“Really?” asked a young cameriera with a bob cut.
“Yeah, that bastard cheated on Natsume-san like crazy,” said Reiji. “I hear he has like four other girlfriends.”
Hiro crossed his arms. “I’ve always known Shikimi was an asshole. He doesn’t even visit her in the hospital, you know?”
“Be careful, Shimatane.” Reiji made a serious expression. “He might come after you next.”
Shimatane, the newly hired cameriera, furrowed her brows. “He doesn’t seem like such a bad guy. At least not someone who’d drive a girl to suicide. Doesn’t he look kinda depressed? Maybe he’s sorry for what he did.”
“That’s just an act,” said Hiro. “He tricked our mentor the same way. Chef Matsunaga going AWOL was his fault. Shikimi drove him out to get promoted. The guy has no skill. He became sous chef by fucking people over.”
“I wish he’d just quit,” said Reiji as if spitting out something bitter. “I can’t believe he’s still here when everyone treats him like shit.”
Ageha heaved a sigh. He had been heading to Sapore’s locker room to deposit a few things when he saw the two line chefs and the new server gossiping in the corridor. Coming out and greeting them would only cause needless friction, so he had decided to wait for them to finish.
His relationship with Reiji and Hiro, Matsunaga’s two proteges, had always been strained. While unaware that Ageha had killed their mentor, they still suspected him of somehow being involved in the former sous chef’s disappearance. They had never said anything out loud until Rin got hospitalized. After that, Ageha became a constant target of thinly veiled animosity.
He recalled his childhood. The current situation reminded him of the time Airi and Jin had framed him for theft. He thought he had grown stronger since then.
Still doesn’t feel nice, huh?
Seeing no end to the gossip session, Ageha gave up on the locker room and decided to keep his ring and terminal in his pockets. He turned around and headed back the way he came. From the cucina, Yama walked into the corridor and spotted him. The veteran chef sent him a glare.
“Good afternoon,” said Ageha.
Without returning the greeting, Yama passed him and joined the three chatting in the hallway.
Realizing he would never joke around with Yama again, Ageha unconsciously made a bitter smile. He was in no mood to cook, but no matter how deteriorated, he was still a chef. Service would be starting soon.
Time for work.
Dinner service was as arduous as usual. Heading a kitchen of mutineers was a near impossible task. Luckily, Head Chef Kirishima picked up the slack, and service ended with no major incidents.
Ageha was cleaning up his station when Yama walked up to him.
“I challenge you to a cooking showdown,” said the veteran chef.
Ageha stared at Yama’s face. “Have you gone bonkers?”
“Shut it. I’m not taking no for an answer.”
“I have no idea where this is coming from.”
“I don’t like you, that’s where. If I win, step down from your position as sous chef. I’ll take your place.”
I get it now.
Yama had finally decided to take down the evil sous chef and get revenge for Rin.
Ageha shook his head. “I don’t have the authority to decide that.”
Kirishima, who had overheard their conversation, approached them. “Sounds interesting. I’ll recognize it, assuming Shikimi agrees.”
Yama’s mouth twisted into an exaggerated smirk. “You heard the boss. You gonna run with your tail between your legs?”
Yama looked at him with narrowed eyes, as if doubting his quick agreement. A crowd of curious chefs and servers steadily gathered around them.
“Let’s get this over with,” said Ageha. “What are the rules?”
Kirishima held his chin. “Let’s see… Make one dish, a primo piatto. Prepare enough portions for each person here. We’ll do a blind tasting, and everyone will choose the dish they like best. The time limit is one hour.” The head chef closed his eyes. “Hmm… for the theme…”
Shimatane raised her hand. “How about ‘summer’ since we’re going into the season?”
Reiji raised his index finger in front of his lips. “Be quiet!”
Kirishima nodded and opened his eyes. “Alright, summer it is. We’re about to come up with Sapore’s seasonal specials. If they’re good enough, I’ll include the dishes you two will prepare. Any questions?”
““No, chef!”” said Ageha and Yama in unison.
Because the judging was going to be a blind tasting, the audience moved to the sala. Kirishima announced the start of the contest before leaving the kitchen himself. Ageha and Yama moved to their respective stations without saying a word to each other.
Ageha contemplated what kind of dish he should prepare as he gathered ingredients from the pantry. He grabbed semolina flour, eggs, tomatoes, eggplant, herbs, aromatics, and preserved meat. Making fresh pasta for so many people was time consuming, but after considering the time limit and his speed, he decided to take the risk.
While mixing the flour with eggs to make the pasta dough, Ageha peeked at his rival. It looked like Yama’s pasta dish would use lemons as the base flavor. The pile of vegetables on Yama’s counter suggested he would do a light vegetarian pasta. It was quite a contrast to his own approach. Yama was skilled at subtle dishes, while Ageha excelled in robust flavors. Ageha found the matchup quite interesting.
It was going to be a close match. He needed something to pull ahead of the competition. From the corner of his eye, he noticed a jar of wrinkled red fruits.
Ageha spent the rest of his hour weaving his summer-inspired creation for an army of hungry ristorante workers. The two contestants finished at roughly the same time.
“Let’s begin the judging,” said Kirishima.
Sapore’s staff were all seated in the sala with two plates of pasta in front of them. Yama and Ageha had served their dishes alongside their opponent’s. None of the judges knew who made what.
Yama’s summer harvest linguine looked and smelled fantastic. The strong lemon aroma whetted the diner’s appetite, and the verdant medley of zucchini, artichoke, fava beans, and basil were entwined with the pasta. Shaved lemon zest and pecorino toscano littered the top. Small herbed croutons lingered on the edge of the plate.
A cooked pasta salad.
Pecorino toscano, a hard sheep’s cheese, was usually put on salads. The same was true for the herbed croutons, which provided crunch and concentrated flavor. Yama’s entry melded the concept of a summer salad with the density of a primo piatto. Ageha did not have to taste it to understand its excellence.
Everyone started digging into their pasta. Moans of awe and pleasure filled the sala.
Kirishima, who judged the dishes on the head chef’s counter, gave his impressions in front of the two competitors. Ageha’s analysis of Yama’s linguine was spot on. Kirishima added that the perfect amount of lemon juice and zest in the dish held everything together and screamed summer with every bite.
The head chef then turned his fork to Ageha’s plate. After taking a bite, Kirishima gave him a look.
I knew you’d figure it out instantly.
Yama gulped as he watched Kirishima taste Ageha’s fettucine. He could not believe the young chef had enough time to make fresh pasta from scratch for more than a dozen people in a little under one hour. His own dish turned out even better than he expected, but how would it fare against the young sous chef’s creation?
In contrast to Yama’s green and white concoction, Ageha’s dish was bright red. Tomatoes, which deeply evoked summer, were pureed and used in the sauce. Thinly sliced raw tomatoes peeked out from between golden orange pasta strands. Strips of roasted eggplant draped delicately over one side of the pasta mound, making the plate look like a work of art.
Kirishima used his fork to nudge around the brown square flakes garnishing the fettucine. “The guanciale are perfectly cooked. The rich flavor gives depth and rounds out the sharp acidity of the San Marzano tomatoes in the sauce.” He rolled some of the fettucine onto his fork and took a bite. “The guanciale fat was not used in the sauce. That kept the dish light and appetizing even in the summer heat.” He took another bite and closed his eyes. “Fresh pasta… and sun-dried tomatoes?”
Yama squinted at the fettuccine and saw dark red bits dotting its length.
He mixed sundried tomatoes into the fresh pasta!
Unlike Yama who used dry linguine, Ageha could add ingredients to enhance his pasta. That allowed him to add an extra layer of complexity to his dish.
Kirishima deeply nodded. “This is a brilliant addition. Not only does the inclusion of tomatoes fit the theme, it also adds bite to the fettuccine. Fresh pasta overcooks much easier than dry. Preparing a large number of portions before serving risks fresh pasta going limp from residual heat. Mixing firm and chewy sun dried tomatoes into the pasta dough compensates for that.”
Yama turned his head and stared at Ageha.
He really is a genius!
Instead of despairing, Yama felt overjoyed. Ageha had not lost his touch. He might have been off his game recently, but this primo piatto proved he still had what it took to lead Sapore’s kitchen as the sous chef.
From the beginning, Yama did not believe he could beat Ageha in a cooking contest. He had noticed some of Sapore’s employees, led by Matsunaga’s minions, were badmouthing Ageha. The exaggerated rumors were ruining Ageha’s reputation and authority, especially among the new hires. The information about his infidelity had leaked from Yama. He felt responsible for letting it get out of hand.
It would be a lie to say he had gotten over his ill feelings towards the young chef. However, he had seen firsthand how much Rin’s coma had affected Ageha. There was probably a deeper story behind the events surrounding Rin’s attempted suicide, but without trying to learn that, he had showered Ageha with blame and hostility.
In order to make it up to Ageha, Yama had decided to challenge him to a cooking contest. Doubts about Ageha’s skill would disappear the moment he won, and it was possible that he would get out of his slump at the same time.
But most of all, Yama wanted to use this battle as a chance to make amends with him.
“Time for the decision,” said Kirishima, addressing the entire sala. “On my signal, those who think the linguine dish is superior, raise your right hand, and those who believe the fettuccine is better, raise your left hand.”
With Yama’s defeat, he would become friends with Ageha again, just like two boys shaking hands after a scuffle. Then he would discover the truth behind Rin’s incident and save Ageha from his suffering.
“Begin,” said Kirishima.
Everyone raised their right hand, including the head chef.
The head chef extended his hand to Yama. “Congratulations. It was an excellent dish truly reminiscent of summer.”
Without accepting the handshake, Yama turned to Ageha. Though the young man’s eyes reflected a shade of sadness, he was smiling. His features showed no hint of mortification.
“Congratulations Yama-san,” said Ageha. ”Please continue doing your best as Sapore’s sous chef.”
Yama marched up to him and grabbed his collar. “What the hell are you talking about!? As if such an important position could be decided by a dumb contest like this!”
Murmurs from the audience reached his ears, but he ignored them.
“You were the one who proposed it.”
“I just wanted you to come to your senses!”
“…I hoped that was the case. Thank you, Yama-san. I could not ask for a better senpai.” Ageha’s lips formed a sincere smile.
“What the hell are you thanking me for? ” Yama looked at Kirishima. “Head chef, you won’t recognize this farce, right?”
“I have no intention of going back on my words,” said Kirishima. “From today on, you are Sapore’s sous chef.”
The people in the sala exploded with gasps, some exclaiming in disbelief.
Yama tightened his grip on Ageha’s collar. “Say something! Don’t you care about your job!?”
“Thing is, it is not my job anymore. I resigned a few days ago. Today is my last day here. I did not want to raise a fuss, so I asked Chef Kirishima to keep it under wraps. That did not turn out so well though.” Ageha chuckled weakly.
Yama unconsciously released his grip. “You quit..? W-Why?”
“I got a job as a personal chef.”
“A personal chef? How can you be satisfied with that!?”
Yama knew how much pride Ageha had in his craft. Limiting those who could sample his cooking was nonsensical. The true reason lay elsewhere. Yama did not have to think hard about it. Everyone in Sapore treated Ageha like a pest, including him. Though the young chef never retaliated with his authority or words, that kind of work environment would drive anyone away.
“It pays better,” said Ageha.
“Is it my fau-”
“It pays better.” His tone was firm.
That’s why he accepted my challenge so easily.
It’s a convenient way to pass the torch to me.
“Did you throw the match?” asked Yama.
Ageha had much more talent than he did. Though Yama winning against him could happen by chance, a unanimous judgment was impossible.
“I would never do something so stupid. To be honest, I wanted to leave behind a good impression, but a loss is a loss.”
“I don’t believe you.”
Ageha grabbed the plate of fettuccine on the head chef’s counter and handed it to Yama. “Give it a try.”
Yama did just that.
The ideas in the dish were excellent, but for some reason, the taste was nothing special. There were numerous minor errors in preparation and lazy shortcuts. One or two of those would not affect the dish significantly, but everything stacked together was enough to push a fine recipe to mediocrity. In particular, the seasoning was a little off, a mistake Ageha would normally never make.
The new sous chef glared at Ageha. “So you were pulling punches!”
“Not intentionally. Everything I make turns out like that.”
Ageha sighed and stepped closer to Yama. In a small, feeble voice, he said, “I can’t cook here anymore. There’s too much of her.”
Yama finally understood. Emotion heavily influenced cooking. Food prepared with negative feelings naturally turned out terrible. Professional chefs were trained to minimize that effect, and it is a basic job requirement to perform consistently while putting aside emotional baggage. Even so, there were exceptions. Chefs were human. So was Ageha. And he was broken.
“I’m so sorry.” The words leaked out of Yama’s mouth unconsciously.
“Don’t sweat it.” Ageha placed a hand on Yama’s shoulder. “Good luck, sous chef.”
Yama could not reply. Ageha dropping polite language cemented his resignation from Sapore.
Ageha bowed his head deeply to Kirishima. “Sorry for causing you so much trouble. I apologize for not being able to meet your expectations.” Without waiting for a reply, he turned to everyone in the sala and bowed again. “I apologize for everything. I have no right to request this of you, but please take care of Sapore.” He lifted his head and headed towards the exit.
Everyone watched him silently. Right before he reached for the door, Yama unconsciously took two steps forward.
The young man stopped his feet.
“Someday! Let’s work together again.”
Ageha did not turn around. “That’s impossible.” He disappeared through Sapore’s main entrance.
“Is that all your stuff?” asked Kaika.
Ageha, carrying a large box in his hands and a rucksack on his back, turned to the little girl beside him. “Pretty much.”
“You should have seen his apartment, Ojousama,” said Saya. “Barren as a desert.”
The three of them were walking down the Nikaido mansion corridor. Saya followed a few steps behind the pair as they headed to Ageha’s new room.
Kaika raised an eyebrow. “That so? I know the mansion already has everything you’ll need, but are you sure you didn’t forget anything? A box and a bag being the entirety of your worldly possessions is kinda worrisome.”
“I have a few more things at Sapore. I wanted to get those the other day, but I couldn’t just go back to the locker room after that dramatic exit.”
“Did you finally gain an appreciation for theatrics?”
“No, it was just plain embarrassing.”
“What’s so odd about that?”
“You ogle naked girls and show off your private parts like it’s nothing. I didn’t think you had any shame left in that body.”
“Ageha,” said Saya, her cheek twitching. “What does Ojousama mean by ogling naked girls?”
“You’re not gonna ask about the second one?” mumbled Kaika.
“That wasn’t my fault,” said Ageha. “I just bumped into Kai while she was wandering around the mansion naked.”
Kaika’s pink lips twisted in mischief. “That wasn’t the only time, was it? I remember you barging into the bathroom and seeing me and Rin-” Her expression froze before turning faintly somber. “Nevermind.”
Ageha did not say anything.
Saya shut her eyes and sighed internally.
Again, this atmosphere.
The banter they usually enjoyed always turned sour at the mention of that woman. Though Saya had competed with Rin for Ageha’s affections, she never hated her. She had even respected Rin’s strength and righteousness. But that was before. The suffocating shroud that woman had veiled upon her loved ones had birthed a dull hatred within her.
Why didn’t you just disappear quietly?
Saya scolded herself. Instead of victim-blaming, she should be lifting the mood of her companions.
“Me… too,” said Arashi.
“Whaa!!” shouted Saya. “Where did you come from!?”
Arashi, who had appeared beside Saya, tilted her head with a poker face.
“What do you mean, Arashi?’” asked Kaika.
“Ageha… also saw me… naked.”
Saya instantly figured out that Arashi was joking around to get rid of the dreary mood. She winked at her in gratitude.
Arashi tilted her head to the other side.
It can’t be…
Is she telling-
“The truth, Ageha,” said Saya in a cold, monotone voice. All expression had left her face.
“Scary,” said Kaika.
Without a break in his stride, Ageha said, “We were fighting.”
“He undressed… me. My breasts…” said Arashi.
“Pray tell why you would need to undress her while you were fighting, Ageha-sama.” Saya’s speech became even politer than usual.
Ageha shrugged his shoulders, causing the contents of the box in his hands to clatter. “I wanted to grab her pineapples.”
“Now why would you intentionally plant a landmine and step on it like that?” asked Kaika with a sigh.
“I’m just telling the truth. Some grenades are called pineapples.”
“So are some boobs.”
“Arashi’s don’t fall into that category. Not yet, at least.”
“And why would you know that, Ageha-sama?” asked Saya. Her expression looked similar to Buddha achieving enlightenment.
“Ageha always… presses my boobs… against his body,” said Arashi with a blush.
Saya’s poker face collapsed and reformed into that of a rakshasi demon.
Kaika tugged at Ageha’s shirt. “Hurry up and deny it before things get out of hand! It’s about boobs, Ageha! Boobs!”
“Stop saying boobs over and over. It’s ruining your cute face. And I refuse.”
“Why would you refuse!? Our hair follicles are in grave danger! And thanks.”
“Because it’s technically true. And Saya is very cute like this.”
Kaika glanced at her butler. “Good point. As expected of the boyfriend, you know your stuff.”
The two of them cockily grinned at each other as if reaching a mutual understanding.
Arashi tapped Saya’s shoulder to get her attention. “Piggyback… ride.”
Saya recalled Ageha coming to the mansion with a weakened Arashi on his back the other night.
So that’s what she meant.
The embers of jealousy inside Saya were doused, and her face loosened up. She wanted nothing more than to ease Ageha’s and Kaika’s melancholy, but being a verbal punching bag was still exhausting.
The moment the banter subsided, the two in front of her released an aura of gloom once again.
On second thought, being a punching bag is easier to deal with than this.
She decided to put her plan into motion despite knowing she would likely end up as their stress reliever.
“Ojousama, there is going to be a large shrine festival in the neighboring town this weekend. Would you like to go visit? All four of us. You would not need any other guards that way.”
Kaika had never gone to a shrine festival. It would be a good change of pace for everyone.
“…I’m not in the mood. Go take Ageha on a date or something.”
Surprised her mistress did not take the bait, Saya desperately searched for a way to convince her. Arashi beat her to the punch.
“Festival!” Arashi’s sleepy eyes widened and sparkled. She jogged forward, overtook Kaika, and grabbed her hands. “Kai, let’s go!”
Kaika looked at the adorable teen for a moment and slumped her shoulders. “Fine.”
“Don’t I get a say in this?” asked Ageha.