Chapter 2 - Living for the Next Meal
“Whoah whoah…let’s take a breather, here,” Arata requested, holding out his hands. Leaf and the four around him stepped back to gain some distance. Kazuki and Jomiko stepped forward to keep the reach, with Kazuki reaching for his sword at his back. After all, they were close range fighters, a pugilist and a swordsman, and the others were ranged, a mage and a bowman. Marmalade’s hands bloomed, ready to strike. Leaf’s string whined in a whisper, tightening to its limit.
“Guys c’mon, this is stupid! He conned us all!” Pixa yelled out.
“You want to rob us?” Jomiko asked, fuming. Arata reached his hands for the hilts of his swords.
“Leaf,” Ringo complained, on the verge of tears, “they’re our friends!”
“No, we’re our friends, you know what’s at stake. We need that pay.”
She lowered her gaze at that, in acceptance. Arata did not know what was at stake but it seemed to important. The matter of the fact was they had no hopes to beat Leaf, his team was ranged and had a healer, while their team was mostly close-combat, and had Pixa, who wouldn’t be of much use against them. He hadn’t drawn his swords yet, even if he was ready to use them.
“How ‘bout this,” Arata interjected to maybe suggest a better outcome to that impasse. “We have some money saved, we’ll give you all we have, and in turn--”
“What? Screw that, I’m not giving them my money,” Jomiko interrupted with an offended yell. Arata ignored it.
“In turn… you forfeit your share on what the old man owes us.”
“…Why? You know as well as I do he probably doesn’t have what he owes us.”
“He’s bound to have enough for a meal,” Arata smiled, harmlessly, “that’s good enough for me. If you guys need money so desperately, all you needed was to ask.”
“Oh, I like that! I don’t have a problem with that at all,” Pixa nodded excited at the idea and Ringo looked at Leaf also with a twinkle of bright hope.
“Sure,” Kazuki stated since he didn’t even need to eat anyway.
“Well, I do!”
“Thing is, I can tell ya right now, Jomiko doesn’t save money at all,” he gestured apologetically, “I promise it’s not worth fighting us over what little she has.”
“Hey screw you!”
“Or you can take ours and call it a day.”
Arata didn’t weaken his grasp on of the swords. If he gave Leaf an easy fight, he’d probably choose to take them down, take their money and sell their clothes and weapons while he was at it. Leaf had to be convinced it wasn’t worth it, and the way he was looking, he needed that extra motivation.
Truth be told, their weapons would probably sell really well, Leaf was thinking, while Jomiko was itching to kick Leaf’s butt just to knock some humility into him.
Who does he think he is?
Alas, Ringo’s presence seemed to sway him. Leaf side-glanced at Ringo, knowing she would think too ill of him if he fought even after that reasonable offer. He lowered his bow.
“Yay thank you!” Ringo yelled out with glee, hugging him. Marmalade also lowered her hands, the glow dissipating in the wind with a couple of flimsy sparks.
Arata smiled, raising his hands from his swords, and Leaf looked at the victorious smile with spite. Ever the goofy one, Arata was always the one to come up with these things. Any other offer would be unacceptable; any other circumstance would enable Leaf to rob them naked without Ringo thinking too ill of him.
He put the arrow back in the quiver as Miyagi, who had yet to relax, finally stood up straight.
“Well, some other day, eh, Kazuki?” Miyagi smirked.
“Hmpf,” Kazuki let go of his sword’s hilt.
“Jomiko,” Arata poked her, “we’ve reached an understanding. You can relax now.”
“Pff, fine, be all the idiots you wanna be,” she complied, relaxing her stance, “but I’m not working with these jackasses again,” she added, turning around.
“I’ll be waiting at the tavern. Join me when you’re finished giving all your possessions away.”
“We will,” Arata said, apparently unbothered by her snark. That usually only made her angrier, and yet, he never bothered even pretending to be offended or insulted.
There wasn’t much more to talk about. Miyagi was content enough but the rest remained quiet, unwilling to recover from the tension.
Except for Arata, of course, he whistled away victoriously to himself, if a bit quietly. While he reached for the pouch where he kept what money he had.
Jomiko headed for the tavern, unabashed by the fact it stood the opposite side of the town.
I’m outta here. I don’t wanna watch these losers give away their money.
Once there, without hesitation, she asked for a drink of milk with a side of bread with cheese. When it finally came, the fresh scent alone seemed to have a heart-warming effect on her. She sighed in an attempt to let it overcome her but it wasn’t enough. She couldn’t stop thinking of the old man, or imagining herself repeatedly punching Leaf’s smug face, grabbing him by those pointy Fea ears of his and shaking him around before kneeing him in the groin to hear a begging apologetic whimper.
She sighed, they were happy thoughts, all and all, which were interrupted by a drunk-ish voice.
“Well hello there, pretty girl,” the smell of his breath alone washed away all the effects that the warm milk had inflicted on her. That and being called girl.
She looked at the source and saw it was a Lan, a cat though his ears slumped like a dogs’.
“Clear off,” she told him with squinted eyes.
“C’mon now, don’t be so stingy, love.” He leaned into her private space on the counter, having sat on the stool right next to hers.
“I said piss off,” she waved and pushed him off the stool and he was so drunk he actually fell, plastering himself pathetically across the floor. She just shrugged, though, and resumed her meal unbothered.
The taste of the bread and cheese was really good, especially since she hadn’t eaten in a day. She took too large a mouthful to swallow and, out of frequency of practice with choking on food, simply held her breath, and calm, as she brought the glass of milk to her mouth to wash it down.
And then another voice called out to her from behind,
“You think that’s any decent way to treat my heartbroken friend?”
She stopped with a whispered groan, gulped the whole thing down to her stomach and put the glass down. A bit strong.
She looked at the bartender annoyed for a second before cracking her neck for comfort and intimidation. Then she turned around, and opened her arms, defiantly leaning back her elbows on the counter with a cracked smile across her very impatient face.
“This is really not a good day to get on my nerves,” she warned the group of five, all multi-colored cats; bums and vagrants. One of them was helping the drunk stand back up.
“That’s not the only thing of yours that we’re gonna get on, today, rodent,” said the apparent leader, a black muscled one with white streaks here and there, in patterns. He had one crossing his face as well, and by his poise, he seemed to consider it a scar or something. He had a decently sized sword which he threateningly drew. She closed her eyes and shook her head in disapproval.
“Tss. So, out of respect for the bartender, I’m giving you two seconds to put that back. And piss off.”
“Or what, missy?”
The other ones reached for the hilts of their weapons, swords and staffs, but it didn’t matter. The two seconds went by fast, and after that, she went faster. The weapons never left their scabbards and sheaths, or in that one case, the thin piece of cord holding it together to the belt.
She pushed herself off the stool and quickly swiped her right hand, slapping the sword out of the way with such swiftness it just flew from the man’s grip. Following the motion, she turned it ahead and jabbed at the man’s throat, following with a strong left punch, carrying her weight as she stepped firmly onto the ground, which sent him flying back.
She stepped one more step inside, half-spinning and ducking, and shoved each fist into a stomach. The two lowered their heads in pain just as she hopped; she kicked each with one foot while opening her arms to swiftly punch the remaining two cats.
None of them were quick enough to react. The four cats just jerked back-first to fall on the ground, knocked out, while the first rammed himself against the wall that was at one point in front of her, but was now behind.
She landed swiftly and unbothered, hearing the sword she had first hit clank into the side wall of the place.
Jomiko then turned towards the drunk, grabbed him by the collar of his Jerkins, and lift him close to her face.
“Before you pick people to break your heart, pick friends that won’t break your nose.”
“Mah…but mah nose ain’t—“
She jabbed with her head and the drunk cat jerked his back, his nose now bleeding. She dropped and left him to grab at his face in complaint, and turned in the direction of the first brawler. The leader of the group that had ruined her meal. He was getting up with a surprised and confused look.
“This is why you don’t mess with strangers, you idiot. Next time, listen to the threats,” It wasn’t Jomiko who had spoken, though. She stopped and looked aside to find Kazuki.
The tavern had more people in it, but as one would expect, they were keeping to themselves. For mostly that reason, she didn’t really act like they were there at all.
“How do you know I warned him?” Her voice was loud and irritated.
“You always give words of warning, to compel them to push their luck,” Kazuki shrugged a smile and a small giggle brought Pixa into view.
Jomiko smirked, glad it was just the four of them again. She turned back to the still conscious Lan, who didn’t really know what to do now that her friends were blocking the door. So he did the only thing he could:
“Please, please, I meant nothing.”
“You meant rape,” she said in anger. It wasn’t true, the guy was just talking, but she felt like scaring him.
“No! I was messing, honest, I’d never do something like that. To anyone!”
“You’re a good guy, huh?” And this time, it was Arata, approaching with the rest. He looked at Arata and saw in his expression that great doom would fall on him if he didn’t manage to find a non-violent way out of the whole thing.
“Then I’m sure you’d feel compelled to pay for the damage done to this place, hm?”
Pixa giggled. “Yeah, I mean, it’s not much anyways,” she added.
“O-of course, whatever--”
“And I’m sure you wouldn’t mind paying for a bit more food for me and my cute friend here,” Arata gestured at him and Pixa, “we were just robbed, you see? And we haven’t eaten in a while.”
“What? I—yes, I mean, yes, of course!” He looked down in defeated compliance, “here, this is all I got on me. Hope it’s enough, should be, at least.” The cat gave them a small money pouch, which Jomiko harshly swiped off his hand.
“Well thanks, now go on, get outta here!”
The man skittishly ran off. Jomiko went back to her stool, followed by her teammates. The murmur of the tavern returned, and with it, the more appropriate attitude of someone who’s occupying the same public space than other people.
Keeping to themselves, and talking in a low voice, they worked out how much money the bartender needed, and spent the rest on food. Arata got a salad and also some milk and Pixa got some fruit and water. Kazuki, of course, didn’t eat.
And thus, the four sat there, eating.
“So, do you feel better, Jomiko?”
“I guess. Considering we’re broke yet again,” Jomiko complained. Even though the brawl and the food had considerably improved her mood, the fact they had been conned and betrayed still frustrated her. “If we keep going on like this, we’ll never be able to just… stop. And enjoy ourselves.”
“You’re the one spending most of the money,” Pixa noted in innocence.
“Shut up,” Jomiko reacted, twitching her nose flustered.
“We should hunt down that old man, and see what he can get us. He clearly won’t have what was agreed, but we shouldn’t focus on that,” Kazuki reminded, ever focused on what to do next.
“Better than letting it go,” Jomiko agreed in a mouthful.
“Then we’re wasting time. He’ll only get further away.”
“We haven’t eaten in a while,” Arata pointed out.
“Yeah! Half an hour won’t cost us the chase,” Jomiko concurred, waving the concern away.
“Yes please, I am really hungry,” Pixa noted, taking an effortful bite out of her big round piece of fruit.
Arata hummed in agreement, not really bothered enough by all the chewing not to add, “let’s stop for a minute – or thirty - and enjoy ourselves.”
A clear reference to Jomiko’s complaint earlier. That made her stop, right in the middle of a bite.
Her eyebrow twitched angrily, aware Arata had basically stated that her final motivation to accumulating money was, essentially, to do exactly what they were doing right then. In other words, he pointed out she contradicted herself, like the fool she was.
And as ever, they were supposed to think it was a coincidence, that he didn’t mean it.
“Arata…one of these days…”. He lightly laughed.
“That’s how we live, Jomiko. We adventure, we explore, we discover, with no greater goal than making it to our next meal.” He took another bite, and as he chewed, he joyfully added, “so another day well spent!”
“You were conned and then robbed, and you say it was a day well spent?!”
“An ill day…well spent,” Kazuki put forward, and Arata pointed at him excitedly.
“Thank you, yes! Exactly. We did beat the mighty beast of these lands! That was awesome.”
Despite her frustration, she couldn’t deny it. She wasn’t unhappy, and at the end of every moment, that’s mostly what mattered. And at the end of every moment, that’s mostly what she got when travelling with those three, which was why she hadn’t left yet, and why she felt so much better now that Leaf was gone.
They would eat, content, and then they would pursue the con-man, content. And like that they travelled: content and, without a doubt, sufficiently happy.
Jomiko burst into laughter. Then, with a proud foreboding tone, she added, “he hasn’t been the first to try and screw us over.”
“And he won’t be the last,” Kazuki said.
Jomiko laughed, again excited, “let’s finish this meal already; we got another quest on our hands!”
“Indeed!” Arata agreed, bringing the bowl of salad to his mouth.
The bartender then approached them, timidly and cautiously requesting that they be quieter. They laughed, except for Kazuki, who found the effort too strenuous but, in the light of fitting in, lent himself to lightly smile.
They finished the rest of the meal in friendly peace.
After that, they crossed the gate back out into the wild world, the four alone, again, to pursue a con-man and thus bring an end to their most recent undertaken quest.
“Alright, let’s go,” Arata and Jomiko, ever energetic, led the march while Pixa and Kazuki led the rear, Kazuki with his indifferent, some would say cool, manner and Pixa either talking to him or thinking of things to talk to him about.
Once again, they braved the lands.