Chapter 26:

Just Desserts

ALLEZ CUISINE! Gourmet Battle Girls

Taiga Shirogane was seated by himself at a table in the cafeteria. He smiled as he picked up his coffee cup and took a sip. In a few days’ time, he would be standing on the stage at Ginga TV, triumphant, holding the grand championship trophy in his arms, talking about his mother and how much her career meant to him and his family before everything was violently ripped away. He would have a perfect captive audience to blast the National Professional Gourmet Battle Association.Bookmark here

He had been more than happy to report to his father Takashi what happened between him, Hiro Tanaka, his friends and Vanilla. It was music to everyone’s ears, and phase 2 would be the icing on the cake.Bookmark here

The phone in his pocket buzzed, and Taiga pulled it out, smirking. But his expression changed when he realized what the message that he had received read:Bookmark here

From: Shinji Tenmyouji To: Me
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You broke your promise, so I’m breaking you.
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Bye bye!Bookmark here

[SYSTEM MESSAGE] You have been blocked from contacting this user.Bookmark here

“Wait…what?” Taiga sat bolt upright and the phone clattered to the table. Then, the PA system for the campus activated.Bookmark here

“Would Taiga Shirogane please report to the faculty office immediately. Taiga Shirogane, report to the faculty office immediately.”Bookmark here

All the color left Taiga’s face. “No…” he growled. He left the phone on the table and dashed from the cafeteria.Bookmark here

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“So we’re just going to call him to the office and arrest him? Like he’s getting a detention?” I muttered to Michael as we left the conference room.Bookmark here

“Well…yes and no.” Michael smirked. “I’ve got a few of my new friends from the NPA waiting around campus for him if he decides to try anything funny.”Bookmark here

“Like bolting?”Bookmark here

“Yeah. Am I going too fast for you?”Bookmark here

My legs were feeling like jelly and I suddenly stumbled, falling onto Michael. “Whoa! Come on, there’s a seat over there,” he said.Bookmark here

“I’m nervous,” I whispered.Bookmark here

“It’s all right. We’re almost to the—”Bookmark here

“NO! HOW DARE YOU DO THIS TO ME?!” yelled a familiar voice from outside. We both rushed to the windows.Bookmark here

A group of NPA agents were surrounding Taiga Shirogane. His face was extremely pale and his hands were shaking.Bookmark here

“We require your cooperation, Shirogane-san,” said a man holding up a police ID. “There are some serious matters that require you to be brought in for questioning.”Bookmark here

“It was that bastard, wasn’t it…” Shirogane’s voice turned dark. “He was the one that told you everything…Damn it…SHINJI TENMYOUJI! YOU SON OF A BITCH!”Bookmark here

Suddenly, one of the NPA agents took him down in a judo move, and Shirogane was lying prone on the ground as a pair of handcuffs were fastened to his wrists.Bookmark here

“MY FATHER WILL HEAR ABOUT THIS!” he yelled. “HE’LL HAVE ALL YOUR JOBS! I AM A SHIROGANE!” He was roughly shoved to his feet as two of the NPA agents half walked, half-dragged him to a waiting police van. He was loaded inside, and the van slowly drove off, leaving everyone in awe and shock.Bookmark here

I felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. “We…we won…” I said, slumping down in my seat. “But…”Bookmark here

“Yeah. Doesn’t feel like we did, does it?” Michael said.Bookmark here

Then, my phone buzzed and I looked down to see that my mother was calling me. “Mom? What’s wrong?” I said as I answered. She sounded like she was out of breath.Bookmark here

“Ryo was…Ryo was hurt! Someone attacked him at the studio!” she gasped.Bookmark here

“What?” I looked up at Michael, who had heard it too. His expression went grim and he stepped away, pulling out a phone of his own.Bookmark here

“They caught the bastard that did it…Vanilla-chan, it was the one that dropped the lights on that girl!”Bookmark here

“Who was it?”Bookmark here

“That French guy, Ludovic St. Germaine!”Bookmark here

Suddenly I remembered reading his article online and how he had a tenuous connection to Return to Glory. It all made sense.Bookmark here

“He’s being checked out at the hospital and I’m headed down there now…Vanilla-chan, is everything all right at school?”Bookmark here

“Yeah,” I said. I realized my other hand was shaking out of nervousness. “I’m really nervous…but I know everything’s going to be okay.”Bookmark here

“I’m going to Ryo’s apartment. Can you come meet me there after your classes are done?”Bookmark here

“Yeah…I can do that. Do you need anything?”Bookmark here

“No…I think I’ll be all right. Please take care, Vanilla-chan.”Bookmark here

I looked up to see Michael finishing up his phone call. “Was that your mother?” he asked.Bookmark here

“Yeah…were you calling about Ryotaro-san?” I asked.Bookmark here

“I did. He’s all right. Apparently this St. Germaine guy tried to pull a gun on him, and there was a scuffle. He’s not badly hurt, but he did a number on St. Germaine.”Bookmark here

Whoa, really? I thought, wondering how a gentleman like Ryotaro could have pulled that off. “Oh, thank god!” I said, feeling another heavy weight lift. My mother must’ve really been freaking out.Bookmark here

“Michael-san, can you…can you walk me to the train station? I’m going to go meet her.”Bookmark here

He looked hesitantly back at his phone. “I’m sorry. I don’t think I can. They’ve called me back to NPA headquarters for a conference.”Bookmark here

“Oh…” Was this the last time I was ever going to see him? I reached into my pocket and gripped the tie that he had given me.Bookmark here

“I’ll have an escort arranged for you, if you need it,” he said.Bookmark here

“Yeah…I think I’d like one. It’s still a little difficult for me to walk.”Bookmark here

Michael smiled and nodded. “I’ll do that. Vanilla-kun…” He seemed to be forcing himself to smile. “Be safe.”Bookmark here

“You too,” I said. I held out my outstretched hand, and he clasped it tightly as our eyes met.Bookmark here

“Remember…rematch,” I said.Bookmark here

“I won’t forget.”Bookmark here

Michael let go of my hand and went back into the conference room, and I turned away, wiping tears from my eyes.Bookmark here

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“Vanilla-chan.”Bookmark here

“Kei-chan, what are you doing here?” I asked.Bookmark here

“Michael-san told me to wait for you here. He said he wanted a capable bodyguard.” Kei was seated at the front steps of the administrative building, and it looked as if she had been there for a while. “You heard about what happened right?”Bookmark here

“Heard? I saw it!” I said. “It was right there under the window. They put handcuffs on him and dragged him away…”Bookmark here

Kei got up and matched her pace with me. I was still having a little trouble walking, but a lot of the nervousness had dissipated.Bookmark here

“Where are we going?” Kei asked.Bookmark here

“Ryotaro Koizumi’s apartment. Apparently, he got hurt.”Bookmark here

“What? Why?”Bookmark here

“He encountered the guy who dropped the lights on Tsukiko-sempai.”
“No way…”Bookmark here

I continued recounting the events of the afternoon to Kei as we rode the subway to Ikebukuro and then got off to make the walk down to Ryotaro’s apartment. She was as shocked as I had been when I told her that Michael had been a secret agent all along.Bookmark here

“You mean…all that time he was just pretending to be a high school student,” she said. “That…that was a pretty amazing feat.”Bookmark here

I nodded. “It completely fooled me, too.”Bookmark here

We arrived at the apartment building, rode up the elevator to their floor and knocked on the door. Paddington started barking furiously and I heard Caroline running towards the door. “I’ll get it!” she said. “Who’s there?”Bookmark here

“It’s Vanilla Sakamoto! I brought a friend,” I said.Bookmark here

She opened the door a crack and seemed to be relieved when she realized who it was. “Vanilla-san, Kei-san!” she said as she answered. “Are you okay?”Bookmark here

I nodded. “What about your father?” I asked.Bookmark here

“He’s okay. Shaken up a little, but…”Bookmark here

I heard my mother’s scolding voice from the living room as the two of us took off our shoes and entered the apartment. My mother looked extremely flustered, and was surrounded by bags from various convenience stores and pharmacies filled with instant foods and first aid supplies. Ryotaro was sitting on the couch, his arm in a sling, and his expression didn’t look as if he was in any pain.Bookmark here

“…worried sick after what happened to Vanilla-chan, and now you—” My mother stopped as she saw the two of us. “You’re here! Thank you,” she said.Bookmark here

“Koizumi-san! Are you okay?” I asked.Bookmark here

“Hairline fracture to my arm, but otherwise…” He smiled. “You seem to be a lot better than the other day.”Bookmark here

I nodded. “Yeah…they’ve finally captured everyone involved.”Bookmark here

“Honestly, Vanilla-san, if it hadn’t been for you, I don’t think I would’ve had the courage to face that bastard,” Ryotaro said.Bookmark here

“Wait…what do you mean?” I asked.Bookmark here

“Because it must’ve been tough for you to come all the way down to the studio to warn me about what was happening. That took a lot of bravery.”Bookmark here

“Uh…” I started blushing. Brave was not something that was usually used to describe me.Bookmark here

He recounted the attack, and told me that Michael had personally paid for a bodyguard service to shadow Caroline, which ended up coming in handy when his injury prompted a call to Caroline’s school. He arranged for the bodyguards to shuttle her home and keep her protected until he was released from the hospital. “I guess…you know the truth about Michael-san now,” Ryotaro said.Bookmark here

“Yeah,” I said. Unconsciously, I slipped my hand into my pocket and felt his tie. “Did you know?”Bookmark here

“I knew that there was an FBI agent undercover at Umami Gakuen, but I had thought it was someone on the faculty.” He chuckled. “Sayuri, can you put these away for me? I want to relax a bit.”Bookmark here

“Yes…I can do that. Do you want a cup of tea?” Sayuri said.Bookmark here

“That would be nice, but don’t overdo yourself. I can manage.”Bookmark here

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Things began to calm down. Caroline decided to get out her homework, while my mother did some cleaning around the house to settle her mind, and Ryotaro contented himself with listening to some music on headphones. Kei left a little while later, and I decided that now would be the best time to let Yomogi know what had happened in the past few days. I pulled out my phone and called her, hoping that everything was all right.Bookmark here

“Vanilla-chan, how are you?” Yomogi said as she answered.Bookmark here

“Listen…there’s a lot you need to know,” I said. “But first I need to know how you’re doing.”Bookmark here

“I’ve been discharged from the hospital,” she said, “and I’m heading back home with my parents tomorrow.”Bookmark here

“Going home?”Bookmark here

“I’ll be back for the fall semester. I’ve arranged to take my classes remotely, and I’m going to be visiting a psychologist there every week.”Bookmark here

“I’m so glad you’ve decided to stay,” I said.
“I…heard that something happened to you,” Yomogi said quietly. “Are you all right?”Bookmark here

“Yeah, but it’s a long story…”Bookmark here

We talked for what seemed like hours. I apologized for not letting her know what had happened in the first place, knowing that she had her own recovery to think about. She was understandably hurt, but told me that if anything ever happened to me like that again, that she’d be one of the first people to hear about it.Bookmark here

“So what’s going to happen now? The whole tournament was rigged.”Bookmark here

“I don’t know. I looked at the TV schedule and they’re showing reruns of old movies during the time slots when the tournament was supposed to take place,” I said.Bookmark here

“Then…they’re going to cancel the entire thing. That’s a shame.”Bookmark here

“Well, Ryotaro-san decided to quit after I told him about what Shirogane said to me.”Bookmark here

“I don’t blame him.”Bookmark here

“Vanilla-chan, I need to go. Thank you for telling me what happened. I’m glad you’re all right. I was really worried about you.”Bookmark here

I smiled a little. “I should be the one worried about you,” I said.Bookmark here

“It’ll be fine. Everyone showed me that I don’t have anything to worry about anymore,” Yomogi said. “Good night, Vanilla-chan.”Bookmark here

She hung up her phone and I went back into the living room, where my mother had finished cleaning and was attempting to feed Ryotaro like a mom feeding her baby. “Isn’t this a bit much?” I said.Bookmark here

“He can’t move his arm for three weeks!” my mother said.Bookmark here

“Sayuri.” Ryotaro’s voice sounded a little curt. “I will be fine.”Bookmark here

My mother sighed as she put the bowl of microwave gyudon back onto the coffee table. “If you insist…then I’ll escort Vanilla-chan home.”Bookmark here

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The next morning, I woke up to see a message on my phone from the school administration:Bookmark here

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There will be an assembly at 9 AM sharp in the main auditorium. Chairman Mimori will be making a public address to the entire student and faculty body as well as the media regarding the events of yesterday afternoon. All students are required to attend.Bookmark here

This was big. All of us and the media? He must’ve realized that Shirogane’s arrest was just the tip of the iceberg. I got dressed for school and made my way out of my apartment.Bookmark here

“Vanilla-chan! You got a few minutes?”Bookmark here

I heard Mako shouting from down the hall. “I need to talk to you.”Bookmark here

“Yeah, I’m coming,” I said. I ran down as fast as my still injured legs could take me towards Mako’s apartment. She had a somewhat frantic look on her face.Bookmark here

“Vanilla-chan, did Tenmyouji-san tell you anything about where he was going?” she asked.Bookmark here

“Moving out? No, we hardly ever talked…” I said.Bookmark here

“This is crazy,” Mako said. “He had me run something down to the police station, and when I got back…his place was totally deserted! There’s like absolutely nothing left up there! And I heard the police are looking for him too…”Bookmark here

“Wait, totally deserted?” I asked.Bookmark here

“I couldn’t have been gone for more than an hour. I asked around the neighborhood and someone said a moving van and like five or six people were taking all sorts of stuff out of the building.”Bookmark here

I needed to see this for myself, so I excused myself and ran up the stairs to where Tenmyouji’s apartment was situated. Sure enough, the door was unlocked and slightly ajar, and I opened it up to reveal…nothing. Pure white walls, a clean floor, tatami mats with no signs of wear or use. It was like he never existed.Bookmark here

“What’d I tell you?” Mako said as she came up behind me.Bookmark here

“…He left a message for me on that thing you gave to the police,” I said. “He…he was trying to protect me…but I don’t know why.”Bookmark here

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A few minutes before nine AM, every homeroom class was slowly trickling into the auditorium. Everyone was in somewhat of a subdued mood, wondering exactly why the headmaster had decided to address the entire student body. There were a few whispers of an arrest from people who had witnessed what had happened the previous afternoon, but hopefully Chairman Mimori would be giving everyone the whole truth.Bookmark here

As my homeroom class filed in to the seats towards the back of the room, I looked around the sea of people and spotted Kei’s face with her homeroom in the crowd. I nodded to her, and she met my gaze and nodded back. I looked out towards the front of the room to see a bunch of television and newspaper reporters standing out in the front and to the sides, with the official Umami Gakuen podium set at center stage. This was obviously going to be a serious occasion.Bookmark here

As I glanced down at my phone to check the time, Chairman Mimori stepped up to the podium and cleared his throat, as flashbulbs went off around him. “My students and fellow faculty,” the chairman said, his voice quavering. “I come to you today to reveal an awful, awful truth.”Bookmark here

There was murmuring around the room, and as it died down, Chairman Mimori spoke up again. “Over the past few years, with the help of the authorities both here and abroad, we have uncovered a scheme perpetrated by a group whose aim was a despicable revenge plot. Unfortunately, in the process of unraveling this scheme…it has not only revealed gaping flaws in the Gourmet Battle system, it has resulted in harm to some of our students.”Bookmark here

There was another series of murmurs, and I felt like I wanted to hide.Bookmark here

“This group manipulated the choosing of subjects for various Gourmet Battles, including ones that were used to decide the Summer Invitational, and have engaged in acts of sabotage against members of our student body which were competing in the Summer Invitational. As there is no way for us to tell 100% certainty what battles were affected…we have no choice but to nullify all results of the Summer Invitational. It has been officially cancelled, and there will be no winner this year.”Bookmark here

“No way,” I breathed. All the hard work we had put into everything—gone.Bookmark here

“Those of you that were chosen to participate, as consolation, you will be automatically entered into next year’s invitational. And for those of you in the third year, I have spoken with the NPGBA, and they will be taking your victories into account and adjusting your ranking accordingly.”Bookmark here

That’s hardly any consolation, I thought. But it’s better than nothing.Bookmark here

“These flaws that were uncovered have been brought to the attention of the NPGBA, and they have announced that they will be shutting down all gourmet battles nationwide for the next two weeks in order to make the necessary security upgrades to their systems.” There was more murmuring from everyone.Bookmark here

“And finally…it has been my pleasure to serve as headmaster here for the past fifteen years, and it was through my inaction that I allowed evil to flourish inside these walls. I take full responsibility for the injuries caused to the students that were involved in this scheme, and hope that this resignation serves as an apology.” There was more excited murmuring, and flashbulbs, as he made a deep bow at the podium, and walked away.Bookmark here

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For the rest of the day, the surprise resignation and the impact on the Gourmet Battle system was all anyone could talk about. Hardly anyone wanted to keep their mind on the assignment during our culinary arts session, and I found myself listening in to a lot of worried conversations.Bookmark here

“I really wanted to do a battle with you next week…”Bookmark here

“Well, that’s fine. We’ll just have to wait until the system comes back up.”Bookmark here

“If it ever comes back up…”Bookmark here

I sighed as I listened to my classmates worriedly bicker about what was going to happen to their precious rankings. “Look, things are going to be fine,” I said. “All we have to do is keep practicing.”Bookmark here

“Do you really think so, Sakamoto-san?” my classmate asked.Bookmark here

“Of course I do! Look, I’m as ticked off as you are about it, and I had practically everything I worked hard for this year swept out from under me…and that’s nothing compared to what Tsukiko-sempai and Yomogi-chan had to go through! I’m not going to let this set me back.”Bookmark here

My classmates looked back at each other, and I felt like a glimmer of recognition passed between them. “Yeah…when you put it that way…”Bookmark here

“Sorry. I’m just really flustered about this.”Bookmark here

“We all are, in one way or another,” I said, as I looked back at my pot of simmering tomato sauce.Bookmark here

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As I exited the culinary arts building, I saw Kei waiting at the school’s gates. “You’re here again?” I asked.Bookmark here

“Well…I’ve grown to like waiting for the end of school with you,” she said.Bookmark here

I nodded as I shifted my school bag onto my shoulder. “I’m feeling a lot stronger,” I said. “Pain’s not as bad as it was.”Bookmark here

Kei nodded. “Where are you headed?” she asked.Bookmark here

“Work. I’m dropping in to say hi,” I said. “And arrange my schedule for the next couple weeks.” I sighed. “It’s good that things are going back to normal.”Bookmark here

“Yomogi-chan should be back home by now, right?”Bookmark here

“Yeah…I’m glad she decided to stay here. It wouldn’t be the same without her…” I felt a twinge of longing in my heart. “Speaking of not being the same…”Bookmark here

I reached my hand into the pocket of my skirt, touching the tie that Michael had given me before we parted. I took it out and looked at it, and smiled.Bookmark here

I’ve wanted to change up my look for a while, I thought as I undid the clips holding my braids to the back of my head.Bookmark here

“What are you doing?” Kei asked.Bookmark here

“Changing things up,” I said, as I pulled off the ponytail holders and ran my fingers through my braids, coming them out. Finally, I grabbed both ends of the tie and tied it tightly around the ponytail. “How do I look?”Bookmark here

“It suits you,” Kei said.Bookmark here

I rubbed the silk of the tie between my fingers, feeling the stress and tension of the past few months finally slipping away like the memory of a bitter taste. We might have won, and a lot was given up in the process, but I knew that when we’d return to campus at the beginning of September, it would be a new beginning for everyone.Bookmark here

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Three days later, in a small hotel room somewhere in Southeast AsiaBookmark here

Shinji Tenmyouji slung his travel bag onto the ratty couch and pulled out his laptop computer.Bookmark here

“How was your flight?” said a voice from the other room.Bookmark here

“Uneventful,” Shinji said. “I need something to drink, though.”Bookmark here

“There’s plenty here. Although I could whip you up a cocktail, if you’d like.” Whoever was in the other room got up and walked over to a small kitchenette.Bookmark here

“Nah. I don’t really feel like anything alcoholic right now,” Shinji said, as he slumped over on the couch. “My stomach feels like crap.”Bookmark here

“That’s what travel does to you. Want some ginger beer?”Bookmark here

“Yeah…think that’ll help, but…I just feel so…guilty. I really liked where I was living,” Shinji said. “Leaving that place as abruptly like that and everything…”
“Well, that can’t be helped.” Ice clinked in glasses, and there was a hiss as a bottle of soda was opened. “At least now we know our plan worked. We’ll just have to regroup and try again. Change up our methods a bit.”Bookmark here

“What do you think we’ll do next?” Shinji asked.Bookmark here

“Well first, we’ll need to bide our time a bit. Wait until everything blows over, and then…Well, first we’ll have to see how our operations in Ashwargandha are going before we make any more big decisions.”Bookmark here

The man stepped from the kitchenette with two glasses of ginger beer with ice on a tray. It was then that Shinji realized how much he reminded him of Vanilla, and it made him feel even more guilty about leaving. At least that bastard Shirogane would get the punishment he deserved.Bookmark here

The man smiled as he handed one of the two glasses to Shinji. “A toast. May the world return to its true glory,” he said, raising his glass.Bookmark here

“May the world return to its true glory,” Shinji replied, raising his glass.Bookmark here

“And may one day my daughter realize her true destiny,” Yoshiaki Sakamoto said.Bookmark here

To be continued in Season 2: BON APPETIT! Gourmet Battle GirlsBookmark here

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