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Finding Your Way Home

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“Kent, a company can’t lose $50 million a quarter and expect to stay in business. It just doesn’t work that way. Plus, their social media department is inadequate at best and pathetic at worst.”

Eric R. Bittle was one of the youngest executives at the public relations and marketing firm of Jones and Rey. He worked 70-hour weeks, made six figures a year, and knew his accounts like the back of his hand. Eric was well known for his wizardry with social media as well as his ability to remain calm, cool, and collected in the toughest of situations, which gained him the nickname of the Ice King.

As Eric and Kent walked through the lobby of Jones and Rey, Eric’s assistant, Jimena, handed him a cup of coffee and a manila folder brimming with papers.

“Here’s the profile you wanted on McGregor and Weiss,” Jimena said.

“Thank you, Jimena. So anyway, Kent, they gotta streamline the organization, reduce headquarters staff… and then we'll be able to focus on the real areas that need improvement. First and foremost, a clean sweep of that godawful social media department. All of them gone,” Eric said with a dramatic wave of his hand.

Kent smirked.

“What?” Eric asked as he took a sip of his coffee.

“You’re really good -- and heartless.”

“Pssh! Tell me something I don’t know,” Eric said with a grin. “Jimena, can you please get the Warby Parker analytics report for my meeting?”

“Sure thing. Oh! Mr. Hall called and said he wants to have lunch with you ASAP.”

Eric pulled out his phone from his suit jacket pocket, “Uh… can you go ahead and cancel my lunch with Chad for today and fit Hall in there instead?”

“Do you want me to cancel your reservations at Le Cirque, too?”

“Nah, we can keep that,” Eric said with a wink as he entered his corner office which overlooked 58th and Park.

+

Ivan Hall handpicked Eric for a position at Jones and Rey after Eric attended a guest lecture he presented at Samwell University. Eric had been self-assured, asked all the right questions, even challenged Hall when one of his answers wasn’t up to Eric’s snuff. He saw in this perky, bright young man an even brighter future.

“What year are you, son?” He had asked Eric at the end of the lecture.

“I’m in grad school, sir. I’m done in May.”

“Have any plans lined up, yet?”

“Only the ones with your firm,” Eric had said confidently as he handed Hall a paper on the effect of the Barcelona Principles in the modern PR world.

From there, it had been relatively easy for Eric. Hall knew talent and dedication when he saw it, and this boy had it in spades.

“I would love to steal that Phoenix account. We’re so close -- I can taste it,” Eric said over his dover sole at lunch with Hall.

“Well, I don’t think you’ll have to do that. It looks like they’re ready to hand it over, thanks to you and your presentation at our last meeting.”

Eric hummed into his fork, and smiled. He knew he was good at his job, excellent in fact, and during his time at the firm, he had moved up the corporate ladder quickly -- much to his delight.

“You know I think you’re quite talented, Eric,” Hall said. “And we’ve loved the work you’ve done for us.”

Eric paused, and put his fork down. “Are you… leaving the firm, Ivan?”

“What? No, no. Not at all.”

“Am I leaving the firm?” Eric asked hesitantly.

Hall laughed and shook his head. “Eric, listen, the reason I asked to meet you today is that I spoke with Murray and, well, we’re thinking about perhaps making you a partner.”

“I see,” Eric said. His expression remained still and an absolute poker face. Inside, however, he died.

“I’m going to be frank with what we’d expect from you if this pans out. Your workload would increase. By god, you practically live in your office already, but that would be nothing compared to how busy you’d become.”

“Yes,” Eric said. He swallowed hard and felt his bowtie jump up and down around his Adam’s apple.

“So Chad might not be happy with---”

Eric held up his hand, “Ivan, you don’t have to worry about Chad. The reason our relationship works is because he’s just as devoted to his job as I am to mine. We don’t have expectations of one another. He’s busy, I’m busy -- we like being busy together.”

Married to his job, Eric dated a lawyer who was also married to his. Chad and Eric lived together in Eric’s stylish two bedroom apartment near Central Park. They went out to dinner twice a week, lunch once a week, had separate bank accounts, separate lives, and it worked. Chad knew Eric’s true love was his job, and it suited them both just fine.

“What if you want a family someday?”

“Who?”

“You,” Hall said as he pointed his fork at Eric.

“Me?” Eric said as his mouth fell open. “That’s just not going to happen. I mean, I like kids but I don’t see that in the cards for me.”

“What if Chad wants to get married and have a family?”

“Then I wish him all the luck in the world,” Eric said with a laugh.

Hall smiled and took a bite of his steak.

“Well, I just have to finalize a couple things with Murray and it looks like congratulations might be in order, Eric.”

“Thank you, Ivan. Thank you so much!”

“Also, we’d like you to spearhead the Total Organics account.”

“Oh?” Eric said as he swallowed down dry air while he performed mental cartwheels.

“Yes, we know how hard you’ve been working with them. How you were the one instrumental in even getting them interested in us. It seems only natural for one of the partners to work the initiative. So what do you say to all of this, Eric?”

“I suppose my answer is yes. Absolutely,” Eric replied.

“You have a lunch meeting with Nelson Larrabee, from Total Organics, tomorrow at Le Bernardin, future partner.”

Eric smiled broadly as he raised his glass of wine to Hall.

+++

“I hoped this is where I would be headed -- but I thought it’d take longer,” Eric said as he settled into bed with his company files on Total Organics.

Chad came in from the ensuite with a smile, “Good for you. Partner before 35. Good for you, Eric.”

“It’s going to be great. My! From Madison to partner before I’ve died.”

Chad yawned and climbed into bed as he pulled out some paperwork from his briefcase. “Good for you.”

“You already said that,” Eric said with a frown.

Chad shrugged, “Well it is good for you. What else do you want me to say?”

Eric looked at him with a side eye, “No, nothing. Thank you, Chad. Thanks.”

Chad put his paperwork down, took off his glasses, and placed them on his nightstand. “You know what you would hit the spot right now?”

Eric furrowed his brow, “What?”

“You know,” Chad said as he leaned in and kissed Eric sloppily.

“Oh… uh, okay?” Eric said as his grin grew while Chad lowered him fully onto the bed.

Seven minutes later, Chad sat up and plopped his glasses back on.

“Thanks, that was great... This deposition is going to be the death of me,” he said as he dove back into his paperwork.

Eric pulled the sheets up to his chest and sighed. He looked over at Chad, already lost in his work.

“Guess I’ll take a shower then,” Eric said.

“Sure,” Chad responded on autopilot.

Sex with Chad was never bad per se -- but it was never good either. That thing, that make-your-toes-curl-in-bed thing, had always eluded Eric.

The first time he had sex with Chad it was fast and dirty, and Eric thought it was good. But now... he was beginning to think good, sweet, hot, fun sex was a fallacy made up by starry-eyed fools, and that real sex was a quick thing. Still, he wouldn’t mind being cuddled a bit, or held a little longer, smiled at more --- but nothing was perfect.

Eric came back to the bedroom after his shower and towel dried his hair.

“I saw the ad again for that farmhouse in Vermont,” he said.

“You and Vermont. I’ll never understand the fascination,” Chad said as he stared at his laptop.

“I just kinda fell in love with Vermont when I visited Shitty and Lardo up there. Come on, think about it. A weekend getaway to our very own farmhouse and apple orchard? Think of all the pies I could make. How great would that be?”

Chad snorted. “That’s rich. And when exactly do you plan to head out there for weekends? You’re always working.”

Eric scowled.

“And didn’t you leave Georgia to get away from the farm?”

“My parents never owned a farm, you jackass. But, ugh! You’re right,” Eric said as he threw his arms up. “You’re totally right. A boy can dream though, can’t he?”

“Plus, you know I’m gluten intolerant. No pies,” Chad continued and frowned into his screen.

“Avoiding carbs isn’t the same as being gluten intolerant, Chad.”

Just then Eric’s phone rang. He saw that it was a number he didn’t recognize.

“Hello? Yes, this is he… Yes? What? Wait, are you sure? Oh my god,” Eric said.

Chad turned to look at him.

“Well, I haven’t seen her in years. That’s terrible.”

“What’s wrong?” Chad asked quietly.

Eric held out a finger. “Yes, tomorrow? Sure. Wait, what was that? We have a bad connection. Excuse me, what was that again?”

“What is it?” Chad asked as Eric waved at him again.

“What? No, okay -- yes, tomorrow at eleven. Yes, I’ll be there.”

Eric tossed his phone onto the bed and looked at Chad.

“My cousin, Crystal, she died in a car accident… and her wife, too.” Eric blinked. “It’s awful.”

“Jesus, that’s terrible,” Chad said.

“I mean, I haven’t seen her in years. She met someone, they moved to Dallas and we just sort of fell out of touch but lord. She wasn’t really a blood relative, but still... My mama and her mama were best friends, and I always just thought of her as my cousin.”

Chad awkwardly rubbed Eric’s shoulder.

“I guess she left me something. That was her lawyer, I’m meeting her tomorrow to pick up whatever it is. I couldn’t quite make it out.”

“Why did she leave you something if you never saw each other?” Chad asked.

Eric shrugged, “Well, we were practically like brother and sister when we were teeny but she sort of broke apart from her family when she came out. Her parents ended up being super intolerant and terrible. And my mama broke off the friendship with her mama at that point. She just couldn’t understand how someone could turn their back on their child.”

“That sucks,” Chad said.

“Sad, really,” Eric whispered. He threw his towel to the corner of the room, climbed into bed, and began to think of his childhood with Crystal. Eric remembered one time in particular, when they were about ten and on his rickety old swing set in the backyard.

“I can’t wait to get out of here,” Crystal said.

“My house?” Dicky asked.

“No, silly. Madison.”

“How’s come?”

“People here are mean,” she sighed

Dicky stretched his long legs out in front of him. “Sometimes…”

“All the times,” she replied. “I’m going to get a fancy job in an office in New York, just like on TV. And I’ll go out for lunches and have an amazing house.”

“New York? They have that really tall building, and the Statue of Liberty! That sounds awesome!”

“We should totally run off together. We can be roommates like in Friends! We’ll both live in New York.”

“Deal, and we’ll never come back to this place with mean people,” he said with a smile, and fell in love with the idea right then and there.

Eric fell asleep to memories of the two of them as they ran through his mama’s yard, barefoot, while they planned their future.

Chapter Text

Eric walked up to room 115 of the Courtyard LaGuardia and looked at his watch repeatedly to make sure he had plenty of time meet Nelson Larrabee. He knocked on the door and a few beats later, a pleasant looking older woman opened the door.

“Eric Bittle?” The woman asked.

“Yes. Ms. Archer?”

“Yes, come in. Please, call me Estelle.”

Eric entered the small room, and smiled. A toddler sat contentedly on one of the beds, surrounded by books and some wooden toys.

“Have a seat,” she said as she motioned toward the loveseat in the corner of the room.

“Thank you. I have to say how shocked and saddened I am by Crystal’s passing -- and her wife, too. Just, so sad,” Eric said.

“It really was. Always such a shame when young people die, especially under their circumstances. Luckily, Ellie wasn’t with Crystal and Onika when it happened.”

Eric nodded. He had no idea who Ellie was but felt it would just be prudent to agree.

“How was the service?” He asked.

“As good as something like that could be, I suppose,” Estelle said. “None of their family attended.”

Eric nodded once again, then cleared his throat. “I don’t mean to sound callous, but I have a meeting soon and I don’t want to ----”

“Oh, yes! I’m sorry. Of course. Well, there is the paperwork to sign but Crystal and Onika were always very prepared, thorough, and meticulous, so it’s all in order. You just need to sign to complete the adoption, pending final processing of the documents which I’ll take care of.”

“Adoption?” Eric said hoarsely.

“It’s all here in this file; a copy of Crystal’s will, Ellie’s birth certificate. She was very clear that it was you and you alone to have custody of Ellie.”

“But I hadn’t even seen her since I was a teen!” Eric cried out.

Ellie startled and whimpered as she looked at Eric.

Estelle gave Eric a stare down, and said, “Well, I supposed you can dispute this but I really hope you don’t. Neither Crystal nor Onika were close to their families, and Crystal trusted you implicitly. I was their lawyer for two years, and this is what they both wanted in the event of a tragedy.”

She stood and gingerly picked Ellie up from the bed and placed her in Eric’s lap. Ellie looked up and blinked at Eric.

“H- hello?” Eric said.

Ellie smiled and bounced in Eric’s lap, joyfully.

“How old is she?” he whispered.

“16 months. She’s a very agreeable baby. Hardly a peep out of her the entire time.”

Eric looked at her big brown eyes and he instinctively wanted to comfort her and make her feel safe. He caressed Ellie’s head. Her dark curls bounced back up, as she grinned at him.

Eric felt something tug in his chest, a feeling he had never felt, as though something had finally clicked in place for him. He smiled at Ellie, and she smiled back.

He wasn’t quite sure how it happened, but soon Eric found himself in cab with Ellie next to him in her car seat, and a suitcase filled with her things in the trunk, on his way to Le Bernardin.

“What have I done?” he asked as Ellie reached out toward him.

He stopped at coat check and checked in Ellie’s car seat, diaper bag, and suitcase. He bounced her on his hip and walked toward the hostess.

“I have a reservation at 12:30 for two -- uh, three? Bittle.”

“I’m sorry, the reservation can’t be changed at this point.”

“Yeah, well, I didn’t think I’d have a baby at this point,” he said with a sigh, as Ellie looked at him with eyebrows raised.

“I’m sorry, but…”

“Fine, she’ll just sit in my lap. Has the other person from my party arrived yet? A Mr. Larrabee.”

“Yes, 20 minutes ago.”

“Twenty minutes! Shoot.” He let out a whoosh of air and smoothed his hair. “How do I look?” He asked the hostess.

“Disheveled?”

“Thanks,” Eric said darkly and was shown to their table.

“Mr. Larrabee,” Eric said as he extended his hand, Ellie clutched him fervently.

“Eric?” He said as he looked at them both with confusion.

“Pleasure to see you again, sir. Pleasure,” Eric said as he sat down and placed Ellie on his lap. “So, I have to tell you I was thrilled when Ivan Hall told me you wanted to meet with us again.”

Ellie took the cloth napkin off the plate and began to chew on it.

“Eric?” Larrabee said as he looked at Ellie. “Why do you have a baby at this meeting?”

“Pardon?” Eric asked as he straightened up in his chair.

Their waiter approached the table.

“Gentlemen…” he then looked at Ellie and added, “...and lady, welcome to Le Bernardin. Would you care for something to drink?”

“A Dalmore, neat,” Larrabee said as he continued to stare at Ellie.

“Uh, a glass of shiraz, please? Oh, and do you have juice?”

“Juice, sir?”

“You know, apple? Grape?”

“I’m sure we have something.”

“In a kid’s cup?”

“A kid’s cup? No. I can bring it in a demitasse cup?”

“Sure, fine. Thanks,” Eric said as he exhaled and then smiled broadly at Larrabee, who did not return the gesture. “Let’s talk about Total Organics, shall we?”

“What is going on here?” Larrabee asked.

“Sir? Oh! The baby. At this meeting. Uh… this is Ellie. My cousin’s daughter. Apologies for the last minute addition to the meeting, but I assure you she’s up on the company’s numbers,” Eric said with a feeble laugh. “Speaking of your numbers…”

Larrabee stared daggers at Eric, then picked up a menu and quietly looked at it.

Eric looked down as Ellie looked up at him. She then flung her napkin on the floor and grabbed a spoon. He discreetly kicked the napkin under the table.

The waiter returned with the drinks and placed them on the table. He then said, “Have you decided what you would like, or do you have questions about the menu?”

Eric blinked, “Uh? The salmon? And uh, do you have some plain noodles?”

“Plain noodles?” the waiter asked.

Just then Ellie screamed and startled Eric.

“Goodness!”

Larrabee stared at Eric coldly and said, “This is ridiculous. I think we should reschedule this meeting for another time when you’re less… preoccupied.”

“But, Mr. Larrabee, sir!”

Larrabee rose from the table and walked away, as he pulled his phone from his pocket and began to presumably call Hall or Murray.

By then, Ellie’s screech rose a few decibels and the man at the table next to Eric said loudly, “Who brings a baby to Le Bernardin?”

“Hey! She’s been through a traumatic experience! So a little compassion would not be out of line, okay‽” Eric retorted as the waiter came by with the check.

+++

Eric stepped out of the elevator on the 22nd floor with Ellie who clung to him. He walked into the office lobby, and hoped he could sneak into his office without being seen.

When he passed Jimena’s desk, she looked at Eric with utter confusion.

“You’re done with lunch already? Wait… what’s with the baby?”

“It’s a long freaking story,” Eric sighed.

Jimena’s phone rang, “Eric Bittle’s office? Oh, yes hello Mr. Murray…”

Eric shook his head no, and pantomimed that he wasn’t there. Ellie laughed as she bounced up and down.

“No sir, I’m sorry. He’s not in yet. Yes, sir. I’ll let him know the second he returns.”

“Thanks, Jimena,” Eric said as he switched Ellie to his other arm.

“So seriously, what’s with the baby?”

“Long story short? My cousin died and I just found out she named me as her guardian.”

“Are you kidding?”

“No, I wish.”

“Sorry about your cousin,” Jimena added.

“Thanks…” he said not really knowing what else to say. “Can you watch her in my office while I go see Hall? I may as well get over it -- and I’d rather face him than Murray.”

Jimena smiled, “Sure. Did you eat anything?”

Eric shook his head, “We didn’t get a chance to.”

“How about I take her to the cafeteria, get her something to eat, and bring you up a sandwich?”

“You’re a godsend,” Eric said as he smiled at Ellie.

“She seems really easy,” Jimena said as she took Ellie from Eric’s arms.

“Right? She seems like she is. Okay, be back soon?”

Ellie smiled at Eric, as Jimena waved goodbye.

Eric made his way to Hall’s office, and practiced what he’d say; though he wasn’t sure exactly what that would be.

“Hi, Samuel. Is Hall available?”

Samuel, Hall’s assistant, gave Eric a look which he couldn’t decipher.

“I’ll tell him you’re here. Have a seat.”

Just then Kent walked out of Hall’s office.

“Bittle. How was lunch?” He asked with a large grin.

“Fine,” Eric answered breezily.

Kent smirked and walked down the hallway as he said, “Hall is waiting for you.”

“Great,” Eric said to himself as Samuel motioned for him to enter.

“How was lunch, Eric?” Hall said as stared at his computer.

“Lunch?” Eric asked and approached the desk.

“Yes. Lunch with Nelson Larrabee.”

Eric sighed. “Well, clearly you know how it went, Ivan. It was terrible and I apologize profusely. I would have apologized to Larrabee, too, but he stormed off before I could even explain.”

“And what was there to explain?” Hall asked as he finally stopped typing and looked at Eric. “That you brought an infant to Le Bernardin? That you were woefully unprepared for a meeting that was meant to woo Total Organics, not to make them think my young up and comer is an idiot.”

Eric frowned.

“I didn’t plan on bringing a baby.” He sighed then sat down. “I received news that a cousin passed away and I was going to pick up something she left me in her will. I went to LaGuardia this morning and it wasn’t a something she left me, it was a someone. I didn’t want to be late or reschedule -- I was confused, anxious, in shock, quite frankly, and I made a poor decision. I’m sorry.”

“Sorry is not in my vocabulary, Bittle,” Hall said roughly. He then looked at Eric and sighed. “That being said, goddamn, Eric. You look like you could use a drink after the hell of a morning you had.”

Eric nodded as Hall poured him a glass of scotch. Eric threw it back in one fell swoop and coughed.

“That hits the spot,” he croaked out as his eyes watered.

“So what are you going to do, Eric?”

“I don’t know. This is all so new -- but I will say that it won’t affect my job in the slightest. Apart from today’s misstep, you won’t even notice anything has changed. You can count on that, Ivan.”

“Eric, a family changes things. We discussed this already, remember?”

“I know. I know, and I have the situation under control,” he said.

Hall looked at Eric over his reading glasses, “Very well.” He then turned his attention back to his computer to signal that their meeting was over.

Eric exited Hall’s office quietly.

+++

Eric left the office early and stumbled into the apartment, already exhausted. Ellie was fussy and had cried on and off the entire cab ride home.

He put her down on the couch, and sat next to her. All of her worldly possessions in a small roller suitcase which stood at their feet.

Ellie flapped her arms a few times, then let out a loud howl and began to sob uncontrollably. Eric stared at her with eyes wide.

“Uh, are you hungry? Do you need a diaper change? Goodness gracious, what can I do for you?” Bitty pleaded. “Tell me!”

Ellie’s face turned a bright red as she wailed. Eric ran to the kitchen, put a handful of crackers on a plate with some tiny chunks of gouda. He rummaged through his cupboard and found some applesauce. He spooned a bit into a bowl and ran over to Ellie who continued to cry.

He patted her bottom and could feel the wetness of her diaper as it hung heavily.

“Oh, you little sweetpea -- now that can’t be comfortable.”

He took a diaper from her bag, carried her to the bedroom and changed her. He then dressed her in her pajamas, quickly changed into his Samwell sweats, and took Ellie back to the living room to feed her.

Eric placed a soft throw on the living room floor and sat next to her as he fed her tiny bites of cheese, some crackers, and applesauce. She eagerly dug in, and Eric smiled as he watched her.

Eric and Ellie were sound asleep on the couch when he felt a small tap on his shoulder. He opened his eyes and looked up to see Chad as he loomed over him.

“What the hell is this?” he asked in a harsh whisper.

Eric blinked a few time to fully wake, and he held his finger to his mouth to hush Chad. He slithered out from underneath Ellie and managed to get out of the couch without waking her up.

“Sheesh! Hello to you, too,” Eric said sharply as he led Chad to the kitchen.

“So what is going on?” Chad asked again.

“That’s Ellie -- Elizabeth. She’s Crystal’s daughter and she left her to me.”

“She left her to you?”

“Yes,” Eric said as he nodded and looked back toward the couch.

“She’s not a piece of estate jewelry, Eric. You don’t leave children to other people in your will!”

“Well she did, and what was I supposed to do, Chad? Leave her at the Courtyard LaGuardia?”

Chad exhaled slowly, then said, “What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know. She’s here now, and I guess I have to figure it out. For all we know, family will come and take her away. I don’t know what to do! And I was hoping you’d a little more supportive.”

Chad sighed again and said, “You’re right. I’m sorry. I just had a shit day in court, and this… was an unexpected thing to come home to.”

“I know. I know that,” Eric said. “But she’s here now and we’ll all just have to be a little patient until we actually figure this all out.”

Eric leaned in and kissed Chad, who pulled away almost immediately.

“I’m going to order a pizza. What do you want on your half?”

Eric frowned. “The usual.”

“Which is?” Chad asked.

“Sausage and black olives,” he replied then walked out of the kitchen.

Ellie sat quietly on the couch, her face sleepy and red. She looked at Eric with great intensity then offered her arms to him. He smiled and approached the couch and took her into his arms.

“I’ve got something I think you might like,” he said softly with a smile.

Eric got up and walked to their bedroom. He put Ellie down on the bed, and then opened the closet where he rummaged until he found a cardboard box. Inside were various books and trinkets from his childhood, and underneath his copy of Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing was Señor Bun.

Eric smiled warmly when he pulled him out.

“Hello, dear friend. Long time no see, huh?”

He walked over to Ellie and offered her Bun and much to Eric’s delight, Ellie’s face lit up as she made grabby hands.

It seemed Bun had a new owner, and Eric was confident he was in good hands.

+++

Jimena had been thoughtful enough to mention to Eric that Jones and Rey had on-site childcare for its employees. While there was usually a wait list, Eric was able to finagle a spot for Ellie and when he went into work the next day, he took her with him, along with a thank you pie.

“I have plenty of diapers, two changes of clothes, her rabbit -- uh, his name is Señor Bun -- and she’s attached to him, and she liked applesauce…” Eric explained nervously as he finished his paperwork.

“And you’re on the 22nd floor, right?”

“Yes,” he said as he signed his name once more.

“Well, we’ll know where to find you if we have any questions,” the childcare provider said.

“She’s a real good baby. Super sweet,” he said as he finally handed Ellie over.

“Mr. Bittle, she’ll be fine. Just please remember to bring a copy of her birth certificate tomorrow.”

“I will,” Eric said as he smiled and blew Ellie a kiss.

When he began to leave, he could hear her start to cry. He turned to look at her one more time, and then walked out the daycare door.

Jimena sat at her desk with Eric’s coffee already in hand.

“Good morning, daddy!” she said. “Wait, that sounded weird coming from me.”

Eric laughed. “Good morning. Thanks for the coffee,” he said as he took the cup from her.

“How did it go? Are you okay? I know when my sister dropped off my niece at daycare for the first time, she was a nervous wreck.”

“I guess I’m okay knowing she’s in the same building,” Eric said.

“What did Chad say?”

Eric sighed, “Well, he was less than paternal. I’ll just leave it at that.”

“Eric, is this question even allowed? What are you going to do?” Jimena said with genuine concern on her face.

“Part of me says that I’m not ready for this. How can I possibly be trusted with another human being when I’m always so busy and on the go? But then the other part of me thinks, is anyone ever really ready to be a parent? And if I don’t keep her, what are the options? Adoption? Foster care? Crystal trusted me above everyone else, so maybe I should trust myself.”

“You love her already! I can tell.”

“It’s only been 24 hours,” Eric replied.

“What, you don’t believe in love at first sight?” Jimena said earnestly.

+

Throughout the day, Eric found himself casually making trips to the sixth floor.

It wasn’t until his third stroll that Reena, one of the daycare employees, came out and said, “Did you want to check on your baby? I can spot a nervous dad when I see one.”

“Would that be okay? I don’t want to interrupt her day,” Eric said.

“Who is your baby?”

“Elizabeth Thompson-Mackie -- or, um, Bittle, I guess.”

“Oh, she’s darling! She’s actually asleep right now, but she’s been fine. She was a little sad when you left, but soon she entertained herself with some blocks, she had snack, then lunch, and she’s been asleep for a couple hours now,” Reena said.

Eric smiled as he felt relief wash over him.

“I guess I’ll go back to my office, then. I’ll come back for her at 5:00?”

“We’ll be here.”

“Thanks,” Eric said and walked down the corridor back to the elevators.

++

The next few days were a blur to Eric. Each day he waited for a call from someone, anyone, wanting to take Ellie away, but the call never came. He bought a small crib for Ellie and put it in their tiny guest room, which soon became Ellie’s room.

When he finally called his parents to tell them what happened, they were both a little surprised and then excited at the prospect of becoming grandparents.

“I didn’t think this would actually happen,” Suzanne had said. “Ever!”

“Thanks, mother,” Eric said flatly.

“Oh, Dicky! You know what I mean. It’s just that Chad didn’t seem very baby-friendly. And for a while there, neither did you -- which was surprising because you always loved babies. Remember how much you babysat when you were in high school?”

“I know, mama. I wasn’t expecting this either but here it is.”

Eric looked up and noticed Chad stood in the doorway and listened.

“Mama, I got to go. I’ll talk to you soon,” Eric said then hung up.

Chad looked at Eric and held up some papers. “I was looking through Crystal’s will,” he said.

“Oh?” Eric said as he steadied himself for whatever Chad would say.

“Thank god, you have an out. Listen: ‘We hereby request that Eric Richard Bittle act as guardian to our only child, Elizabeth Monique Thompson-Mackie.’”

Eric froze as he Chad continued to read.

"‘If Eric Bittle is unable to act as guardian, we leave it to his discretion to find suitable adoptive parents.’ Thank fuck you have an out clause!” Chad said gleefully.

Eric stared at Chad, unable to speak. He took a deep breath and said, “You want me to get rid of her, don’t you?”

“Eric, this isn’t you. You’re not family material. You love your job. You love the kill. What are you going to do? Run off to Vermont and bake pies all day? That’s ridiculous, and you’re fooling yourself if you even think otherwise.”

“I cannot… believe you, Chad,” Eric said as walked up to Chad. “She’s mine. She may not be yours, but she’s mine. She was brought into my life for a reason, and she’s here. I can’t explain it, but I want this and her.”

Chad exhaled loudly and began to walk away from the room.

“I’ll send someone for my things.”

“What? Chad?” Eric said as he followed Chad into the kitchen.

“This isn’t for me. You knew that. I thought we had a good thing going, Eric. Guess I was wrong. Take care,” he said with a small smile.

“You’re going to leave just like that?” Eric said loudly.

Chad looked at Eric, “Really? You’re honestly going to be broken up about this? Seriously?”

Eric sighed and exhaled. “No…”

Chad walked over to Eric and kissed him on the cheek. “Good luck, Eric.”

Eric smiled sadly, “Thanks.”

Chapter Text

A month into his new life with Ellie, Eric felt they had meshed together nicely and became a well-oiled father/daughter machine. Work, however, was a different story. Eric knew it was coming in second after Ellie. But still, everything was going well until Ellie got sick.

Ellie was cranky, and – well, that just wasn’t like her. At all. She was also somewhat lethargic and had zero percent interest in her favorite cubed chicken and brown rice dish. When he took her into daycare that morning, she was unusually clingy.

“She had a hard time sleeping,” Eric said as he kissed her forehead once more. “She didn’t have a fever, but if she still looks down later, please call me.”

“Absolutely, Mr. Bittle,” Reena said.

+

“So this quarter showed a dropped in their followers on Instagram, but their Facebook gained. Their Pinterest? Dead in the water,” Murray said. “Eric, do you think that’s worth saving?”

Eric sat at the meeting, not really there as he absentmindedly rolled his pen on the desk.

“Eric? Bittle!”

Kent jabbed Eric in the side with his elbow as he startled.

“Oh, sir. Yes, yes, absolutely,” Eric replied on autopilot.

“Absolutely what?” Murray asked.

“We… uh… should um…” Eric sighed. “I’m sorry. My mind must have wandered momentarily.”

“Kent, can you fill in Eric and we can meet again after lunch and go through the final numbers.”

“Yes, of course,” Kent said as he smiled at Eric.

Everyone exited the conference room and left Kent and Eric alone.

“What’s with you?” Kent asked. “You got baby fever?”

“Haha, very funny. No, it’s just that Ellie wasn’t feeling well and I’m afraid she might be coming down with something.”

“Yeah, well you may as well have a sign flashing over your head that says ‘I’m not here’ because you couldn’t have been more disinterested,” Kent said.

“I’m interested – I’m just worried, that’s all.”

“Well, Mr. Mom, maybe you should have taken the day off then,” Kent shrugged.

“Jeez, would it kill you to show a little compassion?”

“Hmm… sorry your kid is sick. Hope you’re not spreading around her germs in here. Can’t afford to get sick right now,” he said with a wink. He clapped Eric on the shoulder and walked out of the conference room.

The next day, Ellie woke up with a fever so Eric called in sick, the first time since, well, he couldn’t even remember when. They spent the day in pajamas as they slurped ice pops and watched Sesame Street. The Tylenol seemed to help, and Eric called his mother nervously to get her sage advice.

“She might just be getting her canines, Dicky. Or she just picked up a little bug from the daycare -- new germs and all. If her fever doesn’t go away after a day or so, call her pediatrician. Just keep an eye on her,” Suzanne said.

“Thanks, mama.”

“Oh, and Dicky?”

“Yes, mama?”

“You’re doing a fine job, baby. Just fine.”

“Love you, mama.”

“I love you too, Dicky.”

He walked over to Ellie’s crib where she slept soundly, a thin sheen of sweat across her forehead.

+

Eric returned to work three days later, and all Ellie had left to show for her bout was a runny nose. He was just glad she was better.

“Welcome back, Ellie,” Reena said as Ellie smiled at her. “You doing alright now, my dear?”

“Yep, fever free for 24 hours without Tylenol, just like the parent handbook said. If she’s not doing well, please call me.”

“Of course, Mr. Bittle. Don’t worry, she’ll be fine.”

“Thanks, Reena.”

+

“Welcome, back,” Jimena said as she handed Eric a cup of coffee. “How’s Ellie?”

“Better,” Eric exhaled. “She had me worried for a minute there. Are we still on schedule to conference call with Total Organics at ten this morning?”

Jimena stiffened and remained silent.

“What? What’s up?”

“They – uh, had the call yesterday. They pushed it up. Kent and Hall oversaw it.”

“What?” Eric said quietly.

“The call was yesterday. I’m sorry, Eric,” Jimena said.

“I’m… I’m sure it wasn’t a big deal. I’ll just go talk to Hall about it. No worries.”

Eric walked into Hall’s office where Kent and Murray sat looking over some documents.

“Eric, good to see you back.”

“I’m here for the Total Organics call. Do we need to prep anything?” Eric said feigning ignorance.

Kent, Murray, and Hall looked at one another until Hall spoke.

“We had the call yesterday. We weren’t sure when you’d be back, and frankly, we didn’t want to have to put it off.”

“But I said I would be back today, specifically for the call,” Eric said as he tried to remain calm.

“Will you two excuse us,” Hall said.

Kent and Murray left the office, and Eric looked at Hall with an eyebrow raised.

“Eric, we know the last month has been difficult for you – understandably so. You’ve missed a few deadlines –“

“One! In my entire tenure here.”

“Be that as it may, you’re not focused, you seem preoccupied and it is showing in your work.”

“I don’t think that’s the case,” Eric said.

“I don’t think you are seeing things with a clear head. You have more responsibilities now, and you’re doing it alone. I told you that having a family changes things. And that’s fine – if that is the road you’ve now chosen. I’ve made things easier for you in fact.”

“What are you saying?”

“I’ve moved Kenny up to co-lead the Total Organics team with me.”

“Oh.”

“I think after two years under your tutelage, he's ready. And he’s available to give it 100%.”

“I see,” Eric said quietly. “Actually, no. I take it back. I don’t see. You know no one knows that account like I do. No one. And now you and Kent are leading it?”

“Eric – it’s for the best. I’ve given you the Gym Bro account.”

“Gym Bro? But… Jesus, Ivan. That’s like a demotion,” Eric said as he ran his hands through his hair and pulled at it.

“Not at all. You’ve worked on the Gym Bro account before.”

“Yes, my first year here!”

“Lower your voice, Eric. Look, it’s a good account. It’ll give you more time at home, it’s less stressful. It’s a nice, easy account.”

“I don’t want nice or easy! I won a Carlisle Award for my work, for crying out loud.”

“You're taking this personally,” Ivan said.

“You bet I am! I built up the Total Organics account. I wooed them, I got them in Jones and Rey’s door and now you’re taking it away from me?”

“Having you on the account may not be in your best interest or the team’s, quite frankly. This account is too important for us to take any risks.”

“We have this account because of me!”

“We know that Eric and we’re grateful, but you’ve changed. You've lost your concentration. I don't know, you've gone... soft. And we need a solid team on this.”

Eric pinched the bridge of his nose. “Well, I see. I thought that I was gonna be a partner. That's what I thought. But I guess things change and maybe I should be making some changes as well…”

“Eric, don’t let pride make you do something foolish,” Hall said.

“Ivan, I can’t go out there now and say I’m working on the Gym Bro account. I’ll look like a fool!”

“Eric, think about what you’re saying.”

Eric could feel the tears as they began to build. He wouldn’t cry, damn it. He felt demoralized, betrayed and yes, his pride was hurt.

“I’m sorry, Ivan. I quit.”

+

Later that night, after he’d cried his own weight in tears, Eric blew his nose one more time and pulled out his laptop. Ellie was asleep next to him in the bed, curled into a little ball. She hugged Bun closely to her. Eric looked at her and sighed.

He opened his browser and clicked on his bookmarks.

There it was: Charming farmhouse with 3.5 acres of land behind it. Beautiful mountain views and its own small apple orchard. In need of some TLC, this property has been updated over the years and is just waiting for its final touches. House has strong bones. There are 4 bedrooms, 1 bath, large kitchen and dining room, living room, separate laundry room, and cellar. Minutes away from Main Street which features great shops, a coffee house, restaurants, and more. In the college town of Hadleyville. Enjoy your own private slice of Vermont country living!

He clicked on the “Ask a Question” button and began to type: I am inquiring about the farmhouse in Hadleyville. Is it still for sale?

Chapter Text

“B. Knight Law, how may I help you?”

“Shitty?” Bitty asked as he turned onto the highway.

“Bitty! Fuck a duck, man -- it’s good to hear from you,” Shitty said with a happy shout.

“Same! Lord, I’ve missed your voice.”

“How’s tricks?”

“Tricks are for kids,” Bitty said with a smile. He looked in the rearview mirror and saw Ellie still sound asleep as she clutched Señor Bun.

“So, to what do I owe this pleasure, brah?”

“Are you busy?”

“For you? Never -- but I do have a meeting with a client in half an hour. Brah, small town lawsuits are hilarious and I definitely want to hear about whose fence is over whose property and who stole whose maple syrup recipe. Riveting stuff, I tell you. Riveting stuff!”

“Well, I have some news…”

“Did you get a promotion?”

Bitty chewed on his bottom lip. “Sort of? Long story short -- I inherited a baby, became a daddy, broke up with Chad, quit my job, sold my apartment, bought that old farmhouse in your town, and am currently driving up to Vermont with my daughter to move in.”

There was no response.

“Shitty?”

“The literal actual fuck, Bits! When you make a change, you go all the way, don’t you?”

“Please don’t freak out. That’ll make me freak out -- and I’m really trying not to. I’m trying to be positive as hell, here.”

He could hear Shitty breathe out and then laugh heartily.

“Actually, that is fantastic news! I was worried what the New York City rat race would do to your kind soul. I’m glad you’re out of there. Shit! Tell me all about your kid, how did that happen?”

After he filled Shitty in on all the details, Bitty felt a weight lift off his shoulders. He felt good about moving out there, even if he was still terrified.

“Wow. You’ve been through a hell of a lot there, Bitty. I wish you would have called us sooner. You know Lards and I are always here for you.”

“I know. I’m sorry but I’m on my way now. And soon, we’ll all be together just like old times.”

“Lardo is going to flip out. She misses you like hell.”

“I’ve missed her too. So much,” Bitty said as he felt a warmth bloom in his chest.

“So tell me again which house you bought?” Shitty asked.

“That old farmhouse. The one on Falconer drive.”

“The one on Falconer drive?” Shitty asked slowly.

“Yeah, that one. I’ve had my eye on it forever, and it’s never sold -- so I knew it was a sign.”

“Oh, it’s a sign all right,” he heard Shitty say.

“Why? What’s wrong?” Bitty asked.

“Well the reason it’s been on the market so long is that it needs a lot of work. Like, a fuckton. Metric.” Shitty sighed, “Bits, I really wished you would have called me sooner.”

“How bad can it be?”

“You underpaid, didn’t you?” Shitty said.

“Well… yeah, but I just thought because it had been on the market for so long -- and… did I just buy The Money Pit?”

“We’ll check it out together when you get here. I know some guys, don’t worry, Bits. We won’t leave you in the lurch.”

“Shit, now I’m starting to freak out,” Bitty said as he merged lanes.

“No, no, no! It’s gonna be fine. Don’t worry. You’re not alone in this, okay?”

“Okay,” Bitty said nervously.

“Bitty, repeat after me, ‘I’m not alone in this.’ Say it!”

“I’m not alone in this,” he said unconvincingly.

“Damn straight you’re not. Now, what’s your ETA?”

“About four or five hours?”

“All right. Come straight to the house. I’ll tell Lardo what’s up. We’ll order some pizza. You two will spend the night with us, and tomorrow we’ll check out the house -- your house -- together.”

“Thanks, Shitty,” Bitty said as he felt prickles form in his throat, grateful to have such amazing friends in his life.

“I’ve got your back, Bitty. We all do,” Shitty said.

About an hour later, Ellie woke up. Bitty pulled over at a rest stop and got out to stretch his legs and change her diaper. Afterward, they stopped at a small diner for lunch.

“Honey, it's so exciting! We actually own a house with apple trees, and a small barn. Ellie, it's going to be a whole new life for us.”

Ellie chewed on her lunch while she looked at Bitty with much interest.

“Yup. I'm going to bake so many apple pies, get into quilting, help your Aunt Lardo out at the gallery. I’ll get a new job. I can't wait.”

After lunch, they got back on the road. The long drive afforded Eric time to think some more about all that had transpired in the last month.

His parents had been very supportive throughout the entire ordeal, and when it was clear no one would be contesting Eric’s guardianship of Ellie, he became more calm about his relationship with her.

With the looming threat of someone coming to take her away gone, Eric felt himself becoming more and more attached to her as the days progressed. He had always liked children, but never imagined he would become a daddy. And now, there he was. Ellie came into his life like an unexpected rain shower and brought rainbows.

The U-Haul attached to his mom’s old Volvo jostled with every bump while Ellie snoozed in her seat, Bun clutched tightly in her hands. And it occurred to him that he was Ellie’s sole provider.

She would rely on him for everything. She trusted him implicitly.

Good lord, what if he messed it all up? What if the house was indeed a money pit? What if he turned out to be a terrible father? Suddenly, panic began to settle in Bitty’s chest. He gripped the steering wheel tightly, as one of this favorite Beyoncé song, Halo, began to play on the radio.

“Remember that job I had? Well baby, I fucked it up! And they didn’t even put up a fight. They didn’t raise a brow,” Bitty nervously sang.

The snow-lined trees whizzed by, and he gripped the steering wheel even tighter. What had he done? He did the right thing, didn’t he? He did it for Ellie. She deserved it. He couldn’t believe how quickly she had worked her way into this heart, still he was terrified.

He let a hysterical laugh rip out of him and continued to sing, “Baby, I can see unemployment, it's written all over my face. Unemployment, ployment, ployment! Unemployment, ployment, ployment!”

The next three hours were going to drag.

+++

“Bitty! The prodigal son comes home!” Shitty said as he held his arms out toward Bitty; Ellie asleep in his arms.

“God, no one has called me Bitty in person in forever. I’m not from Vermont, Shitty,” Bitty said as Shitty planted a smooch on his cheek.

“Doesn’t matter. You’re here now,” Shitty said as he brought Bitty in for a tight hug.

“Is this the little lady?” Shitty asked as he scooped Ellie from Bitty.

“Yep! This is my Ellie,” Bitty said with a smile as Shitty kissed her head.

Just then Lardo appeared from the living room, wearing a giant cardigan that clearly belonged to Shitty and a purple knit hat. At five months pregnant, her belly had just started to become fully pronounced.

“There he is,” she called out, an enormous smile bloomed on her face.

“Larissa Duan, as I live and breathe -- look at you!” Bitty said as he pulled her into a tight embrace.

The two sunk into each other, and Bitty felt as if he had come home, and he couldn’t remember the last time he felt that way. Just then Bitty noticed a tug at his coat.

“Uncle Biby?” Sang said as he looked at Bitty tentatively.

“Is this my Sang? No, it can’t be The Sang Duan-Knight!” Bitty said with a smile.

“It’s me!” Sang said as he jumped up and down.

Bitty picked up Shitty and Lardo’s son and flung him in the air, as Sang emitted peals of laughter. The last time Bitty saw him was about two years ago. He felt as if he had missed out on many things. Skype calls could only do so much.

“Bitty! Is this your baby?” Lardo asked as she crowded Shitty.

“That’s her,” Bitty said with a gigantic smile. “My little sweetpea, Elizabeth. Ellie for short.”

“Come on, let’s get you settled. Pizza should be here any minute. Sausage and black olive -- just for you,” Shitty said as he ushered everyone into the living room.

+

The fire crackled as Shitty tossed another log into the fireplace. He then got up and stretched; his Samwell t-shirt riding up over his small tummy.

“Babe, do we have any more marshmallows?” Lardo asked from the armchair as she stretched her feet and wiggled her toes on the ottoman.

“‘Chyeah, we do. Who wants some s’mores?” Shitty called out as he walked toward the kitchen. Sang jumped up and ran after Shitty, as he offered to help.

“It’s good to have you here, kiddo,” Lardo said as she looked at Bitty.

He sat on the living room floor playing with Ellie and Sang’s old wooden blocks.

“It’s nice to be here, Lards.”

“He’s missed you a shitload, you know,” she said as she gestured toward the kitchen. “You always said you’d come and visit, and you never really did.”

Hadleyville was a small college town in northern Vermont, and Shitty and Lardo had moved there about three years after Lardo graduated from Samwell. She had the opportunity to teach at the college, and did so for a year until she decided she wanted to start a family and open her own gallery. Shitty was afraid she might miss teaching but Lardo knew what she wanted. And she wanted it all with Shitty.

“Bitty, more wine?” Shitty called from the kitchen. “We still have a lot of pizza, too.”

“Just wine, please,” Bitty replied.

“Lardo, tea?” Shitty yelled.

“Sure! Moroccan mint, please,” she responded, then looked at Bitty again. “So how are you, really?”

Bitty handed Ellie a block, and she flung it in the opposite direction.

“Scared shitless,” he said as he handed her another.

“I bet.”

“What if I just made the worst mistake of my life? That job was security, it had a future. It’s what I worked so hard for, for so long.”

Lardo sighed, “Yeah, Bits -- but at what cost? Dude, you know I fucking adore you, but you were basically in a loveless marriage, were working for The Man 24/7, and you were kinda on the verge of becoming one of those pricks we used to make fun of when we were at Samwell.”

Bitty lightly booped Ellie’s nose. She fussed and started to tear up.

“Oh now look here, missy. I barely touched you,” he said as he carried Ellie into his arms.

Ellie looked up at him and began to cry.

“I think she’s tired,” Lardo said.

“What did you do to her, Bitty?” Shitty asked as he came in with a platter filled with s’more fixings, and a bottle of wine under his arm.

“He bit her. I saw the whole thing,” Lardo said with a laugh.

“You two are awful!” Bitty said with a smile as he rocked Ellie back and forth. She looked at Bitty and sniffled a few times as he wiped her face. Soon, her eyes began to close.

“You want to put her down in the guest room? I can bring out Sang’s old monitor.”

“Sure, thanks,” Bitty said as they both rose and walked toward the stairs.

“Sang and I will get the s’mores going for you two, right, bud?”

“Yeah, poops.”

“Oh my goodness, I will never get over the fact that Sang calls him poops,” Bitty said as they went upstairs.

Lardo laughed, “It was Shitty’s idea!”

“It’s an homage to my name, and it sounds like pops,” he called out from downstairs.

Bitty smiled as they entered the guest room thinking that perhaps, everything would be all right.

Chapter Text

The next morning, Bitty, Ellie, Shitty, Lardo and Sang arrived at the farmhouse. The realtor had left the keys in the mailbox and had told Bitty that she’d turn on the heat for him so the house wouldn’t be as cold.

When she said as cold it gave Bitty pause for concern, but then he thought he might have been overreacting.

“Welcome home, Bittles!” Shitty said as they entered.

“Ma, it’s scary,” Sang said.

“Shh,” Lardo said quietly as she watched Bitty look around with eyes wide. The wallpaper in the foyer was faded, and the crown molding was missing in some parts of the wall. Ellie mumbled loudly as Bitty carried her into the kitchen. Everything in the kitchen was covered with a thick layer of dust.

“Do you want me to take Ellie while you get settled in?” Lardo asked. “I wasn’t planning on opening the gallery today. Sang can help me with her, right?”

“Yup!” He said happily.

“Yeah, and I can come by after work and see what you need help with,” Shitty quickly added.

Bitty took a deep breath and said, “Thanks, Shitty but I think I need to tackle this one on my own for now.”

Everyone nodded and took another look around. A bookshelf fell off the wall and landed on the floor with a loud thud which caused them to scream.

“Yep…” Bitty said quietly.

+++

Visually, the house wasn’t a complete disaster as the realtor tried to keep up with it, but after sitting without interest for so long it was in need of a deep cleaning. Bitty spent the day cleaning, unpacking, and getting the house organized. The previous owner, a Mister Johnson, left quite a bit of furniture, and for the most part it was well cared for and just in need of some attention.

He uncovered the furniture, polished the banisters with wood oil soap, mopped the floors, washed the curtains, vacuumed all the rugs, disinfected the bathroom, dusted the old spinet, cleaned the windows and then got to work on the kitchen. As he scrubbed the sink, he looked out the window and saw someone going for a run down the middle of the street.

“What kind of a lunatic would purposely run in this weather?” Bitty asked himself.

He didn’t get a good look at the man, but just saw a blur of black running tights, a black fleece top, and yellow gym shoes -- a sharp contrast to the snowbanks around him.

“Maniac,” Bitty said as he smiled and kept working.

When he was finally done, he hung his moomaw’s cast iron skillet on the wall and then sat at the kitchen table with a big sigh. Bitty smiled. He didn’t have much, but it was his and it was home.

He picked up his phone and called Lardo.

“Y’all want to come over for dinner?” he asked with a smile.

+

“Brah, I am stuffed,” Shitty said as he helped himself to another slice of chocolate pecan pie. “Do you know how much I’ve missed your pies? It’s criminal you kept them away from me this long.”

Bitty smiled and poured Shitty some more coffee.

“Well, you’ll have plenty more coming, trust me. I was in the cellar earlier, and you would not believe how many apples are down there. Apparently, the realtor and her family picked them all in September and just left them.”

Shitty and Lardo high-fived each other.

“Speaking of the cellar… while I was down there, I noticed the water heater. I’m no expert, but it looks old as hell and was making these weird crackling noises. Now that can’t be good, right?”

“Chow. Chris Chow. That’s who you want to talk to,” Lardo said.

“Chris Chow?” Bitty asked as he gave Ellie a biscuit while she sat in her Tripp Trapp chair.

Shitty nodded. “Yeah, our local plumber and all-around handy Renaissance man. Dude’s about to become your best friend.”

“He and his wife, Caitlin, moved here a couple years ago. Super nice! Like Hallmark greeting card you’ve-gotta-be-shitting-me levels of nice,” Lardo said. “They also own a custom furniture shop in town. He and Cait make the furniture themselves.”

“And the attic is like a wind tunnel,” Bitty added.

“That’s because your roof is basically a house of cards, brah. Will Dexter. Dex is the roof dude and electrician. He can hook you up,” Shitty said.

“Just how many people am I going to be becoming super cozy with here?” Bitty asked hesitantly.

“Shitloads,” Lardo and Shitty said simultaneously, then fist bumped one another.

“‘Swawesome,” Bitty said flatly.

That night, Bitty tucked Ellie into her crib and watched as she fell asleep. Once she was out, he walked back to the kitchen and served himself a glass of wine. The streets of Hadleyville were so silent, it was almost disconcerting. It reminded him of Madison in a way -- although the cold was anything but Madisonesque.

He thought about New York and the hustle and bustle that currently took place. The city lived and moved on without him -- it hadn’t given Bitty a second thought. He sighed and walked upstairs to go to bed.

+++

By Bitty’s calculations, he had about $10,000 left in savings. All of his stocks were liquidated. His 401(k) depleted. The house was paid for, but the repairs were adding up. He needed a job fast.

Every day something else came up with the house.

“Bitty, the pipes on the second floor need to be replaced,” Chris said sadly.

“Bitty, I can patch that hole in the roof now, but come spring it’s gonna need to be fixed. Like a whole new roof,” Dex said.

“Bitty, you’re right. That furnace is on its last leg.”

Weeks passed, and little by little, Bitty saw his savings shrink. He did a couple freelance gigs online -- small jobs, really -- but after he quit Jones and Rey many people were loath to hire him. Not that the firm had bad mouthed Bitty, but they certainly weren’t singing his praises.

And the boredom. Lord, the boredom. He loved spending time with Shitty and Lardo, but didn’t want to intrude on their family life. They were busy, and he understood that so he stayed home, being bored. And if he had to sing another goddamn Wiggles song, well it would just be too soon.

He wasn’t one of those business assholes, but damn it Bitty missed the action of the chase. The look on a client’s face when the dawn of realization hit that Bitty knew exactly what they needed and how to make their business boom. He missed his job. He was good at it. Excellent, damn it. And now, he was out in the middle of nowhere trying to convince the neighborhood grocer to start a Twitter account, “for fun.”

By that point, he had made enough pies to feed the town so he decided to start making baby food for Ellie. It was entertaining enough, adjusting and readjusting the recipe with each batch. Then the next thing he knew he had six dozen jars of baby food.

“Ellie, I’m losing it,” he said to her when he saw all of the jars on the kitchen table.

One particularly cold morning, Bitty woke up, hair all askew and shuffled to the kitchen to get some coffee going.

He turned on the faucet and nothing happened. He took a deep breath, and turned the faucet on and off a few times. Nothing. Bitty ran to the bathroom, and tried the faucets, the tub. Again, nothing.

He ran downstairs and dialed Chris’ cell.

“Sorry to call so early! I have no water! I have no freaking water! Help!” Bitty yelled frantically into the phone.

“Oh no! Jeez Louise, Bitty! Um… gimme 15 minutes, and I’ll be right over.”

Bitty paced back and forth until Chris showed up. He didn’t even give him a chance to knock, as Bitty pulled him in quickly.

“You can fix it, right? I mean, whatever it is? You can fix it‽” Bitty shouted while he grabbed Chris by the collar of his down coat.

“Um… I’ll try! I promise!” Chris said as he peeled Bitty off. Chris stomped the snow from his boots and made his way to the cellar. “You stay here,” he said to Bitty carefully, then walked downstairs.

Five minutes later, Chris emerged and said, “I’m going to check something out back.”

“What’s going on‽” Bitty asked hysterically. “I’m coming with you!”

Ellie was still asleep, so Bitty threw on his parka, slapped on his boots and followed Chris into the deep snow, and out back.

Chris lifted the cover of the well and tsked.

“Oh boy… yeah, I thought so. The well is either frozen or has run dry.”

“I cannot even!” Bitty yelled.

“It won’t be too expensi---”

Bitty continued yelling, “I went to Samwell and graduated at the top of my class! And I went to grad school and graduated with honors! Honors, Chris! For what? To spend my life fixing up this dilapidated shack‽ Spending money I don’t have! Well, you can just forget it because I am gonna get outta here. You see, I need to work.”

Chris looked at him with wide eyes.

“I need crowds of people, I need a julep from 169 Bar, I need a social life! And I need sex! Oh my god! Sex! I'm gonna shrivel up and die here! I mean, how much baby food is one person supposed to make in their lifetime? Look at me. I am going nuts! I used to be... cute!”

“You’re still cute, I guess,” Chris said as he tried to calm Bitty.

“I AM CUTE!” Bitty shrieked and then fell backward onto the snow, as he passed out in front of Chris Chow.

“Uh… Bitty?”

+

Bitty opened his eyes slowly, and could see a ceiling fan as it whirled lazily over his head. He focused his vision and saw he was in a doctor’s office.

“How are you feeling?” Bitty heard a voice ask.

He turned toward the voice, and then found himself looking into the bluest eyes he’d ever seen... which were attached to the most gorgeous man he’d ever seen.

“Who... who are you?”

“Doctor Zimmermann. Chowder brought you in. Guess you passed out, eh?” He said.

Bitty rose slowly, as he squeezed his eyes shut and then opened them wide. He sat up on the examination table and immediately panicked.

“Ellie!”

“It’s okay,” Doctor Zimmermann said with a soft smile. “She’s with Lardo. They’re all outside.”

Bitty sat up completely.

“Do you have a history of fainting spells?” Doctor Zimmermann asked as he put his stethoscope in his lab coat pocket.

Bitty shook his head. “No, never -- well, except for college when I played… well, never mind that. No.”

“So what happened? Are you eating enough protein?”

Bitty suddenly remembered everything that transpired and what had brought him to this beautiful man’s office and felt tears prick his eyes.

“I moved here from New York City foolishly thinking that the country would be good for me. I thought that I needed to slow down, and -- and was so full of pride. I quit -- I can’t believe I quit, but now I just wanna go home. I am practically broke! I have nothing but my daughter, and a 200,000-year-old house that I’m pretty sure I hate and hates me!”

“Oh, I don’t think a house is capable of hate,” Doctor Zimmermann stated.

“So poor Chris Chow was giving me the latest bad news and I just flipped out. I had total verbal diarrhea about how lonely I am, how my house is a mess, my life. And it’s true! I need to head back to civilization!”

Suddenly, Bitty found himself just pouring it all out in front of this doctor -- an ersatz priest receiving Bitty’s sad ass confessions.

“Am I a good dad? Who knows? What if I screw up her entire life because I’m a sucktastic father? And dear lord, I told Chris that I couldn’t remember the last time I had sex. Who does that? A total yahoo! That’s who. And it’s not like it was ever any good. I mean, I never really cared about sex either way, but now that I’m not having it… I’m dying,” Bitty cried out as he threw his hands up in the air and then began to cry into Doctor Zimmermann’s shoulder.

“There, there,” he said as he patted Bitty gently on the knee and handed him a tissue.

“Thank you,” Bitty said in between gasps. He blew his nose as Doctor Zimmermann smiled kindly at him. Just then Bitty heard barking.

“What is that? What... what's going on? Who brings a dog to a doctor’s office?” Bitty asked as he dabbed at his nose with the tissue.

“That’s just my next patient.”

“Your next patient‽” Bitty yelled out and jumped off the examination table.

“It’s Roger from the sound of it,” Doctor Zimmermann said with a nod.

“Your next patient‽ I bared my soul to you thinking you’re a real doctor who could offer solid advice, and you’re -- you’re a vet‽”

“My patients think I’m a real doctor,” Doctor Zimmermann said with a small laugh.

“What in the deep fried hell‽ I cannot believe you!” Bitty said as he stood in the middle of the examination room, then looked down and remembered what he was wearing.

“And of course I’m still in my pajamas. A good looking man in my perimeter and I’m in baby-snot covered pajamas! OF COURSE!” Bitty said as he stomped his feet, and pulled his hood over his head then stormed out.

Doctor Zimmermann stood in the center of the room and watched Bitty leave; a huge smiled plastered on his face.

Chapter Text

After his embarrassing meltdown, Bitty decided to throw himself into more productive activities. He was done feeling sorry for himself, and as he canned his latest batch of baby food, he realized Ellie would be legally able to vote by the time she went through all of it.

“Well, baby girl. What should we do with all this?” he asked her with a smirk.

She looked at him with a smile and said, “Hi.”

“Hi!” Bitty replied happily.

Ellie scooted toward Bitty and offered her arms.

“Look at you, you could give the Gerber Baby a run for its money. You’re precious.”

He picked her up and gave her a smooch on the cheek.

“My very own Gerber baby,” he said. Then it hit him. “My very own Gerber baby! Elizabeth Monique Bittle! Praise the lord!”

The wheels were in motion as Bitty began to pull together an entire marketing plan and product line. He started out simple. He had Lardo design a label which featured a charcoal drawing of Ellie hugging Señor Bun, which he then printed on his laser printer at home.

He took several jars to the area grocer, a couple to the gift shop, even some to Derek’s bookstore and cafe. (“Yeah, it’s chill. Babies gotta eat, right?”) and soon Country Bun Gourmet Baby Food made its small debut.

One evening, Bitty went to the college library to do some research while Ellie was at home with Jenny -- a neighborhood teen who became her occasional babysitter. The two got along famously and Bitty felt comfortable leaving her in Jenny’s hands.

He was about an hour into his work, as he sipped on his already cold coffee from Derek’s cafe, when he approached the reference desk.

“Hi. Can I see anything you have on new trends in foods consumerism and baby food manufacturers. Also, recent issues of Progressive Grocer and do you know if you have the updated edition of Likeable Social Media?”

“Sure, let me check,” the librarian responded.

Bitty leaned against the counter, put his cup down, and scrolled through his Twitter feed when he heard someone clear their throat behind him.

He turned and saw Doctor Zimmermann with a backpack in one arm, and his coat slung over the other. He looked cute as hell.

“Well, hello,” Doctor Zimmermann said with a smile.

Bitty felt his cheeks burn. “Oh, hello Doctor -- if that is, in fact, your real name.”

Doctor Zimmermann’s smile grew and he said, “Jack. It’s Jack, actually.”

Bitty smiled and then looked down at his phone so as to avoid being sucked into the blue abyss of Jack’s eyes.

“What are you doing here?” Jack asked.

“I'm just doing a little bit of research. What are you doing here?”

Just then, a cute young college student walked by and smiled at Jack.

“Hi, Doctor Zimmermann.”

“Hey, Taylor,” Jack responded.

Bitty scoffed.

“I teach a class here once a week. Aren't you supposed to be headed back to civilization?”

“I’m working on it. Believe you me,” Bitty said. “So you teach here? I thought you were a vet.”

“Yes. I was just wondering if maybe you wanted to go have a cup of coffee.”

“I… I don't drink coffee.”

“You don’t?”

“Nuh-uh.”

“Funny because that cup next to you says ‘Bitty’ on the sleeve.”

Bitty scrunched up his nose, and then gingerly pushed the cup away. “So what class do you teach?”

“History.”

“Are you practicing medicine without a license, doctor?” Bitty asked with a smirk.

“No, my undergrad and graduate degrees are in history. I decided to become a vet, after.”

“Underachiever. I see how it is,” Bitty said as he tried to appear cool.

“So, do you not want have a cup of coffee? Because tea is fine, too,” Jack said with a smile -- a smile that made Bitty melt and almost forget how he had embarrassed himself in Jack’s office.

“I’m actually just waiting for some books and was on my way out. My sitter needs to get back home,” Bitty said.

“Well, maybe some other time then?” Jack asked.

“Why are you asking me out?” Bitty said with exasperation.

“Because I think you’re interesting, funny and cute... and very brave,” Jack said as he leaned in closer.

“Excuse me, here are your books.”

Bitty stared at Jack, unable to breathe.

“Sir? Your books?”

Bitty snapped out of it and turned to look at the librarian.

“Oh, thanks,” he said as he gathered the books in a pile and quickly walked back toward his table. Jack picked up the coffee from the desk and followed him.

“Do you want me to walk you to your car? You have a lot of stuff, and it’s very icy outside,” Jack said.

“You’d think after all the years I spent in New York and New England, I’d be used to northern winters by now -- but this takes the cake.”

“It’s not so bad. Reminds me of home,” Jack said.

“And where exactly is home, Doctor?” Bitty asked as he began to zip up his enormous down coat.

“Jack.”

“Where exactly is home, Doctor Jack?”

Jack smiled and said, “Montreal. But I went to Brown for undergrad and grad school, and Cornell for veterinary, so I guess you could say I’ve always been in and around the area.”

“Well you just work harder than god, don’t you? And name dropping like a pro, too, I see,” Bitty said as he put his books in his messenger bag.

“Is it working? Are you impressed yet?” Jack asked, as he handed Bitty the last book.

“I’ll tell you later,” Bitty said sassily as Jack smirked.

Jack and Bitty walked through the parking lot and arrived at Bitty’s Volvo.

“This is me,” Bitty said as he unlocked the door. “Is your car far away?”

“I rode my bike here.”

“Rode your bike? Lord, you are Canadian through and through, eh?” Bitty said as his frosty breath shot out into the bitter evening air.

“My house isn’t that far. I don’t mind the cold,” Jack said.

“Well, I guess I’ll be seeing you Doctor Jack,” Bitty said as he leaned against the car.

Jack took a small step forward and said, “I hope so.”

He then pulled down his knit cap a bit more, winked at Bitty and began to walk away.

Bitty got into his car and turned it on, and exhaled nervously.

“Oh, sweet Mary,” he said loudly with a wide smile.

+++

The following evening, Lardo called Bitty to invite him over for dinner.

“What’s the occasion?” Bitty asked.

“It’s a Tuesday. The hell? Do I need a special occasion to have you come over so I can see your lovely face, you ass?”

Bitty laughed. “I guess not? What kind of pie do you want?”

Lardo covered the phone and yelled out, “Shits! What kind of pie do you want?”

“Yes!” Shitty replied.

“He said yes,” Lardo said dryly.

“Fine. Bitty Surprise it is,” he said as he laughed.

Bitty rang the doorbell at 5:00 with two pies, and one baby in tow. As he walked up the steps, he prayed he wouldn’t wipe out for fear of smooshing either. No one likes a smooshed baby or pie.

“Hi!” Bitty called out as Lardo ushered him inside.

“You’re letting the cold in, you ragamuffin,” she said while she took Ellie from him. Ellie immediately extended her arms toward Lardo.

“How’s my girl?” Lardo asked and then blew a raspberry on her cold cheek. Ellie bounced happily. “Shitty’s in the living room.”

“I’ll just put these pies in the kitchen and will be right there,” Bitty said as he put the pies down on the hallway bench and took off his coat.

Lardo smiled and walked away with Ellie.

Sang sat at the kitchen table and colored when Bitty entered.

“Hi, Uncle Biby,” Sang said happily.

“What are you doing over here all alone, mister?” Bitty asked as he put the pies on the counter.

“Coloring. Poops and Jack are too loud in living room,” he said matter-of-factly.

“Poops and Jack?”

Just then Bitty heard Jack’s voice.

“We really have to stop meeting like this,” Jack said with a smile.

Bitty turned and saw Jack leaning against the door frame. He wore a thick fisherman’s sweater and a pair of well worn tight jeans. His five o’clock shadow made Bitty want to do things to him. Many, many things.

“What are you doing here?” Bitty squeaked out.

“Lardo invited me for dinner. And when she said you were going to come, how could I say no?”

“All right, you charmer,” Bitty said as he pushed his way past Jack and into the living room. “That’s enough of you.”

“Bitty, my man! I see Jack found you,” Shitty said with a shit eating grin.

“Yeah, he did,” Bitty said as he shot daggers at Shitty.

It’s not that he didn’t think Jack was drop dead gorgeous, but one, he didn’t like being tricked or lied to, and two, every time he thought about his meltdown in Jack’s office, Bitty just wanted to crawl into a hole and hide.

Lardo came up behind Bitty and squeezed his arm then quickly whispered, “He likes you so just calm the fuck down.”

Bitty turned and saw Jack traverse the living room to sit on the couch, a soft smile on his face. Lardo and Shitty’s cat, Puke, immediately jumped on the couch to snuggle Jack.

“Oh,” Bitty said.

Ellie sat on a thick blanket on the floor and entertained herself with Bun and various toys Lardo brought out for her.

“Who wants some wine?” Shitty asked as he walked toward the kitchen. Jack and Bitty both raised their hands.

“Jack, Bitty brought pie,” Lardo said as she sat on the couch next to Jack.

“Pie? I’ve heard so much about your pies. I can’t wait. What did you make?” Jack asked.

“Um, apple and... a sugar pie.”

Jack’s eyebrows shot up. “You made a tarte au sucre?”

Bitty blushed. He was mortified.

When Jack mentioned he was from Montreal, Bitty went home that evening and looked up Montreal desserts on the internet. The first thing that showed up was a tarte au sucre. He made one that evening, sat in his living room, enjoyed a slice, and thought of Jack. He smiled with every bite.

“What? No, I made a sugar pie,” he said shyly as he looked down at his feet.

Jack smiled as Lardo elbowed him with a wink.

“Ma, can I show baby my spoons?” Sang said as he entered the living room carrying a small bundle in his arms.

“Totes, silly billy. Come on in.”

Sang sat down next to Ellie and opened the small cloth napkin he had in his arms. Several spoons tumbled out.

Jack rose from the couch and walked toward Sang and Ellie. He sat next to them, as Sang displayed his collection.

“This one’s from and ông’s house. This one is from Derek’s. This one is from Uncle Ran and Holsy’s house. This one from nana and grandfather’s house,” he said pointing to another spoon.

“Yeah, that’s Christofle flatware. Hilarious!” Shitty said with a guffaw as he returned with two glasses of wine and a bottle of beer.

“Why does he collect spoons?” Jack asked as he watched Sang bang a couple of the spoons together.

“Well, he saw the display of Vermont state spoons in the college souvenir shop and asked about them. I told them that some people like to collect spoons from places they’ve visited to remind them of their time there, so he just started taking spoons from everywhere.”

Ellie took one of the spoons and put it in her mouth. Sang stared at her for a moment, and then shrugged and continued to rearrange his spoons.

“I love that,” Bitty said as he smiled at the kids. “College Lardo would heartily approve.”

“You met in college, right?” Jack asked.

Bitty smiled. “Yep, it was my frog year and this one here,” he said as he pointed at Shitty, “took it upon himself to be my mentor and guardian. He took me under his wing.”

Shitty laughed. “Pssh! Imagine that face at 18. That sweet angelic face. Who wouldn’t want to take care of it?”

“Lardo and I met later that year. She had been off gallivanting in Kenya, but when we did finally meet -- we were instant soulmates.”

“The two shortest people in the Haus had to stick together,” she said.

Shitty got up from the sofa. “I’m going to check on the roast. Anyone need anything? Jack? Bitty?”

“No thanks,” Bitty said.

“I’ll help. You two, be chaperones,” Lardo said to Sang and Ellie with a smile as she pushed herself up from the couch and headed over to the kitchen.

“Subtle,” Bitty said softly, as Jack chuckled.

“Why do they call you Bitty?” Jack asked.

“That was my hockey nickname,” Bitty said.

“That’s right. You played hockey,” Jack said with a smirk.

“Yeah, yeah, I know, Jack. I don’t look like it. No need to chirp.”

“No, I wasn’t going to. It’s just… I played hockey, too.”

“Well that explains why you’re in such great shape,” Bitty blurted out.

Jack’s eyes grew wide and then he laughed.

“No, I mean. You’re fit -- fitter than most, I mean ---” Bitty said nervously.

“Yes, it’s a shame you’re such an out of shape sad sack. I shouldn’t even be talking to you, really,” Jack said as he smiled and rolled his eyes. “You’re in amazing shape, yourself, obviously.”

Bitty felt his ears get warm. “Is that how you and Shitty met? You all play in the same beer league?”

“We do,” Jack said as Ellie looked up at him and smiled. He picked her up and put her on his lap and continued, “But we met when they brought their cat to see me, and I sort of knew Lardo from the college. We just hit it off from there. They’re all amazing.”

“They really are. I can’t even begin to imagine what Samwell would have been like without them.”

“My mother went to Samwell,” Jack said as he balanced Ellie who stood on his legs. She wobbled slightly and laughed.

“She did?”

“Yes, and I almost went there but changed my mind.”

“Wow, I wonder if we all would have met?”

Jack shook his head, “I took a detour school-wise, and ended up matriculating at a later age.”

Shitty poked his head in, “Dinner’s ready. Want to head on in?”

“Sure,” Jack said as he put Ellie on the floor, stood up slowly, and gently walked her to the dining room. He held her hand as he matched his pace to her small steps.

Bitty thought his heart might burst.

“Bitty you sit here,” Lardo said, and then pulled the chair next to his and said, “And Jack, you’re here.”

Bitty snorted and sat down without looking at Jack who grinned widely as he took his seat.

“I hope you like the roast. Yankee pot roast --- sorry I couldn’t find a Southern pot roast recipe in your honor, Bitty,” Shitty said as he scooped a big helping onto Bitty’s plate.

“Funny, Shitty,” Bitty said flatly as he took his plate. “You know, everyone in that Haus had an accent, but anytime I’d let out a ‘y’all’ it was suddenly, ‘Hur, hur, hur. Bitty’s from the farm, derp derp.’”

Everyone laughed -- even Bitty -- as Shitty quickly added, “But we love you!”

“It’s difficult sometimes, having an accent,” Jack said. “'Where are you from?' 'Do you love poutine?' 'You sound so exotic!' 'Say something else!' I’m not a dog who’ll perform tricks on demand. And if I have to hear that I sound like Kris Letang, one more time.”

“See? The man knows what I’m talking about,” Bitty said as he pointed at Jack.

Lardo rolled her eyes and said dramatically, “Yeah, I feel so sad for all the oppression and suffering you two have had to face as two successful white men in America.”

Shitty laughed and fist bumped Lardo, as Jack and Bitty looked at each other sheepishly.

Dinner conversation between the four of them was easy and fun, with Sang and Ellie providing occasional comments from the peanut gallery. Soon, talk turned to hockey.

“You should totally join our league, Bitty,” Shitty said cutting into his potato. “Jack, you should have seen him. He was the fastest little fucker I’d ever seen on the ice.”

“Really?”

“Poops said the F word, ma,” Sang said with glee.

“Shitty,” Lardo replied, “Watch your fucking language.”

Sang giggled.

“Anyway, fastest little bugger I’d ever seen on the ice,” Shitty amended.

“I figure skated when I was a kid, so I could outskate everyone. Really, it was a defense mechanism to avoid getting checked,” Bitty said. “Do you like the beer league?”

“It’s fun to be on the ice again,” Jack said.

“Did you play in college, too?” Bitty asked.

Shitty snorted. “Bitty, Jack was in the NHL.”

“Shitty…” Jack said as he motioned for Shitty to stop.

“Oh my god, really?” Bitty asked.

“He was one of the best,” Lardo added proudly.

“I… it’s not a big deal,” Jack said as he looked down and took a sip of his wine.

“Okay, well, we don’t have to talk about it,” Bitty said then pantomimed locking his mouth with a key.

“Tell me about you,” Jack said as he smiled at Bitty.

Lardo and Shitty exchanged a quick happy look.

“There’s not much to tell.”

“Now that I believe that even less than you not drinking coffee,” Jack said.

“Shitty, why don’t you get the kids and we can go to the kitchen to serve dessert?” Lardo said as she began to clear the table.

“You two are as subtle as a flying brick,” Bitty said while Shitty took Ellie from her chair.

“What if it’s a foam brick? You know, one of those Nerf ones?” Shitty asked.

Sang jumped off his seat and yelled, “Pie!” as he raced into the kitchen. Then Jack and Bitty were alone.

Jack looked at Bitty with chinhands, and Bitty smiled in spite of himself.

“All right then. I, uh, grew up in Madison, Georgia, figure skated when I was a kid, got bullied for it, have baked my entire life, went to Samwell and met these two, got my bachelor’s, my master’s, got a job at a PR firm, almost made partner, got Ellie, quit my job, bought my kooky house, and now somehow I’m in the food industry business making baby food. See? Boring.”

“You have an odd idea of what boring is,” Jack said with a smile. “You see boring but I see someone who always went after what they wanted -- even if it might have been difficult. I see someone who took a leap of faith, someone who is traveling down a new path which is probably the path they were meant to take all along… someone with a heart as big and beautiful as the sun, and eyes just as big and beautiful.”

Bitty didn’t know what to say, he smiled shyly then looked down at this hands which were folded in his lap.

Sang returned to the dining room as he held Ellie’s hand. She walked next to him smiling.

“We got pie!” he announced excitedly.

Lardo and Shitty entered the kitchen with the pies and dishes.

“Apple for you, Ellie, Shitty, Sang and Bitty… and for Jack, a slice of sugar pie,” Lardo said as she cut a giant slice for Jack and placed it in front of him.

“It looks amazing,” he said as he picked up his fork.

“I hope it’s good,” Bitty said as he watched Jack take an enormous bite.

Jack moaned and closed his eyes as he chewed, and Shitty leaned in and whispered to Bitty, “Atta boy, tiger.”

+

“Thanks for dinner,” Jack said. “And for the pie. Are you sure you don’t want to keep it?”

“No, dude,” Lardo said, “the sugar pie is totally yours. No worries.”

“Thanks, y’all,” Bitty said as he hugged Shitty and then kissed Lardo.

“Drive safe, don’t run over any deer on the way home. That shit breaks my fucking heart,” Shitty said as they walked out the door.

Bitty and Jack walked down to the curb, Ellie asleep in Bitty’s arms.

“Please tell me you didn’t ride your bike here tonight?” Bitty said as they approached the Volvo.

“No, I drove,” Jack said as he opened the back door for Bitty.

“Thanks,” he said and buckled Ellie into her car seat.

Bitty closed the door and walked over to the driver’s side door and smiled at Jack. Jack smiled back and inched closer to Bitty.

“So…”

“Sew buttons,” Bitty replied.

“Haha. Nice.”

The two stared at each other, and Bitty quickly glanced toward the house and saw that Shitty and Lardo watched them from behind a crack in their curtains.

“We have an audience,” Bitty said.

Jack turned and saw the curtain quickly close.

Crisse,” he said as he laughed and shook his head.

“Night, Jack,” Bitty said as he looked into Jack’s eyes.

Jack smiled as his eyes swept across Bitty face.

He then said softly, “Good night, Bitty. And thanks for the pie. It’s nice to be thought of.”

“Right back at ya,” Bitty said and got in his car.

Chapter Text

“Did someone die? Otherwise, I’m not sure why the hell you’re calling me so early,” Bitty said, eyes still closed.

“Shinny,” Shitty replied cryptically.

“Excuse me?” Bitty said as he looked at the clock on his nightstand then over at Ellie who was sound asleep.

“Shinny. Today. The lake is frozen solid, we're going to have a game of mother fucking shinny.”

“I’m going to have a game of mother fucking sleeping in,” Bitty grumbled.

“I’m texting you the directions. Be there at nine. Be there, or be square.”

“I don’t have a sitter,” Bitty said as he sat up.

“Already took care of that. Jenny is coming over in an hour. You’re welcome.”

“And you’re a menace, you weekend killer.”

“Nine,” Shitty replied then hung up.

+

Bitty pulled his station wagon into a parking spot and grabbed his bag of gear, and the thermos of cocoa and cups he brought with him for whoever was playing. He looked in his rearview mirror, excited that he still fit in his Samwell jersey. It was a bit snug, but damn it, it still fit. He touched the C on it and smiled.

The day was clear and sunny, and the small lake Shitty had chosen was beautiful. The morning was quiet and serene until he approached the group and heard, "This is the fucking shit right here!"

Bitty laughed when he saw Shitty with his arm around Chris’ shoulder as they admired the view.

“I still can’t get over how great this is,” Chris said. “We miss San Francisco, but stuff like this makes up for it.”

“Hey, y’all,” Bitty said as he saw Dex, Derek, Chris, Jack’s technician Tony and his friend Connor, Alexei who owned the local pub, and finally, Jack.

“Morning,” Jack said with a large smile.

“Morning yourself,” Bitty said as he looked at Jack’s red cheeks. He worked hard to act casual, but it was difficult when Jack was the epitome of rugged, windblown handsomeness.

“Alright, we've played together before but for Bitty who is new to our band of merry men, these are the rules,” Shitty explained. “There are no rules or specific positions, and no goalies. It's basically a Thunderdome free for all of outdoor puck with a dash of survival of the fittest. Losers pay for brunch.”

“Guy’s Diner has $3 mimosas on Sundays,” Chris said.

“Enough chit-chat, gentlemen. Let’s get this shit going. Everyone throw your sticks into a pile,” Shitty said.

Once the sticks were down, Derek divided them into two groups and everyone retrieved theirs to find out which team they were on.

Jack and Bitty were on opposing teams, and during the initial face off, Jack tried to give Bitty what he called his “Terrifying Mask of Sporty Bro Masculinity,” which only made Bitty laugh.

Once the game began, Bitty took as much as he gave, and couldn’t remember the last time he had had that much fun.

He was pushed, poked, prodded, and worked well with Shitty and Alexei on the same line. When Jack took the puck, Bitty was right alongside him trying to take it away. Skate for skate, Bitty kept up with Jack, much to his delight.

After an hour, everyone laughed and slapped one another on the back.

“Guess that means your team is springing for brunch, huh, Jack?” Bitty said teasingly.

“I’m afraid to ask how many $3 mimosas you have in you,” Jack replied.

Bitty smiled, as the two exchanged a long glance.

“We’ll find out,” Bitty said.

“You looked good out there, Bitty. You really protected the puck. And don't think I didn't notice that check of yours. Poor Tony didn't know what hit him.”

“Well, what can I say?” Bitty said with a laugh.

“Oh shit! Bittster! Holy fuck! Before we go, do a jump!” Shitty yelled.

“A jump?” Dex asked.

“Shitty, no – I, just no,” Bitty said with mortification.

“Bitty, yes!” Shitty shouted. “My brah, Bitty, here was a championship figure skater in his wee early years. Do a jump! Do a jump!”

Soon Dex, Derek, Alexei, and Tony joined in on the chorus as they all yelled, “Do a jump!”

“Fine. Just one,” Bitty said.

He skated around the pond a few times to gain momentum, his skates moved fluidly. Bitty then launched himself into the air, and performed a simple double axel as he landed perfectly on one leg, arms spread wide.

He saw Jack as he jumped up and yelled out, “There you go, number 15!”

Everyone cheered wildly.

“Bro!” Tony yelled.

“Chill. That air, dude!" Derek added as they all whooped and hollered.

Bitty returned, as he breathed heavily.

“B! No way! My mom is national figure skater. That was great jump!” Alexei shouted.

“I didn’t know if I still had a triple in me, so you just got a double,” he said out of breath and with a smile.

“Not bad, Bitty,” Jack said with a flirty wink, and offered his fist to Bitty. “Not bad at all.”

“A fist bump. I didn’t know you did those,” Bitty said.

If this is what flirting with Jack Zimmermann felt like, Bitty would gladly take it.

+++

“Thanks for letting me glom off your internet,” Bitty said as he sat at Lardo’s reception desk at the art gallery. “It’s so damn spotty at the house.”

“No problem,” Lardo said as she busied herself with the installation of white ceramic horns in a grid pattern on the wall.

She then sighed and looked down at her tummy which bumped against the wall and prevented her from reaching all the way. “Okay kid, you’re starting to interrupt my workflow.”

Lardo rubbed it tenderly.

“You need help, mama?” Bitty asked.

“Nah, I’m good. I’ll just drag my step stool over here and stand sideways,” she said as she clicked a horn into place.

“You’re killin me, Smalls. Look at you! So stinking cute. Lord,” Bitty said as he looked at Lardo.

She flipped him off, walked toward the desk, and took her cup of tea. “How’s it going over here?”

“Good! I just want to make sure it’s perfect before I launch. I can’t believe enough people want to order my junk, that I’m actually putting together an online store.”

“People know what’s good, Bitty. And you’re such a whiz at marketing Country Bun, I’m not surprised it’s taken off like it has.”

“You’ve always been one of my biggest cheerleaders,” Bitty said, as Lardo rubbed his hand and returned to her work.

Bitty watched her intently. He loved Lardo’s gallery. It was an amazing mix of local artists and artists from across the country. And even though the gallery was out in the sticks, it was well known and respected. The gallery was bright, open, and exactly the kind of place Lardo would own.

He got up from the desk and walked over to help. He picked up one of the horns and looked at it.

“These are cool, Lards.”

“Right? They’re creepy but fun… reminds me of the show Hannibal.”

Bitty had always been proud of her, but looking at her now, running her own show, supporting other artists, and still doing her own work -- he burst with pride.

+++

“Just let me know if you want more carrot. I think you ran out before you received your next delivery,” Bitty said as he handed over two cases of Country Bun to Derek.

“Will do, man. Want some coffee to go and a treat for Ellie?”

“Thanks, Derek. That’ll be great.”

“No problem, meet me at the front.”

The last few months had been such a surprise and a blessing to Bitty. The online store had taken off and local nearby businesses were ordering Country Bun regularly. The operation soon outgrew his kitchen, so Bitty rented a space just off of Main Street which had once been a bakery.

Country Bun officially had headquarters, a website, an online store, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook page and a following. The Hadleyville Gazette had even run a feature on Country Bun which included a photo of Ellie and Bitty standing outside of the storefront.

Bitty had been so busy with Ellie and Country Bun, it hardly left him time for anything else. Still, whenever he’d see Jack around town they flirted with each other as vigorously as ever.

“Hold on tight, Miss Ellie,” Bitty said as he pushed his small dolly through Derek’s cafe and bookstore, as Ellie stood on it and laughed while she hung on. He saw Jack at the counter, just as he paid for his coffee.

“Doctor Zimmermann, I presume,” Bitty said as he approached Jack.

“Well if it isn’t Mr. Country Bun himself and Baby Bun,” Jack said as he smiled. He leaned down and tickled Ellie’s stomach as she laughed some more.

“How are you?” He asked Bitty.

“Good! Busy, but good. I haven’t seen you around in a couple days.”

“Oh, were you actively looking for me?” Jack said as his smile grew.

“Maybe. Maybe not,” Bitty replied sassily.

“I was at a conference in Providence for a few days. I almost called you to see how you were,” Jack said.

“Shoulda, coulda, woulda,” Bitty said.

“Here’s your coffee, Bitty,” Derek said as he handed him a giant to-go cup. Derek came around and said, “Ellie, do you want a cookie?”

“Yeah,” she nodded enthusiastically as Derek walked her over to pick out her treat.

“Thanks, Derek,” Bitty said.

“Hmm, too bad you don’t drink coffee,” Jack said with a smirk.

“Total shame,” Bitty replied as he took a tiny sip.

“So, are you going to the festival?” Jack asked.

“The festival? Oh! The maple syrup thingy?”

“Uh-huh. And I’m fairly certain that’s the official name, too. ‘The Maple Syrup Thingy.’” Jack said as he touched Bitty’s arm.

Bitty felt his cheeks burn. “I could be persuaded to go, if the right people were going.”

“Chris and Caitlin Chow are going, so you know…”

“Ah, well see -- there you go. I guess I have to go then,” Bitty said.

Jack smiled. “Good. That’s good.”

The two stared at each other some more. Jack’s eyes looked deep into Bitty’s, and Bitty felt his breath hitch. That good old-fashioned eye boink was the most action Bitty had gotten in months.

“Well,” Jack finally said. “I have a tooth I have to extract from a very unhappy Saint Bernard, so I should get going.”

“Bye,” Bitty said as he waved.

Derek came back with Ellie in his arms. Her face covered in powdered sugar.

“Do I need to call the fire department, because the heat in here must be coming from a smoldering fire,” Derek said as he handed Ellie over to Bitty.

“Oh hush, you,” Bitty said as he blushed.

+++

“What are you wearing?” Bitty asked as he pressed his cell between his ear and shoulder.

“I don’t know. A damn gunny sack?” Lardo said dryly. “I am huge, my ankles are swollen, I’m constantly farty, and I’d rather just stay home and watch crap TV while I eat a pie.”

“So stay home, watch crap TV and eat a pie,” Bitty said.

“I can’t. Shitty is playing in the band, and I have to be supportive and shit.”

“Shitty is playing in the band?” Bitty said as he picked out his green bowtie. “How did I not know this?”

“Yeah, he started playing the mandolin when we moved here.”

“The mandolin? Really? Oh, Shitty.”

“Jesus, I said as long as it wasn’t the damn banjo that was fine with me. He plays in Chris’ band. They’re called The Sin Bin.”

“Chris? Chris Chow? He has a band called The Sin Bin?” Bitty asked incredulously.

“Right? But their music is anything but. I mean, there’s a mandolin in the band, for fuck’s sake. So are you finally going to make a move on Jack tonight?”

“Jack. Huh… maybe? I don’t know. He’s so gorgeous, I can’t even think straight when I’m around him.”

“Well, that’s good -- cause you’re not.”

“Not what?”

“Straight.”

“Har, har, Larissa,” Bitty said.

She laughed then said, “Let me let you in on a little secret. That guy is so gone on you, you could show up wearing a gunny sack and he’d still be all moony-eyed and junk. Gross.”

Bitty smiled, “Yeah, well, I don’t have time for anything right now -- much less a hunky Canadian, veterinarian, history teacher with a body that’s on the verge of being obscene.”

“Well, it’s a good thing you’re not into him at all, then.”

“I’m hanging up now,” Bitty said loudly.

“Later, gator,” Lardo said then ended the call.

Bitty looked over to the bed, where Ellie sat with Bun and played with a puzzle. She glanced at Bitty and flung Bun in his direction then smiled, a small goofy thing.

He plopped himself on the bed and caused Ellie to flop around, much to her delight.

“So, what do you think? Should I give Jack a chance?”

She smiled and offered her arms to Bitty.

“Good call,” he said and smooched her cheek.

+++

The Hadleyville Central High School gym was decorated with a ridiculous amount of twinkle lights and paper maples leaves which dangled from the ceiling. Ellie reached out toward them as Bitty twirled her around while he held her in his arms. She threw her head back and laughed.

There were maple cakes, maple rum punch, maple cookies, bottles of maple syrup for sale, maple candy, maple glazed BBQ pulled pork sandwiches, and of course the sounds of The Sin Bin as they took the stage.

“Mrs. Gupta wanted me to remind you that all the proceeds from the evening will go toward the restoration of the Hadley House, so everyone make sure to bid on the silent auction and buy some baked goods to take home with you. We’re The Sin Bin and we’re glad you’re here!” Chris announced.

Bitty applauded as he clapped one of his hands to Ellie’s, just then, Lardo approached.

“It’s not every day I can say that my plumber is on stage with his band,” Bitty said as a greeting.

“Wave hi to Shitty!” Lardo replied as she pointed to Shitty who enthusiastically strummed on his mandolin. They both waved at Shitty as he nodded and winked at them from the stage.

“Don’t you look cute,” Bitty said as he checked out Lardo’s outfit.

“Thanks, but call me cute again and I’ll bust your teeth in,” she said without any real bite.

Ellie said, “Lado.”

“Hey, baby!” Lardo said as Ellie immediately extended her arms toward Lardo. “You two are looking spiffy, as usual.”

“This girl drops me like yesterday’s news whenever you show up,” Bitty said as he handed Ellie to Lardo.

“I’m like the Baby Whisperer.”

“Of course, it doesn’t hurt that she’s the world’s easiest toddler,” Jack said behind them.

Bitty turned around, “Hello.”

“Hello, yourself. I see you made it. Hi, Lardo. Hey, Ellie,” Jack said with a smile.

“Well, you know, I heard that the best people would be here,” Bitty responded.

Lardo grinned like the cat that got the cream and then said, “I’m going to go check on Sang. He was eyeballing the sweets table, and I can’t be sure he hasn’t run off with a cake already and is shoved in a hovel protecting it like Gollum. I’ll be back. Say bye, Ellie.”

“Buh-bye,” Ellie said and waved as Lardo took her away.

Jack unexpectedly took Bitty’s hand and said, “I’d ask you if you want some coffee -- but you don’t drink coffee.”

“Well, that’s not exactly true,” Bitty said, “But I can drink a lot of other stuff while we’re here. Punch, water, sweet tea, wine.”

Jack walked Bitty over to the refreshments as he continued to hold his hand.

“What’s good, Dex?” Jack asked as they approached the table.

“People have been raving about the Maple-Bourbon Smash -- but I like the Lumberjack Julep.”

“All right, then. Give us two Lumberjack Juleps,” Jack said.

“That’ll be $8.00, Jack.”

Jack reached in his wallet and pulled out a ten, as Bitty watched him. He was dressed in a red plaid shirt, with a black tie and a brown blazer. He had black pants and brown loafers. It looked like it was clearly one his school outfits -- and a bit of a disaster, frankly, but Bitty found the overall look charming. It was 100% Jack.

Dex handed Jack two plastic cups, and Jack handed Bitty one.

“Thanks,” Bitty said as he took a sip. The bourbon warmed Bitty from the center out, or it easily could have been the way Jack looked at him.

“Here’s a song for all you lovers,” Chris said from stage as they began to play Georgia on my Mind.

“Would you, euh, care to dance?” Jack asked.

“Sure,” Bitty replied, as Jack put their drinks down on a nearby table.

“You look very handsome,” Jack said as they danced.

“Thank you,” he said. Bitty felt as if there were definitely some eyes on them, but he didn’t care.

“I’m glad you came. I was worried you weren’t going to and that I’d have to hire a skywriter to fly over your house to let you know I like you. You showing up here makes it a lot easier. I like you, by the way,” Jack said as he squeezed Bitty’s hand.

“Oh,” Bitty said. He blushed and didn’t know what else to say.

Jack looked at him slightly panicked.

“Why're you looking at me like -- oh!” Bitty said again, “Well, that’s good. Real good, cause, I, uh, like you, too.”

Jack smiled and they continued to dance quietly. Bitty looked over to the side, and saw Lardo give him a thumbs up. She still had Ellie in her arms.

“Lord, we definitely have an audience. That seems to be a theme with the Duan-Knight family.”

“Do you want to take a walk?” Jack asked.

“Sure, um… let me just check in with Ellie.”

“Of course,” Jack said.

Bitty walked toward Lardo whose smile grew exponentially.

“Lards, do you mind if…”

“Go!” Lardo yelled out. “Go and I swear to god, if you don’t get laid tonight, so help me, Eric Richard Bittle, I’ll kick your ass. I’ll be leaving soon, and Ellie can 100% sleep over. I still have some of her diapers at home.”

“You’re a saint,” Bitty said as he kissed her cheek, and then kissed Ellie. “Good night, sweet girl.”

“Say goodnight to daddy,” Lardo said.

“Nite, dadda,” Ellie replied.

“Say, ‘I hope you have fun tonight!’”

“Lardo!”

She laughed as Bitty walked away and Ellie waved.

Bitty nervously approached Jack who stood by the door of the gymnasium. Jack held the door open for Bitty, and then pressed his hand into the small of Bitty’s back as they exited.

They walked down the long corridors of the high school, and just chatted comfortably about any and everything.

They stopped when they reached a corridor with large glass windows facing the school’s hockey rink.

“Have you played here?” Bitty asked as he pointed to the rink.

“Here? No, we play for our beer league in a rink the next town over. It’s fun, you should come and play with us some day. You can check me into the boards.”

“This man,” Bitty said with a laugh.

Jack chuckled.

“So you were in the NHL?” Bitty asked tentatively.

Jack nodded as he looked at the rink.

“I played for the Habs, and actually won the Cup while I was with them.”

“You won the Stanley Cup? Lord Jack, that’s more than just being in the NHL. That’s… wow.”

Jack shrugged. “It was nice, but it wasn’t really it for me, you know?”

“No, I don’t. Tell me,” Bitty said.

“Well, the pressure aspect of it wasn’t fun,” Jack said hesitantly. “I loved the game, and loved playing. If it had been nothing but hockey, maybe I’d still be there. But there was so much more to it. The strata -- just layer upon layer: being the son of a hockey legend, being labeled both a wunderkind and a has-been before I had even begun.”

Bitty inched closer to Jack and offered him a small supportive look as Jack continued.

“The press was terrible, too. One day I was their sacred cow, the next their steak dinner… And on top of all that, add my sexuality to it. It wasn’t worth it. The scrutiny and anxiety, the constant fear of failure. It wasn’t good for my mental health, and it didn’t make me happy anymore.”

Bitty took Jack’s hand. Jack smiled softly and stroked Bitty with his thumb.

“It takes a lot of growing up to realize something isn't good for you. I stepped away after winning the Cup. I went back to school. Had two history degrees under my belt, but didn’t know what I wanted to do with them. I coached peewee hockey for a while. Lived with my parents during this time -- kind of took a couple a gap years, I guess.”

He leaned against the glass, looked at Bitty, and kept going, “Then one day, my parents’ husky, Theo, got sick and I went with my mom to take him the vet. Theo didn’t make it, but the vet was so kind, made Theo’s last moments special, and the way she was there for my parents. I always liked animals, so I applied to veterinary school and well, here I am.”

“Well, I’m not glad you had all that going on, but I am glad it brought you here.”

“Me too,” Jack said. “Sometimes you have to take a circuitous route to find your way home, but when you get there... you just know.”

Bitty nodded and stepped closer inside Jack’s space.

Jack smiled and reached down to cup Bitty’s face as he stepped up onto his toes and kissed Jack. It was soft at first, just gentle pecks but then Jack deepened the kiss and Bitty felt as though he were floating on air.

Never had he been kissed like this. Never had he felt an instant physical connection with someone like he did with Jack. Bitty pulled away as he tried to catch his breath.

“Do you want to go to my place?” Bitty said then kissed Jack once again.

“God, yes,” he said into Bitty’s mouth.

Somehow, they managed to get into Bitty’s car and drive to Bitty’s house. By the time Bitty reached for the keys in his coat as Jack kissed his neck, he made a mental note to send Lardo the biggest thank you pie ever.

The moment they entered the house, Bitty crowded Jack against the door and pressed his eager mouth to Jack’s as he unzipped his coat. Jack in turn frantically pawed at Bitty’s coat, fumbling with the zipper, all the while neither broke their heated kiss.

Jack gave up when the zipper got stuck halfway down, and just pulled Bitty’s coat off him. Bitty laughed as he stepped out of his coat, and couldn’t remember the last time he laughed while kissing someone, or felt so at ease. It was fun and sexy, and Bitty couldn’t wait to get Jack into bed.

And lord, if Jack kissed like he was born to do nothing else, Bitty could only imagine how good the rest of the evening would be.

“I should tell you...” Bitty said breathlessly, “it’s been a while.”

“I know,” Jack said with a gentle tease.

“And I probably won’t be very good. I just wanna warn you,” Bitty said as Jack kissed his earlobe.

“Impossible,” Jack said as he gently sucked in Bitty’s lower lip into his mouth. “You’re already fantastic.”

Bitty smiled as he took Jack by the hand and led him upstairs.

Chapter Text

It was still dark outside when Bitty’s phone rang. Jack grumbled in his sleep, as Bitty sat up and reached for his cell.

“Hello?” he said groggily.

“It’s me,” Shitty said at the other end of the line.

“Oh my god! It’s time, isn’t it?” Bitty said, suddenly alert.

“Yeah, they just admitted her. This is it, Bitty my boy! My baby is going to pop out another baby. Holy shit!” Shitty said nervously.

“I am so excited! Oh my lord!” Bitty called out.

Jack sat up and whispered, “Is Lardo in labor?”

“Yes!” Bitty replied giddily.

“Can you relieve Jenny later and bring Sang to the hospital?” Shitty asked. “She came over at ass o’clock but can’t stay all day.”

“Of course! Do you need sustenance?”

“I probably will! See you later, Bitty?”

“Absolutely! Tell our girl to hang in there. I’ll be in soon with Sang.”

Bitty hung up and Jack leaned over and kissed Bitty’s shoulder. They had been seeing each other for four weeks now, and had fallen into an easy domesticity neither had anticipated -- but which didn’t come as any surprise.

“I have a pretty light schedule today, so I’m going to call the office and have Tony reschedule everyone,” Jack said.

“Sweetheart, there’s no need. You don’t have to,” Bitty said.

“I want to. Lardo and Shitty are my friends too, and I want to be there to meet the newest Duan-Knight when she makes her appearance. If there’s an absolute emergency, I’ll be paged.”

Bitty smiled and leaned in to kiss Jack.

“You are the sweetest, handsomest, most considerate man on the planet.”

“Well, I have to make sure I deserve you,” Jack said as he took Bitty into his arms.

+

Later that morning, Bitty, Jack, Sang and Ellie arrived at the hospital. The nurse at the desk said that Lardo and Shitty were in the delivery room and they’d let them know when the baby was born.

They went to the cafeteria and treated the kids to some ice cream.

“When can I see ma and the baby?” Sang asked as Bitty wiped chocolate from his face.

“Soon, sweetpea. The baby should be here soon,” Bitty replied sweetly.

Sang took the ice cream spoon from the table and shoved it in the pocket of his hoodie as Jack laughed.

“Sang you are too much,” Bitty said as Sang smiled.

“Are Lardo’s parents coming up?” Jack asked.

“I think so. That had been the plan. I know her mom wants to be here a couple weeks.”

“What about Shitty’s parents?”

“Hmm… who knows. They’re --” Bitty looked over at Sang who watched him closely. “They might be busy but I’m sure they’ll come eventually.”

“Poops says they’re a-holes.”

“Sang!” Bitty said as he laughed. “Gracious, do you think your ma or your poops would want to hear you talking like that, mister?”

Sang shrugged noncommittally.

Jack and Bitty exchanged a brief worried glance.

“I’m sure they’ll come,” Bitty said and then reached for Ellie’s hand.

He couldn’t imagine not wanting to be a part of your child’s life. Shitty’s relationship with his family had always been strained, and Shitty hoped that once he was married and became a father certain wounds would have been healed.

It’s not that they didn’t love each other, they did. Shitty loved his parents, and Bitty was certain that they loved Shitty -- they just never understood one another.

Bitty’s phone buzzed.

“It’s Shitty! The baby is here! They’re heading up to room 420.”

+

“Her name is Linh.”

“Linh,” Bitty said as he cradled the newborn in his arms. “I like it.”

“It means soul in Vietnamese because this girl’s got spunk. She’s got soul,” Lardo said with a smile.

Shitty leaned over to press a kiss onto Lardo’s forehead, then reached over to take Linh from Bitty’s arms and kissed her forehead.

“Lardo was a total fucking badass, Bitty,” Shitty said as he looked at Lardo with reverence. “Pushed out our little girl like it was nobody’s business.”

Lardo looked at Shitty with an enormous amount of tenderness and replied gently, “Nerd.”

Shitty began to tear up and he squeezed Lardo’s hand. Sang sat on the edge of Lardo’s bed and quietly colored in his coloring book.

“Say cheese,” Jack said as he took out his camera from the case.

Bitty smiled at them softly, admiring their love and their little family.

+++

Jack tucked Ellie in, while Bitty finished cleaning the kitchen. Jack was spending almost every night at Bitty’s, and tucking in Ellie was now part of his evening routine. Once she fell asleep, he’d go back downstairs where Bitty would wait for him with a slice of pie and a glass of wine.

Bitty dried the last dish, when Jack came from behind and planted a sweet kiss on his neck.

“Mmm… that’s nice,” Bitty said as he leaned back into Jack. “Are you ready for your pie?”

“I’m more ready for you,” Jack said as he dotted kisses along Bitty’s neck.

Bitty turned around and looked at Jack, “Do you know how happy you make me?”

“No, tell me,” Jack said as he squeezed Bitty tightly to him.

“Jack!” Bitty said and laughed as he buried his head in Jack’s chest.

Jack lifted Bitty’s face up so he could look at him, and Bitty smiled.

“Take me upstairs,” he said. Jack nodded and then carried him over his shoulder and smacked his butt much to Bitty’s surprise and delight.

Jack entered Bitty’s room and placed him on the bed. Bitty grinned as Jack then lowered himself in between Bitty’s thighs.

“What do you want?” Jack asked.

“Lord, anything,” Bitty said as Jack slowly crawled up toward him and began to kiss him.

The kisses were messy and wet, and then became deeper and deeper. Until Bitty gasped and began to clutch at Jack’s t-shirt, and pressed up into him. Jack abruptly stopped and kissed Bitty’s nose, which caused them both to laugh.

Jack looked into Bitty’s eyes, as he loomed above him.

“What?” Bitty asked quietly.

“I… I love you,” Jack said. It was the first time he’d said it. “I hope that doesn’t frighten you. I’ve been in love with you for some time now and was afraid to say anything. But… I can’t hold it in anymore. And I just don’t want to.”

Bitty smiled and clutched at Jack’s shoulders. “I love you, too, Jack. I love you, too…”

The two loved on one another well into the night.

Chapter Text

Springtime meant warmer weather which meant Coach and Suzanne would finally visit Vermont. Bitty had harassed -- or rather, encouraged -- them enough times to come to no avail.

“Guess you don’t love me or your granddaughter to bother,” Bitty would say dramatically.

“Sweetheart, if Coach and I went out there in the dead of winter, I’m afraid that’s what would happen to us… dead in the winter,” Suzanne had said anytime Bitty invited them.

Once the last of the snow melted, Coach and Suzanne bought their plane tickets to Burlington. Bitty spent the entire week before their arrival cleaning, he prepped meals, and tried to make sure everything was perfect. Not only were they going to finally meet Ellie, they were also going to meet Jack.

Jack and Ellie sat on the couch and watched Hurricane Bitty sweep through the living room one more time.

“How is there dust on this floor already? Didn’t I just sweep?”

“Bits, you did. I promise you, there is no dust anywhere in this house,” Jack said.

“I just want everything to be perfect,” Bitty said.

“It will be. And your parents won’t care about a little non-existent dust. They’re coming to see you, to meet Ellie. And really, everything looks great,” Jack said as he got up from the couch and wrapped his arms around Bitty.

“Their flight is going to land in an hour, and then they’ll drive down here. They’ll wait for their bags, get their bags, argue about who will drive, get lost, find their way… that puts them in around three. If I time everything just so, the pecan pie will have cooled down perfectly by then.”

Jack kissed the top of Bitty’s head, “You’re incorrigible.”

Bitty smiled, “That’s what my moomaw used to say about me.”

“Are we still having dinner at Rosal’s?” Jack asked.

“Yep, 7:30. Jenny is coming at 6:30.”

“You know, I’m the one that should be nervous. What if they don’t like me?” Jack asked as he sat back down with Ellie who immediately climbed into his lap.

“Chad was the most aloof, driest person they ever met, and they thought he was okay. You? They are going to be crazy about you. You’re a doctor, a former professional athlete, you love Ellie, you’re kind and handsome -- I mean, you’re practically a parent’s poster child for boyfriend material.”

“I believe someone once accused me of not being a real doctor,” Jack said teasingly.

Bitty leaned down and planted a big kiss on Jack and said, “Oh, hush, you! I have no idea who that was.”

“At least I know I’m better than ‘okay,’” Jack added.

Bitty smiled at Jack, then kissed Ellie on the head.

+++

Bitty was giving the coffee table a final look-see when he heard a car pull up in front of the house. He ran over to the window and called out, “They’re here! Oh, they’re here!”

Bitty ran out the front door, and Jack heard screams. He smiled when he walked outside with Ellie and saw Bitty in the arms of his mother as they jumped up and down.

Jack approached them just as a man, who was presumably Bitty’s father, got out of the driver seat.

“You may as well get comfortable, son. They’ll probably be there all day,” he said as he smiled at Jack and extended his hand. “I’m Richard. You must be Junior’s beau.”

“Junior?” Jack smirked, “Yes, I’m Junior’s beau. Jack Zimmermann, good to meet you, sir.”

“Call me Coach. Everyone does,” Coach said as he smiled and looked at Ellie. “This must be Ellie.”

Coach carried Ellie who smiled and gingerly reached out to touch his mustache. Coach wiggled his mustache which tickled Ellie’s fingers and made her laugh.

Bitty and Suzanne finally untangled from one another, and Bitty ran toward his father.

“Daddy, this is my Ellie… and my Jack.”

“Is this my grandbaby?” Suzanne said.

“Let me have her for a bit, Suze. You know you’ll be hogging her the rest of the week.”

"Mama, meet Jack.”

Suzanne then turned toward Jack and her eyes opened wide. “Dicky, he’s so handsome! My word -- just, so handsome.”

“Isn’t he, mama?” Bitty laughed as Jack blushed.

“Come here, sweet boy,” she said as she extended her arms toward Jack.

“Hi, Mama Bittle,” he said bashfully.

Suzanne hugged Jack, felt his biceps then said, “Well done, Dicky.”

Coach shook his head and said to Ellie, “Let’s go inside before your memaw embarrasses herself.”

“I’m not embarrassed!” Suzanne said as she took Jack by the arm and led him inside.

Bitty was left outside alone and yelled out, “Uh… guess I’ll get the bags, then.”

+

After a tour of the house and the barn, which had become a warehouse for Country Bun, Bitty sat everyone in the living room and brought out the pecan pie and some coffee.

“Dicky, your house is beautiful,” Suzanne gushed as she played with Ellie who was eagerly exploring one of the many gifts she’d been given.

“Well, you could have seen it sooner if you hadn’t let a little snow get in your way.”

“Don’t sass, Dicky. I told you -- Coach and I don’t do snow.”

“Are we going to see your official headquarters later?” Coach asked.

“Tomorrow? I figured we could do that, then mama and I could go shopping with Ellie, and you and Jack can go to Mashkov’s to watch the game,” Bitty said.

“Or we can go with Mama Bittle and Dicky,” Jack said as he grinned.

Bitty stuck his tongue out at Jack, whose grin widened.

“What’s Mashkov’s?” Coach asked.

“The neighborhood pub. Small friendly place. All the locals hang out there because, well, there’s no other place to go. They have great burgers and tater tots,” Jack said.

“Well, as much as I like shopping,” Coach said with a smile, “I think I’ll pass and you and I can go to Mashkov’s, Jack.”

“Great. Shitty is going to meet us there.”

“Oh! How is Mr. Crappy?” Suzanne asked. “I haven’t seen him or Larissa in forever.”

“They’re good. They have a teeny baby and their other one is almost four. They’re both as cute as a button,” Bitty said.

Jack smiled and loved how Bitty’s accent suddenly became more pronounced.

“We figured you two can get settled and then we have dinner reservations at the local Italian place for 7:30. Sound good?”

“Sounds good to me,” Coach said as he smiled at Bitty.

+++

Dinner was as pleasant and light as Bitty could have hoped for. Coach and Jack got on tremendously, and Suzanne gushed the entire night.

“I always knew you were special. Always, Dicky,” Suzanne said.

“Mother, exactly how much have you had to drink?” Bitty asked with a gentle tease.

“A mother doesn’t have to get drunk to be proud of her child, and if that’s the case when then I just feel sorry for those mamas,” Suzanne said curtly.

“I’m proud of him, too,” Jack said. “I told him he has a lot to be proud of.”

Suzanne beamed and asked, “So, Jack, honey, tell me about yourself. Where are your people from?”

“Oh, my mom is from New York -- upstate -- and my father is from Montreal.”

“Montreal? That explains the lovely accent. How nice! How did they meet?” she asked as she tucked into her lasagna.

Jack blushed, “At a photo shoot.”

Suzanne raised her eyebrow, “A photo shoot? Hmm, how interesting.”

Jack nodded.

“And? There has to be more to it than that,” Suzanne prodded.

“Well my dad was having his picture taken for Sports Illustrated, and my mom was at the studio next door getting doing a shoot for Vogue. They literally bumped into each other in the lobby.”

“Vogue?” Suzanne said. “Who’s your mama?”

“Um, Alicia Zimmermann?”

Suzanne dropped her fork, “Wait… your father is Bad Bob Zimmermann?”

Coach mumbled, “Jesus wept, here we go.”

“Uh, yes. He is,” Jack said.

“Are you kidding me‽”

Jack shook his head, “No. Why?”

Suzanne visibly flailed in her seat as Coach cleared his throat and said, “You’ll have to excuse Suze over here. She had a thing for Bad Bob -- your dad -- when she was a girl.”

“I’m fine,” she said, as she took a sip of water and fanned her face. “I’m totally fine.”

“Hey!” Bitty said with a frown, “Is that why you were so excited when I got into hockey?”

Suzanne chugged her water and dismissed Bitty with a wave.

“So, tell me all about your daddy,” Suzanne said.

“Mama!” Bitty exclaimed.

Jack laughed, “It’s okay. He’s fine. He and my mom live in Montreal right now. They’ll be coming out soon because they want to meet Bitty.”

“You two are gonna get married, right?”

“Suze!” Coach said as he laughed. Bitty covered his face, and Jack smiled broadly.

The evening was much more comical after that.

+++

The week flew by, and during that time they went to Country Bun headquarters and got a “VIP” tour, they went to The Vermont Country Store (where Bitty quickly met with the store’s GM), they all had dinner with Shitty and Lardo, Bitty and Suzanne visited the King Arthur Flour headquarters where they took some baking workshops, Jack and Coach went fishing. But more than anything, Suzanne and Coach’s favorite thing about the week was spending time with Ellie.

Coach and Suzanne fell in love with her. They spent the week buying Ellie things much to Bitty’s chagrin.

(“You’re going to spoil her!” He protested.

“You spoil fruit, not children!” Suzanne countered.)

Coach read to her every night -- it was the sports section of the online version of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but still, every night without fail. Suzanne teared up when she saw Ellie clutching Señor Bun tightly. And the photos. Oh, so many photos. Jack took countless portraits of the three of them together.

Suzanne found that she loved being a memaw and was so proud of her son.

“I wasn’t sure I was going to get to be a memaw,” she said one afternoon as she and Bitty rolled out pie dough.

“Well, I wasn’t sure I was going to be a daddy,” Bitty countered.

“You were made for it, you know,” Suzanne replied.

Bitty smiled.

+

The evening before they were headed back to Madison, Coach and Suzanne made dinner for everyone. Coach grilled some steaks, while Suzanne made the side dishes and an enormous chocolate cake.

Suzanne was already getting weepy thinking about leaving her son and granddaughter.

“Well, when are y’all coming out to Madison?” she asked as she chopped some cabbage for coleslaw.

“I don’t know -- when do you want us out there? I feel okay leaving my crew alone to run things for a few days, so Ellie and I can totally come out whenever you want,” Bitty replied as he took a tiny sliver of cabbage and ate it.

“What? No Jack?” Suzanne asked.

“Mother,” Bitty said with a laugh.

“Dicky, cut it out. I just mean that he’s welcome to come and to the house anytime. Coach and I are crazy about him. You two compliment each other so well. I see so much love there, baby, it’s just wonderful to see.”

“Thanks, mama,” Bitty said then leaned in to kiss her on the cheek.

“Oh! Before I forget, I have something for you. I wanted to give it to you on my last day here, as a sort of dramatic surprise,” she said. “Go to our room, and it’s sitting on the bed. Hurry.”

Bitty ran upstairs, then came down holding a gift bag.

“What is it?” Bitty asked as he put it on the counter.

“Open it,” she said as she smiled warmly.

Bitty pulled out a large old book. He opened it and saw it was filled with handwritten recipes. Page after page of baby food recipes and baked goods for toddlers.

“Mama?”

“Your moomaw made up all of those recipes. Apart from baking, she also loved making baby food. When you said you were making baby food -- well, I just about fell off my chair. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, it seems.”

Bitty began to cry, and Suzanne immediately threw her arms around him.

“Thanks so much for this mama. It’s… I love it. I wish, I wish she was still around so she could see what I’ve done,” Bitty said as he wiped his eyes.

“She is here, baby. She is here…” Suzanne said softly.

Outside, Jack stood silently near Coach and watched him grill. The two had enjoyed a quiet camaraderie as they spent the majority of the week together. Coach admired Jack’s fortitude, work ethic, and athleticism, but he also found he just really liked Jack as a person.

Coach cleared his throat and said, “I guess this is where I should be giving you The Talk.”

“The talk?” Jack asked.

“You know… seeing what your intentions are and all that. But, being here this week -- seeing the two of you together, how easily you interact, how good you are to each other, well, I don’t think I have anything to worry about.”

Jack smiled.

“And on top of that, Ellie seems to think the world of you too, Jack.”

“I should be honest, Coach -- and I hope this isn’t too much -- but I was already half in love with your son before I even met him. When Shitty and Lardo talked about their friend, Bitty, it was with so much love and enthusiasm; what a kind person he was, how he always looked after others, his sense of humor. His pies!”

Coach laughed.

Jack continued, “Then when the situation with Ellie occurred and they filled me in on that, I just couldn’t believe that someone so kind-hearted and brave could actually exist in this world. That he was real and out there.”

Coach chuckled and flipped a steak, “He does exist. He sure does.”

“And when I finally met him, well, that was it for me. I love your son, Coach. I love him and Ellie, and I’ll stay with them both as long as they’ll have me.”

“Good answer,” Coach said with a tender smile. “Good answer, son.”

Chapter Text

Bitty found he could never get enough of Jack, and Jack seemed to be in the same delicious predicament. The two constantly surrounded one another, sought each other out. Their eyes searching, always searching, and feeling at home once they connected. If they were apart for more than one day -- it just felt wrong.

And the amount of texts exchanged throughout the day was ridiculous, but neither of them cared.

Bitty: If an apple is shaped like a lemon, I should probably not use it, right? Seems like it ain’t right.

Jack: Is that how sour apple candy is made?

Bitty: DAD JOKE!

Jack: I took some good pictures today.

Bitty: You take good pictures every day.

Jack: Aw, thanks Bits. I love you.

Bitty: I love you more.

Bitty: Ugh, we’re gross.

Jack: Gross is when you I start calling you schmoopy or my little hockey puck, or something. We’re not there.

Jack: Yet. :)

Meanwhile, Jack constantly sent Bitty kooky photos of his patients, pictures of his lunch, and apparently funny history memes that really only Jack understood, but Bitty laughed anyway because of Jack’s earnest enthusiasm.

And the way Jack was with Ellie… well, that just made Bitty’s heart swell.

When the three of them visited the Lincoln family home of Hildene for the day (Jack had been excited to see one of Abraham Lincoln’s stovepipe hats there) they had such a lovely time, Bitty cried that night when he was home.

He cried as he remembered the way Jack had Ellie strapped to his back in her toddler carrier, and how damn paternal he looked. He cried as he remembered how Ellie laughed and tried to sing Alouette along with Jack. He cried as he realized Ellie loved Jack as much Bitty did.

When Jack knocked on the bathroom door and asked Bitty if he was all right, Bitty could only mutter, “I’m just so happy.”

Jack opened the door and looked on with amused confusion and brought Bitty in for a long hug.

Every night they spent together, Bitty loved taking Jack apart. Jack would quiver as Bitty dismantled him with his mouth, with his fingers, with this body, only to put him back together and start all over again.

And each time, Jack was more than willing to be Bitty’s jigsaw puzzle. The slow roll and snap of the hips; the hot, damp kisses frantically exchanged; the hands that clutched greedily as voices begged; it all made Jack and Bitty get lost in one another again and again.

The two had such an easy, loving relationship, Bitty wondered how he could have ever thought what he had with Chad was any good.

Jack and Chad were at complete opposite ends of the spectrum, and Bitty knew he was so lucky to have found him.

+++

The summer catalog of Country Bun hit mailboxes in New England just as Bitty perfected his moomaw’s summer squash recipe. Country Bun’s market included New England and had grown to include parts of New York and Pennsylvania as well. Bitty had recently begun receiving inquiries from as far as Chicago. His little storefront factory had become quite a hubbub of activity.

“So, what’s the verdict, Linh?” Bitty asked as Lardo spooned a tiny bit of squash into her mouth. Linh fussed and turned her head away.

“Well, she didn’t spit it out, so that’s a plus,” Lardo said as she made a funny face at Linh.

“Great, thanks!” Bitty said dryly. “But I’ll take it and definitely put that in the plus column.”

He then smiled and put the lid back on the jar.

“Are you and the fam heading to Chowder’s tomorrow?”

“Oh right, his cookout? Yeah, I think so. I have to double-check with Jack, but I think he’s good. I’ll call him later.”

“Bitty, why aren’t you two just living together already? You’re making that poor man pay a mortgage for no reason. He’s at your place every day.”

“That’s not true,” Bitty said. “He slept at his house just yesterday.”

“And I bet you two were miserable,” Lardo quickly added.

Bitty shrugged. “We haven’t talked about it, but maybe we should.”

“Ya think?” Lardo asked.

Just then, Bitty’s phone rang.

“Hello? Yes… oh, my. Ivan Hall -- what a surprise!”

Lardo’s ears perked and she shuffled closer to Bitty.

“No. Yes, I can talk. Uh-huh. Oh, well thank you. Yes, I’m am pretty proud… Yes, uh-huh. I see.”

Lardo whispered, “What?”

Bitty’s eyebrows flew up, as he continued, “This Friday? I think I can do that. Is 1:30 okay? It is a long drive after all. Good. Okay. Yes, I’ll be there.”

Bitty turned off his phone and looked at Lardo.

“What is it?” she asked.

“Holy shit! Jones and Rey want a meeting to talk about Country Bun.”

+++

That evening when Jack came home, Bitty sat nervously and waited for him in the kitchen.

“Something smells amazing,” Jack said as he entered the kitchen and kissed Ellie.

“Papa home!” she said with a giggle.

Bitty’s eyes grew wide, and he muttered, “Oh, my!” He scooped up Ellie, “Lord, I’m sorry. I -- I don’t know where she got that from.”

Jack frowned and looked at Bitty, “Bits, I don’t mind. You’re her daddy, and if she wants to call me papa, well…”

Bitty smiled and kissed Jack’s cheek. “You are perfect, you know that?”

Ellie smiled as she watched.

 

As they sat and ate their dinner, Jack asked Bitty how his day had gone.

“Good! Food Kingdom, on Route 59, doubled their monthly order.”

“Nice!”

“And uh… I got a call today,” Bitty added quickly.

“A call?”

“Yeah, um, Jones and Rey called. Turns out Total Organics wants Country Bun in their stores.”

“Total Organics? That asshole company that didn’t want you on their account?” Jack asked.

Bitty nodded. “I, uh, have a meeting with them on Friday.”

“Bits, really?”

“I think it would behoove me to hear what they have to say.”

Behoove you? Are you serious, Bitty? After how they treated you?”

“I’m just going to hear what they have to say. It’s not… it’s not like I’m moving back to New York, Jack!”

Ellie startled at Bitty’s raised his voice, and then began to cry. She shook her head and said, “No yell.”

“Honey, I’m sorry,” Bitty said as he took Ellie out of her chair and carried her. “I’m sorry, baby girl.”

“Bits,” Jack said, “You know I’d never stop you or ask you to do something you didn’t want to. If you think you need to go and meet with them, then go ahead.”

“I just-- I just want to hear what they have to say. What they have to offer. I’m not going anywhere, Jack. I promise.”

Jack smiled softly, “I hope not. But whatever you decide, Bitty, I’ve got your back.”

Chapter Text

The morning of Bitty’s meeting, he made slow, sweet love to Jack, got dressed, packed himself some food for the road, and kissed Ellie goodbye as she slept. He programmed the coffee maker for Jack, and left at 6:30 to give him more than enough time to arrive.

“I love you,” Jack said as Bitty left the bedroom.

“I love you, too, sweetheart.”

Bitty arrived at Jones and Rey at 1:20, entered the elevator and pressed the 22nd floor. He looked at himself in the reflection of the elevator doors, adjusted his bowtie and took a deep breath as he exited.

“Eric!” Jimena said as she ran up to him in the lobby.

“Hey, lady! You look fantastic,” Bitty said as he hugged her.

“Oh my god! So do you. Like, seriously. You look incredible. Who knew Vermont had such restorative properties.”

“Aw, pish-posh. Well, Vermont, a perfect daughter, and a super hot amazing boyfriend all help. How are things going?”

“Good… you know, as good as can be expected.” She leaned in closer and whispered, “I work for Parson now.”

“Oh sweetie, I hope that’s not too rough.”

She motioned so-so with her hands, and then they both turned when they heard Murray’s voice say, “There he is! The man of the hour.”

Bitty saw Murray flanked by Hall and Kent, who was holding a stuffed cat plushie with a red bow on it.

Bitty shot Jimena a quick look, then walked over to them and offered his hand. They each shook hands with Bitty.

“Where’s the little one? Little Edie?” Murray asked.

Ellie. Her name is Ellie. She’s back at home. It’s not like I’d bring her a business meeting,” Bitty said dryly as everyone laughed.

“I have a little something for her,” Kent said as he handed the cat to Bitty.

“Thanks,” Bitty said flatly and handed it to Jimena. “Can you please hold this for me?”

“Sure.”

Bitty entered the conference room and Mr. Larrabee was already there, flanked by what he presumed could only be his lawyers. They rose when Bitty walked in.

“Gentlemen, please, don’t get up,” Bitty said as Hall pulled out a seat for him. Murray sat to the left, and Hall to the right. Kent sat across from Bitty and offered a tiny smile.

Hall spoke, “First of all, Eric, we all would like to congratulate you on the success of Country Bun.”

Everyone applauded.

Hall added with a chuckle, “We can all say, we knew you when…”

Bitty nodded and added wryly with a smile, “Well my depths are hidden and spectacular.”

Everyone laughed and applauded again.

“No, but really thank you. Thank you very much.”

Murray then jumped in, “Now usually at a meeting like this, we have to lead the client by the hand, speak through lawyers, take everything at an excruciatingly slow pace -- but seeing that we’re dealing with you, Eric, we know you know the business so we can cut through the crap.”

Everyone laughed, and Bitty’s raised an eyebrow.

Murray continued, “As Hall told you, Total Organics is interested in acquiring Country Bun. What you’ve done in a relatively short amount of time is amazing, but we feel you’ve taken it as far as it can go.”

Larrabee interrupted and added, “Your operations are too small, your staff minute, your distribution center is subpar -- and we’d like to help you change that. We’d like to help you put Country Bun in the mouths of babes across the country. Total Organics can help you.”

“I see,” Bitty said, his face showed no emotion.

“Eric, we all realize that you might be harboring some ill will -- in fact, we were loath to have Kent attend today’s meeting,” Hall added.

Kent frowned and looked at Hall.

Bitty shook his head, “Ivan, come on now. I’m a big boy. Kent doesn’t bother me in the slightest. Not even a blip on my radar.”

Kent’s frown grew exponentially.

Bitty continued with a smile, “It’s all water under the bridge, and depending on how good your offer is, the bridge will be washed away and forgotten, permanently.”

Everyone laughed, and Larrabee pointed at Bitty, “They said you would play hardball, and I wouldn’t expect anything less.”

Bitty shrugged and smirked.

Hall continued, “Sitting in front of you is the proposal for the acquisition of Country Bun. Total Organics would acquire Country Bun, Inc. for $25 million cash.”

“I see,” Bitty said again.

“We’d move operations to Cleveland so that Total Organics can oversee production. Naturally, we’d like to retain your services as COO of Country Bun. Our salary details are in the paperwork, with a bonus tied to the company’s earning of up to 150% of your salary.”

Bitty opened the manila folder in front of him and felt his stomach drop when he saw all the zeros attached to his proposed salary. He hummed once, and slowly leafed through the rest of the proposal as Larrabee continued his spiel.

“Eight-week vacation, pension plan, use of the company jet -- it’s all outlined there for you.”

“That’s it?” Bitty asked.

“That’s it?” Larrabee said, then broke into a loud laugh. “They said you’d be cool and tough. They neglected to mention your sense of humor as well.”

“That’s me, Mr. Humor,” Bitty said as he closed the folder. “Gentlemen, do you mind if I take a couple of minutes to think this over?”

“Not at all, Eric. We’ll be right here when you’re ready,” Hall said.

“Thank you,” Bitty said as he stood and exited the conference room.

“What do you think?” Hall asked.

“I think we got him,” Murray said.

“Hope -- hope we got him,” Larrabee added.

Bitty walked to the men’s room and locked the door behind him. Once he knew he was alone, he fell to his knees practically hyperventilating.

“Oh my lord,” he said as he clutched at his chest. He’d never have to worry about money ever again. Ellie would be set for life.

He pulled out his phone to call Shitty, and looked at his lock screen. It was a photo of Jack and Ellie, together in Bitty’s orchard. He took a long look, and stroked his phone screen.

Bitty walked over to sink, to splash some water on his face. He stared at his reflection in the mirror and wondered how he had gotten there. Was this what he wanted? Wasn’t this what he wished for all those months ago, and now it was being handed to him on a silver platter. He exhaled deeply, adjusted his bowtie and his cowlick, and headed back to the conference room.

He was suddenly flooded by images of Crystal on a swing, Lardo and Shitty in the hospital with their children, Jack in his bed, and Ellie. Ellie in their orchard, Ellie smiling in Bitty’s arms, Ellie falling asleep in her crib. Ellie and Jack. Always.

Bitty entered the conference room with a smile a mile wide. Everyone stood and waited for Eric to sit first, and then sat back down again.

“When Ivan called me, I have to admit I was excited. Excited at the possibilities, excited with the ‘what ifs.’ And your offer is a fantastic one… But I’m afraid I am going to have to pass.”

“Excuse me?” Larrabee said brusquely.

“I am going to have to say no, and pass,” Bitty said as he slid the folder on the table away from him.

“No to what part? Is there something in particular we can negotiate on?” Murray asked as he looked at Larrabee and then at Bitty.

“No to all of it, I’m afraid. Country Bun isn’t for sale.”

“Eric, son, think about what you’re passing up. This will make you incredibly rich and successful,” Hall pleaded.

“I’m just not the Ice King anymore, Ivan. I’m not. I have a wonderful home, a daughter I adore, a boyfriend I love, friends that mean the world to me, and staff that I cherish and rely on. I don’t want to give that up. Ever.”

Hall looked at Bitty with pride, as Larrabee fumed.

“I love my life, and that is worth more than any amount of money you could offer. So you see, I’m afraid my answer is no. And to be honest with you, I think I'm doing a bang up job with Country Bun. If Total Organics can have have Country Bun in shelves across the country, well, maybe I can too. Or maybe I can’t -- but at least I won’t compromise on who I am or what I feel is right.”

“I guess things really aren’t water under the bridge,” Larrabee commented.

“I’m sorry -- but thank you for the offer. Truly,” Bitty said as he smiled brightly.

+

“Hi, sweetheart,” Bitty said as he put Jack on speakerphone.

“Hey, Bits. Ellie, say hi to daddy.”

Bitty could hear Ellie’s tiny voice as she said, “Hi, dada!” and he felt as though he might burst from happiness.

“So?” Jack asked.

“Well, they offered me $25 million up front, and they want to carry Country Bun in Total Organics exclusively…”

“And?”

“And I told them that Country Bun wasn’t for sale.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really!” Bitty said as he smiled and felt more sure than ever. “Jack?”

“Yes?”

“I love you. So much.”

“I love you too, Bitty.”

Bitty laughed, filled with joy. “Jack?”

“Yeah?”

“I’m coming home.”