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Something to be thankful for

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Bitty turned off the timer, which had not yet rung, and opened the oven smiling in satisfaction at the golden brown, perfectly fragrant pie he then pulled out. As he set it on the rack to cool, he turned to double check which pies still needed to bake and reset the temperature on the oven. He’d let it warm back up for a couple minutes, then –

His thoughts were interrupted by a knock on his door. It was unusual – there were no unexpected guests when you needed a code to get in and a different code to get to the right floor, but most of his neighbors knew he was home most of the time. Bitty checked the keyhole and recognized the dark haired man on the other side as a neighbor – one who was as likely to be away as Bitty was to be there.

He opened the door with a smile and a quick “hi” tilting his head in question.

He struggled to contain his smile when the other man flushed slightly. “Um. Hi. You’re Eric, right? I – do you cook?”

Bitty looked down at the apron he was wearing, then back up, “Yes,” he said somewhat dryly, but with an amused quirk of his eyebrow.

“I’m Jack. I live next door. I – Shitty said he thought you might be able to help?”

“Shitty?”

“Knight?”

“Oh! Lardo - Larissa’s someone?” Bitty knew they weren’t married, but they seemed to be more than incidentally together. He’d only met Shitty once and had thought he’d misunderstood the name. He and Lardo had become friends when they ended up at the farmer’s market a couple streets over at the same time and discovered their mutual appreciation for green papaya. She'd mentioned that she had another friend in Bitty's building a couple weeks ago.

“Yes, Lardo’s someone is accurate. He said something about pies and that you knew - know how to make other things – are you making – am I interrupting? I can come back.”

“Oh, honey, it’s fine,” Bitty mentally kicked himself. Years among Yankees hadn’t quite kicked him of the habit of reducing anyone he talked to to endearments. “But I am baking some pies. If you want to come in, you can tell me all about why you’re at my door while I get the next pie in the oven?”

Jack nodded and followed Bitty in, toeing off his shoes when he realized Bitty was barefoot.

“If y’all want to sit at the counter –” Bitty indicated with a nod of his head. “Can I get you something to drink? I’ve got coffee, tea –”

“Water, maybe?”

“Sure thing. Want a piece of pie?”

“Um, I. Yes, but I shouldn’t. It’s not my cheat day?” Jack replied as he settled into a chair, glancing curiously around Bitty's kitchen.

Bitty smiled a little to himself. He’d made a guess, the first time he’d seen Jack, that he was an athlete of some sort. It seemed he’d been right - there were relatively few places one found "cheat day" as a common phrase. “How about I send you home with a piece for your cheat day, then?”

“You don’t have to.”

“No, I don’t. But I will, if you like." Bitty tossed a smile over his shoulder. "Now. What was it you needed to ask me?” Bitty bent to put the pie in the oven, then straightened and set a timer for when the temperature would need to be adjusted back down.

“Shitty said you might be able to help me. My family is coming down for Thanksgiving next week.”

“In October?” Bitty asked as he turned around.

“Canadian Thanksgiving. My mom’s family’s American, but they always celebrate – anyway. It’s next week. They’ve decided to come down and think –” Jack shifted and sat up straighter as Bitty quirked an eyebrow at him. “My family is under the impression that I am having dinner with friends at my apartment and that the actual making of it was under control. Shitty and Lardo are coming, but neither of them seemed to think they could help. Shitty thought maybe you could at least show me what I need to do to make food that is… edible?” By the end, Jack looked and sounded lost.

“Bless your heart. How many people?”

Jack started counting off on his fingers, “Me. My parents. Shitty and Lardo. I think Rans and Holster are coming. My mémé.” Jack frowned. “I think that’s it.”

“Have you cooked for more than one or two people before? What do you usually cook for yourself? You play some sort of sport, right?”

“Hockey.”

“OH! You’re…I,” it was Bitty’s turn to blush. He had, in fact, recognized his neighbor. He wasn’t an avid hockey fan, but he’d played co-ed in high school and liked to be aware of local teams. But he didn’t expect to see … Also, he was a fan of the ESPN body issue. Athlete indeed. “I didn’t recognize you without your uniform, Mr. Zimmerman.” Nice save, Bittle. Bitty mentally rolled his eyes at himself.

Jack cleared his throat, cheeks flushing in a way Bitty couldn't help but find charming. “We have a nutritionist, so I mostly make sure to eat whatever is on the list and there’s a meal service. I can cook, but I don’t, usually.”

“And it’s next Friday?” Bitty asked, already planning out what could be shifted around and the order their lessons might take.

“Monday.”

That brought him up short. “In four days?”

“Yes?” Jack fidgeted in his seat.

“Jack, honey, I can’t teach you to cook in four days. Not really.” Jack’s face fell and Bitty rushed to continue, unexpectedly eager to put his neighbor’s mind at rest. “But maybe we can prepare things together and then you can reheat day of? Do you have any games this weekend?”

“Just Sunday. I’ll have practice, though. And I don’t – I’m sure you have your own things to do.”

Bitty shrugged. “Not that I can’t do around helping out. Is this a turkey and stuffing and mashed potatoes sort of thing?”

Jack nodded. “Yes.”

“No problem. We could start tomorrow?” Jack nodded again. “Tell you what, you make up a list of what you'd like to have - what your family usually has. I’ll use that to make a grocery list. We’ll shop tomorrow then talk strategy. We can prep and cook on Saturday. Anything we don’t get done Saturday, I’ll wrap up Sunday or save for Monday morning. What time are you expecting your guests?”

“Three.”

“Perfect. Plenty of time for last minute things.”

“I have a service for groceries. I could just have everything delivered?”

“Absolutely not. It won’t be the same at all. Now. Are you sure I can’t talk you into a piece of pie? I’m trying out new recipes. There’s a bourbon peach, a cherry rhubarb, a maple apple, a –”

“Maple apple?”

Bitty nodded. At Jack’s hesitation, Bitty said, “Tell you what. I’ll go ahead and cut a piece and put it on a plate and if you decide not to eat it, you can take it with you and let me know what you thought later. What time is your practice tomorrow?” Bitty slid the knife through the crust, making a note to try slightly more shortening the next time.

“Tomorrow is an early skate and weights. I should be done by 9:30 or 10.”

Bitty set the pie down in front of Jack, then handed him a pen and a small pad of paper he kept on the counter for recipe notes and grocery needs. “Ok. So there is a market that is open from noon to three. If you’ll be ready by then, we could go and get things there, which would be better. Farmer’s markets are definitely the best way to get the best produce, you know. And it's good to support local. Plus, by noon, I should be about done with the next round of testing on the this set of recipes – would you want lunch? You can let me know what you think of them?”

Jack was nodding, but looking slightly confused. Bitty watched as he picked up his fork and fiddled with it for a moment before taking a bite of the pie. Jack moaned, looking down at the plate and Bitty bit at his lower lip, fighting the flush that rushed through him at the sound. Jack looked up with something like awe in his eyes and Bitty let a smile stretch across his face.

“This is good,” Jack said, sounding mildly surprised.

Bitty bit back a grin as his hands came to rest on his hips, “Of course it’s good.” His expression softened into a genuine smile, “You go on and make your list while I tidy things up a bit in here.”

Jack nodded and set to work and it was quiet in the kitchen, as Bitty finished tidying his kitchen and Jack wrote out his list. When Jack finished the piece of pie, Bitty took the plate and fork and added them to the dishwasher, making plans to send Jack home with a generous piece of the pie the next day.

“I think this is everything,” Jack said, handing Bitty the list.

Bitty skimmed it, “Ok. This looks really doable. Do you have any favorite foods that you’d like even though they’re not usually part of Thanksgiving?”

“Um, no," Jack answered almost hesitantly, frowning. "I know Shitty’s been really interested in ratatouille recently. I think he watched some sort of cooking movie?”

Bitty choked back a laugh, suspecting “cartoon” was a more accurate descriptor, “Ok. That’s easy enough and will work pretty well with all of this. Do you want any sort of snacks for before dinner, while people are arriving, or are you just going to pretty much sit down as soon as everyone’s there?”

“Um?”

“Does your mom usually have vegetables and dip or cheese and crackers or anything like that?”

“Oh. Yes. Both.”

“And you just say pie. Any particular type?”

Jack’s eyes flicked to the maple apple, but he shook his head no.

“Alrighty. I’ll just see what looks good, then, tomorrow,” Bitty said, making a mental note to include a maple apple pie regardless. Probably a pumpkin as well.

Jack nodded. “I should probably go,” he said after a moment. “Let you get back to what you were doing before I interrupted.” He stood and walked toward the door, where Bitty met him. Jack looked down and said with an earnestness that made Bitty’s heart skip slightly, “Thank you. I – thank you. Very much.”

Bitty put his hand on Jack’s arm, “Not a problem. See you tomorrow.”

Jack nodded and left. Bitty stood for a moment staring at his door, shook himself out of it and went back to what he had been doing.

_X_

At 8:30 the next morning, he got a text from Jack.

JZ: This is Jack. I got your number from Shitty who got it from Lardo? I hope that’s ok.

EB: Absolutely. I should have given it to you yesterday. What’s up?

JZ: I have to stay for a thing with PR after practice. I’m not sure what time I’ll be done.

Bitty could see that Jack was continuing to type, but revised his own plans and quickly typed a response.

EB: No problem. I’ll do the shopping without you and we can meet up whenever you get done.

JZ: Are you sure?

EB: Sure thing, sugar. Just let me know when you’re heading over, ok?

JZ: I will. I have to go now. Someone will be dropping off an envelope in about 15 minutes.

EB: ?? Ok? Practice hard!

JZ: With cash. For the food. If you need more, just let me know.

Bitty read the message, smiling a bit to himself. He hadn't been worried about covering the cost - especially as he assumed it would be temporary - but it was sweet of Jack to have thought about it. Bitty scrolled through his phone and found Lardo’s number.

EB: So, anything I should know about cooking for Jack Zimmermann?

LD: You said yes?

EB: Of course. Can’t let the poor boy have guests with no food to serve them.

LD: Great. Can you make that cranberry stuff? And the sweet potato thing with the herbs?

LD: Shitty says that he needs his own pumpkin pie.

LD: And can you make sure Jack buys wine?

EB: Did you tell Jack you couldn’t help him so that I’d make the stuff you like?

LD: No

LD: Maybe

LD: It was Shitty’s idea.

EB: Heh. Alright. But you’re meeting me at the market today to help me carry stuff.

EB: I have a pie you can take home.

LD: See you there at noon!

Bitty set his phone aside. With Jack not planning to be there by lunch, there was no reason to test the recipes in the morning. Faced with several hours unexpectedly free, Bitty decided to get in a little cardio by going for a run. He may no longer play hockey or skate all that often, but he tested recipes for a living and exercise was a necessary evil if he wanted to continue to fit into his clothes.

_X_

Bitty returned home at 2:30 with Lardo in tow, passed a salted caramel pear tart off to her and sent her on her way, then set about putting away the new purchases and pulling out what he needed to test “Crispy Cod Tacos with Pineapple Radish Slaw” and “Pan Seared Chicken with Oven Roasted Fall Vegetables.” At 3:15 he got a text from Jack saying that he was on his way home and asking when would be a good time to head over. Bitty replied quickly that Jack was welcome whenever and that the door was unlocked.

There was a knock on his door at 3:45 and Bitty called out that Jack could enter, putting the finishing touches on the plates of chicken and taking pictures.

“Hi,” Jack said, setting down his bag in the entry and making his way back to the same seat at the counter where he’d sat the day before.

“Hi. How was practice? Are you hungry?”

“Um, good. And, a bit, but I wanted to stop by first. I thought I could run home and make a quick shake so that I didn’t delay you any more than I already have.”

“Don’t worry about the timing. Things happen. And here. I’ve got two different recipes to taste test. You can have one or both, if you want.” Bitty held out the recipe cards to Jack, then shrugged. “Or, if neither, I guess you can have a shake. Or I have salad things and extra chicken.”

“They both look good,” Jack said after a moment, handing the cards back to Bitty.

“Part of each then?” Bitty said.

Jack nodded, “Sure, if you don’t mind.”

“Not at all. This is perfect. Here is a plate of the chicken. Let me know what you think and if you give me a moment, I’ll put the tacos together.”

By the time Bitty turned back around, Jack was taking his last bite of chicken and looking like he was trying to figure out if he could lick the plate. Their eyes met and Jack said, “Um. It was good?”

Bitty smiled. “Any other notes?”

“Uh. No?”

“Ok. Well, if you think of anything, let me know.” He switched out the plate of chicken for the tacos, then started in tasting his own chicken, making a note that the cook time was maybe a little off and that it might be better with a bit of lemon in the marinade – something to brighten up the overall profile of the dish. The tacos were spot on, though, when he tried them.

He looked up at Jack. Jack was staring down at the second taco, “Pineapple?”

Bitty nodded, “Yeah.”

Jack frowned at the taco then looked back up at Bitty, “It’s good. I wish it was spicier. Maybe a little bit of fresh jalapeno?”

Bitty nodded. “One sec.” He grabbed a small container of diced jalapeno from the top shelf of his refrigerator and handed it to Jack, then made a note to suggest that.

They chatted easily while they ate. After, Bitty went over what he’d found at the market and what his plans were and they made plans to meet up the next morning after Jack’s practice – he was part of the early group.

_X_

Jack arrived a little after noon the next day. Bitty was on the phone when he answered Jack's knock, but waved him in before disappearing into a room down the hall. Jack stood at the refrigerator, reading the lists Bitty had put up. The first seemed to be a list of finished dishes – turkey, mashed potatoes, ratatouille, cranberry orange relish, roasted sweet potatoes, honey rolls, salad, dip, raw veg, and pies. Jack wondered what sort of pies Bitty had decided to make briefly before moving on to the to-do list. The various dishes had been broken down into stages, the first of which was to wash everything that needed to be chopped.

Jack saw that Bitty had lines up various vegetables on the counter next to his refrigerator, so Jack started washing, carefully lining things up on the other side of the sink once he was done and was just drying his hands when Bitty walked back in.

“Sorry about that. I – oh! Perfect.” He beamed up at Jack and patted his arm, then shook his head. “I forgot to call my mama this morning. I swear the only thing that got her off the phone was me telling her I had someone over to cook.” He pulled an apron off a hook and handed it to Jack, then put one on himself. “I was thinking I’d start you on the potatoes. Go ahead and cut all of them into one inch cubes, then we’ll cook them down for the mashed. Do y’all leave the skins on?”

Jack shrugged, “I don’t know – I like them with the skins on, I think?”

Bitty smiled, “That makes it easier – don’t have the peel the potatoes that way. Go ahead and put the pieces in this pot.” Bitty set a large pot in front of Jack and handed him a cutting board and knife and stood there just long enough to make sure Jack had understood the instructions before moving onto something that looked more complicated and involved a variety of smaller bowls.

While they worked, they talked. Bitty told Jack about his work testing recipes for meal delivery services. Jack talked about playing hockey in college, where he met Shitty and Lardo.

“She was the team manager. All the guys on the team had nicknames. Shits picked his and Lardo… Actually, I don’t remember who came up with Lardo,” Jack said.

“What was yours?” Bitty asked, glancing to where Jack stood carefully slicing carrots into sticks – his second task after the potatoes had been put on to cook.

“Um. I didn’t have one. Nothing stuck.”

“So you’re just Jack, huh?”

“Mostly, yeah. Tater calls me Zimmboni, but he’s pretty much the only one.”

Bitty was glad he’d done a bit of reading up on the Falconers, so he knew who Jack was talking about. “You’ve been with the Falconers for a couple years now, right?”

“Yeah. I signed with them when I graduated.”

“How’d you pick Providence?”

Jack was quiet for a moment and when Bitty looked over, he was studying Bitty. Bitty tried to make his expression open and encouraging. Jack started carefully, “When – I don’t know if you’ve heard or read anything about – anyway. I had options, yes. But I wanted – After Samwell, it needed to be the right fit. I had a list of things. It came down to two teams. Providence had the better response to me asking how they would handle a player who wanted to be out.”

Bitty frowned, slightly. Nothing he’d seen indicated that there were any out players on the Falconers, “Oh?” Bitty wondered why that had been a concern – he may not have kept up with the Falconers prior to meeting Jack, but he would have known if they had an out player.

“Samwell, as a university, is very accepting. I wanted to make sure that – I wanted. I wanted to make sure that whatever team I was on was ok with someone wanting to come out, whether publicly or just to the team. After Samwell, I didn’t think I could go back to a team that wasn’t accepting. Shitty was very vocal about acceptance and it – the way it affects the dynamic of a team is entirely positive.”

Bitty’s expression softened. “That a little bit incredible, Mr. Zimmermann.” Bitty went back to what he had been doing. He had several things he wanted to ask Jack about it, but they seemed a little too prying for someone he barely knew.

Jack cleared his throat, “Hey. I meant to ask – would you want to come to the game Sunday? Shitty was going to come, but he said he has a thing to do for work, so I have a ticket reserved, but no one for the seat.”

“Really? That would be – yeah! Thank you. The game’s at 7?”

Jack looked over, surprised. “Yeah. I didn’t think you –“

Bitty felt himself flush slightly, “I might have looked up your schedule.”

Jack smirked, “Hockey more interesting if you know one of the players?”

“Just because I haven’t played since high school doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting. Maybe I just didn’t follow the Falconers schedule in particular.”

“Hometown team, Bittle. Who would you follow if not the Falconers? Wait. You played?”

Bitty nodded. “Yeah. I was the captain of my co-ed team in high school. I started playing when we moved away from my figure skating coach.”

“I’m surprised. You’re…”

“Small for a hockey player?”

“Well, yes. Although figure skating makes sense.”

Bitty stuck his tongue out at Jack, but smiled. “I was good. And I’m fast. Or, I was.”

“You’ll have to come skate some time,” Jack said. “We can race.”

“Lord, I haven’t really skated much in years.”

“It’s like riding a bike.”

“Maybe for Canadians. I’m pretty sure y’all are born with skates on your feet.”

Jack laughed, a warm sound that made Bitty’s toes curl. “Well, just let me know if you want to. I can book extra ice time pretty easily.”

The next morning, Bitty prepped the pie crusts he needed. His plan was to bake the pies after the game – fresh as they could be without baking Monday when he would need the ovens for other things. He also put the turkey in a brine and layered the sweet potatoes in the baking dish.

At 5:00, he showered and changed into the Zimmermann sweater he’d bought – he’d debated if it was too much to buy his neighbor’s number, but Jack had gotten him the ticket, so it seemed stranger to wear someone else’s jersey – and made his way to the arena.

He’d arrived far earlier than he needed to, so he settled into his seat and scrolled through his twitter feed and the trending tags. He took a quick shot of the ice and posted it. The seat Jack had for him was right behind the glass for the Falconers bench.

As Bitty left the arena after the game – a narrow win for the Falconers – his throat was sore from shouting and his heart was racing. He had forgotten how much fun it was to be at a game and resolved to make it a point to get tickets more often when the Falconers were at home. He sent Jack a quick "congratulations" text and received a response a couple minutes later asking if he was still planning on baking the pies.

EB: I am :D

JZ: I’m going out with the team for a bit, but I could stop by when I get back and transfer the pies to my refrigerator?

EB: Jack Zimmermann. Pies should never be refrigerated.

EB: Well, fruit pies should never be refrigerated. It destroys the crust!

JZ: I could transfer them to my counter?

EB: Text me when you get home. We’re still meeting at 10 tomorrow, right?

JZ: Yeah

EB: See you later!

After Bitty pulled the final pumpkin pie from the oven, he checked his phone. Jack still hadn’t texted, so he sent a quick message.

EB: Pies are done. Heading to bed.

JZ: Sorry – had to run Tater home. He’s coming tomorrow now. With Snowy and Flower.

EB: Oh goodness. So – three extra people for dinner?

JZ: Yes?

EB: Glad I went for the bigger turkey.

Bitty had barely set his phone back down, wondering if he should maybe make one more pie – he had cherries in the freezer – when it started ringing.

“Do I need to buy more food?”

“Hi, Jack,” Bitty said, leaning into the counter, a smile pulling at the corner of his mouth at the panic in Jack’s voice.

“Hi. Sorry. Do I – I’m out. I can find a store?”

“It should be fine. I planned for a couple extra thinking you would have left overs that way – or that Shitty would go overboard like I know he can do. But, if you’re worried, I’ve got fixings for a salad and I can make a couple extra snacks for before?”

“I don’t – that’s very – you’ve already done so much.”

“I’m offering, honey. I don’t mind. I’ll have time in the morning to throw things together.”

“Can I buy you breakfast or take you to dinner next week – as a thank you.”

Bitty smiled. “Well that’s a kind offer. Dinner’d be lovely, but I also wouldn’t say no to a ticket to your next home game, if that’d be ok.”

“Of course.” There was a pause. “So, I’ll see you in the morning?”

“Sure thing, sugar. I’m headed to bed now, but get home safe, ok?”

“Yeah, I will. Good night, Eric.”

“Night, Jack.”

Bitty checked his fridge, making sure he had what he would need for his favorite kale salad – easy to make, held up well, and could be dressed well ahead of time without becoming soggy – and the dough for pinwheels. He knew he had carmelized onions in the freezer, which he moved to the refrigerator, and had feta. Satisfied with his findings, he went to bed.

The next morning, Bitty woke at 8 and assembled the salad and pinwheels. The plan was for him to head to Jack’s apartment and help him prep until 1 at which point all Jack would need to do is take the turkey out when it reached temperature and bake or reheat everything else according to the instructions Bitty had put on each dish.

At 9:50, there was a knock on his door. Opening it, Bitty found a sleepy looking Jack Zimmermann.

“Hi,” Jack said, promptly stifling a yawn.

Bitty’s shoulders shook with suppressed laughter. “Morning. Wasn’t expecting to see you.”

“I thought I would help carry.”

“Well that make sense. You look like you had a late night,” Bitty said, ushering Jack inside.

“Yeah. I was headed home when we talked, but.”

Bitty nodded. “Still a late night and you’d played a game. Goodness but that was fun, by the way. Thank you so much for the ticket.”

Jack nodded. “So you enjoyed it, eh?”

“Oh, yeah. It was great. Y’all played so hard. It was a well-deserved win.” Bitty looked at what he’d set out. The pies were boxed for transport, but the salad and the pinwheels were in the dishes they would be served from. Almost everything else was already in Jack’s apartment. “Here, you take the pies and I should be able to get the rest.”

Jack, caught mid-yawn, nodded and picked up the stack of pie boxes as though it weighed nothing.

Bitty locked his door behind him as they left and followed Jack to his apartment. The smell of fresh coffee hit his nose as they walked in and Bitty nearly moaned. He’d meant to make coffee, but hadn’t actually managed it.

“I made coffee before I came over, if you want a cup.”

“You are a savior. Yes, please, Mr. Zimmermann," Bitty took the cup from Jack and added a splash of cream and a spoonful of sugar. He took a sip and closed his eyes with a smile. It was good coffee.

Mug in hand, Bitty turned the oven on and moved to the refrigerator where his lists had been moved after their prep session the day before. “The turkey’s the first thing and it’ll be in the oven shortly. We can probably also put the potatoes on – if you want to pull that dish out of the refrigerator and turn on the crockpot.”

The first two hours passed quickly as they made last minute preparations and Bitty helped Jack set the tables, shifting things around to accommodate his extra guests.

Near noon, as Bitty started pulling things out to make the whipped cream – fresh whipped cream, Mr. Zimmermann, is nothing like the canned and it has to be fresh on Thanksgiving – his stomach rumbled. Echoed by Jack’s.

Their eyes met and they both gave a quick laugh. “Want me to make a couple sandwiches while you do that?” Jack asked.

Bitty nodded. “If you don’t mind – that’d be great.”

“Ham and swiss ok?”

Bitty said that it was and confirmed that grainy mustard would be wonderful and in short order the whipped cream was made and stored in the fridge for later and they were sitting at Jack’s counter, eating their sandwiches and going over what still needed to be done – what Jack would need to do once Bitty left.

Engrossed in their conversation, they missed the sound of a key in the lock and the door opening.

“Jack, your papa’s downstairs. Can you help him – oh. Hello," a blonde woman with a kind smile and Jack's cheekbones stood in the door of the kitchen.

“Maman. You’re – very early.”

“Yes, fils. You have company," she smiled, holding out her arms in clear expectation of a hug.

“Eric and I were just finishing lunch.” Jack stood and crossed to where his mother stood, pressing a quick kiss to her cheek. Bitty stood as well, brushing his fingers off on the towel at his waist. Jack turned back to Bitty. “Eric, this is my mother. Maman, Eric Bittle, a friend of mine.”

“Un ami ou ton chum, cheri?” his mother asked with a grin. Without giving Jack a moment to respond, she switched back to English and said, “Your father is downstairs. We thought you might need some help getting ready, but it looks like you two have it well under control. Go help him with the wine, dear. Eric, it is a pleasure to meet you,” she said, shaking his outstretched hand.

“It’s very nice to meet you, Mrs. Zimmermann," his mouth twitching up into a smile.

“Oh, please call me Alicia,” she said, smiling in return, then looked to her son and made a shooing motion toward the door, reminding him to go help her husband.

“J’ai du vin, maman,” Jack said, shaking his head, as he slid his feet into the shoes by the door and headed downstairs. “Eric helped me buy the right things.”

Bitty gathered their dishes as Alicia hung her coat in Jack’s closet. She followed him into the kitchen.

“Everything smells wonderful, Eric,” she said. “I assume that is your influence.”

Bitty smiled, “I just helped. Jack was concerned he wouldn’t be able to put on a good dinner for y’all.” He started unboxing the pies. It was the last thing he needed to do before he headed back to his own apartment. “The coffee’s still hot if you’d like some – or a glass of water?”

“I’m fine for now.”

Bitty nodded and checked the turkey one last time, as Alicia wandered out to the dining area where they’d set up a couple shorter tables into one long one.

Jack came in with a man who was quite obviously his father, the two in conversation about the game the night before. Jack introduced Bitty to his father and Bitty said hello, then gathered up his pie carriers while Bob set the wine he was carrying on the counter and waved goodbye without saying anything more. Jack mouthed a thank you.

Alicia joined Jack and Bob in the kitchen and pressed a kiss to her husband’s cheek.

“Jack, I think you’re short one,” she said, indicating the table.

“No, I don’t think so,” he threw a worried toward the table and started pointing to the seats in turn. “You and Papa, Mémé, Holster, Ransom, Shitty and Lardo. Flower, Tater, and Snowy. And me,” he said, when he got to the last chair.

“What about Eric, dear?” his mother asked. “And where has he gone?” she looked around.

“He – um. He wasn’t planning on staying. He was just helping with the preparation. He went back to his apartment.”

“Well go get him. I’m sure we can fit one more around the table and if he’s put in all this work, he should certainly be able to enjoy it.”

Jack swallowed. He knew his choice was arguing with his mother – and he would likely lose and argument – or saving time by giving in and trying to convince his neighbour, who had already given up plenty of his time for this, to come back and eat a meal with several strangers.

Although, he would at least know Shitty and Lardo.

Jack nodded. “I’ll…be right back.”

Bitty had just pulled off his shirt, intent on taking a shower and then lounging on his couch for the rest of the day, when there was a knock on his door.

“Jack?” He said, opening the door. “Everything ok?”

Jack nodded, then closed his eyes, “My mother is insistent that you join us for dinner.” He opened his eyes, sending a pleading look in Bitty’s direction. “Please, I know you’ve already done so much, but will you please come back? You don’t have a shirt on.” Jack frowned in confusion.

Bitty looked down. “No – I was going to shower." He twisted the shirt in his hands, torn between putting it back on while he talked to Jack or not, as he would be taking it back off again quite soon. "Jack, honey, I can, if you want. Are you sure you want me there?”

“Yes, please. I – my mother. Please?”

Bitty nodded. “Sure. I’m still going to shower, though. I’ll head back over in a bit, alright?”

Jack nodded. “I need to grab a shower, too. I’ll – whenever you want to head back over. No rush. Thank you. So much. Whichever games you want tickets to, just let me know.”

Bitty smiled up at him, “You sure do know how to sweeten a deal, Mr. Zimmermann. I’ll see you soon. Now, scoot. I need to make myself presentable.”

Forty-five minutes later, Bitty tapped on the door and let himself in. He had a jacket and bowtie over his arm. He intended to wear them for dinner, but thought that as long as he was going to be there, he’d help with the remainder of the meal prep and didn’t want to risk getting anything on either. He had ruthlessly suppressed the nerves that threatened. He liked people, but he was also beginning to suspect that if he let himself, he’d develop a rather strong crush on his neighbor and spending extra time in Jack's company and the company of those who knew him best was maybe not the best way to fight that.

You will not develop feelings for a straight boy, Eric Richard Bittle. You know better.

Jack met him at the door in a shirt that brought the bright blue of his eyes into stark relief, even under the grey apron he had put back on. “Hi. Welcome back,” Jack greeted with a smile.

“Thanks. I know we bought wine on Saturday, but I brought a bottle of champagne? I thought maybe your parents would like a festive drink while we wait for everyone else to arrive?”

“That was very sweet of you,” Alicia said, coming up behind Jack. “Bob, did you meet Eric earlier?” she said over her shoulder, pulling Bitty into a quick hug.

After pouring the champagne, Bitty put his own apron back on and he worked with Jack to finish the preparation for dinner. Alicia let in other guests as they arrived and if Shitty and Lardo were surprised to find Bitty still there when they arrived, they hid it well.

Once Jack’s grandmother arrived, Bitty sent him out of the kitchen with the starters. After the turkey came out of the oven and the sides went in, Bitty excused himself to Jack’s room – where his jacket had ended up earlier – and put that and his bowtie on before heading back out to where everyone else had gathered. Jack introduced him to everyone and he fell into a conversation with the Falconers about their game. Jack interrupted only once to mention that Bitty had played in high school and Jack’s previous offer of coming out to skate some time was repeated by the other players.

When they sat down for dinner, he ended up between Jack and Holster and across from Jack’s parents.

Bitty was excused himself, wanting to put the fruit pies in the oven to warm slightly before serving and heard, as he closed the oven door, Bob asking, “So how long ago have you two been together?”

Bitty peeked around the corner. Bob was staring directly at Jack. Jack, whose arm was still across the back of Bitty’s chair.

“Uh,” Jack said, flushing slightly.

Making a quick decision, Bitty stepped back into the kitchen, out of sight of everyone at the table, and called, “Jack, can you come help me for a minute? Maybe bring the plates in on your way?”

He heard the scrape of Jack’s chair as he stood and the clink of plates being gathered.

Jack walked into the kitchen, suppressed panic in his eyes as they met Bitty’s, hands full of plates. Bitty took the plates and set them carefully on the counter, before turning back to Jack to - Bitty didn't know quite what he wanted to do for Jack. Reassure him, maybe. Tell him that their luck was bound to run out eventually. He heard Flower say, loudly enough to be heard clearly from a room away, “I knew it. Snow. $20. Told you Jack was finally dating someone," and rolled his eyes at Jack.

Jack’s voice was quiet, “I am so sorry.”

Bitty tilted his head, searching Jack’s face. “Are you gay?”

“Bi.”

Bitty nodded. “And your family and, um, team – they know?”

Jack nodded once, shoving his hands into his pockets.

“Ok. We have two options – you can tell them or we can pretend this is real for the remainder of the evening and you can tell everyone whatever you want later.”

“Um. Are you…?”

Bitty blinked. Then smiled. Then nodded. “Thank you for not assuming, but yes, I'm gay. Trust me, being your boyfriend is no problem.”

Tater walked into the kitchen in time to hear the end of what Bitty had said and clapped Jack on the back. “This is boyfriend? He is good cook. You choose well.”

Bitty watched as Jack hesitantly turned toward him and made the split decision to just go with whatever Jack wanted to say about it and tried to let that resolve show on his face. He smiled up at Jack, who in turn moved his hand to rest lightly on Bitty’s shoulder, so Bitty let himself lean into Jack a bit and smiled when Jack’s fingers tightened slightly, pulling Bitty closer.

“Yes. Yes, I think I chose very well. What did you need help with, Bits?”

If Bitty was surprised at the nickname, he hid it well. “Oh, just your coffee maker. I can never make it work the way it should and I thought coffee might be nice with the pie. And then you can take out the plates, maybe.”

Jack pressed a kiss to the top of Bitty’s head. “No problem. Tater, can you bring everything else in from the table, since you’re up.”

Bitty smiled up at Jack and didn’t step away until Tater went back into the table. “I put the pies in the oven to warm up, but they’ll be ready to come back out soon. Should we just serve dessert from here?” Bitty’s hands were clenched together in front of him as he fought off a bout of nerves.

Jack ran his hand down his arm. “That’s fine. Are you ok?”

“Yeah. Just, you know. About to lie to a room full of people.”

Jack made a half motion toward Bitty, then seemed to recall himself. “Yeah, but they seemed to think it without … you know, us doing anything, so maybe we can just.” Jack shrugged.

Something about it made Bitty smile. “Yeah. You’re right. I’m going to go help Tater. Coffee, Mr. Zimmermann.”

Bitty returned to the table, passing Tater and gathering the few dishes remaining on the table.  He met Lardo’s eyes across the table. She raised an eyebrow and he just gave a small shake of his head. She shrugged and offered a small smile. Arms full, Bitty said, “Pie will be ready soon. There’s pumpkin, cherry, cranberry white chocolate, and maple apple. Oh, and a carmel pecan pear tart. Jack’s making the coffee now. Did anyone want tea instead?”

There were a couple no’s and some heads shaking. Alicia looked amused by the whole thing, which caused Bitty to flush and hurry back to the kitchen, where Tater was hugging Jack. Bitty looked to make sure Jack was ok with it. Jack seemed resigned, but not uncomfortable. Bitty had enough time to set down what he had gathered when Tater turned on him, hugging Bitty as he had done Jack.

“You are baker?” Tater asked as he stepped away.

Bitty nodded. “Yes. Mostly pie, though.”

“You could try Russian recipe?”

“Um. Yes?”

Tater grinned. “Good. Yes. Ok. I go. Let you two be a moment together. But not too long, hey? We are all in next room.”

“Oh, Lord,” Bitty said, hiding his face in his hands. It would be embarrassing if he and Jack were dating, but they weren’t and that made it somehow worse.

“Tater,” Jack said, voice strangled, but Tater had left. Jack looked at Bitty. “I … am sorry. Again.”

Bitty shook his head. “It’s ok.” He pulled the fruit pies from the oven, then got the whipped cream out of the refrigerator. Jack had set mugs out on the counter, along with cream and sugar, so Bitty pulled out forks and smaller plates for pie. “Go let everyone know the pies are out. I’ll be right back.”

Bitty made his way to the bathroom, needing a moment. Because, well, the thing was he’d been doing an admirable job of not developing a crush on a straight man, but Jack wasn’t straight and he was having trouble reining in his thoughts.

He washed his hands and splashed water on his face as he pulled himself swiftly together. It was one evening and then the whole thing would be Jack’s problem. He’d been a boyfriend before. And, ok. It had been a while, but he could fake it. He was pretty sure Jack had kissed the top of his head earlier, so he must be basically ok with casual touches. So Bitty would just. He’d just. Be an awesome fake boyfriend.

He squared his shoulders and went back to the table without stopping off in the kitchen for pie or coffee. He would get some later – he liked pie, but didn’t have a preference on which of the ones he made he had a slice of. Jack’s arm was back on the back of his chair. He moved it when Bitty came in, moving the chair itself slightly closer and Bitty offered Jack a warm smile when he saw the cup of coffee at his place. His smile got bigger when he took a sip and found it to have the perfect amount of cream and sugar.

He set the mug back on the table and leaned slightly into Jack, squeezing his knee slightly in thanks. Jack’s hand came down to rest on his shoulder as Jack continued to talk to Shitty about a project Shitty was involved in that he wanted Jack to put his name to.

“I think it sounds like a good idea, Jack,” said Bob. “Maybe Eric would want to be involved, too.”

“We’ll talk about it,” Jack said. “Can you send me the website, Shits?”

Shitty nodded and the conversation moved on. Bitty, generally inclined to be actively involved in the conversations around him, felt himself nearly dozing on Jack’s shoulder, listening without participating.

At least, until Flower said, “Wait. Jack – you never said. How long has this been going on?”

“Uh.” Bitty felt Jack look down at him as Jack spoke, “Not long.”

“How’d you two meet?” Alicia asked, leaning into Bob across from them.

“Lardo and Shitty, actually,” Bitty supplied.

“I kept running into Bits at the market on Fridays,” Lardo said and Bitty promised himself that he would make her whatever pie she wanted at the earliest opportunity. “Eventually got out of him that he lived nearby, tests recipes, and was single.”

“And Jack needs all the help he can get with cooking,” Shitty said. “Because, man, boiled chicken is just not good. I don’t care how ‘efficient’ it is.”

Bitty felt himself tense slightly, in anticipation of further questions, but none came. Bitty was pretty sure, a few hours later, after people had migrated to more comfortable chairs and couches and then migrated from Jack’s living room to their own, that they were going to come out of this relatively unscathed.

It was down to Jack’s parents, Holster and Ransom having just left on the promise that they could all meet up one evening in the coming week, when Alicia said, “Jack, you don’t mind if your father and I stay here tonight, right?”

Jack broke off from his conversation. “No, that’s fine. I can sleep on the couch.”

“Oh, honey. I’m sure Eric won’t mind you staying with him. We know you boys are adults. Then the four of us can having breakfast tomorrow morning before we fly home.”

“Maman. I have practice and Eric does have work to do.”

“Well, it was just a hope.”

“Jack, aren’t you part of the afternoon group tomorrow?” Bitty asked without thinking, remembering that Jack had mentioned it while they chatted on Saturday.

Jack thought for a moment, “Yes, actually. I think you’re right.” Jack looked up where Bitty was sitting on the arm of the chair Jack was in. “Thanks.”

Bitty nodded. “No problem. And you can of course stay with me, Jack, if you want. Though, maybe, Alicia and Bob, y’all should stay at my apartment. I just put fresh sheets on the bed and Jack and I should probably sort out the kitchen before we sleep.”

An hour later, Jack and Bitty were back in Jack’s living room. The dishes were done and Bob and Alicia were safely ensconced in Bitty’s apartment. Bitty had grabbed a couple necessities from his own apartment before returning to Jack’s. While they’d cleaned, they’d discussed breakfast the next morning and, after working through all possibilities, had agreed that the easiest course was for Bitty to go to breakfast with Jack and his parents. And Bitty had assured Jack that no, he really didn’t mind.

“Do you have an extra blanket?” Bitty asked as he turned off the kitchen lights.

“Huh?” Jack said, looking away from the window he’d been staring out.

“Blanket? For the couch? I’m, well, kind of tired… so I thought I’d go ahead and get comfortable out here?”

“Oh. No, you can take my bed. I’ll be fine out here.”

“I’m not taking your bed. You have practice tomorrow.”

“You just spent four days making the perfect Thanksgiving for my family and friends. Take the bed, Bittle.”

They stared at each other for a few long moments. Bitty relented first, looking at the ceiling and shaking his head. “We’re adults. We could both – if you’re comfortable with it – we could share your bed? It looked like a king.”

“California.”

“What?”

“California king. It’s… bigger.”

Bitty swallowed heavily as ideas of what one could do in a bigger bed flitted through his mind. “Right. So. Big enough for two responsible, reasonable adults to share.”

Jack nodded. “If you’re sure. Yes. That’s fine with me. Otherwise, I will sleep out here and –”

“No. Nope. Sharing is good. Let’s. Yeah. Um. Do you want the bathroom first?”

“No. Go ahead. I can wait.” Bitty shrugged. When Jack returned from the bathroom, Bitty said, “So, I grabbed clothes for tomorrow, but could I borrow pajama pants or something? I wasn't thinking.”

Jack nodded and bent to retrieve a pair of plaid pants from the bottom drawer of his dresser and tossed them to Bitty.

“Thanks,” Bitty said, snagging the pants and heading into the bathroom to wash up and change.

Jack was sitting on the edge of the bed with all but one bedside light turned off when Bitty returned, flipping through something on his phone and Bitty swallowed heavily at the sight. He’d decided to sleep in his undershirt, but Jack had gone without and, ok, Bitty knew he was a professional athlete and he’d seen that issue. But. It was just – it was a very different thing to have Jack shirtless and right there.

Jack looked up. “I wasn’t sure if you had a side you prefer, so.”

“Oh. No. It – whatever is fine.”

Jack nodded and walked around to the other side of the bed, where the lamp was. Once Bitty was settled, he turned the light off. “Good night, Bits.”

“Night," Bitty replied, letting his eyes drift closed as he settled into Jack's pillow.

_X_

Possibly because they were comfortably in sync, but more likely because they heard the same vague noises at the same time, Bitty and Jack woke at roughly the same time the next morning. In the night, Bitty had moved toward the center of the bed, still facing the door. Jack had also moved in and was curled around him, his arm over Bitty's waist. Vaguely Bitty wondered if it was odd to be so comfortable with someone he didn't know terribly well, but he didn’t feel inclined to move regardless and, judging by the lack of movement behind him, neither did Jack.

Eventually Jack cleared his throat. “I think my parents are here.”

Bitty snorted out a laugh. “Yeah.”

“Sorry,” Jack said, squeezing Bitty more tightly to him for a moment before releasing him and rolling onto his back. “Apparently I got grabby.”

Bitty flopped over onto his stomach and rose up on his forearms, looking over at Jack. “S’ok. Should we get up?”

“Probably. Or my mom will come in and get us.” Jack ran a hand through his hair. “I guess it’s a good thing you slept in here. Since they’re here.”

Bitty smiled and flopped back down, pillowing his head on his arms. “Ok. You go first.”

Jack grunted. “What time is it, anyway? I slept like a brick.”

“Mm. Yeah. I haven’t slept that well in a while. Comfortable bed, Mr. Zimmermann.” He took a deep breath, then pushed himself up. “I smell coffee.” With that, he slid to the edge of the bed. “Coffee is the only real reason to get up in the morning. Coming?”

“Yeah, yeah.” Jack sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed, then stood, scratching the back of his head as he made his way out of the room.

Bitty had wondered if he should get dressed, but when Jack wandered out of the room without putting a shirt on, Bitty decided it would be ok if he didn’t and he really did want coffee, now that he could smell it. Coffee, then a quick shower, then breakfast.

Bitty blamed his behavior on reaching the kitchen and finding Jack blocking his way to the coffee pot. He simply walked up and rested his head between Jack’s shoulder blades, then grumbled. He felt Jack laugh, then shift, so he picked up his head and took a step back so Jack could move out of his way. Instead, Jack turned around and handed him a mug.

“You could have stayed in bed, if you wanted,” Jack said with a smile, taking a sip of his own mug.

Bitty grunted and took a sip of his coffee. He frowned and looked up at Jack, “You do this perfectly. Every time. How?”

“My parents suggested Salted Slate for brunch?” Jack said, not answering Bitty's question by asking one of his own.

Bitty nodded. “Ok. Should I go get ready?” He took another sip of coffee.

“Oh, no rush,” Alicia said and Bitty realized that Jack’s parents were standing in the kitchen and had watched their whole interaction and he froze.

“No rush,” Jack repeated, running his free hand down Bitty's arm, “But we should probably go soon-ish so that I can get back before practice.”

Bitty nodded and patted Jack’s chest with one hand without thinking about it and made his way back to Jack’s room where he’d stashed his change of clothes.

He flushed brightly when he realized what he had done and, to buy a little time, decided to see if he could find a towel and take a quick shower, hoping that would help him wake up and behave more normally for the rest of the morning.

Jack was finishing buttoning his shirt when Bitty came out of the bathroom. “I hope it’s ok that I –” Bitty said, making a vague gesture behind him.

“Of course. Ready?”

_X_

A little more than a month later, Bitty was putting another pumpkin pie in the oven when there was a knock on his door. He checked the time, but it was too early for it to be Lardo. She’d texted earlier to say she would stop by. Shitty was out of town until the next day and they had talked about grabbing dinner together.

Twenty minutes later, Alicia Zimmermann was sitting at his counter drinking a cup of coffee and flipping through the proof copy of his cookbook that had come in the day before.

He sent a quick text to Jack.

EB: Your mother would like to know when you’ll be home.

JZ: I’m in Chicago until tomorrow morning.

JZ: But I was planning on heading back to Providence. Do I need a ticket to Montreal instead? I could go up for a day or so.

JZ: Wait. Why is my mother texting you?

EB: She’s not. She’s sitting at my counter drinking coffee.

Bitty’s phone started to ring, so he excused himself and went back to his bedroom.

“My mother is in your apartment?” Jack said as soon as Bitty answered.

“Hi, Jack. Game last night looked rough. How are you doing?”

“Yeah. Why is my mother in your apartment?”

“Oh, I’m doing ok. Just baking pies for Thanksgiving on Thursday.”

“Hello, Bitty.”

“Your mother apparently got in this morning and was in your apartment for a couple hours, but realized you were out of town. She wanted to surprise you for Thanksgiving and see your game on Friday. Your father will be joining her later on tonight.”

“We were supposed to fly back last night originally. I didn’t think to tell her the plans changed.”

“You’ll be in in the morning?”

“Yes, around 10.”

“Alright. I’ll let her know.”

“Thank you, Bitty. I think I owe you more tickets or something.”

“Mr. Zimmermann, I think we’ve moved up to jersey.”

“Ok. What size?”

Bitty laughed. “Lord, Jack. I was joking, honey. It’s no problem. Your mother is very sweet. I’ll let her know you’ll be in in the morning.”

“Um. Bitty. Eric. I may not have told her anything about us not being together yet.”

“Then I will carefully not mention how very single I am.”

“Thanks, Bits. Have a good evening.”

“You, too, Jack,” Bitty said, shaking his head as he hung up.

Bitty made his way back out to the kitchen. Alicia was talking on the phone, but she wrapped up as Bitty leaned against the counter opposite her, bidding farewell to who Bitty assumed was Bob.

“So, Jack apologizes. He’ll be in Chicago until tomorrow. He didn’t realize you two were going to come down. And I didn’t realise Jack was still out of town because I was supposed to be heading down home yesterday.”

“Well. That’s what I get for trying to surprise Jack. Boy hates surprises anyway,” she shook her head fondly. “I’ll get out of your hair, then. Thank you for the coffee.”

Thirty minutes later, Bitty got a text from Jack.

JZ: My mother is upset with me that I wasn’t planning on going with you to Georgia. Are you from Georgia?

EB: ….yes. Also, sorry :(

JZ: Pretty sure this is still my fault. Let me know what games you can make.

Bitty set his phone down on the counter. He’d check his calendar later and send Jack a date that would work, but in the meantime, Bitty had some baking to finish before dinner.

_X_

A week and a half later he found a medium jersey sitting outside his door when he returned from the market. It was wrapped around a ticket for that evening, when he’d said he’d be free to see their home game.

_X_

JZ: Is your mother’s name Suzanne?

EB: yes

EB: why?

JZ: My father wants to friend her on facebook?

EB: What? OMG. Why?

JZ: She saw that you were friends with him and sent him a message. I guess she’s a fan.

EB: Oh. Lord.

EB: Are you free?

EB: Can I call?

Bitty’s phone started ringing nearly as soon as he’d sent that.

“If it’s a problem, I can tell him not to,” Jack said as soon as Bitty answered.

Bitty huffed out a laugh. “Hi, Jack. I’m doing fine. How are you?”

“Huh?”

Bitty shook his head. “Never mind. No. That’s fine. Just, um. I’m not – out – to my parents. I mean, I don’t. Just. It’s fine, but. Um. I’m guessing if he’s talking to my mother you haven’t, you know, told them.”

“I… started to?”

Bitty sighed, “It’s fine. They’re yours to tell or not. Whatever. Just – ”

“I’ll make sure Papa doesn’t mention anything.”

“Thanks.”

“Of course, Bits.”

“Bye, Jack.”

“Bye.”

-----

“Dicky, why didn’t you tell me you’d met Bad Bob Zimmermann. Lord, I had such a crush on him.”

“I don’t know, Mama. Jack’s my neighbor. It just sort of happened.”

“Oh, well, isn’t that just something. He plays hockey like his daddy, doesn’t he?”

“He does. For the Falconers.”

“Well goodness. I didn’t know you had a famous neighbor, honey. And that the two of you were friendly.”

“He knows Larissa, Mama. Her young man played with Jack they were in college.”

“Oh, new friends are good. Any other new friends? Maybe seeing someone?”

“No, Mama. But. I gotta get going. I’ll talk to you soon, Mama. Say hi to Aunt Jeanie and Uncle Tim tomorrow for me.”

“Sure thing, sugar. You know you could tell me, though. If you were dating someone? I’ll talk to you soon. Bye, Dicky. Love you, honey.”

Bitty stared at his phone for a while, his brow furrowed.

_X_

Jack was texting with his mother in the locker room after practice and didn’t notice he’d been flanked until Holster bumped against his shoulder.

“So, what happened with your boy?” he said.

“Huh?” Jack said, looking up.

“Tiny southern baker? Lives next door? Came to a game almost a month ago and nothing since? Was lamenting being single on Twitter?”

“Oh.” Jack’s heart sank, despite the vague relief that neither of his parents had started using twitter.

“Sorry, man. Holster lacks tact,” Ransom said quickly. “We just wanted to check on you. See if it was a break-up sitch or just throwing people off the trail. Make sure you were dealing with the break-up ok, if that’s what it was. Don’t know when it happened, but you could have said something, you know.”

“No, I know,” Jack said, carefully. “But. Uh. Ben. The thing is – we weren’t actually dating. He was just, you know, being nice. Helping me cook. Maman showed up early and misunderstood and Bits. Bitty. Eric. He just – he agreed to go along with it. He was so good about all of it. My parents took over his apartment that night. Then he got roped into breakfast with us the next morning.”

“That’s a big favor for a friend,” Ransom said, nodding.

“No, I mean. He’s just, uh, my neighbor? He tests recipes. Shitty said he probably could help me learn how to make dinner, but Bits said there wasn’t time, so he just, sort of, cooked everything and I got him tickets to some games?”

“And that’s it? You got him some tickets in exchange and that’s that? Back to being neighbors?” Holster interjected.

“Yes? Sort of? He got my mother settled in when my parents surprised me at American Thanksgiving and we were still in Chicago. My father and his mother are friends on facebook. He pushes easy recipes under my door when he sees something he thinks will fall in our diet plan.”

“Seriously?”

“Yeah. I had to check with him on the name. And he asked me to make sure my dad didn’t say anything about the dating. Apparently he’s not out to his parents.” Jack looked horrified at what he’d just said. “I mean. Don’t. I probably shouldn’t have shared that. It’s his thing to tell.”

“Dude. It’s fine. We won’t, like, ruin it or anything,” Ransom rushed to assure Jack. In a sly tone, he asked, “So. Are you going to ask him out?”

“I – no. I don’t think he’s interested. Just nice. Plus, we’re only midway through the season. Now’s not a great time to start something new.”

“You do you, man,” Holster said. “But if you need us to talk you up to him, just say. We’re getting a pie lesson in a couple weeks. And I think he'd get it, if you did want to start something. He seems reasonable.” He clapped Jack on the shoulder, then he and Ransom made their way out of the locker room, discussing what sort of fruit to pick up.

_X_

As luck would have it, Jack ran into Bitty in the hall the next morning. Like Jack, Bitty was dressed for a run in the cold.

“Running?” Jack asked.

Bitty nodded. “Yeah. I imagine I’ll regret this. I don’t know how y’all deal with this cold and I’ve lived up here for years.”

Jack shrugged, “It’s not so bad.”

Bitty huffed. “Well, it’s not good either.”

“Want to run together?” Jack asked. “I can run slower if you have trouble keeping up.”

Bitty’s face went through a complicated shift that Jack couldn’t quite interpret before settling into a half smile, “I think I can keep up. Let’s go.”

Jack set off at an easy pace. When he was confident that Bitty was maintaining it easily enough, he increased his speed. Bitty adjusted to match his pace easily. After a couple blocks, Jack increased his speed again and again, Bitty adjusted to match with no noticeable difference in difficulty for him. Jack glanced over at him, frowning in curiosity and Bitty just offered him a bland smile.

So Jack sped up again. They’d finished nearly three quarters of the five mile loop Jack was planning on, so he gave Bitty a look, then slowly began increasing his pace. Soon they were in an outright race to their building and Bitty was outpacing him. Jack could almost catch up, but every time he got close, Bitty would come up with some additional burst of speed.

They stopped at the door to the building, both panting.

“Calisse. You are fast,” Jack said, breathing hard.

Bitty grinned, his own breath under slightly better control but certainly not back to normal. “You’re not exactly slow.”

“I’ve got six inches on you. It should make a difference, eh?”

Bitty shrugged.

“I could buy you a coffee,” Jack said, wondering at himself as the words came out. “Since you won.”

“You… could,” Bitty said. “You don’t have to, though.”

“I’d like to. I’d say breakfast, but I don’t have quite enough time.”

“No, that’s ok. I wouldn’t actually have time for that either. But, coffee would be great. Annie’s?”

Jack nodded and the two of them made their way to the nearby shop. They chatted about the upcoming holiday. Jack’s parents were on a cruise, so he was spending the holiday itself with Shitty and Lardo. Bitty was headed to Georgia and planning to stay through the new year.

“It won’t be warm really,” Bitty said. “But it’s certainly warmer than here.” He grinned up at Jack.

 Jack grinned back and took a sip of his coffee.

_X_

Jack was surprised to see Bitty unlocking his door when Jack returned from practice on the 30th.

“Hey, Bitty,” Jack said, going to his own door.

Bitty looked up and Jack frowned. He looked tired. “Hi, Jack," Bitty replied and Jack thought Bitty sounded as tired as he looked.

Jack went for safe as he said, “You’re back early. Have a good trip?”

Bitty nodded. “Yeah. It’s good to be home, though.” Bitty opened his door and slid his suitcase though. “You had a good game on the 26th.” He offered a small smile. “See ya later.” Bitty slid in through his door before Jack could say anything else.

As Jack showered and ate, he kept thinking about Bitty and being home early. They hadn’t talked for long after their run, but Jack had had the impression that Bitty was looking forward to the trip home, specifically the length of it. It was strange that he’d cut it short. Logically, of course, it could be a work thing or something with his contacts in Providence, but Jack suspected that wasn’t the case. Flipping off his tv and setting the remote aside, he made his way over to Bitty’s apartment. Maybe they could grab dinner together. Or watch a movie.

Jack knocked. There was no immediate response, so he gave it a moment then knocked again. He heard the slide of the lock and the door opened to reveal a sleepy looking Bitty, his hair sticking up on one side.

“Oh. Sorry. You were sleeping.” Jack's fingers tensed slightly as he fought the urge to smooth a hand over Bitty's hair.

Bitty ran a hand across his face. “Yeah. S’ok, though. Naps in the middle of the day aren’t the best idea.”

Jack shrugged. “I nap most days.”

“You are a professional athlete.” Bitty yawned. “What’s up?”

“I was just going to see if you wanted to grab dinner, if you’re free.”

Bitty’s eyes widened slightly. “Oh. Um. Yeah, sure. I – can I grab a shower?”

“Of course. You want to head over to mine when you’re ready and we can pick where?”

When he returned to his apartment, Jack changed. He left his sweatshirt, but changed into a pair of jeans, then padded back to his kitchen to wait for Bitty. Sooner than Jack would have guessed, there was a knock on his door. Opening it, he found Bitty looking slightly less tired and very comfortable in a pair of jeans and loose sweater. He had a coat over his arm.

“I wasn’t sure,” he said, lifting the coat slightly.

Jack nodded and gestured him in. “We could order in, if you’d rather not go out,” he said, deferentially. Bitty looked better than he had earlier, but still tired.

Bitty made his way to Jack’s couch and curled up in one corner after draping his coat over the arm. He had a knee pulled to his chest and his hands wrapped nearly around his foot. He shrugged.

“Pizza and a movie, maybe?” Jack offered.

Bitty looked up. “Would that be ok? Does pizza fit in your meal plan?”

“No, not really, but I was pretty good over the holiday, so I’m ok with a big cheat.”

“Do you have stuff for spaghetti?” Bitty asked.

Jack thought for a moment. “Actually, yes. I think so.” He moved to his kitchen, opening cabinets and pulling out pasta and canned tomatoes. Bitty had given him a quick and easy sauce recipe from canned tomatoes and he’d made sure to keep the ingredients on hand.

Once he had pulled everything out, he turned to tell Bitty and found Bitty already in the kitchen. “Wanna make spaghetti together?” Bitty asked, already moving to the sink to wash his hands. He’d kicked his shoes off and tossed his sweater over the back of one of the chairs at Jack’s counter.

“Sure,” Jack said, distracted by the muscles moving in Bitty’s back as he washed his hands.

Bitty smiled. “Mince the garlic?” he said.

Jack nodded. Bitty reached around him to grab the onions. When Jack was done with the garlic, he washed his hands and started opening the cans of tomatoes. In short order, the sauce was reducing on the stove. Jack grabbed one of the bottles of wine he had left from Thanksgiving and asked Bitty a silent question about whether he wanted a glass. Bitty nodded and retrieved wine glasses while Jack opened the wine.

“What movie do you want to watch?” Jack asked.

Bitty shrugged.

“Have you seen Cooked on Netflix?” Jack suggested.

“No, actually. Have you?”

“No – Tater was talking about it though. I thought I might watch it this weekend.”

Bitty shrugged again. “Works for me.”

Jack smiled.

“So, how was your holiday?” Bitty asked.

Jack shrugged. “Not too bad. Shitty’s family is interesting. They’re better now that he’s got something they consider a real profession. Mostly Lards and I hung out, though. She’s got a show opening in a couple weeks. It was good. How about you?”

“Good. It was. Good, I guess. I came out to my parents.” Something in Jack’s expression must have betrayed his concern at that as the image of Bitty’s face when he’d been unlocking his door flashed in Jack’s mind. Bitty shook his head. “No, really. It was good. They’re – not happy for me, exactly, but they weren’t upset. Asked if I was seeing anyone.”

Jack was quiet for a minute then asked, “But you came back early?”

“Oh. Yeah. My parents were great. So was my moomaw, but my aunt and uncle were… kind of awful. My parents asked them to leave, and they did, but I was ready to just be home, so I left, too.”

Jack debated for a short moment only before pulling Bitty into a hug. Bitty resisted slightly before relaxing into it. “Sorry it was a rough ending to your visit,” Jack said, looking down.

“S’ok,” Bitty said. He gave Jack a quick squeeze then stepped back. “Ok. Go queue up the video. Everything should be ready soon.” He turned the burner on for the water and Jack headed out to the living room. Once everything was ready, he went back to retrieve the bottle of wine and Bitty followed him out with two plates.

They ate on opposite end of the couch. Jack took their plates to the kitchen when they finished and sat slightly closer when he returned. Bitty had filled their glasses and turned on the touch, stretching his legs along it. As the next episode started, Bitty poked Jack with his toes.

“Yeah?” Jack said without looking over.

“Would you say yes if I asked you out to dinner?”

Jack paused the show and looked over, bringing his hand down to wrap around Bitty’s ankle. “Is this a hypothetical or are you asking me out?”

Bitty’s eyes narrowed, “Are you really chirping me about this?” He rolled his eyes. “Yes. Yes, I would – if you’re interested, I’m asking you out. I’d like to take you to dinner or – because that’s maybe complicated – I’d like to have you over for dinner. I’ll even walk you back to your door after and hope for a goodnight kiss.”

Jack smiled. “I’d like that.”

“Really?”

Jack nodded. “Yeah. But, you know…” he let his voice trail off and had to bite his lip to keep from smiling as Bitty’s shoulder’s fell. Jack tightened his hand around Bitty’s ankle so that Bitty would look up again. “You made dinner tonight. You could collect your kiss now.”

Bitty’s smile was slow, but brilliant. He swung his feet down then shifted closer. “Yeah?”

Jack nodded with a smile. Bitty brought his lips to Jack’s and Jack watched Bitty’s eyes flutter closed before he closed his own. He got his arms around Bitty’s back and tugged him into his lap. They made out lazily until Bitty pulled back, then curled himself in to tuck his face against Jack’s neck.

“Well,” Bitty said softly.

“Well?” Jack asked.

“You’re quite good at that, Mr. Zimmermann.”

“You’re not too bad yourself, Mr. Bittle.”

Bitty pulled back. He started to lean in again, then pulled back, biting his lip. “I should go home.”

“You don’t have to,” Jack said softly.

“No, I know. But I should anyway.”

Jack searched his face, then nodded. “Ok. Do you want to come with me tomorrow? Holster and Ransom are having a party for New Year’s Eve.”

“Sure,” Bitty said, standing. “That would be fun.”

“Thank you for dinner," Jack said. His hands were resting lightly on Bitty's hips and Bitty hadn't stepped away after he stood up.

“Thank you. I’m glad you asked me over," he ran his fingers through Jack's hair.

“Oh?” Jack said archly.

Bitty flushed brightly and hit Jack’s arm. “No, I just mean. Uh. It was better than being alone in my apartment. I wanted to be home, but this was better.”

“Any time.”

---

Jack let himself back into his apartment, two cups of coffee in hand. He set them on the counter and toed off his shoes then made his way back to his bedroom. The playoffs had been over for a couple weeks – out in the second round, but management seemed pleased anyway – and things were calming back down. He nudged the door open and smiled at the sight of Bitty, sound asleep, face down on his bed. He was starfished out, the sheet resting just over the swell of his ass.

He stood there staring until Bitty mumbled, “Coming back or just going to stare.”

“Didn’t know you were awake,” Jack said, tugging off his shirt, then unbuttoning his jeans. “I got coffee.”

Bitty turned his head to look at Jack. “Oh?”

“Mmhm.” Jack crawled on to the bed, pressing kisses to Bitty’s lower back. Bitty arched into them and Jack used the opportunity to get his hands under Bitty’s hips, using that to encourage Bitty to turn over so that Jack could kiss him.

Bitty frowned slightly, “Morning breath,” he said.

“Don’t care.”

They kissed slowly and Jack felt himself hardening and let his hips brush against Bitty’s. Finding Bitty in a similar state, he moaned. Bitty’s hips jerked up and they quickly found a rhythm, pressing and grinding against each other as they sought climax.

After, Jack shoved his boxer briefs off, using them to wipe he and Bitty clean-ish, then pulled Bitty in to snuggle a bit. This part was still fairly new. He hadn’t been kidding when he’d said that starting something in the middle of the season was a bad idea, but Bitty had made it seem almost easy. They’d taken things slowly, but it meant that now, in May, it felt somehow both new and like they’d been together for years.

“What’s on the agenda today, Mr. Zimmermann?” Bitty asked.

“I’m hoping for a shower with my boyfriend, then coffee. George wants to meet to talk about some community events for the off-season later on today, but we didn’t set a time.”

Bitty smiled against Jack’s shoulder.

“Oh. And it’s my boyfriend’s birthday, so we’re having a party tonight.”

“You’re a brat,” Jack said, pulling Bitty in closer.

Bitty’s stomach growled and they both laughed. He pushed himself up and padded to the bathroom, calling over his shoulder, “Coming, honey?”

---

“When do your parents get in?” Jack asked, coming into the kitchen.

“10:30. Your mama said she and Bob would pick them up, though. Their plane gets in at 9:45.”

Jack pressed a kiss to the back of Bitty’s neck.

“I can’t believe they’re coming up,” Bitty said. “I blame it on your daddy. Coach would never have agreed to this if it was just me asking. Not during football season.”

“Coach agreed before Suzanne did,” Jack replied, grinning.

Bitty just shook his head.

---

Later that evening, with their family and friends gathered around the table, Jack let his arm rest along the back of Bitty’s chair. Bitty smiled at him and leaned in, his head resting lightly on Jack’s shoulder. Jack met his mom’s eyes and they shared a smile. It had been a good thanksgiving. And a good year.