Chapter 14: KailaniDiscuss
They know exactly what we're here for
Clutching her miniaturized purse in one hand and trying not to cling to Taro with the other, Kailani let her date lead her into the Main Hall -
- only to find herself stopping dead, trying to process the changes to the area. It was both bigger than it had been for Dr. Regine's opening remarks, and more crowded, walls and curtains splitting the space where no partitions had existed before, the whole place dimly lit, save for random throbbing strobe lights, and seeming more than a little seedy, and very disorienting.
Next to her, Taro chuckled, presumably at her expression. "Illusions," he explained. "It's all done with ‘smoke and mirrors,' like the way the others hide their freakiness. Probably Ib's doing." He pointed negligently at the demon behind the turntables.
"Aah." Still leaning lightly on his arm, she looked at the room again in light of his new explanations. She could see where the room had been made to look smaller for the opening ceremony – had they done the same thing in the dining hall? She'd been too befuddled to observe properly – and what had they done to create the seedy downtown club atmosphere? Some of it had to be illusory – the lofty ceiling, the moonlight, the extra walls – and some could be the effects of the shifting lights. Maybe the demon was just an optical illusion… maybe he was real.
Taro was walking into the room, so she walked, still trying to process it all. And then it clicked.
"Oh," she murmured softly.
"Yeah," he nodded sympathetically. "It can be a little much the first time you see it."
"No," she shook her head. "I mean…" But how to put it into words? In her mind, it had suddenly become glowingly clear, as precise as any formula, but, well, Taro wasn't too fond of math – or of science.
"There's three or four upperclassmen for every Fifth Cohort," she tried.
"Well, of course," he smirked. "There's three years' of students here before you guys."
She gave up, and just smiled at him, letting the pattern compile in her mind. Each Fifth Cohort, so painfully plain and human, despite their bright plumage, was surrounded by a small grouping of Second, Third, and Fourth Cohort students, effectively isolating them from any other newbie – as Taro and his friend had effectively done with her, she realized. Isolated like that, the only "normal" would be what Conrad had called the way things were done "down here." Not that she'd ever really understood normal "up there," either, she mused briefly.
There were exceptions to the rule - the three who'd come in late on the first day, Shahin, Yngvi, and Aelgifu; and a couple other knots of people. She recognized Mark, the tall, athletic Fifth Cohort from her calculus class, his close-cropped blond hair only serving to enhance the football-player image, the tux he was wearing making him look classy and seem a little older than those around him. This was especially true against the petite girl on his arm, the hunter-green dress clinging to her making her look fragile and delicate, her hair and jewelry the perfect complement to Mark's understated elegance - but even they seemed small and defiant against the greater pattern.
And it was more than the isolation of the fresh-faced and frightened Fifth cohort, she realized, as Taro led her to the bar, but the thought fizzled as she watched the six-armed bartender pour the drink Taro had ordered for her.
"I'm not twenty-one," she protested, holding the bright blue and minty-smelling drink gingerly between two fingers.
"So?" he grinned. "Neither am I, and I'd like to see a cop get down here to make a fuss about it."
Her doubt must have shown on her face, because his expression grew painfully tolerant again. "It's all right in your own home," he coaxed, "and this is our home now."
Conrad had said that their room was their Home, by the Law, but she didn't know if Taro meant normal, aboveground, everyday law, of this more esoteric Law she was still struggling to understand, and he was being so nice to her. She didn't want to try that patience. She smiled, hoping it didn't look as nervous and naïve and newbie-ish as she felt.
He smiled encouragingly at her, and held his glass up towards her in a toast. "To us."
Well, that was benign enough. She held up her glass in response. "To us," she agreed. They clinked the thick-walled glasses, and she sipped delicately at her drink.
Fizzy and sweet, it tasted only very barely of the mint it smelled like, more like a strange soda than what she'd imagined drinking would be like. She sipped it again, both because it tasted good and because Taro seemed to want her to.
And that, his smiling approval, gave her a moment to pick up her lost train of thought and follow it. Not just the way the upperclassmen surrounded the younger students, but the way the walls were arranged, the randomness of the lights, even the V-shape of the dance floor, divided the student body into small, bite-sized groups. Like the classes, assigned by some system she didn't yet understand, so that, except for lunch, the new students were only ever dealing with ten, fifteen at the most, other students. It made them even more isolated, made the school seem smaller.
"How many students are there?" she asked suddenly, not entirely certain he'd answer. And, indeed, he didn't seem thrilled by her question – but he did answer her.
"I think about eighty, ninety," he said, a little vaguely, and then grinned, the expression foreign and a little frightening on his face. "But all you have to worry about is me."
"And your crew," she said, without thinking, and his smile slipped away.
"And our crew," he agreed grudgingly, but both of them noticed that he said "our" and not "my." Kai wondered if it bothered him that his friends had befriended her, and, if so, why. With an unfamiliar emotion she assumed, rather to her surprise, was jealousy, she wondered if Megan had been part of that group last year, if that had been how Taro found himself part of the crew. Had there been some unknown girl, either "graduated" (whatever that meant in this strange context) or just no longer in the crew, who had initiated Conrad.
The thought of him made her look around, methodically studying and compartmentalizing the distractions until she could focus, sipping her drink to keep Taro from commenting and derailing her thoughts again.
There he was, perched on a part-stool-like chair, around a tall table with Vlad, Mabina, Cassidy, and a gorgeous, movie-star-beautiful girl, with long golden hair, perfectly arranged, and fluttery moth's wings in a pattern of dark and light shades of blue, two long silvery twisted metal curls arranged into – or with – her hair. She wore the bare minimum of dress, picked, Kai was sure, to match her wings and best accentuate that hair.
She sat delicately on her chair between Vlad and Conrad like a queen on her throne. Looking at her, Kai felt another surge of what she was now certain was jealousy. Vlad had his arm very carefully around the girl's waist, barely touching her, his expression clearly strained, and Conrad was smiling, probably cracking jokes. Maybe flirting…
She had been looking that way long enough for Taro to follow her gaze. "‘Lisha," he said, shaking his head. "She and Vlad… she treats him like shit, but he seems to like it. I wouldn't put up with it."
There was a warning there even she couldn't miss, but she let it lie, wondering how Megan fit into that equation. Conrad had said he'd gotten trapped into it, but she wondered how. An oath was binding, sure, that she could accept, but why would you swear to something you couldn't live with? And to someone as unpleasant -
- but pretty, a treacherous little voice pointed out, lush, what the boys in her high school would have called hot -
- as hot but unpleasant as Megan?
She blinked, clearing the thought from her head. Asking Taro would just make him cranky, and she didn't want to irritate him. He would tell her when he was ready - or Conrad would. She lifted her drink to sip at it again, and found it empty. She stared at it, startled, and Taro chuckled indulgently.
"See? It gets easier as you go." He ordered another one – calling it a Blue Mermaid – and a Long Island ice tea for himself. She watched both drinks being mixed, the bartender turning it into a dance of sorts, weaving all six of her arms expertly, and resolved to drink the next one more slowly, and more attentively.
His drink in hand, Taro gestured vaguely in the direction she'd been looking - the crowd and the lighting had shifted again, obscuring their view of the crew - "Want to go sit with the guys?"
"Yes, please." She realized she'd been clutching her purse in a white-knuckled grip, and gingerly released it. Things kept getting odder and odder around here; even her own reactions were no longer safe and predictable. She found herself longing for the known strangeness of Mabina and Cassidy, of Vlad and Conrad.
Maybe Taro did, too, because he took her hand, folding his hand over hers over her purse (his other hand, like her other hand, was still holding a drink) without comment or even a smirk, and walked with her across the crowded, noisy room.
Chapter 14.5: Kailani
the potential of you and me
Vlad saw them first, and smiled; Conrad, uncharacteristically, was not smiling, frowning as if trying to puzzle something out. He caught her looking at him, and the grin was back, brilliant and blinding. "There you are! I wondered where you kids had gotten to!" In his tux and tails, even his smile looked somehow formal, but he hopped a little bit, shifting seats as Mabina and Cassidy moved closer to him to make room around the round table, and the illusion was broken.
Next to him, Vlad snugged his arm a little more firmly around the moth girl to his left, as Kai sat down to his right. "Kailani," he said, his voice, too, all of a sudden black tie in its cadence, "this is Alisha, my, um... mine." His sea-green complexion darkened, but he persisted. "'Lisha, this is Kailani, of the Fifth Cohort."
The girl had been smiling, but as Vlad had worked through that introduction, her smile had slid away, leaving her glowering at Kailani, who, in turn, cringed away, which seemed only to heighten the girl's animosity. Still, she held out a hand, five slender fingers with perfect, long, blue-polished nails, platinum rings on every finger, to Kai.
"Pleased to meet you, Kailani." It was patently untrue, but Kai shook the proffered hand anyway, and hoped her own "pleased to meet you, too" at least sounded more sincere.
Conrad cut in, clearing his throat. "Kai, could I borrow Taro for a moment?" She cringed, half expecting Taro to throw a fit, but he, instead, merely raised an eyebrow at his friend.
"Well, um... sure," she stammered, and Conrad pushed his chair back from the table loudly.
"Great, thanks. Petyr?" That elicited a glare, but Taro stood, far more deliberately than Conrad had, and followed his friend off through the crowd, swiftly passing from sight.
"The plot thickens," Mabina murmured. Kailani shot her an inquisitive glance, but she just shrugged.
"Don't mind us," Cassidy reassured her. "We're just playing around."
"O... kay?" Not sure what to say to that, or to their responding chuckle, she looked back and forth between the two couples nervously. 'Lisha clearly wanted nothing to do with her, although she didn't understand why, or what she'd done. Vlad was clearly distracted by 'Lisha, and none too happy; Mabina and Cassidy were in their own private joke. She sipped her drink, wondering if all dances were this uncomfortable, or if it was just her, or just Addergoole. And what were Conrad and Taro doing, anyway?
"Hey." The voice came from above and behind her, just as Mabina said, sounding pleased with herself,
She turned, to find herself looking at the bottom of a an autumn-y silk tie, a broad, broad chest and a flat stomach covered by a rust-colored shirt. She looked up, and up, and up, to see a tall, tall, tall man smiling nervously down at her.
"Hi down there," he boomed, sounding as if he was trying to mute the incredible volume of his voice and simultaneously talk over the music, and smiling cheerfully as he did so. He offered a dinner-plate-sized hand. "I'm Anatoliy."
"Kailani." She set her hand gingerly in his, and was astonished to find him bringing it towards his face, bending low to close the difference and brushing his lips over her knuckles. "Oh..." Her cheeks were turning red, she knew, undoing all of Mabina's artful work. He smiled benevolently at her, and she blushed all the harder.
"Mind if I sit?" he asked, gesturing at the seat Taro had vacated.
"Umm," she stammered. "Uh..." Her cheeks were going to light on fire any moment now. Maybe she could just slide under the table and vanish. "Sh..."
"Have a seat," Mabina rescued her, and Cassidy gestured at the free seat.
He sat, a sort of origami exercise, getting himself half under the table, slouching forward, his legs too long for even the extra-tall bar stools.
"So," he began, turning to face Kailani, "How's this place been treating you?"
She blinked, startled by his familiarity, like she was an old friend, and by the question itself. How was this place doing by her?
"Not bad," she answered slowly. "Not what I expected from a college prep school."
His booming laugh echoed against the ceiling and made her jump. "Is that what they told you it was? A College prep?"
"It's not entirely a lie," Vlad said mildly.
"Why lie when a half-truth will do?" 'Lisha cut in bitterly.
Awkward silence prevailed for a heartbeat, and then Anatoliy barked a laugh. "Ha! You sound like Dysmas when he's talking about politicians."
Slick as oil, Cassidy picked up the thread. "There's those that theorize that most of Capitol hill - or at least the movers behind the scenes – are all like us."
"There aren't enough of us to fill out Congress," Vlad complained.
"It depends on what you mean by 'us,'" Anatoliy countered.
"Excuse me." The soft voice cut over the lively debate, and she turned to see who it was.
Another stranger, but not, someone she recognized, sort of, from her North American History class, Melchior, but transformed. The eyes were the same, at least in shape, though they were a silt-pupiled feline yellow, not the stunning green they had been; the sandy hair the same, though the ears poking through his hair to flop rakishly lettuce-like over that hair were new; his face was the same shape, except that the jaw was a little distended, not surprising, as, when he opened his mouth to speak again, he revealed a mouthful of needle-sharp teeth that resembled nothing so much as a great white shark's mouth.
"Hey," he smiled at her, apparently used to being started at, and not seeming to mind at all. "You look gorgeous tonight, Kailani."
There went the furnace in her face again. "Thank you, Melchior. You look..." The actual look wasn't unappealing, she decided, though primitive and a little wild – "very dangerous tonight."
"Who, me?" He endeavored to look innocent – at the very least, she assumed that was what he was trying for. "I'm harmless. Come dance with me and find out."
"Oh... ah." It hadn't occurred to her that this sort of thing would require actual dancing – foolish, she supposed, as there had been people dancing since they arrived.
"It's a slow song, it's easy," he coaxed, offering her his hand. "Please?"
What could it hurt? She set her hand lightly in his – his skin was unnaturally smooth, dry, and soft, almost like baby powder – and stepped down from the stool as gracefully as she could. It was better than sitting next to Alisha, watching her stab verbal knives into Vlad.
Melchior found a quiet corner of the dance floor, which had suddenly gotten more crowded, and directed her softly. "Your hands here, over my shoulder. Mine go here..." The position required an uncomfortable proximity, those sharp shark teeth right on level with her eyes, but he held himself just away from her, just enough so for comfort. "Now we just.. sway. Move a little to the music, like this." He smiled down at her, his lips closed, and she relaxed a little bit, neither the teeth nor the dancing seeming so frightening. "There, see? You're a natural."
"I doubt that."
"Smile and say thank you," he chided lightly, though he was still smiling. "Or tell me I'm sweet. Hasn't anyone ever complimented you before?"
Not for anything not related to her intellect. "Not for dancing."
His very sharp smile was knowing, and she wondered nervously what exactly about her he thought he knew. "Aah, a pity. You'll have to dance more - get more compliments."
"That might be fun." This sort of dancing, at least, was easy, and Melchior was pleasant to be with, warm without being sweaty or overheated-seeming, with a pleasant scent, sort of like sandalwood. The floppy tips of his ears were so alien, she wanted to touch them, to see if they felt like the skin on his hands, to find out if they were stiff with cartilage or soft like a basset hound's ears.
She had no sooner thought it than her hand was reaching out, brushing against the bend in that strange ear.
He blinked, tensing a little, faltering in the dance, and she pulled her hand back.
"Sorry!" He was going to think blushing was her natural hue. "I'm sorry, I..."
"It's okay," he said, with something that might have been a smile. "You startled me, is all. Most people don't want to touch them."
"Oh, but they're fascinating," she said without thinking.
"Fascinating." He didn't seem pleased with that assessment.
"'Smile and say thank you,'" she quoted back at him, feeling a little daring and a little desperate. "'Hasn't anyone ever complimented you before?'"
"'Not about...' ears." He seemed to be relaxing again, his hands not so tense, so, giggling a little, she dared to stretch it out a little further.
"Well, then, maybe you should..."
"Ear more?" He laughed, and she laughed, and they just... kept laughing. Together. It was almost overwhelming, certainly giddy-making, laughing together with someone else at a shared joke. So this is what it felt like...
"Mind if I cut in?" As if someone had hit the pause button, they both stopped laughing and turned to face the interloper.
His skin was the rich, deep, dark, bitter brown of strong-brewed coffee, his eyes blue and shifting like a tropical ocean, his black hair braided in dozens of tiny braids, each braid tipped with a stone bead that shifted colors with his eyes, and his expression was self-assured, cocky, even. He held out his hand to Kailani, waiting for her to take it.
Unsure what she was supposed to do, she turned to Melchior for help.
"It's been fun," he said, not all that helpful at all. "We'll have to do it again sometime."
"Sure," she said, longing for that moment of camaraderie back again. "I'd like that." She brushed her hand across his ear again, not remotely understanding her own reasons for doing so, and turned to the intruder.
She placed her hand in his outstretched hand. "I'm not very good at this," she warned him, not as graciously as she could have.
"That's all right," he said. "Neither am I." He rested his other hand on the small of her back – it felt chill after Melchior's warmth – and steered her into the dance. "I'm Adrian, by the way."
"Kailani," she replied, finding her feet moving with a liquid grace she was certain she didn't normally have.
"I know," he said, sounding as if he were laughing at her, though his face was still wearing the same pleasant expression.
"Really?" There weren't that many students here, but there was no reason she should stand out, amid all these beautiful, strange people.
"Really." He leaned close to her, his breath cool against her ear. "I'm not the only one who wants to dance with you."
"No," she said, more tartly than she had intended, "there's Melchior, too."
He laughed, unabashed – and far better at dancing than he'd claimed, too, she noted clinically. "Him, yes, and at least a half-dozen more. Your name is on everyone's lips, beautiful. How does it feel?"
Beautiful. "Strange," she admitted. "Surreal." Like his green-again-blue-again eyes. "Like everything here."
"Yep," he agreed easily. "And the weirdest part is when you realize that you're part of the surreallity."
"But what if I'm not?" The fear that had been nibbling at her since the mask-dropping the night before came bubbling out in front of this of this complete stranger. "What if I'm not even a part of this?"
"You wouldn't be here if you weren't." He pulled her a little closer to him, and she let him, craving the comfort.
"But what if it's a mistake?" What if even the freaks wouldn't accept her?
"Dr. Regine doesn't make that sort of mistake," he said firmly. "Shh. Hear the waves breaking in the music?" Holding her pressed against him, he hummed softly under the music "Ba-bum-ba-bum-ba-bum-ba-bum - there - it crests – and falls. You hear it?"
She smiled shakily at him, as the waves began to rise and fall in her mind's eye. "I do." Like some sun-kissed tropical shore before a storm. "Like your eyes."
"Adrian." Taro's voice cut across the nice happy rainstorm dancing on the ocean in her mind. "What do you think you're doing?" His voice had the same flat quality it had held just before he shoved Megan across the room. Kailani found herself frozen in place.
Adrian didn't seem to have that problem. "Dancing," he answered easily. "You left her all alone."
"I left her with my crew." His words were clipped short and brutal, and he closed on them, wrapping his hand around her arm.
Adrian shrugged. "Same thing. She's a free woman... isn't she?"
"Of course she is." That was Conrad, standing on the other side of her, flanking them. She looked up at him, hoping for some rescue, some joke, but he was looking as grim as Taro. "But free isn't the same as cheap."
"Cheap?" She glared at him, shocked into movement. "What is this, eighteen-ninety?" She found she was furious. "Don't feed his stupid jealousy, Conrad, and don't you dare talk about me like some... some two-bit piece of trash because I enjoyed a dance -" Her voice was getting louder and louder, shriller and shriller, and she found she enjoyed the chance to not care what anyone thought. "A dance..." Just like that, she was out of steam. She jerked away from Taro's grip on her arm, from Adrian's hand still on her back, and fled, running blindly out of the lying room into the lying halls that had promised education and given her another world she couldn't understand.
She kept running until she found concrete under her feet, concrete block to either side of her, and there she sank down in the most dark, remote corner she could find, and let the storm come.
Copyright © 2009-2010 Lyn Thorne-Alder & Elasmo. All rights reserved.
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