THE ENTIRE ROOM SEEMED to hold its breath.
Yet even in the face of miracles, guardians--or Strigoi, for that matter--were hard to distract. Fights that had paused now resumed with just as much fury. The guardians had the upper hand, and those of them who weren't engaged with the last surviving Strigoi suddenly leapt toward Lissa, trying to pull her away from Dimitri. To everyone's surprise, she held on to him tightly and made a few feeble attempts to fight off those crowding around her. She was fierce and protective, again putting me in mind of a mother defending her child.
Dimitri was holding on to her just as intently, but both he and Lissa were outmatched. The guardians finally pried them apart. There were confused shouts as guardians tried to determine whether they should kill Dimitri. It wouldn't have been hard. He was helpless now. He could barely stand when they jerked him to his feet.
That woke me up. I'd simply been staring, frozen and dumbstruck. Shaking off my daze, I sprang forward, though I wasn't sure who I was going for: Lissa or Dimitri.
"No! Don't!" I yelled, seeing some of the guardians move in with stakes. "He's not what you think! He's not Strigoi! Look at him!"
Lissa and Christian were shouting similar things. Someone grabbed me and pulled me back, telling me to let the others handle this. Without even thinking, I turned and punched my captor in the face, discovering too late it was Hans. He fell back a little, seeming more surprised than offended. Attacking him was enough to attract the attention of others, however, and soon I had my own group of guardians to fight off. My efforts didn't do any good, partially because I was outnumbered and partially because I couldn't take them on the same way I'd attacked Strigoi.
As the guardians hauled me out, I noticed then that Lissa and Dimitri had already been removed from the room. I demanded to know where they were, yelling that I had to see them. No one listened to me. They dragged me away, out of the warehouse, passing a disturbing amount of bodies. Most were Strigoi, but I recognized a few faces from the guardian regiment at the Court. I grimaced, even though I hadn't known them well. The battle was over, and our side had won--but at a great cost. The surviving guardians would be doing cleanup now. I wouldn't have been surprised if Alchemists showed up, but at the moment, none of that was my concern.
"Where's Lissa?" I kept demanding as I was shoved inside one of the SUVs. Two guardians slid in with me, one sitting on each side. I didn't know either of them. "Where's Dimitri?"
"The princess has been taken to safety," one of the guardians said crisply. He and the other guy stared straight ahead, and I realized neither was going to acknowledge the question about Dimitri. He might as well not exist for any of them.
"Where's Dimitri?" I repeated, speaking more loudly in the hopes that might get an answer. "Is he with Lissa?"
That got a reaction. "Of course not," said the guardian who'd spoken before.
"Is he... is he alive?" It was one of the hardest questions I'd ever asked, but I had to know. I hated to admit it, but if I were in Hans's place, I wouldn't have been looking for miracles. I would have been exterminating anything I perceived as a threat.
"Yes," said the driver at last. "He... it... is alive."
And that was all I could get out of them, no matter how much I argued and demanded to be released from the car--and believe me, I did a lot of that. Their ability to ignore me was pretty impressive, really. To be fair, I'm not even sure that they knew what had happened. Everything had occurred so fast. The only thing these two knew was that they'd been ordered to escort me out of the building.
I kept hoping someone I knew might join us in our SUV. Nope. Only more unknown guardians. No Christian or Tasha. Not even Hans--of course, that was understandable. He was probably afraid I'd accidentally punch him again.
When we were loaded up and on the road, I finally gave up my badgering and sank back into the seat. Other SUVs had left with ours, but I had no clue whether my friends were in them.
The bond between Lissa and me was still numb. After that initial shock where I'd felt nothing, I'd slowly regained a slight sense of her, telling me we were still connected and that she was alive. That was about it. With all that power that had blasted through her, it was almost like the bond had been temporarily fried. The magic between us was fragile. Each time I tried to use the bond to check on her, it was as though I'd stared too brightly at something and was still blinded. I just had to assume it would reestablish itself soon because I needed her insight on what had happened.
No, scratch insight. I needed to know what had happened, period. I was still in a bit of shock, and the long ride back to Court allowed me time to process what few facts I had access to. I immediately wanted to jump to Dimitri but needed to start at the beginning if I really wanted to analyze all that had occurred.
First: Lissa had charmed a stake and withheld the info from me. When? Before her college trip? At Lehigh? While captive? It didn't matter.
Second, in spite of her failed pillow attempts, she had gotten the stake into Dimitri's heart. It had been a struggle, but Christian's fire had made it possible. I winced, recalling the burns Lissa had suffered during that ordeal. I'd felt the pain of those before the bond blanked out, and I'd also seen the marks on her. Adrian wasn't the world's best healer, but hopefully his magic would be enough to take care of her injuries.
The third and final fact here... well... was it a fact? Lissa had stabbed Dimitri and used the same magic she would for a healing... and then? That was the big question. What had happened, aside from what felt like a nuclear explosion of magic through our bond? Had I really seen what I thought I'd seen?
Dimitri had... changed.
He was no longer a Strigoi. I felt it in my heart, even though I'd only had that brief glimpse of him. It had been enough to allow me to see the truth. The Strigoi features were gone. Lissa had done everything Robert had sworn she needed to do to restore a Strigoi, and certainly after all that magic... well, it was easy to believe anything was possible. That image of Dimitri came back to me, clinging to Lissa with tears running down his face. I'd never seen him so vulnerable. Somehow, I didn't believe Strigoi cried.
Something in my heart twisted painfully, and I blinked rapidly to stop from crying too. Glancing around, I tuned back into my surroundings. Outside the car, the sky was lightening. It was nearly sunrise. The guardians with me had signs of weariness on their faces, yet the alert expressions in their eyes never faltered. I'd lost track of the time, but my internal clock told me we'd been on the road for a while. We had to almost be back at Court.
Tentatively, I touched the bond and found it was back but still fragile. It was like it flickered in and out, still reestablishing itself. That was enough to put me at ease, and I breathed a sigh of relief. When the bond had first come about years ago, it had been so strange... surreal. Now I'd accepted it as part of my life. Its absence today had felt unnatural.
Looking through Lissa's eyes, at the SUV she rode in, I immediately hoped I'd see Dimitri with her. That one glimpse at the warehouse hadn't been enough. I needed to see him again, needed to see if this miracle had truly happened. I wanted to drink in those features, to gaze at the Dimitri from so long ago. The Dimitri I loved.
But he wasn't with Lissa. Christian was there, however, and he glanced over at her as she stirred. She'd been asleep and still felt groggy. That, combined with the aftereffect of that searing power earlier, kept our connection a little hazy. Things shifted out of focus for me off and on, but overall, I could follow what was happening.
"How do you feel?" asked Christian. His voice and his eyes as he peered at her were filled with so much affection that it seemed impossible she didn't notice. But then, she was a little preoccupied right now.
"Tired. Worn out. Like... I don't know. Like I've been thrown around in a hurricane. Or run over by a car. Pick something horrible, and that's what I feel like."
He gave her a small smile and gently touched her cheek. Opening myself to her senses more, I felt the pain of her burns and that he was tracing the skin near one, though being careful to keep away from it.
"Is it awful?" she asked him. "Is all my skin melted off? Do I look like some alien?"
"No," he said, with a small laugh. "There's not that much. You're beautiful, like always. It would take a lot for that to change."
The throbbing pain she felt made her think that there was more damage than he was admitting to, but the compliment and the way he'd said it went a long way to soothe her. For a moment, her whole existence focused on his face and the way the rising sun was starting to light it up.
Then the rest of her world came crashing down on her.
"Dimitri! I need to see Dimitri!"
There were guardians in the car, and she glanced around at them as she spoke. As with me, no one seemed willing to acknowledge him or what had happened.
"Why can't I see him? Why'd you take him away?" This was directed to anyone who would answer, and at last, Christian did.
"Because they think he's dangerous."
"He's not. He's just... He needs me. He's hurting inside."
Christian's eyes suddenly went wide, his face filling with panic. "He's not... You aren't bonded to him, are you?"
I guessed by the look on his face that Christian was recalling Avery and how bonding with multiple people had pushed her over the edge. Christian hadn't been there for Robert's explanation of the soul going to the world of the dead and how restored Strigoi didn't get bonded.
Lissa shook her head slowly. "No... I just know. When I... when I healed him, we had this connection, and I felt it. What I had to do... I can't explain it." She ran a hand through her hair, frustrated that she couldn't put her magic into words. Weariness was starting to overtake her. "It was like I had to do surgery on his soul," she said at last.
"They think he's dangerous," repeated Christian gently.
"He's not!" Lissa glared around at the rest of the car's occupants, all of whom were looking somewhere else. "He's not Strigoi anymore."
"Princess," began one of the guardians uneasily, "no one really knows what happened. You can't be sure that--"
"I am sure!" she said, voice too loud for the small space. There was a regal, commanding air to it. "I know. I saved him. I brought him back. I know with every single part of me that he's no longer Strigoi!"
The guardians looked uncomfortable, again not speaking. I think they were just confused, and really, how could they not be? There was no precedent for this.
"Shh," said Christian, putting his hand on hers. "There's nothing you can do until we're back at Court. You're still hurt and exhausted--it's written all over you."
Lissa knew he was right. She was hurt, and she was exhausted. That magic had ripped her apart. At the same time, what she had done for Dimitri had created a bond to him--not a magical one, but a psychological one. She really was like a mother. She felt desperately protective and concerned.
"I need to see him," she said.
She did? What about me?
"You will," said Christian, sounding more certain than I suspected he was. "But just try to rest now."
"I can't," she said, even while stifling a yawn.
That smile flickered back across his lips, and he slipped his arm around her, pulling her as close as the seat belts would allow. "Try," he told her.
She rested her head against his chest, and his closeness was a type of healing in and of itself. Worry and concern for Dimitri still coursed through her, but her body's needs were stronger for the moment. At last, she drifted into sleep in Christian's embrace, just barely hearing him murmur, "Happy birthday."
Twenty minutes later, our convoy arrived back at Court. I thought this meant instant freedom, but my guardians took their time in getting out, waiting for some signal or directions that no one had bothered to tell me about. It turned out they were waiting for Hans.
"No," he said, firmly putting a hand on my shoulder as I shot out of the car and tried to race away to... well, I wasn't sure where. Wherever Dimitri was. "Hold on."
"I have to see him!" I exclaimed, trying to push past. Hans was like a brick wall. Considering he'd actually fought a lot more Strigoi than me tonight, you'd have thought he'd be tired. "You have to tell me where he is."
To my surprise, Hans did. "Locked away. Far, far out of your reach. Or anyone else's. I know he used to be your teacher, but it's better if he's kept away for now."
My brain, weary from the night's activities and overwrought with emotion, took a moment to process this. Christian's words came back to me. "He's not dangerous," I said. "He's not a Strigoi anymore."
"How can you be so certain?"
The same question Lissa had been asked. How could we really answer that? We knew because we'd gone to incredible pains to find out how to transform a Strigoi, and when we'd completed those steps, there'd been an atom bomb of magic. Wasn't that enough proof for anyone? Hadn't Dimitri's appearance been enough?
Instead, my answer was like Lissa's. "I just know."
Hans shook his head, and now I could see he actually was exhausted. "No one knows what's going on with Belikov. Those of us that were there... well, I'm not sure what I saw. All I do know is that he was leading Strigoi a little while ago, and now he's out in the sun. It doesn't make any sense. No one knows what he is."
"He's a dhampir."
"And until we do," he continued, ignoring my comment, "Belikov has to stay locked up while we examine him." Examine? I didn't like the sound of that. It made Dimitri seem like a lab animal. It made my temper flare, and I nearly started yelling at Hans. A moment later, I got myself under control.
"Then I need to see Lissa."
"She's been taken to the medical center for treatment--which she needs very badly. You can't go there," he added, anticipating my next response. "Half the guardians are there. It's chaos, and you'd be in the way."
"Then what the hell am I supposed to do?"
"Go get some sleep." He gave me a wry look. "I still think you've got a bad attitude, but after what I saw back there... well, I'll say this. You know how to fight. We need you--probably for more than paperwork. Now go take care of yourself."
And that was that. The dismissal in his voice was clear, and as the guardians hurried around, it was like I didn't exist. Whatever trouble I'd been in before seemed long forgotten. No more filing in the wake of this. But what was I supposed to do? Was Hans crazy? How could I sleep? I had to do something. I had to see Dimitri--but I didn't know where they'd taken him. Probably the same jail Victor had been kept in, which was inaccessible to me. I also needed to see Lissa--but she was deep in the medical center. I had no power here. I needed to appeal to someone with influence.
If I went to Adrian, maybe he could pull some strings. He had his royal connections. Hell, the queen loved him, in spite of his slacker ways. As much as it killed me to accept, I was realizing that getting in to see Dimitri right away was going to be nearly impossible. But the medical center? Adrian might be able to get me in to see Lissa, even if it was crowded and chaotic. The bond was still blurry, and talking to her directly would allow me to score faster answers about Dimitri. Plus, I wanted to see for myself that she was all right.
Yet when I reached the housing Adrian stayed in at Court, I was informed by the doorman that Adrian had already left a little while ago to--ironically enough--go to the medical center. I groaned. Of course he'd already be there. With his healing abilities, they would have summoned him out of bed. Weak or not, he could definitely help.
"Were you there?" the doorman asked me as I started to turn away.
"What?" For a minute I thought he was talking about the medical center.
"The battle with the Strigoi! The rescue. We've been hearing all sorts of things."
"Already? What did you hear?"
The guy's eyes were wide and excited. "They say almost every guardian died. But that you captured a Strigoi and brought him back."
"No, no... there were more injuries than deaths. And the other..." For a moment, I couldn't breathe. What had happened? What had really happened with Dimitri? "A Strigoi was changed back to a dhampir."
The doorman stared. "Were you hit on the head?"
"I'm telling the truth! Vasilisa Dragomir did it. With her spirit power. Spread that around."
I left him with his mouth hanging open. And like that, I had no more options, no one else to get information from. I went back to my room feeling defeated but far too keyed up to sleep. At least, that's what I initially thought. After some pacing, I sat on the bed to try to come up with a plan. Yet before long, I felt myself falling into a heavy sleep.
I awoke with a start, confused and aching in parts of my body that I hadn't realized had taken hits in the fight. I peered at the clock, astonished at how long I'd slept. In vampire time, it was late morning. Within five minutes, I had showered and put on non-torn, non-bloody clothes. Just like that, I was out the door.
People were out and about their daily business, yet every couple or group I passed seemed to be talking about the battle at the warehouse--and about Dimitri.
"You know she can heal," I heard one Moroi guy say to his wife. "Why not Strigoi? Why not the dead?"
"It's insane," the woman countered. "I've never believed in this spirit thing anyway. It's a lie to cover up the fact that the Dragomir girl never specialized."
I didn't hear the rest of their conversation, but others I passed had similar themes. People were either convinced the whole thing was a scam or were regarding Lissa as a saint already. Every so often, I'd heard something weird, like that the guardians had captured a bunch of Strigoi to experiment on. In all the speculation, though, I never heard Dimitri's name come up or knew what was really happening to him.
I followed the only plan I had: Go to the guardian building that held the Court's jail, though I was unsure what I'd actually do when I got there. I wasn't even entirely sure that was where Dimitri still was, but it seemed the most likely place. When I passed a guardian along the way, it took me several seconds to realize I knew him. I came to a halt and turned.
"Mikhail!" He glanced back and, seeing me, walked over. "What's going on?" I asked, relieved to see a friendly face. "Have they let Dimitri out?"
He shook his head. "No, they're still trying to figure out what happened. Everyone's confused, even though the princess still swore up and down after she saw him that he's not Strigoi anymore."
There was a wonder in Mikhail's voice--and wistfulness too. He was hoping that it was true, that there might be a chance for his beloved to be saved. My heart ached for him. I hoped he and Sonya could have a happy ending just like--
"Wait. What did you say?" His words drew my romantic musings to a halt. "Did you say Lissa saw him? You mean after the fight?" I immediately reached for the bond. It was gradually growing clearer--but Lissa was asleep, so I learned nothing.
"He asked for her," Mikhail explained. "So they let her in--guarded, of course."
I stared, my jaw nearly dropping to the ground. Dimitri was seeing visitors. They were actually letting him see visitors. The knowledge lit up the dark mood that had been building in me. I turned away. "Thanks, Mikhail."
But I didn't stop. I ran to the guardians' holding building at a full-out sprint, oblivious to the looks I got. I was too excited, too invigorated with this new info. I could see Dimitri. I could finally be with him, back the way he was supposed to be.
"You can't see him."
I literally came to a halt when the guardian on duty in the front reception area stopped me.
"Wh-what? I need to see Dimitri."
"But Lissa--er, Vasilisa Dragomir got to see him."
"He asked for her."
I stared incredulously. "He must have asked for me too."
The guardian shrugged. "If he did, no one's told me."
The anger I'd kept back last night finally awoke. "Then go find someone who knows! Dimitri wants to see me. You have to let me in. Who's your boss?"
The guardian scowled at me. "I'm not going anywhere until my shift is over. If you've got clearance, someone will let you know. Until then, no one without special permission is allowed to go down there."
After taking out a fair portion of Tarasov's security, I felt pretty confident I could easily dispatch this guy. However, I felt equally confident that once I got to the depths of the jail cells, I'd run into a lot more guardians. For a second, taking them out seemed very reasonable. It was Dimitri. I would do anything for him. A slight stirring in the bond made me see reason. Lissa had just woken up.
"Fine," I said. I lifted my chin and gave him a haughty look. "Thanks for the 'help.'" I didn't need this loser. I'd go to Lissa.
She was staying at almost the opposite end of the Court's grounds from the holding area, and I covered the distance at a light jog. When I finally reached her and she opened the door to her room, I saw that she'd gotten ready almost as quickly as I had. In fact, I could feel that she'd been pretty close to leaving. Studying her face and hands, I was relieved to see that almost all of the burns were gone. A few red spots lingered on her fingers, but that was it. Adrian's handiwork. No doctor could have made that happen. In a pale blue tank top, with her blond hair pulled back, she didn't look at all like anyone who'd been through such a major ordeal less than twenty-four hours ago.
"Are you okay?" she asked. In spite of everything else that had happened, she'd never stopped worrying about me.
"Yeah, fine." Physically, at least. "You?"
She nodded. "Fine."
"You look good," I said. "Last night... I mean, I was pretty scared. With the fire..." I couldn't quite finish.
"Yeah," she said, looking away from me. She seemed nervous and uncomfortable. "Adrian's been pretty great healing people."
"Is that where you're going?" There was agitation and restlessness in the bond. It would make sense if she wanted to hurry over to the medical center and help out too. Except... further probing gave me the startling truth. "You're going to see Dimitri!"
"No," I said eagerly. "It's perfect. I'll go with you. I was just over there, and they wouldn't let me in."
"Rose--" Lissa looked very uncomfortable now.
"They gave me some bullshit about how he'd asked for you and not me and that that's why they couldn't let me in. But if you're going, they'll have to let me."
"Rose," she said firmly, finally breaking through my chatter. "You can't go."
"I--what?" I replayed her words, just in case I'd misheard them. "Of course I can. I need to see him. You know I do. And he needs to see me."
She slowly shook her head, still looking nervous--but also sympathetic. "That guardian was right," she said. "Dimitri hasn't been asking for you. Only me."
All my eagerness, all that fire, froze up. I was dumbstruck, confused more than anything. "Well..." I recalled how he'd clung to her last night, that desperate look on his face. I hated to admit it, but it kind of made sense why he would have asked for her first. "Of course he'd want to see you. Everything's so new and strange, and you're the one who saved him. Once he comes around more, he'll want to see me too."
"Rose, you can't go." This time the sadness in Lissa's voice was mirrored through the bond, flooding into me. "It's not just that Dimitri didn't ask to see you. He asked specifically not to see you."
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