Just then the bell rang for dinner, making Anneka jump.
"Yay, dinner! You hungry Annie?"
Anneka nodded and accepted Finny's help stepping down from the crate she had had to use to reach the sink. Finny took her hand.
"Come on then. Matron said we get to push in front of everyone coz you're a vip."
"What's a vip?"
"Dunno. Come on; we hafta go upstairs again."
Climbing up the stairs to the next floor really had Finny earning her money.
A nonstop reverse avalanche of kids and teenagers thundered up the stairs, threatening to trample not only Anneka but her marginally taller protector too.
Anneka learned some new expletives from the experience and Finny collected squashed toes and a couple of bruises. Eventually, though, they made it into the crowded dining hall.
For the first time since leaving the safety of Silja's legs, Anneka felt apprehensive. There were a lot of kids here, many more than had been at her birthday party. They were bigger, too.
Some of them were, in Anneka's eyes, as big as grown-ups. And they were loud, shouty loud. And pushy loud.
And Anneka could see that the smaller kids were hiding the fact they were as scared as she was. Her grip on Finny's hand tightened and she stepped back behind Finny's legs.
Finny felt the little fingers grip increase. She understood. The oldest kids were literally twice the size of Finny. Mealtimes could be dangerous.
It was often only the presence of the staff that stopped it being bloody.
Even though she had been given permission to push to the front of the line Finny was going to be very selective about who she and Anneka pushed in front of,
so she took the time deciding just when that would be, to squat down and reassure the toddler.
A hunter will tell you never to turn your back on a predator. A hunter will also tell you never to make yourself look small. By squatting down and talking to Anneka at her level, Finny was doing both...
and the predators noticed.
It was Anneka's widening eyes and upwards stare that alerted Finny to the uncomfortable fact that someone considerably taller than her own four feet and not many inches was standing behind her.
She really didn't want to stand up and find out who it was. It wasn't Joe's cash that made her do so. And it wasn't the kudos she would lose if she didn't, well, not entirely.
What made Finny stand up to face whoever it was, was the look in Annie's eyes.
Ohhhhh Finny knew that look. It was the look of the kid whose toy was going to get trashed. It was the look of the kid who wasn't going to eat today.
It was the look of the kid wondering how much the next minute or so was going to hurt. So Finny stood up because she wasn't going to let that kid be Annie.
It was Taggs. Well, Christopher Taggert if you read his file. And it was a thick file, but then Taggs was sixteen and had been here since he was a baby.
What Finny wanted to happen now was for Anneka to run away and find Silja while she took care of Taggs.
The image that formed in Finny's mind concerning 'taking care of Taggs' comprised of her holding on to his legs long enough to stop him going after Anneka.
But Anneka wasn't running away; she was hugging Finny around the hips and showing no signs of letting go.
"What do ya want Taggs?"
Taggs was smiling, enjoying the crowd that was starting to gather.
"I want to meet your little friend, Finny."
"Leave us alone. We just want to get our dinner."
Taggs stopped smiling.
"Are you telling me what to do?"
Finny said nothing. The scenario was a familiar one. The outcome was inevitable. Finny's hands balled into fists by her sides.
Still smiling, Taggs slowly reached for one of Finny's long side plaits. He was going to enjoy pulling the kid's hair until she squealed for mercy in front of Spivey's brat.
Then two things happened almost simultaneously. First, there was a large intake of breath from the growing crowd.
Second, Tagg's world tilted and he found himself on his back, looking up at his own hand which was being held in front of his face. A strange face moved into view.
"Hey, Finny. You wantings me to be breaking both his hand bones or just these leetler pinkies here?"
Finny was still recovering. Silja had appeared from nowhere and now Taggs was flat on his back grimacing in wonder at just how far Silja was able to bend his fingers back.
Now heads were turning in Finny's direction, waiting to see what she said and wondering if they were about to see Joe Spivey's hired ninja assassin break Tagg's fingers.
Inside Finny's head, the six, seven and even the eight-year-old Finnys were begging her to say yes. You have the power, do it.
Do it! DO IT! The unheard thoughts of all the other 'little uns' joined in too and Finny almost gave in to the cacophony.
But wait. Little hands still clutched at Finny's dress.
Silja wouldn't want Anneka to witness such a thing surely?
Then Finny remembered that she was the only one in the hall who knew that Silja was actually not any kind of ninja, but to everyone else, Taggs included, she had a fearsome reputation.
This was a bluff then and Finny realised that she had her part to play.
"Nahhhh, I'm hungry. We just want our dinner.
Silja did a very good job of looking seriously disappointed. She leaned down and whispered loudly in Taggs' ear so that those close enough could hear.
"You is being very lucky boy mister Taggy Waggy.
There are two hundreds of bones in your smelly body and iffa you is ever hurting Finny I will be take great big pleasures in breaking every single one of thems.
" She tapped his nose "So you is making sure that Finny is not getting hurted, yes?" Silja applied a touch more pressure to the fingers she held, making Taggs nod enthusiastically.
Silja tweaked the nose. "Good boy." She let go of him and stood up, hands-on-hips, and addressed the expectant silence. "Now you be going away, no dinners for naughty boys today."
Taggs and his little crew slunk out of the dining hall to a chorus of whispers and smirks.
Finny judged this to be the absolutely best moment possible to now walk with Annie to the front of the dinner queue. She wasn't wrong.
Throughout dinner, Finny positively bathed in the reflected glory of Silja's dramatic put-down.
Being friends with a psycho-killer-ninja-assassin meant that her place in the pecking order wasn't quite so humble any more.
After taking one shuddering look at what was on offer at the servery, Silja joined Maisy, who was leaning on the wall by the door. Maisy gave Silja a sideways look. She leaned in.
"You do realise that because of what you've done... and that outfit... you've just become the fantasy heroine of half the boys in this room."
"It worked, didn't it?"
Maisy pushed away from the wall.
"Oh, it worked alright." She clapped her hands for attention. Forty-something heads turned to listen. "Announcement for the boys. There will be a compulsory sock change in the morning."