Chapter 20:

Sweet Victory

ALLEZ CUISINE! Gourmet Battle Girls

Kei and I made it onto the express train back to Ikebukuro with time to spare. “Will we be able to get back before the taping starts?” I asked as she checked the schedule.Bookmark here

“We’ll be cutting it close,” Kei said, “but I think we can make it.”Bookmark here

I pulled my cell phone out from my bag and pressed the power button. I hadn’t checked it since last night. Sure enough, I had messages from all my friends, asking me if I was OK and if I needed to talk. I wished there was a group reply option, so I could tell everyone “I’m OK,” but I had to go through and answer every one of them. One of the messages was from an unfamiliar number, so I opened it up:Bookmark here

From: Unknown To: Vanilla
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This is Taiga Shirogane.
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Michael gave me your number.
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How are you? Are you feeling all right?Bookmark here

I decided to answer.Bookmark here

From: Vanilla To: Taiga
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I spent time at home.
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I’m feeling a little better.
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Will be at the match tonight.Bookmark here

He answered almost immediately:Bookmark here

From: Taiga To: Vanilla
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Good to hear!
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Please wish Kisaragi-san good luck for me. I can’t make it.Bookmark here

I smiled as I looked down at it. Maybe once I get back…I’ll ask Taiga-sempai what kind of ramen he likes, I thought, as the train pulled away from the platform.Bookmark here

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The train rolled to a stop at Ikebukuro Station. “Come on, let’s hurry!” Kei said as we jumped from our seats. We needed to get to Ginga TV in 15 minutes, or we’d miss the beginning of the taping.Bookmark here

I followed Kei as we dashed our way out of the turnstile and through the streets. Luckily, Ginga TV was close by, but it seemed like everyone was out on the town on a night like this. We wove our way through the crowded streets until we reached the outside of the TV studio.Bookmark here

“Made it,” I said, panting as I pulled up my student ID on my phone. Kei did the same with hers, and we were both ushered in.Bookmark here

“Vanilla-kun! Are you all right?”Bookmark here

Just as we were about to pass through doors leading from the lobby, Michael came running up to us. He looked relieved.Bookmark here

“I’m…okay,” I said, by way of reply. “I heard you won the championship.”Bookmark here

“Yeah…but it was just such a hollow victory.” Michael looked crushed. “Maria-kun just didn’t have it in her. She was trying to put on a brave face all through the battle, but…”Bookmark here

I nodded. “Is she here tonight?”Bookmark here

Michael shook his head. “She wanted to stay home.”Bookmark here

“I don’t blame her,” I said, as we passed through the hallway towards the studio. The only seats left were in the back, but could Yomogi even see us there? “And Shirogane-sempai can’t make it tonight, either.”Bookmark here

“Huh?” Michael looked surprised.Bookmark here

“He messaged me while I was on the train…” I blushed a little. “By the way…thanks for checking up on me. I really appreciate it.”Bookmark here

Michael smiled back. “I’m glad you’re feeling a little better,” he said. “Come on, I see some open seats down here.”Bookmark here

There were three open seats a few rows from the back. As I sat down, I looked down towards the stage. Everyone looked so small! It would be impossible to see me with all the bright lights. As the lights dimmed, I settled down in my seat, and watched as Ryotaro stepped out onto the stage.Bookmark here

“Good evening, everyone! Tonight is the second championship match of the Umami Gakuen Summer Invitational, and this night is the Yogashi Division’s turn to shine!” he announced. “The three champions are ready to take their turn, and here to help me introduce them is Umami Gakuen’s Chairman Mimori. But first, a brief word. Last night, our first year champion of the Yoshoku Division, Vanilla Sakamoto, collapsed onstage at the beginning of her battle. She is not ill or injured, but is here tonight to cheer on her schoolmates.” There was a polite ripple of applause from the audience and felt my face turn bright red. “Now then, Chairman Mimori, if you could do the honors to introduce our contestants?”Bookmark here

“Our first contestant, from the third year, class A, Nadeshiko Enomoto!” Chairman Mimori announced.Bookmark here

Nadeshiko marched confidently across the stage. She was wearing sensible flat shoes that had cross straps and big bows decorated with cameos at the toes, and had her hair pulled back in a bonnet. Her chef’s jacket was awkwardly wrapped around the petticoat she was wearing under her school uniform’s skirt. I began to wonder if she ever had a problem with loose clothing in the kitchen.Bookmark here

“Next, our second contestant, from second year, class D, Misaki Katsura!”Bookmark here

Misaki, who had been promoted to champion when the lighting fixture fell on her opponent, Tsukiko Asahina, stepped out onto the stage, waving at everyone. She seemed pretty nervous.Bookmark here

“Finally, from first year, class C, Yomogi Kisaragi!”Bookmark here

Yomogi stepped out onto the stage. She looked overwhelmed, but then brightened up as she saw how many people were cheering for her. There were two people down at the front row holding up signs, and from the back I could tell that they may have been her parents. I jumped up and started waving my arms.Bookmark here

“YOU CAN DO IT, CHEESE LEMON!” I shouted.Bookmark here

Her expression changed and then she looked in my direction and waved, smiling. I was so happy she saw me! “Cheese Lemon?” Kei whispered to me as we sat back down.Bookmark here

“It’s what I called her when we first met,” I whispered back.Bookmark here

The golden box was wheeled out onto the stage. “We will now do the random draw for the advancement to the championship round,” Ryotaro said. “In this box are two white balls and one red ball. The competitor that draws the red ball will automatically advance to the championship battle!”Bookmark here

“Kisaragi-san, please step forward and draw,” Chairman Mimori said.Bookmark here

I watched as Yomogi determinedly crossed the stage and thrust her arm into the opening of the box. There was a moment’s hesitation until she yanked her arm out of the box, clutching a ball. Her eyebrows raised. It was red!Bookmark here

“Kisaragi-san has drawn the red ball!” Ryotaro announced as the audience erupted into cheers. Kei and I joined in on them as Yomogi was escorted off the stage to the waiting room. “This means that our semifinal battle will be between Enomoto-san and Katsura-san. Would the two of you please take your positions?”Bookmark here

The two girls went to the culinary stations, and the roulette wheel appeared on the video screen. It slowly spun until it stopped on a single wedge…Bookmark here

“Cabbage!” Ryotaro announced, and there was applause from everyone in the audience. We sat back as the countdown started. I hadn’t seen any of Misaki Katsura’s battles—well, except for the one that ended in the default victory that I didn’t want to remember—but I knew that Nadeshiko Enomoto was a force to be reckoned with.Bookmark here

“What do you think?” Kei asked, as I watched the two of them start to scurry around as the lock hit zero.Bookmark here

“I know Enomoto-sempai’s got more power and skills,” Kei said, “but…do you think she can win two in a row?”Bookmark here

“Yeah…This is a good thing for Yomogi-chan,” I said. “If Enomoto-sempai runs out of steam in this battle, then…”Bookmark here

“I wouldn’t get too confident. Nadeshiko-san has great endurance,” Michael said.Bookmark here

I watched as Nadeshiko grabbed an enormous head of cabbage and started violently tearing leaves from it, while Misaki was carefully shaving bits of cabbage off with the blade of her knife. “Wow, look at that,” I said, pointing to how quick and efficient Misaki was.Bookmark here

“Yeah. I heard something about how her family is in the kitchenware business, or something?” Kei said.Bookmark here

“She is,” Michael said. “But it’s a little corner store. Nothing huge or earth shattering.”Bookmark here

“What do you think she’s going to do with the shredded cabbage? Okonomiyaki?” I asked.Bookmark here

“I had that possibility in mind,” Kei said, “but it could be anything.”Bookmark here

As the battle continued, we realized that Misaki was going for okonomiyaki. She had added the finely shredded cabbage to a bowl filled with flour, eggs, crunchy bread crumbs and broth, and was mixing it up with a rubber spatula. Nadeshiko was going for what appeared to be stewed cabbage rolls, as she was mixing up a bowl of meat with white breadcrumbs, egg and various herbs and spices before rolling them into individual meatballs.Bookmark here

My mind wandered as I watched them—honestly, I was waiting for the battle and the judging to end so I could see Yomogi in action! I thought back to Kei’s suspicions. Who could be a good person for us to talk to? The chairman? Maybe, but I recalled how he just brushed off the incident with Frosted Tips Boy. Ryotaro? I didn’t know how much power he had as a host at the studio, but he was a possibility. My mother? There was literally nothing she could do, except be a sympathetic ear. Maybe…one of my father’s old friends? He knew a lot of higher ups in the government board that administered and oversaw the gourmet battle system. My mother was still friendly with a few of them, since they were also in the hotel and hospitality industry.Bookmark here

When the battle ended, Misaki and Nadeshiko presented their finished products to the panel of judges, which included a salaryman, an elementary school teacher and a convenience store clerk. Misaki’s okonomiyaki were presented first, and they were filled to bursting with cabbage, bits of red ginger and yellow corn, sliced pork belly, and homemade mayonnaise with a light touch of wasabi. Nadeshiko’s cabbage rolls came second, which were stuffed with seasoned ground beef and pork, then stewed in a tomato sauce flavored with red wine and rosemary. The judges were all enamored with her performance, and awarded her the unanimous victory.Bookmark here

“Wow,” I said, as Nadeshiko accepted her congratulations, laughing in that haughty manner of hers. “It’s like she never even broke a sweat.”Bookmark here

Kei nodded, nervously swallowing.Bookmark here

The lights went back up in the audience for the commercial break. “Kei-chan, Michael-san, do you want to come with me down to the front?” I asked.Bookmark here

“Yeah,” Kei said, getting up. Michael was looking down at his phone.Bookmark here

“I need to make a phone call,” he said. “Save my seat for me?”Bookmark here

“Okay,” I said, as I accepted his jacket and draped it over the back of the seat as he left the audience. We made our way down the stairs towards the front, where I saw Yanagi and her husband with a pair of older people.Bookmark here

“Those must be her mom and dad,” Kei said as we approached. Yanagi recognized the two of us, and pointed us out.Bookmark here

“Mom, Dad, those are the friends Yomogi-chan was telling you about,” she said.Bookmark here

“Nice to meet you,” I said, smiling. “I’m Vanilla Sakamoto.”
“And I’m Kei Mitsurugi,” Kei said.Bookmark here

“I’m Tsumugi Kisaragi,” said Yomogi’s mother. She was the spitting image of her daughter, and had a very warm smile. “Thank you for being so good to Yomogi-chan. And this is my husband, Kotetsu.” Kotetsu Kisaragi looked extremely strong and severe. He reminded me of a gym teacher or coach that was constantly shouting at his students to push themselves further.Bookmark here

“Nice to meet you,” I said, as Yomogi’s father nodded cordially to the both of us.Bookmark here

“Thank you,” he said. Bookmark here

“We had a long trip to get here, so he’s a little tired,” Tsumugi said. “And I was expecting Yomogi-chan to be the first one out, too! I can’t believe how lucky she is, after everything—” Kotetsu looked down to Tsumugi for a second, and she grew quiet. “Sorry, dear.”Bookmark here

“We promised Yomogi-chan,” he murmured.Bookmark here

“Oh, by the way, did Yomogi-chan mention our invitation?” Tsumugi asked.Bookmark here

“Yes,” I said. “I’d be more than happy to visit, but I need to work out my summer vacation schedule at work before I can figure out a good time to go,” I said.Bookmark here

“Same here,” Kei said. “We really appreciate the offer.”Bookmark here

The lights started blinking in the audience, which was a signal for everyone to get back to their seats. “Looks like Yomogi-chan’s turn is next,” I said. “I really hope she wins.”Bookmark here

“I do, too. Although from what I’ve heard, a first year winning the division championships is rare,” Tsumugi said. “The chairman was telling me that it’s the first time in six years this has happened. And a first year has never won the grand championship, either. Then again, I probably shouldn’t be getting my hopes up! I’m proud of my Yomogi-chan.”Bookmark here

We said our goodbyes and made our way back to our seats, as Kei turned to me. “Did you catch what her mom said?” she asked.Bookmark here

“Yeah, she was about to talk about something,” I said. “I wonder what happened to Yomogi before we met her.”Bookmark here

“Makes no difference,” Kei said, “but…I’ve seen the way she looks when someone brings up her past. It’s kind of scary. Like…she wants to flee, or something.”Bookmark here

Michael had returned from his phone call and was draping his arm across the empty seat next to him. “We met Yomogi-chan’s parents,” I said, as the two of us sat down.Bookmark here

“Yeah, I figured it was them. Her dad, though? He looks like he could bench press at least 200 kilos,” Michael said.Bookmark here

As we settled in, the lights dimmed once more, and the audience applauded as Ryotaro appeared onstage again. “This is it, ladies and gentlemen! Our next battle will be to crown the queen of the Yogashi Division! Once again, I present our two contestants: Yomogi Kisaragi and Nadeshiko Enomoto!”Bookmark here

There was applause as the two of them walked back out onstage. Yomogi looked like she was nervous, but the look in her eyes was burning with determination. Nadeshiko’s look was almost like she was saying, “Let’s just get this overwith.”Bookmark here

The roulette wheel appeared on the video screen and began to spin, then slowly came to stop on a single wedge…Bookmark here

“Pasta, ladies and gentlemen!” Ryotaro said. “The championship will be decided on which of these talented young gourmet battlers will make the best pasta dish for the selected judges. Are you ready for another thrilling championship battle?”
The audience cheered, with shouts for Yomogi and Nadeshiko ringing out for their supporters as the countdown clock ticked down. Finally…Beep!Bookmark here

Yomogi scurried to the refrigerator behind her and grabbed a carton of eggs, then dashed to a pantry for a bag of flour, a small container of white powder, and then another container—which contained a brown powder. It didn’t look like any flour I had ever seen. “Hey, Kei-chan, what do you think that is?” I asked, but Michael gasped in realization.Bookmark here

“That’s cocoa powder!” he said.Bookmark here

“Cocoa powder?” the two of us replied, but then we were distracted by Nadeshiko, who slammed a huge pasta machine onto the counter of her cooking station. She also had canned tomatoes, a small flat tin, and a few jars on there as well. There was a mound of flour on the counter, and she grabbed an egg in each hand and crushed them on top of the flour, letting the yolks and whites run through her hands and into a pocket on the flour below.Bookmark here

“Brutal,” I said.Bookmark here

Yomogi was also mixing together some pasta dough, but her dough was starting to turn into a deep brown. Lots of people around me were murmuring about what she was doing.Bookmark here

“Can you make sweet pasta?” Kei asked, and I nodded.Bookmark here

“Yeah, it’s definitely doable,” I said. “I’ve heard of noodle pudding and German pasta with apples in it, but those are kind of like sauces.”Bookmark here

The panelists were discussing various types of pasta and sauces, speculating on what was happening. “Enomoto-san appears to be doing a classic tomato based sauce,” said Ludovic St. Germaine through his translator, “while it looks like Kisaragi-san is taking her pasta in a direction that’s more in line with her studies.”Bookmark here

“What a novel idea!” said Cherry-tan. “Chocolate can be mixed with so many other flavors as well. Fruit, nuts, mint…”Bookmark here

“And chocolate can lend itself to savory flavors as well. Ever try a chili flavored chocolate bar?” Ryotaro said.Bookmark here

Nadeshiko was pouring oil from a bottle into a skillet, and she dropped a bit of garlic in there with a loud sizzle. Next, she picked up the small tin and pulled the lid open with a key, then picked out what appeared to be tiny fish fillets and laid them in the pan. “Can you tell what she’s cooking in there?” I asked Michael.Bookmark here

“I think they’re anchovy filets,” he said. “And if I’m not mistaken, those other ingredients…That’s a classic spaghetti alla puttanesca right there.”Bookmark here

I tried to stifle a bit of laughter. The name of the dish came from an Italian phrase that meant something along the lines of “just make any old garbage” but literally meant “like a whore.” Michael was also smiling a little. “I wonder if she knows what it really means,” I whispered to him and Kei, and indicating Nadeshiko down on the stage. We tried to giggle as silently as possible.Bookmark here

The brown cocoa flavored pasta dough was resting on the counter. Yomogi opened up a plastic container, and scooped some sort of white creamy substance into a bowl. This was followed by a lemon that she rubbed vigorously against a microplane grater, shaking it to let the precious golden bits of lemon peel fall into the bowl. Then she added what appeared to be some sugar and began mixing everything vigorously, until she scooped a glop of the mixture onto her rubber spatula and let it flow back into the bowl. She seemed satisfied, so she pushed the bowl aside and picked up one of the balls of dough, dipped her hand in flour and sprinkled it onto the counter before putting the dough down on top. Yomogi picked up a heavy looking marble rolling pin and started going to work on rolling the dough to a thin, flat sheet.Bookmark here

I glanced over at Nadeshiko. She, too, was rolling out pasta dough, but was also feeding it through a pasta machine to make thin, flat noodles. She stopped halfway through to dash over to a saucepan, which she was stirring vigorously. “Did you two see what she put in there?” I asked Michael and Kei.Bookmark here

“Canned tomatoes,” Kei said. “The really good ones.”Bookmark here

“She’s already got the anchovy filets in there, and I think there’s also capers and olives,” Michael said. “I’m worried about the quality of her sauce though…”Bookmark here

“Yeah. She keeps going back and forth between making the pasta and cooking that sauce,” I said. “I hope it’s not burning…”Bookmark here

Yomogi had finished rolling her dough out and was carefully using the rolling pin to drape it over what appeared to be some sort of metal mold. I peered at the stage to see that there were rounded square dimples in the mold at regular intervals. She turned to the bowl and started scooping the filling into a pastry bag, and was carefully squeezing a small dollop of the creamy filling into each cavity.Bookmark here

“Hey, it’s ravioli!” I said, smiling.Bookmark here

“Chocolate ravioli? What’s that she’s piping inside?” Kei said.Bookmark here

“I think it’s some sort of lemon flavored sweet cream,” I said.Bookmark here

At the other side of the stage, Nadeshiko was putting her freshly made pasta into a pot of boiling water, carefully stirring it to separate the strands. She turned to her pot of sauce and carefully tipped a bit of it into a small ramekin, which she sipped from. Nadeshiko smiled, and shot a look of smug satisfaction over at Yomogi.Bookmark here

Yomogi didn’t notice a thing. She was carefully laying another layer of thinly rolled pasta dough over the filled layer in the mold, and then carefully pressed everything down with her fingers before grabbing a cutting wheel and carefully cutting the ravioli apart. There was a pot of boiling water on her stove as well, and she carefully lifted the ravioli into a spider and gently lowered it into the water, watching it carefully as it cooked. Bookmark here

“These two are very efficient at time management,” Shinnosuke Hashimoto said. “All it comes down to is if they’ve decided to serve their creations with a sauce, or let the flavors shine as they are.”Bookmark here

“I haven’t seen any sauce on Kisaragi-san’s side,” Cherry-tan said. “But maybe plain is better?”Bookmark here

Time was beginning to count down as Nadeshiko ladled forkfuls of fresh pasta onto the three plates, then covered the pasta in a healthy dollop of a delicious looking red pasta sauce, flecked with bits of black olives. Yomogi poured a carton of cream into another bowl that looked like it had been taken right out of the refrigerator, and stuck an electric beater into it. She turned it on and started rotating the bowl as she whipped the cream, keeping a close eye on the boiling pasta. Finally, she stopped the beater, and started ladling the cooked ravioli onto plates, garnishing them with a dollop of the whipped cream and then a small sprig of mint. And not a minute too soon—the time was ticking down!Bookmark here

Three, two one…BEEP! Yomogi and Nadeshiko both stepped back from their kitchens and threw up their hands. Nadeshiko seemed to have broken into a sweat—even from where I was standing, I could see that her makeup was beginning to run. Yomogi, however, was as cool as a glass of melon soda on a hot day. She had a smile on her face as she stepped towards Nadeshiko and moved to shake hands.Bookmark here

“The judges are being chosen as we speak, and when we return, the queen of the Yogashi Division will be crowned,” Ryotaro said. “Will it be the energetic first year Yomogi Kisaragi, or the experienced and seasoned Nadeshiko Kinomoto? Stay tuned, one and all!”Bookmark here

The house lights went back up as the Applause sign flashed. I looked over at Kei and Michael. “Well…what do you think?” I asked.Bookmark here

“It’s…like comparing apples and oranges,” Michael said. “Honestly…I’m not even sure which way the judges will go.”Bookmark here

“Both of them have what it takes, but the choice is completely out of our hands, or even their hands,” Kei said, reaching out to indicate the panelists. “It’s hard to forget that the panelists aren’t even the ones that are going to be trying the food.”Bookmark here

“Yeah,” I said. “They got some pretty good ones this year.”Bookmark here

“I looked up Cherry-tan’s blog and it was pretty cute,” Kei said. “She’s a really big fan of the pro gourmet battle league and there’s lots of fan pictures with her and the team members along with stuff she’s tried to copy from their matches.”Bookmark here

“Yeah, that reminds me, this neighbor of mine says he’s a fan of Ludovic St. Germaine. I read something online about how he once got tied to this weird cult called Return to Glory?” I said.Bookmark here

Michael’s expression changed. He didn’t look happy when I mentioned their name. “Did…Did I say something wrong?” I asked, but Michael shook his head.Bookmark here

“No, nothing. Just an unsavory encounter I had with one of those cult members once a while ago,” he said. I started to ask him why, but he continued, “I’d rather not talk about it.”Bookmark here

The lights in the audience began to flash. “Hey, it looks like they’re bringing the judges in,” I said. We watched as they were led to their seats on the stage and people began to settle back down. As the last judge was seated, the house lights dimmed and the director signaled the return to filming.Bookmark here

“Our final panel of judges has been seated,” Ryotaro announced, “and they are Fujita-san, a graduate student; Koji-san, a factory worker, and Matsui-san, a housewife.” The audience applauded as he turned to Yomogi and Nadeshiko, and the coin flip appeared on the screen behind them.Bookmark here

“Enomoto-san, you’ve been chosen to present first,” Ryotaro said, and Nadeshiko approached the judges’ table, with the cart and her three dishes.Bookmark here

“Ahem,” she said. “I am Nadeshiko Enomoto, daughter and heiress to the Enomoto Group! You have before you a pasta puttanesca made with fresh pasta and a spicy tomato-based sauce! Eat it!”Bookmark here

There was a few seconds of silence before the judges started to dig in. Koji slurped one of the noodles up. “It’s very flavorful,” he said.Bookmark here

“Were these tomatoes prepared fresh?” Matsui asked.Bookmark here

“I have used the finest canned tomatoes for this sauce!” Nadeshiko replied. “Grown in the volcanic soils of Italy!”Bookmark here

“You managed to cook the pasta to the perfect texture, and the way the sauce clings to it…they work so well together,” said Fujita. “I don’t see anything wrong with any of this.”Bookmark here

“To be honest, it is a little saltier than I would like,” Matsui said, and then immediately regretted it as she received a piercing glare from Nadeshiko. The judging panel finished their meal in silence, and Nadeshiko walked off the stage to polite applause as she took her seat next to Yomogi.Bookmark here

Yomogi stood up and took a deep breath, and straightened up rigid as she grabbed the handle of her cart and pushed it to the judges’ table. “Good evening,” she said politely, and she paused to gather her thoughts.Bookmark here

“I’ve made for you today chocolate ravioli with a filling of slightly sweetened mascarpone cheese flavored with lemon rind, finished with freshly whipped cream and mint,” she said. “I’ve always been a fan of baking, and love the flavor of chocolate. Since pasta is made in almost the same process of making bread dough, I thought about the possibility of a chocolate flavored pasta, and managed to come up with a great ratio that is chocolatey and sweet! It’s lemon flavored because it will always remind me about how I met one of my best friends.”Bookmark here

I felt my face grow hot, and we watched as the three judges began to spear a ravioli onto their fork and taste it. “It’s not overly chewy,” said Matsui. “Oh! And the chocolate flavor! It mixes wonderfully with the soft filling inside.Bookmark here

“It reminds me of a cheese cake,” Fujita said. “Did you use cream cheese for this?”Bookmark here

Yomogi shook her head. “Sweetened mascarpone cream,” she said.Bookmark here

“Mmm. You used just the right amount of lemon, too,” Koji said. “Not too overpowering, but just enough to add a refreshing flavor. And it’s a different lemon, isn’t it? It doesn’t taste like what I’m used to.”Bookmark here

“I used a Meyer lemon,” Yomogi said. “It’s a little sweeter than a normal lemon.”Bookmark here

The judges seemed to have smiles on their faces as they ate, and Yomogi got more polite applause as she went to sit back down. I was at the edge of my seat—the moment of truth was here.Bookmark here

“Judges, if we may have your votes. This is for the championship of the Yogashi Division!” Ryotaro announced.Bookmark here

Silence fell across the room, and a drum roll started as Yomogi and Nadeshiko’s portraits appeared on the video screen. For a moment, no one moved or did anything, until…Bookmark here

Beep. The first vote was in—a vote for Nadeshiko. The drumroll increased in volume.Bookmark here

Beep. I gasped as the second vote was registered for Yomogi! This could go either way at this point! I balled my hands into fists and felt my heart racing. Kei and Michael looked intently at the screen. Come on, come on, come on! I thought, mentally urging the judges to decide faster.Bookmark here

Then…Beep!Bookmark here

The third vote…went to Yomogi!
Her hands swept to her face in surprised shock as cheers rang out from the audience. They were the loudest down where her parents and sister were sitting, but we started to drown them out.Bookmark here

“YOU DID IT!” I shouted as Michael whistled and Kei jumped for joy. Yomogi stood up, looking almost dazed, as Ryotaro gently guided her over to where Chairman Mimori was standing with the trophy for the division.Bookmark here

“Kisaragi-san, you have overcome great odds to accomplish what you have done today,” the chairman said as he handed Yomogi the trophy. “It is very rare that a first year student accomplishes what you have done today! Savor your victory!”Bookmark here

More applause and cheers from the audience as Ryotaro pointed the microphone towards Yomogi. “Oh…oh my God,” she gasped. “I can’t believe…I can’t believe I’ve come so far. Everyone in Nasu, if you’re watching, I’ve done it! I’ve risen up to the top!”Bookmark here

Behind Yomogi, Nadeshiko was sitting with a somewhat sullen smile on her face. She tapped Yomogi on the side and said something to her, which Yomogi acknowledged with a huge smile.Bookmark here

“Looks like the celebration’s about to begin,” I said as the house lights brightened and people began moving around. Sure enough, I saw Ryotaro escorting Yomogi down the steps of the stage to her waiting family, who enveloped her in hugs and bouquets.Bookmark here

“Come on!” I said, hailing Michael and Kei to follow me as we made our way down. Yomogi was wiping happy tears from her face as she saw us approaching.Bookmark here

“Yomogi-chan!” I said, opening my arms wide.Bookmark here

“I did it, Vanilla-chan! I did it!” she said, embracing me.Bookmark here

“You’re so amazing!” Kei said, enfolding the two of us in another hug.Bookmark here

“If you’re done, I want to shake Yomogi-chan’s hand,” Michael asked, but I shook my head.Bookmark here

“Girls need to celebrate first, you know! I’m not letting go of Yomogi-chan until I can absorb all her good luck!” I said.Bookmark here

“Jeez, that’s a little too creepy,” Yomogi said, pushing me away, laughingly. Michael clasped her hand in his and smiled.Bookmark here

“If you feel like you’re up to a match, hit me up next week. I would love to battle you,” he said.Bookmark here

“Yomogi-chan, if you’re done,” Tsumugi said, gently tapping her daughter on the shoulder. “We’re going to go to the Brazilian steak restaurant.”Bookmark here

“What? Really? I’ve always wanted to go there!” Yomogi said.Bookmark here

“It’s our congratulations to you,” Tsumugi said. “Let’s get going!”Bookmark here

“All right.” Yomogi turned to the three of us. “I’m so happy you were able to witness this. Thank you for being by my side all this time.”Bookmark here

We smiled. “Have a good time at dinner, Yomogi-chan,” I said.Bookmark here

She waved as she followed her parents, sister and brother-in-law up the stairs of the studio. “Well,” I said, turning to Kei and Michael, “maybe we can’t do Brazilian steak, but…do you two want to go with me for shaved ice or cake? My treat.”Bookmark here

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Meanwhile, in NasuBookmark here

The girl was lying on a park bench, drumming her fingers impatiently. She was fiddling with a USB drive shaped like a cookie in her other hand.Bookmark here

“Sorry I’m late,” said a man’s voice behind her.Bookmark here

The girl turned to see a man wearing a hooded sweatshirt. “Are you Star Platinum?” she asked.Bookmark here

“Yes. And you are Black Rose, correct?” the man in the hoodie replied.Bookmark here

The girl nodded and held out the USB drive. “Everything is on there. Even the photos,” she said.Bookmark here

The man accepted the USB drive and put it into his pocket. “She won tonight, you know,” he said.Bookmark here

The girl rolled her eyes. “Ugh. She thinks she’s better than us. Well, at least she’ll finally get hers for being a snitch,” she said.Bookmark here

The man reached into his other pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper. “The instructions to get your pay are here,” he said, putting it in her hand.Bookmark here

“Thanks,” she said. “By the way, when’s your bomb going to go off?”Bookmark here

“I figured, Monday morning,” said the man. “During homeroom. That way…everyone will know at once.” He smiled.Bookmark here

“I like that idea,” the girl said.Bookmark here

“May the world return to its true glory,” the man said.Bookmark here

“Huh? Oh…yeah. May the world return to its true glory,” said the girl. “Wait, where are you staying? The next train isn’t until tomorrow morning.”Bookmark here

“That doesn’t concern you.” The man turned around and walked off towards the main road leading into town. He followed the main road until he saw the sign for the Uguisu-no-Ie traditional inn, and followed the road leading to it.Bookmark here

Inside the main building, he could faintly hear the sound of a television broadcast, and as he approached the sliding door, the hotel maid opened it for him. “Shirogane-sama, you’re back! You missed something good,” she said. “Our boss’s daughter won the Umami Gakuen Yogashi Division championships, and she’s only 16!”Bookmark here

“That’s amazing,” Taiga Shirogane said, smiling. “Unfortunately, I am very tired. Has my room been turned down for the night? I need to catch the earliest train tomorrow morning.”Bookmark here

“Yes, you should be all set.” The maid smiled as Taiga tucked his shoes into a cubby and donned house slippers. “Good night, Shirogane-sama!”Bookmark here

He smiled as he slid open the door to his room. Thanks to his planning, and Shinji Tenmyouji’s technological expertise, in two days Yomogi Kisaragi’s life would change again—but this time, not for the better.Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.