Mei smiled proudly at her parents as she was handed her college degree. It had taken a lot of studying and a lot of part time jobs to pay her school fees, but she had done it.
She knew that her parents would have been just as happy for her to have stayed home and helped them run the restaurant, but Mei knew that as much as she loved udon, she would hate that life. Her father would have hated taking over the Hongo-group when her grandfather died, too. When they had gotten word of his death, her parents had sat her down and explained what becoming heir would entail, and let her make her own choice.
Mei had taken great delight in laughing in the face of the man who came to offer her the chance to be a lady. He had flinched, which made her feel a little guilty, but she put it out of her head.
Ordinary is the best, her father had said years ago. Mei straightened her shoulders and held up a V for victory for the camera.
Rolling out udon noodles requires concentration. Mei doesn't have time to think about the accident or her father's health, or how they're going to pay the hospital bills. All she can do is roll out the noodles as her mother cooks. The restaurant has never been bustling with customers, but now, after almost a month of being closed while her mother and father recover from the car accident, it is almost empty. Even their regulars have stopped coming, although one or two have drifted back in recently. Mei can only hope it will be enough to keep them afloat for another week.
"Luck comes to those who laugh," Mei reminds herself, forcing a smile onto her face. Her mother can't keep up by herself, and her father can only do so much with one leg in a cast.
Natsumi comes in from time to time, and tries to keep Mei updated on her notes when she falls asleep in class, but they don't get the time together they used to. Mei has even found herself missing stupid Mameshiba. He came in once to say goodbye, looking tired and shaky. He was needed now that his brother was gone, he had said, and that he would miss her. And then, most surprisingly, he had ducked and gently pressed his lips to the side of her mouth.
Mei hadn't even known Mameshiba had a brother.
Living at Natsumi's would be almost like having a sleepover every night if it weren't for the fact there is no longer anyone waiting at home for her. It is hard to get used to waking up without the sound of her mother's laugh and her father singing every morning, but after a while, Mei finds the pain fades a little and she can smile with Natsumi almost as much as she always had. They quarrel sometimes, and Mei always ends up waiting a long time for the bathroom, but Natsumi is close, and the shop is around the corner, and she isn't alone.
Going to school and running the restaurant isn't possible at the same time, although Mei does try. Even with Mameshiba and Natsumi's help, Mei continues to fall behind, until one day, a few months after the accident, she just doesn't go. The customers are encouraging and very patient with her slowness. Mei has always known how to make udon, but making the noodles and the soup and trying to handle the money is exhausting.
Mameshiba starts coming in after school, mumbling something obnoxious about how she can't even keep the dirty bowls off the table. He helps clear dishes, and one day she turns around and he is standing in front of her with a stubborn look on his face. Mei wipes her hands on her apron and stares at him as he shifts from foot to foot.
"Teach me," he demands.
Mei blinks, eyes dry and gritty from staying up too late trying to understand her father's notes and records.
Mameshiba scowls crossly at her and sticks a demanding hand out for the rolling pin. "Teach me," he says again. "If an idiot like you can do this, Four Eyed Udon, then I can, too."
To her surprise, Mameshiba learns the knack of making noodles fairly quickly, and he picks up her old habit of ducking in before school only to have to dash off with flour in his hair. He is in the shop when he isn't in school, and she gets used to having to push past him and flick his knuckles when he adds too much water. After a few months, she realizes that they are actually making close to what the shop was making before the accident, something that would not have been possible without help.
Mei listens to the customers' talk when they don't think she is paying attention. They think it's only a matter of time before she and Mameshiba get married and move into the apartment over the shop.
She surprises herself that night by wiping the flour off of his face with her own apron. His eyes catch hers, and maybe, she thinks she wouldn't mind if the idiot did stick around.
Shibata Kento stood in front of a memorial, Natsumi's hand tight in his. A whole family, gone in such a short amount of time.
It had been a year since Rihito came. A year since Mei had sent Kento's aniki away, refusing to be the heir of a man who would not attend his own son's funeral. Rihito had spoken of danger to her and those close to her, had nearly pleaded for her to come with him, but Mei had shaken her head and headed to the udon shop.
A year since Rihito turned and walked away, his face tight with disappointment and something Kento thought might be fear.
It was a year since the shop burned down, taking Mei with it.
It had been ruled an accident - an unexperienced girl bowed under by grief and the loss of her family. She had left the gas on overnight, and the slightest spark was all that was needed to ignite the whole place. Mei was killed instantly, but Natsumi and Kento, who were further back, had been gotten only minor burns and scars.
The town buzzed about how the funeral was paid by a man wearing an S-rank pin and butler jacket. A man who stood in the back at the service with his head bowed. A man who had visited Kento in the hospital and whispered that he was sorry, he should have been faster.
Kento couldn't bring himself to meet his eyes.
Mei stretched her arms over her head and sighed in contentment. She felt herself start to relax under the warmth of the sun coming in through the window. She hadn't realized how much stress she had been carrying trying to learn how to be a lady.
This was much better. Lucia-sama could be the heir to the Hongo-group, and Mei could go to a normal school and have a normal life. Her grandfather was even paying for the apartment and was, according to Sakon and Ukon, very amused at her choice in living arrangements.
Mei was living as normal a life as possible if you didn't count the mass of ladies and butlers crowding into an apartment the size of a postage stamp, talking over each other and demanding food and attention.
That was something she never would have imagined - all the ladies wanting to remain friends with a commoner. And their butlers came with them, of course, as no lady is never without her butler.
She looked down and smiled as she felt someone behind her. She couldn't help shift a little closer as Rihito, looking shockingly normal in jeans and a t-shirt, stepped to her side, his hands tucked behind his back.
"Are you sure you don't miss it?" She asked as they watched Kiba and Damien attempt to dance American style, to shrieks of laughter from their ladies.
Rihito gave a tiny smile, his back butler straight under his t-shirt. "I told you that I wouldn't leave your side again, Mei-sama." He said calmly. "I chose you. You chose an ordinary life."
Mei looked up at him, pushing her glasses up with one hand. "You chose me?"
He smiled, his eyes taking on that expression that Mei had decided meant, I find your foolishness amusing. "I chose my true lady. And if that meant I lost my place and my rank, I am ready to accept that."
"What will you do now?" Mei smiled and waved as Rin and Tami-chan ran past giggling.
"Now?" Rihito tilted his head to the side. "Now, I get to figure out how to live an ordinary life." He quirked the corner of his mouth and looked at her sidelong. "How would an ordinary man ask an ordinary young woman on a date?"
Mei pursed her lips and rocked forward on her toes as she pretended to think. She was fighting a smile. "In this case," Mei winced as something broke with a crash and several butlers denied any knowledge of who did it, "I think taking an ordinary girl away from the crazy people in her living room would be a good start."
Rihito offered her his arm with a bow, "After you, my lady."