Souma explains the plan to Ryuuseitai upfront, without varnish. There should be no need to hide anything from them – they would benefit just as much from Rhythm Link’s leadership changing, and the plan is good enough that Souma does not believe he will have to try hard to persuade them.
When he finishes speaking, he sits back primly, waiting for the words of praise and surprised awe that he had work out such a magnificent plan all by himself.
“...yeah, sure,” Nagumo says with a shrug. “That works fine, I guess.”
Takamine adds “I’d rather not have to face against anyone too tough, so not having to compete against Akatsuki is good with me.”
“And I am very excited to be able to work together with Kanzaki-dono de gozaru!”
Well. That had been a little anticlimactic, but still – Souma can feel Hasumi’s proud gaze behind him. Or rather he can’t because he cannot tell for sure how people are feeling even when looking at them let alone when he can’t see their face but he cannot imagine why he would not be doing that.
He spares a glance at Shinkai-dono, but he’s still looking away.
Come, please, Souma tries (and fails) not to beg internally. I am striving to work with you. Surely you cannot still doubt me after that?
“Hmmmm,” Morisawa says, stroking his chin. “So, the idea is to work alongside the local idols here, but against the established units of Rhythm Link and Cosmic Productions?” He shrugs slightly. “We have actually already been approached by those locals asking for Ryuuseitai’s help, so that certainly suits us.”
“Oh – I did not know that.” He curses the difficulty they had had, gathering information in this unfamiliar setting. But, if Ryuuseitai does have that kind of access, does that make his plan of working together all the better?
“However...” Morisawa continues, “I am a little surprised to hear this plan coming from you. It sounds as though you plan to curry favour with your seniors, only to turn the tables on them. It isn’t the sort of thing I would associate with an honorable samurai.”
Souma stiffens his shoulders. “I assure you that the plan was devised by myself entirely. Even Kiryuu-dono did not give any contributions as I thought it over.”
Hasumi shifts. “Are you opposed, Morisawa? Is it too ‘dishonorable’ for a hero like you?”
“I wouldn’t say that,” Morisawa replies. “Sometimes, it is a hero’s duty to topple an evil force. Ryuuseitai also competed in the DD, after all.”
“...and, uh,” Nagumo cuts in, waving a hand. “It’s my decision, anyway, right?”
“Ah – yes, of course! Sorry, Nagumo.” Morisawa turns to Souma, and he just does not know the man well enough to tell what he’s attempting here. “I only wondered how Kanzaki was thinking. But you seem very sure of yourself.”
“I am.” Souma nods. “It is childishness to believe one can remain pure of hand at all times. Rather, one would merely be passing on responsibility for that which is necessary onto others.” He pauses. “And, in this case, I am willing to take on those duties for Akatsuki, rather than Ryuuseitai.”
Shinkai-dono still isn’t talking.
“Then it’s agreed?” Hasumi asks, but Souma can’t help himself.
“Shinkai-dono,” he says, hands clasped with what he hopes reads as determination rather than the nervousness he suddenly feels. “What say you on this matter, then?”
Shinkai looks at him for several moments and then glances away.
“...I agree with Chiaki,” he says. “This isn’t like you.”
It’s as though he pushed full-force against the resolve Souma has so painstakingly assembled. He guards against that with gritted teeth, winded and hurt.
“...do you disagree with anything I have said? Or have any problems with my plan?” he asks finally, which is wrong, because there is no world in which Shinkai has the deciding vote, here.
Shinkai hums mysteriously, and more than ever before the sound makes Souma want to pull at his hair. “...I cannot think of any,” he says eventually. “But I do not like it.”
Morisawa tries to say something but Souma’s determination is doing something strange. After the cold splash of Shinkai’s disapproval he suddenly feels heated, as though he had gone from a cold winter’s night air straight into a hot spring.
“It sounds as though you did not want the plan to come from me,” he suggests, brow furrowed.
“Yeah.” Shinkai nods. He doesn’t even look at Souma when he talks. “You really have changed, huh...”
Once again, Souma hears someone else talking, but he doesn’t react in time to stop them. All he can think about is Shinkai, looking mournfully out into the restaurant, eyes lingering over an artfully arranged dish of umi fucking budo.
“I’ve changed,” Souma repeats, his hands slamming into the wooden table, and now it doesn’t matter what everyone was saying because they’re not talking anymore. “How, precisely? Please, Shinkai-dono, answer me how it is that I have managed to disappoint you this time!”
Shinkai blinks; Souma thinks he looks rather startled, and it’s an achievement just to elicit an easily identifiable emotion out of him that isn’t disapproval.
“...the plan is strange,” Shinkai says simply, brow lightly furrowed. “It is not honorable at all to manipulate and trick your sempais.”
“You said you had no problem with it,” Souma reminds him, still as befuddled as he is so suddenly angry. “So is it fine for you to act dishonorably but not for I? Please speak, because I am clearly too stupid to understand.”
He hears a “Kanzaki” and ignores it.
“It is not about the plan,” Shinkai says, then shakes his head in confusion. “No, I mean… the plan is too much like Keito.”
“I am able to think for myself,” Souma snaps. “Do you think I lied when I said I devised it alone?”
“No. I think you are becoming too much like Keito,” Shinkai says all in one breath.
After a moment of shock, Souma lets out a bark of laughter. Maybe it really is that – he was able to become indignant on behalf of himself, but the moment Shinkai mentions Hasumi outright, the doubt leaves him and he can feel nothing but a focused, stable anger.
“So that is what you have a problem with? Then we must deeply disagree, because Hasumi-dono is among the kindest and most wise men I have ever met, so becoming more like him is if anything the profoundest compliment.”
Even he can tell Shinkai doesn’t agree with that.
“But of course that is what this is about – just as you said yesterday, the ‘temple people’, have changed me. The enemy – those who do not understand,” he says, repeating in exaggerated mockery words he had said in the most solemn sincerity back when he was a first year.
“...that is not what I-”
“No, no!” Souma raises his hands. “Please – tell me what it is of the old ways I am failing to keep! When my mother and father and my younger brother toil away each day, still living to the very word of the penance my family took on so many centuries ago! When every morning and every night they give offerings of seafood to that great and almighty God in the hopes that their prayers shall be answered! Please tell me what it is that we are all supposed to do because you have not told us anything at all and I have had to rely on Mikejima-dono to hear the slightest word about this ‘liberation!’”
Shinkai goes silent.
“Please, please tell me what it is that you want me to do! After I have struggled and I have betrayed and I have worked tirelessly for years – I fail to see how my changing could be at all a problem for you, as almost nothing I have ever done has seemed to garner your approval! I have asked you for guidance and I have offered my support countless times, and at each I have barely heard anything in return, save confusing words and assurances that I will be praised when I learn to do things ‘right!’”
His throat is starting to strain.
That thought trips him, and he once more just barely regains kilter enough to end this outburst with – with something.
“If I have become too much like Hasumi-dono then perhaps it is because he believes there is something more to our relationship than me cooking him fish,” he says, but his voice catches for real on the final three words and all of a sudden it’s all he can do not to burst into tears.
“...Kanzaki,” Hasumi murmurs, and Souma feels his hand around his arm but he cannot move.
Shinkai’s voice is soft and meek. “...I’m sorry,” he says.
“I detest,” Souma spits out, even as he knows tears are falling from his eyes, “being called a traitor.”
Hasumi’s hand goes loose. Good.
But as the seconds drag on and Souma still fails to get his crying under control, nobody speaks, and the reality of the situation starts to wrap its cold, humiliating fingers all over Souma’s body.
“Souma,” Shinkai says, still so quiet and hurt and Souma hates it. “I do not think you are only good for cooking fish. I am sorry I made you think that.”
“Um...” Morisawa cuts in. “Should we all maybe head out, now? And let you guys talk this over for a while...?”
“Yes,” Souma says, and this also doesn’t make sense because he’s the acting leader of Akatsuki or however this works but he shouldn’t have any kind of decisive authority here. “If Shinkai-dono has anything to say he should say it today. I am quite fed up with waiting.”
“That’s your decision?” Hasumi asks, and Souma doesn’t hesitate to nod. “All right. Kiryuu...”
He feels Kiryuu’s large hand on his back as well. “Ahh, well… good luck, Kanzaki,” he says.
The rest of Ryuuseitai traipse out as well. He ignores them because if he thinks about what he just made Sengoku have to witness he will bring out his sword with real intent right now.
For several long minutes they sit in silence. Finally, Souma manages to slow his breathing, even if there’s nothing dignified about scrubbing at wet eyes or the way his head is starting to ache. The gyoza they’d all been picking at together are still faintly steaming.
Finally, Shinkai says with deep uncertainty, “um, what do you want me to talk about…?”
Souma refolds his hands. They were here on a mission.
“Why is it you think I have changed?”
Shinkai bites his lip. He hasn’t moved from his spot on the other bench, not quite directly opposite Souma. He is clearly avoiding Souma’s eyes.
“I… I do not know how to explain, exactly...” He pauses; Souma waits. “But… it just felt very very… ruthless.”
“I am not a child anymore,” Souma says, and he can do this – he can keep his calm and argue this rationally. “I may become the leader of Akatsuki someday. At that time, you will have to respect me as a rival.”
“It’s not that,” Shinkai protests, and it’s increasingly hard not to feel sympathetic when Shinkai just wilts like this. “There are a lot of ways to be a leader… But this way feels so Keito-ish, and...” Shinkai hugs his arms to his chest. “And… when we first met, you cared so deeply about the people who might be hurt by a plan like this...”
Souma’s chest tightens. “I do still care. I have not become cold-hearted. I am simply...” He sighs, frustrated to feel his certainty slip from his fingers. “I am tired of being coddled. I must make my own way, and that means being willing to do difficult things myself. I am tired of being protected by my seniors while they allow themselves to be splattered by blood...”
“But whose blood needs to be splattered?” Shinkai asks, sharply. “Who decides that? They were the ones who wanted to splatter blood to begin with.”
“...this all sounds very gory all of a sudden,” Souma mutters.
“I just want you to know that Akatsuki’s way of doing things is not the only way. If you are upset that your seniors are dirtying their hands, maybe it is better to stop them, not to dirty your hands in their place.” Shinkai’s voice has never sounded more like a sempai’s. “The younger you tried so hard to do that. And I got worried that you might have lost sight of that goal...”
Souma breathes in heavily. His throat is thick. At some point… perhaps he really had stopped thinking about that. Is it not also a samurai’s duty to urge his master down a virtuous path?
“...but, what exactly about the plan made you think I had done that?” Souma swallows. “I am not disagreeing with your logic, but even now, I still can’t see what you would think is so bad about it...”
Shinkai grunts; Souma knows this conversation must be even harder on him than it is on Souma. He knows Shinkai can’t always tell easily how he’s thinking or feeling. Souma wishes there had been a way to get all this out without forcing him through this, but when he thinks on the last two years, it doesn’t appear that there ever was.
“Maybe it isn’t he plan, but how you spoke about it...” Shinkai says slowly. “Or, mmm…. Maybe I am just… thinking about myself too much...”
Souma doesn’t follow that leap of logic. “Yourself? But Ryuuseitai should not be harmed at all.”
“No,” Shinkai says, and his voice is finally steady and sure. “But the people you are targeting are ‘elites’ - powerful people who you think deserve it. And, the last time Akatsuki decided who deserved to be punished...”
“That won’t happen,” Souma says immediately. “Not again.”
Kanata bites his lip; he really does look a little scared. “Some of those Rhythm Link seniors are probably just idols who also worked really hard,” he says quietly. “Even if it seems like everything came easy to them, it does not mean that they have not suffered, or that they are bad people. I am worried...”
He understands. Souma’s shoulders sag, and though the air finally feels clear, he feels more helpless than ever. “What I am planning is nothing remotely like what Tenshouin-dono wished to do to the Five Oddballs.”
“Not just Eichi. Keito decided all that, too.”
“Hasumi-dono has changed,” Souma says, too sharp.
“Because of you,” Kanata replies immediately. “And that is a burden you will continue to bear.”
This is becoming melodramatic. Souma sighs, getting them back to the point. “Shinkai-dono, we are professionals. It is the nature of idols to compete. You cannot say that all manoeuvring is tantamount to – what happened back then.”
“I know.” Kanata sighs too. “And I am not saying that. I do not know where the line is… I just think that there should be a line somewhere. So, talking about ‘getting hands dirty,’ or ‘staining swords with blood’… I do not think that is something to be proud of. I think it should make someone worried. Though it is unhappy to worry so that is why someone might wish that someone not have to do so.”
“...mm,” he murmurs.
He does not regret bringing out this conversation, but at this moment, he can’t exactly be happy about it, either. For all that he had tried to prove himself to Hasumi and Kiryuu – that he could think for himself, and be useful in this real world – he has still come out feeling chastened. That’s its own kind of humiliating, and he struggles not to stew in it.
The only thing that takes him out of his self-pity is Shinkai’s tension. He is still hugging himself. Still looking a little scared.
“...I will not allow that to happen,” Souma repeats quietly. “But, please… if you truly have these concerns, bring them to me. I have every wish to honour them and bring you to ease.”
Shinkai chuckles dryly. “Yes, I know. I have not spoken to you enough, either...”
His eyes lock on Souma’s. All too quickly, he feels their positions reverse, as though Shinkai was the one now drawn out of his own troubles.
“...I truly am sorry that I lead you to feel like I only disapproved of you,” Shinkai says earnestly.
“Oh, ah, that...” Souma coughs, then shakes his head. “Uhm. I was perhaps, er, overly emotional, during that rant just now...”
“No, no.” Shinkai shakes his head. “You are right. You do try so very often to help me. I should not call you a traitor.”
There are things he could say here – he could explain, or remind, why that word had stung so deeply. Or he could try to softly urge Shinkai towards an explanation of his behaviour – the group had easily found out the rules that Hasumi, Morisawa, and Sengoku had been given so it might be fine if Souma allows Shinkai to figure it out on his own.
But, as his tired eyes become moist again, that emotional part calls up from the abyss that it should not matter.
“I know I am overreacting to this… It is just...” Shinkai looks sad again and Souma wishes so much that he could give in and reassure him now.
“...fish are important to you,” Souma says.
Shinkai nods quickly but then continues, “You said so many times that I had made you love the ocean, too… and I thought...”
“I do still love the ocean.” Had he really lost such faith in him from this one incident? Still, there’s nothing stopping him from restating all of this. “I am merely not eating seafood – no more, and no less.”
“But why?” Shinkai asked helplessly. “I cannot imagine myself not eating seafood anymore… Especially now, there are so many reasons I would want to keep doing it, with you and Kaoru and everyone else...”
Fish is not merely important to Shinkai, Souma knows – they are a part of his identity, right down to his core. An indivisible part.
Had it been an indivisible part of Souma, too? At least for him?
“…there are still things we can do together that do not involve eating fish,” Souma says. “I still care about them, and about fish, and about you.”
“But I had thought that was important to you,” Shinkai said quietly. “You always did that for so very long, and then suddenly you said this and I was so confused and did not understand you anymore...”
“I am telling you now: all of that is still important to me. I am still the same person, even if I am doing one thing differently.” He isn’t mad anymore. Maybe to another person, this would be a ridiculous thing to have to say, but Shinkai is not an ordinary person, and neither is he. It matters to Shinkai, and it matters to him.
“...is this about your family?” Shinkai finally asks, voice almost inaudible. “You do not wish to give offerings anymore…?”
Souma snorts. “My mother and father will probably continue to leave offerings until the day they die. I have nothing to do with that.”
“Not your parents. Your offerings, to me.”
Souma stares, uncomprehending. “My...offerings to you? Personally?” He blinks. “My cooking?”
Shinkai nods meekly.
Souma stares at him for a very long time.
“Those aren’t offerings,” Souma says, finally, and he was too hasty before – now he understands, even if he can barely believe what he’s saying. “I was not cooking for you because you are a god. I was -”
The absurdity overcomes him and Souma laughs.
Shinkai frowns, eyebrow raised. “What?”
“No, I just...” Souma shakes his head incredulously and fights off another wave of laughter. “I was not cooking for you as an offering. I was cooking because I enjoy cooking and I like fish and it was enjoyable to eat with you and- and for all of those many, many reasons!”
He breaks off into deep, powerful laughter, ducking his head under his arms. He cannot believe that all this time, Shinkai has really thought this. And it has never, ever come up!
“But...” Shinkai struggles for words. “You… you have duties towards me...”
“Those duties are towards the gods. I sing and dance at festivals! I donate coins to help the priests keep the shrine clean!” In proof of point, Souma reaches out and takes Shinkai’s hand, squeezing it with all the unnecessary strength he would ruffle Sengoku’s hair. “Do you really think so little of yourself that I would have no reason to be with you were it not for some family loyalty?”
Shinkai stares back at him.
“...when we first met...” he breathes, and Souma’s heart lurches.
“Shinkai-dono, that was almost three years ago,” Souma reminds him. “Yes, at that time, that was the sole way in which I knew you, but that was not to last forever. I could not yet feel that type of personal affection, for we had not become friends yet because we had just met.”
“...you betrayed Keito for me,” Shinkai said. “Because you believed so strongly in the curse...”
“...I did,” Souma confirms. He swallows. “I believed in my actions. Even if I failed.”
Shinkai’s hand is trembling.
“But…” Souma chuckles, mouth dry. “May I, erm… share a secret…?”
Shinkai nods, eyes full of awe.
“...back then, in that time I was caught ‘twixt yourself and Hasumi-dono...” Souma says, “Shadows on all sides urged me to perceive you in some way or another. As a criminal, or as a God – as an enemy, or as a master… but deep down, where I dared not reveal to ought…”
He smiles softly.
“I wished that we could be friends,” he says. “And talk about nothing together amidst the aquariums.”
Shinkai’s breath hitches.
“Even if I were to stop cooking for you, or eating with you,” Souma continues breathlessly, “there are so very many countless things I would still wish to do with you. Things I have always wanted to do for as long as I have known you, deep down, but which I believed were impossible. This is not some extent to our relationship – not at least on my end. My love for you has never failed to overcome any barrier put before it.”
Shinkai’s brows knit; it looks like he’s crying too, now. “It’s not for me either. Not an extent. I don’t know of any extents when it comes to you.”
Shinkai’s fingers tighten, clumsily, around his own. His palm is so warm.
“...I didn’t know,” Souma says.
“It’s not!” Shinkai leans in suddenly, hastily, and Souma has never seen him so desperate before. “It’s not that I didn’t want to do those things, either! But I did not want to make you think you had to do anything and I was never sure or what you were thinking or feeling because you always said the right thing and I couldn’t make you act any differently no matter what I did...”
“I said and did those things because I meant them,” Souma says.
“Yeah,” Shinkai says, eyes widening. “I think… I know. Now.”
For so long, they had been separated. He couldn’t touch him.
But his hand is warm and his eyes are warm and everything about Shinkai-dono is so good and wonderful that Souma never wants to stop.
“...I will never stop caring about you,” Souma says, and it works as a reassurance but it’s also just what’s sitting in his head. He knows it, as sure and true as the sword that hangs at his hip.
Shinkai breathes in and out, steadying himself.
“...yeah,” he says again, in wonder. “You won’t.”
And then he grips tightly at Souma’s hand.
“And – I will never stop caring about you, too. I think about you all of the time and it always makes me feel so much...”
Souma hums, a light-hearted undercurrent to the glorious light threatening to overtake him completely. “I hope that won’t stop, now that you finally understand me.”
The grip hurts. “It won’t. I care about you so much.” And then it doesn’t. “...I think it will feel a lot nicer whenever I think about you, now.”
...it really has been years, hasn’t it?
He’s sure he would never have been able to sit here as he is now, all the way back then. Even last year, when he had convinced himself with an almost manic energy that all their troubles were over and the world would go on in its comfort and kindness forever.
Maybe, he thinks, there is more than one way to reach out and grasp one’s future. Maybe doing what is necessary does not always have to mean pain or cruelty or weighing up who is rewarded and who is punished. Maybe it can also mean digging deep and finding out what is truly important to someone, and taking risks that are calculated because there are things one is willing to give up for themselves for the sake of something better.
He will stand with his sword in his hand and he will defend Akatsuki to the death. But he has more than one hand – and he has a mouth that can speak and legs that can walk. He alone will decide what this body of his does. Today, it wants to hold Shinkai Kanata’s hand.
“...is it still okay if I ask why you are not eating fish, though?”
Souma pats his wrist comfortingly. “Someday, my friend. Someday.”
It is a little embarrassing to return to everyone else and admit that they’ve patched everything completely up. He readies a sincere and (he hopes) extremely respectable apology to Sengoku, but somehow the Ryuuseitai second years seem more in awe at the ‘adult relationship’ they are witnessing than disappointed to have seen Souma in tears. Hasumi seems a little uncertain at first, but in the end he merely comments something mysterious to the effect of “if someone was hoping to keep Ryuuseitai and Akatsuki apart, they clearly have not succeeded.”
(It takes all of one day for Sengoku to suddenly declare that he thinks not eating fish is probably Souma’s rule. His strained smile probably says more than words ever could. A feast is arranged for when they arrive back at Ensemble Square, but Souma is proven right – they find more than enough ways to entertain themselves together until then.)