Chapter 29: Kailani
...if you go chasing rabbits know you're going to fall...

Conrad took her hand again when they exited the Store, but she found she didn’t mind. He squeezed her hand a little, and she squeezed back, finding she wasn’t angry at him so much as confused.

“Thank you,” he murmured, only confusing her further. She glanced over at him, longing for the clarity of insight she’d had the night of the dance, trying to find meaning in his expression.

You know, you could just ask him what he’s feeling, the little cynic in her head suggested, but she didn’t think she needed to. Frightened and confused, she could actually recognize in someone else. It had become a pretty common expression on her own face recently, she was sure.

The warmth of his hand in hers reminded her that she’d gone from first-good-kiss with Conrad, to first-date-ever with Taro, to almost having a boyfriend for a week, and now to this. To Owning Conrad, in a relationship she barely understood, with a boy she barely understood.

She swallowed, glanced at his big seven-fingered hand folded around hers, and back up at his face. He was watching her, too, although his free hand had snuck up to his neck, and he was tugging lightly on the collar.

“Let me guess,” she said, the creepy atmosphere of the halls making her want to whisper, “you’re wondering what you’ve gotten yourself into, how bad it’s going to be, what it’s going to mean for the parts of your life that don’t directly touch mine, and how you’re going to get out of it.”

He stilled, his hand falling halfway down from his neck, hanging in mid-air. “How did you – oh,” He smiled a little bit, amused, possibly self-deprecating, “that’s how you’re feeling, too, isn’t it?”

She nodded. “Yes,” she answered, redundantly, “at least mostly. I’m fairly certain I’m not going to get out of it any time soon, though, so I’m not so worried about that.” As she said it, she realized it was true. She’d known when she said the words that Conrad intended this to be long-term. Until one of you graduates from Addergoole, Mabina had said. He was a year ahead of her, which meant he was likely not to graduate for nearly three more years.

Unless he intentionally fails a year, the bratty cynicism inside her whispered, but she dismissed that idea outright. She wasn’t important enough that someone would intentionally sabotage their schooling for her.

His hand was back at his collar, but he was blushing, too. “Would it be that bad,” he asked, his voice as soft as hers, “being stuck with me for the next three years?”

“I don’t know,” she said, trying to make herself look at his face instead of his collar. “I barely know you, Conrad. We met less than two weeks ago, and we haven’t spent all that much time together. I don’t know how much of what you’re told me has been a lie, or an act, and I hate that.”

“You can fix that now, you know,” he said solemnly, “now that you Own me. Tell me not to lie to you and I can’t.”

She eyed him sidelong. “I don’t like the idea,” she admitted, not wanting to tell him that she didn’t trust his intentions in reminding her of that. “I don’t want to tell you what to do.”

“You’re going to have to, eventually, if you want answers,” he pointed out, tugging on the front of the collar as if trying to get some air.

She wondered it if was too tight; the girl behind the counter hadn’t bothered to size it, or him. She wondered if the smooth metal of the collar was chafing the back of his neck. She wondered if he was playing with it in an attempt to garner sympathy. She wondered if she was going to hear that anticlimactic click of the collar locking in her dreams.

“Stop messing with it,” she snapped, sounding for a moment entirely like her grandmother. His hands dropped to his sides as suddenly as if the collar had burnt him.

Ignoring his startled expression for a moment, she stepped in front of him and ran both hands over the sides of his collar. She could fit her fingers between the smooth metal band and his throat, and it sat low enough on his neck that it wasn’t pressing on his windpipe.

“I feel like a horse,” he complained. She looked up at him, at his lips twitching slightly as if they were trying to smile and not quite making it.

“If you were a horse,” she said, patting the edges of his collar nervously, “I’d be checking your girth,” she patted his belt just above his hip, “and your bit and harness. I don’t think either of us wants that,” she added, trying to smile so that he’d know she was teasing him.

He licked his lips slowly, and, fighting a blush, Kai realized just how close she was to him. And, oh, god, with her hands on his collar she’d just been talking about horse tack as it related (or didn’t) to him.

“I,” he started, and trailed off, licking his lips again. “I think the collar is enough.” His tentative smile finally stretched back into his customary grin, and she felt tension releasing from her shoulders. She hadn’t realized how much she missed his playful cheer until he’d gone all serious and nervous on her.

“I think the collar is more than enough,” she agreed. His lips were right in front of her, and –

– and she didn’t want to talk about collars any more right now. She rose up on her toes a little bit – maybe if there was really magic in the world, she’d find a spell to make herself taller – and kissed him.

He jumped a little, and she jumped back in response, her blush rising again. “Sorry,” he murmured. “I wasn’t expecting that. May I?”

May he what? But she was already too embarrassed; she didn’t want to ask any more questions. So she just nodded agreement.

He stepped in close to her again, set one hand high up on her back, very gently, but she could feel the splay of his hand from her neck down to nearly the bottom of her ribcage, seven distinct warm pressure points. He leaned down over her and brushed his lips against hers.

She thought that was going to be all, barely a kiss at all, and then, as if that had simply been a calibration, he kissed her in earnest.

He wasn’t rough, but gentle wasn’t the word she’d use, either, intense and heated and… she stopped trying to think of words and went with it, giving in to the urgency in his kiss and the gentle pressure of his hand.

“That didn’t take long.”

Taro’s voice cut across the thumping of her heart and she fell still as Conrad’s hand tensed on her back. Remembering the angry scene at the dance the week before, when they’d found her dancing with Adrian, she turned around in Conrad’s embrace and braced for trouble.

He left his hand more or less where it was, the thumb at her breastbone and the pinkie at her navel (had he come up with names for the extra fingers? It didn’t seem like the time to ask); it was comfortable and a little comforting to have him wrapped around her like a fuzzy blanket, so she didn’t try to move him.

Taro was glaring at her, his hands clenched in fists to his sides; behind him stood Mabina, Cassidy, Vlad, and pleased-looking ‘Lisha. “You could’ve waited for my corpse to be cold at least,” he grumbled, stepping towards her.

She didn’t realize she’d flinched away from him until Conrad’s hand pulled her a little closer, and then she didn’t know who to be angrier at, herself for flinching away like some skittish foal, or him for treating her like a prize calf.

Neither would help, so she frowned at Taro. “Corpse? What are you talking about?” She reached a hand out towards him, but he stepped back, glowering.

“Don’t mind him, Kai.” Cassidy moved Taro aside with a gentle push. “He’s just being an idiot.”

“Oh.” She was beginning to think her mother was right; boys were a lot of trouble and drama for very little useful reward. “Okay, then.”

Taro glowered at her, and she flinched again. Was he ever going to smile at her again? Would he ever like her again, be her friend again?

He didn’t want to be your friend, she reminded herself. He wanted to Own you. Like a piece of meat or a pretty bauble. What did he say, “steal the precious gem from the gods?” You should have known then that he was no good. But it had been nice to be wanted, for a minute.

She glared back at him, trying to think of something properly pithy, but all she could manage was “I’m not your meat.”

“No,” he said nastily, “now Conrad’s your meat.”

“Thank you, Taro, straight to the point with no stopping for such paltry obstacles as walls or manners,” Mabina said dryly, stepping up to the other side of Taro.

“The point?” Kai snapped, getting worked up and frustrated all over again. “What point, and why does it involve ‘meat?’”

“Because,” Mabina answered gently, “when you decide to Own someone, it, after a fashion, involves them becoming ‘your meat,’ as crude as that is. And we want to make sure that both of you understand what you’re getting into, before either of you get hurt.”

“Answers,” she said, her mouth dry and sour-tasting. “You want to give me answers?” She just barely managed not to spit out “finally” at the end of her sentence. She had to remind herself, her mother’s voice whispering in her ear, that one didn’t keep friends by being pushy and rude and impatient. In this strange place, she needed friends more than ever, and she needed more answers than ever before. “Okay.” She tried to make it come out politely.


Chapter 29.5: Kailani
When logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead
And the white knight is talking backwards...

“You want to give me answers?” Kailani craved nothing more in the world, but she’d begun to distrust offers of help, even from her friends. “Okay.” She tried to make it come out politely.

“Let’s go back to our suite, if you don’t mind,” Mabina said, gesturing down the hall. “Especially on Hell Night, the halls really aren’t the place for this kind of conversation.”

“Okay,” Kai repeated. She stepped out of Conrad’s grasp, lifting his hand off of her like opening a gate, but her mind was already elsewhere, puzzling over things.

Earlier in the day, they’d seemed intent on hushing any dissent or questions in the hallway, but been more than willing to have things blow up in the Dining Hall. Conrad hadn’t wanted to talk about things in the Store: Could we finish this later, in your room?

“I understand the room-” she trailed off, realizing that asking about this while still in the hallway might be a little silly, and instead made a small frustrated noise. Your home is inviolate. No-one will ever enter it without your permission. She wondered how far “enter” stretched, here, and “inviolate,” in a place where there was admitted mind control. And how did they do that?

Not enough data. She sighed loudly, and then nearly jumped as Conrad set his hand on her shoulder.

“Sorry,” he murmured. “We’re nearly there.” He didn’t take his hand off her shoulder, though; instead, he shifted a little closer to her. For the first time in her life, it occurred to her to wonder if a boy was trying to make another boy jealous.

“Are you…?” she trailed off. It probably wouldn’t be a good idea to ask him that in front of Taro.

“I…” he shrugged. “I don’t know,” he admitted. She wondered what it was he didn’t know.

“Here we are.” Cassidy opened the door. “Come in, Kailani, and be welcome. Our home is yours.”

“Hey,” Taro complained, but he stepped back, clearing the path to the door. Vlad and ‘Lisha were standing back, and Cassidy and Mabina were flanking the door, making it seem like they were waiting for her, like there was some sort of protocol.

She glanced at Conrad for help. He was back to the slightly-sad expression that made her wince. “What’s mine is yours now, pretty lady. Come on into our home.” His hand on her shoulder was gently urging her forward, so she walked through the door, feeling immensely weird.

Mabina smiled reassuringly at her as she entered, though, so it had to be okay. She smiled back, a little shaky, and looked around the suite.

Sectional couch, sage green, dark brown leather ottoman, big enough to be a small bed. TV, stupidly large, and surrounded on three sides by technological gadgets – VCR, gaming consoles – she counted three – stereo system, speakers. It was almost a home theatre. A door on the back wall, half-open, lead to what looked like a blank wall; a fully open door on the left-hand wall led to another fully-open door, which opened into a chaotic pile of clothes.

Conrad, following her gaze, blushed. “I guess you get my mess, too,” he whispered.

“That’s yours? ” She hoped she didn’t sound as horrified as she felt. “How do you live in that?”

“I, uh,” he shrugged. “I guess I could clean it up.”

“Careful,” ‘Lisha said smugly. “Next thing you know, you’ll be carrying her purse.”

Kai twisted to glare at the girl, wondering what she’d done to deserve the girl’s disdain. She wanted to say something in Conrad’s defense, but she caught sight of Vlad, who, looking at Conrad, bore the most hangdog expression she’d ever seen.

“And thank you, Alisha,” Cassidy said sarcastically. “Have a seat, Kai. It’s time for some explaining.”

Feeling horribly on-the-spot, she sat down in the middle of the sectional. Conrad curled up, catlike, to her left, his hip pressed against hers, and Vlad and Alisha settled down to his left. Mabina lowered herself carefully onto the couch to Kai’s right, and Cassidy sat down cross-legged on the ottoman, facing her. It all seemed to happen with the same careful planning as a chess game, and yet happened so casually that it seemed spontaneous. Only Taro resisted; he stood scowling, leaning against the wall.

“I understand the rooms,” Kai said, the words spilling out of her in a hurry, before Mabina or Cassidy could change the subject, “at least, in theory. Rooms are your home, are inviolate, right? But I don’t get the Dining Hall.”

Mabina nodded slowly, ignoring the small snorting noise from Taro. “Your home is your castle, yes. No-one will enter it without your permission, and, as far as we can figure out, there is no surveillance in the rooms and very little mind control.” She winced as she said “mind control,” and Kai wondered how accurate her assessment could be, if it caused her pain to talk about it in her own living room. “The Dining Hall has none of those protections, but, traditionally, it’s been neutral ground.” Another wince. “Traditionally, of course. I’m not sure everyone has gotten the memo this year. Of course, Ofir should have known better, but still…”

Ofir. She had to be talking about the bat-winged golden boy who had gotten beat up early the week before. Should have known better than to what? Not learn to dodge? But she was allowing herself to get sidetracked yet again. “So, our rooms are safe from intrusion, either from other students or from cameras, surveillance, or ‘mind control.’” She couldn’t help the quotes that seemed to drop around the words in her voice; it seemed so absurd, even now. “While the Dining Hall is just safe from other students – in theory?”

“Yep,” Cassidy agreed.

“But-” She paused, gathering up her thoughts. “So, there are things you don’t want to talk about in the halls, or in the Dining Hall, because you don’t want to ‘bring the Administration down on our head.’ Things related to the ‘mind control’ or the geasa or getting around them. I can understand the concept behind that. Does that explain why you didn’t want me to take Regine as my Mentor?”

Cassidy nodded, and then shook his head. “Not entirely. But in small part, yes. Having Regine as your Mentor is rather antithetical to actually getting answers.”

“Okay,” she frowned, filing that away for later. After all, Regine had offered her access to her research, which seemed like a pretty good way to get answers. Maybe all this distrust of the Administration was just student paranoia?

She still hadn’t asked her question. “I don’t understand,” she persisted, “what the concern is with other students. Why you don’t want to fight or ask questions in the halls that are fine to talk about in the Dining Hall. Why ‘neutral ground,’ however neutral it isn’t, is important.”

Taro snorted. “Rozen nearly strangled you this morning, and you need to ask that? Acacia was ready to break your ribs your first day here, and you need to ask that?”

“I thought the point of being Owned, or having a crew, or, I guess, both, was to avoid bullies,” she retorted, trying not to get too flustered. How did he always manage to make her sound like an idiot? No-one else could make her doubt her own competence so well.

“Yeah,” Vlad said gently from the sidelines, “but sometimes that can just cause more problems. You step in to stop a bully, and the next thing you know, two of his friends have stepped in to back him up. And then you’ve got two of your friends in on the mess, and everybody’s feathers are ruffled and the guy you were shooting pool with yesterday is trying to kill you between classes.”

“And the administration just lets it happen?” She couldn’t believe that, but everyone was nodding.

“Theoretically, the cameras are there to keep the violence from getting out of hand,” Cassidy answered dryly, “but as long as no-one’s raped, murdered, or maimed, they pretty much let it happen.”

“Keeping in mind, of course,” Taro added helpfully, “that you can’t rape your Kept, since you can simply order them to consent.”

It seemed an odd thing for him to say, considering he’d been trying to Own – Keep – her not that much earlier in the day, and he seemed to realize that as everyone looked at him, especially Vlad and ‘Lisha. He flushed angrily, trying to turn it around, “Or, I suppose, that means it’s always rape. Since they can’t consent legally.”

“Can someone please revoke his speaking rights?” Alisha asked, frowning sulkily, and Kai really couldn’t help but agree with her. Taro was being, if possible, stupider than normal.

“I’m sorry, honey,” Mabina said gently, “it’s his Home too.” She turned to Taro, though. “Nobody is getting raped,” she told him, and he seemed to take that as a cue to shut up.

“Can’t consent?” Kai asked in a small voice. She gulped, looking at Mabina because that meant she could have her back turned to Conrad.

Mabina nodded. “That was what we wanted to talk to you about,” she answered. “Alisha and Taro are here because, of our crew, they are the only ones who have been Owned. Cassidy and I have our own arrangement, and Vlad and Conrad, well, Vlad has managed to avoid being Owned.” Her voice dipped into a disapproving tone. “If you two are going to persist in this silliness, you both need to understand what you’re getting into.”

“Okay…” It didn’t seem silly to her. Insane, outrageous, and absurd, but not silly. But Mabina had perfected the “mom” tone of voice that Kai had learned not to argue with, and, besides, she was offering answers.

“The first thing you need to really, really understand is that words have power.” Her voice slipped from “mom” into “teacher” and Kai, without thought, slipped her notebook from her purse and began taking notes.


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