Unfortunately, I couldn’t remember where I’d felt it before.
Considering everything else that had been happening to me, the fact that I’d even recalled it at all was remarkable.My memories were a little scattered, but I did my best to sift through them, wondering where I had experienced that tickling in my brain.I received no answers, and pondering it all soon became as frustrating as coming up with an escape plan.
And as more time passed, I realized I really did need an escape plan.
The endorphin withdrawal was killing me, but I was thinking more and more clearly as the effects left my system. I was astonished at how out of it I’d let myself become. As soon as I’d allowed Dimitri to bite me… I’d fallen apart. I’d lost my higher reasoning. I’d lost my strength and skills. I’d become soft and silly and stupid. Well, not entirely. If I’d completely lost it, I’d be a Strigoi now. There was some comfort, at least, in knowing that even while high on bites, some part of me had still fought through and refused to succumb.
Knowing I wasn’t as entirely weak as I’d believed helped keep me going. It made it easier to ignore the yearning in my body, to distract myself with bad TV and eating all the food in the little refrigerator. I even stayed awake for a long time in the hopes of exhausting myself. It worked, and I crashed as soon as I hit the pillow, drifting into a dreamless sleep with no withdrawal effects.
I was awakened later when a body slid into bed beside me. I opened my eyes and stared right into Dimitri’s red ones. For the first time in days, I looked at him with fear, not love. I kept that off my face, though, and smiled at him. I reached out and touched his face.
“You’re back. I missed you.”
He caught my hand and kissed my palm. “I had things to do.”
The shadows shifted on his face, and I caught the tiniest glimpse of dried blood near his mouth. Grimacing, I rubbed it off with my finger. “So I see.”
“It’s the natural order, Rose. How are you feeling?”
I looked away, conflicted again. The look in his eyes just then was more than simple curiosity. There was concern there-only a little-but it was there. Concern for me. And yet only a moment ago, I’d wiped blood from his face-blood from some poor person whose life had been snuffed out within the last few hours, most likely.
“I was in Lissa’s head,” I said at last. There was no harm in telling him this. Like Nathan, he knew she was at the Academy. “And… I got pushed out.”
“Yeah… I was seeing through her eyes like I usually do, and then some force… I don’t know, an invisible hand shoved me out. I’ve never felt anything like it.”
“Maybe it’s a new spirit ability.”
“Maybe. Except, I’ve been watching her regularly, and I’ve never seen her practice or even consider anything like that.”
He shrugged slightly and put an arm around me. “Being awakened gives you better senses and accessibility to the world. But it doesn’t make you omniscient. I don’t know why that happened to you.”
“Clearly not omniscient, or else Nathan wouldn’t want information about her so badly. Why is that? Why are the Strigoi fixated on killing the royal lines? We know they’ve-you’ve-been doing it, but why? What does it matter? Isn’t a victim a victim-especially when plenty of Strigoi used to be royal Moroi?”
“That requires a complicated answer. A large part of hunting Moroi royalty is fear. In your old world, royalty are held above all others. They get the best guardians, the best protection.” Yes, that was certainly true. Lissa had discovered that much at Court. “If we can still get to them through that, then what does it say? It means no one is safe. It creates fear, and fear makes people do foolish things. It makes them easier prey.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. Prey or predator.”
His eyes narrowed slightly, apparently not liking the interruption. He let it go. “There’s also a benefit to unraveling Moroi leadership. That creates instability, too.”
“Or maybe they’d be better off with a change of leadership,” I said. He gave me another odd look, and I was a bit startled myself. There I was, thinking like Victor Dashkov again. I realized I should just be quiet. I wasn’t behaving like my usual scattered and high self. “What’s the rest?”
“The rest…” A smile curved up his lips. “The rest is prestige. We do it for the glory of it. For the reputation it gives us and the satisfaction of knowing we’re responsible for destroying that which others haven’t been able to destroy for centuries.”
Simple Strigoi nature. Malice, hunting, and death. There didn’t need to be any other reasons.
Dimitri’s gaze moved past me to my bedside table. It was where I took off all my jewelry at night and laid it out. All his gifts were there, glittering like some pirate’s treasure. Reaching over me, he lifted up the nazar on its chain. “You still have this.”
“Yup. Not as pretty as your stuff, though.” Seeing the blue eye reminded me of my mother. I hadn’t thought about her in a very long time. Back in Baia, I’d grown to see Olena as a secondary mother, but now… now I kind of wished for my own. Janine Hathaway might not cook and clean, but she was smart and competent. And in some ways, I realized with a start, we thought alike. My traits had come from her, and I knew with certainty that in this situation, she wouldn’t have stopped planning escape.
“This I haven’t seen before,” Dimitri said. He’d set the nazar back down and picked up the plain silver ring Mark had given me. I hadn’t worn it since I was last in the Belikov house and had set it on the table next to the nazar.
“I got it while I was-” I stopped, realizing I hadn’t ever brought up my travels before Novosibirsk.
“While you were what?”
“While I was in your hometown. In Baia.”
Dimitri was playing with the ring, moving it from fingertip to fingertip, but he paused and glanced over at me when I said the name. “You were there?” Strangely, we hadn’t talked much about that. I’d mentioned Novosibirsk a few times, but that was it.
“I thought that’s where you’d be,” I explained. “I didn’t know that Strigoi did their hunting in cities here. I stayed with your family.”
His eyes returned to the ring. He continued playing with it, twirling it and rolling it around. “And?”
“And… they were nice. I liked them. I hung out with Viktoria a lot.”
“Why wasn’t she at school?”
“It was Easter.”
“Ah, right. How was she?”
“Fine,” I said quickly. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him about that last night with her and Rolan. “Karolina’s good too. She reminds me of you. She really laid into some dhampir guys who were causing trouble.”
He smiled again, and it was… nice. I mean, the fangs still made it creepy, but it didn’t have that sinister edge I’d come to expect. There was fondness in his face, true affection that startled me. “I can see Karolina doing that. Did she have her baby yet?”
“Yeah…” I was still a little thrown off by that smile. “It was a girl. Zoya.”
“Zoya,” he repeated, still not looking at me. “Not a bad name. How was Sonya?”
“Okay. I didn’t see too much of her. She’s a little touchy… Viktoria says it’s because of the pregnancy.”
“Sonya’s pregnant too?”
“Oh. Yeah. Six months, I think.”
His smile dimmed a little bit, and he almost seemed concerned. “I suppose it had to happen sooner or later. Her decisions aren’t always as wise as Karolina’s. Karolina’s children were by choice… I’m guessing Sonya’s was a surprise.”
“Yeah. I kind of got that feeling too.”
He ticked off the rest of his family members. “My mother and grandmother?”
“Er, fine. Both of them.” This conversation was becoming increasingly strange. Not only was it the first normal one we’d had since I’d arrived, it was also the first time he’d really seemed interested in anything that wasn’t Strigoi related or that didn’t involve kissing and biting, aside from some reminiscing about our early fights together-and the teasing reminders of sex in the cabin. “Your grandmother scared me a little.”
He laughed, and I flinched. It was so, so close to his old laugh. Closer than I’d ever imagined it could be. “Yes, she does that to people.”
“And she pretended not to speak English.” That was a pretty small detail in the grand scheme of things, but it still kind of pissed me off.
“Yes, she does that too.” He continued smiling, voice fond. “Do they all still live together? In that same house?”
“Yup. I saw the books you told me about. The pretty ones-but I couldn’t read them.”
“That’s where I first got into American westerns.”
“Man, I loved making fun of you over those.”
He chuckled. “Yes, between that, your stereotypes about Eastern European music, and the whole ?®comrade’ thing, you had plenty of material.”
I laughed too. “?®Comrade’ and the music were kind of out of line.” I’d almost forgotten about my old nickname for him. It didn’t fit anymore. “But you brought the cowboy thing on yourself, between the leather duster and-” I stopped. I’d started to mention his duty to help those in need, but that was hardly the case anymore. He didn’t notice my lapse.
“And then you left them and came to Novosibirsk?”
“Yeah. I came with those dhampirs I was hunting with… those other unpromised ones. I almost didn’t, though. Your family wanted me to stay. I thought about doing it.”
Dimitri held the ring up to the light, face shadowed with thought. He sighed. “You probably should have.”
“They’re good people.”
“They are,” he said softly. “You might have been happy there.”
Reaching over, he set the ring back on the table and then turned to me, bringing our mouths together. It was the softest, sweetest kiss he’d given me as a Strigoi, and my already considerable shock increased. The gentleness was fleeting, though, and a few seconds later, our kissing returned to what it usually was, forceful and hungry. I had a feeling he was hungry for more than just kissing, too, despite having fed recently. Pushing aside my confusion over how… well, normal and kind he’d seemed while talking about his family, I tried to figure out how I was going to dodge more biting without raising suspicion. My body was still weak and wanting it, but in my head, I felt more like myself than I had in ages.
Dimitri pulled up from the kiss, and I blurted out the first thing that came to mind before he could do anything else. “What’s it like?”
“What’s what like?”
He frowned. Score one for me. I’d momentarily baffled an undead creature of the night. Sydney would be proud.
“What do you mean?”
“You said being awakened enhances all the senses. Is kissing different then?”
“Ah.” Understanding flashed over his features. “It is, kind of. My sense of smell is stronger than it used to be, so your scent comes through much more intensely… your sweat, the shampoo in your hair… it’s beyond what you can imagine. Intoxicating. And of course, sharper taste and touch make this better.” He leaned down and kissed me again, and something about his description made my insides queasy-in a good way. That wasn’t supposed to happen. My hope was to distract him-not myself.
“When we were outside the other night, the flowers were really strong. If they’re strong to me, are they overwhelming to you? I mean, do the scents get to be too much?”
And so it began. I bombarded him with as many questions as I could, asking him about all aspects of Strigoi life. I wanted to know what it was like, how he felt… I asked everything with curiosity and enthusiasm, biting my lip and turning thoughtful at all the right places. I could see his interest grow as I spoke, though his attitude was brisk and efficient-in no way resembling our earlier affectionate conversation. He was hoping that I was finally on the verge of agreeing to turn.
As the questioning continued, so also did my outward signs of fatigue. I yawned a lot, lost my train of thought a lot. Finally, I rubbed my eyes with my hands and yawned again. “There’s so much I didn’t know… still don’t know…”
“I told you it was amazing.”
Honestly, some of it was. Most of it was creepy as hell, but if you got over the whole undead and evil thing, there were definitely some perks to being Strigoi.
“I have more questions,” I murmured. I closed my eyes and sighed, then opened them as though forcing myself to stay awake. “But… I’m so tired… I still don’t feel good. You don’t think I have a concussion, do I?”
“No. And once you’re awakened, it won’t matter anyway.”
“But not until you answer the rest of my questions.” The words were muffled in a yawn, but he understood. It took him a while to respond.
“Okay. Not until then. But time is running out. I told you that before.”
I let my lids drift closed then. “But it’s not the second day yet…”
“No,” he said quietly. “Not yet.”
I lay there, steadying my breathing as much as I could. Would my act work? It was highly possible he would still drink from me even if he thought I was asleep. I was taking a gamble here. One bite, and all my work to fight the withdrawal would be wasted. I’d reset to how I’d been. As it was, I had no clue how I was going to dodge a bite next time… but then, I didn’t think there’d be a next time. I’d be a Strigoi by then.
Dimitri lay beside me for a few more minutes, and then I felt him move. Inside, I braced myself. Damn. Here it came. The bite. I’d been certain that our kissing was part of the allure of him drinking from me and that if I just fell asleep, the allure would be gone. Apparently not. All my pretending was for nothing. It was all over.
But it wasn’t.
He got up and left.
When I heard the door close, I almost thought it was a scam. I thought for sure he was trying to fake me out and still actually stood in the room.
Yet when I felt the Strigoi nausea fade, I realized the truth. He really had left me, thinking I needed to sleep. My act had been convincing.
I immediately sat up, turning a few different things over in my mind. In that last bit of his visit, he’d seemed… well, he’d reminded me more than ever of the old Dimitri. Sure, he’d still been Strigoi through and through, but there’d been something else. A bit of warmth to his laugh. Sincere interest and affection upon hearing about his family. Had that been it? Had hearing news of his family triggered some piece of his soul buried within the monster? I confess, I felt a little jealous at the thought that they might have wrought the change in him that I couldn’t. But he’d still had that same warmth in talking about us, just a little…
No, no. I had to stop this. There was no change. No reversal of his state. It was wishful thinking, and the more I regained my old self, the more I realized the truth of the situation.
Dimitri’s actions had made me recall something. I’d completely forgotten about Oksana’s ring. I picked it up from the table and slipped it on my finger. I felt no noticeable change, but if the healing magic was still in it, it might help me. It could expedite my body and mind healing from the withdrawal. If any of Lissa’s darkness was bleeding into me, the ring could help dampen that, too.
I sighed. No matter how often I told myself I was free of her, I never would be. She was my best friend. We were connected in a way that few could understand. The denial I’d been living under lifted. I regretted my actions with Adrian now. He’d come to me for help, and I’d thrown his kindness back in his face. Now I was bereft of communication with the outside world.
And thinking of Lissa reminded me again of what had happened earlier when I’d been in her mind. What had pushed me out? I hesitated, pondering my course of action. Lissa was far away and possibly in trouble. Dimitri and the other Strigoi were here. But… I couldn’t walk away quite yet. I had to take one more look at her, just a quick one…
I found her in an unexpected place. She was with Deirdre, a counselor on campus. Lissa had been seeing a counselor ever since spirit had begun manifesting, but it had been someone else. Expanding my senses to Lissa’s thoughts, I read the story: Her counselor had left shortly after the school’s attack. Lissa had been reassigned to Deirdre-who had once counseled me when everyone thought I was going crazy over Mason’s death.
Deirdre was a very polished-looking Moroi, always meticulously dressed with her blond hair styled to perfection. She didn’t look much older than us, and with me, her counseling method had resembled a police interrogation. With Lissa, she was more gentle. It figured.
“Lissa, we’re a little worried about you. Normally, you would have been suspended. I actually stopped that from happening. I keep feeling like there’s something going on that you aren’t telling me. Some other issue.”
Lissa suspended? I again reached in to read the situation and found it. Last night, Lissa and others had been busted for breaking into the library of all places and having an impromptu party complete with alcohol and destruction to some of the property. Good God. My best friend needed to join AA.
Lissa’s arms were crossed, her demeanor almost combative. “There’s no issue. We were just trying to have fun. I’m sorry for the damage. If you want to suspend me, go ahead.”
Deirdre shook her head. “That’s not my decision. My concern is the why here. I know you used to suffer from depression and other problems because of your, ah, magic. But this feels more like some kind of rebellion.”
Rebellion? Oh, it was more than that. Since their fight, Lissa had been unable to find Christian, and it was killing her. She couldn’t handle downtime now. All she thought about was him-or me. Partying and risk taking were the only things that could distract her from us.
“Students do this stuff all the time,” argued Lissa. “Why is it a big deal for me?”
“Well, because you put yourself in danger. After the library, you were on the verge of breaking into the pool. Swimming while intoxicated is definite cause for alarm.”
“Nobody drowned. Even if someone had started to, I’m sure that between all of us, we could have pulled them out.”
“It’s just alarming, considering some of the self-destructive behaviors you once exhibited, like the cutting…”
So it went for the next hour, and Lissa did as good a job as I used to in dodging Deirdre’s questions. When the session ended, Deirdre said she wasn’t going to recommend disciplinary action. She wanted Lissa back for more counseling. Lissa would have actually preferred detention or cleaning boards.
As she stalked furiously across campus, she spotted Christian going in the opposite direction. Hope lit the blackness of her mind like sunshine.
“Christian!” she yelled, running up to him.
He stopped, giving her a wary look. “What do you want?”
“What do you mean what do I want?” She wanted to throw herself in his arms and have him tell her everything would be okay. She was upset and overwhelmed and filled with darkness… but there was a piece of vulnerability there that desperately needed him. “I haven’t been able to find you.”
“I’ve just been…” His face darkened. “I don’t know. Thinking. Besides, from what I hear, you haven’t been too bored.” No surprise everyone knew about last night’s fiasco. That kind of thing spread like wildfire thanks to the Academy’s gossip mill.
“It was nothing,” she said. The way he regarded her made her heart ache.
“That’s the thing,” he said. “Everything’s nothing lately. All your partying. Making out with other guys. Lying.”
“I haven’t been lying!” she exclaimed. “And when are you going to get over Aaron?”
“You aren’t telling me the truth. It’s the same thing.” It was an echo of Jill’s sentiment. Lissa barely knew her and was really starting to hate her. “I just can’t handle this. I can’t be a part of you going back to your days of being a royal girl doing crazy stunts with your other royal friends.”
Here’s the thing. If Lissa had elaborated on her feelings more, on just how much her guilt and depression were eating her up and making her spin out of control… well, I think Christian would have been there for her in an instant. Despite his cynical exterior, he had a good heart-and Lissa owned most of it. Or used to. Now all he could see was her being silly and shallow and returning to a lifestyle he despised.
“I’m not!” she exclaimed. “I’m just… I don’t know. It just feels good to sort of let loose.”
“I can’t do it,” he said. “I can’t be with you if that’s your life now.”
Her eyes went wide. “Are you breaking up with me?”
“I’m… I don’t know. Yeah, I guess.” Lissa was so consumed by the shock and horror of this that she didn’t really see Christian the way I did, didn’t see the agony in his eyes. It destroyed him to have to do this. He was hurting too, and all he saw was the girl he loved changing and becoming someone he couldn’t be with. “Things aren’t the way they used to be.”
“You can’t do that,” she cried. She didn’t see his pain. She saw him as being cruel and unfair. “We need to talk about this-figure it out-“
“The time for talking’s past,” he argued. “You should have been ready to talk sooner-not now, not when things suddenly aren’t going your way.”
Lissa didn’t know whether she wanted to scream or cry. She just knew she couldn’t lose Christian-not after losing me, too. If she lost both of us, there was nothing left for her in the world.
“Please, don’t do this,” she begged. “I can change.”
“I’m sorry,” he snapped. “I just don’t see any evidence of that.”
He turned and abruptly walked away. To her, his departure was harsh and cold. But again, I’d seen the anguish in his eyes. I think he left because he knew if he stayed, he wasn’t going to be able to go through with this decision-this decision that hurt but that he felt was right. Lissa started to go after him when a hand suddenly pulled her back. She turned and saw Avery and Adrian standing there. From the looks on their faces, they’d overheard everything.
“Let him go,” said Adrian gravely. He’d been the one to grab her. He dropped his hand and laced his fingers through Avery’s. “Going after him now’s just going to make it worse. Give him his space.”
“He can’t do this,” said Lissa. “He can’t do this to me.”
“He’s upset,” said Avery, her concern mirroring Adrian’s. “He isn’t thinking straight. Wait for him to cool off, and he’ll come around.”
Lissa stared off after Christian’s retreating figure, her heart breaking. “I don’t know. I don’t know if he will. Oh God. I can’t lose him.”
My own heart broke. I wanted so badly to go to her, to comfort her and be there for her. She felt so alone, and I felt horrible for leaving her.
Something had pushed her into this downward spiral, and I should have been there to help her out of it. That was what best friends did. I needed to be there.
Lissa turned back and looked at Avery. “I’m so confused… I don’t know what to do.”
Avery met her eyes, but when she did… the strangest thing happened. Avery wasn’t looking at her. She was looking at me.
Oh jeez. Not you again.
The voice rang in my head, and snap! I was out of Lissa.
There it was, the mental shove, the brush of my mind and waves of hot and cold. I stared around my room, shocked at how abrupt the transition had been. Yet I’d learned something. I knew then that Lissa hadn’t been the one to shove me out before or now. Lissa had been too distracted and too distraught. The voice? That hadn’t been hers either.
And then, I finally remembered where I’d felt that brushing touch in my head. Oksana. It was the same sensation I’d experienced when she had reached out to my mind, trying to get a feel for my moods and intentions, an action that both she and Mark admitted was invasive and wrong if you weren’t bonded to someone.
Carefully, I replayed what had just happened with Lissa. Once again, I saw those last few moments. Blue-gray eyes staring at me-me, not Lissa.
Lissa hadn’t pushed me out of her head.