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Noodle Shop

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He could hardly be called an emotional man, but not a day goes by that Narook doesn't thank his lucky stars for the boys.

He can still remember them as they once were: alley children, chubby-cheeked kiddos burned by gunfire, babyish bodies marked by smoke; they could not read, and yet they were already proficient in the language of gang fights and hidden knives. They were six and eight and they belonged to no one but the toothy, careless, red specter of miserable poverty.

He'd bring them bowls of broth on occasion, a leftover pastry for the younger child (Bolin, a thumb in his mouth), piles of newspaper for the older boy to make a fire with (Mako, lightless eyes).

That was the year Narook's wife (long sleeves, quick smile, cutting flowers on the doorstep) caught the plague, and her diseased fingertips and the pervasive odor of dead blossoms in her clothes kept him too occupied to think of poor urchins. It is difficult, after all, to consider the loss of another when you are sitting at a beloved's deathbed. But as he closed her blank eyes, Narook thought of missed opportunities, the ghosts of a life meant to be shared, a room for two people, for a family. Her innocence lingered with him, long after she was lost, reminding him of Bolin's tiny hands holding Mako's collar, his mewls of hunger. They too had been cheated out of soft heart and solid home, they too mourned the quiet heat of a supportive hand, a palm pressing into the small of their backs, helping them up. Narook went through his empty house, slowly picking up withered panda lilies for a few moments before suddenly chucking them away (she would be ashamed, seeing me choose dead flowers over dying boys).

That afternoon he spent four hours looking for Mako and Bolin, finally finding them on the docks, staring out into the still waters of the bay. Mako watched him approach with unconcealed suspicion, tightening his grip on Bolin, but he did not move away.

Hello. Um, there's a job opening at my noodlery. Two openings, in fact. If you kids are interested.

Narook sees them now, sixteen and eighteen, going about day-to-day life, reveling in the knowledge that the sadness of their black childhood has not embittered them. In fact, if anything, it has softened this pair of luminous boys, guiding them into warm and uncomplicated adolescence. Mako spends the working hours in the kitchen, a plaid apron tied around his waist, measuring out spoonfuls of crushed ginger root in a pot, stirring with a gentle, almost affectionate hand, a soothing, nearly paternal touch. He is quiet and expressionless while he works; he grinds spice, bringing soft, fragrant substance to simple dishes, he follows the steps of a recipe as methodically as he once carried out orders in turf wars.

There's something different about the boyish ex-soldier, though, a certain capacity for lightheartedness that was not there before. For instance—when a customer is pleased with a meal, Bo will boom "bro! They love it! They really love it!" And Mako, sharpening knives in the kitchen, will pause his work to let his head rest against the wall, arms wrapped around his body, unable to suppress a grin of satisfaction, a breathy laugh.

Bolin has grown into broad, bear-like shoulders, reaching to clear tables with adult limbs, and yet he remains a simpleton, a youth like the spring season—breezy, foolish, entirely too kind-hearted. Still, it's impossible to begrudge him this when he is so dimpled and dapper, greeting the regulars with childlike, easy earnestness that bewitches young ladies and housewives alike.

Bo wears a polka-dotted bow tie and slippers with wheels crudely affixed to them—a foolhardy invention of his own design, meant to increase his speed while waiting tables but only succeeding in causing catastrophic, comical collisions. And yet the girls don't seem to mind when Bo topples into their laps, so Narook decides to let him be until he finds a suitable opportunity to nab the shoes (Mako is two steps ahead of him, grabbing his wayward brother and prying the wheels off with a spatula before the next round of customers arrives).

Narook admires one brother for his determination, another brother for his charm, both for their unusual and tremendous tenderness. He sees them sitting side-by-side on a bed, the light from an open window on their faces; Mako picking out the tangles in his brother's hair, Bolin turning a panda lily over in his hand. He is struck by his fondness for them, fondness he didn't think he'd feel again, and when they turn to him ("g'morning Narook" "hey Mister N!"), he can't help but smile and think—these are my boys.