Disclaimer: It's Ngozi's.
A/N 1: A million thanks to my beta, happyzimm, who convinced me to write this fic and held my hand every step of the way.
A/N 2: Both my beta and I are autistic. That doesn't mean we know everything about autism, but we do know a lot, so please don't make ignorant comments about the way autism is portrayed in this fic.
Jack tries to keep his breathing even as he walks with Bittle to Annie's. He's not going to hyperventilate over this. He's not. He's been thinking about this for weeks. He knows he has feelings for Bittle, and, even though he has trouble reading people and doesn't often have the first clue what people think of him, Shitty thinks Bittle likes him back, and Jack generally trusts Shitty with this kind of thing. The whole coffee-at-Annie's thing feels distinctly date-like, even though Jack has been told that romantic relationships and even dates can only happen when both people are knowingly on board. Jack knows he and Bittle aren't a couple yet, but it's starting to feel like that's a possibility for the future, even with graduation looming ever closer. And if Jack is going to try to date Bittle, then Bittle deserves to know about Jack's autism. Friends don't need to know—he's never felt the urge to tell Ransom or Holster, or even Lardo—but once people pass into a category closer than "friend" then it's necessary information. Jack told Shitty about his autism diagnosis during their frog year because best friends aren't the same as just plain friends; he could tell even then that Shitty was special. Shitty's the most recent person he's told, though, and that means it's been over three years since Jack told a new person, and even though he trusts Bittle his breath is still coming a little short.
Bittle's chirping him, which helps Jack keep from hyperventilating. Jack has gotten so comfortable with Bittle lately that he can chirp back almost on autopilot, which is how they wind up going after each other's study habits for most of the walk to Annie's and in line for coffee as well. Jack chirps Bittle for always being on his phone, or baking, or both, and Bittle gives as good as he gets and teases Jack for never looking up from his textbooks unless it's for hockey. When they sit down, though, Jack stares at his coffee cup and tries to gather his courage. Maybe Bittle senses a change in Jack's mood, because he quiets down and watches Jack rather than continuing his chirping.
Jack turns his coffee cup around in his hands. He longs for one of those fidget toys his parents bought him right after he got diagnosed, but he's never taken them out of his dorm. He doesn't need word getting out about this. So he settles for playing with his coffee cup. He knows he's been quiet for too long—this is probably the longest silence he and Bittle have had at Annie's in all the times they've come here together this semester—so he forces himself to say, "Bittle. Can I tell you a thing?" He's still staring at the table, but he's pretty sure he literally can't look at Bittle at the moment, and by now he knows when not to try.
"Of course, Jack," says Bittle.
Jack exhales. "Okay, so," he starts, "my parents know about this, but the only person I've actually told is Shitty. Well, other than my therapists. But you deserve to know, so I'm telling you now. I want you to let me talk for a while, though, because I don't know what your background is with this and I'm not sure either of us wants your first reaction to leave your head. Um, no offense. Anyway, I just want you to remember that I'm still the person you've known for the past couple years. Can you do that for me?"
Bittle nods, and Jack forces himself to look up to see it. He has trouble reading facial expressions, but he needs whatever feedback he can cobble together if he's going to keep his nerve and do this.
"Cool," says Jack. "Thanks. So, what I'm trying to tell you is that I'm autistic."
Bittle's eyes get huge and some of the color drains out of his face. Jack isn't pleased, but he tries to ignore it.
"I don't really like functioning labels or measures of, like, how 'severe' someone's autism is, but, I mean, obviously I'm verbal and can sort of hide my autism. Although 'robot' is a pretty common insult against people on the spectrum, so I think people sort of pick up on the fact that there's something going on with me even if they can't guess what.
"Anyway, I want you to know that I mostly like being autistic. Something that comes with autism is having really intense hobbies called special interests. Mine are hockey and American history. I mean, obviously. I can plan plays or read about the Civil War and resurface like four hours later with no idea where the time went, and hockey and my major both make me so happy. There's also sensory stuff. I don't do well with really loud noises, which is one of the reasons I avoid kegsters, and most foods are literally painful to eat, which is why I always default to chicken tenders, but I'm hyposensitive in my proprioceptive and vestibular senses, which basically means I like really intense exercise and physical contact, so hockey is great."
Bittle smiles a little at that, though he's still pale.
"On the other hand, it's definitely not all sunshine and rainbows. Autism puts me at greater risk for anxiety and depression, and, well, we all know how that turned out."
Bittle's smile drops off and his face gets a pinched look.
"I don't really communicate with facial expressions, and I have trouble reading other people's facial expressions and body language, too. I have a lot of trouble making eye contact, and when I force myself to do it it's physically painful. I'm pretty literal and direct, and I tend not to understand sarcasm and jokes, and sometimes I have a hard time cushioning what I say to make it nicer. I tend to assume that other people have the same thoughts, values, and priorities that I do, and when I find out that's not true I can't really picture how other people think. All this adds up to having a pretty hard time making friends, which is probably not a surprise to you by now. There's also something called splinter skills that basically means that both my strengths and my weaknesses are more extreme. I know I'm really good at hockey and I'm the best student in the history department, but you've seen me in the kitchen."
Bittle smiles again, thinly, and ducks his head a little.
"There's stuff beyond what I've just told you, but I think that's enough to go on for now." Jack sits back, not relaxing exactly but at least putting more distance between himself and Bittle, and takes a sip of his coffee. It's definitely cooler than it was before he started talking. How much did he say? Was it an infodump? Was it too much for Bittle?
After several moments of silence, Bittle says, "Can I talk now?"
Jack nods. "Yeah, I'm done."
"First of all, I want to tell you that I'm really grateful that you trust me enough to tell me this, and of course I know you're the same person I've known for the past two years. And also I'm really sorry about calling you a robot. I should've realized that wasn't nice, even without an explanation."
"Bittle, it's fine."
Bittle looks pinched again. "I don't think it is fine. I think it's like if y'all made jokes about my baking and clothes and all that, if you didn't know about me being gay. Not knowing doesn't make it okay."
Jack feels like the conversation is getting derailed, and part of him is happy about that because he doesn't really want to talk about his autism, but part of his is pretty sure there's more to discuss. He replies to what Bittle said anyway: "But we do make jokes about your baking."
Bittle rolls his eyes. "Yeah, but in a friendly way. It's different." Then he cocks his head. "Wait, can you not tell the difference?"
Jack shrugs. "Chirping is a part of hockey. I know what slurs are and I react when people use them, but nuance and tone? Not really my thing."
Bittle raises his hands as if he's going to stick his face in them, but, if that's what he was going to do, he changes his mind, because he winds up just grabbing his coffee cup and taking a sip while laying his other hand on the table. Then he says, "That must be hard. Not reading tone, I mean."
Jack shrugs again. "I guess. I mean, it's been like this my whole life, so it's not like I know anything different."
"When did you . . . um, find out?" Bittle asks. "Can I ask that?"
Jack nods. "Yeah. I got diagnosed while I was in rehab. I was really, really glad we managed to keep it under wraps. There's a lot of ignorance and stigma out there, you know? I think it's common for boys to get diagnosed younger, but there are still a lot of stereotypes in the medical field about what autism looks like. It's worse for girls, but like, there are definitely still people out there who think that all autistic people are obsessed with trains and road signs and maps and stuff. My first special interest was hockey, and I guess from the outside that didn't look like an autistic thing, so nobody noticed that I hated eye contact and didn't like a whole ton of foods and had trouble making friends and took things literally and all that." He scowls. "It feels like a lot to not notice, and sometimes I get mad at my parents and my first few psychologists for not realizing, but I don't think that's fair to my parents, at least. Like, I try to bear in mind that they didn't get a manual when I was born about all the things that could possibly go wrong with me."
Bittle scowls back. "There's nothing wrong with you, Jack."
Jack takes a second to just feel warm inside and then says, "That's not what you said when I got you up at four a.m. for checking practice."
Bittle claps a hand over his mouth, eyes huge. "Oh, God, Jack—"
Jack smiles. "I'm chirping you. It's fine."
Bittle laughs. "We're having a serious conversation and you're chirping me?"
"Thought I should lighten the mood."
"You don't have to," says Bittle. "I may not be good at studying, but I can have a serious conversation."
"I know," says Jack, trying to match Bittle's tone. He thinks it's serious, but he doesn't trust himself to be right about that. "I wouldn't have told you if I didn't think you could handle it."
"Um, why did you tell me?" Bittle asks. "I mean, if even Lardo and Rans and Holster don't know, why me?"
Jack absolutely cannot look at Bittle while he says this. He lowers his voice to just above a whisper and says, "I, um. I like you, Bittle."
Bittle laughs a little. "What, and you hate our teammates?"
Jack sighs. Still nearly whispering, he clarifies, "No, I mean I like you."
Bittle's hand reaches toward Jack's across the table and stops just short of touching Jack's fingers. At the same volume Jack's been using, he says, "Jack, are you . . . not straight?"
Jack smiles and finds himself able to sort of look at Bittle as he says, "Bisexual. I thought you knew? I mean, when Kent showed up at Epikegester . . ."
Bittle's eyes go wide yet again. "Oh. He's your . . . ex?"
"So wait," says Bittle. "You like me? Are you"—he lowers his voice even further, to barely a breath—"are you asking me out, Mr. Zimmermann?"
Jack nods but doesn't take the hand of Bittle's that's almost on his. "We can't be very public," he says. "Like, I know doing this in Annie's is a risk, but it's busy and no one's paying attention, so it's probably fine. But PDA is basically off the table, and I know I'm graduating soon, and long-distance is hard, and I don't want you to feel like you have to say yes. I just—if you say yes, and if we do this, you deserve to know the important things about me."
Bittle gets an odd expression on his face and says, "Wait, is this why you told Shitty? I thought he was straight!"
Jack shakes his head. "He's straight, and I never asked him out. I maybe liked him for a couple months our frog year, but it wasn't an intense crush and I knew it was pointless. I just wanted someone other than my therapist to know, and I was pretty sure we were best friends, so I told him." It's quiet for a few moments, and then Jack says, "You didn't answer my question."
"Oh!" says Bittle.
"I mean, you don't have to," says Jack. "If you want to think about it, or to just walk away or whatever—"
"Jack, no, of course not," says Bittle. "Of course I'm saying yes, Jack, Lord. Who could say no to you?"
"Given everything I've just told you?" Jack asks.
Bittle looks pinched again. "If you think that's going to put me off, you've got another think coming, mister."
"I just want to make sure you understand—"
"Jack," says Bittle firmly. "I know you. I've known you for two years now. Yes, I've noticed there are things you have trouble with, and no, I probably don't understand the half of it. But I know enough to know that I'd rather face the future with you than without you. Is that enough for you?"
Jack nods, hard and fast. "Yes. Yes, absolutely."
"I have more questions," Bittle admits, "and now's probably not the time for them. Do you want me to come to you first, or Google things, or go to Shitty?"
"Probably Google if it feels like it's really basic or could be offensive, but come to me if the question is specific to me. Everyone's autism is different, and there are going to be things I need to answer myself. If you're not sure if a question is offensive, maybe run it by Shitty first? He definitely doesn't know as much as I do, but I think he knows enough to make a pretty good screen. Oh, and if you Google things, don't read anything by Autism Speaks. They're a bunch of fuckwads who won't listen to anyone who's actually autistic."
Bittle nods. "Okay, got it."
"Well, that was exhausting," Jack says, and then he checks his watch. "I have a little time before my next class. Can you just talk at me? About baking or something?"
Bittle grins. "So the difference between jam and jelly is . . ."
A/N: The next two chapters will come in the next few days, so subscribe if you want to get updates!