Shadow Kiss Chapter 29

Twenty-nine

NEARLY A WEEK LATER, I showed up at Adrian’s door.

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We hadn’t had classes since the attack, but our normal curfew hours were still in effect, and it was almost bedtime.Adrian’s face registered complete and total shock when he saw me.It was the first time I’d ever sought him out, rather than vice versa.

“Little dhampir,” he said, stepping aside.

“Come in.”

I did, and was nearly overwhelmed by the smell of alcohol as I passed him. The Academy’s guest housing was nice, but he clearly hadn’t done much to keep his suite clean. I had a feeling he’d probably been drinking nonstop since the attack. The TV was on, and a small table by the couch held a half-empty bottle of vodka. I picked it up and read the label. It was in Russian.

“Bad time?” I asked, setting it back down.

“Never a bad time for you,” he told me gallantly. His face looked haggard. He was still as good-looking as ever, but there were dark circles under his eyes like he hadn’t been sleeping well. He waved me toward an armchair and sat down on the couch. “Haven’t seen much of you.”

I leaned back. “I haven’t wanted to be seen,” I admitted.

I’d hardly spoken to anyone since the attack. I’d spent a lot of time by myself or with Lissa. I took comfort from being around her, but we hadn’t said much. She understood that I needed to process things and had simply been there for me, not pushing me on things I didn’t want to talk about – even though there were a dozen things she wanted to ask.

The Academy’s dead had been honored in one group memorial service, although their families had made arrangements for each person’s respective funeral. I’d gone to the larger service. The chapel had been packed, with standing room only. Father Andrew had read the names of the dead, listing Dimitri and Molly among them. No one was talking about what had really happened to them. There was too much other grief anyway. We were drowning in it. No one even knew how the Academy would pick up the pieces and start running again.

“You look worse than I do,” I told Adrian. “I didn’t think that was possible.”

He brought the bottle to his lips and took a long drink. “Nah, you always look good. As for me … well, it’s hard to explain. The auras are getting to me. There’s so much sorrow around here. You can’t even begin to understand. It radiates from everyone on a spiritual level. It’s overwhelming. It makes your dark aura downright cheerful.”

“Is that why you’re drinking?”

“Yup. It’s shut my aura-vision right off, thankfully, so I can’t give you a report today.” He offered me the bottle, and I shook my head. He shrugged and took another drink. “So what can I do for you, Rose? I have a feeling you aren’t here to check on me.”

He was right, and I only felt a little bad about what I was here for. I’d done a lot of thinking this last week. Processing my grief for Mason had been hard. In fact, I hadn’t even really quite resolved it when the ghost business had started. Now I had to mourn all over again. After all, more than Dimitri had been lost. Teachers had died, guardians and Moroi alike. None of my close friends had died, but people I knew from classes had. They’d been students at the Academy as long as I had, and it was weird to think I’d never see them again. That was a lot of loss to deal with, a lot of people to say goodbye to.

But… Dimitri. He was a different case. After all, how did you say goodbye to someone who wasn’t exactly gone? That was the problem.

“I need money,” I told Adrian, not bothering with pretense.

He arched an eyebrow. “Unexpected. From you, at least. I get that kind of request a lot from others. Pray tell, what would I be funding?”

I glanced away from him, focusing on the television. It was a commercial for some kind of deodorant.

“I’m leaving the Academy,” I said finally.

“Also unexpected. You’re only a few months out from graduation.”

I met his eyes. “It doesn’t matter. I have things to do now.”

“I never figured you’d be one of the dropout guardians. You going to join the blood whores?”

“No,” I said. “Of course not.”

“Don’t act so offended. That’s not an unreasonable assumption. If you’re not going to be a guardian, what else are you going to do?”

“I told you. I have things I have to take care of.”

He arched an eyebrow. “Things that are going to get you into trouble?”

I shrugged. He laughed.

“Stupid question, huh? Everything you do gets you in trouble.” He propped his elbow up on the couch’s arm and rested his chin in his hand. “Why’d you come to me for money?”

“Because you have it.”

This also made him laugh. “And why do you think I’ll give it to you?”

I didn’t say anything. I just looked at him, forcing as much womanly charm as I could into my expression. His smile went away, and his green eyes narrowed in frustration. He jerked his gaze away.

“Damn it, Rose. Don’t do that. Not now. You’re playing on how I feel about you. That’s not fair.” He gulped more vodka.

He was right. I’d come to him because I thought I could use his crush to get what I wanted. It was low, but I had no choice. Getting up, I moved over and sat beside him. I held his hand.

“Please, Adrian,” I said. “Please help me. You’re the only one I can go to.”

“That’s not fair,” he repeated, slurring his words a little. “You’re using those come-hither eyes on me, but it’s not me you want. It’s never been me. It’s always been Belikov, and God only knows what you’ll do now that he’s gone.”

He was right about that too. “Will you help me?” I asked, still playing up the charisma. “You’re the only one I could talk to … the only one who really understands me….”

“Are you coming back?” he countered.

“Eventually.”

Tipping his head back, he exhaled a heavy breath. His hair, which I’d always thought looked stylishly messy, simply looked messy today. “Maybe it’s for the best if you leave. Maybe you’ll get over him faster if you go away for a while. Wouldn’t hurt to be away from Lissa’s aura either. It might slow yours from darkening – stop this rage you always seem to be in. You need to be happier. And stop seeing ghosts.”

My seduction faltered for a moment. “Lissa isn’t why I’m seeing ghosts. Well, she is, but not in the way you think. I see the ghosts because I’m shadow-kissed. I’m tied to the world of the dead, and the more I kill, the stronger that connection becomes. It’s why I see the dead and why I feel weird when Strigoi are near. I can sense them now. They’re tied to that world too.”

He frowned. “You’re saying the auras mean nothing? That you aren’t taking away the effects of spirit?”

“No. That’s happening too. That’s why this has all been so confusing. I thought there was just one thing going on, but there’ve been two. I see the ghosts because of being shadow-kissed. I’m getting… upset and angry… bad, even… because I’m taking away Lissa’s dark side. That’s why my aura’s darkening, why I’m getting so enraged lately. Right now, it just sort of plays out as a really bad temper….” I frowned, thinking of the night Dimitri had stopped me from going after Jesse. “But I don’t know what it’ll turn into next.”

Adrian sighed. “Why is everything so complicated with you?”

“Will you help me? Please, Adrian?” I ran my fingers along his hand. “Please help me.”

Low, low. This was so low of me, but it didn’t matter. Only Dimitri did.

Finally, Adrian looked back at me. For the first time ever, he looked vulnerable. “When you come back, will you give me a fair shot?”

I hid my surprise. “What do you mean?”

“It’s like I said. You’ve never wanted me, never even considered me. The flowers, the flirting … it rolled right off you. You were so gone for him, and nobody noticed. If you go do your thing, will you take me seriously? Will you give me a chance when you return?”

I stared. I definitely hadn’t expected this. My initial instinct was to say no, that I could never love anybody again, that my heart had been shattered along with that piece of my soul that Dimitri held. But Adrian was looking at me so earnestly, and there was none of his joking nature. He meant what he said, and I realized all the affection for me he’d always teased about hadn’t been a joke either. Lissa had been right about his feelings.

“Will you?” he repeated.

God only knows what you’ll do now that he’s gone.

“Of course.” Not an honest answer, but a necessary one.

Adrian looked away and drank more vodka. There wasn’t much left. “When are you leaving?”

“Tomorrow.”

Setting the bottle down, he stood up and walked off into the bedroom. He returned with a large stack of cash. I wondered if he kept it under his bed or something. He handed it to me wordlessly and then picked up the phone and made some calls. The sun was up, and the human world, which handled most Moroi money, was also up and awake.

I tried to watch TV while he talked, but I couldn’t concentrate. I kept wanting to scratch the back of my neck. Because there was no way of knowing exactly how many Strigoi I and the others had killed, we’d all been given a different kind of tattoo instead of the usual set of molnija marks. I’d forgotten its name, but this tattoo looked like a little star. It meant that the bearer had been in a battle and killed many Strigoi.

When he finally finished his calls, Adrian handed me a piece of paper. It had the name and address of a bank in Missoula.

“Go there,” he said. “I’m guessing you have to go to Missoula first anyway if you’re actually going on to anywhere civilized. There’s an account set up for you with … a lot of money in it. Talk to them, and they’ll finish the paperwork with you.”

I stood up and stuffed the bills in my jacket. “Thank you,” I said.

Without hesitating, I reached out and hugged him. The scent of vodka was overpowering, but I felt I owed him. I was taking advantage of his feelings for me in order to further my own devices. He put his arms around me and held me for several seconds before letting go. I brushed my lips against his cheek as we broke apart, and I thought he might stop breathing.

“I won’t forget this,” I murmured in his ear.

“I don’t suppose you’ll tell me where you’re going?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

“Just keep your promise and come back.”

“I didn’t actually use the word promise,” I pointed out.

He smiled and pressed a kiss to my forehead. “You’re right. I’m going to miss you, little dhampir. Be careful. If you ever need anything, let me know. I’ll be waiting for you.”

I thanked him again and left, not bothering to tell him he might be waiting a long time. There was a very real possibility that I might not be coming back.

The next day, I got up early, long before most of campus was awake. I’d hardly slept. I slung a bag over my shoulder and walked over to the main office in the administrative building. The office wasn’t open yet either, so I sat down on the floor in the hallway outside of it. Studying my hands as I waited, I noticed two tiny flecks of gold on my thumbnail. They were the only remnants of my manicure. About twenty minutes later, the secretary showed up with the keys and let me in.

“What can I do for you?” she asked, once she was seated at her desk.

I handed her a stack of papers I’d been holding. “I’m withdrawing.”

Her eyes widened to impossible size. “But…what…you can’t…”

I tapped the stack. “I can. It’s all filled out.”

Still gaping, she muttered something to me about waiting, and then scurried out of the room. A few minutes later, she returned with Headmistress Kirova. Kirova had apparently been briefed and was looking at me very disapprovingly down her beaklike nose.

“Miss Hathaway, what’s the meaning of this?”

“I’m leaving,” I said. “Quitting. Dropping out. Whatever.”

“You can’t do that,” she said.

“Well, obviously I can, since you guys keep withdrawal paperwork in the library. It’s all filled out the way it needs to be.”

Her anger changed into something sadder and more anxious. “I know a lot has gone on lately – we’re all having trouble adjusting – but that’s no reason to make a hasty decision. If anything, we need you more than ever.” She was almost pleading. Hard to believe she’d wanted to expel me six months ago.

“This wasn’t hasty,” I said. “I thought a lot about it.”

“Let me at least get your mother so we can talk this out.”

“She left for Europe three days ago. Not that it matters anyway.” I pointed to the line on the top form that said date of birth. “I’m eighteen today. She can’t do anything anymore. This is my choice. Now, will you stamp the form, or are you actually going to try to restrain me? Pretty sure I could take you in a fight, Kirova.”

They stamped my packet, not happily. The secretary made a copy of the official paper that declared I was no longer a student at St. Vladimir’s Academy. I’d need it to get out the main gate.

It was a long walk to the front of the school, and the western sky was red as the sun slipped over the horizon. The weather had warmed up, even at night. Spring had finally come. It made for good walking weather since I had a ways to go before I made it to the highway. From there, I’d hitchhike to Missoula. Hitchhiking wasn’t safe, but the silver stake in my coat pocket made me feel pretty secure about anything I’d face. No one had taken it away from me after the raid, and it would work just as well against creepy humans as it did with Strigoi.

I could just make out the gates when I sensed her. Lissa. I stopped walking and turned toward a cluster of bud-covered trees. She’d been standing in them, perfectly still, and had managed to hide her thoughts so well that I hadn’t realized she was practically right next to me. Her hair and eyes glowed in the sunset, and she seemed too beautiful and too ethereal to be part of this dreary landscape.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hey.” She wrapped her arms around herself, cold even in her coat. Moroi didn’t have the same resistance to temperature changes that dhampirs did. What I found warm and springlike was still chilly to her. “I knew it,” she said. “Ever since that day they said his body was gone. Something told me you’d do this. I was just waiting.”

“Can you read my mind now?” I asked ruefully.

“No, I can just read you. Finally. I can’t believe how blind I was. I can’t believe I never noticed. Victor’s comment… he was right.” She glanced off at the sunset, then turned her gaze back on me. A flash of anger, both in her feelings and her eyes, hit me. “Why didn’t you tell me?” she cried. “Why didn’t you tell me you loved Dimitri?”

I stared. I couldn’t remember the last time Lissa had yelled at anyone. Maybe last fall, when all the Victor insanity had gone down. Loud outbursts were my thing, not hers. Even when torturing Jesse, her voice had been deadly quiet.

“I couldn’t tell anyone,” I said.

“I’m your best friend, Rose. We’ve been through everything together. Do you really think I would have told? I would have kept it secret.”

I looked at the ground. “I know you would have. I just… I don’t know. I couldn’t talk about it. Not even to you. I can’t explain it.”

“How…” She groped for the question her mind had already formed. “How serious was it? Was it just you or – ?”

“It was both of us,” I told her. “He felt the same. But we knew we couldn’t be together, not with our age…and, well, not when we were supposed to be protecting you.”

Lissa frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Dimitri always said that if we were involved, we’d worry more about protecting each other than you. We couldn’t do that.”

Guilt coursed through her at the thought that she’d been responsible for keeping us apart.

“It’s not your fault,” I said quickly.

“Surely…there must have been a way. … It wouldn’t have been a problem….”

I shrugged, unwilling to think about or mention our last kiss in the forest, back when Dimitri and I had thought we’d figured out a solution to all of our problems.

“I don’t know,” I said. “We just tried to stay apart. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t.”

Her mind was a tumble of emotions. She felt sorry for me, but at the same time, she was mad. “You should have told me,” she repeated. “I feel like you don’t trust me.”

“Of course I trust you.”

“Is that why you’re sneaking off?”

“That has nothing to do with trust,” I admitted. “It’s me…well, I didn’t want to tell you. I couldn’t bear to tell you I was leaving or explain why.”

“I already know,” she said. “I figured it out.”

“How?” I asked. Lissa was full of surprises today.

“I was there. Last fall when we took that van into Missoula. The shopping trip? You and Dimitri were talking about Strigoi, about how becoming one makes you something twisted and evil…how it destroys the person you used to be and makes you do horrible things. And I heard …” She had trouble saying it. I had trouble hearing it, and my eyes grew wet. The memory was too harsh, thinking of sitting with him that day, back when we were first falling in love. Lissa swallowed and continued. “I heard you both say you’d rather die than become a monster like that.”

Silence fell between us. The wind picked up and blew our hair around, dark and light.

“I have to do this, Liss. I have to do it for him.”

“No,” she said firmly. “You don’t have to. You didn’t promise him anything.”

“Not in words, no. But you … you don’t understand.”

“I understand that you’re trying to cope and that this is as good a way as any. You need to find another way to let him go.”

I shook my head. “I have to do this.”

“Even if it means leaving me?”

The way she said it, the way she looked at me … oh God. A flood of memories flitted through my mind. We’d been together since childhood. Inseparable. Bound. And yet…Dimitri and I had been connected too. Damn it. I’d never wanted to have to choose between them.

“I have to do this,” I said yet again. “I’m sorry.”

“You’re supposed to be my guardian and go with me to college,” she argued. “You’re shadow-kissed. We’re supposed to be together. If you leave me …”

The ugly coil of darkness was starting to raise its head in my chest. My voice was tight when I spoke. “If I leave you, they’ll get you another guardian. Two of them. You’re the last Dragomir. They’ll keep you safe.”

“But they won’t be you, Rose,” she said. Those luminous green eyes held mine, and the anger in me cooled. She was so beautiful, so sweet… and she seemed so reasonable. She was right. I owed it to her. I needed to –

“Stop it!” I yelled, turning away. She’d been using her magic. “Do not use compulsion on me. You’re my friend. Friends don’t use their powers on each other.”

“Friends don’t abandon each other,” she snapped back. “If you were my friend, you wouldn’t do it.”

I spun back toward her, careful not to look too closely into her eyes, in case she tried compulsion on me again. The rage in me exploded.

“It’s not about you, okay? This time, it’s about me. Not you. All my life, Lissa … all my life, it’s been the same. They come first. I’ve lived my life for you. I’ve trained to be your shadow, but you know what? I want to come first. I need to take care of myself for once. I’m tired of looking out for everyone else and having to put aside what I want. Dimitri and I did that, and look what happened. He’s gone. I will never hold him again. Now I owe it to him to do this. I’m sorry if it hurts you, but it’s my choice!”

I’d shouted the words, not even pausing for a breath, and I hoped my voice hadn’t carried to the guardians on duty at the gate. Lissa was staring at me, shocked and hurt. Tears ran down her cheeks, and part of me shriveled up at hurting the person I’d sworn to protect.

“You love him more than me,” she said in a small voice, sounding very young.

“He needs me right now.”

“I need you. He’s gone, Rose.”

“No,” I said. “But he will be soon.” I reached up my sleeve and took off the chotki she’d given me for Christmas. I held it out to her. She hesitated and then took it.

“What’s this for?” she asked.

“I can’t wear it. It’s for a Dragomir guardian. I’ll take it again when I …” I had almost said if, not when. I think she knew that. “When I get back.”

Her hands closed around the beads. “Please, Rose. Please don’t leave me.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. There were no other words to offer up. “I’m sorry.”

I left her there crying as I walked toward the gate. A piece of my soul had died when Dimitri had fallen. Turning my back on her now, I felt another piece die as well. Soon there wouldn’t be anything left inside of me.

The guardians at the gate were as shocked as the secretary and Kirova had been, but there was nothing they could do. Happy birthday to me, I thought bitterly. Eighteen at last. It was nothing like I had expected.

They opened the gates and I stepped through, outside of the school’s grounds and over the wards. The lines were invisible, but I felt strangely vulnerable and exposed, as if I’d leapt a great chasm. And yet, at the same time, I felt free and in control. I started walking down the narrow road. The sun was nearly gone; I’d have to rely on moonlight soon.

When I was out of earshot of the guardians, I stopped and spoke. “Mason.”

I had to wait a long time. When he appeared, I could barely see him at all. He was almost completely transparent.

“It’s time, isn’t it? You’re going…you’re finally moving on to…”

Well, I had no clue where he was moving on to. I didn’t know anymore what lay beyond, whether it was the realms Father Andrew believed in or some entirely different world that I’d visited. Nonetheless, Mason understood and nodded.

“It’s been more than forty days,” I mused. “So I guess you’re overdue. I’m glad … I mean, I hope you find peace. Although I kind of hoped you’d be able to lead me to him.”

Mason shook his head, and he didn’t need to say a word for me to understand what he wanted to tell me. You’re on your own now, Rose.

“It’s okay. You deserve your rest. Besides, I think I know where to start looking.” I’d thought about this constantly over the last week. If Dimitri was where I believed he was, I had a lot of work ahead of me. Mason’s help would have been nice, but I didn’t want to keep bothering him. It seemed like he had enough to deal with.

“Goodbye,” I told him. “Thanks for your help I … I’ll miss you.”

His form grew fainter and fainter, and just before it went altogether, I saw the hint of a smile, that laughing and mischievous smile I’d loved so much. For the first time since his death, thinking about Mason no longer devastated me. I was sad and I really would miss him, but I knew he’d moved on to something good – something really good. I no longer felt guilty.

Turning away, I stared at the long road winding off ahead of me. I sighed. This trip might take awhile.

“Then start walking, Rose,” I muttered to myself.

I set off, off to kill the man I loved.

As always, I can never express enough gratitude to the friends and family who hang with me through the ups and downs that go along with writing a book – let alone one as powerful as this. Many thanks to David and Christina for their speedy beta reading; to LA. Gordon and Sherry Kirk for their help with Russian; to Synde Korman for her help with Romanian; to my agent Jim McCarthy who is wise and does all the hard stuff for me; to editors Jessica Rothenberg and Ben Schrank for all of their guidance; to the Team Seattle authors for their distraction and good cheer; and to Jay for being infinitely patient…and even making a good joke once in a while.

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