Disclaimer: The characters belong to Ngozi Ukazu and the premise belongs to Twitter user JohannesEvans.

A/N: The idea for this fic is based on the tweet by JohannesEvans that says, "Hot goth in the woods that keeps answering the door and sighing and going 'no, I'm not the witch, he lives over there' and points across the street to a dazzling pretty boy wearing a gold waistcoat who's waving excitedly at them. This happens 268 times a month."

Credit to SyntaxHighlights for injury consulting (she's had the injury Jack gets in this fic and also knows a lot of first aid). And thanks of course to cricketnationrise for participating in Fandom Trumps Hate and asking for this fic! Title from Taylor Swift's song "Out of the Woods," because the fic happens literally in the woods.

Knock. Knock.

Jack groans and levers himself out of bed and then stumbles across the wood floor of his cabin to answer the door.

There are two young adults on his doorstep—related, by the look of it. Brother and sister, maybe, or cousins, or something like that. The woman looks him up and down, no doubt taking in his rumpled clothing—it's not that early, but it's early enough that Jack hadn't gotten up and made himself presentable yet—while the man just squints at him.

"Are you the witch?" the man asks.

"We were told there would be a witch in the forest," the woman adds.

Jack sighs. Why does he even answer the door anymore? Seriously, it's always like this. "No," he says, and then he points across the clearing to the other cabin—more of a cottage, really—outside of which a blond young man is weeding an herb garden. "That's the witch."

"But he looks so . . . sunny," the woman says as the blond man looks up and starts waving.

"Bitty always looks like that," says Jack, eyeing his neighbor's pastel shirt with what he hopes is well-disguised appreciation. So his neighbor is hot. That doesn't change the fact that it's really annoying to have to deal with his visitors all the time.

"The witch goes by Bitty?" the man asks.

Jack sighs again. "Yes, and you should take that up with him, not me." Without letting either of the visitors answer, Jack shuts the door—he doesn't slam it, but he's not quite gentle, either—and then stumbles over to his wardrobe, yawning and stretching as he does so. He opens his wardrobe and examines the clothes within it. Basically all of them are black, so one might think choosing which ones to wear would be an easy or even boring decision. It's not. Jack puts a lot of effort into his aesthetic, replacing his black nail polish when it chips, putting on eye makeup more often than not, and ensuring that all the rips in his clothing are intentional. Even the sweatpants and T-shirt he sleeps in are black.

Eventually, Jack selects the correct shirt and pants, changes into them, brushes his teeth, makes himself breakfast, and boots up his computer to get to work. He got a certificate in computer programming shortly after coming to this cabin five years ago, and it's not like he can compete with people who have actual degrees—those people tend to refer to people like him as "code monkeys"—but he makes enough doing remote software work that he can afford internet and groceries and the relatively small number of other things that he needs. The job doesn't require him to get up early or interact with other humans all that often, and he can do it from the woods, and that's all he really asks. He drives his old, beat-up truck into town every other week to get groceries (and, in the winter, to use the laundromat; in the summer the stream is a decent place to wash clothes), and, well, it's a life. Which is more than he thought he'd have six years ago.

The fact that, most days, he doesn't see anyone other than Bitty and Bitty's visitors means that the effort he spends on his aesthetic goes largely unappreciated. Jack isn't totally sure why he keeps it up, but wearing black clothes and black nail polish and eye makeup is part of his routine now, and it feels good. A voice in his head that usually sounds like his father's (and sometimes sounds like Kent's, which is even worse) says there's no point in curating his look when he's just going to sit in his cabin all day, but that voice is welcome to go die in a hole.

Jack isn't that distracted by the sounds of Bitty talking to his visitors as he starts work for the day. He focuses fairly well until lunchtime, and then he gets back to work after eating, but shortly after lunch there's another knock on the door. This time, it's more of a tap than a knock. He saves his work, gets up from his desk, and opens the door. The current visitor is an older woman who looks Jack up and down, frowning. "Are you the witch?"

Jack sighs and shakes his head. "No, he lives over there." Bitty is no longer outside, and Jack wishes he could catch another glimpse of him—surely Jack deserves it as compensation for dealing with Bitty's clients—but apparently that's not to be.

"Really? This cabin looks more witchy than that one."

"Yes, well, I'm not a witch," Jack replies impatiently.

"Are you sure?" the woman asks.

"Yes! Go to the cottage over there!" Jack does actually slam the door this time, and then he stomps back to his desk, grumbling to himself. Bitty should get a sign or something. The Witch Lives Here. But of course that would make Jack's life too easy.

There's another visitor just before dinner, and Jack actually growls at him before slamming the door in his face. When Jack is washing dishes after dinner, there's a knock on the door for the fourth time that day, and rather than answering it he just yells, "I'm not the witch!"

"I know you're not!" comes an answering yell. It's Bitty. Jack isn't sure whether he's more full of dread, excitement, or annoyance as he stalks over to the door to open it, drying his hands on a towel as he goes. On the one hand, Bitty's bound to be angry with Jack for treating his visitors unkindly, but on the other hand Jack secretly loves interacting with Bitty, and on the third hand (on his foot?) he really is annoyed that Bitty's presence for the past two years has meant visitors have become a daily reality rather than a once-every-few-months one.

Jack yanks open the door with one hand as he throws the towel over his shoulder with the other. "What is it?" he snaps. He makes a point of always speaking curtly to Bitty when they interact, to cover for his crush. He knows Bitty's gay—it's one of the first things Bitty ever mentioned to him, back when he arrived—but Bitty's never shown any interest in Jack, and Jack's not going to make the mistake of going after a guy who doesn't really care about him. Not after Kent.

"What it is," Bitty says, that adorable Southern shape to his vowels, "is that you've been even more of an ass than usual today, and you need to cut it out."

"Get a sign that says you're the witch!" Jack returns. "Some of us have actual jobs and can't be running to the door every twenty minutes!"

Bitty puts his hands on his hips. "I'll have you know, mister, that being a witch is absolutely a real job."

"Get a sign that says you're the witch," Jack repeats, because he and Bitty have had the what-counts-as-a-real-job argument so many times before that they could probably recite each other's parts by now, and he knows neither of them is going to change the other's mind anytime soon.

"Will that make you act like less of an ass to my clients?" Bitty asks skeptically.

"It should ensure that I don't interact with your clients in the first place," Jack replies.

Bitty takes a moment to think about this and then says, "Okay. I'll make a sign, but if people come to your door anyway I expect you to be civil."

Jack sighs. "Fine."

Bitty sticks out his hand, which Jack hadn't been expecting, and it takes Jack a few seconds to realize that he's supposed to shake it. Then he does, and damn, he has skin-to-skin contact with other humans so rarely that it's electrifying when it happens. (Or maybe that's just because it's Bitty.) He fights the grin that wants to spread across his face and takes his hand back as soon as Bitty lets go.

Bitty returns to his cottage after that, muttering, "Bless your heart, Jack," as he leaves.

The next morning, when Jack looks out his window, he sees a sign above Bitty's door, clearly hand-painted. It reads, I'm the Witch. Well. That should work.

And it does work. Over the next four days, Jack only has two people total knock on his door looking for the witch.

On the fifth day, Jack breaks his wrist.

It happens like this: Jack washes his clothes in the stream as usual, and on the walk back from the stream he's carrying a basket full of wet (and therefore heavy) laundry that he's planning on hanging on the clothesline behind his cabin like he does every weekend in the summer. He's nearly back to the clearing where he and Bitty live when he hears rustling in the undergrowth next to the path, and his head turns automatically to see what's making the sound. He keeps walking as he does so, which is his mistake, and he's only taken two or three more steps when his foot catches on a tree root and down he goes. He knows how to fall, damn it—it's one of the first lessons of skating—but he hasn't practiced falling in long enough that the combination of the distraction and the heavy laundry basket is enough to make him do it wrong. He sticks out his right arm as he falls in that direction and . . . shit. That doesn't feel right at all.

Jack pushes himself to a sitting position and immediately regrets it, both because his head is swimming and because he leaned on his right wrist to sit up, and that was definitely a bad decision. Shit, shit, shit.

Jack just sits there, cradling his wrist miserably, until Bitty appears in his field of vision. "Jack, are you all right? I heard you yell."

Jack squeezes his eyes shut tight and says, "I landed on my wrist when I tripped."

"Here, let me see it," says Bitty, voice level.

Part of Jack is ashamed to be seen like this, and part of Jack wants to go to the doctor for the first time in years, but most of him is overwhelmed with relief that someone else is here and might know how to help. He opens his eyes and stretches his arm out in Bitty's direction. Bitty takes Jack's hand in his—the second time this week, Jack notes distantly; that must be a record—and presses gently on Jack's wrist. "This was just a few minutes ago? It's already starting to swell. Can you move your fingers for me? Make a fist."

Jack tries. He can move his fingers, but making a fist hurts. He hisses in pain.

"Okay," says Bitty slowly. "I'm pretty sure it's broken."

"Shit," Jack hisses automatically.

"Yeah," says Bitty. "Can you stand, if I help? I can put a cast on you back at my cottage."

"What?" says Jack. "You're not a medical professional."

"Jack, first of all, I set broken bones like twice a month. And secondly, do you even have insurance? Because going to a doctor for something like this will cost you thousands of dollars, if not more. I charge $75 for the cast and putting healing spells on you, and another $25 for a couple days' supply of pain-killing potion."

"When do you set bones?" Jack asks. "No one walks into the forest with a broken bone."

"I'm part of the local 911 dispatch. I'm basically a paramedic," Bitty replies. "When I drive off at odd hours, it's because something has happened that they need a witch for, or someone would rather have a witch respond to their emergency instead of a doctor."

"Oh," says Jack. He hadn't thought of that. Honestly, he'd kind of figured that, when Bitty left at odd hours, that meant he was going for a booty call. It's wildly endearing that he's been responding to emergencies instead.

"So, do you trust me to set your wrist, or do you want me to drive you over an hour to the nearest emergency room so you can spend all your money getting your wrist fixed?"

"Okay, fine, I trust you," Jack grits out.

"Great," says Bitty. He stands and then grabs Jack's left arm to pull him to standing as well. Jack's head swims more when he's on his feet, and he sways until Bitty throws Jack's left arm over his own shoulder and wraps an arm around Jack's waist. "Come on."

"Ugh, my laundry," Jack groans as they skirt his spilled laundry basket.

"I'll come back for it," Bitty replies.

"Do you charge extra for that?" Jack asks.

"Of course not!" says Bitty, sounding scandalized. "I am a considerate neighbor, Jack." After a moment, he adds, "What is your last name?"

"Zimmermann," says Jack, and then he immediately wishes he could un-say it. There's a reason he doesn't tell people his last name when he can help it. His employer knows, obviously, and so does his bank, but that's about it. This address isn't set up for mail—he's got a P.O. box in town—and he's liked keeping Bitty and the cabin separate from his past. But Bitty doesn't seem to react to the revelation, so Jack asks, "What's yours?"

"Bittle," Bitty replies.

"Your name is Bitty Bittle?" Jack asks.

"No, of course not. It's Eric Bittle. Bitty is my hockey nickname."

"You played hockey?"

"Don't start with me, mister," says Bitty. "I was fast. I should have been, too, after all those years of figure skating."

"Okay," says Jack. If Bitty played hockey, he almost certainly knows who Jack is, but he doesn't show any signs of recognizing Jack's name or having a lightbulb moment, and Jack will take it, even if this is just Bitty being polite.

They reach Bitty's cottage soon after that—though not soon enough for Jack's taste; even though he didn't mess up his legs, other than maybe a bit of bruising, he's in enough pain that moving is hard—and Bitty deposits Jack in a chair and then bustles around the cottage grabbing what looks like a long glove, a large book, two differently shaped bottles (one purple and one green) full of some kind of liquid, and a wand. Jack realizes that he's never really seen Bitty do magic before, even though they've lived in the same clearing for two years, and as he watches Bitty now he notices that Bitty's moving with a grace and assuredness that would probably be a turn-on if Jack didn't feel like he was about to pass out from the pain.

After a minute or so, Bitty comes to stand in front of Jack and sets the book, the glove, and the bottles on the table next to him. "First thing first," Bitty says. "I've got to see exactly what's wrong." Holding the wand, Bitty waves it over Jack's wrist, muttering something. Gradually, over the course of perhaps 15 seconds, a holographic-looking image materializes over Jack's wrist but below Bitty's wand. It looks kind of like an X-ray, and it shows bones forming a hand, a wrist, and a forearm. Jack is a little too confused by how many bones there are to really know where to look for the break, but Bitty seems to understand more from the image than Jack does, because he says, "Oh! That should heal just fine."

After setting down the wand, at which point the image dissipates, Bitty carefully pulls the glove onto Jack's injured hand, sliding it slowly over Jack's fingers, and then his palm, and then his wrist. It's long enough that it goes midway up Jack's forearm by the time Bitty has arranged Jack's fingers so that they'll go into the fingers of the glove.

"What are you doing?" Jack asks when the glove is most of the way on.

"This is what's going to be your cast," Bitty explains. He picks up the purple bottle and uncorks it, and then he flips through the book, finally landing on a certain page. "I'm going to recite a spell while pouring this potion over the glove, and the glove will harden around your wrist to hold it in place while the bone heals."

Jack frowns. Well, he was already frowning, but he frowns even more. "Don't you need to snap the bone into place first?"

Bitty rolls his eyes. "That's for broken arms and dislocated shoulders, Jack, honestly. The bones in your wrist are way too small for that to be helpful. It mostly just needs to be held in place so your body can do its thing, though my magic can speed up the healing process a bit."

"Oh shit," Jack breathes, finally putting two and two together. "I'm right-handed. I won't be able to type like this, will I? I can't do my job."

"Can we worry about that in a minute?" Bitty asks. "I'd really like to finish the cast first."


"Please, Jack. One thing at a time. Letting me start the healing process for you is the best thing you can do right now, okay?"

"Okay," says Jack, miserable and anxious.

"Thank you," says Bitty primly. Then he picks up the purple bottle again and tips it gently sideways over Jack's gloved wrist, pointing the wand at Jack with his other hand and reciting something that isn't English—the spell, then—as he does so. He pours the thick, viscous liquid slowly over the back of Jack's hand, his wrist, and the beginning of his forearm. Jack isn't sure whether it's the spell or a facet of the liquid, but it dries very quickly, and soon Bitty is rotating Jack's arm to pour the potion on the side of his wrist, and then the inside of his wrist and his palm, and finally the other side of his wrist. It takes a while to cover all sides of his wrist, but eventually his entire wrist has been covered and the middle part of the glove is fully solid. "Now," says Bitty. "I can cut the top and bottom off of the glove and just leave the part that's the cast, so that you'll have your fingers free at least. Washing your hand properly will probably not be possible, since I'll have to keep your palm covered, but I can free up your fingers."

"Thanks," says Jack.

"Oh!" says Bitty, pulling scissors out of a drawer and returning to Jack's side. "And drink this." He uncorks the green bottle and hands it to Jack.

"What is it?" Jack asks.

"It's a pain-killing potion," Bitty replies.

"Narcotics?" Jack asks.

Bitty shakes his head. "No. I made it myself, but nothing in it would qualify as a controlled substance. It wouldn't be all that strong without the spells mixed in." He looks Jack over. "Why? Were you hoping for something with a kick to it?"

"No, I'm in recovery," Jack replies, holding Bitty's gaze even though he desperately wants to look away.

Bitty winces. "Oh, Lord, Jack, I'm sorry. I mean, not that you're in recovery—I'm proud of you for that. But I'm sorry for making you feel like you had to tell me, and I'm sorry that you've had to deal with addiction."

Jack sighs and lifts the green bottle. "Not your fault. But this is safe?"

Bitty nods once, sharply. "Yes, that's safe."

Jack drinks it down and feels the effects almost immediately. His wrist, which has been radiating pain up his arm, dulls, and the rest of his body, which has been tense and throbbing, quiets as well. When Jack is done drinking the potion, Bitty cuts off the unnecessary parts of the glove and throws them away without speaking.

Once the extra parts of the glove are gone, Jack stands and says, "Thank you. Euh, how should I pay you? You probably don't have a credit card reader—do you take checks? I think I have some of those somewhere."

"I do have a credit card reader, actually," says Bitty.

"All right," says Jack. "My wallet is in my cabin—I don't exactly bring it with me when I go down to the stream to do laundry. I'll go get it, I guess? And are you still okay picking up my wet clothes?"

Bitty nods. "Yes, I'll go get your clothes and you go get your wallet and we'll meet back here in a few?"

"Sure," says Jack. Standing feels better now that he's consumed the pain-killing potion, but it still doesn't feel particularly good. He grits his teeth and crosses the clearing to his cabin anyway. He was lucky that Bitty was around and willing to help him, because Bitty's right—getting to a doctor would have taken forever (and who would have driven, if Bitty hadn't been willing? Jack was in no state to drive with an untreated broken wrist), and it would have cost all Jack's savings and likely more. Even the prospect of not being able to work for—what? A couple weeks? A month or two? How long do wrists take to heal?—is scaring Jack considerably, in terms of his finances. He's not spendthrift, and he doesn't have to pay rent on the cabin, but the fact remains that he's a low-income gig worker without things like insurance or paid time off.

He meets Bitty back at Bitty's cottage (Bitty with the basket full of Jack's wet clothes), and Bitty shows him an iPad that's displaying his bill of $100. Jack sticks his card in the reader, and ugh, it feels all wrong to do this with his left hand. After he's paid, he tries and fails to lift his laundry basket using just his left arm.

"I'll get that," Bitty offers.

Jack shakes his head. "You've done plenty."

Bitty puts his hands on his hips and gives Jack an unimpressed glare. "Do you have a better idea?"

"I could . . . carry each individual item of clothing to the line from here, and then bring the basket back to my cabin once it's empty? I could handle the empty basket. Probably."

Bitty rolls his eyes. "Just let me help you."

"I don't understand," says Jack as Bitty picks up the laundry basket (his arms flexing gorgeously, on full display in that T-shirt, fuck). "You charge me for the thing I literally can't say no to, but you're willing to do all this other stuff for free?"

"I charged you for the thing that required my expertise—for the thing that's my literal job," Bitty explains, carrying the laundry basket over to Jack's clothesline. "I can be a considerate neighbor and also be compensated for my labor. Those things aren't mutually exclusive."

"Yeah, but hanging my laundry is labor too," Jack replies, following him.

Bitty shakes his head, sighs, and bends over to remove a shirt from the basket. When he straightens up, he says, "The potions involved in the cast and the painkillers took hours to make, and also I knit the glove. Hanging your laundry will take five minutes. There's a difference."

"Shit, now I feel like I should have paid you more," Jack says, hanging a pair of pants. He may not be able to carry the basket one-handed, but he can definitely hang individual articles of clothing.

"Whatever happened to 'being a witch isn't a real job'?"

"Ugh," Jack groans. "I'm sorry. I didn't realize there was so much involved in witchcraft."

"You would have known if you'd ever listened to me or asked me about my work," Bitty retorts.

Jack knows what he needs to say, and he forces himself to say it even though he doesn't want to. "You're right. I'm sorry."

Bitty picks up a pair of Jack's underwear that was in the laundry basket and hangs it on the line. Jack had somehow not realized that Bitty helping him hang his laundry would involve Bitty touching his underpants, and he's mortified. Jack wants to say something mean to cover for his embarrassment, but he can't do that to the guy who just fixed his wrist. Instead, he just keeps taking clothes out of the laundry basket and hanging them on the line.

It doesn't take much longer to hang the rest of the wet clothes. Jack is in fact able to pick up the empty laundry basket and carry it into his cabin. Just as he's opening his own door, though, Bitty calls to him from across the clearing: "Dinner will be ready at six, so come over then!"

Jack turns. "What?"

"Dinner," Bitty repeats, "will be ready at six. Come over then."

Jack frowns. "Bitty, you've already put a cast on me, filled me with healing spells and a pain-killing potion, and helped me hang my laundry. You can't cook for me, too."

"What are you planning on eating, then?" Bitty asks. "You can't realistically cook one-handed."

Jack hadn't really thought this through, but he replies, "I can eat cereal and sandwiches until I can use my right hand again."

Bitty pinches the bridge of his nose and returns, "For breakfast and lunch, maybe, but I'm not letting you subsist on a diet that's like 90% processed grains when your body needs actual nutrients to heal properly."

Jack sighs, but then he wonders why he's fighting this. Food sounds good. Still—"I should pay you, then."

Bitty shakes his head. "I'd be cooking for myself anyway. Just buy my groceries next time I go into town."

Jack nods. "Okay, then. I'll be over at six."

When he goes inside, he finds that he's really tired, and most of his options for things to do would require use of his right hand anyway, so he sets an alarm for 5:45 on his phone and then gets in bed for a nap. He's on the verge of drifting off to sleep when there's a knock at his door.

"Are you the witch?" asks a young man when Jack opens the door.

Jack really, really wants to ask if the guy can read. Bitty put up a sign! It's not that hard to identify where the witch lives anymore! But that would be rude, and then Bitty would have to deal with a pissed-off client, which Bitty doesn't deserve, especially not since he just fixed Jack's wrist. So Jack just sighs and says, "No, the witch lives over there."

The guy smacks himself in the forehead when he spots Bitty's sign. "Oh! Duh. Thanks."

Jack closes his door gently and returns to bed.

When his alarm goes off, Jack groans, turns off the alarm, and rolls out of bed. He starts to push himself up with his right arm and then hisses in pain. Right. Putting his weight on his right wrist is a very bad idea. He uses his abs to sit up without pushing himself up, and it works, of course, but it doesn't feel easy in the same way as it would have six years ago when he was actually in shape. Whatever. He's injured; this isn't the time to think about exercise.

Jack straightens his clothes in the mirror and goes to brush his teeth—his breath always gets weird when he sleeps, even if it's just a nap—and then realizes that brushing his teeth is one of the many things he's going to need to do left-handed for the next while. He swears under his breath and then goes about setting his toothbrush down on the edge of his sink, uncapping the tube of toothpaste, squeezing toothpaste onto the bristles of the toothbrush, picking up the toothbrush, and brushing his teeth, and seriously, did brushing his teeth always involve this many steps? This feels ridiculous and excessive all of a sudden.

Once he's done brushing his teeth and has managed to re-cap his tube of toothpaste, Jack puts his shoes on and crosses the clearing to Bitty's cabin. He knocks on the door—which is quite the role reversal, since usually Jack is the one having his door knocked on—and Bitty calls out, "It's open!"

Jack had never been in Bitty's cabin before today, and now that he's not on the verge of passing out from pain he's in a better position to notice all the things that are inside: herbs hanging from the rafters to dry, a fire in the hearth in the corner, shelves of labeled bottles ringing the ceiling, and a few thick books stacked on top of the fridge. Bitty himself is at the stove, and there are two place settings laid out on the table. Jack hesitates. He sat in the chair closer to the door earlier, but that doesn't mean he should sit there again. Maybe it's Bitty's seat. After a few moments, he decides to just ask, "Where should I sit?"

Bitty glances over his shoulder at Jack, finally, and says, "Either seat is fine."

That wasn't what Jack was expecting; he knows it would throw him off if someone came into his cabin and sat in his usual seat, but apparently Bitty is different. So Jack sits in the seat near the door and says, "Thank you for inviting me, and for doing the cooking. I don't remember if I said it earlier, but I definitely should have. Anyway, yeah, thanks."

"I don't think I'd ever heard you use your manners before today," Bitty remarks, his back to Jack as he fiddles with the heat settings for the stove.

Jack winces, which he's been doing a lot today, but this time it's from something other than physical pain. "Sorry."

Now Bitty turns, leaning back against the lip of the stove as he crosses his arms and raises his eyebrows. "Are you?"

Jack forces himself to maintain eye contact. "Yes." When Bitty's face doesn't show any signs of softening, Jack adds, "I can leave, if you don't want me here—"

Bitty shakes his head and some of the tension seeps out of his face and stance. "No. I made you dinner and we're going to eat together like good neighbors. I just. It would have been nice to be on the receiving end of a bit of friendliness when I first arrived."

Part of Jack wants to respond that he, too, could have used some friendliness upon his arrival five years ago, but he knows it's not the same. Jack could have chosen to live somewhere with other people (well, theoretically), and instead he chose an empty clearing. Bitty chose to live near another human being and received unusually little benefit from that choice. For the second time today, he makes himself say, "You're right. I'm sorry."

Bitty nods and then turns back to the stove and starts working with the food again. At first Jack can't see what he's doing, but then—

"Are those kebab skewers?" Jack asks.

"Yes," says Bitty.

"Where did you get them? Did you make them out of sticks or something?"

"What? No. They sell them at the grocery store. I've had them for a while. I figured kebabs would be easy to eat one-handed."

Jack feels warm all of a sudden. "Oh. Thank you."

"Who are you and what have you done with my neighbor Jack?" Bitty asks, turning to face Jack and bringing two kebabs laden with chicken and bell peppers over to Jack's plate. "I'd never heard you say 'thank you' before today, and now you're saying it every five seconds."

Jack shrugs. "You're being nicer than usual today. I have more to thank you for."

"Excuse you, I am always nice," says Bitty, returning to the stove to make kebabs for himself.

"You haven't always just fixed my wrist, though," Jack points out. "That part's new."

"I suppose," Bitty concedes, sitting down with his kebabs. He looks at Jack's plate, where both skewers are still sitting, full of food, and says, "What, are you worried I'm trying to poison you or something? Because I've had better opportunities today than this."

"No, I'm not worried about that," Jack replies. "I just didn't want to start eating before you sat down. That's rude, isn't it? I mean, it's been a while since I ate with another human being, but I'm pretty sure I remember that lesson from etiquette class."

"You took etiquette class and it took two years for me to hear you say thank you?" Bitty asks. "You officially have no excuse."

"Nearly overdosing to death in the wake of a toxic breakup and losing every human connection I ever had isn't an excuse?" Jack asks. Bitty immediately looks stricken, and Jack wants to take it back. He can't turn back time, but he does what he can, running a hand down his face and saying, "Shit, I'm sorry. You didn't ask for—"

"No, hey," says Bitty softly. "You're good. I'm sorry. I should have known you were here for a reason."

"You really haven't heard of me, have you?"

Bitty frowns. "No? Should I have?"

"You played hockey," says Jack. "I was supposed to be the first pick in the 2009 draft. I overdosed the night before. I couldn't stand the thought of—of being scrutinized for the rest of my life, after that, so as soon as I was released from the hospital I ran away and wound up here. Sold my car—well, technically my parents' third car—for cash on the way, hitched a ride for a while, bought my current truck far enough from where I'd sold the car that it would be hard to connect those dots. Found this place, bought a laptop and some supplies with the rest of the car money, fixed up the cabin, got a computer programming certificate, and forged a tiny little life for myself."

"Oh," says Bitty. "I'm sorry."

Jack shrugs. "It's not so bad, most of the time. I don't mind my job, and I'm under a lot less pressure than I was when I was younger."

"Still," says Bitty. "It's tough, losing everyone all at once."

"You would know," says Jack. "You were disowned, right?"

"Yep," says Bitty. "I didn't know anyplace safe to go as a gay 18-year-old witch in rural Georgia, so I got on the highway and drove as far north as I could."

"I'm sorry," says Jack. "That's tough, too."

"Yeah, it is," says Bitty, "but at least my job lets me interact with people."

"I honestly think I would die if I had to interact with as many people every day as you do. Half the reason I picked computer programming was to minimize my interpersonal interactions."

"Really?" asks Bitty. "So you weren't just being a dick on purpose when you snapped at my clients?"

"I mean, I kind of was," Jack admits. "But also I find interacting with people both terrifying and exhausting."

"Sorry, should I not have invited you over for dinner?"

Jack shrugs. "Strangers are worse than acquaintances. You're all right." He thinks about it. "I'm pretty sure today is the most I've interacted with anyone in about five years."

"I think I would die if I had as little human interaction as you do," Bitty replies.

Jack chuckles. "I'm not remotely surprised." He takes a bite of kebab and chews for a while; Bitty does the same. After swallowing, he says, "So, you played hockey?"

"Sure did! Co-ed league, no checking, for my last two years of high school. Almost convinced my father that all that figure skating hadn't meant I was gay after all."

Jack frowns. "I know hockey has a pretty homophobic culture and figure skating has its stereotypes, but no type of sport determines your sexual orientation. I could be queer and play hockey. So could you. Why would he think—?"

"What, were you expecting homophobes to make sense?" Bitty interrupts. And then: "Wait. You said you could be queer and play hockey?"


"But you—but Jack, you're—"

"I'm what?"

"Nothing," Bitty says, flushing. "Just. I didn't know that about you."

"I mean, it's not something my family and I advertised, leading up to the draft," Jack replies. "And I never really got out of the habit of keeping it a secret. Plus, I don't interact with people much."

"Still. The closet sucks."

Jack shrugs. "I mean, it definitely sucked when I was in the public spotlight and I felt like the person people thought I was bore no resemblance to me, but it wasn't like I wanted to be out; I just wanted people to stop making assumptions about my sexuality in any direction. It hasn't been that bad since I got to the woods, though. Like, I didn't really want to be perceived or thought about at all, you know? I haven't really felt misunderstood because I haven't wanted to be understood, not given what being scrutinized did to me in the past."

"Has anyone ever understood you, though?" Bitty asks. "Because it doesn't sound like anyone who was putting you in the spotlight either knew or cared what that was doing to you."

Jack hadn't thought of it that way. "I suppose you might be right. But attention still feels like danger, you know?"

"That makes sense. I'm sorry about disrupting your solitude."

"I mean, if you hadn't, who would have fixed my wrist today?"

"Fair. But you don't have to linger after dinner. Or—would it be better tomorrow if I just brought you a plate?"

"Bitty. You like company, and you're cooking for me. I can repay you with my presence." Jack makes a face. "I mean. Shit. If you want, I can keep you company. Not that my presence is anything special or whatever—"

"Yes, Jack. I'd like that," Bitty breaks in, interrupting Jack's social flailing. Damn, Jack hasn't done chit-chat in forever.

"I don't know why," Jack can't help saying.

"I know it's a mystery to you, but some of us actually like interacting with our fellow human beings every once in a while."

"No, I mean, me. Why would you want to spend time with me? Bitty, I've always been rude to you. I mean, admittedly that was only because—" Jack snaps his mouth shut, but he's already said too much.

"Only because what?" Bitty asks.

Jack sets down his kebab and puts his head in his hands. "Only because you're ridiculously attractive and wonderful and I couldn't bear to let on how much I like you," he says as quietly as he can.

"Did you just—? Jack. Do you mean to say you like me?" Bitty doesn't sound disgusted or angry. Jack isn't great with vocal tone, if he's honest, but that's definitely not Bitty's angry voice.

So Jack lowers his hands and looks up. "Yeah. Sorry. I know that's a bad excuse. And like, unwelcome and—"

"Jack." Bitty reaches across the table and takes one of Jack's hands. "It's not unwelcome."


"Look, I always told myself it was just physical attraction, because no one can deny the power of your cheekbones and your eyes and your ass, but, spending today with you—it's more than that. You're kind when you want to be, and you try, and you're kind of adorably awkward, and—yeah. I like you."

"Wait," says Jack. "So you changed your mind about me today?"

"Yeah? It's the most we've ever interacted at once."

"I mean, yeah, but how can you change your mind about someone overnight? Not even overnight—in the space of like five hours!"

"What, so your feelings about me haven't changed at all over the course of today?" Bitty asks.

"I'm more grateful to you than I was when I got up this morning, but fundamentally, not really. I've liked you for ages."

"How long?"

Jack can't look at Bitty when he says this. "Nearly the whole time you've been here."

"You are terrible at expressing yourself."

"Oh, I'm aware. I have proven that I would literally rather overdose and run away than talk about how I'm doing."

"So you liked me and decided to be mean to me?"

"Because I didn't think there was any chance you'd be interested!"

"Well I am!" They look at each other for a few seconds, and then Bitty asks, "How have we not kissed yet?"

"Bitty, you don't actually want this. My last relationship ended so badly and I'm not—"

Bitty crosses his arms. "Do not tell me what I want."

"Fine. But I don't think I can be good for you. Plus I'm your only neighbor. What if things end badly?"

"Why are you fighting this?"

Jack runs a hand through his hair. "In case this hasn't been abundantly clear from all the other things I've told you about myself, I have an anxiety disorder. I've also had more human interaction today than I've had in several years. Plus my wrist still hurts. Now you're suggesting I change the only real interpersonal relationship I have in a pretty big way. Are you expecting me to be calm?"

"Fair," says Bitty. "But now that our mutual attraction is out in the open I'm not sure we can keep things as they were, anyway."

Bitty's right, Jack realizes. And he's pretty sure that's not a good thing.

Jack hasn't hyperventilated in a long time—probably multiple years—and it takes him several seconds to realize that's what's happening. Then he isn't sure what's going on for a while. When he comes back to himself, so, so wrung out, there are tentative hands on his shoulder; Bitty is standing in front of him murmuring something. "It's okay, it's okay. There you go. You can breathe. I know you can."

"Sorry," Jack mutters.

"You don't have a thing to apologize for, Jack."

"That's at least the second time today you've had to put me back together," Jack replies.

"I don't mind." Bitty releases Jack and returns to his seat. "That was because of what I said, wasn't it?"

Jack doesn't want to make Bitty feel guilty, but he also doesn't want to lie, so he says, "Mostly, yeah."

Bitty nods. "I thought so. We don't have to be a couple if you don't want to be, Jack. I'm sorry for pushing you."

Jack nods. "Thanks."

It's quiet for most of the rest of dinner as Jack and Bitty finish their kebabs. Bitty serves pie and Jack eats it, and then Bitty gives Jack another few swallows of the pain-killing potion and Jack troops home.

For the next week, Jack eats cereal for breakfast and sandwiches for lunch but shows up at Bitty's cottage around 6:00 for dinner, and every day Bitty surprises Jack with some of the tastiest food he's ever had—certainly better than anything he's eaten in the past six years, while he's had to cook for himself. Jack eats it one-handed and laughs at the stories Bitty tells about his clients and compliments Bitty's cooking and baking skills. It's a hell of a lot easier than Jack imagined it would be, honestly, given the whole feelings conversation they had the day he broke his wrist. And every day it gets easier as Jack gets a little more used to interacting with Bitty.

He knows he hasn't had much human interaction in the past five years, but honestly, by the end of the week, he thinks he might never have felt this comfortable with another human being in his life. With his parents, he'd always been afraid of not being enough, of not impressing them, of not living up to their accomplishments. With Kent, there'd been a connection, but Jack had always been on edge in a way that he'd thought at the time had been excitement but, looking back, had a lot more in common with fear. And no one else had really mattered all that much to him.

But with Bitty, by the end of the week, Jack is just comfortable. He's still aware of his attraction to Bitty, and his gratitude for Bitty's kindness, but both of those have been overwhelmed by the sheer ease of interacting with him. Bitty can talk to fill time but seems genuinely interested when Jack does find something to say. And Jack's a little worried that this is only because he doesn't have other people to compare Bitty to, but Bitty just seems perfect. He's kind and generous and funny and sweet and knows when not to put up with Jack's shit. Jack knows he needed the breathing space the past week has given him to sort out his feelings and recover from his fall, but he's getting to the point where he's pretty sure he doesn't want the boundary he set right after being injured to remain in place forever.

Jack waits until dessert on the seventh day after his injury—if Bitty no longer feels that way, or if Bitty only ever wanted to kiss him, not to have an actual relationship, Jack wants to be able to leave quickly after finding that out. He's buzzing with anticipation for all of dinner but thinks he's managed to keep that inside until Bitty says, "Are you going to tell me what's had you bouncing your leg this entire time? I haven't seen you this wound up since I fixed your wrist."

Jack clears his throat, looks down at his pie—French silk tonight—and says, "Um. So, a week ago we talked about feelings, and I said I didn't want to do anything with you because we're neighbors and you'd only just started liking me and I was freaking out about my wrist. And I think that's what I needed a week ago, but—well, we're still neighbors, but I'm freaking out less now and you've had some time for your feelings to settle too. So I was wondering where things stand for you at this point, because if you want a relationship then I'd like to give it a shot."

"Really, Jack?" Bitty asks. "You don't have to do this."

"I want to," says Jack, "if you do."

"In that case," says Bitty, "can I kiss you?"

"If you want to be together," Jack says. "I don't think I could stand it if we kissed and that was all you wanted."

"That's fair," says Bitty. "I want to be with you. I can't promise you forever, but I want to try. Is that good enough for you?"

"Yes," Jack replies, and then Bitty's getting out of his chair and coming around to Jack's side of the table and leaning down and pressing his lips to Jack's. Jack hasn't kissed anyone in five years, and he doesn't want to compare or really think about Kent at all in this moment, but he's pretty sure he's never had a kiss that felt this joyful before. Bitty's smiling against his lips, pressing in momentarily closer before pulling back a couple millimeters and then pressing forward just a touch again. After several iterations of this, Bitty pulls back and brushes a hand through Jack's hair, his hand coming down afterward to cradle the side of Jack's face. "Good?" Jack asks.

"Best first kiss ever," Bitty affirms.

"That was your first kiss?" Jack replies before he can think about whether that's a wise thing to say.

"Who did you think I was kissing while I was closeted and living with my homophobic parents in Georgia?"

"Fair," says Jack. "How do you feel about a second kiss?"

"Very positive," Bitty replies, leaning in.