BON APPETIT! Gourmet Battle Girls
After my ordeal, things went back to normal rather quickly.
I came back to school a couple days later, the talk of my homeroom. Everyone wanted to hear about how I managed to bring down the Shirogane family once and for all, but all I wanted to do was get back to my studies.
As for Tetsuya-kun, his recovery was much more complicated than mine. He didn’t really have a home or family to go back to—his father and brother were in prison, and the family home was in the process of being seized and combed over by investigators, after his family ties to a major crime family had come to light. Unfortunately, there was no room in the Sunrise Dormitory, where Yomogi lived, which is when I decided to contact my old landlady, Mako Honda, to see if there was any space in the Saibara Building. Turns out that she did have space—the same apartment that Shinji Tenmyouji, my somewhat creepy hacker neighbor, used to live in—and she was more than happy to rent it to Tetsuya. He came back to school a week later, casually walking up to the front gates like nothing ever happened, just as I was arriving.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hi,” he said back. He looked good, and sounded good.
“How are you doing?” I asked.
“All right. I’m all moved in. Mako-san’s…She’s an interesting person.”
“She is. I loved living with her.”
“Oh, I wanted to tell you, I’m no longer in Yoshoku Division. I transferred to Food Sciences.”
“Huh, really…I’m going to miss you. I like watching the underclassmen develop. I mean, their skills. You know.” I was getting a little flustered. “Are you still going to be in Gourmet Battles?”
“I’m thinking about it. Right now I’m trying to see if I can join the soccer club. I used to do that at my old school.”
I nodded and suddenly glanced at the school clock tower—we had only a few minutes to get to class. “Um…You know where I am at lunch, right? Come on by.”
“Yeah. See you later, Vanilla-san.”
“You too, Tetsuya-kun.”
I watched him as he ran towards the academic building, realizing that something was now irreparably different between us, but I couldn’t really tell if it was necessarily a good thing or a bad thing…but my heart was telling me it was good.
“You’re blush-ing, Sempai.”
“UWAH!” I was suddenly jolted back to reality by Momoko Ijuuin, who had grabbed me in a bearhug from behind. “Don’t do that! Seriously!”
“Momoko missed you so much. Now Sempai’s a hero that brought down the corrupt family. Like a movie.” Momoko smiled, and that’s when I noticed she was twirling a kid’s plastic safety knife between her fingers. “So what else will Sempai become famous for?”
“I’ve got to go,” I said. “It’s time for lab.” I pushed myself away from Momoko and started running towards the culinary arts building.
As Momoko watched me run away, the look on her face twisted into one of disgust.
I turned to see Salma waving to me. “Good morning, Salma-chan!” I said.
“How’ve you been feeling lately?”
“I’m much better now. I ran into Tetsuya-kun earlier, he’s doing a lot better.”
“That’s such a relief. I feel bad for his family situation,” Salma said. Her expression looked somewhat pained.
“I can only imagine,” I said.
“You excited for this weekend?”
“This weekend—Oh, yeah!” I smiled. “Have you ever been to a hanami party, Salma-chan?”
“The Japanese cultural appreciation society in Ashwargandha has them every year. I’ve been a few times when my schedule allows.”
“That’s great! Are you going to bring some of those delicious rice dumplings? I think everyone will really love them.”
“I think I will. And maybe I’ll try making some sweets as well? What about cherry pie?”
“That sounds awesome!” I was getting excited, and it was still days away. “I still have to figure out what I want to do for food. Maybe something small. I have to check what Caroline-chan is thinking of, too.”
Salma smiled. “You sound like your old self, Vanilla-chan. I’m so happy.”
“Huh…Oh.” For a few minutes, it was like the events of the past few days had been blissfully written out of history, but then I was reminded of everything in an instant. Salma immediately realized what she had said when she saw the expression on my face change.
“Vanilla-chan…I shouldn’t have said that! I’m sorry…”
“It’s all right. Tetsuya-kun’s okay, and that’s what really matters—”
“No. What they put you through matters, too.” I saw her looking down at my neck. I’m pretty sure there was a faint bruise there, from when Takashi Shirogane grabbed me by the throat.
I was wiping tears from my face as the two of us went into the kitchen together.
At lunch I was not surprised to see Tetsuya sitting there, waiting for me. He was holding a wrapped triangle sandwich in his lap along with a carton of milk. “How was your morning?” he asked.
“It was…all right,” I said. “I was thinking about what happened last week and how things just…fell into place.”
“Like if it hadn’t been for my dad being at that dinner, or if you hadn’t escaped when you did…”
“Yeah. I’m glad everything worked out.”
We silently started eating our lunches. I had a couple of rice balls made with pickled greens and seaweed rice, along with a cup of mandarin orange jelly with the fruit pulp suspended in it. (And a banana. Always a banana.)
“Hey, if you’re up to it this weekend…We’re having a hanami party,” I said. “I’d like it if you could come, but it’s up to you.”
“I don’t know. If I feel like it…” Tetsuya looked down at the half-eaten sandwich in his lap.
“Are you all right, Tetsuya-kun?”
“I heard someone saying that they wished I’d never came back,” he said.
Tetsuya looked up at me. “After what I’ve been through, you’d think they’d have sympathy for me? The only ‘welcome back’ I got was from you. I don’t have a home or a family to go back to. I had the rug pulled out completely from underneath me…”
“Tetsuya-kun, how are you feeling?”
I looked up to see the other four girls approaching. The anger on Tetsuya’s face was apparent as he watched them come over and take their seats. “Sorry. I’m…upset,” he said.
“I heard,” Hanabi said.
“I’m so sorry about everything,” Salma said, sitting down next to Tetsuya. “I’ve had experiences with family being cruel and manipulative. It really hurts.”
Tetsuya nodded sagely. “Thank you.”
Everyone gathered around and started unpacking their lunches. “I was thinking of making ichigo daifuku for the hanami party this weekend,” Kei said. “What do you all think?”
“Your ichigo daifuku are delicious!” I said. Kei was not only adept at the martial arts and a great artisan of traditional Japanese sweets, but had this uncanny sense for the best fresh produce. I’ve gone shopping with her for ingredients tons of times in prep for major events, and even considered having her come to work with me.
It seemed to spark Tetsuya’s interest. “Do you use smooth or chunky red bean paste in yours?” he asked Kei.
“I like to use smooth. I think it works best for chilled sweets,” Kei said.
“I’ve always wondered if the texture of bean paste affects its nutritional value,” Tetsuya said. “Think that’s what I’ll start investigating when I get to the lab.”
“You’re not in Yoshoku Division anymore?” Yomogi asked. “How come?”
“It wasn’t my decision in the first place. Honestly…I don’t think I could box what I like to create into a category. I want to use food science to unlock new possibilities.” Tetsuya seemed to get a lot more animated. “Molecular gastronomy, food as medicine, flavor manipulation…”
“Really? Tell me more,” I said.
“Well, when I was in elementary school, I thought about what if you could use the same propellant for canned whipping cream for other types of liquids…like hotcake batter! So I spent weeks trying to figure out the best recipe, and then I realized that it was probably going to be too thick. That’s when I realized it’d be perfect for crepe batter!”
Yomogi’s eyebrows raised—she was a huge fan of crepes. “Can you give me the recipe? I’d like to try it out for myself!” she said.
Tetsuya nodded. “Of course!” The last time I’d seen him so happy was when he reacted to my dish at Scarlett. “I’ll write it up and send it to you. And the charger you’ll need is the standard one they have here at school.”
“Tetsuya-kun, have you heard of Mica Tekela?” Salma asked.
“Yeah, of course!” Tetsuya said. “He’s from your country, right?”
“Yes! I’ve eaten at his restaurant a few times,” Salma said, happily. “It’s such an experience every time you go there. It’s like he’s a magician!”
The name was familiar to me, but I couldn’t quite place it. “What kind of cuisine does he make?” I asked, trying to jog my memory.
“He’s an avant-garde chef that specializes in molecular gastronomy,” Tetsuya said. “Although I’ve heard he’s had to curtail his world travels.” Salma nodded sagely.
As we were finishing our chitchat, the bell signaling the end of lunch rang. I got up and looked down at Tetsuya-kun. “Remember…this weekend. I’ll let you know when and where,” I said.
Tetsuya’s face flushed a very faint shade of pink. “…Maybe,” he said.
I went back to work at Scarlett to see everyone busy, as usual. Satoshi Mato was standing at the podium, waiting for me as I entered, and I recalled the tension of that fateful night a little over a week ago. (Had it really been that long?) He nodded to me as I came in and gestured for me to come over.
“Koizumi-san, to be honest…I was very upset with you,” he said quietly. “Losing your temper like that in front of a customer, let alone the whole dining room…It’s completely unacceptable. I’ve sent a report to Umami Gakuen regarding your behavior.”
“I’m sorry, sir,” I said, bowing in apology. “I will not let it happen again.”
“However…I’ve learned the reason why you were so upset. And I’m very glad that you’re still with us.”
I straightened up to see a slight smile cross Satoshi’s face. “Get changed. Rumi-kun called out sick, so you’re on hostess duty tonight.”
“Yes, sir!” I said, smiling back.
The rest of the week flew by, filled with schoolwork and homework and my part time job, and before I knew it, it was early Saturday morning.
I woke up extra early to work on my contribution to the hanami party: California rolls. I opened up the lid of our family’s rice cooker and was greeted by a cloud of delicious smelling steam. Carefully, with quilted potholders on both my hands, I lifted the bowl of the rice cooker out by its handles and placed it on a wet towel to stabilize it as I gave the mixture of sushi vinegar few more stirs to make sure that the sugar and salt had dissolved completely. I picked up the rice paddle and carefully poured the vinegar mixture on top of it, moving the paddle around so that it slowly dripped into the rice like a gentle waterfall. Then I slashed through the rice with one hand while furiously fanning it with a promotional plastic fan that my mother had picked up from work, making sure all the grains were separated and forcefully cooled.
I let the rice rest while I opened up the fridge and took out the other most important components: the filling. Traditional California rolls are made with avocado, cucumber and crab stick rolled up in nori seaweed, and I’ve even seen them made “inside out” style with a sprinkling of different colors of roe on the outside. I wanted to keep things simple, so I prepared my knives and started a California roll assembly line.
“Morning, Neesan,” Caroline said, entering the kitchen yawning. “How are you doing?”
“I’ve just started,” I said, cutting up a cucumber.
“Do you need any help?” Caroline asked. She had grabbed another knife and cutting board—her contribution to the hanami party would be English cucumber tea sandwiches.
“No, I think I can handle it,” I said.
The two of us got to work chopping, cutting, spreading and rolling. I was spreading cooled rice onto sheets of nori seaweed, lying the cucumber, avocado and crab sticks onto the rice, sprinkling toasted sesame seeds on everything and carefully rolling it up. When I had a few rolls ready, I grabbed my largest knife and a washcloth soaked in warm water, and sliced the rolls into bite-sized pieces that I laid in a plastic container.
Caroline was spreading softened butter thinly on small, square pieces of dark rye bread she had gotten from a bakery that was near her school, and loading them with thinly cut cucumber slices. She cut them into triangles and started stacking them on a round plastic plate, covering each layer with plastic wrap.
We stopped to look back at our handiwork. It had taken us an hour to get everything prepared, and everything looked so good! All I could think about was how happy everyone would be when they saw what we had brought.
“Oh man, now I want to go back to bed,” Caroline said.
“That can’t happen yet. We’ve got to get ready to go!” I said.
Caroline smiled. “In that case, can I have the shower first?”
“By all means,” I said.
I found out why Caroline had wanted to shower first about an hour later, after she emerged from her room dressed in a Lolita dress.
“Wow! Is that a new one, Caroline-chan?” I asked.
“I’m borrowing it for the day from one of my friends,” she replied, twirling around. It was a beautiful dark red, with a lovely print of fluttering cherry blossoms. There was red piping on the ruffles and the front was held together with frog closures.
“It looks awesome,” I said.
“It’s from a Chinese brand. They do a cherry blossom theme design every year, and this was last year’s.” Caroline’s ensemble was completed with a pair of dark red above-the-knees stockings, and a hairbow that was the same color as the dress and trimmed with a small spray of silk cherry blossoms. She was holding a pair of black flats with straps and bows.
I suddenly felt extremely underdressed. I was dressed in a pair of skinny light blue denim jeans along with my favorite Super Banana t-shirt and my black cat-eared sweatshirt. Instead of braids, I had my hair in low twin tails with black velvet scrunchies on each tail.
We picked up our food and went over to the genkan to put on our shoes. I could hear Ryotaro typing away on his computer in my parents’ office, which was right near the kitchen. “Are you two headed out to your party?” he asked.
“Yeah, where’s Mom?” I asked.
“She’s out meeting a friend. I think the two of you were too absorbed in your work to notice her leaving,” he chuckled. He noticed me and Caroline standing at the door. “You two are such a study in contrasts.”
“Thanks…I guess?” I said.
He reached for the charging cradle of his phone. “I want to get a picture of you two together,” he said. Immediately, Caroline and I cringed—that was the last thing we needed right now. We decided to dissuade him the best way we knew how.
“Macbeth. Macbeth. Macbeth.” we chanted in deep, spooky voices. Ryotaro got the hint and quietly put his phone back down.
“Have a nice time at the party, girls,” he said.
“Later, Dad!” we said as we scurried out.
We arrived at the park to see that it was packed. A lot of students from Umami Gakuen were here, and I saw many familiar faces as I searched the sea of people and blankets until I found Hikaru, who had spread out two huge blankets underneath a blossoming cherry tree.
“Morning, you two!” she said as we approached. “You’re here early.”
“Wow, I didn’t think this place would be packed this early,” I said, as I sat down on one of the blankets and pulled out my plates of sushi.
“Those look delicious! Yeah, I guess I was wrong in thinking this would be a good day…”
“No, it’s fine! Just as long as everyone cleans up after themselves. Oh, by the way, this is my stepsister, Caroline Koizumi. Caroline-chan, this is Hikaru Hojo, my classmate.”
“Hi, Caroline-chan! Pleased to meet you,” Hikaru said. “I love your dress! That’s Lolita fashion, right?”
Caroline smiled. “Yeah, it is. I’m surprised, not many people know much about it.”
I waved to a couple of my classmates who were setting up next to us. “Wow, it looks like everyone from school is doing it today,” I said.
“Yeah. Word got around about this place, I’m afraid. At least for once I was ahead of the curve,” Hikaru said.
Kei was the next to arrive. She was dressed similarly to me, but her clothing was much more feminine and cuter than mine. In her hands was a hard sided cooler, which meant she was probably bringing one of her seasonal traditional sweets that needed to stay chilled.
“Morning everyone!” Kei said. “Oh my god, Caroline-chan, you look so CUTE!”
Caroline smiled. “Thanks…?” she said.
I could smell all sorts of delicious picnic foods. I saw rice balls made with all sorts of flavorings, karaage chicken, sandwiches, cookies, thermoses full of hot tea and bottles of soda. Yomogi’s arrival brought with it a bunch of cream puffs, filled with delectable custard cream and drizzled with chocolate.
“Who else do you know is coming?” she asked as she opened up the container and set it in the center of the designated food blanket.
“Hanabi-chan and Salma-chan should be on their way here,” I said, “and then hopefully Tetsuya-kun will come by.”
“Hey everyone! Sorry I’m late!” I heard the sound of running footsteps and then Hanabi sprang over the low fence that separated the park from the sidewalk, landing among us. She was carrying a large plastic bag that appeared to be holding several Styrofoam take out containers. “I brought them!”
“Them?” I asked, but she found an open spot on the blanket and untied the knot holding her bag closed. She took out the three containers to reveal that they were packed with takoyaki—still steaming hot, glistening with sauce and covered with fuzzy aonori.
“The Sakuraba family’s famous Osaka takoyaki!” Hanabi shouted, and a bunch of students looked up and started coming over. Hanabi held out a container of toothpicks, and I grabbed one to spear one of the takoyaki with. It was delicious, and the perfect serving temperature. She was smiling broadly as the contents of the containers started rapidly disappearing.
“Wow, these taste amazing!” Kei said as she chewed on her octopus.
“Yeah! And the sauce is from scratch, too! It’s a recipe we’ve had in our family for generations. And no, you can’t have it.” Hanabi smiled slyly.
“Can Momo-chan sit here?” said a voice from behind.
We looked up and behind us to see Momoko Ijuuin, holding what appeared to be some sort of woven basket with a covered plastic container in it. She was dressed in a black romper covered in abstract neon green and pink designs, with a frilly white blouse underneath.
“I don’t see why not,” Yomogi said, as she shifted over some food to give Momoko a place to put her bundle down. It was right next to Hanabi, and the two girls gave each other a side eye as Momoko sat down.
“Feast your eyes on Momo-chan’s yakisoba bread!” she said as she opened her container to reveal several small buns with yakisoba stuffed inside. I picked one up and started eating it.
“Hey, this is pretty good,” I said. “Did you make the bread yourself, too?”
“Of course Momo-chan made the bread, too!” Momoko said, scoffing.
As everyone continued milling around and eating, I saw Salma and Siska approaching.
“Hello there!” I said, waving.
“Sorry we’re late!” Salma said, waving. Siska was carrying a large paper bag in her arms, and nodded cordially at me as the two of them approached. “Do you mind if Siska sits with you, too?”
“That’s fine. Put everything you brought down over here,” I said, pointing to an empty spot on our blanket, “and you can sit down wherever. I think someone brought some folding chairs if you need one.”
“It’s fine. I can sit down on the ground okay,” Salma said as she laid down her cane and knelt on the blanket. Siska knelt down and placed the bag she was holding beside her, attracting looks from every one of the partygoers—there aren’t many high school students that have full-time bodyguards. Everyone crowded around as Salma removed a plastic container from the paper bag. She opened the lid and displayed the beautiful leaf dumplings.
“Oh, those are different!”
“They kinda remind me of sakura mochi…”
“I’m gonna try one!”
Everyone crowded around and carefully picked one of the dumplings up and started biting into them. Salma looked expectantly at them. Everyone’s expressions changed to signs of delight as they tasted how delicious the leaf dumplings were.
“It’s so different!”
“It’s crunchy inside!”
“Yeah, this does kind of remind me of savory sakura mochi!”
“I wish I had made that instead of what I brought,” Kei said. She opened her container to reveal her famous ichigo daifuku, huge and plump.
“Those look great! I’m going to have one right now,” I said, as I reached in and took one out to put on my plate.
The air filled with conversation about good food, friendship, and other assorted subjects. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that Yomogi had brought her portable gaming system with her, along with a few other people. I rolled my eyes a bit.
“Yomogi-chan, you’re doing a Monster Slayer raid at a hanami party?” I said.
“Come on! It’s not like I’m playing by myself, you know!” she said, as she sat in a cluster with the others.
I turned back to the group, but then I saw a familiar face approaching—it was Tetsuya Shirogane. He was carrying a large plastic container in his arms. A few other people noticed him as well, and suddenly the party’s bustle ground to a halt.
“What’s he doing here?”
“Who invited him?”
“I thought he was gone…”
Tetsuya hesitated, looking as if he wanted to step over the fence to join us, but seeing the faces looking at him disdainfully made him hesitate. Then, I saw him get struck in the face by a piece of sushi someone had thrown. A piece of the California rolls that I had made.
“Who threw that,” I said, my voice low and livid.
The entire party grew quiet and everyone started looking at each other.
“WHO THREW THAT?” I shouted.
A few people turned and looked at Joji Kanzaki, who had a bunch of my California rolls on a plate. Sheepishly, his face turned pink and he looked down.
“What the hell did he ever do to you?” I scolded. Before he could open his mouth, I got up and stood in front of Tetsuya.
“Listen, all of you! If it wasn’t for Tetsuya-kun…I probably wouldn’t even BE here talking to you. And if you think I’m going to stand by and let you people walk all over for him just because of his family…I won’t stand for it! You think picking on him is going to make ANYONE feel any better? You think punishing HIM is like punishing his brother or his dad? You want to treat him like shit, you get past me first! Understand?”
My words hung heavily over the picnicking party like a cloud of fog. I watched as Joji Kanzaki got up and picked up the sushi roll he had flung. He looked into Tetsuya’s face.
“I’m sorry,” he muttered. He stepped over the fence and started to walk away.
Silence was still hanging over the party goers as Tetsuya faced me from across the fence. “You…you can come and sit with us if you’d like,” I said.
He nodded and stepped over the fence, then kneeled down on the blanket next to me. He put the container down on the blanket and opened it up to reveal that he too had made sushi rolls, except that they were inside out style and coated on the outside with what I thought was roe.
“Wow, you did sushi, too?” I said as I reached in to take one. As I bit into it, the tiny bits of roe cracked open in my mouth—bringing with it an interesting flavor that made my eyes widen with surprise. “This…This isn’t roe! It’s…shiso flavored?” I said, surprised. My friends followed suit, all of them becoming pleasantly surprised by the flavor.
“I pureed shiso leaves and strained off the solids from the juices, then used spherification to turn them into ‘roe,’” Tetsuya said. “Pretty neat, huh?”
“Yeah! It’s like furikake, but different,” Kei said. “I like it.”
“Interesting technique,” Momoko said. “Too bad Momo-chan hates the taste of shiso.” She got up and dusted herself off. “Momo-chan’s going over there. See you.”
As Momoko walked away to join another group of students that were eying us warily, I realized that things had begun to get awkward. There wasn’t much happy discussion or anything—mostly people talking quietly amongst themselves after my outburst. I felt like my heart was still pounding and it was hard for me to relax.
“Are you all right, Vanilla-chan?” Salma asked.
“Yeah…I’m just a little worked up,” I said. “Nothing a little good food couldn’t fix,” I said as I picked up one of her leaf dumplings.
“I’m glad everyone likes them!”
“May I try one?” Tetsuya said, looking down at them a little hesitantly.
“Of course! I made them for everyone to share,” Salma said.
Tetsuya picked one up and bit into it, his expression changing. “Wow…it’s so crispy and fresh,” he said. “What sort of herbs do you use in these?”
“I can send you the recipe,” Salma said. “But it’s a little different than the dumplings you get in Ashwargandha.”
“Hey, did Joji-kun leave?” I said, scanning the rest of the partygoers and realizing that he wasn’t anywhere around us.
“Yeah, he left. I think he was embarrassed about what he did,” Yomogi said. “And you were right to call him out like that.”
“Really?” I said.
Yomogi nodded, smiling. “I believe it 100%. If there were more people like you, I think there’d be less bullying in the world.”
I noticed Tetsuya looking down at his plate, looking a little embarrassed. “Hey, are you all right?” I asked.
“…Yeah…it’s just that…no one’s ever really stuck up for me before like that,” Tetsuya said. “I…I really appreciate it.”
I blushed, looking down at my plate, and as I did, I felt my vision get fuzzy. Ugh, this can’t be happening, I thought. Not now, not on a day like today…
Suddenly, I noticed Siska grab her phone from her pocket, and her face went pale. Salma turned to her, and must’ve asked what was going on, as Siska seemed to be stammering an answer. Finally, she got up and stepped over the fence, walking a short ways away from the bustle of the party to take a phone call.
“What’s wrong with Siska-san?” I asked Salma.
“I don’t know…It might be a family thing.” Salma looked hesitantly over in her bodyguard’s direction. I followed her gaze, and thought I could see the hand holding her phone quiver slightly. Her face was hidden behind her aviator glasses, but I could see her jaw tremble with the telltale sign of someone trying to hold in their crying.
The corner of my eye was filled with the telltale shimmering that signaled an impending migraine headache. It’d been several months since my last one, and they were usually brought on by stress or anger. (Last time’s headache had mostly been stress related—I had some particularly difficult partners on a group project, forcing me to shoulder the load for everyone.)
“Are you all right, Vanilla-chan?” Kei said, seeing the look on my face.
“No,” I said. “I think…I think I’ve got to go home. Where’s Caroline-chan?”
Kei pointed over to another blanket, where Caroline was talking to a few of the second year students that Hanabi had invited. I gathered up my containers and walked over to her. “Hey, Caroline-chan,” I said. “I’m headed back home.”
“You feeling all right? You were really upset earlier,” she said.
I shook my head. “Yeah. I don’t want to be here anymore.”
“Do you want me to come with you?”
“No, it’s fine. I’ll see you at home.”
I walked past everyone towards the park entrance, keeping my head down. Already I could feel like the telltale pounding was ready to begin, and I need to get back home, fast. I made my way to a bus stop and slumped down on the bench. I could feel the day’s lunch begin to rebel against me.
Maybe having a huge hanami party wasn’t such a great idea after all, I thought as I waited for the bus to come.