"See, that's one of the differences between you and me. You want to get along with them. I don't. So I don't care if I piss them off." I told Stark. I channeled what was left of my fear and turned it into anger. "And you know what? Right now I really don't want to hear anything more about it." Still sounding pissed, I added, "Did you see that?"
"That? You mean the Raven Mocker?"
"I mean the disgusting spiders."
He looked surprised. "There were spiders in the tree? For real?"
I blew out a long, frustrated breath. "Lately I'm not sure I can tell you what's for real and what's made up around here."
"I did see you being pretty pissed off and tossing fire around like a beach ball."
I saw his eyes travel down to my hands and realized that not only were they shaking, but they were still glowing with the aura of flame. I drew a deep, calming breath and willed the shaking to stop. Then, in a much calmer voice, I said, "Thank you, fire. You may depart now. Oh, wait. First, could you get rid of some of that ice for me?" I pointed my flame-shining hands at the section of sidewalk between where I stood and the stable, and like a lovely miniature flamethrower, fire jubilantly spouted from my fingertips, and gaily licked against the thick coating of ice, causing it to turn to cold, wet mush. But at least the mush wasn't slippery. "Thank you, fire!" I called as the flames died from my fingers and sped away to the south.
I trudged through the water and ice muck and tromped past Stark, who was staring at me. "What?" I said. "I was tired of almost falling and breaking my butt."
"You're really something, you know." He grinned his cocky, cute Bad Boy smile, and before I could blink, he pulled me into his arms and kissed me. It wasn't a groping, intrusive kiss filled with possessiveness like I aking m%'d been experiencing with Erik. Stark's kiss was more of a sweet question mark, which I answered with a definite exclamation point.
Sure, I should have been pissed. I should have pushed him away and told him off instead of kissing him back (enthusiastically). I'd like to be able to say that my semi-ho-ish reaction to him was because I'd had so much stress and fear in my life lately that I needed to escape, and his arms were the easiest escape available, which would imply I wasn't actually totally responsible for the fact that I was sucking face with Stark right there in the doorway to the stables.
The truth is less flattering, and yet is still the truth. I didn't kiss him because of stress, or fear, or escape, or because of anything except the fact that I wanted to kiss him. I like him. Really, really like him. I didn't know what I was going to do about him. I didn't know where he would fit in my life--or even how he would fit in my life, especially if I was ashamed to admit my feelings for him in public. I could only imagine the freak-out it would cause among my friends. Not to mention the zillion pissed-off pod girls who would...
And thinking about the zillion pod girls Stark had been biting and whatnot finally splashed cold water on me and I managed to stop kissing him. I gave him a shove so that he stepped out of the doorway. I hurried into the field house, looking around guiltily and then breathing a sigh of relief that we were the only ones loitering and cutting class.
There was a little side room off of the main field house complex, much like the tack room in the stables. It was where the bows and arrows and targets and other field house-ish and sporting equipment and such was housed. I ducked into it with Stark close on my heels, closed the door, and took a few steps away from him. When he gave me that look, that sexy smile of his, and started toward me, I held up my hand like a crossing guard.
"No. You stay over there and I'll stay over here. We need to talk and that's not going to happen if you're close to me," I said.
"Because you can't keep your hands off me?"
"Oh, please. I'm managing to keep my hands off you just fine. I'm not one of your pod girls." "Pod girls?"
"You know, from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. That's how I think of the girls you bite and mess with their minds so that they're all `Oooh, that Stark, he's just so hot! Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod!' It's seriously annoying. And, by the way, if you ever try any of that crap with me, I promise you I will call all of the five elements and we will kick your butt. Count on it."
"I wouldn't try to do that to you, but that's not saying I wouldn't like to taste you. I totally would." His voice had gone all sexy again, and he started to step closer to me.
"No! I'm serious about you staying over there."
"Okay! Okay! What's got your pan ties in such a bunch?"
I narrowed my eyes at him. "My pan ties are not in a bunch. All hell happens to be breaking loose around us, in case you hadn't noticed. The House of Night is under the control of something that's prC> T'e aobably a demon. Neferet has turned into something that's probably a lot worse than a demon. My friends and I are not safe. I have no idea how to do what I need to do to begin to make this mess right, and to top it all off I'm falling for a guy who's been with a crapload of the girls on campus and used mind control on them."
"You're falling for me?"
"Yeah, great, isn't it? I already have a vampyre boyfriend and a human guy I've Imprinted. As my grandma would say, my dance card is more than full."
"I can take care of the vamp boyfriend." Automatically Stark's hand came up to stroke the bow that was strapped to his back.
"Hell no, you won't take care of him!" I yelled. "Get this through your head: That bow is not the fix-it answer to your problems. It should be your very last resort and should never, ever be used against another person, human or vampyre. You used to know that."
His face hardened. "You know what happened to me. I'm not going to apologize for what's become my nature."
"Your nature? Do you mean your spoiled-brat nature, or your slut nature?"
"I mean me!" He pounded his fist against his chest. "It's what I am now."
"Okay, you need to hear me once and for all, because I'm not going to keep repeating this. Get a damn clue! We all have bad things inside us, and we all choose either to give in to those bad things or to fight them."
"That's not the same thing as--"
"Shut up and listen to me!" My anger exploded around us. "It's not the same thing for any of us. For some people the only thing they have to struggle with is whether they sleep in and miss first hour or get their butts up and go to school. For other people it's harder stuff--like whether or not to go into rehab and stay clean or to just give up and keep using. For you maybe it's even harder--like whether to fight for your humanity or to give in to the darkness and be a monster. But it's still a choice. Your choice."
We stood there staring at each other. I didn't know what else to say. I couldn't make the choice to do the right thing for him, and I suddenly understood that I wouldn't keep sneaking around and seeing him. If he couldn't be the kind of guy I was proud to be with in public, the act he put on for me in private didn't mean anything. And that was something he needed to know.
"What happened last night won't happen again. Not like that." The anger drained out of me and my voice calmed down. I sounded quiet and sad in the stillness of the little room.
"How can you say that when you just told me you were falling for me?" "Stark, what I'm telling you is that I'm not going be with you if I have to hide the fact that we're together."
"Because of that vamp boyfriend?"
"Because of you. Erik does affect us. I care about him. Th Tzy& ^e last thing I want to do is hurt him, but it would be stupid of me to stay with him and wish I was with you, or anybody else, including the human guy I've Imprinted. So you need to understand Erik couldn't stop me from being with you."
"You really do have feelings for me, don't you?"
"I do, but I can promise you I won't be your girlfriend if I'm ashamed to be with you in front of my friends. You can't be wrong around everyone else and right around me. What you really are is how you act most of the time. I see that there's still good in you, but that good will eventually be blotted out by the darkness that's there, too, and I'm not going to hang around to see that happen."
He looked away from me. "I knew that was how you felt before, but I didn't think it would bother me so much to hear you say it. I don't know if I can make the right choice. When I'm with you, I feel like I can. You're so strong, and you're good."
I blew out a big sigh. "I'm not that darn good. I've messed up a lot. Sadly, I'll probably keep messing up. A lot. And you were the strong one last night, not me."
He met my eyes again. "You are good. I can feel it. You're good down deep in your heart, where it counts."
"I hope I am. I try to be."
"Then do this for me, please." He closed the few feet between us before I could stop him again. At first he didn't touch me. He just kept staring into my eyes. "You haven't completed the Change yet, but even the Sons of Erebus call you Priestess." Then he dropped to one knee, and looking up at me, he fisted his right hand over his heart.
"What are you doing?"
"I'm pledging myself to you. Warriors have done it for ages--pledged themselves, body, heart, and soul, to protect their High Priestesses. I know I'm just a fledgling still, but I believe I qualify as Warrior already."
"Well, I'm just a fledgling still, too, so we match." My voice shook, and I had to blink fast to clear the tears that were pooling in my eyes.
"Do you accept my pledge, my lady?"
"Stark, do you understand what you're doing?" I knew about a warrior's pledge to a High Priestess, and it was an oath that often bound him to her ser vice for his entire life, and was often harder to break than an Imprint.
"I do. I'm making a choice. The right choice. I'm choosing good over evil, light over darkness. I choose my humanity. Do you accept my pledge, my lady?" he repeated.
"Yes, Stark, I do. And in Nyx's name I bind you to the Goddess's ser vice, as well as to mine, because to serve me is to serve her."
The air around us shimmered and there was a brilliant flash of light. Stark cried out and seemed to crumple in on himself, falling at my feet with a moan.
I dropped to my knees beside him, pulling at his shoulders, trying to see what was wrong. "Stark! What happened? Are you--" With a wonderfully joyouimme was oft s cry he looked up at me. Tears were running freely down his face, but his smile was radiant. Then I blinked and realized what I was seeing. His crescent had been filled in and expanded. Two arrows faced the crescent. They were decorated with intricate symbols that seemed to glow with their new scarlet color against the white of his skin.
"Oh, Stark!" I reached out and gently traced the tattoo that forever Marked him as an adult vampyre--the second adult red vampyre there had ever been. "It's beautiful!"
"I've Changed, haven't I?"
I nodded, and the tears overflowed my eyes and fell down my cheeks. And then I was in his arms, kissing him, and our tears mingled together as we laughed and cried and held each other.
The bell that signaled the end of fifth hour made us jump. He helped me to my feet and, smiling, wiped the tears from my cheeks and his own. Then reality broke through my happiness, and I realized everything that had to go along with this new and amazing Change.
"Stark, when a fledgling Changes, there is some kind of ritual he has to go through."
"Do you know the ritual?"
"No, only vamps do." Then I had a thought. "You have to go to Dragon Lankford."
"The fencing instructor?"
"Yeah. He's on our side. Tell him I sent you to him. Tell him you've pledged yourself as Warrior in my ser vice. He'll know what to do for you."
"Okay, will do."
"But don't let anyone see that you've Changed." I didn't know why it was important to me, but I knew he needed to keep hidden until after he reached Dragon. I looked around the storage room until I found a TU trucker's cap, which I stuck on Stark's head. With a little more searching I found a towel, which I rolled up and tucked around his neck. "Pull this up"--I tugged the towel into place--"and keep this brim down. You won't look too weird. I mean, there's an ice storm out there. Just get to Dragon without being seen."
He nodded. "What'll you be doing?"
"I'll be planning our escape from here. Dragon and his wife are in on it, and I think the Horse Master, Lenobia, is, too. So get back here as soon as you can."
"Zoey, don't wait for me. Get away from here. Get far, far away."
"What about you?"
"I can come and go whenever I want. I'll find you, don't worry. My body won't be with you all the time, but you'll always have my heart. I'm your warrior, remember?"
I smiled and touched his cheek. "I'll never forget. I promise. I'm your High Priestess and you've pledged yourself to me. That means you have my heart, too."
"Then both of us better stay safe. A heart's a hard thing to live without. I should know. I've tried it," he said.
"But no more," I said.
"No more," he agreed.
Stark kissed me with such gentleness that he took my breath away. Then he took a step back, fisted his hand over his heart, and bowed formally to me. "I'll see you soon, my lady." "Be careful," I said.
"And if I can't be careful, I'll be quick." He threw me his cocky grin and ducked out of the door.
When he was gone I closed my eyes, fisted my hand over my heart, and bowed my head. "Nyx," I whispered, "I was telling him the truth. He has my heart. I don't know how that's going to turn out, but I ask that you keep my warrior safe and thank you for giving him the courage to make the choice for good."
Nyx didn't suddenly appear before me, and I hadn't expected her to. But I did feel a brief, listening silence in the air around me, and that was enough. I knew the Goddess's hand was on Stark. Protect him...strengthen him...oh, and could you please help me figure out what I'm going to do about him... I prayed silently until the sixth-hour bell rang.
"Okay, Zoey," I told myself. "Let's break out of this place."