"We're almost there and nowhere near it. All that matters is that we're going."
At six-thirty on any given weekday morning in the small town of Samwell, Connecticut, several things are guaranteed to be happening, reliable as clockwork. Eric Bittle is pulling a tray of scones out of the oven and easing them onto cooling racks. Adam Birkholtz is teaching yoga to the fifty-five and over Sensational Stretch class. Jack Zimmermann is taking the Samwell High track crew on a run.
And Will Poindexter and Derek Nurse are in a standoff over a third cup of coffee.
“No,” Will says flatly, holding the carafe out of Derek’s reach. Logically, this shouldn’t be possible--they’re the same height--but Will is awake and coordinated, and Derek, at least at this time of day, is not. “I’m cutting you off.”
“This violates the Geneva Convention,” Derek says. “Seriously, this is torture. Something is wrong with you.”
“I’m not contributing to you having an ulcer by thirty-five,” Will says. “And you’re setting a terrible example.”
Derek waves a dismissive hand at Ford, who’s watching the exchange with raised eyebrows and her usual amusement over her own mug. “She’s past saving,” he says, half a lament. “Caffeine addiction has a genetic component. You can check the DSM.”
“That’s true,” Ford agrees. She finishes her last sip and holds up her cup, giving Will her widest, most innocent eyes. “Top me off, Will?”
“No,” Will growls. He stomps back behind the counter, and comes back a moment later with a to-go cup and a scone. He gives the scone to Ford and shoves the cup at Derek. “Enjoy your ulcer,” he snaps, and stomps away again.
“My hero!” Derek calls after him. Will doesn’t turn around. Derek grins, taking the lid off his cup and inhaling the steam. “Hello, sweet elixir,” he coos. “I love you so much.”
Ford nudges him under the table. “Dad,” she says. He glances up at her. “Share?”
Derek purses his lips. “I don’t know, kiddo,” he says. “Maybe Will was onto something about the whole corrupting the youth thing, you know?”
“It’s not my fault,” she says, faking a pout. “I’m predisposed.”
Will stomps back to the table and puts a to-go cup in front of Ford. “It’s half-caf,” he says stiffly. He scowls. “And eat your scone.”
Ford picks it up and takes a bite. Will grunts approvingly and shuffles away. Ford puts the scone down, watching him fondly. “It’s kind of cute how he does this every day,” she says.
Derek grins. “Definition of insanity, baby girl,” he says. “Drink up.”
The bell above the door rings, and Kent Parson walks into the diner in a whirl of fall leaves and chilly air. He walks straight up to the counter and pulls out a stack of papers. “Will,” he begins.
“No,” Will says, without looking up from wiping down the counter.
“It’s just a few missing posters--”
“She goes missing every other week,” Will says, tossing the rag over his shoulder. Derek allows himself one (1) glance at his forearms where his flannel is rolled up to just below his elbows. Will has great arms. “I’m not cluttering up the announcement board with posters.”
Kent draws himself up to his full height--which, at five-foot-nine, is considerably shorter than Will’s six-two. “You know,” he begins, “you never want to be helpful to the community--”
“I think that’s our cue,” Derek tells Ford. She nods emphatically, stuffing the rest of her scone into her mouth and pulling her coat on. They pick up their coffees, and Derek tosses a twenty onto the table. It’s more than they owe, but it’s probably a good idea to tip today, if the vein in Will’s forehead is any indication.
“I don’t know why Kent bothers,” Ford says as the door swings shut behind them. Derek hums, sipping his coffee. “Will’s never going to put up those posters.”
“I think he just likes to watch Will make that face,” Derek says thoughtfully. “You know the one--where he gets all red and his freckles stand out?”
Ford shakes her head. “You and freckles, Dad, honestly.”
“I have made exactly three comments about freckles,” Derek says, defensive. Ford fixes him with a Look that she must have absorbed from Lardo via osmosis, because Derek’s never had side-eye that good in his life, and god knows she didn’t get it from her father.
“Three comments this week,” Ford says, flashing a wicked grin that borders on a leer, and yeah, that she got from her father. “Come on, you haven’t been on a date in months.”
Derek actually stops walking. “You want me to go on a date,” he repeats. She gives a firm nod. “With Will Poindexter.”
Ford shrugs. “Well, with anyone,” she says. “But you can’t deny you guys have chemistry.”
“Baking soda and vinegar have chemistry,” Derek says dryly. “It doesn’t mean they should date.” He takes a sip of coffee. “Hey, you know what you don’t see a lot of these days? Baking soda volcanoes. What happened to baking soda volcanoes?”
“I left sixth grade, Daddy,” Ford says.
Derek makes an excited sound. “Oh, or dioramas! What’s wrong with our education system that you stop making dioramas after middle school?”
Ford shrugs. “I think it’s the ingrained institution of crushing our sparks of creativity in order to ensure that we grow up to be cogs in the corporate machine.” She pauses. “Also, everybody knows about the whole baking soda thing, so I think most science teachers are raising the bar a little bit.”
“Mm. I hear you.” He snaps his fingers. “Potato clocks.”
“Also a little overdone.”
“Mentos and soda!”
Ford grins. “Running out of science facts, aren’t you?”
Derek sighs. “Dragged through the mud by my own child.” He sips his coffee. “The point is: butt out of the dating life, kid. I don’t drop hints to you about Tony, do I?”
Ford makes a face. “Dad, gross,” she says. “Tony’s like my brother.”
Derek snorts. “You look at his tush too much for that to be true,” he says.
They turn the corner, and Ford nearly trips over a blur of fluff as it streaks across the sidewalk. She yelps, and nearly drops her coffee. Derek catches it for her, and peers after the blur. “Huh,” he says. “There’s Kit.”
Ford looks thoughtful. “Think we should go back and tell Kent?”
Derek shakes his head. “Nah,” he says. “Let her enjoy her morning. Being the biggest instagram star in Samwell must be exhausting.” He slings an arm around her shoulders. “Now. About Tony.”
This is Samwell, Connecticut, population 8,476 (not including cats). Established 1789 by George Samwell, the town is forty minutes from Hartford by bus, thirty by car. It’s a point of pride that the nearest Starbucks is a twenty minute drive away.
People in Samwell either spend their entire lives there and couldn’t imagine living anywhere else, or leave the minute they’re old enough to strike out on their own. It’s the kind of town where everyone knows everyone, which is either a blessing or a curse.
In Samwell, everybody knows that Eric “Bitty” Bittle’s bakery is the only place to get a decent pie. Everybody knows that if you want to teach your kid to dance or sing you send them to Adam Birkholtz. Everybody has participated in at least three searches for Kent Parson’s adorable but absurd cat, Kit Purrson.
And just about everybody in town has a bet on when single dad Derek Nurse and diner owner and purveyor of Samwell’s best coffee Will Poindexter are going to finally get their act together and start dating.
(The pot is up to $643. It would have been $650, but everyone agreed that Derek’s daughter Ford has too much insider information, and it wasn’t fair for her to bet.)
“There’s a message for you,” Johnson says when Derek gets to the Inn.
Derek raises his eyebrows, shrugging out of his jacket. “Something you couldn’t handle?”
Johnson waves a hand. “It wasn’t relevant to my strain of the plot. I let the machine get it.”
He takes Derek’s coat and wanders off toward the staff wing, greeting a few patrons as he goes. Derek watches him, amused and a little bewildered, which is how he usually feels around him. Johnson’s great at his job, the guests at the Inn love him and he’s something of a character around Samwell, but he’s definitely an oddball.
Flipping the overnight ledger open, he dials into the office voicemail with one hand, reaching for his mostly-empty coffee with the other.
Justin’s voice comes through the speaker, and Derek nearly drops his coffee.
“Hey,” he says, his familiar voice slightly stiff in the way it often is in voicemails, missing its usual easy confidence. “This is Justin Oluransi, I’m calling for Derek Nurse? Uh--Hi, bud. I had a--” Justin’s laugh, self-deprecating and honest, comes through the line. “Kind of a phone incident, and I haven’t gotten a new one yet, but I wanted to let you know that I’m--well, I don’t wanna spoil it, but I’m heading down to your neck of the woods. I’m gonna try to get a new phone today, but in the meantime you can leave me a message at the Goodwin in Hartford--room 211. I’ll call you soon--love to Ford.”
The machine clicks off. Derek frowns at the receiver. Weird, he thinks; what the hell is Justin doing in Hartford? He’s supposed to be job hunting in Toronto after wrapping up his residency. He looks up the number for the Goodwin Hotel and asks for room 211. “Hey, it’s Derek,” he says, when the automated voice tells him to leave a message. “Just calling you back--hope everything’s okay.”
He rattles off his cell number and Ford’s, because there’s no guaranteeing Justin will be able to get his contacts transferred over if his phone is properly screwed, then hangs up. Collecting his coffee, he heads down to the kitchen to check on Lardo and Chris.
The clanging reaches him before he gets there, and he winces.
It’s too early for this.
Lardo’s a genius in the kitchen, but her style of cooking is loud to say the least, pans slamming and lids clattering to the stainless steel prep tables when she’s tired of using them. Chris, who came to the Inn to do his CIA internship a year ago, declared Lardo his mentor, and refused to leave, tends to hover around her like a cautious bumblebee. “You want to be close enough to learn,” he’d told Nursey once, “but not so close that you get hit in the crossfire.”
After twelve years working with Lardo, Derek knows to approach the kitchen entrance with caution. He sticks his hand through the doorway, then, when nothing hits it, he pokes his head through. “Yo,” he says.
Lardo flings a tasting spoon over her shoulder--it bounces off the edge of the sink (which is what, in a world where Lardo aims for things, she might have been aiming for) and clatters to the floor--and glances around at him. “Oh, hi,” she says. “How’s it going?”
“Well, it was going quietly,” he says dryly, stepping around something red and sticky on the floor and heading hesitantly over to the stove. He peers into the pot she’s stirring. “It’s not really jam season anymore, is it?”
Lardo scowls. “As long as Eric Bittle’s still making fresh jam, so am I,” she says, raising her chin. Derek snorts and shakes his head. Eric’s one of Lardo’s best friends--the culinary community in Samwell isn’t huge, and she needs someone to gossip with--but they like to pretend they maintain a rivalry.
(Which is absurd, because everyone in town knows that the only real jam rivalry in Samwell is between Eric Bittle’s mother and aunt. Summer in Samwell is spontaneously the best and most terrifying time to be a jam fan.)
“I actually think she’s on to something with this one,” Chris says, minding a pan of--what is that, bacon?
Derek braces himself. “Oh?”
“Yeah, the test batch was great. Caramel bourbon bacon.”
Derek groans. “Please tell me you didn’t expense the bourbon,” he tells Lardo.
She waves her new spoon at him dismissively. Boiling jam splatters from the end of it, and he dodges with the tired ease of long practice. “Of course not, it’s Shitty’s.” Her cheeks pink a little, and Derek grins despite himself. Lardo constantly denies that her flirtation with the lawyer-turned-organic-farmer who provides most of the Inn’s produce is leading anywhere, but it takes a lot to make her blush.
Something in her eye is telling him not to tease her about it, though, so he just drains the rest of the coffee from Will’s and tosses the cup in the trash, reaching for a mug with his other hand to pour himself another cup from the pot on the counter. “How’s it been here this morning?”
“Breakfast went really well,” Chris says, flipping his bacon. He tosses his hair out of his eyes with a practiced jerk of his head. Derek resists the urge to dig one of Ford’s bobby pins out of his pocket and clip them back for him. “People are really loving the frittata. I wasn’t sure how the sun-dried tomatoes were going to play, but apparently? Awesome.”
“Great,” Derek says, a little absently. He leans against the wall, tapping his fingers against his mug and inhaling the steam. Chris makes good coffee, but not as good as Will’s.
Lardo straightens up from peering over the pot on the stove. “You’re being weird,” she says. “What’s going on?”
Derek glances up. “What? Nothing.”
“Bullshit,” she says. “Something’s up. You have the Face.”
“The Stressed Forehead Crinkle of Anxiety Face,” she says.
“I do not have that face,” Derek protests.
“You do,” Chris says. “You’re wearing it right now.”
Derek gasps. “Traitor,” he says, and Chris grins, apologetic.
“Sorry,” he says, pointing at Lardo. “She pays me.”
“I pay you!”
“Well, technically, but she, like...owns me.”
Lardo sniffs. “I’m educating you,” she tells him tartly, and then whirls back to Derek. If she weren’t the same height as his daughter, it would probably be more intimidating, but as it is, she’s pretty scary. “Now. What’s with the face?”
He sighs. No point in trying to hide things from her, she knows him too well. “I got a weird message from Justin, that’s all. He said he’s going to be in town”
Chris blinks. “Justin?”
“Ford’s dad,” Derek tells him.
Chris looks confused. “I thought you were Ford’s--” Derek gives him an expectant look, and Chris flushes. “Right. Sorry. I forget sometimes, ’cause you’re all--” He motions to his chin, clearly indicating Derek’s very visible stubble, and Derek snorts.
“One beard doesn’t cancel out twenty hours of labor, so I’m not as forgetful,” he says, amused. Chris looks sheepish, and Derek shakes his head. “It’s fine, C.”
“Anyway, Justin,” Lardo says, pointed. “Wasn’t he just here?”
Chris frowns. “I didn’t meet him!”
“He came down to Hartford for Parents’ Night at Chilton,” Derek says, cringing a little at the memory. Ford loves her school, which is great, but it’s rough enough having his own history there without Justin next to him as a reminder to anyone smart enough to put two and two together.
Still, he’s not dumb enough to be upset about having a co-parent who’ll grab an international flight to see his kid on a school night.
“I don’t know, he’s just a pretty scheduled sort of guy,” Derek says, trying to get Lardo to stop looking at him Like That. “It kind of caught me off-guard.” He shrugs. “It’s fine. I’m sure Ford’ll be happy to see him.”
“Are they close?” Chris asks, curiously. “You don’t talk about him.”
“We’re not together, but he’s one of my best friends. And Ford loves him, obviously.” He sips his coffee. “I’m just not used to spontaneity from him, it’s weird. He likes structure.”
Chris brightens. “Maybe he’s gonna try to win you back!”
Derek chokes on his next sip. “I don’t think so,” he wheezes.
“Because we broke up when we were sixteen,” Derek says dryly, taking the paper towel Lardo offers him and wiping droplets of coffee off his blazer before they can set. “And it’s probably the best decision we’ve ever made for our relationship.” They’d been good together, and Justin’s still probably the most gorgeous person he’s ever been with (or ever will be with, probably; Derek thinks that if he had to get knocked up in high school, at least it was someone with great genes), but they weren’t going to last. It had been a mutual decision to end things while they were still friends rather than let themselves fizzle out or get frustrated with each other.
Chris sighs. “I just think you deserve a good romance, Derek,” he says, taking his pan of bacon off the stove.
Not looking up from her pot, Lardo snorts a laugh. Derek scowls at her.
“Do not even start with me, Larissa,” he says. “I get enough from Ford.”
Chris looks back and forth between them. “Of what?”
“Derek has a longstanding flirtation with Will Poindexter,” she tells him, watching critically as he drains the bacon grease into a mason jar and then tips the bacon onto a cutting board.
“It is not a flirtation,” he protests. “We’re friends. If that. Mostly he just lectures me about my caffeine intake and childrearing practices.”
“He fixes things in your house for free,” Lardo says. “All the time. He even makes Bittle pay him for that kind of thing.”
“Eric pays him in pies,” Derek says.
She brandishes her spoon at him. “The point stands, Nurse,” she says. “He’s into you. And you’re into him.”
Derek makes a face at her. “I am not.”
“You should get in on the pot,” Lardo tells Chris, as if Derek’s not even there anymore. “It’s getting pretty good.”
Chris looks interested. “Yeah?”
“I’ve got them getting together between next Christmas and Ford’s junior prom,” she continues, pointedly ignoring Derek’s sputtering objections. “I think Johnson has them down for like, sometime this year? He was weirdly specific. Don’t pay attention to him.”
“Hey,” Derek protests. “Do I get a say in this?”
“No,” Lardo says.
“No,” Chris agrees. “Who do I talk to? I’m gonna bet on a midnight home repair.”
“I hate you both,” Derek announces, topping off his coffee, and heads back to the desk while Lardo gives Chris Kent’s phone number to get him into the pool.
This is Derek Nurse, age thirty-two, single father and general manager of the Samwell Inn. He moved to Samwell sixteen years ago, fresh-faced and nervous with a beat-up Jeep and a baby too young to be anyone’s but his. He grew up behind the desk of the Inn, baby Ford in a rocking car seat at his feet, and fell in love with the way the town accepted him without question, the way no one commented on his name or his pronouns or the growth spurt he had at seventeen when he got back on T and it kicked in through his system.
Derek has a Bachelor’s in business management earned through night classes, bookshelves overflowing with old literature and poetry, an easy laugh. He moves like someone who never quite expected to get as tall as he is, and avoids Lardo’s mother’s antiques shop after the third time he had to pay for a broken vase. He drinks coffee like normal people drink water. People tend to express concern about this.
He likes French wine and Spanish poetry and cheap Chinese food. He can cook exactly seven dishes, eight if you count “pasta any which way,” which he does. He is prouder of his kid than he is of anything else in the world. “She’s the coolest thing I’ve ever made,” he likes to say, while Ford makes faces and shoves at him and secretly delights in how much he loves her.
He doesn’t date, and he’s never really had a problem with that. “It’s not a priority,” he says, when people ask. People have set him up a few times, but it’s never really worked out.
“No connection,” he’ll say, and shrug.
If you ask Ford, she has a different opinion. “He deserves the best in the world,” she tells her best friend Tony when the topic comes up, and she means it. “But God, does he need to get laid.”
Will leans across the diner counter, staring at his nephew and trying to figure out when, exactly, this morning took such a weird turn.
Connor, sixteen and the spitting image of Will’s sister, with his auburn hair and strong jaw, stares impassively back at him. He’s clearly trying to project an image of Too Cool For This, which Will is already tired of, and it’s only been fifteen minutes.
“Okay,” Will says. He picks up his dishrag and starts drying mugs, just to have something to do. “Walk me through this again.”
“Mom said I needed some ‘time away from the city,’” Connor says, flipping his hair with a huff. He’s got it cut into one of those trendy undercuts that the kids are wearing these days; Will’s mom never would have let him buzz half his hair and leave the rest floppy like that. “I don’t know. You’ll have to ask her.”
Will exhales slowly through his nose. It’s just like Maggie not to call ahead. He loves her, he really does, but what the fuck. “Okay,” he says. He eyes Connor’s tight jeans and leather jacket, and decides he’ll fight that battle another day. “Did she enroll you in school, or did she think you were just gonna...hang out here?”
“School,” Connor says. “But you have to sign me in and stuff.”
Will looks at the ceiling. He so doesn’t have time for this. “Okay,” he says again. “I gotta…” He looks around the diner. There are a few people left from the breakfast rush, and he sighs. “Yo,” he calls. A couple people look up at him, but most of them just keep eating. Will rolls his eyes and raises his voice. “Hey,” he says.
With a few small clatters of silverware, the rest of the room looks guiltily at him. “I need this place cleared out in ten minutes,” he says firmly. “Finish your eggs.”
Alexei Mashkov, Kent Parson’s long-suffering neighbor (and maybe boyfriend, Will’s never quite been able to figure them out), raises his coffee mug with a hopeful look. “You top off before I go?”
“You can have it in a takeaway cup,” Will says firmly. Alexei pouts, which shouldn’t be endearing on a giant Russian and yet somehow manages to be, and Will rolls his eyes, picking up an empty to-go cup and tossing it at him. Alexei plucks it effortlessly out of the air, huffs, and takes off the lid to dump his coffee into it.
Connor looks impressed. “Is everyone in this town an athlete?”
Will shakes his head. “No. People are just weirdly large.” He eyes Connor’s motorcycle gloves, remembering the roar of the bike that had pulled up outside the diner just minutes after Derek and Ford had left. “You’re not riding that thing to school, by the way.”
“It’s mine,” Connor says, almost defensively.
“Good for you,” Will says. “This is a tiny-ass town with two stoplights in the whole place. You’re not riding it to school.” Connor looks frustrated, and Will sighs. “You can leave it parked behind my place.”
Connor’s face twists, so much Maggie’s expression of annoyance that Will’s lips quirk up without him noticing, and then he huffs. “Fine,” he says. “I’ll walk, I guess.”
“There’s a bus.”
Connor’s frown deepens. “I don’t really do buses.”
Will rolls his eyes. “Fine,” he says. “It’s twenty minutes from my apartment to the high school.” He nods at Connor’s boots. “So you’ll probably want some shoes that are good for walking in, not just looking cool.” Connor scoffs, and Will resists the urge to put the kid on the first bus back to New York. “Did you even eat breakfast?”
“I had some coffee.” Will scowls. He reaches into the baked goods display and pulls out a muffin, one of the blueberry ones baked with protein powder that he slips to half the high school kids who come in for coffee but never eat real food.
He drops it onto a plate and shoves it at Connor along with a napkin. Connor looks a little surprised, but for the first time, an almost real smile tugs at his mouth. “You’re pretty much exactly how mom described you,” he says. “I thought she was exaggerating.”
Will raises his eyebrows. He and Maggie were never close, even less so since she moved to New York for college and never really looked back--which is why it was all the more surprising that she chose him to send her kid to when he started acting up. “Yeah?” he asks. He pours himself a cup of coffee, pointedly ignores the longing look Connor gives the pot, and dumps some milk into it. He takes a sip. “What’d she say I was like?”
“Grumpy,” Connor says immediately. “And sarcastic. But that you take care of people. It’s kind of your thing.”
Will snorts. He doesn’t think about how he knows which kids at the school are allergic to gluten, and which old people have switched to decaf coffee but still forget and ask for regular, about his habit of slipping vegetables into anything he makes for Derek fucking Nurse, who’d probably have died from scurvy now otherwise.
“Your mom doesn’t know what she’s talking about,” he says, and he pours the kid a cup of coffee.
This is Will Poindexter, age thirty-nine, owner and operator of Will’s Diner, formerly Liam’s Diner, back when his dad owned the place and Will waited tables and worked the kitchen. Will’s worked at the diner since he was fifteen, and took over from his dad at twenty-five after his ma had her cancer and Dad decided there were more important things in life than working five-to-eleven shifts. Will got his dad’s blessing to change the name ten years ago, but doesn’t dare stop using his ma’s recipes.
Will has an apartment above the diner, a lazy golden retriever named Cat with fur the same orangish-brown as his own hair, a binder full of well-loved family recipes. He has a bag of hockey gear in his closet that he breaks out every winter, when the local guys get together to play shinny on the frozen-over lake. There’s a jersey with his name on it in his college colors, but he was never meant to go pro, and he’s fine with that. He’s never married, but he has pictures of all his cousins’ kids on his phone, and that’s always kind of been enough.
Will was the only person working in the diner the night that Derek Nurse came to town sixteen years ago, a scrap of a kid with a tiny baby in his arms, circles under his eyes but a proud set to his chin. He’d told Will his name like he expected to be challenged on it, and Will gave him a cup of coffee and a loaded omelette.
Two hours later, Derek dozing into his third cup of coffee and the baby asleep in the crook of Will’s arm, Will had thought, oh, shit.
(That wasn’t the night he fell for Derek Nurse, because he’s not a fucking creeper and the age difference was too obvious, then. But he thinks of his life in terms of Before Nurse and After Nurse, and he can’t quite make himself stop.)
Ford’s already at the diner when Derek gets there after work, sitting at the counter with Tony and sharing a piece of pie. Their heads are pressed close together, whispering, and Derek lingers at the doorway for a moment, watching Ford’s bright eyes and gesturing hands, and thinks, not for the first time, when did she get so big?
(Big, of course, being a relative term. She’ll be lucky if she breaks five-foot-three. She gets that from Derek’s mom’s side of the family. Poor kid.)
And then she looks up and sees him, and her face breaks into a grin. “Dad!” she calls, waving him over.
Derek lets himself relax, heads to the counter and puts his bag down, kissing the top of her head. “Hey, kiddo,” he says. He nods at her best friend. “Tango.”
Tony makes a face. “No one calls me that anymore.”
He’d gotten the nickname when he and Ford were in eighth grade, and Tony had been obsessed with Moulin Rouge, had watched the Tango de Roxanne scene over and over on repeat. Ford had started it, and it had caught on immediately. He’d gone back to Tony by the start of high school, but Derek’s known this kid since he was in diapers and he’s never not going to fuck with him a little. Privilege of being his best friend’s dad.
“Sure they don’t,” he says. He sits down on the stool next to Ford. “How was school, baby girl?”
“Good,” she says. “I got my paper on Emily Dickinson back.” Derek raises a brow, and she grins. “Got an A. Mr. Medina was super into my lesbian theory.”
“Good girl,” Derek says. Ford doesn’t love poetry like he does, where he’ll read something and shape the words out loud and feel them in his veins, but she loves to read, will devour anything she can get her hands on.
I did that, he thinks sometimes, remembering all the nights of one more story, Daddy, please? He’d lost his voice for three days, once, and Ford had cried the first day when he couldn’t read to her. By the third, she was sounding out the words herself.
“Tony was telling me there’s a new kid at the high school,” Ford continues, her voice a little wistful. Derek knows she loves Chilton, likes actually being challenged by her work, but he knows she misses the kids she grew up at school with sometimes, too.
“Yeah?” he says, glancing at Tony.
“He’s cool,” Tony says fervently. “But like, in kind of a jerk way? He wasn’t rude or anything, he just, like--a couple of the popular kids seemed like they picked him out as being like them, and he just told them to screw off. Like he didn’t care.” He flushes suddenly, looking down at the pie. “He, um. Helped me with my books.”
Derek feels his eyebrows drift higher, and he glances at Ford to try to gauge her reaction. He’s suspected she’s been nursing a small crush on Tony since she left Samwell High for Chilton and realized how much she was used to having him with her all the time, and as far as he knows, Tony’s never expressed any kind of interest in someone else, regardless of gender.
There’s a small furrow in Ford’s brow, but she doesn’t say anything, just pokes at the pie a little more aggressively than usual. Derek puts a hand on her shoulder. “That was nice of him,” he says, carefully.
Tony’s blush gets, if anything, darker. “I guess,” he says. “Anyway, he said he wasn’t sure how much catching up he’d have to do, since he didn’t take chem at his old school. I said he should meet Ford, since she’s the best student I know.”
Ford ducks her head. “I don’t even go to Samwell High anymore, Tony,” she says.
“Doesn’t matter,” he says, decisive. “You’re smarter than anyone there, anyway.”
Will comes out from the kitchen and sighs when he sees Derek, turning to pour him a mug of coffee before Derek can even open his mouth. “Here,” he says, and goes back to the kitchen.
Derek watches him go, then shakes his head. “Weird man,” he mumbles, and takes a sip of his coffee. He chokes. “William,” he sputters.
Will pokes his head back out of the kitchen. He has a mixing bowl in his hands. “What?”
“What is this?” Derek gestures at his cup.
“Decaf,” Will says flatly.
“Decaf?” Derek sputters. Next to him, Ford looks like she can’t decide whether to be amused or alarmed. “Will, what the hell?”
Will puts the bowl down and crosses his arms. “How many cups of caffeine have you had today?”
Derek shrugs. “I don’t know. Seven? Eight?” Ford makes an affronted noise, and Derek winces. “It was a really long day!”
“It’s six p.m.,” Will deadpans. “And you’re going to get stomach cancer. Drink your damn decaf and be glad I’m not taking away your morning cups, too.” He nods at Ford and Tony, then picks up his bowl and goes back to the kitchen.
Derek glowers after him, but reluctantly picks up his mug again. Decaf or not, it’s still Will-brewed coffee, which means it’s delicious, smooth and just the right amount of bitter. “Jerk,” he mutters.
Ford and Tony exchange a significant look. Derek frowns at them. “What?”
“Nothing,” Ford says, all innocence. “Hey, what’s our plan for dinner tonight?”
Derek winces. He’d picked up life skills at an accelerated rate when Ford was born, but cooking well has never been in his purview. “Uh, how’s brinner sound?”
Fortunately, his kid has inherited his palate, so Ford just grins. “Sounds good,” she says. “Can we do cheesy eggs?”
“You got it, babe.”
This is Ford D. Nurse, age sixteen. The smartest girl in her grade until her sophomore year of high school, when she transferred from Samwell High to Chilton Academy, and suddenly found herself in the middle of the food chain, not at the top. She kind of likes it better that way.
Ford has her papa’s brown eyes and her dad’s wide smile. She’s named for Ford Prefect, from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, because that’s what her dad read while he was pregnant with her, and he told her, when she was small, how much he wanted her to grow up and see everything she ever wants to see, go everywhere she ever wants to go.
Her middle name is her dad’s birth name. “Cis men name their kids after themselves all the time,” he told her, when she asked. “Why shouldn’t I?” When she points out that he gave her his birth name and not the name he chose, he’d just kissed her head and held her close. “Being born the way I was made you possible,” he says. “That’s worth remembering.”
She grows up at the Samwell Inn, charming guests with her bright eyes and easy laugh. She grows up at Will’s Diner, watching Will and her dad jump away from each other and flush every time they accidentally touched. She grows up with a herd of informal aunts and uncles, and sees both sets of her grandparents on her birthday and on holidays.
“They love you,” her dad tells her, his eyes soft and sad. “But they had different stories planned for us.”
Ford loves English literature and Caribbean poetry and Yoruba folk stories. She inherited her dad’s collection of fantasy literature when she was old enough to stay up too late reading under her covers with a flashlight, and her papa’s first telescope the first time she watched Star Wars and asked him to tell her all about space. Her bedroom is a mosaic of books and photographs, pictures of her and her dad and her papa and her friends. She has never once, in her entire life, felt unloved.
And sometimes, she watches her dad and Will Poindexter, and now that she’s old enough to know what she’s seeing every time Will takes away her dad’s caffeine and her dad makes fun of Will’s freckles and they jerk away from each other like they’ve been burned, she starts to plan.
There’s an unfamiliar car in their driveway when they get home.
“Huh,” Derek says, frowning. He pulls in behind it, a newish SUV with Connecticut plates. “Who do you think that is?”
“I don’t know,” Ford says, craning her neck. “Maybe Kent’s having people over and they got confused about the driveway?”
They get out of the car. Ford slings her backpack over her shoulder with a thump that makes Derek wince. How many books are they giving kids these days, anyway? He walks around the car, flipping through the house keys, and then Ford makes a delighted sound, and Derek snaps his head up.
Justin is sitting on the steps of the house.
He doesn’t look any different than the last time Derek saw him, which--of course he doesn’t, it was just a month ago. Justin looks the way he always does, tall and confident and devastatingly gorgeous.
(Derek will probably always think of him as tall, even though they’ve been the same height since Derek shot up almost six new inches when he was seventeen).
His whole face lights up when he sees them, and Derek can’t help but be happy to see him. They were best friends long before they were co-parents, and Justin’s not there every day but he’s always been there, has always been an active and loving part of Ford’s life.
It’s not his fault that a small part of Derek has always still been a little bit in love with him.
“Papa!” Ford shrieks, delighted, and Justin stands up just in time to catch her up in a hug, scooping her up off the ground. He tucks his head into her hair, and Derek knows that feeling so well, of just wanting to pull her close. The older she gets, the more he wants to be reassured that she’s still there, still theirs.
Justin’s beaming when he puts her back on the ground. “How’s my best girl?” he asks, tweaking the end of one of her twists gently.
“I’m so good!” she says brightly. “What are you even doing here? I thought you weren’t visiting til the end of the month!”
“Same,” Derek says, stepping forward. Justin turns towards him and pulls him into a hug, and Derek lets himself melt into it for a moment, inhaling the familiar smell of his cologne, settling into the strength of his arms. For all his hard-won independence, it’s nice to be held by someone. “What’s up, man?”
Justin looks a little sheepish. “I meant to call, but my phone got--” He shakes his head. “Well, I got a new one this morning, so that’s not that important, but--So, you know how I’ve been job hunting?”
The only time Justin ever stammers is when he’s feeling anxious, and the only time he feels anxious is when he has a big test coming up or if he’s done something he’s not sure was the right call. Derek raises his eyebrows. “Yes,” he says.
“Well, it turns out--Children’s was hiring?”
Derek blinks. “The hospital?” Justin nods. “In Hartford?” He nods again. Derek’s knees feel weak.
“Wait,” Ford says. She looks delighted. “Wait, you’re going to be working in Hartford? You’re going to be around all the time again?” Justin hasn’t been a constant fixture since he was at Yale in New Haven, six years ago. “Are you going to live here, in Samwell?” Her face lights up. “Are you going to stay with us?”
Panic flares briefly in Derek’s chest, but Justin shakes his head. “No, baby, I’m gonna be looking for my own place. Maybe in Samwell, maybe not, your dad and I need to talk about it.” Derek feels himself relax a bit, and then more so when Justin gives him an apologetic look.
“But you’re gonna be here? We can see you all the time?” Ford is nearly bouncing. Her delight is contagious, and Derek can’t help his smile. He wraps an arm around her shoulders, and she smiles happily up at him. “Papa, that’s awesome!”
Justin smiles. “I hoped you’d think so,” he says. He rocks back and forth on his heels, and glances at Derek. “Sorry I didn’t call.”
Derek shakes his head. “You’re getting in on my territory,” he says. Justin looks briefly alarmed, but Derek just smiles. “Breaking a phone, dude? Come on. You know that’s peak Nurse.”
“Hey,” Ford says. “I’m a Nurse, and I haven’t ever broken a phone.”
“You get your reflexes from me,” Justin tells her, eyes warm. She grins at him.
Derek clears his throat. “I know you’ve got a hotel,” he says, a little uncertain. “But, uh--do you want to maybe stay for dinner?”
Justin hesitates. “Is that okay with you?”
“Sure. Of course.” Derek smiles, then gives Ford a nudge. “Hey. Can you go pick what you want to put in the eggs?”
Ford eyes him for a moment, and then shrugs. She hugs Justin again. “I’m really glad you’re here,” she says. He kisses the top of her head, and she takes Derek’s keys from him and lets herself into the house.
They stand together quietly for a moment, and Derek sighs. “Rans,” he says, the high school nickname slipping out without him meaning it.
“I know.” Justin rubs the back of his neck. “I know, okay? I meant to tell you that I was looking at Hartford, but it was such a stretch and I didn’t think they’d hire me, and then when they did it was so fast, they called me yesterday and said they wanted me to start Monday--bro, I barely had time to pack up my apartment. I left a key with my landlady so she can let the movers in tomorrow.”
“I’m not upset, I just…” Derek looks past him, into the kitchen window. He can see Ford bustling, digging into the fridge. “This is gonna be a big shift for her, you know?”
“I know that. And I’m not gonna mess up what we’ve got, Derek, you know that. I’ve never wanted to fuck with this. We’ve been good, we’ve been good for years.” He says it with confidence, but he hesitates, and looks at Derek like maybe he’s not sure, after all. “Right?”
Stupid, attractive, wonderful man. Derek puts a hand on his arm. “We’re good,” he says, and Justin relaxes under his touch.
It would be easier, Derek thinks sometimes, if Justin was one of those deadbeats who didn’t want his kid, who fucked off to the other side of the country and visited on the occasional birthday. But that’s never been who he is. Derek’s been a functionally single parent for most of Ford’s life, but it’s never once been because Justin didn’t want to be there, or because he didn’t care. Even when Justin went to Toronto for med school, it was never going to be permanent.
“Come on,” he says. “Let’s go feed your kid. She gets cranky when she’s hungry these days.”
“She gets that from you,” Justin says. He slings an arm around his shoulders. Derek leans against him.
They go inside, and Justin drops his arm. Ford pokes her head out of the kitchen. “We have frozen spinach and tomatoes and cheese and onions,” she says. “Does that work?”
“Sounds good,” Derek says. He nudges Justin’s ankle with his foot. “Hey. If you’re here, you’re gonna work. Do you still have your mama’s pancake recipe memorized?”
“Sure do,” Justin says. “That’ll need you to have a bag of milk on hand that hasn’t gone off, though.”
Ford’s entire face splits into a grin. “Dollar in the Canada jar,” she says.
Justin groans. “You still have that?”
“I’m saving for a new laptop,” Ford tells him. Justin rolls his eyes, and fishes his wallet out of his pocket.
Someone knocks at the door. “I’ll get it,” Derek says. He leaves Ford and Justin in the kitchen and goes back to the front door.
Will Poindexter is standing on the porch, Derek’s bag slung over his shoulder. “Oh, shit,” Derek says. “Did I leave that at yours?”
“Right on the stool.” Will passes it to him.
“You’re a lifesaver,” Derek says, and means it. He’s got vendor contracts he needs to go over before a meeting first thing tomorrow. “Thank you so much.”
“Yeah. Well.” Will steps back. He nods at the other car in Derek’s driveway. “Didn’t realize you had company.”
“What? Oh, I...No, not really. Ford’s dad’s in town.”
Will raises his eyebrows. “Oh.”
“Not like--” Derek doesn’t know why he’s stumbling. It’s not like Will has...No. “He got a job in Hartford, but he’s--he’s here for Ford. We’re not…”
“Hey, it’s not my business.” Will shoves his hands in his pockets. “I’m, uh. Glad he’s here. Ford must be happy.”
They look at each other. Derek hadn’t realized how much he’s gotten used to having a cup of coffee in his hands when he’s around Will, something to distract him from how antsy he gets, how much he sometimes wants to see if those stupid flannels are as soft and warm as they look.
“Dad?” Ford calls, coming out of the kitchen. “I’m trying to find the--” Her face lights up. “Oh hi, Will!”
“Hey, Ford.” Will clears his throat. “I just came by to drop off your dad’s stuff, he left it at the diner.” He gives Ford a mock-stern look. “Aren’t you supposed to be keeping an eye on him?”
She giggles. “Sorry.” She loops her arm through Derek’s. “I’ll keep a closer watch, promise.”
“Good kid.” He smiles at her, crow’s feet crinkling in the corners of his eyes. Stupid face, Derek thinks. “Anyway, I’m gonna…” He gestures at his truck, parked on the street.
“Right,” Derek says. “Uh--thanks again.”
“Sure.” Will hesitates, then lifts a hand in an awkward half-wave and heads down the porch steps. Derek closes the door.
“Wow,” Ford says.
Derek puts his bag down. “Shush,” he tells her.
“No, really, Dad. That was rough.”
“I will bring up Tony,” he threatens.
She makes a face at him. He makes one back.
“Hey,” Justin says. He steps out of the kitchen, stirring a bowl of what must be pancake batter. There’s a smear of flour on his cheek. “Who was that?”
“Just a friend,” Derek says. Ford snorts, and Derek slings an arm around her. “Come on,” he tells her. “We’ve got eggs to make.”
Ford rolls her eyes at him, but lets him pull her into the kitchen. Justin hands her the mixing bowl and tells her to whisk until the batter’s smooth.
Derek glances out the window just in time to see Will’s truck disappear around the corner. He wants to reach out and put a hand on the glass.
Justin puts a hand on his shoulder. “Hey,” he says. “You good?”
“Yeah,” Derek says. He watches the corner for a moment more. “I’m good.”
These are the things that Derek Nurse doesn’t see:
The thoughtful look Ford gives him as he looks out the kitchen window.
The way Justin lingers on the steps of the porch when he leaves that night, a long moment’s hesitation before he goes home to his hotel.
The moment Will had spent sitting in his truck in front of Derek’s house before he pulls away from the curb, debating and thinking, before he’d put the car in gear and gone home.
Will, looking into his rearview mirror for longer than was properly safe, watching Derek disappear.
This is Samwell, Connecticut, population now 8,477, not including cats. Samwell is a place of habit, where people are set in their routines, in their ways, in their relationships.
Until, sometimes, something stirs things up.
Ford Nurse watches her father watch Will Poindexter, and watches the new, stumbling way he talks to him when her Papa is suddenly in the next room. She watches, and she sees.
She takes out her phone and texts her best friend.
Hey, she tells Tony. I need you to place a bet.