"Bittle. I've got your back."
The words echo around Eric's head as his ears ring. The crowd seems to be making noise—a lot of noise, actually, enough to worsen his headache—but their roar is competing with the ringing in his ears and the ghost of Jack's words. It's a lot of sound to take in, and Eric shuts his eyes as if eliminating input to one sense will make it easier to handle the overwhelming input to another. He's not sure how he wound up laying on the ice; the last thing he remembers is Jack talking to him on their way out of the huddle.
The next thing he knows, there's a hand on his shoulder. He can feel its weight through his pads, but it's not shaking him; it's just resting there.
"Bitty," he hears. It's Jack's voice. "Bits, are you conscious? Wake up for me, please."
"'M awake," Eric mumbles.
"Merci à Dieu," breathes Jack. "Can you open your eyes, bud?"
Eric groans but opens his eyes. There are stars in his field of vision. He blinks several times, but they don't go away. He's dizzy.
Two pairs of feet—wearing shoes, not skates—stomp-shuffle into view. The legs they're attached to bend, and then Hall and Murray's faces enter Eric's field of vision. "Come on, Bittle," says Hall. He slides his hands under Eric's armpits and pulls Eric upright. "Can you skate?"
Eric considers the question. It feels like his brain is working more slowly than usual. "Maybe?"
Hall puts his arms around Eric in a sort of side-hug, and Murray adds a hand against Eric's back, and the three of them make their slow, halting way off the ice. There seems to be . . . clapping? Eric isn't sure what's happening until he hears his name: Bitt-le, Bitt-le, Bitt-le. He's surprised. He knows his name is on the back of his jersey, but he's just a frog. Nobody really knows who is—right?
Lardo gives him a shaky smile when he makes it to the bench. "You okay, dude?"
Eric starts to shake his head and immediately regrets it. So much nausea. "Not great," he mumbles.
She reaches out a hand as if to clap him on the shoulder and then seems to think better of it. "You did great. Proud of you."
"Thanks," Eric mumbles.
"Larissa, can you take him to urgent care?" Hall asks. Murray's hand is no longer on Eric's back, and Murray himself isn't in Eric's field of vision. When did he leave? "I'll come as soon as the game is over—you'll probably still be in the waiting room. He's conscious, so it's probably fine for him not to go to the emergency room, but we should get him checked out tonight. Someone will need to stay with him all night if he has a concussion, but we can figure that out later."
"All right," says Lardo. She stands and maneuvers Eric's arm over her shoulder. "Let's go, Bitty."
Lardo helps Eric to the locker room and oversees him taking off his skates and pads. She grabs his bag out of his cubby and makes sure his wallet is there, with his insurance card in it, before they leave the arena. Eric gets the most carsick he's been in ages on the drive to the hospital, but he manages to avoid actually throwing up until they're in the parking lot. Lardo, to her credit, just rubs Eric's back as he hurls and then helps him walk around the puddle and into the building.
After Lardo helps Eric check in, the two of them sit down and Lardo takes out her phone. "Well, we won," she says.
"Huh?" Eric asks.
"Samwell won the game. It's over already. Jack says he and Hall are going to head to the hospital soon."
"Oh. Good," says Eric. He's vaguely aware that ordinarily he'd be tweeting right now, but the prospect just seems overwhelming, so he stares at the wall instead.
He's not sure how long it's been when Hall and Jack show up. Hall takes a seat on Lardo's other side and begins asking her quiet questions, but Jack crouches down in front of Eric and says, "Bits, I'm so sorry."
Eric isn't sure what Jack's apologizing for. The only word he manages to form is, "What?"
"The play was dangerous. All I was thinking about was winning, and I put you at risk for that."
"Jack, we play hockey."
"Yeah, but that guy boarded Holster. You were so brave, but I shouldn't've—"
"Eric Bittle?" a nurse calls.
Eric stands and then lurches forward. Jack catches him and throws one of Eric's arms over his shoulder, which doesn't work very well given the height difference, and then Eric, Jack, Lardo, and Hall make their way back to a doctor's office, with Jack half-carrying Eric.
The doctor asks Eric a number of questions, about both his symptoms and the world at large—he's dizzy and nauseous, but at least he knows Obama's the president—and then tests to see whether Eric has double vision (he does) and can walk on his own (kind of). In the end, Eric gets diagnosed with a mild concussion, which makes him wonder what sort of symptoms are required for a serious one. The doctor says he should ask for extensions on all his assignments and do less schoolwork for the next few weeks at least, as well as avoiding exercise and screen time. The doctor also says that someone needs to wake him up every hour that night to make sure he's still conscious and lucid.
Hall asks if Eric thinks his roommate would be willing to wake him up all night, but, before Eric can even wrap his head around the question, Jack says, "Don't worry about that. I'll do it."
"What?" Eric asks.
"You can stay at the Haus tonight. You can take my bed and I'll take the floor. I'll wake you up every hour."
"But why?" Eric feels so confused.
Jack looks pained. "Because it's my fault you're hurt. Let me take care of you, all right?"
Eric feels like he should argue, but he also feels like he might throw up, so he decides to just say, "Okay." Hall and Lardo are looking between him and Jack, and Eric can't read their expressions, but he's too tired to care.
Jack supports/carries Eric out of the hospital and back to Lardo's car, and then the three of them drive back to the Haus. Eric winds up borrowing one of Jack's T-shirts and some of Lardo's sweatpants to sleep in (Lardo makes a "never thought you'd get in my pants" joke that Eric ignores), and he wipes his top half down with a washcloth rather than showering, since he's still pretty unsteady on his feet. He brushes his teeth by putting some of Jack's toothpaste on his finger, and he doesn't bother washing his face or even looking for floss. He's exhausted and he feels awful. All he wants is to faceplant on Jack's bed.
Still, he's a Southern gentlemen. He has to ask. "You sure it's all right if I take your bed? I feel bad about kicking you out."
"Bits. You literally have a traumatic brain injury because I made a bad decision. You have every right to take my bed. Just try not to hate me when I wake you up all the time, all right? I want to let you sleep, but your safety matters more."
"Of course, Jack," says Eric, and then he crawls gingerly into the bed, because he has a feeling faceplanting would worsen his headache.
(He kind of hates Jack when Jack wakes him up every hour all night, but he manages not to say anything about it, though that has more to do with talking being difficult than with Eric being tactful.)
Luckily, the next day is a Sunday, so Eric doesn't have any obligations. He stays in Jack's bed all day—he's allowed real naps, without the hourly wakeup, after eight a.m.—and Jack brings him food periodically and keeps the blinds shut. When it's dinner time, Jack orders them both takeout and they both sit cross-legged on Jack's bed to eat it.
"Do you want me to email your professors and tell them you won't be in class for a few days?" Jack asks.
Eric groans. "I'm already kind of behind in my classes."
There's a pause when Eric suspects Jack might be restraining himself from saying something unkind. Then Jack says, "Do you think you can handle class tomorrow?"
Eric finishes chewing his bite and says, "Ugh. No."
"Okay then," says Jack. "I'll email your professors. I can get your schedule from Lardo."
"Thanks," says Eric.
They don't talk much for the rest of the meal. After Jack cleans up their trash, he offers to walk Eric back to his dorm, and Eric agrees. Eric is steadier on his feet now, which is good, but Jack keeps an arm around him anyway. Eric tries to ignore the warmth that spreads through him from the points of contact. Jack is straight, and he's just doing this out of a sense of duty and guilt.
The next few weeks are hard. Eric spends three more days in bed before venturing to class, and then he finds his focus is worse than ever, which is saying something—his ability to pay attention has always been so bad that he hadn't realized it was possible for it to get worse. Reading is also hard, and screens give him terrible headaches so quickly that he can't deal with his email or typing up his papers at all. He spends his whole printing budget (and then Ransom and Holster's printing budgets, once his runs out) printing out the scanned readings that his professors have put up on their class websites. He starts writing papers by hand and Shitty types them up, since Shitty turns out to be the only one on the team who can read Eric's handwriting. His professors are being okay about giving him extensions, and the team is being wonderfully supportive, but he still feels like he's limping to the finish line of this semester, and his grades are not going to be what he'd hoped.
On top of all of Eric's academic and concussion-related problems, the team loses their next game, knocking them out of the playoffs. After the loss—which Eric half-watches on the Haus TV, because there's no way he'd be able to handle the noise level in the arena—Shitty texts the group chat comprising the team minus Jack (the group chat normally reserved for inappropriate jokes and planning kegsters) and tells everyone sternly that they are to leave Jack alone until Jack comes to them, and that he, Shitty, will be checking on Jack and there's no need to double up because that'll only make Jack annoyed.
Which is why Eric is so surprised that Jack keeps checking on him daily after the loss. It was also a surprise right after Eric got concussed, because the team was training feverishly for the next round of the playoffs, but it's even more of a surprise the day after the team gets knocked out of the playoffs, because Eric has seen how hard Jack takes regular-season losses, and this was the last game of the season.
But, in spite of Eric's expectations, Jack keeps sending How are you texts, keeps dropping by Eric's dorm with food or medicine, keeps inviting Eric to the Haus. Eric's stomach flips a little every time it happens, and eventually he can't put it down to concussion-induced nausea anymore. It's so inconvenient that he has a crush on Jack, his straight, hockey-robot captain, but that's undoubtedly what's happening.
The poll for the hockey awards and for next year's captain hits Eric's email a couple weeks after the concussion, and Eric forces himself to deal with the screen time in order to vote. He reads the descriptions of the awards—the Carlisle Award mentions "enthusiasm," which SMH is basically drowning in, but ultimately Eric votes for Shitty—and of course he votes for Jack for captain. The team comes first and last for Jack, and Eric is positive that, without Jack's help with checking, he wouldn't still be on the team—he probably wouldn't even still be at Samwell. And that's not even mentioning Jack taking care of him these past two weeks.
The banquet is a week later. Eric is shocked when he receives the Carlisle Award but not at all surprised when Jack is unanimously voted captain. Jack seems surprised, though. After the banquet, he catches Eric on the way out and says, "Hey, Bits, can I talk to you about something?"
Eric keeps glancing at Jack while the rest of the team files out of the clubhouse, but Jack doesn't say anything more to him while the other guys leave. At last, everyone else is gone, and Jack says, "Would you mind walking with me?"
"Sure," says Eric. He's got a baseball cap with him that doesn't work at all with his suit, but direct sunlight still hurts enough that Eric's willing to let his style drop a bit. He puts the cap on as the two of them step outside.
"I, um, I wanted to thank you for voting for me," says Jack. "I know I haven't always treated you well—I haven't treated you the way a captain should—and just when you started trusting me I let you down. I can't tell you how sorry I am, for both of those things, and I feel like I don't deserve your vote, but I'm, uh, really grateful that you voted for me anyway."
Eric puts a hand on Jack's arm. "Of course I voted for you, Jack," says Eric. "You're a great player, but you're also a great friend. I probably wouldn't have been able to stay on the team without your help with checking, and you've been so good to me these past few weeks as I've been dealing with the concussion."
"You skipped some details," says Jack, "but, if that's how you want to remember it, that's okay with me."
They haven't walked very far yet, and Eric's wondering if all the fanfare was for this. "Is that what you wanted to say to me? That you're glad I voted for you?"
Jack runs a hand through his hair. "No. I mean, kind of, I guess? I definitely wanted to say it. But there's another thing I wanted to say too. Well, two other things." He clears his throat. "So, um, first of all, I'm bisexual."
Eric squeaks in surprise. "You—really? Oh wow, Jack! That's great! I mean, not that you wouldn't be great if you were straight. Just—thank you for telling me!"
Jack chuckles a little. "You're welcome. Um. Now the hard part. And I know there's like a 99% chance that the answer's going to be no, and I want you to feel free to say that. Like, this is me speaking as your friend, not your captain. Everything's going to be fine if you say no, with the team and with me personally. Shitty knows I'm doing this, and he's going to check in with me in like an hour, and he's really good at cheering me up. So just say whatever you want to say."
Eric doesn't know what this is about. He knows what he'd like it to be about, but that would be delusional, right? "Jack. What is it?"
"I, um, I wanted to ask you out? And I know it's rotten timing because the school year is almost over and we're going to be in separate places over the summer, and, again, you can absolutely say no and everything will be fine, but Shitty gave me a pep talk and told me to go for it, and—"
Eric, who's been feeling like a balloon has been expanding inside of him, suddenly deflates. "Shitty put you up to this?"
Jack stops walking. "What? No, Bits, no no no! I'm asking because I want to ask. I just wouldn't have had the courage to do it if Shitty hadn't talked to me about it."
"Oh," says Eric.
"You can say no, Bits—it really will be fine—"
"You silly boy," says Eric gently. "Of course I'm saying yes."
"What—you—really?" Jack gabs.
"Yeah," says Eric. "Really."
"Do you want to go back to the Haus?" Jack asks. "My room locks—I mean, not that we have to do anything—but we could get a bit of privacy if you want it. Or just hang out with the guys. Whatever you want."
"Jack," says Bitty. "I've been wanting to kiss you for weeks. A room that locks sounds great."
Eric has never seen a smile this big on Jack's face.