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He changes the game

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Jack tried not to touch people.

It’s not too hard, since the contact has to be skin to skin for the bond to form. People seemed to think he was some combination of distant and a germophobe, but he was alright with that. Telling them the truth, that he didn’t want to find his soulmate, had a tendency to freak them out. But Jack didn’t want a lifelong companion—he wanted to play professional hockey and be the best at it. Fighting a Splitting headache on every roadie was not going to get him there.

His dad had been lucky enough to find someone with a job flexible that allowed her to travel with him. Jack couldn’t insure that he would have the same luck. There were also players who just took meds when they and their soulmates were Split. The drug companies swore up and down there were no side effects, but Jack knew, the game statistics said otherwise.

So, no, Jack Zimmermann did not need or want a soulmate.

_/\_

He did have one little fantasy though.

One day, when he was ready to retire, with a Stanley cup or two under his belt, he would start looking. He would shake the hand of everyone he met and it would happen. Sure, they’d be a bit older than most people were when they bonded, but hockey careers weren’t that long. They could have thirty or forty years together.

Okay, so, Jack didn’t not want a soulmate. He was just going to wait for the right time.

_/\_

Parse had a way of screwing with everything Jack tried to do. He was magnetic and Jack couldn’t help that he touched him. In fact, Jack touched him a lot.

He tried to tell himself it didn’t matter. They were never separated in the Q, so his game was not affected. In fact, they never had occasion to experience a Split at all. Jack figured their families must have suspected the same thing he did, given how they let them stay with each other during breaks, alternating between houses.

For a little while, Jack almost forgot, but the NHL loomed. No way were they going to get drafted together. It made him want to pull away from Parse, but it would not have helped. It only ever took the first touch.

Everything he had worked for, and it seemed he had flushed it down the drain for some temporary enjoyment. His mind wouldn’t let him be. This all started because he didn’t want to take pills, yet here he was, hoping taking just one more would let him rest.

_/\_

He woke up in the hospital and Parse was in Vegas. Parse was in Vegas and Jack didn’t feel anything.

It shouldn’t be upsetting. He never wanted a bond. He certainly didn’t want to deal the pain of a Spilt, and yet…

_/\_

It took a lot of therapy, but by the time he got to Samwell Jack had eased up on his no-touching policy. He kept it to people he knew well, to make it easier to narrow down if he did bond, but the terror that loomed over him had eased.

Avoiding touching his hockey teammates would have been next to impossible anyways. There were cellys, awkward locker room butt-slaps, and one particularly strange guy who kept turning up in his dorm room naked.

Actually, he was a little afraid it might be that guy, with the way he had latched onto him. When Thanksgiving rolled around, Jack rode the first hundred miles with his fingernails digging into his palms, but the pain never came. He was still unbonded and even less sure how he felt about it.

Another year later, Shitty announced he knew it was Lardo before they even felt the Split, and Jack still hadn’t felt a thing.

By Junior Year, he’d stopped being careful. People were pairing off around him, and looking damn happy about it. It started to look like something he’d want.

The NHL was still the dream, and hopefully he could make it work with his soulmate, but it couldn’t be his whole life. His therapist was right; it did feel good to want something more.

He’d relaxed so much; he barely thought about on the first car ride home that year. His dad had mentioned about twenty minutes ago how nice it was to have him for “the real Thanksgiving” this year, which had sparked an argument with his mother about which was the “real” one. At first, it seemed their bickering was the cause of the pressure building at his temples, but then it crashed over him like a wave.

He didn’t even realize he’d shouted until he felt his mom reach back and touch his shoulder. When the pain eased back enough that he could pry his hands away from his eyes, she was looking back at him knowingly. This had to be a Split and that meant somewhere back at Samwell, he had a soulmate.

“Here, Honey,” she said and dropped three tablets into his hands, “the Advil does help, we can stop for the hormonal stuff at the next town okay?”

Jack swallowed them dry and returned to pressing the heels of his hands into his temples.

“The first Split always feels like the worst, son,” his dad added. “Do you want to try calling them? The scientists swear it’s only physical distance that matters, but most people feel it helps.”

The pain was bad enough that Jack really would have tried, except “I don’t know who it is.”

“Oh Jack,” his mom starts, “do you want to go back? I bet now that you’ve both felt it, it will be easier to—“

“No, everyone is expecting us and I—ah, God! I can’t think straight with this. Can we talk about this after we get to the store?” This was terrible. He could never play like this and he didn’t know who was the cause. Why had he been so damn careless? There were a few possibilities that at least make sense, but he must have touched three times as many people as last year.

For now, his thoughts were too scattered by the pain. Hopefully, something would make sense when that eased up.

_/\_

They made it back to Montreal and he collapsed in his room for a few hours after setting an alarm to take the next dose. The meds did bring the pain down to a dull ache. The residual headache was certainly not the worst pain he’d experienced, but he still wouldn’t want to play with it.

Also, he still had no idea who his soulmate was.

Okay, maybe he did have one idea, possibly more of a hope, but it was stupid. They didn’t spend that much time together, and Jack spent most of that time being a jerk. Jack wasn’t even sure why he thought of him, but he kept coming back to it.

It couldn’t be. It certainly shouldn’t be. Jack was a giant asshole who didn’t deserve someone as sweet as Eric Bittle. On the other hand, how would he know? He could call; he even picked up his phone to do it.

Then he realized. What would he say if Bittle wasn’t feeling the Split?

Oh hi, yeah, I’m just having a Splitting headache, and I know I act like I hate you all the time, but you were the first person I thought of. What’s that you say? You definitely don’t have a headache and I’m a creepy weirdo? Oh, okay, bye.

Jack shoved his phone in his pocket and went to meet his parents for dinner instead. If he got up the courage, he could always call later. For now, he let the warmth of being in his own home push back the throbbing in his head. Then, as they were cleaning up dinner, his phone rang. The screen said “Eric Bittle.”

Jack might have been panicked or elated, it was hard to be sure. Calling didn’t necessarily mean anything. Eric might have needed to ask him about maple syrup again. Still, he stepped out of the kitchen to take it.

“Hey, Bittle, what’s up?”

“Oh, hey Jack. I uhh…” He sounded small, like Jack could hear the distance between them, “I’m sorry to bother you at home, but Shitty said—“

“You aren’t bothering me. We’re just cleaning up dinner. What crazy thing did Shitty say this time?”

“Right, crazy…” Eric let out a little nervous laugh at that, “He said it would help to call, and I told him there was no way it was you. It could be anyone who went home for the weekend or just…”

That sounded like—maybe—but he hadn’t actually said it yet, and his ramblings were becoming increasingly frantic. “Bittle, shh, you haven’t told me what is going on yet?”

“I just,” he pauses, then nearly sobs, “I have this terrible headache.”

“Oh.” It really hit Jack then. It was hard to be sure when it was just a nebulous somebody, but he was happy about this. They certainly didn’t know everything about each other, but the prospect of learning actually appealed to him. A future with Eric looked bright.

“Jack?” Was Eric crying? How long had he been lost in his thoughts? “Nevermind, I told Shitty he was being dumb. I’ll let you go.”

“Wait—don’t. I have a headache too.” Jack blurted

That had to be the least romantic way to say it, but it was true, and he couldn’t let Eric hang up.

“No.” Now Eric sounded incredulous. “No way! You hate me!”

“That’s not true.” Jack honestly couldn’t stop the chuckle that crept into his voice from how not true he had realized that to be.

“Don’t mess with me on this Jack—that’s cruel, even for you.”

Merde, Eric still sounded like he was on the verge of tears. How much of a shithead had Jack been that he thought he would be so awful? It wasn’t so funny from that side.

“I’m serious, Eric.” Jack tried this time to sound as sincere as possible. This is the first time I’ve felt a Split and I’m sure it’s because of you. I get that I’ve been an ass. Maybe you’re the one who should hate me, but when I get back, I want do better, for everyone, but especially for you.”

“Jack, gosh no. I don’t hate you!” Eric said in a rush, “I guess, this is all just a little hard to believe.”

“Admittedly I was a bit surprised too, but it feels right to me now that I know.”

“I guess…”

“I’ll prove it to you. When I get back, you’re going to feel better, and so am I.”

“Yeah, I think then it’ll feel more real. Right now I keep thinking I must be dreaming.”

“Is it at least a good dream?”

“A dream where you’re bein’ nice to me? Yeah, that’s a good one.” Eric said with a chuckle. It was nice to hear him cheering up. “Does this mean you’re gonna stop waking me up at 4am for checking practice?”

“Not a chance, Bittle. Don’t you know extra practice is how hockey robots show their affection?”

Jack had expected a laugh or maybe and admonition about chirping at that, but instead Eric just murmured, “I guess that’s true.” The call fell into silence as they both contemplated that.

It really was. Jack hardly believed he hadn’t noticed it, but he had been paying a lot of attention to Eric from the beginning. He could have hung him out to dry, and the team would have managed. But he had wanted Eric to succeed.

“So when I get back…?” Jack struggled to get his words out. How was it that something he never knew he wanted, was now a desperate need?

“Yeah, Jack, if this really is happening, I’d like to give it a shot.”

“Okay, then. Yeah good—that’s good. I’ll see you then?”

“Yes, you silly boy. Now go, enjoy your time at home. You know where to find me.”

_/\_

When they said their goodbyes and hung up, Jack knew his dad had been right. In combination with the meds, the phone call had made his headache practically unnoticeable. Now, without Eric’s voice, it crept back in. It was hard not to call him right back and ask him to just keep talking. Instead, he went to see if his parents still needed help in the kitchen.

“Who was that?’ His dad asked with a wry smile, “You look happy.”

“It was Eric Bittle, you remember him, Papa?”

“The speedy one, with the checking problem?”

“That’s him. I think…” A big grin spread across Jack’s face, “I think he’s my soulmate.”

“Oh Honey!” His mom put the pot she’d been scrubbing back into the sink and gave him a soapy hug. “It’s wonderful to see you so happy about it.”

“Yeah, it does feel really good,” Jack said, chuckling at the unexpected nature of it all.

“So, now do you want to go back?” His dad asked.

God, but he really did. Now that he knew, the thought of spending the rest of the weekend here while Eric still had doubts weighed on him heavily. But it was a long drive, and it was nearly nine. “No I—I can’t ask you to do that.”

“It’s alright Jack.” His dad dropped the towel he’d been drying with and pulled his mom into his side. “Your mom and I know how it feels to be apart from your soulmate. It’s more than just a headache.”

“Don’t you worry about us,” added his mom. “We’ll get a hotel room and drive back in the morning. Besides, it’s a bit like one of those old romances, isn’t it—travelling through the night to get back to your soulmate?”

_/\_

After that, Jack couldn’t help but take them up on their offer. Fortunately, traffic was sparse and they reached the spot where Jack had first felt the Split in record time. The pain finally ebbed, leaving him giddy. It was strange to feel so consumed by something that wasn’t hockey, but for the remaining portion of the drive, he couldn’t stop thinking how good it might feel to pull Eric into his arms.

His parents didn’t even bother taking him to the Haus. Instead, they got as close to Eric’s dorm on the quad as possible and sent him off. He was able to slip into the building behind a group of drunken freshmen and knocked on Eric’s door within minutes.

Then—nothing. Jack waited anxiously, but the door didn’t open. Maybe he was out or just too deeply asleep? He tried knocking again, this time adding, “Are you in there Eric, Jack. I know it’s late but—“

The door flew open. On the other side, Eric stood shocked in his rumpled pajamas. His face was red and splotchy. They’d hung up hours ago—had he been crying since?

“Jack, you’re here? I thought you weren’t planning to come back until Sunday!”

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have woken you up. I just really wanted—“

Suddenly, Eric’s arms were around him, pulling him close. Jack wasn’t sure what was happening, but it felt wonderful.

“You idiot,” Eric said wetly into his chest, “I felt better and you didn’t tell me you were coming, so I thought it was someone else!”

“Jesus, I’m so sorry.” Jack clutched him more tightly to his chest. “I wasn’t thinking straight. I just really needed to see you. Forgive me?”

Eric pulled his head back so he could meet Jack’s eyes and said, “I think I can accept that as a good reason. ‘m glad you’re here”

“Me too, Bits.” Jack pressed a little kiss onto his forehead. “Me too.”