The setting sun reflected the colors of the white sand that met water so richly blue it almost looked fake. It was just a handful of minutes now before the shore gave way to an orange horizon and deep purple sky. Twilight in the Maldives lasted about ninety minutes before the colors disappeared and the stars came out, but those were Bitty's favorite ninety minutes of the day, and he'd been gone for so long he'd forgotten how majestic it could be.
They walked with their bare toes in the sand, holding hands, quiet apart from the shore that lapped up just to their left. Both of their eyes were on the sun as it made its way to bed, enjoying the peace and warmth before the moment was over and responsibility returned. The sand was silky beneath Bitty's calloused toes, weather worn after years without shoes. Their pace was slow. Everything here was slow, from the steady beat of the waves to the meander of their guests on the boardwalk to lovemaking in their villa, soft, loving, emotional.
Bitty turned his head away from the western sea and to Jack, whose eyes crinkled with many more lines than they used to. It was still Jack's face, though, still the eyes that matched the sea, still the nose that nuzzled that sensitive spot under Bitty's ear, still the lips that told him, day in and day out, I love you so much, Bitty . He'd gotten a few more gray hairs since Bitty had last seen him, or perhaps Bitty had just forgotten them during his month-long absence.
"I'm so happy you're home," Jack told him.
"I'm so happy to be home."
Jack rubbed his thumb along the fourth finger on Bitty's left hand, a common habit in the eight years the band had been there, an action so familiar it brought Bitty's thoughts away from his journey and rooted them right there, hand in hand with his husband, on the beach of the resort that they had owned for ten years. There had been other choices on where to settle — almost anywhere in Africa, really, and a handful of other places — but the moment Bitty set foot in the Maldives he refused to leave. The resort came soon after, a paradise for anyone who had the means to get there.
They stopped when the sun hit the horizon, turned toward it and sat down on the sand. Jack placed his arm around Bitty and held him close, their legs pressed together, their hands linked, their heads touching at the temple. They watched, holding each other, until the sun sank beneath the sea, and then Jack shifted to kiss Bitty's head.
"Did you learn a lot?" he whispered into Bitty's golden hair, so much lighter than it had been back in Providence, now that he lived in the sun.
"So much, sweetpea," said Bitty. "This one woman brought me to her grandmother's house and we made curry for days, literally days, until her grandmother trusted me to make it correctly. That grandmother didn't speak a lick of English but she knew exactly when I made a mistake and would hit my hand, like this." Bitty slapped Jack's hand hard and Jack laughed. "I swear I had blisters by the time I left, but I can make her curry with my eyes closed. And there was this wedding, near the Thar desert, they made a fire pit in the sand and cooked goat for hundreds of guests. I've never seen anything like that in my life but it was delicious. I bet we could do that here for weddings, if people were up for that."
"If they hear you're making it, I think they would," said Jack. "What else?"
"I had a cart in Mumbai for about a week. Lord, you know it gets hot here, honey, but I've never been hot like I was in Mumbai. At least here you can pop in the water if it gets too bad. There all I could do was stand behind pots of rice and veggies and swelter until I felt like I was going to die. I had a great time trying all of what Mumbai had to offer, but I don't miss it, that's for darn sure."
Bitty squeezed Jack's hand. "I wish you could have been with me."
"You know they have people in India waiting for me," said Jack.
"I know… but you just would have loved it. I learned so much and I'm so happy I was able to go. We've been a stone's throw away for a decade and I've wanted to learn their food for ages."
"I'm glad you were able to go. You know you're going to have to make me Indian food every day for the next week, right?"
"Oh, honey, it's going to be longer than a week. I think I might make a new section on the menu just for Indian food… or maybe we can open another restaurant at the other end of the pier."
"Or maybe we could buy another resort," said Jack.
"Now Jack, you know what happened the last time you got overly ambitious when it came to expansion. Our resort is the perfect size. Let's just stick to another restaurant and leave it there, okay?"
Jack frowned and Bitty kissed him, but ultimately he agreed. Bitty stood, wiped the sand off the back of his shorts, and reached out for Jack's hand. Jack held fast to Bitty's hand as they returned to the resort. They reached the boardwalk first and stepped up onto it, running into others for the first time. Most people were retreating inside now that the sun had set, but Bitty smiled and waved to all of them as they passed.
"How is your first day going, Mr. and Mrs. Harris?" Bitty asked a couple from New Zealand who'd checked in at the same time Bitty arrived. Mrs. Harris beamed, clearly still thrilled to be addressed by her new surname.
"It's gorgeous. You were so right to watch the sunset from the beach."
"There's nothing like it in the world," said Bitty. "Have a good night. Let me know if you want those scuba diving lessons!"
They continued up the boardwalk and stopped by the reception building. The restaurant would still be open until nine and the bar until two o'clock, but reception was a twenty-four hour job. Jack and Bitty separated in the lobby, a large but homey space with a counter facing the comfortable seating area, the walls decorated with hand-painted ocean landscapes, a collection that had only grown over the past ten years. Bitty popped into the restaurant. Isuri, one of the locals, was working the hostess stand.
"Oh, Mr. Bittle, you're back from India!" she said.
Bitty gave her a hug. "Nice to see you, Isuri. Did you hold this place together while I was gone?"
"I did the best I could, but I can't make any promises for the kitchen." Isuri gestured toward the double doors that led to the kitchen. Bitty rolled his eyes and walked through the dining room. It should have just taken a few seconds, but ten minutes later Bitty was still chatting with repeat vacationers Jesse and David, who first came from Australia to celebrate their anniversary and now came for every one that followed.
"I'm so glad I got to see y'all. We should go on the jetski tomorrow if you have time," said Bitty. Jesse replied in the affirmative and Bitty finally entered the kitchen. The dinner rush was over by now but the kitchen staff were still keeping busy with the handful of tables left. Everyone shouted a greeting but Bitty had one person in mind he wanted to see. He passed the line cooks and stopped at the expediter, who was organizing completed tickets from the check spindle.
"Hey Shits," said Bitty. Shitty dropped his stack of tickets and turned quickly with a loud shout that surprised everyone in the room.
"BITS!" Shitty embraced Bitty in a tight hug. "Man, where the fuck have you been? I thought for sure you got pinched by the feds."
"Unlike you, Shitty, I do not have any outstanding warrants for my arrest."
"Pssh," said Shitty. "Warrants schmarrants. Some of us committed a necessary crime and what do the police do? Try to make me pay for it? Joke's on you, United States, I get to live in fucking paradise now and yell at people to make food every day."
"Glad to see you still enjoy what you do, Shitty," said Bitty. "I missed you."
"I missed you too, man. You see Lardy Lards yet?"
"She was working reception when I got back. Listen, I have a million ideas in my head right now but I wanted to give this to you before I go apeshit with the menu. Can you make sure we can get these at a reasonable cost?"
Bitty handed Shitty a handwritten list of ingredients that covered the front and back of an airline napkin. Shitty laughed. "Yeah, man, I can look into it for you. Half this stuff they probably have here but I wouldn't be surprised if we need to import the rest of it. Let me guess, you want an Indian section on the menu?"
"Might be a whole other menu and a whole other restaurant," said Bitty. "We're going to talk it over and see if it's worth it, but first I need to know food cost."
"Will do, boss," said Shitty with a grin that Bitty could only half see under his bushy mustache.
"Don't call me that," said Bitty, but he patted Shitty on the back and left the kitchen. It was another ten minutes before he could make it out of the dining room again, this time stopped by the Patels who'd been guests last year as well.
Jack was leaning on the reception counter talking to Lardo and picking through the candy dish for the cherry flavored fruit drops. "Jack, sweetie, this is why we always run out of the cherry ones first," said Bitty when he saw Jack find the last one in the dish and unwrap it before he popped it into his mouth.
"By the way, we need more candy," said Jack to Bitty with an innocent smile. Bitty rolled his eyes.
"Lardo, you told me you were going to reel him in."
"You're the reason he's got a sweet tooth, not me. Let the boy eat his candy."
Bitty crinkled his nose and grabbed Jack's hand. "Come on, cherry breath, we're going to bed. See you tomorrow, Lardo."
"Good night, kids," called Lardo as Jack and Bitty headed out of the lobby.
The guest villas were all very close together. While only semi private, nothing compared to a room directly on the water, a place where you could jump out your window into crystal clear ocean if you really wanted to. There was, however, a branch of the boardwalk that led to the island villas. They were usually less popular and the first that Bitty closed during the off season. The furthest of these was more of a house, which was the first place that Bitty decorated upon the purchase of the resort. This was where he and Jack lived year round.
Jack unlocked the front door and entered. Jack was kind enough to run Bitty's bags back home, but this was the first time Bitty set foot inside, and the familiar sights and scents of home made him so content he placed his hand over his heart and surveyed the foyer. Front and center, beneath its own light, was his favorite portrait Lardo had ever drawn, Bitty with his head resting against the wall back in their duplex in Providence, looking out the window, half engulfed in shadow. Jack was the one who recommended they put it up in the foyer so every day Jack could look at his husband as he was, the first night they fell in love.
Jack stepped up from behind and wrapped his arms around Bitty's waist, nuzzling his nose into Bitty's neck before he planted a kiss there. "Welcome home, babe," Jack whispered.
"Thank you, sweetpea," said Bitty.
"Do you want to go to bed?" Jack asked. "Or do you want to go to bed?" Jack's hand slipped from Bitty's waist to the front of his shorts. Bitty moaned softly and let Jack rub him through the fabric, his eyes closed, resting most of his weight against Jack.
"Let's go to bed," Bitty whispered a minute later, once he couldn't handle the tease of just Jack's hand any longer. Jack kissed his neck again and released him, and then Bitty headed up the stairs, Jack just behind. In the bedroom, Bitty pulled his shirt up over his head and began on the buckle of his shorts; they were off by the time he reached the bed, so he fell onto it face up, waiting for Jack to undress and join him. It was still arousing to watch Jack remove his clothing; the years had been kind to him and he'd done his part to keep up with them by running every morning on the beach before it got too hot.
Jack climbed on top of him in their bed and kissed him just once before he asked, "What do you want?"
"I'm exhausted. Something where I don't have to do much."
Jack laughed, low and breathy, the kind of chuckle that made Bitty's hair stand on end as a wave of hot desire flickered through him. "Let me take care of you, then," Jack whispered.
Bitty closed his eyes and let Jack do just that. He drifted, out on the ocean of bliss as Jack kissed down his body and then began to lick and suck at his erection. Jack took his time, his pace as slow as the waves outside, but bobbed up and down for just a few minutes before he let go and crawled on top of Bitty again. Jack held both of them together in his hand and rubbed languidly until Bitty couldn't relax any more. He writhed and panted, opening his eyes to look at his husband, and then came by Jack's hand, his heart beating wildly in his chest. Jack continued for another minute until he also came, then kissed Bitty gently on the lips and grabbed a tissue from the nightstand.
"Unh, Jack, I could fall asleep right now," said Bitty while Jack wiped him clean. Jack threw the tissue away and climbed into the bed next to him.
"Go ahead. I might stay up and read for a bit." Bitty nodded. Jack turned on the light on the nightstand on his side of the bed but turned off all the others, giving Bitty darkness and the sound of the ocean to help him fall asleep. He turned to Jack, but his mind was now alight with a thousand thoughts both from his trip, his voyage home, and their perfect evening together.
"Jack, before I forget, I spoke to your mother while I was in India."
"Yeah?" Jack asked. He closed his book and looked over. "How is she? Is she okay?"
"She's okay," said Bitty. "She misses you, of course, but it's the same old same old back home. She said your father will be up for parole next year. That's earlier than expected, right?"
"Yeah, but no one thought he'd do the full twenty-five. I'm surprised he hasn't weaseled his way into parole already. He practically owns Danbury."
"I think they should come out here with us when he gets out."
"I agree," said Jack. "And your parents, if they ever decide to take the plunge."
"They visited. That's good enough."
There was a long silence in which Jack opened his book and Bitty closed his eyes. He attempted to quiet his brain, but he needed to think things out, so he let himself mentally prepare meals and write menu descriptions and design the new inland restaurant before he felt calm again. He opened his eyes a final time. Jack turned a page.
"Sweetie?" he whispered. Jack looked over. "I'm so glad we came here. I love every minute I get to spend with you."
Jack marked his spot with the book jacket and set it down on the nightstand. He turned off the light, settled in, and faced Bitty. Without the light, his face was just shadows from the moon outside the window. "Every minute I spend with you is the best minute of my life," said Jack.
"I had a wonderful time in India, and I learned so much, but I don't think I want to be away from you for that long ever again."
"No, never again," agreed Jack. He placed his hand atop Bitty's and they both closed their eyes. Bitty was asleep in seconds.