I DIDN'T WAKE UP IN the world of the dead.
I didn't even wake up in a hospital or some other type of medical center--which, believe me, I'd done plenty of times. No, I woke up in luxury, in a huge bedroom with gilded furniture. Heaven? Probably not with my behaviors. My canopied bed had a red- and-gold velvet comforter, thick enough to be a mattress itself. Candles flickered on a small table against the far wall and filled the room with the scent of jasmine. I had no clue where I was or how I'd gotten here, but as my last memories of pain and darkness played out in my mind, I decided the fact that I was actually breathing was good enough.
"Sleeping Beauty awakens.'
That voice ... that wonderful, honey-like voice with its soft accent. It enveloped me, and with it came the impossible truth and its full impact: I was alive. I was alive. And Dimitri was here.
I couldn't see him but felt a smile come to my lips. "Are you my nurse?'
I heard him get up from a chair and walk over. Seeing him stand over me like that reminded me of just how tall he truly was. He looked down at me with a smile of his own--one of those full and rare smiles. He had cleaned up since last I'd seen him, his brown hair tied neatly back behind his neck, though he hadn't shaved for a couple days. I tried to sit up, but he tsked me back.
"No, no, you need to lie down.' Soreness in my chest told me he was right. My mind might be awake, but the rest of me was exhausted. I had no idea how much time had passed, but something told me my body had been fighting a battle--not with a Strigoi or anything like one, but with itself. A battle to stay alive.
"Then come closer,' I told him. "I want to see you.' He considered this a moment and then kicked off his shoes. Turning on my side-- which made me wince--I managed to wiggle over a little to make room near the bed's edge. He curled up beside me. Our faces rested on the same pillow, only a couple of inches apart as we gazed at each other.
"Is this better?' he asked.
With his long, graceful fingers, he reached out and brushed hair from my face before tracing the edge of my cheekbone. "How are you?'
He laughed softly and cautiously slid his hand down to rest on my lower back, in a sort of half-embrace. "Of course you are. I think they've only managed to get broth into you so far. Well, that and IV fluids early on. You're probably in sugar withdrawal.'
I cringed. I didn't like needles or tubes and was glad I hadn't been awake to see them. (Tattoo needles were a different matter.) "How long have I been out?'
"A few days.'
"A few days ...' I shivered, and he tugged the covers higher on me, thinking I was cold. "I shouldn't be alive,' I whispered. Gunshots like that ... they were too fast, too close to my heart. Or in my heart? I put my hand to my chest. I didn't know precisely where I'd been hit. It all ached. "Oh Lord. Lissa healed me, didn't she?' It would have taken so much spirit. She shouldn't have done that. She couldn't afford to. Except ... why would I still feel pain? If she'd healed me, she would have gone all the way.
"No, she didn't heal you.'
"No?' I frowned, unable to process that. How else would I have survived? A surprising answer came to mind. "Then ... Adrian? He'd never ... after how I treated him ... no. He couldn't have ...'
"What, you think he'd let you die?'
I didn't answer. The bullets might be long gone, but thinking of Adrian still made my heart--figuratively--ache.
"No matter how he feels ...' Dimitri hesitated. This was a delicate topic, after all. "Well, he wouldn't have let you die. He wanted to heal you. But he didn't either.'
I felt bad for thinking so little of Adrian. Dimitri was right. Adrian never would have abandoned me out of spite, but I was rapidly running out of options here. "Then who? Sonya?'
"No one,' he said simply. "Well, you, I suppose.'
"I ... what?'
"People can heal without magic now and then, Rose.' There was amusement in his voice, though his face stayed sober. "And your wounds ... they were bad. No one thought you'd survive. You went into surgery, and then we all just waited.'
"But why ...' I felt very arrogant, asking the next question. "Why didn't Adrian or Lissa heal me?'
"Oh, they wanted to, believe me. But in the aftermath, in the chaos ... the Court went under lockdown. They were both taken away and put under heavy protection before they could act. No one would let them near you, not when they still thought you might be a murderer. They had to be certain about Tasha first, even though her own actions were pretty damning.' It took me a moment to get past the idea that modern medicine and my body's own stamina had healed me. I'd grown too used to spirit. This didn't seem possible. As I tried to wrap my mind around the concept, the rest of Dimitri's meaning hit me. "Is Tasha ... still alive?'
His face fell even more. "Yes. They caught her right after she shot you--before anyone else got hurt. She's detained, and more evidence has been coming in.'
"Calling her out was one of the hardest things I've ever done,' I said. "Fighting Strigoi was easier than that.'
"I know. It was hard for me to see, hard for me to believe.' There was a far-off look in his eyes, reminding me that Dimitri had known her longer than he'd known me. "But she made her choices, and all the charges against you have been dropped. You're a free woman now. More than that. A hero. Abe's bragging that it's all his doing.'
That brought my smile back. "Of course he is. I'll probably get a bill from him soon.' I felt dizzy with both joy and astonishment. A free woman. I'd been burdened with accusations and a death sentence for what felt like years, and now ... now it had all disappeared.
Dimitri laughed, and I wanted to stay like this forever, just the two of us, sweet and unguarded. Well--maybe not exactly this. I could've done without the pain and thick bandages I felt on my chest. He and I had had so few times alone, moments when we could really relax and openly acknowledge being in love. Things had only begun to mend between us at the end there ... and it had almost been too late. It might still be.
"So what now?' I asked.
"I'm not sure.' He rested his cheek against my forehead. "I'm just so glad ... so glad you're alive. I've been so close to losing you so many times. When I saw you on the floor, and there was so much commotion and confusion ... I felt so helpless. I realized you were right. We waste our lives with guilt and self-loathing. When you looked at me there at the end ... I saw it. You did love me.'
"You doubted?' I meant the words jokingly, but they came out sounding offended. Maybe I was, a little. I'd told him I loved him plenty of times.
"No. I mean, I knew then that you didn't just love me. I realized you really had forgiven me.'
"There was nothing to forgive, not really.' I'd told him that before too.
"I've always believed there was.' He pulled back and looked at me again. "And that's what was holding me back. No matter what you said, I just couldn't believe it ... couldn't believe you would forgive all the things I did to you in Siberia and after Lissa healed me. I thought you were deluding yourself.'
"Well. It wouldn't be the first time I've done that. But no, this time I wasn't.'
"I know, and with that revelation ... in that split second that I knew you forgave me and that I really had your love, I was finally able to forgive myself too. All those burdens, those ties to the past ... they went away. It was like ...'
"Being free? Flying?'
"Yes. Except ... it came too late. This sounds crazy, but while I was looking down at you, having all these thoughts coming together in my head, it was like ... like I could see death's hand reaching for you. And there was nothing I could do. I was powerless. I couldn't help.' "You did,' I told him. "The last things I saw before blacking out were you and Lissa.' Well, besides the skeletal faces, but mentioning that would have killed this romantic moment. "I don't know how I survived getting shot, how I beat the odds ... but I'm pretty sure your love--both of you--gave me the strength to fight through. I had to get back to you guys. God only knows what trouble you'd get into without me.'
Dimitri had no words for that and answered instead by bringing his mouth to mine. We kissed, lightly at first, and the sweetness of the moment overpowered any pain I felt. The intensity had just barely picked up when he pulled away.
"Hey, what gives?' I asked.
"You're still recovering,' he chastised. "You might think you're back to normal, but you aren't.'
"This is normal for me. And you know, I thought with all this freedom and self- discovery and expression of our love stuff that we could finally stop with the whole Zen master wisdom and practical advice crap.'
This got me an outright grin. "Roza, that's not going to happen. Take it or leave it.'
I pressed a kiss to his lips. "If it means getting you, I'll take it.' I wanted to kiss him again and prove who really did have greater self-control, but that damned thing called reality set in. "Dimitri ... for real, what happens to us?'
"Life,' he said easily. "It goes on. We go on. We're guardians. We protect and maybe change our world.'
"No pressure,' I remarked. "But what's the "we' and "guardians' part? I was pretty sure we were out of that career path.'
"Mmm.' He cupped my face, and I thought he might try another kiss. I hoped he would. "Along with our pardons, we received our guardian status again.'
"Even you? They believe you're not a Strigoi?' I exclaimed.
"Huh. Even if I got my name cleared, my ideal future was that we'd get filing jobs near each other.'
Dimitri moved closer to me, his eyes sparkling with a secret. "It gets better: you're Lissa's guardian.'
"What?' I almost pulled away. "That's impossible. They'd never ...'
"They did. She'll have others, so they probably figured it was okay to let you hang around if someone else could keep you in line,' he teased.
"You're not ...' A lump formed in my stomach, a reminder of a problem that had plagued us so long ago. "You're not one of her guardians too, are you?' It had constantly been a concern, that conflict of interest. I wanted him near me. Always. But how could we watch Lissa and put her safety first if we were worried about each other? The past was returning to torment us.
"No, I have a different assignment.'
"Oh.' For some reason, that made me a little sad too, even though I knew it was the smarter choice.
"I'm Christian's guardian.'
This time I did sit up, doctor's orders or no. Stitches tugged in my chest, but I ignored the sharp discomfort. "But that's ... that's practically the same thing!' Dimitri sat up too and seemed to be enjoying my shock, which was really kind of cruel, seeing as I'd almost died and everything. "A little. But they won't be together every moment, especially with her going to Lehigh. He's not going ... but they'll keep coming back to each other. And when they do, so will we. It's a good mix. Besides ...' He grew serious again. "I think you've proved to everyone that you're willing to put her life first.'
I shook my head. "Yeah, but no one was shooting at you. Only her.' I said it lightly, but it did make me wonder: what would I do if they were both in trouble?Trust him, a voice in my head said. Trust him to take care of himself. He'll do the same for you. I eyed Dimitri, recalling a shadow in my periphery back in the ballroom. "You followed when I jumped in front of Lissa, didn't you? Who were you going for? Me or her?'
He studied me for several long seconds. He could have lied. He could have given the easy answer by saying he'd intended to push both of us out of the way--if that was even possible, which I didn't recall. But Dimitri didn't lie. "I don't know, Roza. I don't know.'
I sighed. "This isn't going to be easy.'
"It never is,' he said, pulling me into his arms. I leaned against his chest and closed my eyes. No, it wouldn't be easy, but it would be worth it. As long as we were together, it would be worth it.
We sat like that for a long time, until a discrete knock at the half-open door broke us apart. Lissa stood in the doorway.
"Sorry,' she said, her face shining with joy when she saw me. "Should have put a sock on the door. Didn't realize things were getting hot and heavy.'
"No avoiding it,' I said lightly, clasping Dimitri's hand. "Things are always hot with him around.'
Dimitri looked scandalized. He'd never held back when we were in bed together, but his private nature wouldn't let him even hint about such matters to others. It was mean, but I laughed and kissed his cheek.
"Oh, this is going to be fun,' I said. "Now that everything's out in the open.'
"Yeah,' he said. "I got a pretty "fun' look from your father the other day.' He gave Lissa a quick, knowing glance and then stood up. Leaning down, he kissed the top of my head. "I should go and let you two talk.'
"Will you be back?' I asked as he moved to the door.
He paused and smiled at me, and those dark eyes answered my questions and so much more. "Of course.'
Lissa took his spot, sitting on the bed's edge. She hugged me gingerly, no doubt worried about my injuries. She then scolded me for sitting up, but I didn't care. Happiness surged through me. I was so glad she was okay, so relieved, and--
And I had no idea how she felt.
The bond was gone. And not like during the jail escape, when she'd put the wall up. There was simply nothing there between us. I was with myself, completely and utterly alone, just as I had been years ago. My eyes widened, and she laughed.
"I wondered when you'd notice,' she said.
"How ... how is this possible?' I was frozen and numb. The bond. The bond was gone. I felt like my arm had been amputated. "And how do you know?' She frowned. "Part of it's instinct ... but Adrian saw it. That our auras aren't connected anymore.'
"But how? How could that happen?' I sounded crazy and desperate. The bond couldn't be gone. It couldn't.
"I'm not entirely sure,' she admitted, her frown deepening. "I talked about it a lot with Sonya and, uh, Adrian. We think when I brought you back the first time, it was spirit alone that held you back from the land of the dead and that kept you tied to me. This time ... you nearly died again. Or maybe you did for a moment. Only, you and your body fought your way back. It was you who got out, with no help from spirit. And once that happened ...' She shrugged. "Like I said, we're only guessing. But Sonya thinks once your own strength broke you away, you didn't need any help being pulled back from death. You did it on your own. And when you freed yourself of spirit, you freed yourself from me. You didn't need a bond to keep you with the living.'
It was crazy. Impossible. "But if ... if you're saying I escaped the land of the dead, I'm not, like, immortal or anything, am I?'
Lissa laughed again. "No, we're certain of that. Sonya explained it, saying anything alive can die, and as long as you've got an aura, you're alive. Strigoi are immortal but not alive, so they don't have auras and--'
The world spun. "I'll take your word for it. I think maybe I do need to lie down.'
"That's probably a good idea.'
I gently eased myself onto my back. Desperately needing distraction from what I'd just learned--because it was still too surreal, still impossible to process--I eyed my surroundings. The lush room was bigger than I'd previously realized. It kept going and going, branching into other rooms. It was a suite. Maybe an apartment. I could just make out a living room with leather furniture and a flat screen TV. "Where are we are?'
"In palace housing,' she replied.
"Palace housing? How'd we end up here?'
"How do you think?' she asked dryly.
"I ...' I couldn't work my mouth for a moment. I needed no bond to realize what had happened. Another impossibility had occurred while I'd been out of it. "Crap. They had the election, didn't they? They elected you queen, once Jill was there to stand in for your family.'
She shook her head and almost laughed. "My reaction was a little stronger than "crap,' Rose. Do you have any idea what you've done?'
She looked anxious, stressed, and totally overwhelmed. I wanted to be serious and comforting for her sake ... but I could feel a goofy grin spreading over my face. She groaned.
"Liss, you were meant for this! You're better than any of the other candidates.'
"Rose!' she cried. "Running for queen was supposed to be a diversion. I'm only eighteen.'
"So was Alexandra.'
Lissa shook her head in exasperation. "I'm so sick of hearing about her! She lived centuries ago, you know. I think people died when they were thirty back then. So she was practically middle-aged.' I caught hold of her hand. "You're going to be great. It doesn't matter how old you are. And it's not like you have to call meetings and analyze law books all on your own, you know. I mean, I'm sure not going to do any of that, but there are other smart people. Ariana Szelsky didn't make the last test, but you know she'll help if you ask her to. She's still on the Council, and there are others you can rely on. We just have to find them. I believe in you.'
Lissa sighed and looked down, her hair hanging forward in a curtain. "I know. And part of me is excited, like this will restore my family's honor. I think that's what's saved me from a total breakdown. I didn't want to be queen, but if I have to ... then I'm going to do it right. I feel like ... like I have the world at my fingertips, like I can do so much good. But I'm so afraid of messing up too.' She looked up sharply. "And I'm not giving up on the rest of my life either. I guess I'm going to be the first queen in college.'
"Cool,' I said. "You can IM with the Council from campus. Maybe you can command people to do your homework.'
She apparently didn't think the joke was as funny as I did. "Going back to my family. Rose ... how long did you know about Jill?'
Damn. I'd known this part of the conversation would eventually be coming. I averted my eyes. "Not really that long. We didn't want to stress you until we knew it was real,' I added hastily.
"I can't believe ...' She shook her head. "I just can't believe it.'
I had to go on her tone, not the bond. It was so strange, like losing one of my key senses. Sight. Hearing. "Are you upset?'
"Of course I am! How can you be surprised?'
"I figured you'd be happy ...'
"Happy to find out my dad cheated on my mom? Happy to have a sister I hardly know? I've tried to talk to her, but ...' Lissa sighed again. "It's so weird. Almost weirder than suddenly being queen. I don't know what to do. I don't know what to think of my father. And I sure as hell don't know what to do with her.'
"Love them both,' I said softly. "They're your family. Jill's great, you know. Get to know her. Be excited.'
"I don't know if I can. I think you're more of a sister to me than she'll ever be.' Lissa stared off at nothing. "And of all people ... I was convinced for so long that there was something going on between her and Christian.'
"Well, out of all the worries in your world, that's one you can let go because it's not true.' But within her comment was something dark and sad. "How isChristian?'
She turned back to me, her eyes full of pain. "He's having a hard time. I am too. He visits her. Tasha. He hates what she did, but ... well, she's still his family. It hurts him, but he tries to hide it. You know how he is.'
"Yeah.' Christian had spent a good portion of his life masking dark feelings with snark and sarcasm. He was a pro at fooling others about how he truly felt.
"I know he'll be better in time ... I just hope I can be there for him enough. So much is happening. College, being queen ... and always, always, there's spirit there, pressing down on me. Smothering me.' Alarm shot through me. And panic. Panic over something far worse than not knowing what Lissa was feeling or where she was. Spirit. I was afraid of spirit--and the fact that I couldn't fight it for her. "The darkness ... I can't absorb it anymore. What will we do?'
A twisted smile crossed her lips. "You mean, what will I do. It's my problem now, Rose. Like it always should have been.'
"But, no ... you can't. St. Vladimir--'
"Isn't me. And you can protect me from some things but not all.'
I shook my head. "No, no. I can't let you face spirit alone.'
"I'm not exactly alone. I talked to Sonya. She's really good at healing charms and thinks there's a way to keep myself in balance.'
"Oksana said the same thing,' I recalled, feeling hardly reassured.
"And ... there's always the antidepressants. I don't like them, but I'm queen now. I have responsibilities. I'll do what I have to. A queen gives up everything, right?'
"I guess.' I couldn't help feeling frightened. Useless. "I'm just so worried about you, and I don't know how to help you anymore.'
"I told you: you don't have to. I'll protect my mind. Your job's to protect my body, right? And Dimitri will be around too. It'll all be okay.'
The conversation with Dimitri came back to me. Who were you going for? Me or her?
I gave her the best smile I could. "Yeah. It'll all be okay.'
Her hand squeezed mine. "I'm so glad you're back, Rose. You'll always be part of me, no matter what. And honestly ... I'm kind of glad you can't see my sex life anymore.'
"That makes two of us.' I laughed. No bond. No magical attachment. It was going to be so strange, but really ... did I need it? In real life, people formed bonds of another nature. Bonds of love and loyalty. We would get through this. "I'll always be there for you, you know. Anything you need.'
"I know,' she said. "And actually ... I need you for something now ...'
"Name it,' I said.
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