"She tries to also make it really healthy. She says it's better for Clarence. So, there's never any salt and pepper or butter." Jeez, how often did she and Adrian talk? "There's no flavor or anything. It's driving him crazy."
"Everything seems to be driving him crazy," I remarked, remembering his plea for new lodging. "And he can't have it too bad. Didn't he go to LA last night?" Jill's only answer was a frown.
Nonetheless, I had a feeling we'd be hanging out at Clarence's for a while, and I personally didn't want to eat anything prepared in that house. So, it was more for selfish reasons that I agreed to stop at a takeout place en route and buy a few pizzas. Adrian's face was radiant when we entered the sitting room, which - pool games aside - seemed to be his primary hangout at Clarence's.
"Jailbait," he declared, leaping up. "You're a saint. A goddess, even."
"Hey," I said, "I'm the one who paid for them."
Adrian carried off one of the boxes to the couch, much to Dorothy's dismay. She hurried off muttering about plates and napkins. Adrian gave me a conciliatory nod.
"You're okay too, Sage," he said.
"Well, well, what have we here?" Clarence came tottering into the room. I hadn't noticed before, but he used a cane to get around. It had a crystal snake head on top, which was both impressive and scary. Just the kind of thing you'd picture for an old vampire. "Looks like a party."
Lee was with him, greeting us with smiles and nods. His eyes lingered briefly on Jill, and he made a point of sitting near her - but not too near. Jill perked up more than she had in days. Everyone was just starting to dive into the pizza when Dorothy appeared in the doorway with a new guest. I felt my eyes widen. It was Keith.
"What are you doing here?" I asked, keeping my voice neutral.
He winked. "Came to check in on everybody and make sure all's well. That's my job - to look after everyone."
Keith was chipper and friendly as he helped himself to the pizza, with no indication of the fight we'd gotten into last time. He smiled and talked to everyone as though they were all best friends, leaving me totally bewildered. No one else seemed to think anything odd about his behavior - but then, why would they? None of them had my history with Keith.
No - that wasn't quite true. Despite being deep in conversation with Eddie, Adrian paused to give me a curious look, silently asking about yesterday's fight. He glanced at Keith and then back to me. I shrugged helplessly, letting him know I was just as confused by the change of heart. Maybe Keith regretted his outburst from yesterday. Of course, that would've been much easier to accept if it had come with, oh, an apology.
I nibbled on a piece of cheese pizza, but mostly I observed the others. Jill was animatedly recounting her first couple of days to Adrian, noticeably leaving out any of the negative parts. He listened to her indulgently, nodding and interjecting with occasional witty quips. Some of the stuff she told him was pretty basic, and I was surprised it hadn't come up in their phone conversations. Maybe he just had so much to say at those times that there'd been no chance for her. As it was, he made no mention of his boredom or other grievances.
Clarence occasionally chatted with Eddie and Lee, but his eyes constantly strayed to Jill. There was a wistful look in his gaze, and I remembered that his niece had only been a little older than Jill. I wondered if perhaps part of the reason he'd been so willing to take us all on was in an effort to reclaim some part of the family life that had been lost to him.
Keith had sat down near me, at first making me uncomfortable but then later giving me a reason to pick his brain. Seeing the others engaged in conversation, I asked him softly, "Have you ever heard of knockoff Alchemist tattoos making it into the general population?"
He gave me a startled look in return. "I don't even know what that means."
"At Amberwood, there's this trend. There's apparently someplace in town that gives metallic tattoos, and they have special properties - kind of like ours. Some just kind of give off a high. Others kind of have a steroid effect."
He frowned. "They're not bound with gold, are they?"
"No. Silver and copper. So, they don't last. Probably so the people giving them can make more money."
"But they can't be ours, then," he argued. "We haven't used those metals for tattoos in centuries."
"Yeah, but someone may be using Alchemist technology to create these."
"Just to get people high?" he asked. "I wouldn't even know how you'd go about that with metallic agents."
"I have some ideas," I said.
"And let me guess. They involve narcotic mixtures." When I nodded, he sighed and gave me a look like I was ten years old. "Sydney, it's most likely someone's found a crude tattooing method that's like ours but has no connection. If so, there's nothing we can do about it. Drugs happen. Bad things happen. If it isn't mixed with Alchemist business, then it isn't our business."
"But what if it is connected to Alchemist business?" I asked.
He groaned. "See? This is why I was worried about you coming, this tendency you have of running off with tangents and wild theories."
"I don't - "
"Please don't embarrass me," he hissed, casting a glance at the others. "Not with them, not with our superiors."
His rebuke silenced me, mostly from surprise. What did he mean about this "tendency" I had? Was he actually suggesting he had made some deep psychological analysis of me years ago? The idea that I would embarrass him was ludicrous... and yet his words planted a seed of doubt in me. Maybe the tattoos at Amberwood were just an unrelated fad.
"How's PE?" Adrian's words dragged me from my own thoughts. He was still getting the summary of school from Jill. She made a face at the question. "Not great," she admitted, giving a recap of some of the worse moments. Eddie shot me a meaningful look, similar to the one from earlier.
"You can't go on like that," exclaimed Lee. "The sun around here's brutal."
"I agree," said Keith, of all people. "Sydney, why didn't you tell me how bad it was?"
I think my jaw hit the floor. "I did! That's why I was trying to get you to contact the school."
"You didn't really give me the whole story." He flashed one of his sugary smiles at Jill. "Don't worry. I'll take care of this for you. I'll get in touch with school officials - and the Alchemists."
"I already talked to them," I argued.
But I might as well have not said anything. Keith had already switched topics and was talking to Clarence about something irrelevant. Where had this about-face come from? Yesterday, Jill's discomfort had been low priority. Today, Keith was her knight in shining armor. And in the process, he was suggesting that I was the one who'd screwed up. That's his plan, I realized. He doesn't want me here. He never has. And then something even worse occurred to me.