I swear when I grow up I won't just buy you a rose
I will buy the flower shop, and you will never be lonely
For even if the sun stops waking up over the fields
I will not leave, I will not leave 'til it's our time
They called it The Joyful Duck.
It was an inside joke of sorts, one that Julia had only lightly insisted on and one that Magnus had abruptly acted upon, surprising neither of them. He was like that before they married, and he had continued to be that way in the handful of years after. Julia couldn't let Magnus live down the spontaneous adoption of their mutt, Fischer, or his sudden impulse to propose to her on their third date, or his brief turn as a drummer in her cousin's band back in Raven's Roost –
But all of that was why she loved him, and her gentle, teasing reminders why he loved her. The Joyful Duck was simply the next step.
It was, first and foremost, a risk. Moving to Neverwinter, uprooting their small lives, moving away from Julia's father – it took time, it took convincing, and it took guts. They knew, their family and friends knew, that what they wanted needed room to grow, it needed space and gumption. Raven's Roost was the place they met, the place Julia grew up in, the one Magnus found when his bus broke down at the gas station at the end of town. To leave had been, at first, unthinkable. To stay was, eventually impossible.
And so, here they were.
“Here we are.” Julia leaned her head on Magnus's shoulder and reached down to take his hand. “You did great work with the sign.”
“You know, you're right? I did.”
“Ever humble, my love.”
“Magnus Humble Burnsides, at your service.” He put an arm around her waist. “So? How long before we close up and move back?”
“Don't hit,” he said. “I'm only joking. A little.”
“I think we're going to do great.” Julia felt a little squeeze at her side. “What?”
“You want me to pretend I think we're gonna fuck it up so you can say I told you so in six months?”
She thought it over. “Sure,” she said, and stared up as the streetlamps kicked on, illuminating the sign.
“Jeez, Jules, what?”
She grinned and nudged him with her elbow. “I told you so.”
Magnus feigned insult and kept moving. They had tables to serve, and a wait that was piling up. The young woman they'd hired to be their hostess a month in was doing the best she could, but honestly, at this rate, she needed help.
They all needed help. And their fourth cook in as many months was leaving the next morning for a job across town, so they were basically shit out of luck there, too. If they made it through this night, the fifth night in a row this week of being completely slammed and completely out of their depth, it would be a freaking miracle.
After locking up, Magnus leaned against the door and said, “I'm naming our first child Miracle.”
“You're not,” Julia said, and started counting out the till. “Sloane, how many reservations do we have for tomorrow?”
“Seventeen so far.”
Julia sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose. “We need that extra staff, Magnus.”
“One more month,” he said, just as Julia mouthed the words. “Hey.”
“You say that every week.”
“Well...I mean it. Every week.”
“Magnus.” She looked at him. “I know, okay? I know you're scared. But we can't keep doing this. We don't just have money to worry about. We have our reputation, at this point, and you and I both know how hard it'll be to build it up if we keep on scrimping and saving each month until you feel just a little more comfortable.” She slammed the till shut. “It's time to get uncomfortable, Magnus.”
Sloane raised her hand. “I'm uncomfortable.”
“You can go home, Sloane.” Julia flipped through the bills and counted out enough for her tip. “Take it tonight, I'm serious.”
“I'm not a server, I don't need--”
“Just. Take it. We'll see you tomorrow.”
Sloane took the bills gingerly in her hand and nodded. She reached under the hostess's booth where she stashed her bag and started to head toward the back, before stopping. “I know a couple people who could interview tomorrow, if you're interested.”
“We're very interested,” Julia said quickly. “Text me their numbers.”
Sloane nodded and headed out.
By the doors, Magnus was fuming.
“I'm fine,” he said. “I love it when decisions for our business get made by our hostess.”
“I'm...I'm trying, okay? It's just...you know I don't want this to flop. You know that. Bringing other people in...it puts us at risk.”
“Magnus. As of tomorrow morning, we don't have a cook.”
The man stuck his head out from behind the kitchen door. “Yeah, sorry about that.”
Magnus growled. “Shut up, Todd.”
“We need at least two more servers, someone to help Sloane--”
“If she texted less--”
“You sound like an old man.”
“I am,” he said. “At heart.”
Julia shook her head. “No,” she said. “You're my Magnus. And you're scared.” She pushed herself up on her tiptoes, and he leaned down so she could kiss his forehead. “And that's okay.”
He sighed. “Yeah, alright. But we do this together.”
“Like everything,” she said.
He smiled. “Like everything.”
They took a risk and tweeted out that they were closed for breakfast and open for walk-in interviews until lunch, starting at six AM. At five forty-five, they had seven people waiting outside the door.
Julia liked to think it was that episode of Damn Good Diners, or their write-up in the Neverwinter Gazette. Whatever had happened, after about three weeks of being open, The Joyful Duck had become a Humble Street favorite, attracting attention from all over the city. Even though they couldn't manage to keep a cook, they'd hired Sloane almost right off the bat. She was a rather sad girl from Goldcliff, but she worked hard and was never late. Todd, their most recent acquisition, was a decent enough cook, but he was flighty and had dreams of Michelin stars and cooking for the duke or whatever.
Their applications for servers and hosts stacked several inches high. Chef, not so much. And Magnus was picky. These were recipes, he insisted, handed to him by his mother. Many of them were taught to Julia by her mother, and even her grandmother. They were special, Magnus said. And so whoever cooked them had to understand that. Todd did, in a way, but not enough to stick around, same as the others. And they were about to throw in the towel on that particular element of all this, the one that meant the difference between opening and closing for the day, when they twins walked in.
It was not immediately obvious that they were twins. Not because they didn't look alike (they certainly did), but their demeanors were completely different. Julia supposed she could not expect all twins to move and walk in perfect harmony, but it did tend to get the point across. It was when they opened their mouths that they became the twins they claimed to be.
“This is my brother Taako,” one said.
“This is my sister Lup,” the other said.
Taako inspected his nails. “We're a package deal, fortunately. What you see you have to get, you know what I'm saying?”
“Taako's got the magic in the kitchen,” Lup explained. “I've got Taako.”
“You just...help him.”
“No, I assist him. It's different,” she insisted. “Really.”
Julia put a hand on Magnus's elbow. “I believe you,” she said. “Your resumes are impressive. I'm willing to work with your style and whatever it is you want to bring to the table, but you have to understand, Magnus and I put a lot of thought into these recipes. They're old, they're important, and they make or break this place.”
“Oh I believe it.” Taako looked up. “I ate here three months ago. I had the fried chicken and it was...what did I call it?”
“Bomb-dot-com-dot-org-dot-net,” Lup said, grinning. “I took a bite. It was sick.”
Julia looked at Magnus. She tried to look desperate which must have worked.
She nodded, and so did he.
“Alright.” Magnus held out a hand. “You're hired. Both of you.”
“...That's it?” Lup stared. Magnus's hand hung awkwardly between them.
“It's nine,” he said. “We serve lunch in three hours.”
Taako shrugged. “Guess we better get to work, huh doofus?”
“No, we decided. You're the doofus. I'm dingus.”
He shook his head. “No, now you've got it backwards.”
Magnus looked like he wanted to cry.
Sloane had a friend, a halfling girl named Hurley, who had a lot of serving experience. Julia liked her right away, and she could tell Sloane was doing her a big favor. After that came Avi, a surprisingly relaxed industry pro who could hold an ungodly number of plates on one arm –
and then there was Merle.
Merle didn't have much serving experience. His most recent job was selling hot dogs out of a food truck on the beach, but he was sweet and Julia had fallen for his story about his kids hook, line, and sinker. Magnus was tougher to convince, but Merle had this...thing about him. It didn't really matter if you believed him or not, though Julia insisted that he seemed to have an air of honesty about him – he just...relaxed her. He even relaxed Magnus. His tone of voice, the way he sat and stood. She could imagine him, clearly, in the middle of a dinner rush, not even breaking a sweat.
And she needed that.
Hurley was quick and a little anxious, Avi was willing to take on a little bit more than he needed to – Merle was a centering force. A guiding light, in a way. He was granola as hell, too, which probably explained a lot, but Julia liked him right away, and Magnus followed her lead.
By two, they had their staff. They probably needed more, but at least know they had stopped treading water – now they could finally stand.
It was a Tuesday when the seafood order went completely off the rails, and Magnus had to take their truck downtown to haul it all back on his own, leaving Julia and the crew mid-lunch. It wasn't the worst thing that could happen. Their lunch service was, if Julia were honest with herself, mediocre at best. The food was wonderful, she knew that, but they just hadn't attracted the crowds she was hoping they would. They were located in a pretty sweet spot. It should have been a home run.
She was seated at a table near the door contemplating their almost-failure, going over the books, planning the summer menu, when Sloane came over and said quietly, “These two people wanted to see you.”
Julia looked up. A tall woman with dark skin and white hair stood as the antithesis to her companion, a small man with freckles and a thick, dark mustache. They smiled winningly and asked if they could join her. Julia agreed.
The woman spoke. “We're sorry to interrupt what appears to be a rather productive work lunch for you, but there was simply no other way to do this.”
“A phone call couldn't suffice,” the man said.
“And we represent a restaurant management duo that's been hard at work for over a decade making sure business stay on their feet.”
“We moved the Neverwinter three months ago, and ever since we've been trying to find the perfect partner,” Davenport explained. “You see, we like to think people like us have...perfect matches out there in the world. We rarely work with chain restaurants, and we have a bit of a hard time working with...more experimental cuisine.”
“Foam,” Lucretia said. “Davenport simply can't wrap his head around--”
“It's not food!”
Lucretia held up a hand. “A debate for another time.” She turned to Julia. “We ate here last week. Three times, actually. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”
“We loved it,” Davenport said. “The pastries were fresh, your lunch menu is light and refreshing, and that handrolled pasta.” He closed his eyes and sighed. “Normally I'm a little disappointed, but those were some fresh noodles.”
“I'm...glad you liked it. Look, my husband is out right now, and he's my business partner in all this, really, so anything you think--”
“It won't take more than five minutes.”
“Really,” Julia said, “I think I'd better wait on Magnus--”
It was a blessing from above that he emerged from the back, mopping the sweat from his brow and yelling back at Taako, “Next time I'll just go fishing for the damn trout on my own, if this is what it's gonna take!” He turned and saw her, pinned in by two well-meaning, perfectly wonderful people who just happened to be about to shove some well-intentioned ideas right into her arms. “What's all this?”
“You must be Magnus.” Lucretia seemed to sweep forward, her blouse flowing behind her like the crest of a wave, hand outstretched and drawing Magnus toward them. “This is my partner Davenport. We represent a restaurant management duo with over a decade of experience.”
“We were about to tell your lovely wife some of our ideas, but she absolutely insisted we wait for you.”
Julia caught Magnus's eye and mouthed help me from over Davenport's shoulder. He chuckled and nodded.
“Alright. Show us what you've got.”
Later, Julia sat at her vanity, combing through her curls and shaking her head. “I can't believe you said yes.”
“No.” She looked at his reflection. “I'm mean, I'm excited you did.”
“Right, but you and I have learned that we don't always agree.”
“No, that's true.”
She turned to face him. “What made you do it?”
Magnus shrugged. “I don't know. I drove by this place today, that chain restaurant, the one that just sells chicken salad?” Julia nodded. “They are so freaking busy at lunch, Jules. Like, crazy busy. And their food isn't good, we tried it.”
“Midtier at best.”
“Exactly. They were even busy at that weird in between time, like ten forty-five? When you're not sure if you should have breakfast--”
“But it's too early for lunch, right.”
“Go with your gut, that's what I always say, anyway.” Magnus pulled his shirt over his head. “I was just thinking as I drove by, we make better food, our place is nicer. Why aren't we busier? And I figured, well, they must be doing something right. Maybe there's something we're doing wrong. And I then I get there today, and these two great people are sitting there, and they've got these great ideas. And I don't know. I just...wanted to do it.”
“Surer than I've ever been.”
“Like I lost an electron.” Julia tossed her hairbrush at him. “What? That's one of your dad's favorites.”
“You're a dork,” she said, as she stood and crossed the room to him. “And I love you.”
“I love you, too, Jules.”
The plan was pretty simple. Breakfast and lunch service were to be rebranded in the cafe style. Free wi-fi, fresh coffee, always fresh pastries and bread. Dinner was the same, with one addition. Full bar.
“We have a list of candidates we like, obviously, but we'll leave that part up to you,” Lucretia said. The one bit Magnus had grumbled over was the two-week shut down for a brief remodel. The bar needed to be fitted with chairs, the register area needed to be expanded to hold the coffee makers, plus some extra lighting and a nicer hostess stand. It was costing them a pretty penny, but the payout, Davenport had promised, would be completely worth it.
“Cross my heart,” he said.
Julia nodded. She believed him, of course she did. But being closed, having a tense husband and anxious business partner, and a staff that really needed to work – it was stressful.
It was, surprisingly, Lup who made it better.
Perhaps not surprisingly, it was just that Taako and Lup tended to stick together. They arrived at the same time, left at the same time, spoke in matching tones, likely to unnerve Magnus, who had always stood by the opinion, “Twins are weird.”
Lup came by the restaurant a week into renovations, on her own, and said, “Let's get lunch.”
Julia, left to her own devices and refusing to count up how much of their savings they were spending on this for the fifth time that day, agreed. Immediately. And Lup...fucking delivered. She took her down to the beach and they bought the most amazing lobster roll Julia had ever had. Butter dripped down her chin and onto the sandy table, but Lup just stared out at the ocean and sighed.
“This place is pretty okay.”
“You two aren't from around here?”
“Me and Taako? Nah.” She didn't elaborate. Julia didn't press her for details. “We traveled for a while, and then we settled here. Taako got a sweet gig at this really fancy place downtown, but they went, like, totally bankrupt.”
“Oh my god.”
“Oh sweetie. Honey.” Lup put a hand over Julia's. “That is not going to happen to you.”
“You don't know that. There is...no way you can no that.”
Lup shrugged. “Maybe not. But I do know one thing.” She looked...serious, for the first time since Julia had met her. “You and Magnus have something special. And you turned that into all this. Something like that...it doesn't fail.”
Julia absently shoved the rest of her lobster roll into her mouth, chewed and swallowed. “That's nice of you to say.”
“I know, right?” Lup cackled, shattering the moment. She stretched out. “Hey, Sloane's cute as heck, don't you think?”
“Hm? Oh, yeah, she's got a nice face.”
“Is that what you told Magnus? You've got a nice face.”
Julia laughed. “Something like that, yeah.”
“Cute. Too bad she's hung up on that other one.”
“Mmhm.” Lup shrugged. “Oh well. At least she's got that nice face for me to enjoy every so often, huh?” And she laughed again, and this time Julia laughed along with her, her body relaxing, and her mind finally clear for the first time in days.
The man they hired to bartend was a guy named Bluejeans.
His god-given, honest to goodness, full name was Barry Bluejeans.
Magnus was having some kind of fit. “I can't.”
“He's really qualified.”
“I know, I just hired him with you fifteen minutes ago, but I literally can't.”
“Those glasses. That name. It's too much for me. I need Bluejeans to make me a drink.”
“You need to go to the bank,” Julia said, and pressed a money bag into his hands. “Opening day. We need cash in the till.” She took the chance to lean down to kiss him before he got up out of the chair, and handed him his keys. “Please,” she added.
“Sure, sure.” He laughed to himself again. “This is great.”
“I'm glad you think so.”
Lucretia said not to get worked up about anything until a week or so in.
Three days after they reopened, she came to them and said, “I think it worked.”
Magnus was grinning, ear to freaking ear. Their dinner service was finally finished, Sloane had made more reservations that week than she had all month, and Taako was dropping hints that he maybe might need another set of hands, if this was going to pan out.
“At least some punk high schooler to do dishes, since someone keeps promising they will and then doesn't,” he said, glaring at Merle. “Like a liar.”
“I forgot,” Merle said, hands held up. “I said I was sorry.”
Julia sighed. “So...we're good?”
“You two are going to stay.”
“For a while,” Davenport said. “I think we found our match,” he added, and gave Julia and Magnus a wink.
“Cornball,” Lup said, pulling on her jacket. “Come on, dingus, let's roll.” Taako trailed after her, and one by one, everyone followed suit. Eventually, Julia and Magnus stood alone in the dim light of the dining room, their fingers linked, watching the traffic filter by.
“We did good,” Magnus said, and kissed the top of her forehead.
Julia nodded. “Yeah,” she said. “We did.”