Chapter Twenty

 

"YOU SHOULD SLEEP.' Sydney's soft voice nearly made me leap out of my skin, proving that even while in Lissa's mind, I could still stay alert. I tuned back to Sonya's dark living room. Aside from Sydney, everything was quiet and at peace.

"You look like the walking dead,' she continued. "And I don't say that lightly.'

"I've got to stay on watch,' I said.

"I'll watch. You sleep.'

"You're not trained like me,' I pointed out. "You might miss something.'

"Even I wouldn't miss Strigoi beating down the door,' she replied. "Look, I know you guys are tough. You don't have to convince me. But I have a feeling things are going to get harder, and I don't want you passing out at some crucial moment. If you sleep now, you can relieve Dimitri later.'

Only the mention of Dimitri made me give in. We would need to relieve each other eventually. So, reluctantly, I crawled into Sydney's bed on the floor, giving her all sorts of instructions that I think she rolled her eyes at. I fell asleep almost instantly and then woke up just as quickly when I heard the sound of a door closing.

I immediately sat upright, expecting to see Strigoi busting down the door. Instead, I found sunlight creeping in through the windows and Sydney watching me with amusement. In the living room, Robert was sitting up on the couch, rubbing his eyes. Victor was gone. I turned to Sydney in alarm.

"He's in the bathroom,' she said, anticipating my question.

That was the sound I'd heard. I exhaled in relief and stood up, surprised at how even a few hours of sleep had energized me. If I only had food, I'd be ready for anything. Sonya didn't have any, of course, but I settled for a glass of water in the kitchen. As I stood there drinking, I noticed that the Dashkov brothers had made themselves at home: coats hanging on hooks, car keys on the counter. I quietly grabbed hold of the keys and called for Sydney.

She came in, and I slipped her the keys, trying not to let them rattle.

"Do you still know about cars?' I murmured.

In one exquisite look, she told me that was a ridiculous and insulting question. "Okay. Can you go do a grocery run? We're going to need food. And maybe on your way out, you can, um, make sure their car has engine trouble or something? Anything that keeps it here. But not something obvious, like slashed tires.'

She put the keys in her pocket. "Easy. Got any food requests?'

I thought about it. "Something with sugar. And coffee for Dimitri.'

"Coffee's a given,' she said.

Victor stepped into the kitchen, his typically unconcerned expression making me think he hadn't heard me instructing Sydney to sabotage his car. "Sydney's getting groceries,' I said, hoping to distract him before he might notice the missing keys. "Need anything?'

"A feeder would be nice, but barring that, Robert has an especial liking for Cheerios. The apple cinnamon kind.' He smiled at Sydney. "I never thought I'd see the day an Alchemist would be an errand girl. It's charming.'

Sydney opened her mouth, no doubt to make some biting comment, and I quickly shook my head. "Just go,' I said.

She went, and Victor soon returned to Robert's side. Convinced the brothers wouldn't be going anywhere in full daylight without a car, I decided it was time to check on Dimitri. To my surprise, Sonya was awake. She sat cross-legged on the bed with him, and the two spoke in hushed tones. Her hair was disheveled from both sleep and fighting, but otherwise, she showed no cuts or bruises from the battle. Dimitri had been the same after his transformation, escaping terrible burns. The power of a Strigoi restoration healed all injuries. Between my skinned legs and pseudo-concussion, I kind of wished someone had transformed me from a Strigoi.

Sonya turned from Dimitri as I entered. A sequence of emotions passed across her face. Fear. Astonishment. Recognition.

"Rose?' There was hesitancy in the word, like she wondered if I was a hallucination.

I forced a smile. "It's good to see you again.' I chose not to add, "Now that you're not trying to suck the life out of me.'

She averted her eyes down to her hands, studying her fingers like they were magical and wonderful. Of course, after being a monster, maybe having her "old hands' back really was wondrous. The day after his change, Dimitri hadn't seemed quite so fragile, but he'd certainly been in shock. That was also when he'd grown depressed. Was she? Or did she want to turn again, as Victor had suggested?

I didn't know what to say. It was all so strange and awkward. "Sydney went for groceries,' I told Dimitri lamely. "She also stayed up so that I could sleep last night.'

"I know,' he said with a small smile. "I got up once to check on you.'

I felt myself flushing, somehow embarrassed that I'd been caught in weakness. "You can rest too,' I told him. "Get some breakfast, and then I'll keep an eye on everything. I have it on good authority that Victor's going to have car trouble. Also that Robert really likes Cheerios, so if you want some, you're out of luck. He doesn't seem like the sharing type.'

Dimitri's smile grew. Sonya suddenly lifted her head.

"There's another spirit user here,' she said, voice frantic. "I can feel it. I remember him.' She looked between Dimitri and me. "It's not safe. We're not safe. You shouldn't have us around.'

"Everything's fine,' said Dimitri, voice so, so gentle. That tone was rare for him, but I'd heard it before. He'd used it on me in some of my most desperate moments. "Don't worry.'

Sonya shook her head. "No. You don't understand. We ... we're capable of terrible things. To ourselves, to others. It's why I changed, to stop the madness. And it did, except ... it was worse. In its way. The things I did ...'

There it was, the same remorse Dimitri had felt. Half-afraid he'd start telling her there was no redemption for her either, I said, "It wasn't you. You were controlled by something else.'

She buried her face in her hands. "But I chose it. Me. I made it happen.'

"That was spirit,' I said. "It's hard to fight. Like you said, it can make you do terrible things. You weren't thinking clearly. Lissa battles with the same thing all the time.'

"Vasilisa?' Sonya lifted her eyes and stared off into space. I think she was digging through memories. In fact, despite her ramblings now, I didn't believe she was quite as unstable as she'd been just before becoming Strigoi. We'd heard healings could lessen spirit's madness, and I think Robert's transformation had lightened some of the darkness within her for now. "Yes, of course. Vasilisa has it too.' She turned to me in a panic. "Did you help her? Did you get her out of there?'

"I did,' I said, trying to emulate Dimitri's gentleness. Lissa and I fled St. Vladimir's for a while, partly because of warnings from Sonya. "We left and then came back and, uh, were able to stop what was hunting her.' I didn't think it was a good idea for Sonya to know that the thing--or rather, person--hunting Lissa was now sitting out in the living room. I took a step forward. "And you can help Lissa too. We need to know if--'

"No,' said Dimitri. No gentleness now in the warning look he gave me. "Not yet.'

"But--'

"Not yet.'

I shot him a glare in return but said no more. I was all for giving Sonya her recuperation time, but we didn't have forever. The clock was ticking, and we had to find out what Sonya knew. I felt like Dimitri would have been able to give us this information immediately after he'd been changed back. Of course, he hadn't been unstable beforehand, so he'd kind of had an edge. Still. We couldn't play house in Kentucky forever.

"Can I see my flowers?' asked Sonya. "Can I go outside and see my flowers?'

Dimitri and I exchanged glances. "Of course,' he said.

We all moved toward the door, and that's when I had to ask. "Why did you grow flowers when you were ... like you were?'

She paused. "I've always grown flowers.'

"I know. I remember. They were gorgeous. The ones here are gorgeous too. Is that why ... I mean, did you just want a pretty garden, even as a Strigoi?'

The question was unexpected and seemed to throw her off. I was about to give up on an answer when she finally said, "No. I never thought about pretty. They were ... I don't know. Something to do. I'd always grown flowers. I had to see if I still could. It was like ... a test of my skills, I guess.'

I met Dimitri's eyes again. So. Beauty hadn't been part of her world. It was just like I'd told him. Strigoi were notoriously arrogant, and it seemed the flowers had simply been a show of prowess. Growing them had also been a familiar habit for her, and I recalled how Dimitri had read Western novels while Strigoi. Being Strigoi might cost someone their sense of goodness and morality, but old behaviors and hobbies remained.

We took her out to the living room, interrupting a conversation between Victor and Robert. Sonya and Robert both froze, sizing each other up. Victor gave us one of his knowing smiles.

"Up and around. Have we found out what we need yet?'

Dimitri shot him a look similar to what I'd received when asking about interrogation. "Not yet.'

Sonya dragged her gaze from Robert and moved quickly toward the patio door, pausing when she saw our shoddy patch job. "You broke my door,' she said.

"Collateral damage,' I said. In my periphery, I think Dimitri rolled his eyes.

Needing no guidance from us, Sonya opened the door and stepped outside. With a gasp, she came to a halt and stared upward. The sky was a perfect, cloudless blue, and the sun had crossed the horizon now, illuminating everything in gold. I went outside too, feeling the warmth of that light on my skin. Some of the night's coldness lingered, but we were in store for a hot day.

Everyone else came out too, but Sonya was oblivious. She lifted her hands upward, as though maybe she could grab hold of the sun and wrap it in her arms. "It's so beautiful.' She finally looked away and met my eyes. "Isn't it? Have you ever seen anything so beautiful?'

"Beautiful,' I reiterated. For some reason, I felt both happy and sad.

She walked around her yard, examining every plant and flower. She touched the petals and inhaled their fragrance. "So different ...' she kept saying to herself. "So different in the sun ...' Several especially caught her attention. "These don't open at night! Do you see it? Do you see the colors? Can you smell that?'

The questions didn't seem to be for anyone in particular. We watched, all of us kind of hypnotized. At last, she settled into the patio chair, happily gazing around, lost in sensory overload--in that beauty that had been denied to her as a Strigoi. When it became obvious she wasn't leaving for a while, I turned to Dimitri and repeated Sydney's advice about him taking a turn at sleeping while we waited for Sonya to recover. To my surprise, he actually agreed.

"That's smart. Once Sonya's able to talk, we'll need to move.' He smiled. "Sydney's turning into a battle mastermind.'

"Hey, she's not in charge here,' I teased. "She's just a soldier.'

"Right.' He lightly brushed his fingers against my cheek. "Sorry, Captain.'

"General,' I corrected, catching my breath at that brief touch.

He gave Sonya a kind goodbye before disappearing into the house. She nodded, but I don't know if she really heard. Victor and Robert brought out two wooden kitchen chairs and set them in the shade. I chose a spot on the ground. Nobody spoke. It wasn't the weirdest thing I'd ever experienced, but it was certainly strange.

Sydney returned later with the groceries, and I briefly abandoned the group to check in with her. Victor's keys were lying back on the counter, which I took as a good sign. Sydney unloaded an assortment of food and handed me a box of a dozen donuts.

"Hope that's enough for you,' she remarked.

I made a face at her presumption but took the donuts anyway. "Come on outside when you're done,' I told her. "It's like the barbecue of the damned. Except ... there's no grill.'

She looked puzzled, but when she joined us later, she seemed to get what I'd been saying. Robert brought out a bowl of Cheerios, but neither Sydney nor Victor ate. I gave Sonya a donut, the first thing that took her attention from her yard. She held it in her hands, turning it over and over.

"I don't know if I can. I don't know if I can eat it.'

"Of course you can.' I recalled how Dimitri had regarded food uncertainly too. "It's chocolate-glazed. Good stuff.'

She took a tentative, rabbit-sized bite. She chewed it a billion times and finally swallowed. She closed her eyes briefly and sighed. "Such sweetness.' Slowly, she continued taking more tiny bites. It took forever for her to get halfway through the donut, and at that point, she finally stopped. I'd polished off three donuts by then, and my impatience to accomplish something was growing. Part of it was still the irritability from spirit, and part of it was just my continual restlessness to help Lissa.

"Sonya,' I said pleasantly, fully aware of how pissed off Dimitri was going to be at me defying his instructions. "We wanted to talk to you about something.'

"Mm-hmm,' she said, gazing at bees hovering around some honeysuckle.

"Is there a relative of yours ... someone who, uh, had a baby a while ago ... ?'

"Sure,' she said. One of the bees flew from the honeysuckle to a rose, and she never looked away. "Lots.'

"Articulate, Rosemarie,' remarked Victor. "Very articulate.'

I bit my lip, knowing an outburst would upset Sonya. And probably Robert too.

"This would be a secret baby,' I told her. "And you were the beneficiary on a bank account that took care of the baby ... an account paid for by Eric Dragomir.'

Sonya's head whipped toward me, and there was no dreamy absentmindedness in her blue eyes now. A few seconds passed before she spoke. Her voice was cold and hard--not a Strigoi voice, but definitely a back off voice. "No. I don't know anything about that.'

"She's lying,' said Robert.

"I didn't need any powers to figure that out,' scoffed Sydney.

I ignored both of them. "Sonya, we know you know, and it's really important we find this baby ... er, child. Person.' We'd made guesses on the age but weren't 100 percent sure. "You said you were worried about Lissa earlier. This will help her. She needs to know. She needs to know she has another family member.'

Sonya turned her attention back to the bees, but I knew she was no longer watching them. "I don't know anything.' There was a trembling in her voice, and something told me that maybe I shouldn't push this after all. I couldn't tell if she was afraid or on the verge of rage.

"Then why were you on the account?' This came from Victor.

"I don't know anything,' she repeated. Her voice could have made icicles form on the ornamental trees. "Nothing.'

"Stop lying,' snapped Victor. "You know something, and you're going to tell us.'

"Hey!' I exclaimed. "Be quiet. You don't have interrogation rights here.'

"You didn't seem to be doing a very good job.'

"Just shut up, okay?' I looked back at Sonya, replacing my glare with a smile. "Please,' I begged. "Lissa's in trouble. This will help her. I thought you said before that you wanted to help her?'

"I promised ...' said Sonya. Her voice was so low, I could barely hear it.

"Promised what?' I asked. Patience, patience. I had to remain calm. I couldn't risk a breakdown.

She squeezed her eyes shut and raked her hands through her hair violently, almost like a child about to have a tantrum. "Promised not to tell. Promised not to tell anyone ...'

I had the urge to run over and shake her. Patience, patience, I repeated to myself. Don't upset her. "We wouldn't ask you to break your promise if it wasn't important. Maybe ... maybe you can get in touch with this person ...' Who had she promised? Eric's mistress? "And see if it's okay to tell us?' "Oh for God's sake,' said Victor irritably. "This is ridiculous and getting us nowhere.' He glanced at his brother. "Robert?'

Robert hadn't done much so far today, but at Victor's command, Robert leaned forward. "Sonya?'

Still obviously distraught, she turned to look at him ... and her face went still.

"Tell us what we need to know,' said Robert. His voice wasn't kind so much as smooth and lulling, with a faintly sinister touch. "Tell us who and where this child is. Tell us who the mother is.'

This time, I did jump to my feet. Robert was using compulsion on her to get the answers. Sonya's eyes stayed locked on him, but her body began to shake. Her lips parted, though no sound came out. A tangle of thoughts swirled in my mind. Compulsion would get us what we needed to know, but something told me, it wasn't right--

Sonya stopped me from any more pondering. She shot up almost as quickly as I had. She was still staring at Robert, but no longer in that transfixed, hypnotized way. She'd broken the compulsion, and now ... now she was pissed. The features that had been scared and fragile earlier were filled with fury. I had no magical senses, but after being with Lissa, I knew raging spirit when I saw it. Sonya was a bomb, about to explode.

"How dare you ...' she hissed. "How dare you try to compel me?'

Plants and vines near Robert suddenly sprang to life, growing to impossible heights. They reached out, tangled themselves around his chair's legs, and pulled. The chair toppled over, Robert along with it. Victor moved to help his brother, but Robert was already taking matters into his own hands. Recovering remarkably fast, he narrowed his eyes at Sonya, and she went flying backward, slamming against the wooden fence. Air users could do that trick sometimes, but this wasn't air blowing her back. This was spirit's telekinetic abilities. He apparently possessed them outside of dreams too. Lovely.

I'd seen spirit users battle it out before, when Avery Lazar and Lissa had gone one on one. That hadn't been pretty, particularly since more than this exterior psychic phenomena had occurred. Avery had actually dug into Lissa's mind--and mine. I didn't know Robert or Sonya's full skill set, but this couldn't end well.

"Dimitri!' I yelled, springing toward Sonya. I didn't exactly know what I was going to do, but tackling her seemed like a sound plan. From what I'd observed, a lot of spirit involved eye contact with the target.

And sure enough, when I managed to wrestle her to the ground, she struggled half- heartedly but mostly fought to keep her gaze on Robert. He screamed in sudden alarm, looking down at his own body in terror. Sonya was planting visions into his head. His expression hardened. He had to know it was an illusion, and a few moments later, he looked up, having broken her spell like she'd broken his earlier compulsion.

Dimitri came tearing out the door at that point, just as Robert used his mind to fling one of the chairs toward Sonya. Of course, I was on top of her, so the chair hit me in the back. Dimitri picked up pretty quickly what was going on and ran toward Robert, attempting the same tactic as me. Victor, possibly thinking his brother was in physical danger, tried to pry Dimitri away, which was futile. More vines began to reach toward Robert, and I realized constraining Sonya wasn't all that useful. "Get him inside!' I yelled to Dimitri. "Get him away from her!'

Dimitri had already guessed that and began dragging Robert toward the door. Even with Victor interfering, Dimitri's strength was enough to get Robert out of there and back into the house. As soon as her target was gone, all the energy seemed to fade out of Sonya. She made no more efforts to fight me and collapsed to the ground. I was relieved, having feared she'd turn on me once Robert was gone. Tentatively, still on guard, I helped Sonya sit up. She leaned against me, weak as a rag doll, and cried into my shoulder. Another breakdown.

After that, it was a matter of damage control. In order to keep the spirit users apart, Dimitri had taken Robert to the bedroom and left Victor with him. Robert seemed as worn out as Sonya, and Dimitri deemed the brothers safe enough to leave alone. Sonya collapsed on the couch, and after both Dimitri and I had tried to calm her down, we stepped away while Sydney held the Moroi woman's hand.

I briefly recapped what had happened. Dimitri's face grew more and more incredulous as I did.

"I told you it wasn't time!' he exclaimed. "What were you thinking? She's too weak!'

"You call that weak? And hey, I was doing fine! It wasn't until Victor and Robert got involved that things went to hell.'

Dimitri took a step toward me, anger radiating off him. "They should never have gotten involved. This is you, acting irrational again, jumping in foolishly with no thought of the consequences.'

Outrage shot through me in return. "Hey, I was trying to make progress here. If being rational is sitting around and doing therapy, then I'm happy to jump over the edge. I'm not afraid to get in the game.'

"You have no idea what you're saying,' he growled. We were standing closer now, hardly any space left between us as we engaged in our battle of wills. "This may have set us back.'

"This set us forward. We found out she knows about Eric Dragomir. The problem is she promised not to tell anyone about this baby.'

"Yes, I promised,' piped up Sonya. Dimitri and I turned as one, realizing our argument was fully visible and audible to Sonya and Sydney. "I promised.' Her voice was very small and weak, pleading with us.

Sydney squeezed her hand. "We know. It's okay. It's okay to keep promises. I understand.'

Sonya looked at her gratefully. "Thank you. Thank you.'

"But,' said Sydney carefully, "I heard that you care about Lissa Dragomir.'

"I can't,' interrupted Sonya, turning fearful again.

"I know, I know. But what if there was a way to help her without breaking your promise?'

Sonya stared at Sydney. Dimitri glanced at me questioningly. I shrugged and then stared at Sydney too. If someone had asked who could stage the best intervention with a crazy woman who'd formerly been an undead monster, Sydney Sage would have been my last guess.

Sonya frowned, all attention on Sydney. "W-what do you mean?' "Well ... what did you promise exactly? Not to tell anyone that Eric Dragomir had a mistress and baby?'

Sonya nodded.

"And not to tell who they were?'

Sonya nodded again.

Sydney gave Sonya the warmest, friendliest smile I'd ever seen on the Alchemist. "Did you promise not to tell anyone where they are?' Sonya nodded, and Sydney's smile faltered a little. Then, her eyes lit up. "Did you promise not to lead anyone to where they are?'

Sonya hesitated, no doubt turning every word over in her mind. Slowly, she shook her head. "No.'

"So ... you could lead us to them. But not tell us where they actually are. You wouldn't be breaking the promise that way.'

It was the most convoluted, ridiculous piece of logic I'd heard in a while. It was something I would have come up with.

"Maybe ...' said Sonya, still uncertain.

"You wouldn't break the promise,' Sydney repeated. "And it would really, really help Lissa.'

I stepped forward. "It would help Mikhail too.'

Sonya's mouth dropped open at the mention of her former lover. "Mikhail? You know him?'

"He's my friend. He's Lissa's friend too.' I almost said that if we found the missing Dragomir, we could then take Sonya to Mikhail. Recalling Dimitri's feelings of unworthiness, I decided to avoid that tactic just now. I didn't know how Sonya would react to a reunion with her beloved. "And he wants to help Lissa. But he can't. None of us can. We don't have enough information.'

"Mikhail ...' Sonya looked down at her hands again, small tears running down her cheeks.

"You won't break your promise.' Sydney was so compelling she could have been a spirit user. "Just lead us. It's what Mikhail and Lissa would want. It's the right thing to do.'

I don't know which argument convinced Sonya the most. It could have been the part about Mikhail. Or it could have been the idea of doing "the right thing.' Maybe, like Dimitri, Sonya wanted redemption for her Strigoi crimes and saw this as a chance. Looking up, she swallowed and met my eyes.

"I'll lead you there,' she whispered.

"We're going on another road trip,' Sydney declared. "Get ready.'

Dimitri and I were still standing right next to each other, the anger between us beginning to diffuse. Sydney looked proud and continued trying her best to soothe Sonya.

Dimitri looked down at me with a small smile that shifted slightly when he seemed to become aware of just how close we were. I couldn't say for sure, though. His face gave little away. As for me, I was very aware of our proximity and felt intoxicated by his body and scent. Damn. Why did fighting with him always increase my attraction to him? His smile returned as he tilted his head toward Sydney. "You were wrong. She really is the new general in town.'

I smiled back, hoping he wasn't aware of my body's reaction to us standing so close. "Maybe. But, it's okay. You can still be colonel.'

He arched an eyebrow. "Oh? Did you demote yourself? Colonel's right below general. What's that make you?'

I reached into my pocket and triumphantly flashed the CR-V keys I'd swiped when we'd come back inside. "The driver,' I said.

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