Addergoole
Chapter 53: Kailani

“I still don’t get it,” Kai complained. She, with her back to Conrad, was wiggling into the dress Mabina had altered for her, even as she tried to understand why she was doing so.

“I can help you with the zipper,” he offered.

“No, thank you. Not the zipper, I understand that.” She twisted backwards to catch the pull and tugged it closed. “I thought I understood dances, but I don’t.”

“What’s the problem?”

“I don’t know what their purpose is.” She tugged and nudged the dress into place, frowning at her reflection in the mirror. Maybe she should have taken Mabina up on her offer to help her get dressed. “I thought they were a meat market – a place to hook up – but we’re already hooked up.” Her cheeks flushed. “I mean…”

“We’re already a couple,” he rescued her. “But that’s only part of what dances are for.”

“To show off your trophies, then, ‘look at who I caught?’” She was surprised at the cynicism she felt.

“Well… can I turn around now?”

“Oh! Yes!” She patted her hair nervously and turned to face him as she heard him start to turn. His eyes were still closed – no surprise, she’d been taking no chances – but he looked like he was thinking.

“Not just for showing off your date. I mean, sure there’s some of that.” He sat down without apparent effort on the edge of his bed. “Especially here. But it’s mostly just hanging out.” He reached a hand towards her; she caught it with both of hers and let him tug her closer. He wrapped his other arm around her waist and pulled her onto his lap in a susurration of skirts. “Being social, you know.”

“Conrad!” she squeaked, startled, but secretly more than a little pleased. He seemed to like being close to her, even if only because of the Keeper-Kept bond. It was a nice novelty to have someone seeking out physical closeness with her.

He kissed her neck lightly. “This is nice, more than nice, just the two of us. Or out in the living room, with the crew. People you already know. Dances and parties are for getting to know people you don’t already know.”

He must have somehow read her lack of understanding in her body language, or in her silence; he sighed, frowning blindly at her. “Didn’t you ever just hang out with your friends?”

She shook her head no, glad he couldn’t see her right now. “I didn’t… I didn’t really have friends. I’m a little too awkward for that, I think. I had people who would talk to me in school, sometimes, but no-one who would… well, help me pick out a dress, or invite me over to hang out, or ask me to a dance.”

He brushed his hand gently across her cheek. “I’m sorry.”

It was too much; she caught the first sob before it was voiced, but the second one ran over the top of it and escaped as a choked whimper.

“Kaia?” He pulled her tight to him. “Kai, what’s wrong?”

She gulped air, clinging to him like a child. It felt so safe in his arms, and he couldn’t just walk away from her, couldn’t decide to hate her. “I hated it. And I never understood it. Why didn’t anyone want to be my friend? What did I do that made them hate me so much?” He kissed her cheek softly, but she couldn’t stop. “And people, before, would sometimes pretend to be my friend. They’d doing something nice for me, and I could never tell that they didn’t really mean it.”

He patted her shoulders and back. “Kai…” He made a soft rumbling noise in the back of his throat, almost a growl. Startled, she scooted towards the edge of his lap, pushing against the arm that was holding her. With another growl, he dropped his arm away from her.

“Kai, can I look at you? Please?”

She stopped her slow escape, and looked at him cautiously. He couldn’t hurt her. He couldn’t even open his eyes without her permission.

“Why were you growling?” she asked hesitantly.

“You’re crying!” he snapped. “And I can’t see you, and I can’t fix it.”

“So you’re yelling at me?” She stood up, but he grabbed her hips and pulled her back into his lap.

“No! I mean… I didn’t mean to.” His sigh was warm against her neck. “I didn’t want to upset you. Can I please look at you?”

“Why?” She shook her head, catching herself. “Yes.”

He opened his eyes slowly, and studied her, his face unsmiling and his eyes wide-open. She began to squirm under the scrutiny, and, without taking his eyes off of her face, he scooted her back up his lap as if she weighed nothing.

“Kai,” he said gently. “Kailani, I promise you that Mabina-and-Cassidy, and Vlad and I, that we’re really your friends. We’re not going to betray you.” The air didn’t ripple the way it had the last time he’d promised her something; she frowned slightly. Did that mean he was lying?

He echoed her frown with his own grimace. “Sorry. It’s the being Owned thing – a Kept can’t enter into oaths under the Law, so the world doesn’t react when I say ‘I promise.’ But I won’t lie to you – I can’t.”

She relaxed a little bit. Can’t. He seemed to be saying that a lot recently. “Does it feel horrible?”

“Which?” He frowned at her again.

“Being Owned. Having all these things you can’t do.” She shook her head. “It would really irritate me if I kept running into restrictions. Though I guess…” She flushed, and looked away from him, “I guess most of those are things I did to you, aren’t they?”

“To be fair,” he murmured, pulling her closer to him, so his mouth was almost touching her ear, “I asked you to.”

It was a nice excuse – if it were accurate. “You didn’t really know what you were asking for, though.”

“No,” he admitted, “I didn’t. But it’s not that bad.” He made a small noise, and shook his head. “It’s not bad at all. Sometimes it’s just weird. It’s like… I keep running into invisible fences, not painful, sometimes confusing.”

“I don’t want to fence you!” Although it did make it easier to trust him, knowing he couldn’t betray her.

Now, he smiled. “You can’t really avoid it. I know you try not to give direct orders – thank you! – but I can’t really help trying to do what I think you want.”

“What if I told you not to?”

He twitched slightly. "I don't think ordering me to resist you is a good idea."

“Oh!” She nodded. “Because you giving me information is the reason we’re doing this to start with – and that would be harder to do around the geas if you could resist me.”

"Well, that too," he agreed.

"Too? What else?"

"Think about that one for a second. If you ordered me, to resist your control, could I obey you?"

"N..." She closed her mouth, processed that, and tried again. "Your brain would seize," she hypothesized, "trying to handle the logic loop."

"Something like that," he nodded. "I hear it's not pleasant."

She shuddered. “So you’re stuck like this. We’re stuck with this.”

He rubbed her shoulder gently. "It's not that bad, really."

“You do keep telling me that.” She smiled, feeling a little reassured. “And you wouldn’t lie to me. I guess I should believe you.”

"The whole point of this was for you to be able to trust me, wasn't it?"

“More or less, yeah.”

"And I'm okay with it. So accept that it's okay? And maybe let me up, I have to finish getting ready too," he smiled.

“Oh!” She slipped off of his lap, blushing again. “I guess you ought to. And maybe Mabina can help me with my hair again.”

"It did look really nice," he agreed.

“It’s sort of false advertising… but I guess you already know what you’re getting.” She paused, her hand on the doorknob, not sure how to say what she was feeling.

He smiled broadly at her. "I do, now."

He was smart enough, he probably did. They all seemed to understand her better than she’d managed to understand herself. “Okay then.” She left him to finish getting ready, and went in search of Mabina.

She was, unsurprisingly, in her room, just finishing up her own make-up. She’d done something to her eyes that, combined with the elegant, copper-colored silk dress, made her look even more exotic and alien. Then she smiled, her cheeks going rosy like two apples, and she was Mabina again.

“You can’t blame a girl for trying to look pretty,” she sighed; “I feel like a whale.”

“But you’re beautiful,” Kai exclaimed. “I mean, I suppose it must be hard, carrying around the extra weight, but it just makes you look… motherly.”

Mabina raised an eyebrow. “Thank you,” she said, but she didn’t really quite sound like she meant it.

“I mean…” Mabina hushed her with a gesture.

“Don’t start trying to prevaricate now, honey, you’re no good at it. I know you were trying to give a compliment – and I know you were being honest. Sit down and let me do your hair.”

Kai sat, wondering how she had managed to put her foot in it so spectacularly again.

“Stop frowning,” Mabina scolded gently; “it makes it hard to get your make-up right.”

“I’m sorry.” She tried for a neutral expression, and let Mabina do her magic. Her possibly very-literal magic.

“This is just a skill like any other, you know,” Mabina said, as she was putting the finishing touches on her Kai masterpiece. “It’s just manual dexterity – which you have in spades – and the knowledge to apply it properly. Most girls learn from their mothers or friends.” She patted Kai gently on the shoulder. “In the absence of useful examples of either in your past, I can serve as both.”

Discuss

Chapter 53b: Kailani
We are just learning how to smile
That's not easy to do
We both live for the day
When we can run away


Transformed once again by Mabina’s skill and magic, Kai stepped carefully out into the living room. Everyone else was already there, the guys all seeming very intent on their video games while ‘Lisha sulked on the couch.

Taro saw her first. He gave her a look, from her carefully-placed hair to her embroidered shoes, that even she could interpret. While she tried not to squirm under that gaze, he commented, with a small smile, “you look as if you’re ready to walk down the aisle.”

“Walk down the… no!” She shook her head emphatically, stopping as her new earrings thumped against her neck. “Gah! No!”

He laughed loudly. “Guess she doesn’t like you all that much, Conrad.”

“What?” She shook her head at him, the earrings bobbing again. “No!” Mabina walked up beside her just then. Remembering her admonition, she took several deep breaths before she continued. “It has nothing to do with whether or not I like him – which I thought it was obvious that I did. I’m too young for that sort of commitment and, even if I wasn’t, marriage itself is an archaic institution.”

Cassidy laughed. “Everything about us is an archaic institution. That shouldn’t worry you. But you’ve got four years here. Wait until after graduation to make decisions like that.”

She glanced sidelong at him. “Are you and Mabina going to wait?”

“Us? No.” The two of them shared a glance over her shoulders, and he smiled tenderly. “But we’re a special case. Now you two git. The rest of us will catch up in a while.”

“Okay.” With some trepidation, she looked to Conrad. He, grinning as if she hadn’t just put her foot in her mouth again, stood, brushed off his pants, and offered her his hand. She took it, folding her fingers over his, feeling better already.

In the hall, in the comparative privacy of an empty corridor, she tried, “I didn’t mean…”

“I know.” He squeezed her hand a little. “Cassidy’s right. We can worry about that when we’ve both graduated. Outside of this place, outside of their rules.”

“I thought the Laws were binding on all… fae.”

“Yeah.” He shook his head no, even while agreeing with her. “We can’t get away from those. But we can get away from Regine’s rules.”

“Oh.” She nodded slowly. “That makes sense. We can worry about marriage and all that entails then. We’ve got enough to worry about now.”

“Like passing classes?”

He was smiling; she assumed he was joking. “Ha, no. That’s never been a problem. No, I meant…” She fell quiet, remembering that the halls weren’t safe. “The other things. Wings, tails, green skin.”

He nodded. “Why we are the way we are.”

“And in such variety. But, um, on a less academic note…” she trailed off, embarrassed.

“Yes?”

“I’d like to work on my social ineptitude, maybe?”

He was quiet for so long that she thought she’d said something horribly wrong again. He shook his head, and she was certain of it. She’d done it this time, hadn’t she? She waited for him to pull his hand away; instead, he tugged her arm around his waist, folding his own arm behind his back to do so, and bumping his hip against hers.

“I’ll tell you what,” he said slowly, “we’re going to use tonight as a learning experience, then, okay?”

“Okay?”

He nodded as if she’d been secure in her agreement. “We’re going to practice just being social with people.” He squeezed her lightly. “It will be fun. I’ll introduce you to some people I know, nice people, and we can just try hanging out with them.”

“What will we talk about?” She was usually okay until she opened her mouth.

“About?” There, she’d done it already. He shook his head, chuckling a little. “School, teachers. Girlfriends, boyfriends. Maybe stuff from Out There, you know, current events, but a lot of people don’t like to talk about that all that much.”

“I didn’t think…” She stopped herself, but the beginning of the sentence was already out, so she plowed on ahead. “I didn’t think most kids our age cared about current events anyway. Outside of celebrity stuff, rock musicians and movie stars?”

“You’d be surprised. But down here, we’re so isolated from the outside, there’s nothing we can do about anything happening Up There in the real world. We can’t change it, we can’t get involved.”

“Could we, if we were up there?” She’d wondered that before, when her mother had a new cause du jour, but never asked. “How much good does it do to picket, or write letters, or call in to radio talk shows?”

His grin stretched wide. “We’re fae, hon. We can do a lot with a phone call or a letter if we want.”

“You mean, use magic to influence politics? Is that… okay?”

“It’s risky, and you have to be really good if you’re going to do it directly, but there’s ways to…” He trailed off, making a brushing-away gesture with his free hand. “Some other time. Tonight’s about hanging out and making friends, right?”

“Right.” She reached for the thread of the conversation again. “So people talk about classes?”

“Sometimes. We are in a school, after all, and we still have to study.”

“Yeah. I should be studying for the history test Monday.” She looked longingly back down the hall, towards her room, but he manhandled her forwards.

“Tomorrow. Tonight is for studying other things.”

“Yeah.” They were at the entrance to the dance. She clutched her purse tight to her with one hand and pulled him closer with the other. “Are you sure?”

“Come on.” He led her into the Hall.

Today, it was done up like an underwater grotto, and the music coming from the demon in the DJ booth was more dreamy sounding, less heavy and angry. Windows cut into the cave-like walls showed sea creatures swimming past in photorealistic detail.

“I shouldn’t mention that piranha and puffer fish don’t live in the same environment, should I? Or mudfish and manta rays?”

“Probably not. Just chalk it up to creative license.”

“Creative license is the term for ‘wrong on purpose?’”

“Artistically non-realistic.” He glanced at the bar and its six-armed attendant – today, her hair was aqua blue – with what was probably longing.

“We could get a drink,” she offered.

He hesitated. “The drinks didn’t seem to sit all that well with you last time.”

“I went running screaming from the room, you mean?”

“Yeah,” he smiled, “that.”

“But you want a drink. I’ll drink slowly,” she offered. Coaxing was tricky; it sounded too much like nagging. He grinned, though, which she took to meant it was all right.

“Sure. I see some people I know over there anyway. Let me order for you?”

“Okay.” She tried to relax, loosening her grip on her purse, but his hand kept her hip-to-hip with him, and she decided that was entirely acceptable.

The bar was crowded, like everyone had decided they were going to be there all at the same time; Conrad somehow parted the people enough to get them two seats at the bar, between the giant, Anatoliy, and a girl whose glasses and hair both matched her teal dragon wings. Xyradia, Kai remembered – she was in Chemistry and Calculus with her.

She ducked her head as they approached, color coming to her cheeks, clear despite the blue tint shading the room. “Hi,” she whispered, looking intently at her drink.

“Hey, Xya,” Conrad said brightly. “Tolly. Kaia, you know Tolly, right?”

“Yeah.” She smiled at the giant. “We have American History class together. And we talked at the last dance.”

“That we did.” Anatoliy nodded solemnly.

“And you have classes with Dysmas, too, right?” Conrad pointed at the decidedly-too-pale friend of Anatoliy’s with the very sharp canines.

“Yes.” She smiled. “It’s a small school. I have classes with approximately three-fourths of the student body.”

He smiled back at her. “Silly me.” Something about the way he said it, though…

She flinched. “I did it again, didn’t I?” He nodded wordlessly, and she sighed, her shoulders slumping. “I try not to. But it’s true.”

“Hey, no worries,” Anatoliy grinned down at her, cutting off any response Conrad might have made. “Do you know Nydia, then?”

The skinny girl had been hidden behind Dysmas, a pretty enough girl with no visible Changes. Kai had seen her around, but only in the halls. She shook her head, smiling ruefully, and tried for a joke.

“No, she would be part of that twenty-five percent lucky enough to not have a class with me.” She offered her hand to the girl. “Hi, I’m Kailani.” Belatedly, she remembered to tack on the rest of the name as she’d been taught it, “sh’Moonchild cy’Regine.”

“Nydia.” The girl’s hand was very cold, but dry, not clammy. “Um… “sh’Ingrid, oro’Dysmas.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Kai answered politely. The formalities finished, she fished around for something to talk about. Asking about being Owned didn’t seem right. “You’re Fifth Cohort, too?”

She nodded. “Yeah. Isn’t it weird to think we’ve only been here for a couple weeks?”

Kai thought about that for a moment before answering. “It does start to seem normal faster than it ought to, doesn’t it?” She nodded, agreeing with herself. “but it’s kind of neat, too, isn’t it?” She caught Conrad’s tail in her hand and held it up to illustrate her point. “All sorts of things you’d never see Out There, that you’d never get to learn about.”

Nydia glanced up at Dysmas, and smiled back at Kai. “It can be pretty neat,” she agreed. “Kind of scary, too, though, don’t you think?”

Kai thought about Rozen grabbing her, slowly choking the air out of her. She thought about the bruises Taro had left on her arms when he was just being enthusiastic. “Yeah,” she said slowly, wondering what had frightened Nydia, “it can be pretty scary, too.”

“But we have our men to protect us,” Nydia added. She wrapped her hands around Dysmas’ bicep and turned her sunny smile on him; he patted her head lightly, like someone might praise a dog.

“Of course you do, sweetie.”

“Ah… yes,” Kai said, determined to be friendly. “I’m sure Conrad would protect me if he had to.”

Conrad turned back from the bar, and Nydia’s eyes got wide as they landed on his collar. “Oh,” she squeaked, “I guess he would, wouldn’t he?”

“Of course I would,” Conrad rescued her, draping an arm around her shoulders. “But I don’t think I’ll have to very often. Kaia’s tough.”

Tough. She smiled at him, wondering if she was finally getting through to him. He didn’t, she was discovering, always say what he meant.

“Tough,” Anatoliy laughed. “I heard about your run-in with Rozen last week. He was impressed.”

“Turned on, you mean,” Dysmas offered, with an unkind-sounding snicker for punctuation. “He thought the squirmy trick you pulled was hot.”

“Oh?” She didn’t think that was a good thing. Was it good to have turned on someone who was threatening to kidnap you?

“He can go on wanting,” Conrad said firmly, pulling her a little closer to his chest.

She should probably have been irritated by his possessiveness. It had irritated her when Taro had gotten like that. But his arms felt protective and safe, wrapped around her, and she liked that comfort.

Dysmas laughed again, just as unpleasantly as before. “He could always take the collar, I guess, if he wanted to get close to her.”

Conrad growled quietly into her hair. She had to agree with him – that was a pretty repulsive idea. “I’d have to consent to that,” she pointed out.

“I’m sure he could be very convincing.”

“Hey! Look, a distraction,” Anatoliy said, in his boom of a voice that carried across the Hall. “What do you think the field trips will be this year?”

Grateful for the rescue, Kai twisted in Conrad’s arms to look at him. “This isn’t going well,” she whispered.

“New things take time to learn,” he coaxed. “Here, I got you a drink.” He grabbed it off the bar behind him and offered it to her; it was pink and frothy and smelled like berries.

She sipped at her drink and looked around them. Anatoliy had moved Dysmas and Nydia off towards a table, his conversation still floating over the music. Xyradia was still sitting on the other side of them, contemplating her empty glass. “We could just stand here and drink.”

“We could,” he agreed, “but I don’t think that would achieve your goals, would it?”

“I don’t know if I want to, if everyone’s going to be a jerk,” she muttered softly, knowing she was being sulky. Mabina wasn’t here to scold her right now, anyway.

“Anatoliy’s not a jerk,” Xyradia said suddenly, leaving Kai with the momentary impression that the girl was channeling Mabina-and-Cassidy somehow. But…

“No, he wasn’t, was he?” she admitted thoughtfully. “He was trying to be nice. It was just Dysmas that was a jerk.”

Conrad nodded encouragingly. “And that’s just his sense of humor. He wasn’t mean to you, was he?”

“I…” She shook her head slowly. “No. Okay,” she sighed, sipping at her drink again, “we can try again.”

She looked over at Xyradia, suddenly feeling very shy. She was older than Kai, after all, a Third Cohort, and rather aloof. “Thank you,” she ventured.

“Mm?” The other girl blinked, color coming to her cheeks. “Oh! You’re welcome?” She didn’t quite meet Kai’s eyes.

“Come on, Kaia,” Conrad tugged lightly on her arm. “Let’s leave Xya to her drink.”

Discuss

Chapter 53c: Kailani
Now I'm going through changes, changes
God I feel so frustrated, lately


She followed Conrad as he tugged her across the dance floor, feeling like a balloon on a string. This was your idea, she reminded herself. That it was mildly terrifying and a little uncomfortable was no reason to back off now.

Conrad brought her over to a small gathering of people from his Cohort, and introduced her around: Nikolai, who spoke evenly around his massive tusks, with a level, formal friendliness that made him seem both safe and more intimidating; Genevieve, beautiful, blond, and elven, and her boyfriend Dawfyyd, who kissed Kai’s hand with a flourish that made her uncomfortable and seemed to make Genevieve equally unhappy; and Nenica, whose tufted ears and tail intrigued Kai almost as much as Nikolai’s jointed horns.

Talking to Dawfyyd seemed to be dangerous to her well-being, and Genevieve was too poised and fashionable-seeming to not be far out of Kai’s social weight class. She turned her attention to Nikolai and Nenica, even as she folded her hands around Conrad’s to keep herself from reaching out and petting either horns or ears.

Nikolai raised one bone-ridge eyebrow at her hands. “You can touch them, you know,” he offered. “I won’t mind.”

Her fingers twitched. She glanced at Conrad, but he was talking animatedly with Genevieve about someone named Coy. She heard him mention Xyradia in passing, and Xaviera, the ophidian girl in her PE class. Perhaps Coy liked names beginning with X?

Well, he’d said it was all right. She untangled one hand from Conrad’s and reached for the horns. Nikolai bent his head forward, and she carefully ran her hand over the exoskeleton-like structures.

“You know what that feels like to him, right?” The voice caught her by surprise, and she jumped back, startled to see Xaviera there when Conrad had just mentioned her name.

“No, I hadn’t asked him yet,” she answered cautiously.

“He wouldn’t have told you anyway,” the snake-girl hissed in glee. “He likes to get new girls to pet them, because they don’t know.”

“Xaviera.” Nikolai glared balefully at the girl, but that just made her laugh all the harder.

“Come on, Nick, it seems only fair to tell the poor girl when you’re getting your rocks off.”

“Getting your…” Kai glanced briefly around at the group. Experience told her that Xaviera was a bully and not to be trusted, but she didn’t know Nikolai at all. He was frowning unhappily, but that didn’t necessarily mean confirmation or denial. Genevieve was hiding her mouth behind her hand, and Dawfyyd was smirking faintly; they were no help, either laughing at her or at Nikolai. Nenica was watching the whole situation with interest, also not helpful.

Conrad rested his chin on the top of her head, making it impossible for her to even guess at his reaction, but still lending his reassuring presence. And Xaviera was still smirking at them all.

“Makes it all seem a little less innocent, doesn’t it?” she sneered. Kai wished for the calm and easy way she’d seen Shahin deal with the bully, but, lacking that, she had her intellectual objectivity.

“Is it true, Nikolai?” She reached out for his horns again, trying not to blush at the thought that Xaviera might be telling the truth. Nikolai, in return, tilted his head towards her hand, like a cat enjoying a good petting. For a moment, she thought he wasn’t going to answer.

“It’s… pleasurable,” he admitted finally. “More pleasant than a handshake. Less so than ah, than things I wouldn’t ask of you.” He flashed a grin at her. “At least not in public, in front of your boyfriend?”

“Is he your boyfriend then?” Nenica interrupted. Kai glanced at her, then back at Conrad, who was watching her with a strangely neutral expression.

Was there a wrong answer here? Xaviera’s smirk had grown into a toothy grin. “Ooh, this is going to be good,” she taunted. Conrad’s hands on Kai’s hips tensed and tightened.

Was he her boyfriend? Weren’t people supposed to talk about these things beforehand? Shouldn’t there be some sort of call-and-response, like a dry run to marriage?

He took your collar and agreed to Belong to you. What else do you want, a diamond ring? The cynical little whisper in her head taunted her quietly. He was her lover. He was her Kept. Discussing dating now was a little redundant.

“Yes,” she said, before Xaviera could say something else mean. Thinking of how ‘Lisha and Vlad sometimes acted, Genevieve and Dawfyyd, Mabina and Cassidy, she twisted in his arms and kissed him very deliberately.

She wasn’t certain, but she thought, when she pulled back, that he looked surprised. Behind her, Xaviera chuckled. “That’s one way to do it, I guess. How’d you get the collar on him, Fifthy?”

“He volunteered,” she answered. She didn’t care too much if she did things “wrong” with this obnoxious bully. “Are there a lot of other ways to get a collar on someone, short of brute force?”

“Trickery,” Nikolai offered, “or seduction.”

Kai smiled sadly. “I don’t think I’d be very good at either of those,” she admitted.

“You seem rather straightforward,” Nenica offered, her ears perked forward in interest.

“Completely,” Conrad answered, “not a devious bone in her body. But she’s learning.” He winked at her, and she wondered what he thought she was learning. To be devious? That seemed a little beyond her.

“I like being direct,” she said, rather than ask about it in front of all these people. She twisted in Conrad’s arms again until she was looking at Nenica and Nikolai again, doing her best to ignore Xaviera, who was now joking with Genevieve and Dawfyyd. “If everyone said what they meant, life would be much easier. It would be a lot easier to gather information. Like your horns,” she added, looking directly at Nikolai.

He looked away for a moment. “They have nerve endings, kind of sensitive ones. So, yeah, it feels nice to have them touched. But, like I said, it’s not dirty or anything.”

“So…” She brushed her hand across the horns again. “Did they hurt, when they grew in? I mean… did they come in all in one go, overnight, or did they grow like they would naturally?”

“They took three weeks. The horns… and everything else.” He gestured at the tusks. “And, yeah, all the nerves growing in to all the new stuff hurt like he… like heck.” He smiled charmingly around the tusks. “I wouldn’t worry, though. Most people don’t get the really intense Changes.”

“I’m not worried.” She shut her mouth on the words a moment too late. “I mean…” she shook her head. “I guess I should have thought about that a little, but there’s been so much to learn.” She bit her lip, glancing uncomfortably at Nikolai. “I guess it’s the scientist in me. I get involved in the questions and I don’t really think about how it will relate directly to me.”

“It’s probably better not to worry, anyway. It’s not like you can really prepare.”

“I’d think more knowledge would help me be prepared,” she argued.

“Only if you could find anything consistent in all of our Changes. I mean, other than ‘it hurts for a while, and then it’s done.’”

“See?” she smiled. “That’s a consistency already.”

“I guess.” He shrugged a little, glancing around with a lost, furtive look Kai had grown to recognize and hate. She sighed, deflated.

“I’m doing it again, aren’t I?”

“What? Oh, no,” he shook his head. “It’s just… well, yeah, probably, if you mean ‘look at the world in a strange way even for people with tusks.’ But that’s okay. I deserved it for not telling you about the horns up front.”

“You’re just saying that to be nice.” She deflated, leaning against Conrad for support. She never felt like she was being strange, until she got The Look yet again.

“So?” He shrugged. “I like being nice. And you’re a nice girl.”

“A very nice girl,” Conrad agreed. “Nick, Nenica, good to see you.” He bowed over Nenica’s hand with a flourish that seemed more Vlad than him; Nenica watched Kai over his shoulder rather than watching him, which somehow made it a little bit better.

He turned back to Kai, who was both relieved he’d rescued her and annoyed that he’d shut her up, and executed another bow. This one, she noted, was deeper than the bow he’d given the cat-girl. “My lady.” His expression, solemn and unsmiling, somehow managed to suggest a grin anyway. “I like this song. Would you grace me with a dance?”

“I… Yes.” She took his hand again, smiling. He was so sweet sometimes. “I think I’d like that a lot.”

His arms were warm and strong around her waist and shoulders, without any of the bruising clinginess Taro had been fond of. His smile was sweet and intense, and somehow, it didn’t matter that she didn’t know how to dance; in his arms, everything flowed smoothly.

“So we’re dating now?” The song was winding to a close; it seemed safe to talk now.

“That’s what you said.” He relented as she wrinkled her nose at him. “But is it what you want?”

Even his tail was still as he waited for her answer. She looked at him, wondering if she was reading his body language remotely correctly. He was so much nicer to her than anyone had ever been, and so much more honest. And she liked spending time with him, liked making him smile, liked it when he touched her.

“Is this what love feels like?” she whispered softly. It was overwhelming, like her senses were no longer trustworthy, like her heart wasn’t beating properly. She felt light-headed and woozy, and sudden stabbing pains were assaulting her in both temples.

“I…” Conrad frowned. “It may be, Kaia, but I think we should get you to Dr. Caitrin anyway. You’re awfully pale.” Before she could argue the point, he swept her up into his arms.

“Um…” The watery scenery was spinning unhealthily. She thought about telling him to put her down, but he seemed to know what he was doing, while she was utterly uncertain.

“Hold on, Kaia,” he urged. “Just a little further.”

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