Chapter 27:

Side Story 1: Obligatory Summer Vacation Episode

ALLEZ CUISINE! Gourmet Battle Girls

Author’s Note: Hello, everyone! This first side story of two takes place in August, a month or so after the events of Chapter 26 of AC! GBG. With these two stories, the first “season” comes to a close, and I will most likely begin posting the second season at the beginning of 2019. The title of the second season will be BON APPETIT! Gourmet Battle Girls. Until then, happy eating!Bookmark here

Mid August, Ikebukuro StationBookmark here

“Call us when you get there, all right?” my mother asked as I pulled my overnight bag towards the turnstiles.
“I will,” I said.Bookmark here

“I think I see Mitsurugi-san coming,” Ryotaro said, looking off into the distance. Sure enough, Kei Mitsurugi, wearing a pink straw boater hat with a black ribbon along with jeans and a flowered T-shirt, was running towards us, pulling a flower print rolling suitcase behind her. She’s extremely tall, which makes her easy to pick out in a crowd.Bookmark here

“Kei-chan!” I yelled, waving my hand. She noticed us and waved back, picking up the pace and approaching the three of us.Bookmark here

“Hey, Vanilla-chan!” she said, waving. “And hello, Sakamoto-san, Koizumi-san. How have you been?”Bookmark here

“Quite well, thank you,” Ryotaro said, smiling.Bookmark here

“Have a great time, the two of you,” my mother said. “And please give Yomogi-chan my regards. I hope she’s doing better.”Bookmark here

I nodded. “See you Monday,” I said, smiling and waving at my mother and Ryotaro as they walked back towards the station entrance, leaving the two of us fumbling for our travel cards.Bookmark here

“Phew, I thought I’d never make it,” Kei said. “Every minute my mother was asking me if I had forgotten this or that. Your mother seems so laid back.”Bookmark here

“Well, it could be because she’s in love,” I said, shrugging. I pressed my travel card against the reader, and the doors opened. I hefted my overnight bag onto my shoulder and passed through.Bookmark here

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It was the beginning of August, and Kei and I were headed up to Nasu in Tochigi Prefecture, which was the hometown of our friend Yomogi Kisaragi. She had invited both of us there for a long weekend well before everything happened surrounding the Summer Invitational, and neither of us had seen her in person since the day she went home with her parents, a few weeks before the end of the term. It’d take us a few hours to get from Ikebukuro Station all the way to the station right outside of Nasu proper, and from there Yomogi’s dad would come and pick us up. Kei and I boarded the train, entering the double decker car that would give us a view of the countryside as well as a little bit of space for us to stretch our legs.Bookmark here

“So, how’s your summer break been so far?” I asked.Bookmark here

“Busy, mostly,” Kei said. “My family’s having me help them out with teaching classes, and we’re also doing some work around the house. I’m teaching a bunch of the little kids. It’s hard to keep them in line.”Bookmark here

“I’ve been working at Kotobuki a few days per week,” I said. “Then I went home a few days for Obon, and when we came back my mother and I did a few things with Ryotaro-san and Caroline-chan. My mother took Caroline-chan out for the day and Ryotaro-san took me out for the day, and…”Bookmark here

“Let me guess, they talked to you about the big ‘M’ word?” Kei asked.Bookmark here

“Well…yeah. They’re planning it,” I said. “But anyway, my mom and Caroline-chan went to see a Takarazuka play and they loved it, and Ryotaro-san and I went to a cat café…but he’s allergic to cats, so I found a hairless cat café!”Bookmark here

“I’m not surprised. How was it?” Kei asked.Bookmark here

I smiled as I pulled out my phone and showed her a picture of one of the hairless cats, which had calico markings, rubbing her head against the face of a very surprised Ryotaro, whose glasses had shifted upwards. “Well, once all the cats started leaving us alone, we had fun,” I said. “We also cleared the air between us. He told me about everything that happened on his end. I think he was worried about me feeling like he was hiding what really happened from me.”
Kei nodded. “At least it’s all out in the open now,” she said.Bookmark here

“Yeah…” The train started to pick up speed, and I leaned against the windowsill.Bookmark here

“Oh, by the way! Did I tell you about the birthday present I got for Yomogi-chan?” Kei asked. “I found a Monster Slayer posable action figure for really cheap at a video game store near my house. I know she really likes that series and the guy behind the counter said that I got a pretty popular character.”Bookmark here

“Huh, really? Well…I kind of got her something a little more useful,” I said. “A silicone cake pan! And it’s shaped like a castle! She could make a themed cake with it.”Bookmark here

Kei leaned back into her seat. “I hope she’s doing better. Talking over the phone and texting is fine, but…”Bookmark here

“Yeah. I’m glad she decided to come back,” I said. “Having a break and getting away from things for a little while can really help. We had to do that when we lost my father.”Bookmark here

“At least we won’t have anything more to fear,” Kei said.Bookmark here

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For the rest of the train ride, we mostly sat and watched the scenery changing outside the window. Kei played a gacha game on her phone, while I read a couple of new magazines I had purchased at the train station: the latest cat photo magazine and a few cooking magazines. Every so often I’d lean over and show something to Kei.Bookmark here

Our first stop was Utsunomiya, where we’d be changing trains. We decided to take a break and grab some of their famous gyoza dumplings for a lunch before we got on the next train.Bookmark here

The second leg of the train ride would take us to Kuroiso, the next town over to Nasu. I listened to music as I gazed out the window, while Kei was still trapped in her gacha game. I must’ve fallen asleep, as she poked me awake when we pulled into the station.Bookmark here

“We’re here! Come on, I think they’re waiting for us,” Kei said.Bookmark here

As we exited the station onto a shop lined street, I looked around for any familiar faces, and then saw Kotetsu Kisaragi, Yomogi’s father, standing next to a rugged looking family car.Bookmark here

“Look! It’s Yomogi-chan’s dad,” I said, as I waved and approached him. He nodded cordially as he opened the trunk and gestured for us to load our bags inside.Bookmark here

“Thank you for having us, Kisaragi-san,” I said as I opened the back door of the car and sat down inside. Kei opened up the other door and joined me.Bookmark here

“The pleasure is all ours,” Kotetsu said as he started up the car. “How was the trip up here?”Bookmark here

“Fairly uneventful,” I said.Bookmark here

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The drive from the Kuroiso station to Nasu was anything but uneventful, as we found out that Kotetsu Kisaragi was a very fast and aggressive driver.Bookmark here

Eventually, we turned down towards a quiet side street at a much higher rate of speed than what I considered to be comfortable, and pulled into a small parking area in front of a large traditional building. The words Uguisu no ie, House of the Bush Warbler, were painted on a wooden plaque outside, and as we passed through some gates I could hear the sound of a couple of happy people walking across the wooden veranda, wearing traditional wooden sandals and yukatas.Bookmark here

We finally stopped and Kotetsu popped the trunk for our baggage. I thought about kissing the ground, but decided against it, and we carried our bags towards the front of the house.Bookmark here

“Vanilla-chan! Kei-chan!” shouted a happy voice from nearby. We turned our head to see Yomogi standing at the entrance, waving. She was smiling broadly, and the only thing that signaled that she was hiding something was the fact that she was wearing an open and unbuttoned dress shirt over a tank top with a pair of shorts.Bookmark here

“Yomogi-chan! It’s been so long!” I said, running up to her. I gave her a hug, and she returned it with surprising strength.Bookmark here

“I’ve missed you so much,” she said. She reached out and pulled Kei close to her, who giggled as she joined the group hug.Bookmark here

“Welcome, girls!” I noticed Tsumugi Kisaragi, who was Yomogi’s mother, standing behind her. “Let me take your things up to your room.”Bookmark here

“How was the trip up?” Yomogi asked.Bookmark here

“Well, it was okay, until…” I glanced back at her father.Bookmark here

“Yeah, his driving skills are a bit…” Yomogi gave a sheepish grin. “Anyway, I’ll show you around!”Bookmark here

The inn was a beautiful traditional Japanese building, built in a square around a central courtyard that featured a small garden with a weeping willow tree and small koi pond. There were only a handful of guest rooms, and in the back was the communal bath, split into mens’ and womens’ halves with a floor-to-ceiling view of the mountains.Bookmark here

“Wow, this place is beautiful,” Kei said, as we walked down a short corridor that connected the inn to the Kisaragi family home.Bookmark here

“My parents say it’s the best decision they ever made in their lives…well, apart from having me and my sister,” Yomogi said. “Come on, let me show you my room!”Bookmark here

We entered the family home. It was also a fairly traditionally crafted Japanese house, but here and there were a lot of modern touches. “My room’s kind of a mess,” Yomogi said, blushing, as she opened the door.Bookmark here

There was a Western style bed sitting in one corner underneath one of those gauzy ceiling mounted bed canopies that had a pattern of flowers and leaves woven into the lace. Across from it was a small dressing table and bench, with various skin care and makeup products scattered across it. Yomogi’s laptop computer was closed and hooked up to an external monitor and speakers that were showing flashing light patterns in rainbow colors, and alongside were a few handheld gaming consoles. The walls behind her computer desk were covered with pictures of video game characters, with one prominent wallscroll featuring a handsome looking elven man with long black hair in armor that looked like dragon scales and holding a katana. Yomogi saw us looking at it and blushed.Bookmark here

“It’s not like…I have a crush on him or anything, I just think Julius is really awesome,” she murmured.Bookmark here

“Nothing wrong with that,” I said.Bookmark here

“Oh, by the way…” Yomogi smiled. “I have some good news for you!”Bookmark here

“Yeah? What is it?”Bookmark here

“By this time next year…” Yomogi blushed again. “I’m gonna be an auntie.”Bookmark here

“Oh, wow!” I said. “That’s great! How far along is your sister?”Bookmark here

“Five months so far. She told us last week.”Bookmark here

“Wow, that’s great!” Kei said. “Um…I know your birthday is this month, so…” She rummaged in her bag and pulled out a small wrapped box. “Happy birthday, Yomogi-chan!”Bookmark here

“Yeah, we’ve got to do something to celebrate! Maybe even have cake!” I said, as I handed Yomogi my present.Bookmark here

“Wow, you didn’t have to…” Yomogi sat down on her bed and started ripping the paper off Kei’s present. “Oh my gosh! It’s Julius’s Crimson Raider variant! How did you know?!” She smiled broadly as she turned the box around.Bookmark here

“The guy at the game store helped me,” Kei said, but Yomogi was already attacking the wrapping of my present.Bookmark here

“Oh, wow! I’ve always wanted one of these!” Yomogi said as she pulled out the cake pan. There was a picture on the outside of the box of a pound cake baked in the pan, covered with a thin dusting of powdered sugar. “I can’t wait to bake something with this…I have so many recipes!”Bookmark here

As we continued talking and as Yomogi continued to show us her collection of English cookbooks, her mother Tsumugi knocked on the door. “Vanilla-chan, Kei-chan, your room is all ready,” she said. “We’ll be starting dinner at around five thirty, and the baths are open.”Bookmark here

“All right,” I said. “Kei-chan, how about that bath? Even though I’ve mostly been sitting all day, I still feel pretty tired.”Bookmark here

Yomogi and Tsumugi guided us to the guest wing, pulling open the wood and paper doors to a small Japanese style room with two folded up futons in one corner and a low table in the middle. The window looked out to the central garden, and I noticed from that angle a koi pond with a deer scare set up.Bookmark here

“Let us unpack and we’ll meet you at the bath,” I said as I started unzipping my suitcase.Bookmark here

“Sounds good,” Yomogi said.Bookmark here

A few minutes later, Kei and I were walking down the halls, with wooden geta on our feet and wearing borrowed yukata. Our toiletries were in waterproof bags, and we had both tied our hair up and back with a bunch of bobby pins, scrunchies and terry cloth headbands. We opened the door to the changing room to see Yomogi already there.Bookmark here

“Hello,” she said, and it was hard not to notice the scars on her arms. They were still very red and prominent. “How’s the room?”Bookmark here

“It’s very lovely. Everything’s lovely,” I said. “So what do you want to do this week?”Bookmark here

“Well, I was hoping we could talk about it,” Yomogi said, “and what better time than now?”Bookmark here

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This place was spectacular.Bookmark here

I leaned back against the tiled wall as the hot water swirled and settled around me. I looked out into a forest of green—pine trees, bamboo, maple and chestnut leaves. The only sounds I could hear was the breeze, birdsong, and happy sighs from Yomogi and Kei. Sure, it smelled weird, but I felt good.Bookmark here

“I had no idea your family’s place was this…this awesome,” I said, as I felt all the tension melt away. “It’s so cozy.”Bookmark here

Yomogi smiled, squinting at me (her glasses were in the changing room, as they’d get too steamed up in here.) “What were you two thinking about doing while you’re here?” she asked.Bookmark here

“Well…I wanted to go out to dinner with the two of you, if there’s a place in town you like,” I said. “And then…I think you mentioned there’s a museum near here?”Bookmark here

“A museum? There’s a ton! The music box museum, the stained glass museum, the Meiji-era mansion…” Yomogi ticked them off on her fingers. “Oh! And a toy museum and a teddy bear museum!”Bookmark here

“I’d love to see the teddy bear museum,” Kei said.Bookmark here

“Oh, and the mansion has an ice cream parlor on site,” Yomogi said. “They make their own fresh strawberry ice cream. It’s delicious.”Bookmark here

“What’s the weather going to be like this week, anyway?” I asked.Bookmark here

“Hmm…I’ll have to check. If it rains, there’s always studying,” Yomogi said.Bookmark here

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We returned to our room to see that the hotel maids had delivered our evening meals to not only me and Kei, but also Yomogi. “My mother must’ve told them I wanted to eat with you,” she said, as we knelt down at the low table and admired the food and place settings.Bookmark here

We each had a bowl of snow-white steamed rice, a bowl of clear soup with various leaves and herbs nestled in the bottom, a dish of what appeared to be sliced cucumbers pickled with red pepper, and a grilled fish filet simply seasoned with salt.Bookmark here

Itadakimasu!” we chorused as we each picked up our chopsticks and started eating.Bookmark here

The food…was amazing. Even the rice had tons of flavor—it must’ve been grown locally. The fish was perfectly flaky and perfectly salted, and the soup had a refreshing flavor thanks to what I believed was a bit of citrus zest. The pickled cucumbers were refreshing, tangy and spicy.Bookmark here

“You know…I came up with the idea for the cucumbers,” Yomogi said. “We had a bumper crop of hot peppers last year, and we picked and dried them all. I figured they would help make some great pickles.”Bookmark here

“It’s a great idea! I love how refreshing they are,” I said. “And then the heat hits you! Pow!” I punched my fist in the air for emphasis.Bookmark here

As we finished our main meal, one of the maids came back in the room to take our dishes. “Evening, ladies,” she said as she bent down to stack our dishes expertly on the tray she was holding.Bookmark here

“This is Mirai-san,” Yomogi said. “She’s been working with us since I was a little girl.”Bookmark here

“Nice to meet you! I’ve heard a lot about you from Yomogi-san,” Mirai-san said. “You’re classmates of hers, right?”Bookmark here

“Not exactly. We’re in the same year, but different classes and divisions,” Kei said.Bookmark here

“You were one of the competitors in the tournament, weren’t you?” Mirai-san asked as she noticed me. “I’m sorry you had to drop out.”Bookmark here

“It’s all right,” I said. “There was lots of stuff going on behind the scenes.”Bookmark here

Another maid came in carrying a tray laden with a porcelain teapot, three teacups and three small plates, each of which were laden with a chunk of yokan (jellied red bean paste.) She put the plates and cups down in front of us as Mirai-san took our dinner dishes out.Bookmark here

“This looks amazing, too!” Kei said as she admired the yokan. It shimmered on our plates like a precious ruby, and she carefully sliced through it with the side of a little fork that was on her plate.Bookmark here

“You probably want to know the recipe, don’t you?” Yomogi asked. “Well, it’s a well guarded secret.”Bookmark here

“That won’t stop me,” Kei said as she tasted it. I saw her expression change to one of delight, and I decided to take a taste as well.Bookmark here

“Wow, this is so refreshing!” I said as the yokan melted across my tongue. It had a perfect mellow sweetness and was the perfect temperature for a hot summer day.Bookmark here

“Yomogi-chan…do you think the staff will let us see the kitchen?” I asked.
“Probably, once dinner’s served to everyone,” she said.Bookmark here

After we finished our dessert dishes and tea, we took a walk around the inn until we found the kitchen. It was in a connected outbuilding and was a combination of old fashioned and cutting edge—there was a modern gas range along with a charcoal burner, along with casks for pickled vegetables, barrels of sake lining the walls, and a door leading to a walk-in cooler. Yomogi guided us through, introducing us to the kitchen staff, many of whom had nothing but kind words for us, until we found ourselves in a small garden plot in the back.Bookmark here

“Here’s where we grow a lot of the vegetables and greens we use,” Yomogi said. “It’s mostly my father that takes care of it. We buy a lot of ingredients in town, too.”Bookmark here

“Like that rice they served us,” I said. “I really want to buy some for myself. It’s so good!”Bookmark here

“It’s even better when you cook it in an earthenware pot,” Yomogi said.Bookmark here

We finished our tour as the sky was beginning to glow with the setting sun, and followed Yomogi back to her bedroom to join her in the world of Monster Slayer for a few hours. We formed a party with another online player, which Yomogi mentioned was one of her classmates, and managed to successfully slay an emeraldscale dragon that we had tracked to its lair. (Not only did we manage to harvest the dragon for its scales, we managed to raid its treasure cache as well! Yomogi was elated.)Bookmark here

“Oh man, it’s late,” I said, looking over at her digital clock and noticing it was 11:15. “Kei-chan, I feel like turning in. What about you?”Bookmark here

Kei stifled a yawn with her hand. “Yeah…” she gasped.Bookmark here

“Well then…thanks very much for a successful hunt! Julius-sama would be very proud of you,” Yomogi said.Bookmark here

We parted ways and made our way as quietly as possible back to our hotel room. Our futons felt nice and cool as the two of us crawled in.Bookmark here

“Kei-chan…I wish we could stay here forever like this,” I said.Bookmark here

“Yeah…” Kei gasped as she yawned again. “Good night, Vanilla-chan.”Bookmark here

“Good night, Kei-chan…”Bookmark here

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The next morning, we woke up refreshed and relaxed. Mirai-san came into our room to deliver our breakfast—miso soup with seaweed and tofu, rice, a soft-boiled egg, pickled vegetables. As we finished eating, Yomogi came to our door.Bookmark here

“Whenever you’re ready, we’ll go into town,” she said. We had decided to visit the toy and teddy bear museums that day, and Yomogi was going to be our guide.Bookmark here

After Kei and I had gotten cleaned up and dressed, we took off on a walk down to the nearest bus stop—which was pretty far away. It was probably double the distance between me and the train station.Bookmark here

“Is it hard to walk in winter?” I asked.Bookmark here

“It is,” Yomogi said. “Sometimes the snow doesn’t get cleared out in time. I’ve had to have my father drive me there and drop me off. It’s good that his car has good snow traction.”Bookmark here

The bus took us to the center of the city. There were lots of high rise buildings, sure, but not as dense as parts of Tokyo, and there was also a lot more greenery. There was also one huge difference—the air felt cleaner and fresher. I found myself taking deep breaths, enjoying the freshness of it all.Bookmark here

Yomogi was pointing out buildings and places of interest to us as we started walking towards the teddy bear museum. We passed by a bakery that had bear-shaped bread in the windows, and I made a mental note that we should stop by there for a quick afternoon snack.Bookmark here

Suddenly, I noticed Yomogi standing stock still, and looked over to see the expression on her face harden into one of disgust. She was looking at a girl that was approaching her.Bookmark here

“Who’s that?” Kei whispered.Bookmark here

Yomogi didn’t say anything, but I surmised that the girl that was approaching us was one of the classmates that had bullied her in junior high school. She started taking off the long-sleeved dress shirt she had been wearing, and then held her arms up, displaying her scars.Bookmark here

The girl that approached us noticed Yomogi, and her eyebrows raised. “Kisaragi-san?” she murmured.Bookmark here

Yomogi didn’t say anything, but walked past the girl, her head held high. We decided to follow her, and passed by the girl, who looked at Yomogi with a shocked expression.Bookmark here

When we were a safe distance away, I whispered, “Was that one of the girls that bullied you?”Bookmark here

“Yes,” Yomogi said. “She was with me that night and tried to keep me from going to the police.” She started putting her dress shirt back on.Bookmark here

“Are you going to be all right?” I asked.Bookmark here

Yomogi nodded. “It’s okay. I wanted her to see me like this. Like I wanted to say, ‘Look what you did to me, but I’m still here.’”Bookmark here

We nodded as we reached the entrance to the museum.Bookmark here

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Our time at the two museums consisted of a self-guided tour, with lots of displays of teddy bears in different costumes and made with different materials. The toy museum was also pretty interesting, with wings devoted to dolls, building toys and traditionally crafted toys. We decided to get a snack at the café we passed by earlier—the one where Yomogi confronted her former schoolmate in front of—after leaving the toy museum, and as we opened the door, we noticed the same girl working behind the counter.Bookmark here

“Welcome,” she said in a quiet voice, as we stood in front of the refrigerated display case and looked over the breads and pastries available. She was glancing at Yomogi nervously as the three of us made our selections (iced lattes and teddy bear red bean buns,) and watched us as we sat down at a small round table and began to talk about our plans for the rest of the day.Bookmark here

“I know you two don’t even want to think about it, but I was hoping that we could get some of our summer assignments done this afternoon,” Kei said. I sighed, rolling my eyes.Bookmark here

“I think the forecast calls for rain tomorrow,” I said, checking my phone. “Might as well do it all then.”Bookmark here

“Hmm, that does sound like a good idea…” Yomogi started to say, but the girl behind the counter approached us and stood in front of Yomogi. “What do you want?” she asked.Bookmark here

“Kisaragi-san, I…” The girl hesitated. “I wanted to apologize to you for everything. I know it won’t take the way I treated you back—”Bookmark here

“You’re right. It won’t take what happened back,” Yomogi replied curtly. “And if you’re looking for sympathy from me—”Bookmark here

“I’m not,” the girl said. She was getting emotional, and there was a quavering in her voice. “And…And I understand if you never want to forgive me. It’s okay. I can accept that.”Bookmark here

Yomogi nodded. She didn’t even look at the girl, and took a long sip of her iced latte.Bookmark here

“I’m no longer friends with any of them,” the girl continued. “I cut them out of my life when Kubota-san sold that information about you.”Bookmark here

Yomogi’s eyebrows raised as she heard the name Kubota. “What’s happened to her?” she asked.Bookmark here

“Hell if I know,” the girl replied.Bookmark here

There was a bit of awkward silence and the door chime jingled, so the girl went back to work. I saw Yomogi’s hand shaking slightly, so I looked over at her, and asked, “Are you all right?”Bookmark here

“I’ll be fine,” she said. “That Kubota she mentioned was the girl that got expelled from my school. She’s probably dug her own grave by now.”Bookmark here

We continued eating and drinking in silence, and as we finished, decided to head back to the inn for a relaxing evening.Bookmark here

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The next day, it did end up raining, so we went into Yomogi’s bedroom and cleared off her table. With the sound of the rain as a backdrop, the three of us opened our notebooks and worked together on our summer assignments, quizzing each other on math questions and reciting formulas and historical names, dates and places while snacking on honey butter potato chips and refreshing cold barley tea.Bookmark here

As we were well into our study session, the rain started getting harder. Thunder boomed overhead, and lightning began to flash outside. The lights flickered momentarily, making us all shriek, then recover and giggle.Bookmark here

“Maybe we should call things off for now?” Yomogi suggested. As she did so, the lights flickered again, and then stayed out.Bookmark here

“Aww…” the three of us chorused as the room became dim.Bookmark here

“Great, now what do we do?” I muttered.Bookmark here

We continued listening to the rain for a few minutes until Kei spoke up. “Either of you want to watch me practice the tea ceremony?” she asked.Bookmark here

Yomogi and I looked at each other, then back at Kei. “Yeah, that would be great,” I said. “I don’t think we’ve ever seen you do it before.”Bookmark here

“I’ve got some of my utensils in the hotel room. I was hoping I’d get to show the two of you,” Kei said.Bookmark here

Yomogi led us back to the main hotel, and Kei directed us to wait while she made some preparations. “Can you get me a kettle and a trivet, and also…I hate to do this, but do you have some green tea that you can spare? I’ll pay you for what I use.”Bookmark here

“Yes, and I’ll see if we have any yokan left,” Yomogi said, as she dashed to the kitchen.Bookmark here

Kei closed the door to the room and I found myself standing outside, leaning lightly against the wall. I noticed Yomogi’s mother coming close to me. “Hello, Kisaragi-san,” I said.Bookmark here

“Vanilla-chan, hello there,” she replied. “How has your weekend been?”Bookmark here

“Lots of fun! I’m so happy I got to visit Yomogi-chan,” I said.Bookmark here

“She’s been so excited to see the two of you. She’s been doing so well since she got back,” Yomogi’s mother said, with a somewhat wistful smile. “Honestly, if it weren’t for you two…”Bookmark here

Her voice trailed off, and all I could do was guess at how she was going to end the sentence, which I followed with a quiet, “Yeah.”Bookmark here

Just then, Yomogi approached carrying a hot water dispenser in one hand and an iron teapot and a plastic bag containing loose green tea in the other. “Mom, can you do me a favor? Do we have any of that yokan left?” she asked.Bookmark here

“I think we do. What are you doing?”Bookmark here

“Kei-chan is practicing the tea ceremony,” Yomogi said.Bookmark here

“May I watch, too?” Yomogi’s mother smiled.Bookmark here

A few minutes later, after Yomogi delivered the materials and equipment, the door to our room slid open again to reveal Kei dressed in her yukata.Bookmark here

“Welcome,” she said. “I apologize…usually I’m dressed formally for this,” she said.Bookmark here

She directed us to enter the room and kneel around the table, as she carefully measured hot water into a ceramic bowl filled with powdered green tea. With a bamboo whisk and careful motions, she started whipping the tea gently into a froth. Seeing Kei handle it so deftly when I was used to see her doing karate was so different.Bookmark here

Kei explained everything that was happening, and told us about the function of the tools, and about how many of the more practiced tea masters used heirloom tools that had to be carefully cleaned and handled every time they were used. The tea was warm and bitter, which made a nice contrast with the cool and sweet yokan jelly. As we continued the tea ceremony, the lights flickered back on in the complex.Bookmark here

“Oh, the power’s back! That’s a relief!” Yomogi’s mother said.Bookmark here

“Does it happen often here?” I asked.Bookmark here

“Not very often. We have a generator if the power goes out for an extended amount of time,” she said.Bookmark here

We finished the tea ceremony, and Kei carefully packed everything up, cleaning all of her tools and utensils thoroughly. The rain had tapered off while we were in the room, and as the three of us came out to stretch our legs, we noticed that the sun had come out. Bookmark here

“Yomogi-chan, do you think you can show us around the area? Like the forests and everything?” I asked.Bookmark here

“Sure!” Yomogi said. “It’s nice and cool out now, so a hike would be a great idea!”Bookmark here

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After a quick break to change into hiking clothes, Yomogi guided the two of us through the forest in the back of the inn. There were a few paths that had been made by humans, but every so often if you stopped and watched quietly, there were signs of wildlife activity. The path through the forest went up a winding hill, and as we reached the top, the trees began to thin out until we reached the summit.Bookmark here

“Oh wow…”Bookmark here

“You can see almost the entire town from here, can’t you?”Bookmark here

“There’s the inn right down there…”Bookmark here

Spread out in front of us, like a living postcard, was Yomogi’s hometown, bathed in sunlight and surrounded by lush greenery. We found a rock to sit on and just admire the view, while talking about everything and nothing.Bookmark here

“You know…I’m so glad you two can share this with me,” Yomogi said. “I used to come up to this place by myself when I was feeling sad…but now I’ve got a happy memory to associate it with.” She smiled.Bookmark here

“Yeah…this place is beautiful,” I said.Bookmark here

“For the first time in a long time, I’m looking forward to going back to school,” Yomogi said.Bookmark here

Kei smiled. “You’ve been working hard to keep up, haven’t you?”Bookmark here

“Yes! Every day since I got back here, I’ve been doing assignments and practicing in our kitchen. I’m in good shape to rejoin the class.”Bookmark here

I smiled. “It wasn’t the same without you,” I said.Bookmark here

“Yeah…” Yomogi gazed into the town with a wistful smile on her face.Bookmark here

Bookmark here

Our train would be leaving right around noon, so after sleeping in the next morning and having our last breakfast, we started packing for our trip home. Yomogi’s father would deliver us to the train station, which we were not looking forward to.Bookmark here

As I tucked the last of my souvenirs into my duffel bag and zipped it up, Yomogi came into our hotel room, looking misty eyed. “I’m so glad you two were able to come,” she said. “I’m going to miss you…”Bookmark here

“Just think! In three weeks, we’ll be back together,” I said. “Look forward to that instead of missing us.”Bookmark here

Yomogi smiled, wiping her face with the back of her hand. “Yeah…You’re right. I’ll do that, instead.”Bookmark here

Kei pulled her rolling luggage upright. “You ready?” she asked.Bookmark here

“Yeah…but one last thing,” I said. I held out my pinky finger. “Yomogi-chan…when we get back to school for the next semester, let’s make it a good one.”Bookmark here

Yomogi smiled and extended hers. “Let’s hope for a peaceful rest of our first year!”Bookmark here

“And may all our dreams come true,” Kei said, extending hers.Bookmark here

We touched our pinkies together, and this time, we knew that nothing would get in the way of this promise.Bookmark here

Yomogi ended up seeing the two of us off at the train station. (Her father was a much more careful driver with her in the car, for some reason.) Bookmark here

“Let me know when you get back, okay?” she asked as the two of us got out our passes.Bookmark here

“We will. See you in September!” I said, waving as I slapped my pass against the reader.Bookmark here

“Bye, Vanilla-chan, Kei-chan!” Yomogi said, waving as the two of us passed through the turnstiles.Bookmark here

“Well…” We stepped into the crowd gathered in front of the arrival and departure board, looking for the next scheduled train. “That was an experience, wasn’t it?” I asked Kei.Bookmark here

“Yeah…I’m glad we made it. And I’m so glad she’s doing better,” Kei said.Bookmark here

We made our way towards the downstairs platform and back towards home, our summer adventure complete and in the books. What new and interesting adventures would we encounter in the months ahead…?Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.