Chapter Twenty-nine

 

THE EVENTS THAT FOLLOWED were a blur. Sonya might have kept spirit's touch at bay, but it didn't matter. I was still in shock, still unable to think. They put me in the front seat, as far from Victor as possible. Dimitri drove us somewhere--I didn't pay much attention--where he and Sonya disposed of the body. They didn't say what they did, only that it was "taken care of.' I didn't ask for details. After that, we were back and headed toward Court. Sonya and Dimitri tossed around options on what to do when we got there. Seeing as no one had yet cleared my name, the current plan was that Sonya would have to escort Jill into Court. Jill asked if she could call her parents to let them know she was okay, but Dimitri felt that was a security risk. Sonya said she'd try to reach Emily in a dream, which made Jill feel a little better.

I coped during the drive by checking in on Lissa. Focusing on her took me away from the horrible guilt and emptiness I felt, the horror at what I'd done to Victor. When I was with Lissa, I wasn't me, and just then, that was my greatest desire. I didn't want to be me.

But things weren't perfect for her either. Like always, a number of issues were weighing her down. She felt close--so, so close--to unraveling who had killed Tatiana. The answer seemed within her grasp, if only she could reach just a little farther. The guardians had dragged Joe the janitor in, and after a fair amount of coercion--they had methods that didn't require magical compulsion--he'd admitted to having seen the twisted-handed Moroi in my building on the night of the murder. No amount of pushing would get Joe to admit he had been paid off--by either the man or Daniella. The most he'd admit was that he might have been "a little off' in his times that night. It was by no means hard evidence to save me.

Lissa had Ambrose's letter too, which had subtly threatened Tatiana. The writer had opposed the age law for being soft, disapproved of Tatiana's endorsement of spirit, and resented the secret training sessions. The letter might have been perfectly polite, but whoever penned it had had a serious grudge against the queen. That supported the political motive theories.

Of course, there were still lots of personal motives for the murder too. The sordid mess with Ambrose, Blake, and the women involved pegged any of them as the murderer. Daniella Ivashkov being on that list was a constant point of stress for Lissa, and she dared not breathe a word to Adrian. The saving grace there was that Daniella's bribery had been to get Adrian out of trouble--not solidify my guilt. The unknown Moroi had funded that bribe. Surely, if she had killed Tatiana, Daniella would have paid for both of Joe's lies.

And of course, there was the last test pressing against Lissa's mind. The riddle. The riddle that seemed to have so many answers--and yet, none at all.What must a queen possess in order to truly rule her people? In some ways, it was more difficult than the other tests. Those had had a hands-on component, so to speak. This? This was her own intellect. No fire to build. No fear to look in the eye.

She hated that she took the riddle so seriously too. She didn't need its stress, not with everything else going on. Life would have been simpler if she'd kept treating the trials simply as a scam to buy us time. The Court was continually swelling with those who had come to see the election, and more and more of them--much to her disbelief--were throwing their support behind her. She could hardly walk anywhere without people calling out about "the Dragon' or "Alexandra reborn.' Word of her attack had gotten out too, which seemed to have fueled her supporters even more.

But, of course, Lissa still had plenty of opposition. The biggest case against her was the same old legal one: that she wouldn't be eligible for votes when the time came. Another mark against her was her age. She was too young, her opponents said. Who would want a child on the throne? But Lissa's admirers wouldn't hear any of it. They kept citing young Alexandra's rule and the miracles Lissa had wrought with her healing. Age was irrelevant. The Moroi needed young blood, they cried. They also demanded the voting laws be changed.

Unsurprisingly, her opponents also kept bringing up the fact that she was tied to a queen-killing murderer. I'd have thought that would have been the biggest issue in her candidacy, but she'd been so convincing about how I'd shocked and betrayed her that many felt her being queen would actually right the wrong I'd committed. She'd used bits of compulsion whenever the topic came up, which also went a long way in making others think she was now completely dissociated from me.

"I'm so tired of this,' Lissa told Christian, back in her room. She'd sought escape there and was lying on her bed in his arms. My mom was there, on guard. "This queen thing was a horrible idea.'

Christian stroked her hair. "It's not. Abe said the election will be delayed because of the uproar. And no matter how much you complain, I know you're proud you made it this far.'

It was true. The chalice test had cut the nominees in half. Only five remained. Ariana Szelsky was one of them, as was Daniella's cousin, Rufus Tarus. Lissa was the third, with Marcus Lazar and Marie Conta rounding out the group. Ronald Ozera hadn't made it through.

My mother spoke up. "I've never seen anything like this--it's incredible how much support you're getting. The Council and other royals are under no obligations to change the law. But the mob's loud ... and gaining the love of "commoners' could benefit certain royals. Standing by your claim to run would certainly reflect well on a couple families that are out of favor. What's holding them back is the thought that you might actually win. So they'll just keep arguing and arguing.'

Lissa stiffened. "Winning ... that's not really possible, is it? Ariana's got it sealed ... right?' Winning had never been a part of this crazy plan, and now, with so few candidates, the pressure was even greater to get Ariana on the throne. As far as Lissa was concerned, the other candidates showed no promise of improving Moroi life. Ariana had to win.

"I'd say so,' said Janine. There was pride in her voice, seeing how close she was to the Szelsky family. "Ariana's brilliant and competent, and most people know it. She'd treat dhampirs fairly--more so than some of the other candidates. She's already spoken about reversing the age law.'

The thought of worse laws oppressing the dhampirs made Lissa's stomach sink. "God, I hope she wins. We can't have anything else go wrong.'

A knock at the door snapped my mom into full guardian mode until Lissa said, "It's Adrian.'

"Well,' muttered Christian, "at least his timing's better than usual.'

Sure enough, my boyfriend entered, wreathed in his now usual scent of smoke and liquor. True, his vices were the least of my concerns, but it kept bugging me that he needed me to be there in person to enforce his good behavior. It reminded me of when he said I was his strength.

"Get up, guys,' he said. He looked very pleased with himself. "We've got a visit to pay.' Lissa sat up, puzzled. "What are you talking about?'

"I am not hanging out with Blake Lazar again,' warned Christian.

"You and me both,' said Adrian. "I've got someone better. And more attractive. Remember how you were wondering how close Serena was to Grant? Well, looks like you can ask her yourself. I found her. And yes, you're welcome.'

A frown crossed my mother's face. "Last I heard, Serena had been sent away to teach at a school. One on the east coast, I think.' After the Strigoi attack that had killed Grant and several others, the guardians had decided to pull Serena from active bodyguard duty for a while. She'd been the only guardian to survive.

"She is, but since it's summer, they brought her back to help with election crowd control. She's working the front gates.'

Lissa and Christian exchanged looks. "We have to talk to her,' said Lissa excitedly. "She might have known who Grant was secretly teaching.'

"That doesn't mean one of them killed Tatiana,' warned my mother.

Lissa nodded. "No, but there's a connection, if Ambrose's letter is right. She's there now? At the gates?'

"Yup,' said Adrian. "And we probably don't even need to buy her a drink.'

"Then let's go.' Lissa stood and reached for her shoes.

"Are you sure?' asked Christian. "You know what's waiting out there.'

Lissa hesitated. It was late at "night' for Moroi, but that didn't mean everyone was in bed--especially at the gates, which was always jam-packed with people lately. Clearing my name was too important, Lissa decided. "Yeah. Let's do it.'

With my mother leading the way, my friends made their way to the Court's entrance. (The "door' that Abe had made had been patched up.) The Court was surrounded in high, multicolored stone walls that helped further the human image that this was actually an elite school. Wrought iron gates at the entrance stood open, but a group of guardians blocked the road leading into Court grounds. Normally, only two guardians would have manned the booth at the gate. The extra numbers were both for greater interrogation of cars and for crowd control. Spectators lined the road's sides, watching the arriving cars as though they were at a red carpet premiere. Janine knew a roundabout way that avoided some people--but not all.

"Don't cringe,' Christian told Lissa as they passed a particularly vocal group, which had noticed her. "You're a queenly nominee. Act like it. You deserve this. You're the last Dragomir. A daughter of royalty.'

Lissa gave him a brief, astonished look, surprised to hear the fierceness in his voice-- and that he clearly believed his words. Straightening up, she turned toward her fans, smiling and waving back, which excited them that much more. Take this seriously, she reminded herself. Don't disgrace our history.

In the end, getting through the crowd to the gate proved easier than getting time alone with Serena. The guardians were swamped and insisted on keeping Serena for screening, but my mom had a quick conversation with the guardian in charge. She reminded him of Lissa's importance and offered to stand in for Serena for a few minutes. Serena had long since healed from the Strigoi attack. She was my age, blond-haired and pretty. She was clearly surprised to see her former charge. "Princess,' she said, maintaining formalities. "How can I help you?'

Lissa pulled Serena away from the cluster of guardians speaking to the Moroi drivers lined up at the gate. "You can call me Lissa. You know that. You taught me to stab pillows, after all.'

Serena gave her a small smile. "Things have changed. You might be our next queen.'

Lissa grimaced. "Unlikely.' Especially since I have no clue how to solve that riddle, she thought. "But I do need your help. You and Grant spent a lot of time together ... did he ever mention training Moroi for Tatiana? Like, secret combat sessions?'

Serena's face gave the answer away, and she averted her eyes. "I'm not supposed to talk about that. He wasn't even supposed to tell me.'

Lissa gripped the young guardian's arm in excitement, making Serena flinch. "You have to tell me what you know. Anything. Who he was training ... how they felt about it ... who was successful. Anything.'

Serena paled. "I can't,' she whispered. "It was done in secret. On the queen's orders.'

"My aunt's dead,' said Adrian bluntly. "And you said yourself you might be talking to the future queen.' This earned a glare from Lissa.

Serena hesitated, then took a deep breath. "I can pull together a list of names. I might not remember all of them, though. And I have no clue how well they were doing--only that a lot resented it. Grant felt like Tatiana had purposely picked those most unwilling.'

Lissa squeezed her hand. "Thank you. Thank you so much.'

Serena still looked pained at giving up the secret information. They come first didn't always work when your loyalties were split. "I'll have to get it to you later, though. They need me here.'

Serena returned to her post, bringing my mother back to Lissa. As for me, I returned to my own reality in the car, which had come to a stop. I blinked to clear my eyes and take in our surroundings. Another hotel. We should have had gold member status by now. "What's going on?'

"We're stopping,' said Dimitri. "You need to rest.'

"No, I don't. We need to keep going to Court. We need to get Jill there in time for the elections.' Our initial goal in finding Jill had been to give Lissa voting power. It had since occurred to us that if Lissa running was mucking up the elections, the surprise appearance of her sister would likely create just as much sensation and disbelief. A genetic test would clear up any doubts and give Lissa her voting power, but the initial confusion would buy us more of the time we so badly needed to find the murderer. In spite of the random evidence my friends kept turning up, they still had no substantial theories on a culprit.

Dimitri gave me a don't lie to me look. "You were just with Lissa. Are the elections actually happening yet?'

"No,' I admitted.

"Then you're getting some rest.'

"I'm fine,' I snapped.

But those fools wouldn't listen to me. Checking in was complicated because none of us had a credit card, and it wasn't the hotel's policy to take a cash deposit. Sonya compelled the desk clerk into thinking it was their policy, and before long, we had booked two adjoining rooms.

"Let me talk to her alone,' Dimitri murmured to Sonya. "I can handle it.'

"Be careful,' Sonya warned. "She's fragile.'

"You guys, I'm right here!' I exclaimed.

Sonya took Jill's arm and guided her into one of the rooms. "Come on, let's order room service.'

Dimitri opened the other door and looked at me expectantly. With a sigh, I followed and sat on the bed, my arms crossed. The room was a hundred times nicer than the one in West Virginia. "Can we order room service?'

He pulled up a chair and sat opposite me, only a couple feet away. "We need to talk about what happened with Victor.'

"There's nothing to talk about,' I said bleakly. The dark feelings I'd been shoving back during the drive suddenly fell upon me. They smothered me. I felt more claustrophobic than when I'd been in the cell. Guilt was its own prison. "I really am the murderer everyone says I am. It doesn't matter that it was Victor. I killed him in cold blood.'

"That was hardly cold blood.'

"The hell it wasn't!' I cried, feeling tears spring to my eyes. "The plan was to subdue him and Robert so we could free Jill. Subdue. Victor wasn't a threat to me. He was an old man, for God's sake.'

"He seemed like a threat,' said Dimitri. His calmness was the counter to my growing hysteria, as usual. "He was using his magic.'

I shook my head, burying my face in my hands. "It wasn't going to kill me. He probably couldn't have even kept it up much longer. I could have waited it out or escaped. Hell, I did escape! But instead of capturing him, I slammed him against a concrete wall! He was no match for me. An old man. I killed an old man. Yeah, maybe he was a scheming, corrupt old man, but I didn't want him dead. I wanted him locked up again. I wanted him to spend the rest of his life in prison, living with his crimes. Living, Dimitri.'

It seemed strange that I'd feel this way, considering how much I hated Victor. But it was true: it hadn't been a fair fight. I'd acted without thinking. My training had always been about defense and striking out against monsters. Honor had never really come up, but suddenly, it meant a lot to me. "There was no honor in what I did to him.'

"Sonya said it wasn't your fault.' Dimitri's voice was still gentle, which somehow made me feel worse. I wished he'd chastise me, confirming the guilt I felt. I wanted him to be my critical instructor. "She said it was a backlash of spirit.'

"It was... .' I paused, recalling the haze of that fight as best I could. "I never really understood what Lissa experienced in her worst moments until then. I just looked at Victor ... and I saw everything evil in the world--an evil I had to stop. He was bad, but he didn't deserve that. He never stood a chance.' Honor, I kept thinking. What honor is there in that?

"You aren't listening, Rose. It wasn't your fault. Spirit's a powerful magic we barely understand. And its dark edge ... well, we know it's capable of terrible things. Things that can't be controlled.' I lifted my eyes to his. "I should have been stronger than it.' There it was. The thought behind all my guilt, all these horrible emotions. "I should have been stronger than it. I was weak.'

Dimitri's reassuring words didn't come so quickly. "You aren't invincible,' he said at last. "No one expects you to be.'

"I do. What I did ...' I swallowed. "What I did was unforgivable.'

His eyes widened in shock. "That ... that's crazy, Rose. You can't punish yourself for something you had no power over.'

"Yeah? Then why are you still--'

I stopped because I'd been about to accuse Dimitri of continuing to punish himself. Except ... he no longer was. Did he feel guilt for what he'd done as a Strigoi? I was certain of it. Sonya had admitted as much. But somewhere in this journey, he had taken control of his life again, bit by bit. She'd told me that, but only now did I truly understand.

"When?' I asked. "When did it change? When did you realize you could keep living-- even after all that guilt?'

"I'm not sure.' If the question surprised him, he hid it. His eyes were locked with mine, but they weren't quite focused on me. The puzzle occupied him. "In bits, really. When Lissa and Abe first came to me about breaking you out, I was ready to do it because she asked me to. Then, the more I thought about it, the more I realized it was personal too. I couldn't stand the thought of you locked in a cell, being cut off from the world. It wasn't right. No one should live like that, and it occurred to me that I was doing the same--by choice. I was cutting myself off from the world with guilt and self-punishment. I had a second chance to live, and I was throwing it away.'

I was still in turmoil, still raging and full of grief, but his story kept me quiet and transfixed. Hearing him pour his heart out was a rare opportunity.

"You heard me talk about this before,' he continued. "About my goal to appreciate life's little details. And the more we continued on our journey, the more I remembered who I was. Not just a fighter. Fighting is easy. It's why we fight that matters, and in the alley that night with Donovan ...' He shuddered. "That was the moment I could have crossed over into someone who fights just to senselessly kill--but you pulled me back, Rose. That was the turning point. You saved me ... just as Lissa saved me with the stake. I knew then that in order to leave the Strigoi part of me behind, I had to fight through to be what theyaren't. I had to embrace what they reject: beauty, love, honor.'

Right then, I was two people. One was overjoyed. Hearing him talk like that, realizing he was fighting his demons and close to victory ... well, I nearly wept with joy. It was what I'd wanted for him for so long. At the same time, his inspiring words only reminded me how far I'd fallen. My sorrow and self-pity took over again.

"Then you should understand,' I said bitterly. "You just said it: honor. It matters. We both know it does. I've lost mine. I lost it out there in the parking lot when I killed an innocent.'

"And I've killed hundreds,' he said flatly. "People much more innocent than Victor Dashkov.'

"It's not the same! You couldn't help it!' My feelings exploded to the surface again. "Why are we repeating the same things over and over?' "Because they aren't sinking in! You couldn't help it either.' His patience was cracking. "Feel guilty. Mourn this. But move on. Don't let it destroy you. Forgive yourself.'

I leapt to my feet, catching him by surprise. I leaned down, putting us face to face. "Forgive myself? That's what you want? You of all people?'

Words seemed to escape him. I think it had to do with my proximity. He managed a nod.

"Then tell me this. You say you moved past the guilt, decided to revel in life and all that. I get it. But have you, in your heart, really forgiven yourself? I told you a long time ago that I forgave you for everything in Siberia, but what about you? Have you done it?'

"I just said--'

"No. It's not the same. You're telling me to forgive myself and move on. But you won't do it yourself. You're a hypocrite, comrade. We're either both guilty or both innocent. Pick.'

He rose as well, looking down at me from that lofty height. "It's not that simple.'

I crossed my arms over my chest, refusing to be intimidated. "It is that simple. We're the same! Even Sonya says we are. We've always been the same, and we're both acting the same stupid way now. We hold ourselves up to a higher standard than everyone else.'

Dimitri frowned. "I--Sonya? What does she have to do with any of this?'

"She said our auras match. She said we light up around each other. She says it means you still love me and that we're in sync, and ...' I sighed and turned away, wandering across the room. "I don't know. I shouldn't have mentioned it. We shouldn't buy into this aura stuff when it comes from magic users who are already half-insane.'

I reached the window and leaned my forehead against the cool glass, trying to decide what to do. Forgive myself. Could I? A small city sprawled before me, though I'd lost track of where we were. Cars and people moved below, souls out living their lives. I took a deep breath. The image of Victor on the asphalt was going to stay with me for a long, long time. I had done something horrible, even if my intentions were good, but everyone was right: I hadn't been myself. Did that change what had happened? Would that bring Victor back? No. And honestly, I didn't know how I would move past what I'd done, how I'd shake the bloody images in my head. I just knew I had to go on.

"If I let this stop me,' I murmured, "if I do nothing ... then that's the greater evil. I'll do more good by surviving. By continuing to fight and protect others.'

"What are you saying?' asked Dimitri.

"I'm saying ... I forgive myself. That doesn't make everything perfect, but it's a start.' My fingertip traced the line of a tiny crack in the glass's surface. "Who knows? Maybe that outburst in the parking lot let out some of the darkness Sonya says is in my aura. Skeptic that I am, I have to give her some points. She was right that I was at a breaking point, that all I needed was a spark.'

"She was right about something else too,' Dimitri said after a long pause. My back was to him, but there was a strange quality to his voice that made me turn around.

"What's that?' I asked.

"That I do still love you.'

With that one sentence, everything in the universe changed. Time slowed to one heartbeat. The world became his eyes, his voice. This wasn't happening. It wasn't real. None of it could be real. It felt like a spirit dream. I resisted the urge to close my eyes and see if I'd wake up moments later. No. No matter how unbelievable it all seemed, this was no dream. This was real. This was life. This was flesh and blood.

"Since ... since when?' I finally managed to ask.

"Since ... forever.' His tone implied the answer was obvious. "I denied it when I was restored. I had no room for anything in my heart except guilt. I especially felt guilty about you--what I'd done--and I pushed you away. I put up a wall to keep you safe. It worked for a while--until my heart finally started accepting other emotions. And it all came back. Everything I felt for you. It had never left; it was just hidden from me until I was ready. And again ... that alley was the turning point. I looked at you ... saw your goodness, your hope, and your faith. Those are what make you beautiful. So, so beautiful.'

"So it wasn't my hair,' I said, unsure how I was even capable of making a joke at a time like this.

"No,' he said gently. "Your hair was beautiful too. All of you. You were amazing when we first met, and somehow, inexplicably, you've come even farther. You've always been pure, raw energy, and now you control it. You're the most amazing woman I've ever met, and I'm glad to have had that love for you in my life. I regret losing it.' He grew pensive. "I would give anything--anything--in the world to go back and change history. To run into your arms after Lissa brought me back. To have a life with you. It's too late, of course, but I've accepted it.'

"Why ... why is it too late?'

Dimitri's eyes grew sad. "Because of Adrian. Because you've moved on. No, listen,' he said, cutting off my protests. "You were right to do that after how I treated you. And more than anything else, I want you to be happy once we clear your name and get Jill recognized. You said yourself that Adrian makes you happy. You said you love him.'

"But ... you just said you love me. That you want to be with me.' My words seemed clumsy, unworthy of his eloquence.

"And I told you: I'm not going to pursue another man's girlfriend. You want to talk honor? There it is in its purest form.'

I walked toward him, each step ramping up the tension around us. Dimitri kept saying the alley was his turning point. For me? It was now. I stood on the precipice of something that would change my life. For the last week, I'd done a very good job of detaching myself from anything romantic with Dimitri. And yet ... had I? What was love, really? Flowers, chocolate, and poetry? Or was it something else? Was it being able to finish someone's jokes? Was it having absolute faith that someone was there at your back? Was it knowing someone so well that they instantly understood why you did the things you did--and shared those same beliefs?

All week, I'd claimed my love for Dimitri was fading. In reality, it had been growing more and more. I hadn't even realized it was happening. I had been re-establishing our old rapport, strengthening the connection. Reaffirming that of all the people in the world--even Lissa--Dimitri was the only one who truly gotme. I'd meant it: I loved Adrian. It was hard to imagine life without him, but my other words at the Mastranos' had betrayed me: I have fun with him. Now, you should have fun with the one you love, but that shouldn't have been what first came to mind. I should have said, We strengthen each other. Or, He makes me want to be a better person. Perhaps most importantly: He understands me perfectly.

But none of that was true, so I hadn't said those things. I'd sought Adrian for comfort. His familiarity and humor were an important part of my world. And if he was in danger? I'd throw my life before his, just as I would for Lissa. Yet, I didn't inspire him, not really. He was trying. He did want to be a better person, but at this moment in his life, his motivations were more about impressing others--about impressing me. It wasn't for himself. That didn't make him bad or weak, but it made me his crutch. He would get past that, I was certain. He would eventually come into his own and be an amazing man, but he wasn't at that point of self-discovery yet. I was.

I stood in front of Dimitri now, looking into those dark eyes again, the eyes I loved so much. I placed my hands on his chest, feeling his heart beating strong and steady--and maybe a bit faster than normal. Warmth spread through my fingertips. He reached up and caught hold of my wrists but didn't push me away. The lines of that gorgeous face looked strained as he fought some inner conflict, but now that I knew--now that I knew for sure--I could see his love for me. Love mingled with desire. It was so, so obvious.

"You should have told me,' I said. "You should have told me this a long time ago. I love you. I've never stopped loving you. You have to know that.'

His breath caught when I said I love you, and I could see his internal struggle for control become an all-out war. "It wouldn't have made any difference. Not with Adrian involved,' he said. The fingers around my hand tightened slightly as though he really might push me away this time. He didn't. "I mean it. I won't be that guy, Rose. I won't be that man who takes someone else's woman. Now, please. Let go. Don't make this any more difficult.'

I ignored the request. If he'd wanted to get away from me, he could have. I splayed my fingers, touching more of his chest, drinking in the feel of that warm contact I'd missed for so long.

"I don't belong to him,' I said in a low voice, pushing close to Dimitri and tilting my head back so that I could see his face clearly. So much emotion, so much conflict as his heart tried to decide right from wrong. Being pressed against him felt like ... completion. Sonya had said no couple could share one aura or one soul, but ours weren't meant to be apart. They fit together like a puzzle, two individuals making something greater than themselves. "I don't belong to anyone. I make my own choices.'

"And you're with Adrian,' said Dimitri.

"But I was meant for you.'

And that did it. Any pretense of control or reason either of us possessed melted away. The walls crumbled, and everything we'd been holding back from each other came rushing out. I reached up, pulling us together for a kiss--a kiss he didn't let go this time. A kiss I didn't end by punching him. His arms encircled me as he lifted me onto the bed, one hand soon sliding along my hip and down to my leg, already half-bare, thanks to that poor tattered dress. Every nerve in my body lit up, and I felt that desire returned in him--and then some. After a world of death, he seemed to appreciate love more. Not only that, he needed it. He needed life. He needed me--not just physically, but in the same way my heart and soul always cried out for him. What we did then, as our clothes came off and we brought our bodies together became more than just lust--even though there was plenty of that too.

Being with him after so long, after everything we'd endured ... it was like coming home. Like finally being where--with whom--I belonged. My world, my heart ... they'd shattered when I lost him. But as he looked at me, as his lips spoke my name and ran along my skin ... I knew those pieces could come back together. And I knew, with absolute certainty, that waiting for this--for my second time having sex--had been the right thing to do. Anyone else, any other time ... it would have been wrong.

When we finished, it was like we still couldn't get close enough. We held each other tightly, our limbs entwined, as though maybe closing the distance now would make up for the distance that had been between us for so long.

I closed my eyes, my senses flooded with him, and sighed dreamily. "I'm glad you gave in. I'm glad your self-control isn't as strong as mine.'

This made him laugh, and I felt it rumble through his chest. "Roza, my self-control is ten times stronger than yours.'

I opened my eyes, shifting to look into his. I brushed his hair back and smiled, certain my heart would expand and expand until there was nothing left of me. "Oh yeah? That's not the impression I just got.'

"Wait until next time,' he warned. "I'll do things that'll make you lose control within seconds.'

That comment was just asking for a witty Rose Hathaway quip. It also made my blood burn, which was why we were both surprised when I abruptly said, "There may not be a next time.'

Dimitri's hand, tracing the shape of my shoulder, froze. "What? Why?'

"We have a couple of things to do before this happens again.'

"Adrian,' he guessed.

I nodded. "And that's my problem, so put your honor-able thoughts aside. I have to face him and answer for this. I will. And you ...' I couldn't believe what I was about to say. I couldn't believe I meant it. "You still have to forgive yourself if we're going to be together.'

His puzzled expression turned to pain. "Rose--'

"I'm serious.' I met his eyes unflinchingly. "You have to forgive yourself. For real. Everyone else has. If you can't, then you can't go on either. We can't.'

It was one of the biggest gambles of my life. Once, I would have run to him without question, ignoring our problems, overjoyed just to be with him. Now ... after everything I'd been through, I'd changed. I loved him. I loved him so much, and I wanted him. But it was because of the strength of that love that I had to do this. If were going to be together, we had to do it the right way. Sex had been amazing, but it wasn't a magical cure for everything. Damn. Somewhere along the way, I'd picked up common sense. I still intended to confront Adrian. And if Dimitri wouldn't do what I asked, I really would walk away. I'd lose both men, but it was better to be alone with my self-respect than be in the wrong relationship.

"I don't know,' Dimitri said at last. "I don't know if I can ... if I'm ready.'

"Decide soon then,' I said. "You don't have to right this second, but eventually ...'

I didn't push the topic after that. For now, I would let it go, though I knew he would hold onto it and grasp its importance. I knew I was right to stand by it too. He couldn't be happy with me if he wasn't happy with himself. It occurred to me then, as I stood up for myself and what I needed, that our old teacher-student roles were gone forever. Now we really were equals.

I rested my head on his chest and felt him relax. We'd bask in this moment, if only for a little longer. Sonya had said we needed "rest,' making me think we still had some time here before the ticking clock drove us back to Court. As Dimitri and I continued to keep close to one another, I found myself actually wanting to sleep. I was exhausted from the fight--which, I realized, had taken a very unexpected turn. My guilt and despair over Victor and the explosion of spirit had taken their toll too, no matter the healing locket still around my neck. And yes, I thought with a small smile, I was simply exhausted from what Dimitri and I had just done. It was kind of nice to use my body for something that didn't result in serious injury for a change.

I fell asleep in his embrace, blackness wrapping around me as warmly as his arms. It should have been that simple. It should have been peaceful, happy rest. But as usual, I wasn't that lucky.

A spirit dream pulled me from the enveloping depths of sleep, and for half a second, I thought maybe Robert Doru had come for me to take revenge for his brother's death.

But, no. No vindictive Dashkov. Instead, I found myself staring into a pair of emerald- green eyes.

Adrian.

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