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The Fifth Flavor

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“And he was such an asshole, Sango!” Kagome ranted, santoku chef’s knife flashing as she diced her way through a pile of onions behind her restaurant’s open counter. “A total jerk.” She punctuated this pronouncement with a particularly rough chop, keen edge of the blade thunking into the wooden cutting board with such force that several chunks of onion bounced their way onto the floor. “Drat,” she grumbled, bending to scoop them up and toss them into the compost bin.

“Mmmmhm,” her best friend replied from where she perched on a stool, scrolling through her phone. Her ever-present demon cat companion, Kirara, lay curled on her lap. “So you said. Sounds like a regular Jerky McJerkface.”

“Well, he was.” A Jerky McJerkface who’s hot enough to fry an egg on in the dead of winter. Who has gorgeous golden eyes. And the cutest, most pettable ears…  

It was a sleepy Sunday morning, one of the two days each week Kagome had determined would be Shrine’s closed days. Not that, as a new business owner—especially a new restaurant owner—she could really take that time off. Sango had driven down from her family’s farm in Saitama Prefecture with several days’ worth of fresh produce, plus some longer-lasting root vegetables, heaped in the back of a kei truck, and the two had spent several hours hauling boxes into the kitchen, sorting, and giving everything a quick rinse. Kagome had practically squealed in delight at the stalks of tender asparagus, ruby red tomatoes, and knobby green bitter melon, already planning what to put on the lunch menu for the following week.

Not for the first time, Kagome thanked the kami for Sango. She knew that her long-time friendship with the no-nonsense woman was a big reason why the Matsuzawa family had cut her such a great deal: In exchange for buying her produce exclusively from their farm and featuring their CSA subscription prominently on her social media, the price they quoted her for both produce and delivery was…overly generous, to say the least. So what if the cucumbers and carrots weren’t ruler straight? Certainly didn’t matter once they were chopped up. 

And overall, the first week of business had been…OK, she guessed. The first couple days had been disappointingly slow, and after a second morning of only one or two diners Kagome had felt an icy trickle of fear slide down her spine at the thought that maybe, possibly, Yash was right, that she wasn’t going to last the month. The thought of his smug, stupidly handsome face smirking as he said “I told you so” in that low, husky voice of absolute sin was enough to drive her to distraction. Mind off the sexy hanyou, Kagome. He doesn’t even like you, remember?

She’d actually been really excited to meet her mysterious upstairs neighbor. Kagome already tended to be the imaginative sort, and many hours of menial labor painting and sweeping and scrubbing had been whiled away with daydreams of what they’d be like. 

She just hadn’t expected someone so hungry .

Kagome had always had a knack for knowing what sort of nourishment someone needed, even if they didn’t know it themselves. If they were craving sweet or savory, something light or something stick-to-your-ribs. It was a bit of a sixth sense, one she’d honed evening after evening feeding her family through grief, through late-night study sessions and when her friends went through breakups. 

With Yash, however, it felt like he needed a bit of everything she could offer. 

It was something in the eyes, she thought. Once they’d gotten past the awkward not-handshake—she’d startled him, maybe?— and then completely unwarranted round of yelling and Kagome had gotten her first close look at his face, it was like she couldn’t look away. His eyes were warm and lustrous, like the jeweled segments of a just-peeled peach, and he smelled a bit like musk and pine. It was stupid, and totally unlike her, to be this captivated by someone she’d just met, but it wasn’t until she realized Yash was dipping his mouth close to hers that what he was craving was, maybe, perhaps, her.

She'd completely panicked, dousing the heat and offering him food—her standard peace offering—only to have that backfire spectacularly. Though she could have sworn Yash's gaze said something completely different than his mouth.

Kagome had bumped into him only once (not that she was keeping an eye out for him, nope nope nope). It was an accident: She was locking Shrine up for the night and he was coming back from who knows where. He’d literally frozen at the sight of her. Before she could even open her mouth he’d darted up the stairs.

The landlady, Kaede, had come in on the third day and, after praising her lunch to high heaven, had promised to spread the word to her friends. Since then there’d been a small, if steady, trickle of new customers. Kagome knew it would take some time to build up a reliable base, but, that didn’t make the slow start any less unsettling. Goddammit, she hadn’t busted her ass through culinary school to give up now!

With a huff, Kagome used the flat of her knife to slide the pile of onions into a separate bowl, starting in on several slender purple eggplant, deftly halving them down the center. 

“Sango, what type were these, again?” she asked, dragging her thoughts back to the present before she accidentally cut herself.  

“Mmm?” Sango glanced up. “Those? Oh, they’re heirloom finger fruits. We should have more for you next week, too. Though if you’re feeling really frisky, I can ask my brother to toss in some of the special pickling eggplants, if you wanted to make tsukemono.” The ponytailed girl waggled her eyebrows at Kagome, sending them both into fits of giggles. 

“Sure Sango,” Kagome chuckled, “have Kohaku add a couple and I’ll make the sexiest pickles you’ve ever seen. Since you’re my vegetable pimp.” 

“Careful, don’t want your produce privileges revoked!”

Kagome stuck her tongue out at Sango. “Hey, I’m feeding you, that must count for something!”

Sango propped her head on her hands, peering over the counter to where Kagome was now prepping small mise en place bowls of curry powder, bay leaves, and other aromatics. “Speaking of which, Kags, whatever you’re making smells ah-ma-zing.”

“It’s a soup curry,” Kagome said. “I based it off my dad’s old recipe, actually, just punched up the flavors a bit. Figured I’d test it out on the menu.”

For a while, the only sounds in the cozy kitchen were  the sizzle of browning chicken, the bubbling of butter, and the hiss of vegetables hitting hot oil. Kagome lost herself in the active meditation of her craft, humming under her breath as she adjusted temperature, checked seasoning levels, and fluffed rice. Finally, she presented Sango with a deep bowl of rich, brown broth topped with elegantly arranged vegetables, plus a second plate of white rice, to soak everything up. 

As Sango dug in, Kagome noticed Kirara sniffing with interest at her friend’s plate. Not wanting the little cat to go hungry, she quickly ladled some broth and chicken into a bowl and set it on the ground. The demon cat immediately jumped off Sango’s lap, making a beeline for the food. 

“You’re not gonna like that, Kirara,” Sango mumbled around a mouthful of rice. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” 

The cream-colored kitten had hardly dipped her tongue in the liquid before she let out an anguished mew, frantically pawing at her tongue with both forelegs. 

“Sango, oh gosh, what’s wrong?” Kagome gasped. Did I mess up? Is it bad? Or is she allergic to something? Can demons even have allergies? In a panic, she scooped up the bowl and took a taste.

“Kirara’s fine, Kags,” Sango soothed, seeming decidedly unconcerned about her companion. “It’s just too spicy. Water will help.” 

Slightly mollified—though somewhat confused—Kagome quickly put down a dish of plain water for the poor cat, and Kirara immediately shoved her entire tongue in the cool liquid.

“I guess you wouldn’t have cooked for many demons,” Sango continued, scraping her own plate clean with a spoon. “But you really have to be careful what you put in their food, or it’ll just totally override their senses. Makes it so hard to go out on a dinner date,” she mourned, offhandedly. “Kirara can handle a bit more since she’s not transformed right now but she should still ,” Sango emphasized this last statement with a glare at the now sheepish-looking demon, “know better.” 

“Oh.” Oh. Ohhhhhhhhhh. And that’s why he—! And the flowers—! And oh kami—! Kagome smacked both her hands over her face and made a noise somewhere between a groan and a dying hippo. “Sango, I’m a moron.”

Kagome whipped out the notepad she used to take orders from her apron pocket and smacked it down on the counter. 

“Right,” she ordered, “you’re going to tell me absolutely everything you know about demon senses.” She felt an almost manic grin crack across her face as she recalled the entire garbage bag of instant ramen she’d found in the building’s shared garbage bin on trash day. Time for her to feed a stray. And if it ended up with Yash admitting that her food was good, that would just be icing on the cake.

The evening found her standing awkwardly before her grumpy neighbor’s door. Kagome felt some of her confidence from the morning had perhaps been misplaced. She knew he was home—she could see a muted glow emanating from his windows—but struggled to take the final step of actually knocking. What if he was busy? What if he didn’t want to see her? What if he was asleep? What if—oh gosh—someone else was over?

Worrying her bottom lip between her teeth, Kagome had just lifted her hand to actually, for real this time, knock when the door suddenly flew open and she found herself looking up into Yash’s carefully blank face.

She was struck, in the moment, by just how beautiful he was. This time, his hair fell in silky strands down to the middle of his back. In the light of the streetlamp, it glowed an ethereal, icy silver. His eyes were guarded, their color rich and deep and…were those glasses? Yup. A pair of black-rimmed—dare she say, almost hipster-chic—glasses framed his face, held up…somehow. 

“Well?” his voice was gruff. 

“I thought demons didn’t need glasses!” Kagome blurted out, then immediately clapped a hand over her mouth. 

She had startled him, clearly. He slowly reached up one clawed hand and unhooked the frames, tucking them in his back pocket looking somewhat…embarrassed. “We don’t. They just help cut out computer blue light when I work,” he mumbled. “So what?”

OK, Kagome, focus! Stick to the plan.

“Have you had dinner yet?” she forged on.

“I already ate,” Yash insisted. Now that she was looking for it, Kagome thought she saw a hint of panic before he locked it away beneath a veneer of ambivalence. 

But just then, his stomach let out a loud grumble. 

“Mmmhmmmm.” Already ate, my ass. “Well, I think it’s pretty clear that even if you have, you’re still hungry. I have food that I made downstairs. For you. So if you don’t eat it, it’ll go to waste. And,” she said, taking a bit of a gamble, praying she’d read her hanyou neighbor right, “you owe me, Yash.”

There was a long moment of silence. Just as Kagome was beginning to fear she had grossly overstepped, Yash let out a long sigh. “Fine.”

“Really?”

“I said ‘fine,’ didn’t I? Keh.”

Kagome practically skipped down the stairs in glee, Yash following behind after locking his door. She slid open Shrine’s door, giving it an extra little heave where it liked to stick in the old track—that was going to get stuck one day—and beckoned the hesitant half-demon inside. 

“I need, like, three minutes to finish up, so feel free to take a look around,” she chirped, already darting behind the counter to fetch six identical bowls.  She kept a half eye on Yash, watching him take in Shrine’s rustic-chic décor: the counter, formed from the natural curves of a single piece of recycled wood; the long-legged stools upholstered in matchingly-mismatched fabric; potted plants and wooden carvings collected from her own travels, or brought as gifts by friends. 

When she finished plating the last of the six bowls, Kagome saw he was paused in front of a small photograph. It was the only one she’d hung on that wall, giving it pride of place at eye-level. It showed a small inari jinja shrine on an anonymous street corner somewhere in Tokyo. The focus was locked-in on the single red—almost, but not quite, hypersaturated—torii gate, and the stone kitsune guardians with bared fangs. The blurred forms of people broke up the composition, a rushed counterpoint to the shrine’s utter stillness. And loneliness. 

“It’s my favorite photo,” Kagome said, quietly. Yash’s ear flicked back at the sound of her voice, but otherwise he was still as stone. “My dad bought it for me when I graduated culinary school. I’d been eyeing it in a small gallery for weeks. I was crushed when it disappeared from the window; I thought someone had bought it before I could scrape up the money.”

At this, Yash scoffed. “What’s the big deal with this boring ass photo anyways?” He jabbed one clawed finger at it, stopping just short of puncturing the print. “S’not that great. Composition is janky as hell, and the colors look all wrong.”

“Well aren’t you the expert,” Kagome rolled her eyes. “It just speaks to me, OK? It’s why I named the restaurant Shrine. I want this to be a place of stillness for everyone, where they can come to escape the chaos around them. I just wish I knew the photographer. Look.”

She pointed to the lower righthand corner. Scrawled in pencil, lines so dark they indented the mat, was the kanji for “dog” and the number zero.

“It’s signed, but I haven’t been able to find out anything about them,” Kagome continued wistfully. If only to thank them, just once. “I even checked with the gallery, but all they’d say is they bought it from a third-party agent and they ‘weren’t authorized to share his contact information.’ So it was a dead end. Even a hissy fit in their office didn’t make them budge.”

“Of course not. You can’t be more than 50 kilos soaking wet. A damp kitten would be more frightening than you, woman.” But one corner of his mouth tugged upward, and Kagome felt her face flush.

“Well, this kitten could take you any day. Now, you need to eat!” As Kagome pushed Yash toward the counter, she could have sworn he mumbled something like “keh, don’t I know it” under his breath. 

Once she’d practically bullied the half demon into one of the stools, Kagome snapped into chef mode. 

“Right, Yash. I have six bowls of ramen, and I’ve seasoned each of them differently. The one on your far left is almost not flavored at all, while the far right is what I’d call ‘normal.’ I want you to work your way up, telling me when it tastes right, OK?”

When he still just looked at her, she let out a little growl and practically shoved a pair of chopsticks into his hands. “I spent all afternoon making these, so eat!”

“Well, I sure as fuck didn’t ask you to,” he shot back. “Kami woman, you’re pushy. I already said I would.”

“I know. But I meant it when I said I wanted Shrine to be for everyone. And I’m honestly a little ashamed I didn’t even realize no one from the demon population would be able to eat here. And I’m going to fix that, immediately. I know I said you ‘owed’ me, Yash, but you’re really doing me a favor. So eat, please. And tell me what you like.” 

Yash slowly reached for the bowl, on his left, claws clinking against the ceramic. He sniffed it almost delicately before taking one hesitant sip of broth, then one slurp of noodles. Kagome felt her eyes following the path his hand took from bowl to mouth. 

There was something so intimate, she thought, not for the first time, about watching someone eat food you’d made for them . It was like you were giving them something of yourself, the best of the care and kindness you had to offer. And it had been a long time since someone had eaten something she’d made so...thoughtfully. Thoroughly. A warm feeling bubbled up in her heart, watching the gruff hanyou take her sudden request seriously. When he wasn’t being an ass he could actually be quite...sweet.

“How is it?” she asked hopefully.

“Too bland,” Yash said bluntly, already moving on to the next bowl. It got the same conscientious treatment, and Kagome had to stop herself from interrupting to ask if it was good, if he liked it. This was a challenge she’d set herself. Kami knows what I’d do if he says they all taste bad. 

On the third bowl, Yash paused after the first sip. His ears twitched once, twice...three times. He took another sip, then a big slurp of noodles and Kagome could hardly stop herself from cheering. 

“This one. This one is...good,” he said slowly. “Maybe a bit less salt?” 

“OK. OK, cool, yeah, I can work with this.” Kagome knew she was babbling, but couldn’t stop the relieved outpouring. “So it was only a quarter of the amount of salt, and maybe a little less in the other aromatics. I, wow, knew that you must have a pretty strong sense of taste but this is amazing, and oh kami I’m going to have to adjust my entire menu so I can make sure everything is demon-friendly, and...”

“Kagome.” The amused sound of her name on his lips jolted her out of her spiral. She looked over to find his gaze warm, almost...fond? There was a new look in his eyes she couldn’t quite place, but it did delightful things to her insides. “You don’t have to redo everything at once. Look, I’ll,” he licked his lips, “I’ll come taste-test for you, alright? Make sure your new stuff is edible.”

“You’d do that?” 

“If it’ll stop you freaking out! I could practically feel your brain overheating. Plus, someone’s gotta make sure you don’t poison any demons, then you really would have to close.”

“You jerk !” Kagome shot back. But there was no heat behind it. She was smiling. Yash’s bowl of ramen was empty.