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Kitchen Nightmares

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Nico di Angelo hated Thursdays.

Monday had the shitty rep as the worst day of the week, and Nico had to admit he did see some sense in that, but Thursdays had always itched at him, ever since he was a little kid. It was nothing, after all, not the release of Friday, not the numb apathy of Wednesday, not even the dull frustration of Monday. Just close enough to the weekend to give you hope, and just far enough to snatch it away.

As Nico wove his way through the New York City traffic, the sun beating hot on his shoulders, he couldn’t help thinking that this particular Thursday was the Ultimate Bad Day.

It was a long, long list he compiled in his head, starting with the incessant heat and trailing down from the unsticky Band-Aid on his thumb to the smell of garbage hanging thick in the air, doughy and damp. He’d been roused from his sleep at the ass-crack of dawn by his stupid neighbors’ stupid rat-dog; he’d been forced to dodge three separate calls from his father, probably asking why he didn’t show up for the di Angelo family dinner the night before; and his motorcycle had refused to start for approximately fifteen minutes, making him late and frustrated and cranky.

Traffic was worse than usual on the way into Hell’s Kitchen, too, putting the final flourish on Nico’s bad mood, and he ended up squealing into the alleyway behind Fantasma Re Ristorante close to half an hour late.

He yanked his helmet off and moved his bike as far to the side as he could, entering through the back door the restaurant used for deliveries and personal business.

And the first thing he heard, as he strode down the hallway that connected the back door to a collection of tiny offices and the kitchen, was, “I know, I know. Boss is gonna flip his shit.”

The second thing was, “No, Micah, that isn’t edible!”

Nico groaned.

Steeling himself for the worst, he shrugged off the leather jacket he’d rode to the restaurant in and shouldered open the swinging door to the kitchen. Boss is gonna flip his shit and that isn’t edible, while not particularly pleasant greetings, weren’t particularly rare coming out of his employees’ mouths, either. It couldn’t be that bad.

Yeah, not that bad; only crisis, disaster, fire raining down from the heavens

Instead of the foretold Day of Judgment, though, Nico found Jason Grace, his executive chef, and Percy Jackson, his sous chef, sitting at the spindly wooden table they used for planning meals and taking breaks. The sleek, stainless steel appliances and shining countertops were nearly spotless, almost precisely how Nico had left the room the night before. In fact, it still smelled a little like cleaning product. The only addition was a stack of coloring books and an aggressively orange sippy cup, balanced haphazardly on the edge of the counter.

Percy held his five-year-old daughter, Micah, on his knee, bouncing her gently and trying to pry a wooden spoon from her grasp. She kept leaning forward to gnaw on the end, and Nico breathed a little easier when he understood that that was what the ‘that isn’t edible’ comment was referencing.

“Hi,” he said, and both Jason and Percy whipped around to face him. Was it his imagination, or did they look a little shifty?

Jason lifted a hand and grinned at him. “Hey, boss. We were expecting you awhile ago.”

“Bike wouldn’t start,” Nico grumbled, pulling up a chair to sit down next to them.

Micah reached out for Nico, squealing, “Uncle Nicky!” in her lispy, toddler-high voice. Nico smiled and held his arms out for her, allowing her to scramble up into his lap. Percy reached out and ruffled a hand through her crown of blond curls, an affectionate, slightly exhausted smile on his face.

“We’re thinking of changing the menu for tonight,” Jason said, pushing his thick-rimmed glasses up his nose. “We’re running low on thyme and coriander, so we might have to go a different direction with the specials.”

Nico nodded. “That’s fine. Bring back the salmon from last summer; that was one of our best sellers, and I think we’ve got a surplus from this morning’s delivery.”

“Good call.” Jason scribbled something down on a pad of paper. “Other than that, I think it’s just business as usual…?” He glanced up at Percy again, and Nico definitely wasn’t imagining the shifty eyes this time.

Micah blew her nose in the collar of his shirt and Nico winced. “Ew.”

“Ah, sorry.” Percy reached over and scooped Micah off Nico’s lap, pressing a kiss to the top of her head. “That’s not nice, you little bully. Apologize to Uncle Nicky.”

“Ugh.” Nico pulled a face. “Please never, ever call me that again.”

The doors at the other end of the kitchen swung open, and Annabeth Chase marched in, already in the smart suit coat and pressed slacks of her position as maître d’. She crossed the room quickly, fixing Jason and Percy in a sharp glare.

“You told him already, I presume.”

The two men winced.

“I was planning to,” Percy defended himself, cradling Micah to his chest like she would protect him (instead, she gurgled and chirped, “Mommy!”).

Jason nodded, a little desperately. “Yeah! There just wasn’t…” His voice began to die at the extremely narrow, extremely dangerous look on Annabeth’s face. “Um. There wasn’t… a good… opening?”

“We really were going to—” Percy began, and Annabeth started snapping something along the lines of, “Thank you for exactly nothing, Seaweed Brain—”

“Tell me what, exactly?” Nico interrupted, raising his voice to be heard over their bickering.

All three fell silent. Percy leapt to his feet, swinging Micah up onto his shoulders and shouting, “Time for a potty break!”

After he was gone, Nico repeated his question, a note of frustration creeping into his voice.

Annabeth sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose, jerking her head towards the front of the building while Jason inspected his fingernails. “I think you’re going to want to see it for yourself.”

 

It turned out, there wasn’t much to see. And that was mostly due to the fact that, directly across the street from the restaurant, was a large, boxy truck the ugliest shade of luminescent yellow Nico had ever seen before, and it took up about seventy percent of the view out the wall of windows that made up the front of the building.

There was an enormous, smiling sun emblazoned on the side, along with the words FOOD FOR THE SOL.

“What the fuck is that,” Nico said.

“A food truck,” Jason supplied, and then he leaped about a foot and a half backwards when Nico swung around to glare at him.

“I can see it’s a fucking food truck, Grace,” Nico snarled. “What I would like to know is why the fuck it’s parked outside my restaurant.”

“Oh,” Jason said. “Good question. I don’t know.”

“It’s been there all afternoon,” Annabeth said.

Nico pressed his fingers against his temples. “It looks like a traffic cone and a Crayola crayon mated and their offspring threw up a vehicle.”

Jason snorted and then quickly muffled his laughter with his hand.

Nico sighed and pushed his hands through his hair, twisting his fingers and pulling a little. “I’m getting too old for this.”

“You’re twenty-five, sir,” Annabeth pointed out.

“Irrelevant.”

Jason bounced up and down on the balls of his feet. “Want me to go get rid of it?”

Nico scowled. “Not worth it. It’s obvious they don’t serve the same type of food as us, so they won’t really be affecting our clientele.”

“It’s more the fact that it’s an eyesore,” Annabeth said. “To say the least.”

“No kidding,” Nico muttered. He drew in another deep breath and straightened his tie. “It’ll be fine. One day of looking at an ugly-ass van isn’t going to kill anyone.”

Back in the kitchen, there was a crash and a yelp of, “Micah, no, don’t touch that!” Nico gestured for Annabeth to go help her husband and she nodded, touching a hand to Nico’s shoulder as she passed, leaving Nico to stand by the door, glaring at the offending food truck like that would make it leave.

 

Nico wasn’t lying: one day of having the truck parked out in front of their restaurant would be more than manageable. But then Nico showed up to work on Friday, and there it was, yet again, in the same godforsaken place, glowing the same godforsaken shade of minion-yellow.

“What do you think, sir?” Annabeth asked him, when he walked out into the dining area and almost collapsed.

“I think I’m going to punch whoever owns that piece of crap in the throat.” But Friday came and Friday went, and Nico kept his fury in check, consoling himself with the idea that surely, surely the truck would be gone in the morning.

It wasn’t. And it wasn’t gone the next day, either. Or the day after that. In fact, it was becoming increasingly clear – by the lines stretching out along the sidewalk, all leading to the truck, and by word of mouth Nico was catching when he walked on the street – that the truck was all set to become a regular fixture.

A week passed before Nico finally snapped.

The crowd outside the truck was especially rowdy that night, and the lovely owner had decided to blast the worst collection of pop music known to man, accompanied by flashing colored lights and the occasional cheer. Nico was seething, several customers were complaining, and it wasn’t even dark out yet, for God’s sake – was the disco ball really necessary?

“I’ll go talk to them, boss,” Jason offered, but Nico shook his head.

“Thanks, but I think I’ll take this one.” A muscle jumped in his jaw. Jason gulped.

“Don’t do anything that’ll get you arrested.”

“Great, thanks, Mom.”

Jason’s smile was closer to a shudder.

 

Nico stormed out onto the street after making sure that his clothing was pristine, his hair flopping the correct direction, his shoes unscuffed. He’d never much cared what people thought of him, but tonight there was a hot, knotted coil of anger in his stomach, and his veins were pulsing with the virulent desire to look smart, composed, professional.

After all, he had the distinct feeling that whoever owned the Kmart-knockoff Mystery Machine was an enormous, disgusting slob. And an asshole. Probably some fat-ass balding jerk-off having his midlife crisis.

Nico hated him already.

Instead of waiting in the winding, serpentine queue at the front of the truck, Nico crossed to the metal door in the back and banged on it sharply. He only had to wait a couple seconds before it was being swung open, and a dark-haired guy, probably around Nico’s age, was sticking his head out.

“Yo,” he said, his voice loud and brass and colored with a heavy Hispanic accent. “Line starts in front.” He paused, looked Nico up and down, and then drawled, “Obviously.”

There was something about this guy that set Nico’s nerves on edge immediately, his large, brown eyes too clever – almost dangerous – his grin too pointed, the set of his shoulders too cocky. He was probably good-looking, Nico thought, all dark skin and lean muscles and messy black curls. But his handsomeness was undercut by a kinetic sense of trouble, making him attractive in a call-the-cops, clutch-your-purse kind of way.

“You in charge, here?” Nico asked him.

“Nah, bro,” the guy answered. “Though, even if I was, I still wouldn’t let you cut the line.”

Nico raised an eyebrow. “I’m here to see the manager, not eat my weight in French fries.”

The guy looked a little surprised, and then he laughed. “Your loss, ese.” He looked over his shoulder and shouted, “Oi, Will! Some hot, angry dude in a suit is here to see you.” Inside the truck was an unintelligible answer and what sounded like a pan falling.

Truck Employee #1 – his nametag identified him as Hi-my-name-is Leo – looked back at Nico and grinned at him. “He’ll be with you in a second.” And then the door slammed shut in Nico’s face.

Nico shouted, “Hey!” but the door stayed shut, and so he slumped against the side of the truck, keeping his arms tucked tight across his chest.

There was more clattering from inside, Leo’s voice mumbling and another answering him back, and then the door swung open again, and the manager stepped out, walking backwards, carrying a crate full of empty bottles.

“Jeez, I’m so sorry about that, Leo can be a little… abrasive.”

“That’s one word for it,” Nico agreed, while Food Truck Guy set the crate on the ground, rolled his shoulders, and straightened up.

“My name’s Will,” he said, turning around to face Nico. “I’m the owner. Is there something I can help you with?”

Nico blinked.

He opened his mouth.

And then he closed it again.

The only thing he could think was okay, looks like I was a little off on the whole “fat, balding jerk-off” thing.

Actually, “a little off” was probably the greatest understatement known to man, because it turned out that Food Truck Guy was probably the single most beautiful person Nico had ever seen. There was something impossibly vibrant about him, something alive and kinetic and almost painful to look at. He matched the summer impeccably, his eyes the brightest shade of blue Nico had ever seen, his hair golden and flyaway and pulled into a messy stub of a ponytail at the base of his skull. The smile he offered Nico was wide and genuine, framed by half-moon dimples. He was taller and broader than Nico, wearing torn jeans and a ratty U2 t-shirt that looked like it was from the 1980’s, both splattered with food stains.

Freckles, Nico’s mind supplied, and Nico wanted to kick himself.

“You’re parked in front of my restaurant,” was all he could think to say.

Will blinked at him, and then over at Fantasma Re. “Oh, is that your restaurant? Wow, that’s incredible. It looks really nice in there!”

“That’s not really the point,” Nico growled, anger seeping back into his system and taking some of the edge off the shock. “You’re disturbing my customers. I keep getting complaints.”

Will’s eyes widened, his smile wilting. “Oh, my gosh! I’m so, so sorry! I didn’t realize the music was disturbing anybody. We’ll turn it down a bit.”

“Great,” Nico said. “I wouldn’t want you to damage your eardrums as you drive away.”

(Nice. Smooth, di Angelo. Way to break it to the guy easy.)

Will’s eyebrows furrowed, his expression becoming less open and a little wounded. “Sorry, what? Drive… away?”

Well, since Nico was already being a dick…

“Drive. Away. You.” Nico pointed at the truck, deliberately making his voice as slow and condescending as possible. “Tonight. Sooner rather than later would be preferable, though I don’t really care as long as you’re gone by tomorrow.”

The hurt on Will’s face was shifting, rearranging. It looked like he was struggling to re-find his smile, but without much luck. Awkwardly, he reached up and scrubbed a hand through his hair, shifting nervously from foot to foot.

“Ah,” he said. “Well. I’m sorry, but I don’t think that’s gonna happen.”

Nico narrowed his eyes. “Why the fuck not.”

“Business is good here.” Will grimaced. “All the other decent places are taken. I want to be in a nice neighborhood. This is close to most of my employees’ houses. I can’t afford the moving expenses right now. Lots of reasons.”

“You’re a nuisance,” Nico growled, “and I was here first.” Shit, was that too far? He was starting to feel like a whiny kid, and he wasn’t here to a pick a fight… His prickle of regret faded, though, when Will raised an icy eyebrow, the sunshine child persona all but vanished.

“Well, you know what they say. ‘All’s fair in love and war,’ and whatnot. I suppose you’re just going to have to deal with me.” He chuckled a little. “Sorry to inconvenience you.”

“I’ll call the police,” Nico said.

“I have a permit, short-stack.”

Short-stack?!

Nico’s jaw dropped.

Will’s mouth twitched. “Is there anything else I can help you with?”

If I haul off and punch him, right here, right now, how much trouble will I be in?

A lot, probably.

Nico took in a deep, shuddering breath through his nose and said, his voice extremely low, “You won’t move.”

“Nope!” There it was. The grin was back, in full force.

“Great,” Nico breathed. “Awesome. Really fucking brilliant.”

Will’s eyes stayed gentle, but his expression looked much less welcoming now, a lot more like the kid Leo who answered the door. “I really am sorry,” he lilted. “It’ll be a pleasure being neighbors with you! Please take care of me.”

Too fast – unbelievably fast – he reached out and shook Nico’s hand. His fingers were large and warm and calloused, and Nico thought he’d probably be swooning if he wasn’t so close to committing murder.

“It was a pleasure to meet you.”

The touch, as well as that dangerous grin, lingered just a little too long, Will's eyes searing holes into Nico’s skin. And then, abruptly, he spun around and jumped back into the truck, leaving Nico standing alone on the street, staring at the truck’s chipping paint and wondering if he’d ever been this close to homicidal.