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All of the While, I Never Knew

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The first day Bitty noticed the stool was a groggy Tuesday morning that had him out of bed far earlier than he would’ve liked. Bitty was southern as all get out, so he knew passive aggressive like no one else, but this didn’t scream passive aggressive, oh no, this shouted chirp chirp CHIRP. He knew he was being chirped, but for the love of all that is holy is that a label with MY name?!

Sure enough, placed right beside the tall cabinet where they stored all their syrups and toppings and spare cups and straws, was a little two-step stool emblazoned with a white label with big black font reading “ERIC”. Bitty grumbled to himself. Everyone he worked with had made the short jokes before at one time or another, but there was only one person who worked at Mon Petit Choux that still–annoyingly, stubbornly–called Bitty “Eric”. This joke had Jack Zimmermann written all the fuck over it. Jack Fucking Zimmermann, big ass, bigger biceps, blue as the sea swim-worthy eyes, shoulders broader than they had any right to be, thick thighs worthy of a worship, and a sense of humour drier than plain toast. Basically, a nightmare disguised as Bitty’s Godforsaken dreams.

“Technically, it has your name written all over it but…” Chowder snickered, Bitty hadn’t realized he’d said any of that out loud. Electing to ignore Chowder’s sass, Bitty went to the break room to plop his stuff down, grab his apron, and check the to-do list for the day. He didn’t have time for this pedestrian humour, Bitty had a job to do.

“Oh, would you look at that! Jack’s on the schedule today, says he’ll be here from one ‘til close!” Chowder flashed the work schedule towards Bitty as he spoke, a smirk becoming clearer and clearer on his face. Jack typically worked evenings, that wasn’t too much of a shock, as Bitty was usually right there alongside him, using and abusing Jack’s height and musculature to his advantage (not in all the ways Bitty had imagined, mind you…) But as the world would have it, with the change in season, the cafe owner had hired a new kid, someone who went by “Tango”, and he’d swapped Bitty to the morning shifts while Tango got settled in. Tango’s first shift was today, he remembered only because Jack had brought it up two days ago when they were closing up.

“I noticed we won’t be working together anymore,” Jack started slowly. “At least, for a while. For the new guy, I guess.”

“No, I purposely switched so I don’t have to put up with your chirps about my stature anymore, Mister Zimmermann.” Bitty smiled softly as he propped up the chairs onto the table tops.

“But who will reach all the syrups when the ones we have are empty? Who will haul the box of cocoa powder up and down at your every beck and call?” Jack challenged with an even softer smile, the kind that gave him soft lines around his eyes. Bitty rolled his eyes dramatically.

“Chirp, chirp, chirp, honestly, I should’ve asked to switch sooner!” Bitty rolled the mopping bucket towards himself. Jack’s face took a slightly sour turn, his smile flagging a little, his laugh lines retreating. Bitty wanted to say something, needed to say something, but Jack had become engrossed in sorting the receipts instead of looking at him. Bitty felt his heart twinge. There was a brief lapse of silence, the only sounds being crinkling paper and the slosh of the mop. Jack broke the silence, suddenly but softly.

“Could always sit on Lardo’s shoulders, the two of you are probably about normal height when stacked on top of each other.” Bitty could see Jack’s smirk as he kept his eyes trained on the pieces of paper he was shuffling.

Bitty huffed out a laugh, his stomach swooping as Jack looked up to double check that his joke had landed, locking his eyes with Bitty’s.

“Well I never,” Bitty daintily placed his hand to his chest, his other hand coming up to fan himself dramatically. “I do declare, you Monsieur Zimmermann, are…are…deplorable!”

“Oh no, not deplorable.” Jack teased as he started to count change in the till.

“I do declare! Deplorable, incorrigible, unfathomably rude! Wait ‘til I tell the bridge ladies about this, they’ll be in such a shock! Good heavens, Mary-Lou might just faint!” Bitty continued his dramatic southern-belle facade, if only to keep Jack’s eyes on him and to keep the grin on his lips. “How very dare you tease me in such a way! Do you converse with your mama in such a manner? Simply uncouth!”

“Sprout a few inches taller and I’ll lay down my armour at your feet, ma’am.” Jack teased back. Bitty couldn’t hold it in any longer and let out a full on snort, laughing harder than he had in a while, his southern-belle facade crumbling with each hearty chuckle. He would miss this, the lighthearted chirping, even if it was just a temporary change.

“Would that I could, Jack, would that I could,” Bitty wiped at the few tears that had escaped from his laughing fit. “Maybe I’ll invest in those platform shoes, or maybe a nice pair of heels, that might do the trick.” Bitty joked as he finished mopping up the floor. Jack’s face shifted slightly, quicker than Bitty could catch, before it returned to its smirking exterior.

“I’d love to see you try to work a whole shift in heels.” Jack’s cheeks tinged a little pinker, hands fumbling with some bills. Bitty felt his breath catch before covering it up with another rambunctious laugh, Jack joined in this time. Yeah, Bitty was gonna miss this.

Jack still working the closing shifts and noting Bitty’s shift change definitely explained how the stool appeared here just in time for Bitty’s first string of morning shifts.

“Great, I can give him his fuddy duddy stool back and tell him where to shove it.” Bitty smiled all too brightly. Chowder only laughed, rolling his eyes a little.

“Oh as if, you and I both know that stool is a Godsend. You can finally stop using Jack as a personal butler. Oh Jack, darlin’, can you fetch me some more straws! Oh Jack, sweetheart, can you put this box of napkins back in the cabinet? Jack? Honey, can you please fetch that pesky box of lids? Gosh darn Jack you’re so big and strong!” Chowder teased with an over-zealous and over enunciated attempt at a southern accent. “Not like you really want to stop, but.” Chowder waggled his eyebrows.

“Oh you shush your mouth, Jack is my friend and just like any good friend he helps me out, and doesn’t chirp me to death before 7AM!” Bitty huffed, he knew his cheeks were tinging pink but he couldn’t help it. Having a woefully unrequited crush on a straight co-worker was very much not the kind of thing Bitty ever wanted for himself, and yet, here he was, flushed up to his ears at some light chirping from Chowder of all people. Chowder was the one co-worker and friend of Bitty’s who routinely apologized after making jokes. Apparently, sweet and kind Chowder didn’t make an appearance until after the cafe was open.

Attempting to stave off further teasing, Bitty went ahead and started popping the pastries that Jack and Lardo had prepped into the oven. Jack’s lattices on the mini pies were coming along nicely, although he could still tell which ones were Jack’s and which ones weren’t, which said a lot for how much farther he had left to go in terms of improvement. Bitty was proud nonetheless.

Dear Lord, mister Zimmermann, it’s like you’ve never used your hands for anything other than carryin’ history books and typin’ history papers!” Bitty huffed, a little chortle as he watched Jack clumsily fumble with the delicate strips of pastry.

Jack’s cheeks tinged a soft pink, the kind that made Bitty think of carnations and candy floss, but his lips curved into a gentle smirk.

“I could tell you a lot about what my hands can do, but I think it’d be better to show you,” Bitty’s heart stopped beating for a moment, he felt like he could fall over at any second. “Things you can’t even imagine, Eric.”

Jack was already standing so close, rather, Bitty was already standing so close to Jack. Jack turned his body to face Bitty more fully, he leaned closer and rested his hands on the counter Bitty was leaning on, effectively boxing him in between his arms. Bitty licked his bottom lip before biting down on it. He could feel Jack’s breathe ghost across his face and his eyes fluttered in anticip–

Jack reached up and grabbed a jar of preserves off the top shelf, bringing it down to Bitty’s eye level. Bitty choked on air before huffing out a surprised and somewhat manic laugh. Another short joke, he should’ve known.

Jack’s eyes crinkled as he took a step back. His cheeks were still a pleasant rosy shade, maybe even a bit more crimson. He was chuckling along with Bitty, a twinkle in his eye.

Bitty’s daydreaming was interrupted by Chowder calling up for his help.

“Bits, can you do me a favour and grab some new cups? The delivery guy is here,” Chowder only looked a little bit smug. “Unless, of course, you’d rather haul four 25 kilogram sacs of flour up the stairs and into the stock room?” Bitty was going to file for workplace harassment the moment his shift ended.

“Be gone with you, child.” Bitty shooed him off as he dusted his hands off on his apron. Chowder chortled as he slipped into the back to greet the delivery man. 

Stepping into the front of house, Bitty turned to face The Cabinet™. With his hands on his hips, Bitty tilted his head back to find the shelf so kindly and artfully labelled “CUPS” in a swirly chalk print, courtesy of Lardo, the fellow Short. He sighed inwardly, trying to determine how much of a running start he could get to try and jump to snag the box. It was a stupid idea, he knew that, but he would not use the stool, no sir, no ma’am. Bitty stared challengingly at the cabinet, willing it to shrink a foot or four.

Just as Bitty was about start jumping for it (as if that idea was any better) he felt his phone buzz in his apron pocket.

Jack: Good morning, Eric. How are things? :-)

Bitty grumbled at how endearing Jack’s stupid smiley face was. He tapped out a quick reply, huffing as if he was truly annoyed.

Bitty: It’s not even 7AM, shouldn’t you be asleep, unconscious, unable to chirp?

Just as Bitty was about to slip his phone away another text came through.

Jack: Did you get my gift? Custom label, just for you :-) 

Bitty softly sighed, no matter how infuriating (read as: nauseatingly adorable) the relentless chirping may have been, he had to admit Jack was darn cute when he thought he was being clever.

Bitty: What gift? The step stool? Oh I threw it out. Into the dumpster. Gone forever. Rude and unnecessary, Mister Zimmermann. The bridge ladies will be appalled.

Bitty slipped his phone away, sighing heavily as he silently admitted defeat. Reaching out, Bitty snagged the step stool and placed it in front of himself. Bitty ran his thumb along the label, it was an embossed label, clearly not one of the cafes kind. Bitty idly wondered where Jack might’ve gotten it from.

Bitty didn’t hesitate too long, afraid he might get caught by Chowder at any second. Ascending to the steps, Bitty grabbed one of the boxes before descending and placing it on the front counter, he repeated it with each cup size until he had them all lined up to be unboxed and tucked away.

Eric went to check his phone to see if Jack had replied, with no such luck he tucked it away and turned to the counter to start unpacking the cups.

Just as he finished up the first box, Chowder came back and looked between Bitty and the step stool, a cheesy smirk taking over his face.

“So. You actually did it,” Chowder began to unpack another box of cups. “I was half expecting to come back to find Jack himself reaching for it.” Chowder chuckled lightly, nudging Bitty’s arm with his elbow.

Why didn’t I think of that!? Bitty thought. Would serve him right, bringin’ this godforsaken stool around here…

“Oh please, he doesn’t work mornings and you know that.” Bitty refrained from mentioning that he knew Jack was awake, even though he definitely didn’t need to be. Bitty pieced together that maybe (probably, most likely) Jack was only awake right now for the exclusive purpose of chirping Bitty. The thought of that alone made Bitty feel flustered in a way only Jack Zimmermann could make him feel.

“Can you finish this up? I’ve gotta get the rest of the breakfast pastries in the oven.” Bitty excused himself, slyly checking for a new text from Jack before he slipped into the back room. With nothing to be found, Bitty accepted that maybe Jack was genuinely awake this early for a real reason, maybe he was busy with whatever that was right now. Bitty didn’t let himself dwell on it, these pastries aren’t gonna heat themselves.

_X_

The morning rush was in full swing, today even busier than usual. The sun had decided to make an appearance for the first time in what felt like forever, so more people than usual were popping in for a morning brew and a fresh pastry to kick off the day. You could tell it was well and truly busy because neither Chowder nor Dex, the second morning helper, said a word when Bitty plunked the stool around to grab various refills for syrups and straws and napkins.

With the constant movement and persistent case of morning scatterbrain, Bitty didn’t even notice Jack stroll in and wait in line until it was too late. They locked eyes: Jack, smug as he could be. Bitty, perched on his tiptoes on the stool reaching for the spare cinnamon, caught red handed.

Jack’s smile brightened somehow. Bitty felt himself turn pinker than raspberry coulis.

“I’m glad you didn’t throw it out,” Jack started, stepping out of line to lean right up against the counter. “I was getting worried that you were being serious.” Jack’s lips were particularly pink, as if he’d been chewing on them all morning. The cafe chatter and bustle carried on around them, but Bitty couldn’t pay anything else any mind with this Adonis of a man standing before him; His hair was slightly flopped, still damp, as if he’d just taken a shower before coming here, his t-shirt clung pleasantly to his chest and arms and waist, by God those silly work polos don’t do his waist a damn justice, the kind of fitted tee that made Bitty’s mouth drool on a bad day, but on a good day? Oh Lord save him. Bitty was at a loss, trying to tear his eyes away from Jack, Jack’s puffy, supple, spit-slick lips, his sharp, clean-shaven jawline, his high cheekbones…it was…a lot.

“I–I…” Bitty didn’t know where his sentence was going, he was momentarily stunned. Working with Jack in the evenings had never afforded him the privilege of seeing morning Jack with his tousled hair and his casual attire–as if seeing Jack in the standard work polo wasn’t also a struggle in its own right. Bitty was stunned.

“Do you…do you really hate it?” There’s an edge of worry in Jack’s tone as he leaned closer to the counter to lower his voice. Brows furrowed, Jack began to fidget with his fingers, a nervous tick Bitty could spot a mile away. “I mean, it was…it’s a silly joke I’m–I’m sorry if it really upset you, I thought it might help? If you…I guess if you need it? I just. Crisse. I–I didn’t mean to–” Bitty was quick to cut him off, not allowing himself to linger on the way Jack smelled. Absolutely ridiculously unfair.

“Where’d you get the label?” Jack’s eyebrows furrowed further still.

“Where’d I–what?” Jack was a little thrown off by the question.

“The label, it’s not one of ours, the cafes. Where’d you get it?” Bitty didn’t know where he was going with this either, but Lord have mercy he was not about to admit he found the stool gesture unfathomably endearing but he also couldn’t settle for Jack apologizing and feeling terrible when he really really didn’t have to.

“I–Lardo. Well, actually, Lardo’s boyfriend, euh, Shitty? He has one for…God knows what, but, he, euh, lent it to me. Just for this.” Jack swallowed self-consciously, fingers picking at the napkin display, fiddling with the cup sleeves.

“Well, thank you, I guess,” Bitty started, his own hands feeling clumsy and unsure. “I guess now I don’t need to bother you all the time for things,” Bitty let out a fake, humourless laugh that sounded dead even to his own ears. “That’ll be a nice change for you I guess.” Bitty had never really thought about it like that before, maybe it was a little childish to flirt with Jack when he knew he had no chance, no less by using him for his height. As if Bitty constantly needed to count and recount and double-triple-quadruple check their powders and spare straws. Maybe it was a little too…obvious.

Jack’s eyes sought out Bitty’s almost frantically. 

“T-that’s not what I meant, at all, Eric I–”

“Bitty! Can you–oh heeeeey Jack,” Chowder drawled, his whole posture screaming I TOLD YOU SO, even though Bitty wasn’t sure what Chowder had told him so about. “What brings you in so early? You don’t start until one, big guy!” Chowder was in the middle of restocking the pastry case. Bitty hadn’t noticed but the line had died down significantly, Dex was idly wiping down the front counter, whistling all nonchalant-like. Bitty felt himself swallow a lump in his throat.

“Uh, hey Chow. Yeah, I know, I just…uhm,” Jack trailed off, scratching the back of his head in such a way that put his beefy bicep on display in the best possible way. Bitty had not been prepared to be attacked in such a way.

“I saw your gift for Bits, it’s really great of you to do us all a favour like that. Hey! Now you don’t have to be his personal tall slave!” Chowder was teasing, Bitty could tell, Jack on the other hand seemed to stiffen up, his shoulders hunching in such a way that made Bitty want to reach out and squeeze the tight muscles in his neck and shoulders to get them back where they should be.

“I don’t mind doing those things for him, for you, Eric. I–” Jack stopped his eyes flicking to Chowder then Dex and back to Bitty again, almost like he was calculating the risk of his next words. “I like doing it for you. I just. I don’t know, I thought it would be a fun joke. I…to be honest, I didn’t really expect you to use it.” Jack shook his head, looking away as he spoke his next words. “Chirping you and getting things down for you a hundred times a day, no matter how unnecessary I know it is, it’s–it’s my favourite part of this job. The best part.” Jack’s eyes uncertainly looked up for Bitty’s. Bitty felt his mouth go dry at such a blatant and honest confession, in broad daylight in the middle of a very crowded cafe. This was nothing like how he’d imagined this going, not like he’d imagined it extensively, of course. No, no not at all. “I wouldn’t keep doing it if I didn’t want to, Eric, if I didn’t like doing it. Like…you, I–I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t like you.” Bitty felt his jaw drop a little, his mouth slightly gaping.

“Oh Bitty look at that, it’s time for your break! Shoo, get out, carry this conversation on far away from here. Might I suggest the kitchen? The break room? The storage closet? Somewhere private and not here.” Chowder pushed on Bitty’s shoulders guiding him out and away from the front of house. Bitty went along without any resistance, even full well knowing he didn’t have a break for at least another hour and a half, his mind was still reeling from Jack’s words, a big ball of mush completely incapable of coming up with anything clever or intelligible to say.

It wasn’t until they were both in the kitchen, the door swung shut, that Bitty truly felt the weight of Jack’s words sink in and register.

“Eric, I–” Jack started.

“W-when you say,” Bitty started, his voice coming out cracked and hesitant. Bitty leaned on the counter for a little support. “When you say you like me, do you mean…like? H-how…what does that mean to you?” Bitty tried to force himself to make eye contact with Jack, but both him and Jack were having a hard time locking eyes with how nervous they both were.

“I–I meant it…exactly how I think you think I meant it.” Jack scratched at the back of his head again. Bitty took the opportunity to bravely test the boundaries of this new, tentative confession; reaching out, Bitty placed his fingers along the bulging muscle of Jack’s upper arm. Bitty gave a gentle squeeze before running his hand across the length of Jack’s arm to grab at his hand and bring it down for him to hold between them.

“Can you…tell me more?” Bitty started, slowly tangling his fingers with Jack’s, meeting no resistance or hesitance to indicate that Bitty was reading this wrong, oh no, Bitty was right on the money.

“I…think it might be easier if I–” Jack paused reaching his hand out to brush his fingertips across Bitty’s lips, his jaw, before settling on the crook of Bitty’s neck. “If I…show you.” Bitty only gave a slow nod, his eyes wide and sure.

Before Bitty could build it up too much in his head, Jack’s lips were softly pressed against his, just a press, but Jack was holding his jaw, and Bitty’s hand was still tangled in Jack’s and it felt wonderful. With a bout of bravery, Bitty pushed up onto his tiptoes, pressing into the kiss a bit more and allowing Jack to shift and adjust to the new angle, their lips sliding together in a seamless, effortless, simple, perfect way.

The kiss went on, lips gliding and shifting to make room for tongues and soft sighs. Bitty teetered on his toes ever-so-slightly and before he knew it Jack was picking him up by the hips, resting Bitty on the counter that he’d had been leaning against. Bitty fervently tried to ignore how good it felt to have Jack’s far larger hands clinging to his hips and waist in such a way that felt equal parts reassuring and possessive. Bitty’s mind drifted to other places he’d like Jack’s hands to go, but he didn’t linger on that thought for too long, this is our place of work for goodness sakes. Bitty reached out to tangle his fingers in the curly wisps of hair at the back of Jack’s neck, shivering at the low groan that escaped Jack’s mouth at the initial tug.

“Hey–oop!” Bitty and Jack sprung apart at the sound of the kitchen door swinging open and suddenly shut again, Jack still kept a hold of Bitty’s hips, Bitty still keeping a grip on Jack’s shoulders.

“Uh, hey bros, sorry to like…interrupt? But uh? I need to get into the break room so…?” It was Ransom’s voice, tentative and smug all at once. Right, Ransom, he’s our third for the mid-morning. Bitty felt silly for forgetting, maybe the storage room would’ve been a better option for this…

Jack pressed his forehead to Bitty’s for just a moment, dashing a quick kiss to his nose before backing up and letting Bitty hop down off the counter.

“I–I should probably go, anyway. I have a paper to do for Atley still.” Jack reached out for Bitty’s hands, tangling their fingers together briefly, squeezing lightly. This boy.

“I should be, like, doing my job or something, I guess.” Bitty chuckled lightly, his eyes downcast as he felt himself blush yet again.

Jack’s eyes softened around the edges, his smile glowing, his lower lip getting chewed on as he hesitated moving away just yet.

“I’ll see you later, yeah? You’ve got me for an hour before your shift ends,” Jack reminded him. Bitty grinned something soft and radiant.

“Yeah, I’ll see you then,” Bitty leaned up, requesting another kiss, this one much shorter but equally as sweet. “But not for any canoodling in the kitchen, and don’t you dare think I’ve forgotten about that fuddy duddy stool of yours.” Bitty poked at Jack’s chest lightly, only slightly unhinged by the muscle he prodded at. Jack laughed, quiet and low, before pressing a gentle kiss to Bitty’s cheek.

“I’m forever in your debt for the stool prank, how can I possibly repay you?” Jack smiled into another sweeping peck, this one to Bitty’s forehead.

“You can start by getting rid of that ridiculous stool…once my rotation of morning shifts ends, that is,” Bitty smiled again, booping Jack on the nose and watching the way Jack’s face went from confused to pleased to glowing in a short span of seconds. “And then you can be my personal tall slave, as Chowder put it, until the end of time.”

“Sounds like a fair trade to me,” Jack slowly released Bitty’s hands, taking a few steps back towards the door. “I’ll even throw in some kisses, for interest, of course.”

“Mmm, yes, of course. I’ll have to let the bridge ladies know to call off the wanted posters and smear campaigns.” Bitty teased, winking at Jack as he retreated.

“I’ll see you later, Bits.” Bitty was taken aback, Jack had never called him anything but Eric since…well, since always. Jack was out the door and gone before Bitty could respond, a little too stunned to act quick enough.

Bitty could hear Ransom high-fiving Jack on the way out, along with Chowder and Dex making kissy noises and singing hum drum children’s rhymes. Bitty blushed, smiling coyly to himself. God bless that stupid stool.