Keep off it for a few hours at least." Darren muttered some-thing as he passed, and Zeke rolled his eyes. "Yes, poor Darren, forced to cook and clean and do other unmanly things.

Next thing you know he'll be wearing an apron and popping out babies." He snorted as Darren turned and did something with his hand. "We're friends, but we're not that close, Dare." I hung back, watching as Zeke cleared away a patch of earth, built a tent of sticks over a bundle of dry grass, and started a fire. Quick. Efficient. Like he'd done this many times before. As I was wondering how long the group had been traveling, Ruth suddenly broke away from her tent and glanced up at me, raising an eyebrow.

"What's the matter, city girl?" she called, smiling sweetly.

"Don't know how to set up a tent? A three-year-old could do it. Want Caleb to teach you how?"

I stif led the urge to strangle her, especially with Zeke nearby. "No, I'm fine, thanks." Hefting the bag on my shoulder, I marched past her, past the circle of tents around the campfire, to a spot about a hundred yards away. Dumping the tent onto the ground, I studied it fiercely.

All right. I can do this. How hard can it be, really? Kneeling, I picked up a long metal spike, frowning. What in the world?

Are you supposed to stab someone with these? Do tents come with vampire-slaying kits?

Actually, it was fairly simple, once you figured it out. The metal stakes pinned the corners to the ground, and a couple plastic rods held it upright from inside. I was feeling fairly proud of myself, setting up a tent on the first try, when I fumbled with the rods and the whole thing collapsed on top of me.

Laughing, Zeke slipped into the small interior as I cursed and struggled, shoving at the canvas. Grabbing the plastic frame, he maneuvered it into place with the ease of familiarity, snapping the tent upright.

"There," he said, still chuckling. "That should do it. You got one of the f limsy tents, sadly. Not bad, though, getting it up on your first try. You should've seen Ruth the first few times she tried setting hers up. I've never heard such language coming from our delicate f lower."

I smirked, feeling vindicated. "It doesn't seem very sturdy," I admitted, gently shaking the plastic tube holding up the wall. Zeke chuckled again. He had a nice laugh, I decided, even if it was directed at me.

"Just don't hit the frame, and it'll be fine. Unless it's really windy outside. Or if someone accidentally bumps it. Or if an ant crawls on it." Zeke grinned. "Actually we're all used to the tents falling on top of us. Most of us don't even wake up when it happens."

I snorted. "So, if a big storm comes through-"

"At least you'll be dry as you go rolling across the plains." I laughed. It felt strange; I hadn't done that in a while. Then I realized how close we were, huddled together beneath this tiny dome of canvas. I could see the details of his face, even in the darkness: the lines around his mouth and eyes, the faint scar on his forehead, nearly hidden by his pale hair. I could hear his heartbeat, sense the blood pulsing in his veins, right below the skin. For a moment, I wondered what Zeke tasted of, how it would feel to draw him close and sink into that oblivion.

It scared me, and I drew back. If I had been the slightest bit hungry...

Zeke blushed, raking his fingers through his hair, and I realized I'd been staring. "I should go," he muttered, backing out of the tent. "The others...I should probably help them." He pushed himself to a crouch at the entrance, balanced on the balls of his feet. "If you need anything, just let me know.

Dinner should be ready soon. Oh, yeah. And this is for you." Reaching off to the side, Zeke grabbed something and tossed it into the tent. It landed with a poof of dust: a thick blue-and-white quilt with only a tiny hole in one corner.

Stunned, I looked up at him. A blanket like this could be traded for a month of meal tickets back in the Fringe, and he was just giving it to me? That couldn't be right. "I...I can't take this," I muttered, holding it back to him. "I don't have anything to trade."

"Don't be silly." Zeke smiled, a little puzzled. "You don't have to give me anything for it. It's yours." Someone shouted to him across the camp, and he raised his head. "Be right there!" he called back, and nodded to me. "Gotta go. See you at dinner."

"Zeke," I called softly, and he paused, peeking back into the tent. "Thanks."

One corner of his mouth quirked up. "Don't worry about it. We look out for each other out here." He f licked the canvas wall, lightly. "And like I said, if the tent falls on you in the middle of the night, don't panic. You'll get used to it. No one really worries about keeping things erect around here, and...

Wow, that sounded bad." His blush returned, brighter than before, and he raked a hand through his hair. "Uh...yeah, I should... I'm going to leave now."

Grimacing, he ducked out of sight. I waited until he was a good distance away before snickering into my quilt.

After zipping up the tent f laps, I looked around my newest lair. I didn't like how f limsy it was, how easily someone could invade. I also wondered if the thin canvas would completely block out the sun when it rose directly overhead. I didn't know if I would wake up if I suddenly burst into f lames, or if I would quietly exit the world as my body burned to ash, but it wasn't something that I wanted to find out.

I took out my knife and made a long slit in the f loor of the tent, revealing the grassy earth beneath. Now at least I had a quick escape if the sun penetrated my f limsy tent. Or if something unforeseen happened and I needed to get away quickly. Always leave yourself an out; that was the first rule of the Fringe. This group might seem friendly and unassuming, but you couldn't be too careful. Especially around people like Jebbadiah Crosse. And Ruth.

Lying back, I pulled the quilt over my head, hoping no one would disturb my sleep. As darkness closed over me and my thoughts turned slow and sluggish, I realized two things.

One, I couldn't keep this up forever, and two, Ezekiel Crosse was far too perfect to survive in this world much longer.

That first week was a study in close calls.

Thankfully, I didn't burst into f lames sleeping beneath the f limsy canvas tent, though I did wake up feeling uncomfortably warm, and wished I could simply burrow into the cool earth, away from the sun. As for the problem of guard duty, I spoke to Zeke the second night and convinced him to let me have first watch permanently. This meant staying awake a couple hours after dawn, and it was torture at first. My long coat protected me from the worst of the early morning rays, and I survived by staying in shaded areas whenever possible and never facing the direction the sun was coming up. But keeping myself awake was agonizing when my vampire instincts were screaming at me to sleep, to get out of the light.

I finally started treating it as an exercise Kanin might have me do; building up my endurance to remain awake and active as long as I could.

My human companions were another issue. Except for Ruth, who continued to be a catty pain in the ass, shooting me poisonous looks if I so much as glanced at Zeke, and Jeb, who treated me with the same harsh aloofness as he did everyone else, the group was pretty friendly. Which I wouldn't have minded, except they were also a curious bunch, always asking me questions about the city, what it was like living there, how I had escaped. I answered as vaguely as I could and finally managed to convince the adults that it was just too painful to remember that life anymore. To my relief, the questions finally stopped, and everyone was very understanding, almost to the point of pity. That was fine with me. Let them think I'd been horribly scarred by my life in New Covington; it made it easier to hide the real reason I got uneasy whenever the word vampire came up.

Unfortunately, that wasn't the only problem I ran into.

Eating or, rather, the absence of it, was yet another diffi-culty. The group stopped twice for meals; once when everyone woke up and again near dawn when they set up camp.

Rations were simple: half a can of beans or a few strips of dried meat, whatever they had scavenged or hunted or gathered.

Mealtime was easily the most anticipated part of the day, and after a night of forced marching without a break, everyone was starving.

Except me. And I had to get creative with ways to dump food without anyone noticing. Strips of meat or dried foods were easy; I hid them in my sleeves or pockets until I could toss them later. Canned beans, fruit and stew in bowls were a little trickier. When I could, I gave it away or dumped it into other people's bowls, though I could only do that so many times before people got suspicious. Sometimes I lied, saying I'd already had my share, and once I even ate a few spoonfuls of tomato soup in front of Zeke and Jeb, managing to keep it down long enough to walk calmly behind a tree and puke it back up.

I felt a little guilty, wasting food when it was so precious and scarce. And the Fringer street rat in me cringed whenever I threw perfectly good meat into the bushes or dumped half a can of corn down a dark hole, but what could I do? If I didn't keep up the appearance of being human, people would start to suspect. Like Ruth, who already had it in for me. I could hear her, sometimes, talking about me to the rest of the group, spreading suspicion and fear. Most of the adults-Teresa and Silas and Dorothy-paid little attention to her; they had bigger concerns than the jealous accusations of a teenage girl. But some of the others-Matthew, Bethany, even Jake-started eyeing me with distrust. As infuriating as it was, I couldn't do anything about it.

Despite that, it was Jeb who worried me most, the silent judge, whose sharp gray eyes missed nothing. But even though he was the leader, he seemed apart from the rest of the group, separate. He rarely spoke to anyone, and everyone seemed afraid to approach him. In a way, it was a good thing he was so detached from the rest of us; he didn't seem to care what anyone did or said as long as they followed his lead. If it wasn't for Zeke, relaying his orders back and forth, he wouldn't interact with the group at all.

In fact, I would've bet that I knew more about the group than he did. I knew Caleb loved sweets and Ruth was terrified of snakes-something I took great pleasure in when I found a garter snake on the road one night and snuck it into her tent. The memory of her screams made me snicker the rest of the evening. I knew Teresa, the old woman with the bad leg, and Silas, her husband, had been married thirty-nine years and were getting ready to celebrate their anniversary next fall. I knew Jake had lost his wife to a rabid attack three years prior and hadn't spoken a word since. These facts and memories and snippets of their lives trickled in and stayed with me, even though I did my best to remain aloof. I didn't want to know about their pasts, their lives, anything about them. Because with every passing day, I knew I was going to have to pick one of them to feed from, and how could I do that when I knew Dorothy fainted at the sight of blood, and eight-year-old Bethany had nearly died one winter when a fox bit her?

But it was Zeke who continued to fascinate and confuse me. It was clear that everyone adored him; despite being Jebbadiah's second, he was always helping, always making sure people were taken care of. Yet he never asked for anything, never expected any help in return. He was respectful of the adults and patient with the kids, making me wonder how he and Jeb could be so different. Or maybe, Jeb could be that way because of Zeke. That hardly seemed fair, to dump so much responsibility on Zeke's shoulders, because Jeb himself didn't want to get involved, but who was I to say anything?

Tags: Julie Kagawa Blood of Eden Book Series
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