My friends babbled about nothing in particular while we walked the rest of the way to the dorms. Everyone studiously ignored the fact that we'd just run into my very ex-boyfriend and that it had been a really awkward, really awful scene. Or at least for me it had been awkward and awful.
I hated feeling like this. I'd caused Erik to break up with me, but I missed him. A lot. And I still liked him. A lot. Sure, he was acting like a butt right now, but he'd caught me having sex with another man--well, another vampyre, actually. As if that mattered. Anyway, bottom line is I'd caused this mess and it was incredibly frustrating that I couldn't fix it, because I still cared about Erik.
"What do you think of him, Z?"
"Him?" Erik? Hell, I thought he was amazing and frustrating and . . . and I realized Damien hadn't been asking me about Erik when he frowned and gave me a get a clue look. "Huh?" I said brilliantly.
Damien sighed. "The new kid. Stark. What do you think of him?"
I shrugged. "He seemed nice."
"Nice and hot," Shaunee said.
"Just the way we like 'em," Erin finished.
"You spent more time with him than we did. What do you think of him?" I asked Damien, ignoring the Twins.
"He's okay. But he seems distant. I suppose it doesn't help that he can't have a roommate because of Duchess. You know, that dog is really big," Damien said.
"He's new, guys. We all know how that feels. Maybe how he deals with it is being distant," I said.
"It's odd that a kid with such an amazing talent is unwilling to use it," Damien said.
"There could be more to it than we know," I said, thinking about how cool and confident Stark had acted when he'd been standing up to the vamps about his dog, but then that nonchalance had changed when Neferet made him think that she wanted him to use his talents to compete. He'd gotten weird then, maybe even scared. "Sometimes having unusual powers can be scary." I spoke more to myself than to Damien, but he smiled at me and bumped his shoulder against mine.
"Guess you'd know about being unusual," he said.
"Guess I would." I smiled at him, trying to lighten the crappy mood meeting up with Erik had gotten me in.
Shaunee's cell phone made the little bleeping sound it makes when she gets a text message, and she whipped out her iPhone. "Oooh, Twin! That's Mr. So Fiiiine Cole Clifton. He and T.J. want to know if we're up for a Bourne movie marathon in the guys' dorm," Shaunee said.
"Twin, I was born ready for a Bourne marathon," Erin said. Then the Twins giggled and did a bump and grind that made the rest of us roll our eyes.
"Oh, and you guys are invited, too," Shaunee said to Damien, Jack, and me.
"Goody," Jack said. "I never did get to see the last one. What was it called?"
"The Bourne Ultimatum," Damien said right away.
"That's right." Jack took his hand. "You're so smart about movies! You know all of them."
Damien blushed. "Well not all of them. Mostly I like the old classics. Back then is when movies had real stars in them, like Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart and James Dean. Today too many actors are--" Then his words came to an abrupt halt.
"What is it?" Jack asked.
"James Stark," he said.
"What about him?" I said.
"James Stark is the name of James Dean's character in the old movie, Rebel Without a Cause. I knew his name sounded familiar, but I thought it was just because he's so famous."
"Twin, have you ever seen that movie?" Erin asked Shaunee.
"No, Twin. Can't say that I have."
"Huh," I said. I had seen the movie--with Damien, of course--and I wondered if the name had been his before he'd been Marked. Or had he, like many kids, decided on a new name when his new life as a fledgling began. If so, that said something pretty interesting about his personality.
"So, are you coming, Z?" Damien's voice penetrated my internal babble.
I looked up to see four sets of eyes blinking questioningly at me. "Coming?"
"Jeesh, earth to Zoey! Are you coming with us to the guys' dorm to watch the Bourne movies?" Erin said.
I answered automatically. "Oh, that. No." I was glad my friends weren't pissed at me anymore, but I really didn't feel like hanging out. Actually, I felt kinda bruised and not myself inside. Within just a couple days, I'd Imprinted with and lost my virginity to a man/vamp who hadn't loved me, and then he'd been horribly killed. I'd broken my boyfriends' hearts. Both of them. A war had almost been started and then ended. Kind of. My best friend wasn't undead anymore, but she wasn't a "normal" fledgling or vampyre either, and neither were the kids she was living with. But I couldn't tell most of my friends, as in anyone who wasn't Aphrodite, about the weird red fledglings, 'cause it was better if Neferet didn't know what we knew. And now Erik, one of my two broken- hearted ex-boyfriends, was going to be my drama teacher--as if having him back at the House of Night wasn't drama enough. "No," I repeated more firmly. "I think I'm going to go check on Persephone." Okay, I realize I'd been in her stall not too long ago, but I could definitely use another dose of her quiet, warm presence.
"Are you sure?" Damien asked. "We really would like you to come with us."
The rest of my friends nodded and smiled, thawing the last of the knot of fear that had frozen in my stomach since they'd been mad at me.
"Thanks, guys. But I'm not really up for hanging out tonight," I said.
"Okey," said Erin. "Dokey," said Shaunee.
"See ya," Jack said.
I thought Damien would give me his typical good-bye hug, but instead he told Jack, "You guys go on, and I'll catch up with you. I'm going to walk Z to the stables."
"Good idea," Jack said. "I'll get your popcorn ready for you."
Damien smiled. "Save me a seat, too?"
Jack grinned back at him and gave him a quick, sweet kiss. "Always."
Then the Twins and Jack took off in one direction, and Damien and I went in the opposite direction. Hopefully that wasn't an omen about where our lives were heading.
"You really don't have to walk me to the stables," I said. "It's just not that far."
"Didn't you say earlier that something attacked you and hurt your hand when you were walking from the stables to the cafeteria?"
I raised my brows at him. "I didn't think you believed me about that."
"Well, let's just say that Aphrodite's visions have converted me. So when you're done communing with your horse, if you want you can give me a call on your cell. Jack and I will pretend like we're much more butch than we are and come escort you back."
"Oh, please. You aren't what I'd call swishy and fluttery."
"Well, I'm not, but Jack is."
We laughed. I was considering arguing with him about the whole Zoey-has-to- have-an-escort issue when the crow started cawing. Actually, now that I was wide awake and listening, the cawing seemed more like weird croaking, but it wasn't any less annoying.
No, maybe annoying wasn't the right word for the sound. Creepy. Creepy was exactly the right word for the sound.
"You hear that, don't you?" I said.
"The raven? Yeah."
"Raven? I thought it was a crow."
"No, I don't think so. If I remember correctly, crows caw, but a raven's cry is more like the croaking of toads." Damien paused, and the bird croaked a few more times. It sounded closer, and its ugly voice caused goose bumps to rise on my arms. "Yep, that's definitely a raven."
"I don't like it. And why is it being so noisy? It's winter--it couldn't be mating, could it? Plus, it's night. Shouldn't it be asleep?" I peered out into the darkness as I spoke, but didn't see any of the stupid noisy birds, which wasn't so unusual. I mean, they're black and it is night. But that one raven seemed to fill the sky around me, and something about its abrasive call made my skin shiver.
"I really don't know very much about their habits." Damien paused, looked carefully at me. "Why is it bothering you so much?"
"I heard wings flapping before, when whatever it was came at me. And it just feels creepy. Don't you feel it?"
I sighed and thought he was going to tell me that maybe I needed to get a handle on my stress and my imagination, but he surprised me by saying, "But you're more intuitive than I am. So if you say the bird feels wrong, I believe you."
"You do?" We were at the steps of the stable, and I stopped and turned to him.
His smile was full of familiar warmth. "Of course I do. I believe in you, Zoey." "Still?" I said.
"Still," he said firmly. "And I've got your back."
And just like that, the raven stopped croaking and the shivery creepiness I'd been feeling seemed to drift away with it.
I had to clear my throat and blink hard before I could manage to say, "Thanks, Damien."
Then Nala's grumpy old woman cat voice "mee-uf-owed" at me as my fat little orange cat padded out of the darkness to twine herself around Damien's legs.
"Hey there, little girl," he said, giving her a scratch under her chin. "Looks like she's here to take over the watch Zoey duty."
"Yep, I think you've definitely been relieved," I said.
"If you need me when you want to come back, just give me a call. I really don't mind," he said as he hugged me tight.
"Thanks," I said again.
"No problem, Z." He smiled at me once more and then, humming "Seasons of Love" from Rent, he disappeared back down the sidewalk.
I was still smiling when I opened the side door that led to the hallway that divided the field house and the stables. Mixed with the sweet hay and horse smell that was already wafting from the stable on my right, and the relief of knowing my friends really weren't pissed at me anymore, I could already feel myself beginning to relax. Stress-- jeesh! I really needed to do some yoga or whatnot (probably more whatnot than yoga). If I kept up this tension, I'd more than likely develop an ulcer. Or worse, wrinkles.
I was just turning to my right and had my hand on the stable door when I heard a weird thwap! followed by a muffled thud. The noises were coming from my left. I glanced to the side and saw that the door to the field house was open. Another thwap! thud pricked at my curiosity, and as per typical for me, instead of showing some sense and going on into the stable as I'd meant to, I walked into the field house.
Okay, the field house is basically an inside football field that's not a football field but just the field part with a track around it. Inside it kids play soccer and do track stuff. (I'm really not into either, but I do know how the place works in theory.) It's covered so that fledglings don't have to deal with the whole sun issue, and lit along the walls by gaslights that don't bug our eyes. Tonight most of those were unlit, so it was the next thwap! sound and not my eyesight that drew my attention to the other side of the field.
Stark was standing there with his back to me, bow in hand, facing one of those round bull's-eye targets that have the different colors for different target areas. The red center of this particular target had been hit with a weirdly fat arrow. I squinted, but couldn't see it very well in the dim light, and the target really was way away from where Stark was standing, which meant it was way, way away from where I was standing.
Nala gave a little low growl, and I noticed that the blond pile of stuff beside Stark was Duchess all sprawled out, apparently asleep at his feet.
"So much for her being a watchdog," I whispered to Nala.
Stark dragged the back of his hand across his forehead, like he was wiping sweat off his face and rolled his shoulders, loosening them. Even from this distance, he looked confident and strong. He seemed so much more intense than the other guys at the House of Night. Hell, he was more intense than human teenagers in general, and I couldn't help but find that intriguing. I was standing there, trying to figure out a hot-guy scale comparison for him, when he grabbed another arrow from the quiver by his feet, turned sideways, lifted the bow, and in one blurringly fast motion, released a breath and thwap! let loose another arrow, which sailed like a bullet directly to the bull's-eye of the distant target. Thud!
With a surprised little gasp, I realized why the arrow in the center of the target looked so weirdly big. It wasn't just one arrow. It was a bunch of arrows that had hit one right over the top of each other. Every single arrow he'd shot had gone to the same center spot on the target. Utterly shocked, my eyes went back to Stark, who was still in his archer's stance. And I realized what hot-guy scale he should be on: the Bad Boy Hot Scale.
Ah, oh. Like I needed to think a bad boy was intriguing? Hell, I didn't need to think any kind of boy was intriguing right now. I'd sworn off guys. Totally. I was just starting to turn around so I could tiptoe out when his voice stopped me.
"I know you're there," Stark said without looking at me.
As if that had been her cue, Duchess got to her feet, yawned, and padded happily over to me, tail wagging while she gave me a doggie "hi" woof. Nala arched her back, but didn't spit or hiss, and she actually allowed the Lab to sniff her a little before the cat sneezed squarely in her face.
"Hi," I said to both of them while I ruffled Duchess's ears.
Stark turned to me. He was wearing his cocky almost-smile. I was beginning to understand that expression was probably his norm. I did notice he looked paler than he had at dinner. Being the new kid was hard, and it tended to wear on you--even if you were a hot bad boy.
"I was just going to the stables and I heard something in here. I didn't mean to interrupt you."
He shrugged and started to say something, and then had to stop and clear his throat, like he hadn't talked for a long time. He gave a hoarse little half cough and finally said, "No problem. Actually I'm glad you're here. Saves me from having to find you."
"Oh, do you need something for Duchess?"
"Nah, she's fine. I brought a bunch of her stuff with me. Actually I wanted to talk to you."
No. I was absolutely not insanely curious or flattered by his saying he wanted to talk to me. Very calmly and with total nonchalance, I said, "So, what do you want?"
Instead of answering, he asked me a question. "Do those special Marks of yours mean that you really have an affinity for all five of the elements?"
"Yeah," I said, trying not to grit my teeth. I really hated to be questioned about my gifts by new kids. They tended to either hero-worship me or treat me like I was a bomb that might explode all over them at any instant. Either way it was majorly uncomfortable and definitely not flattering or intriguing.
"There was a priestess at my old House of Night in Chicago who had an affinity for fire. She could actually make things burn. Can you use the five elements like that?"
"I can't make water burn or anything bizarre like that." I avoided answering him directly.
He frowned and shook his head, wiping his hand across his brow again. I tried not to notice that he was kinda sexily sweating. "I'm not asking if you can twist the elements. I just need to know if you're powerful enough to control them." That jerked my attention from his cuteness. "Okay, look. I know you're new, but that's really not your business."
"Which means you must be pretty powerful."
I narrowed my eyes at him. "Again, not your business. If you need me for something that is your business, like asking me about dog supplies, come find me. Other than that, I'm out of here."
"Wait." He took a step toward me. "It sounds like I'm being a smart-ass, but I have a good reason for asking you about this."
He'd lost his sarcastic semi-smile, and the look he was giving me wasn't an obsessive let's-see-how-weird-Zoey-really-is expression. He looked like a cute, pale new kid who seriously needed to know something.
"Fine. Yes. I'm pretty powerful."
"And you can really control the elements. Like if something bad happened, you could get them to protect you or the people you care about?"
"Okay, that's it," I said. "Are you threatening me and my friends?"
"Oh, shit no!" he said quickly, holding up one of his hands, palm out, like he was surrendering. Of course, it was hard not to notice that in his other hand, he still held the bow he'd been thunking arrows straight into the bull's-eye with. He saw my eyes glance at the bow and slowly he bent to set it on the ground at his feet. "I'm not threatening anyone. I'm just bad at explaining. Here's the deal--I want you to know about my gift."
He said the word gift so uncomfortably that I raised my brows and repeated it. "Gift?"
"That's what it's called, or at least that's what other people call it. It's why I'm so good with that." He jerked his chin toward the bow lying at his feet.
I didn't say anything, but raised my brows at him as I waited (impatiently) for him to continue.
"My gift is I can't miss," he finally said.
"You can't miss? So what? Why would that have anything to do with me or my affinity with the elements?"
He shook his head again. "You don't get it. I always hit my target, but that doesn't mean my target is always what I aim at."
"You're not making any sense, Stark."
"I know, I know. I told you I'm no good at this." He ran his hand backwards through his hair, which made it puff up like a duck's tail. "The best way I can say this is to give you an example. Have you ever heard of the vampyre William Chidsey?"
I shook my head. "Nope, but that shouldn't shock you. I've only been Marked for a few months. I'm not exactly up on vampyre politics."
"Will wasn't into politics. He was into archery. For almost two hundred years, he was the undisputed archery champion of all the vampyres."
"Which means of all the world, because vamps are the best archers there are," I said.
"Yeah." he nodded. "Anyway, Will kicked everyone's ass for almost two centuries. At least up until six months ago he did."
I thought for a second. "Six months ago would make it summer. That's when they have the vamp version of the Olympics, right?"
"Yeah, they call them the Summer Games." "Okay, so this Will guy is majorly good with a bow. Seems you are, too. Do you know him pretty well?"
"Knew. He's dead. But yeah. I knew him pretty well." Stark paused and then added. "He was my mentor and my best friend."
"Oh, I'm sorry," I said awkwardly.
"So am I. I'm the one who killed him."