You came to take us
All things go, all things go
To recreate us
All things grow, all things grow
Fezco looks up at the sign hanging above him, ‘The Original Beef from Chicagoland’. It’s like a relic from his childhood, the sign unchanged since he first saw it when he was eleven years old, rough around the edges and weather beaten.
He remembers asking his grandma why it said Chicagoland when they lived in Los Angeles.
“‘Cause that’s where I’m from, kid. Born and raised. Your mother, too, before she followed your piece of shit father here.”
He didn’t have any solid memories of his mother and no positive ones of his father. For a while, his grandma was the only real family he had, until Ash came along a year later.
Looking at that sign now hurts him, a tightness forming in his chest that would worry him if he hadn’t been feeling it since he was twenty-one years old.
He takes a final drag of his cigarette before tossing it to the ground and stamping it out with this foot. When he re-enters the restaurant and walks through to the kitchen, a flurry of activity fills the space.
They open in thirty minutes.
“Is the beef almost ready, chef?” he yells.
“Yes, chef!” Ali yells back.
“Make sure those onions and peppers are also ready!”
“Heard, chef,” Kat calls out in response.
“Good work, guys!” he shouts, before retreating into the back office.
Things had been working better, mostly due to Lexi’s ideas and stringent management of the brigade de cuisine. Some days he felt like she — his sous chef, his second in command — was the only thing keeping him sane in this place. Lord knows Ash didn’t make things any easier for him.
Leaning up against the doorframe of the office, he watches everyone in the kitchen for a moment. They’ve come so far since he took over two months ago. Part of him feels jealous; he misses being part of the action, getting his hands dirty. He still did plenty of that but it seemed like lately The Beef had other, much more pressing matters.
With a heavy sigh, he drops into the office chair and reopens the accounts ledger he was working on. He can’t make any fucking sense of his grandma’s bookkeeping — it’s a mess, with a huge, $300,000 hole that he can’t seem to fill. He doesn’t know where the money has gone or why the fuck she was giving it to a company named OCC. He’s googled them countless times and found nothing.
He looks up at the wall over the desk, filled with all manner of post-its and tickets and receipts. In the center is a crude sketch of the building he’s sitting in, Kitty’s written across the front window in his grandma’s cursive. In the bottom right corner of the drawing is a notation: ‘one day, me + snowflake’.
Growing up, he thought his grandma was the smartest person he had ever met. Running two businesses — a legitimate restaurant and an illegitimate drug venture — raising two teenage boys, all while keeping up a pack-a-day smoking habit. She didn’t do things in halves and she always kept herself afloat. She taught him everything he knew, until she pushed him to travel across the world and learn a new skill from somebody else.
He wonders if he was naive to it all, if now, at twenty-nine, the glamour and shine has worn off and he’s seeing his grandma for who she really was.
That same feeling fills his chest, the one he gets when he looks at the sign, and he has to look away from the sketch.
As he’s pulling open another, thicker ledger, he feels someone enter the room behind him.
“How’s bookkeeping going?” Lexi asks, leaning up against his desk.
“Any closer to figuring out who OCC are?”
“Nope,” he sighs. He looks up at her, his pen flicking back and forth between his fingers. “We all set?”
“Yep, all ready.” She casts her eye over the open ledger. “Why don’t you pay an accountant to look at this for you?”
“Can’t. My grandma was involved in too much shady shit, Ion want the cops gettin’ nosey. Besides, we ain’t got the money.”
They didn’t have much money at all. He was barely able to pay his staff’s wages.
“I don’t get it. I always thought Kitty was better with money than this.”
“Maybe she got too sick to manage everything properly,” she suggests.
She definitely did. He doesn’t know how she was still working here in the later months of her life. Knowing she was here, trying to push through, is another thing in his life — another regret — that makes him feel like a piece of shit.
“Hey,” she murmurs. He looks up at her and he wonders what she sees on his face to make her look so sad. “Maybe you should work the register for a few hours, get yourself out of this office.”
“Maybe later,” he replies, rubbing at his eyes with the heel of his palm. “I got shit I needa do.”
A beat of silence passes between them, and then she asks, “Have you been sleeping? No more nightmares?”
His nightmares always started the same way — he was frying onions in a pan when a figure looms behind him, their voice in his ear, telling him, “You have a short man’s complex, you can barely reach over this fucking stove. Is that why have the tattoos and the big scar on your head, and you go out and take your smoke breaks? But here’s the thing — you’re terrible at this, you’re no good this. Go faster, motherfucker…”
“Some nightmares,” he admits, because he doesn’t want to lie to her. “But I’m fine.”
She chews the corner of her lip. “Okay.”
She presses her lips together, hesitating, before she reaches out to take his hand in hers. Her thin, elegant fingers, littered with bandaids, courtesy of kitchen mishaps, wrap around his and squeeze. Something charged passes between them — an intimacy neither of them seems quite ready to acknowledge — and warmth blooms in his chest as he looks down at their joined hands.
“Doors are open, people!” Kat yells from the kitchen.
Lexi straightens up, hand slipping from his so she can smooth out her dark blue apron.
“Better get to work, chef.”
She smiles at him, lips red like berries, the prettiest thing he’s ever seen, and tightens her ponytail.
“On my way, chef.”
He doesn’t know when things got so bad between him and Ash. If you asked Ash, he’s sure he would say it was sometime around Fezco’s eighteenth birthday — Ash was thirteen — when he flew to Paris for culinary school and didn’t return for a year. Fezco thinks it’s sometime after — maybe the year he spent in Denmark — but he can never be sure. At this point, it feels like Ash has always hated him, just a little bit.
It never used to be like this; they didn’t used to be this fractured. And when he looks at his brother, his list of regrets grows longer, but probably not for the reasons Ash would like. He doesn’t regret leaving LA, going out on his own and learning how to cook. It wasn’t abandonment as he often liked to call it. His grandma had encouraged him — you’ve got real talent, snowflake — had been the one to teach him — both of them — how to cook in the first place.
But he knows he hurt Ash, that he wasn’t a good brother, that he didn’t treasure their bond the way he should have. And no matter how many times he says he’s sorry, Ash never seems to fully accept it.
Their working relationship wasn’t quite as fragile but it wasn’t smooth-sailing. Kitchens could be high-pressure and Ash’s attitude and demeanour often caused more problems than they solved.
With that being said, Fezco knows his brother wants to improve his pastry skills, nurture his craft, and he’s going to support that and be honest with him. So when Ash hands him another doughnut, he takes it, eats it, and says, truthfully, “They’re good but they ain’t quite there. Make sure they ain’t underproofed on the second rise.”
“Aight, I will,” Ash nods. And that’s that. He walks away, accepting the feedback.
Fezco rushes through the kitchen to the register, where Virgil is working through a steady line of customers.
“We all good here?” he asks.
“Yep. All good.”
He pushes open the swinging door of the kitchen and steps back aside, eyes immediately swivelling to Lexi, who’s standing in Ash’s station.
“Stop fucking around with these doughnuts and work on the dough for tomorrow!” she snaps.
“I got plenty o’ time to make the dough!” he retorts. “Get off my dick.”
“Excuse me?” Her voice is rising, outrage and irritation filling her tone. “Who the fuck do you—”
“I think you ain’t fuckin’ one of us,” Ash says, cutting her off. He presses his palms to the counter, leans into her, and Fezco has seen the narrowed look on his face intimidate grown men, but not Lexi. “Stop actin’ like you fuckin’ run this place and stop trailin’ after my brother. It’s fuckin’ pathetic.”
“Ash!” Kat yells from the other side of the kitchen, reprimanding. She’s frowning as she watches their exchange. Initially she had been resistant to Lexi’s lead in the kitchen but now she was her biggest supporter. “Lay off. You know you were supposed to make that dough an hour ago.”
“Fuck off, Kat!” he yells back, flipping her off.
She shakes her head, disappointed, familiar with Ash’s antics, and returns to her work.
Lexi’s posture is stiff, hands clenched at her sides. He thinks she’s about to blow up, scream and shout at Ash — he kind of deserves it — but she doesn’t do any of those things.
“Make the fucking dough. You’re behind,” she snaps, then returns to her post at the end of the kitchen, receipts in front of her, ready to shout out orders.
“You okay, chef?” he asks her quietly, as he passes her.
“Fine, chef,” she replies, eyes forward on her work.
As things are winding down, only a few customers left in the back of the restaurant, Lexi approaches him, steaming plate in hand.
Fezco looks down at the plate as it’s placed in front of him.
“Um, I made something — cola-braised beef and risotto. I thought, maybe, if you liked it, it could be a new item on the menu.”
He nods slowly then plucks a fork from their selection of cutlery. He takes a few bites — the beef, the risotto, and then both together — contemplating as he chews.
“It’s really good,” he compliments her, and she can feel the smile stretching across her face.
“Thank you, chef.”
“But somethin’ is off, it’s not ready to go on the menu yet.”
She physically deflates, shoulders slumping. It’s a blow. She thought she had nailed it.
With a sigh, she picks up the plate and turns around.
“Hey, Lexi.” She looks back at him over her shoulder. “It was good, okay? But things usually aren’t ready the first time.”
She nods, once, and heads to the garbage disposal as he retreats to the office once again.
Looking down at the plate, she’s filled with disappointment. It’s such a waste — it may not be perfect but she didn’t want to see it go in the trash.
She considers her next move for a moment, before she thinks fuck it, and heads out to the back of the restaurant. There’s only a few patrons sitting there, finishing up their food. She places the plate down on the nearest table, in front of an older man, and smiles stiffly.
“On the house,” she insists, before abruptly walking away.
Ash slams the locker shut and shoulders his backpack, ready to go the fuck home, when he loses his grip on his keys and they fall to the ground. With a huff — it’s been a long fucking day — he crouches down to pick them up.
That’s when he sees it — a white envelope, behind the row of lockers. He plucks it out and turns it over. On the front, in his grandma’s writing, is one word: Francesco.
He swallows back the lump that has formed in his throat and puts the envelope back where he found it, out of sight.
It’s a bad day from minute one.
“…Now, after my most recent visit to the well-loved, if not shabby establishment, my meal was elevated and elegant. The menu is slightly updated…”
“Twenty minutes to open, chefs.”
Lexi turns away from the laptop that she’s manning, monitoring pre-orders, as Ali continues reading The Beef’s review in that morning’s newspaper and gives Fezco her full attention.
“Yes, chef, ready to go.”
“…and it seems more changes are coming.”
Fezco shakes his head. “Chef, stop readin’ that shit. We gotta lot to do today, aight? We open in twenty. Let’s fuckin’ go.”
“You’ll like this part, Fez!” Ali insists.
He moves around the kitchen, barely paying attention to Ali, who continues despite what he’s said.
“…The walls are stained but the food is next-level. The sandwiches, unchanged, are as delicious as ever but the stand-out dish, that encapsulates the new era for this restaurant, was the risotto and braised beef…”
Fezco pauses and Lexi freezes, anticipating his next move. As Ali drones on, Fezco starts moving again, grabbing utensils and prepping his station. Behind him, Lexi waves her hand across her throat, wide eyes on Ali, silently begging him to stop talking.
“Ali, that’s enough, back to work,” Fez instructs, voice leaving no room for argument.
Lexi approaches him slowly.
“New menu item, huh?” he says, eyes still focused on his station.
“I gave the food to a random customer because I didn’t want it to go to waste,” she argues, defending herself. “I didn’t know he was a critic.”
“Chef,” he says, shifting his eyes to her, making eye contact for the first time. “It’s okay. S’all good.”
“Um, okay, so it was an accident. And it’s fine, right? It’s not weird.”
He nods but he’s not looking at her again.
“Good for business.”
“Right, yeah,” she agrees brightly, but anxiety still churns in her gut. “So I just wanna make sure everything’s okay between us…”
“Not weird, Lex.” He gives her a brief smile. “It’s good.”
“Those sandwiches are totally fuckin’ different though,” he mutters, jotting a note down on his pad. “That guy’s a fuckin’ hack.”
Her stomach rolls. “Yeah, totally.”
“To-go boxes ready, chef?”
“I’ll get them now,” she murmurs.
Ash wanders into the kitchen, to-go cup of coffee clutched in one hand and the newspaper in the other.
“Shabby?” Ash scoffs. “This guy’s a hacky fuck.”
“Exactly what I said,” Fez agrees.
Ash drops the paper next to him. “Why’s he talkin’ about risotto? We don’t sell risotto.”
“It’s a new dish Lex is tryin’,” Fez replies. “She accidentally left it at his table.”
“Accidentally?” Ash scoffs again. “Right, accidentally. ‘Cause when I make a mistake it’s a fuck up, but when she does it’s an accident.”
He glares at Lexi as he pulls on his apron and walks over to the baking station. She glares back — she knows what she did seems suspicious and she could apologize or try to explain herself, but she needs to save face. She wouldn’t let Ash see her as weak.
“Shit, Lex,” he drawls. “Blowin’ someone down at the Telegraph?”
“Yeah,” she replies, slamming a stack of cardboard to-go boxes onto the counter. “I’m blowing somebody down at the Telegraph.”
“Lexi, Ash,” Fez snaps. “We ain’t got time for this.” He meets Lexi’s eyes. “Just turned on the to-go tab. We ready?”
“Y-yeah,” Lexi stammers. It feels like he’s mad at her; she doesn’t like this at all. She steps closer, says quietly, “Chef, um, it just, uh… it feels like everything isn’t good between us, right now.”
“We’re good, chef,” he insists.
Suddenly there’s yelling from the other side of the kitchen.
“What?” Fezco yells back, racing over to Ali and Kat.
The order machine is pumping out ticket after ticket of orders, a long reel of paper now hanging out of the machine, almost touching the ground.
“Fuck,” Fezco mutters, plucking them off the machine and reading through them. He looks to the laptop. “The fuck’s goin’ on?”
Lexi rushes over to the laptop, heart racing as she looks at the long list of orders that have been made.
“Fuck,” she curses. “Um, I—”
His jaw is set tightly as he stares at her. “You left the fuckin’ pre-order option open.”
“Yes, you fuckin’ did.”
“What’s that mean?” Kat asks, as Fezco leans in to look at the orders on the laptop.
“That means we have seventy-eight slices of chocolate cake, ninety-nine french fries, fifty-four chickens, thirty-eight salads and two-hundred and fifty-five beef sandwiches,” he reels off, his voice rising in volume as the list goes on, his face flushing pink with irritation. “Due up in… eight minutes!”
Ash barks out a loud, humorless laugh as everyone in the kitchen groans.
“This another accident, bro?”
“Fuck you, Ash,” Lexi bites back. “All you fuckin’ do all day is make bread and cake and you can’t even do that on time.”
“Shut the fuck up!” Fezco shouts, voice rising over everyone. He clutches a spoon in one hand, banging it frantically against the palm of the other. “Shut the fuck up. Lemme think for a fuckin’ second.”
He braces his hands against the counter, shaking his head, eyes squeezed shut as he tries and fails to get a hold on his anger.
He turns to Lexi, hand waving in the air as he snaps, “I fuckin’ told you. I fuckin’ told you that dish wasn’t ready. I told you that dish wasn’t fuckin’ ready.”
She turns to look at him, hands preoccupied with trying to grab all of the order tickets still pumping out of the machine.
“What does that have to do with this?”
Fezco breathes harshly through his nose and then begins barking out orders.
“Chefs, go get the cooked beef, slice it, put it in jus, get it now!” he shouts. “Get all the chickens, get them searin’, roastin’. Kat — sausages, burgers, hot dogs. Everythin’ on the grill, get everythin’ ready, right fuckin’ now!”
There’s a chorus of “yes, chef!” around the kitchen.
He marches over to Virgil. “Virgil, make sandwiches, don’t fuckin’ stop makin’ sandwiches!”
He’s like a man, possessed, shouting at everyone in the building, making demands, ordering people to get the fuck of out of my way.
Lexi can’t keep up; she’s sweating as she tries to command all the staff to work their stations.
“Ash, how are we on cakes?”
“Getting there?” She marches over to him, frowning as she looks down at him preparing more doughnuts. “We haven’t got fucking time for this! We need bread! We need cakes!”
She stomps over to the other side of the kitchen to grab onions to chop but as she rounds the central counter, she collides with Ash, almost sending his tray full of bread to the floor.
“Fuck!” he yells. “Why the fuck din’ you say ‘corner’? You’re supposed to say ‘corner’!”
“Maybe if you had your shit together, I wouldn’t have to!”
“Oh yeah?” He leans, looking down at her, a sneer on his face. “You wanna fuckin’ go, Lexi? You wanna talk about people havin’ their shit together after watchu did?”
“Hey, hey!” Kat yells, placing a hand on Ash’s chest to shove him away. “Get back over there,” she shouts at him. She turns back to Lexi. “What’s going on with you? This isn’t you — shouting at everyone, losing your cool.”
“Actually, maybe it is,” she snaps, face flushed red with anger. “Maybe it really is. But I need you to stop asking me shit and get back to the grill.”
Kat’s face hardens, mouth pressed into a thin line, but she nods. “Yes, chef.”
“Lexi, get on prep!” Fezco yells and she huffs before doing as she’s told. “Ali, get me a sharpie,” he demands.
Ali hands him one but as soon as Fezco tries to scribble on the ticket, he finds the ink is dry.
“Fuck!” he shouts. He bangs his fist against the counter. “Sharpie! Can someone get me a fuckin’ sharpie that works?”
“Yo, Fez.” He spins around, coming face to face with Ash. “I did it. I figured out where I was goin’ wrong,” he says, holding out the doughnut in his hand.
“Ash,” Fezco snaps. “Why are you fuckin’ with me?” he yells at him, spittle flying from his lips. “Why are you fuckin’ with me?! WHY ARE YOU FUCKIN’ WITH ME?!”
He slaps the doughnut out of Ash’s hands, sending it to the floor in a broken heap.
“Get the fuck back to work!” he screams in Ash’s face.
“Calm down, Fez!” Kat pleads behind him but it’s no use.
“You wanna scream in my fuckin’ face?” Ash squares up to Fezco, pushes his forehead against his. “You actin’ like a fuckin’ asshole, bro. This ain’t fuckin’ Noma!”
“Trust me, I am very fuckin’ aware of that!”
“You’re a fuckin’ snob, bro,” he says, pushing his hand into Fez’s chest, hard. He’s got a few inches on Fezco but he doesn’t stumble back, just plants his feet, teeth gritted. “You think you’re fuckin’ better than us now? You’ve fuckin’ changed. Grandma would be fuckin’ ashamed of you.”
“Fuck you!” Fez snaps through gritted teeth. “Don’t know what you’re fuckin’ talkin’ about.”
He can feel someone tugging on the back of his shirt as Virgil tries to pull Ash away but it does nothing. The brothers aren’t going anywhere.
“You fuckin’ abandoned her — all of us! I was the only fuckin’ one here for her.”
“Oh yeah?” They’re nose to nose now, foreheads pressed together. “Then why didn’t she leave the fuckin’ restaurant to you?”
Ash recoils, as if struck by a physical blow. Fezco is riled up, anger and tension and stress coursing through his body, but he still has the presence of mind to know he’s fucked up.
He pulls his apron over his head and stomps over to the lockers, pulling his stuff out hastily. Fezco follows him, ready to plead with him to stay, but he can’t find the words.
“Good luck doin’ this shit without me,” Ash says, before walking to the exit and slamming the door shut behind him.
Fezco buries his face in hands and growls until he’s hoarse and his throat is hurting. When he looks up, Lexi is watching him, face red and sweaty, bangs stuck to her forehead. She’s still trying to manage the orders, an impossible amount of tickets hung up in front of her.
“I fuckin’ told you that dish wasn’t ready,” he mutters quietly, wiping his hands against his apron as he walks over to the grill. “I fuckin’ told you.”
Unable to stand another second, Lexi walks over to the lockers, following Ash’s lead, and pulls her stuff out before sitting down to remove her shoes. She’s shoving her pumps into her bag when Fezco comes over.
“Yo, we good?”
She scoffs, back turned to him. He sounds calmer now, more in control of his emotions, but the damage has been done.
She told him she wasn’t doing this again. She had worked in a toxic, abusive kitchen before this and she wasn’t fucking doing it again.
“Hey, what’s goin’ on?”
“I quit, is what’s going on.”
“You quit? Right now?”
“Yeah,” she laughs. “I quit, right now.” She folds her coat over her arms and stands in front of Fezco. “You are an excellent chef but you are also a piece of shit.”
“What are you doin’, Lexi?”
“This isn’t on me.”
His chest is heaving as she walks away, anxiety and tensity settling in his stomach. He’s furious, angry like he hasn’t been in months, shaking with it, so he doesn’t think before he acts.
“…is that why have the tattoos and the big scar on your head, and you go out and take your smoke breaks? But here’s the thing — you’re terrible at this, you’re no good this…”
He grabs the plastic bowl of sauce beside him and hurls it at the wall, watching the red liquid splatter across the metal pantry door and the plastic clatter to the ground.
He crouches down, panting, and then his eyes fall on the doughnut, mushed up on the ground. He reaches out to take a piece and pop it into his mouth, the delicious, perfect sweetness rolling over his taste buds. He releases a soft, almost-hysterical laugh.
Ash puts the forkful of fish into his mouth and groans.
“Shit, Lexi. That’s fuckin’ dope.”
“Yeah?” She smiles at him across her kitchen island.
“For real. Why the fuck you been workin’ at The Beef when you can cook like this?”
She shrugs, eyes downcast as she picks up a piece of fish with her own fork.
“It’s Fez, right?”
She sighs as she chews her food.
“My whole life, I wanted to be a playwright or a writer, or something just fucking creative. And then I went to a cooking class with my mother when I was seventeen and realized I wanted to be creative with food,” she says. “It was like my eyes had been opened and I found the career for me. I was obsessive about it, always buying recipe books and cooking for my family.
“So on my eighteenth birthday, my mother agreed to take me to New York and have a meal in any restaurant in the city, no matter the cost. And of course I chose the best restaurant in New York.”
“Fez’s restaurant?” he guesses.
“How was it?”
She groans. “The best fucking food I’ve ever eaten.”
They share a quiet laugh, the gentlest thing that’s ever passed between them.
“I knew who he was and when I saw the ad for the job at The Beef, I knew I had to apply.” She takes a sip of her wine. “But I guess they’re right when they say never meet your heroes.”
“Word,” Ash grumbles. “He was always my hero, too, y’know? Growin’ up, I thought he was the coolest motherfucker I ever met. He ain’t ever have no girlfriends, smoked alone in his room all the time, only went to parties to sell drugs for Kitty. Kind of a loser, honestly. But then on Sunday’s he’d made a huge dinner for us, all three of us, and it was the greatest thing. I was in awe of him.”
Lexi watches him carefully. “Do you hate him now?”
“Nah,” he replies quietly. “I knew he was fuckin’ talented, meant for more than what my grandma and The Beef could offer him. And I wanted him to succeed. But he forgot about us, Lexi. It started when he went to work at Noma and only got worse when he started workin’ for that asshole in New York.”
He scrubs a hand across his face, calluses on his fingers brushing against his five o’ clock shadow.
“It was always just the three of us — me, grandma and Fez — and then he went off into the world and it was like we were just a pain in his ass, a distraction. Kitty din’ care, she was so proud of him. And I know he tried to get back here when grandma was sick and could only get a flight a day too late — I know it wasn’t his fault — but that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with.” He looks up at Lexi, a sad smile on his face. “He never apologized, y’know? He keeps saying he did but not once did he actually say ‘I’m sorry’.”
“Ash,” she sighs. “I’m so sorry. I know him being here has been hard for you.”
“Nah, I’m good. I want him here. He may be an asshole but he’s still my brother.”
She chuckles. “He is indeed an asshole.”
“You gonna talk to him again?”
“Probably,” she admits. “Eventually.”
“Imma go see him tomorrow. Clear the air.”
Lexi heats up the chocolate cake Ash brought with him and places the plate on the island between them, two forks beside it. They tuck in, sharing the dessert, and Lexi makes a little noise of pleasure at the first taste.
“This is so fucking good.”
His eyes light up. “For real?”
“Yeah. It’s amazing.”
He smiles, tucking his face into his chest, as if that will hide his smile from her view.
“Hey, I’m sorry about how I’ve been actin’.”
She shrugs. “That’s kitchens, right?” she says dismissively.
“Nah,” he disagrees. “Maybe some kitchens but we gotta change that shit. I thought Fezco was changing it until last week.”
“Me, too,” she sighs.
Now, her anger has mostly dissipated into disappointment. She thought Fezco was better than that, she thought he wouldn’t become the stereotypical head chef, screaming in the face of his staff.
“I ate your doughnut, by the way.”
He raises his brows. “Off the floor?”
“Yep.” She grins at him. “It was really good. Like, perfect. I think you finally nailed it.”
He smiles again and doesn’t bother to hide it this time.
Fezco is standing outside The Beef when he arrives, cigarette between his lips as he stares at his phone. Ash retrieved the envelope from the lockers, has it stuffed into his back pocket.
He looks up, shock passing across his face.
“Yo. How’s it goin’?”
“Good,” Ash nods. He leans back against the wall. “Can I have one of those?”
Fez holds out his carton of cigarettes and passes him his Zippo when he places one between his lips.
“Huh?” he mumbles around his cigarette.
“I’m sorry,” Fezco repeats. “For last week, for grandma, for not checkin’ in all those years, for fuckin’… all of it.”
“It’s okay, bro.”
“No, it’s not,” he insists. “It’s not. I acted like an asshole. I fucked everythin’ up witchu and Lexi.” He rubs a hand through his beard. “I know you two ain’t exactly best friends but have you talked to her?”
“Funny you should say that.” Ash smirks, inhales. “Had dinner at her apartment yesterday. She’s doin’ good, still mad atchu.”
“Fuck,” Fezco sighs, head tipping back against the wall. “She’s one of the best chefs I’ve ever met — I’ve never worked with someone so thorough, so organized. And I put too much shit on her, din’ support her enough. That day was my fault.”
“You needa tell her that, not me.”
“I know,” he mutters. “But she won’t answer my messages.” He turns to Ash, half-smiling. “Your doughnut was fuckin’ great, by the way.”
“You ate that shit off the floor?” Ash chuckles, shaking his head in amusement. “You and Lexi too alike, for real.”
A silence settles over them as they smoke and Ash can see that Fez wants to say something. He gives him time.
“It’s my biggest regret, not bein’ here when grandma died. I’ll never forgive myself for it.”
“I know, bro. S’okay. I know you tried.” He sighs, ducking his head. “She asked for you before she passed. She kept sayin’ your name. Francesco, Francesco…”
“Damn, my fuckin’ government name?” he jokes, but Ash can hear the emotion in his voice, the tightness in his throat. He sniffles. “I could say that I din’ enjoy it. I separated herbs and got cuts on my fingers, fuckin’ chopped garlic and onions and chillis, got them stuck beneath my nails and in my eyes, and smoked half a pack a day and my stomach was fucked. But I fuckin’ loved it.”
“That was the whole point though, right? That was the dream.”
“Yeah,” he agrees. “Yeah, it was.” He takes a long drag from his cigarette, held between shaking fingers. “Y’know, I had a weird dream the night she died.”
“Yeah, I was on the plane, flyin’ from New York. And I feel asleep and this dream… it was more like a memory from when I was a kid. Grandma was there and she was holdin’ my face and she said that thing she always used to say. When we was about to do a deal and I was nervous or I was tryin’ a new recipe. ‘Let it rip’.”
“Yeah,” he chuckles. “I remember.”
“It felt so real. Like I was eleven years old again and she was in front of me.”
Ash throws his arm around Fezco’s shoulders and pulls him in, tucking him into his chest. He smacks a kiss against the scar on his big brother’s head.
“I love you, bro.”
“Love you, too.”
He shifts away and pulls the envelope from his back pocket.
“I got somethin’ for you. Found it at the back of the lockers.”
Fezco takes it from him with a frown and his eyes widen when he sees their grandma’s writing on the front.
“Don’t give up on Lexi,” he says, as he backs away. “Imma head inside and start on the dough.”
Fezco leans back against the wall, cigarette butt discarded, and pulls out his phone. He messages Lexi again.
Fez: acid. that’s what was missing from your dish
He gets a reply a minute later.
Lexi: shove it up your ass
He laughs softly to himself and sends one last message.
Fez: i’m so sorry. i miss you.
With a shaky inhale, he opens up the envelope and pulls out the recipe card inside. It’s handwritten, his grandma’s scrawl across the front — a recipe from when he was a child, Sunday’s after church, gathered around her dated dining table.
O’Neill Family Spaghetti
10 garlic gloves
Basil steeped in oil
San Marzano tomatoes, 2x 28oz cans (the smaller ones taste better)
He frowns and then turns it over, breath catching when he reads the short message on the other side.
I love you, kid. Let it rip.
A tear slides down his cheek before he even realizes it and he laughs, letting the salty liquid slide into his mouth. He scrubs a hand across his face, wiping the tear track away.
“The fuck, grandma?” he mutters to himself, still chuckling.
With the ingredients gathered around him, he gets to work. He boils water in a pan for the pasta as he puts oil, basil, garlic and chilli flakes into a smaller pan. Then, he grabs the can opener, slicing open the two cans of tomatoes.
Opened up, he tosses the contents into a frying pan, watching the red substance pour. Something lands in the sauce with a thud and he frowns, looking down at it. It’s a plastic bag, covered in red, and when he wipes off the tomato he sees it more clearly.
It’s money, a stack of it tied with a band and wrapped in a plastic bag. Curious, he pours out the other can and there’s another bag inside that one, too. He laughs softly to himself and rolls the can around in his hands, inspecting it, until his eyes spot the print on the bottom.
OCC O’NEILL CANNING COMPANY
“Holy fuck,” he breathes.
The guys are all in the back. It’s a prep day today, the restaurant closed as they get ready for the week and then share a meal. Fezco was going to make them his family spaghetti but first, they had something else to do.
“Yo!” he yells. “Can y’all come out here?”
When Lexi steps into The Beef, she expects to find everyone gathered round the tables in the back, eating Sunday dinner together. Instead, they’re all in the kitchen, covered in tomatoes, every can of San Marzanos in the building littered around them.
“What the fuck?”
Fezco’s head snaps over to her. His eyes sweep over her, lingering on the short dress she’s wearing — he’s never seen her out of her uniform and apron. Her hair is down too, chestnut waves falling around her shoulders, the top section pulled back with the same blue ribbon she wears in her ponytail at work.
She’s beautiful. He’s never been so happy to see her.
“Hey,” he says, smiling softly.
“Hey,” she replies, smiling right back. Then, she frowns. “Um, what the fuck is going on?”
“I found the money,” he says, holding up a bag of cash, covered in red liquid. “All three-hundred grand.”
“Lex!” Ash yells. “Stop fuckin’ around and grab a can opener.”
They serve themselves from the mass of food in the center of the table, piling spaghetti and bread and salad onto their plates.
“Glad to have you back,” Kat smiles, kissing her on the cheek.
Lexi grins at her, touched, but she’s preoccupied, staring at Fezco. He’s sitting with Ash, slurping up spaghetti as the two brothers chat and laugh together. She doesn’t think she’s ever seen them so light and free together.
As she finishes up her own plate of spaghetti, Fezco walks over to her and nods to the back exit.
“Goin’ for a smoke. You comin’ with?”
Outside, she watches him light up a cigarette, tattooed hand cupped around the flame to stop it blowing out.
She catalogues all of his distinctive features, the things that make him Fezco. The gold chain around his neck, mostly hidden beneath the collar of his white t-shirt; the kitchen knife tattooed on the inside of his left forearm and the large ‘213’ inked on his right bicep; the bulging muscles and the gentle eyes and the nose that isn’t quite straight.
He used to be her hero, her idol. Now he’s something else altogether.
“I’m sorry,” he says, smoking wisping from his lips. “For how I talked to you. It wasn’t your fault. I put too much shit on you, didn’t give you the support you needed. And I wasn’t… I didn’t really care that you gave that critic your dish. It was a bad day. Everythin’ was pissin’ me off and I took it out on you and I’m sorry.”
“I forgive you,” she replies, because she does.
He’s allowed one bad day. He’s not allowed to do it again.
“So… the tomatoes, huh?” she says, leaning back against the wall beside him.
“Yeah,” he chuckles. “Turns out OCC is O’Neill Canning Company. I think my grandma opened a tiny canning company so she could launder money.
“No shit,” Lexi laughs. “So what are you gonna do with it?”
“I’ve got plans.” She hums in response, waiting for him to elaborate. “Family style. Two tops, booths.”
“Danish design,” she suggests. “Tasting menu at the bar.”
He nods in agreement. “Window on the side—”
“—for sandwiches,” she finishes, and they exchange smiles. “What are you gonna call it?”
His smile widens. “Already gotta name.”
He takes a long drag, looking up at the palm trees looming in front of them.
“I spoke to your old boss before I hired you.”
She turns to him, eyebrows raised. “You did?”
“Yeah. Wanted to find out whatchu was like. Couldn’t figure out why someone with your resume wanted to work for me.”
“And what did they say?”
“That you were amazing, one of the most talented chefs they’d ever worked with. But that you’re also pushy and stubborn.”
She frowns. “And that made you want to hire me?”
“I respect that behavior. It means you know you’re good and you really fuckin’ are.” He casts her a look, throws his finished cigarette to the ground. “But you gotta listen to me, Lex, okay?”
“Okay,” she nods. She shuffles closer, shoulder knocking into his. “For what it’s worth, I respect you, too.”
He half-smiles at her, those blue eyes so gentle.
“S’worth a whole lot.”
She leans in first, kissing him softly, the softest brush of her lips against his. A sigh escapes her, relief at month’s of tension finally being released. He smiles against her mouth, hand reaching up to cup her face as he kisses her again.
“Hey,” he says, thumb brushing across the apple of her cheek. “Let’s go somewhere.”
He takes her to his favorite restaurant in LA. Lexi expects a michelin-starred Hollywood eatery or an up-and-coming place in Malibu. Instead, he pulls his car up outside an old, tiny seafood restaurant in Santa Monica.
He takes her hand as they walk across the parking lot, still in the white t-shirt he’s been wearing all day, sans apron. Lexi squeezes his fingers as he turns to smile at her.
“This place does the best crab you’ll ever eat.”
He’s greeted warmly when he steps inside, an older man with a mustache holding Fezco’s face between his hands and kissing him on both cheeks.
“Francesco! It’s been too long.”
“Yeah.” He smiles bashfully. “Sorry I ain’t been around.”
They sit at a table near the window and Lexi lets Fezco order his favorites from the menu. If there’s anyone she trusts to provide her with good food, it’s him.
And he’s so fucking right. The crab is incredible, succulent and subtly-flavored. It melts in her mouth, practically dissolving on her tongue. And all of the sides are good too, smaller plates of deliciousness.
She groans, mouth full. “So good.”
As they leave the restaurant, hands linked once again, he turns to her with a shy smile.
“Know we might be movin’ a lil’ fast here but… D’you wanna come back to my place?”
She smiles, butterflies abuzz in her stomach.
“I’d love to.”
His apartment is not exactly what she was expecting. There’s an ashtray on his coffee table, piled high with cigarette butts, a lumpy pillow resting on his couch, empty cups of coffee everywhere and countless recipe books stacked on every flat surface.
“It’s kind of a mess,” he says, grimacing. “Don’t have a lot of people over.”
“I can see that,” she laughs.
She wanders around, eyes falling on the framed certificate on his wall. A piece of paper declaring Francesco O’Neill as the ‘Best Young Chef’ at only twenty-one.
She turns to him, hands placed on her hips.
“You’ve gotta take better care of yourself, Fez.”
“I know,” he sighs, dropping down onto the couch. “It’s just been… a rough couple of months. But I’m gonna get better, I promise.”
“Good,” she says, taking a seat beside him. “Because Ash and I are here to help you.”
She shuffles closer, tucking herself under his arm. “Yeah.”
“C’mere,” he murmurs, leaning into brush his nose against hers.
She kisses him, hands resting on his beard. His hand reaches across, sliding down her thigh and to her ass, pulling gently. She picks up his cue, throwing her leg over his lap to straddle him and settling her weight on him as he cups her ass in his hands.
She draws back, hands still framing his face.
“It’s okay to need somebody.”
He nods, licking his lips. “I know.”
They make out for a little while, Lexi slowly rocking in his lap as their lips meet again and again. She feels nervous — she hasn’t done this in a while. She thinks he is, too.
His hands are tentative when they slide beneath her dress, nothing like the sure movements of his hands in the kitchen. The calluses on his fingers are rough against her skin but she likes them; she wants him to keep touching her, everywhere.
He does touch her, eventually, between her legs, fingers moving inside of her and circling her clit. She tells him what she likes, what feels good, moving her hips against him until she’s falling apart.
They have sex on his couch, Lexi riding him slow and lazy. His hands clutch at her hips, guiding her movements as he moves inside of her. She presses her forehead to his, their labored breaths combining in the space between them. The intimacy is almost enough to make her cry.
He finds his release moments after she does, his face tucked into the curve where her neck meets her shoulder. She curls her hand around his neck as they come down, her fingers stroking across the short hairs at his nape.
He presses a kiss to the column of her throat.
“I missed you,” he murmurs against her skin. “Don’t wanna spend a week without you again.”
She pulls back to smile at him, strokes her thumb across his bottom lip.
“So talk to me next time instead of being a loud asshole,” she teases.
“Aight,” he laughs, leaning back into the couch, hands flexing around her hips. “We’ll talk it out.”
“Oh, and next time we’re doing this at my place, where there’s no ashtrays on the coffee table.”
“Okay,” he chuckles, leaning up to recapture her lips.
Fezco grabs a piece of blank paper from the office and a sharpie, and scribbles across it in bold, capital letters.
He tapes it against the front window of the restaurant, filled with pleasant warmth, and grins.
THE BEEF IS CLOSED
THANK YOU FOR YOUR PATIENCE
KITTY’S WILL OPEN SOON