Chapter Eighteen

 

THE THING THAT REALLY SUCKS about being psychically linked to someone is that you have a pretty good idea when they're lying--or, in this case, not lying. Still, my response was immediate and instinctive.

"That's not true."

"Isn't it?" She gave me a pointed look. She too knew that I could feel the truth in her words.

"But that... it can't... " I wasn't at a loss for words very often--and certainly not with Lissa. So frequently in our relationship, I'd been the one being assertive and explaining to her why things had to be the way they were. Somewhere along the way, with me not realizing it, Lissa had lost that fragility.

"I'm sorry," she said, voice still kind but also firm. The bond betrayed how much she hated telling me unpleasant things. "He asked me... told me specifically not to let you come. That he doesn't want to see you."

I stared at her pleadingly, my voice almost childlike. "But why? Why would he say that? Of course he wants to see me. He must be confused...."

"I don't know, Rose. All I know is what he told me. I'm so sorry." She reached for me like she might hug me, but I stepped away. My head was still reeling.

"I'll go with you anyway. I'll wait upstairs with the other guardians. Then, when you tell Dimitri I'm there, he'll change his mind."

"I don't think you should," she said. "He seemed really serious about you not coming--almost frantic. I think knowing you're there would upset him."

"Upset him? Upset him? Liss, it's me! He loves me. He needs me."

She winced, and I realized I'd been shouting at her. "I'm just going on what he said. It's all so confusing... please. Don't put me in this position. Just... wait and see what happens. And if you want to know what's going on, you can always..."

Lissa didn't finish, but I knew what she was suggesting. She was offering to let me see her meeting with Dimitri through the bond. It was a big gesture on her part--not that she could have stopped me if I wanted to do it. Still, she didn't usually like the idea of being "spied" on. This was the best thing she could think of to make me feel better.

Not that it really did. All of this was still crazy. Me being denied access to Dimitri. Dimitri allegedly not wanting to see me! What the hell? My gut reaction was to ignore everything she'd just said and go along with her, demanding access when she arrived. The feelings in the bond were begging me not to, though. She didn't want to create trouble. She might not understand Dimitri's wishes either, but she felt they should be honored until the situation could be better assessed.

"Please," she said. The plaintive word finally cracked me.

"Okay." It killed me to say it. It was like admitting defeat. Think of it as a tactical retreat.

"Thank you." This time she did hug me. "I swear I'll get more information and figure out what's going on, okay?"

I nodded, still dejected, and we walked out of the building together. With grim reluctance, I parted with her when the time came, letting her go off to the guardians' building while I headed toward my room. As soon as she was out of my sight, I immediately slipped into her head, watching through her eyes as she walked through the perfectly manicured grass. The bond was still a little hazy but growing clearer by the minute.

Her feelings were a jumble. She felt bad for me, guilty that she'd had to refuse me. At the same time, she was anxious to visit Dimitri. She needed to see him too--but not in the same way I did. She still had that feeling of responsibility for him, that burning urge to protect him.

When she arrived at the building's main office, the guardian who'd stopped me gave her a nod of greeting and then made a quick phone call. A few moments later, three guardians entered and gestured for Lissa to follow them into the depths of the building. They all looked unusually grim, even for guardians.

"You don't have to do this," one of them told her. "Just because he keeps asking..."

"It's fine," she said with the cool, dignified air of any royal. "I don't mind."

"There'll be plenty of guards around just like last time. You don't need to worry about your safety."

She gave all of them a sharp look. "I was never worried about it to begin with."

Their descent into the building's lower levels brought back painful memories of when Dimitri and I had visited Victor. That had been the Dimitri I'd had a perfect union with, the Dimitri who understood me entirely. And after the visit, he'd been enraged at Victor's threats against me. Dimitri had loved me so much that he'd been willing to do anything to protect me.

A key card-protected door finally allowed access to the holding level, which consisted mostly of a long hallway lined with cells. It didn't have the depressing feel that Tarasov had had, but this place's stark and steel-lined industrial air didn't exactly inspire warm and fuzzy feelings.

Lissa could hardly walk down the hall because it was so crowded with guardians. All that security for one person. It wasn't impossible for a Strigoi to break through a cell's steel bars, but Dimitri was no Strigoi. Why couldn't they see that? Were they blind?

Lissa and her escort made their way through the crowd and came to a stop in front of his cell. It was as cold looking as everything else in this prison area, with no more furnishings than were absolutely required. Dimitri sat on the narrow bed, his legs drawn up to him as he leaned into a corner of the wall and kept his back to the cell's entrance. It wasn't what I had expected. Why wasn't he beating at the bars? Why wasn't he demanding to be released and telling them he wasn't a Strigoi? Why was he taking this so quietly?

"Dimitri."

Lissa's voice was soft and gentle, filled with a warmth that stood out against the harshness of the cell. It was the voice of an angel.

And as Dimitri slowly turned around, it was obvious he thought so too. His expression transformed before our eyes, going from bleakness to wonder.

He wasn't the only one filled with wonder. My mind might have been tied to Lissa's, but back across Court, my own body nearly stopped breathing. The glimpse I'd gotten of him last night had been amazing. But this... this full-on view of him looking at Lissa--at me--was awe-inspiring. It was a wonder. A gift. A miracle.

Seriously. How could anyone think he was a Strigoi? And how could I have possibly let myself believe the Dimitri I'd been with in Siberia was this one? He'd cleaned up from the battle and wore jeans and a simple black T-shirt. His brown hair was tied back into a short ponytail, and a faint shadow across his lower face showed that he needed to shave. Probably no one would let him get near a razor. Regardless, it almost made him look sexier--more real, more dhampir. More alive. His eyes were what really pulled it all together. His death white skin--now gone--had always been startling, but those red eyes had been the worst. Now they were perfect. Exactly as they used to be. Warm and brown and long-lashed. I could have gazed at them forever.

"Vasilisa," he breathed. The sound of his voice made my chest tighten. God, I'd missed hearing him speak. "You came back."

As soon as he began approaching the bars, the guardians around Lissa started closing rank, ready to stop him should he indeed bust through. "Back off!" she snapped in a queenly tone, glaring at everyone around her. "Give us some space." No one reacted right away, and she put more power into her voice. "I mean it! Step back!"

I felt the slightest trickle of magic through our link. It wasn't a huge amount, but she was backing her words with a little spirit-induced compulsion. She could hardly control such a large group, but the command had enough force to make them clear out a little and create space between her and Dimitri. She turned her attention back to him, demeanor instantly changing from fierce to kind.

"Of course I came back. How are you? Are they..." She cast a dangerous look at the guardians in the hall. "Are they treating you okay?"

He shrugged. "Fine. Nobody's hurting me." If he was anything like his old self, he would have never admitted if anyone was hurting him. "Just a lot of questions. So many questions." He sounded weary, again... very unlike a Strigoi who never needed rest. "And my eyes. They keep wanting to examine my eyes."

"But how do you feel?" she asked. "In your mind? In your heart?" If the whole situation hadn't been so sobering, I would have been amused. It was very much a therapist's line of questioning--something both Lissa and I had experienced a lot of. I'd hated being asked those questions, but now I truly wanted to know how Dimitri felt.

His gaze, which had so intently focused on her, now drifted away and grew unfocused. "It's... it's hard to describe. It's like I've woken up from a dream. A nightmare. Like I've been watching someone else act through my body--like I was at a movie or a play. But it wasn't someone else. It was me. All of it was me, and now here I am, and the whole world has shifted. I feel like I'm relearning everything."

"It'll pass. You'll get more used to it, once you settle back into your old self." That was a guess on her part, but one she felt confident of.

He inclined his head toward the gathered guardians. "They don't think so."

"They will," she said adamantly. "We just need more time." A small silence fell, and Lissa hesitated before speaking her next words. "Rose... wants to see you."

Dimitri's dreamy, morose attitude snapped in a heartbeat. His eyes focused back on Lissa, and I got my first glimpse of true, intense emotion from him. "No. Anyone but her. I can't see her. Don't let her come here. Please."

Lissa swallowed, unsure how to respond. The fact that she had an audience made it harder. The best she could do was lower her voice so the others wouldn't hear. "But... she loves you. She's worried about you. What happened... with us being able to save you? Well, a lot of it was because of her."

"You saved me."

"I only did the final piece. The rest... well, Rose did, um, a lot." Say, like, organizing a prison break and releasing fugitives.

Dimitri turned from Lissa, and the fire that had briefly lit his features faded. He walked over to the side of the cell and leaned against the wall. He closed his eyes for a few seconds, took a deep breath, and then opened them.

"Anyone but her," he repeated. "Not after what I did to her. I did a lot of things... horrible things." He turned his hands palm-up and stared at them for a moment, like he could see blood. "What I did to her was worst of all--especially because it was her. She came to save me from that state, and I..." He shook his head. "I did terrible things to her. Terrible things to others. I can't face her after that. What I did was unforgivable."

"It's not," said Lissa urgently. "It wasn't you. Not really. She'll forgive you."

"No. There's no forgiveness for me--not after what I did. I don't deserve her, don't deserve to even be around her. The only thing I can do..." He walked back over to Lissa, and to the astonishment of both of us, he fell to his knees before her. "The only thing I can do--the only redemption I can try for--is to pay you back for saving me."

"Dimitri," she began uneasily, "I told you--"

"I felt that power. In that moment, I felt you bring my soul back. I felt you heal it. That's a debt I can't ever repay, but I swear I'll spend the rest of my life trying." He was looking up at her, that enraptured look back on his face.

"I don't want that. There's nothing to repay."

"There's everything to pay," he argued. "I owe you my life--my soul. It's the only way I can come close to ever redeeming myself for all the things I did. It's still not enough... but it's all I can do." He clasped his hands. "I swear, whatever you need, anything--if it's in my power--I'll do it. I'll serve and protect you for the rest of my life. I'll do whatever you ask. You have my loyalty forever."

Again, Lissa started to say she didn't want that, but then a canny thought came to mind. "Will you see Rose?"

He grimaced. "Anything but that."

"Dimitri--"

"Please. I'll do anything else for you, but if I see her... it'll hurt too much."

That was probably the only reason that could have made Lissa drop the subject. That and the desperate, dejected look on Dimitri's face. It was one she had never seen before, one I'd never seen before either. He'd always been so invincible in my eyes, and this sign of vulnerability didn't make him seem weaker to me. It simply made him more complex. It made me love him more--and want to help him.

Lissa could only give him a small nod as answer before one of the guardians in charge said she had to leave. Dimitri was still on his knees as they escorted her out, staring after her with an expression that said she was the closest to any hope he had left in this world.

My heart twisted with both sorrow and jealousy--and a bit of anger too. I was the one he should have looked at that way. How dare he? How dare he act like Lissa was the greatest thing in the world? She'd done a lot to save him, true, but I was the one who'd traveled around the globe for him. I was the one who had continually risked my life for him. Most importantly, I was the one who loved him. How could he turn his back on that?

Both Lissa and I were confused and upset as she left the building. Both of us were distraught over Dimitri's state. Despite how angry I was over his refusal to see me, I still felt horrible at seeing him so low. It killed me. He'd never acted that way before. After the Academy's attack, he had certainly been sad and had grieved over that loss. This was a different kind of despair. It was a deep sense of depression and guilt that he didn't feel he could escape from. Both Lissa and I were shocked by that. Dimitri had always been a man of action, someone ready to get up after a tragedy and fight the next battle.

But this? This was unlike anything we'd ever seen in him, and Lissa and I had wildly varying ideas on how to solve it. Her gentler, sympathetic approach was to keep talking to him while also calmly persuading Court officials that Dimitri was no longer a threat. My solution to this problem was to go to Dimitri, no matter what he claimed he wanted. I'd busted in and out of a prison. Getting into a jail cell should be cake. I was still certain that once he saw me, he'd have a change of heart about all this redemption stuff. How could he truly think I wouldn't forgive him? I loved him. I understood. And as far as convincing officials that he wasn't dangerous... well, my method there was a little fuzzy still, but I had a feeling it would involve a lot of yelling and beating on doors.

Lissa knew perfectly well that I had observed her encounter with Dimitri, so she didn't feel obligated to come see me, not when she knew they could still use her over at the medical center. She'd heard Adrian had nearly collapsed with all the magic he'd wielded to help others. It seemed so uncharacteristic of him, so unselfish... he'd done amazing deeds, at great cost to himself.

Adrian.

There was a problem. I hadn't had a chance to see him since getting back after the warehouse fight. And aside from hearing about him healing others, I really hadn't thought about him at all. I'd said that if Dimitri really could be saved, it didn't mean the end of Adrian and me. Yet, Dimitri had barely been back twenty-four hours, and here I was, already obsessing ov--

"Lissa?"

Despite the fact that I'd pulled back to my own mind, part of me was still absentmindedly following along with Lissa. Christian was standing outside the medical center, leaning against its wall. From his posture, it appeared as though he'd been there for a while waiting for something--or rather, someone.

She came to a halt, and inexplicably, all thoughts of Dimitri vanished from her mind. Oh, come on. I wanted those two to patch things up, but we had no time for this. Dimitri's fate was a lot more important than bantering with Christian.

Christian didn't look like he was in a snarky mood, though. His expression was curious and concerned as he regarded her. "How are you feeling?" he asked. They hadn't talked to each other since the ride back, and she'd been largely incoherent during a lot of it.

"Fine." She touched her face absentmindedly. "Adrian healed me."

"I guess he is good for something." Okay, maybe Christian was feeling a little snarky today. But only a little.

"Adrian's good for lots of things," she said, though she couldn't help a small smile. "He ran himself into the ground here all night."

"What about you? I know how you are. As soon as you were up and around, you were probably right there beside him."

She shook her head. "No. After he healed me, I went to see Dimitri."

All mirth disappeared from Christian's face. "You've talked to him?"

"Twice now. But yeah. I have."

"And?"

"And what?"

"What's he like?"

"He's like Dimitri." She suddenly frowned, reconsidering her words. "Well... not quite like Dimitri."

"What, does he still have some Strigoi in him?" Christian straightened up, blue eyes flashing. "If he's still dangerous, you have no business going near--"

"No!" she exclaimed. "He's not dangerous. And..." She took a few steps forward, returning his glare. "Even if he was, you have no business telling me what I can or can't do!"

Christian sighed dramatically. "And here I thought Rose was the only one who threw herself into stupid situations, regardless of whether they might kill her."

Lissa's anger flared up rapidly, likely because of all the spirit she'd been using. "Hey, you didn't have any issues helping me stake Dimitri! You trained me for it."

"That was different. We were in a bad situation already, and if things went wrong... well, I could have incinerated him." Christian regarded her from head to toe, and there was something in his gaze... something that seemed like more than just objective assessment. "But I didn't have to. You were amazing. You made the hit. I didn't know if you could, but you did... and the fire... You didn't flinch at all, but it must have been awful...."

There was a catch in his voice as he spoke, like he was only now truly assessing the consequences of what might have happened to Lissa. His concern and admiration made her flush, and she tilted her head--an old trick--so that the pieces of hair that had escaped from her ponytail would fall forward and hide her face. There was no need for it. Christian was now staring pointedly at the ground.

"I had to do it," she said at last. "I had to see if it was possible."

He looked up. "And it was... right? There really isn't any trace of Strigoi?"

"None. I'm positive. But no one believes it."

"Can you blame them? I mean, I helped out with it and I wanted it to be true... but I'm not sure I ever really, truly thought someone could come back from that." He glanced away again, his gaze resting on a lilac bush. Lissa could smell its scent, but the distant and troubled look on his face told her that his thoughts weren't on nature. Neither were they on Dimitri, I realized. He was thinking about his parents. What if there'd been spirit users around when the Ozeras had turned Strigoi? What if there had been a way to save them?

Lissa, not guessing what I had, remarked, "I don't even know that I believed either. But as soon as it happened, well... I knew. I know. There's no Strigoi in him. I have to help him. I have to make others realize it. I can't let them lock him up forever--or worse." Getting Dimitri out of the warehouse without the other guardians staking him had been no easy feat for her, and she shivered recalling those first few seconds after his change when everyone had been shouting to kill him.

Christian turned back and met her eyes curiously. "What did you mean when you said he was like Dimitri but not like Dimitri?"

Her voice trembled a little when she spoke. "He's... sad."

"Sad? Seems like he should be happy he was saved."

"No... you don't understand. He feels awful about everything he did as a Strigoi. Guilty, depressed. He's punishing himself for it because he doesn't think he can be forgiven."

"Holy shit," said Christian, clearly caught off guard. A few Moroi girls had walked by just then and looked scandalized at his swearing. They hurried off, whispering among themselves. Christian ignored them. "But he couldn't help it--"

"I know, I know. I already went over it with him."

"Can Rose help?"

"No," Lissa said bluntly.

Christian waited, apparently hoping she'd elaborate. He grew annoyed when she didn't. "What do you mean she can't? She should be able to help us more than anyone!"

"I don't want to get into it." My situation with Dimitri bothered her a lot. That made two of us. Lissa turned toward the medical building. It looked regal and castle-like on the outside, but it housed a facility as sterile and modern as any hospital. "Look, I need to get inside. And don't look at me like that."

"Like what?" he demanded, taking a few steps toward her.

"That disapproving, pissed-off look you get when you don't get your way."

"I don't have that look!"

"You have it right now." She backed away from him, moving toward the center's door. "If you want the whole story, we can talk later, but I don't have the time... and honestly... I don't really feel like telling it."

That pissed-off look--and she was right, he did have it--faded a little. Almost nervously, he said, "Okay. Later then. And Lissa..."

"Hmm?"

"I'm glad you're all right. What you did last night... well, it really was amazing."

Lissa stared at him for several heavy seconds, her heart rate rising slightly as she watched a light breeze ruffle his black hair. "I couldn't have done it without your help," she said at last. With that, she turned and went inside, and I returned completely to my own head.

And like earlier, I was at a loss. Lissa would be busy the rest of the day, and standing and yelling in the guardians' office wouldn't really help me get to Dimitri. Well, I supposed there was the off chance I might annoy them so much that they'd throw me in jail too. Then Dimitri and I would be next to each other. I promptly dismissed that plan, fearing the only thing it would land me with was more filing.

What could I do? Nothing. I needed to see him again but didn't know how. I hated not having a plan. Lissa's encounter with Dimitri hadn't been nearly long enough for me, and anyway, I felt it was important to take him in through my eyes, not hers. And oh, that sadness... that utter look of hopelessness. I couldn't stand it. I wanted to hold him, to tell him everything would be okay. I wanted to tell him I forgave him and that we'd make everything like it used to be. We could be together, just the way we planned...

The thought brought tears to my eyes, and left alone with my frustration and inactivity, I returned to my room and flounced onto the bed. Alone, I could finally let loose the sobs I'd been holding in since last night. I didn't even entirely know what I was crying for. The trauma and blood of the last day. My own broken heart. Dimitri's sorrow. The cruel circumstances that had ruined our lives. Really, there were a lot of choices.

I stayed in my room for a good part of the day, lost in my own grief and restlessness. Over and over, I replayed Lissa's meeting with Dimitri, what he'd said and how he looked. I lost track of time, and it took a knock at the door to snap me out of my own suffocating emotions.

Hastily rubbing an arm over my eyes, I opened the door to find Adrian standing out there. "Hey," I said, a little surprised by his presence--not to mention guilty, considering I'd been moping over another guy. I wasn't ready to face Adrian yet, but it appeared I had no choice now. "Do you... do you want to come in?"

"Wish I could, little dhampir." He seemed to be in a hurry, not like he'd come to have a relationship talk. "But this is just a drop-by visit to issue an invitation."

"Invitation?" I asked. My mind was still on Dimitri. Dimitri, Dimitri, Dimitri.

"An invitation to a party."

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