Disclaimer: The characters belong to Ngozi Ukazu.
A/N: This is the fifth installment in my series of fics inspired by misheard song lyrics. The real line was "I need you like a heartbeat, but you know you've got a mean streak" from Taylor Swift's "Tell Me Why."
"I'll text you," said Jack, and Eric trusted him, trusted the promise, and yet. That was dangerous. Jack couldn't be out, not now and probably not during his NHL career at all, and Eric had hoped this semester that his feelings were at least a little bit reciprocated, but now Jack was moving on to bigger and better things, cooler and more important people, and how could Eric hold a candle to models and professional athletes and all the other people Jack was about to meet? He felt dazed and euphoric as he finished packing and headed to the airport, despite his doubts, but on the airplane the misgivings started to eat him alive. Surely the kiss had just been a last hurrah for Jack, a way to capture one last good memory at Samwell before moving on. Jack's text (I miss you already) could mean anything, after all.
By the time the plane touched down, Eric was near tears, but he pasted a smile on his face when his parents met him at the baggage claim, and he forced himself to prattle about inconsequential things all the way back to Madison. Around the outskirts of town, though, Eric felt his phone buzz, and he glanced down at it without interrupting his own monologue. It was another text from Jack: Are you home yet? Are you awake? Can we Skype?
Eric's stomach dropped. Jack usually went for phone calls, not Skype. Clearly he felt the need to see Eric's face for this conversation. Which maybe, hypothetically, could be a good thing, like he wanted to look at Eric or something, but that felt unlikely, next to the very real possibility that Jack wanted to let Eric down gently and would feel guilty unless he did it as close to in-person as reasonably possible. Eric kept talking to his parents as he typed back, Soon, and it was a struggle to keep up his stream of chatter until he arrived at his childhood home.
Once inside, Eric waved off his father's offer of help bringing his bags upstairs and lugged them all up to his room himself (this forced him to take multiple trips, and if he was procrastinating Skyping with Jack, well, sue him). But at last Eric's things were in his room and his parents were getting ready for bed and he had no more excuses for avoiding Jack, so he got out his laptop and booted it up and opened Skype. There was a green circle next to Jack's name, and Eric clicked on Jack's picture and then pushed the video icon, his fingers shaking as he did so.
Jack picked up quickly and said, "Eric!" as enthusiastically as Eric had ever heard him say anything. His grin faded after just a moment, though, his eyebrows cinching together as he said, "Bits? What's wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong, sugar," said Eric, striving to keep his voice steady and waving a hand in what he hoped was an airy manner.
"Bullshit, Bits. Please, I don't want to start this with either of us lying to the other." How did Jack go from frustrated to earnest so quickly?
"Start—start what?" Eric asked.
"Oh my God," said Jack. "I thought—Bits, a relationship. Do you not want that?"
Eric gasped. "You—but Jack—you can't—you can't possibly—"
"If you don't want to date me, please just say so," said Jack, his voice tight and wobbly. "And if I've read everything wrong, then I'm sorry for kissing you—no, I'm sorry either way; I should have asked. I'm so sorry. Please, just—if you don't want me, just tell me, and I'll apologize and we never have to talk about it again and I promise I'll back off, and we'll be friends or—or whatever you want, just—"
"Jack," Eric cut in, unable to bear the edge of tears in Jack's voice. "I need you like a heartbeat, but you know you've gotta be straight, or at least pretend you are for the media and the Falcs and everybody."
"Wait, Bits, you're worried about—that?" Jack took a deep breath, and it seemed almost like he was going to laugh for half a second, but then his expression fell even more than it already had. "Oh. Like, you don't want this because it would force you back into the closet? I'm sorry. I didn't think that through. Of course that makes sense. I'm so—"
"Lord, Jack, no," said Eric. "I'm just worried—if anyone found out you're not straight, it could ruin your career. And you—you love hockey so much and you've worked so hard to get where you are. You'd resent me, and you'd be right to, but I don't think I could—"
"Bits, let me make two things clear," Jack interrupted. "First of all, I could never resent you. Ever. And secondly, I chose the Falcs in part because Georgia Martin is the assistant GM. She's a lesbian and she's been out for years, and she asked me a lot about what I expected from locker room culture, what sort of atmosphere I encouraged at Samwell, and she told me about the Falcs organization and how homophobia, racism, and bigotry more generally have no place on any team she's involved with. Even before I fully realized my feelings for you, I'd been thinking of coming out publicly at some point. I don't think it would be a good idea to do it now, but I don't want to hide forever. In a year or two, depending on what I've achieved by that point, I can see myself being ready. And if that's not enough for you, I understand. But I want to be out to the Falcs from the start, and I want to come out publicly in the not-so-distant future."
Eric took a moment to breathe as that sank in, but his breath caught and he found himself crying, the tears he'd been fighting this whole conversation—since he got on the plane, practically—spilling down his cheeks.
"Oh God, Bits, I'm sorry," said Jack. "I'm so sorry for springing this all on you. You don't have to do anything. Please, can I do anything to make this better? Should I go? I can go; you don't need to deal with me and my—"
"Stay?" Eric croaked, still crying.
"Of course, Bits, of course, as long as I can. I always want to stay; I always want more time with you."
Eric just cried harder at that, and Jack launched into another round of apologies until Eric was able to gasp, "You want me?"
"Yes, Bits, oh God, yes—I'm so sorry I ever made you doubt that. Of course I want you."
"But Jack," Eric protested, "you're about to meet so many famous people. How could I possibly keep mattering to you then? How could you still want me after you've met models and professional athletes and—"
Jack chuckled, and Eric was bewildered and offended until Jack said, "Did you forget that my dad is a hockey legend and my mother is a model?"
Eric put his face in his hands. "Do not chirp me, Mister Zimmermann; I am having an emotional moment. I'm having an emotional day."
"I'm sorry," said Jack, and he sounded contrite. "But you really are one of the most important people in my life, and I expect it to stay that way. I already know what fame looks like, and I already know plenty of famous people. Some of them are pretty cool, but I don't care about any of them the way I care about you."
"You mean that?" Eric asked, drying his face with the backs of his hands.
"Yes," said Jack emphatically. "But you haven't said anything about what you want."
"Oh!" said Eric. "I want anything I can get with you."
"You're sure about that?" Jack asked.
"Yes, Jack—oh my goodness, yes," said Eric. "Sweetheart, I have been wanting a relationship with you for so damn long."
"Even though it couldn't be public right away, maybe not even for a year or two?"
"Jack. I want anything I can get with you," Eric repeated.
"I don't want you to get hurt—" Jack started.
Eric cut him off with, "That's sweet of you, sugar, and I appreciate it, but if you think it would hurt less to not be with you then you can't have realized the depth of my feelings."
Jack was quiet for a moment, looking stunned, and then he said, "Oh."
"Sorry, am I coming on too strong?" Eric asked.
"Bits. I'm the one who sprinted across campus to kiss you. I would have no legs to stand on if I thought you were coming on too strong."
"I suppose," said Eric.
"So we're doing this?" Jack asked.
"A relationship?" Eric clarified.
"Can I come visit you?" Jack asked.
"Oh, honey, I'm sure you're busy—"
"Please, Bits. Can I come visit you?"
"I'm not out to my family," Eric hedged. "And I'm just . . . not ready for that, not while I'm living with them this summer. So you can come, but only as my friend, and they'll put you in a separate room from me."
Jack shrugged. "We're going to be doing a lot of hiding in the near future. I'm sorry you don't feel like you can be out to your family, but I'm not mad for my own sake that I'd have to pretend."
"Really," said Jack. "Can I tell my parents, though? They know I'm bi, and they've been impressed with you even longer than I have."
"Sure, sweetpea," said Eric. Then he felt himself start to blush. "Oh my Lord, Alicia Zimmermann knows who I am."
"I love that you're more impressed with my mom than my dad," said Jack.
Eric mock-glared at him. "I told you not to chirp me, Mister Zimmermann."
"I'm not," Jack insisted. "It's genuinely nice."
"Oh," said Eric. Then he yawned.
"I should let you go," said Jack. "You've had a big day, and crying is always tiring."
"You're the one who graduated today, mister!" Eric protested.
"And I'm pretty tired myself," said Jack. "But I'm more concerned about making sure you get rest."
"Such a gentleman," said Eric with another yawn.
"Get some sleep, Bits," said Jack. "We'll talk soon about when I can visit, okay?"
"Okay," said Eric.
"Good night, Bits."
"Good night, Jack."
Eric shut his laptop. He was exhausted, true, but he'd never felt quite so . . . loved. Loved? It was too early for that word, wasn't it? Surely Jack didn't love him. And yet, he felt held and safe and cared for in a way that he hadn't in years, if ever. He quickly changed into pajamas and brushed his teeth—it would have been nice to shower, after the flight, but he didn't trust himself not to keel over—and fell into bed, grinning as he drifted off to sleep.