the_water_clock: abstract painting (Untitled 1958 Coffee and Cinnamon)
the_water_clock ([personal profile] the_water_clock) wrote2014-07-10 07:41 am

FIC: Your Soul on a Plate (Scott/Allison, PG)

Author: Clio
Title: Your Soul on a Plate
Pairing: Scott McCall/Allison Argent
Rating: PG
Summary: Scott and Stiles have been cooking together forever so of course they'd be competing in the same season—but there's also this girl with dimples. Allison never had chef friend until Lydia found her, seconds after arriving at the competition—but there's also this boy with brown eyes.
(A Top Chef AU.)
Length: 10,000 words
Notes: Thank you as always for these reality competition AUs to [personal profile] honestys_easy for the brainstorming and the beta and the general cheerleading. I swear, I came up with the idea for the next Top Chef to be in Boston before I knew they were actually filming there this summer.
(Of course the dorm challenge wouldn't be at the ol' alma mater—they haven't let anyone film there since Love Story—but I couldn't resist.)

Scott knew that the producers were going to make a lot of his bro-ship with Stiles, and it would be annoying when he watched it back and they've reduced a complicated nearly-lifelong relationship to a bunch of dumb cliches. But he kind of didn't care, because Stiles was in Boston with him, like he had been pretty much every day since they were five, through their very first cooking jobs in high school, and then culinary school. Now that they'd worked their way up to chef de cuisine at two of the best restaurants in San Francisco, of course they'd go on Top Chef together.

"Me and you 'til the end, bro!" Stiles said, grinning for the camera as they left Logan airport.

Scott was still trying to get used to being filmed but he smiled back, of course he did. Their car drove through a kind of industrial area that wasn't in Boston exactly (apparently the city was pretty small) to the Top Chef kitchen. They'd have to cook before moving into whatever cool space they'd be living in.

Another car pulled up just as theirs did, and two women got out, a tall brunette and a much shorter redhead who looked vaguely familiar. The brunette grinned at them, and she had dimples Scott just wanted to dive into. He concentrated on breathing; after all, he was on camera.

"Hi, you must be chefs, too!" she said, walking toward them and extending a hand. "I'm Allison Argent."

Scott shook her hand. "Scott McCall," he said, nodding.

She turned to the other girl, who stood behind her with her arms crossed. "And this is—"

"Lydia Martin," Stiles answered.

That's where Scott knew her from—she'd been in a food magazine, nominated for some chef award, and Stiles had immediately put her picture on the fridge, followed her on twitter, and tried to find her on Linked-in.

"I'm Stiles," he said.

"What is a Stiles?" Lydia asked.

A producer ushered them inside then, where they got their chef's coats with the Top Chef emblem and stood around with the rest of the chefs—sixteen in all, evenly split between male and female.

Tom Colicchio was taller than Scott was expecting, and he realized it was because Padma Lakshmi was really tall—in her giant heels she was as tall as Stiles. Gail Simmons and Emeril Lagasse were there, too, and Scott was concentrating on not only not being star struck but also not getting too distracted by Allison, who was standing right next to him. Near the judges was a large table covered with a drop cloth.

"There won't be a quickfire before this first challenge," Tom was saying. "Since the pilgrims were faced with a life or death situation when they first arrived in Massachusetts, you're going straight to the elimination challenge. And you'll be given the same proteins to work with that they probably had available—only you won't have to catch them first."

The drop cloth was pulled off, revealing all kinds of meat, each with a little sign: boar, turkey, duck, rabbit, venison. There were also bowls with lobsters, clams, oysters, and mussels. And that was just what Scott recognized at a glance.

"Pick a protein, and you'll have three hours to make us a dish that says something about you as a chef."

They stopped then, and a producer came forward to hand them paper copies of the rules for the challenge. She read them out loud and took questions, the chefs checking out the proteins from afar all the while. Scott wasn't worried, other than vague first-time new-kitchen nerves. This was one of the challenges he and Stiles had prepped for, cooking all the weird products they could find.

The crew melted away and the judges went back to their marks, Tom with a little smile on his face. "Ready?" he asked, holding up his hand. "Go!"

Sixteen chefs went running across the room, and all Scott could think was what a waste of energy it was, from all of them. He was still next to Allison, and when they got to the table they both put a hand on the wild boar.

She grinned at him, and then grabbed another plate with her other hand. "Trade you for this rabbit?" she asked.

"Sure," he replied, taking the rabbit, because it really was all the same to him.

He and Stiles set up their stations next to each other, of course. "Seriously you let her charm you out of the boar?" he asked, while skinning a snake.

Scott shrugged. "I can cook rabbit."

"Whatever. I'm just saying, even Broody McHotterson over there would have to pry this snake out of my cold, dead hands."

Scott glanced over to the dude Stiles had indicated, who was all beard and eyebrows and piercing eyes. He seemed like the type that would be great until he was completely not great and exploding all over the kitchen. Sick knife skills, though, and he certainly knew how to handle a venison loin.

Stiles was making yakitori out of the snake, accompanying it with eggplant and sweet potato skewers. Scott was doing a mustard sauce and some greens to accompany his rabbit. Across the way Lydia was doing something with the oysters.

Allison was slicing up apples and had a giant bottle of whiskey on her station. A girl after his own heart, clearly. She glanced up, eyes meeting Scott's, and smiled.

He could cook and flirt with a girl at the same time. He'd been doing that since he was sixteen.

The judges praised his classic rabbit and Stiles's innovative snake, but they were in the big safe middle. Lydia, Allison, and the broody dude—whose name was Derek—were the top three. When they came back into the stew room Lydia announced that Allison had won. Allison accepted their applause, but when she had to announce who was at the bottom she looked genuinely sad.

She sat down in the chair next to Scott. "Congrats," he said.

She took the wine that Lydia was offering. "Thanks, but that's just the first one. Long way to go to win." She smiled again, and leaned in closer. "Promise I'll let you keep the boar next time."

"I'll hold you to that," he said, and they clinked glasses.

Some dude named Greenberg went home. Scott didn't remember noticing him in the kitchen at all.

Lydia had said the night before that so far Top Chef had been mostly Top Catering, and Allison had to agree. It was probably the most practical solution for so many chefs but for the last two challenges they'd catered parties of one kind or another, in teams of two or three. And now they were doing it again, and it was just—

Well, boring wasn't the word for it. They were still challenges; she still had a stab of fear every time they received new parameters; and she still hated quickfires. But after three rounds she'd settled into the anti-rhythm of cooking at odd times (so unlike the steady certainty of dinner service at home) and winning once and being on the top twice more meant that she trusted her instincts. She just had to keep clearing her mind of exhaustion and anxiety so she could follow them.

Luckily she'd made friends already. Allison, Lydia and Erica had quickly singled each other out as the women who would go the furthest, and staked out a table in the corner of the wrap-around deck at the condo, upwind from the smokers. Allison liked hanging out with them, but there were moments when she wondered if she was the third wheel on a very long date, mostly when they started talking about the chefs they didn't think would go very far, making each other laugh with increasingly catty commentary.

Other lady chefs were also welcome, though Jennifer and Kali had taken a strong dislike to Lydia for some reason and stayed away. Men were also acceptable so long as they were respectful, which meant that Scott and Stiles frequently sat with them. Sometimes Kira, Isaac or Boyd would join if they grew tired of the others, and they'd even lured Derek out once, though he tended toward solitude. Allison knew Derek casually, as they were both third-generation chefs from established restaurant families in Denver. His sister Laura was really the rising star, so Allison had been surprised to see Derek in a competition like this.

Her new friends weren't going to help her now, because through the luck of the knife pull she'd ended up on a team with none of them for the Thanksgiving challenge. She looked with envy across the kitchen at Lydia's organized team while the chefs around her argued and asserted their dominance. In her family's restaurants, Allison had been able to let her food speak for itself, and so was terrible at the alpha dog nonsense that was standard in many kitchens.

She cleared her throat, then projected her voice to cut through the squabbling nonsense. "Venison pie."

They all stopped talking and turned to her, and her face grew hot.

"I'm making venison pie," she repeated.

Jennifer, who was taking down the menu and seemed to be the leader, nodded. "That's fine." She crossed venison off the list of "products used at first Thanksgiving" the producers had given them, and Matt and Kali went back to fighting over the oysters.

"Enough history already, oh my god," Stiles said that night as he opened a bottle of rosé. It was still quite hot out at 10 pm and they were already sick of the sauvignon blanc that the house was stocked with.

Erica shook her head. "Spoken like a true Californian."

"Making cornbread dressing in July is unnatural," he insisted. "I know, I know, production schedules, but still."

Allison smiled and turned to Lydia. "How is Derek?" she asked, because she couldn't imagine how the two of them were working together, given that neither of them liked to take direction from anyone other than Tom and maybe Padma.

"He's doing the turkey and I'm coordinating the rest of the meal," Lydia replied airily. "We are professionals. Unlike your team leaders."

"Ugh." She rolled her eyes. "I'm making a savory pie and ignoring them."

"Meat pie, Mrs. Lovett?" Scott asked, grinning.

She smiled and cocked her head in surprise; Scott didn't look like the type for Sondheim. "Try a little priest?" she replied.

Scott had a charming laugh that made her want to laugh, too. "Oh my god, I love that movie."

That made more sense, as did Stiles's next comment.

"Yeah, Scott has a whole thing for Helena Bonham Carter. I've sat through A Room with a View way too many times."

"What?" Scott said, but he was blushing. "I like brunettes!" He paused, running a finger in the condensation on his wine glass. "Smart, talented brunettes."

"Mm-hmm," Erica said, looking back and forth between Allison and Scott.

"Oh my god, can we talk about something else please?" Scott said. Allison took pity and put her hand over his, and when she raised her eyebrows at him he smiled.

"Is this—can I join you?"

They all looked up to see Derek standing shyly near the table.

Stiles jumped up, nearly knocking over the wine. "Yeah, dude, have a seat," he said, and pulled up a chair next to him.

"Thanks." He set an empty glass on the table, and another bottle of rosé. "Thought you could use some more."

"Excellent, no, that's excellent," Stiles said, and poured Derek what was left in the first bottle.

Allison leaned closer to Scott, who hadn't looked at her since the Helena Bonham Carter teasing, and said, "Karma."

He leaned in too, smiling. "Pretty much," he said.

They stayed like that the rest of the night, leaning against each other, and Allison didn't think they were fooling anyone. She also didn't care.

The next day Lydia's team won, and Derek got the individual win for his turkey. Allison's team was on the bottom, but her pie was singled out for praise and she and some of the others were sent back to the safety of the stew room early.

"From now on, if we can manage it, you're always going to be on my team," Scott said, handing her a glass of wine.

"Or mine," Lydia added, and Stiles and Erica were nodding behind her.

They'd been worried, and it warmed her heart. "I was fine," she said. "Big teams just aren't my style."

When Jennifer, Kali and Matt came back from judges' table, silent but throwing hostile glances at each other, a chill came over the room. The rest of the chefs whispered while they waited through the deliberations.

"It was that bad?" Scott asked.

Allison shrugged. "Jennifer and Kali fought a lot, and Matt didn't help. I kept my head down and my mind on my dish."

"It gives female chefs a bad name," Lydia said. "Erica and I have worked together twice now and you don't see us sniping at each other."

"Oh we do," Erica said. "But constructively."

"Exactly my point," Lydia said.

In the end the judges decided that Matt's inexplicable sous-vide of dried corn with a cranberry foam was a worse crime against food than Jennifer's inability to lead the team or Kali's constant undermining of that leadership, and sent him home. They'd all have to endure the Jennifer-and-Kali show a little while longer.

"Maybe they should just fuck and get it over with," Erica said, and Stiles laughed so hard he fell out of his chair.

"Fuck yeah mise en place relay race," Stiles said. "Only the best quickfire ever."

Scott and Stiles had practiced for this one, too, not only with the tasks that had already been on the show, like onions and apples and mayonnaise, but also with everything else they could think of—dicing mushrooms, trimming a rack of lamb, cleaning shrimp. They were allowed to pick their own teams, and snagged nearby Derek because he worked his knife like it was an extension of his hand. Their three "lady friends," as Stiles referred to Erica, Allison and Lydia, were all on the other side of the kitchen, so their fourth teammate ended up being Jennifer, who always seemed to be lurking around Derek anyway. They were the red team, and the lady friends plus Kira were the blue team. The other four chefs made up the green team.

"This year we're doing things a little differently," Tom said, and with the usual flourish the table at the front of the kitchen was uncovered to reveal nothing but seafood. "You're going to get the meat out of three lobsters, shuck a dozen oysters, clean and shell a pound of shrimp leaving the tails on, and fillet a whole white fish. You have five minutes to work out which teammate takes which task."

Scott looked at Stiles and grinned. They were a lock, as long as they could keep Jennifer under control. Or feeling like she had the control. "So Jennifer," Scott asked, "which one would you like?"

"Lobster," she said. Which worked for them; if she got behind they could make up the time.

"Derek, fillet or oysters?"

"Oysters, definitely."

"Cool. Stiles, shrimp?"

He nodded.

"Awesome!" he said, giving Stiles and then Derek a high-five. Jennifer almost left him hanging, but gave in.

Jennifer wasn't as slow as Scott was worried she'd be. She wasn't fast, but she was precise and methodical, and all of her claws and tails came out whole. She didn't even look at the other teams, just kept moving forward until Tom blew his whistle to check Kali's work, which was finished but beat up so he set her to do one more. Erica finished first, but Jennifer was only just behind her.

Derek already had his glove on as Stiles and Scott switched out the station for him. Kira, going after Erica, had a little bit of a head start but Derek was like a machine, nodding to himself and popping open oyster after oyster as they all cheered him on in the din of the kitchen. He easily surpassed her, even though she was damn fast, and they went into the third round with a solid lead.

Stiles was up against Lydia and Isaac, Boyd having made up some but not all of the time Kali had lost them. "Keep your head down, man," Scott said, because he did not want Stiles to get psyched out by Lydia. "You got this."

"I got this," Stiles said. "Keep talking." He was pulling off the heads, then using shears to clip up the back of the shrimp and get the vein out.

"Your hands are amazing, man," Derek said, and then bit his lip, as if he'd surprised himself.

But of course it was just the kind of weird thing that would encourage Stiles. "Yeah, they are," he said, and he was on to peeling them now, putting the peels in the same bowl as the heads to be used for stock. "Check!" he said, raising his hand.

Tom looked his work over, and nodded. "You're good!" he said, and blew his whistle again.

"Oh my god I beat Lydia," Stiles said as Derek and Jennifer switched out the station.

"Dude, of course you did," Scott said, and plonked down the fish. He was relieved that he didn't have to scale the thing and determined not to blow their lead, because Allison was going to be fast. Jackson probably wouldn't be able to make up the time; the green team was out of the race. So he took his own advice and kept his head down.

Well, mostly. When they stopped while Lydia was getting her shrimp checked, Allison ran her finger slowly across her throat, then pointed at him, and he couldn't help but laugh.

"Eyes on the prize, Scotty," Stiles whispered in his ear.

"Naw, man," Scott said. "I'm good."

Tom blew the whistle again and Scott got back to work, skinning the second side and then carefully cutting the filet away from the bones at the center. He kept one side of the work surface clean so he'd be able to lay the fillets down and check them thoroughly for bones. Stiles and Derek and even Jennifer were shouting encouragement. The fish felt good. "Check!"

Scott couldn't even watch as Tom looked over his fillets. "Good work," he said. "Red team is first!"

Scott closed his eyes and collapsed back into Stiles's arms. They'd done it.

Allison's blue team finished twenty seconds behind them, and the green team another minute and change behind that. The reward was a minute of extra time on the elimination challenge for every four seconds of time from the quickfire, which gave them nearly a half an hour advantage.

"That might not seem like much," Tom said, "but it's a lot when you're cooking seafood. Tomorrow morning you'll be heading straight to the docks to select your own product, and tomorrow night you'll be taking over the kitchen at a Boston institution: Legal Seafood."

Out on the deck back at the condo they talked menus. Derek was now another regular at their table, maybe because he knew that Jennifer and Lydia didn't get along.

"Or maybe because Stiles has amazing hands," Allison whispered.

Scott's eyes widened. "You heard that?"

"The entire kitchen heard that." She giggled. "So what are you making?"

"I kinda fell in love with that fish we filleted. A nice oil-poach, some greens cooked in acid to cut through that, and a little sauce with some chili and garlic, maybe some ginger. You?"

"That fish was gorgeous. En papillote, colorful matchstick veggies, a little saffron. Just really light. I've been cooking so much game."

"Regretting that wild boar?" he asked, grinning.

"I never regret wild boar," she replied.

Scott didn't really need the extra minutes, but he was glad to have it so he didn't have to stress about whether his beet greens had time to cook properly. Stiles made an awesome shrimp thing with arugula and tomatoes over polenta, and Derek made a scallop dish with leeks that was so pretty you didn't want to eat it. Jennifer made something inexplicable with clams and ended up on the bottom with Kali and Jackson.

Scott, though, was on the top for the first time. The only other opportunity he'd had to listen to Tom talk about his food was the Thanksgiving challenge, but that was brief and in the context of a large team. Now, he was getting all kinds of praise for how perfectly cooked and seasoned his dish was, and he was glad he'd decided against the ginger. Allison and Derek were up there with him, and he totally assumed that Derek would get it, but the Legal Seafood guy said his name!

"Your dish will be featured on the Legal Seafood menu," he said, and how awesome was that?

"I'm so proud of you!" Allison said as they walked back to the stew room. "Of course I'm going to beat you at the end, but this is great!"

When Kali told them she was going home, Jennifer was already in tears, clinging to her, almost inconsolable.

"See?" Erica said. "Told you that they should have been fucking."

"Someone's projecting," Allison muttered, and Scott had to cover his laugh with a cough.

Allison had once been a morning person, but too many late nights (filming and unwinding from filming) had left her with a level of sleep deprivation that she hadn't seen since … well actually ever. She was running on a mix of caffeine and adrenaline from one challenge to the next. After Legal Seafood they did even more party catering, and while many restaurants did have a lucrative side business in providing food for large gatherings this was ridiculous.

Luckily they only had a few days of Jennifer moping as she went out on the challenge immediately after Kali's. Jackson was next, when they went to Fenway Park and tried to sell the Red Sox fans higher-end food (Stiles's team won that challenge partly on Derek's sandwich, partly on Stiles baiting the fans with his own Yankee-hate as a Mets fan). The day before they'd taken over the lunch service for Harvard freshmen, which did not amuse Lydia in the least. The wins so far, except for Scott's one time at the top, had been rotating between Derek, Lydia and Allison herself, and other than Thanksgiving she hadn't been on the bottom yet. Which actually made her nervous; she'd probably make a dumb mistake at exactly the wrong time and be sent to the purgatory known as Last Chance Kitchen. While she didn't want to rely on immunity, she did wish she was a little better at quickfires, which Stiles had been dominating since the second challenge, nearly always in the top and often winning. Allison was usually at the bottom, and was very glad there hadn't been an elimination quickfire.

She forced herself to get up, leaving the sleeping Lydia and Erica in their room, and came out to the kitchen to find Scott had made coffee already.

"You are an angel," she said, pouring herself a cup.

"Eight of us left. You know what that means."

Allison nodded. "That's another reason Lydia was so mad when Kira was eliminated last night. She really wanted to have an all-women team for Restaurant Wars, or at least be able to."

"Well, I don't want to cook against you. Or Stiles." He paused. "Or Derek or Lydia of course, but because they're so good."

"So you just want me on your team because I'm a brunette?" she asked, grinning.

He looked sheepish. "No, I just—I like being able to talk to you about what you're doing, bounce ideas off you. I wouldn't be able to if we were on opposite sides of Restaurant Wars."

"You know your math doesn't add up, right? You'll have to cook against at least one of the people you just mentioned."

"I know," he sighed. "But I can dream, can't I?"

The quickfire was to make a dish that exemplified the restaurant theme you wanted to build around, and for once Allison did not want to win. Being the head of a team for Restaurant Wars was like putting a target on your back; it was the challenge when good cooks got eliminated. She wanted to put her head down and cook, like she'd done for the Thanksgiving challenge. So she made a seared beef dish that was perfectly fine but a little boring, and called it strategy.

Of course Derek and Lydia won, and then they picked teams like it was kickball in gym class. The judges liked Derek's dish best so he went first.

"Boyd," he said—a solid choice. Boyd was a classic French chef, good at the details, often at the top but hadn't won a challenge yet.

"Allison," Lydia said.

Derek gave Lydia a strange look, and then said, "Erica." Erica looked as surprised as any of them, but dutifully walked over to Derek.

Lydia crossed her arms and tilted her head. "Stiles," she said.

Derek scowled at her, then regarded Scott and Isaac. "I can't break those two up. Come on, Isaac."

They went into their huddles, Lydia with her notebook out. She'd sold the chefs on a theme of fire, of dishes from various cultures all unified by their use of spice. In front of them was her dish, shrimp cooked with Korean gochujang and served with rice and a quick pickle of radish and carrots.

"I'll lose the rice and make that into a starter," she said. "We'll need another starter, two entrees, and a dessert or two. Suggestions? Oh and Allison, nothing like that beef dish. Don't think I don't know what you were doing."

Allison's eyes widened. "Okay, Lydia," she said.

"And I'm taking front of house," she went on, "so Allison, I want you cooking all the meat and keeping these two in line during service."

"Fine with me," Stiles said, shrugging, and Scott nodded.

They nailed down the menu quickly after that, and split up for shopping with Lydia and Scott off to the supply place and Allison and Stiles getting most of the food. It was all … surprisingly smooth. Lydia was a good leader and they were all happy following her, and each had a dish they could own and feel good about. Even prep later went quickly, and they finished nearly everything on Lydia's list.

Back at the condo they sat with their teams, still discussing the next day. Derek's team seemed all right on the surface, though Boyd looked a little dissatisfied and Erica wasn't grinning as much as usual. Derek was nearly as withdrawn as he'd been at the beginning of the show, but that might just have been determination.

Allison spent the entire next day waiting for the other shoe to drop and it just … didn't. The space looked great, the food was interesting, service went well after a few very small early hiccups. It was a lot of work in a short period of time, but it paid off. She couldn't imagine that the other team had done much better.

They were in the stew room first and got wine and glasses ready for the others.

"We should always cook together, obviously," Scott said.

"Well, except for the part where our styles are incompatible with Allison's and Lydia's," Stiles said.

"Details," Scott said with a shrug.

When the other team came in, their failure was written all over their faces. But none of the others had time to react before Padma was calling Lydia's team to judge's table. Winning was better than losing, of course, and while they all got a share of the praise, the win rightfully belonged to Lydia herself, who got a culinary trip as her prize. But sending the others back to judges' table was the worst, and both Stiles and Lydia were on edge until they returned to the stew room.

Derek didn't even make eye contact, just collapsed into the chair furthest from the others and buried his head in his hands. Stiles set down his wine glass and walked over, carefully putting a hand on Derek's shoulder. Derek relaxed ever so slightly, taking his hand, and Stiles sat down next to him.

"There was plenty of blame to go around," Erica said. "But Derek took it all on himself."

And for that—for taking on too much, apparently, and trying to run the kitchen from the front of the house—Derek was eliminated, but not without a lot of hugs and well-wishes.

"I'd better see you coming back from Last Chance Kitchen," Stiles said.

"I'd better see you when I do come back," Derek replied, and then he walked away.

Allison looked around the room and remembered the morning before when she'd teased Scott about his math. They couldn't all get to the finals; they couldn't even all have the people they'd grown to care about in the finals with them. She got along with everyone left, respected them all. She worried, suddenly, if this is the part where things got ugly.

Then Scott took her hand, and she thought well, no matter what happened in the kitchen, it would never get that bad between them. They wouldn't let it.

Lydia was in a mood, had been since judges' table, and they've all been giving her a fairly wide berth. Even Allison was tiptoeing around her.

"Now I know what you've been going through this past week," Allison said that morning, sitting out on the deck sipping coffee.

"Nah," Scott said. "Stiles just got quiet. Weird for him, weird for me, but not hard on anyone else. Lydia's furious."

Their eyes met, and Scott could see that Allison felt as he did—the judges hadn't been wrong to eliminate Erica. It could have been Boyd or Stiles, maybe, but it wasn't. It had been the same for Isaac the challenge before. At this point any of them could go home at any time, given the wrong challenge or the wrong circumstances or any kind of tough break.

Well, maybe not Lydia, and probably not Allison, but which of the three others would be left at the end was probably going to be the luck of the draw. Scott was just hoping that his luck hadn't been used up by having Stiles there and meeting Allison. He remembered what Allison had said just before restaurant wars about his math not working; it was even worse now.

Boyd came out on the deck then, and while he nodded at them he went to sit on his own as he often did. Scott felt a little bad about not having reached out to him enough or in the right way, but Boyd had never warmed up to anyone except Derek and Erica, and now they were both gone.

"Breakfast!" Stiles said, carrying a platter full of pop-tarts and waving Boyd over to their table.

"Are these all the pop-tarts that were still in the cupboard?" Allison asked. They'd been a sponsor of that dorm food challenge, so the house was stocked with them, and they'd become a popular late-night snack among the chefs.

He nodded as he slouched down onto the bench next to Scott. "We have two challenges left in Boston, so whatever happens, we won't get through all of them. Might as well pig out now. There's cherry, brown sugar cinnamon, and s'mores."

"Awesome!" Scott said, reaching for a pink-frosted pastry. The chefs sat munching and drinking coffee for several minutes before Lydia finally wandered out.

She stood assessing the table, head cocked, and then asked, "Who toasted these?"

"I did," Stiles said. "They've cooled down, but would you like one anyway?"

"Brown sugar?" she asked, pointing at one, and when they nodded she picked it up and examined it carefully, then another. "These are remarkably evenly toasted."

"I put 'em in the oven, spaced-out single layer on some half-sheets, turn them, rotate the pans. You know, the whole deal." His speech slowed as he noticed that everyone at the table was staring at him. "What?"

"You did all that for pop tarts?" Boyd asked.

"Hey man, if something's worth doing, it's worth doing well. Just because the quality of the product isn't awesome doesn't mean you let your technique fall apart."

"Spoken like a true chef," Lydia said, and took a tiny nibble from her pop tart.

Stiles turned to Scott, his expression a blend of shock and pride. "Thanks, Lydia! I really appreciate that!"

She shrugged. "Good work is good work," she said, and took another bite.

For the quickfire they drew knives with one of the five mother sauces on them and then had to do a non-classic preparation to go with. Stiles did a play on a tuna salad sandwich with salmon and hollandaise and won his fifth quickfire, though as they were so close to the end he got $10,000 instead of immunity. Then, unsurprisingly, they went to a classic French restaurant in Back Bay and after eating lunch were told that they were to replicate those dishes as exactly as possible.

Stiles hid it well for the cameras, but Scott could see that he was completely freaked out. Replicating a dish exactly was not Stiles's strength; he couldn't help adding his own little spin. They'd just hoped this challenge would come up when there were more chefs around and with less exacting standards than classic French cooking.

Between set ups Scott went to Stiles, sure there was something he could do to help, but Stiles didn't even let him speak.

"Let me go," he said.


"Dude, we won restaurant wars and the relay. I've won five quickfires and been on the top three times and Emeril says he looks forward to how I approach the challenges! I won at Fenway Park! I've done everything I came here to do." He stopped and smiled. "Maybe even a little more than that."

"You deserve this as much as I do," Scott said, shaking his head.

"I went the distance," Stiles said, shrugging. He put a hand on Scott's shoulder. "Let's get you to the finale so I can come back and be your sous chef. I can buy into your new place with the money I just won, be a silent partner."


Stiles pulled him in closer. "Boyd's got this, and Lydia's Lydia, so it's you, me, or Allison. I don't want it to be you."

Scott sighed. Stiles had always been a better strategist. "Fine."

Scott got the sole meunière, which was fussy and tricky and downright annoying but when he finished the plate it did look like the original. Boyd won with his beef tenderloin bordelaise style, and then Lydia and Allison were sent to safety. Scott had tried Stiles's Cornish game hen and thought it was awesome and, as usual, better than the original. But that wasn't the challenge, and at least Padma sounded sad when she told Stiles to pack his knives and go.

Scott hugged him, right there in front of judges' table, and Stiles said, "Dude, they're going to milk this."

"I don't care," Scott said.

In the stew room everyone wished him well, and Lydia told him to kill it in Last Chance so he'd come back.

"Not too sure I can promise that, given who's on top," he said.

"You know who's winning?" she asked, scowling.

Stiles cocked his head. "Don't you?" he said, and walked out of the room.

Lydia turned to where Scott and Allison sat together in the corner of the stew room and folded her arms. "Okay, who did he mean? Does he have inside information or something?"

Scott smiled; clearly he knew what Stiles had been hinting. "If you can't figure it out, I'm not going to tell you," he said.

"Well," Lydia said, waving one hand, "it doesn't matter to me. I'm certainly not going to face them, unless they come back."

Allison loved Lydia's confidence, was inspired by it really, but she didn't need to hear either of the boys posturing in response to it. Scott probably wouldn't, just to keep the peace, but Boyd looked dangerously close to saying something. "Let's just go back to the condo, okay?" she asked. "We have to start packing anyway."

The next day there was no quickfire—which seemed fitting, since Stiles wasn't around to kill it—but then Padma said they were having an innovation challenge, and both of the boys groaned. Scott, she knew, was just mad that Stiles hadn't stayed long enough for something that was exactly in his wheelhouse, but Boyd looked decidedly unhappy. Lydia seemed unconcerned, but then, she always did.

"I'm glad Matt isn't here for this," Lydia said. "He would have been insufferable."

Allison knew she was going to sous vide some lamb, so that was the protein done, and then she stood in the produce aisle for an embarrassingly long time waiting for something to speak to her. She had a bunch of cilantro in her hand, because lamb and coriander went so well together, and then coriander made her think of corn, and she had a sudden brainwave. She had just enough time to grab a dozen ears, some eggplant and tomato, and a few bunches of broccoli rabe before her shopping time was up.

Scott raised his eyebrows. His basket was full of seafood, root vegetables, citrus and vinegar. They waited until they were in the car to talk.

"I thought, a play on the classic steakhouse meal. Get the lamb buttery-soft like a good tenderloin, and instead of creamed spinach some broccoli rabe held together with pureed eggplant. The tomatoes I haven't figured out yet but they are so beautiful that I might leave that very simple."

"And how are you making corn into mashed potatoes?"

She grinned at how well he could anticipate her. "I'm not sure yet. Polenta is always so grainy. I might juice the corn, and one of the additives should put it into a form I can whip. Something a little heavier than a foam? A little more heft? I'll play around and see what I can do. What about you?"

"I'm making a ceviche with local seafood—lobster, clams, some whitefish. Serve it all on a super thin shredded Maine potato cake instead of tostones. Where you usually get some dumb bland cole slaw, I'm going to make a salad of rutabagas and turnips, good crunch. Kind of Mexico meets Boston."

Allison nodded. "Different and doable."

"Yeah. Can't wait to see what you're going to do with the corn, though."

Allison couldn't, either. They had a few hours to prep that night, so she got the eggplants roasting, the rabe cooking and the lamb trimmed. Then she settled down to the corn, juicing one ear and then working with a few additives.

But she couldn't make it work—it was all either too soupy, or too stiff, or still too grainy. None of it had the creamy texture of really good mashed potatoes. By the time they were packing up for the night, she had no idea what her starch was going to be. She was trying not to panic, but ended up bumming one of Boyd's cigarettes to have with a half a dram of whiskey. Even Scott's soothing presence didn't help.

That night she had a dream—a memory, really—of going to a steakhouse for her grandfather Gerard Argent's birthday. She was quite young; this was before her mother died, before her aunt was sent away, before her father pushed her grandfather out of their lives. They were at the local steakhouse that Gerard loved, but all tiny Allison was thinking about was the hot fudge sundae she'd get at the end of dinner.

She woke up with a start, and tried to remember as much as she could, including what was on the table. She had an idea that her unconscious was trying to tell her something, cliched as that was, something she probably would have thought of if she weren't so tired and anxious and stressed-out. But all she could picture was her own plate covered in—

Ketchup. Her plate had been covered in ketchup.

Grinning, she bounced out of bed; Lydia groaned but Allison didn't care, just made her way out to the kitchen where she started the coffee maker. And then, feeling restless waiting for caffeine, she did cartwheels on the deck. The sun was rising over the Atlantic, and she was going to the finals of Top Chef.

"Whoa," Scott said. "Guess you solved your corn problem."

She turned and he was standing there in pajama pants and a ratty t-shirt, his hair sleep-mussed, rubbing his eyes, looking as gorgeous as ever. She ran up to him and gave him a kiss on the cheek. "I did!"

"Awesome!" he said, grinning, a little surprised at the kiss. But he meant it, and that's why she'd kissed him.

Well, and those pretty brown eyes.

Back in the kitchen she made a corn-studded firm polenta, and once it had set she sliced it and proceeded to fry the heck out of it, piling the slices in a huge cast iron pan with a lot of butter. She flipped it several times, cutting into the crust so it would look rustic like the pan of fried potatoes she was emulating. It would have been better in duck fat, or schmaltz, or best in lamb fat but she didn't have time to render it before service. And the tomatoes had a purpose now, too; she made a simple chutney with cilantro to stand in for the ketchup of her childhood but marry better with the flavors on the plate.

Lydia was doing something very ambitious and precise, making a cage of various colored potatoes and putting it around a duck leg with a spiced cherry sauce and any number of other things; there was just a lot on her plate. It all tasted good—as always Allison had sampled Lydia and Lydia had done the same—but Allison wasn't sure it came together. Boyd had basically entirely ignored the challenge and made something classic and French with a few small tweaks around the edges.

Which was how Allison and Scott ended up the top two, and Allison won the final challenge of the Top Chef regular season. Tom said her meat was cooked perfectly and everything made sense not just from the steakhouse parallel but as food cooked together. Gail was similarly excited about Scott's ceviche and slaw and how it was like having New England on a plate.

It was odd to come back to the stew room with Lydia's fate on the line; she'd never been in the bottom in the entire competition. But the many things in her dish didn't go together particularly well, and Tom had said it was between a dish that was overly ambitious and failed, and one that wasn't ambitious at all but succeeded.

In the end, though, it was Boyd who was sent away, and Lydia whose place in the finale was secured.

"It's Derek, isn't it?" Lydia asked Scott. "At Last Chance Kitchen."

Scott nodded. "If Stiles is right, and he usually is about those kinds of things. How did you figure it out?"

"I hadn't had a reason to wonder about it before now," she said, shrugging, which was probably the closest she was going to get to admitting she had been worried that she'd be eliminated.

So Allison stood up and pulled Lydia into a hug, and Scott hugged them both.

"You people are very tall," Lydia said, but she cuddled into their arms nevertheless.

The show gave them all official, verified twitter accounts and encourages them to tweet during the show (no spoilers, of course). They tweeted at each other, too, but they also emailed and texted and Skyped and sometimes actually talked on the phone.

Or at least, Allison and Scott did. And Stiles did with Derek. And Scott was pretty sure that Lydia and Erica were still talking, too. It was a lot easier to flirt when there weren't cameras around, but since Allison and Scott were both very much in the competition, that little charge was still there. Scott had never combined trash talk with pillow talk, but he was learning.

Stiles was the last one to face Derek in the actual Last Chance Kitchen in Boston, where Derek won. But Derek and Boyd wouldn't go head to head until they got to St Croix. Scott was helping Stiles study up and try out the local cuisine, suspecting that would be one of the challenges.

Allison was doing that too, with her dad, who was also a chef. "He's a little weirded out watching the show and seeing his daughter flirting," she said.

Because of course the edit had made much of the two of them, how they could always be found near each other. And Scott and Stiles's friendship, too. Scott was just kind of … on the screen a lot. It was weird. He would have thought they would have focused more on Derek.

"Dude, you give good interview," Stiles said. So did he, which is why he was often the de-facto narrator of the episodes. Hilariously Lydia had very little that was positive to say about nearly all the chefs; she knew immediately who was struggling and why. Scott wondered if they'd show her near-loss at the end as some sort of comeuppance. He hoped not.

The two months away seemed like forever, especially as they were all in limbo, needing to go back. He and Stiles grabbed some shifts at the restaurant, tried to make life normal, but nothing was going to be like it was. They were laying on the couch one night after service, unwinding with a little weed, when Scott said, "Do you think it can work out?"

Stiles shrugged, as usual not bothering to ask what Scott meant. "Amber and Boston Rob met on Survivor and they've been married for almost ten years and have four kids."

He could have four kids with Allison, easy. "Get underfoot in our kitchen, though."

"Excuse me," Stiles said, raising his head slightly. "You and me are getting a restaurant together. Allison can have the place down the street."

"You aren't going to open one with Derek?" Scott asked, teasing.

"Our cooking styles don't mesh. Neither do yours and Allison's. Although, Derek and Allison, huh."

"Carnivore's paradise," Scott said.

It was super weird when Scott and Stiles flew to St Croix together but only Scott was being followed around by the cameras once they arrived. He hadn't missed being filmed but it was easy to get used to it. And anyway all that was nothing once he saw Allison. Their reunion happened in front of the cameras, but then so had everything else.

"Hey!" she said, and gave him a peck on the cheek. "Ready to lose to me?"

"I think it's the other way around!" he said.

It was good to see Lydia, too, who was always a little less intimidating in person than in memory, not because of her small stature but because she was, after all, just a person. A determined, savvy, incredibly talented and skilled person, to be sure, but not infallible.

The three of them went to the resort where they'd all be staying, and were warmly welcomed by Tom, Padma, Gail and Emeril. The Last Chance Kitchen winner was revealed with great ceremony, but of course it was Derek. Scott was genuinely happy to see him again, happy to cook alongside him in the roti quickfire, which Derek won with a dessert roti full of tropical fruits and a mild cheese. Tom offered him $15,000 or an advantage in the elimination challenge, and Derek didn't even hesitate.

"I'll take the cash," he said, and Tom raised his eyebrows.

In the car on the way to the market—they were buying food and doing a little prep today, and then catering a dinner party for the governor and his guests tomorrow—Derek said, "Everyone who's taken the advantage has basically made it into a disadvantage. I'd rather have the cash to put into the restaurant."

Scott cocked his head, because that sounded just like—oh. He started laughing.

"What's so funny?" Derek asked.

"You got a strategic advisor over the break, didn't you?" Scott said.

Derek looked panicked for a moment, and Scott just patted him on the shoulder. "Don't worry. We all have one," he said, and winked. He was pretty sure that Derek turned pink, and it wasn't from the heat.

That night they went out and after some interactions with some local Creole dancers the cameras packed up and left them alone, allowing them to meet up with the eliminated chefs who were also on the island, to work as sous chefs in the final challenge. Erica and Stiles immediately went to Lydia and Derek's sides, and it was nice to see them be able to be together and open without the cameras around.

It was nice to hold Allison's hand, too. Someone made a joke and while they were all laughing he looked at her, and suddenly he understood what Stiles had meant, that week he was eliminated.

"What?" Allison asked, looking at him.

"Nothing," he said. "Just looking forward to tomorrow."

She clenched her empty glass. "You mean the double elimination? I'm nervous as hell."

"I'm not," he said. "But I'll get you another drink." He kissed her temple.

The next day judges' table went on forever because they'd all cooked so well. Lydia in particular was on fire, probably because she'd been shaken up by almost not getting to St Croix after being on the top all season. Derek was his usual steady, determined self. Allison cooked like a dream, and Scott was pretty proud of what he'd put on the plate. When they were finally called in Tom said that this year's decision had been the toughest in all twelve seasons.

But even Derek didn't look shocked when they announced that Allison and Lydia would be in the finale. They had a tearful group hug, and Derek and Scott got their goodbye handshakes and well-wishes from the judges. Filming the packing-your-knives was super weird, and now Derek had done it twice. But Scott was okay, actually was kind of calm, because Allison was staying.

That night he left Stiles and Derek to it and snuck into Allison's bedroom in the suite. She was making lists, as she often did when she was trying to think her way through a dish, and her bed was covered with paper.

She looked up at him. "How do I do this without you?" she asked.

"The same way you got here without me. You're an awesome chef, Allison. I'll be there to help but you'll be fine." He started piling up the slips of paper from her little notepad. "You just need to get some sleep. You'll probably dream of some super awesome menu, and I'll help you make it happen."

"You're right," she said, nodding. "I'd just gotten used to bouncing ideas off you."

He sat down next to her, and took his hands in his. "Me too. Even after the show is over. We can, um, do that for a lot longer, if you want to."

"Yeah?" she asked, and there was that smile again. "I'd like that."

"Really? Cool!" Scott leaned in and kissed her and he supposed that was his life, that he and Allison were having their first real kiss only after he'd asked her to think about seriously dating him. "Think you can sleep now?"

"Sure. Would you—would you like to stay? Just to sleep?"

He grinned. "I'd like that a lot," he said. He kicked off his shorts and lay in the bed in his t-shirt and boxers, and set an alarm on his phone so he'd be gone by the time the cameras showed up—and made a note to pick up Erica, who he was pretty sure was in the next room.

Allison moved him around to where she wanted him which was, apparently, spooning her. "Thanks."

"Any time," Scott replied, and held her until she fell asleep.

Scott was gone when she woke up, and she might have thought it was all a dream except he'd left a smilie face note on his pillow.

She and Lydia had their breakfast on the patio of their suite, coffee and pastries and fruit, and it was actually very cozy. But then, Lydia had never bothered to put her game face on with Allison, so why should she start now?

"Good night?" Allison asked her.

Lydia smiled coyly; after all, the cameras were all around them. "Very. And you?"

"I slept well," she replied.

"You do seem calm." Lydia looked out over the ocean, then said, "I'm glad it's you."

"Oh?" Allison asked.

"The only chefs I was worried about from the beginning of the competition were you, Derek, and Scott. Oh, and Stiles, because he's such a wild card. But you're the one I'd wanted to be here with. Especially today." She paused. "Besides, it means a woman will win no matter what."

"Lydia, are you actually allowing for the possibility that you might lose to me?" she asked, cocking her head.

"It's never a good idea to tempt fate. But of course you could win. You've beaten me in the past."

"So have Derek and Scott."

"Not when it mattered," she said, shrugging. "Not when I thought I should have won."

Allison grinned. "Oh Lydia, we are going to be such good friends when this is over."

"Aren't we now?" Lydia asked, and Allison nodded.

The rest was cooking. Lydia chose Erica and Stiles as her sous chefs, and Allison picked Scott and Derek. With their help she planned a solid progressive menu, starting with elegant vegetable appetizer with a lot of knife work that she left in Derek's more than capable hands. The scallop she did herself, not wanting to trust anyone with the delicate sauce, but Scott took the fish. The guys did all the prep for the main course so she could focus on cooking the lamb, and they sliced a lot of fruit for the simple tarts she finished with, though she made the pastry. It was good, not too stressful, and said something about her—solid American cooking, elevated just enough to be special. Farm to table, sure, but thoughtful, and with flavorful sauces that enhanced their dishes. Service was a blur, going out to the judges' table with each dish and standing alongside Lydia to explain them, trying not to get worried at seeing her food and its usual level of perfection. Allison was putting her entire cooking life on a plate, and it was either going to be enough, or it wasn't.

(three months later)

Stiles and Scott moved out to Colorado shortly after filming was over. They staged at a few restaurants in Denver, getting a feel for the place, before deciding what they really wanted to do was put their money into a food truck and maybe, in future, a lunch place. Being coastal boys, they immediately found an affinity for the local fly fishing scene, and seafood became the foundation of everything they did. Stiles's flair brought the customers in, and Scott's genial manner made them feel at home.

But the real news in town was that an Argent and a Hale were going in on a restaurant together, a fine dining, up market, competing for Best of Denver sort of place. Not that it was going to be all white tablecloths and four different forks on the table, but no one in town could beat them for cooking meat. Stiles had been right; their cooking just fit together, as did their personalities.

What was amazing was how easy it was to be with Scott in the middle of their setting up two different restaurants. Her parents had always worked together, so she hadn't been sure about Stiles's plan when she first heard about it. But watching it come to fruition, she had to admit he was right. And they all made an effort to see each other, to support each other. Being two couples made it that much easier, and while she and Derek didn't have the close relationship that Scott and Stiles did, they did have a shared bond of growing up in very similar circumstances, and knew the other side of nearly every family story.

Allison and Derek weren't quite ready to open when the finale of Top Chef aired, but they had a viewing party in the unfinished space anyway, hosting backers and their own extended families. Stiles's dad and Scott's mom even came out from California for the occasion. The four of them cooked all day and laid out a spread that featured both their fledgling restaurants for friends and family to try.

It had been almost impossible not to tell anyone the outcome, and thank goodness Derek, Stiles and especially Scott already knew. And even though Allison was surrounded by loved ones, it still stung to hear the words, "Lydia Martin, you've just won Top Chef." What made her cringe even more was seeing herself teary-eyed but smiling as she congratulated Lydia, and then trying so hard to keep it together in her interview after it was over. She really was happy for Lydia. Allison had wanted to win, wanted it badly, but Lydia had probably cared about it more. Which was fine; they still talked on a weekly basis, sometimes more often. Allison was excited to see what her friend would do next.

As the show ended Stiles shushed everyone. "Guys, I know, I'm a traitor, helped Lydia win and everything but there's one more thing!"

And sure enough, on the big screen TV that they'd brought in for the occasion were Padma and Tom. "You've been voting all season using the Bravo app and on, and now we can reveal the winner of Fan Favorite, who will receive a $10,000 prize from Pop Tarts. Padma?"

"Your fan favorite is," she said, pausing and opening a folder to show a photograph to the camera, "Scott McCall! Congratulations!"

Tom was smiling in that proud way of his. "Congratulations, Scott, and thanks to everyone for making this another great season of Top Chef!"

Scott was stunned, but the others weren't even surprised. "Dude, I would have sued them if you hadn't won!" Stiles said.

"Oh my god," Scott said. "Oh my god!"

Allison hugged him, laughing. "How could you not be their favorite, Scott?"

"I … guess?" Scott said.

Talia Hale stood up and turned off the TV. "Let's have another hand for these four kids, huh?" she said.

Her father put an arm around Allison's shoulder. "You know you're the winner to me, right? You did a damn good job and you should be proud of yourself. Look at what you've built."

She knew he meant the space, and she was proud of that, but also of her partnership with Derek and her friendships with Stiles and Lydia and Erica and her new and precious relationship with Scott. She hadn't had any of that before Top Chef, either. "You're right, Dad," she said. "I am proud."

Later, when the space was cleaned up and everyone else had gone, Derek and Stiles wandered off to Derek's with the last of the red wine. Allison brought Scott home, poured them each a little whiskey, and they went up on the roof of her building.

"Glad you came?" Allison asked, and she didn't just mean that night.

"Yeah!" Scott said. "Two of the three people I love the most are here. San Francisco was kind of a lot. Colorado's better for me and Stiles, too."

Allison let herself look at him. She'd been doing that lately, now that the cameras were gone and they had some semblance of privacy.

"What?" he asked, self-conscious.

"Moonlight suits you," she said, smiling and resting her chin on her folded arms.

"Oh." He didn't seem to know what to do with that, but then he said: "Anyway, yeah, I'm really glad I came."

"Me too," Allison said, and leaned up to kiss him.