With Roses in Her Eyes
The roses in the break room were dying again. Dying and drying, their petals furling back on themselves, and their buds puckered as they squeezed out the last drops of water. She always forgot to change the water of the flowers she bought in after the weekend.
Roses, her namesake. She smiled, brushing the fragile flower with her hoof, and watching as the petals dissolved into dust on the table. She quickly brushed it off, knowing that her coworker wouldn't be happy if he found any mess in the tiny box room that was the closest thing to a staff room they had. She thought he might have gotten used to her untidiness, but not so. After fifteen years - fifteen! - he was still grumpy if he came in to find she'd left sandwich crumbs, or - the cheek of it - a withered lettuce leaf on the floor.
As it was, the room was clinically clean, a strong smell of bleach in the poorly ventilated break room making her eyes sting every lunch time. Usually, Rose would go out for lunch, to the bakery, or the little cafe in the catacombs, but she didn't today. She wanted to make the most of the suffocating workplace she had been in for far too long.
When she'd finished her lunch, the pink Uni carefully put everything in the bin, and inspected the room for anything she might have left. Clean as it had been when she left. With a satisfied nod, she walked back into her workplace, but not before checking her watch twice.***
At 3 o'clock exactly, two hours before her usual finishing time, Rose began to pack away her stuff. The yellow Techo in a white lab coat seated at the same desk glanced up from his paperwork. He frowned.
"What are you doing?" he asked suspiciously.
"I'm leaving," she said.
Dr. Death looked back down at the form he had been filling out, but it was clear he wasn't reading it as Rose put her belongings into her handbag.
"Yes, I can see that," he said, his tone flat. "But why?"
Rose didn't reply. She took the paper cup from her earlier coffee, and walked over to the bin to throw it away.
"Skiving off as usual, then, I imagine," the Techo commented, beginning again to scribble on the paper.
Rose huffed audibly, and stuck out her chest.
"If you must know, I booked this afternoon off last week, thank you very much, because I'm going to an interview."
She paused, her breath held. She hadn't told the Techo about her interview, for fear of his reaction. She saw his eyebrows shoot up, but they immediately returned to their usual position, half-hidden under his messy grey hair, but his expression didn't change.
"Okay then," he said simply.
And that was it. Rose couldn't help but feel some kind of disappointment as she put her handbag on her shoulder, and walked out of the Pound. They may not have gotten on but…they’d worked together for fifteen years.
Of course, she mused, would she care if Dr. Death left? If there was a chance at a more…sunny replacement? It would better suit her temperament, especially if they were as good at their job as Francis Death was, but that seemed unlikely. He had been doing that job much longer than she had, longer than anyone had held the post. And there was a part of her that liked him, wasn’t there?
With that question in mind, she wandered into the centre of town to catch an Eyrie taxi. Once she had alighted, of course, the only thing she could think about was her impending interview, and how sick that made her feel.***
The next morning, as always, Rose was five minutes late. She whirled into the Pound, a hot coffee in her hand, and promptly sat herself down at her desk. She moved some of the mess of papers around so she could put her beverage down. As always, Dr. Death didn't look up as she entered.
"Glad you could make it," was all he snarled, but she was used to that kind of comment.
Rose rolled her eyes, her mood bright. She was always too happy in the mornings to care, until he broke her spirit by lunch time, every lunch time.
"Thanks," she gave a too-big grin. "And good morning to you too!"
He set his pen down, and finally met her gaze. He raised his eyebrows at her, as if waiting for something.
"What?" she asked, confused.
"I know that eventually you are going to interrupt my work day to tell me about your interview," he said slowly, his nostrils flaring as she spoke. "So could we please just get it out of the way?"
She thought about it for a moment, and then decided not to give the Techo the satisfaction. Of course, part of her was hopeful he was genuinely curious.
"It went well," she said, and began to flip through her 'in' tray. She had already decided when she'd woken up that she wasn't going to share any news with Dr. Death, not to spoil her mood.
"And?" he prompted, gesturing with his hand.
"And what else do you want to know?"
"Uh - well - I mean, nothing," he said, and Rose smiled to herself at his fumbling. "I just thought - well, anyway."
He went back to his work, and they worked in silence then until lunch time came.
Rose chose once more to eat lunch in the staff room, and was surprised to find the Techo filling the doorway not five minutes after she’d sat down. He didn't meet her eyes as he spoke.
"When will you find out?"
"I already have," she said cheerful, taking another bite of her chokato sandwich.
"Oh, well…did you get it or not?"
She could tell that the doctor was trying to sound as disinterested as possible. She knew him too well for him to try to act in front of her.
"Does it matter?" Rose asked, raising an eyebrow.
Dr. Death nodded. "It does if I have to start looking for a replacement for you - I'll need as much notice as possible so you can train them - if you got it, that is."
"Then yes, I got it," she said, breaking into a grin despite herself.
They had said yes as soon as they finished the interview. She was the last candidate they had seen, and, apparently, extremely well suited to the job. A look of disappointment crossed the doctor's face, and Rose caught it, interested on how he was going to take this.
"Where is it?"
Ah, the usual doctor - why would he even think of congratulating her?
"The Employment Agency."
He frowned, his already wrinkled brow forming deeper ridges.
"The Employment Agency?" he asked.
"That's what I said," she said, keeping her tone light as she took a bite of her lunch. "Is that a problem?"
The Techo shook his head, still muttering the words under his breath.
"Okay, well…okay, I guess. I'll put out an ad in the Neopian Times tomorrow."
He nodded to himself, before walking out into the main room.
Rose sighed, putting her sandwich down. She wasn't sure what the heavy feeling in her stomach that had suddenly stifled her joy was and then she realised. I might actually miss the grouch, she thought uneasily.***
Dr. Death said it so quietly, the pink Uni almost didn't hear him.
"Mmm?" she asked, sleepy from the day's work and all the excitement, still half-concentrating on a report about a certain misbehaving Quiggle that no one was adopting from her.
"Why did you start here?"
His voice was still hushed, and Rose looked up, confused. Dr. Death had never been interested in her life.
"What do you mean?"
"You know what I mean - why did you take the job here?"
Rose sighed, dropping the pen she'd been holding, and inspecting her hoof instead. The Techo wasn't looking at her, instead staring ahead, out the window into Neopia Plaza where pets wandered past.
"I wanted to do good," she said, finally. "I wanted to make a difference. My mother was abandoned when she was very young, and I think it made me not want to see anyone else go through it - or at least do the best I could to make sure the pounded pets found good homes."
He nodded, but didn't speak. Rose realised that if she wanted to know what he was going on about, she'd have to be the one to put the effort in.
"What about you?"
He turned to her, surprised, before returning his gaze to the window. There was another long silence before he spoke.
"You know," he said, laughing humourlessly. "it's been so long, I don't even remember."
Rose smiled sadly at him. She often felt sorry for the Techo, always having to take on young pets that their owners had just decided they were bored of, usually without reason. Seeing that much sadness and heartbreak was sure to hardened anyone like it had him. Had all those years made him forget why he wanted to work here in the first place? Suddenly, she wondered if she wasn't glad she was going - she never wanted to end up like that. It was a stressful job, made only more so by Dr. Death's outbursts and anger, but at least she still enjoyed how rewarding it was, for the most part.
"Maybe I should be looking for a new job, too," he said.
"What?" she asked, taken aback. Rose had never heard him talk about leaving this place before. She couldn't imagine the place without him.
He looked at her again, this time holding eye contact. He gave a lopsided smile, which looked strange on his usually scowling face.
"I stopped enjoying this job a long time ago, Rose," he told her, and she felt somewhat uncomfortable about how serious he was being. "I just could never bring myself to leave."
"Why?" she said, and when he didn't reply for a while, she asked again. "Why do you stay?"
His yellow eyes, which had been searching hers, looked down at the desk, where they were used to being trained. He smiled sadly, and said so quietly that the Uni had to lean in to her him.
“Because nobody else wants this rotten job, and I don’t think they’ll ever find anyone better at it,” he huffed. She wanted to accuse him of arrogance, but what he was saying was true. “That and…because of you."
“What? I don't understand," she said, and she meant it.
"You don't have to."
They remained in silence for almost a full minute, before the doctor announced that it was five o'clock. She felt suddenly unsure of this pet in front of her, uncomfortable seeing him vulnerable, seeing him be personal in front of her. She nodded, not saying anything. They walked out together, but she left him at the door to lock up by himself.
She practically galloped home to talk a long bath and try to think on what in Fyora's name had gone on that evening.***
Rose hardly slept that night, and woke up bleary eyed at six am after maybe an hour's nap. She immediately got out of bed, took yet another bath, and brushed her mane. She thought about eating breakfast, but in her groggy and anxious state, decided to skip it, unsure if she would be able to keep it down.
She took her nicest jacket, put it over her shoulders, and headed for the door. She did not walk to the Plaza, instead to the street she rarely visited - the one on which Dr. Death lived.
She had been to his house only twice in the past. Once, mistaking sarcasm early in her career for an actual invitation for sunday lunch. He had, in fact, let her in anyway, but had taken the opportunity to be horrible every minute of the meal until she got up and left half way through the rice pudding.
The second time…she remembered the second time well. She'd been in pieces, having just lost her grandmother, with her few friends gone abroad on a group holiday to Shenkuu while she had been stuck on the job. She had been desperate, hadn't known who else to turn to. So she'd gone to her only colleague's house, and, gratefully, he'd let in the sobbing Uni. She remembered this with a smile now. She'd forgotten all about that evening. He hadn't spoken almost the whole night, except to offer her tea, to ask if she had eaten. He had sat with her while she had chattered, only half-lucid, at him. She'd assumed he wasn't listening, and she still thought he probably wasn't, but it didn't mean he hadn't sat up until five in the morning, when she'd finally fallen asleep, just so she wouldn't have to be alone.
Rose filled with warm feelings. They hadn't spoken about it since, ever, and though she had thought the whole encounter odd for days afterwards, that too had been lost among the other things she had had to do, especially once her friends had returned and she could turn to them.
Now, she stopped at the red door, and put her hand on the knocker. Taking a deep breath, she let it swing down, and half hoped he would still be asleep or be out, and wouldn't answer.
No such luck.
Though she had to wait almost a full minute, Dr. Death slowly opened the door to her. She had clearly woken him; he was dressed in an old grey t-shirt, and it felt strange to see him outside of his usual smart attire. His eyelids were half shut, and he looked thoroughly confused.
"Rose," he said. "It's seven a.m. on a Saturday. What are you doing?"
She felt unsure for a moment. None of the vulnerability, the sadness from yesterday, was in his voice anymore. He just sounded groggy.
"Eh, well, I --" she stumbled over her words. What was she doing? "I'm sorry, I should go -"
But as she turned, he grabbed her by the hoof. His hand was surprisingly warm. The Techo shook his head, and without another word, let go of her wrist, moving aside to let her in. She gulped, and moved inside the dark house. None of the curtains were open yet, and, as always, it was boiling in there. Techos was a coldblooded creature, and they liked things clammy.
Another memory came back to Rose from the night she'd come round; she had marched over to the windows after an hour of stifling heat, and pushed them all open. He had never said a word.
She remembered the way into the living room, and waited for him to indicate to the floral sofa for her to take a seat. He sat opposite her on a sagging recliner.
There was a long silence, and Rose shifted uncomfortably in her seat. Dr. Death got up quite suddenly, and came back with a teapot and two mugs.
"I need a cup of tea," he yawned, and poured them both one. He remembered that Rose took two sugars. Once he'd finished, and sat back down, the Techo looked at her expectantly. "Is this about yesterday?"
"You know," she said, a half-smile on her lips. "You're not half so grumpy on the weekends."
"It's because I know I don't have to put up with all those owners and their pets," he said, taking a sip of boiling liquid. "And, usually, I wouldn't have to put up with you either."
At least that confirmed that it was her long time colleague, and that alien Aishas hadn't replaced him in the night.
"That's not what you said yesterday."
His pallid yellow skin turned a pink close to her own shade.
“I, uhm, well, yes, but…” he drifted off. If she hadn’t been so nervous herself, she would be overjoyed at the idea of seeing her colleague lost for words twice in two days! He managed to pull himself together and continue: “Have you come to watch me squirm then?”
She shook her head vehemently. “No, Death - why would I do that?”
He shrugged, took another sip of tea.
“I don’t know, do I? Maybe you’ve come to laugh at me,” he said, quieter this time.
She was surprised, and it was her turn to squirm. There wasn’t any bite to his voice, not like usual. It almost made her cringe to see the reason he was usually so acidic. She leaned forward, keeping her voice gently.
“Death, I’m not going to laugh at you. Is that what you really think of me?”
He looked at her. A long, penetrating stare that brought a blush to her cheeks. In the end, he didn’t say anything, just looked back down at the hot liquid in his teacup.
“I only came so I could understand. You threw me for a loop yesterday.”
He chuckled. The sound seemed strange coming out of him. She wasn’t sure she’d heard him laugh before, except maybe sarcastically.
“I’m surprised you hadn’t noticed,” he said.
“Noticed what? You’re always horrible to me!”
“Not always,” he said. He was quiet again, and kept his eyes concentrated on his tea while his cheeks coloured with pink again.
They sat in silence for almost a whole five minutes, but it was surprisingly not awkward, for Rose at least. She felt companionable, sipping at her tea, and holding her cup out when he refilled his own.
“Do you want some biscuits or something?” he asked, breaking the silence.
“No, I’m alright.”
“What do you want then?” he said, a little of his snark returning.
“Do you - well, why didn’t you ever ask me for a coffee or dinner, you silly Techo?” she said at last, and felt some amount of weight leave her soldiers. It felt good to say what she was thinking.
He chuckled again, but this time it was humourless.
“Oh come on, Rose, Techos like me do not ask Unis like you out for dates! Look at you,” Death said.
“Hey, now,” she said, feeling a little fire in her belly. “So what did I ever do to give you the impression I was shallow?”
That knocked him. He cocked his head at her, eyebrows raising slowly.
“What are you saying? You’d go to dinner with me?” There was caution in his voice, and she saw the slight tremor in his hand, making waves in his teacup.
Rose thought about it for a few moments. Before today, the thought had never even slipped her mind. But even then, if he had ever asked her, curiosity at the least would have made her say yes. She could barely get her head around the idea of Death on a date, much less on a date with her.
“I suppose I would, yes,” she said. “Are you asking me?”
“Yes,” he said weakly, before he puffed up his chest and tried again, with more authority. “Yes, I’m asking you.”
“Then, okay, let’s do it.”
Despite the lead up, Death seemed a bit surprised by her answer - as if Rose might have turned him down at the last minute. Rose watched him struggle to keep a smile from pulling at the sides of his mouth, and felt a little rush of - something. Affection, perhaps.
They arranged to meet that evening, and they would go to the Pizzaroo. Somewhere local, somewhere casual, just to feel out the situation. They both spoke softly, as if too loud might break the mood.
“I’ll see you tonight then,” Death said at the door. He opened his mouth as if to say something more, but then closed it again.
“See you tonight, Death,” she said, and starting off down the street, forcing herself not to look back, no matter how much she wanted to. She concentrated instead at keeping her eyes on the street, only glancing over her shoulder once she got to the end of the street. Death was still in the doorway, leaning against the frame with his hooded eyes watching her. He looked away nervously when her eyes met his, as did she, her cheeks flushing.
And then she was out of his line of sight, on the journey home. Then, of course, she would have to get ready. Choose an outfit appropriate for the occasion. What exactly did people usually wear on dates with their hated coworkers who turn out to be secretly quite soft? Maybe the Neopia Fashion Trends Magazine she had at home would have something about that…
Rose still had butterflies when she let herself into her home, and immediately starting boiling the kettle. She wondered to herself, would this evening change everything she thought about Death? Maybe it would be the start of something, something she never expected from the grouchy Techo. She shook her head, trying to not overthink it. She would just see how it went, and if it was just a quiet night getting to know someone she’d been acquainted with so long, she would count that as a win.
Later, after an hour or so of getting ready as if he didn't see what she looked like everyday, Death finally knocked. To her surprise, when she opened the door, she saw he had bought roses.