Bitterness was not popular. To call a meal “bitter” was considered a bad thing. That, and Jim was 16, and as such, the palate of his contemporaries had not quite developed into adulthood yet. It was well-known (at least on the cooking blogs he frequented) that children have around 30,000 tastebuds, as a supposed mechanism against poisoning, only a third of which they kept into adulthood. Though, he often wondered if whoever was doing this research would change their mind if they’d met Toby Domzalski, as in the 13 years Jim had known him, Toby had only ever grown into his sweet-tooth.
And yet, though Toby may disagree, there was a need for bitterness. Jim hated coffee- at least for a while anyway, forcing himself to drink it, partially out of delusions of sophistication, and because the blog he’d been reading it had recommended it with the mini breakfast quiches he’d been attempting; and then, after he’d become Trollhunter, because he desperately, desperately needed the caffeine. With the little extra boost it gave him, a cup of strong coffee- cafetière-pressed mostly, but he didn’t mind instant if he was in a rush- in the morning between training and school became something of a ritual. And so, he’d come to appreciate bitterness, if not like it.
This morning, however, he’d added cocoa powder to his coffee. Technically speaking, that made it a mocha, but when he looked down into his cup, he didn’t think many baristas would like to associate that lyrical-sounding word with the pitiful sludge he’d made himself by spooning excessive amounts of drinking chocolate in with off-brand instant coffee and soya milk. Part of him was ashamed to be drinking it; the other half was pissed and tired and didn’t care.
He was definitely hormonal, he knew that. He’d already taken two ibuprofen for the pain blossoming across his lower abdomen, and the dysphoria that came with his time of the month was not helping matters. He momentarily wished this had all happened the night before; Jim liked to think he was close enough to cleaving Strickler’s head from his neck without throwing period pains into the mix. Then again, he thought, laying his head down on the table and closing his eyes, he wasn’t sure he could deal with all of it at once. Even now, the prospect of school made him want to turn off his phone and crawl back into bed fully-clothed.
There was the sound of the door going and Jim sprang up into an upright position again, before a familiar “Morning Jimbo!” rang through the hall and Jim relaxed, letting his head fall back down again.
“Oh, man, rough night huh.” Jim didn’t open his eyes as Toby dumped his bag on the floor and pulled up a chair opposite, the legs squeaking across the hard floor. “If it’s any consolation, my legs are killing me after shinning up that rope last night. And, I bought Aarrrgghh!!! his own bag of kitty litter the other day for like, $12, since he keeps eating the cats’ ones, but he ignored it and ate it out of the tray again. I dunno, I can’t even be mad since he kinda saved my life last night. And, well, it’s still better than eating the actual cats.” Toby heaved a sigh, and when he got no response from Jim, he tucked his hair to one side and asked softly, “Hey Jimbo, you awake?”
Jim groaned in reply.
“It’s like that huh? What’s got you down buddy? That stuff with Strickler last night? What happened? You stopped replying and your lights were all off so I figured you’d gone to bed.” Toby’s breath smelt like strawberry Nesquick, and suddenly Jim didn’t feel so bad about the half-empty mug of sickly-sweet goop sat between them.
Jim groaned into the table again, before turning over and resting his head in his arms and looking up at Toby, who regarded him with a furrowed brow.
“Yeah, my mom was mad at me so I couldn’t sneak out and help Draal take Claire back home or anything.”
“Wait, why was Claire here?”
Jim snorted. “I have no idea, Draal said she snuck into the basement while we were having dinner and was listening to me and Strickler, but she was knocked out before anything happened. I think she saw Draal though.”
“Wait wait wait wait wait. What? You really need to catch me up on what happened last night dude. What did Strickler do? Claire saw Draal? That’s not good. Not good at all.”
Jim shushed him and lay his head in his arms again.
“Strickler knows I’m the Trollhunter and he knows I know he’s a changeling. I mean, heck, he showed me his changeling form. He’s green.”
“Whhaaaaaaattt. Strickler changed here? With your mom in the room?”
“No way, you think I’d still be sat here if he’d revealed both of us to my mom? We fought while she was in the kitchen doing something, and apparently she didn’t notice Strickler’s knife-thing we left in the doorframe in the hall,” he said, gesturing in the vague direction without looking up. “And yeah, Draal was down in the basement with Claire the whole time.”
“That sounds pretty wild dude.”
“Yeah, well, you guys sound like you had a night of it too.”
“Yeah we did! First of all we nearly got caught by Señor Uhl, then we got into Strickler’s office and his pen’s a changeling key so we got NotEnrique to open the door for us and it was all creepy and evil-looking, and then we found a tiny portal to the Darklands called a Fetch, and there was this book about Gumm-Gumm history and did you know Aarrrgghh!!! was a Gumm-Gumm general? But that was way back now so it’s fine, and yeah, then this scary cloud came out of this crystal in Strickler’s office but I didn’t notice because I stuck my head in the Fetch and this thing was chasing my head through the Darklands which, by the way, looks exactly how you’d think the place where Gunmar lives to look, and then I got my head out but this evil cloud chased me and NotEnrique into the gym but I shinned up that damn rope, you know the one, and rang the bell, to get in the vents, aaaaaaaand then we fell and Blinky and Aarrrgghh!!! caught the cloud thing in the Fetch. Then we went home, so, uh, I think Strickler’s gonna know we went in there because Aarrrgghh!!! ripped the door off and we didn’t wanna go back. But hey, we got the Fetch! It’s pretty cool.”
“Wow, Tobes, sounds like a night. And it’s fine, Strickler knew you guys were going in there, and he told me about the creature. I was gonna ring but, y’know, he was trying to murder me.”
“Well, I guess, we both survived,” Toby said lamely, and then petered off into silence. For a while, the only sound was the clock on the wall. Probably telling them they were going to be late, Jim thought, but he didn’t care, and he didn’t move.
There was a pause.
“Thanks for doing that last night Tobes, I appreciate it.”
“No, no, I didn’t mean that. Just, you OK?”
“I’m just tired. And not looking forward to finding out Claire told half of Arcadia about the troll in my basement.”
“I dunno, she doesn’t seem the type. You sure that’s all?”
“Mmm, I started my period this morning too, so, that sucks.”
“Oh dang. I should’ve bought some chocolate over.” Jim smiled at that. He was always more of a savoury guy, with the exception of four days a month, at which point he could probably say he and Toby became closer than usual (if that was even possible). “Aaaaalthoooough,” Toby started, and Jim’s face burned as he heard the sound of his mug being dragged across the table towards Toby, “Seems like you’ve got it covered.”
“Don’t judge me, or I’ll stab Daylight into your stomach so you can bleed out in pain too.” Jim’s threat wasn’t so intimidating when it came out muffled by his sleeve.
“Ohh, feisty Jimbo. Save it for Strickler. He definitely deserves a massive sword to the gut.”
Jim snorted with laughter. Bless Toby he thought. Jim could by dying and his best friend would still find a way to make him smile.
“…That’s not it though, is it Jimbo?”
Bitterness was complex. Sourness, for example, was only caused by acids, whereas there were over 1000 different chemicals that caused bitterness.
Jim finally looked up, and caught Toby’s eyes.
That was the other thing about Toby. He could make Jim laugh when he was down, but they’d never ignore the issue.
Jim exhaled. “It’s my mom, I guess.”
“What about her?”
“…I… I mean… I’ve been thinking about telling her, y’know, about trollhunting. She’s always wondering where I am, and it’s getting really hard to hide the Vespa from her. We’re supposed to tell each other everything and I feel bad for keeping this from her.”
“So you’re worried about that? How long have you been thinking about this? Since last night?”
“No, for ages now. But… It’s not just that. I’ve been thinking about it for a while, and I think I’d nearly made my mind up to tell her the truth, but last night… I tried to say something to her about Strickler, once he’d left. Not the full truth, but just tell her I didn’t like him. And, Tobes, she didn’t even ask why, she just told me she was disappointed in me, like my opinion doesn’t matter as much as he does or that I might know something she didn’t, since, y’know, I’ve known Strickler longer than her. She was still mad at me this morning.”
“You know I wrote those letters before I fought Draal? Well, I forgot to take it out the cookbook for a while, and then when I went to get it, it’d gone. So she has it, and she’s probably read it, but she hasn’t brought it up. Even Claire talked to me about it, and I don’t know Claire that well.”
“Yeah, that’s super weird. Like, what’s the point of bringing it up if she already knows? And if she doesn’t know then why won’t she talk about it? She’s gotta have read it right, I mean, I read mine and I knew you were gonna win. It’s really hard to resist a sealed envelope with your name on it. Pretty sure that’s the only reason post is still a thing. That and ordering kitty litter off Amazon.”
“Why did you get it off Amazon?”
“I didn’t wanna ride all the way to the pet store and back on my bike. I would’ve had to balance the litter on my handlebars or something. That is not a good look,” Toby said, shaking his head.
“I would’ve given you a ride, you know that Tobes.”
“Jim, we’re literally sat here discussing how tired and stressed out you are.”
“I’m not stressed out, I’m fine. Maybe just… upset, I guess. But I will next time, just tell me when.”
“Fine. Maybe you should just tell Dr L? I mean, otherwise how else is this gonna go?”
“Mmmm… I don’t know Tobes, between that and not trusting me about Strickler, I don’t know if I want to tell her anymore. Like, if she can’t take “hey, I think Strickler’s two-faced and I don’t want you to see him again” well then how is she going to take “hey mom, I stay out all night hunting evil trolls in magical armour in a position the only way out of is death. Oh, and one of the trolls built a Vespa with me because my dad’s not here to do it.”
“True, true.” He didn’t argue his point, just sighed. Jim felt a pang of guilt watching Toby fiddle with his fingernails.
“Toby, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to have a go at you. I’ll think about it, I guess. You’re right, I don’t know where else this is going to go from here.”
“No, no, I’m not mad! I was just thinking. Ahhhh, Jim, don’t be upset.” He scooted up from his chair and came round to Jim’s side of the table, pressing Jim’s head into his chest in a sort of hug. Jim closed his eyes, in contentment rather than fatigue this time. He smiled. Toby was like a pillow.
“We have History first period.”
Jim opened his eyes. “You were doing so well at this comforting thing Tobes, why did you have to ruin it?”
“Yeah, you see, that’s what I’m saying. Strickler’s not going to come after you for not turning up. Or, maybe he will, but let’s face it, he’s gonna come after you anyway. Probably literally.” Jim looked up at him, raising an eyebrow. “Ok, not helping. My point is, we’re late anyway; we should just flake and go and get ice-cream near the school. Ice-cream has proven medicinal qualities against feeling shitty. And who knows, brainfreeze might stop that brain of yours overthinking,” Toby chuckled, and Jim grinned.
They say, to combat bitterness where it is not wanted, you have to add something sweet. Pineapple juice, or just sugar, if you were lazy. Lime was also a good choice. A little more uncommon but equally as effective was to add fat, such as olive oil. Some people also suggested avocado, but Jim could not disagree more.
“Yeah, I think I’d like that Tobes.”