A short piece that takes place between Daughter of Deception and The Chaos Child
Back, fingers, and head aching from long hours spent finishing up the climax of his latest comic, Duke stands, eyes blinking blindly, in the doorway of a kitchen that isn’t his. Not anymore.
He doesn’t mind the new stain on the kitchen cabinets. As a matter of fact, he has several pleasant memories associated with those cabinets, crawling around on the floor, and chasing beads of sweat down his wife’s spine. Though he won’t admit it out loud, and definitely never in front of Viola, he sort of likes the dark purple floor mat and matching towels.
Though she’s gradually moved into every room of his house and merged her belongings with his, the kitchen is where she’s made the most impact. She’s replaced his inherited, utilitarian metal canisters with clear glass apothecary jars. In the small window above the sink, she’s planted three jars of herbs he can’t identify but has grown to love in marinara sauce.
The cosmetic changes she’s made don’t bother him. She’s made the kitchen feel warmer, more full of love, than it has since he was a very small child. It’s no longer just a place to grab a quick bite to eat. Nights, when they aren’t on rotation or researching or working, are spent laughing and joking around the stove while they prepare dinner. Mornings are for strong, hot cups of coffee and equally strong, hot kisses.
The changes Duke can’t abide are hidden away in the pantry, the refrigerator, and the freezer. The thin, over-processed white bread Duke’s loved since he was a kid has been permanently replaced by thick slices of multi-grain bread. There’s not a speck of white sugar left for his coffee. He still hasn’t decided which is worse: the pink packets of artificial sweetener or the fake sugar that foams up in hot liquids. Sugar, real or fake, should never foam.
He doesn’t completely hate the taste of multigrain pasta and he likes having fresh fruits available for midnight snacks, but he will never get used to drinking one-percent milk. It’s like putting flavored water into his coffee. He misses salt, too. Misses real butter and real soda. And they haven’t had fast food in weeks.
“Oh, hey. You’re done.” Viola, pink, skull-printed apron wrapped around her waist, turns from the stove. She holds out a wooden spoon to him. “Come taste dinner.”
He crosses the room in three long steps, takes a taste of her before dutifully tasting what’s on the spoon. It’s full of spicy, delicious flavors but the meat’s texture is unfamiliar. “’S good, sugar. What is it?”
“Mediterranean tofu with –.”
Duke interrupts Viola with a low, furious growl. He grabs the spoon out of her hand, tosses it in the sink. Reaching past a stunned Viola, he shuts off the stove. With jerky motions, he lifts the pan off the burner and dumps everything into the garbage disposal side of the sink.
“What the hell, Tobias? Do you know how long I spent researching that recipe?”
“I’ve cut you a lot of slack, sweetness. Mostly because I’m completely mad about you, of course.” Duke props his hip against the edge of the island, crosses his arms over his chest. “This is where I draw the line. Tofu? That’s just going too far, Vi.”
Viola’s lips compress into a thin line of displeasure. “You had one bite. That’s not enough to decide you don’t like it.”
“I don’t want to eat tofu.”
Viola blinks twice at Duke before exhaling heavily. “Fine. No tofu.”
“That’s not the point,” Duke, frustrated but glad they’re finally going to have this out, growls again.
“Then sweet mercy, Tobias, what is the flippin’ point?”
“I like whole milk. I like white bread. I like three teaspoons of sugar, real sugar, in my coffee.” Duke tosses his hands in the air. “I like big pats of butter, from cows not from a chemistry set, in my mashed potatoes.”
Viola’s face freezes, her eyes go hard and icy. Her tongue darts out to moisten suddenly dry lips. “You’re going to be thirty soon. You can’t keep eating like you’re fifteen.”
“I know. More fiber, less fat, more fruits and veggies. That doesn’t mean I need to turn into a total health nut.” He runs his hands through his hair. Tentatively reaching out through their link only tells him that Viola’s blocked herself off. There’s more to this than just a desire to be healthier. “Your eating habits used to be as bad as mine, sugar. What’s with the about-face?”
Viola reaches back, clenches the edge of the countertop so tightly her knuckles turn white. Her knees tremble. Her heart thuds loudly in her chest and tears burn her eyes. “I’m just trying to help.”
“Yeah, well, my taste buds don’t appreciate your sort of help.” He waits a beat, two, for her to respond to the barb. When she does nothing more than stare at him with teary, unreadable eyes, he snatches his keys off the counter. “I’m going out for burgers.”
“I have to do something.” Though her voice is weak, thready, it has Duke spinning around to face her. She drops her head, stares at her bare toes. She wraps leaden arms around her churning stomach.
“What’re you talking about, Vi?”
“I can’t protect you from the demons out there. I can’t protect you from Dad or even an ordinary person with a gun and a grudge. I can’t protect you from drunk drivers, and I can’t protect you from myself.” She lifts her head, swipes tears off her cheeks. “I just can’t. But, I can do this. I can control this. I can keep you healthy, safe, this way because I don’t want to lose you. It’d kill me.”
Duke drops his keys back on the counter. He clamps his hands on Viola’s shoulders and drags her to him. She buries her face in the curve of his neck. Hot tears slide down his neck and under the collar of his sweatshirt. He presses a reverent kiss to the top of her dark head. The way she trembles against him has him swallowing a lump in his throat.
“You’re not going to lose me, sweetness. Not to any of those things you mentioned and not to clogged arteries. You’ll be stuck with me for a good, long while.”
Viola hiccups, winds her arms around his waist. “I’m sorry. I’m an idiot, aren’t I?”
“Maybe.” Duke chuckles along with his wife. He rubs the small of her back soothingly. “You should have just said something. We’re supposed to talk about things like this.”
“Like how you stare at me while I’m sleeping? Or how you’re always checking to make sure I’m still breathing?” Viola, arms still around Duke’s waist, leans back to arch an eyebrow challengingly.
“Yeah. Something like that.” Duke swoops down for a quick kiss. “We’ll compromise, okay? We’ll keep the multigrain bread and the produce, but we’ll switch to two-percent milk and I want my sugar back.”
“And I’ll find a butter we can agree on. But you’re not getting your salt back.”
He considers it for a moment. Salt’s a small thing to lose if it means getting butter, milk, and real sugar. “Deal.”
They seal the agreement with a kiss. Duke’s attempt at stealing a fourth kiss is interrupted the by the loud growling of Viola’s stomach. Grinning broadly, he steps back and picks up his keys. “Since dinner’s ruined, how do burgers sound?”
A blinding smile lights up her face. This new diet has been nearly as hard on her as it has been on him. “Oh, sweet mercy, yes. Burger Barn?”
“Would I bring home anything less?”
“Double meat with cheese and two orders of fries?” Viola’s mouth is already watering at the prospect of greasy, salty fries. “Oh! And one of their triple-thick chocolate shakes?”
“Oh no, sweetness. You’re getting their Veggie Meal Deluxe with soy fries. And a Diet Coke.”