Lady Midnight – chapter 18

After the darkness, there was light. Bright white and silver—starlight on water and sand. And Emma was flying. Over the surface of the water, now shallow—she could see the sand of the beach underneath, and a pool of fire where the moon reflected.

 

There was a pain in her chest. She twisted to get away from it and realized she wasn’t flying; she was being carried. She was being held against a hard chest and arms were around her. She saw the glimmer of blue-green eyes.

 

Julian. Julian was carrying her. Wet, dark curls crowned his head. She tried to draw in a breath to speak, and choked. Her chest spasmed; water filled her mouth, bitter and salty like blood. She saw Julian’s face twist with panic, and then he was half-running up the beach, finally crashing to his knees, depositing her in the sand. She was still coughing, choking, looking up at him with frightened eyes. She saw the same fear mirrored on his face; she wanted to tell him it would be all right, everything was going to be fine, but she couldn’t speak past the water in her throat.

 

He fumbled a stele from his belt and she felt the tip burn against her skin. Her head fell back as the rune formed. She saw the moon over her, behind Julian’s head like a halo. She wanted to tell him he had a halo. Maybe he’d think it was funny. But the words were drowning in her chest. She was drowning. Dying on land.

 

The rune was finished. Julian pulled the stele back and Emma’s chest seemed to cave in. She cried out, and water exploded from her lungs. She curled up, racked with deep coughs. It hurt as her body expelled the seawater, as if she were being turned inside out. She felt Julian’s hand on her back, his fingers between her shoulder blades, holding her steady.

 

At last the coughing slowed. She rolled onto her back and stared up at Julian and the sky behind him. She could see a million stars, and he still had his halo, but there was no longer anything funny about it. He was shivering, his black shirt and jeans plastered to his body, his face whiter than the moon.

 

“Emma?” he whispered.

“Jules,” she said. Her voice sounded weak and rough to her own ears. “I—I’m all right.” “What the hell happened? What were you doing in the water?”

 

“I went to the convergence,” she whispered. “There was some kind of spell—it sucked me out into the ocean—”

 

“You went to the convergence by yourself?” His voice rose. “How could you be so reckless?” “I had to try—”

 

“You didn’t have to try alone!” His voice seemed to echo off the water. His fists were clenched at his

 

sides. She realized he wasn’t shaking from cold after all—it was rage. “What the hell is the point of being parabatai if you go off and risk yourself without me?”

“I didn’t want to put you in danger—”

“I almost drowned inside the Institute! I coughed up water! Water you breathed!”

 

Emma stared at him in shock. She started to prop herself up on her elbows. Her hair, heavy and soaked, hung down her back like a weight. “How is that possible?”

 

“Of course it’s possible!” His voice seemed to explode out of his body. “We are bound together, Emma, bound together—I breathe when you breathe, I bleed when you bleed, I’m yours and you’re mine, you’ve always been mine, and I have always, always belonged to you!”

 

She had never heard him say anything like this, never heard him talk this way, never seen him so close to losing control.

 

“I didn’t mean to hurt you,” she said. She started to sit up, reaching for him. He caught her wrist. “Are you joking?” Even in the darkness, his blue-green eyes had color. “Is this a joke to you, Emma?

 

Don’t you understand?” His voice dropped to a whisper. “I don’t live if you die!” Her eyes searched his face. “Jules, I’m so sorry, Jules—”

 

The wall that usually hid the truth deep in his eyes had crumbled; she could see the panic there, the desperation, the relief that had punched through his defenses.

 

He was still holding her wrist. She didn’t know if she leaned into him first or if he pulled her toward him. Maybe both. They crashed together like stars colliding, and then he was kissing her.

Jules. Julian. Kissing her.

His mouth moved against hers, hot and restless, turning her body to liquid fire. She clawed at his back, pulling him closer. His clothes were wet, but his skin under them was hot wherever she could touch it. When she placed her hands at his waist, he gasped into her mouth, a gasp that was half incredulity and half desire.

 

“Emma,” he said, a word halfway between a prayer and a groan. His mouth was wild on hers; they were kissing as if they were trying to tear down the bars that held them inside a prison. As if they were both drowning and they could breathe only through each other.

 

Her bones felt as if they had turned to glass. They seemed to be shattering all through her body; she crumpled backward, pulling Julian with her, letting the weight of his body push them both down into the sand. She clutched at his shoulders, thought of the disoriented moment when he’d pulled her out of the water, the moment she hadn’t quite known who he was. He was stronger, bigger than she remembered. More grown-up than she had let herself know, though every kiss was burning away her memories of the boy he had been.

 

When he leaned closer into her, she jumped in surprise at the wet coldness of his shirt. He reached down and grasped the collar, tearing it over his head. When he leaned back down over her, the expanse of his bare skin stunned her, and her hands slid up his sides, over the wings of his shoulder blades, as if she were articulating the shape of him, creating him with the touch of her palms and fingers. The light scars of his old Marks; the heat of his skin, filmed with salty ocean water; the feel of his smooth sea-glass bracelet —he took her breath away with the Julian-ness of him. There was no one else he could be. She knew him by touch, by the way he breathed, by the beat of his heart against hers.

 

The touch of her hands was undoing him. She could see him unraveling, piece by piece. Her knees came up to clasp his hips; her hand cupped the bare skin above the waistband of his jeans, gently as the ocean at low tide, and he shuddered against her as if he were dying. She had never seen him like this, not even when he was painting.

 

Gasping, he tore his mouth away from hers, forcing himself still, forcing his body to stop moving. She could see what it cost him in his eyes, black with hunger and impatience. In the way that when he drew his hands away, they dug into the sand on either side of her, fingers clawing into the ground. “Emma,” he

 

whispered. “You’re sure?”

 

She nodded and reached for him. He made a sound of desperate relief and gratitude and caught her against him, and this time there was no hesitation. Her arms were open; he went into them and gathered her up against him, shivering down to his bones as she locked her ankles behind his calves, pinning him against her. As she opened herself, making her body a cradle for him to lie against.

 

He found her mouth with his again, and as if her lips were connected to every nerve ending in her body, her whole self seemed to spark and dance. So this was what it was supposed to be like, what kissing was supposed to be like, what all of it was supposed to be like. This.

 

He leaned in to outline her mouth, her cheek, the sandy curve of her jaw with kisses. He kissed his way down her throat, his breath warm on her skin. Tangling her hands in his wet curls, she stared up in wonder at the sky above them, wheeling with stars, shimmering and cold, and thought that this couldn’t be happening, people didn’t get things they wanted like this.

“Jules,” she whispered. “My Julian.”

 

“Always,” he whispered, returning to her mouth, “always,” and they fell into each other with the inevitability of a wave crashing against the beach. Fire raced up and down Emma’s veins as the barriers between them vanished; she tried to press each moment, each gesture into her memory—the feel of his hands closing on her shoulders, the drowning gasp he made, the way he dissolved into her as he lost himself. To the last moment of her life, she thought, she would recall the way he buried his face against her neck and said her name over and over as if every other word had been forgotten forever in the depths of the ocean. To the last hour.

 

When the stars stopped spinning, Emma was lying in the curve of Julian’s arm, looking up. His dry flannel jacket was spread over them. He was gazing at her, head propped up on one hand. He looked dazed, his eyes half-lidded. His fingers traced slow circles on her bare shoulder. His heart was still racing, slamming against hers. She loved him so much it felt like her chest was cracking open.

 

She wanted to tell him so, but the words stuck in her throat. “Was that—” she began. “Was that your first kiss?”

 

“No, I’ve been practicing on random strangers.” He grinned, wild and beautiful in the moonlight. “Yes. That was my first kiss.”

 

A shiver went through Emma. She thought, I love you, Julian Blackthorn. I love you more than starlight.

“It really wasn’t that bad,” she said, and smiled at him.

He laughed and pulled her closer against him. She relaxed into the curve of his body. The air was cold, but she was warm here, in this small circle with Julian, hidden by the outcroppings of rock, wrapped in the flannel jacket that smelled like him. His hand was gentle in her hair. “Shh, Emma. Go to sleep.”

 

She closed her eyes.

 

Emma slept, by the side of the ocean. And she had no nightmares.

 

“Emma.” There was a hand on her shoulder, shaking her. “Emma, wake up.”

 

She rolled over and blinked, then froze in surprise. There was no ceiling over her, only bright blue sky. She felt stiff and sore, her skin abraded by sand.

 

Julian was hovering over her. He was fully dressed, his face gray-white like scattered ash. His hands fluttered around her, not quite touching her, like Ty’s butterflies. “Someone was here.”

 

At that she did sit up. She was sitting on the beach—a small, bare half circle of a beach, hemmed in on either side by fingers of stone reaching into the ocean. The sand around her was thoroughly churned up, and she blushed, memory crashing into her like a wave. It looked like it was at least midday, though

 

thankfully the beach was deserted. It was familiar, too. They were close to the Institute, closer than she’d thought. Not that she’d thought much.

She dragged air into her lungs. “Oh,” she said. “Oh my God.”

 

Julian didn’t say anything. His clothes were wet, crusted with sand where they folded. Her own clothes were on, Emma realized belatedly. Julian must have dressed her. Only her feet were bare.

 

The tide was low, seaweed lying exposed at the waterline. Their footsteps from the night before had long been washed away, but there were other footsteps embedded in the sand. It looked as if someone had climbed over one of the rock walls, walked up to them, and then doubled back and walked away. Two lines of footsteps. Emma stared at them in horror.

“Someone saw us?” she said.

 

“While we were sleeping,” said Julian. “I didn’t wake up either.” His hands knotted at his sides. “Some mundane, I hope, just figuring we were a dumb teenage couple.” He let out a breath. “I hope,” he said again.

 

Flashes of memory of the night before shot through Emma’s mind—the cold water, the demons, Julian carrying her, Julian kissing her. Julian and her, lying entwined on the sand.

 

Julian. She didn’t think she could think of him as Jules again. Jules was her childhood name for him. And they had left their childhood behind.

 

He turned to look at her, and she saw the anguish in his sea-colored eyes. “I am so sorry,” he whispered. “Emma, I am so, so sorry.”

“Why are you sorry?” she asked.

“I didn’t think.” He was pacing, his feet kicking up sand. “About—being safe. Protection. I didn’t think about it.”

“I’m protected,” she said.

He whirled to face her. “What?”

“I have the rune,” she said. “And I don’t have any diseases, and neither do you, do you?”

 

“I—no.” The relief on his face was palpable and for some reason made her stomach ache. “That was my first time, Emma.”

“I know,” she said in a whisper. “Anyway, you don’t need to apologize.”

“I do,” he said. “I mean, this is good. We’re lucky. But I should have thought of it. I don’t have an excuse. I was out of my mind.”

 

She opened her mouth, then closed it again. “I must have been, to do that,” he said.

 

“To do what?” She was impressed by how clearly and calmly each word came out. Anxiety beat through her like a drum.

 

“What we did.” He exhaled. “You know what I mean.” “You’re saying what we did was wrong.”

 

“I meant—” He looked as if he were trying to contain something that wanted to tear its way out of him. “There’s nothing wrong with it morally,” he said. “It’s a stupid Law. But it is a Law. And we can’t break it. It’s one of the oldest Laws there is.”

“But it doesn’t make sense.

 

He looked at her without seeing her, blindly. “The Law is hard, but it is the Law.” Emma got to her feet. “No,” she said. “No Law can control our feelings.”

 

“I didn’t say anything about feelings,” said Julian. Her throat felt dry. “What do you mean?”

 

“We shouldn’t have slept together,” he said. “I know it meant something to me, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t, but the Law doesn’t forbid sex, it forbids love. Being in love.

“I’m pretty sure sleeping together is against the rules too.”

 

“Yeah, but it’s not what they exile you for! It’s not what they strip your Marks for!” He raked a hand through his snarled hair. “It’s against the rules because—being intimate like that, physically intimate, it opens you up to be emotionally intimate and that’s what they care about.”

“We are emotionally intimate.”

 

“You know what I mean. Don’t pretend you don’t.” There are different kinds of closeness, intimacy. They want us to be close. But they don’t want this.” He gestured around at the beach as if to encompass all of the night before.

Emma was shaking. “Eros,” she said. “Instead of philia or agape.”

 

He looked relieved, as if her explanation meant she understood, she agreed. As if they had made some decision together. Emma wanted to scream. “Philia,” he said. “That’s what we have—friendship love— and I’m sorry if I did anything to screw that up—”

 

“I was there too,” Emma said, and her voice was as cold as the water. He looked at her levelly.

 

“We love each other,” he said. “We’re parabatai, love is part of the bond. And I’m attracted to you. How could I not be? You’re beautiful. And it’s not like—”

 

He broke off, but Emma filled the rest in for him, the words so painful they almost seemed to cut at the inside of her head. It’s not like I can meet other girls, not like I can date, you’re what there is, you’re what’s around, Cristina’s probably still in love with someone in Mexico, there isn’t anyone for me. There’s just you.

 

“It’s not like I’m blind,” he said. “I can see you, and I want you, but—we can’t. If we do, we’ll end up falling in love, and that would be a disaster.”

 

“Falling in love,” Emma echoed. How could he not see she was already fallen, in every way you could be? “Didn’t I tell you I loved you? Last night?”

He shook his head. “We never said we loved each other,” he said. “Not once.”

That couldn’t be true. Emma searched her memories, as if she were rummaging desperately through her pockets for a lost key. She’d thought it. Julian Blackthorn, I love you more than starlight. She’d thought it but she hadn’t said it. And neither had he. We’re bound together, he’d said. But not: I love you.

 

She waited for him to say, I was out of my mind because you risked your life or You almost died and it made me crazy or any variety of It was your fault. She thought that if he did, she would blow up like an activated land mine.

 

But he didn’t. He stood looking at her, his flannel jacket shoved up to his elbows, his exposed bare skin red from cold water and scratched with sand.

She had never seen him look so sad.

She lifted her chin. “You’re right. It’s better if we forget it.” He winced at that. “I do love you, Emma.”

 

She rubbed her hands together for warmth, thought of the way the ocean wore down even stone walls over the years, wringing fragments out of what had once been impregnable. “I know,” she said. “Just not like that.”

 

The first thing Emma saw when they returned to the Institute—having told Julian the story of her experience at the convergence on their way back from the beach—was that the car she’d left at the cave entrance the night before was parked at the foot of the front steps. The second was that Diana was sitting on the car’s hood, looking madder than a hornet.

 

What were you thinking?” she demanded as Emma and Julian stopped dead in their tracks. “Seriously, Emma, have you lost your mind?”

 

For a moment Emma felt actually dizzy—Diana couldn’t be talking about her and Julian, could she? She wasn’t the one who’d found them on the beach? She glanced sideways at Julian, but he was as white-

 

faced with shock as she felt.

 

Diana’s dark eyes bored into her. “I’m waiting for an explanation,” she said. “What made you think it was a good idea to go to the convergence by yourselves?”

Emma was too surprised to formulate a comeback. “What?”

Diana’s eyes flicked from Julian to Emma and back again. “I didn’t get the message about the convergence until this morning,” she said. “I raced over there and found the car, empty. Abandoned. I thought—you don’t know what I thought, but . . .” Emma felt a stab of guilt. Diana had been worried about her. And about Julian, who had never even gone to the convergence.

 

“I’m sorry,” Emma said, meaning it. Her conviction of the night before, her resolve that she was doing the right thing in going to the convergence, had evaporated. She felt weary now, and no closer to an answer. “I got the message and just went—I didn’t want to wait. And please don’t be angry at Julian. He wasn’t with me. He found me later.”

“Found you?” Diana looked puzzled. “Found you where?”

 

“On the beach,” said Emma. “There are doorways in the cave—sort of Portals—and one of them empties right out into the ocean.”

 

Now Diana’s expression was truly concerned. “Emma, you ended up in the water? But you hate the ocean. How did you—”

 

“Julian came and pulled me out,” said Emma. “He felt me panicking in the water. Parabatai thing.” She glanced sideways at Julian, whose gaze was clear and open. Trustworthy. Not hiding anything. “It took us a long time to walk back.”

 

“Well, finding the seawater is interesting,” said Diana, sliding off the car’s hood. “I assume it’s the same water found with the bodies.”

“How did you get the car back?” Emma asked as they started up the stairs.

“What you mean, of course, is ‘thank you, Diana, for bringing the car back,’” Diana said as they came inside the Institute. She glanced critically up and down Julian’s and Emma’s wet, sandy clothes, scraped skin, and matted hair. “How about I gather everyone in the library. It’s past time for an information exchange.”

Julian cleared his throat. “Why didn’t you?”

 

Diana and Emma both looked at him in puzzlement. “Why didn’t who, what?” Diana asked finally. “Why didn’t you get the message about the convergence until this morning? My phone was dead, which

was stupid of me, but—what about you?”

“Nothing you need concern yourself with,” Diana said shortly. “Anyway, go shower. I get that you have important information, but until you clean off the sand, I don’t think I could concentrate on anything but how badly you two must itch.”

 

Emma meant to change when she got back to her room. She genuinely did. But despite her hours of sleep on the beach, she was exhausted enough that the moment she sat down on the bed, she collapsed.

Hours later, after a fast shower, she threw on clean jeans and a tank top and raced out into the hallway, feeling like a mundane teenager late for class. She flew down the hall to the library to find everyone else already there; in fact, they looked as if they’d been there for a while. Ty was sitting at one end of the longest library table in a pool of afternoon sunshine, a pile of papers in front of him. Mark was by his side; Livvy was balanced on top of the table, barefoot, dancing back and forth with her saber. Diana and Dru were amusing Tavvy with a book.

 

“Diana said you went to the convergence,” said Livvy, waving her saber as Emma came in. Cristina, who had been standing by a shelf of books, gave her an uncharacteristically cool look.

“Fighting Mantids without me,” Mark said, and smiled. “Hardly fair.”

“There weren’t any Mantids,” said Emma. She hopped up onto the table across from Ty, who was still

 

scribbling, and launched into the story of what she had found in the cave. Halfway through her recitation, Julian came in, his hair as damp as Emma’s. He was wearing a jade-colored T-shirt that turned his eyes dark green. Their eyes met, and Emma forgot what she was saying.

 

“Emma?” Cristina prompted after a long pause. “You were saying? You found a dress?” “This doesn’t sound very likely,” said Livvy. “Who keeps a dress in a cave?”

 

“It might have been a ceremonial outfit,” Emma said. “It was an elaborate robe—and very elaborate jewels.”

 

“So maybe the necromancer is a woman,” said Cristina. “Maybe it really is Belinda.” “She didn’t strike me as that powerful,” said Mark.

“You can sense power?” asked Emma. “Is that a faerie thing?”

Mark shook his head, but the half smile he gave felt to Emma like a sliver of Faerie. “Just a feeling.” “But speaking of faerie things, Mark did give us the key to translate more of the markings,” said Livvy. “Really?” said Emma. “What do they say?”

 

Ty looked up from the papers. “He gave us the second line, and after that it was easier. Livvy and I worked out most of the third. From looking at the patterns of the markings, it seems to be about five or six lines, repeated.”

“Is it a spell?” Emma said. “Malcolm said it was probably a summoning spell.”

 

Ty rubbed at his face, leaving a smear of ink across one cheekbone. “It doesn’t look like a summoning spell. Maybe Malcolm made a mistake. We’ve done a lot better than him on the translation,” he added proudly as Livvy put her saber away and crouched down on the table beside him. She reached out to rub the ink from his cheek with her sleeve.

 

“Malcolm doesn’t have Mark,” said Julian, and Mark gave Julian a quick, surprised smile of gratitude. “Or Cristina,” said Mark. “I would never have figured out the connection if Cristina had not realized it

was an issue of translation.”

Cristina blushed. “So how does the third line go, Tiberius?” Ty batted Livvy’s hand away and recited:

 

First the flame and then the flood,

 

In the end, it’s Blackthorn blood.

Seek thou to forget what’s past—

 

“That’s it,” he finished. “That’s what we have so far.”

 

“Blackthorn blood?” echoed Diana. She had climbed up onto a library ladder to hand a book down to Tavvy.

Emma frowned. “I don’t really love the sound of that.”

“There’s no indication of traditional blood magic,” said Julian. “None of the bodies had those kinds of cuts or wounds.”

 

“I wonder about the mention of the past,” said Mark. “These kind of rhymes, in Faerie, often encode a spell—like the ballad of ‘Thomas the Rhymer.’ It is both a story and instructions on how to break someone free of Faerie.”

 

For a moment Diana’s face was arrested midexpression, as if she had either suddenly realized or suddenly remembered something.

“Diana?” Julian said. “Are you okay?”

“Fine.” She climbed down from the ladder and dusted off her clothes. “I need to make a call.”

 

“Who are you calling?” Julian asked, but Diana only shook her head, her hair brushing her shoulders. “I’ll be back,” she said, and slipped out the library door.

“But what does it mean?” Emma said to the room at large. “In the end, Blackthorn blood what?”

 

“And if it’s a faerie rhyme, then shouldn’t they know if there’s more of it?” Dru spoke up from the corner where she was busy distracting Tavvy. “The Fair Folk, I mean. They’re meant to be on our side for this.”

 

“I have sent a message,” Mark said guardedly. “But I will tell you, I only ever heard those two lines of it.”

 

“The most significant thing it means is that somehow this situation—the murders, the bodies, the Followers—is tied to this family.” Julian looked around. “Somehow, it’s connected to us. To the Blackthorns.”

“That would explain why all this is happening in Los Angeles,” said Mark. “It is our home.”

 

Emma saw Julian’s expression flicker slightly, and knew what he was thinking: that Mark had spoken of Los Angeles as a place they all lived, not a place where everyone lived but him. That he had spoken of it as home.

 

There was a loud buzzing sound. The map of Los Angeles on the table had started to vibrate. What looked like a small red dot was moving across it. “Sterling’s left his house,” Cristina said, reaching for the map.

 

“Belinda Belle said he had two days,” said Julian. “That could mean the hunt starts tomorrow, or it could mean tonight, depending on how they’re counting. Anyway, we can’t assume.”

 

“Cristina and I will follow him,” Emma said. She was desperate to get out of the house suddenly, desperate to clear her head, desperate even to get away from Julian.

Mark frowned. “We should go with you—”

“No!” Emma said, hopping down from the table. Everyone turned to look at her in surprise; she had spoken with more force than she meant to—the truth was, she wanted to talk to Cristina alone. “We’re going to have to take it in shifts,” she said. “We’re going to have to tail Sterling twenty-four/seven until something happens, and if we all go every time, we’ll just end up with everyone exhausted. Cristina and I will go for a while, and then we can switch off with Julian and Mark, or Diana.”

“Or me and Ty,” suggested Livvy sweetly.

Julian’s eyes were troubled. “Emma, are you sure—”

“Emma is right,” Cristina said, unexpectedly. “Taking shifts is the cautious thing to do.”

 

Cautious. Emma couldn’t remember that word being applied to her in recent history. Julian glanced away, hiding his expression. At last, he said, “Fine. You win. You two go. But if you need any backup, swear that you’ll call right away.”

 

His gaze locked with Emma’s as he spoke. The others were talking, discussing how they should search the library, look back through books detailing different kinds of spells, how long it would take to finish the rest of the translation, whether Malcolm might come to help them, whether they should order vampire pizza.

 

“Come on, Emma,” said Cristina, rising to her feet and folding the map into her jacket pocket. “We should get going. We need to change into gear and catch up to Sterling—he’s heading toward the freeway.”

 

Emma nodded and turned to follow Cristina. She could feel Julian’s gaze on her, like a sharp point between her shoulder blades. Don’t turn back to look at him, she told herself, but she couldn’t help it; at the door, she turned, and the look on his face almost undid her.

 

He looked like she felt. Hollow and bled dry. It wasn’t that she was walking away from the boy she loved with a thousand words unsaid between them, Emma thought, though it was true that she was doing that. It was that she was terrified that a rift had opened between her and the person who had been her best friend as long as she could remember. And from the look of it, Julian was afraid of the same thing.

 

“Sorry,” Emma said, as the car righted itself. They’d been driving around for several hours as Sterling

 

hurtled all over the city, and her hands were starting to ache from gripping the wheel. Cristina sighed. “Are you going to tell me what’s bothering you?”

Emma shifted. She was wearing her gear jacket, and it was hot in the car. She felt as if all her skin was itching. “I’m really, really sorry, Tina,” she said. “I didn’t think—I shouldn’t have asked you to cover up for me when I went to the convergence. It wasn’t fair.”

 

Cristina was silent for a moment. “I would have done it,” she said. “If you’d told me what it was about.”

 

Emma’s throat felt tight. “I’m not used to trusting people. But I should have trusted you. When you leave, I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m going to miss you so much.”

 

Cristina smiled at her. “Come to the D.F.,” she said. “See how we do things there. You can take your travel year in my city.” She paused. “I forgive you, by the way.”

 

A small weight lifted from Emma’s chest. “I’d love to go to Mexico,” she said. “And Julian would—” She broke off. Of course most people with parabatai accompanied them on their travel year. But the

thought of Julian hurt, a sharp quick pain like a needle stick.

“Are you going to tell me what’s bothering you?” Cristina asked. “No,” Emma said.

“Fine. Then turn left onto Entrada,” Cristina said.

“It’s like having supernatural GPS,” Emma observed. She could see Cristina scowling at the map across her knees in the passenger seat.

 

“We head toward Santa Monica,” Cristina said, tracing a finger along the map. “Go down Seventh.” “Sterling’s an idiot,” Emma said. “He knows someone’s trying to kill him. He shouldn’t be wandering

around the city.”

“He probably thinks his own house isn’t that safe,” Cristina pointed out reasonably. “I mean, I ambushed him there.”

 

“Right,” Emma said. She couldn’t stop worrying a rip in the knee of her gear. The memory of Julian on the beach, the things he had said to her, pressed against the backs of her eyes. She let the thoughts pass through her. When it came time, she’d have to let them all go and concentrate on the fight.

 

“And, of course, there are the enormous bunny rabbits,” Cristina said. “What?” Emma snapped back to the present.

 

“I’ve been talking at you for the last three minutes! Where is your mind, Emma?” “I slept with Julian,” Emma said.

 

Cristina shrieked. Then she clapped her hands over her mouth and stared at Emma as if Emma had just announced there was a grenade strapped to the roof of the car and about to explode.

“Did you hear what I said?” Emma asked.

“Yes,” Cristina said, taking her hands away from her mouth. “You slept with Julian Blackthorn.” Emma’s breath whooshed out of her in a rush. There was something about hearing it said back to her

that made her feel as if she’d been gut punched.

 

“I thought you weren’t going to tell me what was wrong!” Cristina said. “I changed my mind.”

 

“Why?” They were whipping around corners lined with palm trees, stucco houses set back from the streets. Emma knew she was driving too fast; she didn’t care.

“I mean—I was in the ocean, and he pulled me out, and things got out of hand—”

“No,” Cristina said. “Not why did you do it. Why did you change your mind about telling me?” “Because I’m a horrible liar,” Emma said. “You would have guessed.”

 

“Maybe. Maybe not.” Cristina took a deep breath. “I suppose I should ask the real question. Do you love him?”

 

Emma didn’t say anything. She kept her eyes on the broken yellow line in the middle of the road. The

 

sun was a fiery orange ball lowering in the west. Cristina exhaled slowly. “You do love him.” “I didn’t say that.”

 

“It’s all over your face,” Cristina said. “I know what that looks like.” She sounded sad. “Don’t pity me, Tina,” Emma said. “Please don’t.”

“I’m just frightened for you. The Law is very clear, and the punishments are so severe.”

“Well, it doesn’t matter,” said Emma, her voice tinged with bitterness. “He doesn’t love me. And being unrequitedly in love with your parabatai isn’t illegal, so don’t worry.”

“He what?” Cristina said, sounding shocked.

“He doesn’t love me,” said Emma. “He was very clear about that.” Cristina opened her mouth, and then closed it again.

“I guess it’s flattering that you’re surprised,” Emma said.

“I don’t know what to say.” Cristina put her hand over her heart. “There are the things you would normally say in this situation. If it was anyone else but Julian I’d be telling you how lucky he was to have someone as brave and smart as you are in love with him. I would be scheming with you about how we could make such a silly boy realize such an obvious thing. But it is Julian, and it is illegal, and you must not do anything more, Emma. Promise me.”

 

“He doesn’t want me that way,” Emma said. “So it doesn’t matter. I just—” She broke off. She didn’t know what else to say or how to say it. There was never going to be another Julian for her.

 

Don’t think that way. Just because you can’t imagine loving anyone else doesn’t mean that you won’t. But the soft inner voice of her father didn’t reassure her this time.

 

“I just don’t know why it’s illegal,” she finished, though that had not been what she had meant to say. “It doesn’t make any sense. Julian and I have done everything together, for years, we’ve lived and nearly died for each other, how could there be anyone else better for me than him? Anyone else better—” She broke off again.

 

“Emma, please don’t think like this. It doesn’t matter why it’s illegal. It just matters that it is. The Law is hard, but it is the Law.”

 

“A bad law is no law,” Emma countered, swinging a hard right onto Pico Boulevard. Pico ran almost the full length of metropolitan Los Angeles—it was swanky, gritty, dangerous, abandoned, and industrial by turns. Here between the freeway and the ocean it was full of small businesses and restaurants.

 

“That motto has not served the Blackthorns well,” Cristina murmured, and Emma was about to ask her what she meant when Cristina sat up straight. “Here,” she said, pointing. “Sterling’s here. I just saw him go into that building.”

 

On the south side of the road was a low, sloping brown-painted building, windowless, with a single door and a sign proclaiming NO ONE UNDER 21 ALLOWED.

“Looks friendly,” Emma muttered, and pulled over to park.

They got out of the car and went to collect their weapons. They already bore glamour runes, and the few pedestrians passing by—hardly anyone walked in L.A., and while there were plenty of cars around, there were very few people—looked through them as if they weren’t there. A girl with bright green hair glanced at Emma as she passed by, but didn’t stop.

 

“You’re right,” Emma said as they buckled on their seraph blades. Each blade had a small hook that allowed it to be affixed to a weapons belt and removed with a quick downward jerk of the hand. “About Julian. I know you are.”

Cristina gave her a quick, one-armed hug. “And you will do the right thing. I know you will.”

 

Emma was already scanning the building, looking for entrances. There were no windows that she could see, but a narrow alley snaked around the back of the bar, partially blocked by an overgrown patch of needle grass. She gestured toward it, and she and Cristina slipped silently through the low, dusty

 

vegetation that grew—barely—in the polluted air.

 

The sun was setting, and it was dark in the alley behind the bar. A row of chained-together trash cans were propped under a barred and boarded-up window.

 

“I can get the bars off, if I climb up there,” Emma whispered, indicating the trash cans. “Okay, wait.” Cristina pulled out her stele. “Runes.”

 

Cristina’s runes were careful, precise, and beautiful. Emma could feel the power of a strength rune jolt through her like a kick of caffeine. It wasn’t like having Julian put runes on her—that felt as if his strength were flowing into her, doubling her own.

 

Cristina turned around, shrugging her jacket down, presenting the line of her bare shoulder to Emma. She handed the stele to Emma, who began to draw—two overlapping Soundless runes, Sure-Strike, Flexibility.

 

“Please don’t think I’m angry,” Cristina said, facing the opposite wall. “I worry for you, is all. You are so strong, Emma. You are strong down to your bones. People live through heartbreak, and you are strong enough to live through it many times. But Julian is not someone who can just touch your heart. He can touch your soul. And there is a difference between having your heart break and having your soul shatter.”

 

The stele faltered in Emma’s hand. “I thought the Angel had a plan.”

“He does. But please don’t love him, Emma.” Cristina’s voice broke. “Please.” There was a catch in Emma’s throat when she spoke. “Who broke your heart?”

 

Cristina turned around, shrugging her jacket back on. Her brown eyes were serious. “You told me a secret, so I will tell you a secret. I was in love with Diego, and I thought he was in love with me. But it was all a lie. I thought his brother was my best friend, but that was a lie too. That is why I ran away. Why I came here.” She looked away. “I lost them both. My best friend and my best love, on the same day. It was hard for me to believe that Raziel had a plan then.”

My best friend and my best love.

Cristina took the stele and slid it back into her belt. “I’m not the one who’s strong, Tina. That’s you.”

Cristina gave her a quick smile and held out her hand. “Go.”

Grabbing Cristina’s hand, Emma pushed off to propel herself upward. Her boots hit the top of the trash cans, making the chain rattle. She grabbed the bars of the window and pulled, liking the bite of the metal into her palms.

 

The bars pulled free of the soft stucco with a shower of tiny pebbles. Emma handed the metal grid down, and Cristina tossed it into the grass. Emma reached a hand down, and a second later Cristina was beside her and they were both peering into a smudged window at a dirty back kitchen. Water was running in a massive metal sink full of glasses.

 

Emma drew her foot back, ready to smash the glass with the steel tip of her boot. Cristina caught her shoulder. “Wait.” She bent down and grabbed the window by its frame. The Strength rune on her neck buckled and glowed as she wrenched the rotted frame free and dropped it onto the plastic trash cans below. “Quieter that way,” she said.

 

Emma grinned and swung in through the window, landing on top of a crate full of vodka bottles. She sprang down and Cristina followed her. Cristina’s boots hit the floor just as the kitchen door swung open and a short man in a bartender’s apron with spiked black hair came into the room. The moment he caught sight of Emma and Cristina he let out a startled yelp.

Great, Emma thought. He had the Sight.

 

“Hello there,” she said. “We’re from the Department of Health. Did you know that there is no antibacterial hand gel left in these dispensers?”

 

This did not seem to impress the bartender. His gaze went from Emma to Cristina to the open window. “What the hell are you bitches doing, breaking in here? I’m gonna call the—”

 

Emma picked up a wooden spoon from the draining board and threw it. It thunked into the side of the bartender’s head. He went down in a heap. She strolled over and checked his pulse; it was regular. She glanced up at Cristina. “I hate being called a bitch.”

 

Cristina moved past her and pushed the door open, peeking out, while Emma dragged the bartender into the corner of the room and pushed him gently behind the stacked crates of bottles.

Cristina wrinkled up her nose. “Yuck.”

Emma let go of the bartender’s feet. They thumped to the ground. “What? Is something horrible happening out there?”

 

“No, it’s just a really disgusting bar,” said Cristina. “Why would anyone want to drink here?” Emma joined her at the door and they both peered out.

“Bars in the D.F. are much nicer,” Cristina said. “I think someone has thrown up in that corner.”

She pointed. Emma didn’t look, but she believed it. The bar wasn’t just dimly lit, it was barely lit. The floor was concrete, strewn with cigarette butts. There was a zinc-countered bar, and a mirror behind it on which drink prices had been scrawled in marker. Men in flannel shirts and jeans crowded around a ragged-felt pool table. Others stood silently drinking at the bar. The place smelled like sour, old beer and cigarette smoke.

 

Hunched at the far end of the bar was a man in a familiar herringbone jacket. Sterling. “There he is,” said Emma.

 

“The Tracking rune doesn’t lie.” Cristina ducked under Emma’s arm and stepped into the room. Emma followed. She felt the slight pressure on her skin that came with the gaze of many mundane eyes, but her glamour runes held. The single bartender looked up as the kitchen door swung shut, probably searching for his coworker, but turned back to polishing glasses when he didn’t see anything.

 

As Emma and Cristina approached, an extraordinary expression crossed Sterling’s face. A mixture of shock, followed by despair, followed by a sort of hilarity. There was a glass on the bar in front of him, half-full of golden liquid; he grabbed it up and tossed back the drink. When he slammed the glass back down on the bar, his eyes were gleaming.

“Nephilim,” he snarled.

 

The bartender looked over at him in surprise. Several of the other customers shifted on their stools. “That’s right,” Sterling said. “They think I’m crazy.” He whipped his arm out to indicate the other bar

 

patrons. “I’m talking to no one. Empty air. But you. You don’t care. You’re here to torture me.” He staggered to his feet.

“Whoa,” Emma said. “You are drunk.”

Sterling popped off two finger guns in her direction. “Very observant, blondie.”

 

“Dude!” The bartender slammed a glass down on the countertop. “If you’re going to talk to yourself, do it outside. You’re ruining the ambiance.”

“This place has ambiance?” said Emma.

“Emma, focus,” said Cristina. She turned to Sterling. “We’re not here to torture you. We’re here to help you. We keep telling you that.”

 

“Keep telling yourselves that,” he hissed, and yanked a clump of bills from his pocket. He tossed them onto the bar. “Bye, Jimmy,” he said to the bartender. “See you again never.”

He stalked to the door and stiff-armed it open. Emma and Cristina dashed after him.

Emma was only too pleased to be back outside. Sterling was already hurrying down the street, his head down. The sun had fully set, and the streetlights were on, filling the air with a yellow sodium glow. Cars rushed by on Pico.

 

Sterling was moving fast. Cristina called out to him, but he didn’t turn around, just hunched down inside his suit jacket and moved more quickly. Suddenly he veered to the left, between two buildings, and disappeared.

 

Emma cursed under her breath and broke into a run. Excitement prickled up her veins. She loved running, the way it blanked her mind, the way it made her forget everything but the breath rushing in and out of her lungs.

 

The mouth of an alley loomed up to her left. Not a garbage alley—this one was nearly as wide as a street and ran along the back of a long line of apartment buildings with cheap stucco balconies that faced out over the backstreet. A gray concrete drain ran down the center.

 

Partway down the alley Sterling’s gray Jeep was parked. He was leaning against the driver’s side door, trying to jerk it open. Emma sprang onto his back, yanking him away from the car. He spun around, stumbled, and hit the ground.

 

“Dammit!” he yelped, pulling himself up onto his knees. “I thought you said you were here to help me!” “In a larger sense, yes,” said Emma. “Because it’s our job. But nobody calls me ‘blondie’ and keeps

their kneecaps.”

“Emma,” Cristina said warningly.

 

“Get up,” Emma said, reaching out a hand to Sterling. “Come with us. But if you call me ‘blondie’ again, I’ll rip your knees off and turn them into tiny hubcaps, ’kay?”

 

“Stop yelling at him, Emma,” said Cristina. “Casper—Mr. Sterling—we need to stay with you, all right? We know you’re in danger and we want to help you.”

 

“If you want to help me, you’ll get away from me,” Sterling shouted. “I need to be left alone!” “So you can end up drowned and burned, covered in markings, with your fingerprints sanded off?”

 

Emma said. “That’s what you want?” Sterling gaped at her. “What?”

 

“Emma!” Emma realized Cristina was looking up. A shape was slipping along the roof—a man in dark clothes, a dangerous, familiar shadow. Emma’s heart thumped in her chest.

 

“Get up!” She grabbed Sterling’s hand, yanking him to his feet. He struggled, then sagged against her, his mouth open, as the dark shape on the roof leaped down, landing on a jutting balcony. Emma could see him more clearly now: a man in black, a dark hood pulled up to hide his face.

 

There was a crossbow in his right hand. He raised it. Emma gave Sterling a shove that almost knocked him off his feet.

“Run!” she shouted.

Sterling didn’t move. He was gaping at the figure in black, a look of total disbelief on his face. Something whizzed by Emma’s ear—a crossbow bolt. Senses heightened, she heard the loud snick as

 

Cristina’s butterfly knife snapped open, and the whir as it flew through the air. She heard the man in black yell, and the crossbow fell from his hand. It crashed into the alley, and a moment later the man in black followed, landing with a harsh thud on Sterling’s back.

 

Sterling went sprawling. The man in black, crouched over him, raised his hand; something silvery flashed between his fingers. A knife. He brought it down—

 

And Cristina careened into him, knocking him sideways. He went sprawling, and Sterling staggered to his feet and ran for his car. He half-fell into it, gasping. Emma raced after him, but the car was already gathering speed, hurtling down the alley.

 

She spun back around just as the man in black sprang up. Emma was on him in seconds, flinging him up against the stained wall of the apartment building.

 

He tried to pull away, but Emma had her fist knotted in the front of his sweatshirt. “You shot Julian,” she said. “I should kill you right here.”

 

“Emma.” Cristina was on her feet. Her gaze was fixed on the man in black. “Find out who he is first.” Emma grabbed his hood with her free hand and yanked it down, revealing—

 

A boy. Not a man, she thought, jolted, definitely a boy—maybe a year older than her—with tangled dark hair. His jaw was set and his black eyes snapped with anger.

 

Cristina gasped. “Dios mío, ¡no puedo creer que seas tú!”

 

“What?” Emma demanded, looking from the boy to Cristina and back again. “What’s going on?” “Emma.” Cristina looked stunned, as if she’d had the breath knocked out of her. “This is Diego. Diego

Rocio Rosales, meet Emma Carstairs.”

 

The air outside the Institute was strong and bracing, smelling of sage and salt. Julian could hear the low hum of cicadas filling the air, softening the noise of Diana slamming the truck door shut. She came around the side of the truck and paused when she saw Julian standing on the front steps.

“Jules,” she said. “What are you doing out here?”

“I could ask you that,” he said. “Are you leaving? Again?”

She tucked her hair behind her ears, but several curls escaped, caught by the escalating wind. She wore dark clothes, not gear but black jeans and gloves and boots. “I have to go.”

 

He took a step down. “How long will you be gone for?” “I don’t know.”

 

“So we shouldn’t depend on you.” The heaviness in Julian’s chest felt like more than he could bear. He wanted to lash out, kick something. He wanted Emma, to talk to, to reassure him. But he couldn’t think about Emma.

“Believe it or not,” Diana said, “I’m doing my best for you.”

 

Julian looked down at his hands. His sea-glass bracelet glowed on his wrist. He remembered the gleam of it under the water the night before, as he swam down toward Emma. “What do you expect me to tell them?” he said. “If they ask me where you are.”

“Make something up,” Diana said. “You’re good at that.”

 

Anger surged up in him—if he was a liar, and a good one, it was because he had never had a choice. “I know things about you,” Julian said. “I know you left for your travel year, went to Thailand, and

didn’t come back until after your father died.”

Diana paused, one hand on the truck door. “Have you been investigating me, Julian?” “I know things because I have to know them,” Julian said. “I need to be careful.”

 

Diana yanked the door open. “I came here,” she said, softly, “knowing it was a bad idea. Knowing that caring about you children was tying myself to a fate I couldn’t control. I did it because I saw how much you cared about each other, you and your brothers and sisters, and it meant something to me. Try to believe that, Julian.”

 

“I know you understand about brothers and sisters,” said Julian. “You had a brother. He died in Thailand. You never talk about him.”

 

She got into the truck, slammed the door shut after her, the window still open. “I don’t owe you answers, Julian,” she said. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

 

“It’s all right,” he said. He suddenly felt enormously tired. “They won’t ask where you are, anyway. They don’t really expect you to be around.”

 

He saw Diana cover her face with her hands. A moment later, the truck started up. Lights illuminated the front of the Institute, sweeping over the sandy grass as the truck rumbled down the hill.

 

Julian stood where he was for a long time. He wasn’t sure how long. Long enough for the sun to go down entirely, for the glow to fade from the hills. Long enough for him to turn to go back inside, straightening his shoulders, preparing himself.

 

That was when he heard the noise. He spun around and saw them: a vast crowd, coming up the road toward the Institute.

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