While the cicadas buzzed in the trees at sunset during the Obon festival, their droning dulling her head already heavy after a day of cooking, feasting, and serving food, Sakuno swore she would close her eyes against any further demands for a last helpings of dessert. She would let them serve themselves from now on; all there was to do was snuggle up against her Grandma's thigh and rest until the fireworks started.
"Oi, oi, Sakuno-chan! More, please? Please?" Kintarou-kun. His whines grew closer and the cloth picnic blanket underneath her legs vibrated with his bounces.
"Kintarou, go away. Get seconds yourself."
Her Grandma gave voice to both their sentiments; they had both been run ragged playing hostesses to the regulars' teams of no less than six high schools (plus Kintarou, who, when Sakuno had casually told him about the Obon festival plans, had simply invited himself along). It had been the fruit of nearly a month of planning and meeting the various demands of the teams so that all could express this party's theme of 'reconciliation and goodwill' to their satisfaction. For Sakuno, who had taken the responsibility of designing the menu with Taka-san and Tomo-chan and creating all the baked goods herself, this had entailed making six great cakes, layer cakes which were to display each school's colors and symbols. Atobe-san had wanted the biggest cake for Hyotei, naturally, and he wanted a Hyotei crest made with real gold embedded in the top layer; then Mizuki-san wanted an even bigger cake with real diamonds sprinkled at the base of each tier. For such otherwise intelligent people, Sakuno doubted whether either of them had the firmest grasp on what 'reconciliation' really meant.
And now she had spent the whole day at the great Obon festival, catering both lunch and supper while the teams had exhibition tournaments and everyone else went to the booths or played games. She had managed to sneak away with Tomo-chan and Ann-chan for a couple of karaoke songs, but there had not been a single moment of peace otherwise until the teams and hosts had retired to their assigned picnic grounds right next to the courts. Dusk was nearly settling upon them but the matches between teams were still going strong. It had been easier when there had been only Ryoma-kun to root for; she'd tried to give a cheer for or wave at all of her new friends when they played, but it was so hard to make sure each player got equal treatment. Ryoma-kun and Tomo-chan in particular scowled to themselves if she gave one single "FIGHTO" not directed at them. Niou gave her the finger when she booed him as a joke. Sanada-san had tried to slap him, but her grandmother beat him to it. Anybody who thought that no one could hit harder than Sanada was proved horribly wrong.
The light was so beery, the fireworks so near that the last match, between the Fuji brothers, was nearing its end. No special techniques were being used now, so the cracking of the ball against the court achieved a hypnotic rhythm, back and forth across the net. It enhanced her comfort, helping Sakuno loll off into a nice warm cocoon of semi-consciousness.
Someone landed next to her, making her legs bounce, and her knees were jostled.
"Ne, ne, Sakuno-chan, did you see me and Koshimae play today? Which of us do you think is better?" Bounce, bounce, bounce. Sakuno regretted not putting limits on how many desserts the guests could eat—Kintarou was doped up on cupcakes and sweet bean paste. "Ne! Sakuno-chan! The fireworks are gonna start soon. Watch them with me and Koshimae!"
She was doing a fine job of pretending to nap until there was a yelp of unfeigned pain. Her eyes opened in time to catch Akaya-kun seize the younger boy by his ruddy mop of hair and send him sprawling. "Beat it, kid. You're bothering her." His scowl flourished into an insouciant grin-and-wink combo as he sat down next to her, boldly ignorant of her grandmother's scrutiny. "Mind if I sit here, Saku-bunny?"
"No! You can't! Only Koshimae can sit there!"
"I wasn't asking you, dumbass."
"Kirihara!" Her grandmother's voice had gone raw-edged from barking so many orders and demands for good behavior. The team captains and vice-captains had done their best to shoulder the burden 8fromtheir hostesses by doing a fair of shouting, but Grandma had never liked to delegate much. And without the structured atmosphere of a tournament or training camp, discipline got thrown out the window. Almost all of the redheads were acting like loons, Tomo-chan and Ann-chan were bossing everyone around, and the ostensibly friendly tennis had the air of grudge-matches from time to time—Akustu and Hiyoshi, for instance, nearly came to blows earlier over some martial arts boasting nonsense and Sengoku had given Shishido a black eye in the fog of war that had engulfed the crowd at the cooking competition (hadn't she seen him? He'd held up a sign and waved at her and everything!).
Such tensions had been foreseen, of course. The working theory was that the food and informal matches would take the edge off everyone's lingering aggression, softening hard feelings in time for the high tournament season. It did not hurt that her grandmother had authorized Oishi, whose main job today was to bustle about to make sure everyone wasn't going to kill each other and to chase off any uninvited guests (i.e., fan stalkers), to use measure of bribery to help things along. Once Sengoku had received the numbers of several eligible and willing Seigaku girls, provided by Tomo-chan, he acted like Jin was his brother from another mother. Oishi had nearly died when he actually took a close look at the papers he was to hand over, but prudishness did not win any friends and he'd done his boggle-eyed, red-faced duty.
So many players had challenged him that he hadn't had much time to rest or eat, but when he did have a break between matches Ryoma-kun had settled himself not too far away from her and her grandmother on the blanket's corner. "You both need to be quiet. I'm trying to eat."
"Oh! Did you try all of that yummy yakiniku, Koshimae? What did you have? It was all so good."
Sadly, hearing that from anyone else those words might have meant something special. Maybe that was why she and Kintarou got on so well. He had a lot of to spread around, and apparently so did she. Maybe they could start a food-slut club together, just the two of them. She would do all the cooking and he'd do all the eating and they could live in sinful completion.
She had been so intent on ignoring everyone that her grandmother's small pat completely blindsided her. "Isn't that right, honey?"
"Yukimura-kun here has been telling me about the coaches' arrangements for this year's invitational camp. I've already heard that the Kawamuras have agreed to cater the food. But Mr. Kawamura said that he won't be on-site very often. He also said he's not making up the menu, and neither is Taka-san. Who does that leave, hmmm?"
"Grandma! That was supposed to be a surprise."
She could hear Yukimura-san laughing at her. "I don't think anyone is going to be surprised. But I know that my team will be very happy to have our food in your hands."
It was probably gauche to mention that Mr. Kawamura had given her the assignment not only to see how far she had progressed in her apprenticeship, but too punish her a bit as well. He had not been unkind about it, but being bullied and making side-bets that directly interfered with the restaurant's schedule in any way without telling the boss was generally not taken well by most managers. She'd been lucky to keep her apprenticeship. "If you're so crazy about those tennis teams like Taka was, then you can feed them for a week," he'd said to her, eyes glinting. The task had given her some terrific flashbacks and nightmares for a couple of days; no one needed to know that either. Seeing everyone at this gathering refraining from killing each other heartened her, so she could try to make a joke of it. She turned her head and mirrored Yukimura's disingenuous smile.
"Are you kidding? Why do you think I agreed to do all of this work and help make this such a big party? If I'm going to be feeding you foodies at the invitational camp, I need to practice. I need to get all of your tastes down. I'm pretty sure I know what Rikkai likes now, though, so you'll be easy to do."
"Ooh! What's this about food and invitational camps?" Her legs got wiggled again. She should have known. Ryoma-kun wasn't the best conversational partner and Kintarou-kun did have ears like a bat for certain topics. "You're going to be cooking for everyone there? Every day?"
"What a big job! But you could do it, Sakuno-chan. You could feed them all on onigiri and noodles and everyone could eat your evening dessert under the stars!"
"I don't know if we're going to eat outside much," she began, but he steamrolled onward.
"Man, if only you had one of those all-in-one flash-fryer/double-boiler/atomic clock/julienne fry- maker doodads installed in the kitchens there. That'd probably make things easier for you. Maybe you can ask Atobe to get one."
"I wish I could. I doubt he'll spring for it," she said, an ache worming its way through the core of contentment in her heart. That dream was still so far off. There were so many dreams so far off: a all-in-one flash-fryer/double-boiler/atomic clock/julienne fry maker, her own restaurant, some lasting peace and quiet. Ann-chan told her that if she'd had any brains, she should hold the whole cooking tournament fiasco over Atobe's head and make him buy her a restaurant. Sakuno had responded by asking whether or not any of the deals she'd struck with Atobe had ended up without some disaster. Faust had come out better than she did.
"Hey, if Koshimae and everyone else here is gonna be at the camp, will Shitenhouji get to go too?" His hopeful smile was met with dubious frowns all around, so he returned his buttery-eyed gaze to her, and Sakuno only shrugged.
"I don't know, Kintarou-kun. Your school's in the Western block of teams and it's so far away-"
"Don't count on it," Ryoma grunted. Kintarou's spontaneous tears were dammed up by a surge of defiance.
"Then we'll sneak in! Shiraishi-buchou can do anything."
"No, you won't. We'll be watching for you and kick you out."
"Oi, Sakuno-chan! Where are the rest of the bento boxes? I can't find them."
"As you know, Ryuuzaki, Ore-sama and the other team captains will have to finalize your menu choices for the invitational camp, so you must submit your recipes soon. And remember, they will be meals for athletes, so they must be nutritious. The desserts too. No added sugar or fats; stick to fruits if you can."
"Marui-kun can't function on that kind of diet, Atobe-san. You know that," Sakuno replied lightly, the truth of the protest bolstered by Sanada-san's grunt. She did not need to crack open her eye the tiniest bit to know that the Atobe's reaction would be a brief flaring of the nostrils and a contemptuous upward tilt of the chin towards Marui-kun.
"Then make cakes and cookies and whatnot for the sugar-beast, but only for him. My team doesn't need hyper-metabolic doping to play at their best."
"I want sweet whatnots, too, Atobe," sang out Oshitari.
"Yeah! Two desserts a day, for lunch and supper! That's only fair! Tezuka-buchou, don't you want it to be fair, nyah? Tezuuuuuka-buchoooou!"
Snapping gum and a laugh nearby. "Oh, please, you losers can't train properly with two desserts a day like I can. You'd only get fat—fatter than you already are, Eiji-fatass. Besides, Sakuno-chan likes making desserts for me best because nobody appreciates her delicious sweets more than me. We'll be wed someday, you know."
"Yeah, when her grandmother dies." Niou, and no follow-up slap. Sanada-san must be somewhere else. Her grandmother touched her forehead gently and, with that signal, they reached for the nearest pieces of food and flung them at his head. Nanjiroh-san had been good practice.
"Sakuno, when'm gone, ya won't inherit a single yen if you marry tha' boy. And remind me to spit in that Niou's food when he goes to the bathroom. Heh."
The soft cushion beneath her cheek shifted as her grandmother reclined further back, arms behind her head. Getting buzzed always oiled those aged joints, and when there was not a crack to be heard as all the old bones moved then Grandma was well on her way to a brief but unroustable sleep, a sleep so powerful that Sakuno had called the police three times in the last year until she finally could recognize the difference between a good nap and a coma.
"Saku-bunny! Are you free this weekend? Buchou and fukubuchou never come, but the rest of us guys are coming up to try the new arcade games here. You guys in Tokyo have it so good, you get more cool things earlier...But do you want to join us? You can even bring your evil friends with you. It'd be fun. Do you like dancing games? Fighting games?"
"For the last time, leave her alone. Why can't any of you idiots see that she's not paying any attention to you?"
Bless Ryoma-kun; he seemed to be the only one who understood the bliss of a good rest after much work. His chiding bought her around three seconds of peace, not one word assaulting her as she turned a little bit more on her right side, nuzzling her face deeper against her grandmother's lap. The sake had knocked Grandma into snoring oblivion. If only there had been more of it left in the bottle—she could have sneaked off the rest and not wake up until sunrise.
"Saku-chan! I asked where the bento were!" Tomo-chan was shouting from the other side of the picnic spread. Ann-chan (standing less than half a meter away) screamed the answer back, saving Sakuno the trouble.
"What do you mean, only one dessert per day, buchou? Unfair! You're horrible! Nyah!"
"Ryuuzaki! Why is the St. Rudolph's cake smaller than the other ones? Why is my school always the victim of such prejudice?" Mizuki-san. She kept her eyes closed.
"Just let it go, sempai." Yuuta-kun. The match must have ended; right on time, too.
"Yuuta's right, whatever your name is. At least the piping on the icing isn't as shoddy as it is on the Hyotei cake." Fuji-senpai was a sneak and a blabbermouth and he was no longer one of her favorites.
"What? What is this? Ryuuzaki, explain!"
"Explain why your voice gives me a headache, Monkey King."
"Echizen, I will smash you!"
"Hey, Aka-chan! One of the new arcade games is about zombies. Ask Sakuno-chan if she likes zombies!"
The fireworks began. Their shrieking and popping got her to thinking. Perhaps next summer she would spend her day someplace quieter, someplace less exhausting.
Someplace like Beirut.
NEVER THE END