I tried falling back into sync with my team, I really did, but it was harder this time. I had numbed myself with discipline and a tight routine. I was always so tired that I never had the energy to think. This time, I couldn't turn my brain off. My mind was always wandering back to the way that Dimitri's lips had felt and the desperate look in Lissa's eyes.
For the first time since leaving, I felt guilty. I felt like I had abandoned them, instead of vice versa. I had harbored a lot of resentment and anger, which had kept me away. Now, it all just seemed so small. I missed my people. I missed home.
The boys could pick up on it too. I knew that they knew I wasn't happy. It was obvious. I was practically despondent when Denis tattooed new molnija marks on me to commemorate the three Strigoi I had taken down in the past two days, even more so when he gave me the tattoo that represented the Strigoi I had fought during my amnesia. I didn't mind the work, but the passion for the hunt was lost on me. I felt unfocused and lost.
Finally, after a week of going through the motions, Lev broke the silence. We were scoping out a new bar that had just opened up in a rougher part of town. Word on the street had it that it was a place for Moroi men to get their 'dhampir fix'. While the bar itself disgusted me to my very core, it was the ideal place for Strigoi to lurk. I had dressed the part, applying heavy eye make up and slipping into a very short, very tight gold dress and stacked black patent leather heels. Tonight it was my job to play the lure and allow the boys to do the heavy lifting when it came to the fighting.
However, before I entered the club, giving my signature wink and man-eater smile at the bouncer, Lev grabbed my arm, pulling me back. "Rose, wait." I whipped around, shocked that he would risk drawing any attention to us in front of the long line of onlookers that were flashing us dirty looks for skipping the line. After a bit of protesting, I finally allowed myself to be dragged to a nearby alley when Denis gave me a meaningful look.
"What?" I snapped, hoping to intimidate them out of whatever talk they were about to attempt. They all gave me disapproving looks, which only served to make me angrier. "What the hell?"
"Rose, it's time for you to go home." I flinched, immediately looking away. I knew this was why they had pulled me aside, but it didn't make hearing it any easier. I hadn't talked about the amnesia or my conversation with Dimitri with the guys, and they hadn't pressed me about it. I couldn't bear to think about it, but I couldn't get it off my mind.
"St. Petersburg is my home." I said it as firmly as I could then turned to exit the alley but Lev once again restrained me.
"No, it's not. We all know it. As much as we wish you were happy with us, we know you're miserable. Just say it already. You don't want to run anymore." His voice crackled as his temper flared. I could feel the pain he felt behind the words. It hadn't occurred to him how difficult this conversation was for them. It was almost as painful for them as it was for me.
"Lev…" I started, but couldn't form words. How could I express how I felt? It was too much of a mess. I felt tears beginning to form, and two arms encircled me, followed by four more. I knew I would never find true happiness among them, but that didn't make the inevitable separation easier. I knew what I had to do. I had ever since I walked out of that hotel.
"I'm too afraid to go back." I choked out. It was hard to admit my fear to them. I could face down twenty Strigoi, and I wouldn't hesitate for a second. This was a whole other beast.
"I know, Rose. But you gotta do this. We've watched you be miserable for too long. You love him. Even when you couldn't remember it, you loved him. It's time to swallow some pride, Hathaway." He said the last part with a small smirk, and my laughter mixed with my tears, making for a bittersweet moment." Denis cracked a smile.
"You sure you don't want to come back with me?" It was a long shot. These three were staunch anti-conformists. I knew they would never fit in at Court, and even if they somehow became Promised, they would have filing jobs until the end of time for their time as Rogues. I grimaced remembering Mikhail's punishment for chasing Sonya.
"Oh, come on. Don't give us those eyes. You and I both know that Lev wouldn't last two seconds if a Guardian tried giving him orders." It was Artur who spoke now and I couldn't help but giggling when picturing Lev's reaction to orders.
"Guarding Royal snobs will never be our calling. That's your kiss ass job!" I gave Lev a playful punch for that one.
"Hey! They're not all bad!" The mood had lightened and we all laughed comfortably, the way that only old friends can.
That night we took down four Strigoi for old time's sake.
The next morning I boarded a flight to Pennsylvania.
As my plane ascended, and I caught my last glimpse of St. Petersburg, I felt my eyes water as I wondered what my team was doing. It was heartbreaking, but I knew I would be back one day to visit. I had to remind myself that it was not 'goodbye forever', just 'see you later'.
I was going home. The word felt strange associated with Court. It had been many years since that had been true. My gut told me this was the right choice, but I couldn't help but feel the panic rising in my throat as I watched my plane make its final descent toward Pennsylvania's green landscape, the walls of Court rising around me. It felt claustrophobic.
I gathered myself mentally, before stepping off the safety of the plane. I hadn't told anyone I was coming, but I half expected Lissa to be sitting on the tarmac waiting for me. She was the Queen, but I highly doubted even she knew the comings and goings of everyone at Court. The person waiting for me was not Her Royal Highness. To my surprise, it was Hans.
"Welcome back, Hathaway." His smirk reminded me so much of Christian's. It was unnerving.
"Guardian Croft? What are you doing here?" As Head of the Guardians I assumed he was probably the only person that actually did know the comings and goings of everyone. He must have seen that I was arriving from Russia and decided to come give me a filing job, or worse, inform me that I was not welcome at Court.
"I'm here to welcome you back." He made it seem like the most obvious thing in the world. I rolled my eyes. A Guardian as busy as him didn't come to the landing strip just to say hi.
"Why are you really here?" I asked, suddenly on guard. It suddenly crossed my mind that I had very publicly bitch slapped our Royal Highness which is a big "no-no" among the Guardians. I wouldn't be surprised if he was about to pull out handcuffs.
"I'm here to get you to do your job again." With that, he turned on his heel and strode off. I paused, unsure whether to follow, but decided I was curious enough. It wasn't like I had anywhere better to be.
"So what is my job?" I asked tentatively once I had caught up with my duffle bag in hand.
"As of right now, it sure as hell isn't guarding the Queen- at least if I can help it. Guardian numbers have continued to drop so you might avoid a desk job, but I wouldn't count on it. You're by far my greatest disappointment, Hathaway." I felt my stomach drop at his words. I had never felt so ashamed. The color rose in my cheeks, but my pride choked back tears. Instead, my temper flared.
"You have no idea what you're talking about. I haven't been in Russia twiddling my thumbs. How dare-"
"What are you at now? 117? Or are there a few unreported?" I paused; shocked that he knew exactly how many Strigoi I had taken out.
"Well, 119 actually." I answered flatly, knowing where this lecture was headed.
"Oh so you and your little team went on another little killing spree the other night then. Fantastic. Another mess for the Alchemists to scramble to clean up I'm sure. How can we ever thank you, Hathaway?" His voice dripped with sarcasm. "Meanwhile, Strigoi attacks have increased tenfold and Moroi numbers are dropping every day because they have insufficient Guardian protection. But thank you for taking out those random 117 Strigoi that probably would never have the organization or skill to attack a Royal Moroi. Because that's what real Guardians do right?" I stopped dead in my tracks. My rage was hitting a dangerous level. Hans did not want to see me when I was this angry.
"First of all, I kept in contact with the Alchemists when I could. Second, I have killed more Strigoi than you've probably seen in your lifetime. Spare me the lecture, Hans. I really don't have the time or energy. If you're going to give me a desk job for using my skills in an active way rather than hiding behind wards, go the fuck ahead- but don't you dare judge me. In five years, my team amassed over 500 kills combined. That's 500 less Strigoi in this world. You can't tell me that make no difference. That's hundreds of thousands of innocent lives saved because 500 Strigoi were taken out- Royal and non-Royal alike. A team of Strigoi that large could wipe out your precious little Court in an hour. A mere 100 Strigoi could seriously threaten it. You'd be a fool to put me behind a desk," I paused, "If you have nothing else to add, I've had a long flight and would really like to go take a nap." With that, I whirled around and stomped off, not bothering to hear his response. I did not return to be lectured. Hans could 'stick it where the Sun don't shine' for all I cared.
As I stomped through Court, I realized that I had absolutely no idea where I was going. I also realized that almost every person was staring at me, as if bewildered by my presence. Considering the fact that I was a very pissed off looking dhampir woman aggressively dragging a ginormous black duffle bag across the grounds, I figured I stuck out. That, and I had a feeling my reputation might have preceded me a bit.
I considered going to Lissa's, but I wasn't sure if I had the energy to handle that reunion. Finding Dimitri was out of the question. I wanted to not smell like questionable Russian plane food for that one. Calling on Adrian seemed cruel. That left me with a few other people, and I eventually narrowed my list to Abe or Mia. I knew Abe was in Istanbul right now for business, meaning his residence at Court would be empty. Although the solitude of that offer seemed tempting, I figured it was better if I wasn't alone tonight. Too much was weighing on me to allow myself to be alone with my thoughts.
With a contemplative sigh, I turned left and headed in the direction of Mia's house. I just hoped she still lived in the same spot as she had years ago before I left. As it turned out, Mia's residence looked exactly the same as it had, down to the flowers out front. When I finally got the courage to knock on the door, a tiny doll-like woman with long blonde ringlets answered.
"Rose!" She pulled me into a tight bear hug, and I couldn't help but be taken aback. Mia and I had certainly been friends, but we hadn't seen each other in years and we hadn't been extremely close. Our experience in Spokane had bonded us in a deep understanding of each other, but it didn't mean we spent a great deal of time together.
"How are you, Mia? It's been so long! You look so different!" Although Mia hadn't totally shaken her porcelain doll appearance, her hair had grown considerably longer and her face had thinned out. She even had some semblance of muscle tone when you looked closer at her diminutive body.
Mia chuckled. "I guess you could say that. Training hasn't exactly been nice to my body," it was my turn to laugh. I could empathize all too well. We caught up for a minute or too longer before she asked the question I dreaded answering.
"So what brought you here? How come you're back at Court all of the sudden?" I grimaced, wishing we could go back to comparing callouses and training regiments. Mia had come a long way, longer than most Moroi could dream of. However, genetics were not in her favor and she had groaned when I had shared with her my recent training routine. She worked hard, but she would never be able to overcome the fact that dhampirs were built to be fighters.
She noticed my hesitation at answering and took a moment to invite me in for dinner to give me time to formulate a response. She didn't try to soften the subject for me, and her directness was somehow refreshing. I was so accustomed to mind games that I was caught by surprise when people were upfront with me. She sat me down with a cup of tea and began preparing the meal, ordering me to tell her everything.
I began with why I left, hitting the major events without getting into details. It all still felt raw. We had finished dinner (Mia's burgers are insanely delicious) when I finally finished telling my story. It felt liberating to let it all out. I had bottled up so much for so long, I had never really told anyone the whole story- just bits and pieces when necessary. Opening up to Mia lifted some of the weight I had been dragging around off my shoulders. It no longer felt like some dirty secret. I was no longer in hiding.
Mia sat in a thoughtful silence for a little while, taking in all that I had said. In an odd way, it reminded me a bit of Dimitri and I wondered if he had ever helped her in her training. My question was answered almost immediately.
"Dimitri has missed you for a very long time. Even when he was with Naomi, I knew that his heart wasn't into it." I winced at the mention of Dimitri's deceased fiancée. I had nearly died trying to save her, and it was all in vain. It was painful to remember.
"So you and Dimitri are close then?" She frowned.
"I wouldn't say close. He helped me with training a lot while you were gone. Lissa encouraged him to work with me. We would talk sometimes and every once in a while he'd let something slip. If I caught him with the right question at the right time, I could get him to admit something he'd been internalizing." Typical Dimitri: Guardian mask on, struggling to keep control. Just like me. It was eerie despite being thousands of miles apart how much more similar we had become.
"Sounds like him," I murmured, my mind wandering through memories of the times that I had made Dimitri slip. They were slightly steamier.
There was a small lull in conversation and we both sat in silence. It wasn't uncomfortable in the slightest, as we were both lost in thought. It had grown dark, and Mia finally broke the silence with an offer to crash on her couch. I was beyond grateful for it.
When dawn broke the next day, I was already awake, my mind racing. Today was the day. The day. There were no more excuses. I would finally come home. I tried to let me thoughts flow and grasp what I was feeling.
Some part of me felt relieved. The running was finally over. The displacement and isolation was over. Yet I was terrified. I was so terrified that when I revealed myself, there would be no welcome arms, that I would be given the cold shoulder. I knew that many of the people I loved most were upset that I had left them again while in Russia, especially Lissa- she felt betrayed. It was understandable and I had only my irrational inability to trust to blame. I knew that the time I took to think everything through was necessary. I needed to come home on my own terms, but would everyone understand that?
I buried myself deeper in the covers, but Mia was awake and she wasn't going to let me get off so easily. "Get up, Rose! I'm headed to the gym to get a run in before sun down and you're coming with me!" I groaned, but gave in after I was handed a steaming cup of coffee and a plate of eggs and toast. She knew how easily I was bribed with food.
We hit the track that morning. Mia's goal was 50 laps, and mine was 100. I didn't want to shove it in her face that I typically ran upwards of 120, so I scaled it back. I tried to stay with her, but she ran so slowly. Before I realized what had happened I had lapped her 12 times. I had been so lost in thought I hadn't paid attention. I tried to rematch her pace, but she wouldn't allow it.
"I'm holding you back. Just run. Don't worry about me." I nodded, knowing that although she wished she could keep up with me, it wasn't beneficial to my training to stick with her. I finished lap 126 when she finished her 50. I had pushed myself as hard as I could, forcing the aching of my body to drown out my thoughts for a little bit. Mia was impressed, I could tell, but I was too wrapped up in continuing my run to acknowledge it much. I ran another 24 laps, making it to 150 before Mia told me she had to head to work. I stopped and gave her a hug, before sitting on the track and letting my breath return to normal.
Lying on the track and looking up at the night sky felt dizzying. The first stars were coming out and I wondered if they looked the same in Russia. I felt torn between two homes. I missed St. Petersburg and my team deeply, but I knew I'd be even more miserable if I had stayed. Once again, I found myself wondering what they were doing. Whether they had just finished a mission, or were just waking up. I tried to calculate the time difference, but wasn't sure what time it was in Pennsylvania.
I had been too wrapped up in my thoughts that I didn't realize someone had come out to the track. I figured it was another Guardian up early for a morning run. I was in the center of the track laying flat on my back so I didn't bother moving as I wasn't in the way. I could hear their steps rhythmically hitting the track- a peaceful sound. I took a deep breath and tried focusing back on the time difference when the sound of sneakers pounding the track came to an abrupt halt. I still hadn't looked to see who was on the track with me, but I started to feel uneasy. My stomach flipped and I knew in my heart of hearts who he was without moving a single muscle.
He lay down beside me and I could see him in my peripheral vision. I didn't dare turn my head and look directly at him. That was too dangerous still. I would lose myself in those eyes and forget everything. Nothing was said for a while, and I felt comfortable in the silence. It was moments such as these that made him so addictive; those comfortable pauses where we relished the other's presence. I could feel the silent question hanging in the air. The question I knew he couldn't quite put into words for fear of the answer. I had told him I would be back, but I had never given him a definitive answer of what that meant for us. In the silence, I reached out of hand and intertwined my fingers with his.
I heard him exhale a breath I hadn't known he had been holding. I knew we both wanted to say everything and nothing all at once, but neither of us would break the silence. We were at a precipice that was too terrifying to cross. The second either of us spoke, we were no longer at war against the odds. Opening our mouths and acknowledging that we had finally beaten them was something we had never considered. A normal relationship was new territory for us. Before he was turned I had had endless faith that we would be together. I almost laughed at the irony in my own naivety through it all.
These murmurings of thought had barely distracted me from being acutely aware of his presence. I had felt him inch closer and closer until he was fully facing me, burning holes into the right side of my face, daring me to do the same. I felt the corners of my lips pull upward as I tried not to meet his gaze. My self-control was even worse than his.
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