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*

People don’t recognize hockey players out in the world as often as you might think. Jack Zimmermann has known this since he was a kid growing up with an NHL father. Every once in a while, his dad would get strange looks as people tried to place him, or a random fan would figure it out and approach the family for an autograph. But really, without the gear and the helmet and with his fake teeth in, mostly Bob Zimmermann passed through life just as anonymously as anyone else.

So Jack is surprised when Providence Falconer Eric Bittle walks through the door and he recognizes him immediately.

Bittle’s maybe a little more famous than average, though, Jack thinks, in the seconds between recognizing his bright blond hair and big eyes and when Bittle is actually standing at the counter in front of him. He’s had lots of articles written about him, and there was that big interview on ESPN, and then the playoff run last season. So, it makes sense that Jack’s heart is pounding a bit and heat is creeping up his neck and into his cheeks.

“Hey there, I’m meeting up with a friend. It okay if I take a table?” Bittle asks in his lilting Georgia drawl, just like on television.

Jack realizes he’s probably supposed to say something. In fact, he’s definitely supposed to; it’s his job.

All he manages is a nod.

“You do table service?”

Jack nods again, and then clears his throat. “Ouais. Um, yes.” He manages to get his brain to engage for long enough to shove a soup-stained paper menu across the counter towards Bittle. “Anywhere’s fine.” It’s three in the afternoon, so the place is pretty empty; the dinner rush isn’t for hours yet.

“You’re a peach. I’ll just be back there.” Bittle gestures towards the dark back corner, where built-in wooden benches meet to make a little nook, more hidden from the rest of the cafe than the other tables, just the right place to sit if you don’t want to risk being noticed. So, yes, it’s definitely him.

Jack nods once more, his mouth dry, as Bittle trots away with the menu.

Eric Bittle is one of the tiny handful of out, gay, active NHL players, and by far the most well-known. Jack started following his career when he came out; there’s a well-read copy of the ESPN magazine with Bittle on the cover on his bookshelf. He’s leading the Falconers in points so far this season, and as far as Jack knows he should be playing in a game against Detroit in a few hours downtown. Hell, Jack’s planning to watch the game after he gets off work. But for now the man himself is in this hole-in-the-wall cafe, looking at his phone and calling Jack a peach.

Jack realizes he’s probably staring.

He shakes himself off and fills two glasses with ice and water, spills one all over the counter, and then takes a breath and fills it again. Then he grabs two sets of silverware cocooned in napkins and heads back to Bittle’s table.

“Can I get you something else while you wait?” Jack asks, placing the water successfully on the table, trusting his routine to get him through this.

“I’d sure love me a mocha, thank you. Extra whipped cream if you could.”

Jack doesn’t remember a mocha with extra whip being on any meal plan that he ever followed, but he bites down on that thought and just nods, dropping the silverware with a thump on the table and retreating back behind the counter as quickly as he can manage without fumbling anything else.

Thankfully, there’s a little rush after that, two girls in search of iced coffee and one of the professors from his department, Dr. Lei, who orders her usual, a short, flat latte and a scone to go. Jack gets everything going while Lei stands at the counter and chats with him, some departmental gossip about who’s getting the big office on the second floor now that Clarkson is retiring, and Jack hums and nods over the sound of the espresso grinder and tries to pretend that Eric Bittle isn’t sitting in the back corner and about to drink a mocha that Jack is making for him.

Jack drips extra chocolate over the whipped cream without even thinking about it.

After a couple of hectic minutes, the bell on the door rings closed behind Lei and the iced coffees and Jack is able to make his way over to the back corner with the mocha. Sometime during the little rush Bittle’s friend arrived, a handsome black man in a sharp button down who’s sitting casually across from Bittle sipping his ice water.

Jack wonders if it’s a date.

“What can I get for you?” Jack asks, his voice sounding oddly hollow in his head.

“Shit. I’m gonna be pulling a long night in the SciLi, so how about a four shot Americano?” Bittle’s companion says in a weary tone which makes Jack think that maybe it’s not a date, or at least not their first.

“Lord help us, Rans,” Bittle says, and then turns his gaze to Jack. “Sir, I ask you. Is that even legal?”

Jack isn’t sure what to say. “It’s legal to order coffee here,” is what comes out of his mouth.

Eric Bittle looks up at him and lets out a little giggle that makes Jack start to sweat. “Well, that’s sure good to hear!” he says cheerfully.

Jack looks down at his pad and asks again. “Need anything else?”

Bittle is still looking at him with his head at a little tilt when he says, “What do you recommend for someone who could use some protein, carbs, and a decent number of calories.”

God, it’s really him, Jack thinks again.

“Um, most of our menu is vegetarian,” Jack says, the part of his brain that used to carbo load and time his meals and care about this shit suddenly flaring back to life. “But the lentil soup is good. Comes with as much bread as you want.”

“Perfect. I’ll have a bowl and as much bread as I’m allowed by law,” Bittle says with a grin.

Jack has to look down at his pad again to keep his focus.

“And I’ll have an above-board blueberry muffin,” the other man, Rans apparently, adds.

Jack manages to mutter something like, “Coming right up,” and scoots away back to the safety of his counter before he can say anything else that makes Eric Bittle notice him.

*

The afternoon pace starts to pick up, and Jack doesn’t have time to dwell on Bittle and his date person for more than a minute or two as he pulls shots and makes sandwiches and wipes down the battered old wooden tables as customers come and go. He’s been trying to finish planning his lecture later in the week whenever he has a moment between orders, but every time he picks up his notes he finds himself instead distracted by the conversation he can overhear from Bittle’s table- mostly about what sounds like med school classes, a recent trip Bittle’s been on, and maybe something about a work-out regimen.

Jack doesn’t mean to listen. He doesn’t.

At four o’clock Jack’s watch beeps to remind him to take his afternoon meds. He’s in the middle of swallowing them down with a glass of water when Bittle and his friend stand to head for the door. Rans (or whatever) heads right out, but Bittle veers over to Jack’s counter for a moment.

“Thanks for suggesting the soup. That was the most delicious lentil soup I think I’ve ever had in my life, lord,” he says, shoving a little pile of bills into the tip jar.

Jack swallows hard. “Oh. Merci,” he says.

Bittle tilts his head at him again with that little trace of smile on his lips. “You take care.”

And then he’s gone.

Jack presses the heels of his hands to his eyeballs and tries to breathe, because that just happened. He’s fairly certain that he didn’t make a total fool of himself, but only barely, and his only consolation is that since he’s never seen Bittle in the Roastery before, he’s never going to see him again.

Except on television in a few hours. He sighs into his hands.

“Hey man, can I get some service?” an impatient voice asks.

Back to work.

*

Jack watches the Falconers lose to the Redwings from the privacy of his own place later that night, response papers waiting for him, ignored. Bittle gets a goal and an assist, and Jack feels weirdly proud, like he had something to do with it.

He turns off the television as soon as the game is over, before he can get sucked into the post-game, and sets to work on his grading.

*

The next few days are busy. Jack is TAing for two classes this semester as well as taking a couple of seminars and trying to make some headway on his own research. He’s teaching a particularly challenging section for Perone’s Nineteenth Century Conflict course, mostly owing to one kid who seems hellbent on disagreeing with anything anyone says during discussion, including Jack.

He doesn’t have another shift at the cafe until Thursday, when he’s scheduled to close. He hauls a big bag of reading along with him across campus; working close usually means he’ll be pretty bored for the last few hours as the Roastery fills with tired undergrads who sip drip coffee, tap at their laptops, and leave tiny tips.

The Roastery is just on the edge of the Brown campus on a side street off of Thayer. It’s in the basement of an old building across from the Sciences Library, with some nice, refurbished apartments above; he’s actually thought about moving out of student housing and renting one of them, but it’s always ended up feeling like too much of a hassle.

Jack takes the three steps down to the door at a trot. He’s almost late.

His co-worker Larissa is behind the counter; she looks up as he comes in and then snaps into action.

“Jack, thank fuck. I’ve gotta run or I’ll be late for this art installation thing I’m supposed to be at,” Larissa says, pulling off her Roastery apron before Jack is even behind the counter.

Jack nods and looks around. The place is about half full. “Oh. Sorry,” he says.

“Not on you, Zimmermann. I’m the one with the stupid ass scheduling mash up. Folks at table one probably want a refill soon, table four ordered out but then just sat down, and the guy at table seven is probably ready to be cleared and get his check. Can you take care of my tips for me?”

“Yeah, of course,” Jack says, sliding his heavy bag off his shoulder in the little back room off the coffee counter and grabbing for his own apron. “What’s the thing?”

“Tell you after. Hell, I’ll invite you next time,” Larissa says, throwing her bag over her shoulder. “Owe you one, Jack.” She actually runs, and the bell rings behind her as she goes.

She’s out the door before Jack can even finish tying his apron.

He takes a minute to breathe, aware that his own heart rate has spiked simply from being in the same room with Larissa’s brief outburst. He gets a new cleaning rag and wipes down the front counter in slow strokes, just to resettle himself. Then he signs in on the clipboard in the office, resets the take-out cups the way he likes them, and empties the tip jar into an envelope before starting to tackle the list of tasks she threw at him. He grabs the drip coffee pot and starts a pass through, filling up empties and taking a couple of orders. He glances over his shoulder as he finishes wiping down table six to see who else remains.

That’s when he realizes that Eric Bittle is sitting at table seven, waiting for his check.

Jack’s learned a lot about managing his anxiety over the past ten years, from the day he’d come clean to his parents at sixteen, through quitting hockey, and all the rocky way into his current PhD program. But seeing Bittle back again, sitting at the same tucked-away table, makes his hands shake and his heart race in a way he’s not sure he knows how to control.

He walks back behind the counter for a moment, hoping it doesn’t seem too much like he’s running away. He fusses with some pastries in the display case, trying to calm himself. There’s really no good reason to get so worked up about a guy wanting a cup of coffee and some food, no matter how important his existence is to Jack.

He grits his teeth and tears Bittle’s check from the printer.

Bittle looks up when Jack approaches. “Oh! Hey there,” he says to Jack in a warm tone.

Jack reaches for the empty soup bowl and mug sitting on the table, trying not to look at Bittle. “Let me clear this for you.”

“Lentil soup was still heavenly,” Bittle says.

“Oh?”

Bittle’s face is kind of wildly perfect, his big eyes staring right at Jack. “I was in the other day?”

Jack bites his lip. “Sure. Yeah. Hey.” Jack keeps the dishes balanced in one hand. “Thanks for coming in again.” Just like any other customer. He sets Bittle’s check on the table.

“Actually, before you leave that...” Here Bittle actually pauses for long enough that Jack is forced to look over at him again. “I was hoping I could get another latte? Three shots of vanilla?”

Jack swallows. Bittle had been pulling his coat on, but he’s pulling his arm back out of the sleeve and crossing his arms on the table in front of him.

“Oh, um. Sure.” Jack awkwardly picks the check back up from the edge of the table.

Bittle grins a little. “No French today?”

“Huh?”

“Just noticed that last time.”

Jack isn’t sure, since he’s rarely sure about anything, but it’s almost as if Bittle is trying to start a conversation with him.

“Sorry about that.”

“Oh, no. It was sweet. Pay me no mind,” Bittle says with a little wave of his hand. “But I will take a piece of pumpkin spice bread with the coffee.”

Jack is balancing dishes and a check wallet and his face feels like it’s on fire, but he manages to splutter a reply.

“Ça marche. Une minute.”

He walks away before Bittle can say anything else.

*

Jack avoids the back of the cafe as much as he can while Bittle sips his latte and eats his bread in little chunks. Other customers come and go, keeping Jack plenty busy. He sneaks glances back to table seven when he can. Bittle has a book with him, which, after years in hockey locker rooms, seems just as surprising as everything else about this visit.

Jack peeks over while he assembles two hummus plates for a study group at table three. Bittle’s got his book opened to the very first chapter, and it doesn’t look like light reading.

He can’t ignore a customer forever, so after delivering the hummus, Jack steels himself for a visit to the back corner.

“How was everything?” he asks Bittle in English, though the French sits on his tongue, tempting.

Bittle looks up from his book, looking a bit haggard from his reading, one side of his hair mussed like he’s been pulling at it. “Oh, hello again, you. Yes, everything was fine. Though I must admit, I'm not sure that pumpkin bread was quite up to the level of the lentil soup. I mean, it was tasty, there was nothing wrong with it! In fact, don't listen to me. I'm just overly critical because nothing ever seems to live up to my own five-star pumpkin bread."

Jack almost laughs, because apparently NHL star Eric Bittle is also a baker. “You think yours is better?” he manages to say.

Bittle looks at him with a little glimmer in his eye. “I may just have to bring in a loaf and let you see for yourself.”

Jack isn’t sure what he’s supposed to say to that. A little part of him feels defensive on behalf of his workplace. Another more pleasant part of him gets a sort of fluttery interest in the idea that Eric Bittle might have a reason to return again. He hopes neither of those feelings show on his face as he stacks Bittle’s dishes on his arm.

“The manager is named Tara if you want to leave her a sample,” is what he says.

Bittle gives him a long look that Jack really can’t interpret at all, except that Bittle’s not smiling for the first time since they started speaking.

“Alright. Tara it is,” he replies.

“I’ll get your check,” Jack says.

“I suppose you will,” Bittle replies with a little shake of his head.

As Jack starts to move away from the table, Bittle sighs and lets the book in his hands flop closed with a soft whump.

Jack looks back at the sound and then almost drops Bittle’s dishes.

“You’re reading Orella Ellison’s new Lincoln biography,” Jack says before he can stop himself.

Bittle looks up at him with his big eyes and hums, “Hmm?” before looking down at the book he’s holding. “Oh this? Yes, I suppose I am. You know it?” In contrast to the moment before, Bittle’s tone is warm again, the little gentle smile curving his lips.

Jack has to swallow hard to keep himself steady.

“Yeah,” Jack says. He’s teaching the third chapter next week. “I’ve read it.”

“Then you are a better man than me, sir,” Bittle says with a little huff.

Jack almost laughs again. “How’s that?”

“Oh goodness. My well-intentioned father bought this for me last Christmas and I’m afraid I’m not a big reader. I might have told him a teeny white lie that I’d, um, finished it last month. But now he and my momma are coming up for a visit and so…” Here Bittle gestures broadly at the book as if its very existence is explanation enough. “Can you give me any encouragement? Did you like it?”

Jack licks his lips, eyes on the cover of Bittle’s book, trying not to panic at the fact that Eric Bittle is reading about Lincoln and seems to be casually telling him about his upcoming family visit. “Euh, if you just started, the introduction is pretty labored, so I’d skip that if you’re just trying to read it for enjoyment.”

“Oh yeah?” Bittle asks, eyeing his book and flipping through a few pages.

“Yeah. The pace picks up after the introduction,” Jack says, warming to the topic. “The level of research into Lincoln’s home life is worth it, especially the exploration of his relationship with his sons- Robert mostly- and with Mary Todd. Orella is an excellent historian. She guest lectured here last spring. Her writing is really transporting, especially the way she integrates primary sources into the text.”

Jack realizes in the middle of this speech that Bittle is looking up at him slightly open-mouthed. Jack stops talking and then looks at the pile of dishes balanced on his arm.

“If that helps…”

Bittle smiles. “Well, goodness. Thanks.”

“Pardon, je dois...” Jack says, his face hot. “I’ll get your check.”

He bolts for safety behind the counter.

*

Bittle has his coat on when Jack returns with his bill a few minutes of deep breathing later. Bittle opens his wallet and throws cash onto the table without even looking at the amount.

“Hey, I do have to run,” Bittle says, shoving his copy of Ellison into his bag as he speaks, “but I sure could use someone to fill me in on this book before my daddy gets into town. Could I stop by again some time? I’d pay you in pumpkin bread.”

Jack’s mouth is so dry he’s not sure he can get words to come out. “Euh, sure. Okay.”

“When’s your next shift?”

“Uh,” Jack manages to get his brain to engage just enough to remember. “Saturday. I’m here from four to eight.”

Bittle pauses a moment like he’s running that date and time through his own filter for conflicts. Jack has the Falconers schedule memorized himself; they have a home matinee game on Saturday. Bittle would be crazy to try and come by the Roastery after.

“Saturday it is!” Bittle says, hopping up from the table. “I’m Eric, by the way.”

Jack swallows. He almost says I know, but instead he just stares for a moment and then says, “Jack.”

“Until Saturday then, Jack.”

And in a blur of coat and bag and blond hair, Bittle is gone.

*

Jack How can I make a Lincoln biography interesting?

Shitty Uh, dude. Isn’t that your job?

Jack Not in class. Just in conversation.

Shitty Apologies to Abe, but I don’t think that’s possible my friend.

Jack You got me interested in torts your first year of law school.

Shitty Who wouldn’t be interested in torts?

Jack Lincoln is interesting.

Shitty So you don’t need my help then?

Jack Shits.

Shitty Okay, fine. Who’re you trying to impress?

Jack stares at his phone for several minutes, considering the question. He trusts his friend more than anyone. When they’d roomed together during their Masters programs, he hadn’t been able to hide a thing from him.

A kid over at table three signals to him, so Jack takes a minute to go refill coffee and clean a few tables before he responds.

Jack Met an interesting guy. He wants to know more about Lincoln.

Shitty Holy shit. That’s perfect. Are you sure this wasn’t a wet dream?

Jack blushes to himself, hoping no one in the Roastery is paying any attention to him.

Jack Never fucking mind, B.M.

Shitty Ouch. Okay okay. Seriously? My advice is just be your damn fine self, Jacko. I love you and you are worthy of love. So stop overthinking and just do the thing.

Jack bites at his lip until it hurts a little.

Jack Okay, yeah. Thanks.

Shitty You are welcome sir.

Jack But should I just start in on his life from childhood or maybe jump in with the big stuff, like Gettysburg? Or maybe some quotes?

Shitty Jack.

Jack Right. Just be myself.

Jack’s phone falls silent. He leans back against the counter, trying to take some deep breaths and not think too hard about how he is being himself. Right now. This is it.

His text alert sounds once more.

Shitty When do you need me to be there?

Jack is so relieved he could almost cry.

Jack Tonight? I’m closing, so after ten?

Shitty See you in a couple hours, babe.

*

Talking to Shitty helps, like it always does. Jack tells him everything as they sip their Natty Lights and munch on nachos in Jack’s little apartment. Shitty listens and nods and laughs at the right times, but then he clears his throat and looks Jack straight in the eye.

“You gotta tell this guy you know who he is.”

Jack shakes his head. “It doesn’t matter. He just needs to be able to pretend to his dad that he read this book. It’s not like a date or anything.”

Shitty’s eyes narrow and Jack has to look away from him. “Oh, so you needed me to haul ass from Boston through construction on 95 because you’re having a casual chat with this guy that means nothing to you.”

Jack’s stomach hurts. “It’s too late to say anything.”

“Jack, buddy, I know you, right? You can’t even say this dude’s name without getting all awkward.”

Jack bites at his lip. He knows.

*

The next two days pass in a flurry of teaching and grading during the day, and fretting long into the night about what might happen on Saturday evening.

He spends over an hour deciding what to wear to his shift on Saturday, keeping one eye on the Falconers game on his laptop the entire time. It’s a rough one, with two big fights in the second period before Jack has to logout and dash across campus to make it to work on time. He screws up five drink orders right off the bat, which he never does. Larissa notices; she doesn’t say anything, just gives him curious looks as she assembles hummus plates and tempeh bowls.

Jack checks the game on his phone between orders. The Falconers win in a close one, ending around five o’clock. Bittle is named second star and Jack takes a few minutes of his break to watch highlights, including a couple of wild defensive blocks that Bittle makes look easy.

Bittle, who said he might stop by the Roastery in a couple hours.

He manages to refocus after that for a while, swallowing down his meds and distracting himself with Larissa, who is in one of her gossipy moods. She tells him an epic saga about a cute ceramics student she has a crush on in her program at RISD and getting wasted at a party with them recently, and then gives him the low-down on some living sculpture project that she wants him to attend with her so they can make fun of it together. Jack laughs and agrees.

But as eight o’clock and the end of his shift nears, Jack’s ability to focus on anything dwindles down to nothing. Bittle’s probably not coming, but what if he is? And maybe he should have worn the dark blue button down instead of a Henley? And maybe starting with Lincoln’s assassination makes no sense?

After his third attempt at a decaf mochaccino (first try is not decaf, second grabbed the caramel instead of the chocolate), Larissa elbows him hard in the ribs.

“Okay, Zimmermann. Spill it. It’s been all afternoon. What’s going on?”

“It’s nothing.”

“It’s not nothing, Jack.”

Just then the bell on the door rings and Eric Bittle walks in.

Bittle looks like he just came out of the shower, his hair wet and extra curly, a big thick scarf wrapped around his neck against the autumn chill. He’s got on a wool coat and mittens and is carrying a little loaf of bread wrapped in cellophane and tied with a ribbon.

Jack can’t breathe.

“Hello there, Jack!” he says with a broad smile. Two hours ago this man was slamming into defensemen twice his size and winning scrums for puck control on national television.

“Ah. Who’s this?” Larissa murmurs under her breath, just loud enough for Jack to hear. He shifts his foot over enough to step on her toes, hoping she gets the message.

“Brought the promised pumpkin bread. You still available?” Bittle asks brightly, stepping up to the counter. His cheeks are quite red; must be cold outside, or maybe he’s still warm from the shower.

That is not a good direction for his thoughts to take. Jack clears his throat.

“Euh. Yeah. I am,” Jack mumbles, and he can feel Larissa’s gaze boring into him from the side. “I just need a minute to finish up.”

Larissa elbows him gently. “Oh, I got it, Jack,” she says from his side. “You go on.”

He meets her gaze, her knowing look so intense that he thinks she might even wink at him. He swallows hard.

It’s not a date. It’s nothing.

Shit.

Jack turns back to Bittle at the counter. “I’ll just be a minute.”

“Sounds good! I might take that same minute to order up a tall latte, if I could,” he says to Larissa. “Four pumps of irish cream?”

Larissa smiles at Bittle and then back at Jack and Jack wants to melt into the floor. “Coming right up,” she says, as Jack retreats to the back room.

His hands are shaking as he slips off his apron and hangs it on its hook. He takes some long, calming breaths, then gathers his coat, toque, and book bag and reaches for the clipboard to sign out.

It’s nothing. He’s helping some guy in need because he just happens to know a lot about Abraham Lincoln. After this, it will be done and he can go back to watching Falconers games in peace and laughing about how he once met that Bittle guy and helped him out. It’s nothing.

His signature is hardly legible as he logs his hours and grabs his things.

*

Bittle is hanging out by the door with a take-out cup in his hand. He looks incredibly warm and soft in his layers, the steam seeping out from the lid of his drink, his cheeks that soft pink.

Larissa steps up next to Jack as he stares and murmurs in his ear, “You better text me later with deets, Zimms. It’s nothing, my ass.”

Jack glances down at her and bites at his lip. She smiles and nudges him with her shoulder. He takes one more steadying breath and steps out from behind the safety of the counter.

Bittle looks up as Jack approaches and smiles.

“Want to just take a table here to talk?” Jack manages to ask, just as he planned. So far, so good.

Bittle shrugs. “I was thinking maybe we could walk around the neighborhood? I do love this season and I don’t get up this way as often as I’d like.” Which makes Jack pause, seeing as how Bittle’s been in the Roastery three times in the last week.

“Ouais, okay. A walk,” Jack says, stumbling a bit over his thoughts. He puts down his bag so that he can pull on his coat and hat.

“This is for you,” Bittle says, passing Jack the little loaf of bread. “Didn’t bring one for the manager, seeing as how I don’t intend to start a baking business. But I did want you to try it.”

Jack takes the loaf and gently stows it in his bag. “Merci. I’m sure it’s delicious.”

Bittle smiles with his entire face. “Oh, it is. But I won't say another word about it. I wouldn’t want there to be any hard feelings.”

Jack has to look at the floor to keep his voice steady. “Shall we go?”

The evening is crisp and chilly, but Jack realizes immediately that a walk is a good idea. Being side-by-side means that he doesn’t need to look at Bittle too often, which takes some pressure off. He feels his heart rate even out after the first quiet block, where their only conversation is about which direction to go.

Besides, if they’d stayed at the Roastery, Larissa would have been hassling him all night. So there’s that.

“So…” Jack says eventually, “...what would be helpful? About the book?”

“Honestly, I don’t even know, hon. I feel like an ass even asking. I know I should just read the goldarn thing. It’s pathetic, ain’t it?” Bittle’s voice is so musical, Jack feels himself smiling into his scarf.

“It is over five hundred pages.”

“Ugh, I know. I’m afraid I’m more of a binge watcher than a binge reader,” Bittle says as they turn onto the next street. “But my dad never was too clear on who I am.”

Jack takes in that piece of sharing and swallows hard. “It’s okay. You want a summary? Should be enough to convince your father you read it.”

“Yes, please,” Bittle says, and Jack makes the mistake of looking over at him, big brown eyes gazing up at Jack hopefully, momentarily knocking years of American Civil War scholarship out of his head.

“Euh, so...uh…” Jack focuses on the line of old maples along the sidewalk, their fall colors dimmed in the darkness. He can do this. “Uh, so. Yeah. Ellison’s book is mostly about Lincoln’s home life, and how the personal intersects with the moral and political at key moments in his history,” he starts.

“What does that mean?” Bittle asks with just enough interest in his voice that Jack is able to steel himself up and go on.

“Well, take the death of his son Willie…”

*

The Ellison biography takes them on a long loop through the neighborhoods on the east side of campus. Jack talks and Bittle listens, asking occasional questions and making appropriately interested sounds, and only every block or so does Jack startle for a moment and remember that Eric Bittle of the Providence Falconers is the man listening to him at his side.

“I could go on,” Jack says after he’s exhausted himself trying to simplify everything that was going on for Lincoln when he went to speak at Gettysburg, “but I can end there.”

Bittle actually comes to a stop on the sidewalk, so Jack does too, and turns to look at him. “I’ve got more than enough for Coach… I mean, to convince my dad that I read the dang book. But Jack...” Bittle looks up at Jack with his head at a little tilt. He’s so small for an NHL player—just five foot seven, which Jack definitely should not know, but does. “...that was unreal. How the heck do you know so dang much?”

Jack stares down at his shoes again for a moment. “I’m a history grad student studying the Civil War period. Working on my PhD.”

“And you were going to tell me this when?” Bittle asks, but with a grin.

“Just now, I guess,” Jack replies, feeling heat creep back up into his cheeks again. He wishes they could go back to walking.

“So he serves up a delicious lentil soup by day and masters history by night,” Bittle says, and Jack isn’t sure what to make of his teasing tone.

“Usually the other way around, actually,” Jack says. “I work a lot of closing shifts at the cafe. And I TA for a nine a.m. class.”

Bittle laughs. “Well, whatever. It seems you were just the man I needed, Jack. Thank you,” he says, which does nothing to help Jack’s pulse slow. Thankfully after that, Bittle starts moving again and Jack falls into pace at his side.

They drift into a silence for the next few blocks and Jack realizes he isn’t sure what else they could talk about. It’s happening just the way he expected. He’s helped this guy and now it is over, and in the next block they will be right by Jack’s apartment building, say their farewells, and that will be that.

It really was nothing.

Jack pulls up as they get to the sidewalk in front of his stoop. “Euh, sorry. This is me.” He nods up to the building.

Bittle turns and looks up at the place, an old building of on-campus grad student apartments. “You live here?”

Jack nods. “Yeah.”

“It’s real cute.”

Jack imagines for a minute what Bittle’s house must be like, with his multi-year contract and all the bonuses and sponsorships from the Cup run and who he is. Jack’s rolling that cute over in his mind when Bittle speaks again.

“You gonna invite me up?”

Jack has to double-check that Bittle’s actually said something more and that it was directed at him. He looks behind himself just to be sure no one else is there. “Euh, what?”

Bittle takes a step back and digs his hands deep in his coat pockets, like maybe he’s not sure about what he said, either. “Or not. It’s fine.” He pauses and looks away into the night as he says, “I thought… maybe I just read this whole thing wrong, hon.”

Jack’s stomach flips a little at what Bittle might be trying to say. His mouth goes dry, so he licks his lips and tries to get a coherent sentence out. In the light from the streetlamp, Bittle’s eyes are so clear.

“I, uh, no. Come on up.”

*

In the two minutes it takes for Jack to get out his keys, unlock the door, and lead Eric Bittle up the creaky staircase to his apartment, Jack’s brain manages to spin from a gentle tumble to a wild hurricane of panic. Did he fold his laundry? Is his underwear just sitting out on the sofa? When did he last clean the bathroom? Does he have anything to offer Bittle to eat? Oh fuck, what random Falconers shit does he have just lying around his place? Did he put his skates in the closet? Is this actually a date? Is he on a date with Eric Bittle?

“This is so cozy,” Bittle says as Jack leads him into his living room.

Jack scans the place quickly, heart pounding, and is relieved to see that he’s managed to leave the room fairly tidy, with nary a pair of boxer briefs or a copy of Hockey News in sight.

“So many books, Jack!”

It’s true, the room is covered in them, on his many shelves, all over the table that runs along the back of the sofa, filling the arm of the sofa, piled on the floor. Jack hasn’t really noticed before just how deeply buried he is in his studies.

“Euh. You want a beer?” Jack asks as he pulls off his toque and drops his bag by the sofa. It’s easier than trying to say anything else.

“Sure. Okay.” Bittle is unwinding himself from his scarf and gazing around the room.

Jack gets a hard jolt of panic watching NHL star Eric Bittle take in the details of his humble home, so he retreats quickly to the kitchen to breathe and check for snacks and beer. He’s pretty sure he has some left from Shitty’s visit. It takes him a moment to realize that he’s still holding Bittle’s pumpkin bread in one cramped hand.

“You want a slice of your pumpkin bread?” he calls out from the kitchen.

“Oh! Don’t mind if I do, so long as you’re willing to share!” Bittle’s lilting voice replies.

Jack swallows. He can do this.

“Coming right up,” he says.

From the living room he hears Bittle laugh. “Still sounds like you’re at work.”

Jack feels his face heat in the privacy of the kitchen as he slices into the (super moist, great smelling) pumpkin bread. “Sorry,” he says.

“No, it’s sweet.”

Jack’s heart stutters; there it is again. Sweet, cute, hon, you gonna invite me up, you’re just the man I needed. Jack knows he can be dense, and he desperately wants to call Shitty to double check, but this sure feels like flirting.

He pops open two cans of Natty Light and carefully balances them with his little plate of pumpkin bread slices and steels himself up with a deep breath to head back into the living room. Bittle has taken off his layers of outerwear and is sitting on Jack’s old sofa in a nice plaid button down, like he might be staying for a while. Jack swallows and heads to the other end of the sofa, placing the food and drinks between piles of books on the coffee table.

“Perfect,” Bittle says with a smile, picking up the beer set closer to him. He takes an impressive swig and then just keeps swallowing. Jack watches as he drains at least half the can in one go.

Bittle looks over at Jack as he sets the beer back down on the table. “Oh shit,” he says, his cheeks growing a dazzling shade of pink. “Sometimes my years as a frat boy catch up with me. Too many keg stands and beer pong tournaments. My mama did teach me manners and I do know how to sip, I promise.”

Jack laughs, his mind still replaying the movement of Bittle’s throat as he’d downed his beer. “No, it’s fine.” Jack picks up his own beer and downs half of it in a long swallow as well. “I’ve chugged my fair share myself.”

Bittle’s smile literally lights up his entire face. “You gonna try my pumpkin bread?”

Jack nods, his heart still racing. It’s got to be flirting. “Ouais. Bien sûr.”

“There’s that French, again,” Bittle says, adjusting around on the sofa to get more comfortable. Like he’s settling in for a talk. “But French-Canadian, right?” he asks.

Jack bites his lip and nods. What the hell is even happening?

*

Bittle is good at keeping up a conversation, Jack realizes an hour and a couple of beers later. They’ve talked about Montreal (though Bittle never mentions why he’s been there so often and Jack doesn’t ask), about Jack’s apartment, more about the Civil War era. Bittle continues to settle in, pulling one thick leg up under him and draping an arm along the back of the sofa. Jack finds himself mirroring Bittle’s moves, so that their hands end up almost touching along the sofa back. Jack is having a hard time thinking about anything else.

Bittle’s into this. Jack doesn’t even need Shitty to confirm anymore. He feels a little floaty and unreal, but can keep going as long as he doesn’t think about the magazines tucked into his book shelf with Bittle on the cover.

The pumpkin bread is so delicious they’ve polished off half the loaf.

They are debating about something (favorite bagels) when Bittle lets his hand casually drift onto Jack’s, his fingers brushing against the skin on the back of Jack’s hand.

It’s not an accident. Bittle keeps up a steady stream of talk, but all Jack can pay attention to is the feel of Bittle’s fingers bumping along his knuckles and tracing the soft area where his thumb and fingers meet. It’s terrifying and electrifying and no one has touched Jack like that for longer than he cares to admit.

He’s also had two and a half beers, which is surely part of why he's able to do what he does next:

He flips over his hand so that he can intertwine his fingers with Bittle’s and hold on. Bittle’s voice comes to a stop and he looks over at where their hands are suddenly connected.

“Jack.”

“Uh,” Jack says, trying to keep his voice steady, “You weren’t reading this wrong.” He knows it is a complete non sequitur. Bittle's lips form a little o of surprise.

It’s easy for Jack to lean in and kiss him. He just gets the corner of his mouth, not a direct hit. Bittle’s skin is really soft, none of the hard stubble that peppers Jack’s cheeks by this time in the evening.

When Jack pulls back, Bittle is staring at him with those big eyes, and for an awful second Jack is worried that he’s made a mistake and overstepped himself.

“Well thank the good lord,” Bittle says quietly, and Jack breathes out his panic as Bittle closes the space between them again.

Bittle presses his mouth against Jack’s, surprisingly tentative for a second kiss. Jack lets his free hand drift up into Bittle’s blond curls and that seems to be all of the encouragement Bittle needs. His lips part and the kiss mellows and deepens and Jack’s entire body reacts as Bittle’s tongue darts out in little shocks against Jack’s lower lip.

Okay. So. He’s making out with Eric Bittle.

Jack gets lost in it for a while, giving himself over to the feel of Bittle’s lips on his, to Bittle’s hand sliding up under his Henley and against his back, fingers kneading gently into his skin. He doesn’t want to stop holding Bittle’s hand, but lets go so he can get both hands into Bittle’s hair and grab on, deepen their kisses, and try not to think too hard about any of it.

A while later, Bittle tugs at the hemline of Jack’s shirt and asks against his lips, “Can I take this off, Jack?”

So. Maybe more than making out.

“Ouais,” Jack says, and that seems to drive Bittle a little bit wild because he lunges at Jack, pulling at his shirt and kissing him like he’s starving.

They both tussle out of their shirts while maintaining some sort of sloppy kissing. With their shirts off, the fact that Jack’s on his knees on his second-hand sofa grappling with Eric Bittle, Providence Falconer, becomes crystal clear. The man is a professional athlete, holy hell. Jack’s a pretty open minded guy about physique, but shit, Bittle is muscular in a limber and agile way that really turns him the fuck on.

“Crisse,” Jack mutters, “si beau.”

“You really gotta keep doing that,” Bittle says, but before Jack can remember a single other word in French, Bittle has him flattened back against the arm of the sofa and is sucking and kissing down to his belly, fingers carding through the dark hair on his chest. It feels so good that Jack manages to keep his anxiety about his own body in check; he still runs every morning and uses the machines at Nelson when he can, but he’s not as fit as he used to be.

“Wanted to do this the first day I met you, Jack,” Bittle says, his mouth tickling the skin just above Jack’s belt.

“Mm hm,” is all Jack can get out in response. He watches like it's in slow motion as Bittle undoes his belt and pops open the top buttons on his jeans, his mouth and tongue dragging along the same path.

Fuck.

There’s a pause as Bittle sits back, breath coming hard, and looks right at Jack. His cheeks and lips are rosy and his hair is a tousled mess. He’s gorgeous.

“You okay if we keep going, hon? Cause I sure do want to.”

They haven’t talked about anything real. They are strangers. Jack watched Bittle’s highlights on his phone a few hours ago and they’ve never mentioned anything about it.

“Yeah, let's keep going,” Jack huffs out. He gets his hand back into that perfect hair and pulls Bittle down onto him and into a deep and filthy kiss.

*

Jack finally comes, what feels like hours later, from the most intense, teasing blow job of his life, Bittle somehow bringing him back and forth from the edge over and over.

After that they end up on the floor next to Jack’s piles of books for Nineteenth Century Conflict and Jack repays Bittle in kind, spending almost as much time lavishing attention on Bittle’s solid hockey thighs and ass as to his sweet dick (holy shit, he’s sucking Eric Bittle’s dick). Bittle pulls Jack up to him at the last minute so Jack has to finish him by jacking him off, Bittle kissing him so deeply through his orgasm that Jack can feel his every jolt and shock of pleasure, right into his core.

It’s, uh. Good. Real good.

Jack collapses onto Bittle, the both of them sweating and hot on Jack’s cheap rug from the Brown bookstore that he needs to vacuum.

Coming down takes a few minutes. Bittle’s skin feels so good against him, their breaths matching and Bittle’s fingers still softly moving on Jack’s lower back.

Jack’s never done anything like this, ever, just jumped straight to the physical. He’s actually not sure what he’s supposed to do next.

“You need some water?” he asks, just to say something, when he realizes how thirsty he is himself.

“Yes, please,” Bittle huffs from under Jack, placing a small kiss on Jack’s throat. Jack must have a good six inches and maybe forty pounds on Bittle, but Bittle doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to get out from under Jack’s body.

Not really wanting to, Jack slides off of him and locates his briefs a few feet away to slide into for the walk to the kitchen. Bittle eases up onto his elbows, his abs crunching visibly, his dick soft in a nest of blond hair, thighs like pillars.

Eric Bittle is naked on Jack’s floor. It’s a bit much.

Jack makes a dash for the safety of the kitchen.

He takes his time getting two glasses of water, allowing his tingling body to slowly calm. So, he just had impulsive sex with a guy he’s only just met. People do that, right? It’s okay to do that?

When he walks back out with the glasses, Bittle is sitting on the edge of the sofa, his jeans pulled up and his nice shirt on but still unbuttoned. Jack puts down the glasses on the coffee table and then grabs his shirt from the sofa and pulls it over his head.

Bittle looks up at him. “That was real fun,” he says.

Jack’s heart stutters a little. “Not what I was expecting,” Jack says, and then adds, “but yeah. Definitely.”

“I’m sorry I have to go. It got so late. I have an early day tomorrow.” Bittle takes a big gulp of his water and then reaches for his socks.

Jack’s stomach churns a little; tomorrow’s probably a travel day for the Falconers to get to their game in Edmonton. He resists the temptation to tell Bittle he knows why he needs to get home, to get that out in the open. Instead, he says, “I can walk you back to your car. The Roastery is only a few blocks down if we go the direct route.”

Bittle smiles. “That’s real sweet, hon. I’ll be alright. You’re already home, after all.”

Jack’s stomach hurts. “I can at least walk you downstairs.”

“Okay, Jack. Such a gentleman.”

Jack grapples on his jeans and Bittle buttons up his shirt and piles into his extra layers. They don’t say anything more, and Jack’s brain is running a hundred miles an hour trying to figure out what the right thing to do is.

At the bottom of the stairs, just before he leaves, Bittle stops, turns abruptly, and crowds into Jack’s space, grabbing his shirt and pulling Jack down into a heated kiss.

Jack’s still reeling a bit when Bittle says, “Thanks, Jack. For all of it.”

And then he’s out the door into the cold night air, and gone.

*

When Jack gets back upstairs, his bare feet icy, he collapses onto his bed and pulls out his phone.

Jack So. It wasn’t nothing.

Jack It was something.

It takes a few minutes to get the text alert back.

Larissa Told ya

Larissa That guy was cute

Jack Yep.

Something’s been nagging at Jack.

Jack Not sure how he knew I’d be interested though. He only knows me from work. I thought he just wanted to hang out.

Larissa Your pin?

Jack Huh?

Larissa On your apron? That you wear at work? The Bi Pride pin?

Jack Oh. The one you pinned on me last June?

Jack I forgot it was still there.

Larissa Yep

Larissa Right next to your maple leaf pin and your nametag

Larissa You’re welcome

Jack Yeah. Thanks.

*

His text alert pings again a few minutes later.

Shitty How did the non-date go?

Jack Fine.

Jack We had sex.

Shitty HOLY FUCK. Jesus, Zimmermann. Warn a man. I think I just had a mild stroke.

Jack Sorry. Having a hard time thinking about anything else.

Shitty I guess.

Shitty Talk tomorrow?

Jack Yeah

*

Jack rinses off in the shower and brushes his teeth, eyeing himself critically in the mirror and wondering what Bittle might see in him. He doesn’t have anything except grading to get up for in the morning. But as usual, his fucked-up brain won’t give him a break.

The euphoria wears off once he's lying alone in bed, his churning mind keeping him awake as reality sinks in: this must be something that Bittle does. He’s a celebrity, in his way. He must do this all the time, flirting with anyone he wants and getting laid whenever he gets the urge. Jack’s father’s friends tended to be from the family-man side of the hockey world, but even as a kid he wasn't that naive; women hung around the periphery of every hockey team he’d been a part of and he knew why they were there.

No reason Bittle wouldn’t do exactly the same thing with men. With him.

This was just a whim Bittle had because he liked Jack’s accent and he’d read the right book.

Would Jack have had sex with the guy if he wasn’t famous?

Probably. But maybe not.

He doesn’t sleep for a long time.

*

Jack’s phone ringing is what wakes him up in the morning. He’s sluggish from lack of sleep, but the thought that it might be Bittle calling gets him to throw the warm covers off and trot over to his phone.

It’s only when he picks it up that he remembers that they never even exchanged phone numbers.

The call is from Shitty. As promised, Jack fills him in on his evening, leaving out most of the gory details though Shitty pesters him incessantly (he’s worse than Larissa, honestly). Shitty is appropriately impressed by Jack being so spontaneous, and they’ve known each other for long enough that his kind teasing actually makes Jack feel a little better about the whole thing.

“Did you ever tell this dude you know he’s a pro hockey hot shot?” Shitty asks again.

Jack’s puttering around the living room, clearing up the beer cans, bread crumbs, and the last of his discarded clothing. “No. But it’s fine. I’m pretty sure I’ll never see him again.”

As he says that, he lifts up a plate from the coffee table to find a little slip of paper beneath. In an unfamiliar hand, it says, If you want to reach me followed by a phone number.

“Oh,” Jack says into the phone.

“What happened, brah,” Shitty asks.

“He left a phone number. I just found it.”

Jack can practically hear the grin on Shitty’s face. “Holy shit, my Canadian stallion. You must’ve put out good.”

Jack’s heart is hammering. He picks up the little paper and runs his thumb over the words.

“Shitty, what do I do?”

“Call him sometime?”

When they end the call a few minutes later, Jack’s still staring at the paper.

*

The next few days pass in a haze. Jack throws himself into grading and section planning, trying to fill up the hours of the day so that he doesn’t have to stew endlessly on what to do about seeing Bittle again. He’s still fairly certain he was just a random fling for Bittle, something to pass an evening and nothing more. But that little slip of paper burns a hole in Jack’s brain for days.

He knows that Bittle’s on a five-day, three-game road trip. He watches all the games and learns that it’s really damn arousing to see a guy you’ve slept with body check another dude into the boards and then score a wrap-around goal unassisted. On Tuesday afternoon, Jack pulls his skates out of the closet and goes to the rec skate at Meehan for an hour before he’s on at the Roastery. It feels good to be on the ice again. During their shift that evening, Larissa pesters almost all of the details out of him about his night with Bittle.

The whole thing starts to feel like it was a dream.

On Wednesday afternoon, sitting in the back office on his break, after thinking about it for the previous seventy-two hours straight, Jack pulls out his phone and calls the number that Bittle had left for him. It rings four times and he’s about to hang up when voicemail clicks on. Bittle hasn’t set up a message; it’s just the generic recording that tells Jack nothing except that he has reached the number he dialed.

The beep comes before Jack can get his thoughts together.

“Uh, this is Jack. From, um, Saturday. I found your note. So. Just calling.”

Jack rattles off his number, wondering how many calls like this Bittle gets from one night stands. He can only imagine it’s many.

Maybe it’s not even Bittle’s phone number.

He should never have called.

*

Jack’s text alert buzzes on Thursday morning when he’s almost finished with his run. He resists looking at it and keeps up his pace all the way to his porch before popping out his ear buds and thumbing his phone over to his texts.

There’s a message from an unfamiliar number. Jack clicks it open.

It’s Eric. Got your call. You free tonight?

Jack has to sit down on the top step to read the text a couple of times. It’s from a different phone number than the one Bittle had left, but it has to be him. Right?

Jack I teach a section until 3:30. Then I’m free.

I could be at your place at 8:00

The Falconers played a late away game against the Flames last night, so Bittle must literally be getting back into town this evening. And then is apparently coming over to Jack’s apartment. Huh.

Jack Okay.

Jack Want me to get us some food?

That’d be real nice.

Whatever sounds good to you!

Jack Okay. See you at 8.

Jack sits for a few minutes in a confused daze before his more practical side kicks in and he dashes up the stairs to start cleaning up his place.

*

Jack doesn’t take any chances this time. After his teaching day ends, he spends the next hours scouring his apartment. He hides his skates in the closet under a bag of old hats and moves his one shelf of hockey books and magazines into a dark corner of the same closet. He remembers to remove the Falconers magnets from his fridge and take down his childhood Canadiens pennant from where it always hangs over the door in his bedroom. He even takes down his two framed family photos from the wall in case Bittle might recognize Bob Zimmermann and start to ask questions.

His vacuum gets a workout, just in case they end up on the floor again. Jack tries not to think about it too hard. He orders burritos from a place up on Thayer and walks to get them around 7:30, hoping the exercise will help settle him down. He hasn’t told anyone about Bittle’s messages, not even Shitty or Larissa.

The downstairs buzzer rings right at 8:00. Jack thinks his heart might beat out of his chest, he's so keyed up.

When Jack trots down the stairs, Bittle is visible though the leaded glass window in the door, wearing the same coat and scarf as the other night, hair combed and styled. He looks adorable. He’s carrying a twelve pack of beer.

“Thought I owed you from last time, hon,” is what Bittle says, holding up the beer when Jack opens the door.

“I got us burritos,” is what Jack answers.

They stare at each other for a long moment and Jack can’t believe this is actually happening.

He’s not clear who leans in first, but they fall into each other, right there in the doorway, into a hot, open-mouthed kiss. Jack isn’t sure what he expected from the visit, but it certainly wasn’t this level of need sneaking up on him and tackling him into the wall. Jack manages to spin them around enough that he can kick the door to the outside closed. They tumble over each other up the stairs, still kissing, and into Jack’s apartment. Bittle immediately starts shedding outer layers as Jack gets the door locked behind them.

“Hoping I might get to see your bedroom this time, Jack,” Bittle says, tossing off a shoe next to the case of beer he’s set down in the middle of the floor.

“Ouais. C’est là-bas,” Jack replies, nodding towards the door and starting to unbutton his own shirt.

Bittle grabs Jack’s hand and pulls him towards the bedroom. “Christ almighty, hon. We’ll eat later.”

Maybe it’s just a fling, but Jack’s willing to take it for now.

*

They eat the burritos eventually, sitting criss-cross on Jack’s wrecked bed, knees touching. The room smells of cumin and sweat and sex, and a familiar little tang that Jack knows is a uniquely hockey smell, body odor and stale pads and cold metal. It makes Jack a bit crazy when he catches a whiff of it; he keeps wanting to snuffle his nose against Bittle’s skin to breathe in a little more.

“I was famished, lord. This is just what the doctor ordered,” Bittle says before he takes a huge bite. His lips are still visibly puffy and red. From kissing Jack. Jesus.

Jack grins. “He suggested naked burritos? That’s some doctor.”

Bittle laughs. “You know, my mama would be so cross with me if she knew I might be dripping salsa onto your nice sheets right now.”

“Don’t worry,” Jack says with his mouth full. “They’re not that nice.”

Bittle smiles at that, and his eyes are so very clear. “Everything here is nice, Jack.”

Jack wonders what Bittle means when he says that; his apartment is pretty run-down, even though he does his best to keep it up. Instead of asking, though, Jack reaches out and wipes a drip of salsa off of Bittle’s chin with his thumb. “You were starting to drip.”

“See? I’m a menace,” Bittle says with a grin.

Bittle spends the night this time, wrapped up with Jack under the moderately nice sheets. He wakes Jack up when it’s still dark, gets dressed, comes back and kisses Jack within an inch of his life, and then goes.

*

It becomes a thing.

Jack isn’t sure what else to label it. Bittle texts him and they meet in Jack’s apartment, usually for a meal of some sort, and then a lot of sex, which is pretty fucking great. He can’t call it dating, since they don’t go anywhere, but it feels more than casual to Jack, even as hard as he works to keep his heart sheltered and realistic.

It’s the third week of their thing when Jack realizes he’s started taking Roastery shifts around what he knows of Bittle’s schedule. He tracks the Falconers schedule daily and is shocked by the number of times Bittle offers to come over on a game day or just after a roadie. That must mean something. Maybe? Jack tries not to overthink; he doesn’t succeed.

It’s a thing between them, but what exactly, Jack has no idea. Bittle’s probably seeing other guys. There are still huge swaths of their lives they don’t talk about. Hockey is never mentioned. Their conversations stay on the most impersonal of tracks; Jack can feel it when they start to veer too close to something real and both retreat back to food or travels or television shows. Jack even keeps the extent of their hook-ups to himself, not even telling Shitty and Larissa anything more. He doesn’t even hint to his parents that he’s met someone.

It can’t be called a relationship. There are too many holes, too many parts of their lives tucked into dark corners.

Jack grabs on to what he’s offered, and holds his breath.

*

It happens accidentally.

Bittle is over after one of Jack's closing shifts at the Roastery, about a month and a half into their thing. They are pillowed together in bed in a comfortable afterglow, Bittle’s arm and leg draped over Jack’s body, Jack’s hand slowly rubbing circles on Bittle’s back. Jack had finally confessed the week before how he sometimes likes to get topped, and they’d tried it for the second time, so very intense and intimate. Jack’s brain has gone all fuzzy and soft, and Bittle fits against him just right, like he should stay there forever.

“You okay, hon?” Bittle asks into Jack’s shoulder. “Cause that was real good for me.”

Jack almost can’t get any words out. “Yeah. Good.”

“Thinking that’s something we should do a whole lot.”

Jack lets out a little snorting laugh. “Mmm. Fine by me.”

“Well, then. Good. How’s tomorrow for you?”

“You have a game tomorrow.”

Jack says it without even thinking, his brain still an oozy mess of postcoital bliss.

The room gets strangely silent and Jack realizes that Bittle seems to have stopped breathing against him.

“What did you say, Jack?”

Jack plays back the last minute of conversation in his head.

Shit. Oh shit.

Jack is suddenly wide fucking awake, his mind scrambling for some way out of what he just said.

Bittle sits up in the bed and stares at Jack, his big eyes enormous, expression outraged.

Jack can’t think of a single thing to say.

“You... know?” Bittle says. “Who I am?” His voice is stiff and formal. Jack’s never heard him sound like that before.

Jack swallows and then, tentatively, he nods. No going back now.

“You know I play hockey.”

“Yes.”

“When did you figure it out?” Bittle asks, his brows drawn tight, fists gripping the sheet over his lap.

Jack can’t really breathe. Bittle gaze is digging into him like a dagger. The silence goes on too long and Jack can’t make any words come.

“Fuck, Jack. When?”

Jack grits his teeth.

“The first day.”

Bittle's whole body jolts away from Jack. “Oh my god. You always knew?”

Jack pauses and stares at Bittle’s beautiful face, now so pinched in anger. He nods again.

Bittle jumps up from the bed and turns away from Jack, burying his face in his hands. “Holy shit, goddammit, you idiot,” he hisses over and over to himself. It makes Jack’s chest hurt.

“Eric...” Jack tries to start.

Bittle interrupts him. “Uh-uh. I’ve got to go.” He grabs for his clothes and starts aggressively pulling items on. “I thought this was...I though you were...fuck.”

Jack scrambles for his underwear, aware that he cannot possibly live through this moment without some sort of armor.

“I can’t fucking believe this.”

“It doesn’t mean…” Jack tries.

Bittle wheels on him then, half dressed, his face full of blind fury. “Yes, it does mean, Jack. I thought maybe I’d finally found someone who just likes me, just me. Not my career and my stats and my fucking media presence. Just me. And now that’s all blown to shit. So don’t tell me it doesn’t mean anything.”

Jack feels like he’s just been hit by a hurricane. Bittle spins around again and grabs up more of his things, stomping into the living room. He really seems like he might just be walking out. A new feeling sparks in Jack’s chest like a flame.

“Wait a minute,” Jack shouts, making a dash for the bedroom door. The unfairness of this entire situation lights a fire under Jack that he realizes has been simmering for weeks. Something in the tone of his voice gets Bittle to stall his storming for a moment and look over at Jack.

“Yes, I should have told you,” Jack says, the words boiling out of him. “I get that and I’m sorry. But you didn’t tell me either. You never told me who you are. I’m not even sure I have your actual phone number. You don’t even know my last name. This thing was always going to end. I knew it. You made sure of it. Crisse, I do like you. I was just trying to stay in it as long as you’d let me.”

Bittle’s expression is so pained that it makes Jack’s chest ache to look at him. They just breathe and stare at each other for what feels like ages.

“I’ve got to get out of here,” Bittle finally says, his voice quiet. He picks up his shoes and slams out the door without even putting them on.

Jack leans heavily against the wall, willing it to hold him up as he watches the empty space where Bittle just was, horrifyingly aware that he’s not coming back.

*

Jack Can I come up for the night?

Shitty It’s 11:30 pm, Jack. What’s up

Jack I screwed up. With someone I really liked.

Shitty Shit, dude. Will you be safe on the road? You are always welcome here, my brother. You know I’m the king of heartbreak.

Jack I’ll be there in an hour.

Shitty I’ve got stress relief tea and pot cookies. See you soon.

*

It’s a long, dark drive to Shitty’s funky little Cambridge apartment, but Jack arrives safe and then spills everything to Shitty through the wee hours of the night. Shitty very kindly never says, “I told you so,” when Jack tells him about his fuck up, though he’d have every right to. The tea and a few bites of one of Shitty’s cookies take the edge off of Jack’s panic, and talking about it all makes Jack at least feel like it was real. But nothing mutes the fact that he’s lost Bittle at the same time as he realized that he never really had him in the first place.

“Was he just using me?” Jack asks after a few hours of misery, lying prone on Shitty’s sofa. “Was I using him?”

“Sounds way more nuanced than that, Jacko,” Shitty says from the stoned depths of his Barcalounger.

Jack nods. “Maybe. But fuck, Shits. The things I could tell you. I don’t want it to be over.”

Shitty waves his arms in front of his face. “Okay, I’m all for deets, but not tonight, brah. Let that shit go. My bud, you deserve someone who wants to be with you, all of you, no fucking secrets. So this guy can either pull his head out his ass, or fuck off, if you ask me.”

Jack closes his eyes and breathes. “Yeah, maybe, Shits.” Jack scrubs at his face with both hands. “Can I sleep here? It’s so late. I’ve got to teach tomorrow.”

“That’s horrible. Your life is horrible,” Shitty says. “I’ll make you tea in the morning for your drive.”

“You’re a terrible friend,” Jack says.

“Right back at ya, man.”

Jack hugs Shitty for a long time before he leaves.

*

Jack knows he won’t hear from Bittle again, but he still hopes. He sends one last text to one of Bittle's numbers that just says Sorry, and spends the next week startling with every alert that comes to his phone. It’s never Bittle. Jack struggles to focus during his seminars. Even Professor Perone, who’s generally a self-absorbed asshole, stops him after a TA meeting once to ask him if he’s doing okay, which is worrying in a way that Jack isn’t sure how to handle.

Two weeks pass. Jack hangs his Canadiens pennant back up in his bedroom and puts his family pictures on the wall again, like none of it even happened. He leaves his skates buried in the closet and tries not to think the words, “It’s over.”

*

Life pretty much returns to normal after that, back to routine. Jack goes to his classes and his shifts at The Roastery. He grades papers and reads. He makes some progress on his research, though reading Lincoln’s letters has a tinge of melancholy to it. He has to teach four more chapters of Orella Ellison to the undergrads. He tries not to wonder what Bittle told his father about the book, or if that visit had even ever happened. He’d never asked. That had felt too personal, which is absurd when he thinks about the places on his body where Bittle’s tongue has been.

He takes his meds like clockwork. He doesn’t watch any Falconers games.

Larissa gets him to go to another weird art installation with her, this one just room after room filled with yarn. They walk together and elbow each other whenever they see someone looking like they are taking the whole thing too seriously. It’s fun, but the stone lodged in Jack’s chest keeps aching.

Larissa buys Jack a drink at the art bar next to the gallery afterwards.

“So that cute guy really fucked you up, huh?”

Jack looks at her, surprised.. “What makes you think that?”

“You were real happy there for a while.”

“You could tell that?”

Larissa nods. “Yep.”

“And you can tell that it’s over now?”

She nods again. “I can tell. I pay attention, you dummy.”

Jack’s been struggling, but knowing Larissa’s noticed helps a little.

“Yeah. It, uh. Was a thing. And I miss him.”

“I know. Keep that pin on your apron, Jack. Life’s long. Adorable people flirt with you at the cafe pretty much daily. I’ll try to point them out to you more often.”

Jack smiles. “Not ready for that yet. But thanks, Larissa.”

“My best friends call me Lardo,” she says. “Just so you know.”

*

The first snowfall of the winter is a big one. The plows have been out on the main streets through campus, but the drifts pile up against walls and on walkways and side streets. Jack trudges through the falling snow in his heavy boots, first to drop off a pile of graded finals in Dr. Lei’s mailbox, and then over to the Roastery for a four-hour shift.

It’s beautiful and quiet. The flakes are big and fluffy and land on him like cotton. He’s trying to remember to notice things like that more. Every day if he can. The world is a beautiful place, when he remembers to pay attention.

The windows of the Roastery are steamy and the entryway is covered in stomped snow and puddles dripped from snowy boots and coats hitting the warm air inside. Tara must have cooked up a big batch of lentil soup earlier; the place smells great, garlicky and warm. Lardo is at the counter ringing up a takeout order. She waves Jack over as he comes in.

He puts his bag down and waits for her to finish the transaction, feeling the snow start to melt from his hair and drip down the back of his neck.

When the guy leaves with his cappuccino, she turns to him with her eyebrows high.

“Okay. Before anything, I want you to know I’m covering your shift for you, so don’t worry about that.”

Jack’s pulse picks up. He frowns at her. “Huh?”

“Just trust me. I’ve got it.”

“What’s going on?”

She gives him a knowing little smile. “You should take a moment, and breathe, and then look over at table seven.”

Prickles of suspicion flood over Jack’s skin. He gives Lardo a sideways glance, but then gets up on his toes and peers over the pastry case. Someone is sitting in the little tucked-away corner table. Someone with damp blond hair that is a mess of curls from the snow.

Bittle.

Jack’s hands curl into fists so hard that his fingernails dig into his palms. Bittle’s sitting right there, a steaming mug and a half-eaten ginger cookie pushed aside on the table. Jack wonders how long he’s been there. Bittle’s staring down at his hands, clasped together on the table, fingers fidgeting together, the same fingers that have gently rubbed along the back of Jack’s hand and against the skin of his belly. The same hands that skillfully manage the puck and have scored more points than any other hands in the division, last Jack checked.

It was just an anonymous thing that ended ugly. There’s no reason for Bittle to be here.

Every coherent thought evaporates from Jack’s head.

“What do I do?” he mutters, and it takes a moment to realize he’s said it out loud.

Lardo pats his arm, startling him back to the present. “Up to you, of course. But I think you should go talk to him.”

Jack isn’t sure what feeling is coursing through his veins; his idiot brain won’t settle, pivoting between terror and hope in a wild swirl. He’s worked so damn hard to get through the weeks since Bittle's abrupt exit from his life.

Lardo slides a glass of ice water into Jack’s hand. He looks down at it, confused.

“What’s this for?”

“You look like you need it,” she says, crooking her pierced eyebrow at him.

Jack takes a sip. The cold of the water does actually settle him a bit.

“Better?” she asks.

Jack nods.

“So go get him,” Lardo says, giving him a little nudge with her hip.

Jack moves haltingly toward the back of the cafe. Bittle hasn’t noticed him coming yet, still just fiddling with his own fingers and staring into the back corner of the place.

Bittle finally lifts his head when Jack is only a few steps away from the table. Jack is stopped in his tracks by his wide-eyed gaze.

“Jack. How are you?”

Jack’s heart is pounding madly; he’s trying hard not to make any assumptions about any of this. He slides into the seat in the booth across from Bittle, leaving his hat and scarf on in case he needs to make a quick escape from whatever this might be.

“What are you doing here?” Jack asks. It comes out more aggressive than he means it to, but he’s not quite in control of his voice yet.

“I, um…”

Now that he’s so close, Jack realizes how nervous Bittle looks, lips pursed tight; it’s giving Jack way too much hope. Bittle grabs his mug and takes a sip. Jack watches him swallow.

“I, um...came to see you.”

Jack’s breath stops.

“You did?”

Bittle nods and swallows hard enough that Jack can see the movement of his throat. He looks Jack right in the eye.

“I want to know.”

Jack frowns. “Know what?”

Bittle gets an intense look on his face, like he’s in a faceoff during the last minute.

“Your last name.”

“My...?” Jack tries to get his lips to cooperate with his brain.

“If you’re willing to tell me. If you’d still want me to know.” Bittle’s eyes are huge. Maybe even a little moist, though Jack can’t tell for sure because his eyes feel a little prickly as well.

Jack could get up and walk away. In almost every way they are still strangers; he doesn’t owe Bittle anything. But that feeling that Jack’s been trying to shake, that this could be more, might be something with a name, settles into his belly.

“It’s Zimmermann,” he says quietly.

Bittle actually lets out a little sound like a sob when Jack speaks, his expression relaxing, then catches his breath and smiles a little. “Yeah?”

“Yeah.” Jack feels his lips curl up a little with the warmth in Bittle’s tone.

“Jack Zimmermann,” Bittle says, like he’s trying it out on his tongue.

Jack can’t stop looking at him, at his soft cheeks, the sweep of his brow. Crisse. “How about you?” he asks.

Bittle sits up tall, his hands still gripped in front of him on the table. His eyes are definitely teary now. “Eric Richard Bittle. My team calls me Bitty. I’m a professional hockey player with the Providence Falconers, and I’m gay. And I’m real glad to know you, Jack Zimmermann. I’m sorry it took so long for me to tell you that.”

Jack thinks he might actually white out from the whirlwind in his brain. To ground himself, he reaches out and places his hand over Eric’s and holds on. Eric lets his hands come apart so that they can wind their fingers together, just like that first night on the sofa.

Maybe this is more than a thing. Maybe this is something Jack hasn’t even let himself imagine.

“I like knowing you too,” Jack manages to say.

“That’s good,” Eric replies.

“Eric Bittle.”

“Jack Zimmermann.”

Jack can’t look away from Eric’s big, brown eyes, trying to process that this is all actually happening.

“Will you go on a walk with me?” Jack asks.

“Don’t you have to work?”

Jack looks over at Lardo, who is pointedly not looking in their direction. “My friend is covering for me,” he says.

Eric bites his bottom lip and smiles. “Well then. I sure do, Jack.”

*

Lardo makes them each a latte (peppermint for Eric this time, four pumps) to keep them warm as they walk. She plays it cool when Jack introduces Eric to her at the counter, but he imagines he’ll have a string of obnoxious text messages waiting for him from her later.

Without discussion, Eric and Jack head out on the same route that they’d taken during their initial non-date, though the autumn leaves have all fallen now. The snow is soft enough that it is piling up on even the tiniest of tree branches. It’s beautiful.

“So do you even watch hockey?” Eric asks. Eric’s arm keeps bumping against Jack’s as they walk. Eric touching him again is warming Jack against the cool air just as much as his scarf and wool coat.

Now that they’ve broken through, it seems like Eric is ready to talk.

Jack nods. “I even played when I was kid,” he says. “Quit when I was sixteen.”

“Sixteen? You must have been pretty good.”

“Decent,” Jack says. He knows what Eric will find if he decides to look up his stats later. He’d been better than decent, before the anxiety made it too hard.

“Hmm. So we could skate together sometime?” Eric asks, and Jack wants to pinch himself.

“Ouais. Anytime. Now that you know. I didn’t know how to say it before.”

They drift to a stop at an intersection. With all the snow there are no cars on the road, and the city is hushed and still. Jack looks up into the trees, anchored by the solid weight of Eric at his side.

Eric’s voice is quiet when he breaks the silence. “I don’t sleep around, Jack. People make assumptions about me all the dang time, and I guess I was foolish enough to think that if you didn’t know, it would be more real.”

“I should have said something,” Jack admits, his breath a fog.

“So should I,” Eric says. They fall silent again.

Jack clears his throat. “There’s things I need to tell you, too. That I don’t tell anyone,” Jack says. Pills, and the hospital, and that nagging certainty that he’s never going to be enough, no matter how hard he tries. “But I will. I want to. If we're really going to give this a try.” Jack sends his fears out into the cold air.

Eric leans into Jack's side and grabs his arm tight. “I’m in if you are,” he replies.

Jack turns to Eric; his face is tilted up to look at him, cheeks so rosy from the cold. Jack leans down and Eric cranes up until their lips meet in a soft kiss, right on the street for anyone to see. The kiss kindles a fire in Jack’s belly. Bittle’s eyes are bright as they pull apart. It feels like the start of something new.

After a lingering minute, they start to walk again, hand-in-hand.

“There’s folks I want you to meet,” Eric says softly. “My old friend Justin from Samwell is in medical school here. And the team, of course.”

“Really?”

“If you want.”

Jack smiles. “Sure. There’s people I want you to meet too,” he says. Maybe he’ll host a little party at his place. Shitty would come, and Lardo, and a couple of his friends from the department. And Eric. Eric will be there now.

They walk in the quiet for a few blocks, just being together.

“You know, it’s funny that you’re from Montreal and your name is Zimmermann,” Eric says lightly as they make the turn towards Jack’s apartment. “There was this absolutely legendary Canadiens defenseman named Bob Zimmermann back in the 80s and 90s.”

Jack smiles and holds Eric’s hand tighter. “I know. He’s my dad.”

Eric stops dead in his tracks, pulling Jack to a stop with him. “What the heck are you saying to me?”

“He’s my dad.”

Eric just stares at him. “Your dad is Bob Zimmermann?”

“We still have a lot to talk about, Bittle,” Jack says with a grin.

They do have a lot to talk about, Jack realizes, his chest burning with feeling as he looks at Eric gaping at him in the snow. Eric Bittle, who came back because this is something more than just a thing, and who Jack will introduce to his parents, and whose games he’s going to go to so he can shout like an idiot when he scores. Who he’s going to take to rec skate and to history lectures about Gettysburg and to Montreal for bagels. Whose pumpkin bread he wants to eat straight from the oven.

Jack hopes they’ll have a lot to talk about for a long time to come.

“I don’t even…” Eric is stuttering at him. “Zimmermann. Christ almighty, you are going to get yourself shoved into a snowbank, mister.” Eric whaps Jack playfully on the chest with his mittened hand.

Jack takes a step back, raising his eyebrows high. “Snowbank, huh? You’ll have to catch me first.” He grabs Eric’s hat from his head and breaks into a run.

Eric shrieks and chases after him, laughing and throwing snow at his back. “Jack!”

“Allons-y, Bittle!” Jack shouts.

“Don’t you try and distract me with French, Jack Zimmermann.”

Jack’s pretty sure he’s going to let Eric catch him.

*