When Arthur is twelve, he falls in love. His dad gets a bonus at work so they go to France in March. They're not the only ones. In between the lines and his dad refusing to ask for directions, Arthur spends most of his week in Paris trudging behind his parents and his older sister miserably.
Finally, when they get tired of waiting in line for Notre Dame, his mom suggests they grab lunch at a local cafe. The waiter looks at them in a beautiful fit of French condescension, especially when Arthur's dad mangles his French and manages to ask the man if being ugly was his natural talent or just good practice. But when the food arrives and Arthur bites into the steak au poivre that his mom has ordered for him ("Try it," she urges, "you'll like it"), his entire world changes.
Or maybe that's just his sister spilling her soup into his lap.
All Arthur knows is that he's never liked pepper, and yet the pepper in the steak is so pungent that it makes his mouth water, tempered by the accompanying heavy cream. When he gets back from vacation, he commandeers his family's kitchen and makes awful macaroni dish after awful macaroni dish. (He wants to make steak, but his mom just scoffs, as if she's going to go out and buy high quality steaks for her stupid twelve-year-old son. "If you were experimenting with your sexuality, that's okay," she says, "but come on, steaks cost money, babe, whereas condoms are cheap").
Arthur stops going to soccer practice and watches reruns of Julia Child instead. His sister calls him a freak and spills soup on him three more times, but by the time he gets good, she starts coming home early for dinner. For Christmas when he's sixteen, he asks his parents for a better oven and some sharper knives. His first girlfriend when he's seventeen comes over and bakes, and they scheme about how they're going to hitchhike to New York and live a bohemian life full of cheese and fluffy pastry.
(Ten years later, she marries a butcher, and they open a combined butcher shop/bakery where everything unfortunately smells a bit of blood, but the marble cake is excellent and Arthur visits every time he's in town).
After graduation, Arthur hitchhikes to New York. It's good that his mom was a hippie and understands these things; she keeps his dad from lunging at him with the ice pick. In New York, he gets a job as a dishwasher at a Thai restaurant where he eats coconut milk curry and khao kha mu until his belly aches. It's so good. The head chef, who barely speaks three words of English and used to be a soldier in Thailand, shows Arthur how to use his knives so fast that they blur. When the restaurant goes bankrupt three years later, Arthur has made it to assistant chef, and he steals one of the menus and frames it on the wall of the apartment he shares with two drug-happy college kids. The menu is stained with too many questionable juices, but he's proud of it. It's his badge of honour.
The former head chef writes him a reference with a thousand spelling mistakes, but it doesn't matter. It gets Arthur into the Culinary Institute of America, aka the CIA, where a year later he makes a steak au poivre so beautiful that the instructor's eyes water.
And then he's here. He's arrived.
"Can't you just bite into the pepper?" Nolan begs, while Mal tosses her head and crosses her arms. Arthur smiles behind the cameras. Beautiful French condescension follows him his entire life.
"It's a pepper," Mal says. "I hate pepper. Why can't I bite into something lovely, like an onion?"
"You want to bite into an onion?" Nolan boggles. "You'll have onion breath!"
"And what," Mal asks in a tone of deadly hush, "is wrong with onion breath?"
"Um," Nolan says, and he may be the director but Mal is the fucking Chairman, and it's her money that they're all running on, her money and her bizarre whims.
"I think it'd be nice," Mal says, "to sweep around Kitchen Stadium, breathing onions down everyone's neck. Making them cry." She smiles with her perfect teeth, and Nolan backs away.
"I think it's great!" Arthur calls.
"Thank you, Arthur," Mal says graciously. "You see? Arthur understands. That's because he has respect for food."
From the other end of the stadium, Yusuf calls out, "You can always just photoshop the onion into a pepper!"
"Why are you even here?" Nolan asks, rubbing his nose in frustration. "You're not competing today."
"I just want to give my friend Eames some support." Yusuf claps his arm over Eames' shoulder. "God knows he'll need it."
"Please, I'm not the one who burned my salmon," Eames retorts.
"The judge had no idea what he was talking about!" Yusuf says, red-faced, and everyone snickers at the memory of Yusuf running around screaming about his burned salmon. That was some good TV.
"All right, guys, quit the chit-chat. We're going to start rolling cameras soon," Nolan says.
And Mal says, "This onion is awfully bumpy."
Today's competitor is Nash from Nashville. Arthur tries not to snicker too much, but it doesn't matter because the cameras aren't even looking at him at this portion of the show. It's all on Mal as she bites into her onion, flashes everyone her dazzling smile, and recounts her famous tale of how she was once a supermodel but really just wanted to cook, and after she made her fortune on the runways of Milan, she decided to open Kitchen Stadium to see talent flourish and rivalry drive chefs to greater and greater heights.
It's a great story. Arthur wrote it himself.
Then Mal gives the rundown of Iron Chef's rules. One secret ingredient, one challenger, one Iron Chef, and sixty minutes to prepare five dishes.
Mal asks Nash magnanimously which Iron Chef he wants to face off against. In reality they've decided beforehand, and Eames is already walking towards Nash even before he finishes pointing to the dolls on the dais. (Arthur hates those dolls, he really does. Sometimes when he's in Kitchen Stadium at night, picking up notes that he's forgotten, the last thing he wants is to look up and see a giant Eames staring down at him. Really).
The music plays as Mal reveals the secret ingredient. There are more bananas on the table than Arthur has seen in one place, counting the gorilla cage at the zoo.
"So now, with an open heart and an empty stomach, I say until you..." Mal lifts her arm and screams. "Allez cuisine!"
And then Eames and Nash are moving with their sous chefs, and Arthur is moving too, with his microphone and his clipboard and his cameraman trailing after him. He's the floor reporter. He's on his beat, commenting first as Eames and Nash scramble for the bananas, a truly ridiculous sight that takes them ten rungs back on the evolutionary ladder, and then as they retreat to their respective sides of Kitchen Stadium, pulling out their ingredients and conversing with their sous chefs. Arthur first goes to Nash, because it's always the challengers who will be a bit more interesting at first. The Iron Chefs rarely have hiccups this early in the game; they're so used to it.
Nash is tinkering with his deep fryer. "A deep fryer?" Arthur asks. "You're going to make deep fried bananas?"
"You'll see," Nash grunts, and then he turns his back on Arthur. Okay then.
Arthur goes to Eames.
"Hello darling!" Eames says while he and his sous chefs Takahashi and Browning are peeling bananas furiously. "How was your Sunday night?"
"Eames," Arthur hisses, "we're filming. You're not supposed to ask that."
"Is your arse still sore?"
Over his shoulder, Arthur can see Nolan telling his assistants to cut that shit out of the final episode. Jesus Christ. Arthur says pointedly, "Tell us what you're making, Iron Chef Eames."
"I'm thinking," Eames says, cheerfully running his knife into the bananas as he talks. "Possibly smoked salmon tartare with bananas. Maybe with some red onions and red beet gazpacho. That's where my mind is right now. What do you think?"
"You're the chef," Arthur replies, and it makes his chest twist to say that.
Nolan gives Eames a cutthroat look. So Eames clears his throat and says, more clearly for the sake of the sound clips, "I'm making smoked salmon tartare with bananas, and possibly red onions and red beet gazpacho."
"Thank you, chef," Arthur says, and he moves back to check on Nash, who is smearing his bananas with batter. As the clock announces fifty minutes, Arthur returns to his station at the corner of kitchen stadium where he films a small segment explaining techniques and food knowledge to the audience. "There are actually a variety of bananas being used in this battle," he says, picking them up one by one. "You have the Manzano banana, the Nino banana, the Burro banana, the Red banana, the Plantain banana, and then the most common type of banana eaten in the U.S, the Cavendish banana, also sometimes called the Chiquita banana, after the world's largest banana producer."
When he goes back to Eames, Eames says, "You know what else you can use bananas for?"
"What?" Arthur asks, pleasant for the sake of the cameras.
"I really can't say on national TV," Eames smirks, and then he's opening a carton of yogurt.
The editors of the show make all their bonuses off Eames. This is a true fact. Nolan threatens to fire Eames every other day. This is also a true fact. But what else is true is that Eames is one of the most brilliant chefs in the country. He's CIA-trained, like Arthur, with so many classical techniques in his head that Arthur can ask him anything about French cooking and Eames will know the answer. But Eames is creative too, creative and imaginative and most important of all, his food tastes amazing. Nolan can't fire Eames for anything less than gross misconduct without all of culinary America going up in arms, and Eames has skirted the edge of gross (Arthur has seen him in the morning, okay, before he shaves and washes his face. He knows what he's talking about) without tipping over the edge.
It's a sign of how good he is that Arthur can barely focus on reporting on Nash. Nash ends up making tempura with his bananas, among other things, but Arthur is more focused on Eames' salmon tartare with bananas, his banana risotto with prosciutto, sage, and Parmesan Reggiano, his banana goat cheese ganache, his banana frangipane tart with yogurt semifreddo.
As floor reporter, Arthur doesn't get to taste the food. He resents the judges for that, especially the celebrity judges who get to sit up there and eat Eames' frangipane tart, so beautifully laid out on the white plate with the yellow cream dressing. Some of them don't know shit about food. Arthur's entire life is food.
But Eames always saves a portion for him.
Eames always meets him in the dressing room after filming, his ass firm in his ragged cowboy jeans, and Arthur eats his food and curses and prays to God. He lets Eames see how much he enjoys it, which isn't something he necessarily wants to do, but as one chef to another, it feels wrong not to. It's wrong the way standing in front of a Caravaggio and not openly admiring its beauty is wrong.
And the way Eames looks at him when he's tasting (sly, thoughtful, quiet for once, with the flirtation turned down as to barely be present at all), it takes Arthur back.
When Arthur is twenty-four, he falls in love. With a beautiful British boy in his core CIA rotation, a beautiful British boy who brays like a donkey and then makes wine-poached salmon with black truffles that causes Arthur to sees stars. Arthur even says, "It's like a party in my mouth" and Arthur never says that. But this is a beautiful British boy who makes Arthur admit to ridiculous things, and they become friends. They make mirepoix together, they slice lamb together, they go through the CIA's restaurants together, burning through Escoffier with an intensity that surprises everyone, and they sneak to the sheds and smoke joints together, relaxing when it's done.
Arthur kisses the beautiful British boy after a night of too much wine, and his mouth is sweet, so sweet as it moves over Arthur's, and he's held close like something that's too good to be real.
The first time they fuck, Arthur laughs into his sweaty bangs and says breathlessly, "Let's open a restaurant together. You and me. Let's take New York by storm."
"Oh god yes," says the beautiful British boy, whose name is Eames and he's the love of Arthur's life, damn it, goddamn it, damn everything that's ever happened in every fucking life.
And five years later, Arthur has trouble looking at Eames without wanting to punch something, and they're exchanging flirtations on Iron Chef. What the hell.
"Bison Battle!" Mal screams, and Cobb sort of stares at her love-struck while Eames and the new challenger Fischer rush around trying to hoist these huge legs of bison like they're Neanderthals. When Eames accidentally swings his bison leg, everyone ducks, but still he hits Ariadne in the face.
"Ow!" she says.
"Iron Chef Brawl!" Mal gasps. "Who will be victorious?"
"Ariadne, get out of the stadium and sit with the other spectators," Nolan says crabbily. "Your competition isn't until tomorrow."
"But Takahashi is sick. Eames asked me to be his sous chef," Ariadne says.
"An Iron Chef can't sous chef for another Iron Chef," Nolan explains.
"Where does it say that in the rules?" Ariadne challenges.
"Iron Chef vs. Director!" Mal shouts. "The battle of the century has come to Kitchen Stadium!"
"Oh my god," Eames says, looking down at his secret ingredient. "This bison leg is bigger than my penis."
"Obviously," Arthur snaps.
"Cut! Cut!" Nolan says, waving his arms wildly.
"Um?" Fischer asks.
"Watch out! It's exploding!" Ariadne yells.
"My penis?" Eames panics.
"The pressure cooker! Ahhh!"
Mal, who was never a supermodel but does have an Olympic gold medal in karate, jumps over all their heads and grabs the fire extinguisher.
Yet in the midst of all the chaos, Eames still manages to produce cabbage soup with smoked bison, fennel, and white beans; beer-braised bison loin; bison sausage with cauliflower celery root puree in a black truffle and Mandarin red wine reduction; cured bison and salmon with apple broth and oyster foam; bison ice cream.
"You use the ice cream maker way too much," Arthur says in the dressing room, which is the only criticism he can level against Eames. Who leans against the door frame like he's the Mick Jagger of cooking, which yeah, he kind of is.
"But you love ice cream," Eames says.
Arthur rolls his eyes. "Just because I have some kind of sick obsession doesn't mean the judges do."
"But I don't cook for the judges," Eames says. "I cook for you."
(And you're with a beautiful boy in the dormitory, lying on the bed with your legs tangled with each other and his head on your chest, and you feel like you're invincible, like you could cook for Jacques Pépin and Eric Ripert, and still it wouldn't be as good as coming home and crawling into bed, just like this, always.
But you couldn't stand coming in second, every damn time.
You couldn't stand crashing and burning in all the restaurants you worked in after graduation, putting up with maniacal head chefs and useless managers, digging yourself into obscurity while Eames rose and rose.
And you can't stand it that you're in Kitchen Stadium, and you're nowhere near the kitchen at all).
"Look," Arthur says, wiping his mouth. "Let's be honest here. I'm a useless, jealous bastard. I know that. I can't change that. You should stop angling after me and go for...well, Fischer was giving you some serious gaga eyes during the battle."
"Fischer's cute," Eames agrees.
"There's some things you can't change, and there's some things I can't change." Eames shrugs, and his mouth is warm and generous, and Arthur remembers kissing it on cold winter nights. "But I'd be out of my mind if I didn't try. If I can do battle with a hunk of bison, I think I can do battle for you."
"Jesus Christ, I'm not going to fall all trembly and weak-kneed into your arms because of your bison skills," Arthur lies.
"You should see what I can do with an oyster," Eames brags. "Oh wait, you already have."
"Squash Battle!" Mal screams, and Eames gets to sit back and watch as Arthur runs after Yusuf and the challenger, who are much less lascivious than Eames is with the ingredients but also much more likely to catch on fire. Yusuf is the molecular gastronomist slash Asian fusion cuisine expert, though really he dabbles with anything and on a good day can cook everyone under the table, even Eames.
But currently he's running around yelling, "Squash them! Squash them!"
"Is that a kitchen order?" his sous chef asks confusedly.
"Yes!" Mal says, getting into the swing of things. "Squash them all!"
"I do not pay you for bad puns!" Nolan yells.
"What do you mean? I pay you!" she retorts.
"Just tell me," Arthur says. "That greenish-bluish mixture, what is it?"
"Squash," Yusuf says.
Arthur smacks his head with his clipboard.
"Ariadne!" Nolan screams. "Stop sneaking onto the set! We know you're as competitive as all that, but you need to stop jumping sous chefs in the parking lot so you can take their place!"
"I have no idea what you mean," Ariadne said. "This blood on my hands is from the beef."
"I think Ariadne has demonstrated marvelous squashing skills," Mal says.
"And what else other than squash?" Arthur asks, close to pleading.
"Salt?" Yusuf offers.
"And what else?"
"Love," Yusuf says. "Lots of love, distilled by way of passion and romance. By the way, can you please tell Eames to stop borrowing my egg beaters? When he returns them, they always...smell funny."
Arthur ignores him. He turns back to the camera and forces a smile. "Well, there you have it. Iron Chef Yusuf is preparing a salty squashy piece of love. I'm reporting from Kitchen Stadium. Back to you, Mal."
Arthur wishes people would stop saying it. It's just a word.
When Arthur is twenty-six, he falls in love with a perfect slice of beef. He goes into raptures over it. He threatens to leave Eames if Eames doesn't buy it for him right then and there (Arthur is broke at the time -- Arthur spends most of ages twenty-five to twenty-seven broke and living off his infuriatingly successful boyfriend). So Eames buys the beef. It ends badly for everyone.
Let it be known that beef does not make for a good party hat.
Let it be known that Arthur can cut deeper without a knife than with.
(But it still doesn't explain how Arthur gets to be on Iron Chef. Well, that involves Central Park at three a.m and Mal mistaking Arthur for a duck, but he's never going to say so in the interviews, mostly because Mal doesn't like people to know that she has a tattoo of Leonardo DiCaprio's face on her left thigh, and Arthur respects that because if he had Leonardo DiCaprio squinting at him every time he took off his pants, he'd want to keep it hush hush too).
Eames owns two restaurants in New York. He opened his first one three years after his graduation from the CIA, riding high off his experience as sous chef to Daniel Boulud, and within a year it had rave reviews from The New York Times. His flagship restaurant is named A.D, and while most people think it's an oblique reference to an era, Arthur knows otherwise. He can recognize his own initials, and he still remembers the shock of seeing that name emblazoned in tasteful letters above the door, a mindful ghost to match the ghost of Eames in the apartment they once shared. By then Arthur had already dropped off the requisite box of things Eames left behind (his jazz CDs, his mini tank of liquid nitrogen, his battered copy of The Mill on the Floss), and then there it was, the restaurant, the fucking restaurant.
He and Eames used to sprawl in bed planning that restaurant, throwing ideas back and forth about the menu, about the servers, about the decor (if he'd left it to Eames, the entire place would be paisley). But that was before Arthur realized there was never going to be a restaurant that was theirs, because that implied equality, and he just wasn't good enough. He was always going to drag Eames down.
But this is Arthur's secret: on the nights when he knows Eames isn't at A.D, he eats there. The servers may or may not know who he is (apparently there's a photo of him in the kitchen that Eames makes everyone kiss when they've been naughty), but Arthur has an agreement with them. They don't say his name, and they simply bring him the day's special. And it isn't Eames' cooking. It's the work of the chefs he employs. But Arthur can taste the recognizable flair in every bite, the bold modern flavours underpinning an essentially French sensibility.
The contrast between what is and what should be, the playfulness of it (the surprise of finding an added texture, an extra bite of spice, an almond buried where an almond shouldn't be), says Eames more than the name on A.D's door.
A.D is typically crowded, even on a Thursday night. Eames' appearances on Iron Chef have made his restaurants popular. But Arthur snags a table in the back, far away from the windows, and he orders the spice crusted swordfish with crimson potatoes, daikon, radishes, and parsnips. It's one of the new items on A.D's menu. He overheard Eames talking about it with Yusuf the other day. When he bites into it, the sharpness of the daikon and radishes rests on his tongue, counteracting the heavier, denser texture of the swordfish. He washes it down with the fruity oak taste of a Chardonnay. And then Eames is smiling as he slides into the empty chair across from Arthur.
Arthur tries not to show his discomfort. "Hi," he says casually, as if it's every day that Eames catches him eating in the restaurant that was named after him.
"Arthur," Eames says, and it's like he practices all the different ways he can say Arthur's name that will make Arthur's spine melt. This is version #42: the one where he thinks he's Clint Eastwood. "I didn't think I would see you until tomorrow, at Kitchen Stadium."
"Surprise," Arthur says. "The swordfish is quite good, by the way."
"I know," says Eames. "You know who I'm facing off against tomorrow, don't you?"
"Saito," Arthur says. Owner of Taka's and arguably the best seafood chef in the country. "You've looked over the list of possible ingredients, right? I know you like to leave it to the last moment, but Saito is...intense." Which is a mild way of putting it. There is more Saito drama in the James Beard Foundation than all the teams put together to censor Anthony Bourdain. "I hear his fans can be creative with pig's blood," he adds.
"So I should lose to him then?" Eames asks lightly.
"Are you kidding me? Crush him," Arthur says, and it's so easy to talk to Eames like this, to go over their rivals and their competitors like sharks in the pond. Arthur visibly shakes himself out of it, even as Eames puts his hand on the back of his chair and slides down languidly, looking more like a man who's just come back from a rock concert with an unfortunate fondness for plaid than the esteemed executive chef and owner of the establishment.
"I could lose, if that's what you want," he says.
"Why would I want that?" Arthur asks, and he knows how hypocritical he sounds because there was a time at the end of their relationship when it was all he wanted: the petty desire of seeing Eames trip and fall the way Arthur tripped and fell. But Arthur is a better person outside of love than he is within, and half of Iron Chef's ratings come from the dizzying pleasure of Eames' victories. The other half comes from watching Eames make sweet, sweet love to his food. Not that Arthur belongs to the latter category of fans. (Eames doesn't fuck his chicken thighs half as hard as he used to fuck Arthur).
"It'd be a sort of grand gesture," Eames says.
"I don't want a grand gesture from you," Arthur says.
"You say that, but can you really look me in the eye and say that you don't regret splitting up?" Eames's eyes are bright even in the romantic dim of the restaurant. "Because I think about it, Arthur. I think about it all the time."
"Yes, I know," Arthur says. "Or at least, my constantly full text message inbox knows."
"I'm an expressive guy," Eames says cheerfully. "A man of modern times. I'm not afraid to wear floral print or vocalize my emotions."
"I need to go," Arthur says, putting down his napkin. "I have an...appointment."
"At nine o'clock at night?" Eames laughs. "Sitting alone in your apartment playing MMORPGs against twelve-year-olds who hope you have tits doesn't count as an appointment, just saying. But I really will lose to Saito, for you. Because isn't that the ultimate sacrifice for a chef? We're ego-driven bastards, we are."
"This isn't a goddamn medieval romance," Arthur says shortly.
"You could give me your napkin as a token, but it's kind of covered in swordfish juice. Oh and look, one of the servers wrote her number on it. I knew I hired her for her exquisite taste."
"I'd never lose for you," Arthur says, because Eames is so stupid and masochistic and why can't he just understand. It's not like putting up with Arthur's neuroses ever made him happy. Arthur was a shitty hyper-competitive boyfriend. Normal people would move on. But then again, Eames once made twenty soufflés in a row just because he wasn't satisfied with the lightness of the first, so maybe there's nothing Arthur can do about it except dodge, roll, and run.
Saito brings with him an entire legion of fangirls.
They also bring with them a surprisingly large contingent of babies.
"You think they're all his?" Cobb asks Arthur as they enter the studio.
"Why would you even ask that?" Arthur says, trying to shake the image out of his head. As an Iron Chef, Cobb specializes in traditional Americana, which gives him the reputation of being the normal guy in the midst of Eames, Yusuf, and Ariadne's hijinks. But sometimes Arthur suspects that Cobb is the most deranged of them all.
"I'm just concerned about the future of the culinary world," Cobb says, offended. "If Saito is training an army of future cooks to take over our restaurants and poison our food, I--"
"Is this really what you worry about? Saito fielding an army from his pants?" Arthur asks incredulously. He knows that there's been some history between Saito and Cobb (hell, there's been history between Saito and every major chef on the Eastern seaboard, usually involving tentacles).
"No," Cobb says, and but then he adds viciously, "I hope Eames beats him by a landslide."
"Is this about that fling he had with Mal?"
"Because I heard he invited you to a threesome." Arthur pauses for a beat. "I also heard that you liked it."
"Just focus on the food," Cobb hisses, and he flounces (sorry, strides manfully) away.
Eames walks into the studio with Takahashi and Browning on his heels, and he looks immediately for Arthur, but Arthur pretends to develop a sudden fascination with the side of Ariadne's face, including the small zit she has on her nose. When she notices, she socks him, but then pats him on his bleeding arm to make it all better. Ariadne's specialty is Mediterranean food and she loves gangster films, a combination that she claims explains everything about her. It sort of does. Arthur can too easily imagine her as the capo di tutti capi, presiding over her den of thieves, knife sharpeners, and spaghetti addicts.
Mal is already waiting in Kitchen Stadium, wearing a blouse with sleeves so poofy they look like oranges. Or maybe that's just because her blouse is bright orange. She looks effortlessly gorgeous anyway, and Saito kisses her hand with old world gentlemanly flair. Cobb simmers in the background.
And then Saito turns to Eames and says, with a smile, "You may have defeated me with the tentacles, but I assure you I will exert my dominance today."
Eames clasps Saito's hand and shakes it, hard. Arthur remembers that they're friends. "You talk a good game, but can you cut the chicken?"
"Cut the chicken? Is this one of those delightful little Americanisms that I'm doomed to never understand?" Saito sounds amused. The babies in the audience coo as one. "Let's start the battle then!"
"Hey, I'm the director," says Nolan.
Saito looks at him.
"Right," Nolan says. "Cue cameras!"
Mal executes a high kick worthy of Chuck Norris when she announces that the secret ingredient is oysters.
Arthur and Eames have a bit of a history with oysters.
No, not that kind of history. As if they needed any aphrodisiacs to fall into bed. They managed that quite well on their own. Even the smell of gasoline on Eames' hands was enough to inspire Arthur to jump him, and Arthur hates the smell of gasoline.
The oysters come into play during their second semester at the CIA. They've just finished one of their exams and are kicking about with their friends Julie and Samar when suddenly Arthur sits up with a bolt of genius and says, "You guys are Iron Chef fans, right?"
"Huge fans," Julie says, and mimes biting into a pepper.
"I know exactly what you're thinking," Eames says, and then they sneak into the kitchens using one of the keys Samar has from when he helped set up a dinner for the institute president. They've had a couple of beers by now, maybe a few joints, and Arthur and Eames fall over in laughter when Julie sifts through the stores and pulls out their secret ingredient: oysters.
Eames waggles his eyebrows, and Arthur says, "I'm going to kick your ass so hard, even a rimjob won't make up for it afterwards" while Julie and Samar ooh and aah, and then grope each other because they might have a thing going on too. (Years later, they'll have a kid and a golden retriever together, but they'll still deny any relationship because apparently their French kisses are platonic).
Arthur starts shucking the oysters, envisioning in his head the dishes he can make. He maps out a five-course menu of oysters with smoked potato cream, oysters and hot sausage stew with cilantro, bouillabaisse with clams, oysters, and scallops in a Thai curry broth, oyster mignonette and conch toast, oyster ice cream.
Just as he reflexively shucks another oyster, Eames makes a sound to get his attention. Arthur looks down, wondering if he's cut his hand, and he sees the ring wedged into the slit in the shell.
Granted, it's a cheap plastic ring that looks like it came out of one of those candy machines at the mall, and it says 100% Princess on it in sparkly letters. Julie looks smug and Samar looks unsurprised. Those co-conspirators.
"What the?" Arthur asks.
"So that's a no to marriage then?" Eames says, leaning over the counter with his fingers stained in oyster juice and his mouth as lush as a Georgia peach. "How about just living together after graduation?"
"This won't even fit on my finger," Arthur complains. "It's for six-year-old girls."
"In spirit," Eames replies. "In spirit."
And then the Battle of the Oysters concludes with no food produced by any of the challengers, but Arthur bending Eames over the counter and kissing him senseless.
Saito moves through his kitchen quickly and efficiently. For all the jokes his rivals make about his tyrannical fist over the world of seafood, he's clearly a good leader. His sous chefs obey him with respect, not fear, and they seem well-prepared, whizzing through their prep work with little unnecessary communication or anxiety. Saito even hums as he shucks his oysters, generously providing Arthur with all the information he needs to do his job as floor reporter.
Eames, on the other hand, seems out of it. He's moving slowly and dreamily, and his sous chefs seem confused by the instructions he gives one minute, only to be retracted the next. After Arthur does his little segment for the audience demonstrating how to properly shuck an oyster ("you want to do it in a way that'll preserve the most liquid," he explains), Nolan pulls him aside and demands, "What's wrong with Eames?"
"He must not be feeling well," Arthur says.
"Please, he's a fucking chef. I've seen chefs drive through blizzards and grit their teeth through kidney stones. It's like your professional code."
Arthur wants to say that it's been years since he's lived the fast-and-furious life of a working chef, and sometimes there are employers who aren't worth it and there are customers who don't appreciate anything you make. He spent two years trying to cook foie gras and coq au vin for people who just wanted a hamburger and coleslaw salad, which is fine, he has nothing against hamburgers and coleslaw salad. It's just not what he was hired to do.
Eames goes through the motions without any effort, and finally Mal shouts, "Come on! Where's your fire, Iron Chef Eames?"
Eames smirks at her and grabs his crotch.
"Leave that out of the final cut," Nolan tells his editors. "Obviously."
"That's not good enough!" Mal says. "I bite into a raw onion for you people every episode. The least you can do is cook with some passion!"
"Well, it depends on where your passion lies," Eames says philosophically, and Arthur turns to the left where Saito is firing up his stove. Then he looks at Eames' kitchen where his sous chefs are moving confusedly and the oysters still seem to be lying in a pile on the counter. This is not what he wanted. There are chefs Eames can't possibly hope to beat. There are chefs whose styles are so different that it's near impossible to compare. But Eames is fully capable of defeating Saito, and Arthur realizes that even with all he's said over the years, all the nastiness and the petty jealousy, all of frustration of living with someone who every day reminded Arthur of his own broken dreams -- Eames being unhappy will not make him happy.
The cameras are still rolling, but Arthur seizes the moment, dives into the Iron Chef spirit, and yells, "You motherfucker! Get your lazy ass moving!"
Eames looks at him.
"I mean it," Arthur says.
Eames starts moving. He whips around and gives a real order to Takahashi, and then he's not looking at Arthur anymore. Thirty minutes left. Oh god. It's not going to be enough. Saito has already finished all of his prep, and Eames' prep is a barely realized dream of bottles and random spices.
Eames whips through his dishes like he's possessed. There's sweat and flames and Takahashi nearly keels over out of panic, but Eames puts out five dishes for the judges. When Arthur looks at the menu, he swallows a lump in his throat. It's oysters with smoked potato cream, oysters and hot sausage stew with cilantro, bouillabaisse with clams, oysters, and scallops in a Thai curry broth, oyster mignonette and conch toast, and oyster ice cream.
Well, it's no surprise. You can't hope to outmatch Saito while only working for half of his time. And Mal lets Arthur taste some of Saito's food afterwards, and it's mindblowing. Saito is a genius. Arthur swallows a bite of Saito's kaki furai and then looks around for Eames, but he's nowhere to be found. He's not waiting in the dressing rooms with leftovers and a leer like he usually is.
"I think he left," Yusuf says apologetically when Arthur asks. "He seemed kind of down. He's not really used to losing, is he?"
"No, he isn't," Arthur says.
It's the last episode of the season. They're done filming for another six months. Arthur goes home after he finishes corroborating his notes with Nolan. He kicks off his shoes, makes himself smoked scallops and cavier on a latke, and eats it while he boots up his computer.
It is, he thinks, his birthday. That's probably why Eames offered what he did. Arthur is thirty, which is years away from when he was twelve and had his first bite of steak au poivre in Paris because his parents got tired of lining up to see tourist spots. What might have been if they'd decided to be patient, he wonders.
He checks his cell phone, expecting to see one of Eames' nonsensical messages, maybe a badly spelling happy birthday, but there's nothing. Radio silence. He hasn't gotten a text message from Eames in days.
And sometimes that's all it takes. A loss rather than a win.
That and an intense oyster battle.
Eames doesn't pick up his cell phone. Arthur calls A.D and his other restaurant, but Eames isn't there either. He calls Yusuf, who says, "He might be at the pub. Lucky's, the one by the theatre. He goes there sometimes when he wants to get smashed."
"Thanks," Arthur says, and totally does not expect Yusuf showing up on his doorstep ten minutes later with Ariadne in tow.
"We were in the neighbourhood," Ariadne says.
"Are you stalking me?" Arthur asks suspiciously.
"No," Yusuf says, and then Mal is striding through the open door in tall black leather boots and a motorcycle jacket.
"My dears, I have heard the call of love!" she exclaims. She's followed by cameramen and Cobb and what the hell, why is Saito there. Arthur's apartment isn't nearly big enough to hold all of them, and he backs away from the roving camera as Mal shoves it in his face. "Eames won't be staying at Lucky's long. You better get to him quick, or who knows where he'll go when he leaves."
"I'd do just that if you would all back away from my door," Arthur says from behind gritted teeth.
They back away. He gathers his dignity and walks out.
They follow him.
"What are you doing, walking?" Mal scoffs. "Did the knights of yore walk to their fair maidens? Did Romeo pace leisurely towards Juliet?"
"Fine! Fine! I'm running. Are you happy?" Arthur starts jogging.
"You really need to hit the gym and stop eating all that ice cream," Ariadne says.
"I'm running! What more do you want from me?" Arthur says, picking up the pace. He leaves his apartment building and jogs down his street towards the subway station, all the while his ragtag team following him. He thinks about how blissful it will be to lose them in the subway, but then Saito steps neatly in front of him (he's fast, really fast), and offers Arthur the use of his limo.
"Eames might leave," Saito reminds him.
"Oh, okay! Fine!" Arthur says, throwing up his hands as he slides onto the leather seats of the limo. Ariadne, Yusuf, Mal, and Cobb squeeze in beside him.
"Go! Go! Gun it!" Mal cries.
It's crowded outside of Lucky's. Everybody looks as the stretch limo pulls up and deposits Arthur on the sidewalk, Arthur and his entourage of busybodies. Arthur enters the pub, but Eames isn't there. The sweat on his palm prickles. The thing about Eames is that he's always there, even when you don't want him to be. Arthur has always been able to find him. But he's not in the pub, and he's not picking up his phone, and fucking hell he's dead, isn't he, he's gone and jumped off a bridge because he couldn't make a bouillabaisse that could beat Saito and win Arthur back and --
"He's outside!" screams Ariadne.
Arthur rushes outside. He looks where Ariadne's pointing, and there's a figure down the street walking away obliviously with his hands stuffed in his pockets.
He really runs. He runs in his Italian loafers and his Neiman Marcus vest, and the small cut on his finger from his paring knife, and the grains of salt on his skin, and the wayward arrhythmia of his heart, and if that guy slouching towards the next street isn't Eames, Arthur is going to shoot something, he really really is.
"Did you know," he says, tipsy, "that before I became a chef, I was a stripper?"
"I didn't know that," Arthur says, trying to catch his breath.
"I was the bestest stripper ever. They called me Jailbait. You wanna know why?"
"I can guess," Arthur replies, and he curls his hands into fists to keep from touching Eames. Then he thinks, why am I stopping? So he strokes Eames' cheek with the back of his knuckles. Eames leans into his touch and smiles sloppily.
"'Cause I was so hot I shoulda been illegal."
"That's a terrible story," Arthur says.
"'S your birthday today," Eames says. "Should've said sorry. Sorry you didn't become a master chef. Sorry you're just a floor reporter. I tried not to rub it into your face. I tried not to brag. But I guess I -- I guess I wasn't very good at it? I was an obnoxious prick."
Arthur pulls Eames close to him. He hooks his thumbs in Eames' jean pockets and says, "No, you're amazing." Then he kisses him. And it's not like a kiss will make up for all the shit that went down between them. It's not like a kiss will suddenly put them on equal footing again, will transport them magically back to their school days when they were just two boys with a big dream instead of adults with failures and bad tempers. But Arthur kisses Eames the way some people say I'm sorry, and the way other people say Let's do this again.
Because in cooking, there's rarely second chances. Once the meat is burned, you can't unburn it.
But Arthur...Arthur's always known how to bend the rules.
Behind him, he can hear clapping, Ariadne trying to take out another sous chef, and Mal's voice floating above all of it saying, "Battle of the Egos ends in a tie! All's well with love and the world! And that's a wrap!"
When Eames wakes up in the morning, Arthur is at the stove making breakfast. Eames groans and rubs his face with his hands. "I have such a huge hangover," he announces, so Arthur shoves at him a home remedy. "Ah, I remember this. Brings back all the best memories of our drunken frivolities," Eames says, and his smile is groggy but so, so wide. He leans over and slides the flat of his hand under Arthur's ass.
Arthur says, "You know, I've been thinking."
"Damn," Eames says. "Don't hate me for saying this, but you overthink everything. That's what landed us into this mess."
"I thought it was you being an obnoxious prick," Arthur says viciously.
"But you told me last night you like my obnoxious prick. All ten inches of it."
"It is not--"
"I'm going to quit Iron Chef," Arthur says.
"Mmm?" Eames murmurs into his ear. "If you think that's a good idea. We'll all miss you terribly."
"I'm going to touch up my resume," Arthur continues. "And I'm going to find a job. A real cooking job with a good employer and a good restaurant."
"You can come work for me," Eames says.
"No, I want to do this on my own," Arthur says. Then he smirks. "Saito's made an offer though, and it's a pretty good one."
Eames scowls. "Saito can't poach you from me."
"Too late," Arthur says. "But I haven't finished yet. Stop interrupting me, you asshole. I'm going to be a real chef again. Going to get my hands dirty and full of grease. And then, when I'm good and properly famous, I'm going to go on Iron Chef and beat you."
There's silence for a moment. Arthur can hear the pan sizzle on the stove. Then Eames nuzzles his nose into Arthur's hair and says, "I'll be waiting."
Arthur is thirty. He falls in love.
"With me or this quail egg?" Eames asks.
"The quail egg, obviously," Arthur says. "You I've been crazy about all along."