"Mr. Zimmermann, could we maybe take a photo of you with your purchases for our Instagram?" The cashier smiles up at him hopefully, eyes wide behind her thick-framed glasses, completely oblivious to Jack's discomfort. "Alexei Mashkov comes in here sometimes, and he always lets us. It's a great boost for the artists!"
Jack looks down at the maple-leaf-shaped potholders he's buying and agrees with a sigh. He doesn't want to piss off his new neighbors only a week after moving in.
The potholders had grabbed his eye because they look realistic, like actual maple leaves instead of the one on the flag, with veins and gradations of color. They don't scream "Canadian", at least. Hopefully they're subtle enough to not look cheesy hanging up in his kitchen.
He poses with a tense smile. The potholders might not look cheesy in his kitchen, but the entire world will see a photo of him buying them and feel like they have a right to chirp him for it. Luckily, he doesn't use his Instagram that much, and he generally ignores any mentions from people he doesn't already know. He makes a mental note to stay off of it for the next week.
At least the collage he picked out for his living room shouldn't draw any unwanted attention.
"How did you find out about us?" the cashier asks as she rings him up. "Did Mr. Mashkov send you?"
"Oh, I, uh." Jack figures there's no point in lying, since he'll probably be seen in the neighborhood regularly now. "I just moved into Alexei's building. I lived in that apartment building by the river that caught fire last month."
"Oh my goodness!" She freezes for a second as she's taking his credit card. "You were okay, though?"
"Oh, sure," he replies with a reassuring smile. "My unit actually escaped with just smoke damage, but, y'know. The whole building got condemned, so here I am now."
"Well, welcome to the neighborhood!"
He'd been hoping that moving into Tater's building would mean that the allure of having a hockey star around would have worn off, but apparently not. He knows Tater has a much higher tolerance than he does for fan interactions; not surprising, given that he's the most gregarious person on the team while Jack is the most introverted. He probably should have known that Tater would encourage this sort of thing.
He likes his new apartment, at least, but it's a little frustrating having to feel like he's starting over after four years in Providence.
After the fire, when there'd happened to be a unit for sale in Tater's building, Jack had jumped at the opportunity to avoid a new round of real estate agents and viewings. Jack would never have taken Tater for a hipster, but this part of town is significantly trendier than where Jack lived before. There are cupcake shops and bistros and used bookstores. Jack had decided he could get used it, that it might be fun to have a neighborhood he can walk around in.
And it is a nice little area. He's been here a week and this morning was the first chance he's gotten to really explore it, going out in search of things to decorate his new place with.
He'd started out at the antique shop on the corner a few doors down from his building. There hadn't been much there that was to his taste, and the women who ran it had recognized him immediately and begged him for selfies, followed by a hundred hockey questions. He'd finally found a lamp that he liked and escaped.
Around the corner, he'd passed by a "makerspace," whatever that is, a few clothing stores, and a dog groomer before finding this little shop selling handmade items from a variety of local artists on consignment.
Jack is exhausted as he leaves the store. He's only been out for a couple of hours, but he's not sure how many more fans he can handle talking to today.
But he does want to see a little more of the area, so instead of going straight back home, he decides to go around the block and approach his building from the other side, just to see what's around.
He doesn't intend to go into any more shops; he can find out later whether the rest of the neighborhood will be starstruck. But as he approaches the corner directly opposite the antique shop, he's struck by the most heavenly smell. It's about lunchtime, and his diet isn't as strict during the summer, so it can't hurt to follow his nose to the source, can it?
The source appears to be right across the street. A brightly-painted storefront catches his eye immediately. The sign at the top, which appears to be hand-lettered, declares this to be "Bitter/Sweet Coffee & Pastries," with a stylized cup of coffee to one side and pie to the other.
Now that he's seen the sign, Jack can pick out coffee as a definite part of the scent that's captivated him. But whatever baked goods they have in there are nearly as fragrant, and Jack is sure he smells something fruity along with yeasty bread and spices and some sweet smells he can't begin to identify. Before he really even realizes what he's doing, his feet have carried him through the front door and into the short line in front of the cash register.
As he waits for the three people in front of him to order, he starts to have second thoughts. Does he really need the stress of yet another round of selfies and autographs?
But just as he's about to turn around, his eyes land on the chalkboard behind the counter. Across the top it says "Pie of the Day" in the same scrolled lettering as the sign out front, and below that, in an entirely different handwriting, it says "Maple Pecan."
Jack glances down at the bag with his potholders hidden in it just as his stomach rumbles.
Okay, as long as these people don't want to post a photo to their Instagram of him posing with the maple-flavored pie.
When he's second in line, he realizes that the cashier has a deep southern accent. He sighs in relief; maybe this guy won't recognize him. The cashier is short, blonde, and cute. He has a trendy haircut with the sides shaved; the top is sticking up in various directions with product, but the front flops down over his forehead on one side. The shaved sides have grown in a little, and Jack pushes down the sudden desire to see how soft they are. He has the vague feeling he may have seen this guy before, but he doesn't remember meeting anyone in Providence with a southern accent like that.
Sure enough, when Jack gets to the register the man shows no sign of recognition as he grins and drawls, "And how can I help you, sir?"
"A cup of black coffee and a slice of the maple pecan pie, please."
The cashier pauses as he's ringing it up and raises an eyebrow at Jack. "I'm sorry, the maple what now?"
"Uh, the maple pecan pie?" He motions to the sign, a little confused. "It says up there that's what you have today?"
The cashier shakes his head. His eyebrow is still raised, but there's a glint of humor in his eye. "What that sign says, sir, is maple pih-cawn pie."
"Oh. Um." Jack shuffles his feet a little, not really sure what to do. The man seems to be joking, but even if he is, Jack has no clue how to respond.
"Tell you what," the cashier says, and his mouth melts back into a good-natured grin that makes Jack relax immediately. "a) At least you don't say it like all the other damn yankees who come through here, and b) I like the rest of your accent well enough, so I'll let it slide."
The way he winks playfully finally puts Jack at ease enough to play along. "That's very kind of you, allowing me to spend my money in your shop."
"What can I say? My southern hospitality kicks in at times like these."
Jack pays for his food and moves off to one side to let the next person in line through. A minute later, the short Asian girl making drinks slides a coffee cup and a plate of pie onto the counter in front of him.
"Next time at least make him order a more interesting drink, Bits." She throws Jack a smirk as she addresses the cashier.
"Next time?" Jack says, managing to keep a straight face. "You really think I'm ever setting foot in here again?"
The cashier (Bits? What kind of name is that?) glances over with a grin. "After you eat that pie, I guarantee it. In fact, if you eat that and then don't think you'll be back, I'll refund your money. But then you're never allowed in here again, and I will stand by that."
Jack laughs as he picks up the plate to take it to a seat by the window. "All right, it's a deal."
The pie is absolutely sinful. Jack loves pecan pie, and obviously he loves anything maple, but he's never had them combined before. And he can tell that whoever made it used real maple syrup, not some imitation flavoring. And the crust is the flakiest, most buttery pie crust he thinks he's ever tasted. It's all he can do to keep from moaning in a very embarrassing way as he eats.
When he's finished, he takes his plate back up to set it in the dish tub at the end of the counter.
The cashier is helping someone, but manages to catch his eye and cock one questioning eyebrow.
"I'll see you next week," Jack tells him. The grin he gets in return is smug, knowing, and incredibly sexy.
He's nearly back to his building before he realizes that nobody in that shop said one word to him about hockey or autographs or selfies. He will definitely be back.
Jack intends to only go to Bitter/Sweet on his cheat days. And he does go then… but after a couple of weeks he finds himself going on other days, too. It quickly becomes a habit, to stop in at the end of his morning run to grab a coffee. He manages to hold himself back from going every day, but he finds himself there at least a couple times a week. He still limits how often he lets himself sample the pastries (although his nutritionist would be aghast to find out how often he gives in), but he lets himself be talked into sweeter, fancier coffees now and then.
Once he discovers that it's less crowded in the afternoon, he starts dropping by after practice. Because when it's less crowded, he has more time to talk to the people behind the counter. Well, okay, one person behind the counter.
He quickly learns that the hot southern cashier is named Eric, and he's not just a cashier—he owns the shop and is the head baker. He says that means he chooses or creates all the recipes they use and sources all the ingredients, but he doesn't do all the actual baking himself; he has two employees who come in just in the early mornings to help him with that. In the afternoon it's just him and Larissa (who is Eric's friend from college, and whom he calls Lardo for some reason while she calls him Bitty or Bits), or sometimes just Eric alone, but during the breakfast rush there's usually at least one other employee, rotating between a couple of college kids whose names Jack doesn't manage to get.
Jack doesn't flirt with Eric, not really. They just have friendly conversations, usually about nothing important. Where Eric got the idea for some new pastry, what Jack thinks of the neighborhood. Eric is definitely attractive, and, Jack can admit, just his type—wiry, compact build but clearly muscular, huge brown eyes, slightly floppy blonde hair. His confidence and natural charm only add to it. And Jack may or may not be a sucker for that southern accent.
Jack doesn't want to assume, but the guy definitely pings his gaydar pretty strongly, and the pride flags (gay, bi, and a couple others Jack doesn't recognize but assumes are along the same lines) hanging in the cafe don't exactly contradict that assessment.
Even if Jack were out, even though he's about 75% sure he's going to come out next summer, he knows that asking out someone who's just doing their job is pretty crass. But… he'd be tempted. If he were out, that is. Which he's not. So it's really not an issue.
They've definitely spent enough time talking that Jack is confident Eric isn't just being polite to him like he would any other customer. Eric even initiates the conversations most of the time when it's not busy. But Eric is outgoing and friendly and probably has several regulars he talks to like this, so it would be really rude of Jack to corner him in his place of work.
So he wouldn't. Even if he could.
He reminds himself of this fact regularly, whenever he gets a little too caught up in Eric's huge brown eyes or the way his biceps move under his t-shirt when he's working the espresso machine.
Neither Eric nor Larissa ever mentions a thing about hockey, or about Jack being famous, and Jack is immensely relieved to have found the one place in Providence where he's never treated like a celebrity. He wonders, though, as August comes to an end, whether they'll figure it out once the season starts. If they hadn't followed hockey before, of course they wouldn't notice anyone's names or faces. But now that they know what he looks like and that his name is Jack, if they see a Falconers commercial on TV or happen across a post-game interview they'll know it's him.
He just hopes they don't suddenly start treating him differently. He'd hate to lose the one spot where he feels comfortable.
He's been going there for nearly two months when it happens.
It's one of his afternoon visits, and Eric is talking about what new flavors he should try for various pastries. Jack, with a completely straight face, refuses to suggest anything but maple for every single thing Eric mentions.
Eric finally rolls his eyes, laughing. "Oh my goodness. You do understand, Mr. Zimmermann, that most of our clientele are not Canadian?"
Jack freezes, his heart racing. He's only ever given his first name here.
"Oh," he says, suddenly subdued. "You do know who I am."
His brain immediately reevaluates every interaction he's ever had here in light of the fact that Eric has known he's famous all along. He's not being so nice because he likes Jack. He just wants a piece of him, like everyone else. He was just buttering him up so that eventually he can ask for something bigger than just a selfie or autograph—maybe some kind of endorsement for the cafe or something, who knows.
Eric just laughs, leaning on the counter with his elbows. He cocks his head to one side playfully.
"Of course I know who you are, silly. Hell, I played against you for two years in college."
Jack's head snaps up from where he'd been staring intently at his coffee cup. "You what?"
"Sorry about kicking your ass in the Frozen Four your senior year," Eric continues with a smirk. "Mind you, if we'd actually won the championship I would not even pretend to be sorry at all."
Jack's brow furrows as he looks closely at Eric. "You went to Samwell? And played hockey?"
"Yep, believe it or not. Scholarship and everything. Lardo over there was our team manager…"
Eric rattles off a few more facts about Samwell's team while Jack studies him. Then Jack suddenly realizes why Eric had looked vaguely familiar the first day he'd come in here.
"You were one of their starting forwards. Left wing, I think?" He finally manages to smile again. "You were fast."
Eric straightens, his eyebrows shooting up. "That is some memory you've got. Not like I was captain or anything. Not sure I ever even got a goal against you all; I mean, we only played you a couple times a year."
Jack had gone to Boston University to play after his overdose killed his initial NHL chances. Samwell had been in another conference, so no, they hadn't played each other often.
"I, um, I'm pretty thorough with my research on the teams I play against, especially for playoffs."
Jack does not say that the main reason he still remembers Eric Bittle several years later isn't that he'd watched tape of him zipping across the ice faster than almost anyone else in the NCAA. That helps, but the main reason is that even then he'd noticed Eric was cute—and had heard that he was openly gay, a rarity even at the college level. As captain, he'd had to chew out one of his teammates for making a nasty comment about that in the locker room after they'd lost.
They chat a little more about their college hockey experiences in between Eric helping a couple of customers. He learns that Eric was a figure skater first, which accounts for his speed, before switching to hockey in high school.
"Wait, you'd only been playing for three years, on a no-contact club team, and you got a Division I scholarship? Holy shit, man. If you'd been playing as long as I have, you'd have my job, easy."
Eric blushes and looks down at the counter. "Nah, even if I were that good, I don't think going pro would be for me. I'm pretty happy right where I am, y'know? And anyhow…" He glances back at the gay pride flag hanging behind the counter and rolls his eyes.
"Yeah," Jack says, a little more subdued. "The NHL definitely has some problems. Pro sports in general has problems, but the NHL is maybe worse than most." He has to hold himself back from saying anything more personal on the issue.
Instead, he changes the subject. "So if you're from Georgia—" It had come up once when Eric was selling him on the peach pie. "—and went to college in Massachusetts, how'd you wind up in Providence of all places?"
"Well, it wasn't my first choice, I'll admit. I worked at a bakery in Boston right out of college. But when I started looking into running my own place, it did not take long for me to figure out that it would be easier to turn a profit pretty much anywhere with lower rent than Boston. And Lardo was about to come down here to start her MFA at RISD, so we could be roomies and she could help me out here. I mean, obviously if money were the only concern, it woulda been cheaper for me to move on back down to Georgia and open up shop there, but, well. Let's just say I've gotten used to the liberal leanings of the northeast."
"In Georgia they wouldn't want to see quite so many pride flags hanging up," Jack guesses.
"You could say that," Eric says with a wry twist to his mouth. "I mean, I'd be fine in Athens or most parts of Atlanta, but it's just easier here. And don't tell anyone this, but the whole four separate seasons thing has kinda grown on me."
Jack laughs. But then something clicks in his head.
"So wait… you call her Lardo, and she calls you Bitty or Bits. Were those your hockey nicknames in school?"
Eric throws his head back with laughter. "Yes! Oh goodness, I don't even think about that anymore. It's just second nature to respond to Eric or Bitty or Bits or Bittle or almost anything people wanna call me at this point. Y'know…" He leans in conspiratorially, and Jack feels himself lean in unconsciously as well. "Since you're a hockey player, you should feel free to call me Bitty, too. All my friends do."
Jack's heart gives a funny little jump at being included as a friend.
"Bitty, huh?" Jack smiles. "Nicknames have never stuck for me. Tater calls me Zimmboni, but it's just him, thank god. Please don't call me that. Ever."
"So your whole team just calls you Jack?" Eric—Bitty—gets this adorable little wrinkle in his nose, as if the thought of a hockey player having no nickname is so distasteful.
"Basically. I mean, occasionally Zimmermann. I'm fine with Jack, though. I like my name."
Bitty just smiles at him for a second, then turns to Larissa, who just finished helping a customer Bitty managed to miss while talking to Jack.
"Hey, should Jack call you Larissa or Lardo?"
"Christ, Lardo, please," she mutters, looking down at her phone. "I've never liked Larissa."
Maybe it's naive of him, but Jack is okay with Bitty (and Lardo) knowing who he is. In fact, he maybe even likes it. Bitty clearly doesn't see it as a big deal at all—just something they have in common.
He's still curious, though.
"So you knew who I was this whole time, and never said anything?"
Bitty shrugs. "Figured you get enough of that, you probably want a chance to talk about anything other'n hockey now and then."
Jack makes a scoffing sound in the back of his throat as he picks at the sleeve around his now-empty coffee cup.
"Generally, anyone who knows who I am wants autographs and pictures first thing," he mumbles. "If not more."
He's startled by Bitty's warm hand on his arm. It's the first time they've touched outside of accidental brushes of fingers as his drink is handed over. He hopes he's not blushing.
"Well, don't you forget, now—you're not the only NHL player I know."
Jack pauses, thinking. "That's right. Adam Birkholtz and Chris Chow played in that game, too."
Birkholtz was a year behind Jack in school; he'd gone to the AHL for a year before getting moved up to the Bruins. And Chow had signed with Seattle straight out of college.
Jack really isn't anything special here. That's… oddly reassuring.
Bitty's wide smile shows how proud he is of his friends. His hand is still heavy on Jack's arm. "Obviously, they're not at your level, but don't you forget that I am quite used to hanging out with tall, handsome hockey players."
Bitty moves off to help a customer, his hand sliding off of Jack's arm maybe a bit more slowly than it absolutely has to. Or maybe that's Jack's imagination. After all, Bitty may have just insinuated that he found Jack handsome, but he'd also said that his friends from college were handsome, so it didn't mean anything.
Didn't mean a thing, Jack reminds himself as he tosses his cup and says goodbye to Bitty. But he's smiling to himself as he walks home.
He'd thought he'd found a place where they didn't know who he was and so could treat him like anyone else. It's even better to know that it's actually a place where they do know who he is, but default to treating him like a human being anyhow.