Friday, August 16, 2019

The Golden Lily Chapter 6

â€Å"YOU SHOOK HIS HAND?† Adrian asked incredulously. I shot an accusing look at Eddie and Angeline. â€Å"Is nothing private around here?† â€Å"No,† said Angeline, as bluntly honest as ever. Eddie actually chuckled. It was a rare moment of camaraderie between them. â€Å"Was it supposed to be a secret?† he asked. We were over at Clarence Donahue's house for Jill and Adrian's biweekly blood feedings. Jill was off right now with Clarence's human housekeeper, Dorothy, who doubled as his feeder. I could take a lot of Moroi things in stride now, but drinking blood – human blood – made me shudder every time. My best coping mechanism was trying to forget why we were here. â€Å"No,† I admitted. Julia and Kristin had grilled me for date details a couple of days ago, so I'd given them some. I supposed I had to accept that once I told them anything, it would inevitably get back to everyone in the world. No doubt my Amberwood family had then passed it on to Adrian. â€Å"Really?† Adrian was still hung up on the end of my date. â€Å"His hand?† I sighed and sank back into a sleek leather sofa. Clarence's house always reminded me of some stereotypical haunted manor from the outside – but inside it was modern and well furnished. â€Å"Look, it just happened – okay, you know what? Never mind. This is none of your business. Just let it go.† But something in Adrian's expression told me he would not, in fact, be letting it go anytime soon. â€Å"With all that red-hot passion, it's a wonder you guys can stay away from each other,† said Adrian, deadpan. â€Å"Is there going to be a second date?† Eddie and Angeline looked at me expectantly. I hesitated. This was information I hadn't given up to Julia and Kristin, largely because it had only just been arranged. â€Å"Yes,† I said at last. â€Å"We're going on a, um, windmill tour later this week.† If I'd wanted to shut them all up, I'd definitely succeeded. They all looked stunned. Adrian spoke first. â€Å"I'm going to assume that means he's flying you to Amsterdam on his private jet. If so, I'd like to come along. But not for the windmills.† â€Å"There's a huge windmill farm north of Palm Springs,† I explained. â€Å"It's one of the only ones in the world that does public tours.† More blank looks. â€Å"Wind energy is a powerful renewable resource that could have a huge impact on our country's future!† I said in exasperation. â€Å"This is a cool thing.† â€Å"‘Cool,'† said Adrian. â€Å"‘Wind.' I see what you did there, Sage. Pretty clever.† â€Å"It wasn't meant to be a – â€Å" The sitting room's stained glass French doors opened, and Dimitri and Sonya entered with our host Clarence in tow. I hadn't seen him since I arrived and gave him a polite smile, glad for the distraction from my so-called love life. â€Å"Hello, Mr. Donahue,† I said. â€Å"It's nice to see you again.† â€Å"Eh?† The elderly Moroi man squinted in my direction, and after a few moments, recognition lit his features. He had white hair and always dressed as though he were at a formal dinner party from about fifty years ago. â€Å"There you are. Glad you could stop by, my dear. What brings you over?† â€Å"Jill's feeding, sir.† We did this two times every week, but Clarence's mind wasn't quite what it used to be. He'd been pretty scattered since we first met, but the death of his son, Lee, had seemed to push the old man even farther over the edge – particularly since he didn't seem to believe it. We'd told him gently – a number of times – that Lee had died, leaving out the Strigoi part. Each time we did, Clarence insisted Lee was just â€Å"away right now† and would be back. Scattered or not, Clarence was always kind and relatively harmless – for a vampire, of course. â€Å"Ah, yes, naturally.† He settled into his massive armchair and then glanced back toward Dimitri and Sonya. â€Å"So you'll be able to fix the window locks?† There had apparently been some other discussion going on before they joined us. Dimitri seemed to be trying to find a nice way to respond. He was as amazing to look at as ever, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, with a long leather duster over it all. How anyone could survive wearing a coat like that in Palm Springs was beyond me, but if anyone could, I supposed it was him. Usually he only wore it inside, but sometimes, I'd see it outside too. I'd mentioned this odd wardrobe choice to Adrian a couple of weeks ago: â€Å"Isn't Dimitri hot?† Adrian's response hadn't been entirely unexpected: â€Å"Well, yeah, according to most women, at least.† Dimitri's face was the picture of politeness as he addressed Clarence's concerns. â€Å"I don't believe there's anything wrong with the ones you have,† Dimitri said. â€Å"Everything is sealed up pretty tightly.† â€Å"So it seems,† said Clarence ominously. â€Å"But you don't know how resourceful they are. I'm not behind the times, you know. I know there are all sorts of technologies out there that you can put in. Like lasers that tell you if someone's breaking in.† Dimitri arched an eyebrow. â€Å"You mean a security system?† â€Å"Yes, exactly,† said Clarence. â€Å"That'll keep the hunters out.† This turn in conversation wasn't exactly a surprise to me. Clarence's paranoia had also increased recently – and that was saying something. He lived in constant fear of what he claimed were vampire hunters, humans who†¦ well, hunted vampires. For the longest time, he'd claimed they were responsible for his niece's death and that reports of her being killed by a Strigoi were incorrect. It turned out he was half-right. Her death hadn't been the result of a Strigoi attack – it had been caused by Lee, in a desperate attempt to change back from a Moroi to a Strigoi. Clarence refused to accept that, however, and persisted in his beliefs about the hunters. My assurances that the Alchemists had no records of any groups like that existing since the Middle Ages hadn't gone very far. Consequently, Clarence was always making people do â€Å"security checks† of his house. Since Sonya a nd Dimitri were actually staying with him throughout the experimentation, that tedious task often fell to them. â€Å"I'm not really qualified to install a security system,† said Dimitri. â€Å"Really? There's something you can't do?† Adrian's voice was so soft that I could barely hear him, and he was sitting right next to me. I doubted even the others, with their superior hearing, could've made out his words. Why does he still let Dimitri get to him? I wondered. â€Å"You'd have to call professionals,† Dimitri continued to Clarence. â€Å"I'm guessing you wouldn't want a bunch of strangers coming in and out of your house.† Clarence frowned. â€Å"That's true. It'd be very easy for the hunters to infiltrate them.† Dimitri was the picture of patience. â€Å"I'll do daily checks of all the doors and windows while I'm here – just to be sure.† â€Å"That would be wonderful,† said Clarence, some of his tension easing. â€Å"Admittedly, I'm not really the hunters' usual type. Not dangerous enough. Not anymore.† He chuckled to himself. â€Å"Still. You never know what could happen. Best to be safe.† Sonya gave him a gentle smile. â€Å"I'm sure everything will be fine. You have nothing to worry about.† Clarence met her eyes, and after a few seconds, a smile slowly spread over his face as well. His rigid posture slackened. â€Å"Yes, yes. You're right. Nothing to worry about.† I shivered. I'd been around Moroi enough to know what had happened. Sonya had just used compulsion – only a whisper of it – to calm Clarence. Compulsion, the ability to force your will on others, was a skill all Moroi possessed to varying degrees. Spirit users were the strongest, rivaling Strigoi. Using compulsion on others was taboo among the Moroi, and there were serious consequences for those who abused it. I was guessing Moroi authorities would overlook her soothing a nervous old man, but the small act still unsettled me. Compulsion in particular had always struck me as one of the most insidious Moroi powers. And had Sonya really needed to use it? She was already so kind and soothing. Wouldn't that be enough for Clarence? Sometimes I wondered if they just used magic for the sake of doing so. Sometimes I wondered if it was being used around me†¦ without me even knowing. Clarence's talk of vampire hunters always triggered a mix of amusement and unease around everyone. With him pacified (even if I didn't like the means), we were all able to relax a little bit. Sonya leaned back against the loveseat, drinking some fruity drink that looked perfect on a hot day like this. From her dirty clothes and haphazard hairstyling, I was willing to bet she'd been outside – not that she still didn't look beautiful. Most Moroi avoided this kind of intense sun, but her love of plants was so great that she'd been risking it to work on some of the ailing flowers in Clarence's garden. Heavy sunscreen could work wonders. â€Å"I'm not going to be around much longer,† she told us. â€Å"A few more weeks at most. I need to go back and work on some wedding plans with Mikhail.† â€Å"When's the big day again?† Adrian asked. She smiled. â€Å"It's in December.† That surprised me until she added, â€Å"There's a huge, tropical greenhouse near the Court that we're going to use. It's gorgeous – not that it matters. Mikhail and I could be married anywhere. All that counts is that we're together. Of course, if we're able to choose, then why not go all out?† Even I smiled at that. Leave it to Sonya to find a spot of green in the middle of a Pennsylvania winter. â€Å"Dimitri may stay on,† she continued. â€Å"But it'd be great if we could make some kind of progress before I go. The aura tests so far have been†¦Ã¢â‚¬  â€Å"Useless?† suggested Adrian. â€Å"I was going to say inconclusive,† she replied. Adrian shook his head. â€Å"So all that time we spent was wasted?† Sonya didn't answer and instead took another sip of her drink. I was willing to bet it was non-alcoholic – she didn't self-medicate the way Adrian did – and that Dorothy could make me one if I wanted. Yet, I was also willing to bet it was terrible for me. Maybe I'd see if there was any Diet Coke in the kitchen. Sonya leaned forward, an eager glint in her eye. â€Å"Dimitri and I were talking and realized there's something obvious we've been missing. Actually, I should say avoiding, but not pursuing it would be a waste.† â€Å"What's that?† asked Adrian. â€Å"Blood,† said Dimitri. I winced. I didn't like it when this topic came up. It reminded me of exactly what kind of people I was with. â€Å"Obviously, there's something about restored Strigoi that protects them – us,† he said. â€Å"We've looked for magical signs, but the answer might be more physical. And from the report I read, the Strigoi had trouble drinking ll – his blood.† Dimitri had been about to say Lee, but had amended his choice out of respect for Clarence. The old man's dazed, happy look made it hard to tell if he understood what we were discussing at all. â€Å"They complained about it,† I agreed. â€Å"But that didn't seem to stop them from drinking it.† Strigoi could be forcibly created if a Strigoi drained a victim's blood and then fed Strigoi blood back to him or her. Lee had asked Strigoi to do this for him, but all draining him had achieved was death. â€Å"We'd like to take a sample of Dimitri's blood and then compare it to yours, Eddie,† said Sonya. â€Å"Blood can hold all sorts of magical properties, which might show us how to fight Strigoi.† I kept my face as blank as possible, praying no one would notice me. Blood can hold all sorts of magical properties. Hopefully, in all this talk, no one would recall the mystery of why my blood was inexplicably revolting to Strigoi. And really, why should they? I'd never been restored. I wasn't a dhampir. There was no reason at all they'd want me in these experiments. And yet, if that was true, why was I suddenly sweating? â€Å"We can send it to a lab for the chemical part and try to read any magical properties off it too,† Sonya continued. She sounded apologetic, but Eddie didn't look concerned. â€Å"No problem,† he said. â€Å"Whatever you need.† He meant it too, I knew. Losing blood was a million times easier for him than being inactive. Besides, he probably lost more blood in daily practice than he'd even need to give up for this experiment. â€Å"If you need another dhampir,† said Angeline. â€Å"You can use me too. Me and Eddie could help you. We'd be a team. Sydney wouldn't have to keep coming along, especially now that she's got a boyfriend.† There were so many things wrong with that, I didn't know where to start. The confidence Eddie had shown over giving blood vanished at â€Å"we'd be a team.† â€Å"We'll consider it,† said Sonya. There was a sparkle in her eye, and I remembered her saying she could see affection in auras. Could she detect Angeline's crush? â€Å"For now, I'd rather not take you away from your schoolwork. It's less important for Eddie since he's already graduated, but you should keep up with it.† Angeline looked unhappy about that. She'd had a number of difficulties with her classes, not to mention some outright embarrassments – like when she'd been asked to create a map of Central America and had shown up with one of Nebraska and Kansas. She put on a cocky face, but I knew Amberwood overwhelmed her sometimes. Jill joined us, looking bright and refreshed. Ideally, Moroi drank blood every day. They could survive on this twice-a-week schedule, but I'd noticed that Jill grew tired and rundown the farther she got from feedings. â€Å"Your turn, Adrian,† she said. He was yawning and looked startled at being noticed. I don't think he'd really been interested in Sonya's blood experiments. As he stood up, he glanced over at me. â€Å"Will you walk with me a sec, Sage?† Before I could even lodge my protest, he said, â€Å"Don't worry, I'm not taking you to the feeding. I just want to ask you a quick question.† I nodded and followed him out of the room. As soon as we were away from the others, I said, â€Å"I do not want to hear any more ‘witty' commentary on Brayden.† â€Å"My commentary's hilarious, not witty. But that's not what I wanted to talk about.† He came to a halt in the hallway, outside what I suspected was Dorothy's room. â€Å"So, it seems my old man's coming to San Diego on business next weekend.† I leaned against the wall and crossed my arms, already getting a bad feeling about this. â€Å"He doesn't know why I'm here, of course, or that I'm with Jill. He doesn't even know what city I'm in. He just thinks I'm partying in California, up to no good as usual.† I wasn't surprised that Mr. Ivashkov wouldn't know the true reason for Adrian being here. Jill's â€Å"resurrection† was top secret, as were her whereabouts. We couldn't risk any extra people – not even someone who might not mean her harm – finding out where she was. What did surprise me was that Adrian was working so hard to act like he didn't care what his father thought – but he obviously did. Adrian's face was convincing, but there was a note of bitterness in his voice that gave him away. â€Å"Anyway,† Adrian continued, â€Å"he said he'd meet me for lunch if I wanted. Normally, I'd blow it off†¦ but I'd kind of like to know what's going on with my mom – they never tell me when I call or e-mail.† Again, I picked up mixed emotions from him. Adrian's mother was serving time in a Moroi prison for crimes of intrigue. You wouldn't know it by his cocky attitude and sense of humor, but it must have been hard on him. â€Å"Let me guess,† I said. â€Å"You want to borrow my car.† I was sympathetic to those with difficult fathers, even Adrian. But my compassion only went so far and didn't extend to Latte. I couldn't risk any dents. Besides, the idea of being stuck without any way to get around scared me, especially when vampires were involved. â€Å"No way,† he said. â€Å"I know better than that.† He did? â€Å"Then what do you want?† I asked, surprised. â€Å"I was hoping you'd drive me.† I groaned. â€Å"Adrian, it takes two hours to get there.† â€Å"It's pretty much a straight shot down the highway,† he pointed out. â€Å"And I figured you'd drive a four-hour round-trip before giving up your car to someone else.† I eyed him. â€Å"That's true.† He took a step closer, a disconcertingly earnest expression all over his face. â€Å"Please, Sage. I know it's a lot to ask, so I'm not even going to pretend you'd benefit. I mean, you can spend the day in San Diego doing whatever you want. It's not the same as going to see solar panels or whatever with Brady, but I'd owe you – literally and figuratively. I'll pay you gas money.† â€Å"It's Brayden, and where in the world would you get gas money?† Adrian lived on a very tight allowance his father gave him. It was part of why Adrian was taking college classes, in the hopes that he'd get financial aid next semester and have a bit more of an income. I admired that, though if we were all actually still in Palm Springs come January, it'd mean the Moroi had some serious political problems. â€Å"I†¦ I'd cut back on things to come up with the extra money,† he said after a few moments of hesitation. I didn't bother hiding my surprise. â€Å"Things† most likely meant alcohol and cigarettes, which was where his meager allowance usually went. â€Å"Really?† I asked. â€Å"You'd give up drinking to go see your dad?† â€Å"Well, not permanently,† he said. â€Å"That'd be ridiculous. But maybe I could switch to something slightly cheaper for a while. Like†¦ slushes. Do you know how much I love those? Cherry, especially.† â€Å"Um, no,† I said. Adrian was easily distractible by wacky topics and shiny objects. â€Å"They're pure sugar.† â€Å"Pure deliciousness, you mean. I haven't had a good one in ages.† â€Å"You're getting off topic,† I pointed out. â€Å"Oh. Right. Well, whether I have to go on a slush-based diet or whatever, you'll get your money. And that's the other reason†¦ I'm kind of hoping the old man might agree to up my income. You probably don't believe it, but I hate always borrowing from you. It's easy for my dad to dodge phone calls, but face-to-face? He can't escape. Plus, he thinks it's more ‘manly' and ‘respectable' to ask for something directly. Classic Nathan Ivashkov honor.† Once again, the bitterness. Maybe a little anger. I studied Adrian for a long time as I thought about my next response. The hall was dim, giving him the advantage. He could probably see me perfectly while some details were more difficult for me. Those green, green eyes I so often admired in spite of myself simply looked dark now. The pain on his face, however, was all too apparent. He hadn't yet learned to hide his feelings from Jill and the bond, but I knew he kept that lazy, devil-may-care attitude on for the rest of the world – well, for everyone except me lately. This wasn't the first time I'd seen him vulnerable, and it seemed weird to me that I, of all people, was the one he kept baring his emotions to. Or was it weird? Maybe this was just my social ineptitude confusing me again. Regardless, it pulled at something within me. â€Å"Is that really what this is about? The money?† I asked, tucking my other questions aside. â€Å"You don't like him. There has to be something more here.† â€Å"The money's a big part. But I meant what I said earlier†¦ about my mom. I need to know how she is, and he won't tell me about her. Honestly, I think he just wants to pretend it never happened – either for that reputation of his or maybe†¦ maybe because it hurts him. I don't know, but like I said, he can't dodge if I'm right there. Plus†¦Ã¢â‚¬  Adrian glanced away a moment before mustering the courage to meet my eyes again. â€Å"I don't know. It's stupid. But I thought†¦ well, maybe he'd be impressed that I was sticking to college this time. Probably not, though.† My heart ached for him, and I suspected that last part – earning his dad's approval – was bigger than Adrian was letting on. I knew all about what it was like to have a father who continually judged, whom nothing was ever good enough for. I understood as well the warring emotions†¦ how one day you could say you didn't care, yet be yearning for approval the next. And I certainly understood motherly attachment. One of the hardest parts of being in Palm Springs was the distance from my mom and sisters. â€Å"Why me?† I blurted out. I hadn't meant to touch on those earlier questions, but I suddenly couldn't help myself. There was too much tension here, too much emotion. â€Å"You could've asked Sonya or Dimitri to drive you. They probably would've even let you borrow their rental car.† The ghost of a smile flashed across Adrian's face. â€Å"I don't know about that. And I think you know why I don't want to risk being trapped in a car with our Russian friend. As for the rest†¦ I don't know, Sage. There's something about you†¦ you don't judge like the others. I mean, you do. You're more judgmental than any of them in some ways. But there's an honesty to it. I feel†¦Ã¢â‚¬  The smile left his face as he faltered for words. â€Å"Comfortable around you, I guess.† There was no way I could stand against that, though I find it ironic he was allegedly most comfortable around me when Moroi gave me panic attacks half the time. You don't have to help, an inner voice warned me. You don't owe him anything. You don't owe any Moroi anything that isn't absolutely necessary. Have you forgotten Keith? This isn't a part of your job. The bunker came back to me, and I recalled how one vampire deal had landed Keith in Reeducation. How much worse was I? Social interaction was an inevitable part of this assignment, but I was blurring all the lines around it again. â€Å"Okay,† I said. â€Å"I'll do it. E-mail me what time you need to leave.† That's when the funniest part came. He looked totally floored. â€Å"Really?† I couldn't help but laugh. â€Å"You gave me that whole pitch and didn't really think I'd agree, did you?† â€Å"No,† he admitted, still clearly amazed. â€Å"I can't always tell with you. I cheat with people, you know. I mean, I'm good at reading faces, but I pick up a lot from auras and act like I just have amazing insight. I haven't learned to totally understand humans, though. You've got the same colors but a different feel.† Auras didn't weird me out as much as other vampire magic, but I still wasn't entirely comfortable with them. â€Å"What color is mine?† â€Å"Yellow, of course.† â€Å"Of course?† â€Å"Smart, analytic types usually have yellow. You've got a little purple here and there, though.† Even in the dimness, I could see a mischievous spark in his eyes. â€Å"That's what makes you interesting.† â€Å"What's purple mean?† Adrian put his hand on the door. â€Å"Gotta go, Sage. Don't want to keep Dorothy waiting.† â€Å"Come on. Tell me what purple is.† I was so curious, I nearly grabbed his arm. He turned the knob. â€Å"I will if you want to join us.† â€Å"Adrian – â€Å" Laughing, he disappeared inside the room and shut the door. With a shake of my head, I started to return to the others and then decided to seek out my Diet Coke after all. I lingered with it in the kitchen for a while, leaning against the granite countertops and staring absentmindedly at the brilliant copper pots hanging from the ceiling. Why had I agreed to drive Adrian? What was it about him that managed to crack all the propriety and logic I built my life around? I understood why I often had a soft spot for Jill. She reminded me of my younger sister, Zoe. But Adrian? He wasn't like anyone I knew. In fact, I was fairly certain there was no one in the entire world quite like Adrian Ivashkov. I delayed so long that when I returned to the living room, Adrian was on his way back too. I sat down on the couch, nursing the last of my Diet Coke. Sonya brightened upon seeing me. â€Å"Sydney, we just had a wonderful idea.† Maybe I wasn't always the quickest in picking up social cues, but I did notice this wonderful idea was addressed to me, and not Adrian and me. â€Å"We were just talking about the reports from the night of the†¦ incident.† She gave Clarence a meaningful look, and I nodded in understanding. â€Å"Both the Moroi and the Alchemists said the Strigoi had trouble with your blood too, correct?† I stiffened, not liking this at all. It was a conversation I'd lived in fear of. The Strigoi who'd killed Lee hadn't just had â€Å"trouble† with my blood. Lee's had tasted strange to them. Mine had been disgusting. The one who'd tried to drink from me hadn't been able to tolerate it at all. She'd even spit it out. â€Å"Yes†¦Ã¢â‚¬  I said carefully. â€Å"Obviously, you're not a restored Strigoi,† said Sonya. â€Å"But we'd like to take a look at your blood too. Maybe there's something about it that could help us. A small sample should suffice.† All eyes were on me, even Clarence's. The room started to close in as a familiar panic filled me. I had thought a lot about why the Strigoi hadn't liked my blood – actually, I'd tried to avoid thinking about it. I didn't want to believe there was anything special about me. There couldn't be. I didn't want to attract anyone's attention. It was one thing to facilitate these experiments and another to actually be a subject. If they wanted me for one test, they might want me for something else. And then something else. I'd end up locked away, poked and prodded. There was also the fact that I just didn't want to give up my blood. It didn't matter that I liked Sonya and Dimitri. It didn't matter that the blood would be drawn with a needle, not teeth. The basic concept was still there, a taboo stemming from the most rudimentary of Alchemist beliefs: giving blood to vampires was wrong. It was my blood. Mine. No one – especially vampires – had any business with it. I swallowed, hoping I didn't look like I wanted to bolt. â€Å"It was only one Strigoi's opinion. And you know they don't like humans as well as†¦ you guys.† That was part of why the Moroi lived in such fear and had seen their numbers reduced over time. They were the creme de la creme of Strigoi cuisine. â€Å"That's probably all it was.† â€Å"Perhaps,† said Sonya. â€Å"But there's no harm done in checking.† Her face was alight with this new idea. I hated turning her down†¦ but my principles on this matter were too strong. It was everything I'd been raised to believe. â€Å"I think it's a waste of time,† I said. â€Å"We know spirit has to be involved, and I have no connection to that.† â€Å"I do think it would be helpful,† she said. â€Å"Please.† Helpful? From her point of view, yes. She wanted to rule out every possibility. But my blood had nothing to do with Strigoi conversions. It couldn't. â€Å"I†¦ I'd rather not.† A tame response, considering the emotions churning inside me. My heart was starting to race, and the walls were still closing in on me. My anxiety increased as I was visited by an old feeling, the awful realization that I was outnumbered here at Clarence's. That it was me and a roomful of vampires and dhampirs. Unnatural creatures. Unnatural creatures who wanted my blood†¦ Dimitri studied me curiously. â€Å"It won't hurt, if that's what you're afraid of. We don't need any more than what a doctor would take.† I shook my head adamantly. â€Å"No.† â€Å"Both Sonya and I have training in this sort of thing,† he added, trying to reassure me. â€Å"You don't have to worry about – â€Å" â€Å"She said no, okay?† All the eyes that had been on me suddenly jerked toward Adrian. He leaned forward, fixing his gaze on Sonya and Dimitri, and I saw something in those pretty eyes I'd never seen before: anger. They were like emerald fire. â€Å"How many times does she have to refuse?† Adrian demanded. â€Å"If she doesn't want to, then that's all there is to it. This has nothing to do with her. This is our science project. She's here to protect Jill and has plenty to do there. So stop harassing her already!† â€Å"‘Harassing' is kind of a strong word,† Dimitri said, calm in the face of Adrian's outburst. â€Å"Not when you keep pushing someone who wants to be left alone,† countered Adrian. He shot me a concerned look before fixing his anger back on Sonya and Dimitri. â€Å"Stop ganging up on her.† Sonya glanced uncertainly between us. She looked legitimately hurt. As astute as she was, I don't think she'd realized how much this bothered me. â€Å"Adrian†¦ Sydney†¦ we aren't trying to upset anyone. We just really want to get to the bottom of this. I thought all of you did too. Sydney's always been so supportive.† â€Å"It doesn't matter,† growled Adrian. â€Å"Take Eddie's blood. Take Belikov's blood. Take your own for all I care. But if she doesn't want to give hers, then that's all there is to it. She said no. This conversation is done.† Some distant part of me noticed that this was the first time I'd ever seen Adrian stand up to Dimitri. Usually, Adrian simply tried to ignore the other man – and hoped to be ignored in return. â€Å"But – † began Sonya. â€Å"Let it go,† said Dimitri. His expression was always difficult to read, but there was a gentleness in his voice. â€Å"Adrian's right.† Unsurprisingly, the room was a little tense after that. There were a few halting attempts at small talk that I hardly noticed. My heart was still in overtime, my breath still coming fast. I worked hard to calm down, reassuring myself that the conversation was done, that Sonya and Dimitri weren't going to interrogate me or forcibly drain my blood. I dared a peek at Adrian. He no longer looked angry, but there was still a fierceness there. It was almost†¦ protective. A strange, warm feeling swirled in my chest, and for a brief moment, when I looked at him, I saw†¦ safety. That wasn't usually the first sentiment I had around him. I shot him what I hoped was a grateful look. He gave me a small nod in return. He knows, I realized. He knows how I feel about vampires. Of course, everyone knew. Alchemists made no secret about how we believed most vampires and dhampirs were dark creatures who had no business interacting with humans. Because I was with them so often, however, I didn't think my cohort here in Palm Springs really understood how deeply that belief ran. They understood it in theory but didn't really feel it. They had no reason to since they hardly ever saw any evidence of it in me. But Adrian understood. I didn't know how, but he did. I thought back on the handful of times I'd freaked out around them since being in Palm Springs. Once had been at a mini-golf course when Jill had used her water magic. Another time had been with the Strigoi and Lee, when Adrian had offered to heal me with his magic. Those were small lapses of control for me, ones none of the others had even noticed. Adrian had. How was it that Adrian Ivashkov, who never seemed to take anything seriously, was the only one among these â€Å"responsible† people who had paid attention to such small details? How was he the only one to really understand the magnitude of what I was feeling? When the time came to leave, I drove Adrian home along with the rest of us Amberwood students. More silence persisted in the car. Once Adrian had been dropped off, Eddie relaxed and shook his head. â€Å"Man. I don't think I've ever seen Adrian so mad. Actually, I've never seen Adrian mad at all.† â€Å"He wasn't that mad,† I said evasively, eyes on the road. â€Å"He seemed pretty mad to me,† said Angeline. â€Å"I thought he was going to jump up and attack Dimitri.† Eddie scoffed. â€Å"I don't think it was going to quite reach that point.† â€Å"I dunno,† she mused. â€Å"I think he was ready to take on anyone who messed with you, Sydney.† I continued staring ahead, refusing to look at any of them. The whole encounter had left me feeling confused. Why had Adrian protected me? â€Å"I offered to do him a favor next weekend,† I said. â€Å"I think he feels like he owes me.† Jill, sitting beside me in the passenger seat, had been quiet thus far. With the bond, she might know the answer. â€Å"No,† she said, a puzzled note in her voice. â€Å"He would have done it for you regardless.†

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