Chapter 10:

When it rains, it pours

Toaru Ramen no Hanashi

"Father! Father! Father!" shouted Helen, as she crawled on the ground with a struggle.Bookmark here

It happened in a split second. The baron along with Helen who are treading the way back to their mansion after checking their sugarcane plantation in the outskirts met a lightning-fast incident without any forewarning. The wagon they were riding, was split into tiny pieces of wood after colliding with a proud oak rooting itself on the rough road with a force enough to damage the century old tree.Bookmark here

Helen, in her daze, soon realizes the state of her lower body. It is so hefty she can't stand up to her feet. Apparently, one of her leg was crushed from the impact and its color evidently shows the severity of the injury she suffered. But amidst the pain she felt to the point of shrieking, she thought of her father who just before the collision embraced her tightly, hoping to mitigate any damages his daughter will received. As Helen hovered her double-visioned eyes, she found her father lying at least five meters away from her. Squinting her eyes to help her regain the optimality of her sight, she can't help but to call on her father to inspirit herself from the sense of loom building inside her gut. A single answer from her father would have easily eradicate what she was feeling, but as she crawl, inch by inch, with not even a remote sound of groan in the surroundings aside from hers, Helen's eyes tears as the rain fall simultaneously.Bookmark here

Days later, Helen opened her eyes with a searing sense of migraine. She felt her head was about to split from the pain that resounded a scream inside the baron's mansion. Naturally, the viscountess, her twin siblings alongside a few manservants immediately came to her aid.Bookmark here

A well-known doctor soon arrived at the baron's mansion. He intricately looked at Helen's condition, particularly her broken leg which he assumed will be needing at least three months to heal and another three months to complete recovery. Helen, tired from all the screaming she did earlier, falls into another slumber after taking a pain-reducing drug. Still, news about her father's death has yet to grace Helen's knowing.Bookmark here

After days of repetitive and hectic examinations, Helen finally was able to reach a slight improvement. In that particular morning, she was able to eat her food and take her drug as instructed by the doctor. The viscountess, along with her friend maid, took Helen to the garden for a change of scenery. Helen, after seeing the bright sky and the usual vast garden filled with lots of green botanical life, smiled for the first time in a long while.Bookmark here

Her mother and her maid soon made frequent eye-contact. As expected, they were pondering on how to inform the news to Helen without stressing her, putting yet another suffering to her already weakened body. But as they discuss via wordless facial gestures, Helen dove straight to the point.Bookmark here

"Did father suffer?" she asked in a somewhat broken voice.Bookmark here

The viscountess grimaced before answering. "No, dear. He left knowing you were safe, so I'd say he peacefully passed on."Bookmark here

Helen's eyes teared again, but a smile was planted on her face. "I see..." she said, swallowing the air in her throat.Bookmark here

As aforementioned, Helen's father took the brunt portion of the impact and with his wide build, was able to shield his daughter against a possibly more severe injury that may lead to death. Helen requested time for her to be alone which her mother and friend granted without saying a word. They went back inside the house while Helen wept silently in her seat, reminiscing her father who in the last months, had toned his pompous attitude and was actually practicing an improve leadership to his constituents. Gone is the abusive noble who doctors the market for profits, who oppresses the masses with huge taxes, who looks at people with lower status as if they are mere cockroaches to be stepped on. The good three months since her sister's incident, had transformed the baron into a lenient patron, who gently treated the servants in his house with respect, and a kind father who listened to his offsprings and wife's inputs in about almost everything.Bookmark here

Helen continued to cry with a deep tinge in her chest. Losing her sister and father in a span of half a year brought a profound sadness that propelled her tears to flow without reservations.Bookmark here

A week passed by and in that day, Helen, still in a crutch, asked her mother if she can visit her father's resting place. Ambivalent at first given Helen's current condition and some other worrying factors, the viscountess permitted her daughter's request.Bookmark here

Tagging along were his younger brother, who is concerned about his sister's shape and her friend maid, aside from the carriage driver. It was a day with a dull overcast and looming rain that can pour at any given moment. Arriving at the private mausoleum where her father is resting eternally, Helen asked her friend to help her in her posture. As she leaned her left hand towards the maid's farther shoulder, she clasped her fingers altogether in an awkward angle to silently offer her prayer. Naturally, the maid supported her friend by hugging Helen by the waist as the younger brother held his sister's crutch.Bookmark here

Silence befell the barren gravesite, the clouds in the sky getting darker by the minute. After a solemn moment, Helen audibly let out a "Amen" signalling her companions to do the same. Done with paying her respects to her father, Helen and her companions readied themselves to return to the manor. After locking the iron door of the mausoleum to prevent grave diggers to access the remains of their ancestors, they tread back the way to their carriage. In an estimated three minute walk away from the private tomb, the overcast weather finally unleashed its load and without warning, the hard rainfall graced them. The cold droplets to Helen's nape brought back memories of her tragic accident making her lose her grip to the crutch that ultimately buckled her knees. With perfect timing, the maid anticipated her friend's fall and despite struggling, she managed to carry Helen into a shelter, more specifically under a huge mimosa solely standing in the middle point of the cemetery.Bookmark here

The younger brother told the maid that he will fetch their wagon driver, so for a while, only Helen and her friend are resting under the good cover while the heavy downpour blasts the ground with great force. Helen can be seen shivering and with her injured leg, she could not bend herself to sit on the ground, let alone hug her knees to induce heat within herself. The maid noticed her trembling friend and despite wanting to aid the situation, could not make any move since she herself only has her drenched self in a maid uniform.Bookmark here

Even though the rain continues to fire heavy droplets with quite a sound when it hits the land, a deafening silence radiated under the mimosa tree. Moments later, Helen by herself attained her calmness and somehow managed to hum a tune. Though unfamiliar to the maid's ears, it still managed to engrossed her. Until the end of the melody, the maid had close her eyes.Bookmark here

"My father used to hum that as a lullaby when I was a child... After all these years, I finally remembered its correct composition." Helen said, a half-smiled printed on her pale face.Bookmark here

"I can feel kindness on its every note. That was such a lovely and soothing tune, milady."Bookmark here

"I wonder... why does the heavens gives us such wearing trials to overcome?" Helen said, her wet bangs covering her eyes.Bookmark here

The maid waited five seconds to respond after reading the enveloping mood. As she formulates possible answers in her head, Helen continued to speak, as if she's talking to herself.Bookmark here

"It just keeps on piling... the pain, I mean." she paused. "Aren't they aware that a human heart can only take so much?"Bookmark here

The rain fell without regards to the volume it already unleashed. Puddles formed, little streams treaded downwards the inclined slope and the ground has been utterly drowned, yet there are no signs of it stopping anytime soon. The clouds remain dark and so is the ambience under the tough mimosa tree, which practically did an impeccable job sheltering Helen and the maid from the unforgiving outburst of the falling rain.Bookmark here

The maid is still unable to speak a word even if her focus was centered towards her friend. Though she wanted to throw an immediate reply, her mind kept notifying her that half-hearted answers will only make her friend feel worse, thus explains her anxious approach at the moment. Despite Helen's weakened state, her capable mind read her friend's silence as a considerate gesture.Bookmark here

"Sorry, for blabbing like a tragic character from a story." Helen told her friend, in an unusually upbeat tone. "I lived a very comfortable and lavish lifestyle without experiencing inconvenience and yet I talk like I'm the most unfortunate person in the world. I'm such a spoiled and hateful soul, right?"Bookmark here

"As if!" said the maid, who finally spoke a line. "If you're really such a crude and detestable person, then you won't feel like there's a hole in your chest. Like you were robbed of something significant that it makes you weak. Like your every step feels like you're gonna fall into a deep abyss..." she stopped, her breathing a bit agitated.Bookmark here

Helen plopped her head, her grip to her crutch just enough to support her posture. "I'm tired of asking the whys and hows. All I want to do is get back at my usual self, even if like you said, there's a gaping hole in my chest."Bookmark here

"Naturally... you're a gentle soul, but at the same time, you're not really that weak as you presumed."Bookmark here

"Thank you, my friend... but just for this day, I'll let my eyes decide everything for myself."Bookmark here

Helen walked out the mimosa tree and stood in the open space, soaking herself with the now-moderate rain. She raised her face and closed her eyes in the process. The maid was stuck in her position, unmoved under the protection of the tree shelter. She just stared directly to Helen, who is most likely seeking a closure to her grief.Bookmark here

After a while, the sound of a carriage echoed in the empty graveyard and both Helen and the maid positioned themselves in the very entrance where a rusty, metal gate proudly stood for who knows how much time since then.Bookmark here

Helen's younger brother apologized for his tardiness, but offered an explanation that the wagon driver moved to a nearby plaza to seek a brief siesta while in wait. Helen only smiled in response and they soon left for home.Bookmark here

Arriving at their manor's vicinity, a commotion was immediately noticed from the sounds echoing from the door's entrance. The one contributing the most noise was none other than the youngest daughter of the house, pulling a stunt of leaving the house and was expectedly stopped by her viscountess mother.Bookmark here

"Let me go! I've had enough of the gruelling atmosphere here!" shouted the ill-natured daughter, who drags some kind of suitcase in her hands, playing tug-of-war with a few number of maids.Bookmark here

The viscountess clenched her wrinkled glabella and sighed with visible distress. As per her orders, the maids slowly overwhelmed the third daughter who is rampaging like a wild bull to show her retaliation.Bookmark here

Helen, her younger brother and the maid slowly approached the scene and soon noticed an unfamiliar wagon in the side, well-hidden by the extravagant fountain in their garden. As expected, Helen inquired her mother of the situation.Bookmark here

"A betrothment?!" Helen gasped after hearing her mother's retelling. She slowly sat in a couch in their parlour, massaging a part of her nape.Bookmark here

The viscountess flapped her handheld fan, took the grandest seat before answering. "You heard it correctly... and the ones seeking your sister's hand in marriage is from our distant relatives in Saint Petersburg."Bookmark here

"Those scoundrels... they couldn't be more obvious in their interest of wrestling authority from our headless family."Bookmark here

The viscountess fostered a frigid mien. The reality of their dwindling authority attracting various enthusiasm from other noble families is nothing new to the dark plots among nobility. Still, despite a literal headless family, the viscountess holds a firm recognition with her ties in another high-ranking nobles in the capital. But the problem is much more complicated since the youngest daughter of the house voiced her intent to accept the engagement offer, much to the chagrin of the viscountess. Soon to be in her sixteenth year, the bad-tempered daughter is on the right age to wed if favorable dialogues were held between the two families.Bookmark here

Helen found another reason to uplift herself. The sudden wrench of fate is too much for her mother to deal with, so she decided to do everything in her current position to ease her mother's burdens.Bookmark here

After a while, a servant of the house knocked on the parlour's door. The particular servant inaudibly asked the viscountess an inquiry to which the noblewoman just nodded in response. Soon, the unfamiliar carriage in their garden left after being told by the servant in question. Helen didn't probe into her mother's decision and in her own way, tried to contribute as much as she can do in her current condition.Bookmark here

Her first attempt was to talk to her sister, who obviously was grumpy after her failed leave home stunt. As they conversed, the younger sister could only spout superficial reasons that left Helen exasperated and crestfallen at the same time. Their dialogue didn't last long as Helen was shown the boot after criticizing her sister's shallow view of their situation.Bookmark here

The younger brother welcomed Helen outside. He showed a conflicted half-smile and invited Helen to their veranda for a stint of stargazing.Bookmark here

"I know how stubborn she can be. But I didn't expect her to be this skin-deep as a person especially with what we endured this half a year." Helen sighed, showing a visible fume floating upwards the dark sky.Bookmark here

The younger brother rested his crossarmed elbows in a marble ledge and gazed towards the dark scenery. He spoke timidly like he used to and discussed how detached he felt his twin sister has become lately. He told Helen events involving him and her sister becoming a subject of baseless gossips in the school they attend. It appears that the twins have suffered numerous cases of slight bullying by the churlish nobles, who were once close friends of theirs.Bookmark here

Helen found a deeper understanding to their current plight. Their baron-less household is slowly treading into collapse if left unmanaged. The effect of her father's death has a deeper grip to the current climate especially in terms of nobility, thus one wrong move could undo everything her family has built over generations. But in the far corner of her mind, Helen was surprised to dig her previous gripes about her family's past misdeeds. At one point, she despised the exploits her family devised to gain huge profits at the expense of another person. Conflicted while looking at the few stars twinkling their best shine from afar, Helen randomly played her younger brother's hair before calling it a day.Bookmark here

Two weeks later, a formal letter from their distant relatives residing in St. Petersburg arrived in the hands of the viscountess, who is sitting on her deceased husband's study chair. Wearing a monocle in her left eye, Helen's mother examined the contents with diligence and after reading it twice, she carefully placed it on the table before walking onto a nearby window to take a short gander at her cherished garden. Helen, who was also present in the study, gulped the tension in the air as she awaits her mother's reaction.Bookmark here

After a couple of minutes, the viscountess retook her husband's chair and coughed once.Bookmark here

"It seems the suppose partner is the heir of their family. As expected, they are not even trying to hide their intentions."Bookmark here

Helen with an improved health, stood up from her couch and asked her mother if she can read the letter herself. After getting permission, she instantly reviewed the content and like her mother, took a few moments before uttering her assessment.Bookmark here

"As formal as it can be, I can find no faults in their written script." Helen said, giving the letter back to her mother.Bookmark here

"Yup, it's perfect. Normally, we could just ponder a bit and accept it wholeheartedly, but in this case, I just don't find myself signing my permission to this farce."Bookmark here

Helen nodded repeatedly, she put a couple of fingers in her chin and contemplated. "What's it gonna be, Mother?"Bookmark here

The mother sighed weakly and immediately answered afterwards. "Call your younger siblings and send a message to your older brother. Tell him to come here as soon as possible."Bookmark here

Time passed and Helen finds herself comfortable to stand without her crutch, but for obvious reasons, she still must rely on it for another couple of months. After she attended a dialogue with the workers in their family's sugarcane plantation, she returned to the manor to meet her older brother, who was installed as the head of the family weeks ago. Apparently, the new baron was to attend a noble gathering in another city to discuss something about a revision of a current bill regarding taxes. To Helen, it was a sensitive topic thus she directly pressed her matters to her brother preparing himself to journey.Bookmark here

"Brother, I'm sure you are aware of my stance. Do not just casually cast your vote without reminding yourself of our family's past mistakes. Our actions, given our status as nobles, will someday will be written to a certain history book and I refused to be judged, because we didn't rectify the wrongdoings when we have the opportunity to correct it." Bookmark here

A blunt confrontation put Helen's brother in the spot. Deep inside, the baron realized the jarring consequences of an insouciant voting and that it might put another crease to their diminishing prestige causing their family to further fall from grace.Bookmark here

At the same time when his older brother's carriage left their manor, another wagon of theirs stopped at their entrance. Coming out of it is the younger brother, who just finished his daily studies to a nearby academy. Worth noticing is that he is the only one who got out of the carriage implying that his twin sister has officially left their household to be wed to their distant relatives in St. Petersburg.Bookmark here

Helen greeted her younger brother with an embrace, putting the adolescent boy to redness. Afterall, Helen who became twenty turned into a popular figure in the whole city of Novosibirsk, for her sheer beauty and outstanding personality. As she assumed the most of the menial tasks of the baron household, she gained the trust and compassion of the common people because of her kindness and easy-to-approach attitude contrary to the usual proud noble display. During those times, albeit often back-breaking, she learned a lot of things outside the knowledge obtained by reading the books standardized for nobility. With the help of her trusted friend in the persona of the maid, Helen relished every experiences she had working hard towards the betterment of her family.Bookmark here

But the curse working behind Helen's knowing continues to rust the foundation of her family's standing. The viscountess uncharacteristically fumbled a deal with the local merchants in their territory regarding their sugarcane merchandises. Apparently, the local merchants received a better offer from another noble who also deals in the same business line, leaving another conundrum to the growing dilemma of the baron household. With their sugarcane dealings effectively stalled, questions to the foreseeable future unexpectedly escalates within their own people. While the baron household with the lead of the viscountess and her eldest son drastically improved their treatment of the plantation workers, the growing recession is every common people's main concern thus making them edgy leading them to make premature decisions. As such, over half of the plantation workers demanded an immediate solution, if not, they will seek another employer who will provide them with a more stable livelihood.Bookmark here

The viscountess immediately tried her best to mend the situation, but just then, a certain rumor started to circulate in their city.Bookmark here

Mixed with half-truths about the previous baron's misdeeds, Helen's family found themselves in the center of a nasty gossip. While in her routine check on their plantation, Helen along with her maid was confronted by a small crowd of vexed commoners. After the forced stop of their carriage, Helen trodden her way outside her ride.Bookmark here

A representative from the commoners soon conversed with Helen. The daughter of the baron household conducted herself properly, with grace and respect to her dialogue partner, but even with such factors, the impromptu conversation turned sour. While still speaking her argument, Helen was directly hit by a rotten tomato in her face. The shot from the crowd came out of nowhere, jolting Helen to drop her bottom on the ground. Before the crowd could follow the sudden example of an unknown perpetrator, Helen's maid friend immediately prevented it by howling a loud yell.Bookmark here

"Do you have any idea what you are doing right now?! You are being unreasonable without any valid reasons! The rumors about the baron household getting huge kickbacks from the signed tax raise is totally unfounded!" the maid loudly proclaimed while helping Helen to get back on her feet.Bookmark here

After getting her posture correct, Helen crudely wiped the thick residues of the tomato muck off her face. She also fiddled her dress and coughed once to clear her throat.Bookmark here

"I understand your frustrations and know where it's coming from. To be honest with you, if you ask me about the previous decade... if the rumors regarding the kickback is valid, then I'd say yes, it was definitely true." she stopped, fingercombing her hair towards her back. "I only learned of it almost two years ago, but I won't excuse myself from it. I will not spare myself for being ignorant about it for almost as long as I live in an extravagant and sheltered lifestyle. But if you ask me now, then there's no way in my good faith will I be able to look you straight in your eyes and say we're still doing the wrongdoings my family practiced in the past without feeling a tinge of pain in my heart."Bookmark here

After her speech, the majority of the crowd who realized their fault fell into silence.Bookmark here

"I swear in my life, the past exploit of tax kickbacks going to my family's pockets will never happen again. Me and my brother won't allow it and so is my mother." added Helen, who flashed a kind visage to the commoners previously enraged.Bookmark here

Convinced at her heartfelt words, a good number of commoners expressed their apologies to Helen which the noblelady graciously accepted. While not the entirety of the crowd, most of the commoners left with a good understanding of the current baron household stances since there is no denying the various improvements that were recently implemented that contributed greatly to their once impoverished way of living.Bookmark here

Returning that night to the manor, Helen and the maid secretly entered the bath together to get themselves cleaned. Amidst the relaxation, Helen can't help revisiting the earlier ruckus with curiosity.Bookmark here

"Taxes kickback, huh? I'd say karma has already catch up on the past misdeeds of my family." she blurted.Bookmark here

A small chuckle escape the lips of her maid friend. "If so, then it's done a heck of a poor job. There are far more worse plots out there that karma has yet to catch."Bookmark here

"Regardless, whether small or large, a wrongdoing is a wrongdoing." countered Helen as she rubbed the soap in her body.Bookmark here

"Of course, I'm not disputing that. All I'm saying is there's no way this is the work of karma." said the maid, washing her hair.Bookmark here

An intrigued Helen, waited a quarter of a minute to inquire her friend's statement. "What do you mean by that?"Bookmark here

The maid shivered after pouring a basin of cold water to herself. "Brrr... what I mean is there's no way such illogical thing such as karma could invoke a rumor. Basically, it was done by someone who considers your family as an"Bookmark here

The maid felt her eyes enlarging from a realization. She examined both of her hands shivering not from the coldness, but from a different cause. Helen noticed her friend's sudden silence and inquired.Bookmark here

"Hey, what's wrong? Are you okay?"Bookmark here

The maid who regained her composure from a short daze, tried to interject her usual jokes. "What's a gorgeous but balding lion called?"Bookmark here

Helen flatly stared at her friend's face with an unimpressed mien. "Even in your baddest days, you were never one to spout such a weak joke."Bookmark here

The maid was forced to laugh awkwardly. "Yey, time over. A dandy lion..." she said, with a few forced claps as well before dropping her head in a dejected fashion.Bookmark here

"Jokes aside..." spoke Helen, hovering her two hands horizontally from left to right. "Are you saying someone is purposely spreading rumors about us?"Bookmark here

"I won't say I'm fully certain, but rumors are unlike a mushroom which can bloom haphazardly on its own."Bookmark here

Helen rested her chin on a clenched fist. "Mhmm..." she mumbled as she dip herself into the spacious tub inside the bath chambers. Helen continued her deep thinking. Even though her friend's suggestion may be convincing, she cannot allow herself to jump into it without even a shred of evidence at her disposal.Bookmark here

"Hey, don't think much into it. I understand you're having a hard time buying into my conspiracy, but believe me, such plots are a commonplace plot in your world. I've seen nobles orchestrating other people's misfortune as if it's the most normal thing to do. It's sickening." the maid friend said, entering the tub and sitting in the space adjacent to Helen.Bookmark here

"No, it's alright. Your input has greatly helped my understanding in this matter. Not like I'm going to start suspecting other nobles, but it's another perspective to look at."Bookmark here

"I expected nothing less from you, milady. You're beautiful, wise and graceful, but too bad your younger sister had you beat in terms of the affairs about the other gender." teased the maid with a mischievous smile on her face that peeved Helen a little bit.Bookmark here

"Oh, don't you start on that... but I'm not going to lie, seeing my younger sister getting engaged to her partner brought a weird thought to my head. I mean, she's barely considered an adult and yet..."Bookmark here

"Hahaha! Don't worry, milady. I'm sure if you feel like it, you can grab the royal prince in a single wink."Bookmark here

"Please stop! We need to cease this unproductive banter at once."Bookmark here

"Sure, sure. You are sure fun to tease."Bookmark here

"Geez, you're such a mean-spirited friend."Bookmark here

"It's my pleasure, Helen-sama."Bookmark here

"Did I just compliment you? Why are you even blushing?!"Bookmark here

"Teehee, such is the perk of being a maid."Bookmark here

"Ugh, stop. And please remove your hands off my waist."Bookmark here

A few days later, Helen and the maid was yet again surrounded by a mob of irritated commoners. The crowd voiced their complaints towards Helen, who they thought failed at her promise. The pending issue that was the source of everyone's ire is the newly revised tax raise that was immediately implemented by the local lord, which means, it was an order by Helen's brother, the current baron of their small territory.Bookmark here

Helen showed a genuinely surprised look that even the crowd understood that the lady was left in the dark as well. However, even though they knew it themselves that complaining through her is not the right action, they can't help it as they were the ones who is going to bear the most grunt of this new bill that seeks to raise the taxes taken from the common people. The recession is already dire enough and now, they have to deal with yet another problem that will most likely push them into another level of poverty.Bookmark here

Helen rushed herself to their manor to soon confront her brother. As she arrived at the doorstep, she entered the baron's office without even knocking once and grabbed the collar of her older brother.Bookmark here

However, seeing the face of her frazzled brother brought Helen to an understanding that this matter is beyond the scope of a newly-instated baron such as her brother. After hearing her brother's explanation, Helen couldn't contain her urge to shout loudly in frustration. As per her brother's retelling of the noble meeting he attended a few days ago, several high-ranking nobles forcefully pushed the bill despite meeting an ample opposition from the lower echelon of nobility. The bill as aforementioned, will seek higher taxes that will instantly be implemented on merchandises, lands and other people's properties that is stated to be used to funds projects all over various territories to formulate a counter against the recession that is slowly crippling the country.Bookmark here

Resigning against the colossal scale of the problem, Helen urged her mother to set up a meeting with the commoners to discuss whatever means to mitigate the effects of the unreasonable tax bill that will take another heavy toll on the latter's lives. However, on the specified day of the meeting, literally no one came.Bookmark here

*Bookmark here

"Umm.. since when did we shift to the Helen route? I wish to go and reload the last save point of Alliona." the boy inquired, gesturing as if he's holding a controller in his hands.Bookmark here

Gourmet scratched the thick beard on his chin. "Hey, hey, I'm the one who's perplexed. When did you turn into a gaming nerd? Stop visualizing a screen in the open air, we're still far the age of virtual reality!"Bookmark here

A sigh escaped the other regulars' mouth. Eroi is visibly hyped as her favorite character has taken the limelight, Bocchan is fixing his lipgloss for a millionth time, the owners doing something in the kitchen and the boy finally dropping his unexpected gamer skit.Bookmark here

"Alright, I saved it in a 8gb memory card." the boy said, wiping an invisible sweat in his forehead.Bookmark here

"What decade are you on?!" Gourmet retorted with an obligatory slap on the boy's shoulders.Bookmark here

The ramen shop remains the same as ever.Bookmark here

"But wait... I know you're trying to build character, but Helen has usurped Alliona's thunder and to be fair, her story is far more gripping than our half-race heroine. But if I may be so bold, if this is a chapter on a weekly publication, this will surely earn a 2.245 out of 10 point rating from the avid followers of the series!"Bookmark here

"Good lord, what happened to you, boy? It's like you turned into that talkative but witty protagonist trope starring in a D+ tier light novel."Bookmark here

The boy felt Gourmet's retort and clenched his chest. He took a series of deep and slow inhales and exhales, then randomly recited a haiku, sang a do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do vice versa, coughed a bit and finally, straightened his posture. "Alright, I'm bac..."Bookmark here

"Of course, you're not!" Gourmet interrupted with another obligatory slap on the same shoulder of the boy.Bookmark here

Gourmet's agitation finally earned the other regulars' notice.Bookmark here

"Why are you panting so hard, old man? You're really such a disgusting chap." Eroi brutally blurted.Bookmark here

Gourmet felt like crying from the gal's remark, but opted not to. "Look, boy. I know you're confused about the way of the story, but that's how it is. It's necessary to give Alliona a perspective about money."Bookmark here

The boy pondered a bit and nodded with a positive-looking mien. "I see, then I'll submit the questionnaire with a 3.987654321 rating out of a possible 10."Bookmark here

Gourmet plopped his head dejectedly. The ambience inside the ramen shop is just as weird as any other time, but in this case, it was Gourmet's turn to be sober and not the one instigating a ruckus. After a few moments, he felt his hat being removed from his head. As he raised his face to look at who took his cowboy hat, the ramen shop lady gave him a familiar and lovely smile that made the old storyteller appreciate the beauty of his old friend.Bookmark here

"Ane-san, you're just as beautiful from 30 years ago. How fleeting are those times, eh?"Bookmark here

A blush line appeared on the ramen shop lady's face. "Erm... I'm sorry, but I'm already married." she said, flashing her ring finger.Bookmark here

Gourmet couldn't help but retort instantly. "Huh?! Why did I just get rejected? Can someone help me remember when did I profess my love to this married woman, who's a friend of mine since my university years?" said the old man, gripping his chest with tears in his eyes.Bookmark here

Eroi stood up from her chair and approached the oldest regular in his seat. She fiddled his half-black, half-grey hair and unexpectedly beamed a gentle smile. "My bad, old man. But even if we're stuck in an island, I'd rather get swallowed by the kraken trying to swin back to civilization."Bookmark here

"Why are you adding to my rejection tally? Since when did this become a rejection festival? Don't tell me I'll soon be hit with a three-hit combo?" Gourmet responded in panic, looking at a certain direction.Bookmark here

Just as his fears suggested, a frightening mien akin to a smiling phantom mask is printed on Bocchan's face.Bookmark here

"No... please no... oh, have mercy on me. I don't want to die yet." Gourmet silently pleaded, as he buries his head to his palms while praying.Bookmark here

The uproar continues to get skewed in a weirder direction. Gourmet, in his prayers, couldn't believe that the usual amiable establishment he enjoys frequenting could be more frightening than a well-rated haunted spot. While doing prayer chants of various renditions, a familiar fragrant took over his senses.Bookmark here

"Up you go, Gourmet. Please enjoy." said the deep voice, prompting Gourmet to open his eyes.Bookmark here

A tonkotsu-based ramen with Gourmet's favorite toppings and ingredients entered his vision. Still in a daze, Gourmet watched the steam from the bowl go upwards as it eventually dissipates into the air. It's freshly whipped by his friend, the chef himself, wishing him salutations on his most special day.Bookmark here

"Geez, why are you acting like a meek child? Are you finally repentant for all the troubles you caused us since time immemorial?" the boss asked, putting back the cowboy hat on his friend's head.Bookmark here

"Geez. We're old fogeys now so why do we have to remind it ourselves every year?" said Gourmet, fixing his posture.Bookmark here

The chef laughed in agreement. "Stop your nitpicking. At least it gives us reasons to be thankful that we're still alive and kicking."Bookmark here

Gourmet chuckled weakly. "Yeah, I suppose you're right. Thank, boss."Bookmark here

"No prob, man. Happy birthday." said the chef, who returned to his duties in the kitchen.Bookmark here

Gourmet then noticed everyone's attention on him. He sighed on his seat before looking back to the regulars who were just his listeners moments ago. Welcoming his sight were kind smiles and cheerful greetings. Afterall, it was his special day. Some of the old regulars even gave him some trivial gifts to show their appreciation to their time-proven camaraderie. Eroi and Bocchan, in particular, gave him a couple of ramen coupons from various first class ramen shops in the vicinity, earning a few glares from the ramen shop lady.Bookmark here

Gourmet, despite overwhelmed at the kind gestures, played an awkward hot-and-cold attitude. "You sure do love your old Gourmet, huh? You lots are such a lost case without me."Bookmark here

After sharing a few laughs with his friends, the ramen shop lady dropped in the counter to give Gourmet her present. "Here you go. It's on the house, old friend."Bookmark here

"Oh, thanks a bunch, Ane-san! You really do get what I want the most."Bookmark here

A gorgeous set of grilled meat toppings, perfect in color and has its usual mouthwatering aroma, put Gourmet in the happiest of moods. He immediately decorated it on his ramen and clapped his fingers before chanting "Itadakimasu!".Bookmark here

"By the way, that's both my gift and my sort of apologies for setting you up on a date with my predecessor." the ramen shop lady interject as Gourmet prepares to get his first mouthful.Bookmark here

As part of the cliche trope, Gourmet almost choked up even without having his mouth filled. "Oh yeah, I still have that problem. What are you gonna do about it, Ane-san?!"Bookmark here

"That's why, there." the ramen shop lady pointed to the abundant amount of toppings usually costing more than a thousand yen.Bookmark here

"Umm, do you really think you can bribe me with this and that ramen is that much important to me that I have to compromise my standards?"Bookmark here

"Hey, hey, hey. Weren't you using a ramen bowl as your pillow? I seem to recall you even offer incense to a noodle pack before sleeping."Bookmark here

"What kind of a ramen geek do you think I am?! I love my ramen, but not to that extent!"Bookmark here

"Oh, is that so? So maybe you just soak your feet with some stock or broth?"Bookmark here

"Stop! I can't follow your line of retorts anymore. More like, I'm already out of breaths. Please spare me!"Bookmark here

A resigned look on Gourmet immediately stopped the ruckus from getting reignited. He appears to be slowly trying to recover his breathing and even forgot he still has his chopsticks on his hands. After seemingly normalizing his previous panting, a soft tap on his shoulders slightly jolted him.Bookmark here

"Sensei... I finally found you."Bookmark here

The particular voice has Gourmet's face sweating buckets. Before he could face the owner of the voice, he carefully dropped his chopsticks and rotated almost a 180 degree turn.Bookmark here

"Oh, Mom. You're finally here." The boy casually said, immediately standing up offering his seat to a new shop visitor.Bookmark here

"Oh, thank you, my sweet and cool son. Mama's really excited after getting a text from you inviting me to a date." said the gorgeous lady in an OL's getup, wearing white blouse fitting her bottle-like figure, a standard 2 inches heel and and an expensively-looking black jacket.Bookmark here

The boy awkwardly smiled after hearing his mother blurted it with a loving blush on her face. "Yes, yes. Now, go take a seat. I'm sure you're tired from your work today."Bookmark here

"Oh, now that you mention it." the lady paused, sliding a scowl to her seatmate at her right. "It's because of a certain sensei, who already missed his deadlines, kept doing all sorts of dillydallying forcing me to work overtime to apologize to various printing press for the delays and the likes."Bookmark here

Her words pierced Gourmet like knives, as he felt hurt from every statement he heard. "Umm, it's not like I'm..." Gourmet prematurely interjected, earning another trademark scowl from the boy's mother, who apparently works for a well-known publication as a senior editor. Her assignment was none other than a pretty famous novelist, the old bearded man with a cowboy hat, playing hooky almost every time.Bookmark here

The ramen shop lady enters the center stage as she inquires the lady's preference for her order. "May I take your order, ma'am?"Bookmark here

The boy's mother discontinued her hostile mood towards Gourmet and immediately shifted into a bright countenance. "Oh, I'll have a light miso ramen. Please put a lot of bean sprouts though and please include two sets of seaweed toppings."Bookmark here

"Duly noted. I'll have it served in no time." replied the graceful ramen shop lady.Bookmark here

After getting her order done, the boy's mother finally dove straight into the matter. "Sensei, like I said, we're already way too delayed. We can't make another out-of-this-world excuses like "You were turned into a slime and was unable to write" or "you got mixed into a series of murder cases playing as a detective" to the printing press! They're gonna sue us at this rate!"Bookmark here

A coughed inadvertently escape Gourmet's mouth. "You were giving them such excuses?"Bookmark here

The lady straight away nodded. "Well, not like I have a choice. Do you want me to say that you're often not in your studio and just acts like a truant in his teens escaping his schoolwork?"Bookmark here

Gourmet's face grimaced, still with sweat continuously seeping out of his pores. "I already told you, I need a break. I just can't find my rhythm lately. I need a long vacation, to be exact."Bookmark here

A hateful frown was the editor's only response. No words were uttered, just a definitive look printed in her face.Bookmark here

The boy sat with the other regulars and sort of discussed the revelations that just unveiled itself on its own. While the other regulars already had their notions to it, they were still surprised that their talkative friend, is indeed a real-life author, known for various literary books out in the market. He even got a wikipedia page dedicated to himself.Bookmark here

As the editor and author continued to converse technical terms that involves their work, the boy noticed a gesture from afar, seemingly waving at his direction that prompted him to shift his gaze left and right, back to front. After confirming that the gesture is directed at him, he pointed a finger to his face which earned a nod from the person who sent him a signal.Bookmark here

The everchanging mood inside the ramen shop took another unusual turn.Bookmark here

"Now, Sensei. After this bowl, you must get back to writing a chapter and finish it within a week. That's all I can give you or else, me and my poor boy will be left in the streets. Huhuhu."Bookmark here

A sudden sob element pushed Gourmet to the brink of defeat. The beautiful senior editor, obviously faking with exaggerations, finally earned the victory as her assignment finally conceded.Bookmark here

"Fine, fine. But I need you to promise me as well, that you will talk to the chief-editor and have him give me a long break. My old brain can't handle this hectic workload!" Gourmet stated, crossing his arms with a wrinkled eyebrows.Bookmark here

"Of course, Sensei! Thank you..." she halted her words. "...but by the way, why are you here with my son?"Bookmark here

"No, no, no. That's my question! Besides, how did you find me here when it's like almost 10 train stations away from my workplace."Bookmark here

"Well, of course, my love for my son knows no bound." the editor said, putting her hands on her blushing cheeks.Bookmark here

"Hey, that's not the answer I seek... but whatever! At any rate, don't ever blab that I frequent this shop or else..."Bookmark here

The boy's mother instinctively covered her assets, trembling even. Though gorgeous as she is, Gourmet was forced to slam the table. "Since when did I become the straight man here?! I wish to reload my save from fifteen minutes ago!"Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.