On Saturday night, a snaking series of cars was moving up the road to P.S. 114's gymnasium, along with an equally impressive amount of people clamoring outside for a ticket. It was time for the Chicago Under-18 Bake-Off, which was being held at Ricochet and Nathan's school due to so many competitors coming from the cooking classes. Actually, there were chefs competing from all over Chicago, ranging from ages fifteen to eighteen, and including a Swedish exchange student and a sixteen-year-old college student. And of course, P.S. 114's own Nathan Branford was ready to take the world by storm, together with fellow chef Redd Blair, who was set to arrive any minute.
"Where is that jerk?" Nathan harrumphed, looking around in an attempt to pick out the missing Redd from the crowd. "He's late again?"
"Don't you usually have trouble like this with Blair?" Camille queried, hugging her jacket closer to her chest. "I don't think he's ever been on time for anything in his life."
"He's the only amateur cook that matches up with what I've got in mind," he explained. "And it's usually easy to get him to work with me by letting him have a little of my Danish Dervish."
"Kinda a pig, isn't he?" Camille commented, remembering Blair's appetite for foreign cuisine.
The premise of the Chicago Bake-Off was that it was a paired affair. Five teams of two people each would have forty-five minutes to prepare a bundt cake on the ovens set out across the floor of the gym. Since time was so short, both participants would have to divide the duties between themselves and synchronize their preparations perfectly. With bundt being Nathan's specialty, he had an edge, but still needed the right partner in order to pull it off without a hitch.
Three minutes passed, and Nathan was getting more antsy. "It's almost tiiiiime..." he hissed, wobbling about on his heels in a matter Camille had learned was a nervous tic of his.
"We still have forty-three minutes," she said, checking the time on her iPod.
"Yeah, but we need at least fifteen to prep and plan," Nathan huffed, leaning against the side of the gymnasium. "I got all the ingredients together, but I can't do this team thing all by myself."
"That sucks," Camille agreed, pushing her glasses up her nose. "I'd help you if I could, but I only made that one cake with you."
"Yeah, we burned it." Nathan kicked at the ground, pouting.
Camille reached out to comfort him, but hesitated when she heard a light pattering sound like an Olympic track runner. Huffing and puffing in the cool night air, Keisha ran into the yellow glow of the streetlamp, skidding to a stop behind them. "I just got my ticket," she huffed, smoothing out the sleeves of her jacket. "You guys ready yet?"
"What're you doing here?" Nathan walked up to the younger Branford, casting a dark shadow over her. "Since when do you care about my cooking?"
"Can't a nice sister support her brother?" Keisha replied, in a tone that wasn't all that supportive. "Besides, Mom still makes you go to my dance recitals."
"Yeah, all ten thousand of them," Nathan grumbled, turning his back on the girl.
Camille swallowed a curse as she stood back and watched the battling Branfords. She didn't know what she was doing asking Keisha to go Nathan's competition, but it looked like they were going to go back to the same squabbling that characterized the entire week. Nathan was already juiced up with nervous energy thanks to the absent Redd Blair, but Keisha's arrival was pouring salt on his wounds rather than salve. Last time I try and play mediator.
"Look, let's just get out of the cold and find a seat," she interrupted finally, making as if to head into the gym. "Blair will probably head straight to your table, and we'll be able to see him from the bleachers."
Camille was relieved when Nathan and Keisha reluctantly followed, though they still refused to look at each other, fixing their eyes straight ahead like automatons. Together, the three stepped through the double doors of the gym, and quickly got lost within the crowd. Hopefully, the bad blood between the Branford siblings would get lost as well.
Camille was wrong again.
"And if you would just take your head outta the clouds, you'd see you're too much of a spaz for Ricochet!" Nathan was hollering, going straight for his sister's jugular.
"Says you!" Keisha shot back, stiffening up in a refusal to be cowed. "You're the one that secretly watches Muppet Babies when you think no one's lookin'!"
"That was six years ago!" he hissed, while looking around to see if anybody had heard about his hidden Muppet shame. "And that's only because you kept playing it over and over until you wore out the VHS tape!"
"You just watch 'cause you're a big nerd!" Keisha was leaning almost completely over Camille as she yelled at her brother. "You're like the Scooter to my Skeeter!"
"Skeeter's not even a real Muppet!" The young chef threw his hands in the air. "She's a tacked-on tumor, just like you!"
Camille, for her part, just slumped her head in her hand, caught between the two siblings as they threw insults over her like she was the border between warring countries. It only took five minutes for Nathan and Keisha to break out into a Ricochet-related argument; she lost track of the dialogue when it shifted to Muppet Babies. Her headphones were of little use, as the Branfords' private discussion was loud enough to completely drown out AC/DC. Judging by the angry looks coming from the other spectators in the bleachers, the trio was quickly becoming the center of attention.
As the bickering continued, Keisha pulled out a box of Raisinets from her jacket pocket. "Nathan, you're just a shriveled up spoilsport!" she declared, tossing a Raisinet at him to punctuate the point.
Not to be outdone, Nathan reached for a bag of malted milk balls. "Better than being a saccharine little shrimp!" he retorted, bouncing a milk ball off her forehead.
The two continued like this for several moments as they threw candy at each other, much of it landing on Camille and the other members of the audience. At this point, Camille felt it was time to step in. "Hey guys, I thought of something to help fix all this," she suggested, causing the siblings to cease fire for the moment. As Camille crooked her fingers, Nathan and Keisha leaned forward, with their heads almost touching. Then, their heads were touching, as Camille grabbed them and knocked them together.
"OW!" Nathan and Keisha wailed, cringing in pain. From three seats up in the bleachers, someone started clapping.
"Now shut up, both of you!" she snapped, glaring at the two of them as they rubbed their noggins. "I came here to cheer for Nathan, but all you two want to do is fight about my ex-boyfriend! If I started this little war by breaking up with Ricochet, than I'm sorry, alright? But I'm sick of hearing about him, and I'll call this whole relationship off if you two can't settle this!"
"Camille, I can't do anything else!" Nathan cried, letting the malted milk balls drift off his lap onto the bleachers below. "She's just throwing herself out there like a big target!"
"Ricochet hasn't taken advantage of me!" Keisha shouted, almost near tears. "He's been a complete gentleman the entire time we've dated, and for the last three years too! And I like that! Why can't you just be happy for me?"
"Because I'm your big brother!" Nathan exclaimed, grabbing her shoulder tightly. "I still have to look out for you!'"
"I know that!" Keisha yelled back, her eyes alight with frustration. "Just trust me a little more, okay? I'm not gonna do something dumb with Ricochet, like get pregnant or whatever you're thinking about. I learned everything about taking care of myself from you."
The air between the Branfords suddenly grew still. Nathan and Keisha's expressions were raw with emotion, their lips quivering like helium balloons. Nathan let go of the girl's shoulder, and the two broke their locked gazes to stare at their shoes like naughty children. Camille kept silent, feeling somehow reverent of the scene unfolding before her.
A few seconds later, one of the judges for the Bake-Off approached them from the lower bleachers. Camille recognized him as the man who sometimes subbed for cooking class. "Excuse me, but I'm going to have to ask you all to leave if you will not stay quiet," he told them, addressing them with a fierce scowl. "You three are bothering everyone here. And you, Branford, are needed on the floor in five minutes."
"It's okay, we're done." Nathan sighed, looking with apology at the man. "I think I'm gonna have to pass on the Bake-Off this year, sir."
"What?" Camille's jaw slackened, and she fidgeted with her glasses reflexively. "Nathan, you've been looking forward to this thing the entire month."
"It's no use." Nathan's head drooped down into his chest, and his fingers streaked across his face. "Redd hasn't shown up, and he's probably not gonna show up. There's no one here that can replace him, no one that's not already a competitor anyway." He let out a low, dejected sigh, "Camille, I'm so sorry for wasting your time."
Keisha looked down for a moment, her white eyes flashing with emotion. Then, she raised her head. "I'll do it," she said, her jaw firmly set. "I'll be your partner."
"What?" Nathan whirled around to look at Keisha. "You can't..."
"I've seen you practice for the Bake-Off about a hundred times at home." Keisha cut him off, jabbing a finger for emphasis. "I know the recipe almost as well as you do, even all the small stuff, like that pinch of brown sugar you add right before cooking." Her expression was strong and unblinking. "I wanna help, Nathan."
"But Sis..." The cook was at a loss for words, his face screwing up with hesitation. Camille, too, didn't know what to make of this turn of events.
"You're not wimpin' out, are you Nathan?" a piercing voice broke in from above the small group. Camille, Nathan, and Keisha all looked up to find a blond teen easing his way down the bleachers, wearing a bright blue jacket and a black hat. The pair of half-glasses on his nose were unmistakeable, and the blue streak in his hair stuck out from his head like an icicle. His grin was wide and open, showing off a set of gleaming, white teeth that seemed to reflect the overhead lights.
"Ricochet..." Nathan blinked at the sight of his erstwhile best friend.
"Ricochet, it's you!" Keisha cried, her face bursting out in a dynamite smile.
The blond boy struck a cocky pose, his hand on his hip. "C'mon!" he urged, favoring the group with a sly wink. "I'm skippin' out on training for this!"
Nathan stared transfixed at Ricochet, as if he were some unearthly messenger from a sci-fi B movie. Then, the boy stood up and turned back to the judge, who seemed to be just as surprised by this eccentric newcomer. "Sir, would it be alright if my sister took Redd Blair's place in the Bake-Off?" he asked, keeping his voice even and non-demanding. "It's almost time, and my partner's obviously not here tonight."
"I have no problem with it, provided you get down there where you're supposed to be," the judge answered, folding his brawny arms. "But are you sure the lil' miss is cut out for this?"
"She can do it," the young chef assured him, looking the man full on in the face. "She's the only chance we have now."
"Nathan?" Keisha piped up, rising from her seat and walking over to Nathan.
Nathan turned toward her and extended a hand. "If Ricochet's giving you a shot, than I can't do any less, now can I?" he said, a smile suddenly piercing his previous facade of frustration. "Let's see how cool 'n' collected you really are...and get ourselves a trophy!"
"Big brother..." the girl whispered, her eyes twinkling in the bright lights of the gymnasium. At last, she beamed, and seized Nathan's hand tightly. "Right, let go for it!" Keisha cried, squeezing his fingers with surprising strength.
Nathan grinned, and pulled Keisha into a quick, one-armed hug. Keisha threw her arms around her brother, her cherubic face glowing with relief. Then, at the urgent snapping of the judge, the brother and sister climbed down the bleachers towards the floor, just as the M.C. was about to step on the podium and announce the start of the Bake-Off. Camille and Ricochet were left behind to stare after them, along with the malted milk balls and Raisinets.
"Wonder if they can really pull it off?" Camille wondered, coasting her hand across her chin.
"They've got it locked, Cammy!" Ricochet sat down beside his ex, popping a few of the loose Raisinets in his mouth.
For the next forty-five minutes, Nathan and Keisha Branford were a cyclone of culinary creation. They cracked eggs, measured milk, and poured out batter as evenly as a placid lake. The bundt was toasted to a healthy tan, but their tempers remained cool, and the two siblings seemed to communicate solely by motions and quick glances. Their eyes sparkled with excitement as they spread the frosting finisher over the completed cake, delectable to every member of the audience.
And the judges, too.
The audience exploded into applause as the judges presented the Branfords with the 1st Place trophy, as golden as the cake they baked together. Among the cornucopia of cheering, Ricochet was rushing through the crowd to greet them. Camille watched as both Ricochet and Nathan gave Keisha a huge hug, the past week of strife completely forgotten. The blond girl hung back for a moment near the bleachers, a rare bout of shyness overtaking her as she watched the happy threesome.
"This is the first time Nathan and I have won anything together!" Keisha cheered, her arms around both Nathan and Ricochet as they strode across the gym floor. "Our trophy cases are separate, ya know!"
"Don't care whose name I'm sharing this with." Nathan clutched the trophy under his arm like a teddy bear. "As long as my name's on it too!"
"Yeah, well I've never won anything!" Ricochet complained, flicking up his hat. "Whether it's boxing or writing, they always say 'hit the showers, McKnight!'"
"Well, your stories could use a little cleaning up," the champion chef commented, peeking at him through one eye.
"Yeah, they still stink!" Keisha giggled. Both brother and sister started laughing as the maligned McKnight rubbed the back of his head, blushing bright red.
As they left the gym, Nathan separated from Keisha and Ricochet to look more closely at his friend. "Here's something I don't get," he said, readjusting his trophy. "Why'd you come out here for the Bake-Off anyway? We're still fighting, right?"
"Aw, that?" Ricochet grinned like the village idiot. "I wasn't gonna miss your big thing! We can kiss 'n' make up anytime, but the Bake-Off happens just once a year."
Nathan blinked at the boy's straight-forward attitude, but soon smiled in kind. "Yeah, well, I think I'll letcha date Keisha after all," he said, throwing an arm around Ricochet. "You keep showin' up at my house anyway, so we might as well hang out like we used to."
"Hey, that's awesome!" Ricochet grinned, scratching his temple with a finger. "Glad you trust me again."
"'Course, if you hurt her in any way, I'll have to take it back, and gut you open with a pancake turner," Nathan continued, the grin straining to show he was only half-joking.
"Uh, yeah!" The blond battler chuckled nervously, trying to loosen the choke-hold his friend had on him. "No worries, man!"
After Nathan finally let him go, Camille walked over to the group of friends. "Nathan, you better get back over there," she told him, pointing to a mass of reporters still inside the gym. "They want a few comments for the local papers."
"I'll stay with Ricochet," Keisha bubbled, taking the opportunity to sidle up to her boyfriend again. "This is more Nathan's thing, anyway."
"We'll meet you at the malt shop at 9:40 for a victory bite." The young kickboxer nodded his agreement with Keisha. "Nothing beats a double chocolate shake after a fight...or competition, anyway."
Camille nodded at the both of them, then stepped closer to Ricochet. To everyone's surprise, she gave him a quick, close hug. "Take care of yourself, alright Ricochet?" she told him, her hair falling across her eye like a sheet.
"S-sure Cammy," Ricochet burbled, awkwardly patting her on the back. "Be cool."
"Hey!" Keisha's cheeks puffed up. "Your boyfriend's over there, Camille!"
The blond girl shrugged easily, releasing Ricochet and heading over to Nathan. As Keisha reestablished her hold on her boyfriend, Camille and Nathan left them behind and walked back inside the gym. All around them, there were fellow students clamoring to congratulate the winner of the Bake-Off. Camille remained silent for the most part, letting him bask in his glory while she took a moment to think about the long night.
She must have been a little too quiet, because Nathan was tapping her on the shoulder a moment later. "Hey, you alright?" he asked her, his face flush with concern.
Camille sighed softly. "I guess it's hard to let go sometimes," she admitted, her eyes growing misty in spite of herself. "Ricochet stuck around for three years, and even though I tried to cut and run, I couldn't forget that. Funny, Keisha thought you were clinging too much, but I was the same deep down. Maybe we all needed to chill and talk it out."
Nathan wrapped his arm more securely around Camille. "Well, how 'bout I whip up my Eskimo Eclairs, and we chill some more?" he said, massaging her shoulder with quick rotations. "Double frosting, naturally. And no Rocky quotes."
Camille smiled, leaning against him.
Nathan's eyes soon wandered up to the rafters, looking pensive. "Anyway, Ricochet's not out of the hot pot yet," he told Camille as they closed in on the cluster of reporters. "He's got one more guy to tackle for Keisha."
"Who's that?" she asked, looking up from her spot against his side.
Nathan blanched. "My dad."
"You will have my daughter home at 10:00 on the dot," Mr. Branford rumbled, staring down the thirteen inch height difference between Ricochet and himself. "Or I will finish you."
"Y-yes, sir," Ricochet stammered, Keisha's grip on his arm the only thing keeping him from bolting out the door.
"You will not bring my daughter into any danger or debauchery," Mr. Branford continued. "Or I will finish you."
"Yes, sir." Ricochet nodded in appeasement of the demon god.
"You will respect her personal boundaries at all times." The man's eyes narrowed until they were two white slits in an otherwise impenetrable face. "Or I will finish you."
Ricochet gulped, fully believing that Keisha's father would make good on his threats. Mr. Branford, with his slick, maroon suit and chiseled facial features, cut a figure easily as intimidating as the boxers he had faced in the ring. What was stunning was that Mr. Branford actually liked him, according to Keisha and Nathan. Clearly, his days were numbered, should he ever get on the wrong side of this monster of a man.
He turned to his girlfriend for help, only to have his breath catch in his throat as he took a closer look at her. For their date tonight, Keisha had pulled out all the stops, sporting a brand new dress with a long sash. She was wearing earrings too, and had done up her ponytails with bright blue baubles that seemed almost liquid smooth. Best of all, her dimples were perked in that exuberant smile of hers, and she had a sparkle in her eyes reserved just for him.
"I'll take care of her, Mr. Branford," he said, meeting the man's gaze. He grinned over at Keisha, and laid his hand atop hers. 'Cause this girl's worth it!