A/N: It's been fun, guys. 3
It's nearly four hours into her shift when she realizes what's got her thinking of it.
The new employee scrubs off tables and straightens chairs inexpertly, looking back at Deryn every so often to make sure she's doing it right. Deryn just nods, considering whether to offer the girl a headband from her satchel. Her hair is pulled back into a ponytail, as is procedure, but bits of the thick red mass keep pulling out and falling into her face. She brushes them back behind her ear constantly, but they never stay.
Deryn wonders if she looked so young when she was the new girl's age. She never felt young–but then again, she doesn't feel young or old now, either. She just feels like a university student, struggling to keep up with all the schoolwork that comes with double majoring in graphic design and aviation. She doesn't regret the decision even now, three years in, as much as her professors seem to want her to with all the work they assign.
Between her work at London University and here, she hasn't had much time to think about that spring, when everything changed. It used to be a constant, nagging thought in the back of her mind, but now it's faded off. Only now, when a new employee much like she was comes for her first day, do the memories resurface. And even though the pain has dulled with time, it still hurts.
"How's she doing?" comes a deep, bright voice, and it startles Deryn from her reverie. It's Newkirk, out of his office to see how Lauren–the new employee–is handling her first day.
"Not bad," Deryn replies with a knowing smile. Newkirk returns the sentiment, absently playing with the third finger on his left hand. Deryn's noticed him doing that more and more in recent weeks, and she thinks she knows why. And even now, distracted as he is, he's already a better owner and manager than Rigby ever was. "And the coffee machine likes her, so I say we should keep her. You think so, Lauren?"
The girl's cheeks redden under her freckles, and she nods carefully. "Aye, that'd be good."
Deryn lets out an amused laugh. "Don't be so frightened, Lauren. I'm really not that intimidating, I promise. And Mr. Newkirk over there is nothing but a big softie, but don't tell him I told you that."
Newkirk rolls his eyes, but Deryn's ploy has worked marvelously. The girl breathes a sigh of relief and a grin pulls at her lips.
"And I believe you mentioned that you go to Leviathan?" asks Newkirk, one eyebrow raised.
Lauren nods, pushing her hair back again. "Aye. I'm an eleventh year."
"Believe it or not," Deryn interjects, "the two of us went to Leviathan. We'll have graduated three years ago this spring."
What she doesn't mention is how strange and lonely their entire twelfth year felt, even though the piece that was missing had only been there for four months.
"Stop it," Newkirk groans. "You'll make me feel old."
Deryn scoffs outright. "Please, give that a rest. You haven't grown up one bit since then."
After a moment of deliberation, Newkirk counters: "Say what you will, but I like to think I've gained more than my fair share of charm and good looks."
"Tell that to your girlfriend."
"Oh, I think she agrees," he says. And there it is again, Deryn sees, Newkirk is kneading his ring finger with the opposite hand. Yes, he's definitely going to propose to Rachel soon. The two are more than close, and have been for ages, so Deryn thinks it's time. He's certainly been considering it for long enough, and the man is getting more nervous by the day.
"Whatever. Lauren, can you go to the back and bring up a few cans of coffee and some filters? They're against the south wall, next to the refrigerator."
She nods and ducks out the employee door, leaving Deryn and Newkirk alone. A nostalgic silence fills the space, and it's obvious that the girl reminds Newkirk of back then, too.
"Is Robert coming home for spring break this year?" Deryn wonders suddenly.
Newkirk shrugs. "I hope he does. He mentioned how awful the ticket prices from New York to here are, so at least he's checked. It's been ages since I've seen him."
"I know. It's great that he's had internships and shows and things, but I hate that it kept him there all summer and over winter break." Deryn leans against the counter and sighs. "It's been almost a year since he's been home."
"It's not as if we don't see enough of his photos on Facebook. If I have to see one more selfie of him and his boyfriend, I swear I'll lose my lunch," jokes Newkirk, but the longing to see his best friend again overpowers any humor that may have been in his voice. "We're not very busy tonight," he comments, changing the subject.
"I'm okay with that," Deryn replies, glancing down at her watch. It's nearly eight-thirty, but even during the slow part of the night they usually have more business than this. Newkirk's managerial skills and Deryn's impressive artistic flair have brought in more business than either of them expected. "It makes it easier on Lauren."
"That's true." Newkirk brushes imaginary dust off the arm of one of the chairs, the same one that Deryn sat in one night, helping a boy whose life was in danger with his math homework. It's hard for to her to believe that so much time has passed since then, but at the same it's hard to fathom all that's happened since.
It took another year and a half for the conflict in Austria to settle down, and Deryn devoted every ounce of spare time she could find to the events, even learning German to better follow what went on because the English newspapers only covered the most major events.
Three months passed before he resurfaced to aid in finding peace, and the media fell over itself to make sure he didn't disappear again–although she knows he didn't intend to. Through television appearances and newspaper articles, she could see how hard it was for him at first, being such a public figure at no more than seventeen. But then he grew into the responsibility, and handled everything that was thrown at him with unquestionable skill. Impressive as it was, Deryn watched him age more than he should have had to in that time, and she still yearns to bring him back to the adolescence that has been stolen from him.
But despite it all, everything worked out. Negotiations were made, new borders drawn, and lives resumed. He was elected into a high position in Austria's revised government, and Deryn wonders if he is always so confident and calm as he appears to the public, or if behind closed doors he is still the nervous boy she once knew.
"Deryn, I have to ask you something," Newkirk hedges, playing with his hands yet again.
She rolls her eyes dramatically and throws her hands up in the air. "It's about time." The look of utter confusion that crosses his face makes her grin. "She'll say yes, you know. She's been waiting for you to ask her for a long time."
Newkirk blinks. "Um–thanks, I guess. How did you..?" He trails off.
"It's kind of obvious. You've only been wandering around like a lost puppy for the last month."
"Oh. You really think she'll say yes?"
"More than I think the Earth is round."
He takes a deep, relieved breath, like a weight has finally been pulled off his shoulders. "Thank you, Deryn. I needed to hear that." His face has settled into a contented grin, and he stops fiddling with his hands, putting them in his pockets. "I'm taking her out on Friday, so...um, yeah. I've got some paperwork to do–bills and such. I'll be in my office if you need me."
Shaking her head, Deryn flicks a few stray coffee grounds off the counter as the man retreats into his office with a spring in his step. She doesn't know how he manages to run a coffee shop all on his own and still get top marks at his business school, but he does it and even finds time to style his hair every morning. Although, she doubts he'll be getting much work done the rest of this week.
Just as the door closes behind him, Lauren reappears from the back with an armload of coffee and filters. Deryn takes a few things off the top before the girl drops them and kneels down to store them in the cabinets underneath the coffee maker. She's still certain the machine hates her, and the two have had their share of mild disasters through the years.
"Well, now's as good a time as any to start clean-up," Deryn says. The shop closes in twenty minutes, and she doubts anyone will come in during that time. "We keep a list of things to do before locking up every night in the supply closet, in case you forget what needs to be done."
She and Lauren cross to the closet, pulling out various cleaning supplies. Between the two of them, the work gets done fast; Deryn's just dumping the mop water down the drain when the clock hits eight fifty, and she's about to call out to Lauren to shut down all the machines when the bell on the door rings.
"You've got to be kidding me," Deryn groans, as quietly as she can because she knows how sound carries. As much as it upsets her that someone came in so close to closing, she doesn't want to lose business.
She pushes the mop bucket aside more harshly than is strictly necessary and returns to the main room. "Welcome to Newkirk's. How can I help you?" she deadpans, not looking at the customer as she makes her way to the counter.
"I'm just looking for someone," replies a man's voice, deep and playful at the same time. It sound's like he's talking through a giddy smile, and something about it makes Deryn's head snap over to see the person behind it. "You know, the last time I was here, this place was still called Rigby's."
Deryn's legs nearly give when the full reality of him hits her. He's taller now, and he looks more comfortable in his body than he used to. But his hair is still the same reddish-brown, and he never has let it grow back out any longer than an inch. His jaw has squared off, and it might look odd against the roundness of his smile if it weren't so inviting and utterly familiar. He wears a shirt and a vest but no jacket, and the tie hung around his neck is exactly the color of his eyes, warm and as deep a green as a summer forest. When his eyes meet hers, the rest of his face lights up like the sun itself.
She can barely catch her breath. "Well, a lot can happen in four years."
Without looking at the new girl, Deryn says: "Lauren, you can head on home now; I'll finish up here, just change the sign on your way out. I'll see you on Thursday. Good–ah–good work today."
She mumbles an "Okay" and gathers her coat and keys hurriedly, obviously relieved to go. The doorbell chimes on her way out.
And then there is silence.
They just stare at each other, unable to accept the fact that they have come face to face again after so long. She's paused just behind the antique of a cash register, and he's no more than a step away from the counter, like coming any closer might break an illusion that he so desperately wants to be real. It's as though time has stopped right before a drop of water hits the ground, charged with anticipation.
"What can I get for you?" she breathes, breaking the silence.
He blinks, and if Deryn isn't mistaken, there's more moisture there than just a few moments before. "Just coffee, if you please. And an hour of your time. If not tonight, then tomorrow night. Or every night."
One of Deryn's eyebrows raises, and it takes a moment for him to realize he's said the last bit out loud. Maybe he hasn't changed much, after all.
With a hesitant grin, she pulls a styrofoam cup out from underneath the counter with one hand and the a black marker with the other. "It's on the house," she tells him as she uncaps the marker. And then, although she knows the answer and it sends chills up her spine, she asks: "And what name should I put on the order?"
There is a split second pause, and their gazes lock. Four years was never enough to keep them apart.
And then he replies, quietly.