Chapter Twenty-five

 

WE COULD ALREADY HEAR footsteps thundering through the house and knew we were seconds from the army downstairs heading up to the second floor. The three of us backed away, and to my surprise, it was Sydney who reacted first.

"Get out. I'll distract them.'

Her distracting them would probably just mean momentarily blocking their way until they pushed her aside, but those extra seconds could make a huge difference. Still, I couldn't stand the thought of abandoning her. Dimitri had no such reservations, particularly when we heard feet on the stairs.

"Come on!' he shouted, grabbing hold of my arm.

We raced down the hall to the farthest bedroom, Victor and Robert's. Just before we entered, I yelled back to Sydney, "Get Jill to Court!' I don't know if she heard because by the sounds of it, the guardians had reached her. Dimitri immediately opened the room's one large window and looked at me knowingly. As always, we needed no vocal communication.

He jumped out first, no doubt wanting to take the full brunt of whatever danger waited below. I immediately followed. I dropped onto the first floor's roof, slid down it, and then made the longer drop to the ground. Dimitri caught my arm, steadying my landing--but not before one of my ankles twisted slightly in on itself. It was the same one that had taken the brunt of the fall outside Donovan's, and I winced as pain shot through me, pain I then promptly ignored.

Dark figures moved toward us, emerging from evening shadows and hidden spots around the backyard. Of course. Guardians wouldn't just come busting down a door. They'd also have the place staked out. With our natural rhythm, Dimitri and I fought back-to-back against our attackers. Like usual, it was hard to incapacitate our foes without killing them. Hard, but necessary if we could manage it. I didn't want to kill my own people, people who were just doing their job to apprehend fugitives. The long dress didn't do me any favors either. My legs kept getting caught in the fabric.

"The others will be out any minute,' Dimitri grunted, slamming a guardian to the ground. "We need to move--there. That gate.'

I couldn't respond but followed his lead as we made our way to a door in the fence while still defending ourselves. We'd just taken out the backyard squad when more spilled from the house. We slipped through the gate, emerging onto a quiet side road flanking the Mastrano house, and ran. It soon became clear, however, that I couldn't keep up with Dimitri. My mind could ignore the pain, but my body couldn't make my injured ankle work properly.

Without missing a beat, Dimitri slid his arm around me, helping me run and take the weight off the ankle. We turned off the road, cutting through yards that would make it more difficult--but not impossible--for them to track us.

"We can't outrun them,' I said. "I'm slowing us down. You need to--'

"Do not say leave you,' he interrupted. "We're doing this together.'

Snick, snick. A flowerpot near us suddenly exploded into a pile of dirt and clay.

"They're shooting at us,' I said incredulously. "They're actually shooting at us!' With so much hand-to-hand training, I always felt like guns were cheating. But when it came to hunting down a queen-killing murderer and her accomplice? Honor wasn't the issue. Results were.

Another bullet zinged by, dangerously close. "With a silencer,' said Dimitri. "Even so, they'll be cautious. They don't want the neighborhood thinking it's under attack. We need cover. Fast.' We might've been literally dodging bullets, but my ankle wouldn't last much longer.

He made another sharp turn, completely immersing us in suburban backyards. I couldn't look behind us, but I heard shouting voices that let me know we weren't free yet.

"There,' said Dimitri.

Ahead of us was a dark house with a large glass patio reminiscent of Sonya's. The glass door was open, though a screen blocked the way inside. Dimitri tugged on its latch. Locked. But a screen was hardly a deterrent for us. Poor, trusting family. He took out his stake and slashed a long, vertical line that we hastily slipped through. Immediately, he jerked me to the side, out of view. He put a finger to his lips, holding me close to his body, shattering me in his warmth.

Seconds later, we saw guardians coming through and searching the yards. Some kept moving on in case we'd run farther. Others lingered, investigating places that made good hiding spots as the evening grew darker and darker. I glanced at the screen. The cut had been clean, not an obvious hole, but it was still something our pursuers might notice.

Sensing this as well, Dimitri carefully moved off into the living room, doing his best to avoid windows and keep out of sight. We cut through to the kitchen and found a door leading to the garage. In the garage was a red Ford Mustang.

"Two car family,' he murmured. "I was hoping for that.'

"Or they're out for a walk and about to come home when they notice a SWAT team in their neighborhood,' I whispered. "The guardians won't let themselves be seen.' We began searching for obvious key locations. At last, I found a set hanging on the side of a cupboard and scooped them up.

"Got "em,' I said. Since I had the keys, I think Dimitri actually would have let me jump into the driver's seat. Thanks to my right ankle, however, I had to toss him the keys. The universe had a sick sense of humor.

"Will they spot us in this?' I asked, as Dimitri opened the garage door and backed out. "It's, uh, a bit flashier than our usual stolen car profile.' It was also awesome. Sydney, car geek that she was, would have loved it. I bit my lip, still guilty that we'd left her behind. I tried to push the thought out of my head for now.

"It is,' agreed Dimitri. "But other cars will be driving down the street. Some guardians will still be searching the yards, and some will be guarding the Mastranos. They don't have infinite numbers. They can't watch everything at once, though they'll certainly try.'

I held my breath anyway as we drove out of the subdivision. Twice, I thought I spotted stealthy figures by the side of the road, but Dimitri was right: they couldn't check every car in a busy suburban neighborhood. The darkness also obscured our faces.

Dimitri remembered the way we'd driven in because a few turns later, we were merging onto the freeway. I knew he had no destination in mind, except foraway. With no obvious indications that we'd been followed, I shifted my body and stretched out my throbbing leg. My chest had that light, nebulous feeling you got when too much adrenaline was pumping through you.

"They turned us in, didn't they?' I asked. "Victor and Robert called us in and then took off. I should have kept watch.'

"I don't know,' Dimitri said. "It's possible. I saw them just before I talked to you, and everything seemed fine. They wanted to go with us to find Jill, but they knew it was only a matter of time before we turned them over to the authorities. I'm not surprised they came up with an escape plan. They could have used the feeding as a distraction to call the guardians and get rid of us.'

"Crap.' I sighed and pushed my hair back, wishing I had a ponytail holder. "We should've gotten rid of them when we had the chance. What'll happen now?'

Dimitri was silent for a few seconds. "The Mastranos will be questioned ... extensively. Well, all of them will, really. They'll lock Sonya up for investigation, like me, and Sydney will be shipped back to the Alchemists.'

"And what will they do to her?'

"I don't know. But I'm guessing her helping vampire fugitives won't go over well with her superiors.'

"Crap,' I repeated. Everything had fallen apart. "And what are we going to do?'

"Put some distance between us and those guardians. Hide somewhere. Wrap up your ankle.'

I gave him a sidelong look. "Wow. You've got everything planned out.'

"Not really,' he said, a small frown on his face. "That's the easy stuff. What happens after that is going to be the hard part.'

My heart sank. He was right. Provided the Mastranos weren't indicted by Moroi authorities for helping criminals, Emily now had no one forcing her to acknowledge Jill's heritage. If Sydney was being hauled back to her own people--well. She couldn't help either. I was going to have to tell someone else, I realized. The next time I made contact with Adrian, I'd have to divulge the truth so that my friends could do something about Jill. We couldn't sit on this secret any longer.

Dimitri took the next exit, and I tuned back into the world. "Hotel?' I asked.

"Not quite,' he said. We were in a busy, commercial area, not far from Ann Arbor, I thought. One of the Detroit suburbs. Restaurants and stores lined the road, and he turned us toward a twenty-four-hour superstore that promised to carry "everything.' He parked and opened his door. "Stay here.'

"But--'

Dimitri looked meaningfully at me, and I glanced down. I'd come away from our fight more scuffed up than I realized, and the dress had torn. My ragged appearance would attract attention, as would my limping. I nodded, and he left.

I spent the time turning over our problems, cursing myself for not having found a way to turn in the brothers once Robert had restored Sonya. I'd been bracing myself for betrayal in the form of some magical attack. I hadn't expected something as simple as a call to the guardians.

Dimitri, ever the efficient shopper, returned soon with two large bags and something slung over his shoulder. He tossed it all in the backseat, and I peered back curiously. "What's that?' It was long and cylindrical, covered in canvas.

"A tent.'

"Why are we--' I groaned. "No hotel, huh?'

"We'll be harder to find at a campground. The car will especially be harder to find. We can't get rid of it quite yet, not with your foot.'

"Those poor people,' I said. "I hope their car insurance covers theft.'

Back on the freeway, we soon left the urban sprawl, and it wasn't long before we saw advertisements for campgrounds and RV parks. Dimitri pulled over at a place called Peaceful Pines. He negotiated with the man working in the office and produced a number of crisp bills. That was another reason we couldn't get a hotel, I realized. Most required credit cards, and Sydney had had all those (in fake names, of course). We were living off cash now.

The clerk gave us directions along a gravel road that led to a spot on the opposite end of the campground. The place was busy with vacationing families, but no one paid much attention to us. Dimitri made sure to park as close to a cluster of trees as possible, in order to obscure the car and its plates. Despite my protests, he wouldn't let me help with the tent. He claimed he could do it faster without me and that I should stay off my feet. I started to argue until he began assembling the tent. My jaw dropped a little as I watched how quickly he put it together. He didn't even need the directions. It had to be some kind of record.

The tent was small and sturdy, giving us both room to sit and lie, though he had to hunch just a little when we were sitting. Once inside, I got to see the rest of his purchases. A lot of it was first aid. There was also a flashlight he propped up, a kind of makeshift lamp.

"Let me see the ankle,' he ordered.

I stretched out my leg, and he pushed my dress's skirt up to my knee, fingers light against my skin. I shivered as a sense of deja vu swept me. It seemed to be happening to me a lot lately. I thought back to all the times he had helped me with other injuries. We could have been right back in St. Vladimir's gym. He gently tested the ankle's mobility and did a little poking and prodding. His fingers never ceased to amaze me. They could break a man's neck, bandage a wound, and slide sensually across bare skin.

"I don't think it's broken,' he said at last. He lifted his hands, and I noticed how warm I'd been while he touched me. "Just sprained.'

"That kind of thing happens when you keep jumping off roofs,' I said. Jokes were my old standby to hide discomfort. "You know, we never practiced that in our training.'

He smiled and took out bandaging material, wrapping the ankle until it was supported and stabilized. After that, he produced--

"A bag of frozen peas?'

Dimitri shrugged and rested the bag on my ankle. The coolness instantly made me feel better. "Easier than buying a full bag of ice.'

"You're pretty resourceful, Belikov. What else do you have stashed away?'

The rest of the bags' contents turned out to be blankets and some food. I gave him a big grin when I saw he'd gotten me sour cream potato chips and a bar of chocolate. I loved that he remembered such little details about me. My smile faded when another problem quickly popped up.

"You didn't buy any clothes, did you?'

"Clothes?' he asked, like it was a foreign word.

I gestured to my torn dress. "I can't wear this for long. What am I going to do? Make a toga out of a blanket? You're such a guy, never thinking of this stuff.'

"I was thinking of injury and survival. Fresh clothing's a luxury, not a necessity.'

"Not even your duster?' I asked slyly.

Dimitri froze for a moment and then swore. He'd had no need to wear his coat indoors at the Mastranos'--honestly, he didn't need to outside either--and had left it there in the ensuing fight.

"Don't worry, comrade,' I teased. "Plenty more where that came from.'

He spread blankets over the tent's floor and laid back on them. There was a look of woe on his face that was almost comical. Raids, bullets, criminals ... no problem. A missing duster? Crisis. "We'll get you another one,' I said. "You know, once we find Jill, clear my name, and save the world.'

"Just those things, huh?' he asked, making both of us laugh. But when I stretched myself out beside him, both our faces sobered.

"What are we going to do?' I asked. Tonight's most popular question.

"Sleep,' he said, clicking off the flashlight. "Tomorrow we'll get a hold of Abe or Tasha or ... someone. We'll let them handle it and get Jill where she needs to be.'

I was surprised how small my voice sounded when I spoke. "I feel like we failed. I was so happy back there. I thought we'd done the impossible, but it was for nothing. All this work for nothing.'

"Nothing?' he asked in astonishment. "What we did ... this is huge. You found Lissa's sister. Another Dragomir. I don't think you still really understand the weight of that. We had almost nothing to go on, yet you pushed forward and made it happen.'

"And I lost Victor Dashkov. Again.' "Well, the thing about him is that he doesn't stay hidden for long. He's one of those people who always has to be in control. He'll have to make a move eventually and when he does--we'll get him.'

The smile returned to my lips, though I knew he couldn't see it. "And I thought I was the optimistic one here.'

"It's contagious,' he replied. Then, to my surprise, his hand found mine in the dark. He laced our fingers together. "You did good, Roza. Very good. Now sleep.'

We touched in no other way, but his hand held all the warmth in the world. This was hardly a perfect moment, like in the library, but our familiar connection and the understanding between us burned brighter than ever, and it felt good. Right. Natural. I didn't want to sleep. I just wanted to stay there and savor being with him. It wasn't cheating, I decided, thinking of Adrian. It was just enjoying this closeness.

Still, sleep was essential. We worked out a schedule where each of us took shifts. He would stay awake now while I rested, and I had a feeling if I didn't sleep, he wouldn't either when the shift change came. I closed my eyes, and it wasn't my heart I had to slow down this time. It was my mind, the hamster wheel that went nowhere trying to figure out what to do next. Just get Jill to Court. Just get Jill to Court. That was all that mattered. We'd contact someone who could reach Jill. Dimitri and I would lie low, everything would soon fix itself....

"Thank God.'

I spun around, not even realizing I'd fallen into a spirit dream. I was back in Sonya's garden with all its sunshine and color, and she sat back in a chair, looking expectant.

"I was afraid you'd be up all night, watching your back,' she continued.

"I would if I had my choice,' I replied, strolling over to her. She wasn't quite whom I'd expected to see in my dreams, but at least I'd made contact with the outside world. I wore the black-and-white dress here, but unlike reality, it was clean and intact. "Dimitri thinks we're in a secure location--though he's awake, of course.'

"Of course.' There was a glimmer of amusement in her eyes, but it was brief.

"Where are you?' I asked. "Did the guardians put you in holding?'

"They didn't get me,' she said smugly. "You were their priority, and a little compulsion made sure they didn't see me. I took off ... I hated to leave Emily, though.'

I empathized but was too excited at Sonya's escape. Good news, finally. "But you can get Jill to Court. You're free.'

Sonya looked at me as those I'd just spoken French. "I can't get to Jill.'

I frowned. "Is she under that much security?'

"Rose,' said Sonya. "Jill isn't with the guardians at all. Victor and Robert took her.'

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