Disclaimer: The characters are Ngozi's.
Jack gets the stomach flu the weekend before Thanksgiving of his senior year. It starts on Friday when he bolts out of his senior seminar in American history to vomit in the bathroom. He calls Hall from the restroom, fingers trembling around his phone, and admits that he shouldn't go on this weekend's roadie. It sucks a lot—he's being scouted and can't really afford to miss games—but throwing up repeatedly on the bus and infecting the rest of the team would be worse. Jack might not have made this call a year or two ago, at least not this quickly and without anyone having to pressure him to do the right thing, but he's matured in the last year. Hall is gruff and pragmatic on the phone, which Jack appreciates, but he signs off with, "Take care of yourself," and Jack feels like he's been hugged, but without the risk of infecting anyone.
Jack stays at the Haus alone over the weekend, throwing up intermittently on Friday and Saturday despite the fact that he's only eaten one slice of toast since breakfast on Friday and he's barely staying hydrated. On Sunday, he's finally done and his fever has come down, so he washes his sheets and his clothes and sanitizes every surface he can think of. No need to pass this along or reinfect himself. He's still shaky and weak when the team gets back (and so sore—throwing up that many times is an ab workout to rival anything an athletic trainer has ever made him do), and he doesn't let anyone hug him, but he decides he's okay to make it to class on Monday.
He doesn't really feel all the way healed until he's back in Montreal for the holiday (and it's not even Thanksgiving in Canada, but he'll take the time with his parents when he can get it). It's a nice long weekend with his family, even though the house they live in hasn't really been home to him since his mid-teens. But then he gets back to the Haus and finds that Bittle has bronchitis. "I must have caught it on the plane," Bittle mutters between deep, gurgly coughing fits. "I was sick when I woke up on Thanksgiving morning and it's been like this ever since."
Jack tries to avoid Bittle when he can help it, but the coaches and campus health staff agree that Bittle isn't sick enough to merit forcing him to skip class or practice, so staying away from him is kind of impossible. Bittle's good about covering his mouth with his sleeve off the ice, and he washes his hands with the religiosity of someone who wants a career in food service (which somehow makes Jack . . . feel things?), but on the ice, with a stick in his hands, there's not much he can do. Soon the whole team is sick, and Jack, being on Bittle's line (and being stressed about finals, of course) is one of the first to drop. No one gets sick enough to skip practices or games, so they all just keep coughing on each other on the ice for the entire three weeks between Thanksgiving and the end of the semester. Their play is—there's no other word for it—sloppy that entire three-week span, and they lose two games they should definitely have won. Jack knows it's a bad look, especially while he's being scouted, and he's miserable from both health and hockey perspectives.
Jack feels terrible for flying home when he's still coughing constantly, for all that he's been on antibiotics for a while at this point and probably isn't contagious, but he's desperate to get out of the Haus and have his parents take care of him, so he goes despite his qualms. He doesn't really stop coughing until New Year's—why does it take antibiotics so long to work?—but he's finally feeling like he might be okay when he gets back to the Haus for spring semester. If he and the rest of the team can just stay healthy this semester, things might actually be all right.
Which is why, when he catches Shitty smoking weed on the Reading Room in shorts the second week of fucking January, Jack loses his cool. "Are you out of your mind?" he screams. "Are you trying to invite plague into the Haus? Marijuana inhibits your immune system, and you need to dress properly for the weather if you don't want to get sick!"
Shitty blows smoke—or maybe just exhales; it's hard to tell when it's this cold outside and everyone's breath comes out in clouds—and then says, "Jack-o, let me introduce you to a little concept called 'bodily autonomy.' It means that I can do what I want with my body and you can do what you want with your body. I'd never pressure you to smoke, man. What gives you the right to tell me to stop?"
"Because if you get sick then you're going to get the rest of the team sick and the team includes me, and I can't afford to be sick any more this winter because I've already missed games and we've already lost and we're not going to make the Frozen Four and I'm trying to get scouted and I was sick for five of the last seven weeks and—and—" Jack can't breathe. He can't breathe and his head feels like it's going to burst and there may or may not be tears coming out of his eyes but he can't tell because his cheeks seem to have gone numb and—
He's sitting on Shitty's bed with no recollection of how he got there. The window is closed and Shitty's blunt is nowhere to be seen. Shitty is telling him to breathe and counting for him so that he can try to get into a rhythm. Jack fights his respiratory system into submission and eventually syncs his breathing to Shitty's counting. "There you go," says Shitty when Jack's breathing finally evens out. "You've got it."
"Thanks," Jack mutters, drying his face on the backs of his hands. He's definitely been crying.
"Hey, no big deal," says Shitty, which is basically what he says every time Jack thanks him for talking him through a panic attack. "But I do want to make it clear that you don't get to control me. Like, I'll do my best not to get sick and especially not to get you sick, because I can tell that freaks you out, but you also have to let me do what I want with my time and my body."
Jack sighs. "You do realize it's illegal, right?"
Shitty exhales sharply. "Legality and morality are not synonymous, and if you're honestly threatening to call the police on me—especially given your history—"
Jack narrows his eyes. "That was a low blow."
Shitty glares right back. "So was yours."
Jack sighs. "You're right. I just really, really can't afford to spend any more of this year sick."
"And I'll do my best not to get you sick," Shitty replies. "But I'm the one who gets to decide what that looks like."
Jack grits his teeth and nods, incapable of coming up with anything civil to say, and then he exits the room.
It's just—he hates being sick. Like, he knows other people don't usually enjoy it, but he's pretty sure they don't tend to hate it as much as he does. Being around someone who's sick makes Jack want to flee the room, and that reaction continues when he's the one who's ill. Being sick makes Jack want to crawl out of his skin to get away from himself, and when it lasts for over a week like the bronchitis did, it makes him start to think about killing himself just to make it stop. Not that he got to the point of being unsafe, with bronchitis, but still—it's not good. He's mentioned this all to his therapist, of course, but she hasn't seemed to know what to make of it, and she's been much less helpful on this front than she has with his anxiety surrounding hockey and school.
Jack also hates being right, it turns out. Shitty comes down with a nasty cold—no fever, just lots of coughing and sneezing—about a week after his fight with Jack, and even though Shitty tries to be careful about it, especially around Jack, Lardo catches the cold, and then it's like the bronchitis all over again, in terms of people coming to practice sick and infecting each other. Nursey gets it after Lardo, and then Dex and Chowder both come down with it, and after that it's Holster, and then Ransom and Bitty and, lastly, Jack. Jack has been so careful, getting a new mouthguard every day, sanitizing his room and his helmet, washing his gear—but sometimes there's nothing you can do.
Everyone else is mostly better by the time Jack loses his voice. He's never lost his voice this completely. It's not unheard of for his voice to get scratchy or gravelly when he's sick, or even for it to fade in and out, but this time, he spends four solid days—a full roadie and then some—unable to produce any sound whatsoever. He can't give his pre-game speeches like he usually does, and even though he knows he's no wordsmith (and Shitty standing in for him is probably a lot more inspiring anyway), it still feels like he's falling down on his duties as a captain.
He has one glorious week of being at full health the second week of February, and then the flu strikes. This time, he has no idea who got him sick—the rest of the team is mostly healthy, and then on the third Monday of the month he wakes up barely able to move. His whole body aches in a way that he can tell is disconnected from getting checked at yesterday's game, and he's freezing despite his blankets, and his head feels like he has a massive hangover despite the fact that he hasn't touched alcohol in over a month. He manages to sit up, stumble out of bed, and root around in his desk drawer for the thermometer he keeps there. He turns it on, sticks it in his mouth, and waits through 60 seconds of boredom and agony to see the result: 102.1. He coughs into his elbow and nods to himself. That's too high for practice. He calls Hall and tries to apologize, but Hall seems to be able to tell that he's freaking out, because he tells him not to worry and to focus on getting better.
For all that he's been sick for what seems like this entire winter, this is the first time he's had to miss practice and class since he had the stomach flu in late November. Even after ibuprofen, Sudafed, and a fever nap, he feels too out of it and too contagious to go anywhere on campus. He's debating making himself lunch when he gets a call from Bittle. Jack's heart leaps when he sees Bittle's name on the screen for reasons he can't quite pin down.
"Jack! You weren't in practice! Are you dead?"
Jack holds the phone away from his face to cough. "Dying, maybe. I have the flu."
"Oh, you poor thing!" Jack knows Bittle well enough by now to hear it when he switches into Mom Friend mode. That's definitely what he's doing now. "Can I get you anything?"
Jack hesitates and then says, "I hate to ask, but actually some soup or something for lunch would be amazing. Not that I want to eat, but I'm pretty sure I should, and I don't want to contaminate the kitchen or stand for long enough to make myself anything."
"Jack Zimmermann asking for help? And not wanting to stand?" Bittle asks. "Wow, this is serious. I'm just passing Founders now, so I'll be back at the Haus in about five minutes, and I'll make you some soup then. You just hang tight."
"Thanks, Bittle," says Jack.
"Anytime," says Bittle, and if he sounds a little wistful to Jack, that's definitely just the fever talking.
When Jack hears Bittle coming up the stairs about 20 minutes later, Jack totters over to open the door, wrapped in his comforter.
"Oh, honey, you look awful," says Bittle as soon as Jack gets the door open, and Jack feels his chest constrict at the endearment, even though Bittle calls the whole team "honey."
Jack swallows against the urge to cough. "Thanks, Bittle."
"Your voice is so shot that I can't tell if you're being sarcastic and responding to what I said about how you look, or if you're thanking me for the soup."
Jack shrugs wearily. "Both?"
Bittle hands him the soup and says, "You just rest up, sweet pea. And text me if you need anything. Anything at all."
Jack takes a step backward, treading on his comforter, and says, "I might keep asking for food for the next couple days, if that's all right. I won't ask for anything else, though. I'd hate to get you sick."
Bittle laughs. "Yeah, it's been a rough winter."
"You can say that again," says Jack. "Thanks for the soup. I think you should leave."
Jack makes it through the rest of Monday and Tuesday okay, sleeping when he can and trying to keep up with his readings for class when he can't. He knows better than to work on any of his papers in this state, since he's definitely not mentally with it enough to write anything coherent, but he figures he should at least try not to fall too far behind.
He still has a fever when he wakes up Wednesday morning, and since you're supposed to stay home for at least 24 hours after a fever breaks, it looks like he's likely to miss almost a full week of class at this point. Who knows if he'll even be in any shape to play his best in this weekend's games? This is such a nightmare.
Jack doesn't realize he's hyperventilating until Bittle knocks on his door and says, "Breakfast!" and Jack realizes he lacks the coordination and wherewithal to get up right now.
Bittle pushes the door open, a bowl of oatmeal in one hand, sees Jack, and hurries over to the bed, where Jack is laying down and struggling to breathe. Bittle sets the oatmeal on the bedside table, perches on the edge of the bed, and says, "Breathe, Jack. Come on. In, two, three, four. Out, two, three, four. In, two, three, four . . ."
When Jack can breathe, he says, "Bittle, you shouldn't be here. I don't want you to get sick."
Bittle just smiles at him. "I promise to wash my hands as soon as I leave. Do you want to tell me what that was about?"
Jack covers his face with his hands. "Not really."
"Will you tell me anyway, please?" Bittle asks, managing to sound both patient and demanding at the same time.
Jack keeps his hands where they are and sighs. "Fine. I just really hate being sick. Like, I think I hate it more than most people. When I'm sick for too long, I start to want to die, just to—just to make it stop, you know? And it really doesn't help that I'm getting behind on homework and missing classes and missing games, God, I must look so flaky, what team is going to want me—"
"Jack," says Bittle firmly. "Teams are going to want you, and I bet you're still much more caught up in your classes than I am. Your grades won't suffer that much, and even if they do it won't affect your career, because you're going to be one of the most well-educated guys in the league regardless. The future is going to be fine. But what was that about wanting to die?"
Jack would shrug if he weren't horizontal. "I get suicidal when I get sick. Always have. And I've never been sick as much as I have this winter."
"Oh, Lord, sweetheart, I am so sorry," Bittle breathes.
Jack finally removes his hands from his face to shoot Bittle a confused look. "Why are you sorry?"
"I got you sick!" Now Bittle sounds distraught.
"Oh, that," says Jack, before turning toward the wall and coughing into his elbow. When he's finished coughing, he says, "You didn't know, and you can't be held responsible for getting stuck on a plane with someone contagious."
"Still, I shouldn't have come to practice. I got the whole team sick! I got you sick—"
"Bittle, it's fine. You should leave, though. I still have a fever, so I'm definitely still contagious."
Bittle glares at Jack, but there's something sad behind it. "You're suicidal. I'm not going to leave you, Jack—how heartless do you think I am?"
"I could get you sick!"
"That doesn't bother me!"
Jack doesn't have a response to that.
"What can I do to help?" Bittle asks.
"I don't know," Jack admits. "I always just kind of . . . wait it out. You should maybe take my anxiety meds and hide them, though. I mean, if you wouldn't mind bringing me one of the pills every night? The stuff I have now is a lot harder to overdose on, but taking the whole bottle would still probably be bad for me, and . . . yeah. Would you mind?"
"Jack, of course I wouldn't mind," says Bittle gently. "But you're sure you want me to do this? Not Shitty?"
Jack sighs. "Shitty and I are going through a bit of a rough patch right now, since he insisted on smoking outside while wearing shorts even though I pointed out that marijuana suppresses the immune system and he should be dressing for the weather. I was scared he was going to get the team sick, and he did, and he hasn't apologized because of 'bodily autonomy' or whatever."
Bittle glowers. "I will be having words with that boy—how could he do that to you?"
"I mean, in fairness, it's not like he knows that I get like this. Although I did have a panic attack about it and that didn't change his mind," says Jack.
"First of all, no one has any business being outside in shorts in a Massachusetts winter. And secondly, he's your best friend—he's supposed to care about your mental health!"
Jack turns toward the wall and coughs. "He does. He talked me through the panic attack and got me to breathe and everything. And I mean, in a general sense I agree that I shouldn't get to control him. Just . . ."
"You want him to take you into account when he makes decisions, and it doesn't feel like he's been doing that," Bittle supplies.
"Yeah," says Jack. "Yeah, exactly."
"Hey," Bittle says, "aren't you supposed to go to the doctor when you've had a fever for over 48 hours?"
"Probably," says Jack. "I haven't let myself look up much information on the internet about anything I've had this winter, because I tend to WebMD myself into a panic attack."
"I'm pretty sure that's fever protocol," says Bittle. He picks up the oatmeal from the bedside table and turns toward Jack again. "Come on, sit up and eat this, and then I'll take you to the student health service."
"I think you're supposed to call ahead if you have the flu," says Jack. "When I was there for bronchitis there were signs on the doors about that."
"That's right!" says Bittle. He slides his phone out of his pocket and dials. "Hi," he says once the ringing stops. "I'm here with my friend, and he's had a fever since Monday morning. We're pretty sure it's the flu—he's been coughing and congested and everything. Can you see him this morning?" Bittle waits and then says, "Yeah, 10:00 sounds just fine. Thank you."
Jack looks up from his oatmeal when Bittle hangs up. Frowning, Jack says, "Don't you have class at 10?"
Bittle shakes his head. "No. That's Tuesdays and Thursdays. I don't have any morning classes on Monday-Wednesday-Friday." When Jack doesn't stop frowning, Bittle says, "I swear! I'm not lying to you, Jack!"
Jack makes himself relax his face. "Okay, okay, I believe you."
"You wound me," says Bittle, and Jack thinks he's going for levity, but he sounds sincere.
"Do I?" Jack asks. "Because I would hate to, Bittle." He's not sure he would have said that without the fever, but it's true—he hates how much he hurt Bittle last year, and he'd hate to get back into the habit.
Bittle waves a hand. "Oh, don't worry. Everything's fine."
"Is it?" Jack asks.
"Lord, Jack, yes. Just finish your oatmeal."
"I still feel like I owe you an apology," says Jack between spoonfuls of oatmeal.
"Well, you don't," says Bittle. "I would absolutely skip class for you, so it's not an unreasonable suspicion for you to have, even if it wasn't true in this case."
Jack sets down his spoon so that he can turn and cough. When the coughing subsides, he says, "I think you are the nicest person I've ever met."
"That's very sweet, honey, but I'm pretty sure it's just the fever talking," says Bittle. Is his voice shaking?
Jack wants to grab Bittle's hand, but—germs. He settles for saying, "That doesn't mean it's not true. Are you okay?"
Bittle blinks a couple times in quick succession and says, "Of course." His voice is definitely unsteady.
Jack's chest seems to be constricting in ways that have nothing to do with the flu. "Please, Bittle, what's wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong, Jack."
"You sound like you're going to cry. Did I hurt you? Please let me make this right."
Bittle stares at his lap. "There's nothing to do about it."
"What is it?"
Bittle sighs. "You're just . . . you're very nice for a straight boy."
"No I'm not," says Jack immediately.
Bittle frowns. "You definitely are. You're so nice, Jack—"
Bittle's mouth drops open and he stares at Jack.
"I thought you knew!" says Jack. "After Kent—at Epikegster—I'm so sorry—"
"Jack, why are you apologizing?" Bittle asks, sounding bewildered.
Jack's brain catches up to him and he realizes he may have presumed too much. "Oh, it just seemed like your being sad was connected to your not knowing," he backpedals, "and—I didn't feel safe coming out to you last year when you were just a frog and we didn't know each other very well, but I should have done it at some point since then, and I know how hard it is to think you're the only queer person on a team and I shouldn't have made you go through that for this long—"
"Nursey's out," Bittle interrupts.
"Huh?" says Jack.
"Oh, right, that happened at a kegster," says Bittle. "Yeah, he's pan. So. I haven't felt completely alone this year."
The implication of as opposed to last year hangs in the air, and Jack says, "I'm still sorry."
"It's okay. I know what coming out could do to your career, and everyone goes at their own pace, anyway. I'm not mad."
"But it seemed like you thinking I was straight had something to do with you being sad?"
Bittle blushes. "Oh. You caught that. Can we forget about that part?"
"You made me explain my panic attack," Jack grouses.
"Because I was worried about you!"
"And you almost cried! I'm worried about you, too!"
"You don't need to care, Jack."
Jack can feel his heart breaking. "Bittle, you care so much about all of us—how could I not care about you?"
Bittle shrugs. "Same as everyone back in Georgia."
Jack really, really wants to take Bittle's hand. "You know SMH is different." Then worry shoots through him. "SMH has been different for you, hasn't it?"
"Lord, Jack, of course."
Jack relaxes, and then he remembers that Bittle never actually answered his question. "So why did thinking I was straight make you sad?"
Bittle takes a deep breath, says nothing, and exhales. Then he looks away, inhales again, and mumbles, "It doesn't matter, because I still don't have a chance with you."
Jack wonders if his fever has spiked enough to make him hallucinate. "Wait, you—you want—?"
"I'm sorry, Jack," says Bittle, his voice thick.
"No, Bittle, I'm not angry. I just want to understand. You . . . like me?"
Bittle rolls his eyes. "Well of course I like you. You're one of my best friends."
Jack huffs, and it turns into a cough. "You know what I mean."
Bittle closes his eyes and whispers, "Yes."
"I really wish I weren't sick right now," Jack mutters.
Bittle opens his eyes and looks at Jack. "I know you do, but what does that have to do with me liking you?"
"Well," says Jack, sparing half a second for internal panic as he realizes how much he means what he's about to say, "I wish I could kiss you."
Bittle narrows his eyes. "Jack, do you mean that?"
It takes all Jack's self-control to keep his hands to himself. He is a full-body infection vector, for goodness' sake. He can't touch Bittle. Not even when Bittle sounds caught between heartbreak and hope. "Of course I mean it," he says, trying to pour his sincerity into his utterly shot voice.
"Is it just because it's been a while since you kissed a guy, or . . . ?"
"God, Bittle, no." Jack turns and coughs before continuing. "No. I like you. I think I've liked you for a couple months now, even though I only realized it more recently."
Bittle looks down at his own lap. "That's . . . that's really flattering, Jack." He sounds sad.
"Wait, Bittle, what's wrong?" Jack asks. "Do you not want to be my boyfriend?"
Bittle looks up at Jack. "You're asking me to be your boyfriend? But—your career—"
"I haven't really thought this through," Jack admits, "and we probably couldn't be public, at least not right away, and I'm really sorry about that, and I understand if you don't want to, and I understand if it's too much of a risk while we're on the same team or if you don't want to do something that would be guaranteed to be long-distance in not too long, and I don't want you to feel any pressure based on the fact that I'm your captain, and you can definitely say no—"
"Jack," says Bittle quietly, and Jack takes the hint and shuts up. "Jack, sweetheart. I'm saying yes."
"Oh," says Jack. "Fuck, I wish I could kiss you."
"You could," says Bittle.
"No," says Jack forcefully. "Even if you wouldn't mind being sick, I'd still feel guilty, plus I wouldn't want to kiss you while you were sick, and that would just postpone things in a different way than waiting now."
Bittle sighs. "I suppose that makes sense. You're so responsible."
"Yeah, well, you know why," says Jack wryly.
"Oh! I didn't mean—"
"Bittle, it's fine," says Jack. Then he peers past Bittle at the clock. "I should maybe get dressed, though, if we're trying to be at the Health Service by 10."
Bittle hops off the bed. "Oh! Right." He picks up the empty bowl. "I'll take this downstairs."
"My anxiety meds are on my desk in the orange pill bottle," says Jack. "Could you hide those somewhere in your room? Somewhere you won't forget, obviously. And I promise not to break into your room and look for them, but like—"
"Yeah," says Bittle, grabbing the pill bottle. "Of course."
When Bittle leaves the room, Jack changes into sweatpants and a sweatshirt. He doesn't bother to brush his teeth, let alone rinse off in the shower; he'll probably be taken more seriously if he looks like a wreck, anyway. Then he grabs his car keys and pads downstairs, puts on his coat and boots, and meets Bittle by the door. "Would you drive my car?"
Bittle looks up at Jack with wide eyes. "Lord, Jack, you trust me?"
Jack turns away to cough and then says, "My temperature is above 102. I definitely trust you more than I trust myself right now."
"Fair," says Bittle, taking Jack's keys.
Bittle drives 25 mph even though the speed limit on all campus roads is 15. They're at the campus health service in just a couple of minutes, and then, after a few moments in the cold, they're inside, just in time for Jack's appointment.
When Jack signs in and gets called back, Bittle says, "I'll just wait here," and Jack doesn't quite have the courage to ask him to come along, so Jack goes alone. The RN takes Jack's vitals, frowns at his temperature, listens to his breathing, asks him to cough, and concludes that he definitely has the flu and it doesn't seem to have turned into pneumonia. "Come back if your fever hasn't broken by midday tomorrow," she says.
"I've been sick practically all winter," says Jack.
"Yeah, it's been rough for all of campus," says the nurse.
"I was wondering if there was something more than that," says Jack. "Like, if there's something that's making me especially susceptible."
The nurse shakes her head. "Other than the obvious, you seem very healthy. I don't think we need to reach for any explanations beyond the fact that college campuses are places of high contagion."
Jack grits his teeth. He hates not getting answers. "It's just, I really hate getting sick, and I think this is all taking a toll on my mental health."
"Everyone hates the flu," says the nurse, shrugging. "Come back if your fever hasn't broken by noon tomorrow, or if you start hallucinating, or if you think you have pneumonia." Then she leaves the room.
Jack stumbles back out to the waiting room. He has to walk all the way up to Bittle before Bittle looks up from his phone. As the two of them walk outside, Jack says, "I think maybe I should call my dad."
"Why?" Bittle asks, unlocking the car.
"Because I don't think it's normal to be sick this much," says Jack, getting in and fastening his seatbelt, "and it's messing with my mental health and my hockey. The nurse didn't seem to care about any of that, but I'm getting concerned, and my dad might have something to say on the topic." Jack looks at Bittle and remembers just how much news today has already contained and adds, "Plus, I should talk to him about how to handle being in a relationship while in the league, and if he knows any queer players from his era, and if he or they have advice on when or how to think about coming out."
"You're going to come out to your dad?"
Jack shakes his head even though Bittle's eyes are on the road. "My parents . . . guessed. Back when I was in juniors. I wasn't particularly subtle."
"You and Kent?" Bittle asks quietly. Jack thinks he might sound sad.
"Yeah," Jack answered. "You upset, bud?"
"It's nothing," says Bittle.
"Bittle," says Jack.
Bittle sighs and pulls Jack's car into his usual parking spot by the Haus. As the two of them get out of the car, Bittle says, "I guess I'm jealous. Not of you and Kent. Well, a little of you and Kent, I guess. Like, you're going to be my first kiss and all that, assuming you don't change your mind in the next few days, and you have all this experience. But mostly I'm jealous of your relationship with your dad. Like, I'm not out to my parents and I still can't imagine coming out to them even though I've known I'm gay for like eight years, and I know things are complicated with your dad but it seems like you can be honest with him, and I don't wish you couldn't, or anything, but I wish I could, with my parents."
Jack has to restrain himself from hugging Bittle as they both finish getting their winter gear off. "I wish you could too, bud."
"Thanks," says Bittle.
"Anytime," says Jack. "I should go up to my room now, and you shouldn't follow me, because you've already spent way too much time around me today. And please wash your hands. And maybe change clothes? I just really don't want to get you sick.
"I know, sweetheart," says Bittle, smiling gently. "Text me about how your call with your dad goes."
So Jack totters back upstairs—he hates how off-balance being sick makes him, on top of everything else—and calls his father.
His father picks up on the second ring and says, "Jack!"
"Papa," Jack rasps, wincing at how sick he sounds. It's suddenly worse now that he's talking to someone other than Bittle, someone who isn't expecting it.
"Jack, are you okay?" His father seems to have sped past concerned into worried, heading straight in the direction of panicky.
Jack clears his throat. "Yeah, sorry, Papa. It's just the flu. Though that is part of what I'm calling about. I told you in November how I had the stomach flu?"
His father makes a noise of affirmation.
"And then I had bronchitis when I came home for winter break," Jack continues. "And then I got a cold and laryngitis a few weeks ago, and this week I have the flu. This doesn't feel normal. I can't remember ever being sick this much. I was just at the student health service and they said it's just a bad winter for the campus, but I was wondering if you had any advice on what to do, if you think there's anything more I can do."
"Have you been sleeping?" his father asks.
"Yes, Papa," says Jack.
"Enough?" his father presses.
"Seven or so hours a night. It's hard to get more during the season, especially as a senior."
"That's not ideal," says his father, "but it's not the kind of exhaustion that should make you constantly sick. Your health service is full of shit. You have a team doctor, right?"
"Ask that person for blood tests. You probably have an iron deficiency or some other imbalance going on. Those can play hell on your immune system."
"You said that was part of what you wanted to ask," his father says. "What was the other part?"
"Oh," says Jack. He forgot he led with that. "You remember Bittle?"
"The tiny blond one?"
"Yeah," says Jack. "He's been taking care of me a bit these past few days, and I finally realized that I think I've had feelings for him for a while, and he says he likes me too, so I think we're together now. I mean, he said he'd be my boyfriend, but we haven't kissed, obviously, because I don't want to get him sick."
"I'm happy for you, Jack, and I don't want to lose sight of that," says his father, "but have you thought about the career implications? I'm not trying to talk you out of what could be a great relationship, but you will need to weigh your priorities here."
"I haven't thought a lot about it," Jack admits, "but I did know I wanted to talk to you. I've already told Bittle we couldn't be public right away, and he said he's okay with that, but I was wondering if you have advice about how to handle a relationship while you're in the league, and if you know any guys who secretly had male partners while you were playing who might be able to talk to me about that."
"Can you give me some time to think about all that?" his father asks. "I could give you some advice now, but I think that'll go better if I figure out what I'm trying to say and how I want to say it while I'm not talking to you in real time, and I do know a couple guys who fit the description you gave, but I'd need to talk to them to see if they'd be okay with you knowing and getting in contact with them."
"Yeah," says Jack. "That sounds fine. I think I want to take a nap, anyway."
"Okay. Remember to have blood work done soon. I love you."
"I love you too, Papa. Thanks."
Jack texts Bittle, My dad says I should get blood tests, and he wants time to think about relationship advice. Overall, things went well. I'm gonna nap now, so don't worry if I don't text for a while. Thanks for this morning, by the way. :)
no need to thank me, sweetheart, Bittle texts back immediately. sleep well!
Jack wakes up from his nap to Bittle knocking on his door with soup for lunch. He feels groggy but somehow less wrong than he's felt for the last few days. After finishing the soup, Jack takes his temperature: 99.3. He tries to remember if he took any ibuprofen this morning, but he's pretty sure the answer is no. He's getting better, then. Probably. Thank goodness.
His temperature is below 99 by dinnertime (Bittle brings him more soup), but Jack knows contagion lasts for a day after the fever comes down, and he's still coughing, so he stays in his room except to make trips to the basement to wash his clothes and sheets and pajamas. He still feels kind of off-kilter, but even so he feels more like himself than he has in days. He decides to skip his morning class tomorrow but go to the afternoon one. That's close enough to fever protocol while also letting him get back to academics without missing four full days of classes.
He's officially fever-free when he wakes up Thursday morning, so he texts Bittle and says he won't need more food brought to his room. With a proper night's sleep, he feels practically normal, which, given how sick he's been all winter, is bizarre and exhilarating. Finally. He spends the morning working on the papers he's been putting off all week—he's going to have to take a late penalty on one of them; it was due yesterday and there was nothing he could do about that—and then makes himself a turkey sandwich (not soup!) for lunch before heading to his afternoon class.
The team cheers when he enters the locker room before practice. Jack waves at them to quiet down, unsure what to do with the attention. Hall asks if he's really feeling well enough to play and Jack admits that he's still a little tired and weak and promises to play it by ear. That's not what he would have said two years ago, but he's grown since then.
He makes it through an hour of practice before he feels like his legs are literally going to give out, and he skates off the ice. Ransom and Holster take over calling drills as soon as they see him leave—one of them will probably be captain next year, though Jack can't for the life of him figure out which one he thinks will beat the other for the honor—and it's practically seamless, and Jack feels a rush of affection for his team. He knows in his head that the team is more than any one player, and that everyone has his back, but it's one thing to know those things in his head and another thing to return from something as mundane as the flu and be cheered, and then to see the probable future captains take over when he needs them to.
Jack puts on his skate guards and clomps to the locker room before changing back into shoes. Then he goes to see the team doctor and asks for a blood test. The whole needle thing isn't pleasant—Jack doesn't freak out, exactly, but that doesn't mean he's enjoying himself—but then it's over and the doctor says the results should be back in about a week, and they'll see if he has an iron deficiency or something else.
Jack stays until practice is over, mostly so he can walk back to the Haus with the boys (okay, Bittle). No one chirps him about having quit practice midway through, and the surge of affection from earlier is back. When they all get back to the Haus, Bittle hovers outside of Jack's room until Jack beckons him in and closes the door. Once the door is closed, Bittle asks, "Can I kiss you?"
Jack sighs and rubs the back of his neck. "I think we should wait a little longer, sorry. I've still been coughing quite a bit, so I'm worried I'm still contagious. I promise I want to kiss you, though, and I won't hold off much longer. Just . . . a few days? If that's all right?"
"Jack, of course," says Bittle. "I'd never want you to kiss me without wanting to."
"Wanting to is not the issue here," says Jack.
"You know what I mean," says Bittle. "Have you thought about how secret this is going to be?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, your parents know you're bi," says Bittle. "Does Shitty? Or anyone else on the team?"
"No," says Jack. "But I want to tell at least Shitty and Ransom and Holster soon. Maybe Dex and Nursey and Chowder? We'll see. But definitely at least a few of the guys, yeah."
"Really, sweetheart?" Bittle asks.
"Yeah," says Jack. "Definitely."
"I really wish I could kiss you right now," says Bittle.
Jack smiles. "The feeling is mutual."
It's Tuesday by the time Jack deems himself healthy enough to kiss Bittle.
The kiss is definitely worth the wait.
A/N: This is the second fic I've written that's basically a PSA to get your iron levels checked, after "Love in the Time of Influenza." Blood-iron content is seriously so important.