The streets smelled of cold air, rain, and the scent of lilies blooming outside the florist's door. Alice Hawthorne paused outside the store for a moment, then turned and entered it.
"Alice?" said the girl, sitting up from behind the counter in surprise. Nehara Everlane looked at her, with big wide eyes, curious and surprised. Today, Nehara wasn't having her hair done up in her usual loose braid, but had it hanging freely.
Alice knew her childhood friend had gotten a part-time job, though just yesterday; just that she didn't know what type it was. To know that it was the florist was surprising.
"So you're working here?" Alice asked, startled.
"Mom made Rhiann work at the home products company, because she's got a huge responsibility as the Cisneros family's heiress," said Nehara, embarrassed. "I'm just the foster kid adopted by the one of the greatest defensive mages' families, and I'm not going to do much, so Dad thought I should get a job to learn to live among everyone else at school."
"Even though you're fourteen, and just a year younger than me?" said Alice. "You chose the florist?"
"Well, he said, any job is good, and he gave his okay before I took it," said Nehara, smiling happily. Then she sat up. "Today's my first day at work, so since you're a customer, I'll take your order."
"Okay, then. I have a specific flower I want to buy here," said Alice. "You have to know this flower. The Martagon. "
Nehara frowned. Then brightened. "They're Turk's Cap Lilies?"
Alice grinned. "Ten of them. I'll put them in water later."
"Got it!" Nehara went for the purplish-pink blooms standing close to the front door.
Alice watched as Nehara eagerly went over the flowers, her smile bright and cheerful.
"How's my new apprentice?" asked a voice, and she turned to see Maya, the florist, coming out of a storeroom with her arms full of chrysanthemums.
"Maya, I've got this!" Nehara called.
"I think she'll be good at her job," said Alice.
"You guys know each other?" said Nehara, startled.
"My older sister, Pamela - she's your Rites instructor, you know - she's Maya's friend," said Alice.
Nehara stared. "Really? I didn't know that!"
"Well, we get to see each other everyday, anyway, since you guys live just next door over the cafe," said Maya.
At that, Nehara stopped. "Cafe? Alice, you live next door at the cafe?"
"Uh - yeah, should I have mentioned it?" Alice asked, a little taken aback.
"I didn't know that either! Everything inside there looks so nice, all those tea snacks and coffee, and those cupcakes the cafe's famous for," said Nehara dreamily. "Since you moved out close to the Academy, and I went to live with the Cisneros family, I didn't know where you lived, but I'm still glad you're at the Academy. You really live there? And makes cupcakes and coffee for people?"
"You should come over and visit, if you like," said Alice. "Mom started the business after we came, so we practically live there. No, correction, my family lives there, I stay at the Academy's dorms. Come over, I'll spare some snacks. Speaking of which, I'll have to get back soon, so I'll like those flowers in a simple bouquet, since it's for Mom."
"Okay!" Nehara went on with her job.
"How's school for you and Pamela?" asked Maya.
"Good, as usual, for both of us," said Alice.
Nehara soon came to her with the bouquet, and Alice paid for it, seeing that the flowers were definitely carefully wrapped.
"You sure learned fast," said Alice. "I'll see you tomorrow at school, then!"
"Yeah, come again soon!" said Nehara, then stopped. "Uh - is that what you should say?"
"Yep," said Maya, laughing.
Alice waved and stepped out of the store, holding the flowers in one arm carefully, before walking to the cafe right next door to the florist store, then entering through the front door.
"You're here early today, Alice," said Kimberly, sitting up at the cash register counter.
"What, no extra classes?" said Mark, assistant to the chef. Mark was a man in his fifties, but had stuck to Esmeralda Hawthorne's side ever since the cafe was opened, manning the entire kitchen staff of eleven people when Esmeralda was absent. Today, apparently, he was in charge was making beverages.
"Yeah, there wasn't any," said Alice. "Where's my mom and sister?"
"Went out on an appointment this morning, said she might come back till night. Your sister's upstairs with a guest who got in through the back door."
Guest? That was unusual. Alice nodded her thanks and hurried off up to the second floor, which was the Hawthornes' home since they moved here five years ago.
She entered the office, then froze, seeing a young man standing in the middle of the room. Her sister Pamela stood right before him, holding hands with him.
Alice started to back out, but then Pamela, her face flushed red, called, "Alice, come back, come back!" To prove her point, she went ahead and caught Alice's hand. "Um - actually, I was hoping to introduce him to everyone else, anyway. This is Cain. My boyfriend."
"For all I know, this guy's the leader of the Guard faction of mages," said Alice, staring at the man, who had dark brown hair and eyes, who also looked back at her in amazement.
"I know, I know, and he's my boyfriend!" Pamela was tense.
Then Alice finally heard her sister. "Oh! Right, sorry! I didn't hear it the first time."
"I knew it. I know he's famous among the mages roaming the Academy, anyway." Pamela huffed with amusement and annoyance.
"Hi, nice to meet you," said Cain finally, with a half-smile.
Alice wondered if he was stiff or one of those moody boyfriends, but smiled. "Same here." Then she noticed the flowers. "Pamela, you mind putting the flowers into a vase. I've got to get to work. There's one in the kitchen, right?"
"Okay," said Pamela, taking the flowers. "Martagon. Pretty bunch, these." She turned to Cain. "Be right back!" She went towards the kitchen.
Alice tossed her pack onto the couch along with her the denim jacket she wore, then searched the pack.
"Going to work?" said Cain, sitting in an armchair.
"Yeah. Sorry I can't stay long to entertain. But - well, that's Pam and Mom's specialty."
"This is your entire family?"
At that, Alice looked up, startled. Cain had picked up a photo frame that had been delicately carved out of wood. The photo in the frame was of Philip and Esmeralda Hawthorne, with an eight-year-old Alice, nine-year-old Pamela, and eleven-year-old Oswald. Alice noted herself half-hiding behind Pamela while struggling to smile.
"Yep, that's us," said Alice. She pulled out her Kindle device from her pack. "Well, then, I'm back to work downstairs." She raised her voice. "Pam, I'm leaving!"
Alice turned and hurried down the stairs.