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A Tender Trap

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On the first Monday morning after school ended, Tina’s alarm went off as always. Her eyes opened blearily, staring at the clock like it had personally offended her. She reached over and slapped it before getting up with a grunt. It took her a full five minutes to realize that she didn’t have to go to school. Summer was here and college was a few months away. Glancing at her desk she saw the acceptance letter to Rutgers. She had managed to score a full ride scholarship thanks to her grades, which honestly was the only way she would have been able to go to college. She knew her parents would do anything to make sure she had the best chance at a good life, but tuition wasn’t possible for any of their kids. 

Too awake to go back to bed, but too sleepy to want to do anything, she grabbed a book and headed to the living room to read. Gene and Louise were still asleep, but her parents were in the kitchen talking quietly. 

“No Bobby I told you, she needs to have this summer. It’s her last chance to be a kid! I don’t want her stuck in the restaurant.”

“I get that Linda but I need her. We can’t afford to hire help and summer is always our biggest time.”

“It’s not right. At least pay her something for once. She’ll need the money for school…”

“I know. I feel bad but we don’t have a choice. We’re behind on rent again and the fryer is busted…”

Tina frowned, quietly returning to her room. She had assumed that she would be working over the summer. It was tradition. Later she would just go downstairs and help her dad open as always. Problem solved. Sitting on her bed she cracked open her book, but instead of reading her mind wandered into fantasy.

 

It was a clear summer day with wispy white clouds. A nice breeze kept the heat and bugs away as she walked through a well kept garden. Tina was admiring the flowers when the whinny of a horse caught her attention. 

“Good morning Tina,” Jimmy Jr said, smiling down at her from his seat on the back of a mighty stallion. His hair was long, romance novel cover long, and he was wearing a peasant shirt that revealed his chest. Without looking she knew his pants would be skin tight. 

“Good morning Jimmy Jr. What brings you to my garden?”

“I seek the loveliest flower here. I want to make it my own, and cherish it always.”

Tina smiled. “I have many flowers. Take your pick.”

Jimmy Jr. leaned down and held a hand out to her. “I pick you.”

With a giggle she was pulled up to ride behind him on the horse. They galloped away into the woods to do things that Tina, despite being an old hand at writing erotic friend fiction, wasn’t ready to think about. 

 

With a sigh she opened her eyes and glanced at the clock. She had less than a hour before opening, so she grabbed a shower, dressed, and went to get some breakfast.

“Hey there my sweetie girl! Sleep well?” Linda asked as she put down a plate of eggs and toast on the table.

“Pretty well...Mom, are you and Dad going to be ok while I’m at college?”

“Of course! What makes you ask honey?”

“It’s just that Dad relies on me for the restaurant, and I don’t want to leave you in a lurch.”

“Tina, no. We’ll be fine! Honestly. Besides, college is important! You’ve got to get that high end power job with a suit and all that so you can pay for our retirement,” Linda laughed. 

“Mom, I’m going for writing. We don’t get ‘power jobs’ for that.” 

“Eh, so long as you make money you can do whatever you want.”

Tina thought about this as she finished her breakfast. 

“So what are you going to do today?”

“Open with Dad.”

“No! Nuh uh! You, young lady, are going to go have fun! It’s summer. Go to the beach, see your friends, have fun!”

“But Mom-”

“Nope! No butts! Today you are free as a bird! Now go! Leave the nest my little hatching. Fly free!”

Tina knew better than to argue so she went to her room, grabbed a fresh journal, and headed out...to the restaurant downstairs. 

“Hi Dad,” she called when she entered, her voice mingling with the bells tied to the door. 

“Tina...hey...uh, your mom said-”

“Yeah, she told me.”

“Soooo why are you-”

“You need me here.”

“Tina-”

“Dad, Gene and Louise won’t be up for another hour at least. I figure I can help you till then.”

Bob smiled at his eldest. “Thanks kiddo. Mind slicing up some veggies? I’m doing ‘I can’t believe it’s not a burger’ burger.” 

“A veggie burger? Bold move.”

He chuckled. “Yeah, but you know me. I love breaking the rules of the burger business.”

 

They worked together for a little over an hour before anyone else entered the shop. By then Tina had taken care of the vegetables, wiped down the counters, and spot checked the bathroom. 

“I’ve got it sweetie. Go have fun.”

In a surprise move, Bob gave her $10 from his wallet. “It’s not much but-”

“It’s great. Thanks Dad,” she grinned. “See you tonight!”

“Be good! Don’t get in trouble...and don’t eat at Jimmy Pesto’s!” he called as the door swung shut. 

Tina wanted to cheer. She had some cash in her pocket and a beautiful summer day to do nothing if that’s what she wanted. Her first thought was the beach. This time of day it would be practically empty, so she dashed upstairs to pack what she needed for a nice day by the sea. Before she could blink she was coasting down the street on her bike, wind whipping her hair. 

“I should write about this,” she thought. “The smell of the ocean, the crashing of the waves…”

She brought her bike to a stop next to the rack to lock it up. There were already three bikes there, and she recognized them all. 

“...the breaking of my heart…”

She secured her bike, grabbed her bag, and headed to the beach. Tina already knew what she was going to see, so it didn’t hurt...that’s a lie. It hurt, but she didn’t do more than let out a soft grunt of annoyance. Near the waterline were three shapes. Two were laughing and playing in the waves, the third swimming on its own. Tina put her bag next to the three towels that were laid out and approached. 

“Good morning Jimmy Jr...Zeke... Rebecca …”

“Oh, hey Tina.”

Jimmy’s greeting was half-hearted at best because his attention was on Rebecca. She’d transferred in six months ago and immediately stolen Jimmy Jr’s heart. She was a trained ballet dancer, with especially long legs and equally long eyelashes. She could charm anyone with a wink and a smile, and often did so. Tina couldn’t recall a single time she’d paid for her own meals or games on the boardwalk. If the vendor wasn’t giving in to her wiles, all it took was a flip of her soft chestnut hair to make the boys cough up their allowance. 

“Dumb pretty hair,” Tina mumbled.

Rebecca’s looks didn’t bother Tina in the least. She knew that she had it going on, but Jimmy Jr. was too busy making goo-goo eyes at the new girl to give Tina any attention. It didn’t help that Rebecca was constantly showing off her ballet skills, something that drew her crush like a moth to a flame. Rebecca, in turn, adored the attention and having someone to dance with who wasn’t ‘untrained trash like the other guys’. It wasn’t fair. 

“Hey T-Bird!” 

Zeke’s voice broke into her thoughts as he lumbered through the water to grab her and swing her around in a crushing hug, acting like he hadn’t just seen her two days before. 

“Glad you could join us! I didn’t know you had the day off,” he said excitedly, glad that he wasn’t alone with the love birds anymore.

“I didn’t, not till this morning. If someone had told me you’d be here though, I would have come no matter what.”

She looked pointedly at Jimmy Jr, but he was frolicking with Rebecca. Tina sighed, tired of begging for attention that would never come. 

“I don’t think I feel like swimming anymore. See you guys later.”

“Ok, bye,” Jimmy said, not really paying attention.

Zeke looked between Tina’s crestfallen face and Jimmy’s distracted one. He rolled his eyes. His best friend was a complete idiot.  

“Hey! Wait up T-Bird!”

He gathered up his stuff quickly, barely earning a question from Jimmy Jr or Rebecca. Zeke raced up the beach to catch up with Tina, giving her a big smile when she turned to look at him in puzzlement. 

“I hear it’s going to be a scorcher today. Maybe being on the beach ain’t such a ‘hot’ idea.”

He laughed at his own pun, but stopped when he saw Tina wasn’t joining in. An awkward silence fell as they walked back to their bikes. He rubbed the back of his neck and tried to think of something to reassure her.

“T-Bird...J-Ju...he…”

“He’s an ass. I don’t know why I want to be with him!” she huffed, kicking the tire of her bike.  

“There’s others out there...better guys…”

“I guess...I just...I wish…” Zeke watched her look back at the ocean in longing. “I just wanted one perfect summer before we all disappear into the world, you know?”

He nodded. 

“I know it’s cliche but I should have that, shouldn’t I? How can I write about love and romance and butts if I haven’t had those things?”

“Uh, I can’t comment about the butts, but I agree with the rest.”

“Why can’t Jimmy Jr. look at me like he looks at her ?”

“What’s so great about J-Ju that makes you ladies treat him like he’s catnip?”

“Ugh, you wouldn’t understand Zeke.”

“Maybe? He’s got some mean dance moves, and he can wiggle his hips like Elvis. Ladies love a man who can dance. He’s creative too!”

Tina gave Zeke a surprised look. Maybe he did understand…

“But...he’s also selfish and egotistical. Sometimes he’s not a good friend. Maybe that’s not the kind of guy you should want to be with?”

She rolled her eyes. “So who should I be with?”

“Me.” Zeke immediately backpedaled when Tina didn’t respond. “I mean that you could date me to get back at J-Ju! He’d see how great of a girlfriend you are. I bet he’d drop Rebecca in a heartbeat!”

She thought about it as she unlocked her bike. “You think that would work?”

“Sure! He gets jealous pretty easily.”

“...but why would you help me?” she asked, clearly confused. 

“Rebecca is stuck up. All she does is talk about her dancing and how great her old life was. Every time I try to wrestle Jimmy Jr. she gets all huffy! You’re way more fun than her girl!”

Tina blushed a little. It was probably one of the nicest things he’d said to her. “Thanks Zeke. Um...yeah, I think I’d like to try your idea.”

He looked way more excited about it than she thought he should be. 

“Great! How about I pick you up at your place at 6?”

“...ok.”

“Wear something comfortable! And sneakers!” he said eagerly as he hopped on his bike. “See you tonight T-Bird!”

She watched him pedal away, wondering how on earth he’d planned a fake date so quickly.

“Maybe he goes on a lot of fake dates,” she mused to herself. For a moment she thought about calling him back and cancelling the plan, but then Rebecca’s laugh caught her attention. Her eyes narrowed.

“Nevermind. Fake date is a go.”



Chapter Text

Since the beach was out of the question, Tina spent the rest of the day at the park. She splurged on a soda and hot dog from a street vendor, then sat under a tree and day dreamed. Mostly it was about Jimmy Jr or zombies. One was Jimmy Jr as a zombie. However, just as things were getting interesting Rebecca would appear and steal him away. Every. Single. Time. 

Tina let out a soft cry of frustration. “Stupid pretty hair girl!” 

She sighed and calmed down. It wasn’t Rebecca’s fault, and logically she knew that. Jimmy Jr. hadn’t been hers (officially) when Rebecca moved into town, so it wasn’t like anyone was cheating. However it still didn’t make her feel any less annoyed. Jimmy was supposed to want to be with her. They were destined to be together. Nothing could keep them apart. Not their families, not Rebecca, and not Zeke...Zeke. His plan! It really was perfect. All it would take was a little manipulation, some lying, and a pinch of conniving... ok a lot of conniving. 

“Right!” Tina said aloud, scaring a few birds. “I’m going to date Zeke and be the best girlfriend ever. Jimmy Jr will have to notice me then!”

The birds didn’t appear to share her enthusiasm. 

 

She biked home around 4 and went straight to her room. She picked out a cute outfit, but then remembered Zeke’s request of comfortable clothing and sneakers. With a shrug she threw on some jean shorts, a Wagstaff High shirt, and her faithful high tops. Unsure of what else to do, she sat at her desk and opened her journal to write. 

Weird day today. Jimmy Jr. was, once again, wrapped around That Girl’s finger. I was leaving when Zeke ran up to me and asked me on a fake date. The point is to get Jimmy jealous over me, but I can’t help but wonder what’s in it for him. Zeke said I was more fun to be around. I guess it’s because I don’t care that he wrestles with Jimmy? I didn’t think it was that important to him. Anyway, he’s coming at 6 to get me. More later.

She closed her book and thought about the situation. There had to be more to this, but what? Zeke was on the wrestling team. If that’s all it was about then he could just have a match with his friends. Tina chewed on the end of her pencil. She was so lost in thought that time slipped by. 

“Tina baby! There’s a gentleman at the door for you!” her mother sing-songed from the living room. 

“Rats!” she hissed quietly. She’d meant to tell her parents that Zeke was a fake boyfriend, but had forgotten. Tina walked into the living room, explanation on her lips, but the air left her. Zeke was standing there with a picnic basket and a dozen roses. He was showered, shaved, and looked good .

“...uhh?”

“Hey Tina,” he smiled, looking a little shy. “I brought you these.”

He handed her the roses. They were wrapped in craft paper with a ribbon around the stems. It was clear they were from an actual florist and not the supermarket. Tina blushed as she took them. 

“They...they’re beautiful Zeke.”

“Here, let me take those,” Linda offered helpfully. “I have the perfect vase. You kids have fun!”

“Thanks Misses B!” He held his arm out for her to take. “Shall we?”

Tina was in a haze, but she automatically took his elbow. It was a little awkward going down the stairs like that, but he didn’t let go. Like a true gentleman he opened the door for her, doing the same when they got to his beat up little sedan that was in desperate need of a paint job.. 

“...thanks.”

Zeke grinned.”I hope you like what I have planned.”

She nodded dumbly. This was already one hell of a fake date. 

He’s going all out. He must really want Jimmy Jr. to break up with Rebecca.

As her ‘date’ put the picnic dinner in the back, she glanced at the Pesto’s restaurant. Jimmy Jr. was on the patio in his waiter’s uniform. He was just standing there, full dinner plates in hand, staring...at her . Tina wanted to cheer, but kept her face neutral as if she hadn’t seen him. 

Yes yes yes! It’s already working!

Zeke got in and started up the car. “Ready pretty lady?”

“Ready! Let’s go!” she cheered. 

“Alright!” he crowed. In a moment the windows were down and music was thumping loud as they sped off. Jimmy Jr. watched them go, ignoring the complaints of customers as their food grew cold in his hands. 

 

Tina was delighted beyond belief. “That was amazing Zeke! Did you see the look on Jimmy Jr’s face?”

She didn’t notice the disappointment flitter across his face, but he pushed the feeling away. 

“You know it girl! J-Ju won’t know what hit him!”

“So what now? Do we just kill time till later? Oh, and what do I owe you for the roses? You shouldn’t have to foot the bill for all of this.”

His hands tightened just a tad on the steering wheel. “This one’s on me T-Bird. You can get the next one if you want.”

“Alright, that’s fair. Soooo what’s the plan?”

“I made us dinner.”

Tina blinked in surprise, turning her head to look at him. “You made us dinner? Why? I thought this was a fake date?”

Zeke waited a beat before answering in his usual exuberant way. “Gotta make the set up look good, ya know? If J-Ju or Becca sees us then we need to make sure everything seems legit.”

She nodded in agreement, her gaze returning to the view outside the car. “You’re right. I think when we’re out, we should hold hands, and maybe kiss in front of them?”

It was a good thing Tina was paying more attention to the scenery than to Zeke, otherwise she would have seen him go pale then bright red. 

“If...if you’re sure…”

“Yeah I’m sure. You don’t mind, do you?”

“Nah girl! I’m fine with it.”

Tina smiled, more to herself than him. “This has got to work.”

Zeke glanced at her briefly. “...yeah. It’s got to work.”

Chapter Text

Zeke pulled into the parking lot of the same park Tina had visited earlier that day. Thanks to the summer sun, it was still well lit despite being early evening. He dashed out of the car to open the door for Tina, then grabbed the picnic basket before offering his arm. She smiled and took it. 

He smells good...like wood and salt…

Mentally she shook her head. This was about Jimmy Jr...but that didn’t mean she couldn’t have a good time, right?

Nothing wrong with enjoying a gentleman's company.

Zeke picked a nice spot far from the playground so they’d have some peace and quiet. He spread the blanket expertly and helped Tina sit after she took her shoes off. The food came next. 

“There’s enough here to feed the wrestling team!”

“Heh yeah, when I start cooking I can’t stop. It’s relaxing.”

“I guess? I usually only cook when Dad needs me on the grill, then it’s just shouting and someone telling me to hurry up.”

Zeke chuckled. “Your Dad runs a tight ship.”

“Yeah...sometimes I feel like I can’t do anything right. He’s not mean, but every time he has to remake one of my dishes...it’s like I’ve failed him,” she said sadly, looking down at the blanket.

She looked up when she felt Zeke’s large, warm hand covering hers. He was giving her a soft smile that held no false sympathy. 

“That’s not true girl,” he said, his voice comforting. “Your dad loves you, and I know you make him proud. Besides, not everyone is meant to be a short order cook. It’s tough! Don’t be so down on yourself. You're good at so much stuff, and you're really creative.”

She was transfixed by his eyes and voice, surprised that she actually did feel better because of what he’d said. “...thanks…”

When he moved away to dish up some pasta, she felt strangely cold. The flowers in her mind’s garden seemed to turn to his light. 

Huh.

 

The ‘date’ was the nicest one, fake or real, that she’d ever been on. Not only had Zeke fed her well, he’d insisted on cleaning everything up himself. Afterwards they took a walk through the park, finding a nice bench to watch the sun set over the trees. He didn’t put his arm around her shoulders, but she sort of kind of just a little bit wished he would. 

“This is lovely,” she said quietly, watching birds fly past the painted clouds. “Although, I kinda think seeing the sunrise over the water is better.”

“...wouldn’t it be cool to live on an island? That way we could see the sunrise and the sunset over the water.”

“Huh...I’ve never thought about it. That would be pretty cool.”

The moment was so lovely no more words were needed, so they watched in companionable silence. The two of them sat there until the sun disappeared behind the trees, signaling the end of the day. Tina was reluctant to break the mood, but it was time to go home. 

“Zeke?”

“Hmm?” he asked, still looking at the last streaks of light in the sky. 

“Thank you.”

He turned and beamed at her. “No problem Tina. Are you ready to go?”

She reluctantly nodded. As they walked back to his car, Zeke asked her an interesting question.  

“Was this one of your ‘perfect summer moments’?”

 Tina thought for a moment, going over the entire evening in her head. Zeke wasn't Jimmy, but the flowers of her mental garden swayed in his warm breeze.

“Yeah, it was.”

His smile was just as bright as the sunshine. 

 

When they pulled up in front of her home, both Pesto’s and her dad’s place were just finishing with the dinner rush. Tina spotted her crush busing tables. 

“J-Ju looks mad,” Zeke chuckled. “I guess he didn’t like what he saw earlier.”

“Good. Your plan is working. You’re pretty good at this ‘fake date’ stuff.”

“Thanks! I think?”

Tina chuckled, making Zeke smirk. 

“So, when’s the next date? What should I plan for us?”

“You want to go out again?”

“Well yeah. It’s obviously getting his attention, and honestly spending time with you isn’t that bad.”

Since it was dark she couldn’t see him blushing from the sort-of compliment. 

“How about Wednesday night? They’re doing movies at the beach.”

“Perfect! Thanks Zeke. You’re a great friend.”

He didn’t reply, but got out to get the door for Tina. She gave him a bright smile. When they got to her front door to say goodnight, she gave his cheek a quick peck. 

“Night!” she chirped, heading in and shutting the door behind her. 

Zeke stood there for a full 30 seconds, staring at the green painted wood. When he finally turned around, still a little shook, he saw that Jimmy Jr was watching him from across the street. Never, in all the time they’d been friends, had he seen Jimmy that mad . Ignoring the few customers still outside, he stormed over to Zeke. 

“What the hell man?!”

“Problem J-Ju?” he asked calmly. Zeke wasn’t intimidated by his friend in the least. He was a good six inches taller and beefy compared to Jimmy’s dancer’s body. If there was a fight, Zeke knew he’d win, but that wasn’t the point and he truthfully didn’t want to hurt Jimmy...physically. 

“Why are you going after Tina?”

“Didn’t know you called dibs.”

“That’s bull Zeke! You know that I...I…”

“That you what, J-Ju? Tina’s been sweet on you for years and all she gets from you is just enough attention to keep her hanging on. Everybody knows it. It’s time someone treated her right.”

“But-!”

“Naw. No ‘buts’. You’re head over prancy heels for Rebecca. Tina’s not your girl.”

“She’s not yours either! Tina’ll never fall for some hick gorilla like you!”

Zeke glared down at Jimmy, but kept his cool. Punches wouldn’t make this easier. Instead he smirked. 

“You saw the kiss. She’s coming around. By the time she leaves for college, imma have a ring on that finger.”

“WHAT??”

“You heard me Pesto. You’d better get back to work cuz your daddy’s coming.”

Sure enough, Jimmy Sr. was walking out the front door to get his son back on task. 

“This isn’t over Zeke,” Jimmy Jr. hissed as he walked away.

“No,” Zeke said to himself, glancing at the almost empty burger restaurant. “But it’s a great start.”

Smoothing back his hair, he walked in and sat at the counter. 

“Hey there Zeke. What can I get you?” Bob asked from the kitchen. 

“An internship would be cool.”

Chapter Text

“An internship? Uh...why?”

“I’ve got some time to kill before summer ends, and I’ve always wanted to work beside you.”

“That’s really nice of you to say, but I can’t take anyone on.”

“Nah Mr. B! I’m not asking for a job. I want to learn.”

“Uh…”

“You don’t have to pay me.”

Bob’s eyes lit up. “Oh! Yeah sure Zeke, that’d be great. Maybe work weekends and one day a week? I don’t want to take your whole summer. When do you want to start?”

“Tomorrow?”

“Great. I’m usually down here around 9 am to start prepping.”

“That works. Thanks Mr. B!”

“You’re doing me a big favor. It’ll be nice having someone here who wants to be here.”

“You won’t be able to get rid of me,” Zeke joked. “See you tomorrow. Night!”

“Night Zeke!”

Bob watched the teen leave and drive off. “What a nice kid.”

Across the street, Jimmy Jr. watched Zeke leave as well. His eyes narrowed. 

“War,” he hissed. 

 

(the real) Chapter Four

 

Breakfast was a quiet affair. Only Bob, Linda, and Tina were awake. Gene and Louise were still sleeping to no one’s surprise. 

“Tina I need to go shopping. Can you handle the prep work this morning?”

“Sure Dad.” 

“Boooobby,” Linda whined. “We talked about this!”

“I know Lin, but I need help down there and you suck at cutting vegetables.”

Linda grumbled a bit, but couldn’t really argue since she was awful at it. 

“It’s ok Mom. I don’t mind. Dad, I’ll see you when you get back.”

She put her dish in the sink and headed downstairs to get the restaurant ready. 

“Huh...I feel like I’ve forgotten something…”

 

Tina was in the kitchen washing tomatoes when she heard a soft tapping on the glass. Thinking it was Teddy looking for an early burger, she called out. 

“Dad’s not here Teddy! Come back at 11!”

The tapping continued, so she dried her hands and walked out to the seating area. The frown on her face disappeared when she saw Zeke peering through the glass. 

“Zeke!” she said as she unlocked the door and let him in. “What are you doing here? I thought we weren’t going out till tomorrow night.”

“Right! But I had an idea last night. Nothing’ll tick J-Ju off more than seeing the two of us working together.”

She thought for a moment. “That’s devious. I love it.”

“Plus I get to work for your dad. He’s going to show me some of his mad skills!”

“I’m sure you’ll do better than I do. Well, come on. I’ll show-”

She stopped when Zeke took her hand. He was giving her that soft look again, the same one  as last night. 

“Tina girl, I told you, you’re special. There are things you can do that no one else can. Don’t ever think you’re anything less than wonderful.”

Zeke’s words cut through her. Special? Wonderful? The flowers of her mind woke from their nightly slumber. 

“...th-thank you. We should really get the prep work done though.”

He grinned. “Gotta make that money!”

She nodded dumbly and walked back to the kitchen, barely noticing when Zeke followed. 

“Every morning we wash tomatoes, lettuce, potatoes, and whatever else Dad has planned for the burger of the day,” she said automatically. “We only cut a small amount in the morning since freshness is important.”

Zeke nodded, taking everything in. “I didn’t know you made your fries from scratch.”

“Yeah, Dad insists on it.”

They set up a task line. Zeke washed, Tina cut. As they worked, Tina sank into her thoughts. 

This is weird. Right? This is weird. I like Jimmy Jr. I’ve always liked him. He’s a good dancer and he’s got a nice butt...he’s a terrible kisser though...kissing isn’t everything! Oh my god yes it is! Stop it Tina! Concentrate! Sorry Tina.

Without moving her head, she looked at Zeke with her peripheral vision. She watched him carefully wash each tomato, checking it for bad spots with a critical eye before putting it on the workspace between them. It saved her from having to do it which was a refreshing change since Gene never paid attention. She sliced into a tomato while she focused on Zeke. 

Big hands...boy he’s got big hands…

Her flower garden waved in a warm breeze when he bent down and lifted a heavy bag of potatoes onto the counter to rinse them.  

He did that so easily. I bet he could pick me up. Stop it Tina! Pay attention to-

“Ow!!”

The knife she’d been using sliced through her skin as easily as it had the tomato. She dropped it to clutch at her hand. 

“What happened?!”

“I cut myself! Ow ow ow!” 

Zeke was at her side instantly with a clean cloth. He wrapped it around her finger and led her to the back sink, his strong arm around her waist.

“I gotcha girl. Hang on.”

He applied pressure to stop the blood, then tenderly washed her cut, dried it, and wrapped it in soft gauze. The whole thing took less than two minutes, but the whole time Tina was staring at Zeke. As soon as she felt his arm around her, her heart went into overtime. 

He’s not Jimmy Jr. He’s not Jimmy Jr. Wow...he’s not Jimmy Jr. 

Tina knew for a fact that if Jimmy was there instead, she wouldn't have gotten such personal attention. At best he'd huff while getting her a band-aid. Not Zeke though. When he looked up at her, concern in his eyes, her garden erupted with wild flowers blooming everywhere. 

“Does it hurt?”

“Does what hurt?” she asked in a daze.

“Um, maybe you should sit down.”

He led her to the dining room and helped her sit at a booth, then brought her some milk. 

“You ok T-bird?”

“Yeah...yeah sorry. I’m fine.”

“You sure?”

“Uh huh.”

“Ok...well stay here. I’ll finish the veggies.”

“Wait! Um...sit for a second?”

Zeke gave her a lopsided grin and sat across the table. 

“What’s up?”

She chewed her lip for a moment. Were her feelings even real? Maybe it was just shock from being hurt or low blood sugar or not enough sleep or...

“T-bird?”

Did she like him? Well, yes, but as a friend. A friend with kind eyes who knows what she needs to hear when she’s down.

“Tina?”

“Zeke...I...I think…”

The front door opened. Bob grunted under the weight of several bags of groceries.

“A little help?”

“On it boss!”

Reluctantly Zeke leapt to his feet to take the bags from Bob and carted them to the kitchen. He busied himself with putting the food away while Tina greeted her father.

“Get everything you needed?”

“Yeah! Limes were on sale. I think I’ll do something with that. Hey...what happened to your hand?”

“Knife slipped. Since Zeke is here can I go upstairs? I think I need to lie down.”

“Um, sure honey. Feel better.”

Tina bolted from the restaurant and went straight to her room. Slamming the door, she collapsed onto the bed and stared at the ceiling. Her mind was whirling in a million directions until she felt dizzy. Then, she lifted her hand and studied the carefully wrapped finger. 

“Zeke,” she whispered softly.  

Chapter Text

The man of the hour watched Tina flee the restaurant. He didn’t stop her, although he wanted to. He cursed Bob’s timing because he felt like Tina was about to say something really good and important. 

“Thanks Zeke. The veggies look great.”

“Thank T-Bird. She did most of the cutting.”

“She said she hurt her finger?”

“Yeah, knife slipped. She’ll be fine.”

“Good. Glad you were here to help her.”

Zeke nodded and they worked side by side in silence for a moment. 

“Mr. B? Can I talk to you for a second?”

Bob cocked an eyebrow while nodding. 

“Sure…”

 

Across the street Jimmy Jr was pacing in his living room as Rebecca watched. She got more and more confused as Jimmy mumbled angrily. 

“JJ, honey, sit down and talk to me. What’s wrong?”

“Zeke’s what’s wrong!” he cried, still pacing. 

“What happened? Did you two fight?”

“No...yes? Kinda?” 

He slowed and sat on the sofa next to her, bent over with the elbows resting on his knees. Instantly she had an arm around his shoulder comfortingly. 

“Talk to me baby.”

“Zeke just...he knows how I feel but he just…”

“Shhh, take it slowly. Start at the beginning.”

He did, going through years of the on-again, off-again ‘romance’ with Tina. The more he talked, the more Rebecca pulled away. She realized quickly this wasn’t some petty spat between best friends. 

“You have feelings for Tina?” she asked quietly.

“Well, yeah!” he blurted, too emotionally charged to think about who he was saying it to. “Sure she’s weird and always smells like raw meat but I like that about her...and she lets me dance whenever I want.”

“So do I,” she said, her voice cracking. “I thought you loved me.”

He looked up, suddenly very aware of who he was talking to. 

“I love you too baby! I’m sorry! I’m just venting I swear!”

Jimmy Jr. tried to take her hands but she pushed him away and got up. 

“Becca! Please listen!”

“I’ve been listening Jimmy Pesto Junior!”

Full name. Bad sign.

“Becca…”

“If you love her so much then go for it, but I get the feeling that she’s going to stick with Zeke. She’s a smart girl who wouldn’t want to be with a horrid boyfriend!!”

She pulled the locked he’d given her off her neck and threw it on the living room floor. Jimmy Jr. gaped at her as she stormed out. 

“Have fun finding a new dance partner,” she hissed before slamming the door. 

“Aw nuts,” he sighed. 

 

When Tina returned to the restaurant an hour later, Zeke and her dad were working side-by-side like pros. As soon as Linda called out an order, they got to it. Food was coming out faster, better, and with a flourish. 

“Good job with the garnish Zeke!”

“Thanks Mr. B!”

“Another burger of the day with fries!” Linda said just before spotting Tina. “Hey sweetie! Feeling better?”

“Yeah. I guess I just got light headed.”

“Sit down. Hungry?”

“Uh huh...grilled cheese?”

“Anything for my baby girl.”

Louise, who was busing tables, snorted. “Anything to get out of a shift,” she joked. “Seriously though, you ok?”

“Yeah, thanks.”

Bob smirked at his two daughters, then turned to his assistant. “Ok,” he said quietly. “If you’re serious about Tina, let me give you a tip. Watch me and learn how to make her favorite food.”

Zeke memorized everything about the process, from buttering the bread to how long to leave the sandwich on the griddle. While there was nothing terribly special about the grilled cheese, it looked delicious. 

“That’s her favorite food?”

“Yup. Put some mini gherkins in a ramekin and you’re done.”

“Why keep the pickles separate?”

“She doesn’t like the juice to spread to her sandwich.”

“Aaah, gotcha!”

He handed the plate to Zeke. “Here, go make her day.”

The boy grinned and headed out to the seating area. When he slid the plate in front of Tina she smiled as her mind’s flowers swayed happily. 

“Thanks Zeke...want half?” she asked, blushing a little. Linda was close enough to hear that and cooed because she knew Tina never shared her favorite sandwich. Louise rolled her eyes. 

He gave her a toothy smirk, but before he could answer the door burst open. 

“Zeke!! You’ve ruined my life!!”

“J-Ju?! What’s going on??”

“I HATE YOU!!” 

With a dancer’s grace, Jimmy leapt over the counter and tackled Zeke, forcing them both to the floor. Linda and Tina both yelled in alarm. 

“YEAH!! Pummel his pretty face Zeke!!” Louise cheered. 

“Zeke!”

“Bobby!! Get out here!!”

Bob rushed out to break up the fight, however the space behind the counter was so narrow he couldn’t get a good grab on either of the boys. 

“I HATE YOU!!” Jimmy yelled.

“Get off me!”

“Fight fight fight!!”

“Jimmy Jr! Stop it!” Tina cried. Since she was smaller than her dad, she was able to get behind the counter from the other side. With strength found from stress and panic, she pulled Jimmy off Zeke. 

“What’s wron-”

Tina saw stars when Jimmy’s punch landed on her jaw. She toppled back, falling to the floor unconscious. Zeke scrambled over on his hands and knees to her side.  

“Tina! Tina girl?!”

“My baby!!” Linda sobbed. 

“Ooo you’ve done it now,” Louise scowled as she cracked her knuckles. 

The world rushed in on Jimmy Jr. “I...oh no...oh no! I didn’t mean to!”

He jumped back over the counter and moved to bolt, only to see his father standing in the doorway. Like a viper he lashed out and grabbed Jimmy Jr. arm. 

“Dad!”

Jimmy Pesto Sr.’s hand was like a vice. It hurt, but the fury in his dad’s eyes was worse. 

“Pesto!” Bob growled. “What the hell man?!”

“Belcher,” he replied far too calmly. “I will handle this. I apologize for my son’s actions. I will pay for both Tina and Zeke’s medical bills. I hope you will allow me to punish my son instead of going to the police.”

Bob had never, in all the years they’d waged food wars, seen Pesto so cold . He nodded. 

“Alright Pesto.”

“Bobby!”

“No Lin. This is a family matter.”

Pesto nodded in return and dragged his shell-shocked son home. 

“Ladies and gentlemen, I apologize for the incident. All of your meals are on the house. I’ll be bringing you to-go boxes. Again, I’m very sorry, but I need to clear the restaurant out.”

As Bob and Louise got the customers to leave, Linda and Zeke were on the floor with Tina. Her mom patted her forehead with a cool, damp cloth. 

“Tina honey? Wake up,” she said with gentle urgency.

Her eyes fluttered and she moaned softly. 

“Owww…”

“Oh honey! Are you ok? How do you feel? Do you need anything?”

“Mom I’m fine...just give me a minute.”

The pair helped Tina sit up, then stand. She wobbled for a moment but Zeke put an arm around her waist to steady her.

“You had me scared girl,” he said quietly. “You shouldn’t have stepped in.”

“I couldn’t let him hurt you,” she replied, resting her head on his shoulder so the world would stop spinning. 

Zeke took a steadying breath before easily lifting her into his arms, ignoring the pain still gnawing at him from the fight. She buried her face in his neck and closed her eyes. 

“I’m taking her upstairs.”

“We’ll be up shortly,” Bob said. “Lin, put up the closed sign. Louise, help me clean up.”

No one argued. Family always came first. 

 

He’s carrying me! It’s just like a romance novel. I don’t want to let go.

She’s so light, and she smells like spices and ink. I’m never letting her go.

Their flower gardens exploded with bright summer blooms. 

 

Zeke laid her down on the bed like she was made of glass. She smiled up at him when he sat beside her and took her hand. When he winced she sat up and looked at his knuckles. The skin was split from fighting. 

“Why didn’t you say something??”

She dashed (wobbling only twice) to the bathroom to grab first aid supplies. 

“I’m fine T-Bird! Nothing some sleep and a few aspirin won’t fix!” he called after her.

“No dice. I’m patching you up.”

She returned with a jumbled box of things. She dumped it out on her bed and shuffled through until she found what she was looking for. Zeke watched as she tenderly cleaned and wrapped his hands just as sweetly as he tended to her finger earlier. His face got the same treatment. When she was done he was dotted with band-aids, most likely more than he needed. 

“I’m gonna look like a mummy when you’re done,” he chuckled lightly, but she didn’t share his upbeat mood.

Tina took his hand, careful not to hurt him. “I can’t believe he’d do that...he hit you…his best friend!”

Zeke’s eyes hardened. “I can’t believe he hit you . I’ll kill him for that.”

“It was an accident.”

“I don’t care. He hurt you Tina.”

Her eyes closed as his fingertips ghosted over her cheek where a bruise was forming. 

“Tina...I gotta come clean. This fake dating thing? It was a ruse. Girl, I like you...a LOT. I’ve had a thing for you for years, but J-Ju always kept you hanging on and making sure I didn't have a chance. I thought that since he was into Rebecca now that maybe...maybe I…”

He couldn’t finish, but he didn’t need to. Tina mirrored the touch to his cheek then sat up a bit to kiss his brow where a punch from Jimmy had split the skin.  

“I only had eyes for him for a long time, but things have changed. I’ve changed. My flowers don’t grow for him anymore...does that make sense?”

Zeke held her hands and leaned forward to touch his forehead to hers. It was about the only spot on his face that didn’t throb with pain, but that was the furthest thing from his mind. 

“...you know...I think I understand exactly what you mean.”

Chapter Text

The rest of the day was a blur to Tina. Bob insisted on taking Zeke home so that his family would know what happened, although he protested loudly over it. Finally though, Bob won and Zeke begrudgingly left. Linda decided to baby her oldest child with snuggles, kisses, and whatever she wanted to watch on TV. 

“When your dad gets home we’ll all have grilled cheese!”

Tina smiled. “Thanks Mom.”

“Anything for my teeny Tina.”

“Geez Mom, your other children are in the room you know,” Louise snarked. 

“I thought I was the favorite!” Gene pouted. 

“You’re all my babies, but today Tina gets extra loving. If you want to be spoiled, get punched in the face.”

“Gene! C’mere!”

Linda rolled her eyes, instantly regretting her words. 

 

“You sure you’re going to be ok Zeke?” Bob asked as he drove.

“Oh yeah. I’ve gotten worse hits at wrestling practice.” 

“Sorry that happened on your first day.”

Zeke shrugged. “I was kinda expecting it to be honest. J-Ju doesn’t like that I’m going after Tina, but I never thought he’d come at me like that.”

“...did I make the right choice with letting him go back with his dad?”

“Dunno Mr. B, but I can tell you that you probably saved him from some broken bones...at least for now.”

“What do you mean by that?” Bob asked cautiously.

“When I find Jimmy Jr, I’m going to beat the tar out of him,” Zeke replied darkly. 

“...Oh. Not that I’m approving of violence, but get a few punches in for me ok? The little jerk hit my baby.”

“Not a problem Mr. B. Not a problem at all.”

 

In the Pesto home, Jimmy Sr. was trying to find out what his son was thinking when he charged over to fight Zeke. 

“You two have been friends for years! What’s the problem?”

Jimmy Jr. sat on the sofa, nursing his wounds. He just glared at his father and didn’t say anything.

“Answer me!”

“He’s chasing Tina!” Jimmy Jr blurted. “He’s chasing after my girl !”

“Are you nuts?! Tina is NOT your girl! She never was because you never gave her the time of day unless you wanted attention.”

“That’s not true!”

“It IS true and you know it! Jimmy, you have a great relationship with Rebecca. Why are you doing this?”

“Because Zeke doesn’t deserve her! Besides, Becca left me!”

“She left you huh? Gee, I bet she found out that you were getting jealous because your best friend had the nerve to do what you couldn’t.”

“Shut up! You don’t know me at all!” he screamed, jumping off the sofa to get into his dad’s face. 

Jimmy Sr. sighed and stepped back. “I do know you son. I know you too well because this is exactly what drove your mom away.”

His son paled. “What?”

“I drove your mother away because I couldn’t stay true to her. I kept going after ladies I knew before I was married. I thought the grass was greener on the other side...but son, nothing nothing was better than your mom. I screwed up, and I’m going to spend the rest of my life suffering for my mistakes.”

“Dad...why...why didn’t you tell me sooner?”

Jimmy Sr. sat heavily on the sofa. “Because I’m ashamed.”

Jimmy Jr. sat beside him. “...you still love her, don’t you.”

“So much, but she’s smart to stay away from me.”

His son thought about his interactions with his mom. They were always tinged with sadness and now he knew why. He’d always blamed his mom for breaking up the family because she refused to come to the house and see his dad. They grew apart, something that hurt both of them. Knowing this, he decided to reach out to her just as soon as he fixed his own mess. 

“What do I do now?” he asked in a small voice.

“You go to Rebecca and you talk to her. Don’t expect her to forgive you, but lay your heart out at her feet. Be honest and don’t hold back.”

Jimmy Jr nodded in agreement. “Thanks dad.”

They awkwardly hugged. Family affection wasn’t common, but they both cherished it. 

 

Rebecca was staring at her ballet barre as she stood in the middle of her small dance studio. She was wearing her warm up clothes, music was playing, and she was ready to dance...but she couldn’t. All she could do was think about Jimmy. Her heart ached. 

“Damnit JJ…” she whispered. 

Her mother’s voice broke into her melancholy mood. “Becca! Jimmy’s here!” 

Before Rebecca called out to say that she didn’t want to see him, the boy walked in. 

“What are you doing here?” she asked coldly despite her heart flinching at the sight of all of his bruises and cuts.

“To apologize and talk. Please?”

She visibly struggled between listening and throwing him out. 

“...fine.”

They sat on the polished wood floor, facing each other. The silence was heavy. Jimmy felt like he was going to suffocate if he didn’t open his mouth. 

“I’m a jackass.”

She snorted. “No argument from me.”

“Really. I am. Becca, I was...I AM an idiot. You’re smart, funny, beautiful, and you love dance as much as I do. You’re honestly the perfect woman for me, and I let my stupidity get in the way. I like Tina, and I always will-”

Rebecca visibly bristled, making Jimmy talk faster.

“-but she’s like a sister! A friend. Someone I can talk to, but honestly? I can’t love her...not like I love you.”

The fire in her eyes softened. “Really?”

“Yeah. I don’t expect you to forgive me any time soon, but I hope you’ll let me try to earn it. Rebecca, you’re my prima ballerina. No one has captured my heart like you have.”

Her heart melted when he presented her with the heart-shaped locket she’d broken earlier. It was on a new chain and polished brightly. 

“You’re my principal dancer,” she smiled. 

Beaming with joy, he put the necklace on her. 

“Don’t you screw up again JJ,” she said seriously.

“Never. Never ever.”

“Good. So, just to ease my mind...nothing happened between you and Tina, right?”

“Not a thing. We’ve traded a few kisses over the years, but not since before I met you.”

Becca hugged him. “That’s good to hear.”

“Buuut…”

“What but?” she asked, suspicious. 

“Well, I kinda punched her while in a fight with Zeke.” 

Becca gasped. “JJ! How could you?!”

“It was an accident! She’ll understand-”

“But Zeke won’t.”

Jimmy Jr. nodded. “I’m pretty sure he’s going to do something drastic.”

“Please be careful?”

“I will, but I have to face him.”

“...I know,” she sighed sadly. “I know.”

Chapter Text

Zeke paced on the boardwalk like a caged lion. Jimmy had asked to meet him there. It was a little after 6am on the morning after ‘The Punch’ and Zeke was still furious. It wasn’t just that Jimmy had acted like a spoiled brat. It wasn’t that he landed a few good hits on him because he could deal with punches. No. Jimmy Jr. had hit Tina. Accident or no, Zeke wouldn’t stand for it. 

He tried to calm down by looking out over the water, leaning on the railing and taking deep, even breaths. At such an early hour no one was out except for a jogger or two. The sun was barely up over the waves and there was a chill in the air. A few wispy clouds rolled around in the sky. It was going to be a beautiful day...just as soon as business was taken care of. 

Zeke turned when someone called his voice. Jimmy and, to his surprise, Rebecca walked up. They were holding hands...huh…His attention turned back to his not-friend when Jimmy started to speak. 

“Hey Zeke. Thanks for WHAM what the hell Zeke?!?”

Jimmy covered his nose as blood trickled through his fingers. Rebecca squeaked in alarm and dug through her purse for a napkin or tissue. 

“You had that coming for hurting my girl,” Zeke hissed coldly. 

“Ib was n ac’iden!” Jimmy protested weakly. 

“I know. It’s why I haven’t broken both of your legs.”

Jimmy and Rebecca both stared at Zeke in shock because they knew he was serious. 

“Zeke...are we ok? Can we talk?” Rebecca said cautiously. 

He sighed and ran his hands over his face. “Yeah, we can talk.”

They were led to a bench where a gym bag was sitting on the seat. Zeke went through it, digging out a towel and a one-time-use ice pack which he handed to Rebecca.

“Premeditated punching?” she asked with a bit of snark as she began to clean Jimmy up. 

“I’m an asshole, not a bastard.”

She nodded as if this made perfect sense. Since Jimmy wasn’t quite capable of talking without a translator, Rebecca handled the conversation. 

“So, what’s the deal?”

Zeke sighed, then began his tale. “Tina has had a long time ‘thing’ for Jimmy. She’s been starry-eyed for him as long as I can remember. Every once in a while some other guy would catch her eye, but it never lasted. Hell, I tried more than a few times, but she always went back to Jimmy. I dunno, maybe she didn’t take me seriously, but I meant every word.”

Jimmy winced as Rebecca put the cold pack on his nose. 

“Why didn’t you ow! say something before?”

“I did. Remember when you stayed at my place the summer before freshman year?”

“Yeah?” he said, not actually remembering. 

“We sat in the backyard and I told you, flat out, that I liked Tina. I told you I was going to ask her out...then two days later you asked her to the movies without telling me.”

Jimmy bowed his head. “Damn...I’m sorry Zeke. I totally forgot about that.”

His friend frowned but accepted the apology. “Kinda gotten used to it. If we’re being honest, you’ve always been a selfish dick.”

Rebecca put a hand on Jimmy’s shoulder before he could react.

“It’s true honey. I had a number of girls warn me off of you. I was pretty cautious till I was sure you really did care about me.”

He thought about this, trying to process the new information. 

“I guess...I guess I am a jerk. I’m sorry Zeke. Honestly.”

His friend sighed. “It’s ok now. I’m in love and you’re in love. Thankfully it’s with two different people.”

Jimmy laughed then immediately regretted it as his nose throbbed. 

“So...we’re good?”

“Yeah, we’re good. Need help getting home?”

“Nah. Figure Becca and I will stay put for a bit and enjoy the sunrise.”

“Cool. I gotta go home and take a nap. I’ve got a big night tonight.”

Both Jimmy and Rebecca gave him a curious look.

“It’s Wednesday. I’ve got a date, a real date with Tina. I gotta make it perfect. It’s all she wants before she goes to college. One perfect summer date.”

Rebecca went misty-eyed. “That’s the sweetest thing I’ve ever heard!”

Zeke blushed a little. “Thanks. Call you tomorrow J-Ju.”

“Good luck man.”

He grinned and picked up his gym bag before heading home. He hoped his head would slow down enough to allow him a little extra sleep, but he was sure he’d just spend an hour lying in bed and thinking about Tina. It wasn’t a bad thing in his opinion.