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Rattling Cages

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Nolan got his diagnosis in early August, after a summer spent trying to work out and ending up lying in his bed, trying to hold his head as still as possible, wishing that he could turn off all of his senses. 

He called AV first; told him and got passed on to one of the Flyers’ doctors who put him in touch with a neurologist in Winnipeg. Nolan went in and got an MRI and so many blood tests his arm was bruised and just spent fucking hours answering questions and getting led around by nurses, and a few days later, the neurologist called him in and Nolan called the Flyers doctors and put them on speaker, and then he got told he had a migraine disorder.

Nolan had honestly been expecting something worse. He still remembers his first thought after the doctor said it all solemn: Well if I’d known it was just headaches and not a fucking tumor I never would’ve told anyone. 

They talked him through their initial treatment plan. The neurologist warned him that treating migraines was hit or miss, but the doctors from Philly assured him that he would be good by preseason, and so Nolan just did what they told him. Suffered through his migraines, which got worse and worse over the course of the month, and waited until the no-caffeine no-preservatives no-sugar diet he was on and the pills he was taking started working. 

Travis facetimed him not long after his diagnosis, on one of the days Nolan didn’t have symptoms. Nolan was sitting on the back porch at his parents’ house, blackout sunglasses and a snapback pulled over his eyes, just enjoying the feeling of the skin of his chest and shoulders slowly heating up and sweating in the sun. 

“Patso, what's up!” Travis yelled right away, phone right up under his chin, big white smile and glowy tan, his voice excited and familiar and loud.

Nolan turned the brightness on his phone up a notch and put the volume down as quiet as it would go. “Hey, Teeks,” he said, glad Maddie and Aimee were out so they couldn’t hear how ridiculously fond his voice was, like he was talking to a fucking puppy.

“Dude, you wouldn’t believe the pickerel I caught today,” Travis said, and Nolan could hear and see him vibrating with happiness the way he always got when he was on the lake. 

Nolan pulled in a long breath, feeling like his lungs were fuller than they’d been in forever; feeling like he was sucking smoke out of TK’s mouth; getting a hit of energy off him like he always did. He knew some people--Nico--didn’t really get why they were friends, and Nolan would never explain it to another person this way, but being around Travis made Nolan feel like he was more of himself than he was any other time. Like he could stretch out and feel things more and wake up all the way instead of always being half distracted by hurting and trying to act how he was supposed to and always walking on the edge of a cliff about to fall off and finally have everyone agree that he was a failure. 

“Yeah?” Nolan asked, and that was enough to have Travis telling the story of reeling the fish in, how it was heavy and big and fought against him the whole way.

“You’re a pro fisher, bud,” Nolan told him.

“Fucking rights, Pats. When you come down here again I’m sure you’ll catch some monster and embarrass me again, though.” Nolan smiled against the sun on his face. “What have you been doing?” Travis said, and Nolan would never get tired of the way Travis asked him questions like he really, really wanted to know the answers. 

Nolan thought about telling him about the migraine shit then. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust Travis with it--he knew Travis wouldn’t think he was just being a baby. Knew Travis wouldn’t tell anyone if Nolan asked him not to. But he just felt too happy in the moment, all warm from the sun and Travis’ happy voice on the phone, the lack of pain in his head making him feel light and energetic in a way he hadn’t in days. Maybe the treatment’s working, he thought. And if it is, then I’ll be on the ice with him in two weeks. 

He decided he’d tell Travis then. “Dude, I had the craziest fucking headaches all summer,” and then it would just be some weird thing that had happened to him and was over. 

So on the phone that day he just told Travis, “I’ve been sleeping with my parents’ dog at night and I kind of think I want one when I get back to Philly.” 

And Travis just said, “Oh holy shit, yeah, babe, we need a dog so bad,” pet name slipping out like it was nothing, and Nolan felt it in his stomach. Felt in his bones, suddenly and out of nowhere, that this was going to be the season. Had this little daydream of hoisting the Stanley Cup with Travis, leaning over to kiss him under the glint of the silver, their lips tilting together so naturally you could tell it was something they did all the time. 

 

***

 

Two weeks later, Nolan was back in Philly but banned from going to the rink, and his head had gone from hurting pretty bad most of the time to being fucking unbearable every single day. 

All his coaches and trainers and doctors agreed that he wasn’t going to start camp or play in the preseason, and Nolan couldn’t really argue with them when he couldn't really even move.

The day before camp was set to start, he still hadn’t seen Travis, whose flight was getting in at basically the last possible minute before their first training session, because Travis always hated leaving the lake.

Nolan wasn't going in to train, but he paced around his apartment all day like he was a rookie again getting ready for his first camp, because it was the day the coaching staff was going to tell the whole team about Nolan's diagnosis and one of the team's doctors was going to explain to a room full of big tough hockey players that migraines were a real and painful thing just like a muscle injury or a bone break. The team of medical people who suddenly seemed to control Nolan’s entire life and were all really into "educating" and "helping people understand" had told him they’d talk the team through it, and Nolan pretended he didn’t give a shit.

He texted Travis two hours before the meeting, "I guess I'm out for a while."

"Wtf no ☹" Travis wrote back right away. "I'm coming over after practice."

 

When he opened the door to Travis, he already knew something was different. He and Travis had keys to each others’ apartments and an unspoken rule that they didn’t even need to knock before letting themselves in, but Travis tapped lightly on the door and then waited in the hallway even after Nolan opened it.

“Did you lose your key?” Nolan asked, and then thought, That’s not what I fucking want to talk to him about. Because Travis was in front of him, solid and looking good, all summer tan and sturdy, and so even though he was standing an unusually respectable distance away and still hadn’t stepped into Nolan’s apartment, Nolan ducked through the doorway and wrapped Travis up against him.

“Hey Patty,” Travis said, his voice quieter than Nolan thought he’d ever heard it. He brought his hands up to Nolan’s ribs and rubbed them up and down a couple times, and Nolan breathed in a huge lungful of the spiced smell of Travis’ shampoo. “Are you feeling alright right now?" Travis asked, and only when Nolan said yes did he come in. 

And Nolan was feeling mostly okay--the sunlight through the curtains was a little stabby and bright, and he couldn’t stand to have any of the lights in his apartment on, but his head wasn’t bothering him too much compared to, like, the day before. 

And Travis was in his apartment, all energy and stories and his smile and his shoulders and his voice; the way he smelled and moved and just, like, so much shit Nolan hadn’t even really realized he missed until now. 

They ordered dinner and he stayed late, asked Nolan a few perfunctory questions about his migraines but didn’t really seem to want to go into that much detail. Which was fine with Nolan, basically, because why would he want to get into all that when he was having a good day? He figured Travis would come over when he actually had symptoms soon enough, and then he could kind of see what it did to Nolan first hand, and Travis was a hands-on learner anyway.

So he just let himself have a good night with Travis, and when Travis left to go up to his apartment to sleep, Nolan walked him to the door and told him, “This is our year, Teeks,” and at that point he still believed it. 

 

***

 

It made him so fucking annoyed to listen to his doctors say it in their reassuring little voices, but it was also, like, true: migraines weren’t just headaches. They made him feel like a fucking troll who couldn’t stand to be out in the light. They made him want to throw up just from pain. Made his ears ring and his brain feel like it was pushing up against his skull and the roots of his teeth ache. He could barely walk, during the worst of them, because he was so dizzy and disoriented. 

But on the morning of G’s welcome back team party, Nolan felt good. Hung over from the migraine he’d had the day before, greasy and a little lethargic because he’d slept through almost all of the last 24 hours, but pain free, which was great, by his new standards. 

He and Travis drove to the party together, obviously. They walked in and made a few rounds together, saying hi to some of the guys. Everyone treated Nolan basically normal--“Hey man, how was your summer? Bummed you’re not back with us yet.” It felt good to be around his team, to tell inside jokes and have Travis next to him and have everyone kind of know that they were a unit, all, “oh fuck Teeks and Patty are here, hide the Rumchata.” 

Nolan eventually just settled into a lawn chair next to G. It was his party, but he was letting Laughts man the grill and just sitting back and glaring at everyone. 

“Hey G,” he said as he sat down.

“Hey Nolan,” G said back, tilting his beer toward him in greeting. 

And then they just sat there in quiet, and watched their team. 

Nolan stayed in his seat when the food was ready, ignoring all the people walking by with stacked up plates. His diet plan was so crazy fucking restrictive that it was just impossible to do anything other than eat the premade meals the team delivered for him. G gave him a sideways look and said, “We have some, like, fruit. Or, vegetables, inside.”

“I’m fine,” Nolan said. And yeah, the fact that he couldn’t drink or eat with his team was a little bit of a bummer, but whatever, he could ignore it.

Travis got more and more hyper as the night went on. He wasn’t even drinking, that Nolan could see, but he was hanging off people, bouncing from person to person, practically hopping around, and basically fucking shouting every word he said.

“Tell your boy to quiet down,” G said at one point.

“Hmph,” Nolan said, and he was definitely not going to smile about that “your boy” in front of G. 

It wasn’t even dark yet when Nolan felt the first symptoms of a migraine--little tingles in his eyes; the weird little squealing sound coming from the back of his head.  He should have just called an Uber and let Travis have fun. But, like, he wanted Travis with him, obviously, even if Nolan was about ten minutes away from becoming terrible company. 

So he told Claude, “Thanks man, I’m gonna head out,” and went over to Travis where he was talking to Kevin in the yard. He gave Kevin a “please go away” look, and Kevin nodded at him and shoved Travis toward him before speed walking in the other direction. 

Travis turned into Nolan’s space. Cupped Nolan’s elbow for a second and then ran his hand up to squeeze at his bicep. He grinned up at him and said, loud, right in his ear, "Hey Pat!"

"Hey Teeks," Nolan said softly. “Can you bring me home?"

Travis’ face went all concerned and sort of twisted and he agreed right away, keeping his grip on Nolan’s arm and steering him out of the party without even a goodbye to anyone. Maybe they’ll think we’re gonna go fuck, Nolan thought a little gleefully, because he didn’t really give a shit if his team knew he was gay if it also meant they knew Travis was his. 

But they weren’t going to fuck, obviously. Even if Nolan didn’t have a massive migraine by the time they got back to his place they weren’t going to, because they weren’t like, people who fucked each other. They’d never even kissed each other. They’d never even, like, talked about it, even though it felt to Nolan, sometimes, like they’d been together for years; even though TK had called them an old married couple to the fucking media. 

Travis was quiet on the drive and the walk up to Nolan’s apartment, which was super not-Travis. Nolan kind of thought about saying, “Sound doesn’t really make it worse,” but then maybe Travis was being quiet for a whole other reason, and Nolan didn’t want Travis to think that Nolan thought that everything Travis did was about him.

Damn migraines made him stupid, and Travis made him stupid, and the two of them together turned him into a fucking idiot. 

So maybe that was why he didn’t really realize how weird Travis was being until they got into Nolan’s apartment. Nolan collapsed on his end of the couch and put a hand over his eyes, and started thinking about how he would explain to Travis how it felt. And then he realized Travis was still just standing between the door and the couch, in the awkward empty space of the open plan apartment which Nolan had full of not enough furniture.

“So, do you need anything to drink or anything, or...?” Travis let his sentence trail off, but he was standing awkwardly and barely looking at Nolan and it was pretty obvious what he meant: “or am I good to go?”

Nolan had to swallow before he could talk. “Uh, no, thanks for the ride, man. Have a good night.” 

He jerked his head away from Travis so he couldn’t see--whatever. All the weird things that were happening on Nolan’s face, the way it was probably so fucking obvious how bad he wanted TK to come over and sit next to Nolan or right on top of him and settle his hands on the sides of Nolan’s head and stroke his pointer fingers through the hair at his temples. How he’d been wanting it ever since he got his first crazy headache in the summer. 

Nolan closed his eyes and sunk into the couch.

“Feel better, okay? I need ya back on the ice, man,” Travis said, from over by the door.

Nolan grunted back and tried to imagine how it would feel if Travis came over and kissed the top of his head--warm wet breath and soft and indistinct press of his nose and mouth through Nolan’s hair. 

Nolan listened to Travis take three steps, and then open and close the door and just fucking leave Nolan, limp and achey on the couch, his head swimming with pain and the idea of Travis’ lips and fingers and palms.

 

***

 

Starting from that night, Nolan had three weeks of migraines so constant and so screamingly painful that he basically went twenty one days without even feeling like he was alive. 

It was just: wake up from fitful, painful sleep, confirm that he still hurt, go to the bathroom and think about throwing up. Decide over and over again to skip a shower for another day, because standing up for that long and coordinating his fingers enough to open bottles of soap and spread shampoo into his hair just seemed unmanageable. 

His parents called him a lot, and a bunch of guys from the team kept in touch, and doctors and dietitians and chefs came over to make sure he didn’t die, but Nolan was more or less oblivious to anything but how bad he hurt all the time, and, occasionally, in his more lucid moments, how much he wanted Travis to be there.

And when he finally has a migraine free day, the only thing he really for sure knows from those weeks is that Travis kind of fucking ditched him.