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It’s cold outside, but I’m just fine

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On move-in day Jack feels like someone is sitting on his chest. He blinks once, twice, makes a fist and lets it go.

“Are you - how are you feeling?”

Jack’s eyes close and reopen a third time before he turns to answer “I’m good, Mum.”

She nods and gives him a big smile like that’s what she expected to hear, but he can hear the relief in her voice after that. She chatters on about how exciting it is that he’s here at Samwell, and she read on their website that Parent’s Weekend is not too far away, and did he remember to pack that extra set of blankets she set out for him?

 


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He likes the team more than he thought he would. It’s certainly a change from the kids he’d been coaching, but not by that much - they’re bigger and stronger and faster than the twelve year olds, but they can’t figure out how to keep the Haus clean or cook a halfway decent meal. And honestly there were a few kids he coached who were probably more mature than his fellow frogs. He thinks back to when he was their age, when people still said he was going to be the first draft pick, but he can’t remember much from that year.

 


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The drugs made him feel like he was underwater. Like he could vaguely make out what’s happening around him but he couldn’t see it in detail. He knows objectively that clarity is better, but sometimes life is so fucking sharp and it feels like its cutting him to pieces.

 


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Going home is awkward. He’s fine - but his parents thought he seemed fine before the overdose too. They tiptoe around the topic of his mental health, but he hears the questions they want to ask behind the ones they do. How’s class going? Are you handling the stress? How are your teammates? Would you go to them for help if it got bad again? Want to watch the game? Would you let us know if you were falling apart? Do you need anything for your room at school? Please let us in. We just want you to be happy. Don’t die on us.

He starts resenting the meaningful stares that accompany the “how are you?”s.

 


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Wake up. Count backwards from one hundred. Eat food. Breathe in. Go to class. Listen to your guided meditation. Go to practice. Breathe out. Do your reading.

Recovery is reminding yourself to do a thousand tiny things until you don’t have to remind yourself anymore, until it’s second nature to act in this new, healthy way. Until you don’t need your therapist or your friend or your parents to inform you that it will be alright because you’ve started believing it yourself.

Jack’s not there quite yet. He’s still got a reminder on his phone that goes off every Tuesday at 8:45pm with the list he made of reasons to stay in recovery. It’s getting better - he doesn’t do more than turn it off nowadays anyway, but some weeks he glances through the list. Just a force of habit, he tells himself.

 


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The first time Shitty finds Jack on the roof of the Haus his feet are dangling off the edge.

Shitty sits down beside him and puts his arm around Jack’s shoulders. Jack breathes in deeply, the cold night air stinging his lungs. He leans his head on Shitty’s shoulders and they just sit there in silence for a long time.

After that night, Shitty starts popping his head into Jack’s room every night on some pretense or another - could he borrow Jack’s stapler? Did he want to watch this Civil War documentary that just came out on Netflix? Is he coming to the party? - but Jack knows why he’s really there. And he’s grateful.

 


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The two of them have this routine that plays out every time they go to the library - Jack will get all of his books out, arrange them on the table, open his laptop, and promptly be required to defend his half of the table from the veritable explosion of papers that Shitty dumps out of his backpack. Jack will pretend to frown and advise Shitty, yet again, that he needs to be more organized, at which point Shitty will loudly whisper about how folders are a tool of the patriarchy until someone shushes them, and Jack will smile into his laptop.

 


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Kent surprises him one day, showing up out of the blue, invading the Haus with his swagger and his Stanley cup and his intoxicating presence and Jack can’t breathe. His heart races and he makes a fist, nails digging into his palms. He feels seventeen again, awkward, angry, and inadequate, heart racing and ears pounding. Jack must have said something to him but he doesn’t know what, because Kent responds before being bombarded with requests for pictures and autographs and hockey tips. Jack escapes up the stairs. Kent know where to find him.

That night Shitty finds Jack sitting against his door that night, earbuds in, eyes closed. Shitty sees the tears and leaves quietly. The next morning a plate of pancakes from the dining halls makes its way to Jack’s desk.

 


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Some people watching the game would say that Jack wasn’t thinking straight that day, but that wasn’t accurate, he knew what he was doing, he was just…being cavalier with his safety. He made a risky play and paid for it with a check that caused a few screams from the crowd. The doctors said he was lucky that he didn’t have a concussion, the way his helmet went flying across the ice, this really could have been bad, you’ve can’t be this reckless, Jack. The bruised ribs bench him for the next few games.

 


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When Jack comes out to Shitty later that year, Shitty claps him on the back and thanks him for trusting him with this information. He tells Jack, you know that you’re the fourth person this week to come out to me? Jack is still hyped up on adrenaline and he laughs. He laughs because it’s real, he did it, he hasn’t been struck down by lightning for saying the words I’m gay.  He’s been carrying that weight in the back of his mind for too long. Shitty promises to keep his secret until he’s ready to come out to the rest of the team.

 


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He doesn’t know how to come out to his parents, so he buys them a self help book for parents of gay kids and just leaves it on the table when he’s leaving for his early flight back to Boston at the start of junior year. His parents see it that night and call but he doesn’t know what to say to them so he doesn’t answer. After a day of radio silence they call Shitty, who bursts into Jack’s room while he’s unpacking, still on the phone with Alicia. He shoves the phone into Jack’s face, saying:

“You had better fucking talk to your mother, Jack Laurent Zimmermann, she thinks you are dead in a fucking gutter somewhere since you haven’t picked up her calls. DON’T MAKE ME ASK YOU AGAIN.”

His bounces his knees up and down as he takes the phone from Shitty. His mum’s voice comes over the speaker. I love you. We love you. No matter what. You know that nothing will change that. Jack wasn’t sure what he expected but he’s so relieved, tears are streaming down his face and he tells her I know, I just didn’t know how to say it. Sorry I didn’t pick up your call. She hears the words he wants to say. (I didn’t want to disappoint you again. I hated myself so how could I expect you to love me. It’s hard enough being the family fuck-up and I didn’t want to be gay too.)

 


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Jack loves early morning runs. It’s a beautiful rhythm - breathe in, breathe out, one foot in front of the other, again and again. He runs over the bridge just as the fog of dawn clears. He closes his eyes and basks as the first rays of sunlight hit his face.

 


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There’s a difference between being gay in theory and being gay in practice, Jack realizes. The self loathing doesn’t go away when you come out. It keeps coming back, sitting in the back of his head to make him feel anxious and ashamed. He hates that he can’t stop hating himself. So he doesn’t tell the rest of the team.

 


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When his therapist asks if he’s tried to start dating, he pauses just long enough for his therapist to raise an eyebrow. He hasn’t, he tells her, but there’s someone he’s interested in.

 


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Jack’s not sure what to say to Bitty when he leaves for the year. He gets through the part he rehearsed in his head about the hit, and the team captain vote, but he chokes up when he gets to the last section. I’ll really miss you over the summer. I’ve grown quite fond of you over the year. You mean a lot to me. Instead he tells him to eat more protein. He hopes Bitty gets what he’s trying to say.

 


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At the start of every year Shitty asks Jack if he wants to go through Hazeapalooza with the frogs. It’s their senior year and Jack’s feeling better than he has in a long time, so he says yes. Shitty pretends in front of the team that he didn’t know Jack hasn’t done it but they both remember the concern from the team that freshman Jack couldn’t handle it. It’s more fun that he expected. He has to keep his face down to avoid laughing out loud at Bitty’s ultimatum of pies or sweaters, anticipating Shitty’s reply before he even says it. Shitty sees him and tells him to quit giggling and take this seriously.

 


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Talking with agents and GMs pierces the Samwell bubble that Jack has been living in. He feels like he’s back to square one in some ways, just a kid trying to live up to his dad’s reputation. His therapist reminds him that you’re stronger now than you were then. She’s right, he thinks, he took the shattered pieces of his life and built it back up, gluing the cracks together so that he’s stronger than before. That doesn’t stop his hands from shaking.

 


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Ransom starts noticing that Jack’s phone goes off every evening at 8:45, and one night he offers to help Jack fix it so it goes off in the morning instead, you know, like a regular alarm clock. Jack laughs it off, saying that I know how to work a phone, I’m not an old man yet but he changes the reminder to a silent one.

 


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At least, he thought he changed it to a silent reminder. He’s working on his final project for his food history class (Bittle, I’m messing up your project, this looks awful) and hears it go off. Bitty instinctively grabs the phone to slide the alarm off and sees 1. Life is better when I can remember… before the words cut off. Jack sees Bitty’s eyes linger on the screen and stares down at the pie and 100, 99, 98, 97, breathe in, breathe out, close fist, open fist, 92, 91, breathe.

Jack can practically hear Bitty’s face falling, and knows that he’s thinking Jack will shut him out again like he always does when he gets too close. But Jack doesn’t want to keep shutting him out. So he opens his eyes takes a shaky breath in and gives Bitty a little smile and a shoulda turned that on silent! and keep laying strips of dough on the top of the pie.

 


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When Kent shows up at Epikegster Jack feels stronger than before. He remembers what he says this time. And he tells Kent to get out, that he can’t come to my fucking school unannounced and corner me in my room and expect you to do whatever you want and it’s something he’s needed to get off his chest for a while. They haven’t been the wonder duo of hockey for a long time and Jack doesn’t want to be that version of himself again. He’s better without Kent. Kinder, healthier, happier.  

But when he opens the door there’s Bitty, a flush creeping up his neck. How much did he hear? Kent leaves with a sneer on his face and an I’m sure that’ll make your dad proud.  

He didn’t tell Kent that he shut him out because he couldn’t look him in the eye after the overdose. He didn’t tell Kent he misses him too.

And he doesn’t talk to Bitty for a week.

 


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When Lardo asks Jack if he thinks it’s too late for her and Shitty, he tell her that it’s not. Not because he believes that, necessarily, but because he can’t bear the thought it being too late for him and Bitty.  

 


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He knows caffeine makes his anxiety worse but he really needs to get ahead on his thesis work. So he downs three coffees and is focused for two hours, but by midnight his heart is racing and he stands up, knocking his chair over onto the ground. His eyes dart around the room - is Shitty next door? No, he’s off with Lardo -  Is anyone still up? He looks at the chair on the floor, then up at the ceiling. He needs to get out of the room, he swears the walls weren’t this close to him before. His head spins.

“Jack I heard a noise what’s -“

Bitty’s sentence cuts off when he sees Jack standing with palms pressed into the wall, breathing like he just ran five miles. When he asks what’s wrong Jack is shaking and Bitty sees the three empty mugs as Jack manages to get the word “caffeine” out. Bitty brings Jack the largest water bottle he can find in the kitchen and says hey there, just drink this, the caffeine will wear off soon, I promise. Let’s go outside, Mama always says a nice walk will help anyone sleep. Jack’s not one to refute Mama Bittle’s medical advice so he follows Bittle down the stairs. His legs are shaking now, and they’re barely past the front door when he sinks to his knees on the grass. Bitty, bless his tiny Southern heart, goes with it, what a great spot to see the stars, Jack, good thinking, and Jack lies down on the grass in, two, three, four, hold, two, three, four, out, two, three, four while Bitty lies down next to him and chatters on about goodness knows what. It’s a good forty minutes until Jack has calmed down but Bitty’s still there.

Jack’s never had someone do that for him before. Kent used to give him pills to stop the shaking. His parents would just give him sad looks. His teammates never knew what to do so they would leave him alone.

He decides to get a new oven for the Haus kitchen, once his signing bonus from the Falconers comes through.

 


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Bitty is a little surprised to learn that Jack loves to cuddle so much. He hates to be touched normally, but he loves to wrap his arms around Bitty, to get all tangled up and feel the weight and the warmth of each other’s bodies. Bitty’s like a lightening rod for Jack, taking all that anxiety and siphoning it off to the ground. They fall asleep like that most nights now.  

It’s moments like these that Jack adds to his list of reasons to stay in recovery.

 


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One night Shitty accidentally finds Bitty in Jack’s room. It’s the first warm spring evening of senior year, and it’s almost one in the morning but Shitty was working on his thesis so he didn’t check in earlier. He sees Bitty’s head resting on Jack’s chest, Jack’s arm around Bitty and one of those illusive smiles brushed onto Jack’s face.

Shitty closes the door to their shared bathroom quietly, grinning to himself. He’s not surprised.