A/N 1: In case you didn't read the summary, this fic contains suicidal thoughts. Please proceed with caution and keep yourself safe!
A/N 2: This is the third work in my series of fics inspired by song lyrics I've misheard over the course of my life. In this case, the lyric is "Happiness hit her" from "Dog Days Are Over" by Florence and the Machine. Not all the fics in this series will be based on Check Please!
Jack can't track when the misery started. He's pretty sure there was a time before it, or at least glimmers of non-miserable moments that used to shine through the fabric of his life, but it feels like he's been miserable for a long, long time without any real breaks. Stolen kisses—stolen more-than-kisses—with Kenny were supposed to be breaks from the misery, but they weren't, not really. If misery is a river he's drowning in, those moments with Kenny let his head break the surface so he could take a breath, but they never let his feet find purchase and they certainly never let him get out of the water. And he's definitely been drowning since before the Q. How young was he when hockey started being more misery than joy? Thirteen? Twelve? Eleven? Tabarnak.
Rehab is worse. As awful as hockey felt, with all its pressure, it also felt good, at least in small ways. The glide of his blades against the ice. The release of landing a good hit on someone. The grim satisfaction of sinking the puck into the net. Rehab has none of those things. Rehab has too much time with his thoughts, feeling like a fuck-up and knowing he's wasted his potential. Even if he can get back in shape to play, what team would take a chance on him?
Also: he was supposed to die, damn it. He wasn't supposed to have to face the rest of his life, and he certainly wasn't supposed to wind up in fucking rehab.
(Jack keeps himself from punching the wall or using his razor for non-shaving purposes, but only because he knows that hurting himself would mean even more appointments.)
He switches meds and goes to therapy, and eventually he stabilizes. That's all it is—stabilization. He's not happy. He's not grateful to be alive. He's just not going to try to kill himself again. So he gets out of rehab and lives with his parents and keeps taking his meds and going to therapy, and then he applies to college to get out of the fucking house.
He's a bit surprised that Samwell takes him. Yes, he's a legacy, but he's also a well-publicized fuck-up, and it's not like he had a lot of time for academics in the Q. He's not happy when he gets the acceptance letter, but he's—satisfied? Relieved? Something like that.
He gets into a routine of working out, practicing, reading, and spending time with his parents. The tension is seeping out of those interactions, tiny drop by tiny drop; it's not gone and he doesn't think it ever will be, but it's lessening and he'll take that. He builds back most of the muscle he lost while in rehab. He tries to prepare for college, and for competing in the NCAA. He's not pleased with his life, but he'll take it for now. It's not like he has a choice. He's not going to try to kill himself again. He's not going back to that place.
His parents drive with him from Montreal to Samwell to move him in before the hockey team starts practicing in August. He has a roommate named Ed who seems all right, all things considered, and is on the football team. Ed hasn't heard of Jack, and it seems he hasn't Googled him, either, and Jack will take the small blessing for what it is.
Practices start. They're frustrating—the team is okay by Jack's standards, but that's the best he can say about it. There's no one he connects with on the ice the way he connected with Parse, and most people's technique just isn't at the level he got used to in the Q. On top of that, his teammates absolutely have heard of him. They're far too careful around him, and conversation cuts off when he walks into the locker room, and he's pretty sure he's heard muttered jokes about himself that weren't meant for his ears. Jack tries to keep his head down and just play, but he's worried that's hurting at least as much as it's helping—the team is supposed to bond, and Jack certainly isn't bonding.
One of the other frogs—Jack can't remember his real name, which he's only heard once, but it was long and complicated and started with a B; the dude goes by Shitty even in classes, apparently—harangues Jack about going to team breakfasts. "C'mon, man," says Shitty one day as they're taking their skates off after practice, "I don't believe that you actually hate the rest of us, so surely you can survive one team breakfast, right?"
Jack grits his teeth and then forces himself to relax. "All right," he says, trying to sound pleasant and probably failing. He doesn't hate the team. He's almost perpetually disappointed by their hockey abilities, and he gets the sense that a lot of them talk about him behind his back, but he doesn't hate them. He'd just rather eat breakfast alone.
But Shitty asked and now it would be rude to refuse. So Jack goes, and he sits at the end of the table next to Shitty. He's surprised to find that the rules for family dinners don't seem to apply here—Craig has his laptop open, and Johnson is scribbling something in a notebook, and Tester and Petes are quizzing each other with flashcards. Of course, Robbie and Greener are chirping each other to the point that Robbie has squirted orange juice out of his nose, so it's not like everyone's studying. But overall it's rambunctious and studious and familial all at once. Jack can't help but feel like he's on the outside looking in, but he's pretty sure he knows what he's looking at, at least: college. This is what movies are made of, and he wants it with a tug deep in his gut.
So when Shitty tries to draw Jack into the conversation he's having with Walker, Jack tries to let himself be drawn in. The conversation isn't about hockey, so Jack doesn't really know his way around it—actually, he's not even sure if he knows his way around a conversation about hockey when it comes to his current teammates, because he often winds up accidentally insulting them or sounding like he's bragging—but he tries, and Shitty smiles at him more than once, which probably counts for something. Jack stays at breakfast until Shitty gets up to leave, and then it turns out that they both have their next class in the building with most of the history and social science classes, so they walk there together and Shitty talks about being a poli sci major and how much he's loving his Intro to Women's and Gender Studies class and how he thinks he might add a second major and how it is "freeing as fuck" to no longer go to Andover, and Jack tries to get a word in edgewise about enjoying his history class about the American Civil War. They wind up standing outside the building for a few minutes to continue the conversation, until Jack looks at his watch and realizes that he is already late to class.
Jack starts going to team breakfasts regularly after that—not every day, not the days when it feels like his head is buzzing and his skin doesn't fit and he wants to scream at everyone for no reason—but most days. Shitty always smiles at him when he sits down and makes an effort to include him in whatever conversation he's having, and it feels just as good each time as it did the first day.
When the first kegster of the year comes around, Robbie and Greener take it upon themselves to personally ensure that all the frogs will be in attendance. They're bothering Jack about the party in the locker room after practice, and Jack is running out of ways to say no without explaining why he doesn't drink, which is an explanation he doesn't owe them and doesn't want to give them. Jack doesn't realize how long this has gone on until Shitty comes back from the shower to grab his stuff and finds Jack still in his practice gear, cornered by the two D-men.
"Fuck off, guys," says Shitty a few moments after re-entering the locker room. "Seriously, when someone tells you 'no,' you leave them alone. You don't get to force anyone to come to a party or drink."
Greener rolls his eyes. "You're no fun."
Shitty shrugs. "What does fun have to do with it? I'm just aware that no means no."
Now Greener sneers. "Jesus fucking Christ, are you one of those people who needs to keep everything PC all the time?"
Before Jack knows what's going on, Shitty's fist has connected with Greener's face, and then Greener's nose is bleeding.
"What the fuck, dude?" says Robbie, staring at Shitty while Greener tries to cover his nose.
"Understanding the basics of consent has nothing to do with being PC, and you're a menace to society if you don't get that," Shitty growls.
It sounds like Greener tries to say something along the lines of "What the fuck does consent have to do with this?" but it's hard to tell given the way his fucked-up nose is distorting his voice.
"No. Means. No," Shitty grits out. "Consent is not just for sex, though it certainly applies there too. Consent is about respecting people's boundaries in every context."
"Whatever," says Robbie. "It's just a kegster. This isn't a big deal."
"Clearly it's a big deal to Jack," says Shitty. "And that should be enough for you."
Hearing his name brings Jack back to reality. He's felt kind of like he was watching a movie ever since Shitty took that swing at Greener, but now he remembers he's here, in this locker room, for real. Shitty's standing up for him, but this is his fight. So he takes a step forward and says, "I won't be attending the party on Friday," before turning around and heading for the showers.
When he gets out of his American history class, he finds Shitty leaning against the wall in the hallway. Shitty's right hand appears bruised, and he's looking at his shoes.
Jack says, "Hey."
Shitty looks up. "Hey, man."
Jack doesn't know what to say—he didn't get any warning that this conversation was going to happen, and he doesn't know what Shitty's thinking right now—so he just starts walking toward the stairs and assumes Shitty will follow him.
"So, um," says Shitty when the two of them reach the first landing on their way down the stairs, "I think I owe you an apology. I assumed you wanted my help dealing with Robbie and Greener this morning, and I acted like you couldn't take care of yourself. And like, obviously you can; you're Jack fucking Zimmermann. So I'm sorry."
Jack definitely did not see this coming. He stops at the foot of the stairs and turns to face Shitty. "Shitty. That was exactly what I needed, and you do not need to apologize. If anything, I should be thanking you for rescuing me. I did need rescuing, too, so don't even try to argue."
"Well, there's no shame in needing some help every once in a while," says Shitty. "So if that's what happened then I'm glad I could be there for you."
"Yeah, me too," says Jack.
A girl clears her throat behind him and Jack realizes he and Shitty are blocking the bottom of the staircase. He moves, dragging Shitty with him by the sleeve.
"Do you want to hang out Friday night?" Shitty asks.
Jack frowns. "Don't you want to go to the kegster?"
"And hang out with those assholes?" Shitty scoffs. "I mean, I should probably make an appearance at some point, because I do want to bond with the team and also drinking is fun—I mean, it's fun for me," he corrects himself, seeming to realize what he just said and how it might have sounded to Jack. "But those sorts of things go until the wee hours of the morning, I'm pretty sure. I could hang out with you until nine or ten and get over to the Haus in plenty of time to party, no problem. If you want. No pressure, though."
Jack gives him a look. "You realize you pressured me into coming to team breakfast that first time, don't you?"
"Oh, fuck," says Shitty. "I shouldn't have done that. I'm sorry, Jack. Seriously." He looks distraught.
"Shitty, it's fine," says Jack. "I mean, you're probably right that you shouldn't have done it, but, unlike parties with alcohol, team breakfasts aren't something I have a major boundary against." Jack shuts his mouth when he realizes what he said. He's sure Shitty's Googled him, so that statement probably wasn't too much of a surprise, but it was still a lot to casually drop into a conversation.
Shitty glances at Jack and then away. "Well, I'm glad we're okay," he says. "So Friday, yeah or nah?"
Jack lets out a breath, relieved that Shitty ignored the rest of what he said. "Yeah," says Jack. "Sure."
Jack tells Ed that he's going to have a friend over on Friday night, and Ed waggles his eyebrows until Jack tells him it's a teammate. That pisses Jack off a little—he's used to heteronormativity, but that doesn't mean it never bothers him—but he doesn't mention it for a hundred different reasons. And then it's Friday and Shitty texts asking for his room number, and then Shitty's pounding on his door and part of Jack is really regretting agreeing to this.
But Shitty has a pack of cards with him, and he asks Jack's favorite game, and Jack tells him with a straight face that he enjoys bridge (not a lie, but he says it mostly to watch Shitty's reaction), but he heaves a put-upon sigh and says he'll settle for slap jack. He should have realized that Shitty would take this as free rein to slap Jack (lightly, of course), but somehow that doesn't occur to him until Shitty starts hitting him at every possible opportunity. They're sitting on the floor because the dorm is small and there are only two chairs, one of which belongs to Ed, but suddenly they're rolling around, wrestling, and Jack isn't quite sure how it happened. He's aware that at some point in the near future he's going to have to pick up the cards, which are getting kicked under both beds as he and Shitty try to pin each other to the floor, but he can't find it in himself to care.
He's happy, he realizes.
He's happy, and, for the first time in at least a year, he actively doesn't want to die. The realization hits him hard, like a kick to the chest, and the sensation is accompanied by Shitty's very real hands pinning his arms to his sides and Shitty's very real knee in his stomach. For a second, Shitty crows with victory, grinning down at Jack, but then he gets a good look at Jack's face and frowns. It's only when Jack hears a sob escape his lips that he realizes he's crying.
Shitty helps Jack up into a sitting position and circles his arms lightly around Jack's shoulders, as if ready for Jack to shrug him off at any moment. Jack, instead, shoves his face in Shitty's neck and continues to cry. Shitty's hold on him tightens, and he begins to rub Jack's back and murmur, "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, I'm sorry," over and over again.
When Jack gets a hold of himself—and he's so glad that this was only tears and not a panic attack—he says, "No need to apologize."
"Bullshit," says Shitty flatly. "I must have really hurt you. I've seen you take hits in practice—I know you can handle pain without getting like this."
"Exactly," says Jack. "This isn't a pain response. I just—I just realized that I don't want to die. And I haven't felt okay in so long and this is so new and I—I'm happy and you've given me that and—oh God, I don't want to make you feel like you have to keep doing this, but I want you to understand that you've just given me something I'd given up hope of ever finding, and—"
"Brah," says Shitty. "Breathe."
Jack obeys him, and the air feels good in his lungs. He gets himself under control again and says, "Thank you. For everything."
"Literally all I've done is be your friend," says Shitty. "And I've even messed that up at least once, so I don't think you have much to thank me for."
"I definitely do," says Jack. "I mean, I haven't been actively suicidal in a while, but I haven't affirmatively wanted to live in, like, years, and right now, with you, just playing cards and wrestling, I want to live for this."
"Can I platonically kiss you on the cheek?" Shitty asks.
Jack gives a startled laugh. "Um, sure?" He's not sure how the mustache will feel, but Shitty's affection feels better than anything has felt in longer than he can even remember, and he wants more of it.
Shitty presses a bristly kiss to his cheek, and it's odd, yes, but also amazing, so amazing that Jack has to ask himself if this is a crush. He thinks it's probably not—he can't picture wanting to make out with Shitty the way he made out with Kent—but, if it is, he thinks that'll be okay. Samwell: one in four, maybe more, after all. Even if Shitty's straight, Jack can't picture him being a jerk about it.
"So," says Shitty, after kissing Jack's cheek, "you want to talk about any of that stuff you just said?"
"I have a therapist," says Jack, realizing he maybe should have said that earlier. "I don't want you to worry. Like, I probably can't convince you that I'm okay, and I'm probably not okay, at least not all the way, but the point of bringing stuff up was to let you know that I'm doing better than I have been. And, like I said, I'm seeing someone about the rest of it. So, like, I don't want you to feel all this pressure to keep me happy all the time. I just wanted you to understand that I hadn't been truly happy in a long, long time, until tonight, and that I feel better than I have in ages just hanging out with you, and I need to thank you for what a tremendous gift that is."
"Anytime, brah," says Shitty gravely.
Jack leans his head on Shitty's shoulder. "Thanks." The word feels so small and inadequate compared to what he owes Shitty, especially after tonight, but he can't find more words, so he leaves it.
Luckily, it seems Shitty understands. He rubs Jack's back a bit with one hand and lets silence fall over them.
After a while, Shitty says, "I have Netflix, if you want to watch something."
"So, don't chirp me," says Jack, "but could we watch a documentary?"
"Sure," says Shitty. "There's this one on the Grimke sisters that I've been wanting to watch."
"The who?" Jack asks.
Shitty gives his shoulder a gentle shove. "Dude! You're studying American history. Sarah and Angelina Grimke were abolitionists back in the day. Come on!"
"Okay, okay," says Jack, putting his hands up. "I'm from Canada and this is my first semester. Give me a break."
Shitty rolls his eyes. "Fine. But we're watching the documentary if it's on Netflix, okay?"
Jack nods. "Sure."
Jack grabs his laptop off his desk and climbs onto his bed. Shitty looks at the bed and hesitates.
"Come on," says Jack, patting the spot next to him. "I mean, there's not a lot of room, and we're both hockey players, but we can make it work."
Shitty looks delighted. "You sure, brah?"
"Yeah," says Jack, pressing himself up against the wall.
Shitty climbs into bed next to him, opens Netflix on the laptop, puts in his password, and looks up the documentary about the Grimke sisters. It's there, so Shitty hits play and then leans his head on Jack's shoulder as the title sequence starts.
Kenny never wanted to watch documentaries.
Jack's still about 70% sure what he feels toward Shitty isn't a crush, but, at the very least, it's a huge amount of affection. He really, really likes Shitty. This scares him a little, because liking people gives them power over him, but he already trusts that Shitty will use his powers for good, even though they've only known each other for like a month. He relaxes against Shitty and allows the documentary to wash over him.
When the final credits play, Jack grins at Shitty a little goofily and says, "What a way to spend a Friday night."
"What are you talking about, brah," says Shitty. "We are the coolest."
"The coolest nerds, maybe," says Jack. "But I like it."
"Good," says Shitty. Then he looks at the time on Jack's laptop screen and says, "So, it's ten."
"Yeah," says Jack. "Feel free to go to the kegster."
"You sure? I can keep hanging out," says Shitty.
"Nah," says Jack. "I should get to bed, anyway."
Jack can see the moment when Shitty decides not to chirp him for that. "All right. Sweet dreams, brah."
Jack smiles. "Yeah. Thanks. Have a good time at the party."
"Oh, I will," says Shitty with a wink.
"Cool," says Jack, getting up and opening the door to let Shitty out. "Have a good night."
"You too," says Shitty.
It's only when Shitty leaves that Jack realizes how much lighter he feels than he's felt in—well, years. He wants to live. He wants to see Shitty again and he wants to play hockey and he wants to learn more about history and he maybe even wants to spend the holidays with his parents. It's absurd and unfamiliar and wonderful, and he doesn't know what to do with it. He has to sit down on his bed and take a few minutes to cry at the enormity of how good he's feeling now and how bad he's felt for so long, to make this mundane blessing feel so enormous.
After a few minutes, he pulls himself together, cleans up his face, and gets ready for bed. His last thought before he falls asleep is more of an image than a thought, just Shitty's delighted expression right before he joined Jack on top of the blankets. Jack wants to see that face again.