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On Tuesday, Jack comes in just as Bitty finishes restocking the cardboard sleeves in the condiment bar and repositioning the plastic pumpkin on the display.

“Black coffee, please,” Jack says when it’s his turn to order.

“Sure thing,” Bitty replies cheerily, glancing back at Piper to confirm that she’s already reaching for the coffee beans. Bitty’s feeling somewhat optimistic, so he adds, “How about one of our homemade blueberry scones to go with that?”

Jack frowns. He does that a lot, Bitty has noticed. “No, thank you. Just the coffee.”

There’s a line forming up, so Bitty sighs internally and takes Jack’s card. By the time the counter clears up again Jack has already collected his order and left the shop.

 

 


 

 

On Wednesday, Jack doesn't come in at all. 

It isn’t out of the ordinary; Bitty knows that Jack's team is scheduling more practices as they’re headed into preseason. He tried to make time to watch a game last year, but hockey season coincided with most of his own season, and balancing a part-time job on top of everything hasn’t allowed for much downtime.

And yet. Bitty keeps an eye on the door until closing, and shrugs at Piper when Jack doesn’t show.

 

 


 

 

On Friday, Bitty isn't working. He's out on the field with the boys, doing his stretches, when his phone pings over the sound of Ellie Goulding singing in his earbuds. It's a text from Piper who is working the morning shift, saying, black coffee and a peppermint hot chocolate for his friend. the friend ordered an extra piece of cake.

Bitty huffs and stretches down further to hide his expression in his calves.

 

 


 

 

It's Thursday by the time Bitty sees Jack next. It’s a slow afternoon; Bitty is leaning on the counter with his chin propped on both forearms, absorbed in an article for his Birth of Europe course, when someone clears their throat above him.

"You shouldn't be reading at work," Jack says once Bitty looks up. He’s frowning again, and his backpack is slung over one shoulder, hand twitching around its strap like he’s resisting the urge to pluck the papers away from Bitty.

Bitty almost grimaces, but he resolutely reminds himself that Jack's blunt attitude is always accompanied by please, thank you and excessive tips. He’s not actually a bad guy. This is Bitty’s second semester working retail, so unfortunately he knows a thing or two about bad guys.

"Well now, I can't help it if it's so interesting," Bitty says instead, shoving his article under the register and away from Jack’s line of sight. Jack is still frowning at him, however, so Bitty wipes his hands on his apron and asks very politely, "How may I help you today?"

"I'd like a black coffee," Jack says without delay. 

Bitty isn’t one to admit defeat, but at work he also strives for efficiency -- which is why he’s already lining up a cup before the order is out of Jack’s mouth. Ralph is in the back taking inventory and there's no line at the counter, so Bitty covers for him and makes the drink himself, humming softly as he does. A minute passes before he notices that Jack is still staring directly at him.

"What was the article about?"

Bitty turns away from the drip machine to squint at Jack, who Bitty could’ve sworn just asked him an actual question. "Huh?"

"The article,” Jack repeats, adjusting his bag over his shoulder. “You said it was so interesting that you had to read it at work. What was it about?"

Jack has never attempted small talk with Bitty before, so it takes him a moment to recover. “Oh. Uh -- how the Norman conquest of England changed the country’s cuisine.” His tone rises slightly at the end, making it sound like something of a question.

Jack looks surprised at the answer. “Are you a history major? I don’t remember seeing you around the department before.”

Bitty had no idea Jack was a history major, but that’s only to be expected. Bitty doesn’t really know anything about Jack aside from his stats, his persistent coffee order, and the shape his eyebrows take when he’s confused. “Oh Lord, no, definitely not. I mean -- no offense. Don’t know much about the Normans or the Middle Ages, either, mind you. I am very much undeclared right now.”

“Aren’t you a junior?” Jack asks, as Bitty turns to grab the steaming coffee cup and then passes it over the counter, accepting Jack’s credit card with his other hand.

“A sophomore,” Bitty corrects, struggling to suppress his displeasure. Jack isn’t aware of Bitty’s continuous academic crisis, and probably won’t have any good advice on how to graduate with a degree in pie. “Plenty of time to decide, I say. Would you maybe like a slice of pecan cheesecake?” He tacks on, the hand holding the card hovering over the terminal. He’s hoping that the conversation has distracted Jack enough to succumb to the lure of baked goods.

“What? Eh, no,” Jack declines. He does, in fact, look distracted by the conversation, but apparently not enough to make some smart choices about dessert.

“Oh well, I tried,” Bitty mutters under his breath, and swipes Jack’s card. “Happy Halloween to you!”

“Halloween’s not until tomorrow,” Jack frowns yet again. He does, however, offer an approximation of a short wave after he fits a lid on his cup, and when Bitty checks the tip jar later he finds a hefty tip at the bottom of it.

 

 


 

 

Numerous Samwell students and faculty members order black coffee at Annie's. Bitty himself is partial to black coffee on gloomy five a.m. mornings that begin with running three miles in the Massachusetts weather, especially during the winter.

Jack Zimmermann and his coffee order aren’t special. It's his stubbornness that is.

When Bitty began working at Annie’s last spring, their food sales doubled. It’s been an exercise in broadening his horizons -- at first he stuck to his strengths of sweets and desserts, but now he ensures that Annie’s offers a wide variety: savory morning muffins, keto cakes, handmade sandwiches and even the sporadic gluten-free Danish.

Bitty is an athlete. He knows a fair amount about healthy diets and can understand the need to limit unnecessary indulgences. But on the occasions that Jack comes in with his teammates, the rest of them typically buy something to go with their drinks; when Bitty was testing his pretzel recipe last year, the hockey team devoured a whole tray in one sitting; when Lorraine gave out free samples of the new caramel brûlée coffee, each and every one of the hockey boys, except Jack, came in to try it. Some of them more than once.

In the seven months that Bitty has been working at Annie's, Jack Zimmermann has not once touched a single thing in the café that isn't black coffee.

Bitty is an avid baker, a two-time Madison county fair bake-off winner, and his mama’s boy. This is a matter of pride.

 

 


 

 

The hockey team’s home opener takes place over the weekend, while Bitty is at p.m. strength training. He checks the score on his phone on the way back to his dorm and bites back a smile when he sees that Samwell won 3-1. This earns him an elbow to the ribs from his teammate Sean -- the boys like to make fun of him for following hockey and football, calling them dumb-jock sports.

On Monday, Jack comes in at his standard hour. Bitty might’ve assumed that he’d be absent more often now that the season is in full swing, but it also makes sense that his need for caffeine would increase with the onset of regular season in addition to his schoolwork. Lord knows that Bitty goes from one daily cup to three in the spring.

“How about some pumpkin spice latte?” He ventures when Jack orders his usual. Bitty’s hopes aren’t high today, but he’s got nothing to lose by trying. Annie’s is meticulously decorated for the season, from the orange leaf garland on the door to the pumpkins surrounding the counter; perhaps Jack would be inspired. “You might like it, you know.”

Jack looks at him, and Bitty swears that his frown shifts a little, like maybe this version of his frown is personalized just for Bitty. It doesn’t bode well for Bitty’s agenda. “I like black coffee.”

Bitty doesn’t think he really does, actually, but the customer is always right and all. “Black coffee it is, then.”

Piper is smiling at their exchange -- Bitty is certain of that, even though her back is turned to him while she’s brewing Jack’s coffee. She’ll pay for that by not getting the leftover almond croissants later. She’s the one who instigated their bet to begin with, so she isn’t allowed to make fun of Bitty’s attempts to win.

Bitty takes Jack’s card and, figuring that since Jack’s been the one to initiate small talk once there’s no harm in it, says, “Good game on Saturday. That wrist shot of yours was really somethin’.”

He offers the card back after charging and watches Jack reach out for it very slowly, too busy assessing Bitty with overt surprise. 

"You’re a hockey fan?"

Bitty kind of is. He also thinks that Jack is one hell of a talented player, but he’s not sure how well that would go over, so he chooses his phrasing with care. “Sure, when I have time. Training really picks up in the winter so it's usually a little tight, but I enjoy good hockey when I can!"

Jack straightens his back. The look he gives Bitty is infinitely more interested than Bitty’s ever seen on him before. "You're on a team?"

Piper taps on Bitty’s shoulder and places Jack's coffee on the pickup counter before Bitty can answer, while someone standing behind Jack in line coughs, obviously done waiting for him to move along. Jack peers over his shoulder, seems surprised to find anyone standing there at all.

Bitty shrugs apologetically for their aborted conversation. Jack snatches his drink and hurries away, glancing back at Bitty several times as he leaves.

 

 


 

 

Bitty’s Thursday a.m. practice is tougher than usual, and by the halfway point of his afternoon shift all he wants to do is quit dramatically and go ice his shins. He takes his break sitting down for once, nursing a cup of herbal tea at the table closest to the bathroom that customers commonly disfavor. Google, when he asks it, tells him to try taking up yoga and also that maybe his kidneys are failing. Google predicts Bitty’s death roughly three times a week, so he calmly closes that tab and switches over to twitter.

He lifts his eyes from his phone screen when the chair across from his is pulled back, scraping loudly against the tiled floor. He proceeds to lift his eyebrows when he sees that the person hovering above the empty chair is Jack Zimmermann, cradling a steaming mug undoubtedly filled with very boring coffee.

“Euh. Your coworker said that you’re on your break,” Jack says, pointing a thumb over his shoulder in Ralph’s general direction. “Mind if I sit?”

Bitty blinks at him, almost tempted to look around and see if there’s anyone else sitting in his vicinity that Jack might be mistaking him for. Probably someone from the Men’s Hockey Team -- Bitty has never actually witnessed Jack interact with anyone other than them. He doesn’t give off an impression of a particularly outgoing guy. “Uh… sure? Yeah, you’re welcome to!”

Jack sets his mug down and pulls a book out from his bag, sliding it across the table towards Bitty as he lowers himself into the chair. It’s titled Norman and Anglo-Norman Practices c. 10th Century. “I asked Professor Tanner about that article and you were right, it was great stuff. But I also thought it didn’t elaborate on the Normans’ costumes pre-invasion enough. The librarians at Norris recommended this to me, and I really think it fills in some gaps that the article left -- it specifically references their preferred livestock farming in Normandy, which can explain their influence later on.”

“I don’t --” Bitty fumbles with his tea, a little nonplussed, which doesn’t happen to him very often. He loves his job because he’s great at talking to strangers, but something about Jack’s flat speech pattern leaves him grappling for words. “Um… What are you talking about again?”

“You were reading an article? Just last week.” Jack curls his fingers around the edge of the book, which pushes it a few inches closer to Bitty. “You said it was interesting but that you don’t know much about the Normans.”

“Oh -- right!” Bitty recalls, although he still doesn’t understand why Jack is sitting there, and why he’s offering him a library book. Surely he knows that Bitty has access to the internet? And that they’ve never had a real conversation before?

“Um,” Jack visibly loses some of his momentum, shoulders drawing up to his ears like he, too, is now realizing that the situation is quite odd. “Sorry. I looked for the article because you recommended it, and then I wanted to read about the Normans some more. I haven’t taken many classes about Europe, actually, although it’s a fascinating era, and I thought maybe…” his words begin to slowly trail off, jaw clenching, “you’d be interested…”

Jack blinks rapidly, shifts his arm like he’s going to pull the book away. Bitty gets the distinct impression that Jack is considering bolting to the nearest exit, but it does sound interesting, even if Jack’s lacking some grace in presentation. “Well, how kind of you! So what did you find out?”

Jack studies Bitty for a moment before he settles, though his shoulders don’t drop from his ears. “There’s a large section in the book that focuses on the feudal serfs and vassals, which really sheds a lot of light on their day-to-day lives --”

Jack, Bitty discovers, really likes history. 

At first Bitty entertains the thought Jack could be using the article as an easier opening with the intention of segueing to something else -- maybe even, he fears, the coffee order issue. But as he waits for Jack to run out of words and change the subject, it quickly becomes apparent that there’s no ulterior motive lurking. Jack‘s interest in discussing a well-written article is unquestionably genuine. He makes references to specific parts of the book that might be relevant to the conversation, even directs Bitty to a chapter about peasant diet habits, which spurs Bitty to tell him about the medieval recipe he tried at home over the summer because of an obscure documentary on the Food Network. Bitty worries that Jack would be bored to death by veal stock and prunes marinade, but instead he says that he’s never made beef stew by himself and asks about the differences to the modern version.

Bitty’s mug of herbal tea is almost gone when Jack pauses the discussion about medieval cooking utensils and asks which team Bitty’s on. 

“I wanted to look it up in the student directory, but I don’t know your name.” Jack’s tone is deadly serious, no hint of hesitation in it, like that’s not a weird notion at all. Bitty is beginning to suspect that Jack is somewhat single-minded when it comes to his passions, which seem to include sports and history. Even, apparently, sports he doesn’t participate in.

“I run track,” Bitty supplies with a smile, dipping his teaspoon into the mug to scoop the mint leaves aside. Jack is undeniably awkward, but he’s not unpleasant to talk to. “And I’m Eric. Bittle. But everyone calls me Bitty -- it’s a nickname thing.”

“I get it,” Jack nods. “Hockey has those in spades. I’m Jack, by the way.”

“Oh yes, I know.” Jack's face, which has been mostly unmoving throughout the conversation, closes off even further at that. Bitty suddenly recalls every campus rumor he's heard people spread about Jack and adds gently, “I follow your team, remember? That was a wicked play against Quinnipiac last playoffs. Y’all were amazing.”

This was evidently the right thing to say, because Jack’s shoulders finally relax, dropping down a few inches. “That was my call. It was a good play, but we mostly got lucky. My winger almost took a serious hit. How’d you get into hockey?”

“Had a free period before track practice in high school,” Bitty answers honestly, gulping down the last of his tea. The afternoon rush is building up, more people trickling into the shop, and Bitty needs to wrap up his break and go help Ralph before it gets unmanageable. “I used to watch the co-ed hockey team practice while waitin’ and just got into the habit, I guess. Listen, Jack, thanks for keeping me company and for the recommendation --” he pats the book with his fingers, smiling up at Jack, “but I gotta get back to work. That alright?”

“Of course,” Jack stands up when Bitty does, needlessly polite. It’s kind of charming, actually. “And you’re welcome. Have a nice shift.”

“Thank you!” Bitty beams. He smooths his apron and slides back behind the counter, discreetly watching Jack clear the table and shoulder his bag, then depart through the front door. It wasn’t exactly how Bitty had expected to spend a small portion of his Thursday shift, but it was nice nonetheless. Jack Zimmermann, as it turns out, is a pretty nice guy.

 

 


 

 

The hockey team is on an away game that weekend and then Bitty spends Monday and Tuesday baking in the kitchen while Piper and Ralph work the front, so he only sees Jack again on Wednesday.

"I looked at your stats," Jack tells him while Bitty rings up his usual order. He does it with only a small amount of grudge, which he considers a personal victory. "You're good. Racked up points for your team at the NCAA championships last summer."

Jack’s hands are in his jeans’ pockets and his eyes are fixed on the chalk menu on the wall. Bitty doesn’t know how to respond to a compliment given so matter-of-factly, but Jack’s certainty in itself is flattering. He doesn’t sound like he’s giving a compliment; he says it like Bitty being good is a fact rather than a matter of opinion.

“We had a good season,” Bitty says eventually, doing his best to keep his cool even though he’s sure his neck and ears are flushing. “Our jumpers really brought their A game, and our sprinters were at their best. It was an honest team effort.”

Goodness, that’s a soundbite if he’s ever heard one. Bitty paints on a smile and attempts to convince Jack to try a maple oatmeal cookie; mostly to change the subject, but also out of the presumption that their new casual conversation status would help push things along. That theory is then dismissed at once, because Jack still frowns when he refuses.

 

 


 

 

Middle Ages further reading

From: jack.zimmermann@samwell.edu

To: ericr.bittle@samwell.edu

(Sunday, Nov 16, 22:21)

 

Hi. This is Jack Zimmermann. We talked about Europe at Annie’s some time ago.

I ran into Professor Tanner again on Thursday and he recommended some reading material that I thought might interest you too. Sorry it’s late, we had games on Friday and Saturday. He sent me the list in a separate message so I attached it here.

I found the passum listing on the online shop you told me about. I don’t really cook, but I sent it to my dad. He’s always trying weird new things.

Jack

PS - got your email from your roster directory. Hope it’s okay.

 

 


 

 

Morning shifts at Annie’s are generally split between Lorraine the manager, a grad student Bitty only encounters in passing, and Ralph, who prefers taking evening classes when he can. On Thursday, both of Bitty’s classes are cancelled, so when Lorraine calls him saying that she has urgent errands to run and could really use a replacement, he agrees to work a rare morning after he’s done with practice.

Morning shifts are always busier than afternoon ones. Bitty must say the same sunny good morning! a few hundred times before it’s even ten o’clock, and only then the crowd begins to thin some. When an oat milk macchiato kid moves away and Jack is revealed behind him in line, it takes Bitty a moment to shift gears from mechanical customer service politeness to something a pinch more friendly.

“Never seen you here in the mornings,” Jack says, leaning on the counter to watch Bitty make his drink. Thankfully no one else is waiting to order, and since Ralph is utilizing the temporary lull to take a well-deserved smoke break, Bitty handles the bar himself.

“Don’t get used to it,” Bitty smiles, pouring the ground coffee into the filter. He tries not to contemplate on Jack noticing when he’s not in. If he were in Jack’s place, he probably would’ve noticed the shift rotation of his regular coffee shop, too. “Hey, thanks for answering my questions about that paper you referenced the other day! My Europe course doesn’t go into detail about the lower class, and I felt like some of it went over my head.”

Jack’s face does something unfamiliar that Bitty can’t decipher. "...I sent the email really late last night. We had an electricity crisis at the Haus."

Bitty waves his hand in a noncommittal gesture, pouring fresh coffee into Jack’s to-go cup. "Yeah, I read it sometime after two. I should’ve gone to bed earlier, but Lady Gaga livestreamed the last show of her tour so I was up half the night. I had to get up at five for practice but -- gracious, so worth it."

Jack raises his eyebrows while fishing his wallet out of his back pocket. It’s as reserved as the rest of Jack’s facial expressions, but on him, that subtle gesture looks almost humorous. “Do you ever study, Bittle? You need to keep your GPA up to be eligible for DI, you know." 

It’s unmistakably meant as a quip, delivered with a tiny twitch of Jack’s mouth that Bitty hasn’t yet seen, but it vanishes immediately once Jack finishes speaking. His face freezes, hand hanging in the air, card’s magnetic stripe gleaming under the bar lights. It’s not difficult to infer that Jack heard his own words and realized that the joke might be badly received by someone he’s not friends with.

Luckily for him Bitty speaks jock humor fluently, and also secretly finds Jack’s alarmed face funny as all get out. “My, I hope you’re not implying I’m a dumb blonde! We can’t all daydream about ancient history in our free time, Mr. Zimmermann.”

Jack’s panic thaws at Bitty’s bantering tone. He ducks his head, placing his card in Bitty’s outstretched hand. “Of course not. Wouldn’t dare to.”

“Good. Do us all a favor and save those chirps of yours for the Terriers, eh?”

Jack’s features smooth out at the phrase chirps, and morphs into something that could almost be amusement at Bitty’s terrible impression of his Canadian eh’s. “I’ll try.”

Bitty shakes his head, smiling, and charges him for the coffee. “On that note, good luck in Boston tomorrow!”

The corners of Jack’s mouth quiver when he steps away from the counter with his drink. “Thanks, Bittle.”

 

 


 

 

On Saturday, Samwell wins against BU and Bitty makes time to answer Jack’s email, signing it with a small trophy emoji. On Monday, Bitty has p.m. strength training and gets an update text from Piper about Jack’s unchanging order. On Wednesday, Jack comes in during the evening rush, while Piper is working the register and Bitty is in charge of the drinks, and waves at Bitty from the other side of the counter without exchanging pleasantries.

On Thursday, Jack orders his black coffee while Bitty is working and has enough idle time to both say hello and try to entice him with a cherry turnover. He’s ultimately unsuccessful, but their brief time is spent learning two new things. Bitty learns that Jack has an evening honors workshop on Thursdays and always stops by before it, while Jack learns that Bitty makes all the pastries in Annie's. He looks at the pistachio éclairs in confusion and asks what the green powder covering them is, and in response, Bitty tells him all about the misfortunes he’s had with them at first. 

“Oh dear, and there was a hole in the container, the paste just went completely bad,” Bitty bemoans, covering his cheek with his palm for emphasis. "It happened to me with raspberry filling once. It was August and I left it outside for a few hours and whaddaya know, it was already spoiled! I was so frustrated I could cry."

Jack accepts the cup Bitty was making while talking, shifts his bag on his shoulder. "I thought tiers were only in cakes?"

It takes Bitty a moment, during which Jack goes to grab a lid from the condiment bar, but -- “Oh my god, was that a dad joke?”

"Good luck on the rest of your shift," Jack says in lieu of an answer, backing away. The slight twitch in his right cheek betrays his otherwise detached look, and he doesn’t turn quickly enough to hide it.

Bitty gapes after him. "Jack, that was awful!"

Jack walks away, head bowed low. He lifts a hand over his head to wave goodbye casually, but Bitty’s not fooled. That boy clearly thinks he’s hilarious for some outlandish reason. It’s the worst joke Bitty’s heard recently, and Jack Zimmermann told it to him. He’s almost tempted to call the Daily and have them ready tomorrow’s headline.

“You’re too young to be making dad jokes, you know!” Bitty calls after him. The door swings shut after Jack’s receding form, but two girls sitting at a nearby table look up at Bitty judgingly.

 

 


 

 

Saturday morning brings forth Bitty’s least favorite time of the week: early hill training practice with Coach Kelley. 

When he checks his phone, after, fingers so sweaty that they glide over the touch screen, he has two missed calls and a text message from Lorraine. The text asks him to swing by to check that the spelt flour he ordered is the type that’s been delivered, so he reluctantly throws a Samwell Men's Track and Field hoodie over his sticky, damp skin and takes the long way back through Annie’s, trying to keep up good pace to fight down the shivers. His tiny running shorts may be fine during practice, but it’s still late November. 

Samwell is beautiful all year round, with its sprawling lawns and brown-brick buildings, but fall is undisputedly its best season. Fallen leaves swirl in the wind and scatter over sidewalks, painting every corner of campus in vibrant reds and oranges. It’s hard to stay disgruntled about being outside, even if all Bitty wants is to jog to his dorm and take a hot shower. Outside is picturesque; inside there are heaps of neglected term papers waiting for him.

Annie’s is significantly warmer than the outdoors. Bitty heads on back to look through the new delivery for the items he ordered, inspecting it for quantity and condition, and then informs Lorraine that everything seems to be in order. The grad student and her have the weekend crowd under control, so they shove a boiling hot to-go cup into his hands, to warm his palms around, and essentially tell him to skedaddle.

On his way out, he pushes the door open with his shoulder and nearly runs headfirst into Jack and a guy with long hair and an impressive mustache.

“Oh, pardon me!” he exclaims reflexively, clutching his cup, right at the same time as Jack says, “Excuse me, sorry,” and steps away from the doorway to let Bitty through. Their eyes lock. Jack lowers his eyebrows in acknowledgment and Bitty smiles, moving aside to clear the pathway for other customers.

“Is Annie’s changing the uniform, Bittle?” Jack chirps, staring pointedly at Bitty’s shorts and ankle-high socks. His skin is prickling so badly from the draft blowing through the open door that his goosebumps must be apparent to Jack.

Bitty gives him a dirty look, adjusting his hold around the cup. “Hilarious as always, Mr. Zimmermann.” He still isn’t over the dad joke from two days ago. He might never be over that tragedy, honestly; somehow it seems worse with the perspective of time.

“I’m Shitty,” the other guy introduces himself, nodding at Bitty with his chin. Bitty’s sincerely grateful for not having to let go of the hot cup to shake his hand. “Who’re you? Jackie, I didn’t know you had friends who didn’t skate!”

“I work here,” Bitty answers when he catches the vaguely uncomfortable look on Jack’s face, wanting to spare him. He can’t be sure if the look is caused by being called out on not having many friends, or by being embarrassed to admit that they’re just casual acquaintances. Maybe even because he's been caught chirping someone he's not friends with; if it were Bitty's team standing in the doorway, they sure wouldn't have let him hear the end of it. “I’m Bitty. And you are… Shitty…?”

Lord, hockey is weird, Bitty thinks. A weird sport played by even weirder people.

“Shitty Knight. Jack’s teammate and other half. You’re a ballsy motherfucker for dressing like that in this weather -- I respect that.”

Bitty laughs, shuffling in place. He could tell Shitty that his good pair of running tights tore last week and he hasn’t replaced them yet, but he doesn’t think it’d make much of a difference. “Thank you, kind sir. And now I gotta run to unfreeze my lower half, so if y'all'll excuse me, gentlemen.”

“Take care of yourself,” Jack orders seriously, eyes lingering on Bitty while he tugs the door wider to let Shitty through first.

“You too,” Bitty smiles in response, and then breaks into a jog down the riverside. His toes feel like icicles in his shoes for most of the way to his dorm.

 

 


 

 

Jack comes in on Monday and loiters by the doorway until the counter clears, feigning interest in a wall of fake potted plants. It’s almost painfully obvious, as far as diversions go, but Bitty hides his smile behind a customer's honeycomb latte and lets it go without comment. Jack’s awkwardness must be growing on him.

When the last person steps away to collect their order, Jack finally approaches. “So I see Annie’s is sticking to the old uniform, eh?” He chirps, leaning his hip against the counter’s edge.

Bitty wonders how long he’s spent rehearsing that joke in his head while waiting by the door for good comedic timing. “Seems so. Short shorts and hot drinks don’t really mix, unfortunately.”

Jack makes a low noise, eyes fixed down on his hands as he draws his card out of his wallet. “Shame.”

Bitty startles, thrown off balance, but before he can fully process that reaction Jack is already adding, “Black coffee?”, and Bitty is too disoriented to remember the pastry mission. He plucks the card from between Jack’s fingers and goes through the motions on autopilot, blinking rapidly at the screen.

“Your season starts this weekend, right?” Jack asks, exhibiting no inclination to step aside. He’s recently developed a habit of lingering by the counter and exchanging small talk with Bitty when possible, instead of moving to the pickup counter after ordering. Bitty doesn’t mind. It makes shifts pass by much faster.

“Season opener is on Friday,” Bitty nods, tugging at the checkered napkin beneath the brownie display to straighten its wrinkles. He’s accepted Jack’s remarkable proficiency in all things related to sports by now, so this piece of information doesn’t even register as unusual. “Some of the events are on Saturday, too.”

“But Saturday is Winter Screw,” Jack says, his infamous frown back in place. 

“I know!” Bitty exclaims, mouth stretching into an impish smile. John’s girlfriend almost threw a shoe at him when he told her the schedule -- they’ve been making fun of him at practice all weekend. “It sucks for them, but most of the guys are going anyway. All of the events should wrap up no later than the afternoon.” Piper nudges Bitty’s back with her elbow, passing him Jack’s drink. “Here ya go. You goin’ to Screw?”

Jack takes the cup with a long-suffering sigh. “My teammates wouldn't have taken no for an answer. I might see you there, then?”

“You sure might,” Bitty slants his head, smile softening. It’s actually something to look forward to after the excitement of Friday -- he can’t wait to see what Jack’s like in a social setting, surrounded by intoxicated peers. Maybe it even means Screw wouldn’t be so disappointing this year.

 

 


 

 

Season opener goes well. It’s as cold as could be expected of early December, but the sky is clear enough to allow for the outdoors track and the bleachers are almost completely full of figures in red scarves and hats and cheeks. The infield is decorated with Samwell banners, a few bundles of red and white balloons swaying in the air. Bitty’s favorite part of track and field season is the summer competitions, but the energy of kick-off is definitely a close second.

It’s Sean’s day to choose the music, and his rock-heavy Pump Up playlist plays on his phone’s speaker while they all warm up, joking through their toe and heel walks. Bitty made sure to listen to his own motivational playlist before they started, so he tolerates Sean’s basses and guitars with only a minimal amount of barbs.

Both Bitty and his coaches know what he needs to work on throughout the season. He tries to clear his thoughts during the race and practice the mindfulness they’ve discussed, and while he doesn’t come close to his personal record in any of the races, he does feel more secure in his muscles. That makes the day count, in his books, as an overall success. 

Later, Gabriel, Sean and Jordan shepherd him into a booth at Jerry’s, where Gab orders the four of them a pile of home fries taller than their heads. Bitty steals fries off Sean's plate when he isn’t looking and thinks that this season really is off to a darn good start.

 

 


 

 

Bitty had broken up with his last boyfriend during the summer, and when Jordan insisted on setting him up with some guy he knows for Winter Screw, Bitty wringed his hands and warned that he’s not interested in dating anyone just yet. Jordan laughed and assured him that it’d be fine, which -- even if Bitty’s good sense was temporarily impaired enough to trust Jordan’s judgement of character, that still should’ve been his first red flag. True to his word, Jordan’s guy certainly didn’t mind, because Bitty’s been waiting for him to return from the bar for twenty minutes now.

“How rude,” he mutters to himself, voice drowned by the combination of loud music and a roomful of people talking simultaneously, and decides to abandon his post to go find some of his friends and their dates instead. He’s last seen them by the cocktail tables, so he skirts the room, sticking close to the walls to avoid the crowds. He passes by the hall leading down to the restrooms, eyeing a group of girls huddled around their friend with concern. When he rounds his head forward again he almost runs straight into Jack, who is looking directly at him.

“Jack! Hi!” Jack is standing by the wall in a suit and gelled-back hair, the sharp lines of his dark jacket emphasizing the broadness of his shoulders. Bitty thought they might eventually run into each other, but when he imagined Jack at Screw he was mostly considering the comical aspect rather than Jack in formalwear. He looks unfairly good; Bitty is struck dumb for a moment by his appearance. “My, look at you all gussied up. I didn’t know you own anything other than Levi's or athletic apparel.”

“Ha,” Jack chuckles quietly. There’s something strikingly pleasant about his face -- the dim lighting or maybe the tiny smile sweetening his angles, reshaping his features just so. “You clean up nicely too, Bittle. How’s your evening?”

“Awful,” Bitty says offhandedly, lightening it with a lopsided smile. “But that’s what I get for letting my teammates set me up. I bet you my Moomaw’s best recipe cards that I can find my date somewhere outside, getting drunk with his friends.”

“Yes, Screw is often like that.” Someone jabs an elbow into Bitty’s back while trying to shuffle towards the restrooms, and Jack curls a hand loosely over Bitty’s bicep to guide them away from the hall and further down along the wall. “How did your season opener go?”

Bitty hesitates, searching Jack’s expression for any sign that he’s asking out of obligation. He looks genuinely interested in a response, head tilted down towards Bitty patiently, so Bitty slowly lets his smile grow. “Good, actually! We try not to waste too much energy on it because it’s mostly a show, and December practices always get so much harder until our first meet. I am keeping a good pace right now, and it was a great opportunity to see an improvement, so. Yeah! It went well!”

“That’s good,” Jack says, and sounds like he really means it. Bitty wants to ask if Jack’s here with his team, but then Jack’s eyes shift to something over Bitty’s shoulder. When Bitty turns to look he finds a lovely blonde woman in a tight dress waving at Jack. “That’s my date, Camilla. She was in the restroom. Euh. I should --”

“Oh, of course!” Bitty waves his hand, a little surprised, already stepping away from the wall. “Go, doncha keep a lady like that waiting. It was real nice bumping into you. Have a nice night now, you hear?”

“I hear,” Jack chirps, and dawdles for a moment longer before he pats Bitty on the back. “You too, Bittle.”

Jack joins his date and Bitty watches them from afar, as Jack places a hand on the middle of his date’s back and escorts her in the direction Bitty just came from. They’re a good looking pair, Bitty thinks. But then again, Jack is objectively a very good looking guy, with his wide shoulders and strong face and pale blue eyes. He’s got the kind of looks to balance any pairing out.

Bitty shakes his head once to put the thought far away, and sighs loudly before diving back into the dense crowd to recommence the search for his friends.

 

 


 

 

Bitty cuts his Sunday recovery run short to give his legs some rest. He convinces himself, while locking his room behind him, that he’ll use the extra time to circle through Annie’s for some coffee and then spend the rest of the day doing productive studying. Reading Week officially begins on Monday, and Bitty’s desk is quickly disappearing under the mountain of assignments he hasn’t even looked at yet.

What actually happens is that he spends all morning spiraling down the rabbit hole of Instagram cooking videos and all evening trash-talking those cooking videos on twitter. He inevitably finds himself bringing his schoolbag to Monday’s shift, where he dedicates every moment not spent on taking orders to highlighting parts of the Calc notes he copied from Sean, desperately hoping that it would make something stick.

Jack walks in through the door a few minutes after Bitty runs out of colors to add to his elaborate highlighting system. He then watches silently while Bitty cups his highlighter with more force than is necessary and shoves his pile of notes beneath the loose loops of tinsel wrapped around the display.

Jack rises on his tiptoes to glance at the papers. The furrow in his forehead levels when he raises his eyebrows in surprise. “You… take Calc?”

“Apparently,” Bitty sighs, wiping his palms on his new apron. Lorraine made all of the employees temporarily replace their brown apron with a red one that has tiny snowflakes on it. Bitty thinks that it’s adorable, and chooses to believe that Lorraine is very enthusiastic about Christmas. Piper says that it’s tacky, and thinks that Lorraine’s mostly enthusiastic about Christmas’ effect on their revenues. “I’m as confused as anyone. Like, I know I was there? I can remember staring at the wall and thinking of pie, but nothing that relates to numbers.”

Jack’s expression in response to this could be either amusement or pity, and Bitty can’t tell them apart. He offers Jack a sample taste of their sugar plum cheese Danishes as a last-ditch attempt before school breaks for the holidays, and tries to tell himself that Jack’s gradually transforming frown is a good sign.

When Bitty looks away from Jack to type in his order, Jack asks, “Did you end up finding your date on Saturday?”

Bitty lifts his eyes from the screen, finds Jack holding the tinsel aside with his pinky to inspect Bitty’s notes. “Nope! Bless his heart -- Jordan owes me big time. How is Camilla doing? She looked nice.” 

Jack lets go of the tinsel, hands withdrawing to his sides, and looks at Bitty blankly. “Uh -- she’s well? Probably. I haven’t spoken to her since I walked her home after the dance. Tennis season is kind of an all year thing, so she must be busy.”

Bitty blinks, then hurriedly lowers his head back towards the POS system. Probably not his girlfriend, then. “Oh, well -- um. That’s nice.”

He charges Jack for the coffee and swivels around to ensure that Piper overheard them and is making the drink, exploiting the easy excuse to hide his face from Jack. He doesn’t know why he’s suddenly embarrassed, but the back of his neck is heating up and he can sense the flush climbing up his throat.

“Hey,” Jack says, tentative, and Bitty gives himself a stern talking-to before he turns around. Jack is studying the foil-wrapped chocolate Santas on the display intently. He then clears his throat and says, very stiltedly, “There’s -- uh, a party. Kegster. At our place.”

“The hockey frat house,” Bitty clarifies. 

Jack seems uncomfortable at the words frat house, which is just funny enough to kick Bitty out of his momentary discomfort. He knows where Jack and some of his team live. He was there for a Halloween party last year and saw the state of their kitchen, their furniture, their ceiling. It could not in good conscious be classified as anything other than a frat house, and a run-down one at that.

“Yes,” Jack confirms. “But it’s not -- well, actually, it is kind of a frat party… the boys are calling it Epickegster.” He scowls at the word, and Bitty deduces that he was not asked to consult about the name or existence of said party.

“That sounds about right,” Bitty smiles, because. Well. Because he’s seen Jack’s team, albeit from afar. It does.

“Right. Anyway, it’s this weekend, if you… if you wanna come.”

Bitty stills. He's almost positive that Jack Zimmermann just invited him to a party. An open invite party that he could’ve gone to anyway if he so wished, but. Still. Bitty wasn’t even aware that Jack participated in such parties. He certainly didn’t seem like much of a dancer at Screw.

“Oh, gosh, I’d be happy to!” Bitty says when he finally regains control of his mouth and tongue, pushing the words out forcibly. “But we have double practice this weekend. And basically every weekend after? Weekends are pretty impossible when you run track.”

“Oh,” Jack nods. Bitty cannot, for the life of him, tell if he’s disappointed, but he hopes Jack knows that he sincerely would’ve liked to go if he could’ve. “So you’re not going home for winter break?”

“No, unfortunately.” His mama was most unhappy about it last year and isn’t any happier about it this year, but his high school season was just as busy during the holidays. He tries to Skype home as much as he can, and they ship each other desserts as a substitute tradition to baking together on Christmas Eve. “And you?”

“Flying home this week.”

Piper calls Bitty’s name, and he cranes his neck to see her gesturing with her head at two girls hovering behind Jack, waiting in line. “Oh dear, I’m sorry, I gotta go back to work.”

“Okay, well. Good luck on your meets, Bittle. I’ll see you after break.”

Bitty smiles, and makes sure to hold Jack’s gaze when he passes over his coffee cup. “Thank you! And Merry Christmas to you in advance!”

 

 


 

 

Bitty spends much of the next two days pondering over his plan. He changes his mind three times before he calls his mother, who convinces him that it’s a wonderfully polite idea. She says that even though they’re not exactly friends, Jack extended an invitation that Bitty had to decline, so some form of apology would be the proper thing to do. Besides, it’s the holidays. Both Bitty and his mother agree that the boy could use some treats in his life.

Samwell Men’s Hockey Team’s staff directory states that their manager Larissa is an art major. Jordan is taking an art seminar for the credits, so Bitty cashes in his Screw favor and instructs him to ask around until he finds someone who knows her. It takes Jordan a couple of days to return from the recon mission with her phone number, but the day before campus empties for break Bitty successfully meets with her by the Well in Lake Quad to exchange the goods.

“Not even gonna ask, bro,” Larissa, who apparently goes by Lardo, tells him when he hands her the sealed bag. She’s a tiny Asian girl in a purple beanie and fuzzy yellow gloves, and yet she somehow manages to look more intimidating than most of the guys on his team.

“Probably for the best,” Bitty replies, smiling innocently.

She studies his face for a long moment and then, slowly, smiles back.

 

 


 

 

The first day of winter break begins with an extra long morning practice, running speed endurance drills on the indoors track. Outside is nothing but fog and wavering showers of rain, but Coach Kelley is hell-bent on whipping them into shape for the Yale Invitational. It’s not long before Bitty and the boys are sweating like it's eighty-five degrees weather.

When Bitty’s back in his room, shoes and socks drying on the doormat, he checks his phone and finds a string of texts from an unknown number: i’m surprised your cookies got through customs, bittle, and then another, this is jack zimmermann. my teammate got your number, and then, how did you even get to my bag, and then eventually, an hour and a half after the last one, i gave the cookies to my mom. she liked them :-)

A fraction of Bitty is disappointed that his genius masterplan for feeding Jack Zimmermann baked goods fell through, but the rest of him is satisfied enough with the reaction to outweigh it.

He saves the number to his contacts, and then heads for the shower.

 

 


 

 

The two and a half weeks of break feel longer than they actually are. Bitty likes spending the holidays with his team, but he also misses home. Samwell transforms from a lively college campus to the set of an apocalypse movie overnight, with an abundance of desolate buildings and deserted grounds, frost glinting on rails and bricks everywhere in sight. Annie’s stays open for the select few still roaming the campus, and Bitty picks up more shifts than usual, spends most of them scrolling aimlessly through his phone.

The distinct upside of staying around campus on break is that the student kitchen is unused more often than not. Coach Kelley gives the team Christmas Eve and Christmas Day off, so Bitty gets up at the crack of dawn to labor on the meal he painstakingly planned over several Skype calls with his mother. There’s caramelized shallot mash and cranberry sauce and even Korean Mandu per John’s mom’s recipe. Gab stirs and slices and fetches with an air of dull terror; Jordan and Sean are sent to Sean’s folks at the suburbs of Boston to roast the turkey uninterrupted in an oven Bitty trusts not to conk out.

On Christmas Eve, they shove together a table and two desks and a collection of mismatched chairs, and sit down to eat a traditional dinner. The boys have all received an email memo about the dress code, and John stuck some sprigs in an empty beer can as a centerpiece, and Gab improvised a tablecloth from an old sheet. Bitty looks at them from the doorway with tears of joy at the corners of his eyes and then takes a few dozen pictures to post on twitter. He knows they’ll give him crap for it later, but he can’t bring himself to care.

Also on Christmas Eve, while sitting around the table to eat, Bitty’s mother texts him, Skype with your daddy and me at ten?, and Piper texts him, make yourself a crazy holiday drink for me bb, and Jack texts him, Joyeux Noel, Bittle.

Bitty replies to Piper with a heart emoji, and sends a picture of the food and the boys to his mama, and then posts the same one on his twitter. Finally, after several cycles of typing and deleting and retyping again, wondering if it'd be unwelcome, he decides that Jack texted him unprompted first. Bitty texts the photo to Jack, and resolutely puts his phone away.

He only checks it after dessert is served. Jack replied, wow. you guys really went all out, and then asked, are those butter tarts?. Bitty smiles down at his phone and dutifully explains his version of the Canadian butter tarts, while in the background, his boys fight over the last few pieces. He thinks he can hear Sean ferociously threaten to draw blood.

Later that night, Bitty returns to his dorm to Skype with his parents. The two of them are settled in the living room, the lit up tree flickering behind them and a wreath hanging above the shelf of Bitty’s baby photos. Coach, wearing a Santa hat, monosyllabically asks about his practices. His mama, in a reindeer sweater and holding a glass of wine, worriedly asks if he's doing alright.

Bitty fiddles with his comforter and after a moment's pause, biting the inside of his cheek to hold back his smile, says, "I'm doing great. It's been a real good Christmas."

 


 

 

Jack Zimmermann

December 28th, 2014

hi

how is practice?

don’t forget to stay warm

(21:06)

 

It’s going well, thank you!

And I won’t :)

How is Christmas at home?

(21:11)

 

it’s nice

it snowed on christmas day

(21:12)

 

OMG! So jealous!

(21:14)

 

haha 

my dad likes the snow. my mom says it makes going to holiday parties difficult

(21:15)

 

Smart woman.

Hey, I never asked how your party turned out!

(21:16)

 

epickegster?

i think most people had fun. my teammate holster said it was “epically ‘swawesome”

(21:19)

 

Makes it sound like you didn’t have fun… :(

(21:20)

 

no, it was okay 

just not the best night

(21:22)

 

I'm sorry. Did something happen?

(21:22)

 

not really. an old friend showed up

it’s fine

(21:24)



do you ever forget about the outside world at samwell?

(23:06)

 

Oh boy do I. 

Sometimes it feels like a bubble. 

Like when you’re there your past is something far away that can't catch up with you. 

But then you go back home and it's all still there 

And you can't really run from it.

(23:10)

 

yes… exactly. 

you're good at that

(23:12)

 

At running? (。◕‿◕。)

(23:12)

 

haha

no

well, yes

at words

(23:13)

 

My mama would agree. Said I was always babbling as a child. 

Seems I never grew out of it!

(23:13)

 

yeah.

it's late. sorry for this

thanks for replying

(23:14)

 

No worries! I'm a night owl anyway (` ◉ θ ◉ ´)

(23:14)

 

that drawing looks like a hockey rink

(23:17)

 

Oh my god JACK

(23:18)

 

 


 

 

Bitty’s New Year’s resolutions for 2015 include perfecting his mama’s sour cherry pie recipe, purchasing Beyoncé’s Beyoncé as a physical copy, deciding on a major, and getting into the Food in Global History course he’s been eyeing since October. The latter resolution could prove to be difficult seeing as it’s a limited-seat course intended for upperclassmen, but Bitty’s not above baking his way into that room. He knows what he wants, and he won’t hesitate to use flour and butter to pave the way there.

He possibly spends most of the first night of the year cyberstalking Professor Presnell to tailor the best bribe pie for his needs. He also possibly delivers that fresh pie to Professor Presnell's office on Saturday evening, politely wishing him a happy New Year with a fork and a napkin in hand.

The confirmation for his admittance arrives on Monday morning, right before practice. Bitty barely resists a victorious fist pump.

On Tuesday, he puts together his best outfit and marches bright-eyed and bushy-tailed into class, only to lock eyes with Jack Zimmermann, who is sitting alone in the third row. 

Jack wordlessly slides a bag off the seat next to his. Bitty grins.

 

 


 

 

“So you really are a history major,” Bitty jokes after class ends, hooking the strap of his messenger bag across his chest. “I almost thought you were lying ‘bout that.”

The two of them are walking together to Annie’s, Bitty headed for his regular afternoon shift and Jack to buy a cup of coffee before a study session at his house. They naturally fell into step with each other once class was dismissed, beginning the trek across campus and up the riverside together. The stream’s surface has mostly frozen over with the drop in temperatures, and gray slush coats the riverbanks and the roots of the naked trees.

“I can show you my thesis if you want,” Jack deadpans, making Bitty exhale a breathy giggle that’s visible in the frigid air. “How’d you like the class?”

“Oh Lord,” Bitty sighs, clutching his heart. He’s never felt so justified in bribery. “That was amazing. I swear, if I could only ever take food classes… I’m just a little sad that I’m destined to do badly in it. There’s really no way that I’m going to find the time or motivation to study for another HIST course, even if it's about food.”

“What’s your usual study schedule?” Jack glances at him from beneath his red Samwell cap, eyes narrowing slightly.

“Uh… does the last minute count? I mostly get to things on Sunday nights before they’re due. My weekdays are jam-packed and my weekends are back-to-back practices and training -- or, well, from now ‘till June I’ll be at meets most weekends. Sunday evenings are kind of the only time I’m not working or running or in class.”

“That’s not good,” Jack frowns. A jogger advances towards them on the path and Jack nudges Bitty closer to the river to clear the way. “It’s when I usually study, too, because we come back from roadies around then, but if you can’t commit to it --”

Jack pauses. Bitty turns his head to look at him, trying to interpret his facial expressions. Jack’s eyebrows are drawn together and he looks deep in thought, head sloped towards the ground.

“Do you want to study together?” Jack asks unexpectedly, looking up in a sharp motion. Bitty slows down his walking, staring at Jack with bemusement, but Jack carries on speaking. “Sunday nights. We’re already taking this class together, we could meet up to do the coursework.”

“Oh, uh,” Bitty flounders, but Jack looks perfectly serious about his offer. Bitty’s only experiences with joint studying culminated in Angry Birds tournaments with Sean, but Jack doesn’t seem like someone who’d let Bitty get distracted or allow Bitty to distract him in turn. If they could make it work, it would do wonders for Bitty’s stress levels. “That’d be great, Jack! We could start this Sunday?”

“My team has an afternoon game against Yale, but I should be back by the evening,” Jack nods, picking up the pace again. Bitty quickens his footsteps to match Jack’s long strides. “I could probably use your help with the food part of things, eh? And you could definitely use a push to do the work instead of… what is it that you do instead of studying?”

Bitty huffs and pretends to glare at the side of Jack’s face. “The internet is a vast source of information, Jack Zimmermann, and it is not my fault that twitter is more interesting than mandatory Psych gen ed. They should include an intro class to Bieber vs. Bell feud history and see the turnout rates to that.”

 

 


 

 

Piper watches Bitty from the corner of her eye all throughout Wednesday's shift, chewing her upturned mouth and playing with her beaded necklace. He catches her red-handed and stares questioningly multiple times, but each time she hides her smile and embarks on a new, sometimes unnecessary task. By closing she's refilled the white sugar packets, polished all of the mugs, and retrieved more thermal paper rolls from storage even though the printer is fully stocked.

Bitty plugs his phone into the sound system and puts his closing playlist on while Piper grabs a mop and the sanitizer spray from the back. She comes back as Beyoncé’s Work It Out starts playing, leans the mop against a wall and starts on the tables. Bitty removes the handles from the espresso machine to clean it, peering at her expectantly every few moments.

He can tell when Piper’s close to cracking because she breathes out audibly and a wide grin overtakes her face. “So. You figured you’ve no chance of winning our bet fair and square and devised a plan to befriend Zimmermann instead?”

Bitty gapes at her, espresso brush dangling from his right hand. He noticed her looking at Jack and him curiously when they walked in yesterday, but he didn’t think it had anything to do with her cryptic behavior this shift. Judging by her self-satisfied smirk, he should’ve known better.

“Excuse me, miss!” he protests loudly, angling his body so he can look at her while he scrubs the coffee grounds off the screen. “My intentions are pure!”

“Uh huh,” Piper smiles down at the tabletop she’s spritzing. “And you don’t use this new companionship to try and shove pie down his throat whenever you get the chance?”

Bitty humphs as he puts the portafilter in. He may have offered to give Jack his coffee for free if he’d buy a hazelnut cream puff yesterday. It’s a moot point, because Jack was not persuaded. “I said that my intentions are pure, not that I’m a quitter. Bet still on.”

Once he’s done with the machine, Bitty sweeps all of the utensils on the counter surface to the sink and runs the hot water, then grabs a wet cloth to wipe down the countertop while the sink fills. Piper dries the table she’s been cleaning and advances to the next one, choosing a table closer to Bitty.

She flips her long ponytail over her shoulder when she leans down. “How’d you two become friendly, anyway? He’s so… serious. Unapproachable.”

“Well…” Bitty stares at the motion of his rag on the counter’s surface, the damp marks it leaves behind. “He’s not always so serious. I know his face kind of does this thing --”

“Like his facial muscles lost the ability to relax?” Piper raises an eyebrow, grinning.

“Oh, hush you!” Bitty chides, which makes Piper laugh. “He can be funny! I think his face just. Does that. Naturally.”

“He can be funny.” Piper straightens up and cocks her hip, propping her hand on it. Her face is conveying the epitome of skepticism.

Bitty pauses his wiping and thinks about the dad joke, about the relentless chirps he’s subjected to whenever Jack and he have a short conversation. “Okay, so it might not be funny funny, but it’s definitely humor. And it makes me laugh. And he’s really -- passionate, y’know? He really cares about his studies and about his game and about his team.”

“Well, there's definitely that,” Piper puffs out another laugh, bending back down to resume cleaning. “Whatever. It’s not like I know the dude or anything, just thought you guys look really different.”

Bitty is a little uncomfortable with the progression of the conversation. He doesn’t really know Jack, and while he doesn’t regret defending him, he also doesn’t want to impart the impression that he’s closer to Jack than he really is. “It’s not a big deal, Pipe. It’s not like we hang out all the time or anythin’. We’re just… friendly. And now that we share a class, study-buddies, I suppose.”

“At least your grades might go up, then,” Piper teases, arching her eyebrows. 

Bitty yelps with mock outrage and scoops up a palmful of sink water to splatter in her direction as punishment.

 

 


 

 

Jack arrives late to their first study session, texts ahead of time to say that the traffic out of New Haven was a nightmare. He shows up to the Founder’s table Bitty claimed for them still in his white button-down and Samwell varsity jacket, hair windswept and backpack lagging behind him. It’s a mismatched sight, made all the more eye-catching for the thunderous scowl adorning Jack’s face.

“Sorry I’m late,” he says gruffly, the o in his sorry more pronounced than Bitty’s heard it yet. He drops the bag on top of the table between them and grimaces towards Bitty as he sits down. “Have you been here long? The Interstate was practically standing still for the first forty kilometers.”

“Honestly, don’t even worry about it,” Bitty waves his hand, hitting save on the paper he was typing. He turned his ringer off after Jack texted him and actually managed to get some work for his Cultural Criticism class done while waiting. “Besides, I think you earned some leeway. That hatty, Jack, sweet Lord!”

Jack runs his fingers through his hair to tug it back into place. A few strands remain sticking out at the back, which looks ridiculous on Bitty but somehow looks rugged and effortless on Jack. “Yeah, it was a good roadie. Hard, but good. How was your weekend?”

“The usual,” Bitty shrugs. Jack is zipping his bag open and pulling a laptop and some books out, so Bitty tugs his own bag up from the floor and into his lap. “Ran almost thirty miles overall. Spent Friday morning on the field and Friday afternoon in the gym and Saturday morning doing hill training and Saturday afternoon in the gym -- I assure you, I can go on, but it’s not exactly riveting.”

“Is it really like that all week?” Jack pauses with his laptop’s plug inches away from the socket, frowning up at Bitty. “You work at Annie’s most weekdays.”

There’s no indication of a question mark at the end, but Bitty thinks that he’s slowly adjusting to Jack’s direct tone of voice. “Weekends are always doubles. Most weekdays there’s only morning practice, and then I work afternoon shifts. It’s --” Bitty titters self-consciously, looking down to pull the course notebook out of his bag. “Well. It’s pretty tough. But it is what it is.”

“So why do it?” Jack asks after a moment, and then seems to catch himself. He shoves the plug into the socket and leans backward in his chair without letting his eyes meet Bitty’s. “Sorry, I didn’t -- it’s none of my business if you need the money.”

“I’m on an athletic scholarship, actually. It’s not so much the money. It’s the kitchen.”

“The kitchen,” Jack repeats, eyes lifting from his lap. His tone is completely flat, his face doesn’t move a single muscle, and yet there’s something profoundly funny about the way he says it: like he’s never heard anything so baffling.

“The kitchen,” Bitty confirms, smiling. “The student kitchens are a mess. My first semester I could get access to it maybe twice a week if I was lucky, and it was always in the middle of the night, which... my sleeping habits aren't ideal anyway.” Jack makes an agreeing noise. Bitty resists the urge to stick out his tongue. “So this one time I was at Annie's with my teammates, and I complained about it -- loudly, I guess -- because Lorraine, she’s the manager, offered me a part time job as a baker if I could also pick up barista shifts. Obviously, I said yes.”

"But you don't have any free time," Jack says, frown deepening. Bitty almost chirps him about daring to call someone else a workaholic, but then Jack adds, “To study, and to rest your muscles between runs,” which aligns considerably more with Jack’s pursuits. Bitty hasn’t investigated the issue, but the little he knows about Jack doesn’t suggest a raging social life.

"Oh, you innocent thing. Jack, if I didn't start working at Annie's I would've spent twice as much time baking in the middle of the night. Baking is essential to my daily functioning. If I don’t do it then I can’t concentrate, or sleep well, and I feel jittery -- it’s bad. This is a much better solution."

Jack purses his lips, and after a long pause asks, “And your muscles?”

Bitty rolls his eyes. “I take care of them just fine, Captain Zimmermann, but thank you for your concern. And regarding your concern for my grades -- are we gonna crack open some books, or are we gonna chit chat all night?”

“I thought you’re a big fan of chit chat,” Jack chirps, mimicking Bitty’s pronunciation, but pushes the lid of his laptop open and draws it closer to the edge of the table. If he kicks the leg of Bitty’s chair, then Bitty’s a big enough person to overlook it. He’s just not strong enough to refrain from chortling a little too loudly in the quiet library.

 

 


 

 

Ralph takes Bitty’s regular Tuesday shift so Bitty can bake a fresh supply of goods. He spends most of the afternoon working on the base for the next day’s ciabatta bread, and some of it folding and rolling out sheets of puff pastry. Once everything is cooling in the fridge he cleans the workstation and pulls out the ingredients for his tried and true gingersnaps. The finished dough is rolled into bite-sized balls, half of which he freezes for the next morning and the rest he rolls in cinnamon sugar and inserts into the preheated oven to sell to the evening crowd.

The first batch, as unfortunately sometimes happens, comes out slightly misshapen, orange-brown rather than the desired shade of gold. Bitty slides the mediocre cookies off the baking sheet and into five paper boxes they keep for events, then adjusts the temperature of the oven accordingly. The next four batches come out perfectly gold, cracked beautifully on top, so he puts them aside on a cooling rack and texts Lorraine the morning shift’s instructions for the ciabatta bread and the remaining gingersnaps dough. He leaves Annie’s with five boxes full of warm cookies stacked in his arms.

The pile reaches the middle of his forehead in height, so he has to crane his neck to peer over the top of it once he’s out of the shop’s door. He figures that he’ll somehow manage the familiar walk down to his dorm without accidents -- except less than three minutes later he collides forcefully with another solid body. He immediately recognizes the hapless victim as Jack, because when he instinctively glances down to save the cookies from toppling to the ground, he notices neon yellow running shoes stumbling in front of him.

Jack’s first reaction is the same as Bitty’s. He reaches out for the boxes, flattening his palms over both sides of the pile to prevent it from getting knocked over and spilling onto the sidewalk. “We’ve got to stop meeting like this, Bittle.”

“Gosh, I’m so sorry,” Bitty apologizes quickly, shifting his grip and hitching the pile up in his arms until the balance is regained and he’s confident that the boxes won’t slide away. “This keeps happening. Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” Jack assures him. Bitty can’t see his face because of the boxes, but he can see his hands cautiously withdrawing from the sides of the pile. ”What are these? Annie’s started running deliveries?”

“Decaffeinated Wellies can only dream.” Bitty tightens his hold and angles his body to poke his head to the side, smiling at Jack from behind the pile. Jack is wearing a blue plaid shirt beneath his down jacket and a black baseball cap that’s casting dark shadows over his eyes. The yellow shoes don’t match any of it, although to be fair, Bitty is struggling to think of anything that could. “No, I baked cookies for the shop and these didn’t make the cut, so I’m fixin’ to hand them out in my dorms.”

Jack steps closer, slides the lid of the top box off to peek inside. “...but they’re not burned.”

“Well of course not!” Bitty says indignantly, offended by the very insinuation. “I would never burn cookies! They’re just not good enough to sell, and I didn’t want to let them go to waste. They’re still delicious.”

Jack puts the lid back in place. He looks at Bitty for a moment, a pondering expression on his face, and then reaches forward to splay his fingers around the three top boxes. He lifts them easily into the circle of his arms, leaving Bitty with two boxes that barely reach his shoulders.

“Whoa, hey --” Bitty wobbles as his body readjusts to the lightened weight. “-- what are you doing?”

“Helping you carry these to your room. You’re a threat to the Samwell population like this.”

“Har har,” Bitty glares at him, mostly good-naturedly. His first instinct is to politely refuse the help, but he’s already proved that he isn’t actually capable of walking without running into anything, and the next victim might not take it as well as Jack. Bitty tightens his hold on the two boxes and gently knocks his shoulder against Jack’s. “Well -- if you really wouldn’t mind? Thank you.”

Bitty turns back towards the road, and the two of them head down along the western riverside. The dark, moonless path is illuminated by pools of streetlight that color the asphalt into a dull brown. Bitty merrily prattles about his PoliSci professor and his cousin’s upcoming wedding and John’s latest girlfriend troubles, fairly sure that Jack is listening. Jack doesn’t say much at first, but when silence stretches for a moment he voluntarily tells Bitty about the freshmen on his team, how one of them brought a toolkit to their house and started tinkering with things no one even knew were broken.

They turn off the path and into the residence hall building, Jack following Bitty up the stairs without pause. Bitty leads them down his hallway to the door of his common room and accepts Jack’s help with balancing all five boxes while he fishes the key out of his pocket. It dangles from a pink peach keyring that makes quiet clanging sounds when he turns it in the hole.

“Honestly, Jack, thank you so much,” Bitty beams, hefting the pile out of Jack’s arms and setting it securely on the entryway bench his obnoxious roommates always stick dirty shoes on. He slides the top lid off and plucks a cookie out of the box, waves it in the air in front of Jack with a playful smile. “A reject cookie for your trouble?”

Jack stuffs his hands in his pockets, completely unaffected. “No thanks. But I can take a few to give away, if that’s okay? I’m on my way to meeting the coaches at Faber.”

Bitty is frustrated for a brief moment by Jack’s foolproof immunity to anything delicious, and then his mind fully processes what Jack said. “Wait, you were on your way to Faber? Jack, that’s about three blocks from Annie’s -- we just walked fifteen minutes in the opposite direction!”

Jack shrugs like he doesn’t see how that’s an absurd thing to do and takes the cookie out of Bitty’s outreached hand. Bitty remains immobile, staring at him, as he twists to reach through the doorway and grab a few more from the open box. They fit easily in his large palm. “Couldn’t let you carry it alone, you would’ve killed someone. Don’t worry about it. Thanks for the cookies -- I’m sure Hall and Murray will like them. Bye.”

He backtracks through the hallway and towards the exit stairs. Bitty, still bewildered, mutters a weak, “Bye…”, and waves half-heartedly until Jack disappears around the corner.

A bedroom door closes loudly inside, making Bitty turn his head. One of Bitty’s roommates walks into the common room with a bowl of instant noodles and falters when he sees Bitty standing motionlessly in the doorway. He stares with undisguised judgment, finishes chewing the spoonful in his mouth.

“Was someone just here?”

"Yeah, Jack Zimmermann," Bitty answers. He doesn’t pay much thought to his roommate, mind busy analyzing Jack’s unsolicited act of generosity.

His roommate scoffs loudly. "Jeez. Heard he's a crackhead."

“He is not,” Bitty denies instantly, fiery heat swelling unexpectedly in his chest. Jack is -- Bitty’s not sure, actually, what Jack is, but he thinks it might be something that not many people get to see.

 

 


 

 

“-- and I watched it later in full, but I thought the portion he chose demonstrated really well the direct relation between the development of farming and the growth of big civilizations. Did you take notes during the New Guinea part?”

“Uh...” Bitty says intelligently. He could hear Jack speaking, but at some point his ears strayed to the pair gossiping a few tables away, and he's been zoned out since. 

Studying with Jack has, so far, proven itself to be as productive as Bitty hoped. They’ve been at Founder’s for over two hours now, and Bitty managed to keep himself fully engaged with their discussion about global food in a flat world. But ever since Jack moved on to dissecting the part of Guns, Germs, and Steel that they watched during the last lecture, Bitty’s limbs got restless and his mind wandered to external distractions. 

“I need a snack break,” he admits. He could force himself back into studying, but he knows he won’t remember any of it later. The only real solution is to let his brain reset before he tries again.

Jack sighs, but agrees, closing the folder they were reading out of and reaching for the physical copy of his thesis that he told Bitty he always keeps in his backpack.

Bitty pulls out his bag of homemade trail mix and dangles it enticingly in front of Jack. Jack studies its content and then accepts, reaching in and scooping up a handful of raisins. Bitty tries not to roll his eyes. He’s not even mildly surprised that Jack has been refusing his low-calorie, high-protein raspberry brownies for weeks, but he’d readily accept dried grapes.

Jack makes use of the time to edit his thesis, striking sentences out with a pencil and scrawling notes in the margins. Bitty chews on a handful of banana chips and watches Jack’s focused expression, the pinch at his mouth, with wonderment that borders on admiration. He hasn’t ever met anyone with Jack’s uncanny laser focus, the ability to shift tasks at the drop of a hat. To Bitty’s hyperactive brain it might as well be a miraculous feat.

Bitty leans his head on his palm, absently thumbing at his mouth. “Say, did you always know you'd go for a history degree?”

Jack doesn’t pause his editing, circling a few words that Bitty can’t read upside-down. “No. I didn’t plan on getting a degree at all. But once I enrolled, yes. Are you thinking of choosing a major?”

Bitty wrinkles his nose, unhappy with the road his question has led them down. It’s so hard to pretend like his problems don’t exist when everyone keeps bringing them up. “Good god, let us not open that can of worms. Just admiring your superhuman concentration. How do you balance everything on top of captainly duties? I have nightmares about thesis deadlines and I don’t have half your responsibilities.”

“Spread out the work so I get a little done every day,” Jack says, sounding like he’s giving a post-game interview. Maybe he programmed himself to answer questions like everyone is a Daily reporter. “Hockey comes before everything, obviously, and has done all my life, so I always had to make sure my schoolwork didn’t suffer. I just don’t procrastinate, I guess.”

The idea of never putting off work is so foreign to Bitty that Jack might as well be telling him that he gets his degree done by pure magic. It’s fascinating. Bitty is endlessly curious about Jack, about how he works; he’d like the opportunity to pick at Jack's brain, but he’s not sure if Jack would like that.

Deliberately keeping his eagerness concealed, Bitty asks, “All your life? How long have you been playing?”

Jack’s pencil slows down for the briefest moment, the first sign that he’s actively involving himself in the conversation. Bitty is mostly surprised that Jack is indulging his questioning at all. “My parents used to say that I learned to skate before I learned how to walk. I was playing mites by the time I was five.”

“Wow! What made you start so early?”

Jack looks kind of wary. “Eh… my dad used to play.” He glances up at Bitty searchingly. Bitty remembers hearing somewhere that Jack’s dad is famous, but he doesn’t know anything more. He makes sure to leave his face blank. “My earliest memories are watching him in games. I just remember seeing him and knowing that’s what I want to do.”

Bitty has heard the rumors about Jack. It was almost impossible, as a Samwell student, not to. He’s heard a dozen versions of Jack’s life before they’ve ever exchanged a word, has heard allusions to them from his coworkers and even, lately, his roommate. Bitty likes gossip, but he doesn’t like that kind. He’s a firm believer in giving people a chance.

Bitty’s not looking to interview Jack, and he doesn’t want to accidentally misstep. He just wants to get to know Jack on his own.

“D’you like it?”

Jack’s face transforms into something unclear. Bitty’s best guess is that he’s surprised by the very question. “It’s hockey,” he says, putting emphasis on the word, like that’s an answer in and of itself. “It just… it makes sense to me. Nothing else does, not like that.” He looks down, strikes another line over a sentence, apparently capable of working even while holding a conversation. “Is running like that to you?”

Bitty doesn’t have to think about it long. The answer is always there, on the back of his tongue. “No, not really. I really like running, but I think it’s because I wouldn’t know how to be anything other than an athlete. I used to figure skate, from the second grade ‘till high school, and I loved it more than anythin’, but then I... had to stop. I switched to track because running pushes my body in kinda similar ways. It felt right.”

“I didn’t know you could skate,” Jack says, looking extremely intrigued. His grip around the pencil finally slackens.

“Betcha I’m a better skater than you are,” Bitty ribs, eyes crinkling. He’s not very serious. His technique is probably more refined than Jack’s, but while Jack has spent the last four years skating every day, Bitty hasn’t skated professionally in forever. He might be better in technicality, but it’s unlikely that he’s still as fast as he once was. Running develops other muscles; his body is different now.

Jack doesn’t smile at the joke, eyes turning heavy and intense. “You’re gonna have to put your skates where your mouth is, then.”

Bitty laughs, and Jack turns back to his work. Bitty pops a cashew nut in his mouth and thinks about Jack’s previous question more thoroughly.

“But I do get that,” he says, and Jack looks up at him, expectant. “Baking is that thing for me. That thing that just -- just makes sense, and always has.”

Jack’s eyes flicker between both of Bitty’s and finally he nods, a tiny smile forming. Jack doesn’t smile nearly often enough, in Bitty’s opinion, and whenever Bitty manages to coax one out of him it feels like he’s won something joyous and undefined.

Jack reaches across the table, snatches Bitty’s trail mix away and raps Bitty’s keyboard with his pencil. It doesn’t take much to infer that their nice moment has run its course. “C’mon, Bittle. Back to studying. Break over.”

 

 


 

 

Ralph has a theory that the unusual things always happen on Thursdays.

The weirdest orders, the rudest customers, that one time a guy grabbed a doughnut from the display and bolted out the door without paying. Piper believes in it, complains that she misses all the action by never working Thursdays. Lorraine routinely begins to explain the logic behind it, long rants about business articles and consumer trends that Bitty never listens to in full.

That Thursday, three separate people shatter their mugs on the floor and a girl breaks up with her girlfriend right in the middle of placing their orders. Ralph adds another tally to his theory; Bitty lowers his face into his hands once they’re gone and wonders what else is headed their way.

Jack comes in at his usual time. He doesn’t have his school bag on his back, but there’s an expensive looking camera hanging from around his neck. Bitty puts aside the peanut butter cookies tag he was writing to examine it with confusion, and Jack must notice some trace of his puzzlement, because his face twitches as he walks up to the counter.

“Eh… I’m taking a photography class this semester,” Jack says by way of explanation, rubbing the back of his neck. From up close the camera bears the Canon logo and has a bulky professional lens attached to it. 

Bitty’s not sure what sort of explanation he expected, but that definitely wasn’t it. He looks at Jack’s face, down at his camera, then back at Jack’s face.

"My goodness, Jack Zimmermann has hidden sides!" He chirps, but he’s secretly impressed with this development. While Jack’s onion layers have been slowly peeling off the longer Bitty knows him, he honestly did not expect any artistic tendencies to dwell in Jack’s jock soul. It’s not an unpleasant surprise by any means.

Jack seems flustered, a very slight discoloration to his cheeks that might be a subtle flush. He adjusts the strap of the camera around his neck. “I took one my sophomore year, and now that it’s my last semester... I thought it might be nice.”

“I’m sure it will be!” Bitty beams. Jack likes photography and also possesses the ability to blush -- maybe Ralph’s theory about Thursdays is proving itself after all. It’s certainly better than having to take a coffee order from a girl who’s just been dumped. “Have you learned anything new yet? Should I look you up on Instagram?”

Jack’s brows knit together, and Bitty wonders, with no small amount of disbelief, if perhaps Jack doesn’t know what Instagram is. He doesn’t push the issue though, leans his elbow on the counter to listen attentively while Jack tells him that their intro classes have mostly covered light meters and exposure settings. Behind him, Bitty can hear the whir of the coffee grinder running, which means that Ralph set on making Jack’s coffee without waiting for Bitty to type the order in. When Ralph says his name Bitty twists around to accept the cup, and when he turns back to Jack there’s a lens in his face and a shutter that blinks with a soft click.

“Oh,” Bitty says faintly, taken aback.

Jack lowers his camera, revealing a pursed mouth and sharply angled eyes. “Sorry, Bittle. I should’ve asked. It’s just -- what I’ve been telling you, about the lighting --”

Jack cuts himself off, stares at Bitty for a moment, and then steps closer to lean over the counter. He flips the camera in Bitty’s direction so Bitty can see the picture he took on the screen. The orange tint of the light bulbs strung above the bar casts a soft glow on the shot, reflecting in the dark windows behind Bitty’s shoulder and making his wide irises appear gold. It’s easy to see how the things that Jack explained translate to the picture; it’s harder to recognize himself in the ethereal creature captured through Jack’s lens.

“You’re certainly forgiven,” Bitty says, a little overwhelmed, and passes the cup over to Jack shakily. “Maybe ask permission before you take photos of strangers, though. I’d hate to see that item in the Swallow.”

“But you’re not a stranger,” Jack contradicts offhandedly as he accepts the cup, letting the camera drop back against his chest to pull out his wallet. He doesn’t look up in time to catch the bright smile spreading on Bitty’s face.

 

 


 

 

Bitty spends the weekend traveling north to Hanover for a trilateral meet against Dartmouth and Columbia. He sits next to Sean on the bus up, forehead pressed against the foggy window and mellow pop playing in his ears. Miley sings about feeling brave when she’s standing next to her boy while Bitty watches the trees of New Hampshire blur by the I-89 and smiles.

Sean is leaning out of the seat next to him, arguing with John across the aisle. They’re shouting about Bradley Cooper and Iraq loudly enough to carry through Bitty’s music. Jordan pokes his head between Sean’s and Bitty’s seats, cheeks squished ridiculously, says something that makes John turn even redder than before; Bitty exasperatedly pulls one earbud out just as Gab turns from the front of the bus to yell that the movie was overrated anyway. Lou and Scott shuffle down from the back of the bus to join the argument, although Bitty honestly isn’t sure which side they’re advocating.

Bitty’s only impression of Bradley Cooper is of when he just wasn’t that into Jennifer Connelly. He certainly doesn’t care for biographies, action movies or period dramas, which he thinks are the subject of the heated discussion. In truth, Bitty has little to nothing in common with these boys most days. And yet: they’re his team. He’s so grateful for having them that it almost never seems to matter.

Sean interrupts Gab to make a frenzied argument, hands flying around above his head. Bitty plugs his earbud back in, turns his face to the window, and lets Colbie Caillat’s voice singing, I've been spending all my time just thinking 'bout you, I think I'm fallin' for you, soothe him to sleep.

 

 


 

 

On Sunday, Bitty meets Jack at the corner of South Quad so they can walk together to Founder’s. It's dreadful outside; heavy clouds have been gathering ominously for days and the temperatures have been dropping rapidly. Bitty’s fingers begin to freeze on the way to the library, and he has to rub his gloved hands together to return the sensation to them. 

"Sometimes I like the New England winter, but sometimes y'all take winter a lick too seriously for my tastes!" He complains to Jack, tugging his wool scarf up to cover his mouth and nose. The puff of his breath is so thick in the air that he fears it might turn into solid ice and spatter all over the front of his coat.

"It sure has been a cold, cold winter," Jack says, tone dry as a barren desert, eyes turned towards the gray blanket covering the sky. Bitty looks askance at him, trying to gauge the strange response. "And the wind hasn't been blowing from the South."

"The wind…?" Bitty mutters through the dense material of the scarf, eyes narrowed in confusion. 

Jack lowers his gaze from the sky to find Bitty’s, and they proceed to stare at each other for an abnormally long stretch of time, suspended in a battle of wills. Bitty almost misses the turn to Founder’s wide front steps because he's wrapped up in trying to figure Jack's expression out.

"It’s The Rolling Stones," Jack relents eventually, tugging on the sleeve of Bitty’s coat to direct him up the stairs. At the evident confusion clinging to Bitty’s face, Jack shakes his head. “It's a song. Winter. By The Rolling Stones."

Bitty rolls his eyes. He should have seen this coming -- of course Jack was chirping him about his complaints. "Why am I not surprised that you're a dad rock fan."

"The Rolling Stones are rock and roll legends for any age group," Jack frowns at him as they pass by the front desk and head down towards the main rooms. Jack pulls the heavy wooden door open for both of them, waits for Bitty to walk in before him.

"Whatever you say, Mr. Zimmermann. I'll leave you to your Bruce Springsteen and stay on this side of the twenty-first century with Queen B and Miss Perry, thank you very much."

"I'm pretty sure the Queen's name is Elizabeth."

"She wishes," Bitty exclaims vehemently, halting his footsteps. Jack reels back, blinking at Bitty who hasn’t moved from his spot. "Beyoncé transcends all standards set by us mere mortals. She is more." His movements are awkward with the bulk of five layers covering his torso, but he places his hands on his hips and stares Jack down to make sure his point gets across.

Jack watches him for a long moment and then says blandly, "So you like her music, I gather.”

"It's more than that, Jack," Bitty defends, closing the gap between them and gesturing for Jack to resume their way up the stairs. His level of admiration for Bey demands theatricality, but they still have places to be. "I worship at the shrine of her. I am nothing but dirt at her feet. Nothing can compare to the joy of the music with which she graces us, and you oughta respect that."

Jack looks at him for another long moment while they climb up, until they reach the main room’s door. He pauses with one hand on the metal handle, and then offers stiltedly, "I like country."

How horrifying, and how apt. Bitty’s never speculated on Jack’s musical tastes before, but dad rock and country sounds almost alarmingly fitting. "Jack… why."

"It's good," Jack asserts, moving away to pull the library door open. “We’ll listen to it together some time. You're from Georgia, you'll learn to like it."

Jack is unlikely to achieve anything that eighteen years of living in the South didn’t, but for no reason at all Bitty finds himself faltering, feet dragging on the carpeted floor behind Jack. His voice comes out weaker than he’d like when he says, “...well, alright.”

 

 


 

 

The miserable weather worsens quickly, and by Tuesday it’s built up to a full-blown blizzard. Classes are cancelled, roads are blocked, the forecast warns for over two feet of snow overnight. Bitty pulls on thermal tights under his jeans and layers three pairs of socks, but he still glares bitterly at the view outside his window whenever he actually needs to go anywhere. Necessary things such as sustenance begin to seem optional when one has to face frigid weather to obtain them.

Strict campus orders are to stay indoors as much as possible, which is why Bitty is surprised by the knock on the door of his common room on Tuesday night. He’s busy battling the American Identity essay response he was supposed to hand in by Sunday, but when he doesn’t hear any doors opening, he assumes his roommates are feigning deafness.

He drags himself out of his desk chair and slogs across to the front door, opening it only by a margin with a suspicious wrinkle between his eyes. He’s expecting an RA or a hallway neighbor who’s in need of more blankets, but he throws it open the rest of the way when he recognizes Jack’s pale eyes and sharp nose beneath the hat and scarf wrapped around his face.

“Oh my gosh, Jack! What are you doing here?”

Jack shrugs his shoulders nonchalantly. A layer of fresh snow dusts off his coat at the motion. “I was doing the rounds on my teammates, making sure they were stocked up. Nursey lives right by here, so I thought I’d check on you too.”

Bitty gapes at him, completely floored. It’s a full-on blizzard outside and Jack is making rounds around campus. If not for the reddened tip of his nose and the snow gathered on top of his head, it would almost seem like Jack is oblivious to the weather. “Gracious, you have to come inside! I’ll put on some hot cocoa -- it’s not even twenty degrees, you could catch your death out there!”

Jack remains perfectly still in the doorway. The only part of him that moves is his eyebrows, which climb up and disappear under the folded brim of his hat. It amounts to an expression that even on Jack’s impassive face is obvious amusement.

“What?” Bitty grumps, huddling into himself and shoving his hands under his armpits for warmth. The open door is allowing cold from the hallway to invade the room, and he can feel a slight shiver building up in his body.

“Bittle,” Jack says, tilting his head closer, eyes almost twinkling. “It’s below zero in Montréal right now.” The way he says it sounds nothing like the English pronunciation, flowing right over silent n and t.

Bitty rolls his eyes, curling his toes into his three pairs of socks. He doesn’t think that standing in the cold in nothing warmer than socks and a large sweater is an appropriate time to make Canadian jokes. “Yeah, okay, I get it, the metric system --'' 

Jack’s mouth twitches and then actually spreads into a smile, eyes crinkling at the corners. It’s a rare sight which draws Bitty’s attention to the damp tips of Jack’s dark eyelashes, probably from snowflakes melting onto them. “No. I meant below zero in Fahrenheit.”

Bitty snaps his eyes away from following the pink hue of Jack’s cheeks, stares at Jack with shock. “What.'' 

Jack’s shoulders shake under his thick coat as he begins to chuckle, and Bitty’s startled to realize that he’s never seen him laugh before. It’s a subtle thing, quiet huffs of ha ha accompanied by gentle movements of his shoulders. It’d be a devastatingly endearing laugh, probably, if Jack hadn’t just told Bitty the worst thing Bitty’s ever heard.

“It gets even colder in February,” Jack tries to deadpan, still laughing at Bitty’s horrified reaction. 

“Good heavens,” Bitty says, having a hard time hiding his deep revulsion. Below zero all winter. When Bitty was eight years old the temperature in Georgia dipped below ten degrees for a few January days, and his mother forbade him from opening any window or door for two weeks. “Your country shouldn’t be real.”

Jack’s next burst of quiet ha ha is followed by a foreboding creak coming from outside. It sounds like the entire building is slanting sideways with the force of the storm, threatening to rip its foundations from the ground.

“So how ‘bout that hot cocoa?” Bitty offers again, sounding more desperate even to his own ears. He’s half tempted to drag Jack inside and chain him to the radiator so he can’t go back into the snow, but he’s not optimistic about his chances of overpowering Jack in a fight. The least he can do is pour some hot liquid into him beforehand and hope that it keeps him warm through the twenty minute walk back to his house.

“Thanks, but I shouldn’t,” Jack shakes his head, face slowly relaxing back to its natural resting appearance. “The blizzard’s picking up. I gotta make sure that the Haus is still standing and everyone is alive. Ransom’s been making fun of the American guys and Shitty might actually challenge him to a snowball fight.”

That’s about the dumbest thing Bitty’s ever heard, and he grew up in a house crawling with teenage football players. “Oh dear. That’s a tremendously bad idea.”

“Yes,” Jack echoes, lips quivering again. Bitty’s getting the uncomfortable feeling that Jack is actually in a better mood because of the abominable weather, and he can’t decide if that’s even worse than what Jack told him. “But thanks for the offer. Are you sure you’ve everything you need? You really shouldn’t go out before it calms down out there.”

Bitty’s chest flutters, a swirl of warmth spreading out from inside his ribcage despite the chill in the rest of his body. This boy is so caring. “I’m sure, but thank you. And please take your own advice? Canadians get pneumonia the same as the rest of us.”

Jack’s cheek twitches like he’s fighting off another laugh, but he nods dutifully. He bids Bitty goodbye, awkwardly wiggling his gloved fingers as a wave. Bitty watches him tug his hat down to cover more of his ears before he walks away, and tries to ignore the way his stomach is flipping over at the sight.

 

 


 

 

Bitty’s mother calls him nine times a day throughout the rest of that week. 

The twenty-second call is on Thursday, when the storm’s mostly passed. The snow on the ledge of Bitty’s bedroom window has piled up high enough to reach the rail, and he scrubs the windowpane in awe while he talks to her on the phone. She asks about how he and his boys have withstood the blizzard, worry etched into her tone. He draws a star on the foggy glass with the tip of his finger and tries to mollify her by describing the beauty of the white blanket outside.

His mother is not convinced by the advantages of New England winters. She asks if it really is safe three times more, says that maybe he should skip his classes until most of the snow melts away. When he makes the mistake of telling her that it’s so definitely safe that they’re still going to the Giegengack Invitational that weekend, she tries to forbid him from going. His assurances that Yale has an indoor fieldhouse are not met with the desired response.

Growing desperate, Bitty tries to distract her with stories from his last practice, from his food course. That goes a lot better than his previous attempt has. Whenever his mother calls him she wants to hear about his classes, the recipes he tried at Annie’s, if he’s met any new friends. When she asks about the latter again, Bitty falters. He’s always happy to talk to his mother, but he still chooses his words rigorously.

Bitty hasn’t told his mother about Jack yet. He doesn’t know why. 

Later, after he promises her to keep warm and hangs up, he drops onto his bed and stares at the ceiling. There’s a jagged crack that runs from the corner towards the light, but it doesn’t offer any answers. He thinks that Jack is his friend -- maybe, sort of. They haven’t known each other for very long, but Bitty spends more time with him than anyone other than his teammates and coworkers. That should be reason enough to tell his mother about it.

But each time his mama asks, his voice stumbles over Jack’s name. I made a new friend, he wants to tell her, remember him? I sent him cookies for Christmas. He’s reserved, but he’s kind, and funny, and smart. He wants to tell her all about it, but the words new friend get stuck behind his teeth and the words kind, funny, smart taste funny on his tongue.

Jack is Bitty’s friend, maybe, sort of. There shouldn’t be any excuse not to tell his mother about him.

Bitty turns onto his stomach and buries the sound of his frustrated groan in his pillow.

 

 


 

 

It’s a rough meet in Connecticut over the early weekend.

Bitty watches his scores slip three and five and eight spots below his previous rankings, and knows it’s his own fault. Jordan sits next to him on the bus back, gives an ambiguously motivational speech about how the West Point boys were better prepared and it’s nothing to worry about. Bitty nods vacantly, but he still feels Coach Kelley’s eyes on the back of his neck the entire way home.

Bitty is an emotional runner. He got through his freshman year by running away from his hometown, his sexuality, the situation waiting for him at home. He’s been working with the coaches on controlling that nature and clearing his mind during races, because running with his heart will lead to overstraining his muscles, to imperfect technique and to injury. His form is improving, but his scores are miles behind, and it’s hard not to give into the urge to work his feelings through his feet. He knows he’d run faster if he would. He also knows it’s not the right way to progress.

On Sunday, Bitty gives his all at practice. Gab catches up with him during his cool-down lap, quickening his paces to match Bitty’s jog. Bitty expects him to give a different version of Jordan’s speech, but what he actually says is, “Man, I didn’t know you were friends with Jack Zimmermann. Where did you even meet him?”

“At Annie’s,” Bitty answers automatically, blinking away the sweat that’s dripping into his eyes. It shouldn’t surprise Gab: Bitty meets literally everyone at Annie’s. “Wait -- what? How’d you know I know Jack?”

“He was here,” Gab answers, points at the stands with his thumb. “Watched our practice. Well -- watched you practice. I thought you invited him.”

“I did no such thing,” Bitty exclaims, looking at the stands over his shoulder like Jack’s ghost would appear to explain. They're empty, as Bitty expected them to be, but knowing that doesn’t help shake off the discomfiture of another pair of eyes watching him fail to be good enough. 

He finishes practice after scheduling an extra session with Coach Kelley. He considers texting Jack to demand an explanation, but when he pulls his phone from his gear bag he sees that he already has a text from Jack confirming the details of their study session that night. It seems like the wrong time to ask after that, so he decides to wait until the evening to ask in person. He drops his phone back into the bag and follows Gab’s lead to the locker room.

 

 


 

 

"You're fast," Jack says to him when they meet to study that night. 

Jack is already sitting at their regular table when Bitty makes it to Founder’s, an assemblage of papers strewn haphazardly around his laptop. Bitty listens to Gab talk about his upcoming thesis deadline almost every day and stubbornly tries to pretend like graduation isn’t advancing in leaps towards them, but Jack is clearly just as practical about this as he is about everything else. His papers are marked up in reds and blues of his and his advisor’s pens, the document on his laptop is densely-printed and exhaustingly long.

Bitty pulls the strap of his bag off his shoulder and lets it drop to the wooden floor of the library. He rehearsed a dozen versions of how he’d casually phrase his question for Jack on the frosty walk over; this isn’t how he expected things to unfold. “Oh, I... thank you! I didn’t see you today.”

Jack shuffles his papers around and stacks them together to make room for Bitty’s own things. His forehead creases when he answers, looking pensive. “I didn’t want to interrupt. Attention in practice is really important for mind-muscle connection. I read a little about track running on our last roadie -- your technique is impressive. And very fast.”

Bitty is inexplicably flustered by the praise, fixes his eyes on his hands as he peels off his gloves and shoves them into his coat’s pocket. The heavy chair grates loudly when he pulls it back to sit down, which makes a nearby study group raise their heads from their computers to glare at him. “...Thank you, Jack. What were you even doing there?”

Jack shoves the stack of papers back into his bag. “Wanted to see you run. I watch the Summer Olympics when I can, but I never really got into it. Thought I’d watch a practice since I’m not sure I’d be able to come to any of your actual meets. I’m usually away on weekends.”

Jack’s voice is intense but clinical, and Bitty is once again staggered by the extent of his passion. He knows Jack’s newfound interest in track must be purely professional, only related to Bitty because he was the one to expose Jack to it, but he can’t help but be unreasonably touched. His mama came to Family Weekend to watch him run both years, and Coach asks about it over the phone -- there’s nothing special about Jack’s curious observation of him running. Bitty shouldn’t feel so overbalanced by it.

He doesn’t want to weird Jack out, so he fiddles with his coat for the pretext of having something to do, shrugs it off and hangs it on the back of the chair. It earns him a few seconds to quieten the flood of warmth in his chest and say, an edge of purposely embedded chirping to his voice, “Except Sundays.”

Jack pulls their course folder out. It’s blue and thick, has Jack's initials scribbled on the bottom and a small sharpie bunny that Bitty’s drawn on it out of boredom in the corner.

“Sundays are for studying,” Jack answers, maintaining a serious façade, but his eyes crinkle at the corners in the way that Bitty is learning to recognize.

“Studying Sundays,” Bitty tests it out on his tongue, in his ears. He kind of likes the way it sounds. 

Jack opens the folder, thumbing to the last pages in it. It’s his nonverbal way of informing Bitty that recreation time is over and it’s time to get to work. Bitty follows his lead and takes his things out of his bag, lets them spill onto the table and then makes himself comfortable in his seat. They’ve found their preferred method of studying is Jack reading the notes out loud and quizzing Bitty about them afterwards. Bitty still remembers the material about food fears throughout history by Jack asking him, so how do we know if a sausage is safe?

“Oh, by the way,” Jack says absent-mindedly as he scans the notes from the latest lecture. “I have that book Professor Presnell mentioned. I can bring it next Sunday, if you want?”

“Next Study Sunday,” Bitty teases, fond of the new moniker. He swings his leg so the muddy sole of his shoe nudges Jack’s under the table.

“Sure, Bittle,” Jack raises an eyebrow. Bitty bites his lower lip to hold back a smile. “Next Study Sunday.”

 

 


 

 

The topic of Bitty’s cousin’s wedding monopolizes the Bittles’ group chat for weeks, and the heated discussion about the shade chosen for the invitation’s text lasts from Monday to Thursday, with varying impressions. Each day, Bitty stops by the post office to check if his invitation has at last arrived so he can express his own opinion; each day he’s newly disappointed by the US Postal Service.

On Thursday, Bitty crosses River Quad on his way from the post office, still no invitation in hand. His Aunt Connie is sharing pictures of the cake tasting in the chat, and Bitty is engrossed in trying to decide if one of the cakes is vanilla-lemon flavored or a more boring white chocolate. It makes him mostly blind to his surroundings until someone shouts his name. 

“Hey, Bittle!” 

Bitty startles, gaze jolting up. Jack is standing at the other side of the Quad, waving a hand above his head. Bitty watches in bemusement as Jack jogs towards him and leaps over a snowbank only to land, perfectly balanced, on the ground near Bitty. Flecks of snow spray around his boots at the impact.

Bitty can feel his crisp skin stretch around the grin blooming on his face. He shoves his phone into his pocket, wedding cake forgotten. “Jack! Hey!”

“Hey,” Jack repeats. His bangs are peeking from beneath his hat and his cheeks are pinked from the cold. Bitty swallows, shifts his eyes to a spot above Jack’s left shoulder. “You’re on your way to work?”

“Yeah,” Bitty smiles. He’s wearing his uniform shirt under his coat, Annie’s trademark beige exposed at the collar. “You?”

“Could do with some coffee,” Jack steps closer to shoulder-check him, holding onto the camera hanging from his neck so it won’t swing around. “Mind if I join?”

“No, not at all!”

They cross the street and walk down along the bar strip, cold wind licking at their faces. Bitty updates Jack about the invitation that hasn’t arrived yet, and Jack tells him that he’s been roaming Elm street to snap urban shots for his photography project. He tips his body towards Bitty to show him the playback of all the photos he’s taken: a series of brightly-lit and white-schemed trees and cars and footprints. Some of them are poorly focused, others unimaginative, but most of them capture something heartwarmingly honest about a snow day in a college town.

Jack’s finger hovers for a moment before he clicks the back button one more time, and the display reveals a sequence of action shots, a group of kids skiing down the road. Bitty’s no expert at photography, but it’s obvious that these are the photos Jack likes best, and for good reason. Some of the photos capture the kids mid-motion, skis and poles in the air; some of them are focused on the falling snowflakes, the skiers nothing but blurry movements in the background; some feature specks of bright colors on the white background, red coats or blue pants, like an abstract museum painting.

They’re all alive in some way. A framing of frozen energy in both the literal and figurative sense.

“Neat, eh?” Jack asks quietly, elbowing Bitty.

“Oh, wow… Jack, these are really cool!” Bitty enthuses, leaning even closer to inspect a picture of a girl caught tumbling off her feet. He’s hyperaware of Jack’s body heat pressed against his shoulder from this proximity, and makes sure to put some distance between them after a reasonable amount of time.

“Yeah?” Jack probes, but his face softens, looking pleased at Bitty’s reaction. “Thanks. I don’t know if I’m any good at it, but it’s nice. I like that they didn’t see me, you know? They didn’t even know I was there.”

Bitty knocks his arm into Jack’s, titling his chin up to smile at him. “Haven’t we discussed taking photos of strangers, Mr. Zimmermann?”

Jack ducks his head, clicks his camera off. Bitty’s neck heats up as he battles with looking away from the shadows that Jack’s eyelashes paint over his pale skin. “Eh. Guess you might need to check the next Swallow issue after all, Bittle.”

 

 


 

 

It’s not that Bitty dislikes school: he does like some of his courses, and tolerates most others. He’s just chronically behind on doing his work, struggles with planning his time, and is bad at remembering his required reading. He’s certainly never been one to do any extra reading voluntarily, but he takes the book that Jack loans him on Sunday politely, despite knowing that the chances of him reading it through are slim.

On Monday, he has time to kill during his shift, so he skims through the book during his break, fully prepared to let his hands wander back to twitter once he loses interest. By Wednesday he’s so invested in Food: Spices and Cultural History that he gets caught reading it during a PoliSci seminar and earns a stern look from the professor. 

The boys look at him like he’s grown an extra limb, and don’t pass on the opportunity to make fun of him whenever possible. He brings the book to breakfast after Thursday’s morning practice and sets it down between Jordan’s cereal bowl and Gab’s yogurt, determined to finish the last few chapters before he returns it to Jack. The look John and Sean exchange suggests that there is imminent mischief in his future.

Bitty puts down his banana, glares at them, and threatens to withhold food privileges if they don’t leave him and his book alone. The table quietens real quick after that.

 

 


 

 

Coach Kelley emails the team to let them know that the noon meeting is postponed, which frees up a few hours between Bitty’s morning classes and his shift. He texts Jack on the way out of American Identity to ask if he can drop by Jack’s house to return his book. Jack quickly replies that he’s home, so Bitty crosses the river in the direction of the hockey team’s house, which he’s by now learned is peculiarly named The Haus.

The two-story building is just as Bitty remembered it from last year’s party: peeling blue paint, unkempt yard, a rickety front door. He eyes its condition warily, contemplating knocking on the wall beside it instead of taking the risk of tearing the hinges out, but before he reaches a decision the door lurches open and two large boys appear behind it. He’d almost think that they were staking out the entrance, but he wants to believe that’s only his paranoia.

“I don’t know what I expected,” the taller one says, unabashedly scanning Bitty from head to toe, “but I don’t think you’re it.”

“Bro, rude,” the Black one slaps the back of the taller one’s neck, and then squints at Bitty. “But yeah, you kinda look -- normal. Are you sure you’re the dude that's here for Jack?”

“And if you are, blink twice if Zimmermann is blackmailing you into this friendship, because we can totally come up with a rescue plan,” the first one offers.

“Not that we’re saying Jack isn’t a great dude,” the second one interjects quickly, which makes the tall one snort, not as quietly as he probably intended. “He’s just -- uh… An acquired taste, of, like, a protein shake? Which only people who need to drink will ever really acquire --”

Bitty remains standing frozen on the doorstep, wide eyes swinging between the two boys. Their broad frames are blocking the way, so his hopes of slipping past them to give Jack his book are thwarted. They also don’t seem to be going anywhere soon.

Bitty can’t see beyond the boys’ tall shoulders, but he can hear footsteps nearing the door before the boys are pulled back forcibly by two firm hands, revealing Jack’s grumpy face behind them. He glances at Bitty, who’s probably looking like a startled, wide-eyed cat, and then looks between the boys and orders, “Leave Bittle alone.”

The tall one squints at Jack and then back at Bitty and whispers, in that same volume that isn’t really a whisper at all, “Remember, just blink twice.”

Bitty very conscientiously blinks at him only once, and reaches into his bag to pull the book out. Jack takes his hand off the tall one’s shoulder to accept it, tucking it against his chest. Bitty wants to take the opportunity to flee, but his feet are rooted to the front porch by the boys’ rueful pouts. They vaguely remind Bitty of sad puppies that just want someone to play with. 

He thinks that Jack sees it too, because he looks at them, sighs, and then asks, “Bittle, do you want to come inside?”

The Black guy lights up and nods vigorously in Bitty’s direction, so Bitty says, tentatively and without knowing what exactly he’s agreeing to, “Uh… sure!”, and hopes that he’ll at least live to regret it as he crosses the threshold into the house’s entry hall.

The interior isn’t any better than the exterior suggests or Bitty’s memory recalls. In fact, he thinks it’s possibly in even worse conditions in broad daylight. The floor looks like it’s been last swept in the previous century, there are dirty socks discarded by the door, and Bitty thinks that he can spot a pile of used red solo cups in the corner. It’s -- a frat house, populated by a group of college boys. It’s about what Bitty expected, but it somehow still manages to adequately horrify him.

Several sets of footsteps thunder down the staircase at the end of the hall, accompanied by several voices shouting incomprehensibly about loops and frameworks. Three more boys spill into the hall from behind the corner, and their conversation halts when their eyes land on Bitty. Bitty then finds himself the focal point of five pairs of eyes like he’s a particularly satisfactory Gateau St. Honoré.

Jack rubs his forehead at his teammates’ reactions and sighs once again. “Okay. Guys, this is Bittle. Bittle, these are Ransom, Holster, Chowder, Nursey and Dex.” He points at each boy respectively, and Bitty twists his head to follow Jack’s finger, trying to match faces to the stories he’s heard before.

The five pairs of eyes continue to stare at him. Bitty flushes under the attention, has to lock his knees so he won’t fidget awkwardly in place. He’s always somewhat wary around large male jocks at first. “Um, hi, y’all. I go by Bitty?”

“‘Swawesome,” Ransom beams. Bitty’s not sure what to make of that response, but at least it seems friendly.

“Wait, Jack, is this the guy from the food class?” Chowder asks, words colliding with one another due to the fast pace of his speech. “The one that works at Annie’s? I mean, sorry Bitty, I know you work at Annie’s, I’ve seen you at Annie’s -- everybody goes to Annie’s -- is it true that you bake everything there? Jack said you bake! I had that tiny pie with the chocolate once and it was so delicious, was that yours? When will you have it again? Oh, if it wasn’t, that’s cool --”

“Jeez, C, chill,” Nursey shakes his head, even though he's eyeing Bitty in a way that isn't very chill at all, and glares with even less chill when Dex kicks his calf.

“I do bake,” Bitty confirms, starting to sweat under the collar of his jacket. He doesn’t mind strangers, but these five large bros are for some unfathomable reason a little too interested in him. “And I sure did make that mini chocolate cream pie.” Chowder’s eyes widen impossibly further and Bitty, stuttering, finds himself adding, “I… could make it for you, if you want?”

Dude, ” Holster breathes out. “What, like, now?”

Bitty glances at Jack, who is still standing a step and a half behind him with the book in hand, looking resigned to the situation he let Bitty walk into. They haven’t even moved from the entryway yet. “Sure, I could whip it up in no time if you have the ingredients.”

“We have eggs,” Ransom says confidently.

“We have milk, if Nursey didn’t leave an empty carton in the fridge again,” Holster says pointedly, making Nursey squawk.

“I… don’t know what else is needed for a chocolate pie,” Chowder frowns. Holster and Ransom look just as lost.

“Flour and butter, and whipping cream, and, like, you know, chocolate?” Dex sighs. He’s wearing a pretty similar expression to Jack’s, mouth tight and eyebrows drawn together, fiddling with the bill of his backwards hat. Bitty definitely did not expect the baking expertise to come from him. “Which we don’t have.”

Chowder noticeably deflates at the news, and Bitty turns to Jack for further guidance. 

Jack looks at Bitty for a moment before he purses his lips. “Shitty should be out of class by now, I’ll ask him to drop by Stop and Shop. Dex, text him a conclusive shopping list -- including everything we need for the weekend, might as well. Bittle, let’s go,” and then he grabs Bitty by the shoulders and marches him down the hall. 

They turn left to a room that must be, under a layer of unwashed dishes and empty beer cans, a kitchen. Jack pushes Bitty into a chair by the table, puts the book down, and leans his hips against the counter across from Bitty as the boys all pile in after them. The room isn’t especially large and it’s fairly nerve-wracking at first, but when Bitty realizes that the boys have begun to speak amongst themselves, the tension at the pit of his stomach eases slowly. He allows himself to unshrink, limbs stretching out in the chair. 

The truth is, Jack’s teammates remind Bitty more of his unruly summer campers than of his daddy’s savage boys. Dex, Nursey and Chowder have returned to their abandoned argument at the end of the table, chairs bunched so close together that their long legs are tangled, and Holster and Ransom have started bickering, inexplicably, about dates.

“No way are you asking Casey Ross for Valentine’s,” Ransom says, banging his fist on the table. 

Bitty, perplexed, looks from Ransom’s face to Jack’s. Jack catches his eye above the boys’ heads and shakes his own almost imperceptibly; I don’t know either, or, maybe, don’t even ask.

“Rans, we’ve been over this,” Holster crosses his arms. “You took Theresa May to Safety Dance --”

“The fuck, Holster, we had an agreement since the Esther Shapiro debacle --”

The Esther Shapiro debacle?, Bitty mouths at Jack. The corner of Jack’s mouth quirks up, but he shrugs his shoulders.

“Subject change, subject change!” Holster yells, waving his arms in the air. He nearly hits a tower of sriracha bottles along the way, which Ransom immediately reaches out to steady. “Jack, what are your plans for Valentine’s?”

Jack tears his eyes away from Bitty’s, masking the face he was wearing just as a second ago. It takes him a moment to answer Holster’s question “...Playing hockey?”

Both Holster and Ransom groan loudly at that answer. Ransom shakes his head at the ceiling, muttering something under his breath.

“We’re playing a home game on Valentine’s,” Holster explains, turning in his seat towards Bitty and leaning forward with one arm along the back of his chair and the other elbow on the table. “Which is basically training wheels for even the most wheelingly-challenged, but obviously Jack’s true mistress is Faber.” Holster looks at Bitty meaningfully for a moment, maybe looking for a reaction, before he blinks and adds, “Uh -- Faber’s the ice rink. Because he’s a hockey robot.”

“Bittle knows what Faber is, Holster,” Jack interrupts. “He follows hockey.”

“Oh, cool, man,” Ransom turns to Bitty as well, mirroring Holster’s pose. “You been to any games? Don’t think I’ve seen you around.”

“Uh -- um, no,” Bitty stutters, caught off guard by the question. He feels, suddenly, uncomfortable about this admission. “Never had the time. I always watch y’all’s highlights, though. You really wiped the ice with Union last Saturday.”

Jack seems wholly unaffected by Bitty’s revelation. “Highlights show you how Ransom almost slid right into Holster and knocked them both down before the second period?” He chirps, raising his eyebrows at both of the boys’ backs.

Ransom and Holster turn back to face Jack, piping up with a myriad of enraged rebuttals, and Bitty finds himself watching how Jack slots into their good-humored squabble. He’s wondered for a long time how Jack’s stories about his team would translate into a real-life dynamic, and he's helplessly charmed by Jack’s relaxed body language, the mischievous shape of his mouth.

Jack's not offended that Bitty hasn't been to any of his games. He already knew this, Bitty tells himself; it’s nothing new. Except that Jack must be just as busy as Bitty is, if not more so with his season and his thesis and being captain, and he still made time to watch one of Bitty’s practices. 

The knowledge of it unsettles Bitty, sits wrong in his chest. It was different when he just wanted to watch a game for fun, but now that the players on the ice are no longer faceless, surely he could push around a few things to show Jack and his friends his support. He has a morning meet on Valentine's, but maybe he could still make it work.

The sound of the front door opening interrupts the chirping match that Bitty’s been watching escalate. Holster cuts himself off mid-sentence and turns sharply in his chair, eyes lighting up as the door slams shut and a loud voice yells, “‘Sup mothafuckers, we’re home!”

Holster and Ransom both rise from their seats when two bundled up shapes stagger into the kitchen, weighed down by what appears to be a whole store's worth of grocery bags. The bags are dumped on top of the table, frozen chicken breasts and boxes of popcorn and a six-pack of beer spilling out of them. The newcomers unwrap long scarves from around their face, which is when Bitty recognizes them as Shitty, in a brown jacket and trapper hat, and Lardo the manager, in her purple beanie and a matching purple coat.

Lardo drops her coat on Ransom’s vacated chair. When she straightens, her eyes catch on Bitty’s. She leans over the backrest to offer out a curled fist, at which he stares for an embarrassing moment before remembering to bump it. “‘Sup, Bittle.” 

“How.” Holster looks up from where he was burrowing at the bags to squint at her. “How could you possibly know him. How do you know everybody. Rans and I have over ten thousand facebook friends and we don’t know him.”

Holster’s face is actually rather hilarious, so Bitty drops his hand and says, with an internationally mysterious tone, “We’ve done some business in the past.” He smiles at Lardo, eyebrows raised, and enjoys the baffled expressions on Jack’s, Ransom’s and Holster’s faces maybe a tad too much.

“Cheya,” Lardo grins back. “And now rumor is Bittle’s paying me back with some kickass mini pies.”

At the reminder of the mission at hand, Bitty turns to the table to inspect the groceries. There is a disturbing amount of Cheez It bags, Gatorade bottles, and Bagel Bites boxes, but he does spot a few decent-quality chocolate bars and a bag of flour. He shudders to think of what horrors this poor kitchen witnesses on a daily basis. “Did you buy unsalted butter? Please tell me you bought unsalted butter.”

Shitty’s head pops up alarmingly close to Bitty's own, beaming beneath the bushy curve of his mustache. Bitty doesn’t know when or even why, but Shitty apparently took off most of his layers and is now wearing only a ratty tank top and a pair of kisses-printed boxers, from which Bitty quickly looks away. He claps Bitty on the back with a flat palm; Bitty flinches instinctively, but the smile on Shitty’s face is kind, and his hand doesn’t linger long. 

“Sure fuckin’ did, brah. Here in Samwell Men’s Hockey we have a saying -- got your back. Because we got yo’ back! And your butter, so you can work your voodoo magic and make filthy miniature pies.”

Shitty’s tone is so enthusiastic that it’s almost paradoxically calming. Bitty smiles, glances over his shoulder at Jack’s moderately amused face, and doesn’t hesitate before pulling out the first bag of sugar. 

 

 


 

 

Valentine’s Day begins with a meet in Boston that Bitty doesn’t do terribly in. The last event wraps up at noon, and by sunset their equipment is stowed inside the bus and Gab is going through the roster to make sure everyone is on. Bitty taps his foot impatiently the entire forty minute drive -- by the time the bus rolls to a stop back at campus, there’s less than an hour left until the game. Bitty scrambles out the door, hefts his bag onto his shoulder, and jogs towards the dorm before Coach Kelley can tell him to slow down.

He’s a few minutes late, still; he cuts through Old Quad, sprinting in sneakers that really weren’t meant for it. Piper is waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs, leaning against a railing in a #11 jersey under her puffy parka. Bitty himself is wearing a red sweater and a Samwell cap so no one will dare mistake him for a Clarkson fan.

“Stole the merch from my roommate’s boyfriend,” Piper tells him while they climb the stairs up into the rink. She’s even got a red ribbon tied around her ponytail, Bitty notices, which is the most school spirit he has ever seen Piper display. “Plus, #11’s cute, so what the hell.”

Most of the crowd must already be seated, because the dwindling lines at the concession area are the only people still milling around. Piper and Bitty walk straight across the lobby, following the signs to the viewing platform. They round a corner and suddenly Piper slows down, tugging at Bitty’s sleeve to get his attention. 

There are two people arguing right outside the corridor. Bitty immediately recognizes Lardo, who’s wearing all-black and the team’s varsity jacket, but doesn’t recognize the angry man who is towering over her by at least two heads. The guy looks up at the sound of their approaching footsteps and mutters something at Lardo, then disappears into the arena.

“Are you okay?” Bitty asks worriedly when he and Piper come closer. “Do ya need any help?”

Lardo shakes her head, a few short strands of hair flopping onto her forehead. She isn’t showing any outward signs of being shaken by the encounter. “Nah, he’s a total asshole, but I got it handled. Gonna report him to the coaches later.” She looks away from Bitty, tips her head at the sight of Piper. “Bro, you look familiar as shit.” 

“I work at Annie’s,” Piper says, jabbing her finger into Bitty’s side through the layers of his clothes. “This one guilt-tripped me into coming. I’m Piper.”

“Oh, ‘swawesome. I’m Lardo. You guys here with anyone else?”

“Just us,” Bitty says, smiling at Piper. There’s no amount of begging that would get any of his teammates to give up precious spare hours to come watch an ice hockey game, and Ralph was already working the late shift. Piper was the only poor soul he managed to drag along. “But I promise we’re good cheerleaders.”

Lardo seems to weigh it, and finally smiles. “You guys feel like cramming up a bit closer to the glass?”

Faber looks like a big slab of concrete from the outside, but Bitty’s breath catches for a long moment once he’s in. The eastern wall is made up of giant floor to ceiling windows; the ice is so polished that the overhead lights look like twinkling stars reflected in its surface. There are strings of red hearts decorating the aisles between the seats for the occasion, but when Bitty closes his eyes, the smell and sounds are so familiar that he can almost feel the ice under his skates.

Lardo leads them down the stairs and gestures at a few empty seats two rows above the home bench. Bitty's plan was to watch the entire game from the platform, so suddenly being so close that he’s able to see the players’ faces is unexpected. The Samwell boys are skating in tight circles on their side of the ice; Bitty easily spots Jack by the #1 and the unmistakable ZIMMERMANN on his back.

Bitty’s been following the season right from its beginning, but watching a game live and in person is a different kind of energy: a live wire that sparks from his head to his toes. He finds himself wishing that he owned Jack’s jersey so he could show his support by wearing it, and is then immediately embarrassed for even having such a thought.

“Does Jack know that you’re here?” Lardo asks, twisting back and leaning on the back of the bench to face Piper and he.

“Um. No,” Bitty admits, sliding lower in his seat self-consciously. He hopes it’s not going to be a problem. He didn’t want to tell Jack ahead of time in case the meet dragged on for longer than expected and he didn’t end up making it.

“Well.” Lardo smirks. “I think he’s onto ya, bro.”

Bitty blinks, eyes darting over Lardo’s head and back to the ice. Jack is skating along the line of the bench, looking straight up at Bitty, face obviously surprised even behind the cage. Bitty bites his lip and tentatively brings his hand up for a short wave. Jack stares at him and then, awkwardly, lifts the hand not gripping the stick to wave back.

There’s a high shrieking sound somewhere to their left. Piper bursts out laughing, almost toppling into Bitty’s lap to look beyond him. “Holy shit -- um. I think some other people are onto you, too.”

Bitty follows Piper’s eyes, and lands on a loud group of freshmen standing on the row of seats, waving a sign proclaiming yo marry me jack zimmermann in the air. They’re also shielding their eyes from the glare of Faber’s bright lights with their hands, obviously searching the arena for whoever Jack just waved at.

Bitty slides down even further, vehemently hoping that they won’t see him and somehow single him out, but he still can’t hold back a boisterous burst of laughter at the sign. It’s decorated with tiny red hearts, and Bitty can’t be sure from this distance, but he thinks that it might be smeared with glitter glue. Just thinking of Jack’s face when he sees it has Bitty laughing harder.

“Best fucking thing I’ve seen,” Lardo grins, holding her phone out to snap pictures of the sign. “I’m telling Shits to steal that later, we gotta have that in the Haus.”

Piper is leaning down, asking Lardo to forward her those pictures, and Bitty takes advantage of her distraction to search for Jack again. He follows him with his eyes until Jack finally turns and looks right at him. Bitty hesitates, steels himself, and then extends his hand to wave a thumbs up in the air.

Samwell crushes the Golden Knights in regulation. Jack scores both points.

 

 


 

 

Piper begs off the moment the game ends to get back to studying, and disappears into the swarming masses heading to the exit. Once it’s just the two of them, Lardo turns to Bitty and offers to take him down to meet the boys by the locker room. He doesn’t remember saying yes, but he assumes he has for some reason, because he finds himself following her down an intricate maze of stairs to the rink’s bottom floor. 

Bitty trails after her through badly-lit hallways until she, too, disappears behind some door. He stares, confused, lost and unsure if he’s supposed to follow through the staff only entrance. He thinks of maybe turning and trying to find his way back, but then another door opens behind him and Jack steps out of it. 

He obviously hasn’t showered yet, standing in his shoulder pads and black base layer shirt. His hair is damp, beads of sweat rolling down his forehead, and there's a towel hanging around his neck that isn’t helping much with the sheen glinting on his throat.

“Great game!” Bitty squeaks, heat rushing to his cheeks.

“Thanks,” the wide-stretched mouth and the soft angle of his eyes are the closest thing to grinning that Bitty’s seen Jack do as of yet. Another piece of Jack slots into place in Bitty’s mind: the ardent passion for hockey that Bitty’s always heard of but has never observed with his own eyes. This is what Jack's love for his game looks like. It’s a really good look on him. “Did you and your friend enjoy it?”

“Did we ever,” Bitty grins back, shoving his hands into the back pockets of his jeans. “Y’all killed it. You got any victory plans?”

Jack pushes his dripping hair out of his face, hand coming out wet. “There’s usually a winning kegster at the Haus, but it’s Valentine’s.”

Bitty nods, rocking back on his heels. Something about hearing Jack say that word makes him feel weirdly awkward. “...Right. Got any plans for that?”

Jack shrugs, not looking very perturbed. He grabs the edge of the towel to wipe down his neck, rubbing the skin until it blooms red. “Sleep, probably. You?”

It’s Valentine’s. Gab offered to set him up with a friend of his, even promised to reserve a table at a half-decent restaurant in the ‘burbs. Unlike Bitty’s other teammates, Gab’s taste is usually acceptable, but -- “Uh, no, no plans. Might watch some Julia Roberts movies, pretend I’m a down-on-my-luck prostitute.”

Jack’s eyebrows bunch together at that, but he doesn't ask Bitty to explain. The door to the locker room creaks and the loud voices of Jack’s teammates calling out for him get stronger. Jack tilts his head over his shoulder at the sound. “I could walk you back to your dorm, if you wanna wait? I just need to hit the showers, and then maybe dodge the reporters.”

Bitty’s chest feel tight, but he breathes through it, curls his fingernails into his palm where Jack can’t see them. “Sure! I’ll wait for you here?”

Jack nods, smiles, and disappears back to the locker room. Bitty’s glad he promised to wait, because his feet are too heavy to move.

 

 


 

 

Bitty walks out of Thursday’s team meeting in a pretty rotten mood. His week has been generally difficult in a variety of little ways, but by Thursday at noon all of it seems to pile up: the lack of breakthrough in his runs, the weight of the coaches’ expectations, the warnings from his professors about midterms, the prodding from his parents about a plus one to the wedding.

His earbuds are blaring loudly in his ears as he crosses the bridge to Whitney Avenue, warily keeping his distance from the rabid geese that inhabit the riverbanks on that side. He’s headed down to the post office, and for the first time he spitefully hopes that the invitation is truly ugly. It might be a good enough distraction to cheer him up.

When he steps off the bridge and onto the road he notices a figure crouched by the roadside, faced towards a honking gaggle of geese. Gory visions of the poor soul’s eyes being pecked out immediately flood his mind. He reaches up to take an earbud out and warn the person to back away, when their head turns in Bitty’s direction, and Bitty’s eyes almost pop out of their sockets. The crouched figure is Jack, who is taking an up-close photo of a goose. 

Bitty yanks his earphones out, but before he can conjure up enough witty words to chirp the ever living heck out of him, Jack beats him to the idea. He eyes the pair of earphones dangling from Bitty’s gloved hand with arched eyebrows. "Too busy with Beyoncé for the rest of the world, eh, Bittle?"

Bitty scoffs, warily stepping a foot closer to Jack. He doesn’t trust those geese with his back turned even for a moment. "I'll have you know that I was listening to Nicki," he corrects, while managing not to add, and considering angry rap as a venting method.

Jack ends up following him to the post office. He doesn't seem to be in any hurry going somewhere, and Bitty really doesn’t mind the company. He mostly listens as Bitty chatters mindlessly about random subjects and occasionally stops to take a picture of a squirrel running through the snow or of Bitty gesturing wildly. Bitty lets his mouth run away from him, talks about Lorraine and his parents and the latest episode of Top Chef, eventually lets his mind shift to autopilot as he watches Jack watching him. 

Jack's team only has two more games of regular season. At first glance Jack’s bland expression and casual voice would suggest that he’s unruffled by it, but at third and fourth and tenth glance Bitty can begin to see the cracks in the carefully donned mask. Jack carries himself differently than normal, distributes the weight of his muscles like he’s uncomfortable in his body. He’s clearly skilled at portraying composure, hiding worries behind inane tasks and meaningless conversation, but Bitty recognizes the tension knotting Jack’s muscles because he knows that tactic better than most. Because his own muscles are knotted in similar ways.

They turn down to Jason, the post office two buildings ahead. Jack’s face remains unchanged and Bitty wonders if he’ll someday learn how to look away. He thinks of when Jack stayed to watch Ocean 11 with him last weekend, after the game; of how when Bitty looked away from Julia reaching for Andy García’s hand, his gaze drifted to Jack sprawled in Bitty’s desk chair -- to his socked feet, the slope of his broad shoulders, the fingers laced together on his stomach; of how Jack left quietly in the middle of the night, mindful of Bitty’s roommates, and thanked Bitty for having him in a low voice; of how Bitty’s mind recalled every line in Jack’s face, lit by the screen, as he was falling asleep.

Bitty watches Jack watching him, mouth still running, and when they cross the door of the post office he realizes that he’s no longer angry at all. His chest feels as fluffy as cotton candy, filled with something airy and light that pushes out everything that was there before.

Bitty has no idea what to do with that information.

 

 


 

 

On Monday, Bitty keeps his phone beneath the counter and takes every opportunity he can to refresh the Samwell website for the scoreboard from the Princeton game.

At nine thirty Samwell wins, officially clinching a spot in the ECAC playoffs. Bitty’s sure his smile throughout the rest of that shift could power Annie’s lights all by itself.

 

 


 

 

On Thursday, Jack comes into Annie’s and stands to the side of the counter, fiddling with his camera as he waits for the line to clear. Bitty suspects that the promise of a moment with Jack might have made him a little rushed with the guy ordering a grilled veggie panini, because the guy gives him a weird look along with the money. Bitty hopes his cheery smile makes up for it.

Jack steps up to the front of the counter once it clears, and Bitty can’t curb his rush of genuine enthusiasm. Ever since the hockey team’s ridiculous road sweep over the weekend they kind of became local superstars, and Bitty couldn’t be more proud. “Hello there! How is Samwell’s most promising player this fine evening?”

Jack pretends to be fed up, but Bitty wants to believe that deep down he’s flattered. “Cute. Listen, I actually came in because I could use your help.”

“My help with choosing between all the delicious things on our menu?” Bitty flutters his eyes, leaning forward on the counter. His original doubt about his ability to cajole Jack has only increased tenfold with the headway towards the playoffs, but he still likes to increase his chances by trying.

“Uh, no. It’s a photography thing. When’s your break?”

Bitty glances behind him. Ralph is leaning against the other side of the bar, shamelessly listening to their conversation while twirling a twisted heart straw left over from Valentine’s. Bitty has no proof, but he’s almost certain that eavesdropping on him is one of Ralph’s and Piper’s favorite things to do. 

“Mind if I take my break?”

Ralph gestures magnanimously. “By all means, man.”

Jack orders his black coffee, and once it’s been poured they settle down at the table by the bathroom. Jack pulls the strap of his camera off his shoulder and places it between them on the table, leaning it screen-up. “I’ve got a critique tomorrow. I’m fine with my theme, and I talked about things like quality and composition with Lardo, but I just… can’t choose the right ones.”

He looks genuinely stressed about it, hands clenched into fists on top of the table and shoulders hunched in. A tiny voice in the back of Bitty’s mind suspects that it might not all be photography related, but he doesn’t feel entitled to ask. If Jack wants help with his photos, Bitty will do whatever he can to assist. “Well, I’ll try! Wanna show me whatcha got?” 

None of Jack’s photos are posed. They range from scenery shots like the ones Bitty’s seen Jack take to photos of Samwell buildings and architecture. There’s a large number of animal photos, even a risky one of a goose staring right into the lens, which Jack worries is dumb. There’s a whole collection of ones in the Haus, light rays spilling through dusty shutters and Lardo’s legs dangling from the roof and Shitty lying back, hair wet, in a bathtub full of ice. After a few dozen photos of his teammates, there’s also one photo of Bitty, sitting spread-legged on the track with his head tipped back. The contrast of the photo is exaggerated; Bitty's right side is glowing in the sun and his left side is completely dark with shadows. 

“I’m not using that one,” Jack says when they reach it. He sounds a little uncomfortable, although Bitty doesn’t know why. Jack’s never been shy about snapping candid pictures of Bitty before, and besides -- he's sure Jack knows that Bitty loves it. Jack’s photos always make him look like more than he really is. “I think I should focus on my team as a subject, so, eh.”

He clicks the button, the display changing to a picture of Holster and Ransom hugging on the ice. Bitty looks at it, tries to take it in, but then can’t help looking back up at Jack. The uncomfortable grimace on his face hasn’t faded. “Your team as in hockey, or…?”

“Euh, no, not exactly.” Jack clears his throat awkwardly, fingers clenching and unclenching. “A lot of the photos are of Samwell because I like taking pictures outdoors, but when I was thinking of midterms -- I guess I’ve just been aiming for taking photos of my team and -- er -- my friends…” 

Bitty’s mouth all but falls open. His friends sounded an awful lot like it was meant to include Bitty as well. That’s the first time Jack has called them that in Bitty’s presence, and although Bitty knows that it shouldn’t feel like such a big deal, it does. Bitty has considered them friends for a while, but it’s an altogether different experience hearing the confirmation come out of Jack’s mouth.

“I think focusing on your team is a great idea,” Bitty says, trying to disguise the giddiness that’s flooding him on the inside. He hopes his cheeks aren’t as pink as they feel, or that Jack is too busy looking at the camera to notice. “Wanna start from the top? We could try for a rating system, and then you could pick ones that work together from the ones you like best.”

“Alright,” Jack nods, more decisively, and some of the worry on his face dissipates. He looks up at Bitty gratefully. “Thank, Bittle.”

“Hey,” Bitty grins. His palms are clasped together tight beneath the table. “What are friends for?”

 


 

 

Jack Zimmermann

February 27th, 2015

critique went fine

(10:13)

 

Oh, I’m so glad!

What’d your prof say?

(10:29)

 

Jack?

(16:46)

 

she said it was fine

was at the rink. didn’t have phone

(18:04)

 

For eight hours…?

(18:07)

 

playoffs in less than two weeks

(19:12)

 

Okay, but don’t overwork yourself!

(19:15)

 

 


 

 

Jack’s more withdrawn than normal that Sunday. He goes through the week’s notes mechanically, wordlessly switching to work on his thesis when Bitty asks for a break. Bitty stares at him out of the corner of his eye and keeps his tone delicately lighthearted, but Jack doesn’t offer any information about what might be wrong and resists any attempt at an actual conversation.

Bitty has woefully little experience with cheering someone up without resorting to food, so he figures now may be as good a time as any to try swaying Jack harder. Even if he won’t eat it, Bitty thinks while browsing his recipes for an idea, the gesture, much like the Christmas cookies, might make him smile. 

Bitty spends the duration of Monday texting Jack short texts injected with allusions to the cheer-up madeleines he plans on making the next day. He checks his phone periodically between practice and classes and work, but is disappointed to see that Jack’s replies only become shorter and shorter, until ultimately he just stops answering.

By their food class on Tuesday Bitty is really worried. He knows that Jack is routinely seated at their row ten minutes ahead, so he splits from lunch with the team early and sprints across campus to get to class at that time. When he gets there, though, the room is empty. Jack eventually shows up an unheard of mere minute before class begins. His face is immobile, but there’s something about his movements that strikes Bitty as off. He sits down next to Bitty without saying a single world of greeting, all of his things meticulously put down and ordered in the far corner of the desk.

Professor Presnell’s lecture opens with dissecting Supersize Me, which Bitty has been looking forward to, but he’s too distracted by Jack. The muscles in his shoulders are rigid, his jaw is fixed tight beneath the shadows of his growing playoff beard. He answers to Bitty’s light commentary with low grunts, and Bitty catches him doodling hockey plays in his notebook instead of listening. Desperate to erase the frown on Jack’s face, Bitty reaches out and draws a small smiley face on Jack’s paper. Instead of smiling in response or even rolling his eyes, Jack’s scowl deepens and he flips the page.

Once class is dismissed, Bitty follows Jack outside. Jack’s descent down the building’s stairs and out the door is swifter than normal, but Bitty has no trouble keeping up. He’s hopeful that their customary route by the river and a cup of coffee at Annie’s will at least help Jack shed some of the tension in his body. Even an insipid cup of black coffee should be improved by Bitty’s madeleines.

“You kinda disappeared on me yesterday,” he says when they pass through South Quad, gripping the strap of his bag. He’s smiling sideways at Jack, but Jack’s face is turned away. Bitty forges forward nevertheless. “Are you going offline like a caveman, Mr. Zimmermann? Because that beard sure as heck looks like it’s gettin’ you in the right direction.”

Bitty waits, but Jack doesn’t respond verbally. His profile slips away from Bitty’s view, and Bitty flounders for a moment before he realizes that Jack is picking up his pace.

Bitty’s stomach tightens. Something is wrong, and he has a bad premonition about it, but he quickens his footsteps to keep up. Jack wasn’t the most verbal when Bitty first met him, and he had to constantly remind himself it wasn’t out of rudeness then, too. “Well, anyway, I texted you this morning to ask if you could maybe stick around a few minutes at Annie’s?”

“No.”

Bitty blinks, taken aback. The word was so low that he could barely see Jack’s lips moving to voice it. “Uh -- okay. Are you in a hurry?”

Jack grunts what Bitty assumes is an assent. The dark, coarse hairs of his scruff shift when his throat works. “I’ve got stuff to do.”

Bitty swallows uneasily. The tightness in his stomach tugs, morphs into the first signs of nausea. Jack has been concise before, but Bitty’s certainly never seen him act like this. “Well… hey, maybe you can come by after you’re done! I came up with this new recipe for chocolate madeleines, and I know it’s kinda been a rough week --”

“No,” Jack cuts him off. 

His bangs falls forward when he lowers his head, casting a shadow over his face that makes it hard for Bitty to see his expression. Bitty’s throat goes dry at the lack of intonation; the nausea builds, and the back of his neck starts to tingle from the rejection. “...you don’t have to try it --”

“I said no, Bittle,” Jack stops in place at once, forcing Bitty to totter forward a few steps before he can halt. He spins around to face Jack, who is outright glaring at him. “I don’t have time to entertain you on your shift. I have to go.”

Jack doesn’t wait for his response. He splits off to the right, rushing across the nearest bridge to cross to the eastern bank of the river, quickly disappearing from view. Bitty gapes after him, his heart pounding, shame coloring his skin and hurt curling in his stomach. The only coherent thought in his head is that he hasn’t the faintest clue what just happened.

 

 


 

 

Bitty keeps his phone on him during the shift, hides it in his jeans’ pocket and texts Jack under the cover of the counter whenever he can get away with it. He first asks Jack if he’s okay, and then says that he’s sorry, and when he doesn’t have any reply by lockup, he texts that he’d really like to talk about what he might’ve done wrong. He sleeps fitfully all night, jolted awake by imagined pings and vibrations from his silent phone. There’s still no reply by Wednesday’s morning practice, so he sends one final message that contains nothing but Jack’s name.

He gets no reply to that, as well, and then he stops trying.

Boston University hosts the IC4A Indoor Championships that Friday. The whole team has been working towards it for weeks, and Bitty was booked into overtime practices for most of February, trying to find a balance between leaving his emotions behind and finding adequate motivation. When he boards the bus that weekend he’s completely numb, even though his team is animated around him.

He doesn’t hear from Jack all weekend. His heart skips a beat every time he checks his phone, but there’s never any reply. Dread he isn’t able to shake off weighs him down, like a nebulous sense of wrongness that he can’t pinpoint. Both of his events are on Saturday, and when he takes his place at the start line, all the frustration that’s been bubbling inside him surges to the surface. At that moment, he hears none of Coach Kelley’s instructions, remembers nothing of his conditioning. He falls back into what his body knows best: running from his emotions, and pushing through them hard.

The race is a haze. When Bitty glances at the clock at the finish line he doesn’t remember a single thought he had during. He makes the best time of his entire season, but he has to limp discreetly back into the locker room afterwards. He’ll have to ice his legs and make sure he didn’t injure anything when they go back to Samwell. 

Bitty keeps himself separated from the boys, skin hot with shame, afraid that someone will call him out on his regression. Most of the boys don’t seem to notice anything, at least by the shoulder slapping and congratulations. Gab is the only one who looks concerned when he sits down next to Bitty on the bench and asks, “Everything okay?”

Bitty shakes his head dismissively, concentrating on the burn in his muscles instead of the hollow in his chest. He makes sure to hide his face when he says, “I’m fine.”

 

 


 

 

Bitty still doesn’t hear from Jack by their return to campus. He schools his face around the boys, survives Sunday’s recovery run despite his aching muscles, and then hides in his dorm for the rest of the day. He doesn’t know if he should assume Study Sunday is cancelled, but the echo of Jack snapping plays on a loop in his ears, and he at least knows that he’s not planning on waiting at Founder’s to find out.

On Sunday evening there’s a knock on the common room’s door. Bitty doesn’t know how he knows, but the moment he hears it he’s certain of who’s standing in the hallway. He gets up from his chair before anyone else can approach the door, stomach clenching nervously, unsure of what outcome he’s hoping for. The idea that Jack came looking for him unsettles him just as much as the idea that he hasn’t and Bitty’s just incapable of letting go.

But it is Jack, his shoulders tense and his head slightly bowed. He’s standing a step back from the doorway, maintaining distance from Bitty’s personal space, and doesn’t make eye contact. His voice is flat and painfully rehearsed when he says, “Hi, Bittle. Can we talk?”

Bitty’s heart begins pounding. All of his roommates are inside. His lungs are strained like he’s out of breath, and he doesn’t want to be indoors for this conversation. “Yes. Okay. Can we go outside?”

They walk out in silence, each slumping against opposite sides of the hall and the staircase. It’s oppressive in a way that Bitty’s never experienced between them before. He feels a renewed appreciation of how easy it’s been with Jack until now, how quickly Bitty adjusted to the unique way Jack communicates and learned to respond in kind. He misses that ease fiercely now that it’s gone.

Jack turns right, towards the path that leads to the Pond, and Bitty follows him in silence. Neither of them speaks for a few long minutes. Bitty is resolved to wait for Jack to go first; he’s acutely uncomfortable with the way things are, itches with the need to plaster a Band-Aid over everything and pretend that it’s fine, but it isn’t. He keeps reminding himself that he didn’t deserve Jack’s behavior, and if he has it’s not for anything of which he’s aware, so Jack has to be the one to explain either way. 

They walk slowly down the path. Bitty watches his shoes, the shadows on the ground, the shape of his bunched hands in the pockets of his jacket. He resolutely doesn’t look at Jack.

“I don’t have many friends not from the team,” Jack says abruptly, jerks Bitty out of his torn thoughts. Bitty snaps his head to the side to watch Jack’s tense expression, all of his firm resolve fading away at the sound of Jack’s voice. “Euh… I don’t have any at all, actually. Other than you.”

It doesn’t seem like Jack is very well-versed in these kinds of conversations. Bitty wishes he could make this easier on both of them, somehow, but he doesn’t know how. He tugs his jacket tighter around his body and says, in a tone he hopes is more encouraging than cautious, “Okay.”

Jack nods, a sharp up and down movement. “My teammates -- I can get -- they’ve known me a while,” the syllables of his words tangle together before he puffs out a breath. His eyebrows draw down sharply, wrinkling at the bridge of his nose. He looks angry, although Bitty’s not sure at what. “Crisse. What I’m trying to say is, I can get -- during preseason and in the beginning of playoffs, there’s. There’s a lot of pressure. I don’t handle pressure well.” They walk under a streetlamp, and the backlight sharpens the strong line of Jack’s nose, the jut of his chin. The lump in Bitty’s throat grows. “My teammates see this every season so they know what to expect. And I...”

Jack stops walking, pivots to the side so his whole body faces Bitty. Bitty stops, too, and instinctively takes a step back. Their positioning closely mirrors the last time they talked, when they were walking down the river and Jack snapped at him and took off. Bitty’s body reacts from muscle memory before he even realizes he’s moved.

Jack must notice his physical reaction, because his eyes widen and he steps further away as well, broadening the distance between them. He looks more guilty than angry for the first time since he’s shown up on Bitty’s doorstep, the first whisper of another clear emotion that Bitty’s been able to read on him since the previous Sunday.

Bitty’s not afraid of him, though. He knows he has a lot of other issues that come into play here, most of which he doesn’t want to discuss with Jack right then, but he also doesn’t want Jack to think that he’s afraid of him. The physical wariness isn’t about Jack; it’s about Bitty. 

“And you?” Bitty prompts gently.

Jack blinks, clearly taking a moment to realize that he’s being asked to continue his broken off sentence. “I. I’m working on it. I didn’t realize how important it was before, but I am, because my problems shouldn’t affect the way I treat my friends. I think they know that I’m trying, or -- some of them do. But --” he pauses, looks away from Bitty’s face. “I’m sorry, Bittle. It had nothing to do with you. I was having a really bad week and there’ve been NHL scouts in every game we’ve played this season and the pressure was just -- I took it out on you, and I’m sorry.”

He looks down. Bitty licks his lips, studying Jack’s expression and trying to translate the tangled mess in his chest into words.

Jack continues without waiting for a reaction, still looking at the floor. “I never had to explain it to someone who didn’t already know, or didn’t already expect me to… break down. In some way. I understand if you don’t want me to talk to you from now on, I just -- Shitty said --. You deserve an apology even if you don’t want to accept it. So I’m sorry.”

Jack’s holding himself so tight, curling in on himself and leaning away from Bitty. It’s obvious to Bitty that he means what he’s saying -- that he means all of what he’s saying, including having come prepared for a rejection.

“Why didn’t you answer my texts?”

Jack looks up sharply at the question, seemingly surprised to receive a verbal reaction. He works his jaw for a moment before he answers. “I’m not… great at expressing myself. I was embarrassed. I knew I needed to apologize but I wasn’t ready and I didn’t know what to say until then.”

Bitty nods, turns his gaze away. Silence fills the space between them, only interrupted by the background noise of wind blowing and people talking somewhere in the distance.

“Okay. I forgive you.” Jack’s eyes grow wide. Bitty tries for a small, watery smile. “Listen, Jack -- yeah, it hurt, and I hated not knowing if I’ve done something wrong, and I’m -- I have trouble with, with confrontations, but you didn’t know that. And I don’t much like the way you talked to me, but I think you know it was wrong. We all have bad weeks, we can’t be perfect all of the time. I’m certainly not perfect.”

Jack looks dubious. Bitty sighs, trying to phrase his thoughts in a way that’d pierce through Jack’s shield of self-flagellation.

“I bottle up my feelings,” Bitty offers, spreading his hands apart like a peace offer. He doesn’t look down to check if they’re shaking. “I don’t like to think about anything that bothers me, ever. I’m passive aggressive when I’m angry, it’s a Southern thing, but me especially. If someone does something I don’t like I’ll probably have a real hard time tellin’ them. I would’ve never come lookin’ for you to ask what happened the other week if you hadn’t come here.”

Jack swallows, shakes his head woodenly. “You shouldn't have had to --”

“Yeah, but either way I wouldn’t have,” Bitty drops his hands, shoves them back into his pockets uncomfortably. He’s the worst at translating his feelings, for himself and even more so for others. “Even if it really bothered me. So we might’ve never talked about it. My point is, it sucked, and you shouldn’t’ve done it, but I 'ppreciate the honesty. Of course I’d like it if never happened again, but at least I’ll know why.”

“...You still want to...?”

Bitty exhales slowly, a stronger smile tugging at his mouth. Jack’s face is so earnest when he isn’t consciously trying to conceal it, and Bitty’s relief at the sight of it and the progress of this conversation bleeds into his smile. “Yes, you lug. You did a hurtful thing and asked for forgiveness, I’m not gonna burn you at the stake. But I’d like to make a request that’ll make things easier.”

Jack looks unsure. “What?”

“Answer my texts next time? Even just to say ‘bad day, talk some other time,’” Bitty pitches his voice low, mimicking Jack very poorly. Jack cracks a tiny, almost invisible smile at the attempt. “I was more hurt by you ignoring me than you snapping at me. And that way, I’ll know to back off when you need some space.”

Jack nods. “That’s a good suggestion. I’ll try. And -- thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Bitty smiles. They stare at each other, unmoving, still standing in the middle of a dark path. “Well, don’t know about you, but I’m decidedly incapable of studying right now. How ‘bout some froyo instead of Study Sunday?”

“Froyo Sunday doesn’t sound as good,” Jack chirps awkwardly, shoulder-checks Bitty when they turn to walk back the way they came. “Okay, we can go to Superberry. But you have to promise to do your schoolwork some other time.”

“You drive a tough bargain, Mr. Zimmermann,” Bitty teases. When Jack smiles, Bitty’s heart flips over in his chest, but this time he’s fairly convinced it has nothing to do with nerves.

 

 


 

 

On Wednesday, Piper is working the register while Bitty’s in charge of drinks. He’s pouring vanilla syrup over the whipped cream of a white hot chocolate when his eyes drift over Piper’s shoulders and spot Jack coming in through the door, passing beneath lines of green paper swirls and leprechaun hats hanging from the ceiling.

Bitty puts the syrup bottle down, peppers sprinkles over the drink, and stretches to place it on the pickup counter. “Pipe,” he says urgently, wiping his hands on his apron. “Switch with me.”

“What?” Piper frowns over her shoulder. Her hand doesn’t pause in handing over change to the couple that’s standing at the counter, addressing them with a polite, “Thank you, have a nice day!”

“Switch with me,” Bitty repeats, poking her back. There’s no one else in line behind the couple, but he thinks that the group in the corner might be ready for refills soon. “-- lemme take Jack’s order.”

"That's not your shift," Piper says, eyebrows raised. He stares at her imploringly until she relents. "Fine. Shove over."

The couple shift aside to wait for their drinks, and Jack steps up from behind them. Bitty offers him a sunny, welcoming smile, encouraging him to come closer to the counter. He’s been excessively careful around Bitty ever since their conversation on Sunday, and Bitty has been trying to ease him back into their normal rapport. It’s been slow going, but Bitty is determined to patch things up, and ribbing Jack about his order is an opportunity he doesn’t want to pass on.

“Hey, Bittle,” Jack greets, edging closer. His tone is still measured, but he responds to Bitty’s smile with his typical quirked lip, so Bitty considers it progress. “You got a minute?”

“Sure, Jack,” Bitty blinks, glancing towards the door to make sure that no line is about to form. Aside from an abundance of shamrock decorations in various shapes and sizes, the doorway is clear. “You wanna sit?”

“Ah. No. I have a strategy meeting soon, actually. I just wanted to give you a heads up that we’re going into quarterfinals, so we might need to put Sundays on hold for a couple of weeks.” He looks genuinely sorry for these news. It makes Bitty’s insides feel funny. “I didn’t want you to think -- uh.”

“Oh, no, I get it!” Bitty waves his hands, eyes widening. It may take this boy a while to apologize, but once he does, good Lord, he really doesn’t know when to stop. “That’s okay! Y’all do what y’all gotta do to give it your best! But are you gonna be okay? Will you have time to study?”

“Yeah, I’ll be fine. I’ll study on roadies. Will you be fine in class?”

“I’ll think I’ll somehow manage without you, Jack,” Bitty says warmly, biting back the smile that threatens to spread on his face. It’s probably futile: his tone must give him away. “But ya know what? I would like a favor. If you’re bailing on me an’ all.”

Jack nods solemnly, leaning closer to the counter. “Of course. What's up?”

“Order something other than black coffee,” Bitty asks, aspiring for dead seriousness for maximum effect. He leans forward to meet Jack halfway, their eyes locked together over the counter. “Literally anything other than black coffee.”

Behind him, Piper chokes loudly, audibly muffling a gust of laughter with her palm. A metallic clang hints that she may have dropped something on the floor in the process. Bitty doesn’t let it distract him from the mission, keeps his eyes on Jack while Jack thinks for a moment and then finally says, "Okay."

Really? ” Bitty enthuses, eyes and mouth widening to what must be ridiculous proportions. He slaps his palms on the counter in exhilaration, hardly containing his beam. He honestly did not think it would work so easily. “Oh my god, what’ll you have? We’ve got Irish buttercream cupcakes right now, that’s very in season, and Piper makes the best mint mocha, and -- oh, oh, I made these cinnamon twists yesterday, they’re amazing, if I do say so myself -- whatever you want, Jack.”

Jack glances upwards at the chalk menu, drops his eyes back to Bitty. "Americano, please. No room for milk."

Piper’s muffled laughter grows into full-out guffaws that are so loud Bitty catches several customers turn to stare. Jack inclines his head to frown at her from behind Bitty’s shoulder while Bitty gapes at him for a long moment. He knew he was celebrating too soon; he swears that Jack’s stubborn streak is as long as the competitive streak his team is always talking about.

Bitty deflates and sighs loudly, not even attempting to hide his disappointment. He’s doomed to lose this bet, and he should just make his peace with it now. "Yup. Of course. Don't know what I was expecting. One americano coming right up."

 

 


 

 

As promised, Jack is almost nonexistent for the last two weeks of March. Outside of their shared class Bitty sees him once when Jack ducks into Annie’s before class and a second time from across the dining hall. Other than that their paths hardly ever cross. Bitty, who has come to expect running into Jack across campus at all times, becomes even more attached to his phone than he’s already previously been.

It’s weird not having someone he’s come to rely on around, especially when Bitty needs someone to talk to about his strenuous season -- but somehow they make do.

 

 


 

 

Jack Zimmermann

March 14th, 2015

Good tourney so far! Keep up the good work!

(00:13)

 

trying

are you celebrating today?

(06:41)

 

…???

Is it a Canadian thing? Because St. Patrick’s is in three days

(08:29)

 

it’s pi day

thought you’d like it

(08:36)

 

WHAT. I didn’t know!!!

Oh, because 314! I get it. See, I did take Calc.

OMG gotta go bake till I drop!

Can’t believe Lorraine didn’t see the monetary opportunities of this

(08:40)

 

good luck

don’t forget to study

(09:12)



March 19, 2015

 

[Here’s a playlist for you… Eric Bittle's Pre-meet Playlist

open.spotify.com/playlist/…]

(09:23)

 

what is that

(11:45)

 

Spotify! It’s the songs I listen to before every meet. 

Don’t you have any rituals? I’ve been told hockey players are a superstitious bunch.

(11:49)

 

i eat a pb&j sandwich

(12:56)

 

That’s nice :) Is it your favorite?

(13:20)

 

no

but it’s a ritual

(13:43)

 

You’re weird, Jack Zimmermann.

Give my playlist a try! You never know. Might work for you.

(13:47)

 

if you say so, bittle

(13:49)



March 20th, 2015

 

did you watch the game?

(22:48)

 

Haven’t yet, been swamped :( But I caught SportsCenter after training. 

Your goal in 3rd? Wow. 

(23:02)

 

thanks.

listened to your playlist this morning before skate

you know what that means

(23:03)

 

That 7/11 has magic powers?

(23:03)

 

that i gotta listen to it before every game from now on

(23:04)

 

YES!!! VICTORY!!!

(23:04)



March 22nd, 2015

 

holster and ransom tried fitting one of our teammates in a hockey bag today

(22:55)

 

OMG. Did it work?

(22:58)

 

of course not. ollie is six feet. a hockey bag isn’t even three

is it weird thinking that because they didn’t we’re now going to lose?

(23:01)

 

Jack, no, it isn’t weird.

It just isn’t true, is all.

You do know that, right?

(23:02)

 

i guess

today has been harder

this weekend’s roadie could be the last

every roadie could be the last

don’t tell the boys i said that

(23:06)

 

Of course I won’t

But it’s not going to be the last, Jack

(23:07)

 

maybe

go to sleep, bittle. i’m worrying about a hockey bag incident, you shouldn’t be up

(23:10)

 

Not gonna happen, mister.

Can I call you?

(23:10)

 

[Outgoing Call; 23:10, 41 minutes]

 

Good night, Jack.

(23:52)

 

good night, bittle

thank you.

(23:53)



March 28th, 2015

 

Good morning! Wreck Denver tonight!!

(08:10)

 

[attached IMG0100653.jpg]

(08:15)

 

...Is that Ransom?

Is that sour cream on his forehead?

Is that 22 written in sour cream?

(08:21)

 

it’s his birthday.

shoe check gone rogue. 

(08:24)

 

You know what, I’m not even gonna ask.

Send me Ransom's number! 

(08:24)

 

[attached contact: Justin Oluransi]

why

(08:26)

 

So I can wish him happy bday! 

And have a dessert of his choice waiting at Annie's when y'all come back. 

[attached IMG2030004.jpg]

Good luck on the game from my boys as well!!!

(08:28)

 

tell them thanks

and good luck to you guys in the meet

(08:31)

 

Thank you. You too.

Just two more games until Frozen Four!

(08:34)



March 30st, 2015

 

double ot is rough

schedule should be a little better until next round

study sunday this sunday?

(17:34)

 

Of COURSE you’d be thinking of studying even right now

Jack, you are a spring semester senior in the midst of a playoff run, can’t you enjoy it?

(17:36)

 

i can enjoy graduating, which requires studying

so sunday?

(17:38)

 

...Sunday :)

Great game. I’m so proud of y’all.

(17:40)

 

thanks, bittle

see you sunday

probably before. my team is crashing but i’m still going to class

(17:41)

 

So…?

(17:42)

 

going to need coffee

(17:43)

 

Lol

#GotYourBack (*¯︶¯*)

(17:43)

 

 


 

 

On Sunday, about half an hour before Bitty’s planned to leave his dorm room and head to Founder’s, Jack calls to ask if he’s fine with a change in location. Bitty’s initial assumption is that Jack wants to study at the Haus for some reason, so it comes as a surprise when he follows Jack into Faber forty minutes later. Jack leads the way through a backdoor at the loading docks and offers only an unclear explanation about focus when Bitty chirps him for the location.

They climb up to the second floor and settle down in the highest row. There’s no power outlet to plug in their laptops, so they take out only their notebooks and lay them out on the bench. Jack lends Bitty a pen and claims that they’ll freestyle it. 

They’re so high up in the empty arena that it feels like the whole rink is spread out at their feet. Faber took Bitty’s breath away at Valentine’s, but it seems even larger when empty. The lights are mostly off, the dark ice gleams in pale blues; when Jack opens his notes and begins reading aloud reviews of the 2014 Farm Bill, his voice carries through the empty space and echoes.

Bitty is easily distracted in the best of situations, and the magnitude and eeriness of their surroundings make it even harder to stay on track. His eyes keep roaming, and each time he catches himself he has to force his attention back to Jack. He half expects to be chided for his lack of concentration, as Jack is consistently the one to snap him into focus, but no comment ever comes.

It doesn’t take Bitty long to notice the wrinkle in the center of Jack’s forehead that has nothing to do with food banks funding. His reading is unbroken, but Bitty isn’t sure if Jack is even listening to his own words, much less noticing that Bitty isn’t listening either.

Eventually Jack trails off in the middle of a sentence. The consequences of conservation acreage reduction are lost to whatever is plaguing his mind. His eyes are staring blindly into the air, not aimed on anything particular that Bitty can see. Bitty chews his bottom lip and lets him have a few quiet moments, wondering what he could possibly say in this situation.

“Is it weird?” Bitty asks when he can no longer stomach the silence. It makes Jack snap out of his thoughts, eyes darting to Bitty and blinking out of the hazy screen that was covering them. “Knowing you’ll be leaving here soon?”

Jack hesitates, taps the end of his pencil on the open notebook in his lap. “Yes. it’s --.” He visibly struggles to string together the right words, purses his lips tightly. “Sorry. We should be focused on studying. I thought being here would help because rinks always help me think, but my thoughts keep wandering off to the wrong things.”

“That’s okay,” Bitty says gently, bringing his legs up to the bench and leaning his elbows on his knees. He’s much more interested in Jack’s thoughts than he is in farming, but he’s not brave enough to share that sentiment out loud. “You’ve been really busy these past two weeks, it makes sense that your mind is overloaded.”

Jack looks at him with an expression that Bitty can’t read. He thinks that Jack might be grateful, but that could easily be his own wishful thinking. “I think… I always saw Samwell as temporary. I thought I was looking forward to what comes after, but now…” Jack frowns, runs his thumb along the length of the pencil. “This is my last season. I didn’t think it’d be this hard.”

Bitty doesn’t remember ever looking further than two or three years into the future. Anything more remote than that has always been cloudy and undefined, unanchored by any concrete decision. Even thinking of how next year he's going to be a junior has panic curling in his stomach, and the mere idea of graduation terrifies Bitty to the bone. Whenever someone brings it up he just about sticks his fingers in his ears and abruptly changes the subject. Looking forward to whatever comes next is a foreign concept that Bitty’s never experienced firsthand.

“Do you know where you’re going?” Bitty asks, keeping his tone carefully nonchalant and his gaze carefully directed anywhere but at Jack’s face. “After graduation, I mean.”

There have been a few late, sleepless nights when Bitty succumbed to the urge and googled predictions for Jack’s career path. Jack has options, Bitty knows; a whole lot of them. Everyone in the hockey world seems to be interested in his choice of NHL team, but whenever Bitty thinks about Jack signing with anyone his chest begins to ache.

The thing is: that’s not the way it’s supposed to go. Bitty knows that Jack’s absence shouldn’t affect him more than the dull panic of Gab graduating does. He has, after all, only known Jack for six months. Except, when Bitty closes his eyes he can picture Gab in Northwestern next year, can imagine team Skype meetings and early morning texts, but when he thinks of never having Jack around anymore --

Jack lets his pencil drop, and it rolls off his thigh and onto the bench as he leans backwards, spreading his arms out on the railing behind them. The tips of his right hand brush Bitty’s shoulder, and Bitty deliberately puts a snappy end to his train of thought. He shouldn’t be having those thoughts at all.

“No,” Jack says. “I have -- there are options. There are so many factors, though. I need to make the right choice. My dad’s got his opinions and Ransom sent me all these spreadsheets, but…”

“So you have no direction?” Bitty asks, reaching out to retrieve Jack’s discarded pencil. He rolls it between his fingers restlessly. “Not even if… if you prefer the West Coast, or East Coast, or… or Canada…”

“I don’t know yet,” Jack says, honest. There’s a vacant look in his eyes that tells Bitty that his mind is somewhere far away from Faber Rink in Samwell, Massachusetts.

Bitty swallows, tries not to think of the very real option of Jack moving to the other side of the country; to another country. He grips the pencil tighter in his hands and zeroes in on the sensation of the sharp tip of it digging into his palm.

“Well, you’ve still got plenty of time,” Bitty says, with long-perfected faux cheerfulness. He tries not to think of how there isn’t, really, plenty of time at all.

 

 


 

 

The impression that Faber’s left on Bitty stays with him throughout Monday, a gnawing sort of nostalgia that doesn’t ebb but only builds. That night, after he finishes closing with Piper and returns to his dorm, he sends an inquiring text message to Jack. He wakes up the next morning to Jack’s reply that the ice is reserved for various practices almost all hours of the day, unless Bitty is willing to make some sacrifices.

This is how, on Wednesday, they wind up meeting outside Bitty’s residence hall at four in the morning. The sky is still completely dark, a blanket of clouds cloaking even the light of the moon and the stars. Jack is holding a to-go cup with a gear bag on his shoulder, and his mouth twitches the moment he sees Bitty’s begrudging face. He offers Bitty the cup, which Bitty discovers contains plain, lukewarm coffee, probably gone cold on the walk over from Jack's house. Bitty huddles into his coat and tries to shape his face into something that resembles a grateful smile.

“You didn’t have to come,” Bitty tells him later, when they’re lacing up on the players’ bench. He’s had his skates stored in his dorm since forever, and although he never got around to using them at college, they’re still in good enough shape.

“It’s okay,” Jack says, expertly adjusting the tongue of his skates without looking. His eyes are surveying the empty rink, the untouched sheet of ice before them. “It’s actually nice to be here so early. I’ve never skated in Faber before sunrise.”

The moment Bitty steps onto the ice clicks like reuniting with an old, beloved friend. The ice feels stable under his feet in different ways than solid ground, makes him use his muscles in ways he never gets to anymore. His body reawakens from an old slumber and slowly remembers how it used to move. He’s a little rusty, a little less graceful, probably incapable of half of the things he used to be able to push his body into. The ice, though -- the ice feels exactly the same.

Faber is gorgeous at dawn. The first feeble rays of sunlight stream through the big windows and spill across the surface of the ice like a curtain made of diamond fragments. Bitty chases his own shadow while Jack skates laps around the rink, a look of concentration on his face and a stick gripped in his hand. Bitty is hardly surprised that Jack came prepared for a proper practice even when skating for fun at five in the morning.

“So is this when I prove I’m a better skater than you?” Bitty chirps, spinning mid-motion to face Jack. He could feel Jack’s eyes on him, obviously analyzing how Bitty fits into his familiar domain, and can’t help the taunt.

Jack’s eyes narrow. He veers sharply to the left, skating faster towards Bitty, and knocks their shoulders together when he catches up.

“Hey, watch it, Zimmermann! No checking allowed!”

Jack grins and nudges Bitty harder, which pushes him closer to the boards. Bitty squeaks out a protest and twists away, skating faster towards center ice. He lets his feet gain speed and finishes with a tiny, safe jump over the blue line, testing his stability and his muscles in old maneuvers. He probably shouldn’t try anything too advanced, but that one fleeting moment when neither of his feet touched the ice is more than worth it.

Jack watches him with interest, eyes locked on his skates. "Do you miss it?"

“Of course,” Bitty answers, skating backwards to face him. He’s sure that the same longing he’s felt since Sunday is plainly displayed on his face. “I know why I quit, and I’m happy with where I am, but -- yeah. Every day. Being on ice always feels like -- like visitin’ your childhood home that’s not your home anymore.”

Jack looks like maybe he understands. “Would you trade track for it, if you could?”

Bitty leans his body into the flow, spirals idly in place while he mulls it over. He loved figure skating like a child loves everything: purely, easily, blindly. Running has always been fraught with emotions, has always been a passion more complex in nature. 

But he’s not a child anymore. “You know -- I think I always thought that I would, but now I think that maybe I wouldn’t. It’s -- well, actually, it’s exactly like your childhood home. Like when you look back at being a child and think of how simple things were then, how easy it was to be happy? But you wouldn’t actually go back, because you don’t have the mentality of a child. You grew out of that.”

Jack is skating loose circles around him, watching him think out loud with the stick balanced across his shoulders. Bitty flushes, tries to reorder his thoughts into something that might make sense. “That is -- what I’m sayin’ is --. I thought maybe I loved running less, but I think I just love it differently? And I never realized that ‘till now.”

“But you had to know you love it,” Jack says, cocking his head. “You had to have something driving you forward.”

Bitty didn’t, actually. He always saw running as something practical, useful; has never stopped long enough to recognize loving it as well. Lately he’s been feeling like he has nothing pushing him to be better, only destructive things pushing him to be faster, but it seems like the obvious was right beneath his nose. “Maybe. Or maybe I had the wrong things.”

Jack tightens his circles, skating closer to Bitty. A ray of sunshine falls on him when he skates over the faceoff circle and brings out the vibrant red lines on his stick, the strands of brown in his hair. His eyes are so pale that they look like they’re mirroring the ice.

“This could be one of my last times here,” Jack says, a somber edge to his voice. “Tomorrow’s the Frozen Four roadie.”

“You’ve got this,” Bitty assures him. He cuts into the path of Jack’s loop and angles his shoulder to bump into Jack’s, hoping that it might make him smile. Their bodies connect with a dull thud, impact sending them sliding a few inches away.

“Don’t jinx it,'' Jack quirks a lip, and then lowers the blade of his stick to tap Bitty’s leg. “That was a weak check, Bittle. Maybe I should teach you how to check someone for real.”

“Yeah?” Bitty teases, satisfied with how well his plan worked out. The creases in Jack’s face have smoothed over, making room for composed playfulness. “You gonna make a hockey player outta me?”

“I could. I’ve got all day,” Jack plays along. He frowns for a split second and then amends, “Well, actually there’s a curling practice booked, so we have to get out of here by seven.”

Bitty laughs, watches the marks forming on the ice under his skates, listens to his laughter bounce off the concrete walls. “So… race ya?”

Jack narrows his eyes. Bitty flexes his muscles, crouches down, and sprints.

 

 


 

 

On Thursday, Samwell beats the Mavericks 4-1 and advances to the Frozen Four Championships.

On Saturday, they play Boston University in TD Garden. BU leads by one goal from the first period, and by third the Samwell boys are playing like madmen, taking every shot they can scrape.

Time doesn't slow down during those last few seconds of the third period. Jack makes a desperate shot, but it bounces, and, somehow, their best isn't enough.

The score is 4-3 to BU in regulation. Samwell loses.

 

 


 

 

On Monday, Jack comes in looking wrecked.

Bitty has holed himself up at Annie’s since the early morning. He skipped his classes to stress bake in the kitchen, too keyed up for anything other than the welcome distraction of dough in his hands. He spent most of the afternoon shift watching the door with his stomach bunched up in knots, and when Jack finally comes in, the sight of him makes Bitty’s heart feel like lead weight.

Bitty unties his apron with jerky movements and tells Piper that he’s taking his break. There’s a platter of glazed maple-apple blondies that Bitty baked that morning on the display, and Bitty puts a few pieces on a saucer without even thinking.

Jack hasn’t moved far from the door, hands shoved into his pockets and cap pulled low on his head. He watches Bitty round the counter and come closer without reacting. There are dark bags under his eyes, lines around his mouth, a slump in his shoulders that shouldn’t be there; Bitty looks at him and wants nothing more than to make it better, even if he doesn’t know how. 

He offsets it by herding Jack gently into an empty table by the door, placing the saucer in front of him. It’s not much, but Bitty's natural disposition is taking care of people with food. Some days it feels the only thing he really knows how to do.

Jack looks down at the blondies, looks up at Bitty, and frowns. He hasn’t shaved his playoffs beard yet, and it’s thick and straggly around his jawline. "I --" 

"It's on the house, Jack,” Bitty says, almost pleadingly, before Jack can argue any further. “Your coffee, too. Please -- please take it." 

Bitty retraces his steps back to the counter to brew Jack’s coffee, but when he approaches, Piper thrusts a ready steaming mug at him. The liquid in it is black and clear. He glances up at her gratefully and takes the mug.

When Bitty comes back Jack is still sitting at the table he left him at, picking at one of the blondies with a fork. He’s chewing slowly, and when Bitty slides into the seat opposite his and pushes the mug across the table, Jack tries to smile at him. It’s not a particularly good attempt; it makes Bitty sad just to look at it. 

“This is really good, Bittle. But maybe I should’ve known it would be, eh?”

Bitty watches him, silent, and Jack drops his eyes to the table without saying anything more. Bitty’s so choked up with helplessness that he fears he might actually start crying, and he can’t imagine how on earth they’d come back from that.

"Jack…” He ventures quietly, unsure of what else he has to offer. What can even take some of Jack’s pain away. He feels useless and miserable and so angry on Jack’s behalf, for things that neither of them has the power to change. Jack and his team deserved the win, but sometimes life doesn't work that way. “I… Can I just…"

Jack’s head lifts. Bitty doesn’t know what he’s doing except grasping at straws, and before he knows it, before he can stop himself, he’s out of his seat and bending by Jack’s side. His arms wrap around Jack’s shoulders, enveloping the width of them into his chest and squeezing hard.

Jack doesn’t react for a long moment. Bitty’s heart pounds against the curve of Jack’s bicep but he doesn’t let go, doesn’t let his own fear of rejection stop him from offering comfort in whatever way he can. Once the moment passes, Jack slowly brings one of his hands up and curls it around Bitty’s forearm, leans his weight into Bitty’s hug. His shoulders begin trembling under Bitty’s hands. Bitty tilts his body to hide Jack from view of the rest of the shop, letting him have a moment to collect himself. When they pull apart, finally, Jack’s eyes are swollen and red, but dry.

“Thanks, Bittle,” Jack says quietly, and then adds, “it really is a great brownie.”

Bitty doesn’t think Jack’s really thanking him for the dessert, but he’ll take it wholeheartedly. He squeezes Jack’s shoulder again, lingering in his space for another guilty moment. Somewhere in the back of Bitty’s mind it registers that Jack just ate his baking after over half a year of trying, which means that Piper owes him twenty bucks. 

He should feel vindicated. He doesn't.

 

 


 

 

The week following the loss is hard. Jack spends most afternoons at Annie’s, sitting at a window table with his stack of books and open laptop. Bitty worries that Jack’s avoiding the Haus and his teammates out of guilt, but on Tuesday he’s joined by Chowder and on Wednesday Shitty talks his ear off about something that Bitty can’t hear from his place behind the counter. Sometimes Jack’s joined by NHL scouts, and then Bitty worries about him for other reasons. Bitty worries about Jack a lot that week.

Jack’s face remains sullen and withdrawn no matter the company. Bitty looks over to him more often than he’d like to admit, biting his lip and trying to think of anything to cheer him up. He spends his breaks at Jack’s table, either chatting at him one-sidedly or keeping him company in silence while scrolling through twitter. He has no idea if it’s helping at all, but so far it hasn’t seemed to do any harm. 

By Thursday evening both Ralph and Piper are sick of the whole thing and demand that Bitty brings back the good vibes. Bitty’s halfhearted effort is plugging his phone into the sound system. He puts on a cheerful, poppy playlist, because no one can claim the place has bad vibes when Ke$ha is playing.

Jack doesn’t look up at him when Bitty takes his break later on in the shift, settling down at Jack’s table with a latte that Piper’s drawn a cat face on, so it startles him when Jack asks, “Is that Taylor Swift?”

Bitty blinks, dumbfounded. Iggy’s Fancy is playing. “Wha-- Jack, that’s not even close.”

Jack’s eyebrows twitch behind the screen of his laptop, but he doesn’t comment.

Then it’s Ariana’s Break Free, and Lorde’s Royals, and Katy’s Dark Horse. Each time Jack asks if it’s Taylor Swift, eyes unmoving from his screen, fingers typing ceaselessly. Bitty knew Jack’s taste in music was offensive, but that's pushing it too far. He shakes his head and begins explaining Taylor's unique voice and style, because that boy has clearly got it all wrong, but then Avicii’s Hey Brother begins playing and Jack intercepts him to ask, “Oh, is that Taylor Swift?”

The very obviously male singer promises that, there’s nothing in this world I wouldn’t do. Bitty blinks at Jack’s blank face, figures out the game, and almost snorts coffee out of his nose.

Neither Ed Sheeran nor Nick Jonas are Taylor Swift, but Jack seems to like the game and Bitty can’t help laughing now that he knows the rules. Jack types away at his laptop and Bitty scrolls through Twitter, until a new song comes on and Jack asks if it’s Taylor Swift. Bitty has to actively try not to choke on his drink even though he knows what’s coming, more amused by Jack’s impassive face and flat intonation than the bad attempt at chirping.

When Drunk In Love comes on, Jack stops typing and pushes his laptop to the side so he can look directly at Bitty. "That's Beyoncé. I know that one. Is it your favorite song?"

Bitty’s mouth opens and closes several times before he manages to find the words. "One of them," he answers, heart fluttering in his ribcage like a trapped bird. Jack’s lips quirk up, and Bitty’s breath catches. 

It's the first inkling of a smile Jack gave away all week.

 

 


 

 

Bitty is walking back from strength training on Saturday night when his phone starts ringing. The ringtone is faint, coming from somewhere deep in his gym bag. Bitty has to drop it to the concrete and search through his sweaty workout clothes to fish out the phone. The caller ID displays Jack’s name and when Bitty picks up, he can hear basses booming in the background and the faraway sound of people cheering.

“Hello?” Bitty asks suspiciously, partially because it’s not even ten yet, but mainly because Jack isn’t exactly fond of grand parties. Bitty asked him about it once, perpetually too curious for his own good, and received the answer that Jack doesn’t like the crowds and the noise. His side of the line definitely sounds like it’s surrounded by crowds and noise now.

“Hey, Bittle,” Jack greets, voice just loud enough to carry over the commotion in the background. He doesn’t sound drunk, at least. “Did you get out of practice?”

“Yeah, just heading to my room,” Bitty hefts the bag back onto his shoulder, renewing his journey down the path. He doesn’t examine Jack’s perfect recollection of his schedule, because that way lies madness. “Everything okay?”

“Yes. I just wanted to let you know -- uh. I signed a contact. Officially.”

Bitty halts his steps, jaw slackening. His heart skips a beat at the words and then stumbles over itself as its rate triples, anxiety rising to the base of Bitty’s throat. He’s almost too afraid to ask. “Oh! Oh, Jack, congratulations! Uh… where?” 

“Providence,” Jack says, and all of the air rushes out of Bitty’s lungs. “With the Falconers.” Jack mentioned them before, during Study Sunday breaks when Bitty’s curiosity once again got the best of him. He always sounded fond when he spoke of their team, but Bitty never pried any further, too afraid to get his hopes up. Providence is only forty minutes away by car. “They’re good. A good team.”

Bitty doesn’t know what to do with the relief flooding his chest, has to step off the trail to lean against a sidewalk bench and breathe deeply. There’s no one around to witness it, at least, so Bitty lets himself take a moment before he answers. “That’s amazing, Jack. Honestly. I hope you’ll be happy with them.”

“I hope so, too,” Jack says. His voice is intercepted by a loud horn blaring in the background. “Sorry -- the guys are celebrating someone’s friend’s birthday, or --. I don’t know, there’s a lot of noise here right now. It’ll probably be all over the internet by tomorrow, and... I wanted you to hear it from me, first.” 

Bitty has to palm his chest, rubbing over his breastbone to ensure that his heart won’t quit on him prematurely. His breathing sounds so loud in his ears, like tidal waves drowning everything else out. "Gosh. Congratulations, again. And -- thank you for telling me."

"Of course, Bittle," Jack says. 

Bitty might be imagining it, but he swears that there’s something soft underlying Jack’s tone. Just the hint of it melts what’s left of Bitty's weakened heart.

 

 


 

 

On Tuesday, Jack walks Bitty to Annie's after their class. Tuesday is the first April day to stretch towards seventy degrees, and the weather outside is gorgeous. Bitty ties his cardigan around his waist and revels in the warmth of the last few sunrays of the day on his bare arms, lets Jack explain Monsanto and the Canadian justice system to him as they cross the river towards the café.

“-- it was really a patent case, but that’s not what people remember,” Jack adds as he pushes the door to Annie’s open and follows Bitty through. Annie’s is overflowing, crowded tables full of students pouring over textbooks and drinking iced coffees in groups. Jack tails Bitty to the back and leans against a wall while Bitty ducks into the backroom to store his bag and then comes back out with his apron. Jack continues as if he wasn’t interrupted. “Which I think Professor Presnell covered really well, eh?”

“Only you would find so much joy in a lecture about canola oil justice,” Bitty rolls his eyes, tying his apron behind his back.

Jack moves to the front of the counter while Bitty steps behind it to switch with the grad student who’s heading out. “Are you just upset we had a lecture about oil and not about butter?”

“You think you’re so funny,” Bitty narrows his eyes. Jack doesn’t comment, which is confirmation enough for Bitty.

Jack waves hello at Piper and waits for Bitty to log into the POS before he orders his black coffee. He tells Bitty about the Providence apartments he’s going to see with his mother on Friday while Piper makes his drink. She strangely takes longer than usual, but that just means Bitty gets to joyfully instruct Jack on precisely how to judge the kitchens in the apartments he’s touring.

Piper does pass Jack his drink eventually, though, and Jack gives Bitty his card. Jack’s holding both his hot coffee and his card in his hands, already poised to go back to his house, when he hesitates for a moment and glances at Bitty. “Hey -- are you going to Spring C?”

Spring C is on Saturday. Lake Quad has been a mess for two weeks while the large stage was being put up, and Bitty had to take the long way everywhere just to avoid it. It’s been a nuisance more than anything, and a disappointing reminder that Bitty can’t go.

“Oh, no. I wish,” Bitty says regretfully. There’s a pair of tiny red shorts that he’s been gazing at longingly for ages, waiting for a good enough opportunity to justify purchasing them. “We have a home meet on Sunday, so I gotta be up really early. And… preferably sober? So no.”

Jack looks down at his coffee for a moment and then says enigmatically, “Oh. Ah. Okay.”

Bitty doesn’t know what that reaction means, but Jack adds, “Have a good day, then,” and scurries out of the shop before Bitty can ask about it. Jack is an odd man sometimes, but even for him that’s peculiar behavior.

Bitty spins around to face Piper, frowning. She snorts, presumably at the look on his face, and says, “Don’t look at me, baby. By the way, I started adding a dash of cinnamon to his coffee, so if he all of a sudden starts smiling, that’s why. Honestly, no one should drink that much black coffee plain.”

 

 


 

 

The stadium is covered with clashing streaks of red and orange and pale blue come Sunday morning. Bitty looks up between his stretches to watch the Princeton boys, easily spotted by their bright windbreakers, gather around their coaches in one corner. Columbia, in faded blue, is already running drills in another.

It’s Scott’s day to pick the warmup music, and he plays something peppy and electronic that contains a lot of synthesizer but no lyrics. Bitty doesn’t mind. He woke up that morning with jitters in his muscles, an excitement he hasn’t felt before meets in a long time; today he enjoys being able to hear the chatter of his boys and the murmur of the crowd over the spirited notes of Scott’s playlist.

“I’ve got a good feeling today,” Jordan says, bending towards his left toes. His right shoe is pressed against his groin as he stretches his hamstrings, tucked in towards his body. “I’m telling ya. It’s a good day.”

“You always think that,” says John, who never thinks it’s going to be a good day and always prefers to be pleasantly surprised. His palm is flattened on top of Jordan’s head to maintain his balance while he stretches out his quads. “I’m starting to think that you’re bad luck.”

“Both of you are bad luck,” Gab says, but Bitty knows, as they all do, that his exasperation is unbearably fond. Gab finishes the final rep of his stretches, curls his body upwards from the ground and springs up to his feet, straightening with both hands on his hips right above Bitty.

Bitty doesn’t really want to insert himself into the silly argument, but privately his gut coincides with Jordan. There’s just something about today. Practice has been going so well lately, things finally clicking together in his mind. It’s a home meet, it's a lovely day, and the sun is bathing them from between thin wisps of clouds. Soaking in the sun while they do their warmups is a promising start to a meet, in Bitty’s opinion. 

Or, he would be happily soaking in the sun, if Gab wasn’t standing over him to peer at the stands, very effectively blocking the way. 

“D’ya mind?” Bitty kicks the heel of Gab’s shoe with the toe of his own. His other ankle is crossed on top of his knee, hands hooked behind it to stretch his glutes.

Gab turns to him, arms dropping and head dipping down to look right at Bitty. His face is shadowed by the sun, but the little of it that Bitty can see seems weirdly amused. “So I’m assuming you didn’t invite them this time, either.”

Bitty has no idea what he’s talking about. He sits up on the ground, twisting to follow Gab’s line of sight to the red-dotted part of the stands right behind them. It’s decorated in red streamers and Samwell flags, and Bitty scans the crowd, confused, until he catches on. On the second row, between two families, sits the hockey team. Ransom is mostly slumped into Shitty’s side, and Lardo is lying down on the bench with her feet propped up on the railing, but Jack is standing, looking right at Bitty, and Holster is holding up a sign that says SUNDAY RUNDAY, BITTLE, in a really embarrassing pink.

“Oh, good gracious,” Bitty says, flustered. He has enough self-preservation to refrain from admitting to Gab how very pleased he is. “Someone’s gotta tell these boys that this ain’t a rowdy hockey game.”

Gab doesn’t buy his act, Bitty thinks, but he has enough dignity of his own not to mention it. They go back to their warm-up routine, hopping up and down besides their friends; Bitty tries not to think of the eyes following him from the stands, tries not to be self-conscious of every step he makes. It’s easier when they start lining up for the events, and he forgets all about it by the time he squats down and puts his foot on the first start line.

It turns out that both Jordan and Bitty’s gut were right. Bitty is quicker than lightning that day. 

Bitty spent most of the season struggling to run like someone else. He knew his former mindset was bad both for his mental and physical health, knew that letting strong bursts of emotions take the lead overrode his training more often than not. He tried so many alternatives -- Gab shuts his mind off and only envisions the track, Sean uses running like a sort of meditation, Jordan keeps an ongoing mantra of encouragements going in his head -- but none of it worked for him. Thinking of nothing but his muscles and his technique was safer, but it slowed him down.

And then he and Jack talked about his past in figure skating, and it unlocked something that Bitty’s never considered before: if Bitty runs best with his emotions, is most motivated by them, maybe he should just focus on learning how to pick the right ones.

Bitty spent the weeks after his conversation with Jack learning to be driven by his love for running rather than by his fears. He practiced concentrating on the exhilaration of exerting himself, discovered how to let the deep burn of sprinting fuel him to push harder. He focused on picking more constructive emotions. He learned how to run for, not run from.

Now, Bitty gets the sense of how well the work has paid off. He runs faster than he has in months, feels better than he has in years, reaches the finish lines with elation. 

After his events and the recap from the coaches, Bitty breaks away from the circle of his team and jogs over to Jack and his friends. They’re standing at the bottom of the stands’ stairs in a half-circle, and their faces all turn to him when he approaches. He couldn’t see it before when they were high up and he was sitting on the ground, but from close up it’s obvious that most of them are hungover. Shitty’s hair is a mess, Ransom keeps rubbing his temples, and Holster is grimacing at the sun. For some reason, though, they’re all still there.

“What are y’all doing here!” Bitty shrieks when he’s close enough, navigating through the crowds that are leaving the stadium to reach them. Lardo winces at the high noise from behind her large sunglasses, so Bitty makes a conscious effort to lower his tone. If they’re this worse for wear, he doesn’t know how they survived the noise levels throughout the meet. “Weren’t y’all awake ‘till just a few hours ago?”

Bitty looks them over again. Shitty grins at him, Lardo stares at him meaningfully from over her sunglasses, Holster and Ransom raise matching eyebrows. Jack looks at his team, looks at Bitty, and then shrugs. “Well, you know. We’ve got your back."

Bitty beams so hard that his face starts aching.

 

 


 

 

The thrill of the meet unfortunately doesn’t last through the beginning of the week. While Bitty steadfastly tries to deny Reading Week looming ahead and makes sorry excuses for fleeing whenever it’s brought up, Jack takes it upon himself to remind him at every opportunity. On Monday, they reach an understanding: Jack offers to extend their Sundays’ studying sessions into the weekdays of Reading Week, on the condition that Bitty would take his work seriously or face fines. Bitty’s condition is that he wouldn’t be expected to keep up with the inhuman demands of Jack’s schedule.

They shake on it over chai latte and black coffee during Bitty’s shift break.

Classes are cancelled for Reading Week, and while Jack upholds his end of the deal and only pencils Bitty into a few hours of joint studying each day, it’s still incredibly taxing. Jack emails him a link to an article detailing different ways of battling inattention, and follows through by diversifying the setting for their studying. Researchers claim that it’s beneficial, and Bitty is never opposed to fresh air. The two of them meet up at Norris, study side by side on the front porch of the Haus, and once Jack makes Bitty summarize the key points of his Cultural Criticism class while lying on a picnic blanket on the Beach, as his teammates throw M&Ms into each other’s mouths around them.

It’s the best learning experience Bitty’s had since preschool, even if he has far too much pride than to admit it to Jack. 

 


 

 

Jack Zimmermann

May 1st, 2015

step away from the oven bittle

(13:41)

 

I've no idea what you mean!

I will not stand for these accusations.

(13:47)

 

so you’re not baking?

(13:48)

 

I refuse to answer on the grounds that I may incriminate myself.

(13:50)

 

thought so

do your reading bittle

before midnight

(13:50)



I have practice you know?? 😤

(13:52)

 

all day? 

(13:52)

 

You don’t know my life Jack Zimmermann

(13:53)

 

we’re still on for tomorrow at 11?

(13:53)

 

Will be there with lemon tarts (o˘◡˘o)

(13:53)

 

 


 

 

For their Sunday study session, Jack meets Bitty at the door of his dorm and they steer together through the teeming paths of Lake Quad. The stage from Spring C is still up and stacks of plastic chairs now surround the Quad on all sides, in preparation for Commencement. Groups of studying students are scattered across the ground, spread out by the Pond and around the Well.

“So where are we headed today, boss?” Bitty smiles, bumping their shoulders together. He made a game of guessing each day’s studying location. Sometimes he gets it right, sometimes he gets it wrong. Sometimes he gets it wrong on purpose for the look on Jack’s face when he chirps him for it. “Kotter? Dunkin’? Ooh, the petting zoo?”

“It’s Sunday, Bittle,” Jack nudges him back. His flannel is folded over the crook of his elbow and the skin of his bare arm is warm where it touches Bitty’s. “You know where we go on Sundays.”

When Jack leads him to their regular table at Founder’s and it somehow isn’t taken, Bitty develops strong suspicions about how this came to be. It’s the weekend before finals week and Founder’s is so full to the brim that there are students studying on the floor, their clothes and hair rumpled like they’ve slept there overnight. He doesn’t share his suspicions out loud, though, instead chooses to ramble about the birth of Princess Charlotte of Cambridge while Jack situates their stuff on the table.

Jack doesn’t seem particularly interested in the dress the Duchess wore as she left the hospital. “You talk a lot,” is his only response.

“You’d think you’d know that by now,” Bitty counters smilingly, drawing his notebook out of his bag and shoving the bag under his chair. The last few pages of the notebook are mostly rushed nonsense, scribbled after Bitty’s brain was officially offline at the tail-ends of their last meeting. He tears it out and crumples it into a ball.

“It’s a library,” Jack deadpans, like Bitty hasn’t noticed the ceiling-high shelves boxing them in from all directions. "You need to be quiet in libraries, or the librarians will come for you. I don’t think you want that. Will I have to force you to be quiet?"

"Now how will you do that?" Bitty asks lightly into his notebook. He immediately realizes what it sounds like, and his eyes jerk up to meet Jack’s. Their gazes hold for only a second. Bitty can feel the blush climb to the roots of his hair and he swiftly looks away, clearing his throat. “Um -- I’m good. Let’s get to work. You got the draft of your food journal?”

They start by working on their shared research paper for Professor Presnell’s course and then split off to work on their respective assignments. Jack needs to hand in a statement to go along with his final photography presentation, and Bitty needs to cram for the PoliSci test. Jack looks up from his screen to check on Bitty every once in a while, throws pieces of folded paper into Bitty’s hair whenever Bitty loses track. He boasts a tiny self-satisfied smirk each time his aim is perfect. Bitty squeaks, but he can think of no original retaliation so he resorts to dragging a pen down Jack’s arm, leaving a jagged black mark behind.

They switch things up after another hour, going back to studying for the food class’ written exam. Jack is ordinarily a stickler for his bedtime, doesn’t make them stay very late, but that Sunday their list of tasks to complete seems never ending. The clock hits nine and then ten and then eleven, while Jack reads out the summarization of his notes from the semester and the library grows quieter around them. The last thing Bitty remembers is leaning on his palm, eyelids heavy, listening to Jack’s deep voice talk about American breakfasts and modern meat and Striffler’s Chicken.

Bitty wakes up an undetermined amount of time later with his face pillowed on his arm, lines of blurry text inches from his face. It takes him a bleary moment to realize that his shoulder is being shaken gently. He lifts his head and blinks several times in a row to bring the world into vision, finds Jack leaning over him with face angled down. Jack’s eyes are so close that Bitty can see the thin ring of gray in the inner circle of his blue irises. 

Bitty’s first nonsensical thought is that he’s warmer than he was before. A glance reveals that he’s wrapped up in Jack's flannel, which has been draped over his shoulders and tucked close to his neck. It smells incredible, a musky, masculine scent that invades Bitty’s sense and stakes claim on a spot in his heart. Bitty doesn’t remember Jack wrapping him in the flannel. He doesn’t remember falling asleep at all.

“Gosh, Jack --” Bitty rubs his eyes with the back of his hand, trying to wipe the sleepiness out of them. “I’m so sorry… how long was I out?”

“Not too long,” Jack says, his voice low, warm, intimate. It’s a pitch that Bitty’s never heard him use before. Jack doesn’t move further away, even though Bitty is now awake; even though they’re so close that if Bitty tilted his head up their noses would brush. “C’mon, Bittle, I think we’re done for today. Let me walk you back.”

“Okay,” Bitty agrees breathily, blinking at Jack, but he doesn’t move a single inch until Jack does, and Jack doesn’t move for a very long time.

 

 


 

 

On Tuesday, Bitty turns twenty.

He wakes up not to his alarm clock but to birthday wishes from his mama, who doesn’t seem to care that it’s early in the a.m. and takes great pleasure in gushing about how he’s all grown up. Bitty doesn’t mind much, either. Hearing his mother’s voice first thing in the morning and being reminded of birthdays with her at home is all he could’ve asked for. 

He gets a text from Lardo before even getting dressed, a message that only says open door with a party horn emoji. He climbs out of bed, confused, and opens the door to his common room. He’s half-expecting the hockey team to topple inside or come bursting out of a cake, but the hallway is empty. Bitty bewilderedly checks both directions, until he glances down and finds an array of alcoholic bottles shaped into a neat 20 on the floor. He giggles loudly, presses a hand to his mouth to quieten it, and snaps a photo for twitter.

His day is a joyous string of tiny celebrations. The boys group-hug him at practice, have the good sense to do it before they’re all sweaty and gross; Piper and Ralph record him an off-key rendition of Destiny’s Child’s Birthday on the staff group chat; Jack promises to let him have the day off studying and wishes him a happy birthday over text. Bitty’s heart flips over in his chest at that. The gift from the hockey team should’ve clued him in, but it still sets something inside him loose to know that Jack remembers his birthday.

It’s a long standing Samwell Men’s Track and Field tradition to celebrate with the team. That evening Bitty's team takes him to dinner at Jerry's, crowding around a large booth and shoving a paper crown onto his head. Jordan buys him a giant margarita and Sean pulls a candle and a lighter from his pocket, asks Bitty to make a wish. Bitty closes his eyes, only thinks of it for a second, and does. 

Dinner is, as always, a raucous affair. After the food has all been cleared from the table Bitty shifts so he can participate in Sean's conversation and catches him exchanging strange looks with John. It happens again with Jordan, and then between Jordan and Gab; they’re not nearly as discreet as they’d like, Bitty thinks affectionately. Gab tries to distract him with conversation a few times, but eventually they all notice that Bitty is onto them and the conversations around the table die down. 

“So, we may have a surprise for you,” Sean says slowly.

"It's safe to say…” Jordan says from next to Bitty, trying to hold back a smile. “That you probably wanted this for a while."

Bitty looks at them, eyes-wide and clueless, the yellow paper crown sliding down onto his forehead. He can’t find any clues in the sly grins present on all their faces.

"And we should also tell you that we had help," Gab adds from Bitty’s other side, the only one who doesn’t look like a male stripper is about to appear leaping out from beneath a neighboring table. "We tried to get it done ourselves, but -- well. It fell through, so this isn't just from us."

A few puzzle pieces click together and Bitty gasps loudly, tearing the paper crown off his head. "You got the supervisor to replace the oven in the student kitchens?"

"Uh… no. Better than that," Gab says. He then frowns and shoots a concerned look at Sean across the table. "I hope."

Sean pulls an envelope from the pocket of the jacket draped over his chair. He slides it across the table, between the empty plates of sweet potato mash and fish tacos, until it bumps against Bitty’s knuckles. 

“Come on,” John says, leaning halfway across the table. “Open it already!”

All of his friends seem similarly eager. Bitty surveys them, and then gingerly picks up the envelope and tears it open. He doesn’t know what to expect; inside the pocket of the envelope are two rectangular pieces of paper, facing each other so he can't read what they say. Bitty has to slide them out and flip them over to see the text.

At first glance he’s sure he’s misreading. He has to read both tickets over three times, glancing up to the boys’ grinning faces and then down at the tickets and then up at the boys again. He’s not sure his lungs are functioning properly. He’s holding tickets to Global Citizen Festival in September in his hands, and they’re supposedly meant for him

Bitty's hands shake. The thin pieces of paper shake along with them. "Is that… is that where…"

“Oh, the lineup? Just, y’know,” Sean shrugs, but the bouncing of his leg rattles the cutlery on the table and uncovers the very badly faked nonchalance. “Ed Sheeran, Coldplay… This little-known woman, um -- Beyoncé?” 

His heart processes it before his mind does: Bitty promptly bursts into tears. "When did y'all -- how did y'all --"

Gab passes him a napkin. It has spots of chipotle sauce on it, but Bitty doesn’t care. “It’s actually an auction thing -- and we really tried winning, but this season kind of took over everything so we didn’t have the time. And then I got this text from Jack Zimmermann, who said he was wondering what to get you…” 

Bitty has to clutch his chest. “What?”

“Yeah, man,” Jordan says. “So props to him. And to you, because you were right. Dude might play hockey, but he’s one of the okay ones. He helped buy the VIP tickets. It’s not a backstage pass, but it’s insanely good seating and, get this -- he made sure it includes the meet and greets. Y’know. With Beyoncé.”

Bitty chokes on his tears, and muffles the noise he makes in the napkin. He’s going to meet Beyoncé. This boy.

 

 


 

 

Annie’s kitchen smells like peeled oranges, browned sugar and the spicy-sweet scent of baked cinnamon, and it's warm from the heat of the oven that’s trapped inside the room. It's a cloud that dulls all of Bitty's senses and he willingly loses himself in it, in putting ingredients together and letting it distract him from his jumbled thoughts. He’s always felt safest in kitchens, and he came here exactly for that reason.

The hum of the oven and the sound of the blade of his knife hitting the cutting board fill his ears, but Bitty can still hear Ralph beyond it, cautiously telling someone in the front of the shop, “Yeah. Okay, just… go on back and don’t tell my boss, dude,” and then the sound of a door swinging open and footsteps coming down the hall. 

Jack appears in the doorway, a crease between his eyebrows and a concerned look in his eyes. He looks at the chaotic state of the kitchen, first, and then at Bitty, who hasn’t stopped chopping slices of apples. Bitty’s whole body feels shaky, unmoored, but his hand is steady around the handle of the long knife.

“I was looking for you,” Jack says.

“Yeah,” Bitty says, trying to infuse his voice with indifference, but it wobbles audibly. His phone is in his bag somewhere in the corner. He heard it beep and ring a few times, but it was easier to ignore it altogether. “I've been here since lunch -- hey, can you pass me that saucepan from the stovetop? Thanks -- um, I don't actually know what time it is. Did you need something?”

Jack continues to stare. Bitty can feel the weight of his eyes even when his own are trained on the peeled apples. “You don’t work Sundays.”

Bitty slides the apple slices into the bowl, pouring the sauce from the pan that Jack hands him over them and tossing the bowl to coat thoroughly. “No, no. Not usually. Um. We studied on Sundays, so you -- you know that already. Uh. I was just -- I had a lot on my plate, and -- mind putting this back on the stove? -- And --”

“Bittle,” Jack catches him by the biceps when he whirls around to dash towards the commercial refrigerator. Jack’s hold on his arm is loose enough that Bitty could easily wriggle away, but he doesn’t. “What’s going on?”

Bitty takes a deep breath, splaying out his fingers over the bottom of the bowl. His mind is running wild and he has no idea what’s about to come out of his mouth when he opens it. “Oh, it’s just, it’s just finals week -- I don’t know how well I’ve done -- despite your best efforts, ha -- and -- it’s nothing, really, it’s just finals week, and I guess our team meeting this noon was kinda intense, but that’s totally to be expected -- we’ve got the Outdoor Championships on Thursday -- did I tell you about that? I might’ve not, but, anyway --”

Bittle,” Jack repeats, and Bitty closes his eyes and exhales before he looks up. He doesn’t think there are tears clinging to his eyelashes, but at this point he can’t be sure. “Take a breath. Here, sit down.”

Jack leads him to a stool by the stainless steel table pressed against the wall. Bitty’s still hugging the apple slices bowl to his chest, and when Jack pushes him down onto the stool he finds himself hunching over the bowl, tucking all his limbs in like he's protecting a precious baby.

“Let’s break it down,'' Jack says, squatting down to be at eye level with Bitty. His tone is businesslike -- like they’re breaking down a performance on the ice during intermission rather than the mess that is Bitty's college life. Bitty imagines that this is how Jack sounds when giving pep-talks to his team, and wonders if they’re as comforted by it as he is. “How many tests do you realistically think you may have done badly in?”

Bitty’s chest feels tight when he thinks of it, like not enough air is reaching his lungs. The one on his birthday most likely went okay, but the others -- “Three? Or, no. Probably just two.”

“Alright. How are your grades in those classes? Do you have to pass the test to pass the class?”

Bitty breathes out, slowly, tries to anchor himself to the moment instead of floating away with his worries. The bowl is metallic under his hands. His fingers are shaking subtly now that he’s no longer holding a knife. One of Jack's hands is resting lightly on his shin. Bitty doesn’t remember when Jack first started touching him so casually, but he doesn’t think it’s always been like this between them. Jack’s hands are nice, though. Strong and warm and safe. “I don’t know. I should be fine, I guess. But if I’m not --”

“Then you’ll have to retake the class next year,” Jack says straightforwardly, eyes boring into Bitty’s. It’s a matter-of-fact honesty that Bitty respects. He recoils from pity, and he wouldn’t have appreciated being told that everything would be fine when it potentially wouldn't be. “Your schedule may be tight, so you might need to drop one of your evening shifts. You’ll have to speak to your manager about it, but it’s feasible. So this is plan C.”

“Plan C?” Bitty blinks. He retreated into the kitchen when the team meeting tipped his already overloaded brain over the edge, and has since been repressing all of the fears he has no control over. He’s having trouble, now, following Jack’s methodical train of thoughts.

“Plan A is if you pass the tests. Plan B is if you fail the tests but pass the classes. Plan C is if you fail the tests and fail the classes. We can work on a plan D if you think your manager might not be okay with you dropping a shift.”

“Oh,” Bitty breathes out. The pressure that’s been weighing down his lungs lets up a little, making it marginally easier to breathe. “Oh. That’s very sensible.”

Jack’s intense eyes stay on his. “Okay. Now your Championships on Thursday. Do you think you’re unprepared for that?”

Bitty is actually as prepared for it as he’s ever been. His breakthrough had him training harder and pushing further than he ever has before; his coaches all think he’s going to break his record soon. Knowing that they believe in him should lift him up, but in reality it adds pressure to his burdened shoulders. “No, I'm -- no. I’ve been doing well, I have, it’s just -- what if I screw it up? And we start the NCAA Preliminary right after that, and --”

“Listen, I won’t tell you that there’s nothing to worry about, because that would be hypocritical. In my own season -- well, you saw. But there's nothing you can do about that fear except take it one shift at a time,” Jack squeezes down around Bitty’s ankle. His eyebrows twitch weirdly and then he corrects, “Or, uh, one meet at a time. Is there something practical to do? Do you need more practice time? Help from the coaches?”

“No,” Bitty shakes his head. Jack is so -- that’s exactly the word. Practical. Bitty is so bad at being practical with his worries. He’s only ever known how to deny their existence, has to try so hard to force himself to confront them. But then again, Bitty's gotten to know Jack; he knows that Jack learned how to do this because he had to. “No, there’s nothing to do except keep working hard. And -- well, bake,” he says, lifting the bowl in his lap for emphasis. The gooey apple sauce slides down the side of the bowl at the movement. 

The stoic front of Jack’s captain persona fractures as the corner of his lip lifts up, peering inside the bowl. “Bake. Of course. And what were you baking?”

Bitty also looks down into the bowl. “Um. An apple pie? I think I made two pies already, but I don’t really remember it.”

Jack squeezes Bitty’s knees when he stands up and offers out a hand to help Bitty stand as well. Bitty takes it even though he doesn’t really need any help rising from the stool. He bought me tickets to see Beyoncé, his mind supplies the moment his fingers close around Jack’s callused ones, but he immediately pushes the thought away. He sent Jack one embarrassing, overemotional text after his birthday dinner, and then shelved all thoughts of it right away to be dealt with at a later date.

“Sounds good,” Jack says, walking back to the workstation Bitty had floured before Jack arrived. “My mémé’s apple pie was always my favorite when I was little.”

The words are so unexpected that Bitty barks out a short, broken laugh, a loud sound even over the constant hum of the kitchen appliances. Jack turns back to frown at him.

“I can’t believe you have a favorite pie,” Bitty's unexpected laughter dies down and he sighs wistfully, setting the bowl on a nearby surface. He still has to take the dough out of the fridge and roll the crust out. “You couldn’t’ve told me that six months ago?”

“...I didn’t realize it mattered?” Jack looks honestly confused by Bitty’s reaction.

Bitty goes to the undercounter fridge and pulls out the plastic-wrapped ball of dough, shaking his head slightly. “Did you really not know Piper and I had a bet?”

He turns around with the chilled dough in hand to see that Jack is still wearing the same expression. Bitty doesn’t know what it is about it exactly, but he finds Jack’s confused face awfully cute. Or maybe, Bitty thinks pitifully, that’s just how he feels about all of Jack’s expressions. 

“Have you told me this before.”

“Well, no,” Bitty admits, ignoring Jack’s typical lack of question marks. He places the dough on the workstation and peels it out of the plastic-wrap. “That would defeat the purpose. But didn’tcha notice --? Y’know what, never mind. We just wanted to see if you’ll ever agree to try anything other than black coffee. It was harmless, I swear. But still, apple pie! I could’ve made you one every day if I’d’ve known.”

“That would be dangerously unhealthy,” Jack raises his eyebrows. He watches as Bitty retrieves his French rolling pin and shifts a few inches bit closer. “If you would’ve asked I would’ve told you.”

Bitty hums, turning this new information over in his mind. Jack hasn’t mentioned any penchant for desserts before; Bitty is positive that he would’ve remembered. “Apple pie isn’t some obscure, traditional Québécois thing, is it?”

“Ha. No. She just managed to keep an apple tree in her backyard so she used to make a lot of apple desserts. I don’t know if it was as professional as yours, but I liked it.”

Bitty sprinkles more flour on the surface of the workstation and looks at Jack from the corner of his eye, considering. “Have you ever helped her make it?”

Jack looks intrigued by the proposition. “Eh, no? But I guess I could learn.”

Bitty always loved baking with other people, especially when they were willing to follow all his instructions. At college the opportunities for this were few and far in between -- he taught Piper how to make a few basic recipes, and explained his steps to Jack’s boys when he baked in their kitchen, but none of it was anything like this. Bitty hands Jack the rolling pin and places him in front of the dough, taking twisted pleasure in the look of panic on his face. He gives Jack strict instructions, grabs his wrist to correct him when he makes a mistake, bristles when Jack mispronounces basic terms. He shows Jack how to measure the needed diameter, how to check if his rolled dough is even, and feels his shoulders gradually lose some of their weight with every bump of hips and muttered French curse out of Jack’s mouth.

Jack chirps him for his bossiness, but when he produces a decent bottom crust he looks inordinately proud of himself. Bitty giggles and helps him transfer it into the pie plate, makes sure to steady Jack’s hands when they pour the filling in so it won't smear on the edges.

Jack’s rolling work on the dough of the crust top is more enthusiastic, since he’s now gotten the hang of it. The muscles of his forearms flex as he uses more power on the pin, and Bitty watches them, swallows, and warns him against overworking it. Jack’s eyes snap to his, widened with alarm, so Bitty tentatively slides closer to give him pointers. His chest unintentionally brushes against Jack's right arm in the process; he immediately moves to step back. 

Jack grabs his hand before he can.

Jack’s face turns to him, chin above shoulder, his blue eyes deep and serious. He tackled baking with the same amount of zealousness as anything else Bitty has seen him tackle; it, and this look, tug on the lowest parts of Bitty’s belly, unrelenting. "Show me how?" 

Bitty inhales, nods, and puts his palms over Jack's. His cheeks must be burning up, he knows. His left cheek is so close to Jack’s bicep that he can feel the muscles of it shift whenever Jack moves. Bitty exhales all the air in his lungs and slowly curls Jack's fingers around the rolling pin to show him just how much pressure to use. Jack's knuckles are knobby, his hands strong. Bitty tries not to think of how this might be his only chance to hold them.

“Thanks,” he whispers. From this proximity Jack's eyes can’t meet his, and something about that knowledge makes it easier, makes him more honest. Like faux bravery in a dark room. “For before.”

“Anytime,” Jack says quietly. His fingers twitch under Bitty’s. “Seriously. I know what it’s like.”

Bitty breathes in steadily, determined to keep cool, but he accidentally inhales a waft of Jack's smell. It’s the same one his flannel was saturated with the previous week, now tinged with hints of the cinnamon and burnt sugar that permeates the kitchen. Bitty’s stomach flutters again, and his voice cracks. “Yeah. It’s just -- it’s everything all at once when the school year is ending. Finals, and summer competitions, and -- um, graduation… people leaving…”

He swallows past the lump that forms in his throat and quickly snatches his hands away from Jack’s, putting some distance between their bodies. “Well! That looks good! Now we just gotta cut it into strips -- lemme get my cutter --”

He turns his back to Jack, rummages in drawers he knows are wrong to buy himself some time. His heart is going a hundred miles an hour, and while the heat of the oven could explain the pink blotches on his cheeks, Jack is bound to notice something is off if Bitty doesn’t get himself under control.

Bitty grabs the round cutter from the right drawer and hands it to Jack, careful not to let their fingers brush. Jack’s grooves through the dough are rough and his strips uneven, but Bitty doesn’t want to discourage him. He wrestles with the woven lattice pattern enough as it is, bits of the dough sticking to his skin and clothes.

Bitty looks at him and can’t contain it inside himself anymore, like a damn threatening to break. He doesn’t know what later date he was shelving it for, anyway. Jack is leaving soon, and try as he might to pretend otherwise, Bitty might never see him again. “Hey, Jack?” Jack's head bobs almost imperceptibly in acknowledgment, but he doesn’t look away from the pie. “Um… I haven't thanked you for those tickets. Not properly.” 

“It’s no big deal,” Jack brushes it off. His tongue is sticking out of his mouth in concentration, and the next stripe he places is completely off. Bitty doesn’t tell him that.

“It is. It is a big deal. I -- it’s --. Thank you. I still can’t believe y’all did that.”

"I just wanted to do something nice for you," Jack shrugs, eyes trained almost determinedly on the pie. There’s something about it that Bitty can’t put his finger on. Something calculated, even if Bitty doesn’t know what. "You deserve it, Bitty."

There’s silence before Jack looks up and to the side, and their eyes lock. And then, for a moment that feels like a small infinity, neither of them looks away.

 

 


 

 

On Thursday, Bitty and his team drive up to New Jersey for the IC4A Outdoor Championship. John finishes second in the opening 200m, their triple jump and hammer both take third. At around ten in the morning Bitty walks up to the start line of his first race, looks at the talented competition, and knows suddenly, right down to his bones, that he’s got this in the bag. 

Bitty breaks his personal record, shaving almost a second and a half off his previous time, and places first. His teammates descend on him the moment his feet slow down, pulse still racing. Their excited voices shout profanities in his ears and their hands tug at his sweat-soaked clothes, but all Bitty can really think in the dizziness and the euphoria is that he can’t wait to get to his phone and tell Jack.

 

 


 

 

Graduation sneaks up on Bitty like a quiet inevitability. He spends the days leading up to it in hours upon hours of practice, burning most of his daylight hours on the track. On Saturday night, the last night before Class Day, Bitty sneaks into Annie's through the backdoor after he gets out of very late strength training. He hardly had time to bake anything more serious than cookies since the pie he baked with Jack the previous week, and his hands are starting to itch with it.

There’s a loud commotion outside that snags Bitty’s attention away from his sweet rolls’ yeast dough. He puts his whisk down and walks out of the kitchen to check what’s going on, wiping his floured hands on a discarded towel. Annie’s front is dark, chairs stacked on top of tables and everything put in place; the only lights illuminating the room are the ones from the open kitchen door and from the streetlights outside. 

He spots the source of the noise easily -- a small group standing out in the street, right by the front door. Most of them are positioned with their backs to him, but it only takes Bitty a moment to recognize Jack’s team; Holster with two six packs of beer, Lardo with a blanket. Bitty then keeps watching, heart leaping in his chest, as Jack turns towards the shop and sees him standing there. He says something to his friends. Bitty can’t hear what, but it gets the hockey team moving, walking away from the doorway and out of sight. Jack stays behind, steps closer to the door.

Annie’s front door is locked, Bitty remembers. He hastens to it, pulls the key from the back pocket of his jeans and shoves it into the lock. He takes a step back to open the door and let Jack in, blinking up at him in wonder.

“Was that just Ransom carrying a fire pit?” Bitty asks suspiciously, peeking behind Jack to watch the hockey team trapeze down Bristol. Their shouts and laughter carry through the empty street and reach his ears easily.

“Ha ha, yeah,” Jack says, and then closes the door after him. Something about his voice sounds different, and it makes Bitty look away from the dark street and back at him. There’s a light to Jack’s eyes that isn’t always there, an energetic spring to his steps. “We’re on our way to the rink, to kiss the ice. It’s -- uh, it’s a goodbye tradition.”

"Goodbye tradition?" Bitty asks, throat closing. He doesn’t much like any word starting with g lately.

"Yeah, you know," Jack says, and Bitty realizes that the different thing about his voice is how expressive it is. Bitty can hear every emotion in it, can see the quiet happiness plainly written over Jack’s face. "It's the last night. The best time to be thankful for what you had here and for the people you met. You can’t really know when you could see them next, or what it might be like --"

"Your teammates," Bitty clarifies quietly, because this is all hitting a little close to home. I’m people you met here, he thinks, and has to force himself to drag those words deep down.

"Yeah," Jack almost smiles, that same tiny curl at the corners that always ignites a small fire in the depths of Bitty's stomach. "And Faber. And Samwell in general. I mean, I'm gonna be back for the first game of their season, but still. It’s an end."

“I know,” Bitty says faintly. 

Jack’s hands are inside the pockets of his jeans. He’s wearing a red flannel and a jacket; his face is soft, unguarded, chiseled features smudged by shadows. He has his back to the door, the beam from the streetlight outside falling on his shoulder and down, brushing the toes of Bitty’s shoes. His face is bent towards Bitty, close but never too close, never in arm’s reach. Jack’s graduating tomorrow, but he’s here. Bitty has no idea why.

"So why did you come in?" Bitty asks. His tongue feels heavy, making it hard to shape words.

"Eh," Jack frowns, seeming confused by the question. "I saw a light on."

"But you've got a thing with your friends," Bitty presses. He doesn’t know why he’s pushing, except that he can't stop himself from doing it. His heart is pounding so hard in his chest that he thinks it might just surge up his throat, topple out from his mouth and leap into Jack’s hands. Jack’s face, the memory of the warmth of his body, the infinite gap between them -- all of it is too much. Jack is graduating. Bitty can only be expected to withstand so many things that he can’t have.

"Well. Yes." Jack doesn't look like someone who has an answer. He’s frowning, and Bitty thinks, deliriously, that he’s going to miss that confused expression, those drawn eyebrows, that pinched mouth. He’s going to miss all of Jack so much that he doesn’t know what to do with himself. "I... didn't think of that. I just wanted to see you."

Jack blinks, looks surprised by his own words. Bitty’s cheeks are burning, and now he’s thinking of goodbyes, thinking dangerously, telling himself, god, why not, and all of it leaks out of him as he says, "Jack --" 

He takes a lengthy step forward. Jack's face slips from quiet excitement to something else, new, something that’s impossible for Bitty to read, but his mouth parts and his full bottom lip glistens with moisture and he doesn't move away. That infinite gap between them closes into nothing as Bitty leans in excruciatingly slowly, a sweaty palm hovering over Jack's cheek. Bitty's intentions are transparent and fragile like spun glass, glaringly obvious, but Jack doesn't move away.

It seems like forever before Bitty’s palm curls over the smooth-shaven skin of Jack’s cheek. His thumb brushes over Jack’s sharp jawline and his eyes move up, up, catching on Jack’s. Bitty leans upwards on his toes and tilts closer and closer until he can feel Jack’s shaky breath on his own lips, and then he closes the distance between them and presses his mouth to Jack’s. 

There’s one petrifying millisecond when Bitty doesn’t dare to move and Jack doesn’t react, but then Jack’s mouth parts sweetly under his and his broad hands curve around the dip of Bitty’s waist to pull him closer. Bitty’s teeth drag over Jack’s damp lip and Jack’s tongue swipes over his and the whole world stands still for a few perfect, breathtaking moments.

Bitty keeps his eyes closed when he pulls away, afraid that when he’ll open them the illusion will shatter. His chest is heaving, heart hammering quick. He wants to preserve this feeling for a moment longer: his lips tingling, Jack’s breath loud in his ears, his skin hot under Bitty's palm.

Then Bitty opens his eyes and lets them find Jack’s. Neither of them says anything, suspended there, speechless, blushing in bright reds. Bitty licks his lip unconsciously, still shocked at his bravery, and a thrill goes through his body when he catches Jack's eyes dart down to follow his tongue. Jack's blush glows darker, stretching all the way to the dips of his throat and the tender curve beneath his ears. Bitty opens and closes his mouth, knowing he should say something, but all he manages to think is, Did I just do that? Did I, Eric Bittle, just kiss this boy?

He tries to find the right words, wants to say something honest like, I wanted to do that for so long, or, would you like to go on a date with me?, or even, was that okay?, but his mouth is dry and his mind is blank. The stuttered words that eventually stumble out of his mouth are, "Um. You should maybe -- uh. Your team is probably at the rink already." 

"Yeah," Jack exhales, still close enough for Bitty to feel him breathe, but he doesn't move. His eyes are bright in the dim light coming from the kitchen door, and his chest is solid against Bitty’s, and his hands only tighten their hold on Bitty’s waist. Jack says yeah, but he doesn't move. 

Bitty really doesn't want him to.