chapter 32 – end
Rowan was late, again.
Rowan peeked in at the other room. Master Lan was still asleep, still paler than usual, though with more roundness to his cheeks. Miss Beika filed a month-long leave from academic duties for her friend. A week after the program-correction sequence, he was strong enough to walk around his apartment, but not much farther. Clearly someone else had to do the program transfer for this guy next time. Her programs tore through everything inside him, the way he looked. But the guy never complained, despite how much it must have hurt.
She tiptoed in and quietly opened his closet. Ah! A nice red shirt. And a nice dark dress shirt. She quickly took them off their hangers and headed out of the room.
Master Lan turned toward her, his eyes still closed. She shrugged. There was enough time to make him a quick brew. And some soup. She set the water to boil while she took a quick shower.
Rowan now took up residence in the fire programming guild’s quarters, with Lan. Officially the arrangement was made to ensure Rowan’s safety as a new, and rather volatile, fire programmer. Unofficially it was to help Rowan, for now she had living space without having to pay rent, and to help Lan, in making sure that someone kept an eye on him. It had been arranged both by Beika and by Teacher Cielo. As it was a win-win situation, it was quickly settled.
She rapidly showered, and slipped into the shirts and trousers. She retrieved the comfortably-hot water, poured half to make coffee, poured the other half and mixed up some soup. She grabbed two slices of bread from a loaf.
She peeked in again, and tiptoed in to leave the cup of soup on the side table. She moved the notes and books on electric programs aside. That was what he was doing while he was bedbound: studying the differences between fire and electric programs, in order to teach Sereno of northwest.
“Rowan. Those are my shirts,” a quiet voice said from the bed.
She looked down, guiltily, at a red shirt worn under an unbuttoned dress shirt.
He smiled, and waved her off. “Don’t give it back.”
“Really? I can keep it?”
He nodded with resignation. “I’ll show you the store. Stop raiding my closet. Say hello to Soji for me.”
“Sure, master!” she called out, slamming the door behind her.
Melancho of northeast, Crimson Master. She was his apprentice. She had made peace with that fact. She now wanted it. The young man thought of himself too much, yet also thought too little of himself. He was highly annoying, but very admirable in his own strange way.
Rowan dashed on a travel cloud to the basic programming hall. Life was back to normal. Slightly different now, but everything was back to being boring and ordinary. Program training was back on schedule.
She sighed as she found a hallway already cleared of trainees. She was very late.
Rowan heard the clip-clop of sturdy boots on a sturdy floor. She turned and found a stream of curled platinum hair falling over one shoulder. She chuckled as she found her former adversary approaching. She wore dark leggings over a short skirt. But the blouse was simple, one that did not attract attention.
“You’re late,” Eloise said. “As usual.”
“You’re not in class,” Rowan retorted. “As usual.”
They faced each other, and smirked at each other.
“It feels weird,” Rowan finally said. “I’m not getting into an early-morning fight with you.”
“It’s weird,” Eloise said. “I don’t have to go through a morning wondering what it would be like to kiss you.”
Rowan stared. “What?”
“Come with me,” Eloise said, yanking her by the hand.
“You know, you’ll make me miss my class…” Rowan protested as they quickly walked through the hallways.
Eloise stopped at a broom closet, at the end of a hallway. She pulled Rowan in, and closed the door behind her. She locked the door, and pressed Rowan against it.
“Sorry, I just needed you this early,” Eloise said, as she proceeded to press her chest against Rowan’s, kissing her over and over.
Rowan sighed and surrendered. Oh well. It was a boring class anyway. And Eloise had a way of making everything about herself tingle. “But, what did you mean? What you said earlier,” Rowan said.
“Back then,” Eloise whispered, “the only thing on my mind was, this person is interesting.” She landed a peck at Rowan’s cheek. “She’s strong, and brave, and tough. I wonder what it would be like to kiss her.” She landed another at the neck. “Well, somewhere in between wondering how long it would take before you messed up our plans again.”
“Now you know, I guess.” Rowan chuckled.
“Yes,” Eloise said.
Rowan knew everything was back to normal when she stepped into the hallways from a class. First indication: a trainee was on the floor, with a boot at her back and a metal club over her neck. A metal program trainee owned the boot and the club, accompanied by two others. The only difference was that this time Eloise was not involved.
Rowan tsked as she approached, gloving her hands. “You know, Mara, I thought you’d learn a thing or two from recent events.” She needed no fire programs for this one. Her fists would be fine and plenty.
The metal programmer smirked and pressed the club down. “Eloise dropped us like a brick. So the pickings are now mine–”
Rowan kicked low and separated the metal programmer from her club. She pushed her to the floor, releasing the trainee at her feet.
She jumped, and placed a knee over Mara’s abdomen. She leveled the fist over Mara’s face. “No one was ever your pickings.”
“I agree with the sentiment,” said a voice over them.
Mara scowled at the new arrival. “Traitor.”
Eloise smiled sadly. “Sorry. But things are different. I…can’t….do it again.”
Mara stood and brushed the dust off her back. “Coward. Coward! I’m taking them from you. Their fear, their terror. I’m taking them from you!”
“I don’t want it…” Eloise said.
“They’ll learn to fear me!” Mara declared.
Rowan stepped forward. “And we’ll stop you every time. Both of us.” She folded her arms.
Mara collapsed her club. She tossed her head and walked away.
“Rowan!” the trainee she helped suddenly bounded and hugged her. “Thank you!”
Rowan wrenched herself free. “Chie? What are you doing here?”
It was indeed Chie, in a scholar trainee uniform instead of her usual Selati clothes. She gave out several pieces of paper to the people around her. “I’m going to start our group again. A way for trainees to help each other. Mara won’t always have her way.”
But Chie kept some distance from Eloise, always moving in a wider circle from the platinum-haired young woman, without her noticing. Eloise lowered her head and sighed. “A group against people like me.”
“You can give them pointers,” Rowan chimed, patting Eloise in the back. “Join us.”
“But…but…” Eloise saw Chie back away behind Rowan.
Rowan noticed this as well. There was too much history now to quickly undo. Others that Chie would recruit would feel the same. “At least be a defense for Chie’s group. You can do that, right?”
“Then it’s settled.” Rowan gave her another sound pat. “You’re the secret weapon now. No longer the enemy.”
Chie ducked again behind Rowan, as someone tapped Eloise at the shoulder. It was Juno, now in a more comfortable blouse and leggings, the uncomfortable spiked accessories now gone.
“It’s alright,” both Rowan and Eloise spoke at once. Rowan continued, “Juno’s the wimpier assistant.”
Juno blushed and lowered her head. “I like you like this,” she said to Eloise, shyly. “Can I stay with you? Like before? Mara’s scary.”
Eloise came up to Juno, and gave her a tight hug. “Of course, of course.”
When classes ended, Rowan crossed the street from the basic programming hall and headed to the coffee shop….what are the makings of a renewed coffee shop.
The Harmony coffee shop was still in shambles, with the windows still bare, the boards covering them just removed. Much of the debris had been swept away over the last few days. The walls were scorched. New tables and chairs needed to be brought in. The store counters were still empty. The kitchen pots and pans had all been stolen and needed to be replaced. The coffeemaker was ruined beyond repair and needed to be replaced.
At least Soji did not have to do the cleaning alone. The cook and several Selati were at work now, painting the walls and hammering at boards.
“Master Lan let me keep this!” she happily said while hauling boxes into the shop. She twirled and showed him Lan’s shirts and trousers, which fit her almost perfectly. The shirts and trousers however were getting a fair share of dust from the large boxes and the wood sanding from the shop.
“So he is master to you? I no longer your chief?” Soji chuckled.
“You’ll always be my chief, chief!” Rowan suddenly lunged and gave him a tight hug from the waist. “Always.”
“Even…if…all this happen?”
“Of course, chief.” Rowan maintained the hug. “You did what you had to do. Now it’s over.”
The chief patted her head. “Is good, is good.”
Soji then released her and clapped his hands. “Break! We have sandwich!”
He led the workers and Rowan to the kitchen, where he had iced tea, water, and several kinds of sandwiches. They happily gulped down the refreshments and quickly and gratefully ate sandwiches.
“Here, delivery.” Soji smiled, giving her a paper-bag parcel. It was light and smelled of fresh bread. “Give to Ren.”
Rowan understood, and accepted the parcel. She made a travel cloud, then sped toward the defence committee building.
Ren remained in custody. All the havoc he had caused could not be ignored, and the penalty had to be served. But his service to the capital also needed to be recognized. Also, being the only electric programmer, it was important that he stay where the leaders of the guilds could see him. Marceau therefore negotiated for Ren to be given responsibilities in the defence committee library. He would also help keep Marceau’s records in order, as her own tasks started to increase.
Rowan was now familiar with Marceau’s office, tucked away in a far end of a hallway. The door was slightly open, and she found Ren poring over some documents. His crutches were stowed beside him. She saw his wrists, bound with the program diffusers, underneath the long sleeves. He was still a prisoner. Just one allowed to walk in more places.
Ren looked up for a moment, and found her. “The hag’s not in yet, sorry,” he said. “She’s in a meeting with her brother.”
“I didn’t come about Miss Marceau, I came to see you,” she said. “The chief sends you this.” She thrust out her small package.
Ren opened it and found a ham sandwich with a generous helping of tomatoes. He smiled. “He knows how I like them. Please give my thanks.”
“Oh, and Master Lan says he’ll be around for practice maybe next week.”
“You really see him as your master now,” Ren noted with a smirk.
Rowan shrugged. “He’s sulky, but he’s nice. And he teaches well. And he has nice shirts.”
“You’re happy in the capital, southwesterner,” Ren noted, with a deep sigh.
“You’re not?” she asked.
He shook his head. “I caused all this mess. I wrecked a female’s life…she didn’t deserve it, despite everything she did. I hated on a man who was nothing but kind. I hated on his people. I caused all this…”
“Ren. There’s a whole life ahead of you to redeem yourself. And, for goodness’ sake, that was nobody’s fault. Things just happened.”
“I want to go back. Where I was a nobody.” Ren looked down at the papers before him.
“No, you don’t. Not really,” Rowan said. “Because, you have friends here. Not just Miss Peach-cake…erm, Beika. But all of us. We’ll take you as you are, no more and no less.”
There was another knock on the door. Chie peeked in and waved, blushing to her ears.
“See?” Rowan said, with a final pat at his back. “You have friends.”
She rumpled his hair and went on her way.
The sunlight slowly faded as she left.
Rowan found her music-minded friend seated on the pavement just outside the defense committee building. His back leaned on one of the great slabs of marble bordering the great front entrance stairs. His oboe was stowed in the case resting on his lap. The hat in front of him had only a few coins. He was dustily stylish.
“I had thought I would get a decent audience, what with all the people passing through here,” Johann said, seeing her with a sigh. “I guess I was wrong.”
Rowan sat beside him on the pavement, leaning her back on the marble as well. “They’re busy people, the ones who pass here. You’ll have better luck in the business quadrants.” She nudged him. “Hey, Harmony will be opening up soon. The chief will need the noise to tell people on opening day.”
Johann lit up. “Really? When do I apply?”
“Do you really think you need to apply? Just show up the day before with a few friends! I’ll tell you when, alright?”
Johann smiled. “Thanks, Ro.”
Rowan leaned heavily on his shoulder.
“How’re…you…and Eloise?” Johann asked, slowly, cautiously.
“She’s weird, but I’m getting used to it,” Rowan answered, her head at his shoulder. “She’s interesting.”
“Yeah,” Johann said.
“And you, Jo?”
“I’ll be fine.”
“I really didn’t mean for things to turn out this way…”
“I’ll be fine, Ro. Really. There may be a programmer who’s interested.”
“You rebound quickly.”
“I just accept when things are not meant to be. I don’t want to ruin relationships.”
“Suit yourself. Music programmer?”
“That chap who keeps following you like a poodle?”
“He’s nice,” Johann said, chuckling at the description. “Looks like Sereno. Has less of his angst and anger, which I can definitely live without. He plays an incredible flute, especially in the tremolos. He’s from the north, so we have long conversations about the differences. We’ve already shared a kiss together. He comes on rather strong, but his lips are sweet. He shares my liking for the sandwiches at Harmony. We’ll definitely visit often when it’s open. Can I bring him over for the opening…?”
Johann looked down at his shoulder. His friend gently snored as her head bobbed.
He smiled. “Same old Ro. You know, Ro?”
“Hm?” she muttered in her sleep.
“I had a big crush on you when I was little, after all the times you beat up those bullies for my sake,” he admitted, knowing she was too asleep to hear. “I once thought I’d be happy being with Eloise, since I can’t have you. Ah, well.” He patted her red hair. “I still have a big crush on you, but I’ll be happier when you’re happy.”
“Shut up, Jo,” she muttered. “Am sleeping here…” She snored again.
“I’ll take you home now, Ro,” he said, while he made a travel cloud for both of them. “I’ll let you meet him soon,”
She would always be a tomboy. But she would always be Rowan.
Lan opened the door. He found Johann hauling a redheaded person draped over his back. She wore a dress shirt over a red shirt. Johann grinned. “Good evening, sir. I think this belongs to you.”
Lan silently pointed inside with a knowing smile.
He led the music programmer to a small bedroom, cluttered with shirts and scraps of paper on the floor. Johann lay Rowan onto the bed, removed her shoes, and tucked her under the blanket.
“Thanks for taking care of my friend, sir,” Johann said with a bow.
“It’s Lan,” the fire programmer said. “I will say the same to you.”
“But, it’s nothing, what I do…”
“Johann, you are still her oldest friend. You will always be needed.”
“Even with…everything that’s happened…and Eloise…?”
“Even then.” Lan shook his hand and patted his shoulder.
It was a long, tiring, but fulfilling day.
It would be one of many. Each with memories to keep. Each playing a part in the melody of life.
chapter 32 – end