The coffee maker burbled away in the corner of the kitchen, sending out the unmistakable scent of rich Colombian coffee. Trade was an odd thing in Tonlist. Ships went in and came out, but these were heavily vetted. Floating ports out in the Sea of Japan and the Pacific were where the international ships offloaded their goods, the goods were checked and then sent on separate ships to their respective ports. It didn’t really make sense to have coffee branded from the outside world, but then very little ever made sense here.
Riley came up behind me while I was taking cups from the cupboard, his presence in the room small but unmistakable. “Are you sure you wanna try sneaking up on me?”
“I… uh… dammit.” He laughed awkwardly. “Would that be a bad idea?”
With a shrug, I turned. “I might have reacted out of self-preservation and broken your ribs with my elbow. And I can’t exactly take you to a hospital.” Pressing my hands into the countertop, I leaned back. “You can approach me from this side though.”
I had to admit, toying with him was amusing. And in spite of him being still in his teenage years by technicality, he wasn’t necessarily unattractive. He leaned on the island counter, closing the gap between us. “So what exactly do you do?”
Sometimes, it surprised me how forthright he could be. This was one of those times. I turned back to the cups, turned my back on him and moved them over to the coffee maker. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” I said, and knowing he’d reply with something predictable like ‘try me’, added, “And even if you did, it’d be dangerous for you to know.”
“So I’m guessing you’re part of these rebel groups I hear about,” he said, coming around my side as I poured the dark coffee into the cups. “Sabotage, assassination, subterfuge.”
I muttered a soft curse in Japanese under my breath. There weren’t meant to be stories with that much information. “Guess all you want, Riley. I’m not telling you anything.” I poured one cup, passed it across. Poured another and kept it for myself. “Questions about me are preferable to ones about my chosen career path, thank you. What the hell do you do, anyway?”
“Try to avoid conscription mostly, given that I have a chronic pain disorder.” His reply was curt, bitter. Almost as biting as my question, so I probably deserved at least that much. “Doctors can’t figure it out. None of it makes sense so they just give me medication and send me to a physiotherapist and hope for the best. The military, however, doesn’t see that as a barrier to taking up arms, apparently.”
He took the milk out of the fridge and poured a drop into the coffee, before offering it across to me. I declined; in Harry’s honor I took my coffee black, no milk, no sugar. No fuss. Riley rolled his shoulders until his back made a sound like a twig breaking underfoot.
“Anyway, I stay at home.” He continued, holding the coffee mug close to his face, staring at the murky beige. “Study. Write things. Go for bike rides when I feel healthy enough to get out of the house. That’s my life. Glamorous as shit.”
Whatever excitement I had felt on being invited into his house was now gone – there was no tension, no undercurrent of nervousness. Just pity.
“You’d have to do something pretty impressive in my society,” I said, probably a little bluntly. “To call you a burden would be an understatement. But… if you could hold your own in a defensive fight and do something of worth, you might be considered average.”
Riley’s face morphed from shock to hurt bemusement, his mouth pulled into a smirk as he let out a single chuckle. “For someone so cute, you sure are tactless. You think I don’t feel like that anyway in my society? You think I enjoyed working my ass off through school just to be told that I probably wouldn’t be able to hold down a steady job?” His voice had risen, his hands shook. He stared me dead in the eyes, and for the first time I felt something spasm through my gut. Not fear, but some kind of discomfort. “Whatever, it’s not like you’d get it. Nobody does, because nobody else has this kind of situation.” He downed what was left in his cup and dropped it in the sink with a clatter. “Thanks for the coffee.”
As he slammed the door on his exit, the whole house seemed to shake. Tactless? That was the first time anyone had ever called me that, and it was one-hundred percent true. What I said wasn’t nice – but then I hadn’t told a lie. In my society, things were like that because they had to be. Anyone who couldn’t support themselves and others was a burden, and they were cast out. It was risky, of course; if the outcasts were captured, they could reveal secret information. So sometimes, my group had some more… morally questionable activities to perform.
I sipped the coffee. It was tepid and the bitterness was far too harsh, adding a little kick to the discomfort I was feeling. Content with what I’d had, I poured the rest down the sink, and wandered over to the chalkboard in the corner. I scratched down a simple note and went to change into my usual mission gear. I needed something a bit more comfortable than these Arlandrian clothes if I was headed home.
It took me no more than five minutes, but the whole time, the guilt over the look that Riley had given me pressed into my chest. Like every strap and buckle on my outfit was far too tight. In spite of how I looked, I went upstairs and found him laying on his bed, the room a haphazard mess. “Riley. I’m leaving. I… just thought I should apologise. What I said was uncalled for.” I sat down next to him on the mattress, looking away. “But you probably won’t see me again, so I didn’t want you to dwell on it. You’re a good guy; keep questioning things and you’ll do well.”
As I was about to leave, he grabbed my bracer, and turned to me with oddly distant eyes. “Don’t head directly south. That direction… I have a bad feeling about it.”
I nodded with a gentle smile. “Thank you. Take care of yourself, Riley.”
He rolled over again, still curled up on his bed. There was something a little unnerving about his next words, even though I had no idea why. “You too, Kanon. Make sure that’s your choice.”
— S C E N E E N D —