Chapter 4:

A peaceful first day

Toaru Ramen no Hanashi

Helen-sama! Please let go!" the petite attendant shouted, with tears in her eyes.Bookmark here

"Over my dead body! I will never, ever let go of your hand!" screamed Helen, with visible scars and bruises on her beautiful face.Bookmark here

Alliona gasps for air as she fends off another bandit. Her appearance is rugged, her clothes tattered, her face mudded, her nose bleeding and wounds from all over her body gushes blood of small to moderate amount.Bookmark here

The bandits are notoriously tough. She keeps on parrying their individual attacks, but still ends up getting beaten at some point. The sun is setting. Alliona was earlier betting on that happening. She hoped she can trigger an escape once the dark hovers the sky, but alas, with the situation they're in, options are thoroughly limited.Bookmark here

Alliona's exhausted body has already surpassed its limits. She's only standing because her adrenaline keeps on pumping. Slowly, but surely, the situation is getting worse at every passing moment. Alliona's eyesight now impairs her, the double images she's seeing is giving her mind thoughts of surrendering, but the stubborn young lass continues to stand her ground. Behind her is a cliff, elevating 50 meters from the flat surface. Meanwhile, Helen is crouching, holding on to her attendant's small hands in the edge of the cliff. Her grip to the petite attendant's hands is all that prevents a nosedive that will surely result a gruesome dying.Bookmark here

The crying attendant begs her mistress to just concede the inevitable, but Helen was tenacious. Her frail body aside, her heart was steadfast and unmoved. She has total control of emotions even on such perilous predicament.Bookmark here

The bandits are having a blast from the sight of their preys. All amused from causing despair, fanning the hopelessness and laughing at the misfortune Alliona's party is dealing with. They snicker rowdily showing their vile tendencies and utters slurs of sexual nature to the ladies in distress.Bookmark here

*Bookmark here

"And then..."Bookmark here

'W-W-Wait! Why are we already in this part?! What happened before it happens? Surely there are far better way to restart the story, old man?" the boy shaking Gourmet in his collars, obviously rattled.Bookmark here

"Eh? Isn't it better to start with a thrill? That way the story will be more gripping." Gourmet said, fixing his crumpled collar.Bookmark here

"No, no, no, no! The thrill is too much, look at everyone, they're having none of it!" the boy said, pointing to the gallery having a variety of tumulting showings. Eroi, Bocchan and the other regulars, who as aforementioned heard the story multiple times still showcases the same vulnerabilities absorbing that particular part of Gourmet's story.Bookmark here

"Geez, time and time again, will you guys level up already? Especially you, Eroi and Bocchan! You're already aware of the happenings for pete's sake!" Gourmet lashed, pounding his fist to the table.Bookmark here

Eroi and Bocchan, who were usually bullish and known for instantly countering a retort was all but silent in their seats. They are doing weird movements that furthered confused the boy.Bookmark here

"Does this usually happen?" he asked bluntly.Bookmark here

Gourmet shook his head with a displeased expression. "These folks never fails. They always gets like this on this part." Bookmark here

"I mean, I actually felt the prelude was a bit too much as well. Might as well start from a mellow tune before going metal nuts in the climax. That's how I prefer the story goes on."Bookmark here

"Naive!" Gourmet gave the boy a rougish knuckle to the head. "Such stereotypical storytelling will only rue us in the end."Bookmark here

Gourmet took off his cowboy hat and spun it using his index finger. "Listen, suppose we are eating a ramen. Some of us likes to start with the soup, others munch on their toppings first, some others would go straight for the noodles and there's even a bunch of peeps who would rudely put condiments even before tasting the actual bowl."Bookmark here

"Huh?" is all the boy could utter after hearing another random jargon from his old seatmate.Bookmark here

"That's why our very own chef has done intensive training on how to properly present a ramen bowl. It's not just dumping the ingredients and putting soup on it and tada, an order is born."Bookmark here

The boy could not offer a response. Instead, he just blankly titled his head. Gourmet went on about his ramen speech. For a while, it was an extensive presentation of technical things, how types of oil, noodles, toppings, broth and stock affect the overall taste of ramen bowl. While it did prove to be educational, the boy was left sighing in the end which left Gourmet frustrated.Bookmark here

"You still don't get it? I am telling you that as simple as eating a ramen, I am processing the story in a flavorful sequence. That way my listeners won't get bored."Bookmark here

"Nah, I get that you're varying on how you convey the intended story, but this part seriously needs to get a build-up before everything else. Besides, we're not really bored, more like, we were just totally flabbergasted."Bookmark here

Gourmet took another surveying look to his fellow regulars. They are talking in their respective seats about the story, they can be heard discussing in a consensus manner that opted Gourmet to have a change of direction. Eroi and Bocchan finally contributed their first words in a while.Bookmark here

"Old man, can you at least maintain a pace where the build-up will not be random? This is a journey afterall, I already knew what will happened after it, but I still find myself wondering what events led Alliona-chan and her party in the bandit ambush."Bookmark here

"That's right. I won't say the jump straight to the ambush is a bad twist, but surely, we can leisurely enjoy the embarkment first before we get plunged into despair during Alliona's distress. It'll also add finesse in the long run."Bookmark here

Both inputs are sound. Gourmet halted his hat spinning and wore it back. The boy and the other regulars then fixed their posture in their seats, readying themselves to a proper retelling of the events that entails the trip to Manzhouli.Bookmark here

"Fine, fine. I get your arguments. We'll then restart the story from where Alliona and her party is still planning the trip. Any comments?"Bookmark here

Like students being attentive to their teacher, all of the regulars raised their hands and in unison, "No, sir!"Bookmark here

*Bookmark here

Helen is pouting inside her tent while Alliona and the attendant are preoccupied organizing the things for their trip. Prior to that, Alliona stressed conditions of her agreeing to do the escort task. One vital point worth mentioning is that she decided the route they're going to take and it's not the usual flat travel. She also instructed that they are not to bring any animals even for carriage purposes, thus they will only take a few sack bags mostly consisting vital necessities such as small amount of clothing, food and most importantly, huge amount of claypot water. Bookmark here

"Milady, please do not pack anything unneeded. I might also have to suggest that you mustn't wear your usual garments. Please sport bland clothing to ease your movements and also not to attract attention once we leave through the gate tomorrow."Bookmark here

"Hmmp, hmmp. I can't be me without my dresses. Can you make an exemption and allow us to bring this?" Helen pleaded, showing a humongous box magnificently crafted from wood of apparent extravagance. The luster of the impeccable workmanship is enough to show reflections when Alliona gave it an inspection.Bookmark here

Though Alliona was impressed at how spectacular the craftmanship is, she gave no second thoughts and bluntly refused Helen's request with a firm, "No can do, Milady."Bookmark here

It was around eight in the evening that Alliona and the attendant have sorted almost everything they are to bring in their journey. Four sturdy sack bags filled with the aforementioned effects. Two of which will be carried by Alliona herself, plus her personal belongings. One is by Helen and the other, by the young attendant.Bookmark here

"Thank you, Alliona-san. We're all set for tomorrow, aren't we?"Bookmark here

Alliona petted the hair of the attendant whom she casually thought akin to the younger girls in her village.Bookmark here

"Yes. As long as our mistress won't mess anything in our sleep." Alliona sarcastically said while looking at Helen who is sneaking her favorite garb into the closed sack bag.Bookmark here

"Hmmp, you meanie. You're denying who I am!" Helen pouted, resting her head to Alliona's shoulder.Bookmark here

Alliona leaned on Helen's head as well. "It's for your own good, milady. Besides, you get to bring your box of jewelries and a tremendous amount of money. You can just buy a new set of wardrobe after we set foot to Manzhouli."Bookmark here

"Well, if you put it that way, then I suppose it can't be helped. I'll go buy another set of imported fabric from Nippon, Espana and..." Helen said while daydreaming the clothes she'll acquire after the trip.Bookmark here

Alliona and the attendant smiled at each other while their mistress is busy playing with her imaginations that ultimately stopped her from stuffing the already full sack bag they are going to journey with. After a while, Helen instructed her other women employees that they can either sell or personally use her entire current wardrobe. She even generously handed some of her personal favorites to those who wished to own some of her garbs. Alliona watched her being flocked and adored by those under her.Bookmark here

"Helen-sama is really kind, isn't she?" she mumbled whilst sipping hot tea.Bookmark here

"Yes. We're very fortunate to have her as our master." the attendant replied with a smile translating her innermost sentiments.Bookmark here

Alliona looked at the different mix of people in Helen's subordinates. They clearly looked differently from one another. The traits vary from skin color, hair, build, eye shape and hue, age and other tangible factors. Still, they are happily mingling and treating each other as family.Bookmark here

"Umm, if you don't mind me asking, from where were you?" Alliona asked the attendant.Bookmark here

"Me?" the attendant surprised at the question. She put a hand on her rosy cheek and slightly pondered for a while. "I originally came from the Kwangtung region. I was an orphan who drifted from one place to another, until I came across with our mistress when I stumbled in Beiping around five years ago."Bookmark here

"Kwangtung, huh? That's in the far south, right? I'm amazed you did it at such a young age."Bookmark here

"Ah, no, no. I might have given you the wrong impression." the attendant retorted with her small hands gesturing the otherwise. "I belonged to a caravan. The people who raised me at that age was part of a certain caravan. Thus I said I was drifting..."Bookmark here

"Oh?" Alliona keenly listened to the attendant until the pause.Bookmark here

"The amazing one here is you, Alliona-san. Not only you're an adept hunter, you've even traversed distance unthinkable for a typical lady of your age. I can't help but admire you." the attendant said with a flushed cheeks that prompted Alliona to feel like she must embraced the cute person in front of her. Without any warning, she cuddled the younger lady and squeezed her tightly in her arms.Bookmark here

"Oh gosh, you're so adorable! This must be a feeling of an older sister who can't help but dote on her little sister." Bookmark here

Moments later, Alliona and the attendant shifted their tone to a serious one. Alliona in particular, squatted closely in the bonfire attending her sling, stretching it frequently as if she's testing its durability.Bookmark here

"So you used a slingshot when you hunt, Alliona-san?" the attendant lets out a query.Bookmark here

"Yeah, it's light and very easy to use." she answered without looking to her conversation partner.Bookmark here

"Under normal circumstances, do you think we could meet a hindrance along the way?" asked the attendant.Bookmark here

Alliona's eyes stopped blinking and gazed at the small girl, clasping a knife-like thing in her hands. Alliona could see some slight shaking on the grip of the girl which opted her to answer with a considerably softened stance with intended assurance in her tone.Bookmark here

"Mhmm... don't worry. I'll make sure we won't run into any danger..." she said, but before she could finish the sentence, she was immediately interrupted by the attendant.Bookmark here

"I am thankful for your consideration, but please, I'd prefer it better if you could be more candid with me. I wish to be able to act per chance we ran into trouble." the attendant declared with a consequential tone matching her earnest mien.Bookmark here

Alliona breathed out a sigh and gestured an apologetic smile.Bookmark here

"Difficult to say, honestly. I'd love it if we can trek all the way unscathed, but given the recent situation, I'd reckon we better expect trouble along the way."Bookmark here

The attendant nodded softly, she seemed pleased to hear the honest assessment of Alliona.Bookmark here

"Thank you, Alliona-san. Please, have a nice rest. We have an early day tomorrow." she said and respectfully bowed before heading to where Helen is at that particular moment.Bookmark here

Helen can be heard saying a loud "Eh?" inside her tent, countering on what was supposed to be a roll call for her beauty sleep. For a brief time frame, Helen's continuous dispute with her attendant had Alliona chuckling as she overhears the tantrum of a full-grown woman.Bookmark here

Time slowly passed afterwards. Alliona was just lying beside the bonfire, looking up to the starry sky surveying the cloud movements. It appears rainfall will yet make another absence tomorrow. It hasn't rained for a while, exactly fifteen days since, but even that last happening was nothing more than a drizzle. Alliona pondered some thoughts involving drastic skits on their trip for tomorrow. Beside the notion of bandits, she mulled about whether their provisions will be enough for a week. Considering her employer's background, she squinted her eyes with thoughts of anxiety making rounds inside her head. She can only sigh to de-stress herself from her surreal imagination. Without her realizing it, she fell to her sleep.Bookmark here

Morning came and at the first crowing of a rooster, Alliona rose up from her slumber. The sky is still dark, but it's no doubt a new day as Alliona was greeted a refreshing "Good morning" from none other than Helen's attendant. Soon, Alliona was then handed a cup of hot beverage and a piece of hard bread as the attendant, along with other workers start their preparations. Other merchant groups can be seen doing the same. Lighting up their surroundings, sorting their merchandise in their stalls while eating their breakfast.Bookmark here

A huge yawn escaped from Alliona's gaping mouth. She absentmindedly took a bite from the bread in her hand and chewed on it repeatedly before sipping the cup filled with unfamiliar beverage that brought Alliona to her senses.Bookmark here

"What is this?! It's delish!" she loudly exclaimed.Bookmark here

The attendant released a controlled giggle. Her graceful mannerisms was enough to make Alliona blush in slight discomfiture.Bookmark here

"That's a cocoa drink, Alliona-san. Supposedly we import the beans from way back to the Atlantic." the attendant responded.Bookmark here

"At... Atla... what?" Alliona stuttered sipping her cocoa in small amounts.Bookmark here

"It's a place from the other side of the world. But nevermind that, it seems you took a liking to it."Bookmark here

"Of course, I've never tasted something as exquisite as this. The tea from yesterday was delicious, but this one blows away my mind."Bookmark here

"Is that so? I'm glad I took the initiative to serve you cocoa instead of just giving you hot water."Bookmark here

A coworker signalled something to the attendant and she quickly stood up heading to a certain direction. Soon, a delectable aroma then came spiraling the vicinity. Coming out from a tent, the attendant brought out two plates with both of her hands occupied. She then carefully laid a plate of roasted chicken meat and about 3 pieces of baozis on the other one.Bookmark here

"Please have some, Alliona-san. We may as well stuff ourselves so that we can tackle a fair distance later."Bookmark here

Alliona could only offer a smile as a response as she gobbled the freshly cooked chicken leg and grabbed a baozi afterwards. The appetizing flavor surely gave Alliona lots of energy needed for their journey. Within a quarter of minutes, the plates were emptied and Alliona could only sit like a drunk old man with flustered cheeks to display her satisfaction. Her stomach bulge aside, she lets out a loud burp unbecoming of a lady her age. Fortunately, she was all alone when the deed happened as the attendant went somewhere to washed the dishes and cups they used for breakfast.Bookmark here

The dark sky still remains, but traces of the light coming from the east can be seen from a distance. Alliona took her time to rest and check her bag of personal items. She felt a different heft to it since she received her upfront payment of 100 gold coins. She lets out a silly mien upon taking a single coin from the pouch.Bookmark here

Supposedly, a single gold coin could last her a month or two and to think she have 100 of those put Alliona in a weird mood. The thought of her being paid another set of gold coins once they set foot in Manzhouli brought a shudder to her spine.Bookmark here

"Uwa... I probably should re-negotiate with them. It just feels wrong having too much of these gold coins."Bookmark here

Helen then came out of her tent, all dressed up in bland clothing that prompted Alliona to cast aside the thoughts of money from her mind.Bookmark here

"A pleasant morning to you, milady." she said as a greeting.Bookmark here

"Umu... Good morning to you as well, Alliona." said a smiling Helen.Bookmark here

Contrary to her expectations, Alliona noticed how composed Helen even without her usual get-up. She initially thought that the rich lady would complain wearing such clothes akin to the likes her workers are wearing. No makeup, no fancy accessories, no perfume and no tantrums.Bookmark here

Still even without cosmetics, Helen still boasts sheer beauty. Her lips shines of pale maple color, her skin radiates fairness, her long and silky hair tied in a ponytail and her eyes remains the same shade of the deep ocean. Helen caught Alliona's intense gaze that opted the older lady to do a goofy pose.Bookmark here

"Pfft..." Alliona covered her mouth before she could release a torrent of unfiltered laughter. Helen continued to play her ditzy character, seemingly trying her best to make Alliona burst into hysterics. Soon, a lone sun ray shone upon Helen's tall stature. Her face is now brightened causing her to squint from the authority of the sun. She halted the theatrics and unexpectedly carried a sack bag to her back without much effort.Bookmark here

"Shall we go then?"Bookmark here

Alliona stood up, stretched her figure and exhaled a long breathe. After that, she strapped two sack bags to her shoulders and started walking towards the town exit. Once there, they started walking on a different route, heading west towards the wilderness. Bookmark here

After four hours of walking, Helen put on a hood to counter the rising sun. Buckets of sweat can be seen oozing from the party. They have walked around twenty miles approximately. Alliona surveyed the conditions of her party and opted a decision to rest their fatigued legs for an hour under a shade formed from the giant rocks buried in the middle of the dry land.Bookmark here

Meanwhile, back at the settlement, a tremor-like phenomenon was felt. Coming from a distance, a large number of carriages can be seen making a tornado of dust. No sooner than a quarter hour, the group in question entered the vicinity of the settlement. It was none other than reinforcement from the capital. Boasting ten hundred in total, the squadron was comprised by bulky-built recruits wearing thick chainmails and helmets, weapons of their choices in their hands and a circular shield strapped on their backs. They looked intimidating but it was thoroughly welcomed by the settlement.Bookmark here

It was until noon that the squadron dispersed a small amount of their total to stay in the settlement. The remaining party then assumed caravan guarding as well as their main objective, to put a stop to the growing bandit prowling. The relieved look on both the citizen and merchants' faces are evident as they starting their move to Manzhouli. As expected, they took the widely used flat route as it covers the least distance.Bookmark here

Alliona and her party who rested for an hour, resumed their excursion. As soon as they stepped outside the shade, their refreshed state was easily overwhelmed by the scorching climate. Alliona was somewhat expecting to be rained by complaints from her employer, but surprisingly, none of it occurred. Helen was quietly panting, but nevertheless, kept her pace steady. That goes the same to the attendant.Bookmark here

Soon they finally arrived to an upward valley route leading to the mountain path they are going to take. Whilst farther in distance, the unknown route will certainly result a safer travel. At least that's what Alliona thought so far. With her leading the way, the next few hours would go on troubleless. The rocky terrain, despite difficult to traverse, hindered the painful pokes of the sun rays and there's also frequent wind blows that freshens their exhausted figures as they continue to walk the rough road.Bookmark here

As the sky shifted into dusk color, they stumbled on a good spot for camp. Coincidentally, there's a small stream running nearby where clear water flows, somewhat cold upon touch, perfect for drinking and other uses. Alliona soaked her face directly to it, which prompted her companions to do the same.Bookmark here

Evidently, their refreshed state put a mellow and jolly ambience during their supper. As the attendant re-heated the carefully wrapped meat in the bonfire, Alliona showcased her bear-like fish hunting and so there was also fresh river cuisine added to their menu.Bookmark here

After dining, Alliona can be seen fiddling a gold coin, tossing it mid-air and playing a probability game whether it landed on heads or tails. Later, after having too many coin tosses, she lets out a mumble.Bookmark here

"What should I do with these much money?"Bookmark here

Helen and her attendant looked at each other. Without much contemplation, they sandwiched Alliona in her spot close to the bonfire.Bookmark here

"Does the amount trouble you, Alliona?" Helen softly put Alliona's head on her shoulder.Bookmark here

Alliona blushed before answering, "Uh, well... I suppose. To be frank, the sight of these gold coins intimidates me." she said with a wry smile.Bookmark here

"Like I said before, that coins represents my commitment to this trip. You are here risking your life, trying to get me to our destination. For you to do less for a mere acquaintance is unthinkable." Helen responded, as she leaned her cheeks to Alliona's head.Bookmark here

Alliona's mien remained troubled. For a young lady her age, receiving a ridiculous amount of gold coins is just out of the norm. To be fair, traveling alone with no fixed goal, her meandering from place to place also added to the pending conundrum.Bookmark here

"Ahem... mere acquiantance? Pardon me for being direct, but you two look like related. If I don't know the mistress and Alliona-san, I would surely take you two as a mother and child, or even a pair of beautiful sisters." inserted the attendant.Bookmark here

Alliona and Helen straightened up, they then looked at each other, pondering the attendant's words.Bookmark here

"Now that you mention it, Alliona you looked like you've got Russian heritage." Helen said giving Alliona a scrutinizing look.Bookmark here

"Well, my mother was from Moscow. She lived there until her coming of age then ventured to far lands to pursue her degree. She was a teacher before she married my pops." Alliona said while scratching a portion of her chin with her index finger.Bookmark here

"Oh, interesting. A local from Moscow, then meeting and getting married to a Chinese merchant. Sounds like something that came out of a storybook." Helen giggled after she said her words.Bookmark here

Alliona returned a chuckle, before speaking. "I've heard Mother's parents were against her marrying my pops when they seek their approval, thus they just eloped and lived remotely in the border. At least, that's the main gist of their love story."Bookmark here

"Wow! Spectacular! I'm so envious of such romantic developments!" Helen exclaimed with flustered redness on her cheeks.Bookmark here

The attendant then whispered the main reason why Helen, despite having destructive charms as a woman, is still undeniably single at her age.Bookmark here

"Huh?! For that kind of reason?!" Alliona blurted with astonishment spelled on her face. The attendant only nodded with a conflicted half-smile.Bookmark here

"So you're telling me, Helen-sama is still not married because most of her possible suitors are just too intimidated to proclaim their feelings because she is too beautiful? That she is suppose to be unattainable?"Bookmark here

"Y-Yes... that's precisely the case."Bookmark here

"I can't believe it... Can there be a more inane twist than that? I mean, Helen-sama can be a bit weird, she often acts like a child, wears eccentric dresses and accessories, needlessly puts cosmetic even though she doesn't need it and..."Bookmark here

Alliona couldn't finish her sentence as Helen grabbed her face with an unpleased countenance.Bookmark here

"Mhmm, so I'm like a child, I wear weird garments, I dolled-up for no good reason and..?" Helen renacted Alliona's words in a monotone.Bookmark here

"Uhmmmm... Helen-sama... erm..." a stammering Alliona said while seeking help from the attendant, who in turn, feigned ignorance by sorting the plates they used for dinner. "Ah, you heartless traitor!" was all Alliona could muster in her head at the moment.Bookmark here

"Geez, it's so cruel of you. To think you're casually dissing me when I'm in front of you. I'm hurt, Alliona. My heart can't take the pain! Ugh, woe is me......" a dramatic Helen said as she fell her head straight into Alliona's lap.Bookmark here

Alliona softly comforted Helen via head patting. "Umm, Helen-sama. It's nothing like that... I just merely misspoke."Bookmark here

"Mhmmp, but nevermind that. So your parents eloped, lived quietly then bore you at some point. It's so nice... It's so nice..." Helen said with an envious tone, munching on her fingernail at the same time. "But to think those wonderful parents of yours were gone now... It's truly a shame." she added then uprooted herself from Alliona's comfortable lap. She then sat and reversed their positions. Now, it's Alliona who's in Helen's lap.Bookmark here

Alliona couldn't utter a word. Thoughts of her parents suddenly filled her mind. Quivering while trying to prevent her tears from gushing out, Alliona just gripped Helen's skirt tightly. The adult then gazed at the cloudless sky clad in starry colors.Bookmark here

"While I've yet to become a parent myself, I'm sure your wonderful mother and father are looking after you up above. They are now mingling as bright lights up in the sky, guiding you so you won't get lost."Bookmark here

"Helen-sama..."Bookmark here

A long pause persisted. Cicadas can be heard loudly chirping on the background. For about twenty seconds, the silence was clearly taking over the current mood, until Helen comically covered her face in embarassment. "Uh, darn... I've become so pretentious just now, please forget it." Helen said, flushed beet red, trying to fan herself with her long, slender fingers.Bookmark here

Alliona took an ample time to reminisce her parents. His father and mother both smiling, doing respective works in their house. The kitchen was her mother's turf and the backyard her father's. The time she spent trying to learn how to cook and the time she did work on their little pig pets. Most of the flashbacks brought a good feeling to Alliona. She gazed upwards and looked at Helen, a woman of unbeatable charm. Their sights were locked for a moment.Bookmark here

"Thank you, Helen-sama. I sincerely hope you'll snag a husband sooner or later." Alliona stated with good intentions.Bookmark here

"Mhmmp, you cheeky crybaby." was all Helen can retort.Bookmark here

The night was tranquil. The elevated air circulated properly giving enough freshness to their tired bodies. A yawn finally escaped their mouths. The attendant quickly built a makeshift tent to house the mistress and soon, Helen bid her "Good night" to Alliona and to her attendant.Bookmark here

Following an ample quarter, the attendant took a thick linen fabric from one of their sack bags. She then covered herself with it and laid herself to the uneven ground. She also handed one to Alliona and said, "Please use this, Alliona-san. Make sure you take a good rest for tomorrow."Bookmark here

Alliona gave a gentle patting to her younger companion's hair. "Thanks. Good night and have a nice dream."Bookmark here

*Bookmark here

Gourmet downed another glass of water, cranked his neck left and right, then dropped his elbow to the counter table.Bookmark here

"Good grief, at times like this, I'm really feeling my age." he said, still rotating his neck in a clockwise motion.Bookmark here

Eroi can be heard chanting "Old man, old man" in her seat with Bocchan trying to put a stop to her teasing to his dear Gourmet. The boy played his neutral stance as always, he listens and properly responds to every regular who talks to him. He can already be regarded a regular even if it's just his first time in the establishment. The lively variety of conversations inside the establishment, albeit noisy, continued. Bookmark here

"But seriously, I can't help but be surprised at how easily you became part of our circle. Usually, it takes three or four returns before the folks here warm to new recruits." Gourmet said.Bookmark here

The boy released a weak laugh. "For real? Thank you very much, everyone!" he said, bowing respectfully to his elder regulars, who in return perform some sort of a cheering applause.Bookmark here

"Oh, I kinda remember Eroi's first time here. She was wearing her high school uniform if I recall. She also had her nerdy glasses back then. Man, talk about a blast from the past!" Gourmet said, instantly receiving Eroi's glares as a feedback.Bookmark here

"Now that you mentioned it, I took a snapshot of Eroi's first time here. Lemme browse my gallery for a moment." Bocchan inserted as he scrolled multiple times searching for Eroi's commemorated photo.Bookmark here

Eroi erupted on her seat, reaching for Bocchan's phone, but the latter anticipated the lady's usual temperament so he managed to evade something like a cat swipe attack from his classmate.Bookmark here

"Oh, found it. Here, boy. Take a long gander at Eroi's highschool days." Bocchan tossed his phone, far from the reaches of Eroi who tried her best to prevent his classmate's actions. Gourmet again, rallied everyone and led a chanting "Take a look, take a look!" while having uniformed clapping as some sort of accompaniment. The phone landed on the boy's hands perfectly, but at that moment, he decided not to go with the flow. Instead, he just held it after locking the screen of the phone. Bookmark here

"Geez, let's respect Eroi-san's privacy." he said, while returning the phone to Bocchan.Bookmark here

Bocchan and Gourmet conceded their ongoing prank. They straightened their back in their seats and signalled their apologies to Eroi via a voiceless transmission.Bookmark here

"Besides, I'm new to this circle. I can understand Eroi-san being uncomfortable being seen by the likes of me." the boy said meaning every word literally.Bookmark here

Gourmet and Bocchan continued their conversation with the boy. Eroi, on the other hand, was silent concurrently. The topic still remains, the first time visits of each of the regulars. Gourmet, as expected, since he was close friends with the shop owners, was the oldest member. Dating more than 20 years as a regular, he emphasized the importance of the shop's practice to welcome every visitor, regular or not. Bocchan's experience dated back 11 years ago, no surprise since he's related to the wife of the shop owner. According to his own words, he first visited the establishment when he was 9 on a whim, after running away from his home.Bookmark here

"Hahahaha! I remember that! One day, a dirty boy entered, who lost one shoe along the way and your fly wide open. You were also pretty stinky like you swam in the sewers." Gourmet said, laughing hysterically on his seat.Bookmark here

"Geez, Gourmet-sama! Please forget all about it!" Bocchan responded, obviously embarrassed.Bookmark here

"I also remember that day. You almost gave me a heart attack, you rascal!" the ramen shop lady, giving Bocchan a light knuckle to his head.Bookmark here

Bocchan could only laugh silly, trying to appease her aunt. "I was still young back then..." he said clumsily scratching his scalp.Bookmark here

"Man, that's so nostalgic. That day, Ane-san really gave your pops a hell of beating! I won't forget that day, I swear." Gourmet added, still grinning like a drunk.Bookmark here

The reminiscing session had all kinds of stories. Other regulars shared their first time visiting as well. Some mundane reasons such as they came after receiving their first payday, some after failing their examination, some after they got rejected after confessing to someone. There were also those with ridiculous ones like when they allegedly heard rumours about the shop's trademark tsukumen having alligator meat. All sorts of random encounter but surprisingly, the regulars have all bonded, firmly forged by time and serious dedication to make the shop's practice live on to the next batch of regulars.Bookmark here

"Of course, some of the old regulars rarely come anymore, but when they do, it's like a family gathering." Gourmet told the boy, who keenly listens to everyone's story.Bookmark here

"This is why this ramen shop is special. Apart from just knowing each other's name, we don't require visitors to personally tell their background. Unless, they themselves share it." Bocchan added. "By the way, if you want to know the reason why I snuck out of my house back then, it's because my stubborn old man would not allow me to wear my pretty dresses."Bookmark here

"Hahaha, can you blame him? His sole son, his successor, prefers to wear girly frills over the uniformed suits." Gourmet stated, still laughing wildly.Bookmark here

"Can you believe my old man, he also keeps forcing me to get a dragon tattoo. He says it's the family's tradition. No way I'll have myself painted by such ridiculous design." Bocchan replied, with wrinkles displaying his annoyance.Bookmark here

"Dragon, huh? Somehow, I can imagine it'll look cool on you, Bocchan-san." said the boy innocently, still left in the dark of Bocchan's lineage.Bookmark here

"Cool, you say? Mhmm..." Bocchan pondered, with a clenched fist covering his thick lips.Bookmark here

"Don't you dare think about it, babe." said the ramen shop lady who suddenly leaned on the counter and gave Bocchan a sweet smile. But to Bocchan's perspective, that smile is equivalent to a death glare only her beloved aunt can do.Bookmark here

"Yes, aunt! I swear, I didn't really consider it! Not one bit!" Bocchan replied with a salute to show how serious he is.Bookmark here

Gourmet snickered silently on his seat. "That's Ane-san for you. Only she can ignite fear through a divine smile."Bookmark here

"She kinda reminds me of some optional boss from a game that you'll find impossibly tough to beat before endgame." the boy responded, with eyes fixed at the ramen shop's lady kind facial expression.Bookmark here

"Oh, you've hit a nice analogy there, boy." Gourmet replied, tapping the boy's back with little force. "You see, we have a ironclad rule here. And that is not to get on the bad side of Ane-san."Bookmark here

"I'll keep that in both my heart and mind." the boy declared in whisper. "But what's the deal with Bocchan and the ramen shop lady anyway? Bocchan had two gigantic, scary-looking bodyguards and his aunt on the other hand..."Bookmark here

For some reason, the boy felt a cold stare from somewhere. Whether his mind playing tricks on him or not, he felt he knew where the feeling originated. With him half-expecting he's right, he meekly directed his sight, slowly towards the ramen shop lady. They soon locked gazes, with the latter, still wearing a gentle smile but all the boy could feel was a cold sensation running through his spine.Bookmark here

Whispering on their seats, Gourmet and the boy continued their secret discussion. Bocchan, who somewhat recovered from her aunt's intimidation noticed the boys' bonding.Bookmark here

"Hey, what are you two whisperin' about? Lemme on to it, too!" he said, leaning to Gourmet's back, much to Gourmet's surprise who shivered at the spot for unknown reasons.Bookmark here

"Well, I was wondering what's the deal with your bodyguards and why your aunt has a strong impact." the boy said, with an awkward smile on his face. He knew he's overstepping his authority by trying to learn a somewhat personal information regarding his fellow regular.Bookmark here

But contrary to his expectations, Bocchan easily disclosed the answer to his questions. "My family is yakuza. That's why my pops wants me to have a dragon tattoo on my back to showcase me as his successor. My bodyguards are just for decoration. Those two are so kind, they won't even hurt an ant or a fly. Don't let their looks give you the wrong impression."Bookmark here

The boy gaped at the revelation. For some moments, he dropped his face to his palms and stayed quiet. Soon, he goes back to his usual demeanor. "And your aunt?"Bookmark here

"Well... about her..." Bocchan paused, sneaking a look at her aunt, working diligently on the cash register. "She's my pop's elder sister. Originally, she was about to be the heir to our faction, but as you know, she didn't take it nicely and walked her way out of her obligation. Through sheer force, that is."Bookmark here

Another gaping moment occurred. The boy can be seen shaking his head, pressing his temples, all sorts of actions of a person trying to calm oneself. "You're not pulling my leg, are you, Bocchan-san?"Bookmark here

Bocchan immediately replied, "I wish I am. But that's 100% true in every essence."Bookmark here

Gourmet entered the conversation with a silent laughter, obviously trying his best not to draw the attention of the lady boss. "The look on your face, I can never get tired when someone learns that this crossdresser here's the sole son of a yakuza boss and his aunt, the legendary motor gang leader known in this region as the 'Gentle Lioness'."Bookmark here

The boy was so impressed he subconsciously started to whistle a cat-call tune, to which Gourmet and Bocchan immediately covered the boy's mouth before he could finish his whistling.Bookmark here

"You idiot, you wanna get us kicked out here?!" they both scolded the boy in whispers.Bookmark here

"My bad, but your aunt's just so freaking cool." the boy explained, still hyped from hearing the revelation.Bookmark here

"At any rate, now that you know the secret, you'll bear responsibility to keep it to yourself. Unless you want to get punished by my aunt. She's relentlessly frightening, I tell you. Even my pops, a yakuza boss shivers at hearing her sister's name." Bocchan said, with a stern tone to his voice.Bookmark here

The boy didn't answer. He just gulped the air stuck in this throat. Bocchan went back to his seat, still gesturing his fat index finger crossing his lips to the boy. Before the boy could strike another question to Gourmet, he felt a weak tug on the edge of his uniform.Bookmark here

It was Eroi, who for unknown reasons, went completely silent for quite a long while. She looked meek with an abashed mien, conflicted pouty lips and reddish blush on her cheeks. The sight of the usually flashy and imposing lady, gave the boy butterflies in his stomach. He confirmed that the lady sitting beside him is one hell of a looker which made him a bit self-conscious.Bookmark here

"Erm... umm... it's not that I don't want you to see my old photo." she softly said, looking down.Bookmark here

The boy, who doesn't understand her point, irresponsibly replied with a vague, "Oh..."Bookmark here

"Wanna see?" she asked, with a sweet tone that instantly took over the boy's interest. She then sneaked into the boy's private space and leaned her shoulders next to his. She signalled the boy to come closer as she prepares to show an old photo from her phone gallery. The boy, initially restrained himself to a safe spot, not too far, not too close, but unexpectedly was dragged in forcefully by Eroi herself, to the point the side of her voluptuous upper private parts is directly touching the boy's elbow.Bookmark here

"Umm, Eroi-san... Your... this is quite... too... much... for..." the boy stuttered, trying to get Eroi to notice the situation.Bookmark here

But Eroi's insistence was at its peak. She interrupted the boy who couldn't finish his stammering sentence. "Tsk... just stay put. Here, your free to look, but don't stare at it too much, okay?" she said, with a very feminine half-smile on her face.Bookmark here

The boy could only do what he was told. He then willed himself not to think on how soft and supple the side of a mountain in his elbow. For a teenager, such thoughts would prove futile, but as soon as he got a good look of an old photo of Eroi, he was frozen stiff. After an ample amount of silence, he uttered words that turned Eroi's face into a comical mess.Bookmark here

Gourmet who watched the entire sequence, could only display a grin to his face. "What an interesting turn of events." he said as he dropped his chopsticks to his empty ramen bowl.Bookmark here

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