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GOING OUT AGAIN didn’t really happen until the weekend. Brayden and I were both overachieving enough to manage weeknight outings and still finish homework – but neither of us liked to do it if we could avoid it. Besides, my weeknights usually had some other conflict with the gang, be it a feeding or the experiments. Eddie had given his blood this week, and I’d made a point to not be around when it happened, lest Sonya try to pitch to me again.
Brayden had wanted to go out Saturday, but that was the day I’d promised to drive Adrian to San Diego. Brayden compromised on breakfast, catching me before I hit the road, and we went out to a restaurant adjacent to one of Palm Springs’ many lush golf resorts. Although I had long since offered to pull my share, Brayden continued picking up the bills and doing all the driving. As he pulled up in front of my dorm to drop me off afterward, I saw a surprising and not entirely welcome sight awaiting me: Adrian sitting outside on a bench, looking bored.
“Oh geez,” I said.
“What?” asked Brayden.
“That’s my brother.” I knew there was no avoiding this. The inevitable had happened. Adrian would probably cling to Brayden’s bumper until he got an introduction. “Come on, you can meet him.”
Brayden left the car idling and stepped out, casting an anxious glance at the NO PARKING
sign. Adrian jumped up from his seat, a look of supreme satisfaction on his face.
“Wasn’t I supposed to pick you up?” I asked.
“Sonya had some errands to run and offered to drop me here while she was out,” he explained.
“Figured we’d save you some trouble.” Adrian had known what I was doing this morning, so I wasn’t entirely sure his motives had been all that selfless.
“This is Brayden,” I told him. “Brayden, Adrian.”
Adrian shook his hand. “I’ve heard so much about you.” I didn’t doubt that but wondered who exactly he’d heard it from.
Brayden gave a friendly smile back. “I’ve actually never heard of you. I didn’t even know Sydney had another brother.”
“You never mentioned me?” Adrian shot me a look of mock hurt.
“It never came up,” I said.
“You’re still in high school, right?” asked Adrian. He nodded toward the Mustang. “You must have a side job to make those car payments, though. Unless you’re one of those slackers who just tries to get money off of their parents.”
Brayden looked indignant. “Of course not. I work almost every day at a coffee shop.”
“A coffee shop,” repeated Adrian, managing to convey a million shades of disapproval in his tone. “I see.” He glanced over at me. “I suppose it could be worse.”
“Adrian – “
“Well, it’s not like I’m going to work there forever,” protested Brayden. “I’ve already been accepted to USC, Stanford, and Dartmouth.”
Adrian nodded thoughtfully. “I guess that’s respectable. Although, I’ve always thought of Dartmouth as the kind of school people go to when they can’t get into Yale or Harv – “
“We really need to go,” I interrupted, grabbing hold of Adrian’s arm. I attempted to tug him toward the student parking lot and failed. “We don’t want to get caught in traffic.” Brayden glanced at his cell phone. “Traffic patterns should be relatively light going west this time of the day, but being a weekend, you never know how tourists might alter things, especially with the various attractions in San Diego. If you look at traffic models applying the Chaos Theory – “
“Exactly,” I said. “Better safe than sorry. I’ll text you when I get back, okay? We’ll figure out the rest of this week.”
For once, I didn’t have to stress about handshaking or kissing or anything like that. I was too fixated on dragging Adrian away before he could open his mouth and say something inflammatory.
Brayden, while passionate about academic topics and me disagreeing with him, tended to otherwise be pretty mild-mannered. He hadn’t exactly been upset just now, but that was certainly the most agitated I’d ever seen him. Leave it to Adrian to work up even the most easygoing people.
“Really?” I asked, once we were safely inside Latte. “You couldn’t have just said ‘nice to meet you,’ and let it go?”
Adrian pushed back the passenger seat, managing the most lounging position possible while still wearing a seatbelt. “Just looking out for you, sis. Don’t want you ending up with some deadbeat. Believe me, I’m an expert on that kind of thing.”
“Well, I appreciate your insider knowledge, but I’ll manage this on my own, thanks just the same.”
“Come on, a barista? Why not some business intern?”
“I like that he’s a barista. He always smells like coffee.” Adrian rolled down a window, letting the breeze ruffle his hair. “I’m surprised you let him drive you around, especially considering the way you freak out if anyone touches the controls in your car.”
“Like the window?” I asked pointedly. “When the air conditioning’s on?” Adrian took the hint and raised the window back up. “He wants to drive. So I let him. Besides, I like that car.”
“That is a nice car,” Adrian admitted. “Though I never took you for the type to go for status symbols.”
“I don’t. I like it because it’s an interesting car with a long history.”
“Translation: status symbol.”
“Adrian.” I sighed. “This is going to be a long ride.” In actuality, we made pretty good time. Despite Brayden’s speculations, traffic moved easily, enough that I felt I deserved a coffee break halfway through. Adrian got a mocha – “Can you spot me this one time, Sage?” – and maintained his usual breezy conversation style throughout most of the trip. I couldn’t help but notice, when we were about thirty minutes out, he grew more withdrawn and thoughtful. His banter dropped off, and he spent a lot of time gazing out the window.
I could only assume the reality of his seeing his dad was setting in. It was certainly something I could relate to. I’d be just as anxious if I was about to see mine. I didn’t really think Adrian would appreciate a shared psychotherapy session, though, so I groped for a safer topic to draw him out of his blue mood.
“Have you guys learned anything from Eddie and Dimitri’s blood?” I asked.
Adrian glanced at me in surprise. “Didn’t expect you to bring that up.”
“Hey, I’m curious about the science of it. I just didn’t want to participate.” He accepted this. “Not much to tell so soon. They sent the samples off to a lab – one of your labs, I think – to see if there’s anything physically different between the two. Sonya and I did pick up a… oh, I don’t know how to describe it. Like, a ‘hum’ of spirit in Belikov’s blood.
Not that him having magic blood should surprise anyone. Most people seem to think everything he does is magic.”
“Oh, come on,” I said. “That’s unfair.”
“Is it? You’ve seen the way Castile worships him. He wants to be just like Belikov when he grows up. And even though Sonya’s usually the spokesperson for our research, she won’t breathe without checking with him beforehand. ‘What do you think, Dimitri?’ ‘Is this a good idea, Dimitri?’ ‘Please give us your blessing so that we can fall down and worship you, Dimitri.’” I shook my head in exasperation. “Again – unfair. They’re research partners. Of course she’s going to consult him.”
“She consults him more than me.”
Probably because Adrian always looked bored during their research, but I figured it wouldn’t help to bring that up. “They’ve both been Strigoi. They’ve kind of got a unique insight to this.”
He didn’t respond for several moments. “Okay. I’ll give you points for that. But you can’t argue that there was any competition between me and him when it came to Rose. You saw them together. I never had a chance. I can’t compare.”
“Well, why do you have to?” Part of me also wanted to ask what Rose had to do with this, but Jill had told me numerous times that for Adrian, everything came back to Rose.
“Because I wanted her,” Adrian said.
“Do you still want her?”
No answer. Rose was a dangerous topic; one I wished we hadn’t weirdly stumbled into.
“Look,” I said. “You and Dimitri are two different people. You shouldn’t compare yourself to him. You shouldn’t try to be like him. I mean, I’m not going to sit here and rip him apart or anything.
I like Dimitri. He’s smart and dedicated, insanely brave and ferocious. Good in a fight.
And he’s just a nice guy.”
Adrian scoffed. “You left out dreamy and ruggedly handsome.”
“Hey, you’re pretty easy on the eyes too,” I teased, quoting something he’d told me a while ago. He didn’t smile. “And don’t underestimate yourself. You’re smart too, and you can talk yourself out of – and into – anything. You don’t even need magical charisma.”
“So far I’m not seeing a lot of difference between me and a carnival con-man.”
“Oh, stop,” I said. He could make me laugh even with the most serious of topics. “You know what I mean. And you’re also one of the most fiercely loyal people I know – and caring, no matter how much you pretend otherwise. I see the way you look after Jill. Not many people would’ve traveled across the country to help her. And almost no one would have done what you did to save her life.”
Again, Adrian took a while to respond. “But what are loyal and caring really worth?”
“To me? Everything.”
There was no hesitation in my answer. I’d seen too much backstabbing and calculation in my life. My own father judged people not by who they were but by what they could do for him.
Adrian did care passionately about others underneath all of his bravado and flippancy. I’d seen him risk his life to prove it. Considering I’d had someone’s eye cut out to avenge my sister…
well. Devotion was definitely something I could appreciate.
Adrian didn’t say anything else for the rest of the drive, but at least I didn’t get the impression he was brooding anymore. Mostly he seemed thoughtful, and that wasn’t so concerning.
What did make me a little uneasy was that I often caught sight of him studying me in my periphery.
I replayed what I’d said over and over in my mind, trying to figure out if there’d been anything to warrant such attention.
Adrian’s father was staying at a sprawling San Diego hotel with a vibe similar to the resort Brayden and I had eaten breakfast at. Businessmen in suits mingled with pleasure seekers in tropical prints and flip-flops. I’d almost worn jeans to breakfast and was glad now for my choice of a gray skirt and short-sleeved blouse with a muted blue and gray print. It had a tiny ruffled trim, and the skirt had a very, very faint herringbone pattern. Normally, I wouldn’t have worn such contrasting textures together, but I’d liked the boldness of the look. I’d pointed it out to Jill before I left the dorm for breakfast. It’d taken her a while to even find the contrasting textures, and when she did, she’d rolled her eyes. “Yeah, Sydney. You’re a real rebel.” Meanwhile, Adrian was in one of his typical summer outfits, jeans and a button-up shirt – though of course the shirt was untucked, with the sleeves rolled up and a few top buttons undone. He wore that look all the time, and despite its casual façade, he often made it appear dressy and fashionable. Not today, however. These were the most worn-out jeans I’d ever seen him wear – the knees were on the verge of having holes. The dark green shirt, while nice quality and a perfect match for his eyes, was wrinkled to inexplicable levels. Sleeping in it or tossing it on the floor wouldn’t achieve that state. I was pretty sure someone would have to actually crumple it into a ball and sit on it for it to look that bad. If I’d noticed it back at Amberwood (and hadn’t been so distracted getting him away from Brayden), I would’ve insisted on ironing the shirt before we left.
He still looked good, of course. He always looked good, no matter the condition of his clothing and hair. It was one of the more annoying things about him. This rumpled look made him come across as some pensive European model. Studying him as we took the elevator to the second floor lobby, I decided it couldn’t be a coincidence that the most disheveled outfit I’d ever seen Adrian in had fallen on the day he had a father-son visit. The question was: why? He’d complained that his dad always found fault with him. Dressing this way seemed like Adrian was just providing one more reason.
The elevator opened, and I gasped as we stepped out. The back wall of the lobby was almost entirely covered with windows that offered a dramatic view of the Pacific. Adrian chuckled at my reaction and took out his cell phone. “Take a closer look while I call the old man.”
He didn’t have to tell me twice. I walked over to one of the glass walls, admiring the vast, blue-gray expanse. I imagined that on cloudy days, it would be hard to tell where sky ended and ocean began. The weather was gorgeous out today, full of sun and a perfectly clear azure-blue sky. On the lobby’s right side, a set of doors opened up onto a Mediterranean style balcony where diners were enjoying lunch out in the sun. Looking down to ground level, I caught sight of a sparkling pool as blue as the sky, surrounded in palm trees and sunbathers.
I didn’t have the same longing for water that a magic user like Jill possessed, but I had been living in the desert for almost two months. This was amazing.
I was so transfixed with the beauty outside that I didn’t notice Adrian’s return. In fact, I didn’t even notice he was standing right beside me until a mother calling for her daughter –
also named Sydney – made me glance aside. There, I saw Adrian only inches away, watching me with amusement.
I flinched and stepped back a little. “How about some warning next time?” He smiled. “I didn’t want to interrupt. You looked happy for a change.”
“For a change? I’m happy lots of times.”
I knew Adrian well enough to recognize the sign of an incoming snarky comment. At the last second, he changed course, his expression turning serious. “Does that guy – that Brendan guy – “
“Does that Brayden guy make you happy?”
I looked at Adrian in surprise. These kinds of questions were almost always a setup from him, but his neutral face made it hard to guess his motives this time.
“I guess,” I said at last. “Yeah. I mean, he doesn’t make me unhappy.” That brought Adrian’s smile back. “Red-hot answer if ever there was one. What do you like about him? Aside from the car? And that he smells like coffee?”
“I like that he’s smart,” I said. “I like that I don’t have to dumb myself down around him.” Now Adrian frowned. “You do that a lot for people?”
I was surprised at the bitterness in my own laugh. “‘A lot?’ Try all the time. Probably the most important thing I’ve learned at Amberwood is that people don’t like to know how much you know. With Brayden, there’s no censoring for either of us. I mean, just look at this morning.
One minute we were talking Halloween costumes, the next we were discussing the ancient Athenian origins of democracy.”
“I’m not going to claim to be a genius, but how the hell did you make that leap?”
“Oh,” I said. “Our Halloween costumes. We’re dressing Greek. From the Athenian era.”
“Of course,” he said. And this time, I could tell the snark was about to return. “No sexy cat costumes for you. Only the most dignified, feminist attire will do.” I shook my head. “Feminist? Oh, no. Not Athenian women. They’re about as far from feminist as you can – well, forget it. It’s not really important.” Adrian did a double take. “That’s it, isn’t it?” He leaned toward me, and I nearly moved back… but something held me where I was, something about the intensity in his eyes.
“What?” I asked.
He pointed at me. “You stopped yourself just now. You just dumbed it down for me.” I hesitated only a moment. “Yeah, I kind of did.”
“Because you really don’t want to hear about ancient Athens, any more than you wanted to hear Brayden talk about Chaos Theory.”
“That’s different,” said Adrian. He hadn’t moved away and was still standing so, so close to me. It seemed like that should’ve bothered me, but it didn’t. “He’s boring. You make learning fun. Like a children’s book or after school special. Tell me about your… um, Athenian women.” I tried not to smile. I admired his intentions here but knew he really wasn’t up for a history lesson. Again, I wondered what game was going on. Why was he pretending to be interested?
I tried to compose an answer that would take less than sixty seconds.
“Most Athenian women weren’t educated. They mostly stayed inside and were just expected to have kids and take care of the house. The most progressive women were the hetaerae.
They were like entertainers and high-class prostitutes. They were educated and a little flashier.
Powerful men kept their wives at home to raise children and then hung out with hetaerae for fun.” I paused, unsure if he’d followed any of that. “Like I said, it’s not really important.”
“I don’t know,” said Adrian thoughtfully. “I find prostitutes vastly important.”
“Well. How refreshing to see that things haven’t changed,” a new voice cut in.
We both flinched and looked up at the scowling man who had just joined us.
Adrian’s father had arrived.
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