As he did every evening, Tom ate in the mess hall. While those with families usually sat with them, sometimes others would join Tom at the children’s tables after grabbing their dinner. It was almost a separate room, partitioned off from the rest of the ship. Tom was ravenous, and got double helpings of everything. He intended this dinner to make up for the lost sandwich.
It was lonely, with only Tom and another boy, Sam, sitting at the tables. Everyone was probably sitting with their parents because of the storm. Sam was young and childish, probably only here because he didn’t get along with his older sibling, but Tom appreciated having someone else here. He wondered where Nathan was.
Nathan didn’t appear until Tom was nearly done with his food. Upon closer inspection, the older boy appeared to be limping, and had a stormy expression on his face. Tom laughed when it struck him. “Hah! Did you get hit by the teacher for skipping all the time?”
Nathan looked up with a glare, pointing his fork threateningly at Tom. “Shut up, you little shit.”
Tom raised his eyebrows, but took it as an affirmative. That was a fitting punishment for Nathan’s leaving him out in the storm. Sam giggled as he reached for another slice of fish.
Nathan banged the table with his fist, making the tableware jump. “Shut up, or you’ll regret it!” Sam only laughed harder.
Nathan growled, and suddenly Sam’s plate shattered in front of him as Nathan slammed his fork through it into the table. The sound of the plate breaking finally made Sam hush, and even Tom froze. This wasn’t like Nathan. He played pranks, but he usually didn’t get this mad.
Nathan leaned over and enunciated very clearly. “Shut. Up.”
Sam squeaked in fear, and Tom froze, not knowing what Nathan would do. He didn’t think Nathan would hit him, but Nathan had never been so angry over something as trivial as this before. If it did come to a fight, Tom knew Sam stood no chance against the older, stronger boy.
“C’mon, Nathan, he didn’t mean it,” Tom said. “He’s just—“
“Why don’t you sit with your family and leave us alone?” Nathan growled at Sam. “You don’t belong with us.”
Sam squeaked again and left, abandoning his plate. Soon it was just Tom and Nathan. The ship’s orphans, alone again.
“What’s with you?” Tom asked. The ship lurched, and he grabbed his plate before it slid. The broken pieces of Sam’s plate swept off onto the floor. “That was…mean.”
“Once we get old enough we’ll be off this stupid residence ship anyway,” Nathan said. “Why do you care? We’re orphans. Our parents are dead. Making friends with people who’ll stay here is dumb.”
Tom opened and closed his mouth. He wished he had known his parents. He had been abandoned, he knew, moved from one residence ship to this one when he was 10. He had lived in an orphan’s hold before, and it had hurt to leave it. But being independent and getting education was better, wasn’t it?
“But isn’t the freedom we have a good thing?” he said. “We can do whatever we want. Maybe…maybe even become mages.”
Nathan laughed out loud. “Sure. Right.” Sarcasm dripped from his words. “Good luck with that. Do you even have any idea how mages are chosen?”
“I…no. You know they don’t teach that.”
“Right. Because very few people can do it. You have to have the talent. Pass the test. And you won’t.”
“How do you know?” Tom retorted, pointing with his fork. “How do you even know there’s a test?”
“What else would there be?” Nathan put up both hands. “It’s innate ability. It’s not taught.” He grimaced, rubbing his arm. “And you have to obey the rules of the Fire Lord anyway. There’s no freedom in being a mage.”
“But you won’t be stuck here,” Tom said. “Riding on ships forever.”
“Yeah. Sure.” Nathan didn’t sound convinced. “Keep being young and stupid, Tom. You don’t know how good you have it.”
“What do you mean?” Tom yelled, but Nathan was already getting up. “Why are you being so mean to me?”
“Just…sleep well tonight, alright?” Nathan called back. “You’re better off the way you are.”
Tom was once again left alone at the table, staring at the wood and the silverware as it slid back and forth as the ship tossed. He and Nathan had been close once, the only orphans on the ship. But lately he was so hard to understand.
As he put his plate away and headed back to his small room, he just hoped Nathan wasn’t so mad in the morning.
The fury of the storm rocked the ship, but it only helped Tom to fall asleep. The falling rain couldn’t be heard this low in the bowels of the ship, but Tom could swore he heard it anyway, like quiet whispers.