Most disciplinary issues at the Academy went to Headmistress Kirova. She oversaw Moroi and dhampirs alike and was known for her creative and oft-used repertoire of punishments. She wasn't cruel, exactly, but she wasn't soft, either. She simply took student behavior seriously and dealt with it as she saw fit.
There were some issues, however, that were beyond her jurisdiction.
The school's guardians calling together a disciplinary committee wasn't unheard of, but it was very, very rare. You had to do something pretty serious to piss them off to get that sort of response. Like, say, willfully endangering a Moroi. Or hypothetically willfully endangering a Moroi.
"For the last time," I growled, "I didn't do it on purpose."
I sat in one of the guardians' meeting rooms, facing my committee: Alberta, Emil, and one of the other rare female guardians on campus, Celeste. They sat at a long table, looking imposing, while I sat in a single chair and felt very vulnerable. Several other guardians were sitting in and watching, but thankfully, none of my classmates were there to see this humiliation. Dimitri was among the watchers. He was not on the committee, and I wondered if they'd kept him off because of his potentially biased role as my mentor.
"Miss Hathaway," said Alberta, fully in her strict-captain mode, "you must know why we have a hard time believing that."
Celeste nodded. "Guardian Alto saw you. You refused to protect two Moroi—including the one whose protection you were specifically assigned to."
"I didn't refuse!" I exclaimed. "I… fumbled."
"That wasn't a fumble," said Stan from the watchers. He glanced at Alberta for permission to speak. "May I?" She nodded, and he turned back to me. "If you'd blocked or attacked me and then messed up, that would be a fumble. But you didn't block. You didn't attack. You didn't even try. You just stood there like a statue and did nothing."
Understandably, I was outraged. The thought that I would purposely leave Christian and Brandon to be «killed» by a Strigoi was ridiculous. But what could I do? I either confessed to screwing up majorly or to having seen a ghost. Neither option was appealing, but I had to cut my losses. One made me look incompetent. The other made me look insane. I didn't want to be associated with either of those. I much preferred my usual description of «reckless» and "disruptive."
"Why am I getting in trouble for messing up?" I asked tightly. "I mean, I saw Ryan mess up earlier. He didn't get in trouble. Isn't that the point of this whole exercise? Practice? If we were perfect, you'd already have unleashed us upon the world!"
"Weren't you listening?" said Stan. I swore I could see a vein throbbing in his forehead. I think he was the only one there as upset as I was. At the very least, he was the only one (aside from me) showing his emotions. The others wore poker faces, but then, none of them had witnessed what had happened. If I'd been in Stan's place, I might have thought the worst of me too. "You didn't mess up, because 'messing up' implies that you have to actually do something."
"Okay, then. I froze." I looked at him defiantly. "Does that count as messing up? I cracked under the pressure and blanked out. It turns out I wasn't prepared. The moment came, and I panicked. It happens to novices all the time."
"To a novice who has already killed Strigoi?" asked Emil. He was from Romania, his accent a bit thicker than Dimitri's Russian one. It wasn't nearly as nice, though. "It seems unlikely."
I dealt out glares to him and everyone else in the room. "Oh, I see. After one incident, I'm now expected to be an expert Strigoi killer? I can't panic or be afraid or anything? Makes sense. Thanks, guys. Fair. Real fair." I slumped back in my seat, arms crossed over my chest. There was no need to fake bitchy defiance. I had plenty of it to dish out.
Alberta sighed and leaned forward. "We're arguing semantics. Technicalities aren't the point here. What's important is that this morning, you made it very clear you did not want to guard Christian Ozera. In fact … I think you even said you wanted us to be sure we knew that you were doing it against your will and that we'd soon see what a horrible idea it was." Ugh. I had said that. Honestly, what had I been thinking? "And then, when your first test comes around, we find you completely and utterly unresponsive."
I nearly flew out of my chair. "That's what this is about? You think I didn't protect him because of some kind of weird revenge thing?"
All three of them stared at me expectantly.
"You aren't exactly known for calmly and gracefully accepting things you don't like," she replied wryly.
This time, I did stand up, pointing my finger at her accusingly. "Not true. I have followed every rule Kirova laid down for me since coming back here. I've gone to every practice and obeyed every curfew." Well, I'd fudged some of the curfews but not willfully. It had always been for the greater good. "There's no reason I'd do this as some kind of revenge! What good would it do? Sta— Guardian Alto wasn't going to really hurt Christian, so it's not like I'd get to see him punched or anything. The only thing I would accomplish is getting dragged into the middle of something like this and possibly facing removal from the field experience."
"You are facing removal from the field experience," replied Celeste flatly.
"Oh." I sat down, suddenly not feeling as bold. Silence hung in the room for several moments, and then I heard Dimitri's voice speak from behind me.
"She has a point," he said. My heart thumped loudly in my chest. Dimitri knew I wouldn't take revenge like that. He didn't think I was petty. "If she were going to protest or take revenge, she'd do it in a different way." Well, not too petty, at least.
Celeste frowned. "Yes, but after the scene she made this morning…"
Dimitri took a few steps forward and stood beside my chair. Having his solid presence nearby comforted me. I had a flash of d'ej`a vu, back to when Lissa and I had returned to the Academy last autumn. Headmistress Kirova had nearly expelled me, and Dimitri had stood up for me then too.
"This is all circumstantial," he said. "Regardless of how suspicious you think it looks, there's no proof. Removing her from the experience—and essentially ruining her graduation—is a bit extreme without any certainties."
The committee looked thoughtful, and I focused my attention on Alberta. She had the most power here. I'd always liked her, and in our time together, she'd been strict but always scrupulously fair. I hoped that would still hold true. She beckoned Celeste and Emil toward her, and the other two guardians leaned closer. They had a whispered conference. Alberta gave a resigned nod, and the others leaned back.
"Miss Hathaway, do you have anything you'd like to say before we tell you our conclusions?"
That I'd like to say? Hell, yeah. There were tons of things. I wanted to say that I wasn't incompetent. I wanted to tell them that I was one of the best novices here. I wanted to tell them that I had seen Stan coming and had been on the verge of reacting. I especially wanted to tell them that I didn't want to have this mark on my record. Even if I stayed in the field experience, I'd essentially have an F for this first test. It would affect my overall grade, which could subsequently affect my future.
But again, what choice did I have? Tell them that I'd seen a ghost? The ghost of a guy who'd had a major crush on me and who had quite likely died because of that crush? I still didn't know what was going on with these sightings. One time I could write off to exhaustion…but I'd seen him—or it—twice now. Was he real? My higher reasoning said no, but honestly, it didn't matter at the moment. If he was real and I told them, they'd think I was crazy. If he wasn't real and I told them, they'd think I was crazy—and they'd be right. I couldn't win here.
"No, Guardian Petrov," I said, hoping I sounded meek. "Nothing more to add."
"All right," she said wearily. "Here's what we've decided. You're lucky you have Guardian Belikov to advocate for you, or this decision might have been different. We're giving you the benefit of the doubt. You'll go on with the field experience and continue to guard Mr. Ozera. You'll just be on a probation of sorts."
"That's okay," I said. I'd been on probation for most of my academic life. "Thank you."
"And," she added. Uh-oh. "Because the suspicion isn't entirely removed, you'll be spending your day off this week doing community service."
I jumped out of my chair again. "What?"
Dimitri's hand wrapped around my wrist, his fingers warm and controlling. "Sit down," he murmured in my ear, tugging me toward the chair. "Take what you can get."
"If that's a problem, we can make it next week too," warned Celeste. "And the next five after that."
I sat down and shook my head. "I'm sorry. Thank you."
The hearing dispersed, and I was left feeling weary and beaten. Had only one day gone by? Surely the happy excitement I'd felt before the field experience had been weeks ago and not this morning. Alberta told me to go find Christian, but Dimitri asked if he could have some time alone with me. She agreed, no doubt hoping he'd set me on the straight and narrow.
The room emptied, and I thought he'd sit and talk to me then and there, but instead he walked over to a small table that held a water dispenser, coffee, and other beverages.
"You want some hot chocolate?" he asked.
I hadn't expected that. "Sure."
He dumped four packets of instant hot chocolate into two Styrofoam cups and then added in hot water.
"Doubling it is the secret," he said when the cups were full.
He handed me mine, along with a wooden stirrer, and then walked toward a side door. Presuming I was supposed to follow him, I scurried to catch up without spilling my hot chocolate.
"Where are we—oh."
I stepped through the doorway and found myself in a little glass-enclosed porch filled with small patio tables. I'd had no idea this porch was adjacent to the meeting room, but then, this was the building the guardians conducted all campus business out of. Novices were rarely allowed. I also hadn't realized the building was built around a small courtyard, which was what this porch looked out to. In the summer, I imagined one could open the windows and be surrounded in greenery and warm air. Now, encased in glass and frost, I felt like I was in some kind of an ice palace.
Dimitri swept his hand over a chair, brushing off dust. I did the same and sat down opposite him. Apparently this room didn't see a lot of use in the winter. Because it was enclosed, the room was warmer than outdoors, but it wasn't heated otherwise. The air felt chilly, and I warmed my hands on my cup. Silence fell between Dimitri and me. The only noise came from me blowing on my hot chocolate. He drank his right away. He'd been killing Strigoi for years. What was a little scalding water here and there?
As we sat, and the quiet grew, I studied him over the edge of my cup. He wasn't looking at me, but I knew he knew I was watching. Like every other time I looked at him, I was always struck by his looks first. The soft dark hair that he often tucked behind his ears without realizing it, hair that never quite wanted to stay in its tie at the back of his neck. His eyes were brown too, somehow gentle and fierce at the same time. His lips had that same contradictory quality, I realized. When he was fighting or dealing with something grim, those lips would flatten and turn hard. But in lighter times … when he laughed or kissed…well, then they'd become soft and wonderful.
Today, more than his exterior hit me. I felt warm and safe just being with him. He brought comfort after my terrible day. So often with other people, I felt a need to be the center of attention, to be funny and always have something clever to say. It was a habit I needed to shake to be a guardian, seeing as that job required so much silence. But with Dimitri, I never felt like I had to be anything more than what I already was. I didn't have to entertain him or think up jokes or even flirt. It was enough to just be together, to be so completely comfortable in each other's presence—smoldering sexual tension aside—that we lost all sense of self-consciousness. I exhaled and drank my cocoa.
"What happened out there?" he asked at last, meeting my gaze. "You didn't crack under the pressure."
His voice was curious, not accusatory. He wasn't treating me as a student right now, I realized. He was regarding me as an equal. He simply wanted to know what was going on with me. There was no discipline or lecturing here.
And that just made it all the worse when I had to lie to him.
"Of course it was," I told him, looking down into my cup. "Unless you believe I really did let Stan 'attack' Christian."
"No," he said. "I don't believe that. I never did. I knew you'd be unhappy when you found out about the assignments, but I never once doubted that you'd do what you'd have to for this. I knew you wouldn't let your personal feelings get in the way of your duty."
I looked up again and met his eyes, so full of faith and absolute confidence in me. "I didn't. I was mad…Still am a little. But once I said I'd do it, I meant it. And after spending some time with him…well, I don't hate him. I actually think he's good for Lissa, and he cares about her, so I can't get upset about that. He and I just dash sometimes, that's all… but we did really well together against the Strigoi. I remembered that while I was with him today, and arguing against this assignment just seemed stupid. So I decided to do the best job I could." I hadn't meant to talk so much, but it felt good to let out what was inside of me, and the look on Dimitri's face would have gotten me to say anything. Almost anything. "What happened then?" he asked. "With Stan?" I averted my eyes and played with my cup again. I hated keeping things from him, but I couldn't tell him about this. In the human world, vampires and dhampirs were creatures of myth and legend—bedtime stories to scare children. Humans didn't know we were real and walking the earth. But just because we were real didn't mean that every other story-time paranormal creature was. We knew that and had our own myths and bedtime stories about things we didn't believe in. Werewolves. Bogeymen. Ghosts.
Ghosts played no real role in our culture, short of being fodder for pranks and campfire tales. Ghosts inevitably came up on Halloween, and some legends endured over the years. But in real life? No ghosts. If you came back after death, it was because you were a Strigoi.
At least, that's what I'd always been taught. I honestly didn't know enough now to say what was going on. Me imagining Mason seemed more likely than him being a true ghost, but man, that meant I might seriously be heading into crazy territory. All this time I'd worried about Lissa losing it. Who had known it might be me?
Dimitri was still watching me, waiting for an answer.
"I don't know what happened out there. My intentions were good … I just… I just messed up."
"Rose. You're a terrible liar."
I glanced up. "No, I'm not. I've told a lot of good lies in my life. People have believed them."
He smiled slightly. "I'm sure. But it doesn't work with me. For one thing, you won't look me in the eye. As for the other… I don't know. I can just tell."
Damn. He could tell. He just knew me that well. I stood up and moved to the door, keeping my back to him. Normally, I treasured every minute with him, but I couldn't stick around today. I hated lying, but I didn't want to tell the truth either. I had to leave.
"Look, I appreciate you being worried about me…but really, it's okay. I just messed up. I'm embarrassed about it— and sorry I put your awesome training to shame—but I'll rebound. Next time, Stan's ass is mine."
I hadn't even heard him get up, but suddenly, Dimitri was right behind me. He placed a hand on my shoulder, and I froze in front of the door leading out. He didn't touch me anywhere else. He didn't try to pull me closer. But, oh, that one hand on my shoulder held all the power in the world.
"Rose," he said, and I knew he was no longer smiling. "I don't know why you're lying, but I know you wouldn't do it without a good reason. And if there's something wrong— something you're afraid to tell the others—"
I spun around rapidly, somehow managing to pivot in place in such a way that his hand never moved yet ended up on my other shoulder.
"I'm not afraid," I cried. "I do have my reasons, and believe me, what happened with Stan was nothing. Really. All of this is just something stupid that got blown out of proportion. Don't feel sorry for me or feel like you have to do anything. What happened sucks, but I'll just roll with it and take the black mark. I'll take care of everything. I'll take care of me." It took all of my strength just then not to shake. How had this day gotten so bizarre and out of control?
Dimitri didn't say anything. He just looked down at me, and the expression on his face was one I'd never seen before. I couldn't interpret it. Was he mad? Disapproving? I just couldn't tell. The fingers on my shoulder tightened slightly and then relaxed.
"You don't have to do this alone," he said at last. He sounded almost wistful, which made no sense. He was the one who'd been telling me for so long that I needed to be strong. I wanted to throw myself into his arms just then, but I knew I couldn't.
I couldn't help a smile. "You say that…but tell me the truth. Do you go running to others when you have problems?"
"That's the not the same—"
"Answer the question, comrade."
"Don't call me that."
"And don't avoid the question either."
"No," he said. "I try to deal with my problems on my own."
I slipped away from his hand. "See?"
"But you have a lot of people in your life you can trust, people who care about you. That changes things."
I looked at him in surprise. "You don't have people who care about you?"
He frowned, obviously rethinking his words. "Well, I've always had good people in my life…and there have been people who cared about me. But that doesn't necessarily mean I could trust them or tell them everything."
I was often so distracted by the weirdness of our relationship that I rarely thought about Dimitri as someone with a life away from me. He was respected by everyone on campus. Teachers and students alike knew him as one of the deadliest guardians here. Whenever we ran into guardians from outside the school, they always seemed to know and respect him too. But I couldn't recall ever having seen him in any sort of social setting. He didn't appear to have any close friends among the other guardians—just coworkers he liked. The friendliest I'd ever seen him get with someone had been when Christian's aunt, Tasha Ozera, visited. They'd known each other for a long time, but even that hadn't been enough for Dimitri to pursue once her visit was over.
Dimitri was alone an awful lot, I realized, content to hole up with his cowboy novels when not working. I felt alone a lot, but in truth, I was almost always surrounded by people. With him being my teacher, I tended to view things as one-sided: He was the one always giving me something, be it advice or instruction. But I gave him something too, something harder to define—a connection with another person.
"Do you trust me?" I asked him.
The hesitation was brief. "Yes."
"Then trust me now, and don't worry about me just this once."
I stepped away, out of the reach of his arm, and he didn't say anything more or try to stop me. Cutting through the room that I'd had the hearing in, I headed for the building's main exit, tossing the remnants of my hot chocolate in a garbage can as I walked past.