Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Welcome Back Diner Chapter Three



Chapter Three

~~/*\~~

"That was just what I needed today." The man said gratefully, pushing his plate away. "Tell Tobias thanks for me."

Cassie scooped it up instantly, with a smile. "Sure thing, Saul. Have a good night."

Saul left a generous tip, and Cassie hid a smile. "Kiss your kids for me."

Saul left, and Cassie took the plate back to the kitchen. Tobias was there, arranging fries on a plate. "Hey, babe?" Cassie said in his ear as she put the plate in the sink. "Saul ordered extra whipped cream on his mocha. He only does that when he's having a bad day."

Tobias nodded. "Yeah?"

"Well, it can't be work, because his partner was in here this afternoon, and he ordered pie. You know Hallie doesn't have dessert when she's feeling bad. She crash-diets."

"So it's his wife." Tobias summed up. "Which means she'll be in here in about half an hour, pumping you for details on how her husband is."

Cassie nodded. "She likes the salsa and sour cream mix you put on the wedges. Whenever she orders it, she dips everything on her plate in the stuff. Maybe mix up a little extra for her?"

"I will." Tobias smirked. "Do you find it odd that we can basically run a CSI analysis about half the town based on their lunch orders?"

"We call them regulars for a reason." Cassie shrugged with a smile. "This is what we do, right?"

"This is what we do." He agreed. "Nobody's buying the blueberry pie. Feel like pie for dinner?"

She snorted. "Why not? My place tonight?"

"Sure, but I have a few deliveries to take, so I'll have to duck out early."

"As always." She swept back out onto the Diner Floor. Jason, their dishwasher, went with her, and she scooped her tip jar into a paper danish bag for him.

"Those are your tips!" The kid insisted. "You earned them."

"Jase, I spend my life delivering food to people and trying to balance ledgers I barely understand, but I wouldn't trade jobs with you if you put a gun to my head. When I was a waitress, I lived on tips. Now I'm waitress and manager. The least I can do is give my dishwashers some walking around money."

"Way to make me feel good about my job, boss." Jason grinned, taking the bag and putting it safely in his pocket. "Think I'll ever do more around here than dump the slop bucket into the dumpster?"

"Y'know, before I managed to talk the Human Food Network into staying in the country, he was scraping together as much money as he could to go to France and empty their slop buckets, and chop their onions. It's the guy in your job that decides if we ever get plates and cups on tables." Her phone chimed, and she pulled it out of her apron. "Ooh!"

"Good ‘ooh' or bad ‘ooh'?" Jason asked her, but she'd already run back into the kitchen.

~~/*\~~

"He came here! He came here!!" Cassie called excitedly.

"Who did?"

"The food blogger I was telling you about last month? I mentioned the guy was in the state? He came here! He just posted his itinerary on his website, with a note saying ‘Reviews to follow'."

"Cassie, we get a review every other week." He told her patiently.

Cassie jumped up and sat on the edge of the counter. "Yeah, but this guy writes for the most popular Foodie blogs. All of them."

"Everyone has a blog." Tobias said soothingly, and turned from the stove, holding out a spoon. "Here, try this."

Cassie did so, tasting his latest creation without blinking. "I'm not talking about personal blogs, I'm talking about Online Maga-ohsweetmotherofglory, that is amazing!" She licked her lips. "More!"

Tobias had already ladled a bowl for her with a satisfied smirk. "It's good, but it's not exactly where I want it. But, for tonight; it's dinner. It'll go well with blueberry pie." His tone turned warm and teasing. "We can put it on the menu for the next guy with a smartphone."

"Mm-Hm." Cassie nodded emphatically, but she shook it off. "No, not…" She shook her head clearly. "You're the best cook I've ever known, babe. You could make any girl quit Weight Watchers. But you don't know jack about running a business. Nobody buys Foodie Magazines any more. They all go on sites like Yelp and get their restaurant reviews from there. This blog I'm talking about? They have teams that go around the country trying Diners and Food Trucks and Cafe's. Not the five star places. The news did a piece on them last month. If these guys say a place is good, twenty two million people know about it."

"And one of their teams came here last week?" Tobias blinked.

"The most popular reviewer of the lot. Their App just went gold. Any subscriber that comes within twenty miles of a ‘Thumbs Up' gets an instant notification of how to get there and what to order." Cassie nodded, pleased that he was starting to get it. "But nobody's ever seen his face. It may be a ‘she' for all we know. And he came here last week. He just posted all the places he visited, and tomorrow the reviews follow. He put the schedule up first, because there are no shortage of people who follow the same route. Day One: They prepare travel plans. Day Two: He tells them where's worth going. Plus, it's his bit. He says it's like a blind test if we don't know he's coming." Her eyes shone. "Tobias, this guy has put places like ours out of business, and places worse than ours on the map."

Tobias shrugged. "Here's hoping we're in the second group."

"Oh we are." Cassie said with certainty. "You're good enough to keep half the town fed, and I am nothing but sweetness and light, so he can't fault us on service. So assuming that Vaughan didn't take the opportunity to tell a stranger the story of his surgical scars that day, I reckon it'll be a good week for us."

~~/*\~~

Tobias rode his bike. Everywhere he needed to go in town he could get to on foot. A bicycle was actually more than he needed.

Every day, he saw familiar faces. There wasn't a single person in town that hadn't come to the Cafe more than once. Most of them didn't recognize him, but he recognized all of them. Each and every one of them. Cassie was the same way. She knew all their regular orders, and was sometimes able to order for them and have their food waiting for them as soon as they arrived.

Some of his regulars were also his suppliers. He was on a first name basis with every backyard organic garden in town, and his morning routine took him past several of them.

He got to the Cold Day Cafe before it opened. Most days, an early delivery would come in before dawn and he slept there. Cassie would join him now and then, but they kept that a secret. They didn't own the place yet, and they knew the owners would frown on it.

Every day, he got there before the world woke up and signed for the deliveries. His bike was always loaded down with extra groceries, and fresh grown vegetables from backyard gardens and hobby farms around town.

Once the Cafe was unlocked and the kitchen set up, there wasn't much for him to do until customers arrived, so he made himself breakfast and waited.

The door chimed and Tobias sighed. It was earlier than usual, but he had his first customer for the day. "Be right with you!" He called from the kitchen.

"Hey, Sugah." A familiar voice called back. "Take your time."

Tobias froze, and ran to the door. Sure enough, it was Marie. She hadn't changed a bit. The only exception was that she wasn't wearing the apron she'd always worn. She had a newspaper under her arm, and she tilted her gaze to look at him over her sunglasses with a winning smile. "Hey." She gestured around. "The Cold Day Cafe?"

"Because there's nothing like a hot meal on a Cold Day." Tobias came out from behind the counter to give her a hug, and glanced at the windows, half expecting to see the Welcome Back Diner had suddenly appeared from nothingness across the street, but there was no sign of anyone but Marie.

He gave her a hug anyway. He'd only met her twice, but it felt like seeing his favorite aunt again. "Marie! It's so great to see you! So, what can I get you?"

"Who says I'm here to order anything?"

"Well, I may not be up to George's standards, but I can still pull off coffee and pie."

"This early in the morning? How about those famous waffles of yours?"

"Comin' right up." Tobias said cheerfully, and went into the kitchen. "Come sit at the counter so that we can talk."

Marie did so. "How long till your ladyfriend gets in?"

"Another hour or so. The breakfast rush comes through around 7:30." Tobias told her. "Should I leave the place closed until you leave? You're a VIP after all."

"You're sweet; but at this point ah think you should be ovah that little crush of yours, focus on Cassie."

"I do not have a crush."

"You do, and it was adorable when you were wearing a batman t-shirt, it was sweet when you were scrubbing dishes in mah kitchen, and it's just a little sleazy now that you've got ah gal of yah own."

"Yes Ma'am." Tobias shrugged it off, blushing a little. "How's George?"

"Ornery as ever." Marie was reading the paper she brought. "He's spittin' chips that he didn't put that maple syrup of yours on his menu before you put it on your own."

"He had years before it started cooking." Tobias retorted, and returned to the counter. "Coffee, and waffles are cooking."

Marie took a deep sip gratefully. "Ahh, lifeblood of the world. Liquid hope and love."

"That's how I describe it on the menu." Tobias poured himself a cup. "So, how'd you find me, or is that another question I shouldn't ask?"

"Find you?" Marie turned the paper around. A photo of the cafe was immediately visible. "You've been making quite a name for yourself, Sugah. Findin' you was the easy part."

"That… review came out a full year ago." Tobias pointed up at the wall opposite his counter. The review was framed, and hanging on the wall among all the pictures of the regulars.

Marie was unconcerned. "Well, sue me, Sugah. You know how newspapers can stack up in ah diner."

"Not in mine. Everyone's gone digital now."

"Don't ah know it." Marie said ruefully. "Time was, you could get a photo of your favorite customers for the wall. These days we have ah'n Instagram feed."

"The Welcome Back Diner is on Instagram?" Tobias seemed stunned.

"Of course not, George would have ah heart attack if ah tried." She snorted. She turned on her stool to look up the wall. "Looks like you got yahself a pretty good group ah regulars too."

Tobias chuckled. "The place isn't mine. Not yet. Me and Cassie took it over a year and half ago. We renovated a bit. We went back and forth for a week trying to redesign the place the way we wanted it. Every now and then, I thought about you and George. The memory that stuck with me the most was the wall of photos."

"Not the fries?"

"You first, then the fries."

"High praise." Marie said warmly.

"The owner was fine with letting us change things up, since he was retired. Pretty soon, the Cafe had a wall of it's own. Photos of the regulars, good reviews… We had a pair of kids working here after high school once, they took off after six months for a world tour holiday, and they sent us back postcards from everywhere."

Marie grinned. "Hey, kid? Yah seem happy."

Tobias was silent a moment, heading back into the kitchen. "I am." He said simply. "Life is good. It's strange, but it feels like I found my niche at last; and that's big for me, given that I spent most of my early life feeling like my niche should be on the far side of the world."

Marie grinned knowingly.

"I know." Tobias raised his hands. "You and George had a lot to do with that." He brought over her plate. "Enjoy."

Marie licked her lips and poured the syrup eagerly. "Mm." She sighed happily with the first bite. "Good to see you haven't lost yah edge. A lot of chefs who wind up in Diners? They just phone it in, go through thuh motions. Ah'm glad you didn't."

"I had a good reason to stay sharp." Jake excused with a grin. "Cassie said if she ever lost five pounds, I wasn't doing my job and I'd find myself fired and dumped at the same time."

Marie laughed. "Enjoy it while it lasts. One day she'll suddenly go on ah fitness kick, and then heaven help you. Ah man who cooks is ah very appealing thing, but ah hope you've got something to fall back on when she goes vegan."

"Why do you think I've got a vegetarian menu?" He asked cannily.

"How's it going with her, by the way?" Marie asked. "Ah saw it the second you sat down next to her at the Welcome Back."

"Things are going pretty good." Tobias said lightly. "She left the Cafe a few years after I joined up. When the cook retired, I took it over. The owners had no problem hiring from within, because they were regulars too."

Marie put her fork down for a moment, and went over to the wall, pulling down a picture of Tobias and Cassie. She was wearing her waitress uniform, and he had his arms around her from behind, head resting on her shoulder. It was a sweet, happy picture. "She came back?"

"Cassie works here full time, now. She's tried other jobs, but the town dried up for a while there. The town is on the highway, and it sat at just the right distance between three big cities that anyone who makes the trip stops off in town…"

"Ah told you." Marie said with satisfaction. "Diners ah bulletproof, you get ah good spot, ah good cook…"

"You did." Tobias admitted. "I looked up some of those Five Star places in Europe? The kind of places I had dreamed about running? Half of them have gone bankrupt after the Crash." He held out a hand to Marie. "You and George…"

"An' Cassie!" She put in swiftly.

"And Cassie, definitely." Tobias agreed. "You guys gave me a swift kick and stopped me from making a huge mistake. I'd be homeless and unemployed in France right now if it wasn't for you." He took her hand and squeezed her fingers. "I never got the chance to say thank you."

She smiled warmly. "You never have to."

There was silence for a moment as she resumed eating.

"So why are you here?" He asked finally. "Because it wasn't just to catch up."

"What do yuh mean, Sugah?" She smirked, knowing exactly what he meant.

He smiled. "You here to talk me out of it?"

"Nah, nothing like that." Marie grinned. "Just wanted to check in on my favorite customer, babe." She picked up her coffee cup. "Ah have to get to work too, so ah'll take my waffles to go. Ah promise, we'll keep your usual table waiting."

~~/*\~~

Cassie was awake before him the next morning. He was usually up at five to take deliveries, and she came in for the breakfast rush. Tobias and Cassie had been together for so long that neither of them could remember a time without each other.

Their own breakfast was simple enough. There was always something left over from the Diner, and as the only staff that really mattered, they were able to make use of leftovers.

"Cass, we've never been one of those couples that eat while staring at our phones." Tobias reminded her.

"We've never been the sort of couple that has breakfast together." She retorted, still tapping at the screen. "But it's a special sort of day."

"We've gotten reviews before. Good and bad."

"This guy… He decides you're worth it, and we're the only Diner in the state where God Himself can't get a reservation."

"He makes his living going around to Diners and giving Reviews. I checked the itinerary he posted last week. He visited over a dozen Diners." His face changed. "Why are you so worked up about this one?"

Cassie glanced at him, a little awkward. "He can make careers, Tops. Before he did this for a living he was a professional critic, and worked as a talent scout for a lot of the high end places. He was an associate teacher at more than one Culinary School… If you had left eight years ago, you would have cooked for him eventually, and-" Her fingers suddenly stopped tapping at her phone. "It's up!"

Tobias was interested, despite himself. "After a buildup like that…"

Cassie took a deep breath. "Let's see, it says…'Diners are not known for gourmet food. Their job is to provide convenience, but always something better and more substantial than mass produced Fast Food garbage. They are meant to be places where you bring your kids and have a fun, relaxed time. The Cold Day Cafe, I was informed by the wait staff, gets it's name from the first owners, who took in a homeless person on a cold day, and gave him a hot meal. Years later, that Homeless man won on a lottery ticket, and repaid their kindness in the form of their own Diner'."

"Is any of that true?" Tobias asked.

"No idea." Cassie didn't even blink, and resumed reading. "'The management has changed since then, hiring from within. The regulars like to talk about their experiences there, and it's clear that they would come back for every meal if they could. One bite of a Spiced Grilled Lamb Tenderloin, with a Yogurt Sauce was enough for me to know why. Every dish on their menu could conceivably be found on any menu, in any of the millions of neighborhood eateries in the Western World, but ask anyone who's eaten there, myself included; and you'll find that the experience is an entirely novel thing. The flavoring is an innovative revelation, without actually changing the classic favorites that people come to order whenever they sit down on a Cold Day'."

"Sounds like a rave to me." Tobias said with a smile. "So, you got any ideas about Tuesday? We've got a load of ground beef that won't last past Wednesday, so anything that needs hamburger or meatloaf would be perfect for Tuesday's Specials …" He trailed off when he saw her face. "What is it, Cass?"

Cassie had squared her jaw, eyes cold as she kept reading. "'Whoever they've got flipping burgers behind that swinging door, he doesn't belong in a Diner. God help the staff of Cold Day Cafe when he realizes it. Because if this is what he can do with hash and fried chicken, he has fame and fortune just waiting for him, as soon as he cuts the small towners in his life loose'."

"Oh, real charmer." Tobias scoffed. "Good thing he writes food blogs and not the town paper."

"Yeah." Cassie said flatly. The light had gone out of her eyes completely. "So, we were talking about Tuesday?"

~~/*\~~

She had been quiet the whole day. She never missed an order, never forgot a name. Tobias actually didn't register the problem for a while, because her manner with their customers hadn't changed a bit, but when the day ended, he discovered that she hadn't come home.

It wasn't altogether unusual. They each had their own place, even if they spent most of their time together. With the odd hours they both worked, it just made sense to keep two places. But Cassie's reaction to the review was worrying him, and he went looking for her. She wasn't at her home, or his, or the Cafe.

Cassie's parents had retired and moved south months before. Jake's parents still had their house, and had turned his room into a guest room. If she was anywhere, it must have been there.

He knocked on his parents door, and his mother answered almost instantly. She looked worried. "Son, what did you do?"

"Thank you so much for the show of support, mom." Tobias snorted. "Is she here?"

"In your old room, crying her eyes out. She showed up an hour ago."

~~/*\~~

He didn't go through the house. He went outside and around to the next door house, where she had grown up. Whoever lived there now didn't notice as he snuck down the side of their house, and hoisted himself up on their fence, reaching across to knock on his old bedroom window. She answered it after a moment, eyes red. "How many times did we meet at this window?" He asked quietly.

"Thousands. But to be fair, I was on the other side of the fence." She sighed. "Meet me in the driveway before the new owners call the cops?"

"Deal."

~~/*\~~

She came out to join him in the driveway of his old house. He could see shadows at the windows; so his parents were keeping an eye on things. "So…" He said softly. "Is it too… egotistical if I say that the review set you off?"

Cassie nodded. "It did."

Tobias read her face instantly, and immediately held his arms out to her. She stepped forward automatically and leaned into his hug. "Babe, don't you ever listen to anyone who talks that way. This is where I'm meant to be."

"I know, but-"

"No buts." Tobias insisted. "Don't you ever let anyone tell you different."

She sniffed a bit. "It's not that simple."

"It is to me." He told her. "You're not holding me back from anything. I'd be lost if I tried to make a career without you. I'm really good at what I do, But what I do it about a third of what I'd need if I was going to make it in this business."

"And you could get any one of a thousand people to do my job."

"You handle the whole business side of running a business, Cass. You have to look at the bottom line. Reviews are lifeblood for you, and this was a good one. You were doing a dance all day until the last paragraph."

"So what does it for you?" She asked him, not for the first time. "Why did you stay all this time?"

He just looked at her, like it should be obvious.

It was. And for some reason it made her miserable.

"Y'know, I can't figure you out sometimes." He sighed, a little annoyed. "You told me not to go, I didn't go. This many years we've been happy, and you suddenly wish I'd left you and gone?"

Cassie burst into tears.

Tobias froze, wanting to put his arms around her tighter, not knowing if that would make it worse. "Whoa. Where is this coming from?"

"I never told you."

"Told me what?"

Cassie was crying miserably. "I lied." She confessed finally. "I lied to you. I've been lying to you for years and years and years, and I never told you!"

"Told me what?"

Cassie buried her face in his neck. "When... When you were ready to hitchhike your way to Europe? You said that all those culinary schools and restaurants you applied to had rejected you?"

"Yeah?"

"Well... Four of them didn't." She confessed. "The ones you never heard back from? You never heard back, because..." She burst into tears again. "I stole your mail. I figured out which ones were acceptance letters, and I made sure you never got them!"

"You WHAT?!"

Cassie lost it, blubbering. "I ruined you. I ruined your chances. I ruined your whole career, and you've been thanking me for it for eight years, and…"

"I already knew." He spoke over her.

She froze. There was a long chilly silence.

"Y-You what?" She croaked.

He gave her a hard look. "I didn't know about you stealing my mail, but I knew that I had been accepted. When I didn't respond to their acceptance letters, all four called me a few weeks later to find out if I was coming. I figured they got lost in transit, or I'd written an address wrong on the forms. I'm a damn good hash-slinger, but penmanship and spelling are not among my natural talents."

"You knew." Cassie breathed.

"Those schools cost a fortune, love. If there's a spot staying open, there's a hundred odd paying customers willing to fill the seat. You think there's a chance in hell that they'd leave it empty? What? Did they just not notice when I didn't show up?"

"...oh gawd…" Cassie said into her hands. "I'm sorry, Tops. I'm so sorry. I lied to you. I'm so sorry…"

Tobias started to say something, but she turned and ran into the house. The door shut with a slam before he could catch her.

He made it to the door four seconds later, and his mother answered it before he could knock. "Give her some space. She just confessed her biggest secret to you, and you let her off the hook."

"Isn't that what I'm meant to do?"

"Forgive? Sure. But she was working herself up to it all day, so she's gonna need some time before she's ready to be forgiven."

"So I just… stay away?"

"Sometimes that's the best move you can make."

Tobias considered that and nodded, walking away morosely. The Cold Day Cafe was closed for the night, and he had nowhere else to be. Whenever the Diner cleared out early, he and Cassie would go to a movie, or go back to the Maple Grove for a romantic night. But now the kitchen offered him no Zen, and he had nobody else to talk to.

Tobias walked around in the dark for a while, lost in his own head, when he suddenly looked up in surprise. It was meant to be the local Post Office, but instead, it was an entirely different building, in familiar neon lights…

~~/*\~~

The Welcome Back Diner was empty this time. Marie was sitting on the edge of the counter, swinging her feet a bit, reading a newspaper. George was next to her, wiping down the counter, with a cigarette hanging from the corner of his lip. Marie was reading the review. "...'but ask anyone who's eaten there, myself included; and you'll find that the experience is an entirely novel thing. The flavoring is an innovative revelation, without actually changing the classic favorites that people come to order whenever they sit down, on a Cold Day'."

"Looks like the kid did right for himself." George declared.

Tobias came in, just in time to hear that. Marie smiled over at him as he walked past the wall of photos. He looked it over again, and noticed one of him and Cassie, both leaning into each other across a plate of waffles. He hadn't even noticed someone taking a picture.

"Of course you didn't notice." Marie said warmly in his ear after having read his mind. "You only had eyes for each other that night."

Tobias yawned. "I'm so tired."

Marie squeezed his shoulder. "Go grab your usual booth, Sugah. I'll be right over with some chow."

Tobias didn't have the energy to argue.

~~/*\~~

She put a burger in front of him, cut down the middle. "You'll like this. It's your recipe."

Tobias took a bite. "Do I want to know how you got my secret sauce?"

"You know George; he's got everything in that fridge of his."

"That he does." Tobias sighed. "It was a mistake to leave her alone."

"Ah don't think so." Marie offered. "You should know something: The night Cassie came in here? While you were mixing up maple syrup in the kitchen, Cassie poured out the whole story t' me. Including what she did." She stole a fry off his plate. "Now that she's finally carved out her heart and served it to you raw, she was waiting for judgement and you gave her a kiss."

"Think that's the problem? She was expecting a war, and when she didn't get one, she just... caved in on herself."

Marie shrugged. "She spent eight years nursing ah guilty secret and you just told her it was ah waste of her energy."

Tobias leaned back in his booth, feeling strung out. "So, is that the lesson this time?"

"What do you mean?"

"You show up when I need someone to put me right." He spread his hands a bit. "I don't know if you're an alien, or a guardian angel, or the spirit of Diners Everywhere… But you're here now. What's the deal this time? You guys always come to my rescue."

"You think you need rescuing?" George asked as he came from nowhere and put a cup of coffee down in front of his only customer.

"I don't know, are things that bad?" Tobias demanded of George's retreating back as the man returned to his kitchen. "I don't think they are."

"Men." Marie scoffed. "Blind as bats, every one of you."

"Meaning?"

"Meaning: We have dozens of regulars. What on earth makes you think we're here for you?"

Ding. The bell over the door rang, and Marie was off like a shot. "Welcome Back, Sweetie! We've got your regular table reserved for you, of course."

Tobias didn't look. He knew already. Cassie had just walked in. She looked exhausted, but stunned. "Marie?! How… What…" And she saw Tobias. "Oh. Guess I'm not surprised."

"And now I know why my burger is cut in half." Tobias chuckled.

Cassie sat down in the booth across from him. "Tobias, this place doesn't make any sense… The waitress looks exactly the same! And the place was a Post Office this morning. I walked past it."

Tobias didn't even blink. "First time I came into the Welcome Back Diner was when I ran away from home. Marie gave me directions, and within an hour, the whole place had vanished. The second time I was here was years and years later; when I was getting ready to hitchhike my way to France, and burn every bridge I had. Marie and George… hadn't aged a day. Neither had the regulars. Again, the Diner was gone the next day."

"It's impossible." Cassie declared simply. "It's gotta be a prank. One of those candid camera shows. The photos on that wall? Everything from Bogart in his Casablanca Suit to what I swear is a Medieval Knight."

The door chimed, and in walked a group of teenage girls in bobby-sox and prom dresses, and guys in zoot suits. Marie was there to greet them before they could blink. "Welcome back, gang! Great to see you all again. We kept your usual tables open; and I'll bring your milkshakes over."

Cassie pointed. "See? Gotta be a prank! Nobody's dressed like that since the 50's."

"Cassie, I don't know who'd want to prank a little kid who ran away from home, but frankly the Diner is the least of the things I'm worried about right now."

Cassie winced. "Right. Sorry."

He was silent a moment. "You remember the first time I cooked for your parents?" He said finally. "I thought your dad was going to deck me."

"You were dating his daughter. Decking you was his job. And then…"

Tobias chuckled. "I didn't make the best impression, I grant you."

"Took one bite of my mom's meatloaf and promptly gave her a better recipe." Cassie laughed. "I almost hit you myself."

"I won them over." Tobias insisted. "I won your mom over that night, showing her how to make Poire belle helene."

"And my dad a week later. She used your recipe for meatloaf and dad never looked back." She looked up at him with a smile.

The door chimed again. A pale, slender woman wearing tightly buckled leathers and, of all things, a samurai sword slung across her shoulders; stepped into the Diner, and took in the whole room at a glance. Once again, Marie appeared from nowhere like a magic trick, and placed a large travel mug in the woman's hand. "Welcome back, hon. Double-tall Mocha-swirl, with caramel shots and whipped cream to go."

The Samurai nodded gratefully and melted back into the night outside.

Cassie didn't even notice her. "I never told you this, babe; but after you left that night? That was the moment my mom told me to keep you."

"Really."

"She knew I loved you before I did." Cassie demurred. "But that night, she sat me down and told me that I was allowed to fantasize about the guys on television, and I could chase the jocks in high school, but that you were a sweet guy who loved me, and a man who can cook is the one you marry."

Tobias pulled back to look at her. "Really? Your dad could burn cereal."

"That's what I told her. She said that was why I should take her word for it, because she knew better than anyone."

Tobias laughed. "Cass, you just made my point for me. If I can win over your parents, I don't need a Michelin Star. It won't get any better than that."

"Mm. I know that if you really wanted it, you could have gone. But I just wish I hadn't been so selfish." Cassie said quietly. "You could be working a five star kitchen in Paris; and I talked you into staying here."

"You didn't talk me into it. They did." He promised her. "And besides, I'm glad I stayed."

"You don't wonder? What might have been if you'd gone for it?"

"Sometimes I did." He said quietly. "I don't any more."

Cassie looked unsure, and gestured at the plate. "Tops, I recognize this sauce. I wanted to take a swim in this sauce the day you put it on the menu. I'm eating a burger that's better than love. And I say that sitting next to the love of my life. I remember the day, word for word. You were ready to hitchhike your way to the other side of the world. If I had encouraged you to go for it, you'd probably have your own franchise by now, if not your own reality show." She took another bite. "This is really good."

"You're worried that I'm mad at you?"

"I'm trying to understand why you're NOT?!" She almost raged.

Ding. The door chimed again, and in walked a quartet of men in colorful zoot suits, complete with slouch hats. One of them was flipping a silver dollar around his knuckles smoothly. Marie arrived instantly to welcome them, and hustle them into a table.

"Cassie, you didn't stop me." He insisted. "What you did? It didn't make a tiny bit of difference. I had left. I was on my way. I knocked on your window and said goodbye. I left you behind, and my family and everything else... I just got sidetracked on my way to the airport."

"I didn't stop you that day, but..." She couldn't look at him. "The reviews started coming in, and the regulars got more and more varied, and the Cafe started making money, and... And then the job offers came in." She sniffed. "When I did this, I was young and scared of losing my bestie, and my first real love. But then I grew up, and I realized that if I really cared, I would have been honest enough to give you the choice."

"I had a choice the moment they called me." Tobias reminded her. "And it was made."

"I've had eight years to be honest with you about what I did." She reminded him.

"Is that why we only just got together two years ago?"

"Didn't feel right, to be with you and not tell you."

"I'm not wild about that either, but we were teenagers. There comes a point where a stupid mistake that made no difference is so far in the past that you just can't work up a temper about it anymore. The world changed in those eight years. I don't know if you noticed, but a lot of the best restaurants in the world have gone bankrupt. I don't know where I'd be, but it's not like ‘oh well, if only you'd given me my mail that day I would have decided to be rich instead'."

Silence. Cassie sniffed back a smile. "Well, it sounds kinda stupid when you say it like that."

The door chimed again, and in walked a magician with a perfectly waxed handlebar moustache, in turn of the century dress, complete with top hat and tails. Marie welcomed them, and hung up the magician's Top Hat without so much as blinking.

Cassie shook her head at the sight. "This place cannot possibly be real!"

"Tell me about it. But just to be clear… are there any other things you kept secret from me?"

"Oh, hell no." She scoffed sickly. "Guilt is a pretty powerful motivator. I promised I wouldn't hide anything else from you ever again."

"Good. Because the Cafe worked out because of you, y'know." He reminded her. "Who was it that had every regular customer and their routine memorized, and had me preparing favorites before they even walked in?"

"Well, I did; but that's-"

"And who was it that convinced the boss not to sell up years ago and promote his waitress to manager, and his dishwasher to head cook when he retired?"

"True, but that's-"

"And who was it that worked two jobs, plus night school to figure out how to manage a small business, handle taxes, ledgers, balance sheets, permits and licenses?"

Cassie still stared down at her plate, but a very small smile was growing on her face.

"Marie keeps talking about how you can tell the whole drawn out soap opera of people's lives in what happens at their regular booth in a neighborhood diner. You and I are proof of that."

"Yeah, I guess we are." Cassie admitted.

Comfortable silence. "You've been carrying this for eight years?" He almost scoffed. "All on your own."

"What was the alternative? The longer you stayed, the deeper in we got, and the more I felt like you lost out on something incredible because I convinced you to settle for me as a consolation prize."

"You're not a consolation prize of any kind. I hit the jackpot with you." Tobias protested.

"I know, but-"

And Tobias placed an engagement ring on the table before she could finish.

She didn't even blink. "You don't do that to end an argument. You've been keeping that ring in your pocket for three months, you don't get to use that just to make me feel better."

"How the hell do you know how long I've had the ring?"

"Lucy Kadman. Your jeweler is one of our regulars. I've told you what a romantic Lucy is. She wouldn't stop smilin' at me that whole week."

Tobias rolled his eyes. "Speaking of being bad at hiding things from each other."

She smirked a little. "Thank you for going to the jewelry store and not a pawn shop. But you were hedging all this time, and if you're only asking now to win me over-" She blinked. "Tell me you weren't waiting for this place to reappear."

"I'm asking you now, because I should have asked you years ago, and we both wasted enough time. I'm asking you because I can't see a future without you in it. I'm asking you, because if some Five Star Place asked me to take over their whole franchise, my only demand would be that you come with me." He squeezed her hands tightly. "I'm asking because I love you. And if you feel the same way, then why haven't you said yes yet?"

Tiny pause.

"Yes." Cassie said, and he put the ring on her finger.

Marie let out a squeal so loud that half the regulars turned to see what the fuss was about. "Free coffee and pie for everyone!"

~~/*\~~

Marie had insisted on making a fuss. George had turned out enough food to feed an army. Not just diner food, either. Five Star Dishes. Steaks, Pasta, Chicken, Filets… Rich sauces and all sorts of creative desserts. The whole Diner filled with magical aromas, and the two lovebirds ate too.

Marie had them pose over at the wall of pictures and snapped a photo on an old film camera. "Now g'wan." She told them warmly. "Go celebrate. Be young ah'n in luv."

"I suppose of the many things about this place that doesn't make sense, the fact that they had champagne shouldn't be at the top of the list." Tobias whispered to her as they made their way to the door.

"And T-Bone Steak is kind of a strange thing to have in a Diner when you get engaged." Cassie laughed in his ear. "But I hadn't eaten all day, so…"

"First thing we've eaten in six years that I didn't make." Tobias commented. "If it wasn't me, I'm glad it was George."

"High praise." Cassie grinned. She was about to say something more, when the door chimed, and in walked a little kid. He looked miserable, and was wringing his hands around dog's leash, made tragic by the fact that he didn't have a dog with him.

"Tobias…" Cassie whispered as the boy looked around the cast of characters. "It's you!"

Tobias stared at his younger self for a moment, before bursting into laughter. "I really am a regular, aren't I, Marie?"

"One of my favorites." The waitress grinned before sweeping over to the kitchen door. "George, I need a plate of frog sticks, pronto!"

Cassie could not stop staring. "Wow." The boy with the leash jumped as his future self and bride stared at him with intensity. "You're so cute." Cassie said with a dazzling smile as she nudged the grown Tobias beside her.

Tobias stepped forward and bent at the knees, to meet the boy at eye level. "So, come here often?" He grinned, as though he'd just said the funniest thing in the world. Cassie cracked up at the opening line. Tobias waved it off and returned his attention to the boy. "Having a rough night, huh?"

His younger self gripped the useless leash tighter. "Yeah."

"Well, take some advice from the one person in the world who's been there." Tobias said kindly. "You came to the right place."

"We all did." Cassie smiled, reaching out a hand to the grown Tobias.

The boy jumped as Marie came up to him swiftly. "There you are! Welcome Back, Sugah. We got your regular table reserved for you."

The boy was taken away to the other side of the Diner to their usual booth, and Cassie and Tobias watched him go.

"Over at that table, Marie is telling him that Home is where the food is. She's telling him that Diners are the places where lives happen." Tobias said quietly to his bride. "She's telling him that places like ours are where people bring their kids, where people fall in love… The places that only matter because people matter, and this is where you find the people." He held her hand. "That kid over there is about to have a religious experience with a plate of french fries, and he's going to know what he wants to be when he grows up. And he's sitting in that same booth when he figures out how… and when he finds out who he'll spend it with."

Cassie smiled. "Marie told me that a waitress can often see a person's life play out like a soap opera. I had no idea she was talking about mine." She smiled. "I saw an older couple over in that kid's booth, Tobias. For all I know, that was us, thirty years from now."

Tobias laughed. "Could be worse." He saw Marie and his younger self having a conversation, and picked up a napkin. "Do you remember how to get from my Parent's place to Hictrid Street?"

"Left at the Op Shop, then the second right, wasn't it?" Cassie guessed.

Tobias nodded, scribbling down a map of his old neighborhood.

"What are you doing?"

"Telling a scared kid who lost his dog how to get home." Tobias smiled. "And before you tell me how impossible it is? That T-Bone you just ate was how I found and fed Axe his favorite bone."

Cassie shook her head. "This is unreal. The laws of the universe just stopped making sense, and I'm happy about it!"

Tobias laughed. "Let's go home."

The two of them headed toward the door. On the way, they passed the boy. Marie snapped her fingers as they passed, and Tobias promptly put the napkin in her hand, just the way he remembered it happening. When he was a kid, it had seemed like a magic trick.

The Great White Hunter that Tobias had noticed when young walked in as they went out, and took off his pith helmet with a grateful sigh. The two of them slipped out past him into the night, hand in hand.

~~/*\~~

Tobias could feel her engagement ring against his fingers, and smiled broadly. "So, we can leave the Cafe closed for a day or two, and take some time to celebrate?"

"Sounds like a plan, but Jase is sort of living off my tips right now..."

"Unless you guys would want to stick around?"

They both turned to look back, and found George and Marie, outside the Diner, looking after them. It was George who had spoken. "I was actually thinking about retiring soon. You guys could take it over."

"We'd give you the place, free and clear." Marie added.

Cassie blinked, and then looked to Tobias. It was clear that this place was Narnia to him, so it had to be like being offered the holy grail. Tobias looked at her, and she shook her head with near telepathy. No. Not this time. I'm not interfering with this one.

"Thanks, George… But no." Tobias said finally. "We've got our own place now, and we've been saving up to buy it for a while. It's not just that we always know where to find the building. It's that we've got our own bunch of regulars now, and we've seen a lot of their lives play out. We plan to be there to see where their stories go… And where ours goes with them."

"Well, if you kids change your mind, let us know." Marie waved with a warm smile. "In the meantime… we'll keep your regular booth reserved for yah, Sugah."

"I know you will." Tobias said with a smile, putting an arm around Cassie. "It's nice to know we'll always be Welcome Back."

END



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photo credit: Broadway Diner via photopin (license)