“You really think this will work?” Chie asked Rowan and Ren. They faced each other, at the sidewalk in front of Harmony. Chie clutched her wrist, hiding a thin red band around it.
“You assigned everyone in that meeting. You know them. They know what to do. I don’t see why I shouldn’t work.” Rowan patted Chie’s shoulder. Chie almost keeled forward from the force. “You planned it out. It’ll work.”
“But, it’s all theory, and we’re going up against….”
Rowan raised her right arm and showed a similar red band with defiance. Walking past the coffee shop toward the Basic Programming hall were other program and scholar trainees, smiling as they passed, raising wrists with red bands. They walked in pairs, in threes, or in a small group of friends. They were not many. Only thirty people were in the coffee shop when Chie suddenly announced her small group. But thirty red bands meant that Rowan was no longer doing this alone.
“There is strength in numbers, scholar. And you have me.”
Chie suddenly blushed apple-red.
Rowan came behind Ren and nudged him forward. “And don’t worry about him. He’s with me.”
A girl in a scholar trainee’s tunic came just then, taking Chie’s hand. She too had a red band. “I guess I’ll be going now. Let’s all do our best.”
Rowan marched through the center of the main hallway, as others, with red bands and without, passed on both sides. Ren swung his crutches behind Rowan, careful not to trip her, or anyone else. He looked from side to side, as if the Metalworks would pounce on him at any moment.
“Calm down, lame kid,” Rowan turned for a moment. “Eloise’s classes are in the afternoon today.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Ren said. “Moments when she doesn’t have classes means she’s free to do everything else.”
The lame kid did have a point. Already, a few meters in front of them, there was a clumping of program trainees. One of them had blue hair.
“What’s going on!” Mara stared in confusion at all the five trainees surrounding her. “I haven’t done anything!”
“You were about to, right?” a water program trainee grinned. Yet another trainee quietly pulled a trembling girl away from both of them. Rowan did not have to stare to notice that both trainees challenging Mara had red bracelets.
“I…well….I’m under orders!” Mara quivered herself.
“You can tell Eloise that this order won’t push through.” The water program trainee patted Mara’s shoulder soundly. “She can talk to me about it, if it really matters that much to her. Are we agreed?”
Mara backed away, then ran farther down the hall, as the trembling girl hugged the water trainee. The new victors had cheeks flushed with their success.
Rowan smiled as she and Ren continued on their way to class.
Similar other episodes occurred that whole day. Usual targets now had a friend or two to help them against any of the Metalworks. Some students who used to look away or run away now stood up against those who pressured the targets.
“I take it that the weakest member of this little group is matched with the strongest?” Lan asked them that afternoon.
Ren sighed and stared at the ground while Rowan asked with a scowl, “What makes you say that?”
Lan pocketed his hands as he lounged over the bench. “It’s easy to understand. Besides, I know most of the trainees.”
Rowan folded her arms over her chest. “What are you trying to say?”
Lan raised his head and looked at her. “Be careful, Rowan. You’re dragging people into your fight.”
“it’s not mine, it’s–”
“It’s yours, even if your leader is a non-programmer and Soji’s niece. Any and all of this early success will create a fallback to you. So be careful, and always stay alert.”
“So speaks the wise loafer,” Ren smirked.
“And you,” Lan turned to him, “have you been practicing your Straight Blasts?”
“Why can’t you just be happy for us?” Rowan interrupted.
“Because trainees are still fighting with trainees.”
Lan stood and dragged his feet toward the teachers’ offices. Rowan kicked dust toward him.
Ren was soon able to make travel clouds of his own, which helped greatly in reducing the effort needed to reach the grand library. For moving from place to place, he made small clouds that had back support and leg support, such that they looked like floating chairs. Soft and fluffy and comfortable, they were very agreeable to him.
He had always liked libraries, with their large quiet spaces and stacks of books. He also liked the fact that he could doze off at a table, to get back a little strength lost in moving around, and no one would mind.
He had a favorite spot now, at the second floor of the grand library, where most of the books on programs were housed. There were fewer people as compared to the rest of the library where scholars and civilians came and went, since the program training halls and the program guilds had their own libraries.
It was also a favorite spot since he saw Chie there.
She had glasses. For some reason that was important. Because she was rather pretty behind the glasses, but the glasses seemed to be battered and scratched from constant use, not an accessory like on some girls. Her sandy hair was tied back into a bun at the back of her head, but trickles of sand escaped the mound and fell to her shoulders.
Her blouse was one of those loose ones he sometimes saw, but in books about Selatan. The one she had on at the moment was white with purple piping at the hems, and it fell to cover her hips. She did not seem to be wearing a costume, but wearing an article of clothing familiar to her. Which would make her a really odd young lady, because why would she wear Selatan attire in Pendi?
Her arms were wrapped around several thick books, which she placed on the table she chose. Her trousers were of the same material as the blouse, but was of a dark fabric. It swayed as she walked, revealing her legs as they covered them. Her shoes were cloth and looked very comfortable.
She sat down before the thick books she carried. She opened one of the books, cocked the glasses up over her eyes, and began to read through her book. She looked well at each page, savoring each word, while reading in a rather even and quick pace.
Chie was a scholar and yet she liked being at the program-books sections. Maybe because of the quiet, like him. As he read his own books, he would glance up and take a few moments to look at her and watch her read. Her glasses always drooped down over her nose but she was too intent on whatever she was reading to prop them up higher. Her hair was always tied back with some long ribbon that tended to come loose at the ends. She was always in the loose clothes he first found her in, which kept her elbows hidden in sleeves, and her neck hidden under a stiff collar.
The texts on the basic offensive and defensive programs was a rather thick tome of a book, filled with technicalities and details that he was not sure were useful to him, but he read anyway. It was interesting, after all, knowing such bits and pieces. Besides, he needed to know everything he could, if he wanted to be most useful against them.
And yet the reading proved tiresome after a few hours, with the small letters and the compact, thick paragraphs. He could not help it when the letters blurred before his eyes, and before he could stop it, he knew he was not reading anymore, his head resting over the large book with the small letters.
He felt the warmth of the afternoon sun heating his cheek, which made him open his eyes at last. It was a good afternoon he was waking up to, because just beyond him he saw the familiar welcome sight of the pretty girl with the glasses.
Wait. She shouldn’t be at the same table as he was.
He snapped fully awake and sat up in his chair. He smoothed down his hair, hoping it was not very rumpled from sleep.
In all this, the girl with the sandy-brown hair just watched and giggled softly, her lips pursed together in a smile.
He smiled shyly and with much embarrassment as he kept smoothing down his hair and rubbing his eyes of any signs of sleep.
“Ren,” she smiled at him.
“Yes,” he rubbed the back of his head. “I’m so, so, sorry…”
“What for?” she asked. Her voice was sweet, but more like the milk that came with the muffins she kept having, rather than a sugary candy. Yes, more like chocolate cake. Obviously he had been at the coffee shop for much too long…
“I…don’t know. For seeing me like that.”
“It was cute watching you sleep,” she admitted, her cheeks turning pink.
He too warmed at the cheeks. It was embarrassing, not cute.
“I’m going to Harmony now. You normally leave before I do…”
“But I overslept today…” he rubbed his head again.
“Do you want to come along with me?”
Of course he did. Delighted, even though he was embarrassed. He just could not manage to say it. So he nodded.
His heart skipped and danced as he walked…as he swung his crutches forward…beside her. Even if he had full use of his legs and did not have his hands occupied with crutches, he did not feel worthy of taking her hand and holding it. He was happy enough to be walking beside her.
She did not even carry books with her as she walked beside him. She placed them behind her, in front of her, across her chest, or hands clasped together. She kept looking at the floor, but kept looking up at him in glances. But she kept walking beside him, not going ahead or behind him.
He was not sure what to ask. Ah. “What do you study?”
“Oh. Political governance.”
Ren stopped walking for a bit and just stared at Chie. Such a soft-spoken, shy girl, studying politics?
“I get that stare all the time,” she chuckled.
“I just can’t see you going into government, into those debates.”
“Neither do I,” she chuckled again. “But I want to know why things are they way they are.”
They had stepped out of the library.
Ren paused at the front steps. “Um…I need to make a travel cloud, so I can get back to the shop.” He paused again. “Do you…do you…want to…come along? It will save you some walking.”
To both his surprise, his excitement, and his nervousness, she said, “Yes.”
His hands shook as he started programming for a travel cloud, a straight one for two people. “Have you been on a travel cloud before?”
She shook her head. “I always walk or take the carriage.”
“It’s convenient and fun.” Planting his feet on the floor, adding some programming to them, he held out a hand. “You first.”
He lowered the fluffy cloud so she can sit easily, then he plumped up the cloud where she sat. She seemed to like it, patting the cloud and ensuring it was safe. He sat beside her, and drove the cloud back to the coffee shop.
He was nervous, he was excited, he was happy, he was not sure what he was feeling. After so many months of just looking at her, Chie now sat beside him as he drove a travel cloud. It was not a very long distance between the grand library and the coffee shop, but the seconds passed slowly in moments of time, and yet it was all over so soon.
He helped her down from the travel cloud as well, as they reached the coffee shop. She alighted gently with a small jump.
“That was fun, thank you,” she said.
His heart skipped a few beats as he managed to nod with a smile. He hoped he would get another chance. She was as nice as he hoped her to be, and he wanted to talk to her a little more, to really get to know her.