Author's notes:

Written for three_penny, who requested Coop 'n Albert breakfast fic.

Title and story inspired, in part, by the Pixar movie "Ratatouille", and the character of Anton Ego the food critic. (Remember that legendary line? "I don't like food; I love it. If I don't love it, I don't swallow.") Somehow, thinking about Albert Rosenfield and food reminded me very much of Ego. And like with Ego in the film, I firmly believe Albert is in for a happy ending in spite of how vicious he seems.

Any and all feedback is loved.


Swallow


"Here's your bacon, sir – super crispy, just like you asked." The waiter set down the order, then took a step back, eyeing the plate's contents with suspicion. Like he thought they were in danger of sprouting wings and flying off on the spot.

Fat chance, Albert thought. And that was his professional opinion. If that bacon had a single live cell left inside it, he'd eat his tie. It'd be healthier than eating that bacon, anyway.

Not that his breakfast companion gave a damn.

"A moment, please." Cooper's hand whipped up; the waiter jumped, wild-eyed. "I can see you're unenthusiastic about this breakfast, mister…" Cooper paused to glance at the name plate. "Joe. But in my experience there is no, and I repeat, no such thing as a too-crispy slice of bacon. Now I've had many plates of bacon in my life, so I daresay I have a basis for comparison, and this looks to be a very fine effort. Please give my compliments to the chef." Cooper nodded, flashed a smile, then lifted his coffee cup. The waiter relaxed minutely.

Albert waited for it. Waited…

Cooper swallowed. The cup thumped down.

"Oh, and that's Special Agent Cooper. Thank you."

Albert smirked into his orange juice. Good old Cooper; reliable as clockwork. He folded his face back into impassive mode as Cooper picked up knife and fork. Somehow, Albert could never suppress a sense of impropriety at watching Cooper dig into a meal. There was something too damn intimate about his smile, about the relish with which he chewed and sliced and sipped, and Albert tried not to think about how similar Cooper's face had looked last evening, caught in a much more carnal kind of bliss.

They hadn't actually slept together. That luxury they could rarely afford while on a case, even if it was across the stateline where no one had a clue of who they were. But Cooper had joined him when he'd returned from the morgue, chasing all thoughts of maimed flesh and formaldehyde with skilful hands and warm, willing lips.

"I believe your order has arrived, Albert," Cooper said, around a mouthful of bacon.

"Terrific," Albert said, dragging himself back to the here and now. The waiter treated him to a dark look, as if daring him to protest, and plunked down a plate in front of him. Albert couldn't care less about the guy's attitude, but his toast was a different story. It was burnt.

He shot Cooper a withering glare that said this is all your fault, and opened his mouth to call back the waiter. If an uncharred slice of bread was too much to ask, then at least Albert deserved the satisfaction of giving someone hell about it.

Cooper's fingers on his wrist stopped him cold.

"Try the coffee," Cooper whispered conspiratorially. "Trust me. It'll make your day."

Albert grabbed his cup just to have an excuse to shake off Cooper's touch. If he allowed himself those kinds of liberties, it was after hours only. Cooper was different then, his boyish grins replaced by an air of melancholy that Albert, being Albert, would either rebel against or do his best to ignore. It was too damn easy to get caught in Cooper's wake, to let his own carefully chiseled façade crumble under the weight of Cooper's intensity. But no matter how else the word applied to them, on the job they were partners in a professional sense. And Albert was nothing if not a professional.

Still, the coffee was good, piping hot with a tangy aftertaste, and Albert took small sips to make it last. It wasn't that he never missed breakfast. Hell, when on a case, he probably skipped more meals than he got. That didn't mean he loathed food, like everyone seemed to think. No, Albert was of the convinction that a decent, well-cooked meal deserved better than being shoveled down in a greasy diner with the thought of mangled bodies fresh in one's head. A quiet breakfast, though, he enjoyed as much as anyone. Just not the extravagant affairs Cooper indulged in, because those'd make his arteries curdle on the spot, and that medical degree had to count for something.

(The same could be said about cigarettes, except – not. Oh, they ate away at his lungs, no doubt, but in Albert's opinion, dying from lung cancer at fifty was still preferable over dying from a heart attack next year, which was guaranteed to happen if he'd lay off the smokes. Most days, they felt like the only thing between him and plain insanity. He couldn't quit if he wanted to.)

No, what he loved were simple enough things. Freshly baked bread, the smell of melting butter, the spicy sweetness of home-made jam. Albert couldn't even remember the last time he'd tasted real jam, like the kind that his ma and grandma used to make. The closest he'd ever come was in a place in downtown Seattle, which served terrible coffee but was redeemed by its home-made apricot jam. He still remembered the first time he'd tried it. It had tasted of ginger and summer and impossibly of home, and a lump had stuck in his throat after the first bite and stubbornly refused to disspate.

He'd been so impressed he'd taken Cooper there the week after, only to end up spouting utter tripe about his hometown and his family – the same bunch of narrow-minded people he'd been glad to be rid of and hadn't deigned to visit in years. Pathetic. The Bureau's top forensic expert, reduced to a puddle over a batch of well-made jam. Thankfully, Cooper had never brought it up again, but Albert didn't doubt he had the whole incident committed to memory. Because that was just how Cooper was.

"Albert," Cooper interjected, almost on cue. "You haven't touched your breakfast." His tone was mildly accusatory. Albert swore under his breath, bracing himself for what promised to be the umpeenth iteration of this speech. "You of all people should know the value of proper meals. The brain needs nutrition to operate at peak capacity; besides, it might make some of the locals more cooperative towards you. People here like a man who enjoys his food."

On an average day, Albert might have just scowled and let that pass. But he'd barely slept, thanks to Cooper's choice of motel with its sorry excuse for beds, he was cranky and stiff and fast becoming desperate for a smoke, and he definitely shouldn't have gone the path of childhood memories, even if it was about a ridiculous thing like jam. No, Albert was ready to make someone cringe, and Cooper was just asking for it.

"Oh, do they?" he snapped. "You mean people here like a man who just nods and hums along, who doesn't confront the simpletons of this world with unpalatable truths, like this toast is crap, or Santa's not real, or they have a serial killer in their midst? You're saying just smile and be merry and all the nasty things will melt away, is that what you're saying?"

Albert ran out of breath before he'd run out of acid, but the look on Cooper's face made him pause. Of course that wasn't what Cooper had meant. Cooper knew the ugly underbelly of reality as well as he did. For a second Albert swallowed down guilt, but no – he wouldn't let himself be plied by Cooper's idealism. Not right now. Not when there was a job to be done and he needed his wits about him.

"Albert, I –"

"I'll see you at the lab. I have reports to finish." Albert stood, with a screech of chair-legs, and left, the toast still untouched on his plate.

He stomped up the staircase to his room, taking a perverse pleasure in the marks his shoes left on the threadbare carpet. Damn Cooper and his world view, anyway. It galled him to know it was weakness, not strength, that made him bitter. It galled him even more to know that Cooper knew that too. He still had no idea what Cooper even saw in him – a sarcastic bastard like Albert, always looking for the worst in everything and everyone.

Because it was never about appreciating food, was it? It was about appreciating people, and why everyone, even Cooper for most of the time, seemed to believe Albert felt about people the exact same way he felt about food. No; the way they thought he felt about food, which was that the world would be a better place without it. But that wasn't it. It was just that everything was so fucking precious, madness and violent death on every corner waiting to strike, and still people insisted on screwing up every good thing they had. It was like witnessing a car-crash in slow motion; like watching an amateur ruin a perfectly good steak by reducing it the texture of a leather sole.

Albert didn't like people, that much was true. But he'd never hated them. No, he was stupid enough to love them, in spite of himself – even the dolts and the morons, even the ones who didn't have a fucking clue. He just valued life too much to remain stoic when he saw it wasted. And as reactions went, he'd pick laughter over tears every day.

He cooled down a bit on his drive to the lab, and the rest of the day was slightly more bearable. It helped that the local staff at what passed for a morgue in this burg seemed to have understood that Albert preferred to work alone. At least they'd stopped harassing him every occasion they got. But he didn't see Cooper all day, and Cooper didn't meet him for dinner. Part of Albert was surprised about that. They'd had arguments before, plenty of them, but somehow this felt deeper, less fleeting. He wondered if it would be wiser to get worried, or mad.

He got his answer the next morning, jerking awake at a knock on the door.

When he opened it, the hallway was empty, apart from a small tray on the carpet at his feet. He picked it up carefully, blinked, and blinked again. There was toast and juice and coffee, and unbelievably, a small jar of what looked like… marmalade? A piece of hotel stationery was placed neatly on the top. "Failed to find apricot, had to settle for strawberry. Shopkeeper guaranteed made fresh, no preservatives. Please address all complaints to room 325."

Albert wavered, moved despite himself. So Cooper did remember; not that Albert had really doubted that. It wasn't an apology, but then Albert hadn't planned on giving Cooper one either. And maybe he was wrong. Maybe Cooper understood him better than he knew. Cooper had made a gesture; Albert supposed he could make one too.

He sighed and, against his better judgment, carried the tray to Cooper's room.