Squidward glances up over the top of his magazine, meeting eyes with the irritated customer looming over the cash register. This is the part where they snap at him, and he makes a snarky comment in return, then they both part from the interaction in a worse mood than they went into it.
But none of that happens. Instead, there's a tense moment of silence.
The town has been different since the narrowly avoided apocalypse. Everyone’s closer, but not in any personal way. He still doesn't know the names of most of the people that come in there, he just has the uncomfortable awareness that each and every one of them shared that same two days of terror, even if no one is talking about it.
Well. He's not talking about it. He admittedly has very little experience with what anyone else in the town is talking about.
So, with those five seconds still fresh on his mind, the snarky comment just doesn't come. Instead, there's only a hint of disdain in his voice as he closes his magazine and says, “Can I help you?”
The customer also takes a moment to deliberate. “I ordered fifteen minutes ago,” is their complaint. The accusation remains unspoken, but the implication is clear enough. Still--fifteen minutes is a bit much, especially given Spongebob's usual turnaround. He glances behind him at the window, and is met with the sheets of half a dozen unfilled orders hanging above the grill. And--now that he's paying attention, there is a distinct lack of the constant sizzling that usually accompanies his day.
“Spongebob?” he calls, getting up and poking his head through the window. He's not at the grill, which entirely isn't right. He frowns, and steps out of his boat to go back to the kitchen. “Spongebob?” he tries again, opening the door and looking around. He's not there. And his spatula is lying abandoned on the grill.
Squidward's heart leaps into his throat, though he quickly admonishes this illogical fear. Sure, it might seem like something terrible must have happened for Spongebob to have left his spatula...
He swallows, and looks around, anxiety buzzing at the back of his neck as he searches for any sign of his--of their fry cook. Lettuce and tomatoes are still laying out on the counter. It's like he vanished into thin air.
Then Squidward hears something. He's not sure what--the lightest shuffle, or a sniff--and looks towards the supply closet. It's hanging open a few inches, though the light is off.
“Spongebob...?” he calls, again, creeping towards the closet carefully, and opening the door just enough to peek in.
There he is.
Spongebob is curled up on the floor, sitting wedged under the lowest shelf with his arms wrapped around his knees.
Squidward freezes, eyes going wide. A few weeks ago he--well, he’d like to think he would have been sympathetic, even if he might not have known what to do with it. But today his instinct doesn't, for once, lend towards hesitation. He finds himself on the floor before he can even think, dropping to his hands and knees to see if Spongebob is okay.
He's sniffling, but his grip loosens on his pantlegs as he at least picks his head up to look at Squidward. His face is damp, eyes glistening, and they're wide, like he's surprised to see anyone there. Like maybe he thought he was somewhere else.
Squidward shifts, not sure where to go from here. But, it seems like Spongebob isn't going to get off the floor anytime soon. So he huffs, reflexively gruff, and sits down, attempting to find space for his unwieldy, spindly legs in the cramped space.
He barely has time to settle down before Spongebob extracts himself from his shelter and crawls into Squidward's lap, burying his face into his shoulder and clinging to his shirt. Squidward squawks indignantly, tipping off balance and falling those three spare inches he has onto the corner of a box that digs between his shoulder blades. He hisses, but refrains from cursing, not wanting to upset Spongebob’s already fragile state.
Instead, he rights himself carefully and puts his arms around him, patting his back awkwardly. He's crying again--if he'd ever stopped.
“Hey,” he says, and winces at the tone of it. He was going for--well, concerned, and maybe, um... comforting, but it comes out flat and edged. He rubs Spongebob's back. “H-hey,” he tries again, quieter, trying to take a look at him. “What...what's wrong?”
This elicits a sob, and Spongebob clings tighter. “I was--I was--w-was so scared,” he whimpers. “What if--what if I had...if I hadn't...”
He devolves into an incoherent mess, and something squeezes at Squidward's heart. He chokes back the tears he finds burning at the back of his throat, and just runs his hand along Spongebob's back. He’s ashamed that it never occurred to him how much was being put on Spongebob's shoulders. He was so caught up in his own stupid problems that he didn't even stop to consider the fact that Spongebob risked his life for Bikini Bottom, even when the entire town had turned their backs on him.
Even when Squidward had laughed in his face.
He huffs, tears coming despite his best efforts, and cradles Spongebob's head in his hand, rocking him back and forth as he tries to blink the tears away. “It's okay now,” he says, struggling to keep his voice steady. “You did it. It's okay.” He can't think of anything useful.
This has the opposite intended effect. Spongebob just cries harder.
Panic stirs in Squidward's chest--the feeling that he did something wrong and made things worse somehow. He can't stand the thought of it. Can't stand the thought of all of the times he'd made Spongebob feel worse on purpose. But he can’t do anything about that now. All he can do is hold him close, resting his head on him and trying not to cry himself.
It takes a minute. But it works. Spongebob finally takes a breath, and the tension falls away from his shoulders as he melts into Squidward, no longer curled in on himself. Squidward should be annoyed that he's weeping and sprawling all over him, but all he can feel is a sense of relief. He lets out a mirrored sigh.
Spongebob sits up, as much as he can, and looks Squidward in the eyes, while he wipes his own, red and puffy. “Are you--” he starts, and then sniffles, taking a breath. “Are you alright?”
Squidward stares at him. He frowns, some kind of irritated, or mad, that he can't identify, though not at Spongebob. He couldn't. Not now.
He takes Sponge’s face in his hands, firmly. Though he's not sure where to go from there. He just needs to say something, badly, but what?
“Yes,” is what comes out, certain and steady. And then he realizes what needs to follow it.
Thanks to you. We're all okay, thanks to you.
Things may have changed, but not that much. The sentiment burns in his throat, unsaid, and he looks away, letting go as he blinks the moisture from his eyes.
“Okay,” he says, shifting slightly in hopes of Spongebob getting up, “come on.”
Sponge nods, and figures out how to get off of him, bracing himself on the shelves and then helping Squidward up, too. Squidward brushes himself off, and then rips into a pack of napkins on the shelf to dry Spongebob's face.
Spongebob stays cooperatively still as he's mopped up--and Squidward flushes, suddenly struck by the maternal nature of all of this fussing. Still, he finishes the job before wadding the napkins up and tossing them in a corner, and nudges Spongebob out of the supply closet.
“Maybe you should--” he starts, as they emerge back into the kitchen. But he manages to catch himself before suggesting that Spongebob take the day off. No, that would start the waterworks all over again. “Uh...I mean, maybe...”
Spongebob turns around to look at him, eyes wide with curiosity and attention, eyelashes still damp and clinging together.
Squidward freezes, scrambling to find the rest of his sentence. If taking the day off won't make him feel better, then maybe--
“Maybe--we could do something after work?”
His heart leaps into his throat the moment he says it, anticipating the consequential surge of regret. But then a smile slowly finds its way to Spongebob's face, wide and delighted. “Really ?” he exclaims.
The regret doesn't come. Instead, a smile tugs at the corner of his mouth.
Spongebob grins, and leaps forward, wrapping his arms around Squidward and giggling. Squid frowns, squirming in the vice grip, but...it's not so bad, really.
“Alright,” he grumbles, out of habit. “Get back to work, Spongebob. We have customers.”
Sponge twists around to look at the window above the stove, and stares at the orders hanging above it.
“Oh!” he exclaims, and startles into action. Squidward barely has time to blink before a dozen patties are sizzling on the grill. He watches as Spongebob situates them just-so and then calls out, sing-song, “One min~ute!”
He hums happily as he works, mood gone before his eyes are even dry. You know--Squidward had spent so long thinking about their two jobs as one and the same. He felt trapped and unfulfilled in his, so he just assumed Spongebob was somehow deluding himself, and the magic would wear off and he would become just as miserable as the rest of them.
He looks genuinely happy. And, though Squidward would usually find himself loathe to admit that being a fry cook requires any kind of skill--he’s talented at what he does.
Squidward takes a breath, and walks over to place a hand on Spongebob's shoulder, patting him amicably. It's as much of a 'good job’ as he can manage.
Spongebob glances over at him, pausing in his work to spare him a curious an attentive look. Squidward manages some facsimile of a smile, pulling one of the corners of his mouth up.
Spongebob responds to this with a brilliant grin, gap teeth and all.
Squidward huffs, fighting back the balloon of affection in his chest, and gives him one more pat before returning to his register, settling in to listen to the familiar sizzling of patties and Spongebob humming some imaginary song, off-key but enthusiastic.
Maybe this job isn't so bad after all.