Disclaimer: The characters belong to the wonderful Ngozi Ukazu, and the title is from "Home" by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros.
Jack would have expected this whole fake-dating thing to mean a massive shift in his and Bittle's friendship, but it's amazing how little changes. They were already texting frequently and Skyping at least once a week, as well as visiting each other twice a month or so. Now some of their texting and Skype has to do with working out logistics for how to keep up the ruse, and their visits involve spending more time in public and being more physical with their affection, but most things don't really feel that different. They're still Jack-and-Bitty, and part of Jack wonders if that means his parents are right that he has a shot.
Other things do change: the way the press treats him, the number of checks he takes in an average game, the kinds of things he hears his opponents saying about him, and how often his parents are in touch, just to name a few. An aging local newspaper reporter asks him unpleasant leading questions about "what it's like to be gay in the NHL" one too many times—always ignoring Jack's insistence that he's not gay; he's bi—and George gives Jack the green light to stop taking his questions in pressers. To appease the rest of management, George sets Jack up to give an interview about his sexuality to a sympathetic reporter with a national audience, which leads to Jack frantically staying up until two a.m. with Bittle on Skype crafting the perfect relationship backstory, to make sure they're on the same page and don't accidentally contradict each other. They decide to say they got together when Jack graduated but had planned to keep it secret until he had at least one season under his belt. Jack wishes he had made a move at graduation.
The Falcs take the news of Jack's orientation well for the most part; a couple of D-men throw him some suspicious looks when the news first comes out, but things revert back to normal pretty quickly. Jack wishes other teams took it that way; instead, he finds himself checked nearly twice as many times per game as he had been before coming out, often with slurs muttered or even shouted in his ears. Tater starts a lot of fights on his behalf, and Jack isn't sure whether to be annoyed or grateful, because it gives the other teams a lot of power plays. (He might be mostly grateful, anyway.)
His parents had previously let him set the schedule for calls for the most part; it's been that way since midway through his frog year at Samwell. Now, though, they call at least weekly to check in, and Jack forces himself to be honest with them, to let them know how sore and bruised he is after games and how much he hates being the target of homophobia, and how things are going with the media and with management and, of course, with Bittle. Bad Bob gives an interview to a sports publication a week after Jack's big interview, and then Alicia does one too, though not with a sports publication, for good measure. His parents say all the right things, and Jack is so, so grateful.
This is especially true because he's watching Bittle's family struggles from afar and wishing he could do more to be supportive. Bittle's father has apparently stopped joining Bittle's mother on the phone when Bittle calls home, and Bittle's mother has advised Bittle not to contact his father because he "needs some time." Jack is pretty sure Bittle's talked to Shitty about it more than he's talked to Jack. Jack doesn't mind. As long as Bittle's getting the support he needs, that's okay.
Four weeks after the photos surfaced online, Jack has a bye week and Bittle doesn't have a roadie, so they plan for Bittle to come stay with Jack for part of the weekend for the first time since the photos—Jack visited Bittle on a Thursday night two weeks ago and took him to dinner in Boston, but Bittle hasn't been down to Providence in almost a month thanks to their schedules. Jack offers to pick Bittle up from Samwell, but Bittle insists it's no trouble for him to take the train.
Jack picks Bittle up at the train station. He'd specified that this time they'd be going out to a really nice place for dinner, and he'd advised Bittle to wear a suit, but somehow he hadn't been prepared for the sight of Bittle in something so formal. Which is ridiculous; the team had gameday suits, and everyone dressed up for Lardo's junior art show. But that was on-campus nice. College nice. Jack isn't sure where Bittle got this suit, but it's not something he's ever seen him in before, and hot damn he looks good. Jack only barely restrains himself from telling Bittle so when he gets out of his car at the train station to wrap Bittle up in a hug.
It's a long hug, long enough that Jack worries he's taking more than he should, but they're in public. He's allowed to do this. They've talked about it—Bittle doesn't want his first kiss to be fake, and Jack doesn't blame him in the least (even though there wouldn't be anything fake about it on Jack's end), but long hugs and handholding come with the territory of pretending to be a couple, so those things will be a part of how they behave in public for the duration of this fake relationship.
The drive is quiet, and then on the sidewalk outside the restaurant Bittle stops and stares through the huge, plate-glass windows. Jack knows the restaurant is full of white table cloths and glittering glasses and shining flatware and men in suits and women in tasteful dresses, but he isn't looking through the windows to see any of that; he's looking at Bittle, who looks . . . concerned? Sad? Something.
"Are you sure, Jack?" Bittle asks, his voice small.
"Sure about what?" Jack asks.
"About eating with me. In there. It's so . . . nice."
"You're dressed for it, bud," says Jack, and then he immediately curses himself for using the pet name. He's been able to rein it in since that first morning after the pictures, but it just slipped out again.
"I know, but—will anyone buy it? That I belong here? With you?"
"Hey," says Jack, as gently as he knows how. "Hey, hey. What's this about?"
"You—you're a millionaire professional athlete whose parents are also rich, famous, and successful. I'm a nobody from nowhere with nothing to offer. The other places were more casual and I could at least pretend I was doing a convincing job of playing the part, looking like I belonged with you, but here? I think every person in this restaurant makes more money in a year than my parents have made in their lives."
Jack shuts his eyes for a second. He wants to scream, Of course you belong with me, but he forces himself to figure out something more appropriate to say instead. He opens his eyes and settles on, "You are not nobody, or from nowhere, and you have plenty to offer. You're Eric Richard Bittle, from Madison, Georgia, and you're the best baker I have ever had the pleasure to meet. You're also one of the best hockey players I've ever had the honor of playing beside, at any level, and you're my best friend. You are kind, generous, forgiving, and gracious. No one's worth is defined by their income—not mine, not yours, not your parents', not my parents', not anyone's in this restaurant."
Bittle looks a little less panicked than before, but still skittish.
Jack continues, "Bittle, you matter more to me than I know how to tell you. We can leave if you want. I don't want to make you go anywhere that makes you uncomfortable. You've done more than enough for me as it is. But please know that if we leave, it will only be because I want you to be comfortable, not because I could ever be ashamed to be seen with you."
"You mean that?" Bittle asks.
"One hundred and ten percent," says Jack.
Bittle takes a deep breath and squares his shoulders. "Okay then. Let's do this."
"Are you sure?" Jack asks.
Bittle nods, looking at the door to the restaurant. "Yes."
So Jack holds the door open for him and gives the maitre d' his name, and she leads him to a table for two in the corner, with a vase of white flowers as the centerpiece. The menus come in thick black folders that aren't at all sticky, and it's nothing like Jerry's and not even much like the Italian place they went last time Bittle was in Providence. Jack looks over his menu at Bittle, marveling at Bittle's strength, his courage, his ability to be vulnerable with Jack, his generosity of spirit to even be willing to get into this situation, and Jack knows that he has never been more in love than he is right now.
He needs to get through this dinner without making Bittle uncomfortable.
He also needs to spend this entire dinner making it clear that Bittle's worthy of being here.
Jack's not sure how to pull off both of those things at the same time, but he's going to try.
"You okay, Jack?" Bittle asks, setting down his menu.
"Huh?" Jack can't marshall a proper word, apparently.
"You seem pretty spaced out. Is it a bad anxiety day? Oh, Lord, here you've been dealing with me and you—"
"I'm all right, Bittle," says Jack. "Just spaced out for a second. I'm not too anxious, I promise."
"If you're sure . . ." Bittle looks unconvinced, but he picks his menu back up.
They're rescued from the awkwardness a few moments later when the waiter shows up. They order, and once the waiter leaves with their menus Jack reaches across the table to take Bittle's hand. "How are you?" he asks. "I mean, how are you really?"
"I'm fine," says Bittle.
"Please give me more to go on than that," Jack begs, squeezing Bittle's hand just a little.
"Oh, honey, I'm sure you've got more important things to worry about than—"
"No," Jack interrupts, halfway to his captain voice. "I told you already—you matter more to me than I know how to tell you. I may not actually be your boyfriend, but I am at the very least your friend and I care about how you're doing. I want to support you."
"But you've got playoffs coming up and—"
"Bittle, please. Yes, I have things on my plate right now. How you're doing is one of those things on my plate, and I'm not going to take it off of my plate unless you tell me you want me out of your life. I choose to care about you and I'm going to keep choosing to care about you for as long as you'll let me, so please, tell me how you're doing."
Bittle closes his eyes for a moment and then opens them again with a sigh. "All right. All right. I'm . . . surviving, I guess? The team is lovely, of course. But, even with them being great, hockey kind of sucks right now because just about every team we've played in the last month has had it out for me. I'm getting checked a lot, and I'm taking it okay—I'm not fainting or anything—but it still sucks, and it's hard, both mentally and physically, to take all those checks, and a lot of the refs aren't calling half the stuff they should. Holster has started a bunch of fights on my behalf, and surprisingly so has Dex—I'm not sure if this means he likes me now or if he just wants an excuse to drop gloves—but that kind of just amps up the homophobia, even though you'd think Holster would be kind of intimidating.
"And then there's school, and like I know I've never been the best at keeping up with my assignments, but it's harder now that I'm a junior, especially with hockey being what it is. And my father still isn't speaking to me and my mother seems to blame me for that even though I didn't choose to be gay or to be outed, and I've had to lock down my YouTube channel's comments and my Twitter because I was getting so much homophobia through both of those channels, too.
"And I guess some things were just easier to deal with when I thought that being gay was my fault? Like, when I was younger and people were mean to me because of who I was, I assumed that I was doing something wrong and the way I was being treated was punishment. But now that I've spent a while at Samwell I know that being who I am isn't bad and isn't something to be ashamed of, and so I feel mad instead of guilty, and that's . . . harder to handle, in some ways? It makes me want to lash out instead of in, but I don't think I can. Like, that would be bad, you know?
"Ugh. I'm just so stressed and I don't even know what it's about. I mean, it's kind of everything: worried that I'll fail a class or that I'll get checked hard enough to really injure me or that I'll snap at my mother or that I'll slip up and let someone know that we're not really dating—it's just a lot, you know?"
Their food comes then, and Bittle promptly shuts up. As soon as the waiter leaves, Jack says, "I'm so sorry, Bittle. That all sounds awful. And if you need to not do this anymore, I totally understand. I think we've been seen in public together enough, and I can say you're busy for a while and then say we broke up when people stop buying that. It'll be fine."
"Jack, I can't put that on you going into playoffs," says Bittle.
"Why not?" Jack asks. "When this started, we said it would last a matter of weeks, not months. It's been four weeks. You've done what I asked of you, and it's cost you a lot. You don't have to keep doing this."
"You know that us fake breaking up won't solve the problem of me being out, or of needing to keep secrets, right?"
"I know," says Jack. "But being here right now is a drain on your time, and I promise that you belong here and that I want you here, but I also understand that time is a finite resource and that you probably have better things to do."
Bittle's got his head down, so it's hard to tell, but he might have tears in his eyes. "Are you always this nice when you break up with someone?"
Jack grimaces, thinking of that final screaming match with Kent. "No, unfortunately. And what do you even mean? This isn't a breakup."
Bittle sniffles and looks up at Jack, tears now clearly visible, though they haven't started to fall. "Isn't it?"
"How could we break up if we were never really together?"
Bittle shakes his head and shuts his eyes tightly, and a few of the tears leak out of his eyes. He swipes at them with the back of his hand. "Right. Right. Of course." Coming from someone else, that could be sarcastic, cutting; from Bittle, it's resigned, and somehow that's worse.
Jack sets down his fork and abandons his seat in favor of kneeling besides Bittle's. "Did you forget this wasn't real?" he asks quietly, trying to be gentle.
"I'm sorry," Bittle whispers. "I'm sorry. I've just been so stupid."
Jack takes his hand. The back is still a little wet, getting sticky, from Bittle's tears. "You're never stupid, bud," Jack says, and this time the endearment is intentional. "Can you tell me what's going on?"
Bittle shakes his head, lips pressed together, and a couple more tears fall. He wipes them away with his other hand. "You'll hate me," he whispers.
"I could never hate you," Jack replies, quiet but firm. "Never. I promise. I just want to make you stop feeling like this."
Bittle sniffles a little and wipes once more at his face. The next breath he takes is steadier. He looks like he's gearing up to take a check, and Jack is at once enormously proud of him and overwhelmingly ashamed that Bittle would ever need to brace himself like that just to say something to Jack. "I love you, all right?" says Bittle quietly. "I think I would have agreed to this anyway, but I have to admit that part of me just wanted to know what it would be like to date you. Part of me even hoped you'd fall for me along the way, that all this acting would change how you felt about me and would give me a chance. And I don't want it to be over because that'll mean I missed my chance, especially with you in the spotlight the way you are. I can't imagine the press would look good for either of us if it appeared we were on-again, off-again. But that's assuming you could ever fall for me in the first place, which is clearly ridiculous, and I just need to get over you so I can be happy for you when you find someone you can actually love. So I can be the best friend you deserve."
"Bits," says Jack. "I love you too."
Bittle frowns. "Like the way you love Shitty?"
Jack shakes his head, smiling a little. "No. Shitty's great, but no. I'm in love with you, Bits. I never wanted this to be fake, but I never thought it could possibly be real."
"Jack Laurent Zimmermann, if you are saying that just to get me to stop crying, you tell me right now."
"I would never, Bits. I've been in love with you for almost a year, and I've been too cowardly to do anything about it. I promise you I'm telling the truth."
Bittle places his free hand lightly on Jack's cheek. "Don't call yourself a coward, honey."
"I have been, though, where you've been concerned," Jack insists.
Bittle shakes his head. "There's been so much change in your life in the last year. Graduating, signing with a team, moving, being outed—I couldn't possibly blame you for not wanting to risk losing your best friend because you misread a situation."
Jack closes his eyes. "You're too good to me, Bits."
"No such thing," says Bittle. "You should go back to your seat before people start wondering what's going on. Somebody may have already gotten a picture of you kneeling here and me crying and started a proposal rumor."
"Oh, God," says Jack quietly as he stands, leaning backward a bit once he's standing to see if he can crack his back. That's probably not something to do in polite company, but he's pretty far beyond caring. Bittle loves him and there's no one else in this restaurant he gives a fuck about impressing. "A proposal rumor. That's the last thing we need."
"Yeah, we've probably had enough decisions made for us by the overzealous paparazzi," Bittle says as Jack takes his seat.
"Definitely," says Jack. "So, we're in love, eh?"
"I've been loving you for so damn long," says Bittle. "I just can't believe you love me back."
"Why not?" Jack asks. "You're kind, good at hockey, talented, funny, hot—the whole package." When Bittle hides his face in his hands, Jack says, "Sorry, too much?"
"Jack Zimmermann thinks I'm hot," Bittle mutters into his hands.
"Is that a 'yes' on 'too much'?" Jack asks.
Bittle lowers his hands and says, "It's a lot, but I don't think I could ever get tired of hearing it. I just don't know how to handle it, you know? A month ago I still thought you were straight."
"Oh right, you did," says Jack. "And then I kissed your forehead in a bar and shot both our lives to hell."
Bittle reaches across the table and takes Jack's hand. "Has it been that bad for you, honey?"
Jack shrugs. "The checks and the press have both been more than I would've liked to deal with, but my parents have been great and so has George. Plus, I'm not trying to juggle school with all of this. I got off a lot easier than you."
Bittle frowns. "It was your name in all the headlines."
"Still, I've had a lot more support than you've had," Jack counters.
"I suppose," says Bittle. "Thanks for suggesting that I talk to Shitty. He's been a lifesaver." Then Bittle releases Jack's hand in favor of clapping a hand over his mouth. "Oh, Lord, he is going to chirp me so much when he finds out we've gotten together for real."
"Yeah? Why?" Jack asks.
"I've spent the past month complaining to him about how hard it was to pretend to date you while being in love with you," Bittle explains. "I thought I didn't have a chance, and now here we are, actually together." He goes rigid suddenly. "We are actually together now, right?"
"Bittle, of course," says Jack. "We've both desperately wanted a chance with each other, and we're already publicly out as a couple. Why would we pass this up?"
"I don't know," Bittle mutters. "It just seems a little too good to be true."
"Believe me, that's mutual," says Jack.
They don't stop smiling for the rest of dinner.
Jack wakes up the next morning to another call from George. "Did you get engaged last night?" she demands. Jack decides to count his blessings: at least this time George is asking rather than assuming the press has gotten it right. Also, this time Bittle is in his bed, snuggling into his side.