Afternoons at the Harmony coffee shop were now filled with batches of trainees, all complaining. Not about the food and coffee, or the shop, but everything else.
Listening in on their conversations, full of sighs and grumblings, one would learn that the only thing good about that day was going to the coffee shop, having cheap good meals while talking about their woes. The only trainee who had no sad story to relate was Rowan. She had to fend off too many trainees giving profuse and unnecessary tokens of gratitude because she arrived at just the right moment.
“Look what Mara did!” One trainee displayed her wet tunic, bag, and books.
Another had a small bag of ice over his left cheek. “I ran into Juno. I had no money left.”
“The club was forced to surrender its earnings from the book sale,” one other sighed. “Or we’d lose the club room.”
Others mentioned trainees allied to the Metalworks, who followed orders under threat or for the feeling of control. There were many.
From the smallest table near the window, Chie listened silently, nodding in sympathy to many tales of taken lunches, punched abdomens, or water-program-soaked tunics. She watched Rowan while the redhaired server gave suggestions at each table along with the lattes and muffins. Occasionally she glanced at the cashier while he sighed deeply at each new tale.
“You always walk alone!” Rowan complained to several. “Haven’t any of you noticed that even if only one girl does the work, there’s another one nearby to help? You already don’t stand a chance at putting up a fight. You make it worse by making sure you’re outnumbered!”
Several sighed at once.
“No one wants to be with me, if it means getting attacked,” one said. “They’re still my friends, but they’re scared.”
The others nodded and muttered agreement.
“And here’s the other thing,” Rowan added. “I understand the heal and futuretell trainees, they don’t have offensive programs. But some of you do have them, and you’re good in class. Why don’t you practice on them?”
“And get into trouble with the teachers?” one spoke for the rest, who sighed.
Chie suddenly stood up and faced the people in the coffee shop.
“We should form a group!”
The customers all stopped and looked at her, creating a terrible silence. Fifteen pairs of eyes focused on Chie. She gulped.
“To do what?” Rowan rolled her eyes while she served the muffins.
“To….to….to help each other! To make sure the bullies don’t get their way!” Chie turned pale but kept talking rapidly. “We can’t have just Rowan doing all the saving! We…we…need to be as organized as Eloise’s group is, and help each other!”
“Oh, sure.” Rowan took up the tray. “And how are you going to do that?”
“Well….um…..um….we’ll first start with the people here,” she stammered as she gazed through the assembly. “We’ll divide them according to their year levels, then we’ll pair them up. Friends with friends, of course. Then we’ll let them meet other people who will also join the group. So when trouble happens, more people know each other. And if they’re in pairs, there will be less chance that the mean girls would attack, right?”
The trainees listened in stunned silence.
It made Chie stop. “Did I say anything wrong?”
They all shook their heads. “Go on, go on,” several said.
“Alright…..” Chie wiped the sweat off her forehead with a handkerchief. “I…..um….so when trouble comes, we’ll meet them in groups, in larger numbers. We’ll show them we’re not afraid of them. Or we’ll make enough noise so the teachers come and nothing happens.”
More of the listeners nodded while Chie spoke, but Rowan rolled her eyes again as she served.
“We’ll have a common meeting place that people can go to for help, or just for support,” Chie continued, her hands shaking. “We’ll ask about each other. We’ll make sure we know where everyone is, making sure that no one has to fight anyone alone…”
Rowan continued to calmly serve the food, harrumphing and smirking during most of the speech.
“Why are you so pessimistic, Rowan?” Ren asked from the cash register.
“Why aren’t you more pessimistic, you crabby lame kid?” Rowan asked in turn.
Other voices murmured for an answer to Ren’s question, though.
Rowan returned to the counter and starting making the next batch of coffee orders. “The Metalworks are tough, and they’re supported by equally tough trainees, and the wimps that want to make sure they’re not hurt.”
Some of the listeners bent their heads and sighed. They sighed some more.
Chie placed her hands on the table. “That’s why we need to work together!” she declared.
“You’re a scholar trainee. What good will that do in program hall?” Rowan asked.
“But not all the trainees agree with the bullies,” Chie said. “Like you, Rowan. Maybe there are others like you. They just don’t know how to help.”
Voices muttered throughout the shop. Many heads nodded. Some smiled.
“She’s right…” one trainee said.
“I do want to help, even a little….” said another.
“Even just to help my friend a little better…”
“A system to call Rowan, when we can’t handle it…”
“But a system among ourselves, when we can…”
“A group to call our own…”
“Yes….a group like that…”
As the voices muttered more and more, as the enthusiasm mounted among the young people in the coffee shop. Chie’s eyes widened as she paled even more. She looked around the group with panic as the trainees soon began to look at her together.
Rowan watched with a smirk. She liked the idea Chie started. A part of her felt tired of having to fight all the battles alone. She just was not sure if Chie’s anti-bullying organization would really happen, and if it did, if it would succeed.
“But….but….why you are all looking at me?” Chie stammered.
Rowan came up with the coffees and a glass of water for Chie. “It was your idea. Start making it happen.”
“What? I’m going to help you. But you have to be the leader, because it’s your idea.” Rowan patted her on the back.
“If you can’t start what you say you’ll start, no one will follow, and no one will do it after you. So you might as well finish what you started.” Rowan crossed her arms over her chest, but smiled at her.
Chie blushed strawberry-red. She took off her glasses to rub off the steam that formed over them. Her hands shook terribly. But as she finished wiping her spectacles, she looked up at Rowan.
“You promised to help.”
“Yes,” Rowan said.
“Then I’ll do it,” Chie said.
The assembly erupted in applause.
Chie’s cheeks returned to a normal shade of pink. “N-now what?” She glanced around the coffee shop, her nervousness returning. The group kept watching her, waiting for her next words.
“What do you want us to do, oh fearful leader?” Rowan chuckled.
“Well….let’s make a list of members, first of all…”
A girl at the next table raised her hand. “I’ll do that!” she said, taking out a pen and some writing paper.
“By year level,” a boy reminded beside the girl with the writing paper.
Another trainee got up and helped arrange the young people into two lines toward the table. Others got up and cleared the table of saucers and cups. Several friends talked among themselves, while others introduced themselves while waiting their turn at listing their names. After a quarter of an hour, a list had been drafted, with the names of trainees, their program types, and their year levels.
Chie watched all the activity with disbelief. The assembly began to look at her again for instructions.
She smiled nervously at them, but gave the succeeding orders. “Next…the people in the list will find a partner. If you came with a friend, that is alright. If you want to pair up with a different person, that’s alright, too.”
Rowan grinned while she worked. She watched the windows for any sign of the Metalworks or their informants. There seemed to be none. She turned and observed Ren for a few moments. He maintained a dreamy gaze at Chie, full of admiration.
Chie’s absurd little plan just might work, Rowan mused. The nerds just might have a chance against Eloise. She could only hope that the plan would not backfire on them. She would personally make sure that it did not.