Chapter 13:

Round 2: Squash Match

ALLEZ CUISINE! Gourmet Battle Girls

I opened the door to the girls’ bathroom to see Yomogi kneeling next to Kei. Kei was sobbing into a wad of toilet tissue while Yomogi had her arms around her. She looked up at me as I entered.Bookmark here

“I came as fast as I could,” I said as I ran inside. Kei looked absolutely crushed as she looked up at me. She could barely speak.Bookmark here

“My…my match was against Tominaga-san,” she sobbed. “And…she was so much better than me…I’m so sorry! I couldn’t keep our promise…I’m sorry!”Bookmark here

I knelt down next to the two of them. Yomogi was doing her best to comfort Kei, but I realized that it was time now for me to take over.Bookmark here

“Kei-chan, something my father always told me was to always walk away from a loss with your head held high,” I said. “Even when you want to feel like you want to yell at the world or yell at your friends…you need to keep going forward.”Bookmark here

Kei sniffled and wiped her face on the tissues, and we spent a few more minutes with her as her crying slowed to a trickle. She then put the tissues aside and slowly got up.Bookmark here

“I’ll try to keep my head held high,” she said. Her eyes were red and puffy, and she went to rinse her face off in the sink basin. When finished, she still looked sad, but had a little color left in her face.Bookmark here

“Come on,” Yomogi said, “do you want to watch any of the other matches?”Bookmark here

Kei shook her head. “Right now…I don’t really want to be anywhere near a kitchen,” she said.Bookmark here

“That’s all right,” Yomogi said. “I don’t blame you if you want to leave.”Bookmark here

“Me either,” I said. “You’ve had a rough loss…”Bookmark here

Kei rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand and took a few deep breaths. “I…I think I’m ready to go. I’m going to head back home…I’m probably going to stop and look at some stuff at that cute stationary store first. Yeah.” She sniffed again.Bookmark here

“All right. Want us to walk you to the station? We’ve still got…” I reached into my pocket and checked the time on my phone. “Forty-five minutes to the next round.”Bookmark here

“Yeah. That’s fine,” Kei said.Bookmark here

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After having delivered Kei to the train station, we walked back to the gates of Umami Gakuen, deep in thought. “I can’t believe Kei-chan lost,” I said.Bookmark here

“Yeah…she’s so strong, normally,” Yomogi replied. “But there’s people that are even stronger than her. Maybe even stronger than people like Valentine-san, and we’d never know it.”Bookmark here

“She’s taking it so hard,” I said. “I think…I think she’s more disappointed in not being able to get to the next round with us than her performance.”Bookmark here

Yomogi nodded. “I hope she’s going to be OK by herself.”Bookmark here

“She should be,” I said. “I have to take some alone time whenever I feel bad about something, myself.”Bookmark here

We continued walking in silence. Twilight was beginning to descend, and a cool early summer breeze tickled the ends of Yomogi’s hair. She seemed to have a faraway look in her eyes, as if she was remembering something unpleasant.Bookmark here

“Yomogi-chan, are you all right?” I asked.Bookmark here

“Uh…well…” Yomogi looked down at her feet. “I’m nervous about what’s going to happen if we advance far enough to appear on TV.”Bookmark here

“Stage fright?” I asked, but Yomogi shook her head vigorously.Bookmark here

“I’m…I’m okay with cooking in front of a crowd, but…I’m afraid that…people will try to dredge up stuff,” she said.Bookmark here

“What do you mean? Like posting rumors about you online or something?”Bookmark here

Yomogi stopped, looking a little stunned, but then her expression changed. She almost imperceptibly nodded.Bookmark here

“There’s…people in my hometown that…they treated me horribly,” she said. “I’d rather not remember them. Coming here to Umami Gakuen was like a clean slate for me, but…if I become famous, then…”Bookmark here

I stopped and stood in front of Yomogi. “I don’t care what they say about you in your hometown. I care about the Yomogi Kisaragi that stands in front of me right now. Someone that cares about their friend enough to be the first person they turn to when something bad happens. Someone that had a unanimous win over me in a cooking battle. Someone…that I look up to and admire.” I smiled and looked into Yomogi’s eyes.Bookmark here

“You…admire me?” Yomogi said, sounding as if she could hardly believe what she was hearing.Bookmark here

“Everything I’ve heard about you tells me that you’re a well rounded chef that could’ve made it in any division. Not just Yogashi,” I said.Bookmark here

It was Yomogi’s turn to cry, but this time, the tears were happy. I hesitated as she sniffled, but then she looked up to me.Bookmark here

“Vanilla-chan…that means so much to me. You have no idea,” she said. “You and Kei-chan…you’re truly the most important people in my life here.”Bookmark here

She sniffed back a few tears, and I looked over to the gates of the school, where a few students were milling about. “We’d better get back to the culinary wing,” I said. “Are you going to be all right?”Bookmark here

Yomogi nodded. “Yeah. I’ll be fine,” she said. “Good luck in your next match, Vanilla-chan.”Bookmark here

“And you too. Don’t let your nervousness get in the way. Just think of it as a way to introduce all the Kanto region to the awesome cook that is Yomogi Kisaragi,” I said.Bookmark here

Yomogi smiled, and held out her pinky. I stuck out mine as well, and we hooked them together.
“Let’s win this next one,” I said.Bookmark here

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The culinary classroom had been thoroughly cleaned and restocked during the hour of downtime we had between rounds—armies of students cleaned all the extra dishes and made sure there was an ample supply of vegetables, fruits, frozen foods and all sorts of other essentials for the next round of battlers. When you walked back in, it was like you never left.Bookmark here

There were more students watching now, as the three other remaining students and I wandered into the culinary classroom where our second round would be fought. This round would decide which of us would be making our live television debuts.Bookmark here

Kazuya and one of the other competitors were already at their stations, so I plugged in my phone and watched as my face appeared on the board. There was still some time before the next round was ready to begin, so I spent some time looking over the ingredients available, forming plans in my mind. Anything was possible, so I needed to be prepared.Bookmark here

The final competitor entered with a hurried “sorry I’m late!” and plugged in her phone to the console. Her picture appeared on the board, and then the board refreshed, showing the pairings: I would be battling that girl who arrived late, whose name was Hinata Kanazawa, while Kazuya Watanabe would be battling the other remaining contestant, a boy named Akito Tamon. Hinata had been the winner of the horse mackerel battle, while Akito had won the sausage battle.Bookmark here

Hinata was still trying to catch her breath as she looked up at me. “I’m so sorry!” she said again, but I shook my head.Bookmark here

“Come on, let’s do this!” I said, giving her all my encouragement. She nodded and we turned to our phones for the selection of our challenge.Bookmark here

“Spinning wheel, spinning wheel, where will you stop,” Hinata chanted as she watched it on screen. It slowed and then finally stopped on the wedge denoting our assignment for this round: kabocha squash. I was excited: you could make it sweet, you could make it savory. I looked over at Hinata, who also seemed really excited. Our gazes met, and we nodded to each other.Bookmark here

“Good luck, Kanazawa-san,” I said.Bookmark here

“You too, Sakamoto-san!” Hinata replied, giving me a thumbs up as our phones signaled us to begin.Bookmark here

As I dashed to the produce pantry, ideas were forming in my mind, and I smiled as I saw a bunch of kabochas small enough to fit in your hand. I picked up enough to carry in my arms and brought them back into my table, then ran towards the refrigerator to pick up some ground beef, onions, carrots, and celery. Another trip was to the cupboard spice rack for some herbs and spices to give the mixture I was planning to make a nice, mellow flavor: brown sugar, nutmeg, a little bit of curry powder.Bookmark here

Long ago my father and I played a video game that involved the hero cooking over an open fire, which had a cute little animated cutscene of vegetables dancing in the pot before the end result appeared. One of the results was a little pumpkin stuffed with meat, which reminded me of my father’s recipe for stuffed peppers and mushrooms. They were my mother’s favorite foods, especially since they were a sneaky way for me to eat the green peppers I so despised when I was a little kid.Bookmark here

Back at my cooking station, I opened up the package of ground beef and put it into a shallow bowl as I tore the peels from the onion and began roughly chopping it into small pieces. This was followed by the carrots and celery, which went into a small bowl as I squirted oil into a skillet and set it on the burner to heat. I’d let them wilt and take on color a little before adding them to the meat, which I seasoned with a little salt, pepper and a generous amount of nutmeg and curry powder. I took a moment to preheat the oven as well, as time was of the essence in this battle.Bookmark here

The hardest part would be hollowing out the kabochas! I had my knife ready, and carefully stood the kabocha on its side to make a clean slice of the top, a few centimeters from the stem. With a careful tug, I freed the top of the squash from its stringy insides and inserted a spoon, hoping to free as much of the seeds and stringy flesh as possible. It’s messy work! I had to keep an eye on the vegetables in the pan, and gave them a stir every so often to make sure that nothing burned. Eventually, I turned the heat off and shifted the pan to another burner to cool as I continued doing invasive surgery on the other two kabochas.Bookmark here

I looked up to see Hinata had chopped up her kabocha and was loading it into the top of a vegetable steamer that was simmering away on her burner. She also had a few other interesting ingredients on her countertop: plump raisins, a brown glass bottle that looked as if it contained some sort of liquor, cinnamon, butter and heavy cream. Hinata was going the sweet route, which would make things interesting for the judges. I loved it when I went against someone who went in a wildly different direction than me—sometimes it increased my chances of winning immensely.Bookmark here

My kabochas had been sufficiently hollowed out, and I added some of the flesh to the bowl with the ground meat mixture. I waved my hand a few centimeters over the sautéed vegetables, and found them sufficiently cool, so into the mixture they went. I rolled up both my sleeves and started kneading the vegetables and kabocha into the ground meat, squeezing everything together and giving another few sprinkles of sugar and curry powder to amp up the flavor.Bookmark here

A few minutes of kneading and the meat was of the perfect consistency and texture, so I started packing it into the kabocha shells. Those were followed by a little sprinkle of cheese at the top: a nice grated sharp cheddar to counteract anything overly sweet. Satisfied with my work, I carefully placed each of the kabochas onto a baking sheet and slid it into the preheated oven. I let the oven door close with a dull thud as I looked up at the seeds I had managed to salvage from the kabocha. I carefully scraped them into a wire mesh strainer and ran them under lukewarm water, rinsing off all the stringy remains of the kabocha and leaving the seeds shining with moisture at the bottom of the strainer. These got poured back into the pan I had sautéed the vegetables in, and I turned the burner on to dry and toast them up a little—waste not, want not, after all! They’d be a great garnish.Bookmark here

I looked over at Hinata, who appeared to be mashing steamed kabocha in a glass bowl. I could see raisins sprinkled throughout, and she was carefully trickling some heavy cream in as well. There were so many possibilities of what this could be: cake, pie, pudding, or even just as is. I was getting hungry just looking at it, realizing that I had some stiff competition.Bookmark here

My kabocha seeds had finished roasting, and I carefully poured them out of the pan into a bowl. There were a few that were a little too dark, but they had a nutty aroma. I wanted to stick my fingers in and try one right away, but I’d burn my fingers. I looked down at the glass door of the oven to see that the cheese on top of the meat mixture was melted, and there were bubbles coming from the meat mixture. A few more minutes and I’d take them out to see if they were fork tender.Bookmark here

How was Yomogi doing? She’d had a rough moment while we were walking Kei back to the station, and I was hoping she still wasn’t upset. Losing would probably have an even worse effect on her mood than what happened with Kei. I sighed, wishing I could run over and see how she was doing, but I had my round to think about.Bookmark here

I stuffed my hand into an oven safe glove, and pulled the oven door open to check the kabochas inside. I picked up a fork and carefully inserted the tines into the top of the squash, and found it yielding to my satisfaction. I pulled the pan out and placed it on top of the burners, then reached into the bowl of toasted kabocha seeds and carefully sprinkled a few on top of each one before carefully transferring them to individual plates. It smelled wonderful. My stomach growled just looking at them.Bookmark here

I looked up to see that Hinata was pulling a pie out of the oven, complete with a lattice top. The squash and raisin filling must’ve gone inside, and she was carefully cutting wedges out of it to give to the judges. The crust was flaky and golden—had she made it, or was it store bought? I’d have to find out when it was time to go in front of the judges.Bookmark here

Our time limit started ticking down and I looked up towards the front of the room, where Kazuya was having his battle with Akito Tamon. I hadn’t heard what their subject was—I’d been preoccupied with thoughts of meat stuffed pumpkins—but discovered that both of them were working with chicken, as I saw various familiar looking bones scattered around their workplaces. The timer ticked down the final seconds, and I saw Kazuya clench his fists and grin in triumph, while his opponent hung his head and let out a loud sigh.Bookmark here

“That was fun,” Hinata said, coming over to look at what I had made. “Oh my gosh! Those look so adorable! I never would have thought about stuffing a kabocha like you stuff a pepper!”Bookmark here

“And that pie looks delicious,” I replied.Bookmark here

I looked over at Akito’s station, which had three bowls placed on top. I came closer and looked inside to see that he had made some sort of chicken based ramen—it had bits of cooked shredded chicken floating at the top just like a slice of chashu pork. Kazuya was loading plates of what appeared to be fried chicken basted in some sort of sauce onto his cart. The sauce smelled like a mixture of ginger, garlic and sesame, with a slight kick.Bookmark here

“You ready?” I asked Hinata, who nodded. “Come on! Let’s get these judged.”Bookmark here

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Minutes later, Hinata and I entered the classroom that served as our judges’ chambers. Seated at the front were the three people who would be deciding which of us would be appearing on television next weekend—a man in a business suit, a woman wearing a casual dress and looking like a young mother, and an older man wearing a polo shirt.Bookmark here

Hinata and I did the coin flip, and I called “heads,” which came up to signal that I would be the first to present. I laid each of my dishes out in front of the judges and began my presentation.Bookmark here

“These are meat stuffed miniature kabochas,” I said. “I’ve filled each of these with a mixture of celery, carrots and onion, along with a ground beef and pork mixture seasoned with curry powder and a few other spices to bring out the natural sweetness of the kabocha. There’s a little cheese melted on top, along with a few toasted kabocha seeds for a nice garnish.”Bookmark here

The man in the polo shirt held his fork down as if to cut the kabocha, and I clenched my fist nervously as I hoped that I had baked it to proper fork tenderness. It slid downwards with what appeared to be little effort—not like hot butter, but maybe ice cold butter, or hard cheese. He loaded his fork with a bit of kabocha, as well as the meat mixture, and inserted it into his mouth. His eyebrows raised.Bookmark here

“This is quite interesting!” he said. “The saltiness of the meat mixture is the perfect complement to the kabocha,” he said. “You picked out some very sweet kabocha, young lady.”
The woman had taken a few bites of hers. “It’s good. I like how the meat doesn’t crumble. It holds its shape like a meatball. Although…I would have maybe gone for a little more cheese on the top,” she said.Bookmark here

The man in the business suit nodded as well. “I agree. But just as it is, it’s very good,” he said. “The kabocha’s perfectly tender and the flavors of the meat and the seasoning really work well with it.”Bookmark here

The three of them finished their meals, and I looked over to see Hinata looking pale and trembling. She was obviously worried about what was going to happen after seeing my presentation. I smiled at her.Bookmark here

“You’ll be okay!” I whispered. “If you’re nervous…tell a story about your food. That’s what I always do when I’m nervous.” (Which was only a few times in my life so far.)Bookmark here

As the judges pushed their dishes aside, Hinata approached, smiling. “After you’ve had that stuffed kabocha, how about a little dessert! I have here a lattice pie with a filling of kabocha squash and raisins, flavored with some spiced rum and baked into a pre-made pie shell. One of my friends told me about a pumpkin pie she had eaten on a visit to America and it got me intrigued, so I started looking for recipes and devised this one! There’s some whipped cream, too, and it’s got a little surprise flavor to it.”Bookmark here

Hinata smiled and stepped back as she presented the three pie slices to the judges, and looked up at me as if to say, “Did I do all right?” She seemed a lot calmer—the advice about telling a story about your food obviously helped. However, it would be the judges that would be making the next decision.Bookmark here

They each cut a chunk of filling and crust from their wedges of pie and put it into their mouths. They nodded, and I heard a few “mms!” from the panel as the flavors hit their mouth. The smell of the rum was a little overpowering, but I could also smell the sweetness of the sugar and a little bit of cinnamon. It was a good pie, but there was one thing I noticed: the bottom crust appeared to be a little soggy.Bookmark here

“I absolutely love this filling,” the woman said, “but there’s a problem with my crust. It tastes a little…underbaked.” Hinata’s eyes went wide in shock.Bookmark here

“Mine seems fine,” the man in the polo shirt said. “The filling tastes good, but it’s a little watery. And the rum isn’t overpowering, either. How did you use it?”Bookmark here

“I soaked the raisins in it,” Hinata said.Bookmark here

The woman nodded. “I like the flavor. It reminds me a little of rum raisin ice cream,” she said.
The man in the business suit finished his taste. “I don’t think the crust was underbaked, but it was definitely soggy from the amount of moisture in the filling,” he said. “I tried eating it together with the whipped cream, and it’s got some extra spices in it.” The other two judges decided to follow suit, and they nodded as they tasted the whipped cream.Bookmark here

“There’s a little cinnamon in this,” the man in the polo shirt said. “It goes well with the filling.”
The three judges finished their slices, and Hinata looked over to me, her lips trembling. “I can’t believe it,” she whispered, looking over at the remainder of her pie. “I should have blind baked it first…”Bookmark here

“You did what you could,” I said, “and you’ll learn for next time.”Bookmark here

“Yeah…” Hinata said, looking down at the plates. “I made it this year. I can make it again next year.”Bookmark here

It was the first vote! I looked down at my phone to see that the first vote had gone in Hinata’s favor. She clenched her fist excitedly as she waited for the second and third…
Ding! Ding!Bookmark here

My phone recorded the second and third votes. My eyes went wide: I had won! I was going to be on TV! I looked at Hinata, whose eyes were beginning to brim over with tears. “Kanazawa-san,” I said, “you did a really good job. That pie looked so delicious.”Bookmark here

Hinata nodded, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. “Sakamoto-san, everyone says you’re such a cold person, but…you really helped me feel better about my dish. Thank you,” she said.Bookmark here

I nodded as the two of us exited the room. The hallway was empty—Kazuya and Akito were probably still being judged, and I pulled my phone out of my pocket to see if Yomogi had messaged me. There was nothing there. I leaned up against the wall and looked at the door of the other judging room, waiting to see who would come out happy and who would come out sad.Bookmark here

Hinata was talking to someone on the phone. “Yeah…I didn’t make it. But it’s OK…I just started my second star,” she said. “…She was really nice to me. I’ll talk to you later, Mom.”Bookmark here

Would my mom even be available to talk, I thought, but before I could think of anything else, the door across from us opened.Bookmark here

Kazuya came from the room first, smiling broadly, followed by a more subdued Akito. “How’d it go?” I asked Kazuya.Bookmark here

“I won 2-1!” he said. “And I found out that Tamon-kun’s family owns a ramen shop, which is why he’s so good. What about you?”Bookmark here

I nodded and smiled. “2-1,” I replied.Bookmark here

Kazuya held his hand up and I slapped it. We’d made it to the year championships!Bookmark here

“Vanilla-chan! Vanilla-chan!”Bookmark here

I looked to the side to see Yomogi running up to me, looking elated. “I did it! I got another win!”
“We’re gonna be on TV, Yomogi-chan!” I said, and her smile got even brighter.
“You won too? That’s awesome! I can’t believe we made it!”
I pulled my phone out of my pocket. “Yomogi-chan, do you think we should let Kei-chan know the news now?”
“We should,” Yomogi said. “I think that’s what she’d want us to do.”Bookmark here

I decided that the best way to celebrate was to put my arm around Yomogi and take a selfie of the both of us. “WE MADE IT!” I wrote on the picture, and sent it to Kei.Bookmark here

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Meanwhile, in an upstairs apartment at the Saibara BuildingBookmark here

Shinji Tenmyouji was crouched in front of a laptop computer, blowing off steam by playing a few battles of his favorite MMORPG, when his phone vibrated beside him.Bookmark here

“Damn it,” he muttered, switching his character to Auto-Battle as he picked the phone up. The face of Taiga Shirogane appeared on the screen and Shinji swiped his finger across the screen to answer. “Hello, Shirogane,” he said. “I hope this is important. You interrupted my grind session.”Bookmark here

“Sakamoto has advanced to the televised rounds, exactly as planned,” Taiga said.Bookmark here

“You called me just to say that? I did all the work, you know,” Shinji said, blowing some bangs in the air.Bookmark here

“I just like saying the words ‘exactly as planned.’ It makes me feel like that one guy from that one anime.”Bookmark here

“Whatever. You’ve got to put in your half of the work, too,” Shinji muttered. “If you get too cocky, someone is going to take that opportunity and run all over you. And where will that lead you? A three time loser.”Bookmark here

“Oh, Shinji-chan,” Taiga said. “Don’t worry about that. Even if I don’t win, I’ll be happy as long as I get to humiliate Sakamoto.”Bookmark here

“Don’t lay a finger on her. We discussed this,” Shinji hissed.Bookmark here

Taiga chuckled. “Oh, don’t tell me, you’ve fallen for her after seeing her again for the first time in years? Thanks to a taste of her magic cold noodles? You’re like the male lead in a shoujo manga.”Bookmark here

“SHUT UP!” Shinji screamed. He heard Taiga swear as the phone clattered to the ground, and then the sound of it being picked up.Bookmark here

“Listen, you bastard,” Taiga said, his voice growing as cold as midnight in the dead of winter. “Our money’s what’s keeping you and your little cult afloat. Any more sass out of you, and we’ll pull all our financing from the deal. You’ll be back to handing out pamphlets on the street and dodging the police.”Bookmark here

Shinji gritted his teeth. “Fine. What else do you need me to do?” he muttered.Bookmark here

“Have you found anything out about that Y.K. incident?” Taiga asked.Bookmark here

“Yes. It’s as we thought, too. I managed to track down some of the perpetrators, too. They were quite happy to know I’d pay them handsomely,” Shinji said. Bookmark here

“How nice. Although…I had a much better idea,” Taiga said. “Tenmyouji-san, I need you to research everything revolving around the Ginga TV building, including the placement of surveillance cameras.”Bookmark here

“All right. I’ll do my best,” Shinji said. He gritted his teeth; whatever Taiga was planning was not going to be good.Bookmark here

“You’d better.” Taiga’s voice grew cold again. “Nighty-night. Enjoy your video games, Shinji-chan!”Bookmark here

Taiga hung up, leaving Shinji to stare at his phone. The battles on his MMORPG had ended, and Shinji decided to close the window. He leaned back on his futon, remembering…Bookmark here

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Twelve years agoBookmark here

The Shinjuku branch of World Food Mart was bustling with activity today: renowned chef Yoshiaki Sakamoto would be doing a demonstration on a new line of kitchen appliances. Shinji was holding on to his auntie’s hand as the two of them made their way through the crowds. He looked around in wonder at all the merchandise that had been laid out for sale: gleaming copper pots, knives with beautifully rippled folded steel blades, earthenware pots, and an assortment of kids’ lunch boxes. He had enough allowance saved up to buy one thing for his mom’s birthday, and he knew what he was going to get her: a pink frying pan. She had picked it up and looked at it the last time they had been at the World Food Mart together, and Shinji knew she didn’t have one in that size.Bookmark here

A huge stage had been set up on the main floor, with banners advertising cooking equipment and gourmet ingredients fluttering in the breeze from the store’s air conditioning. At the front of the stage, sitting at a small table, was Yoshiaki Sakamoto, who was shaking hands and signing autographs with a line of spectators.Bookmark here

“Auntie, who is he? Is he f-f-famous?” Shinji asked.Bookmark here

“He should be, otherwise this place would be completely deserted on a day like today,” Shinji’s auntie said. As the two of them walked toward the escalators, Shinji felt someone tugging his sleeve from behind.Bookmark here

“Hi! What’s your name?”Bookmark here

Shinji turned to see a little girl, about three or four years old, standing next to him. She had her light brown hair in two little twin tails that were decorated with yellow banana ponytail holders, and she was holding a stuffed orange tabby cat.Bookmark here

“Um…” Shinji began to speak, but then a voice rang out nearby.Bookmark here

“Vanilla-chan, get back over here!” It was the voice of Yoshiaki Sakamoto, speaking sternly to his daughter. The girl looked back up at her father, who was standing at the edge of the stage, and ran back over to him.Bookmark here

“Don’t wander off, Vanilla-chan,” Yoshiaki said as his sullen daughter approached him. She turned to her father and pointed to Shinji.Bookmark here

“Papa, look, that boy’s here with his mommy. Maybe he wants to be a chef too?” she asked.Bookmark here

“Sh-she’s not my mommy,” Shinji stammered. “She’s my a-auntie. My n-n-name’s Shinji.”Bookmark here

“My name’s Vanilla!” the girl said. “Are you here to meet my Papa?”Bookmark here

Shinji shook his head. “I need to get a b-b-birthday present for my m-m-m-mommy,” he stammered. His auntie squeezed his hand firmly, making Shinji wince.Bookmark here

“Shinji, speak like a grown up! Remember what you were taught!” she said. “Come on. Let’s go get that pan.” She led Shinji away from the stage and into the pot and pan aisles.Bookmark here

Shinji looked intently at the shelves, seeing if he could find that exact same pan. He got up on tiptoe and looked up at the very top, but he couldn’t see the pink frying pan that was the size his mom needed. Maybe it was in another aisle?Bookmark here

Auntie’s phone rang and she reached into her pocket to answer it. “Hello? Oh, Sachiko-chan! I’m doing well! I’m watching the boy today…he’s such a pain,” she said.Bookmark here

Shinji looked down at the floor. “Such a pain” was what a lot of people said about him: he was a slow learner with sloppy handwriting who stammered every time he spoke. His mother was so busy with her work that she hardly had time to help him out, and he didn’t have a father like many of the kids in his elementary school class.Bookmark here

A few minutes passed as Shinji scanned the aisles. His auntie was still on the phone with her friend, so he decided to continue his way up the aisle in search of the frying pan for his mom. At the endcap, he found it: it was on a bottom shelf, and even better: it was on sale! He picked it up and looked at it, imagining his mom making fried rice and shrimp in it. And pink was her favorite color. “Auntie, I f-f-found it!” he yelled, running back into the aisle. But his auntie was nowhere to be seen.Bookmark here

“Auntie? Auntie?”Bookmark here

He clutched the frying pan to him as ran to the end of the aisle, only to see a huge crowd that was gathered for the cooking demo. There were so many strangers milling around him, and no one was wearing his auntie’s jacket or shoes. He swallowed his fear. Shinji was a big boy, and big boys didn’t cry. Then he remembered that his auntie was on the phone, and realized that maybe she went to a quiet place so she could talk to her friend. He looked around and saw a corridor leading to a bank of elevators, so he ran towards it. His auntie was nowhere to be seen. Bookmark here

Shinji sniffled loudly, clenching the frying pan closer to him. His auntie HAD to be somewhere around here. He was a big boy and big boys don’t cry…Bookmark here

“Hey! What’s wrong?” said a girl’s voice behind him.Bookmark here

Shinji looked around to see the same girl from earlier, the one that was named Vanilla. “I c-c-c-c…I c-c-c…” He started crying, frustrated at not being able to use his words and not being able to see his auntie. Vanilla grabbed the sleeve of his shirt.Bookmark here

“Come on! We’re gonna go see my papa. Maybe he can help us,” she said.Bookmark here

Vanilla guided Shinji through the crowd by the wrist. The cooking demo was just about to begin, and Yoshiaki was unpacking a roll of his kitchen knives as Vanilla and Shinji approached him. Yoshiaki noticed Shinji, and his face turned into a look of concern.Bookmark here

“Are you all right, little guy?” he asked, bending down to talk to Shinji, who looked up at him with a face covered in tears and snot.Bookmark here

“He lost his auntie,” Vanilla said. “Can you help?”Bookmark here

“Of course. Your name is Shinji-kun, right?” Yoshiaki asked. Shinji nodded. “Shinji-kun, what’s the name of the lady you were with earlier? Do you remember what she was wearing?”Bookmark here

“I j-j-just call her Auntie,” Shinji said. “Sh-sh-she’s taking care of me. And…” He thought back to what she may have been wearing, and realized he couldn’t remember. Another round of fresh tears spilled from his eyes.Bookmark here

“That’s fine, Shinji-kun. You don’t have to remember,” Yoshiaki said. “Can you come with me up on the stage? I’m going to make an announcement.”Bookmark here

Shinji nodded, and Yoshiaki stuck out his hand for Shinji to take. Shinji grabbed it, and Yoshiaki carefully guided Shinji up the stairs to the stage. “Follow me,” Yoshiaki said, going up to the front of the stage and picking up the microphone.Bookmark here

“Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen,” Yoshiaki said, “but we have a lost child here looking for his auntie. His name’s Shinji-kun.” He stepped back and put his hand gently on the back of Shinji’s head, urging him forward.Bookmark here

The crowd buzzed as Shinji scanned the crowd for familiar faces, but then noticed his auntie frantically approaching. “Auntie!” he yelled, and as he caught her attention, she started barreling her way towards the stage.Bookmark here

“Shinji! I TOLD you not to wander off!” she yelled.Bookmark here

“I’m sorry,” Shinji sniffled. Auntie held out her arms, and Shinji climbed into them as she lowered him onto the ground.Bookmark here

“Shinji, say that you’re sorry to the man for inconveniencing him,” Auntie ordered.Bookmark here

Shinji looked up at Yoshiaki and Vanilla standing on the stage, and made a humble bow. “I’m s-s-sorry for i-i-i…” He stumbled over the hard word, tears spilling from his eyes again, but Yoshiaki merely smiled.Bookmark here

“It’s all right. I’m just glad I could help you,” he said. He reached out and gently ruffled Shinji’s hair.Bookmark here

“We’re going, Shinji,” Auntie said. “You found the pan you want?” Shinji nodded. “All right. Let’s go. Say goodbye.”Bookmark here

“G-g-goodbye,” Shinji said, as his aunt led him away from the crowd towards the registers. He looked back to see Yoshiaki and Vanilla waving back at him, smiling happily…Bookmark here

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Shinji stared up at the ceiling of his apartment, his face bathed in the light of his various monitors and keyboards, hearing the whirring of fans and clicking of hard drives. Downstairs, he knew that Vanilla Sakamoto, the girl that had helped him out so many years ago, was probably sleeping, content with the fact that she had made it to the televised rounds of the summer tournament. If she knew what was going on behind the scenes, it would probably destroy her…Bookmark here

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