Cassie slid her bedroom window up to see Tobias outside. "Do you have any idea what time it is?"
"Just before dawn." Tobias nodded. "I… I wanted to see you, before I went."
Cassie stared at him for a moment, and then ducked back inside. Tobias knew her well enough to know that she was getting dressed, and sneaking down the hall past her parents room. He knew her house well enough to follow the tiny sounds of the floorboards squeaking, even from outside.
Right on cue, she appeared at the backdoor. They didn't speak until they were away from their respective houses.
"You remember the last time you ran away from home?" She almost accused him. "You had accidentally driven your dad's car into a wall? We were… Ten, I think? A little younger?"
"Sounds about right." Tobias nodded. "Maybe a little younger."
"If I remember right, you were back by midnight." Cassie said, not looking at him. "But that was almost eight years ago. Why do I feel like you really mean it this time?"
Tobias shrugged, as though that explained everything. "I didn't say I wouldn't come back." He offered.
"Are you planning to come back?"
Cassie nodded, expecting that. "Where do you plan to go?"
"France. I can scrape together enough for a plane ticket, if I don't have any bags with me." He hefted his backpack. "I have what I need."
"For a day. What do you plan to do when you get there? You don't have any money, you don't know anyone. The only French you speak is the stuff you got out of cookbooks…" She had tears gathering in the corner of her eye. "And you won't have me to kick around, so you'd be bored after a week."
Tobias nodded, eyes staring straight ahead of him. She was trying to get him to look at her, but he wouldn't do it. "I can make it to France." He told her. "Half my cookbooks and chef biographies were written by guys who slept on the floor and chopped onions for their first year in the Four-Star places. They own franchises now! I can last that long."
"Tobias, not everyone makes it into the second group." She argued. "The guys that never make it that far? They just… Well, they don't get books written about them."
"I know." Tobias nodded. "I know it's crazy, but I have to try."
"Why?" She demanded, getting angry now.
Before she had even spoken, he had presented her with a small stack of folded papers. "They turned me down."
"Five culinary schools and restaurants in a year." Tobias told her. "And that doesn't even count the ones I never heard from at all. Maybe I'm not that good."
"I think you are." She offered. "I know I'm biased, but every six months my weight goes up and down the same thirteen pounds, depending on what your latest obsession is."
"They're not obsessions, they're practice."
"The whole month of French Onion Soup." She retorted. "The Lasagna Years-"
"It wasn't years!"
"The cheesecake in every flavor variation, the year your second best mate became legal and you discovered cooking with liquor, the-"
"I get it." Tobias couldn't help but break out in a smile, and she swiftly leaned into him, wrapping her arm around his side. He hugged her back, and they sat on her front fence together as the sun came up. "You just kinda made my point, you know?" He said softly. "I know you would have got me a job at that Cafe of yours, but-"
"But what? You're too good for it?" She said evenly. Her tone was light, but they'd had the conversation often enough that he knew she didn't like it. "Because that's my workplace you're writing off. And since when do you knock Diners?"
"I know, and I'll never say a word against any place my very best friend cares about, but…" He sighed. "The kind of things I make, the kind of things I want to make… Your boss would give me a job, but I don't want to flip burgers."
"No, far better that you have a bunch of French Guys yell at you because you're not chopping onions fast enough."
"You've never seen me go through a bag of onions." He joshed her.
"Don't go." She said finally. "I can't make you stay, but if you go, I'll miss you, and I don't want that to happen. There's jobs here. Even for a foodie. If they won't give you a kitchen, you can do it yourself. Food trucks see more customers than Five Stars ever will."
"If I don't get the diploma, nobody will take me on, let alone give me a loan to start my own business."
"You're nineteen years old." She snapped. "Why does this have to happen today?"
"Because it hasn't happened anywhere else."
"So you either get a restaurant of your own as your first job, or you go to France and be a homeless kitchen hand that doesn't speak the language?" She was getting worked up now, anger showing. "That's not exactly the smartest choice. If you want to do that, then why not do it here where you have a place to live?"
"Because France is where it's happening for people like me!" He snapped. "It's like wanting to act, so you move to California, or wanting to be a Tech Genius, so you move to Silicon Valley. For people who want to cook, it's either France or Italy. And I know I'll be living out of my backpack for a while. That's how it works. Sooner or later, they'll notice that I know what I'm doing… and I don't think it'll happen if I stay. I don't belong in this town any more."
She jerked back like he'd slapped her. Because she did belong in their town, the place where they'd grown up together, and they both knew it. Tobias wished he could take the words back.
"You need a ride to the airport?" She asked tightly, and he deflated. She was mad at him.
He'd turned down the offer of a ride. It would either be a chilly silence all the way there, or she would find a way to talk him out of going; and he'd already gone through that fight with his family.
The decision had been made, and he was listening to French Lessons on mp3, when a familiar dog went running past him, trailing a leash. "Axe?" Tobias called after him reflexively. But how is that possible? Axe has been gone for years.
The dog ran off, and Tobias took off running after him.
Later, he would wonder why he took off running after a dog that happened to look like one that he'd had as a boy. Axe was not an obscure breed, and there were probably thousands of people who had a similar looking dog.
But after running back and forth for several minutes, the dog turned a corner and vanished completely by the time Tobias caught up with him…
And then Tobias looked up, and found a familiar building right in front of him. One that he hadn't seen since he was a boy.
The Welcome Back Diner hadn't changed a bit. Except that it was in a totally different place. Tobias actually had to look around and make sure. He knew this street. He had walked it dozens of times, and this was supposed to be a vacant lot. It had been an empty hole in the ground less than three days before, the last time he had walked past.
In disbelief, he walked up the step and checked. The door opened. The place was open. It was barely fifteen minutes past dawn. They shouldn't have been open for hours, and yet…
...and yet, it was full of people. People that he recognized as he came in, gawking. All the same regulars were there from when he was a boy. The same decor, none of it seemed to have any dust or wear and tear. The same jukebox in the corner, and the fixtures all gleamed… And the wall full of pictures and Polaroids was there too. The last time he'd seen the myriad of images, he'd been a boy, and didn't know any of these faces. Now he knew plenty of them; and he couldn't believe it.
None of the photos looked old or faded. Aside from the technology used to print or develop them, they all could have been taken that day… Including one in the middle. It was a picture of him with Marie, the waitress. Tobias found himself smiling at the memory, but he didn't remember anyone taking a picture.
"Welcome back, Sugah." A familiar southern drawl spoke at his shoulder. "We reserved your usual spot."
Tobias turned with a big smile, and his jaw dropped open. "Marie?"
She hadn't changed a bit. She looked exactly the way she had when he was a boy, down to, and including the shape of the small coffee stain on the corner of her apron. She hadn't aged a day, hadn't changed her hairstyle or makeup.
"Take a breath." She directed him warmly, and led him back to the same booth he'd been sitting in the first time he'd been there. By the time she'd taken away the little ‘reserved' sign, he'd emerged from brainlock. "Roll with it, kid. Most of the regulars freak out at this point."
"Some of those pictures on the wall?" Tobias croaked. "A lot of those people… died of old age decades ago. You and George are posing with them, and you don't look a day older."
"Clean livin'." She excused that, fluffing her shoulder length hair. "Does wonder's for a gal's complexion, even if ah do say'so mahself."
Her accent was laying on a little thicker than usual, but he barely noticed. "The directions you gave me that night? My dad followed them back so that he could thank you. He said there was nothing there but an abandoned shoe store, and I'm pretty sure that there was a vacant lot right here where I'm sitting last week. Explanation, please?"
"Sugah, if ah gave you one, would you believe it?"
"And you're back for the first time in far too long. You know that Diners depend on repeat business." Marie chuckled a little. "So, you all grown up enough to drink coffee yet?"
"Coffee is for the weak. I just hit myself in the head with a frypan every morning." He retorted.
Ding! "Order up!" A familiar voice groused from the kitchen.
Zip! Marie was off like a shot. Tobias followed her with his eyes as she made a speed lap around the Diner, collecting plates, balancing them across one arm as she powered back and forth, topping up coffee here and there, calling out orders in Diner-Speak that made Tobias laugh.
Marie's route took her past his booth and she put a frypan in front of him without breaking stride. It was meant as a joke, but Tobias couldn't figure out where in her apron she'd kept a full sized frypan. She came back around soon after and collapsed into the other side of the booth. "Whew."
"Haven't changed a bit." He smiled at her. "A friend of mine, Cassie? She works at a Diner too. A regular one, not a crazy impossible one." He gestured at her notepad. "I made an order once, and I used all those crazy shorthand slang terms. She didn't have a clue what language I was speaking."
"Well, I got a complete jumble instead of what I actually ordered." Tobias admitted. "It became something of a line joke for us."
Marie put a hand over her heart dramatically. "I'm crushed. You've been seeing other Diner's behind our back."
"If I had a clue how to find this one, I would come back every meal." He shot back. "I did offer to teach her Diner-talk. She took a swing at me."
Marie snorted a laugh. "People skills, kid. The only thing yah need to stay employable yah whole life. Find ah Diner, and show off yah people skills."
Tobias grinned, just as another familiar face lumbered up to the table. "Marie, you plan on doing the job I pay you good money for any time today?"
"And then, there's the opposite end of the scale." Marie told Tobias without blinking. "George, lay-off will yah? Ah'm havin' words with mah favorite customer. Repeat business, remember?"
"Really? Because if I remember right, he didn't pay for those fries, he took a steak bone for his mutt on credit, and he doesn't seem to have ordered anything just yet. Shall we take a moment and examine the definition of the word ‘customer'?" The cook shot back.
"You have all that committed to memory?" Tobias said in jaded shock.
George pointed a stubby finger at Tobias as he chomped his cigar. "You. Come with me right now."
Tobias followed him, with a last look at Marie, who looked after them smugly.
The Welcome Back Diner was impossible. The kitchen was even more so. Tobias had approached from behind the building, and there was no chance that the kitchen could have possibly fit within the walls that he had seen. The fridge was enormous, the cooktops went almost a dozen feet and there was room for at least three counters.
Despite the size, there was no kitchen staff. Just George, and now him.
"The high end places in those Snooty Food Camelot's like Paris?" George told him. "The books and the biographies will tell you that the place a lowly drudge like you starts out is in the art of slicing onions, for five hours a night. That's a joke. You're less than a footstool to them at this point, and onions actually make it into dishes that paying customers eat. They're not going to trust actual vegetables to a blunt edge like you. They'll put you to work slopping out the scraps and washing the dishes." He pointed at the other end of the kitchen, which was nothing but two large kitchen sinks, each one the approximate size of a bathtub. They were full of dirty pots and pans and plates. "Get to work!"
"I don't work for you."
"You don't work for anyone else, either; your royal highness." George snorted. "You wanna know how it works in this industry, then work!"
"I'm sayin', I'm not a rookie. You want me to get to work, I'm worth a lot more than a dishwasher."
Marie chose that moment to sweep in again. "George, table four is still after their soup, and table nine wants to know what's keeping their spare ribs."
"Tell them that as soon as someone washes a plate, they can have their food." George waved a hand at the big sink full of dirty dishes… and Tobias standing awkwardly next to them, doing nothing.
"Well they ain't going to wash themselves, Kid!" She joshed him lightly. "C'mon, hustle. You're pouring mah gratuity down the drain."
"I actually can't stay, I was on my way to catch a plane…" Tobias started to call after her… before George hit him with another sub-zero gaze, and he surrendered, grabbing a pair of rubber gloves.
Tobias wasn't sure how long he worked. Every time he emptied the huge tub and refreshed the water, another load of plates came in. He watched George out of the corner of his eye and shuddered at the sheer efficiency of how the large man worked. His face bore a permanent scowl, but he didn't slow down for an instant, working three workstations at once.
Tobias craned his neck to look out the window. It was getting dark. He had been there the entire day, doing nothing but scrubbing their dishes.
The kitchen was equipped with everything. Tobias couldn't believe how much equipment was being used on a regular basis, but somehow the man kept it all straight in his head, even as he plated each dish attractively and kept on a conversation with Tobias. It was like watching Marie zip around the tables like she was on skates.
But finally, George came over and held out a beer. "Here. Dinner rush is over. Take a break."
"You plan to live in Europe, where the legal age is eighteen."
Tobias pulled his dishpan hands out of the water and took a long pull off the beer in relief. A moment later he moaned. "Ohh, that's really good."
"Homebrew." George hoisted his bulk up to sit on the edge of the counter. "You think I'll drink that cold piss they sell as beer in regular stores?"
Tobias scoffed and took another sip.
The work was back-breaking, and the day was hot. The entire work-crew was exhausted, on edge, and aching in places that not even their wives knew about. But then the foreman made it up to all of them with a bucket filled with ice, chilling some beer bottles. The work was finally done, and the building would stand for a hundred years after they gone.
"That's worth drinkin' to." Someone groaned.
The first sip was a refreshing wave of icewater, banishing the heat. The second sip was pure ambrosia. There was nothing better than a cold beer for a hard won thirst, shared with brothers who knew exactly what they were all worth...
Tobias shook off the memory of another person's blissful moment, and turned back to George. "So, what was all this really about?"
George shrugged. "You tell me, Kid. You were about to hitch your way to France to do exactly what you did here. How'd'you suppose that my plates and pots are any different to five-star plates and pots?"
"I don't suppose they are, but the goal was-HOW DO YOU KNOW THAT?" Tobias spluttered. "I never told you what the plan was! Who the hell are you people?"
"I. Am. Talking." George shut him down instantly. "Now, you wanted to go there, knowing that you'd be a kitchen drudge, but you were hoping to work your way up." He said, knowing the answer. "You can scrub a plate to my satisfaction. The whole time you were doing it, did anyone thank you?"
"Of course not." Tobias agreed, not offended.
"When was the only time that Marie noticed you all day?"
Tobias blushed a little at the implication. "When she needed a clean plate."
"Bingo. The most important people in any business are the ones that nobody notices. So, you wanna be famous, or you wanna be important?"
"Neither." Tobias shook his head. "I wanna be the best."
"Out of seven billion people on this planet, you wanna be the best at something? Tall order, kid." George scoffed. "And before you tell me that you're up to it, bear in mind that your hands are shaking from exhaustion after one day doing the most menial tasks a kitchen has."
Tobias was stung deep by that one, and reacted the strongest way he knew how; with anger. "Hey, you don't get to judge me. You're a fry cook. I don't know what this place is, exactly; but I do know that I want better than flipping burgers and deep frying fries."
"It was my fries that made you wanna be a chef." George shot back.
Tobias was caught out by that one. After eight years, he still hadn't forgotten how he'd reacted to the food Marie had brought him that night. "I... I want that." He admitted. "I want to do that. I want to make that happen. And I thought that if I went to..." He checked his watch. He'd missed the flight and hadn't noticed. He sank into himself a bit. "I don't even know why I stayed." He admitted finally.
George gave him a long look, and sighed. He went over to one of the myriad of cabinets, and pulled out a large jar from behind a sack of flour. It was identical to the tip jar on Marie's counter… Except it was stuffed full of hundred dollar bills. Tobias let out a low whistle.
"My rainy day fund." George said by way of explanation. "You've seen that wall of pictures outside. We've had some big names in here over the years and years and years." He rolled his neck till it popped. "Make you a deal. You can cook something for me and Marie. If you impress us, which is not an easy feat, then you can have the whole jar. It'll get you to France, and cover some expenses for a while."
"And if I don't?"
"Then… what? I'm not your father, kid. You wanna live like a hobo in Europe, it's your business."
"Then why?" Tobias asked, genuinely confused.
"Because if you want better than this?" George gestured at the long cook-top bench, and the gathered ingredients around it. "You better be ready to show that you ARE better than this."
Marie swept in and held out a menu. "Dinner rush is over, George. Ah'm starving."
"Well you're in luck. The Rookie is going to cook for us." George took off his apron and held it up to Tobias without hesitation, dangling it off a single finger.
Marie smirked. "Ooh, this should be good. George hasn't handed over his spatula to anyone in years."
Tobias took the apron with due gravity. "Okay. Anything I want?" He pulled his moleskine notebook out of his jacket pocket. "Because I've been collecting and experimenting for years..."
"Well, tell you what; let's make it interesting. Anything on the Menu. You don't want to be a hash-slinger? Let's see if you can sling Hash first." Tobias was about to say something against that, when George put a hand up. "I mean it, kid. Easiest things to make on the menu is eggs and hash. Make me an omelet and some hash browns, with any fixin's you want. Anyone can get it right, let's see if you can get it perfect."
It was a cheap taunt, and Tobias knew it. But he also knew that George was right. An Omelet was a beginners dish, but one that was easy to upgrade from good to amazing, with the right chef.
As Tobias cracked some eggs in a bowl, they heard the bell above the front door ring, and Marie slipped out.
Cassie came into the Diner, a little stunned by the clientele. She'd just been walking past, on her way home from work; trying not to think about Tobias, who would have been halfway across the ocean by now. She wished she had contact details for him. She hated how they left things.
A waitress swept up to her with a warm smile. "Welcome back, sweetie."
Cassie frowned. "I… I haven't been here before. In fact, I don't think this place was here yesterday." She looked out the window. "Was it?"
"Had ah hard day, huh?" The waitress smiled sympathetically, and Cassie noticed a southern accent for the first time. "Well, you just get off your feet and try to put it behind you. Ah'll bring you something. Ah'm Marie, and we've got your usual table reserved for you."
Cassie would have protested, as she couldn't have a ‘usual table' but Marie had already led her over to the booth by the window, and taken a ‘reserved' sign off the table.
Cassie didn't argue. After having a fight with her best friend, working a double shift, and her car refusing to start, she didn't have the energy to fight anything any more, and she had no idea why she'd even come into the Diner.
Just wait until she goes back in the kitchen, and sneak out. Cassie told herself. Go home, take a hot bath and try not to think about it.
She resolved to do just that, when she noticed raindrops hitting the window beside her. It hadn't even been overcast the last time she'd looked, but now it was raining. Cassie sighed and surrendered. One meal. She pulled the tips from her shift out of her pocket and started counting out her coins.
Marie came back around and squeezed her shoulder warmly. "Hang in there, Sweetie. The worst day of your life can only last until midnight." She set down a cup of coffee in front of Cassie. "On the house. I don't imagine they pay you better than me."
Cassie was too strung out to argue the point, and nodded her thanks. She took a sip of the coffee...
They were walking along the Seine, her arm through his. They had toured the world, and yet, even through the whirlwind, they suddenly felt so peaceful, so content. Paris lit up around them magically, and the smell of rich, delicious coffee that they each carried was like a warm blanket for their hearts. The air cooled, and the warm coffee cup felt so good in her hands.
Neither of them were in a rush, wandering sedately, leaning happily into each other. She sipped again, and leaned in to give him a slow, loving kiss...
Cassie emerged from a memory of a life she could only dream, and stared into her coffee cup for a moment. "Whoa. That's really good."
"Ah'm so glad you think so." Marie said primly, before she called back to the kitchen. "George, ah'm takin' mah break!"
Cassie took another luxurious sip as Marie sat down across from her.
George took a bite. "Not bad. What do you think?"
Tobias sighed. "Not as good as those fries."
The older man smirked. "Marie tell you the story of her mom's tomato soup?"
"One of our more popular entrees." George allowed. "She told you the story behind it. That soup was the culmination of a hundred hot summer nights spent around a table too small; and a family that never knew how much their mom worked to show them love. I wanted to put that story in the menu."
Tobias nodded with a soft, nostalgic smile. It had been years, but he still remembered Marie talking about her mom.
"Now, kid; what you have to learn is this: How do you tell that story with just the food?"
Tobias blinked. "Get a paper towel and write it out in Soup droplets?"
"You're an idiot." George said blandly. "But I can forgive that because so are most of my customers. My point is, Tomato Soup is one of the simplest peasant dishes you can find in a restaurant, but to Marie; it's her mom, and it's her huge family, and it's every time one of them did something nice for her. You got anything like that in your book?"
Tobias chewed his lip, flipped open his moleskine again... and turned to the back, where he had a perfectly pressed Maple Leaf. "Just one. My Grandma's waffles."
George nodded, satisfied. "Good. Make me that."
"Ohno." Tobias shook his head. "This is one that you have to cook at home. Can't make it in a Diner. Or even a Five Star place, come to that. See, the syrup for this one is a family tradition. You won't find those ingredients here."
"Oh, I think you will." George said with a gleam in his eye. "Go check the walk in fridge. Right at the back."
Tobias gave him a strange look and did so. The kitchen was impossible, he already knew; but the fridge was worse. The fridge extended for at least two hundred feet. There was no way it could fit in the building. Tobias walked through it with his jaw hanging open. It had everything from cheeses of all vintages and backgrounds, to tanks with live seafood, to handmade jars with ground spices that Tobias had only heard of in history books.
The labels were even stranger. 'First Date Fondue Strawberries.' Was on a small punnet of bright red fruits. "Baby's First Comfort Food.' was scribbled on a jar of what looked like applesauce. 'The Taste of A First Kiss' was inscribed on a steel pot, sealed with wax.
Tobias kept walking, feeling like he was in a dream, when his nose twitched. Among the myriad of scents that overlapped, but didn't seem to conflict, he found the hint of a sweetness that he knew. He followed it right to the back, where a small jar of clear liquid sat in a bucket, identical to the one his mother used when she harvested the sap of the maple tree that her father had carved their initials into.
Stunned, Tobias picked up the bucket, and found a piece of wide tape on the side. In what looked a lot like his father's handwriting, was his parents initials, with a heart drawn around them, exactly the way they appeared, carved into the maple tree.
Tobias returned to the kitchen, carrying the bucket. "You know, even if you have all the equipment, turning raw sap into syrup can take hours."
"Then you'd better get started." George was unconcerned. "I've got pancake syrup, rookie. I can go buy a bottle at the supermarket, and I can get the same experience that a million other people get in their convenient little lives over their convenient little tables. You tell me: Are the waffles your mom taught you worth more than a can of syrup from the store?"
"Yes." Tobias said instantly.
"Then show me what the fuss is about." George leaned against the counter with a newspaper. "I can wait." He gave another secretive smirk. "The time will pass faster than you think."
Cassie had no idea why she was pouring her heart out to Marie, but the waitress was just so amazingly easy to talk to. And with her parents away and Tobias gone forever, she had nobody to tell.
"I mean, its not that I want him to give up on his dreams. It's just that I'm going to miss him more than anyone I've ever known." Cassie explained. "He's right, I am small town. But that's not so terrible, is it?"
"Let me tell yah something, sweetie; Ah've tried the big city thing." Marie told her, stretching her neck out. "People go to lose themselves in the big bad city, but they still wear a path from their home to their job to their favorite Diner. You get them six blocks further than they've evah been, and they're lost. The only difference between a small town and a big city is how many people yuh gotta push through, and whether they take a subway or a bus."
Cassie snorted. "That's true, I guess."
"That's why I like working here." Marie yawned. "It's exhausting, usually thankless; and the money makes you wanna cry, but dang if you don't see it all." She grinned. "See those guys in the corner? Back in the 30's, they were a Jazz Band in New ‘Awlins. After every show they'd come to the Diner. Most of them time, they played music, they got paid so little. But every night, they'd play a little smooth jazz, and the whole place would stop and listen for a while."
"The thirties?" Cassie blinked. "Wasn't that like, a long time ago?"
"Don't sass your waitress." Marie told her lightly. "It's not polite to make assumptions about a gal's age." She gestured back at the Jazz Group, who brought their instruments up to play, as if answering her cue. "I remember one night, they had someone new with them. Cute young thing, who clearly worshiped Dale --he was the bass player, by the way-- and they had a little concert right here. Ah remember, because two years later, Dale came back in, and with him was the cute young thing, with a wedding ring on her finger."
Cassie smiled. "That's a great story."
"You must have a few of yuh own." She gestured at Cassie's uniform.
Cassie smiled a bit. "Yeah. All Diners have their regulars. I've watched two kids go from bassinets to kindergarten. They had a terrible first day, and their mom had to bribe them to go back to school with ice cream." She looked around the crazy Diner. "This is a nice place. How did I not know you were here?"
"We're new here." Marie excused. "We've been in another location for a while, just set up here. You want a refill?"
"Oh, yes please." Marie glanced around again. "Oh. Am I keeping you? I mean, I basically work for tips..."
Marie poured her refill. "Nah, it's a lull. Another hour or two, and we get the evening regulars. People who work shifts, people who work clubs. People need to decompress, and nowhere better than a Diner. That's why we have breakfast all day around."
Cassie moaned. "If it's half as good as the coffee..."
Marie chuckled. "On the house. You strike me as a waffles kinda girl."
Cassie wore a very sad, nostalgic smile. "I was. I don't know if I'll ever enjoy waffles again. I have very particular waffles in mind now. You ever have something like that? Something you enjoy, and then something happens and you know you'll never enjoy it again?"
Tobias tasted the syrup. "It's perfect."
"We'll find out in a moment, won't we?" George was unimpressed.
Tobias put the syrup in a small bowl to warm, and suddenly noticed the clock. "That's... impossible." He checked his watch. "That was a lot of work I just did, and..." He looked back up at the wall clock. "How?"
"I told you. Time flies when you're boiling tree sap." George was unconcerned. The tattooed man was over at the opposite counter top, methodically slicing some russet potatoes. "So. Waffles?"
Tobias got to work at the waffle iron, still unnerved.
George had shifted over to the deep fryer. "Every home in France that I ever went to? They all have a household deep fryer." George commented. "They all think it's strange that Americans don't, given our need to fry everything."
Tobias was still glancing around the kitchen, his brain trying to find an explanation of how it could be real. "Who are you people?" He asked quietly.
"Does it matter?" George asked him. "From what I hear, you're not planning to stay for lunch."
Tobias set his jaw. "This place is impossible, and so are you and Marie."
"Then you probably don't want another plate of those fries, huh?"
Tobias felt his whole mouth fill with saliva, and his stomach roared instantly. It had been years and years, but he remembered those fries. "Um... give me fries now, or I will be forced to severely hurt you."
"That's what I thought." George chuckled.
"Waffles are done." Tobias arranged the freshly cooked breakfast food on a plate as attractively as he could, with some sliced strawberries and some squares of butter. He poured the warming syrup into a pouring jug. "Trade you for a plate of fries."
George gave him an unsettling grin, and slammed his hand down on a silver bell by the serving counter. "Order Up!"
Marie swept past like a shot, snatching the plate from Tobias' hand without breaking stride.
"Wait! What?!" Tobias froze. "No, those were for..."
He went to the doorway and froze, suddenly paralyzed. Cassie?
Cassie's nose twitched the second the smell hit her nose. "No way."
Marie swept past like a blur, and suddenly there was a plate of waffles in front of her. Cassie leaned closer and drew in a deep breath, her hand closing compulsively around a fork without looking. "No way!"
When the first bite hit her tongue...
Cassie was suddenly a little kid again. It had been a family outing for Tobias, but he'd insisted that Cassie come along. His parents had smiled broadly and agreed. They had gone for a long drive, and stopped at a strand of maple trees.
His mother had shown them the spot where his father had carved their initials, and his father had brought along a spile, with which he'd promptly tapped the tree, collecting the maple sap in a large jar.
Cassie had traced her fingers around his parents initials. And she suddenly saw two more sets of initials there too. She'd seen a park bench once, where her mother had carved her own with her father's...
Tobias had come up behind her and covered her eyes from behind. "Time for lunch!"
Cassie came out of the memory with a dreamy smile. An instant later, she knew exactly who had made the waffles she was eating. Somewhere between her first bite of waffles and the second, the Diner had emptied. Cassie looked around and discovered that she was the only one there. It was strange, because she could have sworn the place was full a second ago, but she found she didn't much care. She was looking for someone in particular. She spun for the kitchen door, absolutely certain of who she would find in the kitchen. "Tobias?"
The kitchen door swung open a moment later, and sure enough, there he was, apparently as stunned to see her as she was to see him.
A moment later, Tobias was shoved out into the dining room, and the usual chef came out quickly. "There. There it is!" George pointed at her face, and they both looked at her. "Kid, you see that look? There it is."
"There it is." Tobias nodded sagely, knowing exactly what that meant.
"There what is?" Cassie asked, looking between them.
"Oh let the boys alone." Marie told her, wiping down the counter. "Guys like to tell each other how awesome they are."
George had a grip around Tobias' face and was looking him square in the eye, imparting life wisdom straight into his soul. "You see that? How many people want to be artists and think that comic books are beneath them? Comics make billions of dollars a year. You think there's no such thing as a Five Star Burger?"
Tobias nodded. "George?" He said slowly, his mind exploding with ideas. "I have an idea for a really good Monte Cristo Sandwich!"
George grinned. "Good, because I'm still hungry."
They both bustled back into the kitchen, and Cassie was left staring after them, with the fork still in her hand, staring blankly. "Did that really just happen?"
Marie toasted with her coffee cup. "I love this job some days. Such rich pageantry."
Tobias stayed in the kitchen another five minutes. Cassie had returned to the booth. She could smell melting cheese and looked up as the kitchen doors swung open and Tobias came over to her table. "So. You're still here." She said flatly. "Flight delay?"
Tobias strode up the length of the room, until he was suddenly within reach of the young woman. She actually took a swift lean back, the approach was so sudden. "Cassie." He said softly. "Be honest with me about one more thing." He said in a low voice. "Did you want me to stay because you didn't think I'd make it as a Big-Time Chef?"
"No." Cassie admitted. "I wanted you to stay, because I knew you would. And if you did, you'd never come back."
Marie swept past them at high speed and put another knife and fork in front of them. They both took the hint and Tobias sat down, both of them taking slow, small bites of their shared life, told in the form of a plate of food.
"Last week, I went back to that maple tree." Tobias admitted softly. "I went to carve your initials."
She smiled, happily surprised. "You did?"
Tobias nodded. "When I got there, I found someone had carved my initials there already."
Cassie smirked. "Yeah. It was me." She ran a finger through the syrup still on the plate, and licked her fingertip clean. "I remember that day, your mom showing us how to turn the sap into syrup, and we poured it all over everything…"
"I didn't tell you this..." He said softly. "But my parents weren't the first one to do that. Gran, on my mom's side, was the first one to tap that tree for syrup. My grandparents? On both sides of the family? They all carved their initials there too. So did my aunts and uncles. Three generations. And when I found my initials carved into the tree, I put yours there, wrapped right around mine."
She smiled softly, almost teary. "You did?"
Tobias reached out and took her face between his hands. "I have to do this every time I put a plate in front of someone. That look on your face when you realized it was my... Our recipe. When you knew it was our thing? I need to make that happen every time." He said seriously. "I thought that the way to do that was to go Five Star."
"Tops, I've never had dinner in a five star restaurant that made me think of anything but the bill." She said seriously. "But when I saw you walking out of that kitchen, and... That was just… that was so…" She searched for the words for a minute, and then promptly leaned in and kissed him soundly.
Tobias kissed her back, until suddenly the smoke alarm went off. He broke for air with a goofy grin. "Wow."
"As much as I'd like to take credit for that…" She chuckled. "You probably left the Monte Cristo on the sandwich press."
Tobias jumped up and back ran to the kitchen. After a moment the alarm went off and he returned. "When you tell your guy that I need a job, leave out the part where I set off the smoke alarm."
Cassie laughed. "I will."
Tobias grinned. "You wanna get out of here?"
Cassie gestured back at the kitchen. "Aren't you on shift?"
"I don't work here."
Cassie snorted. "One day, you've got to tell me this story."
Marie swept past them again. "Scoot you two, before George gives you dishes to wash. Go! Be young an' in love." She plucked the little 'Reserved' sign out of her apron and put it on their booth. "In the meantime, we'll hold your usual table for you."