Chapter 1: One
I felt his fear before I heard his screams.
His nightmare pulsed into me, shaking me out of my own, which had had something to do with a beach and some hot guy rubbing suntan oil on me.
Images—his, not mine—tumbled through my mind: fire and blood, the smell of smoke, the twisted metal of a car. The pictures wrapped around me, suffocating me, until some rational part of my brain reminded me that this wasn't my dream.
I woke up, drenched in sweat, bangs sticking to my forehead.
Mingi lay in his bed, thrashing and screaming. I bolted out of mine, quickly crossing the few feet that separated us.
"Ren," I said, shaking him. "Ren, wake up."
His screams dropped off, replaced by soft whimpers.
"Minseok," he moaned. "Oh God."
I helped him sit up. "Ren, you aren't there anymore. Wake up."
After a few moments, his eyes fluttered open, and in the dim lighting, I could see a flicker of consciousness start to take over. His frantic breathing slowed, and he leaned into me, resting his head against my shoulder. I put an arm around him and ran a hand over his hair.
"It's okay," I told him gently. "Everything's okay."
"I had that dream."
"Yeah,” I paused, still shaken by the memories. “I know."
We sat like that for several minutes, not saying anything else. When I felt his emotions calm, I leaned over to the nightstand between our beds and turned on the lamp. It glowed dimly, but neither of us really needed much to see by. Attracted by the light, our housemate's cat, Oscar, leapt up onto the sill of the open window. He gave me a wide berth—animals don't like dhampirs, for whatever reason—but jumped onto the bed and rubbed his head against Ren, purring softly. Animals didn't have a problem with Moroi, and they all loved Ren in particular. Smiling, he scratched Oscar’s chin, and I felt his calm further.
I looked at him; his fair skin was paler than usual. Dark circles hung under his eyes, and there was an air of frailty about him.
"When did we last do a feeding?" I asked, studying his face.
School had been hectic this week, and I couldn't remember the last time I'd given him blood.
"It's been like…more than a week, hasn't it? Two, maybe? Why didn't you say anything?"
He shrugged and wouldn't meet my eyes.
"You were busy. I didn't want to—"
"Screw that," I said, shifting into a better position. No wonder he seemed so weak. Oscar, not wanting me any closer, leapt down and returned to the window, where he could watch at a safe distance. "Come on. Let's do this."
"Come on. It'll make you feel better."
I tilted my head back, baring my neck. I saw him hesitate, but the sight of my neck and what it offered proved too powerful. A hungry expression crossed his face, and his lips parted slightly, exposing the fangs he normally kept hidden while living among humans. Those fangs always contrasted oddly with the rest of his features. With his pretty face and pale blond hair, he looked more like an angel than a vampire.
As his teeth neared my bare skin, I felt my heart race with a mix of fear and anticipation. I always hated feeling the latter, but it was nothing I could help, a weakness I couldn't shake.
His fangs bit into me, hard, and I cried out at the brief flare of pain. Then it faded, replaced by a wonderful, golden joy that spread through my body. It was better than any of the times I'd been drunk or high. Better than sex—or so I imagined, since I'd never done it. It was a blanket of pure, refined pleasure, wrapping me up and promising everything would be right in the world. On and on it went. The chemicals in his saliva triggered an endorphin rush, and I lost track of the world, lost track of who I was.
Then, regretfully, it was over. It had taken less than a minute.
He pulled back, wiping his hand across his lips as he studied me. "You okay?"
"I…yeah." I lay back on the bed, dizzy from the blood loss. "I just need to sleep it off. I'm fine."
Mingi watched me with concern. He stood up. "I'm going to get you something to eat."
My protests came awkwardly to my lips, and he left before I could get out a sentence. The buzz from his bite had lessened as soon as he broke the connection, but some of it still lingered in my veins, and I felt a goofy smile cross my lips. Turning my head, I glanced up at Oscar, still sitting in the window.
"You don't know what you're missing," I told him.
His attention was on something outside. Hunkering down into a crouch, he puffed out his jet-black fur. His tail started twitching.
My smile faded, and I forced myself to sit up.
The world spun, and I waited for it to right itself before trying to stand. When I managed it, the dizziness set in again and this time refused to leave. Still, I felt okay enough to stumble to the window and peer out with Oscar. He eyed me warily, scooted over a little, and then returned to whatever had held his attention.
A warm breeze—unseasonably warm for a Portland fall—played with my hair as I leaned out. The street was dark and relatively quiet. It was three in the morning, just about the only time a college campus settled down, at least somewhat. The house in which we'd rented a room for the past eight months sat on a residential street with old, mismatched houses. Across the road, a streetlight flickered, nearly ready to burn out. It still cast enough light for me to make out the shapes of cars and buildings. In our own yard, I could see the silhouettes of trees and bushes.
And a man watching me.
I jerked back in surprise. A figure stood by a tree in the yard, about thirty feet away, where he could easily see through the window. He was close enough that I probably could have thrown something and hit him. He was certainly close enough that he could have seen what Ren and I had just done.
The shadows covered him so well that even with my heightened sight, I couldn't make out any of his features, save for his height. He was tall. He stood there for just a moment, barely discernible, and then stepped back, disappearing into the shadows cast by the trees on the far side of the yard. I was pretty sure I saw someone else move nearby and join him before the blackness swallowed them both.
Whoever these figures were, Oscar didn't like them. Not counting me, he usually got along with most people, growing upset only when someone posed an immediate danger. The guy outside hadn't done anything threatening to Oscar, but the cat had sensed something, something that put him on edge.
Something similar to what he always sensed in me.
Icy fear raced through me, almost—but not quite—eradicating the lovely bliss of Ren's bite. Backing up from the window, I jerked on a pair of jeans that I found on the floor, nearly falling over in the process. Once they were on, I grabbed my coat and Ren's, along with our wallets. Shoving my feet into the first shoes I saw, I headed out the door.
Downstairs, I found him in the cramped kitchen, rummaging through the refrigerator. One of our housemates, Jeremy, sat at the table, hand on his forehead as he stared sadly at a calculus book. Ren regarded me with surprise.
"You shouldn't be up."
"We have to go. Now."
His eyes widened, and then a moment later, understanding clicked in. "Are you…really? Are you sure?"
I nodded. I couldn't explain how I knew for sure. I just did.
Jeremy watched us curiously. "What's wrong?"
An idea came to mind. "Ren, get his car keys."
He looked back and forth between us. "What are you—"
Ren unhesitatingly walked over to him. His fear poured into me through our psychic bond, but there was something else too: his complete faith that I would take care of everything, that we would be safe. Like always, I hoped I was worthy of that kind of trust.
He smiled broadly and gazed directly into Jeremy's eyes. For a moment, Jeremy just stared, still confused, and then I saw the thrall seize him. His eyes glazed over, and he regarded Ren adoringly.
"We need to borrow your car," he said in a gentle voice. "Where are your keys?"
He smiled, and I shivered. I had a high resistance to compulsion, but I could still feel its effects when it was directed at another person. That, and I'd been taught my entire life that using it was wrong. Reaching into his pocket, Jeremy handed over a set of keys hanging on a large red key chain.
"Thank you," said Ren. "And where is it parked?"
"Down the street," he said dreamily. "At the corner. By Brown." Four blocks away.
"Thank you," he repeated, backing up. "As soon as we leave, I want you to go back to studying. Forget you ever saw us tonight."
He nodded obligingly. I got the impression he would have walked off a cliff for him right then if he'd asked. All humans were susceptible to compulsion, but Jeremy appeared weaker than most. That came in handy right now.
"Come on," I told him. "We've got to move."
We stepped outside, heading toward the corner he'd named. I was still dizzy from the bite and kept stumbling, unable to move as quickly as I wanted. Ren had to catch hold of me a few times to stop me from falling. All the time, that anxiety rushed into me from his mind. I tried my best to ignore it; I had my own fears to deal with.
"Aron…what are we going to do if they catch us?" he whispered.
"They won't," I said fiercely. "I won't let them."
"But if they've found us—"
"They found us before. They didn't catch us then. We'll just drive over to the train station and go to L.A. They'll lose the trail."
I made it sound simple. I always did, even though there was nothing simple about being on the run from the people we'd grown up with. We'd been doing it for two years, hiding wherever we could and just trying to finish high school. Our senior year had just started, and living on a college campus had seemed safe. We were so close to freedom.
He said nothing more, and I felt his faith in me surge up once more. This was the way it had always been between us. I was the one who took action, who made sure things happened—sometimes recklessly so. He was the more reasonable one, the one who thought things out and researched them extensively before acting. Both styles had their uses, but at the moment, recklessness was called for. We didn't have time to hesitate.
Ren and I had been best friends ever since kindergarten, when our teacher had paired us together for writing lessons. Forcing five-year-olds to spell Mingi Ren Choi and Aaron Youngmin Kwak (in cursive, no less!) was beyond cruel, and we'd—or rather, I'd—responded appropriately. I'd chucked my book at our teacher and called her a fascist bastard. I hadn't known what those words meant, but I'd known how to hit a moving target.
Ren and I had been inseparable ever since.
"Do you hear that?" he asked suddenly.
It took me a few seconds to pick up what his sharper senses already had. Footsteps, moving fast. I grimaced. We had two more blocks to go.
"We've got to run for it," I said, catching hold of his arm.
"But you can't—"
It took every ounce of my willpower not to pass out on the sidewalk. My body didn't want to run after losing blood or while still metabolizing the effects of his saliva. But I ordered my muscles to stop their bitching and clung to Ren as our feet pounded against the concrete. Normally I could have outrun him without any extra effort—particularly since he was still barefoot—but tonight, he was all that held me upright.
The pursuing footsteps grew louder, closer. Black stars danced before my eyes. Ahead of us, I could make out Jeremy's green Honda. Oh God, if we could just make it—
Ten feet from the car, a man stepped directly into our path.
We came to a screeching halt, and I jerked Ren back by his arm. It was him, the guy I'd seen across the street watching me. He was older than us, maybe mid-twenties, and as tall as I'd figured, probably five-eleven or six-foot. And under different circumstances—say, when he wasn't holding up our desperate escape—I would have thought he was hot. Dark brown hair, sharp, dark fox-like eyes. A long brown coat - a duster, I thought it was called- and a seemingly tight all black ensemble.
But his hotness was irrelevant now. He was only an obstacle keeping Ren and me away from the car and our freedom. The footsteps behind us slowed, and I knew our pursuers had caught up. Off to the sides, I detected more movement, more people closing in. God. They'd sent almost a dozen guardians to retrieve us. I couldn't believe it. The queen herself didn't travel with that many.
Panicked and not entirely in control of my higher reasoning, I acted out of instinct. I pressed up to Ren, keeping him behind me and away from the man who appeared to be the leader.
"Leave him alone," I growled. "Don't touch him."
His face was unreadable, but he held out his hands in what was apparently supposed to be some sort of calming gesture, like I was a rabid animal he was planning to sedate.
"I'm not going to—"
He took a step forward. Too close.
I attacked him, leaping out in an offensive maneuver I hadn't used in two years, not since Ren and I had run away. The move was stupid, another reaction born of instinct and fear. And it was hopeless. He was a skilled guardian, not a novice who hadn't finished his training. He also wasn't weak and on the verge of passing out.
And man, was he fast. I'd forgotten how fast guardians could be, how they could move and strike like cobras. He knocked me off as though brushing away a fly, and his hands slammed into me and sent me backwards. I don't think he meant to strike that hard—probably just intended to keep me away—but my lack of coordination interfered with my ability to respond. Unable to catch my footing, I started to fall, heading straight toward the sidewalk at a twisted angle, hip-first. It was going to hurt. A lot.
Only it didn't.
Just as quickly as he'd blocked me, the man reached out and caught my arm, keeping me upright. When I'd steadied myself, I noticed he was staring at me—or, more precisely, at my neck. Still disoriented, I didn't get it right away. Then, slowly, my free hand reached up to the side of my throat and lightly touched the wound Ren had made earlier. When I pulled my fingers back, I saw slick, dark blood on my skin.
Embarrassed, I shook my head so that what very little hair I had would manage to cover it. My hair was thick and a little long for a boy, barely enough to cover my neck. I'd grown it out for precisely this reason.
The guy's dark eyes lingered on the now-covered bite a moment longer and then met mine. I returned his look defiantly and quickly jerked out of his hold. He let me go, though I knew he could have restrained me all night if he'd wanted. Fighting the nauseating dizziness, I backed toward Ren again, bracing myself for another attack. Suddenly, his hand caught hold of mine.
"Aaron," he said quietly. "Don't."
His words had no effect on me at first, but calming thoughts gradually began to settle in my mind, coming across through the bond. It wasn't exactly compulsion—he wouldn't use that on me—but it was effectual, as was the fact that we were hopelessly outnumbered and outclassed. Even I knew struggling would be pointless. The tension left my body, and I sagged in defeat.
Sensing my resignation, the man stepped forward, turning his attention to Ren. His face was calm. He swept him a bow and managed to look graceful doing it, which surprised me considering his height. "My name is Minhyun Alexander Hwang," he said. I could hear a faint accent.
"I've come to take you back to St. Vladimir's Academy, my Prince."
Chapter 2: Two
My hatred now withstanding, I had to admit Minhyun, Minion? Whatever his name is, was pretty smart. After they'd carted us off to the airport to and onto the Academy's private jet, he'd taken one look at the two of us whispering and ordered us separated.
"Don't let them talk to each other," he warned the guardian who escorted me to the back of the plane. "Five minutes together, and they'll come up with an escape plan."
I shot him a haughty look and stormed off down the aisle. Never mind the fact we had been planning escape.
As it was, things didn't look good for us. Once we were in the air, our odds of escape dropped further. Even supposing a miracle occurred and I did manage to take out all ten guardians, we'd sort of have a problem in getting off the plane. I figured they might have parachutes aboard somewhere, but in the unlikely event I'd be able to operate one, there was still that little issue of survival, seeing as we'd probably land somewhere in the Rocky Mountains.
No, we weren't getting off this plane until it landed in backwoods Montana. I'd have to think of something then, something that involved getting past the Academy's magical wards and ten times as many guardians.
Yeah. No problem.
Although Ren sat at the front with the Australian-sounding guy, his fear sang back to me, pounding inside my head like a hammer. My concern for him cut into my fury. They couldn't take him back there, not to that place. I wondered if Minion might have hesitated if he could feel what I did and if he knew what I knew. Probably not. He didn't care.
As it was, Ren's emotions grew so strong that for a moment, I had the disorienting sensation of sitting in his seat—in his skin even. It happened sometimes, and without much warning, he'd pull me right into his head. What-his-name's tall frame sat beside me, and my hand—Ren's hand—gripped a bottle of water. What's-his-name leaned forward to pick up something, revealing six tiny symbols tattooed on the back of his neck: molnija marks. They looked like two streaks of jagged lightning crossing in an X symbol.
One for each Strigoi he'd killed. Above them was a twisting line, sort of like a snake, that marked him as a guardian.
The promise mark.
Blinking, I fought against Ren and shifted back into my own head with a grimace. I hated when that happened. Feeling Ren's emotions was one thing, but slipping into him was something we both despised. Ren saw it as an invasion of privacy, so I usually didn't tell him when it happened. Neither of us could control it. It was another effect of the bond, a bond neither of us fully understood. Legends existed about psychic links between guardians and their Moroi, but the stories had never mentioned anything like this. We fumbled through it as best we could.
Near the end of the flight, What's-his-name walked back to where I sat and traded places with the guardian beside me. I pointedly turned away, staring out the window absentmindedly. Several moments of silence passed. Finally, he said, "Were you really going to attack all of us?"
I didn't answer.
"Doing that…protecting him like that—it was very brave." He paused. "Stupid, but still brave. Why did you even try it?"
I glanced over at him, brushing my hair out of my face so I could look him levelly in the eye. "Because I'm his guardian." I turned back toward the window.
After another quiet moment, he stood up and returned to the front of the jet.
When we landed, Ren and I had no choice but to let the commandos drive us out to the Academy. Our car stopped at the gate, and our driver spoke with guards who verified we weren't Strigoi about to go off on a killing spree. After a minute, they let us pass on through the wards and up to the Academy itself. It was around sunset—the start of the vampiric day—and the campus lay wrapped in shadows.
It probably looked the same: sprawling and gothic. The Moroi were big on tradition; nothing ever changed with them. This school wasn't as old as the ones back in Europe, but it had been built in the same style. The buildings boasted elaborate, almost churchlike architecture, with high peaks and stone carvings. Wrought iron gates enclosed small gardens and doorways here and there. After living on a college campus, I had a new appreciation for just how much this place resembled a university more than a typical high school.
We were on the secondary campus, which was divided into lower and upper schools. Each was built around a large open quadrangle decorated with stone paths and enormous, century-old trees. We were going toward the upper school's quad, which had academic buildings on one side, while dhampir dormitories and the gym sat opposite. Moroi dorms sat on one of the other ends, and opposite them were the administrative buildings that also served the lower school. Younger students lived on the primary campus, farther to the west.
Around all the campuses was space, space, and more space. We were in Montana, after all, miles away from any real city. The air felt cool in my lungs and smelled of pine and wet, decaying leaves. Overgrown forests ringed the perimeters of the Academy, and during the day, you could see mountains rising up in the distance.
As we walked into the main part of the upper school, I broke from my guardian and ran up to Minhwong.
He kept walking and wouldn't look at me. "You want to talk now?
"Are you taking us to Chaerin?"
"Headmistress Lee," he corrected. On the other side of him, Ren shot me a look that said, Don't start something.
"Headmistress. Whatever. She's still a self-righteous old bit—"
My words faded as the guardians led us through a set of doors-straight into the commons. I sighed. Were these people really so cruel? There had to be at least a dozen ways to get to Chaerin's office, and they were taking us right through the center of the commons.
And it was breakfast time.
Novice guardians—dhampirs like me—and Moroi sat together, eating and socializing, faces alight with whatever current gossip held the Academy's attention. When we entered, the loud buzz of conversation stopped instantly, like someone had flipped a switch. Hundreds of sets of eyes swiveled toward us.
I returned the stares of my former classmates with a lazy grin, trying to get a sense as to whether things had changed. Nope. Didn't seem like it. Camille Conta still looked like the prim, perfectly groomed bitch I remembered, still the self-appointed leader of the Academy's royal Moroi cliques. Off to the side, Ren's gawky near-cousin Sulli watched with wide eyes, as innocent and naïve as before.
And on the other side of the room…well, that was interesting. Jason. Poor, poor Jason, who'd no doubt had his heart broken when Ren left. He still looked as cute as ever—maybe more so now—with those same golden looks that complemented hers so well. His eyes followed Ren's every move. Yes. Definitely not over Ren yet. It was sad, really, because Ren had never really been all that into him. I think he'd gone out with him simply because it seemed like the expected thing to do.
But what I found most interesting was that Jason had apparently found a way to pass the time without her. Beside him, holding his hand, was a Moroi girl who looked about twelve but had to be older, unless he'd become a pedophile during our absence. With plump little cheeks and blond ringlets, she looked like a porcelain doll. A very pissed off and evil porcelain doll. She gripped his hand tightly and shot Ren a look of such burning hatred that it stunned me. What the hell was that all about? She was no one I knew. Just a jealous girlfriend, I guessed. I'd be pissed too if my guy was watching someone else like that.
Our walk of shame mercifully ended, though our new setting—Headmistress Lee's office—didn't really improve things. The old hag looked exactly like I remembered, sharp-nosed and gray-haired. She was tall and slim, like most Moroi, and had always reminded me of a vulture. I knew her well because I'd spent a lot of time in her office.
Most of our escorts left us once Ren and I were seated, and I felt a little less like a prisoner. Only Amber, the captain of the school's guardians, and Aron stayed. They took up positions along the wall, looking stoic and terrifying, just as their job description required.
Chaerin fixed her angry eyes on us and opened her mouth to begin what would no doubt be a major bitch session. A deep, gentle voice stopped her.
Startled, I realized there was someone else in the room. I hadn't noticed. Careless for a guardian, even a novice one.
With a great deal of effort, Heechul Kim rose from a corner chair. Prince Heechul. Ren sprang up and ran to him, throwing his arms around his frail body.
"Uncle," he whispered. Ren sounded on the verge of tears as he tightened his grip.
With a small smile, he gently patted Ren's back. "You have no idea how glad I am to see you safe, Mingi." He looked toward me. "And you too, Aaron."
I nodded back, trying to hide how shocked I was. He'd been sick when we left, but this—this was horrible. He was Sulli's father, only about forty or so, but he looked twice that age. Pale. Withered. Hands shaking. My heart broke watching him. With all the horrible people in the world, it didn't seem fair that this guy should get a disease that was going to kill him young and ultimately keep him from becoming king.
Although not technically Ren's uncle—the Moroi used family terms very loosely, especially the royals—Heechul was a close friend of Ren's family and had gone out of his way to help him after his parents had died. I liked him; he was the first person I was happy to see here.
Chaerin let them have a few more moments and then stiffly drew Ren back to his seat.
Time for the lecture.
It was a good one—one of Chaerin's best, which was saying something. She was a master at them. I swear that was the only reason she'd gone into school administration, because I had yet to see any evidence of her actually liking kids. The rant covered the usual topics: responsibility reckless behavior, self-centeredness…Bleh. I immediately found myself spacing out, alternatively pondering the logistics of escaping through the window in her office.
But when the tirade shifted to me—well, that was when I tuned back in.
"You, Mister Kwak, broke the most sacred promise among our kind: the promise of a guardian to protect a Moroi. It is a great trust. A trust that you violated by selfishly taking the prince away from here. The Strigoi would love to finish off the Chois; you nearly enabled them to do it."
"Aron didn't kidnap me." Ren spoke before I could, his voice and face calm, despite his uneasy feelings. "I wanted to go. Don't blame him."
Ms. Lee tsked at us both and paced the office, hands folded behind her narrow back.
"Mister Choi, you could have been the one who orchestrated the entire plan for all I know, but it was still his responsibility to make sure you didn't carry it out. If he'd done his duty, he would have notified someone. If he'd done his duty, he would have kept you safe."
"I did do my duty!" I shouted, jumping up from my chair. Minhwong and Amber both flinched but left me alone since I wasn't trying to hit anyone. Yet.
"I did keep him safe! I kept him safe when none of you"—I made a sweeping gesture around the room—"could do it. I took him away to protect him. I did what I had to do. You certainly weren't going to."
Through the bond, I felt Ren trying to send me calming messages, again urging me not to let anger get the best of me. Too late.
Chaerin stared at me, her face blank. "Mister Kwak, forgive me if I fail to see the logic of how taking him out of a heavily guarded, magically secured environment is protecting him. Unless there's something you aren't telling us?"
I bit my lip.
"I see. Well, then. By my estimation, the only reason you left—aside from the novelty of it, no doubt—was to avoid the consequences of that horrible, destructive stunt you pulled just before your disappearance."
"No, that's not—"
"And that only makes my decision that much easier. As a Moroi, the prince must continue on here at the Academy for his own safety, but we have no such obligations to you. You will be sent away as soon as possible."
My cockiness dried up.
Ren stood up beside me. "You can't do that! He's my guardian."
"He is no such thing, particularly since he isn't even a guardian at all. He's still a novice."
"But my parents—"
"I know what your parents wanted, God rest their souls, but things have changed. Mister Hwang is expendable. He doesn't deserve to be a guardian, and he will leave."
I stared at Chaerin, unable to believe what I was hearing. "Where are you going to send me? To my mom in Nepal? Did she even know I was gone? Or maybe you'll send me off to my father?"
Her eyes narrowed at the bite in that last word. When I spoke again, my voice was so cold, I barely recognized it.
"Or maybe you're going to try to send me off to be a blood whore. Try that, and we'll be gone by the end of the day."
"Mister Kwak," she hissed, "you are out of line."
"They have a bond."
Minhyun's low, accented voice broke the heavy tension, and we all turned toward him. I think Chaerin had forgotten he was there, but I hadn't.
His presence was way too powerful to ignore. He still stood against the wall, looking like some sort of cowboy sentry in that ridiculous long coat of his. He looked at me, not Ren, his dark eyes staring straight through me. "Aron knows what Mingi is feeling. Don't you?"
I at least had the satisfaction of seeing Chaerin caught off guard as she glanced between us and Aron. "No…that's impossible. That hasn't happened in centuries."
"It's obvious," he said. "I suspected as soon as I started watching them."
Neither Ren nor I responded, and I averted my eyes from his.
"That is a gift," murmured Heechul from his corner. "A rare and wonderful thing."
"The best guardians always had that bond," added Minhyun. "In the stories."
Chaerin's outrage returned. "Stories that are centuries old," she exclaimed. "Surely you aren't suggesting we let him stay at the Academy after everything he's done?"
Minhyun shrugged. "Mister Kwak might be wild and disrespectful, but if he has potential—"
"Wild and disrespectful?" I interrupted. "Who the hell are you anyway? Outsourced help?"
"Guardian Hwang is the prince's guardian now," said Chaerin. "His sanctioned guardian."
"You got cheap foreign labor to protect Ren?"
That was pretty mean of me to say—particularly since most Moroi and their guardians were of Asian, Russian or Romanian descent—but the comment seemed cleverer at the time than it really was. And it wasn't like I was one to talk. I might have been raised in the U.S., but my parents were foreign-born. My dhampir mother was Eastern European—light-haired, with a ridiculous accent—and I'd been told my Moroi dad was Korean royal of some kind. That genetic combination had given me skin the same color as the inside of an almond, along with what I liked to think were semi-exotic desert-prince features: big dark eyes and hair so brown that it usually got mistaken for a dye job. I wouldn't have minded inheriting the flaming red hair and freckles, but we take what we get.
Chaerin threw her hands up in exasperation and turned to him. "You see? Completely undisciplined! All the psychic bonds and very raw potential in the world can't make up for that. A guardian without discipline is worse than no guardian."
"So teach him discipline. Classes just started. Put him back in and get him training again."
"Impossible. He'll still be hopelessly behind his peers."
"No, I won't," I argued. No one listened to me.
"Then give him extra training sessions," Minhyun said.
They continued on while the rest of us watched the exchange like it was a Ping-Pong game. My pride was still hurt over the ease with which Minhyun had tricked us, but it occurred to me that he might very well keep me here with Ren. Better to stay at this hellhole than be without him.
Through our bond, I could feel his trickle of hope.
"Who's going to put in the extra time?" demanded Chaerin. "You?"
Minhyun's argument came to an abrupt stop. "Well, that's not what I—"
Chaerin crossed her arms with satisfaction. "Yes. That's what I thought."
Clearly at a loss, he frowned. His eyes flicked toward Ren and me, and I wondered what he saw. Two pathetic kids, looking at him with big, pleading eyes? Or two runaways who'd broken out of a high-security school and swiped half of Ren's inheritance?
"Yes," he said finally. "I can mentor Aron. I'll give him extra sessions along with his normal ones."
"And then what?" retorted Chaerin angrily. "He goes unpunished?"
"Find some other way to punish him," answered Minhyun. "Guardian numbers have gone down too much to risk losing another. A bonded one, in particular."
His unspoken words made me shudder, reminding me of my earlier statement about "blood whores." Few dhampirs became guardians anymore.
Heechul suddenly spoke up from his corner. "I'm inclined to agree with Guardian Hwang. Sending Aron away would be a shame, a waste of talent."
Ms. Lee stared out her window. It was completely black outside. With the Academy's nocturnal schedule, morning and afternoon were relative terms. That, and they kept the windows tinted to block out excess light.
When she turned back around, Ren met her eyes. "Please, Ms. Lee. Let Aron stay."
Oh, Ren, I thought. Be careful.
Using compulsion on another Moroi was dangerous—particularly in front of witnesses. But Ren was only using a tiny bit, and we needed all the help we could get. Fortunately, no one seemed to realize what was happening.
I don't even know if the compulsion made a difference, but finally, Chaerin sighed.
"If Mister Kwak stays, here's how it will be." She turned to me. "Your continued enrollment at St. Vladimir's is strictly probationary. Step out of line once, and you're gone. You will attend all classes and required trainings for novices your age. You will also train with Guardian Hwang in every spare moment you have—before and after classes. Other than that, you are banned from all social activities, except meals, and will stay in your dorm. Fail to comply with any of this, and you will be sent…away."
I gave a harsh laugh. "Banned from all social activities? Are you trying to keep us apart?" I nodded toward Ren. "Afraid we'll run away again?"
"I'm taking precautions. As I'm sure you recall, you were never properly punished for destroying school property. You have a lot to make up for." Her thin lips tightened into a straight line.
"You are being offered a very generous deal. I suggest you don't let your attitude endanger it."
I started to say it wasn't generous at all, but then I caught Minhyun's hard gaze. It was hard to read. He might have been telling me he believed in me. He might have been telling me I was an idiot to keep fighting with Chaerin. I didn't know.
Looking away from him for the second time during the meeting, I stared at the floor, conscious of Ren beside me and his own encouragement burning in our bond. At long last, I exhaled and glanced back up at the headmistress.
"Fine. I accept."
Chapter 3: Three
Sorry it's taken so long!!
I moved cities and started my senior year of college, so things got a bit....crazy.
In that time, Minhyun's contract with WannaOne has FINALLY ended, which means there's hopefully going to be an uprise in MinRon fics soon. (Hooray for the end of a 1.5 almost 2 year nightmare!!?)
But, there is a double update today, so I really hope you guys enjoy chapters 3 & 4!!
Sending us straight to class after our meeting seemed beyond cruel, but that's exactly what Chaerin did. Ren was led away, and I watched him go, glad the bond would allow me to keep reading him emotional temperature.
They actually sent me to one of the guidance counselor first. He was an ancient Moroi guy, one I remembered from before I'd left. I honestly couldn't believe he was still around. The guy was so freaking old, he should have retired. Or died.
The visit took all of five minutes. He said nothing about my return and asked a few questions about what classes I'd taken in Chicago and Portland. He compared those against my old file and hastily scrawled out a new schedule. I took it sullenly and headed out to my first class.
I'd forgotten how long the Academy's school day was. Novices and Moroi took separate classes during the first half of the day, which meant I wouldn't see Ren until after lunch—if we had any afternoon classes together. Most of them were standard senior classes, so I felt my odds were pretty good. Traditional Korean Art struck me as the kind of elective no one signed up for, so hopefully they'd stuck him in there too.
Minhyun and Amber escorted me to the guardians' gym for first period, neither one acknowledging my existence. Walking behind them, I saw how Amber wore her hair in a short, pixie cut that showed her promise mark and molnija marks. A lot of female guardians did this. It didn't matter so much for me, since my neck had no tattoos yet, and I knew I'd eventually cut my hair as the scar's from Ren's bites faded, but I didn't want to just yet.
She and Minhyun didn't say anything and walked along almost like it was any other day. When we arrived, the reactions of my peers indicated it was anything but. They were in the middle of setting up when we entered the gym, and just like in the commons, all eyes fell on me. I couldn't decide if I felt like a rock star or a circus freak.
All right, then. If I was going to be stuck here for a while, I wasn't going to act afraid of them all anymore. Ren and I had once held this school's respect, and it was time to remind everyone of that. Scanning the staring, openmouthed novices, I looked for a familiar face. Most of them were guys. One caught my eye, and I could barely hold back my grin.
"Hey Baekho, wipe the drool off your face. If you're going to think about me naked, do it on your own time."
A few snorts and snickers broke the awed silence, and Baekho Kang snapped out of his haze, giving me a lopsided smile. With dyed blonde hair that stuck up everywhere and a smattering of freckles he had no doubt inherited from his Moroi mother, made him nice-looking. I'd probably have thought he was hot, had I not grown up with him. He was also one of the funniest guys I knew.
"This is my time, Kwak. I'm leading today's session."
"Oh yeah?" I retorted. "Huh. Well, I guess this is a good time to think about me naked, then."
"It's always a good a time to think about you naked," added someone nearby, breaking the tension further. Sehun Oh. Another friend of mine.
Minhyun shook his head and walked off, muttering something in a language that didn't sound complimentary. But as for me…well, just like that, I was one of the novices again. They were an easygoing bunch, less focused on pedigree and politics than the Moroi students.
The class engulfed me, and I found myself laughing and seeing those I'd nearly forgotten about. Everyone wanted to know where we'd been; apparently Ren and I had become legends. I couldn't tell them why we'd left, of course, so I offered up a lot of taunts and wouldn't-you-like-to-knows that served just as well.
The happy reunion lasted a few more minutes before the adult guardian who oversaw the training came over and scolded Baekho for neglecting his duties. Still grinning, he barked out orders to everyone, explaining what exercises to start with. Uneasily I realized I didn't know most of them.
"Come on, Kwak," he said, taking my arm. "You can be my partner. Let's see what you've been doing all this time."
An hour later, he had his answer.
"Not practicing, huh?"
"Ow," I groaned, momentarily incapable of normal speech.
He extended a hand and helped me up from the mat he'd knocked me down on—about fifty times.
"I hate you," I told him, rubbing a spot on my thigh that was going to have a wicked bruise tomorrow.
"You'd hate me more if I held back."
"Yeah, that's true," I agreed, staggering along as the class put the equipment back.
"You actually did okay."
"What? I just had my ass handed to me."
"Well, of course you did. It's been two years. But hey, you're still walking. That's something." He grinned mockingly.
"Did I mention I hate you?"
He flashed me another smile, which quickly faded to something more serious. "Don't take this the wrong way…I mean, you really are a scrapper, but there's no way you'll be able to take your trials in the spring—"
"They're making me take extra practice sessions," I explained. Not that it mattered. I planned on getting Ren and me out of here before these practices really became an issue. "I'll be ready."
"Extra sessions with who?"
"That tall guy. Minhyun."
Baekho stopped walking and stared at me. "You're putting in extra time with Hwang?"
"Yeah, so what?"
"So..!! The man is a god."
"Exaggerate much?" I asked.
"No, I'm serious. I mean, he's all quiet and antisocial usually, but when he fights…wow. If you think you're hurting now, you're going to be dead when he's done with you."
Great. Something else to improve my day.
I elbowed him and went on to second period. That class covered the essentials of being a bodyguard and was required for all seniors. Actually, it was the third in a series that had started junior year. That meant I was behind in this class too, but I hoped protecting Ren in the real world had given me some insight.
Our instructor was Siwon Kim, whom we referred to simply as "Siwon" behind his back and "Guardian Kim" in formal settings. He was a lot older than Minhyun, but not nearly as tall, and he always looked pissed off. Today, that look intensified when he walked into the classroom and saw me sitting there. His eyes widened in mock surprise as he circled the room and came to stand beside my desk.
"What's this? No one told me we had a guest speaker here today. Aron Kwak! What a privilege! How very generous of you to take time out of your busy schedule and share your knowledge with us."
I felt my cheeks burning, but in a great show of self-control, I stopped myself from telling him to fuck off. I'm pretty sure my face must have delivered that message, however, because his sneer increased. He gestured for me to stand up.
"Well, come on. Don't just sit there! Come up to the front so you can help me lecture the class."
I sank into my seat. "You don't really mean—"
The taunting smile dried up. "I mean exactly what I say, Kwak. Go to the front of the class."
A thick silence enveloped the room. Siwon was a scary instructor, and most of the class was too awed to laugh at my disgrace quite yet. Refusing to crack, I strode up to the front of the room and turned to face the class. I gave them a bold look, earning a few sympathetic smiles from my friends. I then noticed I had a larger audience than expected. A few guardians—including Minhyun—lingered in the back of the room. Outside the Academy, guardians focused on one-on-one protection. Here, guardians had a lot more people to protect and they had to train the novices. So rather than follow any one person around, they worked shifts guarding the school as a whole and monitoring classes.
"So, Kwak," said Siwon cheerfully, strolling back up to the front with me.
"Enlighten us about your protective techniques."
"Of course. Because presumably you must have had some sort of plan the rest of us couldn't understand when you took an underage Moroi royal out of the Academy and exposed him to constant Strigoi threats."
It was the Chaerin lecture all over again, except with more witnesses.
"We never ran into any Strigoi," I replied stiffly.
"Obviously," he said with a snicker. "Seeing as how you're still alive."
I wanted to shout that maybe I could have defeated a Strigoi, but after getting beat up in the last class, I now suspected I couldn't have survived an attack by Baekho, let alone an actual Strigoi.
When I didn't say anything, Siwon started pacing in front of the class.
"So what'd you do? How'd you make sure he stayed safe? Did you avoid going out at night?"
"Sometimes." That was true—especially when we'd first run away. We'd relaxed a little after months went by with no attacks.
"Sometimes," he repeated in a high-pitched voice, making my answer sound incredibly stupid. "Well then, I suppose you slept during the day and stayed on guard at night."
"No? But that's one of the first things mentioned in the chapter on solo guarding. Oh wait, you wouldn't know that because you weren't here."
I swallowed back more swear words. "I watched the area whenever we went out," I said, needing to defend myself.
"Oh? Well that's something. Did you use Carnegie's Quadrant Surveillance Method or the Rotational Survey?"
I didn't say anything.
"Ah. I'm guessing you used the famous "Glance-Around-When-You-Remember-To" Method."
"No!" I exclaimed angrily. "That's not true. I watched him. He's still alive, isn't he?"
He walked back up to me and leaned toward my face. "Because you got lucky."
"Strigoi aren't lurking around every corner out there," I shot back. "It's not like what we've been taught. It's safer than you guys make it sound."
"Safer? Safer? We are at war with the Strigoi!" he yelled. I could smell coffee on his breath, he was so close. "One of them could walk right up to you and snap your pretty little neck before you even noticed him—and he'd barely break a sweat doing it. You might have more speed and strength than a Moroi or a human, but you are nothing, nothing, compared to a Strigoi. They are deadly, and they are powerful. And do you know what makes them more powerful?"
No way was I going to let this jerk make me cry. Looking away from him, I tried to focus on something else. My eyes rested on Minhyun and the other guardians. They were watching my humiliation, stone-faced.
"Moroi blood," I whispered.
"What was that?" asked Siwon loudly. "I didn't catch it."
I spun back around to face him. "Moroi blood! Moroi blood makes them stronger."
He nodded in satisfaction and took a few steps back. "Yes. It does. It makes them stronger and harder to destroy. They'll kill and drink from a human or dhampir, but they want Moroi blood more than anything else. They seek it. They've turned to the dark side to gain immortality, and they want to do whatever they can to keep that immortality. Desperate Strigoi have attacked Moroi in public. Groups of Strigoi have raided academies exactly like this one. There are Strigoi who have lived for thousands of years and fed off generations of Moroi. They're almost impossible to kill. And that is why Moroi numbers are dropping. They aren't strong enough—even with guardians—to protect themselves. Some Moroi don't even see the point of running anymore and are simply turning Strigoi by choice. And as the Moroi disappear…"
"…so do the dhampirs," I finished.
"Well," he said, licking sprayed spit off his lips. "It looks like you learned something after all. Now we'll have to see if you can learn enough to pass this class and qualify for your field experience next semester."
Ouch. I spent the rest of that horrible class—in my seat, thankfully—replaying those last words in my mind. The senior-year field experience was the best part of a novice's education. We'd have no classes for half a semester. Instead, we'd each be assigned a Moroi student to guard and follow around. The adult guardians would monitor us and test us with staged attacks and other threats. How a novice passed that field experience was almost as important as all the rest of their grades combined. It could influence which Moroi they got assigned to after graduation.
And me? There was only one Moroi I wanted.
Two classes later, I finally earned my lunch escape. As I stumbled across campus toward the commons, Minhyun fell into step beside me, not looking particularly godlike—unless you counted his godly good looks.
"I suppose you saw what happened in Siwon's class?" I asked, not bothering with titles.
"And you don't think that was unfair?"
"Was he right? Do you think you were fully prepared to protect Mingi?"
I looked down at the ground. "I kept him alive," I mumbled.
"How did you do fighting against your classmates today?"
The question was mean. I didn't answer and knew I didn't need to. I'd had another training class after Siwon's, and no doubt Minhyun had watched me get beat up there too.
"If you can't fight them—"
"Yeah, yeah, I know," I snapped.
He slowed his long stride to match my pain-filled one. "You're strong and fast by nature. You just need to keep yourself trained. Didn't you play any sports while you were gone?"
"Sure," I shrugged. "Now and then."
"You didn't join any teams?"
"Too much work. If I'd wanted to practice that much, I'd have stayed here."
He gave me an exasperated look. "You'll never be able to really protect the prince if you don't hone your skills. You'll always be lacking."
"I'll be able to protect him," I said fiercely.
"You have no guarantees of being assigned to him, you know—for your field experience or after you graduate." Minhyun's voice was low and unapologetic. They hadn't given me a warm and fuzzy mentor. "No one wants to waste the bond—but no one's going to give him an inadequate guardian either. If you want to be with him, then you need to work for it. You have your lessons. You have me. Use us or don't. You're an ideal choice to guard Prince Mingi when you both graduate—if you can prove you're worthy. I hope you will."
"Ren, call him Ren," I corrected. He hated his full name, much preferring the nickname.
Minhyun walked away, and suddenly, I didn't feel like such a badass anymore.
By now, I'd burned up a lot of time leaving class. Most everyone else had long since sprinted inside the commons for lunch, eager to maximize their social time. I'd almost made it back there myself when a voice under the door's overhang called to me.
Peering in the voice's direction, I caught sight of Heechul, his kind face smiling at me as he leaned on a cane near the building's wall. His two guardians stood nearby at a polite distance.
"Mr. Ki-er, Your Highness. Hi."
I caught myself just in time, having nearly forgotten Moroi royal terms. I hadn't used them while living among humans. The Moroi chose their rulers from among twelve royal families. The eldest in the family got the title of "prince" or "princess." Ren had gotten his because he was the only one left in his line.
"How was your first day?" he asked.
"Not over yet." I tried to think of something conversational. "Are you visiting here for a while?"
"I'll be leaving this afternoon after I say hello to my sweet Pinky. When I heard Mingi—and you—had returned, I simply had to come see you."
I nodded, not sure what else to say. He was more Ren's friend than mine.
"I wanted to tell you…" He spoke hesitantly. "I understand the gravity of what you did, but I think Headmistress Lee failed to acknowledge something. You did keep Mingi safe all this time. That is impressive."
"Well, it's not like I faced down Strigoi or anything," I said.
"But you faced down some things?"
"Sure. The school sent psi-hounds once."
"Not really. Avoiding them was pretty easy."
He laughed. "I've hunted with them before. They aren't that easy to evade, not with their powers and intelligence." It was true. Psi-hounds were one of many types of magical creatures that wandered the world, creatures that humans never knew about or else didn't believe they'd really seen. The hounds traveled in packs and shared a sort of psychic communication that made them particularly deadly to their prey—as did the fact that they resembled mutant wolves. "Did you face anything else?"
I shrugged. "Little things here and there."
"Remarkable," he repeated.
"Lucky, I think. It turns out I'm really behind in all this guardian stuff." I sounded just like Siwon now.
"You're a smart boy. You'll catch up. And you also have your bond."
I looked away. My ability to "feel" Ren had been such a secret for so long, it felt weird to have others know about it.
"The histories are full of stories of guardians who could feel when their charges were in danger," Heechul continued.
"I've made a hobby of studying up on it and some of the ancient ways. I've heard it's a tremendous asset."
"I guess." I shrugged. What a boring hobby, I thought, imagining him poring over prehistoric histories in some dank library covered in spider webs.
Heechul tilted his head, curiosity all over his face. Chaerin and the others had had the same look when we'd mentioned our connection, like we were lab rats. "What is it like—if you don't mind me asking?"
"It's…I don't know. I just sort of always have this hum of how he feels. Usually it's just emotions. We can't send messages or anything." I didn't tell him about slipping into his head. That part of it was hard even for me to understand.
"But it doesn't work the other way? He doesn't sense you?"
I shook my head.
His face shone with wonder. "How did it happen?"
"I don't know," I said, still glancing away. "Just started two years ago."
He frowned. "Near the time of the accident?"
Hesitantly, I nodded. The accident was not something I wanted to talk about, that was for sure. Ren's memories were bad enough without my own mixing into them. Twisted metal. A sensation of hot, then cold, then hot again. Ren screaming over me, screaming for me to wake up, screaming for his parents and his brother to wake up.
None of them had, only me.
And the doctors said that was a miracle in itself. They said I shouldn't have survived.
Apparently sensing my discomfort, Heechul let the moment go and returned to his earlier excitement.
"I can still barely believe this. It's been so long since this has happened. If it did happen more often…just think what it could do for the safety of all Moroi. If only others could experience this too. I'll have to do more research and see if we can replicate it with others."
"Yeah." I was getting impatient, despite how much I liked him.Pinky rambled a lot, and it was pretty clear which parent she'd inherited that quality from. Lunch was ticking down, and although Moroi and novices shared afternoon classes, Ren and I wouldn't have much time to talk.
"Perhaps we could—" He started coughing, a great, seizing fit that made his whole body shake. His disease, Sandovsky's Syndrome, took the lungs down with it while dragging the body toward death. I cast an anxious look at his guardians, and one of them stepped forward. "Your Highness," he said politely, "you need to go inside. It's too cold out here."
Victor nodded. "Yes, yes. And I'm sure Minhyun here wants to eat." He turned to me.
"Thank you for speaking to me. I can't emphasize how much it means to me that Mingi is safe—and that you helped with that. I'd promised his father I'd look after him if anything happened to him, and I felt like quite the failure when you left."
A sinking sensation filled my stomach as I imagined him wracked with guilt and worry over our disappearance. Until now, I hadn't really thought about how others might have felt about us leaving.
We made our goodbyes, and I finally arrived inside the school. As I did, I felt Ren's anxiety spike. Ignoring the pain in my legs, I picked up my pace into the commons.
And nearly ran right into him.
He didn't see me, though. Neither did the people standing with him: Jason and that little doll girl. I stopped and listened, just catching the end of the conversation. The girl leaned toward Ren, who seemed more stunned than anything else.
"It looks to me like it came from a garage sale. I thought a precious Choi would have standards." Scorn dripped off the word Choi.
Grabbing Doll Girl by the shoulder, I jerked her away. She was so light, she stumbled three feet and nearly fell.
"He does have standards," I said, "which is why you're done talking to him."
This is a double update!! If you haven't checked out chapter 3 head back!! :)))
We didn't have the entire commons' attention this time, thank God, but a few passing people had stopped to stare.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" asked Doll Girl, blue eyes wide and sparkling with fury. Up close now, I was able to get a better look at her. She had the same slim build as most Moroi but not the usual height, which was partly what made her look so young. The tiny purple dress she wore was gorgeous—reminding me that I was indeed dressed in thrift-shop wear—but closer inspection led me to think it was a designer knockoff.
I crossed my arms across my chest. "Are you lost, little girl? The elementary school's over on west campus."
A pink flush spread over her cheeks. "Don't you ever touch me again. You screw with me, and I'll screw you right back."
Oh man, what an opening that was. Only a head shake from Ren stopped me from unleashing any number of hilarious comebacks. Instead, I opted for simple brute force, so to speak.
"And if you mess with either of us again, I'll break you in half. If you don't believe me, go ask Dawn Kim about what I did to her arm in ninth grade. You were probably at nap time when it happened."
The incident with Dawn hadn't been one of my finer moments. I honestly hadn't expected to break any bones when I shoved her into a tree. Still, the incident had given me a dangerous reputation, in addition to my smartass one. The story had gained legendary status, and I liked to imagine that it was still being told around campfires late at night. Judging from the look on this girl's face, it was.
One of the patrolling staff members strolled by right then, casting suspicious eyes at our little meeting. Doll Girl backed off, grabbing hold of Jason's arm. "Come on," she said.
"Hey, Jason," I said cheerfully, remembering he was there. "Nice to see you again."
He gave me a quick nod and an uneasy smile, just as the girl dragged him off. Same old Jason. He might be nice and cute, but aggressive he was not.
I turned to Ren. "You okay?" He nodded. "Any idea who I just threatened to beat up?"
"Not a clue." I started to lead him toward the lunch line, but he shook his head at me. "Gotta go see the feeders."
A funny feeling settled over me. I'd gotten so used to being Ren's primary blood source that the thought of returning to the Moroi's normal routine seemed strange. In fact, it almost bothered me. It shouldn't have. Daily feedings were part of a Moroi's life, something I hadn't been able to offer him while living on our own. It had been an inconvenient situation, one that left me weak on feeding days and him weak on the days in between. I should have been happy he would get some normality.
I forced a smile. "Sure."
We walked into the feeding room, which sat adjacent to the cafeteria. It was set up with small cubicles, dividing the room's space in an effort to offer privacy. A dark-haired Moroi woman greeted us at the entrance and glanced down at her clipboard, flipping through the pages. Finding what she needed, she made a few notes and then gestured for Ren to follow. He gave me a puzzled look, but he didn't stop me from entering.
She led us to one of the cubicles where a plump, middle-aged woman sat leafing through a magazine. She looked up at our approach and smiled. In her eyes, I could see the dreamy, glazed-over look most feeders had. She'd probably neared her quota for the day, judging from how high she appeared to be.
Recognizing Ren, her smile grew. "Welcome back, Prince Mingi."
The greeter left us, and Ren sat down in the chair beside the woman. I sensed a feeling of discomfort in him, a little different from my own. This was weird for him too; it had been a long time. The feeder, however, had no such reservations. An eager look crossed her face—the look of a junkie about to get her next fix.
Disgust poured into me. It was an old instinct, one that had been drilled in over the years. Feeders were essential to Moroi life. They were humans who willingly volunteered to be a regular blood source, humans from the fringes of society who gave their lives over to the secret world of the Moroi. They were well cared for and given all the comforts they could need. But at the heart of it, they were drug users, addicts to Moroi saliva and the rush it offered with each bite. The Moroi—and guardians—looked down on this dependency, even though the Moroi couldn't have survived otherwise unless they took victims by force. Hypocrisy at its finest.
The feeder tilted her head, giving Ren full access to her neck. Her skin there was marked with scars from years of daily bites. The infrequent feedings Ren and I had done had kept my neck clear; my bite marks never lasted more than a day or so.
Ren leaned forward, fangs biting into the feeder's yielding flesh. The woman closed her eyes, making a soft sound of pleasure. I swallowed, watching Ren drink. I couldn't see any blood, but I could imagine it.
A surge of emotion grew in my chest: longing.
I averted my eyes, staring at the floor. Mentally, I scolded myself. What's wrong with you? Why should you miss it? You only did it once every day. You aren't addicted, not like this. And you don't want to be.
But I couldn't help myself, couldn't help the way I felt as I recalled the bliss and rush of a vampire's bite.
Ren finished and we returned to the commons, moving toward the lunch line. It was short, since we only had fifteen minutes left, and I strolled up and began to load my plate with french fries and some rounded, bite-size objects that looked vaguely like chicken nuggets. Ren only grabbed a yogurt. Moroi needed food, as dhampirs and humans did, but rarely had an appetite after drinking blood.
"So how'd classes go?" I asked.
He shrugged. His face was bright with color and life now. "Okay. Lots of stares. A lot of stares. Lots of questions about where we were. Whispering."
"Same here," I said. The attendant checked us out, and we walked toward the tables. I gave Ren a sidelong glance. "You okay with that? They aren't bothering you, are they?"
"No—it's fine." The emotions coming through the bond contradicted his words. Knowing I could feel that, he tried to change the subject by handing me his class schedule. I looked it over.
"Nerd," I said. "If you were in Stupid Math like me, we'd have the same afternoon schedule." I stopped walking. "Why are you in elemental basics? That's a sophomore class."
He eyed me. "Because seniors take specialized classes."
We fell silent at that. All Moroi wielded elemental magic. It was one of the things that differentiated living vampires from Strigoi, the dead vampires. Moroi viewed magic as a gift. It was part of their souls and connected them to the world.
A long time ago, they had used their magic openly—averting natural disasters and helping with things like food and water production. They didn't need to do that as much anymore, but the magic was still in their blood. It burned in them and made them want to reach out to the earth and wield their power. Academies like this existed to help Moroi control the magic and learn how to do increasingly complex things with it. Students also had to learn the rules that surrounded magic, rules that had been in place for centuries and were strictly enforced.
All Moroi had a small ability in each element. When they got to be around our age, students "specialized" when one element grew stronger than the others: earth, water, fire, or air. Not specializing was like not going through puberty.
And Ren…well, Ren hadn't specialized yet.
"Is Ms. Carmack still teaching that? What she'd say?"
"She says she's not worried. She thinks it'll come."
"Did you—did you tell her about—"
Ren shook his head. "No. Of course not."
We let the subject drop. It was one we thought about a lot but rarely spoke of.
We started moving again, scanning the tables as we decided where to sit. A few pairs of eyes looked up at us with blatant curiosity.
"Minki!" came a nearby voice. Glancing over, we saw Pinky waving at us. Ren and I exchanged looks. Pinky was sort of Ren's cousin in the way Heechul was sort of his uncle, but we'd never hung out with her all that much.
Ren shrugged and headed in that direction. "Why not?"
I followed reluctantly. Pinky was nice but also one of the most uninteresting people I knew. Most royals at the school enjoyed a kind of celebrity status, but Pinky had never fit in with that crowd. She was too plain, too uninterested in the politics of the Academy, and too clueless to really navigate them anyway.
Pinky's friends eyed us with a quiet curiosity, but she didn't hold back. She threw her arms around us. Like Ren, she had jade-green eyes, but her hair was jet black, like Heechul's had been before his disease grayed it.
"You're back! I knew you would be! Everyone said you were gone forever, but I never believed that. I knew you couldn't stay away. Why'd you go? There are so many stories about why you left!"
Ren and I exchanged glances as Pinky prattled on. "Camille said one of you got some human pregnant and went off to get her an abortion, but I knew that couldn't be true...I mean....you know...you're not like that... Someone else said you went off to hang out with Aron's mom, but I figured Ms. Lee and Daddy wouldn't have been so upset if you'd turned up there. Did you know we might get to be roommates? I was talking to…"
On and on she chatted, flashing her fangs as she spoke. I smiled politely, letting Ren deal with the onslaught until Pinky asked a dangerous question.
"What'd you do for blood, Mingi?" she asked, her eyes brimming with curiosity.
The table regarded us questioningly. Ren froze, but I immediately jumped in, the lie coming effortlessly to my lips.
"Oh, it's easy. There are a lot of humans who want to do it."
"Really?" asked one of Pinky's friends, wide-eyed.
"Yup. You find ‘em at parties and stuff. They're all looking for a fix from something, and they don't really get that a vampire's doing it: most are already so wasted they don't remember anyway." My already vague details dried up, so I simply shrugged in as cool and confident a way as I could manage. It wasn't like any of them knew any better. "Like I said, it's easy. Almost easier than with our own feeders."
Pinky accepted this and than launched into some other topic. Ren shot me a grateful look.
Ignoring the conversation again, I took in the old faces, trying to figure out who was hanging out with whom and how power had shifted within the school. Baekho, sitting with a group of novices, caught my eye, and I smiled. Near him, a group of Moroi royals sat, laughing over something. Jason and the blond girl sat there too.
"Hey, Pinky," I said, turning around and cutting her off. She didn't seem to notice or mind. "Who's Jason's new girlfriend?"
"Huh? Oh. Ashley Rinaldi." Seeing my blank look, she asked, "Don't you remember her?"
"Should I? Was she here when we left?"
"She's always been here," said Pinky. "She's only a year younger than us. Some kind of fancy French girl."
I shot a questioning look at Ren, who only shrugged.
"Why is she so pissed off at us?" I asked. "Neither of us know her."
"I don't know," answered Pinky. "Maybe she's jealous about Jason. She wasn't much of anybody when you guys left. She got really popular really fast. She isn't royal or anything, but once she started dating Jason, she—"
"Oh, okay, thanks," I interrupted. "It doesn't really—"
My eyes lifted up from Pinky's face to Kris Wu's, just as he passed by our table.
Ah, Kris. I'd forgotten about him. I liked flirting with Baekho and some of the other novices, but Kris was in an entirely different category. You flirted with the other guys simply for the sake of flirting. You flirted with Kris in the hopes of getting fucked senseless. He was a royal Moroi, and he was so hot, he should have worn a warning: flammable sign. He met my eyes and grinned.
"Hey Aron, welcome back. You still breaking hearts?" Kris smirked.
"Are you volunteering?" I shot back.
His grin widened. "Let's hang out sometime and find out. If you ever get parole."
He kept walking, and I watched him admiringly. Pinky and her friends stared at me in awe. I might not be a god in the Minhyun sense, but with this group, Ren and I were gods—or at least former gods—of another nature.
"Oh my goooood," exclaimed one girl. I didn't remember her name. "That was Kris."
"Yes," I said, smiling, folding my arms into myself. "It certainly was."
"I wish I looked like you, and that Kris wasn't gay." she added with a sigh.
I shrugged. "Kris likes anything that likes him. So, not gay, gay."
Silence followed and their eyes fell on me. Technically, I was half-Moroi, but my looks were human. I blend in well with humans during our time away, so much so that I'd barely thought about my appearance at all. Here, among the slim and smaller-built Moroi, certain features—meaning my larger hands, shorter, more compact stature, defined abs, and thicker thighs—stood out. I knew I was pretty, as well as handsome, but to Moroi girls, and boys, my body was more than just pretty: it was sexy in a risqué way.
Dhampirs were an exotic conquest, a novelty all Moroi guys wanted to "try."
It was ironic that dhampirs had such an allure here, because slender Moroi girls looked very much like the super-skinny runway models so popular in the human world. Most humans could never reach that "ideal" skinniness, just as Moroi girls could never look like me. Everyone wanted what they couldn't have.
Ren and I got to sit together in our shared afternoon classes but didn't do much talking. The stares he'd mentioned certainly did follow us, but I found that the more I talked to people, the more they warmed up. Slowly, gradually, they seemed to remember who we were, and the novelty—though not the intrigue—of our crazy stunt wore off.
Or maybe I should say, they remembered who I was. Because I was the only one talking. Ren stared straight ahead, listening but neither acknowledging nor participating in my attempts at conversation. I could feel anxiety and sadness pouring out of him.
"All right," I told him when classes finally ended. We stood outside the school, and I was fully aware that in doing so, I was already breaking the terms of my agreement with Chaerin. "We're not staying here," I told him, looking around the campus uneasily. "I'm going to find a way to get us out."
"You think we could really do it a second time?" Ren asked quietly.
"Absolutely." I spoke with certainty, again relieved he couldn't read my feelings. Escaping the first time had been tricky enough. Doing it again would be a real bitch, not that I couldn't still find a way.
"You really would, wouldn't you?" He smiled, more to himself than to me, like he'd thought of something funny. "Of course you would. It's just, well…" He sighed. "I don't know if we should go. Maybe—maybe we should stay."
I blinked in astonishment. "What?" Not one of my more eloquent answers, but the best I could manage. I'd never expected this from him.
"I saw you, Aron. I saw you talking to the other novices during class, talking about practice. You miss that."
"It's not worth it," I argued. "Not if…not if you…" I couldn't finish, but he was right. He'd read me. I had missed the other novices. Even some of the Moroi. But there was more to it than just that. The weight of my inexperience, how much I'd fallen behind, had been growing all day.
"It might be better," he countered. "I haven't had as many…you know, things happening in a while. I haven't felt like anyone was following or watching us."
I didn't say anything to that. Before we'd left the Academy, he'd always felt like someone was following him, like he was being hunted. I'd never seen evidence to support that, but I had once heard one of our teachers go on and on about the same sort of thing. Ms. Park. She'd been a pretty Moroi, with deep auburn air and high cheekbones. And I was pretty sure she'd been crazy.
"You never know who's watching," she used to say, walking briskly around the classroom as she shut all the blinds. "Or who's following you. Best to be safe. Best to always be safe."
We'd snickered amongst ourselves because that's what students do around eccentric and paranoid teachers. The thought of Ren acting like her bothered me.
"What's wrong?" Ren asked, noticing that I was lost in thought.
"Huh? Nothing. Just thinking." I sighed, trying to balance my own wants with what was best for him. "Ren, we can stay, I guess…but there are a few conditions."
This made him laugh. "Ahhh, the Aron ultimatum, huh?"
"I'm serious." Words I didn't say very much. "I want you to stay away from the royals. Not like Pinky or anything but you know, the others. The power players. Camille. Raina. Especially Kris and his little gang. That group."
His amusement turned to astonishment. "Are you serious?"
"Sure. You never liked them anyway."
"No. Not really. I liked what they could offer. All the parties and stuff."
"And you can go without that now?" Ren looked skeptical.
"Sure. We did in Portland."
"Yeah, but that was different." His eyes stared off, not really focused on any one thing. "Here…here I've got to be a part of that. I can't avoid it."
"The hell you do. Pinky stays out of that stuff."
"Pinky isn't going to inherit her family's title," he retorted. "I've already got it. I've got to be involved, start making connections. Minseo—"
"Ren," I groaned. "You aren't Minseok." I couldn't believe he was still comparing himself to his brother.
"He was always involved in all that stuff."
"Yeah, well," I snapped back, "he's dead now."
His face hardened. "You know, sometimes you aren't very nice."
"You don't keep me around to be nice. You want nice, there are a dozen sheep in there who would rip each other's throats to get in good with the Choi prince. You keep me around to tell you the truth, and here it is: Minseok's dead. You're the heir now, and you're going to deal with it however you can. But for now, that means staying away from the other royals. We'll just lie low. Coast through the middle. Get involved in that stuff again, Ren, and you'll drive yourself…"
"Crazy?" he supplied when I didn't finish.
Now I looked away. "I didn't mean…"
"It's okay." he said, after a moment. He sighed and touched my arm. "Fine. We'll stay and we'll keep out of all that stuff. We'll ‘coast through the middle' like you want. Hang out with Pinky, I guess."
To be perfectly honest, I didn't want any of that. I wanted to go to all the royal parties and wild drunken festivities like we'd done before. We'd kept out of that life for years until Ren's parents and brother died. Minseok should have been the one to inherit the family's title, and he'd certainly acted like it. Handsome and outgoing, he'd charmed everyone he knew and had been a leader in all the royal cliques and clubs that existed on campus. After his death, Ren had felt it was his family duty to take his place.
I'd gotten to join that world with him. It was easy for me, because I didn't really have to deal with the politics of it. I was a handsome dhampir, one who didn't mind getting into trouble and pulling crazy stunts. I became a novelty; they liked having me around for the fun of it.
Ren had to deal with other matters. The Choi's were one of the twelve ruling families. He'd have a very powerful place in Moroi society, and the other young royals wanted to get in good with him. Fake friends tried to schmooze him and get him to team up against other people. The royals could bribe and backstab in the same breath—and that was just with each other. To dhampirs and non-royals, they were completely unpredictable.
That cruel culture had eventually taken its toll on Ren. He had an open, kind nature, one that I loved, and I hated to see him upset and stressed by royal games. He'd grown fragile since the accident, and all the parties in the world weren't worth seeing him hurt.
"All right then," I said finally. "We'll see how this goes. If anything goes wrong—anything at all—we leave. No arguments."
We both looked up at Minhyun's looming form. I hoped he hadn't heard the part about us leaving.
"You're late for practice," he said evenly. Seeing Ren, he gave a polite nod.
As he and I walked away, I worried about Ren and wondered if staying here was the right thing to do. I felt nothing alarming through the bond, but his emotions spiked all over the place. Confusion. Nostalgia. Fear. Anticipation.
Strong and powerful, they flooded into me.
I felt the pull just before it happened. It was exactly like what had happened on the plane: his emotions grew so strong that they "sucked" me into his head before I could stop them. I could now see and feel what he did.
He walked slowly around the commons, toward the small Russian Orthodox chapel that served most of the school's religious needs. Ren had always attended mass regularly. Not me.
I had a standing arrangement with God: I'd agree to believe in him—barely—so long as he let me sleep in on Sundays.
But as he went inside, I could feel that he wasn't there to pray. He had another purpose, one I didn't know about. Glancing around, he verified that neither the priest nor any worshippers were close by. The place was empty.
Slipping through a doorway in the back of the chapel, he climbed a narrow set of creaky stairs up into the attic. Here it was dark and dusty. The only light came through a large stained-glass window that fractured the faint glow of sunrise into tiny, multicolored gems across the floor.
I hadn't known until that moment that this room was a regular retreat for Ren. But now I could feel it, feel his memories of how he used to escape here to be alone and to think. The anxiety in him ebbed away ever so slightly as he took in the familiar surroundings. He climbed up into the window seat and leaned his head back against its side, momentarily entranced by the silence and the light.
Moroi could stand some sunlight, unlike the Strigoi, but they had to limit their exposure. Sitting here, he could almost pretend he was in the sun, protected by the glass's dilution of the rays.
Breathe, just breathe, he told himself. It'll be okay. Aron will take care of everything.
He believed that passionately, like always, and relaxed further.
Then a low voice spoke from the darkness.
"You can have the Academy, but not the window seat."
Ren sprang up, heart pounding. I shared his anxiety, and my own pulse quickened. "Who's there?"
A moment later, a shape rose from behind a stack of crates, just outside his field of vision. The figure stepped forward, and in the poor lighting, familiar features materialized. Messy blond hair. Dark grey and blue eyes.
A perpetually sardonic smirk.
"Don't worry," he said. "I won't bite. Well, at least not in the way you're afraid of." He chuckled at his own joke.
Ren didn't find it funny. He had completely forgotten about Jonghyun. So had I.
No matter what happened in our world, a few basic truths about vampires remained the same:
Moroi were alive; Strigoi were undead.
Moroi were mortal; Strigoi were immortal.
Moroi were born; Strigoi were made.
And there were two ways to make a Strigoi. Strigoi could forcibly turn humans, dhampirs, or Moroi with a single bite. Moroi tempted by the promise of immortality could become Strigoi by choice if they purposely killed another person while feeding. Doing that was considered dark and twisted, the greatest of all sins, both against the Moroi way of life and nature itself. Moroi who chose this dark path lost their ability to connect with elemental magic and other powers of the world. That was why they could no longer go into the sun.
This is what had happened to Jonghyun's parents. They turned themselves into Strigoi.