“Suzuna-chan made another cake! I get hungry just from thinking about it!” Shintani exclaimed while eying the cake on the table. “Suzuna-chan where are you? Five more minutes and I’m going to dig in. I won’t wait for you to cut it!” he called from the kitchen.
“Coming You-kun!” Suzuna called back from upstairs. She had been reading a leaflet for a cooking competition. The prizes were desirable and all you needed to do was prepare a bento and a nice desert.
She came hopping down the stairs into the kitchen.
“You-kun, look at this leaflet. Do you think it is worth trying out?” she asked handing him the leaflet. Shintani took it and carefully read through it.
Fujitake Bento House
Are you good at making bentos and deserts for the family?
If the answer is yes, then this your chance to shine with your skills in the kitchen!
We are organizing a bento competition for those who have a passion for making bentos.
Interested participants please contact XXXXXXXX for further details.
The other side of the leaflet had advertisements for Fujitake Bento House. This was the biggest handmade bento supplier in all of Japan.
“Yeah, I guess you could participate. But first I want to eat the cake!” Shintani said after studying the leaflet for a good five minutes.
“Yes! Yes! Time to cut the cake!” announced Suzuna in a cheerful monotone and took up the knife. Shintani had the first and the biggest slice. Soon Misaki returned home as well with Usui tagging along behind her. Everyone had a slice and the rest was left to Shintani to wolf down.
The next day Suzuna called the company and gathered the details. She soon had it all jotted down on a piece of paper.
9 am to 12 am
Fujitake Bento House H.O.
Participants are required to submit their recipes. Ingredients will be provided. There are two parts of the competition. Part 1 is bento preparation. Part 2 is simple desserts. All the cooking and decorations must be completed by 11:30 am. The judges will then judge the culinary dishes. The best bento recipe will be used for our weekly special bento. And the best dessert will be used by renowned packaged desert company Fujinami Delicacies.
Winner of the bento competition gets a month’s worth of rice completely free! And with it comes a coupon for 10 free bentos from Fujitake Bento House.
Participants must send in their recipes by 5th August 2013. Selected participants will then be informed by 7th August. Selected participants are required to appear at Fujitake Bento House H.Q. at least half an hour before the final cook-off on 12th August.
Suzuna read through it again and again. She then decided which recipes to send in for selection. Participants also had to send in the name of a partner, in case they ran short of time or had some other problem. At first she thought of signing up her mother as her partner. But when she talked to Minako about it, Minako suggested signing up Misaki instead. That way, even if she didn’t do much, she’d at least get some knowledge about cooking.
So Suzuna signed up the names of herself and her sister. Without any consultation? Yes. Because if she were to ask, Misaki would never agree to it.
Suzuna sent in two of her best recipes for the selection on the 5th of August. And sure enough, a letter arrived on the 7th (Saturday) addressed to Ayuzawa Misaki and Ayuzawa Suzuna.
“Suzuna, dear, you have mail.” Minako called form the door. As Minako brought the envelope into the kitchen Misaki looked a little confused.
“Whats wrong Misaki? Why do you look confused?” Minako asked seeing her daughter’s expression.
“I was actually expecting a parcel for some prize she won,” Misaki replied.
“Oh I see,” her mother replied, handing the letter to Suzuna.
………..five minutes later……….
“Nee-san has to come to the competition with me~.” Suzuna whined solemnly as a reply to Misaki’s continuous complaints for signing her name up.
“But Suzuna, try to understand,” Misaki once again tried to talk her sister out of it. “You have a chance of winning this on your own! If I go, all I’ll do is ruin everything! Right, Mom?” she turned to her mother for support.
Minako put a finger to her chin to signify that she was thinking. “Well, although I’m pretty sure Usui-san won’t mind cooking all your meals, it would still be nice to be able to cook once in a while once you’re married, ne?”
Misaki’s cheeks turned a little red at what her mother was implying. “M-Mom! Where did Usui come from in all this?”
“From the door,” came a reply from the hallway. Misaki froze in her spot, more heat rising to her cheeks. Usui….
“Gah! Fine I’ll go!” Misaki announced while running towards the staircase. However she stopped when she bumped into her perverted-outer-space-alien-stalker-boyfriend.
“Where are you going Ayuzawa?” he asked once she looked up.
“Huh?” she replied dumbstruck. “W-Where would I go? I’m not going anywhere.” He knows what kind of a cook I am. If he hears about this, I’m as good as dead.
Misaki suggested spending more time in the kitchen during the weekend. That way, she’d get a hang of some cooking so that she didn’t ruin her sister’s perfect chance of winning the Bento competition.
She asked Suzuna what she’d planned for the cook-off.
“Onigiris for the bento and vegetable pastries for the dessert,” Suzuna replied.
“Vegetable pastries….." Misaki contemplated for a moment. “The ones you make when Shintani’s grandpa sends vegetables over?”
“Yes,” Suzuna replied. “Mom says they’re my masterpiece.”
“Suzuna, could you chop up these vegetable for me?” Minako said hauling a bowl of vegetables into the sink. “These are for lunch. I’ll be finished with the laundry by that time.”
“Okay Mom,” Suzuna replied.
“Oh, and keep an eye on the pot of rice for me, Misaki,” Minako said before finally disappearing to do the laundry.
Suzuna took the bowl of vegetables to the counter, brought out the chopping board and the knife and started to slice up the vegetables for a curry.
“So, Suzuna, are you planning plain onigiri or something special?” Misaki said striking up another conversation.
“I was planning vegetables: quick, healthy and easy.”
Vegetables and vegetables. Could it be that Suzuna actually….
“Why are you so worked up on vegetables these days?”
Suzuna froze. It was not that she didn’t want Misaki to know…just not exactly like that.
“W-well veggies are cheap and healthy. So why not?
“Oh” Misaki mouthed. She had a feeling that Suzuna wasn’t telling her the whole story. And she had a feeling it had something to do with Shintani Hinata. At least she can counter it with logic. All I could do is stutter and call names. Wait…what? Those names are well deserved!
“Sis,” Suzuna’s voice brought Misaki back to the present. “The rice is ready. Could you bring it down for me please?”
“Oh, uh, okay.” She hesitated a bit though. She’d never brought down the rice before.
She went and turned off the stove. Their cooker was broken so they had to use the stove now. No other choice. She had to get rid of the rice water first. So, she reached for the edges of the pot without any protection from heat for her fingers.
“Sis! No!” Suzuna ran to catch the pot as Misaki let it go because of the heat. Suzuna did manage to catch it, but not without burning the both of her hands.
“Oh no!” Misaki gasped. She quickly removed the pot to a safe place and held Suzuna’s hands under a cold running tap.
“What happened?” Minako asked bursting into the kitchen.
“Explanation later, Mom,” Misaki said grabbing the first aid kit. “We have to tend to Suzuna first.”
Minako noticed the spilt rice water on the floor and decided to clean it up while Misaki bandaged up Suzuna’s hands. Once she was done, she went to check on the rice. There was still a lot of rice water in it. She tipped the pot slightly over the edge of the sink so that all the water would drain out.
“So, Misaki,” Minako asked as she noticed her older daughter heave a sigh. “How did this happen?”
Misaki explained breathlessly. The guilt in her voice was eminent. “I’m so sorry, Suzuna. I should’ve been more careful.”
“It’s okay Sis. It was just an accident,” Suzuna tried to console her.
“Just an accident! Suzuna, what about the bento competition?” Misaki asked worriedly.
Suzuna thought for a moment. Then her face lit up as she clearly found an idea. “You can cook, Sis!”
“What?” Both Misaki and Minako gave her a disbelieving look.
“Suzana, Mom just asked me to take care of the rice. Look what I did! If I so much as go near the stove I’ll ruin the whole thing!” Misaki said trying to defend herself.
“But Sis, what about the bento competition?” Suzuna asked in her baby voice.
Misaki’s eyes grew wide as realization hit her. “You’re right,” she whispered, “You only signed up the two of our names. One of us has to be able to cook or we’ll be disqualified!”
Suzuna and Minako slowly nodded to signify her understanding was correct.
“But how can I cook?”
“You could ask someone to teach you the two particular dishes,” Minako suggested.
“I don’t think anyone would dare to even try,” said a skeptical Misaki. Well, it was true. With her temper and skills in the kitchen, even the best teacher would back out.
“Except one,” Minako said “He won’t just dare to try, he will succeed.”
Misaki’s eyes widened once more as she realized who her mother was talking about. “No, no, no. Please not him!”
The next day, August 8th, Sunday
“SO, Ayuzawa, Minako-san has personally requested that I teach you two particular dishes,” Usui announced. He was pacing his living-cum-bedroom while Misaki was seated on the couch across the coffee table.
She was looking down though he could see her face. An obvious expression of guilt masked her facial features.
“Though I am curious to know how this all happened, I didn’t ask her for particulars. Mind explaining?” he asked crouching down in front of her.
“I didn’t do it on purpose, I swear!” she defended once she was done explaining, referring to the accident. “And, I didn’t do THIS,” she said referring to the current situation, “on purpose either, so don’t get any ideas!”
He chuckled at her sudden change in expression.
“What’s so funny?”
“Nothing. We should probably get started. We only have four days and today is the only day we get the whole day,” He said getting up and walking toward the kitchen.
“W-whole day?!” she stuttered. “I have to stay with you the whole day?”
“Yes. Why? Doesn’t Misa-chan like spending time with her boyfriend?” he asked with his puppy dog face.
She blushed. “Shut up, alien” she whispered.
“Misa-chan is mean.”
………..five minutes later……….
“Okay, so let’s work on the pastries first. Do you know the recipe, Ayuzawa?” he asked as he washed the vegetables.
“No. But I have it written.” She pulled it out of her bag and handed it to him. He read it then prepared the chopping board and knife.
“It’s simple. Regular cake with chunks of vegetables in the sponge,” he announced bringing the vegetables to the counter. “We’ll first chop the veggies then work on the sponge.”
Usui waited for Misaki to come over. Misaki also waited for… she didn’t know what she was waiting for.
After five minutes of awkwardly standing there, Usui broke the silence.
“Um, Ayuzawa, you’re supposed to be the one cooking.”
“Huh?” she said lamely, “Oh, yeah.” She still didn’t budge.
“If you’re cooking you have to be the one cutting too.”
“Yeeah,” she replied slowly and gingerly walked over to the other side of the counter. She reached for the knife and held it as if it was really fragile. When she raised it to cut a carrot her hands shook.
“Relax, Ayuzawa,” he said, noticing her nervousness. “You can do it.” She nodded slowly. But the next time she tried to cut the carrot her hands shook again, and this time she almost cut her finger.
“Careful!” he exclaimed, and steadied her hand just in time. He sighed and said, “Alright, since you’re so nervous let’s do this the easy way.” He came up behind her. He took both her hands in his and nestled his head on her right shoulder. He took the knife in their hands and slowly began chopping up the vegetables.
While he chopped away, her eyes wandered off the veggies and rested on her hands. The way he held them, it was really warm. Not that it was cold at this time of the year. But it was still warm. The kind of warm that made her feel lightheaded and fuzzy inside. And the way he rested his chin on her shoulder. His warm breath sent shivers through her whole body.
“Ayuzawa, concentrate on the chopping,” he whispered next to her ear.
She immediately tensed up a little. Her face began feeling hot. She forced herself to focus on the vegetables. She noticed the way he moved the knife and also the regular shape they were being chopped into. Soon, they were done chopping enough vegetables for eight family-sized pastries.
“Now for the batter,” he announced fetching a bowl. “Let’s see if you can do that by yourself.” He moved away a little and stood just far enough to supervise her movements. “first you take the eggs.” He pushed her the egg rack. “We’ll need three eggs. You do know how to break eggs, right?”
“Yeah.” She took an egg and raised it above her head, ready to smash it on the counter.
“Whoa! Not so hard!” he yelled stopping her hand in midair. “Do it slowly.”
“Okay,” she said and brought it so close to the counter it was almost touching. She pressed it to the counter. When it didn’t work she pressed it again with all her might. It still didn’t work.
Usui stared in disbelief. What kind of egg-breaking was that?
“It’s not working!” she whined.
He chuckled at the childish expression she made.
“What’s so funny?” she asked with a pout.
“Nothing.” He coughed. “Let me just show you how to do the batter.” He came up behind her again. Her back was pressed up against his chest. His hold on her hand was warm and firm, but it was soft at the same time.
In the span of about half an hour, the batter was done. In another fifteen minutes the cake was safely baking in the oven. They prepared the cream and put it in the fridge. Then they prepared the vegetables for the rice balls. While the cake baked, the rice cooked. Once the rice was cooked Usui cooled it down a bit and gave Misaki salt water to wash her hands.
“Let’s see you make Onigiris, Ayuzawa,” he challenged.
“Now, that is something I can do,” she said enthusiastically. She plucked some rice from the pot and started to mold it into shape. She put the fillings and pressed the rice with her palms until the ball was completely a ball, smooth and spherical.
Anyone who knows what a Japanese riceball looks like will know that Ayuzawa Misaki made exceptional riceballs. They looked like balls made of mercury! And the tasted like pasted rice.
The sight of the onigiri made Usui feel sorry. His poor girlfriend didn’t even know how to make onigiris. That had to be the simplest dish on earth!
She put down a second onigiri on the tray, identical to the first one. Usui realized she needed to stop or Suzuna would end up losing the competition for her best dish.
“Ayuzawa,” he called just as she was about to wash her hands again, “you do realize that onigiris are just named balls, they aren’t supposed to look like balls, right?”
Her hand stopped just an inch above the surface of the water. They stared at each other awkwardly for a good minute.
The next moment, Usui regretted saying that.
Her hand dropped down and her palms touched the edge of the basin that held the salt water. Her head hung and her bangs covered her eyes.
“I knew I was useless,” she whispered. “Why do I even try?” Her shoulders slumped down showing how discouraged she felt.
Usui mentally face palmed. Who knew she’d have such an abrupt mood swing! He quickly walked over to her side and placed his hands on her shoulders.
“C’mon, Ayuzawa. I didn’t mean it that way,” he said softly.
“Then what the hell kind of a way did you mean it in, you idiot!” she screamed. “Look, I know I’m not good at cooking, but do you have to say it like that?!” she pounded her fists on his chest angrily.
“I’m sorry,” he said catching her wrists. “I didn’t mean it like that, I swear.”
Finally, she calmed down a bit. Her head hung once again. The next moment, her forehead collided with his well toned chest, between her still clenched fists. His guiltiness returned when yet another exasperated remark left her lips.
“What am I going to do…” she whispered into his shirt.
He let go of her wrists and reached for her face. He gently caressed both her cheeks with his palm while instinctively pulling away a little in order to see her face.
“Misaki,” he said, causing her to look into his eyes. “You can’t give up! This is for Suzuna, remember?”
“That’s exactly why I don’t know what to do! At this rate I’ll ruin everything!”
“No, you won’t!” he said sternly. “My Misa-chan can do anything she wants to, even if it’s the hardest thing on earth!”
“No ‘but’s. You can do it. I know you can.”
She felt a little bit of courage inside. “Okay.”
“Good. For now, let me show you by making one. It’ll be easier for you that way.” He then proceeded to make an onigiri. She watched intently as his hands slowly molded the rice into a perfect triangle.
“There, all done. You keep practicing while I go check the pastries.” He moved away in order to give her some space to work. He checked on the pastries while she gingerly started on another rice ball.
15 minutes left for the cake to finish baking.
The onigiri she made this time was still shining smooth, but it was coming to shape a little. He could see the slight point at the top. One by one, her onigiris were improving. You could make out the whole grains of rice on the surface of the last few. The oven beeped the moment she put down the last rice ball. They proceeded to decorate the pastries.
By the time they finished it was already time for lunch. Misaki’s stomach gave a loud growl. She blushed at the suddenness.
“Okay! Lunch break!” he announced. He pushed her toward the couch, brought in the pastries and the onigiris and placed them on the coffee table.
“Misa-chan worked really hard today. She deserves a break,” he said softly. He had that smile on, the one he only showed her. He took a plate and placed two of her best rice balls on it along with a pastry. She reached for it but he held it high above his head.
“Give me that!” her stomach grumbled again.
“No, you’ve worked your hands hard enough for now.” He took an onigiri and held it out to her. “Say aaah.”
“It’s not like my arms are falling off you know,” she whispered but opened her mouth nonetheless.
They did both the dishes one more time that day, or should I say she did. This time she could do the batter and vegetables by herself. Her onigiris were getting better too, though she still needed to work on it. for the next three days, she did them once again each day. And finally, Thursday arrived. The day of the final cook-off.
12th August, Thursday
Misaki nervously walked into the headquarters of Fujitake Bento House. Suzuna walked by her side, her fingers still bandaged. They went to the reception and checked in. They were lead to the hall where the cook-off would take place.
There were five entire kitchens, complete with fridges, ovens and every other possible utensil built on one side of the hall. And the kitchens were spacious too. Apart from that section, there was enough space for ten more such kitchens in the hall. Most of that space was covered in seats. There was going to be an audience.
Misaki gulped down her nervousness. If she concentrated, the chances of her messing up were really low. But, there was still going to be a huge crowd watching.
In another half hour, the rest of the participants arrived, and then, finally, the competition kicked off.
Misaki started off with the same procedure she went through in Usui’s kitchen. In half-an-hour, the pastries were baking. She then started the procedure for the onigiris. But the entire time the rice cooked she was worried that she’d ruin it, just like the first time.
She looked around the hall in exasperation as the rice cooker announced that it was ready. To her surprise she spotted golden locks and emerald eyes in the crowd. She arched her eyebrows in confusion. His eyes trailed a little to her left. At once the exasperation came back. She released an inaudible sigh and looked back at him.
“You can do it,” he mouthed at her. He traced a triangle in the air with his fingers, reminding her of the shape the riceballs were supposed to be.
And, amazingly, just at the sight of his smiling face, she found the courage to show that world that she could do it.
An hour and half later
“We will now be announcing the winners of this Bento competition!” the announcer yelled into the microphone enthusiastically. “This envelope holds the names of the winners,” he said waving a cream colored envelope in front of the crowd. “Who do you think won, folks?”
Some people from the front row cheered the names of the Table 2 participants. Someone else yelled the names of those at Table 5. Their performance was very good during the two hour time-slot. They had the best chances of winning, Misaki thought.
She and Suzuna were at Table 4. She looked at Suzuna with an expression that would say, “Sorry, I let you down.”
Suzu blinked sympathetically. Misaki turned back toward the audience. Once again her eyes met emerald green pools. He smiled back at her.
“So it’s Table 2 or 5, eh?” the announcer asked jokingly. Usui raised his hand. “Looks like that gentleman with green eyes has something to add.”
Someone passed Usui a mic. “I’d bet on Table 4.”
“Table 4? The Ayuzawa Sisters?” the announcer asked. “What do you say folks?”
Misaki smiled at Usui sarcastically.
“Well, then. Let’s not hold this suspense for so long. I’m pretty sure everyone’s dying to know the results.” He opened the envelope and pulled out the card from inside. “And the winner is…”
Usui winked at her. “I’m always right,” he mouthed.
“Table 4, Ayuzawa Sisters!”
Misaki stared in disbelief. They couldn’t actually have won. Could they? The judges stood up and clapped for them and that answered her questions. All the other participants came to congratulate them while the announcer rattled on about all the prizes they’d be getting. The audience whopped and clapped, which included a smug looking Usui.
Once all the formalities were over, the two Ayuzawa Sisters walked out of the auditorium hand in hand.
“I knew you could do it, sis,” Suzuna said.
“Oh, please. They were your recipes.”
“Sometimes, sis, it’s the cook that makes the difference and not the recipes. And I tried those. Trust me, if I’d made them they wouldn’t even be worth entering this competition. They were really good,” she said solemnly.
Misaki’s cheeks were a light pink color. “Stop flattering me, Suzu.”
“It’s not flattery. It’s the truth,” Usui said appearing from nowhere.
“Yeah, Misa-chan. They’re really good.” Shintani also appeared from nowhere. He had a half-eaten pastry in his right hand. “And let me guess. It’s Suzuna-chan’s recipe, right?
“Yes,” Suzuna squeaked. It was her turn to be a little scarlet around her cheeks. In no time Suzuna had moved on ahead chatting away with Shintani while Misaki was left to walk alongside hher perverted-outer-space-alien boyfriend.
“I told you so, Misa-chan,” he said once they were out of earshot of the others. “I’m proud of you, Ayuzawa.” He had a soft look in his eyes.
“Uh… yeah.” She felt her cheeks starting to warm up. “Usui, thanks for helping me,” she said not looking at him.
He chuckled. “Anytime, Ayuzawa. Anytime.”
They walked home hand in hand.