Chapter 10:

A Friendly Competition

ALLEZ CUISINE! Gourmet Battle Girls

Summer and the rainy season had begun in earnest. As the temperature soared, we switched to our summer uniforms. I slept at night with the cool breeze wafting in from outside, and more than one morning I woke up to see that Ebifry had decided to make himself at home on top of my blanket.Bookmark here

“You again?” I muttered as I fumbled to turn off the alarm clock, as Ebifry stretched his kitty body from head to toe. “Mako-san’s gonna kill me if she sees you in here. Out, out!”Bookmark here

Mreeaah,” Ebifry protested, as he sauntered over to the windowsill and made a leap up to the ledge. He paused, sitting there and blinking, and then decided to start giving himself a bath with his nether regions on display for all to see, out of spite. I rolled my eyes and went into the bathroom to start the day.Bookmark here

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My days at school were divided into two equally brutal parts: preparation for midterms and preparation for the tournament. At lunch with Kei and Yomogi one day, Kei brought up the possibility of having a study session at her house. “Any time this week you two are free,” she said. “And who knows, we might even be able to have another dinner party.”Bookmark here

“That would be great!” Yomogi said. “I really wish I could host you two at the dorm, but it’s a little difficult to arrange for visitors.”
“I’ve never seen the dorm,” I said. “When I was getting ready to enroll here, I was looking into it, but it filled up right away.”Bookmark here

Yomogi nodded. “They had a huge influx of first year students this year,” she said. “I’ve heard from the caretaker that the school’s looking to erect another one.”
“What’s it like in there?” Kei asked.
“Well…lively, for one,” Yomogi said. “There’s 2 floors, and each of them has a wing for boys and a wing for girls, and we’ve got laundry facilities and a big open kitchen kind of like the classroom, but in a smaller scale.”Bookmark here

“Sounds nice. Maybe I’ll look into it next year,” I said, but with a pang of guilt as I had gotten to enjoy Mako-san’s hospitality and friendship.
“By the way, I’m excited for the tournament. What about you two?” Kei asked. We both nodded.
“I’ve got my reputation to uphold,” I said. “Has a first year student ever won it?”
“Not sure,” Kei said.
“Then I want to be the first,” I said, hands on my hips as I gave my most winning smile. Yomogi sighed.Bookmark here

“If I get chosen to be a competitor, I want to see how well I can do,” she said. “We’ve got three years here, and that’s three chances. So what have we got to lose?”
“I was wondering…what if we go up against each other?” Kei asked.
“I’m not sure how I’d feel about that,” I replied, as I looked at Kei and Yomogi earnestly, “but as long as you two give your all, I won’t feel bad about losing to you.”Bookmark here

“That confident, huh?” Yomogi said, smiling. “Then perhaps we should try a duel, just to see if you can back up your talk with some action!” She brandished her smartphone, which displayed her insignia and her two and a half star ranking. It was almost up to two and three quarters stars—probably one or two more battles would push her over the top.Bookmark here

“Wait, are you actually serious?” I said. A duel between friends? This was the stuff that children’s trading card game anime was made of, but the idea excited me to no end. I looked back into Yomogi’s eyes and grinned as I pulled out my smartphone and it’s three star ranking insignia. “Then I accept wholeheartedly,” I replied.
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“So. Today after school?” Yomogi asked.Bookmark here

My mind went momentarily back to mundane high school life as I switched to a scheduling app to make sure I wasn’t missing work or something important, like a TV show I needed to watch, and I looked back into Yomogi’s eyes. “Today after school,” I replied.Bookmark here

Kei looked at the both of us, wide-eyed, as Yomogi was displaying a fighting spirit neither of us had ever seen. It was just then that I realized I had never seen Yomogi’s performance in a duel—and now I was going to witness it firsthand.Bookmark here

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In preparation for midterms, our afternoon sessions were held in the culinary arts building’s lecture hall, where we’d be going through various videotaped reviews of techniques, vocabulary and performance and expected to be able to demonstrate them in the practical portion. It was hard to concentrate on the video, and my notetaking was sloppy, because I was almost shaking in anticipation of my first duel with Yomogi.Bookmark here

Before class, a bunch of my classmates came up to me to wish me good luck. “Kisaragi-san’s one of the strongest students in the Yogashi Division,” said one of my classmates, a long haired girl named Aiko Kinomoto. “She has a drive to rival yours.”Bookmark here

“Really?” I said.
Aiko nodded. “She’s my roommate, actually,” she said, chuckling a bit.
“No way, small world,” I replied.Bookmark here

“Every time I see her in the kitchen, it’s like she’s in the zone. Nothing can distract her, and it’s like she’s pouring every ounce of her power into making the most delicious desserts. And if she’s not cooking, she’s reading. Cookbooks from all over the world! I’ve heard her English is really good because she likes watching international cooking shows.”Bookmark here

This was a whole other side to Yomogi I hadn’t experienced, and now I was feeling something in the pit of my stomach—apprehension.Bookmark here

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Hours later, after our lectures were finished, my class lingered in the culinary arts building, waiting for me to pack up and get ready for my battle.
“We’ll be cheering you on,” Toyota-sensei said, as she waved to me from one of the other lecture halls.Bookmark here

We reached the culinary classroom where our challenge would be taking place to find the room packed. I saw Yomogi standing at the far end of the room among her classmates from both her homeroom and the Yogashi Division, with Kei standing head and shoulders above the rest—literally.Bookmark here

“Hey, Yomogi-chan! You ready?” I called.
“Almost,” she said. She looked like she was trying to psyche herself up, and was doing some sort of deep breathing technique. She looks nervous, I thought.Bookmark here

“Man, she looks nervous,” said a familiar voice by my side, and I turned to see Michael with an entourage of some of the third-year students.
“Oh, hey Michael-san! Here to watch us?” I asked.
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” he said. He was about to say something else when someone called to him and asked him to move to the side.Bookmark here

A group of teachers and higher ups from the school started filing into the room: the chairman, the heads of each of the four divisions, even the culinary instructors. I saw Toyota-sensei and she waved back. The students’ talking grew quiet as they watched the teachers slowly filing in.Bookmark here

“Why all the attention?” I asked Michael.
“Well, you two are the top students in your respective year for your division,” Michael said. “And apparently, this match is going to be a preview of the tournament.”Bookmark here

I knew I was good, but to be this good? That was all the validation I needed. “Michael-san, sit back and watch a master at work!” I said, imagining a model hanging a solid gold medal around my neck and crying as Kimi ga yo, the Japanese national anthem, played as the Rising Sun was raised.Bookmark here

“Yeah, I’ve always wanted to see Kisaragi-san in action,” Michael replied.
There was a record scratch and the ribbon holding the gold metal snapped, making it fall to the ground on my foot, and the flagpole collapsed. “Eh?” was the only thing I could manage to say.
I thought I’d be the main attraction, I thought.Bookmark here

Bookmark here

Yomogi and I met in the center of the room and shook hands. It was time for the duel to begin.
Our wheels were spinning and we watched intently as they slowed. Slowly, slowly they turned, until everything stopped, and as we read aloud what was written on the space, it was like you could hear a pin drop:Bookmark here

Natto?” I said.
Natto!” Yomogi said.
Natto…” everyone who was watching muttered.Bookmark here

You’ve heard me talk about natto before, but here’s the skinny about it: if I told someone to describe the taste and feel of it without using an obscenity, the answer would usually be “death.” It’s good for you, but like all stuff that’s good for you it has a horrible smell. And the texture…ugh. It’s like a mouthful of phlegm. Stirring it up is an exercise in itself.Bookmark here

The countdown started on our phones, and I looked into Yomogi’s eyes. She was smiling broadly. “I look forward to the end result, Vanilla-chan,” she said. I regained my composure enough to give her a nod as the timer beeped.Bookmark here

The two of us dashed to our stations. My head buzzed with thoughts as to what kind of dish I could make with natto. I could seal it inside something, or serve it straight up, or mix it in with something, until my eyes glanced at the small tin can of curry powder on one of the shelves. Bookmark here

Dry curry! Yes! I thought, and I dashed over to the shelf to grab the powder and a can of tomatoes, and tucked them into my arm as I ran towards the refrigerators. I grabbed a tray of ground beef and pork mixture, an onion, and a couple carrots, then made a final trip to grab some bell peppers, ginger root and my reserve of stock before setting everything out on the counter next to my cooking station.Bookmark here

With the knife techniques handed down by my father, I started chopping away at my vegetables, but was momentarily distracted by a chorus of oohs and ahhs coming from the other end of the room, where Yomogi was apparently kneading something on the counter. Was that bread dough? No time to make any speculation—I turned on the burner, and squirted some olive oil into the frying pan to heat as I carefully gathered up the chopped vegetables and dropped them into the pan to cook. They sizzled and started to color as I got to work on the aromatics, then I tore open the cellophane on the tray of meat and dumped it into the pan, chopping at it with the end of my spoon.Bookmark here

“What’s that she got there?”
“Oh wow! I haven’t even used that in class yet!”Bookmark here

I looked up to see that Yomogi had brought out a gleaming chrome machine that had two rollers and a long handle. While I had been working on my dish, she had been rolling out the dough she made in a flat sheet, and was carefully lifting it up to a slot on the side of the machine. She cranked the handle, and as the dough passed between the rollers, they separated into thin strands. It was a pasta machine, designed for producing Italian noodles.Bookmark here

A burning smell hit my nose, and I looked down to see that the meat was beginning to get a little too brown. “Oh, crap!” I said, and quickly poured some of the stock in the pan to cool things down a bit. I opened the can of tomatoes and tested one of the carrots in the pan to see if it was the proper texture, then poured the can of tomatoes in and let them steep, slowly bubbling away.Bookmark here

I leaned back and smelled the mixture in the pan, feeling as if something was missing. I looked up to see Yomogi carefully gathering up the noodles she had made with the pasta machine and easing them into a pot of boiling water on the stove. As she did so, she turned to a small Styrofoam container and peeled back the lid—Bookmark here

I forgot all about the natto.Bookmark here

My pan could stay on the burner unattended for a little while. I dashed back towards the refrigerators and reached inside—yes, there was a three-pack of healthy and “delicious” natto, waiting for me. I’d probably need to use all three for my dry curry for there to be any sort of impact. I dashed back to my station and ripped open the cellophane on each pack, wrinkling my face as the pungent aroma hit me. The packets of sauce and mustard were lying on top, and I pondered whether or not to add them to the mixture, but figured no one would notice if I didn’t.Bookmark here

“Well, here goes nothing,” I said, as I picked up a fork and started vigorously stirring the natto in each package. The texture began to thicken and become more opaque, and everything got more and more slimy. There’s a candy called neri-ame that’s a thick syrup that you stir and knead with chopsticks; I wonder if that was influenced by natto? At least the end result from that was more enjoyable.Bookmark here

As I finished stirring everything up, I tipped each of the packages into the pot of dry curry with chopsticks. Stringy bits of natto slime were flapping everywhere like flags in the breeze, and I twirled my hand around trying to catch and break them. I started breaking up clumps of natto in the pot with my spoon, so they mingled with the meat and vegetables.Bookmark here

At the other end of the room, it appeared that Yomogi had finished cooking her noodles. She dipped a ladle into the pot and poured something into a small ramekin, before picking up the pot and pouring the contents into the sink, with a colander or strainer set underneath. There was another pan on the stove, and it was sizzling and making a savory aroma waft into the air. I smelled a familiar greasy, salty smell, and realized that she was rendering bacon. She deftly dropped a bowl of what appeared to be chopped onions into the pot, and the sizzling and aroma increased.Bookmark here

I looked back at my pot of minced meat, vegetables and natto swimming in tomato flavored stock, and sighed. I was completely off my game. Nevertheless, I had to complete what I had set out to do, and carefully stirred in the premeasured curry powder, coloring everything faintly yellow and giving everything a mellow aroma and flavor. The liquid would need to reduce just a little bit more before I could feel confident about plating.Bookmark here

Yomogi was now adding the unwrapped natto to the pot that had the chopped bacon and onions, as well as what was in the small ramekin—it was likely some of the leftover water she had boiled the fresh pasta in. She started stirring things around a bit, obviously to break up the stickiness, before she reached into the sink and tipped the colander of cooked noodles into the pot. She gave everything a few more stirs before turning off the burner, letting everything mingle.Bookmark here

I tested a small clump of dry curry. It tasted okay—I could definitely feel the texture of the natto—and the vegetables were done to my desired tenderness, so it was time to plate. I turned off the burner and grabbed three plates from the rack, then went over to the rice cooker and scooped a good sized helping of rice onto each of them, then carefully ladled a good amount of dry curry off to the side. I checked the time and realized I had a few minutes left, so I grabbed some red pickled ginger and garnished the top of the dry curry with it.Bookmark here

Finally done, I looked up to see that Yomogi had also been plating. Each of the plates was covered with beautiful looking freshly cooked fresh pasta, sprinkled with the brown natto throughout, along with bits of crispy bacon and what appeared to be minced green onions and shredded nori seaweed on top. My eyes widened as I looked at how delicious everything was, and I heard my stomach growl.Bookmark here

Yomogi looked up from her work and smiled. “Looks like you finished first,” she said. “It looks good! Dry curry?”
“Yeah,” I said. “When I was a kid, my father would hide things I didn’t like in curry.”
Yomogi was about to reply, but then the timer went off. Our round was over, and it was time to present to the judges.Bookmark here

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By luck of the draw, I had been selected to present first, and stood in front of the panel of judges, each of which I vaguely recognized as being part of the college division’s academic faculty. There was one man who had guest lectured our class on the history of grain cultivation, while the other man and the woman I had seen around the building every so often.Bookmark here

“I’ve made for everyone today a natto dry curry,” I said, as I swept my hand over the three plates. “It’s made with a pork and beef base, which is flavored throughout with natto and chopped vegetables. The spice mixture is your standard curry powder, although I have mellowed the flavor with a little bit of soy sauce to accentuate the natto’s flavor profile. Enjoy it.”Bookmark here

I stepped back from the presentation table and watched as the three judges carefully loaded their forks with the dry curry. “It looks colorful,” the woman said.Bookmark here

“It’s always good to cook with as many colors as possible,” I said, as the judges each took the bite from their forks and chewed. All three of them seemed to smile—this was a good sign.Bookmark here

“Young lady, there seems to be some sort of…disunity among the flavors,” the man who had been our guest lecturer said. “Almost as if you’re trying to hide the flavor of natto with curry powder.”Bookmark here

I swallowed. “W-well, I’m not the biggest fan of natto myself, so…”Bookmark here

“I agree with the professor. Natto has the power to stand out by itself. You should have really brought the flavor out by using it alone instead of mixing it with the meat,” the other man said.Bookmark here

I bit my lower lip, feeling terrible. I can’t believe I had forgotten all about the natto at the very beginning! I guess I was thinking too hard about my father’s dry curry and how much I enjoyed it without realizing I needed the natto to stand out.Bookmark here

The judges finished their plates without another word, and I stood back to watch as Yomogi brought her three dishes up to the judges. They looked beautiful, and the smell of smoky bacon mingled with the pungent smell of natto, the mellow caramelized onions and the fresh smell of the diced green onions. Yomogi carefully set the plates down in front of the judges and began her speech.Bookmark here

“I have for you today some natto spaghetti, but I have taken the liberty of making my own noodles for this dish! I’ve made them as plain and unsalted as possible to let the true flavors of the natto shine through, which pair very well with the crispy bacon and sweet caramelized onion,” she said, looking sure of her work.Bookmark here

I had underestimated Yomogi. I had thought that as a member of the Yogashi Division, she was all about sweets. I had forgotten the chicken salad choux that she served at our dinner party, and I had forgotten that both bread and pasta share humble origins as a plain dough. No wonder she decided to make her own spaghetti!Bookmark here

The three judges looked down at their plates, which were filled with pale yellow spaghetti, brown natto, reddish bacon bits, green onions and thin black strips of nori. “It’s so colorful,” said the professor. He dipped his fork into the spaghetti and twirled it around. Natto glided along the noodles, and he speared a few chunks of the bacon. He took a bite and chewed, and his face lit up. “Now this is what harmony should taste like,” he said.Bookmark here

The other two judges had loaded their forks up with natto spaghetti and were eating them eagerly. “I don’t like natto, but I like the way this was prepared,” the other man said. “This is the type of meal I’d feel good about feeding my kids.”Bookmark here

“I have to say, I was hoping we’d get a recipe with natto front and center,” the woman said, “and I’m a little disappointed.” I saw Yomogi’s expression change a little. “But everything’s freshly made, even the pasta. That makes everything taste better.”Bookmark here

The judges continued feeding and began to commiserate among themselves. I fidgeted to myself until I realized that Yomogi was approaching me.Bookmark here

“I think you did pretty good,” she whispered. “I think natto’s a good addition to curry.”Bookmark here

I couldn’t really respond, but just stared down at my phone, waiting for the inevitable.Bookmark here

The first vote came, as I expected, to Yomogi’s phone. I stared down at mine intently, waiting for the vote indicator to appear onscreen…
Beep. Beep!Bookmark here

Nothing. There was a cheer from across the room as Kei, Michael and all of Yomogi’s supporters cheered. She looked up from her phone, her eyes shining and moist with tears. Bookmark here

“This is the first clean sweep I’ve had in a long time!” she said, looking very happy for herself.Bookmark here

I didn’t say anything. Instead I shoved my phone back into my pocket and glanced at the mountain of dishes I needed to do. I started forward to put some of the plates into some soapy water, when Yomogi approached.Bookmark here

“You shouldn’t have to do all the work yourself, let me help,” she said, as she grabbed the dish soap from the side of the sink.Bookmark here

“I DON’T WANT YOUR PITY!” I snapped back.Bookmark here

The room grew silent as everyone looked on in shocked surprise, Yomogi especially.Bookmark here

“I mean…I…” I stammered. All eyes were on me, who just lashed out at one of her best friends after being soundly defeated in a duel. With a sullen expression, I stepped back from the sink, letting my dish clatter in it, and I picked up my bag and walked away, still in total silence.
I knew when I wasn’t wanted.Bookmark here

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I rode home on the train staring out the window. I didn’t even say hi to Mako as I passed by the balcony where she was sitting and having an afternoon cigarette. I opened the door to my home, pushed my way past dirty laundry and flopped onto the top of my futon like a heavy object.Bookmark here

Losing to Yomogi was a sucker punch. True, I had more battles under my belt than her, and I also had the advantage of being trained by the best. But why did it have to hurt so much? Now everyone probably thought I was a sore loser. The judges, my classmates, even the staff and faculty of the school. I might as well just put in for a transfer back to Seishin and return home.
My phone was buzzing—I hadn’t even turned it off vibrate on my way home, as I usually did. I looked down and noticed that there was an assortment of messages.Bookmark here

From: Yomogi To: Vanilla
Are you OK?
From: Yomogi To: Vanilla
Don’t worry, I covered for you!
From: Yomogi To: Vanilla
We all pitched in to clean the dishes.
From: Yomogi To: Vanilla
How are you?
From: Yomogi To: Vanilla
Are you at work? If so I’m sorry to have bothered you
From: Yomogi To: Vanilla
From: Kei To: Vanilla
If you are reading this Yomogi wants to talk to you please message her asap.Bookmark here

I pondered sending her a brief message, but I could barely bring my fingers to touch the keys. Maybe I needed some fresh air. I got up from the futon and opened the glass to my balcony.
Even though I’m on the ground floor I have a little fenced-in balcony that lets me sit in the sun when I need to. I bought a little chair just for that purpose, and today was the day Ebifry decided it was his.Bookmark here

“Hey, Ebifry, shoo,” I said. “I want to sit down.”Bookmark here

Ebifry looked up, yawning, and stretched his body out. I moved closer, and he twitched his tail and jumped down. As I sat down on the chair, he put his paws on the edge and meowed for attention.Bookmark here

“I don’t wanna pet you, Ebifry,” I replied.Bookmark here

I stared up at the sky. A few clouds were drifting past; there wasn’t any rain in the forecast for days. I felt something lightly scratching me and looked down to see Ebifry was tapping my arm with his paw for attention.Bookmark here

“Do you…do you want to sit in my lap?” I asked, and Ebifry responded by jumping on the arm of the chair, then into my lap. He curled himself up into a ball, wrapping his fried shrimp tail around his body.Bookmark here

“You think you’re so cute…whatever,” I murmured, as I reached down and stroked his head lightly. He narrowed his eyes in happiness, and I heard a very faint purr.Bookmark here

“I dunno, Ebifry,” I said, looking down at him, without a care in the world. “I lost today, and…it hurts. And it was against one of my friends, too. I yelled at her…”Bookmark here

I can’t remember the last time I had been so frustrated. Maybe it was exam season that was bringing a lot of us to a breaking point. I tickled the fur on Ebifry’s slinky body with my fingers, listening to his purring as he napped on my stomach.Bookmark here

“Do you think she hates me now?”Bookmark here

There was a “mrrt” sound from Ebifry, who was shifting around. He stretched his paws out in the air, spreading out his little pink bean toes. I didn’t know whether I should take that as a yes or no.Bookmark here

“I’ve got to apologize to her…but…how am I gonna do it? I mean, I don’t know why…I just snapped at her, like that…with everyone watching.” I felt my stomach turn—they’d seen the entire outburst, and from what Yomogi had told me in her message, they all helped her do the cleanup that I foisted on them by running away.Bookmark here

“Maybe…I should just put it all aside,” I said. “It’s probably irreparably damaged by now…that would give me time to focus more on my record.” It was a tempting thought—but then I remembered the dinner party we had and the promise of a second one, along with a study session for midterms. Ebifry began to wash himself, squirming around on my lap.Bookmark here

My phone buzzed inside again. “Sorry, Ebifry,” I said, standing up and unceremoniously dumping him out of my lap. He gave a loud “MREEOW!” in protest and swatted me with his paw.
“Ow! That’s not nice!” I said.
I grabbed my phone to see that it was another message.Bookmark here

From: Yomogi To: Vanilla
I’m getting concerned, everything OK?Bookmark here

I decided to message her back:
From: Vanilla To: Yomogi
yesBookmark here

I put my phone back on the table and noticed that Ebifry had decided to take my seat, so I shut the door to the balcony and went back inside. I was getting hungry, after all.Bookmark here

I didn’t get any more messages that night from either Yomogi or Kei, but I drowned my sorrows in some lemon soda and a gyudon (simmered beef and onions over rice in a bowl) from the convenience store down the street while I decided to watch some TV. The only thing on worth watching was a baseball game, which I don’t really understand, but I like hearing the fans chanting in the background. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a professional baseball game that I can remember. Maybe my parents took me to one when I was a little kid? Who knows?Bookmark here

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I was still just as dejected as I arrived for school the next morning. My usual cup of coffee didn’t even put any extra pep in my step, and I dreaded seeing Yomogi again. I was sluggish as I made my way down the corridor to my homeroom, and sluggishly climbed into my seat. I tried my best to pay attention during class, but my pen just wouldn’t move as I was taking notes, and the warm sunlight streaming into the room was making me feel sleepy.Bookmark here

“Sakamoto-san. Are you feeling all right?”
I bolted upright, as if I had been struck by a taser, to see my English teacher looking down at me with a look of concern on her face. “Uh…ah…um…sorry,” I stammered.Bookmark here

“Do you need to go to the nurse?”
“No…just…girl stuff, that’s all. Friends and things! Ahahah.” I felt so embarrassed. Everyone in the class was looking at me, and I was the person who managed to completely bomb her challenge the previous day and yell at her opponent. I hid my face within my textbook and sighed.Bookmark here

This was the only day I had ever not looked forward to lunch.Bookmark here

When the bell rang, I made my way towards the cafeteria deliberately avoiding the place where Yomogi, Kei and I usually ate lunch. I didn’t want to see any of them at all. They’re probably going to talk about me, I thought, as I passed through the double doors of the cafeteria. And then we’re going to just split up, like that. What’s the point of having a friendship, anyway?Bookmark here

I stood in line for ticket machine behind some students I didn’t recognize. Our cafeteria has a menu board where you can insert money and purchase tickets for various foods that were on that day’s menu—kind of like a vending machine. I stared at the menu selection, trying to figure out what I felt like eating. I inserted a ¥500 coin into the slot underneath the listing for hayashi rice, and looked over the side dishes that were available. My hand wavered over the kimchi and boiled spinach side dishes, and as I was about to make my selection, it bumped against another hand.Bookmark here

“Oh!” said a boy’s voice.
“Excuse me,” I said, looking at the person next to me.Bookmark here

He was a third year student, and was probably a little shorter than Kei was. His golden hair was coiffed almost perfectly, and his eyes looked like they belonged to a perpetual smiler. He seemed a little familiar to me.Bookmark here

“Go ahead. Ladies first,” he said.
“But you outrank me—”
“I insist.”
“Seriously, you’re in third year, so…”Bookmark here

Just then, my stomach gurgled so loudly I think people sitting in the back of the cafeteria looked up. My face turned bright red, but the boy simply smiled and held up the ticket for the hayashi rice set.
“I believe this is yours?” he asked.Bookmark here

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A few minutes later, we had our food, which looked nothing like the photos.Bookmark here

“May I sit with you? You look like you have a lot on your mind,” the boy said.
“I guess,” I replied. I just wanted to be alone, but something intrigued me about this boy.
We each pulled out a chair of a cafeteria table and set our trays down. The boy picked up his fork and knife and started slicing a bit of meat that was poking from his curry gravy. He had excellent table manners.Bookmark here

“I’m guessing that the midterms aren’t what’s bothering you,” the boy said. “Oh, by the way…Taiga Shirogane. Third year, Washoku Division.” The pocket of his shirt had the emblem of the Washoku Division, a sheaf of rice and bean stalks.Bookmark here

“Vanilla Sakamoto, first year, Yoshoku Division,” I replied.
Taiga smiled. “Oh, you’re that Vanilla,” he said. I rolled my eyes and started digging into my hayashi rice.Bookmark here

We ate in silence for a few minutes until Taiga paused. “I heard you took a loss yesterday. And a unanimous one, at that. Ouch,” he said.Bookmark here

“Yeah. But…I didn’t take it too well,” I said. “I was just so…pissed off. I took it out on my opponent and just walked away.”
“How come?”
“Well…” I looked down at my plate, with tiny rice grains swimming in the hayashi roux. The school’s hayashi rice wasn’t that bad; I would tone down the tomato paste flavor a little if I were making it myself. “I wanted to win that one. But…I slipped up. I almost forgot to put the battle’s theme in to my dish.”Bookmark here

“What was it?”
Taiga chuckled. “The less I think about that, the better.” He put down his fork and knife, folded his hands under his chin, and looked at me.Bookmark here

“Sakamoto-kun, what is it that drives you?” he asked.
“Huh? Well…” I looked down at my plate again. I had mostly cleared it up; there’d be time to go back for one of the little cakes I saw for dessert. “I think…it’s my father’s influence on me.”Bookmark here

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but your father was Yoshiaki Sakamoto, correct?”
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“What do you think your father would have said to you about your loss yesterday?”Bookmark here

I went quiet, and my mind immediately flashed back to when I had just turned 14, and I had gone through my first gourmet battles. I had built up a five battle winning streak, until…Bookmark here

I decided that I would next take on one of my classmates, who was from a family that owned and operated a Chinese restaurant near our house. I knew, of course, that I could beat her. We set the time and date for our challenge, and when the day came and we were ready to begin, the subject of our challenge was eggplant. I made eggplant parmesan; she made mapo tofu with eggplant in place of the tofu. She had a resounding victory, and I was so angry that I refused to talk to her, and went home and sulked the rest of the evening.Bookmark here

My father found me in my room later that night. He had a stern look on his face. “Vanilla-chan, I hope this is not how you will face every loss,” he said as I looked up at him from where I was curled up on the bed, holding my banana cushion. “Face every loss as an opportunity to learn from your mistakes. Look your opponent in the eye and smile at them even when you want to scream at the world. Never be a sore loser, Vanilla-chan.”Bookmark here

“He’d call me a sore loser,” I said. “And…he’d probably be disappointed in me that I didn’t remember what he taught me back when I was a kid…”Bookmark here

Taiga smiled and nodded. “So, what are you going to do now?” he asked.
“Well, I’ve got to find Yomogi-chan and apolo—” I said, but noticed Michael coming into the room. He saw me and Taiga as well, and came over.Bookmark here

“Is this guy bothering you, Vanilla-kun?” Michael asked.
“More like giving me a pep talk,” I replied.
“Greetings, Valentine-san,” Taiga said. “I see the two of you are acquainted.”Bookmark here

“Be careful of this guy. He’s a real ladykiller,” Michael said, in a joking warning.
“And this one’s probably the only student here that’s ever taken a point from me in competition,” Taiga replied.Bookmark here

“What a coincidence. Vanilla-kun here’s the only student that’s ever taken one from me,” Michael said.Bookmark here

I remembered the loss I had to Michael. That time, I knew I was up against a really tough opponent, and the fact that I was able to score one point against him cushioned the blow of the loss. Maybe I’m thinking things all wrong, I thought, suddenly coming to the realization that Yomogi was probably one of the strongest opponents I had ever battled against—and she was my age.Bookmark here

“I’d better get out of here,” I said, getting up from the table. “I need to find Yomogi-chan.”
“She’s in her usual lunch spot,” Michael said. “I walked by there not too long ago. Strange not to see you there with them.”Bookmark here

I nodded, picking up my lunch tray. “Thank you, Michael-san, Shirogane-sempai,” I said.
Taiga smiled. “If you’re on a first name basis with Valentine-san here, then you can be on one with me,” he said.Bookmark here

“Thank you.” Taiga smiled. It was like the sun breaking through the clouds on a sunny day. I felt my face get hot.Bookmark here

“See you later,” I said, as I dashed over to deposit my tray and cutlery at the dishwashing station. I rushed out, checking the time on my phone. Lunch was almost over—could I make it to our spot in time?Bookmark here

Bookmark here

The first bell of the Westminster chime started as I got close to the shaded court, and I saw Kei and Yomogi start to get up. “WAIT!” I yelled, and started running towards them.Bookmark here

“Wow, you’re late,” Kei said as I dashed forwards.Bookmark here

“Yomogi-chan, I’m sorry about yesterday!” I blurted as I caught up to them, heaving and out of breath. “I’m sorry I snapped at you. I’m such a sore loser.”Bookmark here

Yomogi smiled. “It’s all right, Vanilla-chan. It’s midterms time, after all. We’re all on a knife’s edge, after all,” she said.Bookmark here

“Really?” I expected a lecture, or even the silent treatment. “You’re…you’re forgiving me that easily?”Bookmark here

Yomogi nodded. “Trust me, Vanilla-chan. It’s not the worst thing that’s ever happened to me,” she said, as she walked back towards the school building.Bookmark here

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Later that afternoon
Taiga Shirogane was seated in front of a laptop computer, the screen showing a video chat program. “So, guess what I found out today,” he said, smiling.Bookmark here

“What is it?” said an annoyed voice of a young man.
“It appears that Vanilla Sakamoto is capable of being defeated, after all.” Taiga was still smiling, although if you looked at it, it would chill you to the bone with how sinister his eyes looked.Bookmark here

“Interesting…so, who is it?”
“Yomogi Kisaragi. Do you have any intel on her?”Bookmark here

“She’s a good friend of Sakamoto’s, but other than that…” The young man turned his head and appeared to be looking at another computer monitor. “It appears there was some sort of incident involving online bullying where someone named Y.K. was at the center. The junior high school matches up with the one she attended as well.”Bookmark here

“I see…let’s look into this, shall we?” Taiga played with some of his golden hair absentmindedly.
“And you need to stay on guard, Shirogane. We’re helping you out, after all,” the young man at the other end of the connection replied.Bookmark here

“Right, right. Hopefully my little pep talk spurs her into action. I’m glad that mentioning her father didn’t freak her out.” Taiga stroked his chin. “Anyway, I’ve got to run. Be good, now.”Bookmark here

The young man snorted as he closed the window for the connection. Taiga shut his laptop, and tucked it back into his school bag.Bookmark here

“Ah, the path to the top is always strewn with obstacles,” Taiga said, as he walked out of the Umami Gakuen library and into the afternoon sun.Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.