Friday, September 15, 2000
Arnbjörg wasn’t sure how she’d ended up walking back to her room with Jaya. She’d managed to evade four of the creeps and two too-friendly sorts, but then there was the cute horned girl walking along next to her, tail bobbing along under that schoolgirl skirt.
“I was bummed when you didn’t show up to the dance Saturday.” She grinned, a shy thing with a little head tilt. “I was gonna ask you for a dance or two.”
Was she serious? She looked serious, smiling but not joking. Arnbjörg tried a smile back. “I’m not big into the whole meat market thing.”
And the smile turned into a giant grin. “You sound like my friend Kailani.”
“Kailani? Smart redhead with the hippy skirts?” She only had one class, World History, with the girl, but she’d made a bit of an impression. She seemed so into the class, leaning forward and asking questions and taking notes and arguing with Professor Valerian. “I could be compared with worse people.”
“Yeah, she’s really nice. Very… very enthusiastic about everything.” Jaya tilted her head. “I’m glad you like her.”
“Yeah? Why’s that?”
“Oh, it’s just—”
“Hello, Ladies.” She didn’t recognize the guy who walked up beside her, but Arnbjörg certainly knew the type. He had a head of spiky, orange-red-yellow hair that looked cartoony and unreal, a sallow complexion that looked a little ill, and a cheesy smile to match his cheesy entryway. “You, I know. Ma’am. Come by my place anytime.” He sketched out something like a bow in Jaya’s direction. “But you, miss, you are new.”
“And mine.” Jaya took a step forward. “Back off, Uberto.”
Mine? What the fuck?
“Is that true, vision of loveliness? Are you already taken?”
“Not by you, you Neanderthal cretin.” Arnbjörg glared at him and at the back of Jaya’s head. “You’re not my type. I prefer my partners sentient.”
“Ooh, she talks big. Good luck with that, Jaya.” Spikey boy laughed as he brushed past them. “You’re gonna have your hands full… if she really is yours.”
Jaya had been nice so far, if a little pushy, so Arnbjörg gave her the courtesy of waiting until Uberto was out of sight before she started in. “What the everliving fuck was that? ‘Yours?’ This isn’t prison, I’m not your bitch, and I don’t need anyone to stand up for me!”
Jaya held up both her hands. “Woah, woah. I’m sorry. I knew it was going to come across like that, but Uberto’s bigger than I can take in a fight, and his friends are even bigger. I didn’t want him messing with you, and, well, uh. If they think you’re ‘mine’—”
“Like, your bitch?”
“Like, my girlfriend.” She shrugged apologetically. “Lots of people talk about this place like it’s a prison, actually. We’re stuck in here, there are stronger people and weaker people, and they don’t really monitor… bullies, that sort of thing. But it doesn’t have to be a prison.”
Despite herself, Arnbjörg found herself relaxing. “We’re still stuck in here. No exits, no outside lines, barely any contact with the outside world at all.” She set her jaw and did her best to stay mad, but she could feel the anger draining away. “We are prisoners, at least until the holidays.” And then her parents would probably make her come back. Again. Maybe she could run away.
“That’s true.” Jaya shrugged awkwardly. “I mean, I remember. The first few weeks, it can feel like a cage getting smaller and smaller. But I don’t have to be a jailkeeper, not if I don’t want. So I can say ‘mine,’ you know, and mean ‘girlfriend.’ That is, you don’t have to be my girlfriend, but if you want to, you can tell the creeps you are. That way they back off, hopefully, and you can take your own time about deciding if you want a girlfriend and stuff.” She peeked through her lashes at Arnbjörg, looking guilty and adorably huggable. “Sorry I did it without asking.”
Arnbjörg couldn’t stay mad. She brushed off the apology with a hand wave. “I notice you don’t say ‘boyfriend’.”
“Well, you can have a boyfriend if you want one, too.” She smiled brightly. “I had one last year. But I noticed you were more comfortable around Sheba and Mags and I than you were around, say, Rand and Ambrose and Phelen.”
“Your friend said that too. Magnolia.” You don’t seem to enjoy the male species that much. “Nobody in my old school noticed.” Until she’d been forcibly outed. She’d thought this place would be better… ha!
“We’re a little more… aware here?” Jaya offered.
“Comes with the horns and the tails?”
“Yeah.” Jaya ducked her head and hunched up her shoulders. “It does. For some more than others, I mean, we still have cretins and all…”
“Isn’t this pretty?” Rand, with that way he seemed to have of showing up at exactly the wrong moment, walked up to them, grinning, his arms spread as if to pull them both in towards him. “And all for me.”
If she punched him, would she get suspended? Expelled? Arnbjörg shifted her weight and clenched her fists, ready to find out. He wasn’t that big. Jaya was just being insecure. Anyone fell down if you hit them fast enough, hard enough, and I the right spots.
Jaya took a step forward, getting between Arnbjörg and Rand. “She’s with me. Go bother someone else.”
Rand was undeterred. “So?” he sneered. “You can both come back to my place. I’m sure Ty taught you how to—”
“Maybe I didn’t make myself clear. Arnbjörg is mine, and we’re not interesting in playing with you. Go bother someone else.”
“I’m so scared.” Rand grabbed Jaya’s arm. “You think I can’t take you, little Daeva?”
“I think you can probably take me.” She didn’t try to get her arm away from him. Arnbjörg took another step forward. “But there’s my crew, right, to think about? Mags is in her fifth year. Nobody wants to get in a fight with Sheba or Phelen. Niki might be a bit fluffy-looking but, man, he’s still Fourth Cohort, and I wouldn’t want to mess with him.”
“That’s because you’re a pussy.” Rand sneered out the insult, but he clearly wasn’t into it. His grip on Jaya’s arm had already loosened and he was stepping backwards already. “They really going to back you up? I mean, you were just Ty’s toy.”
“Now we’re crew.” Jaya grinned crookedly and took her arm out of Rand’s grip. His hand fell to his side.
“You’re crew, hunh? And this one, she’s yours?” Damn, he hadn’t forgotten about Arnbjörg. He looked at her, all greed and slime and ick. “Will they get all up in arms about a little sixthie, too?”
Arnbjörg was five foot nine. She wasn’t exactly little anything. And she could take care of herself.
“Yeah, she’s mine.” Jaya caught Arnbjörg’s hand in hers and brushed her thumb over the knuckles. “Right, Arna?”
Arna. The name felt good. The touch felt surprisingly good. And if it would keep creeps like Rand off her back, she could handle having a pretend girlfriend for a while. “Yeah.” She found herself smiling like a goof. “Yeah, I’m hers.”