Chapter 9

 

Nine

I DIDN'T SEE DIMITRI FOR a while after that. He'd sent a message later that day saying that he thought we should cancel our next two sessions because of the rapidly approaching plans to leave campus. Classes were about to end anyway, he said; taking a break from practice seemed like the reasonable thing.

It was a lame excuse, and I knew that wasn't the reason he was canceling. If he wanted to avoid me, I would have preferred he made up something about how he and the other guardians had to up Moroi security or practice top-secret ninja moves.

Regardless of his story, I knew he was avoiding me because of the kiss. That damned kiss. I didn't regret it, not exactly. God only knew how much I'd been wanting to kiss him. But I'd done it for the wrong reasons. I'd done it because I was upset and frustrated and had simply wanted to prove that I could. I was so tired of doing the right thing, the smart thing. I was trying to be more in control lately, but I seemed to be slipping.

I hadn't forgotten the warning that he'd once given me-  that us being together wasn't just about age. It would interfere with our jobs. Pushing him into the kiss...well, I'd fanned the flames of a problem that could eventually hurt Lissa. I shouldn't have done it. Yesterday, I'd been unable to stop myself. Today I could see more clearly and couldn't believe what I'd done.

Mason met me on Christmas morning, and we went to go hang out with the others. It provided a good opportunity to push Dimitri out of my head. I liked Mason- a lot. And it wasn't like I had to run off and marry him. Like Lissa had said, it would be healthy for me to just date someone again.

Tasha was hosting our Christmas brunch in an elegant parlor in the Academy's guest quarters. Lots of group activities and parties were occurring throughout the school, but I'd quickly noticed that Tasha's presence always created a disturbance. People either secretly stared or went out of their way to avoid her. Sometimes she would challenge them. Sometimes she would just lie low. Today, she'd chosen to stay out of the other royals' way and simply enjoy this small, private party of those who didn't shun her.

Dimitri had been invited to the gathering, and a bit of my resolve faltered when I saw him. He'd actually dressed up for the occasion. Okay, "dressed up" might have been an exaggeration, but it was the closest I'd ever seen him come to that. Usually he just looked a little rough...like he could spring into battle at any given moment. Today, his dark hair was tied at the back of his neck, as though he'd actually tried to make it neat. He wore his usual jeans and leather boots, but instead of a T-shirt or thermal shirt, he had on a finely knit black sweater. It was just an ordinary sweater, nothing designer or expensive, but it added a touch of polish I didn't usually see, and good God, did it fit him well.

Dimitri wasn't mean to me or anything, but he certainly didn't go out of his way to make conversation with me. He did talk to Tasha, however, and I watched with fascination as they conversed in that easy way of theirs. I'd since learned that a good friend of his was a distant cousin of Tasha's family; that was how the two of them knew each other.

"Five?" asked Dimitri in surprise. They were discussing the friend's children. "I hadn't heard that."

Tasha nodded. "It's insane. I swear, I don't think his wife's had more than six months off between kids. She's short, too-  so she just gets wider and wider."

"When I first met him, he swore he didn't even want kids."

Her eyes widened excitedly. "I know! I can't believe it. You should see him now. He just melts around them. I can't even understand him half the time. I swear, he speaks more baby talk than English."

Dimitri smiled his rare smile. "Well...children do that to people."

"I can't imagine it happening to you," she laughed. "You're always so stoic. Of course ... I suppose you'd be doing baby talk in Russian, so no one would ever know."

They both laughed at that, and I turned away, grateful Mason was there to talk to. He was a good distraction from everything, because in addition to Dimitri ignoring me, Lissa and Christian were chatting on in their own little world too. Sex appeared to have made them that much more in love, and I wondered if I'd get to spend any time with her at all on the ski trip. She did eventually break away from him to give me my Christmas present.

I opened the box and stared inside. I saw a string of maroon-colored beads, and the scent of roses floated out.

"What the ..."

I lifted the beads out, and a heavy gold crucifix swung from the end of them. She'd given me a chotki. It was similar to a rosary, only smaller. Bracelet-size.

"Are you trying to convert me?" I asked wryly. Lissa wasn't a religious nut or anything, but she believed in God and attended church regularly. Like many Moroi families who'd come from Russia and Eastern Europe, she was an Orthodox Christian.

Me? I was pretty much an Orthodox Agnostic. I figured God probably existed, but I didn't have the time or energy to investigate. Lissa respected that and never tried to push her faith on me, which made the gift that much weirder.

"Flip it over," she said, clearly amused at my shock.

I did. On the back of the cross, a dragon wreathed in flowers had been carved into the gold. The Dragomir crest. I looked up at her, puzzled.

"It's a family heirloom," she said. "One of my dad's good friends has been saving boxes of his stuff. This was in it. It belonged to my great-grandmother's guardian."

"Liss ..." I said. The chotki took on a whole new meaning. "I can't... you can't give me something like this."

"Well, I certainly can't keep it. It's meant for a guardian. My guardian."

I wound the beads around one wrist. The cross felt cool against my skin.

"You know," I teased, "there's a good possibility I'll get kicked out of school before I can become your guardian."

She grinned. "Well, then you can give it back."

Everyone laughed. Tasha started to say something, then stopped when she looked up at the door.

"Janine!"

My mother stood there, looking as stiff and impassive as ever.

"Sorry I'm late," she said. "I had business to take care of."

Business. As always. Even on Christmas.

I felt my stomach turn and heat rise to my cheeks as the details of our fight came rushing back to my mind. She'd never sent one word of communication since it had happened two days ago, not even when I was in the infirmary. No apologies. Nothing. I gritted my teeth.

She sat down with us and soon joined in the conversation. I'd long since discovered she could really only talk about one subject: guardian business. I wondered if she had any hobbies. The Badica attack was on everyone's mind, and this drove her into a conversation about some similar fight she'd been in. To my horror, Mason was riveted by her every word.

"Well, decapitations aren't as easy as they seem," she said in her matter-of-fact way. I'd never thought they were easy at all, but her tone suggested that she believed everyone thought they were cake. "You've got to get through the spinal cord and tendons."

Through the bond, I felt Lissa grow queasy. She wasn't one for gruesome talk.

Mason's eyes lit up. "What's the best weapon to do it with?"

My mother considered. "An axe. You can get more weight behind it." She made a swinging motion by way of illustration.

"Cool," he said. "Man, I hope they let me carry an axe." It was a comical and ludicrous idea, since axes were hardly convenient weapons to carry around. For half a second, the thought of Mason walking down the street with an axe over his shoulder lightened my mood a little. The moment quickly passed.

I honestly couldn't believe we were having this conversation on Christmas. Her presence had soured everything. Fortunately, the gathering eventually dispersed. Christian and Lissa went off to do their own thing, and Dimitri and Tasha apparently had more catching up to do. Mason and I were well on our way to the dhampir dorm when my mother joined us.

None of us said anything. Stars cluttered the black sky, sharp and bright, their glitter matched in the ice and snow around us. I wore my ivory parka with fake fur trimming. It did a good job keeping my body warm, even though it did nothing against the chilly gusts that seared my face. The whole time we walked, I kept expecting my mother to turn off toward the other guardian areas, but she came right inside the dorm with us.

"I've been wanting to talk to you," she finally said. My alarms clicked on. What had I done now?

That was all she said, but Mason picked up on the hint immediately. He was neither stupid nor oblivious to social cues, though at that moment, I kind of wished he was. I also found it ironic that he wanted to fight every Strigoi in the world but was afraid of my mother.

He glanced at me apologetically, shrugged, and said, "Hey, I've got to get, um, somewhere. I'll see you later."

I watched with regret as he left, wishing I could run after him. Probably my mom would only tackle me and punch my other eye if I tried to escape. Better to do things her way and get this over with. Shifting uncomfortably, I looked everywhere but at her and waited for her to speak. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a few people glancing over at us. Recalling how everyone in the world seemed to know about her giving me the black eye, I suddenly decided I didn't want witnesses around for whatever lecture she was about to unleash on me.

"You want to, um, go to my room?" I asked.

She looked surprised, almost uncertain. "Sure."

I led her upstairs, keeping a safe distance away as we walked. Awkward tension built between us. She didn't say anything when we reached my room, but I saw her examine every detail carefully, as though a Strigoi might be lurking in there. I sat on the bed and waited while she paced, unsure what I should do. She ran her fingers over a stack of books on animal behavior and evolution.

"Are these for a report?" she asked.

"No. I'm just interested in it, that's all."

Her eyebrows rose. She hadn't known that. But how would she? She didn't know anything about me. She continued her appraisal, stopping to study little things that apparently surprised her about me. A picture of Lissa and me dressed up like fairies for Halloween. A bag of SweeTarts. It was as though my mother were meeting me for the first time.

Abruptly, she turned and extended her hand toward me. "Here."

Startled, I leaned forward and held my palm out underneath hers. Something small and cool dropped into my hand. It was a round pendant, a small one- not much bigger than a dime in diameter. A base of silver held a flat disc of colored glass circles. Frowning, I ran my thumb over its surface. It was strange, but the circles almost made it look like an eye. The inner one was small, just like a pupil. It was so dark blue that it looked black. Surrounding it was a larger circle of pale blue, which was in turn surrounded by a circle of white. A very, very thin ring of that dark blue color circled the outside.

"Thanks," I said. I hadn't expected anything from her. The gift was weird- why the hell would she give me an eye?- but it was a gift. "I... I didn't get you anything."

My mom nodded, face blank and unconcerned once more. "It's fine. I don't need anything."

She turned away again and started walking around the room. She didn't have a lot of space to do it, but her shorter height gave her a smaller stride. Each time she passed in front of the window over my bed, the light would catch her auburn hair and light it up. I watched her curiously and realized she was as nervous as me.

She halted in her pacing and glanced back toward me. "How's your eye?"

"Getting better."

"Good." She opened her mouth, and I had a feeling she was on the verge of apologizing. But she didn't.

When she started pacing again, I decided I couldn't stand the inactivity. I began putting my presents away. I'd gotten a pretty nice haul of stuff this morning. One of them was a silk dress from Tasha, red and embroidered with flowers. My mother watched me hang it in the room's tiny closet.

"That was very nice of Tasha."

"Yeah," I agreed. "I didn't know she was going to get me anything. I really like her."

"Me too."

I turned from the closet in surprise and stared at my mom. Her astonishment mirrored mine. If I hadn't known any better, I'd have said we'd just agreed on something. Maybe Christmas miracles did happen.

"Guardian Belikov will be a good match for her."

"I- " I blinked, not entirely sure what she was talking about. "Dimitri?"

"Guardian Belikov," she corrected sternly, still not approving of my casual way of addressing him.

"What... what kind of match?" I asked.

She raised an eyebrow. "You haven't heard? She's asked him to be her guardian- since she doesn't have one."

I felt like I'd been punched again. "But he's...assigned here. And to Lissa."

"Arrangements can be made. And regardless of the Ozera reputation...she's still royal. If she pushes, she can get her way."

I stared bleakly into space. "Well, I guess they are friends and everything."

"More than that- or possibly could be."

Bam! Punched again.

"What?"

"Hmm? Oh. She's...interested in him." By my mother's tone, it was clear that romantic matters actually held no interest for her. "She's willing to have dhampir children, so it's possible they might eventually make an, um, arrangement if he were her guardian."

Oh. My. God.

Time froze.

My heart stopped beating.

I realized my mother was waiting for a response. She was leaning against my desk, watching me. She might be able to hunt down Strigoi, but she was oblivious to my feelings.

"Is ... is he going to do it? Be her guardian?" I asked weakly.

My mom shrugged. "I don't think he's agreed to it yet, but of course he will. It's a great opportunity."

"Of course," I echoed. Why would Dimitri turn down the chance to be a guardian to a friend of his and to have a baby?

I think my mom said something else after that, but I didn't hear it. I didn't hear anything. I kept thinking about Dimitri leaving the Academy, leaving me. I thought about the way he and Tasha had gotten along with each other so well. And then, after those recollections, my imagination started improvising future scenarios. Tasha and Dimitri together. Touching. Kissing. Naked. Other things ...

I squeezed my eyes shut for half a second and then opened them.

"I'm really tired."

My mom stopped mid-sentence. I had no idea what she'd been saying before I interrupted her.

"I'm really tired," I repeated. I could hear the hollowness in my own voice. Empty. No emotion. "Thanks for the eye...um, thing, but if you don't mind ..."

My mother stared at me in surprise, her features open and confused. Then, just like that, her usual wall of cool professionalism slammed back into place. Until that moment, I hadn't realized how much she'd let it up. But she had. For just a brief time, she'd made herself vulnerable with me. That vulnerability was now gone.

"Of course," she said stiffly. "I don't want to bother you."

I wanted to tell her it wasn't that. I wanted to tell her I wasn't kicking her out for any personal reason. And I wanted to tell her that I wished she were the kind of loving, understanding mother you always hear about, one I could confide in. Maybe even a mother I could discuss my troubled love life with.

God. I wished I could tell anyone about that, actually. Especially right now.

But I was too caught up in my own personal drama to say a word. I felt like someone had ripped my heart out and tossed it across the other side of the room. There was a burning, agonizing pain in my chest, and I had no idea how it could ever be filled. It was one thing to accept that I couldn't have Dimitri. It was something entirely different to realize someone else could.

I didn't say anything else to her because my speech capabilities no longer existed. Fury glinted in her eyes, and her lips flattened out into that tight expression of displeasure she so often wore. Without another word, she turned around and left, slamming the door behind her. That door slam was something I would have done too, actually. I guess we really did share some genes.

But I forgot about her almost immediately. I just kept sitting there and thinking. Thinking and imagining.

I spent the rest of the day doing little more than that. I skipped dinner. I shed a few tears. But mostly, I just sat on my bed thinking and growing more and more depressed. I also discovered that the only thing worse than imagining Dimitri and Tasha together was remembering when he and I had been together. He would never touch me again like that, never kiss me again...

This was the worst Christmas ever.

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