Hello all and thanks for your amazing reviews, favorites, follows, and such. This is a rather long one so I hope you enjoy it. It took a little longer than expected.

Just want to let you all know that I decided to keep Soma spelled like that for consistency purposes with earlier chapters. Anyway, might as well get to it.

Enjoy!


Nakiri Alice was feeling restless and distracted. She had been lounging around on her bed perusing a wide variety of cooking books. Her recent experiences over the last few months, starting with losing to Soma and going through to surviving Hokkaido, made her realize just how much more she needed to do in order to reach the top. As special and dear to her molecular gastronomy would always be, she knew that she needed to incorporate new ideas and techniques from all styles of cooking if she wanted to reach the top. She couldn't wait for the day where she would be able to battle Soma, Erina, Ryo and her other friends for the Elite Ten spots. Defeating Central and her uncle came first however, as they all knew.

The problem Alice faced now though, is that she tends to get bored or antsy easily when she does something for too long. She had been studying since she woke up and it was already the late afternoon, but she was full of energy. More importantly there was a specific problem on her mind constantly these last few days, only distracting her even more.

Usually, in the past, she would go bother Erina or Ryo in times like these. The former was no longer living in the building, and her uncle would likely prevent her from seeing Erina if she was anyway. As far as the latter goes…well…they weren't speaking to each other these last few days and that was the problem constantly on her mind.

"Mouuuuu…Ryo-kun you BAKA! Baka! Baka! Baka!" Alice yelled laying on her back, kicking around and punching her pillow.

Ryo was particularly moody lately and was constantly in his "Berserk Mode" as he locked himself in his room to do some extreme physical and mental culinary training, at least that's what she thought. She suspected that it had to do with him running into the sword wielding fifth seat of the Elite Ten, Saito Somei, last week on their way home. Ryo had to face Saito in the Hokkaido trials while she faced the glasses wearing sixth seat, Kinokuni Nene. With the combination of their own skills and surprise assistance from the former third seat, Megishima Tosuke, both of them were able to win over enough judges and defeat the two Elite Ten members.

Normally this would be an occasion for celebration, as fighting two Elite Ten members was something the two of them knew would be extremely difficult, even for them. There was one problem for Ryo however, and that was that his opponent almost seemed completely disinterested throughout the match and even at his loss, despite having put out such an amazing dish. He didn't even say a word throughout the whole ordeal. Ryo absolutely hates people like him, the calm and extremely quiet types, as he views them to be lacking passion and the necessary fighting spirit to serve in a kitchen. No matter what he said or did, Saito acted like he wasn't even there. Understandably, Ryo felt very unfulfilled and angry with his victory.

Alice recalled how for a few days after that he was going on and on about how he would get revenge, even though he won, but then he eventually calmed down. Seeing Saito last week however, at least she thought, had reignited that anger and as such he began this "Berserk Mode" training camp in his room, only this time his anger was far worse than last time. She didn't know exactly why either, as he wouldn't tell her anything. Alice understood his feelings and was okay with him being angry. She knew Ryo better than anyone else after all, as he's always been with her. He'd gotten angry over smaller things in the past and she was fine with that too. It usually dissipated after he worked through it and overcame it.

She knew that it actually had more to do with Ryo himself than the actual object of his anger, in this case Saito. There were a few rare moments throughout the years where she remembered Ryo privately disclosing to her that he still had weaknesses to overcome and that he had to become stronger. Alice understood that Saito's lack of acknowledgement towards Ryo restored old feelings of insignificance in him, reminding him of his past, and that that was the true reason he got angry in situations like this. She was fine with him reacting as such because of that.

What she was not fine with, however, was when that anger was redirected at her. The bothersome memory from a few days ago kept replaying in her mind.

A few days ago:

Alice had been working on a couple of new recipes all morning. She was going for a unique approach that combined her molecular gastronomy with Italian and Indian cuisines. Her results were actually turning out rather promising as the different blends of spices and flavors ended up tasting surprisingly well, depending on the ingredients, and the molecular gastronomy elevated the flavors.

She wanted to take a break though, and figured it was a good time to take her do-…assistant for a walk anyway.

"Ryoooo-kuuunnn!" She yelled. "Where are you?" Usually he appeared right away if she called.

"Mouu. Fine I'll go to you then." Alice huffed, assuming he was still in his room.

Upon arriving at Ryo's door she could hear quite a lot of noise. It sounded like he was cooking up a storm in there with pots banging and sauces sizzling. It smelled good, whatever it was, and it made her hungry.

"Maybe he'd let me try some." She thought, eagerly.

"GRRRR! DAMN IT!" Ryo yelled from behind the door. "I'll make those bastards pay. Central should just go and die!" He continued, unconcerned with the fact that he shared a house with the leader of said organization.

"Fufufu, Silly Ryo-kun." Alice chuckled softly to herself. "It's a good thing Uncle Azami hates us and avoids this side of the house."

With that Alice tried the door, but it was surprisingly locked. He rarely does that since she's known to barge in. "Ohhhh…curious." She thought. She tried knocking on the door instead, loud enough for him to hear. He didn't respond.

"Jeez." Alice pouted. "Ryo-kuuuuunn! Let me in!" Alice whined from the other side. He still didn't respond.

"Hey! Are you listening to me?!" Alice said louder, this time banging on the door.

"GRRR!" Ryo growled, opening the door quickly, taking a quick glance at Alice, only to then make a "Tchh" sound and slam it in her face before she could say or do anything. "BUZZ OFF!" He added.

"HUH?!" Alice yelled. "WHAT DID YOU JUST SAY!? What the heck was that Ryo-kun?! You meanie!" She added now banging on the door. "Come back here!"

"Go away! I don't have any time to entertain you today!" Ryo responded.

"WHAT?! Have you forgotten who you're talking to?" Alice questioned, getting more aggravated by the second. "I'm your master, you have to do exactly what I say. Now I order you to OPEN. THIS. DOOR!"

"Master?! Pfft. Who are you kidding…Ojou-samaaa?" Ryo retorted back, drawing out the last word sarcastically. "Don't forget who has the most wins here."

"Ohhhh hoo! I see how it is." Alice raised a brow. "I get it."

"Good. I don't have time to deal with you right now." Ryo replied annoyed. "Go away!"

"Fine. Maybe I'll go find someone more levelheaded and respectful. Someone calm and dignified in the kitchen." Alice retorted. "Oh I know, maybe I'll go find Hayama-kun or Saito-senpai! They're better chefs after all!"

"WHAT?!" Ryo roared. The sound of pots falling and something spilling could be heard from behind the door. "Why you…DAMN IT!"

"Ryo-kun, you BAKA!" With that Alice gave the door a good kick and took off and made her way back to her room, tears in her eyes. She could hear a loud "FINE GO AHEAD! I DON'T GIVE A DAMN!" as she got further down the hall.

Needless to say she spent the whole night after that crying on the phone to her mom about how mean Ryo was.

Present Day:

And that was that. They hadn't spoken or even seen each other since. She didn't mean what she said of course and she knew he was just frustrated as well, but still…it hurt. He wasn't usually that harsh. Alice was rather worried, as their fights never usually lasted this long, yet she didn't want to be the first one to give in either. Also, who knew if he would yell at her again. Usually he would come and find her after he cooled off for a few hours. Or the bandanna might come off and he'd revert back to his gloomy and lazy side. "Damn, maybe I should've made a grab for his bandanna."

Regardless, Alice couldn't help but worry. Ryo was always with her since they were young. Before recently becoming close to the Polar Star gang and Erina again, Ryo was really her only friend for a very long time. She almost never went a whole day without seeing him. Without him around it was like part of her wasn't around either. She started to get weird feelings that she never really had before anytime she thought about Ryo. Sometimes they'd appear as dull pains in her chest or sometimes it felt like she was aching for something. It was driving her nuts.

"Gahhhhhh!" She screamed into her pillow. "This is all Ryo's fault."

"Perhaps I have been annoying him lately." She shook her head. "No, no, no, no. This is all his fault, not mine. He's my assistant, and I'm his master. He's supposed to do exactly what I say." She tried reassuring herself.

As she lay there she began to have strange feelings again. She didn't know why, but she couldn't help but feel that something was wrong and it made her very sad. She tightened the grip on her pillow, bringing it closer to her chest. A thought she never had before came to her mind. "Am I…holding him back?" Shaking her head again, fighting the notion. "No, that can't be." She held the pillow tighter.

Letting her thoughts wander, she imagined what it would be like if it was Ryo she was holding, instead of the pillow. She felt her body heat up at the thought, as she began to get very flustered. "Where did that come from?!" She questioned, trying to think of something different entirely, only to have her mind wander back to the wild dark haired boy once more.

"Ryo-kun…you idiot." She whispered. "You're supposed to chase after the girl when they run."

Realizing it was no use in staying in her room like this, Alice decided it was time to go. Where, she didn't care, she just needed to leave the mansion.

Beep! Beep!

As if on cue, she received a text. Bolting upright from her bed, she practically dove for her phone on her nightstand. She knew it wouldn't be Ryo as he would have faced her in person first with a situation like this. She was just glad someone texted her. The contact ID read Hishoko.

"Ahhh, Hishoko!" Alice's face lit up. Yes, that's right, the Arato Hisako, Erina's secretary and assistant, who thanks to Alice now has the nickname Hishoko, sent Alice a text. "Fufufu, a lot sure has happened over the last few months." She said aloud, thinking on how this was impossible only a few months ago.

The text read: "Hello! There will be an informative and recreational gathering at the Polar Star Dorm later today and you are invited. That is all. - Hisako"

"Fufufu. So formal. How cute." Alice giggled. Hisako was rather stiff with her sometimes, but nevertheless she relented in accepting the nickname, or maybe just gave up fighting her on it. Either way, they were close, that's for sure. They've bonded over their mutual familial love and respect for Erina. Not to mention, they are currently working together to get Erina to open up a little more to a certain spiky red-haired commoner boy she happens to live in the same building as. "I wonder if there's been any progress since last time. Soma's rather oblivious and Erina's in denial after all."

As far as Alice knew, only herself and Hishoko were the witnesses of a rather shocking scene between her and Soma. At least shocking for them. At any rate, Erina would definitely die of embarrassment if Alice or Hishoko told anyone what they witnessed, but before that she'd probably kill them first.

"Fufufu. Erina is kawaii!" Alice giggled to herself. "Well, might as well show up early."

As she made her way out into the hallway and towards the exit. She paused in front of the hallway where Ryo's room was located. Her gaze lingered down the hall at his door, her expression saddening. "See you later Ryo-kun…" She thought to herself, and with that she left.

-0-

Yukihira Soma was facing one of the toughest decisions he ever had to make in his entire life. It was a battle he never expected his mind would have to fight. A war he never thought he'd be part of. It was a slowly brewing war he didn't notice until recently. It was a war that had been going on since he arrived here. It was a battle between two completely different people and their sights were set on him.

On one side, there was a sense of fire and mystery. There was a passion he couldn't quite understand from this individual. They coveted rich flavors in their cooking, but developed them with a sense of grace and elegance. There was a hint of nobility in their creations, but shown in a manner that only they could pull off. They seemed to prefer to act independently and would sometimes resist partaking in social gatherings. However, it didn't take much prodding to change their mind, as they were a little dishonest with their feelings. Moreover, this individual was not afraid to bluntly give their opinion when asked, despite their distant nature.

On the other side, was an individual who can be described as the epitome of support and comfort. She had her own unique style of cooking that gave off a warm and friendly feeling, much like her personality. It gave the feeling that she'd always be there for you and comfort you when you were in trouble. A feeling that you can rely on this person. She had an aura of warmth around her and everyone could tell. She would always reach out to those in need. Yet, there was more to her, that even Soma couldn't exactly describe.

It was time. He had to choose. All eyes were on him and the two individuals in question flanked him, cutting off his escape. They stared him down, eyes burning through him. He couldn't flee now. He'd been putting this decision off for some time and they were tired of it. Maybe he was even running from it, without realizing it. They wouldn't let him escape this time. Today he would finally be forced to make the ultimate choice.

Soma's mind was spinning. He felt like his heart was breaking. The pressure was relentless. It was at least equal to the pressure of an official Shokugeki, but probably even more.

"How can I choose between them?" He wondered. "I've grown to love both so much."

"I...I can't do it." He admitted softly. "They're both too great to choose between."

"You must decide." One of the individuals said bluntly. "You've been avoiding this decision for too long. It ends today."

"Please..." The other individual said softly, eagerness in eyes. She needed to know, no matter how much it hurt. "You can't keep leading us on like this."

"I can't!" Soma responded, sadly. "It's too...painful."

"Just choose." Another voice in the room said.

"It can only be you." Said another.

"It has to be you." Chimed another.

"End it already."

"Hurry up!"

"Just choose already."

"You're taking forever."

"Just make a decision."

"Which is better?"

"Follow your heart!"

"My heart?" He thought. Suddenly images of what both meant to him started flashing before his mind. The feelings they elicited. Finally, he was able to come to only one conclusion. The only answer that his mind…his heart...his soul...his entire existence would allow.

"I...I choose...I..." Soma began.

They both leaned in now, eager to hear.

"I CHOOSE BOTH!" He roared before he began to greedily gobble up the two dishes before him at the same time.

Shouts of annoyance and anger were thrown at Soma from all around the room. He didn't care. It was an impossible decision for him. He couldn't decide when he started at Totsuki, and he couldn't decide now.

The two combatants sighed together. In a way they expected this. That's just how Soma was with them. For some reason he could never choose between them. They didn't mind it though because they could see how much pressure he was under and how hard he was trying.

With that the two sides looked at each other and smiled.

"Until next time?" One questioned.

"Until next time." The other affirmed.

With that, the unofficial Polar Star Shokugeki between the expert on smoked foods and cooking styles, the rightly dubbed "Prince of Smoke," Ibusaki Shun and the equally famous master of fermentation and user of Koji, the "Ane-san" of Totsuki, Sakaki Ryoko, was once again, thanks to Soma, a draw.

They were having a party at the Polar Star Dorm again, this time in the large kitchen, surprisingly, much to Marui's delight, and, not unlike most days, a mini shokugeki occurred. This time between Sakaki and Ibusaki. Soma grew to really enjoy both of their cuisines in a rather similar way and because of that ended up having a difficult time choosing between the two. They both figured this out and ended up developing a bit of a friendly rivalry in trying to get him to decide one over the other. That's why they always asked him to be one of the judges each time. He had a sneaking suspicion they were messing with him though, but he couldn't say for sure. Anyway, usually things turned out okay regardless, but sometimes he was paired with some easily frustrated judges.

"Gahhhhh! Yukihira! You do this every single time!" A very annoyed Takumi Aldini said from his right. "How can you claim you'll take the top spot when you can't effectively choose between two very different dishes?!"

"He's right Yukihira." An equally annoyed Mito Ikumi chimed in from his left. "Not to mention, you take forever!"

"Hey! It's not my fault! I told them not to make me a judge, but they insisted." Soma replied. "I've been eating their food so much since living here that…I've just developed a rather equally strong desire for the stuff so it's hard okay?"

"Grrrr. Yukihira!" Takumi and Nikumi snapped together.

"Hahaha! You guys are funny!" Soma snickered. "So alike."

"We are not!" They yelled back in unison, only to look at each other. "Stop copying me damn it!"

"Andddd…they're off." Soma thought moving away from the two.

"Oii! You wanna go, you olive oil addict?!" Nikumi stood up glaring at Takumi.

"Huh?! What was that you A5 junky?!" Takumi rose up, not backing down.

"Grrrr!" They growled at one another.

"Fufufu. Nii-chan." Isami Aldini laughed from nearby. "So funny."

"What did you say Isami?!" Takumi said now yelling at his brother.

"This is your fault you know?" Ryoko said to Soma. Shun nodding in agreement.

"Yeah I know." Soma smiled. "But it's not like I was wrong either."

A while back, a similar situation occurred where both Takumi and Nikumi started to berate Soma for something. He forgot what. After loudly pointing out how similar the two of them were, in front of everybody, it became a running joke in their group. Unfortunately, the two subjects of the joke didn't take very kindly to it and started to lash out at and blame one another. Whenever somebody, usually Soma, mentioned their similar nature it would set them off and they would begin squabbling, similar to the present situation.

"Pffft!" Yuki snickered next to Ryoko. "They're so cute."

"Gaaahhhh!" Nikumi blurted at that, reddening. "Hmpf! I'm going over there." She fumed while walking towards the chatting group of Daigo, Shoji, and Marui.

Yuki, Ryoko and Shun followed her while Takumi continued to berate his brother, who as expected, was laughing only harder now. This left Soma to his thoughts.

Overall it was a fun day. They'd all been working rather hard given that they were essentially at war with the school, so it was nice to get a break like this. Soma knew though that this was only the calm before an even greater storm. There's no way that Erina's father would let things stay the way they were.

Unconsciously, now that his thoughts drifted towards the God's Tongue, his eyes began searching for her. He spotted her on the other side of the room. She arrived slightly after the shokugeki began, with a very energetic Alice in tow so he didn't have the chance to speak to her yet. He assumed her cousin was the reason she was delayed. Soma also thought it odd though that Ryo was nowhere to be seen yet. Deciding to ask Alice about it later, his thoughts and gaze once again shifted back to her cousin, as they had been quite frequently in recent days.

Currently Erina was in a group with Alice, Megumi, and Hisako. Unsurprisingly, a very animated Alice was doing most of the talking, but Megumi and Hisako seemed to be hanging on every word. He didn't know what Alice was saying, but he could tell it was about Erina based on her facial expressions and occasional snapping at Alice. He was happy to see that Megumi seemed a little better as she was laughing along with the others. He didn't get to ask, but she seemed down the other day when Erina made him breakfast.

Actually, now that he remembered it, he spent most of that day in the kitchen. A little while after he ate breakfast with Erina, she had some too, he took a quick shower to clean off the remnants of his outdoors work, but then he returned almost immediately to the kitchen. She did the same. The two of them spent most of the day having mini shokugekis against one another, comparing recipes, and having many bouts of their usual bantering sessions. Saying it was an incredibly fun day might actually be an understatement. Rather it was an amazing day and the most fun he had in a long while. He felt great. He couldn't explain it, but making all those dishes with her on his mind and more importantly for her, really had a profound effect on him. It was invigorating. He wanted to experience that again, but he didn't have the chance.

Despite all that however, she still refused to say his food was delicious. "She sure is stubborn. That Nakiri." He smiled. "Someday, I'll get you to say it…someday."

While deep in thought he didn't notice that their group eventually separated. Megumi left the room with Nikumi and Yuki, probably to get more food to make. Hisako went over to where Ryoko was. Then it was just Alice and Erina.

Alice seemed to be prodding Erina about something and eliciting a variety of interactions out of her. She even tried to hug her a few times or grab on to her. Soma noticed all the different reactions she was making. How she would fidget in embarrassment or how she would turn red in the face. He saw how she pouted or snapped back in annoyance. Then he started remembering other faces he'd seen her make too.

"She's…pretty cute"

"See something you like?" A voice said to his right, startling him.

"Ooof!" Soma bolted back a bit, banging his head on the wall. "Owww."

"Ooops. I didn't mean to startle you." Said the voice. It was Hisako.

"Ahh, Hishoko." Soma said, rubbing his head. "It's no problem. I was just…lost in thought." "Wait?! What was I thinking just now? Did I just think Nakiri was…cute?"

"Hmmm. Is that all?" Hisako raised a brow, at this point having given up fighting her nickname. "It looked like you were gazing intensely at something…or perhaps someone?"

"Huh? No, no." Soma denied weakly, trying to get rid of the thoughts in his mind. "Not at all."

"You're a terrible liar Yukihira-kun." Hisako said bluntly. "It's not in your nature. You may be oblivious and dense sometimes, but, you don't lie."

"Well thank you for the faith in my honesty, but oblivious? Dense? About what?" Soma asked.

"Someday…I hope you'll tell me." She smiled knowingly. "So, who were you staring at? If you won't tell me…let's see…" Hisako shifted so that her gaze would go in the same direction Soma's did, even though she knew full well who he was staring at. With the Nakiri girls in sight, she continued.

"Ahhh, I see, I see." Hisako nodded, as if discovering something new.

"Huh?! What do you mean you see?" Soma replied.

"So…" Hisako ignored him, and inched closer in order to whisper. "Alice or...Erina-sama?"

"What?!" Soma replied. "I wasn't thinking about either of them!"

"Ohhh? What's this? I didn't ask if you were thinking of them, only if you were staring at them." Hisako said amusingly. "So you were thinking about one of them too huh? Hmmm interesting."

"Gahhh! NO!" He responded. "What's gotten into you? Who are you Isshiki-senpai?!"

"No. But now I understand why he and Alice do this often." She giggled. "You're pretty fun to mess with when it comes to certain things hahaha."

"Jeez. How annoying!" Soma responded.

"Sorry, sorry. It's just that this is unlike you." Hisako added. "You were never like this early on and honestly you still aren't like this with most things now. It's only in specific situations. Hmmm…I wonder if it has to do with the girl you were staring at over there." She added mischievously.

When Soma thought about it, she was right. Erina seemed to have a strange effect on him and he had been thinking about her a lot recently. Not to mention, they've been interacting in ways that, before she lived here, would never have happened.

"Hmmm well what about you?" He questioned, trying to dodge the subject. "You're certainly acting a little strange aren't you? I'd say you've changed too."

Hisako paused for a moment. She thought about the many different things that happened to her since the beginning of the year. The battles she had fought, winning some, losing others. She remembered the elections and the words Hayama told her when he won. She remembered the Stagiaire and the first moment she really started to gain a better understanding of the boy besides her. She thought of everything they went through in Hokkaido too and everything since. Most importantly she thought of all the friends she had made and how much closer she got with everyone, especially Erina.

Thinking of Erina, she remembered the distance that was always between them. The boundaries of their relationship, the master and her attendant, a line that Hisako could never go beyond, no matter how much she wanted too. That line no longer existed now and if she had to think of a reason why, it was because of the boy beside her. His words and encouragement allowed her to strive to be someone that would stand next to Erina equally, as her best friend. The thing they both always wanted. Obviously she still has a long way to go before she could really consider herself as Erina's equal. Regardless, she'd always want to continue to serve her, but she is also no longer afraid to treat her as a best friend. They've had many moments since Erina moved in here where they've opened up to each other and she knew that would continue.

She also had many moments with other girls as well, the most surprising being Alice. She remembered well how her and Alice bonded over discussing Erina. Who knew that this would be the thing to bring them together? After both her and Alice witnessed a pretty shocking situation between Erina and Soma, shocking for them anyway, a little over a month ago, they realized that Erina's transformation was also most likely due to the red-haired boy as well. When they noticed the changing relationship between the two, both her and Alice realized it might be something far more serious than friendship. After taking a few days to accept that fact and accept that Soma is an appropriate candidate for Erina (it wasn't easy), she resolved to bring Erina the happiness she deserves.

With that in mind, wanting Erina to be happy, Hisako and Alice have since been trying to bring both her and Soma together. However, the battle is proving to be extremely difficult. Erina is in extreme denial about her feelings, that's obvious, but also seems to be rather resistant to love and romance in general based on some of the comments she's heard her make, probably due to her circumstances. Soma on the other hand is just a very dense and oblivious idiot in regards to things like this which is just as bad in its own way.

"To say I've changed is….an understatement." Hisako smiled. "There's no question I have. We all have. We've all been through so much. Just look at Erina-sama."

He looked again at the blonde. This time she was smiling at something, by the looks of it she had turned the tables on Alice, who was now fuming and pouting.

"Yeah…she has changed…" Soma said gazing at Erina with a warm and longing smile.

Hisako smiled at his reaction. "You're so obvious Yukihira-kun." Deciding to let him off on the earlier topic, as it was quite apparent who he was gazing at this whole time, she had another idea.

"Hey, Yukihira-kun…would you like to hear a story about Erina-sama and I? About how we met and how we ended up where we are today?" Hisako asked. Since the topic turned on how they had changed, she figured this was as good a time as any and that it could only bring the boy closer to Erina in some way.

"About how you met? Hmmm." He pondered. "Sure. I'd like that."

And so, Hisako began to tell the tale of how two girls met as attendant and master. How she was ordered to serve the girl, and for many years dared never to cross that line. How they both changed over the years and how the attendant recently vowed to always be the best friend hereafter.

-0-

Meanwhile, a few minutes later on the other side of the large room, Erina was still contending with a rather annoying white haired girl, standing in another corner away from everyone.

"And so Ryo-kun…he slammed the door…and then…Hey are you listening, hey Erina?" Whined a voice.

"Gahhh! Alice! This is the fifth time today you told me this story." Huffed a very annoyed Erina. She understood her cousin was upset, but her listening to the story over and over again wasn't going to solve anything.

"Mouuuu! Erina's a meanie. Not letting her poor cousin vent." Alice pouted.

"Well it's not that I don't want you to vent, but…." Erina hesitated. She wasn't used to things like this yet. Honestly, it was a very different experience. She never really had anyone "vent" to her about anything before as she never really had any friends of her own, besides Hisako, and she wasn't used to handling drama like this. Her and Hisako never really experienced things like this before. She felt like she was in a shoujo manga, like a side character consoling the heroine in need.

"Fufufu. Erina is so cute." Alice giggled at her cousin's nervous expression. "It's okay. I'm not expecting you to know anything or be able to solve my problems for me. It's just nice to have someone to talk to about them. I'm not used to having many friends to vent to either you know?" Alice smiled at Erina.

That's right, Erina had forgotten. Despite the way Alice acts and puts on the appearance that she knows so much about the outside world and has had so much experience with things, the truth was really the opposite, especially in terms of friends. Alice also only ever had her attendant Ryo by her side. At least Erina had Hisako, who was a girl her age, but Alice really never had any female interactions besides her mother and certainly no girl their age to go to. She wondered if Ryo was the one who would normally hear things like this.

"If things didn't happen the way they did...we really would've been much closer, wouldn't we Alice?" Thinking back on their fractured relationship of the past. Even though Erina had Hisako, she wouldn't have been able to have a conversation like this with her before this year. Now she could and, even more shocking, she was having one with Alice. "We really have changed." She smiled.

"I guess you and I are kind of similar in some ways then? The two sheltered Nakiri granddaughters." Erina giggled. Alice's eyes lit up at that, getting a little watery.

"Erinaaaaaa!" She cried, glomping her cousin in a big hug. "I love love love love you!" She added nuzzling her now very flustered and embarrassed cousin. Part of Alice's change is that she no longer holds back from doing things like this, at least only to Erina. "I'm going to send you so many text messages and keep you informed on everything and I know now I can vent to you too now. This is great!"

"Stop it Alice! And NO! Don't do that!" Erina said struggling to break free of Alice's grasp. Her cousin had become somewhat clingy and emotional towards her over these last two months. She didn't mind it too much, but it was a lot to get used to and sometimes Alice was a little excessive. "It's hard to keep up with you sometimes you know?"

Since Erina was sheltered and not allowed to do very much, being brought up in an environment solely revolving around food, she only recently finally figured out how to use things like a washing machine, a fact she was quite proud of by the way, but she wasn't so used to having to deal with Alice's rapid fire text messages.

She never really had anyone to text before as Hisako was always right by her so she rarely ever need to message her and she didn't really have anyone else to communicate with so she just never practiced texting like other people her age. She thought it rather odd since she was able to use a computer well for various business and culinary based reasons, but when it came to her phone and other forms of technology, her experience was limited.

However, Alice was rather well versed in technology and when she sent Erina a text message the other day, recounting the story she kept telling her, while Erina would be responding Alice would keep sending more and more messages, making it impossible for Erina to keep up.

"Hehe, it's fine, it's fine. You'll get the hang of it eventually. It's fun to learn and experience new things right?" Her cousin smiled, releasing her, giving her a look as if there was more to her words.

"Learn and experience new things?" Erina pondered for a moment. That's really all she had been doing since she left the Nakiri mansion. When she thought about it, despite her father returning, the trials of the school, her grandfather getting voted out, despite everything bad that had happened, she couldn't deny that here, in this dorm, with these strange but welcoming people, Erina had experienced the greatest two months of her entire life.

"Yeah…yeah it really is fun." She smiled back at Alice.

Erina's eyes then began to scan around the room and look over all the faces, the faces of all the people who had given her that happiness, the people who had been there for her and came to understand her. As she looked around the room, her eyes unconsciously searched for one face in particular. The face that seemed to constantly be on her mind, even in her dreams.

She spotted the spiky red-haired boy sitting on the opposite side of the room next to Hisako. They were laughing together at something. The sight gave her strange feelings. She was happy that her friends were at ease and laughing, but there were other feelings she couldn't explain. She knew the two of them had become close over the Stagiaire, but something about thinking of them getting along well troubled her a bit. She couldn't help but feel that sometimes Soma would always be this room's length away from her. She couldn't help but feel that there was a distance between them that she just couldn't cross.

"Som-…Yukihira-kun he…he gets along well with everyone doesn't he?" Erina mumbled aloud. "Must be nice."

Alice heard her though and followed her cousin's gaze, realizing at the sight what she was probably upset about, even if she didn't.

"Fufu. Someone's jealous." Alice teased.

"Huh?! I'm not jealous of him." Erina huffed back.

"I didn't say you were jealous of him." Alice smiled slyly. "Obviously he gets along with everyone, but you do too now. You get along well with everyone here. They're all your friends now."

"Eh? Well…I wouldn't say…" Erina fumbled.

"Were you lying the day you asked all the girls to call you 'Erina' as true friends? Were you lying when you said how much everybody here meant to you?"

"No! No of course not. Not at all. I just…"

"Everyone here thinks of you as their friend you know? Boys and girls alike." Alice stated in a matter of fact way. "So it's not him your jealous of. Instead I think you're jealous of the girl next to him."

"Hisako? Why would I be jealous of her?" Erina fidgeted. She didn't like where this was going.

"Hmmm, I don't know. Maybe it's because she's laughing and getting along really well with Yukihira-kun." Alice teased again. "Perhaps that bothers you? To see the boy you made a special lovey-dovey breakfast for with another girl?"

"No that's…that's not it…that's…What?!" Erina fumbled. "Wait a minute who told you that?!" "Damn it Yuki!"

"Am I wrong?" Alice asked ignoring her question.

"Of course you're wrong! And it wasn't lovey-dovey!"

"Are you sure? Haven't you been spending a lot of time with him recently though?"

"Yes I'm sure. We've spent time together as friends, that's all." "We're just friends! Why do people keep saying we're more than that?!"

"So then you'd be okay if someone else started dating him?"

"Dat-Dating him?" She mumbled. "It doesn't matter to me!"

"Hmmm really? Yukhira-kun is a popular guy you know? I believe there's more than one girl who has their eye on him too. You don't care if one of them confesses."

"Like I said…It-It has nothing to do with me!" Erina was getting flustered now.

"Oh really? He's pretty cute you know? Maybe Hishoko has a thing for him?" Alice made a mental note to apologize to Hisako later for lying and planting that seed in Erina's mind. "Sorry Hishoko." "You know they did get pretty close after that Stagiaire after all. A whole week with just each other. Who knows what happened?"

"Ehhh?! What? Tha-that's not true. They're just friends. She would…she would tell me something like that." Erina said trying to stay composed. The idea of Hisako liking Soma bothered her for some reason, but so did the fact that Alice thought he was cute.

"Then of course there's Megumi-chan and Nikumi. They might like him too." Alice was more confident with this idea. Actually, she though it was rather obvious that these two had a thing for Yukihira. As much as she has grown to care for her friends though, she was on Erina's side in this battle. "It's a good thing Yukihira is an idiot when it comes to things like this otherwise one of those girls might have already won."

"That's...I don't…." Erina was at a loss for words at these comments. "Nikumi? Megumi? They might like Yukihira-kun? Like…"

"You know if he dates one of them. They'll do all kinds of things couples do. You read all that shoujo manga right? You know what they do."

"I…that's…" "Things that couples do…does that mean?"

"You know…they'll hold hands. Perhaps they'll cook for each other. They'll go on dates. Or maybe…" Alice's eyes lit up with mischief as she leaned closer to Erina's ear.

"What? What is it?" Erina replied, hanging on her every word.

"…They'll kiss."

"K-ki...kiss?!" Erina stuttered, her face heating up. "Yukihira-kun and…kissing…and…GAHH!" She screamed mentally at the very idea, which made her feel all sorts of feelings. Kissing was the most indecent activity in shoujo manga. It was the final battle. It was the climax of the story. Imagining it in real life was too much for Erina to handle.

"Does that bother you Erina?" Alice asked not backing down.

"No…I…I don't know." Erina hesitated. Her feelings were all over the place now. She didn't even know what to say. However, she had the feeling that, no matter how much she wanted to deny it, if Soma were to do any of those things with someone, she'd probably feel sad.

"You don't know. Hmmmm…okay!" Alice stretched a bit, as if preparing for something. "Let's find out then shall we?" Alice started to move, but Erina's hand grabbed her.

"What are you going to do?" She hesitated. Knowing Alice this would be something outrageous.

"Me? Well I'm going to go kiss him of course!" Alice grinned widely as if it was obvious.

"WHAT?!" Erina pulled her back because Alice just might do it. She was also glad most other people in the room weren't paying attention to them right now. The large group where most of her friends were seemed to be enjoying Ryoko's "rice juice."

"Why are you surprised? I said he was cute didn't I?" Alice feigned confusion. "Not bad for a first kiss, no?"

"I…I don't want her to. I don't want…anyone to."

Erina tightened her grip on Alice and, looking down, mumbled something too softly for her to hear.

"What was that? I didn't hear you?" Alice questioned.

"I said…you've…you've made your point." Erina said softly.

"It hurts right? Thinking that someone might kiss him or do those other things with him?" Alice asked knowingly.

"Yes…yes it hurts." Erina didn't respond. She continued to stare at the floor, but no matter what Alice was right. It hurt. No matter how hard she tried to deny it. No matter how much she didn't want to admit it was true. Whenever she thought of someone, anyone kissing Soma, or doing any of the other things with Soma, like cooking for him or holding his hand or anything really…it… hurt.

"Then…does that mean that I…but…I can't…it's impossible…right?"

Before Alice could press further, Megumi, Nikumi and Yuki returned with a lot more food and ingredients, followed by Isshiki and Fumio.

"Attention please! Gather round, gather round everybody." Isshiki said. "There's a lot more food to be made here as you see, after which I suggest we relocate in Marui's room of course."

"Hey! Why is it always my room?!" Marui yelled only to be met with various giggles and shouts of agreement to the idea of relocating.

"But first…" Isshiki continued. "We must discuss the upcoming events. As you all know a couple of major things will be happening in the coming weeks. The third years will be graduating, you in turn will be starting you second year, and you will be going through the first trial, the first Free Study Period, aka the FSP."

"Free Study Period? FSP? What's that?" Soma asked.

"You don't know about them Yukihira?" Nikumi asked shocked.

"Typical. This is Yukihira we're talking about after all." Takumi chimed in.

"Oi!" Soma yelled, as his friends snickered around him. "I'm a transfer student remember?"

"You've been here for almost a year now!" Nikumi shot back.

"Ahh don't worry, it's okay. I expected this." Isshiki said knowingly. "The Free Study Periods are basically, exactly what they sound like. Actually, in a certain sense, they may appear at first glance, rather easy."

"Really? What exactly do you do?" Soma questioned.

"That's just it. They are literally a period of time in which you have to freely study." Isshiki replied.

"Time to study what? For what?"

"Anything! That is one of the interesting things about this challenge. You could literally do whatever it is you want during the period, which is roughly four to six weeks. The real meaning behind that though is that you won't have anybody telling you what to do essentially. Instead you have complete control over everything and you decide how to handle it."

"There has to be more to it. Something like that sounds too good to be true." Soma stated, confused.

"Ahhh, but of course and therein lies the real challenge. In the past there were always two things that went along with this challenge. First, before the period starts they will assign each of you a single word and that word can be anything, but is usually food related. This word is really a major hint at what it is you should be studying."

"Second, at the end of the period, there is an evaluation that you must pass in order to succeed. Part of it is a panel of judges that will taste the dish you create for them using everything you learned and did over the period, not unlike the many competitions you've been in so far. There are other factors as well though."

"Hmmmm. Something still doesn't seem right though. It still feels too easy in a way." Soma said.

"Fufufu. As expected of you to pick up on that. Yes. It is too easy and that is one of the major points. The truth is that if any of you served any of the dishes you made during your first year, provided they're related to the given word in some way, even those served in the Autumn Elections for example, you would fail instantly."

Various shouts of shock and disbelief echoed throughout the room.

"Even the ones that Soma, Ryo and Hayama made? Or the ones we made in Hokkaido?" Takumi asked. Most of them had heard of the FSP's besides Soma, but they didn't really understand the core challenge too much either.

"Yes. Those dishes are not of an acceptable quality. They're giving you over a month to work on a single dish. They want it to be beyond perfect. One of the key aspects of this challenge is that all that free time actually throws people off and that's one of the other factors I was talking about."

"Although you have a free and unrestricted time, the judges don't like to see certain things. Some people do nothing but cook all day and night, trying to figure out the perfect dishes. Other's don't cook enough or at all and just assume any relevant dish they know will do. Most people who do either of those things will fail as well." Isshiki explained.

"Instead they want to see you do something very creative and unique and show how you formed your dish. There have been some very strange and unique examples in the past where people have passed. One person stayed in a wildlife preserve and practiced dishes based on how popular they were with certain animals. Another person tried to understand his word by living near them, it was 'gorilla,' as it wasn't a word that you can create food with. Instead he focused on using foods that gorillas eat and other things related to their lifestyle, really giving it a gorilla theme. It was rather funny actually since he insisted all the judges eat his dish with just their hands."

"Whoooo. Wow! Now we're talking." Soma whistled. "So what other ways do people go about 'studying' during this time then?"

"That's another interesting aspect of the period. You actually have the opportunity to do a variety of things, including similar work you did during the Stagiaire. You can go work at a variety of restaurants during the time and the school will cover everything. It's sort of like a choose your own Stagiaire, provided there are enough spots left for students to take and that it is beneficial based on your word. You may end up in the jungle or desert after all. However, Soma, you could go back to work at Shinomiya-senpai's restaurant or any of the other restaurants you worked at during the Stagiaire, or you could go somewhere new entirely."

"Like I said though, don't forget about the word that is given. If the word was 'Italian' and you chose to work at a Korean restaurant, it might not help you as much. However, the word could be anything, like 'knife' or 'apple,' so the type of cuisine may not matter at all and a restaurant may not help you. Other things like technique or the presentation may seem to be more important depending on the word. Once the word is assigned, you will be able to decide from there, whether you want to work at a restaurant somewhere or you simply want to stay in the dorms and try new things on your own. Inevitably it becomes your choice and that's a huge part of the challenge. The judges really want to see what amazing things you come up with by yourself with no guidance or restrictions at all."

"That's a lot to take in. They really do let you do whatever it is you want huh?"

"Yes. You can have others taste your dish and give opinions beforehand as well, like all chefs do, but ultimately it must be individual so even we can't help you this time."

"Wow…this really is going to be a little different than what we're used to." Yuki commented.

"Yeah. It's almost too broad and there are so many possibilities. I don't even know if I'll be able to make up my mind." Megumi added.

"Exactly right." Isshiki added. "That's another problem many people face, but I have faith all of you will manage. There's just one more problem…"

"What?! There's more." Daigo and Shoji yelled.

"Yes. Isshiki-senpai only explained to you how the Free Study Period was handled in the past, last year, when my grandfather was in charge." Erina said

There was a silence cast over the room at Erina's words. That's right. They almost forgot. Central. Every challenge since Central took over has been completely derailed from how it used to be. Most of the school made it through Hokkaido by doing exactly what Nakiri Azami instructed them too. Only they faced a truly rigorous and difficult challenge. There's no question they'd be targeted again here. Luckily the judges have been neutral at least so if they could create something amazing…again, then they might be able to pull through.

"Yes that's the problem." Isshiki continued. "We don't as of yet know what Central will do, except for one thing. In the past, in order to make things fair and more interesting the words and who they were assigned to were actually publicly posted on a giant electronic screen for everyone to see. The many different judges who end up evaluating you will approve and validate the words at that ceremony. It happens the morning after the third year graduation ceremony actually. Then you have a few days to figure things out and the period officially begins and you're on your way."

"However, there are reports that Central is going to make the words private now to add suspense, or so they claim. The judges will likely be forced to accept this as well. You see traditionally they validated the words at the FSP announcement ceremony, however, that is not actually a requirement of the trial in the language of the trial rules. The judges just need to validate the words before they judge you so they would actually be able to do so immediately before your evaluation and since you would have spent the whole time working with your word, it would still be seen as acceptable. Also, another problem is that even if all the other students were given the same word, and they don't find out until the evaluation, it would still be considered fair because of some students were given the same word in the past and it was accepted, so it's not an unheard of or prohibited situation. In theory, everyone could have the same word if they wanted."

"They're probably just going to give everybody else the word 'gourmet' or something to that effect and then give us something crazy." Alice whined.

"That's exactly what they're going to do." Said a new voice by the door.

"Ahhhh, Kuga-senpai?! And…Megishima-senpai?!" Soma yelled. There were various other noises of cheerful surprise and acknowledgement. These two were part of the reason many of them had passed Hokkaido after all.

"Yo Yukihira-chin!" Kuga replied.

Megishima just gave a slight bow. He's a very quiet and mysterious person.

"Welcome you two." Isshiki said. "Glad you could make it."

"Oh you invited them? This is unexpected." Marui said.

"Yes. They were looking into the predicament we were just discussing. So, what did you guys find out?"

"It's as you feared. Thanks to Megishima's computer hacking and some information from my informants, we were able to find out that Central in fact plans to remove the screen at the FSP ceremony and announce this new private plan. Also the word is expected to be 'gourmet' as we thought and then all of you, besides Nakiri-chin, will be given some rather crazy and outrageous words." Kuga explained. "This list of potential words for you include: satellite, chair, igneous, knob, tire, and a variety of other strange words. They usually relate to food in some way, but this is ridiculous, even compared to some of the previous ones."

"That's so unfair!" Yuki snapped, as did others.

"Damn it Nakiri Azami!" Daigo roared.

"That's ridiculous." Ryoko snapped. "Everyone else is just going to have to do whatever Central tells them and they'll pass while we get something so extreme? Won't the judges be able to say anything?"

"Unfortunately their hands will be tied at this." Isshiki replied. "As I said, with the acceptance of the same word being used in the past for some, it's hard to deny. It's unfortunate, but it's a technicality and the school would defend their actions and the judges would have no basis to deny them. Plus, Central controls the Elite Ten and their influence is spreading to many other organizations and companies now that they are in charge of Totsuki. Many people are giving in just to keep their businesses alive."

"What are we going to do Senpai? I'm assuming if you were looking into it you have some sort of plan." Ibusaki asked.

"Honestly, we aren't sure." Kuga admitted. "We thought finding the words and maybe having you guys get a head start might help, but…there's too many here to prepare for."

Their faces seemed to fall at that. There was no way that could work. They needed to know their specific words now and even then it might not be enough. Not to mention they've been rather straightforward and battling Central head on with their cooking. Getting a head start was something they didn't want to do either as they'd be acting almost as underhanded as Central.

"Nakamura doesn't care about any of the old methods of competition and creativity. So long as he continues his schoolwide indoctrination practices and everyone follows the 'true gourmet' method, those students will move on. He knows that all of you never will and he will continue to strike where it hurts, by trying to chip away at your individuality and creativity by giving you impossible tasks while you're still being judged 'fairly'" Fumio said solemnly. "He's trying to break you down and crush your spirit. You must stand tall against him, even if your word is something outrageous, you've already made it this far under equally extreme circumstances."

"But how?" Yuki cried. "Before Erinachi and our Senpai helped us get through it, but this is another matter entirely. They are not allowed to do anything now and I don't think it would matter if they did. I mean satellite? Tire? Really? Do I make a dish shaped like a satellite?"

Various noises of anger and shock and sadness could be heard around the room. Before an unlikely person spoke up.

"There is…another way." The very mysterious Megishima said.

"Another way?" Nikumi asked.

"We can reinstate the old method. The original method." Megishima replied.

"How?" Isshiki and Kuga asked. He didn't mention this to either of them. Truth be told, even though he was their ally and a former member of the Elite Ten with them, he was always quiet and mysterious. One thing they knew for sure though, was that he was a genius when it came to technology, especially computers.

"If we can ensure that the screen is still functioning on the day that Azami plans to publicly remove it, then I can hack into it and upload a random set of fair words for the entire school and the judges to see before it happens."

"Wait a minute? Won't he just say it was a glitch or something?" Soma asked

"No wait this could work." Isshiki realized, understanding what Megishima was implying. "Azami wants to get rid of the old method to promote his 'true gourmet,' but he wants to still be seen as fair so he can't outright give everyone the word 'gourmet' and then only the rebels very outrageous words. The judges are technically still supposed to validate the words. If they saw the biased words initially then they would likely demand a fairer distribution, but if they saw no words until the evaluation day, they'd be forced into accepting it under a technicality really. However, if they are presented with a variety of words in the beginning like in the past, before Azami has the chance, then they could validate them and the trial can continue like it always has. Plus, he'd be in the public eye with this one as the ceremony has a lot of important people from all over attend it."

"So essentially we're going to turn his own method of trying to get rid of us against him?" Soma asked realizing now.

"Yes. Just like in Hokkaido, you all still had neutral and fair judges when you waged your battles, even though the rest of the school had an easier way. The fairness of the judges and the fact that you were among the strongest chefs, allowed Azami to promote this practice as fair to the outside world. Even though it clearly wasn't. Here, we are going to use that against him, except this time the whole school will have to go through the trial fairly now."

"Won't the Elite Ten just overrule this and do what Azami wants?" Soma pressed on. He still had doubts about the plan.

"In this instance, the Elite Ten cannot interfere once the judges for the evaluation approve of the words." Isshiki explained. "The trial is already approved of and the language doesn't state anything about what words should be used or if they should be publicly shown or not, so long as the evaluation judges approve at some point. They are actually attempting to exploit that loophole by removing the publicly shown tradition, since the judges just need to approve and they can do so in the beginning or right before the evaluation."

"There would be no need for the Elite Ten to change the language of the trial rules since they would be under the assumption that things would go according to their plan, as it doesn't say one way or the other that the words must be shown or that they can't be the same for everyone. However, when the evaluation judges see the random words show up at the ceremony and immediately approve, the Elite Ten will have their hands tied just like Azami because of the language they approved of and also because they need to keep face in the public eye."

"That means…that means we have a chance!" Yuki shouted. Various cheers of delight resounded throughout the room.

"We can do this!" Shoji yelled.

"Yeah!"

"Wait, wait, what about the screen? How will you be able to ensure that it is still operational on that day?" Erina asked this time. A lot of things needed to be taken into consideration and they couldn't afford to leave anything to chance.

"Leave that to me." Kuga said. "My guys and I will be able to make it work. He may also decide to cover it, but we can work around that as well."

They all felt a bit more relived at that. They were lucky to have such amazing allies here. Otherwise they really would be at a loss. Granted one thing was obvious now, this was no longer just a battle being fought within Totsuki, but rather the whole culinary world in general. The FSP ceremony is a public event that important and prominent figures throughout the culinary world would be attending. One wrong move and they could end up handing over everything to Azami. Totsuki just happens to be the battleground where the main war is being fought, but it's happening everywhere. If Azami has his way, any anti-true gourmet restaurants would be shut down and run out of business. All of this hung in the balance with what the rebels did. They needed to beat Azami at his own game in order to truly succeed.

Erina in particular was feeling all kinds of emotions now. She had had a very tiring day mentally. Discussing the upcoming trial was one thing, but her earlier conversation with Alice is another thing entirely. She really didn't know now what to think of her feelings regarding Soma. Looking around the room, she could see hints of what Alice had been talking about, Nikumi and Megumi seemed to gravitate towards him as well. Without realizing it though, she seemed to do the same, as before she knew it, she was right next to him again.

"Senpai, you also mentioned the third year's graduation ceremony, what does that mean for the Elite Ten? Won't some of them be graduating?" Soma wanted to know. He was happy they had a plan about the FSP, but he was also interested in the fates of Tsukasa and Rindou and some of the others. They were among Central's biggest supporters and most powerful pieces after all.

"Yes indeed." Isshiki added. "They will be, as will Megishima-kun here. However, you can also expect to see them at the FSP ceremony too as it's the day after and some third years are known to attend. We don't know exactly what will be happening to the open spots on the Elite Ten, but Azami will likely try and replace them with whatever current first or second years that meet his requirements."

"Tch. Darn." Soma replied. He couldn't help but be a little disappointed. He really wanted to have a serious match with Tsukasa again and maybe others like Rindou at some point.

"Are you disappointed Soma-kun?" Megumi asked, now standing next to Soma. There was a lot to take in, but she had a pretty good idea why Soma would be disappointed that some of the Elite Ten were leaving. He was the shokugeki maniac she fell for after all. She at least was able to understand that much about him, even if her love issues were becoming far more complicated.

"Ahhh, yeah. I really wanted to have a serious rematch with Tsukasa again before he was no longer a student. Now I'll have to face him when he's an alumnus."

"Rematch? Again? Huhh?!" Some of the people around them said.

"Yukihira-kun you never said anything?" Hisako asked.

"Ohh yeah, I guess I didn't. Oops." Soma responded.

"HUH?!" Takumi and some of the other uninformed people shouted at this. "You had a shokugeki with Tsukasa?!"

"I don't want to talk about it." Soma pouted.

Sounds of shock and awe resounded throughout the room, but suddenly, to everyone's surprise, Erina burst out in a fit of giggles. She started laughing so hard that she could barely breathe. Erina thought that this was exactly something Soma would do. It summed him up entirely. It was so "him." If anyone could have a shokugeki with the first seat of the Elite Ten and forget to mention it to people later or not consider it that big a deal, it was Soma.

"Oiii!" Soma huffed, annoyed, to the giggling girl next to him. "What are you laughing at?"

"Sorry…hahahaha…this is…hahaha…just…so like…hahaha…so like you." Erina laughed. She couldn't help it and she couldn't stop. With the serious and troubling thoughts she was having, and certain possible realizations she had earlier about the boy next to her, this fit of laughter was exactly what she needed.

Even when he wasn't trying to, even when he didn't mean to, even if it was an accident, he cheered her up again. He made her feel happy and excited. It was like all the uneasiness she had washed away because of his silliness.

"So like me?" Soma questioned. "Hey are you making fun of me? I was serious about having another match you know? Also this is partially you fault. You were one of the judges after all."

"EHH?!" Many people were shocked at this.

Erina could barely stand up she was laughing so hard. Hisako also started chuckling as well, partially at the memory of the previous battle and Soma's antics, but partially at the sight before her. Alice also smiled at the sight.

"Erinachi you knew?" Yuki asked in disbelief. "You were a judge?"

"Haha…yeah…haha." She was trying to calm down, but could barely breath, the whole thing was so funny to her.

Hisako, who was in a better state was able to explain and recount the story to everyone who didn't know. How they were the judges to that battle between the first seat and Soma. Others around them were a bit shocked at the ordeal. Some were still shocked at Erina's actions, thinking that she really did indeed change. Some though, particularly those like Megumi who had witnessed a rather close scene between the two before, well, they had other ideas.

"They really do get along now huh?"

Megumi had mixed feelings at the sight. On the one hand she was really happy that Erina now felt comfortable and open enough to end up in a situation like this. Even her liking Soma. If that was true, she even felt happy for that. She understood that for Erina having such feelings was extremely difficult compared to most people, given all that she went through. On the other hand, she was afraid that Soma was slipping away from her. That she had lost her chance.

"Maybe I…maybe I should give up…"

"No! I can't do that!"

Her thoughts were conflicting, but giving up after everything, she couldn't do that. That would betray everything she ever felt for Soma and she knew that. She loved the boy who never gave up no matter the odds. The boy who put his all into everything. She knew what she needed to do. The only thing she could do was face this head on just like he would.

"I need to confess."

Making up her mind, Megumi resounded that she would do it soon. Not today, she needed to prepare, but soon.

"I'm sorry…Erina-chan."

-0-

The large group began to disperse a bit as the party was going to relocate to Marui's room, much to his annoyance, but everyone else's delight. Some people flocked around Soma and the still giggling Erina. Soma was still berating the blonde for her laughing, and she in turn was trying to speak but kept failing at it. Some people laughed along with them and others were trying to get Soma to explain more about the match, particularly Takumi. Others began making more food.

Finally, at the announcement by Alice and Ryoko, that they needed help with various rice based juices that needed to be brought up to Marui's room, most people around the spiky red-haired boy and the honey blonde volunteered. Isami forced his fuming brother along to help when Alice handed them both a bottle to carry.

"We'll continue this later Yukihira!" Takumi yelled.

Soma and Erina were now alone as their friends were busy doing various things, mostly moving to Marui's room.

"Fufufu." Erina giggled a bit again.

"Would you cut that out?" Soma fumed. "It's been almost ten minutes of laughter with you."

Soma was a bit annoyed, not really at her laughing though, but the conversation with Hisako and everything else made him far more aware of the various feelings that the giggling blonde instilled in him. Plus, the idea that he thought she was cute earlier and the fact that the very same thought kept bombarding him the more she giggled was really messing with him.

"What's wrong with me?! This is Nakiri…Na-kir-i. The Nakiri who refuses to be honest about your cooking. She'll scarf down an entire bowl of your cooking and then call it tolerable at best. That's right, she refuses to admit my cooking is delicious. We've become great friends, but there's no way she is cute."

"Ahem…hahaha…*cough cough*…sorry." Erina said getting a hold of herself. "It's just, it really was such a 'you' thing to do. To not tell anyone you battled Tsukasa and act like it wasn't a big deal. But then the pouting and your reaction. I just couldn't control myself. It was so funny to me…haha…hahaha" She began laughing again.

"This girl…this sometimes insufferable girl." Soma thought. The girl before him had brought about so many different feelings in Soma. She was on his mind constantly in recent weeks that it became abnormal for him not to think of her. Maybe he even found himself enjoying it when she was on his mind. The two of them really have been through a lot since he started here, with a rocky start to now being one of his closest friends.

Actually, when he thought about it, he owed her a great deal too, for so many different things. She was the first person he met here and, despite everything else, he couldn't imagine his life without her in it now. He didn't want to imagine it.

As he examined her smiling and laughing face. As he saw how carefree and genuinely happy she seemed right now. As he thought about all the other memories he had of her from the time he met her, whether it was her chewing him out or criticizing him for something, whether it was her nervous or embarrassed faces, whether it was "that" night a few weeks ago, or any of the many other moments they had spent together or even right now. He thought only one thing.

"Maybe…maybe she's…pretty cute after all."

"Sorry…sorry." Erina panted, finally calming down, again. "I'll stop."

"Here, drink this." Soma handed her a glass of water.

"Thank you." Erina drank it, but noticed he was staring at her rather intensely. "What are you staring at?" She asked, her face reddening.

"Ahh sorry, sorry. It's just…" He hesitated.

"Just what?" She asked.

"You look pretty cute when you laugh." He said turning away from her before quickly grabbing a bottle of the rice juice, continuing not to look at her. "Well, better bring this up to Marui's." "I can't believe I just said that! Time to go!" With that he left, both very embarrassed and beet red.

Erina for her part was frozen in place at his words.

"Cu-cu-cut-cute-CUTE! That idiot! There's no way I like him!"

She thought as she began to get extremely red as well. Her mind was racing, thinking of various thoughts and having all kinds of feelings swirl around because of his comment. One thought overpowered them all though...she enjoyed it when he called her cute.

"Well…maybe…maybe just…a little bit…"

-0-

Meanwhile at a room in the Nakiri estate, it was as if a bomb went off. Kitchen equipment and food strewn everywhere. A variety of things like plates and tables were broken. It was pure chaos. Sitting in the middle of the chaos was a dark black haired boy fuming with a mix of emotions. Rage, anger, hate, but also sadness, despair, and guilt. In front of him was a small note attached to something.

"AHHHHHHHH!" The boy screamed out in pain before falling forward and leaning on his clenched fists. Tears began to stream down his face.

"I'm so sorry…I'm sorry Ojou-sama! I failed…I'm sorry…Alice!"

The handwritten note read:

Dear Kurokiba Ryo,

Thank you for your cooperation in the matter we discussed. Be sure to comply with everything as explained in our meeting or the consequences I told you about will undoubtedly occur.

Don't worry, this is for the best. You made the right choice. Please attach the provided badge to your uniform.

Nakiri Azami

P.S. Welcome to Central!


So what did you guys think? Let me know.

The trial was particularly difficult to get through, but the reason was because I needed to have a certain setting and amount of time for certain characters, as you will see in the future. I tried anyway haha. I assure you though that it is integral to the ship building in this story, especially Sorina! So look forward to that.