says, and just nods his head at him.

The feeling in the pit of his stomach intensifies. Jack presses his mouth into a line and quickly reaches in the fridge for the pot of boiled eggs he left in there earlier.

"Bittle," he says, and "Lardo", before taking his eggs and fleeing.

The thing is, Jack's somehow impossibly jealous.

He's not very good at deciphering his own feelings. That's an issue he's working through with his therapist, but it's taking a while, because Jack's not super committed. The only feelings he likes to identify are those after a hockey match, because disappointment can fuel his training for a month, and there's no feeling as good as scoring a goal, none.

He's jealous and it's weird.

"Sorry, darling, I didn't see you there," Bittle says to Chowder as he has to move quickly to stop stepping on him — Chowder's taken to sitting in random spots in the Haus with his Economics textbook spread across his knees.

Jack pretends he's not glaring.

He also pretends he doesn't want Bittle to call him darling, because that would be stupid. Why would he want something like that?

Jack goes out of his way to be nice to Bittle for a couple of weeks. Wait. Extra nice. That's it. He stops by the Murder Stop and Shop to buy four extra sticks of butter. He e-mails his mom to get his Uncle Jean's Nanaimo bar recipe and he prints it out and slides it under Bittle's door. He helps Bittle study for a pop quiz on American authors of the 19th Century.

Bittle smiles at him three separate times.

And says, "Thanks, Jack."

Ugh. Jack. Jack has never hated his own name more in his life.

There's never a pet name for him. There is for every other single player on the team. And not just the SMH. Random storekeepers get endearments. An old lady Bittle meets when Jack coaxes him out for a run. The crotchety woman who runs the desk on the second floor of the library, and she melts at the pet name like Jack when he spends summer in any state lower than Nebraska.

There's no endearment for him and he doesn't understand why it feels like he's been socked in the gut.


Maybe Jack deserves to be left out?

He knows he's being ridiculous and that it's probably his anxiety making him worry that Bittle hates him. Bittle comes with him for coffee and froyo; he lets Jack sit in while he parents Chowder through his first proper date. He sits by Jack on roadtrips and shares his earbuds and tries to educate Jack on modern music. He sits by Jack as they paw over large spreadsheets with pros and cons, and Jack is being driven slowly demented by the torturous thought that Bittle hates him. That Bittle only puts up with him because Jack's the Captain and Bittle's been raised in a sports-centered household to respect that sort of thing.

He manages to get Bittle to come with him on one of his photography jaunts across campus, and Bittle talks to him for a full hour in such a low, happy tone that Jack doesn't even care that there aren't any endearments.

Until they stop for Bittle to refill his water bottle at a public fountain, and Bittle's nearly run into by a jogging student that is probably on the lacrosse team, because seriously, fuck the whole damn lot of them.

"Sorry about that," the guy yells.

"Don't worry about it, sugar," Bittle calls back, and Jack— he just fucking snaps. Because they've actually been having a good time, for weeks now, and Bittle can't hate him. He can't.

If he does, Jack needs to know now so he can, like, get over it. Or figure out an action plan. How to Captain a player who really doesn't like you.

"Why don't you ever call me anything like that?" Jack asks.

"Uh," Bittle says, screwing the top back onto his water bottle and sliding it back in his pocket, "call you anything like what?"

"Sugar," Jack says. "Darling. Honey."

Bittle looks at him, wide-eyed. "Uh." He laughs nervously, and… backs up from Jack a little? Jack's stomach feels hot and hard and he feels like he's going to be sick. "Why would you want to be called something like that? That's so weird. I—"

"Because you call everyone something like that," Jack says. He steps closer and then falters, because Bittle backs off again, and Jack's face feels hot. "Everyone but me. What's wrong? Have I done something to make you angry? I know— I know I was a dick last year, but I've been working on that, and I really thought I was getting better—"

"You are," Bittle says. "You are, absolutely, you're doing so well, Jack."

Jack tries not to preen at the praise because he's still confused and almost achingly jealous. "See? Jack. You called me Jack."

"It's your name?" Bittle backs up again, and Jack's eyes sting for a moment, which must mean the pollen count is probably a little high or something. "Jack, are you okay?"

"No!" Jack sighs, and puts his hands on his hips, and tries to recover, because the conversation has kind of derailed from where he'd wanted it to go. "I just— I worried that I did something wrong and that you hated me, because— Well. You know."

"I don't hate you," Bittle says, but his voice sounds strained. "I just— Oh, hey, look at the time." He flashes his watch-free wrist in Jack's direction. "I've got an advisor's meeting to get to. In the, uh, in the dining hall. Don't wait up for me!"

And then Bittle outright flees.

Jack stares after him. His chest feels funny. He doesn't know what to do next.

Waiting in the kitchen in the dark is probably a creeper move, but it's all Jack has. He sits in the dark and waits, because the oven's call is a siren song one Eric Richard Bittle doesn't know how to not hear.

Jack's rewarded for his patience by the door clicking open at midnight and the light flickering on.

"Oh," Bittle says, a hand flying to his chest. "Jack. You startled me."

Jack looks at him impassively. "I'm sorry."

"No," Bittle says, and he takes a few tentative steps into the kitchen. Although the fluorescent kitchen lights are on, one of the bulbs is flickering hesitantly and the curtains are open, making the room seem darker than usual, less hospitable. "I'm the one who's sorry. I guess I didn't realize that you would feel excluded, or, or lacking in some way. I'm sorry, Jack. It's on me. You're just fine."

Jack nods along, relief crackling almost viscerally up his spine at hearing the apology.

Except— Bittle looks sad. The feeling in Jack's chest clenches again, and he rises to his feet, unsteady on the tile floor in a way he's never been on ice. Bittle's eyes widen and dart nervously to the exit and back to Jack again.

"I don't want to force you to say anything you're not comfortable with," Jack says. "Or anything you don't want to. I just— I don't believe you."

Bittle makes a noise in the back of his throat. "I don't—" he starts.

"I think you do have a problem with me," Jack says. "And it's something we have to deal with, because we're a team, and problems off the ice always follow us into the rink, no matter how much we don't want them to, and—"

"Fuck," Bittle says, and the curse startles Jack into silence, and Bittle's eyes are wide. "Really, Jack. I promise. I don't have a problem with you."

Jack might have bought it, but Bittle's voice wavered at the end. "Bullshit," Jack says. "Just tell me, so we can work through what the problem is, or find a solution."

"I—" Bittle says, and he looks like he's thinking up another terrible lie, and Jack moves before Bittle can back up, putting his finger on Bittle's mouth. Bittle goes almost cross-eyed trying to look at it.

"Don't," Jack says. "Don't lie to me."

Bittle's eyes reluctantly meet his and there's something in that expression that Jack hates, and hates with a passion, and he hates everything right now, because it means Jack's not making anything up. Bittle has an issue with him, and that's something that needs to be sorted as soon as possible.

"Jack," Bittle says, and he sounds miserable.

"Just say it," Jack says. "How bad can it be?" I hate you and I want you to die, Jack's brain happily fills in, because it's more of a dick than pre-playoff hockey cyborg Jack.

"I—" Bittle says, and he fidgets with the hem of his shirt and he looks so wretched that Jack almost wants to bite back the command, because maybe it could be bad for him to say whatever it is. And maybe it could be bad for Jack to hear it. "I can't."

"Bittle," Jack sighs.

"I mean," Bittle says, before Jack can continue, "I can't say— I can't call you the things I call everyone else."

"But… Why?" Jack doesn't understand; there's no reason he can think of that makes sense that's not because I hate you.

"Because of how it sounds," Bittle says, and he's folding his hands together now, a twisting anxious moment, and Jack wants to put his hands out and stop him. He doesn't, although it's an effort to restrain himself.

"How does it sound?" Jack asks, bewildered.

"Don't make me—" Bittle starts, but there's obviously something in Jack's face that sways him, because there's almost a sad defiance on his face now.

"Please," Jack says, and that's apparently the magic word his mother said it was.

Bittle takes a deep breath and looks Jack straight in the eyes.  "Darling," Bittle says, "sweetheart—" And his voice cracks. And he just looks at Jack, so wretched, so suddenly open and blown wide with vulnerability and Jack can't help but stare, because Bittle looks at him then like—  like every love song ever written, Jack thinks, giddily, and he's almost too happy with it for a moment until he realizes Bittle is staring at him miserably, his shoulders slumped like he's waiting to be shouted at and no.

Jack moves before he even thinks, because he lives his life on the ice relying on his instincts, and all his bodily instincts right now are screaming in unison for him to wipe the sad expression from Bittle's face any way that he can. And apparently the way for him to do that is for one hand to slide around Bittle's waist and the other to gently cup his cheek. Bittle's skin is as soft as his hands on the ice, Jack thinks irreverently, before leaning down and pressing his mouth to Bittle's in a kiss.

"Sshh." Jack's speaking before he even knows he is. "Ssshh, sweetheart," he continues, because Bittle is crying and that's too much to process, too much to bear. He doesn't even fully realize what he's doing until he's halfway through, until his whole body shudders at the feeling of kissing Bittle a second time, and that's when it sinks in.

He's kissing Bittle.

That isn't something he's thought of doing before. It's not something he's ever thought about doing, because if he thinks about it, he thinks about what he can't have, and he's been repressing this fundamental part of himself for so long, compressing it all into a tiny box in his head that he's thrown the key for into a box labelled after the NHL.

He steps back from Bittle, an awkward jerking movement, before sliding down to the ground in a heap, dumbfounded. Oh. Oh. That's why it bothered him so much. He really was jealous of his teammates getting Bittle's endearments. Shit.

"I—" Jack says.

Bittle carefully comes down to the ground too, but he pulls his knees up to his chest and wraps his arms around them, leaning against a counter and eyeballing Jack warily. Jack can't quite look at Bittle, although he wants to. The box is open and it's yelling for Jack to stare at Bittle, to memorize his features and lock them away for himself for forever.

"I can't," Jack says.

Bittle shrugs awkwardly. "I figured," he says, his voice small and stiff.

Jack stares at the things he can focus on, the edges, the perimeter. The slope of Bittle's shoulders. The cowlick of hair that disappears into the darkness of the kitchen's corners. He doesn't know what to say.

"I should—" Bittle says, and gestures at the door, and Jack's throat hurts.

"I can't do anything," Jack says, slowly, and Bittle looks at him with a heartbreaking expression that Jack hates. "Not until I know," he says, a little quicker. Jack likes boys. He's always known that, for as long as he's been repressing it, when he woke up aged nine panting hard, disoriented, because he'd imagined walking down a street somewhere, holding hands with another boy. In the dream it felt right. In the daylight it felt like just another thing to probably disappoint his dad over.

"Know what?" Bittle prompts. His voice is a whisper. He probably feels the same as Jack in this moment - that anything too loud will shatter the whole Haus into pieces.

"I can't do anything more until I know what I'm feeling," Jack says, just as slowly, as he tries to figure out what he means. "It's not fair to you."

Bittle's watching him like Jack's on the opposing team. Like Jack has the puck behind the net, and two players either side, and two of his opponents are bearing down to take the puck, and Jack's loitering indecisively, unsure of who to punt the puck to.

"Obviously I'm feeling something," Jack says, and oh, that's a surprise that shouldn't be, because for all he's been confused over Bittle's pet names, there's always been a feeling alongside the notions, something pressing and persistent. "But until I figure out what that is…"

"It's okay," Bittle says.

"It's not, but thank you."

"I mean," Bittle says, and he moves one of the arms from around his knees to rub almost apologetically against the back of his own neck, "you let me kiss you back for a spell. Which is about a thousand times better than the punch to the face I was expecting."

"What?" Jack blinks, rapidly, because for all the things he's confused about, and for all his heart is pounding like a jackhammer, the idea that Bittle would expect him to do that is overwhelmingly upsetting. "I would never," he says, low and heated.

"I'm used to insecure gay boys in a more southern closet," Bittle says wryly, an almost melodic note to his tone of self-deprecation. He ducks his head for a moment before looking back at Jack, intent in the mixture of stuttering artificial light and the moonlight that was filtering in through the uncovered windows. "Thank you, is what I'm trying to say."

"For not hitting you?"

"Well, that," Bittle says. His face softens. "For that and for, y'know, saying you'll think about things." He smiles, even though it doesn't look a happy smile. It doesn't reach his eyes. He starts to climb back to his feet. "And don't worry about my reaction. Whatever you think or whatever you feel is just what you think or feel. You can't help it, even if you don't understand it for a while. I'm not fixing to cause you any kind of trouble. I've got your back, okay?"

Jack nods stiffly, because Bittle's promising to keep Jack's impulsive reaction a secret, and he's overwhelmed by that level of trust. "Okay," he manages to say.

"Good night, Jack," Bittle says, and finishes straightening up.

Bittle turns and leaves and Jack watches him until he can't see him anymore. Jack touches his mouth and stares at the empty space for a while.

He's got a lot to think about.

Jack takes the next few days to look at things and think about them. The thing is, the world's a bit different when he looks at things through the lens of "I might be in love with Eric Bittle."

Jack's enough aware of his feelings to know he doesn't do anything half-heartedly. If he feels anything for Bittle, it will be love, so Jack slips into his daily routine, and monitors his own reaction to things for any sign of the being-in-love-with-Bittle thing appearing.

Bittle's amazing. He doesn't act any differently around Jack, which Jack wants to label as bravery, but maybe he's just biased. That's not a Bittle-specific thing. Jack is just very proud of his teammates, all the time. He wants to celebrate everything good they do, on and off the ice.

He just maybe wants to celebrate Bittle's good with a kiss or nine or a thousand.

Well, he's managed to narrow down he's physically attracted to Bittle. At least he's gotten that far.

Everything else is probably going to take time.

One morning, Bittle's making pancakes for the team.

"Honey, can you pass me the eggs?" Bittle calls across to Ransom, who happily complies because it gets him dibs on the first pancake.

Jack gets the same feeling he's always been getting with the pet names. Like something hot and heavy has crawled into his stomach.

He thought it was jealousy before…

…and maybe it is?

Jack wants to be the only one Bittle uses the endearments on.

And maybe that's a large part of the answer Jack's been looking for.

Jack asks Bittle to Annie's for a coffee after one of their few remaining shared morning lectures, and it's just a reflex, honestly it is, just like Jack's done it so many times before, and shit, if that wasn't a clue on its own.

He spends the whole time walking there wondering if it is a date. Will Bittle think it's a date? Jack side-eyes him thoughtfully as they walk.

In the shop they share their usual table, a decent amount of distance between them for it to be platonic or professional, and Jack nods as Bittle talks about Baudrillard, and things not existing until they exist on TV, and wonders more about what Bittle is thinking. Will he think it's a date? And if so, will Bittle try and kiss him?

Jack laughs as Bittle starts getting frustrated by his inability to recognize singers on the Samwell radio station, and Bittle lets Jack walk him back to the Haus before he disappears into the basement to rescue some pie filling ingredients that he was storing in the downstairs chiller, and Jack goes to his room with his heart pounding. He thinks if Bittle had kissed him, he would have kissed back.

Yeah, um, maybe Jack's going to have something substantial to say to Bittle after all.

The notecards are probably too much. If the notecards are too much, the spreadsheet definitely is.

The pie chart might be the point where Bittle realizes Jack has lost his mind and is not a catch at all in any shape or form whatsoever.

Still, Jack soldiers on.

Bittle buys the excuse of him needing help practicing his class presentation and he doesn't even look too sad when Jack shepherds him into his bedroom and shuts the door. Bittle's cheeks go a little pink when he looks at Jack's bed and settles on perching on the edge of Jack's desk chair. Instead of being confused or wondering what it all means, Jack lingers on the blush on Bittle's cheeks and lets that buoy him along.

Bittle realizes about five notecards in that Jack's presentation isn't on the history of baking implements, but is a catalogue of each and every date that the two of them have already been on.

The pie chart might have been a bit extreme, Jack thinks, as he turns his laptop around and gestures at it.

The equation was probably the part that was too far.

He tries to gracefully manage the conclusion — that he's definitely been feeling feelings and if Bittle would like to feel feelings concurrently, then Jack would be absolutely amenable — but the rest of Jack's notecards end up on the floor, and Bittle's mouth is on his, and Jack can finally identify one of his own feelings without having to extract his head out of his ass, because he's happy.

"Oh, lord," Bittle gasps, pulling away and looking at Jack with unmistakable fondness. "Was that an actual pie chart? In your quest to woo a baker?"

Jack hadn't actually made that connection when he made the graph, but he smirks like it was deliberate, and Bittle makes a sound and yep, that's a white lie he's taking to the grave.

"And a full equation," Bittle sighs, before pressing butterfly kisses along Jack's jawline and oh, Jack's so dizzy with the knowledge that there is a better feeling than scoring a goal, and it involves Bittle and him and the lack of space between them. "An equation of your feelings. You're such a dork, Jack Zimmermann."

"Don't let it get out," Jack says, "I have a reputation. Can't let anyone know I'm deliriously happy."

Bittle laughs. "Jack, you managed to keep your own feelings from yourself. If anyone can mask their emotions, it's you."

"I don't want to mask them with you," Jack says, as seriously as he can. It's a marvelous achievement considering he's finally managed to slide his hands where they've been wanting to go for sure for the last few days, and probably for a lot, lot longer than that. "I want to feel everything with you."

Bittle beams and then they don't talk again for quite a long time after that.

Bittle still doesn't call Jack sweetheart or darling in public.

But sometimes he'll call him a dork in a fond voice and it gives Jack butterflies.