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She landed in a heap at the foot of the stairs. An agonized grunt escaped her lips.

Chapter Eleven

RUDE AWAKENING

"Are you scared?" Daniel asked. His head was tilted sideways, his blond hair disheveled by a soft breeze. He was holding her, and while his grip was firm around her waist, it was as smooth and light as a silk sash. Her own fingers were laced behind his shirtless neck.

Was she scared? Of course not. She was with Daniel. Finally. In his arms. The truer question pulling at the back of her mind was: Should she be scared? She couldn't be sure. She didn't even know where she was.

She could smell rain in the air, close by. But both she and Daniel were dry. She could feel a long white dress flowing down to her ankles. There was only a little light left in the day. Luce felt a stabbing regret at wasting the sunset, as if there were anything she could do to stop it. Somehow she knew these final rays of light were as precious as the last drops of honey in a jar.

'Will you stay with me?" she asked. Her voice was the thinnest whisper, almost canceled out by a low groan of thunder. A gust of wind swirled around them, brushing Luce's hair into her eyes. Daniel folded his arms more tightly around her, until she could breathe in his breath, could smell his skin on hers.

'Forever," he whispered back. The sweet sound of his voice filled her up.

There was a small scratch on the left side of his forehead, but she forgot it as Daniel cupped her cheek and brought her face nearer. She tilted her head back and felt the whole of her body go slack with expectation.

Finally, finally, his lips came down on hers with an urgency that took her breath away. He kissed her as if she belonged to him, as naturally as if she were some long-lost part of him that he could at last reclaim.

Then the rain started to fall. It soaked their hair, ran down their faces and into their mouths. The rain was warm and intoxicating, like the kisses themselves.

Luce reached around his back to draw him closer, and her hands slid over something velvety.

She ran one hand over it, then another, searching for its limits, and then peered past Daniel's glowing face.

Something was unfurling behind him.

Wings. Lustrous and iridescent, beating slowly, effortlessly, shining in the rain. She'd seen them before, maybe, or something like them somewhere.

"Daniel," she said, gasping. The wings consumed her vision and her mind. They seemed to swirl into a million colors, making her head hurt. She tried to look elsewhere, anywhere else, but on all sides, all she could see besides Daniel were the endless pinks and blues of the sunset sky. Until she looked down and took in one last thing.

The ground.

Thousands of feet below them.

When she opened her eyes, it was too bright, her skin was too dry, and there was a splitting pain at the back of her head. The sky was gone and so was Daniel.

Another dream.

Only this one left her feeling almost sick with desire.

She was in a white-walled room. Lying on a hospital bed. To her left, a paper-thin curtain had been dragged halfway across the room, separating her from something bustling on the other side.

Luce gingerly touched the tender spot at the base of her neck and whimpered.

She tried to get her bearings. She didn't know where she was, but she had a distinct feeling that she wasn't at Sword & Cross any longer. Her billowy white dress was - she patted her sides - a baggy hospital gown. She could feel every part of the dream slipping away - everything but those wings. They'd been so real. The touch of them so velvety and fluid. Her stomach churned.

She clenched and unclenched her fists, hyper-aware of their emptiness.

Someone grasped and squeezed her right hand. Luce turned her head quickly and winced. She'd assumed she was alone. Gabbe was perched on the edge of a faded blue rolling chair that seemed, annoyingly, to bring out the color of her eyes.

Luce wanted to pull away - or at least, she expected to want to pull away - but then Gabbe gave her the warmest smile, one that made Luce feel somehow safe, and she realized she was glad she wasn't alone.

"How much of it was a dream?" she murmured.

Gabbe laughed. She had a pot of cuticle cream on the table next to her, and she began rubbing the white, lemon-scented stuff into Luce's nail beds. "That all depends," she said, massaging Luce's fingers. "But never mind dreams. I know that whenever I feel my world turning upside down, nothing grounds me like a manicure."

Luce glanced down. She'd never been much for nail polish herself, but Gabbe's words reminded her of her mother, who was always suggesting they go for manicures whenever Luce had a bad day. As Gabbe's slow hands worked over her fingers, Luce wondered whether all these years, she'd been missing out.

"Where are we?" she asked.

"Lullwater Hospital."

Her first trip off campus and she ended up in a hospital five minutes from her parents' house. The last time she'd been here was to get three stitches on her elbow when she'd fallen off her bike. Her father hadn't left her side. Now he was nowhere to be seen.

"How long have I been here?" she asked.

Gabbe looked at a white clock on the wall and said, "They found you passed out from smoke inhalation last night around eleven. It's standard operating procedure to call for EMT5 when they find a reform kid unconscious, but don't worry, Randy said they're going to let you out of here pretty soon. As soon as your parents give the okay - "

"My parents are here?"

"And filled with concern for their daughter, right down to the split ends of your mama's permed hair.

They're in the hallway, drowning in paperwork. I told them I'd keep an eye on you."

Luce groaned and pressed her face into the pillow, calling up the deep pain at the back of her head again.

"If you don't want to see them ..."

But Luce wasn't groaning about her parents. She was dying to see her parents. She was remembering the library, the fire, and the new breed of shadows that grew more terrifying every time they found her.

They'd always been dark and unsightly, they'd always made her nervous, but last night, it had almost seemed as if the shadows wanted something from her. And then there was that other thing, the levitating force that had set her free.

"What's that look?" Gabbe asked, cocking her head and waving her hand in the air in front of Luce's face. "What are you thinking about?"

Luce didn't know what to make of Gabbe's sudden kindness toward her, Nurse's assistant didn't exactly seem like the kind of gig Gabbe would volunteer for, and it wasn't like there were any guys around whose attention she could monopolize. Gabbe didn't even seem to like Luce. She wouldn't just show up here of her own accord, would she?

But even as nice as Gabbe was being, there was no way to explain what had happened last night. The grisly, unspeakable gathering in the hallway. The surreal sensation of being propelled forward through that blackness. The strange, compelling figure of light.

"Where's Todd?" Luce asked, remembering the boy's fearful eyes. She'd lost her grip on him, gone flying, and then ...

The paper curtain was suddenly slung back, and there was Arriane, wearing in-line skates and a red-and-white candy striper uniform. Her short black hair was twisted up in a series of knots on top of her head.

She rolled in, carrying a tray on which sat three coconut shells topped with neon-colored umbrella party straws.

"Now lemme get this straight," she said in a throaty, nasal voice. "You put the lime in the coconut and drink 'em both up - whoa, long faces. What am I interrupting?" Arriane wheeled to a stop at the foot of Luce's bed. She extended a coconut with a bobbing pink umbrella.

Gabbe jumped up and seized the coconut first, giving its contents a sniff. "Arriane, she has just been through a trauma," she scolded. "And for your information, what you interrupted was the topic of Todd."

Arriane tossed her shoulders back. "Precisely why she needs something with a kick," she argued, holding the tray possessively while she and Gabbe engaged in a stare-down.

"Fine," Arriane said, looking away from Gabbe. "I'll give her your boring old drink." She gave Luce the coconut with the blue straw.

Luce must have been in some kind of post-traumatic daze. Where would they have gotten any of this stuff? Coconut shells? Drink umbrellas? It was like she'd been conked out at reform school and woken up at Club Med.

"Where did you guys get all this stuff?" she asked. "I mean, thank you, but - "

"We pool our resources when we need to," Arriane said, "Roland helped."

The three of them sat slurping the frosty, sweet drinks for a moment, until Luce couldn't take it anymore.

"So back to Todd ...?"

"Todd," Gabbe said, clearing her throat. "Thing is ... he just inhaled a lot more of that smoke than you did, honey - "

"He did not," Arriane spat. "He broke his neck."

Luce gasped, and Gabbe hit Arriane with her drink umbrella.

"What?" Arriane said. "Luce can handle it. If she's going to find out eventually, why sugarcoat it?"

"The evidence is still inconclusive," Gabbe said, stressing the words.

Arriane shrugged. "Luce was there, she must have seen - "

"I didn't see what happened to him," Luce said. "We were together and then somehow we were thrown apart. I had a bad feeling, but I didn't know," she whispered. "So he's

"Gone from this world," Gabbe said softly.

Luce closed her eyes. A chill spread through her that had nothing to do with the drink, She remembered Todd's frenzied banging on the walls, his sweaty hand squeezing hers when the shadows roared down on them, the awful moment when the two of them had been split apart and she'd been too overcome to go to him.

He'd seen the shadows. Luce was certain of it now. And he'd died.

After Trevor died, not a week had gone by without a hate letter finding its way to Luce. Her parents started trying to vet the mail before she could read the poisonous stuff, but too much still reached her.

Some letters were handwritten, some were typed, one had even been cut from magazine letters, ransom-note style. Murderer, Witch. They'd called her enough cruel names to fill a scrapbook, caused enough agony to keep her locked inside the house all summer.

She thought she'd done so much to move on from that nightmare: leaving her past behind when she came to Sword & Cross, focusing on her classes, making friends ... oh God. She sucked in her breath. "What about Penn?" she asked, biting her lip.

"Penn's fine," Arriane said. "She's all front-page-story, eyewitness-to-the-fire. She and Miss Sophia both got out, smelling like an East Georgia smoke pit, but no worse for the wear."

Luce let out her breath. At least there was one piece of good news. But under the paper-thin infirmary sheets, she was trembling. Soon, surely the same types of people who'd come to her after Trevor's death would come to her again. Not just the ones who wrote the angry letters. Dr. Sanford. Her parole officer.

The police.

Just like before, she'd be expected to have the whole story pieced together. To remember every single detail. But of course, just like before, she wouldn't be able to. One minute, he'd been at her side, just the two of them. The next -

"Luce!" Penn barged into the room, holding a big brown helium balloon. It was shaped like a Band-Aid and said Stick It Out in blue cursive letters. "What is this?" she asked, looking at the other three girls critically. "Some sort of slumber party?"

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