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I MIGHT HAVE BEEN DETERMINED to find Marcus, but I certainly wasn’t going to argue against a gun.
I raised my hands in the air and slowly stood up, keeping my back to the newcomer. Just as carefully, I stepped away from Marcus and set the vial on the floor. Fumes still wafted out of it, but the reaction would burn itself out soon. Then I dared a peek behind me. When I saw the girl who stood there, I could barely believe my eyes.
“Are you okay?” she asked Marcus. He was unsteadily getting to his feet. “I left as soon as you called.”
“You!” I couldn’t quite manage anything more articulate.
The girl standing before me was close to my age, with long, tangled blond hair. She still had the gun on me, but a small smile appeared on her face.
“Nice to see you again.”
The feeling wasn’t mutual. I’d last seen this girl when I faced down the Warriors in their arena. She’d been toting a gun there as well and had had a perpetual snarl on her face. She’d pushed me around and threatened me, making no secret of how heretical she thought my defense of Sonya was. Although she seemed much calmer now than she had with those fanatics, I still couldn’t dismiss what she was – or what the implications were. I turned to Marcus in disbelief. He was cradling the wrist I’d nailed with my elbow.
“You . . . you’re one of them! One of the Warriors of Light!”
I don’t think I’d ever been so let down in my life. I’d had so many hopes pinned on Marcus. He’d become larger than life in my mind, some rebel savior who was going to tell me all the secrets of the world and free me from being another cog in the machine of the Alchemists. But it was all a lie. Clarence had mentioned Marcus had convinced the Warriors to leave him alone. I’d assumed it was because Marcus had some incredible leverage he could use against the Warriors, but apparently, the key to his influence was that he was one of them.
He looked up from his wrist. “What? Those nuts? Hell, no.”
I almost pointed at the girl but decided it would be best not to make any sudden moves. I settled for a nod in her direction and noticed all the locks on the door had been undone. I’d been so caught up in the struggle with Marcus that I hadn’t heard them. “Really? Then how come one of them just saved you?”
“I’m not really one of them.” She spoke almost casually, but the gun contradicted her tone. “I mean, I guess I kind of am. . . .”
“Sabrina’s a spy,” explained Marcus. He looked much more at ease too, now that I wasn’t assaulting him. “A lovely one. She’s been undercover with them for over a year. She’s also the one who told me about you.”
Once again, it was hard knowing how to respond to that. I also wasn’t sure if I bought this spy story. “What exactly did you tell him?”
He shot me a movie star smile. His teeth were so white that I wondered if he had veneers. It seemed out of character for a rogue who lived on the run, but nothing about this day was really turning out like I’d expected. “She told me about this Alchemist girl who defended a Moroi and then helped lead a dhampir raiding party.”
Lead? Hardly. No one – notably Stanton – had felt the need to enlighten me about that raid until I was in the middle of it. I didn’t want to tip my hand too early though. “The Alchemists sanctioned that raid,” I said.
“I saw the way you spoke,” said Sabrina. Her eyes flicked between Marcus and me, fierce for me and admiring for him. “It was inspiring. And we watched you for a while, you know. You spent an awful lot of time with the Moroi and dhampirs in Palm Springs.”
“It’s my job,” I said. She hadn’t really seemed inspired at the time. Mostly she’d looked disappointed at not having a chance to use the gun on me.
Marcus’s smile turned knowing. “From what I heard, you and those Moroi almost looked like friends. And then, here you are, looking for me. You’re definitely the dissident we’d hoped for.”
No, this was not turning out at all like I’d planned. In fact, it was pretty much the opposite of what I’d planned. I’d been so proud of my ability to track down Marcus, little knowing that he’d been watching me already. I didn’t like that. It made me feel vulnerable, even if they were saying some of things I’d hoped to hear. Needing to feel like I was in control, I tried to play it cool and tough.
“Maybe there are other Alchemists about to show up,” I said.
“They would’ve been here already” he said, calling my bluff. “They wouldn’t have sent you alone . . . though I did panic when I first saw you. I didn’t realize who you were and thought there were others right behind you.” He paused, and that cocky attitude turned sheepish. “Sorry about, um, punching you. If it makes you feel better, you did something pretty serious to my wrist.”
Sabrina’s face filled with concern. “Oh, Marcus. Do you need to see a doctor?”
He tested the movement of his wrist and then shook his head. “You know we can’t. Never know who might be watching at a hospital. Those places are too easy to monitor.”
“You really are hiding from the Alchemists,” I said in amazement.
His nodded, almost looking proud. “You doubted? I figured you’d know that.”
“I suspected, but I didn’t hear it from them. They deny you exist.”
He seemed to find that funny. In fact, he seemed to find everything funny, which I found slightly irritating. “Yup. That’s what I’ve heard from the others.”
“Others like you.” Those blue eyes held me for a moment, like they could see all my secrets. “Other Alchemists wanting to break free of the fold.”
I knew my own eyes were wide. “There . . . there are others?”
Marcus settled on the floor, leaning against the wall and still cradling his wrist. “Let’s get comfortable. Sabrina, put the gun away. I don’t think Sydney’s going to give us any trouble.”
Sabrina didn’t look so sure of that, but after several moments, she complied. She joined him on the floor, positioning herself protectively next to him. “I’d rather stand,” I told them. No way would I willingly sit on that filth. After rolling around with Marcus, I wanted to go bathe myself in hand sanitizer.
He shrugged. “Suit yourself. You want some answers? You give me some first. Why’d you come looking for me off the Alchemist clock?”
I didn’t like being interrogated, but what was the point of being here if I wasn’t going to engage in a dialogue?
“Clarence told me about you,” I said at last. “He showed me your picture, and I saw how you’d tattooed over the lily. I didn’t even know that was possible.” The tattoo never faded.
“Clarence Donahue?” Marcus looked genuinely pleased. “He’s a good guy. I suppose you’d be friends with him if you’re in Palm Springs, huh?”
I started to say we weren’t friends but then reconsidered. What else were we?
“Getting this isn’t easy,” added Marcus, tapping the blue tattoo. “You’ll have to do a lot of work if you want to do it.”
I stepped backward. “Whoa, I never said that’s what I wanted. And why in the world would I do it anyway?”
“Because it’ll free you,” he said simply. “It prevents you from discussing vampire affairs, right? You don’t think that’s all it does, do you? Think. What stops it from exerting other control?”
I pretty much had to just give up on any expectations for this conversation because every topic was crazier than the last. “I’ve never heard of anything like that. I’ve never felt anything like that. Aside from it protecting vampire information, I’m in control.”
He nodded. “Probably. The initial tattoo usually only has the talking compulsion in it. They only start adding other components with re-inks if they’ve got a reason to worry about you. People can sometimes fight through those and if they do . . . well, then it’s off to re-education.”
His words sent a chill through me, and I rested a hand on my cheek as I flashbacked to the meeting I’d had when I was given the Palm Springs assignment. “I was re-inked recently . . . but it was routine.” Routine. Normal. Nothing like what he was suggesting.
“Maybe.” He tilted his head and gave me another piercing look. “You do anything bad before that, love?”
Like helping a dhampir fugitive? “Depends on your definition of bad.”
Both of them laughed. Marcus’s laugh was loud and rollicking and actually pretty infectious – but the situation was far too dire for me to join in.
“They may have reinforced your group loyalty then,” he said, still chuckling. “But it either wasn’t very strong or else you fought through it – otherwise you wouldn’t be here.” He glanced over at Sabrina. “What do you think?”
Sabrina studied me with a critical eye. I still had a hard time believing her role in all of this. “I think she’d be a good addition. And since she’s still in, she could help us with that . . . other matter.”
“I think so too,” he said.
I crossed my arms over my chest. I didn’t like being discussed as though I weren’t there. “A good addition to what?”
“Our group.” To Sabrina, he said, “We really need a name for it, you know.” She snorted, and he returned his attention to me. “We’re a mix. Some are former Warriors or double agents like Sabrina. Some are ex-Alchemists.”
“And what do you do?” I gestured around us. “This doesn’t exactly look like a high-tech base of operation for some covert team.”
“Look at you. Pretty and funny,” he said, looking delighted. “We do what you do – or what you want to do. We like the Moroi. We want to help them – on our own terms. The Alchemists theoretically want to help them too, but we all know that’s based on a core of fear and dislike – not to mention a strict control of its members. So, we work in secret, seeing as the Alchemists aren’t fans of those who break from the fold. They really aren’t fans of me, which is why I end up in places like this.”
“We keep an eye on the Warriors too,” said Sabrina. She scowled. “I hate being around those nuts, having to play along with them. They claim they only want to destroy the Strigoi – but, well, the things I’ve heard them say against the Moroi too . . .”
I thought back to one of my more disturbing memories of the Warrior arena. I’d heard one of them make a mysterious comment about how someday, they’d deal with the Moroi too.
“But what do you guys actually do?” Talking about rebellions and covert operations was one thing, but actually effecting change was another. I’d visited my sister Carly at her college and seen a number of student groups who wanted to change the world. Most of them sat around drinking coffee, talking a lot and doing little.
Marcus and Sabrina exchanged glances. “I can’t quite get into our operations,” he said. “Not until I know you’re on board with breaking your tattoo.”
Breaking your tattoo. There was something sinister – not to mention permanent – about those words, and I suddenly wondered what I was doing here. Who were these people, really? Why was I even humoring them? Then another, almost terrifying thought hit me: Am I doubting them because of the tattoo’s control? Is it making me skeptical around anyone who questions the Alchemists? Is Marcus telling the truth?
“I don’t really understand that either,” I told them. “What it means to ‘break’ the tattoo. Do you just mean putting ink over it?”
Marcus stood up. “All in good time. Right now, we’ve got to get out of here. Even if you were discreet, I assume you used Alchemist resources to find me?”
I hesitated. Even if these guys were legitimate and had good intentions toward the Moroi, I certainly wasn’t going to reveal my involvement with magic. “Something like that.”
“I’m sure you’re good, but we can’t take the chance. This place has been compromised.” He cast a wistful glance around the studio. Honestly, I thought he should be grateful I’d given him a reason to leave.
Sabrina rose as well, her face hardening. “I’ll make sure the secondary location is ready.”
“You’re an angel, as always,” he told her.
“Hey, how did you know I was coming?” I asked. “You had time to hide and call her.” What I really wanted to know was how he’d seen me through the invisibility spell. I’d felt the magic fill me. I was certain I’d cast the spell correctly, but he’d discovered me. The spell wouldn’t work if someone knew to look for you, so maybe he’d happened to glance out the window when I was scaling the fire escape? Worst timing ever.
“Tony warned me.” Marcus flashed me another of those dazzling grins. I think he was trying to make me smile back. “Good kid.”
Tony? Then I knew. The boy in the parking lot. He’d pretended to help me and then sold me out. He must have spoken to Marcus while I climbed the fire escape. Maybe Marcus only answered to some secret knock. At least I had the comfort of knowing I’d cast the spell correctly. It simply hadn’t worked because Marcus had advance warning that some girl was coming after him.
He began packing up his meager belongings into a backpack. “The Catcher in the Rye is a great book, by the way.” He winked. “Maybe someday we’ll have a literary discussion.”
I wasn’t interested in that. Watching him, I saw that he kept favoring his uninjured wrist. I couldn’t believe I’d caused damage like that and felt a little guilty, despite everything that had happened. “You should get that taken care of,” I said. Sabrina nodded in agreement.
He sighed. “I can’t. At least, not through conventional means. The Alchemists have eyes everywhere.”
“I, uh, might be able to help you get it healed through unconventional means,” I said.
“You know some off-the-grid doctor?” asked Sabrina hopefully.
“No. But I know a Moroi spirit user.”
Marcus froze, and I kind of liked that I’d thrown him off guard. “Seriously? We’ve heard of them but never met one. That woman they had – Sonya? She was one, right? She was gone before we could find out more.”
Talking about Adrian made me nervous, but Sabrina probably already knew he existed if they’d been watching me. “Yeah, she was one, and there’s another in Palm Springs. I could take you to him and let him heal you.”
Excitement lit Marcus’s features. Sabrina looked at him in horror. “You can’t just go off with her.” Was that concern or jealousy in her voice?
“Why not?” he asked. “She’s taking a leap of faith with us. We can’t do any less. Besides, I’m dying to meet a spirit user. The safe house isn’t that far from Palm Springs. You make sure everything’s in order and then come pick me up later.”
Sabrina didn’t like that, not at all. Maybe I didn’t understand the dynamics of their group yet, but it was obvious she regarded him as a leader and was insanely protective. In fact, I suspected her feelings for him were more than professional. They went back and forth on whether he’d be safe or not, and I listened without a word. All the while, I wondered if I’d be safe heading off with some unknown guy. Clarence trusted him, I reminded myself. And he’s pretty paranoid. Besides, with Marcus’s wrist out of commission, I could probably take him.
He finally convinced Sabrina to let him go but not before she snarled, “If anything happens to him, I’m coming after you.” Apparently her hard-core character in the arena hadn’t been entirely faked.
We parted ways from her, and before long, Marcus and I were on the road to Palm Springs. I tried to get more information out of him, but he wouldn’t bite. Instead, he kept complimenting me and saying things that were only one step away from pickup lines. Judging from the way he’d bantered with Sabrina too, I didn’t think there was anything particularly special about me. I thought he was just used to women fawning all over him. He was cute, I’d give him that, but it took a lot more than that to win me over.
It was sunset when we pulled up to Adrian’s apartment, and I belatedly wondered if I should’ve given him some advance warning. Too late now.
We walked up to the door, and I knocked three times. “It’s open,” a voice called from within. I stepped inside, and Marcus followed.
Adrian was working on an abstract painting of what looked like a crystalline building from some fantasy world. “Unexpected treat,” he said. His eyes fell on Marcus and widened. “I’ll be damned. You found him.”
“Thanks to you,” I said.
Adrian glanced over at me. A smile started to form – and then instantly dried up. “What happened to your face?”
“Oh.” I lightly touched the swollen spot. It still smarted but wasn’t as painful as it had been earlier. I spoke my next words without thinking. “Marcus hit me.”
I’d never seen Adrian move so fast. Marcus had no chance to react, probably because he was exhausted from our earlier encounter. Adrian shoved Marcus up against a wall and – to my complete and utter astonishment – punched Marcus. Adrian had once joked that he never dirtied his hands, so this was something I never could have prepared myself for. In fact, if Adrian was going to attack someone, I would’ve expected something magical and spirit-driven. Yet . . . as I watched him, I could see that anything as thoughtful as magic was far from Adrian’s mind. He had kicked into primal mode. See a threat. Go after it. It was yet another surprising – yet fascinating – side of the enigma that was Adrian Ivashkov.
Marcus quickly got his bearings and responded in kind. He pushed Adrian back, wincing a little. Even with his injury he was still strong. “What the hell? Who are you?”
“The guy that’s going to kick your ass for hurting her,” said Adrian.
He tried another punch, but Marcus dodged and managed to land a hit that knocked Adrian back into one of his easels. When Marcus swung again, Adrian eluded him with a maneuver that was straight out of Wolfe’s class. I would’ve applauded him if I wasn’t so appalled by the situation. I knew some girls thought it was sexy to have men fight over them. Not me.
“You guys, stop!” I cried.
“No one’s going to throw you around and get away with it,” said Adrian.
“What happened with us has nothing to do with you,” retorted Marcus.
“Everything about her has to do with me.”
The two circled around each other, waiting for the other to pounce. “Adrian,” I exclaimed. “It was an accident.”
“Doesn’t look like an accident,” he replied, never taking his eyes off Marcus.
“You should listen to her,” growled Marcus. The easygoing guy I’d met earlier was gone, but I guess being attacked would do that to you. “It might save you from getting your pretty face wrecked. How much styling did you have to do to get your hair like that?”
“At least I brush my hair,” said Adrian.
Marcus lunged forward – but not directly at Adrian. He grabbed a painting off an easel and used it as a weapon. Adrian again managed a dodge, but the painting didn’t fare so well. The canvas tore, and Marcus tossed it aside, ready for the next advance.
Adrian spared the canvas a brief glance. “Now you’ve really pissed me off.”
“Enough!” Something told me they weren’t going to listen to reason. This required direct intervention. I stalked across the room and pushed myself between them.
“Sydney, get out of the way,” ordered Adrian.
“Yeah,” agreed Marcus. “For once he’s got something worthwhile to say.”
“No!” I held out my hands to separate them. “Both of you back off – now!” My voice rang through the apartment, and I refused to budge. “Back. Off,” I repeated.
“Sydney. . . .” Adrian’s voice was a little more uncertain than when he’d told me to get out of the way.
I looked back and forth between them, giving each guy a healthy glare. “Adrian, it really was an accident. Marcus, this is the guy who’s going to help you, so show some respect.”
This, more than anything, seemed to derail them.
“Wait,” said Adrian. “Did you say ‘help’?”
Marcus was equally flabbergasted. “This asshole is the spirit user?”
“You’re both acting like idiots,” I scolded. The next time I had nothing to do, I’d have to get a book on testosterone-driven behavior. This was out of my league. “Adrian, can we talk somewhere in private? Like the bedroom?”
Adrian agreed, but not before giving Marcus one last menacing look. I told Marcus to stay where he was and hoped he wouldn’t take off or call in someone else with a gun. Adrian followed me to his bedroom and shut the door behind us.
“You know,” he said, “under normal circumstances, you inviting me to the bedroom would be the highlight of my day.”
I crossed my arms and sat on the bed. I did so out of simple fatigue, but a moment later, I was struck by what I was doing. This is where Adrian sleeps. I’m touching the covers he’s wrapped in every night. What does he wear? Does he wear anything?
I jumped up.
“It really was an accident,” I told him. “Marcus thought I was there to abduct him.”
Adrian, having no such hang-ups with the bed, sat down. He winced, probably from the blow to the stomach. “If someone like you showed up to abduct me, I’d let you.”
Even when he was in pain, it never stopped with him. “I’m serious. It was just instinct, and he apologized over and over in the car once he realized who I was.”
That got his attention. “He knew you?”
I gave him a recap of my day in Santa Barbara. He listened avidly, nodding along, his expression shifting back and forth between intrigue and surprise.
“I didn’t realize when I brought him back here that you’d inflict more damage,” I said, once I’d finished the story.
“I was defending your honor.” Adrian gave me that devil-may-care smile that always managed to both infuriate and captivate me. “Pretty manly, huh?”
“Very,” I said dryly. I didn’t like violence, but him doing something so out of character for me actually was kind of incredible. Not that I’d ever tell him that. “You did Wolfe proud. Do you think you can manage not to have any more ‘manly’ displays while he’s here? Please?”
Adrian shook his head, still smiling. “I’ve said over and over, I’d do anything for you. I just keep hoping it’ll be something like, ‘Adrian, let’s go hot tubbing’ or Adrian, take me out for fondue.’”
“Well, sometimes we have to – did you say fondue?” Sometimes it was impossible to follow Adrian’s train of thought. “Why in the world would I ever say that?”
He shrugged. “I like fondue.”
I didn’t even know what to say about that. This whole day was getting more and more exhausting. “I’m sorry I’m not asking for something as glamorous as melted cheese. But for now, I need to find out about Marcus and his group – and the tattoo.”
Adrian recognized the situation’s severity. He stood up and gently touched the lily on my cheek. “I don’t trust him. He could be using you. But then . . . I don’t like the idea of this controlling you either.”
“That makes two of us,” I admitted, losing some of my earlier toughness.
He traced the line of my cheek for a few breathless moments and then dropped his hand. “It might be worth helping him to get some answers.”
“Will you promise not to get in any more fights? Please?”
“I promise,” he said. “So long as he doesn’t start one.”
“I’ll have him promise too.” I just hoped their “manly” natures wouldn’t get the better of them. As I ruminated on this, something I’d nearly forgotten about tumbled to the forefront of my mind. “Oh . . . Adrian, I’ve got one more favor to ask you. A big one.”
“Fondue?” he asked hopefully.
“No. It’s about Ms. Terwilliger’s sister. . . .”
I told him what I’d learned. The amusement in his face faded and turned to disbelief. “You just mention this now?” he exclaimed when I finished. “That some soul-sucking witch might be after you?”
“She doesn’t know I exist.” I felt surprisingly defensive. “And I’m the only one who can help, at least according to Ms. Terwilliger. She thinks I’m some super-investigator.”
“Well, you do have that Sherlock Holmes thing going for you,” he said. His joking didn’t last; he was too upset. “But you still should’ve told me! You could’ve called.”
“I was kind of busy with Marcus.”
“Then your priorities are off. This is a lot more important than his band of Merry Men. If we need to take out some evil sorceress before she gets to you, then of course I’ll help.” He hesitated. “With one condition.”
I eyed him warily. “What’s that?”
“Let me heal you too.”
I jerked backward, almost more shocked than if he’d suggested hitting me again. “No! Absolutely not! I don’t need it. I’m in better shape than him.”
“You want to go back to Amberwood with that on your face? You’re not going to be able to hide that, Sage. And if Castile sees it, he really will come after Marcus.” Adrian crossed his arms defiantly. “That’s my price.”
He was bluffing, and I knew it. Maybe it was egotistical, but I knew he wasn’t going to let me go into a dangerous situation without him. He did, however, have a point. I still hadn’t seen the mark Marcus had left, but I didn’t want to explain it back at school. And yes, there was a good chance Eddie would want to hunt down my assailant. Being beat up by an avenging dhampir might make working with Marcus difficult.
Yet . . . how could I agree? At least the magic I used was on my terms. And although my tattoo had trace amounts of vampire magic, I took comfort in knowing it was tied to the “normal” four elements, the ones we understood. Spirit was still an unknown entity, with abilities that continually surprised us. How could I subject myself to rogue vampire magic?
Guessing my inner turmoil, Adrian’s face softened. “I do this all the time. It’s an easy spell. No surprises.”
“Maybe,” I said reluctantly. “But each time you use spirit, you’re more likely to go crazy.”
“Already crazy about you, Sage.”
At least this was familiar territory. “You said you wouldn’t bring that up.”
He simply regarded me without comment. Finally, I threw my arms up. “Fine,” I said, with more boldness than I felt. “Just get it over with.”
Adrian didn’t waste any time. Stepping forward, he reached out and rested his hand on my cheek once more. My breath caught and my heart rate went up. It would be so, so easy for him to pull me to him and kiss me again. A tingling warmth spread over my skin, and for a moment, I thought it was just my normal reaction to him. No, I realized. It was the magic. His eyes locked onto mine, and for the space of a heartbeat, we were suspended in time. Then he removed his hand and stepped away.
“Done,” he said. “Was that so bad?”
No, it hadn’t been bad at all. The throbbing pain was gone. All that was left was the constant inner voice nagging me that what had just happened was wrong. That same voice tried to tell me that Adrian had left a taint behind . . . but that was hard to believe from him. I released the breath I’d been holding.
“Thank you,” I said. “You didn’t have to do that.”
He gave me one of those small smiles. “Oh, believe me, I did.”
A moment of awkward silence hung between us. I cleared my throat. “Well. We should get back out to Marcus. Maybe we’ll have time for dinner before Sabrina shows up, and you guys can patch things over.”
“I doubt even a moonlight stroll would fix things between us.”
His words reminded me of something else I’d meant to bring up when he got back to town, something that had taken a very low priority. “Your coat – you never took it back after the wedding. It’s in my car.”
He waved dismissively “Keep it. I’ve got others.”
“What am I going to do with a wool coat?” I asked. “Especially here in Palm Springs?”
“Sleep with it,” he suggested. “Think of me.”
I put my hands on my hips and tried to stare him down, which wasn’t easy since he was so tall. That, and because his words suddenly returned me to the disorienting feeling I’d had sitting on his bed. “You said you weren’t going to bring up any romantic stuff around me.”
“Was that romantic?” he asked. “I was just making the suggestion, since the coat’s so heavy and warm. I figured you’d think of me since it was such a nice gesture. And yet, once again, you’re the one who finds romantic subtext in everything I say.”
“I do not. You know that’s not what I meant.”
He shook his head in mock sympathy. “I tell you, Sage. Sometimes I think I’m the one who needs to take out the restraining order on you.”
But he was already out the door, knowing laughter echoing behind him.
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