Rowan spent a morning searching for a new place to sleep during her second year in basic training. The contract for the dormitory where she lived had expired. Because she had to keep buying new trousers and shirts to replace those she ruined during fights, she doubted she could keep staying there, at those monthly rates.
She found an opening at one of the older apartment buildings, farther from the program training halls than the more popular dormitories. She needed to either make a travel cloud or to take the carriage to get to the halls. Also, she needed to share the room with another boarder and the boarder might be male. That did not bother her and, after a look at the apartment, she signed the needed papers. She would get her things after her afternoon shift at the coffee shop.
She did not muse about how grown-up she was, doing these things. They needed to be done. There was no one else to rely on. She did them herself. No big deal. It was normal for Rowan.
She returned to the Harmony coffee shop that afternoon for the shift.
Eggs were being flung at its windows again.
“We don’t want you here, Selati!” a program trainee yelled as he threw another egg. Bits of shell remained on the glass as egg yolk trickled down, marring the letters over the glass panel.
“We want our coffee from a Pendika!” Another trainee hurled the contents of a half-emptied flask.
“Go back where you came from!” the first one threw one more egg.
Rowan growled. People never thought about the poor shop employees who cleaned after such messes. “HEY! I don’t want Pendika like you here either!” She crossed the street and marched over to the teasers.
The trainees cowered. “It’s….it’s Rowan!”
“I’m glad you know me. Now get lost before I…” she raised a tightly-clenched fist.
The trainees did not wait to hear the rest of her threat, and fled. But they stopped a short distance away and turned. “Traitor!” they chided together.
“I am NOT a–”
A large hand rested over Rowan’s shoulder, sending shivers down her spine.
“Thank you. Is enough,” the chief said, beside her. “Go inside.”
Rowan sighed. She wished more people knew how awesome Selati people could be. She wished they knew what she knew about her chief.
She never called Soji of the meridian anything else, and she probably held that name in more reverence than those names of the president of the training halls and the prime minister of Pendi. But then she did not know those people personally, and she did know Soji.
The six sturdy wooden tables were already full of customers, mostly scholar and program trainees who either liked how good the food was or liked how cheap it was. Most of them grinned or waved at Rowan as she passed.
“They’re missing out on good coffee. Don’t mind them,” one said.
“Not everyone here’s like that!” they assured her.
Rowan donned her apron and immediately set to work behind the counter, preparing cups of coffee or scooping the ice cream. In between those tasks, she worked the cash register.
“Now how does that go again? One order of plain black, one order of pesto, two orders of strawberry ice cream…”
Rowan looked through the price list then pressed on the figures as quickly as she could. But she kept confusing one item on the menu for another, or misread one price for the other, and had to type down figures too many times. “I hate cash registers!” she finally wailed. She hated numbers with as much vengeance as she hated music. She just wanted to serve coffee!
When she raised her head from the buttons of numbers, she saw Sereno, the boy from yesterday. “Oh. It’s you.”
“I prefer to be called Ren.” He stood in front of the cash register, his crutches by his legs. “I like cash registers. I can help you.”
“But I don’t need any help…”
“Please. To return the favor.”
Ren looked so earnest it was painful to watch. “Wait here,” she said, as she walked to the kitchen.
Soji and the two other kitchen staff stopped and turned their heads to her.
“The lame kid wants to work the cash register!” she declared.
The chief left the soup pot he tended. “Ren? Why?”
Her heart thumped as he came over beside her. “I…um…he says he wants to return the favor.”
The chief peered at the full tables outside, and at Ren still standing by the counter with a lowered head. “Ah. Alright. Can help. No problem.”
“Makes work faster, yes?”
“But, my salary!”
“No change,” he promised.
Thus assured, Rowan marched back to the counter. “He says you can help,” she told Ren with a toss of the head. “Just stay out of my way.” She grabbed a stool and placed it in front of the cash register.
Ren nodded as he sat down, stowing the crutches at his feet. Rowan turned her back to him and faced the coffee pot.
Trainees ordered quickly, ate quickly, and left quickly, to be replaced by more of the same. The orders kept coming. Mocha, cappucino, plain black. Pesto, spaghetti, carbonara. Tomato soup, mushroom soup. Vanilla, strawberry, mocha ice cream. One muffin, two muffins.
There was no time to chat with the silver-haired boy who methodically listed orders, punched them into the cash register, received payment and gave change. But Rowan had to admit that Ren made things quicker for everyone and freed her to deal with the coffee, ice cream, and muffin orders. Once in a while the chief came out to the front of the shop and checked on them. He found it to his liking.
As the last customer walked to the door that evening, Ren shut the cash box. He rested his head with an arm over the cash register. He promptly dozed, smiling.
The chief patted Ren’s shoulder. “Good work, very good,” he whispered.
Rowan looked away, envious. But the chief came up to her, too. “Good work, Rowan.” He smiled. “Better coffee today.”
Her eyes widened. “Really?”
Rowan would have a good night’s sleep, just because of that.
The chief kept his eyes on her. “Rowan, what you say, if I add Ren?”
Rowan did not see the harm in it. The lame kid worked hard and well. “But could you afford it, chief?”
“Will manage,” he assured her, as he gently lifted Ren onto his back.
Rowan followed them upstairs to the chief’s apartment, carrying Ren’s crutches. She watched with some envy as he helped Ren onto the sofa, removed his shoes and tucked him in. She wished Soji would do that for her sometime. But she was too tough for that, and that would be too embarrassing.
The chief took the crutches from her and patted her shoulder. “Good night. See you tomorrow.”
She sighed. She was just another kid to him, another sad case.
Soji always had a soft spot for sad cases, always went out of his way to help. He kept saying that was because he was a sad case himself and was helped by others. But Rowan knew better. He helped sad cases even before then.
Rowan was his first sad case.