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Jour des jours

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As luck would have it, the rain is easing when Dick parks in front of the restaurant, though the white wooden sign hung from the eaves that proclaims Jour des Jours in gold swings madly in the wind. He ducks out of the car and makes for the pavement as quickly as he can, smoothing down his black button-up shirt. He pauses to steel himself with a long breath, then pushes open the door.

The excitable maitre’d, Harry, vaults off the barstool he’s been waiting on and bounces towards him. “Dick! Great to see you again! How do you feel? Are you nervous? Can you even feel nerves? You’re like some badass cooking robot, I bet you can’t.”

Dick smiles and hugs him back, “I feel fine, Harry.” Harry beams, then relinquishes him to go lock the door behind them, while Dick surveys his surroundings.

The restaurant is as nice as he remembers from his interview – nicer perhaps, now that he isn’t queasy with nerves and can take in more details and better appreciate the décor. The white, airy room is dotted with alcoves where urns overflowing with ferns and ivy stand, and the seating is peacock blue booths or chateauneuf chairs all clustered about white tables. The lighting comes from three crystal chandeliers overhead and white roses in vases at the centre of every table add the finishing touch.

Harry’s maitre’d stand is by the front door and along most of the back wall runs the marble bar with its peacock blue barstools. To the left of the bar one door leads to the hallway of bathrooms, and another to the wine cellar, some offices and store rooms. But the only door Dick cares about is the set of white swing doors behind the bar. The kitchen.

It’s a cavernous room; multiple ovens, stoves, fridges, pantries, walk in freezers and stainless-steel work and prep stations stretch out before him. The cookware, all on-trend copper, hangs from ceiling racks above, alongside bouquets of herbs and strings of garlic. It is quiet now, not at all how he’d ever seen a professional kitchen – a few pots bubble on the stoves, chopping boards strewn with ingredients lay abandoned, and a freezer door still stood open. They open in an hour, so why is no-one working?

It transpires that the manager, Sobel, has halted all work to gather the staff to welcome him. It was a relatively nice gesture, but it now meant they were wasting prep time. Instead of working, a copse of chefs in their whites stood in the centre of the room, eyeing their stations anxiously. The waiters were huddled just behind them in their dress shirts and waistcoats. The bartenders seem to be the three at the back – one dissolves into giggles as a boiling pot overflows on the stove as one of the chefs audibly groans, and doesn’t stop until another bartender nudges him violently in the ribs.

Harry gestures Dick forward.

Sobel is as dismissive and curt as Dick remembers, too. He introduces Dick briefly to Ron, the sommelier, and Buck, his sous, but seems perturbed when Dick shakes Buck’s hand and claps his shoulder and then moves beyond him, to the group behind. He offers his hand to the nearest chef, a skinny, sharp-eyed man.

“Hello, I’m your new executive chef. My name is Richard Winters, but please call me Dick.”

The man smirks over Dick’s shoulder as he grips his hand in return. Dick turns back to look at Sobel, “Won’t you introduce me?”

“This… this is one of the… chefs…” Sobel flounders before the man in question cuts in.

“My name is Joe Liebgott, I’m the head patissier,” his eyes flick dismissively from the manager back to Dick and he smirks.

Dick nods in greeting and moves on to the next man.

Once he’s greeted everyone personally, heard their names and their roles, he asks for a tour from Harry but requests that they be ready for a full staff meeting when he returns to the kitchen. He outlines what he intends to discuss, mainly the roster and the menu, to let them prepare and insists they should feel free to bring up anything else they wish to be addressed. He needs to be honest and direct about the state of the place, but he wants them to feel included and supported, not attacked and criticised. He already knows what he wants to do, but he is hesitant to burst in and start making changes over their heads and without their involvement.

Sobel descends on him, unhappy that Dick thinks he’s got the right to call a meeting so soon, but Dick insists. He needs to understand the way the restaurant is run, and frankly, the menu is an untenable issue.

Sobel is livid. Dick doesn’t care.

Harry’s grin is almost manic as he tows him from the room.

*

“So, I know we open in half an hour, I won’t keep you long. Firstly, this menu,” Dick begins, when they’re convening twenty minutes later, clustered in the kitchen again.

“Please Lord tell me you want to change it in its entirety. Please. Lord.” Harry gazes reverently at the ceiling.

“Well, yes, I do. I was wanting to be tactile about it in case anyone had a strong attachment…”

“No,” Johnny, the entremetier, has one heck of a bitch-face. “You won’t get any opposition from us, I’ll tell you that for free. We’ve been wanting to change it for a long time.”

“That makes it a lot easier… god, burgers? Seriously?”

Bull, the rotissier, cuts it with his slow drawl. “Now. Let me be clear. I love a good burger probably more than anyone in this room. But that ain’t what this place is about – ain’t what the owners are paying us to do. Dike has a lot to answer for.”

Joe’s unnerving smirk is back. “You should have seen Nixon senior’s face when he’d heard the feedback. He came storming in here just about threw Dike out on his ass. It was quite probably the greatest day of my life.”

“Glad to hear it,” Dick mumbles, before instantly feeling uncharitable. Joe’s smirk turns gleeful.

“You’ve got some plans, then, boss?”

“I do indeed. I’d like to go back to the basics. The traditional, the simple, the classic. Beef bourguignon. Crème brulee. Galettes. I think it can work if we do it well. Rebuild the menu and the reputation of this place as a premier French restaurant along with it, as it was intended. Then perhaps we’ll have the repertoire to get more inventive, but I’ll leave you own specialisations and those choices to you, when the time comes. I don’t throw my weight, unless I have to. I want to encourage you all to fulfil your potential and vision, not force you follow mine.”

He looks up to see them all smiling.

He smiles back.

Sobel huffs and leaves the room.

*

A week into Dick’s tenure, the cold Chicago wind blows in one of the most handsome men he’s ever seen.

When they open at 5 p.m. Dick is behind the bar, quietly talking to Bill about what cider he thinks he wants to order for the new menu. Then the door opens and a flurry of frosty November air precedes a dark haired man in a tan leather jacket and blue jeans into the room and Dick’s stunned into silence mid-sentence.

The man removes his sunglasses as he picks up a menu from the maitre’d stand. Dick has no idea where Harry is, so he steps forward to greet the patron. He’s not exactly complaining.

“Good evening, Sir. That’s a sort of a placeholder menu, just to let you know,” Dick calls to him as he draws closer, knowing he should be looking about for Harry to come do his job at the stand, just maybe, but unable to tear his eyes from the fascinating looking man. He’s never seen eyes and hair that dark against such pale skin. He’s fascinated. “We’re using up old stock before we release the new menu in a few weeks.”

“Oh? And what will be on the new menu?”

“Oh, hey there! Good to see you!” Bill interrupts as he pops back up from where he’s been assessing his current stock under the bar. He speaks to the man, who must be a regular. “The usual?”

“Thank you, yes, absolutely,” the guy smiles, before his eyes flick back to Dick. “Menu?”

“High-quality classic French cuisine, which was always the intention of the proprietors. Simple and traditional but done to an impeccable standard.”

The guy smiles again, slowly this time, and dammit, Dick feels his own pupils dilate. He puts the menu back and wanders over to the bar, leaning against it. “I’ll have to come back and try out the new stuff when it’s ready.”

“Please do. Will you be wanting a table this evening?”

Sobel appears then, coming out of the office corridor. He catches sight of the man, freezes for one long moment, then promptly spins on his heel and vanishes back through the door. Dick raises an eyebrow.

“Perhaps I’ll have a table, yeah,” the smile intensifies as his eyes slide from where Sobel was back to Dick. “But I’m sad the chicken burgers are gone. I mean how much more classic French can you get?”

“I’ll make you one if you ask nicely. But I refuse to allow them on my menu.”

“No, no, I’m curious about some of these redesigned dishes. Bacon and pumpkin risotto? Blackberry and lime cheesecake? Huh.”

“It all works, I promise,” Dick’s own grin feels like its permanently stretching out his face.

Harry appears then, finally, Sobel’s voice ringing from the corridor in his wake as he scolds him. Harry winces a little, then resumes his trademark beam and hurries over to clap the man on the shoulder. Dick retreats reluctantly to the safety of his kitchen, trying not to feel so disappointed.

He lingers absently over Malarkey’s shoulder as he sears a tuna steak, but he’s barely paying attention. The searing is a delicate process during which timing is vital, and Malarkey is clearly nervous, darting looks at him over his shoulder for reassurance. But Dick can’t help it, his mind is already fixated on the man at bar just outside the doors, on the quirk of lips when he smiled, on the way his fingers had curled around the whiskey tumbler…

Malarkey burns the tuna.

*

A weak beam of cold light breaks through the clouds as Web walk-jogs down the street towards the restaurant. Dick was proving to be understanding about his having to fit work around school, but Sobel was still an utter asshole. Therefore, it was likely to be Sobel who would be waiting to berate him for being late, as it would be entirely Web’s own fault that his class had run over time and he’d missed his train down from Northwestern by like 2 seconds. He had to wait for the next, inevitably not going to get to the restaurant in the Old Town in time.

He ducks in through the front doors behind a troupe of customers, and scrambles through to the kitchen. In the far corner of the kitchen was the door to the staff lockers and bathroom. Web sprints across the floor to it, dodging past Perconte ferrying a tray of plates and ignoring Joe’s shout of, “What time do you call this, Cinderella, you’re late!”

Web changes as quickly as he can into his uniform – black slacks, grey button up, black waistcoat and shoes, clips on his name badge, washes his hands thoroughly and leaps back out into the kitchen.

Sobel is waiting for him, naturally, but the saviour that is Dick Winters descends upon them before he can open his mouth.

“Thanks for your help, Web, I really appreciate it,” Dick smiles, his face a picture of calm.  

“Ah. Sure. Not a problem,” Web says slowly, trying to keep the surprise from his voice and his own face free from confusion.

Sobel isn’t quite convinced, yet, though. “You’re late onto the floor, Mr. Webster,” he snaps, pointedly ignoring Dick.

Web’s mouth falls open as he flounders for some sort of response.

“Oh, he was helping me bring in a delivery from out the back.” Dick gestures over to the back door that led to the little parking area behind the restaurant, where a stack of boxes sits. “I flagged him down when he arrived, he’s only just changed so he didn’t ruin his work clothes hauling about those boxes.”

Joe snorts audibly, but when all eyes turn to him he conveniently has his back turned. Lip hits him upside the head anyway, before Ron sticks his head through the doors and draws him away with a hand curled around his elbow, eyes intent on his face.

Thankfully, Dick stares Sobel down, and the latter strides from the kitchen in defeat before the door had even stopped swinging behind Lip and Ron.

Dick waves off Web’s profusive thanks with, “It’s fine, Web, I know you have classes. Just call ahead next time maybe, so I can send someone to head Sobel off.”

“I will,” Web gasps in relief, sagging against Shifty’s counter and finally catching his breath. Shifty beams at him as he whisks up his hollandaise sauce, but Joe’s cutting voice means his joy is short-lived.

“Aren’t you lucky someone likes you,” he sneers, and it’s not a question.

Web opens his mouth to tell him to fuck off into next week, but Dick’s heard him too, and he’s not impressed. “Liebgott, back to work. That savarin is 5 minutes late. Web, out on the floor, Lip will assign you.”

Lip, when Web finally finds him sequestered away with Ron in the wine cellar, engrossed in conversation, gives him tables 9 through to 13. It was a relatively busy night, and that was almost too many tables to handle, with 11 and 13 both being large groups. On top of that, Web is still overwhelmed from being late, dodging Sobel and Joe’s irritating winding up. He flounders a bit as a result, having to get customers to repeat any specific requests, delivering food to the wrong table and accidentally walking into a little girl on her way back from the bathroom and nearly dropping dirty plates on her head. Joe, ever the contrast, is on fine form with his barbs and snide comments – he outright laughs in Web’s face when he can’t remember if the customer at table 10 who ordered the mille-feuille wanted whipped cream on the side or not. But eventually things calm down, Web himself calms down and can settle into a lax, autopilot state of polite responses, recommendations, scribbling on his pad and carting food and drinks back and forth. He let his mind rest a little, which is a comfort. Classes were intense, assignments suck and work is the last thing on his mind tonight.

They were consistently getting more customers each evening from around Dick’s third week in charge onwards than Dike had been netting in a whole week, so zoning out autopilot isn’t always a good idea, but tonight he just plain doesn’t have the mental capacity to cope.

It goes ok until about an hour before closing, when Web stumbles walking through the doors to the kitchen, nearly dropping the stack of dessert plates he’s ferrying back.

Joe doesn’t even pretend innocence, just grins as he removes his foot deliberately slowly from the doorway.

“Watch where you’re going Web, jeez! You could hurt that pretty face!”

Web just scowls, not wanting to get distracted and pulled into an argument. He’s tired. All he wants is to go home and sleep, then wake up early to finish his essay on Keats.

He’s not in the mood for Joe Liebgott’s stupid games and stupider smirk.

“Aw come on, Web! Talk about a buzzkill!” bawls across the kitchen behind him, but he ignores it and deposits the plates by Cobb’s sink to be washed. Cobb grunts at him, so Web ignores him too.

Joe tries to goad him again as heads back out with two flans for the women at table 10, pulling faces, but Web breezes by refusing to look at him.

Joe howls with laughter anyway, as if that’s a victory too.

Web knows Joe just like pushing his buttons, winding him up, pissing him off. The trouble is it always works, because Web falls for it every time, comes away from every encounter flustered and fuming.

A part of him wonders… well. It doesn’t matter what he wonders. Joe is a nosy, trouble-making, bullying jerk. End of story.

Web throws himself into the cleaning once they’ve closed – he strips all the tables of their white tablecloths and linen napkins, loads them in the washing machine in one of the back storerooms. Then he helps the others collecting up the salt and pepper shakers, the vases of flowers, and the glass jugs of water, storing them all on shelves in the kitchen. The chefs are busy too, cleaning their stations, packing up the leftovers they can’t re-use to go to the homeless shelter (one of Dick’s ideas), changing out of their whites.

Web keeps as far away from Joe as he can, heading eagerly to the door when Lip calls time and sends them all home, remaining to do the lock-up and set the alarm, though Web notices Ron lingering at his shoulder. He waves goodbye to his co-workers and starts to head down the driveway, glancing over his shoulder when headlights light up his way.

Joe’s idling behind him, not in a rush, just being an asshole. His Lexus is right behind Web, crawling slow enough to bump him gently, engine revving. Instantly aggravated, Web shoots him a middle finger over his shoulder and purposefully stops dead in his path. They glare at each other until Babe catches Web up and laughs, throwing an arm around him.

“Come on, stop playing around, we’ll be late for the train!”

Grudgingly Web lets Babe pull him away from making his point. Joe speeds past too fast down the street as they walk, and Web’s almost disappointed he doesn’t crash, before his car turns the corner and disappears, engine echoing in the night.

*

Babe strolls in for his shift with just enough time for a quick hello and a chat with Bill. Nix is there too, leaning his chin on his hand as he scribbles down something Skinny is telling him over the bar in undertone. As usual it’s 5:15 p.m. by the time Babe gets into the kitchen. Whatever, he’ll just stay 15 minutes later, no biggie. Sobel comes to breathe down his neck about it as soon as Babe has done up his waistcoat, but Babe’s offer to stay late and help Lip with the final lock-up appeases him enough that he quickly takes his leave. That also might be down to Ron, who came into the kitchen and loomed with his arms folded, just watching Sobel in intimidating silence. Babe notices through the swinging doors that Nix is watching Sobel with narrowed eyes as he goes storming back to his office.

Feeling only slightly bad, Babe damn near walks into Lip as he exits the kitchen, who’s standing there waiting for him and not looking at all impressed.

“… Sorry, Lip.”

“Yeah I’m sure you’re real cut up. Next time I won’t send Ron to save your ass. And don’t expect Dick to keep stepping in either.”

“It’s technically totally not even anything to do with me that Sobel’s terrified of one and outsmarted by the other… I’m just an innocent bystander, caught in the cross-fire.”

“The day you’re innocent is the day the world ends. Stop taking advantage.” But Lip is smiling too, which is all that matters, because Babe would hate to make him truly annoyed or disappointed. “Now, quit wasting more time and get out there. You’re tables 1 to 5 tonight, table 4 is a pretty big one. Vamos.”

Suppressing a grin and trying to appear at least a little contrite for Lip’s sake alone, Babe starts to head out onto the floor, when a clatter through the doors makes them both jump and whirl around.

“WHAT THE FUCK, JOE!?”

“Oh, calm down, princess, it was an accident!” Joe’s smirk, when Babe bursts back into the kitchen, says otherwise.

The two are standing mere inches apart, a copper bowl of Shifty’s parsley sauce decorating the ground between them, as well as their feet. Web is furious and red faced, his hands curled in Joe’s whites. Joe just grins.

“YOU DID IT ON PURPOSE, YOU ABSOLUTE NONSENSICAL ASSHOLE!” Web’s anger isn’t even remotely abated, and seconds later Joe has red wine jus all down his front.

“Please stop,” poor Shifty begs, trying in vain to hunch protectively over his remaining bowls. Only neither Joe or Web are listening because they’d just started shoving each other. Lip and Bull separate them relatively quickly, with Bull sealing a hand over Web’s mouth to muffle his shouting and swearing, and Lip slapping Joe around the ear for still not wiping the gleeful smirk off his face as he laughs.

Dick practically explodes out of the produce pantry in fury, seeming to forget the radishes in his hand as he lays into the two, voice low and angry. Babe scuttles around behind him to fetch a wet cloth and help Shifty with the mess. After only a few moments Johnny pulls him up by his waist-coat, “I got it, you’d better get out there, it’s half five.”

“Oh shit, thanks,” Babe mutters back, cringing as Dick’s finger jabs dangerously close to Joe’s face as he scolds him. He flees to the safety of the restaurant floor.

Harry is keeping the already seated table 4 entertained when Babe finally gets to them.

“My apologies for the wait, there was a… hold up… in the kitchens,” he pants, smiling down at his customers.

“Thought I heard shouting. Did Web throw a chopping board at Joe’s head again?” Harry asks, to the tittering delight of the group of six. Harry’s easy flippancy isn’t quite the right style for this sort of establishment, but the owners loved him for it. Most people did too, though some of the more uppity customers would often frown and make eyes at each other across the table when he got a little too lax and informal. This group seem chill about it though, their ears perking up in interest at what Harry is saying.

“Ah, no. Not a chopping board. A bowl of one of Shifty’s sauces. I got distracted helping clean it up.”

Harry positively guffaws as he high-tails it off to the kitchen to catch sight of the last of the damage.

Babe turns back to his group, who are all suppressing smiles.

“Sorry about all that. Well then, I will be your waiter this evening. Can I start you guys off with any drinks?”

That causes a flurry of activity as they quickly hunch over their menus. Harry must have been too chatty, as they clearly hadn’t had a chance to look yet. He starts to tell them he’ll come back later if they need longer, but the bright-eyed brunette in the window seat pops her head up.

“Actually,” she starts, lilting French accent pleasant to his ears. “Can we have a bottle of champagne? My friend here just got promoted, we came out to celebrate!” She beams as she touches the wrist of the man opposite her, who looks up at Babe smiling softly and shyly with eyes that are excruciatingly blue.

“Congratulations Sir! I’ll fetch our sommelier; he’ll get you sorted with the best!”

He registers a few faces falling at that and mentally winces at himself even as he turns away. They were dressed nicely, but not expensively – there were no designer outfits, no fancy jewellery, no flashy cars parked outside. Whatever they all did for day-jobs was nothing overly high-paying. Normal people like him and them can’t afford ‘the best’.

He finds Ron talking with Lip behind the bar, theirs gazes locked, and clears his throat.

Ron’s sharp eyes shoot to him and go narrow in suspicion.

“Sorry to interrupt, table 4 would like a recommendation for a bottle of champagne.”

Ron nods and slinks away from Lip, who simply smiles amiable and easy at Babe and turns away to calm down Luz, Skip and Penkala, who seem to want to make a tower out of martini glasses behind the bar.

“Skip! Penk! Get back to work, table 10 needs to be cleared. Luz, Dick says if you break any more glasses the bill is coming out of your pay check!”

Babe snags Ron’s sleeve as he passes him, ignores the way the intense man stiffens and lets him know in under-tone that the table aren’t looking for high-end.

 When he returns to them to take food orders five minutes later he’s pleased to see a very reasonably priced bottle on ice. He waits for them to finish toasting the handsome man, who’s black hair almost seems to shine blue in the light from the chandelier. The guy blushes at the attention but downs his whole glass in one with a laugh.

He scribbles their orders down and hands it over to Buck in the kitchen, then heads to the couple seated at table 3 with their dessert. If anyone accuses him of deliberately standing to face table 4 so he can keep the man in his line of sight, he’ll vehemently deny it, but it wouldn’t be incorrect.

*

Dick is so pissed. Dick is really, really, super, totally pissed. Web can’t help but gape at him from where he stands stock-still next to Liebgott in Dick’s tiny office, trying to desperately but covertly not let their shoulders touch or arms brush in such close quarters.

Dick is pacing about on the other side of the desk, silent but shooting them plenty of death glares.  He eventually comes to a halt and speaks, his voice measured and even, but his words tinged very clearly with anger.

“You two have done nothing but bicker and pull each other’s hair since I arrived a month ago. I thought I could just stay out of it and leave you to it, since it’s obviously just the way you are together. But I won’t tolerate that sort of class-less behaviour from earlier in my kitchen! For crying out loud, just take a day off, have some hate-sex and get it out of your systems! I want this screwed up version of flirting left at the door from now on!”

“What? What!?” Liebgott looks utterly flabbergasted.

“No. No, no, no. You got the wrong idea here, Dick-” Web tries.

“Do I? Are you very sure about that, David?” Dick throws his hands up; the conversation is over. He strides out the door, leaving them gaping in his wake.

Joe won’t look at Web, just backs away almost violently after Dick. When Web gets back to the kitchen he finds Joe at his station hunched over his crème brulees with his blow-torch. Web wants to say something, something witty or funny to ease the tension, so they can both just laugh it all off. But he and Joe don’t laugh, not together at least. Dick catches his eye from where he’s watching Shifty’s mushroom sauce thicken while the man himself works on a béarnaise. Web’s been standing there awkwardly behind Joe for too long now, it’s clear. He needs to get back to work.

If Joe notices his presence he doesn’t let on and doesn’t turn around. Web lets himself back out into the restaurant and spends the rest of the night trying to control his trembling.

*

December sees the new menu finally ready. Dick gathers them before opening one snowy Friday to discuss its changes, ingredients and release one last time. This move is something Lip is coming to understand as imperative to Dick’s leadership style. He values everyone’s ideas and opinions and sought recommendations as often as he offered them. He seems to want them all to be comfortable, confident and happy in their work and personally. Lip thinks Dick must have more compassion and capacity for caring in one fingernail than Norman Dike had in his entire body.

Dike had met problems with blank stares, stammered excuses in the faces of those needing guidance and was notably absent whenever things got overwhelming. Dick is the exact opposite, and everyone from Buck down to Cobb the kitchen hand is thriving under him.

Even Ron likes him, which is saying something, because he never seems to like anyone much. Ron treats the staff with the same air of muted intensity, but is never overly warm, friendly or open. He is a little different with Lip, though Lip can’t remember any specifics as to why, just that Ron speaks more to him than anyone else, which is nice, opens up a bit more, smiles a lot. Lip is patient with him, doesn’t pry and respects his privacy, and subsequently it seems that Ron gravitates to him. Well. They gravitate to each other, truth be told. He appreciates Ron’s reticent manner and could quite easily pick out a dozen moments a week where his fierce protectiveness of the rest of the staff bared its teeth. It pleases Lip in a way he can’t explain. He pleases him in a way he’s not quite ready to try to.

They are all clustered about in the kitchen, waiting for Dick to start the meeting. Ron and Lip lean side by side against one of the counters, elbows only just touching, in companionable silence. Across the room, Lip notices Web sneaking helpless glances at Liebgott, but Liebgott is doing a pretty good job at constantly keeping his back to the other man, nowadays.

Dick steps away from where he and Buck have been chatting in low voices and pointedly ignoring Sobel who was breathing down their necks, to begin the meeting.

“New menu is a go as of Monday guys. Does anyone have any last comments or questions? Is there anything anyone is unhappy about? I’m all ears, truly, and it’s never too late.”

Sobel pipes up then, his voice snide, with some criticism about the combination of cheeses in one of the galettes.

Dick lets him have his say, and Lip admires his calm professionalism, truly, because even he wants to roll his eyes. He nudges Malarkey in the ribs when the man huffs and gives Luz a bit of a shove when he starts mimicking the manager with a silent but none too flattering impression.

Dick shoots down Sobel easily in about four seconds and with three words, then he clears his throat with a smile when Ron returns from wherever Lip hadn’t realised he’d disappeared to bearing multiple bottles of champagne.

“I’d like to toast to two happy occasions,” Dick says, his voice measured even as the bottles are popped and poured, and Toye grabs one from Ron’s hand as it overflows and drinks until Lip pulls it away from him.

“First, is to the success of the past few weeks, which have been exciting and new for us all. I want to thank you all for pulling together with me and trusting me. I feel confident the new menu will be a victory, and we’ll all be reaping the benefits together very soon.”

They toast and drink, and Lip catches Ron’s eye and can’t help his smile.

“Another round, Ron, if you please.”

Lip helps him distribute the glasses for the second time, and when they’re ready Dick pulls Harry forward.

“Much more importantly, our dear Harry deserves a toast, as he is officially a fiancé.”

Luz positively howls and Harry disappears under hands pounding his back and shaking his shoulders. Lip chooses to drink to him instead and catch Ron’s eye again. He blushes, Ron just smiles.

The evening flies by and it’s late when he finishes helping Cobb, Skinny and Hoobler, their kitchen hands, clear up the dishes. Everyone else has gone, except Ron, who’s sequestered himself away in the cellar.

Lip sends the boys on their way and pokes his head around the cellar door.

Ron is kneeling on the floor, turning a bottle carefully in its place on its rack.

“Ron? I’m heading out.”

The man glances at him, then stands and stretches.

“That’s fine. I can lock up.”

He fixes Lip with that gaze then, the one that turns his stomach to liquid. Pretty much everyone else is terrified of Ron’s intimidating aura, but Lip’s never wanted to shy from it.

As it is he finds himself drifting a little closer.

“I could help with whatever you’re doing? If that would make it go faster for you?”

Ron smiles, “Thank you. But it’s a delicate process. You spend enough of your time helping everyone else anyway. It’s admirable. But for me, it’s unnecessary.”

“Oh, well… thanks, I just… like being useful, I guess. Don’t like to see people struggling.”

“I know,” Ron intones quietly. “It’s one of the things I like about you.”

“I like you too,” Lip says in a rush, not sure if he’s supposed to try to lean out of the gravity that seems to be magnetizing him closer. He doesn’t try very hard though. He’s acutely aware that they’re all alone, that it’s late, that Ron’s come closer, or has he gotten closer to Ron? He’s still trying to figure that out when Ron kisses him.

It’s so very unlike how he’s imagined – because yeah, yeah, he’s been imagining it for a while, catches himself daydreaming in quiet moments, or fantasizing in the few seconds before he sleeps. It’s soft and tentative and careful and Lip didn’t think Ron was capable of gentleness, but the thumb lightly sweeping his jaw says otherwise.

He curls his hands over Ron’s shoulders and decides he needs to experience more of this surprising tenderness, right now, just to be sure he’s not daydreaming after all.

*

Babe’s in the middle of getting chewed out by Sobel not very quietly by Harry’s stand for handing a menu to a customer upside down, when he catches sight of the handsome patron from last week holding the door open for his pretty friend. They step inside brushing snow from their coats and hair and chuckling together, so far oblivious to Babe’s very public humiliation.

Harry, who’s been hovering unhappily in the background during Babe’s telling off, breezes forward to greet them loudly, breaking Sobel from his rant. This is lucky for him because Speirs has been quite subtly circling him like a shark with only Lip’s hand on his elbow to calm him for about five minutes.

Babe wants to see what Speirs would do, but Lip gives him a push in the chest to send him stomping moodily back to his cellar and quickly leads Babe off with a grip on his shoulder. Once they’re in the kitchen he rounds on him, eyes worried.

“Are you alright?”

“I’m fine,” Babe replies honestly. Truth be told he’s a bit shaken and quite embarrassed, but nowhere near as much as he ought to be, nowhere near as much as he would have been if Lip or Harry or Dick or anyone he actually liked or respected was giving him the dressing down.

Besides, the handsome patron is here again, by some stroke of luck, and he wants to get out there to see him, if not serve him. Harry has probably assigned Web by now, or Skip – someone distracting enough in some way, be it beauty or humour, to keep the couple preoccupied enough for the tension Sobel has caused to go entirely unnoticed.

“Is something wrong?” Dick comes over from where he was supervising Smokey with his gratin, Buck wiping his hands on a dishtowel as he follows. Liebgott’s not even trying to pretend not to be listening intently over their shoulders, his clafoutis abandoned.

“Sobel saw fit to holler at Babe in front of the half-full restaurant for something utterly minor and inconsequential.”

Dick frowns, eyes flicking from Babe to Lip.

“I’ll see about having a word with him.”

“Thanks, Dick,” Babe mutters, already backpedalling towards the swing door, just wanting to get out there and be in his presence again. “Appreciated.”

He launches himself back out into the restaurant to find Harry still presiding over the handsome man and his friend.

“Ah, here he is!” Harry waves him over and comes to meet him, murmuring, “They requested you,” in undertone as they pass each other, his smile sly.

Babe wants to sing. He hadn’t done anything memorable to deserve being specifically requested again when he’d served them last time, but he isn’t complaining in the least.

“Hello again,” he greets and they both smile, though the woman is looking at her friend, not at Babe.

Bill sweeps in then with their drink orders, two fruity looking cocktails, one peach coloured and the other lemon yellow. Babe can practically hear Ron crying in distress across the restaurant, where he’s lingering at the staff corridor door. Ron does not like cocktails. Ron hates beer. Ron likes wine. And cigarettes. And Lip.

“Are you ready to order your meals?” Babe asks, unable to keep from beaming down at his customers.

“Almost, I think,” the man says, and Babe’s heart stutters a little at finally hearing his voice. His accent is slow, Cajun, and so unexpected that Babe’s smile turns to a full-on grin.

“Great, well-” he starts, before Tab cuts him off.

“Babe! Can I borrow you a sec, I’m about to drop something!”

Babe wheels to find dishes from the table Tab’s clearing piled far too precariously in his arms and excuses himself with a quick apology to his patrons.

“Sorry, sorry,” Tab calls to them, as Babe rescues two margarita glasses and a gravy boat and follows him back to the kitchen, glancing regrettably at the handsome man as he backs through the door. He doesn’t look very happy, the slow smile that had spread across his face in response to Babe is gone.

He goes back immediately for their orders, nicoise salad for her, coq au vin for him, but they don’t want to interact with him any more than that, heads inclined together across the table, attention fixated on each other as soon as Babe has finished writing.

His heart sinks as he passes the orders over to Buck. He thought those two were friends only – she’d referred to him her friend last week – but perhaps he’d misheard? Or something had changed between then and now?

The night seems to run by, with all tables full by 7p.m. The couple flag him down for dessert menus once he’s served table 8 their soup round, and he stutters an embarrassed apology that he hasn’t had time to clear their dishes. They assure him its fine, but it’s not. This is his job, and just because he’s not used to the increase in customers that Dick was generating didn’t mean he could allow empty plates sitting on a table for ten minutes, and customers ignored.

When he delivers the menus, the guy looks like he wants to speak again, eyes fixed on Babe, mouth opening. But he doesn’t say anything in the end, just fiddles with the collar of his olive-green button up, and Babe is commandeered by Ron to help serve several bottles of sauvignon blanc to table 3.

He goes back quickly to the man and his friend for their dessert orders and is pleased to have a good reason to linger when he returns with them – he’s gone for tarte tatin, but she’s ordered crepe suzette, which he’ll flambé at the table.

The blue flame, when he lights the grand marnier, almost matches the man’s eyes. Someone behind him whoops and laughs, probably Luz, but Babe barely hears.

They don’t linger after dessert. The girl seems to be delaying pulling on her coat, but her friend is paying and waiting by the door in a matter of two minutes. She shoots a wide-eyed glance at Babe as he passes bearing more crepes than he can count to table 9. He doesn’t bother to turn around even when the door shuts behind them, his heart sinking to the pit of his stomach.

*

Sobel’s blustering and posturing has gotten on Dick’s last nerve. He could deal personally with the man’s pettiness, his finding fault in every little thing, his constant need for attention and his showing off just fine but having him bullying and berating the wait-staff for not meeting his own ridiculously high standards in front of customers or coming back into Dick’s kitchen to yell at his chefs was unwarranted and unacceptable.

Poor Grant is humiliated, his hands shaking as he tries his best to return to his task of slicing the brisket for Bull. Dick lays a hand over his on the knife and eases it from his hand.

“Just take a minute, have a drink of water. I’ll be right back.” He leaves to the sounds of Bull chivvying Grant onto a seat.

He steps through the swing-doors and passes behind the bar, his stride faltering only when he sees a certain customer sitting there, sipping whiskey like he’s paid to. Dick pauses to say hello, and Lew’s eyes light up.

“Why don’t you join me,” he says by way of greeting.

“I can’t. I’m working. And I need to go talk to the manager. You enjoy.”

“I always do,” he grins, and Harry bounds over then, effectively ending their conversation by launching into a full tirade of his and Kitty’s wedding plans, leaning on Lew’s shoulders.

They obviously know each other well, so Dick turns and leaves them to it.

Sobel gets his back up the second Dick steps into his office, not at all happy about being challenged. Dick tries to calmly and concisely explain the issues he has with Sobel’s treatment of the staff, but the other man is dismissive and inattentive. When it becomes clear Dick won’t drop the conversation, Sobel gets defensive quick.

I’m the manager, Dick, in case it escaped your notice.”

“Oh, we all notice. But I won’t tolerate you bossing about my kitchen-staff. What they do and how they do it is up to me, not you. And you cannot continue to tell off the wait-staff like that in front of customers. You shouldn’t do that at all, let alone for such minor mistakes, it’s unprofessional and pathetic.”

Sobel sits back in his chair and fixes Dick with a hard glare. “This is my restaurant.”

“No. No, it’s really not. Mind what I said, or we take this further than either of us want it to go.”

With that he left, adrenalin burning through him, chased with rage.

He hates that guy.

“Trouble?” Lew asks, when Dick reappears and takes a moment to lean on the bar and recuperate in the presence of someone he doesn’t actively despise.

“No, nothing I can’t handle,” Dick murmurs, making an excuse of fussing with the tumbler arrangement to linger.

“With the manager? I’ve heard some things. Bet the owners aren’t impressed.”

“I’m not sure how much they know. He’s a vindictive bully, and the staff here have never been able to effectively stand up to him. It seems he’s had the run of the place long before I came along, and he’ll have it long after I go.”

“Oh, I don’t see that happening. You seem well-suited with this place. I’m sure one man isn’t enough to drive you out.”

“I’m not easily driven,” Dick concedes. He does like it here, after all. Especially the customers. One customer. This customer. Lew grins as if he can read his thoughts.

Harry, who has been absent since Dick came back, now reappears carrying a binder.

Dick and Lew exchange indulgent smiles when he plonks himself down on a free stool and starts excitedly talking them through themes and colour palettes. If Ron hadn’t appeared and lingered with intent eyes boring into the back of Dick’s skull, Dick can’t promise he would ever have made it back to the kitchen; Harry’s joy and excitement is like a pandemic. And more than that, so much more, is Lew.

Lew is. Well. Lew is attractive in every sense of the word. Not only is he damn good-looking, he has a quick, almost natural intelligence and Dick could listen to him talk for days. Whenever he clapped eyes on him, tension he didn’t know he was carrying seemed to lift. It made Dick instantly, exceptionally and utterly happy to be around him.

But Ron wouldn’t seek him out without need.

“What’s up?” Dick asks over his shoulder in undertone.

Ron’s face is grim, eyes making his utter displeasure clear. Wordlessly, Dick gestures for him to lead the way to somewhere private.

Once they are safely at the far end of the cellar, Ron unleashes with no qualms.

“Sobel,” he spits the name. “I want him gone.”

“I know,” Dick placates, hands raised. “I was just having another talk with him not five minutes ago.”

“I want him gone.”

“I know, Ron. I know. Has he done anything specific?”

“He was rude to Lip. He yelled at him.”

“Ok,” Dick says gently. “Ok.”

“I don’t like him. Lip doesn’t like him. He’s a cruel, idiotic, egotistical jackass. He yelled at him.”

“I agree. It’s ok. I won’t let this go on much longer. If his conduct continues in the same vein, I’ll be speaking to Mr. Nixon before the month is out.”

Ron nods curtly, appeased enough, so Dick takes his cue to leave, fighting down the disappointment when he sees Lew has vanished. He heads back out into the kitchen instead, shoulders square, and gets to work.

*

The thing is, Web knows when he’s being a petty and prissy little bitch, and it’s always around Joe. But he can’t help it. It’s just the way he’s wired, what he seems to be predisposed to the second they’re in each other’s vicinity. He knows when his attitude is poor, or his behaviour is rude, or he’s being too easily offended. But he just keeps going with it, like he can’t rein back, and Joe clearly doesn’t want him too, if his goading and teasing is anything to go by.

Joe just brings out all those worse traits in him, they surge up right to the surface the second their eyes meet and that infuriating smirk spreads across Liebgott’s face.

So now, in the two weeks since Winters’ ridiculous comment back in his office, he and Joe still haven’t spoken a word to each other. He keeps his back to wherever he thought Joe may be in any given room, and relishes clocking out at 10:30 p.m. because it means he’s made it another evening without their paths crossing. His daytime was spent at Uni, at his lectures, studying or working on essays – no chance of Joe there, he’d have no reason to come to the campus. When he’s not around Joe he’s relaxed but focused, and pretty good company, he thinks. He enjoys a good debate or a long conversation, though he can be a bit oblivious, and a little dominating about being right. It’s only when he arrives for work at 4:30 p.m. that his heckles raise and he’s on edge, moody and petulant the second he walks through the door. Just the prospect of Joe gets him angry, tense, snappish.

But thankfully, Joe seems as humiliated as he is by Dick’s words. When Web needs to be in the kitchen to collect or drop off dishes Joe is somehow magically always on the other side of the room, despite the fact his station is relatively close to the doors. It doesn’t matter that he’s avoiding Web as much as Web’s avoiding him. It’s better that way. It means his intentions, or lack of them, are crystal clear.

The waiters usually take their breaks in a corner of the kitchen set aside for such, where they can eat and chat. But Web can’t be in that room with Joe, so has been taking himself out to the bar, settling on a stool to one side where he’s out of the way. He keeps that up when he has his break at 7 tonight, taking the plate left aside for him – snapper in creamy lemon sauce with green beans, one of his favourites – and pulling out a copy of one of his set texts from his locker. He looks at Joe out of reflex as he leaves the kitchen, expecting a snarky, insulting comment about Web’s book, his degree, him in general, but Joe’s back is turned, shoulders hunched and tight.

So, Web eats at the bar, eyes sliding blankly across the lines of the book, taking in nothing. He gives up and chats to Bill instead, who’s supposed to polishing glasses but instead seems to just be leaning against the bar doing nothing. It’s Wednesday, so it’s kinda quiet.

Web’s almost finished his break when Joe pops his head out, sent by Dick to remind Bill he hasn’t had his yet. He doesn’t look at Web.

Web can’t stop his heart from sinking and doesn’t finish his food.

“You OK there?” Bill asks him.

“No,” Web says without thinking.

“He’s in mourning,” Penk announces as he plops down on a stool next to Web.

“Why’s that then?” Bill wants to know, eyeing the remainder of Web’s fish.

“Are you kidding?” Joe Toye barks from the other ends of the bar, over the noise of his blender. “You don’t know about him and Lieb? I thought everyone knew about him and Lieb, what rock have you been under?”

“There is no me and Lieb!” Web snaps.

“And therein lies the problem,” Skip proclaims as he settles on Web’s other side.

“Oh my god,” Web mutters to the ceiling as he slides off his stool and out from under the two arms slung companionably over his shoulders. “No. We are not talking about this.”

He eyes the kitchen doors frantically.

“Why not?” Bill’s very confused.

“I thought everyone knew,” Toye still seems stuck on that even as Web scrambles past him. “I totally thought this was a thing.”

“So you’re not fucking?” Skip calls after him, deadpan.

Web hisses no and dives through the swing doors. He wouldn’t refer to the kitchen as a sanctuary by any stretch of the imagination, it was a hive of activity even without the Joe factor, but he throws himself through the doors anyway, to the sound of Penk gleefully demanding the $20 Skip allegedly now owes him.

But Toye trails him, unfortunately, still apparently mystified, the daiquiri abandoned in its blender. Why the heck is there nowhere instantly suitable for Web to hide, for crying out loud?

He’s contemplating the freezer when Toye’s accusatory voice rings out behind him, “So the two of you ain’t a thing?”

Web spins on his heel to stare at him, mortified, as all those within earshot turn to listen.

But Toye isn’t speaking to Web. He’s looking past him, at Joe. Web close his eyes in humiliation, wishing the ground would open up and swallow him whole.

“What?” Is Lieb’s answer as he whirls to stare at them, lip curling. “What the fuck? What?”

“You and Web,” Toye clarifies. “Most of us have had a bet going for months about when you’d finally make it official. But I don’t think there’s a single person in this room that didn’t think you were already at least fucking on the sly.”

“Oh my god,” Web whispers, too stunned to put any more thoughts than that into words.

He turns back to look at Joe, horrified, sorry, confused. But still no words would come out, so he just gapes at him helplessly.

Lieb’s eyes flick from him to Toye behind him, then around the rest of the room and yeah, everyone is quiet now, waiting. Dick’s arms are folded and there’s an odd little smile on his face. Like everyone, Web waits, not knowing what else to do, but expecting a mocking, cruel, insult-laden response probably along the lines of Lieb not wanting to be caught dead with him, let alone to fuck him. He can already feel his eyes prickling, though he doesn’t know why, just that he feels raw and ripped up and really can’t bear to hear the callous tirade Lieb is inevitably about to burst out with.  

So when Joe simply says, “No, Toye, we ain’t fuckin. We ain’t anything at all,” and turns his back on them in favour of slicing up his opera cake, it’s a bit of a shock.

“But you want to be, right!?” Toye howls, at Web this time, unconvinced and apparently very upset at being wrong. Lieb stops slicing.

Luckily Dick steps in before the tears fall.

“Back out to the bar, please, Joe,” he commands, before raising his voice and yelling at the rest of them to get back to work. Buck, Bull and Johnny follow his lead and hustle everyone back to their stations and tasks. Lieb stays frozen over his cake, until Lip squeezes his shoulder and mutters something to him. Then he shakes his head and resumes his work.

It’s then that Dick puts both hands on Web’s shoulders with a gentle smile, spins him around and pushes him back out the doors to the bar. “Oh, look at that, table 2 needs clearing, can you get on to that, Web?”

“Yeah,” Web mumbles, and heads there on autopilot, stacking up dishes, bowls and cutlery on instinct alone.

Dick must speak to Lip while Web is distracted, because he’s dogged for the rest of the night, moved on to the next task as soon as he has completed the current, not left alone for a second, not left idle, always kept busy, moving. He appreciates it. It keeps his mind blank to be active.

Once they close for the evening he works harder than he ever has, doing all the most-hated jobs without thinking, just wanting reason after reason to not talk to anyone or think too hard or see Lieb.

It’s only as they’re all filing out in two’s and three’s and start heading their separate ways to go home that Lieb finally meets his eyes. It’s a brief glance, probably accidental, as he heads to his Lexus. Lieb is the first to peel from his parking space, and Web wends his way down the driveway behind his car with Shifty and Babe to catch the purple line home, as usual.

He can’t help but gaze after Joe’s car as it precedes them, and because of that he catches his eye in the rear-view mirror. Joe’s eyes were on him, expression filled with something that spoke of pain, sadness, regret. Then he floors the accelerator, jumps the curbs and his car disappears down the road, tyres screeching.

*

The past weeks have brought Lip a surprisingly deep sense of peace. He was never the sort desperate to be in a relationship – in fact he was usually happier single. But it is different with Ron. They kept things quiet at work, Lip didn’t want to disrupt the natural easy flow Dick was creating, and Ron was exceptionally private and quiet to begin with. They would trade smiles across the room that sent warmth right through Lip, but that was about it, not including a few heavy make-out sessions in the cellar when things were quiet and being apart was too torturous.

He didn’t know before now that it was possible to find so much comfort and peace in another person. They spent most of their free time together, revelling in each other. Lip always locked up by 11 p.m., and if anyone notices Ron hanging around later than usual, it wasn’t commented on. They go home together, usually to Ron’s as it’s closer. After showering together they’d make love, or fuck, or just go straight to sleep and wake up blissfully happy all the same. They spent most days together, learning each other, talking, touching, watching movies, cooking, reading, and then they’d go to work together at 3 p.m. to prepare for opening at 5 p.m.

The days usually went the same. Lip would lead the waitstaff in preparing the restaurant, under Harry’s watchful eye. They would lay the table with fresh tablecloths and napkins, set out cutlery and glassware, candles and vases of white roses. Lip would assign the waiters their sections according to bookings, which more and more often lately were filling right up even before opening. He also kept a wicked close eye on Luz, Bill and Joe Toye, the bartenders, to keep them from distracting each other too much.

Once they opened and customers started arriving it’s all just automatic, and the night would fly by in a flurry of ferrying dishes, writing orders and hissing at Luz to get down off the bar’s counter.

Lip’s favourite moments were when he got to fetch Ron from the cellar. Watching Ron do his subtle and effective work always gave him a thrill. Customers didn’t always want a wine pairing, but Lip tried to gently encourage it, helped along by the fact that Winters and Ron had removed a lot of too-expensive bottles from the list. Once the customers got the sense that they could get a perfectly reasonably priced bottle, Lip got to trot Ron out more and more, and listen in while he talked customers through the options, all the while ascertaining their price-range, likes and dislikes before always always recommending the perfect bottle to complement their meal. Lip had never seen anyone turn his recommendations down. Ron would fetch the bottle and have it waiting for the waitstaff to pour once they’d brought the meal. He’d always linger to watch them take their first sip, and Lip lived for the smile it produced. Then Ron would disappear again.

The first evening things went a little different is an odd one from opening to closing. It was their final night before they closed for a week over Christmas. He’d witnessed Liebgott and Web trying to walk through the same door from different directions, see each other, freeze, then both scurry back the way they’d come – which sent Liebgott back into the freezer.

Sobel reduced Popeye to a shaking wreck over a candle burning too low, and he and Dick had screamed bloody murder at each other for fifteen minutes before Buck and Harry had gone in to the Manager’s office to calm them down.

Babe had literally tripped over his own feet rushing to serve the guy he had a crush on, the permanently exhausted looking doctor, and spilled French onion soup all over himself. They’d both blushed and floundered and stammered and it had been adorably embarrassing. Lip head-palmed. The guy had left after that with his two friends and Babe had just about burst into tears.

Lip had done his best to keep everyone under control and calm, sitting with Joe out in the parking lot on break, watching while he smoked three cigarettes in a row and waiting for him to burst out about his frustration over Web. He missed him, it was clear, but had no idea how to interact with him in a way that wasn’t unnecessary rudeness or insulting flirtation. Lip advised him to ease into interactions slowly, a brief hello, ask him what he’s reading – don’t tease him over it, wish him good night. Joe had shifted and grumbled and scrubbed his face with his hands, but ultimately agreed to give it a try.

Then he’d gone to Winters and watched quietly over him while he’d paced and fumed and seethed in his back office. Winters didn’t need anything from him, not really, only his quiet admission that yes, he did agree that it might be time to speak to Nixon Sr. and his wife about Sobel.

He’d cradled Babe’s head on his shoulder while the boy tried not to cry and told him that he was pretty sure doctors were used to having stuff spilled on them, and since the man had sworn over and over that he wasn’t angry, Babe perhaps ought to take him at his word. Babe had fixated on the absolutely wrong part of that and demanded to know how Lip knew the man was a doctor. Lip had sighed about the missed point and explained he’d heard him talking with his friends about a surgery he’d performed – it hadn’t been all that hard to figure out. Babe just about got stars in his eyes.

So, when the day was finally done, the restaurant was locked up, they’d all lingered over a few drinks and then dispersed, Lip isn’t really all that surprised when Ron pulls him into the cellar, presses him back against the door and kisses him for all he was worth.

“You look like you’ve had a heck of a night,” Ron murmurs when they part for breath.

“God, I can’t even begin to tell you about it.”

“Well, I heard Sobel and Dick from here.”

“Yeah. Hopefully we won’t have to be dealing with the former much longer.”

They went back to kissing, losing themselves in each other until the spark of desire in Lip built up into a roaring flame that Ron matches.

“I don’t… think I can wait until we get home…” Lip gasps as Ron’s hands soothe his shoulders under his shirt.

“Then we won’t,” is all he is told, before his shirt is gone and they’re on the floor, bodies pressing together.

Lip feels like he’s burning up with need. He surges up helplessly to press himself to the length of Ron’s body, but it isn’t close enough. The sweet pressure of their rocking hips isn’t enough. Ron’s mouth claiming his isn’t enough. He pushes himself up again with a whine, needing so much more. Ron responds, sitting back up to give him room as they both shed their clothes, Ron with a quick, focused intensity, Lip fumbling, feeling like he can’t move fast enough. But then Ron is over him again, kissing him and touching him, kissing and touching until Lip is wrecked, sobbing and rolling his hips down to pull Ron’s wet fingers deeper inside him.

“Come on, come on, please, come on-”

Ron cuts him off with a kiss so severe it hurts, growling into his mouth as he pulls his hips up onto his lap. Lip winds his legs around his waist to hold him there, his entire being throbbing in anticipation. It’s always so good with Ron, sweet and intense, with Ron singularly engrossed with him, and all his in return. Lip’s past encounters have been awkward, uncertain, unfulfilling in comparison. But with Ron, clumsiness and shyness go out the window. It all just feels right and good and so so so satisfying.

If it were anyone else Lip would balk at the idea of this, screwing on the cold wine cellar floor. But Ron is irresistible.

Afterwards, they dress and lock up, wandering to Ron’s car hand in hand. Lip flies out in the morning to his Mom’s place in West Virginia to suffer a week of being fussed over and stuffed with food, and Ron leaves for Boston the day after, so they won’t see each other until they get back. That thought isn’t pleasant, but for now Lip is sated and sleepy, and Ron chuckles at him as he drives. Lip is just stifling a yawn behind his hand when Ron slams on the breaks with a curse.

“Wha? Lip startles, wide awake.

“Stay here,” Ron barks, already out of the car.

They’re at Ron’s place, half in his driveway, Lip realises, looking around in confusion for what is causing his boyfriend to act so odd.

He sees her only as Ron reaches her, sitting on the porch bench, a little boy wrapped in a blanket, slumped asleep against her body. She stands up to speak to him, holding up a hand at his clear agitation.

Lip gets out of the car anyway and both heads shoot towards him as he nears them.

“What is going on?”

The woman adjusts her grip on the child, who is stirring, and frowns at Lip.

“Ron? Who is this?”

“His name is Carwood. We work together.”

Ice shoots through Lip’s veins.

Work together?”

“Go inside,” Ron turns not to him but to the woman, handing her his house keys.

Work together?” Lip repeats, his incredulity making him careless of the woman, the sleeping child, anything at all. “Did you seriously just diminish me like that?”

“Inside!” Ron roars, and so she does, scowling at them both over her shoulder.

“Who is she? What is going on?” Lip snaps as Ron comes to him. They don’t reach to touch each other like usual when they were in each other’s vicinity, Lip is glad, because they both knew he already knows exactly who she is.

Ron says it anyway, “She’s my wife. The child is my son. I had no idea she was coming here-”

Lip turns on his heel and walks away into the night, not needing to hear another damn word. Ron tries to call after him, but his ears are buzzing with too much white noise to hear.

*

Dick will never regret saying yes to Kitty and Harry’s request to have their engagement party at Jour des Jours, but he does have to wonder why they’d waited till after he agreed to then tell him they want it at the end of the first week back after Christmas. The whole week leading up to the party is a flurry of activity.

They’d re-opened on New Year’s Eve, which may have been a mistake in itself. The bar was full, so Dick had to commandeer Liebgott and Skinny to help. He himself had gone out too, and Ron had made an appearance too to pour wine, his eyes constantly flicking to Lip.

Lew had come in, spent all night flirting with Dick across the bar. They’d managed to wind up in a corner together when the countdown had begun at midnight, and Lew had leaned in dangerously close with dancing eyes; Dick didn’t know if it was the noise, or the atmosphere, or the stress of the holidays, or the tiredness mixed with happiness of re-opening, or just the plain fact that he wanted him too, but he surged forward to meet him, letting their mouths brush for one glorious too-short moment as people cheered and drank and kissed around them as well.

They’d separated with a smile, Lew’s more of a smirk, and then Dick had been called back to work. They were trotting out simpler, buffet style fare than what they usually offered when they functioned as normal, and the chefs were either struggling with the one-night-only change or lax and inattentive due to the celebrations. Dick had had to pull Christensen and Grant along by their collars behind him to get them back to the kitchen. The rest of the night had passed by – they’d closed around 4 a.m., but, unfortunately, Lew had disappeared long before then, allegedly after exchanging heated words with Sobel. The attraction between them was too strong for Dick to think he’d gone home with someone else, but he still hadn’t liked the lurch in his stomach when he’d realised Lew was gone and hadn’t said goodbye. 

In between the usual business of the rest of the week – prepping ingredients, cooking, ordering food, making sure the bar was fully stocked, meetings, budgets, maintenance, dealing with Sobel – who was a menace Nixon Sr. had sworn he was monitoring, somehow – and just generally supplying top-notch customer service night after night, as well as trying to keep the entirety of the staff happy and functional, Dick had to find the time to craft a menu for the engagement party in light of allergies, intolerances and general preferences, get it approved by the couple and start ordering.

Luckily Harry is walking on air with happiness, and his fiancée is delightfully blasé about it all.

“Just do whatever, honestly, Dick,” she insists down the phone when he calls her about the menu, Harry having merely shrugged and wandered off giggling when Dick had asked him what he wanted. “Have it be just champagne and desserts. Or beer and burgers for all I care! As long as there’s enough food and booze, and my Harry is happy, I’m easy!”

He is quite taken with the champagne and desserts idea, as a matter of fact, and calls Liebgott to him as soon as he’s hung up.

The kid comes in scowling before Dick even opens his mouth.

“How’ve you been? I know you probably don’t celebrate Christmas, but did you have nice time off?”

“It was fine.”

“Things with David don’t seem fine.”

“That’s none of your god damn business, though, is it,” Joe snaps, so Dick raises his hands in submission and lets it lie.

“Harry and Kitty’s engagement party this coming Friday. I’m thinking desserts – eclairs, profiteroles, pastries, macaroons. Can you do it?”

“For how many? What’s the theme?”

“50, not including all of us. No theme, you have free reign. Harry himself is the theme, Harry and Kitty, how about that?”

Joe hisses in his breath, laughs a little, then nods, “Yeah. Yeah, I can do it. Give me all hands on deck and I can.”

“Done, now what do we need to order?”

“Rosewater. Freeze-dried raspberries. Pistachios. More vanilla bean pods… this just for the eclairs so far, mind… lavender sprigs. More brown sugar, always seem to be too low...”

He chants off a list from the top of his head, and Dick can see his mind working – he’s going for flowery and fruity flavours for the most part, with some nut or plainer flavours like vanilla and lemon mixed in. It would also mostly come out green, pink or purple. They could decorate to match easily enough.

He spends a full hour with Joe to make sure they have everything covered, then claps him on the shoulder and sent him off smiling, before going in search of Ron.

He finds him in the cellar, but even before he’s properly opened the door Lip is rushing past him to get out.

“We’re estranged!” Ron calls after him, voice uncharacteristically agonised. “I haven’t seen them in over a year!”

But if Lip hears there is no responding answer.

Ron slumps against the door, defeated, so Dick sighs, puts his thoughts of Brut Cuvee aside and sits him down to talk, or, in Ron’s view, to reluctantly impart private information.

They close the restaurant to public diners for the night of the party, and Skip and Penkala have a field-day turning away patrons due to the private event. Dick sends Joe Toye to keep them in line with his scowl alone, but he enjoys it too much, so Dick sends him back behind the bar (they were struggling without him anyway, no one mixes a cocktail like Joe Toye) and puts Babe in charge of them.

He is just watching them settle down, slightly, when another car pulls in and two people get out.

Babe goes stiff and gasps “Oh,” and it’s then that his crazed and clumsy demeanour the past few months makes sense.

The male component of the couple steps up to the glass, and Babe opens the door for him.

“Hi,” he breathes.

“Hi there. You guys closed tonight?”

“Private event, sorry, Sir.” Skip makes a little shooing motion with his hands, “Adios.”

“Ah, that’s OK, you all have a good time.” The guy’s drawl is slow and low and Babe is positively vibrating with some sort of pent-up emotion. His friend smiles at them and turns back to the car. The guy gives a little salute and follows.

Dick is proud Babe didn’t openly start to cry. Harry bowls into him then, tipsy and giggly, trailing Kitty behind him.

“Baaaabe,” he sing-songs, before Kitty interrupts. “Isn’t that Gene? And Renee?”

“Huh? Oh, yeah, they come in here a lot, I forgot to tell you!”

“I had no idea! I wanted to invite them, but I didn’t think we had the room on the list what with all your cousins…” Kitty is peering out the window as Renee starts the car, then turns to look over her shoulder at Dick.

“They’re acquaintances from my work, the hospital. Is there a possibility…”

“Yes, absolutely.”

“Harry-go-get-them!” She calls in a rush and he bounds out onto the street waving his arms. Renee is a careful driver and the snowy conditions were obviously making her nervous, so she is taking her time to reverse, and Gene notices Harry.

Which is how come they are stepping back through the door and into the warm restaurant moments later, looking pleased and both kissing Kitty on the cheek while Harry bounces about behind them.

“Babe will take care of you,” Dick greets them. “Please enjoy yourselves.”

Ron pops up silently out of nowhere with two glasses of champagne for them. Renee jumps in surprise but Gene is still focused on Dick, something desperately hopeful in his eyes.

“Sorry, Sir, you just said… Babe? Who’s… Babe?”

Dick points him out, still huddled by the door but throwing grateful looks at Dick over his shoulder.

“Our waiter who usually serves you, I think. Ah, Babe is just his nickname. His real name is…”

“Don’t say my real name!” Babe shrieks, all gratefulness forgotten. “Come on, Dick!”

“Sorry, sorry,” Dick laughs, letting him converge on Gene alone while Kitty tactfully sweeps Renee away to talk flowers.

He heads back to the kitchen to check on the chefs. Joe is in his element – Dick has given him the head chef position for the night and he is taking to it with gusto, barking orders and binning whatever he feels isn’t up to pass. Dick rescues a perfectly good bowl of butterscotch sauce that Tipper had slaved over and shoots Joe a long, unimpressed look. Joe calms down a bit after that, Buck chuckling in the background, but Dick does the pass himself on the eclairs and macaroons that are heading out and sends Joe to supervise the crowning glory, his croquembouche tower. Inevitably Joe decides Johnny isn’t getting the caramel right, because he takes over, though he does it, thankfully, without criticising too much, which is good because no one wants to be on the receiving end of Johnny’s bitch face.

Dick waves Johnny over to help Shifty with his Italian meringue and calls Buck in to take over from him so he can head back out into the restaurant to tell Harry and Kitty the tower was nearly ready.

Lew sneaks up on him while he’s following the sound of Harry’s guffawing to the wall by the wine cellar, hand sliding around his elbow.

“Hey Dick!” He takes a long sip of his whiskey before Dick has even turned.

“Lew? What are you doing here?” Dick had to lean in to be heard over the music, Lew’s head inclined towards him, and Dick so badly wants to taste him again, right now, once could never be enough.

“Harry invited me. Do you want to dance?” The whiskey glass vanishes onto Perco’s tray as he passes, and Lew reaches out for Dick’s hand.

“I… can’t.”

“Can’t dance?”

“Literally can’t. I’m hopeless at it,” Lew makes a face like he doesn’t think that’s anywhere near a valid reason and takes his wrist, but Dick, regrettably, pulls away. “I need to find Harry and Kitty. The tower is ready.”

“Tower?”

“You’ll see!”

“Come back to me when they’re all clued up about their ‘tower’ then?” Lew laughs, and Dick knows that he will.

He forces himself away from him, and snags Babe’s arm as he passes him, still locked in conversation with the doctor by the door.

“Have you let the poor man into the room, Babe?”

The guy just laughs, looking as though he hasn’t minded, and waves to Babe, “I’ll catch up with you later!”

Babe is practically bouncing with joy, but he calms himself down when Dick fixes him with a look.

“Flirting isn’t work.”

“You can talk!” Babe grins before slapping a hand over his mouth, eyes going wide with horror. “Sorry! It’s just… I saw you and Nix…” he trails off, looking terrified.

“Nix?” Dick’s blood ran cold.

 “Uh-huh? Nix? You’ve been flirting with him for weeks, Dick, come on, throw me a bone here! I’m pretty sure I even saw you kissing at New Years!”

“Nix?”

“Yeah! Lewis Nixon! Nixon Jr! Nix! Oh… oh my god you didn’t know? He’s… Dick he’s the son of the owners…”

“No,” Dick pulls away from Babe. “No. I wasn’t aware. Go and find Harry, please, tell him the tower is ready?”

“Tower?”

“The croquembouche… look just go, please!”

He finds Lew again easily enough – he’s back at the bar, naturally. He grins when Dick sits down beside him, “Ready for that dance?”

“How’s your Dad doing?” Dick says loudly, ignoring the question. “Only, I haven’t seen him since my interview. I was wondering if he was going to come by to check out the changes we’ve implemented. Or have you been doing all that for him and just reporting back about me behind my back?” Across from them Luz freezes, then slowly sinks out of sight, dropping to the floor behind the bar.

Lew goes white, frozen in shock for a long moment, then leans into him. “Dick… I’m sorry you found out like this. This was so so so incredibly not how I wanted this to go!” He finishes his drink and reaches over the bar for the bottle of Vat 69 to refill it, but Bill pulls it out of his reach.

“Can’t allow that, Nix. Now why don’t you two go somewhere private to hash this out, huh? Don’t let it be here, like this, don’t do that to Harry and Kitty.”

Dick agrees quietly and starts to slide off the stool but catches sight of Ramirez, Grant, Joe and Buck bringing out the tower. Kitty squeals in delight when they set it down in front of her and throws her arms around Joe, who blushes and pats her awkwardly on the back.

“It was nothin’. Easy. So easy we ought to have one out every night, what do you think, boss?” He calls to Dick. Dick forces himself to smile back, even as he wends his way towards his office with Lew in tow.

“It’s amazing. Stunning.” Web is practically gushing to Joe as they pass. “I’ve never seen anything like it! You’re… it’s incredible!”

“It’s pretty damn awesome right,” Joe agrees, sidling a little closer to him. “So, tell me what you been readin’ lately?”

Lew scrubs his hands over his face as soon as Dick shuts his office door behind him. He has never actually spent more than ten minutes in this room. He sure as heck doesn’t want to be in here right now.

Lew won’t look him at him, so Dick speaks first, his voice shaking.

“Going to explain?”

“I... I don’t even know where to start.”

“You can start by telling me why you thought it was ever an acceptable option to lie to me for the past three months.”

“I didn’t lie! I just… didn’t tell the truth!”

“And… that’s not something you think I should be upset about!”

“Of course you should! I didn’t want you to find out like this! I… first of all, I didn’t know that you didn’t know who I was!”

“How was I supposed to just magically figure out who you were!?”

“I don’t know! I assumed Harry told you ages ago! Or Bill, or Buck, or literally anyone!”

“Well they didn’t. And neither did you. It must have become obvious!”

“Yeah… but by then it was too late… we were already… I don’t know, whatever we were tonight, before it all went to shit!” He breaks off, and then comes to stand in Dick’s space, grasping at his arms. “I never told you even after I realised you didn’t know I was their son because I didn’t want that to affect how you felt about me. How I think you feel about me. I’ll be your boss when my dad retires! I thought that would be something that would bother you, with your morals and your ethics and all your other words that make me want to drink. So, if I could make you fall in love with me, it would all have been OK, I could have been truthful, in the end, and it wouldn’t have mattered. Because you would have loved me, and we would have got through it.”

“I did love you. I think. I think I was getting there. I would have, I could have. So so easily, I could have loved you.”

The wild hope on Lew’s face broke Dick’s heart.

“But I sure as hell don’t anymore. Tell your father to expect my resignation next week.”

“No! No, no, you can’t! They need you here, we need you here, the boys need you here! I was sent here to keep an eye on you, yes, but not because you needed it! My parents wanted someone who would take care of the staff and keep things running smoothly – they trusted you would and I’m happy to report you make everyone here a hell of a lot happier than they were! But the reason for my presence is Sobel. I’m building a case for his dismissal and needed to wait for enough evidence to put before my dad to convince him.”

That gives Dick pause, and he stares hard at Lew – Nix – waiting for more.

Nix sees his opportunity and takes it with both hands. “I’ve been suspicious of him for a long time, but whenever we came to check up on the place it was sunshine and roses and the staff were obedient little soldiers. Mis-management is a lot harder to prove than a shoddy head chef slacking off; Dad could tell enough from Dike’s menu and the reviews alone to dismiss him, but everyone was so terrified of Sobel, that nothing has ever been properly reported to us. That is, until you came along and showed him up. You’ve given them all so much more confidence and kept them all safe in the process. So yes. I’ve been sneaking in to eavesdrop on what I can and building a report for my dad. I didn’t tell you who I was because I didn’t think you could bear to be party to such an underhand tactic from a good for nothing person.”

Not knowing what to do anymore, Dick heads for the door.

“Wait, please! Are you still intending to resign!? Dick please don’t leave!”

Dick doesn’t answer, because he doesn’t know, just heads out through the restaurant, through the kitchen to his car, and goes home.

*

If it had been snowing quite heavily when Web rushed into his English class ten minutes late, it is veritably worse when he wanders out 2 hours later. He groans loudly as he peers up at the dank sky through the window, then down at the snow piled up on the ground in the courtyard that he’s going to have to trudge through. Walking to and from the train in this is going to be shit.

Desperate for some sort of magical solution, he glances down at his phone. He is going to be so damn late. Was it too much to get a taxi to and from the subway? He sure as hell can’t afford one all the way to work, not on his wage and with the books he’d had to shell out for this quarter.

That is when he sees he had five unread messages, all from Joe.

Hey, u still @ NU?

The snow’s gettin worse. Your probs pwning all ur class wth watever bullshit ur all studying and watever boring analytical crap ur all talkin about.

Ima come pick u up k? We don’t want u walkin in this. Hypothermic waiters aint no use to anybody

OMW

Hang tight, tb when u gt these.

Web’s eyebrows shoot up in surprise even as he burrows his mouth and nose in his plaid blue scarf when cold wintry air blows in through the door as people leave. Joe’s last text had been about 15 minutes ago, so he shouldn’t be far now.

Web hits call and Joe answers on the third ring.

“What’s up, Web? Did you get my texts?”

“Yeah, you’re on your way here?”

 “Nearly there. I’ll see you soon.”

“Thank you!” He doesn’t really know what to say, is nervous and excited and tired all at once. “I’ll meet you out front?”

Web’s waiting when Joe pulls up out the front of the building. He smiles weakly as he dives into the warm car to the sound of Joe grumbling that the whole point of coming to get Web was to keep him out of the snow, not have him standing around “knee-deep in it, Web, you dumbass.”

“Thanks for coming,” Web murmurs, as Joes peels back out onto the road. Joe grunts in response, before eventually adding, “No problem.”

Web doesn’t know what to say after that – can’t say any of the unsaid things that leech between them, obviously. Joe’s hurt him so much in the past few weeks with his anger and silence, so much more than any of his old cruel jibes ever did. Being shunned and ignored was for more painful than his teasing, but it had taken way too long for Web to recognise that.

So now, here they are, silent. Neither of them wants to talk, it’s clear; Joe stares hard at the road, Web down at his phone, which is how come he sees Lip’s text come through.

Joe get you ok?

“Just letting Lip know we’re on our way,” he mumbles to Joe, who grunts again. Web sighs.

Yeah, we’re on our way now.

Good. He was pretty damn frantic when he saw how bad the snow was. Got real worried… hell he was beside himself about you, just saying.

Wed hisses out a breath, suddenly deeply and utterly angry.

Oh, so kinda like how Ron’s been freaking out over you lately? He jabs hard at the phone screen with his thumbs to get that out, then throws his phone back in his satchel.

“What?” Joe asks, finally making eye-contact when he darts a glance about three seconds long at him. If Joe knows about the longing in his eyes, he doesn’t hide it.

“I’m just so sick of this,” Web breathes out, anger dissipating into fatigue. “I’m so sick of this and you and me and us and them and every single aspect of my life right now.” He wants to be away, safe and happy, out on the water on a yacht, free of Joe and all the pain he brings in tow.

Joe doesn’t say anything, not even when Web whispers, “I can’t deal with this shit anymore.”

It’s around five minutes later when he finally ventures, “Maybe you should just quit then.”

“What? You want me to quit?” Web rounds on him.

“If being around me makes you so unhappy, maybe it’s the best option.”

“I didn’t say that! I’m sick of all this tension and awkwardness and hopelessness. I’m not sick of you.”

“Aren’t you?” Joe asks, eyes quizzical. “Because I sure as hell am, fuck. I’m sick of me, Web. I’m sick of who I am around you. And when have things between you and I ever not been tense and awkward and hopeless?”

“That was different. It used to be different. That was… that was… I don’t know what that was. Flirting? Really weird, angry flirting? But now, lately, this… this is awful. You don’t even look at me anymore.”

“Didn’t know you wanted me to,” Joe replies, not looking at him.

“I…” Web sighs. He doesn’t know. He slumps down in his seat, tired and defeated even though they’re almost at work now.

“Just don’t ignore me anymore, please?” He whispers across the gulp between them. “I can’t cope with it anymore, it hurts too much.”

Joe puts the car in park and turns off the engine. Web hadn’t even noticed they’d arrived. Something in him just hurts.

Neither of them moves to get out of the car, thank god, because Web is too fragile right now to be around anyone, even their friends, and especially not for 6 hours of pretending to be sociable and welcoming while providing faultless and flawless customer service.

He breathes in and out as deep and slow as he can, trying to get some semblance of control back. It doesn’t work, so he puts his head back against the seat and closes his eyes instead. When he opens them, how much later he doesn’t know, Joe is watching him, his hands still on the steering wheel, eyes filled with the same sorrowful regret Web always seems to be on the receiving end of these days.

“Can’t we just go back to what we were, to the way things used to be? It doesn’t matter why and how things have changed, just treat me like you used to, please? Trip me up and tease me and make me feel like I’m no one and nothing and can never catch you up, never be on your level, because at least then your attention is on me and you look at me and I exist to you,” Web’s voice cracks, and he startles a little when Joe reaches over to brush his cheek with the tips of his fingers.

“I never seem to know how to talk to you,” Joe mumbles then. “I can’t breathe right or think straight or focus for a second when you’re in the room. I never know how to talk or act like how I actually want. It all just comes out wrong. So, I thought it was best to just… stop?”

“Well you thought wrong.”

“Apparently so,” Web’s face feels cold in the absence of Joe’s fingers as he pulls away. He’s so drained.

They watch the snow gather on the windshield. It’s getting dark. Then Web sighs and reaches for the door handle, just starting to get a grasp on it when Joe’s fingers curl around his arm, stopping him. Web freezes but can’t quite bring himself to turn. He’s too overwhelmed, too sore, too gaping open.

Joe touches him anyway, drags his fingers through his hair, down his neck, then grips his shoulder and makes him turn to face him. He tells him he loves him with his mouth, but not with words.

They breathe each other in, heart rates rising, mouth bruising mouth until a bang and a sudden thump startles them apart. Web peers out the back of the car while Joe casts about in confusion.

“What the fuck?”

There’s another thump, snow exploding over the windshield, accompanied by the sound of Skip’s laughter. The kitchen door bangs off the wall again when Johnny’s small form comes barrelling out into the parking lot.

“SKIP! PENK! GET YOUR ASSES BACK INSIDE! MALARKEY DO NOT ENCOURAGE THEM! LUZ GET DOWN FROM THERE!” Where George is exactly, and what the heck he was doing there, they would never know. The four idiots scarper as Johnny appears at Joe’s window, eyeing them angrily.

“Dick says stop having sex in the carpark and either get inside to work or go home,” Johnny’s voice is muffled through the glass.

“We’re not having sex!” Web protests.

“Not yet at least,” Joe smirks.

“Does it look like I care?” Johnny’s gaze is withering. “Just pick one and get on with it, Christ!”

With that he disappears, slogging back through the snow.

They go straight to Joe’s, to absolutely no one’s surprise.

They’re barely through the door of his shabby apartment, Web just having time to notice the living room is a goddamn mess before Joe’s shoving him down face down onto the couch, and he pushes back against the weight on him, eager to finally do everything he hadn’t realised Joe wanted to do too.

“We should probably talk…” Joe pants in his ear as his hands reach under Web’s body to the button of his jeans. “We should probably talk about…” he tries again, when Web arches back against him as his hands slide into his boxers. “Talk… oh fuck Web,” he groans, when Web gets too impatient and shoves the in-the-way jeans down to his ankles, leaving him bare and wanting.

“We’ll talk later,” he grits out, “We don’t have to wait any longer!”

Luckily Joe seems to agree; he spits out a few swear words before he buries his face in Web’s ass. The first pass of his tongue has Web throwing his head back with a shout – before long he’s gasping into a pillow, eyes rolling, every nerve on fire. Joe’s as much of a tease when it comes to this as everything else – Web begs and pleads for what feels like hours that his tongue isn’t enough, the finger, two fingers, three fingers he’s given next aren’t enough. When Joe finally enters him they both grunt and swear, Web biting at the pillow, Joe nipping at his shoulder, his neck. It’s hard and rough and heavenly from then on, and Web will never forget the perfect feeling of Joe coming inside him, gasping his name in a wrecked voice, before slumping onto his back. Web rolls to the side a little, enough to free himself and Joe reaches for him, his grip just too tight so that it hurts through the pleasure, and why the fuck does that make Web come so hard that he spurts all over the couch?

“Ok,” Web pants, as his breathing returns slowly to normal. “Now we can talk.”

“Oh, fuck that,” Joe responds, not opening his eyes from where he’s sprawled on his back next to him, chest sweaty and still flushed. “I love you. I’m sorry I was such an asshole, all the times I was an asshole-”

“So, constantly?”

“Fuck you. I love you. I’m sorry. I’ll stop being a dick. As long as we try communicating better from here on out like a normal couple, I think we’ll be good,” he cracks an eye open and leers at Web.

“Probably,” Web concedes, laying his head down on Joe’s shoulder and pressing a kiss to his jaw, trailing his fingers over his chest. “God, who knew it could be so simple? The two of us. This.”

“Everyone else, apparently, by the sounds of the bet,” Joe rubs a hand up and down his back lazily, then suddenly grumbles, “Aw Christ, we should have waited till Friday to get our act together! Three more days! Grant was betting it’d be this Friday, he let slip, said he’d buy me all the beer I want if it was.”

“You could have waited three more days? I couldn’t have.”

Joe kisses him in response but kept grumbling anyway, “What’s three more days, I’ve been wanting your ass for 2 years!” His laughter cuts off with strangled yelp when Web shoves him off the couch, then follows him down for another kiss.

*

Dick isn’t one for swearing, but he’s pretty sure that leaping at the sight that greets him when he walks into the produce pantry, slapping a hand over his eyes and backing away only to smack his knee hard on the door frame warrants such a reaction.

He grumbles an oath under his breath, clutches at his knee and scowls at Web and Liebgott.

Web, guiltily removing his hands from the front of Liebgott’s trousers, has the grace to look embarrassed and apologetic. Liebgott very much does not.

“Do you mind, Dick? Jeez.”

“Do I… Do I mind? Yes, I mind! Get back to work and wash your hands, both of you!”

They wander out grumbling and he goes back in for the red onions for Hall. (He throws a bowl of potato peels and carrot skins at the couple five minutes later when they’re making out against Joe’s counter instead of working).

He’s happy for them, he is. This is the result he wanted – Joe doesn’t stop smiling and Web looks like he’s on cloud 9. But if he has to ever witness the sight he’d seen last Thursday again – it was an impressive bit of contortion on Web’s part, and very gallant of Joe to be kneeling on the floor of the walk-in freezer for such a long time – he may kill them. He debates sticking up a sign on the freezer door that says it’s not a suitable location for rimming, but he feels he really shouldn’t have to.

The only issue that remains a black cloud is his own – he is yet to draft up his resignation letter, let alone submit it, and he hasn’t said anything to anyone. Its been two weeks since the party. Lew hasn’t reappeared in the restaurant once and Dick wonders if he’s ever going to see him again.

Dick is just showing Christensen the proper technique for slicing the potatoes for the gratin when Harry comes pelting back into the kitchen, his face white.

“Dick! DICK!”

“Over here, what’s wrong?”

Harry runs to him and grabs his shoulders. “Nixon is here. Nixon Sr., his wife and… Nix. Lew. Nix is here too. They’re all here.”

Dick reels away from him, not ready, not ready at all for this, to face him, but Harry comes after him, grabbing at his elbow. “They want you to come and join them for a meal. They want to see how we cope without you out here to oversee, I think, and to assess with them the quality of the food and the new menu.”

“Oh fuck.”

“It gets worse. As I was leaving they sent Lip to get Sobel. I think he’s joining you all as well.”

The kitchen is dead silent, all eyes wide and fearful on Dick, even Johnny’s, who Dick didn’t think was capable of fear. Dick rubs his tired eyes and lets Harry help him out of whites; by the time his chef coat is gone he is ready.

“Ok, listen up. You can do this. We can do this. I have so much faith in every single one of you. Forget Sobel. Forget them out there. Forget everything, just cook. I trust you,” he tells them, meaning it, then squares his shoulders and heads out the swing doors.

The three bartenders are huddled together looking worried. Over by the door to the cellar Lip and Ron are standing shoulder to shoulder, their eyes fixed on the back of Sobel’s head where he sits at the end of table 5. The restaurant is nearly full. This is either going to be an utter shit show, or absolutely fine, and Dick has no idea which way the cards will fall.

As Dick crosses the restaurant he catches sight of Babe gazing adoringly at Gene as he leans down to talk to him and his friends at table 7. “Behave, look at 5,” he whispers to him as he passes, and Babe’s squeak is audible as he sees who the latest patrons are.

Nixon Sr. stands and shakes Dick’s hand when he joins them, as does Lew, who doesn’t meet his eyes and drops his hand almost instantly. Dick greets Mrs. Nixon and nods to Sobel as he takes a seat between the two of them. Sobel doesn’t return his smile. Dick doesn’t care.

“Well thank you for joining us at short notice,” Nixon Sr., chuckles. “It’s a little sneaky of me, I admit, but Lew insists the food is well up to par, and you yourself are unshakeable, so we thought it wouldn’t be too much of a shock.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you eat here, but I’m glad you think so,” Dick addresses Lew, who still won’t look at him.

“I’ve tried most things on the menu,” Lew responds, deadpan. His eyes, when they finally meet Dick’s, are expressionless. He looks bored and disinterested. It makes Dick cold.

“Well then,” Mrs Nixon smiles at Dick, “What would you recommend for appetizer?”

They take his recommendations and he signals Ron over for this thoughts on a bottle to match. Ron is calm and courteous, his usual self. When he seems more interested in staring Sobel down rather than actually fetching the bottle of pinot gris they’d settled on, Dick gently nudges his hip to get him to move away from the table.

Tab, Babe and Perco bring their food – they are quick and concise, but Babe’s hands are trembling and Perco nearly knocks over Lew’s water.

“Sorry!” he half screams, jumping backwards, eyeing the glass in horror.

“That’s alright,” Lew tells him, earnestly.

“Oh, he’s nervous! Don’t be nervous dear,” Mrs. Nixon smiles warmly at him.

“You’re doing great, boys, thank you,” Dick tells them, and they leave with looser shoulders and higher heads than when they’d arrived.

He doesn’t miss the long glance exchanged by Lew and his father; it’s not a surprise when Nixon addresses Sobel.

“Tell me, how are the wait-staff? They’re under your command, is that correct?”

“Yes, sir. They’re perfectly adequate,” Sobel replies. “Some could benefit from more rigorous training, I believe, but I usually find myself thwarted when I attempt to enforce such measures,” he scowls at Dick.

Mr. Nixon waits, eyes on Dick. “Seems like he’s throwing you into the deep end. Is there discord between you about the waiters?” He certainly doesn’t take half measures.

“In all honesty,” Dick fights down the fury at Sobel’s indication of there being any problem with the wait-staff, “No. They are a fantastic team. Harry and Lip do a great job keeping everything in line and everything running smoothly. There’s absolutely no discord between the wait-staff and myself – however there is discord between Sobel and I over them. In my experience, the best way to learn is with encouragement and understanding, not by being bullied and screamed at.” He keeps his voice low, but Web who’s passing by with soup for table 2 grins at him.

“Surely the best way to find out how the waiters feel is to ask them themselves,” Lew points out, taking a long sip of his wine.

“Agreed. You there!”

“David. Or Web,” Dick supplies.

“David. Web. Whatever your name is, if you please.” Web steps over when he’s waved down, looking a little anxious, table 4’s empty bread plate in his hands.

“Good evening Sir, Ma’am, Nix.”

“Tell me, how do you find working here?”

Web’s face splits in a grin. “I’m very happy here, sir, thank you.”

Dick wants to warn him but can’t. It’s Lew who takes up the questioning, and he doesn’t hold back.

“Were you as happy as you are now before Mr. Winters joined the staff?”

“God, no!” Web laughs, then catches himself.

“Will you please elaborate, son?” Nixon Sr. asks.

Web looks helplessly at Dick, who smiles gently at him, trying to reassure. Web continues to hesitate, eyes flicking from Dick to Sobel, who looks murderous.

“Just be truthful, Web. That’s all your being asked,” Dick tells him, so he sighs.

“No, Mr. Nixon. I wasn’t happy here before Dick. Comparatively Mr. Dike was… ridiculous, if I may say.”

Sobel huffs under his breath.

“I quite agree,” Nixon grumbles. “But, forgive me, son. I understand Dick’s a good executive chef, but don’t you waiters answer to Sobel?”

“We do, sir.”

“What’s Dick got to do with it then?”

“Well… sir… I have to be honest with you, Dick is more of a leader to us. He cares about us, inside and outside of work, he looks out for us. Having a good leader is a necessity to functioning and performing with high quality, which I’m sure is what you want of us.”

“Sobel’s not a good leader, then?” Lew asks.

“I’m sorry but… no.” Skip comes over to stand behind Web and give him a bit of support. “I feel bad speaking this way in front of you Mr. Sobel. But I find you treat us with no understanding, no care, no tolerance. You want the restaurant to run impeccably perfectly, which is fine, but that is impossible some days, Sir. We shouldn’t need to be protected by Dick from you. But we all of us do, every day.”

“That means daily,” Skip says from where he peeks out over Web’s shoulder.

“Well I think that about answers that question,” Lew says.

Sobel has gone red with anger, his eyes fixed on Dick, his breath short. “You put them up to this. This is your doing.”

“It really isn’t. I had no idea this visit was happening. I don’t control what Web and the other waiters do and say and feel, nor would I wish to.”

Sobel dumps his cutlery onto his plate, livid. Web and Skip exchange a look and begin to clear the table – everyone has stopped eating.

“Now, what would you recommend for the next course?” Mrs. Nixon asks Dick, ignoring Sobel as she has been for the whole evening.

“Bull’s beef bourguinon is superb. Or the fish in Shifty’s lemon parsley sauce if you prefer something lighter,” Dick tells her, happy for the excuse to turn his back on Sobel.

“Now, then, the food so far has been delightful. Can you fetch the sous for me?” Nixon asks Ron, who has been quietly rounding the making his recommendations by glass according to each dish.

When Buck arrives, the tension has become palpable. Sobel is stewing, Lew is trying not to laugh, and Mr. Nixon looks highly unhappy as he scowls down the table at the manager.

Buck greets them levelly, his eyes finding Dick for comfort, but he relaxes quickly enough into his usual amiableness. He answers Nixon’s questions about the state of the restaurant pre-and-post Dick. Buck keeps his words professional but his opinion on Dike and Sobel is clear, as is his obverse opinion of Dick. He departs, and Sobel is practically purple with anger.

“If I might speak-” he starts.

“Oh look, the food is already here, isn’t that quick!” Mrs Nixon beams.

“Is this some sort of vendetta against me?” Sobel spits, once the waiters have departed.

“Yes,” Lew replies.

“May I know why?”

“Because I think you’re a piece of-”

“Lewis.”

“Sorry Mom,” Lew cut into his chicken, not looking even remotely sorry.

Dick tries his salmon, which is perfect, he notes proudly, but Sobel isn’t eating.

“If I’m going to be fired I’d appreciate the chance to defend myself,” he snaps.

Lew opens his mouth, but his father cuts him off.

“We’ll speak privately after we’ve finished eating. Now, tell me, what do you think of Mr. Winters?”

Sobel purses his lips. He obviously doesn’t sense the threatening presence of Ron lingering nearby, looking as though he will leap forward and snap his neck the first opportunity. Lip passes him by and must say something, because some sort of desperation filled Ron’s eyes and he follows at his heels towards the cellar like a lost puppy.

“Mr. Winters is a reasonably talented head chef. The increase in foot traffic and customer satisfaction makes that clear. I feel we would work better together if he would cease to take it upon himself to do my job, as well as his own.”

Dick fights very hard not to roll his eyes.

The meal passes without much incident – Mrs. Nixon quizzes Dick about his time training in Paris, Mr. Nixon calls Bull out to talk about cuts of meat, Lew refuses to make eye-contact with Dick but still sings his praises at every opportunity. It’s disconcerting, being so close but feeling so far from him, not able to even look him in the eye. It is its own kind of torture.

When Babe hands around the dessert menus, printed in gold on stark white, bordered with ivy, he passes Sobel his upside down. Dick claps a hand to his mouth to avoid laughing.

Joe outdoes himself – Dick’s crème brulee is perfect, the cappuccino soufflé Lew is eating looks enticing, as does Lew. Is he doing this on purpose, eating from his spoon that way, but still avoiding Dick’s gaze, leaving him to stare at the bare sliver of his collar exposed by his unbuttoned shirt? He’s making Dick want him even more – but is he conscious of it? Almost definitely, there is something unbridles in his eyes Dick wouldn’t expect someone to display around their parents.

Mr. Nixon excuses himself at last and gestures for Sobel to follow. His wife watches them leave with a frown for a moment before she ultimately decides she won’t be excluded and goes in search of them, leaving Dick and Nix alone with the empty dessert plates.

“The staff did great,” Lew says, finally letting Dick look into his eyes. “All of them. Exemplary service, excellent food. You should be proud.”

“They were good before me. They’ll be good after me.”

“Still intending to leave?” a crease appears between Lew’s eyebrows.   

“Do you want me to stay?”

“You know I do, Dick. More than anything,” Lew is interrupted by his mother’s return.

“I didn’t find them,” she announces, taking a long drink of her rosé. “But I did come across the sommelier and that nice waiter chap doing some interesting non-work-related activities in the wine cellar.”

“Oh my god, not again!” Dick jumps to his feet as Lew bursts out laughing.

“Oh no, don’t worry dear, no need to interrupt them a second time. The nice chap was very upset about something when I walked in, the poor thing was in tears. I don’t think the second shock would do him any good. Besides, here he is now, back to work,” she gestures to Lip who’s scurrying back to the kitchen red-faced and red-eyed.

“I did tell them I thought those sorts of things – and those sorts of conversations to boot – ought to perhaps wait for after work, to which they agreed.”

Dick sighs, “I apologise regardless. They’ve had rather a tough road, the two of them.”

“Speaking of, Lewis have you explained to Dick what’s going to happen next?” She turns to her son.

“Ah. No.”

“Well why don’t you, he deserves to be brought up to speed,” she insists, patting Dick’s cheek in farewell before she heads to the bar and orders a Manhattan before she’s even seated herself on a stool. Toye hastens to comply.

“Come on then, and I’ll tell you what’s happening,” Lew echoes, eyes boring into Dick. Dick leads the way to his office, pausing as he passes Sobel’s door, where loud arguing echoes through the wood.

“Dad’ll be fine,” Lew assures him, encouraging Dick along with a hand on his lower back. “So… what’s happening,” he starts as he crowds Dick into his office, pulls the door shut and presses Dick against it. “What’s happening. Well what’s happening is that-”

Dick kisses him to shut him up, and Lew responds like he wouldn’t have believed, his hands curling around the back of Dick’s neck, mouth warm and pliant and welcoming.

“That’s what’s happening,” Lew says when they part. “Just in case you’re not yet convinced how I feel about you, how I’ve always felt about you, how I’m always going to feel about you.” Then he kisses Dick. And again. And again, and again, until Dick’s head is swimming with endorphins and they’re both leaning heavily against the door for support.

“Somehow I don’t think that was quite what your mother had in mind.”

“You’d be surprised,” Lew laughs. “But no, I believe she was referring to the fact that Sobel is in the process of being fired, and I am replacing him. Apparently, the lengths I’ve been going to for the past 6 months to prove he’s a piece of crap manager are what they think would make me a good one. Jokes on them, I’m a piece of crap too. They’ve never been very receptive to that, though.”

“Is that what you want? To be the manager here?” Dick ignores the self-deprecating comments – that’s just Lew.

“I guess. Yeah. Yeah, I think so. Get paid to hang out with my friends, ease some of the burden off your shoulders, learn the finer points of business hands on, and hopefully convince you to fuck me over your desk a few times a day… I could do that, yeah.”

He closes in again, and Dick meets him, laughing under his breath as he cradles his face and kisses him frantically. “Just in case you’re unsure how I feel about you,” he says, and Lew laughs again.

“Tell me again.”

Lew’s undoing Dick’s belt and pressing eagerly against him when the door to Sobel’s office slams.

Reluctantly, Dick eases Lew away and peels himself from his own door. Lew practically pouts.

“If we do this here, right now,” Dick warns him, “You realise I can never again tell off Web and Joe for their weird obsession with sex in the freezer. And Lip and Ron for that matter, when they finally get their acts together.”

“Sure, or Babe and his doctor fella.”

“What?”

“Caught them in the broom cupboard, the night of Harry’s engagement party.”

“Oh, for crying out loud… I don’t need that image,” Dick scowls, even as Lew starts stripping him properly of his clothes.

“Well clearly, we have to do this, right here, right now. We don’t want to be the odd ones out!” Lew insists, laughing until Dick takes him by surprised by bending him over his desk.

“Nope, can’t have that,” he growls in Lew’s ear as he twists back to kiss him.

When Dick comes, ages later but not soon enough, he buries his face in Lew’s neck to gasp into his ear everything he wants to shout out loud. He eventually slides out and collapses back onto his chair, Lew following and curling up in his lap.

Distantly there’s shouting, something about a blow torch, and Dick can quite distinctly hear Lip bellowing at Luz to put something down.

“You’re the manager, you go deal with it,” he tells Lew’s hair.

“Not on your life, let them burn the place down around us, I’m happy here,” Lew replies, not moving an inch.

A quick rap on the door heralds Garcia’s nervous call.

“Uh, Dick?”

“Yeah?”

“We kinda need you? Now? Please?”

“Can’t Ron and Lip handle it?”

“Ron’s getting his knuckles cleaned by Babe’s boyfriend, he split them open on Sobel’s face. And Lip is caught up with Luz. He’s found Joe’s blow torch.”

“Well what else has gone wrong?”

“It’s… well Skip and Penk we’re messing around and they’ve kinda locked Web and Joe in the freezer?”

“What is it with those two and the god damn freezer,” Dick grumbles as he eases out from under Lew. “I’ll be there in a minute,” he calls.

Lew groans at him and Dick kisses his hair in response, “Come on, the band of idiots need us.”

“Promise me we can come back for round two later?”

“We will.”

They do.

*

Harry and Kitty’s May wedding is perfect, perfect for them – a small and intimate ceremony full of laughter and love and mischief, with Harry sweeping Kitty down to kiss her as fireworks explode in the sky over the bay behind them.

They hold the reception at the restaurant because of course they do, but with outsourced caterers called in for the evening. The staff are all guests, so of course they can’t cook and serve, and Kitty insists on them all attending and having an evening to relax.

They haven’t bothered with much décor, just adding a few giant peacock feathers to the walls to accentuate the natural colour scheme of the restaurant, a few more urns overflowing with ivy, and loose gold flowers strewn down the centre of every table.

It’s a lovely atmosphere, but Lip can see he’s not the only one having trouble relinquishing control of his second home to strangers. Dick keeps shooting forlorn looks at his kitchen, even with Lew’s hand on his thigh and whispers in his ear to distract him. Joe Toye leapt to his feet to take out one of the wait staff stationed behind his bar when she accidentally dropped his last bottle of spiced rum. Luz prises the brass knuckles off his fingers and sits with his arm around Toye’s shoulders resolutely for the rest of the evening. Ron, who Lip so happened to be seated opposite thanks to Harry and Kitty’s not-so-subtle seating plan (Lip’s not sure they would have bothered with one otherwise. He asks Harry later. They wouldn’t have), growls audibly when anyone ventures too near his cellar door.

Others are more than happy to have a night of relaxation. From Hall’s surprisingly good dancing to Grant chatting up the prettiest single girl in the room, to Babe, who’d abandoned his seat at the table next to Lip’s in favour of planting himself on his doctor’s lap, so they could make out languidly between courses, they are all having a good time. And most important of all is Harry and Kitty, eyes light and bright and unable to look away from each other for very long.

Well, Joe and Web aren’t happy, but when are they ever? They’re bickering away at the other end of Lip’s table, drowning out his conversation with Christensen, heads inclined together but words angry and low, Web punctuating his with violent hand gestures, and Joe his with sarcastic sneers. It ends with Web lurching up from the table and storming away, eyes wide and face red with anger, down the corridor to the offices, Joe’s derisive howls of laughter following.

No one else really seems to notice, though Ron’s eyes tracked Web’s progress. Or perhaps they were all just accustomed to the couple’s fights, Web’s dramatics and Joe’s careless ridiculing. If one moment they were shoving each other, it would quickly turn to something else. Usually in the freezer. It was very perturbing for everyone. Lip stands up to go check on Web anyway, giving Joe a long and unimpressed look over his shoulder which is met with a lopsided grin as he takes a long swig of his beer.

Lip finds Web leaning against the wall by the cellar door, arms folded petulantly across his chest, muttering loudly about Joe, “Stupid, uncultured, downright rude-

“Web, you alright?”

“I’m fine,” is the response, punctuated with a stamped foot for dramatic affect. “Joe’s the one with the problem!”

“And what is it all about this time? Did he make fun of Edgar Allan Poe again?”

David doesn’t answer, just waits till Lip is level with him.

“I’m sorry about this,” he pronounces gravely, with a sigh, before he reaches around him for the cellar door handle, the other hand slamming hard into Lip’s chest, shoving him backward. “It’s for your own good, trust me!”

Lip stumbles back into the cold, tiled room with a surprised yelp, fumbling for the light switch once he regained his footing just in time to see it illuminate the turning of the lock.

“What the fuck, Web!?”

“The course of true love never did run smooth,” David tells him through the door.

“What!?” He pounds on the door with his palm.

“You’ll thank me for this!”

“For what!?” Lip howls, which is precisely when the door opens again, forcing him backwards as Ron steps into the room, David pulling the door shut quickly behind him.

“Oh for – what is going on?!”

“It’s all we could think of to get you to talk to me. You’ve been avoiding me.” Ron’s eyes are hesitant but his face is otherwise untroubled.

Lip shuts his eyes and turns away. “Yes. I’ve been avoiding you. Because I don’t want to see you or talk to you or be around you. What could you possibly say that you haven’t already?”

“That I love you. That I’m going out of my mind missing you. That I need you so badly.”

Ron reaches for him and Lip’s let himself be gathered close, reasoning that it’s because it’s cold in there, not because Ron is saying what he so desperately has been wanting to hear all along.

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about her. We’re in the process of a long and drawn out divorce – it’s gotten messy over finances and her infidelity. The boy, I barely see and have never had much to do with – we’ve been estranged since he was 8 months old. He doesn’t know me and that’s best for him. She came that night for my signature on the custody agreement.”

“You have a past. I can handle that. But you told her I was no one. Like I was nothing to you.”

“I’m a private person. I don’t want her in my life or knowing more about me than she needs to now. You are something I want preserved, to protect, to keep just for me. I didn’t want her and her inevitable scorn of my relationship with you tainting what we have.”

“You should have told her about me! And me about her!”

“Yes,” Ron agrees, eyes boring into him. “I’m sorry I didn’t. I’m sorry I wasn’t honest. I’m sorry I hurt you.”

He means it, it’s clear. Lip just doesn’t know what to say in response. He’s still hurting, still angry, still embarrassed to have given himself so readily to someone who had turned around and called him a colleague. It still smarted.

He reaches for Ron anyway, having missed him too much and for too long that not touching him now seems impossible. He slides a hand down his arm, grasps his hand. Ron uses it to pull him closer and kisses him. Lip sighs into it, sinking into his grasp.

“I love you,” Ron tells him again. “Let me show you much.”

Which is how they end up naked on the cellar floor, not for the first time, Lip trembling half from the cold, half from wanting Ron so bad he can barely focus. The desire he’s been ignoring is back in full force and he can’t stop touching Ron, sweeping his hands over his bare chest, down his hips. Ron gazes down at him, something resolute in his face. Lip only catches on hours, years later when Ron finally stops sucking him to scramble up and arrange himself over him, panting hard.

Lip stares at him in surprise – they’ve never talked about this before; Ron, with his careful and precise intensity had never struck him as being one who could give up control, but here he is, looking down at Lip with questioning eyes.

“You- you want that?”

“I want to show you how badly I need you, in every way, all the time. I want to show you that all of me is yours.”

Lip can’t answer with anything but a hoarse yell of delight when Ron sinks down onto him, Lip’s hands coming up to hold his ribcage. He’s tight but must have prepared himself while Lip had been distracted. It’s perfect. Lip scrabbles helplessly at his chest until he starts to move, they both start to move, Ron rocking down, Lip rolling his hips up.

He desperately tries to keep control of himself, but Ron feels so good and it has been ages since Lip has done this. Their rhythm picks up quickly, until it just isn’t enough, and Lip surges up to push Ron down on his back so he can move. Ron grasps at his shoulders with a loud moan, eyes hazy, cheeks flushed, mouth panting filth.

“Come on and fuck me, Carwood, fuck me, please, fuck me, show me how much you’ve missed this, show me you love me to, fuck me, fuck me…” He gets too breathless then, Lip pistoning helplessly in and out, shutting him up and intent on giving him what he’s asking for.

Ron comes first, tugging himself as he gazes up at Lip, eyes full of wonder and half-closed in bliss. Lip presses himself as hard and deep as he can inside him in response when he comes not long after. He collapses onto Ron’s chest and whispers, “I love you,” into his sweaty neck.

They’ll rejoin the party soon, but for now they lay together and revel in touching each other again, until Lip gets too cold and they regrettably stand to dress, bodies stiff and slow.

Ron seems to be considering something, even as he shrugs on his shirt, eyes brightening when he looks at Lip through the yellow glow of the light.

“What?” Lip asks absently as he tries to get his belt through the right loops.

“I was thinking which bottle to take when we leave tonight. I want to celebrate you.”

“You can’t steal from the stock!” Lip pretends to be outraged as he yanks his shoes back on.

“Dick probably wouldn’t care.”

Ron reaches for his hand as they step out of the room.

“How do you know Nix won’t be worse than Sobel? He could be a real fanatic about no stealing.”

“Can anyone ever be? Besides, how much Vat 69 does he get through? Dick can hardly complain at me, comparatively.”

Lip just sighs – Ron would swipe the damn chairs if he thought he could get away with it, let alone one bottle of wine. “Just don’t come crying to me when everyone else catches wind of it and wants to start nicking the stock as well.”

“Oh please,” Ron huffs as they re-enter the restaurant just in time to admire the conga line Harry was leading. “Like anyone else except Nix and possibly Toye could pick a good bottle.”

“I certainly wouldn’t trust Web and Joe’s judgement,” Lip eyes the couple in question as they disappear through the kitchen doors. “Them and having sex in that goddamn freezer…”

“No, we can’t talk. The cellar is just as cold.”

“I’m calling the locksmith on Monday regardless,” Lip decides, tucking himself into Ron’s side, surveying the room, the twinkling lights, their happy friends.

Ron kisses his temple and he closes his eyes for a moment, reveling in the feeling. It will take awhile for things to be fully OK, but this is a start and its good, and that’s damn fine by him.