September 4, 2015 by Lyn
“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.”