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A Delicious Distraction

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The sounds of a busy kitchen had always been soothing to Rodney. The sounds, the smells, the bustle… He loved the rush of sous chefs and line cooks as they tried to fill orders. It was why he’d worked so hard until he was head chef of his own very popular restaurant and he could lord it over the kitchen. Standing in the kitchen, shouting orders as cooks and waitresses bustled by, that was the very best feeling in the world.

Unfortunately for him, cooking and directing wasn’t the only responsibility of a head chef. The ordering and paperwork could easily be foisted on someone else, which he did at every chance, but the one thing he couldn’t pawn off was going out and meeting diners.

If it had been up to him, he would put it off and put it off, but Teyla, brilliant maître d' and genuinely terrifying person she was, made sure that didn’t happen. Under her direction, Friday nights became the standard time for him to leave the safety and comfort of the kitchens and tour the dining floor. Worse, he had to actually put some effort into greeting the guests. Teyla made very sure of that, and he wasn’t stupid enough to try to go against her. He might be the head chef and owner of one of the most popular restaurants in the city, but her smile more often than not made him quake in his shoes.

And speaking of…

“Rodney!” Teyla called, ushing through the swinging doors that separated the kitchen from main dining area. “The first rush has passed, it’s time for you to do your walk.”

“Yes, yes,” he replied, waving a hand vaguely over his shoulder, not wanting to turn and face the judging look she was no doubt giving him. It happened every week, right on the dot, but that didn’t mean he wanted to face it any more.

The noise from the dining room quieted a notch as the doors swung shut and Rodney signed, looking forlornly at the pan of chicken sizzling in front of him, before shaking his head. He turned, scanning the kitchen for a chef that looked like they weren’t quite pulling their weight. They could take over the dish while he had to go make friendly with the guests.

“Johnson!” he snapped, smirking a little when the woman spun, startled. “Take over this coq au vin for table twelve, and don’t you dare let it burn again or you’re fired!”

Johnson nodded frantically, pushing aside the carrots she’d been chopping and moved to his station. He watched for a moment, making sure she knew what she was doing, but knew he couldn’t put it off much longer. Zelenka was already giving him the eye from across the room and Rodney just knew the man would tattle on him to Teyla if given the chance.

“I need new employees,” Rodney muttered to himself, but headed for the doors to the dining floor.

The dining area was much quieter than the kitchen, but Rodney couldn’t find it in himself to appreciate that at the moment. He’d much rather be in the loud and bustling kitchen than having to paste on a fake smile and interact with the brainless masses. They might shower his food in praise, as well they should, but he found them to be absolutely obnoxious as a whole.

He made the rounds of the dining room as quickly as possible, asking how the food was and how the guests were enjoying their visit and smiling so hard he was a little afraid his face might freeze like that. People gushed and applauded him and wanted to shake his hand, and while it was quite warming to know his food was so well received, it was the same thing he heard every week when he did this. And really, he didn’t think praise from a bunch of schmucks who wouldn’t know pancetta from guanciale was worth that much.

Smiling goodbye to an overly touchy pair of older ladies, Rodney sighed a little to himself as he realized there was only one table left before he could escape to the kitchens. Even better, there was only one man at the table, though Rodney honestly didn’t know how a man so attractive-- despite the ridiculously messy hair-- could be eating alone, especially at a restaurant like this. Oh well, not his business.

“Hello, I’m Rodney McKay, head chef of The Atlantis Experience,” Rodney said as he approached the table. His smile faltered when the man barely acknowledged him, but he shouldered on. “I hope you’re enjoying your food this evening?”

The man shrugged. “It’s alright,” he drawled.

Rodney immediately felt his hackles rise at the casual dismissal of his food and sputtered, unsure of what to say to that. He’d never had someone not praise his food, at least not since his training days, which were many years ago. He made food people fought each other to be able to eat.

The man seemed to find Rodney’s inability to reply amusing because he smirked, leaning forward a little. “The fish was ok,” he said, “but all the stuff on top… a bit pretentious, don’t you think?”

“Pre- pretentious?” Rodney finally managed to get out, voice raising in a way he thought he’d probably be embarrassed about later. Already he could see nearby tables turning to stare, but he couldn’t find it in himself to care at the moment. He just couldn’t let disrespect like this stand. “How dare you? What do you even know about food? My food is the pinnacle of good cooking!”

“Sure,” the man said, nodding agreeably but totally insincerely.

Rodney felt another tide of anger rise within him. How dare this man dismiss his food so casually? It was by far the most preposterous thing he’d been forced to endure, and he’d had Kavanagh as a line cook for almost six months.

Before he could say anything else, he saw Teyla approaching from the corner of his eye, a concerned frown on her face. Good, he knew she could take care of this much better than he could. And probably with less likelihood of a lawsuit when he inevitably tried to punch the guy in his smug face. It was such a shame for someone so attractive to be such an asshole.

Without another word, Rodney spun on his heel and headed for the kitchens. He could hear someone laughing behind him, the sound grating, especially on his still raw nerves. Idiots, the lot of them.

***

Much to Rodney’s surprise, Teyla didn’t confront him after the hoopla on Friday night. Usually she would have been furious about him making such a ruckus with a customer, but for some reason this time she didn’t. He decided to take that as the gift it was and not mention it to her.

He had always been good at ignoring things he didn’t want to think about, so he didn’t spare even a thought for the incident as he made his rounds the next week. It wasn’t until almost the end when he came face to face with the man again, seated at the exact same table, that he remembered it at all.

“You again!” Rodney blurted out before he could stop himself.

“Nice to see you again too,” the guy drawled, a smile pulling at the corner of his mouth. He leaned back in his chair, making Rodney wince at the way it went up on two legs. The chairs in his restaurant were not supposed to do that. “I’m John by the way.”

Rodney sputtered a moment at the introduction, wondering what in the world he was supposed to say to that. This wasn’t exactly a standard interaction with a restaurant guest. “Er, nice to meet you,” Rodney replied, feeling lost. He shook his head, trying to gather his wits. “How is your food this evening?”

The guy-- John-- shrugged, eyes straying to the braised pork on his plate before returning to Rodney and giving him a once over that had the chef fighting back a blush. “It’s ok, a bit too sweet for me.”

“Too sweet?” Rodney said faintly. He knew his eyes were bugging out of his head and his blood pressure was rising dangerously, but he couldn’t seem to stop that immediate reaction to John’s dismissive words.

“Yeah,” John said, nodding amiably. “You could cut back on the brown sugar, you know?”

“I- I-” Rodney tried to say, then he shook his head, teeth gritted. He didn’t have to put up with this from some random guy, even if he was ridiculously hot. “No,” he said firmly, glaring. “You know what, just no.”

He could hear that horrible braying laughter following him as he stomped his way back into the kitchens.

***

Rodney spent the next week alternating between fuming over John’s amateur critiques of his food and looking forward to the next Friday night. He told himself quite firmly that it wasn’t because he wanted to see John again, it was merely because he would finally be able to tell John how absolutely wrong he was about Rodney’s cooking. That was it, really.

When Friday night came, he was ready. He’d practiced his arguments and refutations until he thought even Teyla would think he was polite enough. That was the hard part because polite wasn’t exactly his natural mode, but his pride was on the line, and that was worth quite a lot of effort.

As he made his way out to the dining floor, he stopped himself from looking around for John. He’d get to him eventually, and it would probably be better not to rile himself up when he still needed to talk to everyone else in the restaurant. Teyla would be proud of him, he thought, if she knew that he was practicing such restraint. Of course she didn’t, but the idea still stood.

Rodney was so distracted by these thoughts that it took him a long, confused moment to realize that John wasn’t sitting at his regular-- as much as two weeks in a row made regular-- table. He tried to look round as inconspicuously as possible, stomach dropping as he realized John was nowhere to be found.

In a daze, Rodney returned to the kitchens, mind whirring over the possible reasons for John’s absence. Maybe John really did hate the food and didn’t want to subject himself to it anymore. Maybe John hated Rodney and didn’t want to see him again. Maybe John had been in some horrible accident. Maybe the zombie apocalypse had started and John was on the front lines. Maybe…

He shook his head from those thoughts, not wanting them to get even more ridiculous than they already were. There was no point in dwelling on it, he was unlikely to ever find out the reason anyway. It wasn’t like he and John were friends or even really acquaintances, he didn’t owe Rodney a thing. It had been two brief, if frustrating, encounters. It didn’t matter.

Right.

***

Unlike the weeks before, Rodney found he couldn’t just put the matter from his mind and go on as usual. John’s absence would pop into his head at the most inopportune moments, making him very nearly cut himself shaving one day and almost ruin a creme brulee for the mayor on another. He didn’t think he’d been so distracted since he’d been pining after chef Sam Carter when they’d been line cooks together at The Mountain. But that really wasn’t comparable. It wasn’t like he was pining after John. That would be ridiculous.

Despite the fact that he rarely left the kitchens while he was working, he couldn’t seem to stop himself from glancing over every time the swinging doors opened, hoping to catch a glimpse of John. He didn’t even know if John ever came except for Friday nights, or even if he’d ever been at the restaurant except for those two times.

Really, he didn’t know anything about John at all, and he hated that he’d become so attached. He wasn’t usually like this, or at least he liked to think he wasn’t. Going from the looks he kept receiving from his employees, especially Teyla and Radek, his strange behavior was obvious to everyone. That wasn’t good, he needed to set a good example for his staff.

“Rodney!”

Rodney jerked his head up at the shout, grimacing as he realized he’d completely zoned out. The carmelized onions he’d been working on were a complete ruin, blackened to an almost unrecognizable mess. With a sigh, he scraped them off into the trash and set the pan aside to be washed.

“Radek, take over… whatever I was supposed to be making,” he told the sous chef, ignoring the concerned look he received in reply. He took another moment to pinch the bridge of his nose, willing away an impending headache, before turning to walk over to Teyla where she waited by the swinging doors.

“Are you alright, Rodney?” Teyla asked quietly as he reached her. “You have not been yourself these last few days.”

“I’m… I’m fine,” he replied, knowing he sounded completely unbelievable but unable to muster up the energy to fake it. Teyla would know he was lying anyway, she always had that sixth sense about her. The look she shot him told him he’d been correct, but she didn’t push for an answer right off. That was also like her.

“Why don’t we go have some tea,” she suggested in a voice that told him it wasn’t actually a suggestions and she wouldn’t take no for an answer.

He followed her out the swinging doors without a word, ignoring the looks he knew the other cooks were shooting him. They were probably coming up with all sorts of reasons why the maître d' was having to remove the head chef from the kitchen, and none of them would be good. He’d just have to deal with those rumors later after he’d found out himself what she wanted. He had a pretty good idea of what that was, but he occasionally liked to live in blissful ignorance. It was better for his blood pressure.

They sat at one of the small tables off to the side, far away from the smaller mid afternoon crowd. There was already a pot of tea and two cups on the table and Rodney couldn’t help but frown at them, knowing Teyla had already set up this intervention or whatever she meant it to be. He’d still drink the tea of course, Teyla’s tea was her only culinary strength, but he wouldn’t be happy about it.

“Is there anything you wish to talk about?” Teyla asked, pouring tea for the both of them.

Rodney grumbled vaguely into the rim of his steaming cup, eyes darting anywhere but her face. He knew as soon as he looked her in the eye he’d be compelled to talk, and he really, really didn’t want to talk right now. He could totally handle his issues on his own, even if he wasn’t quite sure why this was hitting him so hard.

“Fine!” he whined after only a few minutes of silence. He looked up, half expecting to see a smug grin on her face, but saw only concern. He sighed. She’d always been a much better person than him, not that that was really surprising.

“Fine,” he repeated. “I guess I’ve been acting odd this week. I just… got a little too attached to someone? And, well, you know me,” he continued with a laugh that was only slightly bitter. “Can’t let things go and I keep thinking about it and it’s distracting.”

Teyla nodded, taking a long sip of her tea with a considering look on her face. “Is this like Sam?”

“No!”

He wilted a little at the look his outburst earned him and shook his head, wondering where on earth he’d gone wrong with his life. Probably somewhere around the time when he’d chosen this all too perceptive woman to be one of his closest friends.

“At least, I didn’t think it was,” he admitted, and suddenly the words were just begging to be let free. “And it’s not really. I don’t even know this guy very well. He just came into the restaurant a few times and he kept critiquing my food. And he obviously doesn’t know what he’s talking about but he’s just so infuriating and attractive and his laugh is so stupid and I can’t stop thinking about him since he didn’t show up on Friday.”

Much to Rodney’s surprise, Teyla’s face immediately lit up. He frowned, wondering how his emotional pain could make her happy. Wasn’t she supposed to be comforting him or something?

“What?” he asked irritably. “Is my personal crisis that amusing?”

“No, no,” Teyla said, still smiling. “It’s just, I think I know the man you’re talking about. He sits at that table on Friday nights, yes?”

Rodney looked over to see she was pointing at the table John usually occupied. “Yes,” he said slowly. “You… you know him?”

Teyla nodded. “His name is John,” she said. “We have been friends for several years. I told him about you and invited him to try the restaurant since he just moved back to the city. He said it was the best food he’s ever tasted.”

“He… he did?” Rodney asked, wondering how on earth ‘best food ever’ translated to ‘ok.’ “He told me my food was pretentious!”

“Ahh,” Teyla said, smiling, and that was absolutely not an answer at all.

“What does that even mean!” he exclaimed desperately, grip tightening on his cup of tea until he was in danger of sloshing it all over himself. “Aren’t you supposed to be helping me here? I thought you were my friend!”

“Of course I’m your friend, Rodney,” she said, smile turning a little softer. He huffed, but settled back into his seat. “And I’m John’s friend as well. I would like you both to be happy. You said he… did not speak well of your food?”

Rodney snorted. “That’s an understatement,” he replied.

“I see,” she said with a nod, and Rodney wished she’d hurry up and get to the point. “You must understand that John has a hard time… expressing himself. I believe he was teasing you. That is his way of showing his interest in someone.”

“If you say so,” Rodney said, not quite sure yet if he believed her. He knew she only had his, their, best interests at heart, but she’d been known to misinterpret emotional cues before. He really didn’t want this to be one of those times. “So if he likes the food so much and is interested in me, why wasn’t he here on Friday?”

“I believe there was some emergency at his work. Nothing bad, it just took some time to take care of,” she assured him, and he felt himself relax just a little. “I’m sure he would rather have been here to see you. And I’m also quite sure he’ll do his best to be here again this Friday.”

Rodney flushed a little, hope fluttering in his chest. Maybe it was ok to admit that he’d been pining, especially if, as Teyla seemed to think, his feelings weren’t nearly as one sided as he’d thought. That was a sort of novel feeling, and it made everything else feel just a little warmer, a little brighter.

“Thank you, Teyla,” he said fervently, meeting her smile. Now he only had two days to decide what to do.

***

It took quite a bit more introspection than Rodney usually liked to indulge in, but by Friday night he knew what he was going to do when he saw John again. He could only hope that John would react as favorably as Teyla hinted he might. If not… well, it wouldn’t be the first time Rodney had been rejected.

Like the week before, Rodney made sure not to look around for John when he started on his walk around the dining floor, even going so far as to leave early enough that John might not even be there yet. He didn’t want to shirk his duties, and he knew that if he caught even a glimpse of the other man that he’d be tempted to. And his plan, if all went well, meant that he wouldn’t be at the restaurant much longer that night, so he kept his eyes averted.

Even so, he didn’t linger with any of the other guests. As he was crossing the room, he saw Teyla looking at him from her post and felt himself flush. He was pretty sure she knew exactly what he was planning, and he wasn’t really sure how to feel about that. Oh well.

Much to Rodney’s relief, John was at the table. He even smiled as Rodney approached, which was hopefully a good indicator that he’d be amenable to dating. Rodney had been frequently told that he had a rather acerbic personality, which John had already seen a little, and for some reason a lot of people didn’t particularly like that.

“Teyla told me about you,” Rodney said as he stopped beside the table, smirking when the smile on John’s face faded to a look of panic. Good, it was nice for John to be the one left wrongfooted for once.

“Uh, sorry?” John said. He glanced around wildly for a moment, looking anywhere but at Rodney, before pushing his chair back and making to stand. “I can leave.”

Rodney smiled and John stopped, caught halfway between sitting and rising. “That won’t be necessary,” he said, flapping a hand at him as an indication to sit. “Or well, I suppose it is, or can be, just not like that.”

“Ok,” John replied slowly, eyebrows furrowed. “I don’t think I know what that means.”

“Yes, sorry, I had it planned better than this,” Rodney said, flushing a little but very studiously not ducking his head like he wanted to. “But you know it’s always easier in the mirror than face to face, especially when that face is very attractive and obviously yours is, which I’m sure you know.” He coughed, feeling very self conscious. “Er, anyway, since you haven’t ordered anything yet, I was wondering if you’d like a private meal? Maybe somewhere else? Like… my place? For a date?”

John stared at him for long enough that he began to regret asking. It wasn’t like he knew John very well at all, and Rodney was very well aware that he was generally considered less than a catch. John probably thought he was crazy and Rodney had probably taken what Teyla had said the wrong way. And-

“Yeah.”

Rodney blinked, then blinked again. “Yes?” he asked faintly.

John finally stood up, a smile growing on his face, and Rodney felt his heart start to beat faster. “Yeah,” John repeated. “I’d really like that.”

“Good, good,” Rodney breathed out, the sudden panic completely leaving him. He cleared his throat. “So… should we go now? I can drive or-”

“I’ll drive,” John interrupted. “Just give me directions.”

Rodney nodded and led the way out, both of them giving Teyla a grateful smile on the way, which she returned. For once it looked like his love life might actually be working out, and Rodney honestly couldn’t be happier.