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Book of Jubilations

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It’s been a long roadie. The Falcs are only halfway through the second game—with two more to go as they play their way down the West Coast—but Jack’s already a mass of bruises from hit after unrelenting hit. He’s always thought of the Schooners as a more cerebral, strategically-minded team, but today they seem to be experimenting with a rougher game. Just like the Canucks last night. He twists from side to side on the bench, ignoring the twinges in his ribs, and watches their third line get pounded. Beside him, Tater breathes curses through his teeth, eyes narrowed beneath the shadow of his helmet, as one of the Schooners’ defensemen, a Norwegian rookie named Melgaard, slams Poots into the boards behind the Schooners’ goal. Again.

There’s no penalty, but it’s enough to cause a brief stoppage in play, and Jack gets back on the ice, fist bumping Tater as he swings a leg over the boards and waits for Poots to get close enough. Melgaard gives a gap-toothed grin and a cheeky wave as Jack and Poots switch places, and before he skates off, Jack hears Tater assure Poots that revenge is imminent. (“I’m flatten him.”)

Jack manages two shots on goal in quick succession (Melgaard and Wickland are bigger, but Jack is faster), but Seattle’s goalie has been a brick wall all night, and neither shot makes it in. Jack’s too tired, and too determined to keep this from heading to overtime, to waste any time on frustration, though. He looks back up the ice to see Tater and Berry swapping in. Berry takes control of the puck almost immediately, bouncing it back and forth with Tater as Thirdy wheels up the ice to meet them for the play.

Berry passes it to Thirdy, who taps it back to Berry just in time to dodge a check from Wickland. Berry has just enough space around him to pause and make sure Jack is open for a pass, and Jack knows the moment the puck meets Berry’s tape that it’s all about to go to hell.

That second’s pause, to look and look again, was all the clue Melgaard and Wickland needed to anticipate the puck’s destination, and they’re in perfect time with each other as they barrel towards Jack, just behind the puck itself. Jack can hear Thirdy coming up on his left, and maybe he can tip it back to Thirdy before—

They hit him in tandem, hard and fast, at the exact moment the puck meets his stick, and just before they all crash into the boards, Jack hears one of them mutter “oh fuck.” He has a fraction of a second to wonder at that—maybe they didn’t mean to come on this hard—before someone else (Thirdy?) slams into the group from behind. Jack, in the center of it all, feels his knee go in two directions at once.

It hurts like hell, of course, but it’s the sound it makes that’s really going to haunt him. The sickening pop echoes along his nerves, nearly as nauseating as the pain, followed by the terror of knowing that it’s only the crush of people surrounding him that’s keeping him upright.

No one in the general scramble seems to have realized that anything’s amiss, and it’s not till someone finally knocks the puck away and they all wheel after it, ref’s whistle screeching, that Jack slides down the boards till he’s sitting on the ice, trying to breath through the panic and pain.

Play skids to a halt after that, and then Jack’s leaving the ice with his arms around the medical team’s shoulders, grinding his teeth with every step. His pulse thunders in his ears; his knee throbs in time. He’s never had to leave a game like this, hobbling, stick abandoned, while the crowd buzzes with nervous energy.

Jack and the two medical personnel bypass the visitor locker room entirely and go straight to the medical room, where they ease Jack onto the table and help him strip off his pads. He can get most of the gear off himself, as long as he’s seated, but folding up his left leg enough to unlace his skates sends a fresh shock wave of pain through him. He sinks back onto his elbows, teeth clenched, while one of the trainers kneels down in front of him to help.

“Sorry about my socks,” he whispers as she peels the first one off.

She laughs. “I’ve spent a lot of time in locker rooms,” she says, unstrapping his shin guard and adding it to the pile. “It’s going to take more than one pair of sweaty feet to scare me off.”

One of the Schooners’ team physicians comes in soon after, introducing herself as Dr. Mendoza. She doesn’t bother shaking Jack’s hand, just slips on a pair of gloves and bends close to probe gently around his knee. It’s the sort of focus that Jack can appreciate. “What can you tell me about the injury?” she asks. “Anything in particular you noticed at the time?”

“A kind of… popping sound,” he says, and tries not to hiss as her fingers find a particularly tender spot. “And it hurts a lot.”

She nods. “It’s hard to see exactly what happened on the tape—you’re right in the middle of things—but that popping sound is characteristic of an ACL injury. You’ve also got obvious swelling, compared to your right knee. Combined with what I can feel when I palpate it and the level of pain you’re reporting, I think it’s very likely that this is a severe tear, but we’ll need an MRI to confirm that.”

She straightens up, turning towards the locked cabinet against the far wall, and Jack balls his hands into fists where they rest on his thighs. “I’m going to be out for awhile, aren’t I?”

“I’m afraid so. Surgery’s likely, and physical therapy for sure.”

Jack tips his head back, as though that’s going to do a damn thing to stop the tears from welling in his eyes. “Fuck,” he whispers, grateful when Dr. Mendoza pretends not to hear. “Fuck.”

_/ _/ \_ \_

They make him an appointment for an MRI and an x-ray in the morning, and in the meantime, he gets crutches and a steroid injection for the pain. One of the trainers walks back to the locker room with him and helps him strip off the rest of his gear. It feels good to finally get it off, and even better to shower away the sweat that’s dried, tacky and unpleasant, on his skin. Felix offers him a shower stool, but Jack shakes his head. There are grab bars if he needs them, but he can balance all right, and doesn’t want to feel any more like an invalid than he has to.

He has the option of staying till the game is over and riding back to the hotel with the team, or just letting one of the Falconers’ staff drive him back now. He can’t stand sitting in the empty locker room, knowing his teammates are fighting it out just a few hundred meters away, and if he leaves now he can be absolutely sure of avoiding any members of the press. Felix wraps his knee in a compression bandage, demonstrates how to get in and out of a car without straining his knee, and gives strict instructions on how to ice it when he gets back to the hotel, as though Jack hasn’t had the R.I.C.E. model ingrained into him by every coach and trainer he’s had since he was six.

It’s Felix’s job, Jack reminds himself. He’s doing his job. He doesn’t need Jack rolling his eyes at him like a sullen teenager. Even so, it takes a real effort not to.

Jack finally checks his phone once he’s in the car to the hotel. A dozen missed calls, four voicemails, sixty-five—no, make that sixty-six—new unread texts. He wishes he could ignore them all; instead he performs a quick communications triage. He skips the SMH group chat for the moment—he’s sure it’s full of equal parts worry and righteous fury at the Schooners d-men, but he just doesn’t have the energy for any of it at the moment. There’s a text from Suzanne Bittle, which is unexpected, plus two from his own mother and one from his dad. He’ll call them later, too; for now he focuses on scrolling to the one conversation thread he’s aching for.

Eric Bittle

Good luck, sweetheart!

Fuck, the group chat’s exploding. I just saw the replay, that pileup looked awful.

They don’t have any updates about you on the broadcast. I hope you’re okay. MAMA just called me all worried.

Looks like you’re not getting back on the ice tonight. I’m so sorry.

I know it doesn’t make a difference but I feel awful I wasn’t watching. Ugh.

Call me whenever you can, sweetheart. Don’t worry about the time difference.

Jack had forgotten that Bittle wouldn’t have seen it live—between the late west coast broadcast time, the Boston Pride game he had to live tweet for his internship, and a looming project deadline, Bittle barely even had time to text today. Jack’s not sure what sounds worse—watching an injury happen in real time, or finding out about it after the fact and tuning in to see it replayed in endless slow motion.

Jack dials Bittle’s number as soon as the hotel room door closes behind him. Bittle picks up less than two rings later.

Jack,” he says, breathless, his exhaustion and worry obvious even after just one word. “Oh my god, baby, are you okay? What happened?”

Jack takes a deep breath and sits on the edge of the bed. “Torn ACL, probably,” he says. “They’re not sure how bad yet; I’m getting an MRI and an x-ray tomorrow morning. And then back to Providence for surgery, I guess.”

“Oh, darlin’,” Bitty says, low and heartfelt, and Jack’s throat aches.

“Can we switch to Facetime?” Jack asks, and a few seconds later, Bittle’s face fills his screen, tight with concern. The dark circles that Jack noticed under his eyes the last time they saw each other have deepened and Jack feels a stab of guilt for keeping Bittle up so late, but it’s quickly swept away by sheer relief at seeing his face and hearing his voice. “What was the final score?” Jack asks after they spend a moment just staring at each other. He left the arena before the second period was over, but unless it went into overtime, the game should be done by now.

“One-nothing, Falcs,” Bittle says, the faintest trace of a smile on his lips. “Apparently your injury lit a fire under ‘em. I think Tater spent more of the third period in the penalty box than out of it.”

Jack huffs out something like a laugh. “I guess that’s something.”

“I’m sorry I wasn’t watching,” Bittle says.

Jack shrugs. “You can’t watch every game, Bits. Even when you don’t have all that work piling up.”

Bittle makes a face. “I know, I just... Ugh, I hate that I found out from the group chat, you know? I should have been watching.”

Jack sighs. “It wouldn’t have made a difference, you just would have had even more time to worry. How is your project coming, anyway?”

Now it’s Bittle’s turn to sigh. “It’s… coming, I guess. I want to set JSTOR on fire, mostly, but I found a couple more good articles, so... whatever, I’ve got till Monday.”

Monday is only a few days away, and Samwell has a game in the meantime, but Jack bites down on any reply to that effect. Bittle knows perfectly well what day it is, and the last thing he needs is Jack nagging him, too. He’s pretty sure Professor Atley’s got that one covered, anyway.

“I wish I were there to take care of you,” Bittle says. “Do you know what time you’re getting in tomorrow?”

“Probably around six,” Jack says. “My MRI’s at nine, and then the flight leaves at 11:30.”

Bittle brightens visibly. “We only have a morning skate tomorrow, and I’m done with class at 3:30 on Fridays. Maybe I can meet you at your apartment.”

And the thing is, Jack doesn’t want to say no. He really, really doesn’t. He wants to lay down with his head in Bittle’s lap and press his face to Bittle’s stomach and let Bittle comb gentle fingers through his hair.

But. He sighs. “You just said your project’s due on Monday, Bits. And you’ve got a game on Saturday. How would that work?”

It’s obvious Bittle is trying not to roll his eyes. “It’ll be fine. This is more important.”

“No, it’s not,” Jack says. It comes out testier than he means it to, but he hates having to the responsible one right now. “I’m able to move around, I’ve got food in my fridge, and I’m going to be terrible company anyway. Do your project. We’ll look at a calendar tomorrow and compare our schedules, okay?” He laughs, a little harsh. “I think my schedule just got a whole lot emptier, anyway.”

Bittle, who’d obviously been preparing to argue, seems to deflate. “I’m sorry, sweetheart. Let’s figure it out tomorrow, yeah. You’ve gotta be exhausted. Do you need to do anything else to get ready for bed or can you just settle in now?”

Jack should brush his teeth but…fuck it. “No.” He puts down the phone so he can slide off his sweats without bending his knee too much, then pushes back the covers and climbs into bed.

“That looks more comfortable,” Bittle says, when Jack’s situated with the phone propped up, facing him on the nightstand.

Jack nods, suddenly too exhausted to speak. His eyes drift closed against his will, the pain in his knee a dull throb in the background of his consciousness.

“That’s good, baby, that’s real good,” Bittle murmurs. Jack lets his eyes close fully and pretends Bittle’s speaking to him from the pillow beside him, instead of the other side of the country. “You’re right where you oughta be right now. You just relax, and we’ll deal with everything else in the morning.”

Jack doesn’t even remember ending the call.

_/ _/ \_ \_

The MRI confirms what Dr. Mendoza had already suspected: a near-complete tear of Jack’s left anterior cruciate ligament.

“Believe it or not, there’s actually some good news,” Dr. Mendoza says, in a tone that makes it clear she doesn’t really expect him to believe it. “There doesn’t appear to be any damage to the surrounding area, which can be common with these types of injuries. Furthermore, you’re a good candidate for reconstruction. You’re young, you’re in excellent shape, and this is your first major knee injury. It’ll take time, but you should make a full recovery.”

Jack steels himself. “How much time?”

“It could be up to nine months, although for someone in your condition, perhaps as few as six.”

All the air rushes out of Jack’s lungs, as though he’s been punched. Six to nine months, that’s—that’s the rest of this season, obviously, and the entire off-season, too. He opens his mouth and closes it again, flexes his hand against his thigh. Six to nine months.

“I’m sorry, Jack,” Dr. Mendoza says. She sounds sincere, but Jack can’t meet her eyes.

“Is there any way to speed it up?” he asks, even though he knows perfectly well that nothing short of divine intervention will get him back on the ice before the end of the season.

“Nothing’s guaranteed, of course,” she replies. “Being diligent about your physical therapy, paying attention to your body, and not overdoing it will all help ensure a trouble-free recovery. But ultimately, no. The body will heal at the rate it heals. Trust me, I wish there were a way around that, too.”

Not as much as I do, Jack thinks.

“Obviously you and your orthopedist in Providence will make the final decision, but I recommend a few weeks of PT before the surgery. It’s important to reduce the swelling and get the best possible range of motion in the knee before reconstruction. In the meantime, I’ll give you a prescription for an anti-inflammatory and painkillers.”

“Right.” Jack doesn’t have a single frame of reference for this. He has, astonishingly, made it through two decades of increasingly-competitive hockey without a single injury of this magnitude. If there’s a script for this sort of situation, he’s never had to use it.

“Jack?” Dr. Mendoza says, and he realizes she’s probably been trying to get his attention for a little while. “I know this is a blow. But I’ve been working with athletes for more than thirty years, and I’ve seen a lot of ACL damage. I really think you’re going to make a full recovery. You did not just play your last game.”

Jack nods and presses his lips together, hard. He’s spent a ridiculous proportion of the last twelve hours on the verge of tears. There are worse people to break down in front of than Dr. Mendoza—whom he’s unlikely to see again—but fuck, can’t he just…not?

_/ _/ \_ \_

Jack finally gets on a flight a few hours later. It’s a private plane, because the Falcs’ campaign to make him the face of the franchise has apparently paid off enough that they don’t think he can fly commercial—even first class—without giving away more about his injury than they’re ready to reveal.

He’d normally feel awkward about it, because it paradoxically makes him feel like he’s in more of a spotlight, but in this case, he thinks they have a point. And he’s really, really not up to fan interactions right now, let alone fan questions. Anyone who knows hockey well enough to pick him out of a lineup is also going to know that he left the ice with an injury last night. Put him on a flight east when the rest of his team is supposed to be heading south, and—well, it doesn’t take a genius to put those pieces together.

The flight attendants bring him a bottle of water and then leave him alone, though whether it’s out of professional discretion or an intuition that he’s feeling shitty, he can’t tell.

The plane has wifi, and though Jack should know better than to do his own research at this stage, he does it anyway. Reading the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons’ detailed, dispassionate summary of ACL injuries and treatment doesn’t make him feel better—not that he thought it would—but he can’t make himself close the tab, either.

The statistics are, as Dr. Mendoza promised, in his favor, and Jack knows logically that ACL tears are common enough that his surgeon will have done this procedure dozens, if not hundreds of times, but—

—but something can always go wrong. Most people in Jack’s situation recover completely and without incident, but most is not the same as all. Nothing is sure. No one can make promises. He’s had eighteen months in the NHL and no power in the world can guarantee him any more.

The plane flies over Lake Ontario. Somewhere thousands of feet below him, the Maple Leafs are preparing to take on the Capitals. His own team is miles behind him, flying south to California to play the Kings. He’s going home to sit on his couch.

Jack tips his head back against the seat and cries.

Chapter Text

Jack has never had a reason to meet the team’s orthopedist before. In fact, he’s not even sure he knew her name before George called to tell him he had an appointment the following morning. Dr. Okoro is tiny middle-aged woman, barely above five feet, with a matter-of-fact demeanor that reminds him of no one so much as Lardo. She doesn’t seem the type for platitudes, at any rate, which Jack appreciates more than he can say. She’s quiet for most of the exam, palpating his knee and manipulating the joint with an expression of abstracted concentration. Afterwards, she pulls his MRI results from Seattle up on her tablet and angles the screen towards Jack.

“Did Dr. Mendoza go over these with you at all?” she asks. Jack shakes his head. He hadn’t really wanted her to, honestly, and he’s not sure he wants to see them now, either. “We’ll just look through them quickly, then,” Dr. Okoro continues, perhaps sensing his ambivalence. “These are your x-rays. They’re clean, as we expected, but worth checking in case there’s fracturing.” She swipes at the screen and pulls up a new set of images. “And the MRI. That’s your patella, and here’s your femur and your tibia—” She gestures as Jack struggles to connect the gray masses on the screen with what he remembers of high school anatomy. “And here’s your ACL, connecting the two. You see how the line’s disrupted and wavy? That’s the tear. An intact ligament would look darker and more solid in comparison.”

She pauses, and Jack wonders if she’s expecting a reply. “Right,” he says. “Okay.”

“So, that’s the bad news. The good news, as Dr. Mendoza probably mentioned, is that this is an isolated injury, no damage to the surrounding tissue. Second, while it’s a major tear, the ligament isn’t completely severed. You’re a good candidate for reconstruction. Your long-term prognosis is very good, Jack.”

“When can I have surgery?”

“Two to three weeks, most likely. We’ll start you with a physical therapist tomorrow and then see how you progress. I know that feels like stalling, but going straight into surgery while you still have this level of swelling and immobility will actually damage your long-term flexibility. So we’ll fix that, then we’ll repair the tear, and then we’ll start getting you back to where you need to be.”

She says it with such calm authority that for a moment Jack believes it’ll be as easy as that. She’ll snap her fingers, he’ll do some stretches, and he’ll be back on the ice in the fall as though nothing has happened. “Do you have any kind of…timeline in mind?” Jack asks. “I know it all depends, but an estimate?”

“You are not my first torn ACL,” Dr. Okoro says. “You’re not even my first hockey player with a torn ACL. So, I think—and this is not a promise, young man—I think you’ll be playing again for the pre-season. Your physical therapist will work with you and your coaches to create a training program, but I’m sure they’ll want you skating with your team again as soon as it’s safe.”

Jack manages a weak smile. “I’m gonna spend a lot of time in a no-contact jersey, won’t I?”

“You certainly are. But it’s better than the bench, hmm?”

“Yeah.” He blows out a long breath. “Yeah, I guess so.”

They chat a little longer—about how Jack’s been moving around the past two days, about the steroid injection right after the injury and how the anti-inflammatories are working—before Dr. Okoro sees him off with a crisp handshake.

The receptionist helps him set up a standing appointment with the physical therapist—three times a week to start, beginning the following day. “Yumiko’s great,” she tells him as she adds him to their schedule. “She played hockey for BU; you’ll love her.”

Jack just smiles and nods, on autopilot now, and slips the appointment card with Yumiko’s information into his wallet. He probably will like her, is the thing, but fuck, he’s just—he’s still so stuck on the unfairness of it all. He’s had enough therapy in his life to know that’s not a useful thing to focus on, but apparently not enough therapy to learn how to avoid focusing on it anyway.

At least he manages to hold off tears this time, though it’s a near thing. His throat is tight and aching all the way home; he grips the steering wheel just a shade too hard. It’s only eleven in the morning, but all he wants is to climb into bed and sleep for the rest of the day. For the rest of the week, maybe. He’s not even that tired but god, how he’d like to let time slip by without him for a little while.

Jack pulls into his usual parking space and turns the car off, then tips his head forward to rest against the steering wheel. One deep breath, then another, then he forces himself to open the door and get out of the car. (Carefully, the way Felix showed him, and leaning on his cane no matter how self-conscious it makes him. It’s awful.)

The smell of lemon and almond hits him as soon as the elevator opens on his floor. For a moment he’s sure he’s imagining it, but the scent intensifies as he gets closer to his own door, and seems to carry with it the faint strains of Top 40 hits. It doesn’t make any sense—Bittle didn’t say he was coming down, because Bittle should be in class right now—but it’s unmistakably Bittle sitting on Jack’s couch when Jack opens the door.

Bittle bounces to his feet, smiling broadly and Jack finds he doesn’t give a single shit where Bittle is supposed to be right now.

“Surprise!” Bittle says, rocking up onto his toes and opening his arms wide.

Jack is across the room and in his arms almost before the word is out of Bittle’s mouth, his cane clattering to the floor. Bittle holds him tight, hands spread wide over his back, stroking up and down as Jack presses his face into the juncture of Bitty’s neck and shoulder. He takes a deep breath and isn’t surprised when it comes out shaky. Tears prick at his eyes again.

“I’ve got you, sweetheart,” Bittle whispers, lips brushing against Jack’s ear. “I’ve got you, I’ve got you.”

Jack isn’t sure how long they stand like that, wrapped around each other in the middle of his living room, with nothing but the sound of his ragged breathing and Bitty’s soft endearments to fill the silence. He’ll have to pull back eventually—he’s hunched over, a little, and he knows his knee and back will protest if he keeps it up much longer—but one of Bittle’s hands has come up to card through Jack’s hair and the smell of Bittle’s cologne fills Jack’s nostrils and he just—he needs this. He has never needed anything like he needs this.

Eventually they break apart, and Bittle nudges Jack over to the couch, where they sit pressed together from knee to shoulder. “Don’t you have class right now?” Jack asks. It’s harder than it should be to get the question out, like if he says it aloud Bittle will suddenly remember his real responsibilities, and disappear from Jack’s apartment as unexpectedly as he appeared.

“I skipped it,” Bittle says. His tone is matter-of-fact, but he’s not quite making eye contact. “It’s just stats, and Kornicki gives us three no-questions-asked absences for the semester.”

“Just stats? Bits, you’ve been complaining about stats since the semester started.” The words keep coming out of his mouth, even though Jack’s still not sure he wants to protest this.

Bittle waves his hand. “One skipped class is not gonna break me,” he says. “Anyway, I needed to see you.” He pulls back a little. “Unless you really don’t want me here?”

Jack sighs. “I always want you here. I just know how hard senior year can be, and I don’t want to be the reason you fall behind.”

“I promise I will not fail,” Bittle says, like blithely skipping a class he’s already struggling in couldn’t possibly make that more likely. “Trust me, honey, I love Samwell, but I do not want to be a student any longer than I have to.”

Jack deflates a little, sagging back against the cushions. “Okay. I believe you. And I really am glad to see you. It’s been…” He takes a deep breath. “It’s been tough.” He curls towards Bittle, who tugs him down till his head is in Bittle’s lap. Jack presses his face into Bittle’s stomach and lets out a long sigh as Bittle combs his fingers through Jack’s hair. Jack relaxes by degrees, letting the scratch of Bittle’s nails against his scalp and the almond-scented air of the apartment distract him from the ache in his knee.

Jack’s not sure how long they stay like that, not speaking, barely moving, just breathing each other in, before the oven timer goes off. Bittle untangles his fingers from Jack’s hair and pats Jack’s shoulder. “That’ll be the pound cake,” he says, apologetic. Jack sits up and lets him dart off to the kitchen.

Bittle returns a moment later, slipping right back to his spot on the couch, but this time he tilts his face up toward Jack’s and curls a hand around Jack’s bicep. “I forgot to kiss you hello,” he says, and Jack smiles a little as he ducks down to meet Bittle’s lips. They’re soft and warm and taste like home, and every time they kiss Jack swears he leaves the entire planet behind for a moment.

He shifts a little on the couch, angling toward Bittle, and his knee twinges as he does. It’s enough to bring him crashing back to reality as quickly as he escaped it. He winces as he pulls back, and Bittle’s face creases in concern. “Oh, honey. Have you taken anything today?”

He shakes his head. “I’ve got some naproxen in the medicine cabinet. I’ll grab it in a sec.”

“Don’t be silly,” Bittle says, hopping to his feet. “I can get your pills; you keep your butt on that couch.” He’s down the hall before Jack can protest, and on his way back he makes a detour through the kitchen to grab a bottle of Powerade from the fridge. Jack knows he didn’t have any this morning, but here’s Bittle anyway with a bottle of the strawberry lemonade flavor in his hand.

Jack’s positive he’s never actually said aloud that it’s his favorite, but apparently he didn’t need to. It’s just another detail Bittle has collected and filed away, to knock him over with at just the right moment. If Bittle realizes he’s tipped Jack back on his heels yet again, he doesn’t show it. He just drops the pills into Jack’s open palm and hands him the Powerade, smiling and easy. “How ‘bout some lunch?” he says. “I can slice up one of those tomatoes on the counter and make us grilled cheese, and maybe heat up some of that white bean soup I popped in the freezer last time.”

Jack peers up at Bittle. “You’re trying to spoil me,” he says, and though he doesn’t mean it to sound like a complaint, it still manages to come out that way.

Bittle just rolls his eyes as he turns toward the kitchen. “I’m pretty sure you’re impossible to spoil, but you know I gotta try.”

Jack’s not so sure it’s impossible; he thinks he’s been spoiled for years. He’s been dealt an exceptionally lucky hand, all things considered, far beyond what’s he’s earned or what he deserves, and he’s let himself grow accustomed to it. If that’s not the very definition of spoiled, then surely the clawing terror he feels at the prospect of losing it qualifies him.

He knows better than to say this aloud.

Bittle puts on some music while he works in the kitchen, but it’s not the pop music he usually favors. It’s Bruce Springsteen, and Jack knows Bittle’s not a Springsteen fan. (”You didn’t grow up to the sound of factory whistles either, Jack, so don’t look at me like I’m weird ‘cause I can’t relate.”) The familiar notes of “Thunder Road” echo from the speakers, just because Bittle knew Jack would like it. Roy Orbison’s singing for the lonely—hey, that’s me and I want you only. Don’t turn me home again, I just can’t face myself alone again.

Yeah, Jack’s spoiled.

_/ _/ \_ \_

George calls just as they’re finishing up their lunch, to get an update on his physical therapy schedule and to talk to him about team support while he’s on long-term IR.

“There’s nothing you’re obliged to do if you don’t feel up to it,” she says. “And of course, your doctor and physical therapist have the absolute final say on training. But you don’t need to be a stranger, and don’t ever feel like you’re not every bit as much a part of the team now as you were last month.”

Jack swallows hard. “Thanks,” he says.

“You still have the A,” she continues. “So we’d love to have you around as much as possible. Any time you can travel with the team without interfering with your PT schedule, and of course home games. You won’t be able to sit on the bench, but you’ll always have a seat in one of the boxes. I assume you want to avoid the press box?”

Jack snorts. “Yes, please.”

“No problem.” She pauses, and Jack gets the sense she’s considering her next words carefully. “Just don’t disappear on us, okay? I know LTIR is tough—I’ve been there myself—but you’re still part of the team, one hundred percent. And let Eric take care of you a little, you hear me?”

This time Jack’s laugh is genuine. “When I got home from the doctor’s office this morning he’d already filled my fridge with Powerade and baked me a cake. I didn’t even know he was coming over.”

George chuckles, and the conversation wraps up a few minutes later. Jack won’t say he feels reassured; he already knew, logically, that LTIR is a routine part of the professional sports world and not a reason for his team to cast him aside. It’s anxiety; logic has nothing to do with it. Still, it’s… good, to hear George say that out loud, and to get her assurance that his position as an alternate captain isn’t going to change. He resolves to text Marty and Thirdy soon to see if they have suggestions for ways he can stay involved with the team while he recovers.

Jack had wandered into the bedroom to pace while he talked with George, and when he comes back out, he expects to find Bittle in the living room watching ESPN, or maybe doing something to the cake he’d pulled out of the oven earlier. Instead, he’s sitting at the kitchen table, hunched over an open textbook and a stack of notecards. It looks suspiciously like something for the statistics class Bittle swore was no big deal to skip.

Bittle snaps to attention as Jack approaches the table, and holds up his hand when he sees Jack’s eyes narrow. “Don’t you lecture me,” he says. “I’m pretty sure this is called ‘using my time wisely.’”

“By skipping class?”

The force of Bittle’s eye-roll probably registers on the Richter scale. “I’m not making a habit of it. I told you, I get two excused absences for the semester. There’s nothing wrong with using them.”

“And how many have you used so far?”

“This’ll be the second,” Bittle mumbles, staring hard at his pile of different-colored highlighters.

Jack just stares at him. “You’re two weeks into the semester.”

“Well, I was gonna save the last one for later, but I figured taking care of my boyfriend after a major sports injury was a pretty damn good reason. But if my priorities bother you that much, I can just head back to campus now.” He’s meeting Jack’s eyes now, and his gaze is fierce.

“When’s the class?”

Bittle snorts humorlessly. “It was at eleven. I’ve already missed it. Nice try, though.”

Jack presses his lips together, unsure of what to say. “It’s not that I don’t want to see you—” he starts.

“Sure sounds like it,” Bittle mutters, staring at his highlighters again.

“I just don’t want you to put aside all your other responsibilities because of me. You’ve only got one semester left, Bits, and I know you’ve got a lot on your plate.”

“And I’m managing it.”

Jack sighs, and tries another angle. “I just want you to be able to do whatever you want to do after graduation, you know? You’ve said before how much you want to be able to support yourself.” And that had stung a little bit, although Jack knew it wasn’t anything personal. Bittle had explained that it wasn’t about money, it was about proving himself, which Jack understood even if he hated the extra stress Bittle was imposing on himself.

“Trust me, I already have plenty of people reminding me how much hinges on my college career,” Bittle says. “And I wanna do well, too.” He’s been stiff with anger, but now he softens a little. “I just—god, Jack, I can’t even explain what it was like, finding out from the group chat, of all places, that you’d been injured. And then seeing those damn replays over and over—somebody gif’ed it, did you know that?—and not even being able to talk to you, let alone see you. I know I should have gone to my stats class, okay, I just… I really needed to see you.” His voice, which had started out strong and indignant, fades into something smaller, something that aches in Jack’s chest.

Jack sinks into the chair opposite Bittle. “I needed it too,” he admits. “I just feel guilty.” Bittle opens his mouth to say something, and Jack holds up his hand. “I know I don’t need to,” he says. “You’re right, you can manage your own schedule. I just… you know how I get.”

“Yeah,” Bittle says, reaching across the table to squeeze Jack’s hand. “Just let me take care of you for a little bit, okay, honey? I think we both need it.”

“Okay. Just… I’m going to be around a lot more than I usually am during the season, so we’ll still get plenty of time to see each other, you know? Without you having to rearrange your schedule all the time.” He tries for a smile. “Maybe I can finally come to more Samwell games.”

“That would be nice,” Bittle admits. “I know Shitty’ll go with you if you don’t want to sit alone. And Rans and Holster have come back for a couple games, too. But it’s always the best when I know you’re watching.”

Jack nods. It’s great having his parents in the stands, or other former teammates, but nothing’s better than knowing Bittle’s in the family box wearing a Zimmermann jersey, or outside the locker room, bouncing on his toes while he waits for Jack to come out. Jack’s always been sorry he can’t do that for Bittle more often, especially now that he’s a senior and the captain. Well, here’s his chance. It’s one thing to look forward to, anyway.

“When do you have to be back on campus?” Jack asks, after a few minutes of quiet.

Bittle shuffles his note cards around. “I’ve got my weekly meeting with Atley tomorrow at eleven, and then senior seminar after that. I’ve got to do some internship stuff, too. We’re working on a Snapchat interview series for this weekend, so I need to draft some questions and send them to Nerita by tomorrow afternoon.”

“Well, my PT’s not till one. I could drive you back? And maybe we can stop by Annie’s. We haven’t done that in awhile.”

The pleased, surprised smile that spreads over Bittle’s face chases away the last of the tension there. “I’d love that, hon,” he says, and hooks his foot around Jack’s ankle under the table. “It’ll be just like old times.” Bittle straightens up, shutting his textbook decisively and straightening his pile of note cards. “Now. I don’t think we’ve had a whole day to ourselves, no interruptions, since the semester started, so I think we oughta make the most of that, how about you?” There’s a glint in Bittle’s eye that Jack knows well, and while he wouldn’t have said he was particularly horny before, he suddenly can’t imagine anything he wants more than to feel Bittle’s warm bare skin against his.

He follows Bittle down the hall toward the bedroom, knowing that for at least a few hours, he can shut out anything that isn’t the way their bodies move together. They’ll kiss and touch and shiver and gasp, fire in every place their bodies meet, and afterward they’ll eat lemon pound cake in bed, without a thought to spare for crumbs in the sheets or the world outside

.

Chapter Text

Jack is sure that under any other circumstances, he’d like Yumiko, his physical therapist, every bit as much as the receptionist had promised. Maybe he’ll even like her under these circumstances, eventually. She’s personable, professional, and obviously excellent at her job—all qualities Jack admires—but he’s still struggling to make eye contact and do more than grunt in response to her questions.

It’s not you, it’s me, he wants to say, as she guides him through a series of stretches, testing his range of motion. Her hands are steady and confident, and her light Maine accent reminds him pleasantly of Dex, if Dex ever sounded this cheerful.

He takes a few centering breaths while she pauses to make some notes on her tablet. He’s being a dick, frankly, and to someone who is going to spend the next few months doing her best to help him play again. The least he can do is try to cooperate fully. He decides to start by aiming for common ground. “So the receptionist mentioned you played hockey at BU?”

“Yup!” She pushes up her sleeve and holds out her arm, revealing a tattoo of Rhett the Terrier above a pair of crossed hockey sticks.

“Haha, nice. What position?”

“Center,” she says, raising her hand for a fist-bump. “Although I’ve been playing right wing lately on my rec team, and that’s been kinda fun. There’s actually a couple women from BU on the team. Our goalie and I have been playing together for, like, eight years now? It’s awesome.”

“That’s great,” Jack says, and means it. That sort of continuity only comes for a lucky few in the NHL—although Jack knows that Yumiko and her teammates’ “luck” is the result of having only the barest of professional hockey opportunities. Still, Jack has wished more than once that he could have Bittle on his line again, or Rans and Holster on defense.

Yumiko sends Jack home more sore and tired than he’d expected, with a list of simple stretches and exercises to do on his own, morning and evening. “It’s important not to slack on these, but it’s just as important not to overexert yourself,” she told him, her face more serious than it had been their entire session. “You’re not going to heal faster by doing more reps or whatever, okay?”

Jack had nodded and promised, then sat in his car in the parking lot to set up the reminders on his phone. He’s good at physical therapy, if physical therapy is actually a thing one can be good at. Of course he is: as a professional athlete, he’s spent his entire life training his body to move with control and precision, to do these exact movements in this precise way. He’s familiar with pain, its myriad flavors and textures; he can tell the good kind of pain from the bad. It’s hard, overriding his instinct to push and push and push at his limits, but he knows he can do it.

But god, he really doesn’t want to.

When Jack gets back to the apartment, he cuts himself a small slice of the pound cake Bittle made and pours a glass of milk to go with it. He eats it in small bites, making it last, not just because it’s delicious, but because he honestly has no idea what to do with the rest of his day. Bittle’s in class, or should be, for most of the day. The Falcs are at home for the next few days, too, and Jack’s going to try to force himself to go to their game against the Sabres tomorrow, as much as he dreads the idea of watching the game in his suit instead of his gear. But in the meantime, there’s just practice, and since he can’t skate, can’t hit the treadmill, can’t— Well. He promised George he wouldn’t disappear, and he meant it, but he’s pretty sure she’ll forgive him if he’s not there to practice bench warming today.

He ends up spending most of the day reading, and he can probably count on one hand the number of times he’s done that in his life. Occasionally during reading week at Samwell, if all his papers were done, but before that… not since rehab, probably, or the slow gray months that followed it.

He tries not to let that association sour what’s otherwise a surprisingly pleasant afternoon. He gets up a few times to make tea, but otherwise he stays engrossed in Hidden Figures until his rumbling stomach reminds him it’s time for dinner.

By that time, he has nearly a hundred messages in the Samwell group chat to catch up on while his casserole reheats. They’ve come up with a terrible new game, which is playing out on the group chat despite the fact that most of them are probably texting from the same room, or at least the same Haus. A dozen messages in and Jack realizes he’s not up to dealing with “bacon vs. maple syrup: you can only save one” drama; he switches over to his conversation with Bittle instead.

I’m enjoying the casserole you made last month, he says. Just took another serving out of the freezer.

I’m glad. Let me know when you run out and I’ll make you another one. I hope you had an okay day after I left!

Jack rinses off his plate and sticks it in the sink, then makes his way back out to the living room. He’s feeling restless again, not in the mood to sit back down with a book, but too keyed-up to go to bed yet. He’s not used to doing so little in a day. Not too bad, he texts. Mostly just read a lot. He pauses, considering. I already miss you in my bed, he adds, and settles down on the couch with his knees splayed apart. He’s not hard, not yet, but he could be, if Bittle’s game. It might help take the edge off.

Jack’s phone buzzes in his hand. I was just there this morning, Mr. Zimmermann! …but I miss it too.

Jack shifts a little as his body starts to take interest. It’s true that it’s only been a few hours, but where Bittle’s concerned, it doesn’t take much. His thumb hovers over the keyboard as he tries to phrase his next question. But apparently Bittle’s already there, or knows what Jack’s thinking, because he beats Jack to it.

I’m in the kitchen rn but give me a few minutes to get these brownies in the oven and then I can head upstairs so we can have some fun.

Uh. If that’s what you were angling for.

Jack runs his hand over the front of his sweats, now beginning to tent in earnest. Yeah. If you’re up for it. Skype?

Oh yeah. Gimme just a sec.

Jack opens up his laptop and logs onto Skype, then pushes his sweats down and out of the way, giving himself a few lazy strokes as he waits for Bittle. On impulse, he reaches forward and slides open one of the drawers in the coffee table. He’s pretty sure there’s—yes, either he or Bittle did leave a bottle of lube in there a few visits ago. (He briefly wonders if he should be embarrassed by that, but no. It’s not like he has roommates who might find it, and he and Bittle end up having sex on the couch a lot. It’s just practical.)

He pours out a little on his palm, and sighs in pleasure at the slick, cool drag of it on his cock. It’s hard to make himself wait till Bittle calls, but it’ll be worth it, getting to come while he watches Bittle do the same, with Bittle’s soft moans in his ear.

The Skype notification chimes a moment later and Jack accepts the call eagerly. Bittle’s perched on his bed in the Haus and the glow from his string lights casts dappled shadows over his hair and skin. Jack’s breath catches in his throat.

“Hey, honey,” Bittle says, holding his tablet a little further away from his body to give Jack a wider angle. He’s already shirtless, and Jack’s not sure he’s wearing pants, either.

“Hey, Bits. Thanks for calling.”

“Mmm, my pleasure,” Bittle says, voice slower and lower than usual, the way it always is when they do this. He tilts the tablet down a little and—nope, no pants, and he’s already got his free hand wrapped around his dick. Bittle’s gorgeous like this, always, and for a moment Jack forgets about his own arousal, caught up instead in the movement of Bittle’s hand, the quick rise and fall of his chest, the flush that stains his cheeks. “Well, c’mon,” Bittle says teasingly, interrupting Jack’s reverie. “Let me see, too.”

Jack adjusts his laptop screen so Bittle can see how hard he is already, his cock flushed and shiny with lube.

“Mmm, that’s nice,” Bittle says as his hand speeds up. “God, I wish I could taste it. I could have sucked you for hours this morning, fuck.”

Bittle’s dirty talk never fails to make Jack’s pulse pound. Those words in that voice… Bittle knows exactly what he’s doing. “Yeah,” Jack says. “God, you look—look so good. All the time, but especially—” Jack’s hand moves faster as he gets closer to the edge. It’s a struggle to keep talking, but he knows Bittle loves it as much as he does, even if Jack’s never been very good at it. “Especially like that. Your mouth—” He breaks off, watching Bittle’s hand move. He can tell Bittle’s getting close from the way he’s breathing; he doesn’t want to miss it.

Ohhh—” Bittle moans, probably not as quietly as he means to, as he comes all over his stomach and fingers. “Oh, fuck,” he breathes a moment later, the screen focused on his face again, his eyes rapt as he watches Jack. “Come on, baby, let me see you. I wanna see you come all over yourself, so fuckin’ hot.”

Jack comes with a soft gasp, harder than he expected, and it’s a few seconds before he gets his breath back.

Bittle grins as he wipes himself off. “That was fun. I hope it helped.”

“Yeah. Thanks, Bits. I know it’s… I know you’ve got a lot to do today.”

Bittle shrugs. “Nah, I needed that, too. I better scoot, though. Those brownies are gonna be done any second, and then I need to do some work on my thesis bibliography.” He makes a face.

“Okay,” Jack says. “Text me before bed, eh?”

“Yep,” Bittle says. “I love you.” He blows a kiss at Jack and the call disconnects.

Jack sits around for awhile after he cleans himself up. He still feels restless, filled with more excess energy than one orgasm could burn off. He hasn’t so much as gone for a run in five days. It’s probably the longest he’s gone without working out since… well, since his overdose. And isn’t that a pleasant thought.

And now that he’s thinking about rehab he can’t stop thinking about rehab, and it was nothing like what’s going on now but--

--but it cascades back anyway, the loneliness and the empty days, the forced stillness, the restlessness. But you got hockey back, he reminds himself. He got hockey back the first time he almost lost it, and he’ll get it back this time, too. But fuck, it’s going to be a long six months.

He flips on ESPN and watches college basketball with the sound on low, periodically sliding off the couch to do crunches. But basketball’s never really held his attention, even if it does move nearly as quickly as hockey, and he can only do so many crunches. He turns the TV off again and putters around restlessly. Empties the dishwasher. Tries to read, but can’t focus. Turns the TV back on and flips channels, growing increasingly irritated with the vacuous bullshit that dominates the prime time slots. He punches the power button on the remote and tosses it to the coffee table, but the rattle it makes as it lands just sets him more on edge

Whatever relaxing effect his orgasm may have had, it was clearly temporary. Finally, he texts Bittle. I think I’m just gonna go to bed now. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.

It takes him a long time to fall asleep.

_/ _/ \_ \_

Jack doesn’t go to the Falcs/Sabres game the next day. He doesn’t go to any practices for the next few days, either.

He goes to physical therapy. He does the exercises he’s supposed to, and tells himself that he’s just saving gas, and not deliberately avoiding his teammates. He texts Bittle—maybe not as much as he usually would, but Bittle’s been quiet lately, too. Busy, Jack assumes, with the rush of his final semester. Jack finishes reading Hidden Figures and moves on to Packing For Mars, which leads him, after a few days, through the rest of Mary Roach’s books. They’re interesting, certainly, but he can’t help but feel he should be finding them funnier. Would be finding them funnier, if he himself weren’t so… whatever he is. Tired, probably. Healing takes a lot of energy, or at least that’s what people keep telling him.

He tries not to read too deeply into his relief that George doesn’t call him, and that his teammates leave him alone. They’re about to go on the road again, anyway.

He just nods when Yumiko, obviously pleased, tells him that she thinks he’ll be ready for the surgery the following week, assuming Dr. Okoro agrees. It’s good news, he knows. An obvious sign of progress, a promise that his life isn’t as stalled as it feels. He smiles, only a little stiffly, and says he’ll set up an appointment with Dr. Okoro as soon as possible.

She punches him lightly on the shoulder as he leaves. “You’re doing really well,” she says. “And the surgery’s only going to accelerate things more. You should feel good about this, okay?”

“Right,” he says. “Yeah. I do, I promise. And thanks for all your help so far.”

She laughs. “Nah, don’t thank me yet, dude. Wait till summer; you’re gonna be so sick of me by then.”

Jack feels a genuine smile tug at the corners of his mouth. “Yeah, well, I’m sure it’ll be mutual.”

Yumiko just laughs more loudly. “Get outta here and go call Dr. Okoro. You’ve got a surgery to schedule.”

“Damn,” Bittle says, when Jack Skypes him to let him know the surgery is set for the following Thursday. “I was hopin’ I might be able to drive you, but that stupid stats class is gonna be in the way. Again.”

“Class is more important,” Jack says automatically, although he’s secretly just as disappointed. He’ll probably just get an Uber or something; it’s outpatient, and he’s already insisted to his parents that neither of them need to fly down to take care of him.

“I know that,” Bittle says, only a little snappish. “But hey, that’s the Thursday of President’s Day weekend, right? Friday’s my light day anyway, and then we get Monday off. Y’all were gonna be on the road that weekend, but— well. Anyway, I could come down for that whole weekend, if you want.”

Jack’s heart leaps. He’d forgotten how much easier it would be to schedule visits now, at least on his end. And he can’t overstate how much he wants an entire weekend to spend with Bittle. Still, he forces himself to ask the responsible question. “Can you afford to spend all that time away from campus? How much school work do you have?”

Bittle just smirks. It’s cuter than it should be. “Let me just tell you about my school work, Mr. Zimmermann,” he says. “I’ve got a paper due the Tuesday after President’s Day. Baby, it is done.” He pauses. “Well, the rough draft is done. Nursey offered to look it over for me, but I don’t think I’m gonna need to change that much. It’ll be done by the time I come see you, at any rate. I’ve already talked to the TA about missing the discussion group on Friday, and arranged a way to make it up in our online discussion instead. I used all our roadie bus time to start getting ahead on my reading for the next week or so. And I’ve been working on my flash cards for stats, like, every day. I’ve Skyped with Holster a couple times and he’s helped me figure out some stuff I didn’t get before. So, yes, I can definitely afford the time away from campus.” He sits back in his chair and crosses his arms over his chest, challenging little smirk still firmly in place.

Jack’s honestly not sure what to say. “Wow, Bits,” he says after a long—and yes, he’ll admit it—stunned pause. “That’s… that’s amazing. You’re amazing.”

Bitty flushes, pleased and proud. “I want to be able to do a long weekend with you without anything getting in the way.”

“That’s… I don’t know what to say. Thank you.”

“You don’t have to say anything, you just have to let me come down there and spoil you for a few days, okay?”

Jack nods. “Okay. Okay, yeah, I can do that.”

_/ _/ \_ \_

Jack should have known that George’s radio silence couldn’t last. She calls him later that same day, as though she knows he has knee-related progress to share.

“Sorry I haven’t been in touch recently,” she says. “The past week or so’s been crazy. How are things with you?”

“Going well, I guess,” Jack says. “I’ve got knee surgery scheduled for next Thursday. Dr. Okoro’s happy with the progress so far.”

“That’s fantastic. I’m sure you got it under control, but do you have somebody to drive you to and from the hospital?”

“Uh,” Jack says, unwilling to lie but also suddenly unsure that George will accept his “get an Uber” plan. “Well, Bittle’s got a class he can’t miss, and I told my parents not to come down, so, um…”

George snorts. “Let me drive you. I know you’re about to say you can get a taxi, but that’s silly. Do you even know how you react to anesthesia? ‘Cause I can tell you from experience, it can get weird, and a cab driver won’t want to deal with that.”

Jack winces. He doesn’t, in fact, know how he reacts to anesthesia, but he’s heard his mom’s stories about some of the things his dad has said while coming out of sedation. George is right; he really doesn’t want to put that on a cab driver. Not least because the cab driver might just put it on YouTube. “You really don’t have to,” he protests, as though he has any chance of dissuading George. “I could call my parents back.”

“Of course I don’t have to. But I take care of my players, and sometimes that means keeping them out of a stranger’s back seat after they’ve spent the morning unconscious. You just tell me what time to pick you up.”

“Thanks,” Jack mumbles, still looking at his feet even though they’re having the conversation over the phone.

“I’m serious, Jack,” she says, her tone a little firmer now. “If you don’t give me a time, I’m just going to show up at your door at five A.M., whether you’re ready or not.”

“The surgery’s at nine,” Jack says. “So 7:30, I guess. And I know I won’t be able to eat anything, but you need to at least let me buy you a coffee on the way in.”

George laughs. “You’re a tough negotiator, Zimmermann, but I accept.”

It’s only after they hang up that Jack realizes George didn’t say a word about his probably-conspicuous absence from the practice arena. That doesn’t, of course, mean that she hasn’t noticed; he’s positive she has. But if she wanted to remind him that he’s still part of the team, whether he feels that way or not, their conversation couldn’t have been more to the point.

He grits his teeth and resolves to go to the next day’s practice.

_/ _/ \_ \_

It’s a disaster.

And the worst part, the part that Jack’s afraid is going to haunt him for months, is how much it probably didn’t seem like a disaster to anyone else.

The guys greet him with a cheer when he finally steps into the locker room, feeling more awkward and out of place than he’s ever felt in a locker room. He ducks his head when Marty and Thirdy slap him on the back and squeezes his eyes shut when Tater sweeps him into the sort of bear hug Shitty can only dream of giving. (Shitty would, however, find Tater’s level of undress entirely appropriate to the occasion. The thought’s almost enough to make Jack smile.)

“Zimmboni finally show up!” Tater says, still holding him tightly. “Starting to think you retire, realize life of leisure is life for you. Slippers and bathrobe all day, probably.”

“The life of leisure is awful,” Jack mumbles into his shoulder. Tater pats his back before releasing him.

“Really,” Tater says, more quietly. “Good to see you. We miss you, okay?”

“Thanks, man,” Jack replies, before he lets Poots pull him over to the cluster of rookies for a round of fist bumps.

The coaches shuffled the lines around after Jack’s injury, of course, and pulled up someone from the farm team to fill the gap, but they haven’t put anyone else in Jack’s stall. His name’s still in the locker room, at least, even if none of his gear is. Even if he isn’t.

It’s weird, sitting there in his empty stall with his cane next to him, watching the other guys change into their practice gear without being able to lace up skates himself. He’s still not entirely sure why he’s here, except that he knows it’ll make George happy—and maybe, if their faces when he came in could be believed, it will make his teammates happy too.

Coach Burley claps his shoulder as he makes his way to the bench to watch. Across the ice, Coach Locks raises a hand in greeting. “Good to see you, son,” Burley says. “We’ve all missed having you around.”

“I’ve missed being here,” Jack says, and it’s not really a lie. He’s missed playing here, but he’d give every last dollar in his bank account to never have to be here like this ever again. He’s walking with a cane, for fuck’s sake, while Snowy skates in backwards figure eights just a few meters away. “I just-- well, obviously I can’t really participate, so I guess I’ll just stay out of the way. Uh…”

“Well, don’t get run over,” Burley says. “But don’t feel like you gotta keep your mouth shut, either. Roddy’s been doing pretty good on your line with Marty and Dora, but if you got any insights, shout ‘em out.”

“Sure, okay.” He doubts he will, not when he’s been essentially ignoring them for weeks. He’s not afraid of exchanging tips with his fellow teammates, especially the rookies, but this is—this is just weird. He can’t just show up out of nowhere and tell Roddy what he’s doing wrong while he replaces Jack.

He leans on the boards, watching everyone warm up and move through some speed and agility drills, before running through a few plays. The first line—Jack’s line—does look good; Roddy’s playing style and speed mesh well with Marty and Dora’s. They don’t yet look like they’ve been playing on a line together for nearly a year, but Jack can see why they’ve been so effective in the past few games.

He’s pretty sure he’s supposed to be happy about that. He is happy about it. He wants his team to do well. Obviously. It’s just… well. He kind of thought they’d be missing him more, two weeks out from his injury. Then again, it’s not like he’s done much to demonstrate that he misses them.

Apparently he’s even more selfish than he realized.

He sits down and pulls out his phone to text Bittle. Sitting on the bench at practice. It’s really weird.

Bittle responds with a string of sad-faced emojis.

Pretty much, Jack replies. At least it’s a closed practice.

Oh Lord, yeah, Bittle says. Were they glad to see you though? Tater’s been texting me nothing but pouty selfies and open parentheses for a week.

I think his bear hug bruised my ribs.

Bittle sends a string of hearts, with the potato emoji in the center. It’s ridiculous--seriously, why is there a potato emoji?--but Jack smiles anyway, which was probably Bittle’s goal.

Jack’s phone buzzes a few seconds later with another text from Bittle. Hey, I gotta run to a meeting with Atley, but call me when you get home?

Will do. Should probably start paying attention to practice again anyway.

It doesn’t stop being weird. Not when they switch from drills to a scrimmage, not when they head back to watch tape, not even when Burley asks Jack for any insights he has about the Devils’ new goalie, a recent NCAA recruit whom Jack played against at Samwell. No one comes close to treating him like he’s not a member of the team, and no one mentions how long he’s stayed away, but nothing they do will make him feel like he is a member of the team if he can’t skate the ice with them.

Jack begs off a lunch invitation from Guy and Thirdy afterward, and pretends he can’t see Tater’s puppy dog eyes. He really does have a PT appointment today; that’s not a lie. He just fails to mention that it’s not for another two and a half hours.

He stops at his favorite deli on the way home, because their potato latkes are even better than his great-aunt’s, and he craves comfort food in a way he normally doesn’t. He gets a reuben, too, for the protein, but the latkes are all he really wants. It’s all he can do not to open them up and eat them in the car.

He doesn’t bother to get a plate for his food once he finally gets home, just sets the bag on the table and unwraps everything there. He does make himself a cup of herbal tea, though, and drinks a glass of water while he waits for the kettle to boil. “Self-care” has never come easily to Jack, not even after ten years of practice, but a few small habits are finally starting to feel ingrained, even if they’re not effortless. Regular meals: he can manage that. A glass of water whenever he’s near the sink, chamomile tea when he thinks his hands might start to shake. Asleep at the same time, awake at the same time. He misses his naps, but they interfere with his bedtime now that he’s no longer maintaining professional-athlete levels of activity every day.

They’d be something to do, though, when the afternoons start to feel cavernous.

He sits on the couch after lunch instead, a book untouched next to him and NPR murmuring in the background. Time slips by him in eddies and waves.

This is what his life would look like, if he couldn’t play hockey anymore.

This is what his life will look like, when he can’t play hockey anymore.

And it could happen any time; it’s only by chance that he’ll play again after this injury. Sure, he might get to retire of his own volition, and leave the rink for the last time under his own power, but… he might not. Lots of players don’t. He saw it happen to some of his dad’s friends and teammates. Bob has always considered himself one of the lucky ones in that regard, especially with the way he played: an enforcer in the thick of it, drawing penalties and dropping gloves while the crowd roared their approval.

Jack’s never been that kind of player, but that doesn’t mean anything. Crosby’s not that sort of player, either, and he still spent more than a year sidelined with a concussion. And that, too, could have gone much more poorly than it did. It happens. It all happens. The average professional hockey career is so, so short. Four or five seasons, for most players; the rigors of the game and the intensity of the schedule take their toll quickly. The average retirement age is twenty-eight, and Jack’s already twenty-six. He doesn’t feel like he only has two years left in him, but--

It’s luck, it’s all luck, and no matter how lucky he gets, he will still spend more of his life not playing hockey than he will playing. He’s always known this, intellectually, but this injury is a particularly vivid reminder of how fragile it all is, and how useless he is at passing the time when he can’t put on skates. For a moment it’s all he can do to keep breathing, paralyzed by the thought of this boredom for the rest of his life. Fifty, sixty, seventy more years, perhaps: echoing and empty, toneless and vast.

He draws in a shuddering breath and tries to remember what he’s supposed to do when his thoughts choke him like this. He licks his lips; they’re dry, and his tongue feels tacky. Water, then. That’s something he can do: fill a glass of water. Drink it.

He pours himself a glass of water and drains it in a few long gulps. He pours another glass and drinks that one more slowly, and then, remembering a former therapist’s advice about hunger and mood, takes a banana from the bowl on the counter.

He eats it standing on his patio, looking out over the neighborhood. Kids are coming home from school, laughing and shouting and shoving at each other as they leave the bus stop on the corner. Dogs bark, birds sing, the afternoon breeze rustles bare tree branches. Time rolls forward. Jack relaxes by degrees.

He’s still upright, after all. Still walking. There is skating in his future; he’s as sure of that as he can be about anything. He has his surgery in just a few days, and that will take him another step closer to where he needs to be.

Perhaps if he repeats it enough, he’ll even believe it.

Chapter Text

George picks Jack up on the morning of his surgery with her four-year-old in tow. “Long story,” she says. “But I’m on drop-off duty this morning. Do you mind the extra stop?”

“Of course not,” Jack says, turning to look into the back seat. “Hello, Miss Rosa. How are you this morning?”

Rosa scrunches up her face like she’s really thinking about it, and kicks absently at the seat back. “Pretty good, I think,” she says. “After preschool I’m gonna go to Miss Aubrey’s house and then we’re gonna go on a walk and see the kittens with Mommy tonight.”

“Sounds like an exciting day,” Jack says.

“Our neighbor’s cat had kittens,” George explains, as she pulls out into the street. “I honestly don’t know whether Rosa or Marisa is more excited. They’ve been reading nothing but kitten books at bedtime for two weeks straight.”

“And there’s five of them,” Rosa says. “There’s five kittens and one of them is black and one of them is orange and three of them are, um, are…”

“Tabby?” George supplies, when it becomes obvious that Rosa’s not going to find the word she’s searching for.

“Yeah, tabby! Mr. Jack, you should come see the kittens. I bet you would like them probably.”

Jack bites down on his grin. This is not the conversation he expected to be having on the way to knee surgery. “I bet I would like them. Maybe you can help your mom take some pictures of them and you can show me next time, eh?”

They drop Rosa off at her preschool a few minutes later, and Jack’s ears are still ringing with cat facts when they arrive at the hospital. It’s a pleasant distraction.

Dr. Okoro is there for the surgery, which Jack finds reassuring. He’s sure the other doctors in her practice are equally competent, but he likes consistency, likes that the person supervising his recovery will also be the one performing the surgery. Still, he’s nervous as they go through pre-op, which apparently includes drawing a large star above his left knee in permanent marker and having them both initial it.

Dr. Okoro chuckles at the expression on his face. “I know which knee it is, and I know you know which knee it is, but better safe than sorry. You hear horror stories in surgery rotations about doctors replacing the wrong hip or something, but it’s really not hard to prevent.” She caps the Sharpie and slips it back into her pocket. “I promise you, I have never gone into the wrong knee.”

She’s going rebuild the ACL with a graft from a different tendon, and Dr. Okoro marks that spot, too, with the Sharpie. She assures him that he won’t be sacrificing strength in one place to make a repair someplace else, and he reminds himself, not for the first time, that this is an incredibly routine surgery, one that hundreds—perhaps thousands—of athletes at every level have every year.

In the end, though, her calm self-assurance, and the obvious professionalism of the nurses assisting her win Jack over. By the time the anesthesiologist starts working, his hands have stopped shaking, and by the time he registers that fact, he’s already slipping under.

_/ _/ \_ \_

It’s no time at all before Jack wakes up again, and he’s sure that must be a mistake—have they even done the procedure yet? Did the anesthesiologist mess something up? But before he can even start to form his worries into words, George leans into his field of vision, smiling and unworried.

“Hey, Jack,” she says. “How’re you feeling?”

He blinks. “Is it over already?”

“Yep. They brought me back here about five minutes ago. The nurse said everything went smoothly, but I’m sure Dr. Okoro will be over in a few minutes to give you the full run-down.”

“Oh. Wow.” He tries to flex his knee a little bit, but doesn’t feel much beyond a few twinges. Apparently the nerve blocker they used is doing its job well. They’ve put a brace on it, too, that looks like it’s going to keep him from bending it at all.

“Do you feel okay? Any nausea or anything?”

Jack pauses for a moment, taking stock, but no, he feels fine. He shakes his head. “I think I’m okay.”

George grins. “No confusion? No amnesia? You know who I am, what team you play for, all that?”

“Habs, obviously,” Jack says, deadpan. "Nos bras meurtris vous tendent le flambeau.”

George rolls her eyes. “Yeah, nice try.”

“Bittle thinks I’m funny,” Jack says, faux-petulant, but he’s spared George’s reply when Dr. Okoro pushes aside the curtain, chart in hand.

“Hello again,” she says, nodding at George, who slips out to stand outside the curtained alcove.

“So I’m sure Georgia told you it went well?” Jack nods, and she continues. “The grafting went very cleanly, and everything beside the ACL looked great in there. I’m really pleased with the work you’ve been doing in PT so far; it’s clearly helping a lot. So, keep it up.”

Jack nods again, and makes a mental note to thank Yumiko, and to try to be less of a grump during their sessions. It’s the least she deserves.

Dr. Okoro runs through the rest of his discharge instructions—how to care for his incisions, signs of infection and trouble to watch out for, and a lengthy lecture on taking it easy; I have literally just drilled holes in your bones—and then hands him a sheaf of papers with most of the same information. “For reference. I know this is a lot of information all at once.” She reminds him about his follow-up appointment the following week, then shakes his hand and leaves him to change back into his street clothes--a little awkwardly, with his knee immobilized by the brace, but he manages. After that, he gets fitted for crutches and given a brief lesson on proper form, and then he’s free.

George drives him home and insists on walking him up to his apartment and overseeing his retreat to the couch, leg propped up on pillows as instructed. She drops the remote onto the couch cushion next to him, brings him his laptop from the kitchen table, and sets a glass of water, an apple, and a yogurt cup on the coffee table.

“You don’t have to do all this,” Jack insists, the strength of his protest weakened by the fact that he really can’t get up and stop her.

She fixes him with a look that he’s sure she honed on Rosa. “I’m not sure if I trust you not to, I don’t know, vacuum or change the sheets or something before Eric gets here. At the very least, I want to be able to promise him that you were following doctor’s orders when I left.”

Jack panics a little. “You’re not changing my sheets.” They’re pretty clean, probably, but… no. No.

George snorts. “No, I’m definitely not. But I am trying to bribe you to stay on the couch and wait for Eric to help you do things.”

The apartment is definitely messier than Jack prefers, probably because he’s had a lot more time than usual to sit around in it and mess it up, but there’s nothing he can do about it now. Besides, Bittle lives in a frat house. A frat house with curtains in the kitchen windows, true, but a frat house nonetheless. He’s not going to judge.

“Keep me posted, okay?” George says before she leaves. “And say hi to Eric for me.”

“Thanks, George,” Jack says. “Seriously, I—thank you.”

“No problem, kid,” she says, squeezing his shoulder. “I’m happy to help. Let me know if there’s anything else any of us can do.”

By the time Bittle arrives a few hours later, Jack’s nearly asleep on the couch, lulled into a doze by the murmur of Sports Center commentators in the background. The rattle of Bittle’s key in the lock snaps him awake, though, and he almost jumps to his feet to meet Bittle at the door before he remembers he physically can’t.

“Hi, honey!” Bittle calls.

Jack sits up straighter, unable to stop the smile spreading across his face even if he can’t stride down the hall and sweep Bittle into his arms the way he wants to. “I’m in the living room,” he says, as Bittle’s footsteps come closer. He twists around when he hears the thump of Bittle’s duffel bag hit the floor, and then Bittle’s there, standing in front of him and beaming.

“Hey, Bits.”

“Oh, sweetheart,” Bittle says in reply, his gaze sweeping over Jack’s propped-up leg, the ace bandage and brace on his knee, and the crutches propped up next to the sofa. “I just wanna climb into your lap and kiss you all over, but I guess I really can’t do that, can I?”

Jack spreads his arms. “I think we can make it work. I promise I’ll tell you if you’re hurting me.”

“I probably shouldn’t,” Bittle says, but he’s already kicking off his shoes and moving to straddle Jack’s thighs. He lowers himself slowly, carefully, eyes on Jack’s face the whole time, and drapes his arms over Jack’s shoulders. “This okay?”

Jack lets out a sigh of pure relief. “Yeah,” he says. “This is perfect.” He tips his head forward to rest on Bittle’s shoulder, breathing in his familiar smell. Bittle’s arms tighten around him.

“I’ve missed you, baby,” Bittle whispers into Jack’s hair. Jack just nods and pulls him closer. It would be a cliche to say he didn’t realize how much he missed Bittle until Bittle arrived; it would also be untrue. But it’s sharper, in retrospect, the loneliness and tedium of the past few weeks thrown into stark relief by the warmth of Bittle’s presence. If the way Bittle’s holding him is any indication, it’s been much the same for him.

Finally, Bittle pulls back, just enough that they can look at each other again. “So about that kissing I mentioned, huh?”

“Yes, please,” Jack whispers, and lets Bittle kiss him till he can’t hear his own thoughts anymore.

They pull apart a long while later, slowly, reluctantly, and Bittle slips sideways off Jack’s lap to curl up next to him, legs flung over Jack’s thighs. Jack tucks his arm around Bittle, and pulls him in so he fits just so, head resting on Jack’s shoulder. “I’m glad you’re here,” he says, and Bittle nods.

“Me too. Lord, I really needed this.”

They lapse back into silence. Jack wonders if he could spend the entire weekend just like this, quiet in body and mind, wrapped up in Bittle and nothing else.

Of course, they have to move eventually. First Jack has to use the bathroom, then Bittle figures he might as well dump his bag in the bedroom and see what’s in the pantry. He stands in front of the open fridge for a long time without moving and when he finally shuts the door, Jack hears his tired sigh all the way in the living room.

“What’s up, bud?”

Bittle sighs again. “Can we just… not cook tonight? I keep looking into your fridge and just, like, going blank? And I would kill for some enchiladas, honestly.”

“El Ranchero?” Jack asks.

“Can we?”

“I’m pulling their menu up on my laptop now,” Jack says. “You want chicken enchiladas or pork?”

“Chicken, please,” Bittle says, settling back onto the couch with a glass of water. “And some of those stuffed jalapenos. And… you want to split a piece of tres leches cake?”

Jack snorts as he adds it all to the order. “Do you actually want to share it with me?”

“I mean, I will...”

“But you don’t want to.” Jack chuckles. “Get the tres leches for yourself, and I’ll get some churros we can share.”

Bittle presses his face into Jack’s shoulder. “Thanks, baby. I promise not to eat all of them.”

Jack just chuckles. There are four churros in an order, and he’s willing to bet money that Bittle will end up eating two and a half of them.

They eat on the couch, watching old episodes of The Great British Bake-Off and trying to mimic the contestants’ accents in between bites of food. (It’s something about the way they pronounce sponge; it’s impossible not to imitate.) Bittle sits sideways on the sofa and wriggles his toes underneath Jack’s thigh, like he can’t bear to stop touching Jack, even for the short time it takes him to inhale his enchiladas. He lingers longer over the tres leches cake, sighing happily over every forkful, and his obvious contentment soaks into Jack’s bones.

After dinner, they keep lazing about, too comfortable and too full to move far. One episode rolls into the next, and Jack doesn’t even realize he’s falling asleep until Bittle uses his foot to nudge at Jack’s hip. “Come on, baby,” he says. “Let’s get you to bed.”

Jack doesn’t bother to argue, nor even to protest when Bittle offers his hands to tug Jack up to standing, balancing awkwardly on one leg while he gets situated on his crutches. He just wants to be in bed with Bittle, and to stay there for the next six months if he can.

The bed is big enough that they don’t need to sleep touching each other, and usually they each move over to their own side after some cuddling. Maybe it’s less romantic but most nights it’s also more comfortable, especially for Jack, who tends to sleep hot. Tonight, though, he can’t stand the idea of sleeping any further from Bittle than he has to. And maybe he’s obvious, or maybe Bittle feels the same way, because Jack doesn’t even have to ask before Bittle’s nudging him over onto his side and curling up behind him, knees tucked against Jack’s thighs, one arm slung over his waist. Bittle’s chest moves in and out against Jack’s back with every breath. He nuzzles at Jack’s hair for a moment before dropping a gentle kiss on the back of Jack’s neck.

“Love you,” Jack murmurs, half-asleep already.

“Love you, too, sweetheart,” Bittle answers, quiet and fond. “Now get some rest; I’m not goin’ anywhere.”

_/ _/ \_ \_

Jack wakes slowly the next morning, and it takes him a moment to remember why he can’t bend his left knee. It comes back quickly, though, along with the moment of blank despair, shoved aside as quickly as he’s able, that’s rapidly becoming part of his normal routine.

Bittle’s still asleep beside him, face mashed against Jack’s shoulder, snoring softly. It helps a little in chasing the despair away. He used to have hockey and Bittle, and he will again someday, but if he has to lose one temporarily, he’d much rather it be hockey.

It’s a new feeling, still.

Bittle stirs next to him, letting out a sighing breath, and shifts so he’s half-lying on top of Jack, morning erection poking into Jack’s hip. Jack’s been too tired and down lately to feel much in the way of arousal, but that’s changing rapidly. He curves his arm around Bittle, letting his hand rest against Bittle’s back, and decides he can wait a little longer for the coffee he was going to get up and start. The coffee maker will still be there after Bittle’s awake and they’ve greeted the day properly.

He doesn’t have long to wait; Bittle opens his eyes a few minutes later, smiling sleepily when he sees Jack’s already awake. “Morning, baby,” he says, voice scratchy like it always is in the morning. The heat in Jack’s belly increases.

“Good morning,” Jack says, kissing Bittle’s forehead. “How’d you sleep?”

“Mmm, good,” Bittle says, and rocks his hips against Jack. “This is a real nice way to wake up.”

Jack tugs at Bittle till he gets the hint and climbs on top. “My favorite.”

Bittle just grins, fully awake now, and rolls his hips again. “I can tell.” He leans down to kiss Jack, undaunted as always by morning breath. “Whatcha wanna do?”

Jack pauses to think about it, sliding his hands absently over Bittle’s ass. Bittle grinds down, sending sparks all along Jack’s skin. “This, I think,” he says. “If it’s all right with you.”

“Grind on Jack Zimmermann till we both come?” Bittle says with a gusty sigh. “It’ll be a hardship, but I guess I’ll manage.”

Jack pinches Bittle’s ass and he huffs in indignation. “See if I let you come all over me now,” Bittle says, but he’s pushing his shorts down even as he says it. Jack just grins, and starts to pull his own boxers down around his thighs, before he realizes he’s never going to be able to get them off in this position if he can’t bend his knee.

“Shit,” he says, a little tangled. “Can you, uh, help me with these?”

“Honey, I will get you out of your boxers any day,” Bittle says, easing them over Jack’s knees and off. He tosses them aside and nudges Jack’s legs apart enough to kneel between them. “This comfortable for you?”

Jack nods. His knee has been hurting since he woke up, and he’ll take a pain pill once they’re out of bed, but right now, lounging against the pillows while Bittle grins at him from between his thighs, the ache in his knee is the easiest thing in the world to ignore.

“Good,” says Bittle, and licks his lips.

Jack is done for, and Bittle hasn’t even touched his dick yet.

Bittle has always been better with words than Jack, and so Jack knows how worried Bittle’s been, how much he misses Jack, how eager he is to graduate and start the next stage of their lives together. He knows these things because Bittle’s told him, over and over, and Jack’s never had a reason to doubt.

But Jack has never felt those things the way he does now, with Bittle’s mouth on him, hot and hungry, like Bittle’s starving and Jack’s a feast. Bittle’s using one hand to support himself, but the other is clasped in Jack’s. It’s small gesture, but to Jack, always more comfortable with actions than words, it says everything: You can hold on to me. I won’t let you go. I want you, I love you, I’ve got you.

Bittle holds tight to Jack’s hand while he continues to work Jack’s cock, his own hips rocking against the sheets. He holds tight when he pulls off with a wet sound, mouth red and glossy, smile wide. He told tight as he crawls up Jack’s body, straddles his hips, and moves both Jack’s hands to rest above his head on the pillow. He holds tight to Jack’s hand as he slots their erections together, as he gasps Jack’s name and kisses Jack’s chest and rocks above him, strong and sure. He holds tight to Jack’s hand as he comes, with his eyes wide and fixed on Jack’s, and he keeps holding on as Jack comes, too, hard and sudden.

.

He finally lets go so he can fumble around for some tissues, but as soon as he’s cleaned them both up, he’s back, curling up against Jack’s side with his head on Jack’s chest and their joined hands resting on Jack’s stomach.

Jack lifts Bittle’s hand to his mouth and kisses it.

“Yeah,” Bittle says. “Yeah, sweetheart, I know.”

They let go of each other eventually, get up, make coffee and eat breakfast. They brush their teeth side-by-side, passing the mouthwash between them; it’s as domestic and easy as it always is. Four more months, Jack thinks. Four more months till we can have this every day.

He spits out his toothpaste and tells Bittle just that. Bittle hip-checks him, very gently, his smile blinding. “It’s gonna be so great,” he says. “I know everyone talks about how college is the ‘best years of your life’ and obviously, Samwell’s been fantastic for me. In so many ways. But god, I cannot wait to be done with school so I can start… doing all the things I wanna be doing, you know?” He snorts. “Whatever the hell those things are. I guess I should figure that part out better, huh?”

“I mean, the internship seems like a good start,” Jack says as they wander back into the living room. “That’s been going well, right?”

Bittle nods. “Yeah, I like it a lot. And I’m pretty good at it. But let’s be honest: the whole reason the NWHL has interns doing their social media is because they can’t afford to pay professionals.”

“This may shock you, Bits, but the NWHL is not the only organization with a social media presence.”

Bittle rolls his eyes right back. “You don’t say.”

“I just mean you’re going to be able to find something. You’re doing great work, your bosses love you, you know you’re going to get a good recommendation from them. You’re gonna be fine.”

Bittle makes a face. “You know I appreciate your faith in me, but… can we talk about something else? It’s like all anyone wants to talk about right now and I just kinda want a break from thinking about it, you know?”

Jack knows that feeling all too well. “Yeah, of course. What should we do today? I mean, I don’t think I’m up for anything strenuous, but if you want to go out and do something, we can make it work.”

Bittle shrugs. “I figured we’d stay in, unless you’re feeling stir crazy. I thought we could get some groceries delivered, if it’s okay with you? And then just… eat some good food, have some more good sex, watch some dumb TV?”

Jack didn’t realize how much he didn’t want to go out and do anything this weekend until now. He sags back against the couch cushions. “That sounds perfect, Bits. Seriously. And order whatever groceries you want; you know I don’t mind.” Jack scrolls through the Netflix menu while Bittle starts on the grocery list. “Any particular dumb show you had in mind?”

“How about some kind of home renovation show? I’m in the mood to roll my eyes at some incredibly expensive money-saving DIY projects.”

“You got it,” Jack says.

Four houses, three only-on-TV vintage finds, and nine uses of the phrase “shabby chic” later, the doorbell rings with their grocery order. Bittle hops up to get it, and has the oven preheating before he even starts putting things away. Jack does a slow lap around the apartment on his crutches before he settles down at the dining room table; he’s getting stiff from sitting around too long, but navigating on crutches is such a chore that moving around doesn’t really help.

“I’m in the mood for quick bread,” Bittle says, pulling ingredients out of the pantry. “And you’ve got a couple of overripe bananas, so maybe banana walnut? I can make two loaves and you can freeze one for later. Oh! And make sure you find out what kind of stuff your physical therapist likes. I know she’s earned some baked goods. Your orthopedist, too, goodness.” He chatters on, mixing and measuring, while Jack sits back and watches. He’s happy to help sometimes—a lot of the time—but Bittle has it well in hand, and doesn’t need Jack lumbering around on crutches while he works.

The recipe comes together quickly, and within twenty minutes, Bittle’s slipped two loaf pans of batter into the oven and loaded the dirty bowls and utensils into the dishwasher. “Well,” he says as he dries his hands. “That’s gonna need at least an hour in the oven. However will we pass the time?”

Jack grins. “Oh, I’m sure we can think of one or two things.”

They do think of one or two things, and they pass the time so well that it’s only Bittle’s excellent internal clock—unaffected, apparently, by really good sex—that saves the banana bread from burning. “I really should have heard that timer by now,” he says, swinging his legs over the side of the bed and grabbing his underwear. He sniffs the air. “Don’t smell anything burning, though.”

Bittle pronounces the banana bread “perfectly done” when Jack makes his way to the kitchen a few minutes later, but Jack makes a mental note to buy a louder timer anyway. (Or to just have quieter sex while something’s in the oven, but really, where’s the fun in that?) While the bread cools, they have a late lunch of grilled cheese sandwiches cooked in the bacon grease Jack pretends he doesn’t know Bittle keeps in the back of the fridge. They’re simple and perfect, dipped in some tomato soup Bittle found in the freezer, and they eat them with their feet tangled together under the table. Afterward, they each have a thick slice of banana bread, still warm from the oven, and smile at each other in between bites.

They fall into a rhythm over the rest of the weekend: food, sex, Netflix, lazy cuddling and equally lazy making out. They barely leave the house or put on shoes. On Saturday evening, they Skype Shitty and Lardo. Jack can see Shitty physically holding back a comment about how long it’s been; guilt weighs heavily in Jack’s stomach.

“I’m sorry, Shits,” he says as they wrap up the conversation, even though Shitty still hasn’t said anything about it. “I know it’s been awhile. I… definitely should have called you sooner.”

“’S okay, brah,” Shitty says, his face softening. “I know how you get. Shit, I should’ve called you, but, like—I thought last year was bad? But this year might be worse. Fucking property law, man. Fucking property law. Like, what does ownership even mean, anyway, you know? Fuck.”

“It’s just another patriarchal construct created by the Man to try to keep you down, Shits,” Bittle says. “Stay strong.”

“Fuckin’ A.” Shitty sighs deeply. “Anyhow, Jay-Zed. I miss your perfect face—yours too, Bits, obvs—but shit happens. We’re still ride or die, man, you know that. Soon as midterms are over I’ll be back to bro-sexting you on the daily, I promise.”

“I’ll hold you to it,” Jack says, ignoring the looks Bittle and Lardo exchange. “Thanks, man.”

“God, I just want to lay a big sloppy one on you right now,” Shitty says. “Bitty, do me a solid and kiss his face for me, will you?”

“I don’t think I have enough facial hair for the full Shitty Knight effect,” Bittle says, but he leans over anyway, grinning, and plants a wet smacking kiss on Jack’s cheek. Shitty applauds, while Lardo pretends to wipe a tear from her eye.

Jack can’t help but laugh, and he gives into the temptation to pull Bittle close again, and kiss him in return—on his cheek first, until Bittle turns his head just enough that Jack can kiss him on the mouth, lingering more than he usually would with an audience.

The silence coming from the Skype window is suspicious, and when Jack pulls back and opens his eyes, Lardo has dipped Shitty into an exaggerated, energetic kiss. The effect is only slightly marred by the fact that neither of them can stop giggling.

“What can I say, m’dudes?” Shitty says when he and Lardo finally break apart, smirking. “Your love is inspiring.”

“Yeah, I think that’s our cue,” Bittle says. “All three of y’all should come down for one of our games sometime, though. We’ve got a run of home games coming up.”

“Just don’t let Shitty get fries,” Jack says. “They always seem to end up down the shirt of whoever’s sitting in front of him.”

Shitty claps a hand to his chest. “Harsh, bro. That was once, and it was a special fuckin’ moment. If you’d been eating fries, you would’ve thrown them, too.”

“Bittle’s first check,” Jack says, wrapping his arm around Bittle’s shoulders. “Definitely worth a few French fry casualties.”

“Ugh, just go kiss on your boyfriend, you dork,” Lardo says, grinning. “We’ll talk to you later, kay?” She and Shitty both wave, and then the call ends.

Jack tugs Bittle over till he gets the message and straddles Jack’s lap. “You heard the woman,” he said. “I’ve gotta kiss on my boyfriend.” He kisses up Bittle’s neck, then catches Bittle’s earlobe between his teeth and tugs lightly.

“Well,” Bittle says, squirming closer. “Lardo might not be our manager anymore, but I’m still afraid to disobey her. Better do it right, just to be sure.” He’s already a little breathless.

“Yeah,” Jack says, sliding his hands under Bittle’s shirt and up his back. “Just to be sure.”

_/ _/ \_ \_

Monday evening comes with alarming speed. They go to bed early, almost right after dinner, and Jack thinks, rather desperately, that if they never go to sleep, then they’ll never have to wake up, and Bittle will never have to leave. He tries to communicate as much, on his stomach between Bittle’s spread legs, two fingers working in and out and Bittle’s cock heavy on his tongue. Above him, Bittle shivers and clutches at the sheets, his breath coming out in shaky gasps. He stutters over Jack’s name, the way he always does when he gets close. Jack stills his fingers and lifts his head till his lips are just grazing the tip of Bittle’s cock.

Bittle’s hips kick, chasing his mouth, and when Jack looks up, he’s flushed and panting. “Fuck, Jack, baby, please.”

Jack darts his tongue out to lick away a bead of pre-come from the tip of Bittle’s dick. Bittle whines and reaches down to comb his fingers through Jack’s hair. Jack sighs and leans into the touch, still twisting his fingers slowly in and out of Bittle’s hole. He could stay here forever; though he’s achingly hard himself, he’s in no hurry. Bittle’s beautiful like this, and the sounds he makes are beautiful too. And in a minute, he’ll relent, make Bittle come, and it’ll be better than the goal buzzer, better than the roar of the crowd or a cascade of hats onto the ice.

He licks a stripe up Bittle’s cock, thinking about it, and Bittle’s fingers tighten involuntarily in his hair.

“Baby, I’m so—so close, I’m—”

Jack swallows him down, curls his fingers just so, and lets a flush like victory fill him as Bittle pulses on his tongue, his body clenching around Jack’s fingers. It’s almost too much to take. One or two good thrusts against the mattress would probably finish Jack off, but he’s determined to hold out till he has Bittle’s arms around him.

It might take a minute. Bittle has gone boneless in the aftermath of his orgasm, letting the hand that was in Jack’s hair flop to the mattress while he catches his breath. “Good lord, honey,” he says, sounding dazed. “That was… yeah. Wow.”

Jack pushes up onto his elbows. “Did I break you?”

Bittle giggles.. “Only a little. I’m sure I’ll be able to move again someday.” Nevertheless, he wriggles onto his side, head on the pillows. “You, though. You need to come on up here, and let me take care of you.”

Jack goes gratefully, crawling up the bed towards Bittle. “It’s not gonna take long,” he says. “Sorry.”

Bittle laughs, but it’s gentle. “Honey, you know you don’t have to apologize for that, right?” He smooths his hand over Jack’s hip and down to his ass, drawing him in closer. “Getting off on getting me off?” He leans in to kiss Jack’s collarbone, dancing his fingertips up Jack’s cock as he does. “Yeah, I’m never gonna have a problem with that.” Finally, finally he takes Jack in hand properly, and the relief is so sharp that for a moment Jack’s afraid he’ll cry. “I love watching your face when you’re sucking me,” Bittle says, quiet and even, his eyes never leaving Jack’s. “When you’re inside me. You’re so intense about it, it’s so—god, it’s so fucking hot.”

Jack whines, low in his throat, as he hurtles towards release.

“And the way you look when I’m touching you?” Bittle continues, because he’s determined to kill Jack, apparently. “I still can’t believe I get to do this, sometimes, and here you are, lookin’ at me like… looking at me like there’s nobody else in the world.” His hand speeds up. “Come on, baby, let me see you come. So good, Jack, you’re so—”

However Bitty finishes that sentence is drowned out by thundering in Jack’s ears as he finally comes, and by the moan that forces itself from his throat. He curls forward, pressing his forehead against Bittle’s chest as Bittle works him through it, murmuring praise in Jack’s ear. He brings his clean hand up to stroke Jack’s cheek, running a gentle thumb over Jack’s lips. “That was amazing,” he whispers.

“You’re amazing,” Jack replies, the words slurring together a little. He feels drunk, and suddenly exhausted; he hopes Bittle isn’t going to try to coax him into the shower before they sleep, because he could probably spend the next twelve hours right here, not moving a muscle.

Luckily, Bittle seems to be feeling the same way, because all he does is give them both a perfunctory wipe-off with a cast-aside t-shirt and pull the covers up to their shoulders. Jack falls asleep soon after, with Bittle’s arm a warm weight over his waist.

Chapter Text

Bittle leaves on Tuesday morning, with a reluctance that Jack knows isn’t just for show. “How am I supposed to go back after a weekend that good, huh?” He’s trying for levity, but there’s a clear thread of sadness in his voice.

Jack swallows. “Just a couple more months and then you get to stay here forever,” he says. “It’s gonna go by so quickly.” Jack’s final semester certainly did, and Bittle’s busy enough that Jack’s sure it will for him, too. For Jack now, though… it’s hard not to see the next few months as a long slow slog through mud, with nothing but physical therapy appointments to mark the days. That’s not how he should be living and he knows he shouldn’t pin all his happiness on Bittle. But fuck, it’s going to be a challenge.

“I’ll look at my syllabuses again when I get back,” Bittle says. “I know there’s gotta be a few more places where I can get ahead like I did for this weekend. We’ve got a couple of tough games coming up, though, so that’s going to make it harder.”

“Just promise you won’t slack off on important stuff for my sake, okay?” It’s the last thing Jack wants to say—because he’s selfish and greedy and he wants Bittle so badly—but he forces himself to say it anyway.

“You got it,” Bittle says, rising up on his toes to drop a quick kiss to Jack’s nose. “Nothing important.” His phone, tucked into his front pocket, vibrates between them, and Jack’s reminded of that first kiss in the Haus, and the incessant buzzing of his text alerts, forcing them back to earth. He tightens his hands on Bittle’s waist and urges him in for a proper kiss. Bittle relaxes into it, kissing him back sweet and unhurried, but he pulls back too soon, with a pout on his face that probably matches Jack’s. “My Uber’s here, I’m sorry.”

“Sorry I can’t drive you,” Jack says, for probably the fifth time that morning. His knee still doesn’t have enough flexibility for him to sit comfortably in the driver’s seat, although he should be able to start driving again once his brace gets adjusted again. Later this week, maybe, or the week after. Dr. Okoro wouldn’t make any promises, but the research he’s done on his own has him feeling confident about that, at least.

“It’s really okay,” Bittle says, kissing him one more time, like he just can’t stop himself. “I’m gonna do some reading for class on the train, and then I’ve got seminar when I get back, but I’ll text you when I’m back at the Haus, okay?”

“Okay,” Jack whispers. “Okay. Thank you for coming to see me. It…it really helped a lot.”

Bittle smiles as he slings his bag over his shoulder. “It helped me a lot, too, baby. I love you.”

The apartment feels empty and stupidly large, like always does after Bittle leaves. The two of them coexist perfectly, filling the empty spaces just right, but by himself Jack feels adrift, knocking around in a space that’s far too big for him, like a goldfish in Lake Michigan. It’s somehow worse now that he can’t move around easily—how much square footage does one couch-bound hockey player need, really? Clearly not this much.

Jack thinks about turning on the TV, but he already knows there’s nothing on he wants to watch. He’s not hungry yet, not interested in any of his books, not in the mood to call up one of his teammates (or, worse, attend another practice). He’s just… blank. Restless and discontent, grouchier than he has any right to be.

Knowing full well that he’s being stupid, he huffs his way through arranging the couch pillows so he can prop up his leg while he stretches out full-length. He’s not particularly tired, either, but he can usually fall asleep when he wants to, and right now that seems like the best way to occupy himself.

It doesn’t work. He puts his phone on silent, after one too many notifications from the Falcs group text (apparently Tater has a lot of questions about “bronies”), takes a few settling breaths, and closes his eyes. Nothing. He waits a little longer, trying to clear his mind the way a former therapist told him, but it only ever makes his thoughts hold on tighter. He works through some relaxation exercises, instead, tensing and relaxing one muscle group at a time, from his feet to his face. It’s a technique that almost always works for pre-game naps in unfamiliar hotel beds.

It doesn’t work now. Jack opens his eyes and glowers at the ceiling, which, shockingly, doesn’t do a damn thing to help him fall asleep.

He kind of wants to punch something. Instead, he hobbles down the hall to the bedroom. He pulls the blackout curtains shut and dumps his crutches next to the bed, flopping down with enough force to make his knee twinge. Fuck goddamn everything.

Under the quilt in his darkened bedroom, eyes stubbornly shut, it’s easier to convince himself that he really is tired, and eventually he manages to fall asleep, still scowling and discontent.

_/_/ \_\_

Days pass, and Jack doesn’t do much more than text Bittle and mope on the couch. He has physical therapy, at least, to get him out of the apartment, but a few hours of resistance band exercises a week isn’t enough to make him feel like he’s done something. Not when he’s used to working out for a couple hours a day. Even the Falcs group chat is quieter than usual while they’re on another roadie through the Southeast. Jack still isn’t inclined to sit in on another practice, but he lets the fact that he can’t bother him anyway.

Shitty shows up the night of the Falcs’ game against the Hurricanes with a bag of Indian food in one hand and a large bottle of craft cider in the other. “Apparently this is how grown-ups drink, bro,” Shitty says, brandishing the cider. It’s got an artsy label; Jack doesn’t recognize the brand. “They buy, like, one nice thing and drink it responsibly, perhaps with friends. Or so I’m told.”

“Huh,” Jack says. “Okay.” He likes cider well enough, and is just as happy Shitty didn’t come with a twelve-pack, but mostly he’s trying to pretend he didn’t totally forget Shitty promised to come watch the game with him. It’s not like Jack would have cleaned the apartment, or even changed out of his sweatpants, but. He’s been having a tough enough time already; he doesn’t need Shitty chirping him for forgetting their bro-date.

If Jack’s awkwardness shows, Shitty doesn’t mention it, just hustles him toward the couch, puts the remote in his hand, and heads to the kitchen for plates and utensils. He doesn’t bother to grab glasses for the cider, and Jack’s not about to get up just for that, so they end up passing the bottle between them. “I don’t think this is actually how grown-ups drink, Shits,” Jack says, after the second time the cider exchanges hands.

“I gotta ease into it,” Shitty says. “Too much actual adulthood all at once gives me hives.”

“Right,” Jack says, and spoons some more saag paneer onto his plate, while Shitty makes sex noises through a mouthful of rogan josh.

The game hasn’t started yet, so they’ve got the volume on low while the pre-game commentators do their thing. They both perk up, though, when they hear Jack’s name.

“The Falcs have really been putting on solid, consistent performances this season,” one of the commentators says. “It’s going to be interesting to see how they fare against the Hurricanes, who are coming into this with a four-game winning streak.”

“Absolutely, Dale,” the second commentator says. “I’ve definitely been impressed by the Canes’ playing the past few weeks, but I’d like to spend a little more time talking about the Falcs. After the season they had last year—only their second time in the playoffs, but they made it into the conference finals—it’s no surprise they came back so strong in the fall. But what did surprise me is how little they’ve faltered after Jack Zimmermann’s injury last month.”

“Definitely,” Dale agrees, and Shitty makes an indignant noise. “Zimmermann was one of their top scorers last year, and they clearly rely on him to put pucks in the net. But Ben Rodriguez has really stepped up to the plate, if I can mix my sports metaphors, and their second and third lines have been delivering consistent performances as well. I’m sure they miss Zimmermann in the locker room—he still has an A, after all—but if they’re missing him on the ice, they’re doing good job hiding it.”

“Who the fuck does this motherfucker think he is?” Shitty says, all but flinging his naan to the floor as he searches for the remote.

The second commentator chuckles. “Well, that might be a little harsh,” he says. “Their points-per-game average has gone down slightly since Zimmermann’s injury—but you’re right, they haven’t let it keep them from winning.”

“Well, I’m sure Hurricanes are going to try their best to keep that from happening tonight,” Dale says. “Speaking of which, what are your thoughts on their defensive game this season?”

Shitty finally finds the remote, and hits the “mute” button with conviction. Jack just sits back against the couch, only stirring when his pocket vibrates. He pulls out his phone—Bittle.

Uh, RUDE, the text reads. Don’t miss you on the ice, what kinda bullshit is that?????

Jack’s been thinking the exact same thing as the commentators since he went to practice a few weeks back, but he’s not sure he wants to say that to Bittle. He sets the phone down on the coffee table instead of replying immediately.

“I mean, for fuck’s sake, they just will not let you win with this,” Shitty’s saying, having pushed his food aside in favor of devoting himself entirely to indignation. “When the Falcs signed you, ESPN was all ‘lol this mediocre team thinks one big name is gonna make them good’ and now that the Falcs have proved they are good, it’s ‘lol guess this great team didn’t need that Big Name after all.’ Fuckin’ bullshit. ‘What does he actually contribute on ice?’ How about an average of one-point-three points per game, you jerk-ass motherfuckers?”

“Thanks, Shits,” Jack says, staring down at his half-eaten plate of food. It’s really, really good, but his appetite is gone.

“Those are goddamn Sidney Crosby numbers,” Shitty mutters as he turns back to his dinner. “Goddamn Bobby Orr numbers, shit.”

Jack doesn’t say anything, but between Shitty’s continued grumbling and his dinner, it takes Shitty a minute to notice.

“Brah,” he finally says, setting aside his plate again. “You’re not letting these useless shitweasels get to you, are you?”

Jack shrugs, not trusting himself to speak.

“Shit, brah,” Shitty says, wrapping an arm around Jack’s shoulder and tugging him into an awkward sideways cuddle. “Those fuckers are basically paid to bullshit, you know? They might do all right when it comes to game analysis, occasionally, but every damn time they comment on a player, they show their asses. Like, every time. It is known. It’s just more shit they can talk about to fill air time.”

Jack nods. He knows all this, has known it for years, and yet.

Shitty tugs and prods and shifts around until they’re arranged more comfortably, with Jack leaning back against Shitty’s chest, and both Shitty’s arms around him. He lets himself relax a little. “They miss you, bro,” Shitty continues. “Don’t get me wrong, Roddy’s doing a good job on your line, but he looks like he’s going to shit himself every time he hops over those boards. He’s gonna be a better player by the time all this is over, but I think he’s gonna pretty fuckin’ relieved to have you back.”

“I don’t think that’s really it, though,” Jack whispers. He pauses, searching for the words, while Shitty waits patiently. “I just… I should be happier that they’re doing well. Right? I mean, I don’t want them to fail, but. I shouldn’t feel so awful every time they win a game without me. Like, how fucking selfish am I?”

Shitty gives him a little longer, making sure he’s finished his thought, before he takes a deep breath. When he finally does speak, it’s a lot quieter than Jack was bracing himself for. “First of all, man, ‘should’ is a bullshit word when it comes to feelings. It doesn’t matter what you should feel, just what you do feel. There’s no such thing as the ‘wrong’ emotions, you know?” Jack nods; this is—unsurprisingly—a conversation he has had with more than one therapist. “You’re disappointed you’re not getting to play those awesome games with them, am I right?” Jack nods again, grateful for Shitty’s willingness to put words in his mouth. They’re the right words, Jack just can’t seem to put them together the way he needs to. “Normal human reaction, bro,” Shitty continues. “As long as you’re not actively sabotaging them, or being a dick in the chat or whatever, I’d say you’re good. And it’s not like you actually want them to lose, right?”

Jack sighs. “No, that’d make me feel even worse. Like I should’ve been there to help or something.”

Shitty squeezes his shoulders and Jack sags back against him. “Exactly, bro.”

“Why’s it so hard? I know everything’s going to turn out okay, so why can’t I just… fast forward through all of this?”

“I don’t know, man. But I blame that fuckin’ Adam Sandler movie with the magic remote Bergey made us watch for Haus movie night.”

Jack snorts in spite of himself. “He really did have the worst taste in movies.”

Shitty nods solemnly. “The literal, actual worst.”

They fall into a reminisce, after that—the other appalling titles Bergey made them suffer through, Ransom and Holster’s joint-effort spreadsheet to track their Rotten Tomato scores, and Shitty’s (fruitless) efforts to add Movie Night Legislation to the by-laws. Shitty never does un-mute the game, but he keeps the TV on while they both mostly ignore it. The Falcs keep scoring, and the Canes keep answering with goals of their own. By the time Roddy and Marty finally clinch a win for the Falcs in the last minute of the third period, Jack feels a flash of genuine relief.

_/_/ \_\_

Jack wakes in the morning to several dozen new messages in the Falcs’ group chat, nearly all of them expressing his teammates’ indignation over the pre-game commentary the night before. Or, the “very stupid things (((((((” said by “those fuckin carpet-haired doofuses”, as expressed by Tater and Snowy, respectively.

Thanks, guys, he texts back. And congrats on the win, it was a great game.

WAIT U CAN TEXT??? Poots sends back. We were starting 2 think u broke ur hands not ur knee.

nah man, voice dictation. Siri’s textin for him, Roddy says.

Haha, Jack replies. Sorry. Trying to be better. I have been watching the games though. Well. Most of them. When he can bear to. But maybe it’ll be better now.

You’re fine, kiddo. No need to apologize, Guy says. Which—wow. Jack knew Guy was on the group chat, from things other people said, but he can count on one hand the number of times Guy has actually said anything there. For a moment, Jack feels like he did as a rookie, the first time Guy invited Jack to eat lunch with him and some of the other vets.

The glow quickly fades back into guilt as Tater pops back into the conversation. Come back 2 practice again, we miss u ((((((

I’ll try, Jack says, meaning it. As soon as you guys get back.

Good, Tater replies. Also bring muffins from B, banana please. Then maybe we forgive you )))))))))

From there the thread devolves into a series of increasingly terrible banana jokes, and Jack’s still chuckling when he puts the phone down so he can make coffee a few minutes later.

_/_/ \_\_

Jack has his first post-surgery appointment with Dr. Okoro the next day. She looks pleased when she removes the dressings from his knee. It’s a relief to have them off, but it’s likely to be another week or two before he can give up the crutches (“And do not cheat,” she tells him sternly. “Yumiko and I will know.”), and another few weeks after that before she adjusts the knee brace to give him full range of motion. But the wounds are healing well—he peers down at the angry red marks with interest—and Dr. Okoro seems pleased with the levels of swelling.

“How are your pain levels?” she asks.

Jack shrugs. “Manageable. I’ve just been taking the over-the-counter painkillers you recommended; I haven’t needed to fill the script for the other ones.” Hasn’t been willing to, honestly—it’s bad enough having the prescription in his wallet; he really doesn’t need the temptation right there in his medicine cabinet. Pain pills were never his weakness, but he knows he’s still an addict, knows how easy it would be to develop a new dependency to replace the old one.

“Good. And how have you been feeling otherwise? I know this has forced you into a major lifestyle change, even if it’s temporary. How are you coping with that?”

Jack freezes. Is it that obvious? “I’m doing all right,” he says, and hopes it sounds convincing. He’s better than he used to be at admitting when he’s not fine, but it’s never gotten easier, and he’s not sure he can do it now, without a chance to psych himself up for it first.

Dr. Okoro is quiet for a moment, face thoughtful, eyes narrowed. It’s clear she doesn’t believe him; Jack tries not to let that panic him. “Well, that’s good,” she finally says, before reaching into a desk drawer and pulling something out. “Can I give you a card for a sports therapy practice anyway? Of course you don’t have to call, but long recovery periods like these can take their toll, so—better to have it on hand, in case you end up needing it, right?”

Jack takes the card. What else is he supposed to do? “Thanks,” he says, knowing it sounds wooden. “I’ll keep it in mind.” His wallet is across the room in the pocket of his sweats; he’s still sitting on the exam table in his shirt and boxers. He holds the card awkwardly between two fingers, the words licensed sports therapist bright on the backs of his eyelids when he blinks.

The worst part is, he knows that therapy would probably be a good idea right now. He’s just not sure he has the emotional fortitude for it. But that’s how it always goes, isn’t it? You need it the most when you’re least equipped to bear it.

He resolves to think about it later.

Bittle texts while Jack’s in the Uber heading home: a selfie from the team bus, with Chowder and Ford making faces over his shoulder. Jack sticks out his tongue and sends a quick selfie back. On the road again?

Yep. Dartmouth here we come! Bittle replies. At least we’ll be getting back tonight. I’m so bad at getting homework done in hotel rooms. :/

Right—Bittle has a major thesis deadline coming up this week. He’s been more on top of things this year than in years previous, but that’s not saying much. Jack’s sure it’s going to be a week of late nights for Bittle, without much time at all for them to talk.

It’s temporary, he reminds himself. A few more months, just a few more months. It’s still hard not to get grumpy about it, not to be annoyed—just a little—at Bittle’s inability to get schoolwork done without a deadline bearing down hard. It’s not Bittle’s job to keep him entertained, but god, he is so bored.

The hours pass dark and slow like the molasses Bittle sometimes drizzles over his pancakes, and drag the days along behind them. With so few obligations to mark them, Jack starts to lose track of which day it is. Work week blurs into weekend, not that those designations have ever meant much for professional athletes, much less professional athletes on LITR.

So it’s more of a surprise than it should be when Jack misses a physical therapy appointment a few weeks later. He wakes up slowly from an unplanned nap, wincing at the crick in his neck from sleeping with his head propped up on the arm of the couch, and squints at the time on his phone. 1:57—shit, he has a PT appointment in three minutes.

Jack sags back against the cushions. He really, really doesn’t want to go. It feels like they’ve been doing the same thing for weeks, and although Yumiko swears he’s making progress, Jack isn’t convinced. Besides, at this point he doesn’t have a chance of making it there before 2:30, and Yumiko has another patient in the slot immediately after his. There will probably be a missed appointment fee, but…ugh. Jack rolls over so he’s facing the couch cushions. He knows he should at least do the decent thing and call, but he can already hear the receptionist’s badly-disguised irritation, and he just—can’t.

He closes his eyes and falls back asleep.

_/_/ \_\_

He doesn’t go to his next appointment either. Or call.

Jack’s a little afraid to check his phone when his rumbling stomach wakes him up after another unplanned nap, but there are no missed calls, from the orthopedist’s office or anyone else. Nothing from Bittle, either, but he thinks Bittle had mentioned something about an evening study group for his science of food class.

Jack heaves a sigh as he looks into his fridge. He hasn’t done much besides doze all day (all week), but he’s still dragging, and even a sandwich suddenly seems like an absurd amount of effort. He continues staring into the fridge until the beep of the fridge’s door alarm startles him back to alertness.

His eye lands on the El Ranchero menu, still sitting on top of the microwave from the last time he and Bitty ordered. Jack almost never gets delivery for just himself, and right now, when he still can’t work out much, is a terrible time to start, but— Fuck it. He dials the number and orders a burrito al pastor with a side of rice and beans before he has a chance to talk himself into something healthier. He opens his wallet to pull out his credit card, and his fingers linger over the prescription for painkillers, still tucked into the billfold.

He leaves it there, and puts his wallet away quickly.

Jack putters aimlessly around the kitchen, half-heartedly trying to straighten up, while he waits for his food to arrive. In the silence of the empty apartment, his ringing phone is startling and shrill. Assuming it’s the restaurant with a question about his order, he picks up without even glancing at the caller ID.

“Hi, this is Jack,” he says.

“Jack!” Georgia says, the false brightness in her tone obvious even after one word. Jack winces. “How are you?”

He takes a deep breath. “I’m…all right. Uh, tired. Yourself?”

“I’m fine, thanks. Are you sick?”

It briefly occurs to him to lie, because Jack can already see where this conversation is going, but that’s only going to open him up to more problems. “No, I’m just… one of those days, I think. You know?”

“One of those days where you couldn’t go to PT? Again? They started calling me because you haven’t answered or returned their calls in three days. Wanted to make sure you weren’t, I don’t know, on the road with the team or dead or something.”

Jack winces again, but says nothing. He doesn’t have an excuse that doesn’t sound weak, even whiny.

George sighs. “Listen, Jack. I know how it gets, okay? I have been there. I tore my rotator cuff eighteen months before the Olympics; I think the only thing that hurt more than my shoulder was sitting on the bench when I should have been out on the ice training with the rest of my teammates. It sucks. I know it sucks. Okay?” She pauses, and Jack’s not sure whether she expects a reply.

“I’m sorry,” he offers. And he does feel awful, no way around that—but he’s felt one kind of awful or another for weeks. This is a different flavor of self-loathing and misery, but it’s nothing new.

“You’re a professional athlete; getting better—going to physical therapy—is essentially your job right now. And we are more than happy to support you while you recover, but you need to hold up your end of that, too.”

“I’m sorry,” Jack repeats, more earnestly this time. “I didn’t—this won’t be a pattern. More of a pattern.”

“I hope not,” George says, but her voice has softened a little. “This just isn’t like you, and that worries me. You haven’t been to practice, or any games, you’ve barely spoken to most of the guys, and now you’ve skipped two PT appointments in a row. What’s going on, kiddo?”

Jack swallows, his throat suddenly tight. “Well,” he says. “It’s—like you said. You know how it is.”

“Have you considered talking to a therapist? We have one on staff, obviously, but we could help you find someone else, if you prefer.”

“Dr. Okoro gave me a card,” Jack says. “But I haven’t called yet.”

“I think you should,” George says. “It can help a lot. Sometimes even taking a step towards something helpful makes a difference.”

Now it’s Jack’s turn to sigh. “Yeah, I know.”

“You don’t have to call anybody right now. Just promise me you’ll think about it, okay? Really think about it. And don’t miss any more appointments.”

Jack nods, and then remembers she can’t see him. “I promise.” His voice is smaller than he’d like, less confident, but—

“Thank you,” George says. “And please don’t be a stranger. I get that coming to practices is weird, since you can’t skate yet. But the guys would love to see you at a game now and then. Or even just practice. They all miss you.”

“I’m sorry,” Jack says. “I’ll try.”

“How about this, and then I’ll let you go,” George says. “Marisa and I were going take Rosa to the Maple Leafs game on Sunday, since it’s an early one. How about you come with us? Eric, too, if he’s available. I know Rosa loves him.”

“I’ll ask him,” Jack says. “But… yeah. I’ll try to come. That would be good.”

“Perfect,” George says. “We’ll see you then. Just make sure you’re ready for all the cat facts.”

After they hang up, Jack picks up his wallet again and takes the prescription out. He holds it in his hand for a long, long time before he tears it up and throws the pieces away.

Chapter Text

Bittle is, unsurprisingly, very enthusiastic about going to a hockey game with Jack, George, and her family. “I haven’t seen Rosa in months,” he says. “I bet she’s gotten so big!”

“Apparently she’s going through a cat phase,” Jack says, and Bittle honest-to-god squeaks, one hand coming up to cover his mouth.

“You, good hockey, and a toddler talking about cats,” Bittle says. “Oh my god, this weekend is going to be exactly what I need.”

“Yeah?” Jack asks. He frowns and leans closer to the computer screen. “More than usual going on?” He should probably know the answer to that already, but he’s been, as Shitty would say, up his own ass even more than usual lately.

Bittle shrugs. “I mean, kinda? I’ve gotta turn in the first half of my thesis draft tomorrow, so that’s been a nightmare, and I had a group project due in my history of advertising class.”

Jack makes a sympathetic noise. “How’d that go?”

Bittle rolls his eyes. “Don’t get me started, ugh. I can’t believe we’re still doing group projects in college. Also, seriously, fuck PowerPoint.”

“You’ve heard Shitty’s PowerPoint rants, right?” Jack asks.

Bittle laughs. “I think the entire greater Boston area has heard Shitty’s PowerPoint rants. And I thought about him every time one of the group members insisted we animate all the captions ‘just to keep things interesting.’” He illustrates that last bit with sarcastic air quotes, and Jack chuckles.

“I’m sorry you had to endure that.”

Bittle sniffs. “You can help me put it out of my mind this weekend, how’s that?”

“Deal.”

_/_/ \_\_

Now that he’s a little more mobile, Jack is determined to concentrate on spoiling Bittle this weekend, instead of sitting back and letting Bittle do all the pampering. Even as wrapped up as Jack’s been in his own unhappiness, Bittle’s stress hasn’t escaped his notice. He’d hoped, with all of his newfound free time, that he’d have more time for Bittle, to try and pay back some of the attention Bittle has showered on him. Of course, Bittle makes it hard, even when Jack’s not wildly depressed, because he’s just so good at deflecting, making you feel you’re doing him a favor by letting him take care of you.

And Jack knows that in a certain way that’s true—it makes Bittle feel good to take care of people, to make good food and watch people enjoy it, to make their lives smoother and easier. But it’s also a way of diverting their attention away from himself and his weaknesses, and Jack doesn’t want to enable that more than he can help. Bittle shouldn’t ever feel like Jack is all take and no give, or that Bittle himself doesn’t deserve to be spoiled by the people who love him.

Anyway. Jack’s fallen down on that lately, but he’s determined to make up for it this weekend. If nothing else, it’ll be a good distraction from his own misery.

Accordingly, he cleans the apartment as best he can without overtaxing his knee, and does what feels like half a dozen loads of laundry, taking special care to wash all the clothes that Bittle’s left behind over the past year, and all the hoodies and t-shirts he’s fond of borrowing from Jack. Clean sheets on the bed, clean towels in the bathroom, a freshly stocked pantry. That last list item ends up being an embarrassingly large grocery delivery order, but it’s worth it if it means they won’t have to go to the store this weekend. They won’t have to leave the house for anything except Sunday’s game, unless they decide they want to. Jack can’t wait.

Bittle arrives late Friday night, electing to skip the kegster and come straight to Providence after the Samwell game. There’s some mild chirping in the group chat about prioritizing his sex life over his captainly kegstand duties, but it’s clearly more for form’s sake than anything else.

“Oh please,” Bittle says, when Jack mentions it. “Like any one of them wouldn’t drop their bro’s feet right in the middle of a kegstand if they thought it would get them laid.” He settles down on Jack’s lap, wriggling his ass around just a little more than necessary as he gets comfortable. “Mama always said the kids teased me ‘cause they were jealous. I think she was mostly lying to make me feel better, but in this case that’s exactly what’s going on. Now,” he says, looping his arms around Jack’s neck and hitching himself even closer. “Let me just tell you about that goal I scored.” He grins in a teasing sort of way, and Jack’s stomach turns over.

Tales of Bittle’s prowess on the ice (a goal and two assists) lead inevitably to kisses, which lead just as inevitably to Bittle laid out on the sofa while Jack looms above him, doing everything in his power to make Bittle gasp. After all, he wanted to take care of Bittle this weekend. This seems as good a place as any to start.

“What do you want?” he asks, between kisses. “I wanna make you feel good, Bits, please.”

Beneath him, Bittle hums, considering, and rocks his hips up to meet Jack’s. “I kinda want to ride you,” he says. “Can we do that?” Jack groans aloud, which is apparently all the answer that Bittle needs. He pushes gently at Jack’s shoulders so he can wriggle out from under him and off the couch. He holds out the crutches for Jack, who gets his feet under him more slowly, and tugs him upright and down the hall toward the bedroom.

Jack trails behind Bittle, eyes caught on the sweet curve of his ass. Judging by the exaggerated sway in Bittle’s hips, he knows he’s being watched and he’s playing it up. Bittle throws a grin over his shoulder. “Like what you see back there, Mr. Zimmermann?”

“It’s a very nice butt,” Jack says.

Bittle winks. “Play your cards right, handsome, and I might just let you touch it.”

In the end, Bittle doesn’t just let Jack touch it, he lets Jack lay him out on his stomach, spread his thighs, and eat him out till he’s practically sobbing into the pillow. He gets his revenge when Jack finally lets him up, though, straddling Jack’s hips and riding his cock till they’re both flushed and sweaty and too desperate to hold back any more.

It’s the best Jack has felt in weeks. He’d stay like this forever if he could: hovering on the edge of a precipice, Bittle over him and around him--all he can see, hear, touch, smell, taste.

It can’t last, but Jack finds he doesn’t mind, not when it ends with Bittle curled against him, face soft in slumber, his breath landing in warm puffs on Jack’s chest. He’s always particularly cuddly after Jack fucks him. Jack always likes it, but he especially likes it now, when it makes everything so, so easy: for the moment, all he has to do is hold Bittle near while he sleeps, and let the closeness seep into his pores.

Jack closes his eyes and lets sleep pull him under.

_/_/ \_\_

Bittle refuses to let Jack make breakfast the next morning (“I’ve been craving crepes, hon, and I can make ‘em in my sleep. This is not a hardship.”), but he does consent to teach Jack to make crepes, so that he can try to make them next time. They’re easier than Jack always assumed, once he learns to tell when they’re done, and gets over the weirdness of only cooking them on one side. And while he’d had visions of bringing Bittle breakfast in bed, this is good, too: standing at the stove with Bittle pressed to his side, praising him extravagantly for mastering something that Bittle has, apparently, been doing expertly since age eight.

While Jack finishes the last few crepes, Bittle mixes up a ricotta filling and chops strawberries. “They’re stupidly out of season,” Bittle says, shaking his head. “But like I said, I had a craving.”

“I’m not complaining,” Jack says, and flips another crepe onto the growing stack. Bittle has put on music, as usual, and Jack finds himself nodding his head in time, then humming along, without really thinking about it.

They work quietly a few minutes longer, until Jack can feel Bittle’s eyes on him, and he glances over, raising his eyebrows. “What?”

“I didn’t know you knew all the words to Countdown,” Bittle says, trying and failing to suppress a smile.

Jack flushes; he hadn’t realized he was singing along. “Sorry.”

“Don’t be,” Bittle says. “It’s cute. I like it.”

Jack grins and decides to just go for it. “Ladies, if you love your man, show him you the fliest,” he sings, louder now. “Grind up on it, girl, show him how you ride it.”

Bittle laughs, bright and surprised, and complies, sidling up behind Jack where he’s standing at the stove and rolling his hips in an exaggerated way, before giving Jack’s ass a light smack and moving away to set the table.

“We could go out and do something today,” Jack says, once they’ve worked their way through the first few crepes. “If you want. It might be a little cold out, but it’s not supposed to rain or anything.”

“Yeah?” Bittle says. “That might be fun. Do you feel up to it?”

Honestly, he doesn’t, but not because his knee is bothering him. Anyway, this weekend is about Bittle, not him. “I think so. Yumiko has me doing stuff on the bike and treadmill at PT, so a couple hours of leisurely walking should be fine.” He makes a face. “Also, honestly, I can’t remember the last time I left the apartment that wasn’t for physical therapy or the grocery store.”

“Oh Lord, you must be feelin’ so stir crazy. We definitely need to get you out of this apartment.”

It’s more than a little cold out, actually—Bittle fixes Jack with a look as soon as they step onto the sidewalk, and zips his coat up to his chin with a sigh—but they head to Federal Hill anyway. Jack steers them into a coffee shop first thing, just so Bittle can have something warm to wrap his hands around.

“I can tell when I’m being bribed, you know,” Bittle says, as the steam from his salted caramel mocha rises around his cold-flushed cheeks.

Jack just chuckles and pulls up the camera on his phone. “Well, is it working?”

In answer, Bittle sticks his tongue out, right as Jack takes the picture. It’s even better than the shot Jack hoped to get, and they’re both laughing as he tucks the phone back into his pocket.

From there, they wander and window shop, ducking into stores whenever they see something interesting or get too cold. Jack picks up a Ruth Bader Ginsburg coloring book for Shitty, months early for Christmas or his birthday, but too perfect to pass up. Bittle jokes about buying a knit cap just so he can warm up a little, but when he doesn’t show any signs of actually following through, Jack decides to just do it himself. He finds the perfect hat in the fourth shop they visit: soft wool, handsomely cabled, in a deep red shade that will bring out the warmth in Bittle’s brown eyes. Bittle rolls his eyes when Jack tugs it down so it covers his ears, but he’s smiling, too, and he looks happier when they step out into the cold once again.

It’s clear that despite the chill in the air, Bittle’s having fun, laughing and smiling freely, looking lighter and brighter than he’s seemed on Skype recently. After an hour or two, Jack realizes he’s enjoying himself, too. The malaise of the past few weeks lingers, lurking beneath the surface, and he can poke it like a bruise to feel the pain flare up again, but it’s no longer at the forefront of his mind every single moment.

Maybe this weekend isn’t just for Bittle’s benefit after all.

After lunch, they stumble across a used bookshop and spend more than an hour there, exploring its warren of narrow aisles and overcrowded shelves. Bittle seems to be one moment of weakness away from starting a collection of weird vintage recipes, if the horrified fascination with which he’s flipping through an early microwave cookbook is any indication. “Quiche in the microwave, Jack,” Bittle whispers, with a look of disgust he usually saves for the Corner Jockey and Nurse’s loogie spot. “Quiche in the microwave.”

Bittle settles down cross-legged in the cooking section, a small pile of books accumulating next to him, while Jack wanders off to explore the rest of the store. He lingers for awhile among the biographies, tucking an edition of Winston Churchill’s letters under his arm, before moving to the history section, then photography. He catches up with Bittle again amid the paperbacks.

“Find anything good?” Bittle asks as Jack approaches. Jack holds out his stack, and Bittle flips through them, smiling, before he adds them to his own pile of books on the floor. They browse quietly for awhile, side-by-side, occasionally breaking the silence to point out a striking cover or intriguing title.

One book in particular catches Jack’s eye, and he laughs out loud as he pulls Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure from the shelf. “Oh my god,” he says. “I forgot this book existed.”

Bittle’s eyebrows nearly reach his hairline. “Oh, that looks high-brow.”

“Shitty and I had to read this for a class,” Jack says, flipping it open. “It was weeks before we could hear the word ‘machine’ without giggling.”

Bittle’s eyebrows climb even higher. “What class was that?”

“You know how freshman composition seminars have themes? Well, the theme for mine was ‘Obscenity in Art.’ We read all the books that were the center of Supreme Court obscenity trials.”

Bittle snorts. “Mine was ‘the Jewish-American experience.’ Probably not as, uh, eye-opening.”

Jack flips to another page and starts reading. It’s even worse than he remembered. “Being now too high wound up to bear a delay, he unbuttoned, and drawing out the engine of love assaults, drove it currently, as at a ready-made breach.”

Engine of love assaults?” Bittle repeats, in almost the same tone he’d used for microwave-baked quiche. “Oh my god.”

“Also ‘stiff horn-hard gristle, battering against the tender part,’” Jack adds, barely able to get through the sentence without laughing.

“Okay, gristle is not a sexy word,” Bittle says. “Gristle will never be a sexy word. Ugh.”

“John Cleland wrote this in prison. It, uh, explains a lot.”

Bittle giggles. “I’ll say.” He takes the book from Jack and flips through a few more pages, his cheeks getting redder with every passing second. “‘The platform of his snow-white bosom… presented, on the vermilion summit of each pap’—pap, seriously?—‘the idea of a rose about to blow.’ This is the actual worst thing I have ever read and I cannot believe you had to read it for school.” He pauses, and giggles again. “It’s kinda hard to put down.”

“Now imagine Shitty getting high and doing dramatic readings,” Jack says. “He kept trying to do different voices and British accents. You should ask him about it next time we Skype; I bet he’d love to do an encore.”

They leave the book behind eventually—it’s only fifty cents, so Jack’s tempted to buy it just for laughs, but Bittle swears he won’t be able to look the cashier in the face if they actually bring it up to the register. They head back to the car with a stack of other treasures, though, including the microwave cookbook Bittle hadn’t been able to stop grimacing over.

_/_/ \_\_

They spend a quiet hour or so after they get home curled on opposite ends of the couch, flipping through their new books. Jack talks Bittle into ordering Chinese instead of cooking, and it’s only once they’re settled back down on the couch with their food arrayed on the coffee table in front of them that Bittle reaches for the remote and looks at Jack questioningly.

“So the Pride are playing an exhibition game against the Minnesota Whitecaps tonight. It’s going to be streaming live on YouTube, but Nerita wants me to live-tweet it, too. I understand if you don’t really wanna watch a hockey game right now, though, so I can go watch it in the other room if you want.”

Jack’s immediate instinct is to offer to go read in the bedroom while Bittle watches the game and works in the living room, but—hmm. Jack realizes how few women’s hockey games he’s actually watched in his life. Juniors was just…a world of boys; he’s still not entirely sure if there is an equivalent hockey structure for girls. If so, he never saw their games. He went to a couple Samwell women’s hockey games with Shitty and a few other guys, but the schedules conflicted too often to make it a habit. He watched a few of the women’s games in Sochi and Vancouver, but the men’s games always seemed to take precedence, populated as they were by players he might meet on the ice himself someday. He’s definitely never seen an NWHL game.

It seems, all of a sudden, like something he ought to fix. And maybe it’ll be easier to watch professional hockey if it’s not his teammates and opponents playing without him.

“Nah, let’s watch it out here,” he says. “Turns out I’ve actually never watched an NWHL game.”

“Well, that’s a shame, ‘cause it’s a fun time,” Bittle says. “It’s gonna take me a sec to get it going, but I know I’ve streamed YouTube on this TV before…” He navigates through the on-screen menus for a few minutes, does a search, and then it’s there.

The arena is…tiny. No other word for it. Smaller than any NHL arena Jack’s ever played in, smaller than Faber. It looks, frankly, like the sort of community ice rink frequented by beer leagues and intramural kids’ teams. The bleachers are full, sure, but—there aren’t that many bleachers to begin with. It’s eye-opening.

Still, the women on the ice are running through the same sort of warm-ups Jack and his teammates do, and they carry themselves with the same effortless fluidity that comes from decades on skates. There are a pair of commentators in the foreground, trading the same blend of statistics and analysis that Jack’s used to tuning out when he watches NHL games. The fans in the background wear jerseys and team colors, wave signs and cheer whenever the camera lands on them. Everything is the same except the scale: smaller arena, smaller crowd (but would a larger arena draw a larger crowd?), fewer advertisers, less merch.

“No Title IX in pro sports,” Bittle says, as though he’s reading Jack’s thoughts. “You don’t want to know how much the players actually make.”

Jack Googles it anyway, even though he knows it’ll make him feel guilty, and learns the highest-paid player in the league—Phil Kessel’s sister Amanda—reportedly makes $26,000 a year. Jack’s car cost more than that, and he paid cash for it. Most of the other women’s contracts are considerably less; the CWHL doesn’t pay their players at all. No wonder Yumiko and so many of her teammates from BU have opted to play beer league hockey instead of pursuing it professionally. The opportunities just aren’t there.

Play hasn’t even started, but Jack’s already determined to attend every NWHL game he can get to in the future, just out of principle. He’s sure he can convince Shitty to come along for a few—he doubts it’ll take much to get him into a Hilary Knight jersey, just for the fun of trying to convince people he’s her far-less-talented younger brother.

Bittle elbows him. “Game’s about to start.”

Jack peers over Bittle’s shoulder at the laptop screen, where he has the Pride’s Twitter page open. “Five minutes til puck drop!” Bittle types, before sifting through gifs until he finds one of a little girl doing a happy dance in her carseat.

“Damn,” Jack says awhile later, after the game’s well underway and he’s torn between looking up player stats and watching the game itself. “I want Brianna Decker doing faceoffs for us.”

“Please tweet that,” Bittle says, without taking his eyes off the screen. “And then let me re-tweet it from the Pride account.” Bittle seems to be dividing his attention between at least three tabs on his laptop as well as the game on the big screen, and he’s barely stopped typing and clicking since the puck dropped.

Jack shrugs and pulls up Twitter. He made the account and got it verified mostly to make PR (and Bittle) happy, but he rarely uses it, and hasn’t had his notifications turned on since the day he made it. Still, other players do shout-outs like this all the time, and if it can help Bittle get more people invested in the Pride’s Twitter, then Jack is happy to do it. It takes him a minute to remember his password and how to tag people in the tweet itself, but eventually he’s composed something that gets a thumbs-up from Bittle.

Bittle retweets it from the Pride account, and Jack watches in awe as the notifications on his account and theirs start climbing precipitously a moment later.

Swawesome,” Bittle says, smiling in satisfaction. “Anytime you want to chime in on this game, honey, you just go right ahead.”

Jack tweets a few more comments, which Bittle promptly re-tweets, but by the third period, he’s leaning forward, elbows on knees, as the time on the clock ticks away. The Pride’s goalie is just twelve minutes from recording her sixth career shut out, but the Whitecaps are determined to make it difficult. Though the Pride have scored the only points of the game, Minnesota has equaled them in shots on goal, and Jack’s utterly caught up in it. It’s fun, and that’s— well, not exactly a new experience, but it’s been a long time since he could watch a hockey game purely for enjoyment. He’s not analyzing players he’ll be facing later in the season; he’s not keeping an eye on his competition. He’s not watching his own teammates play without him. He’s just watching talented people play damn good hockey. He wishes he’d discovered this earlier in the season.

With five minutes to go, one of the Minnesota players manages to tip the puck in just above the Boston goalie’s left shoulder. The crowd groans as one, and Bittle frowns as he types out his next tweet, accompanied by a gif of Spongebob biting his nails. Jack, meanwhile, has long since set his own laptop aside so he doesn’t miss anything. He’s pulling for the Pride out of local loyalty, and because of Bittle’s internship, but the Whitecaps are putting up a hell of a fight as both teams struggle to break the tie before they go into overtime.

He actually cheers aloud when Boston manages to score with less than a minute left. It’s a gorgeous play, one he wants to go back and watch again once Bittle’s done with the live stream. The clock runs out quickly after that, and when it’s over, Jack opens his laptop back up so he can officially tweet his congratulations.

“That was fun,” Jack says awhile later, when they’re curled up in bed. “I was… well, I wasn’t sure, but it was really good.”

Bittle smiles. “I’m glad, honey. Do you feel any better about going to the game tomorrow?”

Oh. Right. Jack had almost forgotten about that. He sighs. “I’m not sure. I know I need to, it’s just…”

“Hard not to be bitter?” Bittle says, and Jack nods.

“I don’t know if there’s any way around that, though. Or if it’s something I just have to get over.”

Bittle looks thoughtful. “I know you said Dr. Okoro gave you a referral for a therapist. You thought about following up on that at all?”

“No,” Jack mumbles into his pillow.

“I think you should,” Bittle says, reaching out to brush the hair off Jack’s forehead.

“I know. I hate it, though.” He always has. Despite everything therapy has given him, the uncountable ways it’s helped, it still remains one of the hardest things Jack’s ever done. Every session, every time. He’ll do it anyway if he has to, but he’s long since given up hoping it will ever get easier.

“I know, baby.” Bittle sighs. “But it’s like your knee, right? You can’t make it get better, it’s going to do that or not do that on its own. But you can do things that’ll help it along, or you can do things that will make it worse. You know?”

Jack rolls onto his back and stares hard at the ceiling. He hasn’t cried in weeks; he’d love to keep up that streak.

“I’m sorry,” Bittle says, evidently misinterpreting Jack’s silence. “I know you don’t need me lecturing you on this stuff. I mean…” He drifts off. “Sorry.”

“No, it’s—” Jack laughs a little thickly. “It’s obviously not something I’m doing a good job handling right now.”

“It’s hard,” Bittle says, reaching out a tentative hand to rub Jack’s shoulder. “Especially in the midst of it.”

“It’s so fucking hard.” Jack snorts. “You’d think I’d be better at dealing with this shit by now, huh? Practice makes perfect and all.”

“I think that applies more to slapshots than life with mental illness.”

Jack takes a deep breath. So, fine. It’s not going to get easier. But he’s known that for years. And besides...what really does get easier, in the end? Slapshots, maybe, but not much else. Being away from Bittle doesn’t get easier. Spending so much time away from home doesn’t get easier. Training doesn’t get easier, and eighty-two games a year certainly don’t.

But neither does the devouring entropy of depression or the frenetic hamster wheel of anxiety. Jack’s surrendered to those forces before, and they are hard in their own way. Self-loathing is consuming, exhausting work; fear will take every atom of your being as its fuel.

So he can push forward, even though every step of every day will be uphill, even though the only moments he’ll have to catch his breath will be the ones he carves out himself and jealously defends, or—

—or he can roll over and close his eyes and try to hold his crumbling bones together with hands that are eroding into dust themselves. And it might be tempting right now, but he’s tried it before and he knows it’s no easier, in the end.

He turns back to Bittle, who’s still watching him with wide, kind eyes. “I’ll call the therapist’s office tomorrow,” he says. “I know they won’t be open, but I can leave a message. And that way I know I’ll get to talk to them on Monday.”

Bittle smiles, very gently, and draws Jack forward till he can kiss his forehead. “Sounds like a good plan. You’re going to be okay, you know,” he whispers, and Jack thinks he might believe him.

Chapter Text

Maybe it’s because Jack is braced for the worst, maybe it’s because he really is getting better, maybe it’s just the company—but whatever the reason, the Falcs/Maple Leafs game the next day isn’t quite as bad as Jack feared it would be. Oh, it has its moments—the camera finds him in the crowd early on, and his smile feels more like a grimace than an expression of happiness. But the crowd explodes with cheers when his face appears on the Jumbotron, and his teammates pause their warm up to clap and wave and bang their sticks against the ice. Something relaxes in Jack’s chest.

Bittle squeezes his hand after the camera pans away and turns to press the quickest of kisses to Jack’s cheek. On Bittle's lap, Rosa chatters away, taking Bittle’s request to “tell me everything you know about cats” very seriously. Rosa likes Jack well enough, but she loves Bittle, and the sight of her sitting contentedly in Bittle’s arms is doing things to Jack’s heart that he’s not sure he’s ready to examine.

George doesn’t mention his knee or his missed physical therapy appointments or his conspicuous absence around the Falcs’ training facility. Instead they talk about TV shows and the new Ethiopian restaurant in George and Marisa’s neighborhood and whether Jack should adopt one of their neighbor’s kittens, too.

“Yes!” Rosa says, nearly falling out of Bittle’s lap in her enthusiasm. She gasps. “ Oh! And then your kitten and my kitten could be best friends!”

“Definitely better than a dog when you’re away from home a lot,” George points out.

“Though maybe it’d be better to get two,” Marisa adds. “Then they can keep each other entertained.”

“Large men and tiny kittens,” Bittle says, a little dreamily. “This is my aesthetic.” Jack’s pretty sure that’s a yes, too.

After the game, they all visit the locker room, where they’re greeted by another rousing cheer. Most of the enthusiasm is probably for Rosa and Bittle, both of whom enjoy considerable favor among the Falcs, but they don't seem unhappy to see Jack. Rosa barely gets two steps into the room before Tater sweeps her up and onto his shoulders. She’s so high up her head nearly brushes the ceiling, but she’s giggling with delight while she clutches at his hair, so this is apparently a routine thing for them. Bittle gets drawn into conversation with Thirdy—probably about his daughter, if the adoring face he's making at Thirdy’s phone screen is any indication—so Jack scans the locker room till he spots Roddy.

“That was a great game,” he says, holding out his fist for Roddy to bump. “That assist in the second was killer.”

“Thanks, man,” Roddy says, his already-flushed cheeks darkening a little. “Felt good to get the point, for sure.”

Jack nods. “You’ve really been clicking with Marty and Dora.”

“I feel like I’m scrambling to keep up,” Roddy admits. “Like, I know it’s been going okay, but damn. I mean, I’m not complaining, and I’m definitely learning a lot, but… I kinda miss playing with Brats and Levka.” He chuckles and looks down at his socked feet. “But, like, don’t tell them that.” Jack glances over at Roddy’s former linemates, who seem to be exchanging simultaneous, vicious-looking noogies.

“My lips are sealed.”

Silence falls between them, and Roddy shuffles his feet. “Anyway, man,” he finally says. “I definitely don’t want you to think that I’m, like, happy you’re on IR or anything. I mean, it’s been pretty sweet getting to play first line and everything, but, uh—we all really miss you. Yeah.” He looks down at the floor again.

Jack flexes his hands in his pockets. “Thanks, Roddy. I miss you guys, too, IR sucks. I’m glad you’re getting some good opportunities though. You worked hard for it.” He takes one hand out of his pocket to clap Roddy on the shoulder, and they both nod at each other, a little awkwardly, before Jack turns away to rejoin Bittle.

“Okay?” Bittle asks, touching his hand to Jack’s elbow.

Jack smiles. “Okay,” he says, and leans down to give Bittle a quick kiss.

“FINE,” Brats and Levka howl, in eerie unison. “Fine, fine, fine, fiiiiiiiiiiine.”

“Nah, if it's under two seconds doesn’t count, right?” Snowy says.

Tater makes a dismissive noise. “Everything in locker room counts. Muffins are acceptable form of payment, though. Blueberry, I think, yes?”

“You do not run this court, Tater,” Thirdy says. “It’s lemon poppy seed or cold hard cash.”

Beside Jack, Bittle laughs and laughs. “How about this? If y’all’ll accept an IOU, I’ll send along a couple different kinds with Jack for next time. Maybe some blondies or something too.”

From there it devolves into a heated debate over exactly which flavors of muffin are acceptable as fine payments, whose tastes should take precedence, and whether blondies count as a kind of brownie. They’re still debating when Jack and Bittle slip out of the locker room.

“I’m glad I went,” Jack says, once they’re in the car. “It was weird, but it wasn’t as bad as I was afraid it would be.”

Bittle reaches over and pats his thigh. “I’m glad, honey.”

“It feels good to get it out of the way, though,” Jack continues. “I guess I didn’t realize how much it was weighing on me.” He sighs. “But seriously, shouldn’t I know this about myself by now? That things are almost never as bad as I think they’re going to be, once I just do them?”

“Oh shush, you,” Bittle says. “You did a good thing, that’s all that matters. I’m proud of you.” Jack takes his eyes off the road just long enough to see the smile spread across Bittle’s face. “Now come on, let’s get home so I can show you just how proud I am.”

_/_/ \_\_

It still isn’t easy. Of course it isn’t. The weekend ends and Bittle goes back to Samwell, leaving Jack alone again in an empty apartment. The Falcs play three home games in a row, and Jack goes to two of them, which he thinks is pretty good, considering. He gets company at the second: one of their third-line defensemen strains his shoulder, and they end up watching the game together from the owners’ box with a couple of the Falcs’ administrative staff. It’s not as good as watching with Bittle, George, and George’s family, but it’s pleasant enough. The prospect of attending games doesn’t send him into depressive spirals anymore, so… well, it’s not a high bar, but he’ll take it.

Jack gets his knee brace off in April, just as the weather starts to warm up. The first few days without it, he feels so light he’s afraid he might float away. He walks to the 7-11 down the street in a pair of basketball shorts just to feel the breeze on his bare knees again, and proofreads most of Bittle’s thesis sitting on his balcony with a pitcher of lemonade.

The Falcs plunge headfirst into the playoffs over Bittle’s Easter break, kicking things off with a hard-fought series against the Maple Leafs. It takes them all seven games, but they win it at home. Jack cheers them on in the family section with Bittle and the other players’ partners, and in the locker room afterward, there’s so much celebratory PDA that no one can come up for air long enough to yell "fine" at anyone else.

Jack is back at the apartment, thank god, when the excitement wears off enough for it to really sink in that they’re going to the second round without him. He lets Bittle tug him onto the couch and guide him down till his head rests in Bittle’s lap. Bittle just runs his fingers through Jack’s hair, gentle and rhythmic, until Jack’s cried himself out.

It’s harder to maintain his emotional equilibrium during the playoffs, especially after Jack made it all the way to the conference finals with the Falcs last year. He’s a strange combination of jealous and helpless and excited: he wants to be playing with them, of course—he wants to be helping them, because after last year he knows viscerally how grueling each round is. It’s tough to see their tired eyes and set jaws at practice, to know how insanely hard they’re working and not be able to do much of anything to make it easier. He talks it through with his therapist, over and over, until he’s pretty sure she’s as sick of the conversation as he is, even if she’d never show it.

There must be some good coming out of those repeated conversations though, even if they feel fruitless at the time. Jack begins to sleep better at night, and nap less. His days begin to regain their texture. He wakes up some mornings eager to get out of bed, eager to go to PT and do whatever he needs to do to get better.

Jack ends up getting pretty good at homemade bread, too, since helping Bittle make “lucky” PBJs is about the only concrete thing he can do to contribute to the team’s playoff efforts. (When he posts a picture of his first braided loaf to the Falcs group chat, they all flatly refuse to believe it’s his handiwork. He finally follows it up with a short video of Bittle rolling his eyes and saying “Yes, y’all, Jack did that all on his own. Have some faith in the man, good lord.”)

Keeping the team well-stocked in sandwiches doesn’t ease the sting of being in physical therapy while they fight their way through the second round, but it helps more than he expected it to.

“It’s like I know a thing or two after all, huh?” Bittle says, when Jack finally admits this.

“A thing or two,” Jack agrees, and puts his floury hands on Bittle’s hips to draw him in for a kiss.

_/_/ \_\_

The Falcs survive the second round, though it once again takes them all seven games.

Bittle turns in his thesis, sleeps for thirteen straight hours, wakes up for Haus brunch, and then goes back to sleep for seven more hours. Chowder sends Jack periodic updates and promises to unleash hell on anyone who disturbs Bittle's hard-earned sleep.

Jack and Bittle plan a long weekend in Martha’s Vineyard for after graduation, then book flights to Madison and Montreal for later in the summer. Bittle moves a new box of things from Samwell to Providence with every visit, and Jack's breath catches in his throat every time he spots a new book on his shelf or a new pair of shoes in his closet.

May creeps by. June is a whirlwind.

The Falcs win their first game against the Bruins before losing the next four, and with it their chance at the Cup. The next day, Bittle graduates, and Ransom and Holster come back to Samwell for the sole purpose, Jack thinks, of lifting Bittle onto their shoulders and trying to take him on a victory lap around the Pond. (They make it a hundred yards before they admit that Bittle’s apparently-improved protein intake, and their own less-active lifestyles are working against them.) That night, Bittle goes home with Jack for good, and the day after that, Yumiko and the Falcs trainers let Jack skate for the first time in months. They make him wear a no contact jersey even though no one else is on the ice, and he spends most of his strictly-supervised fifteen minutes of skate time reassuring himself that his knee won’t give out. Yumiko gives him a fist bump, and then a hug, when he gets off the ice.

“Told you I’d get you skating again,” she says, and he just laughs. He still has a long, long way to go, but right now his goals feel close enough to touch. She makes him pose for a picture in his stupid yellow jersey, leaning against the boards. He sends it to Bittle and his parents first, then the group chats, and finally, after a moment of hesitation, he puts it on Twitter.

Not my favorite jersey, he types. But it feels really good to get out on the ice again. The notification counter starts climbing before he's even closed the app, and for once, he glances at a few of the responses. Celebratory, all of them. Congratulations, smilies, gifs of dancing kittens and audiences applauding. No one belittles the significance of the milestone in his recovery. No one rolls their eyes because honestly, why does he think anyone cares? No one asks where he was while his team lost in the third round. They’re just… happy for him, as happy as he is for himself right now.

He goes home to Bittle—Bittle who's not just visiting, Bittle who lives with him now—and they hold each other in the middle of the living room for a long, long time. The glow lasts all afternoon.

_/_/ \_\_

A week later, he and Bittle pick up their new kitten from George’s neighbors. She’s tabby-and-white, with an impressive vertical leap and a voice that belies her petite size. She falls in love with Jack immediately, an affection she expresses by following him around the apartment meowing at top volume, sleeping on his chest on the couch, and stealing his dirty socks from the laundry basket. They name her Henrietta. (Ransom: “But… that’s not a hockey name?” Holster: “OR a baking name?????” Shitty: “I don’t even think that’s a nerdy history reference. Who ARE you people?” Lardo: “Her name is bigger than she is. I like it.”) Jack just chuckles and sends the Samwell group chat another picture: Henrietta tucked into a loaf on the couch next to him, so compact that his hand covers nearly her entire body. He gets pages of exclamation points and heart-eyes emojis in response. Mission accomplished.

Locker room clean out is the next day. Jack goes, of course, although he hasn’t had much in his locker for weeks. But it’s his final chance to meet with the coaches before the break, and to see the rest of his teammates before they leave for the summer, knowing some of them will be traded before next season. Bittle holds court in the middle of the locker room with a huge basket of assorted muffins while Jack makes the rounds to each of his teammates. He doesn’t want to make everything about him, in addition to congratulating everyone on their season, he wants to apologize, at least briefly, for disappearing for so long after his injury. Most of them still aren’t in the mood to hear congratulations yet, and god, does Jack know that feeling, but they all smile anyway, and assure him he doesn’t have anything to apologize for. He talks with the coaches, too, and they’re all optimistic for next year, happy with everything they’ve heard from Yumiko and the trainers and Dr. Okoro, confident that Jack will pick up right where he left off in the fall.

Jack likes routine, and he’s always appreciated the ritual of locker clean out for the closure it gives to the season. Even so, he’s surprised at how much it helps this year, after the disruption his injury caused. He really does feel a little lighter, a little more settled, after he and Bittle drive home, an empty muffin basket and a small bag of miscellaneous locker junk in tow. One season ends, but a new one waits on the horizon, shining with possibility.

Bittle seems to pick up on Jack’s mood, even before Jack says anything, and he drops his hand to Jack’s knee and squeezes, smile bright. Henrietta’s waiting by the door for them when they get home, and she howls at Jack till he scoops her up so she can perch on his shoulder. Bittle giggles and reaches for his phone and Jack makes a face at him while Henrietta sticks her nose in his ear. He skated yesterday, and he’ll skate tomorrow, and come fall he’ll get to skate every day. And in the meantime he has Bittle chirping him in the apartment they share, and a cat who won’t leave him alone, and bright summer sunlight pouring through the windows, and it is so much more than enough that for a moment he feels dizzy with it.