Chapter 16:

Surprise! Sabotage?

ALLEZ CUISINE! Gourmet Battle Girls

Less than twelve hours after my triumph last night, I passed through the front gates of Umami Gakuen. I was exhausted, but I held my head high as I entered the academic building and pulled open the sliding door to our classroom…Bookmark here

POP! POP! POP!Bookmark here

A shower of confetti from ¥100 party poppers showered over me. Every one of my classmates, as well as my homeroom teacher, were standing and applauding. A huge “CONGRATULATIONS VANILLA SAKAMOTO!” was drawn on the blackboard, surrounded by messages from my classmates.Bookmark here

I didn’t know what to think at first, but then I remembered that I had won last night. A smile creeped upon my face as I entered the classroom.Bookmark here

“Wow, thank you everyone!” I said, blushing a little.Bookmark here

I could barely get to my seat with everyone surrounding me and giving me their well wishes. It was such a contrast compared to the silent treatment I got from them earlier this year. As I sat down, our class rep, Masamune Shiotani, got up and started reading from a sheet of paper.Bookmark here

“Ahem,” he started, “now that our little celebration is out of the way, let’s get down to business, shall we? The subject is the Cultural Festival, and we as a class must decide what our homeroom will provide!” There was a loud groan from everyone in the room.Bookmark here

The Umami Gakuen Cultural Festival is a four day affair, which showcases the abilities of both the academic and the four culinary divisions. The first two days are devoted to the normal activities one might find at a cultural festival: concerts, plays, carnival games, and the like. The final two days are devoted to the four culinary divisions, and where all the stops are pulled out: it’s a massive food festival, where each class plans and puts on a banquet for both their families and the staff and faculty.Bookmark here

Masamune looked up at the board somewhat regretfully, as the huge congratulations message was still written there. “I know you have a job to do, Shiotani-san,” I said. He picked up an eraser and started erasing a portion.Bookmark here

The rest of the homeroom period was taken up by me and my classmates recommending ideas for our class contribution. There were the typical suggestions of a café and a haunted house, along with the somewhat outlandish ones such as a snake petting zoo. (I did not suggest that one, but I did suggest a used book store, after the one my classmates and I did when I was in junior high school.) Eventually, it went to a vote, and when the votes were tabulated…Bookmark here

“Well, it appears we will be operating a fortune telling house!” Shiotani announced, and there was a mix of cheers and groans.Bookmark here

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With that mundane business out of the way, it was back to the daily academic grind. There were a scant few weeks before the beginning of our summer break, and while I was eagerly awaiting sleeping in every morning and going to visit Yomogi in her hometown, there were tests to study for and summer homework assignments to prepare for. But before that…I had to wish Yomogi luck.Bookmark here

Yomogi was sitting in our usual lunch spot, looking up at the leaves dancing in the wind and taking deep breaths in and out. It looked as if she was trying to calm herself, and she yelped as I came up behind her and said hello.Bookmark here

“I’m sorry! I’m trying to keep myself focused,” she said. “How do you do it, Vanilla-chan? You’re always so composed…”Bookmark here

I shrugged. “It’s just the way I am. I try not to let anything fluster me.” I sat down and removed my lunch from my bag—an assortment of crab and vegetable sushi rolls I had gotten at the convenience store.Bookmark here

“How are you doing after last night, Vanilla-chan?” Yomogi asked.Bookmark here

“Well…I’m okay, but I’m pretty tired,” I replied, yawning right on cue.Bookmark here

Kei arrived a few minutes later. “Sorry I’m late,” she said. “They needed help with counting the votes for my homeroom’s cultural festival entry.”Bookmark here

“Oh, yeah! What did your homerooms vote on?” I asked. “We’re doing a fortune telling house.”Bookmark here

“My class is doing a cosplay café,” Yomogi said. “But the Outdoors Club is trying to build a rock climbing simulator, and we’ll be selling campfire curry!”Bookmark here

Kei sat down and took her lunch out of her bag. “Well, it looks like we’re doing a play,” she said.Bookmark here

“You don’t look thrilled about it,” I said, picking up a piece of sushi with my chopsticks.Bookmark here

“Last time I was in a class play, I was stuck playing a monster because I was so tall.” Bookmark here

“Do you know what play you’re doing yet?”Bookmark here

Kei shrugged. “Probably a fairy tale or something. Nothing too complicated.”Bookmark here

“Oh, Kei-chan, will you be able to make it to the studio tonight to watch my match?” Yomogi asked.Bookmark here

Kei nodded, smiling. “Of course! I couldn’t miss it.”Bookmark here

“Meet me at the train station after school?” I asked.Bookmark here

“Yeah. I’ve got to do some stuff first,” Kei replied.Bookmark here

“I’m looking forward to it. By the way, who’s your opponent, Yomogi-chan?” I asked.Bookmark here

“It’s Yamadera-san,” she replied. I recognized the name.Bookmark here

“Masaya Yamadera? The kid who was sitting next to me at the banquet?”Bookmark here

“Yes!” Yomogi blushed a little. “To be honest…I’m a little apprehensive about facing him,” she said.Bookmark here

“How come? Is he really good?” I asked.Bookmark here

Yomogi nodded. “We’re constantly battling for the first and second spots in the class rankings,” she replied. “And…he…” Her voice trailed off, but her face was completely tinged pink. Kei and I shared another knowing look.Bookmark here

“You like him, don’t you?” Kei said, getting straight to the point. Yomogi nodded, almost imperceptibly. “And you don’t want him to feel bad if he loses?” Another almost imperceptible nod.Bookmark here

“Nothing wrong with that,” I said. “He doesn’t strike me as the type who wants to get revenge for losing, unlike some idiot.”Bookmark here

Yomogi opened her mouth to say something, but seemed to hesitate as her face trembled. “What’s wrong?” I asked, and she looked up.
“He’d never want to be with someone like me,” she murmured. “Not…not after what…”Bookmark here

“Wait, what are you saying?” I asked, but then the ringing of the school’s lunch bell prompted us to get moving.Bookmark here

“Sorry, it’s…it’s a long story,” Yomogi said, as she gathered up the remains of her lunch. “I’ll see you later tonight!” She scurried off, leaving me and Kei looking at each other. I thought back to my conversation with Yomogi the day that we had our first battles of the tournament.
“I think she’s worried about her past,” I said to Kei as we started gathering up our lunch dishes.Bookmark here

“What do you mean?” Kei asked.Bookmark here

“She was telling me about how she was worried about things that happened in her past coming to light thanks to being on TV for this tournament,” I said. “I didn’t really pry or anything, but I told her that I didn’t care.”Bookmark here

“She seems like she really likes him,” Kei said.Bookmark here

“It’s obvious,” I said. “Do you think maybe we should try playing Cupid or something?”Bookmark here

Kei shook her head. “They need to do it at their own pace.”Bookmark here

“But don’t you think she is so cute when she blushes?” I said, chuckling.
“Yeah. I want her to find happiness, too,” Kei said.Bookmark here

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A few hours later, Kei and I met up with each other at the entrance to the train station. “You ready?” she asked, as I approached.Bookmark here

“Yeah, let’s go!” I said, as I pulled out my phone and slapped it against the card reader.Bookmark here

We got onto the express train going directly to Ikebukuro Station, and from there it would be a short walk to Ginga TV. When we got off, I looked up at the huge clock to discover that it was over an hour before taping would begin. “Hey, do you want to stop somewhere?” I asked. “Maybe get a snack or something before we go?”Bookmark here

“That sounds like a good idea…Hey, what if we get some flowers for Yomogi-chan?” Kei asked.Bookmark here

“Oh wow, that’s an even better idea!” I replied.Bookmark here

We wandered through the station until we reached a florist, and let Kei do the choosing—she seemed to have a handle on the meaning of various flowers. We chose a little bouquet of yellow roses, which got tied with a green ribbon to match Yomogi’s hair, then wandered the streets, killing time until the doors opened to the public at Ginga TV. Even then, there was a huge crowd of people gathered outside—there must’ve been hundreds that were waiting behind a security barrier.Bookmark here

“Those must be the potential judges,” I whispered to Kei as we stood in line behind a crowd of people that had been given passes to be part of the studio audience. (We only needed to show the staff our Umami Gakuen ID’s to get a seat.)Bookmark here

“The crowd’s bigger than last night’s crowd was,” Kei said.Bookmark here

“Really?”Bookmark here

“Yeah. Guess everyone over there loves their sweets.”Bookmark here

As we came closer to the front of the line, I noticed a couple standing a few people away from us. From the back, I saw that the woman had the same distinctive hair color that Yomogi did. “Hey, I think that’s Yomogi-chan’s big sister and her husband,” I whispered to Kei.Bookmark here

A few minutes later, we had been admitted into the studio, and guided to a bank of seats. As we filed into our places, we saw that the woman and man that I had noticed were sitting directly in front of us, and they noticed our uniforms. “Hi there,” said the woman. “Are you classmates of Yomogi-chan?”Bookmark here

“Yes, we are!” I said. “You must be Yanagi-san.”Bookmark here

“Yes, I am!” she said. Yanagi really was pretty, and she really did look like an older version of Yomogi without the glasses. “And you are?”Bookmark here

“I’m Vanilla Sakamoto, and this is Kei Mitsurugi,” I said.Bookmark here

“Oh, yeah! You won last night, didn’t you?”Bookmark here

I blushed. “Well…yeah,” I replied.Bookmark here

“And this is my husband, Hajime,” Yanagi said, indicating the man sitting next to her. He had rectangular horn rimmed glasses and looked pretty handsome.Bookmark here

“Nice to meet you,” I said.Bookmark here

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The studio started filling up, and the seats next to me started to fill with Umami Gakuen students. I noticed my classmate Aiko and waved to her. She returned the wave and sat with some of her friends a few rows down from us.Bookmark here

The stage was scurrying with activity, and it felt so weird to be removed from the same action I had been a part of barely 24 hours earlier. I could see how small everything was from up here. People were beginning to take their places, and I saw Ryotaro enter the stage and start giving directions to some of the stagehands. I thought about waving to him, hesitated for a second, and then did it anyway. He noticed and returned the wave, with a warm smile.Bookmark here

I felt a familiar feeling wash over me, and remembered my father’s kindly smile and wave from the stage whenever I went to watch one of his cooking shows. It was bittersweet.Bookmark here

The lights dimmed in the studio, and the music started. “It’s another night of high stakes gourmet battles!” Ryotaro announced from the stage. “Tonight, it’s the championships for the Yogashi Division of Umami Gakuen, and they’re out to prove that victory is not just sweet, it’s delicious! Welcome, everyone!”Bookmark here

A sign reading “APPLAUSE” flashed from above, and we obediently started clapping as the lights came up on the stage. Ryotaro was standing in front of the two cooking stations, and he stretched his hand out towards the one on the right.Bookmark here

“Tonight’s first contestant in the first year championships comes all the way from Nasu, where she has dreams of becoming a patissiere and a wedding planner. Please welcome Yomogi Kisaragi!”Bookmark here

I started clapping and cheering. A bunch of students in front of me held up a large sign reading “GO GO YOMOGI!” and started whistling. Hesitantly, Yomogi walked out onto the stage, smiling and waving. I waved furiously back at her, hoping that she could pick me out from the audience. Kei was probably going to be easier to spot.Bookmark here

“She will be battling tonight against a young man who enjoys making meals for the less fortunate. Please welcome Masaya Yamadera!”Bookmark here

There was another burst of applause, clustered from a group of people who were sitting on the other side of us—Masaya’s family and friends, most likely. He looked nervous as he stepped out on stage, but seemed to calm down and brighten up as he saw who was in the audience.Bookmark here

“And joining us again tonight on our panel is Rising Star News food editor Shinnosuke Hashimoto, food blogger Cherry-tan, five-star gourmet battler Ludovic St. Germaine and his translator, Veronique Kanazawa,” Ryosuke said, introducing the panel to the audience’s applause. “And now, to find out what our contestants will be creating this evening!”Bookmark here

Yomogi and Masaya’s faces appeared on the video board, along with their ratings. “Wow!” I said, looking at Masaya’s rating and realizing that he was just a little higher ranked than Yomogi was. “I had no idea he was this good!”Bookmark here

“Well, he DID make it this far,” Kei said.Bookmark here

Then the roulette wheel came up and started spinning. I heard the sound of clapping coming from the audience, which had a ripple effect around until everyone was clapping in rhythm to the beeping coming from the wheel. It slowed, until finally…Bookmark here

BING! The wheel landed on “squid.”Bookmark here

“It’s squid, ladies and gentlemen!” Ryotaro said, as the audience applauded. Kei looked over at me, surprised.Bookmark here

“Squid?” she said.Bookmark here

“Hey, if anyone can do it, she probably can,” I said. “Remember the natto spaghetti?”Bookmark here

The lights on the stage dimmed, while another light brightened over the table where the panelists were sitting. Ludovic St. Germaine and his translator started in on an explanation of the various edible squids to be found in Japan, as everyone around me started murmuring to each other.Bookmark here

“What do you think? Calamari? Squid ink spaghetti?”Bookmark here

“Think she’s going to make a squid dessert?”Bookmark here

“Squid with chocolate sauce? Eww.”Bookmark here

A voice came from behind me: “Excuse me, are those seats taken?”Bookmark here

I looked over to see that Michael Furukawa Valentine and Taiga Shirogane were standing at the end of the row. “No, they’re not,” I replied, and quietly Kei and I got up to let them pass by. Taiga took the seat closest to me.Bookmark here

“How are you this evening?” Taiga asked. “I’m sorry I couldn’t make it to see your victory in person last night.” He smiled.Bookmark here

“All right,” I said, a little flustered, but as I was about to continue, the lights went up on the studio set. The countdown clock appeared on the screen and started ticking down the seconds. I saw Yomogi standing in front of the stove. Her eyes were closed, and she seemed to be taking deep breaths. “You got this!” I yelled!Bookmark here

Beep…beep…beep…beeeeep! The clock clicked to zero! A cheer rose up from the audience as Yomogi and Masaya started scurrying into action. I leaned forward in my seat to get a closer glimpse of what Yomogi was doing, and saw her going into a refrigerator to grab a wrapped Styrofoam tray of squid. She set it on the counter, and then grabbed a large cast-iron pot that she rested on the cooktop. She then ran to the pantry and grabbed a big bottle of soy sauce and a bottle of cooking sake, along with a jar with some sort of white powder inside.Bookmark here

I looked over to Masaya’s side of the stage. He had ripped the packaging off his squids, and was carefully dissecting them, chopping the head and tentacles off, cleaning out the insides and carefully removing the backbone. There was a bag of what appeared to be flour next to him, along with a bunch of small jars that I remembered as being part of the spice supply the studio supplied.Bookmark here

Yomogi was pouring a cup of rice into a bowl, which she then reached into, rubbing the grains between her fingers and turning the water cloudy. It’s when I realized how intense she was when she was cooking. Every single distraction was shut out as she poured all her energy into washing and scrubbing the rice and discarding the cloudy water.Bookmark here

“She’s making ika-meshi,” Kei said. It was a squid that was stuffed with rice and boiled in a sweet broth—simple cooking at its finest, but a type of recipe you could easily judge a chef’s skill and style. We watched as she poured water into the iron pot, then added the soy sauce, some cooking sake and what appeared to be sugar. She dipped a wooden spoon into the mixture and started stirring it, then turned to the squids. Yomogi grabbed the cellophane and yanked it off the package with a fervor that I’d never seen from her before, then turned her attention to the squids, freeing the head and body with a few sharp pulls.Bookmark here

“Wow! She’s…” Michael whistled softly to himself.Bookmark here

“Yeah. She’s intense,” I said.Bookmark here

Meanwhile, Masaya had chopped up his squid—the mantle into rings, and the tentacles into bite-sized pieces. A shallow pan was on the counter, and he was slowly pouring flour into a measuring cup on a scale. He stopped, and then started with varying amounts of herbs and spices from the jars on his table. “Hmm…looks like garlic, and pepper, and maybe…oregano, maybe?” I murmured.Bookmark here

“I believe you’re correct,” Taiga said. “It looks like he’s making an Italian flavored breading.”Bookmark here

Masaya had an iron pot on his cooking station as well, but his was apparently going to be used for deep-frying, as a thermometer was clipped to the side of it. He dipped a spoon into the measuring cup of flour and started stirring gently before dumping the contents into the shallow pan.Bookmark here

The panelists were talking over at the other end of the stage, but their voices were indistinct. “Hey, you said you were watching last night, right, Taiga-san?” I asked. “What were they saying about me?”Bookmark here

“Oh? You haven’t watched your performance yet?” Taiga chuckled. I blushed, looking down at my lap.Bookmark here

“Well…I don’t really…”Bookmark here

“They were talking about how your hair reminded them of Pippi Longstocking.”Bookmark here

“Whaaa!?”Bookmark here

“I’m kidding. They were talking about your cooking skills and how focused you were,” Taiga said, smiling. He reached over and patted me on the shoulder. “They were amazed.”Bookmark here

The feeling sent a jolt through my body, and I tensed up. My face grew hot, and I swallowed nervously. Does he…like me? I thought.Bookmark here

I could barely pay attention to the round, with all the thoughts about Taiga going through my head. Yomogi was a cooking warrior. Her face was a mask of pure concentration as she stuffed the squids with the soaked rice, which was apparently mixed with bits of chopped seaweed. She pinched the open end of the squid mantle together and carefully wrapped a strand of kampyo (a strip of reconstituted dried gourd) around the end and tied it off before laying them in the pot of slowly simmering broth, with a wood drop-lid on top to concentrate the flavor as they boiled down.Bookmark here

On the other side of the stage, Masaya was frying the squid in batches. He had turned the seasoned flour into a tempura batter by adding ice-cold water and a beaten egg, and was dipping the squid pieces and a few pieces of chopped broccoli and green peppers into it before dipping them into the hot oil. He was like a machine, carefully dipping his spider into the hot oil and catching the deep-fried squid pieces right when they were at the perfect color and crispness, then loading it with more battered seafood and vegetables. He’d glance back and forth at the thermometer and occasionally reach down to adjust the temperature of the stove. He wiped his brow with the sleeve of his chef’s jacket, and I could see his hands shaking a bit.Bookmark here

“She looks like she’s almost done,” Kei said, glancing up at the digital clock that showed the time remaining. “I hope those have enough time to simmer.”Bookmark here

“Uh, yeah,” I said, my mind still filled with thoughts of Taiga. Was he looking at the stage? Was he looking at me? I wanted to glance over to where he and Michael were sitting, but I was nervous.Bookmark here

Yomogi picked up a bag filled with black shavings and opened it into another pot, which she set on the stove. “What’s she doing?” I said, somewhat dazed.Bookmark here

“Looks like hijiki seaweed,” Kei said. “Think she’s making some sort of side dish.” She glanced over at me, and her expression changed. “Are you all right? Your face is awful red.”
I nodded vigorously.Bookmark here

Masaya started to plate his finished tempura. He put a small pitcher in front of him and filled it with a little bit of the contents from a couple of bottles—what appeared to be mayonnaise and a green paste—then gave them a stir before scooping it into three small ramekins that he put on the plates. He laid a sheet of brown paper on each of them, and then placed a good amount of fried squid and fried vegetables on each.Bookmark here

Yomogi lifted the wooden lid from the pot and carefully picked out one of the squids with a ladle. She laid it out on a plate and carefully cut it in half. As she inspected the rice inside the squid, her expression changed from one of intense concentration to one of relief. She started lifting the rest of the squids onto plates, so each of the judges would have two, and then added a small amount of what appeared to be simmered seaweed with edamame and bits of abura-age fried tofu to each plate.Bookmark here

As the two of them were finishing arranging the food on their plates, the clock started to tick down. Three…two…one…BING! There was a burst of applause as the two of them stood back from their stations. Masaya and Yomogi looked at each other, and both of them nervously smiled.Bookmark here

Ryotaro came close to the two of them. “We’ve reached the end of the round! Stay with us as we learn who will be judging these delicious dishes!” he said, as the audience was prompted to applaud. The lights in the studio dimmed, and the lights in the studio audience brightened up as everyone got up and stretched.Bookmark here

“That was intense,” Kei said.Bookmark here

I didn’t answer, but I noticed Yanagi and her husband Hajime talking to each other in front of us. “When you told me she changed, I didn’t know she’d changed that much,” Hajime said to Yanagi.Bookmark here

“Yeah, she’s really blossomed since she started here,” Yanagi said.Bookmark here

Yomogi and Masaya were wheeling their carts over to the judges’ station, and I tried to catch their eye with a wave, but both of them seemed to be in deep conversation with each other. Masaya said something to Yomogi, and she smiled and started laughing.Bookmark here

“Man, they look so cute together,” I said. “You sure you don’t wanna play cupid, Kei-chan?”Bookmark here

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A few minutes later, the judges had been seated, and Ryotaro got the signal to begin talking again. “The judges have been selected! Remember, you too can be in consideration to be a judge for this competition. Ginga TV will be recording the battles for the Washoku and the Wagashi Divisions the next two nights, starting at seven o’clock. Be at the studio during those times, and you may be one of the lucky judges…like these three!” He stretched out his hand to indicate the three judges. “Joining us tonight are Tanaka-san, who works as a museum janitor, Mato-san, who is a legal clerk, and Shimada-san, who is a women’s college student!” There was a ripple of polite applause as the three judges each made a bow.Bookmark here

The coin flip indicator appeared on the screen, and Yomogi’s face was highlighted. She got to her feet a little nervously, and pushed the cart containing her dishes towards the judges. She placed the cloched plates down in front of them, took a deep breath, and started her presentation.Bookmark here

“My dish today is ika-meshi, one of the specialties of Hokkaido. I’ve prepared it in the traditional way, but I’ve added some chopped seaweed to the rice inside to give it a flavor that’s straight from the sea. I’ve also made some hijiki seaweed mixed with bits of abura-age and some edamame. Where I lived, we hardly ever got to have seafood, since we were so far inland. But one day we went to a restaurant in town, and it was on the menu…so I tried it and I really liked it! I hope you like the way I prepared it. Thank you…” Yomogi’s voice trailed off, and she made a polite bow.Bookmark here

The judges had cut a slice from the stuffed squids. It reminded me of a sausage, the way it was stuffed. Tanaka the janitor had taken a bite of his slice, and smiled.Bookmark here

“The rice is the perfect texture,” he said, nodding. “Normally you’d have to simmer this for a long time.”Bookmark here

“Yes. I am aware of that, which is why I was happy that the squids we received were the size they are,” Yomogi said. “Anything larger would affect the cooking time.”Bookmark here

“What did you use for the broth these were boiled in?” Shimada the college student asked.Bookmark here

“Just soy sauce and sugar in water, with a little bit of konbu seaweed for flavor. And there’s both konbu and hijiki in the rice.”Bookmark here

“It’s good, but…it doesn’t really taste like the sea,” Shimada replied. Yomogi nodded, obviously taking this advice to heart.Bookmark here

“I think this is perfect,” said Mato the legal clerk. “The rice is the right texture, and I really appreciate the seaweed mixed in—it’d be so bland otherwise. And the squid…you really prepared this well. I didn’t taste any bitterness or any stringy parts.”Bookmark here

The judges continued eating, and as they pushed their plates aside, Yomogi took a nervous bow. “Thank you very much,” she said, and she went back to her chair. There was a polite ripple of applause from the audience.Bookmark here

Masaya looked nervous, and swallowed as he got up and went to his cart full of dishes. Slowly, he pushed them towards the judges and put the plates in front of them, removing the cloches. The seafood and vegetables inside were still steaming hot.Bookmark here

“My dish is my own interpretation of calamari,” Masaya said. “I seasoned the batter with Italian herbs and spices, and used it tempura-style to coat the squid as well as some vegetables. I’ve also made a dipping sauce that’s basil pesto mixed with a light mayonnaise to dip them in. I love making new interpretations of familiar foods, and this is one of them!”Bookmark here

The judges each picked up a bit of the breaded squid. Two of them started by dipping it into the sauce, while Tanaka ate the squid plain.Bookmark here

“This breading…it’s really flavorful,” he said. “What kind of herbs and spices did you use in it?”Bookmark here

“Garlic, oregano, a little dried basil…” Masaya answered, but he gazed up at the ceiling and trailed off. “I used a bunch of Italian seasonings.”Bookmark here

“The sauce kind of tones down the stronger flavors,” Shimada said. “But it’s still kind of a weird combination.”Bookmark here

“I think that the texture of everything is perfect,” said Mato. “The vegetables came out perfectly crispy, and the squid’s got a good texture and bite. The only thing I can say about this that’s negative is…well, the flavor in the breading and the sauce is too dissonant.”Bookmark here

The judges finished their food, and there was polite applause and cheers from Masaya’s supporters as he sat back down. Ryotaro took the stage once more. “The judges are making their decisions as we speak. Tonight, the Yogashi Division first years have gone outside their comfort zone. Who is the more well rounded chef?”Bookmark here

The room grew quiet as the judges deliberated, and the video screen showed the portraits of Yomogi and Masaya, with the three vote counters under them. The drumroll began. Suddenly…Bookmark here

Bing!Bookmark here

One vote went to Yomogi! I clenched my fists and stared wide eyed at the video screen. Come on, come on! I thought.Bookmark here

Bing!Bookmark here

Another vote for Yomogi! I let out a yelp, but this wasn’t a complete victory yet. There was a small ripple of applause, until…Bookmark here

Bing!Bookmark here

The final vote…went to Yomogi!Bookmark here

“We have a unanimous decision!” Ryotaro said, as everyone in the audience cheered. I clasped hands with Kei, and in front of me Yanagi and her husband jumped up and hugged each other. “Yomogi Kisaragi is the winner of the first year championships! Congratulations!”Bookmark here

Yomogi was smiling, her face streaked with what appeared to be happy tears as she approached the microphone. “Thank you, Koizumi-san!” she said. “A year ago, I had no idea I’d ever consider myself worthy to be on this stage, competing for this trophy, and now…” Her face dissolved into tears and she started sobbing. “I’m…I’m so happy!”Bookmark here

Chairman Mimori approached Yomogi, carrying the trophy. “It is my privilege to award you this trophy for being the best first year student in the Yogashi Division. Congratulations, Kisaragi-san.”Bookmark here

Without being able to speak, Yomogi made a deep bow and accepted the trophy, holding it aloft and smiling through her tears. Everyone in my section got up and started giving her a standing ovation.Bookmark here

“That’s the first year champion right here,” Ryotaro said, “and coming up next, the second year students will take their turns on the grand stage! Whose cuisine will reign supreme? Stay with us!”Bookmark here

The lights dimmed on the stage and brightened in the audience as the applause died down. I looked behind me towards the exit, when I noticed someone familiar sitting in one of the back rows of the studio audience. My eyes widened as I realized who it was.Bookmark here

What’s Tenmyouji doing here? I thought. He didn’t notice me looking at him, but he got up, looked at his smartphone, and started walking out the door. My curiosity was getting the better of me, so I got up.Bookmark here

“I’m going to the bathroom. Excuse me,” I said, rushing past Kei. I hopped up the stairs two at a time, hoping to put enough distance between us for me to shadow him. He exited the studio and I hesitated before opening the door again, but then a group of people behind me approached and I held the door open for them. They started walking towards the restrooms and I made myself a part of their crowd, keeping an eye on Tenmyouji. He was walking towards another hallway—one that was clearly marked as not containing the restrooms—and I started to think about approaching him, until—Bookmark here

“Sakamoto-san! How are you doing tonight?” said Ryotaro’s voice behind me.Bookmark here

“Uh…” I turned around to see Ryotaro with Ludovic St. Germaine standing next to him. “Koizumi-san, good evening,” I stammered. I looked behind me to see that Tenmyouji had disappeared.Bookmark here

“I was hoping to catch you. St. Germaine-san wanted to meet you. Apparently, he knew your father,” Ryotaro said.Bookmark here

St. Germaine approached, and smiled. “Your father worked in my restaurant in Paris,” he said in somewhat stilted Japanese. “I can still remember his enthusiasm and I’m glad to see it in you.” He held out his hand, and I took it, giving it a firm shake.Bookmark here

“Thank you very much,” I replied, realizing that I had lost my quarry. “I miss him a lot, but I’m glad people still think of him.”Bookmark here

“Do you have time for a quick photo?” St. Germaine asked. I looked hesitantly behind me—yep, he was still gone. I looked back and nodded. He handed his phone to Ryotaro and stood next to me. I flashed the usual peace sign and smiled as Ryotaro took the picture of the two of us.Bookmark here

“Thank you very much,” St. Germaine said.Bookmark here

“Give your mother my regards,” Ryotaro said. He turned and led St. Germaine back into the studio, leaving me alone in the hall. I dashed down to see if Tenmyouji was still there, but it was deserted. Defeated, I decided to return to my seat.Bookmark here

I came back in to see Yomogi sitting with her sister and brother-in-law, the flowers in her sister’s lap. She gave me a big smile as I approached.Bookmark here

“Thanks so much for the flowers!” she said. “I’m so drained right now, but I’m so happy!” She held up the trophy for me to admire.Bookmark here

“That’s awesome,” I said. “I’m so glad you won! You’re a really versatile chef. Who’s up next?”Bookmark here

“Up next…I believe it’s the second years. Tsukiko Asahina versus Misaki Katsura,” Yomogi said.Bookmark here

Sure enough, I saw them approaching the stage, looking nervous. A lot of people were getting up to leave, while a whole bunch of new people that were carrying signs and banners of support for Tsukiko and Misaki were coming in. I noticed Tsukiko’s twin sister Yukiko coming in with what appeared to be her parents and a couple of younger siblings.Bookmark here

“Are you staying for the next battle?” Yomogi asked.Bookmark here

“Yeah, I’m gonna stay for a little while,” I said. “Even though it’s a weekend tomorrow, I want to get home earlier than I did last night.”Bookmark here

We settled down into our seats as a buzzer rang, signaling the beginning of the countdown to filming. The director started counting down, and Ryotaro assumed his place at the front of the stage. Three, two, one…Bookmark here

The lights went back up and the music started. “We’re back with the second round of battles for tonight!” Ryotaro announced. “This time, it’s the second year students’ turn in the spotlight. First up, this contestant and her twin sister Yukiko are both competitors in the Umami Gakuen Summer Invitational. Her hobbies include skiing and snowboarding! From Yokohama, Tsukiko Asahina!”Bookmark here

Tsukiko stepped out onto the stage and assumed her position behind the cooking station, waving her hands and smiling. We all applauded, and her family sitting down below us started cheering and whistling.Bookmark here

“Next, this student comes to us from Kyoto, where she’s won awards in pastry competitions competing against professionals, and also is a member of the Umami Gakuen concert band, where she plays percussion! Please welcome Misaki Katsura!”Bookmark here

Misaki entered the stage from the other end. I vaguely recognized her from the photo shoot and initial meetings; she had very short cropped brown hair and was fairly tall and slender (but not the same height as Kei.) She waved to her supporters and took her position behind her cooking station, looking over at Tsukiko and giving her a friendly nod.Bookmark here

The roulette wheel appeared on the screen behind the two of them, and we watched closely as it began to go slower and slower, until it finally stopped on one wedge: Carrots.Bookmark here

“Carrots!” Ryotaro announced, and the audience applauded as the countdown clock appeared on the screen. We watched it tick down and as it reached zero, the girls burst into action.Bookmark here

“Go, Tsukiko-sempai!” Yomogi yelled as Tsukiko dashed towards the pantry and grabbed a bunch of carrots, then went to an equipment rack and took off a box grater. On the other end of the stage, Misaki had a bunch of carrots in her hand as she ducked down behind the counter, then emerged with an electric juicer.Bookmark here

“What do you think they’re going to make?” I asked Kei as we watched the two of them closely. Tsukiko was grating carrots against the box grater, while Misaki was feeding them into the juicer, one at a time. It was noisy, and the audience was buzzing with activity as the cameras focused on Ryotaro doing his discussion with the panelists.Bookmark here

There was a loud crack, which made me start. I looked around to find the source of the noise, when…Bookmark here

CRACK! A much louder crack got everyone’s attention, and everyone turned to see that a row of lights had detached from the ceiling and was plummeting towards the stage—directly on top of where Tsukiko was standing…Bookmark here

“LOOK OUT!” screamed someone from the audience, but it was too late. The fixture slammed to the stage, knocking Tsukiko down with it. There were sparks and smoke from broken spotlights, the crash of breaking glass, and a scream from Misaki that filled the room. Everyone in the audience was yelling and shouting.Bookmark here

“Tsukiko! TSUKIKO!” The twins’ mom was screaming from in front of us, and her husband was restraining her.Bookmark here

“Ikuko, no!” he said.Bookmark here

I looked around the entire room. Everyone was pale faced with shock. Kei was beside me, both her hands to her mouth in horror. To the other side of me, Michael’s eyes were wide, and Taiga was trembling.Bookmark here

“Get out of the way! We need to make way for the paramedics!” yelled the director. “Cut to commercial! NOW!”Bookmark here

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That’s when I noticed Tsukiko was pinned underneath the light fixture. She wasn’t moving.Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.