Rowan saw a girl running past the coffee shop in a panic. The girl had brown hair and spectacles. The long sleeves of her blouse and the loose fabric of her trousers slowed her pace. Rowan did not know the girl from the program training halls, and had not seen her in the coffee shop. She ignored the scene. The girl was probably just rushing off to the market or to the scholar training halls.
But when Rowan saw Mara sauntering past the coffee shop’s windows, in the same direction as the running girl, she knew something was wrong.
She took off the apron. “Sorry, chief! I’ll be out for a bit!” She turned the corner and ran.
Her hunch was right. She heard a shriek from the first blind alley, high and shrill.
She found the brown-haired girl with the unusual clothes on the ground, with Mara closing in, a steel club in her hand.
“You did not tell them, did you?” Mara said to the girl.
“No!” The girl dragged herself farther from her.
“But you didn’t ask for money either.” Mara twirled the club and programmed spikes and bumps into it.
“There’s none to spare. Please, it’s true!”
“I don’t think so.”
Mara raised the spiked club over several wooden crates left in the alley. She brought down the club with a heavy blow, opening all the crates and spilling oranges and apples onto the pavement. Dragging the club through the ground, she pierced several pieces of the fruit with the spikes. With a flick of her wrist, she threw the mashed fruit pieces from the spiked club to the girl’s face.
Rowan grabbed some pebbles and threw them at Mara’s back. “Take on someone who can fight back!” she challenged.
Mara chuckled and faced the redhead. She placed the spiked club over one shoulder. “Quit the job, Rowan,” she said. “You’re stuck there while we do our thing.”
“Sorry, I need the money. I can’t quit.” Rowan readied her fists. “I’ll just have to hope you’re not hurting anyone while I’m gone.”
“Join us, then?” Mara revealed her pearly-white teeth as se smiled like a shark. “We get good money.”
“Not for anything.”
“Hmph.” Mara programmed for a larger club. “Keep your job and leave us alone, then.”
“I can’t do that either.”
Rowan ran. She kicked at Mara’s wrists, sending the club flying out of reach. Then she elbowed Mara’s abdomen.
Rowan grabbed the steel club and wrenched it away from its owner. “I’m keeping this, if you don’t mind.”
“Sure, help yourself,” Mara said as she stood up, holding her stomach and grimacing. “I have more.”
“Stop using them on defenseless trainees.” Rowan made her way to the other girl.
“I wouldn’t call YOU defenseless,” Mara chuckled with malice. “But this is getting boring. You two go and get acquainted without me.”
With a flick of a hand, Mara took her leave, her other hand holding onto her torso where Rowan hit her. As she did so, the girl held her heart and took many deep breaths.
Rowan helped the brown-haired girl to stand. Many strands had loosened from her hairbun, and her unusual blouse with the wide and long sleeves has smudges of grime. The girl trembled with fright, but was fine. She re-arranged her spectacles with shivering hands.
“Now what would the Metalworks want with you?” Rowan placed her hands over her hips. “You’re not a program trainee.”
“My aunt owns a market stall, I guess that’s why,” the girl said. She kept staring at Rowan with awe and more than admiration.
“You have to be careful, they’ll come after you again…”
The girl kept her admiring gaze. “Call me Chie. Rachel, really, but I like to be called Chie.”
“You and Sereno will get along,” Rowan chuckled. “I’m….”
“Rowan of southeast, I know,” Chie dreamily said.
Rowan rolled her eyes. This was a bit too much.
Chie held Rowan’s hands together in her own. Then she reached up to Rowan’s face and kissed her on the lips.
Rowan’s eyes bulged nearly out of their sockets. She froze in place. She noticed that Chie smelled of roses and other sweet herbs. She could not believe she noticed that!
Chie released the kiss. “Thank you for saving me.”
Rowan’s cheeks burned. “No….no problem.”
“When can I see you again?”
“Well I work at that coffee shop in the afternoons….”
“Really? Perfect! I’ll come by every afternoon!”
Rowan rolled her eyes again, as Chie kept smiling at her.
Chie followed Rowan back to the coffee shop, a puppy who found a new owner.
She sat at one of the smaller tables near the window, wiping her face with a towel Rowan gave her, staring at Rowan the whole time. She combed her hair back into a neat bun at the top of her head, admiring Rowan as the redhaired girl put her apron on again.
Chie headed to the counter, farther from the cash register but nearer where Rowan was fixing the coffee. She did not order anything. She watched Rowan fill the coffeemaker with ground beans, get hot water, fill a cup, and mix the coffee with milk or chocolate.
All the staring finally met Rowan’s limit for tolerance. “Is there something wrong?” she asked, rather sternly.
Chie vigorously shook her head, shaking several wavy strands loose from her hairbun.
“Is there anything you want to order, then?”
Chie looked up at the blackboard with the menu, then looked at Rowan again.
The girl was getting on Rowan’s nerves. All the attention grated on Rowan. “Do you want coffee?”
Chie shook her head, still gazing at Rowan.
Chie nodded in a daze.
Rowan took out their milk carton and a pan. “What about a muffin?”
Chie nodded again.
“No, just one, thank you.”
“Alright,” Rowan said, taking a saucer and taking a muffin from the display. “Did you get the order, Ren?”
But Ren had a weird grin and a dreamy look on his own face. He gazed at the brown-haired girl with the wide-sleeved blouse from the cash register.
Rowan slammed a palm onto her forehead. Then she tapped Ren’s shoulder. “Hey! The order!”
“Oh!” Ren shook off his daze. “What was the last one?”
“Milk and a muffin.”
Ren drifted again. “Milk like her skin and muffin, color like her hair…”
“Oh, oh, right. Milk and a muffin.” He composed himself and punched the numbers.
But Chie kept watching Rowan even as she took up her order and her change, ignoring Ren. She walked back to the table where she left her books. She did open one of them, but kept looking up from it so much that Rowan still felt her stares from the counter.
Rowan slammed her palms onto the counter, making the cups and saucers clatter and clink. “I can’t concentrate! That nerd keeps watching me!”
“It’s not like you’re doing anything wrong,” Ren said, still doing his own gazing at the nerd.
“I know, but it’s annoying!” Rowan wailed.
“What is problem now?” The chief peered out from the kitchen, opening the swinging door.
Rowan and Ren each turned to their work, focusing on the coffee maker and the cash register respectively. Both tried their best to ignore the young lady with the spectacles and hairbun. The chief chuckled at them and disappeared into the kitchen again.
Chie took up one of the smaller tables, thus she did not disrupt the regular flow of customers. She seemed content with the milk, muffins, and reading the books she brought. But once in a while Chie looked up from her thick book, rested her elbows on the table, rested her chin on her hand, and ogled Rowan dreamily once more.
Rowan completed the last of a string of coffee orders. Then she marched up to Chie. She crossed her arms over her chest. “Will you stop doing that!”
“But I can’t help it,” Chie smiled, unconsciously placing her hands over her heart as her eyes fluttered.
Rowan slapped her forehead and ran her hand over her hair. “Oh, by all that He controls! Can’t you please do it where you’re not annoying!”
“But this table gives such a nice view of the counter, and has good lighting for my book.”
“I’ll be sorry I told you I work here!” Rowan said, frowning. “You’re disrupting our work, you’re slowing us down!”
“Rowan! No fighting with customer!” the chief’s voice came rapidly behind her.
“But, chief! This girl’s been here all afternoon!”
The chief patted her, rather firmly, on the shoulder. His regular smile was now bent into a straight line. He gestured with disguised impatience. “Rowan. Customer. Understand?”
Rowan dropped her shoulders and hung her head. “Yes, chief. Sorry.” If this were any other boss, she would have already been fired. Soji was being patient with her. Again.
The chief bowed low to Chie. “Sorry for trouble, not happen again……”
Then he paused for a long moment and looked well at the customer. Chie, too, stopped staring at Rowan and stared at the sandy-haired young man. Her mouth slowly opened into a large O.
“Rachel?” the chief asked.
Chie gulped. Her voice suddenly got inaudible in the noise of chatter and clatter, but Rowan heard what Chie said next:
She rose up from her chair with a crash, and ran out the door.
Rowan tried to follow her, but Chie disappeared at the next corner.