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Here Come the Dreams

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"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 been drafted to 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.

Chapter Text

Bitty wakes up to knocking on his dorm room door. Crap. He forgot to set an early alarm for his first checking practice today. He pulls open the door.

"Sorry, sorry," he says to his team captain, John Johnson. "Lemme pull some clothes on."

"No problem, Bits. Just lemme know when you're ready." Johnson smiles at him as he closes the door.

Johnson is a weird guy, but so far he's a good captain. It was really nice of him to offer to help Bitty with his embarrassing checking problem. He even apologized profusely at having to do it so early in the morning, but they'd compared their schedules and it was really the only time that would work this week.

Bitty gets dressed in a rush and jumps back out into the hall. Johnson shoves a coffee cup into his hand.

"First pumpkin spice latte of the season," he says as they head out.

Bitty takes a surprised sip, and sure enough, it's a PSL.

"Wow, I didn't even know they had 'em this early! How'd you know I like these?"

Johnson laughs. "Annie's always brings them out a couple weeks before Starbucks. And I don't know, I must have heard you mention it at practice at some point."

Bitty's pretty sure he hasn't talked to any of his teammates about his coffee preferences. But he must have, right? Or maybe Johnson's just a good guesser. Lots of people like PSLs.

They get to the rink and get suited up. Or, at least, Bitty does; Johnson lets him wear his pads but forgoes them himself. They get onto the ice and do a couple slow laps to warm up.

"Okay," Johnson says when it's time to get down to business. "Look, I know it sucks that you won't meet your main love interest for a few more years in this AU, but it'll be worth it, okay? And for now, I'm pretty sure we can get you through this mental block around checking even without the unresolved sexual tension."

Bitty's eyes widen. What the hell is Johnson talking about? Does he know Bitty's gay? Is he hitting on Bitty? He said without sexual tension, but why would he bring up sexual tension at all??? Bitty's worried he might faint before he even gets checked this time.

Johnson drags a hand down his face. "Damn it, sorry. It's too early. Before six AM my mind cannot be trusted to stay in my own AU. Ignore everything I just said, okay?"

Bitty isn't sure he can completely ignore it, but he nods anyhow.

"Trust me," Johnson says, "none of that needs to matter to you. Now, let's get down to some checking."

Chapter Text

Jack finds himself spending more and more time at Bitter/Sweet. Not that he has the most free time, especially when the little shop closes at 6pm, but he also doesn't have much else to do with what free time he does have. And it's a lot more welcoming than his empty apartment, honestly.

He always spends money there—he'd never assume he was welcome to take up a seat without buying anything. He can't have sweet coffee drinks and pie every day, but they also sell a line of organic juices and little single-serve quiches, and with as many calories as he has to pack in a day he sometimes eats two or three of those. But he often brings a book with him after practice and curls up in one of the corner armchairs, reading for a couple of hours while he munches, and it's so much nicer than reading at home.

Now and then, of course, Bitty comes over to wipe down the tables nearby while Jack is reading. When Jack looks up and happens to catch his eye, sometimes he'll ask Jack what he's reading, and Jack will tell him, and they'll talk for a minute or two before Bitty goes back to work and Jack goes back to reading.

 

One day, after a couple weeks of this, Jack looks up to see Bitty settling down in the other armchair, next to his, with a drink. He raises an eyebrow.

Bitty shrugs. "I'm on break, and these chairs are damn comfy. Whatcha readin' today?"

Jack tells him what the book is about, and how far he's gotten, and how he likes it, and they wind up talking for the rest of Bitty's fifteen-minute break. Jack almost feels bad for sucking up his entire break, but he can't quite bring himself to after the smile Bitty gives him as he gets up to head back to work.

It becomes a regular routine—if Jack happens to be there during a break (he quickly learns when Bitty normally takes his breaks, and it's really not creepy of him to make sure he's there at that time more often than not, is it?), Bitty spends it talking to him. Now that he knows that the staff know who he is, and he knows who Bitty and Lardo are, they can have real conversations, beyond the surface niceties they'd stuck to when he first started coming in. They talk about what they studied in college, how Providence differs from their hometowns, what Jack's reading, what Bitty likes to read, and sometimes they even talk about hockey.

Bitty says he wasn't much of a student, but he clearly paid attention to the classes he was actually interested in. He's surprisingly knowledgeable about anything to do with food—not just how to make it, but as a topic to be studied psychologically, sociologically, historically. When his interests in the place of food in society intersect with Jack's interests in twentieth century history, they can easily get engrossed in the conversation and realize a half an hour has passed, and Bitty has to run up to the counter, apologizing profusely to whoever has been covering while he took an extra-long break.

Jack also strikes up an unconventional sort of friendship with Lardo. It starts when he admires the paintings in the cafe, only to find out that she did them all and that they're for sale. He takes one home that day, and commissions her to do another for his living room. At some point he mentions his photography hobby, and they wind up talking about art regularly.

Conversations with her are different than with Bitty, though. They're a few sentences, rather than fifteen minutes of constant chatter (kept up more by Bitty than Jack). He'll show her some shots he's taken, and although he can tell she's considering each of them seriously, she'll only comment on one or two—but those comments are thoughtful and heartfelt. She sits with him during her breaks sometimes, too, but often she doesn't even say anything. They just sit next to each other, and Jack thinks maybe he should find it odd, since they don't really even know each other that well, but he's always liked having people in his life with whom he can just exist.

 

The other shop in the neighborhood Jack frequents besides Bitter/Sweet is the used bookstore next door to his building. The old Croatian man who runs it has probably never seen a hockey game in his life, and the tall stacks and tight aisles remind him of a bookstore he used to go to as a kid.

He's been there for an hour, first browsing then debating between two books on the War of 1812. He's finally chosen one and is on his way to check out when he happens to walk past the cookbook section. A shelf of vintage books catches his eye, and he stops to take a look.

He runs his finger down one spine after another, pulling one down every now and then to flip through it. He smiles at page after page of disgusting-looking jello concoctions—some of them have seafood suspended in them, and apparently at one point there was celery-flavored jello? Then he pulls down the Betty Crocker Cook Book of All-Purpose Baking, published in 1942, paging through it with a slightly more serious interest than the others. It was clearly written with wartime rationing in mind, helping people make the most of their limited supplies.

It's no shock that just the word baking makes him immediately think of Bitty. Jack's used to it by now, the way the petite baker's smile floats into his mind whenever he passes by another bakery or coffee shop, eats a pastry, hears the Beyonce music that Bitty plays so much even Jack is learning to recognize it. But as he looks through this book, his mind is constantly drawn back to their conversations. The bit of a crush he thought he had can't account for the longing that's pressing in on his chest, the way he misses someone he saw just yesterday.

He wants very badly to buy the book for Bitty. He knows Bitty would love it, the book itself, but not so sure how he would react to a gift from Jack. They've only known each other for a few months, and have only been having substantive conversations for half of that time. Just because Jack finds himself thinking of Bitty at random times doesn't mean Bitty does the same. Bitty might find it creepy that this book made Jack think of him.

But it's something friends do, right? It doesn't have to have romantic intent. The book is clearly relevant to Bitty's interests, and ties directly into conversations they've had. It would almost be weird if Jack could look through this book and not think of Bitty.

He finally talks himself into buying the book.

It takes him a couple of days to get up the courage to bring it to Bitter/Sweet with him. He finally grabs it after practice one day and walks to the bakery, feeling probably more determined than the situation really calls for.

Nobody is behind the counter when he walks in, but Bitty must hear the door chime because he calls "Be out in a jiffy!" from the back room. Jack leans on the counter and reads his War of 1812 book, taking deep breaths and trying not to look at the other book he's got under it.

He looks up when the door swings open and catches Bitty's eye immediately. Bitty's wide smile when he sees Jack makes Jack's heart race.

"Jack, hey!" Bitty sets down the tray loaded with quiches he's brought in to restock the display case with. He picks one up with a gloved hand, waving it toward Jack. "You gonna want one of these bad boys today?"

Jack is pretty hungry, actually. "I'll take two, and one of the pomegranate juices."

Bitty rings him up and sets his food out on a small tray, but Jack doesn't go to take it.

"I, um. I saw this—" He pulls the cookbook out and holds it out to Bitty. "—and it, uh, made me think of you. I thought you'd like it."

Bitty blinks at the book for a few seconds, clearly startled. When he finally reaches out for it, the smile that spreads across his face is shy.

"Well, thank you, Jack," he murmurs, then opens the book. "Wow. Oh, gosh, look at this! Oh my goodness."

After he's flipped through a few pages, he looks up. Jack tries not to blush as he meets Bitty's eye. "That's so sweet of you, Jack, thank you. I love it."

Bitty blushes as soon as he says it and quickly looks back down at the book, biting his lip. Jack's heart does a little flip in his chest.

They don't talk about the book any more until two days later, when Bitty's actually had a chance to read it. He comes over on his break and gushes to Jack, chattering excitedly about how the cookbook is an example of all these things he'd learned in one of his food history classes.

Jack sits back and lets Bitty's voice wash over him, smiling softly. Bitty gets little spots of color on his cheeks when he's excited, and Jack can't help but notice that every time they make eye contact those spots spread a little before Bitty's eyes skitter away again nervously. Whenever Jack has something to add to the conversation, Bitty listens raptly, leaning in a little more than he usually does.

A couple of years ago, Jack would have been in denial. He would have ignored how he felt, told himself there was no point in acknowledging something he can't act on anyhow. (A couple of years before that, he wouldn't have come back to Bitter/Sweet at all once he'd noticed that he was at all attracted to Bitty.) He's past all that now, but being able to admit to himself that he's falling in love doesn't change the fact that he can't act on it.

If Jack were a normal person with a normal job, he would've asked Bitty out on a date by now. But he can't ask someone as out and proud as Bitty to hide for him; that would be incredibly unfair. Even if it's just for a few months, if Jack comes out this summer like he's more and more sure he wants to do. Maybe after that, if he's still hanging out here and they're still talking this much and Bitty is still single (Jack isn't sure he believes that someone as attractive and charismatic as Bitty could stay single for nearly a year), he'll try then.

His life would be so much simpler if it were Lardo he had feelings for. Which isn't to say that he wishes he were a different person, or that he wishes Bitty were a different person. But… Jack does like women, too, and women are a hell of a lot less complicated while he's in the closet. He's dated a few, though never seriously and never for very long, other than a six-month relationship in college that was more like glorified friends with benefits. He's never fallen hard for a woman the way he's falling for Bitty. Lardo is very pretty and Jack thinks she's great, but he's not at all attracted to her.

Which is just as well, since it turns out the reason she's rarely in the cafe on the weekends is that she has a boyfriend up in Boston. Jack is startled when he learns that her boyfriend recently graduated from Harvard Law—he can't imagine Lardo with a lawyer at all, let alone the kind of stuffed-shirt he imagines would go to Harvard. Then he finds out that he was on their hockey team, too, and that they call him Shitty of all things, and that he's usually naked when he's not at his job in the district attorney's office. Jack hears enough stories about this guy from both Bitty and Lardo that he's very curious to meet him.

 

The season wears on, Jack coming in nearly every day when he's in town to make up for sometimes entire weeks when he's gone. He misses Bitty terribly when he's away, but can't bring himself to ask for his phone number. He just can't find a way to play it off casually, because when he thinks of doing it he feels anything but casual.

Around Thanksgiving, Bitty and Lardo finally take him up on his standing invitation to get them tickets to any home game, and Shitty is in town to come with them. The Falconers win handily, and Jack goes out to greet his friends after the game.

He's a bit overwhelmed when he's accosted by a man with long hair and a mustache who starts yelling, "What a fucking beaut, holy shit Zimmermann, that goal in the third? I almost came in my pants, that was fucking sexy as hell. And you tell Mashkov I got a fucking boner just from watching him take down that asshole…"

Jack looks at Lardo and Bitty, wide-eyed, for help, and Lardo carefully pries her boyfriend off of him.

 

It's late December when, trying to relax in his hotel room in Houston after an afternoon game, Jack stumbles on a documentary on Netflix about the gender dynamics of the post-war rise of household technology, which includes a long section on convenience foods. He makes a mental note to tell Bitty about it as soon as he gets back to Providence—then he remembers that by the time he gets back, Bitty will be in Georgia for Christmas. And then Jack will be on the road again. It will be a good week and a half before he actually sees Bitty again.

Pressing down the jolt of sadness at the realization, Jack wonders if maybe he can find some way to contact him before then. He finds Bitter/Sweet's web site, and looks at the various contact details there. He's heard Bitty talk about Twitter a lot, and knows that Bitty runs the Twitter account himself while the email is checked by one of the younger staff members, who passes things like orders on to Bitty. The Falconers' PR office encourages the players to have Twitter accounts, but Jack has never seen the appeal. He has an Instagram, as well as a private Facebook that only his friends and family can see, and that's as much social media as he needs in his life.

He reasons that just because he signs up for a Twitter doesn't mean he has to use it. He doesn't even have to tell anyone about it, really. And if he ever decides to use it for PR purposes, it'll be there. JLZimmermann is taken, so he signs up with JackZHockey. He googles "How do I send someone a message on twitter" and learns about direct messages. Luckily, the Bitter/Sweet account, BitterSweetPVD, is set to allow DMs from anyone, so he won't have to post publicly.

JackZHockey: Hi. This is Jack.
Zimmermann.
I just watched something on Netflix I thought you'd like, it's called Mother's Little Helper.
It has a lot of stuff about TV dinners and cake mixes and things like that, convenience foods in the '50s.
I know this is your business account, but I wasn't sure how else to contact you and I figured I'd forget by the time I see you in person again.
Sorry.

Jack figures he should probably quit while he's ahead. He reads back over what he's typed so far and winces. He's… not exactly less awkward online than in person, is he?

He doesn't really expect to get an answer, given that it's nearly eleven in Providence and Bitty generally has to be at work at 5AM. So he's surprised when he has a new message just a few minutes later.

BitterSweetPVD: Jack Laurent Zimmermann, tell me you did not make a Twitter account just to recommend a documentary to me.

JackZHockey: How do you know my middle name?

BitterSweetPVD: You do know you have a Wikipedia article, don't you?

JackZHockey: Right, right.
Somehow, even after like thirteen years of one level or another of being famous, these things still take me by surprise sometimes.
And yes, I guess I did.
But why are you up so late? I figured you wouldn't see this until tomorrow.

BitterSweetPVD: Claudia's out of town Monday, so I traded days off with her.
And… I'm sort of on a date.

Jack's stomach drops. Of course he's on a date. Bitty is hot, and sweet, and caring, and funny, and owns his own business. He must have his choice of guys lined up who wouldn't have to hide him like a dirty little secret. Jack is being ridiculous, anyhow—even if his life were different, he doesn't even know for sure that Bitty would be interested. Maybe Jack totally isn't his type.

JackZHockey: Sort of?
But sorry, I don't mean to interrupt.
You don't have to talk to me right now.

BitterSweetPVD: Oh my lord, no! You are not interrupting a thing!
…I may be using you as an excuse to avoid my date…
Lardo insisted I come, I haven't been on a date in months and haven't had a boyfriend since college.
But this guy and I have nothing in common. Like, we're both male and we're both gay and that's about it.
I guess we're both blonde.

JackZHockey: I'm sorry.

He's not sorry in the least.

JackZHockey: If it helps, I have, um… an emergency.
My aunt died and I'm inconsolable. I need a friend's shoulder to cry on.

BitterSweetPVD: Well that is just terrible, Jack, I am so sorry to hear about that and I guess now I just have to cut my date short so I can help my poor friend.
Btw, you can text me if you want. 401-555-3952
The rest of the staff does have access to this account, even if it's 95% me who uses it LOL.
Although I suppose you're welcome to give everyone Netflix recs if you want. ;)

Now Jack's stomach is doing something else entirely. Bitty is leaving his date. Thanks to Jack. And now he has Bitty's phone number. He knows, he knows that it doesn't mean anything, but he can't stop the butterflies anyhow. Bitty doesn't know he likes guys, he has no reason to think Bitty sees him as anything more than a friend.

Hey, this is Jack.
You get out of that date?

He has to wait a couple of minutes for an answer.

- Hi Jack!
- Yeah I'm in an Uber home now.
- Thanks for the rescue. :D

Was it really that bad?

- Oh, I dunno, he was kinda cute.
- But he hated sports, and acted, like, shocked that I was into hockey and sort of up on football.
- Like it's not allowed, I'm too gay for that.

That's ridiculous.
There are plenty of queer athletes.

- I know, right?
- Anyhow, after that I felt like he was judging me all the time.
- I told him about my American Studies major and he seriously asked "Is that even a real thing? That sounds made up. Is that one of those majors they make up just so the athletes can get good grades, like kinesthetics?"

Wow, that's pretty rude.

- RIGHT?
- I shoulda just left then, idk. I didn't want to be rude back, y'know?
- After that I went off on a tangent telling him all about Ransom being in med school after his 4.0 and Shitty with his double major going to Harvard Law and
- oh um
- I might have mentioned this NHL player I know with a history degree…
- I hope you don't mind?

Does Jack mind that Bitty used him as an example of an intelligent athlete to shut down his date? No, Jack does not mind that.

No, no. Glad I could help shut this guy up. :)

- Then the last straw was when I said "y'all" and he said it was "so quaint" like I'm a fucking knick-knack in an antique shop.
- Thank goodness I got your DM right then, Jack.
- You are a lifesaver, you have no idea.
- Your next visit to bittersweet is on the house.

Well, I'm sorry your date was so bad.

Still not actually sorry. Jack has to fight down the urge to tell Bitty what a catch he is, because he doesn't trust himself not to go on and on and completely show his hand.

- Eh, it's okay.
- Lardo's tried to set me up a few times recently, she says I've been too picky.
- Apparently not picky enough, if this is the one I accepted.
- Not particularly sad about it, though.
- I'm ok being single. Better than being with the wrong guy.
- What about you? You never talk about your love life. Now you've heard about mine, your turn to spill. ;)

Huh. Jack weighs his response. He doesn't want to lie and make it sound like he definitely only dates women, but he doesn't want to outright say otherwise. Not yet, not even to Bitty. Maybe… maybe sometime soon, he can say that to Bitty. Give him some warning before Jack comes out publicly. But not yet. If he plays the pronoun game, though… Bitty will probably catch on anyhow. He's not stupid. So Jack hedges.

Not much of a love life to talk about, honestly.

- Really? Not even puck bunnies after the games?

Haha, I've never been into that.
I haven't had a real relationship in a long time, but I'm not into one night stands, either.

- Ah. Somehow I don't find that very surprising. That you're not into one night stands. Just doesn't seem like you.
- And I'm guessing your career makes it hard to find a lady to get serious with.

Eh. Lots of the guys have girlfriends or wives. They've managed.
But my career definitely presents some problems.

- You don't know who's interested in you and not your fame and fortune?

Sometimes, yeah.

Not with you, though, he wishes he could write. You've always made that clear. Jack bites his lip. This is probably a bad idea, but…

There's actually someone I'm interested in.
But my career is definitely in the way of pursuing that at the moment.

- Oh! Really?
- Tell me about her. Gosh, when do you have time to meet someone, anyhow?

I don't even know if they'd be interested, even if my job weren't an issue.

Well, there. He's done it. He's said they. But he had to deflect somehow, he can't actually tell Bitty about the person he's interested in. He shouldn't have said anything to begin with.

Although, if Jack is brutally honest with himself (which he's still getting better at), he knows he wouldn't have gone down this conversational path at all if he hadn't somewhat been hoping to get caught out. As stupid as that is.

There's a longer pause before he gets a response. He's… pretty sure Bitty noticed. Of course Bitty noticed. He probably isn't even interested. What the hell was Jack thinking?

- Jack, believe me when I say I honestly cannot imagine anyone not being interested in you.

Jack sucks in a breath. He can't possibly be misinterpreting that, can he? He's speaking in codes, and Bitty is replying in kind. It's a stupid game for them to have to play, but that's life.

Thanks. :)
Believe it or not, that means a lot to me.
I should probably get to bed, our flight is early tomorrow morning.
Check out that documentary when you get a chance!

- I will, Jack.
- Thanks for telling me about it.
- And for everything tonight.

 

That night sets a precedent, and after that Jack finds himself texting Bitty regularly. Jack normally isn't on his phone all that much; he texts a couple of his teammates, a couple friends from college, and his parents, but even all of those together don't amount to more than a few conversations a week. Once he starts texting Bitty, though, it becomes a few conversations a day. He figures, as chatty as Bitty is, he shouldn't be surprised.

He also shouldn't be surprised that his teammates notice.

"Zimmboni," Tater says when he checks his phone during lunch one day in New York, "when you get girlfriend?"

"What?" Jack looks up in alarm. "No, no, I don't have a girlfriend. I'm just talking to a friend. He's… very talkative."

"Boyfriend, then?" Tater asks with a knowing smirk. Jack momentarily regrets coming out to his friends on the team. "No need for lies, Zimmboni, is all friends here."

He's right, they're just eating lunch with Snowy and Poots, who both know. Jack doesn't have to hide everything. But, of course, there really is nothing to hide. Sadly.

"No, it's just… You know that bakery I showed you, on the block behind our building? Eric, the guy who runs it, we're friends."

"Ohhh, yes!" Tater turns to the other two. "You should see how Jack looks at baker. I should have known is him, Zimmboni. Shows on face."

The other two start grinning, and Poots slaps Jack on the back.

"No! We're not—yes, I'm interested in him, okay? But we're not dating." Jack runs a hand over his face. "I'm not going public until this summer at the earliest, I can't expect him to hide for me for six months."

"So you asked and he turned you down?" Snowy asks, eyebrow raised.

"No, I can't—I can't ask him to do that. It wouldn't be fair to him."

"Maybe you should let him decide that," Snowy replies with a shrug. "He's an adult, yeah? If he doesn't want to, he doesn't have to."

Jack doesn't really have an answer to that.

 

When they're finally both back in Providence, Bitty is clearly happy to see him if the tight hug he gets is any indication. They haven't discussed their dating lives since that night, and they both continue to not broach the topic in person. Which doesn't require any particular amount of avoiding the topic, since they'd never discussed it before that night.

He finds himself teasing Bitty more when he's at the cafe, not just curling up in a corner and waiting for Bitty to come over on a break but hanging around the counter while he's working and chirping him in between customers. Bitty doesn't seem to mind in the least. Jack wonders if Bitty is just used to that kind of thing from his friends, or if he realizes that it's Jack's awkward way of flirting without letting himself actually flirt. Chirping as courtship ritual—it sounds like a paper he could have written for one of his college classes.

One night after a loss in Tampa, Jack begs off dinner with the team and just picks up something on the way back to his hotel room. He watches some tape while he eats, but can't shake his sour mood. He tries to avoid texting Bitty, probably because he's masochistic and knows that that might actually cheer him up, but once he's done with dinner he gives in.

Hey, what's up?

- I'm great! :D

The reply comes way too quickly, doesn't actually answer Jack's question, and he's not sure if he's ever seen Bitty describe himself as being "great" before, even when he really is in a great mood. Jack hits the button to dial without even really thinking about it.

"Jack?" Bitty picks up on the second ring. His voice sounds like it's trying not to shake. "Everything okay?"

"I was going to ask you the same thing," Jack says, realizing too late that they've never actually spoken on the phone before. "That was the least-convincing 'I'm great' I've ever seen."

Bitty sighs. "Sorry, I—I know you guys just lost, I didn't wanna bug you with my problems."

"Well, I'm the one who called you, so you might as well make it worth my while."

"It's stupid. It's my own fault to begin with, and I should have done something about it by now, but every time I think about it I just freeze up—"

"Look," Jack cuts in. "I did lose a game a couple hours ago, and I'm not in a very good mood because of it, but I want to talk to you and I want to hear what's wrong. But that means that if you don't tell me what's wrong I'm going to get really pissy."

"Sorry," Bitty says miserably. His voice sounds fragile, like it will break any second. "Okay, it's just… I'm not very good at running a business. I mean, I'm good at being a baker, and at the like day-to-day part of running a bakery and a coffee shop. I'm just really bad at all the financial parts and the organizational parts and everything, and there are so many of those parts. But Lardo deals with most of that stuff. There's a reason she was our team manger, she's super organized and on top of that kind of thing. But, like… this isn't what she wants to do with her life. She's just helping out a friend. And eventually she's gonna want to move back to Boston to be with Shitty, or she's gonna start making enough with her art that she doesn't need a full-time job with me anymore, or she's just gonna get sick of it. And I should have been preparing for that from the start, I mean, honestly, I don't even know how I planned to pull this off before she got on board and I didn't really think about that until I realized how much she was doing, but I didn't really even think that much about it after that, either, y'know?

"And every few months I try to, I start looking at the books more and the paperwork and everything, but I just… I wouldn't even know where to start. There's so much of it, and so much to remember to do all the time, and I'm awful at that. And I know why, it's because I have ADHD, and just none of this is anything that's easy when you have, like, zero executive functioning. But knowing why I can't do it doesn't make me magically capable of doing it, and every time I start trying to figure it out I just start panicking and give up."

"Is there something specific that's making you upset about this tonight?" Jack asks.

"Not really… I mean, Lardo's up in Boston for the weekend, and after we closed this evening I just thought oh, hey, I should look at that stuff again, so I started looking at it and I just wound up crying at the computer, and that's when you texted me. I don't know why I thought tonight would be any different, every time I do this I just wind up sitting at the computer crying, then getting pissed off at myself for freaking out about it."

"There's no reason to get mad at yourself for something upsetting you," Jack says gently. "Trust me, I know. Look, I don't think I would be very good at doing the financials for a business either, and I have an anxiety disorder but it doesn't cause anything that would specifically interfere with that, y'know? I'm not disorganized at all, it's just that that's a whole field that people, like, take classes and get degrees to do. Have you had Lardo sit down with you and explain it?"

"Yeah," Bitty says miserably. "I always get lost halfway through. If I make it that far. And a lot of the problem isn't even not knowing how to do things, it's just knowing that even if I knew what to do I wouldn't get things done, not the way they need to be or on time. I mean, ever since I got diagnosed I've started using a lot more alarms and reminders and things, and that would get me partway there, but I'm not even good at following those all the time. I don't know what I am gonna do when she's gone!"

He sounds like he's going to cry again by the end, and Jack rushes to reassure him. "Look, that's not happening yet, is it?"

"Not yet. She's finishing her degree in May, but she doesn't know yet what she's doing after that."

"Okay, good, then you've still got plenty of time. I know saying there's no reason to panic doesn't actually do jack shit to make you not panic, but it's still true. This isn't a problem you have to solve tonight. Is there a reason you can't just hire someone to take Lardo's place?"

Bitty laughs wetly. "Not really. I mean, I'd probably have to pay 'em more, because she refuses to let me pay her as much as I should, and the store's not turning a profit yet as it is, but I think I could swing it? But how much of a failure am I, to own my own business and not be at all capable of doing the business-owning part of it?"

"What? Are you serious?" Thinking of the warm, vibrant cafe full of good food, Jack is baffled at the thought of Bitty being a failure. "If you stay in business, you're not a failure, by definition. Even if you don't stay in business more than a few years, that's pretty normal, right? That would make you average, not a failure. It doesn't really matter which parts you can or can't do yourself, as long as you're smart enough to delegate the parts you're not good at to people who are. You don't bake everything yourself, right?"

"But I could, if I really needed to."

"Could you, though? And, like, not die? Could you literally do all of the baking every single day and stay functional for years on end like that?"

Bitty sighs. "No," he says, grudgingly. "Of course not. But that's just needing more hands. That's not being incapable of the task itself."

"You didn't paint the art on the walls, or the sign out front. Do you feel bad for using Lardo's art? Could you have done those things yourself?"

"I guess not. For some reason, painting feels different. I know it takes a lot of training and practice to get to Lardo's level, but at the same time I feel like you gotta be born with some talent to start with, or all that training and practice won't get you as far. So it's not really my fault I wasn't born with any artistic talent."

"So… it's your fault you were born without executive functioning skills?"

"Stop being so logical," Bitty pouts. "Can't a boy just wallow in self-loathing?"

"Look, if you're gonna do that, then you're gonna have to listen to me whine about how stupid I was to get in the penalty box twice tonight, totally by accident, and how those minutes probably cost us the game. So you've got your choice of that, or we could switch back to text and watch something on Netflix together."

"Fiiiiiine," Bitty says, although he sounds far happier than he did just a few minutes ago. "But nothing to do with any wars, I don't need anything depressing right now."

Jack ends the night in a much better mood than he started it.

Chapter Text

Toward the end of January, Jack has a home game against the Schooners—which means against Bitty and Lardo's friend Chris Chow. They've already informed him that they're coming to the game, wearing neither team's colors, and will be very happy no matter who wins.

Jack stops in after morning practice and stays up by the counter while he drinks his pomegranate-carrot juice. He's trying to convince Bitty to show him his figure skating videos and sporadically attempting to identify the singer of each song that comes over the Bitter/Sweet speakers. Bitty has been trying to educate Jack on current pop music for weeks now.

He's sure most (if not all) of them are not actually Taylor Swift, but guessing it repeatedly makes Bitty dissolve into giggles no matter what he's doing at the time, so Jack keeps doing it and acting confused and consternated every time he's wrong.

A song comes on with an obviously male singer (Jack knows this one, actually—it's Justin Timberlake, Bitty has identified it for him before), and when Jack guesses Taylor Swift for the sixth time in a row, face serious, Bitty laughs so hard he drops one of the scones he's trying to restock in the pastry display case.

"Mr. Zimmermann, you are lucky there are health codes in place that would prevent me from forcing you to eat this dirty scone," Bitty says, shaking said scone in Jack's face and trying very hard not to smile. Jack finally laughs as Bitty tosses the scone and goes back to his restocking.

"I'm joking, this is obviously One Direction, right?"

Bitty straightens up from the pastry case, opening his mouth to reply, when the bell above the door chimes. Bitty looks over, and then throws his arms in the air.

"Chowder! My sweet sunshine child!" Jack rears back as Bitty vaults over the counter.

Lardo seems like she would do the same if she were a few inches taller, but instead she hops up onto it and swings her legs over, also yelling, "Chowder! What are you doing here, bro?"

"Bitty!" The tall Asian man who just came in practically lifts Bitty off his feet with a hug, then when Lardo joins in does lift her a bit. "Lards! Oh my gosh, you guys! Our plane just got in, but I don't have to be at the arena for practice for another half hour so I thought I would stop by! I'm so glad I caught you while you're both here…"

Jack leans against the counter, finishing his juice and smiling to himself as the three friends chatter excitedly.

"Oh, my dear sweet baby boy, what have they done to you?" Bitty turns Chow's face in his hands, examining a bruise on his cheek that's probably from a puck to the mask.

Jack tries not to laugh. Bitty has been talking nonstop about the Schooners' goalie for a couple of days now, making it clear that despite only a year's difference in age he really does view Chris Chow with a parental sense of pride—but Jack still wasn't quite prepared for this.

After a moment or two, Chow stops to look around the cafe, and his eyes grow wide when they land on Jack.

"Bitty!" Chow's stage whisper carries easily, though he doesn't seem to intend for it to. "Jack Zimmermann is in your cafe! Why is Jack Zimmermann in your cafe?"

Bitty laughs and looks over at Jack. "Yes, Jack Zimmermann is in my cafe, trying to put himself in the running for Least Helpful Customer Ever. And yes, I am including that lady whose 'emotional support dog' keeps peeing on the floor."

"Harsh, Bits," Jack says with a laugh, then goes over to shake Chow's hand.

"Oh my gosh! Oh, wow. Hi. I'm Chris. I'm, uh—I play for the Schooners?" Chow acts like he's never played against Jack before, like he hasn't blocked dozens of Jack's shots. Sure, they don't play the Schooners often, but a few times, plus those college games. By this point, Jack is used to some of the younger players acting starstruck around him, but he still finds the contrast of Chow's reaction to him versus Bitty and Lardo's initial non-reaction amusing.

"Yeah, I know, I couldn't get a damn thing past you last time we played you guys. Don't worry, won't be a problem tonight."

"Jack," Bitty says as he and Lardo head back behind the counter, "you should go out with us tonight! We're gonna get dinner with Chowder after the game, you should come!"

Jack tries not to look too eager. As much as they've been texting each other for the past month, the closest he's come to spending time with Bitty outside the cafe has been a quick hello after a couple more games Bitty (and Lardo and Shitty) came to. Every time he tries to find an excuse to hang out, he gets paralyzed by the need to make it not seem like a date while also making it not seem like he doesn't wish it were a date… while trying to convince himself to just take Snowy's advice and make it a date. He's definitely going to jump at this opportunity.

"Yeah, definitely! That'd be great." Jack tries not to blush at how pleased Bitty looks. He tosses his juice bottle in the recycle bin, then heads toward the door. "I've got to go get a nap in. I'll see you guys tonight, eh?" He nods to Chow. "Nice to meet you. I'd wish you good luck, but…"

"Oh. Ha! Yeah. That'd be—haha, right, wow!"

Jack takes pity on the poor guy and leaves after waving to Bitty and Lardo.

 

It's a tight game. They're tied 1-1 heading into overtime, but eventually Guy wins it for them.

In the locker room after, Poots asks Jack if he wants to head to their usual bar with him, Tater, and a few other guys.

"Oh, not tonight. A couple of my friends played in college with Seattle's goalie, Chow? I told them I'd get dinner with them all after."

"Consorting with the enemy, Jack?" Snowy shakes his head. "It took us a year to get you to be social with us, but the Schooners show up and suddenly you're just hanging out with them left and right?"

Jack laughs. "Left and right, yeah, dinner with one person on their team and suddenly they're all my best friends."

"Didn't little baker Eric play hockey in college, you said?" Tater asks, grinning. "Is his friend, yes?" Soon Poots and Snowy are smirking at Jack, too.

Jack rolls his eyes. "Yes, the friends I'm talking about are Eric and Larissa from the bakery."

"Is date?" Tater asks, waggling his eyebrows. Jack scowls at him.

"Is not date. Is dinner with a group of friends. I should probably go now so you guys can speculate on my lack of a love life in peace."

When Jack makes it out, he finds Bitty and Lardo already talking to Chow, giving their sympathies for the loss.

"Hey, guys." Jack nods to them all in greeting, smiling. Bitty smiles back, and Jack's heart flutters a little. He offers his fist to Chow. "Good game, man. I was wrong, I didn't manage to get one past you."

Chow's eyes grow wide as he bumps Jack's fist. "Oh, uh, yeah! I mean, thanks! Good game! Congrats! Or, uh. I guess my teammates probably wouldn't want me to congratulate you. But—I don't wanna be rude?"

The poor kid looks like he's confusing himself, and Jack laughs, but not unkindly. "It's okay, you don't have to congratulate me, I wouldn't want to get you in trouble with your team." He eyes Chow's hoodie with amusement. "But they're okay with you wearing that?"

"Oh yeah! I'm from California. I guess old habits die hard."

"His entire bedroom was Sharks shit from top to bottom," Lardo says, smirking at Chow. "If they'd been looking for a goalie when he graduated, he probably woulda signed up to play for them for free."

"I would not have!" Chow doesn't say it with much conviction. "Okay, maybe a little."

"Let's get going," Bitty says. He lays his hand on Jack's arm, and it burns right through his jacket and henley. "You two must be starving, do you like that steak place by the convention center? Chowder's hotel is over there."

It turns out Lardo drove herself and Bitty to the game, and it would be out of her way to backtrack to the stadium after, so they wind up taking two cars for four people. Chow rides with Lardo, and Jack expects to drive over alone but is surprised when Bitty offers to ride with him.

They talk about the game on the drive, and Jack has to work to keep his eyes on the road instead of Bitty. He gets a little thrill from seeing Bitty there in his car, relaxed like they do this every day, like it's not their first time really hanging out together. Bitty keeps up a stream of chatter whenever Jack falls silent, and Jack relaxes into listening to his soft southern drawl.

When they get to the restaurant, Lardo quickly hops into one side of the booth with Chow, leaving Jack and Bitty on the other side. Jack is starting to think she's doing it on purpose. Not that he minds.

Jack has one beer then switches to water, and so does Lardo, since she's driving, too. Chow has a couple drinks over the course of dinner, getting chirped by his friends when he gets flushed after his second beer.

Bitty, on the other hand, orders some kind of fruity thing and loves it.

"Oh my goodness, this is so yummy! Taste it, Lards." He pushes the glass across the table, and Lardo takes a sip.

"Wow," she says. "That's pretty strong, Bits. It is good, though."

Bitty winds up ordering a second one, and Lardo raises an eyebrow.

"Oh, come on. It's not like I came out here meaning to get blasted tonight," he says. "But it's so good! And I'm not driving, it's okay if I'm kinda tipsy. I need to make something with mango in it, maybe muffins…"

Jack had been slightly worried about being the odd man out, not having the shared history and mutual friends that the other three have. He's not exactly a social butterfly under the best of circumstances. But he doesn't wind up feeling uncomfortable at all—if anything, he's a new audience for them to tell all their old college stories to, which is entertaining. And he can't pretend not to enjoy the way his arms and legs keep brushing up against Bitty's, or the way Bitty touches his arm while he's talking now and then, or leans in toward Jack a little more than necessary. In this new setting, Jack feels what's left of the mental barrier he's set up against the idea of asking Bitty out quickly crumbling.

Everyone at the table laughs when Bitty orders his third drink. "Hush, all of you." He's definitely drawing his words out a little, and his accent is stronger, but he's not really slurring yet. "I don't even remember the last time I got drunk, I am an adult and I am allowed."

"When we went up to Samwell for their home opener a few months ago," Lardo supplies almost automatically. "You got schwasted at that kegster, bro. I am not dealing with your ass tomorrow if you're that hungover again."

"Oh my lord, that's right!" Bitty puts a hand over his mouth, giggling. He's a cute drunk. "Okay, I admit, I totally overdid it that night. Too much peer pressure and beer pong. But look, three mango… thingies is not gonna get me in trouble tomorrow. And I will stop after three, scout's honor." He crosses his heart instead of doing a boy scout sign.

"At least drink some water while you're waiting for your drink," Jack says, pushing a glass toward him.

"Thank you, Jack." Bitty raises the glass of water toward Lardo and Chowder's side of the table. "See? I have so many good friends looking out for me, I'll be fine." He does manage to down about half of the water before his next mango thingy arrives.

They've all finished their food and are just sitting around, talking, Bitty most of the way through his third and final drink. His face is flushed, and he's laughing and talking a little louder—he shouldn't drive, that's for sure, but thanks to the food he's not doing too badly.

Lardo is regaling them with some story Shitty brought home from work, and everyone is laughing. Bitty keeps laughing just a tiny bit longer than the rest of them, and that's when it happens. Without even seeming to realize he's doing it, the hand he covered his mouth with comes down and lands on Jack's knee.

Jack freezes, but tries not to show it on his face. Chowder and Lardo have moved on to discussing some detail from the story and aren't paying attention to the other side of the booth at all. Jack's mind is racing—he's been trying to talk himself into doing something for a month, and then wondering if tonight was his chance, but Bitty's drunk enough that he doesn't even realize what he's doing, and Jack shouldn't take advantage of that—

"Oh my goodness, I'm sorry!" Bitty whispers as he jerks his hand away. "I am so sorry, Jack, I wasn't paying attention—sorry."

Lardo and Chowder are still engrossed in their conversation. Jack tries not to be too disappointed that there's no longer a hand on his knee. He could shrug it off, say no big deal, carefully avoid touching Bitty for the rest of the night. But as conflicted as he is, he can't stomach the idea of acting completely disinterested when he's so very much not disinterested.

He gnaws on the inside of his lip, then presses his knee into Bitty's and leaves it there. He can hardly breathe as he feels Bitty freeze next to him. He pretends to be listening to whatever it is Chowder is telling Lardo about now—something Birkholtz said about Shitty?

Bitty shifts next to him, his arm brushing against Jack's. Jack carefully does not look over at him. Then Bitty's hand slowly, hesitantly, comes to rest again on his knee, so lightly that he thinks Bitty might snatch it away again at any second.

Jack smiles down into his water and nudges Bitty's knee again with his own, and Bitty's hand relaxes.

Jack's heart is hammering in his chest. Now that he's here, now that he's allowing this to happen, the amount he wants it is nearly overwhelming. He's been holding himself back for months now, trying to convince himself that it's not worth the risk, it's not fair to Bitty, it's not something he wants badly enough to overcome any of that—but it's a lie. Snowy was right, Bitty's an adult, and he can decide for himself whether he's okay with this not being public for a few more months. Maybe he won't be, and Jack will have to be okay with that. But if he is… that's worth almost anything, Jack suddenly realizes.

He's trying to figure out whether it would be obvious what he's doing if he puts his hand over Bitty's when Lardo gives Chowder a shove.

"I gotta piss, bro, move it."

"Oh!" Chowder jumps and moves to get out of the booth. "Oh, I'll come with you. I need to use the little boys' room."

Lardo stops halfway out of the booth and sighs.

"Just say you need to piss, Chowder. You're 23 and according to Farmer you're nowhere near as innocent as you act."

Chowder's already-flushed face grows brighter red. "I need to… piss."

Lardo smacks him on the ass as she stands up. "Good job, kiddo. I'm proud. Let's go."

Bitty is giggling and leaning into Jack a little as they go, and Jack is pretty sure the leaning is mostly to angle himself so that the other two can't see where his hand is as they walk past. Because Bitty's hand has not moved, and is not moving.

Jack finally looks down at him.

"Hey."

"Hi," Bitty breathes, and he looks kind of worried. Like maybe Jack's going to yell at him for where his hand is now that the other two are gone.

Carefully, Jack lays his hand on Bitty's thigh. High enough up to make his intentions unmistakeable, though not so high up as to be groping Bitty in an inappropriate way.

For a moment they just stare at each other, and Jack is relieved to see Bitty's deep brown eyes relax.

"Jack," Bitty eventually says, and Jack isn't quite sure how, but he can hear every bit of his own longing in that one word. But then Bitty leans forward, leans his forehead on Jack's shoulder. "I am too drunk for this."

Jack buries his nose in Bitty's hair. "I know. We can talk when you're sober."

Bitty looks up, biting his lip. His thumb moves purposefully over Jack's knee and he wiggles just a little under Jack's hand on his thigh. His gaze falls on Jack's mouth. "Not really thinkin' about talking at the moment."

Jack laughs and nudges him with his shoulder. "Also when you're sober."

Bitty looks up at Jack through his eyelashes. "Promise?"

"I promise," Jack says softly, and he's saying a lot more than Bitty's asking.

Jack hears Chowder talking to Lardo coming up behind him, and he slides his hand off Bitty's leg. Bitty moves his hand, too, using it to reach for the last of his drink, but he presses himself right up against Jack's side. They're touching from hip to knee and from shoulder to elbow. To most people, it probably just looks like Bitty is getting a little sloppy in his drunkenness and is leaning on whoever happens to be there; only Jack knows how deliberate it is.

Or maybe not. Lardo's expression is shrewd as she glances at their arms. Jack supposes that if Bitty has had feelings for him for a while, he's probably mentioned as much to Lardo. Jack could see Bitty as the type who would probably lament such things loudly in their apartment if she got a glass of wine into him.

Lardo confirms Jack's suspicions as they leave the restaurant.

"I'll get Chowder back to his hotel," she says. "Jack, why don't you go ahead and get Bitty home?" She grabs Bitty's arm. "Our home? Over the shop?"

"Larissa, I know where I live, thank you." Jack wonders if Bitty calls her Larissa when he's annoyed or when he's drunk, or only when he's both. "I am not that drunk."

"You're drunk enough," she says, and casts a dark look at Jack.

"I'll get him home safely," Jack assures her.

They all say their farewells, and soon Jack and Bitty are back in his car and pulling out of the parking lot.

"I really am not that drunk," Bitty insists. "I cannot believe she thinks I'm drunk enough to get lost, as if I haven't lived there for a year and a half."

Jack snort-laughs, then looks at Bitty to see if he's serious. He's frowning at Jack.

"Bitty, she was telling me not to take you back to my place. And you are drunk enough that you didn't get that."

Bitty's eyes go wide. "Oh my goodness! You think so?" His hand flies to his mouth. "Oh, gosh, you're right. She was. I am maybe a little tipsier than I thought."

Jack reaches over and puts his hand on Bitty's knee. "You're fine, Bits. Let's get you home, eh?"

"Such a gentleman," Bitty says, aiming a tipsy grin in Jack's direction. He lays his hand over Jack's and keeps it there. Jack's skin tingles where Bitty's thumb rubs back and forth against it absentmindedly.

They ride quietly for a while, but about halfway home, Bitty speaks up.

"So… that first time, when we were texting, when you said there was someone you were—"

"It was you," Jack says quickly. "It is you. That I'm interested in."

Bitty peers at him, and Jack feels like he's being evaluated. "You also said your job was in the way. Far as I know, you still got the same job you did a month ago."

"That's… a whole conversation," Jack says, nodding. "A conversation I'd really like to have once you're sober, if you'll let me."

Bitty falls quiet again until Jack pulls up in front of Bitter/Sweet. Bitty bites his lip and looks at Jack, tracing Jack's knuckles with a finger.

"I don't have a game tomorrow," Jack says. "Maybe—I could make you dinner? If you wanted to come over?"

Bitty nods, giving him a shy smile. But then he stops and frowns. "You're not just, like, humoring me because I'm drunk, right?"

Jack raises an eyebrow. "Bits, you're the one who's drunk and therefore might be agreeing to things you don't actually want to do."

"Oh, please, Mr. Zimmermann." Bitty rolls his eyes. "If you don't think I've had my eye on you since the moment you walked into my shop and mispronounced pecan, I should have Rans show you his spreadsheet documenting my taste in men."

Jack laughs, then pulls his hand off Bitty's knee and gives him a gentle shove to his shoulder. "Okay, we can talk about this more tomorrow. Although I would really like to see that spreadsheet sometime."

Bitty squints at Jack as he opens the car door. "Don't make me regret telling you about that."

"Wouldn't dream of it," Jack says, raising his hands defensively.

Bitty smiles as he closes the door. Jack watches until he's safely in the building, then heads home.

It takes Jack a while to get to sleep that night. His stomach is churning. He can't quite decide if he's terrified or excited... but it's okay if he's a little of both.

Chapter Text

Jack manages not to be nervous the next morning as he gets up, goes for a jog, and heads to practice. He's suiting up when Tater plops down on the bench next to him.

"How was date after game last night?" Tater asks, quietly enough that most of the other guys won't hear.

Jack rolls his eyes. "It wasn't a date, Tater. But." He pauses and glances at Tater. "I, um. Do have a date tonight."

Tater's eyes grow huge, as does his smile. "What? You are for serious?"

Jack scratches the back of his neck and smiles at the ground. "Yeah. He's coming over for dinner tonight."

Tater whoops, drawing people's attention to them. "Poots!" Tater grabs Poots as he walks by, then drops his voice again. "You are hearing this? Zimmboni is having date with baker tonight!"

"The guy you been texting?" Poots asks. "Nice!"

"Thanks. Can we not talk about it now? I'm nervous enough as it is."

"Oh please," Tater says, throwing his elbow into Jack. "Like he can resist big strong hockey player."

 

After practice, Jack stands in his living room. Normally, he'd grab a book and head over to Bitter/Sweet for a couple hours. But would that be weird after last night? Bitty hasn't texted yet, but he often doesn't while he's at work unless something funny happens. But it means Jack still needs to set up the details for tonight. But he could do that over text, he doesn't have to go to the cafe. But normally he would, so maybe it would be weird if he doesn't.

He wants to go like he normally does, and he's pretty sure Bitty doesn't not want to see him, so he finally grabs the book he recently got out from the library and heads over.

He tries to act like his heart isn't pounding as he walks through the door.

Luckily, there are no customers at the register, so Bitty sees him immediately. The smile on Bitty's face makes Jack relax immediately. He's glad he came already.

He walks up and leans his elbows on the counter.

"Hi."

"Hi," Bitty says.

They stand there grinning at each other for at least a minute or two.

"So," Bitty finally says, "are we just gonna stare at each other like fools?" He doesn't make any move to do any different, though.

Jack shrugs. "Do you have a better plan?"

"Lord, no, I just thought I'd check. But I can stare like a fool with the best of 'em."

Bitty jumps as Lardo snaps him on the ass with a dish towel.

"Wow, hey, look at that, Bits, it's time for your break."

"What?" Bitty looks up at the clock. "No, it's—"

"Go make your heart eyes somewhere else before I barf, bro."

Bitty rolls his eyes, then nods toward the corner with the squishy armchairs.

"Get your big hockey butt over there, I'll be over in a sec."

Jack wanders to his favorite chair and settles in with his book, assuming that Bitty has something store-related to finish up. He's startled when a plate with a slice of pie on it suddenly comes between his face and his book.

"On the house," Bitty says with a grin, and plops down in the other chair with his own slice.

"Thanks," Jack says, and scoops up a bite. He only chews it for a few seconds before stopping and looking over at Bitty.

"Did you put maple in the apple pie?" Jack at least tries to hide his full mouth behind his hand with the fork in it, but his words are slightly garbled anyhow.

Bitty throws his head back and laughs. "It's right there on the sign, silly! You didn't notice?" He points over to the chalkboard behind the counter where, in fact, it does announced that the pie of the day is "Maple Apple."

Jack manages to swallow before speaking again. "Sorry, I wasn't exactly looking at the sign when I came in."

Jack takes a moment to enjoy the light blush that spreads over Bitty's cheeks as he determinedly focuses on cutting a bite of his pie. He lets them both chew and swallow another bite before speaking again.

"Do you still want to come over tonight?" Jack asks quietly, nudging Bitty's foot with his own. Bitty looks up with a shy smile.

"Well, yeah, of course. Assuming the invitation still stands."

Jack is still smiling, because he's not sure he could stop right now, but his brow furrows. "Why wouldn't it?"

"Just… maybe you came to your senses, is all," Bitty mutters, then shoves a bite of pie into his mouth.

"Mmm, no," Jack says, watching as Bitty stares down and pushes bits of apple around his plate. "No plans to do that anytime soon." It gets Bitty to smile at his plate, so Jack counts that as a win. "I think I have some tuna steaks, does that sound okay for dinner?"

"Oh, that sounds great!" Bitty finally looks up at him again, his eyes bright. Jack should have known that talking about food would draw him right back out of whatever self-doubting mental trap he'd fallen into. "Do you want me to help out? With the cooking, I mean? Or bring anything?"

Jack shakes his head. "I'm not exactly a professional—" He casts a pointed glance down at his slice of pie. "—but I do have a few meals up my sleeve for when I have guests. You know, guests who aren't willing to have protein shakes for dinner."

Bitty drops his fork onto his plate, then reaches out and grabs Jack's arm. "Jack. Please tell me you do not have protein shakes for dinner every night."

"Not every night!" At Bitty's evil eye, he sighs. "Not most nights, okay? If nothing else, they feed us at the rink after games if we don't have other plans, and I'm twenty-nine, I do know how to cook enough to survive. I drink a lot of protein shakes, but not usually for dinner unless I'm very tired."

"Okay." Bitty withdraws his hand, but looks skeptical. Jack has the distinct feeling that Bitty is already planning how to feed him up if they're dating. "I'll bring some wine then, how's that? And maybe a dessert we don't carry here, something I don't get to make much."

"That's perfect," Jack says, and now they're sort of doing the staring-goofily-at-each-other thing again. "Does seven work?"

"Sure!" Jack really, really loves the way Bitty is looking at him, and wonders if he looks just as smitten. Probably. "That should give me time to get changed and such. So whatcha readin' today? That looks new."

Jack tells Bitty about the book he brought while they finish their pie. Bitty has to get back to work after that, but Jack stays to read. After a bit he gets up and buys some coffee ("Bits, you gave me the pie already, you're running a business, remember? And trust me, I can afford coffee."), then after another hour he wanders back up to the counter.

"I'm gonna head out so I can stop by the grocery store. I just realized I should ask—do you have any food allergies or anything?"

"Oh, lord no," Bitty says with a chuckle, shaking his head. "I'll eat just about anything, really."

"Great. I'll see you at seven, then? I'll text you the address."

"See you then."

Jack has to force himself to turn around and not back out the door still smiling at Bitty.

 

Despite the fact that it's January in Rhode Island and therefore well below freezing once the sun sets, Jack can't talk himself into not grilling the tuna steaks. Luckily, his grill is only a few feet from the door to his balcony, so he doesn't even bother putting on shoes or a jacket for the minute or two at a time he has to go out.

While the steaks are marinading, he puts together a quinoa pilaf his mother taught him and starts chopping vegetables for a tossed salad. While they're grilling, he manages to get the salad finished and set the table. Everything is finished just a few minutes before seven, and he rushes to change into a nice shirt, getting it buttoned just in time to hear a knock at his door.

He takes a deep breath before opening the door. Which is good, because once he does, he forgets to breathe for a second. He's so used to seeing Bitty at work—usually a t-shirt on under his apron, often with flour or chocolate smeared somewhere, whether his chest or his face or his hair. Jack can't help the way his eyes rake down Bitty's body, taking in his slim-fitting jeans and button-down shirt that shows off the fact that he may be a couple years out from the NCAA but is still in very good shape. His hair is artfully mussed in a way that manages to land just on the right side of messy.

"Hi." Bitty shuffles his feet, managing to look far too adorably awkward.

"Hi," Jack says, a little breathless. He moves back and motions Bitty inside. As Bitty passes him, Jack notices that he's carrying a bottle of wine in one hand, and in the other…

"Is… that a cooler?" It's small, but it's definitely a cooler.

Bitty draws his lips in between his teeth, blushing and not quite meeting Jack's eyes.

"You are not allowed to chirp me," he finally says, rolling his eyes. "I am a professional and I cannot be blamed for my inability to allow myself to bring a dessert and then have that dessert come out subpar because it had to sit too long while we ate."

"Okay," Jack says slowly, a grin spreading across his face. He takes the wine out of Bitty's hand and starts leading him into the kitchen. "So you micromanage desserts, I can respect that. What's in the cooler, then?"

Bitty chews his lower lip as he sets the cooler on a counter and opens it. Jack peers over his shoulder, resting one hand on Bitty's lower back. It's not as much contact as he wants, but it's a start.

"This is chocolate mousse," Bitty says, pulling out a tupperware full of brown. Then he pulls out a small one full of white. "And this is whipped cream. And these are for serving." At the bottom of the cooler are two martini glasses. "I could have just dished it all up and brought it over in the glasses, but if it sits around like that for an hour exposed to the air it's gonna get a bit of a skin on it. Plus, it'd be kinda tough to carry with 'em uncovered."

"Also," Jack points out, looking at the tupperware full of mousse, "it looks like there's way more in there than two of those glasses' worth, so this way we can have seconds if we want."

"Also an advantage of this system," Bitty replies, smiling up at Jack. Jack gazes down and holds back the urge to kiss him right then. Dinner first.

"You can put those in the fridge for now," he says, running his hand up and down Bitty's back. "I'll pour us some wine."

They settle in at the table, which Jack has set so that they're on two sides of a corner instead of all the way across from each other. He'd dithered over that a bit, but once they sit down he's glad he went for something more intimate. For the first few minutes the only discussion is Bitty exclaiming about how good all the food is and chattering about a couple of cute children who came into the cafe after Jack left. When the conversation hits a natural lull, Jack clears his throat. He still hasn't figured out the best route into this discussion, so he just dives in.

"So, um, last year. When the Falcs were in the playoffs? I sort of started telling myself that if we won the cup I'd come out publicly as bisexual." He ignores Bitty's soft oh and presses on, looking down at his food. "I'd won the Art Ross and the Calder, I had an Olympic gold medal, if I had a Stanley Cup there'd be no possible way anyone could say that liking men hurt my playing, you know? And even if it somehow had managed to impact my career, I'd've basically accomplished everything you could accomplish already. Then, of course, we were knocked out just before the finals. So I didn't. But I already knew I'd feel the same this year, and I started talking to the Falconers PR department about it."

"So… they know?" Bitty interrupts. "Your team?"

Jack glances at Bitty and waggles his head noncommittally. "Not everyone. The management and PR people do, the coaches, and about… I don't know, a third to half of the team? My friends on the team all do." He looks back down at his food, blushing fiercely. "A few of them even know I have a date tonight. Anyhow, I started thinking pretty quickly that I probably want to come out next summer whether or not we win it all. I can't just sit around waiting on that, you know? I mean, it probably depends on a lot of things, who knows what could happen between then and now, but right now, that's my default plan. And, um." He finally manages to look up at Bitty, and he really doesn't deserve the look of awe on Bitty's face. "If… I were dating someone—well, dating a man—then I definitely would. I wouldn't want to keep that a secret any longer than I had to."

Bitty opens his mouth, then closes it again.

"Wow," he finally says. Jack takes a bite of his quinoa, gives him some space to process everything. "So… wow. Jack. You're serious? You're planning on being the first out player in the NHL?"

Jack snorts. "Unless someone beats me to it, I guess so. I am talking to a couple other guys who might consider coming out at the same time. But, I mean… only one player who I know is gay is at my level in terms of accomplishments, and the others would be risking a lot more. I'm guessing they'd want to wait and see what happens to me."

Bitty's hand is warm on top of his. "That is gonna mean so much to so many people."

Jack pushes on. "I really can't justify doing it in the middle of the season. It wouldn't be fair to my teammates, to take so much attention away from what we're doing on the ice. So that's why I didn't ask you out sooner, because I know it's really not fair to ask you to hide this kind of thing, even for a few months. And if you're not okay with that, I totally understand, and I swear I won't hold it against you. I just… when you touched me last night, it finally just got too hard to pretend. So I figured it was at least worth talking about, whatever the outcome."

Bitty nods, then finally takes his hand back and cuts another bite of his steak, chewing thoughtfully. He doesn't speak again until he washes it down with a sip of wine. Jack would expect himself to be freaking out a bit more right now, really—he's waiting for judgment, waiting to see if the man he's fallen so in love with thinks he's worth this huge risk. And sure, he's a little nervous. But it's a quiet buzzing under his skin, mixed with the thrill that Bitty is in his apartment, sitting at his kitchen table, eating his food, touching his hand. Their knees and feet are touching under the table. Just this much is more than he'd dared to hope for right now.

"Who would be able to know?" Bitty finally asks. "Would I have to keep this a secret from all my friends, from my parents, from everyone I know? I mean, not to freak you out, but Lardo definitely knows."

Jack laughs. "Yeah, I kind of noticed that Lardo knows. I definitely wouldn't expect you to keep it from your parents or other close family. I just don't want it getting out to the media, or to players on other teams. So as far as your friends go, I guess we could talk about who you're closest to and who you trust with that kind of thing. Chowder and Adam Birkholtz make me a little nervous, because if they told guys on their teams, even by accident, it could be really bad for me. But you know them a lot better than I do, if you trust them with it we could definitely talk about it."

"Chowder is surprisingly good at keeping a secret," Bitty says with a fond smile. "I mean, you'd think as excitable as that poor boy is he'd spill his guts at the slightest provocation, right? I've never trusted him with something as big as that, and it's not like I see him or talk to him all that much so I dunno if it'd be worth it, but I wouldn't discount him outright. Holster, though, believe me, we could trust him with something like that. I mean, I wouldn't absolutely insist on it but… I do see him more often, him being in Boston and all, and we definitely could trust him. Anyhow, I'm hardly even worried about them, honestly, it's mostly my family and Shitty and Lardo, they're my closest friends."

Now Jack's heart rate is starting to climb, because… it sounds like Bitty is actually considering it? Actually considering dating him and having to work out who they can and can't tell? Maybe he's just talking hypothetically, of course. Or maybe he'll need a lot more time to think it over.

"Well, like you said, Lardo figured it out pretty quickly. And I wouldn't ask her to keep it from her boyfriend. From what you've told me about him, it sounds like he'd be trustworthy anyhow."

"Oh, yeah!" Bitty waves his fork around a little, dismissing the idea of Shitty saying anything to anyone. "Lord, the number of lectures I have heard from that boy about toxic masculinity and homophobia in sports culture. He's the first person I ever came out to, did I tell you that?" Jack shakes his head as he takes a drink of wine. "Apparently that happened to him a lot in college. He'll be fine."

Jack does not choke on his wine at the fact that Bitty says "he'll" instead of "he'd"—but it's a close thing.

"I suppose we can't go out on real dates or anything, and that stinks, but it's not like we could never be together in public, right? If we just look like friends?"

"Of course."

Bitty nods. "And you're really serious about coming out after the season's over?"

Jack puts his fork down so he can focus on Bitty, because this is important. "Like I said, if I'm dating someone—okay, if you and I are dating, there's no one else on my radar—if you and I are dating then, then yes, assuming you were okay with it I absolutely would. If I'm single, like 90% yes but I suppose there are probably things that could happen that would interfere with that plan, who knows. But… if we are dating then, my coming out wouldn't exactly make things easier in the short term. I don't know how long it would take the media to get tired of the story, but at least for a while you'd be under a microscope, too, and that's not easy or fun."

God, he really wishes he didn't have to basically try to talk Bitty out of this. But if they do start something, and Bitty gets hurt because of it and regrets ever dating Jack… that would be worse than never having him at all.

Bitty is quiet for a minute, eating his salad and frowning at his wine glass thoughtfully. His knee is pressing harder into Jack's, and Jack tries to take that as a good sign.

"Lardo's been telling me for months," he finally says, "that she thought you were into me." He smiles coyly when Jack's eyebrows fly up. "She says I should see the way you look at me when I'm not looking. But, y'know, I've fallen for straight guys before. It's never particularly fun, but it's so much worse if you hold onto any kind of hope. So, I mean, it's not like I could stop being attracted to you… or stop myself from developing feelings beyond that… but I didn't let myself spend any time thinking about it, y'know?

"Then the very night I am finally on my first date in forever, and it's a horrible date, you choose that night of all nights to send me your nerdy Netflix documentary as if to say 'hey, look how much more compatible we are than you and this loser' and then, of course, I decide to be masochistic and ask you about your love life because I figure if you tell me all about some supermodel you're banging it'll remind me that you're off-limits and what do you do? You go and say 'they!' They, Jack! Do you have any idea what that did to my poor, suffering, southern gay heart?"

Bitty has been picking up speed and melodrama since he started talking about the date, and Jack is chuckling by the time he finishes with a hand dramatically over his chest.

"Well, I know what I hoped it would do," Jack says over his wine glass.

"Anyhow, I still tried not to get my hopes up. Even if you weren't straight, you were obviously in the closet. Of course, I was assuming that meant, like, really in the closet, not 'half my teammates know' one foot in the closet. And Jack, I have seen some of the women you've dated.  I couldn't see any way—hell, I still don't understand how you could be used to dating actual models and instead want to take that kind of a risk to date someone like me."

Bitty says it so matter-of-factly, and while on one level Jack understands why he would think that, even if it breaks Jack's heart to hear it… on another level he can't fathom it at all.

"Bits." He reaches out and takes Bitty's hand. "I took models to a few events, because that was what was expected of me, not because that's the kind of person I really want to date. You know, I'm… not going to say that models are stupid, because my mom was a model and she's very intelligent, and like, Cindy Crawford had an engineering scholarship to Northwestern or something. So obviously there are women who are really smart, but can make better money modeling. But let's just say, I have not been as lucky as my dad in that department? And, well. It's not like I was what they were looking for, either. Turns out when a supermodel goes out with a professional athlete, she's generally not expecting to get a socially awkward history geek?" He grimaces as Bitty giggles. "I mean, a couple of them would pretend just about anything I said was interesting out of politeness… or, well, the guys eventually pointed out to me that they were probably trying to get into my pants more than being polite. Either way I just kind of found it off-putting."

"Wait, wait." Bitty's eyebrows shoot up. "You like women. You went on dates with actual supermodels who wanted to get in your pants. And you're telling me you didn't sleep with them?"

Jack cringes and covers his face as it heats up. "Once," he says into his hands, then slides them into his hair, elbows on the table. He manages to look up at Bitty, but doesn't manage to control his grimace. "It was… not good. I told you, I'm not really into casual sex anyhow? But she was really sweet, and I thought maybe it wouldn't be a one-time thing. But, like… it was like she thought her job during sex was to be a porn star. It was just weird. I couldn't tell if she actually liked anything, or was just making a show of it. And she kept saying all these things that just… I don't know, maybe some guys are into it, maybe she was really into it and I just couldn't tell, but it was not… good."

He finally manages to sit up, but only because by now Bitty's got his own face half-covered, trying very valiantly not to laugh. He hadn't intended to go into this much detail, but the fact that Bitty finds this entertaining rather than off-putting makes Jack want to keep him laughing.

"She… oh, god." Nope, he can't look at his date while he says it, winds up covering his eyes with one hand. "She kept calling me daddy and putting on this pouty little-girl voice and I mean, I got her to stop that eventually but it just wasn't worth it."

"Oh my lord, you cannot be serious." Bitty isn't even trying to hold back his laughter anymore, and that is worth all the embarrassment to Jack. "I mean… okay. Okay, look, Shitty would kill me if I kink-shamed, people are into what they're into, whatever. But you don't just spring that shit on someone you barely even know!"

"Right?" Jack shakes his head, taking a sip of his wine. "Anyhow, I wasn't brave enough for any more one night stands after that. I guess I hooked up with a couple random girls in college, enough to know it wasn't really for me, but even then at least none of them were… I don't know, trying so hard to be something I didn't even want." He's getting off-topic, though, really. The point of mentioning any of this wasn't to let Bitty laugh at his sex life, even if that is a pleasant side-effect.

"Look, the point is…" He takes Bitty's hand in both of his, and Bitty finally stops giggling with a sigh. "Those women were very pretty, but none of them was what I'm looking for. Not like you are. Besides, it's not like you're less attractive than any of them."

Bitty rolls his eyes, blushing. "Flatterer."

"It's not flattery," Jack says, touching Bitty's face. "I'm serious. You're gorgeous." And he is, all sharp jaw and huge eyes and soft hair. So many times, Jack has looked at him and itched for his camera. Any photographer would love to get their hands on someone so beautiful and charismatic.

Jack leans closer. He's waited long enough for this. "Can I kiss you?"

"Jack Zimmermann, let's get one thing straight," Bitty says softly, putting his hand over Jack's on his cheek. "You do not ever have to ask before kissing me."

Jack can hardly bear how much that sounds like a promise.

They close the distance together, soft lips slotting into place against each other. The kiss deepens, but only a little—a tease, tips of their tongues grazing each other.

Bitty pulls back first, but he's still nuzzling the side of Jack's face. His breath is warm against Jack's lips, and it's all he can do not to press back in.

"We should finish eating," Bitty says softly, ducking his head a bit with an adorably shy smile. Jack nods, and can't help pressing another kiss to his temple before straightening up.

The conversation stays lighter for the rest of the meal. While Jack loads the dishwasher, Bitty prepares the mousse for dessert and pours them more wine.

As they move around each other in Jack's kitchen, he can't help thinking that this doesn't feel like a first date at all. They're already so comfortable around each other, and Jack doesn't feel any pressure to impress Bitty or to be anyone but himself. He's glad that he finally got up the nerve to do this, but he's also kind of glad that they had the chance to become friends first, rather than trying to date when all they had was a mutual physical attraction and a few short, shallow conversations across the counter.

They settle in on the couch, wine on the coffee table in front of them, mousse in their hands. Bitty snuggles up to Jack's side, resting his head on Jack's shoulder as he eats.

Jack can't stop smiling.

He lets himself make the slightly obscene sound the mousse inspires; he's pleased when Bitty freezes for a second against him.

"This stuff is incredible," he says. "Do I even want to know how much cream is in it?"

Bitty grins up at him. "Well. The whipped cream is cream, obviously. But the mousse is just 70% Valrhona chocolate, eggs, and a tiny bit of added sugar. And water. Almost all the fat is from the cocoa butter in the chocolate. And it's got a good bit of protein from those eggs."

Jack stares down at the mousse, which tastes way too rich to not have cream in it. "That's amazing."

He kisses Bitty, just enough to taste the chocolate on him, and relishes the flush it leaves across Bitty's cheeks.

As they finish their dessert and reach for the wine, he knows they still need to talk about the state of their relationship. If there's even anything to talk about there.

"Um, look," he says after taking a fortifying drink. "I know I've probably given you a lot to think about tonight, so please don't feel like you have to know what you want out of this immediately. If you need some time to think about it, that's totally fine. Obviously, I'm interested in a relationship, but I don't want you to feel pressured, I know there's a lot going on here besides just whether you like spending time with me. I want to stay friends with you no matter what."

Bitty gives him this little grin, then leans his head on Jack's shoulder again.

"Hmmmmmmm," he drawls, tapping his chin with his finger. "One of the most attractive men I have ever met in my entire life, who also happens to be a sweet and adorable dork who likes to sit around reading history books in coffee shops, and who is willing to listen to me prattle on for a good half an hour about the role of comfort food in southern culture, and, oh, who just happens to play my favorite sport professionally, that guy wants to be my boyfriend. That's a tough one."

"Bitty…"

"I mean, I won't get to hold his hand in public, but I'm guessing that'd be more'n made up for by what I get to do behind closed doors. And I might get my photo on some tabloid when he comes out, and have people saying homophobic shit about me online, but I've been dealing with that since I posted my first YouTube video, and anyhow after that he'll get to take me to all sorts of fancy charity events and I'd get to see him all dressed up in a tux and take it off of him afterwards…"

By the end, Bitty's nudging at Jack's jaw with his nose, and Jack is just trying to breathe. As clear as it is that Bitty is being sarcastic, Jack can't help the anxiety that's creeping into his stomach as he waits for a real, definite answer.

"I just don't know, Jack," Bitty says, a slight pout in his voice. "I mean, I wouldn't want to be too happy."

Jack snorts. He knows he's being stupid, and yes he does think this is funny… but he really does need to hear Bitty say it. He scrubs a hand over his face, then looks down at Bitty.

Big brown eyes gaze up at him, and his stress must show on his face. "Oh, sweetheart, don't look at me like that," Bitty says gently. "Lord, Jack, of course that's a yes. I don't need time to think about it; hell, I don't wanna waste any more time!"

"I'm out of town a lot, too," Jack blurts out. "I mean, you know that, but—"

"You'll be out of town whether we're dating or not," Bitty says. "At least this way I get you when you are here. And when you're gone, there's texts and the phone and Skype. We'll manage."

"I'm a recovering addict with an anxiety disorder." Jack can't stop himself, he has to give Bitty every out he possibly can. "I'm grumpy after I lose a game and kind of an asshole during playoffs. I mean, I'm working on it, but still."

"I'm flaky as hell," Bitty responds. "I intend to do things and they just never happen and I don't even know why they didn't happen because I meant to do them. I will absolutely forget to call you when I say I will. Lardo is literally the only reason I am capable of running my own business, and half the time she's also the only reason I remember to take my meds for the ADHD that's causing the problem in the first place. I am an absolute mess of a human being, I'm passive-aggressive as all get-out, and I would appreciate it if you would believe me when I say I want to be with you."

Jack can't not kiss him then, even though the wine glasses they're both still holding make it a little awkward.

Bitty, bless him, pulls back from the kiss long enough to fix that, too, taking Jack's glass from him and putting them both on the coffee table.

This time, when they kiss, neither of them is holding anything back. Jack hasn't kissed someone like this in years. It's not just about the amount of tongue being used or how much Jack wants him physically; it's the raw emotion being poured into it. The last time he experienced anything like it, he was too young, his feelings too raw and over-the-top, bright and loud and brash in that way only teen love can be. This is better; this is warmth filling him and flowing out of him, his heart growing two sizes too big in his chest but knowing that he's expanding to fit around it.

Now, sometimes Jack's awkwardness takes the form of not knowing what to say. Either not managing to come up with anything to say, or saying entirely the wrong thing and not even knowing where it came from.

But, occasionally, it takes the form of his being too honest. Of words coming out before he can think very hard about them. He knows where they came from, he knows they're true, but he didn't mean for them to escape. Usually when that happens, it involves being too harsh with his teammates, but not always.

That second type of awkwardness is the only thing he has to blame when he pulls back long enough to kiss Bitty gently on the corner of his mouth and murmur, "I love you."

Bitty gasps audibly and opens his eyes. He stares at Jack for a long moment, and Jack doesn't want to take it back for even a second because it's true, but he definitely wishes he were the type of person who was capable of waiting an appropriate amount of time before letting that fall out of his mouth. Like, two days, that would have been a start.

"You sure come on strong, don't you?" Bitty smirks at him, then pushes him against the back of the couch and climbs into his lap, straddling him. "I like that."

"Sorry," Jack mutters. "I'm, ah, really bad at moderation."

Bitty giggles and they go back to making out. Jack pulls him close, relishing the warm, hard planes of Bitty's torso pressed against his own. He starts to explore, figuring out exactly where and how Bitty likes to be kissed (nipping at him just under the corner of his jaw seems to be a big winner). Eventually, Bitty stills under Jack's hands, and when Jack looks up Bitty bumps their noses together.

"I love you too," he breathes, the soft vulnerability in his voice a contrast to the sass and sarcasm.

Their kisses turn softer, more tender though no less intense. Jack tries to focus on the physical sensations of the moment, because if he lets himself think about what's happened tonight on an emotional level he knows it will overwhelm him completely. He can't believe that two days ago he was going to continue to deny himself this.

Bitty pulls back again and sighs. "I can't stay very late," he says, pulling his phone out of his pocket. "Oh, gosh, it's nearly my bedtime as it is, and I have work in the morning. And I was already tired from last night." He tips his head and looks at Jack from under his eyelashes. "And I'm sorry, but I don't think I'm quite ready to do a walk of shame at four in the morning in ten degree weather yet. We shoulda done all this in July instead of January."

"Can I walk you home?" Jack's hands are still on Bitty's ass, and there is no way he is apologizing for that fact. Or removing his hands before he has to.

"You really are such a gentleman," Bitty says, smiling brightly and apparently ignoring the current location of Jack's hands when making this assessment. "That would be lovely."

By the time they get Bitty's things packed up, their coats and scarves on, and outside, it's ten o'clock and the streets are fairly empty. They don't hold hands, but their shoulders are pressed together as they walk. Jack says something that make Bitty laugh, his head thrown back as he leans a little further into Jack's side. Jack can't tear his eyes away, and he realizes it's going to be really hard to pretend in public. More than worth it, but hard.

When they get to Bitter/Sweet, Bitty goes to a door next to the shop that leads up to his and Lardo's apartment and unlocks it. As soon as the door is open, Jack crowds him inside and kisses him against the wall next to the stairs.

"What's your schedule for the next few days?" Bitty asks, a little breathlessly.

"I have a game in New York tomorrow, I'll be back Sunday morning, I'm off the rest of the day Sunday, then games here Monday and Tuesday nights."

"Monday's my day off," Bitty says with a shy smile. "So, y'know, I don't have a curfew Sunday night or anything."

"Oh, that's perfect," Jack says with a straight face. "The Military History Channel is having an all-night marathon on the Pacific theater in World War II, you should come watch with me!"

Bitty stares at him for ten full seconds, unimpressed. "I literally just signed up for this, didn't I? You know you are my least favorite person in this stairwell right now, don't you? You are a terrible man, Mr. Zimmermann."

Jack smirks. "Well, if you don't want to come over Sunday night, you could just say so."

Bitty clucks his tongue against his teeth. "Worst boyfriend I have had since moving to Providence."

"I distinctly remember you mentioning not having a boyfriend since college," Jack says, pressing in against him again.

"And so it's a completely true statement, isn't it?" They're both grinning by now, Jack because they're using the word boyfriend so freely and Bitty, he assumes, for the same reason.

Jack takes Bitty's hands and kisses him again. "I'll call you after the game, eh? It's an afternoon game, you should be off work by the time we're done."

"I look forward to it." Bitty pulls his hands out of Jack's and wraps them around his neck, pulling him down and into another long kiss. "I love you," he murmurs as Jack pulls away.

Jack can't control either his smile or the beating of his heart. "I love you, too. See you Sunday?"

Bitty nods, then heads up the stairs as Jack lets himself out the door.

He can't believe he almost missed out on this.

Chapter Text

Bitty bites his lip and closes his eyes for a second before entering his apartment. He just heard the door close behind Jack, which is the only thing keeping him from turning around and trying to get one last look.

He opens the door quietly, and sees Lardo on her laptop on the couch. She looks up, startled.

"I wasn't expecting you home tonight, Bits!" She cringes. "Did the date not go well?"

Bitty closes the door behind himself and leans back against it, sighing. "Oh my goodness, Lardo, it was amazing!"

"Uh, then what are you doing here? Why aren't you currently in his bed, making some deets to give me later?"

Bitty can feel his cheeks heat, but he laughs as he strips off his coat. "I told him I wasn't quite ready to walk home at 4am in this weather," he explains, "which is true. At least Monday morning I'll be able to wait until after the sun is up to leave my boyfriend's bed."

"Wait, seriously?" she says as he almost literally floats across the room and flops down on the couch. "Boyfriend? Really?"

Bitty kicks off his shoes and puts his feet on Lardo's lap as she hastily moves her laptop to the floor to accommodate them. He sighs again, trying to think of what to say first. Everything feels like a dream right now. He throws his arms over his face; tonight was so much more than he'd expected, more than he'd hoped for even when he let his optimism run wild.

"I am in love with Jack Zimmermann, and Jack Zimmermann is in love with me, and my life cannot possibly be a real thing right now," he says from behind his arms. "Men that beautiful don't just fall for me out of nowhere, Lardo."

"Uh, Bits, I hate to break it to you, but it's not exactly out of nowhere. You guys have been flirting for months, bro. At this point, he's easily your best friend in Providence besides me."

"Oh, and get this!" Bitty pushes himself up on his elbows. "He's planning on coming out this summer. Publicly. Like, he's been planning this since before I met him, and he's going to do it whether or not we're dating, it's not just something he promised to try and get me into bed."

"Wow." Lardo's brow furrows, her eyes wide. "Holy shit, man. You should have him talk to Holster."

"Oh, I'm gonna. I mean, I didn't want to out Holster to him tonight, obviously. We were talking about who I can and can't tell about us for the moment, and he said he was a little nervous about Chowder or Holster finding out, since they're on other teams and their teammates could cause trouble for him. I told him he really didn't need to worry about Holster, but I didn't say why. I'll have to work out how to get them to talk about it without outing either of 'em without their permission."

"So how secret is your secret for now, anyhow?" Lardo asks, her eyes narrowed. "Because I gotta tell you, you guys weren't exactly subtle today."

Bitty sighs. "I know. We should probably tone it down a little. At the very least, my parents and you and Shitty can know. We need to talk about anything beyond that. Some of his team knows about him; I'm not sure how many of them he's gonna tell about me, but apparently a couple already knew he had a date tonight? Can you believe that? That's… I was not expecting that. Anyhow, he really just doesn't want the media finding out, so as long as we're not like holding hands or kissing or whatever at the shop it should be fine. It's not like you can sell a story to the tabloids that's just 'I saw this NHL star making eyes at some guy, I swear.'"

"Yeah, but people have phones, Bits," Lardo says. "And trust me, if somebody had taken a photo of you two today and put it online, there could have been trouble. Just be a tiny bit more careful, is all I'm saying. A little less mindlessly staring into each other's eyes for five straight minutes and more of your usual sneaking looks at each other's asses when you think nobody's looking."

Bitty snorts and covers his face, but he feels a wide grin overtake him. "I can stare at his ass whenever I want now!" he exclaims, throwing his hands up in the air. "That's my boyfriend's ass! My boyfriend's ass has multiple social media accounts! And I get to touch it. Holy crap, Lards, what is my life?"

"So did you?"

"What?"

Lardo pokes him in the foot. "Did you touch his legendary ass, bro? Come on, I know you didn't spend the night but you must have some deets to share."

"I mean, we made out a little, but it didn't get too far. But oh my lord, Lardo, is that boy solid. It's like wrapping my legs around a tree, I swear. Holy shit." Bitty really, really wishes he hadn't had to get to bed so early. He sighs at the reminder of why he's not in Jack's bed right this moment. Sunday night can't come fast enough. "And with that, I have got to get to bed." He sits up and starts to push off the couch. "He'll be in New York tomorrow, so be prepared for me to be pining away."

"As if that's any different from when he was out of town before," Lardo says with a snort. Bitty shoots her a glare as he heads to his bedroom. "Anyhow, congrats, Bits. I'm really glad it went well. I'll be sure and give him a shovel talk next time I see him. Oh, you said I can tell Shits?"

"Yeah, go right ahead, just swear him to secrecy first. 'Night, Lardo!"

"'Night, Bits."

He's closing his door behind him when she adds, "By the way, I call flower girl!"

Bitty sticks his head back out. "What, you're not gonna fight Shitty for best man?"

Lardo frowns. "No, because I was going more for flustered, blushing denial, not confirmation that you're actually thinking about marriage with a guy you've been dating for like an hour."

"You think I don't know that?" Bitty puts one hand on his hip, smirking. "Honey, I am riding so high right now, I'm not gonna come down just so you can successfully chirp me. Obviously I'm not worrying about that for a good long time, but anything you wanna say that in any way implies my future happiness with this boy, you go right on ahead and say it."

"Bro." Lardo looks impressed.

Bitty grins as he shuts his door. Lardo has seen him on a variety of first dates, and generally right after a good first date is the worst possible time to chirp him. Even if he was having a great time with the guy, as soon as he gets home he's a nervous wreck, coming up with a dozen ways he's probably screwed it up. How many times has Lardo teased him about how cute they look together or how hot the guy clearly thought he was, only to have him squeak and blush and tell her not to jinx it?

But tonight… was different. Tonight was really, really different. Yeah, he's walking on air, but he also feels confident and secure in a way he's not used to feeling about a date. Jack is his, he's Jack's, and he knows that's not changing soon.

Bitty is pretty sure it's going to be a while before his heart stops racing long enough for him to get to sleep tonight.

Chapter Text

March

"Hey, so I've been thinking," Bitty says, his head in Jack's lap. Bitty's been watching the Food Network while Jack reads, but he's just muted it. "When you play the Bruins next week, do you wanna get dinner with Ransom and Holster?"

"Sure," Jack says. He hasn't met Bitty's other college friends yet, beyond playing against Holster a few times.

Bitty sits up. "I'd really like to tell them about us."

Jack had a feeling that was coming. He's still not a hundred percent comfortable with someone on another team knowing yet, but he did say they could talk about it. "You really trust him with that? I mean, I'm sure if he's friends with both you and Shitty he'd never out someone on purpose, but even the wrong offhand comment in the locker room, totally by accident…"

"He's not gonna do that," Bitty says with complete confidence, "because he's used to keeping that kind of thing quiet. It'd be a double date, sweetheart."

"Oh." Jack lets things reorganize themselves in his head for a minute. "I guess he wouldn't, then. You've talked about him and Ransom before, but you never said they were—I mean, I guess you wouldn't. So does that mean you asked him about this?"

"I have spent the past week playing a very careful game of Don't Out Anybody Without Their Permission," Bitty says with a chuckle. "I told him and Ransom I've got a boyfriend, and said I'd like them to meet him, as a couple. And he was kinda wary of it like you are, of course. But Lardo and Shitty assured him that you can be trusted, and between the three of us he eventually said okay. But then he noticed I've never told him so much as your name, and I told him you were in a position where you couldn't be outed, either, and then he started getting all protective of me and Shitty and Lardo had to reassure him again that I wasn't being kept some dirty little secret. Then he started trying to guess who it was, like if you were like a politician or a famous athlete—he did guess Falconers at one point—or what, and I'm glad it was over text so my face couldn't give anything away, I'll tell you that. I was finally like look, you know full well I can't tell you until I talk to him. So anyhow. Here I am, talking to you."

"So you've been plotting behind my back for a week now?" Jack asks, but he's grinning in amusement.

"Pretty much," Bitty says. "So now I've got permission from Party A to disclose their identity to Party B, I just need permission from Party B to disclose to Party A, and I'm starting to think this would all have been simpler if I just had Shitty draft some non-disclosure agreements or something."

"Well, yes, obviously." Jack kisses Bitty's cheek. "If that's the situation, you can tell him."

"Oh, good! Oh, and… you might want to tell him about your plan for this summer? I know he's been getting really down because they can't get married while it's a secret, but he isn't exactly at your level career-wise so he doesn't wanna be the first. I can't promise anything, but I have a feeling he might give you some backup, though." Bitty digs his phone out while he talks.

"Sure, we can talk about it over dinner. …Are you calling him now?"

"Might as well," Bitty says with a grin. "I wanna hear his reaction when he finds out it's you. Him and Rans both, honestly. Now you didn't hear this from me, but Ransom has the biggest crush on Tater, like I hope Tater's as straight as you think he is because otherwise, if you can introduce him Holster's probably gonna get his ass kicked to the curb."

Jack laughs, then listens to Bitty's side of the conversation.

"Hey, you remember how I was asking if you guys wanted to meet my boyfriend?" There are muted rumblings from the phone. "Y'all wanna catch dinner after your game against the Falconers next week?"

"I knew it!" Jack can hear the shouting through the phone speaker even from a foot away. "You're dating a fucking Falconer! Holy shit, Bits, please tell me it's not Mashkov, because then you and I are both gonna wind up single and look, I love you, bro, but I just don't think we're compatible like that, y'know?"

I told you, Bitty mouths, then says out loud, "Calm down, as far as I know, Alexei Mashkov is straight."

"So who the fuck is it? C'mon, Bits, spill—Rans!—he just got home, hang on a sec—Dude, Bitty's dating a fucking Falconer, I fucking told you!"

Jack hears a different voice. "Oh. Ohhhh, Bitty, my man, tell me it's not Mashkov, I don't wanna have to steal your man, Bits."

"He already said it's not. So c'mon, who the fuck is it, bro? There are so many hot guys on that team!"

"I know you guys know this already, and obviously I trust you, but I've just gotta say it in case: You know you can't tell tell anyone, right? Like, not a soul beyond Lardo and Shitty 'cause they already know."

"Duh!" they say in unison.

"You know we know how it is, bro." Jack thinks that's Holster, but it's hard to tell when he's not the one actually on the phone. They're both really loud, or he wouldn't be able to hear everything to start with.

Bitty curls into Jack's side and half-hides his face in Jack's shoulder, which is adorable. Jack wraps an arm around him and squeezes.

"I'm datin' Jack Zimmermann."

There are a couple beats of silence, then at first they both seem to be talking at a respectably normal volume.

"Oh my god."

"Oh my god, Bitty. Rans, did you hear that?"

"You're serious, aren't you?"

"Holy crap, man."

"He's not joking."

"Bitty. You actually mean to tell me that you are dATING JACK ZIMMERMANN'S ASS?"

Bitty has to actually hold his phone away from his ear by the end, and Jack cracks up.

"I am not, I am dating the entire Jack Zimmermann, thank you very much!"

"Oh fuck, is that him laughing? Did he hear that?" Holster raises his voice again. "Sorry, Jack! I have nothing but the utmost respect for your ass, and I will continue to do so long after we kick it next week. Bitty, let us talk to him."

"Oh, hell no," Bitty starts, but Jack takes the phone from him.

"Brave words after my hatty last month, Birkholtz. I didn't realize I'd scared you guys that bad."

"Ohhhhhhhh, damn!" He hears Ransom in the background.

"Yeah, yeah," Holster says easily. "We can shit-talk later, bro. Look, seriously though, you better be treating Bitty right. I know Shitty and Lardo like you, and trust me, that goes a long way with us, but if you hurt that tiny ball of Georgia sunshine I will not hesitate for a second to take it out on you on the ice, got it?"

"Holster!" Bitty tries to take the phone, but Jack has a tight hold on it. "Are you threatening my boyfriend? Seriously?"

"It's okay, Bits," Jack says, and kisses his forehead. "Hey, I'm glad he's got friends who are willing to stand up for him, but trust me, it's not necessary. Both because I have no intention of ever hurting him, and because—didn't you live with him for two years? Have you seen him when he's pissed off? If I break this man's heart he will lay a trap for me where I least expect it and ensure my career is over before you even get a shot at me, then trash my reputation across this city, if not up and down the entire east coast, all without ever being so crass as to out me or letting anyone believe he's being anything other than perfectly polite. And he'd have Lardo to help him do it."

"Oh shit, bro," Holster says quietly.

"He's right, bro," Jack hears in the background. "Man, be nice to him, he's either gonna marry Bitty or spend the rest of his life as a social outcast with only like three functioning body parts. Either way, be nice."

"I would do no such thing," Bitty says, but he looks far too smug saying it.

"I saw what you did when that juice company tried to rip you off," Jack insists. "Nobody in Providence carries that brand of juice anymore! And it only happened a month ago! I don't even know how they all got out of their contracts so fast!"

Bitty looks far too pleased with himself. "You say such sweet things, honey. Now lemme talk to 'em."

"I'll see you next week, then, eh?" Jack says into the phone.

"Looking forward to it!"

 

The Bruins go down easier than the Schooners did. Jack doesn't get a hat trick like he did the last time against them, but he does get a goal and an assist.

They go to an Indian restaurant with a private room, so that neither couple has to worry about being seen together. Ransom and Holster have the easy chemistry of a long-term couple, bickering over menu items ("That'll give you heartburn." "I'll be fine." "Holtzy, I love you, man, but I'm not dealing with your whining all night. I'm on call starting at seven.") and correcting each other's stories ("Bro, that was your sister, not my sister." "Are you sure?" "We were in Toronto, Rans, remember?" "Oh right, that was the year before we started dating.").

Jack keeps looking over at Bitty, hoping they get to that point. It hasn't been long, but he thinks they will. The past two months have easily been some of the happiest of his life. They see each other every day Jack's in town, Bitty spending the night more often than not (Jack managed to convince him it's not a "walk of shame" if Jack gets up and walks him home or to work, and since the weather started staying above freezing he's complained much less about it). Bitty comes to most of his home games and he's met Jack's friends on the team, who all adore him. Jack's even come out to the rest of the team because it was just getting too awkward to talk about Bitty at all without making it obvious they're together. Only a couple of the guys seem uncomfortable with it, but none of them are in a position to say a damn thing out of line to their star player and not risk being traded mid-season.

Eventually Jack manages to bring up his plan to come out when the season is over.

"Bro," Ransom and Holster reply in unison. "Seriously?"

"That's fucking amazing, man," Holster adds.

Bitty is looking at Jack like he put the stars in the sky, and Jack remembers for the hundredth time how worth it this will be.

He shrugs. "If I can't do it, how could anyone else possibly be expected to? Worst case, my career is over and I've only got one Art Ross, y'know? Poor me."

Holster and Ransom have a silent conversation that Jack pretends not to see, although Bitty is clearly watching. He's known these guys long enough that he can probably interpret half of it.

"You should talk to PR first, bro," Ransom finally says. Jack perks up.

"Yeah, yeah," Holster replies, then turns to Jack and Bitty. "As much as I wanna just say I'll do it, too, he's right. You've cleared this with the Falcs?"

"Yeah, I've been talking to them about it for nearly a year now. Management and PR have been really supportive. Some of them I'd say are even excited for it." Jack pauses for a second. "Have you talked to your team at all?"

It's Ransom who answers. "He's never like, stood up in the locker room and yelled 'I like guys!', but it's basically an open secret with his teammates, y'know? I mean, we've been living together for years, and then we went and bought a house together, you can't really hide that shit. There's a couple assholes, but most of 'em are all right. The PR team is awesome, if they were in charge we'd have it made. Management, though…" He shakes his head.

"I mean, Jacobs is a dick," Holster picks up, referring to the Bruins' owner. "Everyone knows that. I've talked to the GMs, and they would 'prefer I didn't make any waves' but they also don't want to look like homophobic asswipes. So bottom line, if I did it myself they'd probably put out a generic statement of support and then trade me in like a year."

Jack winces, but nods. It sounds about right.

"But bro, if someone like you came out, too? Not gonna lie, that'd make a huge difference. Especially if the Falcs are really supportive." Holster grins. "What kind of dicks would the Bruins look like if they're not as enthusiastic, right?"

"PR's on our side already," Ransom says. "Talk to them first, they're gonna love this, and they can help you take it to management." Holster nods.

"Look," Jack says, "if you're serious, try not to mention my name directly too early, but tell them to contact Falconers PR about it. This'll go better if everyone involved is working together, y'know? And I've got one other person who's interested. Do you know anyone else?"

Kent finally relented just last week, once Jack made it clear that he's definitely doing it no matter what.

"Yeah he does," Ransom says, grinning widely.

"Oh my goodness, if you two had a threesome with someone I do not want to hear about it," Bitty says, blushing.

Holster rolls his eyes, but there's definite fondness there. So far, Jack has really enjoyed seeing how much Bitty's college friends love him.

"Fine, bro. Jack, I'll have my people call your people about it, then—"

"You'll have your people call his people?" Ransom interrupts. "Really, brah?"

"Bro. I have always wanted to say that to someone, and I've been in the fucking NHL for almost three years now without ever becoming important enough or famous enough to say it, just let me have this, bro." He turns back to Jack, who is honestly busy being amused that these two have been romantic partners for several years now and still call each other bro. "Anyhow. Once we get all the PR people lined up, I'll talk to that other guy, get his team looped in if he's interested. I'll let you know, okay?"

 

June

Bitty drives him to the stadium, and Jack gives him a quick kiss before getting out of the car. Bitty will come back with Jack's parents just before game time.

Bitty's taken some time off from the bakery so he can be at every game of the Stanley Cup finals, home and away. He's sat with Bob and Alicia every time, and it's definitely starting to draw a little attention. Most people aren't really looking at who's in the stands, of course, but anyone who does is going to be paying attention to Bob Zimmermann, and when the same short blonde guy around Jack's age, who's never been seen with Bob and Alicia before, is sitting next to him every time, at some point someone is bound to wonder who that is. Luckily, nobody's asked Jack about it directly, but there's been speculation.

Jack is pretty excited to put all the speculation to rest.

It's game seven, so one way or another, this will all be over soon. There's a plan in place if they win tonight. There's a plan in place if they don't win tonight.

Either way, they'll be out by the end of the week. Jack, Holster, Kent, and this guy Lunsford from the Maple Leafs who has apparently, Jack is chagrined to know, hooked up with Kent and Holster and Ransom in the past, although he's in a monogamous relationship now. That part will not be made public, as far as Jack knows, and if it is, it's not his problem anyhow. He does wish that the group were a little less incestuous, but it's hard for them to know who else in the league is queer other than guys they've personally slept with. There are a few more Kent's talked to, but they're all waiting to see how it goes for that first group.

Either way, Bitty is moving in with Jack at the end of the summer. He's gone from staying over most nights to every night Jack is in town, and his belongings are already starting to migrate from his own place to Jack's. One day Jack woke up to realize he had an entire drawer full of Bitty's shorts, and he wasn't even sure when it had happened. But with him there, Jack's new condo finally feels like a home. Shitty is currently studying for the Rhode Island bar exam, and will be moving down to Providence and getting a place with Lardo. Bitty is going to use the money he'll make from renting out the apartment above the shop to help hire a replacement for Lardo, who is looking for full-time graphic design jobs now that she's finished her MFA. Coming out won't even be the biggest change in their lives this summer, and that's kind of a relief, honestly.

Either way, Jack is pretty sure he's starting the rest of his life after tonight, and he couldn't be happier. Either way, it's all taken care of, so Jack can concentrate on hockey.

The Canucks put up a fight, but that's no surprise. The whole series has been rough, every one of the Falconers' victories coming in overtime. When this game also goes into overtime, Jack just hopes that they continue to be the team with better stamina.

Tater gets the winning goal, and for a second Jack just stares at the net. Then someone crashes into him, and all hell breaks loose.

When he finally makes it out of the huge pile of Falconers, Bitty is over at the side of the ice, crying. Jack can't quite go to him yet, because people are lining up to shake the Canucks' hands, but he blows him a kiss.

Finally Jack skates over, and he's riding high on a lot of different emotions right at that moment, so he barely even thinks before scooping Bitty up.

It's a really, really good thing that this was their plan all along, because he's pretty sure no force on earth could keep him from kissing his boyfriend on live television right now.

There's a huge swarm of people surrounding them, of course, so no one's really paying that much attention as he presses Bitty against the boards. Bitty's fingers tangle in his sweaty hair as they kiss, and the sounds of the stadium fall away for a moment. They're in a little bubble, just the two of them, kissing and murmuring their love to each other.

They're finally disrupted by Poots, who knocks into Jack from the side yelling, "Zimmermann, stop sucking on your boy's face for five minutes, will ya? I know you're tryin'a get the media's attention but we're all gonna get cavities over here!"

They both laugh, faces red. Bitty covers his face with his hands.

"Oh my goodness, Jack! We just did that!"

"We did! Wanna do it again?" But before Jack can get their mouths back together, Tater has come over and is ruffling Bitty's hair.

"Bitty! You make us cake in shape of Stanley Cup, yes?"

"I guess I have to, don't I?" Bitty laughs and ducks out of Tater's reach, putting Jack between them. But a reporter pulls Tater away to ask him his twelfth question about how it felt to get the winning goal, so Bitty is safe for the moment.

Jack greets his parents and poses for photos—everyone wants a photo of him and his dad with the Cup. Then he takes a selfie with Bitty and the Cup. Bitty posts it to his personal Twitter account (when Jack found out about that, he couldn't help but chirp Bitty for giving him his phone number instead, but Bitty has no shame about having seized the opportunity that was presented to him) with the caption, "Some guys get their boyfriend flowers or chocolates, mine got me this big shiny Cup! #Falconers #StanleyCup2020 #LoveWins #thisboy".

They both know that Bob and the Falconers will retweet it. Holster and Ransom will post a congratulatory selfie together, as will Lunsford and his boyfriend. Jack has no idea what Kent will say, but he's planning to come out via Twitter as well.

It turns out, Kent retweets their photo almost immediately, adding "TFW ur ex gets the Cup & a cute new guy, & ur stuck at home w ur cat. Joke's on you, Zimms, I like Kit better than any guy I've hooked up w!" Then he posts a picture of himself kissing his cat.

"Well, that's one way to do it." Bitty looks up despairingly at Jack, who is wrapped around him from behind. "Did the Aces PR really sign off on that?"

"I seriously doubt it," Jack says, laughing at Bitty's phone.

Just then, someone tugs on Jack's arm. "Zimmermann, don't think you're getting out of postgame interviews just because you have your own PR stunt to pull off. C'mon."

Jack gives Bitty a kiss on the cheek and heads over to where a small cluster of reporters are waiting for him.

Word of the tweet has clearly spread quickly. A woman with dark hair jumps right in. "Jack, can we take this photo that the Falconers have retweeted as confirmation that you're dating a man?"

"What?" another reporter, an older, balding man, mutters, then pulls out his own phone. The other reporters give him a strange look; he's clearly the only person not in the know.

"Yes, that's my boyfriend, Eric Bittle."

"Does this mean that you're the first out gay player in the NHL?"

"I'm bisexual, actually. I am the first openly queer player, yes, but I think if you check Twitter again you'll find that I'm already not the only one."

"Jack! What does Kent Parson mean when he refers to you as his ex?"

"It means we used to date, and we don't anymore. Exactly what ex usually means."

"Jack, did you plan this with Parson and Lunsford, or are they just riding your coattails?"

"Um, first off, you might want to check Adam Birkholtz's Twitter as well." There's a flurry as the reporters type into their phones. "Second, yes, the four of us planned this. Third, if any other players are inspired to come out after this, I hope nobody will see them as riding on anyone's coattails. It'll be hard to be first, but it won't be easy to be tenth, either, and every player in the NHL who at any point in the future decides to let the public know that they're not straight is doing a very brave thing and deserves our full support."

"Jack, you've been playing hockey in your father's shadow for a very long time. Do you feel like winning the Stanley Cup finally gives you a chance to shine on your own?"

"Wait, are we talking about hockey now? Did hockey happen today?" The reporters laugh in surprise; Jack doesn't make jokes during interviews often, though he's not quite as robotic as he was as a rookie. "It obviously wasn't easy to go into the same career that my father saw so much success in, and you all know that it took its toll on my mental health when I was younger. But I honestly haven't felt like I was playing in his shadow for a few years now. Winning the Calder my rookie year proved to myself, and to anyone else paying attention, that I was my own player. Obviously, I'm beyond thrilled to win the Stanley Cup, and more than that I'm honored to be on such a talented and hard-working team. And I know my father is proud of all my achievements. This is a great accomplishment, but it's not the defining moment of my career."

"Is your father proud of that photo on Twitter? Do you think Bob Zimmermann is happy that his son is telling the world he's gay?" Jack doesn't know who this reporter is, but the man has a snide sort of voice and clearly thinks he's just caught Jack out somehow. Jack grits his teeth before answering.

"First off, as I said before, I'm bisexual, not gay. I'm not sure why you've got that microphone if you're not going to pay attention to the things I say." A couple of the other reporters shoot delighted glares at the man who asked the question. "Second, given the amount of speculation recently on Eric's identity, I'm pretty sure it was made clear before tonight that my parents have spent a lot of time with him and adore him, and I'm sure they love the photo of us together. Proud, I don't know; the composition was a little messy, to tell you the truth, but my father doesn't know much about photography so I'm not sure he'd notice."

That draws a few more chuckles, which feels nice. It's too bad Jack is pretty sure he won't be able to replicate this easy joking once the endorphins from the victory and the kissing have worn off.

"Last question," a man from the Falconers' PR department tells the reporters, then points at one.

"It's been a very big night for you, Jack. Would you rather be congratulated on winning the Stanley Cup, or on that kiss we all saw you and Eric share earlier?"

Jack's cheeks hurt, he's smiling so hard. "I honestly can't say. I was lucky enough to have two of the best moments of my life tonight. But I'm sure there are even better to come, both with hockey and with Eric."