As the afternoon was fading into evening, Bryan Steeles sat at his desk, carefully working to verify the bank’s inventory before giving up for the day. It was hard work to keep up with the town’s expenses, and Bryan was still doing the job mostly on his own. He was confident that many of the town’s citizens had stopped paying their mandated tax with any regularity, but enough of them were keeping up that the bank vault wasn’t running out of bills any time soon. Still, it was noticeable in the prices of various commodities. Those that hoarded their funds had more to spend and an inflation of prices in the market was taking hold.
Beside him, a small clock began to ring.
He nearly jumped, grabbing the alarm and silencing it. He hadn’t realized how late it had already become. He leapt from his chair, smoothed his suit, and started downstairs.
Outside, the town was a bustling hub of activity. Cars rolled down the street in greater numbers these days, making something as simple as crossing the street more of a challenge. He waited for a clearing to appear and rushed across, waving to the closest driver as they approached.
Each day, Bryan liked to come over to his favorite shop.
The Cake n’ Bake Cafe.
Julia Reynolds was out front, sweeping at the entryway of the shop. When she saw him she smiled and waved. He felt his heart skip a beat. He really did enjoy buying snacks from Cake n’ Bake, but if he was honest with himself, he was here to see Julia.
He was fond of Julia…
He might even like Julia.
He had first met her a year ago, the very night Olivia escaped the vault. She had brought him a plate of pastries, but her foul mood toward his prisoners had unsettled him and he had reacted poorly. Obviously, the jailbreak had caused an uproar, but when things finally calmed down again he made his way to her shop to formally apologize for his short temper.
She apologized too, clearly having misjudged Olivia and Ronin.
After that, the two spent a lot of time together, talking, snacking, and over the course of the last year Bryan had come to see her as an integral part of his life.
“Hello neighbor,” she said cheerily as he approached. “What’s happening at the bank today?”
“Ah, the usual,” he said. “Just balancing the books and making sure the entire economy of our fine town doesn’t collapse on our heads.”
Julia laughed. “The hero we need.”
“How about you? How’s the shop?”
“In between the rush,” she said, pausing from her sweeping for a moment. “I suspect we’ll have the couples out and about soon, flirting at the fountain like they do.”
Bryan nodded, pleasantly reminded about the growing number of relationships that were getting started across town. Some of those relationships had already bloomed into more. Doctor Patel had been making a fuss at the town council meetings about the growing demand for childcare experts. No doubt in time they would need to get her a proper nurse to help out.
The thought gave way to concern. He furrowed his brow as he wondered what the town would do in the years ahead. Nima was a skilled doctor, but the children being born now would need a doctor too. Would the Core supply someone with those skills when they were needed, or would the next generation of children be wholly dependent on what people like Bryan could pass along to them?
“Where’d you get off to?” Julia asked, breaking his thoughts. “Running away in your mind when you ought to be visiting with me?”
He smiled. “I’m sorry, of course. I just… I worry.”
“Don’t we all,” she replied.
“I suppose we do,” he admitted. “No one is really spared from those gnawing questions about our past, our future… everything in between.”
“I dunno,” Julia said, sweeping again. “I think we’ll be alright.”
“Aye, indeed. Our town has become organized over the last year. Elsie’s got the Explorers running all over the place. William Everett has his engineering team. They’re designing new homes, finishing up buildings here in town… it’s all really impressive. I think we’ve all come to appreciate Johnathan’s news updates now that he’s doing photography too.”
“I can admit we have it more together now,” Bryan conceded. “Though, I think we’ve all conveniently forgotten about the event that nearly drove us into a chaotic collapse. The people with that flying machine are still out there.”
“True,” she said, pausing momentarily. “Though, Olivia said they promised not to come back, and I have to assume if they did they would have done it by now, don’t you think?”
“All I’m saying is, we’ve got ourselves figured out well enough. I think I could be a part of it too, you know, finding someone and settling down. I could teach a young one how to bake and take over the shop some day.”
“You uh… have anyone in mind?” Bryan asked, suddenly feeling nervous.
She smiled slyly. “I might have one, Mr. Steeles. Just one. What about you?”
He shifted in his seat. “Me?”
She stepped closer. “Yes. You know anyone out there that you might find yourself comfortable around?”
“Well… I definitely—”
Before he could force out anything else, Flynn’s strong voice echoed across the street, calling out his name. “Bryan!”
Julia and Bryan both turned to look and saw the man coming across the street with a brown bag in his hands. He reached the pair in front of the shop and looked up at Julia’s sign for a moment. “I like it,” he said cheerily.
“Really?” she asked. “I don’t think anyone has noticed I changed it this week.”
Bryan immediately felt like a fool. He had noticed her changing the sign a few days earlier, but he had forgotten to compliment her on it. He thought about saying something now, but it felt like it would be weak coming right behind Flynn’s compliment.
“I’m here for you,” Flynn said, turning away from Julia and looking Bryan over. “I got a present from Leonard.”
Flynn opened the bag, showing Bryan a large sum of money.
“Where did this come from?” Bryan asked.
“You remember the jailbreak?”
“Leonard stole a sum of money. He was going to run off with it, we think, but Samantha Valentine turned him in, despite him offering her money to stay silent. When we went to arrest him, he had already bolted, but he left the money behind.”
Bryan frowned. He had, of course, known about the missing money relatively quickly after the jailbreak. At first he said nothing because he assumed Olivia had taken it to use on the run. Later, he learned from Johnathan that it was Samantha that told him to take a bag of money while he was in the vault. Since then, Bryan had assumed Samantha to be a thief, but he had decided not to reveal her crimes to the council. She had already gotten herself into enough trouble by turning against Leonard at the end of his hostile takeover. Still, he had judged her well enough. He didn’t visit her anymore, or welcome her to visit him.
Now he was hearing what he should have known all along.
This was another one of Leonard’s schemes.
“I’m glad to hear we got the money back,” Bryan stated. “I can take it to the vault as soon as I’m finished here.”
“It’s wild you didn’t notice it was missing,” Flynn said, his voice non-accusatory. “I’ve heard you’re a particular stickler for details.”
“There’s a great deal of money in the vault,” Bryan explained, lying on the spot. “I don’t think I could count it all, even if I tried. I had it organized fairly well, but Olivia and Ronin did some organizing of their own while they were visiting, so I didn’t have any visual indicators either.”
“I’m sorry, of course,” Flynn said, realizing how he sounded. “I didn’t mean to question you about it. I meant to be paying you a compliment about your attention to detail. I can see where I botched that.”
“It’s quite alright.”
“You comfortable holding onto this?” Flynn asked, gesturing to the bag of money.
“Well, I’ll be on my way then. I’ve got a meeting with Olivia later and it sounds… interesting.”
“Thank you again,” Bryan said, waving as Flynn walked down the street.
When Flynn was out of earshot, Bryan turned his attention back to Julia. She had put her broom away and stepped back inside the bakery, so he jumped up, grabbed the money bag, and followed her inside.
“Hey,” he said, finding her behind the counter where she was counting supplies.
“Done already?” she asked. “I thought it might be important.”
“There’s only one important thing on my mind,” Bryan said, his voice instantly struggling as he fought to force out the emotions that had been building in him for the last year. “I want you to know that I do have someone I’m comfortable around. I have someone that I would very much like to have in my life…”
Julia feigned ignorance. “Really? How interesting. Who might it be?”
“You, Julia,” he said. “I… I want, no, I’m ready for us to grow beyond two friends that meet at lunchtime and talk about our busy work schedules.”
“Scandal,” she said, smiling widely. “What, then, shall you do?”
“I want to take you to dinner,” he said. “Just you and me.”
“Where would you take me?” she asked.
“Oliver’s, I suppose,” he replied. “Or we could get some ingredients and cook something together. It doesn’t even have to be a restaurant. Julia, I just… I go home at night and I think about coming back to work the next day just so I can cross the street and say hello. You’re always on my mind. We could go sit in the park and just talk for all it matters. As long as I’m spending time with you, I don’t care.”
“Well, I have only one thing to say to all of this,” she started. “I like Oliver’s soups, which he only does once a week, so you should definitely plan around that. As to the rest, you know I couldn’t be happier to hear you say it. I have been here, every day, pining about as you sit and have your desert, making small talk, and then heading back to the bank. My mind is a fountain of thoughts about you, about you and I, and I am ready to see those thoughts come to fruition.”
Now it was Bryan’s turn to smile widely.
“Dinner then,” he said, standing up. “I have to get back to my work, but I will talk to Oliver. Soup. We’ll have soup together and talk more.”
“A good start, if ever there was one,” she said.
“Until then,” he added. “Enjoy your day.”
As he walked across the street to the bank he couldn’t stop smiling. She had expressed a deep affection for him and that was the greatest thing he had heard in all of his time living in town. He tried to repeat back what she said in his mind, focusing on the memory and locking it away as best he could.
This was the beginning for him, he knew it.
Happiness was upon his threshold and he was going to seize it.