"If at first you don't succeed, try, try again."
I had always been good at blending in among my peers. The vast majority of my life went toward pretending to be what I wasn't, just so that I could fit in. When I broke ties with the Lumiere, on one level, I had thought that would be over. I probably should have known better. But that realization comes later.
Before everything shifted again, I found myself packing snow into a tight ball before adding it to the newest pile I was building. I was on my fourth pile, each with exactly thirty snowballs. I knew because I kept recounting to be sure.
Yes, I was beyond bored. I was entering the land of no return. Brain cells were killing each other off just for something to do. I was going insane, which I suppose was still better than the alternative.
What felt like a lifetime ago, but was only twenty-eight days, I had been forced to fake my own death. The short version of a very long story starts with me walking away from the Lumiere.
The Lumiere is a powerful and large coven of white mages. They are also the same people who raised me when my mother died. However, through a series of events that would turn this shortened version of the story into the long one, they decided to make an enemy of me and practically banished me. Then they put a hit out on my head.
That was where the whole "faked death" thing came in. The only way to get them off my back once and for all was to convince them that their attempts to kill me had succeeded. Of course, that had all led to my making snowballs out of boredom. Trust me, it makes sense. Though, I supposed I skipped some steps.
Faked my death, went into hiding among the local vampire court. Their house of business was where they had hidden me, well away from the school I had been attending and all other signs of civilization.
Which brings me, once more, back to the snowballs. There was absolutely nothing to do. Oh, yeah, they had a television, but I wasn't big on sitting still for long periods of time. The same went for their state of the art computers. Of course, I didn't really have a clue what I was doing with those. After the second one started billowing out smoke, we all agreed it would be best for me not to touch them again.
They also had quite the collection of old spell books. Normally I would have delved into those head first and without a glance back. Of course, normally, I had Bambi, my lifelong friend badgering me into it.
Bambi, also known as Banzar by those who feared and respected him, had been taken by the Lumire when I "died." It had been the only way to fully convince the Lumiere that I was no longer a problem. Even knowing that Yiska was rescuing him at this moment didn't make me any happier about the whole thing, or miss Bambi any less.
Yiska, by the way, is my Deman servant. And yes, it's Deman, not a demon from hell, though he had some very demonic qualities.
There's another long story that I don't plan on getting into. Suffice it to say that there's a curse involved, and finding the cure was the only thing that kept me at the books for as long as I was. But eventually I couldn't focus no matter how hard I tried. It probably wouldn't have been so bad, if I'd had company. During the nights, I had gotten to know some of the vampires fairly well. Better than I wanted to in some cases. But that was only at night. During the day, I was left to my own devices. With, of course, the strict orders not to go anywhere.
I almost had enough to finish off my fourth pile. Don't ask what I planned to do with all those snowballs. I hadn't thought that far ahead. Maybe I would pack them into a sort of wall around the snowwoman I'd put together the day before. My vampire hosts had found her somewhat amusing. AT least, Lorenzo did. It was hard to tell with the others.
After awhile, vampires developed what I started calling their "court faces." They shed outward signs of emotion to keep their enemies from learning unnecessary information. I was almost positive I would never be able to do that. I was far too expressive. I had, however, gotten better at picking up on the more subtle vampire expressions.
"Going to war?" a familiar, annoying voice yanked me out of my thoughts. For a moment, I experienced an internal tug of war between joy at the company and the initial irritation I always experienced when I was confronted with Stephan Thatcher.
As my former roommate, Thatcher was one of the few non-vampires that knew I was still alive. Hell, he had even helped "kill" me. Without telling me what he was going to do beforehand, mind. I still hadn't forgiven him for that stunt.
Thatcher's hair and eyes were both pitch black. His bangs were a bit on the long side, falling into a narrow face with a sharp nose and strong chin. Thin, wire rimmed glasses framed his eyes, neither adding to nor taking away from his overall appearance.
As a black mage, he was the natural opposite of my white mage. It was, most likely, that reason why I always had a kneejerk urge to dislike him. The fact that he seemed to delight in irritating me didn't help much.
But he had proven in the past to be decent enough. He had, as I said, helped me evade the Lumiere. He had also cleared up some things I hadn't understood but would have known if I hadn't grown up in a cloistered mountain village. For whatever reason, he got a kick out of helping me despite the animosity I often displayed against him.
That, combined with my overwhelming desire for company, drowned out my annoyance and allowed my joy at seeing a semi-friendly face to win.
"Thatcher," I greeted him, trying not to seem as desperate as I really was for a distraction from the boredom. "What are you doing out here?"
This was the first I'd seen of my roommate since he drugged me so that my body would give off the indications of being dead. The reminder allowed me to scowl darkly at him. Helpful though it may have been, I would have liked a warning.
"I can't simply come to check on you?" he asked with an arched brow. Though the words were probably meant to convey concern, I could swear I detected an underlying mocking tone.
Though that might have just been my imagination.
"Did you?" I countered, expecting him to come clean. Thatcher was many things. Among them, generally, was honest. Of course, the whole drugging thing was an exception. Probably.
Bambi most likely would have yelled at me for even considering the possibility that anyone was honest, let alone Thatcher. But then Bambi tended to be more than a little on the paranoid side when it came to anything that could be a threat to my safety. You know… about everything.
"Yes, actually," my former roommate informed me, surprising me.
For a moment, I just gaped at him. I really truly hadn't expected him to admit to feeling concern for anyone, especially not me. After a moment, I managed to remember the manners my guardians had tried to drill into me.
"Want to come in?" I asked, no longer expecting anything. Knowing Thatcher, he'd find a way to screw with my head regardless of what I thought.
"Unless you're still making ammo?" he asked. Once again, I detected that underlying mockery. Of course, I had no clue what he was talking about, which didn't help.
"What?" I asked with a frown. Bambi probably would have known what Thatcher meant. He was good at reading and understanding people. Better than me, anyway.
Thatcher waved at my snow piles. "Looks like you're stocking up for a snowball war."
I stared at him for a long moment. In the past, I'd seen others flinging snowballs at one another. It had looked like a great deal of fun but I'd never joined in. I'd gotten the distinct impression that if I had tried, the fun would have stopped. I had always been borderline outcast. It's only recently that it became official and full.
I didn't know how to respond to Thatcher's suggestion. The answer should have been obvious. Who was I going to use the snowballs on out here? The vampires?
Now that was a tempting idea. Stupid, but tempting.
"I'll take your vacant stare as a denial," Thatcher decided while I was busy weighing the pros and cons of waging a snowball war on creatures far older, faster, and stronger than me.
"Let's go inside," I decided before the insanity boredom had planted took full root and I actually tried a suicide run.
Death by snowball. How humiliating.
Thatcher merely watched as I dusted myself off and led him into the house. Not needing much light to see, the vampires didn't believe in electric lights. Since I had come to live with them, though, they had invested in several oil lamps and matches. I probably could have done a spell that would have given me a source of light. I knew a few. However, thanks to a small mishap, the queen was a bit nervous about letting me use magic in her house. You blow up one room and they never forget.
I held back the urge to use my magic. It wasn't as hard as you'd think. Bambi had been a big believer in keeping all your weapons sharp and honed, and he considered magic only one of mine.
I led Thatcher inside and grabbed the oil lamp from where I had left it by the door. By now, I knew my way around the house. Just as I knew where I couldn't take my former roommate. Instead of leading him to one of the many open and unwelcoming sitting rooms, I led him to the bedroom I had been given. Unlike the rest of the house, the drapes were drawn back from the windows, allowing the natural sunlight to fill the room pleasantly. I blew out the flame in the lamp, to conserve oil, and set it aside before peeling off my winter coat and hanging it up. Thatcher followed my example and hung up his coat as well.
I frowned as I recognized the uniform from my old school. "You came straight from class or something?" I asked. I knew all too well that the boys at Dark Rivers Academy always shed their uniforms as soon as they could. Thatcher had never been an exception.
"Something similar," he confirmed, sitting on the edge of my bed. His eyes flicked toward my ear then over my form, no doubt taking the lack of Bambi and breast binder. I didn't mind the missing torture device, and I could understand Thatcher's notice. He hadn't seen me dress normally very often.
Confused? The shot version of a long story is that for as long as Thatcher had known me, I had been masquerading as a boy. The why goes into the long story.
"Bambi isn't back yet?" Thatcher asked, tactfully not commenting on my newfound freedoms. "I thought by now…"
"Me, too," I grumbled, flopping beside him on the bed. Depression and loneliness swamped irritation with Thatcher for the moment. "Yiska must be finding the Archives harder to get into than he thought."
The Archives were the secure underground vaults where the Lumiere kept all the magical artifacts they had collected over the generations.
Did I mention that Bambi is a demonic sword? No? Well… he is. Not just any sword, but the feared and notorious Banzar, the angel slayer. I called him Bambi, obviously. Another long story there.
Starting to pick up on a pattern yet? Good for you! There's a lot of long stories involved in my life lately.
"You're certain nothing has happened to him?" Thatcher asked with a frown, giving voice to a fear that had been nagging at me for the past couple weeks.
With more certainty than I felt, I shook my head. "Nothing's happened to Yiska. I can still feel him."
AS if to prove it, I focused on that corner of my mind where Yiska had set up residence when the curse bound us together. I could feel his emotions there, nudging at the back of my mind. Usually, he was angry or bored. For the past few days he had been feeling patient. Almost like a hunting cat hidden in the grass, waiting for just the right moment to pounce.
"I think he's biding his time," I added with a scowl. Yiska might have been feeling patient and willing to wait, but I was going out of my mind here. I absolutely hated being out of the loop on this.
"Have you tried talking to him?" Thatcher asked, peering down at me from his still sitting position. I glared at him.
"And how am I supposed to do that?" I snapped, irritation bubbling to the surface. I embraced it, glad for the familiarity of it. "Call up the Lumiere and ask them to hand the phone to the Deman lurking around the Archives?"
"Nothing so dramatic," Thatcher replied with a smirk. " I was just wondering if your bond would allow you to communicate across distances."
I gaped at him, struck dumb by the very possibility of the idea. Why hadn't I thought of that sooner? I could still monitor Yiska's emotions at this distance, so if I could communicate with him along the bond, then it should still work despite how far he was.
So the question was… should I even try? Yiska loathed the bond between us. He viewed it as a form of enslavement, which it was. I may not have tied us together intentionally, but that didn't change the fact that he had no choice but to obey my every order. I did my best to give him as much freedom and privacy as possible, but sometimes I couldn't help it.
Would speaking directly to him, the way Thatcher suggested, be an invasion of privacy? Was I in danger of opening a door I wouldn't be able to close? If I reached out to him, would he be able to stop me if he wanted? From what I knew of the bond, arrows pointed toward no.
Would it be fair for me to take that step without his permission? Just to satisfy my curiosity? Then again, I was very much in the dark and we were talking, more or less, about getting Bambi back.
I sat up and faced Thatcher, hoping I wasn't about to make a horrible mistake. "What do I do?" I asked, half expecting Thatcher to know, since it was his idea to begin with.
"How do you keep track of him normally?" he asked with an unhelpful shrug. Seeing that he was going to be more or less useless, I groaned and flopped back into a semi-laying position.
"I don't really do anything to keep track of him," I admitted, half thinking aloud. "He's just there in the back of my head. It's like tapping into your mental vaults, I guess. I only get emotions from him."
"And energy," Thatcher reminded me. I spared a half second to wonder how he knew that before dismissing it. He'd probably overheard me discussing it with Bambi or Yiska. Or I explained it to him. I couldn't really remember.
"Well, yeah, sometimes. When I don't close that door," I admitted. "But it goes both ways. He can feed from me whenever he wants." I had no control over that.
"Have you tried sending thoughts down that connection?" my former roommate asked, as if it was an obvious question. Maybe to him it was.
"What, like yelling through the doorway?" I asked with a frown. Everything active about this blasted connection seemed to revolve around that door. The emotions I got from Yiska were like water lapping at a beach. I didn't have to do anything to hear it because it was always there. I could "listen" or I could tune it out. What Thatcher was asking felt a bit trickier.
And involved opening the door wider than I wanted to. It had been wide open exactly twice since the curse had settled into place. Back when I didn't realize what it was, and the first time I tried to open it when I needed to tap into Yiska's reserves. Both times, energy had flooded into me like a jolt of adrenaline.
The first time I had soaked it up without any ill effects. Of course, I had been trying to catch up on several weeks of sleep and needed the overabundance. Long story. The second time had been different and had taught me to keep that opening to just a crack.
"If that's how you want to think about it," Thatcher shrugged, seeming unconcerned with the terminology.
I frowned for a moment before sighing. It couldn't hurt to try, right? With a muttered grumble, I shifted so that I was more comfortable. After a bit more fussing, I closed my eyes and tried to concentrate.
And felt Thatcher watching me, like a tangible touch against my skin. It was more than a little distracting and reminded me of another time Thatcher had been so close to me. I quickly buried the memory just as I had multiple times before, not wanting to think about it. Since he never brought the incident up, I could only assume he thought it had been a mistake as well. Either that or he hadn't thought much of it at the time and still didn't.
"Stop staring at me," I ordered, trying not to sound as uncomfortable as I felt. "It's distracting."
"If you insist," he murmured. If I hadn't known better, I would have said he sounded almost amused. Hell… I did know better. The bastard was amused.
I opened my eyes long enough to shoot a glare at him before trying to focus again. After a moment, the pressure of his gaze remained just as intent. "You're still staring," I told him without opening my eyes. The pressure vanished abruptly as he looked away.
Satisfied, I focused on the door in the back of my mind. It was closed at the moment, since I didn't need to draw on Yiska's energy. I really did try to avoid taking advantage of our bond. As stupid as it might sound, I wanted Yiska to like me and feel comfortable around me.
Usually, he put as much distance between us as a room would allow, while still maintaining the insistence that I be protected. He only ever touched me when it was necessary to keep me from doing something stupid, or getting myself killed. Or when he was trying to warn someone else off messing with me. I didn't think he hated me anymore, but I couldn't quite trick myself into thinking he liked me. The best I could hope for was indifference.
I pushed these thoughts out of my mind and focused on the door. I had never looked too closely at it, except to know it was there. Now that I examined it more closely, I saw that it kept shifting. I could practically feel Yiska on the other side, though it was a muted sensation.
With the mental equivalent of a deep breath, I opened the door just a crack and sent a tentative thought through it. Shock washed around me like a sudden blast of air. Then something yanked me right through that tiny crack.