Gino was seated behind the counter, idly flicking through a magazine when his regular pest walked in through the door, bright red hair sticking up at odd angles as was usual and a bright look in his dark eyes.
“Hello Gino Pepperino.” Khonjin greeted smugly as he approached.
The pizza man could already feel his lip curling into a snarl.
“I’d like one large-”
“Are we getting pizza?” an even younger voice asked from below the counter.
Khonjin’s large, crooked nose wrinkled in frustration, he turned to snap at them. “Yes, I am getting a god damned--”
“I want pizza. Can I get a Pepsi?”
Surprised, Gino peered over the edge of the counter, where he could see tiny, spindly fingers grasping the edge. A round, pale face stared up at him keenly. Her equally pale hair was tied back in a ponytail.
“Shut the fuck up!” the teen barked.
“Whoa whoa whoa, hang on a minute. Did you bring this little runt in here ta try and weasel a pizza outta me?” Gino pointed at the child.
“Yeah.” Ruther chimed in.
“What! I, no!” Khonjin fumbled. “Guh. I’m just babysitting, I just thought that maybe getting a pizza would make her shut up for once.” he explained impatiently.
“Uh-huh.” Gino leaned over the counter again to meet Ruther’s inquisitive gaze.
“I want my X-Box.” she stated.
The Italian settled back again, humming thoughtfully. “Have you tried doing anything else with her besides swindling me out of a pizza? It’s still early, there’s a nice park you could walk to nearby. Easy.”
“She doesn’t want to do anything except play with her Gamecube and get pizza.”
“She’s only sayin’ that because she’s bored, and you ain’t doin’ nothing to entertain her. Except harassing me, that is.” Gino hopped off the bar stool and came around to the front.
“Whaddya say kid?” he crouched down to talk to her. “We’ll take ya out for a nice walk, and there’ll be a fresh pizza ready for ya when we get back. I’ll even let ya ride on uncle Gino’s shoulders if ya get tired.”
Khonjin watched the exchange, noticing how much the pizza man’s body language shifted, his tone and demeanour too seemed a little softer.
“Hm.” Ruther planted her hands on her hips. “You drive a hard bargain, boss-man. Alright, I’ll come with you.”
“Hey Gay Spaghetti! Mind the shop for a few minutes, would ya?” Gino called behind him.
“You got it boss!” the eager-to-please chef called back.
“Well, looks like I’m stuck with you two for the time being.” Gino chuckled, leading little Ruther out the door and leaving Khonjin to follow.
“Looks like…” the teen mumbled.
Khonjin, after being so close to making something explode was now walking behind Gino on their way back to the pizzeria, listening to him talking to the girl on his shoulders.
He’d somehow kept her attention that whole time, without raising his voice at her once. He’d also managed to do it with less profanity than Khonjin had ever heard.
This was a different Gino than he was used to.
Ruther was enjoying a children's sized pizza when they got back, giving the other two a moment alone.
“Wow Gino, I never knew you had such a way with kids.”
“Eh,” he shrugged. “I guess it comes from havin’ a big family, you know, with all the cousins and aunts and nieces an’ nephews. I’ve had ta mind quite a few kids in my time.”
“Huh.” Khonjin contemplated. “That must be… really something.”
“Yeah, family can be a whole lotta hassle, but it’s worth it.” His voice radiated warmth and fondness.
Khonjin was silent.
From then on, Khonjin would take his babysitting job over to Gino as soon as possible. Seeing Ruther was a pleasant break from the usual annoyance Khonjin subjected him to, so it bothered him much less.
Khonjin noticed that among Ruther’s various video-game related complaints, she would also ask “Is it time to see Mr. Boss-man?” and “When will we see Uncle Gino?”.
She’d talk to the old man about her consoles and games too, quite avidly. Although it was obvious he couldn’t understand Gino tried to look interested.
In return, Gino taught her little bits and pieces of Italian, things he’d picked up from listening to his own family.
Khonjin often became quiet on their little play-dates. He didn't need to do much more than add a few words of encouragement from time to time. Having Gino help him like this made it easier to be like a supportive older brother instead of throwing tantrums himself.
One evening, Ruther was fast asleep in an armchair in Gino’s living room.
Khonjin stepped into Gino’s kitchen, where he found him sipping cheap wine from a drinking glass and staring out the window.
“Took care of her for ya. Don’t know why they trust ya with that kid when you ain’t much more than a kid yourself.” He commented, paying the boy himself very little mind.
“Thank you, Gino.” Khonjin’s reply was sombre and hesitant.
Fratelli noticed now that Khonjin’s head was lowered, facing the floor more than the man. He couldn’t quite meet his eye.
“You uh, got something on your mind?” Gino asked, still half-leaning against the kitchen counter.
“Gino, can I… Can I call you Uncle?” the boy faced him fully.
His eyes were wide and sincere.
Gino felt his jaw go slack. “I… I uh.”
“I don’t think that’s such a good idea.”
Khonjin’s heart seemed to sink inside him. His shoulders slumped, his expression crumpled.
"Oh. It, it doesn’t matter… it’s” he inhaled, “it’s stupid.” Khonjin ran his hand back through his red hair.
“It’s not personal, you know? I just, when your dad handed you over to me--”
“Yeah no, I get it.” Khonjin was backing away now, through the doorway. “I’ll, I’ll let Ruther’s mother know where she is…”
“Wait, you can’t just--”
“See you later.”
But by then, he’d vanished into the dark. Evening had well and truly fallen, and the black of night carried him back home.
The apartment was dark and empty when he got back. It was rare to see Gilmore hanging around at this time of evening in this particular place anyway.
If it was the middle of the day, sometimes Khonjin might find him napping somewhere, still dressed and with his hat tipped over his face. He'd be in and out without a word to his son.
But at night, Gilmore would definitely be out, doing whatever dirty work needed doing.
The city lights leered in at him. The rush of cars the only voice of comfort.
Even his father's stony presence was something.
Khonjin dragged himself into a bed that seemed far too large, curling the sheets up in his hands. Regretting.
He didn’t want to go to the pizzeria. He thought he might not ever go back, or at least not for a week, or at least not for a few days. Even just one day.
The very next morning, he was right back in front of the pizzeria. His very feet had carried him there. Khonjin didn’t want to go inside, he just didn’t know where else to go.
At very least, Gay Spaghetti might be there, and if he got in before Gino saw maybe Khonjin could convince him to skip work for a few hours and mess around.
Nope. Gino was sitting at his regular spot at the counter and he saw Khonjin come in.
“Hey… Gino.” he greeted, a little flatly.
Khonjin stood there, hunched, with his hands in his pockets.
“…Alright, get over here.”
He didn’t budge.
“Come on, take a seat.” Gino patted the counter, Khonjin reluctantly pulling himself up onto a bar stool and turning slightly away from the man.
He rested both his arms up on the counter to bury his face in them.
“You ain’t still sore about yesterday, are ya?”
Khonjin heaved out a long sigh.
“Listen kid, if I’m honest I don't exactly consider you... family. You’re just like the rest of Gilmore’s goons, as far as I’m concerned. The boss saddled you up with me and now I’m stuck here, I don’t wanna take responsibility for any of your crazy shit, and I don’t wanna sugar-coat it for ya neither. If you can drive a car, then you’re old enough to take responsibility for yourself.”
Khonjin sunk further and further against the counter as he spoke.
“It’s just business kid.”
“But, but all that being said. I. I do kinda forget that, you’re only fifteen. And, maybe you don’t got a lot of choice in this either. I mean,” he smiled, “you annoy the absolute shit outta me, but you’re still a kid.”
“So, yeah. If ya want,” Gino clapped a hand on Khonjin’s shoulder, making him look up. “I can be ya Uncle Gino.”
He sniffled and whimpered a sort of “egueghh” sound. Gino felt him shaking, watched his expression scrunch and flush, button-black eyes glimmering and dripping.
Moving as far across as he could go, Gino pulled him into an uncomfortable but much needed hug. The counter’s lip bit into his stomach as it was no doubt doing to Khonjin as well, but the boy made no resistance.
The solid weight of Gino’s arms grounded him, even the smell of sweat and grease and pizza clinging to Gino’s clothes felt safe. Khonjin shakily held onto the back of Gino’s vest.
The boy could barely speak between gurgling sobs. “Z…zio…” he whined.
Gino chuckled gently, finally letting him go. “Where’d ya learn that?”
“I… I overheard, you and Ruther…”
“S’not bad, but ya might wanna just stick ta “Uncle”. You’re an American kid after all. An’ besides, if ya daddy hears you talking in French he might get me in a whole lotta trouble.” Gino joked.
“Alright Uncle.” Khonjin wiped his face on his sleeve. “Heh… You know, your wife and children must be so lucky to have you.”