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The kitchen smells like something burnt, a smoky tang that clings to the walls and floors, stings inside Bitty’s nose. April should smell like hot cross buns and zucchini bread, he thinks wistfully, but it turns out that some Aprils poor ovens are pushed to their last legs prematurely, leaving his kitchen smelling like Ransom forgot his frozen pizza in the microwave again.

Dex has been tending to Betsy on her deathbed all month, spending most of his free hours at the Haus. Bitty called him again after class, while he was standing in Superberry with Jack, and promised to pay for his services with froyo. Said froyo -- which Jack insisted on paying for, bless him -- is still on the table, untouched, yogurt melting over the rim of the paper cup and dripping onto the wood. Dex has been kneeling in the same strip of sunlight on the floor since he arrived with his toolbox. Bitty isn’t sure what exactly he’s been doing, but he seems to be too busy waving a screwdriver in the air and ranting to remember his abandoned bribe.

“So we finally got over the fucking Samwell Republican sticker thing,” Dex says, his face red and his brow furrowed. He’s been disgruntled all day because of an email he’d received, which he claims Nursey will never let him live down. "And Bitty, I know this is Massachusetts, okay? But I haven’t even actually voted yet! Fucking Swallow. How can I be Best Republican?"

Bitty hunches over in his chair, palms clasped together on his knees like a prayer. He’s anxiously following the motions of Dex’s screwdriver with his eyes while listening with only half an ear, deeply confused by the conversation subject. “The Swallow does pieces on politics? I can’t even imagine what an article like that’d look like, honestly.”

Dex grumbles quietly, shoving a hand under his backwards snapback to scratch at his hair. “No, it’s like -- their Samwell Awards thing? I don’t know, I just got an email about it this morning. I guess it’s like that 50 Most Beautiful shit they do.”

Bitty’s never heard of it, but then again, Bitty carefully sidesteps most articles of The Swallow whenever he comes across them. Those guys write about their team an uncomfortable amount for a university with almost ten thousand students. As long as Holster or Ransom aren’t reading it aloud at team breakfast, Bitty’s not eager to find out what The Swallow has to say.

He asks, though, because Dex seems to be upset about this and his frogs need to be handled with care. “Like in high school yearbooks?” Heather Barron was his class’ Best Laugh back home, and she made everyone who signed her yearbook tell her a joke so she could laugh for them. 

“I guess,” Dex says distractedly. He bends down low to reach something close to the floor. “This girl from my Intro to CompSci class got the same email about it -- she won Best Dressed. I mean, who even judges these things? That’s a matter of taste.”

Dex wipes a dusty hand across his forehead and Bitty momentarily forgets to care about The Swallow in favor of looking on worriedly. Betsy is unplugged from the wall with her back side facing the room, surrounded by loose cables and scattered bolts. She looks old and frail. Bitty kind of feels like he’s watching an open-heart surgery occurring right in front of him.

“Can you save her?” Bitty presses a hand over his heart, dreading the reply. Dex wrinkles his forehead even further and doesn’t meet Bitty’s eyes.

It is then that their ordinary afternoon is interrupted by three emphatic knocks on the front door of the Haus.

"Did someone just knock on our door?" Shitty yells from somewhere down the hall. Bitty assumes he’s still curled up on the couch of sins in a t-shirt and flimsy underwear, mourning his grandparents’ affirmative RSVP response to graduation. 

His tone sounds downright shocked at the sound, but that’s probably reasonable. Bitty’s been living in the Haus for over nine months now and he’s never once heard anyone knock on that door. It’s always unlocked, anyway; it’s actually nothing short of a miracle that they’ve never been burglarized. Not that there’d be anything to steal, of course, other than Holster’s collector's edition Simpsons DVD box set, or maybe one of Jack’s used jerseys to be sold to the highest bidder on ebay.

"Well, whaddaya know,” Ransom appears in the hallway outside the kitchen doorframe, likely summoned downstairs by the abnormal noise. His eyebrows are high on his forehead as he stares down the hall at the door. “It didn't collapse. I told you it’s sturdier than it looks."

Neither of the boys makes a move to actually open the door. There’s a second set of knocks, this one slightly louder than the first, and Bitty huffs as he gets off his chair. He casts one last hopeful look over his shoulder. Maybe, he wishes silently, Betsy has performance issues and would be magically fixed once she’s not under his constant scrutiny. Or maybe Dex does, and would magically fix her. “Y’all, when someone knocks on a door, they generally expect you to open it for them.”

He shoulder-checks Ransom on the way to yanking the door open, and is presented with some guy Bitty’s never seen before standing on their front steps. He’s wearing an atrociously ugly plaid vest and an awfully wide smile, which only grows wider when he sees that it’s Bitty who’s opening the door. 

“Eric Bittle!”

“Yes?” Bitty agrees, eyebrows drawing together. He’s usually pretty good with faces, but he doesn’t think he’s seen this guy in any of his classes. Maybe a hockey fan. Still -- Bitty’s mother brought him up right, and he’s resolved to stick to his manners even if he now lives in a frat house. Someone with malicious intentions, he rationalizes to himself, wouldn't knock before entering. “Hi. Wouldya like to come in? I’m afraid our oven’s down, so I don’t have much to offer in terms of baked goods --”

“Oh, no, that won’t be necessary!” The man dismisses quickly, his smile not waning any; it’s hard not to eye it suspiciously. Absently, Bitty can make out the sound of feet shuffling, which presumably means the boys are crowding together behind him to peer curiously at the stranger on their doorstep. “I’m from The Swallow, I’m here to deliver a message for you. And Jack Zimmermann, but I’m sure you can pass it on. Our annual Samwell Awards issue is coming out early next month, as you know --”

“Sure,” Bitty confirms politely, although he’s never heard of the thing until about two minutes ago. There’s no sense in getting the man down.

“-- and we wanted your response on the win. We do that for the real popular categories. If you want to draft a short statement, you can reply to the email we sent you two --”

“I’m sorry,” Bitty cuts him off, maintaining a carefully polite tone. He hasn’t checked his email since the previous night, too preoccupied with avoiding his American Publics essay and fretting over Betsy. Somewhere behind him there are more heavy footsteps coming down the stairs and one of the boys whispers excitedly, Bitty won a Samwell Award!, though he’s not sure which. “What win? Who’s you two?”

“Oh,” the Swallow guy blinks, obviously taken aback. His smile doesn’t completely disappear but thankfully thins a little bit, at last stretching over less than two thirds of his face. He looks marginally less maniacal like this, Bitty thinks uncharitably. “You and Jack Zimmermann?”

There’s another shuffle of feet. Bitty turns his head to catch Jack pushing Shitty aside, coming to stand a step behind Bitty’s right shoulder. Bitty hasn’t seen him since they got back from Superberry and Jack headed upstairs to study, chirping Bitty for not doing the same all the while. He’s taken his thin fleece jacket off since, and the soft V-neck he’s had underneath clings to his biceps, to the shape of his pecs. His hair is messy, the smell of his aftershave hasn’t faded yet, and his palm rests lightly between Bitty’s shoulder blades to keep his balance in the narrow, crammed doorway. Bitty’s stomach jumps at the sight of him and he can feel a reflexive smile tugging at his lips. It’s an uncontrollable reaction to Jack’s presence, no matter how many times Bitty’s seen him that day. Good gracious, but it’s plumb pathetic.

Jack is oblivious to Bitty’s eyes on him, too busy frowning at the Swallow guy from above Bitty’s head. “What is this about?”

The guy’s expression is clearly confused, despite the upturned mouth in his creasing face. His eyes survey the huddled group in front of him searchingly, as if waiting for them to catch up. When no one adds anything his smile drops entirely and he says: “You guys won Cutest Couple!”

Time seems to slow down while Bitty’s mind stomps on an emergency break and short-circuits completely. He knows things are happening in the backdrop, can hear someone behind him, probably Holster, choking really loudly on their spit, but none of it truly registers.

The Swallow guy is frowning now, looking completely baffled as to why they’re not enthused at the news. “Seriously, did you not get the email?”

“We. What?” is the only thing Bitty manages weakly. Whatever smile was on his face is thoroughly wiped off now. His heartbeat begins pounding in his ears, drowning out any further background noise under its heavy thrumming. From the brief glance he braves, Jack is not coping much better. His mouth is opening and closing silently.

"Yeah!” The guy recovers, apparently blind to the catastrophe he’s inadvertently causing. “I mean, I’ll be honest, some of the staff was like, ‘enough with the fucking hockey team’, and Khalil and Sara who did that awesome Halloween costume, they came really close -- but I was totally on your side. Anyway, the draft should be in your inboxes. We’d like to have your response in the next couple of days so we can start running it. The more romantic and gooey the better, of course. Thank you!"

He smiles and then skips down the stairs before Bitty’s brain fully catches up with what has just occurred on his front porch. He can barely grasp at tail ends of thoughts before they slip away from him, disappearing in a cloudy daze of absolute horror. His pulse is still racing and his fingers, wrapped around the door handle, are trembling.

Behind him, Ransom makes a slow wheezy sound and then descends into hysterical laughter. Bitty’s feeling rather hysterical himself, actually, but he’s not in the mood for laughing at all.








“Can’t believe it’s another year we didn’t win Best Party,” Holster mopes back in the kitchen, sprawled out spread-legged in a chair with his arms crossed over his chest. “It’s because of Alpha Sigma Phi and their fucking tropical Christmas party, I know it, Rans, I can feel it in my booze bones. Like, okay, they served drinks in real coconuts while bare-ass naked in twenty degrees, so what."

Ransom reaches out to give him a consolatory clap on the back. "We've always got next year, bro. Our names will appear on the holy Swallow pages, I promise."

“You’re right,” Holster sighs rather dramatically, sagging down a few extra inches in the chair. “We mustn’t despair. I’ve already bookmarked some ideas -- think we can keep live parrots in the Haus? Only for a few hours!”

“What I would like to know,” Shitty muses, stroking his mustache between two fingers while looking from Jack to Bitty’s flaming face and back again, “is who the fuck is their source. I mean, no offence, Bits, but if anybody is going to be Jackie’s fake-ass boytoy I call double fucking dibs and I’m willing to fight you on it.” He then considers it for a split second longer and says, “Or negotiate with food, honestly, I’m amendable.”

“Cooking is a touchy subject right now,” Dex mumbles from his perch by the counter, away from the cluster of boys that’s spread out at the table. 

Dex looks like Bitty feels, actually: like he’s seriously regretting being present in this instance, and is looking for any excuse to make a quick escape. Or -- maybe only partially how Bitty feels, anyway. There’s another whole side of Bitty that’s feeling like there’s a vacuum in his chest, a ringing in his ears, a voice in his mind whispering, they know, they all know, Jack knows and he hates you for it.

Bitty has been studiously avoiding Jack’s face since they all withdrew from the door. He’s convinced that his feelings are written all over his face, pining daydreams altering his features and sappy midnight fantasies painting his cheeks bright red. He’s sure that one look in his eyes would give away every guilty thought he’s had since November, so he determinedly keeps his head down. Only, then Jack clears his throat and Bitty can’t help but spring his eyes up to look at him -- like a moth drawn to the flame that’d inevitably scorch it. 

"Well, whatever is the misunderstanding, obviously they can't actually run that, Bittle. I mean, because. Hockey, and." His eyebrows do something complicated that Bitty cannot bring himself to study too closely. 

The words hit like a two-hundred pound flour bag dropped on Bitty’s chest, weighing him down into the floor. Bitty tries to swallow, fails, tries again. His throat still grates like it’s made of raw sandpaper when he speaks. 

"Right, no, of course," there’s this horrible sinking in his gut, a phantom sensation of freefalling that tastes like acid when it reaches the back of his tongue. "Of course, Jack. I know that. The last thing you need right now is --" he finally swallows past the lump in his throat, drops his eyes to watch his toes curl inside his shoes and dent the fabric upwards. “-- rumors about the gay kid on your team.”

Shitty says, “Bitty,” with a sharp edge in his tone, and when Bitty looks up Jack looks like he’s been struck.

"Hold on, Bittle, that's --"

“It’s okay, Jack!” Bitty makes a valiant effort to smile reassuringly. His chest is growing tighter and tighter, and he really can’t handle hearing Jack’s explanation right now. He feels like he’s shaking all over, like more and more words are being rattled out of his mouth without his permission. “I mean, it’s utterly ridiculous, but that’s The Swallow for you, I ‘spose. We’ll tell them it’s nonsense before anyone in the league catches wind of it. I’m sorry I even put your career at risk like that, honestly.”

“Bittle,” Jack says again, more firmly. He looks almost angry.

Holster’s stunned look is flickering between the two of them, and Bitty can feel the humiliation crawling up the back of his neck. He thinks that if he stays sitting in the kitchen any longer the boys might actually hear the splintering sounds his heart is making in his chest. Or he might start crying, whichever comes first.

“Don’t worry about it, really,” Bitty forces himself out of his chair, squeezes Jack’s elbow in passing for good measure, even though bringing his hands anywhere near Jack feels like torture. He doesn’t want Jack to feel guilty about this -- it’s not his fault. “It’s fine. I gotta go, I’m meeting Prof. Atley, but we’ll talk about it later, okay?”

He bolts out of the kitchen and rushes down the hall. The last thing he hears is Ransom saying, “Dude, I’m pretty sure his meeting with her was like, four hours ago,” before the Haus door slams shut behind him.








The worst part is, Bitty knows Jack is straight.

Jack dates 50 Most girls from the tennis team, he takes ladies in tall heels to Screw, he brings puck bunnies to his room during kegsters. Or -- that turned out, actually, to be not all that true after all -- but.

Jack is straight. Bitty knew this all along. Bitty knew this and still let his foolish, stubborn heart say, maybe. Bitty saw Jack laughing at his weak chirps, and looking at him sometimes when Bitty was turned away, and there was that party, with Parse, and Bitty’s blood was rushing in his ears and he tried so hard not to listen, but they almost looked like they -- and Bitty thought, maybe --

But Jack wasn’t. Of course not. And Bitty knows it’s so unfair and so unjustified that he’s allowing himself to be mad about Jack’s words. Because these boys accept Bitty for who he is, have never shied away from him, have always been comfortable with his presence in their lives and their house and their locker room, and that’s not something to be taken for granted. It’s not their fault that they’re straight and that’s easier, not their fault that Jack’s straight and Bitty can’t bring himself to let go. Besides, something like this, it could wreck Jack's career even if it were true, and it isn't, so of course Jack would want it gone. It's not personal, Bitty knows. He has no reason to be so hurt.

Except maybe it stings a little, how untrue it really is. Maybe it burns a little inside to know that other people see what he sees, what he wishes were true, and still know that he can never have that for real. And maybe it hurts, that Jack can so easily make the article go away and never deal with those rumors again, because it's simply not true about him, but it will always be true about Bitty. Maybe he’s tired of how he will always have to fight for his place while people like Jack Zimmermann can walk right in.

Maybe.

But none of it is Jack's fault. Because Jack is straight, and Bitty isn’t, and he’s gone and fallen in love with him anyway.








Breakfast with only Lardo and Jack is a quiet affair the next morning. Habit has them settled down at the team’s usual long table, but they take up significantly less space just the three of them. Bitty is surprised by the two empty seats remaining to each side of them despite the crowded dining hall, but considers that maybe the Samwell population knows whose seats are available and aren't willing to risk it.

Lardo is chewing her toast silently by Bitty's side, oversized hoodie draped over most of her face. Jack is sitting across from them, peeling the shells off a pile of hard-boiled eggs. His body is curved in a stiff line over his plate and his elbows are tucked in close to his sides. He keeps sneaking glances at Bitty every few minutes, looking torn; Bitty busies himself with spooning exactly three banana slices in every dip into his oatmeal bowl, keeps hurriedly shoving them into his mouth every time Jack looks like maybe he’s going to actually say something.

Bitty spent the majority of the previous night hiding out in a quiet corner of Norris library, binging episodes of The Great British Bake Off on his phone. When he ultimately found the courage to come back to the Haus, he power-walked straight into his room and didn’t venture out for anything more than brushing his teeth. The walls in the Haus are thin, however, and he could still hear Jack in his own room through the closed doors, speaking on the phone with his father in brisk French. They didn't exactly sound angry, but Bitty had unintentionally overheard enough of Jack’s phone conversations to recognize Jack’s business tone easily.

Jack’s lawyer had sent The Swallow a sternly phrased email first thing that morning -- for formality, Jack informed Bitty when the two of them left the Haus for breakfast with Lardo. His hands were tucked deep in his pockets and his eyes were hidden beneath the bill of his Habs cap. He kept his body angled away from Bitty, maintaining a careful six feet between them, and Bitty’s whole body ached like he’d spent the night playing consecutive shifts instead of tossing and turning in his bed. It was the only time they’ve acknowledged the Swallow article since the previous afternoon. Bitty changed the subject immediately after, and prattled meaninglessly the whole way to Commons.

The three of them separate after breakfast, Lardo heading for the studio and Jack and Bitty for their respective classes. Bitty spends most of his spare noon hours trying to do work in the kitchen, but he steals longing glimpses at Betsy more often than he does the reading for US Intellectual HIST or the darn American Publics essay he still hasn’t started.

This day needs an assist, he justifies when he eventually deserts his open notes on the table in favor of hunting down a clean towel. Polishing dishes is a more effective way to escape his blues. Maybe he’ll make some jam -- that doesn’t require a working oven, and it’d be a longer-term distraction from the mess he’s landed in.

Jack’s lawyer's actions in mind, the knock on the Haus door doesn’t really surprise Bitty. He can’t help the way his body tenses at the sound, though; the blood rushing through his body is too much like the terrible lightheadedness he experiences when checked.

Jack comes down the stairs, taking them two at a time, and grinds to a halt when he sees Bitty leaning against the wall at the entrance to the kitchen and staring at the door.

“It’s probably the Swallow rep,” Jack states the obvious, voice completely monotonous and face blank.

Bitty's gut lurches. He tries his very best, but he’s certain that his smile looks even more put-on than it was the day before. 

“We should probably go get it, then,” he says. He keeps his hands wrapped in the dish towel as they move to open the door, to have something to do with them and to cover up the way they’re shaking.

The guy standing on the bottom of their stairs is the same one from yesterday. His loose printed shirt is somehow even uglier than the plaid vest, but this time no smile is taking up the majority of his face. In fact, he isn’t smiling at all; he kind of looks like he’s been sent to the gallows and couldn't beg out of his sentence.

“We've been informed that a mistake was made,” the guy says promptly, glancing between the two of them. Everything about his face and his body language appears cautious.

“Yes,” Jack confirms firmly. The guy blinks in sync with Bitty, both of them waiting to see if Jack has any intention to follow that statement with an explanation, but none seems imminent.

“We understand that it’s an honest mistake and we just want it scrapped," Bitty says instead, trying to keep his voice from betraying any emotion, even when his vocal cords are wound tight. "We can't be the cutest couple if we're not -- if we're not."

“You talked to your lawyer,” the guy says faintly. Bitty's not sure that he actually heard a word of what was said. He keeps eyeing Jack’s rigid posture and bulging muscles like he’s afraid that he’s going to be dragged into a fist fight right there on the lawn.

“It’s a legal matter,” Jack replies curtly, frowning.

“No one ever sent his lawyer after us,” the guy says, fainter still. “It’s just The Swallow, man.”

Jack's frown deepens. He’s wearing his hockey face, mouth pinched and eye narrowed, every angle of his face turning sharper. He looks serious, assertive, like he’s getting ready to step out on the ice for the puck drop. Bitty’s heart hurts so badly looking at him that he has to turn away. His eyes, mid-movement, catch on three faces eavesdropping from behind the living room’s doorway. He just barely suppresses a heavy sigh. 

"-- you’d be spreading misinformation with unwelcome consequences,” Jack is talking, apparently, and Bitty tuned out most of it. “So you understand why we need you to retract that immediately and delete all further copies."

"Yes," the guy nods tentatively, eyes jerking in Bitty’s direction and then immediately back to Jack. "I'm -- sorry? We really thought you were --"

"Well we ain't," Bitty says, wringing the towel in his hands to hinder an uncommon urge to break something with them.

"Yes, I -- I understand," the guy seems as spooked by Bitty now, contemplating him and the towel as warily as he did Jack. "But we --"

"And I've got a date!" Bitty blurts, before he can hold his tongue from making his situation worse. Shitty whispers, the fuck, brah?, loud enough to carry all the way to the front door. "A date! With. Someone else, obviously, who is very much not Jack Zimmermann, so if you could -- make it go away -- good heavens this could be embarrassing for my date --"

"Of course,” the guy is nodding more vigorously now, head bouncing much like a dashboard bobblehead. He takes a cautious step back. “We're, uh, sorry. We’ll take care of it."

The guy retreats from the porch, glancing back every few steps as he hastens down the sidewalk. 

Jack shuts the door behind them when they step back inside, and has to move closer to Bitty to allow the door to close. It brings his arm flush with Bitty’s back, solid and warm through the thin fabric of his shirt. 

Bitty’s breath catches. His look flits sideways to watch Jack’s face twist into something Bitty hasn’t seen since the playoffs last year. He really felt like Jack and him were getting steadily closer throughout the year, considers Jack one of his closest friends, but he doesn’t think he’s imagining the distance between them in the last twenty-four hours. It’s more painful than the verbal confirmation that Jack will never like him back was. It’s painful that Bitty’s been shoving his feelings so far down to avoid this very outcome, only to have it blow up in his face through no fault of his own.

"What's that now!” Holster’s booming voice snaps Bitty out of his brooding, and he jerks his eyes up to see that Ransom, Shitty and Holster have crawled out of their eavesdropping spot and are blocking the hallway. “You've got a what and didn't tell us!"

“It’s not a big deal, y’all,” Bitty mumbles, mortified at how much he’s really not lying at all. He slinks away from Jack’s touch, tries to at least be subtle about it. Jack's expression is shuttering further with every moment that passes and Bitty is feeling irrationally miserable about it.

“Is too, Bits!” Ransom claps him on the shoulder excitedly, shaking his entire frame. "You know you gotta tell us all about it, we get veto rights! Is he hot? What's his name? Is he going to be your shoulders for Spring C?"

Bitty’s lousy day has only been getting progressively worse, which he thinks validates the way he bristles and knocks Ransom's hand off his shoulder. "I am average height, Justin Oluransi!"









So it's not -- really a date.

Anthony from his Eating Practices Since the 19th Century course, who sits two seats away from Bitty and always forgets to bring a pen, caught up with him after class and offered to study together. Bitty’s doing alright in that course, but Anthony is smart and friendly and it’s a good incentive to actually get some work done before finals, so Bitty smiled and said yes. He didn’t think a few days later he’d be lying about it to his friends.

They meet outside Annie’s because Anthony preferred it to Founder’s, which Bitty didn’t mind. He was a little embarrassed about how the librarians might react to the sight of his face. They, unlike some others, don’t have a problem believing he’s a member of the Men’s Hockey Team, and the treatment earned by his teammates’ behavior extends to him.

Ransom wouldn’t let him leave the Haus until his outfit has been appraised, which means he’s maybe a little overdressed for a platonic study date -- but Anthony is in nice jeans and wearing neither a team logo shirt nor a marijuana crop top, so he’s already setting the bar higher than Bitty’s usual company.

"After you," Anthony beams, opening the door for Bitty. It’s awfully nice of him. Maybe Bitty should consider running cotillion classes for his boys before graduation. 

It’s easier to revert to his sunny nature in the company of someone new. Anthony keeps up chatter about the last subjects they covered in class, relates to Bitty’s chronic procrastination tendencies, and even insists on paying for both of their drinks. Bitty tries to refuse, instantly dejected by the stark reminder of coffee runs with Jack, but Anthony argues that they’d probably refill several times and Bitty can get the next one. His winning smile is so convincing that Bitty can’t find it in himself to say no. 

It happens again when Bitty begins leading them to a larger table in the middle of the café where they’ll have more room to spread out. Anthony points at a table by the windows instead, says, “There, it’ll be quieter,” and Bitty instinctively thinks, those are the windows Jack and I always sit by. He then thinks, good Lord, ERB, get a hold of yourself, and agrees. There’s not much point in attending a study date if he’ll be constantly thinking about Jack Zimmermann.

They spread out all their notes and laptops and books, settling on both sides of the small, round table. Anthony drinks his coffee extra hot and the steam fogs up his glasses, which causes Bitty to laugh and Anthony to grin sheepishly. It sets a good mood for their joint studying. 

They work decently well together. Anthony's been more diligent with his schoolwork but Bitty is a faster reader than him, so they catch up with each other fairly quickly and proceed from there. Bitty finds it fun, partnering with someone who doesn’t consider violent food breaks an essential part of studying, and enjoys having somebody to complain about the professor with. The two of them are just starting on technological advances at the end of the century when Bitty’s shoulders fully loosen for the first time in three days and he thinks: this is going well, this is nice, maybe we can do this more often.

This is also the exact point he looks up to tell Anthony about Louis Pasteur and catches Holster and Ransom spying on him from outside Annie’s front window.

His knee-jerk response is uncontainable: he groans out loud. Anthony seems alarmed, twisting in his chair to look over his shoulder and detect what Bitty’s glaring at. Ransom, who clearly knows they’ve been caught, looks directly at Anthony with a deliberately threatening face, pointing two fingers at his eyes, then at Anthony, and back at his eyes. 

Anthony makes a confused face into his mug and says, "Um."

"Gosh, I am so sorry," Bitty drops his face into his palms, trying to smother the waves of heat rushing to his cheeks. "It's my teammates -- they have no boundaries and they -- gracious, they think this is a date --"

Anthony swallows a mouthful of coffee too quickly before he sets his mug on the table. "Oh, uh. Do you… not think this is a date?"

Bitty lets his hands fall into his lap. His eyes dart to where Holster and Ransom are waving their thumbs up in the air as they mercifully walk away from the window and then back to Anthony, whose face is unmoving. "...What?"

The top of Anthony's cheeks pink, and he adjusts the glasses on his nose with a knuckle. "I... totally asked you meaning this to be a date."

"Oh," Bitty exhales numbly. Oh, butter my butt and call me a biscuit, he thinks, and then opens his mouth to say something to Anthony -- anything at all, because the poor boy is starting to squirm in his chair -- but all his words seem to get stubbornly stuck behind his teeth.

Because Anthony is perfectly nice. He’s mild-mannered, has a pleasant smile, and he's made Bitty laugh in class a few times when the professor wasn't looking. He's sitting across from Bitty with his hands twitching on top of the table, like Bitty's answer on the matter of their date is important to him. Like he would actually really like it to be one, so he found the courage to ask.

"Oh boy, I really didn't realize," Bitty confesses, finally, clutching his coffee tightly between his fingers. He's never thought he'd be this bad at this, but apparently he's just completely and entirely blind to anyone's affections as long as anyone isn't Jack Zimmermann. And now he made this difficult for both Anthony and himself.

"That's okay," Anthony says, clearing his throat. His lips quirk up in some intimation of a smile, which is, while still very pleasant to look at, much less genuine than his usual smile. "No, really, it's cool. My fault for not being clearer. We can -- I can go and order a refill for this coffee, and when I'm back we'll forget about it? We still have work left to do." He drags his legs out from beneath the table, turning sideways in his seat, before he risks another look at Bitty. "Unless you --? I mean, now that you -- realize -- would you want it to be…?" 

The answer to that, Bitty thinks regretfully, is too complex for an acquaintance. Because how does one say, you're very nice and I imagine liking you could be very easy, but I've never dated in my life and right as I thought maybe I'd give it a try, I went and fell head over heels for a grumpy, kind-hearted, heterosexual Canadian?

One doesn't, Bitty reckons, but one also cannot keep waiting forever for something that will never, ever come. So he straightens his back and says, with his best Georgia smile, "Well, how about we carry on studyin’, and maybe we'll see how things go?"

It's a little more strained after that, but that's more Bitty's fault than anything. Anthony is still as perfectly polite as he was before, as focused on the reading. It's just that now every time Anthony smiles at him Bitty freezes, and then feels guilty for freezing, and gets mad at himself for not giving this a fighting chance, and by then he's not smiling back for so long that Anthony's smile shrinks, and Bitty feels even guiltier --

"Look," Anthony tells him after they packed everything back into their bags and walked companionably outside. "This hasn't been ideal, but I still had a good time. I'd like to maybe -- do it again?" Anthony smiles genuinely this time, and his smile is so pleasant, and he tilts his head the slightest bit closer to say, "As an official date this time?", and --

This is the second time Bitty freaks out about a very nice boy leaning in to possibly kiss him at Annie's, and it's exactly as mortifying as the first.

Bitty jumps back painfully obviously, as startled himself by his physical reaction as Anthony clearly is. He's blushing fiercely when he stammers, "Oh -- I -- I don't think it'll work out, I'm so -- I'm so sorry --" turns around, almost breaking into a run, and calls out, "I'll bake you a pie!"

The corners of Bitty’s eyes begin to burn, indicating the impending shameful tears. He’s terribly upset with himself for his reaction, but he’d be even more upset if he allowed himself to cry over it, so he makes the effort to blink furiously the entire way home.








The team gathers to eat dinner together that night. Bitty’s still a little vulnerable in the aftermath of his failed study date, but he does his best to hide it, pushing himself to be cheerful and revel in quality time with his boys. It’s easier when Ransom spends most of the walk to the dining hall engaging him in a conversation about wild alien conspiracies. It’s harder when Shitty and Holster join forces to cajole him into giving deets, and don’t take his, “Oh good Lord, there’s nothing to talk about!” as an acceptable answer. Telling them the truth is not an option -- they’re his best friends, but they would absolutely, no question about it, chirp him to death, and he’s really not in the right mood to take it good-naturedly. 

Bitty’s surprised when it’s Jack who eventually tells them to knock it off, shoving Holster’s shoulder to force his way into sitting between him and Bitty at the table. Holster topples sideways into Nursey, and Jack seizes the vacated space and grants Bitty a miniature triumphant smile. 

Jack’s dour mood had persisted through yesterday and during their walk over, but Bitty’s been watching him gradually thaw ever since they arrived at Commons; this smile is the first true, earnest one in days, and it melts Bitty on the inside. He’s immensely relieved that at least their friendship isn’t ruined, that the past few days have only been an unfortunate bump in an otherwise smooth road. Bitty tries to cling on to that, use it to move forward from the raincloud lingering over him since his afternoon with Anthony.

A baby-faced freshman approaches their table while Chowder is telling them about a text conversation with his sister. Bitty has his phone out before anyone else even reacts -- the nervous look in the kid’s face is enough warning, and he’s not disappointed; the kid zeroes in on Jack and asks for a signature on his Samwell jersey. There is absolute silence at the table while Jack surrenders to his inescapable fate and pulls out a pen. He then ducks his head and hangs on to that pen once the kid is out of earshot and the boys begin chirping him ruthlessly, yelling loudly enough to rattle the cutlery. 

Bitty’s hiccupping laughter comes as a surprise to himself, but it’s the welcome sort. He directs his smile at his phone while he tweets -- true friends don't care that you're a professional hockey player; true friends ask you to sign their mashed potatoes during dinner -- and when he raises his head Jack is peeking at his screen and grinning at him.

“Not a professional player yet, eh? You can’t go lying to the Twitter.”

Jack is so obviously pleased with himself, white teeth gleaming in his mischievous grin. Bitty's heart soars and then swiftly sinks to the bottom of his stomach. He tries to hang on to the gratitude for what he has, but something in Jack’s voice triggers the memory of it stating, obviously they can't actually run that, and then, consecutively, the memory of Anthony's dumbfounded look when Bitty fled away from him.

Not even Jack's benign chirps or his concerned glances can restore Bitty's uplifted mood after that.



 





Can’t make it to Founder’s tonight. Sorry! :( :( Raincheck?

 

The reading room is quieter than the rest of the Haus at night. It's dark out, gray shingles lit only by the lamp inside Bitty's bedroom and the faint glow of the streetlights down the road. Bitty lets his legs dangle from the edge of the roof, cradling a can of Twisted Tea and watching his shoes swing twelve feet above the shadowy green of the lawn.

There's the sound of a creaky window sash sliding up behind him. “Hey, Bittle.”

Bitty turns around. Jack is sitting on the ledge of his windowsill, holding a folded blanket in his lap. It takes a few seconds to blink away the disorientation caused by rumination and beer. “Jack! What’re you doing?”

Jack shrugs. “You said you’re not coming with me to Founder’s, and then you didn’t answer your phone. I wanted to check in.” He holds out the blanket with a modest smile. “Here -- so you won't get cold. Spring is pretty rough on you Southerners, eh?”

Bitty snorts inelegantly at the chirp, but stretches his arm to accept the blanket. He twists back to watch the twinkling Christmas lights on the LAX frat house across the road. They never take those down, and never add any new ones during the holidays. It’s as good a reason as any to hate the lacrosse team.

Jack clears his throat, an obtrusive sound in the relative silence. “Can I -- do you want me to stay? I mean, I can leave if you need some quiet.” 

Bitty looks at him from over his shoulder, chin digging into his collarbone. Jack’s face is gentler than Bitty’s seen it in a while, mellowed out by the orange tint of the streetlights, and it’s so unfair. Even when Bitty’s upset about Jack he wants Jack near him, wants to hear Jack’s opinion, wants his straightforward, pragmatic type of advice. He wonders what Jack’s face would look like if Bitty was brave enough to tell him the truth about what’s bothering him. A sardonic laugh almost escapes him at that visual.

“No, you can stay,” Bitty says instead, and then makes a herculean effort to brighten up. “As long as you promise not to prattle on, you chatterbox, you know I like silences.”

The chirp falls flat when Bitty’s cheery façade cracks. Jack swings both legs out the window and slides down to sit by Bitty while Bitty takes another swig out of the can. There’s a lot of space on the roof, two empty lawn chairs on Bitty’s end, but Jack sits right next to him. Bitty’s shoulder knocks into Jack’s bicep and Jack’s thick thigh brushes against his, but Jack doesn’t take any action to inch away.

Bitty collects his knees close to his chest, leans his chin on top of them and continues watching the span of street visible from their roof. Beneath their feet, some couple probably returning from the bars by the river stumble together on the sidewalk, the echo of their giggles drifting up to the reading room. Bitty can’t quite cover his grimace in time to hide it from Jack.

"You're upset," Jack jabs Bitty’s elbow with his own, brow furrowing.

"No!" Bitty objects quickly, hoping his voice is only a lick squeaky. He's not drunk by any means, but the Twisted Tea makes everything a bit fuzzy, softens the world at its fringes. "I'm not upset. It's -- finals are coming up in two weeks, and I've got this essay I haven’t started, and -- you know, Betsy hasn’t been well and what am I gonna do, if I can’t bake to distract myself before the tests --"

"Bittle," Jack cuts him off quietly. Bitty lifts his head off his knees just enough to enable a quick glance; Jack is looking at him, those intense eyes trained on Bitty’s face, making his cheeks flush self-consciously. Jack’s expression is his distinct blend of uncomfortable but determined. "You're upset. Are you -- is it -- your date was this afternoon…?"

Bitty’s blush deepens, and he lays his cheek down to avoid eye contact. "So?"

"So," Jack begins, clumsily, and then shifts his arm so it nudges Bitty’s, fingers curled loosely into his palm. "Did he -- I mean."

It takes Bitty a moment to decipher Jack’s faltering sentence, but -- "Gosh, no," Bitty denies with profound embarrassment once he follows Jack's train of thought. Jack, unable to shake off the role of captain, is assuming some boy hurt him. Bitty doesn’t know how to tell him that he couldn't even get through the date to get hurt how normal people do. "He was a gentleman. If anything, it was me who was on my worst behavior."

Jack doesn’t look convinced. He bumps the back of his curled fingers against Bitty’s thigh. "But you're upset."

Bitty loosens his grip on his knees, keeps the hand not holding the can busy by fiddling with the hem of Jack’s blanket. Jack is both the last and the only person he wants to talk to about this. Bitty’s original plan was to get tipsy enough to fall asleep without thinking his emotions through, and then spend the next day compartmentalizing it away -- but Jack’s presence brings everything to the forefront of his mind, plucks at the tangle in his chest until it unravels. 

"Well, because --” he sighs, and the expansion of his lungs must fracture some dam, because the words begin spilling out in long strings of nonsense. “I just -- I came here from Georgia because I thought it’d be different, y’know? I couldn't fit in there, and I know -- you said yourself -- I know it’s not any different here, not really, not in hockey, but outside of hockey it’s Samwell, so at least I could be me, right? But apparently I can't even be that, because I can't manage a simple thing like a date with a cute boy," he stops to take a deep breath, buries his face in the nook between his knees. "And, goodness, I can't believe I'm -- none of this is on you, I'm sorry --"

"Bittle," Jack touches his knee, inches away from his cheek, causing Bitty to look up. Jack doesn’t move his fingers from Bitty’s bare leg after Bitty lifts his head. "Don’t be sorry. It's okay."

Bitty searches Jack’s face. He doesn’t know how to read it, what the tiny microexpressions currently mean, but Jack’s fingers are splayed in the valleys of his joints and there’s something grounding in it. He takes another big breath in an attempt to calm himself down. 

"I guess," Bitty whispers, but the turmoil in his chest doesn’t settle, not after he started letting it all out. He can almost picture it surging in him, clawing its way up to his mouth. "But -- is it? Okay? I'm just." He runs a hand through his hair, frustrated with himself, both for feeling so much and for being unable to articulate feelings with the proper words. "I feel like I can't just be me. Because who I am isn't good enough at home, and isn't good enough for hockey, and who I am likes boys but apparently I'm no good at liking them right, or -- the right ones --"

He restrains himself from saying anything incriminating, biting his lip hard enough to taste the metallic flavor of blood.

"You are good enough for hockey," Jack says, stilted. His hand tightens on Bitty’s knee and belatedly pulls away. "You're a strong player, and you did a great job this season. I know we lost, but you still did good. You'll be even better next year."

Bitty exhales sharply, rubs his eyes. He knows Jack; he knows he chose to latch onto hockey because that's something he’s capable of expressing. Telling Bitty he's a good player is something Jack can find words for. Bitty didn’t expect Jack to be the right person to talk through an identity crisis, but it’d be an easier evasion to accept if he wasn’t wrong.

"Jack, no offense, but that's a load of horseshit." Jack is clearly caught off guard, seems to be gearing himself up for retaliation, but Bitty talks right over him. "It is! It is, because I might do alright now -- here -- but if I wanted to go into real hockey, into the league, you think they'd be alright with who I am? You've heard what some guys’ve got to say on the ice, and this isn’t even professional hockey."

"You want to play professionally?" The familiar glint in Jack’s eyes indicates that he’s losing track of the grand scheme of the conversation.

"No! But that's not the point!" Bitty swallows, because it isn't, but getting to the point might as well be impossible with Jack. He can't exactly tell him that he's heartbroken and disappointed in himself and everything looks more bleak from this perspective. He's no better than Jack right now; they’re both afraid to dip their toes into the murky waters of everything Bitty said that isn’t about the game. "I couldn't if I wanted to because of who I am."

"You could," Jack says, looking away, his shoulders tight. The conviction in his voice gets Bitty's attention. Jack really isn’t the most emotive of guys, and it takes a lot to get his voice to change pitch. "The league isn't a very welcoming place, but it's hockey. The whole point is hockey. And if you're good at hockey, they'll just have to accept that -- at some point. It might be hard, but if hockey is what you want, then --" he looks up, catches Bitty's eyes. Jack’s are unfocused, like somehow he forgot Bitty was even there. "I mean -- you said it isn't, but if it was -- all I'm saying is --"

"Sure," Bitty brings the can up to his mouth for another swig, skeptical even in the face of Jack’s unanticipated speech. "I get it. You can play, and all."

"Yes,” Jack insists, turning his upper body towards Bitty. Their knees press together and Jack’s face is suddenly a lot closer than it was before. Bitty has to blink a few times until he can get his pulse under control. “You can. Because you are good enough, Bittle."

They stare at each other, time stretching between them, caught up in the unforeseen gravity of the situation. Bitty can’t really wrap his head around hearing Jack defending him with such vigor, but he knows there’s nothing he can say to argue. That’s Jack’s opinion. He’s never been guilty of handing out compliments he doesn’t believe in.

"Thanks, Jack." Bitty whispers. "'m sorry. It's been a rough day. Sometimes --” He sighs again, bows his head, and musters the last shreds of his courage to be at least a little honest. “I guess sometimes it can get lonely. And it sucked to realize that it's my own fault I'm alone in the first place."

Jack subdues gradually, his shoulders folding inward and the fire in his eyes dying out, leaving room for something much more empathetic than Bitty expected. 

"I'm sorry, Bittle." He reaches out to grasp the ball of Bity’s shoulder in his large palm, squeezing it tightly. It’s a friendly gesture of comfort, one the boys in the team offer each other all the time, but Jack’s thumb is absently rubbing small circles on the base of Bitty’s neck and it spreads tingles through his skin.

“It’s alright,” Bitty moves away, smiling, but the words are like dust in his mouth and it isn’t really alright at all. They settle back into sitting side by side, and Bitty notices Jack's fixed eyes on the side of his face, but he doesn’t turn to look.







 

Friday evening finds Bitty scrambling to complete last-minute assignments before Spring C the next day. He shuts himself away in his room and turns off his phone, tries to make his eyes focus on long lines of text instead of on any creaking noises in the Haus that might provide a distraction. This tactic has failed him more often than not, but for once the Haus is completely empty and any creaking Bitty might hear could only be chalked up to Ransom’s ghosts. Lardo and Shitty are out buying booze for Spring C, Holster is with the frogs, Ransom is at his weekend study group, and Jack has been in Providence with his mother all day, looking at potential apartments, and will be returning later to have dinner with her and her former Department Chair.

Studying is easier when Bitty’s using it to avoid thinking about other things. Lately, since his oven has been acting up, it’s been easy using studying as a distraction from thinking about Jack -- about Jack moving to Providence, about Jack taking the first steps in his adult life away from Bitty and the team. It isn’t a better distraction than watching Say Yes To The Dress with Holster or listening to music with Lardo, but in the absence of all other options, it’s good enough to push Bitty to make his deadlines, even if it’s at the last minute. 

Bitty’s laptop emits a sharp ping that alerts him to a new incoming email, and Bitty scrambles up from the floor, almost tripping over two piles of reading material on his way. His room is an absolute mess; papers covering the bedspread and the desk, textbooks spilling from inside his bag onto the floor, pens scattered haphazardly. He’s been reviewing for the HIST test while emailing back and forth with the TA for his American Publics course -- the last three lectures of which he honestly cannot remember, but is somehow expected to write two thousand words for anyway.

The new email in his inbox isn’t from his TA, however. It reads, RE: RE: Your Nomination in the 2015 Samwell Awards, and only contains one line of text, visible in the thread’s preview without Bitty clicking it open. Attached is a confirmation for the removal and termination of the aforementioned article.

Bitty pauses, his essay forgotten, and goes over the subject lines four more times. 

Bitty hasn’t read the article. Bitty didn't want to read the article, had convinced himself that he was indifferent and was more interested in putting the whole ludicrous affair behind them. But now he’s incapable of dragging his cursor away from the email’s subject line. He can’t help but want to know what they have to say -- want to know why anyone would mirror his misguided feelings for a close friend. 

It can lead to nothing but trouble. Bitty still opens the article file for the first time since the whole mess began on Monday, because he won't have the guts otherwise, but for some masochistic reason he just has to know.



The Samwell Swallow

Vol. 26, Issue 31 | May 2015 | Special Edition | The Samwell Awards

 

CUTEST COUPLE AWARD: ICE HOCKEY AS A LOVE LANGUAGE

 

Our most dedicated readers will know that the title of Samwell’s Cutest Couple is highly coveted. Perhaps only second to Dream Date or Biggest Gossip in prestige, this award is one of the greatest honors young Wellie lovebirds can strive for. This year, we’re proud to elect JACK ZIMMERMANN ‘15 and ERIC BITTLE ‘17. We know: enough with the fucking hockey bros. But hear us out.

These unlikely candidates were initially nominated by Zimmermann’s fellow photography class students with an exclusive scoop. Bittle was the subject of Zimmermann’s midterm project! (Awe.) Such a grand romantic gesture could not go overlooked, and we set out to investigate. Copies of Zimmermann’s photos are brought to you here, courtesy of the Department of Visual Art. 

[Images: a collage containing a dozen semi-professional photographs, all depicting BITTLE. His character is consistently linked to themes of warmth and light, and is obviously portrayed with great affection.]

We were delighted by what we learned. Observant Wellies report that the two are often seen taking long romantic walks around campus, with Zimmermann’s lens sometimes pointed at the scenery, but more often at his boyfriend. Sources at Annie’s, the local café, tell The Swallow that, “Yeah, they’ve been like, coming here at least two or three times a week this year? There’s their table [points at a secluded window table in the corner]. The tall guy always pays -- what? No, they’re almost always alone. Except this one time that they were here with this other couple? I don’t know, man, I see lots of people on dates, but these guys kinda stand out. They’re always giggling with each other, it’s ridiculous. And loud.”

Our research yielded clear results: service staff at Samwell’s Jerry’s, Superberry and Stop&Shop have gone on record with similar statements; students who shared a class with the two disclose that their constant whispering and flirting have been impossible to ignore; even the janitor at Faber Memorial Rink reports that current team captain and fellow liney spend every weekend skating alone as they watch the sun rise, while no practice is scheduled! It’s official - Bittle and Zimmermann are, indeed, 2015’s Cutest Couple.

[Image: BITTLE and ZIMMERMANN at the Samwell Men’s Hockey Team’s #Epickegster this winter. The two are standing very close in the midst of what appears to be an intimate conversation, leaning towards each other under a bag of free condoms. Text under image reads: Our staffers report that the two then disappeared upstairs while the party was still in full swing. Get it, boys!]



Bitty spends a long, breathless moment staring at the screen with unseeing eyes.

It’s like an out of body experience. Bitty can’t feel the tips of his fingers, can’t feel his toes. He can’t lift his hand to ram the laptop lid shut so his eyes are still glued to the block of text, words blurring together into a solid sheet of gray. His mind keeps losing footing, coherent thoughts cutting off before they can run their course, parts of sentences jamming into one long sequence -- grand romantic gesture, long walks, whispering and flirting -- that plays over and over. Distantly, he’s aware that there are stray tears in the corner of his eyes, but he’s too disconnected from his limbs to do something about it. 

People look, he thinks, brain stuttering over the realization, pushing itself out of its shock, people look and see -- people look at the two of us and what they see is --

A loud noise behind his back scares the living daylight out of him, enough to send him spinning on the chair. The door to his bedroom swings open, nearly banging against the wall with the strength of its motion. Behind it is Jack, standing in the doorway with his eyes blown wide and his face pale, looking like he's seen a ghost; panting for breath like he ran a marathon to get there.

Bitty nearly collapses out of his chair, stumbling over the papers on the floor to step closer, arms reaching out automatically. “Jack -- what --? Is everything alright? Aren’t you supposed to be with your mom --?”

“Bitty,” Jack breathes out, unsteady, and then tumbles further into the room. His hair is disheveled and his buttoned shirt is smeared with stains of sweat, and Bitty’s brain is still coming back online but he’s suddenly overcome with how handsome Jack still is, even like this.

And then Jack takes a lengthy step forward right into Bitty’s space, his body enveloping Bitty’s and his broad palms cupping Bitty’s burning cheeks, and tips Bitty’s mouth into his.

Bitty’s eyes remain wide open for one paralyzed split second, taking in the sight of Jack’s dark eyelashes and sculpted brow bone from extreme up close, and then Jack’s lips move and Bitty’s eyelids flutter closed, melting into the unfamiliar action. 

Jack's mouth is as soft as Bitty imagined, as hot, velvety lips sliding against Bitty's and catching on the dip of his cupid’s bow. Bitty’s mind keeps up a remote chant of oh my god, Jack is kissing me, oh god, what is happening, before that too is silenced by the thrill of Jack’s mouth parting against his, deepening the kiss, and then everything goes blessedly silent.

An undetermined amount of time later, Jack’s phone begins buzzing insistently; Bitty can feel the vibrations from where his hip is aligned with Jack’s. Jack ignores it, separating their lips to angle his head in the other direction and suck Bitty’s bottom lip into his mouth, tongue wet and tentative. His phone buzzes again, though, and subsequently two times more, and then Jack finally sighs into Bitty’s mouth.

“That’s my mom,” he says quietly, breaking their mouths barely far enough apart to speak. His lower lip is shining with spit and Bitty feels faint, needs to sit down before he falls over, needs to step back before he sinks his teeth into it impulsively. “She’s waiting for me...”

“Oh,” Bitty says. His voice sounds like it’s coming from very far away. He has so many things he wants to say -- what the hell, and what does this mean, and but aren’t you, and stay, stay, don’t go -- yet the only sounds his mouth can apparently make are, “Uh. Okay.”

“We have this… dinner…” Jack continues, and his eyes are so blue and his lips are so red and his cheeks are so pink, and Bitty thinks that maybe this is a very vivid stress-induced hallucination, and also thinks that he wouldn’t mind hallucinating a little longer. “I gotta go, but I’ll -- I’ll be back.”

“Okay,” Bitty says again, even though he’s not sure it is. He’s pretty sure, actually, that once Jack exits the door of his bedroom this spell will break like at Cinderella’s midnight clock strike, and Jack will return from dinner with his mother still painfully perfect, and still painfully straight, and still so, so far out of Bitty’s reach.

Jack backs up towards the door, eyes lingering on Bitty as his hands drift down Bitty’s arms. “I’ll be back,” he repeats, although Bitty’s not any more convinced, and then he takes his hands away and fumbles blindly for the doorknob, slips out into the hallway from whence he came.

Bitty hears his breaths shallow into nothing more than gasps of air, and promptly crumples backwards onto his chair.



 





Bitty spends the entire time Jack is absent slowly going out of his mind.

Once the shock passes and the fogginess clouding his thoughts clears, all he can do is think: think about Jack kissing him, and the lovely shape of his mouth, and the bewitched look on his face; wonder how the hell it happened, and why, and what it even means. He conjures a dozen, a hundred versions of what transpired to bring Jack to his door, and even more of what would happen if he does indeed come back.

Bitty paces back and forth across his room, unable to focus or hold onto any one scenario for more than a few seconds. His heart beats so fast for so long that it develops into nausea; he continues pacing while clutching his stomach and praying that he won’t throw up, because he doesn’t think he’d survive that kind of embarrassing memory.

Shitty and Lardo come back at some point, stoned and bearing three bags of sour worms. They squint at his messy room but don't comment on the condition of his hair or his shaky limbs, kindly offer him some sour worms and the opportunity for contact-high in Shitty’s room. They back off and close the door as soon as they see the look on his face. Bitty runs his hand through his hair one more time when he tries to imagine what his face must look like to successfully scare them away.

A long while later there are footsteps in the hallway outside his door. Bitty braces himself to tell Holster or Ransom or, god, Chowder that he’s busy right now. He tries to remind himself that he loves them even when he's in a state, and sits down on the bed to tell them that he isn’t feeling well -- except then the door opens, and it’s Jack standing in the doorway. 

Bitty’s heart jumps, somersaults, and plummets all in the space of one millisecond, as he stands up abruptly from the bed and stares, openmouthed.

Jack doesn’t look as rumpled as he did earlier. His collar is adjusted neatly and the tails of his shirt are tucked and smoothed into his pants, but his face is a rich shade of pink and he’s clenching and unclenching his fists by his side. He seems so awkward, standing there, that Bitty’s continuous state of panic morphs into a different chaotic mess of confusion and affection, all while Jack does nothing but stare at him.

“How was dinner?” Bitty squeaks out, eventually, when it’s clear that Jack’s not going to speak anytime soon.

Jack looks like Bitty has veered off script unexpectedly. His eyes widen and he clenches his fists and then releases them again, compulsively. “Eh -- good, good.” Bitty nods. There’s a long stretch of silence neither of them fills. Jack inhales and says, right when Bitty is sure that his heart is sincerely going to beat out of his darn chest, “I. Bittle. About earlier.”

The color in his face deepens further but Bitty can’t tell what that means, if he’s already regretting what he’s done or if he’s just tripping over his own emotions like Bitty is. “You should -- the door,” he stutters, because whether he’s going to be kissed again or be let down gently, he’d rather do it without an audience. Jack looks at him like he spoke in a cryptic foreign language, so Bitty forces out, blushing to the roots of his hair, “Come in and shut the door, Zimmermann.”

“Oh -- shit, ouais,” Jack jostles into action, stepping away from the threshold and kicking the door shut after him. It’s the first time Bitty has seen him move with anything other than practiced poise.

Bitty’s room isn’t very large, and with the door closed the atmosphere in it quickly shifts. There’s an inherent intimacy in the short gap between their bodies that heightens in a small, enclosed space, and Bitty can feel his body heat rise and spread to his palms and his face as a result of it.

It’s unsettling, and Bitty suspects that he could grow to crave it, but not as long as he has no idea what is going on. “Jack --”

Jack interrupts him, keeping his eyes on the floor. “Wait, Bittle, listen. I -- it’s really important that you know that you shouldn't feel obligated.” 

There are maybe a hundred thousand things that could’ve come out of Jack’s mouth after Bittle, listen, and Bitty spent two and a half hours imagining a good deal of them. Telling Bitty that he shouldn’t feel obligated is so perplexing that Bitty’s too wrongfooted to protest, and Jack carries on speaking. “I know as team captain I have a certain amount of authority and I didn’t even -- think about that, before, which is really wrong --”

Bitty squints, slowly gaining a renewed grasp on this bizarre situation. The only thing he manages to think with clarity, through the storm brewing in his chest, is, You doofus, what on earth are you talking about. “Jack. The season is over."

"Right," Jack shoves his hands in his pockets, squares his shoulders. "But -- still. Technically we kept up with a.m. practices even after the playoffs, so."

Because you are an insane person, Bitty thinks to himself, coming to terms with the fact that the tone of his thoughts is on a scale ranging between neurotic and cloyingly smitten. He opens his mouth, not sure what’s going to come out of it, but Jack keeps talking without pause.

"Anyway, the NCAA allows intra-team dating but doesn't say anything about involvement with captains. I checked."

This bowls Bitty over, a new wave of warmth rushing to his cheeks. "You checked?"

There's a sheen of what can only be nervous sweat above Jack's upper lip that shines under the glaring ceiling light. “It’s only thirty pages.”

Bitty feels lightheaded again, as he allows himself to consider for the first time that evening, with some measure of possibility, that Jack Zimmermann in fact came into his room and kissed the right sense out of him with the intention to date him. It’s almost too much to consider, making him weak at the knees. He grabs the edge of his desk to be on the safe side.

“You -- I -- dear god, what is even happening? What brought this on?” Because they’ve been spending -- well, they’ve spent almost every waking moment together this semester, excluding this odd week since the damned Swallow article. Jack had plenty of opportunity to confess his feelings had he possessed any, and the best time certainly wasn’t while his mother was waiting for him downstairs to go to a formal dinner.

“Well, I,” Jack stammers, dropping his chin to his chest. His ears are bright red, dark enough to be seen from a few feet away, and Bitty is enchanted by it. “I didn’t know, but. I read the stupid thing in the car because I couldn’t -- my mom said -- I kept thinking about you in every kitchen that we looked at, and I…”

Bitty can feel his eyes widen, his organs flipping over inside him. "You… did?"

Jack lifts his head, and when the two of them finally make eye contact it zings through Bitty’s body. "Yes. I mean, I guess it’s hard not to. If you're not on ice, you're baking, Bittle. Or tweeting. Or baking and tweeting." 

He winces as soon the words are out of his mouth, and Bitty can’t help it: he bursts out in laughter, high-pitched and giddy. This boy, Bitty marvels, and euphoria spreads like thick cotton candy in his chest, making it hard to speak; to breathe.

Jack’s face still looks vaguely horrified, like he’s regretting ever opening his mouth. "Crisse, sorry, it's not -- I wasn't trying to --" he blows out air, starting over. "It's fine that you do. I mean, more than fine. I thought about you in the kitchens because I like it. I like you."

His voice is unmistakably uncomfortable, and beads of sweat are glinting on his temples. Bitty’s so overwhelmed by hearing Jack speak candidly about his feelings that he blurts out the first thing that comes to his mind. "You like me? But you're -- I mean, I thought you --"

Jack’s eyebrows draw down and his mouth thins. He looks irritated, but Bitty knows it’s the shape his face takes when he’s distressed. "I know last year it didn't seem like -- but I thought this year you knew things changed --"

"-- were straight," Bitty exhales, chest heaving. God. This is real. "I thought… you were straight."

Jack squints, stopping himself in the middle of his sentence. He seems honestly, genuinely confused, the big lug. With a more functioning part of his mind Bitty recognizes that this is probably the most facial expressions he’s seen Jack make since meeting him. 

"But I kissed you."

"Yeah," Bitty swallows, cheeks probably glowing bright red. Somehow it’s so much more jarring hearing the words out loud than it was to have Jack’s mouth on his. Like something that’s not supposed to be discussed out in the open. A secret lifted right out of Bitty's subconscious, manifested by sheer will. "Uh. Sure did. Thus my confusion."

"Your -- confusion…?" Jack trails off. His flushed face begins shifting by degrees, a smile spreading slowly but steadily and creating the smallest, sweetest crinkle at his eyes. He wipes his shiny brow with the back of one forearm and then crosses the distance between them in a few short strides, sweeping in to kiss Bitty.

It’s not any less mind-blowing the second time around. Jack's fingers slot under Bitty's jaw, titling his head up, his other palm sliding from Bitty’s neck to his shoulder and down his back in a tantalizing stroke. Bitty grows hot all over, bending his body into Jack's to press their chests together, his hands hesitatingly finding their way to Jack's hips. He hooks them over the sharp curves of Jack's hip bones, feels the strength in Jack’s obliques through his clothes. 

Their mouths create a soft slick sound when they glide against one another, lips meeting and parting smoothly. Bitty gathers the confidence to attempt parting his own lips, applies the slightest pressure of tongue to Jack's bottom lip, and is rewarded by Jack's shudder and the tightening of his hand on the small of Bitty's back. 

Jack pulls his face back slowly enough for Bitty to blink his eyelashes open and catch Jack licking his lips, exhaling shakily.

"I like you, Bitty," Jack leans their foreheads together. His eyes are staring right into Bitty’s, drooping and soft and so clearly fond that Bitty feels the tremor flow in his body all the way to his toes.

"Me too," Bitty whispers. His heart is still beating irregularly, vainly trying to catch up with the emotional upheaval of the last few minutes. “Jack --. I like you, too.”

Jack smiles at him, and it’s more honest, more tender than Bitty's ever seen it. It makes Bitty so happy that he wants to burst into giggles, wants to hide his beam in Jack's chest until butterflies stop fluttering in his ribcage.

Jack runs his fingers into Bitty's hair, gently brushes through it. He's bashful, both of them avoiding prolonged eye contact, and it's so absurd that they're shy after kissing like that, but Bitty can't help it. Jack tips his head to kiss Bitty's chin, his temple, makes Bitty actually giggle when he kisses his ear and then settles his lips in Bitty's hair, tugging him closer into the crooks of Jack's body.

"Hey, Jack?" Bitty says quietly, leaning his cheek on the curve of Jack's shoulder and wrapping his arms around Jack's waist, hands linking at the arch of his spine.

"Yeah?" Jack mumbles into Bitty's hair, mouth moving against the crown of his head.

Bitty presses his lips briefly to the closest patch of Jack's skin he can reach, which is the dip in his clavicle. It's barely a kiss, but his entire body shivers with the knowledge that he’s allowed. "Wanna be my date to Spring C tomorrow?"

Jack draws back far enough to be able to look down, tilting his chin into his neck and catching Bitty's eyes with his. His face is pink and his lips are swollen and Bitty's so unbelievably in love with him, but it's the furthest thing from pathetic now. It seems funny that it was ever something shameful at all.

"It'd be my pleasure," Jack smiles, and leans in for another kiss.