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They're stuck in New York, and it's raining. It's always raining, and he wants a hot chocolate from somewhere, anywhere but here.


It's a long day of filming, of eating and critiquing and eventually sending some kid they've gotten to love home, ripping up their dream (for now, he knows) then walking off set and trying to pretend that the reality isn't that real, until next week when they do it all again.


Tom was never melancholy, but the water-bruised sidewalk had a way of shaking the sunshine from his mind. Looking out the window from his hotel, his hands feel heavy from exhaustion, so he shakes them in the silence and wonders if he should get some sleep. He'd said goodnight to Padma not an hour ago, but he knew from experience that she would be prowling around the hotel until the early morning, despite her denials over breakfast the next day.


It's been a long week, he frowns, and thinks of his co-star's furrowed brow and tired eyes.


He thinks of his restaurants, and his wife; his kids and the career he literally carved from a kitchen cutting board. He thinks of a dark cocoa and white chocolate blended drink, warm, with an angora rug and his mom telling him stories of great presidents and even greater blue collar men.


It's been a long week, and he should sleep. But he can't do anything but put his jacket on and head for the elevator in search of a tall beauty with sad brown eyes.


--


She's surprised to see him at the bar, because he's not a big drinker and the food's pretty shitty to boot.


"Hi," she says, sitting beside him, and he smiles at her slightly; the smile of a man who's been away from home for too long and he signals to the bartender to bring a whiskey to match his own.


"Hi. I thought you'd turn up here."


"Well. Long day," she sighs, and he agrees with a twist of the glass in his hand and a half-nod that seems to just highlight the bags under his eyes. The lounge pianist plays something dewy that reminds her of twilight, and the bartender places her drink in front of her, with a wink and a smile.


"Tom?"


"Are you hungry, Pad? Like, really hungry?"


And before she can say a word, he's dragging her across the lobby under the curious gazes of other patrons, and she's smiling without knowing why.


---


Her hair is up because she's obviously tired, her feet are flat against sensible shoes and her "perfect" body caught up in the folds of a trench. Tom likes her better like this, where her shaped features are clean of makeup and she's something like a human.


They know each other, but don't "know" each other - he remembers the pain that creased her face when her divorce came through, but instead of prying, he'd prattled cooking terminology into the air and sat beside her, week after week, on a panel reality show that seemed to have nothing to do with reality at all.


He never asked if she was okay, because the New Jersey boy inside him just didn't know the words and the chef he saw in the mirror couldn't whip up anything to make her talk.


Taking a breath, Tom opens his mouth. "Loneliness. It sucks."


Padma sits across from him in the grimy booth, now, her hands crossed in front of her and a strange expression on her face.


"You look petrified," he tries to laugh, and she turns her face to the side without breaking eye contact.


"You look exhausted."


"Yeah."


She watches him silently as he grazes his hand over his smooth head and seems to be on the precipice of saying something, anything that would give her an indication why her co-host dragged her halfway across New York City to a diner dive that - and she was being nice, here - looked like it hadn't passed a health inspection in a decade.


"Did you call your wife?" Her accent hangs in the air, strange against the brash New Yorkians yelling orders to each other across the counter.


"Yeah."


She taps her finger against the sugar container, waiting.


"This place." He waves his arms around, the action splitting open his coat to show a grey sweatshirt underneath. "This was my first kitchen."


The surprise - and the image of a baby Tom flipping burgers, no doubt - causes her to laugh, a short burst, and he smiles.


"Best burgers this side of the Hudson. Bacon, real beef, cheese from here to Jersey. Best freakin' comfort food ever."


"Burgers. You brought me out for burgers."


"The best burgers, and after, the best hot chocolate you've ever had."


A mixture of sounds - the rain, the sizzling grill, her heartbeat and the patrons - seems to fade out as she closes her eyes and breathes in the smoky, diner air.


There's something fresh and alive kicking within these walls, a history of turning out Real Men into a forceful world, a story of a young New Jersey boy throwing together burgers before taking the world for a loop with his cooking, his pallet, his skill. Its something like a movie, a movie that ends the way it began and she feels the heaviness of the past couple of years pressing against her.


This place doesn't evoke any memories of her past. But it's her present that seems to be suck there, regardless of her location, and she's reminded of something Tom said moments ago.


"'Loneliness sucks'?"


"Yeah."


"I'm not lonely, Tom."


"I know. I know, really."


Without warning, he places his hand on top of hers, then gets up and sits next to her, the booth's vinyl screeching under his denim legs sliding across it.


"I just...it's really stupid, but you were probably needing an ear or something and I know you're far away from your family and it's completely babyish and...I miss my wife, y'know? And my restaurants, and all the dreams that came before them. I miss this joint, for Pete's sakes, and...I dunno, I just looked out the window and thought about how I know you, but I don't know you and...I just didn't want to have dinner alone."


Someone switches the jukebox on, and the rain pelts heavier outside their booth's window. Frankie Sinatra flows down upon them, and if it wasn't what it was, it would almost be romantic.


"Padma. It's stupid, but...It's my job to make sure you're okay, and it's your job to make sure I don't go hungry on paltry cuisine that I wouldn't even know how to pronounce thirty years ago so my wife doesn't go crazy and make me eat the contents of the refrigerator when I get home. And, y'know, that the contestants know we're not some king and queen of a Bravo TV show that no-one will remember in twenty years, and it's my job to stop gomers from getting in your hair."


Like a light, she gets it. She gets the tentative "hello"s and sideways glances when her divorce was announced, the frothy conversation and random slices of gourmet hams he made her eat, like an Italian mother, shiny slivers of meat she couldn't recognise until the taste filled her mouth with glory and she didn't feel sore for a few short moments.


She suddenly, brilliantly, gets Tom, a complex, easy man who she spent months on end with but didn't seem to understand at all, until he pulled her into a dark and windy street with no motive but to feed her and make her happy.


"Are you finished?" A half-smile pulls at her lips, and he visibly pulls himself back to take in her expression. "And it's a deal," Padma nods, and she touches her head against his because they're friends and that's what friends do.


He leans in, grinning, and kisses the top of her arm.


She smiles back, and their burgers arrive.


The rain comes down, and to them, New York seems a little bit warmer.


---

Fin.

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