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Playing With Fire

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The blade slipped though the raw, tender cut of beef as if it were water, each slice perfectly identical in size, and yet his hands moved deftly at an incredible speed. Inuyasha barely even had to think about what he was doing—it was almost second nature, the motions and calculations of distance and speed and pressure so deeply imprinted on his muscles that they acted of their own accord. He heard the men and women and children seated around the table that surrounded the grill give a collective gasp as he finished slicing with a flourish and twirled the knife around his index finger before sliding it easily back into the sheath at his belt, a self-satisfied smirk tilting his lips. He paid no attention to their faces—they might as well not have had them for all he cared—but he knew that every eye at the table was trained on his hands and arms, every expression agape with wonder at his uncommon skill. Although most of them had been served by now, and all had at least some food on their plates, their meals were virtually untouched, so entranced were they all by his performance. This didn’t surprise him—he always seemed to have this effect on people.

He served up the cubes of perfectly cooked filet mignon to the last two customers and immediately set about cleaning the grill, acknowledging their enthusiastic applause and whistles with only a curt nod before returning to the kitchen with his cart.

“You ought to be more careful, Inuyasha,” Miroku scolded with a mischievous grin as he fell in step beside him with his own cart. “That girl on the end with the long blonde hair looked like she was in danger of hyperventilating and fainting at the sight of you. Wouldn’t want her to fall onto the grill and earn you a lawsuit.”

“Feh,” he scoffed, knowing Miroku was teasing him—but he couldn’t suppress a smug grin nonetheless. He’d noticed the girl—or her breasts, anyway. Never really bothered to look much higher than that.

“So what was the score tonight? Five?” he asked as they returned their carts to the alcove and emptied them of their contents. The kitchen was more or less quiet by now—the last seating had been a half an hour ago, so there was no one else there but the busboys washing dishes at the back and straightening up the counters.

“Seven,” Inuyasha replied as he cleaned his and Miroku’s utensils over at the chefs’ sink. “There was a couple that came in after that party of ten, and then another couple that joined them.”

“No, no, no—you don’t get to count them as two if they were together.”

“But they both asked for me separately—they came in at different times.”

“Yeah, but they were meeting each other,” Miroku pointed out, putting a couple of seasoning shakers and a bottle of cooking oil back on the shelf, “the second couple probably just didn’t know the first couple had already requested you.”

Inuyasha rolled his eyes. “Fine, six then.”

“Not as many as a few days ago—you must be slipping,” Miroku grinned, making a ‘tsking’ noise with his tongue.

“It’s a Tuesday—business is slower,” Inuyasha justified with a shrug, carefully toweling dry the sharp blade of his knife. Miroku’s he left in the dish drainer. Seeing this, Miroku slanted him a look and stepped around to dry his own knife and spatula.

The dark-haired man was about to reply when the door swung open with a light squeak and Sango appeared, heaving a weary sigh and adjusting her obi as she crossed over to them. Miroku slung an arm around her waist and grinned at her, immediately changing focus. “Sango dearest, don’t you look lovely this evening,” he said, his hand sliding surreptitiously from her waist toward her rear end.

She gave him a wry look and nudged him in the ribs, making Inuyasha grin. “Not tonight, okay? I’m really beat.”

“Does that mean you’re not coming over when we finish up?”

“Sorry—I’ve got to be in early tomorrow. Apparently we’re hiring a new chef, and Kikyo asked me to show him around. He’s supposed to be really good, too—came with great recommendations, won a bunch of local competitions and things. Don’t spread it around though—I wasn’t supposed to say anything. I think that’s what the meeting is for though.”

“What meeting?” Inuyasha asked.

“Staff meeting, after we close up tonight.”

“Seriously? Fuck that, I just did eight hours—I don’t wanna hang around here till close. Why do we need to have a meeting about this anyway? Who cares about some newbie chef?”

“Don’t ask me,” Sango said with a shrug. “Now quit slacking, boys—get back to work.”

“Doing what, exactly?” Inuyasha grumbled. “We just finished our last tables.”

“You remember how to clear dishes, don’t you, Iron Chef?” Sango said wryly, heading for the door. “If you’re going to be around anyway, might as well make yourselves useful.”

As soon as she disappeared back into the dining room, Miroku and Inuyasha looked at each other. “Catch the Late Show?” Miroku suggested.

“You’re on,” Inuyasha agreed, and they headed through the back door into the staff room to kick back in front of the TV until they were summoned.

An hour or so later, after the last customers had paid their checks and the last of the dishes had been cleared away, the entire staff gathered around one of the tables at the back of the restaurant, near the door to the office, waiting for Kikyo and this mysterious new chef to finish up with their meeting. Inuyasha, of course, got one of the chairs, the other chefs filling in around him (although Sango also had a chair, even though she was a waitress—she had seniority. And she was sleeping with a chef…), while the waitresses, hosts, and hostesses stood around them, and the lowly bus boys crowded around the back. Despite this place of honor, Inuyasha rapped his nails impatiently against the edge of the table, eager to get back to his apartment and watch the Cubs game he’d taped that afternoon. Finally, the door opened and Kikyo stepped out, shadowed by a pretty young woman who gave them all a slightly nervous smile. Inuyasha frowned slightly, wondering who this woman could be. There didn’t seem to be anyone else left in the office—Sango must have gotten it wrong. They were getting a new waitress, not a new chef.

“Good, you’re all here,” Kikyo said in a businesslike tone, stepping in front of the group. “Don’t worry, this will be a short meeting—I know you’re all anxious to get home. I just wanted to introduce you all to our newest chef—Kagome Higurashi.”

Dead silence.

The young woman took a step forward and gave a small wave, her smile widening slightly as she tried to exhibit an air of confidence. “Hi all—it’s wonderful to meet you. I really look forward to working with all of you.”

Her words seemed to break the spell of shock, and everyone resumed breathing. Some (mostly the waitresses) returned her smile and greeting sincerely, and he could see her nervousness ease a bit at this. Sango even stood up and reached across the table to shake the woman’s hand, her smile so triumphant it was almost fierce. Miroku stood as well, and offered his trademark kind-yet-flirtatious welcome, opening the way for the other chefs to follow suit. The busboys couldn’t do much more than peek over everyone else’s shoulders and wave.

Inuyasha, meanwhile, remained exactly where he was, his expression stony.

When her eyes flicked over to him, her smile faltered slightly, but she strapped it back on. “Inuyasha Takahashi—I’ve heard a lot about you. It’s really nice to finally meet you,” she said, extending her hand. He ignored it, offering only a grunt of acknowledgement before glancing away. Stupid wench. Where did she get off, anyway? Could he have made it any more obvious that he was none too happy to meet her? Bitch couldn’t take a damn hint if it hit her upside the head.

The meeting more or less unraveled into an impromptu welcome party, everyone crowding around Kagome, asking her about where she’d studied, where she’d worked before, how many competitions she’d won. Although Inuyasha remained stubbornly standoffish, he couldn’t help picking up on the fact that Sango’s brief mention of this new chef’s qualifications earlier on had been, if anything, and understatement. Despite her embarrassed modesty, it was clear that this woman had done very well for herself so far. Of course, that had been before. This was the big-time. Restaurants of this caliber set the bar just a little bit higher than the dime-a-dozen, proletarian hibachi chains this wench had no doubt worked in as she was honing her craft. Sooner or later she would realize she was in over her head. It had to happen.

At long last everyone else trickled away, and Inuyasha watched Kikyo disappear back into her office, presumably to finish up some last minute work before heading home herself. Yeah, fat chance. He followed her, shoving the door open so hard it banged against the wall and swung nearly completely shut behind him. He didn’t bother to close it the rest of the way—the others had all left by now, so it wasn’t like there was anyone around to hear.

“What the hell were you thinking, Kikyo?” he demanded.

She looked up from her computer, apparently only mildly surprised to find him there. “What was I thinking about what, Inuyasha?” He hated it when she did that.

“You know what—hiring that rabbity wench out there as a chef. Seriously, I can’t believe you—you really think she’ll make it more than a day or two around here?”

“I think she’ll make it a lot longer than that,” she replied, turning her eyes back to the screen and continuing to clatter away at the keyboard as if he were only a mildly interesting radio show that occasionally required her response.

“Dammit, Kikyo, cut that out!”

She heaved a sigh and glanced over at him tolerantly. “What now?”

“You know I hate that—just quit it with the keyboard and pay attention to me! I’ve got a serious problem—”

“Well that much is obvious,” she interjected wryly.

Inuyasha growled, clenching his fists convulsively, wishing he could wrap them around her throat. “Like I was saying, I’ve got a problem with that wench, so quit doing the books and listen to what I’m saying.”

“Staff meeting seating arrangements notwithstanding, Inuyasha, the world doesn’t revolve around you. Putting aside the fact that you’ve just barely met her, frankly, I don’t give a damn whether you’ve got a problem with Kagome—deal with it. Ignore her or fuck her or do whatever you have to do to get past it, but deal with it.”

“Oh, yeah, sure—you’d just love it if I fucked her, wouldn’t you. That wouldn’t bother you a bit,” he spat, a forcing his expression into a cocky grin.

She replied with a sour smile. “Well it worked pretty well with us. Six months in your bed and I’m not even tempted anymore.”

He narrowed his eyes. “Never did know a good thing when you saw it, did you—that explains this Kagori business.”

“That’s Kagome—and like I said, if you’re determined to be a jackass about this, do it on your own time. I’m standing by my decision.”

“But don’t you get it?” he spluttered, struggling to make up for lost ground. “There’s no way a woman can be a hibachi chef.”

Kikyo’s eyebrows disappeared behind her neat bangs, and she settled back in her chair coolly, crossing her arms over her chest. “Is that so? Why, pray tell?”

“Because,” he snapped back, racking his brain for plausible examples, “they’re too short. It’s harder to work the grill. And they don’t have as much upper-body strength—you’ve got to have power to work the knives properly.”

Kikyo snorted. “It’s cooking, Inuyasha, not car-pulling.”

“But—her breasts will get in the way! They’re a fire hazard!”

“She’s not exactly flat-chested, but I don’t think there’s much risk of her breasts catching on fire while she’s standing over the grill.”

“Okay fine, then what about her hair?” he pointed out smugly.

She blinked bemusedly. “Yours is longer.”

Damn.

“Face it, Inuyasha,” she said finally, before he could conjure another wild justification. “This isn’t about her—it’s about you. You’re just threatened by the fact that this woman can do what you can do—and pretty damn well, if her reputation does her justice.”

“Feh—no one can do what I can do, man or woman. That’s not the point.”

“I see,” she shut down her computer and got to her feet, “well, nice to know you haven’t lost that trademark humility I so adored. It’s a wonder I didn’t shut that big fat head of yours in a car door one of those days.”

“Like you were any fucking picnic,” he rejoined. “You’d have that goddamn Blackberry implanted in your arm if you could. I used to have dreams you’d be fucking me, but thinking of it.”

“At least the Blackberry vibrates,” she replied tartly, shouldering her briefcase and heading for the door.

Inuyasha’s eyes flashed as they followed her, and he marched after her through the restaurant. “Hey, you didn’t have any complaints at the time.”

“If I had you wouldn’t have heard them,” she tossed back, flicking off the lights and heading out the door. “You were always asleep before I even realized it was over.”

He growled again, rounding on her once they’d reached the pavement. “Frigid, tight-assed bitch!” he snarled when he couldn’t come up with anything cleverer.

“I’ll take that to mean you concede this match to me. Night, Inuyasha,” she said with a wave, turning towards her car.

“Wait!” he called after her. “We haven’t settled this Kagome thing yet!”

“As far as I’m concerned,” she unlocked the door and set her briefcase on the passenger’s seat, “it’s settled. If you want to continue arguing, you can, but I’m afraid you’ll have to do it alone.” And with that, she slid into the driver’s seat and started the engine.

He watched her pull out of the parking lot before heading to his own car. Damn that wench.

*      *      *

Kagome opened the front door of the apartment to the sounds of someone bustling about in the kitchen. Frowning curiously and glancing at her watch, she peaked around the doorjamb to find her roommate pouring a freshly sliced red pepper into a pot of noodles and peanut sauce on the stove.

“What are you still doing up?” she asked. “It’s after midnight.”

Hojo glanced up and gave her a smile. “Working on some reports I’ve been putting off—just thought I’d take a dinner break. You hungry?”

“Starved,” she replied. “I was so nervous about this job I skipped dinner. Smells delicious, by the way.”

“That’s good, cause we’ll be eating this stuff for a week,” he said with a chuckle. “The recipe was a little bigger than I thought.”

She grinned. “Anything I can do to help?”

“Just grab us a couple of bowls and dish up.” He tapped the spoon on the side of the pot and set it in the spoon rest on the counter. “Milk?”

“Sure.”

He retrieved the milk from the fridge and poured them each a glass while she dished up the noodles. “So, how did it go?”

“Well, the meeting with Kikyo was fine,” she began, trading him a bowl for a glass as they settled at the kitchen table across from one another. “We got all the paperwork straightened out, and by the end of it all I wasn’t quite as intimidated by her as I had been the first time.”

“What about your coworkers? Did they seem nice?” he asked, twirling a few noodles around his fork and taking a bite.

“For the most part,” she shrugged, taking a bite herself, thoughtfully. “Mm—this is really good. Where’d you get the recipe?”

“Thanks. It’s my aunt’s. She’s always sending me cookbooks. I think she thinks I’m gay.”

She frowned. “Because she sends you cookbooks?”

“No, because every time I visit her she asks me if I’ve got a new man in my life yet.”

Kagome snorted into her noodles. “Well why don’t you just tell her about Maggie?”

“I tried—she didn’t believe me.”

“Why not?”

“Because she knows I live with you, but that we aren’t together, and I guess in her mind that automatically means I’m gay.”

“Ah,” Kagome said with a slow nod. “I get it.”

He smiled and shook his head ruefully. “I don’t. But anyway, you were saying?”

“Oh yeah—well, most of the people were really nice, but there was this one guy who seemed like a real jerk,” she said with a shrug, winding up another bite of noodles. “It was too bad, too—I hear he’s one of the best.”

“Another chef?”

“Yeah.”

“What was wrong with him?”

“Well, he just sort of sat there, staring at me, like I was the creature from the Black Lagoon.”

“Maybe he was just overwhelmed by your beauty.”

She laughed wryly. “I wish.”

“Hey, stranger things have happened.”

“Believe me, that wasn’t it. I’m not vain, but I think I can tell when a guy’s attracted to me—and this guy was about as repulsed as you can get.”

“Not possible,” Hojo protested easily, glancing down at his meal.

Kagome observed him surreptitiously through her eyelashes, wishing they would move on to another topic. Things always got a little awkward whenever they broached—however indirectly—the subject of attraction. Hojo had had a major crush on her through most of high school, and although she had never returned his feelings, they had managed to remain friends even while she’d been away at college. Now that she was back in town and they were sharing an apartment, he assured her that he had put those feelings behind him—and he was, in fact, seeing someone else—but at times she suspected that he hadn’t put his feelings for her behind him quite as firmly as he claimed. Overall, well…things just ran more smoothly if they avoided the subject altogether.

“So,” he said, finally picking up on her desire for a shift in topic, “you ready for tomorrow? First official day as a chef at the hottest hibachi restaurant this side of Cincinnati?”

She grinned. “You bet.”

*      *      *

Inuyasha opened the front door of his apartment and flipped on the light, tossing his car keys onto the coffee table and heading for the kitchen. After a few moments of consideration, he pulled a Heineken from the fridge and popped the top, and then grabbed a can of Spaghetti-Os from the cupboard and opened it. You’d think a professional chef could come up with something a little more adventurous and nutritious for dinner than pasta in a can, but Inuyasha had never been particularly interested in the culinary aspects of his profession—he was in it for the sport of it. Grabbing a fork from the drawer on his way back into the living room, he plunked down on the sofa and picked up the remote, turning on the tape of the game that was in the VCR, right where he’d left it.

It wasn’t one of the most exciting games of the season, but it had its moments—and yet Inuyasha still couldn’t seem to keep his mind focused on it. It kept drifting back to his annoyance over his new coworker, and the residual frustration over that argument he’d had with Kikyo. Damn bitch wouldn’t listen to a word he said if her life depended on it—she had it in for him, he knew it. She’d been busting his ass ever since they’d broken up. And yeah, sure, he wasn’t perfect—but really, she’d gotten in a couple of low blows that night. Like that jab about the vibrating Blackberry. Sure, he knew she was just egging him on—that was one department where he’d never had any problems—but still, it pissed him off.

Releasing a growl of frustration as he realized he’d just missed a nice hit by Soriano and rewound the tape a bit to catch it, he resolved to put it all out of his mind and just fucking watch the game. He could figure out all that other crap later. For now he just wanted to relax and enjoy a cold beer and a good game—so that was exactly what he was going to do.

The Cubs lost.