August 17, 2015 by Lyn
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.