Miyo had heard of teahouses like this before, but had never visited one until now. Entranced, she parked the motorcycle at the edge of the parking lot just so she could have more time to walk up to the teahouse.
It was more of a pavilion than it was a “house,” though Miyo guessed that the wooden panels at the middle and corner of the perimeter hid sliding doors similar to her own tea shop. But the space was much larger than her shop. Standing at one end of the teahouse, Miyo had to squint to find the teaware displayed at the other end.
With lunchboxes in hand, Miyo chose to walk around the outside of the teahouse. Tables were scattered all around the space, as if they had been rearranged into various combinations many times. There were some big enough that it sat ten people, all of them taking turns placing cards down in between steaming cups of tea. There were some small enough to seat just one, like an older lady in the corner with book in one hand, teacup in the other.
The owner was younger than Miyo had expected, considering that most of the visitors were older, their heads of white and gray hair bowed in conversation. But the slow, warm smile Asuka greeted her with told Miyo that there was a wisdom there beyond her years.
Asuka motioned to a young girl on the edge of being a teenager, who took a deep breath before approaching. Miyo guessed that she was an apprentice – she remembered having the same kind of hesitance when she was in the same position, at the same age.
“Hiroko, this lady here delivered our lunchboxes from Tomo. Could you pass them out to the others?”
The girl’s eyes widened and Miyo could see her entire body tense up. Sympathy rushed through her but before Miyo could reassure them, Asuka reached out to pat Hiroko’s shoulder.
“It’s okay. Just remember that the duties you forget can sometimes add an extra burden onto others.” Asuka glanced at Miyo. “But it seems in this case, it brought us a new visitor instead.”
At Asuka’s smile, relief spread through Hiroko’s face and flowed into her body, bending into a low bow that she held for several moments. “Thank you,” she murmured, before walking back to the work area.
“Please, have a seat wherever you like,” Asuka said, her palm lifting gently to gesture towards the tables. “It seems the weather has brought everyone out today so we’re a bit busy, but we will bring out your tea out to you.”
“Do take your time,” Miyo said, taking in the tea-scented breeze that swept through the pavilion, “I’m in no rush at all.”
Miyo chose her seat out of curiosity, claiming the end of a table with a myriad of colors embedded into its surface. In the center were two circles but what caught her eye was a list of what seemed to be names carved into the edge of the table. She chuckled, reminded of similar carvings that had littered the shared desks she’d had in school.
The whisper of a warming song caught her attention, and she straightened to find whose magic it was. But it faded as quickly as it had begun. ‘Magi-tech perhaps?’ Miyo wondered as she eyed Hiroko and the other apprentices walking swiftly between the tables. She remembered hearing similar echoes when Tomo had used her kitchenware.
“So this is why the tea shop is closed.”
Miyo looked up in surprise. “Mr. Ishikawa! I didn’t expect to see you.”
Ishikawa raised an eyebrow at her. “Likewise. Anyone sitting here?”
Miyo shook her head and motioned for him to join her. He set his teapot and cup on the table before easing into a chair diagonally across from her. It was a long table, one that Miyo could see used for meetings or dinner gatherings.
“Decided to gallivanting today?” Ishikawa asked when he had settled his things.
“Well, I met this tricycle driver a while back …” Ishikawa sipped his tea as he listened to Miyo recount Ryou’s request and her attempts so far to fulfill it. He gave a grunt of surprise at the end of it.
“I went to school with Tomo and Tameshi,” Ishikawa explained. “We were part of the same music group, Tomo and I that is. Haven’t seen them in a long time though…” He shook himself from his wandering thoughts. “Tameshi was always doing her own thing, even back then. But she liked to come with us here during lunch.” He nodded behind Miyo. “Looks like students now still come by too.”
Miyo looked up and saw some visitors approaching, all of them of high school age. She recognized one in particular and returned Makoto’s wave as she approached with another girl in the same uniform.
“Would it be alright to join you?” Makoto asked after introductions had been made. Ishikawa shrugged at the same time that Miyo eagerly nodded.
“I was hoping you both might be able to help us. We have a bit of a dilemma,” Makoto admitted after they’d taken their seats. She gave her friend a sharp look, until the other girl sighed and finally lifted a cake box onto the table. “We have a competition coming up so we can’t eat all of this by ourselves. Could we share some with you?”
Ishikawa peered at the logo on the cake box and his eyebrows rose in recognition. “You’re giving away cake from Alicia’s shop?”
“I pass by it on my way to school,” Yui explained, nudging Makoto when she rolled her eyes. “It really is on my way, geez.”
“It doesn’t mean you have to buy something every time you pass by.”
“But it feels bad to just walk by without saying hi.”
Ishikawa and Miyo exchanged looks, then grinned, opening the cake box as Makoto and Yui argued. It was filled with an assortment of cake slices, the edges wrapped carefully in clear plastic film. They were each starting to unwrap a slice when a new voice cut into the conversation.
“Cakes again, Yui? Weren’t you whining about your weight just a couple days ago?”
Yui groaned, dropping her forehead to the table as Eimi began to pull out a chair. “Not you too, auntie.”
Eimi rolled her eyes, then nodded to the young man next to her. “Miyo, this is Susumu. He can help you with the motorcycle. Susumu, this is Miyo, the teamaster I mentioned, my food-loving niece and her best friend, and -”
She froze when Ishikawa turned to face her, staring at each other for several moments. “Thought I recognized that voice,” Ishikawa finally said, a touch of gruffness in his voice. “Been a while.”
Eimi laughed and dropped down into the seat. “I’d say. I think this place was the last time we saw each other.”
Ishikawa nodded. “When we had that performance for school.” He nudged a slice of cake towards her. “So, what have you been up to?”
Miyo gestured for Susumu to take a seat. “Please, have some cake as well,” she said, sliding the box over to where he sat on the other side of Makoto.
Susumu’s eyes widened. “Wow, was there a birthday or something?”
“Or something,” Makoto answered wryly. “Yui here can’t decide if she likes cake or making weight more.”
Miyo smiled as she listened to the conversations flow around her. ‘Cake, friends – now the only thing we need is …’
“My apologies for the wait,” Hiroko said, her voice a bit breathless. She set down the two teapots on the table, then placed her palms into the two circles in the middle of the table. She hummed a short phrase and the circles lit up faintly, bringing with them a hint of warmth. The teapots went on top, and teacups were passed around before she bowed and hurried to the next table.
“Everything all right here?”
Miyo looked up in amazement at Asuka. “That’s amazing,” she said, still open-mouthed at the ingenious use of magi-tech.
Asuka shook her head and smiled. “It’s not half as amazing as seeing this group of people connected like this. That’s a skill no magi-tech can replicate.”
Miyo watched Asuka’s back as she walked away, the words lingering in her wake. She turned back to the table thoughtfully.
“Miyo, didn’t you work with Alicia before?” Makoto asked, pushing the box of cakes out of Yui’s reach.
“I did,” Miyo said with a smile, accepting the cup that Susumu offered to her. So often she was on the sidelines, just watching. But today, she let herself get pulled into the wave of their warmth, feeling the blanket of friendship settle around them.