I ANGRILY PUSHED THROUGH THE double doors that led into the Moroi dorm. Snow swirled in behind me, and a few people lingering on the main floor glanced up upon my entrance. Not surprisingly, several of them did double takes. Swallowing, I forced myself not to react. It would be okay. No need to freak out. Novices got injured all the time. It was actually rarer not to get injured. Admittedly, this was a more noticeable injury than most, but I could live with it until it healed, right? And it wasn't like anyone would know how I'd received it.
"Hey Rose, is it true your own mother punched you?"
I froze. I'd know that taunting soprano voice anywhere. Turning slowly, I looked into the deep blue eyes of Mia Rinaldi. Curly blond hair framed a face that might have been cute if not for the malicious smirk on it.
A year younger than us, Mia'd taken on Lissa (and me by default) in a war to see who could tear apart the other's life most quickly¡ªa war, I should add, that she started. It had involved her stealing Lissa's ex-boyfriend¡ªdespite the fact Lissa had decided in the end she didn't want him¡ªand the spreading of all sorts of rumors.
Admittedly, Mia's hatred hadn't been entirely unjustified. Lissa's older brother, Andre¡ªwho had been killed in the same car accident that technically "killed" me¡ªhad used Mia pretty badly when she was a freshman. If she weren't such a bitch now, I would have felt sorry for her. It had been wrong of him, and while I could understand her anger, I don't know that it was fair of her to take that out on Lissa in the way she did.
Lissa and I had technically won the war in the end, but Mia had inexplicably bounced back. She didn't run with the same elite that she once had, but she had rebuilt a small contingent of friends. Malicious or not, strong leaders always attract followers.
I'd found that about 90 percent of the time, the most effective response was to ignore her. But we had just crossed over to the other 10 percent, because it's impossible to ignore someone announcing to the world that your mother just punched you¡ªeven if it was true. I stopped walking and turned around. Mia stood near a vending machine, knowing she'd drawn me out. I didn't bother asking how she'd found out about my mother giving me the black eye. Things rarely stayed secret around here.
When she caught full sight of my face, her eyes widened in unabashed delight. "Wow. Talk about a face only a mother could love."
Ha. Cute. From anyone else, I would have applauded the joke.
"Well, you're the expert on face injury," I said. "How's your nose?"
Mia's icy smile twitched a little, but she didn't back down. I'd broken her nose about a month ago¡ªat a school dance of all places¡ªand while the nose had since healed, it now sat just the tiniest bit askew. Plastic surgery could probably fix it up, but from my understanding of her family's finances, that wasn't possible just now.
"It's better," she replied primly. "Fortunately, it was only broken by a psychopathic whore and not anyone actually related to me."
I gave her my best psychopathic smile. "Too bad. Family members hit you by accident. Psychopathic whores tend to come back for more."
Threatening physical violence against her was usually a pretty sound tactic, but we had too many people around right now for that to be a legitimate concern for her. And Mia knew it. Not that I was above attacking someone in this kind of setting¡ªhell, I'd done it lots of times¡ªbut I was trying to work on my impulse control lately.
"Doesn't look like much of an accident to me," she said. "Don't you guys have rules about face punches? I mean, that looks really far out of bounds."
I opened my mouth to tell her off, but nothing came out. She had a point. My injury was far out of bounds; in that sort of combat, you aren't supposed to hit above the neck. This was way above that forbidden line.
Mia saw my hesitation, and it was like Christmas morning had come a week early for her. Until that moment, I don't think there'd ever been a time in our antagonistic relationship in which she'd rendered me speechless.
"Ladies," came a stern, female voice. The Moroi attending the front desk leaned over it and fixed us with a sharp look. "This is a lobby, not a lounge. Either go upstairs or go outside."
For a moment, breaking Mia's nose again sounded like the best idea in the world¡ªto hell with detention or suspension. After a deep breath, I decided retreat was my most dignified action now. I stalked off toward the stairs leading up to the girls' dorm. Over my shoulder, I heard Mia call, "Don't worry, Rose. It'll go away. Besides, it's not your face guys are interested in."
Thirty seconds later, I beat on Lissa's door so hard, it was a wonder my fist didn't go through the wood. She opened it slowly and peered around.
"Is it just you out here? I thought there was an army at the¡ªoh my God." Her eyebrows shot up when she noticed the left side of my face. "What happened?"
"You haven't heard already? You're probably the only one in the school who hasn't," I grumbled. "Just let me in."
Sprawling on her bed, I told her about the day's events. She was properly appalled.
"I heard you'd been hurt, but I figured it was one of your normal things," she said.
I stared up at the spackled ceiling, feeling miserable. "The worst part is, Mia was right. It wasn't an accident."
"What, you're saying your mom did it on purpose?" When I didn't answer, Lissa's voice turned incredulous. "Come on, she wouldn't do that. No way."
"Why? Because she's perfect Janine Hathaway, master of controlling her temper? The thing is, she's also perfect Janine Hathaway, master of fighting and controlling her actions. One way or another, she slipped up."
"Yeah, well," said Lissa, "I think her stumbling and missing her punch is more likely than her doing it on purpose. She'd have to really lose her temper."
"Well, she was talking to me. That's enough to make anyone lose their temper. And I accused her of sleeping with my dad because he was the soundest evolutionary choice."
"Rose," groaned Lissa. "You kind of left out that part in your recap. Why'd you say that to her?"
"Because it's probably true."
"But you had to know it'd upset her. Why do you keep provoking her? Why can't you just make peace with her?"
I sat upright. "Make peace with her? She gave me a black eye. Probably on purpose! How do I make peace with someone like that?"
Lissa just shook her head and walked over to the mirror to check her makeup. The feelings coming through our bond were ones of frustration and exasperation. Lingering in the back was a bit of anticipation, too. I had the patience to examine her carefully, now that I'd finished my venting. She had on a silky lavender shirt and a knee-length black skirt. Her long hair had the kind of smooth perfection only achieved by spending an hour of your life on it with a hair dryer and flat iron.
"You look nice. What's up?"
Her feelings shifted slightly, her irritation with me dimming a little. "I'm meeting Christian soon."
For a few minutes there, it had felt like the old days with Lissa and me. Just us, hanging out and talking. Her mention of Christian, as well as the realization that she'd have to leave me soon for him, stirred up dark feelings in my chest...feelings I had to reluctantly admit were jealousy. Naturally, I didn't let on to that.
"Wow. What'd he do to deserve that? Rescue orphans from a burning building? If so, you might want to make sure he didn't set the building on fire in the first place." Christian's element was fire. It was fitting since it was the most destructive one.
Laughing, she turned from the mirror and noticed me gently touching my swollen face with my fingers. Her smile turned kind. "It doesn't look that bad."
"Whatever. I can tell when you're lying, you know. And Dr. Olendzki says it'll be even worse tomorrow." I lay back down on the bed. "There probably isn't enough concealer in the world to cover this, is there? Tasha and I'll have to invest in some Phantom of the Opera-style masks."
She sighed and sat on the bed near me. "Too bad I can't just heal it."
I smiled. "That would be nice."
The compulsion and charisma brought on by spirit were great, but really, healing was her coolest ability. The range of things she could achieve was staggering.
Lissa was also thinking about what spirit could do. "I wish there were some other way to control the spirit ... in a way that still let me use the magic...."
"Yeah," I said. I understood her burning desire to do great things and help people. It radiated off of her. Hell, I would also have liked to have this eye cleared up in an instant rather than days. "I wish there were too."
She sighed again. "And there's more to me than just wishing I could heal and do other stuff with spirit. I also, well, just miss the magic. It's still there; it's just blocked off by the pills. It's burning inside of me. It wants me, and I want it. But there's a wall between us. You just can't imagine it."
"I can, actually."
It was true. Along with having a general sense for her feelings, I could sometimes also "slip into her." It was hard to explain and ever harder to endure. When that happened, I could literally see through her eyes and feel what she experienced. During those times, I was her. Many times, I'd been in her head while she longed for the magic, and I'd felt the burning need she spoke of. She often woke up at night, yearning for the power she could no longer reach.
"Oh yeah," she said ruefully. "I forget about that sometimes."
A sense of bitterness filled her. It wasn't directed at me so much as it was the no-win nature of her situation. Anger sparked inside of her. She didn't like feeling helpless any more than I did. The anger and frustration intensified into something darker and uglier, something I didn't like.
"Hey," I said, touching her arm. "You okay?"
She closed her eyes briefly, then opened them. "I just hate it."
The intensity of her feelings reminded me of our conversation, the one we'd had just before I went to the Badica house. "You still feel like the pills might be weakening?"
"I don't know. A little."
"Is it getting worse?"
She shook her head. "No. I still can't use the magic. I feel closer to it... but it's still blocked off."
"But you still... your moods ..."
"Yeah ... they're acting up. But don't worry," she said, seeing my face. "I'm not seeing things or trying to hurt myself."
"Good." I was glad to hear it but still worried. Even if she still couldn't touch the magic, I didn't like the idea of her mental state slipping again. Desperately, I hoped the situation would just stabilize on its own. "I'm here," I told her softly, holding her gaze. "If anything happens that's weird...you tell me, okay?"
Like that, the dark feelings disappeared within her. As they did, I felt a weird ripple in the bond. I can't explain what it was, but I shuddered from the force. Lissa didn't notice. Her mood perked up again, and she smiled at me.
"Thanks," she said. "I will."
I smiled, happy to see her back to normal. We lapsed into silence, and for the briefest of moments, I wanted to pour my heart out to her. I'd had so much on my mind lately: my mother, Dimitri, and the Badica house. I'd been keeping those feelings locked up, and they were tearing me apart. Now, feeling so comfortable with Lissa for the first time in a long time, I finally felt that I could let her into my feelings for a change.
Before I could open my mouth, I felt her thoughts suddenly shift. They became eager and nervous. She had something she wanted to tell me, something she'd been thinking about intently. So much for pouring my heart out. If she wanted to talk, I wouldn't burden her with my problems, so I pushed them aside and waited for her to speak.
"I found something in my research with Ms. Carmack. Something strange..."
"Oh?" I asked, instantly curious.
Moroi usually developed their specialized element during adolescence. After that, they were put into magic classes specific to that element. But as the only spirit user on record at the moment, Lissa didn't really have a class she could join. Most people believed she just hadn't specialized, but she and Ms. Carmack¡ªthe magic teacher at St. Vladimir's¡ªhad been meeting independently to learn what they could about spirit. They researched both current and old records, checking for clues that might lead to other spirit users, now that they knew some of the telltale signs: an inability to specialize, mental instability, etc.
"I didn't find any confirmed spirit users, but I did find...reports of, um, unexplained phenomena."
I blinked in surprise. "What kind of stuff?" I asked, pondering what would count as "unexplained phenomena" for vampires. When she and I had lived with humans, we would have been considered unexplained phenomena.
"They're scattered reports...but, like, I read this one about a guy who could make others see things that weren't there. He could get them to believe they were seeing monsters or other people or whatever."
"That could be compulsion."
"Really powerful compulsion. I couldn't do that, and I'm stronger¡ªor used to be¡ªin it than anyone we know. And that power comes from using spirit...."
"So," I finished, "you think this illusion guy must have been a spirit user too." She nodded. "Why not contact him and find out?"
"Because there's no information listed! It's secret. And there are others just as strange. Like someone who could physically drain others. People standing nearby would get weak and lose all their strength. They'd pass out. And there was someone else who could stop things in midair when they were thrown at him." Excitement lit up her features.
"He could have been an air user," I pointed out.
"Maybe," she said. I could feel the curiosity and excitement swirling through her. She desperately wanted to believe there were others out there like her.
I smiled. "Who knew? Moroi have Roswell- and Area 51-type stuff. It's a wonder I'm not being studied somewhere to see if they can figure out the bond."
Lissa's speculative mood turned teasing. "I wish I could see into your mind sometimes. I'd like to know how you feel about Mason."
"He's my friend," I said stoutly, surprised at the abrupt change in subject. "That's it."
She tsked. "You used to flirt¡ªand do other stuff¡ªwith any guy you could get your hands on."
"Hey!" I said, offended. "I wasn't that bad."
"Okay...maybe not. But you don't seem interested in guys anymore."
I was interested in guys¡ªwell, one guy.
"Mason's really nice," she continued. "And crazy about you."
"He is," I agreed. I thought about Mason, about that brief moment when I'd thought he was sexy outside Stan's class. Plus, Mason was really funny, and we got along beautifully. He wasn't a bad prospect as far as boyfriends went.
"You guys are a lot alike. You're both doing things you shouldn't."
I laughed. That was also true. I recalled Mason's eagerness to take on every Strigoi in the world. I might not be ready for that¡ªdespite my outburst in the car¡ªbut I shared some of his recklessness. It might be time to give him a shot, I thought. Bantering with him was fun, and it had been a long time since I'd kissed anyone. Dimitri made my heart ache ... but, well, it wasn't like anything else was going on there.
Lissa watched me appraisingly, like she knew what I was thinking¡ªwell, aside from the Dimitri stuff. "I heard Meredith say you were an idiot for not going out with him. She said it's because you think you're too good for him."
"What! That's not true."
"Hey, I didn't say it. Anyway, she said she's thinking of going after him."
"Mason and Meredith?" I scoffed. "That's a disaster in the making. They have nothing in common."
It was petty, but I'd gotten used to Mason always doting on me. Suddenly, the thought of someone else getting him irked me.
"You're possessive," Lissa said, again guessing my thoughts. No wonder she got so annoyed at me reading her mind.
"Only a little."
She laughed. "Rose, even if it's not Mason, you really should start dating again. There are lots of guys who would kill to go out with you¡ªguys who are actually nice."
I hadn't always made the best choices when it came to men. Once again, the urge to spill all my worries to her seized me. I'd been hesitant to tell her about Dimitri for so long, even though the secret burned inside of me. Sitting with her here reminded me that she was my best friend. I could tell her anything, and she wouldn't judge me. But, just like earlier, I lost the chance to tell her what was on my mind.
She glanced over at her alarm clock and suddenly sprang up from the bed.
"I'm late! I've got to meet Christian!"
Joy filled her, underscored with a bit of nervous anticipation. Love. What could you do? I swallowed back the jealousy that started to raise its ugly head. Once again, Christian had taken her away from me. I wasn't going to be able to unburden myself tonight.
Lissa and I left the dorm, and she practically sprinted away, promising we'd talk tomorrow. I wandered back to my own dorm. When I got to my room, I passed by my mirror and groaned when I saw my face. Dark purple surrounded my eye. In talking to Lissa, I'd almost forgotten about the whole incident with my mother. Stopping to get a closer look, I stared at my face. Maybe it was egotistical, but I knew I looked good. I wore a C-cup and had a body much coveted in a school where most of the girls were supermodel slim. And as I'd noted earlier, my face was pretty too. On a typical day, I was a nine around here¡ªten on a very good one.
But today? Yeah. I was practically in negative numbers. I was going to look fabulous for the ski trip.
"My mom beat me up," I informed my reflection. It looked back sympathetically.
With a sigh, I decided I might as well get ready for bed. There was nothing else I wanted to do tonight, and maybe extra sleep would speed the healing. I went down the hall to the bathroom to wash my face and brush my hair. When I got back to my room, I slipped on my favorite pajamas, and the feel of soft flannel cheered me up a little.
I was packing my backpack for the next day when a burst of emotion abruptly shot through my bond with Lissa. It caught me unaware and gave me no chance to fight it. It was like being knocked over by a hurricane-force wind, and suddenly, I was no longer looking at my backpack. I was "inside" Lissa, experiencing her world firsthand.
And that's when things got awkward.
Because Lissa was with Christian.
And things were getting ... hot.
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