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A bright red flower petal lands atop a perfectly coiffed swirl of cream adorning his limoncello cake.

This is nothing startling. Flower petals are used as decoration seasonally, excess interpreted as tasteless. There’s nothing startling about choosing something this bright and bold as the tail-end of summer tip-toes into autumn.

What’s startling is where the petal came from, and Takumi doesn’t process it until his fingers find his lips. He stifles his shock.

“Oh,” Isami starts from behind, grinning as always as he leans closer to the finished dessert. “Flower petal for garnish? Unexpected but not bad, nii-chan. Though the color’s a bit—”

There’s a long pause and Isami’s gaze flickers from the petal, faintly slick with saliva, to Takumi’s expression and the way his hand is trembling, hovering over his mouth.

“It’s fine,” Takumi says quickly, voice muffled behind his palm. And then his shoulders tremble, followed by a near-convulsion, a handful of petals fluttering from between the gaps between his fingers.

The cake looked nice with one petal. Now it looks gaudy, overdone, tasteless.

“Oh,” Isami repeats, empathetically, as he plucks a petal from the counter to gaze at it. “Oh.

-

Ten minutes may as well be ten years in the Aldini household, and this sentiment does nothing but fuel the fire of indignation Takumi feels when his younger brother (read: twin) drags him to the doctor’s office for a check-up.

“It’s fine,” Takumi attempts to say for the fiftieth time since the first petal slipped out and ruined his limoncello cake and his life. There’s a pinch, the sensation of another couple of petals rising from his throat and he tries, in vain, to swallow them down. “I’m fine!”

“Nii-chan,” his younger brother replies, and that’s all he says, the chastisement thick in his tone and leaving little to no room for protest.

Still, the doctor eventually echoes Takumi’s weak sentiment.

“It’s nothing,” he says, tapping a pen against a clipboard idly. “Nothing to worry about, at least. The petals will be accumulating in your body but it happens—it happens a lot, actually. Especially at this age, when you start discovering things about yourself and about others.”

“Puberty,” Isami stage-whispers, and Takumi would have blanched if he wasn’t busy coughing up flower petals. “Rumors say it’s because of unrequited love.”

Takumi coughs and the doctor and Isami patiently wait for him to spit out a stray petal from the roof of his mouth.

“Excuse me.”

“Excused. Anyway, yeah,” the doctor begins. “Usually only to people who’ve come into contact with petals produced by people experiencing the same illness. So what this means is you probably, accidentally, touched some petals coughed up by someone at one point in your life. And that’s why this is happening to you. Because now you’re experiencing that kind of unrequited love.”

“And this is common?” Takumi demands. Isami clears his throat and Takumi remembers to mind his manners. “—sir?” he adds.

“It is. Like I said, especially at your age, but not exclusively. It’s a universal thing, Aldini-kun. The petals will eventually stop. You just have to get past your unrequited feelings and let them go. Or get them to return your feelings, make their feelings known. The works.”

At this point, Takumi can’t be certain if this is a doctor’s appointment or if he’s being counseled romantically in the most nihilistic heartbreaking of ways.

He offers a withering sigh and the doctor’s eyes curve faintly in a knowing smile.

“If it’s too much to handle or if it interferes with your daily life, surgery’s an option too. It’ll remove the petals and the feelings in one fell swoop, permanently. That is, if you want them gone.”

It seems like an easy enough decision. Coughing up flower petals isn’t only embarrassing and likely just as bad as a common cold, but he’s sure to be impeded from honing his cooking if it goes on for too long. Takumi parts his lips to assent.

“Nii-chan will think about it,” Isami interrupts.

“Wha—”

“Think about it,” repeats Isami. He’s already standing up, ready to exit, and again, leaving Takumi little time or room to complain. “It’s permanent,” he adds in Italian.

“Isn’t that the point? I don’t have time to—Isami! Let go!”

Isami bows to the doctor, grinning impishly as always. His grip is tight on the back of Takumi’s jacket as he takes his leave, his older brother in tow.

“Hey! Isami! Isami!”

When they’re a good distance from the doctor’s office, Isami relinquishes his hold on Takumi’s jacket.

“What’s the big idea? There’s no point in pushing it off if the solution’s right there. You can’t expect me to let this get in the way of—”

Isami walks ahead, doesn’t bother turning around as he lets out a long, exasperated, but fond sigh. “Think about it,” he emphasizes for the nth time. “Just think about it, nii-chan. It’s permanent.”

-

Not a lot of things in life are permanent.

When he’s on the cusp of youth, despite the false bravado he’s glued onto his face, being sent to Japan sounds like exile, not opportunity. Takumi doesn’t let it show—at that age, he’s already well-aware of what his future holds, what responsibilities will someday be his, and in the face of obligation and honor, there’s no chance, no time, no room for him to express any sign of weakness that might challenge his integrity as an Aldini.

But still, it feels like exile, like punishment. Feels like his father and his uncle are taking away home, crowded Tuscany streets, the meadow where he and Isami collect flowers for mama. Feels like everything permanent and secure and stable in his life is being plucked away in a single, jarring, instant.

This is growth, his uncle implies. And as his father pushes into his and Isami’s arms two bottles of olive oil, Takumi can’t help but think, This is unfair.

Like much else, his panic, his anger, his fear dissolves. Those too, are impermanent. At Tootsuki, he finds new joy in wearing Aldini like a crest, like something that distinguishes him from the rest. He realizes early on that the chefs around him are cowards, are amateurs, are people who’ve spent hour upon hour inside of cramped kitchens without once serving their food to the masses.

For a long while, Takumi thinks growth might be impossible. He writes half a message about itineraries and return flights to Italy but the unsent draft goes forgotten when a boy as fickle as an untamed flame greets the entirety of Tootsuki’s incoming class—but it feels like Takumi, especially—with a boldness, a confidence that stirs in the core of Takumi’s chest what he thinks might be the nearly lost sensation of competitiveness.

Things fade after that too. The momentary spite, the desire to outdo warps, twists, turns into something else entirely. Turns into something warmer, something akin to friendship, to healthy rivalry, to proving oneself for the sake of more than just that.

(He can’t say it out loud, but it turns into affection, and that affection echoes tenfold every single time a petal sneaks past parted lips and flashes, bright and red and as fickle as an untamed flame, right before Takumi’s very eyes.)

Today, the kitchen is empty save for him and scattered splotches of red littering the counter and the floor. Takumi glowers, leans down so he can gather a handful of petals together. In the palm of his hand, they look innocent, harmless, but it’s been hours spent cooped up at the stove and each cough has reeled him further and further away from finishing the dish properly. He knows this can’t go on for much longer.

Closed eyes—and then he hears the cadence of a laugh that’s seared itself into his heart; sees a red that even nature, even a flower petal just can’t capture; sees the glint of his mezzaluna held gingerly in the palm of a hand stretching out from the shokugeki stage.

Opened eyes, and he hears Isami reminding him: It’s permanent.

Takumi’s shoulders heave and he coughs.

Not a lot of things are permanent. Homesickness, bitterness, competitiveness—

It’s permanent.

Takumi rests his fists against the counter. He grips the edges to steady himself, lets out one shallow breath, and tries in vain to swallow back another cough.

Merda.”

-

Pretending to be okay isn’t a difficult task. For the most part, the flower petals are courteous enough not to bother him too intently during class, but that isn’t to say they don’t bother him at all. They do, and when they do, the coughing is almost painful, like his heart is racing too quickly, trying to overcompensate, trying to reel the little slips of red back into the confines of his ribcage.

It’s fine. If it happens in private, when he’s curled up over the toilet seat in between classes, it’s fine.

But quickly, almost too quickly, it stops being fine. Sometimes, he’ll feel the little bubble of warmth at the base of his solar plexus. His shoulders will tremble and his eyes will tear up inevitably at a futile attempt at holding back. He’ll excuse himself, swallow down embarrassment to wait for permission from the instructor, and then avoid eye contact with Isami all while sprinting out of the room to lock himself in the bathroom for another fifteen minutes until the petals subside.

So it’s not surprising that pretending to be okay becomes difficult. It isn’t surprising that two days after the coughing gets dramatically worse, Isami notices.

And he’s graceless in the way he handles it, arms folded across the dinner table, cheek pressed against one forearm. He looks at Takumi, almost unimpressed, almost lazily, as he says: “So it’s Yukihira.”

Takumi swallows down a mouthful of over-boiled pappardelle and finds he can’t even muster up the strength to insist that it’s nothing. He’s never ruined dinner like this before. It’s terrible, and he knows it’s because the coughing came halfway and he ended up over-boiling the pasta, and then over-cooking the sauce, and then—

“Nii-chan,” Isami says. He lifts his head ever-so-slightly, staring levelly at Takumi now. “You need to do something about it. Be responsible.”

What he’d like to say is that he was prepared to “do something” about it when he first got diagnosed, when Isami stopped him from doing anything. He’d like to say that he knows he has to figure it out, that he knows it won’t be long before it interferes with every aspect of his cooking. What he’d like to say is that for a twin, Isami sure doesn’t know anything about what’s going on in Takumi’s mind.

But he’d be lying, because he knows that’s not what Isami means when he says do something about it.

He knows exactly what Isami means. He knows exactly what Isami is telling him to do.

Takumi swallows down another bite of his dinner, with much futility. He looks across the table, avoids eye contact, and notices too belatedly that Isami has dutifully cleaned his plate despite how horrible it must have tasted.

He’s in Tuscany again, on the brink of middle school, indignation in his eyes and an air of confidence almost commendable for how terrified he really is. Tomorrow, Japan. This is for growth. His uncle and his father are doing this for him.

He’s in Japan now, on the brink of something else entirely, indignation in his blood and an air of indifference almost commendable for how absolutely despaired he really feels.

All he thinks, then, now is unspoken: This is unfair.

-

Isami doesn’t say anything even though he knows—he always does—that every single tab Takumi has pulled up on his laptop browser these days are flights to Tuscany, withdrawal policies, information on year-leaves. All Takumi is looking into these days are methods of escape.

He doesn’t say anything even when Takumi fumbles through half of his classes, to the wary glances of his instructors, just as baffled as anyone else that the Takumi Aldini would present anything less than immaculate.

All of the I told you sos that Isami could ever say remain unvoiced and for a second, Takumi almost wishes it wasn’t this easy.

The truth is, he isn’t quite sure if he wants to go through with a surgery that’ll tear him of any feelings he ever had beyond acquaintanceship with Yukihira. There are certain things, certain valuable seconds, minutes, hours that he’s stowed deep within the depths of his feelings for Yukihira and the thought of a systematic procedure that’d wipe him of every moment of anguish, every moment of joy—

It’s terrifying. It’s painful. He knows he doesn’t quite want that.

But biding his time, waiting for his infatuation to leave him is something he can’t afford. Not when their lives intertwine at too many crossroads. Not when there’s no such thing as taking a break, as getting distance, as having time away at a place like Tootsuki.

He can’t run away. He knows that. Takumi can dream of Tuscany streets and the hustle and bustle of Trattoria Aldini but he can’t run away, he can’t escape. If anything, he’s just coping, sifting through options that can’t be his because maybe, maybe if he dreams hard enough, some higher deity will have pity and grant Takumi peace.

“Nii-chan,” Isami calls out, and he raps a fist against Takumi’s bedroom door belatedly before pushing it open, just a crack. “Yukihira was looking for you today. Did he grab a hold of you?”

“I was busy,” Takumi replies quickly, and he closes his laptop shut and bravely meets Isami’s unwavering gaze.

“What about the time before? Did he ever manage to get a hold of you for that?”

Takumi purses his lips sullenly.

“And the time before that—”

“I was b—”

There’s a wry smile on Isami’s lips as he leans a shoulder against the doorframe, arms crossed loosely against his chest. “It’s almost like you’re avoiding him.” The word ‘almost’ rolls off of his tongue smoothly, hardly accusingly, but with enough implication that Takumi almost grimaces. “He’s pretty worried about you. It isn’t like you not to pop out of the shadows to ask him for a challenge.”

“D-Don’t say it like that, Isami!”

Isami snickers. His gaze flickers from Takumi’s flustered face to the stray petals scattered about on the floor. The laughter subsides and he lets out a small, almost exasperated sigh.

“I told him he could come with me and check on you himself—” Takumi squawks. “But he said he’d give you your space.”

“This doesn’t have anything to do with him! Don’t encourage him to do weird things!”

“It’s almost like a breakup,” Isami comments, exhaling as he speaks. “Anyway, nii-chan. I trust you. To be responsible, to be sensible.”

It’s in that split second that their eyes meet again and Isami’s expression sobers into something more thoughtful, more contemplative.

“To do the right thing,” he continues. “The good thing.”

A part of Takumi genuinely doesn’t know how his brother can have such unwavering faith in him. If anything, Isami should know the absolute worst qualities that Takumi has, conceals: insecurities cloaked with pride, pride cloaked with arrogance, and beneath all of those things, burden, obligation, a sense of innate responsibility almost stifling.

Takumi does not respond. He doesn’t like lying, doesn’t like saying things that aren’t true because he’s embarrassed himself way too many times putting his confidence in flimsy words. Isami doesn’t say anything either, only heaves himself off of the doorframe and closes the door before shuffling away.

Cooking is simple. Recipes, improvisations, finishing touches, signature touches.

His phone vibrates and when he sees the name YUKIHIRA, he feels that itch, that welled-up sensation at the base of his throat. Takumi coughs, catches a handful of petals before they land on the ground. With much futility, he opens the text message.

- catch you tmrw after class. only need 5 mins

With Yukihira, it’s never a matter of asking, only doing. There’s little to no room to reject (not that Takumi would, in spite of all things), and it almost makes him smile as he taps out a haphazard, insincere Okay.

Yukihira replies with a smiley face and Takumi feels his heart squeeze.

- miss you
- sorry that was yuki
- see you tmrw :)

He’s quiet as he locks his phone screen, flopping over onto his back seconds after. Cooking is simple. Recipes, improvisations, finishing and signature touches—but this.

Whatever this even is?

Takumi covers his face with his forearm and lets out a sigh.

Impossible.

-

The coughing is especially worse today. Within the first hour of classes, he excuses himself three times and the clenching of his heart feels tighter than usual. Takumi tries not to think too much into it. He’s having an off-day, an off-couple-of-weeks, and overthinking it isn’t going to help him in any way, shape, or form.

He tries to distract himself through his last class of the day.

Distraction: The way the girl two counters away is whipping the heavy cream too briskly—hard peaks are forming and the parfait is going to be compromised, ultimately.

Distraction: Tadokoro is slicing strawberries with a newfound confidence that Takumi is becoming more and more aware of by the day.

Distraction: Isami too, despite always being underestimated as the secondary, is monitoring the currant sauce with a practiced listlessness. An effortless equilibrium with cooking.

Distraction: The creak of the instructor’s chair.

Distraction: The clang of pots being dropped in the distance.

Distraction:

“Hey, Takumi,” a familiar voice interjects, and it’s unmistakable who it belongs to, even before Takumi steels his eyes and turns around. His heart is already thumping too quickly, too painfully. “Don’t forget. After class, okay?” Yukihira glances at the clock hanging against the wall in front of them. There are ten minutes left to class and assessments are already halfway through.

Isami pretends not to hear anything.

“Right,” Takumi says, and his fingers clench into the starched white fabric of his pants, a futile attempt at stifling back a cough.

“Yukihira-kun, you only have ten minutes left,” Isami comments serenely, a smile on his face as he glances at Yukihira’s deconstructed dish.

In the minutes that Yukihira spends heading back to his counter, Takumi crouches down behind his own and spits out a mouthful of petals into a small soup pot.

He grimaces, and when he looks up, Isami doesn’t say a single word.

He stands up and straightens his book, back of his hand dabbing at the corner of his lips. Yukihira meets his gaze from across the room and the grin he sends in Takumi’s direction is unfair.

Don’t forget, Yukihira mouths, and Takumi can only bring himself to nod.

-

“Hey, Takumi.”

Distraction: Yukihira’s hair is getting longer by the day. He still hasn’t cut it—not properly, at least. But it’s slovenly, or at least that’s what Takumi would like to say, like to think.

Distraction: The way Yukihira is staring at him, with this weird earnestness emanating from his gaze, and his gaze alone? It’s scary, or some reason. Maybe scary isn’t the word. Maybe startling.

Distraction: It’s just them right now, loitering in an unoccupied kitchen just down the hall from their last class. It’s just them, and the clenching feeling of his throat, his heart, isn’t bothering him so maybe, maybe everything’ll be okay.

“What is it?”

Distraction:

“I challenge you to a shokugeki.”

Distraction: His heartbeat tripping over itself as it tries to race a sensation his bones almost forgot.

Think back to standing in a too-big kitchen, standing by too-big suitcases, standing with two bottles of trademark olive oil.

Suddenly, he is reminded of the very reason why Tootsuki redeemed itself for him. There’s a genuineness that can’t be challenged in Yukihira’s tone, in the pupils of his eyes (flickering, glowing, always).

Suddenly, the tingling, uncomfortable sensation of flower petals flitting about in the empty space of his stomach magnifies.

Suddenly, suddenly, suddenly—

“Right now,” Yukihira adds, and his voice cuts through the pseudo-butterflies threatening to tiptoe into the threshold of Takumi’s throat. “You don’t mind, right? You’re probably used to being ready at the flick of a wrist.”

“Yeah,” Takumi says too quickly, too breathlessly. His cheeks are flushed, his gaze searching for any indication of a joke. He doesn’t find one. Doesn’t find anything but sincerity. His heart squeezes, but he counts the seconds he takes per breath. “Yes.”

“Yes?” The grin on Yukihira’s lips is inviting, like a flicker of a flame.

“Yes,” Takumi repeats, and he almost smiles, almost, because there are few things he’s wanted more than to find himself head-to-head with Yukihira. “I accept!”

“Phew, it’s been a long time coming, huh?” Yukihira folds his arms behind the back of his head. “I guess we need a wager. If you win, you can take your mezzaluna back.”

The adrenaline is already coursing through his veins and Takumi refrains from leaning forward on the tips of his toes when he asks, “And—not that I won’t!—if I don’t?”

“Hm,” Yukihira hums. “I’ll have to think about it.” And then, before Takumi can even begin to complain, he turns, lifting a hand in the air to wave goodbye. “Anyway, meet me at Polar Star in thirty minutes. See ya’!”

It really has been a long time coming. Months have passed since their first meeting; months have passed since Takumi was reminded of why he was sent to Japan in the first place.

He almost calls out to Yukihira but he doesn’t. For the first time in too long, Takumi grins.

(And the thumping of his heart plays the bassline of a humble symphony.)

-

There’s a part of him that thinks this might cure him. Maybe if he wins, if he gets rid of this weird reverence he has for Yukihira, the affection will leave with it.

(It’s an unrealistic train of thought considering all of the other things—uncountable on just his two hands alone—that make Yukihira Yukihira. But the falsity, it’s what he repeats, chants like a mantra in his mind to encourage himself to strive for victory, victory, and victory alone.)

When he arrives at and guides himself through the Polar Star Dormitory, however, it dawns on Takumi that this isn’t an official shokugeki. There probably hasn’t been any word sent out to the board, probably no word of it at all. And it’s not publicity or fame that Takumi is striving for, but seeing the kitchen neatly divided into two and Yukihira sitting cross-legged on a stool, like he’s been waiting for Takumi to come home—

“What… What’s the meaning of this, Yukihira?!”

It’s kind of jarring.

“It’s a shokugeki,” Yukihira says, like it’s common knowledge, like it’s obvious, like it makes any sense at all. The kitchen’s nearly empty save for Yukihira and himself. “What? You wanted something flashier? Dealing with the big crowds and the big stage kind of gets tiring after a while.”

He’s not going to complain. Takumi isn’t quite sure what’s happening and why it’s happening like this, but he isn’t going to complain. He’s made a fool out of himself too many times declaring challenge after challenge to Yukihira and now what he’s wanted for so long now is looking him right in the eye; he’d be an idiot not to accept, official shokugeki or not.

“That’s not it at all,” Takumi insists, and it hits him then how intently Yukihira is looking at him, gold eyes bright and warm and expectant. The gaze is heavy. It weighs on Takumi’s shoulders like a lead weight—not out of burden, or obligation, but just an extension, a side-effect from the speed at which his heart is racing again.

“Then there’s no problem, is there?” In seconds, Yukihira hops off of the stool and rests his hands on his hips. “Isami mentioned you’d been locking yourself up in your room,” he starts, stretching his arms over his head and meandering to his side of the kitchen.

Takumi doesn’t say anything. He stands there, idle, unsure of where this is going.

“I figured this was a good way of challenging you and dragging you out.” He glances over his shoulder to flash a grin. “Not bad, huh? My brilliant plan worked.”

There’s that squeezing sensation again. That feeling of his bones growing tender, his ribcage plucking flower petals one-by-one, mimicking childhood fortune-telling for romance—back when it was simple.

“Thought you were avoiding me or something. Not that you holing yourself up in your room is any better… Actually, maybe it’d be better if you were avoiding just me. Either way, you know, doing stuff like that is worrisome. For Isami, for me—”

He holds a hand to his mouth, grabs uselessly at the fabric over his heart.

“Ah, I sound like a mom.” Yukihira lets out a sigh. “All this to say, I’m glad you took up the challenge. I was kind of worried you’d turn me down because you probably have your reasons to keep to yourself but—”

It happens too quickly. Takumi coughs once, weakly, into the palm of his hands. He doesn’t have to look to know; he can feel the damp petals sticking to his flesh like tattoos. Then he coughs again, harder. And then he’s coughing until his hand is too small and the petals too many. They spill out past the gaps between his fingers, fluttering one-by-one, two-by-two, and then by the multitude onto the ground.

He falls to the ground too, onto his knees, reaching out with a free hand to gather up as many of the petals he can, like he’s trying to hide them, like he thinks he can.

“Hey, if you don’t say anything, I’m really going to feel weird—oh.

Takumi doesn’t look up. He can’t say anything, but even if he could, he doesn’t think he would. The coughing subsides slowly, until there’s nothing left but the aftertaste of unrequited love thick on his tongue.

The footsteps Yukihira takes toward him are agonizingly slow, and then Yukihira’s bending down, squatting by Takumi’s hunched figure, balanced on the tips of his toes.

Without much judgment on his features, Yukihira reaches out to swipe a bright red petal from the floor. He looks at it closely, curiously, and then, without looking at Takumi, asks: “Who’s the lucky person?”

Isami’s words hit him like a bullet train, too quickly and all at once. Be responsible, be sensible. Do the right thing.

Do the good thing.

He could say it now, spit out everything that’s been plaguing his mind. It’s just like Yukihira not to know, not to have the slightest clue that it’s him, that it’s been him who’s been ruining everything without even trying. If he wanted to, Takumi could list every specific reason why Yukihira is the worst. His stupid smile, the way he laughs at challenges, the fact that he has no tact and that makes Takumi’s stomach do flip-flops for the worst of reasons—

“Haaa,” Yukihira exhales. He clutches the petal in a fist and rests his cheek against his hand, elbow propped up against his knee. There’s a near-sullen expression on Yukihira’s face as he gazes forward, away from Takumi. “I’m jealous,” he says plainly, and then, as though Takumi might not understand, “of them.”

Takumi almost lurches forward. “What?” he manages.

“Yeah.” Thoughtlessly, Yukihira hums contemplatively. He doesn’t tack on an addendum, an explanation.

“But,” Takumi sputters, and he’s so frustrated and confused at this point that he can almost feel the tears welling up in his eyes. “But it’s—you don’t mean, that Yukihira! That doesn’t make any sense!”

“What are you getting so worked up for?” Yukihira straightens his back and rises to his feet again, hissing to himself as the ache in his calves settles in. “Man, I thought you were all about cooking, but I guess even you have a mind outside of the kitchen, huh?”

He doesn’t really get it. Neither of them do.

“Don’t ignore me!” Takumi blurts out, and the usual tight feeling in his chest is replaced with a dull throbbing, an empty, hollow feeling that he hates more than anything. “I’m… that doesn’t make any sense. There’s no reason for you to be jealous, especially when…”

The sentence goes unfinished as Takumi coughs again, eyes wet and lips slick with his own saliva. Haphazardly, he spits out a stray petal.

Yukihira is looking at him without a smile. There’s something patient, something expectant, something yearning in the way Yukihira is standing there, gaze flitting from Takumi’s wounded expression to the deconstructed flower adorning the space around him.

It hurts. These feelings of affection, of want, of longing—not for anything bad, not for anything terrible, but just for that warmth that comes with being by Yukihira’s side. All he wants is that uncompromised promise of stupid, foolish things like forever. And a part of Takumi hates himself for falling into idealistic trances, for falling into heedless cycles, for falling for Yukihira Souma of all people but.

“I like you,” Takumi finally manages to say aloud. His hands are trembling as he covers his mouth again. “I like you.”

He doesn’t look up, tries in vain instead to steady the tremors rising up from the bottom of his stomach.

More footsteps and then Yukihira seats himself, cross-legged, right in front of Takumi. Their knees are touching and when Takumi finally wills himself to look, there’s an unassuming glint in Yukihira’s eyes as he takes on his prior position: elbow balanced atop his knee, cheek resting against the palm of his hand, expression almost puzzled.

“Kurase had this too,” Yukihira begins, casual as he looks off into a different direction, like he’s thinking this through. “Hers disappeared pretty quickly though. Procedure, I think? But they can stop for other reasons, too, right? Like, if you get over the crush or if the person reciprocates?”

Yukihira isn’t looking for an answer.

“This could have been simpler.” He’s looking at Takumi eye-to-eye now, and there’s no sign of hesitation, of doubt, of second-guessing on Yukihira’s face. “I like you, too.”

The immediate response is incredulity. Takumi wants to say that this isn’t a joke, that it never has been, that this stupid illness isn’t blind enough to take false affections as a cure.

But there are no coughs that follow. No bright red flower petals, no tight feeling in his chest. His heart is beating quickly, racing itself still, but there’s no trepidation, no anger, no frustration that follows.

Takumi is still. “You mean it,” he states, instead of asking like he’d intended to do. There’s a waver to his tone even when Yukihira’s expression goes unchanged, sincere as always.

“Yeah,” Yukihira says without missing a beat. His brows furrow moments later. “How uncool of me to say I was jealous of myself… Thinking back, I’m kind of embarrassed!” He grins, scratching his cheek almost sheepishly like the gravity of this situation was never anything to be concerned about.

Any other day and Takumi might have thought to exercise his tact, his integrity as an Aldini, but today, he jolts forward, lands messily in Yukihira’s lap, loops his arms around the other’s neck too tightly, too messily, too earnestly for it to be anything but their combination.

“Whoa!” Yukihira doesn’t move at first, and the initial outburst is all that comes from him. But then he lifts his hand and rests it at the small of Takumi’s back. He raises it, weaves it into the hair tickling Takumi’s nape. The gesture is comforting, supportive, and feeling the vibration of Yukihira’s chuckle flush against his chest makes Takumi feel like he’s won too much. “So much for that shokugeki.”

Honestly,” Takumi huffs, pulling back until they’re looking straight at each other again, distance reduced to just centimeters. “Competitions aren’t everything, Yukihira! If you want to compete with me, you have to keep cultivating your skills. Rest assured, I won’t let you leave without facing me somed—”

It’s right then that Yukihira leans up to kiss the corner of Takumi’s lips, reeling back in mirthful laughter when he drinks in the sight of Takumi’s stunned face.

“So the day you were cured isn’t commemorated by your nagging.”

Takumi’s cheeks flush at that, but he doesn’t say anything to follow-up. Instead, he grabs clumsily at Yukihira’s t-shirt, pulling him forward once more until their lips meet in an admittedly terrible kiss that Takumi finds he is inexplicably fond of regardless.

“Competitions aren’t everything,” Yukihira remarks when they break away.

“Yeah,” Takumi echoes, and he smiles. “They aren’t.”

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The members of the Polar Star Dormitory plus Isami press their ears against the kitchen door.

“What gives, Isshiki-senpai! You said they were going to have a shokugeki but it doesn’t sound like they’re cooking at all!” Yuki huffs.

The faint sound of Takumi and Yukihira’s laughter slips through the door, followed by what might be wet, smacking noises.

“Oh,” Isshiki says, distant.

“Oh,” Yuki says, suddenly understanding.

“Ah,” Isami adds, looking sagely.

Megumi blinks, looking from each and every one of the Polar Star residents, even Fumio-san included, all wearing expressions of understanding. “Huh?” she says aloud.

“Let’s… give them their space,” Isshiki suggests.

“Seconded,” the rest chorus.

“I don’t get it,” Megumi says helplessly.