Inside, I saw a long metallic counter, in a L shape. There was also a large sink, twice the size of a standard one, with a gleaming faucet. Three large refrigerators, with a pull out drawer at the bottom, resided in the corner. A large shelf contained a variety of spices and other bottled edibles. This was a fuckin’ master chef workstation. Seriously, did students really require all this equipment?
Zhuyu sat on barstool, discussing something with En. Kuan stood at the counter, kneading dough with his hands. Kisai washed dishes at a smaller sink, an apron over his school uniform. A whiteboard contained names and pictures of various foods. Did they run the damn cooking club? Ichaival chopped up meat and then rushed over to the stove, turning it off. I didn’t predict or anticipate anything like this.
“Welcome, Yuki. You’ll have to wait, I’m afraid. We’re still busy setting up,” Zhuyu apologized for all the activity.
“Yeah, I can see that. What did you want to talk about?” I glanced around the room, still shocked.
“It was about this,” Zhuyu revealed, handing me an application.
Hang on, I wasn’t even part of this yet? Jen handed me a pen and I walked over to a table. Time to look over this thing.
“Change the seasoning? You might be right,” Zhuyu pondered, peering at the whiteboard.
“You don’t have to change it if you don’t want to,” En said.
“No, let’s do it. Let’s see how much it’ll change the taste,” Zhuyu decided.
Ichaival dumped the chopped meat into a boiling pot and inspected the shelf. He grabbed several bottles. Kuan called Kisai over, handing him the bowl of dough. His friend nodded and placed a towel over it. This wasn’t just cooking for leisure. It was serious dedication to the craft, or maybe they were just messing around with me, putting on a show.
“This is all you wanted to talk about?” I asked, filling out the form.
“There’s one more thing. Hey Kana,” Zhuyu greeted my classmate as she walked in.
“Jin-senpai, I’ll finish that for you. Go help Kuan,” Kana ordered.
“You sure? I can handle it. Don’t underestimate me,” Kisai disagreed, smiling.
“Stop being a dumbass and help me out here,” Kuan said, pulling his friend over.
How lively. Honestly, I thought it was a front for underground fighting. But, it looked legit so far.
“What a large crowd. Zhuyu, you get her to fill it out?” Old Stone walked in and grabbed an apron from a rack near the front door.
“She’s doing it right now. I heard there’s a visitor downstairs, right?” Zhuyu pointed at me before grabbing an apron too.
“Yeah, some kid from a private school. You know him, right?” Old Stone nodded.
“Of course. He still stuck there?” Zhuyu asked.
“He’s getting grilled by that ass teacher, Miller. He has all the proper permits and everything though. Don’t worry, the other teachers will talk sense into Miller,” Old Stone replied, checking a binder with handwritten pages inside.
“Miller-sensei has a vendetta against almost everything, but if you show him you followed the rules, he won’t hound you,” Zhuyu remarked.
“Who’s this visitor?” Ichaival asked, scooping up soup with a ladle.
“He’s doing drawings and sketches for us,” Zhuyu replied.
“Hey, why can’t Kuan do it? He’s an artist,” Kisai pointed out.
“We need an outsider to do it, some weird rule about not having members misrepresent themselves,” Zhuyu explained.
“I would, but like Long said, it’s not possible,” Kuan said.
“Zhang, can you grab the ingredients?” Zhuyu turned to his friend.
“Yeah,” En replied.
En took out a huge piece of meat. He placed it into the sink and grabbed an apron. Zhuyu brought out a large cutting board and inspected the knife collection. He selected a butcher knife and placed his right finger against the blade.
“Zhang, hand me that knife,” Zhuyu directed.
His friend handed him another blade and Zhuyu sharpened his original blade with it. After about a minute, Zhuyu nodded with satisfaction, and transferred a piece of meat onto the cutting board.
“This is a pretty good cut, not a lot of fat. Ah, they hid it here. Zhang, can you get the seasoning mix ready?” Zhuyu lifted up the meat, examining it.
“I’m getting everything for it right now,” En answered.
“Why do you want me to join anyways?” I questioned, waving my form in the air.
“We need one more person for a full team. You’re the only one who could join on such short notice. You’re the one who makes it possible for us to enter two different tournaments,” Zhuyu disclosed.
“Tournament?” I stared at him in confusion.
“I’ll take that. How will the teams look, Long?” Old Stone inquired.
“Isn’t that your job? You’re the advisor after all,” Zhuyu pointed out.
“I’ll take a look when I get home,” Old Stone said, adjusting his glasses with a sigh.
There was a knock and Jacque, wearing a fancy uniform, walked in.
“Hey Long, finally made it. Man, your teacher down there is a scumbag. He made me go through so much b*******,” Jacque insulted.
“Yeah, that’s what he’s like. Anyway, let’s introduce you to everyone. Jin’s the only one here who knows you,” Zhuyu decided.
“Hey, Rock Kisle. Just call me Kisle since I don’t like how my last name sounds,” Jacque introduced himself.
The artist placed his bag on the ground, taking out a camera, adjusting the lens. I thought Jacque only knew how to draw.
“What kind of shots do you want? I’m not the best photographer. Drawings are just as bad. I’m surprised you even called me here, bro,” Jacque lamented.
“That’s why you’re getting help. Not that I don’t trust you, of course,” Zhuyu replied with a grin.
“Bro, come on. I can start working on these epic sketches, right?” Jacque laughed, putting his camera away.
“Hey, Stone-sensei, no one told me anything about this tournament,” I questioned the teacher.
“This might help,” Old Stone answered as he whisked something in a metal bowl.
He handed me a flyer and thin booklet with golden letters on the front. It read “First Ever Burning Master Cook Citywide Culinary Club Competition”. Such an unnecessary title. There were simultaneous competitions occurring, requiring school culinary clubs to split their members into two separate teams. The first focused on mastery, pleasing appearance of food, and overall taste. The second covered homemade dishes and passed-down recipes, capturing the feeling and comfort of home cooking. Bold black letters with a red outline stressed the fiery competitive nature of the contest and highlighted celebrities in attendance.
“Seems pretty overboard for just a city wide contest,” I remarked.
There was another knock on the door. A girl, cat hairpins and clippings in her hair, walked in.
“Ko, perfect timing. Could you help out with photos we need for the upcoming contest?” Zhuyu asked, trimming off fat from the piece of meat.
“I’m more than happy to help. Kisle, you ready to take kickass photos so I can take over the world? I can’t let Long steal all the fame,” Ko asked, raising her camera in the air.
“Definitely. Everyone would love to see you as the future president,” Jacque agreed, laughing as he checked his camera screen.
“You hear that, Long? I’m definitely taking over the world before you. Face my wrath!” Ko declared, pointing at him.
“Yeah, I hear you. As long as you get me good photos, I don’t care what you do,” Zhuyu said, calling En over.
Ko pointed at Jacque’s screen, giving him pointers on lighting and angle adjustment. I really didn’t expect her to be so good. Old Stone poured out the contents of his bowl onto a baking sheet and took out cookie cutters. Huh, didn’t peg him as someone to make cookies.
“I just do this and it’ll sharpen the image?” Jacque pointed at his screen.
“You just go boop and boop. Then you’ll have what you want,” Ko nodded, adding entertaining sound effects.
“Okay, I’m getting the hang of it,” Jacque said.
Zhuyu and En washed the meat, finally slicing it up into smaller pieces. Ichaival lifted up a large pot from the stove and deposited it on a nearby table. Kuan instructed Jin on how to fold the dough, making dumplings. Kana poured water into a large steamer and placed a towel on top of the lid. Jen assisted Old Stone, pressing various cutters down onto the flattened dough.
“Surprise shot, got you!” Ko yelled and Zhuyu dropped his knife on the counter.
“Damn it, Ko, you surprised me,” the man said, retrieving his cooking blade.
“Hah, hah, I caught Long messing up. Time to keep it as blackmail material. Maybe Feng-senpai will pay me for this photo,” Ko said, snapping another photo.
“Yuki, how’s your first day?” Kana asked, sitting down next to me.
“I really haven’t done anything. It’s weird seeing everyone gathered in one place cooking,” I admitted.
“I get what you mean. It’s hard to believe, but everyone here is really good. JIn-senpai started out bad but he’s a pro now. Still not as good as Kuan or Darryl,” Kana revealed, taking out a pack of Prime Pockets.
“What does that make Long?” I asked, curious about his abilities.
“Not as experienced as Kuan or Darryl, but he knows a wide range of dishes. No one’s better than the president though,” Kana answered, munching on her snack.
“Talking about the president? He’s pretty good looking. Can’t match up to me of course. Do you know where he is, Kana?” Kisai walked by, overhearing our conversation.
“No idea,” Kana answered.
“Stone-sensei, know anything about Minato?” Zhuyu asked the teacher.
“Tama? On the rooftop staring up at the clouds. That’s his idea of inspiration,” Old Stone answered.
“I need to give everyone cat ears?” Jacque looked over at Ko, pausing his sketch.
“Of course. Come on, Kisle! It totally make Jin look better. See how these change you!” Ko nodded, her passion for cats overwhelming.
“Uh, I’ll think about it,” Jacque said.
En worked on a mix, pouring soy sauce into a bowl and added another ingredient. Zhuyu watched his friend in silence, nodding. Old Stone shoved his cookies into the oven and Kuan finally placed the completed dumplings into the steamer. I glanced up at the clock and saw an hour already passed. Damn, time flew by.
“Everyone is working hard,” I heard an unfamiliar voice.
I turned around and saw a ridiculously handsome man. It was absurd, as if pulled out from a magazine. He wore his uniform unbuttoned with no tie. I saw a special pin on his lapel. He had typical pretty boy hair, shining even without a good light source.
“Welcome back, Minato-senpai,” Kana greeted.
“Yuki, you’re here! Long finally convinced you to join. Stone-sensei, set up the teams yet?” Minato questioned, picking up a clipboard.
“It’s your responsibility,” Old Stone replied.
“The same as always, huh? Can I consider Yuki part of the team?” Minato asked, pointing at me with his pen.
“Yeah,” Old Stone confirmed.
“Okay, that gives me choices. I’ll have several combinations for you by tomorrow,” Minato said, tapping his pen against the clipboard.
“The registration is due in two days,” Old Stone reminded the club president.
“Why are we so late?” I questioned.
“You gotta trust us, Yuki,” Kisai remarked.
“Don’t worry, there’s no way we’ll miss the deadline. Time to go home and play online games with Darryl,” Minato said, staring over at Ichaival.
“What? No! Yi, don’t listen to him, I swear I’m not,” Ichaival denied, shaking his head frantically.
“I was really looking forward to kicking your ass. Come on, Darryl, it can’t be you’re scared, right?” Kisai instigated.
“Wha-, no! Doesn’t change my answer at all,” Ichaival said.
“Got it, you mean don’t tell Yi and it’s all good. Perfect, makes sense,” Kisai twisted his friend’s words, nodding with understanding.
“You bastard. Yi, listen, Jin’s playing around. Minato, you stop too!” Ichaival pleaded.
Everyone resumed their cooking afterwards. Minato stood near the window, staring at the scenery outside. Jacque and Ko continued taking pictures. Ko sat next to me, giving me a strange look. A lot like the ones in my reality. A stretch to call it “strange”, but more like a stare that made me question her sanity.
“Ko-senpai, what’s going on?” I inquired.
“Nothing, just wanted to stare at you for a bit. Try to figure out if you’re an enemy or an ally in my eventual quest of world domination. If you side with Long, you will be an enemy forever. Choose wisely, Yuki,” Ko spat out nonsense.
“What did you really want to talk about?” I asked.
“Okay, serious time! Yuki, can you math?” Ko inquired, a crestfallen expression on her face.
“I’m alright. Not exactly the best,” I answered.
“Aw, I was hoping you could help me out,” Ko said, a sad look on her face.
“You’re a grade above me,” I pointed out.
“You’re right. I was just testing you, Yuki. Clickity, click, click! I just got a great shot. Thanks for playing along,” Ko revealed, sticking her tongue out at me.
I should have known. Ko was excellent at sucking people in with her weirdness. Jacque finally took out a sketchbook, leaving the rest of pictures to Ko. Kuan walked over, peering at it, and took out an eraser from his pocket. He adjusted one of the man’s drawings.
“Let’s go home and have fun!” Minato declared, raising his fist in the air.
“Hang on, we’re not done yet, Senpai!” Kana yelled.
“There’s a lot of clean up to do. I’ll leave it to you guys,” Minato instructed, heading toward the exit.
Was he a douchebag? My early instincts said yes, but based on experience, I would withhold judgment. He might have extenuating circumstances. I made that error with the heroes. Time to be more proactive about not jumping to conclusions.
“Does he have something to do?” I asked.
“Despite what he said, Minato’s taking care of paperwork,” Zhuyu replied.
“He wasted an hour staring out the window,” I accused.
“That’s how he comes up with recipes. Even if it seems like petty daydreaming. Of course, Jin knows that all too well, right?” Zhuyu glanced over at his friend.
“Nah, that’s not true. I’m actually doing homework. Just not putting it on paper when I stare out the window or look at the ceiling,” Kisai denied.
“So we done? I still have papers to grade, you know?” Old Stone took off his apron.
“Go ahead, Stone-sensei. We’ll take care of the clean up. Do you want us to sign you out too?” Jen offered.
” I appreciate that. Thanks, Jian. Clean everything or that ass Miller will be on my case again,” Old Stone thanked her.
“Kana, need any help?” I asked, noticing her carry a heavy load of dishes.
“Yeah, that’d be nice. Don’t drop it!” Kana warned.
“Don’t worry. I won’t break anything,” I assured her.
“You better not. I might not care about being late, but paying for something expensive would ruin me,” Kana remarked, placing things into the dishwasher.
We finisehd cleaning and everyone headed off in separate directions. Ichaival and Jen walked off somewhere. Kisai got a ride from his parents. Kuan took the bus home. Kana was in the opposite direction, leaving me with Zhuyu and En.
“Is that everyone in the club?” I asked as we boarded the train.
“No, we were missing someone. Lau couldn’t make it since he was doing something for drama,” Zhuyu answered.
“I had a fun time today. Didn’t actually get to do anything, but watching you guys was entertaining,” I commented.
“Glad to hear that. That’s the other reason why I wanted you to join. I dragged En into it and he’s having a blast,” Zhuyu responded, pointing at his friend with a grin.
“It’s pretty cool,” En agreed.
“There’s no meeting tomorrow, but if you want practice, Minato will be there. We’ll meet again the day after,” Zhuyu informed me.
“Are you busy or something?” I asked.
“Yeah, working on a project with Feng-senpai, a little favor she requested,” Zhuyu explained.
“Seems like a pain,” I pointed out.
“It is sometimes. Yuki, I’m stopping by somewhere before heading home. You look better so I hope you remember the way home,” Zhuyu teased, a slight smile on his face.
“I’m fine, don’t worry about me,” I said.
When it was my stop, En didn’t get off, still chatting with Zhuyu. Guess he lived farther away. I stared up at the sky, excited to get home. Time to determine if I possessed any culinary skills.
Synopsis: Somewhere in the universe, there was an altar. On it, laid a bloody eye as big as the sun itself. It burst with light and bathed the entire star system in red.
"The aura of an ancestral artifact!" Someone's voice rose in surprise.
The Great Galactic Era had begun.