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Bitty's new teammates are doing things to his pecan pie that he can never unsee. He tells himself it's a sign of appreciation. At the very least, it's a sign to bring plates, forks, and napkins next time.

"Behold this beautiful motherfucker coming our way," Shitty (Shitty!) says, sweeping a hand out. "Samwell men's hockey's glorious and well-proportioned captain, Jack Zimmermann."

Bitty looks up and sees the most attractive man he's ever encountered in person. He's tall and broad-shouldered, with floppy dark brown hair and bright blue eyes, and he does seem to be, um, well-shaped.

He's also outlined in soft blue light, like Aunt Judy's door at Christmas when she hangs the blue icicle lights around it. It's cool, but not cold. Bitty wants to dive in, like into a still pond in July, and let it cool his fevered brain.

Bitty blinks hard, but the light stays. He looks at Shitty, who's moved close to Jack, but no light light outlines him.

Bitty's breath catches. His heart rate spikes through the roof. Oh my Lord, this is it! This unbelievably gorgeous man is my soulmate! Words desert him. He can only smile dewily and hope Jack has it together enough to start a conversation. 

"Jackalope," Shitty says, "this is itty bitty Eric Bittle, the frog winger from Georgia. Bitty made fuckin' pie, bro!"

Jack stares at Bitty. Bitty stares back. He's tingling with anticipation of what Jack might say to him. The first words his soulmate will say to him! He could fly from excitement. Jack looks at the knot of hockey players huddled around the nearly empty pie tin like a pack of wild dogs.

All of a sudden, Bitty knows: Jack is scared. He acts like a hardass to cover the fact that he wonders if the team elected him captain because of his leadership skills or because of his name. Bitty's eyes widen, and he swallows the squeak that wants to leave his mouth. His first piece of soul knowledge about Jack, before they've said a word to each other!

Jack raises an eyebrow at Bitty. "You brought pie?"

Bitty beams. Well. Jack's his soulmate. Of course they're gonna talk about pie right off. And that accent, good lord, somebody bring him a fan. "Sure did," Bitty says proudly. "Pecan, to be exact. MooMaw's award-winning recipe." Shitty's bouncing on the balls of his feet beside Jack.

Jack's face hardens into a scowling mask. "Don't do it again," he says, voice cold. "This is hockey practice, not book club." He turns and storms away, far more graceful on guarded blades than anyone has a right to be.

Bitty stares after him. Faintly, he hears Shitty saying, "That's how Jack is" (as if that's an excuse), but he can't respond. He can barely think.

He isn't Jack's soulmate. How can he be, with Jack talking to him like that? With Jack giving no indication that he's noticed a soul marker for Bitty? But that means that Jack isn't his, either. In spite of the soft blue glow. In spite of the knowledge of Jack's fear, as certain as Bitty's own had been before he walked into this building a half hour ago.

They're not soulmates.

But, then, what the heck are they?

*

Later that day, Bitty's in his dorm room, trying to do homework and not think about his not-soulmate. So he's maybe scrolling through Twitter to help with the not-thinking-about-it. He spots a conversation between his best friend from Madison and another one of their classmates.

@sissy_suttles
Classes haven't started & I'm buried under assignments? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Missing good ol' Madison High, where the worst assignment we got in a 1st week was Mr. Foss' 5-para what I did this summer essay (I still think it was mostly a joke)

@christsbrightstar
did u even do that assignment?

Bitty snorts. He doesn't pay Christine much attention on social media, but he's seen a few of her tweets and Facebook posts already moaning about how high school was the best years of my life. He's not surprised she'd remember who did and didn't do some awful assignment from sophomore year.

Then he stops. Sissy did write that paper, but she didn't read it to the class like the rest of them had to. Because that was the summer Sissy's mama dragged her to a huckster soulmate psychic, and she was too mortified to talk about it in front of the class. Before Bitty can tell his mind to focus and his fingers to go back to that book he's supposed to be reading, he's looking at a shiny new google search for soulmate psychic.

The results aren't super helpful. They're half debunking articles and half breathless testimonials about how an SP helped them find their soulmate. Each of those is attached to an ad for the SP's 900 number, so Bitty takes them with a grain of salt.

He fiddles with his search parameters three times and goes four pages deep before he finds something promising: a Pagan and metaphysical forum with a subsection on SP. A header at the top of the page says:

 

 

Soulmate psychics get a bad rap, but this subforum operates on the assumption that the ability is real. Debates on whether SP is valid stay in the Debunkers and Skeptics subforum. Here, we share experiences with SP, either getting readings or having the ability ourselves. Share your story!

Bitty reads through the first three pages. He doesn't think anyone's lying—they sure seem to believe they're SP—but he senses a healthy dose of exaggeration. Once he figures out how to sort truth from embellishment, he finds a standard SP narrative: I couldn't see a soul marker, but I had soul knowledge about this person's soulmate. No one mentions having soul knowledge about the other person themself.

Whatever Bitty is regarding Jack isn't standard SP. He's something new. Bitty groans into his pillow. He doesn't want to be new. He wants to play hockey, bake pies, and get through college.

He puts the pillow down and squares his shoulders. He won't worry about this. He's got bigger crusts to bake.

*

Bitty's early for practice. Not on purpose. More like he still can't judge the length of the walk from his dorm to Faber. Sometimes he's early; sometimes he's late; today happens to be an early day. He's glad, because he's seeing something magical.

Jack is facing off against Ransom and Holster, the three of them alone on the ice. Bitty'd known that Ransom and Holster were good, but this is something else entirely. Jack versus either of them alone would be one-on-one. Jack versus both of them is like one-on-three. Or four. It's like they're reading Jack's mind—or each other's—blocking his moves a split second before he makes them. Jack may be an asshole, but he's the best hockey player Bitty's ever seen, and he looks darned well ready to cry, the two D-men are holding him so effortlessly at bay.

Shitty sidles up next to Bitty and leans on the boards. "Wild, isn't it?"

Bitty nods, enraptured. "They're amazing."

Shitty claps him on the shoulder. "C'mon, Bitty-bro. This won't last long before our Canadian Adonis gets sick of being outgunned—though never out-assed, mon capitan!—and demands the rest of us peons out on the ice."

Bitty catches Jack flipping Shitty off as they head toward the locker room, but he's mostly watching Rans and Holster, zipping around the ice like extensions of each other. It's hard to look away.

Later, in the dining hall for team breakfast, Holster sketches a play in his hockey notebook, Ransom and Johnson throwing in their two cents as he goes. "That sure was something this morning," Bitty says as he cuts his slightly soggy waffle. "You two on the ice with Jack."

Ransom and Holster flick their eyes up in tandem, give Bitty matching vaguely appreciative smiles, and go back to their play. Johson smiles widely. "Oh, yeah," he says, "this is your first time seeing that in this alternate universe."

Bitty blinks at him. "What." It doesn't deserve a question mark.

Johnson stares back for a second and then turns to keep watching Rans and Holster.

"What I don't get," Bitty continues to cover the awkward silence, "is why y'all don't play together all the danged time, you're so good."

Now Ransom and Holster stop and give him their full attention. Bitty squirms. Then Holster blinks. "Right," he mutters. "Frog."

Ransom sits up and folds his hands on the table in front of him. "National Collegiate Athletic Association Men's and Women's Ice Hockey Rules and Interpretations," he recites. "Rule 9 - Soulmates. 9.1. Bonded soulmates, regardless of the category of the bond, may not play on the same line, except when: 1) such combination is the only option remaining to a team, due to a combination of injury and penalty, in which case one or both of the bonded players must be removed from play as soon as practicable; or 2) in the case of defensive players, when the team has removed its goalie from the ice."

Bitty blinks. Rans and Holster are soulmates? Well, that answers a couple questions and raises like a hundred more.

Holster leans across Ransom and takes up the recitation. "9.2. The presence of two or more bonded soulmates in play at once outside the exceptions outlined above is a Misconduct Penalty as outlined in rule 21.1. One or both players must be immediately removed from play for no less than ten minutes and must not return to play together for the remainder of the game."

"9.3," Ransom says, "Any team suspected of intentionally overusing the outlined exceptions will be investigated in accordance with the procedures established by the Committee on Infractions."

"Well that's..." Bitty pauses. He meant to say it wasn't fair. But he thinks about the way Ransom and Holster seemed so in tune with each other on the ice. The look on Jack's face when he couldn't find a way through or around them. He can see how it would seem like an unfair advantage to teams that don't have a soulmate pair. Lots of soulmates meet in college, but how many meet as D-men on the same college hockey team?

Do Rans and Holster ever wish they weren't bonded? Once all parties in a soulmate bond have formally acknowledged the match, bonding happens quickly and automatically. That's why people don't meet their soulmates until everyone in the set is ready (although, oh, the millions of words that have been written about what constitutes ready, and how you know, and who decides). Once Ransom and Holster realized they're soulmates, they only could've stayed on a line together by lying. Constantly and consistently. For four years. That sounds worse than not getting to play together.

Holster laughs, but Bitty doesn't think it's aimed at him. It's more with him, like they're sharing a joke. "Damned complicated," Holster says. "That's the word you're looking for."

"That's two words," Rans mutters, ignoring Holster's stuck-out tongue and stealing a strip of bacon from Ollie's plate. "It sucks," Ransom says. "Playing with Holtzy is incredible, and we only get to do it on the regular because Jack's a hockey robot who likes to 'challenge himself.'"

"Sometimes during shinny," Shitty says.

Holster rolls his eyes. "In shinny it's the two of us versus everyone else."

Shitty rolls his eyes, too. "Yeah, and who wins?" he asks. Rans and Holster laugh and high-five each other, though they have the grace to look sheepish.

Bitty watches Ransom and Holster closely for the rest of breakfast. He hopes they don't notice. He can't help himself.

Rans and Holster are the first non-familial same-sex soulmate pair he's met. Same-sex and same-gender soulmates in all four categories have existed as long as soulmates have, but they wax and wane throughout time and across geography in a way that even professional researchers barely understand. Unfortunately, the New Testament was mostly written in places and times where they were pretty rare. So a lot of Christian denominations, including basically all the ones with strongholds in Bitty's neck of the woods, view a romantic or sexual same-gender soul match as a test—a temptation to be resisted, rather than a gift to be celebrated. Even platonic same-sex matches gets close scrutiny, because how can anyone prove they're not romantic or sexual? If any lived in Madison, they kept well hidden. This is his first chance to watch his potential future in action.

And another thing: if Bitty is soulmate psychic, he should know things about people's soulmates, right? People go to SPs to learn about their own soulmates before they meet, but the skill shouldn't go away because the soulmates are already bonded. 

Bitty stares at them while he eats his waffle. He squints, closes one eye, then the other. He drinks his coffee and thinks real hard about Ransom while looking at Holster, and about Holster while looking at Ransom. He puts his coffee down and tries again.

Nothing. Bitty stares for as long as he dares, and he gets nothing. He doesn't know a blessed thing about these boys beyond what they've told him.

Jack walks past the table, late to breakfast as usual because he stayed after practice to talk with the coaches. His plate is piled high with scrambled egg whites and chicken sausage links. If the dining hall served chicken tenders for breakfast, he'd eat them instead, because chicken tenders are safe. Difficult to mess up.

Bitty swallows a gasp. Jack didn't tell him that. Nobody told him that. It's another piece of soul knowledge he doesn't think he's supposed to have. Maybe Bitty is SP but only for Jack. Is that a thing?

Jack pauses by Ransom and Holster. "Good practice this morning," he tells them. "We can use that on your individual lines."

Ransom nods and holds up Holster's notebook. "We thought so, too."

Holster smiles tightly. "We were explaining the wonders of NCAA soulmate rules to Bitty."

Jack gives Bitty a funny look. Bitty looks back, wondering what Jack's seeing, or trying to see. Jack huffs and looks at Bitty's plate. "Bittle," he says, "you need to eat more protein." He walks away, leaving Bitty to stare after him.

Bitch u did not.

*

I scored!!!!!!!

Even in his head, Bitty knows he's thinking in too many exclamation points. He does not care a whit. He, Eric Richard Bittle, scored a goal. A game-winning goal! In a Division I college hockey game. During Family Weekend. In front of his mama!

A lot is going on in his head. It deserves all the exclamation points he can give it.

Looks like he also scored in front of Jack's dad, apparently-a-hockey-legend Bad Bob Zimmermann. And, wowie, does Bitty wish he'd known Bob was gonna chirp Jack about that goal, because he is not prepared for this furious onslaught of soul knowledge. It's a jumble of feelings and impressions: Jack's never-ending efforts to win his father's approval, his jealousy that Bitty has it without trying, his grudging acknowledgement of Bitty's goal. Bitty stammers out a reply, hoping his awkwardness comes across as starstruck at meeting a hockey legend, rather than your son might be my soulmate but also he hates me.

Bitty's not sure what possesses him to hunt Jack down later. He catches Jack as he's leaving Faber, that blue outline a dramatic spotlight against the dark of the night sky. "Hey, Jack!" Bitty calls. "Wait up! I'm so glad I caught you." He moves toward Jack, but some tiny shred of self-preservation keeps him at a distance. "'Cause um. I just wanted to say again, good game. And thank—"

"Bittle," Jack interrupts harshly. "It was a lucky shot."

Jack starts to walk away. Before today, Bitty would've let him, too consumed by shock to push back. But Bitty's met Bad Bob now. He's got Jack's number. This emotionally stunted manchild and his daddy issues will not ruin Bitty's moment of triumph.

"It was not, Jack Zimmermann, and you know it!" Bitty yells at Jack's retreating back. "Yeah, I closed my eyes before I took the shot. But I can read the ice same as you. I wouldn't've taken it if I didn't think it could go in." Jack's paused but he hasn't turned. His shoulders hunch to his ears. "I'm sorry you didn't get to score the game-winner in front of your daddy. But if you can't see how proud he is of you—"

Jack whirls, fists clenched, eyes blazing. "Shut up!" Jack hisses. The seething fury he packs into those two syllables makes Bitty miss his carefully controlled monotone. "You know nothing about me or my father. Keep your mouth shut." He spins back around and storms off.

Bitty sinks onto the cool concrete and rests his forehead against the metal railing. He's shaking. His heart's in his throat and his stomach's in his shoes. He can't believe he said that. Soul knowledge is supposed to help him understand his soulmate better. He's not supposed to use it as a weapon. All the apology pies in the world won't fix this.

You know nothing about me or my father. Jack's words bounce around Bitty's head as he hauls himself to his feet and trudges toward the locker room. He knows so much about Jack and his father. And he can't do a thing with it.

*

Bitty comes out to Shitty. Shitty hugs him and thanks Bitty for trusting him with this moment. 

Bitty comes out to Ransom and Holster. They high-five him and switch to a different tab in Ransom's spreadsheet to find a guy to take Bitty to Winter Screw. 

Bitty comes out to Wicky and Ollie. They pound him on the back, welcoming him to the queer hockey bro club. They swear him to secrecy and tell him they're soulmates. Jack and the coaches know, but they can't risk word of it getting to their families yet. Turns out Wicky's grandma is one of those superstitious sorts who believes meeting your soulmate young predicts a life of tragedy. Bitty's never heard of a soulmate bond being both romantic and platonic, but here it is. Wicky and Ollie are in love, but it's the broiest love Bitty's ever seen.

Bitty comes out to Johnson. Johnson tears up, squeezes Bitty's shoulder, and thanks him for giving him this experience he didn't have in canon.

Now Bitty stands in the Haus living room doorway. Jack's watching tape for their next game and working on homework. Bitty clutches his coming out index cards, by now more of a security blanket than a necessary aide memoire. He doesn't understand why coming out to the other guys gave him a slight flutter of anxiety in his gut, but coming out to Jack makes him feel like he'll barf on his shoes the instant he opens his mouth.

But Jack's his captain. He has Bitty's back, right? Bitty steps forward and clears his throat. "Uh, Jack? Can I talk to you for a minute?"

Jack pauses his video and sets his book aside. Bitty's insides unclench a little. Jack may not be the most personable captain, but, Lord, he gives 110% to his team. "Sure, Bittle. What's up?" He pauses, frowning slightly. "Were you baking?"

"You bet!" Bitty says, nodding frantically. "You know me. Always baking." He hasn't been in the kitchen all day. He got to the Haus ten minutes ago. But he sees the out and, like the cowardly coward he is, dives for it like a drowning man for a life preserver. "That's what I wanted to talk about. I'm makin' cookies. Wondering how many you want!"

Jack's annoyed with Bittle scowl sets in instantly. He picks up his book and restarts the tape. "None," he says flatly. "And you shouldn't, either. You need to eat healthier, Bittle."

"Aye aye, Cap," Bittle says flippantly. He's a roiling mess of emotions inside: relief that he doesn't have to have The Conversation with Jack, disappointment in himself that he can't do it, lingering confusion as to why this feels so much harder with Jack than with anyone else. "Well, I'm gonna head to my dorm. Gotta... make a pie."

Jack frowns. "A pie? You said cookies."

"Did I? Gosh! I meant pie. Definitely. I'm making pies and wondering how many you want. Which is obviously none, and I shouldn't, either, but I'm gonna anyway."

Jack raises an eyebrow. "Then why not make them here?"

Bitty feels his eyes widen. "They're, uh... homework?"

"Homework pies," Jack says.

"Yup!" Bitty says, overly bright. He hooks his thumb over his shoulder. "So I'll go do that. Thanks for the talk, Jack!" He turns around to hightail it out of the Haus and smacks into the door jamb.

Jack snickers. "Smooth exit, Grace," he says. Feeling daring, Bitty flips him off. "Oh, Bittle," Jack calls. Bitty can tell without looking, from the tone of Jack's voice, that he's about to get chirped. He pauses, half turning to look at Jack. "Be careful letting Holster and Ransom set you up for Screw, eh? Just because they've met all the queer athletes at Samwell doesn't mean they'll be good at matchmaking for you."

Bitty stares. Jack's light looks fuzzy for a second, but Bitty thinks that might be him not being able to focus. Jack knows? Bitty worked himself into a tizzy trying to tell Jack he's gay, and he knows? Bitty thinks he should be upset that someone spilled the beans. Shitty would tell him that he should be upset, that no one should ever take that choice from him. But Bitty's relieved. He'd been dreading this conversation. He'd secretly wanted Jack to know, without Bitty having to tell him. Now he gets his wish. It feels great.

*

"Now, I'll be at least half an hour," Sissy says, "because apparently I got a 'funny-shaped face,' and nobody in the joint fits my glasses right on the first try." She rolls her eyes. 

"Why do you come here?" Bitty asks. 

Sissy sighs. "Best frames selection in the county, sad to say." She shakes her head. "Shame everybody who works here's such a ding dong."

Bitty's grinning as they get out of the car. He shouldn't have worried about seeing Sissy now that he's back in Madison for winter break. Sure he's gone north for college, told a bunch of people he's gay, and gone on a date with a boy (a terrible date, but it counts, right?). But it'd take more than one semester apart to muck up his friendship with Sissy. They've always been able to go months without seeing each other and then pick back up like they'd never been apart. He wishes so badly that he could come out to her. He half-suspects she knows; she's the only person in Madison who's asked if he's got a special someone, rather than a special girl. But she's rotten at keeping secrets. Bitty can't take the risk.

"I'm happy to come with you," he offers again.

She waves it off again. "Honey, watching them fit my glasses will be as interesting as watching soil erode. You go on, enjoy all the wonders of the Two Forks strip mall. There's a new cooking supply store." She laughs. "Heck, maybe that soulmate psychic is still selling her snake oil. You could get a reading." She winks.

Bitty's stomach clenches. He forces out a laugh that doesn't sound near as disdainful as he'd like it to. "Five bucks says she tells me my soulmate works with horses."

Sissy laughs hard at the reminder. "I won't take that bet, thank you." She shoos him toward the end of the strip mall where Bitty guesses the cooking supply store is. "Go on, Dicky, get. I'll text you when I'm done."

Bitty nods. He stuffs his hands in his pockets (straight-cut baggy jeans. Plain black T-shirt, one size too big. Samwell hockey snapback, backward. Lord, remembering how to look straight is exhausting) and shuffles along the sidewalk. He tries to look and not-look at every storefront he passes. Please let me find the cooking store first. Please let me find the cooking store first.

Madame Rosa 🌹 Psychic
Palmistry ✋🏼
Tarot 🃏
Scrying 🔮
Soulmate Readings 💞

$1 per minute ⏰ 15 minute minimum

Bitty's wallet is out of his pocket even as he tells himself what a monumental waste of time this is. As he reminds himself of the load of hooey this woman sold Sissy and her mom the summer before sophomore year, spinning yarns of a soulmate for Sissy who was Mama Suttles' dream and Sissy's nightmare. Bitty finds a twenty in his wallet and shoves the door open before he can think twice. 

The store looks exactly like Bitty would expect from a strip mall psychic. Tapestries and World Market reproductions crowd the walls. Half the lightbulbs have been removed from the overhead fixtures, casting the place in perpetual half-light. Candles flicker merrily (and hazardously) on every surface that can hold them. Bitty hears faint music; it sounds like whale song dubbed over Enya. A purple beaded curtain divides the space. Through the curtain, he makes out a room filled with crystal bins, bookshelves, and incense racks. Bitty's face hurts from the effort of not rolling his eyes.

"Welcome, Seeker," a husky voice intones from deep in the shadows of the shop. The accent is southern but not local; Louisiana, maybe. "You are clearly among the wise, to seek the counsel of Madame Rosa. How may I illuminate the mysteries of the Cosmos for you today?"

Mindful of the candles, Bitty moves toward the voice until he finds a round table and Madame Rosa at it. The table is mostly bare: a dark red tablecloth, a single lit candle, and tea service for three.

Madame Rosa herself also looks surprisingly free of pretense. She has pale skin with minimal makeup. She wears a simple black silk blouse and has her curly dark hair held back with a black velvet scarf. Her earrings are simple silver balls, and she's only wearing one ring, a black and white thing that looks like the phases of the moon. No jangling bracelets, no heavy crystal necklaces. Take away the moon ring, and she wouldn't look out of place at Bitty's parents' church on a Sunday morning.

She seems young, too, far younger than Bitty would've imagined from Sissy's tale of an experienced huckster. The fight goes out of Bitty, and he slumps in one of the chairs across the table. He takes off his hat and slides his twenty over. She doesn't take it, looking at him with a mix of curiosity and shrewdness that he doesn't care for. "What would you like to know about your soulmate?" she asks.

Bitty snorts. If he'd been a regular seeker, he supposed he'd be impressed by Madame Rosa offering that without him having to say it. As it is, he suspects he has the same desperate look as every sad sack who walks through the door. He shakes his head. "I don't—I'm not here for—how does it work, what you do? Is it all snake oil and cold reads, or is there..." He swallows. "Is there anything to it?"

Madame Rosa keeps looking at him. Her face doesn't so much as twitch.

Bitty sighs. "No, right, of course you won't tell me that." Bitty sits up straighter, squares his shoulders, and places his hands on the table. "This... person," he says, though he's damned well aware that, around here, not saying woman or girl is as good as screaming it's a guy and I'm gay. "I see what may be a soul marker for 'em, and I know things that may be soul knowledge. But I can't see it or know it with anyone else. Is that... am I SP? A different kind of SP?"

Madame Rosa blinks, surprised. The smooth cadence of her professional voice disappears as she says, "SP doesn't work like that. That's a soulmate. That person is your soulmate." 

"He can't be!" Bitty explodes. "He ain't given a lick of indication that he's got a marker for me, and no soul knowledge, and most of the time he treats me like shit!" He flops back in his chair, as winded as if he's been skating suicides. It feels good to get it off his chest. It feels awful to look at it now that it's out in the open.

Madame Rosa looks at Bitty for another minute. Then she fills two teacups from the teapot and slides one in front of Bitty, along with the tray of cream and sugar. "I'm sorry, my dear," she says, professional veneer back in place, "but I'm only telling you what you know in your heart to be true." She sips her tea while Bitty heaps sugar into his cup. "Looking at you and seeing information about this person—"

"Jack," Bitty says sullenly. Madame Rosa probably read his life story in his clothes, his posture, and the way he takes his tea. Telling her a first name shouldn't make things worse.

Madame Rosa nods. "I can look at you and know things about this Jack. That’s what makes me SP. If I looked at you and saw things about you, that would make me your soulmate."

Bitty slumps in his chair. The wild thought flitters through that he wishes Madame Rosa was his soulmate. A platonic bond with a strip mall psychic sounds less complicated than a one-sided who-knows-what with Jack. "Yeah, all right," he grumbles.

For a long moment, Bitty petulantly slurping tea is the only sound in the room. Then Madame Rosa says, "What would you like me to tell you about your soulmate?"

The laugh bursts out of Bitty. "You'd only be telling me what I know in my heart to be true," he says.

She smiles wryly. "Fair enough."

Bitty sucks down the last of his tea. "Thank you. For your time. For your... honesty."

Madame Rosa inclines her head. "My job is to help people find their way to happiness. Whatever that looks like." 

Bitty finishes his tea and pushes back from the table. "Thanks for the tea," he says as he stands and grabs his hat. "Better go see what my friend's up to."

"You're forgetting something," Madame Rosa says, pushing his twenty toward him.

"That's for you," he says and then feels silly, because of course it is.

She shakes her head. "I didn't do anything."

Bitty smiles. "Yeah, you did." Twenty bucks is way less than he'd pay a shrink, and he figures he got as much out of this.

Not needing to be told twice, Madame Rosa whisks the bill off the table and into her clothes. "Well, please take a stone on your way out," she says. "As my gift. Tiger's eye is particularly good for mental clarity and resolution of problems."

"Sure," Bitty says with a snort. Of course she wants him to leave through the store. "Happy holidays."

He takes a piece of tiger's eye, though. It's real pretty.

*

Bitty waits out his time until Sissy's text wandering listlessly through the cooking supply store. He has one eye on his phone the whole time, open to a search for soulmate disorders.

If Bitty isn't SP (in his mind, still on the table, no matter what Madame Rosa says), then something else is going on for Bitty to recognize Jack as his soulmate but for Jack not to recognize Bitty as his. He's narrowed it down to two options, both of which are sufficiently alarming to keep his attention off pie birds and mini muffin tins.

    1. He could have Ramirez-Srinivasa Disorder, a rare genetic condition that would allow him to recognize his soulmate but keep his soulmate from recognizing him. It's a literally one in a million disease, but it's worth getting tested for. Someday. In the future. When he has his own insurance and his parents wouldn't find out.
    2. Jack could have Traumatic Soul Bond Severance. That's even rarer, but it's most common among people who've had near death experiences. Usually, the person's soulmate loses the marker they had for that person, but researchers admit it's so rare and understudied that anything's possible. Bitty tries not to learn anything about Jack that Jack hasn't told him, either intentionally or through soul knowledge. But it's hard to play on a hockey team with Jack Zimmermann and not know that Jack Zimmermann was clinically dead for nine minutes after his overdose. Soul bond severance feels like a real possibility. He just can't imagine how to raise the topic with Jack.

 

Bitty can't imagine raising any of this with Jack.

*

"Now, Betsy," Bitty says in his most serious voice, but keeping his hand on the door handle to reassure Betsy that he's not all mad, "I wasn't myself yesterday when I called you a crusty old furnace. But you gotta understand—you went and burnt my cobbler. I like to think of myself as a gentleman, but you crossed a line—"

"'Sup," an unfamiliar voice calls from the hall. "You seen Shits 'round?"

Bitty jerks, cheeks flushing at a stranger catching him giving the Haus oven a stern talking-to. A small, short-haired young Asian woman stands in the kitchen doorway, her combat-boots-and-denim ensemble looking out of place with the Haus's frat bro aesthetic.

"Oh my goodness!" Bitty says as his manners kick in. "Um. No, I haven't seen him? But, oh, should I text him? Do you need his number?" He doesn't know protocol here. Shitty says "Bros before casual sexual hookups." What if this is a hookup or puck bunny Shitty doesn't want to have his number? But what if she's a classmate or project partner who needs it? No, better for Bitty to contact Shitty and let him decide how much of his info he wants this woman to have.

"Nope," she says, unconcerned. "Said he would be 'round the Haus today." She flicks a finger at Betsy. "Plus, dude—that oven? Sucks, right. I told Jack you should scrap it and let me use it in a sculpture."

Bitty's trying to come up with the best way to—politely, of course—express his indignation at this stranger's suggestion when the front door opens and he hears a shout of "LARDO!" Bitty barely has time to register his shock that this is Lardo before Shitty flies through the air and tackles her. For her part, Lardo looks nine parts resigned and one part unprepared. Bitty supposes if she's been out of the country for a semester, she's out of practice dealing with Shitty's brand of aggressively tactile affection.

"Bro!" Shitty yells, giving Lardo the mother of all noogies. "You got the fucking chop! Thought you'd chicken out on me."

"Dude, it's just hair," she protests. "Speaking of hair, that flow is rank."

"Your face is rank!" Shitty shoots back.

"Your rank is rank."

"Oh, hey, Lardo, you're back!" Jack says from where he's hovering inside the front door, looking delicious in red flannel and blue light. Then Bitty startles. Is he hearing excitement in Jack's voice? Outside of an ice rink?

Lardo and Shitty are ignoring Jack because Shitty is shoving demandingly (and ineffectually) at the sleeves of Lardo's jacket. "Up, up," he orders her. "I wanna see." Lardo swats his hands away and removes the jacket, revealing a black spaghetti-strap tank underneath. Shitty stares at her arms, turning them this way and that like they're the most fascinating things he's ever seen. "No way," he breathes. "Lards, m'dude, they've changed."

Lardo laughs. She pulls a small sketchpad out of one of the pockets of her discarded jacket and flips through it. "Tell me about 'em, dude, so I can get drawing!" She shakes her head. "Bro, wait til I tell you the stories I learned in Kenya. The Yiaku and Waata have all these myths and sayings about soul markers changing. It's, like, baked into their culture. It's wild."

Bitty points back and forth between Shitty and Lardo. "They're—" Jack nods. Bitty shakes his head. "I never woulda guessed that Shitty's got a soulmate. He doesn't have merch." He gestures generally around his face, chest, and hands. Facial piercings, necklaces, rings, and bracelets are the most common indicators that a person's found and bonded with their soulmate. Ransom and Holster have earrings that Bitty'd originally mistaken for regular bros-with-pierced-ears earrings. Ollie and Wicky have these gaudy bracelets that they must take off around their families. And a thousand soulmate-themed t-shirts, hats, tote bags, and hoodies lurk at websites and gift shops the world over. But Bitty's never seen Shitty wear so much as a watch. 

Jack snorts. "Shitty says—" He clears his throat and continues in a startlingly spot-on impression of stoned, soapboxing Shitty, "The commodification and commercialization of soulbonds is one of the most vile and demoralizing swindles of imperialist capitalism." Bitty snorts, and Jack smiles wryly. "They've never submitted Registry paperwork or fees, either." 

Bitty barely swallows a gasp. He doesn't wanna seem like a rube, but that can't be legal. But Shitty seems like the sort not to care about that—to revel in his blatant disregard for a law that, to be honest, is mostly a way for the government to squeeze a few bucks out of soul-bonded people. He glances at Shitty and Lardo. Shitty's holding Lardo's left arm alarmingly close to his face and talking excitedly while Lardo looks at him indulgently and tries to balance her notebook on her knee and draw what he's describing with her free hand. "What's this about?"

"Shitty sees Lardo's arms covered with full sleeve tattoos. I guess they've changed since she left on her study abroad." Jack shrugs. "It's well-documented. Happens a lot to military personnel who go on long deployments."

Ah, good old WWII history buff Jack, Bitty thinks. But, no, that's backwards. Jack got into World War II history through researching soul marker changes. Because he wanted to find out—

Holy Hannah, he wanted to find out if Kent Parson could be his soulmate. Recently-seventeen Jack, furtively googling soul marker changes on his parents' computer, hoping against hope that he'd return to Rimouski and find a soul marker on Kent that hadn't been there before, that their frantic hookups from last season would turn out to mean something, so Jack could stop feeling guilty about them.

"Um. Excuse me," Bitty says. "I gotta—" He starts to climb the stairs.

"Bits!" Shitty yells. "Come here, bruh! You gotta meet Lardo properly!"

"In a minute," Bitty calls back. "I need to lie down?"

"Bittle, you don't live here," Jack says.

Well, shoot, no he doesn't. Bitty gets to the top of the stairs and lies on the floor, staring at the ceiling. He's vaguely aware that the others are talking about him downstairs. Shitty mentions pie, and he thinks Lardo says "easily excitable." He can't care at the moment.

Jack Zimmermann: not straight. Not Kent Parson's soulmate. Interested in soulmates, or was at seventeen.

"You all right up there, Bittle?" Jack calls up the stairs.

Bitty groans. He'd come here to take another crack at cobbler. But these are not cobbler feelings he's feeling. He needs to make another pie. Or ten. 

*

Bitty doesn't mean to creep on Jack's life, but they're in each other's orbits so much, it's harder not to. He can't help noting that any time someone brings up their Jack and Parse's time together in the Q, Jack flinches. If Parse does something noteworthy in a game, Jack grimaces. When the Aces play the Bruins, the Falconers, or the Rangers, Jack's tense the entire time. No one else seems to notice, but Bitty can't stop noticing.

Bitty's soul knowledge of that time doesn't extend to how things ended between Jack and Parse—oops, no, here it is, a hotel room in Columbus, Ohio, the night before the draft. They're having a fight, or maybe it's foreplay. Bitty can't tell which it was because Jack couldn't always tell which it was until one of them either stormed out of the room or started tearing the other's clothes off.

"—orry, Kenny, but it'll be me," Jack is saying with the arrogance only possible to a newly nineteen-year-old at the literal top of his game.

"You trying to say you're better than me, Zimms? 'Cause fuck you."

Jack shrugs. Bitty's skin crawls. He barely recognizes this casually superior Jack. Despite knowing it's an act, he hates it. "Maybe, maybe not. But legacy counts for a lot in this game. Bad Bob Zimmermann's son chosen first in draft. Has a nice ring, don't you think?"

Kent vibrates with fury. "Your legacy doesn't mean shit. You're a risk, Zimms. A liability. You're a gay drug addict—"

"I'm bi—"

"Yeah, keep telling yourself that."

"And my drugs are prescribed—"

"Who the fuck cares?" Kent shouts over him. "You like cock, and you can't function without that little orange bottle. That sound like a bet an NHL team wants to take?"

Jack's panic and rage deepen. "If you've told anyone—"

"I'm the only one protecting you! But we haven't roomed together on every roadie, Zimms. And what about your billet families, huh? People talk, man. You think the press is bad, calling you a cokehead? You should hear what people in here say about you."

Jack's panic attack has gotten so bad that Bitty can just make out Kent's blurry outline.

Kent's phone dings, buying Jack a moment's reprieve. "Hey, Slammer's getting people together in his room. COD marathon." Usually code for puck bunnies and booze. Bitty is amazed by how Kent turns his rage off as easily as if it had never been there. Maybe it hadn't. Maybe he just liked pushing Jack's buttons.

"You go," Jack forces out through lips that feel frozen.

"I'm not leaving you here, man," Kent says, almost concerned.

"I'll be right behind you," Jack promises. "Gotta hit the head."

Kent's smirk slides back into place. "And the orange bottle."

Jack presses his frozen lips together and doesn't reply.

"Okay, Zimms," Kent says, sauntering toward the door. "But if you're not there in ten, I'll be back here in eleven."

The catlike tread of Kent's footsteps. The drag of the hotel room door across the carpet, and the click of it closing and locking behind him. Jack staggers to the bathroom.

The scene is as muddled in Bitty's head as it was in Jack's. He wants to take enough pills to clear the dots in his vision and silence the roaring in his head. Then, maybe, he has a flash of a thought that no one can prove he's on the meds if there are no meds to find. 

A voice in his head warns him that Kenny's coming back any minute. A different voice scoffs, insists that Kenny will get sucked into whatever's happening in Slammer's room and forget Jack in minutes. He's not sure which voice he wants to be right.

He has far too many pills left to take them all. He tries anyway.

Bitty lands back in his own awareness shaking and near tears. He thinks he might throw up. He'd wanted to know this. Now he desperately wishes he didn't.

*

"Well, hello, Captain!" Bitty says like he always does, if slower than usual.

A suspiciously long pause comes from the other end of the line, and then, "Hello, Bittle. This is Jack." Jack starts each call this way, despite Bitty repeatedly reminding him that his name pops up on Bitty's screen when he calls. Bitty fights back a giggle at the disconnect between the warmth of Jack's tone and the formality of his words.

"Hey, Jack." Bitty snuggles down into the bed and grabs Señor Bun from under his pillow. "How was your mom's fundraiser?"

Jack groans. "Boring. Endless."

"Well, you're calling me," Bitty points out, "so not endless."

"It was still going on when I made Papa take me home. It will never end. I'll never see my mother again."

Bitty sputters a startled laugh. If anyone had told him at the beginning of the school year that Jack would be making him laugh, well, that would've made him laugh. But he's gotten past Jack's grumpy defenses and gets to see a glimpse of the caring, anxious, smart, funny man underneath. And he'd only had a to suffer a mild concussion on a risky play to do it.

"How are you?" Jack asks.

Bitty sighs. "Tired," he admits.

"Sorry I'm calling so late," Jack says. "I'll let you go."

"You will not. I like hearin' your voice. Just sucks that my one lingerin' symptom from the concussion is a messed up sleep cycle. And I wasn't the greatest at sleepin' before."

Jack pauses for another long beat, to the point where Bitty wonders if they're both falling asleep. Then Jack clears his throat and says, "Are you sure that's the concussion and not staying up late on YouFace?"

Bitty can't catch his peal of laughter this time. He's never been so glad that his parents' room is at the opposite end of the house from his. "YouFace," he mutters. "This boy."

He swears he hears the grin in Jack's voice when he says, "Your accent gets thicker when you're tired." But Bitty hears warmth in there, too. Fondness, almost.

"So does yours, Monsieur Zimmermann," Bitty shoots back. Because it's true. And not at all to deflect from his embarrassment.

Jack mutters under his breath. Bitty doesn't catch it, but he's probably begging God to spare him from Bitty's horrible French pronunciation.

"I can't believe it's August," Jack says.

"Mmm. Pretty soon you'll be ordering us around on the ice again."

Bitty wishes Jack would agree to video calls, instead of insisting on voice only. He'd like to watch Jack transition from concerned captain/almost-friend mode to Hockey is Serious Business mode. "How do you feel about playing?"

Bitty swallows. It's a good question. One he's studiously avoided looking at for most of the summer. But it's so much later than they usually have their weekly calls. He's sleepy and comfortable in bed, and the dark, dark blue of a sky before it goes black is his favorite color. When he focuses on the warm concern of Jack's tone, Bitty remembers the cool blue he's outlined in. And Bitty can't lie to Jack in captain mode, whose disappointed face if he finds out is far worse than any reaction he might have to the truth. "I'm scared," Bitty whispers.

Jack is silent for a long, long time. Bitty's quiet, too. He's a babbler, and he has too much to hold back. If he starts talking, about hockey, his concussion, knowing it's silly to be afraid to play, other stuff will pour right out of him. How he struggled to balance classes and hockey last year and doesn't know how he'll keep up this year, when classes will be even harder. How he's been out for nine months and has been on one date. How being around Jack was hard enough last year when they could barely stand each other, and he has no idea how he can be around him now, with Jack being a real friend but completely unaware that Bitty's his soulmate.

Jack, bless him, doesn't see anything that isn't hockey if you don't shove it directly in front of his face. "If you have checking problems again, I'll help you."

"Oh, great," Bitty gripes, "more five a.m. checking practice."

"That's our special time, Bittle," Jack says, his voice so flat it circles back around to sly.

"Oh, hush," Bitty says, grinning.

"And, listen," Jack says, mega serious, "you should consider counseling this year."

Bitty frowns. "Camp's over, hon. No more counseling for this Bittle."

"No, I mean—" Jack makes a frustrated noise. "Getting counseling. For you. Therapy."

Bitty's blood runs cold. "Jack—I can't—my parents—" He imagines Coach's reaction if he found out his son was seeing a head-shrinker. It'd probably be about as bad as Coach finding out his son is gay.

"Bittle," Jack says, "listen to me." His voice has that specific mix of command and concern that Bitty can't help but obey. "Campus Health Services offers free counseling for students. Up to six sessions per semester. They're psychology grad students, so it's not the same as seeing someone who's been in practice for years. But their information will be up-to-date, eh?"

"Jack—"

"And," Jack continues, "because it's free, nothing bills to insurance. Your parents never have to find out."

"Oh," Bitty says quietly.

"Checking practice helps with hockey," Jack says. "But between the concussion and the PTSD you may have from being locked in that closet, you should talk to a professional, too." He pauses. "A professional-to-be."

Bitty groans. "Fine. I'll think about it."

"Thank you, Bitty."

That's so new, Jack calling him Bitty sometimes instead of constantly Bittle. It sounds so good in Jack's voice and accent that Bitty wants to scream. Has screamed into his pillow after more than one of these calls.

"Well," Jack says after a beat, "I should let you—" A yawn echoes across the call. "—go."

Bitty laughs. "Sounds like you're the one who needs to go. Rest up after the neverending benefit."

"Ouias," Jack says. "Talk next week? Earlier next time; nothing on my calendar."

"Sounds perfect. Good night, Jack."

"Good night, Bittle."

As soon as the call ends, Bitty buries his face in his hands. How? How is he supposed to spend another school year with this gorgeous, grumpy, funny, driven, loyal, perfectionist, caring man? 

The thought of therapy terrifies Bitty, but he recognizes that Jack suggesting it is a huge olive branch. The Jack of last year would never have said it, because checking practice helped Bitty with hockey, and nothing else mattered. But here's Jack offering something that will help Bitty be a better person overall, which may help him play better hockey but isn't the main focus. Jack wants Bitty to be a better person and have a better life, because he knows what Bitty's been through.

Bitty freezes. He drops his hands and stares at his ceiling.

Jack knows what Bitty's been through.

Jack definitely wasn't in the room when Bitty mentioned the utility closet, because it happened during the conversation where he'd admitted to never having heard of Bad Bob. He would not have said that in front of Jack. He likes to think the boys wouldn't have blabbed that to other people, especially not to Jack. Even if they had, at the time Bitty had played it off as a harmless prank. Jack talked like he knows what a trauma it had been for Bitty. Like he knows it's a main source of Bitty's ongoing struggles with aggressive physicality. Like he's been privy to Bitty's innermost thoughts and feelings about it.

"Son of a biscuit," Bitty mutters into the silent darkness of his room.

Jack does have soul knowledge about him. Why hasn't he said anything? Does the idea of having Bitty as a soulmate distress him that deeply? Does he want a platonic bond and worries that Bitty will want a romantic or sexual one? Does he want to keep Bitty on his line more than he wants to bond with him as soulmates?

How dare he? It's one thing not to look for your soulmate because you're focused on other aspects of your life. It's another to know who your soulmate is and choose not to bond with them because it inconveniences you. Who the hell does Jack Zimmermann think he is? (Besides Jack Zimmermann.)

Now Bitty screams into his pillow.

Well, he can't sort this out without figuring out what Jack's thinking. He reaches for his phone. Then he stops. He'd prefer to have this conversation in person. They'll be on campus in a few weeks. He'll make Jack tell it to his face.

*

Bitty does not make Jack tell it to his face.

By the time they get back to campus, righteous indignation has transformed into bubbling confusion and mild embarrassment. If Jack has a problem with Bitty as his soulmate, does Bitty want to know? The uncertainty is killing him, but Jack's rejection might actually kill him. He's not sure. He's fallen down a lot of soulmate rejection internet rabbit holes. The research is inconclusive.

All this is on top of Bitty noticing that Jack's blue light has gotten way stronger and brighter since they saw each other last. Everyone knows about this, soul markers intensifying if the partners go too long without acknowledging the bond. Bitty's just never imagined it would happen to him. And he hasn't had the slightest clue how danged annoying it is.

As if that's not enough, now, in addition to Captain!Jack, teammate!Jack, and checking coach!Jack, Bitty has to contend with Hausmate!Jack and classmate!Jack, each subtly but undeniably different. Hausmate!Jack yells at Bitty for singing in the shower and hates how many baked and canned goods fill every inch of the Haus kitchen. Classmate!Jack spends class doodling hockey plays in his notebook and then has to beg notes off Bitty afterward. He dryly chirps lectures and assignments under his breath, causing Bitty to lose his own breath trying not to laugh. He tries so hard to make a lattice, though he's never baked a pie in his life, bless his heart, and ends up with flour on his face and a Charlie Brown Christmas tree of a pie.

Bitty may have the fastest hands in the kitchen and the fastest feet on the ice, but he can never be fast enough to get away from his feelings for Jack. Which isn't fair. Jack's his soulmate; Bitty shouldn't have to get away from having feelings for him.

Try telling Jack that.

Bitty ought to try telling Jack that.

*

Bitty crosses his arms and puts on his most intimidating glare, but it doesn't do any good.

"What are you doing?" Jack asks, way too close to Bitty's sensitive ears. For a giant moose of a man, Jack can be distressingly quiet when he wants to be.

Bitty frees one of his hands long enough to wave across the living room. "Tryin' to glare Rans and Holster into finding me a better date for Screw this year."

Jack grins. "I did warn you last year."

Bitty rolls his eyes. "You said they might not be good matchmakers. You said nothing about my date throwing up on my shoes."

"Could be worse," Jack says with a wink. "Could be Megan Iverson."

Bitty sees red. Literally. He's always thought that was just a saying, but it's real. "Jack Laurent Zimmermann," he hisses, and Jack takes a step back, eyes wide. "That is not, has never been, and will never be, something to joke about. D'you hear me?"

Jack's face falls, and he holds up his hands. "No, you're right, Bittle. I'm sorry. I shouldn't've—I'll, uh... oh, hey, is that Lardo's new piece for her show?" Jack scuttles away to look at what is most certainly not Lardo's new piece for her show. Bitty doesn't call him out for being a coward, because he doesn't want to look at Jack right now.

Megan Iverson. Bitty's one foray into (not entirely consensual) heterosexuality. A memory so riddled with guilt and shame that Bitty's burning up just thinking about it. That Jack would dare

Well. This must be payback for that time Bitty tried to talk to Jack about Bad Bob. He hadn't imagined Jack being the grudge-holding type, but he's been wrong before.

Bitty shouts a weak, "Somebody nice this year!" at Ransom and Holster and then slinks up to his room. Baking won't fix this. He needs to be alone until he can get himself under control. He can't believe he's thinking this, but he misses the time when he thought Jack had no soul knowledge about him.

*

"I cannot believe you, Jack!" Bitty is tipsy enough that this conversation will be overflowing with heart-eyes. But Jack is here! At a kegster! At Epikegster! That's worth a heart-eye or two. "You were fixing to hide away in your room? During what could very well be the last ridiculous kegster of your Samwell career!"

Jack smiles, that tiny barely-a-smile that Bitty's seeing more and more lately. Lord, but he looks so good, leaning against the wall in a snug SMH T-shirt and blue jeans that manage to be baggy despite the solemn duty they've been given to cradle the Zimmerbutt. Even that mantle of tension he always carries at parties, constantly scanning the room for an autograph-seeker or scandal hound, seems to have slid off. "Well, you know, something always goes wrong at these parties. And I think Ransom and Holster invited half of the colleges in Boston." His smile turns sly. "Make sure you lock your door, Bittle. Last time we had one of these, Shitty had a guy get sick in his room. Oh boy—"

And, okay, Bitty tunes out Jack's words as he launches into the anecdote of how he ran off the football team with a fire extinguisher. He's heard it before; he knows when to say "Gosh!" and "Oh no!" to keep Jack rolling. Jack gets into telling this story, and Bitty gets into watching him, secure in the knowledge that Jack will only glance over periodically to make sure Bitty's still an attentive audience.

So with most of his attention on watching Jack—his intense expressions, his wide gestures, his arms—Bitty's hearing wanders out into the party. The thumping bass, the shrieks of laughter, the roar of beer pong victors.

And then he hears Chowder say, "Oh gosh, Kent Parson's here! In the Haus! Would he take a selfie with me? Would it be disloyal to the Sharks to take a selfie with the Aces' captain? But, I guess, the Sharks aren't here. Are they?" 

No. Nope nope nope. Not today, Satan.

Jack's winding up for the end of his story. Bitty he grabs Jack's arm and spins him as hard as he can so they're facing the stairs. "Bittle, what—"

"Jack, move," Bitty says. 

Jack doesn't, no big surprise. "Bittle, I was—"

"Sorry to cut you off, sugar, but we gotta get upstairs now. I promise I'll explain. Just, please, Jack, go!" Bitty sounds desperate and whiny, but they need to be moving thirty seconds ago. No time for dignity.

Jack's scowling, but he moves toward the stairs. Then he goes and ruins it by saying—loudly, because that's the only way to be heard at a kegster—"I don't see why—"

"Shhh!" Bitty snaps as he ducks under the caution tape barrier. "Do you want him to hear you?"

"Who?" Jack asks. He steps easily over the barrier, the show-off.

Then, from not nearly as far away as Bitty would like, he hears, "Ooh, Parse, will you take a selfie with us?"

Jack stumbles. Bitty catches his arm to keep him upright. Jack's face goes sickly pale, and Bitty feels trembles in the arm he's holding. "Come on, Jack," Bitty says as he tries to keep them moving. "You're havin' a good day. You don't need your ex in your face messing that up. Let's go." Jack moves without argument, resistance, or awareness, like a puppet with cut strings. Bitty hates it, but he'll take it if it gets Jack away from Parse.

Bitty heads toward his room, though Jack would likely be more comfortable in his own room. When Parse can't find Jack on the main floor, he'll probably come up here to look. And not a person at that party would think twice about telling NHL superstar Kent Parson where to find his former teammate and best friend. Because not a person at that party knows what Bitty does about Jack and Parse's past.

Bitty locks the door and settles a still-unresisting Jack on the bed. Jack's shoulders slump, his spine curls down, and he grips the comforter. Bitty grabs two bottles of water and settles at Jack's side, close enough for Jack to feel his presence, but not close enough to touch. Jack's breathing is ragged and uneven. "Jack," Bitty whispers, "what do you need?"

Jack moans and shakes his head. Well, that's fair. Bitty wouldn't be able to say what he needed in the middle of a panic attack, either. 

"I'm gonna breathe, nice and slow. You need me to count 'em out for you?"

Jack shakes his head again. His nearer hand creeps across the bedspread and then lifts, hovering uncertainly in front of Bitty. Bitty hopes Jack doesn't notice the trembling in his own hand as he takes Jack's and rests the palm against his diaphragm so Jack can feel his breaths.

Bitty focuses on breathing slow and even, and not on the big warm hand on him. Jack's having a crisis. Now is not the time to notice how good his hand feels or to wonder what it would feel like skin against skin, or on other parts of his body. He breathes, and after a couple minutes, Jack starts breathing along with him. Jack sits up straighter, like he's not carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. Bitty starts to smile a little.

Feet pound up the stairs.

"Oh, for the love—" Bitty mutters.

"Câlice de tabarnak," Jack says, with barely any sound. He's shaking again. The fingers on the hand still resting on Bitty start to twitch. Bitty puts his own hand over it to anchor them both.

"Yo, Zimms!" Parse's voice echoes around the space. He sounds like he's in front of Jack's room. "C'mon, man, I came all this way! You know you miss me!" He pounds on Jack's door.

Jack looks at Bitty with wide, panicked eyes. His mouth opens, and Bitty doesn't think twice before slapping his free hand across it. Jack looks miserable but finds the wherewithal to roll his eyes. Bitty huffs a silent laugh through his nose. He releases Jack's mouth long enough to fumble his phone out of his pocket. He opens the Notes app and types Give him a minute. He'll get bored and go away

Jack's eyes narrow, and he jabs at the keyboard. You don't know Kenny, he writes.

Bitty rolls his eyes and types, I know more than you think

Jack looks up at him, brow drawn. Bitty shakes his head. His words and their numerous interpretations, each more horrific than the last, hang awkwardly between them.

"Listen, Zimms, I... I wanted to see you, okay? I came all this way—" 

Bitty types, Ooh all the way from BOSTON (where the Bruins had handed the Aces a crushing defeat that Bitty isn't feeling even a little smug about, no sirree). Jack huffs something like a laugh.

"Like, shit, you don't answer my texts or calls. You won't let your parents tell me fuck-all. I don't know what team you're going to next year. I'm sure Uncle Mario offered you a nice, cushy spot, but forget that bullshit and come to Vegas with me. As soon as I say the word, the GMs will free up the cap space. Then you can be done with this shitty team, and you and me can—"

Now Jack's eyes are narrowed in fury. Bitty squeezes the hand he's... well, holding, and shakes his head vehemently.

"What do you want me to say? That I miss you? I miss you, okay?" Parse pauses. "...I miss you." But the thing is—and Bitty's not an actual expert on Kent Parson, but still—he doesn't sound like he misses Jack. He sounds like he knows that saying he misses Jack will get him his way.

A doorknob rattles. Is Parse trying to open Jack's door? Bitty squeezes Jack's hand again, this time to calm himself.

In the long pause that follows, Bitty focuses on breathing, and on Jack, and on trying to tell Jack without words that they'll be okay. He tries to tell himself, while he's at it.

Something bangs. Sounds like Parse's hand against Jack's door. "You know what, Zimmermann? You think you're too fucked up to care about? That you're not good enough?" Bitty glances at Jack's face. It's stone, like he's not a real person. This isn't his intensely focused hockey robot expression; it's a complete absence of expression, like he's gone somewhere else in his head. "Everyone already knows what you are," Parse continues relentlessly, "but it's people like me who still care. You're scared everyone else is going to find out you're worthless, right? Oh, don't worry. Just give it a few seasons, Jack. Trust me."

Bitty's blood is boiling. If he hadn't been taking care of Jack, he'd be out there giving Kent Parson a piece of his mind. With his fist.

"Fine," Parse says. "Shut me out again." Footsteps move away from the door, toward the stairs. Bitty doesn't trust himself to breathe out yet. Sure enough, at the top of the stairs, Parse calls, "Good luck with the Falconers. I'm sure that'll make your dad proud."

He stomps down the stairs. Cheers go up on the main floor as he returns to the party. Bitty counts to thirty, to be sure Parse won't charge back up. Then he turns to Jack. "Jack, honey? How're you doing?"

Jack looks pale, with sweat beads at his temples. But his hands have stopped trembling, and he looks like he's here. And he's looking at Bitty like he's the eighth wonder of the world. "He's gone," Jack says with subdued awe.

"For now," Bitty says.

Jack shakes his head. "Now that he's had his say, gotten the last word—" He snorts. "All the words, eh? He won't come back. He'll leave me to stew. Text in a few days to ask if I've thought about what he said." Jack sighs wearily and runs his hands through his hair. "Like I'll be thinking about anything else."

Bitty wants to say a thousand things, but what makes it out of his mouth is a scandalized, "He has your number?"

Jack shrugs, though he looks uncomfortable. "Some of the older players, and some guys who retired and became coaches or commentators. The ones who were friends with my dad. They don't know what happened with me and Kenny. It wouldn't occur to them not to give it if he asked." Jack stares at his hands. "Not many people know what happened with us." A frown steals across his face. Bitty braces. "Not many people know what happened with us," he repeats, slowly. Bitty opens his mouth to answer, but then Jack turns on him, blue eyes blazing. "You called him my ex. On the stairs. How the hell do you know that?"

Bitty could bluff his way out of this. Brush it off by noting how tense Jack gets when someone mentions Parse, or when Aces games are on TV. But he's exhausted. Physically and emotionally drained from the past ten minutes—and the past year and a half. So he says, "I got that lovely piece of soul knowledge in February. I may not have all the details, but I have enough to understand that Kent Parson is bad news for you. I wasn't gonna let you deal with that tonight. Or any night, if I can help it."

Jack stares at Bitty. Bitty stares back. He hadn't meant to bring the topic up like that, but Jack's got no call to stare at him like he's grown another head. "Soul knowledge?" Jack asks like he's never heard the word before.

"Yes, Jack!" Bitty bounces to his feet in frustration. "Soul knowledge. Connaissance d'âme." Jack winces, probably at Bitty's pronunciation. "Little stuff you should know about your soulmate that they ain't ready to tell you?"

Jack gives him an undeserved but impressive bitch-face. "I'm aware of what soul knowledge is, Bittle. But you aren't—we aren't—"

Bitty faces Jack and crosses his arms. "We are. And somewhere in that thick skull of yours, you know it. Are you worried that we'll want different types of bonds? Why are you fightin' this?"

"Just because you guessed about me and Kenny—lots of people have guessed—"

"I didn't guess. I knew. I saw you at seventeen, googling soul marker changes because you hoped it could still be him. I heard the awful things he said to you before the draft, 'bout how he was gonna go first because you were a bad risk? That's in me. No internet conspiracy theories necessary."

Jack's gone pale again, though he has a belligerent jut to his chin that Bitty wants to punch or kiss—or both. "That's your soul knowledge?" Jack's tone holds real challenge, but Bitty doesn't hear mockery in it.

Bitty stares levelly at him. "For starters."

"But I don't have any for you!" Jack says, in the same proud way he says "Check!" when he's playing chess with Ransom.

"Jack," Bitty huffs. "Who told you I'm gay?"

"You did!" Jack spreads his hands in a get a load of this guy gesture.

"You did." Bitty jabs a finger at him. "I'd been worryin' for days over coming out to you. Then you went and warned me off letting Rans and Holster find me a guy for Screw."

"Then—"

"And don't say one of the other guys outed me. That wouldn't happen in Shitty Knight's Haus."

Jack closes his mouth. His posture slumps. He's sulking.

Bitty presses his luck. "How'd you find out about the utility closet?"

"Holster," Jack says with certainty.

"Uh-huh," Bitty says. "And did Holster make it sound like a traumatic experience that left me with PTSD and a real struggle with physical contact with big guys? Or did he use it as a funny anecdote to tell at a kegster?"

"I... connected some dots?" Jack says, without conviction. He's not known for connecting dots that aren't in a hockey play.

Bitty goes in for the kill. "What happened with Megan Iverson?"

Jack squirms, picking at Bitty's comforter and not making eye contact. "Come on, Bittle. You told me not to bring it up, and you were right. That's... really personal."

Bitty holds up his hand. "'Kay, that's enough for me to know you know what you're talking about. Who told you that?" Bitty sees the gears turning in Jack's head as he tries to remember this one and ultimately realizes it's useless. "I have never breathed a word about that night to another living soul, Jack. And I never will." He takes a step closer to Jack. "But it'd be real useful for you to know if we were in a relationship, right? Especially if we were gonna..." Bitty feels himself flushing deeply. "Y'know." Jack smirks, and Bitty hides his face in his hands. 

"What about soul markers, eh?" Jack asks. Maybe this is wishful thinking on Bitty's part, but he sounds... disappointed. Like he wants this to be true but has to face unpleasant realities. "I don't have one for you."

Bitty spreads his hands. "I don't know what to tell you there, Jack. From the moment I laid eyes on you, I've seen you surrounded by this beautiful blue light. Same color as your eyes. Calms me right down. Don't know why you don't have one for me. I mean, I looked up Traumatic Soul Bond Severance, but I'm not sure if—"

Bitty squeaks, swallowing his ramble about how little anyone understands TSBS, as Jack stands and closes the small distance between them with the same look he gets when he has possession of the puck and a clear shot on goal. He rests those big, warm hands on Bitty's hips. Bitty's nerve endings sing in anticipation. Jack leans down. Bitty stretches up.

Jack buries his face in Bitty's hair and takes a deep breath in. Bitty freezes. Not what he'd expected, but he can't lie, it's erotic as all get-out. If this is part of foreplay for Jack, Bitty will happily roll with it.

"Bittle," Jack says, face still in Bitty's hair. "When did you last bake something sweet?"

Bitty wishes he could see his own face. It's probably doing something real interesting. "Oh, uh, lemme think. I made mini quiches this afternoon—gotta get protein in those boys while they're drinking!—and—oh!, uh—no, I guess that wasn't baking. Um... this morning, I guess? I made a quadruple batch of peanut butter chocolate chip cookies and those butterscotch blondies Nursey likes. Holster wanted caramel pecan rolls, but no way was I giving something that sticky to a Hausful of tub juice drunks!"

Jack steps back, lifting his head and looking down at Bitty. He keeps his hands on Bitty's hips, though, which Bitty is not complaining about. "Nothing more recent?"

Bitty shakes his head. "Haven't even been in the kitchen since the party started. Jack, what is this? I'm trying to talk soulmates, and you wanna know about baking?"

Eyes wide, Jack sinks back onto the bed, dragging Bitty with him by the hips. "This whole time, and I never—come here." He hauls Bitty closer, not that Bitty's protesting awful hard. He buries his face in Bitty's shirt and breathes. Deeply.

Bitty buries his hands in Jack's hair. He thinks he's allowed. "Jack," he murmurs.

Jack turns his face up to look at Bitty. The full force of that gaze damned near knocks Bitty to the ground. "You smell like baking. All the time. The entire time I've known you. But I thought..."

"...because I'm always baking," Bitty finishes, awe and embarrassment warring in his voice. Jack has a soul marker for him! He's had one the entire time and didn't even realize it. Bitty's most trusted life-avoidance tactic almost avoided him right out of his soulmate.

"You're always baking," Jack agrees. He grins. Bitty's helpless to do anything but grin back. For a minute, they're just there, grinning at each other, while Bitty's heart fills with so much love for this ridiculous boy that he can't contain it. "Bits," Jack says softly, "we're—"

For the second time in ten minutes, Bitty slaps a hand across Jack's mouth. Jack looks just as put out this time. Bitty sighs, removes his hand, and sinks onto the bed next to Jack. They angle their bodies to face each other.

"Jack," he says, and then licks his lips because they're suddenly so dry. Jack tracks the motion hungrily, which is flattering, but Bitty refuses to be sidetracked. "I want this so bad. But..." Now would be a fantastic time for a new piece of soul knowledge to pop up for Jack. But, no, Jack keeps watching him intently. Bitty sighs and plunges on. "The instant we say... anything, we'll bond. We've had markers for more than a year. No way we get a delay."

Jack nods. "I know."

"Do you?" Bitty asks. "It means that we'll have to tell Hall and Murray. And that means no more playing on a line together. Ever." That hits surprisingly hard. He likes playing on Jack's line, likes the way they find each other on the ice. (Like Rans and Holster or Ollie and Wicky, he realizes.) Losing that, especially going into Jack's last semester at Samwell, puts an ache behind his ribcage.

Jack lifts his other hand and smooths Bitty's hair. Rests his thumb on Bitty's cheek. "I know. Marde, I know. Hall and Murray told me last spring that I'm a better player when I'm on a line with you. It took me a while, but I see it, too."

"Then why—"

"It's not just being on a line with you, yeah? Being on the same team as you. Knowing you're there somewhere. I..." Jack smiles. It wobbles, but Bitty doesn't think it's bad, just... overwhelmed. "Bits, everything about me is better because you're around. Sorry it took me so long to understand that. Definitely sorry I was an ass while I figured it out."

"You weren't..." Bitty starts, but it's half-hearted, and he can't bring himself to finish.

Jack snorts. "I was. But you were—" He shakes his head. "The last time a person changed me that much, I..." He swallows and looks away.

Bitty puts a hand on Jack's shoulder and squeezes. "I can't promise I'll never hurt you, Jack," he says softly. "But I'll do whatever I can not to be... like him."

Jack smiles, genuine if tinged with sadness. "Bits, you couldn't be like him if you tried. I want to see what we can really be together."

"Yeah?" Bitty asks hopefully. Jack nods. Bitty smiles. "I want to see that, too, sugar."

"Swawesome," Jack says. He holds out his fist. Bitty stares at it in horror, but Jack looks absolutely serious. Well, 99 percent serious and one percent chirpy. "Soulmates?"

"Lord, this boy," Bitty mutters and holds out his fist. "Soulmates."

Their fists connect. Bitty tingles. Then he smells it, the exact scent of maple-crusted apple pie when it's ready to come out of the oven. It's everywhere without being cloying; sweet, warm, and homey. Comforting.

"Whoa," Jack says, staring at his arm. He looks at himself in Bitty's mirror. "Is that how you see me all the time?"

Bitty laughs and nods. "You've always been dramatic, Mr. Zimmermann."

Jack laughs and yanks Bitty into a crushing hug.

The scent and the tingling fade. Bitty's left with a sense of Jack, lodged in the same place he'd ached about losing playing hockey with Jack. Bitty relaxes. They may have played their last game together, but he'll have Jack with him whenever he steps onto the ice.

Jack lets him go. Out of nowhere, Bitty's nerves come back. He stares at the bed and runs his hands over the comforter. "And, now, listen," he says, about to babble and not feeling like he can do a thing to stop it, "I don't wanna make assumptions, y'hear? If you want a platonic bond, well, I can do that with the best of 'em. I mean, I got aaaalll sorts of practice with—"

"Bittle." It's not Captain Voice, but it's firm enough to stop Bitty's word geyser. Bitty glances up and is surprised to see how red Jack's face has turned. "I've seen you naked," he says. "Platonic is not... um..."

"Oh! Oh, my!" Bitty giggles and hides his face in his hands. "Well, then, my gracious!"

Jack gently pries Bitty's hands away from his face. "Bits," he says softly, "will you kiss me?"

And. Well. When he asks like that

It takes a minute, a minute of delicious, torturous anticipation, for them to reangle themselves so they're facing each other fully on the bed. Bitty's pulse thunders in his ears. He reaches out and takes Jack's hand. Jack tugs him closer. Bitty looks into Jack's blue, blue eyes and thinks, how did I get so lucky to have those eyes looking at me like that? A shiver runs down his arms as Jack's breath ghosts across his lips. Their lips touch, softly, like a question. Then Jack tilts his head and comes in for another, longer and more certain. His lips are confident, soft, if a little chapped from all that time on the ice. Jack frees his hands and slides them up Bitty's arms, leaving a trail of goosebumps in their wake. Bitty's hands flail for a minute, unmoored, and then grip desperately onto Jack's hips.

Jack pulls away. His lips look red and kiss-swollen, his eyes hazy and unfocused. "Bitty," he rasps. Bitty's nerves zing with pride. He did that. To Jack! Who's his soulmate. Who's been his soulmate all along!

Bitty gathers Jack to him, trying to pour the things he can't say into the hug. I'm so glad you're my soulmate. Please don't beat yourself up about lost time. I'm sorry you went through that with Kent; please let me help you carry it.

They won't get much more soul knowledge, if any. As they learn how to navigate a new relationship and talk to each other about important, scary things in their lives and pasts, it'll trickle away. Until they can say these things to each other, they'll muddle through as best they can with hugs and meaningful looks. It doesn't sound like the worst start.

Jack pulls away and sighs. "It's late," he says.

Bitty is a gentleman and a considerate soulmate, so he does not laugh. It's not late, not on the last night before break, with finals finished, papers turned in, and Epikegster raging on the main floor. But it's late for Jack, captain of clean living and regular habits. They'll need to talk about schedules later, but tonight Bitty will happily choose going to bed early with his soulmate over staying up late for one more college party.

"I should get to bed." Jack glances toward his room with such blatant distress on his face that he might as well be wearing a neon sign that says please don't make me go back there.

Now Bitty does laugh. "Jack, you silly boy, stay here tonight. With me." A hint of worry crosses Jack's face, and Bitty hurriedly continues, "To sleep. Just to sleep." Feeling brave, he looks up at Jack from under his eyelashes and adds, "For now."

Jack's pupils dilate, and he sways closer, dancing his fingers down Bitty's arms to grab his hand. "Yeah?" he asks. "What might happen later?"

Bitty plasters himself against Jack's front and does a slow shimmy that makes his meaning unmistakable. Then he leans up until Jack gets the hint and leans down. Bitty raises his lips to Jack's ear and whispers, "In the morning, I might bake."

A delighted, startled laugh bursts out of Jack. He kisses Bitty again, shorter but no less full of promise. Then he wraps his arms around Bitty in a hug that makes Bitty feel cocooned in love. "Bits," Jack says, "when you're with me, you're always baking."

*

"LISTEN UP, YOU GLORIOUS SHITHEADS!" Shitty bellows. The bench wobbles, and Lardo wisely hops down before Shitty knocks her off.

"Is that supposed to be a compliment?" Bitty hears Chowder whisper.

Nursery jostles them affectionately. "Obvs. Chill."

"We hockey-loving assholes are about to witness a rad spectacle never before known to humanity. Or at least to Samwell Hockeymanity."

"Oh, the huge manatee," Dex mumbles. Chowder giggles into their hands, bless their heart.

"The first—and possibly last—ever... SAMWELL. SOULMATE. SHINNY!!!"

Jack leans close. "Shits came up with that by himself," he whispers. Bitty doesn't try to suppress his shiver. "He's very proud."

Lardo climbs back onto the bench and shoves Shitty off it. "Round 1 will be Rans and Holster versus Wicky and Ollie. Round 2, Wicky and Ollie versus Jack and Bits. Round 3, Jack and Bits versus Rans and Holster. I know you overcompetitive nerds will keep score, but I won't, so nothing's official. This is for fun, and so the rest of us can be mad jelly of the sick soulmate bond skills. So you fuckers better have fun, or I'll sic Shits on you. Naked."

"Like that'd be a change," Jack mutters.

"When will you and Shitty get out here with us, Lardo?" Wicky calls.

Lardo laughs. "Bro, you've seen me on skates. You know the answer's fucking never." They all laugh with her, good-naturedly.

Bitty leans into Jack's side. Jack's arm comes around him. It's awkward through their layers of pads and gloves, but it's them, a feeling as familiar to Bitty as breathing, for all they've only been physically in each other's space again for a few weeks. This will be their first time playing hockey together since they told the coaches that they're bonded. Bitty thinks they'll do okay.

Bitty looks around at his team. His friends. Nursey and Dex bickering across an exasperated Chowder. Shitty helping Lardo down from the bench. Wicky and Ollie's perpetual fist-bump. Rans and Holster trying to data-crunch their way to victory. Jack, always Jack, and his beautiful blue light, and the things Bitty knows about him.

Yeah, this is the last semester things'll be like this, this group of people living and playing together. Jack and Shitty will graduate. SMH will get a new captain and new frogs. Jack will have new teammates, too, once he's officially a Falconer. Everything changes. Nothing's ever exactly the same.

But whatever comes next, whatever they become next, they'll have music and baking, hockey and cool blue light. Whatever life gives them, they'll make something out of it. Bitty doesn't need to be psychic to know that.