Characters: OC's; historical Doctor/Rose
Summary: A Heritage one-shot, occurring somewhere around Chapter 9. John makes dinner for Penny for the first time.
Author's Note: I decided to try writing ficlets as a way of easing myself back into the Heritage universe. This one is based on a suggestion by kalleah. The main story can be found here. Warm thanks to kalleah for beta and encouragement.
It was just getting dark as she rang John’s bell, was buzzed into his building. Standing in the lift, she scraped hair out of her eyes, tightened her hold on her shopping and overnight bags.
John’s door was slightly ajar at the end of the hall, light spilling forth, the sound of brass horns and a woman singing in a low register slipping out. Jazz standards – John must be in a good mood. Leaving the door unfastened after buzzing her in meant that he wouldn’t have to come answer it when she knocked, which meant he was probably in the middle of something.
“John?” she called, when she had shut the door behind her.
“In here!” he called, from the direction of the kitchen. There was a definite smell of cooking in the air, something with warm, earthy spices. She doffed her coat, hung it on a hanger in his closet, and went to find him.
John was indeed in the kitchen, with greenery-speckled cutting boards and used pots on every surface. A bisected onion rocked, forgotten, on the counter behind him. Something bubbled promisingly on the cooker.
“Hello,” she said, leaning against the doorway.
John paused in the middle of chopping tomato, turned halfway towards the door, and said, “Hello!” with a grin.
He looked adorable, hair a bit mussed, cheeks flushed from the heat, wearing a well-worn chef’s apron that was terribly cute on him. She moved closer to him, thinking of stealing a kiss, but hesitated: he looked a bit … messy, with juice on his hands and fresh stains on his apron. And it might not be a good idea to surprise a man with a moving knife blade so close to his fingertips.
John, back at the cutting board, was continuing to chop. There was a smear of something tomato-y on the back pocket of his jeans. “Just let me get this finished,” he said, over his shoulder. “Dinner should be ready in about … fifteen minutes.” He sounded very pleased with himself.
Kisses in fifteen minutes, then, she decided. “Smells good,” she said. “What is it?”
“Polenta,” he said. “With tomato pesto and black beans.”
“Here’s hoping.” He was scooping chopped herbs and tomato into a blender pitcher. He stepped back, to turn to the other counter, and bumped into her.
“Sorry,” he apologized. “Not a lot of room in here.”
“I’ll get out of your way, shall I?”
Out in the other room, she wandered towards a bookcase, glancing at the photographs hanging above it. He didn’t look much like the Tyler side of his family. The picture of his father, in its folding frame, sat closed on top of the bookcase, but she didn’t want to study it again, get caught studying it again. She had a feeling he’d had too much in his life of people seeking his father in him.
There was a wide variety of books in the bookcase – what was John doing with The Portable MBA in Finance and Accountancy? – but she settled comfortably into a chair with an illustrated edition of the Paston letters. So engrossed was she with the letters and illustrations – it was wonderful how much art had survived, and wasn’t it a pity that more hadn’t survived from earlier periods? – that John had to call her twice to the table.
He had the polenta, dotted with green bits of scallion and speckled with oregano, spread out on plates, with the shiny, fragrant black beans scooped on top, smelling of cumin and pepper. It was garnished with the basil-y, garlicky tomato pesto, in attractive stripes – John had apparently gone to the trouble of scooping his pesto into a squeeze bottle and drawing designs with it. It could have been a restaurant presentation.
John was good with food. She had seen him spread an attractive lunch for her, with store-bought soup and pate and bread, and now he had proven that he could cook and present food attractively as well.
He was pouring wine – a New Zealand pinot noir – into glasses as she reached the table. She leaned up and kissed his cheek, surprising a laugh out of him.
“What was that for?” John asked, on a smile, as he set down the bottle.
“No reason,” she said. “Just – you.”
She caught an adoring look as she seated herself. This, all this, and for her. She thought of her own little postage stamp of a kitchen and sent up a quick, forlorn almost-prayer that she could produce something adequate when it came her time to cook dinner.
“Smells wonderful,” she said. “Looks good.”
“I’ve never made it before,” he said. “It turned out not to be too difficult.”
“You’ll have to let me do the washing-up,” she commented.
“Oh, you don’t have to,” he said.
They began to eat. She tasted the pesto – fresh tomato; the winy taste of sun-dried tomato; a bit of vinegar – capers? – and lots of basil and garlic. Then she sampled the beans. Cumin, sherry – but, overwhelmingly, black pepper.
She swallowed it, took another bite. Pepper. More than anything else, the beans tasted like black pepper, overwhelmingly so, enough that it tasted almost like graphite, heat aside. And the heat was strong, burning the surface of her tongue.
Was this the goal of the recipe? Some acquired, sophisticated taste? If so, shouldn’t the pepper taste better? Had he used cheap pepper when the recipe was supposed to show off some specialty pepper? She glanced at him, and he was looking down, chewing, a frown coming into place on his face.
“The pesto is wonderful,” she offered, cautiously.
He said nothing in reply, then looked up a bit hesitantly, meeting her eyes. After a beat, he said, “I’m pretty sure it’s not supposed to taste like this.”
“The beans,” she said.
“This wasn’t what I expected. I must – something must have gone wrong.”
She didn’t know how to respond. She couldn’t say it didn’t taste so bad, because it did. Complimenting the pesto again would just sound feeble.
“Maybe you misread a measurement,” she offered, trying to sound encouraging.
“I don’t think so,” he said, a bit of strength coming back into his voice. “I’ve never had this happen before.” He sat up, tossing his napkin on the table. “Let me check the recipe.”
He was brisk now, getting up and heading back into the kitchen, with a faintly injured note in his voice that she recognized as part of the phenomenon of Male Scientist Confronting Mistake. He had the male geek’s suspicious curiosity about how it could have come about that he could be in error.
“Here it is,” he said, coming back into the room with the cookbook, sounding as if the evidence was on his side. “One tablespoon black pepper.”
“Isn’t that rather a lot?”
“Maybe it’s a misprint,” she suggested.
There was more silence, and then John said, “Even a teaspoon would be a lot.”
It was true. “Then it’s a bad recipe,” she said. “They can’t all be gems.”
No response from John. She tried again. “It probably would be quite good if you modified it to, ‘to taste’.”
“Well, it’s ruined now,” said John. But at least he was speaking again.
“Then you can make it another time,” she said, trying to sound upbeat. “It smelled so good – I bet with just the right amount of pepper, it would be delicious.”
“Mm,” said John, after a moment, as if recognizing that some acknowledgement of her effort was necessary. A moment later, he continued. “Well, we now have no dinner.”
“We’ll make do,” she said. “We could go out for something? Or – or, just make do. It doesn’t have to be fancy. We could just have cheese on toast. Do you have cheese?”
“I have cheese,” he acknowledged. “I have – I bought some Gruyere, for some onion soup. I have a bit of old cheddar – from the grocery; I thought I’d try one of their aged cheddars.”
“Well, that sounds terrific. Oh! Do you have any of the pesto left? We could have pesto on the cheese and toast!”
“I have more pesto,” he said, looking more encouraged. “Ah! And – this was going to be a surprise – I bought gelato for dessert.”
“I love the vanilla!”
“I know you do. That’s why I bought it.”
“That’s fantastic. So! Cheese on toast! What bread do you have?”
Cheese on toast is filling, if you eat a lot of it and follow it up with gelato. They sprawled on the sofa afterwards, listening to the music, John with his arm around her shoulders.
“That was good Gruyere,” he commented.
“Be good on the onion soup,” she said.
“Oh, no,” he said. “I’m not doing any more cooking for a while!”
She raised her head, to look at him. “Really?”
“Look what happens when I try!” he said.
“That wasn’t your fault,” she said. “You did just what the recipe said. It wasn’t your fault that it was … ridiculous about pepper.”
“But I should have noticed,” he complained. “I should have noticed that even a teaspoon of pepper is a lot of pepper, let alone a tablespoon. I shouldn’t have just blindly followed the recipe.”
She didn’t really have an answer for that. “I would have done the same thing,” she finally said.
He squeezed her shoulders without saying anything. She turned around, squirming, so she was facing him.
“You do know that things don’t have to be perfect every time, don’t you?” she said. It sounded ridiculous, like a line from a film, but it needed saying.
John made a slightly wry face, as if acknowledging the cliché of the question, but took it seriously. “I just want …” he said, speaking up a little. “I just want things to be good for you.”
“They are,” she said. “I want to be with you. I like spending time with you. What we eat – it’s nice when it’s nice – and you always serve a nice meal – but it’s not the reason I come here.”
“You don’t love me for how I feed you?” he said, humorously.
“Good food is good,” she said. “But I come here, go out with you, because I want to be with you. Not because of what you feed me or what we do.”
His eyelids were lowered, the lashes veiling his eyes, and his mouth was soft, vulnerable. He tightened the arm around her, pulling her to him, holding her close, her face buried in his shoulder.
“I think,” said John, when he had let her go enough to look her in the eye, “I think that you may be too good for me.”
“There’s no such thing,” she said.
“More than I deserve, then.”
“That’s not true, either.”
“In that case,” said John, “In that case, I think I had better get used to being happy. And showing appropriate gratitude, of course.” He hands were moving slowly up and down her back, pausing to savor the curve of her shoulder, the roundness of her backside.
“Gratitude?” she murmured back.
“What about—” and he whispered a suggestion into her ear. “How does that sound?”
She considered her response. “Appetizing,” she said.