Soji of the meridian placed spaghetti and coffee in front of Melancho of northeast.
“Something wrong,” Soji immediately said.
“Something always is,” Lan shrugged and did not look up at him. He mindlessly twirled the noodles with a fork.
“No, no, not you, Master Lan.” Soji sat down across Lan at the wooden table. “Master Beika.”
This made the redhead raise his head. But he answered, “Something’s always wrong with her, too.”
“No, no, Master Lan…”
“Listen, please. Something wrong….” Soji searched the ceiling for a few words, “Master
Beika…not, how I say, like her?”
Lan translated, “Bei’s not acting the way she usually would.”
Lan scratched his head.
“Master Beika. Here everyday. Not talking. Just come here. Smile at me and sigh. But no talking.”
“There’s something she’s not telling you, you mean.” But Beika always talked to Soji about practically everything. Lan rubbed his head again. “Did I do something again?”
“No, no. If you annoy Master Beika, she talk and talk and talk. This time, no talking.”
“Maybe it’s you?”
Soji vehemently shook his head. “No fight, no argue!”
“Allowance problem? She thinking about her dad again?”
Soji shook his head again. “Already ask. No problem there.”
“I ask you.”
Lan took up the coffee and drank it down. Now that he thought about it, it had indeed been too many days since she last yanked him to go wandering around the capital. They would meet at Soji’s coffee shop, she would chat aimlessly and disinterestedly while eating, she would go with him to the fire programmer guildhouse, then she would head home to her own quarters. Lan thought she was merely busy, but now that even Soji was concerned, he did not know what to think. He never asked what would make her busy to distraction.
“You couldn’t get it out of her,huh?” Lan confirmed.
Soji shook his head.
“And you’re worried because…”
“She look like you.”
“Thank you very much, Selati,” Lan scowled.
Soji smiled kindly. “You know, what I say. Look like you. Think too much. Frown too much. Not like her, yes?”
Lan sighed. “Yeah. Not like her.” He lowered the fork back onto the plate. “I’ll see what I can do.”
Both of them did not have to wait long.
The door chime tingled as the door opened. The subject of the conversation passed through the door. She waved at the two young men and gave them a slight smile.
“See?” said the sandy-haired one.
“Soji. Do your job first,” reminded the redhaired one.
“Ah…AH!” Soji quickly stood and gestured to the table. “Master Beika, here, here. The usual?”
“Not the sandwich,” Beika sat across Lan. “Not hungry.” But she sighed afterward.
Soji nodded and disappeared into the kitchen.
Lan sipped his coffee refill as he watched Beika keep staring out the shop windows. She stole glances at Lan, and when caught she gave him an uneasy smile then immediately glanced away.
The iced tea arrived and was ignored until it warmed. Soji returned with a slice of his icebox peach cake. It was picked at with a fork but not consumed.
It was a very silent half-hour. Lan knew he was bad at small talk and did not even try, especially not for someone who knew when he forced himself at small talk. But Beika remained quiet and pensive, and did not offer to chat.
“Want to go somewhere?” Lan finally asked.
“Just home,” Beika said.
“You’re not going to finish that?” he confirmed. The peach cake slice was still quite
Beika shook her head. She got up, slung her satchel over a shoulder and headed out the
Lan shrugged and paid for the food.
He walked beside her and kept the silence. She dragged her feet, occasionally looking up at him and sadly grinning.
“Soji is worried about you,” he offered as they walked.
“Thanks,” was all she said.
“Something happened at the infirmary?” he asked.
“Just the usual.” She kept her eyes on the pavement stones.
Lan found himself walking back to the fire programmer guildhouse, at her lead.
“I thought you wanted to go home,” he confirmed.
“Can I stay here for a while?” she asked as they reached the main doors.
He shrugged and took out his keys.
Reaching his own quarters, he opened the door and brightened the room with several quick fire programs. As he took off his shoes, Beika dragged her feet to the couch. She rested the satchel on the floor and lay heavily on the couch.
“You sick?” he asked. That would actually be unusual, since she was a rather sturdy girl used to being outdoors.
“Didn’t sleep well last night, that’s all.”
As the meal at the coffee shop served as his dinner, Lan did not have a lot of food at his quarters. “Want anything?”
“Will you be alright?” she mumbled, still slumped on the couch.
“Will you really be alright?”
Lan scratched his head. “I don’t see why not.”
“Are you sure?”
“What is your point?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Will you be alright?”
She was asking in loops. Lan walked up to her at the couch. He felt her forehead. It did not feel hot.
She slowly sat up. “Can you sit here?”
Lan scratched his head but obliged.
She scooted beside him. Then she leaned her head on his shoulder. She reached out and took up his hand, placing it on her lap. She clasped both her hands around his.
She tightened the hands around his own. “Stay. Don’t go away. Don’t leave me.”
Lan sighed. He had no choice. He settled into as comfortable a position as he could manage.
They sat quietly together until Lan heard the gentle regular breathing of sleep beside him. Still she did not let go of his hand.
“Can’t….dad…I can’t,” she mumbled. “Can’t leave Lan. Can’t.”
Lan patted her salt-and-pepper hair and took off the spectacles. She returned to gentle breathing.
As he lowered the spectacles onto the floor, he noted her satchel, slightly open. Some of the contents had spilled out, including an official-looking slip of paper. It had the seal of the heal program guild at the top.
He lowered her head to rest on his thigh, as he slowly reached for the paper, making sure she stayed asleep. He raised the paper.
Beika of northwest:
We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted into the special two-year surgical training course of the guild.
You are requested to appear for the start of training one week after this notice.
He did not know much about Beika’s life of antiseptic and healing people, but it was common knowledge that the training courses of the infirmary were sought-after, and difficult to apply for. She had indeed babbled a lot about being tired after a day of preliminary training.
She was contemplating throwing away a tough but worthy dream, to keep an eye on him.
Beika turned uneasily. “Can’t…leave Lan….”
Lan let her hold his hand again, as he wrapped his arms around her and warmed her back with his chest.
“You idiot, Lan’s not going anywhere.”
He would talk to her properly the next day.
Soji sat down in front of Lan. “Master Beika. Stayed all night. Your place,” Soji whispered.
“Yes,” the redhead said.
“What do you mean?”
Soji waved his hands around, put two fingers together, gestured wildly again…then pointed at Lan with a question in his face.
The redhead more or less understood. He frowned. “Soji. I know you have skills, more than any of us. But one more gesture and I assure you. Your girlfriend is not the only person who can punch.”
“Can dodge punch,” Soji smiled, rather evilly.
“Selati! Nothing. Happened.” Lan crossed his arms. “She was asleep the whole night.”
“Will you stop it already, Selati. You can ask Beika. Just a lot of sleep happened.”
Lan stood up with a deep sigh and walked out the door. The Selati was not helping at all.
He would have to do this himself. He walked, hands in trouser pockets, toward the infirmary.
Lan simply walked to the main lobby and found the first smiling person behind a desk. “Please tell me where the surgery department is?”
He was given a set of directions through the halls of the large building.
Hands in pockets, not speaking with anyone unless he got lost, he strolled through the halls, looking at wall notices, peering at door labels. He walked until he reached a heavy wooden door with “Department of Surgery” written in gold letters near it.
The door kept opening and slamming shut as heal programmers entered and exited. ”Excuse me…” he tried interrupting them all but all of them apologized and kept walking.
“Sorry, we’re busy.”
“Sorry, maybe later?”
“Who did you need to talk to?”
But Lan did not know who exactly he wanted. “I just need to know about this training course you have…”
“But the application period is over….”
“No, not applying,” Lan clarified. “I’m a fire programmer. I just need to know about the training course…”
“Will the training officer do? He just came from a procedure…”
Lan nodded. “And is it true that you have an applicant, Beika of northwest?”
“Wait…you’re the famous Lan? We’ve all heard about you…”
Lan rolled his eyes and nodded. ”I just want to know about this course…”
The heal programmer chatting with him leaned on the wall. “Well your girlfriend will be fine. But it’s a busy life, as you can see. It consumes us, this work. We start early, we end the day late. And there are days we can’t go home, to cover the night work. Most partners not in our line of work, they don’t understand. Soon they’re no longer a couple.”
“She won’t go home.”
“Oh, she will, just not every day. And usually, she’ll come home at night, just to sleep.”
“And yet you like this work.”
The heal programmer smiled. “Yes.”
“Beika? She does. She really does. Wants to be like her father.”
“You think she’ll regret it, if she does not take this course?” Lan asked.
“Yes.” The programmer patted his shoulder. “It’ll be hard on you, redhead, but if you’re a true friend you’ll make it work out for her.”
Lan nodded. “What DO you know about me?”
Another pat on the shoulder. “That you’re a really good friend, one that she’ll be sorry to lose.”
Lan looked at the floor. “Anything else?”
“That would be prying, I’d think,” the heal programmer said.
A flash of white charged between them to enter the door. But the heal programmer clamped down on the newcomer’s shoulder.
“Beika. You’re off for the rest of the day. You’re done with the afternoon rounds?”
Beika faced the programmer. “Yup, but why can I have the day off?”
The programmer twirled her around to face Lan. Beika’s jaw dropped as Lan gave a slight smile.
“Go on, take the day off. See you tomorrow, Beika.” The programmer walked away through the hall. “And don’t worry, redhead. I’m the training officer!”
Beika and Lan looked at each other for a while. Then Beika leapt up, wrapping her arms around him.
He lifted her away from him. He grasped her hand.
He led through the hallways he walked through, until they were out of the infirmary, and out into the street.
Lan kept Beika’s hand firmly inside his, as he walked silently through the infirmary halls, ignoring anyone and everyone they passed. He maintained a brisk, almost breathless pace.
“Where are we going?” she asked, her feet almost tripping at each other.
But Lan pursed his lips and kept striding.
Beika found herself walking up the steps of the advanced program training hall, and striding through its empty hallways. Lan still had not said a word.
He stopped at the fire program guild’s department door, where Beika finally had a chance to catch her breath. But Lan took a deep breath, opened the door, and entered, pulling Beika along with him. He walked past restriction tables for trainees, past the desks of many teachers, and entered a small room.
She gasped as she stood before the large steel desk of fire programmer Cielo.
“Ah, Crimson Master, and Beika,” the head teacher acknowledged. “What can I do for you?”
Lan silently faced Beika and gestured toward the head teacher.
“What do you want me to do?” she asked.
Lan repeated the gesture, with a slight frown.
“Is there something I should know?” Cielo prompted.
Lan nodded, and repeated the gesture one more time.
“I…well….you see, sir,” Beika began, “um…I’m going into this special heal programmer training course….and…well…that would be a busy two years….and…”
Lan now stared at the floor and sighed.
“…And…I’m worried…I’m worried about him,” Beika finally said, thumbing toward Lan.
“Ah,” Cielo said, reclining back into his chair, and smiling at both young people. “So the Crimson Master has not told you yet.”
Beika looked at the head teacher, then looked at Lan.
“So he hasn’t. Heal programmer Beika, you are aware that Melancho is an important member of our guild. As such, there are mechanisms in place to ensure the safety of the Crimson Master within our jurisdiction.”
“There are?” Beika stared at Lan.
“Furthermore, Melancho has agreed to be my teaching assistant, especially during practicals,” Cielo said. “It should keep him occupied for most of the day. It’s also a flexible schedule, so if the special-cases section of the defense committee should need him, he is free to participate.”
Beika looked at them both. “Oh.”
“Will that be all?”
“Um…um….yes, thank you, sir,” Beika bowed to him.
Lan bowed as well, wordlessly, then pulled Beika away from the room.
Still without a word, Lan led her through the sidewalks of the training halls, and brought her to the Harmony coffee shop.
“Master Beika! Master Lan!” Soji greeted from the counter. “Early today!”
“I…um….I was let off early…” Beika explained, then stopped.
Lan frowned at her. He gestured toward Soji.
“Master Lan? Something wrong?” Soji asked.
Lan crossed his arms over his chest and frowned again at Beika.
“Oh, well, I couldn’t keep it a secret for much longer, anyway,” Beika scratched her head. “Soj, there’s this special training course for healers. I applied. And I was accepted.”
Soji was quiet for a few moments. Then he lit up.
He grabbed both of Beika’s hands and pumped them up and down. “Master Beika! So smart! So good! We celebrate!”
“But…but…Soj. It’ll be hard work. I’ll be tired. I won’t get to see you every day…”
“Oh, no worry, no worry! Is alright!” Soji kept flailing her hands. “Come when able! Any time! Dinner here! No think!”
“Um….thanks, thanks a lot,” Beika said, shaken by the hand-flailing. “But I can’t chat like I used to…”
“No worry, Master Beika. Am not leaving.” Soji stopped the pumping. “Come when able.”
Soji nodded and beamed at her. “Applying hard? Teacher strict?”
“Oh, you have no idea…see, we have this crazy training officer, and he’s…”
The conversation burst out of her like a pent-up fountain. Beika pulled Soji down to sit beside her as she rapidly related anecdotes and scenes about her application period, how she made silly mistakes, and how others did funny things.
Lan silently ate a sandwich while he listened, while he watched the two friends laugh and chat together.
The conversation lasted for more than an hour, when finally the chatter trickled into a steady little stream, and Beika’s eyelids began to droop.
Soji patted her on the shoulder. “Go home, Master Beika. No worry. Always here.”
She gave him a quick hug before Lan held her hand again.
He walked more slowly now, yet Beika found it hard to keep up the pace. Still he had not said a word.
“Are you mad at me or something, Lan?” she asked. “You haven’t said anything since we left the infirmary.”
He shook his head.
He opened his mouth, but no words came out. He shut his mouth again, placed his free hand in his trouser pocket, and kept walking.
He led her back to her quarters.
“And I thought you’d take me to a lot of places today,” Beika chuckled as she opened the door. “But, thanks. It took a weight off my mind, talking to them.”
But Beika grew silent and pensive as she entered the room, as she took off her shoes, as she sat on the bed.
“Lan.” Her voice was soft, and shaky. “Are you sure? That you’ll be alright? Really sure?”
Lan sighed as he slowly made his way to the bed. He sat beside her, but did not look at her.
He sighed a few more times, still stared at the floor in front of him.
“It’s my life, Bei. I still don’t know if I want to thank you or hate you for it. But it’s mine. Not yours. Don’t stop your life for me.”
“If you want to take this training course, do it. Don’t hold back because of me.”
“You need me to fetch you every day, just to prove I’m still here? It’s alright. You want me to report from training hall that I’m still here? I’ll do it. You want to keep me at your surgery department until you get home…”
“Now that’s not necessary…” Beika laughed.
“But do you understand what I’m trying to say.”
Beika smiled. “I think so.”
“Live your life, silly. Stop doubting. I’ll be fine.”
Beika suddenly bounded and wrapped her arms around him, sobbing onto his shoulders. The sleeves of his tunic grew wet with her tears and sniffles. The tunic crumpled with the tightness of her embrace.
“Master Lan, so slow!” Soji teased the next day. “Stay at girl’s quarters. Still nothing happen.”
“Shut up, Selati. She just chatted with me all night. I can’t believe she still went to the infirmary that early….”
“Shut up. I’m tired, alright?’
“Sure nothing ELSE happen?”
But Lan’s head had dropped to the table, his red hair falling into the cereal as he began to gently snore.