"You're half right," he said. "This is a spirit dream. This is real."
I frowned. A spirit dream. Since most of our information about spirit was sketchy, we had hardly anything on spirit dreams. I'd learned most of what I knew about them from Rose, who had been frequently visited by Adrian in them. According to her, the dreamer and the spirit user were actually together, in a meeting of the minds, communicating across long distances. It was hard for me to fully grasp that, but I'd seen Rose wake up with information she wouldn't have otherwise had. Still, I had no evidence to suggest I was really in a spirit dream now.
"This is just a regular dream," I countered.
"Are you sure?" he asked. "Look around. Concentrate. Doesn't it feel different? Like a dream... but not like a dream. Not quite like real life either. Call it what you want, but the next time we see each other in the waking world, I'll be able to tell you exactly what happened here."
I looked around the room, studying it as he'd suggested. Again, I was struck by the vividness of even the smallest details. It certainly felt real, but dreams often did... right? You usually never knew you were dreaming until you woke up. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, trying to still my mind. And like that, I felt it. I understood what he meant. Not quite like a dream. Not quite like real life. My eyes flew open.
"Stop it," I cried, backing away from him. "Make it end. Get me out of here."
Because in accepting that this really was a spirit dream, I'd had to acknowledge something else: I was surrounded in vampire magic. My mind was ensnared in it. I felt claustrophobic. The magic was pressing on me, crushing the air.
"Please." My voice grew more and more frantic. "Please let me go."
Adrian straightened up, looking surprised. "Whoa, Sage. Calm down. You're okay."
"No. I'm not. I don't want this. I don't want the magic touching me."
"It won't hurt you," he said. "It's nothing."
"It's wrong," I whispered. "Adrian, stop it."
He reached out a hand, like he might try to comfort me, and then thought better of it. "It won't hurt you," he repeated. "Just hear me out, and then I'll dissolve it. I promise."
Even in the dream, my pulse was racing. I wrapped my arms around myself and backed up against the wall, trying to make myself small. "Okay," I whispered. "Hurry."
"I just wanted to say..." He stuffed his hands in his pockets and glanced away uncomfortably before looking at me again. Were his eyes greener here than in real life? Or was it just my imagination? "I wanted to... I wanted to apologize."
"For what?" I asked. I couldn't process anything beyond my own terror.
"For what I did. You were right. I wasted your time and your work today."
I forced my mind to dredge up memories from this afternoon. "Thank you," I said simply.
"I don't know why I do these things," he added. "I just can't help it."
I was still terrified, still suffocating in the magic surrounding me. Somehow, I managed to echo my earlier conversation with Eddie.
"You can take control of yourself," I said. "You aren't a victim."
Adrian had been gazing off, troubled by his thoughts. He suddenly jerked his gaze back to me. "Just like Rose."
Adrian held out his hand, and a thorny red rose suddenly materialized there. I gasped and tried to back up farther. He twirled the stem around, careful not to prick his fingers.
"She said that. That I was playing the victim. Am I really that pathetic?"
The rose wilted and crumpled before my eyes, turning to dust and then vanishing altogether. I made the sign against evil on my shoulder and tried to remember what we were talking about.
"Pathetic's not the word I'd use," I said.
"What word would you use?"
My mind was blanking. "I don't know. Confused?"
He smiled. "That's an understatement."
"I'll check a dictionary when I wake up and get back to you. Can you please end this?"
The smile faded to an expression of amazement. "You really are that scared, aren't you?" I let my silence answer for me. "Okay, one more thing, then. I thought of another way I can get out of Clarence's and get some money. I was reading about college and financial aid. If I took classes somewhere, do you think I could get enough to live on?"
This was a concrete question I could deal with. "It's possible. But I think it's too late. Classes have started everywhere."
"I found a place on the internet. Carlton. A college on the other side of town that hasn't started yet. But I'd still have to act fast, and... that's what I don't know how to do. The paperwork. The procedures. But that's your specialty, right?"
"Sad but true," I said. Some part of me thought Carlton sounded familiar, but I couldn't place it.
He took a deep breath. "Will you help me? I know it's making you babysit again, but I don't know where to start. I promise I'll meet you halfway, though. Tell me what I need to do, and I will."
Babysit. He'd been talking to Jill or Eddie or both. That was reasonable, though. He'd want to know that she was okay. I could only imagine how my tirade had been paraphrased.
"You were in college before," I said, recalling his record. I'd scoured it when putting together the ill-fated resume. "You dropped out."
Adrian nodded. "I did."
"How do I know you won't this time? How do I know you aren't just wasting my time again?"
"You don't know, Sage," he admitted. "And I don't blame you. All I can ask is that you give me another chance. That you try to believe me when I say I'll follow through. That you believe I'm serious. That you trust me."
Long moments stretched out between us. I'd relaxed slightly, without even realizing it, though I remained up against the wall. I studied him, wishing I was better at reading people. His eyes were that green in real life, I decided. I just usually didn't look at them so closely.
"Okay," I said. "I trust you."
Total shock filled his features. "You do?"
I was no better at reading people than I had been ten seconds ago, but in that moment, I suddenly gained a flash of understanding into the mystery that was Adrian Ivashkov. People didn't believe in him very often. They had low expectations of him, so he did as well. Even Eddie had sort of written him off: He's Adrian. As though there was nothing to be done for it.
I also suddenly realized that, as unlikely as it seemed, Adrian and I had a lot in common. Both of us were constantly boxed in by others' expectations. It didn't matter that people expected everything of me and nothing of him. We were still the same, both of us constantly trying to break out of the lines that others had defined for us and be our own person. Adrian Ivashkov - flippant, vampire party boy - was more like me than anyone else I knew. The thought was so startling that I couldn't even answer him right away.