I didn’t cry very often.And I hated it when I did.The last time I’d done it around Dimitri, his arms had immediately encircled me.
This time, all I got was a look of coldness and anger.
“This is your fault!” he yelled, fists clenched.
I cringed backward, eyes wide. “But he… he attacked me…”
“Yes. And Inna. A human! You let a human attack you.” He couldn’t keep the sneer from his voice. “You are weak. You are incapable of defending yourself-all because you refuse to be awakened!”
His voice was terrifying, and the look he gave me… well, it scared me almost more than Nathan had. Reaching forward, he jerked me up to my feet.
“If you had just been killed, it would have been your own fault,” he said. His fingers dug into my wrist as he shook me. “You have the chance for immortality, for incredible strength! And you’re too blind and stubborn to see it.”
I swallowed back more tears and rubbed my eyes with the back of my free hand. No doubt I was ruining the makeup I’d so painstakingly put on.
My heart was ready to explode out of my chest, I was so afraid. I expected rage and threats from Nathan-but not Dimitri.
You’ve forgotten he’s a Strigoi, something whispered in my mind.
I’d gone long enough without a bite and had enough adrenaline kicking me to alertness that my nagging voice was speaking more loudly than it had in a very long time. Dimitri said I was weak because I wasn’t Strigoi, but there was more to it than that. I was weak and had been subdued by Nathan and Inna because I was an addict, because I was living a life of blissful ignorance that was taking a toll on my body and my mind. The thought was startling, and I could barely hold onto it. My yearning for vampire endorphins flared up, and the two factions warred in my mind.
I had enough sense not to voice any of those thoughts. I tried for something that would pacify Dimitri instead. “I don’t think I’d be stronger than Nathan, even if I was turn-awakened.”
He ran a hand over my hair, his cold voice thoughtful. He seemed to be calming down, but his eyes were still angry and impatient. “Perhaps not initially, but your strength of body and will carries over with the change. He’s not that much older than either of us-not enough to make a noticeable difference, which is why he keeps backing down when we fight.”
“Why do you keep backing down?”
I felt his body go rigid, and I realized my question might be read as a slam against his prowess. I swallowed, my fear returning. He hadn’t let go of my wrist, and it was starting to hurt.
“Because he’s right about one thing,” Dimitri said stiffly. “Killing him would bring Galina’s wrath down on us. And that’s not something I can afford.
“You said before that you… that we… had to kill her.”
“Yes, and once we do, it’ll be easy to seize control of her assets and organization.”
“What is her organization exactly?” If I kept distracting him, the anger might go away. The monster might go away.
He shrugged. “All sorts of things. This wealth isn’t bought without effort.”
“Effort that’s illegal and hurts humans?”
“Does it matter?”
I didn’t bother with an answer. “But Galina used to be your teacher. Can you really kill her? And I don’t mean physically… I mean, doesn’t it bother you?”
He considered. “I told you before. It’s all about strength and weakness. Prey and predator. If we can bring her down-and I have no doubts we can -then she’s prey. End of story.”
I shivered. It was so harsh, such a stark and scary way of viewing the world. Dimitri released my wrist just then, and a wave of relief ran through me. On shaky legs, I backed up and sat on the couch. For a moment, I feared he’d grab me again, but instead he sat down beside me.
“Why did Inna attack me? Why did she defend Nathan?”
“Because she loves him.” Dimitri didn’t bother hiding his disgust.
“Who knows? Part of it is that he’s promised to awaken her once she’s put in time here.” Sydney’s warnings came back to me, about why the Alchemists feared that humans would learn about vampires-because humans might want to turn too. “That’s what most of the human servants are told.”
“Most are unworthy. Or, more often than not, someone gets hungry and finishes the human off.”
I was getting sick to my stomach, independent of Dimitri’s proximity. “This is all a mess.”
“It doesn’t have to be.” I didn’t think he would shake me again, but there was a dangerous glint in his eyes. The monster was only a heartbeat away. “Time’s running out. I’ve been lenient, Roza. Far more lenient than I would be with anyone else.”
“Why? Why have you done it?” I wanted-needed-then to hear him say it was because he loved me and that because of that love, he could never force me into anything I didn’t want. I needed to hear it so that I could blot out that terrifying, furious creature I’d seen a few minutes ago.
“Because I know how you think. And I know awakening you of your own free will would make you a more important ally. You’re independent and strong-minded-that’s what makes you valuable.”
“An ally, huh?”
Not the woman he loved.
He shifted so that his face hovered over mine. “Didn’t I tell you once I’d always be there for you? I’m here. I’ll protect you. We’re going to be together. We’re meant to be together. You know this.” There was more fierceness in his voice than affection.
He kissed my lips, drawing me close. The usual heat flooded me, my body instantly responding to his. But even as my body did one thing, other thoughts were spinning through my mind. I had always thought we were meant to be together. And he had once told me he’d always be there for me. I’d always wanted that too-but I had wanted to be there for him in return. I wanted us to be equals, always watching each other’s backs.
Today hadn’t been like that. I’d been defenseless. Weak. Never, never in my life had I been like that. Even in horrible, outmatched moments, I’d put up a decent fight. At the very least, I’d had the will to fight. Not now. I’d been terrified. I’d been ineffectual. I hadn’t been able to do anything except sit there pathetically and wait for someone to rescue me. I’d let a human get the best of me.
Dimitri said me becoming Strigoi was the solution. For the last week, he’d said that over and over, and while I hadn’t agreed to it, I hadn’t been as repulsed as I once had been. Lately, it had become a thought floating around out there, a far-off way for us to be together. And I did want to be together, especially in moments like this, when we kissed and desire crackled around both of us.
But this time… the desire wasn’t quite as intense as usual. It was still there, but I couldn’t shake the image of how he’d just been. It occurred to me with startling clarity that I was making out with a Strigoi. And that was… weird.
Breathing heavy, Dimitri pulled away from my lips for a moment and stared at me. Even with that composed Strigoi expression, I could see that he wanted me-in a lot of ways. It was confusing. He was Dimitri and not Dimitri. Leaning back down, he kissed my cheek, then my chin, and then my neck. His mouth opened wider, and I started to feel the points of his fangs…
“No,” I blurted out.
He froze. “What did you say?” My heart started thumping again, as I braced myself for more rage.
“Um… no. Not this time.”
He pulled back and looked at me, seeming both shocked and annoyed. When he didn’t respond, I began to ramble.
“I don’t feel good… I’m hurt. I’m afraid to lose the blood, even though I want…” Dimitri always said I couldn’t lie to him, but I had to try. I put on my best, most passionate and innocent face. “I want it… I want to feel the bite… but I want to rest first, get stronger…”
“Let me awaken you, and you’ll be strong again.”
“I know,” I said, still keeping my voice slightly frantic. I looked away, hoping to increase the facade of confusion. Okay, with my life lately, faking confusion wasn’t that hard. “And I’m starting to think…”
I heard a sharp intake of breath. “Starting to think what?”
I turned back to him, hoping I could convince him I was seriously considering turning. “I’m starting to think that I don’t ever want to be weak again.”
I could see it in his face. He believed me. But then, that last part hadn’t been a lie. I didn’t want to be weak.
“Please… I just want to rest. I need to think about it a little more.”
There it was, the moment this all weighed on. The truth was, I wasn’t just lying to him. I was lying to myself. Because seriously? I wanted that bite. Badly. I’d already gone a long time without one, and my body was screaming for it. I needed the endorphins, needed them more than air or food. And yet, in only one day without them, I’d gained a tiny shard of clarity. The part of me that wanted nothing more than the joy of ignorant ecstasy didn’t care about my mind growing clearer, yet I knew, deep inside, that I had to try for a little bit more, even if it meant depriving myself of what I most wanted.
After a lot of thought, Dimitri nodded and stood up. He’d read my words like I’d reached a turning point and was on the verge of accepting. “Rest, then,” he said. “And we’ll talk later. But Rose… we only have two days.”
“Until Galina’s deadline. That’s how long she gave us. Then I make the decision for you.”
“You’ll awaken me?” I wasn’t entirely sure if death was on the table anymore.
“Yes. It’ll be better for all of us if we don’t reach that point.” He got off the bed and stood up. He paused a moment and reached into his pocket.
“Oh. I brought you this.”
He handed me a bracelet encrusted with opals and tiny diamonds, almost like it was no big deal. The bracelet was dazzling, and each opal shone with a thousand colors. “Wow. It’s… it’s gorgeous.” I slipped it on my wrist, yet somehow, gifts like this didn’t mean as much anymore.
With a satisfied look, he leaned down and kissed me on the forehead. He headed for the door then and left me lying back against the couch, trying desperately to think of anything else except how I wished he would turn around and bite me.
The rest of the day was agonizing.
I’d always read about addicts, about how hard a time people had breaking away from alcohol or illegal drugs. I’d even once witnessed a feeder go kind of crazy when he was removed from service. He’d grown too old, and it was considered hazardous to his health to keep on giving blood to Moroi. I’d watched in amazement as he begged and pleaded to be allowed to stay, how he’d sworn he didn’t mind the risk. Even though I’d known he had an addiction, I just couldn’t understand why it would be so worth it for him to risk his life like that. Now I did.
In those hours that passed, I would have risked my life to be bitten again. That was actually kind of funny because if I did allow another bite, I would be risking my life. I had no doubt more of that cloudy thinking would lead to an acceptance of Dimitri’s offer. But with each miserable, bite deprived second that passed, my thoughts grew incrementally sharper. Oh, I was still a long way away from being free of the dreamy haze of vampire endorphins. When we’d been captured in Spokane, Eddie had been used as a Strigoi blood source, and it had taken him days to recover.
Each bit of clarity now made me realize how important it was for me to stay bite free. Not that that knowledge made it any easier on my body.
I had some serious problems here. It seemed like either way, I was destined to become a Strigoi. Dimitri wanted to turn me so that we could reign together as the vampiric equivalent of Bonnie and Clyde. Nathan wanted to turn me in the hopes of hunting down Lissa-and then kill me. Clearly, Dimitri’s option was more appealing, but not by much. Not anymore.
Yesterday, I would have said becoming a Strigoi was something I wasn’t going to worry about too much. Now, the harsh reality of what it truly meant hit me, and my old feelings returned. Suicide versus existence as a creature of evil. Of course, being a creature of evil meant I could be with Dimitri…
Except it wasn’t Dimitri. Was it? It was all so confusing. I again tried to remind myself of what he’d said long ago-that no matter how much a Strigoi seemed like the person I used to know, they weren’t. Yet this Dimitri said he’d been wrong about that.
“It’s the endorphins, Rose. They’re like drugs…” I groaned and buried my face in my hands as I sat on the couch, the TV droning in the background. Lovely. I was talking to myself now.
Supposing I could break this hold Dimitri had over me and this addled state that kept making me think I’d misunderstood Strigoi… well, then what? I was back to the original dilemma. No weapons to fight Strigoi with. No weapons with which to kill myself. I was back at their mercy, but at least now I was closer to putting up a good fight. Sure, it would be a losing fight, but I felt that if I stayed off the endorphins a little longer, I’d at least be able to take down Inna. That had to count for something.
And there it was. Off the endorphins. Each time my mind ran through my options and hit a wall, I would spiral back to the physical reality in front of me. I wanted that high back. I wanted that haze of joy back. I needed it back, or surely, I would die. That would be what killed me and freed me from being a Strigoi…
I stood up and began pacing around, hoping to distract myself. TV wasn’t doing it; that was for sure. If I could just hold out a little longer, I could shake the drug from my system, I could figure out how to save myself and Lissa, and Lissa!
Without any debate, I dove into her. If I was in her body and mind, then maybe I wouldn’t have to deal with mine for a while. My withdrawal would pass more quickly.
Lissa and her group had returned from the
a bit more grimly than they arrived. The cold light of morning had made Lissa feel incredibly idiotic about the party’s events. Dancing on a table wasn’t the worst thing in the world, but looking back over other parties she’d been to that weekend and her social life with Avery made her wonder what had gotten into her. Sometimes, she didn’t even feel like herself. And the kiss with Aaron… well, that was an entirely different guilt-inducing matter altogether.
“Don’t worry about it,” Avery told her on the plane. “We all do stupid stuff when we’re drunk.”
“Not me,” groaned Lissa. “This isn’t like me.” Despite this claim, Lissa had nonetheless agreed to drink mimosas-champagne mixed with orange juice-on the ride back.
Avery smiled. “I don’t have anything to compare it to. You seem okay to me. But then, you aren’t trying to run off with a human or some non-royal guy.”
Lissa smiled back, and her eyes went to Jill, sitting a little ahead of them on the plane. Adrian had spoken to the younger girl earlier, but she was busy with a book now, her biggest concern seeming to be to stay away from Reed. He sat with Simon again, and Lissa was a little surprised to see the guardian eyeing Jill suspiciously. Maybe Reed had told Simon that the younger girl was some kind of threat.
“You’re worried about her?” asked Avery, following Lissa’s gaze.
“It’s not that… I just can’t shake the way she looked at me last night.”
“She’s young. I think she’s easily shocked.”
Lissa supposed that was true. Yet young or not, there had been something refreshingly clear and honest in the way Jill had called Lissa out. It reminded Lissa of something I might do. And Lissa couldn’t rest easy knowing someone like that thought badly of her. Lissa stood up.
“I’ll be right back,” she told Avery. “I’m going to talk to her.”
Jill was obviously astonished when Lissa sat beside her. The younger girl put a bookmark in what she was reading, and whatever she might be feeling, her smile for Lissa was genuine. “Hey.”
“Hey,” said Lissa. She hadn’t had much of the mimosa yet and still controlled enough spirit to see Jill’s aura. It was a rich teal blue, interspersed with purple and darker blue. Good, strong colors. “Look, I wanted to apologize for what happened last night… what I said…”
“Oh,” said Jill flushing. “It’s okay, really. I mean, things were kind of crazy, and I know you weren’t thinking straight. At least, I don’t think you were. I don’t really know. I’ve never actually had a drink, so I can’t say.” Jill’s nervousness always seemed to make her oscillate between rambling and silence.
“Yeah, well, I should have been thinking straight before I got in that situation. And I’m really sorry for what happened with Reed.” Lissa lowered her voice. “No clue what happened there… but that wasn’t right, what he did and said to you.”
Both girls found themselves studying him. He was deep in a book, but suddenly, as though he could sense them watching, his gaze turned toward Jill and Lissa. He glared, and they immediately looked away.
“That definitely wasn’t your fault,” said Jill. “And, you know, Adrian was there and everything. So it turned out okay.”
Lissa worked to keep a straight face. Adrian was sitting out of their view, but if he hadn’t been, Lissa had a feeling Jill would have been gazing at him dreamily. Adrian was doing a good deal of gazing of his own at Avery lately, and Lissa could see Jill was never going to leave that little-sister role for him. Yet it seemed clear that Jill was developing a little bit of a crush. It was cute, and even though Lissa knew it was stupid on her part, she couldn’t help feeling a bit of relief that Adrian was the object of Jill’s affections and not Christian.
“Well, here’s hoping for better choices,” said Lissa. “And hoping no one thinks too badly of me.”
“I don’t,” said Jill. “And I’m sure Christian won’t either.”
Lissa frowned, confused for a moment. “Well… there’s no point in stressing him out over it. It was my stupid mistake; I’ll deal with it.”
Now Jill frowned. She hesitated before speaking, that old nervousness returning. “But you have to. You have to tell him the truth, right?”
“It’s no big deal,” said Lissa, surprised at how defensive she suddenly felt. That unpredictable anger started to raise its head.
“But… you guys are in a serious relationship… You have to always be honest, don’t you? I mean, you can’t lie to him.”
Lissa rolled her eyes. “Jill, you haven’t been in a serious relationship either, have you? Have you even gone on one date? I’m not lying to him. I’m just not telling him stuff that’s going to freak him out for no reason. It’s not the same.”
“It is,” argued Jill. I could tell how much it killed her to talk back to Lissa, but I admired her boldness. “He has a right to know.”
Lissa sighed irritably and stood up. “Forget it. I thought we could have an adult conversation, but apparently not.” The withering look she gave Jill made the girl flinch.
Still, back at the Academy, guilt plagued Lissa. Christian greeted her return happily, showering her with kisses and hugs. She firmly believed Jill had overreacted, yet each time Lissa looked at Christian, she kept thinking about that kiss with Aaron. Was it as wrong as Jill had implied? It had been casual and under the influence of alcohol. Lissa knew telling Christian would upset him, though, and she hated to bring that on. Avery, listening as Lissa deliberated, agreed that there was no need to worry about it. Yet, as I looked at her through Lissa’s eyes, my impression was that Avery was more worried about what Lissa’s emotional reaction would be if she and Christian had a blowout. The morals seemed beside the point; Avery wanted to protect Lissa.
It seemed like it was all going to blow over… until later in the day, when Lissa met up with Christian to walk to dinner. His face was a storm cloud as he approached Lissa in her dorm’s lobby, his pale blue eyes looking like they could shoot lightning bolts.
“When were you going to tell me?” he demanded. His voice was loud, and several passing people turned in surprise.
Lissa hurried him to a corner, pitching her voice low. “What are you talking about?”
“You know what I’m talking about. You using your weekend getaway as a chance to hook up with other guys.”
She stared at him for several heavy seconds. Then the truth hit. “Jill told you!”
“Yes. I had to drag it out of her. She showed up to practice with me and was on the verge of tears.”
Uncharacteristic anger suddenly burned through Lissa. “She had no right!”
“You had no right. Do you honestly think you could do something like that-without ever letting me know?”
“Christian, it was a stupid drunk kiss, for God’s sake. A joke because he saved me from falling off a table. It meant nothing.”
Christian’s face grew pensive, and Lissa thought for sure he was about to agree with her. “It would have been nothing,” he said at last, “if you’d told me yourself. I shouldn’t have had to hear it from someone else.”
“-isn’t the problem. You are.”
Shock stunned Lissa for a moment. “What are you saying?”
“I…” Christian suddenly looked weary. He rubbed his eyes. “I don’t know. It’s just… things have been rough lately. I just… I’m just not sure if I can deal with all this. You were picking fights with me before you left, and now this?”
“Why won’t you listen? It was nothing! Even Avery agreed.”
“Oh,” said Christian sarcastically, “if Avery agreed, then it must be okay.”
Lissa’s temper raised its ugly head. “What’s that supposed to mean? I thought you liked her.”
“I do. But I don’t like how you’re confiding in her more than me lately.”
“You didn’t have a problem with me confiding in Rose.”
“Avery’s not Rose.”
He shook his head. “Look, I don’t really want to go to dinner anymore. I just need to think.”
“When am I going to see you again?” she asked frantically. Her anger had been supplanted by fear.
“I don’t know. Later.”
He left without another word. Lissa stared after him, aghast as he walked out of the lobby. She wanted to go throw herself at him, beg him to come back and forgive her. There were too many people around, however, and she refused to make a scene-or intrude on his space. Instead, she took off to the only resource she had left: Avery.
“Didn’t expect to see you again,” Avery said, opening the door to her room. “What are you-Jesus Christ. What’s the matter?”
She ushered Lissa in and demanded the story. With a lot of tears and near-hysteric rambling, Lissa related what had happened with Christian. “And I don’t know what he meant. Does he want to break up? Will he come talk to me later? Should I go to him?” Lissa buried her face in her hands.
“Oh God. You don’t think there’s anything going on with him and Jill, do you?”
“Jailbait? No,” exclaimed Avery. “Of course not. Look, you need to calm down. You’re freaking me out. This is going to be okay.” Anxiety lined Avery’s face, and she went to get Lissa a glass of water. Then, reconsidering, she poured a glass of wine instead.
Sitting alone, Lissa felt her wild emotions torment her. She hated what she’d done. She felt like there was something wrong with her. First she’d alienated me, and now Christian. Why couldn’t she keep her friends? What did it take? Was she really going crazy? She felt out of control and desperate. And she Bam!
Suddenly, and without warning, I was shoved out of Lissa’s head.
Her thoughts disappeared completely. I’d neither left of my own choice, nor had I been snapped back because of something in my own body. I stood in the room alone, having come to a standstill while pacing and thinking. Never, never had anything like that happened to me. This had been like… well, like a physical force. Like a glass wall or force field slamming down in front of me and pushing me back. It had been an outside power. It hadn’t come from me.
But what was it? Had it been Lissa? To my knowledge, she’d never been able to feel me in her head. Had that changed? Had she kicked me out?
Had her spinning feelings grown so strong that there was no room for me?
I didn’t know, and I didn’t like any of it. When it had happened, aside from the sensation of being pushed, I’d experienced another strange feeling.
It was like a fluttering, as if someone had reached in and tickled my mind. I’d had brief warm and cold flashes, and then it had all stopped once I was out of her head. It had felt invasive.
And it had also felt… familiar.