Erina’s sixth birthday is fast approaching and she’s excited.
Her parents and grandfather have been hinting at a party beyond all measure. A smorgasbord of sights, scents and tastes that she’s yet to experience in her short time on this earth.
Erina has dreams of dishes aromatic with spices she’s only ever heard of. She’s heard that sometimes in Arabian cooking that frankincense is used. It’s supposed to smell of sandalwood and lemon, and she’s imaging a curry using it as a spice. The perfect balance of citrus with a woody base, and a taste that borders on the malty western teas she’s drunk. A perfect spice to use in such a dish.
She’s already planning on asking her parents for some to cook with. She’ll pair it with honey, cinnamon, cardamom, orange peel and a sweet paprika to enhance the flavour. She wants to enhance the citrus, without overpowering it with chilli or vinegar, as some curries are wont to do. She’ll use paneer dumplings, with sultanas rolled into the middle of it. A small sweet surprise, but she’ll soak the sultanas in a syrup of frankincense, to keep the balance of flavours throughout.
She’ll toast almonds to scatter on top, toss candied orange peel through the carefully steamed basmati rice. She’ll roast potatoes in duck fat to ensure that they’re crispy and golden before putting them in the curry to stew, ensuring that they only stay in long enough to soak up a reasonable amount of sauce without losing their crisp golden shell.
She’s got the dish sorted in her mind, when Hisako comes bursting through the door, her sakura pink hair, pulled back into twins plaits. Erina grins at her, smiling wider when Hisako beams back. Erina can’t remember a time in her life when Hisako wasn’t there, though always to Erina’s sadness that there’s some distance between them.
She’s sad that Hisako seems to think that she doesn’t belong on the same pedestal as Erina herself, because Erina knows that she’s nothing without her friend. It doesn’t matter how good a palette she has because every dish she makes is made with Hisako in mind. Her creativity comes from thinking about ways to make Hisako smile.
She decides then, that she’ll use the frankincense that she’s hopefully getting for her birthday to make that curry for Hisako. It’ll be as inviting as Hisako’s hugs and the very best thing she can think to do for her friend.
Hisako eagerly chats about Erina’s birthday, as Erina sits there planning her new dish.
As expected her parents give her the frankincense that she’d been dreaming of. It wasn’t a huge surprise, Erina’s been dropping several unsubtle hints for the last several weeks and she would have been surprised if it hadn’t been part of her birthday.
She spent a whole afternoon simply smelling it. It’s not as strong as sandalwood, the aroma isn’t that perfumed, it’s more subtle. More like cedar, with gentle, well rounded notes, still with that malty base that she imagined, but in the style of Darjeeling rather than Assam. Lemon isn’t the hint of citrus in it either, it’s too astringent for that. She’s initially inclined to think of it more like grapefruit, but it isn’t that either. She thinks that maybe it’s ruby grapefruit that she’s smelling, but it’s not that either. It isn’t as sweet as that, there’s no brown sugar warmth to it. It’s most like yuzu she concludes. That astringent undercurrent with a sweeter, but with a bright, sparkling top note.
Erina loves yuzu. Her grandfather has several trees that he grows in the orchard at Totsuki and Erina has been known to steal them when they ripen, slightly before they’re picked. Everyone else considers them too sour then, but she loves the flavour before the sugars fully develop. Especially enjoys the way her nose crinkles as she eats them and the joy on Hisako’s face when Erina makes those faces. The ever serious Erina making a silly face to make her best friend smile is something, not even Hisako knows they share.
Which is why this curry has to be perfect. It has to be everything that Erina can make of it. It has to be the warmest, most inviting curry that anyone has ever tasted. It has to feel like best hug that anyone has ever given you. It has to be like coming home, because Erina doesn’t know what her home would be like without Hisako.
Her parents are often away on business, grandfather too busy running Totsuki, and Alice has left to live in Denmark with her parents. Erina is often alone, only the staff to keep her company and many of them are too scared to say much without the greatest obsequiousness. It’s isolating and she longs for the times when Hisako is there, to ease the loneliness that threatens to engulf her.
Hisako has been asking about the frankincense since her birthday, what she’ll use it for, Erina simply shrugs, saying that she’ll think of something. It’s true, she still hasn’t come up with the perfect recipe for it, not even one good enough to test yet, but she will.
She’s been working on this recipe for ten years now.
It’s never been right, never been the recipe that it should have been. She’s long since used up the small sample of Frankincense that her parents gave her for her sixth birthday. Every year, she tries again and again to perfect this recipe. To encapsulate the sense of belonging and love that Hisako had shown her all those years ago.
That the six year old Erina had cherished within her.
She knows that she’s not been the best of friends, after so many years of trying to get Hisako to walk along beside her, she’d eventually given up and relegated her best friend to simply another lackey as with all the rest. She even pretends to be reluctant to taste Hisako’s food, pretending it’s a chore, when really she’d happily do it if only to repay the favour a million times over.
She watches as Hisako loses the battle to Hayama. Erina nearly rips him to a million pieces for the barbs that he slings Hisako’s way, no matter how true they might, because her best friend doesn’t deserve that. Doesn’t deserve to be told that she doesn’t have a place in this world because she’s never dreamt big enough.
She rushes down to comfort Hisako, to tell her that Hayama doesn’t know what he’s talking about. That Hisako has always deserved a place by Erina’s side, because she has. That she deserves to be lauded by the people around them and not seen as the lackey. Because she’s not and Erina has let this charade go on far too long. She should have put a stop to it but never felt she could, because Erina doesn’t want any more of Hisako’s choices to be based on what Erina thinks she should do.
Hisako deserves to know that she’s magnificent because she’s Hisako, not because she happened to be chosen by Erina. It was never that way, Erina never chose Hisako, Hisako chose Erina, and she’s treasured every moment the two of them have spent together.
Her heart breaks into a million pieces when Hisako tells her that she’s leaving, that she’s not worthy to be as her side.
It breaks a little more when Yukihira comes calling at her door instead of Hisako.
When she discovers that he gets to spend his first week on the stagiare with Hisako, it nearly shatters into irreparable fragments.
She makes a lot of curry in the weeks without Hisako at her side. She’s so engulfed in her loneliness that it’s the only thing that carries her through. The thought that perhaps, just maybe, if she finally gets this recipe right, that maybe Hisako will come back to her. Stay by her side, not as a secretary but as the cherished friend, beloved, that she always was.
She makes pot after pot of the curry, which the household staff graciously wolf down. She adds more chilli, less chilli, more frankincense, less frankincense, lemon peel, preserved lemon, yuzu juice, yuzu peel. She tries to create the sweetness in it using brown sugar, honey, maple syrup and sakura syrup. She adds cinnamon and cloves one day, nutmeg and cardamom the next. She tries adding vinegar to increase the acidity, only to decide that it’s too acidic when she does that.
She doesn’t know how many versions of this curry she’s tried, but it still isn’t perfect. It still isn’t the curry that it should be, because maybe if it had been, just maybe Hisako wouldn’t have ever left.
It’s irrational but each new pot is driven by the idea if only she gets this right, that Hisako will finally come back to her. That this is Erina’s punishment for taking so long to perfect a recipe she should know instinctively how to make.
So she’s nearly in tears when this curry, isn’t perfect. It’s a tad to astringent, she’d used pickled yuzu this time, and the molasses isn’t cutting through it as much as she thought it would. It’s own slight sour note seems to have intensified the acidity from the yuzu. She’s tempered the number of spices in it, adding only the frankincense, yuzu, salt and pepper, all in a variety of forms, to the curry itself in an attempt to conserve each flavour’s purity.
She’s branched out a little with the paneer dumplings, adding cloves and nutmeg. She’s filled them with wolf berries rather than sultanas, because sultanas were simply too sweet for the dish and were often overwhelmed by the frankincense syrup. Now though, Erina is missing a bit of the sweetness that sultanas bring and she’s questioning her choice. The wolf berries carry through the astringency of the sauce, and almost overwhelm the frankincense syrup she’d soaked them in.
She can feel the tears prick at the corner of her eyes as the frustration wells within her. How hard is it to make a perfect curry? Especially one for Hisako. The tears begin to fall down her face and she places her head on her hands, as she sits listening to her imperfect curry stew on the stove.
She doesn’t know how long she lies there, but she hears a door opening, and she quickly wipes her eyes, ready to face whatever staff member it might be.
‘Erina…’ comes a tentative voice.
Erina nearly falls off her stool as she turns to see Hisako standing there, bright smile on her face. Erina smiles back, quickly pushing herself away from the stove and towards Hisako.
‘Hisako!’ she cries, wrapping her arms around her best friend.
They stand there embracing, both ignoring the tears that sting at their eyes. Erina pulls Hisako as close as she can, afraid that the girl will disappear at any moment and she can’t bear that. Can’t bear the idea that she might lose her again.
‘Oh I have something for you!’ Hisako says, after a significant period of time.
‘Yukihira asked me to give it to you, a group of books you wanted…’
Erina vaguely remembers the deal that she did with him before the final of the Autumn elections. She’d been so engulfed with missing Hisako, she’s surprised that she offered him any help at all, even in exchange for these books.
Hisako hands her the bag, Erina takes it purposefully making sure to graze Hisako’s hand as she does so.
‘Oh no! You should thank Yukihira…’ she backtracks at the look on Erina’s face, ‘Not that you have to of course, I just mean that he gave them to me to give them to you. I’m just the messenger.’
They stand there, silent for a moment, unsure of what to say to the other. Erina notices as Hisako closes her eyes and breathes in deeply.
‘What’s that smell?’ she asks.
‘It’s curry, but I’m not happy with it,’ Erina says, ‘I think I’m going to throw it out.’
She turns to do exactly that, when a hand on her arm stops her.
‘Can I have a bowl before you do that?’ Hisako asks.
Erina turns towards the pot on the stove, biting her bottom lip.
‘It’s not perfect,’ she answers.
‘It doesn’t have to be, but it smells so wonderful,’ Hisako says, adding a plaintive, ‘Please.’
Erina turns towards Hisako, there’s a pleading look in both their eyes, but Erina is the one that relents. She’s so grateful to have Hisako back that she’ll gladly do anything that she asks. Anything to ensure that she won’t leave again.
So Erina nods, and sets about serving up some curry. She adds a small amount of the rice that she’d been making first, seasoned with preserved yuzu and molasses pearls, designed to melt when the curry is poured over the top. It’s an idea she started considering more seriously after watching Alice and Yukihira’s battle in the Autumn Elections, not that she’d tell either one of them that.
Having served out the appropriate amount of rice, she goes over to the curry. She takes the lid off and immediately smells everything wrong with it. It is too astringent and the molasses hasn’t tempered that. It should be sweeter, just a bit. It’s too harsh and Hisako deserves something better than this. She feels the tears form again, takes a deep breath and ladles it onto the rice, making sure to include several of the dumplings on top.
She places the bowl in front of Hisako, shaking as she does so, looking away as Hisako looks up in askance. This isn’t right, this isn’t how this is meant to go. She’s meant to be serving the perfect curry, not one that’s alright. Desperately trying to avoid Hisako’s reaction, she begins washing up some of the other dishes that are in the sink, anything to take her away from this moment.
She doesn’t want to see the disappointment, or worse, the enjoyment, because Hisako shouldn’t be enjoying it. So she scrubbed harder, trying to wash out any sound that might be echoing throughout the room.
She was scrubbing so hard she didn’t notice until the last moment when arms wrapped themselves around her waist.
‘You should have said something sooner,’ Hisako whispered.
‘The curry, it wasn’t perfect Erina, but it was wonderful. It was warm and inviting, and a little too astringent but it felt like coming home to you has always felt. Like coming home. That’s what you wanted from it wasn’t it? To feel like coming home?’
Erina couldn’t help the tears as she nodded.
‘Each mouthful I took tasted exactly like that. It made me realise how much I’ve missed you over the last few weeks and how wonderful it was to see you again. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t perfect, these things are hard to express perfectly, I know I have a hard time of it. I should know, after all, I ran away rather than talking to my best friend about my problems,’ Hisako said, smiling.
Erina wiped the tears.
‘You don’t have to be perfect for me Hisako, but I always wanted to be perfect for you. I worked so hard on it but it was never as good as it could be and I’m so sorry.’
Hisako turned Erina round.
‘You don’t have anything to be sorry about, Erina that curry was not perfect but it was you, and that’s more important. I may hold you up above my standard, but I’ve learnt that none of us are perfect but we can strive for it. I’m determined to meet you on equal footing one day, and on that day, you won’t have to be perfect for me either.’
Erina threw her arms around Hisako, pulling her close and holding tight.
‘I’ve missed you so much,’ she cried.
‘I’ve missed you too.’
‘Promise me you’ll be at my side from now on?’
‘I promise. Side by side, we’ll conquer the world, just the two of us.’
‘I like that idea.’
Erina leaned in, heart beating fast as she did so, leaving a soft kiss on Hisako’s lips.
‘Welcome home, Hisako.’
‘It’s good to be home, Erina.’