WHEN WE LEFT on our group date or family outing or whatever it was, Lee couldn't stop apologizing for his father.
"I'm sorry," he said, slumping miserably in the backseat of Latte. "There's no reasoning with him anymore. We tried to tell him that Tamara was killed by Strigoi, but he won't believe it. He doesn't want to. He can't take revenge on a Strigoi. They're immortal. Invincible. But some human vampire hunter? Somehow, in his head, that's something he can go after. And if he can't, then he can focus his energy on how the guardians won't go after these nonexistent vampire hunters."
I just barely heard Eddie mutter, "Strigoi aren't that invincible."
In the rearview mirror, I saw Jill's face filled with compassion. She was seated between Lee and Eddie. "Even if it's a fantasy, maybe it's better this way," she suggested. "It gives him comfort. I mean, kind of. Having something tangible to hate is what gets him through. Otherwise he'd just give in to despair. He's not hurting anyone with his theories. I think he's sweet." She caught her breath in that way she did when she'd said a whole lot all at once. My eyes were back on the road, but I could swear Lee was smiling. "That's nice of you," he told her. "I know he likes having you around. Turn right up here."
That was to me. Lee had been giving me directions ever since we left Clarence's. We were just outside of Palm Springs proper, nearing the very impressive-looking Desert Gods Golf Course and Resort. Further guidance from him led us to the Mega-Fun Mini-Golf Center, which was adjacent to the resort. I searched for a parking spot and heard Jill gasp when she caught sight of the golf course's crowning glory. There, in the center of a cluster of gaudily decorated putting greens, was a huge fake mountain with an artificial waterfall spouting from its top.
"A waterfall!" she exclaimed. "It's amazing."
"Well," said Lee, "I wouldn't go that far. It's made of water that's been pumped over and over and has God only knows what in it. I mean, I wouldn't try to drink or swim in it."
Before I even had the car to a stop, Adrian was out the door, lighting a cigarette. We'd gotten in an argument on the way over, despite me telling him three times that Latte was a strictly no-smoking car. The rest of us soon got out as well, and I wondered what I'd signed up for here as we strolled toward the entrance.
"I've actually never been mini-golfing," I remarked.
Lee came to a halt and stared. "Never?"
"How does that happen?" asked Adrian. "How is it possible that you've never played mini-golf?"
"I had kind of an unusual childhood," I said at last.
Even Eddie looked incredulous. "You? I was practically raised at an isolated school in the middle of nowhere Montana, and even I've played mini-golf." Saying I was homeschooled was no excuse this time, so I just let it go. Really, it just came down to having a childhood more focused on chemical equations than on fun and recreation.
Once we started playing, I soon got the hang of it. My first few attempts were pretty bad, but I soon understood the weight of the club and how the angles on each course could be maneuvered. From there, it was pretty simple to calculate distance and force to make accurate shots.
"Unbelievable. If you'd been playing since you were a child, you'd be a pro by now," Eddie told me as I knocked my ball into a gaping dragon's mouth. The ball rolled out the back, down a tube, bounced off a wall, and into the hole. "How'd you do that?"
I shrugged. "It's simple geometry. You're not that bad either," I pointed out, watching him make his shot. "How do you do it?"
"I just line it up and putt."
"I just rely on natural talent," said Adrian, strolling up to the start of the Dragon's Lair. "When you have such a wealth of it to draw from, the danger comes from having too much."
"That makes no sense whatsoever," said Eddie.
Adrian's response was to pause and take out a silver flask from his inner coat pocket. He unscrewed it and took a quick drink before leaning in to line up his shot.
"What was that?" I exclaimed. "You can't have alcohol out here."
"You heard Jailbait earlier," he countered. "It's the weekend."
He lined up his ball and shot. The ball went directly for the dragon's eye, bounced off it, and shot back toward Adrian. It rolled and came to a stop at his feet, nearly where it had started.
"Natural talent, huh?" asked Eddie.
I leaned forward. "I think you broke the dragon's eye."
"Just like Keith," said Adrian. "I figured you'd appreciate that, Sage."
I gave him a sharp look, wondering if there was any hidden meaning behind that. Mostly, Adrian seemed amused by his own wit. Eddie mistook my expression.
"That was inappropriate," he told Adrian.
"Sorry, Dad." Adrian shot again and managed not to maim any statues this time. A couple more shots, and he sank the ball. "There we go. Three."
"Four," said Eddie and I in unison.
Adrian looked at us incredulously. "It was three."
"You're forgetting about your first one," I said. "The one where you blinded the dragon."
"That was just the warm-up," Adrian argued. He put on a smile I think he hoped would charm me. "Come on, Sage. You understand how my mind works. You said I was brilliant, remember?"
Eddie glanced at me in surprise. "You did?"
"No! I never said that." Adrian's smile was infuriating. "Stop telling people that."
Since I was in charge of the scorecard, his play was logged as four, despite his many further protests. I started to move forward, but Eddie held out a hand to stop me, his hazel eyes gazing over my shoulder.
"Hold up," he said. "We need to wait for Jill and Lee."
I followed his gaze. The two of them had been in deep conversation since we arrived, so much so that they'd slowed and lagged behind the rest of us. Even during his bantering with Adrian and me, Eddie had continually checked on her - and our surroundings. It was kind of amazing the way he could multitask. Thus far, Jill and Lee had only been one hole behind us. Now it was nearly two, and that was too far for Eddie to keep her in his sight. So, we waited while the oblivious couple meandered their way toward the Dragon's Lair.
Adrian took another drink from his flask and shook his head in awe. "You had nothing to worry about, Sage. She went right for him."
"No thanks to you," I snapped. "I can't believe you told her every detail of my visit that night. She was so mad at me for interfering behind her back with you, Lee, and Micah."
"I hardly told her anything," argued Adrian. "I just told her to stay away from that human guy."
Eddie glanced between our faces. "Micah?"
I shifted uncomfortably. Eddie didn't know about how I'd gone proactive. "Remember when I wanted you to say something to him? And you wouldn't?" I proceeded to tell him how I'd then sought out Adrian's help and found out about Lee's interest in Jill. Eddie was aghast.
"How could you not tell me any of this?" he demanded.
"Well," I said, wondering if everything I did was going to result in the wrath of a Moroi or dhampir, "it didn't involve you."
"Jill's safety does! If some guy likes her, I need to know."
Adrian chuckled. "Should Sage have passed you a note in class?"
"Lee's fine," I said. "He obviously adores her, and it's not like she'll ever be alone with him."
"We don't know for sure that he's fine," said Eddie.
"Whereas Micah's a hundred percent okay? Did you do a background check or something?" I asked.
"No," said Eddie, looking embarrassed. "I just know. It's a feeling I get about him. There's no problem with him spending time with Jill."
"Except that he's human."
"They wouldn't have gotten serious."
"You don't know that."
"Enough, you two," interrupted Adrian. Jill and Lee had finally reached the start of the Dragon's Lair, meaning we could move on. Adrian lowered his voice. "Your argument's useless. I mean, look at them. That human boy doesn't enter into it."
I looked. Adrian was right. Jill and Lee were clearly enthralled with each other. Some guilty part of me wondered if I should be a doing a better job of looking out for Jill. I was so relieved that she was interested in a Moroi that I hadn't stopped to wonder if she should even be dating anyone. Was fifteen old enough? I hadn't dated at fifteen. I'd actually, well, never dated.
"There is an age difference between them," I admitted, more to myself.
Adrian scoffed. "Believe me, I've seen age differences. Theirs is nothing."
He walked off, and a few moments later, Eddie and I went to join him. Eddie maintained his simultaneous vigil of Jill, but this time, I got the impression the danger he was watching out for was right beside her. Adrian's laughter rang out ahead of us.
"Sage!" he called. "You have got to see this."
Eddie and I reached the next green and stared in astonishment. Then I burst out laughing.
We had reached Dracula's Castle.
A huge, multi-towered black castle guarded the hole some distance away. A tunnel was cut out through the center of it with a narrow bridge meant for the ball to go over. If the ball fell off the sides before getting through the castle, it was returned back to the starting point. An animatronic Count Dracula stood off to the castle's side. He was pure white, with red eyes, pointed ears, and slicked-back hair. He jerkily kept raising his arms to show off a batlike cape. Nearby, a speaker blasted eerie organ music.
I couldn't stop laughing. Adrian and Eddie looked at me as though they'd never seen me before.
"I don't think I've ever heard her laugh," Eddie told him.
"Certainly not the reaction I was expecting," mused Adrian. "I'd been counting on abject terror, judging from past Alchemist behavior. I didn't think you liked vampires."
Still grinning, I watched Dracula raise his cape up and down. "This isn't a vampire. Not a real one. And that's what makes it so funny. It's pure Hollywood camp. Real vampires are terrifying and unnatural. This? This is hilarious."
It was clear from their expressions that neither really understood why this would appeal to my sense of humor so much. Adrian did, however, offer to take a picture with my cell phone when I asked him. I posed by Dracula and put on a big smile. Adrian managed to snap the shot just as Dracula was raising his cape. When I viewed the picture, I was pleased to see it had come out perfectly. Even my hair looked good.
Adrian gave the picture a nod of approval before handing me the phone. "Okay, even I can admit that's pretty cute."
I found myself overanalyzing the comment. What had he meant in saying even he could admit it? That I was cute for a human? Or that I had just met some kind of Adrian hot-girl criteria? Moments later, I had to forcibly stop thinking about it. Let it go, Sydney. It's a compliment. Accept it.
We played through the rest of the course, finally finishing off with the waterfall itself. That was a particularly challenging hole, and I took my time lining up the shot - not that I needed to. I was beating everyone pretty handily. Eddie was the only one who came close. It was clear Jill and Lee didn't even have their attention on the game, and as for Adrian and his natural talent... well, they were very solidly in last place.
Eddie, Adrian, and I were still ahead of the other two, so we waited for them by the waterfall. Jill practically ran to it when she had the chance, gazing up at it with enchanted eyes. "Oh," she breathed. "This is wonderful. I haven't seen this much water in days."
"Remember what I said about the toxicity," teased Lee. But it was clear he found her reaction endearing. As I glanced at the other two guys, I saw that they shared the same feelings. Well, not exactly the same. Adrian's affection was clearly brotherly. Eddie's? It was hard to read, kind of a mix of the other two. Maybe it was a kind of guardian fondness.
Jill made a gesture to the waterfall, and suddenly, part of it broke off from the tumbling cascade. The chunk of water shaped itself into a braid, then twisted high into the air, making spirals before shattering into a million drops that misted over us all. I had been staring wide-eyed and frozen, but those drops hitting me shocked me awake.
"Jill," I said in a voice I barely recognized as my own. "Don't do that again."
Jill, eyes bright, barely spared me a glance as she made another piece of water dance in the air. "No one's around to see, Sydney." That wasn't what had me so upset. That wasn't what filled me with so much panic that I could barely breathe. The world was doing that thing where it started to spin, and I worried I was going to faint. Stark, cold fear ran through me, fear at the unknown. The unnatural. The laws of my world had just been broken. This was vampire magic, something foreign and inaccessible to humans - inaccessible because it was forbidden, something no mortal was meant to delve into. I had only once seen magic used, when two spirit users had turned on each other, and I never wanted to see it again. One had forced the plants of the earth to do her bidding while the other telekinetically hurled objects meant to kill. It had been terrifying, and even though I hadn't been the target, I'd felt trapped and overwhelmed in the face of such otherworldly power. It was a reminder that these weren't fun, easy people to hang out with.
These were creatures wholly different from me.
"Stop it," I said, feeling the panic rise. I was afraid of the magic, afraid it would touch me, afraid of what it might do to me. "Don't do it anymore!" Jill didn't even hear me. She grinned at Lee. "You're air, right? Can you create fog over the water?"
Lee stuffed his hands in his pockets and looked away. "Ah, well, it's probably not a good idea. I mean, we're in public..."
"Come on," she pleaded. "It won't take any effort for you at all."
He actually appeared nervous. "Nah, not right now."
"Not you too." She laughed. Above her and in front of her, that demon water was still spinning, spinning, spinning...
"Jill," said Adrian, a harsher note in his voice than I'd ever heard before. In fact, I couldn't recall him ever addressing her by her actual name. "Stop." It was all he said, but it was like a wave of something went through Jill. She flinched, and the water spirals disappeared, falling away in droplets. "Fine," she said, looking confused.
There was a moment of awkwardness, and then Eddie said, "We should hurry. We're going to be pushing curfew."
Lee and Jill set out to make their shots and soon were laughing and flirting again. Eddie continued watching them in his concerned way. Only Adrian paid any attention to me. He was the only one who really understood what had happened, I realized. His green eyes studied me, with no trace of their usual bitter humor. I wasn't fooled, though. I knew there had to be some witty quip coming, mocking my reaction.
"Are you okay?" he asked quietly.
"I'm fine," I said, turning from him. I didn't want him to see my face. He'd already seen too much, seen my fear. I didn't want any of them to know how afraid of them I was. I heard him take a few steps toward me.
"Sage - "
"Leave me alone," I snapped back. I hurried off toward the course's exit, certain he wouldn't follow me. I was right. I waited for them to finish the game, using the alone time to calm myself down. By the time they caught up to me, I was fairly certain I had wiped most of the emotions from my face. Adrian still watched me with concern, which I didn't like, but at least he didn't say anything else about my breakdown.
Surprising to no one, the final score showed that I had won and Adrian had lost. Lee had come in third, which seemed to trouble him. "I used to be a lot better," he muttered, frowning. "I used to be perfect at this game." Considering he'd spent most of the time paying attention to Jill, I thought third was a pretty respectable performance.
I dropped him and Adrian off first and then just barely got Eddie, Jill, and me back to Amberwood on time. I was more or less back to normal by then, not that anyone would've noticed. Jill was floating on a cloud as we went into our dorm room, talking nonstop about Lee.
"I had no idea he'd traveled so much! He's maybe been more places than you, Sydney. He keeps telling me that he'll take me to all of them, that we'll spend the rest of our lives traveling and doing whatever we want. And he's taking all sorts of classes in college because he's not sure what he wants to major in. Well, not all sorts this semester. He's got a light schedule so that he can spend more time with his father. And that's good for me. For us, I mean."
I stifled a yawn and nodded wearily. "That's great."
She paused from where she'd been searching her dresser for pajamas. "I'm sorry, by the way."
I froze. I didn't want an apology for the magic. I didn't even want to remember it had happened.
"For yelling at you the other night," she continued. "You didn't set me up with Lee. I should never have accused you of interfering. He really has liked me all along, and, well... he's really great."
I let out the breath I'd been holding and attempted a weak smile. "I'm glad you're happy."
She returned cheerfully to her tasks and to talking about Lee until I left to go down to the bathroom. Before brushing my teeth, I stood in front of the sink and washed my hands and arms over and over, scrubbing as hard as I could to wash away the magical drops of water I swore I could still feel on my skin.