That eventually left me alone in the living room, and around midnight, I finally connected to Sydney. We met in the Getty Villa, and I swept her to my arms, not fully realizing until that moment how afraid I’d been that last night’s dream encounter had been a fluke. “Before I start kissing you and forget everything reasonable, tell me how long you’ve been asleep.”
She rested her golden head against my chest. “I don’t know. Less than an hour.”
“Hmm.” I brushed that beautiful hair back as I crunched numbers. “I thought you were on Pacific time, based on when you woke up. That would’ve been around, oh, five here. But that’s not very much sleep. Six hours. Maybe seven.”
“Actually, that’s about perfect for them,” she said. “It’s one of the things they do to keep us on edge. We get enough sleep to function, but we never quite feel rested enough. It makes us agitated, more susceptible to what they do and tell us.”
I nearly let the comment slide, but the word choice caught me. “What do you mean ‘one of the things?’” I asked her. “What else do they do?”
“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “We have other—”
“It does matter,” I insisted, leaning closer to her. I’d tried bringing this up before, and she kept evading the topic. “You said yourself that place pushed Keith over the edge, and I see the way Marcus looks whenever he talks about re-education.”
“A little sleep deprivation is nothing,” she said, still not directly addressing what I wanted.
“What else are they doing?” I demanded.
Fire flared briefly in her eyes. “What would you do if I told you? Would it make you work harder to find me?”
“Exactly,” she interrupted. “So don’t add on to your worries—especially when we’re already short on time.”
She and I stood there deadlocked for several tense moments. We’d rarely fought before she was taken, and it felt particularly weird to be doing it now, in light of all that had happened. I disagreed that what she was experiencing in re-education “didn’t matter,” but I hated seeing her so upset now. She was also right about our time crunch, so at last I gave a reluctant nod and switched subjects, telling her instead about my plan to visit Carly with Marcus.
“That’s not a bad idea. Even if Keith didn’t reach out to her, Carly’s in an Alchemist family and might be able to find out something for you.” Sydney was still holding on to me as she spoke, and while I certainly had no problem with that, I couldn’t shake the feeling of anxiety that radiated around her, as though she were literally afraid to let go of me. She was putting on a brave face, but those bastards had done something to her, and I hated them for it. I tightened my hold.
“Got anything we can say that’ll let her know we’ve spoken to you?” I asked.
Sydney considered a few moments and then smiled. “Ask her if college has still made her set on adopting Cicero’s philosophy on life.”
“Okay,” I said. It made no sense to me, but then, that was the point.
“And ask her . . .” Sydney’s smile faded. “Ask her if she knows how Zoe’s doing. If she’s okay.”
“I will,” I promised, amazed that Sydney could care so much about a sister who’d betrayed her. “But now, what about you? Isn’t there anything you can tell me about your life in that place? I worry about you.”
Her anxiety rose, and I worried she’d get upset again, but she apparently decided to give me something. “I’m fine . . . really. And I may have even helped someone. I kind of finagled some of that magic salt ink together and used it to protect someone from Alchemist mind control.”
I pulled back a little so that I could meet her in the eye. “You used magic in Alchemist re-education? Weren’t you just saying you get in trouble for stepping out of line?”
“I didn’t get caught,” she said fiercely. “And it really did help someone.”
I drew her to me again. “Worry about helping yourself.”
“You sound like Duncan.”
“Duncan?” I asked jealously.
She smiled. “No need to worry. He’s just a friend, but he’s always warning me about staying out of trouble. I can’t stop myself, though. If I can help these people, you know I will.”
I was on the verge of reminding her of the many conversations we’d had about me and spirit use, how I’d always insisted that the risk to myself was worth it if I could do good for others. Sydney had constantly argued that I had to look out for myself because if I wasn’t careful, I wouldn’t be able to help anyone.
But I didn’t get a chance to lecture her now because she unexpectedly pulled me closer, tightening her hold and bringing our lips together. Warmth flooded me, along with a desire as real and as strong as I’d feel in the waking world. She trailed her lips to my cheek and then to my neck, giving me a brief moment to speak.
“No fair distracting me,” I murmured.
“You want me to stop?” she asked.
Like I even had to think about that one. “Of course not.”
Our lips met again in another hungry kiss, and I barely had enough presence of mind to shift our setting from the sunny courtyard to a bedroom at a mountain inn. Sydney paused again, laughing softly as she recognized the scene. “Memory lane,” she teased. “Back to the first time. You’ve even got it snowing out there.”
I eased her back onto the sumptuous bed. “Hey, Adrian Ivashkov offers full service.”
“And a money-back guarantee?”
“I wouldn’t know,” I told her. “No one’s ever been disappointed.”
Her laughter dissolved into more kissing, and with a last touch of dream shaping, I transformed her ugly tan scrubs into a formfitting black and maroon dress I’d once seen her in. Her beauty astonished me just as much now as it had then, and I ran a hand along her waist, coming to rest on the curve of her hip. Her own hands, which had been wrapped around my neck, now traveled down and tugged off my T-shirt with a boldness I would’ve never imagined when we’d first met. The touch of her fingertips on my chest was delicate yet managed to convey a power and urgency that sent shockwaves through me. Something told me the passion that burned in her now was driven by more than just our usual attraction—there was a need in her, a need born of months of desperation and isolation. I tipped her head back so that I could better kiss her neck, tangling my free hand up in her hair. She made a small gasp of pleasure and surprise as I grazed her skin with my teeth, though I was careful to do no more than just that teasing.
Slowly, tauntingly, I slid the hand on her hip up her body, loving the way she felt and reacted at my touch. I finally made my way to the zipper at her back and tried tugging it down—something that was more difficult one-handed than I’d expected.
She opened her eyes to regard me with both amusement and desire. “You could just dream the dress away.”
“Where’s the fun in that?” I returned, feeling triumphant as the zipper caught. I slid it all the way down and began pulling the dress off.
“Oh, Adrian,” she breathed. “You have no idea how much—”
I didn’t need to ask what cut her off. I could sense it from the way she was losing substance beneath my hands: She was being woken up.
“Don’t go,” I told her futilely. It was less about physical fulfillment than a deep-seated fear I couldn’t give voice to: I’m afraid if you leave, I’ll never see you again. I could tell from her face, however, that she knew my fears.
“We’ll be together soon. In real life. The center will hold.” She was growing translucent before my eyes. “Get some sleep. Go find Carly and Keith.”
“I will. And then I’ll find you, I swear it.”
She was nearly gone, and I could just barely make out tears sparkling in her eyes. “I know you will. I believe in you. I always have.”
“I love you.”
“I love you too.”
She was gone.
I woke up on the couch, feeling an emptiness and dissatisfaction that went beyond physical longing. I needed her heart and mind as much as her body. I needed her, and her lack caused an ache in my chest as I drifted off to sleep. As I did, I wrapped my arms tightly around myself, pretending it was Sydney I held.
Marcus showed up bright and early the next morning, getting our road trip off to a good start—with one exception. We had a small disagreement on whose car to take.
“Yours is probably stolen,” I said.
He rolled his eyes. “It’s not stolen. And it’s a Prius.”
“Even more reason not to take it.”
“We can get to Tempe without even stopping for gas, unlike yours.”
“It’s worth the extra stops to go in style,” I argued back.
“Is it worth the extra delay to get answers that might help Sydney?” That was his trump card, and he knew it.
“Fine,” I grumbled. “We’ll take your lame yet highly fuel-efficient car.”
Despite our rocky past—like when I’d tried to punch him the first time we met—Marcus and I had a pretty smooth drive to ASU. He didn’t expect much in the way of conversation, which was fine by me. Most of my thoughts were with Sydney. Every once in a while, Marcus would field a call from one of his contacts, chasing some lead that was part of his clandestine affairs. Some were about Sydney and Keith; some were about other people and missions that all sounded very important when you were only listening to half the conversation.
“You’ve got all sorts of things going on,” I remarked when we crossed the Arizona border. “It means a lot that you’d take time to help Sydney. Sounds like she’s not the only one counting on you.”
He smiled at that. “Sydney’s special. I don’t think she can know how many people she’s helped with that ink she made. It’s huge for them to know the Alchemists can’t corrupt their minds—at least through the tattooing. I owe it to her to help her for that, and . . .”
“And what?” I asked, seeing his expression darken.
“Whenever anyone does something incredible, like she’s done, and gets caught, like she has, I always think that it could’ve been me. In helping me, I see them as serving the time that I probably deserve.”
“Sydney wouldn’t see it that way,” I told him, recalling her crackpot plans to help her fellow inmates. “She’s happy to do it—thinks it’s her own risk.”
“I know,” he said. “And that makes me that much happier to help.”
We reached the university by midafternoon. It was in the thick of the academic day, but they were also running on summer session, so campus crowds were thinner than they might otherwise have been. Marcus’s intelligence had told him that Carly attended year-round and was an RA in a coed dorm. No one challenged us during daylight hours, and we were able to go right up to her door, which was covered in posters for various bands and rallies. After meeting Zoe, I couldn’t even begin to say what the third Sage sister was like, though I had formed vague ideas of someone quiet and meek, knowing what I did about how Carly wouldn’t report Keith or let Sydney do it either.
The girl who answered wasn’t what I expected. She was tall and athletic, with pixie-cut hair and a little garnet nose ring. But she had Sydney’s hair and eye color, as well as enough family resemblance to let me know we’d found the right person. She wore an outgoing smile that dimmed somewhat when she did a double take at me. She might not be the family Alchemist, but she knew a Moroi when she saw one.
“Whatever it is, I don’t want to be involved,” she said.
“It’s about Sydney,” said Marcus.
“And she said to ask you if college made you want to take on Cicero’s philosophy on life,” I added helpfully.
Carly’s eyebrows rose at that, and after a moment, she sighed and opened her door to admit us. Two other girls, looking freshman-aged, sat on her floor, and she gave them an apologetic look. “Hey, I’ve got to take care of something real quick. Can we finish planning tonight?”
As the girls stood and made parting comments, Marcus leaned toward me and whispered, “Are you sure you got Sydney’s pass phrase right? Cicero was more of a statesman than a philosopher. Not that he didn’t have some good moments.”
I shrugged. “That’s what she said. And Carly let us in, didn’t she?”
Once the younger girls were gone, Carly sat on the edge of her bed and beckoned us to find spots on the floor. “Okay. So, to what do I owe the pleasure of a visit from a Moroi and a guy who’s not an Alchemist but has a very suspiciously placed tattoo?”
“We need your help to locate Sydney,” I said, finding no need to waste time.
Carly tilted her head in surprise at that. “Is she missing?”
Marcus and I exchanged looks. “Have you heard from her recently?” he asked.
“No . . . not in a very long time, actually. But that’s not unheard of. Dad used to disappear for a while too. It’s part of the job. He told all of us that she’s just wrapped up in something top secret.” When neither Marcus nor I responded, she glanced between the two of us. “Isn’t that true? Is she okay?”
“She’s okay,” said Marcus slowly, and I could tell he was choosing his words carefully. “But she’s not on assignment. She got in trouble for something, and we’re trying to get to her before that trouble gets worse.”
Carly shot him a fierce look. “Don’t sugarcoat things. I know what getting in trouble means with Alchemists. They’ve locked her up somewhere, haven’t they? Like they did Keith?”
“Have you talked to him?” I exclaimed. “In person?”
Her face filled with disgust. “In person and in email. He showed up out of the blue like you guys did, back in March, with this big sob story about how sorry he was and how he needed my forgiveness to go on and how I should turn him in to the authorities.”
“Back up,” I said. “Keith told you to turn him in? Did you?”
“No.” She crossed her arms and put on a smug expression that seemed to be at odds with the topic. “And he didn’t tell me so much as beg. He was terrified he’d be sent back into Alchemist custody one day and seemed to think he’d be safer in a regular prison. So I said no. Now he can live in constant fear, just like I used to.”