The waitress - the epitome of punky, bearing streaked hair, black eyeliner and so many piercing she could have been taken for a cyborg - scrunched a sour face.
“We don’t serve alcoholic beverages. And don’t tell me to make it snappy, or you just might be waiting past closing time for that trippio, Mr. Smart Aleck.”
“Who hired you?” Ryuu demanded, not breaking his monotonous pose.
“I don’t see why you care.” She sniped, metal bracelet jangling on one wrist. “Now - do ya want the coffee or not?”
“Fine. Triple Espresso, please. Just - hurry, if you would. I have to be somewhere in - now - nine minutes.”
“The coffee moves at its own speed. Don’t rush the coffee, man.” A lanky teen with what looked like an entire sheep on his head swayed over.
“Nigel, if you don’t stop coming to work like this, I’m going to shove that ridiculous wool hat over your face so hard it splits in two!” snapped Punk Girl. “Now get your rear end in gear and man the counter.” She leapt off her stool and flounced towards the back, where the aroma of ground coffee beans permeated the air, strong enough to be tangible.
“Whatever you say, Via..” Sheep Boy mumbled, and proceeded to slump at the counter, pose interchangeable with Ryuu’s. Then he perked up. His face, an overlong white oval that had never seen the sun, tilted towards his customer.
“What’s in the case? Because if it’s an animal I’m calling the Humane Society-”
Ryuu twitched imperceptibly, his scarred hands wrapping even tighter around the battered leather valise. The marks across his palms matched perfectly with the straps, as though a long history of clutching this package had left their scars.
“It’s not. It’s mine though.” He shifted, shrouding the suitcase in his dark, tattered coat, glowering under his hair. “And you won’t be taking it.”
The teenager - Nigel - jolted back, knocking into the partial wall between the preparation area and open space for customers. He trembled, from his tree-bark boots to his sheep-wool hat, lidded eyes flaring open to their full extent. The reaction would have been humorous if it hadn’t been for the expression of terror affixed to his face.
Ryuu leaned back, frowning. Did I frighten him? He hadn’t meant to - he’d learned over the years to control his expressions. Perhaps, in this time of panic, one of those horrible snarls had burst forth - the ones that made him look like his father.
His taut shoulders quivered at the comparison.
I’m nothing like him.
Or… I never meant to be. But sometimes I wonder, now…
Focus, Ryuu. That train of thought was suicidal at best.
Only minutes now. If you don’t catch that train….
“NIGEL!” The blast of a voice wrenched both men out tf their separate troubled reveries. The Punk Barista - Via - stormed back into view, uncountable piercings clanging with every step, black-rimmed eyes strobing with fury.
“WHAT are you DOING?! We have AT LEAST TWO customers who asked for croissants and coffee, and WHAT ARE YOU DOING?! COWERING BEHIND THE COUNTER?! This is a PROFESSIONAL business, you uncivilized nitwit!”
At this glass-shattering outburst, several customers edged out of the “professional business” for fear of vexing the harpy taking orders, but neither server noticed. Nigel was too busy darting away towards the now-nonexistent other customers and Via, peering around the room, bellowed, “TRIPPIO for the man with the stupid bow tie!”
At least three businessmen hastily checked their necks, confidence evaporating as they reconsidered their outfit choice of the day. Ryuu only extended a hand. His bow tie - violet with white polka-dots - might have looked utterly ridiculous, but it serves it purposes.
“Here, doll. It’s mine.”
“Ah, yes. You.” Via’s eyes narrowed and for a moment, her arm quivered, as though contemplating not handing over the beverage. The partly-formed plan, however, was ruined as Ryuu’s hand shot forwards, snatched the cup from her grasp, and quickly dropped a bill on the mahogany countertop.
“Got to go-”
He pivoted, taking in the cathedral-like rafters, light-wood decor, spindly tables perched in unique geometric shapes, and barrels of coffee and cacao beans. He shot a glance out the sun-dazzled windows before bolting, overcoat flying behind him as he shoved his way out the glass door, drops of coffee shooting every which way, case slamming his thigh.
One gush of cold air later, Ryuu was gone.
Via took her time polishing the counter before drawing a small, metallic device out of her frayed apron pocket. Her eyes flashed as she fiddled with a chipped silver knob, then leaned in close.
“Excellent,” a voice breathed on the other end of the line, ragged and guttural. “Is he still outside?”
Via cocked her head towards Nigel, domed wool hat low on his head, peering intently out the diamond-paned windows opposite, looking out onto a small pavilion. He nodded.
“Yes - trying to get through the crowds, I think. How many minutes left?”
“Six. Keep position. We’ll take it from here.”
“Mmm.” Via covertly tucked the gadget into her belt and snapped back into her role as hostile server.
“Nigel! Stop stalling and fill the beans! I swear - sometimes you make me want to-”
And her thoughts flowed once again into vexation and spunk.
… … …
“Oh my - AAAAAAHHHHHH!”
Lucie bolted out of her seat, knocking the plush chair over in her ecstasy.
“Wait a moment!” Mr. Erikson, a mousy, pale-haired gentleman, lurched back, spectacles flashing in alarm. His hand shot towards a half-eaten doughnut, as though to use it as a shield.
“Miss Chevalier, I only said your novel might be published-”
“I have to tell everyone! I’ll be back-” And she bowled out of the room, past a moderately-classy lobby, flung herself out the glass door of Erikson and Associates Publishing, and launched into the street, setting off in a run. I have to tell Gramps! He’ll be so proud-
“Watch where you’re going, Miss!”
The man who had spoken seemed to be composed of jutting lines - from the isosceles triangle of his head to his stiff, twig-like legs to his arms, hung akimbo, elbows extremely pointed, like they had been sharpened. His hair bristled, reddish-grey, out of his skull as though he had just stuck a bony finger in an electrical socket. His keen eyes were watery with age, but a surprising shade of blue - it looked as though he was glaring at her through a haze of fire. Scowls creased his face so often it appeared to have frozen in the dissatisfied expression, leaving absolutely no wrinkles - a perfect mold. Only a hint of graying stubble flecked across his chin gave any semblance of imperfection to this figure - black-coated, suavely booted, impeccable and intimidating.
“I - I’m sorry sir!” She stammered. Next to this mannequin-like form, she looked particularly shabby - trailing navy trench coat, rumpled sweatpants not quite tucked into ragged moccasins, antique black suitcase nearly spilling open, revealing mountains of paper compressed in a far-too-tight space. Her face, splotched with makeup applied in a hurry, appeared rosy and radiant - magenta lips, haphazard blush melted away in excitement, and gleaming waves of mocha-brown hair spilling out from under a knitted pink hat. It was a kind, empathetic face, and a weary one, and as of now, ablaze with excitement.
“I should think so!” snapped the alien stranger, raising his pointed nose in disgust. “You nearly shoved me into the gutter!”
“I’m so, so sorry, Sir!” she gasped. “It’s just, I’m going to have a novel published, and I’ve dreamed of this since I was a little girl, and I have to tell my Grandfather - he’s always told me I could do this, and-” The rest of the words spilled out in the form of panted breaths, fogging the frosty air between them. There was so much she wanted to say, she so much she could not tell this hostile stranger - the long hours, alone at an attic window, scribbling to pass the time.. The gradual dream that seized her, between the books she devoured, of seeing her own name in print - the many years of being pushed aside and set back, and the tears of exhaustion and joy that flooded her face as she finally finished what a tale that had taken years to complete, a fantasy epoch for the ages - if she could publish it. And her Grandfather, ailing and frail, who was and had always been such a large part of her life, the most wonderful part - how he would beam when she told him the news-
“That is no excuse!” the stranger raged, momentarily deflating Lucie’s bubble of magical glee. For a moment, gazing into his icy eyes, the young woman felt as though she were a deer trapped in the headlights - an innocent wisp unprepared for what was to come.
“Why, I ought to-”
“That’s enough, Nagendra.”
The man scowled, but turned slowly towards the figure who had spoken, voice flat and utterly uninterested.
“Save it for your meeting.”
The woman seemed to melt out of the crowd, and it was only after a moment that Lucie realized she had been lurking there throughout the entire exchange. Her disguise was, simply, normality - her face a mask of average, clothing dark and uninteresting, carrying only a purse strung over her shoulder. Her eyes were average and dull, mouths set in a placid line, seemingly ageless - the only vaguely interesting feature about her was her hair, a copper-red gleaming in the weak winter sun. Still, she seemed to hold some control over the irate man - Nagendra? - for after a long moment, he bowed his head, nostrils flaring.
“Of course. Come, then, Tanith. Four minutes left - this street urchin has wasted our time. I shall take the shortcut”
And without another word, he strode away, black coat sweeping behind like a sinister wind.
“Apologies.” The woman shot Lucie a hurried look, already backing away towards her companion’s rapidly retreating figure. “And congratulation on your novel.”
“Thank you!” Lucie’s smile popped back into view, bright as the snowy sky. “And I’m sorry about your friend - I think my case - it’s full of my manuscript, you see - might’ve bumped him-”
“Oh, he’s not my friend.” The woman replied. Her tone stayed perfectly neutral; Lucie wondered if she actually possessed emotion. “Goodbye, then.”
She vanished into the masses on the busy street once more; Lucie frowned for a moment, then hurried onward, thoughts bouncing from topic to topic, the warm glow in her chest slightly diminished by the lingering sense of insult and suspicion. But no matter, she resolved - soon she would be home, with her grandfather, sipping a mug of hot chocolate to celebrate - and everything would be alright. The optimism rose within herm higher and higher, cresting to a peak-
She moved on - swifter, quicker, feet barely touching the sidewalk, skimming between pedestrians, practically flying - from somewhere in the back of her mind, she registered the rich scent of coffee-
Ryuu didn’t bother to be polite - he bashed through the throng, case flying, feet pounding, scars stinging with a raw wind - running out of time, I’m running out of time - faster - faster-
And then there was an obstacle in his path, and he saw its eyes flare wide, and he was going too fast to stop-
Coffee and papers flew into a mess as the two strangers collided on their hurried paths, unaware their destinies were now intertwined.
The instant result was panic and pain.
“OW!” Lucie stumbled and slipped, snatching hold of the man’s arm in a vice-like grip Her case had flown open, papers spilling everywhere, and her head swiveled, taking it all in frantically-
Ryuu, as always when something did not go according to plan, was struck dumb. He gasped, struggling to seize back his breath, but finding it difficult while staring into a pair of bright hazel eyes-
Lucie’s breath caught in her throat. Thoughts flashed through her mind too fast for her to comprehend - a spinning compass of pictures and words.
The man who had run into her also carried a case, which had slammed into the curb and was on the verge of opening. His breaths were rattling, heaving, and he hunched in a grey coat, as though shielding his heart. But it was his face that startled her the most - that gave her a lurching feeling deep inside, somewhere that felt like fate.
Blanketed by two mounds of hair - slick, dark - that had whipped back when they collided, his shadowed eyes were pools of weariness, defeat, indescribable sadness. Once upon a time they might have been bright, but now they blinked a faded blue, almost grey, an overcast day matching the pallor of his face. Though naturally pointed, almost elvin, it appeared to have been dulled by time, until now it was ragged and frayed, cheeks sloping outwards like white flags of surrender.
He had spilled coffee all across her coat. It burned.
“I - I-” Lucie stammered. The pounding in her ribs continued, harder, faster. She swallowed, searching for something to say-
But was never given the chance.
“Get out of the way.” The stranger’s eyes flashed with something new - a bolt of terror; desperation. “They’re coming.”
He snatched up the case and was gone, fighting his way through the crowds with such intensity it was almost beast-like.
Lucie was left alone, gaping like a fish.
Inside the window of the coffee shop, a pink-haired girl shouted something to a boy in a towering white hat, who scrambled to the window.
Further down the street, she spotted Nagendra and Tanith, emerging from a side alley. The woman’s head swiveled frantically, and she saw the man shout and point in all directions, thin face blazing.
Her gaze dropped to the curb, she knelt, seized the frayed handles of the portmanteau, gasped and shot up, frantic.
Racing towards a steaming train, Ryuu jolted to a sudden stop, nearly hurtling down a set of stairs leading to the platform. His intestines froze in horror.
Lucie, rising above the crowd, at last found her voice.
“Hey, Sir! Hey, MISTER! MISTER?! You took the wrong case!”