September 4, 2015 by Lyn
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.
“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?”
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.”