Closer to the Heart
By The Laughing Libra
Summary: (HM: FoMT) Gotz x Ann. After the deaths of his wife and his daughter, Gotz swore he'd never let anyone get close to him again. Can a certain redheaded innkeeper's daughter find a way into his heart?
Closer to the Heart
Winter 11 – A Snowstorm of Memories
Gotz laid fully clothed upon the bed, staring forlornly up at the ceiling. Today would have been his daughter's eighth birthday.
He glanced at the window. It was snowing lightly today. His daughter had loved the snow, so much so that he used to call her his little Snowflake, like the child from the Russian fairy tale.
He remembered how delighted she was when, on her fifth birthday, she woke up to find it snowing lightly, just like it was today. His wife decided to treat her to a trip to the top of the mountain so she could see, for the very first time, all three towns in their sprawling county in their snow-covered glory. The little girl was so excited. Gotz, always a better cook than his wife, stayed behind to prepare the girl's birthday dinner. He kissed them both goodbye before they set out.
He knew that, by the time they reached the peak, it was likely snowing too hard to see much of anything, but he always held on to the hope that they did manage to see something. It was comforting to think that his daughter's last moments had been the happiest ones of her life, rather than filled with shattering disappointment. However, all he knew for sure was that from the way that her body was positioned, it was on the way back down from the peak that his wife slipped and broke her neck. His daughter was evidently too frightened to leave the mother and seek help, because when they finally found her after the storm had passed, her little frozen body was curled up against her mother's.
The funeral had been agony. He hated how his wife's friends would pat his shoulder and try to talk to him about her, how their husbands would try to sympathize when they could never understand his pain, how his daughter's schoolmates would stare up at him with wide eyes, too young to know what to say to a grieving man.
The funeral had been his last true contact with humanity. After that, he stopped going into the village and became a virtual hermit. The only times he would go into town were when he needed to go to the supermarket for supplies, but no one dared talk to him during those rare visits. A few family friends had tried for a while to keep up contact with him, but he discouraged that by being extremely short and unpleasant during every exchange. Soon even Sasha, the most persistent of his wife's friends, gave up on him, and left him to the solitude he so obviously desired.
From the moment he realized his wife and child were truly gone, it became too painful to think of them. Gotz had packed up all his daughter's clothes and toys in a trunk he kept hidden under the bed, and all his wife's things in a larger trunk he kept locked in the back of his storage shed. There wasn't a visible trace of either of them left in the house.
Still, removing things that reminded him of them didn't wipe his memory clean. Gotz sighed. This had to be the worst day of the year. It was on this day that echoes of his daughter's laughter seemed clearest, that he kept half-expecting to see one of his wife's embroidery projects draped over a chair, that he'd look at the bed and wonder for a moment why his wife hadn't made it yet before remembering exactly why.
That's why, this year, Gotz decided the best way to silence his memories was by laying on a neatly made bed, staring resolutely at the ceiling. However, he kept bringing up memories by periodically congratulating himself on how well he was avoiding them. Damn, he thought. Try not to think of a white elephant, and that's what you get.
Eventually, he decided it was a losing battle and got up. He was hungry and wanted to make some breakfast. He went into the fridge, took out the pitcher of milk, frowned at how light it was, and looked inside. Empty. He had expressly done a big shopping trip on Sunday so he could completely avoid any reason to go to town today, but he had apparently forgotten to buy milk. He hated taking coffee without it. He closed the refrigerator door with a grunt and started to fill the coffeemaker with water. Well, he'd just have to deal with it—what was one more unpleasant thing on top of a day already filled with misery? Grumpily, he opened a coffee filter with a snap and spooned in enough grounds to ensure a very strong pot of coffee. Harder than he intended to, he jabbed the "on" button with his finger.
Gotz stared at the coffeemaker, dumbstruck. No. This couldn't be happening. He needed coffee. He couldn't get through this day with a caffeine headache on top of everything. He checked to see if the coffeemaker was plugged in, and it was. Tentatively, he pressed the "on" button again, and then again, and again, and again, each time more frantic.
He cursed, sitting down on one of the kitchen chairs and burying his head in his hands. Now he had to decide what was stronger, his hatred for company or his caffeine addiction. He rubbed his temples with his fingers. Well, if he was really honest with himself, the answer was obvious. He started to pull on his snowboots.
On his way to the supermarket, Gotz ran into Officer Harris, the one person he still had regular contact with. Despite Gotz's protests, Harris insisted on patrolling the mountain everyday, in all weather. Since Gotz couldn't stop him, he begrudgingly allowed Harris to rest himself in his cabin afterwards, so at least if something happened to Harris, Gotz would know immediately. Fortunately, Harris showed up safely everyday like clockwork. Despite himself, Gotz began to actually look forward to having the young policeman in the house for an hour or so each day. Harris was chatty, but not annoyingly so, and knew better than to bring up anything… or anyone… Gotz would rather not talk about.
Harris was very surprised to see him. "Gotz! What are you doing here? Is something wrong?" he asked in concern.
"No, no… I need to go shopping, that's all," Gotz mumbled.
"Oh." Harris raised his eyebrows shrewdly. "Is that it? It's just that, I mean, Mayor Thomas told me that today was…" Harris interrupted himself with a cough, smart enough not to complete the sentence. "Hmpf. Excuse me. Anyway, sometimes people just like some company, that's all." He gave Gotz a small smile and rocked on the heels of his feet.
"Perhaps. I, however, need to go shopping. My coffeemaker is broken," Gotz answered with annoyance, not liking the direction of the conversation.
"Ah," said Harris, and Gotz got the feeling that Harris didn't quite believe him. Gotz went from annoyed to irritated. He wished that nosy mayor would tell Harris that Gotz liked spending this day alone. As if he were pathetic enough to pretend to break his coffeemaker, of all things, in a feeble attempt to have an excuse to be among people. Well, it was no skin off his nose if that was what Harris wanted to think. He certainly wasn't going to take the time to debate it. Every moment he spent in town was a moment too long.
"Well, bye," Gotz grunted brusquely, deciding that he'd leave all his outdoor chores for when Harris showed up to warm himself this afternoon. It was a shame, really. Harris seemed to be the one person in town who understood him and here he turned out to be just the same as everyone else. Well, hopefully, Harris would be back to normal tomorrow.
"Bye," Harris answered cheerfully. "But you do realize that the supermarket is closed today. It's Tuesday."
Gotz's eyes widened. "I completely forgot!" he said, dumbfounded. It had been so long since he went shopping on a weekday that there was no reason to remember.
"Uh-huh," said Harris, in that annoyingly disbelieving voice. "I guess you'll have to wait until tomorrow." There was a studied pause. "But you know who has good coffee? Doug's Inn. I'm not doing anything in particular right now, if you want to have breakfast with me. It'd be my treat." He gave Gotz another sympathetic smile.
Gotz very much wanted to tell Harris where he could shove his sympathy and then storm back home. But that wouldn't get him any of his much needed coffee. He gritted his teeth. "Fine," he growled, deciding that from now on he'd always leave his outdoor chores for when Harris showed up to warm himself in the afternoons. Silently, he allowed Harris to lead the way to the inn.
Gotz sat in one of the scrubbed wooden chairs, drumming his fingers on the table and feeling distinctly uncomfortable. He could barely remember the last time he was around so many people. Some of them were familiar. Over in the corner was Jack, whose barn Gotz had rebuilt last fall, sitting by himself while sipping coffee and reading the paper. To the left of Jack was one of his daughter's old schoolmates, happily eating Belgian waffles with her aging grandfather. At the table across from her was a dark-haired woman who was one of his wife's friends from high school, and it took him a few moments before he could remember that her name was Manna. He also remembered that she had a husband, Duke—there he was carrying a bloody mary and a mimosa back from the bar—and a daughter, Aja, who was nowhere to be seen. Gotz was mildly surprised before grimacing in recollection. Of course Aja wasn't here—the moment Aja had hit her teenaged years she went from a smiling ray of sunshine to a moody storm cloud, clad only in black clothes, black lipstick, and black nail polish.
Looking at the couple, Gotz felt that wave of understanding sympathy that occurred whenever one encountered fellow parents who have inexplicably difficult children. Things must be really tough with Aja for Manna and Duke—it was quite noticeable to Gotz that Manna and Duke were much less happy then they had been in former years. What a shame. Why, he could still remember the broad smiles they wore when they and he and his wife used to—
Halting his train of thought as quickly as he could, Gotz quickly looked back down at the table. What was he doing?! He didn't want to speculate about these people's lives—he didn't want to think of them at all. This was exactly the sort of thing he had been always so careful to avoid. He closed his eyes, and despite himself, a memory of his wife being pushed towards him by Manna and a pink haired friend, who remained giggling in the background as she asked shyly, "Do you want to go see the fireworks with me?" floated before his eyes.
Damn, damn, damn. Screw breakfast, he was going to get his coffee to go and go home.
"Ah, here's the waitress," said Harris, and Gotz silently thanked the powers that be.
"Hi, I'm Ann. Here are your menus, but we also have several specials this morning to celebrate our beloved proprietor's birthday! Would you like to hear them?" came the waitress' cheerful voice. Gotz opened his eyes to see a redheaded young woman, around the same age as his wife in the vision, looking at him expectantly.
"No. Coffee. To go," he muttered.
"What? What about breakfast?" Harris protested.
"Yeah, what about breakfast?" Ann repeated. "Don't you know we've got the best food in town? I recommend the silver dollar pancakes with maple syrup and sausages, but if you'd prefer an egg dish, we've gotten some fresh off the poultry farm this morning," she added temptingly.
"I don't have time," Gotz replied, shaking his head.
"Don't have time?" she said, raising her eyebrows impishly. "I haven't even taken your order yet and you're already expecting the service to be slow? How incompetent a waitress do I look?" She wrinkled her nose up and smiled as she said this, so Gotz would know she wasn't serious in her accusation.
Gotz glanced over at her. She certainly didn't look incompetent; she was one of those tomboy types, very muscular and energetic. Gotz looked away from her as he started to speak. "Of course it's not you—"
She snapped her fingers smartly. "Ah, I understand. It's not the service, but the chef you expect to be slow," she said, grinning. "I can fix that." Before Gotz could realize what she was about to do, or he certainly would have stopped her, she turned around and bellowed, "DAAAAAAAD! Get your butt over here!"
"Not so loud, Ann! Young ladies don't yell! Jeez!" came the reply from an exasperated redheaded man poking his head out from the kitchen.
"Yeah, yeah, Dad. Tell me, what's the fastest breakfast you can get me?"
Her father looked confused. "The fastest? I can have scrambled eggs and toast ready in five minutes. Why?"
"There!" said Ann triumphantly to Gotz. "You can't tell me that you don't have five minutes. So now you have to stay and eat."
Gotz, however, didn't hear her. Ann had drawn a lot of attention to their table and, looking around, Gotz saw that Manna had noticed him. She was whispering to Duke, and it was pretty clear that she was planning to come over.
Gotz slammed his hands onto the table and stood up suddenly, startling Ann, who gave a little shriek and jumped back. "I'm going to go," he said, and without a further hesitation, or a single cup of coffee, he strode out of the inn.
Gotz spent a couple of hours stomping moodily around the forest, cursing Manna. Why couldn't she have been having breakfast at home? he thought sulkily, wishing he had a cup of coffee. When he finally drifted back towards his cabin, he realized there was a figure waiting by the front door. That surprised him; Harris wasn't due for another few hours. Could Jack want something? Coming closer, but still staying hidden in the trees, he saw it was the red haired waitress wrapped up in a parka. He certainly didn't feel like talking to anyone anymore today, but looking closer at her, he saw that she was holding a large thermos. Coffee!
Noisily, so as not to startle her, he emerged from the woods. She turned around, and he saw she was also holding a parcel tied up in paper with the words "Doug's Inn" printed all over it. It was almost certainly food.
"Oh, hi…!" she began, but contrary to her display of behavior before, words suddenly failed her. Suddenly she recollected herself. "A peace offering!" she said, holding out the thermos.
Peace offering? He wasn't sure what she meant by that, but he didn't care. He took the thermos from her. "Thanks," he said as he unlocked his door. He walked in, making a beeline for the nearest coffee cup.
He didn't invite her in, but he didn't close the door after himself, either. He left it to her to take that as she pleased. She took it as an invitation and came in.
"Along with the coffee you didn't get to have, I also brought the breakfast you didn't get to have," she chuckled weakly as she unpacked it from the box. It was the pancake breakfast she had recommended. "I'm sorry I ruined your whole dining experience."
Gotz finished his first cup of coffee in one deep swallow and immediately poured another. "You ruined it?" he frowned.
"Yeah… Dad's always after me to be quieter and more ladylike, but it's not really me. Most of the customers are used to me being loud and crass, but I should remember to restrain myself around somebody new. I'm sorry I embarrassed you," she said, looking quite embarrassed herself.
"Oh…" He really wouldn't have cared that she yelled across the room to her father if it hadn't brought him to Manna's attention. "It's okay," he said truthfully.
"No, it's not! This made me realize that my behavior is bad for business! So if I make it up to you, would you consider ever coming back to the inn?"
"Make it up to me?" Gotz could only repeat dumbly. He didn't like the sound of it. "Listen, don't take it personally, but I'm not really the dining out type. The whole thing was Harris' idea. So if I don't ever come back—"
Her face, which was red from embarrassment to begin with, quickly started to crumple. "I knew it! I was really awful! Who knows how many new customers I've cost Dad!"
"Hey, now—" Gotz tried to interject, but she was on a self-deprecating roll.
"No, you don't understand! I've always known I've been a disappointment to him as a daughter, but I thought I could make it up to him by being a big help at the inn. But now I know that I actually… I actually…" She rubbed her eyes roughly to hold back tears, unable to finish the sentence.
Gotz was becoming increasingly uncomfortable. He hadn't meant to make this young woman cry. "You know, fathers can never be truly…" he started to say, but thoughts of his own daughter stopped him abruptly. He chewed on his lower lip, desperate to switch topics. He said the first thing that popped into his head. "Ah… what did you mean by 'making it up to me?'" he asked hesitantly, reasoning that if she were talking, she wouldn't be able to cry.
Just as he hoped, she immediately started brushing her eyes and nose, collecting herself. She looked at him hopefully. "It won't be that much! I just want to show you that I know how a proper innkeeper's daughter should act! I'll make coffee and breakfast like a professional chef and I'll serve it like a normal, ladylike waitress would… and I'll do some cleaning!" she added, eyeing the layer of dust on the furniture and the sawdust tracks on the floor. "I'm actually really, really good at cleaning! And I'll do it quietly, like a real maid, so you won't even know I'm here!"
Gotz grimaced. He didn't like the idea of having to see this young woman all week. Today was bad enough.
She saw he wasn't too impressed with her offer, so she added, "And you won't even have to come back and eat at the inn! All I ask is that at the end of it, you tell my dad if I did a good job or not. You can write a note, if you don't want to tell him in person. Please?"
Gotz was about to turn her down as tactfully as he could when, sensing the rejection, she quickly clasped her hands together in desperate supplication. "Please?" she asked again in a smaller voice. "You can't imagine what it's like for me. I know I mess up a lot. I try really hard, but it feels impossible sometimes to know how to act all girlish and proper when I've been raised by only a dad as a tomboy. Sometimes I wish I could be just like Popuri."
Potpourri? The last sentence made no sense to Gotz, but he started to feel a great deal of sympathy for Ann and her father. How would his own daughter have turned out if she had lived through the storm and he had to have raised her single-handed?
Ann, her hands still clasped, looked down sadly at the floor. "You can't believe how badly I let Dad down today. I-I just want an opportunity to make him proud of me…"
That tugged at Gotz's heartstrings. He made a face as he said extremely begrudgingly, "Well… I guess you can come for one day."
"One day!" Ann exclaimed, probably louder than she intended to. Checking herself, she said at a more controlled volume, "Anybody can do it for one day. What will that prove?! How about five days?"
He glared at her. "Three. Three days."
She considered it for a moment and then smiled. "Okay, I'll take it. Don't worry, you won't regret it."
Too late for that, Gotz thought.
Ann stood up and stretched. "Well, I need to get back to work, but I'll be back first thing tomorrow. I hope you like the breakfast, 'cause I made it myself." She walked to the door, bowing respectfully and saying, "Thank you very much for this opportunity" like a true professional, but ruined it by wrinkling her nose and following it up with a boisterously loud "See you tomorrow! Bye!" and a cheesy grin as she headed out the door.
After she was gone, Gotz sat down and sniffed at the food. It smelled good. He picked up a fork. It tasted good too, even though it was cold. She must have been waiting for him for quite a while. She was certainly persistent. It was a shame Ann's father seemed so determined to squelch her personality, he thought, taking another bite. She was loud, sure, but she had a natural cheerfulness that drew people in. Still, he reminded himself as he took a sip of her very good coffee, he'd be glad when his contact with her was over. Very glad.