nsync in black and white

Fiction by Pen . . . . . not real, made up, purely intended for entertainment

No Man's Fort

written for ullman for MTYG 2017

The train rattled its way from Waterloo to Portsmouth Harbour. Chris looked out at the November drizzle. Not the month he'd have chosen for a grand wedding, but hey. Rich people were different.

"How'd you get this job, anyway?"

Joey grinned. "By being awesome?"

"No, but seriously. Why you?"

"Apparently he liked my food. He being the father of the bride. Mr Assirati. When the PA got in touch, they said he had my card from way back."

"Your card? You have a business card? Why?"

"I don't, but I think I remember the guy. It was back when I was at Giovanni's, when Dominic was on holiday. We had a big party in and they called me over to say what a great meal they'd had." Joey shrugged deprecatingly, but it was obvious he was pleased about it. Damn right, Chris thought. Although it was mostly pretentious gits who liked to say give my compliments to the chef. "This guy told me it was the best osso bucco he'd ever eaten, including what his nonna used to cook, and asked for my card. So I wrote my name and mobile number on a bit of paper, and apparently he actually kept it and that's how I got this gig."

"That is pretty cool," Chris said, and leaned back into the first class seat. Not that first class meant a lot on this train, just a free coffee and a bit more leg room than he needed. "I mean, it's weird, but weirder shit than that happens every day in a kitchen, right?"

"Too right. I just hope," Joey said, "that I didn't forget anything. I've been working at it for weeks, clearing the menus with Susannah—that's the PA—and trying to figure out exactly what I'm going to need."

"Have knives, will travel, that's me," Chris said, airily.

"Yeah, well, you're just there as my sidekick. You don't have to do the worrying."

"And that's how I like it. But we're not going to be in the middle of nowhere, if you forgot something there'll be suppliers—I mean, they have to have restaurants in Portsmouth, so there must be suppliers. And if it comes to it you can nip down to Morrisons."

"Send my sidekick to Morrisons, you mean," Joey said, grinning. "I suppose. I just don't know how easy it'll be to get off, once we're there."

"Get… off?" A hideous thought came to Chris. "Dear God, we're not doing this on a boat? Tell me we're not doing this on a boat!"

"It's not a boat, it's a fort."

"Right, that's what I thought. So why would it be difficult to get to a supermarket?"

"A fort in the middle of the harbour. Some kind of defense thing that's been renovated as a luxury, uh, like a holiday cottage only huge."

"Are you serious? I thought it was some stately home on the Isle of Wight or something."

"Then you haven't been listening. I told you, when this first came up."

"Pretty sure I'd have remembered a fort in the middle of the harbour," Chris muttered, but he probably had forgotten, because it wouldn't have seemed that important at the time. When Joey first got word of the job, Chris hadn't known he'd be a part of it, but when Joey asked him to go along as sous chef he'd been eager to accept. It was only a few days work, but the pay was great. And Joey hadn't said it in so many words, but he'd really wanted Chris there as backup. "I thought," he went on as it occurred to him, "that you were happy at the Palace." Palazzo de Cibo, the pretentiously-named restaurant where Joey was currently working as second chef and right-hand man.

Joey made an unimpressed noise. "I'm ready to move on. I want my own kitchen. I'm ready."

"Looking to set up your own restaurant? Cool!"

"Yeah, I am. I don't know if you'd be interested in a job in a startup—"

"Yes."

"Take a bit of time to think about it," Joey said, grinning at him. "I haven't actually run my own place, and it might not last."

"You have in all but name," Chris said. "And I know you run a tight kitchen, and we get along, and yeah. I want to come work with you."

"Good. I thought I'd head along the coast to Brighton after we finish this job and scout around. I took a few extra days off."

"Ah! London-by-the-sea, gay capital of Great Britain. Nice."

"It's not quite as expensive there as it is in London," Joey pointed out, practically. "And plenty of customers."

"And," said Chris, "nightlife!"

"Uh huh," said Joey, with a brief grin that wasn't quite as enthusiastic as Chris thought it could have been, but hey. Joey was probably preoccupied with this job.

They fell back into silence for several miles.

"So what is on the menu?"

"Oh, now you ask!"

"I don't really care, I'll cook what you tell me to cook. I just wondered."

"Nothing too challenging for the first couple of days, while it's just the family. Around forty people, I think."

"Whoa. Some family!"

"The Assiratis will be there the whole time. I think the other family arrive the day before the wedding."

"All crammed into a fort for three days? Let's hope the wedding actually happens—talk about a powder keg!"

"It's supposed to be quite comfortable. They're bringing in another hundred and fifty guests for the wedding itself. Don't worry, there are resident kitchen staff and housekeeping staff who double as waiters and such."

"I bet we get to sleep in the dungeons," Chris said, gloomily.

"Yeah, I expect so. Oh, and we don't have to worry about desserts, or the wedding cake. They got a pastry chef to deal with that stuff. They didn't want a normal wedding cake, they're having the French style, profiteroles in a tall cone, what are they called?"

"Croquembouche."

"Yeah, that."

"Awesome!" Chris said. "I hereby declare my intention of befriending the pastry chef."

"Be my guest. Long as they keep out of my way while I'm prepping meals for two hundred people, we'll be fine."

"And we have, what, half a day before we have to serve the first dinner. Plenty of time to get to know the kitchen!"

"That's the plan," Joey said, and the train pulled into Portsmouth Harbour station, and they took themselves and their luggage off to the quay.

~~~~~~~~

"Welcome aboard," said the dignified, portly gent in morning dress. "My name is Burton, I'm the butler, the master of ceremonies, and the liaison with Solent Forts Limited. If you have any difficulties while you are here, please bring them to me. My word is law aboard No Man's Fort. Now, please follow me and I will show you to your quarters."

Kevin and Brian shared a discreet look of mingled awe and hilarity as they obediently followed Burton down a set of elegant stone steps, part way around the central area, through a doorway, down another set of steps, along a corridor and down yet another set of steps.

"Crew quarters," Burton explained, majestically. "I trust you will find everything to your satisfaction. I will send one of the kitchen staff to your room in twenty minutes to escort you to the kitchens."

"Thanks," Kevin said politely, and Burton inclined his head a fraction, handed over two key cards, and left them to it.

The crew quarters held bunk beds, a smallish wardrobe and two half-width chests of drawers, a two-seater sofa, a flat screen television and a low table. There was a small window, rather too high to show much of the world outside, but the pictures on the slightly curved outer wall appeared to be of the harbour on a sunny day. He recognised Southsea Castle.

"This is okay," Brian said, and began to unpack his suitcase.

"I've certainly had worse. I wonder if the permanent staff get better rooms." Kevin smoothed his immaculate whites and wondered whether to put them on at once. Yes, he decided. If he was going to be shown the kitchen, he should be dressed for the kitchen. Besides, he'd need to get started on tonight's dessert before long, and he didn't want to waste time getting lost in this place if he had to go back to his room. He compromised by not donning his hat. That could wait until it was time to get started. Besides, he preferred to keep his full uniform for the kitchen, not for anonymous corridors.

The promised staff member—in long-sleeved pale blue with a white apron, which proved to be the on-board kitchen uniform—showed up, introduced herself as Louella, and took them along to the kitchen, where the most senior of the resident sous chefs took them through the kitchen in detail. Kevin's requested supplies were all here, as promised, and he was pleased to see everything was arranged in an orderly way. Louella looked pinkly gratified when he expressed his satisfaction, and explained that she was specialising in patisserie at the moment and hoped to be of assistance to him as a commis.

"We have a new head chef coming just for the wedding," she explained. "I believe he's due in on the next boat. There's usually a resident chef de cuisine but he's been given time off because the hirers wanted to bring in their own people."

Good. It was about time Kevin got to meet the head chef. All their communication so far had come via Susannah, and he was tired of it. Every little detail seemed to have been sent round to both the brides, the brides' mothers and fathers, the wedding planner and who knew who else before his suggestions—and decisions—could be approved. It would be so much pleasanter to speak to another professional, someone who understood food and kitchens and ingredients and didn't have to be told why it would be preferable not to serve cheese and spinach puffs followed by Beef Wellington followed by mille feuilles. Amateurs. Just give him a list of what was forbidden—Kevin was willing to concede to allergies and ethical food choices—and let the professionals get on with the job.

Still, it was their wedding, he supposed.

There was a cheerful eruption at the far end of the kitchen, signalling the entrance of the chef de cuisine who—no. No. Seriously? No.

Joseph Anthony Fatone was walking through the kitchen towards him. And Chris Kirkpatrick, inevitably.

"Oops," Brian said, under his breath.

"Fatone," Kevin said, coolly.

"Oh, for fuck's sake," said Fatone, not coolly at all. Kevin figured he had won that round.

But with both of them trapped on a fortified island in the middle of Portsmouth Harbour, the next few days were going to be the stuff of nightmares.

~~~~~~~~

Joey directed the dinner prep and tried not to let his feelings show. Two days from now he would have to cook a truly impressive meal for two hundred people, so he needed to figure out how to work with his kitchen staff. Also, they knew the kitchen and the fort, so he'd be relying on them for an awful lot. He must not let them feel him seething. A cheerful, efficient atmosphere was what he needed, and he was going to smile and encourage and the team was going to work just fine.

And he was seething, he really was. He'd been completely ambushed. He'd almost blame Kevin Richardson for the whole thing, except that in all justice he couldn't figure out a way that Kevin could have organised it like this.

He checked on a couple of stations, yes, good, everything seemed to be going nicely. It was a 'cosy' family meal tonight, just thirty-two people to feed, four of them children. This was the Assirati family, and he was feeding them polletto alla diavola with an option of baked cod with a pistachio crust. He had a pizza option at the ready in case any of the kids balked at the spiced chicken or the very idea of fish, which in his experience, kids often did, but the PA had assured him the children would eat what the adults ate. Joey was just covering all bases.

Everything was looking good and beginning to smell better, and his little crew worked together well. Chris was doing his usual excellent work, providing just that little extra crack of discipline in the sting of his tongue, but both of them were enjoying the chance to do some actual cooking on this job. Joey was acting as Saucier, which had always been his favourite station. He'd missed it, the pressure, the timing, the juggling of details. It'd be one of the downsides of running his own place, he supposed.

The starter was to be—"Where the fuck is my lavender?" His kitchen crew turned blank faces towards him. Chris, behind the grill station, scowled a reminder that Joey needed to get these people on his side. Joey strode over to Chris. "Go find my lavender. I bet that bastard has it."

Kevin's voice, dripping with disdain, easily floated above the subdued hum of prep work. "Lavender? Certainly not. Kitchen garden ingredients are so last year."

Well, fuck him.

The girl who was working in the pastry section came over to him with wide, scared eyes and offered him the small container. "I'm really sorry, I thought, when I unpacked—I assumed it was for the patisserie."

"That's okay, sweetheart," he said, smiling at her. "A little surprise with the tortelli. You'll find it works really well with parmesan and nutmeg."

She looked relieved, and scurried back to Richardson's end of the kitchen, and he got back to the business of making sure everyone understood how to construct the starter. His crew was not going to drop any balls tonight. Not with Mr Fancy Patisserie Chef Richardson down the far end concocting his over-intricate desserts and looking down his nose at Joey. And how the hell did he manage to stay that skinny? Didn't he eat any of the pastries he produced? Joey was uneasily aware that he'd put on a few pounds since—since they'd last seen each other, because he did taste what he cooked. And he was a bloody good cook, too, even if he didn't have a Cordon Bleu diploma from Paris.

And since when did a delicious Italian-influenced meal need any dessert more complicated than a nice tiramisu or a panna cotta with puréed fruit? Hah.

Hah.

~~~~~~~~

Brian cornered Chris Kirkpatrick—if cornered was the right word on a circular fort and really, how amazing was this place? After the meal was done, kitchens were cleaned, and tiny squares of honeyed pastry had been provided in case any of the guests found a cranny for another morsel to go with their coffees and liqueurs, he sneaked up to the surface and gazed at the lights of Portsmouth.

"It's a pity this place isn't in the middle of the Thames," he observed.

"Be a lot easier to get to," Chris said. "But let me guess, that's not what you had in mind."

"Oh, the journey wasn't that bad. I bet some people will be arriving by helicopter tomorrow," Brian said. "Did you see the helipads? No, it's just, we're looking out at Portsmouth. Which is kind of a let-down, you know?"

"You're not wrong."

They gazed at the quiet waters and the reflections of orange and white from lamp-posts and red and green from traffic lights. An occasional firework rose in the distance, leftovers from last weekend's Bonfire Night.

"So…" Brian began. He was not at all sure how to start, but the subject of their respective bosses, friends, and in Brian's case, cousin, was looming like a thundercloud over this experience. "We should co-ordinate our strategies, is what I'm thinking."

Chris did not pretend not to understand. "Two big guys with knives who hate each other. Yep, we should probably keep them apart, don't you think? Wait, does Kevin even have a chef's knife, these days? Does he go around with a rolling pin instead, or one of those little crimping tools?"

"Of course he has a knife," Brian said.

"Not that you can't do some damage with a rolling pin," Chris went on, "but it's mostly not fatal. I assume."

"Kevin was really pissed off," Brian said. "He didn't know the chef de cuisine was Joey Fatone. He said he wouldn't have taken the job if he'd known."

"Joey was practically foaming at the mouth," Chris said. "Which is weird, because I'd have said he gets on with everybody. Everyone likes Joey."

"See, now, I have a theory about that," Brian said, and was encouraged to elaborate. So he told Chris that a couple of years back, Kevin had been in a relationship with a fellow chef that had ended badly for reasons Kevin never entirely made clear. After which Kevin had gone off to Paris to train as a patissier and been essentially single ever since. "And I think," Brian said, "from one or two things he said, I have a feeling the other guy was your friend Joey."

Chris was, unexpectedly, silent for a few minutes, digesting this. "Apart from the fact that those two make a very odd couple, that does seem to explain a lot," he said, eventually.

"I think so," Brian said. "And. Also. I think that maybe the, uh, passion is still there? I mean, if they broke up two years ago—"

"It should be all over and dead and buried," Chris agreed. "Instead of which—"

"They practically spat at each other. And Kevin ranted about Joey for twenty minutes after we went back to our room. Cabin? Room. I had to escape to get some air."

"I know the feeling. Times like this, I wish I still smoked. It's be a relief to go off somewhere for a cigarette. So. Smouldering passion, you think?"

"I do think. And I also think," Brian said, firmly, "that we should do something about it."

"Oh, no, nonononono! I am not getting between those two, not even as a referee. Knives, remember!"

"It won't come to violence. Kevin doesn't believe in violence."

"Joey is a very peaceful soul. And yet. Look, we don't even know why they broke up. Maybe they, I don't know, maybe one of them cheated, maybe… maybe they had a fundamental disagreement over the correct way to reduce a sauce. Could be anything."

"It was probably my cousin's fault," Brian said. "He's kind of emotionally constipated. No, shut up! I mean, when he knows for sure somebody loves him, like, with the family, there's nobody could be sweeter, and he'll get all demonstrative and everything. But if he wasn't sure about Joey, then he might never have said, and if Joey thought he didn't care, then they might even have broken up because they were too stupid to stay together." Incredibly stupid, and yet Brian could imagine it happening just like that. Kevin retreating into haughty superiority, and even though Brian didn't know a lot about Joey Fatone it seemed pretty clear that that kind of thing would not go over well.

"I could see it being Joey's fault," Chris said. "I'm not saying you're wrong, you know your boss better than I do, but Joey's got his own ways to be irritating. He's, it's, I'm thinking it's like the difference in how they cook. Joey has fabulous instincts, I'm not saying he doesn't spend time developing recipes, of course he does, but he can take a bunch of random stuff and turn out something you'd swear was a traditional peasant dish from a Milanese farmhouse. Kevin's a pastry chef. Have you ever met a pastry chef who wasn't completely anal about details? A good one, anyway."

"Couldn't be more opposite, could they." Brian frowned. "But they do say opposites attract. You know, we should do something about this."

"Yeah, you said. Not sure what."

"Well," Brian said, and lowered his voice. "I think I have an idea. And, you know, even if it doesn't work, it'll be a lot of fun to watch."

~~~~~~~~

One of the down-sides, arguably, of being a patissier was the need to be up before dawn to create fresh and luscious treats for breakfast. Not that pre-dawn was a big deal in November. The sun wouldn't be up until after seven and Kevin was hard at work well before that. He'd made the doughs last night, of course; now there were the fillings to prepare. Kevin liked to put his individual touch even into breakfast pastries. He moved along to the preparations for lunch and dinner while his sous chef and the commis—Louella—completed the croissants and brioche buns, the cinnamon twists, the snails and the apricot custards, and one of the other commis chefs showed up to cook bacon and eggs for the guests who wanted hot breakfasts.

Desserts for luncheon were light-hearted variations on the usual theme. A blood orange panna cotta with damsons and Viennese shortbread, and a mocha almond trifle infused with coffee liqueur. There were a couple of regular gelati which could be offered to the kids. Kevin didn't have a lot of faith in Susannah's assurances that the children in the group would eat what the adults ate. Everything was in hand, and his eyes and hands kept busy, busy, busy. And there was tonight's showpiece, for the formal family dinner; the gelée was done and cooling, and he folded the mousse and the sponge mixtures into his work as the morning moved along.

But the trouble with this job was that it didn't require his whole brain. His hands, yes, his eyes too, and the logical space inside him that planned and scheduled and devised, but the wriggly, emotional part, furious and confused and unsettled, that part had nothing to do with food prep and was driving him crazy. Joey Fatone! Who had been—he'd been—whatever Joey had been, he hadn't been interested in the long term, at any rate not with Kevin. He'd waltzed merrily along to the next guy with never a backward glance. And Kevin had—it didn't matter what Kevin had thought, what he'd wanted. It hadn't mattered, back then, that Kevin had a passion for this kind of creation. Not to Joey. Joey had never understood why Kevin needed to study at the Cordon Bleu school, why he'd had to go to Paris. He'd always been contemptuous of the food Kevin most loved to create. And nobody could keep on caring about the opinions of someone who despised their work, their passion.

Kevin certainly didn't care.

Joey's loud laughter invaded the kitchen, along with his crew, to prepare lunch. Something something gnocchi, something something salad, something whatever. Kevin retreated to the far end with his spectacular gateau and did his best to stifle the wriggly emotions and concentrate on each perfect layer. Back into the refrigerator it went while he oversaw the prettily plated desserts as they were carried to the dining room, studiously ignoring Joey Fatone's entirely unwelcome presence just yards away.

After the meal, he spent a few minutes with Brian, who was to make macaroons, and Louella, who was to make biscuits, in case anyone should find themselves faint with hunger at around four o'clock. If the macaroons and biscuits were tempting enough, no doubt someone would. He, he informed them, was working on the centrepiece dessert, and was not to be disturbed.

Kevin worked at that centrepiece for most of the afternoon, creating a magnificent and intricate replica of No Man's Fort. A broad, eight-inch high circle of cake in vanilla, praline and mocha flavourings, and painstakingly detailed with lighthouse turret, two helipads, grassed area with deckchairs and two hot tubs, and the central atrium roof in a shallow cone of sugar glass over the beautifully iced floor of the sunken room beneath which he'd filled with colourful dancing fondant people. He surrounded the cake fort with artfully coloured waves, a delicate chocolate and praline construction for the landing platforms, and a scale model of the exclusive ferryboat that had brought everyone to the fort, just edging in to deliver its tiny sugar passengers.

This would be the dessert for this evening's meal. Brian and Louella had been tasked with the simple fruit-based alternates just in case, but he was confident that his mighty cake would be devoured tonight by all the guests and the fruit desserts would be eaten by the kitchen crew. He'd been quite surprised to be asked to produce such a centrepiece for this, the rehearsal dinner, rather than for tomorrow. But there was a different request for the wedding feast, and that was going to require another herculean effort.

He needed a rest. He needed fresh air and a chance to stretch his shoulders.

Kevin went out via the supplies entrance and found his way onto the top deck. He stared around at the top deck—surface—whatever it was called, mentally comparing it to his sugared rendition. There were a couple of guests on the stretch of artificial grass, and they waved at him in a friendly way; he waved back, but was reluctant to stay where the paying customers were and so made his way down to the narrow balcony that ran around the fort about half-way between water and helipads. The small windows at this level must be in the staff's rooms, for there were larger windows above head height which presumably looked out from the fabulous guest bedrooms. The weather was surprisingly pleasant for the time of year, cold but sunny and almost cloudless. He hoped it would hold for the wedding tomorrow. Brides liked sunshine, and unless the paparazzi managed to figure out the exact moment the photographs would be taken and got a helicopter within range without being spotted, they should be able to get their wedding pictures without any leaks.

He watched as one of the ferries, tiny in the distance, as it grew and made its careful approach to the dock a quarter turn from where he stood. More guests.

Time for a nap, he thought. If he could sleep, it'd give him a rest from the turmoil of his thoughts.

If he couldn't, he'd jerk off. And not think about fucking Joey Fatone.

A while later, he was pulling on fresh underthings when he heard the low buzz of conversation outside. There must be someone on the walkway he'd been using not so long ago. Trying to be private, maybe.

"… just worried about him."

"I don't think I can help. I mean, I don't think there's anything anyone can do." That was Brian's voice, surely? What was he doing out there, wasn't he supposed to be prepping for dinner? Kevin glanced at his watch—no, Brian was okay for a few minutes yet.

"So Joey's out of luck." Chris Kirkpatrick! Huh, Brian was consorting with the enemy.

"I'm sorry. I wish it weren't so. It's a shame."

"It's just that Joey's so… so down about it. He hides it well, but he. You know."

"Are you sure he feels that way?" Brian said. "I mean, Kevin hasn't said anything about Joey that wasn't, uh, unprintable." Kevin's eyebrows shot up. What the heck was this? Stealthily he pulled up a chair to the window and stood on it, the better to hear what was going on.

"Oh, yes. He's been carrying a torch for I don't know how long," Chris said. "And I said I'd try to find out if there was any chance Kevin felt the same. I didn't think there would be, after that little display in the kitchen last night."

"I think he's dead against it. A shame. Joey's a decent bloke. I think they'd be good together, but Kevin, well. He's that stubborn…" Brian's voice trailed away. Stubborn about what? Kevin thought. It wasn't his fault they weren't together. It wasn't his fault that Joey—

"Joey was so impressed, you know? When he opened up for dinner prep he took a look in the dessert fridge and, I mean, wow. He was gobsmacked. Kept muttering about how fucking brlliant Kevin was. And you know he snuck some of the panna cotta from lunch when nobody else was looking and he said it was like manna from heaven. Went on about fusion and reinterpretation of classics until I wanted to shove a bun in his mouth to shut him up!"

"I didn't realise he was interested," Brian said, a bit woodenly. He was probably thinking about what Kevin had said last night, in their bunk room, about Joey being a peasant who didn't give a crap about finesse. Kevin was beginning to feel a bit bad about that.

"Yeah, when we got back to our room he was totally miserable. Talking about how Kevin was trained in Paris, and all he has is a couple of years at catering college in Battersea."

"Oh," Brian said in a voice of understanding.

"And he'd never say anything to Kevin because, well…"

"Kevin would just be sarcastic," Brian said. "I know. It can be hard to take. When he looks down his nose at you and gets that superior voice."

"I should try to talk Joey out of it," Chris said. "He'll only be miserable if he keeps hoping that Kevin will, I dunno, have a change of heart."

"I think that's for the best," came Brian's voice. "Kevin's just, yeah. I guess he's just not interested in, you know. Love, relationships. He just wants to be the world's best patissier. Oh my God, is that the time? I need to get a fresh jacket, this one has damson stains all over. Where's the doorway? I get so disoriented here—I think our room's right round the other side of this thing!"

Kevin slid down away from the window. What the hell? Had he got it completely wrong? If Joey was intimidated by the Cordon Bleu diploma… Joey, intimidated? Kevin thought about that, and felt uneasy.

And was he really that unapproachable? Looking down his nose at people—of course, he had to look down his nose at Brian, because Brian was such a shrimp, but he wouldn't do that to Joey. Couldn't. Although he did have a tendency to sarcasm. Crap. Kevin thought of his chilly greeting yesterday and then the thing with the lavender, which he hadn't been able to resist at the time but he knew he shouldn't have disrespected the head chef, not in front of the whole crew. Had he screwed up? No! No, it couldn't be. Joey had been just as pissed off to see Kevin as Kevin had been to see Joey. Chris must be wrong about things.

Only, Chris was Joey's best friend. Could he really be wrong about how Joey felt?

Kevin did not know what to think.

~~~~~~~~

"Good job tonight," Chris said as he walked into their room.

Joey grunted. Mr Assirati had asked for osso bucco for tonight's meal, and everything had gone perfectly. Normally Joey wouldn't have had any worries about producing dinner for forty-six people—hell, he did that every night at the restaurant, easily, and with a lot less control over when the meals were to be served—but it was a little bit unsettling to do it with a crew he hadn't picked or trained and under the nose of someone who he knew would be critiquing him, with his fucking Cordon Bleu training. "Yeah, it went okay."

"Come on, it went great! The bride's dad asked for you to come out to be congratulated, and shook your hand," Chris said.

Several of the other guests, too, had told him how delicious their food had been, all very gratifying. And then, of course, that fucking amazing centrepiece of Kevin's had stolen the show. They'd had a round of applause for Kevin, too, standing there all tall and confident in his immaculate whites, and it really was an impressive sight, that cake, and Joey had stolen a piece of the rubble that remained when all the guests had gone up, satisfied, to the main lounge, and it tasted fantastic.

"It was nice," Joey agreed without enthusiasm. "Would have been better without Richardson. Honestly, of all the fucking pastry chefs in all the world, he has to walk into my kitchen."

He expected Chris to launch into As Time Goes By, given such an obvious set-up, but Chris was oddly silent. "You okay?" Joey asked. He didn't think anything had happened to upset Chris, but he ought to be sure.

"I'm fine," Chris said. "It's just, I was talking to Brian, and, no. Never mind. It's nothing."

"What about Brian?"

Chris shrugged awkwardly. "It was just, I was wondering about passing on a compliment, but I'm not sure you'd care, so."

"I can always use a compliment," Joey said. He knew his own worth, but he was feeling a bit bruised tonight and some extra praise wouldn't hurt a bit.

"Brian said Kevin had some of the entrée and said he wished he had your natural talent," Chris said, all in one breath, and looked worriedly at him.

"Oh. Uh. He actually said that?"

"I wasn't there. But Brian said so. He said it's weird being around you because his cousin—apparently Richardson is his cousin, did you know?—gets all twisted up in knots. Brian said it's because Kevin wants you to admire what he does and he won't say so. Something about being all on the defensive and not being able to make friends with the crew like you do. I don't know. I wasn't supposed to say anything. Don't tell anyone I told you, Brian'll have my liver." Chris busied himself undressing and hastened into the bathroom, leaving Joey to sit on the sofa in confusion. Kevin didn't care what Joey thought. He had his posh diploma from Paris, why would he care what Joey Fatone thought?

Kevin must have been joking. He had that way of saying things, totally deadpan, and sometimes people didn't even know he was joking. It was one of the things Joey had lo— had liked about him. Although, Brian was his cousin, surely Brian would know Kevin's sense of humour?

Joey switched on the telly. He didn't want to think about it. He'd just watch for a few minutes before bed. Distraction, that was what he needed.

Twenty minutes later he had no idea what he was watching, so he went to bed.

~~~~~~~~

"We have to do it today," Brian said. "We'll all be gone tomorrow and that'll be it."

"I know," Chris said, "but I don't know when we're going to find a chance. He has to overhear us, we can't just go stand in front of him and say our bit, it has to feel like he's not supposed to hear it. We're all going to be busy today, with the actual wedding this afternoon, so when are we supposed to do it? And where?"

"Where is he right now?" Brian asked.

Chris thought about it. "I think he's still in our room, taking a breather. It's just the light buffet at midday, and me and a couple of the commis chefs are going to see to that. He's probably just checking his notes."

"Then let's do it now. Outside the window, like we did last night."

"So long as we get the right window," Chris said. "I'm not sure which one is ours."

"Damn. Wait! Burton will know!"

"Good idea. Can you go and find him, and I'll just check that Joey's not gone to the kitchen already."

Ten minutes later they were on the walkway, and into their routine. Brian's indignant voice rose in complaint, angry that Chris had so much as hinted that Kevin was pining. It wasn't fair, he said, because when Joey just didn't care, it was cruel to expose Kevin's feelings.

"I didn't expose any feelings," Chris countered. "I just told him Kevin enjoyed the food."

"Well, you shouldn't. Kevin's lonely, he's been on his own for a long while, and any hint—what if Kevin starts thinking he has a chance? You said yourself, Joey isn't looking for a relationship. He's fine playing the field. Didn't you say he wants to go to Brighton once this job is done? All those gay clubs? It'd break Kevin's heart if Joey blew him off."

"You're right." Chris tried to sound contrite, though he wasn't very good at that sort of thing. "I mean, they'd never work as a couple, would they? Chalk and cheese."

"It's a shame, really, because I think it'd be so good for Kevin to have someone who wasn't, uh—"

"Uptight?"

Brian shot him a reproving look. "Reserved, is what I was going to say. Someone with a bit of spontaneity. I think he wants it, he just doesn't know how—but in any case, we both know Joey isn't interested. So don't say anything to Joey, I mean it!"

"Okay. I'll keep quiet. We only have another day here anyway. If we can just get through today, they don't need to be in the same place any longer."

"Talking of being in the same place, shouldn't we get back to work?" Brian said, pulled a wicked face, and set off towards the steps. As they went inside, he grinned at Chris and said, "That should do it."

"I think you're reaching," said Chris. "I don't think they're going to fall for this."

"I'm definitely right about them having a Thing before," Brian said.

"In that case, perhaps a small wager?"

"You're on."

~~~~~~~~

Joey checked everything that had been prepared for the light buffet lunch before it went up to the little dining room, and distributed plenty of praise to the team. Two of them went upstairs with the food to serve it—the way this place was set up, the kitchen staff doubled as waiters and waitresses, which he didn't think much of, but could appreciate that it was efficient from the management's point of view. It did mean that they weren't quite as good at either cooking or waiting as they ought to have been, but he wasn't going to say so. Between his own efforts and Chris's, everything was up to standard.

Kevin was working at the far end. This was going to be his big day, perhaps even more so than Joey's. He appeared to be making enough tiny choux cannonballs to start a small, delicious war. Appropriate for a wedding in a fort. His frown of concentration was… actually kind of endearing, Joey thought. Was it really possible that Kevin—because he'd never said, back when they—but he did act as though he had a rolling pin up his arse half the time, he always had, and it didn't necessarily mean—

He wasn't quite sure what to do. Brian could be completely wrong about how Kevin felt. He'd gone off to Paris to get his diploma and his education in the high and mighty art of ridiculously overblown desserts and never looked back. Not as far as Joey knew. Except, Joey had not actually stuck around to see if….

Joey missed the silky hair. It had been shoulder length, and Kevin had to tie it back in a ponytail for work. And now he had a beard, and his hair was short, and you could still cut carrots on his cheekbones and was he really pining for Joey?

He couldn't think about it all right now. He had to show his crew what they were cooking this evening. He always enjoyed this part of the job, preparing the entire meal on a small scale. The missing pair were just going to have to manage without the demo. He fetched out his ingredients for the roast lamb and its accompaniments. He could tell from the murmurings around the table that everyone assumed the anchovies belonged with the fish dish, the sea bass and prawns which would go into a kind of mille feuilles with leafy vegetable layers instead of pastry. The vegetarian stuffed artichokes they could manage without a demo.

Without giving himself too much time to think about it, Joey crossed to the far end of the kitchen. "I'm about to demo the secondi, if you're interested," he said. He winced internally—he was used to saying secondi instead of entrée, from working in Italian restaurants pretty well all his career, but no doubt Kevin stuck with the French terminology.

Kevin looked at him with raised eyebrows, and checked his watch. "I—huh. I'd like to take a look. Um. Thanks." Kevin put his tray of profiteroles into the oven, set the timer and washed his hands. When he got to the table, he was carrying a plate of jewel-like pastries. "There were extra, from breakfast." He placed them on the table, and everyone grabbed something before Joey set to work.

"Here, you want one?" Kevin had put a cinnamon twist on a separate plate. Cinnamon twists were Joey's favourite.

"Looks great. I'll save it for when I'm done," he said, and found that he was smiling.

Everyone paid proper attention as Joey went through the recipes. They were intent on Joey's explanation of the dishes, and there was a gratifying ripple of surprise when he revealed what the anchovies were for and why he'd decided to incorporate them. He went through the procedures for meat and sauce, then started on the mille feuilles. As the crew were all watching him, for a moment nobody but Joey noticed the door open to admit Burton, the butler, manager, whatever he was. He seemed like a butler. Joey was surprised to see him below stairs while the guests were eating.

Burton coughed, deprecatingly. "If I may have your attention for just a moment," he began, and proceeded to shatter Joey's equilibrium with the revelation that the wedding party had decided tonight's meal must to be served family style, from platters, instead of having it delivered plated. "They want everyone to get their food at the same time," Burton intoned, "and they don't want the formality of full silver service. So. As you know, the guests will be seated at tables of ten, twenty tables in total including the bridal party. Please arrange for each table to receive their main course on serving dishes."

Joey could feel his face turning purple. All his careful prep just thrown out, just like that! His beautiful food, ready to delight the eye as well as the belly, and now he was going to have to throw it onto serving platters and let the ham-fisted customers help themselves!

"The hors d'oeuvres can be presented in the same way," Burton was droning on, oblivious to the turmoil he'd started. "As for dessert, the brides would like there to be a separate profiterole display for each table rather than a central arrangement. They believe it will look more festive, and their guests will enjoy it." Kevin's head went up, his face stiff with dismay. "Please inform me if there are any difficulties. If you need extra platters and tureens I will have them brought out of storage for your use."

"Wait, wait," Joey said. "This is impossible! It's far too late to change now. We've planned everything! We've been discussing the menus for weeks by email, and nobody said anything about family style service!"

"Our brides feel it will be more in keeping with the mood they wish to prevail at the reception," Burton said, "and the customer is always right. I have every confidence that you gentlemen will comply with this adjustment, as requested. Now, I will be needing Mr Smallwood, Mr Jones and Ms Parsons to welcome our guests aboard this afternoon, and to serve champagne after the ceremony, but they will be available to you again later."

"But I'm going to need—oh, what the hell. Fuck it." That was Kevin, protesting the removal of his commis chef. A pained look passed across the butler's otherwise impassive countenance. Burton obviously never swore. He nodded, coldly, and went out.

After Burton's departure, there was dead silence for a moment, then a storm of confused noise.

"Still, there's one thing," Chris murmured. "We know Kevin Richardson can't actually kill somebody with his stare. Because if he could, Burton would be dog meat."

"Too fucking right," Joey said, and stood. "All right, settle down, everybody. We're going to have to do some fast thinking to make sure everything looks as good as it should and we deliver it to the tables as quickly as possible. Start prepping your stations. Chris, you're with me. Kevin?" Chris stood, not relinquishing his apricot tart, and Kevin came forward with a face like the wrath of God, followed by an anxious Brian.

"I've been planning their fucking display for weeks! And now, now they tell me they want twenty separate croquembouches." Kevin looked ready to run amok with his rolling pin, and Joey didn't blame him. He'd read the descriptions of the glorious display that had been planned. Kevin had worked out every detail, including how his creation was to be demolished and shared onto dessert plates with perfect efficiency. Hours of work gone, along with the chance to produce something truly memorable.

Joey sympathised. "Fucking customers," he said, but there wasn't time to be consoling right now. "What are you going to need in the way of serving dishes? We need to get things sorted right now so we can re-work all our bloody plans."

Kevin let out a sigh like an old-fashioned kettle. "You're going to need to present the meat so that each and every person at that table knows exactly how much to take."

Yes. Easy to portion everything out when it was plated in the kitchen, but if he offered them the thick slabs he'd had in mind there would inevitably be some greedy bugger who took more than his fair share, and that way lay chaos. "Braciole," he said, thinking fast. "We'll parcel the lamb like a Braciole, that should do it." He'd figure out a stuffing, even if he had to use leftovers. "The vegetarians are okay, stuffed artichokes, of course they'll have to be presented separately."

"Maybe we can get away with plating and serving those ourselves anyway," Chris put in. "Most of the tables only have one veggie. Or we could send one waiter to distribute them all."

"The sea bass and prawn stacks will be okay, too. What I really need," Joey said, "are long, narrow dishes. And sauce boats." Oh, God, so many sauce boats.

"Brian, the pineapples, would you—" Kevin began, and Brian darted off, returning with a long rectangular dish that would be perfect for the beef.

"Weren't you planning on using these for the grilled pineapples?" Joey said. It wouldn't make the clients happy if the dessert course was a mess.

"Screw the grilled pineapples, I'll trade you these for the largest flat rounds you have."

In a mercifully short time they had worked out how to deal with this infuriating new situation, and were hard at work. Chris went in search of Burton to ransack the china stores, and Kevin went back to his end of the kitchen with several large serving plates upon which to build his croquembouches. Meanwhile, Joey tried to figure out how to get one hundred and forty seven servings of marinaded lamb tied into parcels without screwing up the timings on everything else. And what to put inside those parcels. And how to present them elegantly. And what to do with the vegetables that would have been so pretty on his carefully designed plates, and, and, and. Argh!

Even so, it was Kevin he really felt sorry for.

~~~~~~~~

The afternoon went by like lightning. Two commis chefs down and with last minute off-the-cuff changes to make to his main secondi, Joey just kept going. As he worked, he visualised the presentation of his food, how to make it all look magnificent in spite of this absurd, stupid, unnecessary runaround.

Eventually, he knew it was under control, and when he lifted his head, he saw Kevin coming towards him bearing a tiny plate on which there were three choux balls.

"How's it going your end?" Joey asked, and his gaze slid past Kevin to where Brian and Louella were very carefully carrying an incredible number of tall, elegant profiterole cones into the walk-in refrigerator. Joey looked at the plate Kevin was offering.

"The white chocolate has rose petal cream filling. The dark chocolate with gold leaf has a raspberry coulis with vanilla cream, and the pink chocolate, pistachio custard."

"Oh, my God." Joey took one at random, bit it lovingly in half, and moaned with delight. He ate the three profiteroles with rather more speed and less reverence than they deserved. "Hell's teeth. Those were the most delicious things I ever put in my mouth."

"Now I'm insulted," Kevin said, with an absolutely straight face. Joey gaped at him, then started to laugh, and Kevin grinned and bore the empty plate back to the far end of the kitchen.

Not a single one of the elegant little hors d'oeuvres came back to the kitchen. The entrées were delivered safely and at speed, despite the infuriating difficulty of dishing them out all at the same fucking time, and Joey sent a couple of the waiters back out to circulate with the extra portions he'd been prudent enough to prepare. Then it was time for the delivery of the croquembouches to each of the tables, and it was going to be hazardous because the guests were quite merry by now. He watched the crew make their careful way to the tables, one by one, and leave the guests oohing excitedly over their fabulous desserts. Also the grilled pineapples with meringue, which had eventually been accommodated on square platters, two halves to a table, but the profiterole cones were the stars of the show.

"Oh, Jesus, there's only nineteen!" he said, horrified.

"Yeah, but there's this." On a white-clothed trolley were two insanely tall towers of profiteroles, dark and rose chocolate rising to white, with trailing veils of stranded sugar and shimmering with gold dust. Joey stared, amazed. Somehow Kevin had contrived to make them look like brides. Weird brides, true, but yeah, brides. "I wanted the ladies to have something spectacular," Kevin explained. "It's not as spectacular as it was supposed to be, but that's clients for you. Er, would you help me with the trolley? I do not want this to come crashing down if there's a bump in the floor."

So Joey held one end, Kevin held the other, and with immense care they steered towards the space in front of the bridal party's table. The two newlyweds squealed with joy and rushed forward to exclaim over their magnificent wedding cake. The photographer hurried in to capture everything, and each bride climbed onto a chair to take the topmost profiterole, and fed it to her new wife, and there was cheering, and after that Kevin dismantled his art onto plates for the top table, with an abundance remaining to be claimed by the most shameless of the guests.

"You know what?" Joey said, as they escaped from the dining room. "I'm fucking starving."

"Oh, God, me too. I hoped you saved some of that lamb. It smelled fantastic, and I can't wait to find out how the anchovies work."

"Of course I did. We deserve it!" His crew were still in the dining room, offering assistance with the awkward task of serving the croquembouches. The kitchen was empty, but the air was scented with roast lamb. "Kevin," he began.

"It's been—" Kevin said, and they looked at one another, and it was one of those moments like in the movies, Joey thought. This was his cue to haul Kevin close to his manly chest and kiss the living daylights out of him, only then Kevin said, "Your eyes are like limpid pools of beef stock," and Joey glared at him, and Kevin's mouth twitched, and Joey started to giggle helplessly, and Kevin said, "I don't really do romantic, but—" and Joey did kiss him then, hard and hot and with all the passion he could put into it.

"We should talk," Joey said, when he could manage to stop tasting Kevin's delicious mouth. "I want, if you want, we should—"

"I missed you," Kevin said, seriously. "I really missed you."

The kitchen door opened and Chris Kirkpatrick barrelled in. "Food is—uh—shit, I'm interrupting. No, no. Please go ahead. No, wait, don't go ahead. Fuck it, I owe Brian a tenner." He disappeared back through the door again.

"Don't even ask," Joey said with a sigh. "It's just Chris."

"Hmm. I might have to interrogate Brian," Kevin said. "But it can wait. We'd better eat something soon, or I'll start biting your arms."

"That's an incentive?" Joey said, but he did have to feed his crew. They'd be back at any moment.

~~~~~~~~

Chris and Brian were lurking outside the window again—Brian and Kevin's room—but this time they were straining to listen, not talking.

"The second they start kissing, we leave," Brian hissed. "I do not need to hear my cousin, you know."

Chris motioned for quiet.

"I'm not going back to London for a few days," Joey's voice, "but when I do, maybe we can—"

"Somebody mentioned something about Brighton," Kevin said.

"Oh! Brighton's awesome. I'm looking for premises, I want to start my own place and it seems like a great spot." Joey paused. "And you, you're happy in London? Where are you working? Do they appreciate you?"

"I'm looking to move out of London. I've been thinking of setting up a place of my own. It seems like the perfect moment for a dessert restaurant. There are a few around, but they're unusual enough that people get excited over them, which would mean a good start. I don't know if Brighton has one already, though."

There was a pause, and Brian made as if to leave but Chris would not let him. He wanted to hear this play out. Hell, he'd paid ten quid for it, he was entitled.

"I doubt there's room for many dessert restaurants, even in Brighton," Kevin was saying, "but there are other towns where people like to eat."

"Would you, uh, be interested in a partnership?" Joey's voice sounded strained. Chris grinned, and Brian clenched his fist in triumph.

There was quite a long pause. "I don't think we should set up a place together." Kevin spoke decisively, and it sounded as if he'd given the matter quite a bit of thought. "You don't really need the kind of food I want to do. It's only because this is a wedding, and everybody likes fancy stuff at a wedding, that it worked here. Besides, I know perfectly well you don't think an Italian restaurant needs anything more than a respectable tiramisu and maybe a cheesecake and some gelati, and you're right, you don't."

Chris and Brian looked at one another in dismay. "Fuck me, they're going to throw it all away again," Chris muttered.

"Hush!"

"I'm thinking you have a better idea." Joey's voice sounded entirely content, not even slightly upset. Chris wished he could get a visual, but even without Brian to disapprove he would not have dared to try and climb up to the window. The fort's sides were awfully steep.

"I think we could start by spending a few days in Brighton together," Kevin said, "and assess the situation. Whether we might want to, oh, share premises."

"I like the sound of that," said Joey, and things went quiet again until there were some very distinct moans and Brian, scarlet-faced, dragged Chris away.

~~~~~~~~

Kevin stood at the prow of the ferryboat and grinned into the breeze. Joey was right there beside him, warm and solid and reassuring, and they were on their way to a new start. They weren't going to work together, their professional goals were too different, but after their experience on No Man's Fort, he was confident they could learn to share a kitchen every day. As long as it came in a nice little house with a sea view.

 

No Man's Fort

 

 

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