You’re already perspiring a little by the time you duck through the slightly low-hanging door to the restaurant. Dave Strider is behind you, with Dr. Pyrope bringing up the rear. You can hear her tapping her way in behind you, having long since accepted that she will not take your arm and be led for love nor money. Her dress is awful, teal and vivid red, and you suppose she chose it for the loudness of the colors. You have no idea where a woman might buy something so terrible. Surely no company would deliberately create such a dress, not that it is any business of yours.
The manager gives you a nod from behind the till and you return it, leading the other two past the rows of booths. They’re expecting you.
There are several couples and a large family in the dining room, and you note with approval the way the father helps the toddler cut his pizza into several segments that will be small enough to eat on his own. The child is well-groomed, dressed in clothes that fit, and he is wearing appropriate footwear. The mother is composing a text message on her cell phone with one hand and navigating her way through a large salad with the other. As you pass the table, the toddler makes a squawking noise of the sort that usually means nothing more than “I am bored”. The father shushes him. You hear him tell the child “Joey, we don’t make that noise when we’re in a restaurant,” and there is a note of resignation in his voice, but no overt hostility.
You observe that one of the other couples in the room is expecting. You glance across the table: chicken dinner, shared, two glasses. This restaurant serves alcohol, but she is drinking what looks like some form of yellow soda. Not great, but all right. You note that the man has a bulge in his hip pocket that looks like the outline of a pack of cigarettes. The pregnant woman has a tattoo of a Chinese character on the back of her neck, where her hair is pulled up into a high ponytail. The man’s hands are very clean. They eat in comfortable silence.There are no visible bruises on either of them.
These are things you notice when you go into public establishments, these days.
The private room is small but not claustrophobic. One long table, heavy wood, with half a dozen chairs pushed in. A boring landscape painting on one wall, a pen-and-ink drawing of the restaurant as it would have looked fifty years ago on the other. The customary paper napkins wrapping a bouquet of flatware have been removed from the table upon request. When your food comes out, the server will bring plastic cutlery.
There’s air conditioning, but you still feel your forehead beading with sweat.
Mr. Strider is already here, seated with his back to the wall, looking nervous. He has already ordered a drink. It’s soda, which is not what you would have expected. Previous conversations with Dave and the ever-present gossip that is the largest form of entertainment at St. Lobaf have painted a somewhat unkind picture of the man’s habits and demeanor.
Without his suit, outside of the context of his failed custody hearing, Mr. Strider looks much younger. His t-shirt and jeans are clean. he has removed his dark glasses and put in what appear to be tinted contact lenses. His face is grim and he has shredded his drinking straw wrapper into tiny square pieces. His hands are on the table and you observe that all his fingernails have been chewed down to stubs that rival the results of Captor’s own nervous gnawing. He has shaved recently and his hair is freshly trimmed. The collar of his shirt is down, another thing you would not have expected.
"Hey," he says, quietly. Under their nearly invisible brows, his eyes are very dark. They skip off you and lock onto Dave as he enters the room, and it’s a little too intense. You stand to one side, allowing Dave pass you and choose his seat. He picks the one directly across from his brother, bonelessly slumping into it. He returns neither his brother’s gaze nor his greeting. You sit at one end of the table, giving them room. Close enough to be a steady presence, but not enough to crowd. Terezi enters last and makes her way to the other corner. Dave has requested that you both stay in the room until the meeting is over. If Mr. Strider acknowledges you, you will speak to him. If not, you will maintain supportive silence. Terezi will do any speaking, as usual.
Dave’s hands are shaking. He drops them from the table to his lap and hunches forward. His new glasses are so dark you can’t see his eyes in the restaurant light, and so large they hide most of his face.
"Thanks for coming," Mr. Strider tells Dave. "I ordered you an apple juice."