Tuesday, September 19, 2000
The clothing, Leofric had to admit, didn’t look bad. It wasn’t very comfortable, though: the long sleeves and cuffs, the shirt collar, the way he kept catching his backpack on the buttons down the front, the stiff new shoes. And the collar, of course. The clothes were just dress clothes, nothing too weird, but the collar was a different story.
He resisted the urge to fidget with it again; Eriko didn’t like fidgeting, so he was trying to avoid building a habit. But the leather sat snug up against his neck, reminding him it was there every time he moved. Every time he breathed.
It wasn’t unpleasant, but it was distracting. Even more than the clothes. Even more than the handsome Professor Vanderlinden, and that was saying something.
As literature class ended, he leaned back with a sigh and stretched.
“Sure yer all right, Leo?” Howard looked over and scowled at Leofric’s collar as though it had personally offended him.
“Yeah, I’m sure, I told you.” He smiled at his friend, trying to reassure him. “I agreed. It’s not like she backed me up against a wall and held a knife to my throat or something.”
“Did you know,” Zita broke in with a matter-of-fact cheerfulness, “that’s not against the rules? She could threaten to stab you and not even get detention.”
“S’that what happened t’you?” Howard turned his scowl to Zita’s collar instead; hers was blue leather, like Leofric’s, but with a cute little bow on it.
“Me?” Zita flicked the bow thoughtfully with a finger. “That’s not how I got this, no.”
“Now that’d be telling.” She smiled, but there was an edge to it.
There was something different about how Zita was acting. She’d seemed off yesterday, too. Leofric looked at her hard, thinking about his own orders from Eriko and what he could or couldn’t say. If something really was wrong, like Howard kept worrying about, could she even say anything about it? Was talking about… no, there’s no way her Keeper had stabbed her into getting Kept. Threatening might be allowed, but they couldn’t possibly be okay with students actually stabbing each other?
Maybe he should ask Luke. That’s what having a Mentor was for, right?
“You know what, I think I’ll—” Before he could finish his sentence, Leofric spotted Eriko in the hall outside. There was the unfamiliar, happy thrill he got every time he saw her now; he found himself grinning before he’d even realized it. But he didn’t want to keep her waiting — she’d gotten upset yesterday, when she’d had to actually come into the room to get him, and he really hated making her upset — so he hastily shoved his books into his backpack and stood. “I’ll see you guys later.”
“Yeah, you go on. Not like you get t’make yer own decisions anymore,” Howard grumbled.
“Tomorrow,” Zita agreed, tucking her own books away less hurriedly.
Leofric was halfway to the door by the time Eriko reached it — not good enough, it seemed, as she returned his smile with a frown. “I thought you said you would be ready to leave when I arrived?”
“I am. See?” He forced himself to smile brightly, despite the sudden drop in his stomach as the pleasure at seeing her evaporated into an uncomfortable guilt.
“At the door, Leofric,” she chided, taking the arm he offered to her. “Meeting me at the door can’t possibly be that much trouble.”
She was right, of course; he’d just let himself get distracted. “Sorry. I’ll do better next time…”
“Of course you will.” She patted his hand affectionately. “Now then, I think I’ll have soup for lunch, and you’ll have a ham and cheese sandwich.”
“Um, I was going t—”
“Don’t argue with me, Leofric. Good Kept don’t argue, and you want to be a good Kept, don’t you?”
“I— yeah, of course.” He was in the mood for a burger, really, but… well, he didn’t dislike ham and cheese, it wasn’t that big a deal. It was the Keeper’s job to make decisions and all that.
Howard’s earlier parting words ran through Leofric’s mind. He hadn’t expected all of this to be so literal, but it was basically what he’d signed up for. Wasn’t it? A knight-protector sort was usually a vassal to somebody; he could pretend she was a princess. An eccentric princess who had particular views on what her knight should wear and eat?
Even Leofric realized that was stretching the analogy pretty damn thin.
He got his sandwich — and fries, Eriko hadn’t specified and she’d already continued down the food bar when the cafeteria lady asked — and trailed after her to the table. The pretty redhead was sitting next to Dysmas again; she seemed to like him, though Leofric couldn’t figure out why. Dysmas was kind of a jerk, from what Leofric had seen so far. Maybe she liked guys who were kind of a jerk? That was a thing, wasn’t it?
Eriko gave his plate a disapproving look as he set his tray down, jolting him from his thoughts. “Really?”
Leofric ducked his head in apology; it was the french fries, wasn’t it. “You didn’t say what else I should get,” he muttered quietly, trying not to draw the attention of the rest of the table. Eriko’s crew, plus the redhead.
“I shouldn’t have needed to.” She tutted and shook her head. “Aviv, would you like some french fries? We seem to have gotten some by mistake.”
So much for not drawing the attention of the rest of the table. Leofric had never before in his life wished to not be noticed, but, first time for everything?
Aviv shrugged. “If you’re not going to eat them…”
Eriko pushed his tray over to Aviv. “Of course he isn’t. He’ll have some of my salad instead, I’ll just be a bit hungry this afternoon.”
Leofric opened his mouth to protest, but no words came out. Don’t argue with me, she’d said. But he couldn’t let her go hungry, just because he’d made a mistake!
“Just the sandwich is enough for me,” he tried instead. “I can get salad with dinner? I don’t want you to go hungry.”
“Hmm.” Eriko looked at him critically for a moment, then smiled, her whole expression brightening. “That’s very thoughtful of you, Leofric. I’m glad to see you are thinking, for once.”
“…Thank you,” he mumbled, staring at the table and trying to ignore the flurry of conflicting emotions that gave him.
“Of course.” She leaned over and kissed his cheek. “Here’s your sandwich.”
Leofric took the sandwich back and smiled at his Keeper, feeling pleased that he’d cheered her up again. He’d get the hang of this after a few more days, he was sure, and then everything’d be great.