BEFORE CLASS THE NEXT DAY, I left a message with someone at the Alchemists' office, telling them I needed "Mr. and Mrs. Melrose" to send a note excusing Jill from PE - or at least from outdoor activities. I hoped they'd move quickly on this. The Alchemists were fast when they wanted to be, but they sometimes had odd ideas of what took priority. I hoped they didn't have the same attitude toward Jill's misery as Keith did.
But I knew not to expect any action that day, so Jill had to suffer through another PE class - and I had to suffer through watching her suffer. What was really terrible was that Jill didn't whine or try to get out of anything. She didn't even show any sign of last night's breakdown. She came in with determination and optimism, as though maybe this would be the day the sun wouldn't affect her. Yet, before long, she began to wane just as she had last time. She looked sick and tired, and my own performance faltered a little because I kept watching her, afraid she'd pass out.
Micah was the saving grace. Once again, he fearlessly switched teams - this time from the very start of class. He covered for her just as he had last time, allowing her to escape the notice of teacher and classmates - well, except for Laurel, who seemed to notice - and get annoyed by - everything he did. Her eyes flicked angrily between him and Jill, and she kept flinging her hair over her shoulder to get his attention. I was a little amused to note that Micah's attention remained solely on keeping the ball away from Jill.
Micah also jumped immediately to her side when class ended and had a water bottle ready, which she accepted gratefully. I was grateful too, but seeing his concern for her dredged up all my old worries. She was good to her word, however. She returned his attentions in a friendly way, but you definitely couldn't call it flirting. He made no secret of his intentions, though, and I still worried that it would be better if she didn't have to deal with them. I'd meant it when I said I trusted her, but I couldn't help but think it'd be a lot easier on everyone if he laid off in his advances. This would require A Talk. Dreading what I had to do, I caught up with Micah outside the locker rooms. We were both waiting for Jill to finish up, and I took advantage of the alone time with him.
"Hey, Micah," I said, "I need to talk to you..."
"Hey," he returned brightly. His blue eyes were wide and excited. "I had an idea I wanted to run past you. If you guys aren't able to get a note for her, maybe you could see about getting her schedule switched around? If she took PE first period, it wouldn't be nearly as hot out yet. Maybe it wouldn't be as hard on her. I mean, she seems like she'd like to participate in some of this stuff."
"She would," I said slowly. "And that's a really good idea."
"I know some people who work in the office. I'll ask them to run some options and see if it's even possible with the rest of her classes." He faked a pout. "I'll be sad not to have her in class, but it'd be worth it to know she's not so miserable."
"Yeah," I agreed weakly, suddenly feeling at a loss. He really had come up with a good idea. He was even unselfish enough to give up the chance to be with her in order to promote the greater good. How could I have "the talk" with him now? How could I suddenly say, "Leave my sister alone," when he was going out of his way to be so nice? I was as bad as Eddie, avoiding confrontation with Micah. This guy was too likable for his own good.
Before I could manage a response, Micah then went off in an unexpected direction. "You really should get her to a doctor, though. I don't think she has a sun allergy."
"Oh?" I asked in surprise. "Have you not been watching her suffer through class each day?"
"No, no, believe me, she's definitely got an issue with the sun," he assured me quickly. "But she might be misdiagnosed. I read up on sun allergies, and people usually get rashes with them. This overall weakness she gets... I don't know. I think it might be something else."
Oh no. "Like what?"
"I don't know," he mused. "But I'll keep researching theories and let you know."
PE also gave me my first glimpse at one of Amberwood's metallic tattoos in action. Greg Slade was impossible not to watch during class, and I wasn't the only one who got distracted. Just as Kristin and Julia had said, he really was faster and stronger. He made dives no one else was quick enough to react to. When he hit the ball, it was a wonder we didn't hear a sonic boom shortly thereafter. This earned him praise at first, but soon, I noticed something. There was a sloppy edge to his game. He was filled with ability, yes, but sometimes it was unfocused. Those powerful hits didn't always help because he'd blast the ball out of bounds. And in running to make a shot, he rarely considered those around him. When a guy from my English class got knocked down flat on his back, simply for being in the path of Slade and the ball, Miss Carson stopped the game and roared her displeasure about Slade's aggression. He took it in with a sulky smirk.
"Too bad Eddie's not in this class," Jill said afterward. "He'd be a total match for Slade."
"Maybe it's better no one notices," I remarked. Eddie, from what I'd heard, was already a shining star in his PE class. It was part of a dhampir's natural athleticism, and I knew he was actually working hard not to be too good at everything.
I checked in with Ms. Terwilliger after PE, happy to find my teacher fully stocked with coffee of her own. I spent most of the period going through the book and taking notes on my laptop. Partway through, she came over to check my work.
"You're very organized," she said, looking over my shoulder. "Headings and subheadings and sub-subheadings."
"Thank you," I said. Jared Sage had been very particular in teaching his children research skills.
Ms. Terwilliger took a sip of coffee and continued reading the screen. "You didn't list the ritual and spell steps," she pointed out moments later. "You just summarize them in a couple lines."
Well, yes, that was the point of note-taking. "I cite all the page numbers," I said. "If you need to check the actual components, there's an easy reference."
"No... go back and put all the steps and ingredients in your notes. I want to be able to have them all in one place."
You do have them in one place, I wanted to say. In the book. Notes were about condensing the material, not retyping the original text word for word. But Ms. Terwilliger had already wandered away, staring at her filing cabinet absentmindedly as she muttered to herself about a misplaced folder. With a sigh, I flipped back to the beginning of the book, trying not to think about how this was going to set me back. At least I was only doing this for credit and not a grade.
I stayed past the late bell in an effort to make up some lost time. When I got back to my room, I had to wake up Jill, who was sound asleep after her exhausting day.
"Good news," I told her as she blinked at me with sleepy eyes. "It's feeding day."
Definitely words I never thought I'd say.
I also didn't think I'd be excited for it. And sure, I certainly wasn't thrilled about the idea of Jill biting into Dorothy's neck. I was, however, feeling pretty bad for Jill and was glad she'd get some nourishment. Being on such a limited supply of blood had to make things doubly hard for her.
We met up with Eddie downstairs when it was time to go. He looked Jill over worriedly. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," she said with a smile. She looked nowhere near as bad as she had earlier. I shuddered to think what Eddie would've done if he'd actually been in our class and seen her at her worst.
"Why is this still going on?" he asked me. "Weren't you going to talk to Keith?"
"We're a little delayed," I said evasively, leading them to where Latte was parked in the student lot. "We'll make it happen." If the Alchemists didn't come through with the note, I was going to try to act on Micah's suggestion and get her switched into morning PE.
"We know you will," said Jill. I could just barely pick out the sympathy in her voice, reminding me that she knew about my fight with Keith yesterday. I hoped she wouldn't mention it in front of Eddie and was saved when she switched to a more random and surprising topic. "Do you think we can pick up some pizza along the way? Adrian doesn't want any more of Dorothy's cooking."
"How terrible for him," remarked Eddie, getting into the backseat and letting Jill ride shotgun. "Having a personal chef on hand to make him whatever he wants. I don't know how he gets by."
I laughed, but Jill seemed outraged on Adrian's behalf. "It's not the same! She cooks really super-gourmet stuff."
"Still waiting for the problem," said Eddie.
"She tries to also make it really healthy. She says it's better for Clarence. So, there's never any salt and pepper or butter." Jeez, how often did she and Adrian talk? "There's no flavor or anything. It's driving him crazy."
"Everything seems to be driving him crazy," I remarked, remembering his plea for new lodging. "And he can't have it too bad. Didn't he go to LA last night?" Jill's only answer was a frown.
Nonetheless, I had a feeling we'd be hanging out at Clarence's for a while, and I personally didn't want to eat anything prepared in that house. So, it was more for selfish reasons that I agreed to stop at a takeout place en route and buy a few pizzas. Adrian's face was radiant when we entered the sitting room, which - pool games aside - seemed to be his primary hangout at Clarence's.
"Jailbait," he declared, leaping up. "You're a saint. A goddess, even."
"Hey," I said, "I'm the one who paid for them."
Adrian carried off one of the boxes to the couch, much to Dorothy's dismay. She hurried off muttering about plates and napkins. Adrian gave me a conciliatory nod.
"You're okay too, Sage," he said.
"Well, well, what have we here?" Clarence came tottering into the room. I hadn't noticed before, but he used a cane to get around. It had a crystal snake head on top, which was both impressive and scary. Just the kind of thing you'd picture for an old vampire. "Looks like a party."
Lee was with him, greeting us with smiles and nods. His eyes lingered briefly on Jill, and he made a point of sitting near her - but not too near. Jill perked up more than she had in days. Everyone was just starting to dive into the pizza when Dorothy appeared in the doorway with a new guest. I felt my eyes widen. It was Keith.
"What are you doing here?" I asked, keeping my voice neutral.
He winked. "Came to check in on everybody and make sure all's well. That's my job - to look after everyone."
Keith was chipper and friendly as he helped himself to the pizza, with no indication of the fight we'd gotten into last time. He smiled and talked to everyone as though they were all best friends, leaving me totally bewildered. No one else seemed to think anything odd about his behavior - but then, why would they? None of them had my history with Keith.
No - that wasn't quite true. Despite being deep in conversation with Eddie, Adrian paused to give me a curious look, silently asking about yesterday's fight. He glanced at Keith and then back to me. I shrugged helplessly, letting him know I was just as confused by the change of heart. Maybe Keith regretted his outburst from yesterday. Of course, that would've been much easier to accept if it had come with, oh, an apology.
I nibbled on a piece of cheese pizza, but mostly I observed the others. Jill was animatedly recounting her first couple of days to Adrian, noticeably leaving out any of the negative parts. He listened to her indulgently, nodding and interjecting with occasional witty quips. Some of the stuff she told him was pretty basic, and I was surprised it hadn't come up in their phone conversations. Maybe he just had so much to say at those times that there'd been no chance for her. As it was, he made no mention of his boredom or other grievances.
Clarence occasionally chatted with Eddie and Lee, but his eyes constantly strayed to Jill. There was a wistful look in his gaze, and I remembered that his niece had only been a little older than Jill. I wondered if perhaps part of the reason he'd been so willing to take us all on was in an effort to reclaim some part of the family life that had been lost to him.
Keith had sat down near me, at first making me uncomfortable but then later giving me a reason to pick his brain. Seeing the others engaged in conversation, I asked him softly, "Have you ever heard of knockoff Alchemist tattoos making it into the general population?"
He gave me a startled look in return. "I don't even know what that means."
"At Amberwood, there's this trend. There's apparently someplace in town that gives metallic tattoos, and they have special properties - kind of like ours. Some just kind of give off a high. Others kind of have a steroid effect."
He frowned. "They're not bound with gold, are they?"
"No. Silver and copper. So, they don't last. Probably so the people giving them can make more money."
"But they can't be ours, then," he argued. "We haven't used those metals for tattoos in centuries."
"Yeah, but someone may be using Alchemist technology to create these."
"Just to get people high?" he asked. "I wouldn't even know how you'd go about that with metallic agents."
"I have some ideas," I said.
"And let me guess. They involve narcotic mixtures." When I nodded, he sighed and gave me a look like I was ten years old. "Sydney, it's most likely someone's found a crude tattooing method that's like ours but has no connection. If so, there's nothing we can do about it. Drugs happen. Bad things happen. If it isn't mixed with Alchemist business, then it isn't our business."
"But what if it is connected to Alchemist business?" I asked.
He groaned. "See? This is why I was worried about you coming, this tendency you have of running off with tangents and wild theories."
"I don't - "
"Please don't embarrass me," he hissed, casting a glance at the others. "Not with them, not with our superiors."
His rebuke silenced me, mostly from surprise. What did he mean about this "tendency" I had? Was he actually suggesting he had made some deep psychological analysis of me years ago? The idea that I would embarrass him was ludicrous... and yet his words planted a seed of doubt in me. Maybe the tattoos at Amberwood were just an unrelated fad.
"How's PE?" Adrian's words dragged me from my own thoughts. He was still getting the summary of school from Jill. She made a face at the question. "Not great," she admitted, giving a recap of some of the worse moments. Eddie shot me a meaningful look, similar to the one from earlier.
"You can't go on like that," exclaimed Lee. "The sun around here's brutal."
"I agree," said Keith, of all people. "Sydney, why didn't you tell me how bad it was?"
I think my jaw hit the floor. "I did! That's why I was trying to get you to contact the school."
"You didn't really give me the whole story." He flashed one of his sugary smiles at Jill. "Don't worry. I'll take care of this for you. I'll get in touch with school officials - and the Alchemists."
"I already talked to them," I argued.
But I might as well have not said anything. Keith had already switched topics and was talking to Clarence about something irrelevant. Where had this about-face come from? Yesterday, Jill's discomfort had been low priority. Today, Keith was her knight in shining armor. And in the process, he was suggesting that I was the one who'd screwed up. That's his plan, I realized. He doesn't want me here. He never has. And then something even worse occurred to me.
He's going to use this to start building a case against me.
Across the room, Adrian caught my eye again. He knew. He'd been eavesdropping when I talked to Keith in the driveway. Adrian started to speak, and I knew he was going to call Keith out on his lie. It was gallant but not what I wanted. I would deal with Keith myself.
"How was LA?" I asked quickly before Adrian had a chance to say anything. He looked at me curiously, no doubt wondering why I wouldn't let him be a witness to my case. "You went there with Lee last night, right?"
Adrian looked confused, but a grin smoothed over his face. "Yeah," he said at last. "It was great. Lee showed me college life."
Lee laughed. "I wouldn't go that far. I don't know where you were half the night."
Adrian got this look on his face that was somehow charming but made me want to slap him at the same time. "We parted ways. I was getting to know some of the other Moroi in the area."
Even Eddie couldn't stay silent at that. "Oh, is that what you call it?"
Jill abruptly stood up. "I'm going to get my blood now. Is that okay?"
There was a moment of awkward silence, largely because I don't think anyone really knew who she was asking permission from. "Of course, my dear," said Clarence, stepping into his role as host. "I believe Dorothy's in the kitchen."
Jill gave a curt nod and hurried out of the room. The rest of us exchanged puzzled glances.
"Is something wrong?" asked Lee, looking worried. "Should I... should I go talk to her?"
"She's still just stressed," I said, not daring to mention the screaming or crying episodes.
"I thought of something that might be fun for her... for all of us to do," he said tentatively. He glanced around and then settled his gaze on me. I guess I was the designated mother here. "If you think it's okay. I mean... it's kind of silly, but I thought we could go mini-golfing in the evening. They've got all these fountains and pools on the course. She's a water user, right? She must be missing it out here."
"She does," said Eddie, frowning. "She mentioned it yesterday."
I shivered. Keith had been texting on his phone and froze. No matter our differences, we still shared a core of similar training, and both of us were uneasy with the idea of Moroi magic.
"She'd probably like that a lot," said Adrian. He sounded reluctant to admit it. I think he was still uneasy with the idea of Lee being interested in Jill, no matter how friendly the two guys were. Lee's idea was both innocent and conscientious. Hard to find fault with.
Lee tilted his head thoughtfully. "You have a later curfew on the weekends, right? Do you want to go tonight?"
It was Friday, granting us an extra hour extension at our dorm. "I'm game," said Adrian. "Literally and figuratively."
"If Jill's there, I'm there," said Eddie.
They looked at me. I was trapped. I wanted to go back and catch up on homework. Saying that sounded pathetic, though, and I supposed I had to represent as Jill's only female chaperone. Besides, I reminded myself, this assignment wasn't about me and my academics, no matter how much I pretended it was. It was about Jill.
"I can go," I said slowly. Thinking that this sounded very much like fraternizing with vampires, I glanced uneasily at Keith. He'd gone back to texting now that magic wasn't being discussed. "Keith?" I asked by way of permission.
He looked up. "Huh? Oh, I can't go. I have to be somewhere."
I tried not to grimace. He'd misread me and thought I was inviting him. On the bright side, he also wasn't objecting to the rest of us going. "Ah, how nice," said Clarence. "An outing for you young people. Perhaps you'll share a glass of wine with me first?" Dorothy was just entering with a bottle of red wine, Jill trailing behind her. Clarence smiled at Adrian. "I know you'd like a glass."
Adrian's expression said he most definitely would. Instead, Adrian took a deep breath and shook his head. "I'd better not."
"You should," said Jill gently. Even after a short drink of blood, she looked full of life and energy.
"Can't," he said.
"It's the weekend," she told him. "It's not that big of a deal. Especially if you're careful."
The two locked gazes and then at last, he said, "All right. Pour me a glass."
"Pour me one too, please," said Keith.
"Really?" I asked him. "I didn't know you drank."
"I'm twenty-one," he countered.
Adrian accepted his from Dorothy. "Somehow, I'm thinking that's not Sage's concern. I thought Alchemists avoided alcohol the same way they do primary colors."
I glanced down. I was wearing gray. Keith was wearing brown.
"One glass won't hurt," said Keith.
I didn't argue with him. It wasn't my place to babysit Keith. And the Alchemists didn't have rules against drinking per se. We had strong religious beliefs about what it meant to live a good and pure lifestyle, and drinking was generally looked down upon. Was it forbidden? No. It was a custom, one I considered important. If he didn't, I guessed that was his choice.
Keith was just bringing the glass to his lips when Adrian said, "Mmm. O positive, my favorite."
Keith sprayed out the wine he'd just drunk and promptly started coughing. I was relieved that none got on me. Jill burst into giggles, and Clarence stared at his glass wonderingly.
"Is it? I thought it was a cabernet sauvignon."
"So it is," said Adrian, straight-faced. "My mistake."
Keith gave Adrian a tight smile, like he too thought it was a funny joke, but I wasn't fooled. Keith was mad at having been mocked, and no matter how friendly he pretended to be with everyone, his views against vampires and dhampirs were as harsh as they'd ever been. Of course, Adrian probably wasn't helping matters any. I thought it was pretty funny, honestly, and worked to hide my smile so that Keith wouldn't get mad at me again. It was hard to do because shortly thereafter, Adrian flashed me a secret, knowing smile that seemed to say, That's payback for earlier.
Eddie glanced at Jill. "I'm glad you got your blood today. I know you've been wanting to learn some defense moves, but I wanted to wait until you were back up to strength."
Jill lit up. "Can we do it tomorrow?"
"Of course," he said, looking nearly as delighted by this as she did.
Keith frowned. "Why should she learn to fight when she's got you around?"
Eddie shrugged. "Because she wants to, and she should have every edge she can get." He didn't specifically mention the attempts on her life - not in front of Lee and Clarence - but the rest of us understood.
"I thought Moroi weren't good at fighting, though," said Keith.
"Mostly because they haven't trained for it. They aren't as strong as us, sure, but their reflexes are better than yours," explained Eddie. "It's just a matter of learning the skills and having a good teacher."
"Like you?" I teased.
"I'm not bad," he said modestly. "I can train anyone who wants to learn." He elbowed Adrian, who was reaching for the wine and a refill. "Even this guy."
"No, thank you," said Adrian. "These hands don't sully themselves with fighting."
"Or with manual labor," I remarked, recalling past comments of his.
"Exactly," he said. "But maybe you should have Castile show you how to throw a punch, Sage. It might come in handy. Seems like a skill a plucky young woman like yourself should possess."
"Well, thanks for the vote of confidence, but I'm not really sure when I'd need it," I said.
"Of course she needs to learn!"
Clarence's exclamation caught all of us by surprise. I'd actually thought he was dozing off since he'd had his eyes closed moments ago. But now, he was leaning forward with a zealous expression. I cringed under the intensity of his stare.
"You must learn to protect yourself!" He pointed at me, then moved on to Jill. "And you. Promise me you'll learn to defend yourself. Promise me." Jill's light green eyes went wide with shock. She tried to give him a reassuring smile, though it was tinged with uneasiness.
"Of course, Mr. Donahue. I'm trying to. And until then, I've got Eddie to protect me from Strigoi."
"Not Strigoi!" His voice dropped to a whisper. "The vampire hunters."
None of us said anything. Lee looked mortified.
Clarence squeezed his wineglass so tightly that I worried it would break. "No one talked about this back then - about defending ourselves. Maybe if Tamara had learned something, she wouldn't have been killed. It's not too late for you - for either of you."
"Dad, we've been over this," said Lee.
Clarence ignored him. The old man's gaze flicked between me and Jill, and I wondered if he even knew I was human. Or maybe it didn't matter. Maybe he just had a slightly deranged protective instinct toward all girls the same age as Tamara. I kind of expected Keith to tactlessly point out that there were no such things as vampire hunters, but he was uncharacteristically quiet. Eddie was the one who finally spoke, his words soothing and kind. He so often gave off the impression of a do-or-die warrior that it was surprising to realize he was actually very compassionate.
"Don't worry," said Eddie. "I'll help them. I'll keep them safe and make sure nothing bad happens to them, okay?"
Clarence still looked agitated but focused on Eddie hopefully. "You promise? You won't let them kill Tamara again?"
"I promise," said Eddie, in no way indicating how weird the request was.
Clarence studied Eddie a few more seconds and then nodded. "You're a good boy." He reached for the wine bottle and topped off his glass. "More?" he asked Adrian, as though nothing had happened.
"Yes, please," said Adrian, holding out his glass.
We continued the conversation as though nothing had happened, but the shadow of Clarence's words continued to hang over me.
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