Addergoole
Chapter 20: Kailani
Why would anybody leave the safety of their homes?

Saturday morning, Kailani woke early, missing, more than usual, the warmth of sunshine on her face, the wind and rain and birdsong of her mother’s old farmstead house. Six a.m. Too early for breakfast, too early to be awake with nothing to do. She rolled over, picked up her History text, and started reading. The book was thick, engrossing, and, like Valerian’s class, a far more in-depth analytic look at history than Kailani was used to, almost a mathematical way of tackling the subject. But, as she sometimes noticed in class, by diagramming the patterns behind historical trends, the book made much more obvious the places where elements were being omitted. Her notebook in hand, she began charting the omissions.

Friday after class, against the vague and infuriatingly unhelpful suggestions of the crew that she’d enjoy having Professors Solomon or Pelletier or Valerian as Mentors more, and Conrad’s thoughtful and entirely enigmatic comment, “that will leave you without a cy’ree, but you have the crew, so I suppose you’ll be okay,” Kailani had returned to Regine’s office and accepted her invitation to be her Mentor. Regine’s answer had been a curt, unsurprised nod, and a meeting scheduled for Monday evening. She had promised Kailani answers. She intended to go to the meeting prepared with questions.

Hours passed as she worked through the first chapters of the History text, filling pages of her notebook with notes and diagrams. The thread of omissions wasn’t direct, it wasn’t regular, and it wasn’t obvious, but she was just beginning to see the pattern. She was sure it had something to do with what they were - whatever they were – and something to do with this school, but it was still just barely out of her reach.

Someone knocked on her door, breaking her concentration. Images of cartoon pilgrims and Indians fled from her mind, and she glared for a moment at the door before calling, “Who is it?”

No-one answered; she wasn’t surprised. The doors and walls of this place were thick, and very little sound managed to pass through. She checked herself; she was wearing her pajamas, soft blue flannel PJ’s her mother had made for her, and her hair was in a braid. Decent enough. Sighing one more time at her notes, she opened the door.

No-one was there. What’s more, the lights were out up and down the hall, only the dim red emergency lights shedding a weak, anemic light across the floor. Down the hall, someone was jeering, the voices seeming to echo in these subterranean halls. It sounded like some of her high school nightmares, people laughing at her from the dark, anonymous faces judging her every move. She stepped back in her room, closing her door slowly, checking twice to make sure it was shut.

It’s just your imagination. But the jeers and laughter had been unmistakable, and the darkness was real enough. It reminded her of some of the nastier pranks they’d pulled, her last year back in Fairhaven, the times she’d struggled not to run home crying and the once she’d failed.

Her hands were shaking. She took a few deep, calming breaths, but the air was thick down here and choking, and she couldn’t bring enough into her lungs.

Clothes. Clothes might help. And light. She’d turned on the small bedside lamp when she woke up, now she turned on the halogen light in the corner, the over head light, and even the small task light at her desk. It didn’t help very much; the room was still tight, and airless, and muffled from the world, but it was without shadows, lit from almost all angles. She moved the bedside lamp to the dresser, to better distribute the light, and, almost satisfied, dressed for the day.

Her favorite skirt. She’d been saving it for a special occasion, because if she didn’t ration her time wearing it, she’d put it on every morning. She’d done that one week in high school, with disastrous results. Tiered in strip after strip of brightly-patterned cloth, it moved from pale cloudy-sky blue at the hem to the darkest deep-sea blue at the waistband. Her tunic matched it, pulling out a middle blue perfectly, and she’d found sandals in the same blue as the tunic. The result might not be fashionable – she’d been told thirteen or fourteen thousand times that her tastes in clothing weren’t at all fashionable – but it made her happy.

As she was slipping on her shoes, someone thumped on her door again. She ignored it. It was just another creep, trying to get a rise out of her. She gathered her purse, slipping her History text and her notebook inside of it.

Another knock. Well, she could head out towards Taro’s room, couldn’t she? His room was near enough to Conrad’s, one of them was probably home. Or Mabina-and-Cassidy. Steeling herself, she pulled the door open.

To Taro’s frowning face. “There you are,” he said, a little impatiently. “Didn’t you hear me knocking?”

“I…” she shook her head, not wanting to try to explain to him her fear, her paranoia. It all seemed so silly now, with him standing there, even though the lights were still out, even though there were still alien noises echoing in the background, somewhere around the corner. “Sorry,” she said lamely, clutching her purse a little closer to her.

“Well, you’re here now. Let’s go.” He took her arm, and, still nervous about the dark and the heckling voices outside, she dug in her feet and resisted, leaving him tugging at her arm. He’d turned to go, and didn’t notice right away that she wasn’t moving; his pull on her arm was sudden, entirely unavoidable, and startling in its strength. She stumbled, and fell into him; he caught her with his other hand, grabbing her hip to steady her with a bruising grip. “Come on,” he repeated, as she regained her feet.

“Where?” she asked obstinately. She tried, futilely, to pull her arm away from his.

“Breakfast.” Even to her notoriously unreliable social readings, he seemed unreasonably eager for breakfast, no matter how good the food was here. “Come on.”

“Taro, the lights are all out,” she pointed out, hating how pedantic she sounded but too nervous to try to correct it.

“I can see in the dark. And besides, there’s emergency lights. You’ll be fine.” His grip didn’t lighten; if anything, his fingers grew tighter around her arm.

There didn’t seem to be any getting around it. The laughter still echoed in the halls out there, but Taro wasn’t giving her much choice. Maybe his presence there would fend off the creeps. Maybe, like the day they’d met, he’d protect her from the bullies.

Maybe he’d leave her with more bruises than the bullies ever had. She was sure he didn’t mean to, but he was being awful rough with her. His pace was faster than hers, and he kept jerking on her arm, pulling her through the hallway.

“Hey!” The shout came from behind them, and Kai jumped, tugging her arm away from Taro in fear and jittery nerves. It was only as she twisted to see their attackers that she realized it was Conrad, walking up on them, shining a flashlight under his pointed chin, making spooky faces. Mabina and Cassidy followed him, Mabina carrying a giant Maglite, Cassidy carrying two.

“Hey,” Conrad grinned, “you weren’t going out on Hell Night without us, were you?”

“No, of course not,” Kailani said, smiling widely up at his pseudo-creepy expression, “but what’s Hell Night? It’s still the morning.”

Taro chuckled again, that annoying little sound he made when he thought she was being cute. “It’s just a term, hon.”

“I guess ‘Hell morning, mid-afternoon, and evening' didn’t sound so intimidating,” Cassidy chimed in, “so that had to go with the propaganda.”

Somewhere ahead of them, a scream sounded. High-pitched in terror, and possibly in pain, it was still clearly a male voice. Kai stepped nervously back, closer to the circle of light and safety that was the crew. Well, most of the crew.

“Where’s Vlad?” What was making grown men scream in terror? Why were they out here in the dark instead of safely in her room, or, better yet, out in the sunshine?

“Out playing,” Mabina answered dryly, as Cassidy handed Kai his spare flashlight. “Come on, let’s get to breakfast before it gets too wild out here.”

Kailani let them guide her – somehow she was now in the center of their circle – pathetically glad for the comfort of the heavy flashlight. It was even, she noticed, blue. “Playing?" she asked. The halls seemed foreign, basement-like, cavernous, and she felt as if, even on the path she’d walked every day for two weeks, she could easily lose her way.

"Playing," Mabina agreed. She didn't seem to be inclined to say more, but Cassidy picked up where she'd left off. "At its best, Hell Night is a sort of hazing for the new blood."

"Oh," Kai said weakly. She could picture how something that was, "at its best," hazing, could get worse, but she couldn't picture Vlad taking part in anything like that. "Vlad...?" she asked, not sure how to phrase the question.

Neither Conrad not Taro, walking ahead of her, seemed inclined to answer, so it was Mabina who, somewhat reluctantly, did so.

“It’s something like a tradition, something like a mandate,” she said, “that all the older students take part.”

“But…”

“Mabina gets a bye because of her delicate state,” Cassidy chuckled, “so I get a bye because…” his hesitation was so long that Kailani found herself holding her breath. “Because, well, we’re the same person, as far as the school is concerned.”

There were so many questions she could ask about that, but the situation didn’t seem appropriate for in-depth analysis, and, besides, she was too nervous to properly study all the implications. Something had to be said, though, so she tried for a joke. “That must make taking tests easier.”

Cassidy chuckled. “If only. Somehow, we still have two sets of grades. Is that fair, I ask you?”

“Well, you are still two separate people, at least physically,” she wasn’t sure about any of the metaphysics, or why the school thought they were the same person, but they did at least have two bodies. Solid facts. When all else failed, she could rely on solid facts. “I guess it makes sense you’d have two - ”

Discuss

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Chapter 20.5: Kailani

Previously:... Solid facts. When all else failed, she could rely on solid facts. “I guess it makes sense you’d have two - ”

They’d gone around a corner while they were talking, and, lost in the problem of Mabina-and-Cassidy, Kai hadn’t noticed the man standing in the doorway to her left until he was right on top of her. And he was almost atop her, wrapping arms around her that felt like steel bars and lifting her, pulling her back against his chest – a steel plate – and carrying her backwards into the doorway.

His arms were black, true, un-shaded, absence-of-all-light black, thick with muscles. His fingernails were white, the nail beds a milky grey. She catalogued the details of his deformity (mutation? Cassidy had just called it “the change?”) as she struggled against his grip. He had her arms pinned at her sides, his arms over her chest and then tucked under her armpits, tightly enough to restrict breathing. She wasn’t getting away on her own.

It had taken less than ten seconds for him to grab her, and for her to determine how tightly she was caught. In that time, Taro had moved to be directly in front of her, Cassidy to one side, Conrad to the other. All three of them were scowling ferociously, Conrad and Cassidy looking nothing like their normally easy-going selves; they looked more like Vikings on a raid, or sabre-toothed tigers eyeing another male on their territory.

Territory? That’s me! She struggled a little more, even though she knew it would be futile. Her captor only tightened his grip more.

“Rozen.” She wasn’t normally good at guessing motivation from voices, less so when she was under stress, but Taro’s voice frightened her. She could not quite tell if he was happy or furious, though his hands had curled into fists. “She belongs to me.”

Conrad’s words a week ago - and where had he been, this week? His impromptu lessons had ended as quickly as they had begun, and with less warning - “two 'consenting adults' can agree that one Belongs to the other.” - replayed themselves in her ear. He hadn’t mentioned, then, that it came with rescuing from monsters and other jobs usually reserved for fairy-tale princes.

And, indeed, Taro had gotten closer. Kailani was between him and – Rozen? The monster holding her must be Rozen – effectively being used as a shield. She wondered if that would stop Taro from punching.

“Is this true, little red?” the monster said to the top of her head. His voice sounded surprisingly human; irrationally, she’d expected him to sound like some sort of demon, some cartoon antagonist.

“What?” Oh! Was it true that she Belonged to Taro? “No!” Fairy-tale princes or not… no. She didn’t want to be anyone’s slave.

Behind her, Rozen chuckled. The rumbling chuckle, resonating against her back, was everything she’d expected hisvoice to be. That chuckle, and the frown on Taro’s face, made her think maybe she’d picked the wrong answer, slavery or not.

“I guess she’s all mine, then,” he said. He shifted his grip so that he was holding her against him with one arm, and brought his free hand up under her chin, the heel of his hand pressing down on her windpipe while his fingers forced her chin up and her head back. From this viewpoint, she could see his face – the skin as black as his arms, the eyes red and glowing, the hair as starkly white as his skin was dark, his brightly white teeth bared very close to her nose in a grin. “What do you think of that, little red?”

Breathing was becoming a bit problematic. She drew in air as best she could, in painful, rasping breaths. “I think…” It hurt to talk, and there were spots in front of her eyes. She worried that she was passing out. She forced in another breath, and pushed out the words. “I don’t Belong to anyone!”

That only made him smile more. “That will change,” he promised her. He grabbed her breast, most of her weight now being supported by his hand on her throat, and squeezed, sending stabbing needles of pain through her.

“Put her down now, Rozen,” Taro said. Through the fuzzy, clogged-feeling sound in her popping ears, he no longer sounded as if he was having fun. “She’s mine.”

“She doesn’t think she is.” Even his perfect white teeth were beginning to be blurry. “And today, that makes her fair game.”

“She doesn’t know what she’s saying. She’s just being stupidly stubborn.”

She couldn’t get away, she already knew that, and the pain in her chest seemed like it was the only thing keeping her conscious, but, stubbornly, “stupidly stubbornly,” she grabbed Rozen’s arms, trying to pry them away from her, or maybe…

It was like a pull-up, almost, causing more pain in her breast as she pushed herself upwards in her captor’s arms, pulling away from his hand. Not much, just half an inch, but it was enough to gasp in air, enough to think a little bit of something beyond her body’s need for oxygen.

“Clever girl,” he said, looking down at her nearly-fruitless struggles. “ I think I’m going to enjoy keeping you. Breaking you. After a while, they tell me, even the most stubborn person will agree to anything, if you apply the right pressures. I’ve never tried it myself – never needed to – but I think it might be fun to try, once, before I graduate. What do you think, Red? Want me to break you? Or are you willing to let little Petyr here fight for you?”

Taro would fight for her even if she didn’t agree to Belonging to him, wouldn’t he? He seemed to really like her. He wouldn’t just let this creature carry her off to his lair, would he?

But what if she’d committed some major faux pas by denying him? What if this was some ritualistic formula, where if she denied him three times, he’d walk away and have nothing to do with her? What if he really did just want to own her?

Her arms shook with the effort of holding herself up. Soon, she’d lose her grip, and then Rozen would be back to choking her. It wouldn’t take long after that for her to pass out.

Taro was staring at her intensely, his face twisted in an angry scowl. Was he worried about her, or angry at her? Could it be both? Why wasn’t he doing anything? Was he going to leave her to whatever Rozen really wanted? She couldn’t imagine that, in a school like Addergoole, this monster really be allowed to carry her off and torture her – if for no other reason than that torture might make her miss classes.

But she knew firsthand what a bully could do, in clear sight of teachers and staff. She remembered how much they could get away with in high school, without Laws to back them up.

She looked from Taro to the crew. They all looked angry, and for a chilling moment she feared that she’d alienated all of them by refusing to Belong to Taro. They couldn’t find Belonging that horrible, could they? After all, Vlad had as much as said that he owned - Owned! – his bratty little moth-girl.

Then Conrad caught her eye, and shook his head, very deliberately, even though he barely moved. No. No what? A warning? Or a dunning?

It was going to have to be a warning. If they wouldn’t accept her without Belonging to someone, then, eventually, they were going to turn their backs on her anyway. Everyone eventually did.

She made one more massive effort, pushing up against Rozen’s vicelike grip. “Taro can fight if he wants to,” she said, trying to sound defiant and not just terrified; “he’s a free man. But I don’t Belong…” her arms failed her, and she dropped down suddenly.

The movement must have startled Rozen, because his choking hand failed to catch her by the throat, and the arm she’d been pulling up on grabbed too late, only catching her shirt. Acting rather than making a conscious decision – there wasn’t time for deliberation – she shed modesty in favor of not getting tortured and slipped out of the shirt, and landed hard on the floor at his feet.

He grabbed for her, but she could see him coming now, and dodging was something she had a lot of practice at. She jumped to her feet as he grabbed again, and slipped backwards, not wanting him to get her skirt as well as her shirt. “I don’t Belong to anyone but myself!” she told him defiantly, anger and residual fear making her heart pound rapidly and her voice louder than it should be.

“You will,” he told her, laughing. Laughing! He’d stopped trying to catch her; this time he swung his arm in a casual backhand, intended to land across her face. He was slow, easy to duck, and she used the movement to slide further away from him. Towards her friends, who had stood there and let him strangle her. But there was no-where else to go.

“You’ll crawl to someone, eventually,” Rozen told her. His voice was getting closer; she twisted, and just barely escaped another grab. “You’ll need someone to protect you from the monsters and the things that go bump in the night.”

Acacia had said almost the same thing. She’d also said there were worse things in the school than her, and now Kai began to understand. She couldn’t face all these monsters on her own. She couldn’t dodge every punch; she couldn’t avoid them when she couldn’t see them coming. Bump in the night. She needed someone to keep her safe from the monsters in the closet, and all Taro was doing was standing there glaring. She needed some…

“No, she doesn’t.” Mabina’s voice rang clear and sharp, cutting through Kailani’s rising desperation. She didn’t?

“Not fair, Mabina,” Rozen replied, his voice lazy. Not fair? The conversation had shifted again into that realm of whispers and insinuations.

“I’ll stay out of it,” Mabina assured him. She’d done nothing but stay out of it so far, but, still, Kai couldn’t help the hurt, frustrated rock of betrayal that settled in her stomach. Why would she have expected any different? “But - ” Wait. But? “But Kailani doesn’t need the protection of an Owner, Rozen.”

She didn’t? A tiny spring of hope began welling inside of her.

“No?” he replied, still sounding amused, damn him. He'd stopped trying to grab her, though.

“No. She has her crew.”

“She has her crew,” Conrad echoed. He was standing between Kai and Rozen, although he hadn’t been a moment ago.

“Where was her crew when I was choking her?” he sneered. “Standing here with their thumbs up their asses. You’re not going to do anything. I could take her right in front of you and you would just stand there looking stupid.”

Take her… She wasn’t sure he was wrong, either., and she wasn’t sure if she could play keep-away with him long enough to get away. She should really start running now, while he was occupied. But then Conrad started talking again.

“She had to decide for herself. Now she's made her choice, and we'll stand behind it."

Oh. “Was that what that was all about?” she couldn’t help but mutter, but there were more pressing issues at hand. Her shirt, for one.

“And has she decided? I thought she was just being ‘stupidly stubborn?’”

She could see Taro’s face in profile from her position behind Conrad; he was scowling deeply. But Conrad shook his head. “Tenacious, maybe. And sometimes naïve. But there’s not a thing Kailani does that’s stupid.”

“And she’s not low-hanging fruit,” Cassidy drawled. “Go pick something off a lower branch, Rozen.”

Rozen looked between Cassidy and Conrad, their backs stiff and unrelenting, between Taro, grimacing, and Mabina, smiling, and his smile slipped away. “There are other nights,” he said, sounding to her ears menacing and sullen.

“There are,” Mabina agreed firmly. “But none of them are Hell Night.”

Discuss



Chapter 20.75: Kailani
but you think that I can’t see
What kind of man that you are, if you’re a man at all

Previously“There are other nights.”

“There are,” Mabina agreed, “but none of them are Hell Night.”


“And you won’t touch her, tonight or any night,” Cassidy continued firmly.

“Even think about it, and we’ll destroy you.” That was Conrad, his voice so terrifyingly menacing that Kai had to look twice to be certain it was him. It made her feel warm, protected, and a little bit scared to hear them talk so emphatically in her defense, but it also made her angry. Had this all been some sort of test, then? She’d had to “make her choice” to earn their loyalty? And if that was the case, then what if she’d made the other decision, that she’d nearly made? (She needed to talk to Taro alone, when Conrad and Mabina weren’t there to frown at her and judge her decisions). All these machinations and secrets were making her angry.

But Rozen looked over the five of them, and apparently thought they were serious. He nodded, and his head held as proudly as if he hadn’t just been shamed away, walked down the hall into the shadows, tossing Kai’s shirt at her as he went.

It was only as she caught her shirt that she really noticed she’d been standing around the hall in her bra. Blushing, she tugged her shirt over her head hurriedly, turning her back to the crew to do so, even as she understood the futility of modesty now; they’d all seen her. No-one seemed to care.

And that, in a nutshell, was the problem. They cared about stuff that didn't matter; they didn't care about stuff that mattered, and their loyalty as friends was apparently based on some metric she hadn't been given access to.

Not that that was any different than high school. But she'd been coming to trust these people. More than trust them; she’d been really enjoying their company. Especially two of them, the wicked little voice in the back of her head offered helpfully. Yes. Especially two of them. And now she had less idea than ever how they were going to act, or if she could trust them.

Ask, suggested the snide little voice, and so she turned to Mabina. “What-”

Mabina shook her head warningly, and Kailani fell silent, unable to keep the sullen look of frustration off her face.

“At breakfast, honey, I promise.” Mabina said gently. “We’re not out of the woods yet, and I want to get to the Dining Hall before anyone else gets any ideas.”

Her “I promise” sounded sincere enough that Kai lost some of her anger, and let them surround her in a neat diamond-shape, Mabina in front, Cassidy in back, Conrad to her left and Taro to her right. Thus arrayed, they moved down the still-dim halls. She tried resolutely to ignore the noises still echoing through the halls, screams and whimpers and pleas. She was safe now, right?

Conrad’s hand on her wrist made her jump, and she turned a sour glare on him, not, at the moment, caring too much about making a good impression. “I don’t Belong to you, either,” she reminded him.

“Nor would I ever say you did,” he replied, his voice stilted and his face unsmiling. “But I don’t want you to get grabbed again, if you don’t mind?”

She gulped. She didn’t want her to get grabbed again, either. Her chest and throat still ached from Rozen’s rough grip, and she was sure she’d have bruises for a week. They could keep company with the ones Taro had given her that morning, and the fading yellowed bruise across Conrad’s face. “I don’t mind, no, thank you,” she said as politely as she could. Shock. What were the symptoms of shock? Sweaty palms, weak or rapid pulse...

Conrad interrupted her mental checklist with a sympathetic smile. “Think of it this way,” he said lightly, as if nothing at all was wrong with the world, “you’ve just gained a big sister, and three older brothers.”

An only child, she’d always wanted siblings, but never been quite sure how that worked. Still… “Three? What about Vlad?”

“I was counting Vlad.” His grin was back to its normal, playful radiance as he smiled at her, challenging her to figure out the puzzle. But this wasn’t concrete math or physics, this was social interactions.

Mabina gave her a clue. “He’s either not counting himself, or he’s not counting Taro.”

Taro or Conrad. Because one – or both – of them had less-than-brotherly intentions towards her. It was the first solid confirmation she’d gotten that Taro – and Conrad – might be interested in something more than friendship. From the way her mother had talked, she’d expected it to be more obvious.

She looked back and forth between the two of them, Conrad’s cocky smile and Taro’s angry grimace. Mabina and Cassidy had seen it. Conrad was making no point to deny it, indeed, she was pretty sure he was confirming it. Had it been that obvious all along, then, or had it been coded in that strange non-language to which no-one would give her the key?

Taro took her attention back to himself by wrapping his hand around her free wrist. “I am not your brother,” he scowled.

His fingers were too rough on her wrist, and she was angry, suddenly, at his assumptions, and at his stupid petty anger, when all he’d done was stand there and try to claim her as his possession. Not her brother? He felt the need to voice that?

“That is patently obvious,” she said, trying to snatch her hand back from him. That only elicited a deeper frown from him, as his fingers closed even tighter.

“What, all of a sudden you’re too good to touch me?” he sneered. “And what was that, back there, anyway? ‘Taro can fight if he wants to?’”

“Taro,” Cassidy said, his voice warning. There were other students in the shadows of the hallway, other monsters, creatures Mabina thought might attack her. Bullies. But they were nearly to the Dining Hall, and no-one else seemed to want to brave her protectors, or the ferocious look on Taro’s face. He turned to her, his voice softer, and demanded,

“So, what was it? Don’t you want me to protect you?”

She glared at him, all of her frustration, her fear and her anger boiling over. Here she was, so concerned about understanding these people, playing by their rules, and they weren’t even trying to understand her!

"Of course I want you to defend me!” she exclaimed, making only a minimum effort to keep her voice low. “But it wouldn’t have been right for me to demand it.” Not without giving something in return. “I can't ask you to fight someone bigger and stronger than you just because I got myself in trouble!"

“What, do you think I couldn’t handle him?” he snarled. “Thanks for the vote of confidence!” His fingers around her wrist were growing tighter, pushing painfully hard against her radius and ulna, as if trying to prove that he was as strong as Rozen.

“That’s not what I meant at all!” But maybe it had been. After all, if he could handle Rozen, why had he just stood there? Why had they all just stood there? “If you wanted to fight him that much, then why didn’t you?”

“Kailani.” This time it was Mabina who scolded her softly. “Let’s sit down and have breakfast, and I’ll try to explain.”

Resentfully, trying not to act as surly or as angry as she felt, Kai sat, thankful for small favors as Taro and Conrad found it necessary to release her so that they could all sit. Mabina sat directly across from her, Cassidy to her right, across from Conrad. Ignoring her food, she steepled her hands and looked across the table.

She was silent for heartbeat after heartbeat, long enough to Kai to grow impatient, before she finally spoke, and when she did, it wasn’t what she’d expected to hear.

“Ask,” she said solemnly, “and I’ll do my best to answer.”

Ask? Ask what? There were so many questions she wanted answers to, so many things that she just wanted to yell about. She didn’t know where to begin!

She took a deep breath, and pulled her knees up to her chest. Prioritize. Monsters. Belonging. Choices. Fairness. Her lungs burned and her ribs ached as she tried to calm her breathing, and she went with the most pressing question. “Why did you- ” Her voice broke, and she realized she was crying. She rubbed her eyes with both hands, and tried to continue as calmly as she could. “Why would you just let him choke me? Why wouldn’t you help me? I’d help you!”

Mabina looked first at Taro, and then at Conrad, before looking back to Kailani. She, in turn, had followed those pregnant-seeming glances to Taro’s fiercer-growing scowl and Conrad’s sad-looking almost-smile, and ended up back at Mabina’s motherly frown. The other girl took another long breath, and nodded.

“Fair question, and I’m sorry we got to a place where it had to be asked. “

“I trusted you!” Kai interrupted, not meaning to, but so full of her upset that it was welling over.

Mabina just nodded softly. “I hope you still can again. Kailani, none of us wanted you to get hurt, and we were genuinely trying to protect you from the mess that Hell Night can be. But it exists for a purpose.”

A purpose. She frowned slowly, beginning to understand, and hating what she was understanding. “Not just hazing, then,” she said, the thoughts falling into place, not needing the slow shake no of Mabina’s head to confirm her suspicions. “Not just hazing, but initiation. A test.” She’d been right, then? No, that wasn’t quite right. “Not quite a test, no.” She couldn’t look at Taro, couldn’t even bear to look at Conrad, so she looked straight at Mabina. “Because ‘failing’ is what they want.” Although who “they” was, she wasn’t sure. Taro, for sure. “A trap. How could you?”

“How could we not?” Mabina held her hands in front of her, palm-up, in a helpless shrug-like gesture. “It’s not a decision someone else can make for you, Kai. Conrad made sure you knew the consequences - ” she kept talking over Taro’s outraged growl “- and we made sure that we were there to protect you, but you had to decide yourself which way you wanted to go.”

Kai frowned, trying not to sniffle. “That was protecting me?”

“That was protecting you,” Mabina affirmed. “You had to experience, really understand, what it could be like. But if we hadn’t been there, and you’d repudiated Taro, Rozen might have done what he said he would.”

“And that’s… allowed?” Bullying, of course. Every teacher turned a blind eye to that. But he’d been threatening more than bullying. She turned to Taro. “And you would have let him?” She couldn’t believe that. He’d stood up for her the first time she’d met him, hadn’t he?

“It’s like you said,” Taro said nastily, “he’s bigger and stronger than I am. What do you think I could have done?”

She gulped softly. Tears were streaming down her face now, but she was trying to ignore them. No-one ever paid any mind to a crying woman, her mother had told her. She was beginning to wonder if Taro had paid her any mind, ever.

Of course he did. He wanted to own you. She had to ask the next question. She caught her breath, and tried to sound level and calm as she asked him, “What if I’d agreed? If I’d said that I belonged to you?”

“I would have hurt Rozen till he didn’t get up again,” Taro said easily, “and broken one of his bones for every bruise he left on you.” She wondered if he even saw how horrible that was, or how hypocritical.

It didn’t matter if he did or didn’t, though. She gulped softly, trying to stop the sobs that were threatening. He was going to be her rock, her protector, the golem that stole her from her tower. Her shining prince. Now all he was was a frog.

She turned to Conrad, who sat at her left, suddenly wondering what his name meant. “And you?” she asked softly. Some part of her quailed at the presumption of what she was doing, putting these boys on trial. She should be glad they were willing to pay her any attention at all!

His smile was so sad that, for a moment, she was afraid he was reading her mind, and agreeing with her. “Pretty lady,” he said softly, “I’ll do whatever you want me to.”

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