August 19, 2015 by Lyn
Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf
We ain’t afraid y’all,we aint afraid (who’s afraid of him)
The air had a lot to say. That surprised Kai; while she’d always enjoyed the wind, she’d never thought about how much information it could carry.
The answer, it seemed, was “more than she could yet process.” It made her very reluctant to go back into the building, more so than the feel of the sun on her skin and the ground under her feet (Professor Valerian hadn’t even blinked when she’d kicked off her shoes, although Kylie had looked a little askance). There was a whole world of information that she was just now learning of.
The air inside the school was less informative. It was filtered, fan-driven, cooled and dehumidified and processed until it was nearly inert. It carried information about the students – that one coming near her, Rozen, the tall black-skinned demon, was warmer than the surrounding air, more so than a normal human would be. The skinny boy with green hair – he was, she was pretty sure, the one with a forked tongue – was, on the other hand, almost exactly the same temperature as the air.
Interesting. Not as good as a thermometer, but a lot less invasive. People here would probably not thank her for walking up to them with a thermometer or a thermal scanner… but no-one noticed or minded the wind.
The wind which, at this moment, was informing her that the warm spot that was Rozen was getting closer to her, just barely two feet behind her.
“Enjoying your new Workings?” he murmured softly, his breath hot against the top of her head.
“Yes,” she answered, cautiously. She sped up a little bit, and he sped up to match her, with no apparent effort.
“Relax.” He sounded amused. “On Hell Night, it’s my job to be a monster, but Hell Night is over.”
Far from making her relax, his words sent sinking dread into her stomach.
“You mean it was all a set-up?” Taro had just been trying to Own her – well, she’d already known that.
“Not exactly.” He laughed unpleasantly. “A job has its wages, right, and every troll gets their toll. Sometimes some newbie doesn’t play by the rules, and then I get someone to play with for a while. Sometimes, a wanna-be Keeper can’t man up enough to stand up to me… and then I get to hold on to his toy. Or hers,” he added, with a little rumble, “although that’s not as fun.”
She stopped, since she wasn’t getting away from him. They were in a well-lit hall, anyway, not that far from the Dining Hall; she ought to be safe enough here.
He didn’t look as if he was trying to be menacing, as far as she could tell, even if her stomach was twisting up a little, remembering the way he’d grabbed her, choking her, just a couple days ago.
“But not this year?” she asked, curious despite herself.
“Not this year,” he agreed, frowning. “This year, I got nothing.”
“So… then what?” He seemed like the dragon in some children’s book, looking dangerous at first but later turning out to be lonely, pitiable, and harmless – but she remembered his voice hissing in her ear, “I think I’m going to enjoy keeping you. Breaking you.”
He shrugged. “I can last a year. I already have my graduation requirements, everything but this year of classes, and then I’m out into the world, and they can find a new Big Bad Wolf. There’s plenty of Third and Fourth Cohorts who like the role.”
“They like being the bad guy?” Well, it was just like being a bully, right? People had to like being bullies for some reason.
He grinned at her. “Like I said, the job comes with benefits. And for people who can’t get, or don’t think they can get, a girl any other way…”
“Is it just guys, then?” She thought about Acacia and her cronies, the slick, sharp bullies who had harassed her on her first day here.
“What, wanting to be the boogeyman? I don’t think the Thorne Girls care enough, and they’re really the only ones strong enough to pull it off.”
She had more questions – who were the Thorne Girls, what were the graduation requirements he’d mentioned so casually, how real were his threats, if he was willing to chat casually with her just a couple days later – but Conrad was coming towards them, scowling.
“Rozen,” he said, but he made it sound like an insult.
“Conrad,” Rozen said easily. He was still standing very close to Kailani, and there was something animal about the way he moved a little closer still and ostentatiously looked Conrad up and down. “So it’s true.” He chuckled unkindly. “How’s that working out for you?”
“Get away from her,” Conrad said – growled, really. Kai frowned, and just in time chocked back a direct order that would have left Conrad with that leash-tugged look on his face again. She sorted through her options, and finally settled on, as gently as she could, “Conrad, it’s okay.” That couldn’t be construed as an order, could it?
He frowned at her. “Aren’t you scared?” he asked her, the growl still in his voice, reminding her fiercely of the bruises she still bore from Taro’s temper.
“Well, yes,” she said simply, trying to stay calm. Maybe if she stayed calm and matter-of-fact enough, he’d calm down. “He threatened to kidnap and torture me. He choked me until I was nearly unconscious. I still have the bruises.” She touched her neck lightly, pointing them out.
He made a soft, pained noise in the back of his throat. “I know, Kaia. I was there. But Hell Night is over, and he shouldn’t be bothering you now.”
She swallowed a sharp retort. “He’s not bothering me, Conrad. He’s just talking to me about what happened. About Hell Night,” she clarified, not wanting him to think she was talking about Owning him – and how had Rozen found out, anyway?
“Taunting you, you mean,” Conrad grumbled.
“I’m okay,” she insisted. He was being silly again – how did she make him stop? She took his left hand in both of hers, hoping the physical contact would calm him down. “Thinking about it doesn’t bother me. I want to know everything I can about the traditions of this place.”
The contact seemed to be helping. He took it as an invitation to move closer to her, until her arm was around his waist, his arm bent backwards to keep holding her hand, his hip bumping against hers, but his snarling had stopped, and he was looking more like the Conrad she knew. “I know. I’m sorry,” he added contritely. “I know you can take care of yourself.”
She nodded. “It’s okay,” she told him. “Just, please don’t…” she shook her head, cutting herself off. “I mean, I don’t like it when you snarl so much. You-” she cut herself short again, and just leaned against him.
“You should go talk to the Thorne girls,” Rozen suggested, smirking at the two of them, causing Conrad to swallow another snarl.
That was the second time he’d mentioned them. It would probably be wise to walk away now, but curiosity was getting the best of her.
“Who are the Thorne girls, and why should I go talk to them?”
“Acacia, Allyse and Sima. They can probably offer better advice on your situation than Mabina can, considering they’ve been in it.” At her expression, he laughed softly. “Yeah, they snarl big. But like any big predator, you just have to follow the rules, and you’re fine.”
He shook his head. “Just be polite. Your bodyguard is getting antsy – we’ll talk again later.”
He turned on his heel and was gone before she could voice another question. She turned to Conrad – this whole arrangement was supposed to be about him answering her questions anyway, wasn’t it?
“The rules?” she repeated. He hesitated. “Tell me,” she insisted, aggravated, stepping away from him a half-step so that she could better glare at him. Even now, he was trying to keep things from her.
“Everything has a cost,” he said slowly, as if the words we being dragged from him. “Crew might do things for free for each other – ours will; we’re all friends. But outside of a crew, very few people do anything without a price.”
It seemed mercenary, but it made sense, too. But Conrad wasn’t done yet, either.
“If you want to go talk to them, Kaia, the worst thing you can do is go in not knowing what you have to offer in return, what it’s worth to you. If you can, don’t ever agree to the whole ‘I’ll do you a favor now, you do me a favor later’ deals, okay? You can get into some deep trouble that way.”
She nodded, noting how nervous he seemed about the whole thing. “I’ll be careful,” she reassured him.
He didn’t seem very reassured. “What can I offer them?” she asked. That seemed to make things even worse.
He didn’t say anything for a minute, just looked down at her with a wide, intent look in his eyes. She wasn’t going to make him talk again. She’s figure out something on her own…
“Sima – Massima – has always wanted a chance at me,” he said softly, “and I think she was pretty irked I managed to slip out of her grasp last year, when I was new. If you offered her a night with me…”
It took her a moment to figure out what he was talking about, and when she did, she was horrified. “What?” she said, her voice coming out louder and more shrill than she’d intended. “No! I am notpimping you out just to satisfy my curiosity!”
Only as she shouted the last did she realize they were standing in the middle of the rather full hallway.
“That’s a pity,” purred a petite Mediterranean girl passing by. She looked as if she’d just come out of the bedroom, wearing a men’s button-down too big for her and turquoise pants too small for her, with waves and waves of chestnut hair that looked artless; Kai squashed a brief, unaccustomed moment of jealousy. “I could have satisfied more than your curiosity for a couple hours with that fine piece of meat.”
Kai blushed furiously. “He’s not for rent,” she replied, trying to stay cool, the jealousy no longer brief or squash-able.
“For sale, then? I’ll buy him outright from you. I’m sure I can come up with something you want enough.”
She wasn’t sure if she should be relieved that Conrad was blushing as badly as she was, or more embarrassed because her outburst had caused him discomfort. She settled for both.
“No, not for sale, either,” she told the girl. “Goodbye.” She still had Conrad’s hand, so she tugged him with her as she fled into the Dining Hall.