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The Neighborhood

Chapter Text

"All set, Mr. Bittle."

Eric Bittle looked up from the industrial sized mixer and to the door that led out of the kitchen. Todd, the friendly employee from the sign company, stood there with a thumb pointed behind him. Eric looked in the bowl of the mixer — the scone batter was just about ready — so he shut it off and returned his attention to Todd. "You done already?" Eric asked. 

"Yep. Come take a look."

Eric untied his apron, a crimson colored knee-length garment with the name Bitty embroidered across the chest. It had been a graduation present from his parents, a sort of good-faith gift when they realized this bakery was for real and not just the pipe dream of a college kid who'd managed to save a small nest egg. It had been a nice gesture, but gestures were just gestures. It had been almost a year since graduation and he hadn't seen them since.

Bitty followed Todd out of the kitchen, behind the empty display case and checkout counter, through the seating area, and to the glass doors in the corner, which until that day had been blank. The hours of operation had been neatly detailed and above them, the bakery's name, Bitty's Corner, along with a muffin and a croissant, a logo designed by Bitty's roommate and longtime best friend, Lardo. Bitty did his best to not cry as he took in the lettering — it had been several months since he leased this space on the southeast corner of Broadway and Knight Street in the Federal Hill neighborhood of Providence, and this was the final detail.

"Look okay?" Todd asked.

"Yeah, it looks great. Thanks so much, Todd," said Bitty, who took a step back to attempt to put his emotions in check.

"I'll clean up and get out of your hair. When do you open?"

"Tomorrow. Sorry I don't have anything to give you now, but I haven't put anything in the ovens yet. Come back when you have a minute and I'll let you take your pick."

"I sure will. Whatever you're making now smells amazing."

"That's probably the cinnamon in the sticky buns. I'm serious; come back tomorrow and I'll keep one warm for you."

"Thank you. I'll have to take you up on that," said Todd. Bitty said goodbye and returned to the kitchen. He had a lot of baking to do before their six-thirty opening. He'd been able to hire a full staff in the last few weeks: Ransom and Holster, his other best friends from college, for some reason agreed to quit their consulting jobs to bake for him; Dex and Nursey, two neighborhood locals who were the first normal people to answer his Craigslist ad; and Chowder and Farmer, two undergrad students at Brown who agreed to work the counter part-time. They would all work that week, but this first prep Bitty wanted to do himself.

It took all evening and late into the night. The next day was expected to be nice; sunny, sixty degrees, a perfect Monday for a pastry and a cup of coffee before work. At least, that was what Bitty hoped as he stocked the display case the best he could and filled both the walk-in refrigerator and freezer with enough dough to feed the neighborhood.

Bitty closed the door to the walk-in and peeked at the time. It was just before one o'clock. He should try to get some sleep before opening. It would be a long day if he pulled his first all-nighter since his thesis was due. He entered the seating area, which was more so a counter with twenty chairs around eight tables and a few more at the window that overlooked Knight Street. It was a homey space, reminding Bitty of old timey New England taverns with wood planked flooring and similarly stained tables and chairs. During the day the natural light from the surrounding windows negated the darkness of the furniture, but it was very dark now that the sun had gone down and the cars had stopped coming. Lardo had been very kind with the decorations; she and a few of her art friends from the Rhode Island School of Design had come in and not only painted the walls, but hung custom paintings that tied everything together. Between the furniture, the decorations, the stocked display cases, and the black chalkboard with the menu meticulously printed on it, the space was finally a bakery.

Bitty pulled out one of the chairs and sat on it — cushions were a good idea. He'd almost opted out of them to save money. He let his gaze fall on the little pieces that created his bakery, his bakery, but he barely saw anything before he felt overwhelmed. He dropped his head onto the table in front of him and began to cry.

He was just a minute into his sob fest when a loud knock against the glass on the front door drew his attention. He sat upright, embarrassed to be caught in such a state. Because of the light in the bakery and the darkness of the street outside, he couldn't make out his visitor. He wiped at his eyes and got a good look at himself in the glass as he approached the door. His large brown eyes were red with emotion, as were his blotchy cheeks. Upon reaching the door he was relieved to see it was just Lardo, her small stature overshadowed by the large doors. Bitty let her inside and when he did, he saw she carried a pork chop on a paper plate.

"Bruh," she said as she handed over the plate. "You look a mess. Everything all right? You didn't have trouble with those used ovens, did you?"

They started toward the table where Bitty had been crying. "No, this is just a 'I can't believe this is happening' cry. You couldn't hear me in the house, could you?"

"Nah, I thought you were asleep until I saw your face. I take it you never had dinner." 

Bitty picked up the pork chop by the bone and took a large bite. He had no idea how hungry he was. 

"Glad I didn't make you oatmeal, Jesus," Lardo said as Bitty messily devoured the entire chop until he was holding nothing but bone.

"Lord, that was amazing. Thanks, Lardo. Do you want to try something?"

Lardo stood and headed toward the display case. "Wait!" Bitty called. He scurried behind the counter, fixed his hair the best he could, and stood up straight. "What can I get for you, ma'am?"

"Bitch, I'm twenty-four years old. I am not a ma'am."

Bitty's posture drooped as he put both hands on his hips. "Can you please play along?"

"Yes, sir, Mr. Bittle, sir. Can I get one of these muffins, please? The lemon blueberry one." Lardo pointed at the tray of muffins, split into four sections for the four flavors he'd serve on a regular basis. 

"For here or to go?"

"Let's eat here."

Bitty took a fresh plate from the stack behind the counter and a pair of tongs from the hook on the back of the case, then reached inside to get Lardo a muffin. He grabbed the closest one to him.

"No, not that one."

He switched to the next one over.

"No."

"Which one do you want?" Bitty asked.

Lardo pointed. From this side of the case, Bitty had no idea what she was pointing at. He guessed based on the direction of her finger, but she shook her head again.

"No! This one!" She smushed her finger against the glass.

"I can't tell which one you're pointing to!" Bitty snapped. Lardo tapped the glass several times. "You're smudging my display case, Lardo! Just tell me which one you want."

"This big one right in front."

Bitty grabbed the muffin in the front right of the tray.

"No, the big one!"

"OH MY GOD, LARDO!"

He grabbed the next one over, which was hardly any bigger than the others, and removed it from the case before Lardo could object again. He put the muffin on a plate and dropped it loudly on the counter. "Here's your muffin," he said.

"Geez, Bits, I hope that's not how you plan on treating all your customers."

"No, just the infuriating ones."

"Customers are infuriating. They'll want a specific pastry and they'll point and smudge and be expressly unclear about what they want. I'm just showing you how it is." Lardo picked up her plate and returned to her seat. Bitty rearranged the muffins so the case looked full, then closed the door and grabbed the Windex. He cleaned up Lardo's grubby fingerprints before he joined her at the table. She'd already eaten half the muffin.

"Is it good?" he asked.

"Yeshf," she said with her mouth full. She swallowed. "How are you, Bits? You ready?"

Bitty took in a long, deep breath. "Yeah. Yeah, I think so."

"Ransom and Holster are opening with you?" she asked. Bitty nodded. Lardo finished her muffin and Bitty took her plate. He washed it in the sink behind the counter and dried it before he replaced it on the top of the stack. When he turned, Lardo stood beside him. "You gonna call your mom tomorrow?" she asked tentatively.

Bitty couldn't squash the fury inside of him from just the one question, although it wasn't directed at Lardo. He knew why she asked and how it must have taken a lot of mental preparation to do so. He looked down at his apron and quickly took it off.

"My mother knows we open tomorrow," he said coolly.

"That's not what I'm asking, Bits."

"I know. I might call her, depending how it goes. I don't — I don't want to think about that right now, okay?"

"Okay. You coming home? It's late."

"Let me clean up quick, then I'll come home. Go out the back through the kitchen."

Lardo walked toward the metal swinging door that led to the kitchen. She turned back before she entered. "Ten minutes. If you're not back by then, I'm coming to carry you there. Don't think I won't, Eric Bittle. Ten minutes." She entered the kitchen and Bitty noticed the bell on the counter, one last item to put up before he could be done. It took a few minutes but then it was up and the bakery was ready. He tested the main door and bell jingled delicately, loud enough to hear in a quiet room. He shut the door and locked it, but then his eyes drifted to the neon "Open" sign in the window.

He looked outside. It was dark and quiet. Broadway and Knight was a major intersection during the day, but just after one o'clock on a Sunday — technically Monday now — it was empty of the life Bitty hoped to see come morning. He pulled the chain on the sign. The red light hit the gray pavement on the corner. Bitty stared at it for just a moment before he pulled the chain again and everything went dark once more.

 

***

 

Bitty was not wholly present when he entered the bakery at five o'clock the following morning. Some of that was due to his lack of sleep, which could be measured more easily in minutes rather than hours, but most of it was the disbelief that this day had finally arrived. In less than two hours, Bitty's Corner would be open for business. He was alone, drifting in surreality, until the door burst open and Holster entered, six feet and four inches of entirely too much personality for this time of day.

"Bits!" Holster yelled, his voice louder than the music, the kitchen equipment, and possibly a nuclear bomb. "Are you excited?"

"I am so nervous I might vomit, which is not good since I'm definitely still dreaming."

"Nah, bro, this is for real! Do you need me to pinch you?" Holster's large fingers threatened pinches to Bitty's sides; Bitty scooted out of the way. When he did, Holster he took a step back, now seeming much smaller than he had when he entered the bakery. "Are you okay? What do you need me to do?"

There wasn't much. Bitty's late night had accounted for nearly everything, but Bitty and Holster baked small batches of bread, which would be better served warm. At six twenty-five, Ransom entered the kitchen and recognized the panic in Bitty’s eyes right away. He put his hands on Bitty's shoulders and Bitty looked into his empathetic brown eyes while they took deep breaths together. 

"You got this," Ransom said gently. "Open the door and let's do this for real."

It was not as simple as opening the door and turning on the sign, however. Six-thirty turned into seven o'clock, and after seven every minute in the empty building felt like its own, individual failure. Bitty's tears threatened as he watched the stop light change and the morning rush of traffic zoom up Broadway and Knight Street in turn. Every car held a potential customer, but every car passed without stopping.

"This was a mistake," said Bitty at seven-fifteen. Holster stood in the seating area with him; he had taken over soothing duty now that Bitty's nervous energy was starting to trigger Ransom. "Why did I spend so much time doing this? Why did I take all of my savings and sink it into this place where I know no one and no one knows me? My mother was right; I should have moved back home to Georgia and gotten a stable corporate job until I could get my life together."

"Bro," said Holster. "As someone who took a corporate job until I could get my life together? It's a bad idea. You hate Georgia. It's been less than an hour and the signs just went up this weekend."

"But they're not coming in! Look at these cars! They can see the sign. Why haven't they come in? What about him?" Bitty pointed at a young, athletic man with vivid dark hair who appeared in their view from the east side of Broadway, headed toward the intersection. Bitty's finger followed him all the way across the window. He had the gait of someone who did this every day, comfortable in the positioning of his strong arms until he turned at the intersection and headed up Knight Street, away from the bakery. "Why didn't he come in?"

"He's running, Bits. Not everyone is going to interrupt their run for sugar and caffeine."

A woman appeared from the opposite corner of the young man, running up Knight Street in workout clothes. Unlike the man, her eyes looked upward at the bakery’s name and logo on the awning. She looked inside and Bitty, unsure what else to do, waved at her. She dropped her arms, slowed her pace, and opened the door at the corner. If she hadn't been looking right at him, Bitty would have grabbed Holster in excitement. 

"Is this place new?" she asked.

"Yep! Just opened today," said Bitty with restrained enthusiasm. He watched as pleasantly as possible as she approached the display case and bent over to look into it. She browsed for a moment before she stood upright again.

"What's good?"

Bitty felt a thousand suggestions surge to the tip of his tongue, but instead just said, "Depends on what you like. I'm partial to the danishes myself."

"Okay," she said. "Can I get a raspberry danish and a medium coffee to go, please?"

"Absolutely. That'll be six forty-two."

Bitty busied himself with nothing while she served herself at the coffee station and left with a wave. "Thanks for coming in!" he called after her, then waited, his breath held, for her to run out of sight. He bolted into the kitchen where Ransom and Holster waited expectantly.

"SIX DOLLARS AND FORTY-TWO CENTS, Y'ALL!" Bitty yelled. Ransom and Holster picked him bodily off the ground. Everyone was yelling when Bitty heard the faint chime of the bell over the front door. "Oh crap, put me down!"

Ransom and Holster set him back on the ground. He darted back to the counter to see the same woman at the door, her paper sleeve held high in the air. "This is amazing!" she said. "I'll be back tomorrow."

"Thank you!" said Bitty. She ran off again and he hoped she didn't hear their shouts of celebration.

She was not the only customer of the day, and after nine o'clock Bitty found himself secretly wishing he could go back to the quiet morning. The line was constantly two or three people deep; they ran out of bagels and had to make customers wait for more, and struggled to keep the coffee station full. Bitty was alone at the counter and washed plates one by one as he serviced the line as quickly as he could.

Holster should have left at noon, but all three of them stayed until four o'clock when Bitty clicked off the open sign and Ransom turned off the music in the seating area. The last two dine-in customers left at four-fifteen. Bitty said a polite goodbye but bolted the door behind them and fell into the closest chair.

The bakery was a mess. Every table needed bussing and Bitty wondered if anyone would mind if he removed croissants from the menu despite their appearance in his logo, because every table and most of the floor was littered with buttery flakes. Holster peeked out of the kitchen door and he and Ransom entered when they saw Bitty alone.

"Note to self, more staff," said Bitty.

"Need us to come in tomorrow with Dex and Nursey?" Ransom asked.

"Holster was supposed to leave four hours ago and I didn't schedule either of you to stay past close today. You can't come in tomorrow too."

"I'll come in tomorrow," said Holster. "What else am I going to do? Play MarioKart with Lardo?"

"I certainly hope not. Lardo has an art project due Friday. Don't you dare distract her."

"I wouldn't dream of it," said Holster, but Bitty still kept an eye on both of them when they left after cleanup. The upstairs of the duplex had been for rent since Bitty and Lardo moved in, and Bitty was very happy it was leased to friends rather than strangers, since Bitty was free to scream at them when they walked too loudly on the old floorboards.

Both Ransom and Holster came in the following day, and the four bakers plus Bitty were a little overkill, but it gave Bitty the opportunity to chat with customers. It also gave him the opportunity to get to know Dex and Nursey, who Bitty had only briefly trained the week before. They were both a good investment; Dex had about a hundred family members, all of whom would stop by over the course of the week, and Nursey knew the owners of some of the other local businesses. By noon Nursey had arranged five weekly coffee and pastry box orders.

"Have you both always lived here?" Bitty asked while they prepped more bread dough — the bread was much more popular than Bitty expected. Ransom was on the register and Holster was in charge of coffee and stock replenishment. 

"Yeah," said Dex.

"For the most part," said Nursey. "I went away for high school but I came back when I graduated. That shit was not for me."

"Did you two know each other before you started here, then? I can't imagine this neighborhood is all that big."

Dex and Nursey stopped kneading bread dough and looked across the work table at each other. Dex seemed wound to the tightest string while Nursey had yet to get riled up over anything, including the three hours he helped Bitty tackle the line.

"No," said Dex, although Bitty did not believe him for a second.

"Well, I'm glad you're both here. Anything about the neighborhood I should know — oh, what's up, Rans?"

Ransom had poked his head around the door and into the kitchen. "Can you help me out here for a bit?" he asked. Bitty immediately returned to the counter.

The volume did not die down the rest of the week, even accounting for Dex's red-headed, large-eared family and the uniformed employees who all said hello to Nursey after they came in. For the first weekend shifts, Bitty called in everyone and found that even with four bakers, Chowder, and Farmer working the counter, it was still a difficult two days. At seven o'clock on Sunday night, three hours after close, Bitty finally dragged himself up to the apartment and collapsed face first onto the couch in his living room, an old musty sofa that was equal parts hideous and uncomfortable. It didn't match any of the other furniture, but that was okay as none of the rest of the furniture matched each other.

"You okay, Bits?" Lardo asked. She sat in a big armchair with her sketchpad against her knees.

"I am so tired," said Bitty.

"Remember when you were worried you wouldn't be successful?"

"Don't jinx me. This could just be novelty business."

"Bitty." Bitty turned his head and looked up at her. "This isn't novelty business. You'll be successful for a reason. Your business out of the Haus kitchen was successful for a reason. People like you, and they like your food."

He didn't know how to refute that despite every urge to do so. There must be reasons as to why he was able to operate an in-home baked good service from the hockey house where they all used to live. There must be reasons why the bakery had been busy seven days in a row. He was much too tired to find them. Instead, he got up and dragged himself into his bedroom. As he shut the door, Lardo yelled, "Call your mother!"

He didn't. 

Chapter Text

It seemed, as the next few weeks flew by, that most people were not just curious about the new place in town. Bitty began to recognize regular customers with regular orders, and doubled up staff on weekends to account for the increased business on Saturday mornings and Sundays after church. In addition to the regular customers like Todd from the sign company, Bitty began recognizing people from the neighborhood since Broadway and Knight was a popular running route. His very first customer, Veronica, ran by at seven-thirty most mornings and stopped in for a danish and coffee every Tuesday and Thursday. The other runners had yet to come in, however, so Bitty hadn't learned their names.

There was New Mom, a woman with a stroller who passed every other morning between eight and nine, who always looked longingly through the window but never came inside. She was clearly trying to lose weight and Bitty felt bad that she had to run by his shop when he purposefully pumped the smell of baking bread onto the street. There was a man in his thirties who ran by every Tuesday and Friday just as Bitty opened the doors. In an effort to win him over, Bitty started offering him water; Water Dude always drank it and thanked Bitty, but like New Mom, Bitty never saw him in the bakery. There was a gaggle of high school aged kids who ran by as Bitty closed up shop, all wearing CHS Track T-shirts. On days when they didn't have practice, the CHS Track Kids would sometimes pop in after school to get the pastries with the most sugar, usually the danishes or the double chocolate muffins. While these routines were fairly steady, there were only two people Bitty could count on to see, and he always looked up when the first one appeared. 

Every day but Sunday between seven-thirteen and seven-sixteen, a well-built young man ran by the bakery along Broadway, crossed at the walk onto Knight Street, and continued north. Most of the time the man could time his run so he didn't have to wait for the light to cross Broadway, but sometimes he would have to stop, and when he did, Bitty would always take a moment to look at him. He was tall and athletic with black hair. While Bitty wasn't sure, he might have had light eyes, but he'd never entered the bakery for Bitty to confirm. Out of everyone that passed by, and out of all of the regular customers, this boy was by far the most attractive. He had a comfortable grace to his gait, clearly because he did this every day and probably had for years. By the time he appeared in front of Bitty, he usually had a sweat stain at the nape of his neck and down between his shoulder blades, which always led Bitty's eyes further south to an ass that couldn't possibly be real. Bitty had played hockey for four years before he graduated from Samwell University and had seen his share of nice butts, but this boy had the cutest butt of anyone Bitty had ever seen. The cuteness of the butt was only amplified by his short running shorts. Plenty of men had run by the bakery since Bitty opened; this was the only boy who wore shorts like these, and every morning as that butt trotted down Broadway toward Knight Street, Bitty wondered what on earth he could have done right in his life to be able to see it go by. 

Finally, there was another well-built but considerably less attractive man who usually ran behind the Cute Butt, but they were never together despite running in the same direction. It made Bitty wonder, after his brain started working again, if they knew each other, or if Cute Butt knew that Older Guy was always running about thirty seconds behind him.

Ransom and Holster seemed to be the only ones who noticed that Bitty noticed the runners outside. At seven-thirteen on a Tuesday morning as Bitty stared at Cute Butt while he waited for the light to change, Ransom tapped his shoulder and said, "Yo, Bits, you home?"

"HOLY LORD!" Bitty yelped, drawing attention from the three tables of customers who were enjoying their morning coffee before work. "Ransom, don't sneak up on me like that!"

"Bro," said Ransom, his eyebrows high on his forehead but his eyes full of mirth. "I've been standing next to you for two minutes. What's his name?"

Ransom nodded over to Cute Butt, who had just started to cross over Broadway to continue north on Knight Street.

"I don't know," said Bitty with a frown. "He hasn't come in yet."

"He will," said Ransom. "If not, looks like you're going to have to start running again."

"Lord, I hope not," said Bitty. "Don't you have baking to do? Shouldn't you not be bothering your poor boss as he tends to his customers?"

"Sure, boss," said Ransom with a laugh. "Just wanted to tell you we're running low on raisins. Might want to increase your order next time. People like the cinnamon raisin bagels."

"Yeah, I'll make a note for the next order," said Bitty. "Thanks, Rans."

"You're welcome, Bits." Ransom headed back to the swinging door that divided the kitchen and the counter. He stopped and looked back. "If you need me to pop out there tomorrow and wrangle him in, I'd be happy to do so."

"Get back to work, Ransom," said Bitty, his hands on his hips. Ransom disappeared into the kitchen, his laughter all that remained at the counter. Bitty glanced back outside; Cute Butt was out of sight now but Older Guy was just crossing the street. Bitty adjusted his posture and grabbed a rag to wipe down the counter when he caught eyes with one of the patrons, who was smirking at him.

"Not a word, Mr. Whole Wheat and Cream Cheese," said Bitty. Mr. Whole Wheat and Cream Cheese locked his lips and threw away the key.

The following Monday, Bitty's Corner had been open for a full month. Bitty was looking forward to sitting down after closing to do the books. He knew a month wasn't enough to turn an actual profit since he'd spent so much on the building renovation and kitchen equipment, but he hoped he was on the right track.

Bitty was working the counter after the morning rush when a tall man in a suit opened the door. Bitty looked up and smiled politely; it wasn't uncommon for the downtown businessmen to come in either before work or during lunch, but it was ten-thirty. The man looked around at all of the tables, at Lardo's art on the walls, at the menu above the counter, and then finally approached.

"Good morning," said Bitty. "What can I get you?"

The man's eyes flickered to the case for just a moment before he leaned on the counter, a considerable lean given his height. His hair was a little too long for the style and it stuck out around his ears. Something about his demeanor made Bitty feel uneasy.

"Your new business, successful, yes?" he asked. His accent sounded Russian.

"Yeah, we're starting off well," said Bitty.

The door to the kitchen swung open and Nursey appeared, carrying a tray of muffins. He said, "Oh fuck," before he turned and disappeared again without restocking the muffins. Bitty looked back at the man at the counter, who then stood tall and looked back at Bitty.

"I'm Alexei Mashkov," Alexei said, as if Bitty should know the name.

"Bitty. Eric Bittle, but people call me Bitty," said Bitty, and he extended a hand to Alexei, who did not take it. Bitty awkwardly pulled back his hand and swallowed the rejection.

"You are not from the neighborhood," stated Alexei.

"No, I'm from Georgia originally, but I went to college in Boston. A friend of mine wanted to move down here to go to RISD so I came with her and found this place."

Alexei gestured through the window toward the street. As Bitty looked, he realized that people were leaving the dining room without finishing their pastries. "This neighborhood. It's special neighborhood. Long history of people who live here."

"That's what I've gathered," said Bitty. "You don't sound like you're one of those. Where are you from?"

Alexei's eyes narrowed and Bitty realized his question was offensive, so he shut his mouth and didn't say anything further.

"Did your landlord explain neighborhood dues to you?" Alexei asked.

"Dues?" Bitty asked. "No."

"You get good deal on rent, yes? Rent low because you owe dues to neighborhood. Business here long enough to earn reputation and name, so I'm here to collect first dues."

"I'm sorry, but I just want to make sure I understand what you're asking," said Bitty carefully. "You want me to pay you money because of the neighborhood we're in? Who exactly are you again?"

Before Alexei could say anything else, the door to the kitchen flung open again and Nursey reappeared without the tray of muffins. He walked quickly to the register, pushed Bitty out of the way, and opened the drawer.

"How much are the dues, Mr. Mashkov?" Nursey asked.

"Five hundred," said Alexei sharply as he looked directly at Bitty. "Every two weeks."

"Every two weeks?" Bitty said, his voice rising in his outrage.

"Here you go," said Nursey and he handed the cash to Alexei. "Thank you for stopping by. Can I offer you a muffin?" Alexei put the cash in the inside pocket of his suit and nodded. Nursey handed him a cranberry muffin and did not ring him up.

"My friends will be back in two weeks," Alexei said before he turned and headed to the door.

"Thank you, Mr. Mashkov," called Nursey. Bitty waited for Alexei to leave before he grabbed Nursey by the arm and dragged him into the kitchen and away from the remaining customers in the dining room, none of whom were looking at them. The few who remained stared down at their plates.

Once in the kitchen, Bitty rounded on Nursey. "Nurse, what the hell? You just gave five hundred dollars to some guy because he asked for it?"

"Bitty, that was Alexei Mashkov," said Nursey.

"Is that supposed to mean something to me?"

"Alexei Mashkov! Tater? The Providence captain of the New England mob?"

"Hold on. Did you just say the word mob?" Bitty asked. "Like, the mob ? The mafia? Nursey, you're losing your mind. There's no such thing as a mob."

"Tater was here?" Dex asked, having left the walk-in with a tray of bread dough. "I was wondering when this was going to happen."

"Bitty," said Nursey, and he placed his hands on Bitty's shoulders to look directly into his eyes. "You're new to the neighborhood, so I'll give you a pass on not knowing who he is, but he's been here, and he's introduced himself to you, so you have to give him the respect he deserves. There is a mafia in Providence and you're in their neighborhood. The Zimmermann family has owned Federal Hill since the turn of the century — and not this century."

Bitty looked over his shoulder at Dex.

"He's telling you the truth, Bits," said Dex. "Tater's a bigwig around here. If he comes in here again you give him whatever he wants and you don't question a thing. Not unless you want your legs broken."

"And I'm just supposed to give him money? For what?" Bitty asked.

"You're in his neighborhood," said Nursey. "You might think you own this bakery, Bitty, but you don't. The family owns everything."

The bell at the front door rang, signaling another customer. Nursey let go of Bitty's shoulders and Bitty returned to the counter, his mind going a million miles an hour as he greeted another customer, hoping this one wasn't part of the so-called mafia too.

 

***

 

It was six-thirty and Bitty was in his office at the back of the kitchen with a physical ledger in front of him and Quickbooks up on his computer. It was excessive, he knew, but the last thing he wanted was for finances to bite him in the ass come tax time. After an hour of reviewing the first month of sales, the ledger matched what he'd entered into the program, everything accounted for apart from five hundred dollars missing from the register.

He stared at his computer. How was he supposed to code a five hundred dollar loss? He couldn't document neighborhood dues to a mobster in his official accounting system, especially if he was audited. It would have to come out of the profits, or out of pay he would have normally given himself. The problem, however, was that he wasn't planning on paying himself until his bills had been paid, and five hundred dollars every two weeks added up quickly. Without that thousand dollars a month going to the neighborhood, Bitty had planned to pay off his bank loan in a year. That wasn't feasible any longer.

Dex and Nursey had stayed after close to prepare for the following day, so after Bitty wrote paychecks for the staff and sent out payments on his bills, he left the bakery via the back door and went right home. When he entered, the door to the third bedroom was closed. Lardo was painting. He didn’t want to disturb her so he hesitated, staring at the door, but decided to knock anyway.

"Come in," said Lardo's soft voice.

Bitty opened the door enough to pop his head in. Music played from the speaker on the far wall. The lighting was dim apart from the lamp directly above Lardo's easel. It smelled faintly of paint, the fan in the window ridding the room of most of it. Lardo looked to only be half done, the background vibrant but the main focal point, a little girl in pigtails, still only a pencil outline. "Hey Lards," he said. "Can I bother you for a minute?"

"Yeah," she said, but Bitty knew she would have said yes even if she was up against a deadline. He sat down on a stool against the wall behind the easel, where Bitty always sat when he bothered her in here. After he sat, he rested his head against the wall and closed his eyes.

"How you doing, Bits?" Lardo asked.

"Did you know we were in a mob neighborhood?"

"Um…what?" Lardo asked. Bitty opened his eyes. "Wait a sec. Stay like that." Lardo grabbed her sketch pad from the floor and a pencil from the ledge of her easel and began drawing him. He didn't move until she nodded at him, but he knew better than to get up until she set her pad down. 

"Some guy came in today and said I had to pay him five hundred dollars every two weeks because we're in his neighborhood," said Bitty.

"That sounds sketch," said Lardo. "Turn your head more towards the window." Bitty turned his head slightly and Lardo nodded.

"I thought that too, but then Nursey came running out of the back and paid him. Said he was a major player in the New England mob and that I should pay him if I don't want my legs broken. He scared away half my customers and the ones who stayed behind refused to look at him when he was there. I think it's legit."

"Legit? That we're in a mob town? This isn't the fifties, Bits. Organized crime doesn't exist anymore."

"I kind of think it does," said Bitty. "And I think we're in the middle of it."

"Well fuck," said Lardo. She dropped her sketch pad. "Do you want to watch the Godfather?"

"Yes," he said. He got up and grabbed the pad. It was still rough, but he relaxed at the sight of it. There was a reason Lardo was in an MFA program at RISD. She was incredibly talented, and in just a few minutes with a pencil she was able to capture the weight he carried on his shoulders at the turn of the day's events. The light came from the bulb above the easel and through the window, highlighting his large eyes and sharp jaw. Lardo's sketches always painted him in a more attractive light than what he saw in the mirror. 

"This is good," he said. She smiled at him.

"Thanks. I'll make you a portrait when finals are done."

"Thank you, Lards."

"C'mon," she said, and she hooked his elbow before she led him to the living room.

 

***

 

It was difficult to be pleasant behind the counter with the knowledge that someone would be coming by every fourteen days to collect money he didn't have, but Bitty went to work the following morning with a forced smile on his face. On Tuesday mornings Chowder opened with him since he didn't have class until noon. Chowder entered through the front door at a quarter after six with the brightest smile Bitty had ever seen, which was contagious.

"Hey Chowder," said Bitty.

"Hi Bitty!" said Chowder. "Farmer told me you made sesame balls yesterday. My grandma makes sesame balls back home and I haven't had any since we moved out here."

Bitty dropped a plate of two sesame balls onto the counter for Chowder, whose smile grew despite Bitty's belief that it couldn't possibly get any bigger. Chowder plopped onto the counter and ate one in a single bite, followed by an "Umf!" of happiness. He stared down at the plate, his smile replaced with a frown.

"Did I mess them up?" Bitty asked.

"No," said Chowder, still frowning at his plate. "These are just like my grandma's. Cait and I haven't been back to California since last summer. I miss her."

"You're going back to visit this summer, right?" Bitty asked.

"Well, we were going to, but this place is so busy, and we won't be in school…"

"Chowder. Go home and visit your family. I can manage the counter without you guys for a little bit. Just come back, 'kay?"

Chowder stuffed the other ball in his mouth and let out another happy grunt as he chewed. "These are really good," he said and he hopped off the counter. "If there are any left over —"

"I'll make sure they go home with you," said Bitty. "Now come on and help me stock these scones. Lemon Rosemary today."

"Ooh," said Chowder and he took a whiff of the tray before he put the sign at the front of the display case. The usual customers trickled in after the doors opened. Bitty chatted with Barry, a bank teller who'd come in almost every morning since Bitty dropped off a muffin with one of his deposits. 

"How's your wife?" Bitty asked.

"She's good. I brought home that banana nut bread and she ate the whole thing."

"It'll be good for the baby," said Bitty. "I've got a fresh batch in the oven now, I can drop off another loaf when I pop by with the deposit later."

"Yes please," said Barry. Bitty patted him on the back before he stopped at the coffee station to check the urns. As usual, the light roast was nearly empty, so he headed to the back to start another pot. On the way, he caught a glimpse at the time. Seven-eleven. Cute Butt was going to run by at any moment, and if he was in the back making coffee, he'd miss it. He glanced out to Broadway and then opened the door to the kitchen.

"Hey Holster, can you start another pot of light roast for me please?" Bitty asked. Holster looked up from the mixer.

"Yeah, for sure," said Holster. Bitty allowed the door to swing close behind him. The seating area was half full but there was no line at the counter, so he looked to the street and waited. It was only two more minutes before he appeared. He wore a pale blue T-shirt today and black running shorts. Bitty watched him as he bounced down the sidewalk and to the light, which he missed. Bitty bit his lip; days when Cute Butt missed the light were the best days. However this day instead of staring down the walk signal as usual, Cute Butt turned, his hands on his hips, and looked at the awning of Bitty's Corner.

Bitty's heart began thumping in his chest. Cute Butt had never even looked at the bakery, not the day it opened, not any day since, and if he really had been running this route as long as Bitty thought he had, he surely should have noticed that a new business had opened on the corner where he changed direction. The stop light switched and Cute Butt had the walk signal to cross Broadway, but instead of turning and heading north like usual, he dropped his hands and walked to the bakery doors.

"Oh no," breathed Bitty.

"You okay, Bitty?" Chowder asked.

The bell rang at the door and Bitty all but pushed Chowder out of the way of the register. "I've got this one, Chowder, why don't you check on that coffee Holster is making?"

"Okay," said Chowder with hesitation. Bitty wouldn't be surprised if Chowder had heard the mafia gossip by now, but this wasn't about the mafia, this was about the most attractive boy Bitty had ever seen finally stepping foot inside of his bakery. Chowder went into the kitchen and Bitty turned his attention to the young man who was surveying the room, from the tables and chairs to the art to the menu behind the counter. All of the sound in the room ceased when his eyes connected with Bitty’s. Bitty was right. They were blue.

"Good morning," said Bitty.

"Good morning," he said, and Bitty gripped his counter for support so he wouldn't melt into ooze right there.

"Can I get you something?" Bitty asked.

"You guys are doing well, aren't you?" Cute Butt asked. He looked around the room again but Bitty couldn't stop staring at him, until he realized it was creepy. By then it was too late, and Cute Butt was looking at him again, a smirk on his lips.

"Yeah," said Bitty. "Much better than I thought."

"Good," said Cute Butt. "You're the owner, right?"

"Yes! Sorry, I should have introduced myself. Bitty." Bitty extended a hand and Cute Butt politely shook it. His hands were very soft.

"Bitty?" Cute Butt repeated in question, his smile growing.

"Eric Bittle. My friends started calling me Bitty in college and now everybody does."

"Explains the name," said Cute Butt, nodding toward the logo that Lardo had drawn on the chalkboard. Bitty finally broke his gaze and looked back at it before he nodded.

"Yep, that's me. And this is my little corner," Bitty said. "Do you live around here? I've seen you run by a few times."

"Yeah, I'm from the neighborhood," said Cute Butt. His gaze was constant, staring Bitty right back in the eyes. If he'd been any closer, it might have been weird, but at this distance it felt comfortable and it made everything else feel unimportant. As he stared, Cute Butt smiled again, and like Chowder that morning, the smile was contagious. "You're not from here, are you?"

"No. Georgia."

"Sounds like it," said Cute Butt. "Do you have anything special?"

"Different people find different things special," said Bitty. "What do you like?"

"I'm not big into sugar," said Cute Butt.

"The scones!" exclaimed Bitty, causing Cute Butt's thick black eyebrows to rise. "I have a different flavor every day. You're in luck; they're savory today. Lemon Rosemary. Not very sweet."

"I'll take a scone, then, and a cup of coffee," said Cute Butt. 

"Six forty-two," said Bitty. 

Cute Butt handed over a ten dollar bill and placed all of the change in the tip jar. Bitty gave him a ceramic mug; he didn't even want to offer a to go cup, and fortunately Cute Butt picked it up without a word and headed toward the coffee station. Bitty glanced in his cup as he dropped off the scone; it looked black.

"You really aren't much for sugar, are you?" Bitty asked.

"No, not really," said Cute Butt.

"Let me know if you like this," said Bitty before he turned and headed back to the counter. Just as he did, Holster came out of the kitchen with the new pot of light roast. Bitty looked at him; Holster looked right past him at Cute Butt, and then Holster smiled from ear to ear.

"Don't," Bitty mouthed. Holster smiled so hard he began to turn red, but politely changed the coffee and returned to the kitchen without another word. Bitty cleaned up the coffee station and refilled the half-and-half urns, trying his best not to sneak glances at Cute Butt. It didn't work very well. Cute Butt was looking out the window while he drank his coffee and ate his scone.

It was just a few minutes before Cute Butt returned to the counter with his plate and mug. "You're right," he said. "It wasn't too sweet. I liked it."

"Oh, great!" said Bitty. "You'll have to come back and try something else."

"I guess I will," said Cute Butt, and he gave Bitty another smile before he turned and left the bakery. Bitty watched him run up Knight Street. Once he was out of view, the kitchen door swung open and hit the refrigerated display case with a smack as Ransom and Holster burst into view, followed shortly by Chowder.

"Ooh, someone's got a boyfriend!" Ransom cooed.

"Was that the boy you like?" Chowder asked.

"He just came in for a scone!" Bitty cried as both Holster and Ransom grabbed him and pulled him close for noogies. As Bitty squirmed in their arms, he saw Older Guy run by.

Chapter Text

From that point on, every time the boy with the cute butt ran by Bitty's Corner, he either looked in the window and waved or came inside to try something new. Bitty had never been one for savory pastries, but now that he had an important customer he wanted to impress, Bitty found himself staying in the kitchen after hours with Beyoncé, beer, and ingredients very unusual for him. Ransom and Holster both turned their noses up at the olive bread; the tomato and cheese turnovers didn't sell well even when put on a second day discount; and, try as he might, he couldn't get his popovers to pop over. There was always something Cute Butt could eat, though, albeit in much smaller batches than the rest of Bitty's stock.

Bitty looked forward to seven-fifteen every morning, but unfortunately it had gotten to the point where he and Cute Butt were too friendly for Bitty to ask his name. Bitty couldn't call him Cute Butt to his face, nor did he want to say it in front of others, as it would only increase the frequency of their chirps. As the days went by, and as Bitty fed Cute Butt more and more, he decided to shorten the name to just CB and hope he never accidentally said it to CB's face.

It was just after seven on a Monday, the second Monday since Alexei Mashkov had paid them a visit, and Bitty worked the counter with Caitlin Farmer. Farmer, like her boyfriend Chowder, had a contagious smile and an exuberant personality that worked very well with the customers, but Bitty purposefully kept the stock of sticky buns low so he had an excuse to send her away the moment the mobsters arrived. Neither Farmer nor Chowder were trained bakers, both too sociable and approachable to be stuck in a kitchen all day. Farmer had asked to learn, though, so Bitty promised she could shadow when the line was under control.

Bitty had made a small batch of spinach souffles that were actually quite popular. By the time CB appeared, sweaty to mid-back and wearing a white T-shirt that was positively sinful, Bitty was down to the final three. He watched, unblinking, as CB stopped at the corner and wiped his face with the hem of his shirt. Bitty held fast to the edge of the counter to prevent himself from falling over; it was obvious CB took care of himself, and Bitty had been able to see the muscles in his upper body since he first ran by, but that stomach was a bonus Bitty didn't know was there.

"You okay, Bitty? You're very red all of a sudden."

He forced his eyes away and looked at Farmer, who was entirely too smug for someone concerned for his health.

"I'm just fine. Listen, I don't think you've gotten to meet this customer yet, am I right?"

"No, not yet. What's his name?"

"I have no idea and it's way too late for me to ask. I'll introduce you and hopefully he spills."

CB entered the bakery and connected eyes with Bitty as soon as he stepped over the threshold. Bitty put on an easy smile and waved. "Hi!" Bitty said. "How are you this morning?"

"I'm very hot," said CB and Bitty silently agreed, but couldn't restrain his laughter when CB pulled a napkin from the dispenser and proceeded to wipe his face and the back of his neck with it. It was a laugh from Farmer that caused him to stop. 

"I'm sorry, this is incredibly gross. It's just boiling out today," said CB. 

"It is nearly June," said Bitty.

"I think I'm going to forego the coffee today. Do you have bottled water?"

Bitty suddenly felt very silly for making warm souffles on the hottest day of the year. He stuffed his silliness down with a swallow and said, "Yep. I don't have any savory pastries in the case today, but I have souffles if you were interested. I know it's hot as all get out so if you just want a water —" 

"What kind of souffles?" CB asked, one thick black eyebrow arched. Despite its size, it fit his face so perfectly Bitty wondered if he got them threaded.

"Spinach."

"Yeah, for sure," CB said.

"Okay." Bitty turned, retrieved a bottle of water from the refrigerated case, and passed it over.  As he did, he glanced down at CB's fingernails. They were well manicured, so groomed eyebrows weren't a stretch. CB's soft fingers brushed against his in the transfer, which caused a shiver to slide down Bitty's spine, an action altogether inappropriate for the temperature outside. Bitty let go quickly.

"That's seven forty-nine. Have a seat, I'll bring it over."

CB handed Bitty a ten dollar bill and, as usual, dumped all of the change into the tip jar. Bitty had hoped one of these times CB would hand over a card with his name on it, but it seemed he was the only person left in the world who always carried cash.

As CB took his usual seat by the window, Bitty turned to see Farmer already had the spinach souffle on a plate. "Oh, thanks Farmer," Bitty said.

"I thought you were going to introduce me," she replied in a low voice.

"Oh, darn it," said Bitty. "Well, it'll just be weird if I do it now. Next time."

"Honestly, it's like you forgot I was standing here."

That was not unusual. CB's presence filled the entire room when he entered, as if all conversation ceased, all customers left, and the world was just Bitty and the blue-eyed, black-haired young man who didn't have a name, but really didn't need one.

Bitty set down the plate and utensils in front of CB, who smiled back at him, a grin that showed off perfectly white, straight teeth. Bitty wondered if this boy had any flaws. 

"Here you go, hun. Let me know what you think." Bitty turned to go back to the counter.

"Oh," said CB, causing Bitty to turn again. "I was wondering if maybe you could sit and talk? If you aren't too busy?"

Bitty didn't even check if there was a line. "Oh, no! I can sit for a few."

He pulled out the chair across from CB and sat. He watched as CB took a bite of the souffle, and Bitty couldn't help his grin as CB sat back and moaned softly in reaction to it. "Do you like it?" Bitty asked unnecessarily.

CB nodded. "Yeah, it's really good. Good source of protein, too. It'd be better if you could throw some ham or bacon in there."

"I thought about it, but I didn't have any of that when I started making them this morning. Next time, for sure. Which do you prefer? Ham or bacon?"

"What do you mean OR bacon?" CB asked, and when Bitty laughed, he smiled.

"Both, then," Bitty said.

Bitty had so many questions he wanted to ask now that they were sitting together, presumably to share a conversation, but CB seemed in no rush to say anything else. Bitty sat on his questions instead, opting to watch CB as he ate. Three bites later the silence was too much for Bitty so he asked, "Have you always lived here?"

CB looked up from his plate and set his fork down. "Yes. My family's been here for ages and ages, and this has been my neighborhood since I was born. I went away for a little bit when I was eighteen, but I came back as soon as I could. This is my home."

"I like it so far — well, what I've been able to see of it. I've been so busy since I moved here I haven't really gotten the opportunity to wander. I know where the grocery store is, where the gas station is… that's about it."

"You should definitely go exploring. It's a beautiful neighborhood. You said you're from Georgia, right?"

"Born and raised, but I left for college. I went to Samwell."

"In Boston?"

"Yep. Rent in Boston is insane, and even with the in-haus bakery business I was running, there was no way I could afford rent up there. I super lucked out on this place. You run by every day; what was here before I moved in? Was it empty for a long time?"

"Not a long time. Maybe just a couple of months before you started working on it. It used to be a restaurant — burgers, I think. I never ate here."

"Was it bad?"

"I didn't hear anything that made it worth the extra trip, since it was never open when I ran by. They were open maybe a year. There was another restaurant before that, and that one did not do well at all. They were gone in four months. Before that was a bar, before that —"

"Oh Lord, should I be worried? Is the building cursed?"

"No, it just hasn't had anything good in it. But this?" CB held up a chunk of souffle on his fork. "This is good. If I were you, I wouldn't worry about it."

"I certainly hope you're not just saying that."

"I wouldn't just say that, and I wouldn't keep coming back if you didn't have something I liked. I can tell this is something you're passionate about. You said you used to do this from your house?"

"At school, yeah. My junior and senior years I pretty much neglected everything in my life that wasn't essential and started up an order-based bakery from the kitchen of the Hockey Haus where I lived."

"Hockey? My company makes skate blades."

"That sounds…incredibly boring."

CB laughed, a low breathy sound that made all of Bitty's hair stand on end as waves of repressed desire flitted over his skin. "It is incredibly boring," CB said. "I'll spare you the details. It sounds like your house bakery did well."

"Yeah! I'd get orders from students, professors, the staff — I even stayed in town over breaks to keep up with it when word got out beyond Samwell people. Not that I really wanted to go back to Georgia anyway."

"Why not?" asked CB.

Bitty shut his mouth. The mood shifted, which caused CB to look down rather than in Bitty's eyes, which Bitty didn't like. He didn't like thinking about his family either, and how weird they had been since Bitty stopped coming home. He'd finally spoken to his mother, a short call where she inquired about the bakery, wished him well, and asked when she could see him again. It was the same conversation they'd been having for a year.

"There's nothing for me there," said Bitty. 

"What kind of food did you make? Was it pastries like this?" CB asked, and Bitty was grateful for the change of subject.

"A little bit, but actually it was mostly pie. I sold a lot of pie."

"You don't sell pie here, do you?"

"No. I wanted to be more of a breakfast kind of place. Coffee and bagels sort of thing. It works. People like the pastries and we get orders all the time for breakfast boxes or bagels for meetings."

"Really?"

Bitty was just nodding when the bell at the front door chimed and this time he looked up. It was Todd the sign guy and, once again, Bitty remembered he hadn't given Todd a proper thank you. With great reluctance, Bitty stood.

"I gotta get back to it. I'll see you tomorrow?"

"Sure," said CB, obviously disappointed at the abrupt end to their conversation. Bitty gave CB a smile before he returned to the counter where Farmer had just said hello to Todd. Todd looked very pleased that Bitty was there.

"Bitty, hi," he said.

"Hi Todd. What brings you in today?"

"Just stopping by for one of your awesome sticky buns. I've got a bit of time before my next job down the street and memories of your buns — uh… um…" Todd blushed violently red all over his face. "I just really wanted one. How are you? You've been so busy every time I've come in I've never been able to ask."

"I'm doing well! It's been busy, but that's a good thing, right? We've got lots of frequent customers like you. Let me get you that sticky bun." Bitty opened the case and pulled out the last one from the tray. He put it on a plate and placed it on the counter. 

Farmer piped up from the register: "That'll be three seventy-five, Todd."

Todd paid with a debit card and then looked back at Bitty.

"Thanks. Hey, I was wondering, are you free to —"

A loud chair scrape from the windows drew Bitty and Todd's attention. CB was on his feet and halfway to the counter, his plate and silverware in his hand. He stepped right next to Todd before he set them on the counter. When Bitty glanced over, Todd was white as a sheet. Bitty looked back at CB.

"You need something, hun?"

"Yes, actually," said CB and he looked directly at Todd.

"I-I, um. I gotta go," sputtered Todd, who yoinked the sticky bun off the plate and practically ran out the door. Bitty watched him go with a confused frown before he looked back to CB.

"What's up?"

"You mentioned you do catering. My company has a staff meeting every Thursday —" 

"To discuss the exciting skate blade marketplace?" Bitty interrupted and CB laughed, which caused Bitty to beam with pride.

"Something like that. It's usually around lunchtime but I never think to get lunch. Do you make sandwiches? There's usually about ten of us."

"Yeah, we make sandwiches," said Bitty, despite the fact that they very much did not. "I can put a pastry box together too, if you want."

"Yeah, that'd be great. I'll send my VP over to pick it up. Maybe around eleven?"

"Thursday at eleven. Got it. Y'all want ham and cheese? You like that honey wheat bread, don't you?"

"Yes. Um…" CB suddenly blushed his on his cheeks, highlighting his beautifully sharp cheekbones. "Don't be alarmed by my VP's name."

"What's his name?" Bitty asked, although that was not the name he wanted to know. 

"Shitty. Don't ask, it's a long story, but we've been calling him that for years. You won't be able to miss him; he's got long brown hair and a mustache. He will probably also immediately introduce himself. He's like you; he loves people."

"I'll keep an eye out for him."

"Thanks. See you tomorrow, Bitty."

Bitty waved at him as he left and then picked up both plates to toss in the bus bin. As he turned, Farmer smirked at him.

"What?" he asked.

"You don't make sandwiches."

"I can make ten sandwiches."

"Uh huh."

Bitty turned to look back out the window; CB was gone but two men approached, each in a suit. Businessmen came in every day, and it was still early enough that they could be coming in for pre-work coffee, but Bitty knew their intent in an instant. He turned back to Farmer.

"Looks like the rush is over. You want to go in the back and help the guys make another tray of sticky buns? Todd took the last one."

Farmer no longer looked smug. "Yeah, okay! Please call for me if you need help."

"Sure thing, Farmer."

She left just as the two men entered the bakery. They were surprisingly young; one of them was probably younger than Bitty. One had brown hair, intense blue eyes, and eyelashes so thick that Bitty wondered if he had makeup on. The other had red hair in a less alarming shade than Dex's and wore a naive expression that did not befit his attire. The brunette spoke first.

"You must be Bitty," he said.

"Yes," said Bitty coolly.

"Alexei Mashkov sent us."

"Yeah, okay," said Bitty. He opened the register and lifted the drawer. He really had hoped he had made up his meeting with Alexei Mashkov, that this whole mafia thing was a sleep-deprived lucid dream, but he'd prepared just in case. He removed the bundle of cash he'd stored there and handed it over. The redhead was looking in the display case. Despite his better judgment, he couldn't let them leave without saying, "Can I get you two something to eat? We also have coffee."

"Are these cheese danishes?" the redhead asked.

"Yep."

"Two cheese danishes," he said.

"Will it always be the two of you?" Bitty asked as he handed the danishes over.

"Yes," said the brunette.

The redhead had already taken a bite of his danish. "Omph, this is so good," he said.

"Poots, be professional!"

Bitty raised an eyebrow. Poots' cheeks turned red and he swallowed hard.

"Aw, come on, Snowy, don't call me that in front of people."

"I'll call you what I want to call you until you earn my respect," said Snowy. He looked back at Bitty. "See you in two weeks." Bitty watched them go; Poots turned at the door, held up his paper sleeve, and gave Bitty a discreet thumbs-up. Despite his attempt to be sneaky, Snowy still caught him. As they crossed over Broadway and continued north on Knight Street, Snowy gesticulated vehemently as he verbally admonished Poots, and Poots' shoulders slumped as he took the reprimand.

Bitty forced the smile off his face. He wasn't supposed to like them.

 

***

 

CB stopped in briefly on Tuesday and Thursday morning, and on Thursday mentioned he was looking forward to lunch. He also apologized "for anything Shitty might say." Bitty was a little leery of this Shitty fellow, but fortunately Lardo stopped by after the morning rush to distract him.

"You want a bagel?" Bitty asked when she entered through the kitchen door.

"Yeah," she said. "You're joining me, right?"

"Sure," said Bitty. Lardo opened the display case and grabbed a blueberry bagel with her bare hand. "Lardo, oh my God, use the tongs, you have paint all over you."

"'Kay, buddy," she said, and she used the tongs to fetch another blueberry bagel. She put both in the slicer before she popped them into the toaster. She opened the refrigerated case and rifled through the metal bins Bitty kept in there. "Do you still have that 'swawesome blueberry cream cheese?"

"Yeah it's in there. I want plain, though."

"You're so boring," she said. Bitty helped her spread cream cheese on their bagels before they sat down at a table along the windows. Lardo also filled her RISD travel mug with coffee. She sat, sipping, watching and apparently waiting for something. Bitty took a large bite of his bagel.

Apparently that was what she had been waiting for. "I heard you have a boyfriend."

Bitty immediately began coughing which made Lardo grin evilly and fist pump in celebration. He felt the tears in his eyes but quickly recovered, and then kicked Lardo under the table.

"Who told you that?"

Lardo nodded toward the kitchen where Ransom and Holster were currently working. Bitty frowned deeply.

"He's not my boyfriend. He just comes in for coffee and pastries."

"Yeah, so do a lot of other people and I haven't heard stories of any of them asking you to sit and eat with them."

Ransom and Holster weren't even working when that happened. He wondered how much gossip occurred in the kitchen when he wasn't there, or if his staff had started a group chat without him. That didn't exactly please him, and their gossip was more painful than humorous because CB was so ridiculously good looking.

"He's just a polite boy who asked me to sit across from him and chat while he ate breakfast. That's all."

"Fine. Are you going to ask him on a real date, then?"

Bitty barked a hollow laugh. "Yeah. Yeah, right. I'm just gonna go up to the hottest guy I've ever seen in my life and ask him on a date. I don't even know if he likes boys."

"Come on. He's interrupting his daily run to see you. He asked you to sit with him. He obviously likes you. I think you should go for it."

"Lardo. You know I'm not a go-for-it kind of person. I'm a pine-until-it's-too-late kind of person."

"Dude. You're an adult now. Big shot business owner with your own fucking bakery, people who call you 'boss' and all of it. Don't let this turn into another Luke situation."

"Luke was a nice boy who liked my pie."

"Luke was IN LOVE with you. No one likes your pie more than me and even I wasn't coming by your kitchen twice a day for orders. That boy must have given you a hundred dollars before he finally gave up."

Bitty frowned. Luke was the captain of the Samwell soccer team, and he did come around a lot senior year, but they barely spoke. Bitty saw him frequently for a few weeks and then never heard from him again. A year later, what Lardo said made sense, and Bitty felt a surge of guilt as he realized his missed opportunity.

"Fine, but that was one boy."

"What about the rugby kid?"

The guilt just intensified as Bitty thought about the rugby kid from sophomore year. It had been his very first real date, not counting the horrible Winter Screw situation where Ransom and Holster set up him up with a boy who puked on his shoes. He might as well have counted it, since both of those dates had been a disaster.

"Rugby boy tried to kiss me," said Bitty.

"You were on a date!"

"That boy had a reputation. As soon as he kissed me he would have known I'd never kissed someone before and he would have told everyone. No way. It was better that he just thought I wasn't interested."

"You are such a heartbreaker, Bits," said Lardo. She pulled one leg onto the chair and finished her bagel. The bell rang and a man with long brown hair and a bushy mustache entered. Bitty looked at the time — it was just before eleven.

"Oh, that's Shitty," he said.

"What's shitty?" Lardo asked. She looked over her shoulder. Shitty looked right back at her and didn't look away until Bitty spoke to him.

"You must be Shitty. I'm Bitty. Nice to meet you."

Shitty shook his hand with vigor. "Likewise. The boss was right, you are a little blond darling. I'm here to pick up sandwiches."

"Yeah, I've got them at the register. I felt like just a sandwich and a pastry wasn't really lunch, so I fried up some sweet potato chips to go with them. I hope y'all like 'em. Normally I don't do sandwiches, but my breakfast boxes are six dollars a person if that sounds like a fair price to you."

"Sure," said Shitty and Bitty realized as he took the proffered credit card, he probably could have charged a lot more. He also could have directed Shitty to use the card reader, but he was desperate for any and all information related to CB, so he took it and swiped it at the register. The name on the card read B Knight, Atwell Runners .

Bitty handed back the card and a receipt to sign. He then handed Shitty two paper bags full of boxed lunches and pastries. "Tell your boss I said enjoy," Bitty said.

"Sure," said Shitty once more, and he turned around, but paused at Lardo again. Bitty glanced at the receipt in front of him. The signature was sloppy, but he'd actually signed it Shitty Knight. Bitty spiked the receipt with the others and then headed back to the table where Lardo sat.

"Your name is Shitty?" she asked incredulously.

"The one and only, my dear," he said, but his smile faltered momentarily when Bitty sat back down in front of his half-eaten bagel. Shitty looked at Lardo again. "And you are?"

"Lardo," Lardo replied. 

Shitty laughed uproariously. "Okay, Lardo. Nice to meet you as well." Shitty tipped a bag to them in salute before he left the bakery. Bitty pulled his phone out of his back pocket. After a moment of searching, he cursed. Atwell Runners was in fact a skate blade manufacturer, but there was no information about its owner or executive staff. The best Bitty could find was an article about poor profits, which was a little concerning but not at all helpful.

"Damn," Bitty said again. "I still have no idea who Cute Butt is."

"You call him Cute Butt?"

"Quiet, you. Another word and I'm going to make you start paying for bagels."

Lardo didn't speak again, but she did steal the rest of the bagel from Bitty's plate. Bitty let her.

Chapter Text

The sandwiches must have been a hit, because CB came in on Friday and asked if he could have a standing order, ten boxed lunches every Thursday. Bitty quickly agreed — ten sandwiches was easy — but kicked himself for setting the price so low. Business was steady but Poots and Snowy still came to collect dues two Mondays later, and then two Mondays after that.

Bitty had not taken Lardo's advice to ask CB on a real date. He tried to look at their interactions from a different angle; yes they spoke regularly, yes CB asked Bitty to sit and talk with him when there wasn't a line, but they talked about the most innocuous subjects — the weather, baking, and the neighborhood. One Tuesday they only discussed the location of a barber shop before Chowder needed Bitty's help at the counter. None of that felt like flirting and although Bitty loved every single moment he was in CB's presence, his body felt it was ready to shut down in fear whenever he considered asking for more. Even worse, CB never asked for more either, which led Bitty back to the conclusion that he probably wasn't gay.

It was now summer, at least by school standards, because the bakery experienced a sudden surge in the late morning and early afternoon hours, mostly teenagers looking for sugar. Bitty increased production on the sweetest goods, including sticky buns, chocolate chip muffins, and cinnamon sugar bagels, and started stocking soda in the refrigerated case in addition to bottled water. It was probably worth investing in a soda dispenser, but that would be an expensive up-front cost and every time he thought about it, he thought about the hundreds of dollars he handed over for so-called protection.

The increased business also meant larger and more frequent vendor deliveries. Bitty was discussing delivery timelines with his fruit vendor when he learned of the farmer's market for the first time. 

"Thursdays are no good," Jason the fruit vendor was saying during his Saturday shipment. "I can increase your Tuesday order, but every Thursday until November I'm going to be at the farmer's market down next to the Dexter training grounds."

"Farmer's market?" Bitty exclaimed. "When did that start? Don't tell me I've been missing out on local produce for over two months."

"No, it just started the first week in June. Every Thursday, three-thirty to sunset. You should stop over, we save the best stuff for our booth."

There was plenty of sunlight left the following Thursday after Bitty closed down the bakery, so he stopped back at the duplex, grabbed Lardo, and together they made it to the Armory Farmer's Market without getting lost.

"Ooh, look!" said Bitty.

"I'm looking," replied Lardo.

The market was a decent size, not so large that Bitty worried about seeing it all before dusk, but also not too small that it wasn't worth their time. Bitty's eyes darted from booth to booth as they approached, already eyeing honey vendors and crates of vegetables as well as the enticing scent of fresh kettle corn. He wanted everything all at once, so he stopped and turned to Lardo.

"So how should we do this?" he asked.

"Uh… we go around and buy things we want?"

"Lardo. I can't just buy the things I want. I want everything and there might be more than one vendor selling the same thing."

"Okay, so we take note of the things we want but we don't buy them until we see everything."

"Deal. I definitely want kettle corn."

"Okay, we buy one bag of kettle corn, then we take note of everything, then we buy the rest of it."

The plan gradually became more and more complicated the further they progressed. By the halfway point they'd been there an hour, they had kettle corn, lavender-infused honey, enough soap to keep them clean for eternity, the last two crab rangoon from a woman people called the Egg Roll Lady (although she was out of egg rolls), and a samosa from the Indian guy who also had very intriguing desserts Bitty wanted to learn how to make. Bitty had, however, bypassed all fruit and vegetable vendors, knowing there would be a lot more of them.

"Bitty! Hey!"

Bitty looked to the right and spotted Jason at a stand in front of gorgeous blueberries, cherries, and strawberries. As he approached, he noticed a crate of peaches on the ground.

"Hey Jas — oh my God, are those fresh peaches?"

Bitty completely ignored Jason and grabbed one of the succulent peaches from the crate. He brought it to his nose and inhaled deeply, the smell reminding him of home, when he would eat them on the front porch with his cousins, the juice getting all over his face and hands, so much so that his mother would throw down the dish rag she'd been using to wipe his mouth and order him into the tub. The peach smelled like happiness, of a time when he and his parents liked each other. The memory of happiness brought tears to his eyes.

Jason laughed; he didn't understand where Bitty's tears came from. "Wow, Bitty. If I knew you were that in love with peaches I would have offered them up sooner."

"I'm from Georgia," said Bitty, taking the peach away from his nose so he could shove his tears and memories back under the surface where they belonged. "I assumed no one up here could sell me a decent peach."

"Try it out," said Jason.

Bitty took a bite. The taste immediately transported him back to spring break his senior year, the morning after he ruined his life, the morning he swore off Georgia forever, including everything that came with it, including peaches.

"It's good," said Bitty noncommittally.

"Can I put them on your next order?"

"Maybe next time," said Bitty, and he handed the peach to Lardo to finish, who accepted it without question.

"You Georgians and your peaches. Can I interest you in an apricot instead?"

Bitty purchased a few apricots and increased his blueberry and cherry order, since those both tasted particularly good, then he and Lardo moved on.

"You okay?" Lardo quietly asked.

"Yeah. That peach was really good."

"Eh, it was all right," said Lardo, who was clearly lying for Bitty's sake, since she'd eaten the entire thing before they even left Jason's stand.

Lardo pulled him to a candle booth, which as of her graduation had become one of her biggest obsessions. "Lardo," said Bitty. "You have a million candles."

"Yeah but these are big and have essential oils. Ooh, and there's woodwick ones!"

"How much even are these?" Bitty asked. He turned one over, looked at the price, and immediately set it back down. "Nuh-uh. Let's go, Lardo."

"Oh, come on. Just smell this one."

Lardo took a step toward Bitty and held out a candle for him to smell. It wasn't too overbearing and reminded him of sunshine.

"Okay, that is really good."

"Bitty?" said a voice from behind.

The voice was quiet but Bitty would recognize it anywhere. He turned and there stood CB. Bitty's heart skipped a beat; he had never seen CB in regular clothes, never seen him clean and not drenched in sweat. This was such an abrupt and pleasant change that Bitty forgot to speak.

"I thought that was you," said CB, saving Bitty the trouble of initiating the conversation.

"Oh my gosh, hello! It's so good to see you!" replied Bitty, still not quite in charge of his emotions. CB wore jeans and a button-down shirt that looked gorgeous on him. It was hard to think of anything else.

Lardo loudly cleared her throat.

"Oh, sorry," said Bitty. "This is Lardo." He stopped there, as he couldn't introduce CB in the other direction.

CB, of course, was absolutely no help. "Nice to meet you," was all he said as he shook her hand. He didn't linger on her, though, and instead looked at Bitty again. "I should have known you'd be here. This sort of thing is right up your alley, eh?"

"I actually just found out about it from one of my vendors. And you did tell me to go exploring."

"That I did," said CB.

"Do you come to this sort of thing a lot?" Bitty asked.

"Nah, I was dragged here," said CB, gesturing to a woman at the next booth, deep in conversation with another soap maker that Bitty skipped, given that he was carrying a lifetime supply in his messenger bag. The woman was gorgeous, middle-aged with CB's exact eyes and cheekbones. It was definitely CB's mother.

"I hope you find something you like. Did you see the Egg Roll Lady yet?" Bitty asked.

"She already closed by the time we got here. You need to get there early if you want something."

"We got the last two crab rangoon, but we were also too late for egg rolls. Maybe I'll close up early next week and try to get down here right away."

"Did you get anything good besides that?"

"Nothing really for the bakery, but we've still got half the street to go," said Bitty.

"I won't keep you, then. It was good to see you."

"You too. Are you coming by tomorrow?"

"No, I have to go to Hartford on business. Monday, though, for sure. I want to see what you come up with," said CB with a smile that warmed Bitty's insides.

"See you then," said Bitty.

"See you then. Nice to meet you, Lardo." CB waved and headed back to his mother, who handed him a bag to carry. 

Bitty looked back at Lardo, who grinned. "Oh my God, don't," he said.

"What? I've said nothing!"

"You were going to start, and whatever you're thinking, no. No, no, no."

"I'm just saying —"

"No."

"— he practically ignored me —"

"Absolutely not."

"— and could not take his eyes off you."

Bitty decided to ignore her as well and walked right to the next booth, a mustard vendor with a table full of samples. Bitty had eaten half a bag of kettle corn, a crab rangoon, a samosa and several Indian desserts, and also several fruits from Jason's booth. He was not at all hungry but there was a cup full of pretzel sticks and the crunching would block out Lardo's voice.

"Oh my God, this is amazing," said Bitty.

Bitty never gave much thought to mustard, but this was by far the best he'd ever eaten. He and Lardo sampled the four different types, but the original was the best. Unfortunately, like the candle Lardo wanted to buy, the mustard was unnecessarily expensive. He could buy a jar just for himself, but he wanted to use it on CB's weekly sandwiches. Ten sandwiches a week couldn't justify this, so Bitty had to come up with something else.

"Do you do deliveries?" Bitty asked the man behind the table. "I own a bakery on Broadway and Knight."

"Yeah, minimum fifty dollar order."

He didn't need fifty dollars worth of mustard, but he ordered it anyway, which prompted Lardo to return to the previous booth and drop entirely too much money on candles. They still had half the street to go, but as they continued on, Lardo's nose in a jar, they both agreed that was enough money for one day.

 

***

 

It took the better part of the weekend to find a friendly, affordable butcher, but Monday morning Bitty entered the bakery extra early to prepare the dough for his solution to his sudden surplus of mustard — sausage rolls.

The dough was done when Dex arrived at five o'clock for the opening baker shift. Dex grabbed an apron from the hooks on the wall and looked at the large hunks of meat on the counter.

"You been here a while, boss?" Dex asked.

"Not too long. I want to make sausage rolls."

Dex's eyes landed on the meat again and then the grinder Bitty lifted onto the counter. "You know they sell pre-made sausage, right?"

"Where's the fun in that?" Bitty asked. "I got this, you work on prep for the day. Chowder's got the register with me but I might send him back here with you and Nursey if it gets slow."

"Bitty," said Dex. "I know it's collection day. We all know. You don't have to clear the counter every time they come by."

"I just don't want y'all involved with that."

"We're involved. You're involved. As much as I would like to stay far away from everyone in that family, they're here all the time. I'm just going to stay in the kitchen and mind my business. If you want to fraternize with them, that's your prerogative." 

"I don't really have a choice," said Bitty.

Nursey arrived just as Bitty was casing sausage, a feat that sounded easier than it was.

"Oh God," Bitty said as sausage shot out entirely too fast and broke right through the delicate casing. On the next go round, the casing slipped off the nozzle and spat out all over the counter, but then, on the third try, Bitty was able to get somewhere. After he filled enough for a dozen rolls, he looked up; Dex and Nursey were holding in giggles. Bitty was very happy he hadn't attempted this in front of Ransom and Holster. He did not need to hear a hundred dirty jokes about sausage and Bitty's obvious inexperience handling it. He cut the sausage into links, then placed them on mustard-coated flaky roll dough and wrapped them to bake in the oven. Chowder arrived as Bitty put them in.

"What are those?" Chowder asked.

"Sausage rolls."

"Ooh," said Chowder, then he looked at the counter where Bitty had been working. It was a disaster. The flaky roll dough had been easy; the sausage was another story, and the counter's surface took the worst of the mess, sticky with ground meat. 

"I'm going to the counter," Chowder said. Bitty was not surprised Chowder wanted to get out of there as soon as possible to get out of being asked to help clean.

Bitty tackled his mess while the rolls baked. They weren't ready by open, but the goal was to be ready by seven-fifteen. By seven the kitchen, which always smelled good, had the three of them salivating as Bitty cleaned and Dex and Nursey baked. Dex and Nursey crowded Bitty when he removed the tray from the oven.

"Have you ever made these before?" Nursey asked.

"No. Scoot," said Bitty. Nursey moved out of the way so Bitty could set the tray down to cool.

"So they could be bad, maybe? Maybe you might want someone to eat one or two to make sure they're good enough to sell?"

Bitty rolled his eyes. "You can have one, Nursey."

"Yes!" said Nursey and he reached out his hand to take one from the tray. Bitty quickly slapped his hand. "Ow!"

"They're still hot. Give it a few minutes. Dex, hun, you want half?"

"Yes, please!" Dex called from the walk-in.

Bitty let them cool, his eyes on the clock, and put one on a plate for Dex and Nursey to share before he transferred the others onto a fresh sheet for the warmer. Nursey shoved a fork into his mouth and quickly extracted it.

"Oh, hot. Too hot."

"Be careful," said Bitty. When he finished transferring the rolls he looked at them expectantly. Dex was chewing but gave Bitty a thumbs-up. "Great. I gotta get out there."

He scurried out of the kitchen door and just slid the tray into the warmer when CB appeared. Bitty never saw him on Sundays, but the added absence on Friday and Saturday made Bitty forget just how pretty he was. When CB entered he looked almost like he did at the farmer's market, just a few beads of sweat in his sideburns and at his hairline. His T-shirt was still mostly dry.

"Good morning," Bitty said to him. "You're in luck, these sausage rolls just came out of the oven. I haven't even put a sign up yet."

"That sounds amazing. Come and sit with me?" CB asked. He approached Chowder at the counter.

"The rolls are five dollars," Bitty said to Chowder. "Do you want coffee, hun?"

"Yes, please," said CB. Bitty placed a mug on the counter before he opened the warmer again. By the time he had the plate ready, CB was at the coffee station, filling his mug with dark roast. Bitty followed him to the table and sat across from him.

"This is the first batch of rolls so you have to tell me honestly if they're any good," said Bitty. CB cut a small piece and put it in his mouth, and his expression as enough to cement the fact that this had been a good idea.

"Bitty, these are amazing," CB said. He quickly cut another piece. "Wow. I think this is my favorite thing you've made."

"Really?" Bitty asked, beaming.

"Have you tried it yet? Here." CB cut another piece and held it out on his fork, not at the here-take-my-fork level, but instead at the let-me-feed-you level. Bitty glanced up at him and he motioned Bitty forward with the fork, so Bitty leaned in and took the bite.

It was very good. The sausage had a perfect snap to it, the roll was the right amount of buttery and flaky, and the mustard tied everything together. Making the sausage from scratch was the right idea even if it had taken most of the morning and created a gigantic mess. 

"Yeah, it's good," Bitty agreed. "It's the mustard. I got it at the farmer's market."

"It's good mustard," said CB. "I think the whole thing works. Will you keep making them?"

"Well I bought a meat grinder, so I kind of feel like I have to. It all depends on how they sell."

"I would like to buy all of them, please."

Bitty laughed. "Nice try, mister. We'll see. Adding things to the menu is complicated. I have to get Lardo to update the board…well, I guess that's really it, but she spent so much time on it that I feel bad asking her to make changes."

"She designed your board?"

"She did everything. She made the logo, she and her classmates at RISD did the paintings. Honestly, this place would look like garbage if not for her."

"And Lardo," said CB. "Is she also an owner?"

Bitty snickered. "No. I mean, she would love the idea of being an owner, but customer service is not her forte and she's told me more than once she does not want to be put to work here. She's perfectly fine coming in for the free food, though." CB nodded and Bitty felt the shift in mood right away. "Oh. Oh, no. You know she's not my girlfriend, right? We're just roommates."

"I don't want to presume —"

"No, presume! She and I are just friends. I am very gay."

CB laughed but also looked relieved. "Okay," he said. "Good."

Good could have meant a thousand things and Bitty didn't know how to interpret it, so he leaned his temple onto his fist and changed the subject. "How was your business trip? Were you gone all weekend?"

"No, just Friday, really, but I stayed there overnight and then went to my mom's on Saturday for dinner."

"Was that your mom at the farmer's market?"

"Yeah. Sorry, I should have introduced you."

"No, that's okay. Are you two close?"

"Yeah. We've always been close, but now moreso since my father's been gone. That's why you don't see me Sundays. I go down by her on Saturday nights for dinner and stay through family lunch on Sunday. Sunday lunch is kind of a big deal."

"Do you have a big family?"

"Huge," said CB. He took the last bite of his sausage roll. "I get the sense that you're not super close to yours."

"I used to be," said Bitty. He gripped the embroidered name on his apron. "I still talk to my mama regularly, but not like we used to. She was my best friend and then it got complicated. I fell out with my dad, and… it's all a mess."

"Did something happen? I'm sorry, I don't want to pry, so don't feel obligated to answer that."

Bitty shook his head and looked past CB toward Knight Street. "No, it's fine. I came out to them in a very not great way, not at all like I wanted to, and it didn't go over well. The next time I saw them my dad and I got into it and — oh, fuck."

Poots and Snowy appeared in the window. Bitty quickly stood. They usually didn't come this early.

"You okay?" CB asked.

Bitty picked up CB's plate and silverware. "Yeah, it's just these guys. I owe them money and I'm doing my best here, but it's a huge burden, and — I'm sorry. I shouldn't be complaining about this to you. I'll see you tomorrow."

Bitty returned to the register. "Chowder, go in the kitchen."

"You need something, Bitty?" Chowder asked.

"No, just go. Stay there until I come get you."

Chowder looked confused but did as he was told. Bitty dropped the dishes into the bus bin, then turned back to the counter as Poots and Snowy approached. Bitty glanced at CB, who was still at his table, watching. Bitty really didn't want to do this in front of him.

"Hello," Bitty said curtly. "You're earlier than usual."

"Is that a problem?" Snowy asked. Bitty glanced at CB and Snowy's gaze unfortunately followed. Snowy paused, looking at CB. Bitty felt suddenly worried; so far his interaction with the local mob was limited to a few minutes twice a month. He didn't want any more attention than that and definitely did not want CB involved in this. It was too much to worry about the safety of his staff. That couldn't extend to his customers too.

The worry only increased when CB stood and approached the counter, his coffee in his hand. Bitty had no idea how to politely tell him to stay away, so he remained silent as CB leaned against the glass display case and took a casual sip of his coffee. Bitty thoroughly expected Snowy to tell him to back off, but Poots was bright red and Snowy, who normally looked intimidating, looked uneasy instead.

Snowy cleared his throat and opened his mouth. "Dues are —"

"How often do these two come here?" CB interrupted, looking at Bitty rather than Poots and Snowy.

Bitty opened his mouth but couldn't formulate a response; he very much enjoyed watching CB run by every morning. He wouldn't be able to do that with two broken legs.

To his surprise, Poots then said, "Every two weeks."

CB nodded. "And how much are dues?"

"Five hundred," said Snowy.

"How long have you been open, Bitty? Two months?"

"Three," Bitty replied, surprised he still had a voice.

"Three months. A thousand a month," summarized CB, but Bitty couldn't correct him to say the first payment didn't occur until several weeks in. CB looked at Snowy. "Give him five."

Bitty was very confused; not only had Poots and Snowy not killed CB, but they hadn't asked him to leave either. Bitty had no idea what "Give him five" meant, and initially thought of five lashes until Snowy pulled a wad of cash from inside his breast pocket and counted five thousand dollars in large bills, which he then proceeded to place on the counter.

Bitty looked at CB. "With interest," CB said with a wink.

Bitty couldn't speak. He couldn't even move. He stood, rigid yet internally screaming as CB looked back at Poots and Snowy. "Take this place off your list. You don't collect here anymore."

"Yes, boss," said Poots.

"Do you want a scone before you go? Bitty, what's the scone of the day?"

"Ginger nut."

"Two Ginger nut scones, please," said CB. Bitty stared right at him. The cash was still on the counter. CB nodded toward it. "You going to leave that on the counter?"

Bitty picked up the cash and put it in the register before he grabbed two ginger nut scones from the display case where CB was still leaning. Bitty took a moment while he selected them to glance at the cute butt that was pressed up against the glass at the end of the shelf. He put both scones in paper sleeves and handed them over. Poots turned to leave but CB put a hand on his elbow and turned him back toward Bitty. "You have to pay for them."

"That'll be seven forty-nine," said Bitty automatically.

Poots reached in his pocket again and pulled out a twenty dollar bill, which he handed to Bitty. After Bitty handed over change, CB cleared his throat and tapped the mostly-empty tip jar on the counter. Poots dropped all of the change in the jar, and then he and Snowy left without another word. Bitty looked at CB with raised eyebrows.

"They won't bother you anymore," he said, and then walked out of the bakery.

Chapter Text

Approximately thirty seconds after CB disappeared up Knight Street, Bitty left Chowder at the counter and pulled both Dex and Nursey out of the bakery and into the duplex. Once inside, Bitty promptly fell into the armchair and put his overheated face into his hands. 

"Why didn't you tell me who he was?" Bitty asked the floor.

"Honestly, bro? I thought you knew," said Nursey. "He's been coming by every day for months. You two talk all the time. How did you not know he's the mob boss?"

Bitty immediately sat up and looked at Nursey. "He's the boss ? I just thought he was involved!"

"Seriously?" Dex asked. "How could you not know this? How could you live in a mob neighborhood and not educate yourself on the important and dangerous people who live here?"

"Dangerous? Really?" Nursey asked. 

Dex was now so red he was practically a boiled lobster. "Yes, dangerous! This isn't the boss of the New England puppy charity, this is Jack Zimmermann of the Zimmermann crime family, the same family responsible for the death and extortion —"

Nursey rolled his eyes. Bitty had stopped listening. His thoughts that morning had been pulled in a hundred directions — he was now in possession of a surplus of money rather than facing a significant deficit; he'd sat across from a man who looked relieved upon learning he was both gay and single; his beautiful boy with the cute butt was the leader of a powerful mafia; the boy with the cute butt finally had a name, and that name was Jack Zimmermann. How could someone with a name like that ever be dangerous?

"Jack," Bitty said, trying it out.

Dex stopped mid-tirade. "Don't tell me you're actually considering seeing him again," he said.

"It's not like Bitty has a choice, Poindexter. He's going to run by again tomorrow," said Nursey.

"Bitty can tell him to fuck off."

"You don't tell a mob boss to fuck off, not if you value your life and don't want your dues to increase."

"He called off the dues," said Bitty, and he couldn't erase the image of the half-smirk on Jack's lips — Jack's lips — when he did so. It was endearing and adorable. No, Jack was not a bad person.

"In exchange for what?" Dex screeched. "This is the mob we're talking about here! They don't do anything for free."

"Christ, would you shut it already?" Nursey asked. "You don't know what you're talking about."

"I've lived here my entire life, and unlike you I didn't fuck off to some fancy private school for four years. I stayed right here on the hill, actively avoiding trouble and keeping my nose out of this bullshit. Bitty, do what you want, but my advice is to stay away from them. They're bad news, all of them. Just keep your head down and try to save your pennies so you can buy a bakery far away from here."

"Dex," said Bitty firmly. "Go check on Chowder. I'm sure the line's out the door."

Dex looked between Bitty and Nursey, and then stormed to the door. Before he could leave, Bitty spoke again: "And Dex? If you want to quit, then quit."

He didn't quit, nor did he speak again, but he slammed the door on the way out. It would be a significant loss if he did leave; he was by far the most adept baker of the four, and Bitty enjoyed being able to rely on him to get the recipes consistently correct. That didn't always happen with the others.

Bitty looked at Nursey. "Is he right?" Bitty asked. "Is Jack a dangerous person?"

"He's the same guy you've been talking to, Bits," said Nursey. "Listen, the Zimmermann family isn't bad. They might do some things that aren't necessarily legal, but they do what they can to protect the community. That's always their first priority."

"Protect the community? From what?"

"Well this family isn't the only family in the country. You've got the Parsons down in New York, they're the closest, but then you've got the Canadian families just on the other side of the border. The DC families stirred up some trouble a few decades ago, or at least that's what my dad used to say. It's been peaceful up here for as long as I've been around, but it's people like Mr. Zimmermann and his dad who keep it that way."

Bitty's eyes narrowed. "Do I need to start calling him Mr. Zimmermann?"

"I mean that might get a little weird when you're making out with him, but —"

"Oh Lord, Nursey, don't."

Nursey smiled and finally sat down on the couch; he and Dex had not even attempted to make themselves comfortable. "Don't let Dex freak you out. I've lived here a long time and I know what the family can do. I was here when they restored DePasquale Square. I was here when they put in the community center. Don't treat your boy any differently because you learned his name."

"It's more than just a name, though, isn't it? And it's not just making the neighborhood better. You say he's a good person, but… I've seen the movies, Nursey. It goes deeper than that."

"This isn't what you see in movies, but if you worry about that, if that's something that scares you, then talk to him. He's a reasonable person and he likes you."

"Is he, though? Do you know him?"

"Well, not personally, no," said Nursey and Bitty couldn't help the skepticism that planted itself on his face. Nursey put up his hands quickly. "Like I said, man, I've been here a long time. He runs in the neighborhood every day so people can learn his name and his face. Apparently, that's more effective for some than for others —"

"Derek," Bitty warned.

"He does it so if people need him they can find him. He wants you to talk to him, so talk to him."

Bitty sent Nursey back to the bakery as well, but he remained alone in the duplex. Lardo was probably at the studio; school was out for summer, but she could use the studio space for projects too big to take home. It wasn't uncommon for her to do this for days at a time. She had been like this at Samwell too, gone for long periods with little communication until one day he'd receive a text with a request to come see, and the result was always breathtaking. One of these results hung in their living room, a floor-to-ceiling collage of their best memories at school, arranged to form the Samwell S. 

Bitty sent her a text to make sure she was okay, but he didn't want to mention Jack. Lardo would have an opinion, and while he needed her advice, he also needed to think. 

He didn't think. It was easier to bake, so for the first time since Bitty's Corner opened, he made a pie. The process was familiar and soothing: rolling out dough, simmering a filling, and weaving a crust over warm cherries from Jason's stand. It came out of the oven like heaven, the filling red and the smell alluring. It was exactly the kind of thing to take his mind off Jack Zimmermann. He walked the pie across the alley to the bakery and sliced it there. 

"You went home and baked?" Dex asked when he saw Bitty slice the pie into eight equal pieces.

"It's been a long time since I've made a pie," said Bitty. He picked up one of the decorative notecards he'd purchased for daily specials and wrote Cherry Pie, $3.50/slice on it. He then put the notecard on a table stand and then walked out to the counter where Nursey was stocking bagels and Chowder assisted a small line. When Bitty set the pie on the counter, Mrs. Jessup, who had just inserted her card into the chip reader, quickly removed it.

"Cherry pie?" she asked. "It's not too late to add a slice on, is it?"

"I can add it on for you, Mrs. Jessup," said Chowder.

Mrs. Jessup was not the only interested party, and by the time the line was gone, so were the slices of pie. "You should sell these for the Fourth of July," said Mrs. Jessup when she returned her plate. "I'd order half a dozen just to shut the family up for a few minutes."

"We'll see," said Bitty, who walked his pie plate back into the kitchen. The Fourth of July was a little less than a month away and Bitty had hoped to just avoid it. That was asking a lot. It used to be his favorite holiday, but in recent years he grew to enjoy it less and less, and not just because he wasn't in Georgia to celebrate the occasion at the Bittle Family Barbeque.

He washed the plate and considered going home again. He hadn't done any thinking at all and working wouldn't let him do that. He also knew if he went home he'd be back again with another pie and deeper guilt into the fact that he wasn't considering Dex or Nursey's words, and rather was avoiding thinking about Jack at all. The whole thing would have to wait for another time, so he turned to the table to help Dex scoop muffin batter into liners.

It was only four muffins later that Chowder opened the door. "Bitty?" he called. Bitty looked up and Chowder gestured over his shoulder with his thumb. "Um…there's someone here to see you."

There was no doubt who that someone was. Bitty looked across the muffin pans to Dex, who was bright red and determinedly not looking back at him. That was something else to deal with later, but in the meantime Bitty set the scoop down before he left the kitchen.

Jack stood at the counter, clean and well dressed. It had only been a few hours since they last spoke, but the knowledge of his name, that this was Jack, made him seem all the more beautiful. It could have been the lack of sweat, his well-fitting jeans, or his button-down with sleeves rolled to the elbows. Whatever it was, Bitty couldn't fight his smile, and Jack's expression mirrored his.

"Hi Bitty," Jack said.

"Hi Jack."

Jack's smile fell and for a moment Bitty worried that he should have said Mr. Zimmermann instead, but Jack said, "Can we talk?"

"Sure. You hungry? Take a seat, you just missed the pie but —"

"Can we go somewhere private?"

Bitty's heart pounded but he forced another smile. "Yes. Yeah, come on back, we can go to my office." Jack circumvented the counter and approached Bitty, who turned and led him to the kitchen. They usually didn't stand this close — there was always a counter or table between them — so Jack seemed taller than usual. Bitty tried not to look directly up at him, hyper aware of his presence for the two dozen steps across the kitchen to the office. Dex must have disappeared into the walk-in as soon as he could, because Nursey was alone at the work table, finishing the muffins. Nursey and Jack caught eyes and Nursey nodded first, followed by Jack. Bitty opened the door to his office and let Jack enter first. He looked back at Nursey, who grinned and threw a thumbs up.

Bitty hurried into the office and gestured to the chair in front of the desk. "Have a seat," he said, then sat in his own chair. Jack sat against the desk, folded his arms, and said absolutely nothing as he looked around the small office. It made Bitty remember he had yet to personalize it. Bitty waited, but nothing happened, so he said, "You knew I didn't know who you are."

"Yes, I did," said Jack.

"It's been months. I asked you about your family. Why did you let me make a fool out of myself?"

Jack frowned. "You were the first person I've met in years who's treated me like a human being. You didn't freeze up or get nervous at the sight of me. I liked it. I liked being nobody with you."

"You did make me nervous, though," admitted Bitty, and Jack's adorable smile returned, setting Bitty's insides aflutter.

"Yeah?"

Bitty nodded and they fell silent again. Bitty didn't wait as long to break it this time. "You gave me too much money," he said.

Jack shook his head. "I should have intervened a long time ago. Keep it. Weren't you thinking about getting a soda machine?"

"You don't need to buy me a soda machine. I can buy one myself."

"No, Bitty, keep —"

"I don't want to owe you anything."

"Please don't," said Jack quickly. "I don't come here to collect favors and I didn't stop your dues because I want you to feel obligated to me. Everyone in the neighborhood contributes to the protection and improvement fund, but you — I like you."

Bitty's heart began to thump hard in his chest. There had been bad first dates and that one boy who tried to kiss him, but it had never been like this — the boy Bitty had fawned over since his first day open, sitting with his cute butt half on Bitty's desk, saying the words I like you . That was the sort of thing for fairy tales. That didn't happen in real life.

Jack looked at Bitty expectantly, almost nervous, and Bitty realized Jack was waiting for a response. "I like you too," Bitty admitted, his voice shy and very much unlike his own. He waited for Jack to smile again, but Jack did not.

"I know I threw a lot at you this morning. It doesn't have to change anything unless you want it to. Do you want it to?"

Bitty's first reaction was no, absolutely not , but Jack had given him the choice, and he hadn't let himself think through the consequences. This was his CB, who he'd gotten to know quite well over the past few months, but this was also a real, guilty criminal who had and would continue to do unspeakable things. Even if he was a good person, like Nursey insisted, Dex was legitimately afraid of him. Bitty's customers were legitimately afraid of him. There had to be weight to that.

"I think it has to," said Bitty after a long pause. "Maybe not completely, but it does a little. I feel like I've been talking to you for months and I don't know you at all."

"If you'd like, we can take a walk. I'll show you the neighborhood and we can get to know each other for real."

"Right now?" Bitty asked, looking at the time. It would be lunch soon, and they would be busy. "Can we do it after the bakery closes?"

"Yeah, I can come back after you close tonight."

"And…" Bitty swallowed hard. He didn't understand why the words were so difficult. Jack had admitted to liking him. Jack had asked him for the walk. The words should have just fallen out of his mouth. He tried again. "And maybe we could have dinner?"

Jack's expression was a clear yes, but Bitty didn't breathe until he said, "Yeah. I know a good place. You close at four?"

"I'll need to do the deposit, but if you want to come at four, I promise it won't take long."

"It's a date, then," said Jack, and Bitty could not stop smiling.

 

***

 

At 3:58, Bitty was in the kitchen with Nursey, boxing up day olds to be sold at the usual discount when the bell above the front door rang. Bitty didn't always hear it from the kitchen, but the daily bustle was mostly over and the music had been shut off. He knew exactly who had entered the bakery and a thrill of jitters entered his body.

Once Jack left at lunchtime, the mid-day rush distracted Bitty enough to not think about their date, but now that it was time for it to actually occur, Bitty was a mix of emotions that were hard to distinguish. He was nervous, but not the kind of nervous he felt before a test, when he had to talk to his parents for the first time after he came out, or even before those handful of first dates that never turned into anything more. He was excited. Excited had never been an emotion that accompanied a date.

He closed a box and headed to the counter before Chowder could come back for him. Jack had just reached the register, still in his jeans and button-down.

"Hi Jack," Bitty said.

Jack smiled and the late afternoon sun beamed brighter through the west windows behind him. "I like that," he said.

"What?"

"When you use my name."

"Well, Jack ," said Bitty, "I just need to make the deposit and then we can scoot. Chowder, you can go when you've finished cleaning." Bitty scooched past Chowder to the register and pulled the cash drawer. The five thousand dollars was still stuffed underneath. He'd forgotten about it. He hesitated, knowing Jack stood right there, but then picked up the stack and shoved it into the extra slot where he usually kept change rolls.

Chowder headed to the front to turn off the sign. Bitty looked at Jack. "Do you want something to eat while you wait? I think the coffee's old so I wouldn't recommend it."

"Just a water, if you don't mind," said Jack. Bitty grabbed a bottle from the cold case and set it on the counter in front of Jack, who'd taken out his wallet.

"The register's closed, Jack. I can't charge you."

Jack stuffed a five dollar bill in the tip jar just as Bitty reached to take it from the counter. As Bitty took hold of the wide rim, Jack removed his hand and their fingers brushed against each other. Bitty looked up into Jack's eyes, and they both blushed.

"I won't be very long," Bitty said quietly.

"Okay," replied Jack in the same tone.

Bitty felt Jack's touch all the way back to the office. It was more than just the tingle of his fingers, or the hyper awareness of where their skin had met. He wanted to throw the whole drawer in the safe and deal with it later. He just wanted this to happen already; he wanted to be alone with Jack, to talk to him and get to know all of him, and hopefully, hopefully kiss him too. He wanted it all so much that he forgot the reason he had five thousand extra dollars in the drawer.

He hesitated, staring at it, and decided to place it inside the deposit bag and deal with that at another time. Tonight was not the night to figure out how to legally account for extra cash. He threw the deposit bag in the safe and then divided the tips from the jar evenly among the employees who had worked that day. He counted the drawer and reset the bank before he left the office. Chowder was in the kitchen with Nursey, and he'd either just finished a cherry danish or he was bleeding profusely from the mouth.

"I'm headed out," said Bitty. "Lock up when you go, okay? I'll be back tonight to check, but I'm not sure when that'll be."

"You sure, boss?" Nursey asked. "You sure you won't be…otherwise occupied?"

"You are on thin ice, Derek Nurse."

"Are you and Jack going on a date?" Chowder asked as he wiped his mouth on his arm and succeeded in transferring the cherry filling from one part of his body to another.

"He's just showing me around the neighborhood," said Bitty.

"Nah, C, it's totes a date," said Nursey.

"Derek Malik Nurse!"

Nursey put his hands up, but as Bitty left the kitchen, he overheard Nursey whisper to Chowder, "They're definitely going on a date. You saw him come back here at lunch, right?"

The whispering continued as Bitty entered the dining room and removed his apron. Jack, who had been sitting at his table, stood at Bitty's presence. Bitty hung his apron onto a hook behind the counter.

"Ready?" Bitty asked as he turned back to Jack. 

"Yes. You?" Jack asked. Bitty nodded. 

It was hard to believe this was actually happening, even after so many weeks of casual conversations and flirting. Everything about Jack was hard to believe, from the pop of his cheekbones to the definition of his jawline to the shape of his body. Jack was a gorgeous man, and he willingly followed Bitty out the front door. Jack gestured to the crosswalk; they had the light to cross Broadway, so they did and started east on the other side. Once they turned, Jack moved to Bitty's right so he was closer to the curb.

They were silent until they passed the bakery and Bitty gestured to the duplex. "That's where I live," Bitty said. "Lardo and I have the first floor. Ransom and Holster have the second."

Jack nodded but didn't say anything. Bitty stared at him, but he didn't look back, and before Jack could begin to speak about something else, Bitty said, "You knew that already, didn't you?"

Jack finally looked at him. "Yes."

"Is there anyone in this town you don't know?"

"It's my town. It's my job to know who's in it."

Bitty looked ahead; the street was busy with cars on their end-of-day commute, the sidewalks full of people headed home on foot. Federal Hill was close to downtown, enough so that people could walk or bike to work in the tall office buildings. Bitty and Jack weren't directly next to anyone, but were within clear sight of two men at the corner, headed their way.

"Who are they?" Bitty asked.

"Brandon and Calvin DeLuca. They live one block over from you, back the opposite way. They both work at the hospital. Brandon is a transporter but he's in nursing school. His father's in radiology. They used to live farther off the hill, but Cal's wife died last winter so they sold the house and now live in an apartment."

Brandon and Calvin approached. Calvin still had his nametag on. Brandon did not look much older than Bitty. Jack nodded to both of them as they passed. Calvin gave a quick nod but Brandon raised his hand and said, "Good afternoon, Mr. Zimmermann."

They didn't stop to exchange pleasantries, nor did they greet Bitty. After they passed, Bitty glanced over his shoulder. Calvin smacked Brandon on the arm and said something that made Brandon's shoulders slump. 

"I don't think Cal likes you," said Bitty in a low voice.

"It's a generational thing. Cal remembers my father and possibly my grandfather, although he would have been pretty young when my grandfather died. Brandon is younger than me. Brandon knows how I run the neighborhood, but Cal remembers how it used to be."

"How did it used to be?"

"My family has been doing this a long time. When it really got started, it was more about respect and power than what it is now. My father wanted people to like him rather than fear him, but it was a slow transition and not everyone caught on. What I said to you before, about not collecting favors? I've never collected favors but I don't think people realize that. A lot of people are still afraid of me."

"It’s in your eyes. Wolf eyes. You can be kind of intimidating."

"Do I intimidate you?" Jack asked, and he looked down at Bitty. His eyes were not too wolfish, really, at least in that moment. They were crystal clear and full of warmth, just like the blue sky above him. His expression was open but more than anything, he looked hopeful. That played with Bitty's emotions, pulling Bitty's happiness to the surface with such ease it made him apprehensive to what else Jack could do to him. They weren't touching. They weren't even that close to each other.

"No," said Bitty, "but you do make me nervous."

"So do you," said Jack.

Bitty had no idea how he could be making Jack feel even a fraction of what he felt. Fortunately, Jack turned and they kept walking east. Jack turned left at the next stoplight. While Broadway had its share of houses and apartments, this street was purely residential. It was mostly apartments; this part of town was too urban for houses and yards. The architecture was unmistakably New England. It felt old, like it'd been there forever. It reminded Bitty of some of the streets near Samwell, which made sense. They were only forty-five minutes away.

"Where are we going?" Bitty asked.

"I want to show you a few places before we go to the square for dinner. First one's up here. This isn't the route I normally run when you see me, but Thursdays I take a longer path to weave through these side streets before I go to work."

"Where do you go?"

"Up to the factory on Atwells."

"Wait, you actually have a factory? I thought you were pulling my leg."

"No, the runner factory is legit. We'll walk by it; I can show it to you."

Bitty wondered what Jack meant by legit ; he didn't seem to use it the way Ransom or Holster would. It also made Bitty wonder how much of Jack's business was not legit. Jack stopped at the next intersection and gestured to a building on the corner. It looked like an old house, out of place from the apartments that surrounded it, but by the signs in the first floor windows advertising beer, it was clearly not a residence. There was a wooden sign on a peg above the door with a bee carved into it, but there was no name.

"This was one of our first businesses," Jack said. "The runner factor we've had for about fifty years, but this was a house my great-grandfather and his friend purchased in the 1920s. It always looked like a house, and then in the thirties, after Prohibition ended, they converted it into a bar. Or, at least that's what they told the city; everyone came over to Bee's before then, but I'm sure it was just to play pinochle and smoke cigars."

"Oh, I'm sure," said Bitty. "Is this your bar now?"

"Yes, technically, but I'm not good at running bars and neither was my father. When he took over for my grandfather, he gave the bar to his best friend Broadway to run, and when I took over I gave it to my best friend."

"Shitty?"

Jack nodded. "Shitty owns it now but doesn't spend a lot of time here. His cousins manage it and they do a good job. It's not the most profitable of our businesses but it's got the most history."

"What else do you own?"

"A couple of places. Let's keep going this way." They were quiet as they continued north until they passed the entrance to another apartment complex and a middle aged woman opened the door. She saw Jack and retreated inside before Jack could see her; however Jack did see her. He frowned.

"Who was that?" Bitty asked.

"Nina Belfour. She's been in that apartment since she and her husband divorced five or six years ago. He used to work for my father."

Bitty looked away from the apartment entrance and back to Jack, whose mouth was pursed as if he'd taken a bite of something sour. "How do you know that?" Bitty asked.

"That they divorced? One of my guys told me."

"So she didn't tell you?"

"No."

"Have you ever spoken to her?"

"Not in depth."

"Do you think maybe that's the reason she's afraid of you? Because you knew her business but you've never spoken to her? And those other guys — have you ever spoken to Cal?"

"I'm not like you, Bitty," said Jack, his mouth still puckered and tight. "Small talk has never been easy for me."

"It doesn't have to be anything special. 'Hi! How are you? You know, I see you so much but I feel like I know nothing about you. You live in those apartments, right? Do you like it? Have you lived there a long time?' And then you let them tell you what they want you to know. Since you're such a good listener, you wait for them to give you something else to go on."

"This is why I have Shitty. He gives me all I need to go on," said Jack.

"But you want these people to like you, Jack, not Shitty. Come on, try it with me. Talk to me."

"I am talking to you."

Bitty rolled his eyes.

"You don't count. You talk back to me. You make it easy," said Jack.

He pushed aside the euphoria caused by Jack's comment. "I bet the people in the neighborhood would too. What's something you want to know about me that you would ask Shitty to find out for you?"

Jack thought for a moment as they crossed another street, which threw Bitty into a silent panic. It was easy to tease Jack, but no amount of familiarity erased the recent knowledge that this was the boss of a mafia. They'd passed two people just in this walk that reminded Bitty that Jack was not someone to trifle with, yet Bitty had trifled. He was spared the spiral of worry when Jack began to grin so infectiously that Bitty grinned too, despite not knowing Jack's thoughts. 

"What's something from the farmer's market that you wanted to buy but didn't?" Jack asked.

One thing came to mind immediately, which nagged at Bitty in a way he didn't like. He looked up at Jack. "You know what? I kind of want you see what you come up with."

Jack nodded. "Okay. We're turning right up here." He didn't say anything further on the subject and they turned right onto Atwells Avenue. This was busy like Broadway; they'd left the residential zone again. Jack gestured across the street at a gray nondescript building behind a chain link fence. There was a loading bay and some parking. It looked average and unassuming.

"This is Atwell Runners," said Jack.

"It looks…incredibly boring."

Jack laughed. "I'd say it's nicer on the inside, but that's not really true. Most of it is factory but there are a few offices and conference rooms on the second floor. This is where we have our meetings on Thursdays."

"And your meetings — are they about skate blades?"

Jack smiled. "Sometimes. Come on, let's keep going. I've got one more place to show you."

"Is that a plain old warehouse too? Are you even this big tough guy or is this all an elaborate ruse to try to get me to think you're not boring?"

"I'm not boring."

"Oh yeah? Tell me one thing about you that's cool."

"Um. I like to golf?" Jack guessed.

"Oh Lord, Jack, please tell me you're joking."

"What? Golf is cool!" Jack said and when Bitty looked at him, he was actually serious. Bitty began laughing so Jack paused and took hold of Bitty's arm to get him to stop walking as well. The contact spread like fire through Bitty's body. Jack might not be interested in exciting things, but his touch made Bitty feel alive in a way he had never felt before.

"Now I'm afraid to talk to you. What if I tell you my life story and you think I'm too dull?" Jack asked.

"Jack, I'm teasing. I'm sure there's plenty of exciting things about you."

"But there really isn't. I play golf and I have dinner with my mother on Saturdays and I read historical nonfiction and when I was a teenager, I once spent an entire summer building a life size family tree dating back to colonial times just because I wanted to."

Bitty touched Jack's hand on his arm. "I've been in Providence a year and this is the farthest from the house I've ever been."

"But you bake and you played college hockey. I quit when I was fourteen."

"You played hockey?" Bitty asked excitedly. "What position? Why did you wait three months to tell me?"

They started walking again and unfortunately stopped touching. "Don't get excited. I played because Shitty wanted to. We were both forwards, but I was usually a center. I liked hockey itself quite a lot, and I was pretty good at it, but we played here. People knew me and the kids were afraid to play against me, especially when my father was there. Shitty left for school when he was fourteen. He played at Andover until he graduated but it was no fun here without him, so I quit."

"Why didn't you leave for school too?"

"I didn't want to leave the neighborhood. It was important for me to stay, so I did. Until…" Jack didn't finish his sentence.

"Until you did?" Bitty asked carefully. Jack nodded. "How long were you gone?"

"Five years. I stayed with my Aunt Rosaline in Montreal until my father was arrested."

Bitty wanted to ask more, but it was clear from Jack's extra step away from Bitty, his hands in his pockets, and his far away gaze that this was not the time for more detail. "So no more hockey," Bitty said instead. "Do you still watch it? Do you like the Falconers or are you a Habs fan?"

Jack did like the Falconers, and the conversation about hockey took them from the factory to their destination, a market square at the end of DePasquale Avenue. It was just about dinner time now, albeit on the early side, but the square was already filling with people. It was a nice, warm summer day and the restaurants had outdoor seating, so the noise from the road gave way to the chatter of diners. It was a small square but quaint, clearly popular with locals. A fountain took center stage in the brick courtyard, bubbling audibly over the conversations and distant traffic noise. Bitty approached this first.

"It needs work," said Jack when Bitty peered into the base of the fountain, curious if it held coins. It did. "I should ask them to repair it. It used to be beautiful when I was a kid. Shitty and I would run here on allowance day and get ice cream and throw pennies in the fountain."

"What did you wish for?" Bitty asked.

"Nothing. We were idiots."

Bitty smiled at the thought of a young Jack tossing coins one by one into the fountain while ice cream dripped onto his hand. It was easy to imagine him as a child with wild hair and big blue eyes. Shitty was more difficult. Bitty couldn't picture him without the mustache.

"I feel like you and Shitty were hellions," said Bitty.

"Maybe Shitty. I was a perfect angel," said Jack. He gestured to a restaurant in the northwest corner of the square, part of another apartment building with four stories of small balconies. "Are you hungry yet? This is where I thought we could eat."

Bitty nodded vigorously. Jack led him through the square to the restaurant's entrance. The people here must either had been used to him or were of the younger generation that appreciated his effort, because they received several smiles and greetings, although Jack did not stop to speak to anyone. Jack held open a heavy door for Bitty, who entered the restaurant first.

It smelled heavenly, like an old pizza joint. It was due for upgrades; the walls were darkly wallpapered and the booths were upholstered with burgundy velvet. It was fairly busy for five o'clock. Bitty approached a hostess at a stand — she looked very young, possibly still in high school — who blushed bright red at the sight of Jack. Jack held up two fingers and she picked up two menus before she led them through the dining room. Bitty noticed a second level, which appeared to be their destination. The second floor consisted of ten unoccupied tables in the same outdated style. Bitty and Jack were led past all of them to a door all the way at the front of the restaurant, which opened to a balcony overlooking the square. The hostess placed their menus on the table before she quietly said, "Angela will be right with you."

Jack and Bitty sat. The hostess left immediately.

"Okay, she is terrified of you," said Bitty. "I thought you were trying to get people to like you."

"Sophia is terrified of everyone. This is not the job for her, but it's a family owned business. Her sister Angela is much more used to people."

"What's good here?" Bitty asked.

"I always get lasagna," said Jack. "I'm sure the rest of the menu is good but I never want to order anything else."

Another young woman, older than Sophia but not as old as Bitty, opened the door. From her auburn curly hair to her squat nose and high cheekbones, she was clearly Sophia's sister. She smiled at Jack and Bitty as she set a bottle of San Pellegrino sparkling water in front of Jack. "Good afternoon, Mr. Zimmermann. It's been a while."

"I can't come here every day," said Jack with a smile.

"I don't see why not," said Angela. "Lasagna?"

"Yes," said Jack.

Angela looked across the table at Bitty. "What can I get you to drink?" she asked.

"I'll have a cherry Italian soda," said Bitty and Jack's smile ticked up, but Bitty didn't acknowledge it in front of Angela.

"Do you still need a minute with the menu?"

"No, if Jack gets lasagna every time I have to try it." 

Angela's smile faltered when Bitty referred to Jack by his first name, but it returned quickly and she nodded. "Mr. Zimmermann loves his lasagna," she said. She picked up both menus. "I'll be back in a minute with your soda." She left them alone and Jack's smirk returned.

"That soda is nothing but sugar," he said.

"Then it'll be good," said Bitty. He nodded toward the door. "Angela likes you."

"I've known Angela and Sophia since they were born. Sophia will be a senior in high school this fall and Angela's a sophomore at Brown. Angela's had a crush on me since she knew what crushes were."

"She's cute," said Bitty.

"I'm sure her parents would be thrilled with something like that, but she's too young," Jack said.

Angela returned a minute later with Bitty's Italian soda and a basket of bread. The soda was mostly sugar, but it still tasted good, and Jack smirked at him again when he took a long sip, so it was worth it to order. Jack's smirk did things to Bitty's insides that were both pleasing and terrifying, and since they'd sat down, Jack hadn't taken his eyes off Bitty. Bitty stopped speaking and stared across the table back at him. Jack's fingers were at his temple. He looked without restraint, and his expression turned more enticing the more they looked without speaking. The chatter and laughter from the square quieted. The vibrancy of the blue sky faded. 

"Thank you for inviting me on a walk," Bitty said after a long silence.

"Thank you for coming," said Jack.

The door opened, breaking their connection, and they both looked at Angela, who carried a plate of lasagna in both hands. "Here you go, gentlemen," she said happily, and she set down Jack's plate first before Bitty's.

Jack thanked Angela. Bitty didn't wait for her to leave before he dug in, and Jack was right. The lasagna was excellent, but Jack's face while he ate it was better than their meal. Jack looked the way he did when he ate at the bakery, which was a bigger compliment than any Jack could have verbally given. When he finished the final bite of the large slice, he realized that dinner was over, and looked across the table at Jack, who'd also finished. Good or not, he should not have eaten so quickly. All that was left was the walk home, and he felt like he had barely scratched the surface of Jack Zimmermann.

"Can I walk you home?" Jack asked.

"Yes," said Bitty.

Jack stood and they left without paying a bill. Once back in the square, Bitty looked back toward the restaurant in confusion. "Did we not pay?" he asked.

Jack shook his head. "You don't pay when you own the place," he said, and Bitty wondered what exactly Jack was hiding by his choice of words. They headed down DePasquale Avenue back toward Broadway. Once they crossed onto Broadway, Bitty glanced back up toward the square, to see if the fountain was still visible from this distance. As he looked he saw Older Guy waiting for the light to the street that Jack and Bitty had just crossed. Bitty's eyes narrowed.

"What?" Jack asked.

"Do you know him?" Bitty asked, nodding toward Older Guy. Jack looked.

"Yeah. That's a friend."

"A friend?" Bitty asked, his eyebrows up. "A friend who is always a hundred feet behind you?"

"Yes," said Jack. "His name is Guy."

Bitty erupted into a cackle, which surprised Jack. "Sorry," said Bitty and he covered his mouth with his hand. "I've been calling him Older Guy in my head for months."

"You had a name for him in your head?" Jack asked. "Do you have a name for everyone you see?"

Bitty suddenly remembered Jack's name and said, "Maybe," before he hurried forward and Jack had to speed up to catch him.

"Do you have a name for me?"

"Nope. No. Not at all. I recognize this, we're almost home."

"Bitty," said Jack, and stopped walking. Bitty also stopped; he wasn't rude enough to run home without Jack. Bitty frowned, his cheeks burning. "You realize that now you have to tell me."

"Icalledyoucutebutt," muttered Bitty.

"What? You called me what?" Jack asked, but from the grin on his face, Bitty knew he'd heard it just fine.

"I called you Cute Butt," said Bitty, and his entire face felt like it was on fire. He turned and started walking again, and fortunately Jack walked with him. When Jack fell into step next to him, Bitty felt Jack's hand slide against his and their fingers interlocked. Bitty looked up at him.

"If you want to keep calling me Cute Butt, you're welcome to do so," said Jack.

"If you stop torturing me," said Bitty. Jack squeezed his hand and more than just Bitty's face burned. Bitty stepped closer to Jack, who let him. They walked the rest of the way in silence, sneaking looks at each other, until they reached the duplex. Jack walked Bitty up to his front door, where Bitty turned around and took Jack's other hand in his. 

"I had a good time," Bitty said.

"Me too," said Jack. "Can I see you again?"

"Oh, are you going to stop running by my bakery every day?" Bitty asked, hearing the sass in his own voice, which made Jack smile.

"You know what I mean. Saturday night? I'll make you dinner."

"Make? You're going to make dinner for me?" Bitty asked. Jack nodded. "Yeah, of course. What are you going to make me?"

"You'll find out Saturday," said Jack. "I'll stop by in the morning."

"See you then," said Bitty. Jack leaned in and Bitty's entire body seized up, knowing what was coming. He'd been hoping for this for longer than just an afternoon, but he remembered when this happened before, with the rugby boy from Samwell. This was his cute boy that he'd wanted for months, and he forced himself to relax and let Jack kiss him. 

Jack was tender with him, just a gentle press of their lips upon each other's with nothing more. It was chaste and over far too soon, but Bitty's whole body felt like jelly, like Jack had transformed him and when his eyes fluttered open, he was a different person. 

"See you then," Jack said. Bitty couldn't speak. Jack dropped his hands and took a step back. Bitty watched him descend the front steps and head off toward the east, where he met Guy and they continued on together. Bitty opened the door, stepped inside, and let out a long, relieved breath.

Chapter Text

Bitty opened the door and entered, but didn't go further. Instead he shut the door behind him with the palms of his hands and rested against it, his gaze still outside, lingering on what had just occurred. It had been a ridiculous day, not at all what he expected when he woke early to impress a boy with a good, hearty pastry. Now that boy had a name, had a dangerous profession, and had just kissed him. Jack had just kissed him, and despite it only lasting a few moments, Bitty could still feel Jack's lips on his. He tingled and ached and he had never felt so wonderful in his life.

Movement on the couch caught his attention and yanked him out of his head. Lardo sat there, arms folded, one eyebrow up.

"Oh you're home!" Bitty said. "Did you finish your project?"

"Almost. I want it to dry overnight. You okay?"

"I'm great," said Bitty and he couldn't stop the smile from pulling up the corners of his lips. Not that he necessarily wanted to prevent it, even if it meant Lardo would inevitably begin chirping him. "I'm really great."

"I heard a rumor that you went on a date," she said with a lilt in her voice that she usually reserved for teasing.

Bitty didn't even care that news must have traveled through the bakery staff and, by extension, to Lardo. "Yeah," he confirmed.

"With the mob boss?"

The smile fell off Bitty's face. Lardo's eyebrow was down, her arms still folded, the amusement gone from her expression. Bitty had been high from his perfect first date, and Lardo pulled him right back to the ground. He kicked off his shoes onto the mat next to the door.

"Yes, he's the boss. I'm going to bed."

"Bits."

"No, I know what you're going to say. Lardo, I just had a wonderful time with him. This is the first time ever in my life I've not only been asked on a second date, but I've wanted a second date. Don't take this away from me."

"You don't know what I'm going to say but it sounds to me like you know there's something wrong with this situation. Sit. Let's talk it out before you get in so deep you can't."

Bitty looked at the bedroom door. It was too early for sleep, but he felt completely drained. He was ready to lay under his covers and remember Jack's kiss over and over again, preferably while alone and undisturbed. He looked back at Lardo and knew her well enough to understand that the severity of her expression meant business. This was the team manager expression, the stop-fooling-around-or-I'll-smack-you expression, so with reluctance he flung himself into the armchair. 

"So you still like him," she said.

"Yes."

"Did you two talk about it?"

"Sort of. Not in detail."

"Do you think you should?" she asked and Bitty knew the answer, but didn't know how to finish a conversation on that topic and still have a boyfriend, if that was where this was headed. "Do you like Jack, or do you like the idea of Cute Butt liking you back?"

"He's charming," said Bitty. "He's easy to talk to. Every time he leaves I want him to come back, and when he talks to me I want to know more. But... I am scared he's going to tell me something I don't want to know."

Lardo picked up her phone before she pulled herself into a ball on the couch. "I did some snooping while you were out. There's not much on Jack apart from his connection to his father, but Bits, his father is in prison serving twenty-five years for tax evasion, larceny, and extortion. Now Jack is in charge of the business that does what Bob Zimmermann was imprisoned for. Are you okay with that? Because that's just what they charged him with; there's plenty of stories about what else he did, both during his career and during the investigation to prevent more serious indictments."

None of this surprised Bitty, but it did tug uneasily at his insides. "I don't know," he said.

"This is your decision, Bits. It's fine if you're okay with it, but if you aren't... It was one date. Let him down gently before you're both too invested. And if we have to peace out to the Maldives or something, I've got a passport."

"We'd have to bring Ransom and Holster with us."

"Nah, they can fend for themselves. I bet they'd find new consulting jobs in no time, and you know Rans could get into med school if he actually tried."

"They could probably keep the bakery running. Ransom could do the books and Holster could boss everyone around. Dex is probably the best baker I've met outside my family, if he doesn't quit on me because I’m in bed with the mafia," said Bitty. As the expression left his lips he thought about actually being in bed with the mafia and found that his body reacted very positively to that suggestion.

"There you go," said Lardo, and they both chuckled a bit, but the laughter was short lived. Bitty looked back to the front door, his mind again on what had just happened on the other side of it, and this time Lardo's sigh didn't cause the memory to disappear.

"You're going to see him again, aren't you?" Lardo asked.

"Yeah," he said.

"That must've been some kiss."

Bitty smiled again and looked back at her; the amusement in her expression was back and he knew he needed to get to bed before she unloaded the deluge of chirps he knew she had stored up for him. "It was," he said.

"Just promise me you'll ask questions. Don't go into this blind."

"I will," said Bitty, and he said goodnight before the teasing could begin. He quickly entered his room and shut himself in; he had a kiss to remember.

Bitty saw Jack on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday morning. Tuesday was unfortunate, as the line was to the door, so Bitty just said hello to Jack, who didn't even stay to eat, but he gave Bitty a smile that warmed Bitty's insides. On Wednesday and Thursday, Bitty was able to serve Jack at his table and put a hand on Jack's back as he did, but the days passed and there wasn't an opportunity to kiss him again. 

Just before eleven on Thursday, a few hours after Jack had left for work, Bitty boxed up the tenth lunch for the Atwell Runners order and stared at it, debating if he should include a note. On one hand, it could be embarrassing; on the other, Jack could possibly find it endearing. He was still deciding when there was a knock on the back door. Bitty frowned when he looked over; he wasn't expecting any deliveries.

Ransom opened the door and there stood Jason the fruit vendor, one crate in his hands and another on the ground next to him. "Jason?" Bitty asked. "I thought you didn't do Thursday deliveries during summer. I wasn't expecting you until Saturday."

"I was asked to make a special stop today," said Jason and he walked the crate inside and set it on the counter next to Bitty. "It was one of those requests that you don't turn down. You know, I thought you didn't like these, but Mr. Knight was very insistent that you wanted them."

Bitty looked in the crates, both the one Jason had set on the table and the one Ransom carried in, but it was just a confirmation of what he already knew — Jack had bought him peaches. Bitty picked one up and turned it in his hand. Like the one at the farmer's market, it was perfectly ripe and smelled like home. 

"Thank you, Jason," said Bitty.

"Mr. Knight wants me to drop them off every week for the rest of the season. Thursdays will be hard, so do you want them with your regular order on Tuesdays? I mean, only if that's okay. If you'd prefer Thursdays I can make it work, I just —"

Jason looked terrified. Bitty threw on a smile. "No, Tuesdays are fine."

"Okay. Great. See you Saturday."

"I might have to leave early Saturday, but I think Holster's closing, right?" Bitty looked over his shoulder at Holster, who was dusting donut holes with powdered sugar. The sight was a little ridiculous; Holster was six foot four and had large hands, and the donut holes were very small in comparison. He also had managed to get powdered sugar all over both himself and the table. Holster nodded to confirm. "So he'll be here to take the delivery." 

Jason quickly left. Bitty stared at the crate of peaches in front of him, still turning the one in his hand, each delicate brush of fuzz recalling a new memory. Despite the competing emotions, Bitty mostly felt impressed to the point of tears swimming in his eyes. There had been a lot of things at the farmer's market that he wanted but did not buy, but this was his only regret. The peaches were perfect and he was stupid for letting his own demons get in the way of making something delicious for his customers with his favorite fruit. 

"Bits?" Ransom asked quietly. "You okay? You never bake with peaches anymore."

"I know," said Bitty. "Let's change that. What should we do first? Cobbler? Is it too hot out for cobbler?"

"With ice cream?" Holster asked. "No way. Load me up with that."

"Hmm, I might have to swing by the farmer's market later and see if anyone is selling good ice cream," said Bitty. He set the peach back in the crate with the others as the door to the counter opened and Farmer poked her head inside the kitchen.

"Bitty, is the order ready for Mr. Knight?" she asked, and Bitty smiled at the fact that she did not call him Shitty. He picked up the tenth lunch box and placed it on top of four others in one of the large paper bags. 

"Yes. I'll bring them right out if you want to ring him up," Bitty said. He looked at the peaches again and darted into his office for a piece of paper. He scrawled a quick note to Jack:

Jack —

You amaze me. How could you possibly know about the peaches? I can't wait to see you Saturday. I'll make you something special for dessert.

— Bitty

He folded the note and returned to the kitchen, where he picked up both bags and brought them to the counter. Shitty was just returning his wallet to the pocket of his suit when Bitty set the bags down for him.

"There you are! Thought I'd have to run back there and make them myself," said Shitty with a good natured smile under his well-manicured mustache.

"Sorry, Shitty. I was dealing with an unexpected delivery."

Shitty laughed loudly. "So did we do good or did we do good?"

"You did good," said Bitty. "Can you give this to Jack for me please?" Bitty handed Shitty the note. 

"Is this middle school? You boys got me passing notes for you? Here, you have one too." Bitty's eyes lit up as Shitty handed him a folded piece of paper before he took Bitty's and stowed it safely in his breast pocket. He then picked up both bags. "See you next week, Bitty."

"Have a good lunch, Shitty," said Bitty. He didn't watch Shitty leave. He didn't even look at Farmer, knowing the expression she had on her face, before he turned back to the kitchen. He walked directly to his office and shut the door. With his heart pumping fast, he unfolded the note. Jack's handwriting was messy but legible. 

Bitty

Got called away tomorrow for work. I'll see you Sat morning. Hope you like the peaches. I hope you got the peaches before you read this. If not, surprise.

It wasn't signed but that wasn't necessary. Bitty reread the note several times, only slightly disappointed he wouldn't get the chance to thank Jack in person until Saturday. He couldn't imagine what kind of business would call Jack away from home, but Bitty imagined Jack in a nice suit, sitting at table with Shitty by his side, looking both suave and intimidating. Bitty pushed the thought away; he did not want to think about Jack in a suit, nor did he want to think about Jack's business, so he continued to look at the note. Once he read it so many times that the words began to stop looking like words, he unlocked the safe and placed the folded sheet of paper inside.

 

***

 

On Saturday morning, Jack stopped in the bakery at seven-fifteen as usual and waited in line for his turn to order, his eyes flickering between the display case, the specials on the counter, and Bitty, whose insides were bouncing at both the sight of him and the knowledge of their upcoming date. The week had gone by quickly, as weeks usually did since he opened the bakery. Now that Jack was there it seemed like time had completely stopped. Bitty just wanted their date to start already.

Bitty was polite but significantly less chatty with both Veronica and Barry, who were ahead of Jack in line. When Jack reached the counter he gave Farmer a polite smile, who stepped away from the register. Bitty took her place and didn't know what happened to her after that, because Jack smiled at him.

"Hi," Jack said.

"Hi," Bitty replied. "Do you want something to eat?"

"Yeah. Can I have a cranberry muffin please? Do you have time to sit with me?"

"Yes," said Bitty without checking to see if there was a line behind Jack. He handed Jack a mug; Jack reached out to take it and their fingers touched, but unlike previous happy accidents like this, neither of them were quick to pull their hand away. Jack turned the empty mug and gently brushed his thumb across Bitty's skin before he broke the connection and walked to the coffee station. He had placed a ten dollar bill on the counter already. Bitty rang up the transaction and felt weird for doing so, but this had happened four times now since their date and Jack had made it clear he wasn't in this for the free pastries.

Bitty picked out the best cranberry muffin for Jack and sat down with him at his usual table. Jack began to pull at the paper lining, but his eyes were on Bitty.

"You excited for tonight?" Jack asked.

"What's tonight?" Bitty teased, despite his mental countdown to this day and his lack of sleep the night before as he imagined what exactly they would be doing together that evening. Jack frowned, playing up his hurt. "Yes, Jack, I'm excited. What time do you want me to come?"

Jack's expression darkened, just for a moment, and Bitty felt it down his throat, into his stomach, and settle between his legs. They'd shared only one brief kiss and a couple of innocent finger brushes, but when Bitty was alone at night, they did so much more than that.

"Six," said Jack, his expression now pleasant, the heat gone. 

Bitty almost balked; that was ten and a half hours away. "And you want me to go to your place?" Bitty asked instead. Jack nodded. "Where do you live? Remember I have no idea where anything is in this city."

"I'll text you my address. Can I, um... can I have your number?"

Bitty laughed and Jack smiled brightly. "You couldn't get Shitty to figure that one out too?" he asked before he handed Jack his phone.

"I'm taking your advice and asking," said Jack. Bitty watched him type into the phone and then hand it back over. Bitty blushed furiously to see Jack had entered his contact as Cute Butt and just texted the words Hot Bakery Boy to himself. Bitty calmly returned the phone to his pocket while Jack said, "Did you like the peaches?"

Bitty knew the question was coming, but still felt emotion swell in his eyes when it was asked. He looked away, enough to know Farmer had control of the counter, then he exhaled and nodded. "Yes. Thank you. Did you get my note?"

"Get is not quite the word. Shitty read it aloud during our meeting." 

Bitty burst into laughter. "Oh, honey, I'm so sorry. I hope that wasn't too embarrassing for you."

Jack rested his head on his fist and smiled in a way that crinkled his eyes. "They had a good laugh at my expense, but that's not unusual for our Thursday meetings. You said you'd make me something special for dessert?"

"I hope you like it."

Jack, who until this point had mostly neglected his muffin, finally broke off a piece and popped it in his mouth. "I think I'm going to like it," he said.

So at six o'clock that evening, Bitty stood at the base of a skyscraper, holding a peach pie in one hand and his phone in the other, comparing the address Jack had texted him to the number on the building. This was not Federal Hill, nor was it anything like Bitty had envisioned when he thought about Jack's home. He began typing with one thumb, hyper aware of the pie in his right hand, when a man in a suit opened one of the glass doors that led into the lobby.

"Mr. Bittle," he said. "Mr. Zimmermann is expecting you."

"Oh. Thank you." Bitty entered the door that had been held open for him, but glanced down at his phone again. Jack had not specified an apartment number. Fortunately the doorman walked directly to the elevator and held that open for Bitty as well. Bitty entered the elevator.

"Mr. Zimmermann is in 2903," the doorman said after he used a keycard to unlock access to the button marked PH. "If you need a ride home, I can arrange that for you."

"Thank you," Bitty repeated. A sudden wave of anxiety coursed through him as he wondered if he should tip the man — he had no cash on him. The doorman left without presenting the opportunity, but Bitty worried about it as the elevator soared up the twenty-nine flights and dinged at PH. There were two doors in front of him, one several feet to the left, marked 2902, and another several feet to the right, marked 2903. Bitty approached 2903 and knocked.

A moment later Jack opened the door, dressed in well-fitting slacks and a white button-down with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows and the collar open to mid-chest. He did not wear an undershirt. Bitty's initial reaction was thirst until he realized he was in jeans and a Samwell Men's Hockey T-shirt that was spotted heavily with flour.

"Hi," Jack said.

"You didn't tell me to dress up," said Bitty as he stepped inside.

"I had a business meeting this afternoon and by the time it was over I was running late. I didn't get an opportunity to change. Is this peach?"

Jack pointed at the pie in Bitty's hands. He held it out for Jack to take. "Yes. I hope it's not too sweet for you. I tweaked my MooMaw's recipe a bit." Jack took the pie and set it on a nearby counter. Bitty had just turned his head to look around when Jack took hold of his face in one hand and kissed him.

Bitty was more prepared to react to this kiss than their first. He lifted himself to his toes, held Jack by the shoulder and the opposite bicep, and kissed him back. Jack was just as gentle as he had been the first time. Bitty was ready for more, but Jack took a step back after just a few seconds. Bitty lowered himself to his heels and pouted.

"We haven't had dinner yet," Jack said.

"Will there be more kissing after dinner?" Bitty asked hopefully.

Jack's eyes roamed Bitty's body, and his worry about the flour on his T-shirt disappeared, because Jack looked right through what Bitty was wearing to what he couldn't see underneath. Bitty swallowed hard.

"Maybe," Jack said. "Dinner first."

Jack let go of him and returned to the kitchen, giving Bitty the opportunity to look at the apartment for the first time. He pursed his lips to hold in a bark of laughter. This was not what he expected upon heading out from his terrible and old duplex twenty minutes earlier. He knew Jack had money; that was to be expected from his position. A mansion would not have been out of place, but this was much smaller. It was a very nice apartment with modern colors and furniture, but Bitty looked for more hallways than just the one and found none. The front door looked into the kitchen and dining area, which was separated from the living room by a bookcase that extended three-quarters of the way from the wall. The living room was small but had some comfortable looking furniture, including a slate gray leather couch with room enough for both of them to snuggle on it, although Bitty was not thinking about snuggling with Jack on it. There was one bedroom off the end of the kitchen near the balcony and another off the living room, along with a second closed door that Bitty assumed was a bathroom.

The balcony was by far the biggest draw of the apartment. Jack's apartment took up one quarter of the twenty-ninth floor and so did the balcony, a square space with white, waist-high railings. There were a few chaise lounges and another dining table out there with four chairs around it. It was another beautiful summer day; Bitty wondered if they were going to eat out there since the table inside was not set.

"You like it?" Jack asked, after Bitty had looked his fill. Jack was standing behind a stovetop built into the island.

"It's a lot smaller than I thought it would be," said Bitty, and then quickly realized how demeaning that sounded. "Not that it's bad! Everything looks beautiful. I just expected…more."

"My mother's house is more," said Jack. "It's just me here. I don't need the whole floor as long as I have privacy and security."

"Your doorman knew exactly who I was," said Bitty.

"That's why he's the doorman," said Jack.

"What're you making?"

Three of the four burners on the stove were occupied: a saucepan with yellow soup, a pot full of water on its way to a boil, and a skillet with nothing in it yet.

"Corn Veloute and seared scallops," said Jack and Bitty didn't attempt to hide the surprise on his face. "What?"

"You're making me scallops? Mr. Zimmermann, you are full of surprises."

"I'm not promising any of this is good," said Jack, but when Bitty leaned in to smell the soup he smelled summer and his mouth began to water. "The soup I used to have when I was in Montreal; my great-aunt Rosaline always made it as soon as the corn harvest came in."

"Oh, she's your great-aunt?"

"Yeah, my grandfather's sister. Aunt Rosaline and Uncle Jean-Claude. Uncle Jean-Claude is gone now — he was hardly there when I came to stay with them. He didn't last much longer after I left. My father wanted to move Aunt Rosaline down here with my mother when Uncle Jean-Claude died, but she insisted on staying. She's ninety-two and will probably live another fifteen years."

"And the scallops?"

"My mother said it was classy," said Jack. Bitty rested his head on his hand and looked up at Jack; he found himself unable to express how adorable it was that Jack asked his mother for dinner advice. Jack smiled at him and started chopping the ends off asparagus that Bitty assumed was going in the now-boiling pot.

Bitty was quiet while Jack finished cooking. The asparagus and scallops were both quick; Jack seared scallops in lemon and butter in the skillet and boiled the asparagus in the pot, then took two bowls and two plates out of the cabinet. The soup went in the bowls, the scallops and asparagus on the plates.

"This smells amazing," said Bitty.

"We'll sit on the balcony," Jack said, and Bitty internally celebrated the decision as he took the bowls, leaving Jack the plates. It was warm on the balcony, the sun on its way down in the western sky, which Jack had a perfect view of. There was a light, refreshing breeze that flitted through Bitty's hair as they walked to the table. Jack had already set it with silverware, two wine glasses, and a bottle chilling in a bucket. Jack poured them each a glass of wine and Bitty dug into the soup that he had been smelling for almost twenty minutes.

"Oh my God, this is so good," said Bitty as he dunked his spoon into the soup for another bite. "This is your great-aunt's recipe? Are you sure she's still in Montreal and she didn't pop down here to make it for you?"

"I've made this a hundred times," said Jack. "I can make corn veloute in my sleep. The rest of it? Don't get all riled up until you've tasted the scallops, because they could be horrible."

The scallops were not horrible, but the quality was a step down from the soup. It didn't really matter, however, because Jack had made it for him. "It's still good," Bitty said after he'd eaten a scallop and three stalks of asparagus. "That soup is fantastic, though. I could eat that all summer."

"Come back next weekend and I'll make it for you again," said Jack.

"Okay," said Bitty.

They finished eating and Bitty insisted on bringing the dishes inside. Jack drew the line at letting him wash them, so Bitty stacked the dishes in the sink and then fished out two smaller plates and clean forks for the pie that remained sitting on the table by the door. Bitty brought the pie and plates back outside. Bitty served Jack a slice of peach pie and Jack already moaned by the time Bitty sat down.

"This is better than my soup," said Jack and he shoved another piece of pie in his mouth. "You don't serve pie at the bakery, do you?"

"No. It's a morning bakery. Pie doesn't really fit on the menu."

"That's ridiculous. You should serve this too," said Jack. Bitty shrugged his shoulders and they continued eating. A few minutes later, Jack sat back in his chair; he hadn't finished his crust, but his expression was less flirtatious and more reserved, and the peaches in Bitty's mouth turned sour at the sudden shift in mood. "I have to tell you, I had a hidden agenda in inviting you here today."

Bitty swallowed hard. That could mean anything, but all Bitty could think about were Dex's words from Monday — This is the mob we're talking about here. They don't do anything for free. "Yeah?" Bitty asked.

"I like you," Jack said, and despite whatever fear Bitty still had lodged in his chest, the words were soothing to hear, even if Jack had said them before. "I could probably even say I more than like you. I'm assuming, from the way that you were kissing me earlier, that you like me too."

"I do," said Bitty.

"I think we should talk about this before we go any further. If we're going to do this for real, I need you to be comfortable with who I am and what I do. If you aren't, that's okay. I'll change my running route and we won't see each other again."

Bitty thought of Lardo as she sat on the couch, her knees to her chin, as she said the same thing. That conversation had occurred just moments after his first kiss with Jack, and Bitty had not been able to think properly. Now several days later and separated from their most recent kiss by at least an hour, Bitty felt as though he could think more clearly, even with Jack sitting across from him, his shirt open, his fingers toying with the stem of a wine glass.

"I want to do this for real," said Bitty.

Jack smiled, but his lips carried no actual happiness. "Do you understand what that means? How much do you actually know about my line of work?"

"Nothing," admitted Bitty. "Unless you count the movies."

"It's not like the movies. Movies are grossly exaggerated, but some things they can get right. I grew up with the knowledge that one day, any day, my father could be arrested or killed, and I'd have to take over a difficult business where I also could be arrested or killed. That's loomed over me for as long as I can remember, and it's still over me now. What I do… I don't do it lightly. I meet with a team of people every week to ensure my decisions benefit not only my family and my businesses, but also the people in my neighborhood who I know by name. I don't always make the easy choice and I'm not always proud of what I've done, but everything — everything — is for the betterment of the family."

"I get that," said Bitty, although he didn't.

"Do you? It's not just black and white. I don't go to work and make skate blades. My decisions aren't always 'Do we fix the fountain in the square?' I make money off the bad choices of desperate people and I retaliate against those who try to infringe on my territory. I do it every day, even while you serve me pie and look at me like that."

"Like what?"

"Like you actually care about me."

"I do," said Bitty.

Jack let out an exasperated breath. "Bitty. If this does become serious, if I fall in love with you, you might be involved in some of those decisions, and you might see something you don't agree with. I want you to know your limits now. So, if you have questions, please ask."

Bitty did not want to ask. He enjoyed it there on Jack's balcony, a cool breeze in his hair, the sun's summer intensity muted as it headed toward the horizon. They had good wine and home-cooked food and Jack was beautiful. All of this was fun and easy, and if Bitty was quiet, Jack would fall in love with him. That, however, was as much a fantasy as Jack had been before Bitty knew his name. So after a pause where they looked at each other like they did during mornings at the bakery, Bitty asked, "How exactly does your family make money?"

"The bar turns a profit. The runners sell fine but it's not that much when you look at the bottom line. If anyone asks, however, the money in my bank account comes from those two places. That's the legitimate business. We also, however, own three casinos where most of the rest of it comes from."

"And that's not legitimate? How is it not?"

"I suppose it would be if my name was on any of the financial records, or if we reported all our earnings, or if we only put money from the casino into the casino. We own all of the gambling in New England from small time bookies to large underground betting circles. That money funnels into the casinos. None of it is clean and a lot of it is covered in blood."

"Is that it? Skate blades and under-reported casinos?"

"There's the commercial real estate business too, but that's incredibly boring and I only sort of know how it operates. That's more two of my captains, Marty and Thirdy; they handle that part of it. Let's just say it's easy to own the people who run the city if you physically own the city."

"And there's nothing else?"

"Like…?" Jack asked, an eyebrow up.

"Like drugs?" Bitty asked quietly, but Jack quickly shook his head.

"No. We bootlegged liquor in the twenties like everyone else, but that's never interested my family. It would be easy, given our locations, but that's a dirty business and I want no part of it."

"Locations? I thought it was just the neighborhood."

"No. I live here because my family has always lived in Providence, but I own Boston and Hartford too. I suppose everything in between as well, but we concentrate mostly in the cities."

"And you just own the whole city? How can you own a city?"

"With a lot of money and a lot of respect," said Jack.

"And I suppose with a lot of fear, too. If you own the whole city but you make your money through casinos and real estate, why do you make local, small time bakers pay dues?" Bitty asked.

"You don't pay dues anymore."

"Because you like me," said Bitty, and Jack grinned. "Seriously. Why scare the crap out of me when your real money comes from somewhere else?"

"Loyalty," said Jack. "I charge you money so I can protect you from local, small-time criminals or other families who want to hurt you. My protection ensures you're left alone."

Bitty couldn't help but think of Dex, who could yell until he was red in the face about dues and protection, as if it were the most ridiculous system he'd ever seen. Jack's explanation did not help. "Are there really local criminals and other families who want to hurt me?" Bitty asked.

"Not right now, and I suppose not you specifically, but the borders are watched and if anyone does manage to infiltrate them, I need to know my people are my people and won't jump ship whenever someone new comes to town."

"Couldn't you just, I don't know, be nice and friendly to your people instead?"

Jack's grin disappeared and for the first time since they began speaking, he actually looked angry. Bitty regretted his question, but Jack answered it anyway. "Say that to Chris Parson, who was murdered by someone in his neighborhood. Say that to my father, who is in prison because his best friend ratted him out to the feds in exchange for a plea bargain. Being friendly doesn't work. You can't be afraid to use force."

"And have you?" Bitty asked. "Have you ever killed anyone?"

Jack stared at Bitty. Bitty held his breath as he waited for an answer. 

"No," said Jack.

Bitty was quiet.

"Anything else?" Jack asked. Bitty hesitated; gambling, real-estate, and local politics seemed less serious than Bitty had expected, especially if Jack had never killed anyone. "You look like you want to ask more."

"It just… it doesn't add up, I guess. People get nervous when you're around. I know people who are terrified of you. What you do doesn't seem so bad."

"Good. I'm glad you feel that way."

"I'm not saying it to reassure you. Why are people so afraid of you?"

Jack sat back in his chair and thought about it, his gaze over the edge of the balcony. "I don't think it's necessarily what we do. Like I said, we never got into drugs. I think it's more how we own it and how we maintain it. These cities in my territory — they're mine. They're mine because my family took them by force and by coercion. I'm in the gambling racket because it's lucrative. I'm in real-estate because it's powerful. None of it is run by the book. We cut corners and intimidate competition in order to keep what's ours. And because I have so much money, and because I have so much power, I can influence how cities are run, who's elected to government, how those people vote and make regulations. Everything east of New York is owned by me. I make the decisions for six states and fifteen million people, and I refuse to let any of that go."

"So you do what exactly to retain it?" Bitty asked.

"Whatever it takes. I take no joy in it, but I'll do whatever I need to do to keep my territory," said Jack. He looked directly into Bitty's eyes and Bitty wasn't sure what exactly made him uneasy, if it was Jack's resolute stare or his calm tone of voice. Bitty shivered, which caused Jack's lips to purse. "I get it if you want to leave," he said.

"And if I want to stay?" Bitty asked.

Jack relaxed into his chair and his smile returned. "Then I'd say we go back inside."

They brought in the dishes but left them in the sink. Jack re-corked the wine and put it in the fridge before he turned back to Bitty, who was leaning against the counter, looking down. Jack tipped his chin up. "Are you okay?" Jack asked. "I was serious. If you want to leave, you can leave. Don't feel obligated to stay."

"I don't want to leave. I'm just…"

"What?" Jack stepped closer to him and placed a hand on his waist. Bitty's fists balled as he placed them against Jack's chest.

"Nervous. I've never had a boyfriend before. I don't know what to do."

Jack pulled him close. "How about you let me take care of you?"

Bitty nodded and Jack finally kissed him.

Chapter Text

"Are you still nervous?" 

The sky was starting to darken and it was difficult to see in the bedroom, but everything that mattered was still visible — Jack, half covered with sheets, his face close, his expression soft and peaceful as his fingers lightly trailed up and down Bitty's bare arm. It was too dark to see the color of his eyes and Bitty remembered that first month the bakery was open, when he didn't know their color and had to guess. This was not the first month of the bakery, however; this was the first time Bitty had been intimate with another person, and he felt no nerves at all. Jack had, in the matter of an hour, had used his mouth and his fingers to increase Bitty's comfort level from "I am terrified" to "This is easy." Every part of Jack was accessible and responsive, from the patches of chest hair to his lips to his perfectly cute butt that Bitty had now touched.

"No," Bitty said and he brushed against Jack's chest with his nose, nuzzling into the patches of hair there. Jack's chest wasn't overly hairy, just enough to complement his muscles and give Bitty a clear path between Jack's legs.

"Good," Jack whispered. "I was worried I wouldn't be able to calm you down."

"You definitely calmed me down," said Bitty and Jack’s chuckle made him feel warm inside. Bitty removed his face from Jack's chest and returned it to a pillow so he could look into Jack's eyes again. "I'm still unsure about the rest of it. Is this part where we have an intensely personal conversation about the hardest parts of our lives?"

Jack laughed again and moved his hand from Bitty's arm to the side of Bitty's face before they kissed. It may have been just his second day of kissing in his life, but Bitty responded to the short press of lips without hesitation. 

"No, we don't have to," said Jack, and he left his hand on the side of Bitty's face. Bitty covered it with his own. "But I wouldn't mind it. I want to know you — the hardest part of your life, the easiest, the good and the bad and the boring. I want to know everything about you, because when I look at you I feel like I've known you forever, but then I remember I still haven't seen your butt."

"You haven't?" Bitty asked in surprise. "I looked at yours the first opportunity I had." Jack smiled and glanced down, but the sheets were to the middle of Bitty's waist. Jack let go and sat up, taking the sheets with him. Bitty turned onto his front, watching Jack's face the whole way, until Jack's smile changed at the sight of it. Bitty expected several seconds of admiration, but instead Jack dropped the covers and brought his nose to Bitty's neck, where he nuzzled behind Bitty's ear and whispered, "I like it."

"It's too small," said Bitty.

"Nah, it's just the right size," said Jack. Bitty felt Jack touch his ass, crossing both cheeks with one hand. "It's small and holdable." Bitty burst into giggles but they were short-lived; Jack began to caress him, the touch now charged with something that hadn't been there a moment ago. Jack continue to nose at his neck and planted small kisses as he did. Bitty had to shift to accommodate his sudden arousal, and the movement made Jack lift his head, move his hand from Bitty's backside to his waist, and turn him over.

Their mouths connected, innocence lost, but as Jack kissed Bitty, his hand remained tantalizingly close to where Bitty wanted to be touched, but Jack did not touch him there. After just a few seconds of kissing, Bitty put his own hand on Jack's and pushed it closer to the center of his body. Jack smiled against his mouth.

"Eager, are you?" Jack asked. 

"That's not what I want," Bitty replied. Jack let go and pushed up so he could look Bitty in the eyes as he moved his hand. Bitty let out a long, low breath as Jack's hand wrapped around his erection.

"Like this?" Jack asked, and now the banter was gone from his tone. Bitty nodded. "Is this all you want?"

"No," Bitty said. Jack leaned back in and kissed him again, just for a few heated moments, before he kissed Bitty's neck, his chest, his stomach, and then settled between his legs. Bitty keened when Jack put him in his mouth; they had done this already, and Bitty wanted to make it more than just a few strokes this time.

Now that the initial shock was over, now that someone had touched him and sucked him and made him come, Bitty was able to appreciate the act rather than focus purely on not orgasming too soon. He'd fantasized about someone doing this to him pretty much since he learned it was a thing that could be done; sometimes he thought of a specific person, sometimes just anyone, but lately he'd been thinking about Jack, and Jack did not disappoint. Everything about it felt good, from the heat of Jack's mouth to the wetness of his tongue, to the look on his face as he met Bitty's eyes. Bitty was still surprised that Jack was actually doing this, that he both desired and cared enough to want Bitty's dick in his mouth.

Bitty did make it longer than just a few strokes despite the overwhelming pleasure Jack was giving him. He wanted to keep eye contact, but his eyes closed when he announced his orgasm, although that didn't seem to have any effect on how Jack sucked him. When Jack pulled off and sat up, he wiped his mouth and looked at Bitty with kind, droopy eyes.

"Better?" he asked.

"Yeah," said Bitty. Jack lay next to him and Bitty peered under the covers to confirm that Jack had also gotten aroused. He glanced back at Jack's face, who looked amused. "Can I try doing that to you?"

"Yes, absolutely," said Jack.

"You have to tell me if I'm doing this right."

"I think you'll do it right," said Jack, although Bitty wasn't entirely sure. He settled his body between Jack's legs, but now that he was much closer to Jack's erection than he had been before, he felt intimidated by it. Holding it in his hand and rubbing it had been one thing, but actually putting it in his mouth was another. He glanced up at Jack again, who watched him with bated breath. Bitty gave it a tentative lick. Jack moaned quietly in response, which was encouraging, so Bitty took it in his mouth and began to suck it.

"Fuck," Jack said. "Yeah, that's good." Jack continued to moan and mutter encouragements as Bitty began to move on him. There was only one direction from Jack, which was "Go slower," so Bitty began to feel more comfortable, although after a while he had to pull off to give his jaw a break.

It was a few minutes later when Jack put his hand in Bitty's hair when he said, "I'm gonna come." Bitty, having now come twice directly in Jack's mouth, did not pull off. The result was a bitter, salty load that he swallowed with hesitation, which made Jack laugh in a lazy sort of way, too spineless to do more.

"Ugh," said Bitty as he sat up. "I'm getting water."

"You didn't have to swallow," Jack said.

"You did," said Bitty and he grimaced again. Jack's fingers trailed down his arm as he left the bed. "Do you want anything?"

Jack's expression turned innocent, much different than the unabashed arousal he wore just a minute before. "Maybe some more pie?"

Bitty smiled. "Not too sweet then, huh?" Jack shook his head. Bitty left the bedroom and entered the adjacent kitchen, but when his feet hit the tile he became aware of his nudity, especially his lack of socks. He hopped to the sink and took a drink directly from the faucet to clear the taste of Jack from his mouth, which in retrospect was actually quite sexy rather than just disgusting. He glanced back into the bedroom; Jack had turned on the light on the nightstand and was now sitting up and watching him, a smile on his face. Something was different between them now, something intangible that filled Bitty with flutters. Something was fundamentally different with him as well, and he smiled back at Jack before he fished out a fork and a plate for the pie and cut them a large slice. He quickly returned to the bed and threw the covers over his cold body before he fed Jack a piece of peach pie.

When Jack let his head fall back against the headboard and moaned softly, Bitty smiled. Jack had just let out a similar type of moan when he had been in Bitty's mouth. Jack opened his eyes and put his hand on Bitty's back.

"I still think you should sell this at the bakery. The Fourth of July is coming up."

"Maybe," said Bitty noncommittally and he fed Jack another piece. They ate it together, then Bitty set the plate on the nightstand before he and Jack settled under the covers again. Jack returned his hand to Bitty's body, touching him in innocent places like his arm or his waist, but after what they'd done, none of Jack's touches felt innocent. Bitty sighed happily and scooched closer.

"Bitty," Jack whispered. Bitty looked up at him. "Tell me something serious."

It was either the peaches, or perhaps the casual mention of the Fourth of July, but Bitty's first thought was of Georgia, of his parents, his extended family, and the people he hadn't seen in so long. It felt like forever since the last time he was home, like the weight of the entire state had been chained to him and he had to drag it behind him through his life in Rhode Island.

"When I was a senior at Samwell, Lardo and I decided to go to Florida for spring break. Neither of us had ever done anything like that before and Lardo wasn't really working at the time, so she agreed to go with me. I told my mother we were going and she seemed to take it more than I was going on vacation with Lardo, my girlfriend, not that me, a gay man, was taking my platonic friend to Tampa for a week of heavy drinking."

"In her defense, the two of you are very close. It's easy to assume she's your girlfriend from how you talk about her," said Jack.

"Well aren't you lucky that she's not?" Bitty asked with a hand on Jack's arm.

"Very lucky. Go on."

"So while we were in Florida, my mom kept texting me questions about Lardo. They knew each other before this, but not very well. My mother asked me a lot of things — what's she doing now that she graduated? What's her favorite fruit? Where does she live? — things she wouldn't have asked if she thought we were just friends. I obviously wasn't out to her yet, but all my senior year I felt like I needed to come out; I didn't want to graduate without them knowing, because I already knew I wasn't going home again. But I answered her questions and kind of led her on.

"Florida was fun, and Lardo and I had a good time, but I really wanted to hook up with someone while we were there and we must not have picked the gay beaches because everyone was straight. I was really frustrated. My mom wouldn't leave me alone, there were no guys for me but Lardo had plenty of options, and then finally one of the last nights we were there, Lardo and I got trashed. Like, dangerous, black out drunk. I remember going in the hot tub at eleven o'clock with a bottle of Malibu and then it was morning and I had about fifty texts from my parents. Apparently sometime during my blackout, I texted my mom, 'Lardo is not my girlfriend. I'm gay.' "

"Bits," Jack breathed and pulled Bitty closer. It had been over a year since that horrible vacation and it still brought tears to Bitty's eyes.

"Nothing's been the same since. Things were already bad with my father; he and I had gotten into an argument when I said that I didn't plan on coming home anymore. Then it just got worse after that. Neither of them knew how to handle it so they just…didn't. And then at graduation we got into it again, and it's been a total disaster ever since."

"Do you still talk to them?"

"My father? No, not at all. My mother and I do once or twice a month, but it's not the same. She used to be my best friend and now it's like we don't even know each other." Bitty took in a rattled breath and looked up at Jack. "Do your parents know that you like boys?"

"Yes," said Jack. "My first partner was a boy."

"And they are just okay with that?"

"My family has been through a lot. Between my father's arrest and me having to go away before that — we know what it's like to be torn apart at a moment's notice. Being upset about sexuality feels insignificant compared to potentially losing each other forever. While I'm sure some of my extended family would like me to end up with a girl, my parents know I want to end up with someone I love." 

"That must be nice," Bitty said, careful to keep the edge out of his tone.

"It requires effort. Do you still want a relationship with your parents?"

Bitty stopped to think about it. It'd been years, a plural number of years, since he'd shared a pleasant word with his father, but he remembered a time when things were okay between the three of them. They'd been happy then, even if he had known then that he was keeping a huge secret from them. 

"Yes," he said.

"Then make an effort. All you can do is hope they do the same."

Bitty nodded but lost Jack's eye on purpose, feeling tears in his own. "Yeah," he agreed. He took a breath and looked back up. "Wow, okay. That was some intense pillow talk."

"I think we should call it a night. Will you stay with me?" Jack asked. Despite his tears, Bitty smiled.

"As long as you don’t mind me sneaking out early," said Bitty.

Jack suddenly wrapped both of his arms around Bitty and rolled them both over in the bed. Bitty laughed loudly as Jack put his face in Bitty's neck and kissed him there. "No sneaking," Jack whispered in his ear.

"I have to open the bakery!"

"But you don't have to sneak away from me. Be loud, wake me up, let me have you again before you go," said Jack and he kissed Bitty again. They snuggled against each other, kissing softly, neither up for another round. It was easy for Bitty's mind to drift as he responded to Jack. He thought back to their conversation before bed, of the things he hadn't wanted to know, until he pulled away from Jack and opened his eyes.

"What?" Jack asked quietly.

"Were you serious before?"

"Yes," said Jack with a kiss to Bitty's forehead. "About what?" 

"If we did this for real, you could fall in love with me?"

Jack let go of Bitty and turned off the light on the nightstand. When he returned he snuggled in close. "I already did," Jack said.

 

***

 

Jack was true to his word when they awoke the following morning. The alarm on Bitty's phone went off at four and Jack woke with him. Bitty did not get out of bed until four-thirty and quickly began to dress while Jack watched him with sleepy, satiated eyes. The covers had been thrown off during their lovemaking and Bitty very much wanted to settle next to Jack's warm, naked body rather than run across town to get home and shower before he was due at the bakery.

"Will I see you later?" Bitty asked only after he put on his T-shirt, the momentary break as he pulled it over his head enough to reset his brain.

"No, I'm going to my mom's for family lunch," Jack said, as if he felt the same reluctance toward duty that Bitty did.

"Oh, right, it's Sunday."

"You should come with me. Meet everyone."

"You know I need to be at work."

"What about next Sunday?" Jack asked. Bitty hesitated but then Jack put on the absolute worst puppy dog eyes. His expression combined with his nudity made Bitty's resolve crumble.

"Okay. Okay, next Sunday. I'll have Nursey close for me."

"And open? You should stay with me Saturday night."

"Ugh, Mr. Zimmermann, you cannot request these things while you're naked. How the heck am I supposed to say no?" Bitty asked, only mildly upset by this. He tugged on his second sock and then returned to the bed to give Jack a goodbye kiss. Jack was in no hurry to let him go.

"Jack, I need to go."

"I'll call a car for you."

"I still need to shower."

"You can shower here. I'll join you."

"But I still need to change!"

"I have clothes you can wear."

"You are six inches taller than me and your shoulders are twice as wide."

"But I don't want you to go."

Bitty pulled himself up; during their banter, Jack had trapped him around the waist and continued to pout at him. "You're very used to getting your way, aren't you?" Jack nodded. "I'll come with you to lunch next Sunday and I'll stay over on Saturday night, but that's all. You let me go and tomorrow you make out with me in my office as punishment for your abhorrent behavior this morning."

"Punishment?" Jack asked, his eyebrow up. "That's not a punishment."

"Yes it is. See you tomorrow."

Jack exhaled loudly and dropped his arms. "Okay, fine," he said. Bitty kissed him another time and only looked back once before he put on his shoes at the front door and left. There was a car waiting for him by the time he reached the lobby.

Apart from a long makeout session in Bitty's office on Monday morning, Jack and Bitty did not see much more of each other throughout the week. On Saturday night, Bitty arrived at Jack's with an overnight bag and five boxes of pastries that were difficult to see around.

"Bits," Jack said when he opened the door. "You did not have to bring these. I don't expect you to feed over fifty people."

"Shut up, you knew I was going to."

"Is there any for me?"

"Top box," said Bitty and he paused to give Jack a kiss before he set the boxes on the counter.

Sunday lunch at the Zimmermann family home was akin to going to church — everyone dressed in their Sunday best. Bitty brought his graduation suit along, complete with bow tie, and was ready well before Jack, who stood in front of his closet, clad in only black boxer briefs. Unlike Bitty, Jack had dozens of options and took his time debating what he should wear. After a few moments he pulled out a pale gray day suit and showed it to Bitty for approval, who had to look up from Jack's ass to see it.

"What shirt?" Bitty asked. Jack selected a sky blue shirt that matched his eyes. Bitty nodded in approval and watched him dress. Jack left his collar open and did not put on a tie. Bitty scoffed. "You said Sunday best! I put on a bow tie like a chump!"

"I usually don't wear one, but I like your bow tie," said Jack fondly. Bitty still removed it and unfastened his top button. Jack's expression darkened. "Keep going."

"Are we going to be late?" Bitty asked.

"No," said Jack, so Bitty continued and Jack removed the clothes he'd just put on. Thirty minutes later, however, they were very late and the pair of them raced through the parking garage with all of the pastries in tow. Jack sped out of the garage and down the street. As he did, Bitty noticed another vehicle pull behind them and follow through three turns.

"Do you know you're being followed?" Bitty asked. 

Jack glanced into the rear view mirror. "That's just Guy."

"Does he follow you everywhere you go?"

"Yes."

"Do you have someone following me?"

Jack looked over. "Not yet."

Bitty wouldn't be surprised if that was a lie. 

Jack sped down the highway and Guy kept pace. He did not seem concerned about the speed limit, and it was clear why when they passed a police cruiser parked in the median who had to have seen them but did nothing. It was eleven-thirty when Jack pulled up to a wrought-iron gate that secured the family estate. He opened it with a button and then parked in front of a garage bigger than Bitty's duplex. The house both looked and felt old, like the family had lived there for generations, but when they went inside, it felt more modern. All of the furniture was a mix of white fabric and darkly stained wood, which matched the railings of the staircase and second floor balcony along with the accent beams on the tall ceilings. Just the living room reminded Bitty that this family had money.

He did not have much time to admire the interior design, however, because the house was swarming with people, including children ranging from newborn to teenager. It was interesting to see their different emotions; the younger children chased each other and shouted as if they were at home, and the older children, especially the teenagers, acted as though just being present was a chore. Jack said hello to everyone one of them by name, and as a result it took fifteen minutes to cross the living room and hallway to get to the kitchen. Everyone had something to say and a handful of them requested to speak with Jack personally after lunch. His response was always the same: he smiled politely and said, "Absolutely. Make sure you talk to Shitty so he can put you on the list." It was most amusing that he said Shitty every time, regardless of the age of children present.

Once finally in the kitchen, Jack pulled Bitty behind the counter where Alicia Zimmermann stood with three women and a teenage boy in an apron cooking the largest amount of food Bitty had ever seen in one location. It reminded him of his family's Fourth of July barbeque, but even bigger, and all inside. The annual Bittle barbeque took weeks to plan. He couldn't imagine doing this every Sunday.

"Jack, honey, there you are!" said Alicia before Jack could introduce Bitty or even say hello. "You are late."

"That's my fault," said Bitty and he stepped in front of Jack. Alicia looked at him and smiled. She was gorgeous, with Jack's eyes and sharp cheekbones, but she wore an expression underneath her smile that said she did not believe him for a second.

"Maman, this is Eric Bittle."

"Bitty," Bitty interjected and he accepted Alicia's outstretched hand and the kisses that came with it. "It's so nice to finally meet you, Mrs. —"

"Alicia," she said before he could finish his sentence. "I'm happy to meet you as well. I knew if this boy canceled Saturday dinner on me, it had to be serious, but I didn't expect him to also ask me for cooking advice. He must be smitten with you."

Bitty blushed and turned back to Jack, but Jack had disappeared completely from the kitchen. "Jack?" he called.

"Oh, he must have been pulled away on business already," said Alicia with a wave of her hand. "Sundays are always so busy for him. How were the scallops?"

"Very good," fibbed Bitty. It had been a good meal, but the one they'd cooked together the night before had been much better.

"Good. Have you met these ladies yet? This is Gabby St. Martin, Carrie Robinson, Kelley Snow, and this here is Tom's son, Tommy."

Bitty said hello to everyone, and he was certain those names should have resonated with him, but if he'd met others related to these four, he'd forgotten them already. The only one that sounded vaguely familiar was Kelley Snow, but he didn't recognize her. Tommy was only thirteen but he seemed right at home in the kitchen, chopping veggies for a salad at a rapid pace. Bitty wondered if he could bake too.

"Gabby, can you mash those potatoes?" asked Alicia, but Bitty quickly removed his jacket.

"I can do it," he said. Alicia directed him to the stove and handed him several ingredients to mix in. As he did, Carrie pulled more than one ham out of the dual ovens in the wall. "Is Sunday lunch always this elaborate?"

"We try to mix it up," said Alicia, "but ham and potatoes are a hit with everyone so we do this at least once a month. You want to keep it simple when you're feeding so many people." Alicia turned back to the stove and stirred a pot of peas. "Jack told me about your bakery. You didn't have to bring us anything, but I can't wait to try a pastry."

"It was nothing," said Bitty, who had stayed an hour later than usual to ensure a fresh assortment of goods for the family. "These potatoes are done. What else can I do?"

"How are you with a carving knife?" Carrie asked.

"I can get the job done, although Tommy, I imagine it won't be long before this is your job," said Bitty to the young boy, who blushed but smiled at him. Once the ham had been sliced, they began to plate everything and brought it outside, where several long tables had been set up in the yard that faced the sea.

The Zimmermann home was one of a few mansions on an island in Narragansett Bay. The interior courtyard that Bitty had passed housed a patio and the pool, but the backyard was large and ended abruptly at the water. A low sea wall and a dock separated the yard from the bay. It was a warm summer day and the breeze off the water was refreshing. It was a great idea to sit everyone outside, but after the tables began to fill, Bitty wondered what they did in winter or on rainy days to accommodate this many people.

Most of the food had been served when Jack appeared again, his hands in his pockets and his suit jacket flapping in the breeze. He was speaking with a woman a few years older than him, who also wore a pantsuit and had her hair back in a French twist. When Bitty noticed them, she and Jack began to laugh easily, and when Jack saw Bitty, his face lit up like the sun in the blue sky above his head.

"Bitty," he said as they approached. "I want you to meet George — Georgia Martin. She worked with my father but now she's one of my most trusted advisors. George, this is Eric Bittle."

"I've heard a lot about you," said George when she shook Bitty's hand. "Also thank you for your sandwiches. Our Thursday meetings are much more productive now that we're well fed."

"I'm glad to hear it," said Bitty.

George was not the only advisor Bitty met there in the yard. There was also Tommy's father Tom, who was the general manager of Atwell Runners. There was also Hall, Murray, and Babcock, who were roughly George's age. Tom was possibly the oldest advisor of the group, which was surprising as Alicia was older than all of them. Bitty wondered how much turnover occurred with the regime change.

"Let's sit. Let the others finish bringing out food," said Jack to Bitty, and he gestured to the table on the end nearest the door. He held out a chair for Bitty and then sat at the end of the table. As he did, Alicia zoomed by with a pitcher of water in each hand. "Maman," Jack called. "Come sit down."

"In a second, sweetie," said Alicia.

Jack, his lips pursed and upturned in annoyance, stood from his chair and caught her at the next table. He took the pitchers from her hands and set them down. "Sit," he commanded. Alicia huffed but obliged, and she sat across from Bitty. Jack sat back down.

The rest of the family finished filing in. At the table with Bitty sat Gabby and her husband Marty as well as Carrie and her husband Thirdy, or at least that was what they called him. Jack introduced them both as his captains, Marty the captain of Hartford, Thirdy of Boston. Bitty did not know what a captain did, but seeing as they were seated just a few chairs from Jack, Bitty assumed they were important.

After Marty and Thirdy came Kelley Snow and her husband, who Bitty recognized immediately as Snowy, one half of the team who collected his dues. Snowy said a polite hello, but just as he did Poots came up behind him and said a loud, "Bitty! I heard you brought pastries."

"Hello to you too, Poots," said Bitty, which earned a smirk from Jack. 

Poots smiled too. "Did you bring danishes?"

"Yes, there should be danishes in there," said Bitty and he smiled when Poots pumped the air in celebration.

"After lunch, Poots," said Jack. 

Poots sombered quickly. "Yes, boss," he said, and he followed Kelley and Snowy to the second table; neither apparently were important enough for the first. 

The final two spots at Jack's table were still open. The first belonged to Shitty, who balked, "Really, Jack? You get a nice piece of ass and suddenly I'm chopped liver, huh?" at the sight of Bitty to Jack's immediate right. Jack gestured to the empty seat next to Alicia but Shitty continued to grumble as he sat. The final seat belonged to Alexei Mashkov, who plopped down next to Bitty.

"B, hello!" he said in a very friendly tone. "Long time, no see! I very happy you here today."

"Hello," said Bitty. He knew Alexei Mashkov went by Tater in friendly company, but Bitty did not feel like Alexei's friend.

"You still afraid of me? You date boss, no? So now we are friends. I'm happy to be friends with you because I hear great things about bakery, and I can't go there if I still mean dues collector. But now I can come, yes?"

"Yeah, sure, Tater," said Bitty with only slight hesitation.

"Super! Your cranberry muffin so good and your Thursday pastries so good. I come by tomorrow and try something new."

"Just promise you won't take money from me," said Bitty.

Tater laughed loudly and put his arm around Bitty. "No way! We're friends. I pay you now." Bitty forced a smile at him until Tater let go. When he did, Bitty felt a squeeze on his knee and he looked at Jack, who looked back fondly. Alicia cleared her throat and Jack popped out of his seat to serve himself the first slice of ham. Bitty looked around; everyone was waiting for Jack to go first. It wasn't until after he sat back down that the others also began to serve themselves. 

Lunch was excellent and there was plenty for Bitty to accept seconds. Jack did not take seconds and instead sat back in his chair, his hands around his water glass, observing rather than participating in conversation. Shitty spoke the most out of everyone, mostly about the Red Sox and a few other innocuous topics. Bitty didn't expect them to discuss work since spouses and children were present. Only once did someone try, about halfway through the meal when Tater leaned over Bitty and said to Jack in a low but perfectly audible voice, "Boss, I have news for you about New York."

"After, Tater, after," said Jack with a wave of his hand, and Shitty turned the conversation back to how the Red Sox had just beat the Yankees in a recent series. Bitty did not watch baseball and thus did not care, so he looked over at Jack, who was looking back at him. They smiled at each other until Shitty said, "Earth to Jack, stop staring at your boy all day."

"Sorry, Shits," said Jack and he looked at Shitty instead, but only a minute later he was looking at Bitty again.

After lunch, Bitty and Alicia walked the pastries around the tables. Alicia introduced Bitty to all the people he hadn't met yet — soldiers and associates and cousins and even people without a definable relationship but who still seemed to belong there. Now that lunch was over, several of the children had changed into swimsuits and had relocated with their assigned guardian to the courtyard. Bitty had made too many pastries on purpose so he dropped the only remaining box on the table there for the kids to snack on after their swim. When he reentered the house, he began to look for Jack but found Alicia first.

"Jack and the rest are in their meeting. The captains and advisors meet with him on Thursdays, but they don't get anything done until Sundays, and Jack never leaves until everyone who wants an audience receives one. It's going to be a while. Why don't I show you around?"

"I'd love that, thank you."

Bitty knew the house was large from first glance, but it felt even larger on the inside. Alicia answered Bitty's unspoken question about interior dining space — she first showed him what must have once been a ballroom, a large open space that was mostly empty at the present. The living areas Bitty had seen, so Alicia took him upstairs to the bedrooms. There were several, including an obnoxiously large master suite with a bathroom that could fit the bakery's seating area. Most of the other bedrooms were guest space, but one had been converted into an office.

Alicia saved Jack's room for last. It was separate from the others, almost like a second master suite, but the room itself felt like it belonged to a child. There was a queen size bed in one corner but the rest told the story of Jack's life, from a bookcase filled with turn-of-the-century historical nonfiction to shelves of old hockey trophies, to a large display of pictures. Bitty went to the pictures first. There were several of Jack and his parents — Jack's father looked just like him, but then again so did his mother, albeit in very different ways. There were just as many photos of Jack and Shitty. It was odd to see a younger Shitty without his mustache, but it appeared the long hair was a lifelong style. Bitty recognized a few others in the photos; there was one of high-school aged Jack and Shitty with Tater, who was taller than both of them but clearly younger, possibly fifteen when Jack and Shitty were closer to eighteen. People like George, Tom, Snowy, Marty, and Thirdy all popped up here and there, but the constant in all of them was Shitty.

Bitty picked up a framed photo of a preteen Jack and Shitty kneeling on the ice together, both in full gear and holding a stick. Bitty looked at Alicia and gestured with the photo. "Two peas in a pod, those boys," Alicia said. "Bob and Broadway were very close, so it made sense for Jack and B to spend a lot of time together too."

Bitty smiled. "You don't call him Shitty?"

"Never quite caught onto that, no," said Alicia, and her nose scrunched in disgust. "I was a little worried, or I supposed confused would be the better word, when they stayed just as close as they got older. They're so different. Jack rarely speaks, at least not at great length, and B is impossible to shut up. I suppose it works for them. B can ramble on and Jack can listen. Jack was heartbroken when B went away to Andover."

"He told me," said Bitty. "He wanted to stay in the neighborhood and Shitty wanted to go away for school."

Alicia appeared to grow upset, at least from her tight eyebrows and narrow mouth. "B needed to leave. Broadway — hmph. That man was no good. Bob never saw it, of course," she said, but then caught herself, shifted, and smiled. "B's a good second. Jack needed someone like him when Bob was arrested. I'm glad they found each other again."

Bitty replaced the photo on the shelf and skimmed the others. If Broadway Knight was in any of them, it wasn't immediately apparent. He wanted to snoop but couldn't with Alicia right there, so he followed her back downstairs and discovered there was a whole other wing to the house he hadn't seen yet. This wing contained a gym, a theater room, and a darkroom. From what Bitty could see, both in the room and in the hallway, was that Alicia loved nature photography. The hall contained multiple prints of the sea, and the darkroom contained more inland photos, including the nearby forests and hills. The darkroom also contained a collage of photos of a younger Alicia in various outlandish outfits from the 1980s; she must have been a model.

When they left the darkroom, Bitty noticed a few people sitting in chairs near the double doors at the end of the hallway. Bitty pointed. "What's that?"

"That's Jack's office. Let's let them be."

Alicia guided Bitty back toward the living areas. Some of the family had left already, but most were still present, either waiting for someone still in the meeting or waiting for an audience in it. Bitty left Alicia in the kitchen and returned outside. People had begun to tear down the tables, and he knew he should help, but instead he headed to the dock and stood at the edge of it.

The water smelled salty, a familiar and overwhelming scent. From the dock he could see the mainland but also the ocean, and chose to look at the ocean. From the water lapping the pegs of the dock to the Atlantic in the distance to the cloudless sky beyond it, Bitty found it easy to get lost in the blue of it all. There were so many people at the house, all allegiant to Jack, all part of a functional family unit. He did not have that. Jack had said to make an effort with his parents. He had yet to do so, and as he watched the shades of blue so intensely that they began to blend together, he wondered if it was worth it. He could travel down the bumpy road to repair his life in Georgia, or he could find a home here, where people knew his secrets and did not care, who were willing to accept him as he was. He could lose himself in the Zimmermann family, and he wondered if he could live with himself, knowing what they were capable of.

Chapter Text

Jack found Bitty on the dock over an hour later, carrying the final pastry box. Bitty sat on the edge, his pantlegs rolled up to his knee, his shoes off and his feet dangling into the cool water. He looked up at Jack, who held out the box.

"There's one left. Do you want it? Otherwise I'm going to eat it," said Jack.

"No, sweetie, you go ahead. Do you know how many pastries I eat on a daily basis? 'Oh no, this scone is slightly burnt on the bottom and it just so happens to be my favorite kind. I can't possibly let a customer eat it.'"

Jack chuckled and he sat down next to Bitty. He removed his shoes and socks and also rolled up his slacks before he put his feet in the water. He took the sticky bun from inside the box and took a large bite of it. Bitty looked at him as he chewed and swallowed.

"Is it good?" Bitty asked. Jack nodded before he took another bite. "Jack Zimmermann, you are a filthy liar."

"What?" he asked in surprise, his mouth still full. "It is!"

"Not about the sticky bun. About you. You told me you don't like sweets, making me scour the limits of my kitchen for something you would enjoy, and you're sitting right next to me eating the sweetest item on my menu. The glaze on that bun is pure sugar."

"But it's got these pecans too," said Jack, gesturing to the nuts on top of the bun.

Bitty's eyes narrowed. "Pecan," he said.

"Yeah, that's what I said. Pecan."

"No you didn't. You said pecan. Pecan," Bitty repeated, louder.

Jack smiled in a very sneaky way. "Pecan," he said, and he made no attempt to alter his pronunciation. 

Bitty groaned in frustration. "Oh my God, we need to talk about something else before I push you right off the edge of this dock. How was your meeting?"

Jack shrugged. "Same as always. The rest of them argue about a decision I need to make and I sit back and wait for them to stop."

"Did you make a decision?"

"Not yet. I need more advice," said Jack vaguely before he took another bite of the sticky bun.

"All those people waiting to meet you — what do they want?"

Jack to a moment to swallow before he responded. "It's a mix of things. Some of it's ridiculous but some of it is legitimate, too. Today I had someone complain about traffic noise, like I can or would do anything about that. She lives on Broadway. I'm not going to reroute the city because she's old and misses the way the neighborhood used to be. But then there was someone I've seen a few times; her kid is sick and she's out of money. That I can help with."

"So you're going to give her money?" Bitty asked.

Jack nodded. "Yes. Whatever she needs."

"Well aren't you a saint," said Bitty, but Jack didn't even smile as he stuffed the last of the sticky bun into his mouth. He wiped his hands on his pants before he stood.

"Did you have a good time today? I hope my family wasn't too overbearing."

"No, they were good. I like your mother. She let me look at your room."

"Did she?" Jack asked with an eyebrow up. "Did you poke around in there?"

"Oh yeah. I know all of your secrets now," said Bitty. With their shoes in their hands, they headed back toward the house, and Jack put his arm around Bitty's shoulders. They reached the end of the dock and walked through the grass, which was warm and soft underneath Bitty's feet, not like the coarse, thick grass he remembered from Georgia.

"I was thinking about visiting my dad next weekend. Do you want to meet him?" Jack asked.

"Meet your dad? Yeah, of course! But you have to do something for me too."

"Anything," Jack said with a kiss to Bitty's temple.

"I want you to meet my friends. Like, for real, not just over the counter at the bakery. Maybe Saturday?"

"And we see my dad on Sunday?" Jack asked. Bitty nodded. "Okay. Can Shitty come?"

"Sure. Not the others, though. They still scare me."

"That won't last long. It amazes me still that we can function as a family with all of these clowns running territory. Give it a few Sundays and you will not be afraid of anything."

It was actually a little easier to see Tater when he entered the bakery on Monday and ordered five different pastries, which he ate a table with a glass of milk. It was definitely easier on Wednesday when Poots purchased the entire tray of danishes and had eaten half of them by the time he disappeared up Knight Street. Still, Bitty was nervous as he and Lardo cleaned the duplex on Saturday afternoon. Jack and Shitty were due any minute and the place looked awful, no matter what Bitty did to it. No amount of cleaning could change the fact that most of the furniture had been pieced together from shady free Craigslist ads, that the hardwood floors squeaked, or that there had once been a flood in the kitchen and the linoleum had never been replaced. After seeing the Zimmermann family home, Bitty felt ashamed of the duplex and could not stop thinking about all of the bills he had yet to pay.

"He's your boyfriend, Bits," said Lardo when Bitty pulled a chair into the kitchen to hang up the new drapes that had just arrived that morning. "He's not going to notice if the drapes match the dish towels."

"I'll notice," called Nursey from the living room where he and Dex had been squabbling over background music for the past ten minutes. Dex had put on ambient music from a video game soundtrack, and Nursey hated it.

"You can peace right the fuck out, Nursey," said Lardo, brandishing a wooden spoon like a knife.

"I reserve the right to peace the fuck out if things get dicey," said Dex.

"Nothing's getting dicey, Dex. It's just my boyfriend and his best friend," said Bitty, who continued to commit to the change in curtains, even though at that moment he was struggling to snap the rod back into place without breaking it.

"I still reserve the right to leave," said Dex.

"Just leave now then and let me pick the music!" snapped Nursey. Bitty glanced at Lardo, who returned the same expression and added an eye roll. Bitty had hesitated extending an invitation to Dex at all, but he'd invited everyone at the bakery so it would have been obvious if he'd left Dex out. He was surprised that Dex accepted, but still worried that Dex might make a scene, especially since Ransom and Holster were upstairs brewing tub juice and Lardo was making special brownies.

He didn't have time to worry, because just as he snapped the rod back into place there was a knock at the door and everyone looked up. "I got it!" Bitty called although no one else had moved. He dumped the chair back at the dining table before he hurried to the door and opened it. He tried very hard to not frown when it was just Chowder and Farmer.

"Hello to you too," said Farmer with a laugh. "I don't know what you're making for dinner so I just brought potato salad."

"I told you not to bring anything," said Bitty, but he took the bowl from her anyway. After she and Chowder entered, Bitty saw Jack and Shitty on the sidewalk, headed in his direction. He waited at the door until they noticed him; he could hear Shitty even from this distance, saying something about golf that made Jack laugh, but nothing compared to Jack's smile when he spotted Bitty.

"Aww man, look at that face, you little lovestruck fucker," laughed Shitty, but Jack did not attempt to hide his affection as they approached. Shitty bounced up the steps first and trapped Bitty in a large, crushing hug that nearly sent the potato salad flying. "Hi Bitty," Shitty said warmly.

"Hi Shitty," replied Bitty. Shitty held him for far too long and when he finally let go, Jack was politely waiting his turn. Jack stepped up and placed one hand on the side of Bitty's face before he kissed him gently.

"Hi," Jack said when he let go.

"Hi," Bitty said. "Come on in. Almost everyone's here — Ransom and Holster are still upstairs but they should be down any minute now that you're here."

"Okay," said Jack. He looked at the foil-wrapped bowl in Bitty's hand. "Was I supposed to bring something?"

"No. You actually listened to me, unlike Caitlin Farmer here," said Bitty as he and Jack crossed the threshold and Bitty shut the door behind them. Farmer blushed but Bitty's attention had been drawn to Shitty and Lardo, who stood together in front of the dining room table, Lardo now mixing brownie batter with her wooden spoon.

"Shitty," said Lardo.

"Ms. Duan. Nice to see you again."

Bitty's eyebrow raised. He'd never told Shitty Lardo's last name, although it did not surprise him in the least that Shitty knew it.

"You want to help me make these brownies?" Lardo asked despite the process being nearly done.

"What kind are they?" Shitty asked. Lardo grinned and Shitty laughed loudly. "Why yes, yes I do."

Bitty looked up at Jack, who appeared just as confused at the exchange as Bitty. Bitty just shrugged and Jack said, "Okay. Can you show me around?"

Bitty dropped the bowl on the dining room table. "There's not much to see. This is it. The three bedrooms are there, the bathroom's there."

"Which bedroom is yours?" Jack asked. Bitty brought Jack to the room near the front of the house. Jack stepped inside and closed the door behind them before he grabbed Bitty on both sides of his face and kissed him. Bitty lost himself in the intensity of the kiss, responding hungrily, until Jack let go. "We should get back out there," Jack said.

"Just a little longer," said Bitty and he pulled Jack back to him. Jack relented without resistance and they kissed in the center of Bitty's room until they were both breathless. "Okay," said Bitty. "Okay, let's go."

"Dude, are you going to introduce us to your boy or are you two just going to fuck all night in your room?" Holster asked when they exited the bedroom.

"Adam Birkholtz!" Bitty scolded.

"Nah, but seriously bro, introduce us," said Ransom. Bitty pulled Jack up against him, who moved willingly and secured Bitty against his chest and under his arm.

"Y'all, this is Jack. Jack, these loud, annoying fools are Ransom and Holster, they are bakers and they live upstairs. Lardo you've met, and you've also met Chowder and Farmer a bunch at the counter. I don't know if you've gotten the chance to meet Dex and Nursey yet — they're also bakers. They're from the neighborhood."

Jack nodded to Dex and Nursey but didn't expound upon his acquaintance with them, although if they had indeed lived in the neighborhood their entire lives, Bitty was positive that Jack already knew them and possibly better than Bitty did. Bitty had served a pastry to at least fifty of Dex's family members but had never met anyone from Nursey's family. Jack probably knew all of their names and where they lived.

"Nice to meet everyone," said Jack. "This is my friend Shitty."

Ransom and Holster were the only ones who hadn't met Shitty before, or at least the only ones who didn't already know him, so they quickly began ragging on him for his name while Bitty, still embarrassed and overheated from his time in the bedroom with Jack, pulled Jack to the kitchen to work on dinner.

"I like your place," Jack said quietly, barely audible over Holster shouting, "B SHITTY KNIGHT? WHAT THE FUCK EVEN IS THAT?"

"Don't just say things to be polite, Mr. Zimmermann," said Bitty, his own response partially lost by, "AND HOLSTER, THAT'S A FUCKING NORMAL NAME TO HAVE." Jack smiled warmly and kissed Bitty's temple again.

"I'm serious. It's so you. I can see you in all of it and that's why I like it. I mean, you might want to get some new tile in here —"

"Yeah, it's always been like that," said Bitty with a glance at the bowing linoleum by the wall and refrigerator.

"— But I can tell that you like it here, so I like it too."

Bitty looked around the kitchen. He did actually like the duplex, despite the floor and no dishwasher, despite the weird backsplash and mismatched appliances. Lardo hung his graduation present here, a painting of a lake with a girl on a tire swing and a boy in the water watching her. It was one of Bitty's favorite memories with Lardo, back before things were weird with his parents, and he looked at it every time he entered the kitchen.

"Thanks, Jack," said Bitty. "You should go sit with everyone. Let me make dinner."

"I'd rather make dinner with you," said Jack, but he let Bitty push him toward the living room and sat on the couch next to Shitty but near Ransom. They'd also stopped yelling at each other about their ridiculous names and had moved on to discussing hockey, which everyone apart from Farmer had participated in at some point in their lives, but nobody still actively played. Everything was going well until Shitty asked if anyone was a Bruins fan.

"What? You lived in Boston!" Shitty hollered when pillows, cushions, blankets, and a shoe had been thrown at him in response to his question. Dex and Jack were the only ones who hadn't thrown something.

Bitty kept dinner simple since there were ten of them: Farmer's potato salad, MooMaw's macaroni and cheese, and chicken tenders with homemade barbeque sauce that had been simmering on the stove all day. Bitty had day-olds for anyone who didn't want Lardo's brownies. Ransom and Holster handed out tub juice but Bitty quickly replaced Jack's cup with a bottle of beer, earning him a raised eyebrow.

"I'm sorry; I'd just prefer you not drink something made in a tub," said Bitty.

"Oh, but the rest of us can?" asked Nursey, who'd already taken a long swig of the green liquid.

"Would the knowledge of it being mixed in a bathtub have actually stopped you from drinking it?" asked Dex. Nursey responded by taking another sip. By the time everyone had finished eating, anyone drinking tub juice was now heavily inebriated. Those sticking to beer were watching a potentially dangerous situation unfold as Dex and Ransom challenged Shitty and Lardo to a game of beer pong.

"Do you think that's a good idea, Rans?" Bitty asked when Ransom and Dex began arranging cups on the dining room table. Shitty and Lardo each had four bottles of beer that they were distributing evenly between all of them. 

"Chyeah! I've improved my accuracy since graduation. Look," said Ransom. He proceeded to toss a ping pong ball at the opposing set of cups and missed by a wide margin.

"Hmm," said Dex as he watched Shitty chase after the ball that had rolled into the corner. "Maybe this is a bad idea."

"I can play instead," said Jack and Dex's mouth tightened when Ransom agreed. Dex gave Jack a wide berth when Jack joined his side of the dining room table. Bitty turned his chair around to watch; Jack was sufficiently behind the table but Dex stood all the way off to the side, bright red and absolutely sour.

Shitty and Lardo were an unstoppable team, and while Jack's aim was considerably better than Ransom's, the cups in front of Jack and Dex dwindled at a much faster rate than those in front of Shitty and Lardo. Fortunately, as time went by and cups disappeared, Dex's shoulders relaxed, he moved closer to Jack, and his responses grew less and less curt:

"We live on Vernon."

"They work at the port."

"Yeah, it's been rough, especially since the recession. Never quite picked back up."

"Do you know how awesome it would be to never work on a clam boat again?"

"I'm just gonna say it. Your ass is shockingly large. Like, it is scary."

"Thanks?" Jack said at this last statement, and he looked over at Bitty, who'd been kind enough to consume half of his cups, and Bitty began to giggle in response.

"Bruh, are we going to state the obvious about Jack's ass or are we gonna finish this game?" Shitty called from the other side of the table. Dex grumbled and took his shot but missed all six of the cups in front of Shitty and Lardo. Lardo caught the ball before it went flying off the table and threw it back, one eye closed, her tongue sticking out of her mouth. It landed perfectly in the final cup on Jack and Dex's side.

"Fuck," Dex said as Jack picked up the cup and drank it. Shitty and Lardo high-fived. Dex turned back to the group behind him. "Rans, you still want to go? The boss was not a help at all."

"Hey, I got three in a row!" Jack said.

"Yeah, but you make me nervous so I missed all of mine," said Dex as he turned and joined the group congregated on the floor around the coffee table, where someone had unearthed a board game. "Maybe I'll just sit this out. Fix this awful music. What the fuck is this, Nurse?"

"ATCQ, dude," said Nursey.

"You want to play?" Jack asked Bitty.

"I saw your aim on those last few tries, Jack. I think you've played enough."

Jack took a hold of Bitty's hand and pulled him out of the chair. Jack held Bitty close to him and scanned Bitty's face with heavy-lidded eyes. "You want to go to bed?" Jack asked quietly, and his tone caused a stirring reaction deep in the pit of Bitty's gut.

"Don't you tempt me, Mr. Zimmermann. The night is still young." Bitty tugged on Jack's hands back in the direction of the rest of the group where they joined the game of Catan already in progress. There wasn't much room here so Bitty squeezed in a corner between Farmer and Ransom while Jack sat mostly behind Chowder, although he still had view of the board. It was Chowder's turn and he was staring at the cards in his hands as well as the board in front of him, contemplating his next move.

"You know if you put a road right here, you have access to the sheep port," Jack said.

"Oh, 'swawesome!" said Chowder and he put down a blue road just in front of a red road that was clearly headed in the same direction. When Jack looked up, Holster was staring him down from across the table.

"I've been working toward that sheep port this entire game," Holster said through his teeth.

"I'm sure you can still get points without it," said Jack. "Meanwhile Chowder and I are starting a sheep empire."

Holster did not get more points, and within three turns Jack and Chowder had enough sheep that they could win the game, and Holster responded by swiping his long arm across the table and knocking everything onto the floor. "Bitty, I hate your boyfriend!" Holster yelled.

"Holster. Pick this up, it's just a board game," said Bitty.

"I'm getting more tub juice. Does anyone else want tub juice?" Holster announced as he stood.

"I'd like to try the tub juice," said Jack.

"Is there anyone who isn't Jack who wants tub juice?" Holster asked. Dex and Nursey raised their hands, but Chowder and Farmer stood.

"I think we're going to head out," said Chowder. "We're opening tomorrow. Thanks for inviting us, Bitty, and thanks for the help, Jack. I've never played Catan before." Farmer gave Jack a hug and Chowder shook his hand before they left. Ransom began to pick up Holster's mess from the floor and Jack leaned against Bitty's legs when he took over the armchair.

"Your friend hates me," he said, nodding to Holster who was still in the kitchen filling cups.

"He'll get over it," said Bitty. "Everyone else likes you. I like you."

"That's the most important part," said Jack, and he looked up at Bitty with warm, fond eyes, tainted only slightly by too much beer. "I like you too."

Ransom appeared at the side of the armchair, his hands full of tiles and tokens. "You're sure we can't fine you for this? Because this is hella sweet."

"No, Ransom," said Bitty.

"Boo," said Ransom before he returned to cleaning. Bitty looked back at Jack, who rested his chin on Bitty's knee and smiled at him. Bitty placed his hand in Jack's soft dark hair, and he let out a pleasant sigh. Regardless of Dex's coldness or Holster's rage about losing a board game, Jack liked Bitty and Bitty liked Jack, and that was all that mattered.

 

***

 

It was a late start for both Jack and Bitty the following morning. Sunday lunch had been changed to Sunday brunch to accommodate a trip to Danbury prison for a visit, but when the alarm on Jack's phone began to ring, both Jack and Bitty groaned.

They were snuggled tightly together in Bitty's bed. It was unclear what time they went to sleep since both began drinking tub juice not long after Chowder and Farmer left, which was definitely a mistake. Bitty's stomach turned and cramped as they dressed, and Jack's eyes were so red Bitty asked if he'd eaten any of Lardo's brownies. He hadn't, it was just the after effects of cheap liquor mixed in a bathtub of questionable cleanliness.

Brunch was difficult. Bitty offered to help cook again but Alicia's cheeriness along with the smell of breakfast sausage caused Bitty's head to ache. Jack was more quiet than usual at the table and his meeting after lunch was not nearly as long as it had been the week before. Bitty had excused himself to Jack's room when the meeting began, but was surprised to be awoken from his nap after just twenty minutes. Jack still looked a little worse for the wear, but he smiled at Bitty when Bitty opened his eyes. "What?" Bitty asked.

"I like this. You asleep in my bed."

"It's nice and warm," said Bitty. "Are we leaving already?"

"Yeah, I met with my captains longer on Thursday to keep today short. There's not much we can discuss until I speak to my father. You still want to go? You look very peaceful here."

"I still want to go. Are there any pastries left we can bring with us? If not we can swing by the bakery and I can grab something. Does your dad like muffins or is he more of a danish guy?"

"Bitty," said Jack. "We're going to a federal prison. You can't bring food."

"Oh," said Bitty with a frown. "Well, that's a shame."

FCI Danbury was a two and a half hour drive from Providence. Bob Zimmermann was serving his fourth year on a twenty-five year sentence, which Jack said on the way was likely to be reduced to fifteen. Bitty did not presume to understand how parole or early release for good behavior actually worked, but even fifteen years seemed like a very long time. He was only in kindergarten fifteen years ago and had no firm memories of that part of his life. He couldn't imagine being in jail for that long, nor did he want to think of the possibility of Jack ending up in the same place.

The vistor's entrance was cold and impersonal. No one was friendly. Bitty and Jack were both searched and taken through a metal detector before they could be let into the interior building, and were escorted the length of the hallway, around a corner, and into a large, empty room with several circular tables. It was still general visiting hours, so Bitty was surprised that no one else was there. After Jack and Bitty sat, their escort remained at the door.

Bitty's heart was beating hard in his chest and he still felt queasy. He hadn't eaten much, which was a mistake. It would have settled him to have something in his stomach. Jack placed a hand on his bouncing knee. "You nervous?" he asked.

Bitty let out a breath that held a derisive laugh. "Yes."

"Don't be. My dad is the master of getting people to like him. There is nothing to be nervous about."

Bitty had other opinions, specifically that the master of charisma had still wound up in jail, but there wasn't time for that. The door on the other side of the room opened and Jack and Bitty stood. Bob and another guard entered. Bob looked just like Jack apart from a thicker physique, gray hair at his temples, and brown eyes. Bitty had seen pictures of him at the Zimmermann house, but the similarity was startling when Jack and Bob embraced.

"It's so good to see you, son," said Bob, and even their voices were similar, although Bob's was deep with age. Bob let go of Jack and turned to Bitty with his hand outstretched. Bitty shook it.

"Papa, this is Eric Bittle. Bitty."

"I've heard about you," said Bob. 

Bitty wished he could say the same, so instead he replied, "It's a pleasure to meet you, sir."

They sat the circular table, Jack closest to Bob. "I have to admit I'm a little disappointed. Jack and Alicia go on forever about your bakery and here we are, no baked goods," said Bob. Bitty frowned and elbowed Jack.

"Pop, you know they don't allow visitors to bring in food," said Jack.

"And you know there are ways around that," said Bob with a nod to the guard by the door. "Next time you boys come for a visit, I want the biggest slice of quiche you have, Eric."

"The next time we visit, I will bring you a whole quiche. What do you like? Bacon? Spinach? Veggies?"

"All of the above," said Bob. "I'm the last one in the family to try your food. Don't leave me in suspense for long."

"Oh absolutely not, sir," said Bitty.

Bob looked at Jack. "How is your mother? You still had lunch with her today, did you not?"

"Brunch," said Jack. "She's very well."

"Tell her I miss her," said Bob.

"Aren't you going to see her tomorrow? And didn't you see her yesterday too?"

"I still miss her," said Bob. "Over twenty years I woke up to her face. A picture doesn't do it justice." 

Bitty looked at Jack. They did not live together and he had only awoken to his face a few times thus far, but they saw each other daily. He could not imagine being ripped away from Jack after twenty years of his face. He could not imagine being ripped away from Jack at that moment, after just weeks of his face. The thought of Jack in the khaki colored jumpsuit made Bitty's stomach churn. He may have been hungry earlier but now he was grateful he had nothing in him to regurgitate.

Bob reached into the pocket of his shirt and extracted a deck of cards. "You boys want to play pinochle?" 

"I don't know how to play," said Bitty.

"It's not difficult," said Bob as he began to shuffle the cards. For the first hand Jack and Bitty showed each other their cards until Bitty understood the rules, and then Bitty moved over a seat to discourage cheating. Jack pouted at him when he did, but Bitty had reason for his distance when two hands passed and he was winning. Bob began asking questions once it was clear that Bitty had gotten a hang of the gameplay.

"So how did you end up here after growing up in Georgia?" Bob asked.

"School, mostly," said Bitty. "I always knew I wanted to leave Georgia, not necessarily because I didn't like it there, but because it wasn't meant for me. I always felt like it wasn't really my home, that I didn't really fit in, and the only way to find where I belonged was to leave. I really liked Samwell and it was so different culturally than where I grew up, and they were willing to offer me a scholarship. After I graduated I needed a commercial space I could afford, which is how I found the building I'm in now."

"Have you been home much? Have you been able to introduce Jack to your family yet?"

Bitty pursed his lips and looked at his cards under the guise of deciding his next move. He knew his next five moves, but he stared at the cards and then, after a long pause, said, "No, not yet. My parents and I are not as close as we used to be."

"I'm sorry to hear that. I'd love to be able to meet them someday," said Bob.

"Someday. Things are just a little...weird right now."

"Well, if four years in here has taught me anything, it's that nothing is too weird when it comes to family, not if you're forced into a position where you can't see or speak to them as often as you would like."

Bitty watched as Bob and Jack exchanged a smile and Bob squeezed Jack on the shoulder. That, along with Bob's comments about Alicia, made Bitty feel very alone. He set down his last four cards.

"I think the rest of the tricks are mine," he said. Jack looked at the cards and cursed.

Jack's luck did not improve and a half an hour later he threw down his cards again and covered his eyes. "What's the score again?" he asked. 

Bob looked at the notepad next to him and then over the rim of his reading glasses at Jack. "You sure you want to know?"

"No, I don't. Bits, before today I have never lost a game of pinochle since I could hold all of the cards in my hands."

"I'm glad I could take you down a peg, sweetie," said Bitty. "I would like to know the score, if you don't mind, Bob." 

Bob cleared his throat dramatically and lifted the notepad. "Well, Eric, you are in the lead with three hundred and thirty-six points. Congratulations. I am in second with two hundred and forty. Jack... well, Jack has done well finding a few marriages in each round. He has sixty-two points."

"Oh Christ, we are not playing anymore," said Jack as Bitty cackled in response to his score. "Pop, I wanted to ask your advice on something before we go."

The jovial mood shifted. Bob collected the cards from the table and neatly stacked them back in the box. He looked at the guard waiting at the visitor's entrance and then turned and looked at the guard that had escorted him inside. To Bitty's surprise, both of the guards left the room and walked away, leaving the three of them completely alone. Jack nodded to Bitty to have him move closer again. Bob watched as he did.

"You want to talk business in front of your boy?" Bob asked.

"He's fine with it," said Jack. 

Bob still looked to Bitty for confirmation. "My wife and I have only ever argued about one thing, and that is business. Are you sure you want to hear this?"

"Yes," said Bitty.

Bob did not look pleased with this response but turned to Jack anyway. Jack kept his voice low despite their privacy. "They want to consider New York again," he whispered.

Bob smiled and removed his reading glasses; he looked very entertained by this statement. "They've been talking New York since before you were born, son. Is this time any different?"

"Yes. There are significant fractures in the boroughs. Long Island is the worst. It's attainable if we exploit their weaknesses."

"So what do you need me for? It sounds like you've been swayed."

"I haven't. I need to know...is it worth the damage?"

"There will always be damage, Jack. And fractured as they might be, there are still allegiances that go back decades. Do you think you have a real chance?"

"Yes."

Bob's eyes flickered to Bitty and then he looked back at Jack. "And you're okay taking it from him?"

"Yes."

"Then I think you have your answer," said Bob.

Jack nodded several times, as if attempting to convince himself. "Yeah," he said after a pause. "Yeah, I do."

"Good luck," said Bob. "Be careful. Know your limits. Your people love you, Jack, and they will follow your lead. You don't need me to make your decisions, but I'm here if you need to talk it through. We can skip the cards."

Jack and Bob stood and embraced in farewell, longer than their greeting. Bob turned to Bitty and hugged him too. "Take care of my boy," Bob said. "Next time bring me some snacks."

"Yes, sir," said Bitty.

They knocked on the exit door and waited to be let out. Bob was removed from the room first, and then Jack and Bitty were escorted out. Bitty looked up at the sky when they cleared the doors — the visitor's room was well lit but there were no windows. Just a short time in a room like that made Bitty itch to be outside. Bitty waited until they were in the parking lot before he spoke. "What was that about?" he asked.

"Just advice on the decision I have to make. There's something worth starting in New York," Jack said quietly. "No more about this in the car."

"Okay. I like your dad. He's like you in a lot of ways."

"How so? Besides in appearances. I know we look alike."

"I can tell he loves you. I can tell he loves your mother. You're both very expressive with your affection."

They stopped at the car. Jack opened the door for Bitty and paused before he could enter. Bitty looked up at Jack and could see, as plain as the blue sky behind him, that he was fighting the urge to speak, to make a spontaneous declaration. Bitty waited. The parking lot of a federal penitentiary may not have been the most romantic of locations, but if Jack said it, Bitty would say it too. Instead, Jack kissed him on the temple and Bitty entered the vehicle in silence.

Chapter Text

The Fourth of July fell on a Wednesday that year, and Bitty made the last-minute decision to offer pre-orders of basic fruit pies at the price of fifteen dollars each. The flyer was in the window for only four hours before Bitty, panicked by the volume, took it down but still accepted requests that came in from phone calls and walk-ins over the next few days. The Friday before the holiday, Bitty was sitting on sixty orders and did not know how he was going to bake that many pies and still keep them fresh.

"I can stay and help," said Nursey when Bitty groaned in frustration from his office, attempting to figure out how much to order from his vendors. Jason was going to flip out when he saw the volume of cherries, blueberries, apples, and peaches Bitty planned to add to his Saturday delivery. 

"Thank you, Nursey, but I've already got you down for more than forty hours this week. You do not need to rack up overtime because I suck at planning."

"Actually," said Nursey, and he sat in one of the chairs in front of Bitty's desk. "I've been wanting to talk to you about that."

"Derek Nurse, if you quit on me right now I will start crying," said Bitty.

"No, the opposite!" said Nursey quickly and he put up both of his hands. "I was thinking, with C and Farms graduating next semester, that maybe I made the wrong decision in not going to school. My mom mos def thinks I made the wrong decision, but school is expensive. Maybe I could pick up some more shifts? If you need me? I'm cool closing Sundays for you if you want time with Jack, but if you need me more than normal, I can use the extra cash."

Bitty thought about it as he stared at the computer screen, where he'd typed up his standard pie recipes into Excel so he could multiply the recipe by seventy-five — sixty for his pre-orders and fifteen extra. As it was, he needed to assign the staff four ten hour shifts rather than five eights to keep up with customer demand, and that wasn't sustainable long term, not with low wage bakers and what was supposed to be two part-time counter employees. He'd been thinking about hiring more people, but that seemed like a daunting task.

"Okay," said Bitty. "Just for summer, though. No one can work sixty or seventy hours a week and expect to still keep their sanity."

"Bits. You work seventy hours a week. Maybe you need to listen to yourself."

"I'll worry about myself after the holiday. Until then, I have pies to plan. Ugh, I wish Jack were here."

"Jack's going to help you make pie?" Nursey asked.

"No, I mean… he's been out of town and I just need a hug."

Nursey laughed but then got up and gave Bitty a warm, lengthy hug before Bitty called in his fruit order and Nursey helped Farmer with the register line.

Even without the bad pie decision, it had been a difficult week. Bitty still didn't quite understand what Jack meant by this New York business, but he had been out of town since Monday and only had a few minutes before bed to talk on the phone. Bitty had grown accustomed to seeing him every day, even if it was just in passing, as Jack ran by in the morning. The run-by happened less often now, but if Jack had a meeting he would still at least wave. A full work week without him was unprecedented, and Bitty's mind was spiraling into dark territory, even if Jack had texted him a kissy face less than an hour before. Bob Zimmermann was facing more than a decade before he could be reunited with his family. That seemed like an eternity compared to five days.

Friday was busy, busier than most Fridays, probably due to the upcoming holiday, and people came in all the way until four. It was a little frustrating, actually, when the bell rang with just three minutes to close, but when Bitty looked up from the register, a smile took over his face — Jack had walked in the door.

"Well if it isn't Jack Zimmermann back from his excursion to see his lowly little boyfriend," said Bitty, his hands on his hips. Jack rolled his eyes but his smile was equally immovable.

"Hi Bits," he said. "Can you take a walk?"

"I can close up for you," said Nursey, who had been taking trays from the case to the kitchen.

"Looks like I'm free," said Bitty. He removed his apron and walked with Jack out of the front door. They turned left, away from the intersection, but at a pace that suggested they had no destination intended. "I'm so happy you're back. Are you back, or is this a consolation walk before you leave me again?" Bitty asked. He wrapped his arm around Jack's and leaned in toward his shoulder. Jack pursed his lips. "Jack!"

"I'll just be gone a few more days, I promise," Jack said. He latched onto Bitty's hand and squeezed it. "You're closing the bakery for the Fourth, right?"

"Yes, but I have to make a whole bunch of pies to pick up Tuesday, so I may or may not be delirious."

"Can you be delirious with me? I'll be back sometime on Tuesday, so I can pick you up and we can spend all day Wednesday together."

Bitty sighed as he looked up at Jack. They'd only been apart a few days, and they would only be apart a few more. He knew he was being dramatic, but he held fast to Jack and said, "I want so many kisses from you when you pick me up on Tuesday."

"I will have all the kisses ready for you," said Jack, and he paused to kiss Bitty there on the street. When they continued walking again, Bitty continued to hold onto him.

"Are you leaving tonight?"

"Yeah, we just stopped in before Shitty and I go up to Boston."

"What exactly are you doing?"

"Strategy," said Jack. "I was with Marty in Hartford this week and now I'm headed to see Thirdy in Boston. We have a lot to discuss and Marty's people are itching to go already. I just want to make sure everything is good."

"Is it?" Bitty asked.

"Yes."

"Good. What about you?"

"I missed you," said Jack, and he kissed Bitty again. 

The walk was shorter than Bitty wanted it to be, just around the block and back to Bitty's duplex. There were still customers in the bakery and Bitty could still have closed, but after he and Jack said a thorough nonverbal goodbye at his door, Jack returned to his car and Bitty went in.

There was a scramble on the couch when Bitty opened the door. Shitty and Lardo were in different states of undress. Shitty pulled his shirt down and pulled up his pants, which he stood to fasten.

"Jack's probably still in the driveway if you want to catch him," said Bitty, gesturing with his thumb back through the open door. Shitty secured his pants and ran his fingers through his long hair.

"Thanks, Bitty," he said, and then he loudly cleared his throat, now mostly put back together. "Lardo. Nice to see you."

Unlike Shitty, Lardo pulled her dress down but otherwise hadn't moved from the couch. "See you later, Shitty," she said.

Shitty left the duplex, still adjusting his clothing and hair. Just as Bitty shut the door, they heard him shout, "JACK! WAIT!" Bitty looked at Lardo, an eyebrow up, but Lardo threw up her hand as she waited for him to say something about what he'd just witnessed. He didn't.

"You want stroganoff for dinner?" he asked instead.

"Fuck, yes," she said.

Lardo did not volunteer any information about the nature of her relationship with Shitty, so Bitty didn't ask for details. With Shitty and Jack in Boston through the weekend, Bitty and Lardo spent most of that time together. Lardo had begun work on another painting for the bakery and Bitty asked her if she could do any of it in the bakery with him, so both Saturday night and Sunday night Bitty put together parabaked fruit pies to store in the freezer until he and the others could finish them on Tuesday morning.

It felt a little like cheating, storing the pies in the freezer rather than making them all fresh, but even so it took him the bulk of the evening both nights to get everything made. It was easy work on Tuesday, though; Bitty scheduled the entire team to open. Between the four bakers and Bitty, all sixty orders and fifteen extras were ready to go by the time pickup began at noon. The bakery was busy from open to close, and Bitty was thankful he had the forethought to make the extra pies. Once pickup began, customers in the dining room began asking about them. 

"You're in luck!" Bitty said when Mrs. Jessup watched an apple pie leave the bakery and sprang out of her chair to ask about it. "What kind would you like? We still have a few cherry and apple pies left."

"I would love a cherry pie! I didn't even know you were selling these now. How long has this been going on?" Mrs. Jessup asked. When Bitty removed a cherry pie from the case she put her hand on her chest. "That is gorgeous. Give me two."

"It's just for the holiday," said Bitty and he extracted a second from the case. "I'll probably end up doing this for Thanksgiving and Christmas, but no promises."

"This makes my life so much easier," said Mrs. Jessup. Bitty rang her up for the two pies before he closed the boxes and put them into a paper bag. "I was going to spend all evening trying to make something half as good as this for our family barbeque tomorrow. Thank you so much, Bitty."

"You're very welcome, Mrs. Jessup," said Bitty and he gave her a big smile as she returned to her table. Bitty turned to Chowder and Farmer. "I'll be in the back if you need me. I think we've got five more orders to pick up. They're all in the kitchen. These are all of the extras we have left — make sure there's still at least one left at the end of the night."

"Sounds good," said Farmer before she smiled at a customer who just entered. Bitty hurried into the kitchen and then into his office. He sat down in his chair and stared at the notifications on his phone. It was mostly nonsense, but at eleven o'clock he'd missed a call from his mother and received a follow-up text asking for a call back when he was done with work. He wasn't done with work, but Jack was coming to pick him up and he wanted to devote all of his attention to his boyfriend without the looming guilt of a possible conversation with his mother hanging over him. He took a breath before he clicked her name.

"Hi, honey! Are you home already?" Suzanne asked in a cheery voice. It felt normal. Bitty hoped this conversation would be normal.

"Hi Mama, no. We're still open until four, but I just had a minute and saw that you called. Sorry I missed you, I foolishly made the decision to sell pies for the Fourth and it's been a madhouse here today."

"That doesn't sound like a foolish decision. That sounds like a profitable one."

"It is, but I have to decide if all this extra work is worth it."

"Well maybe you should hire a pie baker. If it's extra work, it’s extra money, so you might be able to afford someone else on your staff."

"Maybe. I'll think about that when I have time to think. How's everything going for the barbeque?"

Bitty had asked the right question. Suzanne went on for ten nonstop minutes about the annual family barbeque, which had been a big deal when Bitty was young, but since had become an ordeal that took over Suzanne's life for the majority of June. Every year there was pressure to top the year before, but there was only so much a person could do at a barbeque to keep it fresh and exciting.

"I swear your daddy is no help," Suzanne complained. "I'm here making pasta salad for a hundred people and he's sittin' in his recliner drinking beer." Suzanne spoke with her usual Southern temper, the kind that never lasted very long.

"You know Rick Bittle, he won't get his hands dirty unless there's a football involved," said Bitty.

There was a long silence on the other end of the line and he knew he'd misspoken.

"Your daddy works hard all year to make sure we have a nice life, Dicky," said Suzanne, and it was clear he was meant to be included in that life, even though his parents hadn't needed to spend a dime on him since graduation. He made sure of that. He knew he'd upset her, but didn't know how to reply without making that worse, so he shut his mouth and let her change the subject. "Are you closing the bakery tomorrow?" she eventually asked, although her tone was not nearly as light as it had been when she was going on about the barbeque.

"Yeah, we'll close tomorrow and reopen Thursday," said Bitty.

"Do you have any plans?"

Bitty hesitated. There was no reason to hide it from her, not since Bob had asked to meet her. "Um, yeah, actually," he said, but he hesitated again. He pressed his palm into his eye socket and grimaced as he said it. "I'm going over to my boyfriend's place."

"Eric Richard Bittle, how dare you let me get fifteen minutes into a conversation and THEN tell me this!" Suzanne scolded in a very light-hearted way. Bitty let out his breath.

"Sorry," he said.

"Well? What's his name? What does he do? How did you meet him?"

"His name is Jack."

The office door opened and Dex poked his head in. "Boss, you might want to get out here. Some lady said she ordered four cherry pies and we only have three for her. The only extras left are apple and blueberry."

"Mama, I gotta go," said Bitty.

"I see how it is. This conversation isn't over, sweetie. I want to hear everything about Jack."

Bitty did not want to tell his mother anything about Jack, but that conversation had gone much better than expected. The angry customer situation also went better than expected — Bitty offered an apple pie as a replacement and an extra free of charge, which made her at least happy enough to leave without further incident. Bitty could have returned to his office and continued the conversation with his mother, but he decided to stay at the counter until Jack showed up, staring at Bitty the length of the windows along Broadway.

"Hi sweetie," said Bitty once Jack entered the bakery.

"Hi Bits," he said, and despite there still being customers present, he still stepped behind the counter and quickly kissed Bitty. "How did pie pickup go?"

"Surprisingly well."

"You going to do this again?"

"Oh, I don't know," said Bitty. "I'm exhausted. I don't think it's worth it."

"Why don't you count the register and then tell me if you think it's worth it? And then let's get out of here."

Bitty looked up at Jack, at the heat on his face, and wondered if he could just kick everyone out and leave the register until Thursday morning. He did not. Instead he pulled the drawer and took it to the office to count. After he put the drawer and the deposit in the safe, he pulled up the day's sales on the computer. They'd done a thousand extra dollars in revenue from the pie. That alone was more than the sales of an average Tuesday. Bitty looked at the number for far too long, his mind in several directions. Then he remembered Jack, waiting for him, so shut down the computer and left the office.

"Everyone gone?" he asked Ransom and Holster, who were putting the final dishes from the sanitizer away. Ransom nodded. "All right, get out of here. Happy Fourth of July, y'all."

"Happy Fourth of July," said Holster. 

Chowder and Farmer were sitting at a table with Jack. Bitty stopped at the display case and removed the final item, the apple pie that he'd refused to sell. He placed it in a box, hung up his apron, and approached the table. 

"You ready to go, honey?" Bitty asked.

"Yes, sweetheart," said Farmer.

Bitty looked at her. "You have been spending too much time with Ransom and Holster," he said, but Farmer just laughed. The four of them left the bakery and parted at the corner. Once Chowder and Farmer were gone, Bitty held up the box to Jack. "I made this for you."

"Bits, you didn't have to do that," said Jack. "You've been drowning in pies all weekend."

"And this one's for you," said Bitty.

"It does look really good," said Jack. "Can we have it tonight?"

Bitty stood on his toes to give Jack a kiss. "Anything for you, honey," he said. Jack put his hand on Bitty's waist and led him to the car that waited on the street.

 

***

 

It was early in the morning on July fourth. Months of rising early to prep the bakery had trained Bitty not to sleep in, and that morning was no exception. When he opened his eyes and looked at the time, it was six o'clock, but when he looked to his right, Jack was staring back at him. It had been a warm night but not too hot, so they slept with the windows open. It was still quite warm in the room, so during the night Jack had kicked off the covers and lay on his front, blissfully naked. Bitty had not removed his covers, but he was also on his front, so he lifted himself up on his elbows and took a long look over Jack's body.

Jack might not have played hockey since middle school, but he clearly took care of himself. His shoulders were broad and the muscles in his back were strong, angling inward at his waist. He had a dimple in his lower back just above his ass, which by itself was a sight to behold. Bitty had touched it quite a few times since he'd first been allowed to do so, but a couple of grabs and pokes were not nearly enough.

"Bits, you're staring at my ass," said Jack.

Bitty's eyes flickered up to Jack's. "So?"

Jack sighed and adjusted his pillow under his head. "Go ahead," Jack relented. Bitty pulled off the covers, sat up, and straddled Jack's strong legs so he could place both hands on the ample behind in front of him. Jack closed his eyes and Bitty began to caress him, his breath evening out as he drifted off. With every passing moment, Bitty was making himself more and more aroused, his thoughts turning dirtier and dirtier in regards to the man underneath him, until he gently spread Jack's cheeks apart and looked in between. His breath hitched in his chest; they'd had a fair amount of enjoyable sex in the time they'd been together, but this was one place neither had yet to venture.

"Jack?" Bitty asked softly, unsure if Jack was asleep.

"Hmm?" Jack asked. His eyes remained closed.

"Have you ever done anything here?" Bitty asked, and the forefinger of his right hand brushed over Jack's hole. Jack squirmed and his eyes opened. He turned his head to look back at Bitty.

"Yes," he said.

"On you or on… the other person?"

"Both."

"Do you have a preference?"

"Not really," said Jack. "Do you want to?"

Bitty pursed his lips, looking down again between Jack's cheeks. He touched it again and Jack released a short, low whine.

"That makes me nervous," Bitty said. "Does it hurt?"

"It can, a little," said Jack. His breath was irregular, his desire clearly increasing the more Bitty gently touched him, not yet poking inside. "If you want…you can do me. If it'll help calm your nerves."

"I think it might," said Bitty. "Do you have condoms?"

"In the nightstand. And lube. You need to use lube." Bitty leaned toward the nightstand closer to the door but Jack quickly said, "No, no, the other one." Bitty changed direction and opened the drawer to the nightstand near the window. There were a few chargers and other cords as well as an unopened box of condoms next to a mostly-full bottle of personal lubricant. Bitty picked up the condoms. 

"Did you buy these for us?" Bitty asked as he began to tear open one side of the box.

"Yes," said Jack. "I didn't want to push you."

Bitty leaned forward and kissed the center of Jack's back between his shoulder blades. "Thank you," he whispered, resting his forehead there for just a moment before he sat up again. He removed one condom from the box before he tossed the rest back in the drawer and took out the lube. "What do I do?"

"You need to open me up first. Start with one finger, but use a lot of lube." Bitty brushed his forefinger over Jack's hole again and Jack sighed. "But you can do that for a bit first. It feels nice."

Bitty continued to touch him for a few minutes; Jack closed his eyes and drifted again. Bitty was growing more and more aroused with each passing moment, so he uncapped the lube, squirted a hefty amount on his fingers, and touched Jack again. He held his breath and slowly sunk one finger in. Jack tensed, just for a moment, before he relaxed and let Bitty slide in and out.

"Okay?" Bitty asked.

"Yes," breathed Jack.

It was warm and tight inside Jack so Bitty bit down on his other hand; just thinking about what it would be like to be inside Jack was a thought too dangerous to have if he wanted to last long enough to make it there. He was ready but Jack was not, so he went slow, waiting for less resistance before he attempted to insert another finger. Jack tensed again at the addition but relaxed just as quickly, and Bitty checked his face. He was no longer asleep but his eyes were closed, and he gripped the pillow with his right hand.

Bitty checked in; Jack's grip on the pillow was concerning. "Jack?"

"It's good," Jack said and he bit his lip. "It's really good."

"Faster? Slower?"

"More," said Jack, and so Bitty inserted a third finger, starting slow and increasing speed, until Jack was panting, his legs shifting, his grip just as tight on the pillow. 

"God, Jack, you are so beautiful," Bitty said as he watched Jack move underneath him, unhinged, unrestricted, lost in the pleasure Bitty was giving him. Jack was always a bit squirmy, but Bitty had never seen him let go like this.

"Bits," Jack said, and he opened his eyes. Their gaze connected. "I want you."

"Are you ready?" Bitty asked, and Jack nodded, never breaking their stare. Bitty slowly removed his fingers, causing Jack to squirm again, then picked up the condom and ripped open the package. He'd never used one before, but years of wishful thinking meant he at least knew how to put one on. He applied more lube to himself and then looked down, unsure of the angle, but Jack had already gotten on his knees, which helped. With one hand on his aching erection and the other on Jack's sacrum, he lined up and pushed in.

Jack whined and Bitty stopped. "You okay?" Bitty asked.

"Yeah, yeah. Keep going. It's…it's been a while."

Bitty pushed in further, slow but steady, his vision brightening in the morning sunlight as Jack surrounded him. It was warm, it was tight, and it was so, so good. Once fully seated, Bitty let out a long breath, and then so did Jack. He placed his hands on Jack's hips. Jack lowered his torso so his face was back in his pillow, and then Bitty slid his hands up Jack's back to his shoulders. He squeezed, just once, and then began back down when Jack suddenly reached back, grabbed Bitty's right hand in his, and brought it down to the bed as he stabilized himself again. Bitty bit his lip; moments ago he couldn't think of anything apart from Jack around his dick, but as Jack gripped his hand, his heart swelled and tears entered his eyes. They were connected more than physically, and he had never felt so close to another person.

"Jack," Bitty whispered, his voice thick with emotion.

"Bitty," said Jack into his pillow.

He wanted to say something more, to express the emotion inside of him, but being balls deep in his boyfriend was not the appropriate time for a first declaration of love. He squeezed Jack's hand and released it before he pulled himself upright to focus. He needed to start thrusting or this would be over before he could. Jack moaned as he did, and it became easier and easier, Jack encouraging him with every sound, every squirm, every muted attempt to say something apart from Bitty's name.

At some point Jack had taken a hold of himself and started rubbing, and Bitty could hear his hand on himself in addition to the sound of skin hitting skin, Bitty's own ragged breath, Jack's increasingly loud moans of pleasure, and then after a few minutes, Bitty's voice letting out a strangled, "I'm gonna come."

Jack just grunted in response as Bitty pushed in and squeezed his eyes shut tight as he finished. Once he came down he was able to focus. He gripped the edge of the condom and began to pull out, but Jack whined and said, "No, stay. Just until I come."

Bitty pushed back in and rubbed his hands up and down Jack's back as Jack worked himself over, and just a minute later he grunted loudly and began to spasm, little squeezes on Bitty's dick still inside of him. Bitty moaned and then put his hand over his mouth when he realized how loud it was; next time he was going to try to get Jack to come first, so he could feel this sooner. Jack breathed, and then breathed again, and then lifted his head from his pillow so his back was straight.

"Okay," Jack said, still breathing hard. Bitty again secured the base of the condom and slowly pulled out, then collapsed back on his ankles and wiped his face. He'd cried at some point and felt like a ridiculous blotchy mess until Jack turned around and Bitty saw his face as well. He looked like Bitty felt, his eyes wet, his skin uneven, his hair pointing in several directions since he'd been rubbing it against his pillow.

"That was good," Bitty said. 

Jack nodded. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah, it was."

"I need to get this off," said Bitty. He left the bed and padded to the bathroom, where he removed the condom and threw it into the garbage there. He caught a glimpse of himself and confirmed his suspicion that he looked as ridiculous as Jack. He looked across the room at his boyfriend, who'd collapsed onto the bed and was staring back at him, the comforter pulled up to his chin, a smile on his lips. Bitty could feel the grit on his teeth and the grease on his face, not to mention the mess on the rest of him, but he returned to the bedroom and climbed under the covers with Jack. Jack kissed him sweetly before he pulled back to look him in the eyes.

"Did that make you less nervous?" Jack asked.

"Yeah," said Bitty. "Maybe later we could try it the other way."

"Yeah," agreed Jack. "Yeah, I want to do that to you." Jack brought his hand to Bitty's face and traced the outline of it from temple to chin with the knuckle of one finger. Bitty felt the urge again, to tell Jack how he felt, but before he could, a loud, insistent knocking sounded at the front door.

Jack bolted upright, his eyes first going to the nightstand closer to the door. The knocking continued. Jack scrambled out of the bed, picked up his underwear and a T-shirt from the floor, and then headed out of the room. Bitty did the same, replacing his shorts and shirt. When Jack disappeared from view, Bitty glanced at the nightstand. He hesitated, his hand out, and then quickly pulled it open. On top of a few books lay a gun and extra ammunition. Bitty quickly shut the drawer and exited the bedroom, his heart beating fast.

Jack stood at the entrance of his apartment with Marty, who was rumpled and unshaven as if he'd been up all night. "I'm so sorry to bother you at home," Marty was saying, and he paused upon seeing Bitty at the edge of the kitchen. "Especially when you have company, but it's urgent."

"Let's go on the balcony," said Jack. Marty followed Jack onto the balcony. Jack closed the door behind them. Bitty watched them walk to the edge of the balcony and stop at the railing. Within seconds Jack had dropped his head into his hand in what looked like grief, but then looked out to the west over the railing as Marty kept speaking.

Bitty couldn't watch Jack struggle with bad news. He had to immediately remedy Jack's pain, so he turned on the coffeemaker. There were a few pastries that still looked fresh, so he put a few on a large plate. Once the coffee finished, he poured two cups, set everything on a tray with the creamer and sugar bowl, and headed out to the balcony. Jack and Marty had moved to the table. 

When Bitty approached, Marty immediately stopped talking. Jack looked over his shoulder. "No, it's fine," Jack said. "You can speak freely in front of him."

Bitty set a cup of coffee and the pastry plate in front of Marty. "Thank you," said Marty. He didn't take any sugar but accepted the creamer. "What do you think, boss?"

"Do you know who did it?" Jack asked.

"Yes."

"Do you know his patterns?"

"I've got people on it. We'll have an opportunity soon."

"Then take it. Make it well known. I want New York to know we don't tolerate this kind of bullshit. If they don't get the message, you have my permission to keep going."

Bitty stared as Marty stood, and the day felt like it had gone hollow. Marty was no longer Marty, no longer the man married to Gabby who had been so kind to Bitty at Sunday lunch. Marty was not a father of an adorable little boy. Marty was not relatable because Marty was a killer. "Thanks, boss," Marty said, and his voice was entirely too placid for the situation at hand. Why would he thank someone for this direction?

"Marty," said Jack. "Be careful. We might have Long Island but we don't have the support of the city like we do here. Make it known, but get the hell out of there when it's done." Marty nodded and then quickly left. Jack looked back over the balcony, focusing on nothing, and his eyes grew wet again with something other than the affection they expressed just a few minutes earlier in bed.

Bitty, however, had grown so cold he was shaking. Jack had changed too, just like Marty had, but it was worse, because Bitty had just been inside of him. Bitty had just felt warm with him, had cried because of him, had almost declared love because of him. Bitty sat in the chair Marty had just occupied, unable to control his thoughts or his mouth. "Jack," he said, and he could hear the quiver in his voice even in the single word. Jack looked at him. "Did you just tell Marty to kill someone?"

He wanted to vomit. He wanted to charge over the table and punch Jack in the face. He wanted to scream. Instead he sat in the chair and shook uncontrollably.

"I told you we're at war with New York," said Jack.

"You said you started something in New York. You never mentioned a war."

"We're trying to take the city. It's war."

"And that makes it okay to kill someone?"

"There are rules in war, Bitty," said Jack darkly. "You fight in your territory, you negotiate, you take losses. When you take a loss, it's lost. We took Long Island a week ago. It belongs to us. They shot a soldier in the back at eight o'clock in the morning in a Starbucks while he waited for coffee. There were civilians. There were children. We might be at war, but we keep our battles away from children."

"And that makes it okay? You're going to kill whoever did this and if it's not enough, you're going to kill others."

"It's the only way they'll listen!" Jack said, and the calm in his voice vanished. "You knew I did this, Bitty. I told you —"

"I asked if you had ever killed anyone and you said no!" Bitty snapped. "I sat right here and asked you very directly if you had."

"I have never killed anyone," said Jack. "I told you the truth."

"Fine. Fine, you win on a technicality. Have you ever ordered the death of a person before?"

Jack sat back in his chair and threw his coffee cup on the table. It skittered and splashed but did not fall over. "Yes," he said.

"Why didn't you just say that?"

"Is that something you would have wanted to hear?"

"No," said Bitty. He stood. "No, I didn't, and I don't now. I need… I need to think about this."

"Bitty," said Jack. "Don't."

"No. I thought I knew what I was getting into here. I thought I knew who you were and then… Lord. I don't know if I can be a part of this, Jack. Not this." He began to slam the plate and cups back on the tray and lifted it to return inside.

"Bitty, please," said Jack. "Sit down and talk to me. Please don't walk away."

"I need time, Jack."

Bitty walked quickly back inside and Jack followed. He threw the tray onto the counter before he dumped the uneaten pastries into the garbage and tossed the plate and cups into the sink. He walked to the front door where he'd left his shoes and slipped them back on.

"Bitty," said Jack. Bitty turned. "What do you mean by time?"

"I need you to stay away from me until I can speak to you again," said Bitty. "If I can speak to you again."

Jack nodded, and for the third time that morning, he had tears in his eyes. He didn't speak again when Bitty opened the door and fled.

Chapter Text

"Mama, I want to come home."

"What? Dicky, sweetie, what's the matter?"

It was dark in the bedroom, even when Bitty removed his head from underneath the covers. He wanted to stay buried under them, locked in his room with the curtains drawn, hiding from a world celebrating what used to be his favorite holiday. This was not his favorite holiday. This was the day he felt the furthest from his family, the day he was inside Jack for the first time, the day his boyfriend became a killer rather than a saint.

Bitty tried to speak through his tears. "Can we go back to how we were before? Can you and Daddy be you and Daddy before you knew I was gay, and can I come back home? I want you to give me Senor Bunny and tell me everything's going to be fine."

"Dicky, honey, nothing is different now. Your father and I love you very much. All of this with you — we can figure that out. We just never got the chance. Of course you can come home, but this seems the opposite of how you felt the last time we spoke. Yesterday you were telling me about Jack and —"

Bitty made a strained noise and Suzanne didn't push. "How do I even do this?" he asked. "I've got employees and loans and rent to pay."

"It's okay. We'll figure it all out. I can get you on a plane tomorrow and we'll do what we have to do. I just need you to talk to me. What happened?"

Bitty didn't know what to say. It hadn't even been an hour since Jack ordered the death of a man who now walked around with a mark on his back, an invisible tag that signaled the end of his life. It was possible he knew it. It was possible he didn't, that he sat in a house eating a hamburger off a grill and waving a small American flag as he and others debated where they'd watch fireworks when the evening came. 

Suzanne was patient, and eventually Bitty had words to say. "He did something that I didn't think he would do."

"Did he do something to you?"

"No! No, not like that. I just… I thought I knew him. And I thought I knew what this was going to be. I did. And now it's not that way. Mama, I love him and I shouldn't and I don't know what to do."

"That's okay. We sometimes do silly things when we think we're in love. When you get home we can talk all about the stupid things we've done and get you on the right track. Your Aunt Judy works downtown; she said she can get you a job in the mailroom. Straighten you out."

Bitty opened his eyes. He could see light through a crack in the curtains, so he sat up, walked over, and pushed it open. It was bright outside. He let go of the curtains and put his hand on his forehead. "How long have you been talking to Aunt Judy about me?" he asked.

"Oh, you know how it is. She asks about you all the time."

"And she just offered up a job in her mailroom, knowing the bakery is doing well and that I'm happy up here?"

"Dicky, you're calling me on the Fourth of July asking to come home. You don't sound happy to me."

Bitty turned away from the window and dropped his hand. "I've gotta go. I'll figure this out. Thanks for listening."

"Dicky, sweetie —"

"I know you were waiting for this to happen. I can figure it out. Have a good barbeque."

Suzanne objected again but Bitty hung up the phone and climbed back under his covers. His phone vibrated from a text message, undoubtedly from her. He closed his eyes and tried not to imagine her plotting with his aunt, asking Judy to hold a job for him for when he grew up and failed at his life. He tried not to think of his father's disgust when Suzanne told him that his only son was in love with a boy. He tried not to think of Jack, who'd convinced Bitty that he only did wonderful things, that he paid medical bills for sick kids and reconstructed public fountains and ate ice cream with his friend instead of ending actual lives.

When he awoke it was actually dark outside. He turned onto his back and looked up at the ceiling. It would be best to just go back to sleep, but his stomach rumbled. He and Jack hadn't had much of a dinner, and he'd left before breakfast. With reluctance, he left his bed and opened the door to the living room, hoping it would be empty.

It wasn't. Lardo stood in front of a pot in the kitchen, humming along to quiet music, and looked up when he opened his door. Her expression didn't change but Lardo had the best poker face of anyone he knew.

"Yo," she said. "You want pho?"

Bitty wanted to groan, turn around, and return to bed, but Lardo had made pho for him before, and it was always good. He crossed the living room and entered the kitchen. He could smell it and his mouth watered. He peered in the pot; it looked like it was done.

"Who told you?" he asked.

"You told me yesterday you were going to spend the day with Jack and then you marched in here at eight o'clock in the morning, out of breath, and slept for nine hours. No one needed to tell me anything." Lardo ladled a healthy portion into a bowl and handed it to Bitty.

"It was Shitty, wasn't it?"

"Yes," she said. He turned to the dining room and sat down. Lardo joined him a moment later with her own bowl and a tray of extras. He added bean sprouts, jalapenos, and hoisin sauce to his. She added everything and a hefty dose of sriracha, then began to stir her bowl with chopsticks. She had given him a spoon and a fork, knowing full well that he couldn't use chopsticks.

He devoured the meal. It wasn't until all the meat and noodles were gone that he finally looked up; she was also finished and had picked up her bowl with both hands to drink her broth. He chose to use his spoon instead. When she set her empty bowl back on the table, he said, "Do you think Jack is a bad person?"

Lardo wiped her mouth on her forearm. "I don't know him well enough to make that determination."

"Do you think Shitty is a bad person?"

"No," she said.

"How much does he tell you about work?"

"Some. We don't talk a lot."

Bitty looked back into his bowl. Now that he'd eaten most of it, the broth held little appeal. He picked up his spoon, filled it, and poured the contents back into the bowl. They were silent as he did this, as he supported his head with a fist and watched as broth splattered from the bowl onto the table.

"Do you think Jack is a bad person?" Lardo asked. Bitty lifted his spoon and let the broth fall again. It was easier than making that decision. "It's okay if you do, you know, and it's also okay if you don't."

Bitty finally put down his spoon. "How can that be okay?"

"It…just is," said Lardo with a shrug.

Bitty looked at her. The poker face was still up. She looked her usual calm and collected self. Usually this face was comforting, a grounded emotion when Bitty went off the rails about something ridiculous and trivial, but in that moment it just felt like she was hiding something too. He picked up his bowl, walked to the kitchen, and dumped it in the sink. He returned with a sponge to clean his mess. He returned a second time to look at her again. Her expression hadn't changed.

"How many people has Shitty killed?" he asked.

That broke her and she looked down into her lap. "I don't know for sure. Two at the minimum."

"How do you still look at him knowing that? How do you still speak to him?"

"Because I spoke to him," said Lardo. "He explained. Maybe it doesn't bother me like it does you. Maybe that makes me a bad person too."

"Do you think you could ever do that?"

She quickly shook her head. 

"Me neither," he said. "How did he justify it?"

"You heard the story about Jack's dad and Shitty's dad, right?"

"He killed his father?" Bitty asked. Lardo nodded. "Fuck. What did we get ourselves into here, Lardo?"

"I don't know," she replied.

Bitty pressed his palms into his eyes, pressing so hard he could see light. He took in a long breath and then stood. "I'm going to the bakery. I need to think."

"Bits," said Lardo and he turned. "Whatever your decision, I'm here. If you choose him, I'm here. If you don't…well, like I said before, I've got our passports."

It was the only grounding thought Bitty had when he entered the bakery and began to check inventory for the following morning. They were mostly good, although they could use more cinnamon sugar bagel dough. He started on that, staring at the mixer as the hook spun and spun.

The shock was over. It didn't make anything easier, but it made sense. It made sense for a man who was raised in the tradition of crime to answer murder with murder. It made sense that Shitty, upon learning his father betrayed the most important man in their organization, enacted revenge for his best friend. It made sense that in a territory war, a man was shot in the back at a Starbucks at eight o'clock in the morning. It didn't, however, make sense that a boy from Georgia, whose life revolved around baked goods, who vividly remembered his first tackle in peewee football, would put himself in the center of it.

He placed the bagel dough in the walk-in. His eyes landed on a container of pork. The date was getting old. He needed to make a large batch of sausage rolls to use it up before it went bad, but that was fine. Jack loved sausage rolls, so Bitty could give him one in the morning. The next day would be Thursday too, so he could put a bunch in their lunch order —

He stopped himself. There would be no stop in the morning and Shitty more than likely would not attempt a lunch pickup either.

Bitty made the sausage anyway and piled it in the walk-in; he'd figure out that surplus in the morning. Until then, he began to clean, scrubbing behind ovens and in the range hood, places overdue for a deep dive, work that kept him occupied so he wouldn't have to think about how he actually did miss Jack, and that maybe this would be okay. Maybe it was okay.

Nursey was the first to arrive in the morning, although he wasn't on the schedule. That was fine because Bitty had hoped he would be there.

"Hey Nursey," said Bitty.

"Hey. Wow, have you been here all night? This place is spotless."

"My sleep cycle is messed up," said Bitty. "I'm going to try to make it through today but I might need a nap. We'll see."

"I'm here, boss. Got your back."

Bitty hid his face under the table where he'd been scrubbing the walls. He closed his eyes to regroup, and then continued his task. Behind him Nursey turned on the ovens and began to cut portions of something; Bitty could hear him sectioning off dough with a pastry scraper. Nursey didn't speak but Bitty was aware of each of his movements. It would still be a half hour until Holster's shift, so they had time to talk. Bitty was afraid of Nursey's answers.

He sat back on his ankles and looked at Nursey, who'd slid a tray into the preheated oven. "Hey Nursey?" he asked.

"What up, boss?"

"I need your honest opinion on something. And seriously, Nursey. I want you to be honest."

"Yeah, of course. What is it?"

"Are you afraid of Jack? Or, I suppose, are you at all afraid of what Jack could do to you?"

"You okay, Bitty?" Nursey asked, but Bitty just waited for a response. "Jack and his family do good things. I've told you this before, but…yeah. He can be intimidating. That's really the whole point, isn't it? He does good things to win the loyalty of the neighborhood, but he cracks down on behaviors that lead to unrest. It's his job to be in control, so if you threaten that control, he — or more realistically one of his soldiers — will change your attitude."

Bitty threw his sponge into the garbage. After a night of cleaning, it had seen enough. He began to head to the counter, but Nursey called out after him. "Bitty — he's still a person. He still has feelings. Whatever decision he has to make is because no one else will make it. If you're asking me if Jack is inherently evil, or even if the family is inherently evil, the answer is no. They just make the decisions we can't in order to protect us from the people who actually are out to do no good."

Nursey's response didn't help, but as Holster and Chowder arrived for their shifts, Bitty attempted to focus on the day ahead rather than the unsettling feeling that had wormed its way into his chest. The sausage rolls were put on special and discounted fifty cents, and they started selling as soon as the doors opened. It was a busy morning, enough of a distraction that Bitty didn't notice the time, but the line was gone at seven-twelve and Bitty looked out to Broadway, waiting for Jack.

"Bitty! Cindy Jessup told me you were selling pies for the Fourth! How come I didn't know this?" asked Amy Roundtree, a woman old enough to be friends with Mrs. Jessup. Bitty tore his eyes from the window and forced a smile.

"Yeah, I made some pies. Sorry, Amy, we had so many orders I had to take the signs down. You can get a pie for Thanksgiving."

"Oh, I will. I want pumpkin and apple. Write my name down now — I don't want to miss it again," said Amy. She noticed the sausage rolls and ordered half a dozen to go. Bitty kept an eye toward the window, watching for movement, as he rang her up and boxed the rolls, but by the time she left it was seven-twenty and there was no sign of Jack. Bitty turned to Chowder.

"I'll be in my office if there's a line," he said before he left quickly. Ransom and Nursey were frosting sticky buns and paid him no attention while he passed, so he entered his office and shut the door. In three months Jack had never run by later than seven-sixteen, so Bitty knew he wasn't coming. He'd requested this. He'd asked for time, but now that he had it, it hurt more than he thought it would.

 

***

 

Bitty didn't sleep much the rest of the week, even after nearly twenty-four hours awake. The bakery kept him busy, but there was only so much cleaning he could do to avoid his problems. His mother had called several times to apologize but he didn't have the patience for it. There was no going back to how it used to be with his family, and with Jack there was no going back to a time when Bitty could pretend Jack only did good things.

On Saturday night, Bitty came home after spending too much time reviewing the bakery's finances. He knew the performance of every bread, bagel, and pastry on the menu and decided to just cut his losses with the croissants. They brought in the least revenue despite their prominent feature in the logo for Bitty's Corner. When he made the decision to cut the pastry, he also made another decision, and when he sat on the couch he pulled out his phone to text Jack.

     Hot Bakery Boy
     Can you come over?

     Hot Bakery Boy
     I just want to talk.

Jack replied within seconds.

     Cute Butt
     I'll be there in ten minutes.

Lardo wasn't home. That was probably a good thing. Bitty stood and paced in front of the door. The house was quiet apart from the faint sound of video game music from Ransom and Holster's unit upstairs. There was also the traffic from Broadway, noise that never stopped. Unless it was late in the evening, Broadway remained a busy thoroughfare. It was good for business. It was frustrating as Bitty attempted to listen for Jack's approach. 

He was determined to separate emotion from their conversation. He didn't want to open the door and forget himself, but when Jack knocked, Bitty jumped. He took several breaths. There couldn't be emotion. They needed to talk it through. He opened the door and his eyes filled with tears. Jack stood on the other side of the threshold in wrinkled sleepclothes, a blank white T-shirt and black running shorts. He was unshaven, at least since Wednesday, his eyes worn and his hair unkempt. Bitty felt overdressed in comparison.

"Hi," Bitty said when his vision cleared.

"Hey," said Jack. Bitty opened the door but Jack made no move to come inside. His eyes darted around the walls of the duplex. "Can we talk out here?"

"Okay," said Bitty. He and Jack moved to the porch. Bitty sat first and Jack sat across from him on the railing. It was still sweltering hot even though the sun had set. Jack waited for him, looking down at the wooden planks beneath them. Bitty looked too. The porch needed to be refinished. "Why can't we talk inside?" Bitty asked.

"I know your landlord, but he's not a friend."

"Do you seriously think he bugged the place?" Bitty asked in exasperation.

"He knows I come here. I'd rather be safe than sorry if we're going to talk honestly."

"Are we?"

Jack looked up. His hands gripped the edge of the white railing. His knees were bent, his sneakers digging into the floor between two boards. Every muscle in his body was tense, even in his face. His lips were pursed tightly together, but as he looked at Bitty he unfurled them and nodded.

Bitty didn't know how to start. He knew Jack had words, but he was afraid of what they were. The two of them were nowhere, though, and that had been a lonely place. Bitty broke the contact and looked at his feet.

"That thing that you told Marty to do," Bitty said. "Did he do it?"

"Not him, but yes, it happened."

"And Marty, and the one who did it. Are they okay?"

"Yes."

"Did it make a difference?"

"That's hard to say," said Jack. "It's only been a day or two. I think it sent the message."

"You have a gun in your nightstand," said Bitty.

"Yes."

"Have you ever used it?"

"Not on a person, no. I've fired it at the gun range."

"Would you?"

"If it'd been someone from New York pounding on the door at seven o'clock in the morning instead of Marty? Yes. If it were to protect you? Yes."

Bitty thought about Lardo on the other side of the dinner table, telling him it was okay to be okay with this. It was true then, like it was true in that moment. He looked at Jack. "I understand that you have to kill people, and while I don't like it, I'm okay with it," he said, and Jack looked instantly relieved, his shoulders lowering, his hands relaxing. "Jack, that's not why I'm upset. You lied to me. You lied to me and you decided what I get to know."

"I was terrified of what you'd say if I told you the whole truth," said Jack.

"So you deprived me of the ability to make a choice. I needed time to think this through, and I would have come to the same conclusion had you told me this that first night on your balcony. Instead you painted this glorified version of yourself. You let me fall in love with that. You let me make love to that. And that's not you."

"When I was with you, that was still me."

"Not completely."

"I never tried to trick you," said Jack.

"But you did," said Bitty.

They fell silent again, looking away from each other. Jack felt very far away and the distance was painful. It was hot and Bitty could feel the sweat on his back the longer they remained on the porch, away from each other. He saw Jack turn his head to look back, so he did as well.

"If you want," Jack said, "that will be the last of it. No more lies, or half lies, or deception. Just the truth, however ugly or painful that might be. If you still want me."

"Of course I still want you," said Bitty and Jack cracked a smile, which he hid just as quickly as it came, because Bitty did not smile back. "I don't think the truth is what we need. I think you need to leave me out of it completely. It scares me too much, but you, Jack… I did fall in love with you, and I still want you. I'll sleep better if I have you."

Jack nodded. He lifted his hand and extended it to Bitty. Bitty took it without hesitation, allowed Jack to pull him in. Bitty sighed at the feeling of Jack's arms wrapped around his waist, of Jack's face against his shoulder. Jack was shaking. Bitty placed one hand on his back and the other on his neck, then stared out into the front yard, at the bushes that separated them from the street. He'd been so afraid to be afraid of Jack's work, that Jack would leave him, but Jack was the one who was shaking on the porch. 

"I'm not going to leave you, Jack," Bitty whispered.

Jack let out a long, relieved breath. "You scared me," he said.

Bitty held him tightly, which caused Jack to tighten his grip as well, and despite the heat they held each other close. "Do you ever think of leaving it behind?" Bitty asked. "About packing up and going somewhere else?"

"No," said Jack as he leaned back and looked up at Bitty. He'd stopped shaking and looked content, his eyes drooping with fondness, his jaw relaxed. "It's not an option for me."

"It is," said Bitty. "You just don't want to."

"I can't leave anyone behind. There's no family without me. I don't want to think about what would happen to them if something were to happen to me." Jack loosened his grip on Bitty's waist and began to gently rub Bitty's back. "Did you want to leave?"

"Yes. I called my mother and asked to come home. Then she infuriated me, so I didn't."

"I'm glad you didn't," said Jack. "Bitty, I love you."

Bitty pulled Jack close, resting his head against Jack's. "I love you too."

"I'll keep you out of this. I won't talk business around you again, but Bitty… I can't change who I am. I have to make awful decisions and sometimes I have to decide to end a life. I take no joy in it. But if that's what I need to do, I will do it."

"I know. I wish you didn't have to."

"Me too," said Jack, who nuzzled into Bitty's neck. It ignited a fire Bitty had been suppressing for days, spreading heat through his already warm body.

"Jack," he breathed. "Jack, will you please kiss me already?"

Jack stood, causing Bitty to take a step back, and pressed their lips together. Bitty kissed him back, standing on his toes to get closer. Jack kept pushing him until his back was up against the door. With one hand still in Jack's hair, he reached behind him for the doorknob. He opened the door and they stumbled inside, the only thing preventing Bitty's from tumbling onto his back was Jack's arms securely around him. Bitty let go and Jack kissed his cheek, his jaw, his neck, and Bitty looked behind them to guide them to his bedroom. By the time they'd made it there, Bitty was sure he had a mark on his neck that would last for days. They stumbled into the bedroom and onto Bitty's bed, where Jack stripped off their clothes before he pressed their lips together again, his body on top of Bitty's, kissing violently.

"Jack, I need you to touch me," Bitty said when he came up for air. Jack nodded and reached between them, taking not only Bitty in his hand, but himself as well. Bitty moaned loudly, lost in the feeling of Jack stroking them together. It didn't last long for either of them, both so worked up from several days of tense emotions, and after they came they lay together, Jack still on top of Bitty, and breathed hard. 

"You okay?" Jack asked after they cooled down.

"Yeah," said Bitty with a slight nod. "You?"

"Yeah." Bitty panted three more breaths before Jack spoke again. "Are we okay?"

Bitty responded by wrapping his arms around Jack's back and pulling them closer together. "Yes," he said.

Chapter Text

July passed quietly, although Bitty knew the silence stemmed directly from his request for it. Sunday lunch at the Zimmermann house was pleasant but charged with the undercurrent of knowledge — something big was going on behind closed doors. Jack's post-lunch meetings lasted longer and longer every week. He still left town for days at a time. Each return to the neighborhood was punctuated with a good dinner and heated encounter in the nearest bed, but Jack stayed true to his promise, and said nothing of work.

Bitty hated it. As time passed and Jack's travel increased, Bitty longed for information of Jack's whereabouts, but this was his decision. He had caused their only argument because of it. He needed to live with it. Every moment Jack was gone Bitty devoted to his bakery, and as a result July was proving to be his most profitable month. The volume of sales and the increase in business orders meant Bitty needed to hire more staff. Even with Nursey working every day, all the employees looked and felt overworked, and no one would be able to last like this, which Bitty explained to Jack when he stopped in for coffee and a sausage roll toward the end of the month.

"How many more people do you want to hire?" Jack asked as the two of them sat at their usual table, Jack's complexion returning to normal after the first half of his run. 

"I'm not sure. Someone for the counter for sure. Farmer and Chowder need to go back to part-time when school starts again. I'll need more bakers too. Three maybe?"

"I know some good kids I can send your way. For sure the Tangredis have a son looking for a job," said Jack, and he paused, a hunk of sausage on his fork, his gaze distant. "He's a little odd. He might be a better baker than cashier."

"I'll interview him," said Bitty. "Not that I don't trust your judgment, sweetie, but I can't take just any kid off the street because they're looking for work."

"Sure," said Jack. "Hey, are you busy tonight? I want to get you fitted for your suit."

Bitty stared across the table as Jack chewed, swallowed, and then looked at Bitty rather than cut another piece when he realized Bitty never responded. "My suit?" Bitty asked.

"Yeah. For the party." Jack's cheeks, which had finally evened out in color, pinkened yet again. "We did talk about this, right? My birthday party next Friday at the casino?"

"JACK ZIMMERMANN!" Bitty scolded, earning the attention of Farmer at the counter and the other regular customers. No one here was surprised to see Jack Zimmermann at a table being verbally admonished by his boyfriend. "No, you did not tell me about this party, and you definitely did not tell me it was your birthday! I have absolutely no time to buy you a present or even think about how I want to decorate your cake. How many people are coming? If I put in an order now I can have the ingredients — what? Jack, why are you looking at me like that?"

Jack was no longer pink but instead fully red and perspiring worse than when he had arrived.

"My mother planned the party. She already ordered a cake."

The anger was so palpable it burned in Bitty's throat. "I see," he said. Jack stared at his plate. The silence was thick until the ire burned itself out and Bitty relaxed his posture, which drew Jack's gaze from underneath his eyelashes. It felt like cheating; Jack's eyes were innocent and apologetic. "Fine. I won't make you a cake."

"Bitty, I want to spend my birthday with you. I don't want you to worry about making a large enough cake to feed hundreds of people. I know whatever my mother ordered won't be nearly as good as yours, but for my birthday I want you, dressed up in a tailored suit, on my arm so I can show you off to everyone I know."

"I have suits I can wear, sweetie. You don't need to buy me one."

"Yes, but I want to put you in something new. I want to look at you and absolutely lose my mind," said Jack, and he leaned in close, so Bitty's field of vision was encompassed by the desire in Jack's eyes. "I want you to be irresistible."

Bitty swallowed hard. "Okay," he said quietly. Jack smiled and glanced down at Bitty's lips. Bitty slowly licked them, which caused Jack's grin to tick farther upward. Bitty just began to wonder if Jack would agree to go back into his office, or better yet across the alley and into his bed, when Jack sat back and cut another slice of his roll.

"My mother has a request that I'm not sure you'll like, but I promised to at least ask."

"A request? In addition to outsourcing your cake?" Bitty asked a little too bitterly, more from Jack's deliberate change in subject rather than his displeasure with Alicia.

"Don't be angry with her. She didn't want to burden you." Bitty scrunched his nose but didn't comment further, so Jack continued: "She would like to invite your parents."

Bitty's immediate reaction was a firm and resounding no , but he paused to consider it. He'd only spoken to his mother over text since his desperate phone call on the Fourth, and the texts had been rather cold. He knew he could have put in more of an effort to repair this relationship, but it was easier to snuggle with Jack, play cards with Lardo, or bake until his hands began to hurt.

"It's next Friday?" Bitty asked. Jack nodded. "There's no way they'll be able to fly up here on such short notice."

"I can book a flight for them and put them up at the casino."

"They'd never agree to that. The casino maybe, if I tell them you own it, but they'll insist on their own flight. This is good, though. I can ask my mother, she'll say no, and no one will be offended."

"Are you sure? What if they say yes?"

"It's a week from now, Jack. There's no way. No, I'll ask and that'll be that. Did you want to pick me up after I close tonight? Where is your tailor?"

"Over on Atwells. I'll come by and we can have dinner after," said Jack, and he finished his roll. He unfortunately only gave Bitty a quick kiss before he began the second half of his run. Bitty watched until Jack had crossed over Broadway and disappeared up Knight Street before he retreated to his office and called his mother.

"Hi sweetie, is everything all right?" Suzanne asked, causing Bitty to shut his eyes and pinch the bridge of his nose. He didn't want to escalate into an argument immediately, and her greeting rubbed him the wrong way.

"Yes, Mama," he said. "Everything's great."

"Oh, good. What's up? How's the bakery? How is... how is Jack?"

He could hear the hesitation in her voice as she said Jack's name, but Bitty was unable to decipher why it happened. It could be the nature of their last verbal conversation (although subsequent texts clarified Bitty and Jack were very happy together), or it could have been her overall discomfort with discussing her son's boyfriend. Either way, Bitty already longed for the conversation to be over.

"He's good. Listen, Mama, that's actually why I'm calling. I know this is very last minute, but it's Jack's birthday next week and his family is throwing a big party on Friday at the casino here, and he wanted to invite you."

There was a long pause on the line. Bitty could perfectly imagine the panic on his mother's face as she thought through the most polite way to decline.

"You said next week Friday?"

"The third, yes."

Suzanne was again silent. "That's awful close, Dicky, and your daddy's already started camp. I don't know if we could get a flight and a hotel on such short notice —"

"If it makes it any easier, Jack said he'd put you up at his hotel in the casino," said Bitty, although he regretted the offer as soon as he said it because the tone of the call shifted quickly.

"Jack owns a hotel?"

"He owns the casino," clarified Bitty.

"Your boyfriend owns a casino? You know, sweetie, you haven't told me anything about this boy. He sounds very interesting. I'll talk to your daddy, see if he can miss a day or two of camp. You tell Jack we'd love to stay at the casino."

Well fuck , thought Bitty, who hung up the phone a few minutes later with the worst possible outcome of the call. By lunch, Suzanne texted him their itinerary, and suddenly Bitty was faced with an entire weekend with his parents. 

Jack, however, did not seem fazed by this. "Don't worry, Bits," he said when he picked up Bitty that afternoon. "I'll give them a VIP resort package. Does your dad like golf? I'll fill up their schedule so tight you'll barely see them."

"I love you," said Bitty, which caused Jack to smile and kiss his temple before they left the bakery. The sky was getting dark, and as they headed toward Atwells Avenue a drizzle began, the kind of slow rain that plunked off the glittering sidewalk. They hurried, wanting to beat the impending storm, and just as they arrived at the tailor, it began to pour.

"I hope we're not planning on walking home," Bitty said to Jack with a nod toward the street.

"You hungry yet? The plaza's just next door and we can wait it out at the Italian place."

"Yeah, sure," said Bitty.

Bitty had been fitted for a suit a few times in his life, but it was nothing like this. Mr. Sherrinford, an old man with mostly no hair and a white bushy mustache, measured him in his street clothes but then handed him a pair of pants and a white button-down shirt to change into. Both items, although clearly samples, were by far the softest and most comfortable shirt and pants Bitty had ever worn in his life. When Bitty returned from the changing room and stepped up on a pedestal, Mr. Sherrinford put something that was not quite a jacket on him and began marking lines in chalk. The process took about twenty minutes and when Mr. Sherrinford directed Bitty back to the changing room, he said, "I'll need you back on Tuesday and we'll make sure everything fits, then you can pick up the suit Thursday. Your event is on Friday, correct, Mr. Zimmermann?"

"Correct," said Jack.

"It'll be tight, but I'm sure we can get it done," said Mr. Sherrinford and when Bitty looked at Jack, it was clear that Jack was refraining from insisting that the tight time frame was not allowed to be a problem. Bitty quickly entered the changing room to avoid hearing Jack turn on his boss voice.

It was still raining when they left the tailor so they ran underneath awnings and avoided the worst of it. "Just run between the raindrops," said Bitty when they realized there was no shelter between the corner and the restaurant. "That's what my Mama always used to say anyway."

"I'll let you try first," said Jack, and he pushed Bitty forward. Bitty ran quickly to the restaurant entrance, where a small awning blocked the rain. Jack was right behind him, so he pulled open the door and stepped inside. Angela was at the hostess stand when they entered, and she stood up straight at the sight of Jack, who was running his fingers through his wet hair. Bitty looked at him; his hair, face, and shoulders were soaking wet, and pairing the water with his large bicep and his tight white T-shirt made the simple act almost obscene.

"Good afternoon, Mr. Zimmermann. Mr. Bittle. The balcony's clear if you would like a table upstairs."

"That'd be great, Angela, thank you," said Jack.

"Would you like a towel too?"

"Yes, please," said Bitty. Angela pulled two white dish towels from behind the bar and handed them over before she brought them upstairs. At the top of the stairs she stood to the side and allowed Jack his pick of the tables on the balcony. Jack picked the one against the wall. He pulled a chair out for Bitty and after Bitty sat, Jack took the other wall seat adjacent to him. Angela set down menus in front of them and Bitty picked his up, but Jack did not.

"I'll be right back with your drinks. Italian soda again, Mr. Bittle?"

"Sure," said Bitty. He waited for Angela to reach the stairs before he looked at Jack. "Can I ask her to not call me Mr. Bittle? I want to look around for my father whenever someone says that."

"It's a sign of respect, Bits," said Jack.

"It's weird," said Bitty.

"You call me Mr. Zimmermann all the time. You're telling me you wouldn't like it if I called you Mr. Bittle?" Jack asked, and he leaned in toward Bitty, one hand resting on the middle of Bitty's thigh as he did. Bitty, who had been suppressing urges since seven o'clock in the morning, immediately felt the touch between his legs rather than on his thigh.

"You need to behave, Mr. Zimmermann."

Angela appeared at the staircase again and Jack backed off, but his hand remained on Bitty's thigh. Angela placed their drinks in front of them. "Would you like a few minutes?" she asked.

"Yes," said Bitty, who had not yet looked at the menu and could not focus long enough at the present moment to make a decision.

"Take your time."

Once she was gone, Jack leaned forward again and kissed Bitty directly on the neck. "Jack," Bitty whispered. "What the heck, she's going to come back any —" Jack turned his head and kissed him on the mouth, tongue and all, and Bitty was about to explode on the balcony of a restaurant that was nearly full on the first floor. Jack's hand moved dangerously close to Bitty's erection and Bitty pushed him away, a smile on his face to match Jack's grin. "You are so bad."

"I love you," said Jack.

"No, you just want me."

"I do. But I still love you."

"Back off and let me pick something to eat. Are you getting lasagna again?"

"Yes," said Jack. He sat back in his chair and lowered his hand to Bitty's knee, but didn't remove it. The menu was gigantic, full of every possible dish an Italian restaurant could offer, including a full page dedicated to pizza. He didn't want pizza. He didn't want anything except for Jack, but it would be rude to not order, so he found the first pasta dish that looked interesting and closed his menu.

Angela had given them more than just a few minutes, and in that time Bitty had looked at Jack three times, and all three times had been a mistake. Jack had his sex face on, the kind that looked like he was about to devour Bitty whole, and this was not the place for it. Even worse, Jack did not change his expression when Angela approached the table.

"What can I get you, Mr. Bittle?" she asked.

"Fettuccine Alfredo," said Bitty and he handed her the menu. Jack barely paid her any attention but confirmed his lasagna order. She left without another word and Jack attacked Bitty again, pushing him and his chair against the wall as they heavily made out while waiting for their food. Despite the chatter from the first floor, Bitty still heard Angela when she reached the top of the stairs and pushed Jack away just in time for her to appear with two plates in her hands. She did not ask if they needed anything else and turned to leave without speaking.

"Angela," said Jack, and she turned back. "Can you leave us, please?"

"Certainly, Mr. Zimmermann," she said. "If you need me, I'll be able to see you at the edge of the balcony." She gestured to the railing, about twenty feet away, and then headed back down the stairs. Jack finally removed his hand from Bitty's leg in order to eat, but replaced the contact with his knee instead, which brushed up against Bitty's throughout their meal.

They both ate quickly, looking at each other, focusing on speed. Bitty felt like he had Alfredo sauce all over his face. He ate his fill long before the plate was clear. He dropped his utensils and wiped his face with his cloth napkin. He'd been so focused on Jack he didn't know if the food was good.

"You done?" Jack asked.

"Yeah."

Bitty pushed his chair back against the wall, prepared for Jack to kiss him again, but instead Jack dropped to his knees in front of him and put both his hands on Bitty's zipper. "Whoa, whoa, Jack, what are you doing?"

"She's not coming back," said Jack, and he reached inside Bitty's jeans. Bitty whined when he felt Jack touch him; he'd been hard since they sat down but fully expected them to run back to the duplex and fuck as soon as they got in the door. Not this.

"But there are people downstairs!" Bitty said with a look toward the balcony. They were completely alone and Jack looked completely comfortable. 

"Do you want me to stop?" Jack asked, looking up at Bitty in all seriousness. Bitty stared, debating his answer, but quickly shook his head. Jack pulled him out of his jeans and sunk his mouth down around him. Bitty picked up his napkin and wadded it over his mouth to mute the strangled cry that bubbled out of his throat. Jack looked him directly in the eyes as he bobbed up and down Bitty's dick, sucking him enthusiastically, his goal not to make this last very long. It didn't, and Bitty couldn't even warn Jack of his orgasm before it came. Jack did not seem to mind.

Jack let go, tucked Bitty back into his jeans, and then returned to his chair. He took a gulp of sparkling water and then wiped his mouth with his napkin.

"Jack Zimmermann, you are going to be the death of me," said Bitty, although he felt much more content now that he'd finally gotten off.

"Like I said: I love you."

And Bitty loved him too.

 

***

 

Jack was out of town on Tuesday when Bitty returned to the tailor for his next fitting. The suit was mostly complete at that point, and when Bitty stood on the pedestal to look over the fit, he had to suppress a smile. Jack had been right to commission a new one rather than allowing Bitty to wear what he already owned. Even ill-fitting, the material was crisp, the lines sharp, the quality impeccable. Bitty chose not to think of the price of it but instead let his eyes roam over himself. He'd come a long way from the skinny boy in high school, someone built for ice skating rather than hockey. Four years on the team changed him more than physically, but the physical improvement was significant: his shoulders broadened, his waist thickened, and all of those squats with Ransom had given him a hockey butt to round out the look. He was still a small man, but he could imagine Jack's reaction and decided that Jack was not allowed to be present when he picked up the final product on Thursday.

There was no need to convince Jack to stay behind, however; on Thursday Bitty had just knocked out the lunch rush with Chowder when the bell rang again and in came Coach and Suzanne Bittle. Both paused at the door to take in the bakery as a whole before they spotted Bitty at the counter.

"Dicky, sweetie, look at this!" said Suzanne, her smile wide and infectious. Bitty removed his dusty apron before he approached his parents. His mother trapped him in a tight hug, causing him to grunt in response. "Oh, honey, I know you said the bakery was doing well, but you didn't say anything like this! Look, you've got a seating area and customers and it smells heavenly in here. Can I try something? Can I see the kitchen? Who is this behind the counter?"

Suzanne let go of Bitty and flittered to the counter where she began speaking to Chowder, introducing herself as "Dicky's mom." Bitty looked at Coach, who still stood silently next to the door.

It had been over a year since he'd seen his parents, but the infrequent but consistent communication with his mother made it seem like they hadn't been apart for so long. With Coach, however, it felt like both several years and no time at all since they stood in the Haus kitchen yelling at each other. Bitty remembered Coach's rage; it was very uncharacteristic for such a taciturn man. The memory still hurt even then, standing in his own bakery that he'd built into a successful business without his parents' help, but Bitty stuck out his hand for Coach to take. Coach did.

"Thank you for coming, sir," said Bitty.

"Certainly cooler up here," said Coach, and that was it.

Bitty turned just in time to see Suzanne enter the kitchen. "Mama, you can't just barge into the kitchen," he said. He entered the kitchen to find his mother looking in awe at a tray of bagels Holster had just removed from the oven.

"Hi Mrs. Bittle!" said Holster loudly. "It's nice to see you again. Bits didn't tell us you were coming."

"Adam, hi, sweetie," said Suzanne and she gave Holster a hug. "We're just in town for Jack's birthday. What are you making here?"

"Bagels. People eat a lot of bagels."

"Mama, did you and Coach check into the hotel yet?" Bitty asked before Suzanne could take a bagel off the tray.

"Check-in isn't until four and we made it to town early, so we wanted to stop by and see the bakery first. Oh, hi! I don't think I've met you before."

Nursey had just exited the office and his eyes widened at the sight of Suzanne. "Oh, uh, no,"  he said. "You must be Bitty's mom. I'm Derek Nurse, baker and sometimes other stuff."

"Nice to meet you," said Suzanne and she shook his hand as Nursey sent a confused look in Bitty's direction. 

Bitty shrugged his shoulders. "Mama, we should get you checked in. Coach is probably still standing next to the door."

"I was hoping we could spend some time together before we went up to the casino. You said your place is next door, didn't you? Is it the house right here? I hope so because we parked the rental in the driveway."

Bitty did not want to entertain them, especially when he still had errands to run and he hadn't seen Jack in several days.

"The bakery's still open, Mama, and I've got some errands to run after close —"

"I can close up for you," said Nursey, which Bitty had hoped he would not suggest. "Did you want me to go to the farmer's market for you too? Is there anything specific you need?"

"Ooh, farmer's market? Dicky, if you need to go your daddy and I would love to tag along."

Bitty was positive Coach did not want to spend an hour or more at the farmer's market, but he also did not want to say no to his mother after she had traveled over a thousand miles to see him. He threw a smile onto his face and said, "Sure, Mama. I need to run to the tailor as well to pick up my suit for tomorrow, so you can come with me or you can stay at the house. It should only take a minute."

"Is Larissa home?"

"I'm not sure," said Bitty. They returned to the dining room to find Coach seated at a table, halfway into a blueberry muffin. From the crumbs on his shirt, this was not his first pastry.

"Rick, you started without me?" Suzanne asked heatedly. Coach shrugged and took another bite.

"Mama, here, why don't you pick out what you want to take with you? There are some really nice restaurants at the casino, so don't spoil your appetite, but you can grab a few." Bitty unfolded a pastry box and filled it with whatever his mother pointed to, until the box wouldn't close.

"That should be enough," she said. "How much is that?"

"Don't be silly, Mama. I'm not charging you."

"I'm not here to eat your profits! How much?"

Bitty thrust the box at her and refused anything in return, and then led his parents out the door. They walked to the duplex to discover Lardo was not home, which did not surprise Bitty. Since meeting Shitty, Lardo's time at home mostly coincided with Jack and Shitty's travel schedule, and both returned to town that morning.

"Well, this is..." began Suzanne when they entered, but she didn't finish her sentence as she and Coach looked around. Bitty had at least cleaned in the event they wanted to pop in, but no amount of Lysol could cover mismatched fabrics and a dining room table with four different chairs.

"It's a step up from the frat house," said Coach.

"Yes it is," agreed Suzanne.

"I don't spend a lot of time here," said Bitty as his parents began wandering. Suzanne stopped in front of the collage and Coach tested the durability of the table, which wobbled when he touched it.

"You got a screwdriver? I can tighten this table up for you."

"And we can run to the tailor and get your suit," said Suzanne. Bitty nodded, but he knew full well that Coach could fix the table before they even made it to the corner. He pulled out his phone and quickly texted Lardo, just in case she decided to come home before he did, and then sent a text to Jack as well:

     Hot Bakery Boy
     My parents stopped by before they checked in. Not sure when I can get rid of them.

     Cute Butt
     Let me know if I need to send a car

     Hot Bakery Boy
     Not necessary yet, but we might have to cancel our dinner plans

     Cute Butt
     :(

     Hot Bakery Boy
     I'll let you know

"Let's go, Mama, and then I can drive you and Coach to the farmer's market."

"Okay sweetie," said Suzanne. She and Bitty left the house, leaving Coach alone to rummage the kitchen drawers for a screwdriver. Once back on Broadway, Suzanne took Bitty's arm. "It's nice to see you, Dicky. It's been far too long."

"I know."

"Are you sure you're happy up here? I know the bakery is doing well, but are you doing well? It's so hard to tell with you."

"It's hard to know what you want to hear, Mama."

"I want to hear all of it. The good and the bad and the parts of your life that you feel like you need to hide from me. You are my only son and it's difficult to be home knowing you're so far away from me. I just want to know who you are." They paused at the light at Broadway and Knight. Bitty waited for the walk signal but Suzanne looked back at the bakery. From the corner of his eye, he could see her tilt her head back to look at the awning. "It really is a nice bakery," she said. 

"Thanks, Mama. It took a lot of work."

She held onto him from the intersection by the bakery to the tailor on Atwells, filling the walk with unnecessary chatter about home, their family, and the old buildings around them as they walked. The age of the buildings was the biggest difference between their part of Madison and this part of Providence.

"No one has a yard," she said. "Where do the kids play?"

"On the sidewalk or in the street if it's quiet," explained Bitty, but the suggestion earned a tsk from Suzanne.

"Do you want your kids playing in the street?"

"Mama, I just want to pay off my bank loan. No one's thinking about kids." Suzanne still hummed as if she'd proven her point. They turned onto Atwells and after a few blocks, Bitty opened the door to Mr. Sherrinford's shop.

"Just finished it up, Mr. Bittle," said Mr. Sherrinford before he disappeared into the back room. Suzanne raised her eyebrows and whispered Mister Bittle , but said nothing else. Mr. Sherrinford returned with the suit in a garment bag, which he brought to a dressing room. Bitty was disappointed by this; he wanted to get to the farmer's market and be done with his parents. He changed into everything apart from the bow tie, but when he stepped back onto the pedestal, Mr. Sherrinford asked him to put it on so he could ensure the shirt and jacket lay in the right place. As Bitty tied the bow tie, he caught a glimpse of his mother in the mirror, and to his surprise, she looked misty-eyed.

"You okay, Mama?"

"Oh, honey, you just look all grown up and handsome in that suit."

"Thank you," said Bitty, and he looked back at himself. He agreed; the suit had looked good on Tuesday, but now that Mr. Sherrinford had tailored it exactly to Bitty's body shape, it looked even better. He couldn't wait for Jack to see it and quickly realized he would need Jack to see it alone, rather than see it for the first time at the party in front of hundreds of friends.

"Do you approve?" Mr. Sherrinford asked.

"Yes, thank you, Mr. Sherrinford, this is perfect. Jack is going to lose his dang mind when he sees it," said Bitty, and Suzanne laughed, but Mr. Sherrinford did not and quickly removed his hand from Bitty's lapel, where he'd been straightening the seam. Bitty looked directly at him and the mood shifted perceptibly. It was clear from the first fitting that Jack had many suits made here, both for himself and others in the family, and until that moment, Mr. Sherrinford mistook Bitty for just another friend.

Bitty did not want to get into something with Mr. Sherrinford, not in a tailor shop with his mother present, but before he could step off the pedestal and return to the dressing room, Suzanne spoke again, her voice sharp: "Is there a problem, Mr. Sherrinford?"

Mr. Sherrinford looked at her and put on a fake customer service smile. "No ma'am. No problem at all."

"Good," she said. "Come on, Dicky, get changed and let's get out of here. I think I need a change of scenery."

Bitty pursed his lips to quell a smile. "Me too. My boyfriend will pay for the suit, Mr. Sherrinford. I'll make sure to tell him we came by today."

"Of course," said Mr. Sherrinford, who looked rather pale as Bitty returned to the dressing room. He and Suzanne left without another word, but Suzanne was not quiet for long.

"Well that was absolutely unnecessary," she said with a huff of indignation. Bitty looped his arm into hers and for the first time in years, he felt a warm, pleasant swell of emotion when he looked at her.

"Thank you."

She turned her head and kissed his shoulder. "You're welcome, sweetie. Now let's see this farmer's market. I want to buy at least seven ridiculous things."

Bitty laughed. "Okay, Mama."

Chapter Text

Suzanne and Coach did not leave for the casino until well after dinner, but as soon as they arrived, Bitty received several frantic texts:

     Mama
     Dicky this room is the size of our house!

     Mama
     You never said it was all inclusive!

     Mama
     We have a COUPLES MASSAGE?

     Mama
     AND YOUR DADDY HAS UNLIMITED ACCESS TO THE GOLF COURSE????

     Mama
     THIS IS TOO MUCH!

     Dicky
     Jack wanted to take care of you after you traveled so far. Please let him.

Suzanne's texts tapered off after this and Bitty was able to go to bed without any plans to see them before the party. 

The following day was busy at the bakery. Fortunately, Jack's resort package kept Suzanne and Coach busy too, so Bitty did not hear from them after he closed up shop and then jumped into the shower back at the duplex to get the scent of baked goods off him. He had been so excited to see Jack, and specifically Jack's reaction to his suit, that he'd forgotten he was about to enter a room filled with Jack's family and friends. There was no time to feel nervous about this, however, because as soon as he cuffed his sleeves, the doorbell rang. He jumped and ran to answer it, revealing a man in a suit.

"Are you ready, Mr. Bittle?"

"Yes, let's go. How far is the casino from here?"

"Only ten minutes," said the driver. "I'll alert Mr. Zimmermann that we're on the way."

"Thank you," said Bitty. The driver held open the door to an unmarked black SUV. As the driver said, it was just a short ride to the casino, and Bitty scrolled through his phone to distract himself. He remembered seeing signs for the casino on the drive down from Boston when he first moved to Providence, but never had a reason to go there. Despite it being twilight, the casino grounds were well lit. From what Jack had explained, the main tower contained the gambling floors and the hotel. The golf course had been there many years, but the spa was a recent addition. The lights were obnoxious when the driver pulled in front of the main entrance; when a valet opened it to let Bitty out, it didn't matter if it was day or night. All he could see was artificial light.

He only made it a few steps before a security guard in a suit approached him. "Mr. Bittle, if you follow me, I can take you to the elevator," he said. Bitty followed him up the wide concrete steps and through sliding glass doors. The lobby was extravagant, from the bubbling marble fountain to the dual staircases leading to the second floor poker rooms. Between the grand staircases were the elevators to the other gambling floors and the hotel. To the right was the entrance to the casino, but the structure of the large lobby, the classical music and the low chatter dulled out the sound of the nearby slot machines. To the left was the concierge desk with five employees working check-in. The security guard led Bitty in this direction, through a door marked Employees Only and to a single elevator, which he unlocked with a keycard. Bitty stepped inside and the guard pressed a button before he said, "Have a good evening, Mr. Bittle."

The doors shut and Bitty let out his breath. Two months with Jack had not lessened the awkwardness of this sort of treatment. Jack may have been used to it after twenty-eight years, but Bitty would rather drive his own car and press his own buttons. He rested against the back of the elevator, which was considerably less grandiose than he imagined the guest elevators to be: the walls a shiny silver metal, the floor carpeted just like the hallway had been. It was a welcome change and Bitty felt more comfortable here.

The bell dinged and the doors opened, but Bitty did not have time to take in his new surroundings because Jack waited just on the other side. Bitty caught a glimpse of gelled hair and blue eyes before he was pushed into the wall and kissed with the intensity of a man very pleased with Bitty's new suit.

Jack's arms enveloped him, holding him close, and they kissed over and over until Jack pulled away. "God, Bits, you look so sexy," he said, his eyes sweeping over what he could see. "This is exactly what I wanted."

"Happy birthday, Jack," said Bitty, and he gave Jack a short, sweet kiss. "I got you something."

Jack frowned. "I said no gifts."

"It's just a little something. Are we alone?"

Jack looked over his shoulder and pressed the STOP button on the control panel. Bitty gently pushed him away when he made to envelop Bitty again. "No, I haven't even gotten to look at you. I'm not the only one who looks good in a suit." Jack stepped back and Bitty looked him over; his suit was just as crisp as Bitty's, highlighting Jack's broad shoulders and trim waist. The button on Jack's jacket had come undone while they kissed so Bitty's eyes landed on his favorite part of a man in this attire — where Jack's white shirt met the waist of his pants. Bitty swallowed hard.

"You approve?" Jack asked.

"Yes I do," said Bitty. He stepped forward, placed both hands on Jack's chest, and stood on his toes to give Jack's nose a brief nuzzle before he pulled the white pocket square from Jack's jacket and then pulled out a white handkerchief. It wasn't much, but a corner had been embroidered with the words I love you — ERB . "It's for when you have to be fancy when you travel away from me."

"Thank you, Bitty," said Jack, and he let Bitty fold the handkerchief and place it in his pocket. Bitty gave him another kiss but as he did, Jack's original cloth square fell to the floor. Bitty knelt to pick it up, but before he stood, his eyes returned to the juncture of Jack's shirt and pants. He looked up.

"I have something else for you too," Bitty said. 

Jack grinned darkly. "I bet you do," he said and within moments his head clunked against the metal wall of the elevator as Bitty took him out of his trousers and began to suck on him, slow and steady.

Ten minutes later Bitty and Jack exited the elevator, Bitty wiping his mouth with the pocket square as they did. They'd entered a hallway, tucked out of the way but still decorated with expensive, plush carpeting and cream colored wallpaper. There in the hallway Bitty could hear the dinner music from inside the ballroom.

"Have you been in yet?" Bitty asked.

"No, I was waiting for you."

Bitty smiled and took Jack's proffered arm. "Do I look okay? I don't look like I've been sucking dick, have I?"

Jack laughed. "No. I don't look like I just had my dick sucked, do I?"

"You do look pretty happy, sweetpea."

Jack gently kissed him. "That's because of you." Bitty rolled his eyes but still flushed with emotion. Jack led him down the hallway and around the corner, where a more formally dressed security guard manned a set of double doors. The guard nodded but did not speak as he opened the door for them.

The ballroom went on forever, the entire width of the tower. From the entrance, Bitty could see an unoccupied dance floor and DJ booth, a five tiered cake fit for a wedding that looked expensive but not at all what Bitty would have made, but mostly hundreds of eyes all in his direction. Jack had said a thousand people would attend, and Bitty was prepared for a thousand people to be there, but this was not what he expected. He became very aware that he was still holding the soiled pocket square and quickly stowed it away before someone figured it out.

The guests began to applaud so Jack raised his hand to wave at them, and Bitty did as well. He was certain he'd met some of these people before, but as he scanned faces he recognized none of them until Alicia appeared, a camera around her neck. The camera clashed with her gorgeous blue floor length dress. Her dress matched the uplighting and the accents in the table centerpieces.

"Jack, honey, happy birthday," she said before she gave him a kiss against each cheek. She turned to Bitty and did the same. "Eric, dear, were your parents able to make it?"

"Yes, they should be here."

"I haven't finished my rounds yet — you'll have to introduce me before we've all had too much to drink."

"I'll make sure of it. If I find them, that is," Bitty said, and although Alicia laughed, Bitty wasn't entirely joking.

"Maman, you've outdone yourself. Save some of your ideas for my thirtieth," said Jack. He'd let go of Bitty and placed a hand on his mother's upper back.

"Oh, I've got plans for that already. Your wedding too, if you stop dragging your feet," Alicia said with a glance at Bitty. Bitty laughed nervously, his mind racing toward panic until Jack said Maman with the same sort of distress in his voice. Alicia put her hands up. "I'm just saying, honey. Anyway, I'll let you say hello, but you cannot leave until I get a few pictures."

Bitty looked past Alicia for the first time and noticed the line that had formed, dozens of guests waiting to wish Jack a happy birthday. The two of them were still standing by the door and did not move for close to an hour. Bitty recognized a few of the people as they stepped forward, but Jack knew everyone by name. Bitty smiled as Jack introduced him again and again as "Bitty, my boyfriend." It wasn't until a third cousin from Montreal and her family took their leave that Bitty cleared his throat, drawing Jack's attention. Jack placed his hand on Bitty's back. "You doing all right?" he asked, his lips at Bitty's temple.

"I'm just thirsty," said Bitty.

"We can take a break," he said and then waved at the next family in line, who tried not to look disappointed at the dismissal. "Let us settle in, but I'll come back in a minute. I want to hear all about that baseball camp you went to, Michael."

A young boy in a suit, no older than ten, nodded excitedly as Jack led Bitty away. "How do you know that kid went to baseball camp?" Bitty asked after Jack took two glasses of sangria from a server and handed one to Bitty.

"How do you make scones without looking at the recipe? This is my job."

As they walked deeper into the room, Bitty felt relieved to see Shitty and Lardo at the bar. Lardo turned and walked directly into Bitty's arms. "Oh my God, Lardo, I'm so happy you're here. Have you seen my parents yet?"

"No, but we just got here. I'm eyeing up the hors d'oeuvres, though, so snag me a tray if you see it go by."

"I am not stealing an entire tray for you."

"Bro, I'm starving," said Lardo.

"Same," said Shitty. "I'm one drink away from marching into the kitchen and grabbing it straight from the source."

Just as Shitty said this, a server walked by with shrimp. Shitty grabbed the entire tray directly out of her hands, causing her eyes to widen in alarm, but she did not verbally protest. She glanced at Shitty, and then at Jack, and simply set down her pile of napkins before she turned in the opposite direction and professionally fled. Shitty set the tray onto a table.

"Wait, Shits, before you eat a hundred shrimp, let's take a picture," said Lardo, and she removed her phone from the pocket of her dress.

Alicia appeared as if summoned by the word picture , and held up her camera. "Did you say you wanted a picture, Larissa?" she asked. "Get in there — don't stand with the bar behind you, let's get a better background."

Jack pulled Bitty toward the wall and placed an arm around him, Jack's hand settling just above Bitty's hip. Shitty devoured a shrimp before he and Lardo got into frame next to Jack. Alicia took several photos before she let Shitty and Lardo return to the table, but said, "Let me get a few of the two of you together."

"Just a few, Maman. Don't turn this into a photoshoot," said Jack, whose hand lowered from Bitty's hip to his ass as Bitty shifted closer. Bitty's smile widened when Jack gave him a little squeeze, but just as quickly as the photos began, Jack lost his smile altogether at the sight of an approaching guest.

"Well if it isn't Mister Jack Zimmermann, actually posing for photos. Never thought I'd see the day."

"Glad you could make it, Kenny," said Jack, who let go of Bitty to step forward and shake the hand of a slender blond man, not quite the height of Jack or Shitty, who had leapt to his feet at the table. 

"This your boy?" the man asked, with a nod toward Bitty. Jack turned back and extended an arm to wrap around Bitty again. There was no attempt to greet Bitty in any way, so Bitty did not attempt a handshake.

"This is my boyfriend, Bitty. Bits, this is Kent Parson from New York."

Bitty stiffened, which caused Jack to rub his back affectionately. Kent Parson wore a smug smile on his face and put both of his hands back in the pockets of his navy suit. He was not alone, but his companion looked more like a personal bodyguard than a friend. Kent did not introduce him, so neither Jack nor Bitty acknowledged him.

"Kenny," said Alicia, who opened her arms for a hug. Kent immediately embraced her and planted a kiss against her cheek. "I'm so glad you could come."

"Thank you for the invite, Mrs. Z. You look good."

Despite both Alicia and Jack's words, no one really seemed happy that Kent was there. Jack's hand on Bitty's back was firm and possessive and Shitty had abandoned the hors d'oeuvres to take his position on Jack's other side. When Alicia and Kent separated, Bitty could see how superficial their warm greeting had been as they stepped far away from each other but continued to converse.

"C'mon, we should find your parents," whispered Jack, his lips against Bitty's temple. Bitty nodded, eager to get away. As they left, Shitty moved closer to Alicia, poised to step in if necessary and providing a visual block between Kent and Lardo.

"Is he the boss in New York?" Bitty asked quietly. Jack nodded. "Why is he here?"

"My mother invited him."

"Do you know him well enough for him to be here?"

"Yes," said Jack, but he did not elaborate. They continued deeper into the rows of tables and guests and found Bitty's parents after only a few hugs and hellos from others. 

"Mama, there you are!" said Bitty. Suzanne and Coach were seated a table and Bitty was relieved that Coach was wearing a suit rather than jeans. Suzanne immediately stood and after an elbow to the shoulder, Coach also stood, although his eyes preferred the plate of food he'd acquired.

"Honey, look at you! Oh, Jack, it's wonderful to meet you. I'm Suzanne and this is my husband Rick."

"Nice to finally meet the both of you," said Jack, and he politely shook their hands. Suzanne had plastered a giant smile on her face, one built to impress rather than an expression of genuine emotion.

"You've been entirely too kind to us, Jack," Suzanne continued. "I know Dicky said you own the casino, but you didn't need to give us such a good room and fill up our schedule with all these extras."

"It's the least I could do after you traveled all this way," said Jack. "Mr. Bittle, have you gotten on the course yet? I requested they clear a tee time whenever you could go."

"Tomorrow," said Coach. "I had a look out there today. It's a good course."

"The back nine is a challenge but it's worth playing through."

"You should show me the ropes if you're not tied up all weekend."

Jack's smile did not flicker a bit. "They've got me scheduled every second of it, unfortunately. Having a birthday is a lot of work around here. I'm sure we can arrange it the next time you visit."

"I'll hold you to it."

Suzanne stepped in front of her husband, who happily returned to his food. "The casino is gorgeous. Did you build it or has it been in your family for a while?"

"No, it's been in the family for at least a century. We've done some upgrades since I've been in charge — built the spa and invested in world class dining, to start. You had the chance to visit the spa, haven't you?"

"Yes, thank you."

"Great. I'm really pleased that you could come up. I've got to make the rounds but Bits, you can catch up with your parents, make sure they get enough to eat. You should definitely meet my mother."

"I'd love to meet your mother. Alicia, right?" Suzanne asked.

"Yes. I know she wants to meet you," said Jack. He shook Coach's hand again and gave Suzanne a hug before he excused himself, leaving Bitty with a kiss to the temple. Suzanne watched him leave before she looked at Bitty again.

"Well he's dreamy, isn't he?" she asked and Bitty laughed because he agreed. "You can tell the family's owned this casino for a century. They seem much more comfortable here than I do." Suzanne gestured at their surroundings; the room seemed bigger from the center of it. He could see more activity from here as well, including the dozens of servers with drinks and food trays, guests mingling with each other, children fidgeting with their formalwear, and most importantly, Jack and Shitty leaving the room with Kent Parson and his bodyguard. Marty, Thirdy, and Tater were all just a few paces behind. Bitty pursed his lips together at the sight of it.

"Did you get enough to eat?" he asked his parents, in an effort to distract himself.

"We had dinner at one of the restaurants downstairs, but it looks like they've got plenty of food here too. The sangria is amazing," said Suzanne.

Bitty looked at the cocktail in his hand; he'd barely had any of it and his appetite for it was now gone. "Yeah, it is," he passively agreed. "I'm going to get Alicia so you can meet her. Stay here or I'll never find you again."

"Okay, sweetie," said Suzanne. She sat at the table next to Coach and picked a wonton from his plate. Bitty found Alicia back near the bar where Lardo had been devouring the shrimp Shitty left behind. Alicia gave him a smile as he approached.

"Did you find your parents?" she asked.

"Yeah, they're a few rows back that way. Where's Jack?"

Alicia continued to smile. "He had to step out."

"With Kent Parson?" Bitty asked. Alicia placed her hand on Bitty's arm as if to calm him, but it didn't help. "Why is he meeting with the New York boss now?"

"Eric," said Alicia in a low voice. "I thought you wanted to stay out of this."

"I do! It's just… it's his birthday."

"It's a good sign that Kenny agreed to come up here for this. Let them have their meeting. You can introduce me to your parents."

Suzanne was beside herself with happiness to meet Alicia, and the two of them sat and chatted for fifteen minutes while Bitty and Coach sat silently by. Several times during the conversation Bitty looked at his father, but it took multiple attempts before Coach looked back. When he did, he cleared his throat roughly and rubbed the back of his neck.

"They do this sort of thing often?" Coach asked, gesturing half-heartedly with a cocktail skewer.

"No," said Bitty. "A birthday's sort of a big deal."

"Yeah, I guess. Your fella seems nice. Real good of him to put us up."

"He wants you to like him."

"Think I do," said Coach.

"Really? I didn't think you would."

"Why not? You like him, so I suppose that's all that matters."

Bitty blinked rapidly to control an onslaught of emotion that welled into his eyes. "I suppose it does," he said. "Thanks for coming, Dad."

"Thank you for letting me."

Bitty nodded and then felt a hand on his shoulder. He looked back to see Jack. "Oh, hi sweetie."

"You want to dance with me?"

Jack thumbed over to the dance floor near the door where they'd originally entered the ballroom. The DJ had kept to dinner music, and this was no exception, but a few of the older couples swayed together to Nat King Cole.

"Yeah?" Bitty asked, a smile working its way onto his face.

"Yeah. Come dance."

Jack pulled him by the hand and led him through the rows to the polished wooden floor, where he wrapped one arm around Bitty's waist beneath his jacket to draw their bodies close, and then connected their other hands. Bitty was overwhelmed with all of him; there was still the matter of Jack's exceptional suit, but his wistful expression and soft hands made Bitty forget that Jack had just sneaked away for business.

"You know I used to dread these parties every year," Jack said.

"Why?"

"My mother has been doing this since I was a kid. Made a big deal of thirteen, sixteen, eighteen… at least when I was in Montreal I got out of it, but as soon as I took over she started up again. There are so many people in one room and everyone wants something — a meeting, a favor, time for a story or just a hello. It was never fun for me, it was a night of schmoozing rather than celebrating."

"So what's different now?"

"You," Jack said, and they stopped swaying so Jack could rest his forehead against Bitty's, their eyes closed, the chatter of a thousand friends and family members fading to Nat King Cole singing about how completely he loved.

They rested together until the song ended and Bitty opened his eyes. Alicia had sneaked up to them with her camera. Suzanne and Coach stood just off the floor, Suzanne with her hand at her chest. They were just background, though, just unimportant periphery to Jack's fond eyes.

"I love you," Jack said.

"I love you too, Jack. Happy birthday."

Jack smiled and the rest of the world disappeared. 

Chapter Text

Jack and Bitty were able to greet every guest by midnight, many of whom were delighted with a moment of small talk or a hug. Having finally reached the far corner of the room, Jack turned to Bitty. "Are you ready to go?"

"We never had cake," Bitty said.

"Do you want to go all the way back over there and get a slice of cake just so you can say you would have done it better?"

Bitty looked across the expanse of the ballroom. The cake had been taken back to the kitchen to be cut, and while there were servers still navigating the room with slices on a tray, none of them were close. Even as Bitty looked, guests realized he and Jack were free and began to walk over. Bitty did actually want a moment to gloat about the quality of the cake, but Jack was right; if they attempted to get some, they'd end up staying for another hour.

"No, let's go," he said, so Jack quickly led him to the nearest door and back into the hallway. "I get why you say you dread this every year. I love talking but even I'm exhausted. How far away is your place from here?"

"I got us a room," said Jack.

"You are wonderful."

They rode the service elevator to the penthouse floor. Jack opened the door to possibly the most unnecessarily extravagant hotel room Bitty had ever seen. His parents must have been placed in a similar room because this was indeed the size of his childhood home back in Madison.

"Jack, you know I'm opening the bakery tomorrow, right?" Bitty asked as he looked at the lush furniture in front of a lit fireplace and wall mounted television. Beyond the seating area was a dining room table, and beyond that a kitchen. He did not want to look at the kitchen because looking meant he would want to make something, and he was very tired.

"I know," said Jack. "I have early meetings too, but it's my casino so I want the best room in it."

"You're ridiculous," said Bitty. "Where even is the bedroom?"

Jack took Bitty's hand and led him to the left, where Jack opened a door to the bedroom. It had its own balcony, which would have been nice to explore if Bitty did not need to be at the bakery in less than five hours. Instead of fretting over rich details, he stepped up to the bed and kicked off his shoes.

"Wait," said Jack, who placed his hands on Bitty's hips and turned him. "Before you take it off, let me look at you one more time." Bitty smiled and let Jack look his fill. Jack took him in, styled hair, bow tie, buttoned jacket, and then nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, you look good." Jack proceeded to only kiss him once before he stepped away and began to remove his own bow tie. Bitty removed everything and got into the wide, soft bed. Jack barely got in a good night before Bitty fell asleep.

He woke abruptly and looked at the time. It was just after three. Relieved that he didn't need to be awake yet, he turned to snuggle with Jack. Jack was not there, and his side of the bed was still made. Bitty sat up and spotted him immediately on the balcony, sitting on one of the patio chairs, looking into the distance.

The bed was warm but useless without Jack in it, so Bitty left and hurried to the balcony. It was warm there as well, so he closed the door on the air conditioning. Jack looked over and his fatigued, empty expression turned to amusement at the sight of Bitty with nothing on. Jack still wore everything apart from his tie, including his shoes.

"Not sure if I like this or the suit better," he said and reached out his hand for Bitty to come closer. Bitty stopped next to the chair. Jack began to softly caress the back of his thighs.

"Why are you still awake?"

"I'm just thinking."

"About Kent Parson? What was your meeting about?"

Jack looked up and sat low in his chair, resting his head on the back of it. His fingers continued to trail over Bitty's skin. "You weren't supposed to know that happened."

"I saw you leave."

"Do you want to hear it?"

"If you murdered Kent Parson in the casino tonight, leave me out of it. I just want to know what's got you so worked up you never came to bed."

Jack sighed; his fingers stilled but he didn't remove them from Bitty's thigh. "It's a lot of things. My mother invited him at my request. We asked him to surrender and he did not take very well to that idea."

"So you're still at war?"

"Yes, for now. It won't take much longer, but I don't want to have to ruin him. He may be standing in the way of what I want, but…"

Bitty looked at the conflict on Jack's face and it did not take much to figure out why. "Kent was your boyfriend, wasn't he?"

"Yes."

"How the heck did that happen?"

"We met when we were both seventeen during a visit between our fathers. It was summer so we kept finding excuses to travel to see each other. It wasn't very long before my father figured it out, though."

"I can't imagine that he was okay with you dating his rival's son."

"He actually kind of was. It was a surprise, yes, but after he scolded me for sneaking around he started saying it was a good thing, that we could finally just merge the territories instead of fight over them."

"Oh God, like you're royalty or something? How come the two of you didn't get married and live happily ever after?"

"Parse's father wasn't as keen on the idea. He reacted more like we thought he would, but he was killed before he could excommunicate Parse from the family. Kenny took over New York and I… I had to go away."

"Why did you have to go away?"

Jack gestured for him so Bitty sat in Jack's lap, who held him tightly. It was very nice on the balcony and Bitty had no problem sitting there naked, but Jack started shaking as if the temperature dropped thirty degrees. Jack put his face in Bitty's neck and Bitty rubbed his back, waiting for Jack to begin.

"I've always known I would need to take over the family someday. I knew there would come a time when my father would be killed, arrested, or old enough to retire. It was never a secret, but then it happened to Parse and I realized just how ill-prepared I was. It could happen at any time, and best case scenario would be a situation where my father was still alive. Parse had to take over with nothing and that frightened me. I've always had a problem with anxiety, but it got so much worse after Parse took over. I'd been on medication for a while, and then one night after I'd seen him, and he was telling me how scared he was…"

Jack took in a harsh, rattled breath and hugged Bitty hard. "I took too much. It wasn't on purpose, but I did it and I almost died. My parents sent me to live with Aunt Rosaline until I could put my head on straight again."

"Jack, sweetie…"

"Do you still love me?" Jack whispered, his voice so small Bitty could barely hear him despite their proximity. Bitty quickly tightened his grip on Jack.

"Of course I do," he said. "I love you. You said it; it didn't happen on purpose."

"It still happened."

"Sweetie, I refuse to blame you for being a frightened kid."

Jack raised his head and touched his lips to Bitty's neck. "Thank you," he said. Bitty let Jack hold him, neither of them speaking, until his shaking subsided.

"Have you seen Kent since then?"

"No, not since then. It's brought up a lot of old memories and I'm having a hard time shutting my brain off."

Bitty shifted in the chair so he straddled Jack's legs. Jack held him loosely at the waist while Bitty placed his arms around Jack's neck. Bitty leaned in. "Maybe I could help?"

It was satisfying to see Jack grin. "Maybe."

Bitty took hold of each of Jack's hands in his and lowered them to his backside while he planted a long, sultry kiss on Jack's lips. Jack squeezed each of Bitty's cheeks and Bitty pulled back.

"You didn't happen to bring any condoms with you, did you?"

The corner of Jack's mouth ticked up. "I did. Just in case."

"Do you want me?"

Jack emitted a low growl; whatever distress he'd felt in admitting his past was now gone and he looked at Bitty with unbridled want. "Are you sure?" he asked.

Bitty nodded. "Yes," he said. Jack secured his hands under Bitty before he abruptly stood. Bitty threw his arms around Jack's neck and held on tight. Jack looked in his eyes the whole way inside, breaking the contact only to open the door, and then threw Bitty onto the bed.

Bitty laughed at Jack's eagerness until Jack knelt at the edge of the bed, pushed Bitty's legs back, and gave Bitty a kiss directly onto his hole. "Oh God — oh my God!" Bitty said at full volume. Jack's eyes sparkled as he smiled and kept going. Bitty reached down to grab a fistful of Jack's hair, but he couldn't say or do anything else. Jack continued to lick him open until the pleasure was too much.

"Jack, Jack stop. I'm going to come."

Jack let go and sat back, then began to remove his clothing while Bitty panted hard. The absence of Jack improved his situation, but the memory of Jack's mouth threatened to push Bitty over the edge. Jack undressed quickly and fetched both a condom and a travel-sized bottle of lube from an overnight bag Bitty had not seen on the dresser. Jack lubed up his fingers and knelt onto the foot of the bed. He placed one hand on Bitty's side, drawing Bitty's attention, and placed the other between Bitty's legs.

"You okay?" Jack asked as he gently prodded Bitty with one finger.

"You did not tell me it would feel that good," Bitty said.

Jack laughed. "I meant my fingers, but I'll accept that as a yes."

"Yes," said Bitty, and now that Jack drew his attention there, Bitty tensed when Jack placed two fingers inside of him.

"Relax, babe," said Jack, who leaned in for a kiss. Bitty kissed him back, and it felt more pleasurable as Jack continued to distract him. After just a minute of this, Jack let go and looked him in his eyes. "You ready for me?"

"Yeah," said Bitty with a nod.

Jack sat up and reached for the condom. He ripped the package open with his teeth before he removed it and rolled it on. Bitty let out a long breath while Jack maneuvered between his legs and pressed the tip of his cock against Bitty's entrance. Bitty breathed again and Jack pushed in, but paused at Bitty's tension.

"You okay?"

"Yeah, yeah. Keep going."

Jack did, slowly and carefully, and then as he stopped, full seated, Bitty felt tears in his eyes. Jack knelt in front of him, his expression both full of concern and hidden pleasure, but this was still his Jack — Jack, who'd been frightened that a mistake he'd made as a kid would take away Bitty's love, as if anything could do that at this point. This felt like a final step in cementing what they'd been building toward since they'd first met. Bitty had been so nervous, but with Jack inside of him, all he could feel was pure, all encompassing love.

"What?" Jack murmured when Bitty wiped a tear from his eye.

"I'm sorry. I just really love you."

Jack separated Bitty's legs further so he could lean in, press their bodies flush together, and kiss Bitty. As they kissed, Jack began to move; the feeling was intense but so were Bitty's emotions. He breathed through it, responding to Jack the best he could, and the initial shock and heightened feelings began to make way to pleasure. Jack thrust in earnest, his breath picking up, and they had to stop kissing as they focused on their connected bodies. Jack began to emit low moans, but the first time Bitty did, he looked up.

"You good?" Jack asked.

"Unh, yes," said Bitty. Jack propped himself up on his elbows, both to put space between their bodies and for leverage to thrust harder. Bitty took advantage of the distance to reach between them and take hold of himself. He began to pull himself off, and his hand combined with Jack's thrusts pushed him to orgasm.

Jack paused when Bitty came, his eyes traveling over Bitty, watching Bitty as his orgasm tapered off, all with a pleased smile on his face. "You are so gorgeous," Jack said when Bitty caught him looking.

"So are you, honey," Bitty said, although still breathless. He relaxed completely, his hands splayed out to the side, and watched as Jack sat up, placed his hands on Bitty's thighs, and continued. Bitty was exhausted so he watched passively as Jack sought pleasure inside of him, and willed himself not to cry at the beauty of it. Jack only lasted another minute or so and lay back atop Bitty, holding their bodies close, until he came as well.

When Jack relaxed and let out his breath, Bitty said, "We should always do this face-to-face."

Jack kissed him. "Agreed," he said, and then he carefully pulled out, got off the bed, and trotted to the bathroom. Bitty adjusted the covers, pulling them down on Jack's side and crawling beneath them on his own. When Jack returned, he entered on his side but snuggled up close to Bitty. Bitty, ready to go back to sleep himself, waited for Jack to drift off first, and then closed his eyes.

 

***

 

Bitty only slept another hour before his phone alarm woke him. He quickly shut it off and sat up. Jack's eyes were open but he was frowning. Bitty didn't want to leave; they'd revealed a lot the night before and should enjoy their morning in a fancy hotel room discussing it, but he hadn't asked Nursey to open and couldn't pin that task on him last minute.

Bitty turned to leave but Jack made a half-hearted grab for his hand and whined, "No, stay."

"I'm sorry, sweetie. I'll see you on your run?"

Jack's frown deepened. "I'll wave, but I have a meeting so I can't stop in."

"Tonight, then. I'll come by after close?"

Jack nodded and turned to the nightstand for his phone. He sent a text as Bitty put his clothes back on. "There's a car downstairs waiting for you," Jack said a moment later.

"Thank you, sweetie." Bitty buttoned his shirt and then kissed Jack, who kissed him sweetly back with a murmur of I love you before he shut his eyes. Bitty hurried the rest of his clothes on and then made his way downstairs. It was already four-thirty and he desperately needed a shower. 

Despite the ride and his thorough bath at home, Bitty still arrived first at the bakery. After he'd turned on the lights, the back door opened again. He turned and smiled; it was Nursey and Dex. 

"Hi boys," said Bitty.

"Aw, man, I definitely thought you'd skip out on opening today, boss," said Nursey.

"And leave my best boys on their own? No way!"

The three of them made the morning pastries and filled the low inventory. Farmer arrived in time to help stock the display cases. The overindulgence on blackberry sangria and the lack of sleep was starting to catch up with Bitty just as the doors opened at six-thirty. He found himself yawning as he pulled the chain to turn on the open sign. There was one waiting customer.

"Good morning, Mr. Sanborn," said Bitty to Gary Sanborn, the owner of the gas station two blocks away.

"Good morning, Bitty," said Mr. Sanborn. "Late night?"

"You could say that," said Bitty. "Come on in. Biscotti?"

"You know it."

Farmer had a mug and a piece of biscotti on a plate before they reached the counter. Just as Mr. Sanborn took his usual seat at the counter on the west window, the Saturday morning rush began to file in. There was no time to be exhausted as the line hit the door. Bitty grabbed orders while Farmer worked the register. The line was never-ending, and as the clock hit seven, Bitty switched with Farmer so he could keep an eye on the street for Jack, who would be running by in the next fifteen minutes.

Bitty handed Veronica a danish in a sleeve, said goodbye, and looked up to take the next order when his heart fell in his chest. "Farmer," he said quickly. He opened the register and handed her a twenty dollar bill. "Can you go to the safe and get me some singles? We're almost out."

"Sure," said Farmer and she darted into the kitchen. 

Bitty looked up again. "Good morning, Mr. Parson," he said.

Kent wore the same smarmy smile he employed the night before when he caught Jack and Bitty in the middle of their impromptu photoshoot. He looked just as relaxed as the night before, even though he was in a full suit at seven o'clock in the morning. As soon as Bitty said his name, the line that had been ten people deep suddenly thinned out. The bell rang again and again. Customers who usually lingered to enjoy a second cup of coffee got up to leave halfway through their first. Bitty was furious; Kent Parson was costing him business.

"Good morning," said Kent. "I heard you had a bakery and I had to come see for myself. Looks successful." He looked around at the mostly-empty dining room. "Well. It looked successful."

"It is. Is there something I can get you?"

Kent glanced at the case. "No thanks. Not really a pastry guy."

"Would you like a cup of coffee?"

"How long have you and Jack been together?"

Bitty's eyes narrowed. Farmer opened the door, twenty singles in her hand, and Bitty looked over. She was staring at the dining room, which was now empty apart from Kent and his goon at the door. Bitty shook his head, so Farmer retreated back into the kitchen.

"Why?" Bitty asked, looking back at Kent.

"You're feisty."

"And I thought you'd be back in New York by now."

"We're on our way. Listen, Jack said some not nice things last night and I need you to give him a message for me."

"Me?" Bitty asked. "If you've really known him as long as you have, I'm sure you could find him if you really needed to."

Kent laughed and swiped his hands through his hair, golden curls falling over his forehead and drawing attention to his eyes.

"Tell him that I'm not giving in. He may have the other boroughs but I still have Manhattan and I still have Jersey. I still have the city on my side and I'm not afraid to play dirty. Ask him if he remembers what I did to Anthony."

Bitty didn't remember ever meeting someone named Anthony, but he had a very good idea who he was and how he died.

"Anything else? Do you have a mix CD you want him to have too?"

"Hmph," laughed Kent. He turned and nodded to his goon at the door. The goon approached the coffee station, grabbed one of the urns, and chucked it into the display case. Bitty let out a yell as the glass of the case shattered, the shelves caved in and coffee burst all over the pastries.

"See you later," said Kent before he and his goon left. Bitty, one hand over his mouth, watched them exit the bakery and turn to the left. He didn't move until they were out of sight, then he looked at his display case with tears in his eyes. The glass was everywhere.

The kitchen door opened. Farmer, Dex, and Nursey huddled on the other side, looking over the mess. "What the hell happened?" Dex asked.

"Kent Parson," said Bitty and he looked directly at Nursey as he did so. 

Nursey nodded. "We'll help you clean up. You should lock the door." Nursey grabbed the coffee urn, Farmer began to pick out the largest glass pieces, and Dex pulled out the trays. Bitty headed to the door, and as he did, Jack began to run by. Unlike his previous runs, Guy was directly behind him, and now both Poots and Snowy were within arm's reach as well. Bitty quickly looked to the case; now that the urn was gone, it was difficult, from this distance, to notice that anything was wrong. He didn't want Jack to come in and see the mess Kent had made. He needed to wrap his head around what had just happened and then present it to Jack in a way that would prevent a murder.

As promised, Jack simply waved and blew a kiss before he moved on. Poots looked over and also waved. Bitty waved back, plastering a smile on his face. They had the light so they crossed Broadway without stopping. Bitty turned off the open sign and locked the door. Farmer approached with a piece of paper and a note written on it which she then taped to the door, and then they both returned to the case to help clear the damage. 

Bitty had just reached the case when three loud cracks drew his attention from up Knight Street, followed by a squeal of tires and several car horns. 

"Jack," he whispered.

Chapter Text

"JACK!"

Bitty ran to the door, but since he had locked it, it refused to open with his desperate tug on the handle. Before he could turn the deadbolt, Nursey came up behind him and lifted him bodily away from the entrance and back toward the dining area.

"LET ME GO!" Bitty yelled.

"No, Bitty, it's not safe. Parse is still out there."

"I DON'T CARE! LET ME GO!"

As Bitty struggled against Nursey's surprisingly strong grip, Snowy appeared on the north side of Broadway. Bitty stopped flailing and watched as Snowy ran at full speed against the light. Car horns blared again as he crossed without hesitation toward the bakery. When he reached the curb, Nursey let go enough to allow Bitty to unlock the door.

Snowy did not look at Bitty as he entered and instead spoke directly to Nursey. "Is this your car out front?"

"Yes," said Nursey.

"Is Jack okay?" Bitty asked, hearing the own shrill desperation in his voice. Nursey threw his keys over.

"We're leaving," said Snowy. "Everyone needs to go home immediately. Lock all the doors." Snowy left just as quickly as he entered. Bitty ran after him.

"Where's Jack?" Bitty demanded, louder, but Snowy unlocked the car parked in front of the bakery. Nursey grabbed Bitty by the arms and directed him to the car. "Snowy, answer me! Where is Jack?"

"Not on the street. Get in the car," Snowy ordered. Bitty fought back as Nursey wrestled him into the vehicle. Nursey, being larger and stronger, won the fight. Nursey slid in beside him and Snowy got behind the wheel. As soon as both doors closed, Snowy peeled into the intersection.

It was sweltering in the car, as if it had been in the sun for several days. Bitty's rage only made the heat worse. It felt like he was suffocating, and as he repeated his demand for updates, no one listened. The windows remained sealed and Nursey held him with both hands, as if Bitty would open the door and roll out into traffic if released. Their sudden departure confirmed Bitty's fears that the gunshots were meant for Jack.

"Please," said Bitty, and the tears poured out of his eyes like the sweat that trickled from his pounding head. "Please, tell me something. I'm not going anywhere, just tell me he isn't dead."

Snowy pulled onto the highway and relaxed, just a little, now that they were out of the neighborhood. He turned the air conditioning on and then looked through the rear view mirror into the back seat for the first time. Bitty's vision blurred at the sight of his dark blue eyes and the regretful concern that lay there.

"I don't know," Snowy said and Bitty felt his face tighten into a grimace. "I was ordered to run and get you to safety. You are my number one priority."

"But Jack —"

"Jack has Poots and Guy with him and people ready all over the neighborhood to tend to him if he is hurt. We'll hear details after we figure out what happened here."

"It was Parse," said Bitty. With the temperature regulated, he had room for emotion rather than sweat, and in that moment in the back of the car, he wanted to find Kent Parson and remove his existence from the planet. 

Snowy's eyes flickered to Nursey through the mirror.

"It had to be," confirmed Nursey. "He came to the bakery, he made threats, and he destroyed the display case. As soon as he and Carl left, a car zoomed up Knight Street and then the shots fired. They had to come from that car. Knight turns one way at the intersection and it went through anyway."

"Was anyone at the bakery injured?" asked Snowy.

"No," said Nursey.

"What about last night? Were any of Parse's people in the vicinity?"

"Parse and Carl walked by Bitty's duplex around one o'clock and then again at four. Bitty was with Jack all night."

"Are you watching my place?" Bitty asked Nursey, his thoughts spiraling: Jack had been shot, or at least shot at; someone needed to pay for the attempt on Jack's life; Kent stalked him through the night and then damaged the bakery; Nursey had been keeping surveillance on him; Jack could be dead.

Nursey did not answer but he did grab the seatbelt next to Bitty's shoulder and buckled him in before he looked at Snowy in the driver's seat again. "I've seen Carl in the neighborhood before, but always alone. I've seen him a few times since the war began. He kept quiet but he's been here consistently."

"Has he been to the house or the bakery before?" Snowy asked.

"I've seen him in the bakery at least once, but never at Bitty's house or within range of the condo."

"Okay stop it. Stop it," said Bitty. "I know I'm not your boss but you can't talk like this in front of me like I'm not here. Nursey, do you work for them?"

Nursey looked at Snowy first before he looked at Bitty. "Of course I do," he said with a casual shrug of resignation.

Bitty couldn't be surprised by this, not from Nursey's positive attitude toward the family and his intimate knowledge of their history and membership, but it wasn't a comfort. "I'm guessing you didn't ask for extra shifts at the bakery because you're saving for school," Bitty said.

"Nah, man. My job is you."

"And Jack assigned you to me? Was this before or after we started dating?"

"After," said Nursey. "Shitty and I caught up at your place; he asked me to help. We knew each other at Andover."

Bitty let out a long breath and leaned forward, his head in his hands. His head was no longer throbbing it was cooler in the car, but he still couldn't stop his thoughts. He could see Jack in his workout clothes, bleeding out on the sidewalk. Bitty had taken advantage of Jack's predictability and used it to fall in love; Kent used it to gun him down.

"And you didn't see anything, Snowy? You just turned and ran for me?" Bitty asked.

"Yes," said Snowy.

"Are you lying to me?"

Snowy didn't answer. Bitty sat back and took his phone out of his pocket. There was nothing from Jack, not like he really expected a text, but there was a message from his mother.

     Mama
     We had such a great time last night! Are you working all day or can you join your Daddy and me for lunch?

A chill ran down his spine as he looked at the text. It was only a few minutes old, but he didn't know how far Kent's reach went or where they'd gone after shooting at Jack. He knew how he would react if something happened to his parents, and he felt afraid of how viscerally and violently he could feel it. 

"Who's watching my parents?" Bitty asked.

"They're at the casino. They're fine," said Nursey.

"What if they leave? What if someone from New York is there waiting for them?  We have to put people on them."

"I'll get someone on them," said Snowy. "Nurse is right. They're protected at the casino."

Bitty couldn't reply to his mother's text yet, but he grew antsy as he thought of a way to respond. It was clear the moment Snowy turned onto the highway that they were headed to the family home, but even above the speed limit it was still a twenty minute drive. Bitty cycled through fear, worry, and anger as the three sat in silence the rest of the way, nothing but the rush of air conditioning and the whir of tires to accompany them.

Alicia met them at the front door when they arrived, dressed in expensive silk pajamas and a matching robe. "You're the first here. What's happened? I was told gunshots."

"I don't know much more," said Snowy. "We suspect Parse."

"Of course it's Kenny. Where the hell is my son?" snapped Alicia, but she quickly corrected her attitude with a quick press of her hands to her temples. "I'm sorry; I'm very worried. Come in, I'll put coffee on."

Alicia served them each a cup of coffee in the kitchen. Bitty wanted to empathize with her, but her worry only increased his. He excused himself and headed out of the kitchen, but Nursey followed.

"You don't need to follow me here too, Derek," said Bitty when Nursey entered the hallway that led to the stairs.

Nursey pursed his lips but then quietly said, "I'm sorry. I do."

Bitty groaned. "Fine," he said through his teeth. He and Nursey walked upstairs. Bitty entered Jack's room and shut the door behind him before Nursey could follow him inside. He stared at the door, ready to twist the thumb turn if Nursey attempted to enter. Nursey did not, so Bitty set his mug onto Jack's desk before he climbed into the bed and shut his eyes.

Shutting his eyes was a bad idea. The images he could see of Jack were clearer. He opened his eyes and instead looked around the room. He had yet to spend time in it while Jack was present, and thus the history of the displayed items remained unknown. Before he and Jack began dating, Jack spent every Saturday night here, so it had to have some significance to it all rather than just what his mother chose to display. It worried Bitty that he would never know, that this would be it, and that the only person he'd ever loved would be gone with a smile and a wave as he ran by.

At some point, Bitty's worries gave way to his weariness and he fell asleep. He didn't dream but it felt like one, until the door burst open and in came Jack, looking mostly normal apart from bruising and stitches underneath his chin.

"Jack, oh my God, are you okay?" Bitty asked as he scrambled out of the bed. He approached but didn't touch Jack.

"I'm fine. I wasn't hit. Guy tackled me when the shots fired and I split my chin on the pavement."

"Oh thank God," said Bitty and he threw his arms around Jack, who held him tightly in return. "I was so worried. Snowy said he didn't see what happened and I'm pretty sure he was lying, but no one would tell me anything and I was so scared, Jack. I was so scared that was it."

"That was my fault," said Jack. "I told them not to say anything in front of you, but I meant business, not something like this. I'm sorry you worried. Are you okay?"

"I'm fine, sweetie," said Bitty. He backed away to look at Jack's chin. It was horrendously purple with five stitches keeping together a split just beneath his chin on the right side. "This looks painful."

"It's not bad. They numbed it up pretty well so I imagine it'll hurt worse later. Are you okay staying here a while? I called a meeting to figure out what happened."

"It was Parse," said Bitty.

Jack stepped out of Bitty's arms and turned toward the door. "I don't doubt that, but we need to make sure —"

"No, Jack, it was Parse. He came into the bakery this morning."

Jack paused, his hand outstretched for the doorknob, and slowly looked back. The effect was eerie; Jack transformed from boyfriend to mob boss with a set of his jaw and fire in his eyes. If Bitty wasn't certain the anger was directed elsewhere, he would have been afraid.

"He came to the bakery?" Jack asked, and his voice oozed a quiet anger that hinted at something ferocious beneath the surface.

"He did. He wanted me to give you a message."

Jack stepped closer. "A message?" he asked.

"He said he's not afraid to play dirty. He mentioned someone named Anthony and then his bodyguard threw a coffee urn into my display case."

"Were you hurt?" Jack immediately asked and he scanned Bitty's body for signs of injury.

"No. The case is ruined and we'll have to close until it's fixed, but —"

Jack placed his hands on Bitty's arms. "You're closing the bakery until this is over. You'll stay with me. I want you under my roof until I know for sure that Parse is no longer a threat, even if I have to kill him myself."

"Jack," said Bitty firmly. "The bakery is how I make a living. I can't just close it because you're worried that someone might hurt me."

"Someone just tried to kill me, and it sounds like the same someone who just threatened you. He knows where you work, he knows where you live. It's not safe for you or your employees. I'll finish this in a matter of weeks, but until then I need to know that you're safe. I can't end a war and worry about you at the same time."

"It's not just that easy, Jack! I have bills and employees —"

"I'll take care of it. Just… please. Please stay where I know you're okay."

Bitty sighed. "Fine." 

Jack pulled him in for a desperate kiss before he turned to leave. Bitty followed but Jack stopped him. "Bits, I'm going downstairs to talk business." 

"I know. I'm coming with you."

"You said you wanted to stay out of this. You specifically requested it."

"That was before someone tried to kill you. You're not the only one who can make demands here, Jack. My parents are in town. They could have been in the bakery when he came in."

"Your parents are being watched. My mother already invited them to lunch. They'll be safe here until their flight home."

"I've just spent the morning thinking you were dead, Jack. I'm not letting you out of my sight!"

Jack stared at Bitty; his rage had lessened now but he still looked furious. Bitty stared back, and eventually Jack shifted his weight to one side. "Fine," he said, "but this is what you want, so you need to be prepared for what you'll hear. I am not letting him get away with this unpunished. Someone will die as a result."

Bitty took in a sharp breath but then nodded. "I know," he said. "Will it be Parse?"

"It should be. I should kill him myself for threatening you. He'll be expecting this, though, and will be too well guarded. It will probably be the one who fired the shots."

"Good," said Bitty.

"Good?" repeated Jack. "Think this through. What will you think tomorrow when your parents are back in Georgia and we're together? Whoever this is, he has a life, a family, goals and plans. Are you ready to rob him of that because you're angry?"

Bitty blinked back tears; it was easy to blame the unknown person. Even with Jack's warning, it wasn't difficult to pull the trigger. "Jack, he almost robbed me of you."

Jack nodded. "He did, but remember he is still a person. He deserves a punishment, and he will be punished, but there's nothing good about it. Come on. They should be here soon."

Jack led Bitty downstairs and into his office. Bitty had never been inside before. It fit with the rest of the house; two double doors led into what appeared to have once been a bedroom with windows along the north wall and a set of French doors on the west, leading to a private patio. The curtains over the windows had been drawn and the doors were covered. White couches sat along these walls, two loveseats on either side of the doors, and a long sofa beneath the windows. To the right of the hallway doors sat five matching armchairs. Everything pointed at a feature wall covered in shiplap, which contained Jack's desk and three additional chairs. Wooden beams stained the same color as the shiplap divided the ceiling into thirds. It was warm and homey, clearly a place where Jack and his team spent a lot of time.

They walked to the desk and Jack sat in his chair. Its back was high enough to support his head, its arms wide enough for Bitty to sit. Jack patted the right arm so Bitty sat there, and once he did, Jack's hand touched his lower back at the waist of his jeans. Bitty found himself nervous, but Jack's touch was reassuring.

There wasn't time for words before Snowy and Nursey entered, Nursey holding a large coffee urn, Snowy a heavy platter with cups, creamer, and sugar. They set up the coffee station on a table in front of the sofa. Bitty watched Nursey as he performed his task; the motion was fluid and comfortable, as if he had been in this room many times. Nursey and Snowy sat on the loveseat in the northwest corner. Nursey's only discomfort came from Bitty's presence, as he determinedly looked at the floor.

After Snowy and Nursey, the rest of Jack's family began to trickle in: first Tater, who smiled and shook Bitty's hand with unnecessary force before he sat in the leftmost chair in front of Jack's desk; George, Tom, and the other advisors who all sat in the armchairs, George the closest; Thirdy with a handful of soldiers who crowded the sofa; and then Shitty, who closed the door behind him and looked directly at Bitty.

"I'm sorry, am I in your seat?" Bitty asked, but he was not entirely joking.

"Shitty usually stands," said Jack as he rubbed Bitty's back.

"Trust me, bruh, if I knew snuggling with Jack was an option, I'd be doing that instead," said Shitty before he stood behind the desk on Jack's opposite side. Shitty looked at the third chair in front of Jack's desk, next to Tater and Thirdy. "We'll wait for Hartford before we begin."

"Are you sure you want your boy here?" Tom asked from the second armchair.

"Yes," said Jack with finality.

A few of the soldiers helped themselves to coffee in the interim, but no one spoke. It was only a few minutes before Marty arrived alone and took the final chair in front of Jack. Shitty looked at the French doors, the windows, and finally the double doors to the hallway before he began.

"This is what we know. Last evening, Kent Parson and his personal bodyguard met with the captains, myself, and Jack. We offered terms of surrender. He did not take well to that and left the casino at that time. This morning, Mr. Parson and his bodyguard entered Bitty's Corner, threatened and attempted to intimidate Bitty, and then proceeded to cause significant property damage, although no one was hurt. After leaving the bakery, a car with a man fitting the description of Mr. Parson's second, Jeff Troy, was seen driving the wrong way up Knight Street, where three shots were fired at Jack, Guy, Snowy, and Poots."

"Was anyone hurt?" George asked as she scrutinized the stitches on Jack's chin.

"Not significantly. Poots did take a bullet through the arm but has already been treated by the doctor, who says the wound is not serious. Jack received a scratch while being covered by Guy."

"Any sort of damage to our boss is too much," said Tater heatedly. "He should be killed immediately. Today."

"I'll open it up to the larger group for discussion."

"No discussion," said Tater, whose voice rose in pitch as he spoke, losing all of its usual low intonation that befit his accent. "Kent Parson is rat. Rat needs extermination."

"Parse is well protected," said Marty.

"Then remove protection. Remove everyone. He came to casino knowing what we want then used it to plot assassination. He cannot be left alive."

"No one is to kill Kent," said Jack.

Tater opened his mouth to argue, but did not and instead sat silent as his skin grew increasingly red in color.

"New York should not go without retaliation," said Thirdy. "I agree that Parse is well protected and a direct attack may be fruitless. You said it was his second in the car? Did he pull the trigger or did he just drive?" Thirdy looked over his shoulder at Snowy for confirmation.

"He wasn't alone, but I didn't recognize the others in the vehicle. He was in the front seat," said Snowy. "Boss? Did you recognize anyone?"

Jack shook his head.

Shitty looked at Marty. "You have people on Troy. How accessible is he?"

"He has habits," said Marty. "Those will no doubt change in the coming days if New York suspects retaliation."

"But he is accessible?"

"Yes," said Marty.

"Then Troy is our target."

Bitty jumped as the room erupted with suggestions on how best to murder Jeff Troy. Tater spoke loudest over everyone, but soldiers and advisors argued methods ranging in severity from "Shoot him in the street, then!" to "Burn him alive and drag his body through the city!" The latter was quickly shut down as ridiculous, but everyone had an opinion on method, level of suffering, and privacy.

Jack placed his hand on Bitty's back again and gently began to caress him, drawing Bitty's attention from the heated argument in front of them. "I'm glad you're here," Jack said quietly, only for Bitty. "It's so much nicer to have someone to look at when they get like this."

"Are they like this often?"

"Only every week."

Jack's eyes roamed over Bitty's body, from his dusty T-shirt to his close-fitting jeans. Jack's palm smoothed the wrinkles in his shirt, Jack's eyes following as he did so, and then, as if they were alone and not hearing differing opinions on how to murder a man, lowered his hand to the back pockets of Bitty's jeans. Bitty inhaled sharply as Jack caressed him there, and the front of his jeans suddenly became too tight. Jack looked equally delicious and salacious, and Bitty wanted this meeting to end already, for them to dole out a suitable punishment to the person who nearly removed Jack from the earth, so he could sink into Jack's lap and kiss him.

"Okay, okay, that's enough," said Shitty when one of the soldiers asked if anyone owned a machete. "This is a reputable organization and while our methods are frequently severe, we cannot forget our dedication to our good name. Marty, is it possible to ensure a swift execution with minimal civilian involvement?"

"Yes," said Marty.

"Then act quickly. The goal is to solidify our position in this war with Mr. Parson, not to worry the citizens over the safety of their streets. How are we doing in this fight?"

"We have four of the five boroughs," said Tater. "Manhattan is where Parse lives and is heavily guarded."

"Parse said he still has Jersey," said Bitty.

"Jersey will be ours in a week," said Tater.

"Can we take Manhattan with the army we have now?" asked Shitty, and he looked at Marty as he said it.

"Hartford has taken significant losses. They need to stay where they are to ensure we keep what we have already taken. I can't spare anyone else for Manhattan."

Shitty looked at Thirdy.

"I can spare an additional fifty," said Thirdy.

"Is that enough?" Shitty asked Tater.

"It will be difficult, but with strategy, yes."

"Then meet with Thirdy and plan. The faster we take it, the sooner we can move on and reduce the risk at home. Marty, you have your orders. You are dismissed. We will not meet tomorrow."

There was significant chatter as everyone stood and walked to the door, but all fell silent once it opened. They left in order, with Snowy and Nursey last.

"Nurse," said Jack when he passed. Snowy continued on and shut the door behind him. Nursey stopped behind the three empty chairs but did not sit. "I want you to stay on as Bitty's protection until this is over. If you need to stop home, do it now, but you'll return to the condo with us tomorrow."

Nursey nodded. "I'll be back by lunch," he said and left.

"Jack," said Shitty once the door shut. "I'm worried about Lardo. She and Bitty are roommates."

"Agreed. Have her stay with you and take Snowy for protection. Also find a contractor. I want the bakery ready for production when this is over."

Shitty nodded. He left and closed the door behind him. Bitty turned to Jack, whose hand had traveled south and was rubbing the back of his jeans with no hint of innocence. Bitty felt his blood change direction when Jack looked at him. "How are you?" Jack asked, his voice low despite their solitude.

"I'm okay," said Bitty.

"That meeting wasn't too much?"

Bitty shook his head. "No. I still don't like it, but no."

"How are you…otherwise?" Jack asked. Bitty had no idea how to answer that question, but then Jack dipped his hand into the back of Bitty's jeans, underneath his underwear, and slid his middle finger between the cleft of his ass. "You're not sore or anything?"

Bitty felt the warmth on his cheeks but his blood continued to flow between his legs, making the front of jeans uncomfortable again. So much had happened that morning that he'd forgotten less than twelve hours prior he'd taken Jack inside of him for the first time. "No," he said. "I'm fine. That thing you did with your mouth… that was good."

"Do you want to do it again?" Jack asked.

"Right now?"

"I meant in general, but yes, right now."

Jack waited for a response. As soon as Bitty nodded, he grabbed Bitty and bent him forward onto the desk. Bitty pushed the few objects atop it out of his way and bit hard onto his hand when Jack pulled his pants down, parted his cheeks, and licked him again. Bitty looked forward to losing his harrowing train of thought, if only for a few minutes.

Chapter Text

Bitty was thoroughly exhausted after the encounter on the desk in Jack's office, as was Jack, so they snuck up the stairs away from lingering family and rested in Jack's bed until lunch. It was much easier and more productive for Bitty to sleep with Jack at his side, rather than worry if he were alive, but their nap was interrupted by a tentative rap at the door.

"Jackary, Bitty's folks are here," said Shitty from the other side of the door. "Get your clothes on and get downstairs."

"I like how he just assumes we're naked," said Bitty with an eyeroll.

"Yeah, it's not like this is my office," replied Jack, which earned him a smack in the side as Bitty climbed over him to get out of the bed. They were mostly clothed, although Jack had taken off his shirt, which still had dirt and flecks of blood on it. Bitty fixed his hair in the mirror and caught a glimpse of Jack as he put on a fresh T-shirt. Bitty paused, his hands in his hair, until Jack hid his muscles beneath the black cotton. Jack caught eyes with Bitty through the mirror.

"What?" Jack asked.

"You look good," said Bitty, but even as he said it, his eyes filled with tears. 

Jack looked confused. "I'm sorry my appearance makes you sad?" he guessed.

"What would I have done if I lost you today?"

"Bits," Jack said and he embraced Bitty from behind, surrounding him with his large arms. Bitty felt Jack kiss his temple as he dissolved into tears. "It's okay. I'm okay. My chin doesn't even hurt anymore."

"I think about this all the time, Jack. You grew up knowing your father could be killed or arrested at any time — you're the same. I just found you and now I'm so scared that I'll lose you. I don't want to lose you."

"I'm here, Bitty," Jack whispered into his ear. "Anything could happen at any time. There could be a car accident or a tornado, and I could lose you too. You can't dwell on what-ifs or you'll go crazy."

"But what if —"

"Bitty. I spent five years in Montreal trying to stop thinking what if. Live with me here right now, okay?"

It wasn't much, but Jack's steady pressure against his back grounded Bitty, and he wiped at his eyes. When he looked at himself in the mirror again, so did Jack. Bitty rubbed Jack's arm that held him across the chest. "I think I need to bake through it," said Bitty, and he thought about the display case in his now-closed bakery. His breath hitched, which earned him a squeeze. "Jack, my bakery."

"I know. I'm going to fix it."

"Can we go back and look at it?" Bitty asked. Jack shook his head.  "Please? I need to process this."

"It's too dangerous. There's a giant kitchen downstairs and my mother has everything. You can bake here before we go home."

Bitty wiped his eyes again, earning a nuzzle into his hairline, and then took a few breaths to even his complexion. He looked at Jack, who waited expectantly, and nodded. Jack let go and the two of them headed downstairs, where they met Suzanne and Coach in the living room. Both of Bitty's parents stood awkwardly with Alicia, who at some point had changed into day clothes. Alicia looked comfortable as she explained the architectural history of the home, while Suzanne and Coach looked terrified to touch anything.

"Hi Mama," said Bitty and he gave his mother a hug before he turned to his father for a handshake.

Before he could speak again, however, Suzanne gasped and said, "Jack, my goodness, what happened to your chin?"

Apart from Bitty, Suzanne was the only one short enough to easily see the wound under Jack's chin, which wasn't visible if he angled it down. Bitty went rigid as he attempted to think up excuses, but Jack didn't miss a beat as he smiled and said, "Late nights and early runs don't mix. I tripped over a curb and landed on my chin. It's nothing."

"Why would you still go for a run after a night like that? Well, at least you're dedicated, but maybe take the day off in the future," said Suzanne.

"Maybe next time. It cleared my morning, though, so I can have lunch with you. Maman, did you need help?" Jack asked his mother, who immediately shook her head.

"I'm all set. I was just showing the Bittles around the house before we sit in the dining room. Is everyone hungry or did you want to see the grounds as well?"

"I'm hungry," said Jack, which caused Alicia to smile.

"Okay, sweetie. Let's have lunch."

Suzanne quickly found a way to fill silence once lunch had been served. "This house is gorgeous, Alicia. Is this like the casino, where it's been in the family for generations?"

"Not quite," said Alicia. "The family used to live in the neighborhood and it was a bit of a scandal when Jack's grandfather announced the move out here. Everyone was used to conducting business in the city, but more people had vehicles and could make the trek if needed. Jack, it was your grandmother who wanted more space. The family moved at her insistence and we've been here ever since."

"And Alicia, you didn't grow up in this area, correct?"

"No, I was actually living in New York when I met Jack's father. I'd done a bit of modeling  —"

"Just a bit," echoed Jack with an eye roll. 

Alicia poked at his arm. "Fine. I was fortunate enough to be a successful model at the time, and I was living in New York."

Suzanne looked at Alicia with a scrutinizing gaze. "You know, you do look awfully familiar. I must have seen your face in a magazine or something."

"You have," said Jack. "Maman is being very polite but she was a big deal before my father somehow managed to snag her away from it," said Jack. Alicia tsked, not wishing to draw attention to herself. "She has some of her old ads in the studio; you should take a look at them this afternoon after you and Bitty do some baking."

"Oh, honey, you wanted to bake?" Suzanne asked, turning the attention away from the history of the Zimmermann family and to her son instead. "I would have figured with you doing that day in and day out, you'd want a break."

"I don't think it's really a visit until we've made something together," said Bitty, which caused Suzanne to look away from him and at her husband, effectively hiding her face. Bitty could still see her raise a hand to her eye, though.

"We have a large kitchen and plenty in the pantry," said Alicia.

"And Mr. Bittle," added Jack, "I could take you out on the boat if you, like me, are the kind of person who'd rather eat the results than make them."

"You got me," said Coach. "There good fishing out in the bay here?"

"Absolutely," said Jack.

Alicia excused herself after lunch, leaving Bitty and Suzanne alone in the kitchen while Jack sent Coach to the shed near the docks that held the fishing equipment. “Shed” was not quite the appropriate term, since it was practically the size of a house. Suzanne perused the pantry for ingredients when Jack approached Bitty.

"You do not need to spend all day fishing with my father," said Bitty quietly, his eye in the direction of the walk-in pantry. "I don't even want to be trapped on a boat with him. What are you going to do?"

"I'd rather sit on a boat with him and know he's safe than risk both of them leaving the house and running into trouble. We'll find a way to keep them through dinner and drop them off directly. They're leaving first thing tomorrow, right?"

"Yes, but Jack... he's not going to say a word to you."

"Good. I'm tired of speaking," said Jack. He gave Bitty a quick kiss. "It'll be okay. As long as he doesn't try to shovel talk me —"

Bitty's eyes widened as panic flitted through him.

"I'll be fine," said Jack with a smile. "Have fun. We won't go far; I want to keep a signal on my phone."

"Be careful," said Bitty.

"I will," said Jack and left as Suzanne emerged with several items from the pantry. Bitty rushed to help before flour and sugar toppled out of her arms and onto the floor.

"Well this is very nice of them to allow us to bake in their kitchen," said Suzanne. "It's like they've accepted you as part of the family already. I see why you don't want to come home if you've got this."

"Mama, please. Let's not bring up me coming home. Not today," said Bitty sharply as he opened the refrigerator for butter.

"I didn't mean it like that. I just meant you've got everything you need here. I get why you like it so much."

Bitty scanned the contents of the refrigerator. It was one of two in the kitchen, yet still the largest fridge he'd ever seen in a house. He knew his mother's comments came from a good place, but they still rubbed him the wrong way. He closed his eyes, still facing away from his mother, and took a breath to calm himself before he turned back.

"What?" Suzanne asked.

"I didn't say anything."

"I saw that huff before you turned around. I'm trying here, Dicky, but no matter what I say, I'm wrong. I compliment your boyfriend and his family, and it's wrong. I laud your independence and it's wrong. Why does everything have to be so difficult with you?"

"Can we just make these apple tarts and not do this?" Bitty asked.

"No, Dicky —"

"Mama, please. Today has been extremely overwhelming and it's not you. I promise it's not you. Yes, Jack's family has been welcoming. Yes, I like it up here. Can we move on?"

It was clear from the tension Suzanne held in her jaw that she did not want to move on, but she nodded and they worked in silence, forming the dough for the tart crust as a unit, no need to delineate tasks or ask for the next step. It happened like it used to, when Bitty was the assistant in Suzanne's kitchen rather than she in his. Once the tarts were in the oven, Bitty found an unopened box of graham crackers and felt significantly better about the events of the day when he began crushing them to crumbs with a rolling pin. He didn't know what Jeff Troy looked like, but he knew Kent Parson's face, and that was the face he imagined as he pulverized the crackers with the pin.

"Lord, Dicky, you don't want to reduce those to dust! We'll need something for the butter to stick to."

"Oh," said Bitty when he looked up. "Sorry, Mama. You got the butter melted?"

"All set over here."

He dumped the very fine crumbs into a bowl and then Suzanne poured in melted butter and brown sugar before she resumed stirring chocolate pudding on the stove. The pudding pies went into the fridge to set and Bitty looked between the KitchenAid mixer and the heavy cream, and decided a hand whisk would be better. As his wrist turned over and over, he thought about Jack and Coach on the bay. Jack wanted to stay near shore so he could still use his phone, but Bitty knew Jack was making a big sacrifice by staying home and not near his captains. Bitty could only imagine what Coach was thinking out there as well, especially if Jack had his nose in his phone.

"You still upset with me, Dicky?" Suzanne asked hesitantly. It pulled Bitty back into the moment, and he realized; the whipped cream was so churned it was nearly butter, and his wrist ached from overuse.

"No, Mama, this isn't about you," said Bitty and he set the bowl onto the counter. "I just have a lot to think about and I'm letting myself get carried away."

"I wish you'd share some of that with me," said Suzanne.

Bitty might have, or he might have disappointed her by deflecting again, but fortunately that was the moment Jack and Coach returned from their fishing trip, windblown and a little red from the sun.

"Suzie, you'll never believe this," said Coach, his eyes wide and expressive, a large grin on his face, visible despite his thick mustache. He held up a large fish. "Look at the size of this striped bass Jack helped me reel in."

"Richard Bittle!" cried Suzanne. "You are dripping water all over these gorgeous floors! Give it here and let me clean that. Jack, you have enough here to feed an army."

"I know we have reservations at the casino, but Jack said if we wanted to cook it up for dinner we're welcome to stay," said Coach. Bitty looked at Jack, who shared a sneaky smile.

"I couldn't possibly intrude the whole day," said Suzanne to Jack.

"I couldn't possibly let your husband catch a fish this big and not insist you stay for dinner as well. Unless you're opposed to seafood."

Suzanne pursed her lips, and Bitty watched her internally struggle against manners and her desire to stay. Eventually she smiled and said, "All right, we'll stay. You have to let me cook it."

Suzanne set to work cleaning the fish and Jack approached Bitty. "Sneaky man," Bitty whispered.

"You should have seen his face when we reeled it in," said Jack.

"Thank you, Jack. Just... thank you." 

Jack kissed him.

 

***

     Mama
     We're home!

     Mama
     Give Jack our thanks for a wonderful weekend!

Bitty relaxed into the couch in Jack's living room as he read the texts from his mother. His parents were safe. As far as he knew, Kent Parson was unaware Bitty's parents had been in town. Even if he did, Georgia was too far away.

Bitty looked around for Jack but found Nursey instead, lounging on the armchair with his feet on the coffee table, his eyes on his phone.

"Where'd Jack go?" Bitty asked.

"I saw him run out the front door a minute ago," said Nursey, but he didn't elaborate further. Jack wasn't gone long. He returned with three cups of coffee, which he handed out to Bitty and Nursey. 

"Did you just leave to get coffee?" Bitty asked.

"Not just to get coffee. I had a meeting. Everything all right?"

"Yeah. My parents are home now."

"Good." Jack set the cup carrier on the counter and headed out to the balcony, so Bitty followed. Jack sat on one of the chairs at the table. Bitty sat next to him.

"What was your meeting?" Bitty asked.

"Less of a meeting and more of a confirmation. Troy is dead."

Bitty waited to feel how he did just a month earlier in this same spot on Jack's balcony, how cold and disgusted he was at the knowledge that Jack had ordered the end of someone's life. He waited for the horror of this atrocity to sink in. He waited to be repulsed, but instead he felt relieved.

"Okay," said Bitty.

"Troy was Parse's second, like Shitty is mine. I expect him to look for a way to hurt me as badly. I don't want you to leave the apartment, not until this is over."

"What if I need something?"

"I'll get you whatever you need."

"What if I need daylight?" Jack gestured to the sun overhead. Bitty groaned. "That's not what I meant."

"It's not forever," Jack said. "They're vulnerable without Troy. It won't be long now, then we can go where we want and you can open the bakery again. Shitty got hold of a contractor who'll fix the damage this week. Have you spoken to any of the staff since then? Is everyone okay?"

"Briefly, just to make sure they're fine, but I've been paranoid about you and my parents. I should probably check in with them."

"And let them know you're okay," added Jack.

Chowder and Farmer were first. Farmer, who had been present during the incident, was the most concerned, but both appreciated the time off now that their final semester at Brown was about to begin. Ransom and Holster seemed less concerned about the bakery and more about Bitty, and asked to visit since Bitty wouldn't be home for a while.

Dex, however, was argumentative after he picked up the phone. "Do you know how long you'll be closed? Should I be looking for another job?" he asked.

"Don't worry, Dex. It won't be much longer and I’m going to pay you while we are closed," said Bitty.

"You're paying me? Without actually selling anything? I may not have gone to college, Bitty, but I know enough about business to know you can't afford that."

"I don't like my good, hard-working employees feeling like they need to find another job because some idiot threw a coffee urn through my display. We'll get it fixed and open as soon as possible, and in the meantime you can still expect a paycheck."

"And you're just getting this money from where?"

Bitty pursed his lips and looked across the patio table at Jack, who'd been texting most of this time, but looked back now, having overheard the conversation.

"Don't worry about that, Dex —"

"Fuck, you're getting it from Jack, aren't you?" Dex asked. "Listen, Bitty, thanks but no thanks. I like the bakery and I like what I do, but I am not going to owe Jack Zimmermann a favor."

"What makes you think this requires anything in return?" Bitty asked.

"Because I know how this shit works. Nothing's free, Bitty, and maybe you don't see it that way, but I don't want to open my front door one day and have Alexei Mashkov tell me it's time to pay up. That's how people wind up dead. If you're put out by this, I'm sorry, but even if you do open again, I'm done. Thanks for everything and good luck."

Dex hung up before Bitty could get in another word. He threw the phone onto the table with a loud clatter. Jack raised an eyebrow. "He quit?" Jack asked.

"Yes. He doesn't want to 'owe you a favor,' whatever that means."

"If he's that concerned about favors, I can call one in right now," Jack said.

"No, leave him alone. Are you texting Shitty right now?" Bitty asked. Jack nodded. "Invite Lardo over. Ransom and Holster want to hang out and I miss her. I guess Shitty can come too, if he wants."

"I'll make sure he knows he was enthusiastically invited," said Jack with a laugh. Bitty stood. "Where you going?"

"Inside. We've got people coming over and nothing to serve them." Bitty opened the door. Nursey was snoozing on the couch with the TV on. "Nursey, wake up. We're baking."

"Yes boss," said Nursey with a sarcastic salute. 

Shitty and Lardo arrived first, and Lardo hopped onto the counter, away from the dusting of flour, while Jack and Shitty went out to the balcony. "Whatcha making?" Lardo asked and scooped a bit of filling from a nearby bowl. Bitty smacked her hand.

"I was going to make cream cheese danishes if you hadn't ruined the entire bowl with your grubby fingers," said Bitty.

"Nah, that's all right. This batch is mine."

"I am not making a batch just for you."

"I'm sure Ransom and Holster don't care about the cleanliness of my fingers," said Lardo, and she dipped her finger into the bowl again before she put it in her mouth and looked over her shoulder to Jack and Shitty on the balcony. Bitty looked as well; he couldn't see Jack's face from this angle, but Shitty was not his usual vibrant self. They had to be discussing business.

Lardo looked back over. "Shits basically dragged me out of our house yesterday. I can't go to the studio, I'm not allowed to go to class. I'm stuck at his place until this is over. How serious is this?"

"Serious enough that I'm quarantined in this apartment and Nursey's living with us," said Bitty with a nod to Nursey, who had thus far kept out of the conversation while he put together the danish dough.

Lardo frowned. "Well, hopefully this is over soon."

Bitty looked out at the balcony again. Jack’s posture had drooped while he and Shitty continued to converse. "Me too," he said.

Ransom and Holster conveniently arrived just as Bitty and Nursey pulled the baked danishes out of the oven. "Oh, wow, it's a party," said Ransom, halfway through a pastry, as he looked at Shitty, Lardo, and Nursey, all who had relocated to the island chairs. He looked around for Jack, who just left the balcony and headed for the group at the counter.

"Yeah, Nursey was here and I figured if y'all were coming I might as well invite Lardo too," said Bitty.

Holster grabbed a second danish after he demolished his first. "Can we talk, bro?" he asked.

Bitty immediately felt dread seep inside his chest. "Yeah. We can go outside," he said and headed that way empty-handed. Holster picked up a third danish to supplement the one in his left hand, and followed Bitty, with Ransom in charge of closing the door behind them. Holster had eaten everything by the time they sat at the table and licked his fingers rather than have to start the conversation. Ransom looked at Holster, who looked back, and eventually sighed loudly.

"Bitty —" he began.

"Really?" Bitty asked, and Holster looked away while Ransom frowned.

"I'm sorry, Bits," he said. "We got the notice yesterday to re-sign the lease for the duplex, and I know you said you'd do right by us until you can open again, but... we're not going to renew."

Bitty looked between them and as he did his eyes filled up. He slouched his shoulders and looked at the ground. "I'm lucky you came down at all, I guess. You should've stayed at your consulting jobs. At least there you don't have to worry about rival mob families using your place of business to war with each other."

"That's not your fault. You didn't know this was a mob town," said Holster.

"And that startup is already out of business, so we kinda dodged a bullet there," said Ransom.

"So where are you going, then?" Bitty asked.

"We're here until the end of the month, so hopefully we can find something back in Boston by then. I mean, who knows, we might end up here anyway if we can't get jobs."

"You're welcome to stay, but I get it. You have to let me crash once I have a manager hired. We can have Haus 3.0 when Jack's out of town."

"I think we're up to 4.0?" Holster said.

"3.5?" guessed Ransom with a shrug.

"Listen, bro," said Holster, and he checked over his shoulder before he leaned in. "I know you love Jack, and that's cool. We love that you've got someone. But if this is too much? If this whatever-it-is goes on so long you can't reopen? You can come with us. You and Lardo. We've got your back."

Bitty thought about it. It would be easier to just leave this all behind. Then he looked back inside to Jack, who'd put on a smile as he ate danishes with Shitty and Lardo, and easy didn't feel easy any longer. He wasn't going anywhere without Jack.

"Thanks, y'all, but this is where I belong."

"We get it," said Ransom. "I wouldn't leave a piece like that either."

Bitty laughed and the tears cleared, at least for a little while.

Chapter Text

"Until this is over" took longer than expected. Bitty spent the entire month of August at Jack's place. When he first saw it, he thought it was a large apartment, but as they approached September, Bitty decided it was the smallest apartment in the universe.

The addition of Nursey made it worse. At first it was good to have someone else from the bakery present, a skilled hand to assist when Bitty wanted to make something, but after a week Bitty was all baked out and Nursey was still there. Jack, it turned out, left frequently on business, but whenever Bitty looked up, there was Nursey. It was too much. The apartment was too small, the balcony was not really outside, and Bitty had run out of patience.

"Please, Jack," Bitty begged on September first, as he and Jack stood on the balcony sharing their early morning coffee. The morning was cool and crisp, and while normally Bitty would appreciate a break from the heat, the chill in the air was just a reminder of how long he’d been there. He didn't want to imagine reaching winter still trapped on the twenty-ninth floor, and what he would do with fewer hours of daylight, negative degree weather, and an inaccessible balcony due to the snow. "Please take me somewhere. Anywhere. Take me to the grocery store, the gas station, the moon — I don't care. Just take me out of this apartment."

"Bits, it's just a little longer."

"You said that last week! And the week before! It's not fair that you get to go places and I'm stuck here. I'll take Nursey. I'll take the whole fucking family if that's what you want."

Jack stared at Bitty but was spared the decision when the door opened and Tater burst through, as excited and agitated as usual. Bitty groaned; every time one of the captains visited, they brought bad news or enough news to take Jack away for multiple days. Being cooped up in the apartment was bad; being cooped up without Jack was the worst.

"Can you give us a second, Tater?" Jack asked.

"Boss, Kent Parson wants meeting."

Jack looked over and raise an eyebrow. "A meeting?"

"Yes, with you. You'll come, yes?"

Bitty looked between Tater and Jack. Tater was grinning widely and even Jack had cracked a smile. Bitty, however, felt colder than he should have in the early morning weather. "I don't like this," Bitty said.

"Bits, this is it. Parse has no one and nothing left. We've won. Tater, get me a room in Midtown. We'll meet him tomorrow."

"I still don't like this," said Bitty. "Why do you have to go to him? If he's the one surrendering, why can't he come here?"

"It's our new territory. I have to get to know it and assign captains, and most importantly, I need to be there to ensure we exile Parse. I need his surrender and then I need him out of the city."

"Can I come?" Bitty asked.

Jack looked like he was going to say no, but after a long silence, he nodded. "Yes. It's not safe for you at the meeting, but I don't want to leave you here alone for an extended period of time. I don't know how long I'm going to be there."

"Oh thank God," said Bitty. "One more day here and I was going to jump off the fucking balcony. When this is over, you're moving."

Jack rolled his eyes before he looked back at Tater. "Set up the meeting and book us a room in Midtown. Something with two bedrooms."

"Two bedrooms?" Bitty asked. "Why two?"

"Nurse," said Jack, nodding toward Nursey who was watching television from the couch in the living room.

"Tater, can you give us a second?"

Tater waited for Jack to nod before he left the balcony and plopped onto the couch with Nursey. Bitty moved closer to Jack; he had a meeting to attend and was dressed to the nines, although he had yet to put on his suit jacket. It looked good, elevating Jack's attractiveness. There were several negatives to being cooped up for a month, but one of the worst was Nursey's constant presence when Jack walked around looking like that. Bitty hooked a finger through placket of Jack's shirt to gently pull him closer. Jack willingly moved.

"Does Nursey need to stay with us? The war is over."

"Nothing's over yet. Not officially. I'm not risking your security, especially not in a city I don't know very well."

"I'm not saying to leave him behind. He can stay in the hotel, he can stay with me when you're gone…he just doesn't need to be in our room. We're going to be in a different city. You've been working so hard. I want some time to be alone with you, maybe do something special when your business is done. Okay?"

Jack placed his hands on Bitty's hips. "And what exactly did you have in mind?"

Bitty stood on his toes and kissed the tip of Jack's nose. "You won't find out if Nursey stays with us." He let go of Jack's shirt and backed away; Jack pulled him back and kissed him so roughly Bitty felt it all the way down his throat and into the pit of his stomach. Bitty stepped away again and Jack frowned.

"Fine," he said. "But we're still getting two rooms."

"We're fucking in both beds, then."

"Promise?"

"Oh, calm down, you salacious man," said Bitty, and he hit Jack before he went back inside.

Tater did book them a two-bedroom suite in Midtown, and booked Nursey a room in the same hotel, but it wasn't until the cab stopped that Bitty realized they would be staying the next two weeks in the penthouse suite of the Plaza Hotel. He did his very best to keep his excitement in check, but just walking up the red carpeted stairs and into the lobby gave him a rush of anticipation. It was even worse once the bags had been dropped off, the bellhop had been tipped, and Bitty was able to gush in peace over his surroundings. He dropped Jack's hand and ran to the balcony with a view of Central Park.

"Jack, oh my God," said Bitty. He turned; Jack was watching him with a smile on his face, wasting his gaze on Bitty rather than their private view of one of the most famous parks in the world. "Are you for real? We're really staying here for the next two weeks."

"Bits, you own this town. Get used to it."

"I don't own anything, sweetpea."

"If I own it, you own it," said Jack. "I'll get the details out of the way, but come tomorrow, this is yours." Bitty turned back to the park and despite the noise of the city, heard Jack's footsteps as he approached. Jack placed his arms around Bitty's waist and held him close. "If I could give you the world, babe, I would."

"Let's not get overly ambitious."

"I mean it. I would."

Bitty turned around from the breathtaking view and locked eyes with his boyfriend instead. "I just need you, okay?" Bitty nodded, so Jack nodded, and they shared a brief kiss. "When is your meeting?"

"Twenty minutes. Downstairs."

Bitty frowned.

"When I come back, it's just you and me for the rest of the night," said Jack.

"Let me come," said Bitty. 

Jack stood upright and pulled away, but kept his hands on Bitty's hips. Bitty waited for him to say no, that it wasn't safe, that Bitty wouldn't want to hear what they discussed in case negotiations got out of hand. "You want to be there?" Jack asked. 

Bitty nodded.

"Okay, but we're bringing Nursey."

Twenty minutes later, they picked up Nursey from his room and headed downstairs to the fourth floor conference rooms. Bitty felt nervous the whole way, his arms and legs ready to twitch and fidget to burn off the excess energy. Jack walked with swagger, a man who owned the entire city, but Bitty couldn't feel it. He'd only been on brief excursions to New York for hockey, and the focus there was always the game and never the city, so it still felt like a new place, like Boston did those first few days at Samwell.

The room was guarded from the outside by two men on either side of the door, neither of whom Bitty recognized. They recognized Jack, though, and the guard on the left opened the door for the three of them. Bitty adjusted his posture and steeled himself for what awaited them on the other side.

The tables had been arranged to face each other with significant space between. Everyone looked up at their arrival, and the Zimmermann family stood. On the other side of the room Kent sat at the center of the tables, two men on either side of him with an additional four behind. Kent sat with his lips pursed, his expression sour, but his back straight and his head high. He looked every bit the smug asshole who'd caused significant damage to Bitty's bakery. Bitty unintentionally caught his eye, which caused Kent's eyebrow to tick up. Bitty quickly looked away.

A chair at the center of the Zimmermann table had been left for Jack, but as they approached, Tater shuffled a soldier to the back and scooched himself over to make room for Bitty on Jack's right side. Jack pulled out Bitty's chair for him. Bitty sat, then Jack sat, and then the rest of the family sat. Like Kent's side, several people stood behind the table.

Shitty stood. "Mr. Parson, you called this meeting to discuss the conditions of your surrender. Is that correct?"

"That is correct," said Kent.

"We're happy you chose to see reason. None of us wish this fight to continue. This is what's left of your organization?" Shitty asked as he looked at the eight other men Kent brought with him. None of them looked excited to be there and some of them looked worse for wear. The man sitting on Kent's right had a fresh scar from his eye to his jawline and the man standing directly behind Kent had his arm in a sling.

"Of my captains and soldiers, yes. I still have contacts and associates throughout the city."

"Then you would do best to inform those contacts and associates these conditions: your organization, as of this moment, has been dissolved. All members now belongs to our family. You will brief us of your business contacts, your government contacts, and provide a list of your public and private assets. If any of your assets are informal associations, you will provide us the contact there as well. You will cease involvement in your casinos, off-track betting, and other local gambling operations immediately and surrender your books to our accountant. You will do this today, and you will be out of New York by midnight."

"Midnight?" Kent asked. "That's ridiculous."

"You will leave town by midnight," repeated Jack.

Kent looked across the table at Jack, but then his eyes landed on Bitty. Jack shifted and draped his arm over the back of Bitty's chair, his fingers touching the expensive fabric of Bitty's suit. The room was silent and Bitty could hear Jack's fingers as they possessively caressed him. Kent looked back at Shitty.

"The stretch of my arm is wide, and my hands are in the pockets of several key leaders in the area, many of whom would not like our association to be known. I can't hand them over in a day."

"These are your terms. If you refuse, our organization will annihilate you."

"Boss," said the man with the scar in a low, careful voice. "There's nothing left. You should take it."

Kent looked sick, but he still nodded. "What about my family? How do I know once I leave the city you won't just kill them all?"

"Anyone you leave behind will become a member of our organization once they have proved their loyalty and passed the probationary period, just like all the current members have."

Kent looked at Bitty again. "Not all," he said.

Jack gripped Bitty's shoulder.

"If any of your members do not feel like they can pledge their loyalty to us, they will also be permitted to leave, but they, like you, must be gone by midnight. You are free to go where you choose, but stay west of the Mississippi."

"No Chicago?" Kent asked.

"No Chicago. Stay west," said Jack.

"Do you accept these conditions?" Shitty asked.

Kent let out a loud, deep breath but nodded and said, "Yes."

Jack stood, gave Bitty a squeeze before he let go, and walked around the table. He stood in the empty space between the two families and waited for Kent to join him. Still reluctant, Kent stood and met Jack in the middle. They shook hands.

"You're doing the right thing here, Kenny," said Jack.

"Yeah, well you gave me no choice," said Kent as he gave Jack's hand a firm shake. "Take care of my people."

"I will. You should go to Vegas. Give it a year and it'll be yours."

Kent was the first to let go. Shitty stepped next to them. "You and I can meet to debrief on your contacts. Anyone who wishes to stay with you is welcome. The rest will begin to transition with the captains."

Kent looked to his people, many of whom looked away. The man with the scar stood and followed Kent and Shitty out of the room. Tater stepped forward to take over the meeting for the remaining members, but Jack turned back to Bitty. Bitty quickly stood and followed him out of the room. As they walked down the hallway toward the elevator, Bitty relaxed for the first time.

 

***

 

Both beds had been broken in and Bitty lay on top of the covers in the second room, panting heavily, staring at the ornate ceiling. When they checked in, Bitty felt like he could have gone ten rounds with Jack now that they were finally alone, but now, after just two rounds, he was both satiated and starving. Jack's meeting with Kent had left him tense and they had spent the next two hours relieving each other's tension in both bedrooms of the suite. 

"Are you hungry?" Bitty asked, still panting.

"Yes," said Jack from somewhere on the other side of the bed. "Do you want to order something in?"

"Can we go somewhere?" Bitty asked.

Jack appeared in Bitty's peripheral vision as he turned over and propped himself up on his elbows. "I would feel better if we stayed in until I know for sure Parse has left town," Jack said.

"I've been cooped up inside for a month! Let's walk the city a little bit. We don't have to go far, we can bring Nursey and Guy along… I just want to get out."

"We're in New York!"

"Please?" Bitty asked. He turned toward Jack, propping himself up on his elbows, and kissed the skin of Jack's shoulder. "When we get back I'll make it worth your while." Bitty continued to kiss down Jack's shoulder, onto his shoulder blade, and onto his ribs. 

"Mmm, or you could make it worth my while now and I’ll order us the most expensive thing on the menu."

Bitty worked back up to Jack's neck and kissed there instead. Jack laughed and shied away when he hit a sensitive spot. "Take me to dinner, sweetpea."

Jack dropped onto his front and groaned into the pillow before he looked back up at Bitty. "Fine. We go to dinner, you flirt with me while we're there, and when we come back you stop challenging me and do what I want."

"And what do you want?" Bitty asked, his eyebrows up. 

"You," said Jack.

"You have me," said Bitty. He leaned down and kissed Jack briefly before he rolled over onto his back, looking at the ceiling again. "Okay, you can pick where we're going since I conned you into taking me outside." 

"We're in New York, you know," said Jack. 

"I hadn't noticed."

"We should get pizza," said Jack.

"Why do you always suggest Italian? Neither of us are Italian."

"I have a stereotype to uphold," said Jack. "Come on. I'm starving."

They redressed, went downstairs, and headed toward the river. The night was warm and the city was just starting to come alive as the sun disappeared behind the skyscrapers that made up Midtown Manhattan. Bitty took Jack's hand in his and let Jack lead the way down the street, taking their time despite the fast-paced pedestrians that constantly passed them. Neither picked up the pace during their stroll toward the pizzeria.

"Do you think you're going to spend a lot of time here?" Bitty asked, his gaze flickering upward every few steps to try to identify the buildings they passed.

"Yes," said Jack. "I've got a lot of people to meet, and the problem with new territory is that loyalties run deep, even after you win. There's a lot of people I need to convince to like me."

"That shouldn't be too hard. I liked you the second you ran by my bakery."

"I can't win everyone over with my ass, Bits," said Jack, and he nudged Bitty with his shoulder. 

Bitty laughed. "No, sweetheart, that ass is mine. We're going to have to figure this out. You unfortunately stole my best baker away from me to do protective duty, so now I have no one to manage my place if I come with you. Three of my employees just quit and Chowder and Farmer have to go back to school soon."

"Maybe you should hire a manager," said Jack. "Someone who has experience and can run the business for you."

"Maybe," said Bitty. "I've still got bank loans to pay so I don't know if I could afford it right now — and don't you dare say that you'll pay off my bank loan, Mr. Zimmermann, or I will punch you in the stomach right here on 58th."

"I didn't say a word," said Jack, but the smirk on his lips was enough for Bitty to know he was thinking it. "We'll figure it out. If you're not with me, I doubt I'd do a long stay like this one. I'd have to come home at least once a week."

"Twice a week," negotiated Bitty.

"Once or twice a week," said Jack. "It would be easier to win people over with you by my side. That's why Shitty is my second — part of it was organic; he's been my best friend for as long as I can remember, but a big part of it is the fact that he can win anyone over in a matter of minutes. He's loud and crude and he's named Shitty for God's sake, but a big reason why people like me is because they like him. People like you, Bitty."

"People are just nice to me."

"No, they like you. Your bakery isn't a success because of its location or your food, although your food is very good. People come back because they want to see you. You take an interest in their lives. Your accent is comforting and your eyes are welcoming. Everyone is in love with you. The pastries are just a plus."

"As long as you're in love with me, that's all that matters," said Bitty, and Jack gave him a short kiss before they continued on.

Just a block from the Hudson river was Gotham Market, a food hall busy with professionals getting a quick bite before heading home for the day. Bitty's senses went into overload after they stepped inside; they were there for pizza, but Corner Slice was just one of many options. Bitty had already been hungry prior to their walk and now as he and Jack approached the display cases of several different types of pizza, his mouth began to water. 

To his surprise, in addition to pizzas, there were pastries and bread in the cases too. A loud "Ooh!" escaped his mouth when he saw it, which caused Jack to chuckle. "Do you make these pastries yourselves?" Bitty asked the man behind the counter.

"We bake everything in house."

"Nice," said Bitty, and he turned to Jack. "Look, Jack."

"I'm looking, Bits."

Bitty ordered a large slice of sausage as well as almond cookies and they headed to the tables to sit. It was busy but not overcrowded now that most of the nine-to-five workers were headed home for the day. They found a spot at the counter along the window and began to voraciously eat their pizza. Bitty moaned as soon as he bit into his slice. Jack just nodded at him and they didn't say a word until both slices were gone.

"Ooh, these cookies are good too," said Bitty after he bit into one. He lowered his voice and leaned in. "Do you own this place?"

"I don't know yet," said Jack.

"Well you should if you don't. I like it."

"Okay, Bits," said Jack, mostly humoring him, but Bitty pushed a cookie in his direction and continued to eat his own. Jack looked out the window while he absently munched on the cookie. Bitty's phone vibrated in his pocket so he pulled it out to look at it.

     Mama
     What the heck is going on, Dicky?

Bitty stared at the message, confused, and waited for the next to come through. The three dots taunted him for a long time, long enough for Jack to stand very suddenly. The message just popped up as Jack grabbed Bitty's arm.

"We have to go," Jack said firmly.

Bitty didn't question it and stood, his eyes down on his phone.

     Mama
     The FBI is here. They're asking all these questions about where we can find you and when was the last time we talked to you. What is this about?

"Jack," said Bitty, looking up from the screen.

"We're being followed. We need to get out."

Jack grabbed Bitty's hand and pulled him away from the window. The hall had been alight with chatter and the warmth of the fellow diners, but when Jack touched him, Bitty felt cold as terror radiated up his arm and into his chest. Bitty couldn't see what Jack saw; no one looked suspicious, there were no sirens or red and blue lights, but something was enough to make Jack react like this. They hurried toward the pizzeria, where Jack ducked under the counter.

"Hey!" yelled the man who'd sold them their slices. "You can't be back here!"

Neither acknowledged him. Jack threw open the door to the kitchen. They ran toward the back exit, eliciting some more shouts of "Hey! Get out of here!" in addition to several curses from the bakers. Jack pulled Bitty straight through the room, which smelled strongly of bread and made Bitty miss his own kitchen back home. If the FBI really were really asking for his whereabouts, he wondered if he'd ever see the inside of his bakery again.

Beyond the kitchen was a service hallway for the staff to reach their restaurants without using the customer entrance. Fluorescent lights bounced off industrial flooring and white walls, a stark contrast to the lighting in the court. The hallway was empty for the moment but Jack was looking for the best way out. Bitty's phone buzzed again and he looked at it.

     Lardo
     The police are at the hotel. They arrested Shitty. Where are you?

"Jack," said Bitty. He held out his phone and Jack looked at it.

"Fuck," said Jack. He grabbed the phone out of Bitty's hand, threw it onto the floor, and smashed it with the heel of his shoe. Bitty yelped and jumped at the sound of his phone cracking under Jack's foot. Bitty looked up at Jack, still shocked, but couldn't say anything before a door down the hallway opened. Both of them turned; a man and a woman entered, both dressed in pantsuits. Bitty only got a glance at them when Jack grabbed his hand and pulled him in the other direction.

"FREEZE! FBI!"

Before they could turn and run, the door opened again and both Guy and Nursey tackled the agents to the ground.

"GO!" Guy yelled. 

They ran at full speed in the opposite direction, eventually running into an exit door which Jack slammed into with his entire body weight, and which fortunately opened into an alley without sounding an alarm. Jack let go of Bitty's hand but kept looking back for him as they bolted down the alley toward 44th Street. Bitty had no idea where they were going or what was out on the street waiting for them, but Jack seemed to know what to do.

They turned right onto 44th Street, going toward the river, when Jack suddenly stopped, his hand out for Bitty, who ran right into his grip. "Look," whispered Jack. As they watched, two police cars passed, their lights on, and stopped just out of view on 11th Avenue.

"This way," said Jack. There was a storage unit complex directly across the street. They crossed despite the traffic, causing several horns to honk in their direction. Jack pulled at the door to the storage complex but it was locked. Fortunately at that moment someone exited the building, so they bolted inside and ran up the stairs just to the left of the door.

"Jack," said Bitty when Jack opened the door on the third floor and headed through it. "Jack, what the fuck is going on?"

"Parse," said Jack. "It has to be Parse."

"Can he do this? You took the city from him."

"He can still do this," said Jack. "C'mon, we have to lose them."

The storage complex was just rows of units. Jack weaved through many combinations of rows, generally headed toward the other side of the building. It was mostly silent on the third floor, the noise of the city muted by the thick cement walls. It was quiet enough to hear the door open again and heavy footsteps in their direction. Jack picked up speed and Bitty sped up to follow him, meeting Jack's eye when he checked on him. Jack's gaze changed from worry to panic. Bitty looked behind him; a uniformed officer was catching up with them.

"Third floor, third floor," she said into her radio. Jack reached the door and flung it open, the two of them heading up again rather than down. Once they reached the fourth floor Jack ran just to the north end of the building and pulled open the window that led to the fire escape, and they headed down that way.

Bitty could see more of their situation from this angle and it was not good. Another squad car was coming up the street, cops in uniforms running up the block from the south. They jumped from the first floor onto a dumpster and down. Bitty ignored the pain in his knees and ankles as well as the stitch in his side as they headed across traffic and then west again, again toward the river. After they crossed 11th, Jack led Bitty to a mostly empty industrial parking lot. Jack hopped the fence and helped Bitty to make it across. Bitty scraped his arm on the wire at the top of the fence but it wasn't bad, although he was bleeding. He put pressure on his arm and followed Jack through the parking lot and then across 44th Street into a lot of shipping containers.

Jack weaved through the containers. Bitty's arm was bleeding profusely now and his breath was erratic and painful. "Jack," Bitty said. "Jack, I gotta stop."

Jack pulled him to the other side of a shipping crate and they stopped, breathing hard. Jack looked at Bitty's arm.

"Are you okay?"

"I think so. I'm bleeding everywhere, I must be leaving a trail." Jack reached inside his pocket and pulled out the handkerchief that Bitty had purchased for him. Bitty removed his jacket, wincing along the way, and pulled up his sleeve to reveal a long gash on his forearm. It wasn't deep enough for stitches, so Jack wrapped the handkerchief around Bitty's arm and tied it tightly on top of the cut. Bitty grimaced.

"Does it hurt a lot?" Jack asked.

"No, it just stings."

"Put your jacket back on. We can't rest long, they'll come this way."

"Where are we going?"

"I don't know," said Jack. He pulled out his phone. "I need to get rid of this, but I need to know what's going on. Keep an eye out and tell me immediately if you see anything move. I don't care if it's just a rat."

Bitty looked around; it was dark in the shipping yard despite the lights of the city, so it was hard to tell what was what, so he looked for movement rather than shapes. Jack spoke quietly behind him. "Marty, what the fuck is going on? What'd they get Shitty for? …For what ?"

Bitty turned at the shock in Jack's voice. Jack looked outraged even the darkness of their hiding spot, his eyes large but his mouth small. Jack gestured for Bitty to continue to look so he tore his gaze away and surveyed the perimeter again, but nothing was moving. Apart from Jack and the general background of New York, he heard nothing out of the ordinary.

"Keep an eye on my mother. Make sure everyone else is safe. Find a place for yourself. I'll contact you when I can."

Jack hung up the phone and Bitty looked expectantly at him. "We've got to keep moving."

"This might be a stupid question, but… can't we just get a cab?"

"If anyone sees us get into it, it's over. And if the feds have tipped off the cab company, we're just walking into a trap."

"What did Marty say?"

"Shitty's been arrested for the murder of his father. There's a warrant out for my arrest for Troy's murder as well as a handful of larceny and racketeering charges. You're fine, but they could arrest you to get to me."

"Jack…" said Bitty and Jack shook his head.

"We'll figure this out later. Right now we need to get out of the city. Parse clearly still has control here."

Bitty's head turned at the sound of heavy footsteps. "Ready?" Jack whispered. Bitty nodded and they ran to the northwest. Bitty didn't understand Jack's direction. Just on the other side of the next street they were going to run out of road and run into the river. Bitty never saw their pursuers but could still hear them, so he stopped looking back and kept after Jack, careful not to overtake him since Jack was leading the way.

They reached the edge of the river. Jack threw his phone into the water and then continued north, Bitty hot on his heels. It was another two blocks before they ducked onto a pier and stopped at the edge. Bitty turned, his hands on his hips, and looked for any sort of cop, but all he could see were normal pedestrians both up and down the pier as well as up and down the street.

"Jack," said Bitty. "Where are we going? This is the Hudson; we can't swim this."

Jack shook his head. "I don't know. I don't know where to go." He looked at Bitty. "You asked me once, if I could leave this behind and start fresh?"

Bitty nodded, and for the first time that night, he felt tears well in his eyes. That would be wonderful, to start fresh, to start over somewhere new in a place where he could be with Jack. He couldn't be with Jack, however. This was the end of the best months of Bitty's life. They were at the edge of the river and they would spend the rest of their lives either in the Hudson or longing for each other like Bob and Alicia. That would be worse than the Hudson; opening his eyes with the morning and knowing Jack was not there. 

"I think I'd like that," said Jack. "If you'd come with me."

"I'll go anywhere with you, Jack," said Bitty.

Jack looked into the dark water. "Even here?" Jack asked.

"STOP! PUT YOUR HANDS UP!"

"Even here," whispered Bitty. 

They turned and jumped into the water.

Chapter Text

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.