"The tenderness of this meat is like no other! C'est délicieux!" pronounced the final French judge, affirming the previous judgments of her equally awestruck colleagues. On the right side of the huge kitchen where everyone was situated, a burly French chef looked on in shock and disbelief.

His competitor on the other hand – a young, flame-haired Japanese—energetically undid the white towel wrapping his head. "Happy to serve!"

The flamboyant host appeared in the middle of the kitchen stage and, in his native language, happily announced the results. Subtitles showed on the screen, describing how Yukihira Souma became the first and youngest challenger to defeat the French reality cooking show's three-year reigning champion.

"Oh wow, the kid really did it!" the receptionist cried, pumping her fist in the air joyfully.

A chorus of "Way to go!", "You made Japan very proud!", and "Japanese chefs are the best!" rang out from behind her. The rest of the inn staff was watching with her the viral episode that everyone in the country was talking about.

"What's going on?" asked a voice somewhere from the back of the crowd.

"Ssshh!" one of the cooks turned around to hush the intruder, but nearly yelped when he saw who it was. Instead, he elbowed his co-workers, who in turn faced him irately, but winced when he saw who the cook was looking at. One by one, the embarrassed inn staff yielded until it was only the unwitting receptionist who was left loudly cheering in front of the small television.

"Masaki-san?"

The receptionist swiveled, annoyed. "What? Can't you see I'm watching—" Her face reddened when she saw none other than the owner of the Shōkeien Ryokan herself. "T-Tadokoro-san!" She immediately got up and bowed apologetically several times. "I'm so sorry for raising my voice at you! W-We were taking advantage of the fact that we only have one guest for today, but we got carried away!"

The innkeeper held a hand up, smiling reassuringly. "Please don't worry about it, Masaki-san. I was just curious as to why everyone was suddenly huddled up here."

An elderly cook pointed to the red-haired chef on the screen. "Owner, you know this person, don't you?"

To which, the inn owner smiled fondly. "Yes. He was the brightest star in our dormitory." Tadokoro Megumi's gold eyes softened as she looked at her friend on the screen. "Yukihira Souma-kun."


The Courtship of the Ryokan Mistress

For narusaku143, who requested a SouMegu oneshot. I hope this is to your liking (and I hope you don't mind the OOC too much).


Megumi knelt down and slid the paper-panel door of the guest room. Then carefully, she placed the tray holding a pot of tea and a platter of small cakes onto the floor.

"I brought you food," she said courteously.

"Thanks! Can you bring them over here, please?" the guest called, probably from the connecting balcony.

She did as told, bringing the tray to the yukata-wearing guest, who seemed to be soaking in the dying sun rays of the afternoon.

"Would you like to use the ofuro now?" she offered. The communal bathing area had already been cleaned by her staff earlier this afternoon.

"Maybe later." The dark-haired guest patted the space beside him. "Sit with me?"

She nodded and sat down, then started to pour tea for the guest.

"What was the commotion all about?" he asked.

Megumi's eyes flew towards him worriedly. "Was the noise too much?"

He shook his head. "Just curious." He took the cup she filled and brought it to his lips. "Mmmm. This is exactly what I needed."

She smiled at him, appreciative of his remark. "They're big fans of you, my entire staff. Defeating a reigning champion chef in his native cuisine…"

This made Yukihira Souma chuckle heartily. "It's just a flashy reality show competition. My arse would have been thoroughly kicked if I had to cook for real restaurant customers."

"When did you get back from France, Souma-kun?" Megumi had grown accustomed to Souma popping in every now and then in her inn over the years, often in disguise. He never spoke about his fame in the culinary world, but the mere fact that he had to go through ridiculous measures in order not to be recognized meant he was already a Somebody in the field.

"Just recently," he answered simply. Specifically, he just landed from a 25-hour non-stop international flight from Paris. But knowing how easily Megumi worried over anything and everything, she might end up sending him to bed immediately if he mentioned that.

"So you'll be doing rounds on TV again, huh?"

"Unfortunately." He took the platter of cakes, while she refilled his cup with tea. "So I'm making the most out of my vacation before anyone else catches wind of where I am right now."

One look at the fatigued lines on his face, and Megumi felt a rush of empathy for her schoolmate. "Don't worry, I'll make sure we don't disturb you during your stay."

"No." He faced her, a good-natured teasing smile on his face. "Come and bother me anytime, Tadokoro. I insist."

If not for her years of experience with inn chores like this, she could have easily dropped the teapot in embarrassment. She hastily mumbled some sort of excuse to leave and check on the inn, all the while hoping that the golden light of dusk would conceal the furious riot of colors on her cheeks.

Souma, meanwhile, calmly sipped his tea before he responded. "But you'll be bringing my dinner tonight, won't you?"

Her heart pounded. "I-It depends how busy the ryokan will be…"

"Got it!" he said cheerfully, clapping his hands together as if the sound would seal the deal between them. "See you tonight, Tadokoro!"

.

.

.

"Owner, you've been working too hard!" One of the inn maids reached for the dinner tray she was holding. "Let me take care of this for you."

"Thank you," she murmured, torn between relief and disappointment that she wouldn't need to attend to her troublesome guest. "Has our guest returned from the bath?"

"Yes, Ma'am."

"Very well. Please make sure he has everything he needs so he can retire at ease. Our guest must be very tired." With that, Megumi returned to her work table, where the booking calendar was posted.

At this time of the year, they were fortunate to have four or five rooms booked for the evening. Not everyone could brave the almost-glacial conditions of their region. But this evening, the 12-room Shōkeien Ryokan was completely booked.

She had ordered her staff to be on standby near the doorway for their arriving guests, while the cooks were busy with making meals enough for around thirty people. Our inn is busy and thriving! Her mother, the original innkeeper, would have been proudly smiling down on her from the heavens.

"E-Excuse me, Owner?"

Her reverie was cut short by the hesitant approach of the same maid from earlier. She offered her a friendly smile. "Yes, Kino-san?"

"O-Our guest wants the futon replaced."

Her forehead creased. "Not a problem. We should have some freshly aired ones by the garden."

The maid scratched her cheek. "Y-Yes, well… you see…"

.

.

.

He wants me to make his bed for him! Her cheeks burned as she trudged towards Souma's room, fresh futon in arm. She knew Souma was one of the nicest people she had ever met, but she also knew that he had his quirks at times. Of course, as his closest friend, she understood that no one was perfect and he was entitled to his whims from time to time.

But should he really pick this night when we're busy? she moaned as she finally stopped in front of his room. She adjusted her hold on the futon so she could use her fingers to slide the door.

However, just as she was reaching for it, the door suddenly slid open. Her fingers ended up clutching the obi belt of Yukihira Souma's yukata instead.

Dazed, she looked up and met his intense gaze set on her. One hand was poised in the act of rubbing his now-crimson hair dry with a towel, while his other hand was on the sliding door. The familiar scent of their inn bath assaulted her senses in a totally strange, new way—one that sent her heart throbbing so loudly that she could practically hear and feel them in her ears. Her hold on his belt also loosened the top of his yukata, offering her a forbidden view of his broad, naked chest.

A small playful smile dawned on his face. "I guessed your timing right. I figured you would have your hands full with the futon."

Immediately, she let go of his obi, face flaming. "P-Pardon my intrusion." She sidestepped him and headed for the center of the room, where the futon was previously laid by one of her staff members earlier. Silently, she inspected the bed preparation and was puzzled to see that nothing seemed amiss.

"I told you, I wanted you to bring my dinner earlier. You didn't come, so I had to get creative."

Her head snapped up. "Souma-kun!" Does it mean he was just pulling a prank on me and my staff?

He quickly flashed her a V-sign before grabbing her wrist and pulling her towards the balcony. "Come with me." Seeing the woman beside his futon was too damn distracting.

"S-Souma-kun, wait!" She fell to a step beside him, looking frantic. "I-I don't have time right now to stay here. The inn is fully booked for tonight, and my guests will be arriving anytime."

"They won't come," he replied nonchalantly as they emerged out into the connecting balcony once more. "I was the one who booked and paid for all of the rooms."

"W-What?" Her eyes widened in shock.

"I got a hefty paycheck for appearing in the reality show," he explained in an off-handed tone, "and I decided to spend them here. So it looks like you'll be gracing me with your hospitality this evening, Owner?"

She gaped at him, still speechless.

Souma mistook her reaction for something else, and his eyes widened at the realization. "No, no, that didn't come out right, dammit! Sorry, Tadokoro! I didn't mean it that way. I just wanted to talk, honest! I've missed—" He broke off in mid-sentence and reached for his yukata coat sleeves, pulling out a small jewelry box. Then without warning, he clasped her left hand and deposited the box carefully on her palm. "Here, for you."

"Oh!" Her golden eyes grew as wide as saucers as she looked at the expensive-looking velvet box in her hand. "S-Souma-kun… t-this is too much…" Hot tears began to pool in her eyes.

"As the gift-giver, isn't that up to me?" He tried to sound lighthearted, but it was clear that he was very pleased by her reaction. "May I?"

She nodded and opened the lid, revealing an exquisite pair of yellow sapphire earrings. Never in her nineteen years had she ever taken a special liking towards jewelry, but at that moment, she felt she was looking at the most beautiful object known to man.

And Souma-kun gave something as amazing as this to me… Her eyes went to his face in disbelief, searching for any trace of 'gotcha!' grins from him. She found only earnestness on his handsome face.

He carefully placed one earring on her left ear. "I saw this on my way to work one day," he spoke, sounding a bit gruff. "It reminded me of you… your eyes. The jeweler told me women would probably prefer the blue varieties of that gem because they're more expensive."

Tenderly pressing on the lock for the other earring, he continued, "But I don't want anything better, classier, or more refined. I realized I only want these. And there and then, I knew I had to return to Japan at once to give these to you." His hands cupped both earrings as his intense, scrutinizing eyes roamed around her face.

"Just as I thought." A satisfied smile appeared on his lips. "It suits you so well."

"S-Souma-kun…" She wanted desperately to express her gratitude, but she couldn't find the words to say them.

Then her body moved for her.

Wordlessly, she tiptoed and raised herself to plant a light kiss on his lips. It was fleeting—no longer than several seconds, perhaps—but the moment her heels returned to the ground, she was hit with the realization that her brief madness had changed things between them forever.

Now Yukihira Souma knew everything… her longing, her desire, her feeling. And they all bore his name and his face. How else could she dare face him again?

KRIIIIIIING! KRIIIIIIING! KRIIIIIIING!

"T-That's mine," she muttered, still dazed. How long has it been ringing? She hastily stepped away from Souma's arms and answered the phone, making sure to avert his meaningful gaze. "S-Shōkeien Ryokan, it's the innkeeper speaking."

She blinked as she listened to the other party speaking. "Y-Yes. We do have a guest this evening. No, I'm afraid I cannot provide his name out of respect for his privacy." The caller let out a thunderous laugh, and then posed a question. "Y-Yes. I am Tadokoro Megumi," she replied, confused. "S-Souma-kun's father?"

Souma grabbed the phone from her, his eyes narrowed. "Look, old man, this is NOT a good time. And why the hell do you have Tadokoro's number?"

Jouichirou Yukihira snorted at the other end of the line. "Puh-leeze, you've spent hundreds of dollars yearly to visit a woman in one of the remotest part of Japan for the past few years. You don't think I wouldn't have snooped around?"

"That still makes you a creep, and a geezer one at that. Erase her number NOW."

"What do I do with your paparazzi and fangirls?" his father demanded. "They seemed to have grown in number, no thanks to that fake cooking contest you won. Now they're camping out in front of our restaurant, and they look like they wanna eat for free!"

"Tell them I'll be there in a week. Maybe."

"Are you bringing her with you?" The man sounded both teasing and hopeful in the same breath.

A smile formed on his lips. "Maybe. Wish me luck."

"Ohohoho, that's the spirit—" The call was abruptly cut off when Souma pressed the End button.

"Tadokoro…" He motioned for her to get her cellphone back.

But as soon as Megumi came over to take her phone from his hand, Souma's other arm encircled her waist and pulled her to his embrace.

She looked at him, face beautifully flushed and mouth slightly parted in shock.

He wondered how long any man could withstand such a tempting invitation. At the same time, he wondered how any man could be as happy and carefree as he was feeling at the moment, when everything in the world felt right.

"Madam Owner, by any chance, is your ryokan looking to hire a Japanese chef who just won a really popular reality cooking show contest?" he asked cheerfully.

"S-Souma-kun!"

"You don't need to pay him or anything. He just spends his paychecks on flights back to Japan anyway," he added. "All he asks is that he'll be allowed to stay by the innkeeper's side always… and, possibly, have her prepare his futon nightly. How does that sound?"

"P-Please don't say things like that, Souma-kun!" cried Megumi frantically. "I-I might misunderstand things, a-and I'm mortified enough as things are."

He let out a chuckle. "Oh no, we can't have us misunderstanding things. Here, let me clarify my intentions, Madam." He affectionately cupped her face and bent down to claim her lips.

.

.

.

"The tenderness of this meat is like no other! È delizioso!" pronounced the final Italian judge, affirming the previous judgments of his equally awestruck colleagues. On the right side of the huge kitchen where everyone was situated, a willowy Italian chef looked on in shock and disbelief.

His competitor on the other hand – a flame-haired Japanese—energetically undid the white towel wrapping his head. "Happy to serve!"

A riveted host appeared in the middle of the kitchen stage and, in his native language, happily announced the results. Subtitles showed on the screen, describing how Yukihira Souma became the first and youngest chef champion to win all eight international editions of the reality cooking show.

"Oh wow, Yukihira-san really did it!" the receptionist cried, pumping her fist in the air joyfully.

A chorus of "Way to go!", "You made Japan very proud!", and "Japanese chefs are the best!" rang out from behind her. The rest of the inn staff was watching with her the viral episode that everyone in the country was talking about.

"What's going on?" asked a tiny, high-pitched voice somewhere from the back of the crowd.

"Ssshh!" one of the cooks turned around to hush the intruder, but nearly yelped when he saw who it was. Instead, he elbowed his co-workers, who in turn faced him irately, but winced when he saw who the cook was looking at. One by one, the embarrassed inn staff yielded until it was only the unwitting receptionist who was left loudly cheering in front of the small television.

"Masaki-san?"

The receptionist swiveled, annoyed. "What? Can't you see I'm watching—" Her face reddened when she saw none other than the future owner of the Shōkeien Ryokan herself. "Sou-chan!" She immediately got up and bowed apologetically several times. "I'm so sorry for raising my voice at you! W-We were taking advantage of the fact that we only have one guest for today, but we got carried away!"

The young girl, barely eight, looked at the screen and pouted. "Papa is always on TV, but he's never home."

"Well, you know he has to work hard this year," said Masaki soothingly. "Didn't you hear he promised your Mama that he'll open a new branch of ryokan that your baby brother will own someday?"

"Yeah, because this one's mine!" She looked around curiously. "Oh, where's Mama?"

The staff members all looked at each other. "Well, Sou-chan, right now, your Mama's serving a very special guest."

"They're actually working on your baby brother—"

"SHUT UP! STOP POLLUTING A CHILD'S MIND!"


THE END