The other trainees had left Chie’s house, leaving the evidence of their passing: scattered pieces of paper, discarded tissue napkins, stray glasses, mugs, spoons and saucers left on tables un-brought to the kitchen.
Rowan stayed behind, collecting the cups and saucers and sending them off to the kitchen. The aunt had shooed her away from helping with the washing, saying she was used to it and liked doing it. Made her feel like she was doing something important for the capital. Which was odd, because Rowan felt nothing could be farther from the truth. They were just a bunch of kids who banded together, who wanted to oppose a joint threat.
But Rowan could not keep her eyes away from Chie, while she sat at the head of the table, copying the contents of the blackboard and making sense of them for future reference. Her sandy hair pulled back in a bun that released strands that trickled to her shoulders. Her glasses falling over her nose and making the hidden brown eyes visible, more beautiful. Her lips pursed together as she concentrated over her notebook, redder like a fresh apple. The loose tunic that, in the light of the dinner table, emphasized the slender figure hidden beneath.
There were a lot of other pretty girls in Pendi, definitely in the capital, but she favored the way Chie was pretty. Simple, unobtrusive, wise.
And she could not believe that she was thinking like this. Well maybe she had already thinking like that, for the past few weeks since the resistance group was formed. But Rowan had pushed it back into the far corner of her brain, since she had kept telling herself that she loved the chief, loved the chief, loved him, loved him.
Truth be told, there was another person she felt strangely about, too, but the sheer impossibility, the absolute stupidity of that thought made her push it back to the final depths of her thoughts. The very notion of it made her angry and annoyed and sick. It was better to be thinking such thoughts of Chie, if it could not be the chief, if it could not be a boy. It would be better than thinking such stupid thoughts about HER, that other one. No way, no way, no way.
Rowan found herself looking straight down at Chie’s brown eyes.
Rowan immediately put down the mug she was holding and looked away. “Sorry. I….I was just…thinking.”
“About?” Chie asked.
“Nothing much,” she sighed. Chie’s creamy cheeks kept looking up at her and she was distracted. She felt her cheeks grow warm under that gentle stare.
“Probably….” Chie quietly stood up, “so am I.”
Chie walked up to where Rowan stood beside the mug on the table. She stepped up until Rowan could feel her breaths on her sweater.
She backed away, and Chie stepped forward. She kept backing away, and Chie kept stepping forward. Rowan’s heart pounded as she kept backing away and finally her back met the wall that divided the kitchen with the living room.
“Wh-wh-what do you want?” Rowan nervously asked, for some reason wondering and hoping that what she wanted was also what Chie wanted.
Chie gently smiled as she slowly wrapped her arms around Rowan’s waist. Rowan’s heart pounded all the more. She was sure her hair turned redder in those few seconds.
The girl with the glasses tightened her hold around Rowan, and squeezed, and embraced. Rowan savored the peach scent of the shampoo on the sandy-brown hair, felt the gentle mounds over her small ones.
“What about Ren?” Better get THAT point settled.
Chie sighed. “That’s the problem.”
She slowly removed her arms from Rowan’s waist. She placed them on her shoulders, and planted a little kiss to her cheek.
Then she let go.
“I like you. I like you a lot. Even more now that I know you, that you’ve been here with us and helped us so much.” She sighed again and smiled. “But…I seem to like Ren now.”
“Because he’s a boy, and that’s how it usually goes,” Rowan frowned.
“No. A hundred thousand times no.” Chie looked up at her, before planting another kiss on the other cheek. “But it’s very obvious he loves me….and I want to love him back.”
Rowan whispered, “And I don’t?”
Chie smiled. Then she shook her head. “It’s in your eyes.”
Rowan cringed. Almost exactly the same thing everyone told her she had for Soji. She wished she knew what the other people knew.
Chie took up Rowan’s hands. “I’m really sorry. I do like you, I really do, and I hope we stay friends and allies, that we will be friends for a long time. Could I at least have that?”
Rowan sighed but smiled. “Of course. Of course.”
“And I can still hug you once in a while?”
“Whatever makes you happy, Chie,” she chuckled.
Chie wrapped her arms around Rowan’s waist again and held on, while Rowan held her from the shoulders, a few drops falling from her eyes to Chie’s peach-scented hair.
Why did she not know what she wanted about love, anyway? She thought as she held on to her, feeling her softness and the silk of her hair. She did feel for her, she did, she did, right? It was a warm, happy feeling of being around someone she admired and enjoyed the company of, someone who was brave and intelligent and kind.
It was — oh, dear — it was exactly how she felt about Soji, too. And yet everyone said that was not love, that was just admiration, maybe infatuation.
So what did it feel like to love someone, anyhow? Why didn’t they tell what it was about, so she could seek it out, then tell everyone when it happened? Why didn’t it happen to her? Why did she just keep admiring people, not loving them?
Because it was too painful to go beyond admiring. Maybe that was it. But who was she to know, a kid who practically grew up in the streets, dealing with life with her fists and kicks? She did not deserve to be loved, did not deserve anyone to be loving anyone.
She thought this way, while the girl with the sandy hair kissed her again, her breasts still firmly pressed against her slight chest. She quietly savored the smoothness and the scent of her hair.
Rowan walked home alone, as confused as when she came, maybe even more.
She headed straight to bed, without caring to change, and immediately fell asleep, exhausted by her whirlwind of thoughts, about love, about her, about that other girl, about being alone.
Johann had gotten so used to having the entire apartment to himself that he threw his hat and scarf over Rowan’s bed and his satchel beside Rowan’s bed, while Eloise was wound around his waist and chest. Johann even let Eloise sit at the foot of Rowan’s bed, not caring at all that it was not his…until Eloise suddenly jumped up and stood.
It was only then that Johann saw a long mound hidden under a blanket, with cropped red hair at the top. It groaned somewhat, and turned to face them, throwing arms and legs wide over the bed. She snored in greeting.
Johann was taken aback, embarrassed more than surprised, having another female who was not Rowan in the apartment, and so often that he had gotten used to it. Seeing Rowan back where she should be snapped him awake, that this was all quite a dream situation, but probably just a dream.
But when he looked toward Eloise, he found that dangerous smile on her, as she watched his childhood playmate.
“The oboe, Johann,” she said.
The last time he saw that dangerous smile was only that morning, when they pulled a prank on one of the head teachers of the basic training halls. She had him walking up and down the floors of the hall until he fainted from exhaustion.
He knew what she wanted. But when he looked down at Rowan, he faltered.
Oh, he knew that Rowan was the biggest thorn in Eloise’s side, one of the few problems in her plans to dominate the young people of the capital. But still. This was Rowan. Rowan was a personal friend.
“The oboe, Johann,” she repeated.
“N…no, Eloise,” he begged. “Not her. Do this for me.”
But Eloise placed her hands on his shoulders, drew herself up to his height, and kissed him. “I won’t hurt her, for you. But I’ll keep her out of the way.”
He sighed. Fair enough.
He took out the oboe and placed it on his lips. He begged forgiveness of Rowan, and began to play the music code that started the trance code.