The worst part of living with Eric Bittle was learning things about him he should never have the privilege of knowing. Learning things he’s wanted to know for longer than he can imagine. Things that make living with Eric Bittle that much harder.
Bitty returns to the Haus, escorted by a young man Jack has never seen before. Jack sees them from the kitchen window, pausing in his lunch preparations to watch. He’s just looking out for a member of his team of course. Whoever the stranger is he’s only a little taller than Eric with waves of brown hair and a charming sprinkle of freckles over his cheeks. Bittle is smiling as he talks, cheeks flushed from the cold. Jack thinks, he knows that smile. Its Bittle’s happy smile. It’s one of his most genuine looks. He smiles like that when he’s listening to music and dancing around the Haus while he works or when he’s on the ice during a more relaxed practice, joking around with the other guys on the team.
But then Bittle puts a hand on the stranger’s arm and the stranger smiles down at Bitty too and oh, that’s a different smile. Jack nearly drops his knife when he sees the change. Its subtle but Jack knows his team and he knows Bittle and that is a smile he’s never seen before. The stranger says something and Jack sees surprise replace Bittle’s new smile. And then he’s beaming, nodding and smiling his new smile.
Some things are the same. The corners of his eyes still crinkle with the lift of his cheeks and the width of his grin. But the flush to his cheeks is from more than just the cold and there’s a spark in Bitty’s eyes Jack doesn’t recognize.
The stranger says something else before he leaves, looking back when he reaches the end of the walkway to wave at Bitty. Bitty is still standing by the porch, one hand resting against his cheek. He waves back before sprinting up the porch steps. The stranger smiles, finally turning away and disappearing from the property.
Jack jumps back from the window as if it was going to harm him. He keeps his head down as he returns to making his lunch. Jack can hear Bitty entering the Haus and for a second his heart races. He hadn’t meant to spy on Bitty but suddenly guilt is eating at him.
“Lardo you won’t believe-oh, Jack! Hello. Sorry. Lardo said she was here so I thought the noise in here was her.” Bitty’s voice trails off as he talks but underneath the awkward nervousness Jack can still hear the happiness, the giddiness.
“Something good happen?” Jack isn’t sure why he’s asking but the words are out before he can think better of it.
Bittle looks surprised and a little bit afraid. The fear worries Jack a little because he had thought they were finally past Bittle’s fear of opening up to the team. He was even hoping, a little, that they had gotten past Bittle’s fear of him. Though he knew he didn’t make it easy on the southerner.
“It’s just well, I just got asked on a date.” Jack really didn’t think Bitty would share anything with him but suddenly Bittle is spilling the beans and then Jack sees it again. The new smile. The different one. Its softer than before, almost like a secret Bitty’s trying to keep to himself but that unfamiliar spark is in his eyes again.
Something tight curls in his chest and Jack swears he just wants what’s best for Bitty and the team and obviously getting heartbroken would not be good for anyone. And that’s obviously the only reason he’s worried.
“Oh.” Jack says because it’s the only thing that comes out. He sees Bitty start to deflate and before he can even fully react the next words out of his mouth are: “Is he nice?”
Bittle looks as surprised as Jack feels but he nods. “His name is Nathan, he’s very sweet.”
Jack isn’t sure why but adding a name to the stranger’s face makes him feel worse rather than better.
The Haus creaks with movement upstairs and then Lardo is calling down.
“Yo, Bits, did you just get home?”
Bittle brightens again. “Oh there she is! Well I’d better go see if she needs something. Enjoy your lunch!”
Bittle retreats towards the stairwell. Jack listens to the creak of the stairs as Bittle and Lardo return upstairs. Bittle’s excited drawl carries back towards Jack until the two of them are completely upstairs. Once he’s alone again Jack stares at his completed sandwich. He can’t see himself but he knows his expression is harsh. He can feel the heaviness of his brow and the pull of his mouth. It’s the opposite of the expression he’s just seen from Bittle. The expression he keeps seeing. Like the flash of white behind your lids after staring at the sun too long the expression feels imprinted on his mind.
Jack doesn’t do parties. Between the not-so-pleasant flashbacks of his past and the uninhibited looks and questions of those just sober enough to still recognize him, parties generally make his skin crawl.
Unfortunately, this party was spur of the moment, which means Jack didn’t have the time to prepare beforehand. He doesn’t want to leave the Haus, he isn’t really sure where he would go trying to avoid the party, especially when he doesn’t know how long into the night it will carry. But he needs to eat, he needs to get some water, and maybe an aspirin because he feels the start of a headache behind his eyes and he’s felt strung out enough lately that he isn’t sure waiting it out will do him any good.
It was spur of the moment. Jack tells himself as he opens his bedroom door and looks around. No one is upstairs but him. That’s usually the case, thankfully, if nothing else the boys are good at keeping people downstairs, but he felt the need to check. The music’s melody floats up from the stairs while Jack can feel the bass thumping beneath his feet. With deep breaths he steels himself and heads for the stairs. It was spur of the moment. How many people can there really be?
The bitter voice in his head mocks him when he reaches the first floor. There are fewer people crammed inside the Haus than for epikegster but the bodies still merge together in a sticky sea of sweat and beer. Jack’s growling stomach is the only thing keeping him from fleeing back upstairs to the solitude of his room. The pain behind his eyes worsens.
When Holster finally notices Jack, halfway between the stair case and the kitchen, the d-man about loses his shit.
“Holy shit Jack what are you doing here?” Holster’s slurring enough to sound like he has an accent about three times more significant than it actually is and the Captain in Jack can’t help but wonder just how much he’s had to drink. Holster can usually handle his booze a lot better than that.
“Getting food.” Jack answers though he’s not even sure Holster can hear him. Whether the blond does make sense of what he says or not, Holster nods, patting Jack on the shoulder before he immerses himself back into the crowd. His head bobs a few inches above most of the party goers but even with his height it doesn’t take long for Holster to blend in with the masses. Jack turns back to his mission.
The kitchen is mostly empty, which would be a relief it wasn’t for the two people currently making use of the privacy. At first Jack tries his best to ignore the couple despite his discomfort and hangs close to the fridge. He’ll look for something quick that doesn’t require prep and disappear back upstairs before anyone sees him. It’s the perfect plan until one of the other two kitchen-dwellers laughs and Jack’s heart jumps into his throat.
Before he can stop himself Jack turns around. Sure enough, Bittle is trapped between the kitchen counter and the other party-goer. Even if Jack hadn’t realized what the two had been doing when he came in, seeing Bittle now made everything crystal clear. Face flushed, Bitty smiled up at his date. It was his new smile. The one Jack had never seen before up until a few weeks ago. Except to make matters worse Bittle’s cheeks are flushed and his lips are swollen and red as he swipes the tip of his tongue across them.
The tightness in the pit of his stomach makes Jack feel sick.
Jack grabs the first thing that doesn’t look like alcohol or pie ingredients and all but slams the fridge door shut.
“Oh! Jack. Hi. Sorry we didn’t see you there.” Bitty laughs along with the person molded against him again but he turns his head to face Jack. Jack can’t look him in the eye. Not like that. His golden halo of hair is mused, his pupils dilated. He looks absolutely wrecked and Jack feels like a million different thoughts are firing off in his brain.
Jack nods once and flees. Part of him feels bad for being so blatantly rude but for the most part he’s just relieved to escape. If he’s lucky Bittle won’t even remember this part of the evening. He already knows it won’t be something he’s forgetting.
Jack comes back from his morning run and meets Bittle on the front walk up to the Haus. It’s warm enough finally that Jack is back to shorts and a light weight, long sleeved shirt for his run but Bittle is still draped in a winter coat.
Jack greets Bittle good morning but his chirp about being up early dies in his throat when he finally takes in Bittle’s appearance. Bittle’s hair sticks up every which way. Despite wearing his coat, Bittle didn’t bother to button it up and underneath there’s a shirt he knows Bittle wore yesterday. Normally he wouldn’t take notice of such things but he remembered Lardo commenting on the new shirt the day before while Bitty was baking. A scarf Jack doesn’t recognize is deliberately wrapped around his neck.
Jack studies the southerner’s face as he rambles on about late nights. It’s subtle but it’s there. A spark in his eyes that isn’t normally there, a quirk to his lips that is much more like Bittle’s “new smile” than his happy one. Jack can’t help but see the glow.
Holster blearily stumbles out of the Haus in sweats with his duffle bag slung over one shoulder. His glasses are perched, crookedly, on the tip of his nose. He probably fell asleep wearing them again. Holster stops on the bottom step of the porch and stares at Jack and Bitty like he can’t quite figure out who they are. Finally, a slow grin spreads across his face and he jumps off the step to clap Bittle on the shoulder. Jack doesn’t miss the way he winces at the contact.
“Eric Richard Bittle are you taking the walk of shame?” Holster pretends to wipe his eyes. “They grow up so fast.”
Before Bittle can say anything, Holster’s phone chips three times in quick succession. Before he can pull it out of his pocket it goes off again.
Holster sighs. “Well I better get going. Proud of you Bits.” Holster pats Jack on the shoulder as he passes him. “Hope you had a good run.”
Jack finally looks back at Bittle for the first time since Holster’s arrival. The glow is replaced by panic. Jack can see the build-up as Bittle immediately began stammering out attempts at excuses. Jack can’t bring himself to listen to the rambling and waves him off.
“It’s okay Bittle. It happens.”
Jack hates the tightness in his throat as he says it. He hates the hot, painful coils of something undefined swirling in his chest. He hates the breathless relief obvious on Bittle’s face and the hint of something he doesn’t recognize in Bittle’s eyes.
Jack Zimmerman was observant. It's what made him a good captain. He knew his team like the back of his hand. But sometimes, he couldn't help but think it might be easier if he didn't know all of them, quite so well.