Precious

“- A double burg for table 2! Get moving!

– Yessir!”

Greasy fumes filled the parlor, the kind that made you want to wash your face off after a few seconds of exposure. The tenacious smell of old cooking oil that used to make him gag was now a minor inconvenience at worst. Wiping the sweat off his brow, Vinz carefully flipped the patties over; it’d been a while since he burned something during his shift, and he intended to ride his lucky streak as long as he could.

His boss looked up from the counter to peek at his work, while his hands kept on chopping onions and tomatoes like they had a mind of their own. He nodded in approval. “You’re getting better at this. Maybe with some luck you’ll actually cook something edible every time!” the dago smirked.

The hothead rolled his eyes; he knew Pipo’s little jabs at his cooking skills weren’t mean-spirited in any way -heck, he kinda deserved them after charring his first three pans way back when- but still, he was doing his best! “Well, maybe I will if you stop distracting me…”

Pipo laughed. “No can do, boy. You gotta learn how to multitask if you wanna keep this job.” He jerked his head towards his own worktop: he’d already filled a bowl to the brim with vegetables while the two talked. “You want to be able to get chummy with the customers while you make their damn food, y’know. S’important.”

Vinz nodded, hesitantly, before focusing back on the cooking meat; Pipo had been running his joint for a long time, suffice to say he was damn good at his job. But Vinz? Oooh boy, that was another story.

He’d applied for dozens of jobs over the years. Anything from bartending to bouncing (and yes, he only tried that because he thought his face would scare troublemakers away. It didn’t.), but it always ended the same way, with him getting fired (heh) over something dumb. Like a curse. That or he was just that incompetent at everything, but Vinz didn’t like to dwell on that particular trail of thought. Not without Lino to snap him out of it.

The hothead ignored the little coil in his chest that often accompanied the thought of his best friend, and lifted up the pan to shake the steaks around. Self-loathing issues aside, the question still stood: why hadn’t Pipo let him go, after so many instances of property damage and accidental arson? And why would the guy even hire a walking fire hazard in the first place, when he could obviously handle everything himself?

“Because you applied and no-one else did.” his boss’ disinterested voice rang.

The skeleton almost dropped the pan, his yellow eyes reduced to mere pinpricks in his black sclerae. Shit, fuck, I said that out loud. He turned to Pipo, but the older man wasn’t even looking at him, merely chopping away on a wooden plank. Huh. Maybe he could finally ask what had been weighing on his mind for a while, and Pipo wouldn’t mind.

“I mean…” he began, scratching the back of his skull. “Sure, that’s a given. But I applied, like, four times here, and you always said you didn’t need any extra help. So what made you change your mind?”

Not your amazing skills or good looks, that’s for sure, his brain stated. Shut the fuck up, Vinz replied. Unhelpful piece of shit.

Pipo shrugged. “Like I said, you were the only one who bothered applying. And after the uh, incident a few months back, my view on things kinda changed. Get those off the stove if you don’t want them to dry out.”

Vinz hurriedly got the meat off the stove -there he was, getting distracted again- and started gathering some condiments. “Sorry boss. Uh, the incident? What incident?”

“You know, typical DMC shit. Some shady men-in-black ripoffs came in one evening and told me to uh “take a hike if I wanted to stay alive”.”

Pipo’s brow furrowed at the memory. “They uh, had guns. So I didn’t ask any question and fucked off for the night. Came back the day after to see the whole place smashed, broken tables and cut marks everywhere.”

Vinz didn’t respond. He knew exactly what had happened that night. Flashes of phantom pain pulsed in his throat, images of a dark, nightmarish creature slamming Angelino against the ceiling bubbling to the forefront of his mind. Ugh. Sorry about that Pipo.

“Let’s just say,” the chef continued, “that my priorities changed that day. I wanted to spend more time with my daughter, y’know? She barely sees her old man already, so if this fucked up city decided to off me one of those days…”

He turned to look at Vinz, a shadow of a fond smile on his chiselled face. “That’s why I hired your ass. To get some pressure off my back. If by some miracle I can make a decent cook outta you, I could entrust the joint to you for a few hours a day.”

If Vinz still had his lower jaw, it would’ve fallen off by now. Did he hit his head on a shelf at some point? Had Pipo… just said he wanted him to run the place on his own during his shifts?

That. That was new. Someone other than his roommate was beginning to put a smidge of trust in him and he wasn’t sure how to handle it.

“…You have a kid?” he managed to utter. That wasn’t what he planned on asking at all, but then again his thinkpan was a bit jumbled at the moment. The italian smiled more broadly, a forlorn look in his eyes. “Aye. Chiara, la luce dei miei occhi. She’s the most precious thing I’ll ever have in this life.” He glanced back at the food and started to stack the ingredients on a plate, gesturing at Vinz to pass him the cooked ground meat. “When you have someone like that, a person you want to protect with all you have? Gives you a reason to get up in the morning. Keep going.”

Vinz tilted his head to the side, blinking.

Memories of strangled gasps and muffled screaming, of strained breathing and anguished whimpers, of feverish mumblings and howls of pain. Tearful, guilt-ridden black eyes and equally black skin, bruised and bloody. Crimson patches in pure white snow.

No more no more please stop for the love of god stopstopstop he’s going to die stop-

He shook his head, his flames turning to a soft green. “Yeah. I know the feeling.”

A new sense of comprehension settled between the two, Pipo nodded and handed the now filled plate to the hothead. “I’m sure you do. Now get out there and bring this guy his food before he starts bitching.”

 

***

 

Angelino gaped. That wasn’t how his day was supposed to go. He barely registered the truck driver spewing profanities at him -nothing he hadn’t heard before- as he tried to understand what just happened.

So he’d been distracted, sue him for browsing funny memes to forget about how shitty life was in general (“News flash asshole: we’re millennials, we all crave the sweet release of death.”), and he hadn’t registered the truck coming at him until he was in the middle of the road. At this point, all he’d been able to think was “Again?” as the 3-ton metal box on wheels came, too close and too fast. Oh, the sense of imminent doom and terror did reach him eventually, but something real fucking weird had happened before he could act on it.

The truck just kinda… stopped a few feet from him. Pretty violently too, if the huge, circular dent on the front of the truck and the driver’s broken nose were anything to go by.

And that was good, he was definitely glad about not dying to that asshat. Problem was, he hadn’t seen the thing the dude slammed his semi into. There was just…nothing there.

Well, that wasn’t entirely true, he did see some weird shimmer around him at the moment of impact, but it was probably the heat of the air around the motor… right?

Speaking of heat… as the driver stomped away from him, huffing slurs and flipping him off, the hybrid felt something on his right leg. It wasn’t quite burning, but close enough to be uncomfortable. Lino frowned, carefully reaching into his pocket, and blinked owlishly when he came up with a familiar white slip of paper.

One of Vinz’ little magic sigil thingies. “But it’s burning. And- okay, yes, that thing is definitely glowing.” he observed. “…What the fuck is happening.”

As if on cue, the symbol -something about protection, he remembered- glowed brighter for a second… before it disappeared completely, the slip of paper turning to ash in his palm. At the same time in a different part of DMC, a flaming skeleton nearly passed out in sudden exertion with no clue as to why.

Angelino only stared as the wind scattering it. He glanced at the damaged truck, back to his empty hand. Then he groaned. “Are you fucking serious-”

He was not telling Vinz, or he’d never hear the end of it.

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