Gravitation Fan Fiction ❯ Iron Shuichi ❯ Iron Shuichi ( One-Shot )

[ P - Pre-Teen ]

A Gravitation Fanfic, Inspired by Tracks 23-24 of the Original Manga by Maki Murakami

by Sailor Mac
It was another typical band meeting for Bad Luck at the headquarters of their label, NG Records. Hiro was pouring his second cup of coffee. Suguru was looking over a new song arrangement he had finished the night before and wanted to show his band members. Sakano was sitting at the table drumming his fingers so rapidly that it sounded like rain on a tin roof.

And, as happened all too often, somebody was missing.

"Where is Shindo-san?" Sakano said, looking anxiously around the meeting room. Of course, there was nothing unusual about that - the record producer spent his entire life in various stages of anxiety.

"Probably got distracted on the way here," said Hiro, adding sugar to his cup. Hiro wasn't worried at all. Having been best friend and bandmate to Shuichi Shindo since they were in middle school, he knew that the singer was anything but predictable.

"Distracted?" said Sakano, pounding on the table, his eyes wild behind his owlish glasses. "By *what*? Doesn't he know we have a single to promote?"

"Shuichi knows how important this is," Suguru said, softly. The dark-haired boy's reputation as "the quiet one" in Bad Luck was well-deserved.

"Well, then, *why isn't he here?*" Sakano cried, starting to pace the room, his suit looking more rumpled by the moment.

"Don't worry," said a cool and calm voice from a chair at the other end of the table which was turned with its back to the band members. "If he doesn't show up soon. . ." The chair swiveled around quickly, revealing a man with long, blond hair, holding onto a gun out of a bad cop movie. "I will *hunt him down.*"

Suguru and Hiro exchanged worried glances. "You. . .don't really *mean* that, do you, K?" Suguru said in a tiny voice.

The band's manager just let out a loud chuckle as he holstered his gun.

The two musicians exchanged looks again. They knew full well that their manager liked to play with guns, and wasn't really malicious. . .most of the time. But still. . .one never knew with him. . .

At that moment, the door burst open, and a pink-haired tornado blew in. Shuichi scrambled for his seat, hoping everyone would somehow not notice his lateness. No such luck. Every eye in the room was turned on him. . .glaring.

He pasted a huge grin on his face and said with mock cheerfulness, "Good morning, everybody!"

"Morning?" cried Sakano, nearly sticking his face into Shuichi's. "It's nearly afternoon! Where WERE you?"

"I overslept!" Shuichi said. "I was going to wake up real early, really, I was, but. . ."

"And Yuki didn't wake you up?" Hiro said. There were still times when he had doubts about whether his best friend's relationship with the seemingly cold writer was the best thing for him. . .despite the fact that Shuichi seemed happy with it most of the time.

"Yuki left even before I was supposed to!" Shuichi said. "He went. . .well, never mind." He frowned a bit. . . Yuki had a tendency to disappear every now and then, without telling Shuichi where he was going.

"Hey, no worries," K said, standing up. "We're all here. And I've got great news for you all."

Shuichi's eyes lit up at that. "Our single has sold a million copies already?"

"No, no. . .nothing like that. At least, not yet. But. . .it might after. . .this! You're going down to Fuji Television for a taping on Thursday!"

Shuichi leapt out of his seat, rushing toward K as if to hug him. "FUJI TELEVISION? That means. . .you got us on Hey Hey Hey Music Champ?"

"Not quite," K said.

Hiro looked confused. "But. . .I don't remember there being any other music shows on Fuji."

"You're not going to be on a music show," K said. "You're going to be challengers on IRON CHEF!"

The three members of Bad Luck stared at each other for a second, blinking.

Then, their heads all swiveled toward K at once, and they yelled in unison, "ARE YOU CRAZY?"

"We're musicians," Hiro said. "NOT chefs!"

"This isn't like when we went on the game show!" Shuichi said. "We can't fake and luck our way through this!"

"Hey, it's a win-win scenario," K said. "You win. . .you get a reputation as the band that beat an Iron Chef, plus, we'll cut a deal ahead of time like when you were on the game show where you'll get to perform. And even if you lose, you get publicity as the band with the guts to challenge an Iron Chef, even if they didn't have what it takes to beat him."

There was a pause. Hiro played idly with a couple of strands of long, brown hair, a look on his face somewhere between thoughtful and angry. Shuichi stared at the table. Sakano cringed in the corner, near tears.

Finally, Suguru said, "Well, I *can* cook. I make stuff for my family's holiday dinners."

Shuichi leaned over the table toward him. "This isn't like making Christmas dinner! The people on that show are *gourmet* chefs!"

"They're not *all* gourmets," K said.

"Sure they are!" Shuichi said. "It has to be gourmet, because they make it from weird stuff! Crab brains and squid eyeballs and pig snouts and that kind of thing!"

"Hey, you guys are versatile," K said, leaning back and crossing his arms and legs, the very picture of relaxation. "So, you adjust! Make your turkey recipes with pig snouts instead! What's the difference?"

Shuichi sank down in his chair, his head in his hands. All I need now, he thought, is something like this. Not so soon after. . .our last TV appearance. . .

He remembered watching Ryuichi, his childhood idol, the singer he'd emulated and imitated for years, perform right after Bad Luck, and thinking he'd never, ever be as good a performer as him, no matter how much he tried.

Shuichi didn't want to tell his bandmates that the reason he was late was that he'd sat up half the night watching his collection of videos of Ryuichi's band, Nittle Grasper. . .even after he'd packed those videos away in a box and proclaimed enthusiastically to Yuki that he wasn't going to imitate Ryuichi anymore.

I can't stop comparing myself to him, he thought, and thinking that I come up short.

Around him, he could hear the voices of the Bad Luck team droning away. . .K still trying to sell them on the idea, Sakano whining in protest, Hiro firmly refusing the gig. It would be great publicity, K kept saying. . .

What would that kind of publicity do for us? Shuichi thought. We'd just get our names splattered all over the news the next day as the band who got humiliated by an Iron Chef.

Our names. . .splattered all over the news. . .it *would* get the name of Bad Luck out there, wouldn't it? he thought. And. . .a *lot of people* watch Iron Chef, don't they? It gets big ratings. . .bigger than Hit Stage, the show we were on with Nittle Grasper. . .

The wheels in his head were turning full-speed now. Bigger ratings than Nittle Grasper. . .meaning we could *sell more discs than Nittle Grasper*. . .

Suddenly, he leapt to his feet, and shouted, "I'll do it!"

Hiro stared at him in shock. "Shuichi! What the hell. . ."

"Look, K is right!" Shuichi said, turning toward his fellow band members. "We need all the publicity we can get! We're competing against. . .well, a lot of bands! Every little bit of TV exposure counts!"

Sakano collapsed on top of the table, face-first, moaning like a man in severe pain.

"That's what I want to hear!" K said, beaming ear-to-ear.

Hiro leaned over to his best friend, a look of fiery anger in his eyes. "Shuichi. . .you just got done saying that you *aren't a gourmet cook.*"

"I can teach myself! Yuki knows how to cook really well, and he's got all these cookbooks just lying around the kitchen! Hey, how hard can it be?"

Hiro sighed. He knew that look in Shuichi's eyes. It was the I'm-going-to-do-this-no-matter-what-anyone-else-says look. When he looked like that. . .there was no reasoning with him.

"All right," he said. "We'll try it."

"Yes!" Shuichi said, throwing his arms around his best friend's shoulders. "We won't regret it, Hiro-kun. I promise you."

I hope you're right, Hiro thought. If this backfires. . .it could mean our careers.

* * *

Shuichi fairly skipped down the street as he and Hiro walked home from their record company's headquarters. He had something to look forward to now, big-time. . .a unique TV appearance with the potential for huge ratings and maximum publicity! Just wait until I tell Yuki, he thought.

Hiro found his very demeanor disturbing. He looks *too* happy, he thought. There was something not quite right about his sudden change of attitude regarding this.

Suddenly, he said, "Shuichi. . .this doesn't have anything to do with Ryuichi, does it?"

Shuichi stopped short and wheeled around to face his best friend. He always knows me *far* too well, he thought.

"No," he lied.

"Are you sure?" Hiro said, folding his arms and narrowing his eyes.

"Yes, I'm *really* sure. I'm doing this for me. . .for Bad Luck. We *need* this, Hiro. We really do. Hey. . .we've come this far, right?"

Hiro patted his shoulder as they started to walk again. "All right. . . I'll go along with it if it *really* means so much to you. But if we get close to the taping date, and you decide you don't want to do it. . .pull out. Nobody will think any less of you. Including me."

"Don't worry. . .I won't pull out. By the time we're done with this. . .everyone in Japan will know the name of Bad Luck!"

Including, Shuichi thought, Ryuichi Sakuma. And he was almost skipping again.

* * *

Eiri Yuki lived in a much less lavish apartment than one would expect for a bestselling author. Then again, Yuki didn't look much like a bestselling author, either. Tall, well-built and blond, with a face so handsome it bordered on prettiness, he'd been asked many times why he wasn't an *actor* instead of a writer.

The answer to that was that he had no desire tto be out in front of the public, except when he needed to. Yuki usually didn't like letting others into his private world.

But for reasons he couldn't fathom, he'd let a certain boy in, and that boy had stayed. . .making his life far less predictable than it had been in the past.

On this particular day, Yuki walked into his apartment to the sounds of something clattering, loudly, in his kitchen. What is that idiot up to *now*? he thought. He never knew what to expect from day to day with his young lover.

I hope to gods I don't walk in and find everything on fire, he thought. I wouldn't put it past him at all.

He opened the door. . .just as the knife Shuichi was using to filet a piece of fish slipped, and badly. The young singer let out an ungodly shriek as blood began to spurt from the wound on his left index finger.

"YUUUUKIIII!!!" he cried, running around in circles, holding onto his finger. "I almost cut my finger ooooofffff!!!"

Oh, gods, Yuki thought, this is almost as bad. "Hold still!" he said, as Shuichi continued to jet around the kitchen. "How can I help you if you keep flying around like that?"

"It *hurts!*" Shuichi said, standing still. . .but hopping up and down in place. "Yuuukiiii!!" Finally, he flopped down in a chair, still holding on to the finger, half-expecting that if he let go of it, it would fall off entirely and drop to the floor.

Yuki went into the bathroom and returned with gauze, peroxide and antibiotic cream. "You're too clumsy to handle knives," he said in a chilly tone. . .but he took the boy's hand and examined it gently.

"I have to handle knives!" Shuichi sniffled. "How am I going to learn to cook if. . .YEEEOOWWWW!!!!" He thought his head would explode with pain as Yuki applied the peroxide to the wound.

"You didn't come anywhere near to cutting it off," Yuki said, spreading on the antibiotic and beginning to wrap the finger. "It's just a nasty flesh wound. You'll live."

"Thank you," Shuichi said. He *does* seem so caring sometimes, he thought. He's not *just* the nasty guy a lot of people think he is.

"Why the sudden interest in cooking, anyway?" Yuki said as he started to tape the bandage down. "You've never cooked."

"K got us a booking on Iron Chef," Shuichi replied. "And I want to win."

"Iron Chef?" said Yuki, finishing the job and standing up again. "That ridiculous cooking contest show? What kind of an idea is that?"

"A *good* one!" Shuichi said, springing up from the chair. "We'll get tons of publicity from it!"

Yuki took a dishrag and began to wipe the counter, which was covered in blood, flour, and a few unidentifiable substances. "Not the kind of publicity you'd *want.*"

Shuichi rushed over to his lover. "But Yuki. . .this could *make* our careers! If we defeat the Iron Chef. . ." He switched to an imitation of the show's announcer, Kenji Fukui, ". . .we will win the people's ovation and fame forever!"

Yuki put the rag down, crossed his arms and regarded the singer with cold, stone-colored eyes. "I fail to see how that's going to help your *music* career. And, as you just proved. . .you *can't* cook."

"I'm still *learning!" Shuichi said, picking up the fish he'd been cutting and examining it for a moment. Suddenly, an inspiration struck him, and he wheeled toward Yuki, filet in his hands. "Yuki. . .*you* can cook! You make fancy stuff for us all the time! Why don't *you* come on the show with us? It would be great!

Yuki headed out of the kitchen. "I'd rather eat a bar of soap than make a fool of myself on national TV."

"You wouldn't make a fool of yourself if *you* were cooking! You're a *great* cook! You. . . YUKI!"

But the glacial blond had retreated into his private study and shut the door.

Shuichi let out a deep sigh. He's not going to listen to me on this, he thought. Fine. . . I'll show him! I'll go on Iron Chef, and I'll *wipe the floor* with those guys! He'll see! But first. . .Yuki's right. I *don't* know how to cook. So. . .I have to *learn*, don't I? How hard can it be?

He headed back to the kitchen, head held high, more determined than before.

In his study, Yuki was attempting to work on his new novel when he heard the clattering of pots and pans start up again. . .and started to smell a rather peculiar odor.

That idiot doesn't give up, he thought. Why did he let his managers talk him into a harebrained scene like this in the first place? And why do I put up with these things? He's going to destroy my kitchen. And I'm not going to be able to get rid of that smell for days.

He went back to work, trying to envision the scene he was trying to write, a young woman pleading with her lover to give her just one more chance. . .

But the vision that filled his mind's eye was that of a pink-haired young man, clutching his bandaged finger, his eyes wide with excitement over his cockamamy project. And looking adorable in his little chef's apron.

Yuki lit a cigarette, then rubbed at his temples. Why can I never get him out of my system, no matter how hard I try? he thought. I told myself for years I never wanted to feel anything again for anyone. I've done anything and everything to push him away. . .but I always seem to be pulling him toward me, as well.

He took a deep drag. He had to clear his head, he had to work. His publisher was already getting on his back about delays with this particular manuscript. He couldn't let anything slow him down on this. . .

Not even the boy who was singing to himself as he continued to rattle and clatter every cooking appliance in Yuki's kitchen.

* * *

"He's late *again*," Sakano groaned, looking at his watch for the umpteenth time that day. "Doesn't he know what's at stake with this single? If it flops. . ."

"I'm sure Shuichi is very much aware," Hiro said, calmly. He had hoped to arrive at NG this morning to find out that K had come to his senses and called the whole Iron Chef thing off. . .but no such luck. In fact, K had even brought tapes of past Iron Chef battles for them to study for strategy.

"I'm not going to wait any longer," K said. "I'm starting the meeting." He walked over to the TV and VCR set up on a table in the corner. "Okay, the first battle we're going to watch is between Morimoto and. . ."

A loud voice from the doorway suddenly cried, "LAA DEE HOOO!" Everyone turned. . .to see Shuichi wearing a scarf around his hair, carrying a huge pot by its handles.

"Shuichi," said Hiro, "what is *that*?"

"That," said Shuichi, "is what's going to win Iron Chef for us!" He put the pot on the table and lifted the lid. A peculiar odor, akin to garbage that had been sitting in the sun for hours, wafted through the air.

Hiro and Suguru looked at each other, then tiptoed up to the pot, like eavesdroppers approaching a door left open a crack, and cautiously peeked at its contents. The broth was somewhere between dark gray and brown in color, and there were. . .*things* bobbing around in it. Hiro thought he caught a glimpse of a fish head, and the top of a carrot. Suddenly, he felt queasy.

Shuichi opened up his backpack and started pulling out plastic bowls and spoons. "I tried cooking from recipes first," he said. "But then, I thought. . .they improvise on the show, so *I'm* going to improvise!" He dipped a ladle into the pot and stirred it, and the odor filled the room again, twice as strong. Suguru felt his eyes flood with tears. Hiro held his breath. Sakano just put his head down on the table and sat immobile.

K grabbed a spoon and shouted, "Great! Let's eat!"

"I thought you'd never ask!" Shuichi said. With theatrical flair, he scooped up the substance and slapped it into a bowl, presenting it to K like a starlet handing over an Academy Award. He dished out two more and passed them to his bandmates. Hiro looked into his bowl and struggled not to gag. That *was* a fish head floating around on top!

"Um, Shuichi," he said, gently, "maybe it's not such a good idea for you to try to be. . gourmet. . ."

"Why?" Shuichi said, putting a bowl in front of Sakano - who still didn't raise his head. "We have to do what they do, right? That's the only way we're going to win!"

"This is something else, Shuichi!" K said with gusto, as he attacked the stew, dishing up what looked like a fish tail. Hiro gagged all over again. He looked over at Suguru. . .who was lifting a whole, uncut carrot out of his bowl and staring at it with frank incomprehension.

"It's. . .something else, all right," Suguru said in a voice little above a whisper.

"Yes!" Shuichi said, dishing up a bowl for himself. "We're going to KICK BUTT!" But he took a bite of his own creation. . .and instantly paled.

Suguru put the carrot back on the bowl, replaced the bowl on the table, and said, "K-san. .. I'm not sure if this is a good idea anymore."

Shuichi's head snapped up. "What do you mean?"

"What are you talking about?" K said, stirring at the broth again. "I think it's a great idea!"

"I don't," Suguru said. "If Shuichi does this on TV. . ."

Shuichi leapt to his feet. "What do you *mean*, if I do this on TV? That's what I'm planning on doing. . .improv cooking! It's what Iron Chef is all about, right? It's why we're doing this in the first place!"

Hiro put down his bowl and got to his feet. "Can you excuse us for a minute? I want to have a talk with Shuichi. . .alone."

"Sure, go right ahead," K said, lifting something that looked like a whole turnip out of his bowl.

Hiro went over to his best friend, grabbed him by the arm and steered him out into the hall. "Hiro-kun," Shuichi said, "where are we going?"

But Hiro didn't answer, just guided his friend on until they got to the artist's lounge at the end of the hall. While there, he closed and locked the door, then turned to his friend.

"Look," he told Shuichi, "I know you're bound and determined to do this. But it's *not* a good thing for Bad Luck. I think you should go back in there and tell K we're not doing it. We can come up with another way to get publicity."

Shuichi snatched the rag off his hair and turned eyes ablaze with purpose on his bandmate. "Look. . .are you afraid of taking risks? Because if you are. . ."

Hiro sat down on an easy chair and said, gently, "But, Shuichi, this is beyond risks. It's starting to look like career suicide. Everything we've gone through to this point. . .all the progress we've made. . .we just can't afford to lose it now."

Shuichi just stared at him, blinking. Career suicide? No. . .it couldn't be that! Why was Hiro being so negative? Why did he suddenly want to play it safe? They'd *never* played it safe before! That wasn't what their band was all about!

"Why is *everyone* against this?" he said. "You, Yuki, Suguru. . .none of you know what this means to me!"

"Shuichi," Hiro said, "I *do* know what it means. And. . .it's the best reason of all for us *not* to do it!"

"You just don't *understand!*" Shuichi cried, turning tail and running from the room, tears burning his eyes. There was a secretary getting off one of the elevators, and he brushed past her, pushing the ground floor button.

Once downstairs, he ran blindly, not looking where he was going, not caring. How dare Hiro accuse him of wanting to commit career suicide? That was the last thing in the world he wanted to do! Nobody wanted Bad Luck to succeed more than he did! He was willing to do anything to get that success. . .anything. . .

When he realized he was in a park several blocks from NG's offices, he slowed down, then came to a stop, flinging himself onto a bench and leaning over, his head between his knees as he panted heavily.

*Why* does this mean so much to me? he thought. *Why* do I have such a burning need to make this single a success, no matter what the cost?

An image filled his head of himself backstage at the Hit Stage show, watching Ryuichi perform Nittle Grasper's new single, "Sleepless Beauty". . .the sick feeling that overwhelmed his entire body at that moment when he realized he'd never be as good, as dynamic a performer as his childhood idol, no matter how he tried.

Watching him used to be ecstasy, back when I was just a fan, he thought. Now that I'm a fellow performer, and a competitor, it's agony.

He stood up, and started to walk again, slowly. Looking around him, he saw a mother shepherding two toddlers, who were running around excitedly after a butterfly. . .a college-age brunette young woman walking two dachshunds. . .an elderly couple dressed to the nines, walking slowly, hand-in-hand.

He envied them their simple, uncomplicated lives.

So deep in thought was he that he didn't notice he was on a collision course with another walker. . .until he felt another body slam into his. He gasped, and struggled to retain his footing, saying, "Are you all right?" to the other person.

Then, he got a good luck at who it was. Dark green hair, in a style like his own. Big, round violet eyes in a perpetually smiling face.

Ryuichi Sakuma.

He seemed dazed - or, maybe it should be said, more dazed than usual - for a moment or two. Then, an ear-to-ear grin spread across his face, and he said, "SHUICHI-KUN! I haven't seen you since Hit Stage!"

Shuichi suddenly felt uncomfortable. . .which he never had in Ryuichi's presence before. It was usually impossible to feel uncomfortable around him. . .he was such a friendly, innocent overgrown kid, a stark contrast to his sexy, badass stage persona.

"Um, we've been really busy," he said, looking down. "Bad Luck, that is."

"Oooh, yeah!" Ryuichi said, starting to walk down the path again at a rapid pace which Shuichi struggled to keep up with. "I heard a rumor that you were going to be on Iron Chef!"

Shuichi blanched. "The rumors *aren't* true," he said.

Ryuichi stopped so suddenly that Shuichi almost ran into him again. "Not TRUE?" he said. "Aaawww. . .that's too bad! I would have been SOOO jealous!"

Shuichi blinked rapidly. "Jealous?"

"Yes! Kumagoro and I watch Iron Chef all the time!"

Only Ryuichi, Shuichi thought, would talk about watching television with his pink stuffed rabbit. Coming from any other adult, such a sentence would sound bizarre. Coming from Ryuichi, it was natural. . .even charming.

"Well," Shuichi said, "we *have* had an offer like that, but. . ."

"TAKE IT!" Ryuichi cried, literally hopping up and down with excitement. "Oh, you *have* to do it, Shuichi-kun! That would be so much *fun*!

"But. . .we might end up making fools of ourselves in public," Shuichi said, quietly.

"No, you won't," Ryuichi said. "Not if the audience sees you're having fun! They won't care if you win or lose!" He sighed, wistfully. "I wish someone had asked *me* to do something like that."

Shuichi digested all this, slowly. Ryuichi wanted to go on Iron Chef. . .Ryuichi had no fear of making a fool of himself. . .Ryuichi was jealous of him because he'd been asked. . .

Suddenly, he whirled around and said, "Ryuichi. . .I have to go. I have a meeting at NG. I'll see you later, okay?"

"Okay, Shuichi-kun!" the other singer called as he ran off. "And. . .remember what I said. . .go for it!"

Shuichi rushed back toward the record company, hoping that the others were still there. He *had* to convince them to go on Iron Chef now!

* * *

At NG, Sakano was furiously spraying the room with air freshener, trying to get rid of the odor of Shuichi's concoction. Even though it had long since been dumped down a garbage disposal, the smell was as strong as if it were still in the room.

"Is he going to come back?" Suguru said to Hiro, who was standing at the window, looking out for any sign of their absent bandmate.

"I hope so," Hiro said. "And I'm sure that when he does. .. he'll have come to his senses."

"He'd better!" Sakano said. "If he'd gone on TV with that. . .you would have been ruined! RUINED!"

"Awww, it wasn't *that* bad," K said. . .as he reached in his pocket for a roll of antacid tablets.

"No, it *wasn't* that bad," said Hiro, turning back toward the people in the room. "It was *worse.*"

There's something about these people at NG that gets to me sometimes, he thought as he looked back out the window. They want us to sell a million records, and they don't care how we do it. . .or what we have to do in public. They're going to hurt Shuichi someday, I just know it.

The door opened, and Shuichi entered, a lot more quietly than last time.

"Shindo-san!" Sakano yelled. "Where have you been?"

"I took a walk," Shuichi said, sitting at the table. "I had to do some thinking."

"And you decided not to do it?" said Sakano, leaning over the table with a near-pleading look on his face.

"No," Shuichi replied. "I still want to do Iron Chef. More than ever."

K got up and patted him on the back. "That's great!"

Hiro whirled around and stalked over to Shuichi. "That is NOT great! Shuichi, we are *not* doing that show!"

"Hiro. . .I *want* to. For the band. And besides. . .it'll be fun."

"FUN? Ruining our careers is *not*. . ."

"We *won't* ruin our careers," Shuichi said said with an uncharacteristic calmness. "No matter what happens. . .we're still going to get our name out there! "

Hiro let out a long sigh. There was going to be absolutely no convincing Shuichi otherwise. . .he was determined to go on that show. The only thing we can do now, he thought, is minimize the damage.

"All right," he said. "But you let Suguru and I take the lead in the cooking. You just help us out, okay?"

"Okay," Shuichi said, with a smile.

We're going to do it, he thought. We're really going to do it! This is going to be great. . .the best thing that ever happened to our careers!

* * *

Shuichi finished the last of his getting-ready routine, adding a few dabs of hair gel to keep his pink locks in place. He was humming to himself as he headed out into the hallway.

Ryuichi is envious of *me* for doing this, he thought. *He* is envious of *me!*

He went into Yuki's study, where his lover was intently working at the computer. He leaned over and gave him a peck on the cheek. Yuki didn't respond.

"I'm going to the TV studio," he said, then paused. . .hoping that Yuki would have a last-minute change of heart, that he'd announce he was going to join the Bad Luck team after all. . .

But Yuki just made a small noise somewhere between a grunt and an "mmm."

"Um. . .you're still welcome to join our team, if. . .you want. . ." Shuichi said, his voice trailing off.

"I still think it's a ridiculous idea," Yuki said, not taking his eyes from the screen.

Shuichi scowled. "Fine!" he said. "You don't want to be a part of the biggest day of my career. . .that's just *fine* with me! I'm going, I'll see you tonight." He stormed out of the apartment, slamming the door behind him.

Yuki let out a deep sigh and tried to go back to his writing. That idiot, he thought. He really is making too much of this. It's just a cooking show, and a silly one at that. . .it's not as if he's up for some major music award! Why he thinks that this is the biggest day of his career, I'll never know.

But images kept filling his mind of Shuichi in the kitchen, preparing his ridiculous concoction. . .taking it to NG yesterday, his entire face alight, acting as if he was carrying a pot of molten gold.

There was pure joy on his face. A joy that Yuki hadn't felt in years. To Shuichi, it definitely wasn't silly, or ridiculous.

Yuki started to write again. . .then paused. He hit "save" and stood up, reaching for his coat.

* * *

Shuichi was greeted at the door by an elegant-looking woman with upswept blonde hair, a fashionable navy blue business suit and a clipboard.

"Good morning, Shindo-san. I'm Reiko Iwabuchi. . .I think we spoke on the phone the other day."

"Yes," Shuichi said, bobbing the top half of his body in an approximation of a bow. "You're the assistant producer, right?"

"I am," she said. "Right this way, the other two members of Bad Luck are here already. There's a few things I want to go over with you before the taping."

The woman led Shuichi into a cavernous room designed to look like an arena of sorts. . .but instead of sporting equipment, the centerpiece was two complete cooking setups, with stoves, microwave, cutting boards, even refrigerators. Along the back wall was a dais with a table and chairs for the judges; around the perimeter were spectator boxes. Cameras and lights were being adjusted at various points throughout the studio.

This was Kitchen Stadium, the battle arena for Iron Chef.

Suguru waved at Shuichi from across the room. He and Hiro were just behind one of the cooking stations, with chef's aprons covering their usual casual clothes. Shuichi waved back, started to head toward them. . .and tripped over a cable, nearly taking a header.

This is *not* a good omen, he thought.

"Careful, Shindo-san," the woman said. "Those cables are everywhere."

"I found that out," he said, managing to regain his balance.

As they approached the other two, Hiro reached out and patted him on the shoulder. "How are you doing?"

"Well. . .okay so far, I guess," Shuichi said.

Hiro leaned closer to his best friend and said, gently, "It's not too late to back out, Shuichi. We could tell them to call the whole thing off. . ."

"I am *not* backing out," Shuichi said, firm determination in his eyes.

"We're glad to hear that," Reiko Iwabuchi said with a smile. "Now, I think you know the way the show works. The host of the show, Chairman Kaga, will unveil the theme ingredient. After that, you will have 60 minutes to complete your cooking. You can make as many dishes as you want, but they all must use the theme ingredient, and they all must be completed within the time frame."

Shuichi nodded. Bad Luck had been given a list of several possible theme ingredients ahead of time; they'd already agreed on a few dishes for each one.

"Once the battle is done," Iwabuchi continued, "you will present your dishes to the judges for evaluation, and finally, Chairman Kaga will announce the winner of the battle. Then, the broadcast will end."

"Not if we win," Shuichi said.

The woman looked a bit startled. "Excuse me?" she said.

"If we win. . .we perform out next single on television," Shuichi said. "That's what we did when we were on a game show."

"Our manager's already spoken to the producers," Hiro added. "They've agreed to do it." He imagined K had used very effective methods of persuasion - involving firearms.

"Well," Iwabuchi said, "I don't recall anything like this happening before. . .but, then again, you're our first J-rock band." She smiled. "I'll check with the producers. The green room is this way. . ."

She led them backstage, to a room filled with hair and makeup people. Shuichi frowned. . .he'd never liked makeup, but it was a necessary evil in his profession. He forced himself to sit still as soft-texured brushes swept over his face and neck.

I'm perfectly calm, he thought. Not even butterflies in my stomach. This should be a piece of cake.

Suguru leaned over and said, "Shuichi. .you remember what we're going to do, right?"

"Sure. You and Hiro take the lead, I help the two of you out. Not a problem whatsoever."

"And, Shuichi. . .please don't take this too seriously. This isn't a *career move*. Not really. No matter what K said."

Shuichi was a bit perturbed at that one. Suguru's only been with the band a short time! he thought. There's no way he could understand what we're really all about! He wasn't there when we played in live houses. . .or when we did our first professional gig, opening for ASK. . .

But, he said, calmly, as he arose from the hair and makeup chair, "Everything we do is a career move, Suguru."

Reiko Iwabuchi approached them, holding a huge mock-up of their "Rage Beat" single cover. "Your manager wants two of you to carry this into Kitchen Stadium as you enter."

The band members looked at each other. K wasn't missing a single chance for maximum publicity.

"Do we *have* to?" Shuichi said.

There was a click behind him, and he felt cold metal pressed against his temple.

"That is. . .sure, we'd be glad to!" Shuichi said, pasting an ear-to-ear grin on his face.

"Much better," K said, putting the safety back on and re-holstering the pistol. "Okay, boys. . .they're going to call you any minute. Remember, when they ask you what Iron Chef you want to challenge, you all yell in unison, "MORIMOTO-SAN!"

Contrary to the way it looked on television, the challenger's opponent was already decided on before the broadcast. K had been insistent that Bad Luck face Iron Chef Japanese. "Why him?" said Hiro.

"He's the newest Iron Chef. That means he's the least experienced," K said. "You should be able to take him easily!"

"I wouldn't be too sure of that," Hiro said. "I did research, and *all* these Iron Chefs are. . ."

Reiko Iwabuchi approached the group again. "Excuse me. . . Mr. Winchester, we're ready for Bad Luck now."

"Excellent!" K said, grabbing the outsized CD cover and shoving it into the hands of Hiro and Suguru. "Okay, boys. . . KICK ASS!"

* * *

As preparations for taping entered their final stages, the door of the studio burst open and a human earthquake entered the room.

Kazuya Ishinabe was a big man in every sense of the word. His six-foot-five, corpulant form was swathed in a grey suit that made him look like Mt. Fuji - especially with the heavily laquered shock of thick, snow-white hair covering his head. Even the round glasses over his eyes seemed abnormally huge, as if their frames had been made from a pair of hubcaps.

He strode over to the director, Yukio Kotona, a redheaded man of average height who was intently studying a clipboard. He suddenly felt a presence next to him, and looked up. And up. And up.

Oh, hell, he thought. It's the network brass. Just what we need for a taping with unpredictable challengers.

"Good day, Ishinabe-san," he said, bowing. "What brings you here today?"

"I haven't paid a visit to this set in awhile," the television exeucutive said, in a voice that sounded like a height-of-summer thunderstorm. "I figured I was due. What's going on here today?"

"The challengers are a J-rock band," Kotona said.

"J-rock?" Ishiname rumbled. "I thought Hey Hey Hey Music Champ was next door?"

"It is," said Kotona, trying not to look conspicuous as he wiped sweat from his forehead. "We thought we'd try something. . .different for a change."

"Different?" Ishinabe said, crossing tree trunk-like arms, a we-are-not-amused scowl crossing his face.

"Well, sir," said Kotona, evenly, "as I recall, *you* were the one who said this show was getting to be 'been there, done that' after five years."

"I did?" said Ishinabe.

Kotona nodded his head. I can't remember whether it *was* him who said that, he thought, or one of the other suits they've sent down here. . .but it's worth a gamble.

Ishinabe shrugged. "Ah, well. . .maybe I did. But. . .this had better be entertaining, Kotona." He went and took a seat on the sidelines.

Kotona let out a big sigh of relief. I hope to gods it's entertaining, too, he thought. I do *not* want to have to send out resumes.

* * *

At the judge's table, the two young "guest judges" for the day were settling in. Keiko Nagata, an actress, sat down pertly. Her indigo hair was brushed into a pageboy, petite body swathed in a baby-pink dress with a neckline cut just a hair too low. She giggled like a schoolgirl as her wide, round indigo eyes swept over Kitchen Stadium.

It was all too obvious that she was *not* there because of her familiarity with the collected works of James Beard.

Beside her sat Harumi Masuda, a young sportswriter who was trying valiantly not to look like his brand-new tie was choking him. He decided to try to draw his fellow judge into conversation, to break up some of the long wait before the cameras were turned on.

"I hear that the challengers today are a J-rock band," he said.

"Oooh, really?" Keiko replied in a voice several octaves above the squeak of a mouse. "I really like J-rock! Do you?"

"Not really," Harumi replied. "I don't keep up with the new sounds much. I'm more of a classic rock kind of guy. My favorite is Led Zeppelin."

Keiko blinked her eyes a few times and gave him a blank stare. "Um. . .I don't think I've heard of him."

Is she for real? Harumi thought. "No, no. . . Led Zeppelin is a *they.*"

Keiko giggled. "Oh, okay! What else do you like?"

"Pink Floyd."

"No. . .haven't heard of him, either."

"Fleetwood Mac?"

"I. . .*may* have heard one or two of his songs. . ."

Harumi sighed. Good gods, he thought, what rock did they find *her* under? "Well. . .what about Meat Loaf?"

Keiko giggled. "Ah. I think I've heard *them!*"

Harumi hid his head in his hands, thinking that watching the patterns of shadows on the table from the shifting stage lights was more entertaining.

Fortunately, he was saved by the sound of the director shouting, "Okay, people, here we go! Three. . .two. . .one. . . ACTION!"

The studio audience applauded as the show's flamboyant host, Takeshi Kaga, strode to center stage, arrayed, as always, in an assortment of spangles and velvet that would make Liberace look masculine.

"Today," he announced in his sonorous voice, "we have a very special event in my Kitchen Stadium. "For the very first time, the challengers will be a J-rock band, a group of young men who want to prove they are as talented in the kitchen as they are in the recording studio. Let's bring them out now. . .NG Records recording artists BAD LUCK!"

Backstage, Hiro put a hand on Shuichi's shoulder. "Shuichi," he whispered, "this is the last chance. . ."

Shuichi shook his head. "No, Hiro-kun. We're doing it. We can win this thing. I *know* we can!"

At Kotona's signal, Shuichi walked down the red carpet that led into Kitchen Stadium, followed by his two bandmates with the CD blowup. He kept his eyes trained straight forward, as he'd been told, so he was looking at the wall directly ahead. . .which bore enormous images of the four Iron Chefs.

They seemed to glower down at Shuichi in their too-colorful chef outfits, as if to say, who are you, you puny little musician, to try to challenge US? The invincible men of culinary skills? He swallowed hard, and tried to look away. . .but he couldn't.

He could feel the hot television lights on his skin, and they seemed to be burning him. A rack of knives set up in one of the kitchens suddenly looked like a row of daggers pointed right at his heart.

The sudden realization of what he'd gotten himself into crashed in on him like a ton of bricks. He was going to have to *cook*. In front of *all of Japan.* And he *couldn't cook.* Not to save his life.

Bad Luck had reached Chairman Kaga. He was asking them something about cooking, Hiro was responding. Shuichi wasn't comprehending a word either one was saying.

Dear gods, he thought, what have I gotten myself into?

He looked up at the enormous images of the four Iron Chefs again. . .they seemed to loom even larger than before, making him feel about two inches big. They look, he thought, like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Chairman Kaga was gesturing toward the images and shouting, "I summon the IRON CHEF!" The cameras stopped rolling momentarily. . .this was where, in the actual broadcast, they would insert a shot of the chefs ascending into Kitchen Stadium so the challenger could select their opponent. In real life, of course, the opponents were always pre-selected. . .it wouldn't make sense to have the other chefs there for a 30-second shot.

Shuichi took advantage of the break to take a deep breath and wipe sweat from his forehead. Hiro couldn't help but notice how uncomfortable his best friend looked. He put a hand on Shuichi's shoulder and said, "Are you all right?"

"Yeah," Shuichi said, wiping his forehead again. "It's just. . .lights are a bit hot, y'know?"

"It's going to be hotter when we start cooking," Hiro replied.

"I'll be used to it by then," Shuichi said, trying with all his might to look calm, cool and collected. He knew he was failing miserably.

The director was shouting, "All right. . .we go again in five! Four! Three! Two! One! ACTION!" Shuichi's stomach clenched. I don't want to be here anymore, he thought. I don't care about our new single anymore. I just want to be home, watching TV with my head on Yuki's lap.

He realized Chairman Kaga was speaking to them, and he tried to look interested. "So. . .who will it be?"

As they had rehearsed earlier, the three musicians pointed toward the image of Iron Chef Japanese and shouted with one voice, "MORIMOTO-SAN!" The camera zoomed in on them, and all three attempted to put on their meanest glares, as if they were staring down their opponent.

Up in the judge's area, Keiko giggled and whispered, "They're cute! I want them to win!"

"You're not supposed to be judging them on *cute*,"Harumi whispered back. "You're supposed to use, well. . .epicurean skills."

Keiko blinked at him. "What does this have to do with getting your fingernails done?"

Harumi rubbed his temples. One hour, he thought. One hour to get through without strangling her. . .

Meanwhile, Bad Luck was getting their first glimpse of their opponent in the flesh. He walked out onto the set, trailed by assistants, wrapped in a metallic silver chef's outfit that somehow *didn't* look utterly ridiculous. Maybe it was because he was exuding an air of absolute confidence. . .which only made Shuichi's stomach drop down even closer to his feet.

"He's *all* pro," Suguru whispered to the other two. "You can tell that just by looking at him. Why did K think he'd be easy to beat?"

"*K* should get out here and cook against him," Shuichi muttered under his breath.

The cameras started rolling again, and Chairman Kaga took his place behind what looked like a table covered with a velvet cloth. "For this battle, I chose an ingredient that's like contemporary popular music," he said. "Simplicity itself. . .but with the potential to be high art. So. . . WE REVEAL THE INGREDIENT!" He whipped off the velvet covering with a flourish. Dramatic music played, lights flashed, dry ice poured over the set, and a hydraulic platform rose from the hole the velvet had covered. On the platform was what looked like sheets and sheets of dark green paper.

Oh, gods, Shuichi thought. On top of everything else. . .it's the *last* ingredient I thought they were going to give us.

Chairman Kaga boomed, "Today's theme is. . .NORI."

Shuichi looked over at his bandmates. Suguru was studying the sheets of dried seaweed as intently as a pitcher getting his signals from the catcher. Hiro just looked at them with an unreadable expression, arms crossed over his chest.

What the *hell* are we going to do with *nori*? Shuichi thought, his stomach churning madly.

The host stepped back, spread out his arms and shouted, "ALLEZ CUISINE!" A gong sounded, and Battle Nori was officially on.

Suguru and Hiro started toward the ingredient stand, grabbing a basket to gather the nori. Shuichi stood rooted to the spot. Hiro turned toward him. "Shuichi. . .SHUICHI! We have to get the nori!"

Shuichi remained paralyzed with fear. Hiro finally grabbed him by the arm and dragged him to the ingredient stand, like a pet owner dragging their dog into the vet's office.

Once he had his hands on the seaweed sheets, though, he felt a bit better. Hey, it's just nori, right? he thought as he filled the basket. At least they didn't give us something weird and exotic. Maybe. . .maybe we can pull this off. . .

They rushed to their cooking station. "I'll toast this stuff," Suguru said - he was well aware that nori had to be toasted over a low flame before it could be used.

"Okay," Hiro said. "Shuichi, put some soba noodles on to boil, we'll do the noodles in a basket thing we talked about. Then get the rice cooker going and start chopping up the cucumbers and crabmeat."

"Sure thing!" Shuichi said, filling a pot with water and opening the cabinet where they'd been told the noodle supply was. Yes, he thought, we can do it. I'll just let Hiro take the lead. . .and I'll just chop things and boil things, and. . .

And then, his eyes fell on the Royal Box above their cooking station, and he froze again. There in the front row was a handsome twentysomething blond man, dressed in a designer shirt and trenchcoat, sliding Ray Bans off his icy gray eyes.

"Yuki," Shuichi whispered.

Hiro heard this. . .and now it was *his* turn to panic. He knew all too well the effect Yuki's presence could have on Shuichi. . .their first professional gig was almost a disaster when he showed up without warning.

He's going to be useless, he thought. Damn Yuki for showing up here! He should have known. . .

"Suguru!" Hiro shouted. "Give me a hand here! I need the crab and cucumber cut up!" The guitarist got the soba noodles going himself, and reached for the bag of rice.

Yuki looked down at his lover, who was just *standing* there. What the hell is wrong with that idiot? he thought. He wanted to do this cooking thing so badly, why doesn't he *cook*? He doesn't think *anything* through, does he?

Shuichi closed his eyes and shook his head. No, he thought, I can't look at Yuki! I can't! I came here to *cook*! He turned his head so he'd be facing the *other* end of the Royal Box, and opened his eyes. . .

The sight he was met with was a cheerful, green-haired man, dressed in a sweatshirt with the Iron Chef logo, holding a pink bunny -- which was dressed for the occasion in a little chef's hat and apron.

Oh, GODS! Shuichi thought. It's Ryuichi! He came!

Ryuichi waved and shouted, "Shuichi-kuuuuuun! GAMBATTE!"

Shuichi stood there for a moment, just looking at Ryuichi, blinking. . .

And then, he rushed into the cooking area, shouting, "We have to WORK!" Pushing his bandmates aside, he flew to the stove and began filling pots with water.

"SHUICHI!" Hiro shouted. "What are you DOING?"

He began to toss things into the pots. . .potatoes in one, noodles in another, some root vegetables in the third. . . Once he was done with that, he grabbed a huge bag of rice and upended it into the rice cooker.

"Cooking!" said Shuichi, picking up a huge, sharp knife. "What does it *look* like I'm doing?" He grabbed a handful of random vegetables - carrots, onions, mushrooms. . .and began hacking away at them like a hockey-masked killer in an '80s teen movie.

In the Royal Box, Yuki watched with an impassive expression on his face.

He's making an utter fool of himself, he thought. He should have *known* this would happen. I tried to tell him not to do this, and he did it anyway. He *always* does this kind of thing. Why am I even here? I might as well just leave and spare myself the embarrassment.

A nagging thought in the back of his head said, And why didn't you teach him to cook? You knew he was bound and determined to do this, and you've known how to cook ever since you were a small boy. You could have spared him this embarrassment.

He pushed the thought away. It's not *my* problem, he thought. He could have said no to that insane gaijin of a manager. He *chose* to do this.

And he put his shades back on and settled back into his seat, arms crossed over his body.

Back on the floor, as Shuichi frantically began throwing vegetables into a pot and started to stir them, somebody behind him said, "Excuse me. . .Shindo-san? What is it that you're working on?"

Shuichi raised his head and blinked. It was a pudgy man with glasses, dressed in a tuxedo and wielding a microphone.

"That's the floor reporter, Shinichiro Ota," Suguru whispered to Shuichi. "He wants to give the announcers an update on us."

Oh, gods, Shuichi thought. . .I *don't* know what it is I'm working on! "I'm. . .making. . .stuffed. . ." His eyes frantically swept over the table. "Carrots!" he shouted, grabbing the only intact vegetable within reach. "Stuffed carrots ala Bad Luck! We're gonna stuff them with chopped-up vegetables! And then cover them with a row of peas on little toothpicks! And *then*. . .we'll garnish it with a little Japanese flag!"

Suguru listened to this with his mouth open. Hiro gritted his teeth as he scraped up Shuichi's mess, desperate to salvage *something* from it.

"That's great," said the floor reporter. "But. . .where's the *nori*?"

"N. . .n. . .nori?" Shuichi felt like he was drenched head-to-toe in sweat.

"The theme ingredient!"

"It's a surprise!" Suguru said, quickly, pushing Shuichi toward the stove.

Ota blinked. . .he'd never seen such. . .disorganized challengers before. He wondered how they'd even gotten on the show. . .although there *had* been a rumor of a crazy gaijin threatening the producers with a gun. . .

Nevertheless, he signaled the judge's table. "FUKUI-SAN! I asked the challenger what he was making, and he said he was doing vegetables stuffed in carrots! Not sure how they'll get the nori into that one, but I'm sure it'll be interesting! Back to you!"

"All right, then!" said announcer Kenji Fukui from his seat next to Keiko. "Some. . .*unusual* vegetable handling going on at the challenger's side! Now, over to the Iron Chef. . .is that *squid ink* he's using?"

"That's right," said the professorial commentator, Yukio Hattori, who was seated on the announcer's other side. "This seems to be a sauce for the rice dish he was making before. And he's making sushi out of. . .raw *beef*?"

"Certainly looks that way!" said Fukui. "Wow, this is some wild stuff, even for him! And he's firing up the. . .*ice cream maker*?"

"*Nori ice cream*?" said Hattori.

"I like Ben and Jerry's ice cream!" Keiko suddenly announced. "Especially the Chunky Monkey! Even though the peanuts make me break out in pimples sometimes."

There was dead silence at the judge's table for a few moments. Harumi looked at his watch, mentally calculating in minutes how long it would be before he could hit the bars and drink this experience out of his mind.

Then, Fukui said, slowly, "Soooo. . ..we seem to have a J-rock legend in the Royal Box here to cheer on his fellow musicians! Ryuichi Sakuma, lead singer of Nittle Grasper!"

The camera focused on Ryuichi, who was waving at Shuichi again and shouting, "GAMBAAAAATTEEEEE!"

"And he seems to be a fan of your show, from the looks of his sweatshirt," said Harumi with forced cheerfulness. "What's with the *bunny*, though?"

"Probably a gift from a female admirer," Keiko giggled. "And its little costume is soooo cuuuuuuute!"

Gods, give me strength not to throw the first platter of food in her face, Harumi thought.

Meanwhile, back on the floor, Hiro had managed to fashion some of Shuichi's vegetable mess and some chunks of beef from the fridge into a stew. "Just keep stirring that," he told Shuichi, "and when it's bubbling, turn the heat down to simmer." He rushed off to the other end of the counter to try and salvage his noodles in a basket.

Shuichi stirred. . .and stirred. . .and stirred. How much longer to go? he thought. I feel like we've been out here since the dawn of time. Why didn't I tell Hiro that I wanted out before we started the taping? He could hear Ryuichi shouting his name again, and that only made him feel more embarrassed. . .he'd just made a fool out of himself trying to impress his idol.

He looked down into the pot and frowned. It wasn't anywhere near bubbling. In fact. . .it didn't seem to be cooking at all. I wonder if Hiro even turned on this stove? he thought. He reached down, felt for a knob, and twisted it to the right. A flame suddenly flared up under the pot high enough to make Shuichi jump away with a yelp. He grabbed his spoon and cautiously approached the pot again, waiting to see if it was bubbling. . .

It was bubbling, all right. The liquid boiled out of control almost instantly, rising to the top of the pot and spilling over, sending vegetables and meat into the flame. Acrid smoke began to pour through the cooking arena.

For Shuichi, everything seemed to go into slow motion. Hiro and Suguru turned toward him, eyes and mouths wide open. The floor reporter, who'd been approaching their station again, ran away, gagging and holding a handkerchief over his mouth and nose.

On the sidelines, Ishinabe choked and gagged, a sound like a massive car engine that wouldn't start in the morning, his face turning crimson. He turned toward Kotona, glaring daggers.

At the judges' table, Keiko wrinkled her nose and said, "Eeew. . .it's stinky!"

Hiro grabbed a pot holder and snatched the pot off the fire. There was no way it could be salvaged. What remained in the pot was now as burnt as what had fallen into the fire.

The members of Bad Luck looked at each other. Their one dish that was anywhere near completion. . .was now ruined.

A mechanical-sounding female voice said over the studio's announcement system, "Thirty minutes have elapsed." It sounded, to them, like the voice of doom.

Shuichi hung his head, near tears. I made a fool of myself in front of Ryuichi, he thought. I acted like an idiot in front of all Japan. Bad Luck is probably a laughingstock now. Why, why, why did I do this? If only I'd listened to Yuki. . .

At the judge's table, Fukui-san observed, "It doesn't look good for Bad Luck. They haven't even completed one dish. . .and the Iron Chef's already finished three!"

"At this point," Hattori said, "they really should just call off the battle. I can't see any way that they could possibly come back from this."

In the Royal Box, Yuki sat, looking down at his young lover. . .seeing the tears run down his face. Again, he said to himself, he asked for this. It's *his* problem.

But another voice inside him said, is it *really*?

The romance novelist started to rise from his seat, slowly, hand on the railing of the Royal Box. . .

Back at the judge's table, Keiko suddenly let out a shriek. "Look! Somebody just *vaulted* out of the Royal Box! He's right there. . .in the cooking area. . ."

"Doc, do you know who that is?" Fukui-san said.

"I think it's Eiri Yuki, the romance writer," Dr. Hattori replied.

"Eiri Yuki?" Keiko shrieked, standing up in her place. . .Harumi could swear he saw glowing hearts in her eyes. "I love him! He's the best writer in the world! YUUUKIIII-SAAAAANNN!!!" She lunged toward the front of the dais, started to hop over the table, until Harumi grabbed her dress, hauling her back to her seat.

"One person jumping onto the stage is *enough*!" he said.

In the challenger's cooking arena, Shuichi stood in shock as his lover landed in front of him. "Yuki," he whispered. "What. . .what are you *doing* here?"

Yuki looked around at the band members. "Let's get going," he told Shuichi. "We have only a half-hour to finish."

"You're going to *help* us?" Shuichi said, eyes sparkling.

Yuki grabbed the pot of potatoes Shuichi had put on to boil before. "I'll make a potato-and-nori thing my mother used to do. Hiro. . .finish your noodles, and then start rolling sushi. Suguru, there should be some kind of fish or salted plums in the fridge, start making onegiri."

The other two band members scrambled off to work. The mood at their end of Kitchen Stadium was suddenly a hundred percent lighter. . .maybe, just maybe, they *might* make it!

"But. . . Yuki, we need to do *gourmet* stuff!" Shuichi said. "This isn't. .."

"We haven't got *time* for gourmet," Yuki said, starting to peel the potatoes as fast as he could. "We're just going to *get through this*!"

On the sidelines, Ishinabe slowly rose to his feet. The production had been a joke up until this point. . .but *this*. . .

"STOP THE BATTLE!" he shouted. "This is OUTRAGEOUS! They can't DO this!"

Kotona walked onto the set, giving the order to stop the cameras. The Iron Chef shot him a baffled look, and he could only shrug. The cooking came to a halt for the first time in the history of the show.

"What's going on?" he said, walking over to the man-mountain.

"They added another person to their team in the middle of the battle!" roared Ishinabe, his face turning something near purple. "It's against the RULES of this show!"

Crap, thought Kotona. If I can't justify this, I'm in deep doo-doo.

Keeping as calm as possible, the director turned to his crew. "Can anybody find anything in the official rules that prohibits this?"

"We're trying!" shouted an assistant producer, a barely-out-of-college man with owlish glasses and a too-big suit, who was looking through a thick ring binder.

Hiro slammed the spoon he was holding to the counter in frustration. "It figures. . .just as things were going our way, *this* happens. . ."

"Maybe if they find something against it, the whole show will be scrapped," Suguru said, hopefully, as he cleaned the burnt remnants of Shuichi's mess from the stove.

Shuichi, who was leaning against the counter, said, quietly, "No. . .I don't *want* them to call it off."

The others all turned to look at him, including Yuki. "Shuichi?" Hiro said. Gods, he thought, after everything that's happened so far. . .he doesn't want to just leave?

"I want to finish this," Shuichi said. "Just to be able to say. . .that we *did* this, you know? That we. . .went the distance. Like Rocky." He reached for Yuki's hand. "And we *are* going to. I know that now."

Yuki squeezed his hand tighter, and gave him a small smile. At that moment, there was no question in his mind at all as to why he stayed with this boy.

The assistant producer returned to the set, still holding the notebook. "Nothing in the rules that says we can't do it," he said.

"That's it, then," said the director.

"WHAT?" roared Ishinabe.

"There's nothing in the rules that prohibits it," Kotona said, cooly. "And you said you wanted an *entertaining* show, didn't you? Well, this is entertaining. It's high drama. And *that* man. . ." he pointed to Yuki. . . "is a *very, very* popular writer with the ladies. He'll mean ratings. *High* ratings."

Ishinabe was going to retort. . .but he suddenly had visions of record-high ratings dancing in his head. Eiri Yuki caused the numbers of their morning shows to spike sky-high whenever he appeared on them. Imagine what his presence would do for a prime-time show. . .

"Very well," he said, sitting back down. "Carry on."

Kotona visibly sagged with relief. My job is saved again, he thought. Taking a deep breath, he composed himself and addressed his crew. "We go back to shooting in 10 seconds. . .keep the clock at 30 minutes. . ."

The director shouted "ACTION!" and the members of Bad Luck flew back to what they were doing, Suguru mixing vinegar, sugar and salt for the sushi rice, Hiro putting kombu and bonito shavings on to simmer to make the sauce for his noodles.

Yuki grabbed a bowl and filled it with flour, water, seasonings and an egg. He handed it to Shuichi. "Mix this well, and then wrap some of those vegetables in nori and dunk them in this. We're going to do tempura."

Shuichi just stared at him, eyes sparkling. "Yuki," he said in a voice akin to a swooning teenage girl. "You know so much about nori. . .'"

"Never mind that," said Yuki, in his usual tone of voice. . .but Shuichi could see that his eyes were a *lot* softer than usual. "Just do it. We're going to run out of time."

Shuichi grabbed the nori sheets and a pair of sterilized scissors and began cutting them into long strips. Soon, he had a frying pan filled with batter-dipped vegetables sizzling away. He barely had time to catch his breath when Yuki thrust a few containers of fruit juice at him. "We're going to make a sauce out of these, to dip the tempura in. . .and keep your eyes on that tempura in the meantime."

Across the kitchen, Suguru had found a cache of smoked salmon in the refrigerator and was using it as the centerpiece of his onegiri, packing rice tightly around the chunks of fish and wrapping each in a sheet of nori. He worked rapidly and quietly, building a pyramid of the rice balls in no time.

"How can I help?" he asked Hiro as he put the last one on top.

"Roll some of the sushi," the guitarist said from the stove, where he was stirring wasabi into the sauce for his noodles. "I have to finish this."

Meanwhile, floor reporter Ota was running from place to place, having a hard time keeping up with all the frantic activity on the challenger's side. "FUKUI-SAN!" he shouted. "The challengers just finished their tempura! And. . .they've got sushi going now, and it looks like they're using prawns, and crab, and. . .is that uni? Hard to tell at this speed! And then, the other challenger is adding green onions to his noodles, and. . .wait a second, I think I see a dipping sauce coming off the stove!"

At the judge's table, the announcers exchanged glances. . .they'd never heard their floor reporter working at such a frantic pace before. "Whoa, slow down, Ota!" Fukui-san said. "You don't want to give yourself a heart attack!"

"I have to say, I'm impressed with the new addition to the challengers' side," said Dr. Hattori. "He obviously knows a lot of recipes, and he knows how to make them quickly."

"We're just going to have to see what they *taste* like," Harumi said, casting a sidelong glance at his co-judge. She'd been silent for quite a few minutes now. He'd welcomed it, of course. . .but he was beginning to worry if she was *dead.*

Keiko was just staring at the challenger's side, eyes wide and sparkly, saying, "Yuki-san" over and over in a voice that was barely a whisper.

Down on the floor, Shuichi took one of the remaining sheets of nori and snipped it into thin strips to use as garnish. Suguru was slicing the last of the sushi rolls, Hiro was placing his noodles into a bowl, then taking his own dipping sauce off the stove.

We made it, Shuichi thought. We *made it!* And he started to giggle with pure happiness. He began to literally dance around the table, bouncing around and spinning like a top as he flung shredded nori over the tempura, like a New Year's Eve reveler throwing confetti.

Suguru and Hiro gave each other a "what the *hell* is he doing?" look for a second. . .but then, as they finished their own dishes, they got caught up in Shuichi's joy. They began to bounce around the table with him, as the recorded voice said, "Thirty seconds to go. . ."

Meanwhile, Yuki was scrambling to finish his own last dish. He grabbed a bowl and ladled out the potato-and-nori dish as the voice said, "Fifteen seconds . . . ten . . ."

Yuki whirled around, putting the dish on the table with the others as the voice said, "Five. . .four . . .three. . .two. . . "

With a whoop, Shuichi tossed the last of the nori shavings atop Yuki's dish, then flung himself at his lover and began to pull him around the floor in a dance. Rather than push him away, as he normally would, Yuki found himself dancing as well, whirling Shuichi around in a step somewhere between a waltz on speed and a polka as the gong to end the battle sounded and Fukui-san cried, "That's it, the cooking's done, the Nori Battle is OVAH!!!"

Shuichi and Yuki stopped dancing, and Shuichi held his lover's hand up like a ring announcer declaring a new heavyweight champion. The studio audience applauded, loudly. Shuichi looked up at the Royal Box and saw Ryuichi literally atop his seat, waving frantically with one hand, still holding his bunny with the other as he yelled louder than anyone.

I can't believe it, he thought. I still can't believe we did it.

The cameras were shut off. "Okay, we're going to get some comments from each side," the director said, "and then, we're going to do the tasting and judgment. Challenger first."

Hiro let out a sigh of relief so huge that his entire body sagged. "Thank the gods that's over," he said.

"It's not over yet," Suguru said. "Not until they taste the stuff."

"There's no way we can win," Hiro said, sinking down so he was sitting on the floor, leaning against one of the counters. "The stuff we did. . .it's normal, right-from-the-kitchen stuff. Not gourmet."

"I don't care if we win," Shuichi said, reaching up and putting a hand on Yuki's shoulder. "We *did it*, and that's all that matters." Looking up at his lover, he added, "We *wouldn't* have done it if it wasn't for you."

Yuki shrugged. "I just pitched in. You were making at utter fool of yourself out there."

"Excuse me," said a voice behind them. They turned, and saw Ota, accompanied by a cameraman. "I just want to get some comments. . ."

"Sure," said Shuichi, quickly pushing some unruly pink strands into place. There was a blast of heat as a light atop the camera was turned on, and a whir as it started up.

The floor reporter said into his mike, "How do you think you did out there?"

"Well, it was tough," Shuichi said, "but nothing's too tough for BAD LUCK!" He struck a sentai-like pose, crouched down with one fist in the air, the other arm across his body as if poised to strike.

"We've never cooked competitively before," Hiro said, calmly, getting between Shuichi and the reporter. "It was. . .different from what we expected."

"And you had a last-minute addition to the team," Ota said. "Eiri Yuki-san, why did you decide to help?"

There was a pause, as the camera trained on the romance writer.

"It was something I had to do," he said.

"Would you care to elaborate on that?" said Ota.

Yuki just walked away from the camera.

There was a long pause, then Ota said to the members of Bad Luck, "Um, well, thank you." He took his camera crew and moved to the Iron Chef's side.

Shuichi rushed over to Yuki, who was helping some of the stagehands move their dishes onto a cart for transport to the judging area. "I'm so happy you decided to help!" he whispered, resisting the temptation to hug his lover in public.

Yuki looked down at the food he was moving. Emotions were churning around inside him. . .emotions he hadn't felt in a long time. . .tenderness? Love? Was he still capable of *feeling* such things? He'd doubted he was, for years. . .

He looked at his lover, and said, with the usual steel in his voice, but softer than usual, "There's a piece of nori in your hair."

Shuichi laughed, eyes squeezed shut and a hand behind his head. "Guess I garnished myself!" he said, rubbing a hand over his head. "Better?"

Just then, they heard a rumbling from across the room. There was Ishinabe, talking into a cell phone. "I don't know why such people were allowed on this show! This is outrageous! These people are not chefs!. . .Well, I'm going to *have* to let it be broadcast now! Some pretty-boy romance novelist jumped onto the set and started cooking . . . yes, yes, that Eiri Yuki guy. I *know* he means big ratings. . . are you kidding? I wouldn't read his lovey-dovey crap if my life depended on it!"

Yuki just stood watching with his arms crossed over his chest, eyes even icier than normal. He mumbled under his breath, "Bite me, fatso!"

Shuichi giggled. Yuki must be loosening up! he thought. Maybe this experience will be good for him. . .maybe now he'll start showing *feelings*. . .

Kotona came over to them. "All right. . .time to go to the judges' table. . .you have five dishes, correct? You'll serve them one by one, and then stand by for evaluation."

They were led across the room to a long, banquet-style table. Chairman Kaga was sitting there, along with four other people. Shuichi sized them up. . .that geeky politician who'd been on the show a billion times, a cranky older lady, a young blond guy who had the too-pale look of someone who divided his life between home, work and bar, and. . .

Keiko stood up, eyes still shimmering. She seemed to have pulled the neckline of her dress even lower than before, and she was approaching you-can't-do-that-on-television levels of cleavage.

"Yuki," she said in a Marilyn Monroe-like breathy sigh. "I have waited *so* long to meet you. . ."

Shuichi quickly stepped in front of his lover, protectively. "Hey!" he said. "This isn't a *dating* show!"

"Nagata-san, *please* take your seat," the director said. "We have to wrap this shoot up as soon as possible. We've already gone overtime, and most of the crew has to go straight from here to the dorama shooting next door."

"Great," Hiro whispered. "That's the *next* thing K will want us to do." Doramas - limited-run soap operas - frequently featured music personalities as cast members.

"We could just refuse to do it," Suguru said. "We don't have to do *everything* he tells us, do we?"

"Depends on what size *gun* he's packing at the moment," Shuichi replied.

"All right, we go in five!" said the director. "Four. . .three. . .two. . .one. . . ACTION!"

Bad Luck bowed to the judges, and prepared to serve the first item, the onegiri. They watched as the panel crunched into the green triangles, Keiko nibbling with a delicacy that was supposed to be ladylike, but ended up suggesting a small rodent.

"Simple. . .but very effective," the nerdy politician said. "This would make a great afternoon snack."

"The rice is quite flavorful," said the cranky old lady. "Did you use two different kinds of vinegar, by any chance?"

"Well, yes, I did," Suguru said, blushing a bit. "It's an old family recipe."

"I'd love to have a half-dozen of these just to chow down on after a ballgame," Harumi said. Secretly, he was relieved. . .a couple of the ballplayers he knew who'd been on this show had told him he'd have to choke down some pretty weird stuff and act like he was enjoying it. He was glad to be getting something so *normal.*

Keiko scrutinized the onegiri she'd just bitten into. "Ooh, it's pink inside! I like pink!"

The director signaled for them to serve up the next dish. Hiro began picking up his noodles with chopsticks and placing them into bowls. "You dip the noodles in the sauce and then eat them right away," he said, handing a bowl of noodles and dish of sauce to each participant.

This time, Keiko giggled, "Ooh, the wasabi tickles my nose!"

"It's a nice combination of hot and sweet flavors in this sauce," said Harumi.

"Almost has a Thai feel to it," said the cranky old lady.

Hiro bowed to the judges, almost shocked to be hearing this simple dish he learned from his mother. . .one of the few even remotely complex things he knew how to make. . .described in such glowing terms.

The dishes continued to be served, and continued to meet with approval. Shuichi looked at Yuki as the compliments poured in, trying to figure out what he was thinking. His face was its usual unreadable mask. Is he as surprised as we are to hear our plain old food talked about like this? he thought. Is he thinking he'd rather be anywhere but here?

Keiko was giggling, "If I keep this up, I'll weigh five hundred pounds, but it'll be worth it!" She fluttered her eyelashes at Yuki as he dished out his nori and potatoes creation. He didn't pay attention.

The panel tasted their final dish, and a collective sigh of bliss went around the table.

"Wonderful," the cranky old lady said. "Absolutely delicious. You took two simple, rather bland foods, put them together and made them dance and sing."

"Looking at this, I didn't think I was going to like it," said Harumi, "but. . .I think this is my favorite dish out of all of them. It's almost a meal in itself. . .and much more flavorful than you'd ever think it would be. What did you put in the sauce?"

"Just some herbs," Yuki said.

Keiko leaned across the table, chin resting on a bridge made from her laced fingers, eyelashes fluttering so rapidly they almost kicked up a breeze. "I think," she said in a throaty whisper, "it's just. . . .puuuurrrrrrfect."

Shuichi fought the urge to take the remaining sauce and pour it down her ample cleavage. So did Harumi. So did Kotona.

"All right, that's it for this segment," the director shouted. "Let's clear away these dishes. . . Bad Luck, thank you, you can wait over there while we taste the Iron Chef's offerings. Be at your cooking station for the verdict."

The group walked back to the far end of the studio. "I can't believe the stuff went over so well!" said Suguru.

"Especially since most of it was just stuff you'd make for dinner on a regular night," said Hiro.

"Don't get your hopes up too high," Shuichi said, sitting down on the floor by their cooking station. "They haven't tasted Morimoto's stuff yet."

"They're going to start now," said Suguru. "I'm going to go listen in."

"I'm coming with you," said Hiro. They walked off toward the judges' table.

"I need a cigarette," Yuki said, heading out into the hall. Shuichi was left alone, and he didn't really mind it. . .he needed a few minutes to unwind from the battle.

Just then, a cheerful voice above him said, "So. . .did you have fun, Shuichi-kun?"

Shuichi looked up, and there was Ryuichi, holding Kumagoro, still dressed in the little apron and chef's hat. "In the end. . .I did," he said, and to his surprise, he meant it.

"Good," said Ryuichi. "I watched the whole thing. . .you looked great out there!"

"I made a fool of myself at first," he said.

Ryuichi shook his head. "No, you didn't. You were *trying* through the whole thing. . .and it showed."

"A lot of good it's going to do us," Shuichi said. "We *know* we lost." He looked up at the judge's table, where he could see Keiko giggling again, and the other judges smiling and nodding.

"So?" said Ryuichi.

Shuichi let out a deep sigh. "Well, since everything went so good at the end. . ."

Ryuichi sat down next to his protégé. "I don't want to hear you talk like that! You're not a loser, no matter what happens!" He held up his bunny. "Kumagoro says you're not a loser!"

Shuichi managed a little smile. "I'm glad. But. . ."

"Yuki doesn't think you're a loser, either."

Shuichi looked toward the door that Yuki had gone through to have his cigarette. "I *would* have been a *total* loser if it wasn't for him."

Suguru and Hiro rushed back toward Shuichi. "They're almost done," Suguru said.

"He had some *weird* food," Hiro said. "Sushi rolls made with raw beef instead of fish. Some kind of squid ink stew. A nori salad."

"Gourmet food," Shuichi sighed. "The kind of stuff we can't make."

"What was the ice cream?" said Ryuichi. "That looked yucky!"

"Some kind of savory sorbet," Hiro said. "Garlic, I think. With a crispy piece of nori as a garnish."

"Garlic sorbet?" Shuichi said, wrinkling his nose. "I'm glad I wasn't a judge."

"The thing is," said Suguru, "I'm not sure if the judges really *liked* his stuff. They kept saying it was. .. .*unusual*, and *unique*, but. . .I didn't hear them use the word *good.*"

"Well, except for Cleavage Woman," said Hiro. "She said the squid ink stew was 'really good for opening up clogged sinuses.'"

Everyone laughed at that one, as Yuki came back in. "Is it over yet?" he said.

"Not yet," said Shuichi. "They haven't. . ."

The director walked over to them. "All right, boys. . . last scene. We'll film the judgment and your reactions, then it's a wrap. I have to say. . .you put on quite a show. The final episode is going to be *very* entertaining."

Shuichi sighed. "I hope so. At least *something* will have come out of this."

Ryuichi put his hand on his shoulder as he stood up. "I told you that you weren't a loser!" he said. "Go shoot the last scene. . .gambatte!"

"Thanks, Ryuichi," Shuichi said.

Bad Luck assembled behind their cooking station, with Yuki. The Iron Chef took his place behind his. The cameras were turned back on, and Chairman Kaga and the judges filed out behind the dais where the show began.

"Today," said Chairman Kaga, "we had an unprecedented event. A group of non-chefs came into Kitchen Stadium and managed to rise to the challenge against all odds. This has been a most memorable battle indeed. . .both sides should be proud of themselves. And now. . .the decision."

As keyboard chords played in the background, Fukui-san said as a voice-over, "Today, Kitchen Stadium was rocked and rolled by musicians Bad Luck in the nori battle, but the Iron Chef did some shake, rattle and roll of his own, coming up with some extremely creative dishes. It was a close battle, and it's going to be decided on points! Whose food hit the top of the charts? Who takes it? Whose cuisine reigns supreme?"

There was a moment of silence that seemed to last an hour.

And then, Chairman Kaga pointed to Shuichi and company and shouted, "CHALLENGERS BAD LUCK!"

"Oh, my goodness!" said Fukui-san, as Bad Luck just stood there, blinking in total shock. "It's the challengers! They can't believe it! We can't believe it! What an *incredible* comeback. . .the most amazing of all time!"

Shuichi just stood there, rooted to the spot as Fukui-san read off the results. . .the two "regular" judges had voted for the Iron Chef, Harumi and Keiko went for the challengers, and Bad Luck had squeaked by barely on points.

The boy remained in one place, blinking, head turning back and forth slowly as if to say no, no, this isn't really happening. . .

Then he leaped up in the air as if he were on springs, letting out a wild whoop. He slapped an arm around each of his bandmates, and the three of them bounced and bounced up and down in place, screaming and whooping and laughing.

Yuki just stood there, watching them. . .but the beginnings of a smile was playing at his lips.

"You're forgetting something," he told them, quietly. "You said you were going to do something if you won."

The wild celebration stopped. "We did?" said Shuichi. "Oh, yeah. . .we did! But. . .I didn't think we were going to win, and we don't have our instruments. . ."

"That's where you're wrong," K said, walking onto the set. "They've been delivered to the studio."

"K!" Shuichi said, running over to him. "You had faith that we'd win all along?"

"No," K said. "While you were cooking. . .I got you onto tomorrow's taping of Hey Hey Hey Music Champ." He put the safety back on his gun and replaced it in its holster.

"YAY!" Shuichi shouted, leaping into the air so high that his bandmates thought he would go through the ceiling. "We're going to be on a *real* music show!"

K directed the roadies he'd brought with him to set up the instruments in the middle of kitchen stadium. Kotona watched warily, saying, "It's unusual, but. . .oh, what the hell." Besides, he didn't want to mess with this crazy gaijin. He'd heard the stories of what happened in the producer's office.

As the work continued, the Iron Chef came up to them. "Hi, guys," he said. "Nice battle. I guess I got too overconfident out there, went too far out on a limb. You demonstrated the strength of traditional Japanese cooking techniques."

Shuichi blinked. "We did?" I didn't think we did anything but cook a regular at-home dinner, he thought.

"Oh, yes, you did," Morimoto said. "Very straightforward approach. Basic ingredients, but used creatively. You guys could have a career doing this if you weren't into music."

Shuichi blushed bright red. "I. . .I. . .well, thank you!"

"SHUICHI!" K shouted from behind him. "Quit talking to the Tin Man! We've got a song to tape!"

Shuichi blushed. "Sorry about that," he said to the Iron Chef. "No offense."

"None taken.You'd better go join the others."

Shuichi nodded, and ran over to where the instruments were.

Suguru tuned up his keyboards, Hiro his guitar. Shuichi gave a big wave to Ryuichi, then grabbed the microphone. As the camera went back on, he shouted, "Prepare yourselves, Japan! Bad Luck is gonna rock the house! One, two, three, four. . ."

Suguru struck the opening keyboard chords, and the band launched into "Blind Game Again," their second single. Shuichi was even more animated than usual as he sang, bouncing around the set, flinging his arms in the air and waving them around, hopping up and down on one foot while swinging around the mike.

Up on the dais, Keiko was dancing around, wiggling and jiggling and threatening to spill out of her dress at any second. The stagehands were bopping up and down. . .and even Chairman Kaga was clapping his gloved hands in time to the music.

K stood off to the side watching, a smirk on his face. He *knew* it would turn out like this. It had cost him to get that woman on the panel. . .but it was worth it.

Later on, as everyone was leaving the studio, K was about to get into his car when he was accosted by a young woman wearing a turtleneck sweater and jeans, a beret covering her indigo hair.

"K-san," she said, "thank you very much for this gig. The extra money is going to go a *long* way toward paying for my doctorate."

"Really?" he said, unlocking the door. "I thought acting in those doramas paid your bills?"

"I wish," she sighed. "It's not as lucrative as people think. . .not for dime-a-dozen ingenues like me. I can't wait until I finish up this work and start *teaching*. Ancient languages are my thing, not. . ."

"Wearing a dress that would make Pamela Anderson blush and acting like a dumb bimbo?" said K.

"It nearly killed me to have to do that tonight," she said, crossing her arms over her chest. "But. . .it was necessary to pull this off."

"It shows how good an actress you are, Keiko," he said, handing over the envelope of money he promised her.

"Well, thank you," she said, discreetly putting the money in her purse. "I just hope that someday, I'm as effective as a *professor.*" She started to go. . .then, turned back toward him. "Oh, K-san? Your group. . .they have *real* talent. They're going to go a *long* way. . .even *without* you pulling stunts like this."

K smirked. "We'll see. But, in the meantime. . .stunts like this don't hurt." He got in his car and pulled out. "Bye-bye!" he said out the window in his native English, as he sped off into the night.

* * *

Yuki came out into the kitchen the next morning to see that Shuichi had already made breakfast. True, breakfast consisted of a lot of heat-and-eat cinnamon rolls that had a sugar content high enough to make a sloth bounce off the walls. . .but it was food, nonetheless.

"Good morning!" Shuichi said, cheerfully, holding up the morning newspaper. "You made the gossip column!"

Yuki took the paper and looked at it. The headline on the gossip page said, "King of Steamy Romance Cooks in the Kitchen." Sure enough, there was an account of Yuki bursting into the taping, without giving away the outcome of the show. Yuki looked mildly annoyed at it. He never sought out any kind of publicity that wasn't directly connected to his books. . .and it was definitely not for publicity that he had done this.

"Isn't it great?" Shuichi said. "I hope that tub of lard who dissed you reads this!"

"The hell with him," Yuki said, pouring himself a cup of coffee.

Shuichi went over to him and hugged him. "Yuki. . .I can't thank you enough for what you did. You saved me from the most humiliating moment of my life. I just wanted to prove that I could do something Ryuichi couldn't, and. . .I got in over my head."

Yuki looked up at him. "I just wanted to. . ." He didn't finish the sentence, though, because something was shoved in his mouth. . .and it *wasn't* a cinnamon roll.

Shuichi pulled back, giggling. "You said you'd rather eat a bar of soap than make a fool out of yourself on TV."

Yuki spit the soap out. He wanted to say something sharp and cruel to Shuichi for that, but. . .he couldn't. Another emotion was rising inside him instead.

"You're incredibly cute, you know that?" he said. And he captured Shuichi in his arms and pushed him against the refrigerator, bringing their lips together.

To Shuichi, that soap-flavored kiss was the most delicious he'd ever experienced.

AUTHOR'S NOTES: The idea behind this story was to take one of the more over-the-top incidents in the manga. . .the cooking show which ultimately resulted in Yuki and Shuichi's public "outing". . .and render it in a style more akin to the anime, which I much prefer. Since the show in the manga was obviously supposed to be a parody of Iron Chef. . .the cooking arena studio, the table of judges. . .I decided to put Bad Luck on Iron Chef itself. (Nothing against Morimoto, but I'd just like to say that if Bad Luck were battling Chen or Sakai, they would have had their hot little butts handed to them no matter *who* was helping them.) I also decided to not "out" them on TV, so as not to disturb the anime continuity.

Reference materials used include "Iron Chef: The Official Book," compiled by Fuji Television, and "At the Japanese Table" by Lesley Downer, which had lots of information about the handling and preparation of nori. (And no, there was never actually a Battle Nori on Iron Chef, although other types of seaweed were used as theme ingredients).

Thanks go to my editor, Steve Savage, and my dear friends Cheyne and Sonya-chan, who also served as beta readers. And tons of thanks to BakaMX and Ochiba Anime for making this very clever, sweet and funny show accessible to the Japanese-impaired. ~_^

All portrayals of actual persons in this story are intended to represent only their public, Iron Chef personas. Keiko, Harumi, Iwabuchi, Ishinabe and Kotona are all fictitious, and are not intended to represent any actual persons involved with any incarnation of Iron Chef.

Gravitation is owned by Maki Murikami and Sony Magazines. Iron Chef is owned by Fuji Television and TV Food Network. These chactacters ain't mine, I'm just borrowing them for a little while.