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In Bloom and Blossom

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Jack's nervous when he gets on the plane. He hasn't seen Bitty in person since they kissed goodbye, and he can't help but worry if Skyping and texting and calling will really prove to have been enough once they see each other again. He doesn't doubt his own feelings, and he doesn't doubt what Bitty feels for him, but the familiar anxiety lays there in his stomach, heavy and sour. His phone buzzes as he takes his seat. It's from Bitty. It's a plane emoji, three hearts, a hockey stick, and a pie. Another message comes in right after it:

omg I have been thinking about kissing u all day.

Jack smiles. He texts back.

Well, you've got a few hours still.

Bitty's response takes a couple of minutes. Jack knows from experience that a couple of minutes means he's going to get a picture. When his phone buzzes again, it's a closeup of Bitty's face, all big eyes and the barely-there freckles on his nose. His mouth is damp, and he's smiling slyly.

Miss you so much honey. Gonna kiss u til you can't breathe.

Jack can't wait. He texts back as much. Bitty sends back four more hearts and a winky face along with another message.

have a good flight. Meet u @ baggage.

Jack texts back an affirmative and sets his phone to airplane mode. The flight attendant comes over to offer him a pre-flight drink--the perks of flying first class--and Jack orders a water. She brings him a full bottle, and he holds it in his hands a moment, letting the coolness of it ground him back to the present. The anxiety in his stomach is gone, replaced with happy anticipation.

He's going to see Bitty for the first time since kissing him.

*

Jack spots Bitty before Bitty spots him. Jack's coming down a crowded escalator where his height is disguised by everyone around him. Bitty's standing off to one side, looking down at his phone every few seconds when he's not scanning for Jack. He's in a blue tank top and green shorts and a pair of flip flops. He spots Jack when Jack's near the bottom of the escalator, and his whole face lights up. He waves wildly, and Jack smiles so wide his cheeks hurt.

"Jack!" Bitty yells as he throws himself against Jack for a hug.

"Hey, Bits," Jack murmurs into his hair. He hugs Bitty back just as tight, not caring if it goes on too long. He's done the necessary photoshoots for the upcoming season, but his face isn't plastered everywhere just yet, so he drinks in this hug while he can.

"Oh my god Jack," Bitty says against his chest. "You're here."

"I am," Jack replies. He loosens his grip when Bitty pushes away to look up at him.

"You're here," Bitty repeats.

"Yup," Jack agrees.

Bitty stares at him for another few seconds before stepping away fully. "I'm parked over in short-term. Come on."

Jack pulls his duffel up higher on his shoulder and follows Bitty as he leads them from baggage claim to the doors leading outside. Jack stops short the moment they step outside. "Oh my god."

"Jack?" Bitty asks, turning to look at him.

The humidity is…is. Jack suddenly understands why Bitty is always cold if it's under fifteen degrees celsius. "Holy hell, Bits. Feel like I'm walking through a sweaty towel," he says.

"You get used to it," Bitty promises, the grin on his face making it clear Jack just got chirped. "Come on. There's A/C in the truck."

It's only a few minutes' walk to short-term parking, but Jack feels like he's swum through soup by the time they get to the truck. He has to stop and take it in as Bitty unlocks the doors. It's old, like classic old. Jack's seen lots of pictures of old cars in his history texts. He checks out the windshield. It's split down the middle so there are two panes of glass. Possibly from the late-1930s until sometime Post-World War II, but not from the 1950s, he thinks. Manufacturers stopped splitting the windshield during the post-war boom...

"We don't know the exact age of the frame," Bitty says as he takes Jack's duffel from his shoulder and places it in the back of the truck. "Pawpaw found it in a junkyard when I was a kid, and he made it a project we did. Nothing under the frame is antique, so it's just a driving truck, not a show truck. When he died, Moomaw said it was all mine."

"You didn't bring it to school," Jack says as he and Bitty climb in.

"She's a good truck, but she wouldn't be able to take the salt from the roads on her frame."

Jack buckles his seatbelt and watches Bitty start the truck. The engine turns over smoothly, and Bitty pats the dash like he pats the stovetop when he's made a pie. "What's her name?" Jack asks.

"Lulu." Bitty looks embarrassed as he glances at Jack. "Named her when I was seven."

"Hi, Lulu," Jack says and touches the dash. He catches Bitty's smile out of the corner of his eye and feels content.

They're silent as Bitty maneuvers them out of the parking garage and through the exit, where he hands over his receipt so they can leave. After five minutes on the highway, Bitty takes an exit onto a much quieter road. Ten minutes after that, he pulls down a one-lane side road and follows it until it ends up in the middle of a copse of trees. Beyond the trees, Jack sees the shimmer of a lake.

"Where--" is as far as Jack gets before Bitty slides into his lap sideways and kisses him. It's a soft kiss, but so full of intent that Jack groans and clutches at Bitty's legs. Bitty slips his tongue into Jack's mouth, and Jack responds by nibbling Bitty's lower lip. They kiss like that--soft but so very insistent--for minutes. When Bitty pulls away, Jack chases after, getting one last kiss in response.

"We can't stay here long," Bitty says. "Mama and Coach know when your flight got in. But I just needed…" He trails off and touches Jack's mouth with his thumb. "You kissed and ran, Mr. Zimmermann," Bitty teases. "I had to get you back."

"Please get me back as much as you want," Jack replies, and he slides a hand into Bitty's hair as Bitty kisses him again. They lose a few more minutes like that. Bitty's fingers get under Jack's T-shirt. Jack slides his thumb back and forth across the hem of Bitty's shorts.

"Okay," Bitty murmurs. He kisses the side of Jack's mouth. "Done." He nudges his nose against Jack's. "We gotta go." Bitty squirms when Jack kisses the side of his neck. "You stop that, Jack Zimmermann."

Jack does it once more just to feel Bitty squirm against him again. "Okay," he says. He cups Bitty's face and looks him in the eyes. "Bittle," he says quietly. "Bits."

Bitty smoothes his fingers through Jack's hair and beams at him. "Hi, Jack." Bitty slides out of his lap and moves back to the driver's seat. "Be twenty minutes until we get home," he says. "No one's down the road much."

Jack takes the invitation, moving along the bench from the passenger seat to the center spot. His knees nearly hit the dashboard, but he doesn't care. He throws out both arms along the seat back and presses a kiss to Bitty's temple as Bitty turns the truck and goes back down the one-lane road. "It's pretty out here," he says. "How do you know about it?"

"It's where everyone comes to make out. During the school year, I mean."

Jack can't help his smile. "Did you just bring me to a long-standing tradition, Bittle?"

"Maybe," Bitty says. He's blushing. Jack kisses his cheek, and the blush deepens. "Yes," Bitty admits as they come to the end of the road. "I didn't figure you'd want to kiss in the middle of the airport, so I took the back road home."

Jack looks around. There's houses dotted around, but for the most part, it's just green fields and the horizon. "We could have taken the highway?"

"Right up to town, yeah. But…" Bitty slides Jack a glance.

"I like the back road route. Very friendly."

Bitty giggles and takes one hand off the wheel to squeeze Jack's knee. Jack runs his thumb along the back of Bitty's neck in response.

*

Jack slides back to the passenger side of the truck when he spots the welcome sign for Madison. "Sorry," he says.

"Hush," Bitty replies, shaking his head. "You're not doing anything we didn't both agree was best. I still haven't told my parents, and I certainly don't want them to find out because someone saw us cuddling as I drove us past the Dairy Den."

Before Jack can ask, they pass the Dairy Den. It's a restaurant, clearly local, and clearly cheap. "Please tell me that's not where you've been getting your protein."

Bitty laughs. "Only sometimes. Coach and I go for breakfast some Saturdays when Mama and Moomaw go shopping."

Jack still isn't sure exactly how Bitty's relationship with his father works, but it's because Bitty doesn't seem sure either. They'd discussed it some during their nightly talks, but all Bitty knows for certain is that, yes, his dad is proud of him and no, his dad doesn't really get him. But, Bitty had argued, he doesn't really get his dad either, so they're sort of even.

"Will they be home when we get there?" Jack asks as Bitty passes a town square with an impressive city hall.

"Of course! You don't invite someone down for the holiday then skip out on the greeting. Though, it's not really taking them away from much. Mama works from home anyway, and Coach only goes to the school in the mornings to map out plays."

"I'm glad I'm not putting them out."

Bitty flashes Jack a wide grin. "Oh, sweetheart, you could never do that."

Jack doesn't know what to say to that, so he watches the town go by. It's even smaller than he was expecting, though Bitty had warned him plenty. There are two grocery stores and a few storefronts. There seems to be a church every corner, all of them carrying messages about Freedom and Love in the Lord. They're nearly at the edge of town when Bitty takes a left onto an unmarked road and follows it past four houses, then a mile of openness, and then pulls into the driveway of a fifth house that comes into view like a mirage.

The house is made up of a series of squares, like it started very small and additions were made. It sits in the middle of a large yard like it stood up straight and pushed its shoulders back. There are flowers in front, a vegetable garden to one side, and an American flag fluttering next to the front door. When Bitty stops the truck next to the house, a side door opens, and his mother and Coach come outside.

"Well, there you are!" Mrs. Bittle greets them. She hugs Bitty like he's been away for days instead of a few hours. Then she turns and holds out her hand to Jack. "I won't presume to hug you," she says. "It's nice to see you, again."

"You, too," Jack replies, shaking her hand..

"Did you have a good flight?"

"Very comfortable," he assures her. She gives him a pleased nod, then looks at her husband.

"Coach," Bitty says to his dad, "this is Jack Zimmermann."

"Nice to have you here," Coach says, also shaking Jack's hand. His grip is firm but not overpowering. It reminds Jack of his own dad's handshake.

"Thank you for having me," Jack says. "I was admiring the house from the road."

"Well, if you have any interest in redneck additions, you're in the right place," Mrs. Bittle says as she steps to one side so Bitty can haul Jack's duffle in through the side door. Jack follows Bitty, and Mrs. Bittle follows him, giving him a brief rundown of how the house came to be.

"...last addition was thirty years ago. I swear, when we moved in, I walked into the wrong rooms for a week."

"She's too hard on herself," Coach says. "It was only a few days."

"You," Mrs. Bittle says to her husband with fondness. Jack decides he likes them as a couple very much.

"You'll room with Junior," Coach says. "There's a good cot in there."

"We'd give you the spare room in a second, but I'm afraid it's full of Dicky's gear and my craft projects, and it's really not an easy-to-organize mess."

"I've slept in a bus seat next to him," Jack says. "I'm sure we can share a room."

"This way," Bitty says, jerking his thumb down the hall. Jack follows again, and he finds himself in the last room at the end of the hall. The bedroom is good-sized, with a double bed on one wall and the cot on the opposite. There's a dresser and a bookcase, and along the top of the walls, a series of shelves holding trophies.

"Figure skating?"

"Most of them," Bitty says. He puts the duffel on the cot and looks at the trophies. "There are a few from the hockey team here, too." He looks at Jack and smiles. "I'm sure Mama's gonna holler it's suppertime before too long. You need to freshen up?"

"Definitely," Jack says. "Between the airplane and the humidity out there, I'm not great."

"Oh, don't worry," Bitty says. "It cools off at night."

It does not cool off at night. Even with the air conditioning running at pretty damn cold, Jack is pretty sure he's going to sweat to death sleeping in just his boxers on top of the covers as Bitty snuggles underneath. He really meant to sleep on the cot, but that lasted exactly an hour before Jack climbed on the bed and kissed Bitty goodnight for a third time.

He feels confident they didn't give anything away at dinner. Mrs. Bittle--who Jack simply can't call Suzanne no matter how many times she says it's fine--had asked him a few questions. Jack had answered. Bitty had reminded his mother that Jack, like Coach, was on the quiet side, and the rest of the dinner had passed with Bitty and his mother chatting back and forth with Coach and Jack speaking up now and again. After dinner, there'd been a movie on television, then Coach and Mrs. Bittle had gone to bed. Jack and Bitty had gone into Bitty's bedroom, where Jack had immediately stripped to his shorts to try and feel a little cooler.
"Oh, sweetheart," Bitty mumbles, rolling over and stroking a hand down Jack's bare chest. "You are not made for Georgia."

"I am not," Jack agrees. "But I like being here."

Bitty smiles and lifts himself up on his arms so he can crane up and kiss Jack. Jack pulls him close, even though Bitty is warm to the touch. He runs his hands up Bitty's back and swallows a moan when Bitty straddles him.

"Bits," Jack sighs.

"Shhh," Bitty murmurs against Jack's mouth. He rolls his hips, and buries his face in Jack's neck as their cocks rub through their boxers.

Jack presses a kiss behind Bitty's ear, stroking his fingers through his hair. "You sure?" Jack asks. They've been Skyping and texting and calling almost constantly. But they've talked about hockey and books and movies. The newest single Bitty's addicted to and exactly how much Alexei likes to sneak up behind Jack and yell out a new possible nickname (currently, he is known as Zimbotron, but it doesn't appear to be sticking). Jack had told Bitty how his anxiety functions, and Bitty had told Jack about his sometimes complicated but genuine relationship with his father. Actual talk about sex or performing for each other hasn't happened. It hadn't felt right for either of them to have those discussions or first experiences through a screen.

"I have been thinking about this for weeks," Bitty says as he rolls his hips again. He tilts his head back and bites his bottom lip as Jack's cock hardens. "Oh," he whispers.

Jack cants his hips to meet Bitty on the next roll, and when Bitty gasps again, Jack raises up so he can kiss the line of Bitty's neck. "So have I," he says. He smiles when Bitty grabs his shoulders and tries to drag him into a sitting position. "You need more protein, Bittle."

"Or I need a smaller boyfriend. There's a winger at Yale who's--" Bitty giggles when Jack surges up and pulls him in tight against his chest. "Don't protein chirp me," Bitty says.

Jack presses down on Bitty's hips and ruts against him. Bitty moans, covers his mouth to keep it quiet, and slings his free arm around Jack's neck. "I want you to feel me, Bits," Jack says. "I want you to know how much I want you."

"Oh. Oh. Honey," Bitty gets out in breathy little moans. He kisses Jack with an intensity that reminds Jack of his baking, of his determination to get over his fear of being checked.

Jack kisses back as hard, cups Bitty's ass in both hands, and grinds them against each other again. "I want…" He trails off as Bitty starts a counter rhythm. They both lose their words completely, kissing hard and panting into each other's mouths. When Bitty tenses and moans, Jack covers it in a kiss, and Bitty comes with Jack cradling his back.

"Stay put," Jack murmurs. Bitty is boneless against him as Jack finishes himself off, shifting so he's pressing against Bitty's hip and not on his now-soft cock. Bitty kisses absently at Jack's shoulder as Jack comes.

"Mmmm," Bitty hums against Jack's neck as Jack rolls them onto their sides. "I've never done that."

"I know," Jack says. He wonders for a second if that's the wrong thing to say, but Bitty gives him a smile and pokes him in the ribs, so Jack knows it's fine. "What else do you want to do?" Jack asks.

Bitty blushes and ducks his head. "Um. That's a long list."

"Mine, too."

Bitty lifts his chin and smiles at Jack, half-asleep and pleased. "Oh. Good."

Jack kisses Bitty once more, then tucks Bitty's head under his chin. "We should probably change shorts," he says.

No answer from Bitty, who is already dead to the world.

Jack mentally shrugs and closes his eyes. It's not the worst way to fall asleep.

*

"Oh, my god, why did you let me fall asleep like this?" Bitty hisses the next morning when Jack wakes him for their run. He has one hand on the waistband of his boxers, holding them away from his body as he looks down at his groin in disgust.

"You fell asleep on your own," Jack replies. "And I didn't want to wake you. You looked sweet."

Bitty gives him a jutted chin look for just a second before his face softens. "Well, next time, make me get up. This is horrible."

Jack doesn't disagree. His own shorts feel days old, and he remembers why he never set any superstitions around what he wears on the ice. "Get cleaned up, then we'll run."

Bitty mumbles something dark under his breath that Jack doesn't catch but makes him smile. He listens to Bitty pad down the hallway and go into the bathroom. Bitty's back a couple minutes later, a damp washcloth in one hand. He tosses it to Jack. Jack gives him a smile in thanks as he does a quick clean-up job. They leave their boxers and the washcloth in a pile on top of their clothes from yesterday. Jack is momentarily concerned Bitty's mom will come in to gather laundry, but Bitty laughs at the idea.

"Once I started baking, Mama decided I could do my own laundry. She got tired of fruit stains."

Mama. Jack loves the way Bitty says it. He always says my mother when he's talking to the boys, and he's only called her Mother when she's visited. Jack feels like he's learned a secret. He presses a kiss to the top of Bitty's head just before Bitty opens the door.

"You start that, we won't get running at all," Bitty tells him.

"Yes, we will," Jack replies. He's not sure why it makes Bitty laugh, but it makes him feel good.

"There's protein shakes in the fridge. Grab them, will you?"

Jack retrieves the protein shakes while Bitty gets his keys and ties on his running shoes. They walk outside to the ancient truck, and Jack's surprised that is feels pretty comfortable. There's humidity still, but it really has cooled off. "Nice out," Jack says. "Be good for our run."

Bitty giggles. "Oh, sweetheart. You are going to be so disappointed when the sun finishes coming up."

"We'll get used to it during the walk to the park. That's where the track is, right?"

"We'll drive to the park," Bitty says, gesturing to the truck. "We don't do sidewalks down here. It's too damn hot."

Jack looks towards the street and realizes Bitty is right. There isn't a sidewalk, and now that he thinks of it, he hadn't seen any in town. "Oh," he says and gets in the truck. "But there is a track at the park?"

"Yeah. It ain't much, but they keep it nice."

"Ain't," Jack mutters. Bitty slides him a look as he turns to back the truck out of the driveway. "I didn't know you actually said that."

"I don't, usually. Mama's always been serious about grammar, but you just sort of pick it up around here."

"Like 'swawesome."

Bitty looks very pleased. "Yes, like 'swawesome."

The park is only about a mile from the house. Jack shakes his head. "It's weird to drive," he says when Bitty gives him a questioning look. "It's so pretty here. I can't believe people don't like getting out in it."

"You get used to the humidity," BItty says, "but you don't like it."

Jack huffed out a laugh.

Bitty pulls into the parking lot, directly in front of the track. It's a single lane circle, carefully paved, and there is one woman of indeterminate older age in a lilac workout suit walking at a fast clip. "That's Miss Lisa," Bitty says, pointing to her . "Don't even brush against her. She'll hip check you harder than Shitty."

"Noted," Jack says. He steps out of the truck, and he and Bitty stretch. It feles like it's warmer than it was when they got in the truck, but Jack figures that's just the lingering wash of the air conditioning.

"Follow me," Bitty says, and Jack does. He and Bitty step on the track at what seems like a random position. There's no start or finish lines, but they're lined up parallel to the swing set that's set a ways back. "Four laps a mile," Bitty says. They start slow, as they always do, Jack shortening his stride a bit so he and Bitty can stay side-by-side for now. He'll out-pace him eventually, but for now, he wants to stay close.

They jog in silence, picking up a little speed after the third lap. Coming out of the sixth, Jack slants Bitty a look, and Bitty nods, so Jack lengthens his stride and takes the lead his legs grant him. During lap eleven, Jack barely brushes Miss Lisa, and he's only halfway to starting his apology when Miss Lisa knocks him sideways with the hip check.

"Told you," Bitty says as he catches up, slowing down so Jack can straighten up and find his pace again.

"We need her for second line," Jack says.

"Us or the Falconers?"

"Both."

Bitty laughs and side steps just enough to brush against Jack's side. Jack smiles at Bitty, then picks up his pace again.

At lap fifteen, Jack slows down. He doesn't usually slow down until lap twenty, but he's starting to feel warmer than usual. "You okay?" he asks as Bitty catches up.

"Fine," Bitty says. He glances at Jack and immediately slows. "Oh, slow down, honey, you're gonna overheat."

"I'm just a little warm," Jack replies.

"No, you're gonna overheat," Bitty says with the same insistence he uses when someone questions how much nutmeg he's adding to the pumpkin pie. "It's at least five degrees hotter than it was when we got here."

"No, that's not--" Jack slows again and lets his runner's high fade enough so he can really feel the air around him. It's unquestionably warmer and more humid, but the sun's still coming off the horizon. "Is this normal?"

"It's a little cool, actually," Bitty says. He shakes his head when Jack side eyes him. "I'm not teasing. It is."

"I don't believe you," Jack replies.

Bitty shakes his head. "Fine. Be stubborn, but at least keep cooling down. I can't lift you into the truck."

"Okay, okay." Jack slows a little more, Bitty dropping down to keep pace with him. They run the next three laps side-by-side, Jack slowing a little more on each one until they're just walking. When they come parallel with the swing set again, they step off the track. Miss Lisa waves goodbye as they get into the truck. "How long does she stay out?" Jack asks, having to make an effort not to gulp his protein shake.

Bitty checks the clock on the dashboard. "Another ten minutes or so. She'll walk home. If she's not on time, people start calling her house to make sure she's okay."

"You're joking."

"Nope." Bitty drives out of the parking lot and stops at the main road. Jack notices there's no stop sign. "She's very scheduled. Mama says she used to know if she'd be late to work by whether she saw Miss Lisa walking down to the park or not."

"Has your mother considered a watch?"

"Do not chirp my mama."

Jack chuckles and reaches out so he can brush his thumb along the back of Bitty's neck. "Sorry. Didn't mean to."

Bitty smiles and leans back against Jack's hand. "Well, all right. But you do it again, and you won't get your surprise tomorrow night."

Jack sits up straighter at that. "Surprise? You haven't mentioned a surprise."

"Course not! It wouldn't be a surprise, then!" Bitty says, then laughs at Jack's face. "You should see your face. Look like a guppy that jumped too high out the pond."

"I...what?"

Bitty shakes his head and laughs again. "Sorry. I swear I was never so idiom-heavy before, but I'm sure Mama can tell you that's not true."

Jack smiles. "Well, I suppose I should ask her."

*

"Oh, lord, that boy could make up a new saying fast as a cat up a tree," Mrs. Bittle tells him when he asks. She's making breakfast for the three of them. It's spinach omelettes with whole wheat toast and turkey bacon.

Jack's sitting at the kitchen table, running his fingers through his shower-damp hair. "Sounds like how he bakes," he says.

Mrs. Bittle laughs. Her laugh is different than Bitty's, louder and with more brass. "I tried to teach him not to touch the stove when he was a baby. You know, because of the heat. And I swear he was baking the next day." She shakes her head and flips the bacon. "It was such a treat for his Moomaw, especially. There's seven grandkids total, and Dicky's the only one to have any interest in the family recipes."

Jack bites back a smile at Dicky. If Bitty comes out and finds him grinning about the nickname, he is certain his surprise--whatever it is--will be cancelled as quick as if he'd chirped Mrs. Bittle. "Seven grandkids seems like a lot," Jack says. "But my mom and dad are both only children, and so am I."

"Seven in a generation is pretty small around these parts. For awhile, we thought there'd just be the five of them, then my sister and brother-in-law decided to have one more go at it, and got double blessed. Dicky was eight when they were born, so they're coming up on thirteen now. Oh, dear lord." Mrs. Bittle stops and stares at the backsplash over the stove.

"Mama?" Bitty asks as he walks into the kitchen. He's in shorts and a tank top, barefoot, his hair slicked straight back from his forehead. "You look like someone walked over your grave."

"The babies are turning thirteen."

"Oh, sweet jesus." Bitty puts a hand to his heart and looks like he might fall over. "They've not calmed down a bit?"

"Gotten worse as near as I can tell. Must be the hormones."

"Well, and Uncle Bubba letting them get away with murder."

"Hush up with that, mister," Mrs. Bittle says, pointing her spatula at Bitty. "I'll grant he's old-fashioned about how he's raising them, but they've got manners, still."

"So's a goat in the right situation," Bitty replies.

"I'm not agreeing or disagreeing. You sit over there, and I'll serve us up breakfast while you change the subject."

Bitty sits and smiles at Jack. Under the table, he bumps their knees together.

"Your daddy will be home for lunch." Mrs. Bittle looks at Jack. "Coach is overseeing the re-sod on the football field. It got tore straight to pieces with all the rain we had last winter, and there just wasn't reason to fix it up until after the boys had finished the first round of summer practices."

They eat in silence, then Mrs. Bittle puts her fork down with emphasis. "Oh! Dicky! About your daddy being home for lunch. He's going to drive to the fireworks stand to pick up a few things on his way home, so he said to text him if you think of anything you want in particular."

Bitty nods, mouth full of toast. "Okay," he says carefully, one hand covering his mouth. He swallows. "You know what he's getting already?"

"The usual. Bottle rockets and sparklers and some of those poppers you and your cousins always throw at each other. I know he'll get a couple of screamers, though I don't understand why you two love those so much."

"What about Black Cats?"

Mrs. Bittle looks pained. "You sure you want the twins getting near them? They both nearly lost an eye last year."

"Why, Mama, they're nearly thirteen. I think we can trust them. I know Uncle Bubba would."

"I thought we weren't chirping your mother," Jack says.

"That was sass, not chirp," Bitty replies. "It's different."

"Not to your mother," Mrs. Bittle says. She and Bitty give each other faux-angry looks then laugh together. "Get your daddy to get the Black Cats. We leave it up to Uncle Bubba, he'll bring a whole tub."

Bitty takes out his phone and texts his father. "Gonna get some of those scooting ones, too. They're always fun."

"The one's that look like cars?" Mrs. Bittle asks. Bitty nods. "I do like those. Make sure he gets a bag of punks, too. Don't need anyone lighting anything with a Bic."

"Got it," Bitty says.

Jack stands up to carry his plate and silverware over to the sink where Mrs. Bittle is running water for the dishes. "That's a lot of fireworks for one night," Jack says. "Is there going to be enough time to light them all off and see the big show Bitty mentioned?"

Mrs. Bittle gives him a confused look. "What? Of course. Big show isn't until tomorrow."

"But…" Jack finds himself at a momentary loss. "But tomorrow's the Fourth."

Bitty gives him an apologetic look. "Around here, you can light off fireworks for the second, third, and Fourth of July," Bitty explains as he finishes texting. "So, the things Coach is picking up today are for tonight when Aunt Peggy and Uncle Bubba and the twins come over. We'll see the big show tomorrow."

"You set off fireworks for multiple days," Jack says.

"Yes," Mrs. Bittle says.

"For a single holiday."

"Oh, dear," Bitty says, standing from the table. "You look 'bout ready to do a hard reboot."

"We're Southern," Mrs. Bittle says. "I don't agree with all the stereotypes about us, but I can agree we pretty universally enjoy celebrating the independence of our nation."

"And it takes multiple days?"

Bitty hands his plate and silverware to his mother and pats Jack on the arm. "You'll understand tonight," he says. "It's fun."

Jack doesn't believe him. "Okay," he says anyway. "I'll wait and see."

*

"Your cousins are throwing firecrackers at each other," Jack says twenty minutes after Aunt Peggy, Uncle Bubba, and the twins have shown up. The twins had completely ignored Jack. Aunt Peggy had given him a polite hello, and Uncle Bubba had spent five minutes making "Canada, eh?" jokes every time Jack had said anything.

They had just finished unrolling the hose when Jack had looked up and seen the twins pointing literal explosives at each other and noted it to Bitty.

"They do that," Bitty says. He sighs silently. Jack's seen him do it before, usually when he gets chirped by someone who does a bad job of it. "One of them will get a burn, and they'll stop."

"Shouldn't we stop them before that?"

"Lord almighty, no. You try to stop those two doing anything, Aunt Peggy's on you like an angry raccoon."

"They're spoiled rotten, but Peggy calls them spirited."

Jack turns at the new voice and finds Coach standing behind him. "I wasn't trying to say they were," he replies. "I was just worried."

Coach cracks a smile, and Jack hears Bitty giggle next to him. "Don't worry, son," Coach says, patting Jack on the shoulder in the universal move of every sports coach. "You won't get an argument from this corner. Just don't let Peggy or Bubba or Suzanne overhear you. Get a couple beers in you, it gets easier." He doesn't smile any wider, but there's a brightness in his eyes that tells Jack he's joking.

"I'll grab you one," Bitty says, walking to a dark blue cooler that's in the shade on the other side of the yard.

"You sleep all right?" Coach asks Jack.

"Yes, Sir," Jack says. "The cot was just fine." The lie doesn't make him feel bad. He had laid on the thing long enough to tell it was comfortable.

"Good. I just re-did the springs on it." Coach looks out towards the road. There's a bright pink car coming down it. "Moomaw's coming," he says and walks away.

Jack watches him go until Bitty presses a cold beer to his fingers. "Oh. Thank you. Your dad doesn't say much, does he?"

"Nope." Bitty opens his beer and takes a long drink. "He's all right, though."

"He is," Jack agrees.

Bitty smiles at him, then turns to look at the driveway when he hears the gravel crunch. "Moomaw!" he yells. Jack takes half a step back at his excitement. "Oh, Jack, I can't wait for you to meet her."

"You've said," Jack says, smiling. Bitty's been nearly vibrating with excitement on their Skypes when he's mentioned Jack meeting Moomaw. Jack loves it.

"Come on," Bitty says, and Jack follows him across the yard, taking a wide berth around the twins, who have stopped aiming bottle rockets at each other and have started opening champagne poppers two inches from each other's noses.

"I know," Bitty mutters.

Jack swallows a laugh.

Coach, Suzanne, and Aunt Peggy are surrounding Moomaw, but they part as Bitty and Jack come close. Jack stays back as Bitty throws himself into his grandmother's arms for a hug. Moomaw is tiny. She is wearing a white shirt, red slacks, and a blue shawl. Her hair is white with a bluish tint, and Jack is terrified of what will happen if she doesn't like him.

"Moomaw," Bitty says, turning towards Jack but keeping an arm around his grandmother's shoulders, "This is Jack Zimmermann. He's my best friend."

Moomaw steps forward and shakes Jack's hand. "The incoming Falconer. Congratulations on that contract. It's a good team."

"Thank you, Ma'am," Jack says.

Moomaw shakes her head. "Oh, none of that. Just Moomaw."

"Yes, Ma'am," Jack says.

Moomaw looks at him for a moment before patting him on the arm. Her smile is as wide as Bitty's and every bit as friendly. "You'll get there," she says. There's a yelp behind them all, and Moomaw sighs as everyone--including Jack--turns to look. "Peggy, those boys of yours--"

"Mama, don't you start," Aunt Peggy says.

"They're gonna lose an eye," Moomaw says, dropping Jack's hand and taking Coach's arm so he can help her across the yard to the line of lawn chairs that are set up. Moomaw and Aunt Peggy argue all the way across the yard while Mrs. Bittle watches them with wariness and amusement mixed on her face.

"So, that's Moomaw," Bitty says.

"I see why you like her so much," Jack replies. He glances down at Bitty. "It's all your stubbornness and friendliness wrapped into a smaller package."

Bitty blushes and plays with the pull tab on his beer can. "Jack. You say things like that, I'll sneak you 'round back and kiss you."

Jack clears his throat. He opens his beer and takes a sip. "I'll remember that," he says. His voice goes a little breathy halfway through. He knows Bitty hasn't told his parents anything yet--not about his sexuality, and not about him and Jack. It doesn't bother him. He has Bitty, and Bitty wants him. That's all he needs. But the idea of it, that little clandestine moment, it sounds really, really nice.

"Maybe later." Bitty's flush has faded, and he's looking across the yard at the rest of the family. "It'll be easier after dark."

"Just say when," Jack says.

Bitty gives him a smile, and they walk together to rejoin the party.

One of the twins runs up to Jack, a fistful of bottle rocket in one hand. Jack almost backs away instinctively until he realizes they're not lit. "Here," the twin says, thrusting the bottle rockets at Jack. "You guys haven't set off anything yet."

"Um." Jack takes the bottle rockets and looks at Bitty. "How does this work?"

"You ain't never lit a bottle rocket?" the twin asks.

"He's from Canada," Bitty says. "They're different about fireworks." The twin looks horrified. "Come on, Jack," Bitty says.

Jack follows him over to a small pile of long, black sticks. They're about half an inch thick for the first foot, then taper down to a very narrow handle. "Those are punks, right?"

"Yup. I don't know why they're called that, but they are. They're basically just a big ember." Bitty crouches down, putting his beer down by his feet as he picks up a lighter that's next to the pile. He picks up a punk and flicks the lighter. After a few seconds, the end of the punk glows bright red. Bitty blows on it to encourage it, then stands, retrieving his beer along the way. "I think you'll like this," Bitty says. "They're pretty loud, but they're fun."

"Sounds like the team."

Bitty smiles at him and leads him over to a halfway point between where the twins are tying together Black Cats under the wary supervision of the women and the highly entertained supervision of Uncle Bubba and Coach, who's manning the grill. Bitty shakes his beer can, then tips it back and shotguns what's left.

"Shitty would be very proud," Jack says.

Bitty shakes his head at him and kneels down. He presses the can hard into the grass, then holds out his free hand. "Bottle rocket," he says. Jack hands one over. Bitty slips it in the can, lights the fuse with the punk, then takes three large steps back. Jack follows. A moment later, there's a high-pitched whine, then the bottle rocket shoots into the air. A few seconds later, there's a pop.

"Oh," Jack says. "There's no color."

"We'll set those off after dark," Bitty says. "Bottle rockets are just for the noise." He reaches out his free hand and takes the bottle rockets from Jack's grip. He keeps them far away from the punk as he holds it out for Jack to take. "Your turn," he says.

Jack takes the punk, hands Bitty his beer, and plucks a single bottle rocket from Bitty's hand. He walks over to the beer can and repeats the movements Bitty had made. The bottle rocket flies off the same way, with the same noise, and when it pops, Jack can feel how wide the grin is on his face.

"Do another," Bitty says.

Jack lights off five more in quick succession. When he turns to get a sixth, there is an ear-shattering explosion to his left. His heart rate spikes, his hands start to shake, and his vision narrows.

"Deep breath," Bitty says, crowded in close to Jack and moving him away from the noise. Jack manages a deep breath. "Good," Bitty says. "Another."

Jack's vision starts to clear. He realizes they're near the grill and the coolers. Bitty maneuvers him so he's sitting on one, then opens the other and roots around until he comes up with a Sprite. "Sorry," Jack says. His voice is shaky. "I'm sorry. I--" He swallows hard and can't speak.

"I think they strung about twelve Black Cats together," Bitty says as he opens the Sprite. He holds it out for Jack to take. "Careful, the can's real cold."

It is, but the sensation helps Jack focus, helps bring his anxiety down a little. He feels the coldness of the can and concentrates on the individual drops of condensation he can feel under his fingers. There's another ear-shattering explosion, and he winces.

"Let's go inside," Bitty says.

"No, I...I'm fine." Jack doesn't look at Bitty when he says it.

"Just for a minute," Bitty replies. "I need to use the restroom."

Jack doesn't believe him, but it's enough of an excuse to follow Bitty into the house. Bitty closes the front door just before another explosion happens, and the dulled noise doesn't hit Jack nearly as hard. He takes a drink of his soda. It's cold and bubbly down his throat. "Thanks," he mutters.

"Of course," Bitty replies. He touches Jack's elbow and leads him down the hall to their shared room. It is also, Jack realizes, the furthest room from the noise. "Let's just sit down for a few minutes, all right?"

"Okay." Jack sits on the edge of the bed. Bitty steps up close, and Jack opens his legs without thinking. Bitty steps between them and brushes Jack's hair back from his forehead.

"This okay?" Bitty asks.

Jack considers it for a moment. Bitty's fingers are soft in his hair. If he wanted, he could lean forward just an inch or two, and he'd be pressing his forehead against Bitty's chest. "Yes," he says. "I like this."

Bitty presses a quick kiss to the top of his head. "I should have thought about the noises," he mutters.

"No," Jack says. "That's not your job. It's my anxiety."

"It is your anxiety," Bitty agrees, fingers still running through Jack's hair. "And I think you're really good at managing it. That doesn't mean I can't help by thinking ahead a little. You're not used to fireworks. They can be scary."

Jack breathes in deep, holding it for a moment when there's another explosion from outside. Bitty massages the tendons on the back of his neck lightly, and Jack releases the breath. "Bits?"

"Yeah?"

The question sits on Jack's tongue for a moment before he gets it out. "Can I...just, I wanna...can I hug you?"

"Oh my god, of course," Bitty says. He wraps one arm tight around Jack's neck as Jack reels him in around the waist and presses his forehead to Bitty's chest. Bitty is still stroking his hair with his other hand. "You never have to ask that, Jack," Bitty murmurs into his hair.

"Thank you," Jack mutters. He feels Bitty kiss the top of his head and closes his eyes. He breathes evenly as more explosions happen outside, and after a few minutes, he realizes Bitty's breathing with him. "I have pills," Jack says. "Not the daily ones I told you about, but ones for if I ever have a panic attack. I have pills."

"Okay. Where do you keep them?"

"Always in the front pocket of whatever bag I have. If I don't have a bag, they're in the right pocket of my pants. They're in a pill box, not a prescription bottle. They're green."

"Okay. I'll remember."

Jack hugs Bitty tighter, and BItty returns it. Jack wants to tell him more. He wants to explain that he doesn't carry the full bottle because of his unintentional suicide attempt. He'd just wanted to be numb to stop the way he was shaking the night before the draft. So he'd taken some pills--four or five, he's not sure--and he'd woken up in the hospital with rehab already scheduled, with his best friend far away, and still without any ability to understand that he could be queer and in the NHL and things would be okay.

"You're shaking," BItty says softly. "Jack, you're shaking."

Jack pulls away so he can look Bitty in the face. Bitty meets his gaze, smiling softly, not trying to oversell that Jack should feel okay. Just letting Jack sit here and be a bit of a mess. Jack slides his hands up and down Bitty's back, then pulls him forward until Bitty is on his lap. Bitty wraps both arms around his neck and holds on while Jack hugs him and breathes against his neck.

"There's things I need to tell you," Jack says. "But I can't do it right now."

"That's fine," Bitty says. "I know you trust me, Jack. And you know I trust you. We don't have to tell each other every little detail right this minute."

Jack thinks about that for a moment. He loosens his hold on BItty and lifts his head when Bitty pulls back just enough so they can see eye-to-eye. "Thank you," Jack says.

"You're welcome," Bitty replies. He kisses the tip of Jack's nose and giggles when Jack screws up his face. "Sorry."

"No, you're not," Jack says. Bitty just shrugs, and it makes Jack smile. There's another explosion outside. "How many of those damn things do they have?"

Bitty rolls his eyes. "So many. They don't sell 'em in boxes of less than 500, and even with twisting them together, there's plenty to keep them busy."

"Do they do anything besides explode?"

"Nope," Bitty says. "They are literally the worst."

Jack nods in agreement. Bitty smoothes back Jack's hair and wriggles off Jack's lap. "Hey," Jack says, reaching out.

For just a moment, there's a naked look of want on Bitty's face, like he could climb back into Jack's lap and stay there forever. "Sorry, honey, but if we both stay in here much longer, someone'll come looking. You can stay here if you want. I can tell everyone you're just not used to the noise."

"I think I'll be okay," Jack says. "I'm sort of used to it now."

"Are you sure?" Bitty asks. "Because you don't have to stand outside in that heat and that noise just because the rest of us are. The only people who'll think you're being rude are Aunt Peggy and Uncle Bubba, and I'm pretty sure Mama and I made it clear about how much we care about their view of--"

Jack kisses Bitty, a quick little peck. He pulls away, looks at the way Bitty's eyes are half-shut, and goes in for a slightly longer one. "I'm not going out there to seem tough," he says. "I'm going out there because I want to be near you."

Bitty shakes his head and blushes. "Jack," he murmurs.

"Come on," Jack says, gesturing towards the door. "Let's see what size crater they've left in the yard."

"You're joking," Bitty says, "but they've done it before."

They walk down the hall and back outside. There are a few more people in the yard, and Bitty introduces them as neighbors and someone who works with his mother. They all greet Jack warmly and give their sincere condolences that the team didn't win the championships. Jack's surprised they know.

"If I tell it to Mama, she tells it to Moomaw, and then Moomaw tells everyone," Bitty explains to Jack as they both get new beers from the cooler. The twins are still setting off Black Cats in heaps, but one of the neighbors has also turned on some music from a portable CD player, and it helps split Jack's attention and keep his anxiety down.

"It's a trusted system," Coach says from the grill. He's laying out burgers and doesn't turn to look at them.

Jack walks over to the grill to watch him work. Bitty walks further away and sits in a lawn chair next to Moomaw. "I looked up your team stats," Jack says. "Looks like a good group of guys."

"They work hard," Coach replies. "Though, I don't think you probably follow high school ball all that much."

"No, Sir," Jack admits. "But my dad's always liked American football and taught me about it like he taught me hockey. When Bitty said you were a coach, I got curious."

Coach looks up from the grill to squint at Jack. "I doubt your dad could teach you anything like he taught you hockey."

Jack nods. "I suppose that's true."

"They're good boys, my team," Coach says. He glances over at Bitty, then back at the grill. "Haven't always had the team I've wanted, but these boys, they've made me proud for a lot of years."

"You can see that in their stats. Lots of improvement across the board from your fourth-years."

"Yup," Coach agrees. He picks up a spatula and flips a few burgers. "You know anything about grilling, son?"

"No, Sir."

"Then you go and leave me to it. It's a solitary activity."

"Yes, Sir." Jack walks away, smiling a little. He heads towards Bitty and Moomaw and sinks to the ground to sit cross-legged rather than pull up a chair. The grass is warm under him, and from here he has an excuse to look up at Bitty and appreciate how he looks in the sunlight.

"...some mustard greens, at least," Moomaw is saying.

"It's not a matter of if they grow up there, Moomaw. They don't let anything grow over on campus. One leaf goes out of place, they'll chop the whole limb."

"Well, get off campus, then. There's got to be someone doesn't weed their ditch on the regular."

Bitty shrugs. "I can't say as I've noticed, Moomaw. I don't go looking. I'm busy feeding a whole house of hockey players and also playing hockey."

"And studying," Jack adds.

"That, too," Bitty agrees.

Moomaw looks at Jack. "You ever gone looking for ditch weeds?"

"Ditch weeds?" Jack asks.

"Collards, mustard greens, dandelions, sometimes spinach, and spring onions are just about everywhere," Moomaw says. "Dicky and his Pawpaw used to walk up and down the street in front of our house harvesting it all fresh."

"I know what all those things are," Jack says, "but I didn't know you could just pick them on the side of the road."

"Oh, sure. Near everything grows wild around here. You have to know what it is, of course." Moomaw looks at Bitty, and her smile goes very fond. "I remember when you were knee-high, and you came home with a sack full of milkweed you were sure was edible."

Bitty laughs. "Pawpaw threatened to cook it anyway to teach me a lesson."

"It smells terrible," Moomaw tells Jack. "And the smell lingers for days."

Jack chuckles. "Sounds like something my grandpa would do. He was a teach by example sort, too."

"I'm sure he was a fine man," Moomaw says. She looks out across the yard, surveying the family.

Jack follows her gaze. Mrs. Bittle and Aunt Peggy are discussing something in another set of lawn chairs halfway across the yard. Two of the neighbors are on their phones, clearly showing something to one another. Uncle Bubba, and Coach are at the grill, though they don't seem to be talking, just standing near one another. The twins have--finally, Jack thinks--stopped with the Black Cats and have moved on to lighting sparklers and using them to sword fight each other. There's a lazy comfort in the air, like this late afternoon just starting to slip towards something like twilight could go on forever. Jack looks over at Bitty, who's back to conversation with his grandmother, and he thinks that if they got stuck in a loop, it'd be a pretty nice loop to be in.

"Another?" Bitty asks a while later. Jack's been sitting quietly and sipping his beer and enjoying the way Bitty and Moomaw talk to one another. Bitty's got his empty beer can in one hand and is reaching the other out to Jack.

"I'll take some water," Jack says, handing over his can.

Bitty nods and walks away. Jack stands and stretches. Coach calls out that the burgers are ready, and before Jack can turn, the twins rush past him to be the first in line.

"Easy," Moomaw says as she gets up carefully from her lawn chair. "They're small, but there's two of them."

"They're fast," Jack says. "Wonder how they'd do on skates."

"Oh, no, those are football boys. Their daddy won't have it any other way." There's something in Moomaw's tone that catches Jack's ear. Almost like she's admonishing the idea that those twins should only play football.

"Well, football's a good sport," Jack says. "But it's no hockey."

Moomaw smiles at him and pats his arm as she walks by him. "And it's no figure skating."

Jack mulls that over as he gets in line for dinner. Bitty comes up behind him and hands him a bottle of water. "Thanks," Jack says.

"You're welcome," Bitty replies. "And I know literally none of this is probably on your diet plan--"

"I got the team nutritionist to give me two cheat days for the weekend. He's from Alabama."

Bitty giggles. "Really?"

"Yeah."

"Well, dig in, then, I guess."

Jack makes a hamburger will all the fixings, takes a handful of chips, and builds a little pyramid of vegetables from the store-bought platter one of the neighbors brought. He glances back at Bitty to ask where to sit, and he sees Bitty's plate looks nearly the same as his. It makes him smile.

"Here," Bitty says, balancing his plate on his can of soda as he pulls a lawn chair over to where he and Moomaw had been sitting earlier. Bitty takes the middle chair, and Jack sits to his left. He's surprised when Aunt Peggy sits to Bitty's right.

He's even more surprised when she leans over, taps him on the knee and says, "Now, Jack, tell me about you."

"Um," Jack says, his burger halfway to his mouth. "I graduated in May. I've signed with the Falconers." He glances at Bitty for help, but Bitty's got on the half-vacant smile he wears when lax bros try to crash kegsters at the Haus. "That's about it." Jack takes the biggest bite of his burger he can, hoping to buy enough time Aunt Peggy will change the subject or Bitty will interrupt.

"Jack's not really--"

"Oh, I know all that," Aunt Peggy says, talking over Bitty. "I'm asking about what else you do. There must be more to you than hockey and your friendship with Dicky."

Jack glances at Bitty again. Bitty's got his burger up to his mouth, taking his own giant bite. Jack can see a grimace on the edge of his mouth. He looks back at Aunt Peggy, who is clearly happy to wait for him to finish his mouthful. Jack finishes chewing, swallows, and takes a drink of water. "Well, I mean, I've got other friends, and I was a history major, but really, I'm pretty simple."

"A man like you? I don't believe that."

The way Aunt Peggy looks at him, Jack does not want to know what she means by "a man like you." He takes another drink of water.

"He's actually got a reputation for being pretty boring," Bitty cuts in. "He's probably the quietest guy in the Haus."

"Really?" Aunt Peggy's looking at Bitty now, and Jack suddenly wishes he could steal her attention back. There's something about the way she's looking at Bitty that makes Jack uncomfortable. "I was sure it'd be you, Dicky. I mean, I was so surprised when your mama told me you were moving into that place. It seemed so out of character for you. You've always seemed to prefer solitude."

"I get some," Bitty says. There's a sharpness to his chin that tells Jack Bitty's right on the edge of his patience. "I've got my own room, so I can choose when to interact. But there's also a kitchen, so I get to cook."

"Oh, your mama mentioned the kitchen. Said you cook for all the boys."

"We try to stay on a diet plan, and Bitty's way more reliable than whatever the dining hall might be serving," Jack says, but Aunt Peggy pays him no attention.

"Do you show them your twirls, too?"

Bitty's chin gets sharper as he pushes it out. Jack suddenly understands exactly what's happening. Shitty calls it a "gender conformity check." Jack had proofed his thesis, and Shitty had defined it as "a line of questioning used to subtly shame a person or persons who are not living by a strict version of the socially acceptable gender codes." Moomaw's comment about the twins "only" playing football suddenly falls into place.

"He has," Jack says before Bitty can say anything. Aunt Peggy jerks her head to stare at him. Bitty maintains his position. "The guys love them. Bits won't teach us the leaps because he says our skates aren't good for it, but we tried a couple lifts." Jack chuckles sincerely thinking back to the shinny. "I think we all got bruised up more trying to lift one another than we did actually playing."

Aunt Peggy smiles, but there's no warmth to it. "How funny," she says.

"It was a lot of fun," Jack says. "And thanks to all his time figure skating, we didn't have to push him so hard on conditioning during his freshman year. We get guys who join up who are great skaters but terrible at stretching. Saved us a lot of time so we could put his speed to work. He's the fastest guy on the ice in practically every game."

Aunt Peggy doesn't reply. She eats a handful of potato chips one after the other. Jack glances at Bitty. Bitty's taking methodical bites of his burger, but when he sees Jack watching him, he gives him a small smile. The rest of the meal passes uncomfortably, but Jack doesn't care. He's been in worse silences than the one Aunt Peggy is trying to cover them in. Bitty seems immune to it as well, humming under his breath as he starts on his vegetables.

"Well," Aunt Peggy says when her plate is empty. "It was nice to talk to you."

"You, too," Jack replies. He watches her walk away and turns to Bitty. "That was uncomfortable," he says in an undertone that doesn't carry outside the two of them.

"It always is," Bitty replies. "She and Uncle Bubba are…" He shrugs after a moment. "They don't think much past what they already know. They're not dumb, but they're…"

"Very big into exact performances of gender."

Bitty shakes his head. "Lord, you sound like Shitty." He smiles at Jack, and it's soft and private. "But, yes, that's part of it. They also just think that the way they do things is the best way. Been like that my whole life. Aunt Peggy's the older one of her and Mama, and she's always tried to explain to Mama why her way is the way Mama should be doing things."

"No figure skating for the male children?"

"Oh, lord no, and the baking's no good either."

Bitty says it so matter-of-factly, and it makes Jack's chest hurt. "That's stupid."

"I know," Bitty replies. "And Mama knows. And Coach knows, even if he did try to get me to play football once. But it's how it is. Aunt Peggy likes who she is, and you can't force her to change."

Jack shakes his head. "I don't like the way she was talking to you."

Bitty's smile gets softer. "Mr. Zimmermann, my white knight."

Jack feels himself flush. He looks down at his empty plate. "Bits."

"Come on," Bitty says, standing. "Let's throw these away, and I'll show you some more fireworks."

Jack wants to say something stupidly sappy, like "I've got all the fireworks I need," but he holds it in, saves it in the back of his mind for when they're alone, and he can properly enjoy Bitty's laughing response to it.

They throw away their plates, each get another beer, and then Bitty takes him over to the big pile of fireworks and explains what each one is. Jack's slightly disturbed by the poppers when he discovers they're tiny paper balls of explosives.

"Everything's an explosive," Bitty says.

"But, you throw these at people," Jack says. He gestures to the twins, who are doing that exact thing.

Bitty takes a popper from the package and tears it open in his hand. "It's mostly sand," he says. "See?"

"But doesn't it hurt?"

Bitty dumps the open popper into the grass and takes out another, he sneaks up behind one of the twins and throws it at the back of his neck.

"Ow!" The twin spins on his heel and glares at Bitty. "Dicky! You jerk!"

Bitty sticks out his tongue. His cousin throws a couple poppers at Bitty's legs. Bitty shrugs when they hit and explode. "Do your worst."

The twin rolls his eyes and turns back to his brother, who has watched the whole thing. Bitty walks back over to Jack. "See?" he says. "They're not really anything at all."

"I thought The Simpsons was joking about how some people celebrate the Fourth," Jack replies. "You know, 'celebrate your country by blowing up a small part of it'?"

Bitty giggles and crouches down to sort through the fireworks. He stands up a moment later with three cardboard boxes shaped like cars in one hand. "I think you'll like these. They whistle like the bottle rockets, but they also light up. Grab a punk, will you?"

Jack does so, lighting it with a green lighter Uncle Bubba hands him. "Thank you," Jack says.

"Sure thing, eh," Uncle Bubba replies, and Jack refrains from rolling his eyes.

Bitty's standing next to the driveway, one of the little cars on the bare dirt between the driveway and the yard. "Just light it and step back like before," Bitty says.

Jack does so. The car gives off a high whistle and then shoots down the dirt path, a trail of green sparks following behind it. It stops twenty feet or so from where they're standing, and Jack feels the grin on his face. "You're right. I do like that."

"They've always been one of my favorites," Bitty says. "Them and smoke bombs."

"Why smoke bombs?"

"They're pretty, and they don't make any noise."

"Did your dad get any?" Jack asks.

"Probably. Mama likes them, too."

Jack goes back to the fireworks stack and digs around. He finds the smoke bombs and a few more cars. He's got them all piled in his arms when he looks up and sees Coach standing over him. "Oh. I can put some of them back."

"No, son, you're fine. They're here to be used." Coach gathers up his own armful and walks over to where Mrs. Bittle and Moomaw are sitting. Uncle Bubba is pulling up chairs for himself and Aunt Peggy, and the neighbors are setting off fireworks with the twins.

Jack takes his collection over to Bitty, who grins widely when he sees how much Jack has brought back. "Does everyone always split up like this?"

Bitty looks across the yard, and Jack watches the way his shoulders relax when he sighs. "Yeah, pretty much. Moomaw says we're all secretly pyromaniacs, which is why we can't take turns lighting things."

Jack glances at the twins, who are currently duct taping at least a dozen bottle rockets together. He looks back at Bitty, who gives him a knowing look before taking a smoke bomb out of Jack's hand.

"Smoke bombs are pretty," Bitty says, "but they're also an excellent sneak attack." He lights the smoke bomb and lobs it towards the twins. It lands a few feet behind them, and after a moment, the smoke billows up.

"Dicky!" the twins yell in unison, running from the smoke. The neighbors who have been playing with the twins laugh and step back a few feet.

"They'll get us back," Bitty says. "How many smoke bombs did you get?"

"All of them?" Jack says. "At least, all I could find. I've got a bunch in my pockets."

Bitty's whole face lights up. "Jack, you fiend."

They light off two more smoke bombs at the twins. When the boys run to dig in the fireworks for their own ammunition, Bitty laughs and holds up three bags of bombs. "Oh, did you need these? Because we've got dibs."

The twins yell and run straight at Bitty. Jack, without thinking, grabs Bitty by the waist and lifts him up. This doesn't stop the twins, who simply barrel into Jack and knock them all down into the grass.

"No!" Bitty's yells, laughing, as the twins try to get the smoke bombs from where he's got them clutched under his arms. "We've got dibs!"

One of the twins tries to get Jack in a headlock. Jack drops Bitty so he can shake out of it and show the kid how to do it properly.

"Got them! Got them!" The other twin yells as he runs from Bitty and waves a bag in the air.

Jack lets the other twin go and watches him run away as well. "Do we go after them?"

"Nah," Bitty answers. "No fun in a smoke bomb war if it's one-sided."

"Is this a regular thing?"

"Yup," Bitty says as the first smoke bomb rolls towards them, fizzing out bright green clouds. Bitty takes a few steps over, taking shelter behind Lulu. Jack follows. Bitty lights a purple smoke bomb and lobs it over the truck. It lands almost perfectly centered between the twins, who are so busy lighting their next one that they don't see it. "The other cousins always did it with me, and by the time the twins were old enough to play without hurting themselves, I was the only one even near their age."

Jack feels that warmth in his chest again, and he wishes he could lean over and kiss Bitty right there. Instead, he takes two smoke bombs from him and lights them at the same time. He hurls them over the truck, and they sail past the twins and land near the adults. "Um."

"They're not a hockey puck, honey," Bitty says between giggles as the adults turn and immediately start scolding the twins.

"It wasn't us!" The twins yell, and Jack gives a sheepish wave to take the blame.

"Sorry," he calls. "I'm new at this!"

The adults shake their heads, and the twins start laughing uproariously. They taunt Jack through the rest of the war, which leads them all into a wide loop around the house over an hour's time. When the twins run out of smoke bombs first, they go for another raid. Jack meets them halfway and picks up one in each arm.

"Run for it, Bittle!"

"Oh, my god," Bitty shouts at him as he breaks around the side of the house.

The twins try to kick and punch at Jack, but he swings them back and forth so nothing lands. When he comes around the corner of the house, everyone's watching expectantly, Bitty clearly having warned them what happened. Mrs. Bittle, Moomaw, and Aunt Peggy immediately burst out laughing. Coach looks very amused. Uncle Bubba walks over, nodding approval.

"They're about a hundred pounds each," he says to Jack. "That's pretty impressive."

"I bench 300," Jack replies. He puts both the boys on their feet again, and they run towards the cooler to get sodas. "Good hustle on them. They'll make good defensemen."

Uncle Bubba's chest puffs out. "That's what I'm hoping. I know most fellas want their boy to be quarterback, but I always liked playing the line."

"I'm sure they'll be great at it."

Uncle Bubba nods and walks back over to the adults. Jack goes to the cooler and fetches two bottles of water and two more beers. He hands one of each to Bitty, who has collapsed into a lawn chair with a happy smile.

"I cannot believe you just talked football with Uncle Bubba," Bitty says as Jack sits next to him.

"Felt like I should say something," Jack replies. He presses the bottled water against his forehead before opening it and drinking down half. The sun's mostly down, but it's still hot as hell to him. He drinks the rest of water and sets the bottle aside.

"You poor thing," Bitty murmurs, and Jack likes the sincerity in his voice. "We'll get you a cold shower before bed."

"That would be great." Jack notices everyone else is gathering up lawn chairs to make a big line next to them. Before he can ask Bitty what's happening, Coach claps his hands twice for attention.

"Happy almost Fourth, everyone!" he says, and everyone cheers quietly. "Happy to see you all again this year, and I'd like to properly welcome Jack Zimmermann to the family festivities." Jack lifts his beer in acknowledgement, and Coach gives him a nod. "Since the kids are all out of smoke bombs--"

"Thank goodness," Aunt Peggy shouts, which gets a laugh.

"I thought we'd move onto the main event." He gestures to the large pile of fireworks still needing to be set off. "I can't imagine I can get anyone to set these off for me?"

The twins are at his side in a second, and everyone laughs again. Bitty reaches across the small space between him and Jack and touches Jack on the arm. "Might want to plug your ears," he says.

Jack presses his thumb against his left ear. A moment later, the first firework shoots up into the air and explodes with a bang and a shower of orange sparks. Jack twitches, and he feels Bitty's hand on his arm for a moment, grounding him. After a few more fireworks go off, Jack realizes he's used to the noise and puts his hand down.

"It's not so close," Jack says. "It's way more manageable."

"Good." Bitty smiles at him as another firework goes off, and his face is patterned with color. "I wouldn't want you to miss this."

"Me, either."

They sit in silence for the rest of the fireworks, the older adults oohing and ahhing and occasionally shouting warnings for the twins to take another step back. By the time the twins have exhausted the pile, it's pitch black, and the air smells like sulphur and fire. Jack stays seated and watches as Bitty goes over to say goodbye to his aunt and uncle, his cousins, and Moomaw. When he sees Coach start folding chairs, Jack stands up to help.

"No need for that," Coach says. "Easy enough for one person."

Jack steps away from the chairs. "How can I help?"

"Get the cooler in so Suzanne can unload it."

Jack hauls the cooler inside, not quite sure where to put it. Mrs. Bittle walks in a minute later, sees him, and laughs. "Oh, you polite young man. Just on the table's fine. I can wipe it down when I'm done."

Jack puts the cooler on the table and opens it. He hands Mrs. Bittle sodas and waters and beers as she maneuvers space in the refrigerator. When all that's left is half-melted ice, Jack closes the lid. "Where do you drain it?"

"Off the back patio, on the left. Thank you."

Jack takes the cooler back and sets it at an angle so it'll drain from the spout. When he straightens up, he sees Bitty pulling the hose around the house. "Hey," he calls softly.

"Hi," Bitty answers just as softly. He wraps the hose around its mounting as Jack walks over to him. "Rare year we don't need to spray down the roof when something goes off course," Bitty says. "Maybe the twins are maturing."

Jack hums happily and glances around them. They're behind the garage and not near any windows. Jack touches Bitty's jaw, and Bitty turns into it like they've done this forever. "You said you wanted to kiss me behind the house."

Bitty beams and pulls at Jack's shirt until Jack leans down to meet him. The kiss is very gentle and intimate, Bitty's fingers against Jack's neck, Jack's hands cupping Bitty's face. Bitty smells like fireworks and sweat and grass. Jack buries his nose in Bitty's hair and breathes in deep.

"Did you enjoy yourself?" Bitty asks, wrapping his arms around Jack's middle and going pliant against him.

"It was wonderful," Jack says.

"Good." Bitty hugs him again, then pulls away slowly, letting Jack kiss him once more before they step away from each other completely. They walk back inside. Coach and Mrs. Bittle are sitting at the kitchen table. They've got piles of pennies and a beer each.

"Penny ante," Coach says. "I prefer five card stud, but Suzanne won the coin toss, so it's Texas Hold 'Em."

"I'm in," Jack says after Bitty nods at him. He sits and takes a few stacks of pennies.

"Another beer?" Bitty asks. He gets two when Jack nods and also retrieves the half-finished vegetable tray. He places the tray between Jack and himself and sits down in the fourth chair. His mother passes him pennies, and Coach shuffles, then slides the deck to Mrs. Bittle to deal.

"How often do you play?" Jack asks, giving Bitty a hard side-eye. Bitty's already got his poker face on, paying Jack no attention.

"We usually do a weekly thing with friends," Mrs. Bittle says. "We rotate who hosts."

"Junior's been playing since he was four or five," Coach says. There's a grin in his voice. "How much he take you boys for?"

"I got off at about twenty bucks because I know a hustler when I see one," Jack says, and Bitty giggles. "Some of the other guys lost a bit more, but then we put him to work destroying the lacrosse team in an intramural poker tournament."

"I told you about that," Bitty says to his mother. "They accused me of counting cards. Can you believe it?"

"No," Mrs. Bittle replies. "I am sure I taught you how to mask that."

Jack lets out a bark of surprised laughter. "You actually did count them? They were apologizing left and right after you got offended at the suggestion."

"I am a polite young man," Bitty tells Jack in a faux-prim voice. "How dare they make such claims."

Jack shakes his head in disbelief. "Shitty's gonna--um."

"It's all right," Coach says with a small chuckle. "Junior's mentioned him."

"And after hearing some of the stories about him, I can understand the name," Mrs. Bittle adds. She starts dealing the hand. "If Moomaw asks, we call him BJ."

"Because we don't know his first name, and it's a pretty common one around here," Bitty says to Jack before Jack can ask.

"Got it," Jack says. Shitty's going to laugh his ass off when he hears his replacement name is an abbreviation of a sex act. Jack picks up his cards and sorts them. He antes as Mrs. Bittle starts to lay out the flop.

"Oooh, Queen of Hearts right off the bat," she says as she turns it. "Who's feeling lucky?"

They play a dozen rounds, Jack and Coach practically bleeding pennies even when they team up to try and strategize against the other two. Jack and Bitty demolish the rest of the vegetable tray, and it's only when Bitty yawns hugely as he stands to dispose of the tray that Jack feels how tired he is.

"Tuckered out," Coach says to Mrs. Bittle.

"They're not the only ones," she replies.

Coach stands and then pulls back his wife's chair. "You get to bed, boys. You're busy tomorrow."

"We will," Bitty promises.

Jack says a quiet goodnight to them both as they walk down the hallway, hand-in-hand. "We're busy tomorrow?" he asks once he hears their bedroom door close.

Bitty gives him an arch look. "No information for you. It's a surprise."

"I promise not to badger you." Jack picks up the empty beer bottles and looks around the kitchen. "Recycling?"

"Just rinse them out in the sink and put them on the drying rack. Mama'll get them to the recycling plant when the bag's full."

"The bag?"

"Madison doesn't do city-wide recycling. You have to haul it in."

Jack's a little thrown by that. Every place he's ever lived, recycling had been picked up along with the trash every week. He rinses the bottles and puts them in the drying rack. By the time he's done that, Bitty's put away the cards and scooped the pennies into a shoe box.

"You still need a cold shower," Bitty says.

Jack is suddenly, deeply aware of how sticky his skin in and how much he still smells like smoke. "Yes," he agrees. He looks at Bitty, who's got sweat tracks on his face cutting through the fireworks grime. "Wish we could split it," he says quietly.

"Maybe tomorrow," Bitty replies. He glances down the hallway, then stands on his toes to peck Jack on the mouth.

Jack returns the kiss and turns into the bathroom while Bitty goes to the bedroom. Jack is amazed when he steps under the showerhead and sees how much dust and grass and soot comes sluicing off of him. He rubs his fingers through his hair and chuckles with a bit of fuse falls next to the drain. Once the smell of fireworks is off of him, he shuts off the water and pulls back the shower curtain. He scrubs a towel over his hair before wrapping it around his waist, and then he walks into Bitty's bedroom.

"Oh, sweet lord in heaven," Bitty mutters when Jack walks in.

"What?" Jack asks, looking down at himself.

Bitty shakes his head and watches Jack sit on the edge of the cot. "You…" he trails off, shaking his head again.

"Bits?"

Bitty seems to rally, taking in a hard breath and straightening his shoulders. He walks over so he's between Jack's legs. Jack cups Bitty's hips then slides his hand over the curve of his ass without thinking. Bitty rolls his hips forward and bites his bottom lip. "You will stay here just as you are," Bitty says, his fingers digging into Jack's shoulders. "I will be back in two shakes."

"Sure," Jack says. He leans back so his shoulders are against the wall and shifts so his hips are even with the edge of the cot.

"You're gonna give me a heart attack," Bitty hisses.

"What?" Jack asks, not sure what he did to get Bitty to look at him like that but wanting to repeat it forever.

"Oh my god how are you real," Bitty says, and before Jack can ask for clarification, Bitty is out the door.

Jack shakes his head at the whole exchange and reaches for his phone, which he'd dropped on his pillow earlier. There are numerous "Happy Fourth!" messages from the boys in the group chat and a pile of chirps about how Canada Day may be three days earlier, but it sure as shit came later in history. Jack adds to the conversation with a brief, harrowing tale of being tackled by Bitty's cousins, and when he looks up, Bitty's back in the room, a towel around his hips.

"Jesus, Bits," Jack murmurs, taking in the sight on him, damp and muscular and beautiful.

"Now you see what my problem was," Bitty answers. He walks over to Jack and combs Jack's hair back from his face. "I…" he blushes and lowers his eyes, then licks his lips and looks at Jack again. "You know I haven't done much," Bitty says.

"Yes," Jack answers. He tilts his head back so Bitty's fingernails run down his scalp. "But I really haven't either."

"You've at least done the basics with boys," Bitty replies. "You said you were with a guy for about a month."

Jack has not yet gotten to the point where he can tell Bitty it was Parse. The depth of gratitude he has that Bitty seems to know he can't say the name yet is bottomless. "I was," he agrees.

"What did you do with him?"

"Rubbing off, like we did last night," Jack says, and he runs his fingers up Bitty's back, then down, stopping right at the edge of the towel. "Mutual masturbation. Handjobs."

Bitty's eyes go dangerous, something Jack knows a lot of people don't recognize, but there's a whiplash change to the way his eyes look, the light in them shifting. "Blowjobs?" he asks.

"Only from girls," Jack replies, and he sucks in a breath when Bitty juts his chin and grins. "Bits. You don't--"

"If you know how to search," Bitty says, his fingers catching the edge of Jack's towel, "there's a lot of sex positive information on the internet about how to give a blowjob."

"Let me do you first," Jack breathes out. He doesn't know why, but he feels like since he's the one with the experience--even if he doesn't have blowjob experience--he should at least try to make Bitty feel comfortable.

"Oh, no," Bitty's voice is soft and smooth, and the kiss he gives Jack is the same. "No. No. No. I've been thinking about this much too long."

"How long?" Jack asks. Bitty kisses him again, and Jack hisses when Bitty nips his bottom lip and slides his hand under Jack's towel at the same time.

"Months." Bitty says. "Months and months."

"I want to say I've been thinking about it that long," Jack says. "But…"

"You didn't think a thing about me naked until you kissed me, did you?" Bitty asks, his smile warm against the skin behind Jack's ear.

"Once or twice," Jack admits. "But not in detail, no."

"Trust me when I say I win for detail."

Jack thinks about how carefully Bitty layers down the strips for his apple pies, about how he creases the edge of the crusts. He remembers watching Bitty prove to Shitty that yes-he-does-know-it's-exactly-a-teaspoon-of-cinnamon, and pouring the cinnamon into his hand before pouring it perfectly level into the teaspoon. "I can't even begin to refuse," he says.

Bitty kisses him again, slow and languid, his tongue feeling the ridges of Jack's upper palate and the shape of his teeth. Bitty's fingers tug at Jack's towel until it falls open on either side of him. His dick is already half-hard. He gasps when Bitty trails his fingertips over it. "Jack," Bitty breathes against his neck. "God, you're beautiful."

Jack swallows a moan, but a gasp gets out. Bitty cups the head of Jack's dick in his palm and massages with his fingers. "You're sunshine," Jack says, his brain completely in his dick.

"Sweetheart," Bitty drawls, and he pushes Jack's chin up with his free hand and kisses him again. "I want to be romantic about this," Bitty says against Jack's mouth, "but I also just really, really want to know what it feels like to suck your dick."

"Fuck," Jack breathes, and he throws his head back when Bitty drops to his knees. Jack touches Bitty's shoulders and biceps, trails his fingers along the column of Bitty's neck. "Bits. Oh." Jack pauses as Bitty grabs his thighs and presses his palms into the meat of them so Jack opens his legs wider. "Should I be calling you Eric?" Jack asks. He licks his lips when Bitty looks up at him, eyes dark and promising, his bottom lip damp with saliva.

"You call me whatever you want," Bitty says. "I can hear how much you mean it."

Jack cants his hips, his dick nudging the corner of Bitty's mouth. "Bits," he whispers.

Bitty licks the spot where Jack's dick had touched his mouth. He gives Jack's erection a contemplative look before ducking his head and pressing barely sucking kisses to the inside of Jack's thighs.

Jack clenches at the sensation. He cups a hand over his own pec and twists a nipple because he doesn't know if BItty likes to have his hair pulled. "Soft," he mutters when BItty places similar kisses on his balls.

"Not so soft," Bitty whispers, waggling his eyebrows as he presses a kiss to the base of Jack's dick.

Jack chuckles, and Bitty grins, and then he opens his mouth and lightly--oh so lightly--presses his teeth against Jack's shaft. "Oh god," Jack says, and he moves his hips so his dick slides against Bitty's lips. Bitty hums in approval and shifts so he can lick the full column of Jack's dick, following the big vein from the base to the tip. Bitty gets to the head and wraps his lips around it. He sucks. The noise is filthy and loud, and they both freeze.

"I…" Jack says after a few seconds, meaning to be reassuring, but then Bitty takes his mouth off Jack's dick and muffles a laugh against Jack's thigh. Jack laughs as well.

"It's not…" Bitty giggles some more, breathes in hard, and kisses high on the inside of Jack's thigh. He looks up at Jack. "It doesn't sound that...wet...in porn."

Jack laughs harder, though not any louder. He cups Bitty's jaw and traces the shape of Bitty's ear. "You're amazing," he says.

Bitty flushes with pride, drops his chin, and licks the head of Jack's dick again. When Jack groans--quietly, thank goodness--Bitty does it again and again and again, and then starts suckling the head as he wraps his hand around Jack's shaft and pumps. His rhythm is uneven, and he pulls back every few sucks or so to catch his breath. But he is intent and determined and so clearly wants to be doing what he's doing that it is immediately the best blowjob of Jack's life.

"Bits. Bits." Jack mangles the sheets in his grip and feels bad when he bucks ever so slightly into Bitty's mouth. Bitty jerks in surprise, but then he makes a low, happy noise and speeds up his hand and lets his tongue work the head of Jack's dick until Jack bucks again. He doesn't jerk in surprise this time, just hums and licks his tongue as far down Jack's shaft as he can manage.

"I need to...Bits. Mon beau. I'm about to come."

There is a quiet but obscene slurping noise when Bitty pulls off Jack's dick, but his hand never stops moving. He looks up at Jack as he undoes the towel from around his own waist, and then he throws the towel over Jack's cock, holding tight to the head of it. "It's okay," Bitty says, and Jack isn't sure why that's what he needs to hear, but he comes all the same.

Jack falls into a smooth, greyed-out space in his head, Bitty's kisses to his inner thighs and lower abdomen and his careful cleaning of Jack with the towel feeling very far away. When Bitty stands up and touches Jack face, Jack rises pleasantly back to the moment. "You're amazing. That was amazing," he says.

"Good," Bitty replies. He takes Jack's right hand and kisses the knuckles. "Your turn," he says, and he curls Jack's fingers against his erection.

Jack can't catch his breath for a moment. Bitty's dick is hard and hot, and the sound Bitty makes when he finishes positioning Jack's fingers makes Jack suck a kiss against his chest without thinking.

"Careful," Bitty says, his tone warm and wonderful. "Don't need anything peeking over my tank tops."

Jack shifts his mouth to midway down Bitty's ribcage. He starts to jerk off Bitty as he sucks at the spot just under Bitty's lowest floating rib. Bitty gasps, buries his face in Jack's hair, and gives a low, guttural moan that Jack is mostly sure his hair is muffling. Jack pulls his head back so he can catch his breath for a moment. He looks up the line of Bitty's chest and throat and thinks about how he nearly missed this. Missed Bitty.

"Come here," Jack murmurs, dropping his hand from Bitty's dick so he can get both hands under Bitty's thighs. He lifts him, Bitty's hands curling over his shoulders, and he lays him out on the cot.

"Jack," Bitty breathes. His smile is lazy. His dick is still hard. Bitty squirms and tries to help when Jack grabs him under the knees and pulls him closer. "Oh," Bitty gasps when Jack lowers his head and takes as much of Bitty's cock as he can.

He sucks a few times, then pulls off, reaches with one hand to cradle Bitty's balls, and jerks him off with the other. Bitty makes tiny gasping noises and shivers from head to toe. Jack nudges his nose into the crease between his thigh and groin and licks there. Bitty's shivering intensifies.

"Jack. Oh my god. I. Honey. I."

Jack licks again, then kisses the spot. He moves to the other crease and gives it the same treatment. Bitty's dick twitches, and Bitty gasps, and Jack pulls back to look at him. He's flushed all over, his face and chest pink, his dick purple on the head. His eyes are closed, and he's biting his lip, nearly inaudible moans getting loose. His hands are clenched in the sheets. "Look at you," Jack murmurs, and the shiver gets even stronger.

"Jack. I. I."

Jack grabs his own towel and lays it against Bitty's leg. He reaches out a hand and strokes Bitty's fingers. Bitty lets go of the sheet and twines their fingers together. He opens his eyes and looks at Jack, and Jack never wants to look away.

"Jack."

"I'm here, Bits." Jack speeds up his hand just a little, but it's enough. Bitty squeezes his hand hard and his breathing gets harsher. A minute later, he comes, shivering still, a hushed gasp the only sound he makes.

Jack cleans him off, then tosses the towel towards the pile of clothes. He shifts so he's lying with his back against the wall. Bitty wriggles around so he's face-to-face with Jack, their noses nearly touching. Jack slides his hand over the shape of Bitty's hip and smiles when Bitty kisses him. "It was good?"

"It was wonderful," Bitty says. He trails his fingertips up Jack's arm and curls his hand over Jack's bicep. "You're wonderful."

"You, too," Jack says. He presses a kiss to Bitty's forehead. They lie together in silence for a few minutes, kissing a little, looking at each other. Jack traces one of Bitty's eyebrows. Bitty strokes the outline of the muscles in Jack's forearm. "I can't wait for you to be back at Samwell."

"Just forty minutes on the highway," Bitty replies.

"Can't wait to have you in my kitchen."

"I already know what I'm making you the first time I'm there."

"Oh, yeah?"

"Yeah." Bitty moves in closer to Jack, so that his head is tucked under Jack's chin, and Jack's arm wraps around his waist. "But it's a secret."

"Hmm," Jack hums. He falls asleep to the feel of Bitty's breath on his collarbone.

*

Jack wakes up in the morning to Bitty's fingers in his hair. He opens his eyes, and Bitty is sitting on the edge of the cot wearing blue shorts with white piping and a red tank top. "That's not work out gear," Jack says.

Bitty stares at him a moment before giggling. "You're ridiculous," he says. "It's the Fourth. It's a national holiday. I turned off your alarm. I promise you'll get plenty of cardio without the jog."

"Oh?" Jack trails a hand over Bitty's knee, trying to be flirtatious.

Bitty pushes his hand away with a smile that tells Jack he was successful. "Not like that," Bitty says, flushing. "Well, maybe some of that."

"Is the cardio part of your surprise?" Jack asks.

"Yes."

"What should I wear?"

"Shorts and a tank are fine. You'll need sunscreen."

Jack looks down at his arms as he sits up on the cot. "You think so? I'm pretty tan."

Bitty looks at Jack's arms, lightly tanned from his outdoor jogs. "Oh, sweetheart. No. You will be applying SPF 50 every hour on the hour, and so will I. We will also be drinking plenty of water."

"You sound like me."

Bitty giggles. "You're hard to ignore. Come on, up you get. Mama's got breakfast on already."

Jack gets up and dresses, stopping by the bathroom to brush his teeth and check his hair doesn't look terrible. When he walks into the kitchen, Bitty and Coach are already tucked into a full breakfast of eggs, sausage, fruit, and toast. Mrs. Bittle waves Jack to the table and brings him a cup of coffee. "Thank you. Good morning."

"Morning! Sleep well?"

"Very well," Jack says. Bitty's leg presses against his under the table.

"Eat up," Mrs. Bittle says, putting a full plate in front of Jack. "You two will be busy today."

"Will we?"

Bitty meets Jack's arch look with one of his own. "I know English is your second language, Jack. But I figured 'surprise' should be easy."

Coach chuckles as Jack takes the chirp straight to the face. "Don't drown each other today, boys," he says as he stands to clear his plate.

"Drowning, huh?" Jack says. He thinks about the place he and Bitty stopped to kiss the day he got into town. "Lake?"

Bitty sighs and shakes his head. "Well, you'll know as soon as we walk outside, I suppose. I went to Moomaw's before you got up and hitched the boat to the truck. I thought you'd like to spend the day on the water before we see the fireworks tonight."

"That sounds good," Jack says. He looks at Mrs. Bittle. "Will you be joining us?"

"Oh, heavens no. You get me in something faster than a canoe, and I'm sick as a dog."

"We'll be at Peggy and Bubba's for the day," Coach says. "Figure you probably had your fill last night."

"Please send my regards," Jack says.

Coach grins, sharing a look with Mrs. Bittle. "That's about the politest answer I've ever gotten on the topic."

"Hush, you," Mrs. Bittle says, nudging Coach with her empty coffee cup.

They finish breakfast with more light chatter. Coach and Mrs. Bittle leave before them, reminding them to wear sunscreen and make sure to fill the gas tank on the boat before taking it back to Moomaw's. Bitty turns and looks out the side window, craning his neck so he can see his parents pull out of the driveway. Once they've turned onto the road, he stands and leans over, kissing Jack quickly on the mouth. "All day alone," he says as he kisses Jack again.

Jack skims his hands down Bitty's sides and rests them just under the hem of Bitty's shorts. "Do you own any shorts that aren't tiny?"

Bitty licks the corner of Jack's mouth and shimmies against Jack's hands. "I used to, but then my hockey butt came in, and why hide such a masterpiece?"

Jack cups Bitty's ass with both hands. Bitty yelps. "You're a masterpiece."

"You," Bitty replies, kissing Jack once more, then pushing away from him. "Hands down, mister. We are not spending all day in bed."

The idea makes Jack clench his hands, which are still on Bitty's ass. Bitty yelps again. "Sorry. Sorry." Jack removes his hands.

"I'm not sure you need to apologize," Bitty says. "But I really do want to take you on the lake. It's so pretty."

"I'd love to see the lake," and Jack means it because just saying it's beautiful makes Bitty look fond.

"Sunscreen first," Bitty says. "I wasn't kidding about that."

"Yes, Sir." Jack chuckles when Bitty flips him off and throws him a tube of sunscreen at the same time.

Jack puts sunscreen everywhere he can see and has Bitty cover the backs of his shoulders and neck. He squirms when Bitty covers his ears. "I don't think that's necessary."

"Which one of us is the Georgia boy, here?"

Jack doesn't chirp back, just makes sure to give Bitty's ears the same treatment when he finishes off Bitty's back.

The truck is parked in the road, the boat hitched up behind. It's blue with a white stripe and has six seats. There are two coolers wedged in the bow, in front of two of the seats. Jack takes in the whole of it before getting in the passenger side of the truck.

"What time did you get up to do all this?" he asks.

"Early," Bitty says as he starts the truck and puts on his sunglasses. "But someone always makes me get up early to exercise, so it wasn't so hard."

Jack smiles and sighs in relief as the air conditioning starts to turn cool. "I've been on a lake before," he says. "We have them in Canada."

"It must be freezing cold to jump in and swim."

"Oh, it's not so bad. We Canadians are built for cold."

"Built for sass," Bitty mutters.

"Says the Georgia boy."

Bitty laughs. He drives down to the end of the road and turns, watching the way the boat turns in the mirror. "Keep an eye, will you? It's been awhile since I drove with anything attached."

"Sure." Jack glances in the side mirror and keeps half his attention there. "Where's the boat launch?"

"Not far. Twenty minutes. I'm hoping it won't be completely taken over this early. It's usually a madhouse by noon."

Jack glances at the clock on the dash. It's just after nine. "How long will we be on the water?"

"Long as we want, really. One cooler's just food, the other ones all water."

"Your parents are okay with you not spending any of the day with them?"

"Oh, sure. There's enough family around, we're usually all split up one way or another. The last few years, I've been on the boat with my cousins while the adults stayed on land. Mama was so happy when we got old enough to do our own thing together. Dramamine gives her a headache."

Jack appreciates the shape of the courthouse as they pass by the completely empty square. "How'd you get the boat to yourself this year?"

"The twins are too young, and everyone else is having babies, so none of them are quite at the right stage to go out on the boat." Bitty slides Jack a grin. "Not that an infant has stopped other of my Georgia brethren, but Moomaw is determined we will be classy rednecks."

"I'm not even sure what a redneck is," Jack says. "I mean, I've heard people talk, but the definition seems so loose. If a mullet is a great sign, every hockey player for thirty years was one. And, with the loose definition, it seems like Shitty does some sort of redneck drag."

Bitty laughs. "Redneck drag, oh lord. Put that in the group chat right now."

Jack chuckles and pulls out his phone.

==These Dorks==

Jack: Shitty, Bits and I have decided you are disgracing the redneck lifestyle because of your appropriative redneck drag.

"I told him he's appropriating," Jack says, and Bitty's laugh is even louder this time. Jack's phone pings in a quick series, meaning everyone's up and ready to go.

Shitty: What the fuck
How dare you
I stand in solidarity with my redneck soulmates

Holster: OMG ARE YOU GETTING GEORGIA CHIRPED BY THE FUCKING CANADIAN

Ransom: 1 OF THE FUCKING CANADIANS, TY. BE SERIOUS JACK DID BITTY DEMAND THIS

Jack: Bitty made a valid point I am passing along because he is driving.

"Shitty says he stands in solidarity with his redneck soulmates."

"Oh, hell no," Bitty says, his twang deep and wonderful. "You tell him I said his family is so WASP-y they live in a paper nest and that no true redneck would cut their flow."

Jack: Bitty says your family is so WASP-y they live in a paper nest.

Before Jack can write the second part, the texts come pouring in.

Dex: omg, this is the greatest thing I have ever seen.

Lardo: Shits, doesn't your mom ACTUALLY live in a house made of reclaimed materials that includes paper?

Ransom: OMG LET THIS BE TRUE

Nursey: ???? How do you redneck drag

Shitty: SHUT. UP. LARDO.

Dex: u need a sick mullet and xenophobia, Nurse.

Jack reads them all to Bitty, who just keeps laughing and laughing.

Jack: Also, Bitty says no true redneck would hack their flow.

Dex: As a rep of Northern rednecks, I second this.

Shitty: NO ONE FUCKING ASKED YOU DEX.
I CANNOT BELIEVE THIS HATE.

Chowder: I don't understand. Does Shitty's mom live in a paper house?

Nursey:C., you sweet summer child.

Holster: You fucks. laughed so hard I dumped my beer in my lap. I've got hops dick.

Lardo: It's 9 n the fing morning!

Holster ITS THE FOURTH AND I'VE GOT HOPS DICK

Bitty continues to laugh as Jack keeps reading him the feed. Their phones aren't quite synced, so Jack keeps reading new responses just as Bitty's phone pings, and it adds to the fun.

"Oh, lord, I can't believe I miss them," Bitty says, though the fondness in his voice gives him away.

"There's something about them, isn't there?" Jack asks. He looks up from his phone as Bitty takes a right next to a sign that announces the lake. Jack means to say something else, but they crest a tiny hill, and suddenly the lake is in front of them, shining and perfect like a dime glinting on a sidewalk. Jack pulls in a breath, and he feels Bitty touch his shoulder with his fingertips.

"Pretty, isn't it?" Bitty asks.

"Wish I had my camera," Jack says.

"You have a phone and Photoshop, Jack."

Jack huffs a laugh when he realizes Bitty is right. Bitty pulls to the side of the road so Jack can step out of the truck and take a few pictures. When he gets back in the truck, he pulls his shirt over his head and dumps it on the space between them. "It is already too hot out."

Bitty gives him a sympathetic look. "We'll be on the water in a few. You ever launched a boat?"

"A few times."

"I'll have you drive Lulu, and I'll spot and start the boat," Bitty says.

"What's the boat's name?"

"Murphy." Bitty's smile goes a little sad. "Pawpaw named him. I couldn't rename him."

Jack touches Bitty's shoulder. "When'd he die?"

"Four years ago."

"I'm sorry."

"Thank you."

Jack watches Bitty blink back a few tears and wants to tell him it's okay to cry. But they're at the launch, and Bitty's concentrating on getting the truck turned, so Jack lets it be.

Bitty parks the truck and reaches under the seat. There's a ratchet noise, and then the seat is as far back as it will go. "Parking brake's down here," Bitty says, pointing to the floor. Jack ducks his head so he can see it. It's to the left of the brake, but further back than a clutch would be. "To release it, you'll push the button next to it," Bitty continues, pointing to a button that's slightly further left. "Put her in neutral when I get out, and I'll lead you in."

"Got it," Jack says. He slides over on the seat when Bitty gets out and shuts the door. The window is rolled down, and Jack rests his arm on the sill, looking in the side mirror then out the back windshield to see where he's going.

Bitty's walking around the boat, removing the cargo straps. He tosses them into the back of the truck. "You ready?"

Jack puts the truck in neutral and taps the button to release the parking brake. "Ready!"

Bitty waves him back, little by little, pointing to the right or the left to get Jack to turn the trailer the correct way to keep it straight. Jack hears the trailer splash the water and looks out the back windshield again. The back half of the boat is submerged, but not the front.

"Little more!" Bitty yells.

Jack rolls back until Bitty holds up a hand to stop him. Jack puts the truck in park, pushes in the parking brake, and steps out of the truck. Bitty's got both hands on the edge of the boat, dangling off the ground. Before Jack can offer to help, Bitty flexes, tightens his grip, and pulls himself over the edge of the boat with his upper body strength alone.

"What?" Bitty asks when he catches Jack staring.

Jack can't think for a moment, still caught up in just how strong Bitty is. "Nothing," he gets out. "Nothing."

Bitty gives him a disbelieving look that Jack can read even through his sunglasses. "Gonna start him up," Bitty says. He reaches down and Jack looks around the back of the boat as the motor starts. There's a first rush of bubbles, and then it calms into a steady hum. Bitty is leaned over the steering column, clearly checking a few things. He pops up after a few seconds and beams at Jack. "Let him loose! You can park up the hill."

"I saw," Jack says. He reaches up and lets loose the hardware keeping the boat on the trailer. He watches Bitty carefully maneuver the boat fully off the trailer, his face relaxed but concentrated. Jack manages to snap a couple of pictures before Bitty looks at him.

"Meet you at the dock!" Bitty shouts.

Jack waves to show he's heard, and he gets back in the truck, taking care to keep an eye on the trailer in the rearview as he drives up the hill and parks. There are stairs leading from the parking lot straight down to the dock, and Jack takes them down, pausing once for one more shot of the lake before he reaches the bottom. Bitty has the boat pulled alongside the dock, chatting with the man who is pumping gas into the boat. The guy looks to be about Bitty's age, with light brown hair and a deep tan.

"Jack, this is Colin. Colin, this is my friend, Jack."

"Nice to meet you," Jack says, and he and Colin shake hands.

"Colin and I were on the hockey team together."

"Nice," Jack says. "What was his nickname?" he asks Colin.

Colin grins as Bitty groans. "Junior-Junior; JJ for short. It's not the usual, but he's a fourth."

"A fourth?"

Colin's grin gets wider. "Oh, yeah. Dicky--" and Colin laughs when Bitty flips him off, "was named after Coach, who was named after his father, who was named after his father. So, he's Eric Richard Bittle the Fourth. Two Juniors."

"Junior-Junior," Jack repeats, and Bitty looks murderous.

"I will leave you here to drink gasoline, Jack," Bitty threatens. "And fuck you very much, Colin."

"Eat shit," Colin replies good naturedly. He puts the gas pump back and reaches out to fist bump Bitty. "Later."

"Bye."

Jack gets in the boat and reaches to undo the moorline. He starts when Bitty snaps his fingers. "Something you need, Sir?" he says in a haughty voice.

"Oh my god, I am going to murder that man." Bitty shakes his head. "Keys," he says. "And your phone."

Jack hands them over and watches Bitty secure them in a sandwich bag then stick them in the glove compartment of the steering console. He puts his own phone in a second bag and stores it as well. "How many phones did you lose before you started doing that?" Jack asks.

"I never lost mine, but a couple of my cousins had to pay for their own replacements." Bitty stands behind the steering wheel and sets the boat to trawl. He eases it away from the dock and glances at Jack. "Ready?"

"Let's go."

Jack stands next to Bitty as they move through the traffic around the dock. It's not terribly busy in front of them, but when Jack glances behind, there's a line at the launch. "I think you timed it just about right."

Bitty glances over his shoulder and grins. "Looks like." He waves a hand towards the bow. "Grab me a water? They're in the blue cooler."

Jack does so, getting a water for himself as well. He opens the red cooler out of curiosity. There are sandwiches and fruit and vegetables. Jack spots small bags of chips in a waterproof bag, and down at the base of the cooler, the familiar shape of a pie tin. "You made pie?"

"No, that's a Moomaw special." Bitty beams at Jack. "She handed it to me when I showed up for the boat. Georgia peaches, picked from her backyard."

Jack stares at the part of the pie tin he can see, sighs, and closes the lid. "We should save it for later."

"At least until we're stopped," Bitty replies. They pass the last warning from the Park Service to keep the motor on trawl, and he reaches for the gear shift. "Plant your feet."

Jack does so, and he loves the way the wind hits him across his body as Bitty picks up speed. They reach open water, and Bitty goes faster, taking them past other boats and jet skis with smooth control. Jack watches him, taking in his comfortable stance, the way he easily works the controls. He's pulled an old Braves cap from somewhere and put it on, and he looks so confident and sure of himself.

They get beyond all the other people on the water, and Bitty turns the boat to the right. He takes a drink of water and slows down to almost a crawl. Jack walks over and stands behind him, spans his hand along Bitty's side, and Bitty breathes deep like he's memorizing the touch.

"Where are we going?" Jack asks.

"There," Bitty points. It's a cove, surrounded on three sides by cliffs. There are scraggly trees and small bushes dotting the sides of the cliffs. "It's Skinny Dip Cove."

Jack startles. "What?" He slides his thumb over the fabric of Bitty's tank and presses his nose behind Bitty's ear. "Liar."

"Only halfway," Bitty says as he turns the boat a little more to keep on course, "It's got a proper name, but it's also where everyone skinny dips. You know, if you wanted to."

Jack thinks about last night, Bitty damp and naked after his shower. "I could be talked into it."

Bitty giggles at his tone and leans back to press against Jack's chest. He takes another deep breath when Jack shifts so his arm is around Bitty's waist. "Surprise," he murmurs.

"I love it," Jack says.

Bitty pulls into the curve of the cove and cuts the engine. He presses a button on the steering console, and Jack hears a repeated clanking sound from below. "Anchor," Bitty says. He stretches his arms over his head and cups the back of Jack's head when Jack leans down to kiss his neck. Bitty presses his nose against the side of Jack's head and hums happily when Jack lifts to kiss him on the mouth.

"The whole day out here?" Jack asks.

"As long as you want, sweetheart."

Jack curls in closer for a moment, hugging Bitty. "God, Bits."

Bitty leans into the hug, wrapping his arms over Jack's on his waist. "I knew you'd like it."

"It's great."

They stay like that for another few seconds, just quietly pressed against each other, then Bitty taps his fingers on Jack's arms, and Jack lets go. "What?" he asks.

"We're gonna need shade if we're going to be out here all day." Bitty walks to the back of the boat and crouches to open a hatch. He pulls out a bright orange tarp and a four short poles, then a folded pole. He takes the four short poles and places one each in the cupholders built into the edge of the boat. He shakes out the tarp, and looks up at Jack. "Get the front ones, will you?"

"Sure." Jack reaches for the tarp and sees that each corner is sewn around a length of 2-inch wide cord that has clasps on either end. When Jack brings his first corner up to the pole, he sees there's a groove that matches the cord width, and he snaps the cord in place. He clips his other corner in place, then turns in time to see Bitty pick up the long pole and secure it in the small well that holds the handle for the hatch everything was stored in. When the long pole is in position, the whole tarp lifts so there's enough head room Jack only has to duck a little bit. All four of the back seats are covered, with the tarp open on either end.

Bitty grins at Jack. "There," he says. "Blocked from the sun, and we get a little privacy." He pulls off his tank top and tosses it into one of the chairs. "The ladder's in the bow hatch, between the seats."

Jack turns to retrieve it and finds the slots where it fits on the side facing the cove. After he's placed it, he turns to ask Bitty if he needs anything else, but he stops short. Bitty is naked, eyes closed and arms open to the air like he's feeding off the breeze. The sunlight through the tarp casts him in hazy orange and makes all his muscles stand out. Jack stares at his calves and his thighs, the indent at his hips, and the soft cut of his abs. He takes in Bitty's biceps and shoulders and the span of his hands, and he wants so deep it nearly makes him trip over himself.

Bitty opens his eyes and gives Jack a wide-open grin. "Jack! You're still dressed!"

Before Jack can answer, Bitty climbs up on the edge of the boat and jumps off into the water. Jack listens to the splash and looks over the edge to see Bitty pop up from under the water.

"Come on!" Bitty yells. "We've got all day, but not all day, Mr. Zimmermann."

Jack shucks his shorts and his underwear and kicks off his flip flops. He climbs on the edge where Bitty did and does his very best to cannonball as close to Bitty as possible. When he surfaces, Bitty splashes him in the face and laughs, and Jack splashes back and reaches out.

Bitty swims away a few feet, grin turning sly. When Jack can almost touch him, he swims a few feet more. The next time Jack gets close, he bobs up, then drops under the water, and the next thing Jack knows, there's two hands on his ankle, and he's going under the water.

He comes up sputtering. Bitty's close, treading water and laughing. "Oh, it's like that?" Jack asks.

Bitty shrugs. "If you think you can catch me."

Jack gives chase again. His stroke is longer than Bitty's, but Bitty is as quick in the water as he is on the ice. He dodges just as Jack touches his bicep or his shoulder, and he disappears from the surface so fast sometimes Jack isn't entirely sure he's gone.

Bitty manages to pull him under two more times before Jack changes tactics. The next time he gets close to Bitty, he pushes out of the water as hard as he can, manages to catch Bitty by the shoulders, and brings him under along with him.

They both come up spitting water, out of breath and laughing. Bitty swims towards Jack with lazy elegance and stops when their hands touch as they tread water. Jack reaches out his arm, touches Bitty's bicep, and reels him in for a kiss. It's soft for a moment, then Bitty wraps his legs around Jack's waist, and Jack bites down on his lip.

"Ah!" Bitty yells, pulling away in shock.

"Sorry," Jack says. "Sorry." He grips Bitty's ass in both hands and lifts him a couple of inches, so Bitty is taller than him in the water, and Jack has to look up to see him. "Can I try again?"

Bitty licks his bottom lip where Jack had gotten him and drops both arms on Jack's shoulders. "Of course," he says.

Jack strains his neck up until Bitty comes down to meet him. The kiss has intent now, punctuated by Bitty's dick growing hard against Jack's stomach. Jack wraps his arms around Bitty's waist and swims them towards the boat, pressing Bitty against it as he hugs him close so there's some friction. Bitty gasps and kisses harder, nudging against Jack arrhythmically.

"God," Bitty breathes. "You're so strong, Jack. I love it."

Jack smiles into the next kiss and hefts Bitty up another inch. "Yeah?"

"Mmmm." Bitty loses himself in another kiss. "So strong," he murmurs.

Jack pulls away from Bitty's mouth to kiss him on the collarbones and over his pecs. Bitty wraps his arms around Jack's head and noses into Jack's hair when Jack kisses his sternum.

"You make me feel special, Jack," Bitty says into Jack's hair.

"Good." Jack kisses the bottom of Bitty's throat, then lowers him until they're eye-to-eye. "I can't believe I almost missed you."

"But you didn't."

He didn't, and Jack still can't quite believe it. This stunning man in his arms, bright gold in the light, always there for Jack, supporting him, offering comfort and care. Offering love through pies and friendly chatter and silent hugs. "I can't believe you fell for me."

"How could I not?" Bitty cocks his head. "Sweetheart, do you know how giving you are?"

"Me?" Jack nearly laughs, but the serious look on Bitty's face stops him. "Bits--"

"I like to give," Bitty says before Jack can go on. "I like seeing the boys happy with my food, and I like knowing I've helped people, and you're the exact same way, but you...you're careful about when you open up, and there's nothing wrong with that. You can be a giver and be careful about it." Bitty kisses Jack on the forehead and then shifts so they're nose to nose. "You chose me, Jack. You chose to open up to me. I know the gift that is."

Jack kisses him, clutching him on the back of the head to hold him in place as he tries to give him the tiniest idea what Bitty means to him. What his words mean. His care. His love. Bitty tightens his legs, and Jack forgets, for just a moment, to keep treading water, and they both dip under, coming up gasping with surprise.

"You okay?" Jack asks, pushing Bitty's hair off his face.

"Fine," Bitty says. He grabs Jack's hand before Jack can pull it away and kisses the palm. "Come on." He turns and swims towards the ladder.

Jack appreciates his form for a moment before following. When Bitty climbs the ladder, Jack gooses him.

Bitty yelps and stops climbing, turning to give Jack a faux-stern look. "You watch it, or you won't get the rest of your surprise."

"There's more?"

Bitty bites his lip when he grins and steps onto the boat. "Guess you'll have to wait and find out," he calls over his shoulder.

Jack scales the ladder and steps down into the boat, pausing to let himself drip dry for a moment. Bitty's at the far end, lifting up the bench seat. He pulls out a stack of towels and tosses them so they're under the tarp.

"Spread those out?" Bitty asks.

Jack does so, shaking out the towels and laying them out so there's a space large enough for them both to stretch out on. When he finishes, he sits in the center. Bitty brings over their water bottles and two apples, plus a tube of sunscreen. He's wearing his sunglasses and has Jack's balanced on the top of his head.

"Thanks," Jack says, taking the water and apple. He pulls his sunglasses from Bitty's head when Bitty sits next to him. They eat and drink in silence, letting the breeze dry them off. Bitty puts their apple cores in a plastic bag, chugs the rest of his water, and then gives Jack a stern look. Jack finishes his water as well.

"Good," Bitty says. "I know you probably feel fine, but you do not want to be dehydrated in this sun."

"I believe you." Jack lays back on the towels and looks up at the tarp. He hears a snap and turns his head to see Bitty squeezing sunscreen onto one hand. Jack watches as Bitty rubs sunscreen down his legs and feet, then works on his chest and arms. He's so unselfconscious, like Jack isn't even there, and Jack smiles when Bitty scrunches up his nose as he applies sunscreen to his face. "Don't forget your ears."

Bitty smiles at him and makes a production of applying the sunscreen to his ears. He covers the back of his neck and the tops of his shoulders, then holds the sunscreen out to Jack. "Get my back?" he asks, so over-the-top innocent that Jack can't help but laugh as he hauls him in so Bitty's sitting in his lap, his back to Jack's front.

Jack starts at the tops of Bitty's shoulders, adding to the sunscreen that's already there, then works his way down, working his thumbs along either side of Bitty's spine as he goes.

"That's nice," Bitty murmurs, his head dropped forward.

Jack kisses the back of his neck and tries to lick the taste of sunscreen from his mouth. "You'll have to get my back, too."

"Well, we're skinny dipping, so you really need to do more than my back," Bitty says, and his whole back flushes as he glances back at Jack.

Jack slides his hands to the small of Bitty's back and nudges. Bitty stretches out flat, head resting on his hands. He buries his face in his arms as Jack applies sunscreen to his ass. "Bits?" Jack asks.

"I…" Bitty's flush gets darker. "I was trying to be sauve."

Jack grins and presses kisses to the dimples above Bitty's ass as he finishes with the sunscreen. "Well, that makes two of us." He trails his thumbs up and down the curve of Bitty's backside. Bitty shivers and Jack grips Bitty at the tops of his thighs. "Are you hard, Bits?"

"Jack!" Bitty hides his face again. "Yes," he mumbles.

"Turn over for me?"

Bitty does. He meets Jack's eyes, then looks away, then shakes his head. "I'm being silly. I mean, last night and the night before…"

Jack slides up so he and Bitty are face-to-face. "Both of those were great."

Bitty groans and presses the heels of his hands into his eyes. "They were, but I...this…" He throws out his arms and lets out an explosive breath. "Why am I embarrassed to want to have sex with you?"

"I don't know," Jack replies. "You need me to call Shitty? I'm sure he's got a lecture for this."

"Don't you dare!" Bitty shoves at Jack's shoulder, but Jack doesn't move. Bitty laughs.

Jack leans in and kisses Bitty, close-mouthed and warm. "What do you want to do?"

"Everything," Bitty says. He blushes again, but he doesn't hide his face. "God, Jack. Everything."

Jack runs his hand across Bitty's stomach before cupping his half-hard cock. Bitty cants his hips, and Jack kisses Bitty again. "Everything sounds great, but we can start here if you want."

"Yes," Bitty breathes.

Jack jerks him off slowly, breathing against his neck and drinking in all the sounds Bitty makes now that they don't have to be quiet. Bitty groans and murmurs endearments. He gasps when Jack makes a circle at the base of his dick with his thumb and forefinger then spreads his other three fingers over Bitty's balls. "That nice?"

Bitty mumbles and groans in response, his fingers digging into Jack's biceps. He comes a few minutes later, breathing out open-mouthed, hips in the air. "Oh," he says, blinking open his eyes.

Jack wipes his hand on the edge of one of the towels and hums into the kiss Bitty gives him. "Good?"

Bitty makes an approving noise and runs his hands up and down Jack's arms. "Water?" he asks.

Jack gets up to retrieve new bottles for them both. When Jack sits down next to Bitty again, Bitty takes a long drink of his water, then opens the sunscreen again.

"Left arm," Bitty says.

"I can do it myself," Jack replies, but he holds out his arm.

"I only have you until tomorrow afternoon, Jack Zimmermann. I plan to feel you up a lot more before you get on that plane." Bitty starts with Jack's fingers, pressing his thumbs firmly into Jack's palm as he moves up.

Jack feels like that one pressure point relaxes his whole body. "Am I getting a massage?"

"I'm just being thorough," Bitty replies. His hands move over Jack's wrist, pressing just right into his tendons, then working up his forearm.

"Is this my other surprise?"

Bitty goes red again. "No. That's." He looks away to get more sunscreen.

"I'm sure I'll love it, whatever it is," Jack says, deciding not to press. He's almost certain whatever Bitty has planned is sexual. He wonders idly what it might be as Bitty finishes his left arm and moves around to work on Jack's right. Jack turns towards him when Bitty kisses him on the back of the neck.

"I want you to finger me," Bitty says into Jack's hairline.

Jack nearly drops his water bottle. His breath catches hard.

"I want to go down on you again and have you finger me."

Jack does drop his water bottle this time, absently glad he'd put the cap back on. He reaches back so Bitty's head is wrapped in the curve of his arm. "Have you ever...do you do that?"

"Just this summer." Apparently, breathing these things into the back of Jack's neck makes it easier for Bitty to say. He sounds completely confident. "After you kissed me, and we started talking, and I realized that...that this was something. I decided to try it. I didn't know how much you had done, and I wanted to know if...if that...was something I would want."

Jack moans, and his breathing speeds up when Bitty giggles against his neck. "I've never done it for someone else," and oh, it makes Jack feel good to hear Bitty's breathing stutter, "but I would love to."

"Okay," Bitty says. "Okay." They stay still for a moment, then Bitty shifts, places another kiss on Jack's neck, and runs his hand over Jack's right shoulder. "But let's get you covered, first."

They don't talk while Bitty finishes with the sunscreen. He doesn't rush it, keeps his movements smooth and even. He finishes Jack's right arm, does both of Jack's legs, then covers his chest and back. His hands flutter as he covers the curve of Jack's ass, and Jack sighs in contentment at the touch. Bitty finishes with Jack's face, sitting on his lap and smoothing the sunscreen in small circles all over his face.

"There," Bitty says after he closes the sunscreen. "All done."

"How do you…" Jack trails off when Bitty stands up and walks over to his shorts. There is, Jack realizes, a tiny pocket on the inside of the waistband, and he watches Bitty pull two packets from it.

"I...when I was experimenting, I tried the sunscreen, and," Bitty pauses and grimaces as he hands Jack the packets. "It turns out sunscreen burns sometimes."

The packets are lube, and it takes Jack a moment to understand what Bitty's saying. "Oh." He puts the packets down and picks up his water bottle, splashing a little water on his hands before rubbing them together then drying them on a towel.

"Should have thought about that," Bitty says as he sits next to Jack. He opens his water bottle and takes a long drink.

"You can reapply after," Jack says. The water bottle trembles, and Jack scoots over so they're pressed against each other. "Bits, if you're nervous."

"No," Bitty says, capping his bottle. "I'm not nervous." He meets Jack's eyes. "I have maybe--maybe--been thinking about this for weeks, and I am so excited, Jack."

All Jack can do is kiss him and pull him into his lap. Bitty kisses back and settles himself so Jack's cock is resting against the center of his ass. When Bitty rocks back and forth, Jack groans loudly and bucks his hips up. His dick bumps slightly against Bitty's crack, pushing his cheeks apart a fraction, and Jack wants to hold on for dear life and rub off just like this until he comes.

"Easy, easy," Bitty whispers against Jack's mouth.

Jack groans again and has to concentrate to slow his hips. "Sorry."

Bitty giggles. "Oh, don't apologize. I just don't want to get distracted."

Jack smiles and tilts back his head when Bitty ducks down to kiss his neck. He drops one hand from Bitty's waist to re-center his balance, and his fingers touch the lube packets. He picks one up and, after a moment's hesitation, runs the edge of it down Bitty's spine.

Bitty squirms and pulls away from where he's kissing Jack's chest. He looks at Jack through his lashes, then shifts, so he's on his knees to Jack's right. He kisses the top of Jack's right thigh as he gets settled. His ass is in the air, knees pulled up to his belly.

Jack traces the line of him with his fingertips, from shoulder to the bottom curve of his ass. Bits presses his face into Jack's thigh at the touch, then he lifts his head, leans forward, and licks the side of Jack's dick. Jack breathes out hard and can't look away as Bitty does it again.

Bitty wraps one hand around the base of Jack's dick and keeps licking. When Jack doesn't do more than stare, Bitty nudges his ribs with his head and wiggles his hips.

"Yes!" Jack says, and he would be embarrassed it was basically a shout except Bitty is humming and sucking the head of his dick, slowly working his way down.

Jack turns the lube packet over in his hand until he can find the tearaway spot. He opens it and pauses for a moment to consider what he's doing. He's fingered himself before but never anyone else. He wonders what Bitty likes, but when he looks down to ask, Bitty's eyes are closed, and he's starting to move his hand, and Jack really, really doesn't want to interrupt him.

He squeezes the whole packet onto his fingers and rubs it into a fine layer. He trails the back of his fingers down Bitty's back to give him a little warning, and then he slides two fingers between Bitty's cheeks. Bitty moans, and Jack swears he can feel it to his toes. It makes him clench his fingers a little, just above Bitty's hole, and that makes Bitty moan more.

"Bits. Holy hell." Jack slides his fingers down another inch, and there it is, that tight ring of muscle Jack knows well on himself but not on anyone else. He circles it, feeling the edges, and then he massages it, dropping his hand down so he can press on the space behind Bitty's balls.

Bitty pulls his mouth off Jack's dick and tightens his grip. "Jack. Please."

Jack shudders at the dampness of Bitty's lips, the want in his face. He slides his fingers back up, circles again, and then slowly inserts his index finger. Bitty whines in the back of his throat. Jack presses a little deeper, and Bitty makes that sound again. His hand loosens, then tightens on Jack's dick, and Bitty drops his head again, sucking harder than before on Jack's cock.

Jack doesn't know where to put his attention. Bitty's sucking him off with single-minded intensity, but watching his hand on Bitty's ass is making Jack breathless in the best way. When the lube on his fingers gets tacky, Jack tears open the second packet with his teeth and squeezes its contents directly down Bitty's crack. "Bits. Can I...another finger? Is that okay?"

Bitty makes an affirming noise and wiggles his hips again. When Jack pulls out his finger to reposition his hand, Bitty retaliates by sucking down half of Jack's dick in one go.

"Fuck," Jack whispers. He presses against Bitty again, two fingers this time, and he's just past the ring of muscle when Bitty tenses up. Jack freezes, left hand coming up to rest between Bitty's shoulders. "Bad?"

Bitty pulls off Jack's dick again and looks at him. "God, no. I want…" He sighs in pleasure when Jack slowly continues to push in his fingers. "Yes." He closes his eyes and throws back his head, and Jack nearly comes when Bitty starts pushing back against him.

"Good?" Jack asks. Bitty responds by pushing back even harder. Jack tries to match his thrust, and Bitty shivers from head to toe, one hand grabbing Jack's shoulder. "Come here," Jack says. He maneuvers Bitty carefully so Bitty can sit in between his legs, his chest against Jack's, and Jack can get a deeper angle.

"Jack. Oh my god. Sweetheart. Sweetheart," Bitty mumbles against Jack's chest, both hands on Jack's shoulders. When he presses close, he catches the head of Jack's dick between them. His eyes fly open, and he looks embarrassed for a second before Jack thrusts into him again. Bitty gives a wordless moan and reaches down between them. It takes two tries for him to get a grip on Jack's dick, but once he's got it, he starts stroking quick and hard, concentrating on the head and squirming as Jack keeps his hand moving.

"I…" is as far as Jack gets before he comes, stripes of it crossing both their chests. He wants to slump over and take Bitty with him, cuddle him close, but Bitty still hasn't finished. Jack twists his fingers slightly, and pulls Bitty's hand off his softened dick. "Show me, Bits," he says, and he directs Bitty to his own dick.

"Yes," Bitty murmurs. He strokes himself like he just stroked Jack, hard and with attention to his head. His hips go off rhythm, and Jack presses his free hand to the middle of Bitty's back to keep him upright. "Stop moving," Bitty says between gritted teeth.

Jack freezes all motion, holding still while Bitty fucks his fingers for a few more seconds then comes, adding more to the mess between them. Bitty slumps against Jack, his sticky hand pressing low against Jack's stomach. Jack removes his fingers a little at a time, pausing when Bitty whimpers. "You hurt?"

"Oversensitive."

"Okay." Jack gets his fingers all the way out and smiles when Bitty immediately shifts so he's sitting in Jack's lap, legs around his waist. "It was good?"

"It was great," Bitty replies, his voice a sleepy mumble against Jack's collarbone. "I like doing it to myself, but not knowing exactly what was going to happen made it perfect."

"I liked what you did, too." Jack kisses Bitty on his sweaty temple. "You're beautiful."

Bitty kisses Jack's shoulder in response. They stay quiet as their breathing slows down, and then Bitty groans. "We should clean off, but I don't want to get up."

Jack runs his hands up and down Bitty's back. "I know." He tucks his hands under Bitty's ass and gets them both standing, Bitty still wrapped around him.

"What are you doing?" Bitty asks, lifting his head.

"Well, if I can get us both over the edge of the boat, we'll be cleaned off in no time."

"Jack Zimmermann, you wouldn't dare!"

Jack places one foot on the edge of the boat, and Bitty immediately unwraps his legs and plants them alongside Jack's foot. Jack grins and brings one hand to steady Bitty's waist. "I was kidding, but it got you moving."

"Rude," Bitty says. He takes the hand Jack offers him and unwinds the other one from Jack's neck. The second he is completely under his own power, Jack shoves him directly in the chest and overboard. "Asshole!" Bitty yells just before he hits the water.

Jack, once again, cannonballs after him.

They spend the rest of the morning and afternoon in and out of the water. They swim, they try to dunk each other, they make out a few times under the tarp when they pause to have snacks. Bitty makes certain they always reapply their sunscreen, and Jack wants the day to go on forever.

"You'll come to Providence once you're settled again?"

"Of course!" Bitty says. He's getting their phones from the glove box. Jack is dragging the entire food cooler under the tarp so they can help themselves and not move out of the pile of towels they've now made. "Why wouldn't I? It's no time on the train."

"I can drive down to see you sometimes," Jack says. "I don't know how often, but Shitty's already announced he's not ready to fully vacate the Haus just yet, so I don't think it would be awkward."

"I don't think it'd be awkward even if you came alone," Bitty replies. He opens the cooler and starts pulling out sandwiches and chips and the rest of the fruit and vegetables. Jack gets them drinks. "It's not like you've been gone for years or something. You just graduated."

"That's true." Jack comes back with their waters, and Bitty has everything laid on top of the cooler so it can act as a table. "I'm sorry I'm not comfortable being out right away."

Bitty gives Jack a disbelieving look. "You are ridiculous. You're talking about being publically out. I'm not even out to my parents. Yours know at least, right?"

"Yeah."

"And besides, being out should always be a choice, no matter if you're with someone or not."

"You sound like Shitty."

Bitty, who is scrolling his phone, laughs. "Well, academic Shitty, yes, but not Shitty right now."

Jack unlocks his own phone and scrolls through. The whole group text has become a series of selfies and shots of beer can pyramids. "We should take a picture," Jack says. "Well, you should. You know how to angle selfies."

Bitty beams. "Yeah?"

"We can post it to the chat, and I can save it on my phone and have it with me."

"Come here," Bitty says, scooting around the back of the cooler. Jack meets him halfway, ducking his head so he can fit in the shot. BItty angles the camera so a sliver of the lake shows up behind them. "One, two, three," he says, and takes the picture. "Let me get back ups." He takes two more.

"Those look good."

Bitty posts it to the chat, and the responses are instant. Holster and Shitty are both somewhat incoherent, and Bitty and Jack laugh. "As much as I miss them, I'm grateful we don't Epikegster for the Fourth," Bitty says.

"Small mercies," Jack agrees.

They eat their late lunch in silence, smiling at each other over their sandwiches and the entire bag of baby carrots they manage to put away. While Jack gathers the trash and secures it, Bitty takes out the pie from the bottom of the cooler and wipes the condensation off the forks Moomaw had taped to one side.

"We're very informal here," Bitty says, handing Jack a fork.

"Good," Jack replies. He sits back down and happily carves out his first bite of pie. Jack has to pause as the first taste of it comes over him. He moans in approval, and Bitty lights up.

"Does it meet your--hopefully high--expectations?"

Jack swallows his bite and licks the roof of his mouth, chasing the taste. "Is it an insult if I say it's somehow magically better than your pies?"

Bitty laughs. "Lord no. Moomaw's been at it a lot longer than me."

"I don't know how it's better because I have literally never had a pie of yours that didn't taste like it was everything a pie should be, but…" Jack trails off, staring at the bite on his fork.

"You should tell Moomaw," Bitty says, and he's flushed with pride as he reaches for his next bite. "She'll be happy to know she's achieved beyond perfection."

Jack ducks his head, a little embarrassed at his effusive response. "Your food is amazing, Bits. You could open a bakery. Or a restaurant. I mean, if you wanted to."

Bitty chews his next bite of pie and looks thoughtful. "I prefer vlogging. I like how I get to talk to people about what I'm doing, and there are ways to monetize it if I really want to. I mean, my views aren't high enough now to generate income, but with a little effort, they could."

"You've thought about this."

"Not really. Holster gets really, really focused on everyone's future when he's drunk, but he's also a really good listener, so I've bounced some ideas off of him."

Jack grins at that. "Oh, I know. That's how Ransom's spreadsheet got started for me."

Bitty giggles. "I have never achieved a spreadsheet, but I'm okay with that. I've got enough of my future planned out already." He freezes, turns bright red, and becomes very, very focused on his bite of pie.

Jack watches him, giving him a moment to compose himself. "Bits?"

"Yeah?" Bitty doesn't look up.

Jack doesn't try to make him make eye contact. He knows how hard it can be when you feel like you've said the wrong thing. "I've kind of planned for that future, too."

Bitty's heard jerks up. "What? Jack. It's only been--I mean…" Bitty presses his lips together, and his eyes go impossibly wide.

"I admit I'm slow on the uptake," Jack says. "But the moment I realized what I had with you, I was ready to go for it. However we get there, I'm ready to go for it."

Bitty jams his fork in the pie so it sticks straight up. He takes Jack's fork out of his hand and sticks it in the pie as well, and then he tackles Jack to the floor and sits on his chest. "You can't just say these things, Jack Zimmermann. A boy could get ideas."

"I would hope so." Jack chuckles when Bitty pushes at his shoulders. He grabs Bitty's hands and reels him in so Bitty is lying on his chest. "I'm not making a formal declaration or anything, but you're not alone in thinking further ahead than next season."

"You are too much," Bitty mumbles against Jack's chest.

Jack rubs his hands up and down Bitty's back and feels Bitty relax into him. "You okay with that?"

"I think it's great."

They end up dozing off like that, Bitty on Jack's chest. When they wake up half an hour later, there are flies on the pie. Bitty waves them off, and he and Jack finish the whole thing. They take one last quick dip to cool off before dismantling the tarp and getting underway back towards the dock.

"Who put that tarp together?" Jack asks as they cruise forward, other boats slowly coming into sight.

"Pawpaw. The man who sold him the boat tried to convince him he needed to spend extra for a canopy, and Pawpaw decided he could make one for cheaper."

"He sounds like he was an interesting man."

"He was." Bitty glances at Jack, and even behind his sunglasses, Jack can see how sad his eyes are. "He was real proud of my figure skating. Came to as many competitions as he could, and he'd brag to anyone who'd listen about my medal count and my spins. Mama was there too, a lot of the time. Coach couldn't really make it during football season, so Pawpaw sort of stood in for him. Once we moved to Madison, I was too far away from my coach to keep skating, but Pawpaw was just down the road, and he was the one who suggested hockey and found me a team that didn't check. He made it to most of my games my first season, but then he got sick. And, well, it was slow decline, and then he was gone."

Jack presses his hand to the middle of Bitty's back, unconcerned that they're within shouting distance of a number of boats. "I'm sorry, Bits. That sounds hard."

"Well, it worked out in the end. Samwell had a great LGBT rating and a hockey team,, and I couldn't afford to go without my scholarship. Hockey's really turned into something great for me. Pawpaw would like that."

"Good." Jack wants to hug him, but they're well in the throng of other boats now, so he just keeps his hand pressed to Bitty's back as they make their way towards the dock. "Thanks for telling me," Jack says as Bitty brings the motor down to trawl.

"I'm glad I could," Bitty replies, and he still looks a little sad, but his smile is real.

Bitty maneuvers the boat up to the gas pump at the dock, but the person working isn't Colin. Jack gives Bitty a deeply disappointed look. "I suppose I'll never hear more about the life and times of Junior-Junior."

"Thank the good sweet Lord," Bitty mutters. He glances at Jack's phone, which Jack is holding in his hand. "You didn't tell the boys about that, did you?"

"No," Jack replies. "Honestly, I didn't think about it again until now."

Bitty looks torn, then gives a deep sigh and waves both hands like he's shooing away moths. "Oh, just do it."

"What?"

"Do it. Tell them. Make their Fourth complete."

Jack cocks his head. "Are you sure? They don't have to know."

Bitty shrugs. "They've heard my mama call me Dicky. Knowing my old hockey nickname isn't gonna make the chirping worse."

"You underestimate them," Jack says, but at Bitty's nod, he sends the text.

==These Dorks==

Jack: Things I have learned in Georgia: 1) Humidity is the worst. 2) They literally blow things up for DAYS. 3) Bittle's previous hockey nickname.

Lardo: GIVE NOW

Shitty: IOue;lakhdoipahge

Ransom: WAS IT ELSA B/C HE'S AN ICE PRINCESS

Holster: my dick is still sticky from earlier

Shitty: dropped my phone in excitement give it up

Dex: H, that was like HOURS ago. What the fuck.

Nursey: Dex, do your redneck brethren ALSO blow shit up for days?

Shitty: WHAT WAS THE NAME

Lardo: ^^^^^^^^

Holster: I'm not out of beer why would I move.

Ransom: NO WAIT IT WAS CUTTING EDGE BECAUSE OF THAT MOVIE RIGHT

Jack: Junior-Junior (JJ). Because our Eric Richard Bittle is actually Eric Richard Bittle IV.

Lardo: OMG THIS IS THE BEST BITTY I LOVE YOU

Ransom: Dude, are you like redneck royalty??? Was your father's father's father the Earl of Tractor???

Nursey: If Bitty's redneck royalty in the south, does that make Dex redneck royalty in the north?

Shitty: YOU'RE A FOURTH. AND YOU FUCKERS GIVE ME SHIT FOR MY GODDAMN WHITENESS.

Holster: Shitty, you're so white you got into Harvard Law. Shut the fuck up.

Dex: Sure, I'm redneck royalty. My father's father's father made a deal with the Lobster King, and that is why we get to farm their kind.

And, yeah, we blow shit up for days as well.

Chowder: I think it's a nice nickname Bits.

Bitty: ty, Chowder.

Nursey: Is anyone gonna point out to Dex that he's slave-trading lobster?

Bitty puts his phone on mute and hands it to Jack. "I am not listening to my phone explode when Dex sees that."

Jack's phone pings seven times in a row. He mutes it without reading anything. "I'll catch up later. Want me to get the truck?"

"Please. I'll meet you at the launch."

Jack gets the truck and drives it down to the launch. They get the boat loaded back on the trailer, and Jack slides over to the passenger seat so Bitty can drive. "What do we do next?" he asks.

"I need to drop the boat at Moomaw's." Bitty comes to the end of the lake road and checks traffic. "After we drop it, we'll need to take the coolers with us and drain them, then we can have dinner and maybe shower before the fireworks."

"We'll be back outside for the fireworks, right?" Jack asks.

"In the back," Bitty says, jerking his thumb to point to the bed of the truck. "There's a stack of blankets in the garage I'll need to grab so our butts won't go numb."

"I don't know if I'll shower before the fireworks. If we're headed back outside, I'll just sweat again."

Bitty slides Jack a look. "That's understandable," he says. "But if you wanted to rinse off with me, you could."

"Oh," Jack says, suddenly remembering they'll have the house to themselves. "Yeah, I might do that."

Bitty gives him a smile. "You can check me for sunburn."

Jack chuckles. "I'll check you for whatever you want."

Bitty giggles and blushes, and Jack reaches across the seat to touch his shoulder.

*

They leave the boat at Moomaw's without going inside. Jack hauls the coolers and towels into the back of the truck while Bitty does a last check for trash or debris. Once they're back at the house, they each empty a cooler, and then Bitty gets the towels and their clothes from the last few days started washing while Jack carries the coolers outside to drain. When he comes back in the house, Bitty is pulling a casserole dish from the fridge.

"Mama whipped it up this morning. Lots of protein. She makes it for the football team on first game weekend. Shouldn't take but twenty minutes in the oven."

"Sounds good," Jack says. "Can you set the oven to turn itself off?"

"Sure. Why?"

"Well, I don't know how long you plan to shower, and I wouldn't want to rush you."

Bitty stares at Jack for a moment, then licks his bottom lip. "You go get the water started before I drop this food and do indecent things to you in this kitchen."

Jack sucks in a breath and does as he's told. He strips out of his shorts and shirt in the bedroom, then walks naked to the bathroom. He puts the water at lukewarm and lifts the plunger for the shower. By the time Bitty comes in, Jack is under the spray, scrubbing at his hair with his fingertips.

"Oh dear," Bitty says when he pulls back the curtain and sees Jack naked and wet with water running off of him. "So, that's what I missed."

"Huh?" Jack asks.

"I know I saw you naked all day today, but I never looked when we showered at Faber. I didn't want to be the creepy gay boy." Bitty steps up so he's pressed against Jack. The water sprays over them both. "And now I know what you look like when you're getting all cleaned up."

Jack smiles into the kiss Bitty pulls him into. He shifts them so the spray is hitting him more on the back, then the front, keeping either of them from swallowing water. When Jack pulls away, Bitty presses him into a hug, and Jack returns it. "I looked at you a few times," Jack says. "I didn't mean to, but sometimes you'd be right next to me, and I couldn't help it."

"I showered next to you to make it harder to look at you. I'm not as subtle as you."

Jack nuzzles Bitty's hair. "Well, now we can both look."

Bitty's stomach growls loudly, and a moment later, so does Jack's. They glance at each other and laugh. Bitty runs his hands down Jack's chest in a firm stroke. It feels nice, but it's not for enticement. "Come on, you've still got sunscreen sticking to you."

Jack turns into the spray, and he smiles when Bitty starts to wash his back. Jack soaps up his front and his legs, and rinses off. He stands to one side so Bitty can take a turn under the spray, and he washes Bitty's back in return. It's intimate and warm, the sort of thing Jack knows he wants to do for a very long time.

They dry off and walk back to the kitchen in just their towels. The timer dings as Bitty approaches the stove, and he pulls out the casserole as Jack opens cupboards to find plates. They take their time over dinner, talking about nothing important and checking in on the group chat. It's not dark when they finish dinner, so Bitty pulls Jack over to the couch, and they curl up together.

"We can do this when you visit me," Jack says, running a hand up and down Bitty's back. "Just lie down like this, maybe have some music on."

Bitty presses his face into Jack's shoulder. "That sounds nice."

"We can go out, too, if you want. Dinner or a movie or something."

"I just want to be with you, Jack. We don't have to do anything at all."

Jack kisses the top of his head. Bitty hugs him across the chest. They drowse a bit, contented and half-asleep. Jack soaks it up and commits the details to memory. The slight dampness of Bitty's hair. The way he can feel the warmth of Bitty's leg even through the towels they're both wearing. The feel of Bitty's fingers, splayed on his rib cage.

"I'm moving back to the Haus early," Bitty says quietly. "I want to get it set up for the tadpoles. I checked with everyone, and I'll be there alone for a couple of days."

"I'll come down if I can. Help you move in."

"Have a couple days together, just us."

Jack makes an approving noise, and Bitty hugs him again. They drop back into their drowse for a bit. When Jack comes out of it again, he looks out the window and sees the sun is just starting to go down. "Should we head out soon?"

Bitty rubs his forehead against Jack's shoulder, then turns to look out the same window. "We've got a while still, but we should probably get ready. I'll need to pack a cooler."

They pull away from each other in small movements. Jack stops stroking Bitty's back but keeps his hand there. Bitty slides his arm towards himself, but doesn't sit up right away. Jack lets one leg drop to the floor. Bitty stretches a bit and wriggles so there's a little room between them.

"One of us needs to commit to getting up," Jack says.

Bitty pushes at Jack's side. "I would, but there's a Canadian blocking my way."

Jack smiles and refuses to move for a few seconds, chuckling when Bitty pushes against him again with a fake grunt of effort. When he finally sits up, Bitty slides into the spot he's vacated and sighs into the warmth. Jack leans down and kisses him.

*

Bitty packs the cooler, and Jack hauls it to the truck while Bitty gets the blankets from the garage. He drives them away from town and turns down a dirt path that Jack doesn't see until they're on it. They're on the path for about a mile before it opens up into a large, empty field. There are trees on all sides, but a huge spot of open sky directly above them when Bitty parks.

"Mama and Coach bought this land a few years ago. They rent it out in the winter to Miss Lisa's son-in-law for his cows. There's a barn down yonder." Bitty waves his hand vaguely to the left.

"Come on." Bitty turns off the truck and opens his door. "Let's get set up."

Jack follows him to the back of the truck, watching his biceps as he lowers the tailgate. Jack helps unfold and shake out the blankets they've brought. A couple of them have stains, one is an afghan with a badly fixed hole, and the others are just soft and old. When they're done layering them, Bitty offers Jack his hand, and braces himself so Jack can climb into the truck. A couple of the blankets have been kept folded, leaning against the wheel well, and Jack sits in front of them, scooting back until his back touches them. Bitty sits next to him, leaning on his arm. Jack lifts his arm, and Bitty ducks under, curling against his chest and shoulder. It's still light out, coming into the magic hour, and Jack leans his cheek on Bitty's hair.

There's a distant explosion, and Jack looks up to see a small, green sparkling circle. "Is the show starting already?"

"No, that'd be the McKenzies two fields over." Bitty looks up as a pink sparkling circle comes into view over the trees. There's another explosion but from a different angle, and orange sparkles burst to the left of the still fading pink one. "And that'd be the Smiths," Bitty says.

"How many free shows are you scamming out here?"

Bitty giggles and leans harder into Jack. "Just them and the town's show."

Jack gets his phone out of his pocket and manages to position it one-handed so he can record both sets of fireworks. He puts it on the group chat.

==These Dorks==

Jack: Bitty's got a three-show hookup for fireworks.

Lardo: Pretty.

Shitty: $5 says the trees catch on fire.

Holster sends a video of the show his own family is putting on. It's a little wobbly.

Ransom: Jesus, H., what beer are you on?

Nursey: I'll take that bet.

Holster: don't know. Bea thinks she can outdrink me and hasn't stopped.

Lardo: I just saw a dog in an American flag t-shirt.

Shitty: it is the cutest.

Dex: My $5 goes to it not happening.

Ransom: last time you and Bea drank like that, you woke up with a dick on your face.

Holster: Yup.

Chowder: SEND DOG PIC

Jack silences his phone as the conversation goes on and puts it back in his pocket. Bitty, who'd been reading along, resettles himself against Jack's side. "Do you want to tell them?" Jack asks.

"Hmm?" Bitty hums. He's watching the fireworks again.

"Do you want to tell the team about us?" Jack squeezes Bitty's shoulder when Bitty starts. "I'm sure they won't mention anything to your parents if you don't want them to."

Bitty's mouth works but no words come out for a few seconds. "What if they slip up, though? If we're at a game with you or something?"

Jack thinks about how they all lose any semblance of maturity or respectability during games. "That's definitely worth considering, but I'd still be okay with telling them."

Bitty considers it for a moment. "I think, for now, I just want to keep it to myself. I don't want to worry about how it could affect you this season if it got out."

"I'm sure I could handle it," Jack replies.

Bitty smiles. It's a little shaky. "Well, of course, but for now, just us?"

"That's fine by me," Jack says. He presses a kiss to Bitty's mouth and runs his thumb along the stubble of Bitty's undercut. "Just us."

Bitty's smile is solid now, sweet in a way that Jack's only recently gotten to see. "Yeah," he agrees. They watch each other for a moment before Bitty turns his head back to the fireworks.

Jack spends more time watching the fireworks pattern Bitty's skin than he spends watching the show itself. They drink beers as twilight slowly turns to full dark and the official show starts. The fireworks are bigger, the colors brighter, and they hold Jack's attention. Bitty is warm against him, fingers cool from his beer can when he adjusts how he's sitting and presses his hand to Jack's knee for balance.

"Okay?" Jack asks.

"Great," Bitty says quietly, and when he looks at Jack, the fireworks make his eyes brighter than usual.

Jack kisses him, and Bitty responds by sighing into it and relaxing against Jack's chest. Jack shifts so Bitty is curled in his arms, Jack having to lean down to kiss him again. "This okay?" he asks.

"It's wonderful," Bitty says. He tilts up his chin, and Jack meets him for another kiss.

*
They don't leave the field until long after the fireworks are finished. They lay down in the truck bed and stare up at the stars. Bitty points out the constellations he knows, and Jack gives them new names. Orion becomes "straight line meaning nothing," and the Big Dipper becomes "hockey stick."

"What about the Little Dipper?"

"Pee wee hockey stick," Jack says, and Bitty laughs. The moon is high, so Jack can see the shape of his face. He traces Bitty's chin, and Bitty curls in closer to him.

"I wish you could stay longer," Bitty says.

"Me, too," Jack replies.

They're silent for a few minutes, and Jack can feel the weight of their upcoming distance starting to settle in them both.

"Scorpio," Bitty says into the quiet, tracing the zig-zaggy shape of the stars with his finger.

"Shitty drunk walking," Jack says.

*

Bitty drives home slowly, more slowly than Jack knows is necessary. But they're holding hands, Jack close against Bitty's side because it's dark and late and they can do this right now. Jack wants to memorize the feel of Bitty's fingertips pressing into his knuckles. He wants to remember that Bitty smells like grass and old, loved blankets, and a little like beer. He wants to wrap this memory around him for the next few weeks, when he goes back to practice and a diet plan and his new, half-furnished apartment that he knows won't feel right until it smells like pie.

When they pull into the driveway, the kitchen light is on, and there are shadows against the curtains that tell Jack Coach and Mrs. Bittle are still up. Bitty doesn't move away from Jack, so Jack doesn't move away from Bitty.

"I'm going to miss you," Bitty says quietly.

Jack squeezes Bitty's hand. "Same," he says.

They look at each other in the faint, fuzzy glow of the kitchen light through the window, and Jack thinks he might cry. Bitty looks like he's near it, too. Jack presses a kiss to his forehead, and Bitty ducks to press one to Jack's collarbone. They sit together for another few seconds before getting out of the truck. Jack reaches for the cooler in the back, but Bitty waves him off.

"We won't use it tomorrow. Leave it."

Jack does so, following Bitty into the house. He sneaks one last press of his fingertips to Bitty's back as they step over the threshold. He feels Bitty press back when he does it.

"There they are!" Mrs. Bittle says, grinning at them both. She and Coach are sitting at the kitchen table, a game of Scrabble half-finished between them. "You boys can join us on the next game, if you'd like."

Jack shakes his head. "Not me, but thank you. I'm pretty worn out from the day, and I don't think you'd count words that aren't in English."

"We won't," Mrs. Bittle agrees. She glances at Bitty when he yawns. "How long were you on the lake?"

"Most of the day," Bitty says. He presses a hand to Jack's arm, pushing him towards one of the kitchen chairs. Jack sits. "We went to Three-Corner Cove and just spent the day there."

"Pretty area," Coach says. "You enjoy yourself?"

"Very much," Jack replies. "It's beautiful, and it was nice to jump into a lake that wasn't four degrees."

Coach huffs a laugh. "Suzanne and I went to Chicago for a visit once and decided to go swimming."

"It was July," Mrs. BIttle says. "We figured the lake would be warm enough. It was not."

"I jumped right back out," Coach says, "but Suzanne was determined to show that lake who was boss."

Mrs. Bittle laughs. "I was pregnant with Dicky at the time, and I swear those pregnancy hormones made me extra obstinate."

"Maybe that's where he gets it from," Jack says, glancing at Bitty.

Bitty stops halfway across the kitchen and holds up one of the two mugs he's carrying. "I could dump this down the drain and make you get your own hot tea, Mr. Zimmermann."

"I didn't say it was a bad thing," Jack replies. "You have to be obstinate to take over the kitchen in the Haus the way you have."

"Sounds like he keeps you boys well fed," Coach says as he spells out pinched on a triple word score.

"We definitely got spoiled," Jack says. He accepts the mug Bitty hands to him and hides his smile in his first sip when Bitty sits and presses their feet together. "I don't think there are less culinarily-inclined people than college hockey players."

"Lax bros," Bitty mutters at the same time Coach says, "Football players, trust me." Bitty and Coach make eye contact and share a smile.

"The twins," Mrs. Bittle announces. "Although, that's more because Peggy thinks they don't need to learn."

"What does Moomaw think?" Jack asks without thinking.

Mrs. Bittle gives him a quick, conspiratorial smile as she sorts her letter tiles. "Mama figures those boys will learn when they move out and food doesn't magically appear."

"Hope they like ramen," Coach adds. He curses under his breath when Mrs. Bittle plays interior off of the I in his last word and on the same triple word score.

"Saw the fireworks," Bitty says. "The field's looking good this summer."

"Went out and threw some seed around back in March," Coach replies. "Glad to know the birds didn't get it all."

"It's a nice spot," Jack says. "I liked how the trees sort of protected it."

"You get any pictures?" Coach asks. "Junior mentioned you took a photography class."

"I was too busy watching the fireworks," Jack replies.

"Well, next time you come in, you'll have to get one."

"I'll make a note," Jack says.

Coach and Mrs. Bittle fall back into the rhythm of their game while Jack and Bitty sip their tea and watch. When Jack finishes his mug, he has to hide a huge yawn behind his hand. He sees Bitty doing the same.

"Think we'll hit the sack," Bitty says, standing and taking Jack's mug.

"Sleep well," Mrs. Bittle says. She tilts her head back when Bitty leans down to kiss her on the top of the head.

"Night, Coach," Bitty says.

"Night, Junior," Coach replies. He holds out a hand, and Bitty gives it a squeeze before he and Jack head down the hallway.

Jack closes the bedroom door behind them and leans against it as he watches Bitty strip off his shirt. "Would you brush your teeth with me?" Jack asks. The question makes him feel vulnerable and ridiculous, but he doesn't look away when Bitty looks over and blinks at him in surprise.

"Of course," Bitty says. "Any particular reason?"

"I've just been wondering what it would be like," Jack admits. He wants to go on, explain how he's been thinking about the small, domestic moments a lot and how the whole day feels like a gift on them, but he doesn't say anything else.

Bitty smiles at him and comes over to hug him. "I'd love to brush my teeth with you, sweetheart."

Jack returns the hug, pressing his palms flat against Bitty's back to feel the warmth and solidity of him. It'll be weeks until he can do this again.

They brush their teeth side by side, and Jack can't help pressing close, touching his fingers to Bitty's shoulders and his neck. Bitty butts his head against Jack's bicep and bumps Jack's hip with his own so he can rinse his mouth when he's done.

Jack doesn't even bother to sit on the cot. He follows Bitty into bed and they lay facing each other. Jack reaches out, and Bitty moves closer, tangles their legs and brushes his nose against Jack's.

"August isn't that far away," Bitty says, pressing a kiss to the corner of Jack's mouth.

"No, it's not," Jack replies, but he doesn't sound any more convinced than Bitty does.

Bitty runs his fingers through Jack's hair, and then trails his fingertips down the back of Jack's neck. "I'm so glad you came down."

"Me, too." Jack cups the side of Bitty's head and kisses him again. "I really had a nice time."

"Good." Bitty lets out a huge yawn and looks sheepish when Jack chuckles. "Sorry. Sort of ruined the moment."

"No, it's...you're wonderful."

Bitty turns his head so he can kiss Jack's palm. "You, too. Get some sleep, Mr. Zimmermann. You've got a travel day tomorrow."

Jack curls his hand around the back of Bitty's head, and they fall asleep like that, tangled up and holding each other.

*

They wake up the next day and don't speak as they get ready to go for their run. Bitty drives them to the track, and Jack doesn't lengthen his stride after the first few laps. He simply keeps pace with Bitty, and they both give Miss Lisa a wide berth.

They have breakfast with Mrs. Bittle. "Coach sends his best and wishes you a good trip," she tells Jack. "He had a boosters meeting this morning."

"Please tell him thank you," Jack replies. "And thank you for your hospitality. It's been a wonderful trip."

"I'm glad to hear that."

After breakfast, Jack packs his clothes. Bitty strips the cot. When Bitty comes back from starting the laundry, he hugs Jack from behind and breathes deeply. "Text me when you get on the plane. Text me when you land. Text me before you go to bed."

"I'll call before bed," Jack says, turning in Bitty's arms so he can return the hug. "I'm sure something will happen at the airport that'll be worth telling you."

Bitty smiles and squeezes Jack a bit tighter. "Someone's gonna try to get fireworks through the security line. I'd put money on it."

"That sounds like a sucker's bet after everything I've seen," Jack says. He kisses Bitty and lets it linger. Bitty is clearly in no hurry to pull away.

Jack's phone pings a few minutes later. It's a reminder to get on the road to the airport. Jack pockets his phone as he and Bitty walk out of the bedroom. He thanks Mrs. Bittle again and accepts the brief hug she gives him.

Jack slides over in the seat the moment they pass the "Leaving Madison" sign. Bitty has his hand out, and Jack takes it, lacing their fingers together. Bitty's phone is plugged into the radio, playing softly, and Jack is fairly certain it's a Beyoncé track.

"Beyoncé?" he says.

Bitty giggles, and it's exactly what Jack wanted. "Oh, honey, no. This is Rihanna."

"I'm going to get it one of these days."

Bitty shakes his head and smiles. "I'll make you a playlist, okay? I'll even give you some notes on why the songs are important."

"I'd like that," Jack says.

Bitty parks in short-term parking without asking Jack. "How long until you have to be at security?"

Jack checks the time and considers that it's definitely an extra-busy day at the airport. "Twenty minutes?" He chuckles and opens his arms when Bitty climbs into his lap. He tucks his head against Bitty's neck when Bitty wraps him in a hug. Jack soaks him in.

Bitty sighs against Jack's shoulder and then pulls back so Jack can see his face. "I don't mean to be so dramatic, but I am really going to mis you."

"I'm going to miss you, too. Video isn't the same."

Bitty nods in agreement. There are tears at the corners of his eyes. Jack thinks he's never felt more loved in his life. "But it's not so long until August," Bitty says.

"We made it to July," Jack replies. "We can make it to August."

Bitty kisses him, and it's intense and soft and just a little desperate, like he doesn't want to risk forgetting what it feels like to kiss him. Jack kisses back and tries to return the feeling.

Somewhere down the line of cars, a door slams. They both jump and turn towards the noise. Bitty leans his forehead against Jack's temple. "You should go. I don't want you to go, but I don't want to make you late."

"Okay," Jack agrees. They spend another minute holding onto each other. Jack decides he needs to be the one to pull away since he's the one leaving, and slowly takes his hands off Bitty's sides. Bitty swings off his lap, and Jack touches the inside of his wrist before he can move back to the driver's seat. "Bits."

"Yeah?"

It takes Jack a moment to work up the nerve. Maybe it's too early, but he doesn't care. He needs Bitty to hear him say it, to know exactly how he feels. "I love you."

"Oh, honey, I love you, too."

It's the most natural thing Jack's ever felt, the pride and happiness and love that wells up in him as Bitty looks at him and beams, soft and sweet. He leans in for one more kiss, one more touch of Bitty's hair, and then he pulls away.

"I'll text when I'm through security."

"Okay." Bitty squeezes his hand. "Goodbye, sweetheart."

"Bye, Bits." Jack gets out of the truck, hauls his duffel from the back, and walks towards the elevator, turning once to wave goodbye. Bitty waves goodbye back.

He takes the elevator to the terminal and makes his way to security. It's an absolute wreck of people headed home from the holiday. Jack counts at least four people with probable hangovers and a dozen with sunburns that make him wince in sympathy. The line goes slowly, at least two people arguing about being allowed to take large bottles of liquor in their carry ons, and Jack can just see the end of the line when Bitty texts him.

Bitty: You forgot this. It's mine now.

It's a picture of Bitty sitting on his bed, the angle of the photo high so Jack can see he's wearing one of Jack's Falconers shirts. Jack could have sworn it had made it into his duffel.

Jack: It looks better on you. I'm still in line at security. No fireworks yet. Some liquor.

Bitty: Give it time.

Jack: Lots of sunburns, a few hangovers. There's a tiny dog in a bandanna.

Bitty keeps him company as Jack slowly moves up the line.

Jack: I can see the gray bins. Gonna sign off for now.

Bitty: Okay. Love you.

He sends three hearts.

Jack sends back four.