Disclaimer: Not mine, etc.
This is for the folks on the Pixar Planet forums. Big thank you.
Warnings: Hurt-comfort and schmaltz like woah.
Spoilers: Big-time for the whole movie - and in any case, if you haven't seen the movie, what are you doing reading fanfic?
"Where is he?" Colette tapped her foot impatiently and Alfredo cringed. When she was in this mood, no-one was safe. "The lunch rush is starting; he should be here now!"
With the instinct of a man shielding a fellow-member of the masculine gender from an angry female, Alfredo muttered, "I'm sure he's on his way…" He trailed off nervously as she whirled and gave a high-pitched whistle, looking up at the window in the ceiling.
But a few moments later, it wasn't Little Chef who descended, but the dumpy brown rat Alfredo guessed was his brother. He jumped into the little 'elevator', failed to control it, found himself too heavy for it, and screeched as the rope unraveled too fast, dumping him gracelessly on the working surface. He rose, rubbing his rump, his kind face wearing a disgruntled expression.
But Colette wasted no time on preliminaries. "Where is he?"
The fat rat waved a hand around the kitchen.
"No, he's not here," she snapped. "We need him now!"
The female chef was not pleased. "Merde!"
"Colette," Alfredo began, "I'm sure he's…"
"He'd better have a damn good excuse," she fumed, "because I am going to give him a piece of my mind when he returns!" She glared at his brother. "You tell him that."
The brown rat nodded, wide-eyed, and scampered away as though these were the old days when he had to fear the humans. Alfredo knew the feeling, really. He prayed Little Chef had a good excuse.
But as the lunch rush gave way to the afternoon lull and then the dinner rush, he was starting to just wish Little Chef would turn up.
He knew Colette was getting worried, too, by the way she shouted less and how, every few moments, her eyes would turn to the little brass pot, as though willing the rat to appear.
His brother came by, and she confined herself to a terse, "You haven't found him, either?" and when the rat shook his head and looked worried, a knot of dread began to form in Alfredo's stomach.
As he frantically whisked the vinaigrette for Little Chef's trademark ratatouille, he was distracted by a squeak from the floor; looking up, he saw the fat brown rat, flanked by two others of Little Chef's clan, one imposing and white-whiskered and the other a muscular animal fully as big as a cat. They looked questioningly at him and he shrugged. Then he froze. "He's…missing, isn't he?"
Colette looked up as the older rat nodded gravely.
"Can you… look for him?"
The younger rats joined in the nodding now.
"Please tell us if you find him," Colette put in, and Alfredo was struck by the softness in her tone.
The three rats turned and scampered away as quickly as they had come.
The world was spinning, and his head was ready to explode; his entire body ached, and his back was chilled all the way through his fur. He wondered if anyone would find him in time. In time for what? he thought groggily. There's no emergency room for rats.
It had been foolhardy to venture out to the farmers' market alone, but there'd been this one herb that smelled like nothing he'd ever experienced before. He'd caught a single, intoxicating whiff of it as the cart drove by La Ratatouille, and had made it his mission to get a sample so that his fellow-chefs could buy some the next time they went shopping. A lone rat could easily get from here to market and back in time for the lunch rush.
Unless, of course, someone spotted him and treated him "the way restaurants are supposed to treat pests."
He groaned. His side was on fire, and he could hardly breathe; half his ribs had been crushed by a brick, thrown with deadly accuracy by a burly cheese vendor. It had all happened far too quickly – but, Rémy admitted, he'd been pushing his luck for a long time, and it was inevitable that he would be seen someday, that a blow aimed by some self-appointed guardian of public health would get lucky. He'd managed to crawl into a drain – how he'd managed it he'd never know – and had broken or sprained something in the process. He couldn't move, and nobody knew where he was. And now..
"And now, it seems, we are going to die."
Rémy looked up and blinked; he hadn't seen the specter of Gusteau in ages. "So you're back," he murmured, though he was unsure if any words had actually emerged. "And it's only me who's going to die. You're…"
"…a figment of your imagination," the fat little chef said. "So if you die, I do too."
"Won't work," Rémy sighed, laying his aching head down again. "You're already dead. And nobody cares about a rat dying."
"Non?" retorted Gusteau. "What about your friends? Your family?"
"What's one rat more or less to them?" Rémy gritted his teeth against the pain. He was getting light-headed from anoxia. "A rat's a rat. You saw what they all did today."
"You are being unfair to them, Rémy," Gusteau intoned. "You know your family cares for you. And Linguini… he needs his 'Little Chef', if nothing else."
Rémy thought of his dad and Emile and grated out, "I'm sorry. It's just the pain talking. It really hurts, Gusteau…"
"I know," said the spectral chef. "I know. Just hold on a little longer, okay? Don't give up just yet."
Rémy sighed, then regretted it as his head and side speared him with agony. He groaned involuntarily.
"E…mi…" He tried to say his brother's name, but gasped for breath instead. It didn't matter: Emile was already at his side, gasping at his injuries, holding Rémy's throbbing head in his front paws.
"Oh no, oh no! I'll get Dad, I'll get Linguini, he was looking for you, I'll get help, hold on, Rémy, just hold on…"
He wanted to ask his favorite brother if he'd washed his paws, make him smile, but at Emile's touch, Rémy relaxed; the last of the tenacity that had been holding him together fled, and he spiraled down into a black well where even the specter of Gusteau was no more.
"Change is nature, Dad; the part that we can influence. And it starts—when we decide."
His 'different' son's words echoed through Django's head as he ran as he'd never run before – to ask for help from a human. How he'd come to this pass he wasn't sure, except that he'd seen his son's friend – whatsisname, Linguini – stand up to a roomful of angry chefs for Rémy, lay his career and his reputation on the line for him. He'd heard Emile's description of Rémy's injuries, knew that he was beyond help – his help, anyway – and was taking a chance that the human would care enough to go to him.
A rat patriarch, running to a human to save the life of a rat. He snorted. Live and learn, indeed.
When we decide.
How Alfredo got through the evening, he wasn't sure. No sooner had they closed than he began systematically tearing the kitchen apart, scanning the pantry lest the tiny chef be trapped underneath a heavy object, opening the refrigerator and freezer and scrutinizing the shelves, lying on the floor and peering under the cabinets, and even, finally, gripped by a terrible fear, wrenching open the oven doors and looking inside with chill dread coiling in his stomach. But his search turned up empty.
He was deciding whether to be relieved or scared when Colette approached him with the calm, strong expression she only wore when she was in turmoil inside. "You did ask his relatives to look for him," she said, "but I'm sure we'll find him at home."
But when they got home, the chef's 'room' was empty, the bed neatly made. "Little Chef, come out, you're scaring us!" he called through the house, but no squeak reached his ears. "It… it's okay," he said to Colette, who had assumed the set expression she did in times of stress. "He… probably just met a girl, or - or something…"
They heard a squeak, and turned eagerly. But it was not Little Chef, but the grizzled old rat Alfredo guessed must be his father. His expression was grim. The old rat gestured to them.
"You found him?" Alfredo whispered, and his insides were ice. There was only one reason why Little Chef's father was there instead of him.
Little Chef's father nodded.
"He's…" Alfredo gulped, hoping it wasn't true, knowing it would be: "He's... hurt, isn't he?"
The old rat nodded tersely and ran out, the humans at his heels.
He ignored Colette's shocked whisper and ran to the tiny, still form lying crumpled in the sewer tunnel, dropping to his stomach by his friend's side. His own breathing was loud in his ears; he could not contain his fear. "Oh, no...no..."
Little Chef was a mess, his left side crushed, his arm and leg sticking out at horrible angles, the tiny fingers twisted. For one heart-stopping moment he thought he was dead.
"Little Chef… oh, Little Chef…" His voice broke as he reached out and gently scooped the small, broken body off the flagstone, cupping it tenderly in the palm of his hand. The warm brown eyes are closed, the talented nose drooping, the fur limp. He felt tears running down his face as he brought his left hand up to his right to cradle Little Chef more securely, bringing his rodent-partner up to his eye level, straining to catch the faintest whisper of breath.
The furred chest moved infinitesimally. He was alive, but just barely.
"Viens!" Colette jerked him into action. "Vite!" She dashed the tears from her own eyes and shoved him upstairs to the access ladder, up to where her motorcycle was waiting. "Go, go, GO!"
He let Colette manhandle him onto the bike, and she took off with a roar. She was driving so fast he had to use one hand to hang onto her, moving the other in tight to his body so he could cradle his precious burden close against his chest, right over his heart.
"Don't die, Little Chef," he said as they sped through the night, not caring that his voice broke again. A tear splashed onto the closed eyes, soaking the small face, but the expressive eyes stayed closed, the sensitive snout remained still. He saw the lights of Paris his dreamer friend loved so much flashing past, an echo of their gleam reflected in the damp fur. He stroked the broken body with his thumb. "Please, don't die."
"What do you mean, you don't treat rats?"
Colette's voice dropped to a hiss on the last word and the clerk on duty at the Hôpital Vétérinaire d'Urgence visibly quailed. "M-m-madame, it's just that we don't…"
"Get me your superior. Now."
"Who's the head doctor here? You?"
"No, it's M. Girardeau, but he's gone to…"
"I don't care if you have to roust him out of his bed or fly him in from his vacation house in the South of France just DO IT!"
Stronger men than the clerk had quailed before that tone, and normally Alfredo would be weak with admiration, but now he was just glad that she was handling things, because his world had contracted to the limp figure in his cupped hands, dangerously cool and growing colder by the second; all his energy was focused on breathing warm breaths into the prickly fur, rubbing the precious body of his friend gently with his cheek, running his finger across the brow and whispering, "Stay with me, Little Chef. Don't die. Fight."
It wasn't so cold now. He felt himself cocooned in soft, protective warmth. Linguini's rumbling voice was speaking to him with a tenderness he'd hardly ever heard. But it was too hard to open his eyes, and the pain was sapping his strength. He felt his face being caressed, and he wished he could say something, do something, but it was too dark, and he was too tired. He let go.
Colette could hardly contain her impatience as she alternated between tapping her foot and pacing, waiting for the head doctor to arrive. As far as she was concerned, this was the height of negligence, not to say cruelty – seconds were ticking away, when time was crucial to save the life of the Chef who had found his way into their lives and into their hearts. It was so unfair, after he had fought so hard to become what he was, that he should be cut down in the street, probably by some ignorant bumpkin who had no idea who he was hurting.
Her eyes narrowed as she looked at her husband, cradling his little friend in his arms and crying, murmuring a litany of encouragement. She was worried about her Alfredo almost as much as the Chef at this point – his face was deathly white, sweat beading on his brow, his whispers choked with sobs now. "You're a f-fighter, Little Chef. Y-you taught me how to fight. Don't leave me n-now. C'mon. Fight."
It seemed an age until Girardeau, a tall brown-suited man with a supercilious expression, approached down the long white corridor, clearly displeased at having been rousted out of bed. "Mademoiselle, this is hopeless – there's just no point," he shrugged, with the barest glance at the unconscious rat in Alfredo's arms. "If you wish, we can arrange to have him put to sleep – we have a new merciful injection that's painless, he won't feel a thing—"
Alfredo's anguished gasp fluttered across the periphery of her consciousness, subsumed under the heat of her boiling rage; she was scarcely aware that she had moved at all until she had the man by the throat, squashed up against the wall. "As God is my witness," she grated, "if this rat dies, if he dies through your negligence, I will not rest until I shut down your hospital. I'll take it to the press, and to the highest court in the land. And once you and all your employees are out of a job and this building has been turned into a soap factory, then I'm coming after you myself…" her spare meat cleaver flashed out of her apron and lashed across the man's neck, neatly scalpeling his tie into two and sending it fluttering to the floor of the ward, "…and I won't be merciful!"
There was silence for a moment or two. Then the head doctor cleared his throat. His voice was slightly squeaky and it took him one or two tries to get it right. "Of – of course, if he is a beloved family pet, that would put a different complexion on things. He is your pet, n'est-ce pas?"
"Oui," said Colette instantly.
"Non," Alfredo blurted at the same time. Colette whirled. She knew it was degrading, but this was hardly the time… Alfredo let out a yell. "Ow!" Two pairs of rat teeth flashed out of his pocket to bite his hand simultaneously, and vanished back inside as quickly as they had come. "I mean…yeah, he's our pet," he amended hastily. Colette breathed a sigh of relief.
The next few minutes crawled by in an agony of waiting for the tests and X-rays, and Girardeau's face was serious when he emerged. "M. and Madame Linguini, I must tell you it is a miracle your pet has survived at all," he said gravely. "His ribs are broken in a dozen places. His collarbone has multiple fractures, and his hip was partially shattered. His shoulder and leg are dislocated and he is severely concussed; there's bleeding underneath the skull as well. If he were a human, I would assume he had been hit by a truck…"
"Never mind that," snapped Colette. "What is being done for him?"
"His chances of survival are slim. I must warn you…"
"I don't care what his chances are," Alfredo said shakily. "We're not giving up on him. Ever."
The doctor blinked. "Well, the positive thing is that the broken bones don't seem to have ruptured anything vital internally – that's a minor miracle in itself," he admitted. "We can replace the shoulder and leg in their sockets…"
"You haven't already done that?"
He glared. "…but even in humans, there's not much you can do for broken ribs except tape them up and wait for them to heal. Same with the collar and hip bones – you have to immobilize them, but you can't actually cast them."
"But they will heal, right?"
"With time and care, yes," Girardeau admitted. "But the most serious thing is the subdural hema – er, the bleeding under the skull. We have to drill a hole in the skull to drain the swelling, or else irreversible brain damage will result."
She saw Alfredo blanch, but this was neither the time nor place for sentiment. "Do it. Now."
"Even then, there's no guarantee he'll wake up from the coma," the doctor said. "Are you sure you don't think it would be more merciful to…" But the look in Colette's eyes must have been every bit as threatening as she felt, because the medico fled, trailing promises of bringing their pet out when he was ready for them to take him home.
"Hey, Little Chef."
Alfredo had made his friend as comfortable as possible on his and Colette's bed, in the center of his feather pillow. Now, sitting on the bed, he looked down at the deathly still figure and choked down the emotions roiling in him.
"Three days," Girardeau had said after everything was splinted and immobilized, giving them the home care instructions. "If he wakes up in three days, there's a good chance that he'll be as good as new, no brain damage. Longer than that, well…" He'd shrugged, and it was obvious that the only thing keeping him from repeating his revolting suggestion was the look in his and Colette's eyes. "Longer than that, there's not much hope. Bonne nuit."
With one finger, he tentatively stroked the furry brow below the bandage. Little Chef was barely visible beneath all the tape and wrappings. But it was the bandage on the head that scared Alfredo the most – this, according to the doctors, was what would decide whether or not the rat would live or… He gulped. He really hated this waiting, had hated it since he waited in hospital alongside his mother, waited for her to survive, and… and… He squeezed his eyes shut in pain.
"I'm gonna keep talking to you, Little Chef, because you're supposed to talk to people in a coma," he said. "It… it's supposed to help, though it didn't with my mom, you know, I talked to her for three days straight and then she croaked… oh man, why can't I say anything right?" Alfredo sighed, rubbed at his face, and returned to staring at the little face he loved so much, so open, so full of life, so still and fragile now. He remembered the first time he'd met Little Chef – the explosion of life as he danced around the soup tureen, the flipping and the throwing and the getting fancy with the spices – he'd just stood there in awe, that anyone could do that and look like he was enjoying himself so much. The thought of all that life, stilled.. It just wasn't possible. Gently, he reached out and stroked a feather-light finger across that translucent pink nose, remembering, with a pang, how it used to bob up and down when the Chef smelt something he liked.
"They…they said you'd wake up when you were good and ready, Little Chef. So you just rest, okay? Take all the time you need. Don't worry about a thing. We're taking care of everything. Just… don't make me wait too long, huh? I'm lost without you."
Alfredo's peripheral vision picked up his new wife slipping quietly into the room, pulling off her helmet, and he was unaccountably overcome with embarrassment at having brought a rat into her bridal bed. As always with her, his mouth ran over: "Chérie, I hope you don't mind, I mean that he's in here, I don't mean to put him on the bed, honest, it's just for a while until he gets on his feet again – paws – you know, I mean on his back paws – ah, whatever – if he gets on his feet – paws – again, I mean…" And the 'if' was too monumental for him, and he was crying again. She came to him and held him, and he was undone, and choked out: "Colette… what am I gonna do if he dies?"
She stilled, and her tone was carefully neutral as she said: "I suppose you can find another chef."
"I don't mean that!" He was shocked, and slipped out of her arms; she sat on the bed, scrutinizing his face carefully. "I don't mean what'll I do for a chef, I mean what'll I do… I mean… I mean…" He was at a loss for words, and cursed the weakness that had him tearing up again.
But apparently he couldn't have messed up too badly, because Colette's face relaxed, and her expression softened through the worry lines. "Tu l'aimes" she said, gently, and it was not a question.
He cringed. He knew his wife liked the rat – after all, she had been the first chef to accept him – but he couldn't predict what she would do when she found out he cared so deeply for a rodent, but there was no other thing to say, so… He gave up on speech and nodded, much as Little Chef always did. "Does that bother you?" he had to ask.
Her face relaxed completely, and she leaned forward and took him in her arms. "It would only bother me if you didn't, chéri," she murmured. Her hand reached out to stroke the rat's head, gently, with one finger. "I love him, too."
The night settled into a pattern; wake every three hours to give the Chef a bit of fluid through the IV the doctors gave them, change the pad underneath him, and talk to him, willing him to wake up. Colette offered to take first shift, but Alfredo wouldn't hear of it, and they ended up doing it together. Towards dawn, the fat brown rat with the kind eyes came in shyly from wherever he'd been, and sat with his probably-brother, squeaking gently to him in what they assume must be the rat language. Alfredo brought him a bit of cheese and they sat together watching the sunrise.
"How're you doing this morning, Little Chef?"
Linguini lay down on the bed, his head on the pillow next to Remy's, and Emile and Django moved back to give them some privacy. "Isn't he supposed to work today?" Emile asked his dad.
"He's taking a day off to look after Rémy," Django said approvingly. "He'll make a good father, that kid."
"I brought you a book," said the gangling human. "It's the one you like so much, Gust—I mean Dad's—recipes." Emile watched as the human took out a frightening-looking needle which they insisted was necessary and slipped it into Rémy's fur. As the point went in, Linguini flinched as though the needle was entering his own flesh. "Sorry, Little Chef. Don't mean to hurt you." Having given Rémy his injection, he rubbed the place where it entered, smoothed his fur back down, then started to read – "Chapter One: Basics; Selecting Produce" – taking Rémy's front paw in his giant fingers and stroking it so gently it made Emile feel all funny. He opened his mouth to tell his Dad that it seemed not all humans were the way he said they were, thought better of it, and shut it again.
It was not too long before the human laid the book down, something obviously on his mind. "You know, Little Chef," Linguini began hesitantly, "I couldn't have killed you, you know, that day by the Seine? I… already liked you too much. I just didn't know what to do. And when you looked at me like that…" He sighed and looked at Rémy's closed eyes, and Emile understood perfectly how anyone could look into his brother's eyes and be filled with enthusiasm. "I already – uh, in the restaurant when Skinner said to kill you? I was never really gonna do it, you know – I was planning to let you go anyway. I swear!" He sighed again. "Little Chef…" Deep breath. "You know it's not about the cooking, right? I mean sure, the bistro's nothing without you, but it's you I care about. And Colette, too," he added hastily. "I mean, I meant that she cares about you too, not that she's the one I care about too… I mean, of course I do, care about her, I mean, I just meant that… uh, I guess what I want you to know, Little Chef, is I don't care even if you are brain-damaged and can never cook again… aw, that didn't come out right…"
Emile noticed Django clapping a palm to his forehead.
Linguini closed his eyes to regroup, and opened them to look into Rémy's face tenderly, flicking a finger across the pink nose again. "I love the way you smell stuff, the way that cute little nose of yours goes up and down – I guess I never told you that, huh?" He stroked the furry face for a few moments, his eyes misty, before he spoke again. "What I want you to know is, this – friendship – or – whatever you wanna call it – what's between us, it's not just about the cooking, it hasn't been about the cooking for a while now. I don't want you to get better so you can cook for us – I want you to be okay because you're my friend. You proved it when you helped me out with Colette – I never thanked you for that – and you proved it when you came back to save me, that day at Gusteau's, even after I treated you like crap. I never apologized for the stuff I said then, but I should have. I didn't mean it. Not any of it."
He trailed off, looking hard at Rémy, seemingly waiting for some kind of response, but nothing came. Were those tears in the human's eyes? He kept on stroking Rémy's paw, his brow, his snout, all with that gentleness that made Emile's stomach do that funny flipping thing.
"I remember the first time we met, how you were – I'm not good with words, but there was something about you that made me feel life wasn't all bad, you know? That there could be some good stuff, maybe. The way you look at stuff, the way you make me feel it's a miracle to live in Paris, to be a cook… And I want you to know – I never forgot everything you've ever done for me, and I appreciate it, and uh… You're the bravest person I've ever met, even though you're not a person, aw, you know what I mean, right? You showed me how to do stuff, you saved my business, my inheritance – and you didn't have to do any of that stuff, but you did, and… and I really appreciate…oh heck, I'm not saying this right." He passed a palm over his face. "Little Chef…" His eyes roamed affectionately over the small, still face. "I really do care about you a whole lot. I'm sorry we had to say you were a… pet… at the hospital; you're not my pet, I know that. But you are my friend. And the doc, he—he got the 'beloved' part right. So my beloved Little Chef, I don't want you to worry about a thing, okay? That's all I want to say. Whatever happens, me and Colette, we're gonna take care of you. For as long as you want us. We – we love you."
"Look!" Emile breathed as he saw his brother's limp fingers tighten infinitesimally around the human's big pink digit. But in the instant his father's head snapped around to see it, it was gone.
He was deeply touched. He felt his partner's love surround him so completely that he was ashamed he'd ever thought the human didn't care. He wished he could say to Linguini that he was grateful too; grateful to the young human for saving his life, for taking him into his home and giving him a chance, and more than that, for trusting him, which no human had done for a rat before to his knowledge. He was awash in affection, aware, through the darkness, of Linguini sitting with him, reading to him, never leaving him. He wished he could tell him that he'd never meant to abandon him either, that night on the banks of the Seine; he was just intoxicated with freedom after the fear of death, and only realized he'd hurt him when he saw him turn to go, shoulders slumped in defeat. He struggled to fight his way up out of the dark. There was so much to say, and he really wanted to say it.
He felt Linguini's warm hand holding his own, and his fingers tried to grip his friend's. He tried, he really did…
But he was so tired, and the darkness was so heavy, and fighting his way out was too much effort, just now.
"Bonjour, mon Chef."
Her hands were no less tender but more precise than Alfredo's, as she inserted the IV needle, timed it, pulled it out, ruffled the rat's fur, and smiled softly.
"Work is piling up at the restaurant and you had better get well soon to help out. I could barely handle the orders yesterday. And everyone wants the Special now."
She waited for a response, but none was forthcoming.
"Do you know how hard it is to cook and wait tables at the same time?" she said conversationally. "I haven't done that for years, not since I was a teenager. You have to get well soon, Chef."
"Hey!" shouts Emile. "I never thought you were that kind of girl! I thought you cared about my brother, not about what he could do for you!"
She looked tolerantly down at him and continued her monologue.
"You know, mon Chef," she murmured, "I'm not so soft as my husband. Alfredo, he's the one with his heart on his sleeve. His heart is breaking every minute you don't wake up. He really loves you, you know. But me? I don't 'do' love. That's just me. But I do respect you. A whole lot."
"Well, that's nice," huffed Emile.
Colette pulled a heavy book onto the bed. "I'm not sure what you would like to read if you were awake, but I thought you might enjoy something light. This is Fables de la Fontaine." She flips through the pages. "How about this one? 'The Stork and the Fox.'" She cleared her throat. 'The stork invited the fox to dinner…'"
She read the story, and then another, and another, only stopping to administer the IV, and eat a sandwich. She read on, mimicking the voices of the animals in the stories, stopping after each one to ask: "Did you like it?" and brushing Rémy's cheek with her finger. She read until the light started to fade, until she had to turn on the bedside lamps, which glowed softly as she read on. Emile liked the stories; if his brother hadn't still been unconscious, he would have been enjoying himself. He was so deep in thought he almost didn't notice when the big human woman bent over his brother's form.
"I have worked with many chefs in my time," she said hesitantly. "But I never thought I would have the opportunity to work with a great chef – until I met you." The book slipped shut in her hands. "You can spend a lifetime working with cooks and not get to work with one with the true passion, one who has the Gift – and I get to work with the genius of the age, perhaps better than Gusteau ever was. And you inspire me. You worked so hard to get here, you risked so much…" Her knuckles brushed his cheek, feather-light, and her face was alight with tenderness. "If I met the people who hurt you, I would kill them," she went on, suddenly fierce. "Come on, get well soon, mon Chef. Don't deprive me of my only chance to work with a genius." She hesitated, then planted a tender kiss on the top of his head. "Je t'aime."
"What…" Emile blurted.
She turned to him and glared. "Don't tell anyone I did that."
He nodded, intimidated. But then he saw it: Rémy's tail definitely twitched. "Look!" he pointed, but she couldn't understand him, and by the time she turned, it was gone.
Well, who'd have thought it? Colette, who'd fought her way up through the ranks – Colette, who'd taught him everything he knew about running a kitchen that couldn't be learned in recipe books… thought she was lucky to work with him? He'd always loved it that she called him 'mon Chef' and had always felt slightly unworthy of the title. Knowing she respected him was overwhelming enough, but when she'd kissed him and told him she loved him, he'd been… awed. With all his heart he wished he could respond – but his limbs were mired in cement, and he couldn't move.
The doorbell pealed and Linguini jerked upright, half falling out of bed. "Wha…"
Colette fumbled for the clock on the nightstand. "What time is it?"
"That's not the alarm, it's the door," he mumbled, already halfway down the stairs.
"Who on earth…" She propped herself up on one elbow to check on the Chef; no change. His brother and father had gone sometime in the night. "Wait for me." She felt for her dressing-gown in the darkness.
"Ow!" Alfredo barked his shins on the banister, tripped over a pair of shoes he had left lying there last night, stubbed his toe on the umbrella-stand, opened the door—
—and stopped dead.
There, silhouetted in the early light, stood Anton Ego, more serious and sober than he had been for a while.
"May I come in?"
Despite Ego's generosity, Alfredo had never quite got over his fear of him, and his brain was threatening to shut down at the sight of the man himself on his doorstep. "Oh, of—of course," he stammered. "You're back! I mean, from Germany, I mean. How—how was the conference?"
"Not bad, not bad," the tall man said calmly. "But I didn't come here to make idle chit-chat. My reason for disturbing you so early was to ask you the meaning of this." He thrust a newspaper in Linguini's face, and Colette, coming downstairs, nodded a puzzled greeting to Ego and padded over in her slippers to read over her husband's shoulder.
'This' turned out to be a restaurant review in today's paper. "La Ratatouille: Patchy Quality, Slow Service," said the headline. A week ago, Colette would have been mortified to read such a thing, but now her eyes just filled with tears. She was vaguely aware of Alfredo making a sound of pain and turning away.
"Souline Leclair is one of the few critics left with what I consider to be good judgment," Ego said slowly, "and therefore I feel I must ask you what has been going on in my absence."
Colette looked up at him, letting him see her face.
The disappointed curiosity in his face was replaced by concern. "My dear, what's wrong?" but speech was quite beyond her; this was the third day, and her hope was wearing thin. Blinking back her tears, she could only take his hand and lead him up the stairs.
His heart broken and dried up long ago, Anton Ego had thought that it was safe from hurting ever again. But it seemed he had been wrong: he was shaken, blindsided, by the sight of the humble chef lying on the young couple's bed, barely visible underneath all the bandages. "What… what happened?"
They told him, and their love, their fear, was palpable, and Anton found himself moved to his core. Reviews be damned; the most important thing in the word now was that this exceptional creature of exceptional courage and exceptional talent, this quite extraordinary genius who had fought so hard, should recover. "Tell me that schedule of injections again," he asked, already reaching a decision.
They did, and he drew himself up to his full height. "Now this is what I want you to do," he instructed. "I shall go home and pick up a few necessities. When I come back, you shall let me in, and then go and open the restaurant together. One person manning a place of that size – it's ridiculous."
He fixed Linguini with a stare. He knew the man was afraid of him, and wasn't ashamed to use it. "I am your sponsor. You will answer to me. Now go!"
But Linguini just gulped and stood firm, and in a flash Ego realized that if there was one thing the gangly young man was prepared to lose everything over, it would be defending his unorthodox chef – especially when he was hurt. Anton didn't like to be defied, but this particular act of rebellion warmed him, and he felt himself smile.
"He will be in good hands, I promise you," Anton soothed. "I shall not let anything happen to him whilst I am here."
"I don't want to leave him," Linguini said forlornly, like a child.
Anton turned to the woman. "Let me try," he said. "I think I can do him some good."
She had never looked at him with anything but deference and respect, yet now her eyes had a certain hardness, a wariness, in them. "You will take good care of him?"
"Yes," he said simply. Then, feeling that something more was called for, he added, "Please let me help. He is… important to me."
There must have been something in his eyes, because the woman nodded, and after searching his face, her husband nodded too. "Just… please uh…" His eyes flitted to the small, still figure, his face full of pain. "Please…"
"You have my word," said Anton, and although Linguini had not articulated anything for Ego to swear to, the gangling young man nodded.
An hour later, he had run to his flat and back, the couple was gone for the day, leaving behind IV's and a host of instructions, and Anton Ego sat on the bed, a capacious black briefcase at his side, gravely regarding the rat.
"So, my young friend," he said conversationally. "I imagine your friends have been smothering you with affection, but has either of them thought to stimulate that astounding palate of yours? I thought not," he breezed on, as though the chef had answered. "Take a sniff of this."
Out of the depths of the roomy bag he produced a tiny, perfect shape – a truffle. Holding it carefully in two long fingers under the rat's tiny pink nose, he fumbled for a book, laid it out on the bed, and began to read.
"'At the time I write, the glory of the truffle has now reached its culmination. Who would dare to say that he has been at a dinner where there was not a pièce truffée? Who has not felt his mouth water in hearing truffles a la provençale spoken of? In fine, the truffle is the very diamond of gastronomy.' " He closed the book, holding his place. "That, my culinary genius, was written by the greatest gourmet who ever lived, in my humble opinion – Jean Antheleme Brillat-Savarin. This is from his monograph, The Physiology of Taste, written in 1825, and no less true now as it was then."
His fingers remained holding the truffle under the rat's snout, hoping for a twitch or a movement, but when there was none, Anton just replaced the item in his bag and turned to another page in his book. "This may interest you, M. le Chef," he smiled. Pulling a round, exotic pod from his bag, he held it in two fingers and pulled it carefully apart. Holding the cut half carefully under the tiny pink nose, he waited for a reaction. Finding none, he resolutely went on: "This is grown in India. In the West we call the green variety cardamom, but this is the rare white pod. Smell that cool, refreshing aroma? That's the distinctive scent of its black seeds. I would love to see the uses you would put it to…"
Laying the pod carefully on the coverlet, Anton fell silent for a moment; cardamom did have a strong aroma, and he had hoped… Resolutely, he pulled a knobby root out of the case, scraping it with a fingernail. "This particular ginger root is very rare, and has no English name," he told the chef as he held it under his nose. "The Thais use it in fish curries, and sometimes peel and eat it raw."
Anton sighed, laying the ginger root upon the bed. "I'll wager you've never seen this before, M. le Chef. This," he pulled a dried fruit out of his bag, " is Yacon, one of the 'Lost Crops of the Incas.' It grows in the Andes, in Peru. In South America, they dry them in the sun – to concentrate the sugars – and eat them raw, but I can't wait to see what you would cook up out of these." He broke the fruit open and waved it under the pink nose. Nothing happened. "Not your cup of tea, eh? Well, I have just the thing for you…"
He continued in this vein for a while, his heart sinking at the complete stillness and silence in the habitually twitching nose as he tried one rare and aromatic ingredient after another – morelle de balbis, gbogname, guava, Syrian saffron, kantikari, manglug. He was losing hope, but he persevered. The idea of that brilliant nose forever stilled… it didn't bear thinking about.
The voice in his ears was Anton Ego. Never cruel, just bitter, and now an ally. He respected him so much. He would do anything to see him. But it was so hard…
Oh! The assault on his senses – with each whiff of the herbs and spices, a flash of coloured light snaked through the darkness, speaking of rare and wondrous things he had never experienced before. He wanted so desperately to get up, to go to the colours and lights, but the weight of the darkness was pushing him down.
He pushed back.
Anton Ego was not discouraged, he told himself. Anton Ego never became discouraged. His rare ingredients laid out on the bed like a smorgasbord, he took a break to administer a bit of fluid through the IV. "Surely you can't be telling me you enjoy this," he gestured at the Ringer's solution, "better than haute cuisine? I think not." He sighed, his attempt at humour falling flat as he gazed at the unconscious chef.
A squeak came from the corner and he turned to see a rotund brown rat scampering towards the bed. "Ah, the Chef's brother," Anton said with somewhat forced cheer. "Do come in." He felt a bit silly talking to a rat – at least a rat other than M. le Chef – but truth be told, another presence buoyed him up and eased his fast plummeting morale. The rat – almost certainly a littermate, although he looked so different – climbed up to the bed, sat by the Chef and took his hand, in a gesture so human Anton felt quite moved. "No change yet," he said. The rat looked quizzically at the ingredients laid out on the bed. "I've been trying something new," Anton sighed. "But I'm not having much success so far. I suppose you'd know what his favourites are, wouldn't you?"
The brown rat looked up at him and squeaked; Anton sighed, wishing there was some way they could communicate. Doggedly, he kept up his monologue. "Brillat-Savarin is most famous for saying, 'Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.' The moment I tasted your brother's cooking, I was reminded of the French countryside. I would wager that you are from the region of Normandy. I would be most interested on hearing whether my surmise is correct…"
Anton stopped dead in mid-gesture, his mouth dropping open.
Moving so fast his hands were a blur, he finished the IV dose and dived for his bag. "You didn't win me over with pièces truffées, did you, old boy?" he muttered as he rifled through the compartments. Ingredients spilled out of the bag and tumbled out over the coverlet in his haste. "It was ratatouille you used!"
Hands shaking with excitement, he produced a sprig of rosemary, crushed a leaf carefully and held it under the rat's snout…
The round, pink nose twitched.
Anton's heart lurched. "M. le Chef?" he whispered over the flurry of excited squeaking from the brown rat. "Come on, come on." He waved the crushed leaf again. "Wake up, now, everyone is anxious to see you up and about." The brother squeaked and jumped up and down as Anton waved the leaf like smelling-salts…
But the movement was gone, the figure so still he was tempted to think he'd imagined it. But no, even if the brown rat hadn't been jumping up and down as though he was about to have a coronary, Anton trusted his own judgment, and he knew what he'd seen.
"I'm not going to let you off so easily, M. le Chef," he said. "I know you're trying to come out." Laying the rosemary aside, he began to try more familiar herbs and spices: parsley, sage, cilantro. None of these elicited a reaction, but Anton was infused with new hope. But if there was a response, he couldn't detect it. "And this is one of your favourites," he went on, determined to remain cheerful. "Lemon grass." He produced a leaf of grass from his bag and rubbed it in his hands to release maximum aroma. "Many chefs turn their noses up at it, but I applaud your courage in using it." Mechanically, he crushed the leaf in his strong fingers, waved it under the rat's nose…
And the rat's nose twitched again, bobbed up and down in an approximation of the way it had once used to.
He was sick of the darkness, and sent up a silent plea to his colleague and his brother, trying to show him the way. The colors and lights were talking to him, showing him the way back to the life he missed. Come on, help me. I'm trying. Oh man, how I'm trying… He was almost there now, he could feel it, but it was so hard. If there was just something to hold on to…
"Did you see that?" Anton shouted to the rat, forgetting himself entirely. "Come on, M. le Chef!" Emotion surged through him, and he grasped the rat's small paw, rubbed the unbandaged shoulder. "You gave me new life; perhaps it's time for me to return the favour."
He looked up in surprise; the brown rat had jumped up and was ferreting through the ingredients on the bedspread. For a split-second he thought the rodent was eating them, but coloured in shame as the rat picked up a container of saffron and held it out to face him, pointing at the label, a quizzical expression on his face. It took Anton a moment to realize that the rat couldn't read. "Saffron," he explained. The rat smiled and scampered out of the room.
He was back a moment later with an ordinary-looking white mushroom, and gestured to Anton to open the container and add the saffron to the vegetable. Bemused but feeling as though it was the answer to some mystery, the food critic obliged. He watched as the rodent scooped up the lemon grass and the rosemary that had elicited a reaction, and handed them to Anton, gesturing to the mushroom. "You want me to add these to…"
And suddenly, he understood. "You are from the Normandy region!" he cried as he squeezed a drop of juice from the grass, rubbed the rosemary onto the mushroom. An amateur chef would use the ingredients that grew naturally in the countryside around him, much as Anton once had, would be as mesmerized as Anton had once been by how combining scents and flavours could result in a whole that was more than the sum of its parts… "You saw him do this once, didn't you?" Anton breathed as he prepared the masterpiece, and the brown rat nodded, and he held the spiced mushroom under the Chef's nose, and—
—the darkness exploded into colours and lights, into sounds and music, and he inhaled the life-giving aroma, the wondrous combination, and then it was the most natural thing in the world to open his eyes, to see Emile jumping up and down and yelling with delight and kissing him on both cheeks and saying something about going off to tell Dad, and Anton Ego so happy he was actually sniffling, though he tried very hard to hide it, and gripping his paw in both hands, and he just took in the sight of the room around him, and the herbs and spices laid out on the bed, and he smiled. It was good to be out of the darkness.
It was good to be home.
And when Colette and Alfredo returned, opening the door with trembling hands, they were greeted by the sight of Remy awake and smiling, accompanied by his father and brother, propped up on a cotton ball, sipping carefully at half a grape, as Anton Ego was finishing an anecdote. "'A man who was fond of wine was offered some grapes at dessert after dinner. "Much obliged," said he, pushing the plate aside; "I am not accustomed to taking my wine in pills."' Hmm. Of course, not being a wine drinker yourself, you may not appreciate this too much. When you are better, I really must give you a course on wine tasting, M. le Chef. Your nose would be an asset to the industry."
Ego looked up at their delighted faces as they flung themselves down next to their beloved Little Chef and laughed and cried for joy, and was grateful that he managed to preserve a reasonable facsimile of his normal aloof expression. He opened his mouth to say that they really ought to control their emotions better, or that they were foolish to have been worried, but as he saw Linguini looking searchingly into the Chef's eyes, he didn't have the heart, and finally contented himself with saying: "All's well that ends well."
Notes: Herb information was taken from: