When she reached her class, it was to find Eden waiting for her but without any signs of Zack.
"Zack isn't here again?" Joey was more than a little concerned. Sure, Zack was never enthusiastic about school – or anything for that matter – but this had been the third time in the whole week that he had skipped classes.
Eden simply shrugged. "You know him better than I do."
It was true. Although Zack treated Eden nicely – in a gruff sort of way – there was no denying that Zack only spoke to Eden because she was Joey's friend.
When classes were dismissed for the day, she ran to the dormitory housing the male students. As the Chairman's daughter, she was able to enter what was normally an exclusive domain for men.
She knocked on Zack's door, ignoring the curious glances sent to her by his dorm mates. "Zack?"
When there was no answer, she cautiously tested the knob and found the door unlocked. Inside, the room was dark, the curtains drawn. She stepped inside and closed the door behind her. It was so silent. She became even more worried. "Zack, are you all right?"
The words were said so quietly she would have missed it if she hadn't been listening so hard. She whirled around and there he was, sitting on the floor and leaning against the wall. She moved to turn the lights on but he shook his head.
"Don't," he said harshly.
She rushed to him, kneeling on the floor. "What's wrong?"
"Leave me alone," he growled.
"Not until you tell me what's wrong with you!" His body was shaking and his face had gone beyond its usual paleness. "Zack, what's wrong?"
He gripped her hand.
She understood what he was not saying. "I'm here for you, Zack. Whatever it is, I'm here for you." And she held his hands until the tremors stopped.
"Something is in here, Highness." Aria spoke the words disdainfully. She was a dainty thing, with cropped hair that did not make her look any less feminine. But her seeming frailty was a deception. She was the fastest and most cunning of the Morteia - the ultimate spy. She was devoted only two persons in the world: Alia, her twin, and Niko, her Prince. The rest, she only tolerated.
Niko glanced up at the dormitory for Livingfire's male students, eyes flashing. "As long as it doesn't hurt her…"
"We won't do anything?"
Niko nodded slowly. Although stark fear burned inside him, every instinct protesting at the risk he was taking, he knew that destiny was at work and it would be foolish for him to put a stop to it.
More than an hour passed before the tremors that shook Zack's body finally stopped. Another half hour passed before Zack looked normal again. Something was obviously wrong, but Joey didn't ask. She knew how private Zack was, and if she needed answers she had better find it herself – without his help.
Zack insisted on accompanying Joey back to the Chairman's apartments. The path would have them walking past the mansion of the Morteia. As it was, Niko was there, a few feet from the gates.
"Prince," she breathed. She had actually missed him even though mere hours had passed since they had last spoken to each other. It was ridiculous but true and she knew the feeling would never go away. In her eyes, he really was a prince.
Niko's smile was gentle. "You are really only going to call me by name if we are alone?"
"Aaah…" She blushed, speechless, because that implied they spent a lot of time together…alone.
Zack had stiffened beside her, and she herself went stiff when Niko's flashing eyes suddenly turned to her friend. The stares the two exchanged were intense but unreadable, leaving her worried without knowing why.
She tried not to sigh in relief when Niko glanced at her, his exquisite face gentle once more. "Where have you been?" Niko glanced at his watch. "It's almost seven already. Chairman must be worried."
She let out a little gasp. "I had forgotten-" And her father had even excitedly told her he was going to personally cook dinner for them.
"I hope you are not sick of my presence just yet. The Chairman invited me back for a meal," Niko explained.
"You know it would always be our honor to have you with us," she said shyly.
"As it would be my honor to spend time with you and the Chairman." He looked at Zack. "You, too, Zack are invited. Chairman wants to speak with you."
The three of them walked in tense silence, broken only when they saw Ricardo grinning happily from the front door. "I thought you kids wouldn't make it!"
"Good evening, Chairman," Niko murmured.
"Hello, Father," she said.
Zack simply grunted.
They went to the dining room where her father's "feast" was prepared - cream of mushroom, garlic toasted bread, spaghetti, and ice cream. It was always those dishes – it was the only thing he knew to prepare.
The atmosphere at the table was very…tense.
"It's delicious," she said with determined cheer, conscious of how stiff Zack was while Niko was acting quite…intimidating with his coldness.
But the coldness disappeared marginally when Niko turned to smile at her. "It is, isn't it? Just like old times?"
She smiled happily. "Yes."
After dinner, Ricardo said, "Zack, if I may speak with you privately for a moment?"
Zack's eyes became indecipherable. "Of course, Chairman."
Ricardo turned to Niko. "Keep little Joey company for the meantime, Niko."
"It would be my pleasure," Niko said, making her blush a little.
She and Niko went to the living room while Zack proceeded to follow Ricardo to the study.
Joey whirled around to face Niko, suddenly worried. "Do you know what's wrong with Zack?"
"Is there something wrong with him?"
She bit her lip, realizing she had inadvertently given something away. But when she saw Niko's face harden, she knew whatever she did or did not say was immaterial. He already knew. "Niko-"
"Remember what I told you. I will not countenance anything that may harm you."
She lifted her chin. "Zack will never harm me."
Niko's lips tightened. "And what had he done to deserve such faith?"
"He's my friend."
"And me? What am I to you? A friend as well? I am in the same level with Zack, is that it?" he asked in a very silky tone, his eyes flashing dangerously.
Ricardo closed the door to his study behind him, his heart heavy at what he was about to discuss.
"It has started, Chairman." Zack's fists clenched. "I will do my utmost not to let him take control of me-"
"Of course I know that, son," Ricardo said. "You are a good man. It is sad, but you are a better man than your father, more than he can ever hope to be. You understand what you are going through?"
"Only…a…bit…" It was obvious that it cost Zack a lot to admit his helplessness.
"Your father has laid a claim to your soul when you were born. Every Caro father or master has the power to do that. You may fight that claim, but it will be harder and harder as time passes by. If you refuse the claim to the end, then you will become a vampire. The only way to stop it is by offering your soul to someone else – one who will be your new Master, your Maker, your Owner…hopefully, that person will not abuse the claim to your soul."
Ricardo's eyes turned sorrowful. "You can only do this once so you must choose wisely. Similarly, your father will also have a single chance to vanquish your new Master. If he kills your new Master then the claim to your soul will be his forever."
"Why?" His bloodless lips barely moved as he demanded the one question that haunted his dreams. "Why would he do this to his own son?"
"I can only presume and such thoughts I would rather not speak without basis. You may however be sure that your father is not doing this idly. Soul claiming is considered today to be illegal and of course, you have the right to report this to the Brethren-"
"You know I will not," Zack cut him. It would be a great shame for their clan and he did not want that. The rest of his clan did not deserve to suffer for his father's actions.
"Yes, I know you will not. It only proves how you deserve to be the next leader of your clan."
"My father would rather die than give the leadership to me."
For a moment, the gentle façade of Ricardo slipped, revealing something darker. "Anything can happen."
Zack glanced at the Chairman warily.
Ricardo beamed at him and the darkness was no more. "You know, I can always be your new owner-"
"Never," Zack muttered.
Ricardo's face failed. "I'm a good master-"
Zack turned to leave. "Thanks but no thanks, Chairman. You act too foolish to be my soul's Master. I'd rather trust my soul to the Devil."
"That is a horrid thing to say!" Ricardo complained.
Joey found herself taking a step back when Niko went closer. She suddenly felt claustrophobic. And hot – too hot – like Niko's presence was suddenly burning her. What was happening?
"Am I just a friend to you, Joey?"
Before she could answer, Zack and Riccardo had returned. She turned to him in relief, not knowing how flustered she looked as she said his name shakily.
Zack's face darkened, immediately crossing to her side. "Are you fine?"
She let out a shaky laugh. "Shouldn't I be the one asking you that?"
He grunted. "I'm good."
"You're not going to tell me, are you?" She sighed when all Zack did was grunt again. "As long as you know I'm here."
Zack answered with another grunt.
"It's time we leave," Niko murmured from behind.
She spun around with a tremulous smile, embarrassed to have forgotten about Niko in her haste to know what was wrong with Zack. "You're leaving already?"
Looking at Joey, seeing the way concern over the other man still lingered in her gaze, made Niko want to lash out. He was not used to being this possessive, had never thought that someone like him-a cold-hearted prince of the Morteia could actually feel like this.
He forced a smile. "We all still have classes tomorrow." He smiled at Zack, too, although it was more like baring his fangs. "Let us leave together, shall we?"
"What is it you wanted to talk about?" Zack was the first one to break the silence between him and the prince, and he only did so when a good amount of distance separated them from the Chairman's home. The rest of the Morteia followed behind. He could feel their gazes on him, and knew he was in the presence of potential enemies. Having the Morteia at your back was not something a Caro would wish on his worst enemy but Zack was not bothered at all. He knew his strength, and he did not fear the Morteia at all.
"It's good that we understand each other," Niko said quietly.
"Do we, really?" Zack asked, looking ahead as well as they continued to walk side by side.
Zack hated the silkiness of the Prince's tone. It was too much everything he knew he could not be. He was rough around the edges while the Prince shone like a freaking star-a star with corners as sharp as the deadliest of blades.
Niko continued, "I know we despise each other for the sole reason that we care for the same person. Rather, I must say we care only for one person."
Zak demanded impatiently, "Again, I ask you – what is it you wanted to talk about?"
"That monster inside you-"
Zack stopped dead in his tracks. "How the hell-"
"The important thing here is that you do not ask Joey to be your Master."
"I would never ask her that," Zack hissed.
"I hope so. I do hope so."
Zack belligerently turned to face Niko, but the Prince had already vanished.