Flying, Arundel was learning, was hard work, and exhausting. Even though Mr. Hawk told him that it wasn’t all in the muscles – “If you were doing this all with physical strength, you’d never get off the ground. Your flight is as much a part of your magic as, well, whatever you innate power is going to be,” – there was certainly a lot of something going on with his body, moving these new, strange, massive wings, keeping himself going.
And, of course, there was the falling. He wasn’t, he discovered, frightened of falling, but it hurt, and he liked to avoid the pain, not in the least because it made Sylvia tut-tut at him, which made him wriggle in uncomfortable ways and made Porter glower and sulk.
He wanted to ask his friend about that, but they didn’t seem to have a lot of time to talk. There was class – they had a couple in common, but there were always other people around. Then there were magic classes, and then sessions with their Mentors, and then they were in the suite that Sylvia had finagled for them, despite the objections of the Director’s secretary, who seemed to think that Arundel and the otter girl ought to be sharing a room.
He wasn’t entirely stupid. He’d seen other kids in their class Kept, just like Porter had. He’d seen the collars before Sylvia had put one on him, and he had some idea of how those relationships went, or at least how some of them went, controlling, uber-power-dichotomy sort of things that were still a lot like high school dating. But he wasn’t, as far as he could tell, dating Sylvia, and he wasn’t entirely certain why not.
Luke had said he could come to him with anything. Arundel wasn’t sure that this was the sort of thing he meant – the PE teacher seemed like the “how do I break the bully’s nose” or “how do I not fail math” sort of guy, but “anything” meant anything, and, besides, he wasn’t sure who else to ask. So, at the end of a long, exhausting flying session, stretching his shoulders and wings on the ground, Arundul cleared his throat and, very nervously, asked.
“Sir… this ‘Kept’ thing?”
Luke got an uncomfortable, gassy expression. “What about it?”
“It’s real? I mean… of course it’s real.” He could feel the effects. “But it’s okay?”
“Okay is relative,” Luke grunted. “But it’s allowed by school rules, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“This school is a little messed up, sir. Sorry…. but it is.”
“I’m not arguing.”
It looked like Luke would have been comfortable leaving the conversation there, and Arundel really couldn’t blame him for that. But he still had questions, and he had to start somewhere.
“That’s part of larger Ellehemaei society. Not required, but common. Tells other people ‘hands off.'”
“Okay, I can get that. But, um.” He pulled some grass unhappily. “Everyone else I see wearing a collar, they’re all, cuddled up to their… their owner?”
“To their Keeper. And a couple even say ‘my boyfriend’ or ‘my girlfriend,’ like they’re dating. And Sylvia…”
“Well, Sylvia’s always been a bit…” Luke paused, frowning. “Reserved. Ask her about it?”
Arundel blanched. “No, thank you!” He wasn’t scared of Sylvia. But she didn’t like questions a whole lot, and she didn’t like personal questions at all.
“Hunh, like that, is it?” Luke shook his head. “Do those stretches I showed you. I’ll think on it a little bit. But as to what you’re asking – it’s not always ‘dating,’ whatever that means this decade. It doesn’t have to be sexual.”
“Ack.” The grass was very, very fascinating. “Ack,” he muttered again. “Okay. Um. Sorry I asked?”
Luke stood up. “Stretch. Worry about Sylvia on her time. And on my time, we’re going to go through those flight positions.”
Worry about Sylvia on her time. It seemed like reasonable advice, and also seemed less likely to get him assigned more push-ups for making his Mentor uncomfortable. Arundel waited until he was back in their suite, showered, dried, and patiently drying his wings before he went back to worrying about Sylvia, under the theory that time that wasn’t for classes or Luke belonged, for good or ill, to his Keeper.
He was still chewing it over when Sylvia walked into his room – she did that, without knocking, and he really couldn’t figure out how to complain – and started drying his wings for him. The touch felt, as her touch always did, nicer than it ought to, nicer than anything. “Sylvia,” he started cautiously. Half the time when he started talking, she just shushed him.
This time, she just said, in her so-very-mild neutral voice that left him a little anchorless, “Arundel?”
“Isn’t Keeping generally… I mean, doesn’t it usually sort of act like dating?”
“It often does,” she agreed, her neutral getting a little colder.
“But you and me…?” Why did Hayley think I’d need a shrink?
“You and I are not dating,” she answered, setting the towel down. “I would not force dating on you.”
He turned to look at her, folding his wings in. He was beginning to learn how to not hit people or low-lying objects or walls or irate professors with them, but only recently. He really, really didn’t want to hit her with his wings. Certainly not now.
“You wouldn’t… force… dating on me?” he repeated, carefully, to make sure he had heard her right. “You think it would be force?”
“I Own you,” she answered, stepping backwards a half-step. “I could tell you we were dating, and we would be. I could tell you to take your clothes off, and you would.”
He sat down on the bed with a thump. “Sylvia, you’re a pretty girl who’s been nice to me since you met me. You could tell me to take my clothes off without this Keeping thing, and I would.”
“But the Bond takes away your choice,” she explained, a little plaintively.
He shook his head, more than a little disbelieving. “Well… so does not asking me, wouldn’t you say?”
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