ALLEZ CUISINE! Gourmet Battle Girls
It took me a lot longer than normal to make it down to the Ginga TV studios. It was still very hard for me to walk, and I had to stop and rest a couple times. I was hedging my bets on Ryotaro being there today. If he wasn’t there, then I would try to contact Caroline and tell her I needed to talk to him about something related to my mother or something like that. I didn’t want to warn Caroline directly—better that she hear it from someone she trusted more, like her father.
I arrived at the studios and made my way through the front doors. Everything looked so different now compared to the nights when they taped the gourmet battles—no crowds of people hoping to become contestants, no friends or family streaming in to get the best seats. I swallowed my fear and walked up to the front desk stiffly.
“My name is Vanilla Sakamoto, and I need to see Ryotaro Koizumi as soon as possible,” I said to the receptionist. “Is he here today?”
“Do you have an appointment?” the receptionist asked.
“It’s…regarding the Umami Gakuen Summer Invitational,” I said. “I was one of the competitors and…there’s something important I need to tell him.”
“Koizumi-san is here, but…” The receptionist looked down at a multi-line phone bank. “I can have him paged.”
“I need to see him in person,” I said. “It’s…it’s very important.”
“All right,” the receptionist said, sounding bored as she pressed the button for his extension. “Koizumi-san? A girl from the tournament says she really needs to talk to you…Sakamoto…Yes.” She hung up the phone. “He will be down to see you shortly. You can sit right over there.”
I shuffled over to the couch in front of the doors leading inside the studio, watching them intently and mentally rehearsing what I was going to say. He’s got to believe me, I thought. I saw him coming from the end of the hallway. He approached the doors, looking somewhat perturbed, and noticed me as he opened it up. His expression changed to one of surprise.
“Vanilla-san, what are you…” he said as he approached me. That’s when he noticed my face, and his expression hardened.
“There’s no time. We need to go somewhere private,” I said.
“Follow me. There’s a recording studio that should be open,” he said.
I carefully got up from the couch and slowly limped my way towards the open doors. He held them open for me and matched my pace as we walked down the hall, in silence, towards a corridor that denoted a recording studio. The door was closed and there were no lights on inside.
Ryotaro opened the door. The light flickered on automatically, and I saw that we were inside a room with sound-dampening foam on all the walls, with no ambient echoes. It felt weird. On the other side of a glass panel was a control room, which was completely dark as well.
“Sit down,” he said, as he closed the door behind us and took the seat next to me. “What’s happened? Are you all right?” he asked.
“I…” Suddenly, every ounce of strength in my body left me, and my hands started shaking. “Ryotaro-san…” My voice trembled. “Please don’t…please don’t tell anyone…that I met with you or said anything…”
Ryotaro nodded. “I promise,” he said.
I tried to keep my composure. “It’s…concerning Caroline-chan.”
“What?” He was alarmed, and it was hard to look him in the eye.
“She…She’s…She could be in danger!” I blurted out, as the tears started spilling out of my eyes. “It’s all…It’s all because I needed to talk to someone about what’s happening at the tournament and…they beat me up and told me they’d hurt Caroline-chan if I…” I looked up and saw nothing but Ryotaro’s shocked expression. “I’m sorry…I never should’ve gone there…it’s all my fault. I’m so stupid.”
“Vanilla-san, look at me.” I looked up to see Ryotaro’s face with nothing but concern. He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and handed it to me.
“There is no need for you to apologize,” he said. “You were tricked, were you not?”
I nodded as I wiped my face.
“No matter what anyone tells you, you did not wish this on yourself,” he continued. “I know you’re scared, and I assure you I’ll do everything in my power to make sure Caroline-chan is safe.”
“Did you report what happened to the police?”
“I reported everything that happened to them,” I said, “except…” I grew silent and looked down at the handkerchief balled in my hands. “I couldn’t tell them…who did it.”
“Because they threatened Caroline-chan?”
“Have you been to a doctor?”
“I went last night,” I said.
“Have you told your mother yet?”
“Uh…” I suddenly blushed, wondering what my mother would likely say. “I…I don’t really want her to be involved…”
“I understand that, but she would want to know that you got hurt. Or do you want me to tell her myself?”
“No, no! I’ll do it…I’ll do it after we’re done talking,” I said.
Ryotaro nodded. “All right, all right. Was there anything else you wanted to talk about, Vanilla-chan?”
“Well…” I realized that maybe Ryotaro would’ve been the best choice to talk to about the tournament after all. “It’s…about what’s happening at the tournament.”
“I know.” Ryotaro nodded. “You’ve certainly been through a lot. I can assure you that we are taking matters very seriously.” He leaned back and seemed to hesitate a bit. “Unfortunately, the only thing I can tell you is that the police are most definitely involved.”
I wanted to tell him everything right that moment, but all I could do was say, “Someone wants to win this tournament at all costs.”
“Yes. And we’re going to do everything it takes to stop them,” Ryotaro said. He looked down at his wristwatch. “I’m sorry, Vanilla-san, but I have an appointment in a few minutes.”
“That’s…that’s fine.” I smiled at him; the first smile in what seemed like forever. “Thank you for listening to me.”
Ryotaro smiled back. “I will protect Caroline-chan at all costs. You have my word.” His expression changed. “You will call your mother and get some rest. You look exhausted.”
Ryotaro showed me out to the lobby, but not before he pulled out his phone and called a taxicab to take me all the way back to my apartment. “This should cover it,” he said, handing me a ¥5,000 bill.
“No way!” I protested, trying to shove the money back to him.
“I insist. If there’s any left over, treat yourself.”
He opened the door and ushered me outside. I turned back to see him as he nodded cordially, but I could see a spark of anger building in his expression as he turned his back.
It felt like a heavy weight had been lifted off my soul, but something was still weighing it down. As I walked towards the front doors, I noticed a uniformed driver stepping out of a black sedan parked in front of the building. “I’m looking for Vanilla Sakamoto,” he said, as he walked into the lobby.
“That’s me,” I said, as I got up.
“Let me help you in,” he said, as he held open the front doors and pressed a button on a keyfob to automatically open the backseat of the cab. “I believe we’re headed to the Saibara Building in Musashino?”
“Yes,” I said. “And…I’ve got payment in full here,” I said, holding up the money Ryotaro gave me.
“All right. Sit back and relax,” the driver said as he closed the door and got back in the driver’s seat. Now that I was seated in something soft and relaxing, I realized how exhausted I was. The trip to the studios had really done a number on me. I looked at my phone and realized that I had a few messages from Maria.
From: Maria To: Me
We are going to meet at the park at 5:30 PM!
Can you make it? I heard you got hurt, are you OK?
It was still fairly early in the day. Maybe if I took a nap, I could get some energy back and make it down there. I thought about composing a reply, until I remembered that I had promised Ryotaro that I’d call my mother. I took a deep breath, dialed her number, and waited until she picked up. It sounded like she was at home.
“Vanilla-chan, what’s happening?” my mother said as she answered. “I got a notification you skipped school today.”
I hesitated a second before I started talking. “Please…please don’t freak out or anything but…I was mugged last night.”
My mother gasped. “Are you all right? Do you need a doctor?”
“I went to see one last night. I’m fine now—”
“Where are you right now? Are you home?”
“No, I had to go out and talk to the police—”
“I’m coming to see you. Get home as soon as possible and stay there.”
Before I could say anything, the phone hung up. My mother had sounded frantic.
“We’re about twenty minutes from Musashino,” the driver said. “Do you need to stop anywhere else? A doctor? Pharmacy?”
I shook my head. “No, I’m all set,” I said, as I leaned my head against the window and drifted off.
Meanwhile, in the Ginga TV studios
Ryotaro Koizumi approached the secretary’s desk. “I need to see the President. Now,” he ordered.
Taken aback, the secretary stammered, “Koizumi-san, he’s meeting with the NPA represent—”
“I SAID, NOW!”
“Yes, sir.” The secretary picked up an intercom phone. “President Tachikawa…Koizumi-san is here to see you and…it’s urgent.” There was a pause, and she put down the phone. “Wait here.”
The door to the president’s conference room opened a crack to reveal one of the NPA inspectors assigned to the case. Koizumi vaguely recognized him.
“Koizumi-san, what brings you here?” the inspector said, but Koizumi walked past him into the conference room and shut the door. He glared at the company president and the two NPA agents standing next to him, looking at a computer screen.
“President Tachikawa…just how long do you expect me to keep up with this…farce?” Ryotaro shouted.
“Koizumi-san, what happened?” President Tachikawa of Ginga TV was a somewhat nervous older gentleman. He had personally hired Ryotaro a few days after seeing his acting onstage.
“I was just speaking to a contestant,” Ryotaro said. “They were eliminated due to suspicious activity. They were attacked by someone who lured her into a meeting, and their attackers threatened my daughter.”
“What?” said one of the NPA agents, a man about Ryotaro’s age named Imagawa.
“When I agreed to assist you with this investigation, I didn’t realize it would be putting my family at risk!” Ryotaro said.
“Koizumi-san…” The other NPA investigator, a woman named Nishikawa, approached him with her tablet computer. “I understand you’re upset. Can you tell us more about your conversation?”
Ryotaro sat down, feeling guilty that he’d have to break his promise to Sayuri’s daughter, but it was for her own good. “I spoke with Vanilla Sakamoto. It appears she was looking into suspicious circumstances surrounding the tournament. Whoever her attacker was knows that she’s friends with my daughter.”
“Did she say anything about her attackers?” Imagawa asked.
“Of course she didn’t. She’s afraid!” Ryotaro snapped back.
Nishikawa started scrolling through documents on her tablet computer. “I found her report. She walked into the police box outside of Tanpopo Park last night around 9:30 PM. She had multiple bruises from a bamboo sword and injuries to her face and right hand, and reported her phone stolen. She stated that the attackers were unknown to her…”
“Wait. What did you just say?”
The voice came from a phone that was being held by Imagawa. Ryotaro recognized it immediately.
“You’re…” His jaw dropped.
“I’ve been assigned to this case too. Undercover, of course.”
“Right…” Ryotaro was confused. “Is that who I think it is?” he asked Imagawa, who nodded.
“She doesn’t know anything about the real me,” the voice continued. “And it looks like I’m going to have to tell her the truth sooner rather than later. How’d she look when she came in?”
“She…looked determined. Like she always is.”
“That’s her, all right.” The voice at the other end chuckled. “And I think we have all the pieces we need to make our move.”
“But…what about the tournament finale?” President Tachikawa protested.
“There’s no way this can continue,” Ryotaro said. “And if you’re going to continue it, then continue it without me.”
He turned around and walked out of the room, anger still seething within him. But there was a ray of hope that made him smile. Never in a million years would he have thought one of the contestants was secretly an undercover law enforcement agent.
I got home and was about to ease myself into a warm bath when I heard a pounding at my door. I tied the sash of my bathrobe and pulled it open to reveal my mother. She was carrying two grocery bags and looked extremely panicked.
“Mom, what are you—” Before I could say another word, she reached out and hugged me gently.
“Are you all right, Vanilla-chan?” she asked.
“I am, but—”
She stepped back and looked down to see my legs covered in bruises, wincing. “No…you’re not all right. Stop pretending you are and putting on a brave face!” she said, her eyes tearing up.
I stepped back and let my mother in. She placed the two bags down on the floor and began to rifle through them—they were filled with my most favorite things. A bunch of bright yellow bananas; a package of my favorite chocolate candies with the jewelry prize inside; chocolate banana Bocky, cat-shaped microwave hotcakes.
One of the things in her bags was a package of therapeutic bath salts, which she handed to me. “You look like you need this,” she said.
“I was just about to have a bath,” I said.
“Go and take it. I’ll clean up for you in here.”
I dropped the bath salts and carefully climbed in the tub. She was right—they did feel soothing. I watched through a crack in the door as she went around my living space, picking up stray clothing and putting things back in their proper places.
“When you’re done…come and talk to me. I want to know what happened,” my mother said.
After my soak had finished and my mother spent five minutes inspecting all the bruises and wounds I had suffered, I spent the next hour telling my mother about everything that happened within the past few days to both me and Yomogi. I made her swear that nothing would leave this room, and told her that she was free to discuss what I talked about to Ryotaro, who already knew about much of what happened.
“So…that’s why you went to him first,” my mother said.
“You’re not mad about that, are you?” I asked.
“No, I’m not,” my mother said. “It was good of you to warn him. If I were in your position, I would have done the same.”
“I’m glad the police are involved,” she said, “although I wish they’d wrap things up soon.”
I had the briefest flash of Taiga Shirogane holding aloft the grand championship trophy, and it made me sick. “Yeah,” I said. He’d already scored one victory; I didn’t want him to win another.
I looked down at my phone as it buzzed. “Oh…” I noticed that it was getting very close to 4:30. “Mom, I…I need to be somewhere in an hour,” I said.
“Why? You’re not in any condition to—”
“I have to. It’s for Yomogi-chan,” I said.
“All right…but only if I come with you,” my mother said. “And then you’re coming straight back here.”
“Then that’s perfect. We need as many people as possible,” I said, smiling. “All of us are going to gather in the park outside of Musashino General Hospital, right under her window. We’re going to cheer for her, and hold up signs, and show her that we care about her.”
My mother smiled. “Count me in,” she said. “I hated to see the way they dragged her through the coals after that big victory.”
We got off the bus in front of Musashino General Hospital to find a bunch of Umami Gakuen students already outside. I noticed Kei right away; she was standing next to Maria and a girl I didn’t recognize who was wearing a uniform from a different school. They were surrounded by another bunch of students who were all carrying large pieces of neon colored poster board, folded up bedsheets, and the like.
My mother and I made our way through the crowd over to where Kei was standing. “Vanilla-chan! You made it! I thought after last night…” Kei said, but she trailed off.
“I couldn’t miss this for the world,” I said, a little breathless. “How many people do we have so far?”
“Why don’t you go and see?” Maria said, gesturing over her shoulder.
The park had a sea of people. Umami Gakuen students, people in street clothes, and students in uniforms from other schools were all standing around. All of them either had signs or sheets, and a few of them had those colored pen lights they give out at idol concerts.
“I had the idea to post something to the Ginga TV message board,” Maria said, “and I got enough of my friends to boost the comment and knock down any haters.” She patted the shoulder of the girl next to her in the different uniform, who glanced at Maria and smiled. “Mie-chan here recruited everyone from her school—they’ve got a pretty big culinary arts program there, too.”
“So, what’s the plan?” I asked.
“I’m going up to visit Yomogi-chan,” Kei said, “and when I get up there, I’ll tell her to look outside. I’ll send a signal to you and a couple other people so everyone can get into position and hold their signs up.”
“So it’s like an idol concert,” my mother said. “This is a wonderful idea.”
“Well, it’s not technically my idea,” Kei said, glancing over at me. I looked down and blushed.
A few minutes later, everyone got into position, and the plan was put into motion.
Kei appeared at the door of Yomogi’s hotel room as she was reading over a sheaf of paperwork in an envelope beside her. “Hi, Yomogi-chan,” Kei said.
“Kei-chan…” Yomogi smiled sadly as Kei entered and sat down next to her on the bed. “You…kind of caught me at a bad time.”
“I’m…reading over the transcript transfer requirements. There’s a vocational high school near my hometown. It’s affiliated with a university with a really good business program.”
Kei looked down at the paperwork silently. “Yomogi-chan…have you made your decision to leave here already?”
Yomogi grew silent. “No…but…there’s always the possibility,” she said.
“Here…come over to the window. There’s something I need to show you,” Kei said.
Yomogi shifted over in her bed and swung her legs towards the side, putting on a pair of slippers. Kei stood by the window as Yomogi approached, opening it just a crack.
“Wha…” Her eyes widened as she saw what was unfolding below.
“It’s HER! Let’s do this!” yelled Maria.
Everyone around me held up their signs and cheered. The messages were those of love and support: “We Love You Yomogi!”
“You Are Important!”
“You’re The Best!”
The cheers started from one end of the crowd and grew until the whole park was filled with cheering people. Noise levels be damned; this was the best way we could show Yomogi how much she was valued and cared.
“Hey, what’s that over there? Is that a Ginga TV truck?” I heard someone say.
“Wait, what’s Ginga TV doing here…” I looked up at my mother, who smiled.
“I messaged Ryo when we were on the train,” she said. “I’m sure this will get on the evening news for sure.”
Sure enough, the camera man came over to the crowd, and the news announcer started talking. “We’re live outside Musashino General Hospital, where a crowd of support has appeared for Yomogi Kisaragi, the Umami Gakuen student that was hospitalized a few days ago,” she said. “The amount of vitriolic comments on the Ginga TV message board and angry phone calls to Umami Gakuen spurred these students to action, and not just her classmates!”
I looked over at my mom and smiled. “Now the whole city’s going to see this,” I said.
In Yomogi’s hospital room, tears were streaming down Yomogi’s cheeks as she looked down at the crowd and started reading the signs. She clenched her hands together over her heart as Kei smiled at her.
“We don’t care what happened in the past,” she said. “You’re a wonderful person, and you deserve to be happy and live your best life. Vanilla-chan and Maria-san thought that this was the best way we can show you.”
Yomogi gazed down at the crowd. “Who are all these other people?” she asked.
“Well…people who are fans of yours from the tournament, for one,” Kei said. “And then Maria-san’s girlfriend got her school to come over, and then they started telling some other people…”
Yomogi turned away from the window and looked at all the paperwork strewn about her bed. She picked up one of the sheets and started looking at it, until she crumpled it up in her fist.
“You…you really want me to stay…” she murmured.
“It’s up to you, really,” Kei said. “But this is what everyone and I wanted to show you.”
Yomogi looked down at her feet, her face red. “Tell them…tell them I said thank you…and that…” She looked up into Kei’s eyes. “I need some time away from here. But I’ll be back. It’s a promise.” She smiled through her tears.
“Yeah…” Kei smiled back as she reached out and embraced Yomogi. “I’m so glad you’re here.”
“I’m sorry…” Yomogi sniffled.
“It’s all right. It’s in the past. The future’s right outside that window and it’s waiting for you,” Kei said.
After the gathering outside the hospital, my mother escorted me back to my apartment. It was still fairly early in the evening, and the sun was still shining, but I was completely exhausted.
“Are you going to school tomorrow?” she asked.
“Yeah…” I said, yawning. Right now, I wanted to just crawl into my futon and sleep.
“Promise me you won’t push yourself,” she said. “And call me if you need anything. Two hours by train is nothing.”
“All right. Thank you for coming,” I said. “I…I don’t think I could’ve done this without you.”
My mother hugged me before she left the apartment. “Take care, Vanilla-chan. I’m proud of you,” she said, before she quietly shut the door.
The next morning, I wasn’t in as much pain as I was the previous day, but my bruises and wounds were still pretty prominent. I decided to wear my long stockings again, despite the heat, and made my way to the train station a little earlier than I usually would. While I skipped breakfast, I did pick up a rice ball from the convenience store.
As I crossed through the front gates, I noticed that there were a lot more groups of students traveling together than usual. Maria had messaged me the previous evening, saying that there had been a general announcement made during homeroom about a mugging of a female first year student the previous night, which explained the extra safety and made me wonder if anyone in my homeroom class had put two and two together.
I started to make my way towards the academic building when suddenly, a voice called out from behind me.
“Vanilla-chan, wait up!”
I turned around and froze in my tracks, eyes wide and my heart pounding.
Taiga Shirogane was running towards me. I was suddenly frozen to the spot. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t speak. Everyone was moving around me, not noticing that I was virtually imprisoned. It was like I was isolated in a glass room—only me and him.
“I’m so glad to see you,” he said, as if nothing had happened the day before yesterday. “You really should be careful with your phone. You left it on the table when you left after our date, remember?” He pulled my phone out of his pocket and carefully placed it into my trembling hand, as he came closer to me. “We had so much fun the other night,” he whispered into my ear. “And I was wondering how your friend Caroline-chan was doing—”
“Sakamoto-san, there you are!” A friendly voice cut through the glass room, and I was able to move again as I saw Michael approaching. Taiga stepped back, a look of rage and annoyance on his face, as Michael grabbed onto the sleeve of my uniform. “Come on, we’ve got to hurry,” he said. I stumbled a bit as he started to pull me away from Shirogane. He led me into the academic building and behind the main shoe locker, where we stopped. He looked around.
“It’s all right. You’re safe,” he said in a low voice.
My legs collapsed like they were made out of jelly, and I felt like I was drowning. The room was swimming around me, and all I could think of was the laughter as blow after blow rained down on me…
“Goddamnit, what did he do to you…” Michael muttered as he crouched down beside me.
“H-h-how did you…” I gasped as I looked into his face. It was like he was an entirely different person. He reminded me of a detective from a movie, or a member of a Black Ops team from a movie.
“I was waiting at the gates for someone when I saw him approach you and…you just completely froze. I’ve…seen that look on people before and it’s not pretty,” Michael said. “I had to get you out of there.”
“You…You shouldn’t have done…” I could barely talk, and my hands were shaking uncontrollably.
Michael took another look around and bent down beside me. “Listen, Sakamoto-san…there’s something I need to tell you, and you alone, and I can’t do it here. Will you come with me to the chairman’s office after school?”
“Why…why can’t you tell me now?” I said. “Please…I’m afraid…I’m afraid he’s going to—”
Michael straightened up and smiled at me. “Don’t worry. The person you’re probably thinking about is completely safe right now.” He reached out his arm. “Let me help you. Can you make it to your classroom?”
I nodded, and Michael helped me stand up. My legs were shaking as he walked with me towards the corridor where my homeroom was, and he opened the door for me.
“After school,” he said, and waved.
“Ah, Sakamoto-san, good morning!” the homeroom teacher said. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’ll be fine.”
I shakily walked over to my desk and pulled a notebook out of my bag. My hands were shaking, and it was hard to grip a pencil with the way the back of my hand was wounded. It was then that I finally realized: Michael knew that I was trying to tell him about Caroline.
But how would he have known about the threat that Taiga had made?
Then I remembered the phone call that Caroline had witnessed him making. Maybe…maybe Michael wasn’t who he said he was…but was he working for our side?