Chapter 106: Shahin
Ask myself this question
What do I do with you
Tell me what do I do with us
Shahin stared at a pile of gloves, beset by a moral crisis. She lifted, gingerly, the silk mitts she’d knitted, wondering if they would be soft enough to bear against her skin today. They were the prettiest pair she owned.
She frowned at the gloves, wishing life were as simple as it had been when she’d first started dressing this way. Now everything was getting confusing, and she wasn’t sure she stood on the right side of the line, or even where the line was.
She didn’t know what to do with Xaviera. She slipped on the gloves – they scratched, but bearably so – and glared at her shoes. She tried ignoring the girl, not wanting to get her caught up in their life any more than absolutely necessary, but it seemed to just be making her miserable. Xaviera tried to hide it, but Shahin was good at reading subtle cues, and not all of the ophidian blonde’s cues were subtle. The expression on her face as they’d settled her into Shahin’s room had been uncomfortably close to one Callista often wore.
“Let’s pick up Xaviera on the way to breakfast,” she suggested abruptly, as she slipped on her least-uncomfortable-while-still-being-pretty pair of shoes.
“For breakfast?” Emrys replied with a puzzled expression. “You mean, invite her to eat with us?”
“Yeah.” She watched him sidelong. “If you don’t think Ayla or Vi would devour her?”
“Hardly,” he snorted. “But sure, if you want. What’s the plan?”
Emrys chuckled, shaking his head. “I kind of assumed this was part of whatever intricate scheme you’re weaving now.”
She rolled her eyes at him affectionately. “You vary between giving me far too little and far too much credit.”
“Well, we’re... whatever it is we are now, yes? Bound. We can’t pretend that didn’t change things. I can feel it.”
“So can I,” she admitted. “Like a second heartbeat.”
“So, I think maybe you deserve a little more credit.”
She studied him for a couple heartbeats, and then smiled, slowly, and gave him a quick, spontaneous hug. “I don’t have a clue what I’m doing with Xaviera,” she admitted, barely over a whisper.
“Ah, hell,” he said, even as he hugged her back. “Okay, then. We’ll run with it and see what we can do.”
“Story of my life. If you can’t make it, fake it.”
“Let’s get out there and fake it, then,” he grinned. Smiling in return, she took his hand, and walked with him to her old room.
Xaviera seemed surprised to see them as she opened the door. “Yes?”
It was hard to hold the smile in the face of their… prisoner? Kept, at least. She managed, with some effort, to keep smiling, and to sound casual. “Come have breakfast with us.”
The snake-girl nodded mutely and fell in, following them to the dining hall. Shahin watched her as they walked, wondering what she was thinking. She could, she supposed, just ask. “Tell me, what are you thinking?”
“Wondering what’s different today, what you’re going to do to me,” Xaviera was forced to admit.
“You’re really waiting for the other shoe to drop, aren’t you?” Shahin didn’t bother to hide a bit of sympathy in her voice, even as her mind drifted to Callista, crouched at the foot of the bed; to poor Bowen, Kendra, and Shera. Was the abuse all that common? Even with all of Kai and Jaya’s talking, she’d never gotten the impression that it was pervasive.
“You don’t strike me as the sort to change a routine out of whim.”
“You do have a point,” she allowed.
Xaviera let that non-answer slide, and Shahin got the impression she didn’t want to push her luck. Shahin eyed the taller girl curiously. “How bad is it, being Kept, for other people?” she asked quietly.
“It varies from person to person. On both sides, I think.”
It was a non-answer, but not an uninformative one; Shahin nodded, accepting it. “How does a Kept make it worse for themselves?”
At that, Xaviera balked, but Emrys answered for her. “Trying to disobey.”
Shahin winced, remembering. “Agatha said I was defective.” So had Caspian… broken little mutt. She slid her hands inside her gloves, feeling the ice-shard tattoos there.
“You have... an uncanny ability,” Emrys corrected her, with the tiniest flicker of his eyes in Xaviera’s direction. Last week the surreptitious movement would have gone unnoticed; now, she realized that he was warning her not to share that with their Kept.
“You have a way with words,” she admitted vaguely, and looked over the Kept in question thoughtfully. She didn’t look all that frightening now, even though… she touched her ribs where Xaviera had broken them last week. She’d certainly gotten them into a mess, hasn’t she? She directed Xaviera to the table where Ayla and Vi were sitting, pondering their predicament.
Ayla looked up, frowning at the bully; Vi’s expression nearly matched hers. “You have the oddest taste in friends these days, Shahin,” he complained dryly.
“I’m not her friend,” Xaviera said quietly as she sat.
“Well, that’s nice,” Ayla complained.
Shahin intervened. “She’s really not. She’s, ah, our Kept.”
“Your what? Sheen, why?” Her friends looked horrified, and Shahin couldn’t really blame them. Of course, if she explained the why, they’d probably be more horrified.
“It’s not going to be a permanent thing,” Emrys said, but he was always better at ruffling feathers than soothing them. Yngvi glowered, looking like he was getting up a good head of steam for a rant of righteous indignation; Shahin cut him off quickly.
“This is the result of our challenge last Friday,” she explained.
“You won a person?” Ayla demanded
A little defensive, Shahin answered without real thought. “You don’t want to know what she’d have done if she won. And she did break a couple of my ribs, including one dangerously close to Junior.”
“So you’re just... keeping her?” Yngvi asked, aghast.
Shahin frowned. She could just tell them, but it would pressure Ayla unnecessarily. “For a little while, yes.”
They seemed barely more thrilled by the idea than Xaviera herself, but they didn’t press the point. Relieved, Sheen changed the topic to other things – the cy’ree challenge, some passing gossip – and tried, as much as she could, to include Xaviera in the conversation.
Xaviera didn’t seem too keen on being included, but that was all right, since no one else at the table was making much of an effort to. Breakfast passed with a certain stilted quality, their interactions tainted by the shadow of the Kept girl’s unaccustomed presence.
Shahin wasn’t sure what she’d had in mind, bringing the girl to breakfast with her. She was, she supposed, a part of her life now, of their life now, but it wasn’t as if anyone wanted her to be.
She wondered about that, with the way the bond seemed to push at one. What must it be like, to have a Keeper you loathed, who was none too fond of you in return? She’d fought against the feelings being Owned imposed on her, and she’d walked into it willingly, liking, nearly loving, her owned before he’d collared her. And he’d known what he was doing.
She didn’t know what she was doing. That was the worst of it. Fake it until you make it was great, but she had responsibility for someone else now, and she was no longer just standing alone in the world; even without Xaviera, there was Emrys and their new bond, and their son.
The thoughts followed her to class, and merged with Kaia and Jaya’s commentary on badly-treated Kept. She watched Callista sidelong in English Lit, and, when Professor VanderLinden had them pair up to dissect a poem, she took the opportunity to work with the girl.
Callista was certainly bright enough; Shahin knew that already, from their cy’ree discussions. She seemed lackluster this morning though - a lot of mornings, come to think of it - and had to be coaxed to make much of a contribution.
“Not feeling well?” she asked gently, the third time she had to cajole the girl into an answer. Mornings, she knew from recent experience, could easily be the worst part of the day.
“I’m fine,” Callista replied softly, putting on a smile that it didn’t take Shahin’s insight to see for fake.
“Okay.” She didn’t think the girl wanted her to pry, so she pretended to believe the lie and kept dissecting Yeats.
She chewed over it all morning, paying half-hearted attention to her classes: Callista wasn’t acting all that differently from Xaviera; they both had the same kicked-dog look in their eyes, the same tension in their shoulders.
She studied the other Kept in her classes. Pretty Nikita, in Japanese, seemed happy, despite a thick leather collar he hadn’t been wearing at the beginning of the year. Prettier-still Joff, in the Asian History class she shared with Emrys, seemed full of domestic bliss, and the kiss he shared with his shaggy Keeper as they left class was nearly pornographic and certainly happy. But Finnegan, in Trig... no-one was quite sure what was up with him, and his body language didn’t suggest that he was altogether happy. He fussed nervously with his collar, reminding Shahin that she had yet to put a collar on Xaviera.
She couldn’t afford to keep forgetting stuff like that, to keep bungling through. She’d really only made it through owning Emrys without any major failures because of… her mind shied away from it, even while admitting that she’d been doing a pretty lousy job of being his owner right up until the point where he’d had to ride to her rescue. But being entirely responsible for another human being… another person, at least… was something she had no experience in. She barely had experience in having friends.
Professor Solomon inadvertently provided the answer near the end of class. “If you’re having trouble with a problem, you can always ask for help. That’s what we’re here for.”
Ask for help. Kaia had gone through this, learning how to Keep Conrad. She could ask her.
Copyright © 2009-2011 Lyn Thorne-Alder with Elasmo. All rights reserved.
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