"Are you okay?"

"Yeah, I'm okay. Totally. Fine." I lied.

"You don't look fine," Erik said. "Mind if I sit down?"

"No, go ahead," I said listlessly. I knew my nose was bright red. I'd definitely been snotting on myself when he walked up, and I had the sneaking suspicion he'd witnessed at least part of the nightmare between Heath and me. The night was just getting worse and worse. I glanced at him and decided, What the hell, I might as well continue the trend. "In case you didn't realize it, it was me who saw that little scene between you and Aphrodite in the hall yesterday."

He didn't even hesitate. "I know, and I wish you hadn't. I don't want you to get the wrong idea about me."

"And what idea would that be?"

"That there's more going on between Aphrodite and me than there really is." "Not my business," I said.

He shrugged. "I just want you to know that she and I are not going out anymore."

I almost said that it sure looked like Aphrodite wasn't aware of that, but then I thought about what had just happened between Heath and me, and with a sense of surprise I realized that maybe I shouldn't judge Erik too harshly.

"Okay. You guys aren't going out," I said.

He sat quietly beside me for a little while, and when he spoke again I thought he sounded almost angry. "Aphrodite didn't tell you about the blood in the wine."

He hadn't said it like a question, but I answered anyway. "Nope."

He shook his head and I saw his jaw tighten. "She told me she was going to. She said she'd let you know while you were changing your clothes so that if you weren't okay with it you could skip drinking from the goblet."

"She lied."

"Not a big surprise," he said.

"Ya think?" I could feel my own anger building inside me. "This whole thing has just been wrong. I get pressured into going to the Dark Daughters' ritual where I'm tricked into drinking blood. Then I meet up with my almost-ex-boyfriend who just happens to be one hundred percent human, and no-damn-body bothered to explain to me that the tiniest speck of his blood would turn me into...into...a monster." I bit my lip and held on to my anger so I wouldn't start crying again. I also decided I wouldn't say anything about thinking I saw Elizabeth's ghost-- that was too much weird to admit for one night.

"No one explained it to you because it's something that shouldn't have started to effect you until you were a sixth former," he said quietly.

"Huh?" I was back to being dazzlingly articulate.

"Bloodlust doesn't usually begin until you're a sixth former and you're almost completely Changed. Once in a while you'll hear about a fifth former who has to deal with it early, but that doesn't happen very often."

"Wait--what are you saying?" My mind felt like bees were buzzing around in it.

"You start having classes about bloodlust and other things mature vamps have to deal with during your fifth form, and then, in your final year, that's mostly what school focuses on--that and whatever you've decided to major in."

"But I'm a third former--barely I mean, I've only been Marked a few days."

"Your Mark is different; you're different," he said.

"I don't want to be different!" I realized I was shouting and got my voice under control. "I just want to figure out how to get through this like everybody else."

"Too late, Z," he said.

"So what now?"

"I think you'd better talk to your mentor. It's Neferet, isn't it?"

"Yeah," I said miserably.

"Hey, cheer up. Neferet's great. She hardly ever takes on fledglings to mentor anymore, so she must really believe in you."

"I know, I know. It's just that this makes me feel..." How did I feel about talking to Neferet about what had happened tonight? Embarrassed. Like I was twelve years old again and I had to tell our male gym teacher that I'd started my period and had to go to the locker room to change my shorts. I peeked sideways at Erik. There he sat, gorgeous and attentive and perfect. Hell. I couldn't tell him that. So instead I blurted, "Stupid. It makes me feel stupid." Which wasn't actually a lie, but mostly what it made me feel, besides embarrassed and stupid, was scared. I didn't want this thing that made it impossible for me to fit in.

"Don't feel stupid. You're actually way ahead of the rest of us."

"So...," I hesitated, then took a deep breath and barreled on, "did you like the way the blood in the goblet tasted tonight?"

"Well, here's the deal with that: My first Full Moon Ritual with the Dark Daughters was at the end of my third former year. Except for the 'refrigerator' that night, I was the only third former there-- just like you tonight." He gave a small, humorless laugh. "They only invited me because I'd finaled in the Shakespeare soliloquy contest and was being flown to London for the competition the next day." He glanced at me and looked a little embarrassed. "No one from this House of Night had ever made it to London. It was a big deal." He shook his head self-mockingly. "Actually, I thought I was a big deal. So the Dark Daughters invited me to join them, and I did. I knew about the blood. I was given the opportunity to turn it down. I didn't."

"But did you like it?"

This time his laugh was real. "I gagged and puked my guts up. It was the most disgusting thing I'd ever tasted."

I groaned. My head dropped forward and I put my face in my hands. "You're not helping me."

"Because you thought it was good?"

"Better than good," I said, my face still in my hands. "You say it was the most disgusting thing you'd ever tasted? I thought it was the most delicious. Well, the most delicious until I--" I stopped, realizing what I had been about to say.

"Until you tasted fresh blood?" he asked gently.

I nodded my head, afraid to speak.

He tugged at my hands, making me unbury my face. Then he put his finger under my chin and forced me to look straight at him. "Don't be embarrassed or ashamed. It's normal."

"Loving the taste of blood is not normal. Not for me."

"Yes, it is. All vampyres have to deal with their lust for blood," he said.

"I am not a vampyre!"

"Maybe you're not--yet. But you're also definitely not the average fledgling, and there's nothing wrong with that. You're special, Zoey, and special can be amazing."

Slowly, he took his finger from my chin and, as he had earlier that night, he traced the shape of a pentagram softly over my darkened Mark. I liked the way his finger felt against my skin-- warm and a little rough. I also liked that being near him didn't set off all the weird reactions I'd had to being close to Heath. I mean, I couldn't hear Erik's blood beating or see the pulse in his neck jumping. Not that I'd mind if he kissed me....

Hell! Was I becoming a vampyre slut? What was next? Would no male of any species (which might even include Damien) be safe around me? Maybe I should avoid all guys until I figured out what was going on with me and knew I could control myself.

Then I remembered that I had been trying to avoid everyone, which is why I was out here in the first place.

"What are you doing out here, Erik?"

"I followed you," he said simply.

"Why?"

"I figured I knew what Aphrodite had pulled in there and I thought you might need a friend. You're rooming with Stevie Rae, right?" I nodded.

"Yeah, I thought about finding her and sending her out here to you, but I didn't know if you'd want her to know about..." He paused and made a vague gesture back in the direction of the rec hall.

"No! I--I don't want her to know." I stumbled over the words, I said them so fast.

"That's what I thought. So, that's why you're stuck with me." He smiled and then looked kinda uncomfortable. "I really didn't mean to listen in between you and Heath. Sorry about that."

I focused on petting Nala. So, he'd watched Heath kiss me, and then saw the whole blood thing. God, how embarrassing...Then a thought struck me and I glanced up at him, smiling ironically. "I guess that makes us even. I didn't mean to listen in between you and Aphrodite, either."

He smiled back at me. "We're even. I like that."

His smile made my stomach do funny things. "I wouldn't really have flown down and sucked Kayla's blood," I managed to say.

He laughed. (He had a really nice laugh.) "I know that. Vampyres can't fly."

"It freaked her out, though," I said.

"From what I saw, she deserved it." He waited a beat and then said, "Can I ask you something? It's kinda personal."

"Hey, you've seen me drink blood from a cup and like it, puke, kiss a guy, lick his blood like I'm a puppy, and then bawl my eyes out. And I've seen you turn down a blow job. I think I can manage to answer a kinda personal question."

"Was he really in a trance? He looked like it and he sounded like it."

I squirmed uncomfortably and Nala complained at me till I petted her quiet.

"It seemed like he was," I finally managed to say. "I don't know if it was a trance or not--and I totally didn't mean to put him under my power or anything freaky like that--but he did change. I dunno. He'd been smoking and drinking. He might have just been high." I heard Heath's voice again, rising from my memory like a cloying mist: Yes...whatever you want...I'll do whatever you want. And I saw that intense look he'd given me. Hell, I hadn't even known Heath the Jock was capable of that kind of intensity (at least off the football field). I knew for sure he couldn't spell the word (intensity, not football).

"Had he been like that the whole time, or just after you...um...started to--"

"Not the whole time. Why?"

"Well, that rules out two things that could have been making him act weird. One--if he was just high then he would have been like that the whole time. Two--he might have been acting like that because you're really pretty, and that alone could make a guy feel like he's in a trance around you."

His words made something flutter low in my stomach again-- something that no guy had made me feel before. Not Heath the Jock, or Jordon the Sloth, or Jonathan the Stupid Band Kid (my dating history isn't long, but it's colorful).

"Really?" I said like a moron.

"Really." He smiled very unmoronically.

How could this guy like me? I'm a blood-drinking dork.

"But that wasn't it either, because he should have noticed how hot you look even before you kissed him, and what you're saying is that he didn't seem entranced until after blood came into the picture."

(Entranced--hee hee--he actually said entranced.) I was too busy grinning stupidly at his use of complex vocab to think before I answered him. "Actually, it happened when I started to hear his blood." "Say again?"

Ah, crap. I hadn't meant to say that. I cleared my throat. "Heath started to change when I heard the blood pounding through his veins."

"Only adult vamps can hear that." He paused and then, with a quick smile added, "And Heath sounds like the name of a gay soap opera star."

"Close. He's BA's star quarterback."

Erik nodded and looked amused.

"Uh, by the way, I like what you changed your name to. Night is a cool last name," I said, trying to hold up my end of the conversation and say something even slightly insightful.

His smile widened. "I didn't change it. Erik Night is the name I was born with."

"Oh, well. I like it." Why didn't someone just shoot me?

"Thanks."

He glanced at his watch and I could see that it was almost six thirty--in the A.M., which still seemed freaky.

"It'll be getting light soon," he said.

Guessing that this was our cue for us to go our separate ways, I started to gather my feet under me and get a better hold on Nala so I could stand up, and I felt Erik's hand under my elbow, steadying me. He helped me up and then just stood there, so close that Nala's tail was brushing against his black sweater.

"I'd ask if you wanted to get something to eat, but the only place serving food right now is the rec hall, and I don't think you want to go back there."

"No, definitely not. But I'm not hungry anyway." Which, I realized as soon as I said it, was a big lie. At the mention of food I was suddenly starving.

"Well, do you mind if I walk you back to your dorm?" he asked.

"Nope," I said, trying to be nonchalant.

Stevie Rae, Damien, and the Twins would totally die if they saw me with Erik.

We didn't say anything as we started walking, but it wasn't an awkward, uncomfortable silence. Actually, it was nice. Once in a while our arms would brush against each other and I thought about how tall and cute he was and how much I'd like him to hold my hand.

"Oh," he said after a while, "I didn't finish answering your question before. The first time I tasted blood at one of the Dark Daughters' rituals I hated it, but it got better and better each time. I can't say I think it's delicious, but it's grown on me. And I definitely like the way it makes me feel."

I looked sharply at him. "Dizzy and kinda weak-kneed? Like you're drunk, only you're not."

"Yeah. Hey, did you know it's impossible for a vamp to get drunk?" I shook my head. "It's something about what the Change does to our metabolism. It's even tough for fledglings to get wasted."

"So drinking blood is the way vamps get wasted?"

He shrugged. "I suppose. Anyway, drinking human blood is forbidden for fledglings."

"Well then why hasn't anyone clued the teachers in on what Aphrodite's up to?"

"She's not drinking human blood."

"Uh, Erik, I was there. Blood was definitely in the wine and it came from that Elliott kid." I shuddered. "And what a gross choice he was, too."

"But he's not human," Erik said.

"Wait--it's forbidden to drink human blood," I said slowly. (Oh, hell! That's what I'd just done.) "But it's okay to drink another fledgling's blood?"

"Only if it's consensual."

"That makes no sense."

"Sure it does. It's normal for our bloodlust to develop as our bodies Change, so we need an outlet. Fledglings heal quickly, so there's no real chance of someone getting hurt. And there aren't any aftereffects, like when a vamp feeds off a living human."

What he was saying was banging through my head like the annoying, too-loud music that blared in Wet Seal, and I grasped the first thing I could think clearly about. "Living human?" I squeaked. "Tell me you don't mean versus feeding off a corpse." I was feeling a little nauseous again.

He laughed. "No, I mean versus drinking blood harvested from the vamps' blood donors."

"Never heard of such a thing."

"Most humans haven't. You won't learn about it until you're a fifth former."

Then some more of what he'd said broke through the confusion that was my mind. "What did you mean by aftereffects?"

"We just started learning about it in Vamp Sociology 312. Seems that when an adult vampyre feeds from a living human, there can be a very strong bond formed. It's not always on the part of the vamp, but humans become infatuated pretty easily. It's dangerous for the human. I mean, think about it. The blood loss alone isn't a good thing. Then add that to the fact that we outlive humans by decades, sometimes even centuries. Look at it from a human's point of view; it would really suck to be totally in love with someone who never seems to age while you get old and wrinkled and then die."

Again I thought about the dazed but intense way Heath had looked at me, and I knew that, no matter how hard it might be, I'd have to tell Neferet everything.

"Yep, that would suck," I said faintly.

"Here we are."

I was surprised to see that we'd stopped in front of the girl's dorm. I looked up at him.

"Well, thanks for following me--I think," I said, with a wry smile.

"Hey, any time you want someone to butt in when he's not invited, I'm the guy for you."

"I'll keep that in mind," I said. "Thanks." I hefted Nala up on my hip and started to open the door.

"Hey, Z," he called.

I turned back.

"Don't give back the dress to Aphrodite. By her including you in the circle tonight she formally offered you a position in the Dark Daughters, and it's tradition that the High Priestess in training gives a gift to the new member on her first night. I don't imagine you'll want to join, but you still have the right to keep the dress. Especially because you look so much better in it than she ever did." He reached forward and took my hand (the one that wasn't clutching my cat), and turned it over so that my wrist faced up. Then he took his finger and traced the vein that was close to the surface there, making my pulse jump crazily.

"And you should also know that I'm the guy for you if you decide you might like to try another sip of blood. Keep that in mind, too."

Erik bent and, still looking in my eyes, he lightly bit the pulse point at my wrist before kissing the spot softly. This time the fluttery feeling in my stomach was more intense. It made the inside of my thighs tingle and my breathing deepen. His lips still on my wrist he met my eyes and I felt a shiver of desire pass through my body. I knew he could feel me tremble. He let his tongue flick against my wrist, which made me shiver again. Then he smiled at me and walked away into the pre-dawn light.



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