The flight was more like thirty hours.
Getting from the middle of Siberia to the middle of Montana wasn’t easy.I flew from Novosibirsk to Moscow to Amsterdam to Seattle to Missoula.
Four different flights.Five different airports.
A lot of running around. It was exhausting, yet when I handed over my passport to get back into the U.S. in Seattle, I felt a strange surge of emotion in me… joy and relief.
Before leaving Russia, I had thought Abe might come back with me and finish his task himself, hand-delivering me to whomever had hired him.
“You really are going back now, aren’t you?” he asked at the airport. “To the school? You aren’t going to get off at one of your stops and disappear?”
I smiled. “No. I’m going back to St. Vladimir’s.”
“And you’ll stay there?” he pressed. He didn’t quite look as dangerous as he had in Baia, but I could see a glint of hardness in his eyes.
My smile slipped. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t have a place there anymore.”
I held up a hand to stop him, surprised at my own determination. “Enough. No after-school specials. You said you were hired to get me back there.
It isn’t your job to say what I do after that.” At least, I hoped not. Whoever wanted me back had to be someone at the Academy. I’d be there soon.
They had won. Abe’s services were no longer required.
Despite his victory, he didn’t look happy about relinquishing me. Glancing up at one of the departure boards, he sighed. “You need to go through security, or you’ll miss your flight.”
I nodded. “Thanks for…” What exactly? His help? “… For everything.”
I started to turn away, but he touched my shoulder. “Is that all you’re wearing?”
Most of my clothing had been scattered around Russia. One of the other Alchemists had located shoes, jeans, and a sweater, but otherwise, I was winging it until I got back to the U.S. “I don’t really need anything else,” I told him.
Abe arched an eyebrow. Turning to one of his guardians, he made a small gesture toward me. Immediately, the guardian took off his coat and handed it over. The guy was lanky, but the coat was still too big for me.
“No, I don’t need-“
“Take it,” ordered Abe.
I took it, and then to my further shock, Abe began unwinding the scarf from around his neck. It was one of his nicer ones, too: cashmere, woven with an array of brilliant colors, more suited to the Caribbean than here or Montana. I started to protest this as well, but the look on his face silenced me. I put the scarf around my neck and thanked him, wondering if I’d ever see him again. I didn’t bother asking because I had a feeling he wouldn’t tell me anyway.
When I finally landed in Missoula thirty hours later, I was pretty sure I didn’t want to fly in a plane anytime soon-as in, like, the next five years.
Maybe ten. Without any luggage, getting out of the airport was easy. Abe had sent word ahead of my arrival, but I had no idea who they’d send to get me. Alberta, who ran the guardians at St. Vladimir’s, seemed a likely choice. Or maybe it would be my mother. I never knew where she was at any given moment, and suddenly, I really, really wanted to see her. She would be a logical choice too.
So it was with some surprise that I saw that the person waiting for me at the airport’s exit was Adrian.
A grin spread over my face, and I picked up the pace. I threw my arms around him, astonishing both of us. “I have never been happier to see you in my life,” I said.
He squeezed me tightly and then let me go, regarding me admiringly. “The dreams never do justice to real life, little dhampir. You look amazing.” I’d cleaned up after the ordeal with the Strigoi, and Oksana had continued healing me in spite of my protests-even the bruises on my neck, which she had never asked about. I didn’t want anyone else to know about those.
“And you look…” I studied him. He was dressed as nicely as always, with a three-quarter-length wool coat and green scarf that matched his eyes.
His dark brown hair had that crafted messiness he liked, but his face-ah, well. As I’d noted before, Simon had gotten a few good punches on him.
One of Adrian’s eyes was swollen and ringed with bruises. Nonetheless, thinking about him and everything he’d done… well, none of the flaws mattered. “… Gorgeous.”
“Liar,” he said.
“Couldn’t Lissa have healed that black eye away?”
“It’s a badge of honor. Makes me seem manly. Come on, your carriage awaits.”
“Why’d they send you?” I asked as we walked toward the parking lot. “You are sober, aren’t you?”
Adrian didn’t dignify that with an answer. “Well, the school has no official responsibility to you, seeing as you’re a dropout and everything. So they weren’t really obligated to come get you. None of your other friends can leave campus… but me? I’m just a free spirit, hanging out. So I borrowed a car, and here I am.”
His words sparked mixed reactions in me. I was touched that he’d taken the trouble to come out here but was bothered by the part about the school having no responsibility to me. Throughout all my travels, I’d gone back and forth in thinking of St. Vladimir’s as home… yet, in the most technical terms, it truly wasn’t anymore. I would just be a visitor.
As we settled into the drive, Adrian caught me up on the aftermath at the school. After the big psychic showdown, I hadn’t delved much into Lissa’s mind. Oksana had healed my body, but mentally, I was still exhausted and grieving. Even though I’d accomplished what I set out to do, that image of Dimitri falling and falling still haunted me.
“It turns out you were right about Avery bonding Simon and Reed,” Adrian said. “From what information we could gather, it sounds like Simon was killed in a fight that Avery witnessed years ago. Everyone thought it was a miracle he survived, not actually realizing the truth.”
“She kept her powers hidden like the rest of you,” I mused. “And then Reed died later?”
“Well, that’s the weird thing,” said Adrian, frowning. “No one can really tell when he died. I mean, he’s royal. He’s been pampered his whole life, right? But based on what we could get out of him-which wasn’t much, since they’re all pretty messed up now-it sounds like Avery may have intentionally killed him and then brought him back.”
“Just like with Lissa,” I said, recalling Simon’s words during the fight. “Avery wanted to kill her, bring her back, and bond her. But why Lissa of all people?”
“My guess? Because she’s a spirit user. Now that spirit’s not a secret anymore, it was only a matter of time before Avery heard about Lissa and me.
I think Avery thought bonding Lissa would increase her own power. As it was, she was sucking up a lot of energy from those other two.” Adrian shook his head. “I wasn’t kidding about sensing that spirit all the way across campus. The amounts Avery had to wield to compel so many people, mask her aura, and who knows what else… well, it was staggering.”
I stared off at the freeway ahead of us, considering the consequences of Avery’s actions. “And that’s why Reed was so messed up-why he was so angry and ready for a fight. He and Simon were absorbing all that darkness she was producing by using spirit. Just like I do with Lissa.”
“Yeah, except you were nothing like these guys. It wasn’t so obvious with Simon-he was better at keeping a straight face-but both of them were totally on the edge. And now? They’re over the edge. All three of them are.”
I recalled Simon staring at nothing and Avery screaming. I shivered. “When you say over the edge…?”
“I mean totally and completely insane. Those three are going to be institutionalized for the rest of their lives.”
“From what you… we all did?” I asked, aghast.
“Partly,” he agreed. “Avery was throwing all that power at us, and when we threw it back and then some… well, I think it was like an overload to their minds. And to be honest, considering how Reed and Simon already were, the stage was probably set for this. With Avery too.”
“Mark was right,” I murmured.
“The other shadow-kissed guy I met. He was talking about how Lissa and I might be able to heal the darkness away from each other someday. It takes a careful balance of power between the spirit user and the shadow-kissed. I still don’t fully get it, but I’m guessing Avery’s little circle of three wouldn’t have been able to handle that kind of balancing act. I don’t think bonding to more than one person is healthy.”
“Huh.” Adrian didn’t say anything for a while and simply pondered all this. Finally, he laughed. “Man, I can’t believe you found another spirit user and shadow-kissed person. It’s like finding a needle in a haystack, but that kind of thing always happens to you. I can’t wait to hear the rest of what you’ve been doing.”
I looked away and rested my cheek against the glass. “It’s actually not very interesting.”
None of the Academy officials knew about my role in the showdown with Avery. So it wasn’t like anyone questioned me when we got back. They were still doing cleanup and asking Adrian and Lissa a lot of questions. Spirit was still such a new phenomenon that no one knew what to think of what had happened. Avery and her bondmates had been taken away for help, and her father had already gone on a temporary leave of absence.
Adrian signed me in as his guest, which got me a campus pass. Like all visitors, I was also given a list of where I’d stay and what I could and couldn’t do. I promptly ignored it.
“I have to go,” I told Adrian immediately.
He gave me a knowing smile. “I figured.”
“Thank you… for coming to get me. I’m sorry I’ve got to leave you-“
He waved off my worries. “You aren’t leaving me. You’re back; that’s what counts. I’ve been patient this long-I can hold out a little longer.”
I held his eyes for a moment, startled at the warm feelings that suddenly bubbled up within me. I kept them to myself, though, only giving Adrian a quick smile before I set off across campus.
I got a lot of strange looks when I went to Lissa’s dorm. It was right after classes had ended, so student traffic was pretty busy with people rushing in or out to get somewhere. Yet, when I passed by, silence fell and people stopped moving and talking. It reminded me of when Lissa and I had been returned to school after running away. We’d been marched through the cafeteria and had received similar treatment from our peers.
Maybe it was just my imagination, but it seemed worse this time. The looks more shocked. The silence heavier. Last time, I think people had believed we’d run off as some sort of prank. This time, no one really knew why I’d left. I’d come out of the school’s attack a hero, only to drop out and disappear. I think some of Lissa’s dorm mates thought they were seeing a ghost.
Ignoring the gossip and opinions of others was something I had a lot of practice with, and I sprinted past the onlookers without a backward glance, taking the stairs two at a time. I shut myself off to Lissa’s feelings as I walked down her hall. It seemed silly, but I wanted to be surprised. I just wanted to open my eyes and see her in person, with no warnings as to how she was feeling or what she was thinking. I knocked on the door.
Adrian had said seeing me in dreams couldn’t compare to seeing me in person. The same was true with Lissa. Being in her head was nothing like being near her in reality. The door opened, and it was like an apparition materializing before me, some sort of heavenly messenger descended from above. I’d never been away from her for this long, and after all this time, part of me wondered if I was imagining this.
Her hand went to her mouth, and she stared at me wide-eyed. I think she felt the same way-and she hadn’t even had warning of my visit. She’d just been told I was coming “soon.” No doubt I seemed like a phantom to her, too.
And with that reunion… it was like I was emerging from a cave-one I’d been in for almost five weeks-into the bright light of day. When Dimitri had turned, I’d felt like I’d lost part of my soul. When I’d left Lissa, another piece had gone. Now, seeing her… I began to think maybe my soul might be able to heal. Maybe I could go on after all. I didn’t feel 100 percent whole yet, but her presence filled up that missing part of me. I felt more like myself than I had in ages.
A world of questions and confusion hung in the silence between us. In spite of everything we’d been through with Avery, there was still a lot of unresolved business from when I had first left the school. For the first time since I’d set foot on the Academy’s grounds, I felt afraid. Afraid that Lissa would reject me or scream at me for what I’d done.
Instead, she drew me into a giant hug. “I knew it,” she said. She was already choking on her sobs. “I knew you’d come back.”
“Of course,” I murmured into her shoulder. “I said I would.”
My best friend. I had my best friend back. If I had her, I could recover from what had happened in Siberia. I could go on with my life.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “So sorry for what I did.”
I pulled away in surprise. Stepping into the room, I shut the door behind us. “Sorry? What do you have to be sorry for?” Despite my joy at seeing her, I’d come here expecting her to still be angry at me for leaving. None of that mess with Avery would have happened if I’d stayed around. I blamed myself.
She sat down on her bed, eyes wet. “For what I said… when you left. I had no right to say the things I did. I have no right to control you. And I feel horrible because…” She ran a hand over her eyes, trying to dry the worst of the tears. “I feel horrible because I told you I wouldn’t bring back Dimitri. I mean, I know it didn’t matter, but I should have still offered to-“
“No, no!” I sank down in front of her and grabbed her hands, still awed to be with her again. “Look at me. You have nothing to be sorry for. I said things I shouldn’t have, too. It happens when people are upset. Neither of us should beat ourselves up over it. And as for bringing him back…” I sighed. “You did the right thing in refusing. Even if we had found him before he’d been turned, it wouldn’t have mattered. You can’t safely bond more than one person. That’s what went wrong with Avery.”
Well, that was part of what had gone wrong with Avery. Manipulation and abuse of power had played a huge role too.
Lissa’s sobs quieted. “How did you do that, Rose? How were you there at the end when I needed you? How did you know?”
“I was with another spirit user. I met her in Siberia. She can actively reach into people’s minds-anyone’s, not just those she’s bonded to-and communicate. Like Avery could, actually. Oksana reached into me while I connected to you. It’s really strange how it all went down.” To say the least.
“Another power I don’t have,” said Lissa ruefully.
I grinned. “Hey, I have yet to meet any spirit user who can throw a punch like you can. That was poetry in motion, Liss.”
She groaned, but I sensed her pleasure at my use of the old nickname. “I hope I don’t ever have to do that again. I’m not meant to be a fighter, Rose. You’re the one who charges out there. I’m the one who waits with moral support and post-battle healing.” She held up her hands and looked at them. “Ugh. No. I definitely don’t want to do any more hitting or punching.”
“But at least now you know you can. If you ever want to practice…”
“No!” She laughed. “I’ve got too many things to practice with Adrian now-especially after you keep telling me about more and more things that everyone else can do with spirit.”
“Fine. Maybe it’s best if things go back to how they were.”
Her face sobered. “God, I hope so. Rose… I did so many stupid things while Avery was around.” Through the bond, I felt her greatest regret:
Christian. Her heart ached for him, and she’d shed a lot of tears. After having Dimitri ripped away from me, I knew how it felt to lose that kind of love, and I swore to myself that I’d do something to help her. But now wasn’t the time. She and I need to reconnect first.
“You couldn’t help it, though,” I pointed out. “She was too strong with her compulsion-especially when she got you to drink and killed your defenses.”
“Yeah, but not everyone knows that or will understand it.”
“They’ll forget,” I said. “They always do.”
I understood her angst over her reputation, but I doubted there would be any truly permanent damage-aside from Christian. Adrian and I had analyzed Avery’s manipulation and figured things out once we’d paired it with Simon’s comment about Lissa having an unfortunate accident. Avery had wanted to make Lissa look unstable in the event Avery somehow didn’t have the strength to resurrect her. If Lissa actually died, no one would investigate much. After weeks of crazy, drunken behavior, her losing control and accidentally falling out of a window would be tragic but not completely out of the realm of possibility.
“Spirit’s a pain in the ass,” Lissa declared. “Everyone wants to take advantage of you-non-users like Victor and users like Avery. I swear, I’d go back on my medication if I wasn’t paranoid now about protecting myself from other Avery-type people. Why’d she want to kill me and not Adrian?
Why am I always the target?”
I couldn’t help a smile in spite of the grim topic. “Because she wanted you for a minion and him for a boyfriend. She probably wanted a guy who could help escalate her rise in society and couldn’t risk killing him in a bonding attempt. Or who knows? Maybe she would have eventually tried him, too. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if she felt threatened by you and wanted to make sure she had the only other known female spirit user under her control. Face it, Liss. We could spend hours trying to figure out how Avery Lazar thinks and get nowhere.”
“True, true.” She slid off the bed and sat next to me on the floor. “But you know what? I feel like we could talk about anything for hours. You’ve been here ten minutes, and it’s like… well, it’s like you never left.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. Before he was a Strigoi, being with Dimitri had always felt natural and right. Being with Lissa also felt natural and right-though it was a different kind of rightness. In my grief over Dimitri, I’d nearly forgotten what I had with her. They were two sides of me.
In that uncanny way she had of guessing thoughts, Lissa said, “I meant what I said earlier. I’m sorry for what I said-about acting like I have some right to dictate your life. I don’t. If you decide to stay or guard me, you do that by your choice and your kindness. I want to make sure you live and choose your own life.”
“There’s nothing ?®kind’ about it. I’ve always wanted to protect you. I still do.” I sighed. “I just… I just had things to take care of. I had to get myself together-and I’m sorry I didn’t handle it with you very well.” There was a lot of apologizing going on, but I realized that was how it was with people you cared about. You forgave each other and moved on.
Lissa hesitated before asking her next question, but I’d known it was coming. “So… what happened? Did you… did you find him…?”
At first, I didn’t think I wanted to talk about it, but then I realized that I needed to. And the thing was, a few different things had gone wrong with Lissa and me before. One had been that she’d taken me for granted. The other had been that I wouldn’t tell her the truth-and then I’d resent her for it later. If we were going to patch up this friendship and forgive each other, we had to make sure we didn’t repeat the past.
“I did find him,” I said at last.
And I launched into the story, telling her everything that had happened to me: my travels, the Belikovs, the Alchemists, Oksana and Mark, the unpromised, and of course, Dimitri. Just as Lissa had joked earlier, we talked for hours. I poured out my heart to her, and she listened without judgment. Her face was compassionate the whole time, and when I reached the end, I was sobbing, all the love and rage and anguish I’d been holding onto since that night on the bridge exploding out of me. I hadn’t told anyone else in Novosibirsk exactly where I’d been during my time with Dimitri. I hadn’t dared tell anyone I’d been a blood whore for a Strigoi. I had stayed vague, hoping if I didn’t talk about it, then maybe it wouldn’t be real.
Now, with Lissa, I had to accept the reality of everything and truly feel it: I had killed the man I loved.
A knock at the door jolted us out of a world that contained only her and me. I glanced at the clock and was startled to see it was almost curfew time. I wondered if I was being thrown out. But when Lissa opened the door-after I’d hastily dried my eyes-the waiting dorm worker had a message of a different sort.
“Alberta wants to see you,” the woman told me. “She thought you might be here.”
Lissa and I exchanged glances. “When? Now?” I asked.
The woman shrugged. “From the way she sounded? Yeah, I’d say now. Or sooner.” She shut the door. Alberta was the captain of the guardians on campus, and when she spoke, people acted.
“I wonder what this is about?” asked Lissa.
I stood up, hating to leave. “Any number of things, I imagine. I’ll go see her and then head back to guest housing. Not that I’ll sleep. I have no clue what time zone I’m in anymore.”
Lissa gave me a parting hug, one we both had a hard time letting go of. “Good luck.”
I started to turn the door’s handle and then thought of something. I slipped the silver ring off of my finger and handed it to Lissa.
“Is this the ring you-oh!” She wrapped her hand around it, her face growing enraptured.
“Can you feel the magic in it?” I asked.
“Yeah… it’s weak, but it’s in there.” She held the ring up to the light and stared at it. She probably wasn’t going to notice when I left because I had a feeling she’d be studying the ring all night. “It’s so strange. I can almost immediately feel how she did this.”
“Mark said we probably had a while to go before we could do the healing they do… but maybe you could figure out how to make charms while we wait?”
Her jade green eyes were still on the ring. “Yeah… I think I might.”
I smiled at her excitement and tried to leave again, but she caught my arm. “Hey… Rose… I know I’ll see you tomorrow, but…”
“I just wanted to say, after everything that’s happened… well, I don’t want us to ever have this kind of separation again. I mean, I know we can’t be together every single second-and that’s kind of creepy anyway-but we’re bonded for a reason. We’re meant to look out for each other and be there for each other.”
Her words sent a shiver through me, like we were wrapped in powers greater than ourselves. “We will be.”
“No, I mean… you’re always there for me. Every time, I’m in danger, and you come rushing in to save me. Not anymore.”
“You don’t want me to save you anymore?”
“That’s not what I meant! I want to be there for you too, Rose. If I can throw a punch, I can do anything. Even though that really hurt.” She exhaled in frustration. “God, I’m not making any sense. Look, the point is, if you ever have to go off alone, take me with you. Don’t leave me behind.”
“I’m serious.” Her luminous beauty burned with determination and purpose. “Whatever obstacles you have to go against, I’m going to be there for you. Don’t go alone. Swear to me that if you ever decide to take off again, you’ll bring me. We’ll do it together.”
I started to protest as a million fears came to my mind. How could I risk her life? Yet looking at her, I knew she was right. For better or worse, we had a bond we couldn’t escape. Lissa was indeed tied to that piece of my soul, and we were stronger fighting together than apart.
“Okay,” I said, clasping her hand. “I swear it. The next time I go do something stupid that might get me killed, you can come along.”