To all the passengers, thank you for for travelling with us. This is the last station for this train. Please present your tickets at the ticketing gate. Since this train will enter the depot after this, please be careful not to leave any of your luggage behind.---If you have any concerns, please do not hesitate to approach the station master.
「Thank you for your patronage. Since this is a return ticket, please do not lose it and bring it with you when you ride your return train. Now then, please travel safely.」
Takumi breathed a sigh of relief as he finished checking the tickets of the passengers who had arrived on the last train. The line at the ticketing gate had died down, and it became quiet again. 'Today was a peaceful day, too. No problems at all.' With that thought, Takumi headed back into the train station for the closing inspection, which was his last job today as a "Station Master Representative."
The last train had already left the platform and was headed for the depot. Takumi proceeded with his usual inspection after the last car of the train disappeared into the sunset. The smell of its smoke still lingered on the platform. It was as silent as always in the train station. 'There doesn't seem to any problems on the railway…' After Takumi confirmed this, he turned around to check the other side and was greeted by an unusual sight. A guest, carrying a large trunk, was sitting on one of the benches at the corner of the platform.
The small girl sitting on the bench was wearing an oversized checkered hunting cap that hung low over her eyes. Takumi searched his memory, but she wasn't a "regular" of this station. As far as he was concerned, she was probably just a passenger from the train that had arrived just now. Judging from the traces of innocence in the atmosphere surrounding her, she was probably 15 or 16 years old. By "this world's" standards, she would be old enough to be considered an adult.
Well, now that it had come to this… Since Takumi was still a "Station Master Representative" in "this world," it was probable that the girl was involved in some kind of trouble. These thoughts were running through his mind.
「Excuse me. Is there something wrong, miss?」
Takumi maintained a small gap between them as he bent forward to speak, so that he would not surprise the girl, who appeared to be unsure of what to do. At his voice, the girl, who still seemed a bit innocent, opened her eyes, turned around, and answered in a panic, tears in her eyes.
「S-sorry! I-I-I missed my station…」
The girl spoke in a flustered manner. Takumi took a good look at the ticket that was shown to him. The name of her station, which was two stations before this one, was written on it. It was an hour and a half away from this station. The girl explained that she had not gotten much sleep the night before, due to being excited about going on a long-distance train ride for the first time. This, coupled with the tension and fatigue from the long journey, had led to her falling asleep halfway through the trip and accidentally missing her stop. She had been sitting in one of the unreserved seats in the Third Class coach, so the conductor had not called out to her until she arrived here.
「…and that's what happened. I'm really sorry. Is this considered…fare dodging? 」
「No, it's alright. It doesn't seem like you missed your stop on purpose, so the fare dodging rule doesn't apply here. In this case, you will be able to return to your intended stop at no extra charge, so please don't worry about it.」
Takumi bent down to the girl's eye level as he spoke to her. After hearing his words, the girl, who had shrunk back in fear after speaking, finally seemed relieved.
「However, since today's last train has already left, you will have to wait until tomorrow to go
「Eh, i-is that so?」
The girl, who had just begin to cheer up, turned pale again, unsure of how to proceed. After heaving a big sigh, the girl explained her circumstances to Takumi.
「I-I'm sorry. If it isn't inconvenient, may I w-wait here for tomorrow's train? I have some money with me…」
Takumi mulled over her words. As far as Takumi knew, "walking" and "stagecoaches" were normal methods of transport in this world, but train stations and long-distance trains were still considered a high-end kind of service. Even if it was an unreserved seat in the Third Class coach, trains weren't something you could ride on easily unless you "splurged a considerable amount" on "special occasions." This girl surely had a special occasion, which was why she had taken the train. It wasn't difficult for Takumi to guess that the girl didn't have much in her pockets.
Nevertheless, as a Station Master Representative, he couldn't leave this girl alone at the station. Even though Takumi himself could more or less be a "lookout" for her, since he was a live-in employee, it wasn't clear what dangers could fall upon her if she were to sleep in a place like this, in the open with no one around. In the first place, although spring was just beginning and the weather was getting warmer, it was still chilly at night. Just from thinking of her physical condition alone, Takumi couldn't possibly accept her request.
'Well, if I did it that way…' Takumi only had one solution left.
「I'm sorry, I have to close the station until tomorrow morning. As someone who manages this station, I can't leave a guest alone on the platform. Instead, if you don't mind, would you like to stay at my place? You must be tired from your long journey. You will be able to take a bath and sleep overnight there. That would put my mind at ease as well.」
She was so surprised that her eyes become big and round, almost like a perfect circle.
「Eh, but I… that… I will trouble you…」
「No, it's alright. There are some vacant rooms as well, so please do not hesitate to rest properly. Well, let's go to the ticketing gate for now.」
Takumi picked up the big leather trunk next to girl, and walked to the ticketing gate.
◇ ◇ ◇
Takumi used the telegraph installed next to the ticketing gate to contact the station that the girl was supposed to have gotten off at. Apparently, there had been an inquiry about a girl who had not arrived yet at that station, so he told them that she would be headed there the next morning.
「Now then, right this way.」
「Ah, yes. Pardon my intrusion…」
After ending his message, Takumi did a final inspection of the ticketing gate and confirmed that he had locked up the station before heading towards a door on the immediate left of the ticketing gate with the girl. When he opened the door, which was made out of a single, heavy piece of timber, the sound of a cowbell rang out. Immediately afterwards, as Takumi was entering the room, a cheerful voice greeted them.
「Welcome home~! You worked hard today, too, nya~!」
「Th-thank you. Did you clean up properly?」
「Nyes! I did it purr-fectly!」
While saying so, Takumi pet the head of the girl who had approached them, still holding a dust cloth in her hand. The girl, who had short, curly, reddish hair, smiled delightfully, and the cat ears on her head twitched.
「Then, is it okay if I go to sleep today? It’s okay, right?!」
「Hey, let’s eat properly first.」
When Takumi grabbed her by the scruff, the cat-eared girl feebly meowed and meekly curled up.
It seemed that Takumi had left the girl out while having his usual exchange with the cat-eared girl. He quickly turned his face to her and explained the situation.
「Oh, I'm sorry about that. I seemed to have surprised you a bit… Well, this is the waiting room and coffee shop of this station. This noisy coffee shop staff member is Nyaachi, and she's a lodger, too. Hey, say hello.」
He let the cat-eared girl, Nyaachi, whom he was grabbing by the scruff, down and urged her to greet the girl. Nyaachi pinched the hem of her cafe apron, which she wore over her black leggings and had a cat embroidered on it, and curtsied while greeting the girl energetically.
「Nyaachi is Nyaachi, you know! Welcome, and good eve-nying! What is your name?」
「Ah, my, my name is, Nuttel Gratt. I, err, caused trouble for the station master today…」
「Oh, right. I haven’t introduced myself yet. I am Takumi Kurogane. I am the Station Master Representative of this station, and the chef of this coffee shop.」
「Ah, do you live here as well?」
「Yeah, Nyaachi and I live here together. Although the guest room is small, please make yourself at home tonight. I will also prepare dinner soon.」
「That… I’m really fine with anything… I feel quite guilty.」
「No, no, you would do the same for me if I were in trouble, too. Besides, it’s nice to be able to welcome a customer.」
Takumi spoke to the despondent Nuttel in a gentle voice in order to calm her down, and left the trunk to Nyaachi.
「Then, Nyaachi, can I have you guide Nuttel-san to her room? I think the room beside ours will be fine. Ah, please boil water for the bath as well.」
「Aye aye, captain~! Now then, Nuttel-chan, I’ll be in your care!」 (ED: One of our tls wanted it to be captain instead of sir…pfft)
「Ah, yes, I’m in your care, too.」
Nyaachi got the big trunk from Takumi, grabbed Nuttel’s hand, and pulled her up the stairs to the second floor. A small dormitory was on the second floor of this station building. Aside from the one that Takumi and Nyaachi were using as their home, there were four other private rooms that could hold one or two people each, as well as one large room. Although there were not enough people to operate a lodgings service, the rooms were cleaned, and the beds were made regularly, so it was alright to receive sudden guests.
After Takumi saw Nyaachi and Nuttel off to the second floor, he headed to the food pantry next to the kitchen. This incident suddenly came up, they didn't have many ingredients, but it seemed that he could somehow manage by combining the remaining ingredients leftover from today. At first, he had planned to make something simple, since it was just Nyaachi and himself, but with the arrival of the “overnight guest,” he decided to make something more elaborate. Takumi selected the ingredients while thinking about today’s menu.
Once Takumi confirmed the lineup of the ingredients he had selected, which he laid out on the kitchen table, he began his prep work for cooking. First, he plucked off the leaves of a vegetable called lechuga, which resembled a lettuce. He washed these in a bucket filled with water, before draining the water off and placing them into a colander. He then went on to properly rinse the round, bright red tomatoes and sliced them up into 5-mm-thick slices with a kitchen knife. Likewise, he also rinsed yellow peppers, red peppers, and pepino, which looked similar to rather thick cucumbers, and sliced them up before putting them into the colander.
After he finish preparing the vegetables, he took out fish pickled in oil that he had stored in the food pantry. The fish, which was called "bonito", had a characteristically strong, lean meat. It had been sliced up and, together with various herbs, soaked in oil that had been harvested from a colza plant, which resembled rapeseed. It was simmered over a gentle fire, then transferred to a container with the colza oil to ferment. Since fresh fish was difficult to obtain and “this world” had no refrigerators, Takumi had somehow devised a plan to preserve the fish.
Takumi took a palm-sized block of oil-pickled bonito out of the container, draining off the oil before putting it into a bowl to break into small pieces. He then mixed two teaspoons of oil from the pickled bonito and the juice from a freshly squeezed naranja, a bright orange, citrus-like fruit. After mixing them well, he taste-tested a small portion, then seasoned it with salt and pepper.
He then put the vegetables that he had washed and drained a while ago into a rather deep wooden bowl. He placed the plucked lechuga leaves at the bottom of the bowl before arranging the tomatoes, pepino, yellow peppers, and red peppers over the leaves to add color. The pieces of bonito meat, along with the oil and fruit juice dressing, were placed in the center. The leftover dressing was drizzled over the vegetables. Once the vegetable salad was completed, he placed it in the food pantry so that it wouldn’t be affected by the external temperature.
Next, he began to cook the main dish. The prepared ingredient was an odd cut of pork that had been leftover from this afternoon. Takumi pounded this odd cut of meat with the kitchen knife to finely mince it. While he was pounding it, he added and mixed the meat with chopped cebolla (onions), salt, pepper, herbs, egg, grated cheese, and homemade tofu that had been made with beans of “this world,” which were similar to soybeans. When it was well-mixed, he divided it into three equal parts and shaped each part, compressing them with his hand. Thus, the hamburger steaks were completed.
After he finished the other prep work, he finally started on the finishing touches. There were no gas stoves in “this world,” so firewood stoves were widely used here. The cooking stove model in the kitchen of this station building had been installed piece-by-piece, and consistent of a rocket stove and the oven stove, modifications of the firewood stove.
Takumi used a matchstick to light the oven stove with experienced hands. He then placed a small pot containing a brown stew, which was meant for their boarding meals, on top of the stove. The top plate of the oven stove was made of cast iron, so it absorbed the heat from the furnace. Takumi had learned from experience that it was easier to heat up soup and sauces using the heat transmitted to the top plate of the oven stove rather than the rocket stove, which was difficult to adjust to low heat. He stirred it a little as it warmed up, letting the steam rise up. Since he didn’t want it to come to a boil, he moved the pot away from the centre of the stove, to the edge.
Next, he lit the fire in the rocket stove and placed a rather large frying pan on it. When the frying pan was finally hot enough and making crackling sounds, he tossed in the beef tallow, which made a sizzling sound and produced a sweet, fatty smell that filled the kitchen. He then placed the three hamburger steaks onto it, grilling both sides until they turned brown, before plating them on three separate iron plates. Takumi remembered that iron plates were often used in the coffee shop back in his hometown, so he had had them custom-made, since they were indispensable for this shop.
He arranged some skewered patata, a tuber that resembled potatoes, next to the hamburger steaks and placed the iron plates into the oven. After baking them for just the right amount of time, his deluxe hamburger steaks would be completed. While waiting for these to finish baking, Takumi cleaned up the kitchen and prepared round bread made from corn flour, the staple food here.
Takumi checked the baking hamburger steak through a small window on the oven and estimated that it was ready, so he called out to Nyaachi through a voice pipe installed in the kitchen.
「Dinner will be ready soon, so come on down with Nuttel-san~」
「Aye aye, sir~! Let’s go, Nuttel-chan!」
It seemed that Nyaachi had taken proper care of Nuttel… which was a relief. Not long after that, he could hear lively footsteps from the stairs.
「Hubbbbby~! What’s for dinner tonya-ight~?」
「Yes, yes. I would appreciate it if you help set these up for now. Ah, please go over there, Nuttel-san.」
Takumi handed knives, forks, and plates to Nyaachi before returning to the kitchen again to check on whether the hamburger steaks were done. When he stabbed the hamburger steak, which had been baked thoroughly in the oven, clear juice flowed out from the meat. Once Takumi confirmed that the hamburger steaks were done, he took the iron plates out of the oven and set each on individual wooden platters, which he then carried out, along with the vegetable salad, corn bread, and the sauce pot containing the moderately simmered brown sauce, and placed on the dining table.
◇ ◇ ◇
「Wow… This is my first time having such a feast…」
Nuttel was fascinated. The hamburger steaks on the iron plates were served in front of each seat, while the salad, sauce pot, and corn bread were placed at the center of the table.
「Ah, do you want to pour the sauce over it? Or is it fine this way?」
「Err, I don't know… How do you do it, Nyaachi-san?」
「I do it like this~!」
Nyaachi took the sauce pot, and poured the brown stew sauce on half of the hamburger steak. The sauce sizzled as it touched the iron plate, and the sweet, burnt fragrance wafted through the air.
「Ah, then I'll do that, too! Enjoying both sides seems fun.」
「I know, right? Then, I'll pour it for you nya~!」
Nyaachi poured the sauce on one half of Nuttel's hamburger steak, just like on hers. Takumi, smiling at the heartwarming scene, took the sauce from Nyaachi and also poured it on just half of his, just like them.
「Now then, let's bring our hands together… Itadakimasu.」
Nuttel, who was a bit puzzled at the unfamiliar, very short prayer they said before the meal, also clasped her hands together before her chest to offer her prayers.
(God, thank you for the food you have given me today, and thank you for letting me meet these two nice people.)
「Now, let's dig in before it gets cold. Please, be careful since it's hot.」
「I will. Thank you very much~」
Nuttel wasn't sure what to eat first. In the end, she chose the hamburger steak, which was still giving off a very appetizing scent. Her fork went in without any resistance. It was more tender than she had imagined. When she cut into it with her knife, juices flowed out of the meat and onto the iron plate, creating a beautiful sizzling sound.
(Wow! This is amazing!!)
Nuttel took her first bite from the side without sauce. The first thing that surprised her was how tender the meat was. She had eaten hamburger steak occasionally at home, but the meat had just shaped into a ball, like a hard dango, and felt dry and crumbly. However, every time she chewed on this hamburger steak, more juices flowed into her mouth. It didn't taste heavy like fat; it tasted like a rich soup. In a daze, Nuttel ate two, no three more bites.
「This is good, too. Why don't you try it out nya~?」
Nuttel, who had been completely engrossed with her hamburger steak, had not noticed Nyaachi serving the vegetable salad at all. The flustered girl received multicolored vegetables and what appeared to be fish flakes spread over a lechuga leaf, as if it was a green mat, on her plate.
「Err, what are those things on top?」
「Ah, that's skipjack… No, wait, it's not. It's a fish called bonito, made into a confit. I wanted to reproduce the "tuna salad" that was often eaten in my homeland.」 (TL note: confit is meat slowly cooked in fat/oil)
「Heeh, tuna salad, huh? It sounds delicious. Well then, I'll dig into this, too.」
'I wonder if Takumi-san came from somewhere far away…?' Nuttel wondered while reaching out to the tuna salad with her fork. When she took a bite, the crumbling fish flakes on top of the crisp lechuga filled her mouth with an incredibly fascinating flavor and texture. Although the dressing, which had aromatic herbs mixed into it, was prone to overpowering the mild taste of the vegetables with its strong flavor, it was washed away by the refreshing sweet and sour juices of the citrus. Nuttel, who was raised in the mountains, was surprised to see fish combined with salad like this, but to begin with, this was her first time eating a salad this delicious.
At that moment, Nuttel's heart sank. This was obviously the first time she had ever experienced such a great feast. She wouldn't be able to taste such splendid food once she finally started working at the mansion. Perhaps Takumi-san wanted to spoil her, but wasn't this an enormous burden for him…? She suddenly fell the magnitude of her blunder weighing heavily on her mind, and she couldn't move her fork, even though the meal was so delicious.
「Nya? What's wrong?」
Nyaachi looked worriedly at Nuttel, who had stopped moving her fork. When Nyaachi took a closer look, she saw that Nuttel looked like she was about to start crying.
「Uhm, did it not suit your taste?」
Nuttel abruptly looked up at their questions.
「Ah! That's not it at all! Rather, this is actually the first time in my life that I have had this kind of wonderful cooking. That's… that's why, when I thought about making Takumi-san work so hard to make this, I felt really guilty…」
Takumi was just about to respond when Nyaachi stepped in front of him, confusion written all over her face, and spoke to Nuttel.
「Hm? This is what Takumi usually makes for dinner, you kny~ow? But, since Nuttel-chan is here, he made the hamburger steak a bit more thoroughly, I think? Right, hubby?」
Takumi just nodded silently to show his agreement, which made Nuttel drop her mouth open in surprise. As for Takumi, he had just paid extra attention to the color of the steaks, and he had taken this rare opportunity to use different ingredients, like the tofu and pickled bonito in oil. However, other than that, this was roughly the same as the "boarding meal out of leftovers" that he made every day. In order to alleviate Nuttel's worries, Takumi continued explaining.
「Hey, didn't I say before that this place was a coffee shop during the day? As a result, we always have leftover ingredients, so our evening dinner is usually made with those leftovers. To tell you the truth, that sauce for the hamburger steak over there is just a boiled down brown stew that I served in the afternoon for our lunch menu.」
「Eh? Is this really stew?」
How many times had she been surprised today? Nuttel cut the hamburger steak covered in sauce, which she had yet to touch, and brought it to her mouth. Unlike the part without the sauce, which simply had a delicious, strong, meaty flavor, the gentle and mild flavor of this properly cooked, rich brown stew combined with the overflowing juices of the hamburger steak and made the food so delicious that her body trembled with delight.
「Even after eating it, I still can't believe it… Really… Is this really leftover stew?」
Takumi answered Nuttel, who had finally cheered up, with a smile.
「Yeah, that's right. It's really a dish made from leftovers, so this isn't much to brag about, right?」
「As long as it's delicious, anything is fine nya~! Nuttel-chan, too, be happy if it's delicious nya~!」
Nyaachi stared at Nuttel, her cat ears twitching. Nuttel couldn't help but giggle when she saw Nyaachi's big, round eyes.
「That's right. Since I'm eating such a delicious meal, I should enjoy it properly. Thank you very, very much.」
「It's an honor for a chef to hear that. There's still a lot more, so please do eat.」
「That's right. Even the bread is delicious, you kn~yow!」
As soon as she said that, Nyaachi scooped up the remaining sauce on the iron plate with some bread and tossed it into her mouth. Nuttel thought that it was impolite, but despite that, after looking at Nyaachi's smiling, happily chewing face… she followed suit. 'Yep, this is delicious, too!' Nuttel became engrossed and reached out for the bread, the salad, and, of course, the hamburger steak.
Nuttel finished her dinner so cleanly that not even a single drop of sauce remained. She still couldn't believe that this was a "boarding meal from leftovers." She concluded, therefore, that Takumi-san was a first class chef. She wanted to work hard to become a chef like Takumi, too, someday… Nuttel promised herself that the least she could do was wash the dishes later to show her gratitude.
◇ ◇ ◇
The next morning, Nuttel got on the first train and headed towards the station she was originally supposed to go to. Just like yesterday, she sat in the Third Class coach on an unreserved seat, carrying a paper box in her hands. Takumi had said 「Eat this in the train for breakfast,」 as he handed it to her. When Nuttel gently opened the paper box, there were two kinds of rolls cut into bite-sized pieces inside. One was a combination of chopped lechuga, thin slices of cebolla, tomatoes, and crispy bacon wrapped in a tortilla. This was something she also used to make in her hometown, until she had gotten accustomed to eating this combination, but the balance of the seasoning and the texture of of it amazed her, and she couldn't help but smile and admire how tasty it was.
Nuttel picked up the other roll and looked at its contents. The ingredients inside of this roll were ones that Nuttel had never seen before. The vegetable inside was probably shredded repollo leaves. Repollo was similar to lechuga, but had thicker leaves. It was often added in soups and stews, but she had no experience in shredding it and eating it raw. In addition, there were also fish flakes, which were used in yesterday's salad. It was also her first time seeing the white sauce that was used as a dressing for these ingredients. Nuttel put some of the sauce on her fingertip and licked it. The light taste of egg with a hint of sourness permeated in her mouth. 'If the sauce is already this good, then surely…' Nuttel's expectations rose and, this time, she tossed the whole bite-sized rolled into her mouth. The interesting texture of crisp repollo, fish flakes, and the sauce came together in perfect harmony inside her mouth, filling her with bliss.
'Someday, I'll save up money and go meet Takumi-san and Nyaachi-san. When that time comes, I'll order a lot of delicious food as a "customer of the coffee shop." Then, if I get the chance, my cooking…' Nuttel renewed her resolve to work hard in her job as an apprentice chef at the mansion, which started today.
TL note: In case you're wondering what those isekai ingredients are, the author actually just translated them into Spanish.