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Jack leant his head forward on the round table, groaning quietly to himself. One hand was curled round the shitty paper cup filled with coffee so hot it was making the cardboard feel flimsy, but the pain was—at least slightly—distracting from his frustration. He sniffed, grimacing at that old, fake-wood smell from the tables which were probably older than god, and he wondered if maybe offering to find cheaper uniforms or second hand sticks for the team might let them upgrade a few things at the school.

Which really was a stupid idea. The way things were going it was a fucking miracle they had a team in the first place since it wasn’t exactly standard for High Schools to have hockey teams. It was sort of a paranoia of his anyway, that he’d show up one day and the principal would be stood there with that look on his face and say some stupid shit like, “Sorry, Jack. We tried our hardest but we just couldn’t fit it into the budget.”

He would think he was being paranoid if he hadn’t seen three of Lardo’s art classes go the same way.

And it wasn’t as though he didn’t enjoy teaching. Getting his history degree was one of the most rewarding things he’d ever done, and he enjoyed the subject. He just didn’t enjoy the piece of shit curriculum he was forced to teach which left him vomiting out hyper-patriotic, white-washed rubbish in place of things that really happened.

The year he and Shitty had got drunk and decided Jack was going to give the kids a real history lesson was the year Jack had to sit in front of a review board and was the closest he’d ever come to getting sacked from any job ever.

Including when he was in the NHL and decided to come out as bisexual to God, himself, the fans, and the whole of the homophobic professional sports world.

So he bit his tongue and taught the crap he’d spent six years unlearning at University, and hoped that he’d inspire at least a handful of them over the years to seek more information than what was written in their texts.

Meanwhile he’d show up, drink the school’s shit-tastic coffee, give his daily lectures, then sit by the rink and alternately cry and pray that these kids could get to at least one fucking divisional championship before old age kicked in.

He blamed himself really, in the strangest way—because Jack tended to do that. And realistically he knew it wasn’t his fault. Just because he couldn’t get out there on the ice with them didn’t mean he wasn’t capable of coaching them the way they needed to be. But Jack had been that way at Samwell, and he’d been that way with the Falconers, and shit even after his injury and his team lost in the playoffs he still found a way to blame himself.

Jack looked up when he heard the door to the lounge open and close, and his eyes were blurry, but they focused across the room on the figure wearing corduroy trousers and a button up shirt with flowers on it.

“Who the fuck dressed you this morning?” Jack asked as Shitty crossed the room and shoved one sandaled foot up on the table.

Shitty sipped from his giant tumblr of cold-brew coffee and shrugged. “I’m eccentric.”

“Is that what you tell Murray so he doesn’t fire you?” Jack asked. He stared at the wrinkles. “Did you sleep in that?”

“Lards and I went on a midnight hike and we got tired halfway through.”

“Oh my god,” Jack groaned. He flipped the brake on his chair and pushed himself backward, grabbing the little pot of honey on the counter. Rolling back to the table, he squeezed too much into his coffee, hoping it might kill the taste.

“You should come with us, man,” Shitty said with a shrug. “They have pretty sweet trails up there, and they’re accessible…”

“They always say they are,” Jack grumbled. “They think accessible is being able to push a jogging stroller through, not a wheelchair. Last time I even tried we got ten minutes in and I was stuck for an hour.”

“We should get Dex to build you something,” Shitty said, picking at his thumbnail. Jack caught a whiff of something like pine sap and rolled his eyes.

“Crisse, you should have at least stopped for a shower. Use the gym.”

“Nah, most people appreciate my musk,” Shitty said and winked. “Anyway, new teacher starts today. Met him?”

Jack blinked. The school had been trying to back-fill several posts since the last year’s budget disaster which left six teachers out of a job. The school’s attendance went up by mid-year which was the only thing that allowed them to hire on new staff. Jack had met two of the maths teachers, and one science. The rest were electives, but by the time they were announcing them in the meeting Jack was kicking ass on super farm heroes and had missed most of it.

“Uh, which class is this one?”

Shitty sipped his coffee before answering. “Foods.”

Jack blinked. “Foods. Is that even a real class?”

“Yeah it’s like what home-ec used to be, without the rampant sexism and sewing and shit.”

“So it’s…cooking,” Jack said drily.

Shitty shrugged. “Useful skill. Can you imagine how nice we’da been living in the Haus if even one of us could cook something beyond microwaving hot pockets?”

Jack couldn’t help a snort at the memory of their freezer which was stuffed full of cost-co sized boxes of hot pockets and vodka, and the cabinets filled to the brim with Sriracha. Johnson, their old Goalie, used to ramble on about a bubble universe and bakers and how it would have to happen differently this time.

Jack never really did understand that guy, but he chalked it up to having not learnt English until he was twelve. “Well okay. So. Foods. So she’s gonna come in and let these kids have access to a burning hot oven.”

“He,” Shitty said, wagging a disapproving finger at Jack. “And yeah, but according to his CV he’s got a lot of experience so it’s probably gonna be good. Lards was pissed that they didn’t give her back her abstract class until she met the guy. Apparently he baked a pie that made her see god so…” He sat back and shrugged.

Jack rolled his eyes. It seemed like a frivolous waste, really. I mean food? Wasn’t that a parent’s job to teach their kids to cook? His parents hadn’t set much stock in his own abilities, but then again he’d spent half his childhood living in billets and half his adulthood using NHL meal services. But he thought for a minute, about all the new equipment he could have been purchasing had they not decided to waste it on the salary of a pointless class, and it fired him up again.

Not that he’d tell Shitty that. His best friend was far too pragmatic to let Jack bitch about it. He’d just offer him a joint or a chance to sit in the counsellor’s office and talk about his problems which Jack had a paid therapist for, so…whatever.

“I should get to class. I’ve been wallowing all morning and I have a quiz to prepare.”

Shitty stared at him, then laughed. “Bad practise?”

“Let’s just say my request that they keep it up over the summer went…” Jack shook his head with a sigh. “Went ignored.”

“You’ll whip ‘em into shape, Cap,” Shitty called as Jack tipped his crap coffee into the bin, then wheeled for the door.

He turned his head back and shook his head with a wry grin. “That’s Coach to you, Shits.”

Shitty gave him a mock salute as Jack pulled the door open, and pushed himself into the corridor. He got a few cursory hellos from the hockey fans, and avoided gazes from the hockey players, but that wasn’t any different from his usual morning.

He was just at the lift, the ding to the left distracting him so when the doors in front opened, he pushed forward as someone was coming out. A short, blonde someone wearing a brown cardigan, and of all things, a red bowtie. Big brown eyes stared through thick lashes, and a voice chirped out, “You almost killed my pie!”

Jack wheeled back and stared in vague outrage, distracted by the short man who was, in fact, carrying a pie. “What are you doing with that?” he barked.

The man raised a brow. “Not the warmest welcome, I’ll tell you, but it’s nice to meet you anyway. You must be the hockey coach?”

“Well spotted. Was it the chair that tipped you off?” Jack said in a dead tone.

The new guy didn’t miss a beat. “No, I was warned to look out for those angry blues.” Then he actually winked. “I’ll be puttin’ this in the teacher’s lounge if you want a bite later. Apple, which seems to be everyone’s favourite. Nice to meet you, Coach!” Then he was off, leaving Jack annoyed and stuck waiting for the next lift.

***

Jack’s mood carried him through his first three periods, then into lunch. He grabbed his meal and went into the teacher’s lounge to eat instead of Shitty’s office because he was just not in the mood to listen to whatever Shitty’s current Issue of the Day was—likely something to do with Trump/Pence.

Luckily the place was almost deserted, apart from Derek who had earbuds in, and was clacking away furiously at his laptop. He caught Jack’s eye and nodded, but Derek wasn’t one for small talk, which Jack appreciated.

He wheeled up to the table nearest to the fridge, then leant over to grab his lunch out of it. His gaze caught the empty pie tin on the counter, and he wasn’t sure if he was annoyed that it existed at all, or annoyed he didn’t even get a chance to try any. Jack wasn’t really a sweets guy but he was curious if Lardo was lying or not. That alone irritated him again, and Jack ended up finishing his lunch more annoyed than he usually was.

He headed off to his fourth period, which was his World History class, mostly full of Juniors and Seniors. It was by far his easiest class, apart from the handful of athletes in it who assumed they’d get an easy A, and assumed Jack didn’t know what he was doing.

It happened every year—mostly from the football team since they knew he was a coach, but had no idea that he was teaching the subject he had a degree in instead of filling his hourly teaching quota to remain on the staff. They always figured it out though, generally by the fourth or fifth failed quiz they were handed back. He was not exactly the most beloved teacher on the staff, but he’d been there long enough to build up loyalty.

He was behind his desk when the students began to file in, and a group of students in the front desk were chatting away. The subject immediately had Jack on edge.

“…and we walk in and there’s a freaking mini-pie on each of our stations. And Carly told me he did this for every class. I swear to god I’m swooning.”

“Did you see the bow-tie, too? Like I almost died.”

One of the girls turned to the front. “Sir, did you meet the new professor?”

Jack fought not to roll his eyes as he leant over the top of his desk, resting his elbow on a stack of pages, chin in his hand. “I did.”

“Did you try the pies? God I swear I almost died. Miss Duan said she saw god.”

Jack bit the inside of his cheek before saying, “I don’t like pie.”

The students stared. “Yeah but like…these aren’t ordinary pies. I’m pretty sure he’s like a wizard or something.”

“No such thing,” Jack said.

“Tell that to the women they burnt at the stake for witchcraft,” the third piped up.

Jack sighed. “I think if they were that sort of witch or wizard, they’d have escaped the fire, don’t you?” He dropped his arms and rolled back a bit, flipping on his laptop which was connected to the smartboard. “Anyway are we here to talk about pies, or are we here to learn about the Holy Roman Empire.”

The students stared, then almost collectively shouted, “Pies.”

Jack blinked, and fought the urge to cover his face. It was going to be a damn long year.

***

Jack’s fifth period was a free one, so he locked up his classroom and headed for the gym. He knew Chow didn’t have a class in the weight training centre, so he headed for the door, then groaned when he found it locked. Pulling out his phone, he tapped out a quick text. Chowder, any chance you wanna unlock the weight room?

Jack only had to wait a minute before the tall, gangly man came tearing round the corner. Chris Chow was the PE teacher, Track Coach, and Assistant Hockey Coach—though this year he was taking a break from hockey as he and his wife had just brought home twins to complete their now family of five.

Jack was going to miss having him there as help, but he could see from the dark circles under Chris’ eyes, the babies weren’t going very easy on them.

“Hi Jack,” he said, skidding to a halt and fumbling with his keys. “Gosh I’m sorry I didn’t…” He panted a bit, swiping his brow. “I just had to make a call and check on Cait, and I wanted to grab something from the vending machine.”

Jack gave him a soft smile. “It’s fine, really. It’s just been a long day and I think I need to work off a little aggression before I get to my sixth period.”

Chris got the door open, then followed Jack inside. He went to his desk as Jack wheeled up to the free weight bench, and dug into the pocket hanging off the back of his chair for his weight gloves. “Practise tonight?”

Jack nodded. “Yeah. I’m throwing in three morning skates too, until they get back into shape. It was absurd, what I saw this morning. And the frogs are…” Jack trailed off, shaking his head. “I’ll get them there.”

Chris smiled. “You always do.”

Jack didn’t argue with him, though he wanted to. Jack hadn’t gotten anyone anywhere since taking up the position. But he was trying, and over the summer he felt pretty good after try outs. He was trying not to be too hard on them—they were kids after all, not NHL players, but it was frustrating when they wouldn’t take it seriously.

“How are the babies?” Jack said as he flipped his brake into place, then pushed his arms onto the bench. He spun his body, then grabbed one of his legs and pushed it over to straddle the bench. “You look exhausted.”

Chris laughed. “You have no idea. I mean, we thought we’d have some idea after Alice, but…we were wrong.”

Jack couldn’t help a laugh as he reached down and grabbed a pair of kettlebells. “Gets easier though, eh?”

Chris laughed, scrubbing a hand down his face as Jack began his reps. “I hope so. I fell asleep during the health quiz I gave the students yesterday. One of the girls—I forget her name, she’s new—but she had to shake me awake when she put hers on my desk. Gosh it was so embarrassing.”

Jack chuckled again, shaking his head. “Well at least you have a reason to be. Just show off the pictures and everyone will forgive you.”

Chris smiled at him, then began to dig round in his desk. Jack was halfway through his second fifty when he saw Chris lift something onto his desk, and almost lost his grip when he saw what it was.

“Is that a pie?” Jack asked, his voice cracking a little.

Chris looked up with a wide grin. “Oh. Yeah! That new teacher, Bittle? He made them for everyone. You got yours, right?”

Jack tensed his jaw, then said, “I don’t like pie.”

Chris shook his head fondly. “Not enough protein for you, hmm? Seriously Jack, they’re…amazing. You have to try one. Everyone’s been stopping by his classroom to say hi. He’s so nice.” Chris gave a dreamy sigh, and Jack fought the urge to punch something.

Instead, he just threw himself into his reps until he felt the muscles in his shoulders start to strain. He glanced at the clock and realised he’d only have a few minutes to clean up and get back to his classroom, so he set everything aside, then eased himself back into his chair.

“Thanks for this,” he said.

Chris nodded, waving at him absently through a mouthful of what smelt like cherry. “Any time, you know that. You want me to stop by tonight after I’m done?”

Jack shook his head. “No. Get home, and say hi to Cait for me, okay?” Jack wheeled toward the door and let himself out as Chris gave his usual, friendly goodbye.

Jack tried not to let it get to him. He wasn’t quite sure why he was bothered by the new teacher’s sudden popularity. It’s not like he was encroaching on Jack’s space. Jack had been there a while, but he wasn’t exactly defending his title for friendliest guy.

He tried to shake himself out of it, and spent the final hour of his day, ignoring the students singing the praises of Mr Eric Bittle.

***

“Alright, Frogs,” Jack called as he pushed his chair right up to the opening of the rink. “I need you front and centre.”

The new students looked a little hesitant, and it was clear the veterans of the team hadn’t given the new guys their initiation yet. Which was fine by Jack, considering it always ended up with one or two of them in his office complaining about one of the seniors being an asshole.

“He means you, nancy,” said Jack’s centre—a kid called David Richardson—who gave one of the smaller freshman a shove.

Jack’s jaw tensed. “That means anyone new to the team.”

There was a slight shuffling on the ice, and six students stepped forward. Two of them were sophomores, big guys who would fill in nicely for defence. One was a girl, taller than half the team, and sprightly. Jack had a feeling she’d be able to move better than most of them, and if he remembered right, she had some of the softest hands during try outs. Two were average, probably forwards, though Jack was going to work them, and the third was a really small kid, who looked like he was going to piss himself at any second.

“Okay, we’re going to run some drills, and I’m going to assess your speed and skill. When we’re done, I think twenty minutes of shinny, so I can see how well you follow the puck. You know the rules—drop gloves and it’s an automatic five game suspension. I don’t want to start the year off like that, so keep it clean.”

“Yes, coach,” came the dry, automatic response, and then they got to work.

Richardson was the captain this year. Jack assumed he’d been voted into the position by a mixture of intimidation and belief that his bullying nature would allow him to get the job done. He didn’t hesitate when it came to corrections, but he was also an ass, and it set Jack’s teeth on edge.

Luckily, the year hadn’t even started, and he was mostly mild when he was calling out instructions. Jack busied himself making notes about each of the players, and found himself wanting to see how the new girl—Karlsson—would do in the goal. She was fast, and reactive.

After the drills, Richardson headed to the side of the rink to drop the pucks into a bucket, leaving one out for the game. Jack sat back a little bit, letting them have at it, trying not to micromanage which, he supposed, was probably his biggest flaw.

But they were doing alright.

At least…they were doing alright, until Richardson came at the new kid. The small one. He hadn’t even been coming in fast, but the kid dropped to the ice, curling into a foetal position.

The entire team froze, and one of the kids said, “Holy fucking shit, I think he fainted.”

Jack was gripping the rink wall, leaning as far forward as he could. “Shit. Kid,” he said, scrambling for a name.

“I’m…uh.” The kid’s voice was trembling, but it was coherent enough. “I uh. I’m fine. Um…”

“Jesus, I didn’t even do anything,” Richardson said, throwing up his hands.

Jack waved him off. “Yeah I know. Just get him up, eh. Come on kid, on your feet.”

Two students eventually got him up, and shoved him toward Jack who now had his arms crossed. “What’s your name again?”

“M-Mike. Um. Mike Henderson.”

Henderson, Jack noted. Not like he was going to forget this ever. “Okay, Mike Henderson. You want to tell me what the he—uh. What the heck that was?”

Mike’s face went bright red. “Um. I don’t…I don’t know. That’s never happened to me before.”

“Are you feeling faint? Do you need to go see the nurse?” Jack asked, his brow furrowed.

Mike shook his head. “I think I uh…” His voice dropped low, though everyone was straining to hear. “I think I panicked. He was coming at me and like…I’ve seen games, you know. I don’t…” His voice began to shake, and Jack sighed.

“Go hit the showers and when you’re done, head to my office so we can talk without these little gremlins trying to listen in.” There was a collective groan as Henderson stepped past Jack, and Jack raised his eyebrows at the team. “I’m sorry, what was that? You said you wanted to start with suicides tomorrow morning. At five AM?”

Everyone looked properly chastised, and Jack gave them another ten before calling it quits for the day. They all earnt pats on the back, and Jack was glad he didn’t hear any chirping over Henderson’s panic response.

Grabbing his clipboard, Jack wheeled toward his office, feeling a little worried. He didn’t know what to do about this kid. He’d never had that issue, and even after his accident, he wasn’t afraid of the ice. He’d done sled hockey enough times since his injury to know that he hadn’t let it get to him.

He was definitely out of his element.

When he got to his office, the kid was already there, looking small and meek in the chair across from Jack’s desk. Jack stared, then let out a tiny sigh as he moved behind his computer, and shoved his keyboard to the side.

“Have you ever played a game of hockey before?”

Henderson’s head snapped up. “Yeah. I mean…I mean it wasn’t for a school team or anything. I uh…it was co-ed, like this. But no checking.”

“We’re co-ed without checking,” Jack said dryly.

“Yeah I know,” Henderson replied. “But Dave…” He stopped and looked away.

Jack pinched the bridge of his nose. “Has Richardson said or done something to you to make you afraid of him?”

Henderson licked his lips, then shook his head. “No not…I mean. He just thinks I’m like…small. And. Stuff.” There was something else there, Jack could hear it in his tone, but he’d been doing this long enough to know that pushing the kid would get nothing out of him.

Jack bit his bottom lip, then said, “You can’t let him get into your head like that. Kids are going to be assholes.” He smiled when Henderson looked vaguely scandalised at his swearing. “They are, and yeah it’s no checking, but you might get hit from time to time anyway because hockey is a contact sport, and sometimes shit happens. But you gotta learn to skate through.”

“I will,” Henderson said. “I swear I won’t let it happen again. Really.”

Jack nodded. “Okay. And if anything happens,” he added, keeping the kid’s gaze firmly, “let me know. There’s a lot of shit I don’t let fly on my team, okay? And I won’t hesitate to take action if I need to.”

Henderson’s jaw worked, and for a second Jack thought maybe he was going to say something. But then he just nodded and stood up. “Thanks, coach,” he said in a small voice.

Jack nodded, and watched him go, feeling that empty hole in his gut like he’d missed something. Like he’d just let something slip through the cracks. But it wasn’t too late, and Jack made a resolution to keep a damn close eye on the situation.

***

Jack curled his hand round his water glass, his eyes on Shitty who was into his third pint of the evening. They were at the local, a decent distance between the school and Jack’s house, and up to now Shitty had been rambling on about dealing with his parents’ continued disappointment he hadn’t pursued law.

“Man,” Shitty said after Jack nodded for the hundredth time, “tell me what crawled up your ass.”

Jack blinked at him. “David Richardson.”

“Oh that little dickhead,” Shitty complained. He leant back in his chair, resting one arm behind his head. “What’s he done now?”

Jack shrugged. “New kid, freshman. Mike Henderson, he been in to see you?”

Shitty raised a brow. “Brah, you know I can’t tell you that.”

“Richardson was giving him shit on the ice today, called Mike a nancy which is probably the least shitty thing he’s said to kids. But a little while later Richardson came at him, like he was gonna check him, and I think he had a panic attack.”

Shitty let go of his beer to run his hand down his face. “Fuck, man.”

Jack nodded. “You don’t have to give me details, eh. But if there’s something I should know…”

“Honestly brah, I don’t know the kid. But if you wanna send him my way…”

“I might, yeah,” Jack said. “Crisse, this is all I need at the start of the year.” He took a long drink of his water, wishing he could have something a little stronger. “He went down hard, you know? Curled up in a little ball. I couldn’t even get on the ice to help him.” Jack let his frustration show in his voice about his limitations a little more than he usually did, and Shitty’s face softened.

“Where was Chowder?”

“Busy,” Jack said. “Exhausted. He’s got the track team this year and with the twins, I didn’t want to put too much on him. He’ll help out with games but I can handle this. It’s just frustrating.”

“I hear ya,” Shitty said. “I’m fuckin’ sorry man. Look, if you want me to sit in or some shit, you know I can. I mean, I don’t think I’ve been on skates since Samwell but…”

“It’s alright,” Jack said. “I was thinking about calling Holster and seeing if he has some free time. I never had a checking issue, so I have no idea where to even start.”

Shitty laughed. “Dude, bro, Holster is like the jolly green fucking giant. You think he has experience?”

Jack shrugged. “Can’t hurt to ask. I’m gonna text Parse, too.”

“Ah that little shit,” Shitty said, but fondly. “Well seriously let me know, and tell that kid my door is open and I’m like a steel, mother-fucking trap.”

Jack snorted. “Unless you get a couple pot brownies in you.”

“The only one who ever hears my shit is you and Lardo and neither one of you are going to sell me out,” Shitty defended. He stretched and groaned. “Fuck. Anyway can we please talk about Bittle.”

It took Jack a minute, and then he let out a long groan. “Tabarnak, am I going to be hounded by this guy all year?”

“What the fuck? What’s wrong with him?” Shitty asked.

Jack sighed. “Nothing I just…” He stopped, because frankly he didn’t have anything against the guy. But something about him just got under Jack’s skin. “I guess I feel like that money could have been better used. Crisse, Lardo could have gotten another one of her classes back.”

“Brah, she doesn’t even care, believe me. And she likes Eric.”

Jack hummed as he took a drink. “Well I could think of at least a dozen classes that we could have added on that isn’t baking.”

Shitty laughed. “I’ll never understand you, bro. But you know I fuckin’ love you.”

Jack chuckled a little and shrugged. “Yeah, I guess I do know.”

***

Inside, Jack stretched across the sofa, ESPN on silent in the background, and he thumbed the screen of his phone, staring at Kent’s name for way too long. When it became absurd, he finally hit the contact and pressed the phone to his ear.

It rang for a while, then Kent’s tired voice picked up. “Zimms. Tell me someone isn’t like…fuckin dead or something.”

“No I euh…was calling for advice,” Jack said.

There was a pause. “For…?”

Jack took a breath. “Crisse. Fuck. A kid on my team is having panic attacks.”

Kent laughed. “Look Jack, not to sound like a dick…”

“You’d have to never speak again for that to happen,” Jack chirped.

“Fair,” Kent said. “But Jack, I feel like if anyone can help a kid through panic attacks, it’s you.”

Jack was silent for a moment. “He’s having them on the ice. And I can’t…get to him there.”

“Ah.” Kent’s voice was uncharacteristically soft. “Um. Why um…”

“He’s afraid of being checked,” Jack said, “which is also something I can’t really help him with. And I don’t have any advice to give on how to get over it. If I could skate, I’d work him through it.”

“Have you tried asking one of the other guys on the team?”

Jack let out a humourless laugh. “Kenny, you think the guys in the NHL are bad if you show weakness? These are teenagers. They feed off it. I don’t think he’d trust any of them to know, and I think my team captain is giving him shit.”

“Sounds like someone needs to be demoted,” Kent said.

“Not my call,” Jack replied. “He was voted in. But I’m keeping an eye on it and I’ll bench him if I have to. I just…this kid has a lot of potential and I hated to see it wasted.”

Kent let out a tiny sigh. “Look, you know I’d help if I was there, and shit I was like two weeks ago. But it’s pre-season.”

“I know,” Jack said quietly. “I just thought maybe you’d have some advice for him. I mean, you’re not tiny, but you’re small enough you never fight.”

“I spent a goddamn lot of years learning avoidance techniques. In more ways than one,” Kent said. “He just has to push through his fear.”

Jack bit his lip, feeling more frustrated than ever. “Yeah but…I don’t have that kind of time. If he can’t stay upright, he can’t play.”

“So call in some favours. You didn’t play all those fucking years in Providence for nothing,” Kent reminded him. “Your little dudes always shit whenever one of the Falconers show up. Get Tates to come by and give everyone a pep talk. He’s good at those.”

Jack rolled his eyes. “You’d know. Anyway I…thanks Kenny.”

“For what?” Kent asked with a laugh. “I didn’t give you shit you didn’t already have. It’s gonna be fine, Zimms. The kid will either get over it, or quit. Ain’t the end of the world either way.”

“Yeah,” Jack said tiredly. Then, without planning to, without having any control, it seemed, over his fucking mouth, he said, “They hired a new teacher and I hate him, but I can’t figure out why.”

Kent laughed loudly. “Really. What’s this dude like?”

“He’s…southern. Short. Blonde. Small. Bakes.”

Kent laughed even harder. “It’s because you wanna fuck him. Now I gotta go, Swoops and I are catching a game. Let me know how it goes.”

Kent was off the line before Jack could get in a proper goodbye, and he let the phone drop to his side with a frustrated sigh. He was right though, at least about the kid. Jack had favours he could call in, and really, it was the only thing he could do.

When it came to the other thing well…Jack had no intention of touching that with a ten foot pole.

***

Jack’s day went about as well as the one before. He had a few run-ins with Bittle in the corridors, but he managed to get by without getting dragged into a conversation, or having to smile much. He avoided Shitty most of the day, and tried not to take his mood out on the students who continued to sing the praises of the baking teacher.

Jack was only in a slightly foul mood when he rolled into the arena, and saw the guys already warming up on the ice. Before he could even get started, the side door slammed, and Jack’s shoulders sank with relief at the sight of the massive blonde. His glasses glinted in the fluorescent lights, and he was grinning.

“Bro,” Holster drawled as he sauntered up and bent over to throw his arm round Jack’s shoulders. He planted a wet, sloppy kiss on Jack’s cheek. “I can’t even believe it too you this long to call.”

“It’s two days into pre-season,” Jack said dryly.

Holster sank to the bench. “Bro. You called Parse before you called me. That’s like…some sort of betrayal.”

“I called him for advice on being small,” Jack pointed out.

Holster snorted. “Either way, you fuckin’ owe me. So what am I doing here?”

“Did you bring skates.”

“Brah,” Holster said, by way of answer.

Jack sighed, then explained the situation in detail. By the time he was done, Holster was frowning. The D-man had never taken well to bullies, on or off the ice. He and his partner had assigned themselves bodyguards for their entire career at Samwell, and Holster had built up a reputation once he joined the NHL. He and Tater were a force to be reckoned with, especially after Jack came out.

When Jack had been injured, it took Holster a long while to stop blaming himself for not being quick enough to stop the check.

“Okay so this little d-bag,” Holster said.

“They’re kids,” Jack reminded him. “You can’t actually call him that.”

“I’ve heard you say way worse,” Holster pointed out.

“I’m the coach.” Jack grinned at him. “Look, just…maybe skate with them, and see if you can get Henderson to loosen up, take a few light checks and skate through them. If he can stay standing against someone like you, he’ll be fine in the games.”

Holster nodded as he reached for his bag, pulling his skates out. “You know I’m happy to help, but it’s probably gonna take more than one single skate, and you know what pre-season is like.”

Jack sighed. “I know. If I had another option…”

“I know someone you could ask. Right in your own back yard,” he said, grinning as he tugged his laces.

Jack rolled his eyes. “I really don’t want Shitty on the ice. He’ll start rambling about god only knows what and you know how that shit devolves.”

Holster laughed as he stood up. “Yeah, but I didn’t mean him. There’s a new teacher, Eric Bittle…”

“Crisse de tabarnak de câlisse,” Jack swore, making Holster freeze. “You’re serious. How do you even know him?”

Holster raised a brow. “We play shinny sometimes on the weekends. What the fuck have you got against Bitty?”

“Bitty,” Jack repeated with a frown.

“He’s down as fuck, brah, and a good guy. He played on his co-ed team in high school and he figure skates. He’s fast as hell.”

Jack scrubbed a hand down his face. “I just…we don’t get along.”

Holster’s eyes widened. “How the fuck do you not get along with Bitty? He’s like made of literal sunshine. Have you even tried his pies?”

“I don’t like pies!” Jack said so loud, the team stopped and turned to stare.

Then one of the frogs whispered, “Oh my god is that…Birkholtz?”

And all hell broke loose.

***

Practise lasted nearly an hour longer than usual. It was long enough he had to send a group apology text to parents who were likely wondering where their children were. To their dismay, he called an end and had them hit the showers as Adam skated off, and plonked down on the bench to untie his skates.

“Fuck, I forgot how much fun kids could be.”

Jack laughed. “Yeah, I guess. I mean, considering I have to get them to focus,” he said, then trailed off with a shrug. “What did you think of Henderson?”

Holster sighed, then shook his head. “Dunno, man. I mean, he needs a lot of work. More than I can commit to. Look, whatever beef you got with Bitty, I’d at least go talk to him. He’s small but he’s a figure skater so he’ll be able to get on the ice with the kid. Maybe if you and Bits can swing some one-on-one practises with him. Just get him used to the idea of people coming at him. It’s not ideal, but apart from having you bring him down to one of our practises and letting Tater have his way with the kid…”

“I want to help him, not give him PTSD,” Jack said, meaning every word. For all that Tater was a pile of marshmallows on the inside and off the rink, on skates the man was a beast. “I…” He let out a defeated breath. “I’ll go talk to Bittle. I guess it can’t hurt, and I really don’t wanna pull the kid.”

Holster clapped Jack on the shoulder as he rose. “Come on, I told the kids I’d do a couple of selfies before I head out.”

Jack shook his head, but led the way down the corridor, to the locker room. A few of the kids had already cleared out, but Jack could hear Richardson’s voice ringing above them in his obnoxious way.

“…and I mean he’s fuckin’ gay. Like we’re gonna have a chance at winning anything with that little…”

Before Jack could reach for the door, Holster had it, swinging it open and marching in. “Who’s gay?” he demanded. “I mean, if you’re talking about me then you’d be right. But I’ve won two Stanley Cups so…”

The guys froze, but Richardson, for all that he was clearly caught out, wasn’t backing down. “We’re talking about Henderson. And uh we…you know. We know about you but you’re not like…”

Holster raised a brow. “Not like…?”

Gay gay,” Richardson said weakly.

“Well my big, bisexual, doctor husband seems to think I’m pretty gay gay,” Holster said, glancing back at Jack. “And last time I checked, Kent Parson, who is small, and really fucking gay, and also a winner of four Stanley Cups, is also gay gay, so I’m not sure what you’re getting at.”

Richardson swallowed thickly. “Well I uh…”

“I’d have hoped that you kids have learnt by now there’s no actual place for homophobia in the NHL. I mean, it happens, but trust me once you get the shit kicked out of you on the ice by a giant Russian queer who would sooner murder you than listen to you chirp his husband, that behaviour dies out pretty quick.”

Richardson was bright red by this point, and Jack—seeing as he was coach—decided to step in. “I was in the NHL before it was okay to be out, and it took a lot of courage to be who I was when I took that step. I think I’ve made it clear the three years you’ve been on this team, David, that I won’t tolerate that behaviour. I don’t care if you were voted captain. I’ll have you scratched for the season if I hear crap like that out of your mouth again. And though Mike might not sell you out, I think I can offer starting line incentive to some of the other guys here who aren’t scared of you, to keep your shit in check. Do I make myself clear?”

Richardson looked like he wanted to murder Jack, but he gave a terse nod, then stormed out. The other guys quietly chirped him behind his back, laughing, and a few giving Holster fist-bumps before taking a few selfies.

They parted ways at the front of the school, then Jack wheeled inside and headed for the lifts in a vague, what felt like pointless hope Bittle would still be in his classroom.

The elective corridor was on the third floor, and from what he recalled, the ancient home-ec room which had been sat empty for years, was at the very end. The third floor always had a sort of manky smell to it, but as Jack got closer to the room, something sweet and almost cinnamon drifted toward him.

His eyes widened when he realised it was the smell of pie.

Fucking pie.

He squared his shoulders and reached for the door, and pulled it open.

The room looked like it had been renovated, and there were six ovens, all of which looked to be new. The counters were sparkling clean, and at the very front of the room stood the blonde teacher with the bow tie, rolling out what looked like pie crust onto the marble counter.

When Jack entered, Bittle looked up, and his eyes went wide with surprised. “Mr Zimmermann. You were just about the very last face I thought I’d see.”

Jack cleared his throat as he manoeuvred his chair through the cooking stations, and came to a stop a few feet away from Bittle who put down his rolling pin and leant his elbows on the counter. “Sorry if I’m…interrupting,” he said in a halting tone.”

Bittle waved a thin-fingered hand, chuckling lightly. “Don’t be silly, hun. I could bake pies in my sleep. I’m just trying to see if I can get this recipe to bake in forty-five minutes since we really don’t have enough time to dedicate to all this.”

Jack raised a brow, then nodded. “Um. It smells…good?”

“Are you askin’ me or tellin’ me?” Bittle chirped.

“I don’t like pie,” Jack blurted for what seemed like the thousandth time in two days.

Bittle merely laughed. “That’s because you haven’t tried any of mine, Mr Zimmermann. Now I’ll be happy to share a slice of the one comin’ out of the oven in exactly five minutes and nineteen seconds. Until then, is there something I can do for you?”

Jack’s jaw tensed, but he gave a terse nod. “I uh. Well. I just got finished with practise…”

“Hockey, right?” Bittle asked.

Jack nodded again. “Adam—Holster—he said he knows you.”

“Course,” Bittle said with a sunny grin, and Jack pretended like the quirk of Bittle’s lips didn’t make his heart flutter a little.

“He said you skate. And I’m…at a bit of a loss. I have a new student, Freshman, would be an amazing forward only he’s…he’s having trouble with the idea of being hit on the ice. Some of the team are chirping him pretty hard about it. Holster helped today, and I’m doing what I can but since I can’t get on the ice with him like he needs…”

Jack’s words died as Bittle came round the table, grabbed a chair, then plonked it next to Jack and sat. “Can you tell me what kind of trouble he’s having with the others?”

Jack sighed, and pretended like he didn’t feel completely at ease. “The one who was voted captain, Senior by the name of Richardson—he’s…well kind of an asshole, for lack of a better word.”

Bittle gave a dry, humourless laugh. “I know the type.”

Jack nodded. “Henderson’s too afraid to really say anything, but if he can’t get it together, I can’t play him, and I don’t want to do that. I need someone who can help him. Extra practises, get him confident on the ice. I have other friends I can ask, but you’re here and I just thought…”

Bittle bit his lip, which completely distracted Jack, and then he said, “When would these extra practises take place?”

Jack shrugged. “Euh. Crisse, I hadn’t even thought that far. Couple mornings a week, I think. Would be easier for him to do it unnoticed.”

Bittle sat back, tapping his chin, then jumped up when his timer went off. He grabbed the pie out of the oven and set it on a cooling rack, his brow still furrowed. After what felt like a literal eternity, he said, “One condition.”

“Okay,” Jack said warily.

“You try my pie.”

“That’s…it?” he asked.

Bittle grinned. “That’s it. You gotta wait five minutes, which even then is a cardinal sin in pie baking, but I don’t wanna keep you all night. You try my pie, let me know your honest answer, and I’ll help y’all out.”

Jack wanted to insist those terms were stupid, and irrational, and unreasonable. But he couldn’t lie to himself, and he realised he didn’t want to lie to Bittle so he shrugged and said, “Fine. I’ve got five minutes.”

Bittle grinned and went back to his chair, crossing one ankle over his knee and said, “So. Jack Zimmermann. I’ve heard you’ve got quite the reputation around here.”

***

It was longer than five minutes before Bittle cut into the pie. But those minutes led to Jack realising he couldn’t dislike this teacher, even if he did think it was a waste of education funds. After Bittle chirped Jack about his reputation about being a History and Hockey Robot, he told Jack how he’d got into baking, and how he had almost applied to Samwell.

“One in four,” Bittle said as he rose to get two plates. “And for a small-town Georgia boy like me, that was…well it was everything. But I couldn’t get the scholarship, and I ended up doing my undergrads at home. By the time I went in for my Master’s, I was on loans and Samwell’s a bit outside of my price range. Wanted to stay close, though.”

“Must have been tough,” Jack said quietly as Bittle cut into the pie, and served out two pieces.

“It was. Wasn’t all bad. Found a small, really quiet LGBT+ group on campus. Got my first boyfriend, couple of sloppy handjobs, you know. The usual nonsense.” Bittle dropped back into the chair and handed the pie off, a white, plastic fork poking straight up out of the top of the crust. “I was going to stay in Boston, but after my boyfriend and I split up, I just didn’t want to stay. And then Providence High found my CV on linked in and…well, the rest is history.” He stopped, then laughed. “Goodness, listen to me goin’ on when you need to be tasting the pie.”

Jack sighed, and looked down at the apples poking from between the crust. It was still hot, and probably a little more runny than it should have been if it had been allowed to cool properly, but Jack couldn’t deny it both smelt and looked delicious. He sighed. This felt like the ultimate surrender—which was pathetic considering the war he’d been fighting had only been with himself.

He dug the fork in, scooped up apple, sauce, and crust, and took the bite. He probably would have been more embarrassed about the noise he made had the damn thing not been so amazing. “Crisse…Bittle that’s…”

Bittle laughed. “Another one bites the dust,” he chirped in sing-song voice. He took a bite of his own, and after he swallowed it he said, “I’m happy to work with you and the kid, Jack. Give me your phone and I’ll put my number in. You can text me what time to meet you, and I’ll work as long as I can. Deal?”

Jack nodded. “Deal. And Bittle…” He dug his phone out and passed it over. “Really. Thank you.”

Bittle smiled, making Jack’s heart race again. “Any time, Jack.”

***

Jack texted Bittle at ten after confirming with Henderson’s parents. Rink at five thirty tomorrow morning.

Bittle texted back ten minutes later. You’re a monster. Five thirty. Not even God works that early.

Hockey god does.

You owe me a PSL for every morning I do this, Mr Zimmermann.

PSL?

Pumpkin Spice Latte. Good grief, checking practise for the kid, pop culture for you.

Get rest, Bittle, we have an early morning.

The series of angry emojis made Jack grin, even as he slid into bed for the night.

***

True to his word, Jack entered the arena with a drink carrier perched on his legs. He rolled up to Bittle who was on the bench looking half-dead, and lacing up a pair of well-work figure skates. Without a word, Jack handed the pumpkin spice latte over, and without a word, Bittle took it and sullenly sipped the hot brew.

Jack grinned, then watched as Bittle took to the ice. Henderson hadn’t arrived yet, so Bittle was warming up, and Jack watched with wide eyes as Bittle went through what looked like an old, well-loved routine. It only had a few jumps and a few spins, but Holster hadn’t been wrong. Bittle was fast. Scary fast, and limber.

Jack ignored the heat in his belly again, but he wasn’t sure he’d be able to for long.

Luckily, the doors opened, and Henderson trudged in, looking just as tired as Bittle, but less put out about it. They didn’t say much as the kid geared up, but soon enough they were on the ice, and Jack was shouting instructions for Bittle, and Henderson was still freezing, but he seemed far more comfortable with someone of Bittle’s size.

When it was over, both Bittle and Henderson skated over, and Jack was nodding approvingly. “Your average player isn’t going to be much bigger than Mr Bittle,” he said. “You’re not gonna be facing off with someone Holster or Tater’s size.”

At that, Henderson visibly relaxed. “Yeah?”

Bittle laughed. “Yeah, really. I played co-ed for my high school and trust me, they don’t get aggressive as you think they will. You have to think of NHL games, or even NCAA games as in a different universe. You’ve got this.”

“And,” Jack added, “I’ve got your back, Henderson. I’m not going to let someone like Richardson push any of my team around. If you need someone to talk to about this,” he finished, “I have it on good authority Mr Knight is more than willing to listen. In full confidence. Even if he’s had a few…brownies.”

Henderson’s cheeks pinked, but he laughed and nodded. “I don’t know how to thank you.”

“Keep working on it. Get past your block, and show everyone you’ve got this,” Jack said. “It’s the only thanks I need.”

The two teachers remained quiet as Henderson took off his skates, and headed toward the locker rooms. When the door shut, Bittle looked back at Jack with a fond smile.

“What?” Jack demanded.

Bittle shook his head, grinning. “Nothing just…you’re really good at that. Coaching. It’s no wonder you were captain everywhere you went.”

Jack flushed, shrugging. “It was the only thing I was ever any good at.”

Bittle sighed, then to Jack’s surprise, dropped a hand on his shoulder. “I think you’re selling yourself short, Jack. Anyway, see you later?”

“Yeah,” Jack said, and when Bittle removed his hand, he felt the loss profoundly. “I’ll uh…text you.”

Bittle smiled as he sat to remove his skates. “Sounds good, Jack.”

Not sure what else to do, Jack lifted the brake on his wheels, and hurried out.

***

When Jack wheeled into his classroom after lunch, he froze. In the centre of his desk was a mini-pie, a perfect lattice crust, and a small, yellow post-it reading, I put maple sugar for your delicate, Canadian sensibilities.

Jack looked up at a few students who were already in the classroom, and they were smirking at him. Jack sighed and set the pie off to the side, then snapped, “Don’t you have reading to finish?”

The students grabbed their books out, but the smiles didn’t leave their faces.

Jack, of course, didn’t touch the pie until his free period, but even after sitting for as long as it did, it was delicious. He was definitely grateful there was no one in the area to listen to his moans.

He didn’t get a chance to see Bittle until the very end of the day. He didn’t have practise after school, but he stayed in his classroom to finish up some marking he didn’t feel like taking home, and the car park was almost empty as he headed for his truck.

He was just fishing his keys out of his pack when he heard a small, southern voice call out, “So? Verdict on the maple in pie?”

Jack grabbed one wheel and spun round, finding Bittle three spaces away, leant up against a battered, old, off-white Toyota. He lifted a brow and said, “It was…acceptable.”

“You know, I’m starting to think all those rumours about Canadians being overly polite were all made up by some sort of secret society of Canadians trying to dominate the world through maple candy, hockey, and moose.”

A laugh escaped Jack before he could stop it and he said, “Well you’d better start working on your French if you want to be amongst those spared.” Bittle grinned bright like the sun, and Jack couldn’t stop himself from saying, “It was really damn good. Don’t leave me too many, I’m not sure I could take the added calories, but I wouldn’t say no every now and again.”

Bittle grinned even wider. “Fair’s fair. See you soon?”

Jack nodded. “Yeah. Night, Bittle.”

Bittle gave him a wave before slipping into his car, and it made a sort of puttering sound as he switched it on and pulled away. He waved again as he drove by, and Jack shook his head with a smile. Turning back to his truck, he pushed the button on his remote to unlock it, and reached up for the door before getting the ramp ready.

When he backed up, he startled almost violently at the sight of waggling brows, and a wide grin under a heavy moustache. “Did I just see what the fuck I just saw?”

“Shut up, Shits,” Jack muttered.

Shitty all-but skipped over and dropped onto Jack’s lap, giving him a sloppy kiss on the cheek. “That was fuckin’ beautiful. It’s like…a love story writing itself.”

Jack rolled his eyes and shoved his friend off. “He helped me with Henderson, I got him a spice latte thing, and he made me a pie. Which he’s made everyone pies so it’s not like I’m special.”

“He isn’t grinning at everyone like that,” Shitty said, nudging Jack with his elbow.

“Va-t’en,” Jack muttered as he wheeled toward the ramp.

Shitty laughed and clapped him on the shoulder. “Come on, man. You smiled, too. Do you have any idea how the fuck long I’ve waited to see someone put a smile on your face.”

Jack spun his chair round on the ramp, and opened his mouth to argue, but realised then he was about to lie to his best friend. Instead what came out was a quiet, “What the hell do I do?”

Shitty’s smile softened and he shook his head. “Do what any hot-blooded, gorgeous-assed, maple-leafed Canadian would do and ask him out or something. I’m damn sure he won’t say no.”

Jack’s face pinked, then he let out a breath and said, “That’s against the rules.”

“Yeah well I broke them and ended up married to the greatest fucking person on the planet,” Shitty reminded Jack. “So do it. The kids will love it.”

“Oh fuck,” Jack muttered. “When they find out it’ll be a nightmare.”

“Yeah, but like one you won’t wanna wake up from. Because there will be naked bodies and pie.”

“I have to go. I literally cannot listen to this anymore.” Jack hit the button on the ramp, and pretended like he couldn’t hear Shitty’s chirping as he got himself into the driver’s seat, started up the truck, and pulled away.

He also pretended like he didn’t know what the fuck all the eggplant emojis were for, either. But the next morning, when he had to look Bittle in the face, he also couldn’t hide his blush.

***

It took Jack exactly two weeks to find the courage to do anything about the Bittle situation. They still met a few days a week with Henderson, who was getting better to the point where Jack was confident during their first game, he’d be able to last with his line.

He was discussing it with Bittle over coffee Friday after school had let out. Bittle had found a quaint little café near the water, and had been going on about it so often that week, Jack finally just dragged the smaller teacher to his truck and said, “Get in. But if it’s awful, you’re buying.”

They were now sat outside at a table, the umbrella blocking the early autumn sun of the late afternoon. Jack was nursing a cup of coffee and a lobster roll, and Bittle was digging into what he insisted was the most authentic pain au chocolat he’d had since his one summer in Paris.

“So you really think he’ll be alright? I mean, I’d hate for him to freeze up under pressure.”

Jack shook his head as he poked a fork into the centre of the sandwich. “Honestly I always found the pressure of a game helpful in taking my mind off things I was anxious over. It was the lead-up that always got me.”

Bittle hummed, leaning his elbow on the table, propping his chin in his hand. “Can I ask you something that might be a little rude?”

“I’m best friends with Shitty, I think I’ve lost sense of what rude even means,” Jack chirped.

Bittle laughed. “I know but it feels maybe…insensitive?”

“Is it about my accident?” Jack asked, keeping his tone neutral. He’d been dragged through press after press interview once he was out of hospital, and Jack had long-since stopped being bothered by questions. And considering he knew Bittle didn’t mean anything by it… “It’s fine, Bitty.” The more familiar nickname felt strange on his tongue, but Bittle softened immediately at the sound of it.

“I just…do you miss it?”

“Hockey?” Jack asked, and Bittle nodded. “I…yeah. I would be lying if I said there weren’t nights I want to punch something when I think about everything that was taken away from me. I always give the standard answer, you know, I’m satisfied with where my life is at.” Jack sighed a little, shrugging. “But yeah. I miss it. Sometimes I miss it so much I feel like the pain is going to overwhelm me.”

“I’m sorry,” Bittle said in a quiet whisper. “I shouldn’t have said…”

“No one mentioning it doesn’t make it go away,” Jack said. “And I didn’t want to lie to you.”

Bittle smiled very softly. “Thank you. I appreciate that.”

Jack shrugged. “I like you,” he said, feeling bold. “And your pies.”

Bittle laughed at that, the sound almost startling, and Jack felt Bittle lean out and gently tap the wheel of his chair with his foot. “You’re terrible.”

Jack shrugged. “But you like me so…”

“Oh lord,” Bittle said, covering his face, which started to blush. “This boy,” he muttered, mostly to himself, but hearing it like that made Jack’s head spin a little bit.

“Are you going to watch the game?” Jack asked, deciding it was best to steer the conversation to somewhere a little safer. At least for now.

Bittle looked up and smiled. “You think I’d miss it? After all my hard work?”

Jack chuckled. “So let me ask you. Do you miss it? I mean, you used to play, and Holster said you still do shinny on weekends.”

Bittle shrugged, and there was an edge to his smile. “Hockey is…complicated for me. Just like skating.” He paused, and when Jack raised a brow, he let out a breath. “Where I grew up…people weren’t…they didn’t take it easy on boys like me. Who liked Beyonce and wearing leotards and spinning round on the ice to Tchaikovsky. I spent more time dodging sucker punches and being stuffed inside lockers and supply cupboards, that it’s a wonder I got anything done.”

“Bittle,” Jack said quietly, a burning rage settling in his gut.

Bittle shook his head. “It is what it is. It’s ugly in the south sometimes. And my dad was football coach, you know, so they all expected me to be a certain way. Hockey was an escape from the torment, because it wasn’t such a queer sport.”

Jack bristled. “Well…it wasn’t.”

Bittle smiled. “I know. What you did, Jack, was the bravest thing I’ve ever seen anyone do. And there were times I thought about sending you fanmail just so I could say thanks. And now look at me.”

Jack took a minute to process that. Bittle had known about him. It was easy to forget his previous life sometimes, but he realised right now, he wasn’t so bothered by it.

“There you were, big NHL guy, my own age, telling the entire world they can fuck themselves with their homophobic system. Then suddenly players were comin’ out left and right and even though I hadn’t stuck with hockey, it stopped being an escape, and it started feeling like something…safe.” Bittle shook his head. “And sometimes it still reminds me of the scared little boy who was too afraid to change in the locker room because people might accuse me of…lookin’.”

Jack didn’t quite know what to say.

“So yeah, I miss it sometimes. But it’s a lot easier when I’m out there with Adam and the other guys and not really…thinkin’.”

“I get that,” Jack said after a minute. “I do…there are times I’ll do sled hockey. For events and other things. For a while I thought about doing it full time, participating in Paralympics and everything but it was…too difficult. I didn’t want to replace what I’d lost, I just wanted to be able to do the thing I loved and not think about going back.”

Bittle smiled. “I’d love to watch that sometime. Trust me, I’m a far better spectator than player.”

Jack laughed. “Bittle, I’ve seen your moves on the ice, okay? If I don’t get to sell myself short, neither do you.” He blushed when he realised he was referencing their first real conversation together, but Bittle didn’t seem bothered. He just looked sweet and pleased.

They fell into a comfortable silence after that, finishing their food, then Bittle pushed his plate away and said, “We should go for a walk.” Jack opened his mouth to reply when Bittle said, “As like…a date.”

There was a pause so long, Bittle started to look nervous, like he’d misread everything, and Jack quickly regained his wits. “Yes. Yes I…okay. Yeah.”

Bittle laughed, then tried to protest Jack paying the bill, but as the food had been good, Jack insisted. Bittle got a coffee to go, and followed along at Jack’s elbow as they picked an easy pace up the boardwalk. It wasn’t crowded, and eventually Bittle found a bench, and Jack set his brake, then lifted himself off his chair, and next to the other man.

“I only moved here a few weeks before term started,” Bitty said softly. He stared down at Jack’s hands which were resting on his knee, then slowly reached over and placed his fingertips over Jack’s knuckles. Jack, in turn, twisted his hand, and let their fingers slot together. It was warm, the palm-to-palm, and Jack let out a shaking breath, but said nothing. “I wasn’t sure I was gonna like it. I mean, the staff all seemed nice. Most of them,” he nudged Jack who laughed.

“I know I was an asshole.”

“You just needed a bit of conversation and pie to nudge you in the right direction,” Bitty said with a wink. He leant into Jack slowly, resting the side of his head against the curve of Jack’s shoulder.

“I’m glad you didn’t give up on me. A lot of people…write me off.”

“A lot of people are idiots,” Bitty said, and rubbed his thumb over Jack’s knuckles. “I know plenty of ‘em.”

Jack breathed out. “Well I’m glad I didn’t stay in that category for long.”

Bitty chuckled, then hummed and turned his face up. “I had faith in you, Mr Zimmermann.”

“I’m glad someone did,” Jack replied, then brought his other hand up to Bitty’s cheek and cupped it. His thumb traced the cut of his jaw, running along the soft skin below Bitty’s ear, then moving to pinch Bitty’s chin between his thumb and fingers. He turned Bitty’s freckled face up and whispered, “How do you feel about kissing on the first date?”

Bitty’s cheeks pinked again, but he shrugged. “I think I’d better try it before I decide.”

Jack couldn’t help a grin. “Okay.” Then he leant in, and Bitty surged up, and their lips met. It wasn’t too much, their lips slotting together gentle and soft, and so warm.

When Bitty pulled away, he was even redder, and his eyes were a little wide, and his smile was threatening to split his face. “I might need a second opinion.”

Jack laughed, then gripped Bitty by the shoulders, hauling him in for one that was proper, deep, a swipe of the tongue hot and slick. It didn’t last too long, Jack had never fully gotten over his discomfort with being in public like this, but it lingered a bit, Jack pressing soft pecks along Bitty’s mouth before pulling completely away.

“Yeah I…think I might be a fan. I might even like kisses on the second date. And on the third,” Bitty finished with a whisper.

Jack said nothing, but tucked Bitty in close, letting his gaze wander out to the foggy beach, and realised for the first time in a long, long time, he felt truly content.