Pen Name: Sookie Starchild
Word Count: 3946
Summary: Working at a restaurant on his birthday, Edward is presented with an unusual opportunity.
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters are the property of Stephenie Meyer. No copyright infringement is intended.
Three of them stood in a line, wearing crisp white shirts, black trousers and black ties that had to be clipped to their shirts. They were all handsome young men, all over six feet tall, all neatly groomed, all fairly certain that it was going to be a slow and boring night. It was raining heavily - particularly heavily for what had been a very mild and pleasant June up until that point - and four sets of reservations had already been cancelled.
The tables sat empty behind them, draped in clean modern linens. Candles as yet unlit, round thin-stemmed wine glasses still upside down. All the light fixtures were dim and moody; that fashionable darkness that was supposed to give off an aura of warmth or romance or seduction. There was a joke among the employees that if you worked in the front of the house for more than a year, you'd need eyeglasses for the rest of your life.
One of the three waiters was built like a football player in a comic book, and gave off the impression that he was perfectly willing to wrestle a bear for fun and profit. Emmet. The one in the middle was the lithest of the three, spoke with a faint Texas drawl and usually made the most in tips. Jasper. The third one looked like a painting of a young man that some wistful enchantress had brought to life in order to be loved.
It was this last one's birthday, and he was miserable.
The manager, who was himself nothing to sneeze at, was going over the daily specials in a monotonous sort of way. He also suspected that there would be very few patrons that night, but he nonetheless felt the wait staff should be informed of what they were serving. Every night he required them to memorize the specials. Reading off your memo pad was considered a terrible offence, and likely to put you on the fast-track to being replaced by some aspiring actor with a better skill for recollection.
After listening to the small speech by the manager, the three of them sat at a square table with a metal top in the back corner of the kitchen. They each got to eat a plate of the quickest special the chef could make before the doors opened at half-past five. Like most nights, it was a dull meal with little conversation.
"Here," Jasper handed a white square envelope across the table to Edward, "This is from me and Alice."
It was a card. The front had a stamped image of a tree on a kind of rough, vintage paper. There was a little round pop-up circle next to it that said Best Wishes. The whole thing came across as very masculine and subtle.
"She made it herself." Jasper said.
Inside was a fairly generic message and the two signatures.
"It's nice," Edward nodded, "Tell her I like it."
"Shit." Emmet grumbled, "I forgot, man. I'm sorry. I'll bring you something tomorrow, okay?"
"Don't worry about it."
"Is Bella doing anything special for you tonight?" Emmet waggled his eyebrows, subtle as a freight train.
"We had a fight," Edward shrugged, tucking the birthday card neatly back into its envelope, "She's pretty angry."
"What was it about?" Jasper asked, pushing the mashed potatoes around on his plate. He hated potatoes, and the chef either never bothered to remember or simply didn't care.
It was about what it was always about, but Edward just shook his head, not wanting to get into the details.
"Bitches, am I right?" Emmet sighed, "Bitches."
This was what he always chose to say when someone was beset upon by romantic trouble. It had become a meaningless sentiment, and he might as well have said Red Fish, Blue Fish or Ollie Ollie Oxen Free. As far as Edward was concerned, it was all just gibberish.
They finished eating in silence.
The phone call came at six o'clock. The manager's wife, who had been going through a particularly difficult pregnancy, was at the hospital. The doctors were going to induce labour. The manager, in a half-panic, almost forgot to take his car keys and raced from the back entrance with only one arm in his jacket.
By then, there was a couple at one of the tables by the front window in Emmet's section. Other than them, the restaurant was empty.
"I'm going to go smoke." Jasper said to Edward, once the manager was well on his way, "Cover for me."
This was accomplished by Edward standing around, waiting for something else to do. Which was what he would have done anyway.
The couple ate with very little conversation, as though they didn't like one another very much any more. She had long, straight brown hair. On the glass beside them, the raindrops splashed and trickled towards the sidewalk outside. Edward watched the thin rivers with some hypnotic fascination.
These are my two drops of rain/ Waiting at the window pane/ I am waiting here to see/ Which the winning one will be.
A little poem by A.A. Milne, and a memory of the birthday when his mother had given him that book. She'd also baked him a cake and done the frosting herself. It was tiring for her, because she was very sick by then, but nobody could talk her out of it. Happy Birthday Eddie, written with a shaking hand, too light on some letters, too heavy on others.
When the couple had finished eating and paid their bill, they didn't tip Emmet very much.
"Cheapskates," He scoffed, watching them walk down the sidewalk under the building awnings, "Man, I'm going home. Nobody's showing up tonight. You and Jazz can handle this."
"Are you going to clock out?" Edward asked absently.
"Hell no. Manager's not here, so as far as he knows I did the whole shift. You'll stand by that, right?"
Edward turned to him and smiled a kind of hollow, kind of empty smile.
"Sure. Go. We'll be fine."
Later, when Jasper finally got around to noticing that Emmett was gone and Edward explained to him what had happened, he said:
"What an asshole."
He shook his head, and went to go refill the salt shakers. It was obvious that he'd had the same idea as Emmett, but had decided quietly to himself that if any of the three of them was going to cut out, it ought to be Edward since it was his birthday.
Another hour passed. The soft instrumental jazz music played from hidden speakers. Occasionally there was a burst of laughter or loud conversation from the chef and his staff in the kitchen. Edward wondered if any of them had snuck out, but it seemed unlikely. The head chef was a pessimist, and probably believed that as soon as he let anybody go a rush of customers would come.
At eight o'clock, the door opened with an awkward creak. A single man pushed through, shaking raindrops off a recently closed umbrella. Edward waited, smiling as he always did.
The man looked up at the empty tables, glanced around the whole of the dining room and raised an eyebrow at Edward.
"You're open?" He half asked, half declared, pointing at the floor of the restaurant for some kind of emphasis.
"Yes, we're open," Edward said, trying to be much more charming than he felt, "Please. Come in. Sit anywhere you'd like."
"I suppose I do get my choice, don't I?" The patron brushed a few stray raindrops off of the shoulders of his black trench coat, and began to unbutton it. Beneath it, he wore a well-tailored suit and a tie that looked like it cost more than Edward's rent for two months. Hardly the kind of thing a person would usually wear to come and dine at their restaurant alone; more like the attire of a businessman attending some thousand-dollar-a-plate dinner.
He settled on a table towards the very middle of the room, the one that most people avoided because it felt a little exposed. But, in being able to be seen by everything, it afforded you the chance to see everything. He handed Edward the coat to hang up, and as he was pulling his chair out, he said:
"Go and get one of the bottles of the 2003 Radici, would you?"
"Yes, sir. Of course." Edward nodded, handing him a menu. He wondered how the man had known what sorts of wines they had without looking at the list. Sometimes the regular customers had things like that memorized, but he'd never seen him before.
Jasper seemed to have vanished. There was no sign of him while Edward hung up the coat, or headed down to the wine cellar. He was probably having another cigarette out in the rain, and talking to Alice on his cell phone.
When Edward returned to the table, the man was sitting patiently. He watched Edward's pour with a measured gaze, and winced - almost imperceptibly - at a tiny splash.
"Leave the bottle." He said, swirling the liquid in the glass. There was a cherry quality to the colour. On the table beside him, the menu sat where Edward had left it.
"Alright," Edward pulled his memo pad from his back pocket, "Are you ready to order, or would you like to hear tonight's specials?"
"The specials are just the ingredients the chef bought too much of," The man at the table smirked, "Everybody knows that. I'll have the calamari to start - I can't resist a good calamari, even if it's not the best pairing for the wine. And then I'll have the veal chop."
"Very good," Edward wrote out the order, "Anything else?"
"Not at the moment, I don't think."
He was a strange man. On the one hand, he gave off a very clean impression - nothing about his look was dishevelled or out of place - but the plainness of the black and the tidiness of how he had combed his dark hair had an almost Puritan quality. Puritan luxury, if ever there were such a thing. And yet there was also a strange shadow that followed his movements, something that hinted at a dangerous undertow beneath his ocean-cool façade.
If Edward had met the man anywhere but the restaurant, where he was certain of his upper hand and his own safety, he might have been more wary of him. Under the right circumstances, he might even have been afraid.
The kitchen made some noise about finally having an order to work on, and Edward grabbed a basket of warm bread for the table.
"Is Carlisle not around?" The man asked, glancing at the bread with some indifference.
Carlisle. The manager. He'd worked at the restaurant since it opened, and people often remembered his name or his face. Maybe this man had been a regular patron before Edward had started to work there, maybe that was how he knew the wines and the manager's name.
"No," Edward told him, "His wife's having a baby."
"That's a bit earlier than they were expecting. I hope everything's alright," He seemed politely concerned, "Would you like to have a seat? I'm sure your feet are killing you. I was a waiter once, I know how it is. Sit."
He motioned to the seat across from him, and began pouring a second glass of wine.
"Thank you, sir. But I'm on the clock."
"You don't know who I am? What a refreshing change of pace," He laughed softly, "My name's Aro Volturi."
"Aro…" Edward repeated, realization dawning on him. The man sitting at the table was the owner of the restaurant. The owner of several restaurants, several more businesses, and a man with a somewhat notorious reputation for getting exactly what he wanted.
"Please," He held out the second glass of wine, "Relax."
Edward took the glass and sat down. Strictly speaking, this was the man who was paying his salary; so if he was asked to sit down for a few minutes and talk with him, then it was probably a good idea to do it.
"So, what is your name?" Aro Volturi asked, taking a sip from his glass.
"A little old-fashioned," He smiled, "But dignified. And how long have you been working for me, Edward?"
"About four and a half months."
"Hmm. And are you an actor when you're not a waiter? Or a model, perhaps? A writer?"
"No. I'm just a waiter."
Aro laughed, and it was an unusual laugh. Low and whispering, like he didn't want to make too much noise. A strange quirk, given his meticulous attention to standing out through subtlety.
"No one has ever been a waiter with the idea of being a waiter forever," He explained, "So. Did you want to be a chef? Or one day replace Carlisle as manager? What do you have in mind for yourself?"
What did he have in mind for himself?
"I don't know," Edward replied, "I suppose if I could do anything I wanted, I'd be a pianist."
"Really?" Aro was pleasantly surprised, "You don't hear that answer very often. Would you really want to be a pianist - playing other people's music for fame and fortune - or would you rather be a composer?"
"Why do you ask so many questions?"
"I'm wealthy," He shrugged his shoulders, rolling them forward a little like a movie star's glamorous shrug instead of a real person's natural mannerism, "When you get to be a certain kind of rich and a certain kind of powerful, it becomes difficult to find people who'll tell you things. That's why I'm friends with Carlisle; but he's not here. How old are you?"
"Now? Twenty-one." Edward replied, taking a bracing breath. It seemed strange to say it out loud. It was the first time he'd formally announced his new number.
"Now twenty-one? Just had a birthday?"
"It's my birthday today, actually."
Something flickered across Aro's face, an expression of intrigue, a smile that pulled only at the very corners of his lips. He took another sip of wine, and as he did the light bounced off the liquid and cast an eerie red reflection onto his dark eyes.
"Your twenty-first birthday. Today."
"And you're here, working for me. I certainly do appreciate it."
"It's no trouble," Edward replied, suddenly finding himself a little uneasy in the other man's company, "I can't imagine what's taking your appetizer so long. I'll go check on the kitchen for you…"
"No, no," Aro put his hand up, as though he were freezing Edward in the chair across from him, "I don't mind. Let them take their time."
Edward nodded and stayed, even though he knew that he really didn't want to. He supposed perhaps it was because he was afraid of losing his job, or something like that. He looked over his shoulder to see if Jasper had come back into the dining room, but he hadn't. The room seemed so large and empty all of a sudden. The rain outside had worsened, and now fell in silver sheets that bounced off the sidewalk like ricocheting bullets. Nobody would be out in that.
"Do you mind if I tell you a story? It's not a very long one," Aro said, "It's about my own twenty-first birthday, and it might interest you."
"Alright." Edward said, because he didn't know what else he was supposed to say.
"I was trapped in a train station in Belgrade. Snowed in. My sister and I had spent all of our money to get out of Athens, which wasn't very much money at all. We went to Istanbul, and from there we were going to take the train route to Paris," He glanced at the table cloth, lost a little in his own memories, "Do you have any brothers or sisters?"
Edward shook his head.
"No? That's a shame. They tend to keep your ego from getting away from you, because they know what a horrible person you've always been. I miss my sister. She passed away," He sighed, "Well, there we were. Trapped by the weather - a heavy avalanche had fallen on the tracks, and we couldn't afford accommodations in town while we waited for them to clear it all up, so we slept in the station. It was freezing on those benches. Just awful. And the third day we were there happened to be my twenty-first birthday. This was some time ago, as I'm sure you can imagine.
"I met a fellow traveller that day, who told me a story much like the one I'm telling you. His involved the Nazi occupation, so it was a little more exciting, but that doesn't matter. What does matter is that afterwards, he asked me to wish for something for my birthday. You see, on his twenty-first birthday he had been granted a wish, and it had come true. And, in order to fulfill the original bargain, he needed to grant somebody else a wish on their twenty-first birthday. And that wish would come true as well."
"What had he wished for?" Edward asked.
"Him? He wished for a life of beauty," Aro said, recalling it with some melancholy, "He phrased it wrong, and he'd become very unhappy. That's the first thing you learn about wishes in all of the old stories, you must be very careful of the things you think you want. The men before him had chosen things like enormous wealth, or being handsome, or becoming ridiculously intelligent. And in the end, it destroyed them - they didn't know what sort of person it would turn them into, really. They didn't know how to live life with the things they'd chosen."
The story seemed so ridiculous, but all the same, Edward found himself believing it. If only just a little.
"If there was no way to wish without it turning on you, why wish at all?" He asked.
Aro smiled sadly. So very sadly.
"Haven't you ever wanted anything?" He replied, "At twenty-one, most young men think that they can handle everything. They think they've learned what life is all about."
He shook his head, and the pensive moment passed. Then he smirked and said:
"Nobody knows what life is about when they're twenty-one years old."
"I think I do." Edward replied, and he honestly did. He thought that he was more clever than he was being given credit for - that all of his peers were. It seemed the prerogative of those who passed through the years to look back on the people who were younger than they were and call them idiots, regardless of whether or not it was true.
"Of course, you're one of the exceptional ones." Aro replied, the smirk still playing on his lips.
"Did you make a wish?"
"What was it?"
"I wished to live a life where I got the things I wanted."
"Well, then, it didn't come true. Because you said that your sister had died, so…" Edward was satisfied then that the story was just that. A story. He laughed a little at himself for having taken it so seriously, and looked around once more for Jasper.
"You have to be careful how you phrase these things."
Edward leaned back in his chair, rocking it onto the back legs. The way he'd always been scolded not to do when he was a boy, and he thought of everything that hadn't happened to him that day. He thought of the romantic dinner he'd wanted to have with his girlfriend, the gifts he'd wanted to receive, the life he'd always dreamed he'd be living by the time he was twenty-one. The goals he'd passed by, the ones that seemed to have slipped away along with his teenage years. He had no idea how young he still was, and everything felt as though it were impossible. Everyday the news had stories of child prodigies and teenaged successes, people whose skill far exceeded his own in every field he'd ever loved or wanted to be a part of.
A wish coming true didn't seem like a terrible thing at all.
"What happens when I wish? Why do you have to grant somebody else's wish later on?"
"It's magic," Aro sighed, "That's how magic works. It's all part of the deal you make with the devil."
Edward thought about all that he had been told.
And the question of before came back to him. What do you have in mind for yourself? Could he ever be more than himself? Was such a thing possible?
"What would happen if I made a wish for somebody else. Like if I wished Carlisle's baby was healthy?" He asked.
"It would come true," Aro nodded, "Though, I'd appreciate it if you didn't make that particular wish."
"Medicine is best handled by doctors."
"I don't believe any of this is true." Edward said, shaking his head at himself and the strange patron across the table from him.
"If it's not true, what harm is there in making a simple birthday wish?"
"Choose carefully. Once it's done, you can't take it back. And you're only ever going to get the one real wish in your lifetime, no matter how long or how desperately you search for a second one."
All the birthday wishes that had come before. Some of them came true and some of them didn't, but there was never any real magic in them. When he was small and he wished, he believed in those things. He didn't believe them now. But what if for one moment he could? What would he wish for? Something he'd lost? Something he wanted?
He thought of that slim volume with the ink drawing of Christopher Robin looking out the rainy window. What would his mother have wished for? What would she have told him was right?
"Love." Edward said simply.
"You wish for love?" Aro smirked, "My, my. I wasn't expecting that one."
"Love is pure," Edward explained, "Real love is without cost, without penalty. Isn't it? I think that's the secret. I think that's why the other wishes couldn't work, they were too material. You were all thinking of things. Love isn't a thing, it's a piece of the universe."
"So? You want a piece of the universe?"
"I want Love. I wish to always be in love."
Aro's face twisted with a dark satisfaction, and he finished the rest of the wine in his glass in one quick gulp. The weather seemed to let up, going back to the softer mist of earlier that evening. The door to the kitchen swung open, and Jasper made his way into the dining room with a crate full of the newly filled salt shakers. He brought with him the smell of summer rain and tobacco, and began placing the shakers on the tables on the other side of the room.
There was the ring of a bell, from the back of the restaurant. It was clear and perfect. Not the slightly brassy sound the bell usually made.
The sound of it broke a kind of spell that Edward hadn't realized had been cast. The same kind of sensation he got when stepping out of a movie theatre, when he'd realize that all that had gone before was just a story. When the lights seemed a little too bright, and his legs seemed a little unsteady. He looked over his shoulder towards the kitchen, where the plate of calamari was piping hot and waiting for him to go get it.
"Order's up." Aro said, and poured himself another glass of wine.