Disclaimer: The characters belong to the wonderful Ngozi Ukazu, and the title is from "Home" by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros.
Jack wakes to the sound of his phone ringing. His head pounds fiercely as he reaches over to check who's calling. George. Shit. He swipes to answer the call and holds the phone a few inches from his head, knowing that whatever comes next is going to make his headache worse.
"Jack!" says George. "Finally. Thank God. We need to get a statement out in the next few hours—TMZ already has an article speculating about your sexuality, and Deadspin's headline is flat-out calling you gay."
"What?" is the only word Jack can muster. What happened last night? There's a reason he never gets this drunk.
"Oh, God, you haven't seen?" It only sort of sounds like a question.
"I just woke up," says Jack.
"There are pictures of you and one of your college teammates. The small one? Blond? Cuddling at the bar last night. You're kissing his forehead, or at least that's what it looks like." George sighs. Meanwhile, Jack's heart is racing. "You could have told me, Jack. I thought you trusted me more than that."
"What? George, I can explain—it's not what it looks like—"
Now the expulsion of air on the other end of the line is too harsh to be a sigh; it's more of a huff. "You don't need to lie to me. I definitely thought you trusted me more than that. I have literally been in this position—have you forgotten that?"
"Look," George interrupts. "You've just been outed, and that sucks, and as a friend I want to be there for you, and I'm sorry that that's not how this phone call is going, but I've got a goddamn job to do and that means what I need from you is a sense of direction for next steps." When she doesn't get a quick response, George sighs and then says, "Okay. I can give you two hours, but then I'm going to need to hash out a plan. Talk to your boy and figure out how much information you want to give the public."
And then, before Jack can say anything else, she hangs up. Jack sits up slowly and then pushes to standing, cradling his forehead in one hand. Ugh. Hangovers are the worst. He makes his way to the guest room, pushes the door open, and just takes in the sight of Bittle's sleeping form for a moment. Bittle's tangled up in the light gray sheets, the slate gray comforter kicked to the foot of the bed. His face, which is the only part of him Jack can see clearly right now, is peaceful, even slack. It's not Jack's favorite expression—Bittle has several smiles that Jack vastly prefers over his sleeping face—but it's a good one nonetheless and one that Jack rarely ever gets to see.
To delay waking Bittle up, Jack unlocks his phone and goes to Deadspin. It must be a slow day because the grainy cell phone picture of himself and Bittle at the bar is the first thing he sees on the page. Yep, he was definitely kissing Bittle's forehead, and Bittle was nearly in his lap. It's not a particularly sexy picture; honestly, it's just soft, and if one of their friends had taken it Jack would probably save it on his phone and look at it while traveling on roadies or before games for luck. The headline is just JACK ZIMMERMANN GAY. Jack huffs. He knows better than to expect nuance, creativity, or fact-checking from a publication like Deadspin, but still. He can hear Shitty's voice in his head: "The bi erasure is strong with this one."
Jack's screen dims and he realizes he's been staring angrily at the headline for a bit. He taps the screen, spares one more look at the picture, and then walks into the room and shakes Bittle's shoulder.
"Huh?" Bittle grunts. Jack is far enough gone that he finds it endearing.
"Sorry, bud, but I need you to wake up," says Jack, and then he immediately curses himself for the use of the pet name. He hasn't called someone "bud" since Kenny—since Parson. Bittle has never heard him use a pet name for anyone. The best he can hope is that Bittle's still too asleep and hungover to notice.
"Don't wanna wake up."
"Bittle, we're in Deadspin and TMZ."
Bittle shoots into a sitting position, eyes flying open. "We're what?"
Jack's phone has gone dark, but he unlocks it and hands it to Bittle, who stares at it for several seconds and then hands it back to Jack.
"How are we going to deny this?" Bittle asks.
Jack doesn't know, and he's about to say so, but then it hits him, hard: if he denies this now, he's never going to be able to come out. But not denying it . . . that'll put Bittle in the spotlight, probably for months to come. He closes his eyes and rubs at them with the heels of his hands, takes a deep breath, and then says, "What if we don't?"
"What?" Bittle asks, a little shocked and a little breathless.
"I know this is a huge thing to ask, and I promise I won't be mad if you say no. But if we deny being in a relationship now, I'm probably never going to be able to come out."
"Come . . . out?"
Oh God. Did Bittle not actually hear as much at Epikegster as Jack thought? "I'm bi," says Jack. "I'm so sorry—I thought you knew, after Kent showed up at Epikegster."
"Oh," says Bittle, his voice small. "Oh, wow. Jack."
Jack gives Bittle a moment and then says, "Yeah. And I'd been wanting to come out someday, probably in the next year or two but definitely before my career is over. And if I play the no-homo card now, I don't think that'll ever be possible." He sighs. "But we have to think about your wellbeing, too. Being in a fake relationship with the first out NHL player would suck. It would suck a lot. I want to give you an out here. If you want us to deny it, we can deny it."
Bittle glares at him, but there's something soft in it. "Jack. I am not going to make it harder for you to be a queer professional hockey player. If this would help, I'm in."
"You don't have to—"
"We have each other's backs," Bittle says. "You taught me that, better than anyone. Let me have yours right now, yeah?"
"Are you sure? This is going to suck."
Bittle puts on the face that has Jack convinced he'll get the C next year. "I'm sure."
"Okay. Let's call George."
George picks up on the first ring and says, "Jack, thanks for getting back to me."
"Have you drafted statements?" Jack asks.
"I'm good at my goddamn job, Zimmermann. Of course I've drafted statements. I can give them to you from least-invasive to most-invasive, if that's okay."
Nothing is okay, but Jack takes a deep breath and says, "All right."
"Right. Option one. 'Jack Zimmermann is a valued member of the Falconers organization, and his sexuality and consensual off-ice activities have no effect on his status as such.' That basically confirms you're queer without explicitly stating it, and it doesn't bring your boyfriend into it at all."
Jack thinks that sounds pretty good, but George is on speaker, and Bittle's shaking his head, so Jack asks, "What's option two?"
"Option two is 'The Falconers organization would like to confirm that Jack Zimmermann is indeed—' now, I have 'gay' and 'bisexual' both written in here as options, because we haven't talked about this. If you'd prefer a different adjective than one of those, we can discuss it, but I'm concerned about the hockey-watching public's understanding of words like 'pansexual,' so if you feel okay with either 'gay' or 'bisexual' I think that'll make things easier."
"I'm bisexual, so we're good on that front," says Jack.
"Cool," says George. "'The Falconers organization would like to confirm that Jack Zimmermann is indeed bisexual, and would further like to assert that his sexuality does not affect his value as a member of our team or the fact that he belongs everywhere that our team belongs, including in the locker room.'"
Jack is overwhelmed with gratitude that he wound up on a team where he gets such strong support from the front office. He looks from the phone to Bittle. Bittle's smiling, but he makes a "go on" motion with his hand when Jack catches his eye.
"That one's promising. Is there a third option?"
"Yep. 'The Falconers organization would like to confirm that Jack Zimmermann is indeed bisexual and is in a relationship with a man. The Falconers would further like to assert—' The rest is the same as option two."
"That one sounds good, George," Jack says.
"Good," she replies, and then she says, "I'm surprised. Fifteen minutes ago you wanted to deny the whole thing to me, and now you're okay with publicly confirming your relationship?"
"I talked to Bittle, and I think we both realized that it's for the best to at least try to get ahead of the narrative," Jack explains, and it feels more like lying than the rest of the conversation has.
"You call your boyfriend by his last name?" George asks, laughing.
"Old habits die hard, eh?" Jack says, glad that George can't see him wince at the mistake.
"I suppose," George says. "You were teammates, after all. Okay, that's all I need from you for now. You're probably going to have to do press during games more often than usual for a little while here, but I'll back you up if there are specific outlets that treat you badly that you wind up wanting to avoid. Obviously Deadspin and TMZ are on our shit list even more than usual at the moment." She sighs. "Getting outed sucks, and I don't want to force you to see a silver lining if you're not ready for that or just don't want to. But for me, being outed at least had the upside of being able to go out in public with my girlfriend and act like a couple without worrying about getting found out anymore. You're more famous than I ever was, so of course there's a paparazzi risk for you, but I hope you can enjoy parts of what it means for your relationship to be public, even though you should have been the one to decide how and when people found out about it."
This gives Jack an idea. "Euh, right," he says. "Thanks, George. We're done?"
"We're done," she confirms. "I'm sorry about all of this, again, and I'm so glad you chose to play for the Falcs. My job just got harder, but this isn't your fault and I'm sorry I was so brusque earlier. Have a good rest of your day."
"You too," says Jack, and then he hangs up and looks at Bittle. "Can I take you to brunch?"
Bittle flops backward onto the mattress. "Jack, I am so hungover."
"Oh. Right," says Jack. Now that he thinks about it, so is he. He'd kind of forgotten to pay attention to how his body felt given everything else going on. "Can I make you a hangover breakfast and take you to dinner later, once we feel better?"
Bittle pushes himself up on his elbows to eye Jack quizzically. "Why would you want to do a thing like that?"
Bittle sounds sincere in a way that breaks Jack's heart a little, but Jack can't let on just how much he wants to date Bittle for real, or this will get even more awkward than it's bound to be otherwise. So he says, "I mean, if we're going to pretend to date, shouldn't we actually give them something to believe in? I think George is expecting us to, anyway."
"Just how long do you expect this to go on?" Bittle asks, still eyeing Jack.
"Well, we just confirmed it in a press statement. I'm the first out NHL player, so this is going to take a while to die down." Jack hears what he just said, and all of a sudden it hits him that they're really doing this. He's really doing this. He's the first out NHL player. There's no turning back from this. And no matter how supportive George and the rest of the Falcs organization are, there are going to be plenty of assholes out there. This is hockey.
Oh, God, what has he done?
Jack feels his chest constricting, and, as he hears his breath coming in shallow gasps, his vision begins to close in as well. Then there's a hand on each of his arms. When did Bittle get out of bed? Regardless, Bittle guides him to the bed, gets him to sit down, and rubs his back. Jack sort of wishes Shitty were here—Shitty always counts with him to help him get his breathing under control, and then walks him through his five senses—but Bittle's touch is grounding, and Jack eventually gets himself under control and gasps out, "Sorry."
"You have absolutely nothing to apologize for, Jack," says Bittle, gently but firmly.
Jack wants to argue, but Shitty has trained him not to fight this particular battle, so he just says, "Okay," and then, "Thanks for—well. That was . . . good. Of you."
Is Bittle blushing? "Glad I could help."
Jack tries to remember what they were talking about right before the panic attack, but it's hard, so he says, "You had a question that I didn't quite answer, right? Can you remind me what that was?"
"Oh, don't worry about that," says Bittle.
"Bittle," Jack says in his captain voice.
"I was just wondering how long you thought we'd be in a fake relationship for."
"I think we should probably keep up the ruse until the buzz dies down," says Jack. "A few weeks, minimum? Maybe longer. There isn't really good precedent for this—I don't know how long people will be interested." He pauses. "Are you up for that?"
Bittle freezes. "I just realized."
"I'm not out to my parents." He laughs a little, humorlessly. "I mean, I guess I might be now."
Bittle puts a hand on Jack's knee. "It's not your fault. Even if we hadn't confirmed anything, the pictures were already up. We were both drunk and careless, but I don't blame you. I know you didn't want to get into this situation either."
Objectively, that's true, but Jack wonders if Bittle would still believe it if he knew about Jack's crush on him. He tries to think of something productive to say and settles on, "Do you want to call your parents? Make sure they find out from you?"
Bittle takes a deep breath and nods. "Yeah. I mean, no, I really don't want to call my parents, but I think it's the best bad option I have."
"Do you want me to stay here?" Jack asks. "Otherwise I can go shower and start making our hangover breakfast."
"You were serious about cooking for me?" Bittle sounds surprised.
"Why don't you go get started with that, or shower of whatever, and I'll come to the kitchen when I'm done?"
"You sure you'd rather do this by yourself?"
Bittle takes a deep breath. "Yeah. I don't really want an audience."
Jack stands, and his headache immediately doubles. "Fair," he says, and then he leaves the room.
Jack stays in the shower for longer than strictly necessary, appreciating his water pressure and the way the water stays hot for much longer than the water at the Haus ever did, but eventually he gets out and starts making breakfast. He knows his cooking skills have nothing on Bittle's—even though Bittle is more of a baker than a cook, he's a culinary master in every sense—but he wants to do something nice for Bittle, especially now that he's dragged him into this mess of being publicly out.
Bittle's eyes are red when he comes into the kitchen, after Jack's already managed to cook a bunch of eggs, bacon, and French toast. "Do you want to talk about it?" Jack asks.
Bittle shrugs and sniffles. "Mama said she'd suspected, but Coach seems to have been in denial, and he didn't take the shock well. Mama says he'll come around, but I don't think either of them is pleased about the whole tabloid business, which is a whole extra layer to all this."
"I'm sorry," says Jack, setting a plate of food in front of Bittle, who's taken a seat at the kitchen island. He wishes he could hug Bittle, but the problem with never having gone for hugs outside of cellies is that it would look pretty suspect for him to suddenly start going for hugs outside of cellies.
Bittle shrugs again. "It is what it is, you know? I didn't get disowned."
"Yeah, but how fucked up is it that that's our standard of 'it wasn't too bad'?"
Jack has more to say, but Bittle cuts him off. "Jack. I can't right now, okay? I appreciate that you're outraged on my behalf, but I really need to focus on the positives here so that I can keep being civil with my family and not get disowned, all right?"
Jack's heart aches, but he says, "All right."
Bittle smiles, even though it's a little watery. "Thanks." He takes a bite of his breakfast and says, "Wow, Jack. This is good."
"Surprised?" Jack chirps. "I did have you to teach me for two years; I would hope I managed to learn something."
Bittle smiles again, and it's steadier and clearer this time. "Clearly, you did."
Jack plates food for himself, too, and joins Bittle at the island. "For dinner tonight, I was thinking maybe we could go to this nice Italian place my parents took me to when they visited? It's not super dressy, and I'm sure you brought a button-down and some nice pants, so we should be fine from that perspective. They take reservations and I think they're usually pretty busy, but I should be able to get us a table, probably without even playing the celebrity card. How does that sound?"
"We're really doing this," Bittle whispers. Louder, he says, "That sounds fine, Jack."
"Cool," says Jack, and he grabs his phone and makes a reservation.
When he finishes, Bittle says, "Do you think you should call your parents?"
Jack wants to say, How did I ever think I could function without you in my life? Instead, he says, "That's a really good idea." He finishes eating quickly and picks up his phone to take to the living room.
"I'll get the dishes," says Bittle as Jack leaves the room, and Jack is struck by the sheer domesticity of the moment even though he and Bittle shared the Haus kitchen plenty of times.
Jack calls his father's number, though he's pretty sure it doesn't matter which parent he calls right now. He can picture his parents huddled together at the kitchen table, or perhaps in the den, or on the back porch. Wherever they are, he guesses they're together, and he's honestly surprised they haven't contacted him yet. His only guess is that it's still early enough that either they haven't fully woken up yet or they suspect that he hasn't. The upside of George calling him at 6:00 a.m. is that neither SMH nor the Falcs nor his parents have blown up his phone yet. It's nearly 7:30 now, though. The onslaught is surely coming.
"Jack!" his father answers on the first ring. "Are you all right?"
"Oui, Papa," Jack replies. "I'm okay. I have some news, but I promise I'm okay."
"Is the news about you and Bittle?" his father asks.
"Yes, but not the way you're probably thinking," says Jack. "Are you with Maman? Can you put this on speaker?"
Jack hears a tap and then the sound quality changes. "Hi, Jack," comes his mother's voice.
"Hi, Maman. I take it you've both seen the pictures?"
"Yes," his mother answers. "They're cute, honestly. But how are you doing with being outed?"
"I had a panic attack earlier," Jack admits. "But I think I'm okay now. The thing is, Bittle and I aren't dating. We just got drunk last night and . . . well, I don't remember what happened really—and no, I haven't been making a habit of getting blackout drunk; last night was the first time in a long time—but apparently we got into the position we were photographed in, somehow or other."
"You're not dating?" his father asks. "But the Falcs just released a statement—"
"I tried to deny everything when George called me at six this morning," Jack interrupts, "and George didn't believe me. And then I realized that denying everything now would probably make it harder for me to come out in the future, and I told that to Bittle, and he agreed to pretend to be my boyfriend for a while until the press loses interest. Just to make the story more straightforward and to ease my coming-out." Jack isn't sure if Bittle would want anyone in on the story, but Jack promised after his overdose that he wouldn't keep any big secrets from his parents, and this definitely qualifies.
"But why aren't you dating him?" his mother asks. "You talk about him constantly."
"I don't think he feels that way about me," Jack says.
"Jack, I know it's been a while, but when we came to the family game last year, the way he looked at you . . . I'd be shocked if he hadn't liked you then," says his father. "It's possible you missed your chance, but given how much time you still spend together even though you've graduated, and the fact that you got into the position in the photographs in the first place, I'd be very surprised if he wasn't still interested."
Jack's stomach squeezes. He wants, but he's so sure he can't have Bittle, and he can't really handle the idea that he has a chance. "Papa, don't. He doesn't . . . I can't think about that right now."
"Okay," says his father.
"Thanks," says Jack. "So obviously, you can't tell anyone that the relationship is fake. I'm not going to tell you what to say about me being bi when someone inevitably asks, because you two have been dealing with the media since before I was born, but I wanted you to be in the loop."
"Thanks for telling us," says his mother.
"Let us know if you need anything, all right?" his father adds.
"I will," says Jack, a little overwhelmed by how much he loves his parents and how far they've come in the past several years. "Is it all right if I go now? Bittle's still at my apartment and he just came out to his parents and it wasn't great."
"Sure," says his mother. "Tell that boy we have his back."
Jack can't help but smile. "Okay."
"Good luck with all this, Jack," his father says. "We love you."
"I love you, too," Jack says, and then he hangs up.
Jack returns to the kitchen and finds Bittle with a dish towel over his shoulder, putting a plate back in the cupboard.
"How was it?" Bittle asks.
"Good," says Jack.
"They don't mind that you're bi?" Bittle isn't looking at him.
"I was already out to them," Jack says. "They walked in on Kent and me the summer I was 17. It took my dad about a day to stop being weird about it—I think my mom told him off—but even at the beginning he was just awkward, not hostile. I told them that we're not really dating, though. I'm guessing not many people can know about that, but I promised my parents I wouldn't keep big secrets from them again, after the overdose, and I was pretty sure this qualified."
Bittle takes a breath and looks like he's going to speak, and then he leaves the room instead. Jack walks to the doorframe and watches Bittle retreat down the hall, toward the guest room or the bathroom. Jack isn't sure whether he should follow. He decides he'll give Bittle a few minutes and then check up on him. Jack isn't sure if Bittle is upset that Jack told his parents that the relationship is fake or if there's something else going on that he doesn't know about or can't pinpoint, but this feels like an odd reaction from Bittle. He kind of regrets that Bittle did the dishes, because there isn't something obvious to keep his hands busy now, and he feels like he'll seem callous if Bittle comes back and finds him scrolling on his phone.
Jack has only been pacing for a minute or so when Bittle returns. "Sorry," says Bittle.
"It's okay," says Jack. "Do you want to tell me what that was about?"
"I think I'm just jealous," says Bittle, looking at the floor. "That you're out to your parents and can be honest with them about everything that's going on right now and I just—I don't have anyone like that, you know? You're my best friend, but you're just as deep in this mess as I am, and I don't think I have anyone I can talk to about this."
"Do you want Shitty?" Jack asks.
"Do you want Shitty to be your person to talk to?" Jack clarifies, belatedly realizing how his initial question could have sounded. "I trust him to keep a secret more than I trust Ransom or Holster."
"He's your best friend," Bittle insists.
"You're my best friend," Jack retorts. "If you want a confidant outside of this situation, I think Shitty would be a good candidate. I can talk to him less while you and I are doing this, if that would make it easier for you to say what you need to say to him."
"Seriously?" Bittle asks.
"That's . . . thanks," says Bittle.
The rest of the day is a mix of naps, working out, and fielding texts, calls, emails, and other forms of messages from friends, family, teammates past and present, and what feels like every other category of people in their lives. Jack's pretty sure Bittle calls Shitty from the guest room at some point, but he doesn't ask. Finally it's dinnertime and Jack and Bittle put on nicer clothes and make to leave Jack's building for the first time all day.
There's paparazzi outside.
Jack and Bittle both see the paps just before they open the door. "We don't have to do this," Jack whispers when Bittle freezes. "They'll probably leave in a few hours, when it's really dark and nothing has happened all day. I can drive you back to Samwell late tonight, later than we planned. We don't have to go out there right now."
"No," says Bittle. "We're doing this." He takes Jack's hand, glances up at Jack, and, at Jack's nod, he pushes the door open and walks outside with his head held high.
The homophobia starts immediately. It's slurs and invasive questions, and Jack realizes that these people aren't here for a picture of the happy couple; they're here to provoke. Jack tries to speed up his walk, because Bittle doesn't deserve this, but Bittle is sauntering, and it hits Jack that Bittle isn't nearly as fragile as he thought, at least not when it comes to this stuff; in fact, Bittle probably has more experience dealing with this kind of thing than Jack does, given the assumptions people make about him. So Jack keeps his gait slow and grips Bittle's hand a little tighter. There's no one he'd rather be in this mess with. Most of all, he's so glad he wasn't outed when he dated Kent. There's no way the two of them would have made it through this kind of an experience with anywhere near this much grace, poise, class, or even solidarity with each other.
It feels like an age before they get to Jack's car, though it's probably under 30 seconds. They have to drop each other's hands to get to their respective car doors. Once they're seated with the doors closed, Jack says, "You were amazing out there," before he can stop himself.
"I grew up in Georgia," says Bittle dryly.
"I'm sorry you had to grow up with that stuff," says Jack, "but I want you to know that you're so much stronger than I gave you credit for your frog year, and your fortitude is impressive as fuck."
Bittle looks at his lap, and Jack can't tell if that's a blush or just the effect of the sunset coming through the windshield. He decides not to try to figure it out, and instead he just starts the car.
At the restaurant, Jack almost forgets this is all fake. He's been to Annie's and Jerry's with Bittle plenty of times and been able to maintain clear sight of the fact that they're just friends, but now he's trying to be a convincing boyfriend and getting lost in the act. He pulls Bittle's chair out when they're shown their table, and he doesn't stop himself from looking at Bittle's gorgeous eyes and compact frame as much as he wants.
Entrees have arrived by the time Bittle stares down his food and says quietly, "So, I've never actually dated anyone before."
"I'm sorry," says Jack. When Bittle winces, he adds, "God, not like that. Just—everyone's going to think this was your first relationship. We need them to think that, even after this is over. But your next relationship is going to be your first, and you won't be able to say that. And also, this is going to be a lot. It'll be a lot for me, and I've dated before and everything, and I'll have the Falcs front office helping me handle things. You don't have a PR department, and you don't have relationship experience, and I'm sorry that you're going to be handling your end of this without those things."
"You're the one who had a panic attack earlier," says Bittle gently.
"True," says Jack. "And you got me through it."
"That's usually Shitty's job, isn't it?"
"I still want you to be able to call him, if you need help with that while all of this is going on," says Bittle. "I'd appreciate it if you didn't ask him what I've talked to him about—not that I think he'd tell you, anyway—but I don't want you to be cut off from your support network just because I needed more people in mine."
Jack isn't sure what the appropriate response to that is, but he settles on, "Thanks."
"You don't need to thank me for saying it's okay if you still talk to your—one of your best friends," Bittle insists. He looks at Jack between his lashes. Is he trying to be coquettish here? It's working, but then anything Bittle might do would probably work on Jack. "Did you really mean it, when you called me your best friend?"
"Of course," says Jack. "I wouldn't lie to you about that."
"Thanks," says Bittle quietly.
"You don't need to thank me for telling you the truth," Jack replies.
"But thanks for letting me be in your life. For taking a chance on me when I was a disaster of a frog and for not forgetting about me now that you've gotten famous on your own terms, and not just through your parents."
When is Bittle going to stop breaking Jack's heart? "Bittle, you are doing me an enormous, massive favor right now, and it's already come at a cost to you," says Jack. "I hope I was a decent captain to you, after the first few months, and I hope I've been a decent friend to you, other than last night, but I don't think I've given you more than decency, and you shouldn't need to thank me for that."
"Jack, do you know how many people haven't given me the time of day because of who I am? Maybe you're right that I shouldn't need to thank you for decency, but let me tell you: the decency and friendship and loyalty I've encountered at Samwell have been a huge damn breath of fresh air that I spent my adolescence fearing I'd never get, and I know how to count my blessings, so. Thank you for treating me well." There seem to be tears in Bittle's eyes, and Jack thinks he might be keeping himself from crying sheerly through force of anger, for all that the speech was ostensibly one of gratitude.
Jack reaches across the table and takes Bittle's hand, because he wants to and he has the cover of being in public, so he can say it was just for show if Bittle questions him. "I'm sorry for the way the world has treated you," he says solemnly, "and I'm glad I've managed to get something right with you." He has to bite his tongue momentarily to keep from saying I love you. He's not in love . . . is he? Oh God, he totally is. He takes a breath and makes himself keep speaking. "You've deserved better, and I want to have your back." The words ping his memory, and he adds, "Oh, and my parents wanted me to tell you that they have your back, too."
Bittle blinks, possibly to deal with the tears in his eyes; possibly in surprise. "Bad Bob and Alicia Zimmermann have my back?"
"Yeah. They think you're great, and they want things to go well for you," says Jack.
"Well, goodness, Jack," says Bittle, rubbing his thumb over Jack's fingers. "I'm flattered."
Jack lifts a shoulder. "I'm glad. They really are just people, though."
"I know," says Bittle. "Is it weird for you when your friends look up to your parents?"
"Look up to? Not really. I look up to them too. Idolize, though—yeah. It is weird. They're fallible, you know? Like, I don't blame them for the overdose, but they could have done a better job with me when I was growing up. And I know there aren't a lot of manuals about how to raise a child when both of you are famous in your own right and still trying to have very demanding careers, and I might have been an unusually difficult child to raise, anyway, with the anxiety, and I realize I didn't come with, like, instructions, but still. There are some things I can pinpoint where they messed up, where I think they could have and should have realized that they were doing the wrong thing if they'd just thought about it a little harder." Jack shakes his head. "Sorry. I shouldn't complain about my parents to you. I know I'm lucky that they accept me and everything. It's just weird when people talk about them around me like none of us are human."
"That makes sense," says Bittle. "You don't need to apologize for having complicated feelings about your parents or the effects of fame."
Jack smiles. "Thanks." He squeezes Bittle's hand and then releases it so he can get back to eating. After swallowing a few bites, he says, "So, how's your first date going?"
"Oh, you know," says Eric. "I almost cried, and I'm still kind of upset, but I'm here with my best friend, and it's not boring or awkward, so I'd say it could be worse."
Jack thinks he might be blushing himself, this time. "I'm glad it's going okay for you."
"How about you?" Bittle asks. "How does this stack up against the other dates you've been on?"
Jack's smile is definitely rueful. "I haven't actually been on a lot of dates. Kent and I mostly just slept together, since we couldn't do anything too date-like in public, and I think we were mostly blowing off steam, anyway. I had some hookups with girls in college, and I guess Camilla and I were sort of a couple for a while, but I don't think either of us was that into it. So this is probably the best date I've ever been on."
Bittle's eyes are wide. "Wow, Jack, really?"
"Yeah," says Jack. "Kent was . . . demanding. And Camilla was boring."
"Still," says Bittle. "It means a lot to hear that you're having a good time."
"I always have a good time with you," says Jack.
Bittle's smile slips for a second, and he whispers, "Do you mean that?"
"Bittle, of course." Jack tries to inject seriousness into his voice without going into full captain mode. "There's a reason you're my best friend."
"I'm never going to get tired of hearing that," says Bittle, and he's smiling again, which is good.
By the time they're done with dessert, Jack's face hurts from smiling so much.
A/N: Credit where credit is due: I first got the idea that Jack and Bitty would be photographed acting couple-y from "anywhere i go, there you are" by astrid_fischer; I got more ideas for how to fake-date a sports celebrity from GhostOfBambi's "Salmon Fishing in the Olympics;" and the crowd of paparazzi is straight out of "Performance in a Leading Role" by MadLori, a fic that has had my heart for seven years now.