Chapter Six

 

REALLY, WHEN YOU THOUGHT ABOUT it, Sydney showing up wasn't much weirder than half the other stuff that seemed to happen to me on a regular basis. Sydney was an Alchemist, one I'd met in Russia when trying to find and kill Dimitri. She was my age and had hated being assigned over there, though I'd certainly appreciated her aid. As Dimitri had noted earlier, the Alchemists would want to help the Moroi find and capture me. Yet, judging from the tension radiating off both her and Dimitri in the car, it became obvious that she was assisting in this escape.

With great effort, I pushed my questions to the side for the time being. We were still fugitives, still undoubtedly being pursued. Sydney's car was a brand new Honda CR-V with Louisiana plates and a rental sticker.

"What the hell?' I asked. "Is this daring escape being sponsored by Honda?' When this got no response, I went to the next obvious question. "Are we going to New Orleans?' That was Sydney's new post. Sightseeing was the last thing on my mind at the moment, but if you had to run away, you might as well run somewhere good.

"No,' she said, backing out of the spot. "We're going to West Virginia.'

I looked sharply at Dimitri, who sat in the backseat, in the hopes that he would deny this. He didn't.

"I assume by "West Virginia,' you actually mean "Hawaii,'' I said. "Or some place equally exciting.'

"Honestly, I think you're better off avoiding excitement right now,' Sydney pointed out. The car's GPS device directed her to her next turn, leading us back toward I-81. She frowned slightly. "And West Virginia's actually really pretty.'

I remembered that she was from Utah and probably didn't know any better. Having long since given up on any control in this escape plot, I moved on to the next obvious set of questions.

"Why are you helping us?'

I had a feeling Sydney was grimacing in the dark. "Why do you think?'

"Abe.'

She sighed. "I'm really starting to wonder if New Orleans was worth it.'

I'd recently learned that Abe--with that inexplicable, far-reaching influence of his-- had been responsible for getting her out of Russia. How he'd done it, I didn't know. What I did know was that it had left Sydney in open-ended debt to him, one he kept using to get favors. Sometimes, I wondered if there was more to the deal than just a job transfer, like maybe he'd done something else that neither had told me about. Regardless, I started to chastise her again that she should have expected this for making a deal with the devil, but I soon reconsidered. With a bunch of guardians in pursuit, it probably wasn't a smart idea to tease someone helping me. I asked a different question.

"Okay. So why are we going to West Virginia?'

Sydney opened her mouth to respond, but Dimitri interrupted her. "Not yet.'

I turned around again and shot him a glare. "I am so sick of this! We've been on the run for six hours now, and I still don't know all the details. I get that we're staying away from the guardians, but are we seriously going to West Virginia? Are we going to make some cabin our base of operation? Like, one on the side of a mountain that doesn't have plumbing?'

Sydney gave me one of her trademark exasperated sighs. "Do you actually know anything about West Virginia?'

I didn't like her and Dimitri teaming up to keep me in the dark. Of course, with Sydney, her reticence could be from any number of things. It could still be Abe's orders. Or maybe she just didn't want to talk to me. Since most Alchemists considered dhampirs and vampires the spawn of hell, they didn't usually get too friendly with us. Spending time with me in Siberia had altered her views a little. I hoped. Sometimes I got the vibe she just wasn't that social of a person to begin with.

"You know we've been set up, right?' I asked her. "We didn't really do anything. They say I killed the queen, but--'

"I know,' Sydney interrupted. "I've heard all about it. All the Alchemists know about it. You two are at the top of our most wanted list.' She attempted a businesslike tone but couldn't entirely hide her uneasiness. I had a feeling Dimitri made her more nervous than I did, which was understandable since he made some of our own people nervous too.

"I didn't do it,' I insisted. Somehow, it was important that she know that.

Sydney didn't acknowledge my comment. Instead, she said, "You should eat. Your food's getting cold. We've got a little over three hours to go and won't be stopping except for gas.'

I recognized the finality in her voice, as well as the logic. She didn't want to talk anymore. Inside the bag, I found two giant orders of fries, and three cheeseburgers. She apparently still knew me pretty well. It took all of my restraint to keep from stuffing fries into my mouth then and there. Instead, I offered a cheeseburger to Dimitri.

"You want one? Gotta keep up your strength.'

He hesitated several seconds before taking it. He seemed to regard it with a kind of wonder, and it hit me that eating food was still a new thing for him after these last few months. Strigoi only subsisted on blood. I handed him a couple of fries too and then turned back around to devour the rest. I didn't bother offering any to Sydney. She was notorious for her lack of appetite, and besides, I figured she would have eaten already if she'd wanted to while waiting for us.

"I think this is for you,' Dimitri said, handing me a small backpack. I opened it and found a few changes of clothes, as well as some basic toiletries. I double-checked the outfits.

"Shorts, shirts, and a dress. I can't fight in these. I need jeans.' The dress was cute, admittedly: a long gauzy sun-dress in a watercolor print of black, white, and gray. But very impractical.

"That's gratitude for you,' said Sydney. "This happened kind of fast. There was only so much I could put together.'

Glancing behind me, I saw Dimitri unpacking his own bag. It had basic clothing like mine and also--

"A duster?' I exclaimed, watching him pull out the long, leather coat. How it even fit in there defied physics. "You managed to get him a duster, but you couldn't find me a pair of jeans?'

Sydney seemed unconcerned by my outrage. "Abe said it was essential. Besides, if all goes like it's supposed to, you won't be doing any fighting.' I didn't like the sound of that. Safe and remote.

Seeing as I had what were potentially the quietest car companions in the world, I knew better than to expect any real conversation for the next three hours. I supposed it was just as well because it let me check in on Lissa. I was still too on edge about my own escape to spend much time in her head, so it was just a quick assessment of life at Court.

Just as Dimitri had predicted, the guardians had restored order pretty soon. The Court was under lockdown, and everyone with any connection to me was being questioned extensively. The thing was, they all had alibis. Everyone had seen my allies at the funeral--or, in Abe's case, thought they'd seen them. A couple girls swore they'd been with Adrian, which I could only imagine was the result of more compulsion. I could feel Lissa's satisfaction through the bond as the guardians' frustration grew and grew. Although she had no idea when I might be checking in on her, she sent me a message through the bond: Don't worry, Rose. I'll take care of everything. We're going to clear your name.

I slumped back in the car seat, unsure how to feel about this situation. All my life, I'd taken care of her. I'd protected her from danger and gone out of my way to keep her away from any threats. Now, the roles were reversed. She'd come through for me in saving Dimitri, and I was in her--and apparently everyone else's--hands as far as this escape was concerned. It went against every instinct I had and troubled me. I wasn't used to being protected by others, let alone her.

The interrogations were still going on, and Lissa hadn't had hers yet, but something told me my friends were going to get off the hook for this. They wouldn't be punished for my escape, and for the moment, I was really the only one in danger--which was what I preferred.

West Virginia might have been as beautiful as Sydney claimed, but I couldn't really tell since it was the middle of the night when we arrived. Mostly I had the sense of driving through mountains, feeling the ups and downs as we went through switchbacks and tunnels. After almost exactly three hours, we rolled into a small hole of a town that had one traffic light and a restaurant simply marked DINER. There hadn't been any traffic on the road for over an hour, though, which was really the most important thing. We hadn't been followed.

Sydney drove us to a building with a sign that read MOTEL. Apparently, this town liked to stick to the basics when it came to names. I wouldn't be surprised if it was actually just called TOWN. As we walked across the motel's parking lot, I was surprised to feel how sore my legs were. Every part of me ached, and sleep sounded fantastic. It had been more than half a day since this adventure began.

Sydney checked us in under fake names, and the sleepy desk clerk didn't ask any questions. We walked down a hall that wasn't dirty exactly but also wasn't anything a royal would have gone near. A cleaning cart leaned against one wall, as though someone had given up and abandoned it. Sydney suddenly came to a halt in front of a room and handed us a key. I realized she was heading off to a different room.

"We're not all staying together?' I asked.

"Hey, if you guys get caught, I don't want to be anywhere near you,' she said, with a smile. I had a feeling she also didn't want to sleep in the same room as "evil creatures of the night.' "I'll still be nearby, though. We'll talk in the morning.'

This made me realize something else. I eyed Dimitri. "We're sharing a room?'

Sydney shrugged. "All the better to defend yourselves.'

She left us in that abrupt way of hers, and Dimitri and I glanced at each other briefly before heading into the room. Like the rest of the motel, it wasn't fancy, but it would do. The carpet was worn but intact, and I appreciated the weak attempt at decorating with a very bad painting of some pears. A small window looked sad. There was one bed.

Dimitri locked the bolt and chain on the door and then sat back in the room's lone chair. It was wooden with a straight back, but he seemed to regard it as the most comfortable thing in the world. He still wore that perpetually vigilant look of his, but I could see exhaustion around the edges. This had been a long night for him too.

I sat down on the edge of the bed. "What now?' "Now we wait,' he said.

"For what?'

"For Lissa and the others to clear your name and find out who killed the queen.'

I expected more explanation, but all I got was silence. Disbelief began to build up in me. I'd remained as patient as I could tonight, always assuming Dimitri was leading me toward some mysterious mission to help solve the murder. When he said we were going to wait, surely he didn't mean we were just going to ... well, wait?

"What are we going to do?' I demanded. "How are we going to help them?'

"We told you earlier: You can hardly go looking for clues at Court. You need to stay away. You need to stay safe.'

My jaw dropped as I gestured around the drab room. "What, and this is it? This is where you're stashing me? I thought ... I thought there was something here. Something to help.'

"It is helping,' he said, in that damnably calm way of his. "Sydney and Abe researched this place and decided it was out of the way enough to avoid detection.'

I shot up from the bed. "Okay, comrade. There's one serious problem here with your logic. You guys keep acting like me staying out of the way is helping.'

"Whats a serious problem is us repeating this conversation over and over. The answers to who murdered Tatiana are at Court, and that's where your friends are. They'll figure this out.'

"I didn't just get in a high-speed chase and jump state lines to hole up in some crappy motel! How long are you planning on "staying out of the way' here?'

Dimitri crossed his arms over his chest. "As long as it takes. We have the funds to stay here indefinitely.'

"I probably have enough spare change in my pocket to stay here indefinitely! But it's not happening. I have to do something. I won't just take the easy way out and sit around.'

"Surviving isn't as easy as you think.'

"Oh God,' I groaned. "You've been hanging out with Abe, haven't you? You know, when you were a Strigoi, you told me to stay away from him. Maybe you should take your own advice.'

I regretted the words as soon as they left my lips and saw in his eyes that I'd inflicted serious damage. He might have been acting like the old Dimitri in this escape, but his time as a Strigoi still tormented him.

"I'm sorry,' I said. "I didn't mean--'

"We're done discussing this,' he said harshly. "Lissa says we're staying here, so we're staying here.'

Anger shoved aside my guilt. "Thats why you're doing this? Because Lissa told you to?'

"Of course. I swore I'd serve and help her.'

That was when I snapped. It had been bad enough that when Lissa restored him to a dhampir, Dimitri had thought it was okay to stick around Lissa while spurning me. Despite the fact that I'd been the one who went to Siberia and that I was the one who learned about how Victor's brother Robert knew how to restore Strigoi ... well, apparently those things didn't matter. Only Lissa wielding the stake had seemed to matter, and Dimitri now held her up as some kind of angelic goddess, one he'd made an archaic, knight-like vow to serve.

"Forget it,' I said. "I am not staying here.'

I made it to the door in three steps and managed to undo the chain, but in seconds, Dimitri was out of his chair and had thrown me against the wall. Really, that was pretty slow reaction time. I would have expected him to stop me before I'd taken two steps.

"You are staying here,' he said evenly, hands gripping my wrists. "Whether you like it or not.'

Now, I had a few options. I could stay, of course. I could hang out for days--months, even--in this motel until Lissa cleared my name. That was presuming Lissa could clear my name and that I didn't get food poisoning from the DINER diner. This was the safest option. Also the most boring for me.

Another option was to fight my way through Dimitri. That was neither safe nor easy. It would also be particularly challenging because I'd have to try to fight in such a way that would allow me to escape but wouldn't kill him or cause either of us serious injury.

Or, I could just throw caution away and not hold back. Hell, the guy had battled Strigoi and half the Court's guardians. He could handle me giving everything I had. We'd certainly shared some pretty rough encounters back at St. Vladimir's. Would my best be enough for me to escape? Time to find out.

I kneed him in the stomach, which he clearly hadn't expected. His eyes widened in shock--and a little pain--providing me with an opening to break free of his grip. That opening was only long enough for me to yank out the door's bolt. Before I could reach for the knob, Dimitri had a hold of me again. He gripped me hard and threw me onto the bed stomach first, both pinning me with his weight and preventing my limbs from doing any more surprise kicking. This was always my biggest problem in fights: opponents-- usually men--with more strength and weight. My speed was my greatest asset in those situations, but being held down made dodging and evasion a non-option. Still, every part of me struggled, making it difficult for him to keep me down.

"Stop this,' he said in my ear, his lips nearly touching it. "Be reasonable for once. You can't get past me.'

His body was warm and strong against mine, and I promised my own body a stern scolding later. Quit it, I thought. Focus on getting out of here, not how he feels.

"I'm not the one being unreasonable,' I growled, trying to turn my face toward him. "You're the one caught up in some noble promise that makes no sense. And I know you don't like to sit out of the action any more than I do. Help me. Help me find the murderer and do something useful.' I stopped struggling and pretended our argument had distracted me.

"I don't like sitting around, but I also don't like rushing into an impossible situation!'

"Impossible situations are our specialty,' I pointed out. Meanwhile, I tried to assess his hold on me. He hadn't relaxed his grip, but I hoped maybe the conversation was distracting him. Normally, Dimitri was too good to lose his focus. But I knew he was tired. And maybe, just maybe, he might be a little careless since it was me and not a Strigoi.

Nope. I lashed out abruptly, trying to break away and scramble out from under him. The best I managed to do was roll myself over before he had a hold of me again, now leaving me back-down on the bed. Being so close to him ... his face, his lips ... the warmth of his skin on mine. Well. It appeared that all I'd accomplished was putting myself at a greater disadvantage. He certainly didn't seem to be affected by our bodies' closeness. He wore that typical steel resolve of his, and even though it was stupid of me, even though I knew I shouldn't care anymore that he was over me ... well, I did care.

"One day,' he said. "You can't even wait one day?'

"Maybe if we'd gone to a nicer hotel. With cable.'

"This is no time for jokes, Rose.'

"Then let me do something. Anything.'

"I. Can't.'

Saying the words obviously pained him, and I realized something. I was so mad at him, so furious that he'd try to make me sit around and play it safe. But he didn't like any of this either. How could I have forgotten how alike we were? We both craved action. We both wanted to be useful, to help those we cared about. It was only his self- resolve to help Lissa that was keeping him here with this babysitting job. He claimed me rushing back to Court was reckless, but I had a feeling that if he hadn't been the one in charge of me--or, well, thought he was--he would have run right back there too.

I studied him, the determined dark eyes and expression softened by the brown hair that had escaped its ponytail holder. It hung around his face now, just barely touching mine. I could try to break free again but was losing hope of that working. He was too fierce and too set on keeping me safe. I suspected pointing out my suspicion that he wanted to go back to Court too wouldn't do any good. True or not, he would be expecting me to argue with Rose-logic. He was Dimitri, after all. He would be expecting everything.

Well, almost.

An idea hit me so fast that I didn't pause to analyze it. I just acted. My body might be constrained, but my head and neck had just enough freedom to shift up--and kiss him.

My lips met his, and I learned a few things. One was that it was possible to catch him totally by surprise. His body froze and locked up, shocked at the sudden turn of events. I also realized that he was just as good a kisser as I recalled. The last time we'd kissed had been when he was Strigoi. There had been an eerie sexiness to that, but it didn't compare to the heat and energy of being alive. His lips were just like I remembered from our time at St. Vladimir's, both soft and hungry at the same time. Electricity spread through the rest of my body as he kissed me back. It was both comforting and exhilarating.

And that was the third thing I discovered. He was kissing me back. Maybe, just maybe, Dimitri wasn't as resolved as he claimed to be. Maybe under all that guilt and certainty that he couldn't love again, he still wanted me. I would have liked to have found out. But I didn't have the time.

Instead, I punched him.

It's true: I've punched lots of guys who were kissing me but never one I actually wanted to keep kissing. Dimitri still had a solid hold on me, but the shock of the kiss had dropped his guard. My fist broke out and connected with the side of his face. Without missing a beat, I shoved him off me as hard as I could and leapt away from the bed and toward the door. I heard him scramble to his feet as I threw it open. I shot out of the room and slammed the door shut before I could see what he did next. Not that I needed to. He was coming after me.

Without a moment's hesitation, I shoved the abandoned cleaning cart in front of the room's door and sprinted off down the hall. A couple seconds later, the door opened, and I heard a cry of annoyance--as well as a very, very bad word in Russian--as he ran into the cart. It would only take him a few moments to push it aside, but that was all I needed. I was down the flight of stairs in a flash and into the meager lobby where a bored desk clerk was reading a book. He nearly jumped out of his chair when I came tearing through.

"There's a guy chasing me!' I called as I headed out the door.

The clerk didn't really look like anyone who would try to stop Dimitri, and I had a feeling Dimitri wouldn't stop anyway if the guy asked him to. In the most extreme case, the man would call the police. In this town, the POLICE probably consisted of one guy and a dog.

Regardless, it was no longer my concern. I had escaped the motel and was now in the middle of a sleepy mountain town, its streets cast in shadows. Dimitri might be right behind me, but as I plunged into some woods nearby, I knew it was going to be easy for me to lose him in the darkness.

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