I couldn't help it. The joke was out before I could stop it.
"No." She perched on the edge of the bed and bit her lower lip. "Maybe 'rescue' isn't the right word. But we have to go get him. He's trapped in Los Angeles."
I rubbed my eyes as I sat up and then waited a few moments, just in case this was all a dream. Nope. Nothing changed. I picked up my cell phone from my bedside table and groaned when I read the display.
"Jill, it's not even six yet." I started to question if Adrian was even awake this early but then remembered he was probably on a nocturnal schedule. Left to their own devices, Moroi went to bed around what was late morning for the rest of us.
"I know," she said in a small voice. "I'm sorry. I wouldn't ask if it wasn't important. He got a ride there last night because he wanted to see those... those Moroi girls again. Lee was supposed to be in LA too, so Adrian figured he could get a ride home. Only, he can't get ahold of Lee, so now he can't get back. Adrian, that is. He's stranded and hung over."
I started to lie back down. "I don't have a lot of sympathy for that. Maybe he'll learn a lesson."
I put an arm over my eyes. Maybe if I looked like I was asleep, she'd leave me alone. A question suddenly popped into my head, and I jerked my arm away.
"How do you know any of this? Did he call?" I wasn't a super-light sleeper, but I still would've heard her phone ring.
Jill looked away from me. Frowning, I sat up.
"Jill? How do you know any of this?"
"Please," she whispered. "Can't we just go get him?"
"Not until you tell me what's going on." A weird feeling was crawling along my skin. I'd felt for a while that I was being excluded from something big, and now, I suddenly knew I was about to find out what the Moroi had been hiding from me.
"You can't tell," she said, finally meeting my eyes again.
I tapped the tattoo on my cheek. "I can hardly tell anyone anything as it is."
"No, not anyone. Not the Alchemists. Not Keith. Not any other Moroi or dhampirs who don't already know."
Not tell the Alchemists? That would be a problem. Among all the other craziness in my life, no matter how much my assignments infuriated me or how much time I'd spent with vampires, I'd never questioned who my loyalty was to. I had to tell the Alchemists if something was going on with Jill and the others. It was my duty to them, to humanity.
Of course, part of my duty to the Alchemists was looking after Jill, and whatever was plaguing her now obviously was connected to her welfare. For half a second, I considered lying to her and immediately dismissed the idea. I couldn't do it. If I was going to keep her secret, I would keep it. If I wasn't going to keep it, then I would let her know up front.
"I won't tell," I said. I think the words surprised me as much as her. She studied me in the dim light and must have at last decided I was telling the truth. She gave a slow nod.
"Adrian and I are bound. Like, with a spirit bond."
I felt my eyes widen in disbelief. "How did that - " Everything suddenly clicked together, the missing pieces. "The attack. You - you - "
"Died," said Jill bluntly. "There was so much confusion when the Moroi assassins came. Everyone thought they were coming for Lissa, so most of the guardians went to surround her. Eddie was the only one who came for me, but he wasn't fast enough. This man, he..." Jill touched a spot in the center of her chest and shuddered. "He stabbed me. He... he killed me. That's when Adrian came along. He used spirit to heal me and bring me back, and now we're bound. Everything happened so fast. No one there even realized what he did."
My mind was reeling. A spirit bond. Spirit was a troubling element to the Alchemists, mostly because we had so few records of it. Our world was documents and knowledge, so any gap made us feel weak. Signs of spirit use had been recorded over the centuries, but no one had really realized it was its own element. Those events had been written off as random magical phenomena. It was only recently, when Vasilisa Dragomir had exposed herself, that spirit had been rediscovered, along with its myriad psychic effects. She and Rose had had a spirit bond, the only modern one we had documented. Healing was one of spirit's most notable attributes, and Vasilisa had brought Rose back from a car accident. It had forged a psychic connection between them, one that had only been shattered when Rose had had a second near-death experience.
"You can see in his head," I breathed. "His thoughts. His feelings." So much began to come together. Like how Jill always knew everything about Adrian, even when he claimed he hadn't told her.
She nodded. "I don't want to. Believe me. But I can't help it. Rose said in time, I'll learn the control to keep his feelings out, but I can't do it now. And he has so much, Sydney. So much feeling. He feels everything so strongly - love, grief, anger. His emotions are up and down, all over the place. What happened between him and Rose... it tears him apart. It's hard to stay focused on me sometimes with all of that going on in him. At least it's only some of the time. I can't really control when it happens."
I didn't say it but wondered if some of those volatile feelings were part of spirit's tendency to drive its users insane. Or maybe it was just part of Adrian's innate personality. All irrelevant, for now.
"But he can't feel you, right? It's only one way?" I asked. Rose had been able to read Vasilisa's thoughts and see her experiences in everyday life - but not the other way around. I assumed it was the same now, but with spirit, one couldn't take anything for granted.
"Right," she agreed.
"That's how... that's how you always know things about him. Like my visits. And when he wanted pizza. That's why he's here, what Abe wanted him here for."
Jill frowned. "Abe? No, it was kind of a group choice for Adrian to come along. Rose and Lissa thought it would be best if we were together while we were getting used to the bond, and I wanted him nearby too. What made you think Abe was involved?"
"Er, nothing," I said. Abe instructing Adrian to stay at Clarence's must not have been something Jill observed. "I was just mixed up about something."
"Can we go now?" she begged. "I answered your questions."
"Let me make sure I understand something first," I said. "Explain how he ended up in Los Angeles and why he's stuck."
Jill clasped her hands together and looked away again, a habit I was coming to associate with when she had information that she knew wasn't going to be received well.
"He, um, left Clarence's last night. Because he was bored. He hitchhiked into town - to Palm Springs - and ended up partying with some people who were going to LA. So, he went with them. And while he was in a club, he found those girls - some Moroi girls - and so he went home with them. And then he spent the night and kind of passed out. Until now. Now he's awake. And he wants to go home. To Clarence's."
With all this talk of clubbing and girls, an unsettling thought was building in my mind. "Jill, just how much of that did you actually experience?" She was still avoiding my gaze. "It's not important."
"It is to me," I said. The night Jill had woken in tears... that had been when Adrian was with those girls too. Was she living his sex life? "What was he thinking? He knows you're there, that you're living everything he does, but he never stops to - oh God. The first day of school. Ms. Chang was right, wasn't she? You were hung over. Vicariously, at least." And almost every other morning, she woke up feeling semi-sick - because Adrian was hung over too.
Jill nodded. "There was nothing physical they could've tested - like blood or anything - to prove that's what it was, but yeah. I might as well have had one. I certainly felt like it. It was awful."
I reached out and turned her face toward mine so that she had to look at me. "And you are now too." There was more light in the room as the sun rose higher, and I could see the signs again. The sickly paleness and bloodshot eyes. I wouldn't have been surprised if her head and stomach hurt too. I dropped my hand and shook my head in disgust. "He can stay there."
"He deserves it. I know you feel... something... for him." Whether it was sisterly or romantic affection, it really didn't matter. "But you can't baby him and run to every need and request he sends to you."
"He's not asking me, not exactly," she said. "I can just feel that he wants it."
"Well, he should've thought of that before he got himself into this mess. He can figure out his own way back."
"His cell phone died."
"He can borrow one from his new 'friends.'"
"He's in agony," she said.
"That's how life is," I said.
"I'm in agony."
I sighed. "Jill - "
"No, I'm serious. And it's not just the hangover. I mean, yeah, part of it's the hangover. And as long as he's sick and not taking anything, then so am I! Plus... his thoughts. Ugh." Jill rested her forehead in her hands. "I can't get rid of how unhappy he is. It's like... like a hammer banging in my head. I can't get away from it. I can't do anything else except think about how miserable he is! And that makes me miserable. Or think I'm miserable. I don't know." She sighed. "Please, Sydney. Can we go?"
"Do you know where he is?" I asked.
"All right, then. I'll go." I slid over to the edge of the bed. She stood up with me.
"I'll come too."
"No," I said. "You go back to bed. Take some aspirin and see if you can make yourself feel better." I also had a few things I wanted to say to Adrian in private. Admittedly, if she was constantly connected to him, she'd "overhear" our conversation, but it'd be a lot easier to tell him what I wanted to when she wasn't actually there in the flesh, looking at me with those big eyes.
"But how will you - "
"I don't want you getting sick in the car. Just call me if something changes or if he leaves or whatever."
Jill's further protests were halfhearted, either because she didn't feel up to them or was just willing to be grateful for anyone "rescuing" Adrian. She didn't have an exact address, but she had a very vivid description of the condo he was at, which was right next door to a notable hotel. When I looked it up, I saw the hotel was actually in Long Beach, meaning I'd have to go past Los Angeles proper. I had a two-hour drive ahead of me. Coffee would be required.
It was a pretty day, at least, and there was almost no traffic out so early on a Sunday. Looking at the sun and blue skies, I kept thinking about how nice it would be if I were making this drive in a convertible, with the top down. It would also be nice if I had been making this drive for any other reason besides retrieving a stranded vampire party boy.
I was still having a hard time wrapping my mind around the idea that Jill and Adrian were spirit bound. The notion of someone bringing another back from the dead was not one that meshed well with my religious beliefs. It was just as troubling as another of spirit's feats: restoring Strigoi. We had two documented cases of that happening too, two Strigoi magically changed by spirit users back to their original form. One was a woman named Sonya Karp. The other was Dimitri Belikov. Between that and all this resurrection, spirit was really starting to freak me out. That much power just didn't seem right.
I reached Long Beach right on schedule and had no problem finding the condo complex. It was right across the street from an oceanfront hotel called the Cascadia. Since Jill hadn't called with a change of location, I assumed Adrian was still holed up. Street parking was easy to find at this time of day, and I paused outside to stare at the blue-gray expanse of the Pacific on the western horizon. It was breathtaking, especially after my first week in the desert of Palm Springs. I almost wished Jill had come. Maybe being near so much water would have made her feel better.
The condos were in a peach stucco building with three floors, two units on each floor. From Adrian's memories, Jill remembered going to the top of the building and turning right. I retraced those steps and came to a blue door with a heavy brass knocker. I knocked.
When no answer came after almost a minute, I tried again more loudly. I was nearly on the verge of a third attempt when I heard the lock unclick. The door opened a crack, and a girl peeked out.
She was clearly Moroi, with a skinny runway model build and pale, perfect skin that seemed particularly irritating today, considering I was pretty sure a pimple was going to break out on my forehead soon. She was my age, maybe a little older, with sleek black hair and deep blue eyes. She looked like some otherworldly doll. She was also half-asleep.
"Yeah?" She looked me over. "Are you selling something?" Next to this tall, perfect Moroi, I suddenly felt self-conscious and frumpy in my linen skirt and button-down top.
"Is Adrian here?"
"Adrian. Tall. Brown hair. Green eyes."
She frowned. "Do you mean Jet?"
"I... I'm not sure. Does he smoke like a chimney?"
The girl nodded sagely. "Yup. You must mean Jet." She glanced behind her and yelled, "Hey, Jet! There's some saleswoman here to see you."
"Send her out," called a familiar voice.
The Moroi opened the door wider and beckoned me in. "He's on the balcony."
I walked through a living room that served as a cautionary tale of what would ever happen if Jill and I lost all sense of housekeeping and self-respect. The place was a disaster. A girl disaster. Laundry piles littered the floor, and dirty dishes covered every square inch that wasn't occupied by empty beer bottles. A knocked-over bottle of nail polish had created a bubblegum pink splotch on the carpet. On the couch, tangled in blankets, a blond Moroi girl peered at me drowsily and then went back to sleep.
Stepping around everything, I made my way to Adrian through a patio door. He stood on a balcony, leaning against its railing, his back to me. The morning air was warm and clear, so naturally, he was trying to ruin it by smoking.
"Tell me this, Sage," he said, without turning back to face me. "Why the hell would someone put a building near the beach but not have the balconies face the water? They were built to look at hills behind us. Unless the neighbors start doing something interesting, I'm ready to declare this structure a total waste."
I crossed my arms and glared at his back. "I'm so glad I've got your valuable opinion on that. I'll be sure and note it when I file my complaint to the city council for their inadequate ocean views."
He turned around, the hint of a smile twisting his lips. "What are you doing here? I figured you'd be in church or something."
"What do you think? I'm here because of the pleas of a fifteen-year-old girl who doesn't deserve what you put her through."
Any trace of a smile vanished. "Oh. She told you." He turned back around.
"Yes, and you all should have told me sooner! This is serious... monumental."
"And no doubt something the Alchemists would love to study." I could envision his sneer perfectly.
"I promised her I wouldn't tell. But you still should've filled me in. It's kind of important information to have since I'm the one who has to babysit all of you."
'"Babysit' is kind of an extreme term, Sage."
"Considering the current scenario? No, not really."
Adrian said nothing, and I gave him a quick assessment. He wore high-quality, dark-washed jeans and a red cotton shirt that must have been slept in, judging from the wrinkles. His feet were bare.
"Did you bring a coat?" I asked.
I went back inside and did a search among the clutter. The blond Moroi girl was fast asleep, and the one who'd let me in was sprawled on an unmade bed in another room. I finally found Adrian's socks and shoes tossed in a corner. I rushed to retrieve them, then headed back outside and dropped them next to him on the balcony.
"Put those on. We're leaving."
"You aren't my mom."
"No, yours is serving a sentence for perjury and theft, if memory serves."
It was a mean, mean thing to say, but it was also the truth. And it got his attention.
Adrian's head whipped around. Anger glinted in the depths of his green eyes, the first I'd ever truly seen in him. "Don't you ever mention her again. You have no idea what you're talking about."
His anger was a little intimidating, but I held my ground. "Actually, I was the one in charge of tracking down the records she stole."
"She had her reasons," he said through gritted teeth.
"You're so willing to defend someone who was convicted of a crime, yet you don't have any consideration for Jill - who's done nothing."
"I have plenty of consideration for her!" He paused to light a cigarette with trembling hands, and I suspected he was also trying to get a grip on his emotions. "I think about her all the time. How could I not? She's there... I can't feel it, but she's always there, always listening to things in my head, listening to things I don't even want to hear. Feeling things I don't want to feel." He inhaled on the cigarette and turned to look at the view, though I doubted he actually saw it.
"If you're so aware of her, then how come you do stuff like this?" I gestured around us. "How could you drink when you know it affects her too? How could you do" - I grimaced - "whatever you did with those girls, knowing she could 'see' it? She's fifteen."
"I know, I know," he said. "I didn't know about the drinking - not at first. When she came over after school and told me that day, I stopped. I really did. But then... when you guys were over on Friday, she told me to go ahead since it was the weekend. I guess she wasn't as worried about getting sick. So, I said to myself, 'I'll just have a couple.' Only last night, it turned into more than that. And then things got kind of crazy, and I ended up here and - what am I doing? I don't have to justify my actions to you."
"I don't think you can justify them to anyone." I was furious, my blood boiling.
"You're one to talk, Sage." He pointed an accusing finger. "At least I take action. You? You let the world go by without you. You stand there while that asshole Keith treats you like crap and just smile and nod. You have no spine. You don't fight back. Even old Abe seems to push you around. Was Rose right that he's got something on you? Or is he just someone else you won't fight back against?"
I worked hard not to let him know just how deeply those words struck me. "You don't know the first thing about me, Adrian Ivashkov. I fight back plenty."
"You could've fooled me."
I gave him a tight smile. "I just don't make a spectacle of myself when I do it. It's called being responsible."
"Sure. Whatever helps you sleep at night."
I threw up my hands. "Well, that's the thing: I don't sleep at night anymore because I have to come save you from your own idiocy. Can we leave now? Please?"
As an answer, he put out the cigarette and began putting on his socks and shoes. He looked up at me as he did, the anger totally gone. His moods were changed as easily as flipping a light switch.
"You have to get me out of there. Out of Clarence's." His voice was level and serious. "He's a nice enough guy, but I'm going to go crazy if I stay there."
"As opposed to your excellent behavior when you aren't there?" I glanced back into the condo. "Maybe your two groupies have room for you."
"Hey, show some respect. They're real people with names. Carla and Krissy." He frowned. "Or was it Missy?"
I sighed. "I told you before, I don't have any control over your living arrangement. How hard is it for you to go get your own place? Why do you need me?"
"Because I have almost no money, Sage. My old man cut me off. He gives me an allowance that's barely enough for cigarettes."
I considered suggesting he quit, but that probably wouldn't be a useful turn in the conversation. "I'm sorry. I really am. If I think of something, I'll let you know. Besides, doesn't Abe want you to stay there?" I decided to come clean. "I overheard you two on the first day. How he wanted you to do something for him."
Adrian straightened up, shoes secured. "Yeah, I don't know what that's all about. Did you hear how totally vague he was too? I think he's just trying to screw with me, keep me busy because somewhere in that messed-up heart of his, he feels bad about what happened with - "
Adrian shut his mouth, but I could hear the unspoken name: Rose. A terrible sadness crossed his features, and his eyes looked lost and haunted. I remembered when I'd been in the car with Jill, and she'd slipped into a tirade about Rose, about how the memory of her tormented Adrian. Knowing what I knew now about the bond, I had a feeling there'd been very little of Jill in those words. That had been a direct line to Adrian. Looking at him, I could barely understand the scope of that pain, nor did I know how to help. I just knew that I suddenly understood a tiny bit better why he would want to drown his sorrows so much, not that that made it any healthier.
"Adrian," I said awkwardly, "I'm - "
"Forget it," he said. "You don't know what it's like to love someone like that, then to have that love thrown back in your face - "
An ear-splitting scream suddenly pierced the air. Adrian flinched more than me, proving the downside of vampire hearing: annoying sounds were that much more annoying.
As one, we hurried back inside the condo. The blond girl was sitting upright on the couch, as startled as we were. The other girl, the one who had let me in, stood in the doorway to the bedroom, pale as death, a cell phone clutched in her hand.
"What's the matter?" I asked.
She opened her mouth to speak and then did a double take at me, seeming to remember that I was human.
"It's okay, Carla," said Adrian. "She knows about us. You can trust her."
That was all Carla needed. She threw herself into Adrian's arms and began crying uncontrollably. "Oh, Jet," she said between sobs. "I can't believe it happened to her. How did this happen?"
"What happened?" asked the other Moroi girl, rising unsteadily to her feet. Like Adrian, she looked like she'd slept in her clothes. I dared to hope that Jill hadn't been subjected to as much as indecency as I'd originally imagined.
"Tell us what happened, Carla," said Adrian in a gentle voice I'd only ever heard him use around with Jill.
"I'm Krissy," she sniffed. "And our friend - our friend." She wiped at her eyes as more tears came to her eyes. "I just got the call. Our friend - another Moroi who goes to our college - she's dead." Krissy looked up at the other girl, whom I guessed was Carla now. "It was Melody. She was killed by Strigoi last night."
Carla gasped and began crying, triggering more tears from Krissy. I met Adrian's eyes, both of us aghast. Even if we had no idea who this Melody was, a Strigoi killing was still a terrible, tragic thing. Immediately, my Alchemist mind kicked into action. I needed to make sure the crime scene was secure and the murder kept secret from humans.
"Where?" I asked. "Where did it happen?"
"West Hollywood," said Carla. "Out behind some club."
I relaxed a little, though I was still shaken by the tragedy of it all. That was a busy, populated region, one that would definitely be on the Alchemists' radar. If any humans had found out, the Alchemists would have long since taken care of it.
"At least they didn't turn her," said Carla forlornly. "She can rest in peace. Of course, those monsters still couldn't rest without mutilating her body." I stared, feeling cold all over. "What do you mean?"
She rubbed her nose on Adrian's shirt. "Melody. They didn't just drink from her. They slit her throat too."
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