"Hey boss, what's cooking?"
Beck stopped the rocking motion of his knife mid-way through a tomato. He had barely registered the doorbell that announced Travis's arrival, floating somewhere in the easy motion of the newly sharpened blade and the static-blurred classical piano that he had playing on the radio beside him.
He slapped Travis's errant hand when he reached around Beck for the red and green tomato slices, smiling when Travis hissed and briefly held his fingers to his chest. Beck held up the knife.
"Okay, Jesus." Travis scowled at him and leaned back against the counter next to Beck, who had to move half a step away again to regain enough room to maneuver.
"It's a family recipe," Beck said.
"You have a family?"
Beck raised one eyebrow at Travis's tone of surprise.
"Wow. Okay. Good start. Where are you from, then?"
"Chicago." Beck finished and stepped away from the cutting board. He dried his hands on the stiff towel hanging over the sink. "Wash your hands and put those in a bowl," he said, nodding toward the sliced tomatoes. He had discovered that things tended to go more smoothly if he gave Travis something to do with his hands.
Travis gave him a look to signal his unsatisfied curiosity and scrambled to clean his hands and find a bowl. Finished, Travis stood by and looked back at Beck expectantly.
"Sweep the floor," Beck told him.
Taking a half step closer, Travis pleaded, "Come on, you promised me you'd teach me."
"I did not." Beck said, because it was true. He hadn't promised anything.
"You can sweep the floor."
"Beck, baby. Boss."
"Sweep the floor!" Beck barked.
Travis threw his hands up in the air in retreat. "Fine I'll sweep the fucking floor." He marched over to where the broom had been left standing in the corner.
"Thank you," Beck said when Travis took his time about it, getting in the corners and underneath the appliances. Travis swept around and between Beck's feet when he was close to being done and laughed when Beck placed a hand in the middle of his chest and pushed him back a step.
Travis was still grinning when he returned from putting the broom away. He waited more or less patiently while Beck retied his apron and pulled out his notebook.
Beck unfolded a piece of paper and looked up at Travis. "You ready?"
Travis scoffed. "Born ready."
"Get me the sauce pot." Beck read out required ingredients and instruments just fast enough for Travis to pile them precariously in his arms and dump them on the counter before running to the stockroom for more.
"Where did you find this?" he asked, picking up a small bag of sesame seeds.
"Where you left it last week," Travis said. He arranged a handful of utensils in a large bowl.
"The three ounce ladle," Beck said, picking up the ladle that Travis brought him after a moment.
Travis pulled down the correctly sized tool down from the overhead hooks and switched it for the one Beck held after a hardly moment's pause. "Here you go, boss."
Beck frowned at him. Somehow Travis had managed to install himself in Beck's kitchen. Beck needed to be careful lest he make himself indispensable. "Don't you have better things to do?" he commented.
"Yeah! Let's get cooking." He clapped his hands together twice. "Chop, chop."
Beck clipped him lightly over the back of the head with the hand holding the recipe, smiling when Travis grinned and feigned hurt. He walked Travis through the set-up of a mole poblano while he kept working on the salsa verde he had started earlier. Somewhere between the onion and the cilantro, the radio program changed. At his back Travis was trying to dance in one place to Stevie Wonder and making more or less of a mess.
Sunday was Beck's favorite day of the week because it was the only day he was able to spend in his favorite place in the world with no one and nothing to answer to but his own inclinations. It was the day he relaxed, and experimented, and, if all went well, Monday was they day he switched up the menu for the lunch special. This time the next day, the kitchen would be swarming with his staff working the lunch rush, voices yelling, stoves fired, and hot water running through the dishwasher at regular intervals. Right now, it was serene and cool inside, radio on low, a clean counter all to himself, and a pest throwing peppercorns at the back of his head.
"Hey, Beck. Big boy. Where did you go?"
"Travis, I will put you on the ground. What do you want?" Beck said without heat, turning around.
Travis looked at him with hurt pride and turned back to the array of ingredients he had prepared, more or less to Beck's specifications. "What do I do?"
Beck reviewed Travis's work while the man leaned on his elbows over the counter and played with the peppercorn grinder beside him. "Don't do that," he said, when he was done adjusting the temperature under the only pot on the stove.
"What?" Travis shook pepper dust out of the grinding mechanism he had disassembled, and dropped it when Beck slapped his ass. "Jesus christ," Travis hissed, reaching for the rolling lid.
"Holy shit, that stung," he complained with a touch of awe, turning to look at Beck with one hand on his ass. "Do you discipline all of your cooks like that?"
"Just you." Beck had punched Travis and stolen him out from under half a dozen enforcers with guns and whips all within five minutes of meeting him. Travis had been practically begging him to push him around and show him his strength ever since. He supposed they had just got into a bad pattern. It was unfortunate, really.
"I'm touched." Still leaning against the counter, Travis bent his neck and spread his legs as if preparing to be frisked. "Hey. Do it again."
"What?" Beck looked around the empty kitchen as though searching for a voice of reason. "No," he said, when he realized Travis was serious.
"Come on, show me what you really got. You know you want to." Travis grinned at him over his shoulder and the smart-ass look on his face shared a memory of jungle heat, the thunder, the lightning. It was infuriating, and exhilarating. Beck smiled and pulled back his arm.
Travis yelped. "Oh my god," he wheezed, folding over until his face touched the steel counter. He recovered himself within one or two breaths. "Alright, alright. You're still strong. That's okay. But I still think you can do better than that."
"Are you kidding me? No." Beck backed up. "Hell, no."
Travis pushed himself up and turned around. "You're just a big softie," he said, clearly delighted.
Beck crossed his arms until Travis regained his composure somewhat. "What do you want, Travis?"
Travis sobered immediately. "I want to work here."
"Please, I'd be so good!" He pleaded.
"In case you haven't noticed, this is a professional kitchen. It isn't your playground, it isn't -- "
"Please, I'll wash dishes. I'll sweep the floors. I'll work my way up. I'll do anything you want. I'll prove it to you -- "
"No!" Beck shouted with finality, commanding silence. For a long second, Travis looked back at Beck with open hurt and betrayal. Beck's stomach turned over in guilt when he realized just how hard he had been on Travis. He was a self-centered brat, but he tried to be useful, god help him.
Travis turned his back on Beck and pulled out the rag hanging in his belt loop. He dropped it on the counter beside the cutting board. "Travis," Beck tried to recapitulate
"Don't worry about it," Travis interrupted him. "I said, don't worry about it," he said again, stronger, when Beck tried to apologize.
"I'll see you later." Travis pulled on the jacket he had left by the dish station, turned around, and was gone. Three seconds later, the bell jingled merrily in the front of the house when the door shut behind him. Beck closed his fists on the island counter in the accusatory silence that ensued.
He called Travis two days later on his cell while standing outside of an ice cream shop near his restaurant on the sunny avenue. People in cut off jeans and t-shirts swarmed passed him in either direction. "I want you to come in tonight," he said in lieu of a greeting.
"What? Shit. Beck? Tonight, tonight?"
"Yeah, tonight, tonight. Do you know how to operate a commercial dishwasher?"
Beck listened to the sound of rustling over the phone and realized Travis was probably still in bed. "Uh, no, actually."
"You can learn. See you at four?"
Beck could hear the grin in Travis's voice. "Don't be late," he said, and hung up.
"Watch where you're standing," a large man brushed by Beck with an unnecessarily amount of shoulder contact. Beck couldn't stop an echo from his previous life from assessing the other man's size and strength, his gait and where he held the tension in his body, how he was likely to attack or defend himself, in the few seconds that passed before the other man disappeared into the crowd. He shook his head and stepped in the shop, his good mood more or less undisturbed.
That night the evening rush was longer and more intense than usual, but it flew by at a steady, invigorating pace. With the addition of his favorite tagalong at the dish station, his line cooks didn't need to leave their places to refresh the silverware stock or wash their own tools once during the entire night. When he was not scrubbing pans and loading and unloading the machine, Travis busied himself with a spray bottle and rag. Beck took his eye off him after the first hour and a half when it soon became obvious that Travis had his station under control.
Beck was plating ravioli when he was someone nudged away from his spot at the window, a cold soaked-through t-shirt brushing against one elbow. Travis ran a hot, disinfecting rag over the table surface and got just as quickly out of his way. Returning the plate he was finishing to the clean counter, Beck jumped onto his toes when Travis slapped his ass, hard.
"You'd better watch it," he said automatically, embarrassed to notice the nearest cook glance up at them from where she was straining angel hair into a colander in the sink.
"Are you going to take me over your knee, boss?"
Off-balance and at a loss for a reply, Beck didn't miss the saunter in Travis's step as he wandered back to his place at the sink. He was distracted by a dark smear on Travis's threadbare jeans. He had managed to get a marinara stain on his ass already. Beck shook his head and cleaned his hands on the hot towel hanging under the counter. "Number 24," he called through the window.
"So, does this job have benefits," Travis asked, much later, long after the last plates had been cleared. Beck ignored him while he finished what he was doing with the calculator. He turned on the barstool he had set at the window counter to balance the days accounts while Travis finished cleaning up. The rest of the night's staff had closed the kitchen more or less without his supervision and left over an hour ago. For a few seconds Beck forgot what Travis had said to make him turn around, engrossed by the compelling view of the clean, sparkling space, reset to center and ready for the next day's service: a vision of perfection marred only by the sight of his disheveled little assistant standing in the middle of it. Travis's shirt was soaked through again from the final sink full of pots and pans he had finished washing and drying earlier.
Travis leaned on the mop handle. "Do I get paid for this or what?"
Beck pretended to consider that. "Did I say we were hiring?"
Travis laughed, loosening his grip on the mop. "Shut the fuck up. Wait. You're not serious?"
Beck held up his hand before Travis could wind himself up. "Do you really want to work here?" he asked.
"Um, of course I do." Travis leaned the mop against a counter and wiped his face on a semi-dry patch of his sleeve. "But you're asking the wrong question."
"What question should I be asking?"
Travis turned from side to side as though he had seen the shadow of a ghost. "Do you hear that?" He held one cupped hand up to his ear.
"Hear what?" Beck narrowed his eyes, tensing on the barstool.
"It sounds almost like, almost like raindrops?" Travis squinted with exaggeration at the ceiling.
"Travis, if you're fucking with me..."
Travis held a finger to his lips and started to sway back and forth on his toes. "Isn't that the thunder?"
"No." Beck put his fist down on the counter and pointed at Travis with the same hand. "No fighting in the kitchen!"
Travis stopped swaying back and forth as if he were in a gale and held up both hands in surrender. "Okay." He picked up the mop. "Okay, big boy. It's all good."
Beck turned back to his spreadsheets, more perturbed than he could account for. "I should pay you in swats to your smart ass," he muttered.
Travis replied unexpectedly a few moments later, overly casual, "I mean, if you want." Beck put his pen back down and turned to glare at him. Travis shrugged. He waved the mop around ineffectively. "You know. It's cool. Whatever."
Beck watched Travis move the mop head around on the clean floor with his head down for three seconds. "Get on that counter," he said, and stood up.
"Oh, thank god." Travis pushed the mop away, turned around, and placed his palms flat on the nearest surface.
"I thought for sure that you were -- wait, wait, really?" He tensed as Beck crossed the floor, untying his dirty apron as he went and throwing it in the vague direction of the laundry bag in the storage room.
"This isn't for my benefit," Beck pointed out.
Travis's fingers curled against the steel counter. He moved his legs apart nervously.
"Bend over," Beck ordered him, and landed an open hand to the marinara stain before he could change his mind. Travis squeaked and hurried to follow his direction, pressing as much of his chest as he could against the shining steel surface of the cleared island counter.
Beck slapped his presented backside in vague approval, half convinced that he wasn't doing it right and that Travis was going to call it off any second now. He shook his head in disbelief when Travis squirmed against the edge of the counter, urging him on with semi-comprehensible whines.
Since the moment Beck was first given the name "Travis Walker" and ordered to go fetch, Travis had managed to be only the most irritating, persistent, luckless clown he had ever met. And yet somehow, he managed to get Beck every single time. Beck had escaped hoards of monkeys, rebels, and gold baron assassins with him. He had stolen priceless artifacts. He had stolen Travis himself from every criminal boss that claimed to own him, including his own father. He had more than once walked into a trap half expecting it to be his last and, somehow, they had always walked back out, no thanks to Travis. There was no way Beck didn't want to slap his ass a few times for the trouble.
"What are you -- ?" Travis turned his head on the counter to look when Beck, growing tired of the odd angle, stepped away to grab a handy rag.
"Oh no," Travis moaned into the counter when Beck began to twist the wet towel around itself.
"How much do I owe you?" Beck asked, growing more cheerful by the second now that he had the upper hand.
Travis's eyebrows furrowed. "I've been here since four, so a lot. Like a lot, like -- " he startled when Beck tested the towel's reach by snapping it against the air a few times before landing one solid hit without warning on Travis himself. Travis flinched away and groaned something between a complaint and encouragement, pushing himself up on his hands.
Beck slapped his ass a few times and stepped back to swing the towel again, failing to get a good snap out of it on the first couple tries before he made it crack smartly again against Travis's left thigh. Travis cursed aloud, kept cursing when Beck replaced the sting of the towel with the weight of his hand.
Travis's shoulders drooped. "Could you," he glanced back and down meaningfully, jumped when Beck's surprised him with his palm glancing confidently across his right cheek. "Could you just, get it out for me?" he pleaded.
Beck rolled his eyes, uncomfortable.
"Come on. Don't make it weird," Travis persisted in forcing Beck to take a walk down memory lane with him.
Stepping back to toss the towel back on the counter, Beck said, "I'm not going to fuck you," and was surprised to discover that he meant it. He didn't even want to.
Travis slid to the floor so quickly that at first Beck was afraid he had fainted. Before he could react Travis was kneeling in front of him with his hands on Beck's hips. "Are you sure you don't want anything, big boy?"
Travis's stained t-shirt was practically transparent. His damp jeans clung to his legs and hips. He was definitely making up for Beck's lack of enthusiasm. Beck slid his boot across the floor in a straight shot towards Travis's groin.
"Holy shit." Travis's hips twitched forward against the light pressure of Beck's shoe, his grip tightening on Beck's hips.
Beck was self-aware enough to realize that while the skinny nuisance underneath him was not especially inspiring, Travis had a way of entertaining him. Beck had enjoyed whatever they had going so far and there was no reason why he couldn't continue to amuse himself, if that was even what Travis really wanted. "Can you take more?" he asked him cautiously.
"Yes! Please. Beck, please."
Beck pushed Travis's hands off his hips in annoyance when Travis tried to win him over with a little friendly petting. "Hold still." He looked around the stark room for a minute while Travis tried to not squirm too much against his ankle. The restaurant was eerily quiet, peaceful, but uninspiring in the man-on-man's-ridiculous-sidekick spanking area. Water dripped somewhere. Beck listened to the faint sound of a car passing through the back alleyway.
"Stock room?" A hesitant suggestion interrupted his thoughts.
Beck looked down at the man at his feet for the first time in over a minute. He smiled at Travis's wary, but eager expression. "You have thirty seconds."
He spanked Travis over a pallet Travis found layered with fifty-pound bags of semolina flour that had been draped in plastic. Travis palmed his cock more or less out of Beck's sight, his hips stuttering forward in between moderate hits that came in regular intervals to either side. The angle was such that Beck could better control what he was about and he grinned with pride whenever he could surprise a yelp or an expletive out of Travis by breaking pattern.
"Come on, I need -- " Travis said, seemingly disinclined to finish telling Beck what he needed.
Beck spread his palm over the middle of his back and pushed him down, hard. He used Travis to brace himself as he picked up the pace, and was relieved to see Travis's hand speed up discreetly. Travis choked as he came, breathing hard into the unyielding sacks of flour that Beck kept pressing him into as he watched with equal parts fascination, pride, and bemusement.
Beck's knees popped when he levered himself up on the nearest stable box. Back in the kitchen, he leaned with his back against the side of a freezer when his spine unfurled and registered its own complaint, his shoulder, one old injury after another quietly checking in.
Travis was still lying against the pallet with his hand down his pants when Beck returned a few minutes later. He tossed a mostly clean wet rag at Travis's back after using it to wash his own face.
"Clean yourself up. Clean the floor. Let's go." He lingered near the entrance to the kitchen while Travis did as he was told and more, collecting Beck's soiled apron for the laundry bag and cutting the lights. Beck went back in the stock room to flip the breakers for the rest of the house lights.
Travis dozed in the car on the way to his apartment when Beck offered to give him a ride, radio on low, time flashing with the early digits of the morning. He pulled the car up to the curb and shook Travis's shoulder. "Wake up."
Disoriented, Travis flapped his hand ineffectively at Beck and squinted at their surroundings.
Travis struggled blearily with the seatbelt in the dim interior, hesitating when he finally got it unlatched. "So, uh -- "
"I swear to god, if a single word comes out of your mouth, ever -- "
"Yeah, yeah, then it won't happen again, I know." Travis stepped out on the curb, groaning slightly as he straightened himself out and stretched. He leaned down to look at Beck. "For real, though, I need an hourly. I've kind of got a deal with my landlord right now, but I -- "
Beck laughed, cutting him off. He tapped the steering wheel impatiently. "You'll get one," he promised. He reached for Travis's offered hand and pushed away the attempt at a high-five. "No."
Beck shifted the vehicle into drive, eyes forward and center as Travis laughed incredulously and shouted, "You're still a jerk," in goodbye.
Beck pulled up to the stop sign and checked the rearview mirror. Smirking at the reflected view of Travis walking a tad more stiffly than usual up to his front door, he stayed to watch him unlock the door and get inside despite his inclination to abandon Travis to his own doubtful devices.