Chapter Twenty-Seven


I THINK ADRIAN would have agreed to anything to get his own place. He didn't waste any time in moving his few possessions over to Keith's old apartment, much to Clarence's dismay. I had to admit, I felt kind of bad for the old man. He'd grown fond of Adrian, and losing him right after Lee was especially tough. Clarence still opened his home and feeder to our group but refused to believe anything we told him about Lee and Strigoi. Even once he accepted Lee was dead, Clarence continued blaming vampire hunters.

Shortly after his move, I went to check on Adrian. Word had come to us that the "research party" from the Moroi was due to arrive in town that day, and we'd decided to meet with them first before bringing in Jill and Eddie. Like before, Abe was apparently escorting the newcomers, who included Sonya and Jill's new roommate. I had the impression there might be others with them but hadn't heard the details yet.

"Whoa," I said when Adrian let me into his apartment.

He'd only been there a couple days, but the transformation was startling. With the exception of the TV, none of the original furniture remained. It was all different, and even the apartment's layout had changed. The decorating scheme was new as well, and the scent of fresh paint hung heavy in the air.

"Yellow, huh?" I asked, staring at the living room walls.

"It's called 'Goldenrod,'" he corrected. "And it's supposed to be cheerful and calming."

I started to point out that those two traits didn't seem like they'd go together but then decided against it. The color, slightly obnoxious though it was, completely transformed the living room. Between that and the blinds that had replaced Keith's heavy drapes, the room was now filled with color and light that went a long way to obscure the memory of the battle. I shuddered, recalling it. Even if the apartment hadn't been needed to buy Adrian's help, I wasn't sure I could've accepted it and stayed here. The memory of Lee's death - and the two Strigoi women's - was too strong.

"How did you afford new furniture?" I asked. The Alchemists had given him the place, but there was no other stipend involved.

"I sold the old stuff," Adrian said, seeming very pleased by this. "That recliner..." He faltered, a troubled look briefly crossing his features. I wondered if he too could imagine Lee's life bleeding away in that chair. "That recliner was worth a lot. It was appallingly overpriced, even by my standards. But I got enough for it to replace the rest. It's used, but what choice did I have?"

"It's nice," I said, running my hand along an overstuffed plaid sofa. It looked ghastly with the walls but appeared to be in good shape. Plus, much like the brightness of the yellow, the clashing furniture helped diminish the memories of what had happened. "You must have done some savvy shopping. I'm guessing you don't buy a lot of used stuff."

"Try never," he said. "You have no idea the things I've had to lower myself to." His pleased smile dimmed as he regarded me carefully. "How are you holding up?"

I shrugged. "Fine. Why wouldn't I be? What happened to me isn't nearly as bad as what Jill went through."

He crossed his arms. "I don't know. Jill didn't watch a guy die in front of her. And let's not forget that same guy wanted to kill you only moments before in order to rise again from the dead."

Those were things that had definitely been on my mind a lot in the last week, things that were going to take a while to get over. Sometimes, I didn't feel anything at all. Other times, the reality of what had happened descended on me so swiftly and heavily that I couldn't breathe. Strigoi nightmares had replaced the ones of re-education centers.

"I'm actually better with it than you might think," I said slowly, gazing off at nothing particular. "Like, it's terrible about Lee and what he did, but I feel I can get over it in time. Do you know what I keep thinking about the most, though?"

"What?" asked Adrian gently.

The words seemed to come forth without my control. I hadn't expected to say them to anyone, certainly not to him.

"Lee telling me I was wasting my life and staying aloof from people. And then, during that last meeting with Keith, he told me that I was naive, that I didn't understand the world. And it's true to a certain extent. I mean, not what he said about you guys being evil... but well, I was naive. I should've been more careful with Jill. I believed the best of Lee when I should've been more wary. I'm not a fighter like Eddie, but I am an observer of the world... or so I like to think. But I failed. I'm no good with people."

"Sage, your first mistake in all of this is listening to anything Keith Darnell says. The guy's an idiot, an asshole, and a dozen other words that aren't suitable for a lady like yourself."

"See?" I said. "You just admitted it, that I'm some kind of untouchable, pure soul."

"I never said any such thing," he countered. "My point is that you're leagues above Keith, and what happened with Lee was dumb, ridiculous bad luck. And remember, none of us saw it coming either. You weren't alone. It casts no reflection on you. Or..." His eyebrows rose. "Maybe it does. Didn't you say that Lee considered killing Keith for Alchemist blood?"

"Yeah... but Keith left too soon."

"Well, there you go. Even a psychopath recognized your worth enough to want to kill someone else first."

I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. "That doesn't make me feel better."

Adrian shrugged. "My earlier point remains. You're a solid person, Sage. You're easy on the eyes, if a little skinny, and your ability to memorize useless information is going to totally hook in some guy. Put Keith and Lee out of your head because they have nothing to do with your future."

"Skinny?" I asked, hoping I wasn't blushing. I also hoped if I sounded outraged enough, he wouldn't notice how much the other comment had disarmed me. Easy on the eyes. Not exactly the same as being told I was hotness incarnate or drop-dead gorgeous. But after a lifetime of having my appearance judged as "acceptable," it was a heady compliment - especially coming from him.

"I just tell it like it is."

I almost laughed. "Yes. Yes, you do. Now tell me about a different subject, please. I'm tired of this one."

"Sure thing." Adrian infuriated me sometimes, but I had to admit, I loved his short attention span. It made dodging uncomfortable topics so much easier. Or so I thought. "Do you smell that?"

An image of the bodies flashed into my head, and for a moment, all I could think he meant was the smell of decay. Then I sniffed more deeply. "I smell the paint, and... wait... is that pine?"

He looked impressed. "Damn straight. Pine-scented cleaner. As in, I cleaned." He gestured to the kitchen dramatically. "With these hands, these hands that don't do manual labor."

I stared off into the kitchen. "What did you use it on? The cupboards?"

"The cupboards are fine. I cleaned the floor and the counter." I must have looked more puzzled than amazed because he added, "I even got down on my knees."

"You used pine cleaner on the floor and counters?" I asked. The floor was ceramic tile; the counters were granite.

Adrian frowned. "Yeah, so?"

He seemed so proud to have actually scrubbed something for once in his life that I couldn't bring myself to tell him pine cleaner was generally only used on wood. I gave him an encouraging smile. "Well, it looks great. I need you to come over and clean my new dorm room now. It's covered in dust."

"No way, Sage. My own housecleaning's bad enough."

"But is it worth it? If you'd stayed at Clarence's, you had a live-in cook and cleaner."

"It's definitely worth it. I've never really, truly had my own place. I kind of did at Court... but it might as well have been an over-glorified dorm room. This? This is great. Even with the housecleaning. Thank you."

The comic look of horror he'd worn while discussing housecleaning had been traded away for utter seriousness now as those green eyes weighed me.

I suddenly felt uncomfortable under the scrutiny and was reminded of the spirit dream, where I'd questioned if his eyes really were that green in real life.

"For what?" I asked.

"For this - I know you must have twisted some Alchemist arms." I hadn't told him that I'd actually passed on taking the place for myself. "And for everything else. For not giving up on me, even when I was being a major asshole. And, you know, for that saving my life thing."

I looked away. "I didn't do anything. That was Eddie - and Jill. They're the ones who saved you."

"Not sure I would've been alive for their rescue if you hadn't set that bitch on fire. How did you do that?"

"It was nothing," I protested. "Just a, uh, chemical reaction from the Alchemist bag of tricks."

Those eyes studied me again, weighing the truth of my words. I'm not sure he believed me, but he let it go. "Well, from the look on her face, your aim was right on. And then you got backhanded for it. Anyone who takes a hit for Adrian Ivashkov deserves some credit."

I turned my back to him, still shy with the praise - and nervous about the fire reference - and walked over to the window. "Yeah, well, you can rest easy that it was a selfish act. You have no idea what a pain it is to file paperwork for a dead Moroi."

He laughed, and it was one of the few times I'd heard him laugh with genuine humor and warmth - and not because of something twisted or sarcastic.

"Okay, Sage. If you say so. You know, you're a lot spunkier than when I first met you."

"Really? All the adjectives in the world at your disposable, and you pick 'spunky'?" Banter I could handle. So long as I focused on that, I didn't have to think about the meaning behind the words or how my heartbeat had increased just a little. "Just so you know, you're a little more stable than when I met you."

He came over to stand by me. "Well, don't tell anyone, but I think getting away from Court was a good thing. This weather sucks, but Palm Springs might be good for me - it and all the wonders it contains. You guys. Art classes. Pine cleaner."

I couldn't help a grin and looked up at him. I'd been half-joking, but it was true: he had changed remarkably since we'd met. There was still a hurting man inside, one who bore the scars of what Rose and Dimitri had done to him, but I could see the signs of healing. He was steadier and stronger, and if he could just continue to hold the course, with no more crises for a while, a remarkable transformation might truly happen.

It took several seconds of silence for me to realize that I'd been staring at him while my mind spun out its thoughts. And, actually, he was staring at me, with a look of wonder.

"My God, Sage. Your eyes. How have I never noticed them?"

That uncomfortable feeling was spreading over me again. "What about them?"

"The color," he breathed. "When you stand in the light. They're amazing... like molten gold. I could paint those..." He reached toward me but then pulled back. "They're beautiful. You're beautiful."

Something in the way he was looking at me froze me up and made my stomach do flip-flops, though I couldn't quite articulate why. I only knew that he looked as though he was seeing me for the very first time... and it scared me. I'd been able to brush off his easy, joking compliments, but this intensity was something different altogether, something I didn't know how to react to. When he looked at me like this, I believed that he thought my eyes were beautiful - that I was beautiful. It was more than I was ready for. Flustered, I took a step backward, out of the sunlight, needing to get away from the energy of his gaze. I'd heard spirit could send him off on weird tangents but had no clue if that's what this was. I was saved from my feeble attempts to muster a witty comment when a knock at the door made both of us jump.

Adrian blinked, and some of that rapture faded. His lips twisted into one of his sly smiles, and it was as though nothing weird had happened.

"Showtime, huh?"

I nodded, reeling with a confusing mix of relief, nervousness, and... excitement. Except, I wasn't entirely sure if those feelings were from Adrian or our impending visitors. All I knew was that suddenly, I was able to breathe more easily than I had a few moments ago.

He walked across the living room and opened the door with a flourish. Abe swept in, resplendent in a gray and yellow suit that coordinated bafflingly well with Adrian's paint job. A wide grin broke out over the older Moroi's face.

"Adrian, Sydney... so lovely to see you again. I believe one of you already knows this young lady?" He moved past us, revealing a lean dhampir girl with auburn hair and big blue eyes filled with suspicion.

"Hello, Angeline," I said.

When they'd told me Angeline Dawes was going to be Jill's new roommate, I thought it was the most ridiculous thing I'd ever heard. Angeline was one of the Keepers, that separatist group of Moroi, dhampirs, and humans who lived in the wilds of West Virginia. They wanted nothing to do with the "civilization" of any of our races and had a number of bizarre customs, not the least of which was their abominable tolerance for interracial romance.

Later, when I'd thought about it, I decided Angeline might not be such a bad choice. She was the same age as Jill, possibly giving Jill a closer connection than I could manage. Angeline, while not trained the way a guardian like Eddie was, still could hold her own in a fight. If anyone came for Jill, they'd have their work cut out for them getting through Angeline. And with the aversion Angeline's people had toward "tainted" Moroi, she would have no reason to further the politics of some rival faction.

As I studied her and her threadbare clothes, I wondered, though, just how well she was going to adapt to being away from the Keepers. She wore a cocky look on her face that I'd seen when visiting her community, but here it was underscored with some nervousness as she took in Adrian's place. After living in the woods her entire life, this small apartment with its TV and plaid sofa was probably the height of modern luxury.

"Angeline," said Abe. "This is Adrian Ivashkov."

Adrian extended his hand, turning on that natural charm. "A pleasure."

She took his hand after a moment's hesitation. "Nice to meet you," she said in her odd southern accent. She studied him for a few more seconds. "You look too pretty to be useful."

I gasped in spite of myself. Adrian chuckled and shook her hand.

"Truer words were never spoken," he said.

Abe glanced over at me. I probably had a look of terror on my face because I was already imagining the damage control I'd have to do with Angeline saying or doing something completely wrong at Amberwood.

"Sydney will undoubtedly want to... debrief you on what to expect before you begin school," said Abe diplomatically.

"Undoubtedly," I repeated.

Adrian had stepped away from Angeline but was still grinning. "Let Jailbait do it. Better yet, let Castile. It'll be good for him."

Abe shut the door but not before I got a glimpse behind him to the empty hallway. "It's not just the two of you, is it?" I asked. "I heard there were others. Sonya's one, right?"

Abe nodded. "They'll be right up. They're parking the car. Street parking's terrible around here."

Adrian looked over at me, hit by revelation. "Hey, do I inherit Keith's car too?"

"Afraid not," I said. "It belonged to his dad. He took it back." Adrian's face fell.

Abe stuffed his hands in his pockets and strolled casually around the living room. Angeline remained where she was. I think she was still sizing up the situation.

"Ah, yes," mused Abe. "The late, great Mr. Darnell. That boy's really been beset with tragedy, hasn't he? Such a hard life." He paused and turned to Adrian. "But you, at least, seem to have benefited from his downfall."

"Hey," said Adrian. "I earned this, so don't give me any grief about bailing on Clarence. I know you wanted me to stay there for some weird reason but  - " "And you did," said Abe simply.

Adrian frowned. "Huh?"

"You did exactly what I wanted. I'd suspected something odd was going on with Clarence Donahue, that he might be selling his blood. I'd hoped keeping you on hand would uncover the plot." Abe stroked his chin in that mastermind way of his. "Of course, I had no idea Mr. Darnell was involved. Nor did I expect you and young Sydney to team up to unravel it all."

"I'd hardly go that far," I said dryly. A strange thought occurred to me. "Why would you care if Keith and Clarence were selling vampire blood? I mean, we Alchemists have reasons for not wanting that... but why would you feel that way?"

A surprised glint flashed in Adrian's eyes, followed by insight. He eyed Abe carefully. "Maybe because he doesn't want the competition."

My jaw nearly dropped open. It was no secret to anyone, Alchemist or Moroi, that Abe Mazur trafficked in illegal goods. That he might be moving large amounts of vampire blood to willing humans had never occurred to me. But as I studied him longer, I realized it should have.

"Now, now," said Abe, never breaking a sweat, "no need to bring up unpleasant topics."

"Unpleasant?" I exclaimed. "If you're involved in anything that - "

Abe held up a hand to stop me. "Enough, please. Because if that sentence ends with you saying you'll talk to the Alchemists, then by all means, let's get them out here and discuss all sorts of mysteries. Say, for example, like how Mr. Darnell lost his eye."

I froze.

"Strigoi took it," said Adrian impatiently.

"Oh, come now," said Abe, a smile twisting his lips. "My faith in you was just being restored. Since when do Strigoi do such precision maiming? Very artful maiming, I might add. Not that anyone probably ever noticed. Wasted talent, I tell you."

"What are you saying?" asked Adrian aghast. "It wasn't Strigoi? Are you saying someone cut his eye out on purpose? Are you saying that you - "

Words failed him, and he simply looked back and forth between me and Abe. "That's it, isn't it? Your devil's bargain. But why?"

I cringed as three sets of eyes stared at me, but there was no way I could acknowledge what Adrian was starting to put together. Maybe I could have told him if we were alone. Maybe. But I couldn't tell him while Abe looked so smug and certainly not with an outsider like Angeline standing there.

I couldn't tell Adrian how I'd found my sister Carly a few years ago, after a date with Keith. It was when he'd still been living with us and just before she went off to college. She hadn't wanted to go out with him, but our father loved Keith and had insisted. Keith was his golden boy and could do no wrong.

Keith believed that too, which was why he hadn't been able to take no for an answer when he and Carly were alone. She'd come to me afterward, creeping into my bedroom late at night and sobbing while I'd held her.

My instant reaction was to tell our parents, but Carly had been too afraid - especially of our father. I was young and nearly as scared as she was, ready to agree with whatever she wanted. Carly had made me promise I wouldn't tell our parents, so I sank my efforts into assuring her that it wasn't her fault. The whole time, she told me, Keith had kept telling her how beautiful she was and how she'd left him no choice, that it was impossible for him to take his eyes off of her. I finally convinced her that she'd done nothing wrong, that she hadn't led him on - but she still held me to my promise to stay silent.

It was one of the biggest regrets of my life. I'd hated my silence but not nearly as much as I hated Keith for thinking he could rape someone as sweet and gentle as Carly and get away with it. It wasn't until much later, when I had my first assignment and met Abe Mazur, that I'd realized there were other ways Keith might pay that would allow me to keep my promise to her. So, I'd made my deal with the devil, not caring that it bound me - or that I was stooping to barbaric levels of revenge. Abe had staged a fake Strigoi attack and cut out one of Keith's eyes earlier this year. In return, I'd become Abe's sort-of "retainer Alchemist." It was part of what had driven me to help Rose with her jail break. I was in his debt.

In some ways, I reflected bitterly, maybe I'd done Keith a favor. With only one eye left, maybe he wouldn't find it so "impossible" to keep it off uninterested young women in the future.

No, I certainly couldn't tell Adrian any of that, but he was still looking at me, a million questions on his face as he tried to figure out what in the world would have reduced me to hiring Abe as a hit man.

Laurel's words suddenly rang back to me. You know, you can be scary as hell sometimes.

I swallowed. "Remember when you asked me to trust you?"

"Yes..." said Adrian.

"I need you to do the same for me."

Long moments followed. I couldn't bring myself to look at Abe because I knew he'd be smirking.

"'Spunky' was kind of an understatement," Adrian said. After what felt like forever, he slowly nodded. "Okay. I do trust you, Sage. I trust that you have good reasons for the things you do."

There was no snark, no sarcasm. He was deadly earnest, and for a moment, I wondered how I could have earned his trust so intently. I had a weird flash to the moments just before Abe had arrived, when Adrian had spoken of painting me and my feelings had been a jumble.

"Thank you," I said.

"What," demanded Angeline, "are you guys talking about?"

"Nothing of interest, I assure you," said Abe, who was really enjoying this all too much. "Life lessons, character development, unpaid debts. That sort of thing."

"Unpaid?" I surprised myself by taking a step forward and fixing him with a glare. "I've paid that debt a hundred times over. I don't owe you anything anymore. My loyalty is only to the Alchemists now. Not you. We're finished."

Abe was still smiling, but he wavered slightly. I think my standing up for myself had caught him off-guard. "Well, that remains to be - ah." More knocking.

"Here's the rest of our party." He hurried to the door.

Adrian took a few steps toward me. "Not bad, Sage. I think you just scared old man Mazur."

I felt a smile of my own begin to form. "I don't know about that, but it felt kind of good."

"You should backtalk people more often," he said. We grinned at each other, and as he regarded me fondly, I felt that same queasy feeling return. He probably wasn't experiencing that exact sensation, but there was an easy, bright mood about him. Rare - and very appealing. He nodded toward where Abe was opening the door. "It's Sonya."

Spirit users could sense each other when they were close enough, even behind closed doors. And sure enough, when the door opened, Sonya Karp strode in like a queen, tall and elegant. With her red hair swept into a bun, the Moroi woman could have been Angeline's older sister. Sonya smiled at us all, though I couldn't help a shiver as I thought back to the first time I'd met her. She hadn't been nearly so pretty or charming then. She'd been red-eyed and trying to kill us.

Sonya was a Strigoi who'd been restored back to a Moroi, which really made her the ideal choice to work with Adrian on figuring out how to use spirit to prevent people from being turned.

Sonya hugged Adrian and was walking over to me when someone else appeared in the doorway. In retrospect, I shouldn't have been surprised at who it was. After all, if we wanted to figure out what special spirit magic in Lee had stopped him from being turned again, then we needed all the data possible. And if one restored Strigoi was good, then two were better.

Adrian paled and went perfectly still as he stared at the newcomer, and in that moment, all my high hopes for him came crashing down. Earlier, I'd been certain that if Adrian could just stay away from his past and any traumatic events, he'd be able to find a purpose and steady himself. Well, it looked like his past had found him, and if this didn't qualify as a traumatic event, I didn't know what did.

Adrian's new research partner stepped through the door, and I knew the uneasy peace we'd just established in Palm Springs was about to shatter. Dimitri Belikov had arrived.

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