The thing about Brad is that he’s usually always having a good day.
He’s always been like that, ever since he was a kid. He gets mad like two times a year. There’s almost nothing in his life that can’t be fixed by a swing of kombucha and a fond nickname. Jar two-thirds full, and all that jazz.
But now. But today. But. Well.
Claire is across the kitchen at her station, shooting the latest episode of Gourmet Makes. Brad can only see the back of her from where he stands—the fall of her hair, curled around slightly slumped shoulders, the way she’s leaning against the counter—but even thirty feet away, he can tell she’s not her usual dazzling self.
Well. She’s still dazzling. She’s Claire. She’s just a little faded today, that’s all.
And Brad’s been doing his best to resist monopolizing every fucking video she’s in lately—hanging in the background of Gourmet Makes instead of draping himself over her station, not bugging her when she’s in the midst of something, not letting that inexorable magnetic pull she puts out draw him to her—because he’s watched a few of them, he’s seen the way he looks at her, he doesn’t want to fuck things up for her, for him, for them—
So yeah. Brad’s usually a pretty happy guy.
But not when Claire isn’t happy.
And there’s no way he can hang back if he thinks he can make her smile.
“Heya, bub,” Brad says, striding up to her and leaning one hip against the counter. Sideways, so maybe the camera won’t catch the full force of beaming affection he’s sure is on his stupid-expressive face. He sees Dan roll his eyes, and ignores him. “Doin’ ok today, Half-Sour?”
Claire does this… this thing. Just looks up at him with those huge brown eyes, lashes all fanned out so pretty and delicate, the turn of her lips pink and soft. It sets his heart off galloping a mile a minute every damn time.
“Hi Brad,” she says. She’s looking at him like that now. Her head tipped back, so small at his side. Except today she seems even smaller than usual: half a version of herself, wilting and tired. There are pink-gray shadows beneath her eyes that he doesn’t like, and she’s standing stiff and a little guarded, like one strong wind could knock her down. “We’re making gourmet ring pops today.”
She’s tired, but she’s still smiling. At him. Like she just can’t help it.
Here’s a potentially awkward fact: Brad is super-freakin’-head-over-heels in love with Claire Saffitz.
“Oooof,” says Brad. He knows she hates the ones that involve lots of sugar work. He doesn’t blame her, frankly. “Rough.”
“Yeah.” Her gaze slips back down to the various pots of garish-pink liquid sitting before her, and she slumps ever further on her stool. “I—“
And then she stops. Barely has time to tuck her face into the crook of her elbow before she’s exploding with rattling coughs.
Brad has a hand on her back before he even knows he’s stepped forward, rubbing a soothing circle between her shoulder blades. Her skin is worryingly warm beneath the delicate pattern of her fluttery shirt.
“Hey,” he murmurs, lowering his voice, angling his shoulders so that Claire is blocked from the view of the camera as best she can be. He’s distantly aware of Dan and Kev and the rest of the crew moving around in his peripheral; he ignores them. Claire is small and soft and bent beneath his hands. “Claire. Take it easy.”
She straightens a little when she’s done, her hands braced on the lip of the counter. Brad wants to pick her up and hold her close and carry her away somewhere safe. Brad shakes that notion out of his head.
“Here.” Dan is handing her a glass of water. She takes it with an unsteady hand.
“Thanks,” she says, a rasp like her throat hurts. Claire sips slowly, leaning into Brad.
Brad lets her. Of course he does: circles an arm around her shoulders, props her up.
“Are you ok, Claire?” he asks again. Not a helpful question, and he’s talking too much as usual, but he’s never seen Claire this pale. He’s never seen Claire this willing to let him hold her up, to take help from the people around her with something a little more dire than pulling taffy or grabbing a wafer press off a tall shelf.
The crew has abandoned their cameras, and are gathered around Claire and Brad with hovering worry. Thank god there isn’t anybody else in the test kitchen but them right now: Brad knows she’d hate a crowd.
“Yeah,” Claire says, setting the empty glass down. She pulls herself away from Brad, slowly enough that Brad can tell she hurts. That realization hurts him. Claire shouldn’t feel anything but perfect, ever. Brad should be able to help her with anything—
“Sorry,” she adds. She’s trying to play it off. She looks like she’s going to pass out. She won’t meet any of their eyes. “I’m catching a cold or something, I don’t know. I’m ok. Let’s get this done.”
Brad and the crew exchange glances.
Claire is trying to sit up the rest of the way, pulling out of Brad’s hold completely. He lets her go, because he ain’t the kinda guy that’d hold a girl down, but he stays close. Already he misses the soft warmth of her body slotted against his.
“Claire,” says Dan carefully, using the tone they all reserve for telling her they have to shoot something again, or that her Starburst maybe aren’t perfect, or that they aren’t going to cut out any of her breakdowns from the final product. “Maybe you should go home. Take the day off. We’re ahead; you can afford a break.”
Brad thinks she’s going to protest. Claire, the perfectionist; Claire, who would work and work and work until her fingertips were burned to a crisp just to get a recipe right; Claire, who has never given up on a single thing in her whole damn life.
But she just slumps. Finally. Fully.
“Yeah,” she murmurs, one hand rubbing at that place between her eyes that Brad knows is pounding with a headache right now. Christ, she looks exhausted. Exhausted, and yet somehow still the most beautiful sight Brad has ever seen. “Yeah. Ok. Sorry, everybody.”
There’s a chorus of “Not a problem,” and “see you tomorrow,” and “feel better, Claire.” Claire smiles a little wanly at them all, slipping down off of her stool.
She sways on her feet. Brad catches her arm.
And there. Again. That look.
She’s got a fever going, Brad thinks. Only a fever would explain the odd glassy sheen in her eyes, the violent pink circles at the tops of otherwise pale cheeks. The heat radiating off of her. The way she shivers beneath his hand.
“You need me to take you home?” Brad asks her. Quiet again. Muffled under his breath, just for them. “I don’t want you gettin’ sick on the subway.”
He will, if she says yes. He’ll take her to goddamn Cape Cod if she asks him to.
She shakes her head, just like he knew she would. Weary, but cognizant. Brad knows she’ll be ok. She’s a grown woman.
Still. He’d like to help.
“I’m ok, Brad,” she says. She sets one of her slender hands over his, and her skin is dry and warm and soft, and he’d really like to kiss her. God, he really would. She smiles at him, and his stomach performs a lazy flip. “Thanks for the offer.”
“Anything,” says Brad, a little more gruffly than intended, and means it.
Brad can’t concentrate for the rest of the day.
They’re shooting an episode of It’s Alive—he’s making Yerba mate, and the whole process is just forcing him to think of her, and they way all she’d had to do was blink those eyes at him to make him give her his last bottle—and Brad is thankful that his MO for this show seems to be his scatteredness. Because boy is he scattered today.
He hopes she got home ok. He hopes she’s got everything at home that she needs. Hopes she remembers to eat plenty of garlic...
Brad glances up. Hunzi is staring at him around the side of the camera, his brow furrowed.
“What’s up, Hunzi?” Brad tightens the lid on one of his mate jars, and wonders if Claire has anything at home to eat.
Hunzi is staring. This is notable, for one reason: Brad is never doing anything normal during these videos, and Hunzi never stares at even his strangest hijinks.
Brad would make a joke about that, usually. Yell something loud, grin wide, bang out a rhythm on the countertop ’til Hunzi snapped out of it.
He’s just not in the mood today.
“You’re supposed to talk during these videos,” Hunzi says. Andy’s at the station behind Brad; Brad hears him chuckle, but doesn’t resent him. That’s ok. He wasn’t here when Claire left, so he can’t know. “You know. Teach the public. Be informative. You haven’t said anything for the last five minutes.”
“Oh,” says Brad. His hands are still on the lid of the jar. All of him is still, in fact. Usually he’s full to bursting with boundless energy, eager to do his job which he loves, eager to ferment the shit out of stuff and tease Claire across the kitchen. Usually, Claire is here for him to tease. “Shit. Sorry, Hunzi, I’m just spacing out today.”
Kevin is perched on a stool behind the camera setup, noodling around on his laptop, but he’s looked up at the course of this conversation. He glances tentatively at Brad, and then away. “Claire went home sick,” he says helpfully.
Brad sees the moment comprehension registers on Hunzi’s face. That makes sense, Hunzi’s face says. Now I understand, Hunzi’s face says.
Behind Brad, Andy mutters “oh.”
This would embarrass Brad—this way they all seem to just automatically realize that his bad mood is due to a certain pastry chef being absent, being sick, because apparently his state of being is so contingent upon her that everyone else knows, too—but suddenly, he’s just tired in a way he can’t explain.
Tired of hiding it. Tired of pretending that he cares less than he does.
“Yeah,” he says, shrugging, eyes trained on the floor beneath his shoes. “Well. You know.”
“Is she really bad?” Hunzi asks.
Brad looks up. Meets his eyes. Doesn’t shrug, because that movement feels too trivial for something like this. “She said it was just a cold,” he says. “So. But. We all know Claire.”
This is true. They do.
“Listen,” says Hunzi. “Let’s take five. You should call her, just to check up. Tell her we’re all worried.”
Brad recognizes this offer for what it is: an attempt to placate Brad. To make him feel better, to lift his spirits until the end of the shoot, because god knows all it takes is one talk with her to leave him smiling.
Not that they aren’t all worried about her, too—he knows they are, they all love Claire, how could they not love Claire—but this is for him.
He needs her. Even in the kitchen, even on a different shoot. She lives in a layer above his bones, intrinsic in his day-to-day operations, as much or more a part of his life than this job itself.
And even if he wasn’t in love with her, she’s still his best friend.
“Great,” says Brad, already unclipping his mic, already pulling his phone from his pocket and heading for the office at the back of the kitchen where he knows he’ll have some privacy. “Great, guys, I’ll be right back, zip-a-dee-doo-dah,” he says, and he’s FaceTiming her as soon as the door shuts behind him.
Claire picks up just before he really starts to worry.
When Brad sees her, his breath seizes in his chest.
She’s lovely. Hair all curling around her face, her glasses on, the edge of a pajama shirt—light blue with a pattern of spoons, oh my god, Brad loves her—peeping up at the bottom of the frame.
Now that he’s called her and sees that she’s clearly safe at home, bundled in her pajamas and doin’ a-ok—not fucking dying in a New York subway somewhere in Queens—he feels a bit like an idiot.
“Oh, Claire,” he says, bright and smiling, like she’d called him and not the other way around.
Claire laughs. Pushes a few strands of hair back from her forehead, tucks them behind behind her ear. She’s still got that glassy fever-sheen about her, flushed enough for Brad to know it isn’t natural, and even through her glasses, he can see how heavy her eyes are. She needs to sleep.
And Brad needs to hurry himself along, even though all he wants to do is linger here on the phone with her for the rest of the day.
“Brad,” she says. There’s a way she says it like nobody else. He’d know his name on her voice from a thousand miles away. His name, with a laugh and a smile and a tease all at once.
He waits for her to say something else, but she doesn’t. Just watches him, the corners of her mouth turned up faintly.
“Just wanted make sure you got home ok, Half-Sour,” Brad says. He hopes his face isn’t red. He has a feeling his face is red. “The whole kitchen nominated me to do the dirty work and call ya.”
That smile. Brad thinks he could look at only her for the rest of his life and he’d be happy.
“I got home ok,” she says quietly. The phone jostles a little as she shifts; pans up to show the back of her couch behind her head, cushions squashed to accommodate her. There’s a lamp on somewhere in the background, spilling gold across her face. “Sweet of you to check on me.”
“Well, you know.” Brad fiddles with the brim of his beanie. He knows he’s smiling at her way too fondly, but he can’t do anything to fix that. This is just how he looks at her. Hence the whole trying to stay out of her vidoes thing. “We all care about you, Claire,” he says, softer than he means to sound.
There’s a pause. A beat. She’s blinking up at him even through the phone screen, her lashes brushing her glasses frames.
“Plus, we can’t afford to lose the talent,” he says, louder now, and that gets the laugh out of her that he’s been angling for.
Her laugh is light and as distinctive as it ever is, only it trails off into another of those rounds of coughing. Brad flinches, sitting forward. Longs to be there, hand rubbing a calming circle over her lungs.
“Sorry,” she says, sinking back against the cushions once more. She’s still smiling, even though she has a hand pressed to her chest and the bruises ‘round her eyes are even darker now. “You might lose me anyway. Think I’ve got the plague.”
She’s joking, and clearly means for him to laugh, so he does: he hopes she doesn’t notice that it’s a little strained.
“Nah,” says Brad. He thinks of the feel of her, small and secure, pressed up under his arm. “Not if you eat plenty of chicken noodle soup, take your garlic, and hydrate.”
She tips her head, considering. “Can I just put garlic in my soup?”
Brad mocks affront, sucking in an exaggerated gasp, eyes rolling back in his head. He clutches at his chest. “Claire! You wound me!”
She’s giggling. Lighter than last time, no danger of coughs. “I guess that’s a no,” she laughs.
“You fuckin’ guessed right. Claire. My god.”
He loves the way her whole face lights up when she’s laughing at him. Like the sun is shining only on her. “‘S ok,” she says, and he can hear sleepiness blurring her words now, making them drip like molasses. “I don’t have any chicken noodle soup here, anyway.”
“I could come over and make you some.”
There’s another pause. Brad and Claire, watching each other through the phone, both of them still.
Brad should backtrack. He knows he should.
He can’t make himself speak.
“I—no,” Claire says after a collection of sections, held between them, still and close. “Brad. That’s—I’m out of your way.”
Brad swallows, throat dry. This goes past casual flirting with a coworker. This goes past sharing Starburst, past fond nicknames, past standing so close to her that her hair brushes his arm when she moves.
“You ain’t outta my way,” he says. That’s a lie. She is.
Claire rolls her eyes. “Brad you ride a boat home. My building isn’t… anywhere near any boats.”
Brad doesn’t have a good argument for that. Partly because it’s true, partly because she looks so damn cute that he can’t think straight. “I don’t mind, Half-Sour,” he says, too earnest.
She’s falling asleep over there. Brad can tell. Brad can’t stop fricking smiling at her.
“Ok,” she says at last, and shakes her head, and she’s thinking something but he can’t quite tell what, “Ok. If you insist.”
“I insist,” Brad says. “One hundred percent. Don’t bother fightin’ me, Claire, I’m dumb and can’t be reasoned with.”
“That’s the best thing about you,” says Claire, smiling at him, smiling at him, and Brad’s heart is still pounding when he finally hangs up ten minutes later.
Brad is Not going to buy fucking pre-made soup. Not, capital N. Not for Claire Saffitz.
So he takes a couple of ingredients from the test kitchen. So what? No problemo.
He leaves a note for Gaby anyway, just to let her know he’ll replace them. He’s not completely stupid.
Claire only lives about twenty-five minutes away from work, and Brad gets there in record time, arms full of ingredients, heart beating fast.
There’s a key beneath the welcome mat. Brad opts for digging that out and sliding it into the lock instead of knocking, because he doesn’t want her to have to get up if she doesn’t want to, and she knows he’s coming.
He slips the key in his pocket as he steps inside. He’ll replace it when he leaves.
“It’s me!” he calls as he steps inside, so he doesn’t freak her out. He’s never been in Claire’s building before, because somehow she always gets out of hosting the BA editor’s holiday party by saying it’s too small, so he stops to take everything in for a brief second: it’s light and bright and cozy-looking, a bookshelf to the right even though this is the foyer, enough clutter for Brad to immediately believe that Claire Saffitz lives here. It smells good. A scent that he can’t quite define, but one that is effortlessly Claire.
All of it is effortlessly Claire. He loves the fact that this is her home.
“It’s Brad,” he adds, kicking his shoes off at the door so he doesn’t track mud through her place, and making his way into the living room. It’s Brad. Like there’s any question. “How’re you—”
Brad stops, his breath splintering on an inhale. He wavers there on the threshold of her living room, paper bags of chicken noodle soup ingredients hanging from his hands, eyes wide as he stares at her.
Claire is asleep on the couch. She’s curved like a parenthesis into herself but still sitting up, legs bent around to the side, neck at an angle that looks uncomfortable, but like she was too exhausted to shift around anymore. Her chest rises and falls with an even pattern of breaths, and her hands are limp and curled slightly in her lap. She’s very pale, and her glasses are slipping off of her nose, dangling crooked.
Brad is so glad he didn’t knock. So glad his booming voice was a sound familiar enough to her that she didn’t wake up.
He makes himself look away. Staring would be creepy and unwelcome and… bad. Even if she wasn’t asleep, but especially now that she is.
So Brad makes his way into the kitchen and sets his ingredients down, gets it all lined up on the counter. Chops and dices and lights the oven, gets everything boiling on the stovetop, all without popping back into the living room to check on her.
But then he’s done. The soup is cooking and it just needs time, and Claire did look uncomfortable in that position, and she must be cold without a blanket…
Brad moves more gingerly than he can remember ever moving before, careful not to creak on the hardwood floor as he circles around the back of the couch and bends down before her. He tries to keep his breath steady, too; tries not to startle her to waking.
He sets his hand over both of hers, thumb brushing the pulse point at that tender-soft place on the inside of her wrist. Dark blue veins showing up through nearly-translucent skin.
Her hands look so small beneath his.
“Claire,” he murmurs. This is quiet, too. Quiet, so un-Brad-like. He finds himself wanting to be quiet with her sometimes. Wanting to slow down and sink into something a little calmer, a little mellower, here by her side. “It’s just me.”
She wakes up with a fluttering blink, a little sigh. She’s knocked her glasses off almost completely; Brad removes them, folding them carefully with hands that feel unsteady, setting them aside. “Hey there,” he murmurs, smiling. He wants to trace the tender curve of her mouth with his thumb, but she hasn’t given him permission, and he doesn’t know how to ask for it. “Let’s sit you up a little, ‘kay? Don’t wanna see you get a stiff neck.”
Claire’s lips curl up gently. Slow, blush-pink. A smile that cuts through him, collides with his heart. “Brad,” she says.
She’s still half asleep, and she’s easy and pliable in his arms when he gets a grip around her back and her shoulders and helps move her until she’s horizontal on the couch, her head resting on the throw pillow. Claire grips the collar of his flannel as he shifts her; her knuckles brush the skin above the fabric folds, and his pulse thrums.
“That’s it, Half-Sour,” he says. She’s still holding onto him. He can’t move too far, and he doesn’t want to: he just stretches up and balances above her with one hand as he grabs the blanket folded over the back of the couch, pulling it down and tucking it around her curves. “There we go.” His voice is barely more than a whisper. “Comfortable now, babe?”
The endearment just slips out. In a different setting he might be more worried about it, but he finds that anxieties like that can’t permeate this thing glowing softly around them tonight.
Everything is muted and gentle and warm. Claire is still smiling at him, her eyes heavy and half-lidded, and all it would take is a couple inches of movement for him to brush her fevered forehead with his lips.
He should have anticipated that seeing her like this, soft and deconstructed and sleepy and small, would break down all his reserves. All those flimsy-fragile walls he’s built up around his heart over the years, specially constructed to save himself from Claire Saffitz.
There’s absolutely nothing standing between Brad and incontrovertible, undeniable, unable-to-come-back from love. This is it. This is the end. Brad Leone: conquered.
“Thanks Brad,” she says, her eyes already drifting closed again. Her hand is going lax at his collar; he isn’t going to stand until she completely lets go.
“You’re welcome,” he murmurs. He kneels by her until his knees hurt, and even then he waits. Just a bit longer.
By the time the soup is done, the sun has fully set outside.
Brad turns of the stovetop off, humming absently under his breath as he finds Claire’s bowls and spoons, and gets a couple ready. He’s been here for about an hour and a half, and Claire isn’t really known for taking care of herself; he’d bet anything that she’s not properly hydrated and probably hasn’t eaten much of anything all day, so he’ll have to wake her up and get some food and water in her at least—
He’s in the living room in seconds flat, leaning down over the back of the couch, irrationally worried that something’s gone wrong in the time he’s been gone. “You ok, Claire? Need something? Anything?”
She laughs a little under her breath, gazing up at him. Claire’s still wrapped up in the blanket he’d draped over her, still nestled on that pillow, hair fanned around her head like some sort of mermaid or something. Without her glasses or contacts she has to squint a little to see him, nose adorably scrunched, and god, Brad is so fucked.
“‘M ok,” she says. She moves to sit up; Brad comes around the couch and helps her, an arm sliding around her lower back, bracing.
Claire makes some sort of sweet, muffled, sleepy sound, letting him adjust the blanket so that it falls evenly and securely over her lap. She touches the back of his hand with her fingertips and he stills, gaze going to her face.
“Brad,” she says, whisper-quiet, rough like her throat is hurting her. She’s shivering: that low, steady sort of shiver that comes of riding a fever out. He holds her a little closer. “Sorry I fell asleep.”
He shakes his head, drags his fingers soothingly up and down the fleece-clad expanse of her arm. “That should be the least of your worries, Claire,” he says. “I’m here to take care of you.”
Too honest, maybe. But tonight feels like a night of honesty. Tonight feels too tender and exposed for anything but the absolute truth.
Claire bites her lip. He wants to press her back into the cushioned embrace of this couch, hold her body safe and warm beneath his own. He wants to feel the heat of her skin on his.
“You’re really good at that.”
“You bet I am,” Brad says, husky and low, and she’s wrapped up in him and she’s blinking like that and her mouth is so close and, god, he loves her, “I consider myself an expert in the care and keeping of Claire Saffitz. ‘S a point of pride for me, Claire.”
She hums at him, still a little too weary for words. She tucks one of her small hands into his.
They sit like that, Claire’s head bobbing closer and closer to Brad’s shoulder the longer their silence builds. He doesn’t want to move, but this isn’t about him.
“Think you could eat something?” he asks. He’s running his thumb along the ridge of her knuckles, feather-light. “Drink something? Even if you don’t you gotta, Saffitz, Rapo’ll have me fuckin’ fired if I let his star waste away.”
She’s laughing again, which was his goal. “You made soup,” she says.
“Yes.” Her hand is warm.
“So I’ll eat it.”
“Atta girl,” Brad says, and doesn’t bother keeping his cheerful humming quiet this time.
The TV plays quiet in the background as they eat, lower than the sounds of spoons scraping bowls, the sounds of Brad’s steady stream of babble.
Claire’s a little more alert now. She eats slowly, but with a genuine kind of pleasure that makes Brad feel pleased, exaggeratedly happy that he’s cooked something she likes. That’s his test for anything he ever makes. Everybody in the kitchen could tell him a recipe is good, but if Claire doesn’t like it, it’s back to the drawing board.
“This is really good Brad,” she says, halfway done. Their elbows bump as they eat; Claire’s legs are criss-crossed, and her knee is butted up against his thigh. “Think I can get the recipe?”
“Not a chance,” says Brad happily. “This is a Leone family secret.”
She’s smiling at him, smiling at him. “Guess you’ll just have to keep making it for me whenever I want it then.”
He feels his face soften. Knows he would, if she asked. “Guess so.”
Claire moves like she’s going to stand when she’s done eating, but Brad gets to his feet first, takes her bowl and stacks it on top of his. He gives her an admonishing look; she grins.
Brad washes the dishes and dries them and puts them away neatly back where they belong. He covers the soup pot and makes room for it in her fridge. He puts his leftover ingredients in there too.
Then he goes back into the living room. Stands above her, looking down.
Claire’s eyes are liquid in this low golden light. She’s twisting the edge of the blanket on her lap between slender fingers.
He should go. Really he should probably go.
“Brad,” Claire murmurs, and lifts a hand up towards him.
Brad takes that hand. Brad bends down carefully, cradles her jaw in his left palm. Brad kisses her.
The sound she makes is soft and aching, like she’s been hurting for a while but she’s starting to heal, and god, does Brad know the feeling. Every brush of her hair against his knuckles is a punch to his sternum. Every hot-velvet slide of her lips against his is a jubilation.
He balances a knee on the edge of the couch. He braces her within the circle of his arms, and his heart kick-starts in his chest when she tangles her fingers in his collar to pull him closer, letting out another of those soft-sweet sounds.
Brad breaks away, and buries his face in the juncture of her neck and shoulder, and just breathes her in.
She’s stroking the curls at the naps of his neck. Brad thinks: this is forever.
“Is this part of the care and keeping of Claire Saffitz?”
Brad laughs. She shivers at the feel of that laugh on her skin.
“Yeah,” he breathes, holding her close, impossibly close, “Sure is, if Claire Saffitz wants it to be.”
Her mouth against his ear, soft and hot. Her voice in the air, fever-scratched and coughing-rough and beautiful. “She does,” Claire whispers. “She really, really does.”