It’s strange having an assistant. Eishi has learned that his fellow Elite Ten members are more than happy to help him with his administrative work, but that’s so he could attend all of the tasting events and demonstrations on his own. Rindo keeps him company sometimes, but that’s usually considered an extraneous expense. The power of the First Seat is enough to prove to the culinary world that Totsuki still stands alone at the top of culinary education, and besides, Eishi knows that Rindo prefers to spend her time traveling to more exotic places, discovering new ingredients.
Not serving these pigs.
Eishi moves his knife over the whetstone with a fierceness he doesn’t think anyone can see. Except for the eyes that are now constantly watching him, eyes that he had asked to watch him. He pauses in the middle of sharpening his blade and turns to look at Yukihira Soma, his new assistant.
He had thought about refusing Yukihira’s help, releasing him from the terms of the informal shokugeki. There had been nothing official about it, and if Yukihira or any of his friends had raised enough fuss about it, Eishi knows he would not have fought back. Yukihira was a little too much of an unknown variable, something Azami would have warned against. That thought alone had made Eishi consider letting Yukihira go...
“Anything to advance your own cooking, right?” Yukihira had said, challenged. “I’m a man of my word. I’ll be the reason your cooking reaches new heights.” Eishi had stared at the boy, wondering how he had just left one challenge only to drop into another one.
And this one seems to have no end. “Is something wrong, Yukihira-kun?” Eishi asks, putting on a pleasant smile.
“Just anticipating my chef’s needs,” Yukihira replies, an easy grin on his face as ever. Eishi isn’t fooled. His new assistant is naturally happy-go-lucky, but he has seen enough of the other boy to know how Yukihira’s eyes darken during Central meetings, how his entire body seems to radiate disapproval as the council goes over their plans. He is indeed a man of his word, and he has done an excellent job of assisting Eishi so far, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t still a rebel at heart.
Eishi doesn’t know how much longer Yukihira will be able to keep up the act, but he’s content to let things lie. Having him there does make things easier. The boy, so used to helping his father run a diner, is better with the business and scheduling side of things than Eishi had thought. He can see why Erina keeps Hisako by her side, now that he has a “secretary” for himself.
Yukihira even gets along with the other Elite Ten members, although Eizan is a lost cause, taunting the underclassman every time they cross paths in Central. Pointing out his new plain white chef’s clothes with no diner shirt underneath, the Central pin, and lack of white headband. Eizan asks pointed questions about the other residents of the Polar Star Dormitory, goading Yukihira for a rematch
“I’m here to support Tsukasa-san,” Yukihira responds every time, and Eishi can hear Eizan’s teeth grinding at the rejection.
“He’ll be good for you,” Rindo says one day, and Eishi absentmindedly agrees, stamping his signature on yet another form. With Yukihira’s assistance, the demonstrations go by quickly. He doesn’t have to dwell on the scum he serves because Yukihira doesn’t let him.
“The vegetables are done, check it please!”
“The stock is simmering, check please!”
“The caramel will be done in 30 seconds! Will you be ready for the sauce reduction in 5 minutes?”
It’s jarring at first, always having someone at his elbow, anticipating his needs. Eishi refuses to grow dependent on having an assistant, but he can’t deny the way Yukihira’s presence has improved his cooking. He can serve full courses now, build flavors in a crescendo over multiple dishes with the speed at which they work. With someone else preparing the ingredients, he has more time to think about his dishes before he has to start cooking himself.
And strangely, despite Eishi’s initial reservations, Yukihira has yet to do anything to openly rebel. He prepares everything to Eishi’s exact specifications and never flinches at his corrections. Eishi realizes that for once, he has let someone else into his kitchen, and it is not giving him a nervous breakdown. Yukihira is an invaluable assistant because of his perceptiveness, but he’s also a danger. Eishi thinks of what Azami would think and considers firing him but--
But then they had been cleaning up after one of his demonstrations, and Eishi had been glowering at the leftover food on one of the guests’ plate. “Oh, I can’t. I’m on a diet,” he remembered the guest saying.
How dare they waste these precious ingredients, the time and work that had gone into preserving their majesty. Pigs, scum, ungrateful--
He was snapped out of his spiral by Yukihira dipping his pinky into the leftover meringue to try it. “Y-Yukihira-kun! T-that isn’t sanitary! If you had wanted to eat some--” Not that there was anything left. Eishi hated wasting food, and he always planned out the exact amount of ingredients necessary prior to cooking.
Which Yukihira knew, responding with a lopsided grin. “Ah, it’s all right Tsukasa-san! I was just thinking that it’s a waste I’ve been working with you all this time without getting to try any of your food.” The boy paused for a second, seeming to roll the flavor through his mouth. “You’re amazing as always.”
Eishi froze, bitterness at the bland compliment rising again--
“This is the result of that new technique you were testing all last week, right? We had so many yolks left over, I don’t think we’ll ever run out of hollandaise sauce.” Yukihira grabbed the leftover plates and began to move them to the sink. “Not to mention all of the testing we did on the hollandaise sauce. It really is something else to taste the results of all that dedication.”
It was so casually spoken, Eishi had taken a moment to realize Yukihira was complimenting him. And then another moment to realize that he actually felt touched by it, the recognition of his hard work. They spent the rest of their time cleaning up discussing everything Eishi had done to elevate the meringue, and it was fun. It was satisfying. It reminded Eishi of his first few encounters with Azami.
Except Yukihira is nothing like Azami, too unrefined and small-minded. Azami had the entire culinary world to think about. Yukihira--
Is focused on Eishi. Just Eishi.
“Let’s work hard tonight as well!” Yukihira says, a genuinely warm smile on his face. Eishi responds with a polite nod before the event’s announcer calls for the diners’ attention. The show begins, and Eishi sheds all of his anxiety and focuses purely on cooking.
“Oui, chef!” The setting for tonight’s demonstration is smaller, more intimate than usual. Yukihira appropriately lowers his voice and speaks to Eishi with the respect an accomplished French chef deserves. He wonders, in between knife movements, who taught Yukihira to do that. If that person had simply expected it or if it had made him feel as exalted as Eishi did.
Which is ridiculous, because Eishi is fully deserving of that respect. He’s heard it in the voices of far more powerful critics and more accomplished chefs than Yukihira Soma.
Just never from anyone who has spent so much time watching him, getting to know him.
The night ends far earlier than Eishi expects, and he’s almost surprised when all the courses are served. There are no servers to warn about his presentation. Yukihira has taken it upon himself to deliver each dish to its diner in the small venue. He is careful and precise in a way that Eishi never expects from him, and the warm smile that accompanies his formality seems to add something to the dish. A bouquet garni that flavors their experience even though he is gone before they to eat.
Eishi stares at Yukihira for the rest of the night, turning the tables. “Is there something on my face, Tsukasa-san?” Yukihira eventually asks. He lasts longer than most would, being the target of Eishi’s focused attention. They’re done cleaning up and are walking back to the hotel by the time Yukihira raises the question.
“I was just thinking about what I would make for a shokugeki if you were the ingredient,” Eishi admits.
There’s an expected silence before Yukihira laughs, rubbing the back of his head. He takes it in stride in a way that no one else would, not teasing him like Rindo would or backing away like anyone else. “What an odd theme for a shokugeki! Well, I suppose you would win that easily.”
“Oh?” Eishi asks.
“You’re the white knight, right? Doesn’t that make me your squire? Squires are supposed to support their knights. You can’t lose because of me.” The logic makes no sense, and it causes Eishi to burst into laughter at how ridiculous it sounds. There’s no way for Yukihira to be the theme for a shokugeki, Eishi admits, and the boy at least seems to agree with his place as a tool for Eishi to progress.
He still finds it hard to sleep that night, thinking about how his role as the white knight isn’t to conquer his ingredients, but to serve them. Eishi dreams of bowing before Yukihira’s bright smile and golden gaze, whispering charming words to him in the shadows of a castle’s garden, wooing him into running away.
Eishi is half-unconscious over a pile of paperwork, trying not to think of his recurring dreams in between each form he has to fill out and stamp and sign. He’s been seeing Yukihira’s eyes everywhere, in the golden shine of broth and the bright sunlight of each day, in his dreams and at work. He’s been waking up at odd times of the night and taking refuge in the kitchen, throwing ingredients together to try and create something, anything to get his mind off of Yukihira.
“Okay!” says the devil himself, loud enough to make Eishi jump and duck under his desk. “I don’t know what’s going on Tsukasa-san, but we need to fix it. Drink this.”
An enticing smell wafts down from the table, and Eishi lifts his head up just enough to see an innocuous bowl of soup. “This is?”
“It’s medicinal, something I learned from Hisako. I asked her for help since you’ve seemed off, and I figured if I really wanted to support you, I should learn things like this.” Yukihira never does anything by half-measures, Eishi realizes, and he reaches for the soup. The scent alone is enough to soothe the tension in his muscles, and the first sip is mild and comforting. He imagines relaxing in the bath at home, the sound of his family moving around their small house a familiar backdrop.
And then the door opens and Yukihira is jumping into the bath with him, completely naked and without showering off first.
“... Ah, I see you modified her recipe,” Eishi says, a shiver running down his spine.
“Yeah, I didn’t think it would be strong enough on its own. You look like you haven’t slept for a week,” Yukihira says.
The shiver isn’t unpleasant, Eishi realizes guiltily, drinking down the rest of the soup in a hurry. He never wants Yukihira changing his recipes, but changing someone else’s isn’t an issue. It’s delicious, even if it’s not gourmet, and he does feel better after he’s finished, letting out a sigh of contentment.
“Now that you’re done, want to tell me what’s going on?” His assistant looks uncharacteristically serious, and Eishi isn’t sure if he’s just a great actor or if he’s genuinely concerned.
“I’m just nervous about things. You know how I get, Yukihira-kun,” Eishi pastes the most pathetic expression he can muster on his face.
“You never worry about your cooking.” The golden eyes he’s been seeing everywhere darken.
His own gaze sharpens in response. “What makes you think it’s about my cooking?”
“One of my duties is keeping your kitchen stocked to your satisfaction,” Yukihira reminds him, looking thoroughly unimpressed. “I check everyday, whether I know you’ve been working there or not. You’ve been signing off on all the orders I’ve put in this week, haven’t you?”
This time, the nervous expression is completely genuine. Eishi’s shoulders droop as he physically withdraws from Yukihira’s questioning. The silence stretches on far longer than it should, neither man wanting to give in to the other.
Eishi is about to change the subject when Yukihira sighs in capitulation. “Well, ignoring that for now, can you help me with some training?”
“Training?” Eishi has already trained Yukihira, making him go through a bootcamp when he first arrived at Central. Yukihira had known most of the French cooking techniques and sauces, much to Eishi’s surprise and satisfaction. It had just been a matter of drilling them to Eishi’s preferences and consistent perfection.
“Yeah. This isn’t something that I’d do while cooking with you, of course, but we seem to have a lot of extra…” Yukihira led him to his kitchens and dug through its pantry before pulling out--
“Natto and squid?” Eishi asks. “Why do we have a lot of extra natto and squid?”
“I think it was a supplier mix up!” Yukihira’s smile suggests otherwise. He’s altogether too enthusiastic about the combination. “Anyway, I was thinking of mixing the two.”
So he does, seasoning and grilling the squid before dropping the natto on top of it. Eishi looks at it in horror. “That’s…”
“Not terrible enough, huh? Maybe I should have left the squid raw to really let the sliminess shine through,” Yukihira muses, unhesitatingly taking a bite of his own concoction. “Wow! It’s pretty bad!”
Eishi can almost see them at sea, their ship caught in a terrible storm. Except the night is clear, and the giant waves are actually being created by a monstrous squid. Yukihira, in no armor at all and weighed down by their heavy adventuring packs is trying to reason with the kraken. His offering of natto doesn’t seem to be working, but… “It’s actually… not unheard of,” Eishi admits, one gauntleted hand reaching out for the natto while the other helps his squire stand up.
“Eh?” The blank shock on Yukihira’s face is priceless, and Eishi can’t help but chuckle.
“Okay, let’s use up all this spare squid and natto.”
That’s how Rindo finds them five hours later, surrounded by dirty pots and pans and with a million different fermented squid and soybean dishes scattered over the counters. “Wow!” she exclaims. “You really got Tsukasa to spend all this time on squid and natto? Hey, Yukihira, can you convince him to work with the puffin meat I brought back from my last trip?”
“That’s a silly question, Rindo-senpai. I’m sure you’d have more luck convincing Tsukasa-san to do something than I would.” Eishi looks away, unwilling to see the cutting gaze Rindo focuses on him. Despite how matter-of-fact Yukihira sounds, Eishi has to wonder if that statement is true. “Anyway, why don’t you try these dishes for us?”
“I would love to!” Rindo exclaims, mercifully letting the topic drop.
Eishi sleeps better that night. He doesn’t wake up with the need to run to his kitchen and aimlessly stare at ingredients. The dreams still come, and he’s still in his armor, and he’s still trapped in the courtyard of a well fortified castle. Yukihira is still there, too close for comfort. Except instead of trying to plead with him, Eishi finds his head in Yukihira’s lap as if it belongs there.
“You can rest, dear knight,” Yukihira whispers, and Eishi wonders if this is how his ingredients feel when he’s coaxing them into his dish. Content and oblivious to their eventual fates as animal feed.
Word of Yukihira working with him spreads faster than Eishi expects. He doesn’t know how everyone finds out. They mostly work together away from campus, and while it has required Yukihira to be absent from some of his classes, Eishi doesn’t think anyone would go to the hassle of correlating it with his own schedule. Maybe it’s because Yukihira is spending more and more time at Central.
Maybe, he thinks, it’s because Yukihira shows up randomly to Eishi’s classes.
“Yukihira-kun?” He pastes on a bland smile and chuckles nervously. “Is something wrong? You don’t usually come looking for me.”
“Nakamura-san’s employees tracked me down. He said something about dinner tonight.” Azami, Eishi thinks, and then startles when he realizes that Yukihira knows that name too. The boy’s eyes are a dark amber of disapproval, with an edge to them that Eishi rarely sees. He imagines Azami’s displeasure will be similarly sharp tonight, and he wonders what happened between the two of them. “I thought I should come find you and let you know, and if you have any ideas for a menu, I can order any ingredients you might not have.”
Eishi thinks about it, leaning against the doorframe opposite of Yukihira. His classmates are looking, whispering. At least they know to keep their distance.
He rattles off a list of ingredients that Yukihira acknowledges with a nod. “Oh, and we still have some venison heart, don’t we?” he tacks on at the end.
“Yup. I’ll start prepping the ingredients before you show up. He said 6 PM,” Yukihira explains before heading off. Eishi waits a beat for his classmates to politely avert their eyes before he turns to enter his own classroom. The only surprising thing about the situation is how long it took Azami to act, but the headmaster has been busy.
“I hope you’ll forgive my neglect,” Azami says, using the exact reasoning Eishi thought he would. Eishi waves the concern away. His chef’s clothes are slightly undone now that he’s finished cooking. Yukihira is still done up, but that’s because he’s the one that has to serve them. “I’m sure you can guess why I wanted a private meeting.”
It’s a strange privacy, considering the topic of their conversation is the person waiting on them. Yukihira walks in not a beat later, their aperitif and bread on a tray that he expertly balances. Azami pays him no mind even as the boy places the items down, bows, and leaves the room. Eishi notes that Yukihira hasn’t looked at Azami either. “Did something happen?” Eishi asks, feigning an acceptable amount of ignorance.
“My daughter ran away, as you know. I figured she would come back in due time, but it seems her rebellious streak is stronger than I expected.” Azami sips at his wine and stares somewhere over Eishi’s shoulder. The man rarely looks directly at him anymore, and certainly never the way he did back when they were first getting to know each other. Eishi doesn’t look at Azami the same way either. He’s not the same naive boy who was excited to be recruited to Azami’s vision, even if he still supports the man’s plans.
“Is she staying with Yukihira-kun?” Azami’s eyes deepen into an even more ominous black, and Eishi wonders if he was too direct. He’s saved by the reappearance of his assistant, who serves the appetizers without once looking up. Eishi stares at Yukihira’s back as he retreats, attention ripped away only when Azami speaks again.
“He’s the son of someone I greatly admire,” Azami breathes out. There’s disbelief and scorn in his voice, a very old pain that still hasn’t healed. The brittle smile on his face makes him look like a little boy trying not to cry, but then he takes a deep breath and picks up his utensils, and suddenly he is back to the man who owns the culinary world.
Eishi hums, digesting the new information alongside his dish. “It makes sense that your daughter would gravitate toward him then.”
“Not at all,” Azami disagrees, laughing the observation off as a bad joke. “He’s nowhere near as talented as Saiba-senpai. No, Yukihira Soma is trash, clinging to my daughter and tainting her.”
There is a tense pause before Eishi asks, “How is the food?”
“Delicious as always, still the definition of true gourmet. I was concerned at first, but it does seem like you have him in hand.” They sip at their respective drinks as Yukihira interrupts their conversation to clear their plates and serve their main course. It’s venison heart, cooked slowly to ensure it was well done despite being served whole, plated atop a reduction of red wine and the deer’s own blood. Garnished with pieces of picked clean ribs and white flowers that were now stained, the dish had caused Yukihira to wrinkle his nose.
Isn’t this a bit morbid, Tsukasa-san? Eishi watches the way Azami evaluates the dish, how his bottomless black eyes almost seem to light up. He knows immediately that Azami doesn’t understand it, but he’s content with that. He doesn’t want to have to explain himself. “Bon appetit,” Eishi bids him, a smile glued on his face.
“Make sure you don’t loosen your hold on him,” Azami says, his last warning after the main course. He declines dessert. “His kind likes to run away and ruin everything as they go.”
Eishi agrees that wouldn’t be acceptable, so he nods his head low as if he were bowing and does not look up again until Yukihira returns with the dessert plates. “He’s gone?”
“He was busy,” Eishi explains before gesturing to the seat across from him. “Won’t you eat dessert with me instead, Yukihira-kun?”
Yukihira’s golden eyes are still dark and disapproving, but he settles into the chair Azami left. He’s officially joined the meal but Eishi notes with some irony that Yukihira is farther away from him than he was before. “Did you get in trouble?”
“What a harsh thing to ask!” Eishi laughs. “He was just sharing the wisdom of his experience with me.”
Skeptical but unwilling to force the issue, Yukihira stuffs his mouth with the marshmallow cream from the dessert as if willing himself not to speak. Eishi can see his eyes widen as he is caught off guard by how delicious the food is, even though Yukihira had helped him prepare it. The reaction warms Eishi’s chest, and he thinks that if he looks down, he would see his white armor pierced and blood slowly seeping under the breastplate. “I’m always surprised by you, Tsukasa-san.”
The feeling is mutual.
“So, your beloved assistant is stashing the princess away, huh?” Rindo is perched on his desk, her pile of paperwork already mixed in with his own. Eishi stares at the stacks with a sense of inescapable doom. It makes him realize how much he’s learned to depend on Yukihira. Just the thought of the boy coming to help him with some of the work had been enough to make the load seem palatable.
Yukihira won’t be coming by any time soon though, as he’s preparing to head to Hokkaido for the promotion exams. His absence is a good excuse for Eishi to decline any tasting events until his return, but the bonus doesn’t seem worth it.
“You miss him already?” Rindo teases, leaning uncomfortably close. “In that case, do you want to go see him one last time before he leaves?”
It’s a stupid idea, but Rindo drags him to Polar Star Dormitory, ignoring his whines of “But what if he’s busy? What if he’s not there? What if they don’t let us in because of what we did?” all the way there. He’s almost surprised when they reach the dormitory, and Eishi takes a moment to look at the expansive property and the aging building. It’s a crucial part of Totsuki’s history, and Eishi can respect that even if he had supported its demolishing not too long ago. He doesn’t particularly care for sentimentality.
At least he doesn’t think so, until the door opens and Yukihira’s face pops into view. “Ah, Rindo-senpai, Tsukasa-san! What good timing, I was just about to come see you. Come in!” Yukihira is his usual easy-going self, inviting the enemy into their territory without a bat of the eyelash. It comforts Eishi just to see him again, even though the rest of the residents don’t seem so warm.
“Ah, maybe we should have called first. Or brought a gift? I guess we could cook dinner since we’re imposing…” he offers rapid-fire.
“Don’t worry about that Tsukasa-san. Everybody is cooking a ton so they can have Nakiri try it anyway. We have tons of food left over,” Yukihira says, walking through to the kitchen. The residents of Polar Star react immediately, breaking into shouts.
“Yukihira! How can you just tell him that!”
“He’s the enemy, the enemy!”
“S-Soma-kun…” the last one just sounds disappointed.
“Ah, have you been taken in by Eishi-senpai’s charm?” The last one is said by Isshiki, who appears out of nowhere, dressed only in an apron. Eishi’s eyes widen and he cowers behind Rindo, who starts shamelessly catcalling.
“As expected of Isshiki, such boldness…” he says, nodding his head in greeting.
“Ah, it’s just the easy comfort of being at home with good friends,” Isshiki dismisses, the warm smile that so often adorns his face there for a second before it freezes over. “Now, why--”
“Eat up!” Yukihira’s familiar battlecry is accompanied by a giant box being pushed into Eishi’s arms. He looks inside curiously and finds an assortment of bento boxes--likely reused from the Autumn Elections--and mismatched thermoses. “Don’t forget to take care of yourself while I’m gone, Tsukasa-san.”
“Oh, Y-Yukihira-kun…” he’s struck speechless, and the other residents of the dormitory seem to be suffering the same fate. He can’t imagine how it looks to them. Should Yukihira’s betrayal of his friends feel so satisfying?
“Hey, hey! Yukihira, I meant to ask. Why did you switch to calling him Tsukasa-san? Didn’t you always call him Tsukasa-senpai before?” Rindo asks, immune to any silencing effect as usual.
“I thought I should be more respectful since I’m his subordinate,” Yukihira replies easily, as if that isn’t the exact opposite of the boy’s usual thought process. “He started adding -kun onto my name too. Oh, that reminds me. You can just call me Soma, Tsukasa-san.”
“Oh! W-Well, in that case, y-you should call me…” Eishi almost fumbles the box trying to think of an appropriate name. He’s still stuck on the idea of calling his assistant Soma. Eishi has already taken Yukihira’s diner away from him, as the boy never wears his old work shirt anymore, instead looking almost too appropriate in the usual school uniform with the Central pin on his jacket. He never expected Soma to give him leave to abandon his last name too.
“Eishi-senpai, maybe?” Isshiki recommends, the first to break out of his stupor. His smile is back on his face, and Eishi can’t tell if that discomforts him more or less.
“That might be too informal…” Soma starts, and Eishi jumps in to object.
“N-no! That’s fine! I don’t actually care what people call me,” Eishi admits, although it’s not completely true. There’s something in him that likes the idea of Soma calling him by his first name, as if they are somehow close despite all the power Eishi holds over him.
Luckily, Soma doesn’t seem to care. “All right, Eishi-senpai,” he gives in, and Eishi feels just as pleased as he thought he would hearing those words from Soma’s mouth. “Are the Elite Ten going to be involved in the promotion exams at all?”
Eishi looks down at the box and considers carefully. “Possibly. If the original plans to expel the rebels fail, then we’ll likely be called upon to ensure they won’t pass.”
The dormitory falls into an ominous silence. The open looks of terror on the faces of Soma’s classmates ping something inside Eishi’s head. He’s said something inappropriate again.
“Ah! But Soma-kun, I’m sure you’ll do fine. You’ve been working in Central so you know all the tricks. I don’t think you’re considered one of the rebels anymore--” Eishi starts rambling.
“I don’t care about myself, senpai,” Soma cuts him off, and Eishi has to bite his tongue to object that even if Soma doesn’t, Eishi does. “Oh well, I guess that means we’ll just have to study even harder, right Nakiri?”
Both Eishi and Rindo look up to see Nakiri Erina and her secretary staring down at them. Hisako looks betrayed at Soma drawing attention to them, but Nakiri looks defiant. Despite the strange teacher getup she’s wearing, she still conveys a certain regal air, like a warrior queen gazing down at the peasants from her castle. Eishi looks over at Soma and wonders if he counts as one of her subjects too.
“We have a lot to get done,” she pronounces with a dismissive air, and Eishi can almost see Azami mirrored behind her. She’s more like her father than she likely cares to admit.
“We’ll see you in Hokkaido, Eishi-senpai, Rindo-senpai,” Soma says, escorting them outside. It’s another challenge. The rebels won’t lose until we fight you.
“Soma-kun,” Eishi starts to speak, concern suddenly rising up in him. It must be fear at losing one of his greatest tools of advancement. He thinks about the squid and natto dishes, about the half-conscious experiments done overnight. There is a box of medicinal soups and stews in his arms and Soma’s smiling face in his mind. His presence is always just on the border of Eishi’s awareness, present but unobtrusive, just as the perfect assistant should be.
He’s glad he’s holding something so he doesn’t make a fool of himself by trying to draw Soma in closer.
“Remember Eishi-senpai, I won’t be here to restock your kitchen. If you want to try making weird stuff, you have to remember to order the ingredients yourself,” Soma reminds him. “Ah, maybe you can train for that shokugeki with me as the theme!”
“But you won’t be here for me to use as an ingredient,” Eishi mumbles. Soma just laughs and closes the door on them.
“Shokugeki with Yukihira as the theme? Tsukasa…” Eishi jumps a foot in the air, having forgotten that Rindo is there. He doesn’t like the assessing look she gives him. “You’ve been making weird things? Weird things… that involve Yukihira?”
“Well, you saw all the squid and natto--” Rindo’s expression says she isn’t buying it. “I’ve been having strange dreams,” he admits.
“About cooking? Or about Yukihira?”
Eishi looks away, because Rindo sounds like she already knows the answer to that. “I’ve been waking up to cook because of my dreams, but I… haven’t figured out what I’m trying to make yet.”
“Oh? I see,” Rindo says, a smile curling over her lips. “Oh man! I can’t believe we have to go to Hokkaido! It’s so cold right now!”
He doesn’t bother trying to tell her that it’s only an if. After having worked with Soma, Eishi knows it’s inevitable now.
“Wow, Yukihira’s actually pretty good at this medicinal stuff,” Rindo says, cupping her hands around the warm thermos. She’s consumed more of Soma’s prepared stock than Eishi has, partly because she needs it more in the cold Hokkaido weather and mostly because Eishi hasn’t had much of an appetite.
The dreams are back and more vivid than before. Eishi can see himself as a knight envoy, visiting Queen Nakiri’s kingdom with good wishes but ill intent. He will be used to overthrow her eventually, but for now, he is a respected knight and Nakiri is forced to treat him with respect. This includes lending him the use of a good squire, one of the queen’s favorites.
Come here, he whispers to the squire, who is much too pure-hearted and oblivious to be aware of the ugly face under the white knight’s helmet. Come here… I need to taste you if I’m going to be using you in this battle.
“Speaking of Yukihira, is he part of the rebel faction?” Kinokuni asks, her flat tone breaking through Eishi’s odd daydream. He shrinks away from her assessment. “Are you going to fight him if he is?”
“W-well,” he stutters. “It didn’t seem like he was going to be treated as such, but. Y-you’ve all met him by now.”
“Tsukasa doesn’t have to fight him. I will,” Eizan interrupts, drawing attention away from Eishi. He breathes a sigh of relief.
“I don’t see the problem. It’s not like Yukihyan has had a chance to practice his own cooking at all. He’s just been following Tsukasa’s orders for the last few months,” Mom says. “Bucchi could beat him at this point.”
“Oh? I don’t think he’ll be as easy as you think,” Rindo sing-songs. The train soon falls into squabbles and speculations. Eishi stares at his fellow council members without seeing them, his memories of Soma blocking them out.
The joyous look on his face when he eats Eishi’s food. The sharp, assessing eyes when they’re working at an event together. Soma had only ever stood close to him once, when they had been experimenting with the surplus of squid and natto. “Training,” Soma had said.
“I don’t think I’m going to face him first,” Eishi finally says, not realizing that the conversation had died down long ago. Everyone’s attention is immediately back on him, and he can tell that they are shocked that he would deign to accept another challenge from Soma.
They are insulted that he thinks Soma could beat any of them to get to Eishi.
Rindo’s laughter breaks up the awkward silence, and Eishi quietly thanks her. He isn’t going to apologize for a statement he knows is true.
That night, he dreams of finally luring Soma into the shadows of the garden. They laugh, Eishi smiles, and then he brings his sword down like a particularly skilled chef butchering meat for the main course.
“You were right.” Saito seems oddly pleased for someone who just lost a shokugeki.
Eishi rearranges his scarf over one shoulder, purposefully drawing his eyes away from Soma’s celebration with his friends. He finds it difficult to look away. There’s something different about Soma’s cooking, and it isn’t the teamwork. Eishi is used to that, the way he can anticipate someone else’s needs and move around them like he’s waltzing. Still, there’s something different about his grace, the way he holds his knife--
“Eishi-senpai?” He’s startled out of his thoughts by Soma suddenly appearing before him. The boy holds up a hand and Eishi responds automatically, realizing a second later that Soma is giving him a celebratory high-five.
“S-Soma-kun! That. That was inappropriate! Probably! I think!” he babbles, looking around wildly as if he were looking for Azami. It’s an act, as he knows where the man really is. An unnecessary one, he realizes, considering how little Soma looks like he cares.
“How are you feeling after yesterday?” Despite how well Soma has treated him, Eishi doesn’t know what to do in the face of continued care. He opens his mouth to stutter out that he’s fine, but Soma seems reluctant to be lied to. He shoves a plate of the inari he made at Eishi instead. “Eat up! You need something to bolster you for the competition.”
Slowly, Eishi takes the chopsticks from Soma’s hands and picks up a piece of the inari. He stares at it, marvels at the new techniques Soma has mastered and the refined way in which he continues to make his own style of food. It’s not true gourmet by Azami’s standards, but when Eishi bites into it, he is transported to a world where he does not care.
He can taste in the apple butter the crisp fall air, walking with Tadokoro as she talks about fall festivals in her harbor town. The richness of the cheese shows a depth to the friendship and rivalry between Aldini and Soma, just the slightest bit salty but satisfying in the end. The buttery inari and pilaf bring Eishi back to the thought of taking a comfortable bath after a long day in armor, Soma resting against him.
“I’m going to beat Isshiki,” Eishi says, eyes dark and solemn. It’s a promise more than a threat or warning. He almost wants to drop to one knee and swear.
“You’ll try,” Soma says, because he wouldn’t be Soma if he wasn’t constantly challenging Eishi. The rebel faction in their prison look infuriated at his colluding with the enemy, but Soma doesn’t duck his head or appear regretful at all. “I promised Eishi-senpai that I’d take care of him and help him advance his cooking! I’m not taking my word back!” he declares, as if the whole stadium isn’t listening to him.
Isshiki, as always, just laughs good heartedly. “You’re a lucky man, Eishi-senpai.”
“Yes,” Eishi agrees before completely dominating the match. Isshiki remains defiant to the end, which is fine. Eishi has no need for him, not when he has Soma.
That’s all he can think of when Azami arrives with Senzaemon and announces the new changes to the format. Cooking with Rindo is easy enough; they know each other and can cook with each other seamlessly even without much preparation. Still, a part of Eishi wishes it were Soma cooking with him, instead of with Nakiri on the opposite side.
Rindo seems to sense as much, keeping a good distance away from him as they head back to their hotel. “Don’t be too excited to cook with me or anything,” she throws out just as they’re about to separate.
“Sorry Rindo. I know I’m distracted,” he says, putting up his pathetic routine as his last defense mechanism. Rindo huffs in response.
“You’re going to make your specialty, right? I’ll brainstorm a dish that will go well with it.” It’s as kind a peace offering as Eishi could ask for, and he bows his head and mumbles ‘please do’ before he retreats to his own room.
He’s already planned out the meal in his head, and it’s a dish he’s prepared so many times, he could do it blindfolded. There is too much time to think and not enough things to think about. Not enough things that are safe to think about. Eishi paces the room and considers going to the kitchens here to cook something, to throw ingredients together the way he had when the dreams first started to haunt him.
There’s a chance he could overhear Soma and Nakiri, planning their dish together. It’s a risk he isn’t willing to take. He orders room service and digs around the hotel’s mini-fridge until he comes up with one of the medicinal soups Soma had prepared for him, one of the few that he had saved from Rindo.
By the time the food is delivered and the soup is heated up, Eishi has showered and made himself comfortable in bed, fully prepared to fall asleep right after eating. He’s a bit anxious about his dreams tonight, which makes him jump even harder when he hears the knock at his door.
His first thought is that room service forgot to bring him something, but that seems highly unlikely. Although it would have been less confusing than the truth of Soma standing outside his door, Yukihira Diner shirt and all. “S-Soma-kun. Shouldn’t you be…”
“Preparing? Yeah, but Nakiri and I can’t agree on anything, so we weren’t getting anything done.” Soma steps forward and Eishi instantly moves out of the way to let him in. He forgets that he’s just in his bathrobe, that he has a meal he still hasn’t eaten, and that he was hoping to go to sleep early. All of that seems insignificant when he has Soma in his room. “I figured if I couldn’t prepare properly, I should at least try to distract the enemy.”
“Am I your enemy?” he asks, closing the door. He advances on Soma, who has unwisely turned his back to him in order to better examine his dinner. “How were you planning on distracting me?” he whispers into Soma’s ear.
Soma’s shoulders hunch up in surprise, but he doesn’t move away. He turns around and despite how uncomfortably close they are, he just smiles and says, “I don’t know. Maybe watch a movie?”
That’s how they end up huddled next to each other in Eishi’s bed, watching a Japanese dubbed version of Ratatouille while Soma picks at the dinner he ordered. “Wow, isn’t he amazing!” Soma exclaims. “He could probably teach me about French cuisine.”
Eishi bites down on his impulse to say but I can teach you about French cuisine and watches Soma be enthralled by the movie instead. He’s so focused on the way those eyes look genuinely happy and carefree for once that he almost misses the way Soma tilts to one side, leaning all of his weight against Eishi. “S-Soma-kun, if you’re tired--”
“Hey Eishi-senpai. Why were you thinking of a dish for me?” Soma asks. “A dish involving me, I guess. A shokugeki with me as the theme… It’s weird that you’re thinking about it when I’m thinking about it too. I don’t know what kind of dish best represents me.”
He thinks carefully about what he wants to say before offering, “If I made a dish of you, Soma-kun, it might help.” His specialty was erasing himself from the dish, presenting the ingredient in its best light. He thinks he could do the same for Soma, even if his dreams full of red staining his armor makes him hesitate.
Soma stares at him with the same intensity that he had before, back when they were just assistant and chef. Eishi feels anxious, but not in the usual way. Soma isn’t here to make him feel bad or berate him, not here to judge or jeer. He’s kept his word, working only to help Eishi this entire time. So he isn’t completely surprised when Soma smiles at him, although he feels a shiver run down his spine at how soft it is. Affectionate, and not in the fatherly way Azami’s smiles used to be.
It had taken Eishi a while to realize that while Azami indulged his stories and plans, that didn’t mean the man saw him as anything other than a tool. No matter how much Eishi’s cooking improves, he’ll never match up to the legendary upperclassman Azami still adores. Even as a tool, he will never be Azami’s favorite one, with his daughter’s God Tongue being infinitely more useful. Eishi’s talent is to erase himself completely from his cuisine. In Azami’s grand plans, he is to present True Gourmet, completely neutral of the chef.
Soma is different. “I think if I had a chance to eat Eishi-senpai’s cooking, I’d want a meal that is from you. I know your specialty is to disappear, but if it were for me, then wouldn’t it have to have your feelings for me in it?” He huddles in closer to Eishi, too close for them to look at each other. Eishi is glad for the reprieve from Soma’s stare. “You asked me to be your assistant so that I can advance your cooking, right? Have I?”
Yes, Eishi thinks, but Soma’s head is drooping lower and he seems even heavier than before. He’s fallen asleep. Eishi slowly rearranges Soma so that they’re both lying down, but he’s reluctant to let Soma go. He sets his alarm and thinks about having them both miss the battle tomorrow. Soma would never let him live it down, even though Eishi thinks he would understand.
He falls asleep staring at Soma’s face and dreams of it smiling at him, staring down at the deer he’s caught. “Do you want to cook that together?” the squire asks.
“Yes,” Eishi replies, almost breathless with how glad he is that the blood on his sword is not Soma’s.
“Let me help you out of your armor then.” It’s the job of a squire, Eishi reminds himself, trying not to be too flustered at Soma’s hands skillfully undoing the clasps and catches of his breastplate. He feels awkward and vulnerable once the last piece of armor comes off. “Let’s pretend for today that you aren’t a knight and I’m not your squire! You have no duties except to help me cook this venison.”
“Okay,” Eishi agrees, settling next to Soma in front of the fire. He watches Soma tie on his iconic white headband, only slightly out of place in the medieval dream setting, and smiles in his sleep.
Eishi is the reason they lose. Rindo looks at the dish he presents with delight in her shocked gaze. Soma and Nakiri have stopped cooking to gawk. The entire makeshift stadium is silent with disbelief, and Azami…
“What is this?” he demands, sounding angrier than Eishi has ever heard him.
“Ika somen,” Eishi says, “with natto.”
There’s a collective cringe throughout the stadium, but Eishi is only looking for one person’s reaction. Soma has that strange sadistic look on his face that he had worn the entire day they were testing their dishes. It brightens into a genuine smile when he realizes Eishi is looking his way.
“You have to try it, Nakamura-san,” Soma says. “That’s your job as a judge, isn’t it?”
“I don’t have to try anything, you--You. Did you do this?” Azami looks at Eishi even though the question is directed at Soma. “Didn’t I warn you, Eishi?”
“If you try it, I can explain what I did,” he says, keeping his tone neutral.
“No! This match is invalid! I will talk to you about this later, Tsukasa. Kobayashi, get someone else to participate in Tsukasa’s place.” It’s strange how his blind fury makes him seem so much less authoritative. Rindo stands there and makes no move to get anyone else. The Elite Ten members who are watching also stay in their spots. Eishi looks at his dish, plated to highlight its sliminess, and decides that it’s time for all of this to be over.
He picks up the dish from Azami’s place at the table, much to the man’s spluttering, and walks it over to Soma instead. “Here,” he says. “I made it for you.”
The Polar Star peanut gallery are shouting for Soma not to eat it, it could be a trap! followed by it could just be bad! Soma doesn’t pay them any attention. “You’re supposed to say ‘Eat up!’ Eishi-senpai.” His kind eyes are looking at Eishi as he takes his first bite.
Soma freezes in place afterward, and Eishi can hear a distant, “He’s dying! He’s dying! Erinacchi, help him!” It’s not made any better by the tears that gather at the corner of Soma’s eyes.
“S-Soma-kun! I-I’m sorry. P-Please don’t cry,” he starts babbling, leaning down so that he’s at eye level with Soma. It puts him at just the right height for Soma to move forward and kiss him.
“W-WHAT?” The stadium breaks into shocked gasps and dismayed cries. Eishi thinks he might hear Rindo’s delighted cackle somewhere in the background. He’s honestly too busy tasting his dish on Soma’s lips to care.
“They still give me weird looks when I come to visit,” Eishi complains, even as Soma pushes him into the familiar Polar Star room.
“Well, it’s not because they don’t trust you,” Soma waves off. “They’re just trying really hard not to think about us having sex every time you come over. We’re lucky Isshiki-senpai has never decided to randomly check in on us from the ceiling.”
Eishi resolves never to tell Soma about the one time he had looked up to see Isshiki silently threatening him from the rafters. He had been forced to stop to try and get his erection back. “W-We don’t have sex every time I come over.”
“No,” Soma agrees, “just most times.” His cackle is completely unsympathetic and sounds oddly similar to Rindo’s. Eishi sighs in regret that the two of them get along so well.
“I’d be perfectly happy to take you on dates outside of Totsuki,” Eishi offers.
“Nah, I like it when we have sex,” Soma says, blunt as ever, and Eishi bites through his lip in scandalized shock. “Besides, Totsuki is why you’re doing this weird pop up shop thing, right?”
“You’re why I’m doing this,” Eishi objects. It’s an ongoing argument they have, much to his confusion. Soma worries he’s holding Eishi back from going to France and starting his career, but Eishi is happy to rent out a small venue on the edge of Totsuki’s grounds, where he serves a small number of guests a different carefully crafted menu each night. It’s light work and he has enough flexibility that if Soma has to go somewhere as part of his duties as First Seat, Eishi can tag along.
It also pays well, and Eishi doesn’t understand why Soma thinks he’s stalling when he’s actually saved up a good amount for the restaurant he wants to open. He’s asked before, but Soma has never answered him. He tries again anyway, if only to end the argument sooner. Wrapping his arms around Soma’s waist and smiling at how well his ex-assistant has grown, Eishi asks, “Why do you keep asking me to leave?” He puts on his best pathetic face. “Do you not want me anymore?”
He doesn’t expect Soma to turn red, although it’s less of an embarrassed blush and more of a furious flush. “Of course I want you,” Soma says, and his tactlessness melts Eishi’s heart. “But you know I’m going to take over the diner once I’m done, right?”
“Of course,” Eishi says, and Soma’s eyes widen at how easily Eishi accepts it. “Do you feel guilty because you don’t want to give up your diner for me?”
Soma leans back against Eishi and shuffles his feet. “I know what cooking did to my dad. I saw what it did to Nakamura. If I made myself choose, I know I would pick you, but...”
“Soma-kun, I think you’re forgetting something.” Soma looks over his shoulder at Eishi and stops abruptly, surprised by how close they are. Eishi takes that opportunity to kiss him, a quick touch of their lips. “Whether you’d give up your diner for me or not? Doesn’t matter. I wouldn’t ask you to give up your diner for me. Just like you wouldn’t ask me to give up my cooking for you.”
“Oh.” Eishi smiles at the dawning realization on Soma’s face, the way his eyes light up and his mouth slowly forms a smile. “I guess I’ve… been silly.”
“Yup,” he replies, because considerate has never been a word people associate with him. “Besides, even though you’ll go back to Yukihira in the end, there’s no reason you can’t spend some time with me in France.”
“That’s true,” Soma agrees, pulling Eishi in by the scarf he insists on wearing draped over one shoulder. “I can visit Master Shinomiya.”
“Please don’t call someone else master in front of me,” Eishi says. “U-unless. Is he really that much better of a master than I am? Does he really handle your vegetables better than I do? S-Soma-kun, did you let him handle your vegetables?”
“What are you even talking about?” Soma asks, rolling his eyes and grabbing Eishi’s panicked hands to rest them on his hips. “This is why we always have sex whenever you come over. You need to start believing me when I tell you how much I like you.”
“I believe you,” Eishi promises, helping Soma undress in a strange mirror of his dream world where Soma had once helped relieve him of the burden of his armor. He still falls asleep to find himself in his squire’s arms sometimes, but it never feels as good as waking up with Soma drooling on his chest. No fiction or fantasy can be better than the food Soma still forces on him before he’s allowed to leave the dormitory. The eyes that had once haunted Eishi are familiar and comfortable now. “But if you insist on demonstrating..."