Warnings: Cultural discrimination and racism, young people being threatened, and lots of swearing. Some emotional distress and what can be construed as pre-slash fluffiness.

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Chapter Four: Customer Service for the Wolves

"A little service please?! Yeah? Over here, faceless!"

"Oh, is this the soup I ordered an hour ago? THANK you so much."

"Excuse me? Yeah, that second helping? Coming right up, was it?"

The voices vied in an all-out screaming match, everyone banging on the counter. There weren't enough seats, and there weren't enough bowls out for those seats to be opening up anytime soon. Loupa was in the kitchen, trying to cook three soups at once, leaving Tari with an armful of empty bowls, a fist of coins, four new orders, and no patience. Customer service had been thrown to the wolves an hour ago when Loupa had slammed his hands on the counter and roared at everyone to shut the hell up.

A full minute of blessed silence had followed, while Tari tallied the orders up. When he finished, he realized they were all glaring at him, waiting for him to control his apprentice. Loupa had the decency to look slightly guilty. "You heard him," Tari had responded and sent Loupa back into the kitchens before he started telling their customers to go fuck themselves.

Now that they were all screaming like monkeys at Tari alone, he was reflecting on that.

"You speak are language, taodei? You wanna send out someone who can understand plain Umhai?!"

God, there was nothing Tari hated like the lunch rush.

"Hey, baiga," Tari called over his shoulder. "Let me do my job and I'll write you a fucking limerick." If he'd had a free hand, there was a gesture made for situations like these, and the red-faced man spluttering behind him. He settled for a wink.

Customers whistled and applauded Tari's cheek as he entered the kitchen, where he found Loupa dishing out bowls of soup apparently at random. That was fine. They'd reached this point. Tari dumped the dirty bowls on the washing counter and swept the new bowls of soup onto a tray. "Two more chicken, two more pea, and another summer stew," he warned his apprentice. Loupa gave him a look that said he was having a crisis and wrung his hands wordlessly. Tari nudged the door open with his foot. "Just get it started."

But Tari couldn't catch his breath, let alone find the time to try to avert Loupa's latest culinary disaster. He hurried to and fro, refilling, cleaning, taking orders, receiving coins, and trading insults, trying to put a dent in the crowd ringing the bar and failing. The customers weren't his regulars, so they had taken to calling Tari a taodei as often as possible, laughing at his snappish responses. Tari was this close to throwing them all out and closing the shop for the day.

However, before he could kick out his sole means of income, the voice of his newest regular hit Tari like a blow to the head. Rough voice, heavy accent. Unmistakable.

"Call my friend that again, and you'll regret it," Harker announced pleasantly, managing to find empty space at the bar by intimidation alone. He waved, ignoring the folk ogling his brilliant hair. "Busy as usual, Tari? Can I—"

It was lunch rush. Of course it didn't end that politely.

Harker whipped around fast enough that instinct made Tari tense automatically. Predator. Run. The kid to Harker's right closed his mouth with an audible snap; the whole shop went deathly silent. Harker leaned closer. "…Didn't you hear me say you shouldn't call our chef that?"

The boy was practically flour-white. "I… I… My lord. D-don't cut my tongue out."

Harker's eyes darted to Tari's, glittering with dark amusement. Tari raised an eyebrow. You're going to pick on a kid? Harker clicked his tongue thoughtfully. Yup, you're going to pick on a kid. "I collect fingers and teeth too, if you prefer, boy."

Oh, for crying out loud.

Tari prodded Harker's elbow with the cleaning cloth. "What'll it be?" He muttered. Harker abandoned his prey to fix Tari with his copper eyes and sharp smile instead. The boy vanished silently into the crowd.

"More of your lovely voice," Harker crooned, which seemed to give the rest of the customers permission to talk again. Not a taodei to be heard. It was comforting, in a way, to know that Harker terrified all setoke, not just Tari. "Or I'll just have whatever tea you think I'll like"

Tari nodded and departed for the kitchen. Loupa whirled around to face him, every inch clearly intent on having a very hysterical meltdown, and Tari held up a hand before he could. "Floor," he said, unmoved by Loupa's increasingly mournful countenance. He pointed to help his apprentice figure it out. "Go."

"But—"

Leaving his apprentice to mumble ineffectually to himself, Tari moved to the soup pots and sipped the broth that looked closest to completion.

…Loupa was never allowed to use salt again. EVER.

From then on it was damage control with the soup with Loupa hurrying in and out and shouting orders at Tari's automatically nodding head. Tari's hands moved methodically as seasoning flew, ingredients were chopped, and soups were stirred. He was off in his own world now, where there was nothing but heat, taste, and smell. Everything else burned to ash.

"Tari."

"Hmbg?" Can't talk. Dicing. Dicing like his life depended on it. A hand the size of an oven mitt closed around his forearm, pulling him away from his dicing. Loupa.

According to Loupa, standing over a firepit for days at a time without rest was grounds for an exorcism. Tari had a lot more breaks now that he had an apprentice.

He contemplated the knife that was still in his hand.

Loupa was whining. "That foreign lord won't go away."

Tari snorted, shoving Loupa off. He wasn't entirely sure of where Loupa got the guts to try and argue with Harker about it. "He's not a lord," he muttered, reaching for the bowls.

"How do you know that?" Loupa looked as though his life hinged on Tari's answer. Loupa's life seemed to conveniently hinge on a lot of things that weren't his job. "Wait—are we talking to him now?"

"This may surprise you," Tari said dryly, slipping the soup bowls onto the tray. "But there's not actually anyone deciding who you can talk to." He turned back to Loupa, tray in hand and paused. Tari blinked. Loupa's eyes were enormous. "…What?"

"That's the most I've heard you say," Loupa exclaimed. "Seriously, ever." Tari rolled his eyes and headed for the door.

"Mind the soup, apprentice."

"Is the world ending?" Loupa exclaimed loudly, just to get the last word. Outside, since no one was screaming themselves blue in the face, Tari took a moment to trot over to Harker. Harker sipped tea and looked completely at peace. He had a little pocket of calm surrounding him and seemed to notice the minute Tari was within conversational range.

"It's good," Harker said, tilting his cup towards Tari.

"It's new," Tari replied, dropping to his elbows on the counter between them. Harker's eyebrow quirked. He sipped the tea again, and Tari could feel the bubble of calm enveloping him too, just by watching.

"I noticed," Harker momentarily broke eye contact to look in the glass. "Tari, do you recall a certain outing to a tea shop we had last week?"

Tari shrugged. "I remember your dog."

Harker grinned as though this amused him without looking up. "But nothing of my gracious manners? I've been working on them."

"Keep working," Tari drawled, moving on to the next customer. Harker gave a growl of disapproval, but Tari waved him off. Work, need money, et cetera. He did mean to pick up the conversation again, but lunch rush hung onto him like a leech. When Tari finally stopped it was because something grabbed him by the sleeve. Harker's hand.

"I defended you from those bastards calling you names," Harker pointed out, ignoring both the fact that he was kind of a bastard himself and also calling people names. "You owe me."

"Ah." Tari inclined his head. "Very well. Thank you for your unnecessary intervention on my behalf. Truly. I'm grateful."

"Keep talking." Harker's fingers slipped around the whole of Tari's wrist, tugging him gently closer. He gestured grandiloquently with his cup, making the chef suppress a smile. "Conversation is what I live for, after all."

"I have work," Tari pointed out. He did have work. The surprising element was that he almost wanted to put it off and just keep chatting. Troublesome. Harker's hand held on like the coils of a snake.

"What was it you said while we sampled tea?" Harker pondered aloud, voice light and teasing. "'My lord, I owe you my life and eternal gratitude for this'?"

As if being a foreign pair hadn't already gotten them enough attention. Heads turned and Tari scowled. "…I called you Harker."

"Didn't you choose rose tea as your favorite?" Tari inclined his head again and Harker rewarded him with a dazzling grin. Tari swallowed. Had Harker's teeth always looked so sharp? "Your tea... It tastes as though you improved on that exact recipe."

The world froze for a moment. Tari swallowed once more and shook off Harker's hand. "I'm no thief."

He turned away, hoping nothing was showing on his face. It was only a question and the last person to ask had been Loupa. It couldn't possibly bother Tari anymore.

Yes, just like Tari hadn't been feeling something warming up inside of him at the sight of Harker, simple as boiling an egg. So now the pit of his stomach didn't feel heavy, deprived. Hungry. Not at all. Tari looked away, trying to be angry instead.

"Tari." Harker's voice was apologetic, but that just made his insides grow heavier.

"Never mind," Tari said. Loupa. He'd switch jobs with Loupa again. He'd go back to cooking and that would warm him up just fine.

"You've got the wrong idea here." Harker's words came out too fast, too urgently. "I wasn't implying that you were a thief."

No, Tari thought. I know that. You didn't have to. "It's fine, Harker."

"It was a compliment," Harker insisted. "You learn from tasting, don't you?" Tari glanced over. Bad move. His legs seemed to root himself to the floor—Harker had eyes like ice. Tari's heart sped up-predator; start running-and ran a shiver through his skin. "That's why the food here is so extraordinary. Once you taste it, you know how to copy it.

Tari said nothing and wanted to block his ears. Don't talk about it.

"But you don't copy," Harker announced. He took a long sip from his cup and smiled secrets. "You improve. You create something of your own." His eyes opened again and Tari wanted to reach for them—they looked just like copper coins. "Extraordinary."

"Stop." Tari shook his head. I know what I am, and that isn't it.

"Tari." Harker's eyes shined like a promise. "You are."

Tari went back into the kitchen without a word. He hoped Harker wasn't insulted, but he hadn't known what else to do.

He was light as air and warm to the tips of his toes.

"Tari?" Loupa asked, perplexed. "Are you blushing?"

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A/N: So. CHAPTER FOUR! I had to double check and make sure I hadn't posted it already. Which I hadn't. Anyway, sorry it's a day late. I got beta swarmed and life hates me. Constructive criticism will be rewarded! …Though I'm not sure how!

taodei- a really offensive, racist Umhai term for a foreigner. The customers in Tari's shop are using it reasonably affectionately because people who would use it as a slur would never set foot in a foreign establishment.

baiga- an equally offensive Umhai term for impoverished, stupid natives. For the record, Tari gives as good as he gets.

setoke-refers to slum-dwellers rather impolitely, but is nowhere near the level of offensive as baiga and taodei. Tari calls all slum-dwellers setoke.