Water. Surrounding him. Moving in currents all over him. Filling his mouth and windpipe.
Air. He gulped it in rapidly, panting as he ran. He was thrown into it, his body flying through it. He was cut off from it as his body hit the water. He gasped and choked.
Rocks. His back slammed onto them. His head hit them.
Nightmare. He woke up from it.
Ren found Beika grinning over him. He lay on Soji’s sofa, wearing someone’s dry shirt and trousers, probably Soji’s.
“Really, Ren,” Beika said, a hand over his left leg as she encoded basic heal programs. “You use too much power. That’s why you faint so quickly.”
“The Selati called you in again, I see.” Ren rolled his eyes. Why can’t Beika mind her own business?
Beika transferred her hand to his right leg and encoded. “You need to control your electric programs a little better, so you don’t deplete even your lifecodes.” Beika finished her encoding. “You’re really awesome, using the electric programs for walking. But you’re overdoing it.”
Electric programs. So he was an electric programmer. The heal programmer at the scholar training hall also called him an electric programmer.
Why could he not have one of the more usual kinds, such as the fire, metal, water, or heal programs? Programs that were so common there were guilds for their programmers, guilds where someone like him could disappear among their ranks while earning an honest living. Why did he have to be different again?
He did not want to go back to the halls, no matter how interesting the subjects would be. He did not want to run into Ely and her friends again, ever. One time was enough. He already lived with the effects of one terrible moment. He finally had a few years of living without fear of people. He was not going back to living in fear.
Beika placed a hand on his shoulder. “Ren. What happened?”
“None of your business, Miss Bei.” He stared at the old peeling wallpaper.
“You were drenched. There isn’t a pool near here, it was not raining today. The only way that will happen to you is if…a water programmer drenched you. Or if a non-programmer threw water at you. Either way, those are not accidental events.”
He kept staring at the wall, and did not reply.
“So I’m right,” Beika said.
Ren grit his teeth. He hated being so obvious. Years of being in the infirmary had not made him better at hiding his feelings. “I’m going to work for Soji, full-time,” he decided.
Beika released the hand over his shoulder. “But…Ren! You shouldn’t! What about your studies!”
He did not look at her. “I’ll tell my parents it didn’t work out, I won’t be studying anymore, but I found work in the capital, I’ll send the money home…”
“Ren, you have to tell me what happened! I know the teachers at the training halls! Let me help you!”
“No, Miss Bei. You’ve helped enough. I’ve decided.” He was not going to depend on someone else again, even if they were the ones who offered to help.
The front door creaked open. Soji entered, shaking his head, his arms crossed.
“How much did you hear, Soj?” Beika asked.
Soji shook his head again. “You not work all day, Ren, no. You get training.”
“No. I’m going home if you don’t want me here,” Ren said.
Soji frowned. “You not go home. You not work all day. You get training.”
“You are not my father, Selati,” Ren said, emphasizing the citizenship with malice. “I won’t take orders from a coward.”
“REN!” Beika turned and glared at the boy.
“All Selati in Pendi are cowards who ran from something,” Ren sourly said, glaring at his host. “Who are you to talk to me like that? You’re running from something. So am I.” Ren lifted his legs off the sofa and placed his feet on the floor. “You’ve no right to force someone to be brave when you’re not brave yourself.”
“Take that back, Ren!” Beika said. “He’s been kind to you!”
“But I’m right,” Ren shot back.
Silence descended on the room, thick and heavy. Beika’s gaze went to the table behind them. Soji kept frowning at Ren.
“You have sore spots. I have mine,” Ren said. “Please, don’t make me go back there. I have my reasons.”
Ren looked around, found his crutches, and took them. He attached the crutches to his arms, a deep frown on his face. He planted one crutch and started to raise himself from the sofa.
Soji raised one hand. “Wait,” he said.
Ren stopped moving for a moment.
“Listen,” Soji said. “You not go home. You not work all day. You get training.”
“Thank you for your kindness, but I’m leaving….”
“Not done talking,” Soji said. “You get training. Master Beika teach you.”
“What?!” the heal programmer said.
“If not, Master Lan teach you. In morning. After lunch, work at shop.”
Ren looked at Soji with doubt, then at Beika, then back at Soji. Did he understand what Soji was proposing?
Soji stood before Ren and looked down at him. “Rowan work for me. I know about bullies.”
Ren gripped the handles of his crutches tightly. He sighed.
Soji continued. “You are correct. I run from defense brigade in Selatan. I have reason. Like you. I know what you say. So, I help you.”
Ren heard right. Hopefully he understood right. He did not have to go home, he would keep a job, he would learn more about the programs, he did not have to go back to….where Ely was.
“But Lan’s broke! He can’t tutor for free!” Beika said, with some embarrassment. “And you’re not paying Lan! Your own budget is tight!”
“I do it, then,” Soji said.
Beika slapped her forehead. “No, no! Don’t do that! You’re busy with the shop! I’ll talk to Lan, and I’ll go talk to the head of the halls.”
Soji looked at Ren. He smiled now. “Is good?”
Ren was not sure, but the Selati had been kind when Pendika were not. “Is good,” he said.
Rowan claimed her suitcase at the dormitory. Since Ren was knocked-out and feverish, she had to do his work. It had been a tiring shift and all she wanted was to sleep, but she still had to get to her new quarters.
She tried to walk normally to her new residence with the suitcase in her right hand. She almost forgot to turn the corner to the apartment, but the lamppost brightened the sign. She retrieved her keys from the lobby and trudged up to the third floor in an exhausted, confused daze.
She stopped at the door. Lights passed under it. Her roommate had arrived.
For several moments she heard the melodic strains of a wind instrument from inside. Rowan sighed in despair. Her roommate was a music programmer. She disliked music programmers the most. But what choice of roommate did she expect to have in cheap quarters? She had no right to complain, and had every need to endure anything.
She took a deep breath as she opened the door, resolving that she would never complain.
What she found made her reconsider.
Music program sheets scattered on the floor. Shirts hung over a chair and over both beds in the apartment. A pair of trousers was spread over the dinner table. From one closed door she heard the splashes of water mingling with a whistled melody, the same one she heard earlier on a wind instrument — an oboe or a recorder.
The door to the bathroom opened. A young man emerged, his dark-blue hair cascading to his hips and covering little of his tight chest and abdomen. His bath towel hung around his shoulders, not around his waist, leaving his groin clearly visible.
But Rowan was not interested in the slightest. She blinked and blinked again. She rubbed her eyes. Then she cursed her timelines.
The young man placed hands over his hips and smiled. “Ro! It’s been too long! You’re my roommate?”
Rowan crossed her arms. “Not long enough, Jo.”
She had a childhood acquaintance– a very whiny and weak one–for a roommate. Worse, he was a music programmer. She had to remember to inquire if she could have another place with another roommate. Maybe she should have asked if she could live with the chief in his apartment…..no, she should not think like that!
Jo was not a childhood friend, but not a childhood enemy either. He was somewhere in the middle of the two — a childhood acquaintance and annoyance who Rowan knew because he had lived where she lived, was the same age as she was, and ran around the same streets she did. Jo had only gotten taller, had grown longer hair, but was still the same exasperating Jo. The only kid from her childhood who always had to have his way, no matter what others around him thought.
Jo wrapped the towel around his waist. “You’ve no right to complain about this setup, right? At least we’re already acquainted, so you don’t have to get to know anybody new,” Jo crooned.
“But I haven’t seen you in a while. There are things I already don’t know,” she growled. She got annoyed all the more because she started to feel drowsy in his presence. It was something that never happened before, and she knew she was too annoyed and irritated at everything to be sleepy, even though she was tired.
“Oh, it’s going to be alright, Ro,” he continued to croon. His voice began to tap, then knock, then pound into her head.
“What are you doing?” she demanded and held her head over the wool cap.
“Nothing, really, nothing, I swear,” he said, and backed away somewhat from her.
That movement lessened the pounding somewhat. Rowan immediately charged and punched him in the abdomen.
Jo reeled, of course — he was never able to beat any of Rowan’s punches, even when Rowan was much younger — and fell back on his bottom onto the floor. That fall on his part removed the pounding in Rowan’s head completely.
She kept her clenched fist over him. “I need to stay here. It’s the only place I can afford.”
“But surely,” Jo crooned again, “you’ll let me stay here with…”
She punched him again, felling him fully to the floor.
“Two conditions. One, you’ll keep your things in order. Two, you won’t play that woodstick of yours while I’m here. Miss either of the two and you’re out of here.”
“But…” and he tried the croon again, “I’ll have trouble keeping things in order…”
“And don’t try that…whatever that is you’re doing…on me.”
“I don’t know what you mean. That’s not a lie, Ro.”
“Stupid new program trainee. Learn it.” She was somewhat sure it was a program of some sort, she just did not know what kind it was. She landed one final punch on his cheek. “That’s for messing up the place so quickly.”
Rowan got up and collected her suitcase. She searched for what bed did not seem to be his. She tossed the stray shirts she found on the spare bed and threw them on top of the other bed. She also threw out the contents of one cabinet onto that bed. She then began to hang her few shirts and trousers onto the cabinet she cleared out.
She was too tired and too annoyed to be more tired and annoyed at Jo. She would worry about him more the next day.
Or she was hoping she would disappear in the middle of the night and her apartment would be clean when she woke up.
Of course that would not happen, but one could dream.