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Jack doesn’t wake up when Bitty does, which is how he knows that Jack is completely wiped out.

Still, even though he knows nothing short of a nuclear blast or the smell of warm maple syrup could wake Jack up after a punishing away series, Bitty still rolls over as carefully as possible to face him. There are upsides, there are so many upsides, and one of them is the pleasure of Jack Zimmermann’s sleeping face, mouth slack and forehead smooth and relaxed. It’s a fair trade for temporarily losing out on the sight of those blue eyes.

He’s dreaming, eyelids flickering. As Bitty raises a hand to brush his fingertips softly over Jack’s cheek, Jack’s mouth twists up into a slight smile, and he presses his face a little more deeply into the pillow. Bitty carefully lets out a long breath. Oh, Lord. It’s too early in the morning for this much helpless love.

There are upsides.

But it’s also four in the morning, and much as Bitty would love to slide his hand down Jack’s spine and leave it there, slipping back into sleep with him, that’s not much of an option. Not with the amount of dough he needs to be manhandling within the hour.

Manhandling , huh? Bitty thinks with a grin, sliding his hand down Jack’s spine after all. As if he’d be able to resist that, at least.

But it is four in the morning, and there is dough waiting for him.

So Bitty gets out of bed. But before he does he wriggles close, and presses a kiss to Jack’s temple.

“I love you,” he whispers.

Jack doesn’t answer back, obviously. But he’s still smiling in his sleep, so at least he’s having a good dream.

~

There’s a frittata in the oven, go nuts! Bitty writes, and sets the bottle of sriracha on top of the note. He adds a smiley face, a few more exclamation points, and then makes himself step away from the notepad before this one gets too ridiculous. Jack’s been known to save the worst offenders.

Bitty found Jack’s old stash a while back, and he’s still not sure which of them was more embarrassed by the discovery. But in a nice way.

The apartment doesn’t get a ton of morning light, most of the windows facing west. Still, Bitty leaves the lights off as he pads around getting his messenger bag together. The days are getting just that bit longer, and he’s spent enough time in New England now to appreciate the sky brightening as early as 4:30 in the morning. It fills the living room with a soft glow, enough light for him to step around Jack’s giant suitcase, still where it fell over just inside the door. He rights it, pushes it against the wall, and gives it a fond pat as he passes through to the kitchen.

He loves this apartment. It was Jack’s place first, from practically right after graduation. He didn’t really need an apartment of his own, he could and probably should have roomed with other Falconers. But I like having my own space , Jack had said, with a smile so no one would be hurt, and had quietly given Bitty a key ‘just for when you visit’ before Bitty had even known how to raise the subject. Jack just taking action before either of them could figure out the right words, as always.

It’s a two-bedroom apartment, entirely for reasons of deniability. Jack’s bedroom stays empty, whether or not Jack is on the road.

And the kitchen is frankly enormous.

There’s only one part of this that Jack hadn’t silently planned out some time during the whirlwind of his first year as an honest-to-goodness NHL rising star, and that’s the proximity to the Cabbage. That had been an unintended perk that manifested a full two years later, and which Bitty had taken as a sign when he’d discovered the little café space. Just half an hour’s walk from the apartment, Jack, I have to have it.

For this place, Bitty would’ve walked the length of Providence every day. Still, this early in March, he’s pretty glad he doesn’t have to.

Warmed by the first of his two habitual lattes for the morning (from the Better Bean a block down from their apartment first, the next from Café Formidable when it opens at six, yes Jack I am just trying to support other local independent businesses and do not have a caffeine problem thank you very much), Bitty tugs his scarf up over his chin and wraps both hands around the paper cup.

Jack had been on the road for a little more than a week. One game in Arizona, one in Vegas, and a sprint-to-the-finish triple set in California before he could come home. He can handle the travel; it’s hardly the most intense part of the game. But that’s still a lot of it, and a lot of tough play against tough teams. That last game against the Sharks especially; Bitty’s never deleting the extremely conflicted series of texts from Chowder.

Besides, while things have certainly improved some between Jack and Kent, Bitty thinks that the best those two could ever manage will still boil down to ‘complicated.’

Two days, then a few more home games before Jack hits the road again. Then three games away, and back. Home again for four days, on a plane for another six, back again and away again and then — oh Lord — playoffs. The way the Falconers have been playing, it’s almost definite.

Bittle unlocks the front door of the Sugar Cabbage Café, steps in, and has to smile.

“Well, hello gorgeous,” he says to the empty room.

He could go in through the back door. It would save him having to lock up behind himself again. But he loves this part of the morning ritual. He passes the cozy two-tops with their assortment of mismatched chairs, the banquette and family-style community table set against the wall, waves at the three paintings (Larissa Duan originals, of course) and drags a palm over the glass of the empty display case. Empty for now.

Sentimentality takes a bit of a backseat once he gets to his station, as he peels off all his layers and drops his Samwell-red apron over his t-shirt. Which is not nearly enough clothing before the ovens are properly fired up, but Bittle tries to pretend that his shivering is just a particularly avant-garde dance move to the pop number that bubbles out of the little kitchen radio. It’ll get warm in a bit.

Hips swaying, Bitty flours down his work surface and takes the chilled dough out of the fridge. He wiggles his fingers, willing them to warm up some, before plunging his fists into the cold and almost rock-hard dough. He sinks into the work like a meditation, mind wandering to the video he’s going to upload tonight, to what else to fill up the display case with.

To Jack.  

Yesterday had been a very, very good day.

While Jack napped on the couch (lurching over to it and collapsing had been about all he could manage when he got in early that morning), Bitty had puttered around in the kitchen, edited his vlog update for the week, called home to chat, the usual. Talking quietly to his mother, leaning against the kitchen counter, mind only half on her questions as he looked at how Jack had kicked his socked feet up on the arm of the couch, one hand on his chest and the other palm-up, fingers curled, at his side.

With impressive timing, Jack had finally woken up when Bitty was in the shower.  His only warning was the curtain being pushed to the side with a rattle, then Jack had set his teeth gently into the muscle of Bitty’s shoulder before Bitty could make even one “Psycho” joke. After that, Bitty forgot everything but those hands, those eyes, that mouth.

Jack had only winced a little as he dropped to his knees in front of Bitty, sore muscles and stiff joints probably complaining. But he swallowed Bitty’s dick with a satisfied groan, hands on his hips pressing Bitty firmly back against the tile. Bitty couldn’t move, could only watch as Jack bobbed up and down, eyes closed and eyelashes spiked with water. He tracked the path of the spray through Jack’s hair, over his cheeks, and came with a cry before he felt he could truly appreciate the sight.

When Jack came a bit later, up on the sink with shoulders knocking into the medicine cabinet and leaving streaks in the fogged-over mirror, Bitty had reflected with satisfaction that the acoustics in the bathroom really were perfect . For more than just singing in the shower.

They have a lot of sex in the bathroom. Probably because there’s no windows in there.

Bitty scowls at himself, and attacks the dough with fresh energy.

“So the man’s back in town, huh?”

Bitty jumps a little and turns, and Laylah’s already laughing at him. “Sorry, sorry, you’re in the zone.”

“Please get me out of the zone,” Bitty says, “ Please, I think these rolls might kill me.”

Laylah bumps him out of the way with her hip and takes over without a word, frowning in concentration as she twists the cinnamon rolls into shape. Bitty gives himself a moment to settle next to her, flexing his fingers.

“Yeah, he’s back. Got in last night and has been unconscious pretty much since,” he laughs. “Thank goodness he’s got today off too, though he’ll be twitching to get back on the ice by tonight.”

“You guys have any plans?”

“He’s having some of the rookies over tonight, because lord knows he hasn’t seen enough of them lately. Probably eat a lot of pizza, get too involved in Madden, the usual.”

Laylah flashes a quick smile at him. She looks at him sometimes with a little more understanding than he thinks he gives her credit for. Bitty thinks she probably knows about him and Jack, really. But he won’t ask her if she does, and she clearly won’t bring it up. It’s comforting or it’s frightening, depending on the day and Bitty’s general mood.

“And what about you?” Bitty says. “What lunch delights are gracing our display case today?”

Debating the merits of Swiss over gruyere in her quiche for the day becomes talking about the Savory Saturday monthly vid idea they’ve been kicking around, which becomes talking about tonight’s vid update and the buzz that’s already kicking up online.

That’s the way it’s all bled together, as Bitty’s negotiated the whole ‘moderate internet fame’ thing. Although not every customer who comes in knows about the vlog, there are always a few folks coming by each week because of Bitty’s videos. They even make pilgrimages to the Cabbage, which is frankly more than Bitty can truly believe.

Not everyone on his staff starts off involved in the vlog. Bitty truly is here to run a business, and not everyone wants to get sucked into his rants on cupcake icing. But he’s lived his life alongside these videos since he was fifteen years old, and he doesn’t know how he would stop, even if he wanted to. So some bleedthrough was bound to happen. And he’s done the bit where it was just him and a camera and no one else. Maybe it wasn’t so long ago, but Bitty’s enjoying how things have shifted. It’s not bad to grow, after all. He’s not eighteen years old anymore, after all.

Jerry pokes his head into the kitchen to say hello before opening up the front, happily (and carefully) taking a piping-hot cinnamon roll fresh from the first batch.

Bitty joins him out front for a bit, confident enough in Susannah’s reliable 425 degree-heat to see those mini cheesecakes through the next fifteen minutes. Lord, but he loves that oven.

So he’s out front when Youji breezes in, arms already spread wide and a smile already on his face.

“Morning, cabbages!” Youji says expansively, stopping to press quick kisses to Moira’s cheek, Laylah’s temple, and the back of Bitty’s hand, raised to Youji’s lips with a courtly bow.

“No thanks,” Jerry says, laughing and mouth half-full of cinnamon roll, when Youji turns towards him.

“Later, then,” Youji says, waggling his eyebrows up and down like a cartoon wolf. “Where we won’t make the others jealous.”

“Oh yeah, wouldn’t want that,” Jerry says, looking significantly at Bitty. Determinedly, Bitty smiles right past the look and busies himself about the display case.

Youji’s their barista, and has been for the past ten months. He’s a ruthless dictator when it comes to his gleaming giant espresso-dispensing monster, and all love with everything else. Everyone adores him. The customers adore him. The vlog audience adores him. The staff adores him.

Bitty adores him. Carefully. Bitty adores him very carefully.

Especially when Youji makes a point of pressing the day’s first latte into his hand with a smaller smile, and Bitty knows before his first sip that it’ll be the perfect mix of toffee nut and caramel, just the way he likes it.

“So, roommate back in town, huh?” Youji says after he’s tended to their first few caffeine-desperate customers of the day. Bitty’s settled himself at the coffee bar, flipping through a few administrative-type emails and sending out some of his own. The case is stocked with the rolls, three different varieties of croissant, a savory frittata, and a selection of scones. For a while, his work in the back is done.

“Yup,” Bitty says, setting his tablet down. “Got in yesterday morning and passed right out for close on five hours.”

“Something about professional sports really takes it out of a guy, huh?” Youji says with a smile.

“So I’m told,” Bitty says dryly. “Especially when I suggest that someone else could do the dishes for a change.”

Youji laughs as enthusiastically as he does everything else, with his head dipped back and his eyes closed. He’s not sure entirely where Youji gets it all from, since Lord knows his road hasn’t been easy either. But he seems so comfortable in his own body, and particularly in his sexuality, in ways that Bitty still struggles to be. Bitty admires that. And, to be honest, maybe envies it a little as well.

At any rate, Youji doesn’t catch Bitty staring at his neck or chest or anything when he opens his eyes to look at him again. If he’s disappointed, it doesn’t show.

“Still, that has to suck a little,” Youji says. “You get the whole place to yourself for a whole week, and now you have to share it again. Kind of the pattern, right?”

What would he say, if Jack was just his roommate? If last week Bitty hadn’t fallen into bed early every night, feeling very small and very cold, texts from across the country only carrying so much warmth? If he hadn’t fallen into Jack’s arms (tired out as they were) as soon as he’d stepped through their door, after pacing the apartment for the hour he knew it would take between Jack’s plane landing and Jack standing there in front of him again?

“Yeah,” Bitty says distantly. “It takes some adjusting, that’s for sure.”

That’s the right answer, apparently. The normal answer. The one that Youji expects, because he just nods at Ilse from the corner florist and begins to pack the espresso for her dirty chai. He says over his shoulder, “At least you got the time alone, right?”

Bitty doesn’t bother to answer, but he doesn’t really need to. Script’s done, role performed, Youji doesn’t expect anything more from him and Bitty can just return to his iPad and blink unseeingly at an invoice from his flour supplier.

He should be used to it by now. Friends don’t mope around the kitchen for a solid day, just because their buddy has gone out of town. Bros don’t dance around the coffee shop humming just because their roommate is home again. It’s just another kind of throwing a blanket over how he really feels. And he started performing that particular trick when he was twelve years old. So he’s had some practice.

He’d never even think for a moment that what he’s going through compares to what Jack goes through. What he goes through every day, every game, which Bitty knows full well Jack only tells him the tiniest bit about. Even so, Bitty can fill in some of those expressive Canadian silences. The pressure of acting a bit more or a bit less happy in a Providence coffee shop (roughly the most liberal place on God’s green Earth) doesn’t really measure up to the pressure of being in a NHL locker room, or on NHL ice (roughly the least liberal place on God’s green Earth).

It’s just. It’s just, for himself, Bitty had hoped that it was a performance he was done giving. Just to be able to act happy when he’s happy, and sad when he’s sad. That shouldn’t be so much to ask.

It generally isn’t so bad. He knows that. But he’s a little raw about it right now, maybe. Just a sign he needs to head back in to his Suzie Q, that’s all that is. Should be about time to take those pies out, and start getting ready to put something else in.

Madeleines, Bitty decides, smiling and sliding off the coffee bar stool as the fuzzy hum of the 6 a.m. crowd surrounds him. Madeleines, and mini sugar pies, and a berry tart, and maybe the secret cupcake flavor of the day should be something pepperminty. Plenty of work to get to doing, and he’s the one who gets to do it. Lucky him.

~

Bitty’s warm now, spinning from bowl to bowl and mix to mix, the display case filling up even as the breakfast crowd tries their damnedest to empty it, snapping up croissants and bagels and (most of all) the glistening, gleaming cinnamon rolls.

He’s in the groove, he’s got only half a mind on the staff coming in and out and saying good morning as the day rolls towards the 9:30 temporary lull, and has flour on his nose and jam smeared up his left arm from wrist to elbow when it all stops spinning with a —

“Bittle.”

Bitty turns, and Jack’s leaning in the doorframe of his workspace, red-cheeked and smiling. Bitty drinks in the sight of him, dressed in black running tights and an old Samwell Hockey shirt over his Underarmor, black hat pulled down over his ears, earbuds hanging loose around his neck. Jack’s flushed, bright-eyed, gorgeous, and his.

How does everyone not know, honestly? Bitty would not be at all surprised if sometimes, looking at Jack, he actually started to glow.

“Got a bit enthusiastic there with the jam, eh?” Jack says, smile widening and looking a little like he might be drinking in the sight of Bitty too. “It’s supposed to go in the pastry, not on you.”

“Excuse me, who’s the master baker here?” Bitty says, tugging at his earlobe— because sometimes he needs to tells Jack that he wants to kiss him, even when he can’t.

Jack returns the gesture, eyes dropping down as he gives him a quick head-to-toe look of appreciation. “Definitely you, Bittle.”

Bitty’s mouth is already open to reply (he’s not sure with what, but it’ll probably undo the subtlety of the ear-tug) when Youji appears next to Jack, throwing his arm around his shoulders. He’s tall enough to do it, just barely.

“Bit of Bittle,” Youji says expansively, as the smile vanishes from Jack’s face and his head whips around. “Can I get some sweets from the sweet? The good people are especially hungry today, they need you desperately .”

Oh dear. Bitty hands him the tray of madeleines, which fortunately gets his arm off of Jack but does nothing to send him immediately out of the kitchen.

“Good to see you back on home turf, Zimmermann,” Youji says, leaning a hip against the door and grinning at Jack. “Sounded like it was quite a week out west for you.”

“Yeah,” Jack says, looking down at him. His eyes have gone flat and narrow, and Bitty both hopes and fears that Youji will notice the downright chill descending despite the warm oven. “Not bad.”

“Congrats, man,” Youji says, and turns his grin on Bitty. “Now you’re here, I can re-enlist you in my campaign. Someone’s gotta take this guy out, and that someone should be me.”

Well. It was unfortunately a little inevitable.

A few months back Youji had made his first guest appearance in the vlog, throwing his arm over the back of Bitty’s chair and leaning in as he shared an anecdote about the Great Red Velvet Mocha Explosion of 2017. Youji’s kind of…he just has that energy, he’s a naturally friendly guy. And friendly crosses over into flirty pretty regularly. Bitty got used to it and then had kind of forgotten that about him, shrugging off the joking innuendos and offers to take him out and not thinking a lot of it all.

But the comments on that first video had blown up. Not for the first time, Bitty wonders why on Earth his viewers are just so darned concerned about his love life.

They’d liked Youji. And continue to like him. And continue to be pretty vocal about how much they like him, and how much he obviously likes Bitty. Jack, unfortunately, likes to read the comments on all of Bitty’s videos.

Youji both does and doesn’t mean it. Bitty’s gotten a little better at gauging if someone’s actually interested in him, and he thinks that maybe under all the dramatics and baseline levels of flirtiness, Youji could be just a little bit serious. If Bitty encouraged him much at all, Youji would potentially get a lot more serious.

Jack doesn’t like Youji. Jack hasn’t liked Youji right from the start.

Jack’s liked him even less since Youji’d started trying to get Jack, as Bitty’s “best friend,” to put in a good word for him. He doesn’t seem to pick up on Jack’s complete disinterest-verging-on-hostility. But he wouldn’t be the first to think that Jack was just Like That.

“Sorry,” Jack says, voice an absolute monotone. “Bitty can make his own choices about who takes him out.”

Youji laughs. “I’ll win you to my cause yet, Jack. If anyone deserves some happiness and a good time, it’s our own ERB. But let me get these out for your adoring public.”

And he’s gone.

Jack and Bitty look at each other. Bitty reaches for a towel, and scrubs futilely at the jam on his arm. It’s gone dry, sticky and pulling at his skin. He’ll have to take soap and water to it later.

“He’s harmless,” Bitty says, not for the first time.

Jack steps in closer, shoulders tight. “He’s an asshole,” Jack says. Not for the first time.

“He’s not—”

“You’re his boss,” Jack says. “He shouldn’t talk to you that way.”

Bitty snorts, putting his hands on his hips. “As if that’s what’s really upsetting you.”

“It is what’s really upsetting me,” Jack says, voice low. He’s wound tight and tense and irritable, and moments ago he had been looking at Bitty like he was all Jack ever wanted to see, and this morning he had been warm and smiling in his sleep, in Bitty’s bed. “He shouldn’t do that, he shouldn’t put you on the spot like that, just because he—“

“Because he what , Jack?” Bitty’s temper is fraying rapidly, and he’s not much good at holding onto it once he gets started. “Wants to take me out? Why shouldn’t he, when for all he knows I’m not seeing anybody? If he likes me, there’s no reason he shouldn’t ask, is there? Not when he’s worked here near on a year, and never known me to go out with anyone, ever?

Jack rears back a little, eyes wide.

“Oh,” Bitty breathes. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—”

“It’s alright,” Jack says, swallowing hard. “It’s—I mean. You’re right.”

“Doesn’t make it okay,” Bitty says. He’s so tired, suddenly. He wants to lean forward into Jack, rest his head on his chest and feel his arms come up around him and know that it’s all alright. He knows that if he could do that, everything would be alright. Just that easy.

But he can’t. He knows he can’t. So he leans the other way instead, resting against the work surface. Getting flour on his pants, probably. He doesn’t much care.

“You just got home,” he says quietly. “I shouldn’t snap.”

“I just got home,” Jack says, mouth coming up in a little smile. “ I shouldn’t snap.”

Quiet falls between them. Quiet can be restful, comfortable, easy around Jack. It’s just another kind of language with him, one that Bitty’s nearly fluent in after all these years.

This is not one of those quiets.

“He’s right about one thing,” Jack says quietly, sliding a palm over the brushed steel surface of the dishwasher.

“What’s that?”

“You do deserve happiness. And a good time.”

“Oh, Jack,” Bitty breathes. “I have those things. Of course I do.”

“Not enough. You deserve more,” Jack says firmly, flat and determined and in his best Captain voice. He turns to go, shoulders rigid.

“Jack—“ Bitty reaches for him automatically, locking a hand around Jack’s upper arm. Bitty’s strong, he’s very strong, but he couldn’t hold Jack if Jack really wanted to shake him off. Jack stills under Bitty’s hands, eyes closing for a moment. “Are you—“ Bitty stops, swallows. Loses what nerve he had, and lets his hand drift down Jack’s arm. It’s warm like a furnace from his run, the calluses on Bitty’s palms catching over the fine knit of his shirt. “Are you still having the boys ‘round tonight? Want me to bring anything?”

Jack turns a little, manages a smile. “If I say no, you’ll just bring more.”

“Maybe,” Bitty says. “Maybe Blender got to me first, made me an offer I couldn’t refuse when it came to my cookies.”

“That sounds like Blender,” Jack says. “Bitty— I’m going to go home.”

The word makes a direct landing right in the middle of Bitty’s chest, forceful enough that he can’t really examine how he feels about it. But it’s a relief to be able to smile at Jack, even as he has to let go of his arm and step back.

“Alright. I’ll see you there.”

“Yeah,” Jack says, and sighs. There’s an apology there, but Bitty’s told him more than once that apologizing over and over again doesn’t do either of them any good. He understands where the need to do that comes from. But it’s not something he’s ever wanted, or needed from Jack.

Jack steps forward, pulls Bitty in. He’s hot and sweaty and smells objectively not very good, but Bitty smells like he’s been pounding frozen dough for hours and also like he’d spilled some milk somewhere on himself at some point. So they’re on equal footing. Bitty still can turn his face into Jack’s neck and spread his hands as wide as he can over Jack’s back, holding him close.

And then Jack’s gone. And Bitty’s got more baking to do.

He looks at the gleaming oven doors. At the work surface. At the cling-wrap topped bowls of dough, fresh out of the freezer. At jam jars and delicate candy decorations and tubs of icing. At the flour, sugar, butter, never properly put away because he’s always sure to need more of it.

He itches to get back to it. But he turns away from it all instead.

“Heading out?” Youji asks, as Bitty steps around the counter, pulling on his jacket.

“Just for a second,” Bitty asks, unwilling just at the moment to look Youji in the eye. It’s not Youji’s fault, exactly, but that doesn’t stop Bitty from feeling less than charitable with him at this second. “Be back well before the next wave hits, I promise.”

“It’s gotten pretty quiet,” Youji says, keeping pace with Bitty on his way across the floor. “Want some company?”

Bitty’s got a hand on the door, is about to open it, when Youji’s got his own hand over his, holding it shut. Bitty looks up, surprised for all that this is hardly the first time Youji’s pulled him into a hug, or taken him by the hand.

“Hey, it’s just—“ Youji smiles, automatically, but his eyes are clear and serious. “Looks like you could use it.”

And he could, is the thing. Bitty doesn’t want to be alone right now. He’s not much good at it at the best of times, let alone when he’s feeling the way he is now.

For a moment, he’s so tempted. To tell Youji yes, to come along, to step out into the brisk air and sunshine with him. To walk this mood off, talk to him the way that he’s never let himself talk to Youji before, lose track of time and let himself laugh the knot out of his stomach.

To walk through Providence with him, and let Youji tug him close up to his side and not care who was looking. Because no one would be. No one would care. Youji could kiss him full in the afternoon sun in the middle of the road, and no one would look twice. Bitty wants that. He wants that so badly, he can’t breathe around the thought of it.

But it’s not Youji he’d want to be kissing. There’s not anyone he’s wanted like Jack, before or since. So it maybe seems like what he wants. But it wouldn’t be. Not really.

“No, thanks,” Bitty says. Youji’s hand drops. “But really, thank you,” Bitty says, not meeting his eyes, and steps out alone.

~

Bitty lets himself in to their apartment, a little bit after 4 p.m. His shoulders ache and his back is pretty well screaming at him for being on his feet all day, and he’s been awake for so long that it feels like midnight. The Rhode Island sky is obliging him there at least, sun starting to set even this early, casting long orange shadows through those big gorgeous windows all the way to Bitty’s feet as he kicks off his sneakers and drops his key in the chipped porcelain bowl by the door.

It’s just how tired he is, that it doesn’t strike him as odd that it’s so quiet in the apartment. Or maybe it just feels too right, stepping soundlessly into the living room to see Jack curled up in their biggest armchair (as much as he can be curled up, the big lug) with a book on one thigh and his chin resting in one hand.

“Hey,” Bitty says, and in adjusting his grip on the bakery box under his arm, he remembers why this is weird. “Where are the boys?”

Jack’s smiling at him, but with an edge of caution to his posture, and he doesn’t close the book. “I cancelled on them.”

“You what?” He doesn’t even understand that word coming out of Jack’s mouth, to be honest. Jack Zimmermann doesn’t ‘cancel’ on anything with the team. He’s been reminded by multiple members of the coaching staff that the idea behind optional practices is that they’re supposed to be optional.

“Eh, I think they were alright with it,” Jack doesn’t smile, but the corners of his eyes crinkle up a little, and Bitty has a dizzy urge to kiss them. “Means they get a night off of me kicking their asses at Fifa, they can nurse their pride a little.”

Bitty sets the box down on the coffee table. He isn’t sure what to do with his hands. Having Jack to himself tonight is something like the dream, what he’s always hoping for, and especially after a long trip. But given the scene at the Cabbage -- Bitty wishes for a little of the clamour of the team, to drown out his own worries and put off them Talking About It for just a little longer.

“You rule with an iron fist, Mr. Zimmermann,” Bitty says, his tone light and easy.

Jack closes his book finally, and sets it on the table next to the box. Puts his palms over his knees. Bitty stays where he is, because he recognizes that if he starts twitching now, Jack’ll lose whatever it is he’s prepared himself to say.

“Guy came by, though. I mean, I texted him to come by. So he did.”

“Alright,” Bitty says slowly.

Jack lets out a long breath. “And, uh. I told him. Not— I told him about me. I didn’t say anything about us, or you, just. Just me.”

Bitty sits down, and puts his face in his hands. He can’t quite help the twisted wheezing noise he makes, muffled as it is.

“Bits?” Jack is up and across the room, kneeling across from him. “Hey, Bits. I really didn’t say anything about us, didn’t even say if I was seeing anyone and he didn’t ask or—”

Bitty could glare at him, he really could, but that would mean taking his hands away from his face and he just isn’t up to that at this moment. “It’s not that,” he says, muffled.

He can almost picture the wrinkle appearing between Jack’s eyebrows, the one that’s going to turn permanent one day, if Bad Bob’s identical one is anything to go by. “Then what—”

“I’m so sorry, Jack,” Bitty drops his hands then, though he can’t look at Jack directly either. He focuses on the hem of his t-shirt instead, a plain faded green that Bitty had given him some handful of special occasions ago.

“You—”

“I’m so, so sorry. I never— you shouldn’t have had to do that. I never should’ve made you feel like you had to, I had no right—”

“No, no, Bits—” Jack takes his hands in his, and Bitty twists their fingers together. “You didn’t make me. I wanted to, I did it because I wanted to.”

Bitty looks him in the eye then, and to his mortification his own vision’s gone all watery. “Oh.”

“And I’m going to talk to him and Marty and Thirdy too, tomorrow,” Jack says. His vision isn’t wobbly, he’s looking at Bitty evenly, as though he hadn’t just—

“Jack, are you sure ?”

Are you sure you want to talk to all three of them. Are you sure I didn’t make you do this because I sort of still think I did. Are you sure that this isn’t too much, are you sure you won’t regret it, are you sure you want this, are you sure you want me .

It’s a little bit of all of that, honestly.

“Yes,” Jack says, simply.

Bitty breathes. “Oh.”

“I can’t promise you that it’ll make everything different,” Jack says, hands tightening around Bitty’s. “Or that— that it’ll really help. But I thought— it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. George already knows, and that’s been alright. It’ll make a difference in the room, not for everyone to know but. For some of them to know. And hopefully it’ll be years before I’m done, but that’s also too long, to keep going the way I have been. For you, but for me, too.” He shrugs, blushing a little now. “And it’s not everything we could want. But it’s at least a start. Something, for now.”

He leans in, looking intently at Bitty.

“Jack,” Bitty says, and his voice is just all over the place. He’s supposed to be the chatterbox, Jack’s the silent man of action, but it just figures that he can’t get another word out and can only throw his arms around Jack’s neck and practically fall on top of him.

Jack’s chest rumbles with a surprised chuckle, and he’s got his arms around Bitty. Then he’s tilting his jaw closer, and Bitty’s lips find his. The two of them, pressed close to each other, kneeling together on the floor of their apartment and as tender and careful as though this was something sacred.

And well, why shouldn’t it be?

Jack’s voice has been steady, brave boy that he is, but his heart is hammering against Bitty’s ribs. And Bitty could be eaten up by how much he hates that they’re in this spot, he could hate what it means for them. Lord knows he’s been there before, and not just when things were at their worst a few years back. It’s always there, if he’s just angry or sad or tired enough to want to reach for that.

But Bitty can also be suddenly and fiercely joyful. That they get this, that they have the life that they have, imperfections and heartache and all. Because they also get to hold each other on the floor of the home they’ve built together, and Bitty can kiss Jack in the warm light of the setting sun, and he can see the unholy miracle of it all.

Petit chou, you okay?” Jack brushes his lips over Bitty’s cheek, thumb tracing a soothing line across his throat, and Bitty realizes that he might in fact be crying just a little.

“Fine, I’m fine,” Bitty laughs wetly, and grabs one of Jack’s wandering hands to press to his lips. “You’re a brave man, Jack Zimmermann.”

“Oh I am, huh?” Jack says, and he’s probably trying to banter, bless his heart, but it’s more like a whisper.

“You are, as a matter of fact. And I love you.”

“I love you too,” Jack leans forward and kisses the top of Bitty’s bowed head.

~

Fact is, they don't talk about it anymore, how they have to keep this secret. They both got their fill of talking about it over Bitty's junior year, probably. They hadn't been talking about it before then, certainly not enough, and that had ended in Jack discovering Bitty's vlogs. Whether it was George, or part of the whole Whiskey clusterfuck, or someone else entirely who let Jack know about what Bitty had been talking about besides Meemaw's banana honey muffin recipe, Bitty still doesn't know for sure. How Jack found out was secondary to the fact of the vlogs themselves, Bitty's face glowing and his voice fond as he shared story after story of this boyfriend he couldn't name. Did everything but name, as he drew arrow after arrow right to Jack with every new confession. Bitty didn't see it, until he'd been sat down to watch them all end-to-end, and had been so embarrassed and ashamed that it had brought tears to his eyes.

But it took no time at all for that to turn to anger, flipping right on a dime. Bitty hadn't ever reached for anger like that before, but it was easy. So easy, and easier every time he'd do it in the months that would follow.

If you really wanted this — Bitty had said. If you really loved me at all — he had said.

So I guess you don't.

He'd drawn his line in the sand, and pushed Jack over it.

Not to his credit, Jack had fallen over that line without a word. He'd let himself be pushed.

It was a long time before Bitty could break that silence. It was a long time before he could stop being angry long enough, to realize that he wanted to. That he had to.

They'd started over. They'd talked, Jack closing his eyes and opening his mouth and giving Bitty everything that he hadn't had from that initial "you can't tell anyone." The what, the why.

The how, they hadn't really talked about. But they'd figured it out as they went along.

~

The sunset seems to be going on forever, yellows and deepening oranges sending deep purple shadows over their floor and warm light across to the couch. Jack’s painted the kind of gold that Bitty usually only gets to see in the middle of August, and Bitty can taste summer when Jack comes, eyes closed and one arm up to grip the back of the couch behind his head, with a deep and unmuffled groan.

They could have got up, and gone to their bedroom. Could have gone up and moved to the bathroom, turned on the shower and filled the room with steam. But a wordless communication of gestures, looks, touches, had kept them right here. With a wall full of windows at Bitty’s back, bracketed by Jack’s trembling thighs, Jack smiling and swearing and with a hand in Bitty’s hair as Bitty swallowed him deep. And kept his eyes open, and on Jack, the whole time.

Bitty doesn’t pull off immediately, easing up on the pressure enough to circle the head of Jack’s dick with his tongue, moving his hand up to press over Jack’s stomach, feeling the muscles there twitch.

Jack half-laughs, half-moans, and tugs gently on Bitty’s hair.

“C’mere,” he says, voice thick, accent a little more pronounced and the syllables thick.

Bitty goes, kneeling in Jack’s lap as Jack puts one hand on the small of Bitty’s back, and the other around his dick. Jack’s still getting his breath back, arms still weak and eyes soft and unfocused, and the rhythm is inexact, rough, a little erratic.

It’s perfect. Bitty puts his forehead to Jack’s, his hands tight over Jack’s shoulders, and fights to keep his eyes open, to catch every minute of this.

“Oh sugar,” Bitty breathes, “oh, God, you’re so good, Jack, honey, so good—”

Bitty comes with a laugh, lets himself fall boneless against Jack, Jack’s hand trapped between them and the other holding on to him tight.

In a bit, they’ll make it to the shower. Kiss lazily under the hot water, Jack working out the knots in Bitty’s shoulders with his fingers and a look a grim determination. Get into soft, worn T-shirts and shorts, and eat too many of the frangipane tarts that Bitty brought home for a team full of hungry Falconers. He’ll upload his vlog for the week, and Jack will do his best to distract him from the nerves that always eat him up the first few hours after posting.

Bitty will get up early. Jack will drink coffee. They’ll both go to work. They’ll smile around others, and Bitty will tug at his earlobe, and Jack’s grin will warm him from his toes all the way on up.

They’ll fall into the bed they share, and wake up together. And it’ll be the same world that it’s always been, far short of the world they’d like it to be, but still good. Still very, very good.

Now, Bitty tips Jack’s head up to kiss him. Tries to control his own breath, his own shaking fingers as he pushes them through Jack’s hair.

It’s good. It’s good. Because it’s theirs. So it’s good.