- FIVE YEARS AGO -

It started with a simple question one fateful evening.

As they silently watched their ecstatic batch mates congratulate each other for successfully graduating as part of the renowned 92nd Tōtsuki Generation, Yukihira Souma turned to her without warning and asked, "What do you plan to do after this, Tadokoro?"

She fidgeted, not because she wasn't taken by surprise by the question, but because she had been asking the very same question to herself days before. Years ago as a failing freshman, she would have wanted nothing more but to go home to her beloved port town—back into the reassuring embrace of her mother, the Shōkeien Ryokan staff, and the fishermen who all treated her like a daughter over the years.

But now…

She discreetly glanced at the red-headed boy who had been her closest ally, mentor, and inspiration throughout her stay in the Tōtsuki Culinary Academy. When she met him, she didn't expect that it would entail meeting another version of Tadokoro Megumi as well—the version of herself who dared to face her fears on stage and cooked in order to have fun with everyone. It was a kind of person she decided she really liked, and she would have never known it possible to become one if not for this boy's constant trust and support.

What I want to do…

Souma smiled at her reassuringly. "It's okay if you don't know yet. I know this is a lot to take in right now. We had to go through so much to make it to this point."

"What about you, Souma-kun?" She found her voice at last. "What do you plan to do next?"

He cupped his chin with his hand thoughtfully. "Hmm. Well, my goal has always been to beat my old man. But he's been to so many places and learned so many things about dishes which you'll learn only in a specific culture, and that's one of his biggest advantages over me.

"That's why I have to fight fire with fire." In one swift move, he punched his hand with his other fist, a cocky grin appearing on his face. "I'm going to leave Restaurant Yukihira and roam around the world."

"L-Leave?" No, it wasn't the first time she heard him say this. But in all those previous instances, she managed to cast it aside because the future seemed so far away then. Hearing him say it now and knowing it could definitely be a reality in weeks- even days—she suddenly felt dread hit her like a bucket of ice-cold water.

Then and now, all I want is… Her head hung lower, hoping to hide from him the tears pooling in her eyes. … to cook with Souma-kun.

"Yep!" He nodded vigorously. "I have to leave my comfort zone and see other places. I need to learn as much as I can so in turn, I can create the best dish that represents me. Once I manage to do that… I'm pretty sure even my old man will find it hard to beat me for being me."

She didn't know where the sudden burst of daring came from, but she had opened her mouth before realizing it. "Souma-kun! Please, let me come with you!"

"Eh?!" His jaw practically dropped to the ground. "Are you crazy? It's not going to be just an overnight trip to another island. I'm going to be backpacking my way to other countries. Why-" He broke off when he finally got a good look at her face.

She could feel her cheeks burning, but her golden eyes held firm resolve. "The reason Mother sent me to Tōtsuki is so I can see the world. I want to honor her wish."

"But you are an amazing cook, Tadokoro. You don't need me to forge your path!"

You say it so sincerely, Souma-kun. And for your kindness, I can never thank you enough. But even when you say that I don't need you… that I am good enough to forge my own path…

"To follow and support the outgoing First Seat of the Elite Ten, I can't think of a better way to improve my skills." She drew closer towards him, fists clenched tight in utmost determination. "I promise, Souma-kun, I will work hard to not be a burden to you!"

For a moment, his gaze locked with hers wordlessly, and she wondered whether he was thinking how to properly reject the outburst of an ungrateful classmate that he had already saved countless of times before.

And then unceremoniously, he gave her a light knock on the top of her head with his knuckle. "Don't be stupid. You will never be a burden to me, Tadokoro."

"So then-" Her face lit up.

He offered her his hand. "Let's take the world's kitchens by storm, partner."

She tearfully nodded and accepted his hand. As always, his touch was a comforting mix of warmth, steadiness, and reassurance. It was something she was not ready to let go as of yet, selfish as it may sound.

Souma-kun, the truth is, even if I can go anywhere I want to in this world, I will always want to choose the path where I can walk with you.

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Noblesse Oblige

A/N: I have a sinking feeling that this ship won't sail, but dammit, I'm writing a SouMegu no matter what! First time writing in this fandom-please pardon the OOCs.

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Twenty-three year old Tadokoro Megumi forced a bright smile for the reporter despite her lids desperately wanting to shut off in exhaustion. This was the twelfth interview (or was it thirteenth? She lost count) that she had to do tonight after the highly successful opening of Restaurant Yukihira's second overseas pop-up restaurant. Having had virtually two hours of sleep every night for the past week because of the preparations, all she wanted at the moment was to crawl underneath the table and get some shut-eye.

Stop it, Megumi, she scolded herself. Have some respect for the people who took time to drop by the restaurant.

Besides, she knew how important publicity was for raising the culinary profile of the little "daily special restaurant from Japan". They were located right smack in the middle of a chic foodie neighborhood in the Middle East's most glamorous destination, competing with the world's best dishes. It was a scary prospect, but the head chef was undaunted; he claimed he came to the city not only to act as a sponge in learning its kitchen, but to leave a 'visible result' in its place. Yukihira Souma ensured he never forgets the mentality of Stagiaire, whether posing eagerly as a student to soak in the culinary ways of the restaurants he applied for, or as a proud head chef making a surprise splash on the highly competitive F&B space.

"Thank you for accommodating me," began the male reporter, who looked like he was in his early forties. "However, would it be possible to secure an interview with the head chef instead?"

"He would have loved to," she replied politely, "but he is busy closing up the kitchen." There was also the matter of her friend's impatience when it came to dealing with press, which manifested in sarcastic responses at best and unprintable words at worst. So despite growing up as a wallflower, she had taken it upon herself to self-learn dealing with PR so Souma can focus on the bigger issues of running the restaurant.

"How kind of him to do that for you," remarked the reporter, scribbling on his notepad. "It's not every day that a chef takes care of his kitchen helper's duties."

She held a hand up, sweatdropping. "Ah, actually, I'm the—"

Ignoring her, the old man ripped out a sheet and handed it to her. "Here is my name and number. Can you please give me a ring when he's available? I will need to speak with him about the details of the dishes, so it's really important for me to talk to him specifically."

She fought back a loud sigh and reached for the paper, eager to just end the conversation so she could finally head home. But to her surprise, the reporter suddenly grabbed her wrist.

"By the way, you can call me if you're looking for apprenticeship opportunities. I would be happy to introduce you to my friends," he murmured, eyes glinting in ill-concealed lust. "Depending on how nice you are to me, we can fast-track your career. And who knows, you might even become a commis chef."

She gracefully tugged her hand free from his grip. "Thank you, but I am quite happy in my current position as Restaurant Yukihira's sous chef."

The elder male looked astounded. "You, a sous chef? A little girl as the executive chef's right-hand?" He let out a hollow laugh of mockery, his belly jiggling along.

A hand suddenly shot up from out of nowhere and snatched the paper she was holding. She looked up in time to see Yukihira Souma methodically shred the reporter's paper with his nimble fingers.

"I hate to say this, but I do have to agree with you up to a certain point," he said coolly, belying the blazing anger set in his golden eyes. "It is kind of funny to have this woman as my second-in-command when she has the absolute talent to run her own place and give me and anyone else here a true competition. But I don't think you understand that, do you? That's because you've got your head so far up your arse, you self-important prick."

"Souma-kun!" she cried, momentarily slipping into her native Tohoku-laced tongue. "Calm down, will ya? I got this."

His eyes darted quickly towards her, and it was only then that she noticed his stance ease, like a tight knot uncoiling before her very eyes. "Our establishment is closed. Leave, please." Souma motioned to the door. "Or would you rather that I escort you out?"

"I can walk myself out." The reporter fixed his collar and stood up to leave. "You can look forward to an unpleasant review from our magazine this weekend."

"Great," was the red-headed male's response, "I can't wait to prove you and your publication wrong with my cooking!"

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"I wish you rescheduled the remaining interviews for another day instead. Then you wouldn't have to deal with that idiot," reprimanded Souma as she curled into the makeshift sleeping bags they've set on the kitchen floor. They both decided that they were too tired to walk back to their apartment, so he quickly assembled a DIY sleeping sack using plastic garbage bags, duct tape, and cardboard.

She placed an arm over her tired eyes. "I was thinking that the writers might get scolded by their editors if they do not submit their stories on time, so it was the least that I could do for them."

She felt him plop down on the space beside her head. "You're unbelievable," he muttered, torn between frustration and admiration. "You still have the energy to think about other people, even in that state."

"Eh? In what state?"

"Heh. Open your eyes."

The moment she did, he abruptly lifted her arm away from her face, nearly blinding her by the sudden glare of the overhead kitchen lighting.

"SOUMA-KUN!"

His mischievously grinning face popped above her, blocking the harsh beam. "See that? You're super sensitive to light because your eyes are tired and sleepy!"

"No, Souma-kun, it's not! Even healthy, well-rested individuals will grow blind taking in all 200 watts of light without warning-" she froze when she noticed his expression turn somber as he continued to stare at her face.

Then he bent down closer to her, so close that the smell of his sweat mixed with the sterile kitchen cleaner spray filled her with tense-filled headiness. "Look at you," he murmured, guilt written on his face. "Your eyes… they've grown puffier than I remembered."

"T-They've always been that way." She averted her gaze, suddenly wishing that doing so would cause the cursed black circles underneath her eyes to vanish magically.

"I don't know about that." He placed both hands over her ears and cupped her face to meet his gaze. She let out a small cry of embarrassment and valiantly struggled to shake herself loose from him, but he maintained what seemed like vice grip on her. "Shouldn't honest people always be able to look at other people in the eye?" he asked, eyes narrowed at her.

Confronted by the intensity of his scrutinizing stare, she found herself unable to think straight. Their proximity at that moment felt more strangely intimate than any of the many times they slept together under one roof over the years. And that familiar feeling, which she frantically kept hidden for so many years except when she cooked, suddenly reared itself back into her head again.

"A while ago, I was just a room away from you," he began carefully. "When that man acted rudely, why didn't you call me for back-up?"

"I…" She caught a small glimpse of her blushing face on his irises, and she wondered how much dignity she would have left intact after tonight's conversation. "I can't… keep on depending on Souma-kun."

That gave him a pause.

"Y-You've saved me so many times, in so many ways," she continued, her voice trembling. "You were always considerately looking after me, as you did in my first shokugeki. But in doing so, I know I frequently hold you back." She tentatively clasped his hands and pulled them away from her face. "I want to stand as your partner, Souma-kun. "

The corner of his lips twitched at that.

"A-Ah, p-perhaps not as your equal, though, because the difference between our skills is just too great," she added quickly, embarrassed by what her previous statement could have insinuated, "but I want to support you in other ways, like calling you less so you will not be distracted from work."

His eyes regarded her earnestly. "I wouldn't exactly call the situation earlier as mere distraction. He was insulting you, Tadokoro."

"B-But…"

"I've never wanted to punch anyone so badly like I wanted to punch that asshole," he said quietly.

"EH?!" Her body shot up like an arrow, and the next thing she knew, their foreheads collided hard. She staggered a bit, holding on to her temples as stars appeared momentarily in her vision.

"Damn it, Tadakoro, say something before you move like that! "exclaimed Souma, rubbing his now slightly red bump.

"Take back that thought!" she demanded, crouching towards him.

"Huh? Which one?" he asked, looking stumped. She was kneeling on the floor space between his legs, but for the life of him, he couldn't draw himself away from her.

She grabbed his hand and raised it to his face. "This hand, which cooks all those beautiful, terrific dishes, should never be used for anything else but making people happy through food. I will never forgive you if you use it to hurt any person, do you hear me?" Her eyes burned with more intensity than he had ever seen before. "Promise me!" she repeated emphatically, unwittingly clutching his hand tighter.

He blinked, and then burst out laughing.

"S-Souma-kun!" she cried, aghast at being the butt of his private joke again.

"Sorry, sorry." He ran his other hand over the mess of dark red hair, still chuckling in between. "It's just that it's so rare to see you like that."

She cocked her head sideways. "What do you mean?"

"Never mind. One moment." He gently deposited her hand holding his back to her lap, and got up to head for the refrigerator. When he returned, he was holding an ice compress and a small package on the other. He gave the box to her first. "This came in via mail this morning. We had quite a crowd though, so I didn't have the chance to tell you earlier."

"That's okay. Thanks for signing for this on my behalf." She began to unwrap the packaging as Souma knelt before her and started to press the ice pack carefully on her own forehead bump.

"A care package from Mother!" she cried out happily, making him smile. "Oh, here's her letter. It looks shorter than usual, though." She fell silent as she read the brief handwritten note.

"So, how's your mother?" he asked curiously.

"Ne, Souma-kun?" She finally placed her note down and gave him a strained smile. "Will it be alright… if I file for immediate resignation tomorrow?"

Souma's hand, which was deftly rubbing her forehead, froze in mid-act.


TO BE CONTINUED