I never hit the floor. Someone caught me and the next thing I knew I was being slung over a broad shoulder and carried like a sack of grain out of the fresher and down the hallway.
“Hey, put me down!” I beat weakly on North’s broad back even though the motion made me feel like I was going to be sick.
“Take it easy, pipsqueak. We’re almost to the room.” His deep voice rumbled through me as he talked.
I wanted to protest some more but the world started spinning again at that point. I closed my eyes and went limp on his shoulder. There didn’t seem to be anything else I could do.
When we got back to the room he put me down on my bed with surprising gentleness and left. I was just wondering where he had gone when he came back and put something cold and wet on my stinging cheek. I moaned and tried to push it off but he brushed my hand away.
“Hold still, you’re a mess.” He pushed a straw to my lips. “Here, drink this.”
I didn’t want anything to drink but I took a small sip to appease him. Something cold and sweet and fizzy ran down my throat, making me cough and gasp. The straw was abruptly withdrawn.
“It’s just a carbo drink. Can’t you manage anything?” My new roommate sounded impatient.
I coughed again. “I…I’ve only had it once before. I wasn’t expecting the…the bubbles.” My voice sounded hoarse and uncertain, even in my own ears.
“Take another sip now that you know what it is. You need a little sugar in your system.” He pressed the straw to my lips again and this time I was able to drink without coughing.
To my surprise, he was right—the sugary sweetness of the fizzing drink did make me start to feel better almost at once. My cheek was still aching but at least the world wasn’t spinning anymore.
“Thank you,” I said, after finishing the drink.
“Welcome.” He was sitting on the edge of my bed, staring down at me critically, the way someone might study a half-crushed bug. “I think you’re okay. You’ve got blood on your face but you don’t seem to be bleeding.”
I wiped at my mouth. “It’s Broward’s. I bit him.”
“Bit him, huh?” He gave me a look of grudging respect. “You’re a scrappy little guy—I’ll give you that.”
“Thanks a lot,” I said sourly. “That means a lot coming from a big lug like you.” My small stature was really turning out to be a handicap.
“You’re welcome,” he said again, taking the empty drink container and putting it down on the bedside table.
“Why?” I asked, looking up at him.
“Why did you help me?” I tried to sit up but he pushed me back down.
“Better wait a minute before you get up. I came to see what all the commotion was about. You scream like a girl, you know that, shrimp?”
“I was frightened,” I said stiffly. “And don’t call me that. My name is—”
“I know, Kristopher Jameson.” He sighed. “Hinks told me when I went to ask about the rooming situation.”
“What did he say about that?” I asked.
North ran a hand through his dark blond hair, looking frustrated. “He said I would just have to deal with it. Look—” He pointed at me. “I was serious when I said I had to study. I don’t want any loud music or partying in here, I mean it.”
“I don’t want that either,” I told him, frowning. “I’m just here to learn so I can get my piloting license. I’m not interested in any of the social activities I saw in the halls on my way up here.”
“Social activities?” He raised an eyebrow at me and burst out laughing. “You have a really strange way of talking, Jameson. What moon are you from, anyway?”
“Dianna,” I said stiffly. “From the province of Victoria.”
North frowned. “I’m from Apollo. I’ve heard about Victoria but I’ve never been there. Isn’t that the province where everyone is so stiff and formal you can’t even sneeze without apologizing about a thousand times?”
“It’s civilized,” I corrected him. “Which is more than I can say for the way people act around here.”
He shook his head. “You must not have been away to school before. The Academy is pretty standard.”
“If being threatened and beaten twice in the same day is standard I don’t know how anyone graduates,” I snapped. “I haven’t even been here two hours and I’ve already been assaulted.”
“Assaulted? Come on.” He slapped my shoulder. “You took one punch, don’t be such a girl about it.”
I opened my mouth to give an angry reply and then closed it again. Apparently being a man involved stoicism in the face of pain and right now I was doing a fairly poor job of it. “It hurt,” I pointed out at last.
“Getting punched in the face usually does. Let’s see how it looks.”
Leaning forward, he lifted the cold wet cloth he’d placed on my wounded cheek and frowned thoughtfully. “Well, you’re going to have a hell of a bruise but I don’t think anything is broken. We can go down to the Infirmary for an X-ray if you want, though.”
“No thank you,” I said, trying to sit up again. This time he helped me.
“Yes.” I was finally able to look around without feeling like I was on a tilt-a-whirl at the fair, which was a vast improvement.
“So what did you do to earn that, anyway?” North motioned to my hurt cheek. “Or was Broward just being his usual charming self?”
“I saw something…in the Administration building.” I frowned down at my hands. “I’m not sure I should tell you.”
“If it’s something to do with Hinks, everybody already knows. Although I didn’t think Broward went that way.”
“What do you mean? Went what way?” I asked.
“You know.” North made a side to side motion with one large, well shaped hand. “Gay.”
I had only heard the word once or twice before but I had a general idea of what it meant. “You think I saw Broward and Hinks…doing something immoral together?” My voice rose slightly. “But they’re both males. Is that standard at the Academy too?”
North shrugged. “Not really but you do hear about it from time to time. You know how it is—too many horny guys and no girls allowed.”
I had a sudden disturbing thought. “Are you…that way?”
“Gay? Me?” He gave a surprised laugh, as though the very idea was preposterous. “No, absolutely not. There are too many pretty girls in the solar system to waste my time on another guy. But Kinky Hinks definitely is. Don’t tell me he didn’t try the old ‘let’s see how your uniform fits’ routine on you.”
I could feel my cheeks getting hot. “Yes, he did,” I admitted. “I, uh, managed to get away though. Would he really have tried to…to…” I couldn’t finish.
North laughed incredulously. “I can’t believe it, you’re actually blushing.”
“He…I…” I put my hands to my hot cheeks and winced when I touched the injured one. How could I tell him that we didn’t speak of sexual matters of any kind in Victoria? And why did talking about this with him make my heart pound so hard?
“Never mind.” He shook his head, a trace of a smile still lingering on his lips. “Hinks is pretty harmless, actually—he just likes to look. He gets away with it because he has some kind of in with the powers that be around here. So what happened with him and Broward?”
“Nothing like that,” I assured him. “Actually, nothing that had to do with Hinks at all. It was the headmaster.”
His eyebrows shot up. “The headmaster?”
Quickly, before he could get the wrong idea, I filled him in on everything I had seen and heard while waiting in the headmaster’s office. When I was finished, North sat back and gave a long, low whistle.
“And Broward caught you watching him get paddled? No wonder he’s after you, Jameson. He wants everyone to think he’s invincible because his father is on the Board of Trustees. If word got around that he actually got punished, and that he chose the paddle over the cane, his reputation would be shot all to hell.”
“I wasn’t going to tell anyone,” I protested. “And what does it matter which he chose?”
“The paddle’s for cowards.” North waved a hand dismissively. “Doesn’t even break the skin. The cane hurts a lot worse and it can leave permanent scars.”
I shivered at the idea of something worse than the paddling I’d witnessed earlier that day. Though Father spoke roughly to Kristopher and myself, he had never laid a hand to either one of us or allowed anyone else to either. Would Headmaster Chauser cane me if my secret was discovered? I couldn’t let that happen.
“Sounds like you’ll have to be on the lookout for Broward for a good long time,” North said, pulling me out of my dismal thoughts. “What’s your class schedule like? I’ll try and tell you the best way to avoid him.”
“It’s there.” I pointed to the disposable tablet on the desk and he got off the bed to get it.
“Hmm.” He frowned as he paged through the schedule. “Looks like you and I have a lot of the same classes. Inter-dimensional calculus and astro-navigation back to back. Unfortunately Broward is in the calc class too.”
“At least you and I are in it together,” I said, without thinking.
North frowned. “Don’t get any ideas, shrimp. I’m your roommate, not your bodyguard. I don’t have time to come running to the rescue every time you stub your toe.”
“Of course not,” I said stiffly. “I wouldn’t expect you to.”
North pointed at me. “You’re going to have to learn to look out for yourself. Especially in your last class of the day—mandatory physical fitness. Broward’s in that one too and I’m not.”
“I understand—I’m on my own.” I tried to sound calm and collected.
“Right.” He looked satisfied, as though he’d finally made his point.
“But how can we have the same classes if you and Broward are fourth-form and I’m third-form?” I asked, holding out my hand for the tablet.
North handed it back to me. “In Broward’s case it’s because he flunked those courses and he’s taking them again.”
“What about you?” I looked up at him curiously. He didn’t seem the type to fail at anything.
“I missed most of last year.” He glanced away, a troubled look passing over his sharp features for a moment. “For…personal reasons.”
“Personal reasons?” I said. “What—?”
“Personal means private. Do I really have to spell that out for you?” His voice, formerly almost friendly, had turned angry and there was an unreadable look in his piercing blue eyes.
“All right, all right. I’m sorry.” I held up my hands in a gesture of peace. “I didn’t mean to pry.”
“Just keep out of my business.” North looked at me coldly. “I may have to share this room with you but that doesn’t make us friends.”