Everything became fuzzy after that. I had vague impressions of moving in and out of consciousness, of people saying my name, and of being in the air again. Eventually, I woke up in the school's infirmary and found Dr. Olendzki looking down at me.
"Hello, Rose," she said. She was a middle-aged Moroi and often joked that I was her number one patient. "How are you feeling?"
The details of what had happened came back. The faces. Mason. The other ghosts. The terrible pain in my head. All of it was gone.
"Fine," I said, half-surprised to be saying those words. For a moment, I wondered if maybe it had all been a dream. Then I looked beyond her and saw Dimitri and Alberta looming nearby. The looks on their faces told me the events on the plane had indeed been real.
Alberta cleared her throat, and Dr. Olendzki glanced back. "May we?" Alberta asked. The doctor nodded, and the other two stepped forward.
Dimitri, as always, was a balm to me. No matter what happened, I always felt a little safer in his presence. Yet even he hadn't been able to stop what had happened at the airport. When he looked at me like he was now, with an expression of such tenderness and concern, it triggered mixed feelings. Part of me loved that he cared so much. The other part wanted to be strong for him and didn't want to make him worry.
"Rose…" began Alberta uncertainly. I could tell she had no clue how to go about this. What had happened was beyond her realm of experience. Dimitri took over.
"Rose, what happened back there?" Before I could utter a word, he cut me off. "And do not say it was nothing this time."
Well, if I couldn't fall back on that answer, then I didn't know what to say.
Dr. Olendzki pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose. "We only want to help you."
"I don't need any help," I said. "I'm fine." I sounded just like Brandon and Brett. I was probably only one step away from saying, "I fell."
Alberta finally regained herself. "You were fine when we were in the air. When we landed, you were most definitely not fine."
"I'm fine now," I replied stonily, not meeting their eyes.
"What happened then?" she asked. "Why the screaming? What did you mean when you said we needed to make 'them' go away?"
I briefly considered my other fallback answer, the one about stress. That sounded completely stupid now. So, again, I said nothing. To my surprise, I felt tears build up in my eyes.
"Rose," murmured Dimitri, voice as soft as silk against my skin. "Please."
Something in that cracked me. It was so hard for me to stand against him. I turned my head and stared at the ceiling.
"Ghosts," I whispered. "I saw ghosts."
None of them had expected that, but honestly, how could they have? Heavy silence fell. Finally, Dr. Olendzki spoke in a faltering voice.
"W-what do you mean?"
I swallowed. "He's been following me for the last couple of weeks. Mason. On campus. I know it sounds crazy—but it's him. Or his ghost. That's what happened with Stan. I locked up because Mason was there, and I didn't know what to do. On the plane… I think he was there too … and others. But I couldn't exactly see them when we were in the air. Just glimpses… and the headache. But when we landed in Martinville, he was there in full form. And—and he wasn't alone. There were others with him. Other ghosts." A tear escaped from my eye, and I hastily wiped at it, hoping none of them had seen it.
I waited then, not sure what to expect. Would someone laugh? Tell me I was crazy? Accuse me of lying and demand to know what had really happened?
"Did you know them?" Dimitri asked finally.
I turned back and actually met his eyes. They were still serious and concerned, no mockery. "Yeah … I saw some of Victor's guardians and the people from the massacre. Lissa's…Lissa's family was there too."
Nobody said anything after that. They all just sort of exchanged glances, hoping perhaps that one of the others might shed light on all this.
Dr. Olendzki sighed. "Could I speak with the two of you privately?"
The three of them stepped out of the examining room, shutting the door behind them. Only it didn't quite catch. Scrambling off the bed, I crossed the room and stood by the door. The tiny crack was just enough for my dhampir hearing to pick up the conversation. I felt bad about eavesdropping, but they were talking about me, and I couldn't shake the feeling that my future was on the line here.
"— obvious what's going on," hissed Dr. Olendzki. It was the first time I'd ever heard her sound so irate. With patients, she was the picture of serenity. It was hard to imagine her angry, but she was clearly pissed off now. "That poor girl. She's undergoing post-traumatic stress disorder, and it's no wonder after everything that's happened."
"Are you sure?" asked Alberta. "Maybe it's something else…" But as her words trailed off, I could tell she didn't really know of anything else that would explain it.
"Look at the facts: a teenage girl who witnessed one of her friends getting killed and then had to kill his killer. You don't think that's traumatic? You don't think that might have had the tiniest effect on her?"
"Tragedy is something all guardians have to deal with," said Alberta.
"Maybe there's not much to be done for guardians in the field, but Rose is still a student here. There are resources that can help her."
"Like what?" asked Dimitri. He sounded curious and concerned, not like he was challenging her.
"Counseling. Talking to someone about what happened can do worlds of good. You should have done that as soon as she got back. You should do it for the others who were with her while you're at it. Why doesn't anyone think of these things?"
"It's a good idea," said Dimitri. I recognized the tone in his voice—his mind was spinning. "She could do it on her day off."
"Day off? More like every day. You should pull her from this entire field experience. Fake Strigoi attacks are not the way to recover from a real one."
"No!" I had pushed open the door before I realized it. They all stared at me, and I immediately felt stupid. I'd just busted myself for spying.
"Rose," said Dr. Olendzki, returning to her caring (but slightly chastising) doctor mode. "You should go lie down."
"I'm fine. And you can't make me quit the field experience. I won't graduate if you do."
"You aren't well, Rose, and there's nothing to be ashamed of after what's happened to you. Thinking you're seeing the ghost of someone who died isn't too out there when you consider the circumstances."
I started to correct her on the thinking you're seeing part but then bit it off. Arguing that I'd really seen a ghost wasn't probably going to do me any favors, I decided, even if I was starting to believe that was exactly what I was seeing. Frantically, I tried to think of a convincing reason to stay in the field experience. I was usually pretty good at talking myself out of bad situations.
"Unless you're going to put me in counseling 24/7, you're just going to make it worse. I need something to do. Most of my classes are on hold right now. What would I do? Sit around? Think more and more about what happened? I'll go crazy— for real. I don't want to sit on the past forever. I need to get moving with my future."
This threw them into an argument about what to do with me. I listened, biting my tongue, knowing I needed to stay out of it. Finally, with some grumbling from the doctor, they all decided I would go on half-time for the field experience.
It proved to be the ideal compromise for everyone—well, except me. I just wanted life to go on exactly as it had. Still, I knew this was probably as good a deal as I'd get. They decided that I'd do three days of field experience a week, with no night duties. During the other days, I'd have to do some training and whatever bookwork they dug up for me.
I'd also have to see a counselor, which I wasn't thrilled about. It wasn't that I had anything against counselors. Lissa had been seeing one, and it had been really useful for her. Talking things out helped. It was just…well, this was just something I didn't want to talk about.
But if it came down to this or being kicked out of the field experience, I was more than happy to go with this. Alberta felt they could still justify passing me on half-time. She also liked the idea of having counseling going on at the same time I was dealing with fake Strigoi attacks—just in case they really were traumatizing.
After a bit more examination, Dr. Olendzki gave me a clean bill of health and told me I could go back to my dorm. Alberta left after that, but Dimitri stuck around to walk me back.
"Thanks for thinking of the half-time thing," I told him. The walkways were wet today because the weather had warmed up after the storm. It wasn't bathing suit weather or anything, but a lot of the ice and snow were melting. Water dripped steadily from trees, and we had to sidestep puddles.
Dimitri came to an abrupt stop and turned so that he stood right in front of me, blocking my path. I skidded to a halt, nearly running into him. He reached out and grabbed my arm, pulling me closer to him than I would have expected him to do in public. His fingers bit deep into me, but they didn't hurt.
"Rose," he said, the pain in his voice making my heart stop, "this shouldn't have been the first time I heard about this! Why didn't you tell me? Do you know what it was like? Do you know it was like for me to see you like that and not know what was happening? Do you know how scared I was?"
I was stunned, both from his outburst and our proximity. I swallowed, unable to speak at first. There was so much on his face, so many emotions. I couldn't recall the last time I'd seen that much of him on display. It was wonderful and frightening at the same time. I then said the stupidest thing possible.
"You're not scared of anything."
"I'm scared of lots of things. I was scared for you." He released me, and I stepped back. There was still passion and worry written all over him. "I'm not perfect. I'm not invulnerable."
"I know, it's just…" I didn't know what to say. He was right. I always saw Dimitri as larger than life. All-knowing. Invincible. It was hard for me to believe that he could worry about me so much.
"And this has been going on for a long time too," he added. "It was going on with Stan, when you were talking to Father Andrew about ghosts—you were dealing with it this whole time! Why didn't you tell anyone? Why didn't you tell Lissa … or … me?"
I stared into those dark, dark eyes, those eyes I loved. "Would you have believed me?"
He frowned. "Believed what?"
"That I'm seeing ghosts."
"Well… they aren't ghosts, Rose. You only think they are because—"
"That's why," I interrupted. "That's why I couldn't tell you or anybody. Nobody would believe me, not without thinking I'm crazy."
"I don't think you're crazy," he said. "But I think you've been through a lot." Adrian had said almost the exact same thing when I asked him how I could tell if I was crazy or not.
"It's more than that," I said. I started walking again.
Without even taking another step, he reached out and grabbed me once more. He pulled me back to him, so that we now stood even closer than before. I glanced uneasily around again, wondering if someone might see us, but the campus was deserted. It was early, not quite sunset, so early that most people probably weren't even up for the school day yet. We wouldn't see activity around here for at least another hour. Still, I was surprised to see Dimitri was still risking it.
"Tell me then," he said. "Tell me how it's more than that."
"You won't believe me," I said. "Don't you get it? No one will. Even you … of all people." Something in that thought made my voice catch. Dimitri understood so much about me. I wanted—needed—him to understand this too.
"I'll…try. But I still don't think you really understand what's happening to you."
"I do," I said firmly. "That's what no one realizes. Look, you have to decide once and for all if you really do trust me. If you think I'm a child, too na"ive to get what's going on with her fragile mind, then you should just keep walking. But if you trust me enough to remember that I've seen things and know things that kind of surpass those of others my age…well, then you should also realize that I might know a little about what I'm talking about."
A lukewarm breeze, damp with the scent of melted snow, swirled around us. "I do trust you, Roza. But… I don't believe in ghosts."
The earnestness was there. He did want to reach out to me, to understand…but even as he did, it warred with beliefs he wasn't ready to change yet. It was ironic, considering tarot cards apparently spooked him.
"Will you try to?" I asked. "Or at the very least try not to write this off to some psychosis?"
"Yes. That I can do."
So I told him about my first couple of Mason sightings and how I'd been afraid to explain the Stan incident to anyone. I talked about the shapes I'd seen on the plane and described in more detail what I'd seen on the ground.
"Doesn't it seem kind of, um, specific for a random stress reaction?" I asked when I finished.
"I don't know that you can really expect 'stress reactions' to be random or specific. They're unpredictable by nature." He had that thoughtful expression I knew so well, the one that told me he was turning over all sorts of things in his head. I could also tell that he still wasn't buying this as a real ghost story but that he was trying very hard to keep an open mind. He affirmed as much a moment later: "Why are you so certain these aren't just things you're imagining?"
"Well, at first I thought I was imagining it all. But now … I don't know. There's something about it that feels real… even though I know that isn't actually evidence. But you heard what Father Andrew said—about ghosts sticking around after they die young or violently."
Dimitri actually bit his lip. He'd been about to tell me not to take the priest literally. Instead he asked, "So you think Mason's back for revenge?"
"I thought that at first, but now I'm not so sure. He's never tried to hurt me. He just seems like he wants something. And then … all those other ghosts seemed to want something too—even the ones I didn't know. Why?"
Dimitri gave me a sage look. "You have a theory."
"I do. I was thinking about what Victor said. He mentioned that because I'm shadow-kissed—because I died— I have a connection to the world of the dead. That I'll never entirely leave it behind me."
His expression hardened. "I wouldn't put a lot of stock in what Victor Dashkov tells you."
"But he knows things! You know he does, no matter how big an asshole he is."
"Okay, supposing that's true, that being shadow-kissed lets you see ghosts, why is it happening now? Why didn't it happen right after the car accident?"
"I thought of that," I said eagerly. "It was something else Victor said—that now that I was dealing in death, I was that much closer to the other side. What if causing someone else's death strengthened my connection and now makes this possible? I just had my first real kill. Kills, even."
"Why is it so haphazard?" asked Dimitri. "Why does it occur when it does? Why the airplane? Why not at Court?"
My enthusiasm dimmed a little. "What are you, a lawyer?" I snapped. "You question everything I'm saying. I thought you were going to have an open mind."
"I am. But you need to too. Think about it. Why this pattern of sightings?"
"I don't know," I admitted. I sagged in defeat. "You still think I'm crazy."
He reached out and cupped my chin, tipping my face up to look at his. "No. Never. Not one of these theories makes me think you're crazy. But I've always believed the simplest explanation makes sense. Dr. Olendzki's does. The ghost one has holes. But, if you can find out more…then we may have something to work with."
"We?" I asked.
"Of course. I'm not leaving you alone on this, no matter what. You know I'd never abandon you."
There was something very sweet and noble about his words, and I felt the need to return them, though mostly I ended up sounding idiotic. "And I won't ever abandon you, you know. I mean it… not that this stuff ever happens to you, of course, but if you start seeing ghosts or anything, I'll help you through it."
He gave a small, soft laugh. "Thanks."
Our hands found each other's, fingers lacing together. We stood like that for almost a full minute, neither of us saying anything. The only place we touched was our hands. The breeze picked up again, and although the temperature was probably only in the forties, it felt like spring to me. I expected flowers to burst into bloom around us. As though sharing the same thought, we released our hands at the same time.
We reached my dorm shortly after that, and Dimitri asked if I'd be okay going in on my own. I told him I'd be fine and that he should go do his own thing. He left, but just as I was about to step through the lobby door, I realized my overnight bag was still back at the med clinic. Muttering a few things that would have gotten me a detention, I turned around and hurried back in the direction I'd just come.
Dr. Olendzski's receptionist motioned me toward the examining rooms when I told her why I was there. I retrieved the bag from my now-empty room and turned into the hall to leave. Suddenly, in the room opposite mine, I saw someone lying in bed. There was no sign of any of the clinic's staff, and my curiosity—always getting the better of me—made me peek inside.
It was Abby Badica, a senior Moroi. Cute and perky were the adjectives that usually came to mind when I described Abby, but this time, she was anything but. She was bruised and scratched up, and when she turned her face to look at me, I saw red welts.
"Let me guess," I said. "You fell."
"You fell. I hear that's the standard answer: Brandon, Brett, and Dane. But I'll tell you the truth—you guys need to come up with something else. I think the doctor's getting suspicious."
Her eyes went wide. "You know?"
It was then that I realized my mistake with Brandon. I'd come at him demanding answers, which had made him reluctant to share anything. Those who'd questioned Brett and Dane had faced similar results. With Abby, I realized that I just had to act like I already knew the answers, and then she'd give up the information.
"Of course I know. They told me everything."
"What?" she squeaked. "They swore not to. It's part of the rules."
Rules? What was she talking about? The royal-bashing vigilante group I'd been picturing didn't really seem like the type to have rules. There was something else going on here.
"Well, they didn't have much of a choice. I don't know why, but I keep finding you guys afterward. I had to help cover for them. I'm telling you, I don't know how much longer this can go on without someone asking more questions." I spoke like I was a sympathizer, wanting to help if I could.
"I should have been stronger. I tried, but it wasn't enough." She looked tired—and in pain. "Just keep quiet until everything's set, okay? Please?"
"Sure," I said, dying to know what she'd "tried." "I'm not going to drag anyone else in. How'd you even end up here? You're supposed to avoid attracting attention." Or so I assumed. I was totally making this up as I went along.
She grimaced. "The dorm matron noticed and made me come in. If the rest of the M^ana finds out, I'm going to get in trouble."
"Hopefully the doctor'll send you on your way before any of them find out. She's kind of busy. You've got the same marks as Brett and Brandon, and none of theirs were that serious." So I hoped. "The…uh, burn marks were a little tricky, but they haven't had any problems."
It was a gamble in my game here. Not only did I have no clue about the specifics of Brett's injuries, I also didn't actually know if those marks Jill had described on him were burns. If they weren't, I might have just blown my insider act. But, she didn't correct me, and her fingers absentmindedly touched one of the welts.
"Yeah, they said the damage wouldn't last. I'll just have to make up something for Olendzki." A small flicker of hope shone in her eyes. "They said they wouldn't, but maybe…maybe they'll let me try again."
It was at that moment that the good doctor returned. She was surprised to see me still there and told me I needed to get back home and rest. I said goodbye to both of them and trekked back out into the cold. I barely noticed the weather as I walked, though. Finally, finally, I had a clue in this puzzle. M^ana.